Founder of Pig Dinner, Later Great American Novelist, Was Colorful Figure in his Undergraduate Days

By Wallace W. Everett (California 1897)

It is far easier to talk about Frank Norris than it is to write about that paragon of true fraternity men. It is not as a successful novelist that we think of him nor is it to bring up for consideration his powerful influence upon our country’s literature, when we speak of Norris; we who knew him in the early nineties, love to just feel that we were with him and we are happier because of that lovable contact.

Frank Norris, from the 1893 group portrait of Delta Xi Chapter.

Some time ago, a graduate member of one of Yale’s junior societies had luncheon with me at the Fiji chapter house at the University of California. I remember well his remark: “Didn’t your fraternity have any other literary light but Frank Norris? You seem to advertise him as such and make a lot out of him!”

Such a man as this who had not lived four years with a fellow fraternity man like Norris; who had been simply a member of a club in Yale could not appreciate how we of the old guard felt towards this member of the class of 1894 in Delta Xi Chapter. It is Norris the Fiji – Norris the Lovable Fellow – Norris the Man whom we remember and not Norris the Novelist.

After his return from Paris, Frank Norris went to a small preparatory school, Urban Academy, in San Francisco in the latter 1880s and entered the University of California in the fall of 1890 with the class of 1894. He lived in a house on the north side of Bancroft Way, just east of Dana Street and around the corner from the first Fiji House on that latter street. He was a tall, gaunt, sallow-complexioned young fellow, yet strikingly handsome and distinguished in his general appearance, according to Brother Ralph L. Hathorn 1893, to whom and to Brother William Penn Humphreys 1894, I am indebted for this description of the young freshman of twenty. Eccentric in his dress and still possessed of some French mannerisms from his early student days in Paris, Norris entered college as a special in English literature. For the first five months, absorbed in his work, he kept closely to himself making but few acquaintances and no close friends. All the fraternities were unaware of the measure of man who had come into the college life of Berkeley.

How He Became a Fiji

As befitted the man, his introduction to a member of Phi Gamma Delta was intensely interesting. Some time in December of 1890, a heavy storm had driven a large vessel ashore below the Cliff House in San Francisco. Thousands of spectators journeyed out to the beach to view the wreck, braving the raging wind and driving rain to witness the heavy seas and great combing breakers pound the ship to pieces on the shore before them. Ralph Hathorn, late that afternoon, saw a young fellow standing near him in the chill of this winter’s afternoon without overcoat or protection from the rain or wind and invited the drenched and shivering youth to share his umbrella with him. With this stirring drama of the sea as a setting, there started here the basis of a cherished friendship which lasted through the life of the pair, for the wet, bedraggled youngster was Norris the freshman.

Hathorn and Norris had dinner that same evening in the men’s grill of the old Palace Hotel and the menu probably was thick juicy fillets for which the hotel was famous then as now; French fried potatoes, bowls of lettuce salad, with a couple of bottles of Chevalier Cabernet accompanying – all, as Hathorn fondly remembers, for a trifle over a dollar per. Somehow or other, we lived in those days.

Immediately afterwards, Frank’s name was proposed for membership in Delta Xi Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta. Discouraging opposition and complete indifference upon the part of a few was met by immediate enthusiasm upon the part of other members. One senior and one junior refused to make the slightest effort either to see the youngster or to come to any decision after they had met him. This indifference almost lost the prospect and other fraternities started to rush Norris. Gradually his irresistible charm and magnetic personality won over the opposition and, on June 10, 1891, Benjamin Franklin Norris signed the roll book of Delta Xi Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta.

A little later on, the “Benjamin” became “B” and was later completely dropped from his signature and the strong, simple name became Frank Norris and as such the world knows him. His early signatures to art works and stories are models of interesting chirography.

Bored With Routine

It was but a short time after his initiation in the fraternity when Frank Norris came into his own and became one of the most popular and beloved men in the entire college. One of his confreres writes of him:

“My mental picture of Frank the freshman (I a junior) is that of a likeable fellow of patrician blood, living in a Continental rather than an American atmosphere, Bohemian in social inclinations, responsive to the beautiful and imaginative in art and life yet disorderly and unsystematic in personal habits and mental attitude. He was restless and bored with the routine of college discipline.”

Yet withal, his brilliant literary ability, his congenial good fellowship and his intense enthusiasm for whatever he did, made him one of the most distinguished leaders in the life of the University of California of his time. Shortly after his initiation, Norris moved his belongings into the Fiji House on Dana Street near Bancroft Way and entered immediately into the spirit of the chapter. He lived there for the remainder of his college life. With him in that sterling class of 1894 were H. M. Wright, Edward A. Selfridge, Jr., Harry Rhodes and J. H. Gilmore, all of whom have been successful in their chosen fields of endeavor.

Frank’s room in the old Dana Street house was a curiosity and never to be forgotten by those who looked in through the ever-open doorway. There was not a space upon the wall where you could put the palm of your hand, covered as it was with souvenirs of his life in Paris and of those occurrences which had interested him in his active past. The old chair in which he sat while studying has a hole in the right hand arm rest where he used to keep tapping away with a small pen knife blade.

The Notorious Monkey

Brother Humphreys distinctly remembers one night when Frank Norris returned at a late hour from San Francisco. He went to his room and closed the door. During the night, loud sounds emanated from Frank’s room but no one paid any attention to them. The sounds were still continuing the next morning when the Fijis were going down to breakfast so Humphreys opened the door to see what caused the disturbance. There was Norris asleep upon the bed and the room was a wreck. The decorations were in a heap upon the floor and, in the midst of the chaos, was the monkey which afterwards became quite notorious about Berkeley. The companion of the night before upon the ferry trip across the Bay was the cause of all this havoc.

“An Exile’s Toast” was written by Frank Norris in 1900 when he was living in Roselle, New Jersey. With the approach of the annual big game with Stanford, Frank found himself lonely and craving for the good times we Fijis used to have at this period with the result that the toast was written and mailed so that it was read at the annual Fiji dinner. We who heard Brother H. M. Wright read the verses utterly failed to realize what would be the future of the Exile’s Toast. In fact, it is a wonder that the original was ever saved for posterity.

Was Naturally Conspicuous

Frank Norris took part in the college dramatics and would have made a name for himself upon the professional stage had he chosen that branch of art for his future career. He wrote the ritual and other ceremonials for Skull and Keys, the junior/senior society at the University of California, which still ranks as an honor society. If I am not mistaken, Norris was the originator of the plotting of football plays for the daily press. It is easy to remember him, moving up and down the side lines during the games, cane hung upon his left forearm, pencil busy on a reporter’s pad while he sketched the plays of the afternoon. He was always a conspicuous figure wherever he went but this came naturally to him and never for a moment did he ever seem to strive for individuality. His was a personality which needed no false embellishments, no bizarre settings to make him occupy the position his latent abilities entitled him to possess.

There are many phases of the life of Frank Norris in old Delta Xi Chapter which we who knew him could dwell upon but I have used too much space as it is. In closing permit me to say that the regard and affection which Frank Norris created amongst those fortunate enough to have known him in those and the latter days of his life have lasted through the subsequent years and we all feel better and happier for his having been amongst us.

He was the embodiment of true college fraternity life. He idealized its associations and believed in them. Phi Gamma Delta is better because of that freshman of 1890, and, as the ranks thin of those who knew and loved Frank Norris, even perhaps the demand for present day efficiency in our fraternity to the contrary, perchance the influence of Frank Norris may help to place true idealized brotherly love above the lesser qualifications attendant upon membership in Phi Gamma Delta. Heaven help the 2 x 4 whose shelves may be weighted down with efficiency cups, whose bosom bulges with scholarship medals but whose heart has never felt the increased pulse from the hearty handclasp of a Frank Norris. And Phi Gamma Delta is blessed with many such; so the youngster of today had far better believe that his associations of today will certainly outlast the fervor of youth and ornament the environment of the future – better an error in addition than that life in Phi Gamma Delta should pulse to the clatter of an adding machine.

1 Our research indicates the Old Poodle Dog’s pre-1906 address was Bush and DuPont (renamed Grant after the 1906 earthquake).
Reprinted from The Phi Gamma Delta Volume 52, Number 6, April 1930, pp.560-566.