Why is this man dancing?
No one came closer than Keeler to formulating a
Theory of Berkeley – or to living it.

Life is best when lived as much as possible out of
doors. Your home too should seem part of the
outdoors. Fine art must be experienced every
day – paintings, poetry, sculpture. Keep close
tabs on your community. Figure out what is best
for the people around you then make it happen,
either individually or by joining or leading a
group.  Study nature as closely as you can – but
don’t forget the spiritual side of life. An evening is
best spent with friends listening to music or
attending the theater – or making music or theater

Ready for bed? First pull out your pen and
describe your day and your thoughts and your

Keeler, who moved to Berkeley with his family at
age 16, never graduated from Cal but made a
mark there nonetheless by establishing the
Evolution Club to promote Darwin’s
controversial theory. (After spotting the club’s
leader, with long hair and intense brown eyes, co-
ed Louise Mapes Bunnell developed a sudden
interest in Darwin. They married a few years later
and collaborated – Louise as designer – on some
of the best Arts and Crafts publication produced
in the Bay Area.)

At Cal, Charley discovered a new species of
lizard, analyzed mammalian vertebrae, mastered
photography, and discussed the philosopher-
evolutionist Herbert Spencer and the Fourth
Gospel while walking the hills with philosophy
professor George Howison. “He came out strong
and plain against miracles,” Keeler wrote Louise.
And Keeler did finally learn to dance. (“I shall
come out to dinner Friday night in my dancing
pumps and best paces whether you will or no!”)

By 1892 he was working at the California
Academy of Science and exploring the fauna of
the Farallones Islands. His first book came out
the next year, “The Evolution of Colors of North
American Land Birds.” In 1899 he accompanied
Muir, naturalist John Burroughs and other
scientists on the famous Harriman expedition to
Alaska, forming friendships that would last. He
hiked with Muir in the Sierra and helped form the
Sierra Club.

In Berkeley, when the women who formed the
Hillside Club to advocate for naturalistic planning
in the Hills – they were influenced by Maybeck
and Keeler – needed men in their organization to
give it political clout (this was before women had
the vote), Keeler became president and molded it
into a political force. His ambitions, as ever, were
huge. He saw the club as the start of a statewide
movement for architectural improvement.

Gradually Keeler began devoting more time to
writing, and turned out volumes: bird books,
nature essay, travels to Northern California,
Southern California, “Tahiti the Golden” (1902),
plays, poems for children including the popular
“Elfin Songs of Sunland.”

Like many of Berkeley’s artists and writers,
Keeler was stylistically conservative. “The great
problem with regard to beauty as I see it today,”
he wrote a friend in 1929, “is that the so-called
‘new art,’ modernistic art encourages and
glorifies ugliness in the name of art. They want to
be so free that they throw away both nature and
technique, and make horrible and revolting
nightmares which they justify as the personal
expression of the free artist. They are in fact
psychopathic schizophrenics in whom the normal
standards of beauty in nature have been swept
away and their grotesque fantasies have
supplanted them.”

After Louise died in 1907 – she had been ill, and
apparently weakened after devoting weeks
helping San Francisco earthquake victims who
had taken refuge in Berkeley, Keeler found
himself raising three children by himself,
Merodine, Leonarde, Eloise. (He finally re-
married in 1921, after staving off poet Ormeida
Curtis for years, pleading poverty.)

His mother watched the children while Keeler
took his show on the road, attracted 250
Europeans to a reading at Tokyo’s Imperial
Hotel in 1911, followed by successes in Hong
Kong and Manila. He performed in Paris and
London, met every literary figure he cared to, and
was soon settled in New York, first on a friend’s
farm upstate, then in the city. In exchange for his
daughters’ tuition, Keeler gave a course of 60
lectures at a girls school in Ossining.

But ultimately Keeler had little luck outside
Berkeley. Keeler spent his days hustling after his
one big break and his nights writing in a series of
lonely and increasingly shabby apartments.

“Life in New York is proceeding at the usual
pace – a continuous procession of events which
keeps me bussy all the time but so far have led
me to no decisive results,” he wrote his mother in
1914. “The other morning I went to two of the
big department stores, Altmann’s and McGreary’
s, and recited the ‘Elfin Songs’ to the employees.
They were very hearty in their response, but I
don’t know whether it will lead to the sale of
many books.”

“My days are so very full that I go from one
appointment to the next with the regularity of a
machine. It is all in the line of making my work
known, but so far without decisive result.”

One possibility – a series of movies starring
Eloise. “I have only to go through anything once
with her for her to get the idea of pauses,
emphasis, rhythm and expression exactly,” he

Keeler had successes. His poems were set to
music. His “The Enchanted Forest,” which he
wrote in thre nights between midnight and 2 a.m.,
attracted a full audience – including tenor John
McCormack -- to the Waldorf-Astoria. He
wrote it in three nights, between midnight and 2.
Complete with full ochestra, the constant play of
lights, and a rare old tapestry as backdrop, the
play cast its spell. The audience made not a
sound. “Poor little Eloise” fainted from the
No one did more than Charles Keeler
to create a theory of Berkeley
Still, his mother’s checks helpd pay the rent and
by 1917, Keeler “really feared I might find
myself here with no money to pay for my room
or to buy food,”

Back in Berkeley by the start of World War I,
Keeler was soon back to form, involved with the
Rotary and Bohemain clubs, attending salons
and concerts, and writing incessantly. For seven
years, 1921-1928, Keeler had the unusual – for
a poet – experience of managing the Chamber of
Commerce, a job he handled well, boosting dues
while quadrupling membership and tackling such
divisive issues as the future of Berkeley
waterfront. His stance cost him the job.

“The work was most uncongenial to me in many
respects,” he wrote several years later, while
seeking work as the city librarian, “but I stayed
with it for seven years and was finally
unceremoniously turned out by a minority group
who wished to extend the industrial zone in a
manner that seems to me and to many others a
great misfortune to Berkeley.”

Keeler had already embarked on the project that
should have gained him worldwide acclaim – the
Cosmic Society. “It is as old as time,” he said of
the “religion,” which was as much about art as
spirituality – and had much to do with Keeler’s
desperate attempts to earn a “a dependable

The plans were characteristically ambitious,
though, and Cosmic religion got off to a good
start with a pamphlet, “An Epitome of Cosmic
Religion,” 1925, some firm backers (including
police chief August Vollmer but not, Keeler
complained, a single university professor), and
an offer of 120 free acres in the Berkeley Hills.

“If civilization is to survive, a new religious
consciousness must help to unite the world,”
Keeler wrote. His religion was based on “the
common religious bond in which all religions
share,” “the trinity of love, truth and beauty.”
Keeler planed book of Cosmic Prayers, Cosmic
Suggestions, the Cosmic 10 Commandments,
and a Cosmic wedding ceremony.

“Cosmic Society is sane, balanced, normal, but
radical in that it breaks with all the traditions of
superstition and looks for evolution and
education to build the spiritual life…in its
insistence on beauty it makes an universal appeal
much as the Catholic Church in its virile prime in
the Middle Ages did,” he wrote.

“It is the dream of the founder of Cosmic
Religion that a temple may be built in the
Berkeley Hills, of such surpassing loveliness that
to enter its doors will compel a spirit of
worship,” Keeler wrote. “Within such a temple
would be the magic of modern lighting producing
strangely beautiful effects falling upon moving
water, stained glass designs, mural paintings
symbolic of Cosmic Religion, sculpture and
carvings. There would be organ music, chamber
music, a symphony orchestra and choir, dramatic
pageants and allegories rendered.”

“It would be more beautiful than the Taj Mahal.
It would have three wings each devoted to one
of the trinity of love, truth and beauty. It would
have a color organ which would make strange
and marvelous effects of changing flood lights.”

The temple, in other words, would not have
been brown shingled.

Keeler based on the society’s organization on
that of the Chamber, the Rotary Club, and Boy
Scouts and expected to serve as its paid
director. He tried to start branches in Los
Angeles and Washington D.C., and insisted, “If
Cosmic Religion societies are organized, they
will be required to receive their charters from the
Berkeley headquarters.”

Keeler ran the society for several years, often
meeting before the fireplace at Charles and
Sulgwyn Quitzow’s Passmore studio, or at Mary
McHenry Keith’s hillside home where members
could enjoy Keith paintings. Evenings featured
piano, violin or vocal recitals. One night
Hiroshige prints were display one by one with
light shiningion each. Keeler prepared enough
lectures and slide shows for 150 evenings. One
dealt with Periclean Athens.

Members –about 50 – would also talk about
their lives and problems and would help each
other out and patronize each others businesses.
Much like Rotary.

Keeler never flagged. Although a novel about a
chamber of commerce, “Bayville Boosters,”
failed to find a publisher, his radio plays –
“Skipper Brown’s Yarns,” “Tales in a California
Garden.” “Around the World with Keeler” --
proved popular.

Still, the Keeler household, which remained at
his wonderful studio in the hills, required regular
checks from Leonarde. “I have lost influence in
the last few years,” Keeler confessed to
Leonarde a year before his death in 1937, “and
not many people who count in the world are
anymore interested in me.”

NOTE: This chapter is a bit longer than the
version that runs in the book. Enjoy!
Just a bit on Charles Keeler -- from the pages of "It
Came from Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed the World.
CHARLES KEELER in costume for his play "Triumph of
Light." Courtesy of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage