A survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire, Stella worked as a designer at Gump’s, and later as a welder at Marinship during World War Two, before starting a career in bookbinding. She became a renowned bookbinder who mentored younger bookbinders and restored books damaged by the 1966 flood in Florence.
Transcript: Stella Patri (1896-2001)
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Stella Patri on May 28, 1996. The interview took place at Stella’s home in San Francisco. The interview was conducted by Judith Robinson, an author, historian and member of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a community organization. This interview is part of the Italian-Americans of North Beach series of interviews that were conducted from 1996 to 2004 by Judith Robinson with funding from U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The interview was transcribed by Carmen White in 2020, and the transcript was edited by John Doxey in 2021.
Format: Originally recorded on 2 audio tapes. Duration is 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Attribution: This interview transcript is property of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Quotes, reproductions and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Stella Patri, May 28, 1996. Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.
Summary: Stella Patri was born in 1896 to French-Canadian parents in Montreal and moved to San Francisco when she was four. Her maiden name was Stella Nicole. She attended Catholic schools in San Francisco (St. Boniface on Golden Gate Avenue and St. Rose Academy on Pine Street) until her family moved to Mountain View, a rural town where her mother raised pheasants and chickens. Stella attended high school in Mountain View until her father abandoned the family and her mother moved the family back to San Francisco. Stella never completed high school, after a nun at her school advised Stella to get a job and help her mother financially. Stella found work at millinery shops in downtown San Francisco, where she remained until the U.S. entered World War One, creating new job opportunities for women. Stella found work at a bank, where she earned $95 per month, and attended night classes at the San Francisco Institute of Art, located in the building that now houses the Mark Hopkins hotel. By this time, her mother had moved the family to Sausalito, and Stella commuted to work in San Francisco by ferry. Around 1926, Stella met Giacomo Patri, an Italian who emigrated to San Francisco at age 18. Giacomo worked in the art department of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner newspapers. The couple married and had three sons: Piero, Remo and Tito. During the first years of this relationship, Stella worked at Gump’s, an upscale Union Square clothing and home furnishings retailer, where she helped design and market purses, bags and other accessories. Stella left this work with the arrival of her sons, and the family moved to Corte Madera. During World War Two, Stella worked as a welder at Marinship Corporation in Marin City, helping rat-proof Liberty ships. When their sons were grown, Giacomo and Stella divorced and Stella took up bookbinding, because she “liked books and fixing things.” Stella became an accomplished book restorer, and when the Arno River flooded Florence in 1966, Stella joined a program that taught young Italians how to repair classic books that had been damaged in the flood. Two of the sons, Piero and Tito, became architects. Stella died in 2001 at the age of 104.
According to an obituary that appeared in the Abbey Newsletter (vol 25, number 1, June 2001), “Stella was a founding member of The Hand Bookbinders of California, a member of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Institute of Paper Conservation, Designer Bookbinders, and a long-time member of the Guild of Book Workers. She was made an Honorary Member of the Guild in 1993 and was given the Oscar Lewis Award by The Book Club of California in 1995. Many bookbinders and conservators, both in the Bay Area and across the country, were influenced by her and continue to practice the craft with the characteristic passion she brought to it.” [see https://cool.culturalheritage.org/byorg/abbey/an/an25/an25-1/an25-104.html]
In 2021, Tito Patri provided the following biographical details: “Stella’s father Amédé was a philanderer, but was a machine engineer with a hot temper who had difficulty holding a job because of that. He did not go on ‘business trips’ to South America; however, the story goes, he claimed to be going to Alaska every Spring to service the salmon fishing boats. He would bring a case or two of canned salmon back as proof, and Stella couldn’t bring herself to eat salmon for the rest of her life. This is because he was instead with his girlfriend (or girlfriends?) in Los Angeles every spring.”
Stella was 99 years old when Judith Robinson interviewed her. In this interview, Stella speaks of her early school days at St. Boniface and St. Rose Academy in San Francisco; her family’s move to bucolic Mountain View, where Stella and her brother had a pony named Dynamite; her mother’s entrepreneurial efforts, which included raising pheasants and caponized roosters in Mountain View, seamstress work and working as a modiste at a high-end millinery store in San Francisco; her father’s “wandering” streak and suspected philandering while on business trips to South America; the 1906 earthquake and fire that ravaged San Francisco, forcing her family to move from their Turk Street home to Golden Gate Park for three days; the smell of smoldering streets as the family walked to the Ferry Building after the earthquake on their way to stay with friends in Berkeley; her first job at a fashionable millinery shop in the Phelan Building, where she wasn’t paid for her first six months of work; her dream of becoming an artist, which wasn’t encouraged but drove her to take night classes at the San Francisco Institute of Art; her marriage to an Italian immigrant, Giacomo Patri, with whom she had three sons and their amicable divorce years later; her work at a Union Square clothing and accessories boutique, where her artistic talents brought success; her job as a metal worker at Marinship in Sausalito during World War Two; her later-life work as a restorer of classic books, including a British-led restoration project in Florence following the disastrous 1966 flood.
Carmen White, John Doxey, Tito Patri and Judith Robinson have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should keep in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
JUDITH: This is Stella Patri interviewed by Judith Robinson on May 28, 1996 … but you weren’t born here I understand?
STELLA: No, I was born in Canada. So I was four years old when I came.
JUDITH: So you’ve lived here virtually all your life?
STELLA: [laughter] That’s right.
JUDITH: Yeah, that’s wonderful.
STELLA: Yeah, so I feel … when I was young, to be a Native Daughter or Native Son was something. And if you weren’t born here, you couldn’t be.
[Transcriber’s note: The Native Sons of the Golden West is a fraternal service organization founded in 1875, dedicated to historic preservation, documentation of historic structures and places in the state, the placement of historic plaques and other charitable functions within California. Native Daughters of the Golden West, founded in 1886, is a similar organization for women born in California. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
JUDITH: Like the Society of California Pioneers. [laughter]
STELLA: Exactly … now what are we going to do here?
JUDITH: Well … we’re doing this oral interview series about people like yourself who had a notable life.
STELLA: And who have reached the age of 90 or older. [laughter] That’s about it.
JUDITH: Venerable, huh? Well, no. Many people suggested that it would be wonderful if you would tell us something about some of the remarkable things you’ve done and lived through. In fact, Deke Sonnichsen and Joanne Sonnichsen were telling me a little bit about your background, and they’ve become very nice friends to me since I lost my late boyfriend who was a very close friend of Deke’s. And I’m also I member of the Book Club of California.
[Transcriber’s note: Joanne Sonnichsen of Menlo Park was a noted bookbinder whose French-influenced style of bookbinding won attention throughout the world for its simple elegance. Sonnichsen served as President of the Book Club of California, and one of the creations of which she was most proud is the AIDS Name Project “Book of Remembrance,” which is on permanent display at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Source: Online Archive of California.)]
JUDITH: At any rate, I would be very interested to hear something about both your life … I know you gave an oral history about your wonderful book binding experiences…
JUDITH: …so I thought we could touch more on other aspects of it.
STELLA: Well, if you start asking questions, how about that?
STELLA: Because I can’t just start in saying I was born and nanananana, you know?
JUDITH: No, right. Well, that’s what I thought I would do. And, in fact, I think we should start with where and when you were born. What’s your birthday?
STELLA: November the 1st, 1896.
JUDITH: So you’re almost a centenarian.
STELLA: Yes. In November I’ll be 100.
JUDITH: I’ll be darned. And where were you born?
STELLA: Montreal, Canada.
JUDITH: In Montreal. And what was your maiden name and your parents’? Who were your parents?
STELLA: My mother’s name was Azilda. A-Z-I-L-D-A.
JUDITH: D-A. Azilda. Was that her last name?
STELLA: No, her first name. That was my grandmother’s name. And it was … you know, there were so many Azildas in the family. [laughter] And Demers was her maiden name. D-E-M-E-R-S. And she married … this is my mother?
STELLA: She married Amedee. A-M-E-D-E-E. Nicole. N-I-C-O-L-E.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, the correct spelling of this name is Amédé, rather than Amedee.]
JUDITH: So your maiden name is Nicole?
STELLA: Is Nicole. Yes.
JUDITH: Did you have any middle … is Stella your full name or is it a nickname?
STELLA: Oh, Laura, Agnes, Marie, and oh you could go on and on.
JUDITH: Agnes, Marie…
STELLA: Well, Agnes was a confirmation name.
STELLA: ...Laura and Azilda and Marie, of course. All girls had Marie in a Catholic country. [laughter]
JUDITH: Yes. How did you come to be called Stella?
STELLA: How did I come to California?
JUDITH: No, to be called Stella.
JUDITH: Is that one of your Christian names or a nickname?
STELLA: Yes, that’s my Christian name. It seemed that one of my father’s sisters had had a beautiful little girl, blue eyes and blonde hair, and she died when she was four years old, before I was born. And her name was Stella.
STELLA: So that’s why.
JUDITH: OK. Now what did your father do, and your mother? Were they French Canadian?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Both of them. My father was born in Quebec, and my mother in Montreal. So they’re both French Canadian.
STELLA: No foreign blood. [laughter]
JUDITH: But then … what then was your father’s work?
STELLA: Well, he was, what can I say, he was a machinist, let’s say. Yes. And when I was about two, I think, yes, he was sent to South America with a linotype machine to instruct … I mean that’s not important … but I mean somehow or another. Then there’s a blank there because he, my father, knowing later on what he was like, that he may have had some feminine attraction down South America. I don’t know. Because he was gone for quite a while.
JUDITH: And you and your mother didn’t go?
STELLA: No, no. Because in those days … I was about four, and my brother was two, so we just stayed there. Well, he was supposed to come back, of course. But it took several years. So it was always … it was never spoken about, you know.
JUDITH: Do you think you got your interest in printing genetically from your father? [laughter]
STELLA: I don’t think so. No. I’ve never thought about it to tell you the truth.
JUDITH: Did you have siblings? You had one brother…
STELLA: One brother, two years younger.
JUDITH: OK. So you grew up until you were four in Montreal?
JUDITH: Did you speak French at home, by the way?
JUDITH: So you’re bilingual, at least bilingual?
STELLA: But then when you come to a foreign country, it was a foreign country, my mother had to earn her living so she … and I think she must have learned English in Montreal, because even in those days the English were prominent in Canada, in that part of Canada. So I think that people who had education knew both languages.
JUDITH: Um-hmm. Was your mother educated as well, and your father?
STELLA: Both there, yeah.
JUDITH: Did they have higher degrees?
STELLA: No, just basic.
JUDITH: Just basic?
STELLA: If they finished high school in those days … you know, I really don’t, no they never went to college or anything like that.
JUDITH: Well now why did they relocate to California?
STELLA: Well, my mother had an older sister, 10 years older, who said “come to California. This is where there are roses growing all over the city, and you can make money.” Money was floating around, I mean that was, you just picked it off the street I guess. [laughter] And I guess my father wasn’t very … not a homer. He had very elegant sisters who kept writing to my mother to take him back, think of the children, think of the children. He was the one, he should never have married, to tell you the truth. He was a wanderer.
STELLA: Very handsome. I don’t know if that’s the kind of … if I tell you things and you think it’s crazy don’t use it. That’s easy. Edit it.
JUDITH: Right. So he decided to relocate his family in San Francisco and to get work here?
STELLA: I guess so.
JUDITH: So you all moved when you were four?
STELLA: When I was four, yes. Because her sister was here, you see. And I guess even by then she knew that my father was a wanderer. It was never spoken of.
JUDITH: Yeah. Well, did he work here? And did your mother work as well? How did he…?
STELLA: No. He must have worked here.
JUDITH: Well, where did you all live? Do you remember where you went to school? Where did you go to grade school?
STELLA: Well, the first school I went to was St. Boniface, the German school, you know, on Golden Gate. So, I think we lived on the other side of Market, on 6th Street. Now this is a long time ago, you know. How old am I now, 99? It’s 92 years ago.
JUDITH: Right. Do you have any memories of those childhood years in school, or the neighborhood, shops, parks?
STELLA: No. because I went to school. An older girl would take me because it was across Market Street, and still Market was a wide street.
STELLA: So I didn’t start school till I was about seven, I think, because there was nobody to take me across.
JUDITH: Was it run by some priests?
STELLA: It was run by the Dominican … no, not the Dominican, the Franciscan, isn’t it? St. Boniface?
JUDITH: OK. Priests.
STELLA: The nuns had a school there.
JUDITH: Right. And then did you go on to high school? And where would that have been?
STELLA: Then we went, oh, God, I went to St. Rose Academy on Pine Street. That was in grammar school. And then we moved to Mountain View.
JUDITH: Must have been very rural.
STELLA: Oh, yes. Oh, it was beautiful then. I remember all the orchards, the apricots, plums and prunes. It was really lovely.
JUDITH: Did you live in a rural setting or a town?
STELLA: Well, Mountain View then was, I guess, a town, you would say. There were two churches, a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church, and there was a bank, I guess. You know, small town.
STELLA: I know that the train stopped there, the commute train. People went to San Francisco to work. Well, you know when you were at that age everything makes sense, I think. You don’t analyze it.
JUDITH: So do you think of yourself as having a fairly happy childhood in California, or…? Was it largely with your mother and brother?
STELLA: Yeah. I don’t think … well, I guess it was all right. I can’t remember.
JUDITH: Not a … rich?
STELLA: Not rich, no. Not over affectionate, you know. No, perhaps … I never thought about it to tell you the truth. Perhaps … it was the way it was.
JUDITH: You just pushed on?
JUDITH: And so you went to high school where?
STELLA: Yes, I went to high school at least. My father was very stupid I think. Thought girls didn’t need anything, high school. Learn to make a household, learn to cook, learn to be good wives, I think, to some male.
JUDITH: So he didn’t encourage you to go on to higher education?
STELLA: No. But so finally when I was 18 … 18 can you imagine? I said, “I’m going to high school.”
JUDITH: Good for you.
STELLA: And that’s when it was just too much for my father. He disappeared. He left.
JUDITH: And never really returned to live with you?
JUDITH: Good heavens.
STELLA: I mean…
JUDITH: Did your mother have to work?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Then she had always been ... she came from a very large family in Montreal, many girls. And she was very good at sewing, so that she had been trained. And she could use that knowledge that she had about sewing, and she did that. She became a modiste in San Francisco. [Transcriber’s note: a modiste is a fashionable milliner or dressmaker.]
JUDITH: There was lots of work for that in those days…
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: …and they were highly valued, skilled craftsmen.
STELLA: Yes, exactly. Because, I remember, for instance, one of her customers were daughters of the Dollar Shipping, you know.
JUDITH: Dollar Shipping?
STELLA: In those days, the Dollar Shipping Company, whatever they were, if that’s what they were…
[Transcriber’s note: The Dollar Steamship Company (commonly known as "Dollar Line") was established in 1900. At its height in the 1920s, the Dollar Steamship Company was the largest and most successful United States shipping firm. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
JUDITH: So she made enough for you to live on?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Because … he was sort of a wanderer. I mean, he’d go to Nevada, it was silver mining, or something. You know, something spectacular, and then it always turned out to be nothing.
JUDITH: He was a venturer. [laughter]
STELLA: Yes, that’s the way, very nice. [laughter]
JUDITH: Or adventurer… [laughter] Well, where did you go to high school?
STELLA: I went to high school in Mountain View.
JUDITH: OK. And you decided that you wanted to learn to read and do all the skills?
STELLA: Oh, I knew ... I’d gone to the convent here in San Francisco at St. Rose Academy. And the only reason we went to Mountain View is my mother inherited a small … uh, I was going to say fortune…
JUDITH: A stipend?
STELLA: Yeah, you know. Four or five hundred dollars. And thought that if they lived in the country in Mountain View, and my father who was very good at building things and doing things with his hands, would be happier. So she bought this acre, acreage in Mountain View, had a house on it. And my father built the most elaborate chicken coops. [laughter]
JUDITH: And did you keep chickens in them?
STELLA: No, my mother, that was not my mother’s … and she had pheasants. She was a very entrepreneurial, is that the word…?
STELLA: …woman. And she was going to raise pheasants and caponize roosters and, you know, do things. [Transcriber’s note: A capon is a rooster that has been castrated or neutered to improve the quality of its flesh for food.]
JUDITH: Did she do them?
STELLA: Did she what?
JUDITH: Did she do those things?
STELLA: Oh, she could do anything she wanted.
STELLA: She had strawberry beds and, you know, in a half acre or something, you don’t do much. And a house on it. And my brother and I had a pony, an Indian pony. [laughter]
JUDITH: Ah-ha. That you rode?
STELLA: That we rode, and had a little buggy to it. Cart.
JUDITH: Cart, yeah. Sounds idyllic.
STELLA: The horse would be always running away. He would be, he was never frightened of a train but if a butterfly flew by … people would call up and say, “Dynamite is here.” His name was Dynamite.
STELLA: Somebody had to go and get Dynamite. [laughter]
JUDITH: It sounds idyllic. Did you have dogs and cats and other critters?
STELLA: Did I what?
JUDITH: Did you have other critters about? Dogs, cats?
STELLA: Oh, yes, we had dogs and cats. And my mother was always going to have something. And chickens, and pheasants, and all these elaborate coops my father built.
JUDITH: Maybe that’s where your sons got their architectural leanings. From way back, early chicken coops. [laughter] Were you glad that you went to high school? Did you like to study and the learning?
STELLA: Yes, I did, but ah…
JUDITH: Did you take an interest in anything in particular? Art or …?
STELLA: I wanted to take manual training. [laughter] But because I should be taking cooking at high school, or household things or whatever it was called in those days…
JUDITH: Home economics?
STELLA: Yes, home economics, that’s it. Then I guess my father went on one of his trips, and we didn’t hear from him for a couple of years. So my mother thought, “oh, well, this is no way to earn a living in Mountain View.” So we moved to San Francisco.
JUDITH: I see.
STELLA: And with her trade of modiste, you know, of sewing, she could make a living.
JUDITH: So that would have been when you were about …
STELLA: Oh, I would say about 14...
JUDITH: OK, so that would have been about…?
JUDITH: OK, so that would have been about 1910 or ’12?
JUDITH: Well, San Francisco was quite a … well, then, do you remember the earthquake at all? The 1906…
STELLA: Oh, yes, that was before.
JUDITH: Tell us something about … you were living in Mountain View, though?
STELLA: No, no, we were living in San Francisco.
STELLA: And oh, yes, my brother and I, I guess I don’t remember the earthquake itself, but being picked up out of bed and taken, going to the street. It was on Easter, wasn’t it?
JUDITH: It was about that time, April.
STELLA: April sometime, Easter.
JUDITH: April 18th or so. It was near Easter anyway.
STELLA: Because I know we had…
JUDITH: You were 10 years old?
JUDITH: In 1906?
JUDITH: So you remember being shaken or taken out of bed?
STELLA: Taken out of bed.
JUDITH: By your mother?
STELLA: I don’t think, even remember feeling any of the earthquake around. I guess my father, and I think my mother’s brother was living there, too, and he took my brother. And everyone ran out in the street.
JUDITH: Early in the morning?
STELLA: Early in the morning. Everybody, all the houses, you know. Because there were brick chimneys, you know, and everybody had a wooden coal stove. The chimneys had fallen down, there was soot everywhere.
JUDITH: Do you remember where your house was?
STELLA: It was on Turk Street. But I can’t remember, you know, what the cross street was.
JUDITH: Yeah. So you lived in a typical wooden Victorian?
STELLA: It was one of the nicest three-story flats, very modern.
STELLA: Very new.
JUDITH: And was that house, did it survive the earthquake? So you didn’t have to move into the park or out to the street?
STELLA: Well, we did, because you couldn’t cook … the stoves were down, the chimneys were down. You had to cook on the street. So we moved to the park … my mother and brother.
JUDITH: Golden Gate Park?
STELLA: Golden Gate Park. With blankets, you know. And the sewing machine. That always went along.
JUDITH: Wow. So she could work or at least…?
STELLA: At least whatever happened…
JUDITH: She had her tools with her.
STELLA: She had her tools, that’s it. And I think I had cousins who were much older than I. My father and his two nephews commandeered a buggy on the street of a stand there. You know, people just ran away and left things. And they put the sewing machine on that, and the feather bed and some blankets, and we went to the Golden Gate Park.
JUDITH: My gosh. So how long did you stay there? A couple of weeks?
STELLA: Three days.
JUDITH: Oh, three days?
STELLA: Yes, three days.
JUDITH: Then you moved back to your house?
STELLA: No, I, well, we must have moved back. No, we moved to a friend’s house in Berkeley. That was it. Yes.
JUDITH: Do you remember the fire, seeing it from a hill?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Because then, you know, walking from Turk or the Golden Gate Park to Berkeley to the Ferry Building, we had to walk. So I don’t remember the fire itself, but I remember walking down … so it was a long walk, and seeing all the charred and still smoking streets. Because we had to go on the ferry boats to go to Berkeley.
STELLA: So we had to go to the Ferry Building.
JUDITH: So you remember those … when you see those pictures they must evoke some very sharp memories?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: Because you remember walking it. And it must have smelled of fire…
STELLA: That’s it.
JUDITH: …and destruction.
STELLA: I was 10, wasn’t I?
JUDITH: You were 10 years old.
STELLA: Yes, 10 years old. So I remember.
JUDITH: So eventually you moved back, and your mother resumed her work?
STELLA: Well, no. We went to live, stay, with these French people. These were real French, from France.
STELLA: His name was Artenstein. It’s Hartenstein. It’s really a German name, isn’t it? But I think they were from Alsace-Lorraine, you know, that part of France and Germany that were in those days… [Transcriber’s note: correct spelling of “Artenstein” is unconfirmed.]
JUDITH: …very Germanic.
JUDITH: So you lived over there…?
STELLA: For about, I would say, three weeks, because my mother put me in a public school there.
STELLA: Because the public schools were open, the schools were open. And then her family in Montreal said, “come home, come home.” So as there was no word from my father, so my mother and brother and I were shipped to Montreal.
JUDITH: But not for terribly long, I gather?
STELLA: Well, not for very long, no. But, well, I stayed. My mother and brother came back, but I went to a convent in Montreal.
JUDITH: OK. That’s where you went to the convent?
STELLA: Yes, because my grandmother was still living there. My aunts, my father’s family, his sisters, every … the whole, both sides of the family were in Canada around Montreal and Quebec.
JUDITH: Right. Well, then you must have returned to America, and that’s when you went to Mountain View and then on to high school?
STELLA: Well, I went … no, when I came back … by that time my mother had come back, and my brother. And I came back with some nuns that were being sent from Montreal to the convent in Berkeley. I forget. It’s the mother house of this order, and every year they exchange nuns, and I came back with a group of nuns. And my mother was established already in Berkeley and had a cottage.
STELLA: And we lived there.
JUDITH: Oh, so you lived in Berkeley?
STELLA: In Berkeley.
JUDITH: After the earthquake?
STELLA: Yes, see the earthquake came, and I spent a year at the convent in Montreal.
STELLA: So when I came back, my mother was in Berkeley. And I guess my father, too.
JUDITH: But, uh, jumping forward then, you finished high school? You got a high school degree?
STELLA: I finished. I didn’t get a degree, no, because … oh, God, this is so funny. I can’t … I always wanted to stay, and I went to see … wait a minute, I’m sort of mixed up there. When did I start working?
JUDITH: Well, you were 18 when you went to high school, so you must have started working when you were about 20?
STELLA: Oh, before that. I didn’t stay in high school long. You see, because I went to see one of the nuns that I had had in grammar school. See, my mother always sent me to convents, Catholic schools. I couldn’t go to a public school. My brother could, but I couldn’t. And I went to see this, you know how girls go to see their former teachers? And she said, “do you mean to tell me” … she was Irish … “do you mean to tell me that you’re still going to school, you’re not working and helping your mother?”
STELLA: And I felt so guilty. Should I?
JUDITH: So you quit school?
STELLA: And she answered “yes.”
JUDITH: So you quit school and went to work?
STELLA: Went to work.
JUDITH: What was that doing?
STELLA: Well, it was very elegant … San Francisco had the most elegant … women wore hats. It was summer hats, winter hats, spring hats, autumn hats. So my mother knew a friend who knew Mrs. Browley, who was the highest … can I say the highest now? … women, the most popular, the most, had the best hats in San Francisco. [Transcriber’s note: correct spelling of “Browley” is unconfirmed.]
STELLA: The governor’s wife came to Mrs. Browley to buy hats. You know, society people were there. It was, her salon was in the Phelan Building, you know where it is? It had entrance on Market and on Geary.
[Transcriber’s note: The Phelan Building is an 11-story office building located at 760 Market Street. It has a triangular shape, with its tip at the meeting point of Market Street, O’Farrell Street and Grant Avenue. The building was designed by William Curlett and built in 1908 by James D. Phelan on the place of the original Phelan Building, which was damaged by the 1906 earthquake and fire. (Source: Wkipedia.)]
JUDITH: Right on Geary, I think.
STELLA: Red carpets, I remember, and little tables with mirrors on three sides…
JUDITH: Things to put the hats on.
STELLA: …so you could see the hats as you looked at yourself.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. So you started as an apprentice to her?
STELLA: As an apprentice there, yes.
JUDITH: To make hats?
STELLA: To make hats. Well, first of all you’re … there are two sets of makers of hats: designers and copiers. The designer has her little group of work girls for her. The copy-est doesn’t design, she just reproduces more, you know, of the same.
STELLA: And each group had their little four or five women who worked for them there. And there was a girl for each group. That’s what we were. All we did was that.
JUDITH: So you were a copier?
STELLA: No, I was an errand girl. I was with the copy-est. I was put with that group, not with the designer.
JUDITH: Ah-ha. Retrieving all these lovely things for hats?
STELLA: Yes. Of course. Oh, the hat business, you know ... in fact, right across the street on Market Street it was where … I think there’s a grand market is there on Market?
JUDITH: I can’t remember.
STELLA: But that was … the whole building was wholesale material to make hats. One floor would be all just artificial flowers. Velvets, satins, each floor had its specialty. It was a huge business.
JUDITH: It was in those days. Well, did you work your way up to the designer group…?
JUDITH: … or moved on?
STELLA: No, I stayed there … for a whole six months, I worked for nothing.
JUDITH: No salary.
STELLA: And then I remember the owner, Mrs. Browley, who came from Nevada … [laughter] I don’t know how she became a modiste, a designer of hats … said to the bookkeeper, “this little girl is good, give her a dollar a week from now on.” After working there for six months, carrying my lunch, the carfare from, you know. But in those days, you know, you were an apprentice. I was lucky, especially to have a good outlet or whatever.
JUDITH: Well, then did you become part of the designing, or go on to other work?
STELLA: Oh, then the next year I thought I knew everything. So I worked for another milliner. As an assistant.
STELLA: No rest, you know.
JUDITH: And so you became a milliner?
STELLA: I became a milliner, yes.
JUDITH: And you did that for some years then?
STELLA: Yes, for some years. And then the war came.
JUDITH: Ah. Then we’re talking about World War One or Two?
JUDITH: Right. And this would have been 1914, ‘15, ‘16?
STELLA: Yes, ‘15. And as I was, I can’t remember exactly how much I was earning. Probably seven dollars a week or something like that, you know. It was…
JUDITH: Were you living at home?
STELLA: Yes, with my mother and brother. Because my father had long faded … and where was I?
JUDITH: You were a milliner, and then the war started.
STELLA: The war started. And my mother had started buying a house and lot in Sausalito. In those days it was good. She had a good mind. And probably, what shall I say … well, I don’t know, she was an entrepreneur, too. In those days you were forced to, I think, women.
JUDITH: She sounds very tenacious.
JUDITH: So she was buying property in Sausalito when the war broke out?
STELLA: She bought a house in Sausalito and rented part of it. And then later on … I went from there to working in San Francisco and commuting on the ferry boats for 10 years. And I worked, when the war started instead of being a milliner I moved into the banking business…
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, “We understood she, even though a lowly seamstress, was able to buy the lot and then have the house built in 1924. The price of construction then was about $3,000!”]
STELLA: … because the men were all being sent to war, you know.
JUDITH: So you could take a job a man had held before?
STELLA: Yes, that was it. Or boys, because the men were bookkeepers, you know. Oh, God, sitting on high desks with big books. And we were running adding machines with the checks, you know…
STELLA: …rows. And that’s all we had to do.
JUDITH: Well, now the war goes on, and you were still doing that for 10 years?
STELLA: Oh, not for 10 years, no.
JUDITH: OK. How did you come from those crafts into bookbinding?
STELLA: Oh, that’s a long story. How did I?
JUDITH: You didn’t go to art school or university?
STELLA: Well, no I … yes, I went to art school. I went at night.
JUDITH: Oh? In San Francisco?
STELLA: Where the Mark Hopkins is now.
JUDITH: Oh, right, right. That was an art school.
STELLA: That was an art school. And it was the basement of what had been one of the big mansions.
JUDITH: Right. It was the Mark Hopkins mansion. And wasn’t it the Academy of Art or something like that?
STELLA: Yes, of course.
[Transcriber’s note: Prior to the 1906 earthquake, the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art was housed in a mansion located where the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel now stands. The building housed both the California School of Design's campus and San Francisco Art Association’s collection. The building was destroyed during the earthquake and fire. Within a year, however, the SFAA built a new campus in the same location and adopted the name San Francisco Institute of Art. The school was later renamed the California School of Fine Arts, and in 1926 the school moved to 800 Chestnut Street. It was renamed San Francisco Art Institute in 1961. According to Stella’s son Tito, “I assume this is when she learned bookbinding, even though there is no mention in the interview of formal training in the field.”]
JUDITH: Right. So you went to art school at night after you worked at the bank, and then took the ferry back to Sausalito?
STELLA: And run down from Powell and California, you’d run down to the ferry to go to Sausalito. At night.
STELLA: You know, no fear.
JUDITH: No fear. And what did you want to study in art school, and why did you go to art school?
STELLA: Well, I wanted, I wanted to study everything. Art is what I wanted to do, but, oh, stupid … sometimes you meet stupid teachers. And I told her I wanted to go to art school, and she said, “My dear, do you realize that after you finish high school you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, you‘ve got to begin … and you can’t, why don’t you just come down to earth?” I mean…
JUDITH: So you were not encouraged to do that?
STELLA: No, not at all.
JUDITH: But you persisted?
JUDITH: So you went to art school and then…?
STELLA: And, well, then that was at night you see.
JUDITH: Did you decide to apply your art skills to some…?
STELLA: Let’s see, a little bit, how did I do? What happened then? You know, sometimes there’s a blank … in your mind.
JUDITH: Exactly. Because … well, now let me refresh your memory here. Peter Macchiarini’s daughter Nella told me that you were a great inspiration to her to become a machinist, a metal worker. Because apparently in World War Two you worked as a metal worker?
[Transcriber’s note: Peter Macchiarini was an American Modernist jeweler and sculptor who was a pioneer in the field of avant-garde jewelry. He maintained an art studio and shop on Grant Avenue in San Francisco for more than 50 years. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers oral history project features two oral histories of Peter Macchiarini, both available on the THD website at https://www.thd.org/oral-history. Nella Macchiarini is Peter’s daughter.]
STELLA: I was a welder.
JUDITH: A welder.
STELLA: Well, by that time I was married.
JUDITH: Ah-ha. And how did you meet? It’s Giacomo Patri, right? And when did you marry?
STELLA: Ah, that. Let’s see. When I was a milliner…
STELLA: …and there was a young girl there working, an Italian. Can’t even remember her name now. And we became friends. And by that time … well, how old was I then?
JUDITH: Well, you must have been in your late teens or twenties?
JUDITH: Because this is before World War One. You met Giacomo, Mr. Patri, when you were a milliner?
STELLA: I was a milliner … and I gave up milliner when the war happened, I went to the bank.
JUDITH: The bank, right.
STELLA: Because you could earn $95 dollars a month…
STELLA: …which I couldn’t do as a milliner. Because millinery was seasonal. And then every winter and every summer there was three months that you didn’t work at all, because, you know…
JUDITH: No hats being made?
STELLA: Hats for winter, hats for summer.
JUDITH: Right. You’d gone to the bank, but at the milliner’s you met an Italian girl who apparently introduced you to Mr. Patri?
STELLA: Not the milliner, no...
JUDITH: The Italian girl…
STELLA: …wait a minute. Oh, god, I can’t remember her name even. Oh, wait a minute, now I know. How did … when we moved to Sausalito, when my mother bought this house … and there was a girl, and her mother and brother lived next door to us. And she worked at the bank, and somehow or other she told me there were openings at the bank, “why don’t you try?” So I did. So I became … you see, it’s a little fuzzy in my mind.
JUDITH: Understandable. So you went to the bank. But somehow you had married before you went to the bank?
STELLA: Oh, no.
STELLA: After. I was 30 before I got married.
JUDITH: Right. So that was…
STELLA: I had quite a lapse there working.
JUDITH: Right, OK. So that was in 1926 you married?
STELLA: Yes, and then I somehow or other … [Transcriber’s note: sound of cat meowing here. Stella addresses the cat] … Misty, please, we’re talking. Mitta! … a woman … and I had always wanted to get out of the bank, you see, but it was a good paying, $95 dollars a month, you know, that’s not to be sneered at in those days. And half of it went to my mother, you know. My brother did the same thing, half of what he earned.
STELLA: And, uh…
JUDITH: Well, when you married you must have moved into your own house or apartment?
JUDITH: And Mr. Patri was an artist?
STELLA: He worked for The Chronicle as an art … in the art department.
JUDITH: And he had a page of his own that he did?
STELLA: Well, that was later on. But when I first met him, he was I don’t know what department. [Transcriber’s note: sound of cat meowing here. Stella again addresses Misty the cat] … oh, Misty, please go in the kitchen and eat or sit down here … and he … oh, I can’t remember.
JUDITH: He worked, he was in the art department at the Chronicle?
STELLA: At first it was the Examiner, and then the Chronicle, so... [Transcriber’s note: the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle have been leading newspapers in San Francisco since the 1860s.]
JUDITH: OK. But he was an artist?
STELLA: He was an artist. And they, as far as I can remember, if you had an ad to promote something you’d get, like fish or, I don’t know, food, or sometimes they had to, you know, show what the product … they had an art department. They would just say, “draw some fish on a platter, draw some” … you know, it was really very…
JUDITH: Commercial art.
STELLA: Commercial art.
JUDITH: Do you remember William Randolph Hearst at all? Did you ever meet him, or did Mr. Patri know him?
JUDITH: Well, then if you were married in ‘26, I understand you didn’t have your children until you were almost 40?
STELLA: I got married in ‘33.
JUDITH: You were 33 when you got married?
[Transcriber’s note: Stella’s reporting of years and ages is inconsistent. Earlier in the interview, she stated that she married in 1926 at age 30. Here she states that she was 33 when she married or 33 when she had her first child. According to her son Tito, “Stella was confused. She married in 1926, had her first son, Piero, in 1929, the second, Remo, in 1931 and her third, Tito, in 1933.”]
STELLA: Yes, my first three years.
STELLA: Now who told you 40?
JUDITH: I don’t know. I think Joanne Sonnichsen was saying, we were trying to figure out how old the boys were.
STELLA: Well, I haven’t known Joanne Sonnichsen that long. [laughter]
JUDITH: No, no. We were just talking. I was just trying to figure it out. Because I understand your middle son just had his 60th birthday, is that right?
STELLA: Yes. He’s 62 or 60 something.
JUDITH: Tell me how you named your three sons and who they are?
JUDITH: Is he the oldest?
STELLA: Yes. Remo.
JUDITH: How do you spell that? R-E-M-O?
STELLA: And Tito.
JUDITH: And Tito. They’re very Italian names.
STELLA: Oh, definitely.
JUDITH: Your husband prevailed in the naming. [laughter]
STELLA: That’s it. And it had to be phonetically with Patri, too.
JUDITH: Oh, right.
STELLA: Everything phonetically.
JUDITH: That’s wonderful.
STELLA: I was willing. I didn’t care. I always thought that when you’re young, you know, you’re going to have children ... Malcolm was the name … If I had a son, it would be Malcolm. [laughter] Well, I didn’t. I had three sons, but none of them were Malcolm. [laughter]
JUDITH: Well, they’re three memorable names, and three memorable boys.
STELLA: Well, they’re doing all right.
JUDITH: Yes, they’re doing fine. Well, it seems to me that Tito mentioned the day I first saw you at the Enrico’s event, for Peter or whomever that … did you have a barber shop on the Barbary Coast? Where did I get that?
[Transcriber’s note: Judith is apparently referring to a party that was held at Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe in 2000, after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors renamed a portion of Kearny Street “The Peter Macchiarini Steps.”]
STELLA: Well, that was my father-in-law.
JUDITH: Oh, your father-in-law. Alright. And what was his name?
STELLA: Antonio Patri. And he had a barbershop with his older son.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, “Giacomo’s father had a barber shop on Pacific, when it was called the Barbary Coast, around the early 1900s.”]
JUDITH: On Jackson Street or…?
STELLA: Oh, I don’t know. In North Beach.
STELLA: That I couldn’t tell you.
JUDITH: So was your husband a first-generation Italian?
STELLA: He didn’t come to San Francisco ‘til he was 18.
STELLA: Because his father and older son, 10 years older … were here.
JUDITH: Did he come from Italy?
JUDITH: Your husband did?
JUDITH: Oh, he was an immigrant himself?
STELLA: He was an Italian boy. He didn’t come to San Francisco ‘til he was 18.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, Giacomo was 16 years old when he emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in 1914, not 18 years old.]
JUDITH: From where in Italy did he come?
STELLA: Arquata Scrivia. [laughter] A small town.
STELLA: A small town, yes…
JUDITH: Scrivia. S-C-R-I-V-I-A?
STELLA: Yeah, Scrivia. Because there’s a river running through that part of it. It’s in Tuscany.
STELLA: Halfway between Genoa and somewhere. [Transcriber’s note: Arquata Scrivia is a comune in the Province of Alessandria in the Italian region Piedmont, located about 100 kilometers southeast of Turin.]
JUDITH: So they were Toscanos?
STELLA: They were what?
JUDITH: Toscanos. Tuscany. From Tuscany.
STELLA: Well they yes, they were from that part … or was it Lombardy? That’s it. I’m always confused about that. You better ask Tito.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, “regarding Giacomo Patri’s home province: it was not Tuscany but Piemonte. But he spent much of his youth in Milan, which is in Lombardy.”]
JUDITH: OK. Very good.
STELLA: As I get older, I get confused and...
STELLA: …mix things up.
JUDITH: Well, that was pretty interesting, your marrying an Italian.
STELLA: An Italian.
JUDITH: And he spoke Italian and English?
JUDITH: Did the boys learn Italian?
STELLA: They didn’t learn Italian. When they were young, I had a woman come once a week to teach them Italian. But ultimately…
JUDITH: So you didn’t speak it at home?
STELLA: No. Oh, no. And Giacomo didn’t try to insist. I think he was educating himself, too, in the English language. When you’re 18, you know, you have a lot to learn.
JUDITH: Right. Was he older than you?
STELLA: No, he’s 18 months younger than I.
JUDITH: Ah-ha. Well, now how did you get from the bank…? You went to art school, then did you get into art work before World War Two?
STELLA: Oh, yes. I worked in the … it was a smaller, I don’t know … it was Miss Clays. It was a woman who had started a small store, but on Grant Avenue. No, no on Sutter. No, on Post, that’s it, between Stockton and Grant Avenue. Miss Clays. You see the history of San Francisco. It was a miniature Gump’s. But no furniture. It was just gowns, purses, bags, I think. And she had a workroom in the building at the corner at Stockton and Grant Avenue, on the third floor there. Where she would go to China and buy the silks and the embroidery and bring them back, and she had this workroom make things that sold in her store. Miss Clays. [Transcriber’s note: correct spelling of “Miss Clay’s” is unconfirmed.]
JUDITH: So you worked there as a crafts…?
STELLA: I worked there for about I don’t know how many years. Because I started first in the … helping to … everything had to be … the cost, you know, how much…
STELLA: …how many hours were put into an object, and how, what materials were used. And then the bookkeeper in the office figured out how much to charge for these things.
JUDITH: You projected the cost, the charges, and the fees for the items?
STELLA: That’s it.
JUDITH: So you were a bit of a business woman and an artist?
STELLA: Yes. And I liked that. And then later on I was also … I had a good eye for color. And the thing is that they had five or six women who made things, and one who designed. But I had a good eye to combine colors, and it came in handy. I remember the first time I combined blue and green together. It was beautiful. “Oh, yes, something new.”
JUDITH: Nobody had really done that? That’s marvelous.
STELLA: I worked there. And then I met Giacomo and I married, and I kept on working. And I think I was earning as much as he was at the time at the Chronicle or Examiner, whichever it was … and I still had to help my mother a bit, so I kept on working.
JUDITH: Did you work then after the boys came…?
STELLA: Oh, no.
JUDITH: …or when they started you became a mother full time?
STELLA: No, that stopped.
JUDITH: So then you were a full-time mother…?
JUDITH: …with three little boys?
JUDITH: Where did you raise them up, in the city?
STELLA: North Beach, mostly.
JUDITH: North Beach?
STELLA: Yeah. And then Giacomo’s brother had made some money, and he gave him $2,000. So we bought a lot in Corte Madera, and later on built a house there. And that’s where we lived.
JUDITH: I see, OK. When did you move to Corte Madera? After the war or before the war?
STELLA: Before the war.
JUDITH: Well, then how did you become a welder?
STELLA: Well, during the war.
JUDITH: And where did you work?
JUDITH: At Marinship. Of course. On Liberty ships?
[Transcriber’s note: Marinship Corporation was a shipbuilding company during World War Two, created to build ships for the war effort. Founded in 1942 in Sausalito, the shipyard built 93 cargo ships and oil tankers, before ending operations 1945. Liberty ships were a class of cargo ship that came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. (Source: Wikipedia.) According to her son Tito, Stella “worked at Marinship in Sausalito, which turned out one “Liberty Ship” (or as some called them “Ugly Ducklings”) per week.”]
JUDITH: Were you a Rosie the Riveter?
[Transcriber’s note: Rosie the Riveter was an allegorical cultural icon of World War Two, representing the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War Two. These women often filled positions that were traditionally filled by men, such as metal working, replacing the male workers who joined the military. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
STELLA: No, I wasn’t a riveter. I was a metal worker.
JUDITH: What kinds of work did you do?
STELLA: We rat-proofed all the ships. [chuckles]
JUDITH: So you made or installed?
STELLA: Installed. Well, the installation had been in, but where the pipes went through, all those openings had to be rat-proofed…
STELLA: …with metal to fit, see.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. Did you ever have a feeling years later that you were exposed to asbestos?
JUDITH: OK. Well, at any rate, you worked all through the war then in this noisy…?
STELLA: And then I learned welding there, too. I forget whether I did the one or the other first. So I was a welder there.
JUDITH: Ah-ha. Did you then come to apply that to artwork or…? You never became a sculptor?
STELLA: No, no.
JUDITH: Well, did Giacomo serve in the war? What was his…?
STELLA: He was working on the Chronicle. No, Giacomo had had polio when he was 19 months old, so he always wore a brace on one of his legs. So he didn’t have to serve. I mean, there was never any question, you know.
JUDITH: He wore a brace all of his life?
JUDITH: I had polio, too…
STELLA: So one leg never developed, so there was always this brace he had to wear.
JUDITH: So then the boys must have been old enough to go to school while you worked full time during the war?
STELLA: Yes. When did we? Yes, they were all in school in Mountain View. No, not Mountain View. In Corte Madera and Larkspur. It was combined, the school there. Larkspur-Corte Madera grammar school.
JUDITH: But still you hadn’t gotten into bookbinding yet?
STELLA: Oh, no.
JUDITH: That was after the war?
STELLA: Now why did I go into bookbinding?
JUDITH: After the war did you take up a different line of work?
STELLA: Yes, I worked. Who was going to support me?
JUDITH: Right. Giacomo didn’t…?
STELLA: Well, was I … wait a minute. See, I’m all mixed up in my mind. I can’t…
JUDITH: Well, maybe we can jump forward and that will recall you. You went to Florence and were a great help in restoring the flooded books. That was in 1960...
STELLA: Yeah, in 1961 I think, something like that.
JUDITH: But by that time you had become a classic bookbinder.
STELLA: There’s a blank there, I can’t remember. Why and how.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. Well, from welding … when the war was over you quit that?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: And the boys then would have been getting into high school? In the 1950s…
STELLA: Yes. Then we went to Italy for … by that time Piero had graduated from U.C. in architecture, and he went to Italy to go to the … in the … you know, I think you’d better stop. I’m very tired and I can’t remember.
JUDITH: Well, I can understand how it’s tiring.
STELLA: My mind gets very tired. So he went to Italy.
JUDITH: After he graduated?
STELLA: After he graduated. And went to an architectural school in Milano. Because Giacomo had a cousin who lived in Milano.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, Piero “studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano in 1951 and ‘52. He returned to the U.S. in 1952 and continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where graduated with a Bachelor in Architecture in 1954 or ‘55.”]
STELLA: And he lived with them. They were just working people. And they had a son about Piero’s age. So…
JUDITH: What does the middle brother Remo do? Is he an architect?
STELLA: He’s an architect. But he’s … but when he was 17 he joined the Navy. He revolted from the family. The theme of Giacomo and I was to always keep the family together, the three. But he revolted … he’s the middle boy. So he revolted and joined the Navy, so that he was away for four years. And then there was Tito. Tito was the youngest.
JUDITH: So only Tito and Piero practiced their architecture?
STELLA: Yes, but Remo was studying engineer when he joined the Navy. I don’t know when he did it. It was four years that he was in the Navy.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. That’s remarkable.
JUDITH: So here you raised three sons, they all went to higher education. You should be very proud of that. You put them all through school.
STELLA: Oh, yes. Oh, that was our one thing, that they had to have an education. That was the most important. Art, if possible, but education was the most important thing
STELLA: Because neither Giacomo nor I thought that we had a proper, really a good education. You know, basic.
JUDITH: Yeah. Well, you valued that.
STELLA: So we valued that very much.
JUDITH: It paid off.
STELLA: It was the most important thing.
JUDITH: You and Giacomo were divorced later at some point. But you continued to practice your craft in the bookbinding?
STELLA: I forget. Well, we separated. I just said one day, “I’m going to move out.” He said, “OK.” So that was it. And a couple of years later my brother said, “well, why don’t you get a divorce if you’re not going to continue with this?” So I spoke to Giacomo, and he said, “OK, I’ll pay for it.” I mean there was really no big…
STELLA: Yes. It was very amicable. I mean we were glad to separate. We were both ... he was ready.
[Transcriber’s note: according to her son Tito, regarding “Stella’s divorce from my father I would not have called it ‘amicable.’ ‘Functional’ would be a better description.”]
JUDITH: But by that time you had developed this wonderful craft, and were practicing that and making your own way with your bookbinding?
STELLA: Yes, I always liked books and always liked to fix things. Fix things…
JUDITH: [laughter] I like that.
JUDITH: Did you teach yourself or go to school? Were you trained by some famous…?
STELLA: No, no. I wasn’t trained. For a while I lived with a woman who was a widow, Peter Fahey and … how did I? Because I … wait a minute. I came back from Italy, and my Social Security was $49 a month. In Italy I could live on $49 a month, but not in San Francisco. [Transcriber’s note: the correct spelling of “Peter Fahey” is unconfirmed.]
JUDITH: Even in the 1940s or ‘50s. So you had to make some income?
[Transcriber’s note: first audiotape ends here]
JUDITH: …nice arrangement here even though I gather you … are you able to read at all with your eyes anymore?
STELLA: No, I can’t. Not even the big letters. Nothing at all. So that’s a great big mistake.
JUDITH: Oh, that’s too bad. But you have a lovely sunny garden here, and this comfortable…
STELLA: Oh, I’m comfortable. I go out. But I’d rather be in North Beach than here.
[Transcriber’s note: according to her son Tito, Stella “lived in an apartment adjacent to ours (a private entrance was an absolute) from about 1975 until the last six months, when she moved to my brother Remo’s house in Sonoma where they had no stairs, an essential by then.” Tito’s home is located in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood.]
JUDITH: Would you really?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: So you could walk up to the shops?
STELLA: This is dead, dead-end to me. It’s so hot. Everybody says, “oh, it’s so nice here.” No, dead.
JUDITH: You like the busy-ness of the street, Grant Avenue, the shops, the smell of coffee?
STELLA: And, you know, in a flat … I was living on Mason Street there, and I had a good flat. But somehow or other I fell for this bait, hook and sinker. Well, I like the garden, and I have my cats…
STELLA: …and I have my family.
JUDITH: You do, a very devoted family. Do you have grandchildren? Do Tito, do all the sons have children?
STELLA: Yes, he has a daughter, and a son.
JUDITH: What do you like about North Beach that you particularly remember?
STELLA: I like the combination of Oriental and Italian and American and all that. This is purely white. What can I say, what’s the word?
JUDITH: WASP? [laughter]
JUDITH: It’s very cosmopolitan there, isn’t it?
STELLA: Yeah, that’s it.
JUDITH: A real American democracy with a lower case “d.”
STELLA: Yes. And this is purely, you know, it’s just nothing that I’ve aspired to or wanted.
JUDITH: It’s not the way you’ve lived most of your life?
JUDITH: You must have had a lot of different kinds of friends?
JUDITH: Yes, ranging, all kinds. Artist, professionals…
STELLA: Yes, but now I do meet very nice people, but … sort of … words fail me.
JUDITH: Yes. Well, I know it’s close to your noon time, and you like…
STELLA: What time is it?
JUDITH: …to have your nap at noon.
STELLA: Yes, I can do lots of things. It’s 12 so…
JUDITH: You rise, you’re up at six in the morning?
STELLA: Mostly I just wake up. I don’t … I guess I don’t need as much sleep in one fell swoop. So that by 12 o’clock, though…
JUDITH: You’re ready for your first nap?
STELLA: Yeah. Something to eat, and then a glass of wine, then take my nap. And then I just sit in front of the television in the afternoon and watch.
JUDITH: You’re not able to do any kind of needlework or…?
STELLA: No, I wish I could knit or crochet or do something, but … and to begin with, the hands, too, are aging.
JUDITH: Well, you certainly look remarkably well. I know a lot of things aren’t working as well as you’d like…
STELLA: It’s a big mistake to live this long, to tell you the truth. I mean, when you hear young people 60 dying of cancer, this and that. I think, why, why, why? Who’s managing this?
JUDITH: Well, you leave a wonderful legacy, Mrs. Patri, you left people with …. did you teach people some of your skills? Your bookbinding skills?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Because, after the flood in Florence I worked for a year there, more. And there were a lot of Italians who had no particular skill. But Italians are good with their hands, manually, doing things. And they’re intelligent. So when the flood happened and the English came in to help … because they were closer to Italy than the Americans, you know, so the English got all their book binders in a group. So for two weeks they would send them to Italy, to Florence, to teach bookbinding and help. And then they’d go back to England, and two more would come, see. So it was a very well-organized routine, shall we say, a well-organized what?
[Transcriber’s note: Stella refers here to the 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence, which killed more than 100 people and damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books. It is considered the worst flood in the city's history since the 16th century. With the combined effort of Italian and foreign volunteers alike, many of these fine works have been restored. Stella was one of these volunteers. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
STELLA: Program, that’s the word. And so when I went to … after the flood … I was in England at the time. I was … I had the kind the work that was paid once a year in repairing books for different universities or anything. And so when you have $1,000 all at one chunk you’re not just going to put it in your checking account. You’re going to do something with it. So that every time I did, I went off to Italy.
JUDITH: You loved Italy?
STELLA: Yeah. I loved the country and everything about it. And so it happened that I was on my way there and I had met this woman through a friend in San Francisco. A Scottish lady who lived in London. In East Common … do you know England at all?
JUDITH: Yes, I do.
STELLA: She lived in East Common. She had a house. She had been a bookbinder when she was younger, and she was very clever. And so I lived with her, had a room there for six months. And Piero was on his way to Europe somewhere on a grant to investigate, to see what the other countries in Europe were doing towards conservation of the atmosphere and the earth. So we met in London, and we were having breakfast and we read in the paper about the flood in Florence. And I said, “I have to go there.” And Piero said, “of course you do.” So off I went.
[Transcriber’s note: according to Stella’s son Tito, “Regarding the decision to go to Florence after the floods in 1966 I was the one who had a travel grant to study European land conservation and planning. I stopped in London for a few days on my way to Holland and stayed with my mother. She had met only with ‘red tape’ inquiring with the U.S. and Italian state departments about how to help save the books. So I told her, ‘Just go. They will not turn you away with your experience and skills.’ That is the way she got started in Florence. It must have been 1967 by then.”]
So what do you do. I thought I can’t write to the Italian, they’re too excitable, or telephone them, you know. So what I did, I called up the British and they said, “yes, of course.” They understood I wanted to go. And they gave me directions on what to do. So I had a per diem, you know, just for basics, for a room and meals, to go and help the books, rescue the books in Florence.
JUDITH: That must have been both a learning and teaching experience.
STELLA: Oh, yes. So, it was wonderful because there were a lot of unemployed young people in Italy, as always, you know. And here was an opportunity to teach them something. So I was able to do that.
JUDITH: Men and women? Boys and girls?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Young men and women. People who needed jobs.
JUDITH: So you taught them a new craft?
STELLA: Yes. And the Italians on the whole are very clever with their hands, manually, you know, to do things. It wasn’t a very hard job to do.
JUDITH: They were happy to learn from you and quickly?
STELLA: Yeah. And the British built the most elaborate working space in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. First the wood … and then the architecture and everything. So first I was put there to help direct what they were doing, reassuring them, helping them. Because I could speak a little Italian, see.
STELLA: So I could communicate, more or less. My Italian wasn’t perfect. [Transcriber’s note: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (National Central Library of Florence) is a public national library in Florence, the largest in Italy and one of the most important in Europe.]
JUDITH: You also speak French and Italian a little bit?
STELLA: Yes, so that I was able to … between the three languages, and with your hands, you are able to show them what to do.
JUDITH: Were you honored for that I believe? Didn’t you receive an award, some honors?
STELLA: I forget, something like that. When I left, yes. But you know, people were doing so many things to help the Italians. It was nothing great, nothing spectacular.
JUDITH: You must be very proud of that work, you should be.
STELLA: Well, as much as the shipyards. [chuckles]
JUDITH: Well, you’ve had a very diverse life.
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: Not boring.
STELLA: No, not that boring. That’s why now it’s very boring,
JUDITH: Yeah, I can understand.
STELLA: …because I can’t read. If I could only read. I can’t even read the captions on the television, you see.
JUDITH: Can you hear them all right with your hearing aid? Can you hear the television?
STELLA: I don’t use the hearing aid with the television.
JUDITH: Oh, OK.
STELLA: I use a hearing thing, but it’s just to not annoy the neighbors.
JUDITH: Yeah, I do that, too.
STELLA: That’s all. Because I know it’s very annoying to hear a [Transcriber’s note: unintelligible word here] when you don’t know what’s going on, you hear this be-be-be-be all this time, it drives you crazy.
JUDITH: Do you remember the first time you ever saw a television?
JUDITH: You didn’t have television with the boys probably when they were growing up?
STELLA: No, we had the radio.
JUDITH: You had radio, and you all read books, probably?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Everybody read books.
JUDITH: Listened to Charlie McCarthy and Jack Benny, and…
STELLA: Oh, yes…
JUDITH: …Fibber McGee and Molly? Phil Harris?
STELLA: Oh, yes. We listened to those. Well, those were family things, you know.
JUDITH: Every Sunday night?
STELLA: Every Sunday night.
JUDITH: Amos ’n’ Andy?
STELLA: All those things.
JUDITH: We did, too.
STELLA: Yes. And at one point my mother-in-law came to stay with us in Corte Madera, and the poor lady didn’t speak English at all. And the battles … the boys wanted to hear something at five o’clock and it was the Italian hour. And, you know, there was only one radio. [laughter]
[Transcriber’s note: according Stella son Tito: “Piero and ! were introduced to the sounds of Italian, but only learned enough to converse in Italian years later. Our Italian grandmother died in 1951 in a rest home in Larkspur.]
JUDITH: So the boys have really … they’ve carried on a lot of their Italian heritage as well?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: They seem to be very proud of it.
STELLA: Piero was the only one who studied Italian and not until he was in college. They do not teach Italian in the public schools, in the grades.
JUDITH: It’s such a beautiful language.
STELLA: Yes. Just in college.
JUDITH: And so Tito and Remo don’t really speak Italian?
STELLA: No. They understand it and they, you know. And with their friends. And they’re intelligent, too. They’re like me, they have an ear for languages. That’s it, not intelligence, it’s the ear for languages. And I think if you know one Latin basic language, you get the gist of everything. Don’t you think?
JUDITH: Absolutely. And I wish they would teach Latin in schools again. They’re starting to do it a little bit.
STELLA: Are they really? They should never have stopped Latin.
JUDITH: It’s essential to understanding language and thinking, and thought processes. You studied Latin with the nuns, I’m sure?
JUDITH: Maybe Greek? Did you study Greek?
STELLA: It would have been wonderful.
JUDITH: Were you taught languages in school as well?
STELLA: Not really.
JUDITH: Well, some things are better and some are not.
JUDITH: There’s some progress and some retro...
STELLA: And at the time you don’t realize what you’re missing. If we could have the brains to realize … and of course, if it’s essential, if it becomes a matter of life or death you’re going to learn it, you know.
JUDITH: Yeah. To make a living.
STELLA: Yes, to make your living.
JUDITH: You had to earn your living all your life?
STELLA: Always learning.
JUDITH: Yes, always learning.
STELLA: Oh, god, there so many things I’d like to really know more about. I’m handicapped now.
JUDITH: What would have liked to have learned more of?
STELLA: Well, I’d like to be able to read French fluently, for one thing. And I’d like to know German, too. Because the first school I went to was a German school in San Francisco, and where you had English in the afternoon and German in the morning I guess, vice versa. St. Boniface School on Golden Gate, right off Market, isn’t it? St. Boniface church there, the Franciscan monks are there.
JUDITH: And then there was that conclave of Scandinavians up there on upper Market, where the Swedish and Norwegian churches are.
STELLA: Oh, yes, yes.
JUDITH: There were those conclaves all around the city, weren’t there?
STELLA: All around the city. Yes.
JUDITH: Was the Mission as Hispanic then or was it more Irish?
STELLA: I think it was Irish more, but now it’s Spanish, Hispanic.
JUDITH: So you remember the city that way. The Italians were in North Beach, the Sicilians were at Fisherman’s Wharf…?
JUDITH: I did want to ask you one little thing … do you remember whether with your husband, Giacomo Patri, whether he was proud of being his particular province from Italy and did not mix with other Italians?
STELLA: Oh, no.
JUDITH: People tell me there was a real, uh, parochial pride.
STELLA: Oh, I don’t think so.
JUDITH: Do you remember that?
STELLA: I think, probably Giacomo’s main urge was to learn English very well.
JUDITH: Did he learn it pretty well?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: Well, obviously, he worked at a newspaper.
STELLA: Oh, is he still alive? Giacomo? No, he’s dead.
JUDITH: But he learned English very well?
STELLA: Very well. That was his aim. And actually he could, I would say that he was better at it than I am.
JUDITH: He really studied the language?
STELLA: Yes, and I just kind of got it.
JUDITH: Well, you’re very articulate yourself, I must say.
STELLA: Much to stumble and mumble.
JUDITH: No, you don’t. Not at all.
[Transcriber’s note: there is a break in the recording here.]
JUDITH: …and your father’s full name was Amedee Nicole?
STELLA: Yes. That’s right A-M-E-D-double E.
JUDITH: And what was his work, your father again?
STELLA: Well, he was a machinist first of all.
JUDITH: He was a what?
STELLA: A machinist.
JUDITH: A machinist?
STELLA: A machinist, he could understand machines.
JUDITH: And an adventurer.
STELLA: And an adventurer, with an itching foot, you could say.
JUDITH: And his birth place was?
JUDITH: And your mother’s name was Azilda Demers…
STELLA: Demers. D-E-M-E-R-S.
JUDITH: …and she was a modiste, a seamstress and an entrepreneur?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: And she was also born in Montreal?
STELLA: Yes. Montreal.
JUDITH: And Giacomo spells J … G-I-A-C-O-M-M-O?
STELLA: Just one “M.” G-I-A-C-O-M-O.
JUDITH: Did he have a middle name. Patri?
STELLA: I really don’t know. Ask Remo. Remo’s the one who knows the most…
STELLA: …who retains it.
JUDITH: And occupation. What would you say he was? Would you call him an artist?
STELLA: Giacomo, yes, I would.
JUDITH: And we think he was born in Tuscany or Lombardy, but you gave me the small town.
STELLA: It was a small town. Arquata Scrivia. There’s a river Scrivia. You can look it up on the map. On the map it’s between Genoa and…
JUDITH: Near the river Scrivia?
STELLA: Yes, that’s it.
JUDITH: Did you travel, live, all over Italy, by the way?
STELLA: Not all over. Enough…
JUDITH: Mostly in certain, mostly in Florence and northern Italy?
STELLA: In Rome. I lived there for about six months at least. And in Florence, a year and a half, I would say.
JUDITH: Do you have a favorite place, part of Italy that you…?
STELLA: No. I wish I knew more about Italy, or had seen more of it.
JUDITH: Did you go to Venice and Ravenna and those places?
STELLA: Oh, yes, all the places where tourists go. So that’s why I wish I had lived longer and been able to travel more.
JUDITH: And you did several years of high school, but you didn’t finish high school?
STELLA: Didn’t finish it, no.
JUDITH: OK, and then you did art school?
STELLA: Uh-hum. And went to art school. And work, after being told you’re still going to school and not helping your mother.
JUDITH: It’s like the man in 1860 who owned the Octagon House, you know, at Gough and Union? [Transcriber’s note: the McElroy Octagon House, completed in 1861, is a historic octagonal house now located at 2645 Gough Street at Union Street. In 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
JUDITH: Well, he wrote a letter to posterity. His name was McElroy, he was a miller. He wrote a letter that he put in a time capsule. They found it.
STELLA: Oh, really?
JUDITH: It’s politically incorrect, he complains bitterly about the Chinese problem in 1860 here, you know. He wrote in it that he had a nephew who wanted to be an artist, and that he wouldn’t amount to anything. [laughter]. Same attitude.
STELLA: So you see.
JUDITH: So we should call you for your occupation many things. A bookbinder, an artist…
STELLA: No, I’m a restorer.
JUDITH: A restorer? OK.
STELLA: That’s important.
JUDITH: Yes, a restorer is very important. But you also worked as a welder?
STELLA: I doubt that I’d be…
JUDITH: But it’s just so exemplary of your life’s diversity. All right. Book restoring is your real craft…?
STELLA: Oh, yes.
JUDITH: …and skill?
STELLA: It’s interesting to make something old and repair it and restore it to use. Especially books. Because I think books are the most important things.
JUDITH: Were you ever active in any organizations or other avocations? Were you active in women’s groups or the labor movement, for example?
STELLA: Well, I was, emotionally. I was always for the labor groups, yes…
STELLA: …but I never joined anything. I’m not a joiner.
JUDITH: OK. So during the war you were not in a union or active? You and Giacomo weren’t involved in the waterfront strike activities?
STELLA: Oh, no. I think I remember now … when I first went to work in the shipyard, and we were three or four who had to go to a meeting. And I don’t remember, we’ll have to ask Tito what it was, but we were told, “don’t take any crap from anybody.” [laughter] We went to this at night. Here we are all dressed up to the meeting with these men … “now you belong to this group of workers and don’t take any crap from anybody.” [laughter]
JUDITH: Were you or Giacomo ever active in the Communist party here in America or any of that?
STELLA: Emotionally we were. [Transcriber’s note: cat meows here.] Stop it! … But we never … I guess I would say emotionally, we were participants emotionally, could you say?
JUDITH: Sure. Supporters?
STELLA: Supporters, that’s the one.
JUDITH: But you never joined the party?
JUDITH: Well, so many people in the intelligentsia were, and artists. Did you know any of the artists, for example, who did the Coit Tower murals? You must have known several of those?
STELLA: Oh, yes. Victor Arnautoff. Who are the other ones? I can’t remember their names.
[Transcriber’s note: Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was a Russian-American painter and professor of art. He worked in San Francisco and the Bay Area from 1925 to 1963, and was prolific as a muralist during the 1930s. In 1934 he was chosen to paint one of the murals to be done at Coit Tower in San Francisco, with funding from the Public Works of Art Project, and he was also appointed technical director of the Coit Tower murals project. He was associated with leftist artists such as Diego Garcia and Bernard Zakheim, and he joined the Communist Party. (Source: Wikipedia.)]
JUDITH: There’s a Russian name that starts with a “Z” or something?
STELLA: Vasil? No, that was one of the Arnautoff boys. Because they were about the same age as my sons, you see. And their father was Victor Arnautoff, and he was a friend of Giacomo’s. And he was a fencer, too.
STELLA: And Giacomo was a fencer and they would...
JUDITH: That’s interesting. Did you ever meet, it just occurred to me that if you met the great Mexican artist who did murals up here…
STELLA: Diego Rivera.
JUDITH: Did you ever know Diego Rivera? Did you ever meet him or his wife Frida? [Transcriber’s note: Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. She married fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera.]
STELLA: No. Because by that time, when they were here, I think, I was in Corte Madera with the boys and…
JUDITH: So you didn’t…?
STELLA: …associate with them or anything? No.
JUDITH: And Giacomo wasn’t … he was employed at the newspaper during the war? He wasn’t involved in the WPA projects, nor you?
STELLA: No. This is it, so that he didn’t have a job from the WPA.
JUDITH: Well, that’s great.
[Transcriber’s note: there is a break in the recording here.]
STELLA: Do you know that by November I’ll be 100 years old? Isn’t that amazing?
JUDITH: It is absolutely.
STELLA: It is. I think, “God, how did I get here? [laughter] This far?”
JUDITH: Really, well you still…
STELLA: And I think, I had nothing to do with it. It’s genes. That’s what it is. What’s my background. Good farming people from Canada, eastern Canada. That’s what it is.
JUDITH: Do you know if you had any long-lived ancestors who … did you ever hear how long your mother lived? Father?
STELLA: No. I tried to, from Montreal, Canada, look up about the family name. Except that in the 17th century somebody by the name of Nicole, two brothers, came from France. So that isn’t much, is it? I suppose if you lived right there … it was very interesting to go to these places because, these rooms with drawers and drawers of these 3 x 5 cards, you know.
JUDITH: Genealogical information.
STELLA: But I couldn’t see myself, you know. So I had to have somebody else search it. It wasn’t important enough. [laughter] If there was a fortune maybe at the end.
JUDITH: Do you know where in France your family came from?
STELLA: I think it was from Dijon.
JUDITH: Where is that? Dijon, the mustard capital?
STELLA: I really don’t … I think I have some information somewhere in a box labeled Canada. I might look at it someday. Well, I can’t.
[Transcriber’s note: according to her son Tito, “regarding Stella’s ancestors, there were two DeMers brothers who sailed to Quebec from Dieppe (not Lyon) on the west coast of France in 1644. They married and had children. And since there were few, if any, French women in the Quebec region at the time, family lore has it they must have raised families with native (“Indian”) women. I’ve always felt that this may have been one source of Stella’s streak of independence and silent, often stubborn determination to ‘get the job done.’”]
JUDITH: Get somebody to read it.
STELLA: I have a girl who comes three mornings a week, and we go shopping. She writes checks for me, and I sign them. She reads my letters for me. You know, she does all that, very nice. And I might get some of these out and look at them, and then show it to you when you come. I’ll get my box that says Canada.
JUDITH: OK. Do you have any pictures of any awards here you could show me, or any examples of your wonderful book restoration that you could point me to?
STELLA: No, the thing is when you restore a book it’s not your book.
JUDITH: They go back to wherever they came?
STELLA: Wherever they came from.
JUDITH: Museums, libraries, private libraries?
STELLA: It was always museums or libraries.
JUDITH: Can you recall some famous very ancient books that you worked on? You worked on some of the earliest books like 15th century?
STELLA: You’d have to go to the library, the research library in U.C. I used to know the librarian there. Now I don’t, you see. So she might be able to answer. She’s retired, as usual. They retire you a little earlier sometimes there at U.C. They help you along.
[END OF INTERVIEW]