“People see a swan and think, Oh, how serene and graceful and beautiful,” Tamara Barak Aparton was saying the other day, referring to San Francisco’s best-known swan, Blanche (1994-2023). Aparton is the spokesperson for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, and, in that capacity, she is deputized to speak on behalf of the waterfowl that have long resided on the lagoon at the Palace of Fine Arts. “Swans seem very romantic,” she went on, “but Blanche had a hell of a life.”
Granted, most of Blanche’s days were halcyon. She was born at the Palace, a massive pastiche of Greek and Roman influence built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The lagoon in front of the structure, an oblong-shaped pond about two city blocks long, was part of the original design, and the architect, Bernard Maybeck, wanted swans on it to further its aura of peace and tranquility. Never mind that, as pretty as they are, swans are considered the assholes of the bird kingdom—aggressive, bitey, belligerent. Maybeck insisted, so swans were procured. They quickly became fan favorites with visitors to the Palace and have lived there for more than a hundred years, with only a few swanless periods during that time. (One such period was during an avian-flu outbreak in the nineteen-seventies.) The lagoon has been featured in countless wedding portraits and graduation photos and film shoots, including Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” According to Aparton, the birds were practically synonymous with the Palace of Fine Arts.
Blanche was actually a bit of a stork’s surprise. In the mid-nineties, the pair of swans then residing at the lagoon, Friday and Stella, were both believed to be females. This was the preferred arrangement for the lagoon, because female swans are more mild-mannered than males. More important, a nonbreeding pair meant that the caretakers wouldn’t have to worry about a ballooning swan population around the Palace; mute swans (the species at the lagoon and the one most often deployed for decorative purposes) are not native to the United States and are considered invasive. But Friday laid a clutch of eggs that produced a passel of baby swans, evidently fathered by Stella (who was thereafter known as Stella the Fella). Blanche was a product of the couple’s second clutch of eggs. For a time, little Blanche lived happily with her parents; her sisters Knuckles and Monday II (the first Monday was her grandmother); and her brother Mortimer—all merrily spending their days yanking slimy strands of algae from the bottom of the lagoon and cadging handouts of stale saltines from appreciative visitors. Her early years were marred only by a seagull attack, which left a scar on her beak.
Then things went all Greek tragedy. In 2001, Mortimer wrongheadedly fell for his sister Knuckles. That was bad enough, but, when their misbegotten eggs hatched, Mortimer became insanely protective and territorial. In a rage, he killed his father, Stella, and brutally assaulted his mother. (After the attack, Mortimer, Knuckles, and their babies were moved to protective custody outside the city.) It gets worse. In 2010, persons unknown kidnapped Friday. She was missing for six months, until she was located in the back yard of a private home in the city. (After her ordeal, she was placed with an animal rescuer outside San Francisco.) Then, in November of that year, Monday II was found dead. Her neck had been broken and her body left floating in the lagoon; a pile of empty beer cans lay on the ground nearby. Blanche was now alone.
Throughout all these calamities, though, Blanche maintained what observers considered a preternatural equanimity. “She loved children. She loved people. She was amazing,” Gayle Hagerty, who has served as the swans’ volunteer caretaker since 1993, said in a statement. “She was a lovely, sweet, patient bird,” she told me. She enjoyed posing for pictures. She could be theatrical. “She was not mean,” Aparton said. “I can’t say that for her family members.” But now she was also lonely, so Hagerty decided that she would spring for a companion. She eventually found a bird, whom she named Blue Boy, and he and Blanche coupled up. To manage the inevitable result—more swans—Hagerty went one of two routes. Sometimes she swapped Blanche’s eggs for fake ones that she’d handcrafted from clay or plaster; if the eggs were simply taken away, Blanche would have laid more. When Blanche outsmarted the fake-egg approach by hiding her eggs, Hagerty would round up the resultant youngsters and clip their flight feathers so that they wouldn’t be able to leave the lagoon on their own. Most of them were then placed with private owners.
Peace settled on the Palace, at least for a while. But the tribulations in Blanche’s life returned. In 2021, Blue Boy, who was then seventeen years old, died of suspected metal poisoning. The metal might have come from assorted trash (paint cans, automobile transmissions, rubbish) that people had thrown into the lagoon over the years, or possibly from spare change that the swans swallowed, or from some other, undetected source in the lagoon’s soil. Blanche’s blood work revealed that she, too, had unhealthy levels of metal in her blood. Not long after, avian flu was raging again. The lagoon is a stopover point for migratory birds who might carry the flu, so, last July, Blanche was bundled off to a sanctuary in Sonoma County. (For all her calm and composure, Blanche was also pretty wily; it took Hagerty two months to catch her.)
The move to Sonoma was meant to be temporary, while the Parks Department performed more soil tests around the lagoon and waited out the flu. Blanche, though, acted as if she had lucked into a condo on the eighteenth hole at the Villages. According to Hagerty, “She ruled the roost,” and the other swans “recognized her as a queen.” One of the other swans in residence was Blanche’s son Stanley, who became her regular companion. Blanche was elderly, in swan terms, and the metal poisoning certainly debilitated her, but her death came as a surprise. The Parks Department has been swamped with calls from people remembering their encounters with Blanche, lamenting her passing, and wondering when the city will bring new swans to the Palace. Aparton said that consulting with the San Francisco Zoo to figure out whether the lagoon can be safe for swans will come first, and then, perhaps, the next generation of big white birds will appear at the Palace of Fine Arts. With luck, at least one of them will be as obliging as Blanche. “She was,” Aparton said, “the rare sanguine swan.” ♦
Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. If you’d like to propose a subject for an Afterword piece, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.