Burbank & Famous Friends
Burbank and Thomas Edison
Luther Burbank and Thomas Edison met in October 1915 for the first and last time after a lifetime of mutual admiration. Both described themselves as long-distance friends. They were born three years apart and both were inventors with similar methods of trial and error. Edison’s good friend Henry Ford stated: “Burbank had many of the Edison qualities and used precisely the same methods as did Edison, although in a very different line of work.” Henry Ford and Thomas Edison met Luther Burbank at the Santa Rosa Gardens for one afternoon in 1915. Both signed Mr. Burbank’s guest book.
Burbank and Jack London
On October 8, 1905, Luther Burbank received a letter from Jack London, whom Burbank later described as his “almost neighbor”, living just across the hills. “Now, what I want to know,” wrote Mr. London, “is could you give me a tip to any kinds of exceptionally good fruits and grapes for me to plant?” Burbank replied quickly with a detailed and modest note. He cited several fine varieties of grapes and fruits but listed only two of his own, the Climax and Wickson plums. Both Jack and his wife Charmian visited Burbank on at least two occasions. The first was in 1896 or 1897. The guest book records another visit by them in the summer of 1910. London remarked in the comments section, “I’d rather be doing what you are doing than be Roosevelt, Rockefeller, King Edward and the Kaiser rolled into one.”
Prominent friends of the London’s, George and Carrie Sterling, also visited with London in 1910. George Sterling was a noted poet whom some called the unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco. Sterling wrote to Mr. Burbank in his guest book, “Most great men are doing more harm than good. Not you!”
Burbank and Helen Keller
Helen Keller visited Burbank in 1925 as part of a nationwide tour that led to a book. The visit also included her teacher Annie Sullivan (Macy.) Burbank felt that they became “instant friends” who “understood one another.” He “saw through her fingers as much as she saw through [his] eyes.” Keller stated that Burbank had the “rarest of gifts, the receptive spirit of a child. When plants talk to him, he listens. That is why they tell him so many things about themselves…he encourages the plant to put forth the best of which it is capable. In the same way, he says, every human being should be given a chance to grow in freedom and develop his powers according to the inner law of his nature.” Later, she wrote to Burbank, “O, what a world this will be when men understand as you do the sweet law of growth, and express it in acts, in education, in their lives.” Keller’s signature and writing in the guest book is done in square-hand which Annie Sullivan (Macy) taught her at age seven.
Burbank and I.J. Paderewski
The man called the “Lion of Paris,” “Harmonious Blacksmith,” the “Flaming Chrysanthemum” and “sex symbol of the century,” internationally known concert pianist I. J. Paderewski , purchased property in Paso Robles California in 1914 and 1916 and grew almonds, pears, walnuts, grapes and plums. In a March 14, 1914 letter the wife of Mr. Paderewski thanks Mr. Burbank for his “pamphlets” and seeds. The letter makes it clear the two had not yet met; however, our records indicate that Burbank purchased his square baby grand piano in anticipation of a visit from Paderewski during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. A photograph on the parlor wall of the Burbank home has a photo of the pianist inscribed “To Luther Burbank with profound respect and affectionate admiration. I. J. Paderewski, Nov 20, 1921.”
Burbank and Carl Purdy
Carl Purdy was a Ukiah naturalist who identified new species of California native plants and distributed them around the world. Purdy established himself as a nurseryman soon after Luther Burbank landed in the area. Purdy’s autobiography mentions his contact with Luther Burbank but does not detail their relationship. Although records do not indicate any detailed correspondence between the two men, a previously unknown connection between the two men was discovered at the Purdy home, The Terraces. In a bedside table was found a copy of W. S. Harwood’s 1905 Burbank biography New Creations in Plant Life, which had been personally inscribed on the occasion of a visit by Burbank:
In memory of a very pleasant day at the “Terraces”
May you all have the year 1906 replete with joyous days.
Luther Burbank Jan 5, 1906
P.S. I’m not responsible for all that this book contains – “The Victim”
Burbank and Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, traveled from San Francisco to visit the Burbank home in 1930 or 1931 several years after Burbank’s death. The pair met with Elizabeth Burbank. She probably gave Diego Rivera a photo of Burbank in his characteristic kneeling pose as if pollinating a flower. He used a photo such as this to render Burbank as the symbol of fertile California agriculture in the Pacific Stock Exchange mural “Allegory of California.” Kahlo may have also received a gift from Mrs. Burbank: a glimpse of Burbank’s life-affirming philosophy. Burbank was buried beneath the Cedar of Lebanon tree in his front yard because he once stated that he wanted to feel that his strength was going into the strength of a tree. Kahlo created a painting that seems to bring the Burbank quote alive. It shows Burbank’s skeleton beneath the ground and his brown-suited body emerging from the trunk of a tree. Small fruit trees appear on a barren plain behind him.
Don’t forget to include Swami Parahansa Yogananda, eminent spiritual leader and founder of the international Sel-Realization Fellowship headquartered in Los Angeles, who was a friend of Burbank. There is a spineless cactus developed by Burbank proudly displayed in the garden of the SRF headquarter building on Mt. Washington in LA.