In his latest book, Bloom (Journalism/Univ. of Iowa; Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, 2009, etc.) chronicles the life and exploits of Inez Burns (1886-1976), a flamboyant, unapologetic libertine who rose to prominence as the most notorious abortionist in California in the first half of the 20th century.
Born in San Francisco to a hardscrabble, no-nonsense mother and an alcoholic father, Burns refused the limited life options available to women of the era. Taken under the wing of a charming suitor who also happened to be an abortionist, she learned how to perform the procedure herself. Before long, she opened her own facility and became the most in-demand abortion provider in California as well as a major player in San Francisco’s underworld. Eventually, her success provoked the ire of up-and-coming district attorney Pat Brown. His attempts to bring her down are at the heart of the narrative in the form of an engaging courtroom drama. Bloom’s San Francisco is almost a character in itself, as he provides a rich history of the city as well as insight into the changing tides of 20th-century culture, especially regarding nascent feminism and the struggle for reproductive rights. While Burns possessed many traits worthy of admiration, she was not without a dark side, and Bloom’s portrait is by no means that of a saint, despite his sympathy for his subject. The author’s prose is breezy and conversational, and his subject is controversial enough to make the book read more like a thriller than an academic biography, despite the breadth of scholarship on display. The book is less engaging when Bloom strays from his main subject to report on the large cast of supporting characters. Thankfully, the author seems to understand this, and he keeps the spotlight shining squarely on the mercurial Burns.
Bloom rescues an important figure from the dustbin of history. Burns receives the storyteller she deserves and can now occupy her proper place in the intersectional histories of feminism, law, and the San Francisco underworld.