In 1850, eight year-old Lillie Hitchcock arrived in San Francisco with her parents, her father just appointed the Army Medical Director of the Pacific Coast – and she quickly became a fire buff.
Lille was fifteen when on her way home from school she spotted the plight of the Knickerbocker Engine Company #5 volunteer firemen struggling to negotiate a steep Telegraph Hill street, and tossing her books to the ground, ran to a vacant place on the rope. There she exerted all her strength and pulled, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and yelling: “Come on, you men! Everybody pull!”
“Pretty and impulsive,” recalled a Battalion Chief after her death, she was “the tale of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Saragossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.” Made an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company #5 in 1863, Lillie wore her No. 5 badge with pride for the rest of her life including, according to stories, on her monogrammed underclothes. She loved taking firemen out to dinners after they had finished extinguishing the flames and, as a socialite with means, could well afford it. The City heroine attended firemen banquets and marched in their parades.
You would think that this thrill-seeking groupie would walk down the aisle with a fireman. Instead she married one Howard Coit, the “caller” of the San Francisco Stock Exchange, and they separated 16 years later. Lillie never remarried.
“Firebelle Lil” smoked cigars and wore long trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. Both traits served her well as an avid gambler who would dress like a man in order to gamble in the male-only establishments that dotted North Beach.
Upon her death, she left one-third of her considerable (only child) estate to the beautification of the City she loved. There is no direct evidence that Lillie ever discussed how her bequest would be spent, much less requesting a specific monument. But the form it took had people speculating.
San Francisco historian “Dr. Wierde” observes: “Two schools of thought grew up, both centering on Mrs. Coit’s notorious obsession fires and firemen. According to one, the tower represented a giant fire hydrant or hose nozzle. The other, more scurrilous rumor (which we shamelessly repeat here) is that the notable erection represents the stiff, upwardly pointing phallus of Mrs. Coit’s fantasy fireman, excited by the glories of the blaze he is battling. Indeed, Mrs. Coit’s love of fires went beyond the bounds of normalcy. Whenever a fire broke out in the City, she was generally first in line among the rubberneckers, and according to one account ‘drolling with admiration as her heroic firemen manhandled their gigantic, turgid, pulsating hoses, ejaculating great gobs of water at the blaze.'”
During the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s (no relation) 1958 movie Vertigo, shot in San Francisco, he was keen that Coit tower appear prominently in the background through James Stewart’s window. When the Art Director inquired why, Hitchcock replied: “Coit Tower is a phallic symbol.”
Coit Memorial Statue, Washington Park, San Francisco
Lillie is buried in the Hitchcock family mausoleum at Cypress Lawn. A stone’s throw away lies the memorial for her friend, architect Arthur Brown, who designed San Francisco City Hall, the Hitchcock mausoleum, and Coit Tower.
Terry Hamburg, Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation