"People say I am smart, clever -- even a genius -- but I know I am simple minded! If I were one-half as smart as reputed, I would write verse or a novel that would lift me above this soul-benumbing routine." Diary, May 14, 1908Always humble, Olive Percival quickly dismissed those who called her an "expert," though accolades of her intelligence were common. She was not college educated but read voraciously and wrote prolifically. Her articles, short stories, editorials and poems appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, House Beautiful, and Sunset Magazine ("... although they pay fairly, they pay in Southern Pacific Transportation only," Diary, 1908).
Her manuscript, "A Children's Garden Book," is very nearly an encyclopedia of garden history. An equally impressive compendium is her book "Old Fashioned Flowers" (published posthumously) that includes an essay on flower name history, lists of flower names in Latin and English, and a bibliography.
She was learned in many other topics, equally conversant with Sir Richard Burton the explorer ("What a splendid Oriental scholar Sir Richard Burton was!" Diary, 1907) as with Dr. Richard Burton, University of Minnesota English professor ("His lectures are very easily the scholarly treat of the year..." Diary, 1908). She turned down most requests for public speaking, but she did read her paper on illustrated books of 1805 to the Friday Morning Club in 1906.
Books were one of the pleasures of her life. In 1896, she wrote in her diary "When I go into a bookstore these days, my heart beats wildly, my cheeks burn and I hardly breathe until I am outside again...How splendid a thing it would be to have one thousand dollars to buy books with!"
Percival's diaries add much to the book history of Los Angeles, as booksellers frequently sought out her expertise. The former Chicago publisher, Irving Way, stopped by her downtown office almost every day to show her a book or to share his extensive knowledge about the art of the book. Rare book dealers George and Alice Millard described Percival as the best-read woman they had met in California. Mrs. Millard is now better known for her famous home "La Miniatura," designed for her by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Percival's office was across the street from Ward's bookstore and near C.C. Parker's, which advertised "the largest, most varied and most complete stock of books west of Chicago." According to Helen Haines writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1906, Parker's "was the haunt of all those notable in the city's public life...[it] is the expression of a personality that loves, knows and lives books."
Percival bought many of her thousands of books during numerous visits to C.C. Parker's, either over her lunch hour or after work on Saturdays. When Ernest Dawson opened his store, she became his regular customer. Jane Apostol wrote, "Wearied by office chores, she went to Dawson's to rest her mind. Upset by the extraction of two teeth, she went to Dawson 's to quiet her nerves." Percival's rarest and oldest books came from mail order catalogs, especially those of English bookseller William H. Downing. In her 1907 diary, Olive wrote, "Last month, I succeeded in getting a copy of the "Secrets of Alexis," 1595, from my favorite English dealer in old books, William Downing, who finds time to make his business letters so courtly."
Although she worked five and a half days a week, entertained frequently, and maintained an extensive garden, she devoted many hours to writing on such diverse topics as sake sets, interior design, gardening and bookplates. After her trip to Mexico in 1899, she published "Mexico City: An Idler's Notebook," illustrated with her own photographs. Parker's advertised the book in the Los Angeles Times.
She was pleased by the response to the publication of her poetry in The Graphic in 1909, "I am very thankful for the good things friends and acquaintances and strangers are saying about my verses...Some are compared alas! with Emily Dickinson, Arthur Symons, Browning!" Some of these poems were later published in Leaf Shadows and Rose Drift, Being Little Songs from a Los Angeles Garden (Cambridge: Printed at The Riverside Press, 1911).
Not all of her writing projects had happy outcomes. Her book of Chinese short stories met with rejection, as did her children's garden book manuscript. Hoping to win a $5,000 prize she submitted "Aunt Abby and Others," a memoir in free verse, to an Atlantic Press competition. Alas, yet another unpublished manuscript.
Those encountering Percival for the first time are often amazed at her multiple skills and interests. In her 1985 article "Percival: A Woman Ahead of her Time," Miv Schaaf expressed a wish to have known her but rightly adds that Olive "might not have wished to know us."
Percival may have had a playful lightness about her, but she was equally discerning and critical if her aesthetic or moral standards were not met. Visiting Washington D.C., she described the displays at the Smithsonian "a little quainter than the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce but quite as horrible." She felt the Library of Congress was "a monstrous disappointment...as ornate as a German wedding cake or a French one." (Though, she did enjoy Martha Washington's garden.)
Her diary may be peppered with effusive comments about her social circle, but it is salted with entertaining snarky comments about recognizable Angelenos. Upon meeting Harrison Gray Otis, she described him as a "fat, nasal, greenish-gray old man and his speckled clothes so badly in need of pressing!" Never a fan of Charles Lummis, she likened his complexion to a "boiled lobster." Though perhaps the more entertaining diary entry occurred in 1910, "Mrs. Stilson says Lummis posed (nude) for the book-plate of the Southwest Museum."
In between her whimsical musings and biting gossip, Percival wonders how, or if, history will remember her. In 1907 she confided to her diary, "It will all be over and done with soon and no one will care that I had to consume a little life in 'making a living' for my Mother and myself, when I yearned, so long, To See, To Be - and To Write!"
Regardless of her self-doubt, hindsight has shown that Olive Percival's creativity continues to inspire those who are lucky to happen upon her whimsical world. Perhaps Mrs. George Veach Wright said it best when she described Olive's life as "an exquisitely cut diamond of many, many facets, each one showing a lovely light. No one I have known had so many interests, could do so many things well."
Top photo: Olive Percival's own bookplate (one of many) that she designed herself.
Special thanks to Librarian Judy Harvey Sahak and the staff of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, as they enthusiastically shared their wonderful Olive Percival archives with us. A thank you to the Huntington Library's Reader Services Department for their always amiable and expeditious response to our requests. We are grateful to Ingrid Johnson for recording and sharing information about Olive Percival's life and collections.