Archive for the ‘GreenwichVillage’ Category

On the day after Christmas last year (2013) my daughter-in-law Dorothy came up from our guest house where she and my son Alex stay when visiting me with an odd-looking book in her hand asking where it had come from. It was different in format from most standard books, on heavy drawing paper and had a plastic spiral binding, giving it an almost “home-made” appearance. It was the cover that caught my attention. I looked at it for a few seconds and then my head began to swim.

Front Cover 1951 Ball

Front Cover 1951 Ball Album, Improvisations 2

To understand my confused reaction take a look at my earlier post entitled “Gypsy de Diego”, a humorous anecdote about how Gypsy Rose Lee called herself “Mrs Julio de Diego” when calling my mother, Agnes Kovach, and “Gypsy Rose Lee” when calling my father, Alexander Kovach, at his engineering office. In that post there was this sentence: “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.” The cover of the book reveals three mistakes in that one short line. Look at the date, May 4, 1951. Artists Equity was formed in April of 1947, more than a couple of years before; May 4 is not New Year’s Eve and the Hotel Astor was not the old Manhattan Opera House. (Nor was it the Waldorf Astoria. See the story of the hotel and Times Square in Wikipedia.)

The cover and the book are fraught with significance for the history of mid-twentieth century American art. The rest of this post is devoted to revealing some of that history from my very personal perspective. Often, when I do research  in subjects like this, I find myself wandering down unforeseen byways which turn out to be as interesting as the original subject. Often the research brings back to memory names and events that were clouded over by time and confused by later events. I will report on all of these as they turn up.

The first question then is what is this book? Is it the one I described in the Gypsy de Diego post?

The first page after the cover states that this is volume II of Improvisations and that the first volume was conceived and created the year before, 1950, and that two thousand copies of this edition were printed. A stamp, in red, at the bottom of the page reads “290”. A few pages in I found this:

Classical statuary head by Agnes Kovach. Ad paid by an anonymous donor.

Classical statuary head by Agnes Kovach. Ad paid for by an anonymous donor.

(These prints were created by directly etching  zinc plates for lithograph masters which would only hold up for about two thousand impressions. It is not possible to correct errors in such a circumstance which explains the tip of the nose and lower lip on the left side. Later you will see quite a number of these permanent mishaps.)

Was this the page I recalled in the Gypsy post? It cannot be. I remembered it as an ad for Klieglights paid by my father’s friend and business associate, Herbert Kliegl, and that must be correct because why else would Gypsy Rose Lee, editor of the AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) Newsletter have called inquiring about how to contact whoever paid for the ad? Klieglights was then (and, I think, still is) one of the major suppliers of theatrical and motion picture lighting. No, this is not the advertisement that I was thinking of. (The question of who paid for this page kept nagging me as I thought was it Kliegl again or someone else? Then one of those dim memories brightened. I think my father paid for it just so my mother would have the opportunity to do another page for the second year.) Incidentally, I think the Klieglights ad was also of classical statuary, a full figure of Mercury with winged feet and so on.

Then there’s the matter of the Marshall of the Grand March at the end of the ball which was a key aspect of the Gypsy de Diego post. This is the fifth page of Improvisations II:

Party leaders

Party leaders

Note that the Marshal was AEA President Yasuo Kuniyoshi (not Gypsy Rose Lee and Julio de Diego) who was near the end of his final year as president. The by-laws set term limits at two terms of two years, maximum. Kuniyoshi , the founder, became president at the creation of the organization in April of 1947. (Mr. John was a celebrity designer of women’s hats; Aline Loucheim was an art critic for the New York Times; Igor Cassini was a gossip columnist for the Hearst newspapers; Edith Halpert was the owner of the Downtown Gallery, the cradle of American modern art; Mistinguette,  French chanteuse, age 75 at the time, was once the highest paid female entertainer in the world; Valentina was a top women’s fashion designer.)

So, Improvisations II is definitely not the book I was remembering. Now the question is, was Improvisations I what I remembered? So far, all the evidence of the first volume I found is the cover (in Amazon) and two of the advertisements, one by Reginald Marsh and the other by Max Beckmann:

The cover of Improvisations I, 1950

The cover of Improvisations I, 1950

marsh ad 1950

beckman ad 1950

(I have to take a liberty with the narrative sequence for an amusing story. I was present at the AEA reception for Beckmann at the Plaza Hotel in 1947 when Beckmann first arrived in the US. It appeared that he had very little English and as he shook hands with each well-wisher passing along the reception line all he said was “Thank you, thank you”. While I was watching this repeated ritual a “Park Avenue matron” with a fey looking young man in tow shook hands and then insisted on a conversation. She told Beckmann that her son had just finished his degree at ‘Hahvud’ and wanted to know what he should do next, study in Paris or one of the American Art Institutes, another university, etc., etc. Beckmann, looking puzzled, just kept saying “Thank you, thank you”.

Incidentally, at the time he did this ad for Improvisations he was teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He died about seven months later, in December of 1950.)

One of the problems I had in confirming that the 1950 ball was the one I was seeking was my memory of my own chronology. When I wrote the Gypsy de Diego piece I was thinking it occurred in the mid-forties, before I went to the University of Chicago in the fall of 1946. Of course when I found out that the AEA was started in 1947 everything was in doubt. Then I remembered that I had dropped out of college in March of 1950 and returned home to New York. Now I could start searching for any historical documentation, especially of the early days of the AEA. The major find was an excellent 1999 paper by professor David. M Sokol then teaching art history at the University of Illinois Chicago, “The Founding of the Artists Equity Association After World War II”. I found my ignorance of what was going on with the New York arts community, my mother’s school, the Art Students League and her teacher, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, was both broad and deep. Of course, as I expected, along the way I stumbled into all sorts of related matters, had a number of memories revived or revivified and any number of misunderstandings corrected. The Sokol paper is so rich that I have appended it (and a thumbnail biography) to this post and will be quoting from it often.

Proof of the 1950 Date

After a great deal of hit-and-miss searching I came across the June 12, 1950 issue of Life Magazine which used to finish each issue with an article about some sort of festivity such as cotillions, weddings, parades and so on. This issue had a masquerade ball.

Two women and Flair

Two women with Flair  and mops on their heads

That’s the first edition of Fleur Fenton Cowles chi-chi magazine Flair dated May 1950.  The next page had this text:

image0002image0004and on the rest of the  page we have

page 145with the picture on the lower left being:


Q.E.D. The ball I attended was the Spring Fantasia of 1950 and the book was Improvisations I.

Kuniyoshi, Artists Equity, Woodstock and So On

My mother was never a “joiner”, never part of any organization for any purpose. Since she was a student of Kuniyoshi’s at the time of its founding, she must have been among the very first members of the Artists Equity Association but she barely mentioned it to me. When I heard that Kuniyoshi was elected its first president I assumed it was largely an honorary position, that he was selected as a gesture of respect by the artists of New York or the US. So, for sixty-seven years I had it all wrong. Read what David Sokol has to say on the subject: “The guiding genius and founder of Artists Equity was Yasuo Kuniyoshi … Galvanized by the modest prospects for artists after the end of the federal art projects and the loss of opportunities for artists with the end of the wartime economy, and feeling that government hostility to the arts made the renewal of any kind of federal art project unlikely, he met during the latter half of 1946 with like-minded friends and created both a new organization and a new approach that would bring artists together to work on behalf of their economic well-being.” “New approach” may have been the central idea which I will discuss later.

Not long after the above statement in Sokol’s paper this photograph is included:

Dinner Celebrating Kuniyoshi's Whitney Retrospective - 1948

Dinner Celebrating Kuniyoshi’s Whitney Retrospective – 1948

The markup of the photograph on the upper left side is this:

Titling on photograph

Titling on photograph

Which says: “Artists Equity/ Testimonial Dinner to/ Yasuo Kuniyoshi/ in Honor of his Retrospective/ Show at the Whitney Museum/ Cafe Montparnasse March 25, 1948”  It really was more than that. This was the first time the Whitney granted a living artist a retrospective. Prior to this they only showed lifelong retrospectives of deceased artists or, if living, groups of artists. There may have been some political aspects to the Whitney’s decision to present this show, a quiet defiance of the forces that killed the “Advancing American Art” exhibition.

Now look at the bottom left corner of the photograph:

Alexander J. Kovach and Agnes Kovach

Alexander J. Kovach and Agnes Kovach

The man on the left is my father, Alexander J. Kovach, and facing him (second woman from the bottom) is my mother, Agnes Kovach. Here is the attribution line above the picture:



which says the photograph is from the Mitzi Gallant Papers in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. The AEA turned over its archives to the Smithsonian some time ago.

Mitzi Gallant was in Kuniyoshi’s class along with my mother. When I think of Mitzi I have a single distinct association: laughter. She was a “good time girl” I guess. She must have been “well fixed” living in the Essex House on Central Park South (not too shabby). I may have been in her apartment once because I get a distinct image of a single thick semicircular archway separating the (possibly sunken) living room from the entry hall. (The Essex House had a huge neon sign on the roof with the “Essex” above the “House”. One night the first two letters of the top word blacked out. This was still considered a thigh-slapper twenty years later.)

Mitzi Gallant at about the time under discussion.

Mitzi Gallant at about the time under discussion.

Another “well fixed” classmate was Vivian de Pinna whose grandfather established the very elegant department store on Fifth Avenue and 52nd street. She was just about sixty at the time (and lived until 95) and thus seemed rather grandmotherly to me. I have one distinct memory of her taking us out to lunch (Schraft’s?). I see from the web that she painted abstractions for years and they are frequently featured in current auctions.

While I am off on this tangent I’ll add one other classmate, a woman who lived in her aunt’s house in Princeton, making the ninety minute commute by rail every day, whose name I cannot remember (first name may have been Ruth). The aunt was a retired Institute for Advanced Study archeologist. Her neighbor was Albert Einstein. After The Bomb was dropped Einstein received huge amounts of mail every day, so much that the post office made a daily special delivery run to his house only, from people seeking advice and counsel for all sorts of problems, marital, financial, what-have-you from the smartest man in the world. One morning Einstein appeared in the aunt’s doorway holding a large basket filled with envelopes and said, “Why are they doing this? Who do they think I am? A Jewish John J. Anthony?” (For those too young to remember him, John J. Anthony had a very popular personal advice radio show, rather like a radio version of Dear Abby.)

In Sokol’s paper not long after the banquet photograph the following passage appears: “Many conversations that led up to the founding of AEA took place in the summer and early fall of 1946 in Woodstock, New York. Kuniyoshi was one of a large number of artists who either lived full-time in or around Woodstock or spent their summers there (as he did). These men and women were the people with whom he shared his ideas about an organization that would address the pressing economic issues they all faced; not surprisingly, large numbers of Woodstock artists were active in the early years of the association.”

According to all reports by other Woodstockers, Yas (pronounced “Yahss”) Kuniyoshi had a very nice house overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir, with a large screened-in porch ideally suited to late afternoon gatherings and cocktails. I never was invited there and did not see it myself. (While on the subject of what I actually witnessed, I should point out that I only met Kuniyoshi once, at the 1950 ball and that the scene played out something like this: Agnes Kovach: “This is my son.” Kuniyoshi: “How do you do?” Roger: “How do you do?” –  the end.) There was a large gathering there on many an evening all summer long with a lot of the AEA’s and Art Students League’s business discussed.

The League had a branch in Woodstock which was headed, in spirit and, I believe, administratively, by Arnold Blanch who taught one of their classes. Blanch also figured largely in the Artists Equity Association’s Woodstock outpost (and, consequently, in AEA in toto). The League was a very big attraction during the summer months. Blanch, who worked on several WPA projects, was married to Doris Lee, who also taught a course, who created several major works under the WPA Federal Arts Project, most notably for the US Treasury Dept. and the Central Post Office in Washington, DC which were held in high esteem (almost equal to Anton Refregier’s Rincon Annex post office murals in San Francisco, which I will discuss later). She went on to have a renowned and varied career. In 1963 and ’64 both Blanch and Lee were recorded for an oral history project. Lee’s statement came close to home for me and some other posts in this blog: “One day in 1935, (I was still quite young), the same day I received word that I’d won the Logan Prize at the Chicago Art Institute and also that I had won the commission to do murals from the Treasury Department in Washington. It was really very staggering to me, and very exciting. I had a studio, (while I always had a house here in Woodstock) that I went to in New York in the winters at 30 East 14th St. Kenneth Hayes Miller was there, Alec Brook, Emil Ganso and a great many other painters had studios there. And it was a good thing I had this very large studio because that was where I did the Treasury Department Murals.”

Doris Lee

Doris Lee in Woodstock – photo by Kuniyoshi

Now I had an address for the studio building I called the “Janice studios” in my earlier post about my mother’s studio, Bob Barrell and the parties with so many interesting people we had there. Using the address and Google Earth I found the image of the building which apart from the store on the ground floor, appears to be unchanged from the early 1940s.

The Janice Studios, one block west of Union Square

The Janice Studios, one block west of Union Square

I think the second floor front studio, the most desirable in the place with the fewest stairs to climb, huge space and lots of north light, was Kenneth Hayes Miller’s. I think Kuniyoshi had the one above and that other second and third floor tenants included Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh and several other well known names dating back to the ’20s. I think Yas tipped my mother to the availability of her fifth floor rear place when Nahum Tschacbasov gave up his teaching position at the League. It was the least desirable studio, five exhausting flights up, not much bigger than a broom closet with one dirty window facing south.

Kuniyoshi in his studio, looking north across 14th street.

Kuniyoshi in his studio, looking north across 14th street. The painting is “Upside down Table and Mask”

Far and away the most popular social gathering place, Kuniyoshi’s porch, the League or the AEA notwithstanding, was Deanie’s restaurant, particularly the ample outdoor dining area. It seemed as though each summer new little cliques would form based, obviously, mostly on who was there at the time and they mostly gathered at Deanie’s (and at the bars, I would guess). As one consequence each summer my mother would have some one or two people she spent spare time with. One such was Paul Burlin, in 1948 I think, who was one of the more urbane people I have met, very witty and with comments on everyone and everything that could etch glass. Another constant lunch companion in the summer of 1950 was Eugene O’Neill jr, who was not an artist but a respected professor of Greek at Yale, most known for “The Complete Greek Drama” an anthology of English translations done with Whitney Oates that is a standard to this day. In September he committed suicide in the manner of Seneca, sitting in a warm bath and slitting his left ankle and wrist.

Joe Presser was a constant, being one of the longest standing Woodstockers and Janice studios tenant where he and his wife, Agnes Hart, illegally lived like Bob Barrell (the studios were only to be used for work, not dwelling) so we saw him very often in New York. Joe always had a small drawing pad in his left hand and sketched incessantly, sometimes seeming like he wasn’t even looking at what his hand was drawing. He also did strange mixed media paintings, mixing watercolor, oil, gouache even pastels and crayons on paper. Of course, often the oil or gouache would start peeling off in a matter of weeks. I think he was an excellent draftsman and often created rather impressive pieces. About fifteen years ago someone told me that years before Joe had committed suicide by jumping off one of the over-the-Seine bridges. (This will be my last morbid note – promise.) His work was shown recently at the Fletcher Gallery in Woodstock and there’s an excellent website at josefpresser.org

Joe Presser

Joe Presser – from the website

There were two Woodstock “regulars” who stand out in my memory for being disliked by many. First was Karl Fortess who was despised by Kuniyoshi’s students and loyalists for openly playing the part of a fawning sycophant with Yas, presumably with a view to gaining a teaching appointment at the League. If that was his intention, in the end he succeeded. It would seem Fortess was obsessed with the lack of financial success but that certainly wasn’t unusual at that time, with the end of the WPA, as Professor Sokol pointed out. It was, in fact, a major part of Kuniyoshi’s motive in establishing Artists Equity. There is a video of Fortess talking on this and related matters on YouTube.

Fortess with Kuniyoshi

Yas and Fortess – Judging from Yas’ graying this must have been taken in 1952 or 1953 the year he died.

The other was Hermann Cherry who was characterized as a sort of Uriah Heep. I have almost no memory of him except how much he was despised. He may have been rather short… I do recall him approaching Deanie’s outdoor cafe and hearing people say “Oh no. Here comes Cherry”. Also I never heard him called by his first name, just “Cherry”.

Another very popular social activity was going to the Friday evening movies shown in the town hall. One showing that drew a lot of attention had a short documentary along with the feature that showed an artist with his canvas lying flat on a garage floor, splashing whole cans of wall paint and squishing tubes of oil paint directly onto the canvas. There was a great deal of laughing, hooting and howling.

There was a good Actors Equity rated summer stock theater – I don’t know whether it was an  Equity “A” company though. I don’t think many of the artists were in its audiences – it mostly appealed to tourists. One summer Lillian Gish was featured for several weeks. I saw her a number of times at or walking near Deanie’s. She wore a silk-like (rayon?) slack suit with a color halfway between beige and pink and even though she was near sixty  years old at the time, would get wolf whistles from the passing truckers.


Back to the Book

Take another look at the cover for Improvisations II:

Front Cover 1951 Ball

Front Cover 1951 Ball

Now look at the artist’s signature in the upper left corner:

cover signature

Cover Artist’s signature: Anton Refregier

Anton Refregier was one of the best and most widely known names at the time. In 1941 the WPA-FAP granted him the largest project they had ever assigned, valued at $26,000, a twenty-seven panel mural  depicting the history of California for the WPA-built Rincon Annex, the central post office for the city of San Francisco. The timing of the award was unfortunate, coming just before our involvement in WW II. The Rincon Annex was the funnel to most of the mail going to our Pacific forces making it much too busy to allow Refregier to paint his murals. The work was interrupted until 1945 and proceeded slowly thereafter as each panel was challenged by one or more interest groups, Refregier trying to accommodate nearly all of them by making changes, until it was finally completed in 1948. Throughout there were charges of radical left or communist propaganda in the murals for such things as siding with the unions in the general strike and so on. (The same complaints were made about the murals in Coit Tower which date to the same era, where such sympathies were more evident. In the late seventies my wife and I became friends with Langley and Blanche Howard who were still fairly radical. Langley painted the Coit mural “Industry” but was more widely known at the time we knew him for his many magazine covers for Scientific American. Appended to the end of this post is a note I wrote for a local newsletter on the Howards time in Bolinas. After years of attempts to have the murals destroyed they have just been painstakingly and expensively restored.) There is a very good summary of the travails of Refregier and his murals by Rob Spoor in the San Francisco City Guides site which can be seen here.

During the Depression in the mid-30s a large number of front rank artists were affiliated with a variety of leftist organizations. In the arts the two most prominent were the American Artists Congress and the Artists Union. Kuniyoshi was a founding member and vice president of the Congress which was a Popular Front organization but I have a hard time believing he was much interested in the politics. (Popular Front was the name given to outfits that were affiliations of liberals and leftist radicals, especially communists, often partly for some common purpose such as fighting the rise of European fascism. The Artists Congress supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, for example.) The other popular artists organization was the Artists Union which affiliated itself with the rising industrial and crafts unions, joining them in strikes and protests. I don’t think either of these organizations were very effective in improving the economic lot of artists – but they were still around, very much alive during the WPA years which was part of the reason right wing congressman were so eager to destroy WPA murals. A central point in Kuniyoshi’s “new approach” was the avoidance of any outside affiliations whatsoever, especially political connections.

The prevalence of leftist thinking led to widespread similarities in stylistic matters that I used to call the “WPA style”. It was very prevalent in the New York Worlds Fair of 1939/40 in Flushing (which I went to every summer day of both years) . One example would be the “worker hero” a laborer in a sleeveless t-shirt with a hard hat on and bulging biceps. A very similar figure was everywhere in Soviet art. I was first exposed to this model even before the Worlds Fair in a painting by my mother. She was taking lessons, mostly life classes, in a WPA course conducted by Bender Mark. At the end of one semester he assigned a project to create a large painting on the student’s own subject. My mother’s project was unusual in several ways. First was the “canvas” which was burlap,  stretched over a frame made with Mark’s help at the Main Street studio and sized with glue. Second was the size: it was very large, something like four by six feet. Third was the medium, poster paints, made from the powders and applied fairly dry and thick. Last was the subject, three or four worker heroes (hard hats, sleeveless t-shirts, bulging biceps) digging a tunnel with the tunnel boring machine (mole) face in the middle right background as the focal point. The mole face was quite accurately represented. (The background to all of this was that my father at that time was an electrical design engineer for the NY Board of Transportation and was involved in some of the expansions to the Independent System subway then underway. He, no doubt provided descriptions of tunnel digging and the mole. He told me many years later that he had worked on the design of the Second Avenue line which was never started.)

In 1946 two U. S. State Department officials bought 152 paintings, oil and watercolor, by modern American artists, broke them into a couple of smaller groups and packaged them to be touring art exhibitions called “Advancing American Art” for circulation in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere to show that there was a robust American art movement and that was not derivative from Paris or other European sources. The shows were actually opened in a few venues and were very well received even though the American press, especially the Hearst chain and Look Magazine, was relentlessly attacking them as being subversive, communist and so on. Several pre-McCarthyite congressmen joined in the assault but it took no less than Harry S. Truman’s condemnation to bring the whole venture to a close. (I find the irony in the similarity of Josef Stalin’s and Truman’s taste in art to be rather depressing.) The paintings were auctioned off. David Sokol has a good, more detailed account of this sordid affair in his paper which you really should read. This episode must have thrown a real scare into the American art community, presaging as it did, continuing hostility from the government, killing any prospect for further WPA-like support with continuing hard times in the outlook. Kuniyoshi, in particular, must have taken the message to heart.

Kuniyoshi was also represented in the show with this 1924 painting:

circus girl resting

Circus girl resting – 1924

Note the use of heavy, pure black for shades and shadows. Kuniyoshi went through several distinct eras in style and substance until he arrived at those he evidenced at the time my mother entered his class. At that time his paintings looked like these:

Later example

Later example

At this time he was experimenting with under-painting, using black instead of the sienas and umbers used by Dutch renaissance masters. (Students of other teachers at the League used to tease Yas’ students saying he was doing charcoal drawings in oil.). Here’s another example:

Upside down table and mask

Upside down table and mask

This the painting on the easel in the studio photograph included earlier in this post. Note the treatment of the cloth and mask. At the time the book turned up, this student effort by my mother also emerged. It had been very badly handled, off the stretcher and folded in four – but the hand of the master is still visible:

Student effort by Agnes Kovach, ca 1950

Student effort by Agnes Kovach, ca 1950

Contents of the Book

To view a larger picture click on the thumbnail. This also allows viewing in slideshow mode.

After these images there are links to further information about the better known artists.

 Links to further information about the artists

Anton Refregier: Rob Spoor on the murals; Biography.

Joseph Hirsch: Wikipedia biography.

Harry Sternberg: Wikipedia biography.

George L. K. Morris: Biography.

Betty Kathe: Auction records only.

Agnes Kovach: Amazon, eBay listings only.

Georges Schreiber: Biography.

Robert Gwathmey: Wikipedia biography.

Hans Hoffman: Wikipedia biography.

Leon Kroll: Wikipedia biography.

Gerrit Hondius: Gallery publicity.

Robert Delson: Auction records only.

T. Lux Feininger: Wikipedia biography.

Gladys Rockmore Davis:  Wikipedia biography.

Louis Bosa: Michener Museum.

Stuyvesant van Veen: NYT obituary.

Isabel Bishop: Wikipedia biography.

Helen Ratkai: Auction records only.

Adolf Dehn: Wikipedia biography.

Julio de Diego: Wikipedia biography.

Sidney Simon: NYT obituary.

Amy Jones: Auction records only.

Lewis Daniel: Penn Academy catalog.

Chaim Gross: Wikipedia biography.

Eric Isenburger: Isenburger collection.

Fletcher Martin: Wikipedia biography.

Lee Jackson: NYT obituary.

Antonio Frasconi: Wikipedia biography.

Dorothy Block:Wikipedia biography.

Lena Gurr: Smithsonian archive.

Samuel Adler: Wikipedia stub.

Leonard Lionni: NYT obituary.

George Biddle: Wikipedia biography.

Ann Leboy: Auction records.  

George S. Ratkai: Auction records only.

Nicolai Cikovski: Spanierman gallery biography.

Henry Varnum Poor: Wikipedia biography.

Reginald Marsh: Wikipedia biography.

Elias Newman: NYT obituary.

Harry Gottlieb: Wikipedia biography.

Raphael Soyer: Wikipedia biography.

Lilian MacKendrick: CS Monitor interview.

Max Weber: Wikipedia biography.

Milton Avery: Wikipedia biography.

Gwen Lux: Wikipedia biography.

Mitchell Siporin: Wikipedia biography.

Marcel Vertes: Commercial site.

Ben Shahn: Wikipedia biography.

Flash Memory (item published in a local newsletter called “Hearsay News”)

Over the past couple of months I have been working off and on (mostly off) on a new post for my blog about the founding of the Artists Equity Association, its founder and first president, and my mother’s teacher, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and the art scene in Greenwich Village and Woodstock circa 1950.

The name “Anton Refregier” figures slightly at the beginning of my story. Refregier, working under a Work Progress Administration – Federal Art Project grant, created the murals for the Rincon Annex post office in San Francisco which have been considered the finest public art in California by some. The subject is the history of California. It is huge: twenty-seven panels totaling four hundred square feet. The painting was done from 1941 to 1948 with a long hiatus because of The War.

The subject of communist sympathies comes up in connection with this work as it does in many another WPA – FAP project. There are sympathetic portrayals of such things as the San Francisco waterfront strike and other leftist social issues; in 1953 a McCarthyite congressman tried to have the murals destroyed and so on. For the most part Refregier simply shrugged off such allegations and the associated threats.

The same sort of accusations and disputes arose much more intensely in the case of the murals in Coit Tower which are just now the object of a very big and expensive total restoration (which will be open to the public in a few weeks). For those reasons I looked up the Wikipedia article on the Coit murals and what I saw made my eyebrows head for my hairline.

The creator of the mural titled Industry was John Langley Howard.

Langley and Blanche Howard rented a house on the Little Mesa in the late ‘70s. Barbara found Langley on one of the local beaches painting a landscape and brought him home to our house on Larch. (Barbara was forever bringing home her beach finds – we gained some very nice friends that way.) Over the next several months we became rather friendly, exchanging dinner invitations and the like.

They had lived a fascinating gypsy life. For example, they told us that they had lived a year in a tent on a beach outside of Brownsville, Texas, kids and all. There is an excellent obituary by Allan Temko for Langley available from SFGATE.com.

I either did not know or forgot about the Coit mural but I certainly did know about the many covers he did for his son who was the Artistic Director for Scientific American. Langley did about three covers a year and illustrations for articles in the magazine and if you ever saw them they would stand out in your memory as they have in mine. They were done in what I’d call a hyper-realistic style, not quite magic realistic – and they had an aura that lasts.

In less than a year Blanche came down with cancer and died rather soon thereafter. Langley moved on, perhaps to San Francisco, or Berkeley, or New York, or … He was in San Francisco, on Potrero Hill, when he died.

David M. Sokol’s paper

(A more readable PDF may be found here)

ArtistsEquityHistory-1 ArtistsEquityHistory-2 ArtistsEquityHistory-3 ArtistsEquityHistory-4 ArtistsEquityHistory-5 ArtistsEquityHistory-6 ArtistsEquityHistory-7 ArtistsEquityHistory-8 ArtistsEquityHistory-9 ArtistsEquityHistory-10 ArtistsEquityHistory-11 ArtistsEquityHistory-12 ArtistsEquityHistory-13sokol


Read Full Post »

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

In the autumn of 1952 Molly Bower asked me to take a deaf Indian artist to specialists in hearing problems in New York.


There is a great deal of background behind that simple sentence – and some interesting consequences.


Mary Margaret “Molly” Bower was a one-time room-mate of my first wife, Terry Flambert, in Kelly Hall at the University of Chicago. At the time of the request she was living at 18 Christopher Street, about a block east of Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.



(I believe 18 is the doorway in the deep shadow of the tree. I remember it as unusually narrow with the odd little stoop without handrails. Both images from Google.)

Terry and I were living at the foot of MacDougal Street, about seven blocks away (see the post about Mama Savarese). Molly was the youngest of an unusual brood of six who were born in slightly separated pairs, boy-girl, boy-girl, boy-girl. The middle pair was Ted and Joan (pronounced Jo-ann). Molly and I remained good friends throughout her life. At some later time I will tell you of her very interesting career.


Ted was an architect who studied and apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, spending six years working on Taliesin West. Wright and Le Corbusier had a serious disliking for each other, and not just over architecture, which led to Wright sending Ted to observe the development of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh. While there Ted became acquainted with a young painter, scion of a prominent political family, Satish Gujral. Later, Ted had his own architectural firm in Seattle for nearly fifty years.


Joan Bower went to Wellesley where her room-mate was Santha Rama Rau, the first Indian woman admitted to that WASP citadel (I am sure there have been thousands since). She is the daughter of Sir Benegal Rau who people of my age remember with admiration and fondness for his good work at the UN during the Korean crisis. Santha went on to write a number of popular travel books, novels and articles and her name is familiar to anyone who reads The New Yorker. She married Faubion Bowers, who had been Douglas MacArthur’s personal interpreter in Japan and became a well known expert on Japanese and other Asian theaters. Joan married Arnold Horwitt, a very successful writer of musicals (including Pins and Needles, Make Mine Manhattan and Plain and Fancy which featured Barbara Cook (see my post on the Janice studio parties)). Later Joan became an Episcopal priest, in Connecticut


Santha Rama Rau


Satish Gujral was born in 1925 in Jhelum in western Punjab. His parents, Avtar Narain and Pushpa, were both well known, both to the British and the Indians, as freedom fighters. That term, in this context, means they were active in trying to obtain Indian independence from the British Empire. Satish’s six years older brother Inder Kumar was also in the movement and was jailed and beaten in 1931 at the age of eleven for organizing a children’s resistance movement in Jhelum. The parents and brother were prominent in the Quit India Movement started by Mohandas Ghandi in 1942 and led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the India Congress Party. Inder Kumar Gujral eventually became the Prime Minister of India at a very turbulent time in Indian politics so that his administration had a brief life.

Inder Kumar Gujral 

At about age seven, Satish suffered a disease that left him completely deaf which, at that time and place, was a calamity both for Satish and for his family. His father spent a great deal of time and thought deciding how Satish was going to make his way in the world, eventually deciding on the graphic arts in which he had demonstrated both ability and interest. He was sent to a school in Lahore named Mayo, which was more designed for artisans than artists, probably in early adolescence. Nonetheless, it provided him with a wide range of knowledge of materials and methods which stood him in very good stead later. Fortuitously this school was near where his brother was in college and, because Satish didn’t like the food served at his own school’s hostel, he ate with Inder at his hostel and came under his leftist influence in social and political thinking. 


After leaving Mayo he went to the J J School of Arts in Bombay. This posed several problems for Satish. First was language. It was difficult enough for him to communicate in his native language, Urdu, but nearly impossible for him to follow the language used in classes. Fortunately, in several ways, Pran Nath Mago took him under wing acting as interpreter and tacitly influencing Satish’s thinking in the arts.


All through his adolescence at Mayo and now, in his early maturity at J J he was afflicted with disabling attacks in his legs which forced him to retreat to the family home. This was much more easily done when in Lahore than in Bombay. With a year to go at J J he suffered an especially serious attack, which pretty much ended his career there. (Author’s note: I have been relying on Satish’s autobiographical art book, The World of Satish Gujral – In his own words; UBS Publishers’ Distributors, Ltd; which in some respects is a difficult source. It is more concerned with the origins and evolution of Satish’s thinking in the arts and about the arts, especially their social and political roles, than it is with basic biographical data, such as dates. He never states what the disease was that cost him his hearing and he doesn’t say what the malady was with his legs, or whether it was the same one or not, but at one point he says the many surgeries on his legs caused the deafness(!).)  


Shortly after Satish recovered from the last attack, on August 14, 1947, India finally achieved Independence which came at the price of Partition. The horrors that ensued, mass murders of refugees from both sides by machine-gunning overloaded trains and other atrocities, are still vivid in many a survivor’s memories.  Like many another family the Gujrals found themselves on the wrong side of the new border, in the newly created Moslem nation of Pakistan. Satish told me that his family had to flee for their lives in the

middle of the night, leaving behind everything they owned. (I do not see any mention of this incident in his book, however.)


Last August (2007), sixty years after the event, the legacy of misery from the Partition was still evident and the rancor over Kashmir is a threat to peace in the entire region, if not the world. 


At this point Satish’s narrative talks of the paintings he was doing while recovering in Shimla. As far as I can make out, this is his first mention of Shimla and his first mention painting while on his own. He wonders whether the paintings, which were very violent in their imagery, (I saw photographs of them – I’ll have more to say about them later) were engendered by his experience during the Partition holocaust or were the product of some inner rage which would have manifested itself whether there were outside stimuli or not. He decides that the latter was the case.


Satish states that toward the end of his years (how many?) in Shimla he became acquainted with Charles Fabri, a Hungarian émigré who was the arts critic for The Statesman and, it appears, was a major taste-maker for the Indian art world. Fabri told Satish he should go to Mexico to study the muralistas which was inspired, no doubt, by the similarities between Satish’s work and that of Orozco and Siqueiros. He further told Satish of a grant being offered by the Mexican government at the newly opened Mexican Embassy in New Delhi. Somewhere, somehow during this span Satish met Ted Bower who, among other things, worked on teaching Satish English. He consulted with Ted on the advice Fabri had given about applying for the Mexican grant. Both Ted and Satish’s brother were apprehensive about his prospects both in applying and, should he get the grant, managing in yet another language and alien culture. Ted wrote to Santha Rama Rau in the U.S. After some further complications in the application process Santha unexpectedly showed up in New Delhi with no less than Octavio Paz, who was at the time the Cultural Attache to the Mexican Embassy, in tow. Satish was awarded the grant.


Just before his trip to the US and Mexico Satish had his first one-man show in New Delhi which was praised by Fabri and another prominent critic S. H. Vatsyayan who also wrote the introduction for the catalog. Satish says, “Overnight, they transformed me into a celebrity.”


Which brings us back to the start of this post.


I took Satish to several places to see if anything might be done about his hearing and, as I knew would be the case, he was told nothing could be done at that time. At the end of the week Terry, Molly and I took Satish to Grand Central Station and waved good-bye as his train slowly pulled away from the platform. The trip by train from New York to Mexico City was an entire week in duration. I find the very thought of what must have been a rattling ride to be mind numbing – I can’t imagine how he felt by the end.

(Added 4/5/09: Terry sent me a note containing her recollection of Satish’s departure:  My last visual memory of him is his “talking” intensely to a rather lovely young lady before boarding the train with her.) 

From his book.




Quite coincidentally, about a year later in October of 1953 Terry decided that we should move to her home town, San Francisco, to which I somewhat reluctantly agreed. In order to help with the travel expenses, it was agreed that I would take my mother to Mexico for about 6 months and at the end she would return to New York and I would go up to San Francisco. My mother was a dragging anchor much of the time but I had an interesting and often very enjoyable visit nonetheless.


After we had been in Mexico City for a couple of weeks, having moved from the Hotel Maria Cristina to a casa de huespedes in a residential district (Guadalquivir 19 – all the streets in that section were named for rivers), I decided to try to find Satish. I went to the Palacio de Bellas Artes because I understood they had an art school where all the big names were teachers. I found some class studios, asked the people I found there if they had seen Satish, “a hindu with a big black beard and a blue turban” and on several such visits just got blank looks. Finally a young woman said she thought she had seen such an individual and that she thought he was in a class taught by Diego Rivera. I asked where I could leave a message inquiring about Satish and she said, “Why don’t you just call him up?” Did she know his number or where I could find it? “He’s in the book.” I found a phone directory and sure enough, there was Diego Rivera’s name at an address in the Piedras Negras neighborhood, a rather toney residential area built on an old lava bed, hence the Black Rocks name. I called, Rivera answered and after I gave the name and description he denied ever seeing such an individual. I was stumped. The only line of search I could think of had just dead-ended.


Not long after that there was an announcement in the newspaper of a retrospective exhibition of Mexican art, from pre-columbian times to the current day, opening a day or two later at the Bellas Artes (a note on this exhibition: it was absolutely huge, the whole museum was given over to it, and it was perhaps the finest show of its sort I have ever seen. A small part was set to travel to a number of museums in Europe and the US over the next five years, ending, I believe in the Met in NY). We went to the opening day and there in the cupola covered antechamber, looking at a painting, was Satish.


He told us what happened after he left Grand Central. The train ride was uneventful, he made friends of some the other passengers and generally found the trip to be not unpleasant. When he got to Mexico City he expected some sort of greeting party – not a brass band, mind you, just someone to tell him where to stay, how to get started at the school and so on. There was nobody there – nobody. It would seem that the problem was in lack of continuity in the Mexican government. Satish had been awarded the grant in the last months of the Aleman regime. Between the time Satish was given the grant and his arrival in Mexico a new president was elected, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines; no one in the new administration knew anything about the commitments of the old administration. I cannot remember if he told me how he even found a place to stay that night much less how had managed through the long process of getting the government to recognize his existence and legitimate claims. He did tell me that other art students had supported him with loans and probably shared quarters. In the book he mentions a Canadian expatriate, Arnold Belkin, who was Siqueiros’ student before Satish. Perhaps he helped sustain Satish during that anxious time.


When I mentioned the call to Rivera, Satish said he had been in his class for about a week. When Satish told Rivera his colors looked like they came from a candy box, Rivera threw him out of the class, which accounts for Rivera’s “faulty memory”.


Satish invited us to visit his quarters, his studio, which we did a few days later. I do not know where his place was; I do remember a long cab ride on Insurgentes, but which direction, north or south, I do not know. When we got there we were confronted with a very large house, a single residence, in which a large number of students were quartered. The stairway was so large that two students were housed on the first landing – there was ample space between their cots to proceed up to the next floor where Satish had a garret-like room.


He showed us a number of paintings showing the same sort of vehemence I had seen in the photographs of his work in India. To me they suggested Orozco, who had died before Satish ever got to Mexico, but I am not qualified to make such distinctions. He was very excited by a discovery he had made and thought it might make him rich: he was mixing dry poster paint powder with acrylic resin. The colors were brilliant, more resistant than oil paint to fading or changing because the colors were sealed in by the plastic so air couldn’t get at the pigments. By varying the amount of powder to resin he could get rich textural effects, from impastos to glazes and so on. Unfortunately, as history unfolded, the big commercial paint producers all came out with acrylic paints in a tube and beat Satish to the punch.


His studio was a classical garret shape: a long narrow room with a dormer window high up on one of the long walls. Out of curiosity I pulled a chair under the window, stood on it and on tip-toes looked out the window. What I saw was a big surprise. There was a very large swimming pool, with a two level diving board at one end, a row of cabanas running along the length of the pool on the side opposite the window and around the width on the right – at least a dozen in all. “Satish, what is this place?” “Don’t you know? This was Miguel Aleman’s private bordello when he was President. He kept it filled with sixteen-year-old girls.”


(There was a lot of public interest in Aleman’s sex life, whether real or purported. The landlady at our boarding house asked me “Why is the national flag like Maria Felix’s panties? Because both are raised and lowered by presidential decree.” Maria Felix was an extraordinarily good-looking woman, a movie star with an interesting ‘private’ life. I’ll go into all of this in a post about my Mexican visit.)




That was the last time I saw Satish. About a decade later there was a big spread in Life magazine about the flourishing Indian arts. Satish was given two whole pages – he truly was a celebrity by then. Subsequently Satish became internationally known for an architectural achievement – the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi.



In his book, in the section regarding Mexico, there is a lengthy discussion about the conflict between the muralistas and Rufino Tamayo. Both camps are used metaphorically to stand for different ways to achieve a truly Mexican art. It so happens I became familiar with this subject in Cuernavaca in my discussions with some young intellectuals (included were two poets, a painter and an architect). The muralistas painted Mexican subjects, matters of historical or political or social importance. Tamayo tried to evoke an intrinsically Mexican mode of expression in colors, forms and emblems. I was in the Tamayo camp and the locals, who sometimes got rather sidetracked, saying Tamayo’s time in New York and Paris made him un-Mexican, were in the muralistas’. This sort of debate was going on in India at the time as well – as it was in many a newly freed nation trying to throw off the colonial cultural yoke.


One last note about Satish’s book and his early work: I mentioned that he felt that his smoldering rage might have expressed itself in his paintings whether or not there had been the atrocities consequent on Partition. None of those paintings are shown in the book and I cannot find any on the Web. Clearly, he has disowned his own past in that regard – did he destroy the paintings?


About two years ago I asked Molly Bower Kux’s three children, Sally, Leslie and Brian, all of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps as Federal Civil Servants (both were in the State Department, Dennis Kux is a retired ambassador; Molly worked for AID until her death), if they knew Satish, if their mother’s connection was through Ted or Joan, and if their uncle Ted was still in touch with him. Sally said, “I do know of the Indian artist to whom you refer below, although I don’t know the connection.  I think you are right that it might be through Ted.  I think Dad saw Gujral’s brother when he was in India some months ago.” Leslie wrote: “I met Satish when I visited Dad in India in 2001.  I actually went to a fancy party at his house.  He and his wife are very charming and nice.  I think Ted may have seen him in NY the next year.  I can’t remember the story of how he and Ted hooked up, though.”


A more recent photograph of Satish

Seated: Molly Bower Kux, the author, Sally Kux. Sally was a doctoral candidate in Russian language and literature at Stanford; the young man was also.

Read Full Post »

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

Student Bars in Chicago

University Tavern

It was past 1 a.m., November 3, 1948 when Severn Darden in his black opera cape sidled by my seat in University Tavern, then the favorite bar for U. of Chicago students. The place was packed – we were all there because UT was one of the few places in those days with a television set and we were all anxiously watching the election returns, which came in much slower then and were indeterminate at that late hour. We kept hearing H. V. Kaltenborn’s assurances, which Truman gleefully imitated later, that Dewey would win when the downstate vote came in. I was getting anxious about the time because the bar had to close at 2 a.m. and it appeared we would not have a decision by then, so I asked Severn if he had the time. He fumbled around under his cape, tugged at a chain and produced a goose-egg watch. I don’t know whether this was the real thing or some sort of replica but knowing Severn, I would guess it was a genuine, rare and valuable antique. He said, “This damned thing always says 4:30”, pocketed the watch and left without answering my question – typical Darden wit. I am ashamed to admit it took me two days to remember the Mad Hatter and the reason for his perpetual tea party.

(There is an amusing “sidebar” to the above ’48 election story. A rumor rapidly went around a day or two after the election about a young instructor in economics who concluded that the polls were badly done. His estimate was that the error was sufficient for Truman to win. He made bets with a lot of the faculty at very favorable odds and cleaned up.

His name was Milton Friedman.

This story may be apocryphal but I am inclined to believe it because it is so characteristic of Friedman.)

The Woodlawn Tap

Very soon after that UT’s very popular bartender, Jimmy Wilson, opened his own place a couple of blocks away, the Woodlawn Tap. A large part of my time – and education – took place in Jimmy’s bar and I became good friends with him and his principal bartender, Tom Claridge. (Over the next six years or so, bars played a big part in my life – too big a part, if you take my meaning.) Jimmy bought a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and installed it on the back bar to try to settle the many disputes that arose amongst the patrons.  The shot from Google’s Street View reveals that the place is unchanged from sixty years ago …

(There are some better pictures at www.josephsittler.org/jimmys/  and www.aklehr.com/chicagohood2.html)

I was often there with members of a clique of sorts that included Fritz Weaver and his girlfriend at the time, Annie Norris, a resident of Kelly Hall where my girlfriend, Terry Flambert also resided. Fritz had a creamy baritone voice and Annie a creditable mezzo so I would often cajole them into singing the seduction scene from Don Giovanni – one of the few pieces of classical music I am capable of enjoying. Another occasional member of the group was Ned Polsky, the most insane Joyce fanatic I have ever encountered – he could declaim yards and yards of Finnegan’s Wake from memory, for instance. Ned and I would often play Botticelli, the only game better designed to induce violence than Bridge.

Botticelli is “Twenty Questions” with strategy. It is played this way: one player thinks of a “famous” person (who could be well known only in some very limited area); the questioner has to earn the right to ask a general question (such as “Is it male?” or “Is she living?”) by stumping the answerer with a very specific question which is to be answered by a name (such as “Is this the person who coined the word ‘physicist’?”); now here’s the weenie, the joker in the deck: the specific question has to be within all the classes established by the answers to the general questions. So, for instance if it had been established that the subject the answerer is thinking of is a living female then the above specific question could not be asked because it is about a dead male (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). To play the game well you must be very careful not to take away your area of expertise too early. I knew a lot of obscure mathematicians or obscure facts about mathematicians so I would never ask a question about the subject’s trade, (“was he a poet?”) which could deprive me of my best specific questions (i.e., if the answer was ‘Yes’). Ned and I would often play this game until someone broke us up as our egos got more and more involved and our hostility was spoiling other people’s evening. (I have appended an obituary for Ned at the end of this post.)

I stayed in Chicago one of the summers (probably 1949) but was not in school. It was terribly hot all summer so I got into a pattern of staying up late, closing the bar each night and then sleeping until 2 in the afternoon to avoid being active in the heat. One night Jimmy and Tom decided they would go to an illegal after-hours joint after closing the bar and asked me if I wanted to go with them. Of course I did. I have no real recollection of where this place was, can’t remember if we walked there or went in Jimmy’s car. It was a large wooden house, three main floors of railroad flats and a ground-level flat. We walked down a breezeway on the right side of the house to about the middle of the building where there was a doorway with a brass peephole nearly six feet up. Tom rang some sort of doorbell, the slide in the peephole went to one side and an eye appeared in it – it was all so corny I almost laughed (which would not have been a good thing to do). The door opened and a six foot five hairy ape stared at me with suspicion if not disapproval. Tom said, “He’s OK. He’s with us.” and I was grudgingly granted admission.

Inside was a single very large room with a bar running along the left half of the entryway wall and an over-under table in the middle of the room. There was a craps table and other gambling going on as well. Over-under is a game where you bet either that a roll of two dice will come up less than seven, more than seven or exactly seven. The table has a felt top divided in half by painted lines with a lozenge-shaped space intruding equally into the two halves, which is the exactly-seven space. You bet by throwing some money in one of the spaces. There were some tables and chairs scattered about. The bar and tables were being worked by some dreary looking whores; various illegal transactions were being conducted everywhere in the room; there were several rough looking bouncers who, Tom told me, were detectives from the local precinct (not surprising in ‘40s Chicago). At the over-under table was a short Italian gangster with a roll of hundred dollar bills in his left hand so big he couldn’t get his pudgy fingers all the way around it – he stood there peeling off hundreds and flipping them indiscriminately on the table.

We had a couple of drinks and left – but the scene is indelibly imprinted on my memory.

There was a guy who was hanging out at the UT where he was becoming famous for a stunt he performed regularly. If you bought him a bottle of beer, he would place it on a table, bend over and pick it up with his teeth, and without using his hands, raise it over his head and drain it in a gulp or two without spilling a drop. He did this to get the free beers until he became too drunk to do the stunt. His name was Ralph Winder and he was a Marine veteran who had served almost the entire second war in the South Pacific, operating a flame thrower for some part of that time. If there ever was a case of PTSD, he was it. I never saw him perform his trick at Jimmy’s but he must have done it there on occasion. Jimmy hired him as a part-time fill-in bartender, I think as one of his reclamation projects. Ralph did a good job, was on his best behavior (when at work) and was well liked by the patrons. He became my third behind-the-bar friend as well. Eventually Ralph found a nice middle everything girl, married her and had a daughter. His level headed wife got him on his feet, got him going – he was hired for a very good job doing public relations for a downtown nightclub (the Chez Paree, I believe). He liked the job, was good at it and was earning a good income.

Not long after Christmas 1950, when Terry and I were living in New York, we received a Christmas card from Tom. Inside was a note that went something like this: “Ralph was called up again by the Marines. After about a week of preparation he was sent to Korea and was in the Chosin Reservoir slaughter. He is now in the mental ward of a hospital in Hawaii. Merry Christmas!” The whole process, from the States to Hawaii to Korea and back to Hawaii, took about six weeks.

That was the last I ever heard of Ralph and the last I ever heard from Tom.


The Beehive

There was another bar in Hyde Park, on 53d street I think, that was very popular with both U of C students and staff, especially on Sunday afternoons, called the Beehive. It featured Dixieland during the week nights but on Sunday afternoon it was a place where musicians congregated for socializing among themselves and holding impromptu jam sessions which was free to the ordinary patrons. Some big names showed up – I remember that Armstrong and Bechet were said to be there one Sunday.

I went there only once, not on a Sunday, with Terry, in the middle of the day and the middle of the week. I remember the day as being very sunny, so in all likelihood, it was a hot summer day and we retreated into the bar for the air conditioning. There were three other patrons, two men and a woman, already there. Suddenly there was a big uproar, with the woman screaming and shrieking as she attempted to tug one of the men out a side door half way down the room. The men were snarling at each other. Then the bartender, a pretty big guy, cart-wheeled over the bar – literally cart-wheeled, feet over his head and all the rest. He immediately got between the two men, gently pushed them away from each other by putting a hand on each one’s chest. The woman succeeded in dragging her guy out the side door and the other guy left by way of the front door a minute or two later.

The bartender came over and said, “It’s a good thing I got between those guys. I felt their chests as I leaned on them – this guy had a cannon in there.” Terry and I figured if there had been any shooting, it would have been through us.


The Kentucky Tavern

Another popular student bar, on the east side of Hyde Park, was called Ken and Jock’s Kentucky Tavern. We went there because they served a passable pizza (!). On one Sunday evening (when the dormitory didn’t serve dinner) there was a large group of us, four or five males, Kelly Hall lounge lizards, and seven or eight females from Kelly Hall.  The waitress was having a difficult time getting the group to pay attention to the business of ordering. One of the Kelly Hall women, Heather Axelrod (known as Heemer – some sort of low feminine humor arising from a menstrual event) loudly commanded, “Order now or forever hold your pizza!”

On another occasion there I got a nasty lesson in practical sociology. It was a Friday evening. There were five or six steel mill workers, most likely from Gary, Indiana, sitting at the bar. At least a couple of them were pretty drunk. I arrived with Terry and another good looking college girl (can’t remember who – I keep thinking it might have been Lucy Prinz,  Joachim Prinz’ daughter) and found a couple of familiar guys at a table. One of them was Shag Donohoe, a local book-store owner in his thirties, one of those people who can never get off a university tit, who apparently had been exchanging unpleasantries with one or more of the mill hands. As soon as we arrived he got up and left as did the one or two others who were there with him.  Thereafter, one of the drunks at the bar kept glaring at us or, rather, me. We became uncomfortable enough to decide to leave and even take a cab (unusual for impecunious college kids). While I was in the process of trying to hail a taxi the same guy comes out, with one or two others in his wake, rambles on in an incoherent manner and then says something about shaking hands. As I extended my hand he unleashed a powerful blow to my face. My nose and one front tooth were broken. The sober one of the group rushed out of the bar, apologizing and begging, “No cops, please, please, no cops”.

I had ticket selling duties the following week for the upcoming University Theatre play and was in the very public cage in the hallway outside Ida Noyes. I got damned sick of explaining my two black eyes and other facial damage to everyone who came up. I did not report the matter to the police. It would have been a waste of time in any case.


Bars in New York

The Golden Eagle in the Village

Our favorite hangout for a couple of years was the Golden Eagle on Ninth Street just east of Sixth Avenue in an English basement. It was owned by Amedeo X (I have been probing and prodding my memory but just can’t come up with his last name – it may be that I never knew it). The bar was served by Jimmy Y (Irish last name – ditto) and the few meals were prepared by Mario Z and served by his daughter Tessie. Mario filled in at the bar when the occasion required it. It was just a neighborhood bar with a set of regulars who showed up several nights a week thus becoming a sort of extended family. The only “notable” I remember was John Carradine who showed up one night, very drunk, with two very drunk younger women. He was, loud, obnoxious and arrogant, offending everyone in the place. When he was offered a police escort he left and never came back.

Amedeo was not your usual village Italian bar/restaurant owner – he was very refined, a gentleman in any setting. He had owned an elegant restaurant in the ‘20s on Thompson or Sullivan Street between Houston and 3d named L’Aiglon D’Or, (which had been the name of a Parisian restaurant of note) hence the name of the 9th street place. L’Aiglon D’Or was not just an expensive dining room it was also a speakeasy, patronized by the likes of Jimmy Walker and many of his Tammany underlings. Across the street was an elegant bordello run by a beautiful Creole woman from New Orleans with some sort of nom de madame such as Lola or Rose followed by a French last name. Amedeo said she had introduced him to the pleasures of the boudoir – he would get a sort of dreamy look, as though in a reverie, when he talked of her.

After a couple of years the lease on the Ninth street location was ended, perhaps for the building to be reconfigured and remodeled, and Amedeo sold the business to Jimmy and Mario who moved into new quarters on 11th, again just east of 6th Avenue.  Mario owned a deodorized skunk named Sweetpea which lived in the tunnel created by the wooden box footrest for the stools, which ran the length of the bar. Sweetpea would emerge from his cave just before closing every night so that Mario could feed him Italian rum cake, his favorite food. We occasionally would win free drinks making bets with newcomers about the existence of a skunk in the footrest.



About two blocks northwest of Village Square (actually a triangle formed by 6th Ave, Christopher and Greenwich Ave.) on Greenwich Avenue was a wonderful place called Reddington’s that we would go to a few times a year. Someone associated with the place had been a farrier or blacksmith for harness racing horses, probably the owner or his father. There were sulky wheels and bits and bridles and jockeys’ shirts with racing colors decorating the barroom in the front of the establishment. In the back were dining tables where they served rather good American fare and a grand piano on a dais about six inches high. These were for the use of a rather large group of old-time vaudevillians who congregated there, especially on Friday evenings, putting on impromptu performances of song and dance. They were absolutely wonderful. It was a veritable orgy of sweet nostalgia.



Around 1951 Terry took a job as one the secretaries to Eleanor Herrick, Personnel Director for the New York Herald Tribune. This introduced us to the Artists and Writers Club, commonly just called Bleeck’s, a bar right next to the Trib building and a well used hangout for their staff, especially the reporters.

Eleanor Herrick was a powerful figure in more ways than one (somebody once described her as looking like George Washington in drag). It is my understanding that she was a friend of both Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt and that she had been on the short list of candidates for Secretary of Labor in FDR’s first term, which was filled by Perkins. (It appears, from an item in Google Books, “Out of the Sweatshop”, that she had been a labor reporter at the Herald Tribune before being made a director of personnel.) There was a main secretary, named Jean something and Terry and a young black woman named Rita reported to Jean. (Once, Rita was given the task of taking some papers to Mrs. Herrick at her home on Park Avenue. The doorman told her to go around to the service entry in the back. Rita refused, demanded that the doorman call Herrick on the house intercom. After Herrick got through with him he ushered Rita to the front elevator.)

The publisher of the Herald-Tribune was Helen Rogers Reid, the widow of previous publisher Ogden Mills Reid (who was the son of Whitelaw Reid who took over the Tribune after Horace Greeley). She had two sons Whitelaw and Ogden Rogers (there doesn’t seem to be much variety or originality in the Reid men’s names). Mrs. Reid was always called just that, Mrs. Reid. Whitelaw was the day-to-day operations boss (Managing Editor?) and was known as Whitey, so, of course, the twelve-years-younger brother, who joined the staff as a novice reporter while Terry was working there, was called Brownie.

Bleeck’s (pronounced Blake’s – the name is German) had a history as old and as revered as the Herald-Tribune itself. During the twenties it was a speakeasy like many another respected drinking establishment. It was, as I have said, virtually an adjunct to the offices of many of the Trib’s reporters – when an editor couldn’t locate one of his crew one of the first places he would call was the phone behind the bar in Bleeck’s.

One of Jean’s good friends was a well known and respected reporter named Bob Bird. I believe he was a Pulitzer recipient. Since we often went to Bleeck’s with Jean, we got to know Bob too. At just about the time we became acquainted Mrs. Reid pulled Bob out of the cold, off the road, and appointed him an editorial writer. It had to do with his difficulty managing his drinking while away from home. I remember one evening with him and Jean where he was consoling himself with many drinks. It seems that when he left home in a Westchester suburb that morning he backed his car over his wife’s cat – and was afraid to go home.

For a time the constant occupant of the seat at the far end of the bar was John Crosby the well known TV reviewer. He wrote very witty and very acidic reviews. He was married to a woman who called herself Merrie Crosby in her cutesy wootsie children’s afternoon TV show (this one would have made Dorothy Parker really fwow up). Apparently their marriage was foundering and John consoled himself in the classic manner. I note in the obituary that they didn’t divorce until about eight years later so that must have been a passing storm.

The editorial staff of the paper was divided into two camps by the rivalry between Homer Bigart and Marguerite Higgins. Most of them were in the Bigart camp partly because he was a more established member of the paper’s club and partly because Maggie was routinely referred to as a “pushy bitch” (a familiar MCP refrain but it was also said by women). Here is an account published in the American Journalism Review, November 1991, By Karen Rothmyer on the occasion of Bigart’s death:

“A few years after World War II came Korea, where Bigart had his own battle to fight with fellow Herald Tribune reporter Marguerite Higgins. At a time when women war correspondents were virtually unheard of, Higgins displayed a fearlessness and ferocious competitiveness that, according to Bigart, threatened to get both of them killed. ‘She was a real trial to me,’ Bigart recalled. ‘When I came out I thought I was the premier war correspondent and I thought that she, being the Tokyo correspondent, ought to be back in Toyko. But she didn’t see things that way. She was a very brave person, foolishly brave. As a result, I felt as though I had to go out and get shot at occasionally myself. So I resented that.’ Higgins, Bigart and four other correspondents shared a 1951 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.”

As Bigart was returning to New York following a stint in Korea, Truman fired MacArthur. Telegrams were quickly sent to Bigart in San Francisco telling him to stay there and cover MacArthur’s return (there were all sorts of humorous speculations circulating as to whether the Generalissimo would wade ashore at Ocean Beach or the municipal beach on the bay at Aquatic Park). A day or so later The Return took place but there was nothing from Bigart, so the Trib was the only paper in the world that had no eyewitness account of the event. Mrs. Reid was furious and ordered other San Francisco based staff to find Homer. A few days later he was found in a south-of-Market flop-house. When he returned to New York he was ordered to take a couple of weeks off and was sent to Florida. When he showed up in Bleeck’s I got my first glimpse of the great reporter. His face was bright red which was due to all the sun he was exposed to – I thought. However, several weeks later his face was still bright red.

Brownie Reid the novice reporter was the source for all sorts of entertaining foolishness. This was the McCarthy era, remember, and he was deep into the business of ferreting out commies. His desk was in a large open room along with a number of other junior reporters. He subscribed to several Communist publications, The Daily Worker, The New Masses, things of that stripe, which were delivered to his desk by a copy boy. One day he very publicly chewed out the copy boy for leaving his subversive literature out in full view and instructed him to place them face down with other papers from the desk top covering them. I guess that way he wouldn’t attract suspicion from the FBI.

One day the big front page item, above the fold, with a screaming headline was a story by Brownie about how communist spies were transmitting microdots (little round microfilms), containing all sorts of American top secret information about A-bombs and so forth in cans of Norwegian sardines. There, right in the middle of the page, was a large photograph of a can of sardines, with the lid rolled half way back. The photographer tapped to create this revealing image was Fendl Yerksa, an editor for the week-end magazine who was mercilessly derided for his effort. In Bleeck’s at the end of that day, Yerksa sought anonymity at the far end of the bar when in walked Tex Riley, a leading space salesman, who yelled, “Hey, Fen, how do you tell boy sardines from girl sardines?” Yerksa clutched his head with both hands and tried to hide his face in the bar top – “Watch ‘em coming out of the can!”

(A footnote: More than twenty-five years after this I arrived in Seattle on a Sunday afternoon for one of my customary week-long business trips and, as I always did, turned on the local TV news. It is a great way to get the flavor of an unfamiliar town quickly. There was Fendl, a member of the week-end anchoring crew on the ABC outlet.)

The last time I was in the neighborhood, it must have been eight or ten years ago, I went to see what had become of the old place. The half a block’s worth of structures had been leveled, leaving a bare lot, except for the Bleeck’s building, two stories of old brick bowing down waiting for the executioner’s swinging ball.


San Francisco


When I first got to San Francisco in 1954 I started looking for work. Since I had no particular experience and no idea what I wanted to do, it was a painful search. I had a reference from one of the Golden Eagle denizens, Johnny Gale, to an army buddy, Mike Harris, a reporter on The Chronicle. When I called he directed me to meet him at a bar across an alley from the Chronicle’s office at Fifth and Mission, called Hanno’s. We met and he quickly let me know that he couldn’t do anything for me so we spent a half an hour or so just socializing. There was a well known woman columnist there (9/5/08 – just remembered her name: Adeline Daley; she went to Hawaii after retiring) knocking back several in the middle of the afternoon. ( Added 4/9/09 – I  met one of Adeline Daley’s daughters today in a local store, another resident of our small town, Patrice Daley, who corrected me about the Hawaiin retirement. Adeline Daley never left her San Mateo home where she died  May , 1984, aet. 62. I can’t remember where I got the misinformation.)  ( Added 4/10/09 – Correction to the correction: In the conversation with Patrice Daley yesterday I gave an incorrect description of her mother. It occurred to me that I must be remembering the wrong woman and then another name popped into my remembrance, Marjorie Trumbull.)    Also there was a reporter who was having a private celebration of his 30th birthday (which would make the date June 14, 1955) and getting a new job on Collier’s Magazine named Pierre Salinger. Collier’s closed down about a year later. When I heard that Salinger had joined the Kennedy campaign in 1960 I remember thinking “poor Pierre joining another losing cause”.

Mike Harris and I crossed paths again around 1973 when we were both on a citizens’ advisory committee to the Board of Tamalpais Union High School District. Mike had been active in community affairs for some years by that point, having joined Mel Wax in overthrowing the insiders club that had run Sausalito for some years (Mel became mayor). By then I was living in Bolinas and my son was entering Tam High. One amusing incident came out of this part of my life. In 1973 we had both the gas crisis and a drought in California. At one meeting I said “Don’t throw the bathwater out with the baby – hot water is too hard to come by these days”. Some years later when there was another drought and, I think another fuel crisis, Herb Caen printed my quip in his popular column, with the correct attribution, correctly spelled. It took me a couple of days to remember Mike and that virtually the entire Chronicle staff fed items to Caen.

North Beach and Beat Hangouts

I never did much bar hopping in San Francisco from the time of arriving in 1954 until 1958 when my second wife, Barbara and I went a few times to Beat bars in North Beach. Prior to our acquaintance friends like Malcolm Bissell (yes, of the carpet sweeper Bissells) and some of the doctors at Mount Zion hospital, where she worked, would take her to places like the Iron Pot and Vesuvio’s and a couple of the waiters and bartenders became her friends.

One of those was an Austrian Jew named Leo Something (can’t remember – again!). I first met him when he was working as an assistant in a fancy (read expensive) pet store on Maiden Lane, across from the Frank Lloyd Wright designed store. Later, we became his customers when he was bartending at the Coffee Gallery. Later, he became the owner. The Coffee Gallery was one of the central gathering spots for the Beats, right up there with the Coexistence Bagel Shop and Miss Smith’s Tearoom.

Another of Barbara’s friends was Specs Simmons who had been a bartender at Henri Lenoir’s Vesuvio. In the early sixties we took a flat at 1941 Lyon Street, between Sacramento and Clay streets (at the time Bert and Diane Feinstein lived two blocks uphill from us – but that’s another story). Specs and Sonia Simmons lived around the corner of the same block, on Sacramento, next door to the Vogue movie theater. Specs was working as a welder for outfits that built custom kitchen equipment for hotels and restaurants such as Dohrman Hotel Supply. He worked with sheet stainless steel, a very tricky material that takes superior skill to work. I believe Specs told me he had learned metal working from his father who was a gold smith.

Specs played a passable guitar and sang some folk songs and the like. In his youth he was a leftist and an activist (as they say nowadays) and he put his guitar to use in political causes. In 1948 he and a young woman colleague wrote a song to support the campaign of a Wallace Progressive named Murphy running for mayor of Boston, using the subway system (MTA) there as a sort of political football (a common practice in Boston and New York in those days).  At issue was a surcharge for transfers (I think) so a poor guy named Charlie gets on the MTA and can’t get off. At the time Specs was living around the corner, the rising-in-popularity Kingston Trio made a hit out of the Charlie on the MTA song and out of the blue he started getting royalty checks. At one of Sonia’s annual latke parties (she made the real thing) I went into their bathroom and there over the toilet was a framed check for one dollar – the first royalty check.

Across Columbus Avenue from Vesuvio’s (and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights) was a bar called 12 Adler Place. When Barbara and I first went there it was a belly-dancing night club owned by a UC student named Naji Baba. Naji’s wife was a professional performer of near-eastern dances and taught a number of local women. The show consisted of her and her disciples performing belly dances. Barbara got a huge kick out of it – she loved the thumping dumbek and all of the music. In time, the belly dancing fad faded and Naji sold the place to Specs. He still has it and it is a very popular bohemian hangout.

(There is an incident involving Sonia that is burned into my memory. Sonia had called for a little neighborhood meeting with several other parents. I think the issue was the behavior of one black girl, about twelve or thirteen years old, who was bullying the little white kids – or something like that. We were in a meeting room provided by the branch library a block to the east on Sacramento waiting for the others when the librarian walked in and told us Martin Luther King had been murdered.)

Jimmy Wilson’s Obituary

from University of Chicago Magazine   April 1999
Chicago Journal

Jimmy of Jimmy’s dies at age 86

James (“Jimmy”) Wilson, owner of Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap on 55th Street, died of heart failure February 22 at age 86.
Known for good beer, burgers, and most of all, conversation, Jimmy’s has been a part of the University community for more than 50 years. The owner was as beloved as his bar.

The late Francis Kinahan spoke for many in a 1984 citation—the “Cointreau Award”—he wrote for the Alumni Association to present to Wilson. It read in part: “The University gave us the Life of the Mind, but the man we honor tonight gave us the Life of the Spirits.…Others have educated; Jimmy has stimulated. There are people here who will swear they learned more at the Woodlawn Tap than they did in the Common Core.”

Wilson started bartending in Hyde Park at the old University Tavern in 1940. Eight years later he bought the Woodlawn Tap.

Wilson is survived by two daughters, a son, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, a brother, and a sister.—K.S.


Ned Polsky’s Obituary
from Footnotes, newsletter of the American Sociological Association.

Robert Kahn, University of Michigan (emeritus)

 Ned Polsky   (1928-2000)

Ned Polsky, who died suddenly and unexpectedly this past June 13, is best known and will no doubt be remembered by sociologists for his ventures into the field of deviance. The five essays that make up his book Hustlers, Beats and Others, recently republished in an updated edition by Lyons Press, are both sociological and literary masterpieces indicative of the author’s ambitions and perspectives

Ned himself was a deviant in many ways. He surely did not fit into the conventional mold of a sociologist, which is exactly what endeared him to his many friends inside and outside our discipline. He loved books, of which he was an avid collector, had a passion for literature and the arts, had tried his hand at writing a serious novel, played pool well enough to have participated in several tournaments and to have qualified as a referee in the International 3-Cushion Billiards Tournament in Las Vegas in 1999, a sign of recognition he valued as much as praise from his sociological colleagues. He was a high-brow but hardly a prig. One conversed easily with him on just about any subject. Once he surprised me with his encyclopedic knowledge of wild mushrooms, of which he had not previously spoken.

Not surprisingly, Ned roved almost as widely in his professional activities as in his conversations. Having graduated from the Bronx High School of Science at the tender age of 16, he studied linguistics and literature at the University of Wisconsin, followed by graduate study in sociology at the University of Chicago, which he left without a degree. During his career, he was in and out of publishing, was the editor of several prestigious magazines, became professor at SUNY-Stony Brook and, after retiring, opened and ultimately sold an antiquarian book business specializing in biographies.

Although intellectually a cosmopolitan, Ned joined the world only as it suited him. He learned to drive rather late in life and, as far as I know, never made any serious attempt to exploit the capabilities of the computer for his sociological work. Information on events, persons, and works in all of the humanities, a mammoth project on which he had been working — on and off — for over thirty years, was kept on literally tens of thousands of 8 by 11 file cards. These files, so he hoped, would ultimately help scholars to develop and check interesting propositions about peaks and troughs of cultural achievement. One cannot help but wonder what will happen to the material he so painstakingly put together.

Most appreciated by those who knew him best was his cool judgment on just about everything and his warm personality. His often sharp criticisms were typically in a soft voice and he was always generous with help and advice. Above all, he was a friend on whose loyalty one could count when things got rough. He is survived by his adored and talented daughter Claudia, a very young granddaughter, both of Berkeley, California, and his companion, Sarah White, a recently retired college language teacher, of New York. A memorial was held for him on October 27 at the Ethical Culture Society in New York City.

Read Full Post »

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

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.



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.



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.



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.


Read Full Post »

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


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 1951 my first wife and I took a cold water flat at the foot of MacDougal Street just after it crosses Prince and as it is about to merge with 6th Ave coming in at an angle. Our flat faced the front, the 6th Ave side, on which there was a small paved triangle formed by the three streets, containing a few benches and a half dozen saplings.  The building in question was just below the points of the arrows in the two images but that is not the building that we were living in. It has been replaced by one of those white brick atrocities that looks awful lot like a public toilet to me.  The building we were in was probably a hundred years old or more when we moved in and was made of sun-dried brick from upstate New York. As you can see from the satellite shot, the saplings have grown into considerable trees.



We thought of our location as the south end of Greenwich Village but nowadays it would be the north end of SoHo, being just one block south of Houston. The neighborhood was pure Italian (except for us). On August nights, when it was too hot to sleep, this little triangle would fill up with old men from the neighborhood who would sit there all night long re-fighting the Risorgimento: “yada yada yada Garibaldi”, “yada yada yada Mazzini”, “yada yada yada Cavour.”

Our flat, which was on the third floor, consisted of two rooms, a kitchen and the main room plus a toilet.  The kitchen contained an ordinary gas stove, with two kerosene burners attached to the side which provided the general space heating, a hot water heater and a deep sink, which served all sorts of purposes for us including being a bathtub. There were two entrances to the apartment, one in the kitchen that faced down the hallway and the other into the main room, which was sealed shut, so the entrance to the apartment was the kitchen door. There were old-fashioned transoms over both doors and the one in the kitchen was often left open to provide ventilation. This doorway looked down the hall to the doorway at the rear flat, at the head of the stairs, which was occupied by the Savarese family.

All of the other occupants of the building were old-time Neapolitan socialists who had fled Mussolini around 1933. Mama Savarese had had a heart attack a few years earlier and never left the little flat.  On weekends, huge boxes of produce would appear in front of her door, having been delivered by local merchants, and several of her children and their children would converge for happy, noisy family gatherings. Despite her limited arena Mama’s scope was wide and she ruled with an iron hand. Every evening Papa would tiptoe up the stairs and very quietly open and close the door and two minutes later we could hear her haranguing him. I’ll have another tale about him and his sons at some later time.

One afternoon there was a loud thumping (knocking is much too tame a word) at our kitchen door. I opened to see two nuns, one short and stocky the other tall and lean, peering over the shoulder of the shorter one. The short one, sounding rather like a Marine DI asked “Are you Catholic?” Intimidated by the tone, I actually apologized, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not”. They both studied my face for a couple of seconds and decided I was telling the truth.

They then proceeded to the Savarese’s flat and “knocked” on their door: whumpa, whumpa, whumpa (I am always reminded of the scene in Ivanhoe where the Black Knight bangs on the castle gate with his full armored fore-arm).
Mama Savarese: “What do you want?”
Short nun: “Are you Catholic?”
Mama: “No, I’m-a no Catholic”.
Short nun, suspiciously: “Are you sure you’re not a Catholic?”
Mama: “Yes, I’m-a sure!”
Tall nun, in a sing-song tone such as you would use with a child: “Sister doesn’t believe you.”
Mama: “I don’t care I’m-a no Catholic.
Short nun, pushing her luck: “Do you believe in God?”
Mama: “I believe in-a God, I no believe in-a priests, I no believe in-a Church, I no believe in-a Pope…”
As Mama continued to rage and rant, I heard four heavily shod feet drumming retreat down the stairs.

Read Full Post »