Archive for June, 2007

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here

This story came to mind the other day and since it relates to the Janice story, however tangentially, I thought this might be a good time to tell it.

In 1947 a group of New York artists (and the heavy-weight gallery operator Edith Halpert) decided to form an organization to protect artists’ rights modeled after Actors Equity hence named Artists Equity Association. (A digression: one of the founders was a famous Hungarian-American Communist activist, Hugo Gellert. Among other things he did cartoons for The New Masses which is how most people knew of him. His most famous cartoon shows a slatternly and angry housewife stirring a pot on the stove while her husband, in his underwear, sits at the kitchen table. The wife says, “I have to slave over a hot stove all day while you get to work in a nice cool sewer.”  Being Hungarian he was acquainted with my grandfather, who was a journalist known to most expatriate Hungarians. He was also the uncle of one of my high school friends, Jane Gellert.)

The first president of this new organization was Yasuo Kuniyoshi, my mother’s teacher.

For the first couple of years of their existence Artists Equity threw a huge, wild New Year’s Eve costume party in the old Manhattan Opera House. They gave out prizes for the best costume and prizes for the nudest costume and so on. Since some of the models showed up in high-heel shoes and nothing else, one of them always won the latter. At midnight a grand parade was organized and everyone joined in snaking around the large ballroom floor. For at least a couple of years the Grand Marshall and Queen of the parade were Julio de Diego and his wife Gypsy Rose Lee. It was a comical sight. De Diego was a short man, perhaps 5’ 4”, perhaps a little more. Gypsy Rose Lee was a tall woman and, of course, she wore very high heels and a big ostrich feather device on her head, creating an image well over six feet tall. There were jokes about an organ grinder and his monkey and other sorts of mean cracks.

An important part of the festivities was a program, a printed booklet of 30 or so pages mostly made up of advertisements with the artwork done by the artist members. The way this worked was, if you got the advertiser, you got the art job, which was done by etching directly on the zinc plates used to print the program. The revenue from the ads went towards defraying the cost of the party.

My father was an electrical engineer who, among other things, had a reputation for innovative lighting designs. In the course of his work he became friends with Herbert Kliegl, the owner of KliegLights, the famous theatrical light manufacturer. As a consequence my mother got a full page ad in the party program, a real coup.

The last I saw of Kuniyoshi was at one of these parties. The party was winding down. I was at the foot of the stairs, at the entrance. On top of the very long flight of stairs, 50 or 60 steps worth, was Kuniyoshi, very drunk, a twisted wire clothes hanger in his left hand which he was admiring as though it were a Rodin, and his right arm draped over Karl Fortess’ shoulder for support. Fortess was hanging onto the hand rail for dear life. Fortess was Yas’ chief sycophant in those days and was, therefore, despised by Kuniyoshi’s students and friends, but he got a teaching position at the League out of his brown-nosing so didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. Kuniyoshi died within a couple years of this occasion.

A month or two after one of the parties my mother got a mid-afternoon phone call. What I heard went like this: “Hello. Who? Who!? Oh! Oh!” and then an explanation for how she got the KlieglLights ad. It appears Gypsy Rose Lee was then the newsletter editor for AGVA, the American Guild of Variety Artists, a performers union. She wanted to try to get Kliegl to advertise in the AGVA newsletter. When she called she identified herself as Mrs. Julio de Diego which accounted for my mother’s confusion and delayed recognition. My mother explained that it was my father who had gotten the ad and gave her his work number.

When she called my father’s office (I think he was at Guy Panero at that time) she identified herself to the receptionist as Gypsy Rose Lee. The other guys in the office took turns coming up to touch my father.

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here


Starting in 1955 or ’56 my first wife, Terry, and I started going to the Hungry i, perhaps to see Irwin Corey who was a favorite of ours in our Greenwich Village days. Corey was a regular at the Village Vanguard which we went to on occasion. I do not know exactly when the following story took place but I can at least box it in from other indicators. I know that at the time Lou Gottlieb was still a doctoral candidate at UC and that he got the degree in 1958. So I conclude that the following occurred in 1956 or ’57. Someone may be able to narrow the date down by knowing the date of the record mentioned toward the end. (Chantal Ni Laoghaire of Gateway Singers on CD tells me that the record with Puttin’ on the Style on the first side and Midnight Special on the flip side, was published in 1957.)



Without doubt on this occasion we went to hear some comic, perhaps Corey, perhaps Mort Sahl. There was a new “folk music” quartet performing between sets by the featured performer. I put the quotes in because we folk song cognoscenti turned our noses up at these nightclub acts, they were faux folk, too slick, lacking the authenticity, the grittiness, etc., etc. This group, called the Gateway Singers, was, nonetheless, very entertaining and the comic patter by their bass fiddle (!) strumming leader, Lou Gottlieb, showed that they were not taking themselves too seriously which was disarming.

The four musicians were Lou Gottlieb, Jerry Walter who played banjo (and, I think, guitar in some pieces), Travis Edmondson who had grown up in Mexico and could play elegant Spanish guitar as well as the less intricate styles required for most of their pieces and Elmerlee Thomas, a woman with a big gospel style contralto – not Mahalia size to be sure, but big and clear, a real pleasure to listen to. All the group sang as well as played their respective instruments and were good at that too – and very enthusiastic.

One of the pieces they sang that night was Lead Belly’s Midnight Special. I don’t remember if they sang the “Down come Miss Rosie…” stanza first, as Lead Belly often did. They may have started with

When you gets up in the mornin’, when that big bell ring
For they march you to the table you see the same old thing.
Knife and fork are on the table and nothin’s in my pan
When you say anything about it, have trouble with the man.

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-lovin’ light on me.

Then they attempted the “If you ever go to Houston …” stanza. They had the first two lines correctly done but the next two were a mess – not quite Bing Crosby’s bubba bubba doo but not much better either.

Banducci required his performers to go to the bar and mix with the audience in the intermissions – a nice idea. So, in the first intermission I approached Gottlieb and Walter and asked them if they knew what the Houston stanza meant. They admitted that they picked up the words from a record and could not make heads nor tails of that verse. (Just to give them credit for trying: I looked at lyrics in at least two dozen websites these last couple of days and not one of them had the right words for this stanza. Some of them verge on the bizarre in their senselessness.)

I told them that Sugarland was operated as a huge cotton farm with the labor supplied by the prisoners. The arrangement the state had with the county was that the state paid a minimum daily allowance for feeding and maintaining the prisoners, something like a dollar (or less) per prisoner per day. The county grew, harvested and sold the cotton. From the proceeds the county was to repay the state for as much as they could. If there were any excess, it went to the county (or perhaps the sheriffs and judges involved – I am not clear on that).  The result was that the prisoners were underfed and brutally overworked. When enough of them were inconsiderate enough to die, the sheriffs would go into the black district and recruit as many as were needed and the judges would give them nice long sentences so they could have steady life-long jobs.

The names of the sheriffs were Bass and Brocker. The names of the judges were Peyton and Boone. The correct verse is:

If you ever go to Houston, boy you better walk right,
And you better not squabble, and you better not fight;
Bass and Brocker will arrest you, Peyton and Boone will send you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar that you are Sugarland bound.

I told them that all of this could be confirmed, particularly the correct verses, in John Lomax’s Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Gottlieb had the UC library available to him so that he would have no trouble getting the book.

While I was imparting all of this to Lou and Jerry there was a young, quite drunk Beat sitting on the edge of his barstool next to us, eavesdropping on the whole conversation. He then started on the line “What difference does it make? The audience won’t know all that crap” and so on. When I protested that the singers at least should know and understand the meaning, he started getting hostile. Gottlieb stepped between us and that was the end of the whole affair.


A few months later we went to the Hungry i again. There were three aisles in the auditorium, one down the center from the entryway, and two coming in at right angles from the sides ending at the front edge of the stage. The performers entered from the right side of the house. I was sitting on that aisle with Terry to my right. The Gateway Singers were announced, the house lights turned down and as they entered Gottlieb gave me a firm pat on the left shoulder. When they were in place their first selection was Midnight Special and when they got to the Houston verse the instruments were silenced, Gottlieb sang the stanza as I gave it to them a capella while looking at me. A nice gesture.

In the bar later Lou and Jerry told me that maybe the audience didn’t know the difference but they sure did and that as soon as they started singing the right verse it sort of clicked, it went over better.

A few months later they made a single record with Midnight Special on the second side. It sold very well and one of them told me that they thought people were buying it more for the second side than the first (Puttin’ on the Style).

Postscript: In the fall of 1976 I did my first three week stint for The Institute for Software Engineering, one week in Elmsford, New York, one week in Washington D.C. and the final week in Atlanta. In Washington I was put up in a small, third rate hotel on M Street (we were just starting out and had to economize). In the elevator with me was a young man with a guitar case. I exchanged pleasantries with Travis Edmonson, told him how much I had liked his work at the Hungry i. That was the last time I ever saw any of the group.

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here

When I had worked at Pacific Gas and Electric for about 11 months, Bob Rydjord, who had worked with me at the Naval Supply Center, told me of a new organization that he had joined in the Office of the President of the University of California and asked me to interview for a position there. I declined because I felt I had an obligation to my staff and colleagues at PG & E. However, after another three months, I couldn’t take it any longer (I told my boss in an exit interview that they weren’t paying me for the work I was doing but for the pain I was enduring) and took a job as Manager for Technical Development in the Statewide Administration (the President’s office) at the beginning of July 1968. My boss was George Turner who reported to the Vice-President Business and Finance, Fred Balderston (who was succeeded by Graeme Bannerman that same year). The President was Charles Hitch who took over after Reagan fired Clark Kerr. (Kerr was very witty. He said to the press on his dismissal, “Both when I took this job and when I left it, I was fired with enthusiasm.” He once gave a definition of a university, which went something like this: “A university is a loose association of academic entrepreneurs whose only common concern is parking spaces.”)

There was a good deal of unrest in Berkeley at the time, some of it the continuation of the Free Speech Movement of 1964 but mostly it was new grievances over the Viet Nam war, the draft and related matters. In October, when the school year began, things heated up considerably and then, in early 1969, the Peoples Park controversy really threw gasoline on the fire. As the Establishment (Reagan) escalated the violence of the encounters, the protesters responded in kind. When I would arrive at work around eight in the morning, there was lingering smell of tear gas from the events of the previous night. I used to say that sufficiently attenuated, tear gas has a rather nice, spicy odor.

Despite all of this there were amusing, even funny, things happening as well. (An example: the offices of the campus police were in the basement of Sproul Hall. Tear gas is heavier than air so after the National Guard helicopters gas-bombed Sproul Plaza the gas would drift down into the police office. One time after such an incident I saw the mostly older women who staffed the office sitting on the stone steps of the building with their In- and Out-baskets, continuing their clerical duties.) The rest of this post is about just such an amusing incident.

Our computer was at the basement level but had an exterior entrance into a small parking facility on the south side of University Hall, Addison Street. Since I and my Systems Programming staff acted as technical support for the computing facility we also were in the basement but on the North side of the building, University Avenue. Next to my office was a building entrance which was used for a time to “sneak” members of the Regents in for their meetings. I sat with my back to the windows which looked out on a little paved area bordered with flowering thyme. I had a table behind me, and on that table some wonderful ichthyological technical illustrations done by my friend Howard Hammann. One day a software salesman named Mitch Rosen was trying to push his product. Since he was facing me, he was also looking out the window. There were a whole bunch of students there anticipating a Regents’ meeting. Mitch was clearly distracted and finally stopped and said, “I’ve never given a pitch under siege before.” I turned to see a group of students with their faces pressed up against the window trying to get a look at Howard’s drawings. I turned around, repositioned the pictures nearer the window and right side up for them and got smiles and signals of approval from the kids.

Here’s one of Howard’s pictures:


George and a few of our managers were on the first floor of U Hall but as the staff of analysts and programmers grew it was necessary to rent additional office space. The first such space was the second floor of an old two-floor commercial building on the southeast corner of Addison and Grove (now Martin Luther King), two blocks away from U Hall. This office was the source of all sorts of amusement and merriment.

The first floor was an old store front which was being used by the local draft board and the place received an altogether disproportionate amount of attention. Our staff learned very quickly to put all loose papers and other desktop materials into the drawers and to put all pictures and wall decorations on the floor on Friday afternoons because the draft board was sure to be bombed over the week-end.

Across Grove was the entrance to a path through City Hall park. The Berkeley police headquarters were on the ground floor of the old City Hall so they used that path to get to their offices. Flanking the entrance were two large, inverted, truncated pyramidal concrete planters and in each planter was a gigantic marijuana plant. Our people would stand at the window, holding their sides in laughter, watching the know-nothing cops walk in and out, in and out past the evil weeds. Eventually somebody must have tipped the cops off – the plants were ripped from their moorings.

Once I was standing around waiting for a meeting with one of the group leaders in front of a cubicle that belonged to a part time employee, a graduate student, who was not at his desk at the time. I was idly looking at the décor: a Che Guevara poster, a Viet Cong recruiting poster, a Fuck Housework poster and several more items of that ilk. Another member of the staff came up behind me and whispered in my ear, “There’s something here to offend everyone.” The cubicle’s occupant was a middle everything: middle middle class, middle western (Kansas for Christ’s sake) and so on. The “establishment” was creating radicals even from unlikely sources.

One of the Systems Analysts working in the Grove office was a young woman named Grace Gentry. When I was first introduced to her I immediately asked, “Are you Dick Gentry’s wife?” and she said she was. I did not know Dick but I certainly knew of him. He had been a Systems Engineer for IBM’s Alameda County account, part of the IBM sales division that dealt with Government, Education and Medical (GEM) as were the salesmen and SEs that I had dealt with at the Naval Supply Center. Dick had developed a transaction display description programming system for Alameda which became known as the Gentry Monitor (later called FASTER). I had done some analogous work at PG&E in my short stay there and so was conscious of such efforts. (Dick’s and my paths almost crossed in a number of ways over the years. The junior SE at Alameda was Lachman Sippy who was on my university staff. He later moonlighted for Dick. Seymour Rubenstein, who was the tech for Sanders Associates when I was in the process of selecting them for PG&E’s terminals and later the “father” of WordStar, also did some occasional work for Dick.)

One of the biggest irritants for the people working in that office was parking, or rather, the lack of parking. They had to find street parking along Addison, along Grove and even in Shattuck Square – all of which were metered spaces, so they had to go out every two hours and “feather” the meter. Often they missed the deadline and wound up with two dollar parking tickets, sometimes several in one day.


James Rector was shot-gunned on May 5, 1969 and died several days later. Berkeley was virtually in a state of civil war. Reagan and Meese brought in the National Guard to confirm that fact. One of the events that followed two or three weeks later, and now seems to be half forgotten, was the mass arrests of protestors in Shattuck Square. The armed command came up with a ploy to try and break the back of the protests. Somehow (I can’t remember just how it was done) they seduced a large crowd into Shattuck Square. Then they blocked all the exits with armored personnel carriers, jeeps, patrol cars, trucks and whatever heavy hardware was available. The National Guard and the various police agencies then started firing tear gas grenades into the crowd, who picked them up and hurled them back at the troops and troopers. I don’t remember whether helicopters were used in this incident – they probably were. Then a dozen or more buses, which had been staged for the event, were rolled into the square and the protestors loaded wholesale into them and carted off to the Santa Rita County jail, where some were beaten and otherwise abused. Four hundred eighty two people, including reporters and bystanders were arrested that day.

It was also a day in which Grace Gentry had parked her car at a meter in Shattuck square.


The rest of this story was told to me by some third party, probably Gene Portwood who was Grace’s supervisor, and so is hearsay to me – but I believe every syllable of it.

When it came time to feed the meter Grace walked the long block along Addison to Shattuck. When she got there WW III was under way as described above. While she stood there debating with herself whether to bother about the meter along came a Berkeley meter maid on her Cushman. She weaved between personnel carriers and jeeps, in front of sheriff’s patrol cars, past other parked cars and pulled up next to Grace’s car. Then, tears streaming down her face, she wrote out a parking citation and put it under the windshield wiper.

Grace didn’t see anything funny about it. Grace was outraged. Grace was furious. She was so furious that she decided to contest the citation and some time later appeared before a traffic court judge and told the story. He laughed so hard he nearly tipped over his chair. He tore up the two dollar ticket.

I thought the meter maid should have received a citation herself – for grace under fire.

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here


My mother started studying art in the early 1920s at Hunter High School which was very advanced for its day not only in art teaching but in social attitudes. For example, the “young ladies” had life classes where they drew and painted from nude models (I don’t recall if both genders were used). She took up her art training again in the late 30s, three or four years after my younger sister was born, at a class run by the WPA Arts Project, in downtown Flushing (near Main Street), taught by Bender Mark. A couple of years later she started classes at the Art Students League under Yasuo Kuniyoshi. In the early 40s she would summer in Woodstock where Kuniyoshi and a number of other League students and teachers would vacation. (There were a number of interesting and well known people there. I remember seeing Lillian Gish, who was playing in the local summer stock theater that year (she always wore a sort of pink-tan slack suit – she looked good, truck drivers passing Deannie’s would wolf-whistle). My mother became friendly with Eugene O’Neill Jr a few years before his suicide.)

After a couple of years with Kuniyoshi she decided to get a studio of her own in Manahattan and “Yas” told her one was available in the building where he had his studio. This was an old, rather rundown place of about six floors on the south side of 14th Street called the Janice Building after the low-priced women’s wear store on the ground floor. My mother’s studio was on the fourth or fifth floor, an exhausting climb (no elevator, of course). This unlikely place actually had quite a history in the art world. At the time, not only Kuniyoshi but his teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller were there as was one of the Soyer brothers (I can’t remember if it was Moses or Raphael – Raphael, I think). She took over her own studio from Nahum Tschacbasov  who used it for the couple of years he taught at the League and, somewhere in the distant past, Jules Pascin was there – his name was written on the door. (Added 6/18/2008: I remembered the other day that Reginald Marsh also had his studio in the Janice building. I probably forgot because I found his work distasteful – especially the barage-balloon women.)

(Long after I left New York, perhaps in the ‘70s, the building made the front page. It was owned and operated by the Hyer brothers, whose office was on the second floor, above the clothing shop. It was Nathan Hyer’s duty to extract rents from his impecunious artist tenants, which he often did with considerable relish. Needless to say, he was not widely loved. He made the headlines by being involved in a fratricide, in the office. I don’t remember whether he was the shooter or the shootee.)

My mother’s studio was at the back of the building at the end of the hall. There was a door which opened on to two other doors, one straight ahead to her place and the other at a right angle which was the entrance to  Bob Barrell’s studio. Her room was very modest, less than ten feet wide and a little more than twice as long with one dirty window at the far end. She had a single day-bed and a small chair, an easel and a rack to hold canvasses and the place was pretty much filled up. We often had parties in the combined studios, sometimes they were planned, such as New Year’s Eve, but mostly they “just happened” usually on Friday evenings.

There was an unusual mix of intelligent and talented people at these affairs whose lives unfolded in often surprising ways. I’ll tell about them and their histories, some of which I have just recently gleaned from various Web sources (in particular, and sadly, the dates of death for many of them).

First, is the rest of my mother’s story. She did a few dozen good paintings, some in nearly surrealist style and a number of more conventional still lifes, portraits and the like. (One dream scene, literally, showed a red temple-like structure – derived from some 1930s era National Geographic photos of Petra that I found in a store on 42nd street – and a variety of shattered sculptures, some marble, some polychromed, which I titled for her “Look on my works”.) She had a one “man” show at Peter Beaudoin’s Gallery Neuf on 57th street. My father abandoned her and took up with a woman from his office – and she never did another painting. She died in a San Rafael nursing home on April 1, 2006 just a few months before her 97th birthday.

Bob Barrell was something of an enigma. I found that his colleagues in art, Pete Busa and Howard Daum were much better covered than he in the sources that I could find and neither of them had even a small fraction of his ability or talent. The whole group (including some others that I did not know about) was intent on using Southwest Indian color and design as a method of treating space and dimension. Bob was a brilliant draftsman, had a deeper understanding of color-plane theory (which I think must have started with Cezanne) and had a wider knowledge of the history of technique (he would quote Delacroix’s journal on Rembrandt’s over-painting and so on) than anyone I ever encountered.

He was totally inept at promoting his own work and he refused to take a “day job” just to keep from starving – he would say that he wouldn’t compromise his art but I think the truth was that he didn’t know how to find a job, was afraid of rejection. As a result he lived in poverty, seeking handouts from friends (my mother and his brother Lloyd among others) and occasionally doing “contract work”, drawings and paintings to order. A principal in one of the major galleries (Wildenstein?) had him creating sequences of erotic drawings for a secret, unnamed client. I particularly remember a set entitled Lot and His Daughters which were magnificent. He also did some book illustrations for Tom Sloane at Devin-Adair (which led to other things which I will take up in a bit). While rummaging around in the usual Web sources for “Barrell”, without success, it occurred to me to look for other book illustrations and the American Book Exchange (abebooks.com) came through. I not only found that he had illustrated a volume of Lord Dunsany stories for Devin-Adair, published in 1954 just as I arrived in California, but was able to find a copy signed by Barrell which I bought. I also found that he had illustrated a nature book for New American Library and an article in the College Art Journal which is on JStor, which I cannot have access to, says something about Barrell and the “new” Hayden Planetarium. If anyone reading this can gain access, please send me a copy of that article (three pages).


The way he avoided starvation was painting – people’s apartments, usually friends or acquaintances. In another post I described our little cold-water flat on Sixth Avenue. The main room, which was on the order of fifteen feet on a side, was very dreary so we hired Bob to redecorate for us. We gave him a free hand, told him to do his damnedest. First, he discovered a wide, maybe eight feet, brick chimney on the Prince Street side that had been wickedly plastered over, stripped the plaster and cleaned the old sun-dried brick. Then he painted the four walls (which were punctured by windows and doorways) four different colors: a warm grey on the side with the chimney, an earth red on another, yellow ochre and – I forget. All of this was an application of color plane theory: the four walls no longer seemed to be attached to each other and some, like the yellow “retreated” (Barrell said that Jean Arp said that yellow recedes in an architectural setting – it advances in a painting). It was astonishing how the apparent space increased – no-one would believe us when we gave the actual dimensions of the room.

The last I heard about Barrell was that he was living in the Bowery. The Social Security Death Index shows his birth date as August 7, 1912 and his death in Middle Village, Queens on April 12, 1995. (Added in correction Feb. 14, 2008; from Don Merwin:

I remember Bob with great affection and was always a fan of his work. One slight correction: What I told you about Bob and the Bowery is the following–I was looking over a photographer’s portfolio (in connection with my work for the New York City Youth Board) and found a series on a day in the life of a Bowery bum. I immediately recognized the subject as Bob and asked about him. The photographer said that his model was, indeed, his friend Bob Barrell. He made a very convincing bum, but I do not believe that the photographer suggested that he was anything but a model for that role.The most interesting thing I know about Bob’s later life was that he became the mentor and friend of the pop singer Cindi Lauper who enjoyed great popularity a decade or so ago. I will try to find more about that–maybe your correspondent knows.)


One of Barrell’s friends was Leon (Something)-ski who was from Boyle Heights. He brought around a number of friends and acquaintances over time. Some of them were his co-patients at a psychiatric facility in Brooklyn called Hillside (I believe).

(Added after publishing: Don Merwin who was a high school classmate and lifelong friend sent me this note: “Hillside, the psychiatric facility that served Frank, Hilda, and many of the others who attended those parties, is adjacent to Long Island Jewish Hospital (which it antedates) and is on the Queens/Nassau county line. I think Hillside is on the Queens side.” Don and Frank and Hilda were other regulars at these parties. I will have much to say about Don in future posts.)

One of Leon’s friends was Norman Belkin who may have been a childhood friend from LA. He had a smooth voice like a radio announcer, was good looking and “on stage” most of the time. I heard that after he returned to LA he became a classical music “disk jockey” (another friend from my college days, Fred Grunfeld, had pioneered this form of classical music presentation on WQXR in NY). The available records on the Web show that he and a wife wrote several television and movie scripts, one for the “All in the Family” series. The SSDI shows: born Nov. 1, 1924 and died Feb 13, 2004 in LA.

One of the more unusual personalities to show up, part of the Hillside group, was Dave Panich who even then came on as a professional comedian but not of the stand-up comic variety. Once he said he had gone to a very expensive restaurant for dinner and I fell right into the straightman’s role: “Wasn’t there a large bill?”  “Oh no, it was a nominal bill, a nominal leg.” At one party he brought a scrapbook he had created by taking pictures from magazine ads and captions from other magazine ads and mix-and-matching them. It is hard to imagine or describe how clever and funny the result was. As one might guess, he became a very successful comedy writer, working on the pilot for “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”  and a number of episodes in that series. A little later he did several episodes of “The Monkees”. This was a new trend-setting style of comedy which influenced a number of shows for years thereafter.  (To some degree this sort of comic invention was started by Olsen and Johnson in their “HellzAPoppin” and is still noticeable in some of antics seen on David Letterman’s late night show.) He was born July 11, 1924 and died Nov. 30, 1983.

Perhaps the individual who became the most widely known to come to our parties was brought there by Norman Belkin (I think), Barbara Cook. She was very young, in her early twenties, had not yet developed a resume, but was already a mature and confident performer. She was always asked to sing at our parties (of course) and did so with grace and good humor. Leon and Norman called her the Earth Mother, a good natured joke about her figure. Her first leading role in a successful musical was in Plain and Fancy which was written by Arnold Horwitt, brother-in-law of a treasured college-mate of mine, Molly Bower. This coincidence always brings to my mind that wonderful “It’s a small world!” routine of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. (I’ll talk about Molly and her extraordinary career and family in some future post.) The thing I most remember about Barbara is her hair – she wore it pulled back but with such tension that it looked like the skin on her face was being made taut with her eyes appearing to be bulging as a result. I found this disturbing – wondering that she wasn’t in pain.

An infrequent participant was Tom Sloane, Thomas O’Conor Sloane III, Associate Editor at Devin-Adair publishers. (The Web reveals that Tom’s grandfather, the first T. O. Sloane was a pretty unusual individual as well.) Devin-Adair was (is?) a strange outfit. They published a line of agricultural books, a handful of right-wing tracts and a variety of Irish literature. One of his visits was done for the explicit purpose of introducing one of his current authors, Peter Kavanagh, to us. Kavanagh’s Story of the Abbey Theater was about to be published by D-A. Peter was one of the most interesting, entertaining, outrageous and outlandish people I have ever met.

Peter was a living caricature of the stereotypical bellicose Irishman. His idea of a good evening, well spent, was a verbal brawl, which he would start by taking a contrary opinion on anything you might bring up: “The Taj Mahal is white”, “T’is not, t’is grey!” At a New Year’s party in the studio I was sitting next to Peter on the “couch” and decided to have a little fun at his expense. I said, “Peter, how do you explain it? The Irish haven’t produced a great poet since Yeats died – now all the good poets are Welsh.” He took the bait, hook, line, sinker, pole and fisherman. He started huffing and puffing then started a rant: “The Welsh! The Welsh, they’re a degenerate race …  “  I couldn’t keep a straight face for long and he realized he’d been had.

The two central themes in Peter’s life and career were his impoverished rural origin and the fact that one of his older brothers was Patrick Kavanagh. He was obsessed with enhancing Patrick’s place in literature which, in turn, meant some sort of vindication of their provenance. (He made self-deprecating jokes about his country-rube upbringing. He told my mother that the way he took bath back then was to go out in the field on a hot day and plow ten rows to raise a sweat. This would wash all the dirt down to his feet and then he would wash his feet.)

This obsession with Patrick and his poetry fostered collateral causes. I was surprised to see the quote from Sean O’Casey in the Wikipedia article, saying that the Story of the Abbey Theater was impartial. As I recall (it has been more than 55 years!) Peter blamed the decline of the Abbey on Lennox Robinson, O’Casey and other prose playwrights by betraying its mission as a Poet’s Theater supporting the Gaelic Revival and Irish nationalism.

Peter got along on very little money by using his wits and reduced standards. He told me that he furnished his new apartment by wandering around the Italian neighborhoods with a cart and picking up furniture put out on the sidewalk for removal. “They throw away the most wonderful things: beds and mattresses, tables and chairs, couches, pots, dishes – everything one needs.” It turned out part of his motive was saving money for another project to help his brother.

Early in 1952 Peter simply disappeared. No one had seen him or knew where he was. In the fall of that year as I was walking through Washington Square at night, there was Peter in the southwest corner, watching a chess game under the street lamp, collar up to ward off the cold drizzling rain. We crossed over to Sixth Avenue and he started telling what had been going on. He had gone back to Dublin and with the money he had saved, started a newspaper with Patrick called, logically enough, Kavanagh’s Weekly. He and his brother wrote all the articles, using pseudonyms to make it appear that there was some staff, set the type, ran the press and delivered the paper to the few news dealers who would handle it because the news deliverymen’s union refused to do so. They got into fist fights with union members and others while making their deliveries.

It is hard to understand how or why this intentionally controversial little paper aroused such ferocious passion, even when it is explained. You have to be Irish, particularly from that time, I guess. Peter said that the Manchester Guardian gave them a very good review on its front page when they started, saying it was the best paper in Ireland. I doubt that an endorsement from an English newspaper improved their acceptance. He said that only two businessmen in Dublin had the courage to place advertisements with them, one being a Jew who ran an art gallery. The venture soon failed.

As we walked up the very wide sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, headed for the Howard Johnson’s coffee shop near 8th Street, a drunk was approaching in the other direction. Talk about telegraphing your punch! Half a very long block away, he had his hand extended. Peter continued his very animated narrative, not looking ahead: “One good thing came of it though, me brother’s finally seen the light and moved to London.” At this point Peter almost collided with the bum, whose extended hand was almost under his chin. Without missing a beat, Peter shot his hand out and said “Could you spare me a dime for a cup o’ coffee?” The bum stood there for a few seconds, his jaw going up and down without utterance and then he said “I asked you first!”

The last I heard of Peter was about a decade later when an item appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Public Library was custodian to a collection of letters between James Joyce and John Quinn, the lawyer who defended The Little Review when it was prosecuted for obscenity in the United States for publishing Ulysses. This correspondence was to be kept secret until 50 years after Quinn’s death. It was kept in a secured reading room, available only to authorized scholars who were not allowed to bring writing instruments or paper into the room. Peter was going in and memorizing the letters, a few at a time, leaving and writing down what he remembered, returning for the next segment and so on. Back in his tenement apartment he had built a homemade printing press from pipes, bedsprings, lumber scraps and whatever. He handset type and was going to print a limited edition subscription book which he was going to sell for something like a thousand dollars a copy. He got caught. As I recall the news item, there was a threat of prison for Peter, for what I do not know. The present-day account doesn’t mention that.

A couple of years ago I thought of Peter and decided to see what I could find on the Web. I found that his hometown now had a Patrick Kavanagh Center which appears to be intended as a tourism attraction as well as a shrine to their poet and that Peter was giving speeches and lectures there. I wrote an email to them asked if they were interested in Peter anecdotes and when they said they were, I sent the stories above. I never heard another word from them – I guess they didn’t like the stuff I sent. They had given me an email address for Peter but I never got around to contacting him. When I started on this post I found out that he had died at the beginning of 2006. Another regret to add to the pile.

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here


In the late fall or early winter of 1946 I was told of a party for Lead Belly. I don’t remember who tipped me off but my dorm mate Bruce Sagan seems like a good bet. I do remember that the hostess’ name was Ruth Kaplan and that the address was either 3300 North Sheridan or on that block. She and much of the audience were, without doubt, political leftists who had pretty much “captured” Lead Belly around that time. It was a “welcome to Illinois” party – the explanation being that Illinois had a law dating back to the Capone era prohibiting felons guilty of homicide in other states from entering the state (NB: I have not been able to verify this – rpk) and the governor or somebody had just waived this restriction in Lead Belly’s case. 

Lead Belly and his 12-string box


Kaplan’s apartment was a ground-floor railroad flat with the entrance on the side of the building in the middle of the very long hallway. I arrived somewhat late, was able to get in the door but unable to move from that spot, which turned out to be fortunate because all the performers simply came in the door and did their singing right there. So, throughout, I was about three feet from the musicians. 

It was a remarkable congress of American folk music talent: Lead Belly, of course; Woody Guthrie; Josh White and his traveling companion Josephine Premice; two local figures, Win Strache, who was one of Studs Terkel’s circle, and Bernie Asbel who was working for the CIO PAC in a promotional capacity. Pete Seeger showed up, said he was starting on a cold and could not risk damaging his voice – and left. (I don’t know why but I never quite believed that excuse. Seeger’s behavior seemed a bit odd, his voice sounded OK and he could have stayed without performing – but I couldn’t and can’t imagine why he might have been dissembling … )

 Being as close as I was, I could see into the round hole in Guthrie’s guitar. The box contained a change of socks and shorts and a pint of whiskey. It was his musical instrument, suitcase and traveling companion. Acknowledging Asbel’s presence, he said he had been approached by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the CIO PAC and asked to write an anthem for them. He said he thought about it and thought about it and the best he could do was: 

Oh, the Ladies’ Auxiliary

Is the best auxiliary.

If you want an auxiliary,

Call the Ladies’Auxiliary. 

It is interesting to note that even as famous a liberal as Guthrie was, by today’s standards he was a complete MCP. Today he would be condemned for the patronizing attitude implicit in this joke. 

I don’t remember what Asbel sang – some union songs, without a doubt. There are a couple of recordings of that sort still available. There is surprisingly little information about Asbel on the Web. Unless it was somebody else, I remember seeing his name on NBC TV shows in the 60s and 70s, in the managerial or production areas. I think he wound up as a VP of some sort. Maybe someone can fill in the missing pieces here.

Win Strache was a local favorite. He had a rich ballad baritone voice and a good stage presence and sense of humor. His favorite joke was about the world-famous basso profundo who ends his concerts with a song specially written for him which ends in the lowest note ever sung. When he finishes the audience is dumbstruck – then a voice from the balcony says “Bravo!” – a full octave lower. Strache did this using his lowest register. He sang his signature song, “Puget Sound” in which a sucker is conned into buying tidal land. The refrain goes “Acres and acres of cla-ams, acres and acres of cla-ams …”  Josh White did several songs from his repertoire at that time – may have been “Strange Fruit” and “House of the Rising Sun.” Josephine Premice did not perform.  Lead Belly sang some of his standards. The only one I have a distinct memory of is “Rock Island Line” – he may have done “Irene” or “Midnight Special”, “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” – I just don’t remember. 

When almost all of the crowd had left, the remaining twenty or so of us all crowded into the medium sized kitchen. (I’m one of those guys who never leaves a party until the last dog is hung – sometimes it pays off with unexpected rewards, as in this instance.) We were jammed in, pretty much unable to move (as I had been in the hallway earlier) – I was pressed up against Lead Belly’s back, with my face over his right shoulder. I began to worry about my eyes when he strummed too vigorously. There was a bucket-brigade-like delivery of whiskey being carried overhead, so that then I began to worry about his famous flammable temper. He and White started an amiable contest, trying to “top” each other by exchanging songs and then stanzas in the same song. At one point Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone …” the refrain goes “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind” – it’s a song about STDs). Exchanging verses in “Outskirts of Town”, Lead Belly used one that occurs in several of his other songs: “Sugar’s in the gourd, gourd’s on the ground, you want to get the sugar, you got to roll the gourd around.”, which caused White to close out.  

I only saw Lead Belly once after this. It was at the CentralPlaza, a Jewish catering facility on the Lower East Side that hosted jazz performances on week-ends. He was playing the breaks between sets by the band. His voice was weak and cracking. The young audience, clearly not knowing or appreciating who they were seeing, half drowned him out with talk. He died shortly after that.  

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here

From mid-1976 until spring 1982 I worked for Ken Kolence at the Institute for Software Engineering. My main function was to conduct week-long courses at various sites in the U.S.,Canada, the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Over time my specialization was the detecting and correcting of path contention problems in large IBM disk farms. One of the practical problems in this area was IBM’s abominable presentation of slews of data from sources such as SMS, RMS and Component Trace. It was just this sort of thing that inspired Richard Hamming to say, “In the Sciences each generation stands on the shoulders of the generations before. In data processing, we stand on each other’s feet.” (Hamming is my favorite computing curmudgeon. In a review he said something like this: “There is more nonsense here than anything since Bourbaki.” Two birds with one stone!) In later years I wrote a program to make the Component Trace data for TCP/IP more digestible.

I used to tell the following story as a light-hearted illustration of the point that not only is some data not useful it may even be unusable.

One Sunday in the early seventies I was looking at the “pink section” of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. This was the part that covered recreation and entertainment for the following week. It was their practice to put an eye-catching photograph from one of the upcoming television or movie shows on the cover page.  On this particular day the picture was of Gina Lollobrigida in some sort of period costume: big pile of hair, low cut blouse, stomacher, etc. (I have a dim recollection of her being in a spoof of swashbucklers, but can’t seem to find any reference to it.)

As I was looking at this picture my wife, Barbara, went by and said, “That isn’t her real hair.”

Now, we both understood that I wasn’t looking at her hair, so I said nothing in response.

“That’s a wig.”

I had already lost the chance to steer or stop this discussion, so I said nothing again.

“She has the biggest collection of wigs in Hollywood.”

Now I knew a zinger was coming, so I just waited for it.

“That’s because she’s bald!”

Barbara had been reading the tabloids while waiting in line in the supermarket, obviously.


At that time, our across-the-street neighbor was Bill Brown, Berkeley poet, gardener and horticulturalist extraordinaire and a determined two-fisted drinker. He enjoyed some standing in the poetry world having long-standing friendships with Gary Snider, Phil Whelan, Charles Olson, Bob Creeley and so on.

A few days after Barbara enlightened me about Lollobrigida’s hair, Bill stopped over, asking if we had a beer which he wanted as a hair-of-dog remedy for the previous night’s excesses. As luck would have it, we did have one can of beer (we didn’t drink beer ourselves, had it for company as a rule) which I gave to Bill. As he sat on our couch, glumly sipping on the beer, he was facing the picture of Lollobrigida on the coffee table in front of him, although I doubt that it was registering.

Just to break the silence, I said “That isn’t her real hair.”

Bill grunted.

“That’s a wig.”

He grunted a gain.

“She has the biggest collection of wigs in Hollywood.”

Now he groaned.

“That’s because she’s bald!”

He sat there for several seconds, his face twisted by metaphysical anguish, then said “You know, I don’t know what to do with information like that!”

Read Full Post »

This blog is now available as a Kindle book – click here


On May 1, 1959,  I took my first job as a computer programmer working for the United States Naval Supply Center, Oakland. After one month’s training, we were thrown on our own and started programming a system that was very advanced for its time, being the first completely transistorized commercially available computer. The computer which we were to program was a Philco Transac 2000 model 210, which was not built for about the first year. (The Computer History Museum has a model 212, a considerable improvement over ours.)  We had to do our debugging at a space satellite company on San Antonio Road in Los Altos – a pretty long commute for a single test run.

Our configuration consisted of the CPU, 8-K words of memory and 8 tape drives. Off line there was a universal buffer controller to which was attached a card reader, a card punch, a printer, and a tape drive. All I/O was done via tape. Input was from punched cards, which were read by very fast card reader and written to tape via the universal buffer controller.  Printing was done by taking a print tape prepared by the computer, attaching it to the universal buffer controller, which would then do tape to print.

A computer word was 48 bits, which comprised two instructions of 24 bits or 8 6-bit binary coded decimal characters or 48 bits of binary data. The only I/O to the computer was the aforementioned eight tape drives, and the Flexowriter console, which also had a paper tape punch and reader.

The Ampex tape drives were a principal source of trouble.  Tape was written in fixed blocks of 128 words, which had to be pre-edited by the manufacturer. The tapes themselves were 2400 foot reels of 1 inch wide one mil mylar. The beginning of a block of one hundred twenty-eight words was designated by an “S-1” mark in the inter-block gap.    An “S-2” mark designated the end of the block. Frequently these marks were either damaged or illegible to the machine or mis-read because of skewing of the very flimsy tape. If the S-1 was missed the tape would advance until one was found, causing the loss of one or more blocks of data. If the S-2 was missed, the I/O controller kept reading until one was found, with the later data supplanting the earlier, having the effect of losing all but the block prior to the S-2.

It was a very serious problem because an insurmountable read or write error could cause a lengthy batch run to fail and have to be rerun from the very beginning (card to tape, etc). On more than one occasion we were late in preparing invoices when the morning shift of warehousemen arrived which not only degraded our service but was costly as well. We made an effort to make our system more resilient by being able to identify the lost block, avoiding any data running over from one block to the next (which limited variable length records to a block or less in size) and so on. We started by setting aside the last two words of each block for a hash total and a sequential block number (I believe this idea originated with Bruce Johnson). We then programmed our I/O handler in our home-grown operating system to generate the hash totals and block numbers in the write process and to read and check them, log errors and do what we could to keep the run from failing (notify the application, etc.) in the read process.

This worked pretty well as far as it went but the errors were so frequent and some applications not able to deal with omitted data that it remained a major headache. We discovered that a very large percentage of the errors were caused by skewing. Normal processing was one block at a time. This meant the tape had to brought up to its considerable speed in a very short time (the inter-block gaps were quite small) which was done by having an electro-mechanical actuator drop a “pinch-roller” onto the tape, passing one block of the tape over the read-write head and then braking it just as suddenly as it was started. With an inch wide, one mil mylar tape, it was no wonder there was frequent skewing.

At the hardware level I/O was initiated with the computer issuing a TIO instruction which transferred the I/O commands to the I/O controller which then executed them. For tape, the command was a composite meaning “skip so many blocks and read so many blocks” with total number of blocks limited to fifteen. The standard was skip zero, read (or write) one. In a multi-block order the pinch-roller would be dropped at the beginning of the first block and the braking would only occur at the end of the last block read. We decided to see if issuing a skip some, read one would get the tape rolling in a smooth straight path and overcome the skewing (I think this idea originated with Henrik Roos). The tapes were capable of reverse reading, backing up a designated number of blocks (skip) and reading backwards. Having the block numbers on the tape allowed us go back 13 blocks (say) check that we were at the block thirteen before the next one wanted and then issuing a skip 12, read 1 command. I used to liken this to Ty Cobb sliding into second base. This worked in a surprising number of instances, considerably reducing the number of reruns.

There were some eight installations of the Transac 2000, the Philco satellite maker subsidiary in Los Altos, GE’s Atomic Products Equipment Division (GE APED) in San Jose and the Israeli Army among them. (All but the Israelis leased their machines; the Israelis bought theirs. When I asked the Philco salesman, Bill Tietz, why the Israeli bought theirs, he replied, “We insisted on it.” “You insisted on it? Where do you get off insisting on it?” “Well you know with Nasser next door and all …” I stuck my finger in the middle of his Countess Mara tie, he was something of a fop, and said “You’d better hope that Nasser tries something – then you can sell the Israelis another computer for their Cairo branch office!” More prophetic than I could have imagined.) They were all having the same tape troubles. When word got out about our “solution” we got several inquiries.

One morning (in 1961 or 2, I think) I was called into the military boss’, Cdr Ed Kocher’s, office. There was a man there in an unfamiliar uniform, grey, with a little vertical collar, piping around all the edges and frog closures – it looked like a West Point Cadet’s outfit. “Roger, this is Colonel So-and-So from the Israeli army. He wants to question you about our handling of block errors.” I spent about an hour with him. He hastened to tell me he was not technical so I tried to make things as clear as I could. He asked more and more detailed questions as the explanation progressed. He had a mind like a steel trap – if I said something that appeared inconsistent with something I had said earlier (largely due to frequent analogizing), he called me on it. It started to become a rather unpleasant experience.

Eight years, to the day, May 1, 1967, after I started at NSCO, I started a new job with Pacific Gas and Electric on lower Market Street in San Francisco. A month later, Monday, June 5, 1967, the Six Day War erupted. I started trying to remember the Israeli Colonel’s name, wondered what happened to him, whether he was still in the army and the like. For the next one or two mornings, I would search my memory while riding the Sacramento Street bus to work. On Wednesday or Thursday, it came to me: “Rabin! That was his name – Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin.” When I got off the bus on Market Street there he was, on the front page of the Chronicle in the newspaper rack.

In 1974 or 75 one of my group at the University of California, Berl Hartman, resigned to go to Israel, where her husband, a molecular biologist, had been granted a research grant by Tel Aviv University. I offered to write her a letter of introduction to my pal, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. She declined my offer – I wonder why.

Read Full Post »