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Archive for July 11th, 2007

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In early October 1946 I arrived at the University of Chicago for the Orientation Week for new students. I went to my assigned room in the Burton-Judson dormitory and found the place empty save for one other guy at the far end of the long hall. We tentatively approached each other and introduced ourselves. His name was Mort Casson and he was from Brooklyn, a fellow New Yorker. We spent that week hanging out together and on the concluding Sunday decided we wanted to go downtown to see the famous Loop. We went to the El’s Woodlawn station on 63d Street and waited in the middle of the very long platform and we waited and we waited. Finally, a train came along made up of three very small old wooden cars (they looked like hand-me-downs from New York’s Third Avenue El) which pulled up to the front of the station, at least half a block away. Mort and I were surprised at first, stood there looking at each other and then started laughing. Then the engineer put the train in reverse and parked right in front of us! That did it. We laughed all the way to downtown – to us the Second City was a very distant second.

In the second quarter Mort and I became roommates along with Bruce Sagan and Earle Ludgin, in a Burton-Judson two room “suite”, one room having the desks and armchairs, the other the bunks. By the end of the year we were all going our separate ways, moving off campus and involved with different sets of people.

Four years later Mort and I chanced to meet on the street in Greenwich Village. He told me of a weekly party, Saturday evenings, at the apartment of Marshall Allen right there in the Village and invited me to join in, saying the host wanted as many people as possible to show up. I barely knew of Allen at Chicago; he was a “frat boy” and I had almost nothing to do with anyone in that crowd. Mort said that Marshall came from a prosperous family in Connecticut and that he “collected” people. I went to the parties regularly for the same reasons most of the other guests did: unlimited free booze, the real stuff, not the cheap sherry we customarily had at our own parties, and the interesting collection of people Marshall had acquired.

******

One of the more unusual people to come regularly but that I had no contact with was Wanda Malinowska. She was a daughter of Bronislaw Malinowski and, I was told, a fashion model.

 

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She seemed to have her own clique of admirers of both sexes who were quite different in appearance from most of the crowd, very fashionably dressed not the “casual” attire of the rest of us. Perhaps I should have said “claque” for they seemed to be sitting at her feet in a posture of adoration. For all I knew she was dispensing pearls of wisdom but I doubted it.

Searching for information on women is often complicated by the married name – often it is difficult to link the birth name with any records after the first or second marriage. In this case, I found the obituary of one of her husbands, Donald Aspinall Allan, which tells an astonishing story, rather like the plot of a Harrison Ford movie.  (Woodside, where he died, is very familiar territory for me. I traveled the length of Woodside Road, from I-280 to US101, when going to my company’s office for the past decade.) This, in turn, led to a death notice for Wanda Allan Shortall which confirmed the model story but not much more.

       ******

Two of the fairly frequent attendees were Mort Casson’s friends, the Minsky sisters, Charlotte and Ruth. I am not sure if Mort told them of these parties or it was the other way around, they told him. They were an extremely intelligent and amiable pair, very pleasant company. Their father was a prominent ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and, I believe, on the faculty of Columbia University’s medical school. On two or three occasions they brought their little brother Marvin with them. At the time he was a doctoral candidate at Princeton and was involved in building the SNARC (Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Computer – I don’t think the oblique reference to Lewis Carroll in this acronym was entirely coincidental) which was the basis of his doctoral thesis. When pumped he would talk about it, somewhat diffidently, but, of course, I had very little understanding of the whole business. Less than a decade later I was programming and developed an avocational interest in finite automata, neural nets and related matters. I bought a copy of Automata Studies, volume 34 in the Princeton series Annals of Mathematics Studies primarily to obtain S. C. Kleene’s famous paper Representation of Events in Nerve Nets and Finite Automata (the one where the term “regular expression” was introduced) and found it contained a paper by Marvin which was derived from his doctoral thesis. (Some company he was in, in this book, at his young age! Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, Steven Cole Kleene, Martin Davis, John McCarthy and more.)  Now I could have a better, if not very deep, understanding of what he was doing in 1951. 

At some time in the last decade I received an unsolicited email from an outfit in Santa Barbara promoting some sort of website creation services. It was signed Juliana Minsky. On a hunch I sent a reply asking if she were Marvin’s daughter. When she replied that she was we exchanged a few notes during which I found out that Charlotte had died some time before then, which was saddening news.

******

For me the most gratifying acquaintance I made at these affairs was with Delmore Schwartz . Not only was I an admirer of his poetry and literary criticism but I was also a dedicated reader of The Partisan Review where he had his “day job” as poetry editor. (I subscribed to four literary quarterlies in those days, the Partisan, Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review and Hudson Review the last because of the high quality of its articles despite its religious bent. I think I liked the Partisan best for agreeable reading.) I didn’t realize until much later (in fact, for part of the story, only recently) that his career, indeed life, was already past its apex.

 

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At the time he seemed on top of the world: he had a solid collection of good poetry out in the world, had created quite a stir with some of his criticism (The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot is still a much admired article) and about a year before had remarried to an intelligent and good looking young woman, Elizabeth Pollet. A few months after I met them Elizabeth’s first novel, a typically near-autobiographical tale, A Family Affair, was published by New Directions.

 

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Two of my favorite poems, both much anthologized, In the Naked Bed in Plato’s Cave and Socrates Ghost Must Haunt Me Now, are not just great poems, very effectively conveying their affect to the reader, they are indicative of profound problems in their author’s mental state. Here is the second piece:

Socrates ghost must haunt me now
Notorious death has let him go,
He comes to me with a clumsy bow
Saying in his disused voice
That I do not know I do not know
The mechanical whims of appetite
The butterfly caged in eclectic light
Is my only day in the world’s great night
Love is not love, it is a child
Sucking his thumb and biting his lip
But grasp it all, there may be more
From the topless sky to the bottomless floor
With the heavy head and the fingertip:
All is not blind, obscene, and poor
Socrates stands by me stockstill
Teaching hope to my flickering will
Pointing to the sky’s inexorable blue
—Old Noumenon, come true, come true

I now see this as a muffled wail from a resigned depressive.

Both he and Elizabeth seemed light-hearted and engaged in my conversations with them. On one occasion I talked about my elaborate theory of prosody, especially in American speech, and asked for his thoughts on the topic. He replied that he never gave the subject much thought, that meter or rhythm “was repetition of some kind.” On another occasion I started a discussion of writing poetry in American vernacular (which is related to the subject above in my mind) and Delmore said that he felt Ogden Nash set the standard for using our mother tongue – and he was absolutely serious in making that statement. I left New York not very long after that and heard nothing of Delmore for about five years.

In 1958 I had a temporary job at Fort Mason in San Francisco, working on a project to set work measurement standards. My boss was Max Kurtz, an enthusiast for his work and a street-corner philosopher of unusual perspicacity. The job I was given was to come up with natural units for the EAM (electric accounting machine, i.e. IBM punched card processing) operation which was part of the Accounting Division. I spent a lot of time in the Accounting Division developing and testing my proposed units of measurement and became acquainted with the supervisor, a woman named Virginia Schwartz.

I don’t know how I found out, probably just asked on a hunch like I did with Juliana Minsky, that Virginia was the sister-in-law of Delmore, married to his brother Kenneth, who was a Colonel in the transportation corps. We had a number of brief water-cooler conversations and whenever the subject of Delmore’s health or status came up she made oblique, evasive remarks. I don’t know whether she assumed I knew more than I actually did or simply didn’t want to get more explicit. In any case, she left me with the feeling of something ominous in what was not said. I left Fort Mason to take my first programming job at the Naval Supply Center in early 1959 and never saw Virginia again.

I also had heard nothing of Delmore again until a few months ago. A friend opened a “book exchange”, a place for used books here in Bolinas and I came upon Poets In Their Youth, A Memoir by Eileen Simpson, who was married to John Berryman at one time. The jacket describes the content as “Reminiscences about John Berryman, R. P. Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Jean Stafford and others”.  Now I knew why Virginia’s remarks seemed so filled with foreboding. You can find the story of Delmore’s decline, disintegration and death in any number of places on the web. None of them will convey the true scale of this awful story as well as Simpson’s book.

I find myself grieving as though for a recently lost friend.

******

The entry to Marshall’s apartment gave onto a modest sized room, perhaps the original living room, which functioned as a foyer. The kitchen was off to the left, where the table with all the bottles was in plain view through the doorway, a bedroom was off to the right and back and to its right another room, which probably was originally a bedroom, served as the living room. In the antechamber about eight or nine feet across from the entry door was a working fireplace, often with a fire in it. As a rule, when I entered there was Bill Styron with his right arm, at shoulder height hooked onto the right end of the mantle, a glass of gin in the left hand. As I passed through the room for drink replenishment from the kitchen, there he would still be in the same place and posture. At the end of the long evening, as I departed, he was still in the same place, slumped to the floor.

It was during this time that he was working on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. At one time he told me how he came to be working on this book. He was walking in midtown Manhattan and bumped into his creative writing professor from Duke (I presume this was William Blackburn mentioned in the Lehmann-Haupt obituary) who told Bill that he had just been appointed fiction editor for the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house and asked Bill if he were working on anything at the time. When Bill said no, he was told to write a first chapter and an outline for the rest of the book and an advance could be forthcoming. Needless to say, the final book had nothing to do with the first chapter or the outline – but nobody really expected otherwise.

(Incidentally, there is a character in the novel which is a scathing caricature of Marshall Allen. Marshall was not so obtuse as to miss the reference and was, understandably, very offended and angry about it. Such is gratitude from an artist.)

About a year after the novel was published I encountered Bill in Times Square while I was returning from lunch, headed west on 42nd street to the McGraw Hill building. He was dressed in an ill-fitting Marine uniform and had a spectacular looking young woman on each arm, fashion models, identifiable by the tools of their trade, hatboxes slung over their shoulders. We exchanged information while walking. He had been called up again and was on his way to report for duty. He and the girls descended into the 8th avenue subway station. That was the last time I ever saw him.

About a year and a half later there was an interesting development in American publishing. New American Library, a major publisher of original paperback books, started to print a new “literary quarterly” called New World Writing. I believe this was modeled on a successful similar venture by British Penguin. Not to be outdone, Pocketbooks, the other major publisher of original paperbacks, started Discovery, a series of books for new and experimental American writing. Volume number one had a novella by Styron, Long March which was nearly autobiographical, describing a Marine who had gotten too fat for his uniform, re-upped and so on. And it was good, damned good, written in his own voice. (I felt the common criticism of Lie Down was justified: I said it was three parts Faulkner, one part Thomas Wolfe and a dash of Styron.) The rest is history.

   

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