In 1941 Mrs. Alice Hansbrough gave these valuable reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda in a series of informal interviews with Swami Ashokananda in San Francisco. They were recorded by Mr A T Clifton (later Swami Chidrupananda), who was present at the interviews. Marie Louise Burke used portions of these reminiscences in her work Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries. Swami Chetanananda and a group of Vedanta students have revised and reorganized the original manuscript of reminiscences for publication. It has been made available for publication by courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.
One bright Sunday morning in March 1941, Swami Ashokananda invited Mrs. Alice M Hansbrough to drive home with him from his lecture at the Century Club in San Francisco. On the way, driving by a roundabout route over San Francisco’s many hills to enjoy a sun made welcome by weeks of rain, the swami asked Mrs. Hansbrough if she could not give an account of her contacts with Swami Vivekananda during his visit to California in the winter of 1899 and 1900. Mrs. Hansbrough had met Swamiji in Los Angeles a few days after his arrival there, and from the day of the meeting, had become a faithful follower. She served him devotedly during his stay in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and during her intimate contacts with him had many glimpses of Swamiji’s spiritual greatness and of his human qualities as well.
Mrs. Hansbrough readily agreed to give whatever recollections Swami Ashokananda desired. The swami evidently had already given considerable thought to the proposal, and ways and means were discussed. It was arranged that he should go to Mrs. Hansbrough’s home and that, through questions, he would suggest to her a direction of conversation.
Monday Evening, March 3, 1941
Swami Ashokananda arrived at Mrs. Hansbrough’s home a little after eight o’clock in the evening. She was living with her daughter, Mrs. Paul Cohn, at 451 Avila Street, near the broad Marina parkway on San Francisco Bay. As the swami walked to the door of the handsome Spanish-style residence, he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Hansbrough reading beside the fire in the living room. In a moment she had greeted the swami at the door and escorted him to a seat before the fire.
The door to the spacious, high-ceilinged living room was across one corner; and across the corner to the right was the broad hearth of the fireplace, with a couch at right angles on the right, and comfortable chairs opposite. Another couch stood against the wall beyond, and in the far corner was a handsome old grand piano. The swami chose a chair, and Mrs. Hansbrough sat on one couch in the light of a small table lamp.
Mrs. Hansbrough was now well on in years [75 years old], but still was blessed with a keen intelligence and a ready humour, which must surely have endeared her to Swamiji. She was slight and below medium height, dignified and unvaryingly good natured in her manner, and possessed of a natural peacefulness which communicated itself to others. Her memory was clear and her conversation therefore filled with interesting details.
After inquiring about Mrs. Hansbrough’s daughter, Swami Ashokananda said: ‘Let us begin with your first acquaintance with Swamiji’s work. How did you first hear about him?’
‘I first learned of Swamiji in the spring of 1897 at a lecture in San Francisco about three years before he came to California,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘Two friends and I went to hear a Mrs. Annie Rix Militz speak on some metaphysical subject, and in the course of her talk she brought out some points from Swamiji’s Raja Yoga and also quoted from the book. I was leaving not long after for Alaska, and my friends asked me what I would like for a steamer present. Raja Yoga was my answer. At the Emporium where they went to get it, the clerk inquired if it was for someone interested in such subjects. When they said it was, he recommended that they also get Swamiji’s Karma Yoga, as the two were, as he said, “parts of a set”. So I left for Alaska armed with the two books.
‘Our ship was a steam schooner. The captain was not familiar with the course and we went far out of our way on the voyage. The result was four weeks en route, during which time I read from my books. I started with Karma Yoga, but found it a bit too high in thought for me, so put it aside and read Raja Yoga first. Then when I had finished it, I went back to Karma Yoga and read that. During the two years I was in Alaska I read both books over again many times.
‘I remember that I used to read for a while, and the thought would come to me, “What marvellous thoughts these are!” I would hold the place with my finger, close the book and shut my eyes and think, “What a wonderful man he must be who wrote these words!” And I would try to form a picture in my mind of what he looked like.
‘I met a man in Alaska who was interested in Theosophy. We used to talk about Swamiji’s books and he looked through them; but he did not find anything interesting in them because he felt they were not Theosophy.’
‘And after you returned from Alaska,’ Swami Ashokananda asked, ‘did you go to Los Angeles?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘I came through San Francisco on the way, and arrived in Los Angeles on November 23, 1899. Swamiji had been in Los Angeles only a few days, I later learned.’ [Swamiji arrived on December 3, 1899.]
‘How did you first happen to meet him?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Well, perhaps you would like to hear first what circumstances brought him to the West Coast,’ Mrs. Hansbrough suggested. ‘The brother of Miss Josephine MacLeod at whose home Swamiji had been staying in New York, had been ill in Arizona with tuberculosis for some time. By the time November came, Mr MacLeod was not expected to live; and the wife of his business partner, a Mr Blodgett, wired Miss MacLeod to come west to see him, which she did. The brother died on November 2, 1899, however, and Miss MacLeod stayed on in Los Angeles, at Mrs. Blodgett’s house at 921 West 21st Street, where Swamiji later came.’
‘Can you get a photograph of the house?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘I might be able to,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘Well, when Miss MacLeod first entered her brother’s bedroom at Mrs. Blodgett’s house, the first thing she saw was a full-page newspaper picture of Swamiji — you know that one that you have in your office in the Berkeley Temple, where he stands partly turned to the left-which Mrs. Blodgett had taken from a Chicago paper and had framed. It hung above her brother’s bed.
‘”Where did you get that?” Miss MacLeod exclaimed. Mrs. Blodgett told her she had heard Swami Vivekananda speak in Chicago and had cut the picture out of one of the papers at the time. “Well, Swami Vivekananda is our guest now in New York!” Miss MacLeod said.’
Swami Ashokananda then asked, ‘Mrs. Blodgett had some healing power, didn’t she?’
‘I never heard of it,’ Mrs. Hansbrough answered.
‘Miss MacLeod said so some years ago at Mayavati,’ the swami remarked. ‘She said this was the reason it was suggested that Swamiji come to Los Angeles, as he had been unwell for a long time.’ [Miss MacLeod took Swamiji to a healer named Mrs. Melton.]
Mrs. Hansbrough said she remembered that Mrs. Leggett had come to Los Angeles for some such reason, and Swami Ashokananda was surprised to learn that Mrs. Leggett had come west at all. After some discussion on this point, the conversation turned to Mrs. Hansbrough’s first hearing a lecture by Swami Vivekananda.
‘It was on December 8, 1899,’ she said. ‘My sister Helen came home that evening and said: “Who do you think is going to speak in Los Angeles tonight? Swami Vivekananda!” All during the two years I had been reading his books in Alaska I had never expected to see him. Well, we rushed through dinner, made up a party, and went in. The lecture was at eight o’clock. Blanchard Hall was on Broadway between Eighth and Hill Streets. The audience was between six and eight hundred people, and everyone was enchanted with Swamiji. This was his first lecture in California and the subject was “The Vedanta Philosophy”.
‘He was introduced by a Professor Baumgardt, who had arranged for the hall and the lecture. Professor Baumgardt was connected with one of the Los Angeles newspapers in some business capacity. He was an astronomer. He had met Swamiji through the Academy of Sciences, which was a group of prominent scientists and scholars who had gathered together and called themselves by that name. Mrs. Blodgett, with whom Swamiji was staying at the time, had introduced both Swamiji and Miss MacLeod to these men, and it was through these introductions that this first lecture came about. She also introduced him to a wealthy family called the Stimsons, with whom Swamiji later stayed for a week or so, but I don’t think he enjoyed his visit with them.
‘Professor Baumgardt had asked Swamiji to give the same lecture he had given at the Brooklyn Institute on the Vedanta Philosophy. When the lecture was over, the professor complained that it was not the same lecture at all; and Swamiji told him that it was impossible for him ever to give the same lecture twice: that he could talk on the same subject, but it would not be the same.’
‘How was Swamiji dressed?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘He wore a yellow robe and turban.’
‘Well, a light orange, a little lighter than the robe you use,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied.
‘And how did he look?’
‘His complexion was lighter than all the swamis here today, except Swami Devatmananda,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘His hair was black — very black — with not one grey hair. A lady once asked him later on if Hindus’ hair ever turned grey!’
‘How did he impress you?’ Swami Ashokananda then asked.
‘I got the same impression I had previously had of him; that is, he was a most impressive personality. You know, you have told me that it is not possible to get an impression of a personality from the individual’s writings; but I felt that I had sensed Swamiji’s personality from his books, and the impression was verified when I heard him speak.
‘His voice I should say was baritone — certainly nearer to bass than tenor; and it was the most musical voice I have ever heard. At the end of the lecture he closed with that chant, “I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute.” Everyone was enchanted with his talk.
‘Whenever he quoted from Sanskrit he would chant the quotation —’
‘He would actually chant?’ Swami Ashokananda interrupted to ask.
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘He would chant in Sanskrit and then translate. Once later on he apologized for quoting in Sanskrit, and explained that he still thought in that language and then had to translate his thoughts into English.
‘When it was over, the rest of our party went up on the platform where a number of people had collected to speak to Swamiji. I sought out Professor Baumgardt, however, to find out when and where Swamiji was going to lecture again. When I asked him he inquired, “Are you interested in the swami’s teachings?” I told him I had been studying them for two years, and he said, “Well, I will introduce you to the swami’s hostess.” He introduced me to Miss MacLeod, who, when I told her I had been studying Swamiji’s works for so long, asked if I wouldn’t like to go to call on him. Of course I said I would be delighted, and so it was arranged. It was not until after his second lecture, however, that we did meet him.’
‘And what and where was his second lecture?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘His second lecture [on December 12] was also arranged by the Academy of Sciences,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘But this one was held in the Congregational Church and was free, whereas tickets had been required for the first one. The subject was, “The Building of the Cosmos”, and it was equally as enchanting as the first one. I still have a copy of it, and often read it.’
‘You have a copy of that lecture!’ Swami Ashokananda exclaimed. ‘Are you sure?’
Mrs. Hansbrough assured the swami that she was. Here the talk turned for the moment to Mrs. Hansbrough’s collection of notes, early copies of the Brahmavadin and Prabuddha Bharata, and notes belonging to Dr. M. Logan on the founding of the San Francisco Vedanta Society. Then Mrs. Hansbrough spoke again of the work in Southern California.
‘Did you know that a Vedanta Society was actually established in Pasadena?’ she asked. ‘It was suggested to Swamiji that he visit Pasadena, which he did. There he met a Mrs. Emeline Bowler, a wealthy woman who was president of the Shakespeare Club, and with whom Swamiji later spent a few days. During this visit, however, he wrote me that he was not happy there, and asked me to go and get him.’
Swami Ashokananda laughed at this.
‘Why do you laugh?’ Mrs. Hansbrough asked him.
‘Well, it is amusing that Swamiji had to ask you to go and get him,’ the swami replied.
‘He always did that,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘Invariably he either phoned or wrote me whenever he wanted to leave any place. For instance, later in San Francisco he was the guest of some physician, and had expected to stay for some time. But the very day he went to the doctor’s home he either phoned or wrote me-I forget now, which he did-to come for him. When I arrived, his hostess came in, introduced herself, and then withdrew again. Then Swamiji explained: “The trouble is, she is not a lady: she doesn’t know what to do with me!”
‘But to return to Pasadena,’ Mrs. Hansbrough continued. ‘It was in the rooms of the Shakespeare Club that the Pasadena Society was formed. I had suggested it, but Swamiji had no interest in organizing. “It won’t last,” he said-and he said the same about the San Francisco Society later. Nevertheless, we went ahead with the project. He was present at the organization meeting, but as I say, he was not interested in the proceedings. I had drawn up a set of proposed by-laws, in which a proposal was included that each member pledge to contribute to the Society for a period of ten years. Mrs. Bowler objected to this, on the grounds that a member might die during the ten years. I said that would be all right: the deceased member would then be excused from further contributions. This amused Swamiji greatly.
‘Mrs. Bowler was perhaps overly interested in the financial affairs of Swamiji’s lectures. Later, when I had begun to help Swamiji with arrangements for hall rentals, placing the newspaper advertisements, and so on, she once asked me, “How much are you getting for this?” I told her the truth: “The privilege of paying for the halls. And we are not wealthy people, Mrs. Bowler.”‘
* * *
I might mention here, speaking of the organization of the Pasadena centre, that it was I who suggested the founding of the San Francisco centre also. We held two meetings for the purpose, as the details were not completed at the first meeting. At this first meeting, I suggested to Swamiji that he leave before the meeting opened. He asked me why, and I told him that it was because I wanted to say some things about him that I would rather he did not hear. So he agreed, and went home with X. It was not that his staying would have made any difference to Swamiji; my reason for asking this was that I myself would have been embarrassed to speak as I wanted to about him in his presence. I then told the group about the arrangements which had been made in Los Angeles and Pasadena, and we proceeded with the organization here [in San Francisco].’
Here Swami Ashokananda asked about Mrs. Hansbrough’s first meeting with Swamiji.
‘It was the day following his second lecture,’ she told him. ‘As I mentioned, Miss MacLeod had arranged for us to call on him at Mrs. Blodgett’s home, and my sister Helen and I went in the morning. He was dressed to receive us in the long, knee-length coat we see in the picture where he stands with Sister Lalita [Mrs. Hansbrough’s sister, Carrie Mead Wyckoff]. He wore a kind of minister’s collar with what must have been a clerical vest; and his hair was covered by a black turban, which rolled back something like those the women wear here now. This was the dress he always wore on the street.’
‘Was Miss MacLeod present at this first meeting?’ Swami Ashokananda inquired.
‘She was there at first,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said, ‘but she went out after a few minutes. Later she told me that she always did this when visitors first called on the swami, because she felt the visitors liked it better.’
‘And how did you feel about Swamiji when you met him?’
‘I can only describe myself as enchanted by him,’ Mrs. Hansbrough answered. ‘As I mentioned, this was my feeling from his books before I ever saw him, and the feeling has stayed with me throughout my life.’
‘And what did he talk about with you at this first meeting?’
‘The conversation was only general. He was rather shy and reserved in manner, as I remember. He said he was very glad we were interested in his lectures. We asked how long he expected to stay in Los Angeles, and he replied that he did not know, but that if we cared to arrange a class, he would be glad to address the group.
‘Naturally, with such an offer, we eagerly went about getting a class together, and the first meeting was in the Blanchard Building, December 19. There were three meetings over a period of a week [December 19, 21, and 22] in this first series of classes, for which each person paid a dollar for every meeting.
‘We had three rooms in the Blanchard Building, which opened into one another. The arrangement was not very satisfactory, especially since the attendance was running between 150 and 200. So when Mr J Ransome Bransby suggested moving to a nice chapel, which he could arrange for at the Home of Truth, it was decided to follow his suggestion. Accordingly, Swamiji moved there, and gave two more series of classes.’
‘Now, tell me,’ Swami Ashokananda asked, ‘what disposition was made of the money taken in from these classes?’
‘We gave it all to Swamiji,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied.
‘Was there no printing of leaflets or anything of the sort?’
‘I don’t think so, although there may have been.’
‘Did Swamiji keep any account of the money?’
‘Never. He never knew anything about the financial details connected with the work.’
‘And was this true of San Francisco, too?’
‘Now, there I have you,’ Swami Ashokananda said with a playful smile, ‘for I have documentary proof that he did. When I was in India in 1934 and 1935, I was allowed to go through all the papers in his room, and among his things I found a notebook in which there were accounts, in Swamiji’s own handwriting, of income and expenditures in connection with his lectures and classes.’
‘Oh yes, afterward Swamiji may have made such records,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘But if he did, they were made from statements I gave him, for he never paid any attention to the money at the time.’
‘Do you remember the topics of the classes, or the name of any book he used?’ the swami asked.
‘No,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied, ‘but the classes were all taken down in shorthand, and some were later printed inPrabuddha Bharata. Sister Nivedita sent for them. In all, she got some forty lectures and class notes of Swamiji’s work. At first we had Mr Bagley, the nephew of Mrs. John J. Bagley with whom Swamiji had stayed in Detroit in 1894, to take the notes. I remember that he said Swamiji was “very hard to follow”. Later we had Miss McClary, who followed Swamiji everywhere.
‘This same Miss McClary on another occasion asked Swamiji if it were true that Hindu mothers threw their babies into the Ganges because they did not want them. He answered, “Yes, Madam, but I was one who escaped.” After a moment he added, “Nowadays all the babies are born of men.” Miss McClary then realized her own stupidity and hid herself behind her chair. Swamiji said, “I don’t blame you. I would, too, if I had asked such a question!”
Swami Ashokananda asked if there was anyone still living who had copies of all these notes, but Mrs. Hansbrough could think of no one. She said that one copy of each had been sent to Sister Nivedita and a copy to each of the magazines in India.
The Swami then asked about Mrs. Hansbrough’s close contacts with Swamiji after the lectures and classes had begun.
‘In connection with the work, I always saw him before and after the lectures and classes.
‘During questions after one of the classes, Mr. Bransby asked Swamiji what difference there was between a cabbage and a man, if all things are one. Swamiji could be sharp on occasion. His answer was: “Stick a knife into your leg and you will see the line of demarcation.”
‘On another occasion, a woman asked who supported all the monks in India. “The women, Madam,” Swamiji replied, “the same as in your country!”‘
‘And when was it that you asked him to visit you?’
‘I think it was at Mrs. Blodgett’s home, once when Helen and I were there together.’ Mrs. Hansbrough smiled. ‘Sometime before — as a matter of fact, before we had even met Swamiji, though it was after his second lecture-I one day said to my sisters, “Do you know, I think Swami Vivekananda wants to come to visit us.” My sisters thought I was crazy. However, I defended my thought by pointing out that the swami was not well and that he might find our home restful. We were then living [at 309 Monterey Road] in Lincoln Park, which is now called South Pasadena, in a rented house. The property and the house are still standing, and the room still intact in which Swamiji slept (for he did come later to stay with us).’
‘Of course we know that Swamiji was not well, but how did he look at that time?’ Swami Ashokananda asked. ‘Did he look unwell? Would anyone know from his appearance that he was ill?’
‘Oh no,’ Mrs. Hansbrough told him. ‘He always looked bright, especially when he was particularly interested in something. Then his eyes actually sparkled.
‘When he declined my invitation to visit us, he was very gracious. I had explained that our home was very unpretentious, but that we would be very happy to have him with us. He smiled and said, “I do not need luxury”, and explained that he was comfortably situated at Mrs. Blodgett’s.
‘Later on [in late December] I asked him to come for Sunday dinner [probably on Christmas Eve]. He readily accepted, and asked me to invite Miss MacLeod also. When I asked Miss MacLeod, she wouldn’t believe Swamiji had accepted my invitation. She herself went to ask him about it, and he told her, “Yes, and you are to come too.”
‘It was about an hour’s ride on the electric train for them to reach our house. The train stopped just at the corner, and then they had only a few steps to our door.
‘I can see the picture of them now, standing at the front door, so I must have met them when they arrived. After speaking to each of us as he came in, Swamiji turned and walked into the living room. The tall windows looked out through the trees in our garden. Swamiji walked to one of them and stood for some minutes looking out, the white curtains framing him against the sunlight. Then he turned and spoke, answering again the question I had asked him at Mrs. Blodgett’s: “Yes,” he said, “I will come to visit you!”
‘Then he wanted to come right away, and he soon did. He had but one trunk, but he had many clothes, for he was always well dressed when he went out or met strangers. At home he cared little for his dress; he was most casual about it. Once while my nephew Ralph was blacking his shoes, he remarked, “You know, Ralph, this fine lady business is a nuisance!” He knew what was expected of him in public. When Mrs. Bowler had invited him to speak in Pasadena, she had specifically asked that he wear his turban.
‘”Do you have to wear the turban?” I asked him, for by that time he had given it up. “Don’t you understand?” he said. “She wants the whole show!”‘
Swami Ashokananda then asked about Mrs. Hansbrough’s closer contacts with Swamiji after the lectures and classes had begun.
‘In connection with the work, I always saw him before and after the lectures and classes. I remember one evening when we were going home after a lecture he asked me how I had liked it. He had been very outspoken that evening in criticism of the West, and I said that I had enjoyed the lecture but feared that he sometimes antagonized his audience. He smiled as if that meant nothing to him. “Madam,” he said, “I have cleared whole halls in New York!”
‘I think the finest gesture I ever saw him make,’ Mrs. Hansbrough went on, ‘was in connection with a rumour of scandal which arose about him while he was in Los Angeles. Professor and Mrs. Baumgardt came to see Swamiji one morning and the subject came up in conversation. They had heard of it but thought nothing of it. We were all seated in the dining room except Swamiji, who was walking slowly up and down the room. Finally he said, “Well, what I am is written on my brow. If you can read it, you are blessed. If you cannot, the loss is yours, not mine.”‘
The conversation then turned once more to Swami Vivekananda’s lectures, and Swami Ashokananda asked where Swamiji gave ‘Christ the Messenger’.
‘It was at Payne’s Hall,’ Mrs. Hansbrough told him. ‘We had moved from the chapel in the Home of Truth, because Swamiji did not feel free to speak critically of metaphysical ideas from their platform. The original title of that lecture, you know, was ‘The Message of Christ to the World’; it was changed after it was sent to India.
‘Swamiji was introduced by a Dr. John Smith, a physician who greatly admired Swamiji. The lecture drew a tremendous crowd: more than a hundred people were turned away. The Mr Blanchard for whom the hall where Swamiji gave his first lecture was named, was present at this one, and the size of the audience was not lost on him.*When Swamiji had finished, Mr Blanchard came up to me on the platform, where Swamiji was talking to some people. ‘I would like to make some money out of this man-for him as well as for myself,’ he said. ‘Could I announce to the audience now that he will speak next Sunday at Blanchard Hall?’ I told him I could not give him such permission. He then went to Miss MacLeod, who did give him permission. So while Swamiji was still there, Mr. Blanchard announced from the platform that Swami Vivekananda would speak the following Sunday at Blanchard Hall, and that the admission would be ten cents. Mind you, there had been no admission charge at this lecture.
‘When Swamiji heard this announcement, he turned and asked who gave the man permission to make it. Somehow Miss MacLeod crawled out of it, and Swamiji turned on me. He was thoroughly annoyed and looked quite angry. He said the man should not have been allowed to make such an announcement. And he could not be persuaded to give the lecture at Blanchard Hall. He pointed out that he had had no end of trouble trying to get rid of people who wanted to make money out of him. We learned later that [on the following Sunday] more than one hundred people went to Blanchard Hall nevertheless, and waited on the steps.
‘This episode almost broke up the lecture series, but it was after this that he lectured at the Shakespeare Club in Pasadena. After one of the lectures at the Shakespeare Club I said to the swami, “Swamiji, I think you would like me to go on to San Francisco.” His eyes lighted up as they always did when he was particularly interested in something and he answered, “Yes, of course I would.”
‘My sisters, Helen and Carrie, did not think much of the idea and discouraged it from the beginning. They did not feel that I was a “big” enough person to do what was necessary. They also felt that I was not “socially inclined” enough, and they never did think I was very bright.’ Mrs. Hansbrough’s eyes twinkled. ‘At any rate, Swamiji brought the matter up again himself one morning after breakfast, when he and I were sitting alone at the table. “Well, when are you going to San Francisco?” he asked.
‘I was taken a little by surprise, as I had more or less abandoned the thought. “Why, I could go, if you wanted me to,” I answered. He seemed to have sensed that I had been discouraged from the plan by my sisters’ opposition. “When once you consider an action,” he said, “do not let anything dissuade you. Consult your heart, not others, and then follow its dictates.”
‘Not long afterward a letter came from Dr B Fay Mills of the Unitarian Church in Oakland, inviting Swamiji to go there. So I said to Swamiji, “Well, I needn’t go now.” However, Swamiji wanted to give his first lecture independently, and was unwilling to start any San Francisco work with a lecture at the Unitarian Church. “We will support our own work,” he said. “I am willing to trust an American woman. I will trust an American man sometimes. But an American minister-never!” He gave his first lecture in San Francisco on February 23 at Golden Gate Hall, on “The Ideal of a Universal Religion”.
‘Speaking of San Francisco reminds me of a remark he made to me one evening after one of his lectures here. Several of us were walking home with him. I was in front with someone, and he behind with some others. Apropos of something he had been discussing, he said, “You have heard that Christ said, ‘My words are spirit and they are life’.” He pointed his finger at me and declared, “So are my words spirit and life; and they will burn their way into your brain and you will never get away from them.”‘
It was now late in the evening. The talk turned to Swamiji’s actual coming to San Francisco, so it was decided to continue the discussion on another evening. Swami Ashokananda said goodnight to Mrs. Hansbrough and returned to the Temple.
Sunday, March 23, 1941
Sunday, March 23 was bright and cloudless, with a spring-like breeze that tempered the warm sun. After his morning lecture in the Century Club Building, Swami Ashokananda invited Mrs. Hansbrough to drive home with him. On the way, the swami asked Mrs. Hansbrough for further details regarding Swami Vivekananda’s stay in Los Angeles. After driving to the ocean beach and then through Golden Gate Park, the swami ordered the car to be parked overlooking the waters of Lake Merced.
‘Tell me now,’ Swami Ashokananda began, ‘how long Swamiji stayed at your home in Los Angeles.’
‘It must have been all of four weeks,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘He came in late January 1900 and it was on February 21 when he left to come to San Francisco.’
‘Did he ever express any opinion about Los Angeles?’
‘Yes, he said, “It has an atmosphere like India: it is restful.”‘
‘And did you have many conversations with him while he was in your home?’ the swami asked.
‘Oh yes. Usually they were in the evening. Every night we would sit after dinner was over, and he would talk on many subjects: philosophy, science, our national development —’
‘You mean development of the United States?’ the swami put in.
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Hansbrough answered. ‘He was very much interested in all phases of our national life. But he did not like to see the great concentration on material affairs. Swamiji said that our civilization would fall within fifty years if we did not spiritualize it.’
‘He did say that?’ the swami asked. ‘Did he ever say that from the platform, or only in private conversation?’
‘Oh, only in private conversation. He said we were deifying material values, and that we could never build anything lasting on such a basis.’
‘How long would these conversations last in the evening? About what time would Swamiji retire?’
‘He would talk as long as we wanted him to,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said, ‘though actually it was never later than around ten or eleven o’clock.’
‘And did he have a room to himself in your house?’
‘I have a picture of your house here,’ Swami Ashokananda said. ‘Can you point out his room to me in the picture?’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Hansbrough, examining the photo. ‘This shows only the front of the house, and his room was in the back, on the second floor. We all moved to bedrooms in the front of the second floor of the house so that Swamiji could be alone.’
‘Well, now, let us see how he spent his day,’ the swami said. ‘At what time would he come down from his room? What time would he take breakfast?’
‘He usually came down about seven o’clock. There was a bathroom on the second floor where his room was, and I presume he would bathe in the morning, but he didn’t comb his hair.’
‘He didn’t!’ Swami Ashokananda exclaimed.
Mrs. Hansbrough smiled. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Though he was very careful about his dress when he went out, he was very careless about it at home. I remember that he himself remarked about it one Sunday morning: “Why should I be careful of my dress at home? I don’t want to get married!” You see, where we think there is a “proper” dress for the dining room, just as for other times and places, he put all this down as show.
‘This reminds me of Frank Alexander’s writings about Swamiji. You know, he tried to paint Swamiji as a great man in every little detail. My inclination has always been to do just the opposite: that is, to remember him as the real human being he was — to take off any paint of artificiality others tried to apply to him. For he was so great in himself that no paint was ever needed to make him so.
‘As I say, he would come down about seven in the morning, in his bathrobe and slippers and his long black hair not yet combed. He would have some kind of undergarment under his robe, which showed a bit at the neck. I remember that his robe had seen many winters. It was a black and white tweed of some kind, probably with a herringbone pattern in it, and with a cord around the waist.’
‘You said his hair was black, as we know. How did he wear it at this time? Was it long?’ Swami Ashokananda queried.
‘Yes, when Swamiji first came to Los Angeles, his hair had grown long, and it was beautifully wavy. In fact it was so beautiful, and it set off his features so well, that we would not let him cut it again.’
‘So you were responsible for the long hair!’ Swami Ashokananda exclaimed, half jokingly. ‘And you liked it because it was beautiful!’
Mrs. Hansbrough smiled assent. ‘Swamiji himself did not object. In fact he appreciated the value that its beauty lent to his appearance. He actually remarked once when we were discussing it, “Beauty has its value.” He was wholly devoid of self-consciousness.’
‘Now, you were saying that he would come downstairs in the morning at about seven o’clock. What time would you have breakfast?’
‘Breakfast would be at about seven thirty, in order to accommodate Helen, who was working, and Ralph, who had to get to school. Swamiji would pass the half hour walking outside.’
‘In his bathrobe?’
‘Yes. You see, at that time that part of town was not very closely built up. There were no houses across the street and the neighbours on either side were separated from our house by trees and shrubs. Swamiji would walk in the garden behind the house, or along the driveway at one side, and no one could see him there.’
‘And what would he usually take for breakfast?’
‘He always had fruit, usually an orange or grapefruit, and he liked poached eggs. He would have toast, and coffee usually.’
‘Did he like his coffee with cream?’
‘Yes, he took cream and I think he took sugar also.’
‘And how big a breakfast would he eat?’
‘Swamiji was a moderate eater. Usually he took two eggs, two pieces of toast, and two cups of coffee. Once I offered him a third cup of coffee. At first he declined, but when I urged him he finally yielded and said: “All right. Woman’s business is to tempt man.”
‘Breakfast would usually last about an hour, for we never hurried. Ralph had to be at school at eight eight-thirty, and Helen would leave for work, but the rest of us were not occupied. After breakfast Swamiji would stroll in the garden again or browse through the library. Often he would play with the children in the yard. Dorothy [Hansbrough, who was four years old] had several friends who would come, and Swamiji would hold hands with them and play ring-around-the-rosy and other games. He used to like to talk with them, and would ask them many questions about their activities, why they played this game or that, and so on.
‘He was much interested in the problem of child training, and we often talked of it. He did not believe in punishment. It had never helped him, he said. “And I would never do anything to make a child afraid,” he declared.’
‘Well now, would Swamiji have any classes or meetings in the morning?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Yes, he was having both morning lectures and classes in Los Angeles and Pasadena while he was with us,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘They would start usually at ten-thirty or eleven, and we would leave the house at about ten.’
‘What would Swamiji wear to the meetings?
Would he wear his robe?’
‘No, he wore the black garment we see in several the pictures of him, something like a clerical frock, but looser. Sometimes if it was not too warm would wear his overcoat over this. He would take his gerua robe and turban in a suitcase, and put them on when he arrived at the meeting place.’
‘Do you remember any incidents in connection with any of these meetings?’ the swami asked.
‘I remember that on one occasion when Swamiji was going to speak at the Green Hotel, Professor Baumgardt was talking with some other gentlemen on the platform before the lecture began. One of them asked him, regarding Swamiji, “He is a Christianized Hindu, I suppose?” And Professor Baumgardt replied, “No, he is an unconverted Hindu. You will hear about Hinduism from a real Hindu.”
‘On another occasion, Swamiji was speaking in some church. I do not remember now why, but he did not have a previously announced subject on that occasion. So when he came on the platform he asked the audience what they would like to have him speak on. I noticed several women and a man conferring together, and the man finally stood up and asked if Swamiji would speak on Hindu women. So Swamiji took this as his subject, and spoke principally about Sita and one other woman (was it Mirabai?).’
‘Yes, I know of that lecture,’ Swami Ashokananda said.
‘Do you know about the questions at the close of the talk?’ Mrs. Hansbrough asked.
‘Well, it was clear afterward that the group who had asked for this subject had done so in an attempt to trap Swamiji into saying something that would discredit him. We learned later that they belonged to some group who had missionaries in India. The questions they asked were along the line always taken by those trying to discredit India: the claim of abuse of Indian women, child marriages, early motherhood, and so on.
‘Swamiji answered several of the questions directly; then when he saw the direction the questioner was taking, he said that the relationship between the husband and wife in India, where the basis of marriage was not physical enjoyment, was so entirely different from that of a married couple in the West that he did not think Western people could understand it. As the questioner continued to press him, Swamiji really became angry. It was the only time I ever saw him angry on the platform. At one point, to emphasize a statement, he hit his knuckles on the table so hard that I really feared he would break the skin. “No, Madam,” he burst out, “that relationship in which children creep into life amidst lust, at night and in darkness, does not exist in India!”
‘Finally, the woman openly called him a liar. Madam,” Swamiji replied, “you evidently know more about India than I do. I am leaving the platform; please take it yourself!” He was thoroughly aroused. We had already gotten up, for we feared anything might happen now, and our only thought was to see him safely out of the building and home. He started up the middle aisle, but the woman with her friends blocked him and tried to continue her argument. Again he told her to take the platform herself. At last we got through, but as I passed her the woman turned on me and exclaimed: “You little fool! Don’t you know he hates you?” I said no, I hadn’t found that out yet. One woman in particular set out to corner him. She started talking about how the English were trying to reform India, and Swamiji simply said: “Madam, I am a monk. What do I know about politics?”
‘Swamiji spoke more than once of the indignities to which he had been subjected in the West. It was because of the constant possibility of some unpleasant occurrence that he always preferred to have a woman escort. He said that people would respect the woman where they would not respect him. Once in San Francisco, when I was taking him somewhere into a rather rough part of the city on some call which escapes my memory now, some rowdies made some slighting remarks about him which he overheard. He said nothing, but after we had gone he remarked, “If you had not been along, they would have thrown things at me.”
‘He mentioned that well-known incident in Chicago when a man came up and pulled his robe and asked him why he wore his nightgown in public. He was deeply offended by such rudeness on the part of the American public. “A man could walk the length of India (in any costume) and such a thing would not happen to him,” he said.
‘He also spoke of the missionaries and their activities. He once said of Mr Leggett, “When I exposed the missionaries, he stopped giving his ten thousand dollars a year to them — but he did not then give it to me!”‘
‘Well, now let us pick up the routine of his day again,’ Swami Ashokananda said. ‘What would he do in the morning when he did not have any lecture or class?’
‘It seems as if there was always something going on,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘This was always true on Sunday mornings. But during the week, if he did not have a formal meeting somewhere, we would often go for a picnic lunch to the top of a hill about four city blocks’ distance from our house.
‘The weather was especially pleasant that winter; in fact they said it was the pleasantest winter in five years. You have seen that photo of Swamiji in a picnic group; that was taken on top of that hill. We would make up a party of people who were attending his meetings more or less regularly — or Swamiji would even hold some of his smaller class groups there. Naturally the talk was always on spiritual subjects.
‘I remember that on one of these picnics a young woman Christian Scientist, Lillian Davis, was arguing with him that we should teach people to be good. Swamiji smiled and waved his hand to indicate the trees and the countryside. “Why should I desire to be ‘good’?” he asked. “All this is His handiwork. Shall I apologize for His handiwork? If you want to reform John Doe, go and live with him; don’t try to reform him. If you have any of the divine fire, he will catch it.”‘
‘Was he a heavy smoker?’
‘No. He would smoke after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but never to excess.
‘Sometime before he left for San Francisco he said one day, “I always leave something wherever I go. I am going to leave this pipe when I go to San Francisco.” He left it on the mantelpiece in the living room, and we kept it there for a long time as an ornament. Then one day Mrs. Carrie Wyckoff saw it. For some time she had been suffering a good deal from some nervous ailment. For some days the pain of her illness had been almost unbearable, and this, added to her other troubles, made her feel extremely depressed. She went to the mantelpiece and picked up Swamiji’s pipe. No sooner did she have it in her hand than she heard Swamiji’s voice, saying, “Is it so hard, Madam?” For some reason she rubbed the pipe across her forehead, and instantly the suffering left her and a feeling of well-being came over her. After that we felt that the pipe should belong to her; and she still has it today.’
‘That is most interesting,’ Swami Ashokananda said. ‘Did you ever have any such experience?’
Mrs. Hansbrough was thoughtful for a moment. ‘Well, isn’t it the same kind of experience when he talks to us all the time?’ she asked.
‘Oh yes,’ the swami replied.
After a minute or two he returned to the routine of Swamiji’s day. ‘Now, what would he do after lunch? Would he go to his room for rest?’ he asked.
‘No, he very rarely went to his room after lunch. He would usually recline on the couch in the living room and read there, or talk, or do some such thing.
‘It was probably during an after-lunch conversation when he was walking up and down the living room, that Swamiji told us: “The master said he would come again in about two hundred years — and I will come with him. When a master comes,” he said, “he brings his own people.”
‘I had the feeling that by “his own people” he meant Sri Ramakrishna would bring with him a spiritual host to help him; that it would not necessarily include all the disciples who had been with him in this incarnation, but that Swamiji definitely would be one of them.
‘I always felt, however, that whereas the rest of us were going up in our successive incarnations, Swamiji had come down to meet us on our level.
‘Miss MacLeod said that she brought him West for his health”, but he never complained of it while he was with us.’
‘He was never sick or tired or any such thing?’
‘No, he never missed a meal or showed in any other way at that time that he was unwell.’
‘Was he at all susceptible to heat or cold?’
‘Cold did not bother him, but he was sensitive to heat. We always had a fire in the grate after dinner in the evening, and once when it had gone out, he exclaimed, “Praise the Lord, that fire’s out!”
‘Did you ever have guests for meals?’
‘Yes, often there would be luncheon guests. We would go to class or lecture in the morning, and Swamiji would ask some to come for lunch afterward. Mrs. Leggett and Miss MacLeod especially were frequent luncheon guests. Miss MacLeod was also a house guest for a few days. She asked Helen one day, “Can you put me up for a few days?” Helen told her she was welcome, provided she didn’t mind “hospital style accommodations”. As I said before, we had all moved to two front rooms of the second floor to let Swamiji be alone in the back of the second floor, so Miss MacLeod came and slept on a couch in the front room with the rest of us. She stayed several days and I think enjoyed it.
‘Miss MacLeod set aside her superior airs when she was with us. It was principally with people who affected the same airs that she put them on. And she never made the mistake of putting on airs with Swamiji. He often told her “where to get off ” when she had a tendency to be too high-toned. But the only time I ever heard him speak sharply to her was before class in the ballroom of the Green Hotel. She was expressing an opinion as to what should be done about some phase of Swamiji’s work, and he suddenly turned on her. “Keep quiet about what should be done!” he said. “We will do whatever has to be done.” But he also said of her, “Jo has a very sweet nature.” He always called her “Jo”.’
‘Now let us go back once more and finish his day,’ Swami Ashokananda said. ‘Tell me about the evening meal. What time would you sit down to dinner?’
‘Dinner would be about six-thirty. We would usually have soup, and either fish or meat, vegetables, vegetables, and dessert — pie, perhaps, which Swamiji sometimes liked, or something else. Usually he did not take coffee in the evening.
‘It is Lent now, and this reminds me of one evening when Swamiji was walking up and down in the dining room while the table was being set for dinner. We always had a plate of spring fruit on the table, and on this evening there were some guavas among the others. We were speaking of Lent and the custom of giving up some favourite food or pleasure during the forty days. Swamiji said that a similar custom existed in India which was always observed by the monks. “All but the wicked fellows like me renounce something,” he said. “Now I, for example, will renounce these guavas!” We took the hint and did not have guavas anymore after that!
‘When the evening meal was over, instead of going into the living room we would clear the dining room table and sit there, where we could light a fire in the open grate. Some would sit at the table, others would sit in easy chairs. We had an easy chair for Swamiji, which was large enough for him to sit cross-legged in, which he used to do. He usually wore either what you would call a dinner jacket or smoking jacket or his robe.’
‘Did Swamiji ever read to you from any of his books?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Yes, he often read to us, and he was an excellent reader. People used to ask where he got his fine pronunciation of English. He himself used to say that it came after he reached the United States. He said that until he came to the United States he had a “bookish accent”. Well, he read from various things. Once he was talking about Advaita and asked for his “Song of the Sannyasin”, which he read to us. On another occasion late one evening as we sat by the fire, he asked for “The Need of a Guru”. He had been talking to Helen, and then he began to read from this. For some reason, after he had read for some time, Helen got up, lit his bedroom candle and offered it to him. By now it was about eleven o’clock. “Does that mean I must go to bed?” Swamiji asked. “Well, it is eleven o’clock,” Helen said, so the conversation closed.
‘Long afterward, we were talking of the incident and all three of us felt that indirectly Swamiji had been inviting Helen to ask for discipleship.’
‘Why didn’t your sister take it?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘She said she herself didn’t know,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘She said she just didn’t feel impelled to at the time.’
‘Did you ever hear Swamiji sing?’
‘Yes. He would usually sing when he was on the way somewhere. He would sing a song in Sanskrit or Bengali or whatever it might be, and then ask, “Do you know the meaning of the song?” Then he would explain it. Of course he would also sing or chant on the platform, too.
‘At home he would sometimes sing that old hymn, “The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone”. I had taught it to him and it used to amuse him.
‘Sometimes he would ask Lalita [Carrie Wyckoff] to stroll with him in the garden, and he would sing songs and explain them in a much more personal way than from the platform.
‘Once while Lalita was preparing something in the kitchen for Swamiji, he was walking to and fro across the room as he often used to do. Suddenly he asked her, “Were you happily married?” For a moment she hesitated, then answered, “Yes, Swamiji.” He left the kitchen for a moment, and then came back. “I am glad”, he said dryly, “that there was one!”
‘At another time, Swamiji had prepared some dish for Lalita to try. When he asked her whether she liked it she said that she did. After a moment’s pause, Swamiji inquired, “Was it true, or just for friendship’s sake?” Then Lalita confessed, “I am afraid it was for friendship’s sake.”‘
‘Tell me,’ Swami Ashokananda asked, ‘did Swamiji ever use slang?’
‘He did occasionally, but not in public. Once, however, he did in a lecture at the Shakespeare Club in Pasadena. He was speaking of the Christian missionaries in India and their attitude toward the Hindus. He said their teachings amounted to saying, “Here, take my tomfool tin pot, and be happy! That is all you need.”
‘And regarding missionaries, he was once speaking of their antagonism toward him, and he told of a dinner to which he had been invited in Detroit. For some reason he suspected that his coffee had been poisoned. He was debating whether or not he should drink it, when Sri Ramakrishna stepped to his side, and said, “Do not drink — it is poisoned.” He always spoke of his master as “Atmaram”. Whenever there were difficulties he would say, “Well, if things do not go well, we will wake up Atmaram.”
‘The missionaries were not the only ones who opposed Swamiji. There were many teachers of metaphysics, and many pseudo-teachers, who resented him or maliciously condemned him either because he was so far superior to them or because he exposed their shallowness and “spoiled their business” by teaching true metaphysics. Mr. Bransby was one of these, more or less. He was constantly finding fault with Swamiji. One of his criticisms was that Swamiji was breaking the rules of his Order by taking money. I later told this to Swamiji. He was chanting something at the time, and he stopped, smiled, and said, “Yes, it is true; but when the rules don’t suit me, I change them!”
‘Mrs. Allan has told me of another occasion when Bransby had been to see Swamiji while he was in Alameda. When he returned, he said, “How do you think I found the great man? Sitting on the floor, eating peanuts!”
‘On another occasion in a conversation at home when Mrs. Leggett was there, he was talking of the English in India. He said that actually, “the English did not come to India to conquer us, but to teach us.” The great misfortune however was, he said, that the English soldiers-even the offi cers-were of such low caste. And he told of a time when he was sitting on the lawn in a park close to a footpath. Two soldiers passed by and one of them kicked him. Surprised, Swamiji said, “Why did you do that?” “Because I like to, you dirty something-or-other!” “Oh, we go much further than that,” Swamiji retorted. “We call you ‘dirty mlecchas’!” He spoke of the raping of lowcaste Hindu women by the English soldiers. “If anyone despoiled the Englishman’s home,” he said, “the Englishman would kill him, and rightly so-but the damned Hindu just sits and whines!” he exclaimed.
At this, Mrs. Leggett, who always agreed with everything Swamiji said, remarked, “How very nice!”
‘”Do you think,” he went on, “that a handful of Englishmen could rule India if we had a militant spirit? I teach meat-eating throughout the length and breadth of India in the hope that we can build a militant spirit.”
‘And that reminds me of a remark a Miss Blanche Partington once made about Swamiji later in San Francisco. She had been talking to Swamiji at the 1719 Turk Street flat. In answer to something she had said, Swamiji, bowing, had replied, “I am a loyal subject of Her Majesty [the Empress of India]!” Speaking of it afterward, Miss Partington said, “But it seemed to me he bowed almost too low!”‘
‘Did Swamiji laugh and joke very much?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Not much,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied, ‘though he always told some story on the lecture platform. He said he gathered his mind in this way.’
‘Did you ever find him aloof, or did he make himself one with all?’
‘I never found him aloof, though some said that he was. I felt as though he were someone to whom I was closely related, whom I had not seen for a long, long time, and who had been a long time coming.
‘And indeed, Swamiji himself once said to Lalita, Helen, and me, “I have known all three of you before!” I think it was once when we were standing waiting for a train in San Francisco.
‘Do you remember speaking the other day of the Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the burden he carried on his back? Well, I felt that mine was on my chest-that is, after I met Swamiji, I felt the lifting of a burden which had been on my chest for so long that I had ceased to be conscious of it.
‘When I returned to Los Angeles from San Francisco, after Swamiji had returned to the East, someone asked me how I felt about my brother [William Mead]. I replied that I did not know how I felt toward my brother, but that I felt much closer to the man I had been assisting in San Francisco than any other person I had ever known.’
‘Did you ever see Swamiji in any especially exalted mood?’
‘No, not particularly, though sometimes when he had talked for some time, the air would become surcharged with a spiritual atmosphere. There was one occasion in particular: we had gone to the hill near our home where we used to have the picnics. Swamiji became absorbed in some subject he was discussing, and he talked for six hours without interruption — from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon! The air was just vibrant with spirituality by the time it was over.
‘At another time in Alameda, I was upset or depressed about something, and he said to me, “Come, sit down and we will meditate.” “Oh, I never meditate, Swami,” I told him. “Well, come and sit by me, and I will meditate,” he replied. So I sat down and closed my eyes. In a moment I felt as though I were going to float away, and I quickly opened my eyes to look at Swamiji. He had the appearance of a statue, as though there were not a spark of life in his body. He must have meditated for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then opened his eyes again.’
‘Do you think that when Swamiji came to San Francisco he felt as free as he did in your home?’
‘Not while he was in the Home of Truth. This was natural, for quite a number of people were living there and he could not feel as free or at home as he had in our house. After some time there he told me one day, “I must get out of here.” It was then that Mrs. Aspinall and I took the apartment on Turk Street, and Swamiji came.
‘But if he found it difficult to live in the Home of Truth, imagine his having a spiritualist for a travelling companion.’
‘What do you mean?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Didn’t you know that he travelled with a spiritualist when he was on a lecture tour through the Eastern States?’
‘Oh yes. While he was under contract to that lecture bureau during his first visit to the West, he travelled with a very well-known spiritualist named Colville, who apparently was also under contract to the same bureau. Swamiji used to say, “If you think X is hard to live with, you should have travelled with Colville.” The man seems to have had a nurse to look after him all the time.’
‘Did you find Swamiji at all abstracted and apparently not much interested in his activities toward the end of his stay?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘No indeed,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘Probably you are thinking of that mood which later came over him, when in India he was asked by some of the monks about something and he told them they would have to decide it, that his work was done.
‘This was never apparent here, nor even in June of that year when he wrote me from New York City. No, he took the greatest interest in people and in “the Movement”, and in whom he would send to carry on after he left the Pacific Coast. I am sure that if his health had permitted, he would have come to the West a third time.
‘Swami Abhedananda was having trouble with the Leggetts in New York during the period when Swamiji was staying with us in Los Angeles. Mr Leggett expected to run the Society there in his capacity as president and expected Swami Abhedananda to acquiesce in this. One day Swamiji remarked about this situation. “You people think the head of a society can run things,” he said. “You know, my boys can’t work under those conditions.”‘
The conversation had now lasted well over an hour and it was almost two o’clock. The Swami therefore directed that Mrs. Hansbrough be driven home, and from there he returned to the Temple.
Sunday, March 30, 1941
On Sunday, March 30, 1941, Mrs. Hansbrough was again invited by Swami Ashokananda to drive home with him after his morning lecture in the Century Club Building. The day, however, was windy and rainy, and the drive was therefore a short one.
There was some conversation about the attendance at the swami’s lecture that morning, and this led the swami to ask if Swami Vivekananda’s lectures in San Francisco were well attended.
‘His Sunday morning audience usually ran from five to six hundred people,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘At evening lectures there were not so many, but usually he did not lecture in the evening on Sunday.’
‘And classes?’ the swami asked.
‘Class attendance averaged from one hundred fifty to two hundred — which was not bad, considering that there was a charge of fifty cents for each class. That is, the charge was a dollar and a half for a series of three. The lectures were free. We followed the custom of the day.
‘If I were to have the work to do over again with my present perspective, I would do it much differently,’ Mrs. Hansbrough went on. ‘I would get the Academy of Science to sponsor the first lecture, and have it free. If we had done this, it would have given Swamiji at the start a group of intellectual people, and then he could have chosen from there on what he wanted to do. As it was, Miss MacLeod was very determined in the view that his first lecture should be charged for. Swamiji usually let us decide these things as he was unfamiliar with the country. I did not have the temerity and outspokenness that I have now, or I would have ridiculed Miss MacLeod into agreeing that it should be a free first lecture. As it was, we charged a dollar admission.’
‘Once after we had moved to the Turk Street flat a woman said something to Swamiji about his teaching religion. He looked at her and replied: “Madam, I am not teaching religion. I am selling my brain for money to help my people. If you get some benefit from it, that is good; but I am not teaching religion!”‘
‘Where do you think Swamiji showed the greater power in his lectures, here or in Los Angeles?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘I think he showed greater power here,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘He seemed to get greater satisfaction from his work here.
‘Swamiji said many seemingly contradictory things. For example, he said of his lectures and work, “I have been saying these things before, over and over again.” In the Turk Street flat one day he said, “There is no Vivekananda”, and again, “Do not ask these questions while you have this maya mixed up with your understanding.”‘
‘Did he ever express any opinion about San Francisco?’
‘No, not that I remember. He seemed to be like a bird in flight: he would stop here, then there, with no great concern for liking or disliking the places where he stopped.’
‘Now, what instructions did Swamiji give you before you came to San Francisco from Los Angeles?’
‘Well, I gave him the instructions,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said with a smile. ‘I told him to give me a week and then to come on, and that I would get a place for him to stay so he would not have to be in a hotel. I got in touch with all my old friends and acquaintances, mostly those who were interested in so-called “new thought”, and found nearly all of them readily agreeable to helping arrange plans for Swamiji’s lectures. Later I found that their motives were largely to publicize themselves through publicizing Swamiji, though it did not occur to me then because I was so absorbed in working for him. I arranged for him to stay at the Home of Truth centre at 1231 Pine Street. (The building is still standing today, though it is no longer the Home of Truth.) They were delighted to have him, and provided him, free of charge, with a room and his board. You see, the Home of Truth centres were supported by public subscriptions: the idea was started by Emma Curtis Hopkins, who branched off from Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.’
‘And did you make arrangements for the lectures and classes?’
‘Yes, I selected a hall — Washington Hall it was — for the first Sunday morning lecture, and another smaller hall across Post Street for the classes. I had come north about the middle of February, and this first lecture of Swamiji’s was near the end of the month. The attendance was very disappointing from the standpoint of numbers: there were probably less than one hundred and fifty. [Swamiji’s first lecture was held at Golden Gate Hall, San Francisco, on Friday evening, February 23, 1900. The subject: The Ideal of a Universal Religion.]
‘I remember that Swamiji was seated down in the front row in the audience before the lecture began, and when I went to sit by him, he made a sign to ask how many I thought there were. When I estimated one hundred and fifty, he wrote in the palm of one hand with his finger 100 as his estimate. He did not say anything, but he seemed disappointed. If we had had the first lecture free I am sure we would have had a better attendance. As it was, we charged a dollar per person.’
‘Oh my!’ Swami Ashokananda exclaimed. ‘And one hundred came at a dollar each? Well, that shows that there was real interest.’
‘How did Swamiji come from Los Angeles? Did he come alone?’
‘Yes, he came alone, by train. It must have been the day train, because I remember that we met him at the Oakland Mole, came across on the ferry, and had dinner at the Home of Truth.’
‘And how was he dressed when he arrived?’
‘He had on that black loose-fitting suit which he usually wore, and the black silk turban.’
‘When was it that Swamiji spoke in Dr. B. Fay Mills’ Unitarian Church in Oakland?’
‘It was soon after he arrived in San Francisco [Sunday, February 25].’
‘Did Swamiji know Dr Mills intimately?’
‘No, as a matter of fact, although B. Fay Mills had been at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and had heard Swamiji there, Swamiji did not remember him. At the time of the Parliament Dr. Mills had been a Presbyterian minister. But he himself told me about Swamiji, “This man altered my life”; and he later became a Unitarian. Yet, in spite of his saying this about Swamiji, when I went to see him while he was lecturing in Metropolitan Temple to ask if he would announce a course of lectures by Swami Vivekananda, he refused! And he had wanted to manage Swamiji’s whole visit in San Francisco; he had written Swamiji and asked to do so. This was after Swamiji’s first lecture, and we felt that if he could obtain some announcements of this type it would help increase the attendance. I did not have the temerity then that I have now, or I would have told Dr. Mills plainly what I thought of him!
‘He was an astute man of business. His plan for introducing Swamiji in San Francisco had been to have him speak first outside of San Francisco — that is, in his own church in Oakland. Then he would advertise here that “many hundreds had been turned away” — which we used to do quite truthfully in Los Angeles — in first introducing him here. He did this when he advertised the lecture Swamiji did give at his church, and with good effect.
‘I never could figure why Swamiji was unwilling to allow B. Fay Mills to handle his arrangements here unless it was because of the trouble he had had [in 1894] with the lecture bureau and others seeking to gain a commission from whatever income he realized from his lectures and classes.’
‘Was Swamiji comfortable in the Home of Truth in San Francisco?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘No, he wasn’t,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘So I took him to the home of a friend of mine. He was not comfortable there either; and it was then that Mrs. Aspinall — she and her husband were heads of the Home of Truth on Pine Street — said, “See here, we must find a place where this man can be comfortable.” So she and I took the flat then on Turk Street, and she explained to her husband that it was in order to make a comfortable place for Swamiji to stay. It was a poor sort of place, but the best we could do for the money we could afford to spend. When I told Swamiji this, he said, “That is because I am a sannyasin and can’t get anything good.”
‘Mr Aspinall did not like the idea of Mrs. Aspinall’s leaving the Pine Street Home of Truth to set up the Turk Street flat with me so that Swamiji could have a quiet place to stay. At the time he objected strongly to it, but Mrs. Aspinall told him, “Benjamin, you know that we do not have any truth; we just talk.” She meant that in Swamiji she felt she had found someone who really had found the truth and could give it to others.’
‘Did Swamiji speak in the Pine Street Home of Truth?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘He spoke there once, probably in the evening. He also spoke one morning in another Home of Truth in San Francisco where a Miss Lydia Bell was head. In the Alameda Home of Truth he spoke at least twice.’
‘When did he go to the Alameda Home?’
‘After the lectures closed here on April 14. [He actually moved on April 11.] His idea was to go there to rest for a few days. He wanted, before he left for the East, to accumulate a certain sum of money for some purpose. I don’t remember the amount, but I remember that one woman in Oakland gave him a thousand dollars. And someone introduced Mrs. Collis P Huntington to him, and she gave him six thousand dollars for Sister Nivedita’s girls’ school. The money from the lectures and classes, I used to keep in a teapot when we were in the flat. In those days gold coins circulated freely, and I had several pots half full of twenty-dollar gold pieces. One day Swamiji wanted to figure out how much he had accumulated to date, so I got my notebook and pencil and brought the pots and dumped the coins out on the table. After counting the money, Swamiji found he needed more than he had so he said we would open some more courses. When he had the sum he wanted, he opened a bank account and deposited the money in it.
‘One woman told someone that she did not like Swami Vivekananda because of the thin little woman who was always running along behind him with the black case. It was I, and the black case held my notebooks, advertising matter, and other things connected with the work — and the collections. Once Swamiji and I stopped in a market to do some shopping, and when we had gone out I discovered I had left the case. I said, “Just a minute, I forgot something!” and rushed back. There was the case, sitting on the counter. It had three hundred dollars in it!
‘There was one conversation at the Alameda Home of Truth which reminds me of your question last week as to whether I had ever seen Swamiji in any particularly exalted mood. I think this was the most inspiring instance except at Camp Taylor. We were seated at the breakfast table in the Alameda Home. Mrs. Aspinall, the two Roorbachs, Mr Pingree, the two housekeepers, the two gardeners, and myself. (Those who worked in the Home of Truth centres were all members, who gave their services according to their talents. Mr Pingree, for example, was a teacher, and the only member, incidentally, who demanded any pay: he asked for and got his board and room and fifteen dollars a month.) It was Mr Pingree with whom Swamiji used to walk in the garden of the Alameda Home, and who Swamiji said had an intuition of the conversation of the trees. He used to say the trees talked: he would put his hands on them and say he could understand what they were saying.
‘Well, Swamiji began to talk as we all sat there at the breakfast table. Then someone suggested we go into the front room so that the housekeepers could clear the table. The two rooms were separated only by an archway with curtains hung in them. So five of us went into the front room and the rest went about their affairs: Swamiji, Mrs. Aspinall, the Roorbachs, and I took our seats, Swamiji sitting on a chair facing the rest of us. He talked a great deal of his master that day. Two stories which he said were his master’s I remember, because he directed them at me.
‘The first was a story of an old water-demon who lived in a pool. She had long hair, which was capable of infinite extension. When people would come to bathe in the pool, sometimes she would devour them if she was hungry. With others, however, she would twine a hair around one of their toes. When they went home, the hair, invisible, would just stretch and stretch; and when the old demon became hungry she would just start pulling on the hair until the victim came back to the pool once more, to be eaten up.
‘”You have bathed in the pool where my Mother dwells,” Swamiji said to me at the end. “Go back home if you wish; but her hair is twined round your toe and you will have to come back to the pool in the end.”
‘The other story was of a man who was wading down a stream. Suddenly he was bitten by a snake. He looked down, and thought the snake was a harmless water snake and that he was safe. Actually it was a cobra. Swamiji then said to me: “You have been bitten by the cobra. Don’t ever think you can escape!”
‘Swamiji did not move from his seat once during the whole conversation. None of us moved from our seats. Yet when he finished it was five o’clock in the afternoon. Later the two housekeepers told us they had tried twice to open the door from the kitchen into the dining room to clear the table, but could not get it open. They thought we had locked it so we would not be disturbed. Even when Swamiji had finished, Mrs. Aspinall was the only one who thought of taking any food. After talking with Swamiji for a few minutes in his room I put on my coat and came back to San Francisco. As we went up the stairs to his room, Swamiji said: “They think I have driven them crazy. Well, I shall drive them crazier yet!”‘
‘My, my,’ murmured Swami Ashokananda. ‘Did Swamiji talk in a loud tone, or quietly?’
‘No, he talked in a low tone of voice,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘Even in private conversation he was always a calm man, except when he was giving someone a dressing down. (This he never did to Helen or Carrie.) The only time I ever saw him get excited was when the missionary woman called him a liar.
‘He used to talk often to my nephew, Ralph, when he was in our home in Los Angeles. Ralph was then a boy of about seventeen, and used to wait on Swamiji: he shined his shoes and did other little things for him. He would say, “Ralph, my tobacco”, and Ralph would go up to his room and bring it down. Once he asked him, “Can you see your own eyes?” Ralph answered no, except in a mirror. “God is like that,” Swamiji told him. “He is as close as your own eyes. He is your own, even though you can’t see him.”
‘It must have been one morning in our home in Los Angeles that Swamiji gave what I call “baptism” to Dorothy and Ralph. I remember he laid his pipe aside and called Dorothy to him, and he only smoked after breakfast and dinner. Dorothy was four years old at the time. She went and stood between his knees, with her hands on his thighs. Swamiji put his hands at the back of her head where the hair joins the neck, and tapped up and over the top of her head to the eyebrows. Then he called Ralph and did the same thing. Ralph must have knelt, because I remember that Swamiji did not leave his seat. My two sisters may have been there too; I am not sure.
‘”What is the meaning of this, Swami?” I asked. Usually I never questioned him, but I did ask him this.
‘”Oh, it is just a custom we have in India”, was all he would tell me.’
‘Did Swamiji give any interviews to any newspapers while he was in Los Angeles?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Yes, there was an interview published under the title “A Prince from India”. It appeared in some paper, probably a weekly, the name of which I have forgotten. I may be able to get the name of it from Mrs. John Schmitz, the doctor’s wife who was our first president in Los Angeles. She is still living there.’
‘Did Swamiji ever tell you anything directly about Divine Mother?’ Swami Ashokananda asked Mrs. Hansbrough.
‘Oh yes, he talked a great deal of Divine Mother,’ she replied. ‘He said that she was the receptacle of every germ of religion, and that she was here as a form, but was not tied to that form. She had her desires, he said, but they were related to people. She would reach for people, though they did not know it, and gradually she would draw them to her.’
Swami Ashokananda remarked in the course of the conversation on how gracious Swamiji was. ‘He would not have held on to me as he did if he had not been,’ she remarked. It reminded her of an episode indicative of the way Swamiji had held her in spite of her best efforts to leave him.
‘One day while we were in San Francisco, I finally decided that I was going back to Los Angeles. I chose the day, and had all my bags packed, ready to leave for the train. All at once I heard a voice say: “You can’t go. You might just as well not try.” And for some reason I became completely exhausted — so exhausted that I had to lie down on the floor. I thought of getting some food, but I couldn’t move. And I couldn’t bear to look at the suitcases. So I had to make up my mind not to go.’
‘Did Swamiji say anything to you?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘No, he said nothing. I don’t know whose was the voice I heard speaking to me.’
Sunday, April 6, 1941
Sunday morning, April 6, was bright with the spring sun when Swami Ashokananda left the Century Club Building after his lecture, accompanied by Mrs. Hansbrough. The drive home this morning was through Golden Gate Park, and the swami had the car parked beside a lake, where ducks and swans swam about on the quiet water.
Swami Ashokananda asked Mrs. Hansbrough to tell him about Swamiji’s stay in the flat she had taken with Mrs. Aspinall on Turk Street while he had been in San Francisco.
‘We were in the flat on Turk Street about a month,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘There were two rooms which might have been called “parlours”, with a sliding door between them. Next behind was the dining room, then Mrs. Aspinall’s room, then the kitchen. There was a kind of hall bedroom at the top of the stairs which was meant, I suppose, for a servant, and I occupied that.
‘Swamiji’s room was the second of the two parlour rooms. The classes were held in the front parlour, and if there were too many for the single room we would put a screen before the couch Swamiji used as a bed, open the doors into his room, and use both rooms. I think Mrs. Aspinall and I paid about forty dollars a month for the flat.
‘There was one item about the Turk Street flat which was distinctly different from our home in Los Angeles, and which had its amusing side as I look back. This was the bathtub, which was one of those old-fashioned things built of zinc. Porcelain tubs were still not in use everywhere, and I had to go over the tub carefully every day with a stone they called a bath brick. Swamiji would ask me regularly if I had washed the tub. He was most particular and exacting about it; and as I recall it now, I think the goings-over that I got about that tub were more for my benefit than the tub’s. Swamiji would go on at great length about it.
‘One day I scrubbed it three times. After the third time, when he still complained that it was not clean, I said, “Well, I have scrubbed that tub three times, and if you can’t bathe in it now, I guess you will have to go without a bath!” So then he let it go and took his bath.
‘Both here and before we came north, Swamiji liked to prepare one meal of the day himself, and he often helped with meals. He cooked curries, and especially chapatis, of which Ralph and Dorothy used to be very fond. He liked the way I cooked rice — in fact, he told me I was the only woman in America who knew how to cook it! In the Turk Street flat he often cooked pulao, that rich dessert made with [rice and ghee]. Sometimes he would cook breakfast; he used to like potatoes cooked in butter with a little curry powder.
‘As I have mentioned before, Swamiji used to like to prepare one meal every day while he was at our home in Lincoln Park. Several of the ingredients he used had to be ground, and since he did not like to stand beside a table, he would sit cross-legged on the floor with a wooden butter bowl on the floor in front of him. One day during this ceremony we were talking about his health. Someone suggested that he had a weak heart. “There is nothing wrong with your heart,” I told him. “If you mean that,” he answered, “I have the heart of a lion!”‘
‘And how did he spend his day while he was in San Francisco? Was his routine about the same as in Los Angeles?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Yes, it was just about the same while we were at Turk Street,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘When he had no class in the morning we would often go out during the day. Swamiji liked to go to the market with me, and sometimes we would go out for lunch or go for a ride here in Golden Gate Park which he liked. I remember that once Mr. Aspinall brought us out in a carriage and we were strolling along. We crossed a bridge onto what proved to be a fairly sizeable island in the midst of a rather swift stream. When we had left the bridge some distance behind and tried to discover some means of recrossing the stream, Swamiji realized we were on an island, and without thinking to use just that word he tried to indicate the fact to me as he looked about for a means of crossing. Finally when he saw that I had neither caught his meaning nor perceived that the land was an island he remarked, “Well, Madam, I am glad I haven’t your brain!”
‘Sometimes when he was not lecturing in the evening we would go out to dinner too. He never ate dinner before a lecture; he said it slowed his thinking. He was a hearty eater; in fact, Molly Rankin, one of the housekeepers at the Alameda Home of Truth, said that no person could eat as much as Swamiji did and be spiritual! Lucy Beckham and George Roorbach were quite agreeable, though. And Swamiji demanded what he felt he needed. Once, for example, he said: “See here, I must have meat. I cannot live on potatoes and asparagus with the work I am doing!” So they got meat for him, although they themselves were vegetarians.’
‘About how many used to attend Swamiji’s classes in the Turk Street flat?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘I should say they numbered about thirty or forty,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘They were held three times a week, the same as his other classes. Swamiji would open the class at ten-thirty, usually with meditation, which often lasted for some time. Then he would speak or discourse on some sacred book. Sometimes he would ask the class what they would like for a subject.
‘Swamiji always sat cross-legged on the couch in the front parlour, and when all the chairs were taken people often sat cross-legged on the floor. There was a Mr Wiseman who came to the classes. He was a devoted follower of Miss Bell. He came late once to the class when all the seats were taken, and he had to sit on the floor. In those days the style of men’s trousers did not provide the generous leg-room they do nowadays, and Mr Wiseman’s trousers were so tight he could not sit cross-legged. Swamiji noticed him sitting with his knees up under his chin and suddenly exclaimed: “Don’t look like a fool! Come and sit by me!” Mr Wiseman was a quiet, unassuming sort of man and he would have felt it presumptuous to sit on the same couch with Swamiji. But he accepted the invitation and took a seat on the end of the couch.’
‘Was any charge made for the classes at Turk Street?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘No, the classes at Turk Street were free,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied. ‘We made a charge of one dollar and a half for a series of three classes downtown, however, and had small cards printed.
‘Sometimes in these Turk Street classes Swamiji could be very sharp. Once when he was talking of renunciation, a woman asked him, “Well, Swami, what would become of the world if everyone renounced?” His answer was: “Madam, why do you come to me with that lie on your lips? You have never considered anything in this world but your own pleasure!” He told us at another time of a woman in Chicago who had asked him after a class or lecture, “Swami, do you hate all women?” It revealed a characteristic of many of his questioners, that they identified themselves with their question, but couched the question in general terms. I don’t remember what Swamiji’s answer was.
‘Stupid and emotional people apparently gave the Christian ministers excuses for not a little criticism of Swamiji in the Eastern States. The ministers accused him of “separating families”. It seems that there was at least one instance, in Detroit, in which a woman divorced her husband and left her children with him in order to “renounce the world”.
‘Swamiji often was asked questions about going to India, especially by women students. He used to tell them: “If you are going to India to see great yogis, don’t go. You will see only poverty, filth, and misery.”
‘Swamiji was a great one to think out loud when he was at home. That is, as he would talk casually, one had the feeling that this was what he was doing. He liked a listener, however. He would ask us many questions about our family lives, and then would tell us about family life in India.
‘One day when he and I were alone in the Turk Street flat he said: “I have in mind to send my mother a thousand dollars.” I do not remember the details now, but it seems that his mother was involved in some litigation in connection with his father’s estate, and she had appealed to Swamiji’s brother disciple Swami Saradananda, who had written to Swamiji. “Saradananda is an impractical fellow like me,” Swamiji remarked, “but I have written him what to do. In your country a man is allowed to have a mother; in my country I am not allowed. Do you think that is bad?” He was asking if I thought it wrong under these circumstances for him to send his mother money. I replied that it certainly did not seem bad to me, and I believe he did send the money later.’
‘Did Swamiji ever scold you?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Oh yes, often. He was constantly finding fault and sometimes could be very rough. “Mother brings me fools to work with!” he would say. Or, “I have to associate with fools!” This was a favourite word in his vocabulary of scolding. And though he himself said, “I never apologize”, he would nevertheless come after the scolding was over to find me, and say in a voice so gentle and with a manner so cool that butter and honey would not melt in his mouth, “What are you doing?” It was clear that he was seeking to make amends for the scolding. He used to say, “The people I love most, I scold most”, and I remember thinking he was making a poor kind of apology!
‘Going up the steps of a hall in San Francisco before one of his lectures, Swamiji asked me about something I had told him I was going to do. I had neglected to take care of it, and told him I had intended to do it, but had not. “Your intentions are good,” he remarked, “but how like devils you sometimes act!”
‘Once while we were in the Turk Street flat I questioned something about the way Swamiji was handling the work. He did not answer, but simply said, “Within ten years of my death, I will be worshipped as a god!”
‘Once in the Turk Street flat I was dusting after breakfast in the dining room. As I worked, Swamiji was talking about something. I do not remember now what it was. “You are a silly, brainless fool, that’s what you are!” he exclaimed. He continued to scold me heatedly until suddenly Mrs. Aspinall appeared and he stopped. I said to him: “Never mind Mrs. Aspinall. Swami, if you’re not through, just keep right on!”
‘Somehow, I never felt hurt by his scoldings. I would often get angry and sometimes would walk out of the room, but usually I was able to hear him through. He used to complain of everything. But he used to say, “If you think I am hard to get along with, you should have travelled with Colville!” Colville was a spiritualist with whom Swamiji travelled when on tour for a lecture bureau during his first visit to the West.
‘There was the other side, however. As I have said, after a severe scolding, he would come back and speak in the gentlest of voices. And he could give credit, too, when he chose. On the evening we left the Turk Street flat to go to the Alameda Home of Truth, he was helping me on with my overcoat, and remarked, “Well, you have worked like a demon.” I always felt as if he were my very own, a very close relation for whom I had been waiting a long, long time.
‘Once at the Turk Street flat Swamiji asked me, “Why can’t you join our Order?” He never asked me directly to join, but he did put this question. My answer was that I had my own little world that I had to go back and take care of.’
‘Well, how did you go to Alameda that night [Wednesday, April 11, 1900] when you moved from Turk Street?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘We took the streetcar and then the ferry across the Bay, and probably took the streetcar again on the other side. The three of us went together- Swamiji, Mrs. Aspinall, and I-and we probably had dinner before we left San Francisco. Mrs. Aspinall and I each had a small suitcase, and Swamiji probably had the same. His trunk with his many clothes in it, I sent by express. I may have packed it for him too, as I often did. About his clothes, he used to say, “In India I can exist on hips and haws and live in rags, but here I want to meet your demands.”
‘On the streetcar, Swamiji would always sit very straight with his hands, one on top of the other, on the walking stick he carried. He would often sing in a low tone of voice on the car, after he came north from Los Angeles. It was quite a trip across to Alameda, and as I say, I think the last part was on the streetcar too, as there was nothing like a cab service then such as there is now. When we arrived at the Home of Truth we were met in the hall by the teachers, George Roorbach and his wife, Eloise (both of whom were artists), and Miss Lucy Beckham. George Roorbach took Swamiji up to his room on the second floor. It was a fine, big room: the house was a mansion which had been loaned to the Home of Truth by a wealthy family while they were away in Europe. Swamiji was quite comfortable and did get some rest while he was there.’
‘How many of our present members who knew Swamiji ever attended the Turk Street classes or visited Swamiji there?’ Swami Ashokananda asked. ‘I can remember only Mrs. Allan at Turk Street,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said. ‘She came for dinner once or twice. The Wollbergs, as I remember, came usually to the Sunday evening lectures downtown.’
‘Did Swamiji ever express any opinion about San Francisco and his work here?’
‘He thought that he got a better response here than he did in Los Angeles. And he was much more jolly here: he could see the end of his work after he had come here and had succeeded in collecting some of the funds he sought, and I think this helped to lighten his heart. Personally, I think he would have had even better response if B Fay Mills had managed his visit for him. Mills was an astute businessman. Sometime later he went to Los Angeles and founded a group he called [?] Fellowship. The membership at one time rose to three thousand members, and he actually persuaded the businessmen to close their offices not only on Sunday but on Wednesday in addition!’
‘How did Dr. Logan come into the work?’
‘I don’t remember just when he first became interested, but he was present the night the San Francisco lectures closed. The Wollbergs were there, but I don’t remember whether the Allans were or not. We had asked a Mr Chambers to invite any to stay at the close of the lecture who would be interested in continuing the study of Swamiji’s teachings. He did this, and when the others had left he asked me to tell about the organization of the Los Angeles and Pasadena centres. Then we discussed the organization of a centre here, but did not complete the arrangements that night. Dr. Logan then suggested that we meet the next night in his offi ce at 770 Oak Street, which we did, and it was on that night, April 14, 1900, that the organization of the Society was completed. Swamiji later held some classes there, and he also held some there after he returned from Camp Taylor [in mid-May].’
‘That means, just before he returned to the eastern states?’
‘Yes, we went to Camp Taylor from Alameda; then Swamiji spent a few days [two weeks] in San Francisco, at Dr Milburn Logan’s home, 770 Oak Street, before he took the train on May 30 to Chicago and New York.
‘Well now, did Swamiji express any opinion about the proposed organization [of a Vedanta Society] in San Francisco?’
‘No, he didn’t. The object of the Society was simply to keep in touch with his work, and the money which came in was to go to his work. He simply suggested that meetings should be held in someone’s office.’
‘What sort of man was Dr. Logan?’
‘He was a man of middle age at that time, and apparently devoted to Swamiji. He was very helpful to him. But when Swami Trigunatita came to take charge of the Society, he forced Dr. Logan out of the work, because he said the doctor was in it for “name and fame”. Swamiji seemed to like all people. He was most compassionate; it seemed as if he never saw distinctions between people — almost as if he didn’t see the difference between a duck and a man! He felt that he had come to the West for two purposes: to deliver a message and to get help for India. But he was terribly disappointed in the amount of help he got.’
‘Well now, you spoke of Swamiji’s going out during the day in San Francisco. What places did he visit besides Golden Gate Park?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘There were not a great many, but I think he visited the Cliff House, and he often went to Chinatown. For some reason, incidentally, he had a fascination for the Chinese. They would just flock after him, “shaking themselves by the hand” as the saying went, to express their pleasure at his presence. Mr. Charles Neilson, a well-known artist who lived in Alameda and who became an admirer of Swamiji, invited us to have dinner one evening in Chinatown. We sat down and ordered, but the food had no sooner been put on the table than Swamiji said he could not eat it, and rose from the table. Of course we went home. Mr. Neilsen was very disappointed because he knew the Chinese who owned the restaurant; but Swamiji later explained that it was because of the character of the cook that he was unable to eat the food. One other such occurrence took place when we had had fried shrimps somewhere. When we got home Swamiji vomited his dinner. I said fried shrimps were always hard to digest and probably these were not good, but he insisted that it was the bad character of the cook that was responsible. “I’m getting like my master,” he said. “I shall have to live in a glass cage.”‘
‘Did he ever seek any amusement? For example, did he ever go to the theatre?’
‘He went to the theatre once in Los Angeles to a play, but generally speaking he never sought entertainment, such as playing cards. He did enjoy going out to dinner. He went out to dinner several times with Mr Neilson, the artist, who also took Swamiji to an exhibition of his paintings at the Hopkins Art Gallery, where the Hotel Mark Hopkins now stands on Nob Hill.
‘Speaking of dinner reminds me of an incident one evening just as we were preparing dinner in the Turk Street flat. A Mrs. Wilmot, a Theosophist who had been coming to Swamiji’s lectures, phoned and asked Swamiji if he could come to see her. She said she felt she was losing her mind, that she was having trouble with the “elementals”, whatever they were. She was very anxious for Swamiji to go right over to her home. “No,” Swamiji said, “we are just preparing dinner. You come over here. Bring the ‘elementals’ and we will fry them for dinner!”‘
‘What was the play that Swamiji went to see?’
‘It was a comedy which was a great hit at the time, called “My Friend from India”. It was written, as a matter of fact, as a result of Swamiji’s visit to the United States, though it had no real bearing on his actual activities here. The plot revolved around a wealthy family consisting of a man and his wife, their son and two daughters, and an unmarried sister. They became interested in a man from India, a “wearer of the yellow robe” as he was called, who had come to the West to teach Indian religion; and the whole family took to wearing yellow robes. The play was concerned chiefly with the night of a party to which the family had been invited. At the last minute the women discovered that they had all bought the same model yellow gown for the party. When they came home afterwards, the son tried to sneak a tipsy friend quietly to his room to put him to bed, by disguising the friend in his yellow robe and introducing him as the “friend from India”, a bit wobbly from too much meditation! A Christian minister who was trying to make love to the maiden aunt also tried to get into the house disguised as the “friend from India”, and the father finally concluded that he had lost his mind because he was sure he saw too many yellow robes and too many “friends from India”.
‘It was Professor Baumgardt who invited Swamiji, and a party of us went together. The play was really very funny, and Swamiji enjoyed it hugely. Professor Baumgardt said he had never seen anyone laugh so hard or so much as Swamiji did.’
May 4, 1941
Several weeks passed before Swami Ashokananda again had an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Hansbrough of her days with Swamiji. However, on the fourth of May, Sunday, she once more accompanied him on a drive en route from his morning lecture at the Century Club Building. The talk turned to the emphasis some preachers put upon sin and the devil, rather than upon God, and Mrs. Hansbrough said that Swamiji had told those in his meditation class that they should try to think of themselves as related closely to Kali or Shiva, or to whomever they meditated upon.
‘Did Swamiji hold a meditation class?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘He always held a meditation period at the beginning of his classes,’ Mrs. Hansbrough replied, ‘but I wouldn’t call that exactly a meditation class.’
‘Well, how long would he meditate? Very long?’
‘No, I should say fifteen minutes or half an hour. I remember one class particularly. When we were in the Turk Street flat, I used to prepare a lamb broth for Swamiji every day. I would cook it very slowly for three or four hours, and it was very nourishing because every bit of food value would be cooked out of the meat. One day for some reason I had not been able to get the broth made by the time the class was to start at ten-thirty. Swamiji looked into the kitchen before going to the class. “Aren’t you going to the class?” he asked. I told him that because I had neglected to plan my work properly, now I had to stay in the kitchen and miss the class. “Well, that’s all right,” he said. “I will meditate for you.” All through the class I felt that he really was meditating for me. And do you know, I have always had the feeling that he still does meditate for me.’
‘Did Swamiji ever rest during the daytime while he was in the Turk Street flat?’ Swami Ashokananda asked.
‘Yes, when he did not have a lecture or some engagement in the afternoon he took a nap after lunch every day. He would sleep for about two hours.’
Swami Ashokananda’s eyes twinkled. ‘And did he ever snore?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Mrs. Hansbrough answered with amusement, ‘I never heard him snore.’
‘Now, when was it that Swamiji went to Camp Taylor?’
‘It was about the first of May 1900. The lectures and classes closed in San Francisco on April 14, but on April 11 Swamiji moved to the Home of Truth in Alameda. It was Mrs. Aspinall who suggested his going to Camp Taylor. She and Mr. Aspinall had already arranged to go there, and one Sunday evening [April 22] when we were all sitting in the Home of Truth, she was conjecturing where each of us would be a week hence: Swamiji in Chicago (I had already bought his ticket for him), I in Los Angeles, and they at Camp Taylor. Then, turning to Swamiji, she said, “You had better change your mind and go with us.” And Swamiji replied, “Very well. And madam (indicating me) will go with us.”
‘We set out the next morning. When I went to his room, Swamiji had on the English hunting suit which someone had given him in the East. He was just putting on the detachable cuffs, which men wore in those days. I had not intended to go to Camp Taylor, but was planning to return then to Los Angeles. I told Swamiji that I would go with him on the ferry to Sausalito and say goodbye to him there.
‘He took off his cuffs and dropped them in the bureau drawer. “Then,” he said, “I go to Chicago.” Of course I at once said that I would certainly go to Camp Taylor, and we started off shortly afterward.
‘In the party were Mr. and Mrs. Aspinall, Mr and Mrs. Roorbach, Miss Ansell and Miss Bell besides Swamiji and myself. I had packed Swamiji’s things in two big wicker hampers, and Mr Roorbach undertook to handle them for Swamiji. When we got to the ferry, Mr Roorbach walked on ahead with his bulky load. As I mentioned before, he and all the others in the Home of Truth were vegetarians; and as Swamiji saw him struggling with the big baskets he said, “Boiled potatoes and asparagus can’t stand up under that.”
‘In San Francisco we took another ferry to Sausalito, where we were to get the train for Camp Taylor. But the brief discussion I had had with Swamiji about leaving him at Sausalito had been just enough to make us miss the ferry that would have connected comfortably with the Camp Taylor train. The result was that we arrived just in time to see the train pull out. Mr Roorbach said there was a narrow-gauge train that also went there, and we found that that was just ready to leave. We hurried to the proper platform. This train was just getting under way. I called to the conductor on the back platform, who called back, “If you’ll run, I’ll wait for you.” I looked at Swamiji. He simply said, “I will not run.” Even though the train was there within a few yards of him, he would not hurry to catch it.
‘Well, there were no more trains that day, so we had to go all the way back to the Home of Truth in Alameda. On the way back I remarked that we had missed the train because there was no engine hitched to our cars. Swamiji turned to me and said: “We couldn’t go because your heart was in Los Angeles. There is no engine that can pull against a heart-there is no force in the world which can pull against a heart. Put your heart into your work and nothing can stop you.” It was a tremendously significant statement, and it has been vivid in my memory all these years.
‘The Aspinalls had gone on ahead of us to Camp Taylor, and I had discovered when we missed the train that my baggage was missing. Later I found they had taken it up with them. After all the missed trains and the loss of time, I had once more decided to go back to Los Angeles, but the next day I had to go up to Camp Taylor to recover my luggage. Mrs. Aspinall tried to make me promise that I would not go to say goodbye to Swamiji when I got back to the city: she said I would surely prevent him from getting there [to camp] a second time. When I had told Swamiji I would have to go up [to the camp] for my baggage, he remarked, “Strange, Mother’s dragging you up there, when you tried your best not to go.” And when I returned with the baggage, he said, “Well, come up there for a week and we won’t stay longer.” (When I finally had departed for the south [several weeks later], he told someone, “She had to go back because the babe (Dorothy) wanted her.”)
‘So I went [to Camp Taylor] — and we stayed two weeks. On May 2 when we got on the train at Sausalito, we were soon travelling through wooded country, along the bank of the stream, and in the peaceful atmosphere Swamiji began to relax almost at once. He was sitting next to the window so that he could look out, and he began to sing softly to himself. “Here in the country I’m beginning to feel like myself, ” he said. That first night Swamiji built a fire on a spit of sand that ran out into the stream. We all sat around the fire in the quiet night and Swamiji sang for us and told stories, such as those about Shukadeva and Vyasa. This was to be our custom on most nights. We would often cook chapatis, too, in pans over the coals.’
‘How was Swamiji’s voice?’ Swami Ashokananda inquired. ‘Was it a powerful voice?’
‘No, it was not a powerful voice, but it had great depth. The manager of Washington Hall in San Francisco once told me he had never heard so sweet a voice.’
‘What was the usual routine of Swamiji’s day at Camp Taylor?’
‘We would usually have breakfast sometime between seven-thirty and eight. Then about ten or ten-thirty Swamiji would hold a meditation, which took place in Miss Bell’s tent, as she had requested it. We were located about a mile upstream from the old hotel, in a quiet, windless spot on the east side of the stream called Juhl Camp. The railroad ran by on the opposite bank. Mr Juhl was an admirer of Miss Bell and had arranged the location for us. We had five tents: one for Swamiji and one each for Mrs. Aspinall, Miss Bell, Miss Ansell, and Mrs. Roorbach. I slept outside Mrs. Aspinall’s tent until the rain drove me inside. She had some printed mottoes such as the Home of Truth people often put up, and she had pinned some of these to the sloping roof of the tent. Of course, wherever the pins were, the tent leaked; and one night I found the water dripping steadily on my forehead from “Love never faileth”! There was a delightful pool in the stream for bathing, which all of us used except Swamiji, who found the water too cold. Water for cooking and washing was piped to the camp, and we did our cooking outside. Swamiji really enjoyed his stay at Camp Taylor.
‘After two weeks there, Swamiji returned to San Francisco [in mid-May] and was the guest of Dr. Logan for a time. I stayed with a brother-in-law of mine, Jack Hansbrough, for about three days and then went back to Los Angeles. After I had left, Swamiji took another brief vacation trip somewhere outside of San Francisco with a Dr. Miller [Hiller?] before he left for the Eastern States.
‘In addition to Swamiji’s one-night visit to Dr. Miller’s home in San Francisco, another doctor took him after he had been to Camp Taylor, to another resort outside of San Francisco for a rest.
‘I saw him every day before I left, and twice the last day. Then he was ill in bed. I stood at the foot of the bed and said good-bye to him. “Come and shake hands,” he said. “I never make a fuss over people even when I have known them many years.” I assured him that I had certainly not expected him to make any fuss over me. “The Lord bless you and keep you,” he said, and I departed. Later I discovered that I had left a handbag there. But after all the false starts for Camp Taylor I was not going back for that, so I asked Mrs. Aspinall to get it when she had an opportunity and send it on to me. She told me later that when she went for it, Swamiji remarked: “So she left that, did she? Take it out of here!”
‘I did not hear from him until he reached Chicago and New York.’
June 22, 1941
Driving home from the Sunday lecture at the Century Club.
‘Swamiji had marvellous patience with all of us,’ Mrs. Hansbrough declared. ‘He made a great effort to do something for us. He took away any feeling on our part that he was superior to us. ‘He paid a good deal of attention to children when he met them privately,’ she continued. ‘There was an old stable in the vacant lot next to our home in Los Angeles, where Swamiji used to sit with the children and look at their picture books. He particularly enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He said they were absolutely typical in their portrayal of the processes of the human mind. He said that Lewis Carroll had some kind of intuition, that his was not an ordinary mind, to have written these books.’
Later Mrs. Hansbrough spoke of an episode, also in their home in Los Angeles, involving a woman portrait painter, who was determined to do a portrait of Swamiji. She had approached him several times after meetings, but Swamiji had always declined.
‘One day the woman came to our home,’ Mrs. Hansbrough said, ‘and asked me if I would help her by letting her sketch him unawares. Somehow Swamiji sensed her presence and called me. “You get that woman out of here or I’ll leave!” he told me. Needless to say, I saw her to the door.’
(Prabuddha Bharata, February – July 2007)
Courtesy: Partha Sinha