■ Matt McPherson / Columnist
Once upon a time in the southern foothills of Hemet, just below the Ramona Bowl, a world famous writer and author nurtured and developed her skills as a pioneer of the Foodie culture. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a world traveler, culinary expert, artist and famous author. Fisher wrote some of her most popular books here while living on her 90 acres she called Bareacres.
At the top of Cornell hill, before Gibbel flats existed, sat a humble abode inhabited by Fischer and her husband. The house was 2,500 square feet and consisted of three bedrooms with one-and-a-half bathrooms. The living room had a large fireplace to warm the house along with two oil heaters. The walls were built from 1-by-12 boards with no insulation, which meant the temperature was the same inside and out. A huge glass window facing north, which still remains there today, provided a beautiful view of Hemet and San Jacinto. Many pictures exist of Fischer writing at this window and one can assume the valley below served as inspiration. The patio was the heart of the home and provided a focal point when entertaining visitors.
The water system was supplied by three springs that flowed into six redwood tanks, into a reservoir, then a cistern and on into the house. The entire house was appointed with French doors, which allowed for a cool breeze throughout the home in the afternoon. A second house that no longer stands supplied Fisher and her husband an area for a servant and her children, while they catered to their guests. The Fishers entertained many Hollywood elite such as Gloria Swanson, Man Ray, Berle Ives and Joseph Cotton.
Current owner and inhabitant Dick Schmitt and his wife Cathy have reused many of the old materials when they rebuilt their existing home. Eight of the French doors and one Dutch door still exist, along with the original hinges and fixtures. The posts for the original screen room were made from the surrounding eucalyptus trees and the walls and patio area were quarried from rocks just below the Ramona Bowl — the same quarry which supplied the rocks and landscape for the Ramona Bowl planters and stairways.
“She had to be a pioneer, to have lived in that house,” said Dick of Fisher.
Bareacres and its tragic history
Originally the property was occupied by an African-American man who lived in a wooden structure and sold kerosene and gasoline on a mule cart in downtown Hemet. Tragically, an angry mob of locals came to the property one night and burned down the home with the man in it.
After that in the early teens of the 1900s, Capt. Hoffman built the home Fisher would later buy. Capt. Hoffman also constructed an adobe structure north of the property for his Native American maiden, of whom he was extremely fond. Later, Fisher would spend many hours in the quiet and comfortable structure while writing her books and journals, because she felt it was so peaceful. Another tragedy occurred when Capt. Hoffman shot himself in the back bedroom, where a bullet hole through the window still existed when Fisher and her husband bought the property. Fisher reminisced about the incident while replacing the window in the 1930s.
Fisher continued to remodel the property by screening in the porch and adding a half bath to the existing bathroom, which only had a shower. Historical pictures show Fisher bathing her two children in the cement laundry tub. The porch was turned into a sleeping porch during the summer time in an attempt to escape the heat.
Fisher loved writing and traveling
Fisher was born in 1908 and grew up in Whittier, where her father owned the local newspaper. As a result, she learned to read and write at an early age and started writing for her father’s paper at an early age, and then in high school she wrote for the school paper. She was never interested in a formal education and preferred the value of travel and personal experience as her inspiration for writing. Her family owned a cabin in Laguna Beach, where they would spend their summers and cook using fresh local foods.
Her family had a succession of very talented cooks, including her sister, who would gain favor from her parents while preparing delicious dishes. It was during this time Mary Frances would meet her first husband, Al Fisher, and had a whirlwind romance. Al received a scholarship for his doctorate, which brought them both to France for three years. It was here that Mary Frances nurtured her love of cooking and preparing food, in addition to absorbing the French culture and language. She took sculpture, art classes, perfected her French literary background, worldview, and studied French cooking. Anne Jennings explained Fisher’s belief that “Food was not just for sustaining your body; it was associated with comfort, love, and friendship that informed her thinking and actions for the rest of her life.”
In 1932 she and Al returned the the U.S. at the peak of the Great Depression. Al couldn’t find a job, so they ended up living in her family’s Laguna Beach cabin. It was here they enjoyed socializing with their neighbors Dilwynn (Tim) and Gigi Parish. Tim Parish was an author and writer whose sister, Anne Parish, was a very established and prominent novelist at the time. Tim was also the nephew of the famous writer Maxfield Parish. Gigi was a Hollywood starlet and subsequently fell in love with a Hollywood screenwriter. This lead to Tim and Fisher hitting it off and Tim encouraged Mary Frances to pursue her passion of writing. Mary would share her works with Tim and his sister and she began to share them with her editor at Harper’s. As a result, in 1935 Fisher began writing articles for Westways magazine and then “Serve It Forth,” a 1937 compilation of her works that were thinly-veiled descriptions of Laguna Beach at that time. Because she didn’t want anybody to know she was the daughter of Rex Kennedy, she took the name MFK Fisher as her nom de plume. In 1936, Tim divorced Gigi and Fisher moved with him to his family’s property in Switzerland, which Fisher describes as the happiest time of her life. Fisher loved the scenery, country and culture she experienced there.
Sadly in 1938, Tim began to get blood clots in his legs and acquired gangrene, which resulted in the amputation of his leg. At that time smoking was encouraged by doctors and probably contributed to his disease.
“Ninety acres of rocks and snakes”
In early 1939 they fled the political decline occurring at that time in Europe and returned to California. A year later in 1940, Tim and Fisher were married and bought the property in Hemet, which they called Bareacres. The name selected was based on a character in Thackeries novel Vanity Faire, a lord who had more land than wealth. They also referred to it as “90 acres of rocks and snakes and they loved it.”
“In journals and publication she referred to Bareacres and the San Jacinto Valley with tremendous affection,” said Jo Daugherty, a retired Hemet Library director. Fisher first saw the valley in 1931 and determined this was the place she wanted to live. She owned Bareacres from 1940-1953.
A third tragedy that took place on the property came in 1941 when her husband Tim could no longer stand the pain and hardship associated with his illness and he too shot himself on the property. In his final months he painted almost continuously as an escape from the unbearable suffering.
Fisher took a job as a writer in Hollywood and became good friends with Gloria Stewart (“Titanic”). In fact, pictures exist of Gloria Stewart at Bareacres back in the 1940s. In Hollywood, Fisher had many friends and engaged in many love affairs. An article in Hemet News wrote of her adopting a child and referred to her as Mrs. Dilwynn Parish because back then you were your husband’s wife whether he was still alive or not.
During this time she wrote many of her most famous works: “Serve It Forth,” “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” and “Gastronomical Me.” She decided to create a new genre for food and the good life. Since then she has become an icon in the culinary industry. In fact many assumed she was a man because as W.H. Auden wrote of her work: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”
At the height of her success she took a trip to New York where she met Donald Freed, whom she “accidentally” married after two weeks. She wrote of the three-week whirlwind courtship with the New York publisher and sophisticate. Coincidentally, Freed’s publishing company collapsed, they fled first to Hollywood, then wound up back at Bareacres.
In 1949 she returned to Whittier to care for her dying father and ended up selling Bareacres in 1953. She lived out the rest of her life in the Napa Valley wine country on a property she appropriately named Last House. She went on to write a dozen more books and journals about her travels, experiences, and culinary accomplishments and became friends with such foodies as Julia Childs.
In 1991 the First Culinary Writer elected MFK Fisher to the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1992 she passed away at her home, Last House, with her daughter and sister by her side. Since then Last House has become a nature preserve and was made official by the Audubon Canyon Ranch in 1994.
This presentation of a famous inhabitant here in the valley is one of many to come to the downtown Hemet Museum. Stay tuned for future events and presentations that feature many wonderful stories and characters that have helped mold the culture within the San Jacinto Valley.