This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

My Father’s Remarkable Career

From time to time I remember some project or story where my father was involved and have decided it was time I put down what I remember of them not just because of their interest or entertainment value but because they were, in some small way, important historically.

My father was an electrical engineer whose career flourished in the second third of the twentieth century. During this interval the achievements in electricity, theoretical and practical, of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries were refined and exploited. My father’s career exemplified how the intersection of his talent and personality with the momentous events going on around him shaped the many significant projects in which he participated.

One other note: my recollection of the chronological aspects is fairly poor, partly because I have to rely on my memory of what he told me, often much after the event, and partly because he was frequently involved in a number of projects at one time.


My father, Kovacs Sandor Jozsef (Alexander Joseph Kovach – hereafter, AJK) was born June 22, 1901 in Peterreve, Hungary (now Bačko Petrovo Selo, Serbia) a small agricultural town not far south of Szeged, a major Hungarian city. In 1906 his parents Peter and Jeni (Jenny) took him along with two sisters, Irene and Szidani, aged four and two years, on a ship from Fiume to Ellis Island. After a stay in Brooklyn and a return to Hungary for a year or two, the family wound up in Detroit where Peter became a tool and die maker at Allis Chalmers.

AJK went to a Detroit high school and Detroit College for two years, followed by two years at the University of Michigan where he majored in electrical engineering. He must have been a good student for he was offered a position teaching mathematics at graduation which he turned down. (The only other thing I know about his UM days is that he had an affair with a professor’s wife.)

AJK married Agnes Szebenyei, who was both a first and second cousin (my unusual genealogy is explained in the post “Erno and the Sinking of the City of Benares”) in 1927 or very early in 1928. I was born December 24, 1928 and my sister Joanne was born December 23, 1934.

Early Work Career

During the summers of his years at the U of Michigan AJK worked at Allis Chalmers where he received the same pay as his father. That infuriated Peter and AJK would pile it on with his characteristic, slightly sadistic, sense of humor: ”It’s trigonometry Pa, trigonometry” (from a UM alumni book found in Google Books “*Alexander J*. *Kovach*, ’24e, is Student Electrical Engineer with the Allis- Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and may be addressed at 536 67th Avenue, West Allis, Wis.”)

AJK’s first job in New York was as an instrument truck driver for Con Ed. There is more on this in my earlier post, “How They Electrocuted My Father”.

The New York City Board of Transportation

Around 1929 or 30 he was hired as an electrical engineer for the Board of Transportation of the City of New York. This was a period of great ferment in the city’s development of its subway systems. Over time it acquired the IRT, BMT and Independent Systems and did considerable work on expanding and in-filling all three. AJK worked on a variety of those projects.

In the family photograph albums there was a picture of me, at about four years of age, emerging from a manhole in the middle of a boulevard in Jamaica. This was about the same time as when AJK had to test high voltage cable installations in the ceilings of the tunnels. He would put on high, pure rubber boots, rubber gloves, a rubber raincoat and hat and standing on a thick rubber mat would poke and prod the cables and hangers with a long, kiln-dried maple pole. After a while he stopped letting my mother know when he was performing that duty because she became so frightened by the prospect. I think these inspections were part of the construction of the Eighth Avenue Queensborough line but I am unable to be any more certain than that.

AJK descending to a subway tunnel, probably in Jamaica Queens. This doesn’t look like a ceremony but may be some sort of inspection.

Years later AJK told me he did the design for the ill-fated Second Avenue Line from Houston Street to Harlem. I don’t know where he stood in the department hierarchy at that time or just what “did the design” meant, how much was his work and so on. In any event, this was just one of the many failed attempts to build a Second Avenue line. This plan did come closer to being achieved than any others up to that time; construction was stopped not long before it was to begin, a victim of the Depression and the collapse of both the State and City budgets.

It was around 1933 I think, that AJK studied for taking his New York State Licensed Professional Engineer exam. This may have been a requirement of his job but it could have been simply a way to advance his prospects. To apply for the PE required more than four years in combined education and experience (presently, six years) which he had by that time. I have a distinct memory of him sitting at the kitchen table at night studying one of his college texts, Karapetof’s “The Electric Circuit”, now something of a classic (a free PDF version is available on the Web from the Forgotten Books program – Karapetof was a disciple of C. P. Steinmetz). That book was my sole inheritance from my father and I have passed it on to my son, his namesake, Alexander F. Kovach.

Department of Parks of the City of New York

In 1934 he left the Board of Transportation for a better position with NY City’s Department of Parks where he participated in a number of interesting, high-profile projects whose chronology is not in my recollection. He designed and installed a system of remotely controlled electric locks for cages in the Bronx Zoo. One by-product of that was photograph of him holding up the head of a male lion anesthetized by a veterinarian for some dental work. He reworked the wiring and lighting of Gracie Mansion, the Mayor of New York’s residence. From this he got a picture with Fiorello La Guardia on the front steps of the Mansion. AJK was all of five feet seven inches in height but towered over the mayor. He worked for a long time with Francis Henry Taylor redesigning the lighting, both natural from skylights and artificial from a variety of lamp arrangements, in many of the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francis Henry Taylor

Very early in his tenure with the Department of Parks he started working on a variety of projects for Robert Moses’ belt parkway system especially the Cross Island Parkway. The lighting for the Parkway was based on the then fairly recently developed low pressure sodium vapor lamp. He told me he chose it because the yellow light did not leave any glare after-effect because yellow light does not destroy any rods or cones in the eye and because yellow light seemed to penetrate fog better. The lamps were about two feet long, cylindrical with a rounded end. He designed a reflector consisting of a semi-cylinder, concave when seen from below, with two flat vanes with a downward slant emanating from the center lines of the lamp cylinder. The idea was to space the poles a decent distance apart spreading the illumination without creating pools of light interspersed with pools of night, keeping a nearly constant level of illumination along the roadway. As was the custom, the City of New York patented the reflector and gave it to the awarded contractor, in this case Westinghouse. I have seen this reflector all over the U. S. and Europe: on the Golden Gate Bridge, on freeways in the Midwest, in Britain and northern Italy and so on. In later years the low pressure lamp was replaced with the newer high pressure sodium vapor bulbs and more recently those are being replaced with newer technology such as LEDs.

On a number of occasions AJK mentioned working on the TriBorough Bridge but just which parts, I do not know. There were parks associated with parts of the project but it would seem they were not considered parts of the project itself. It raises a question for me. He was an employee of the Department of Parks of the City of New York under Commissioner Robert Moses. The work on the bridge was under the control of the TriBorough Bridge Authority under Chairman Robert Moses.

Robert Moses

Presumably, there was some arrangement wherein the Parks Department staff could work on projects associated with the bridge. In any event, the part that is of interest to me for this account is the fact that from 1925 on the engineer in charge for the TriBorough Bridge Authority was Othmar Ammann, about whom there will be more later, and that he and my father must have worked together.

Triborough Bridge seen from Queens

One of the last projects AJK worked on for the Department of Parks was the reconfiguring of the New York City Building from the 1939 – 40 New York World’s Fair. Nearly all the buildings for the fair were temporary, designed to be torn down after the fair concluded (which was intended to be just one year but insufficient revenue forced the fair to stay open an additional year). The NYC building was one of the two or three that were intended to be permanent. The main floor of the building was converted into two very large skating rinks, one for ice and the other for roller skating. There were two unusual by-products of this job. First, my father obtained, either free or at some low cost, an eight-foot by three-foot, half-inch thick, sheet of Belgian plate glass that had been part of a sound booth. He had two oak pillars created and placed the very heavy glass on them to make an elegant dining table in our large living room in Flushing. The other gift was privileged use of the ice-skating rink. My sister and I were allowed to use the ice after it had been refreshed by scraping and flooding and before the public was allowed back. Often there would be young women from an ice-follies troop rehearsing as we went round and round the rink.

The New York City Building at the 1939 World’s Fair

In 1942 the DoD (then called the War Department) was pleading with engineers of all kinds to get into defense related work whether via civil service or private consulting firms. Meanwhile, AJK and his colleagues were sitting idle at their desks and drafting tables because the government had embargoed nearly all construction materials such as steel and concrete for its own use or for programs like Lend-Lease, bringing Parks Department construction to a dead stop.

AJK in the early ’40s

The desire for retaining their civil service pensions was a powerful disincentive for people who had just come through the Depression from quitting their jobs, so they kept asking the Parks Department to grant them an extended leave-of-absence without pay. Robert Moses kept thwarting their petition, probably, as AJK said, to keep his cronies in their high paying management positions. After some months of frustration, AJK, motivated in part by patriotism, decided to just quit and take his chances on his prospects. He sent a letter of resignation, under protest, and copied it to the New York Post. The Post, sensing a juicy story, printed the letter on the editorial page and sent a reporter to do an interview. Moses responded furiously in the next day’s letters column, immediately resorting to ad hominem attacks, raising doubts about AJK’s abilities which wouldn’t stand up, of course. My father replied in kind the next day, implying nepotism in all the contracts Moses granted to Madigan and Hyland over the years. I wouldn’t put anything past Moses, including benefiting in some way from all those lucrative jobs, but it doesn’t seem to show up in Caro’s lengthy, critical biography of Moses which I think Caro would not have missed. After another couple of exchanges between them, the matter was dropped.

Military Work During WW II

For the next five years AJK worked for consulting firms doing work for the military. I only know the name of one of those which I think he worked for most, if not all, of the time, Guy B. Panero, in midtown Manhattan. I only know of one wartime project AJK participated in but it is so significant it requires some background explanation.

In November of 1941, a month before we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, U. S. armed forces staged a massive exercise in North Carolina. The Army Air Force tested a new system for deploying runways very quickly, created by Carnegie Illinois Steel, called perforated steel planking. This system become popularly known as Marston Matting (from the location of the mill in North Carolina) and was developed into a rapid deployment technique that allowed the construction crews of the Army Corps of Engineers or the Navy Construction Battalions (SeaBees) to create a landing field for the  air forces in three days. This system was deployed many times in the island hopping phase of the South Pacific campaign. Not mentioned in the accounts I have seen was the electrical support required by those portable airfields for landing lights and radio communication among other things. AJK designed a pre-assembled system that was literally unrolled and connected to generating equipment in a matter of hours. The background he acquired would come into play in several post war projects.

Marston mats being installed

Consolidated Vultee, Allentown

Our family spent the summer of 1944 in a vacation cabin (shanty would be more accurate) on a bank of the Little Lehigh River (or Creek, which is more appropriate) outside of Macungie, PA, a rundown mill town outside of Allentown. The cabin still had an old fashioned icebox and was in poor repair. It belonged to a local physician whose house was a hundred feet or so away on the same property. This was Pennsylvania Dutch country and we learned a great deal about them during our stay. The six kids from an impoverished farm across the county road became friends with my sister and were curious about us “city folk”.

AJK was working as the Chief Operating Engineer for Consolidated Vultee in the old Mack truck plant in Allentown. I don’t know if he was chief of all types of engineering or just electrical; I do not think he was an employee of C-V but was working for a consulting firm, detailed to the Allentown facility.

Mack building 5-c in the 1970s

The Wikipedia article on the Allentown airport has good summary of the history of C-V in Allentown: “In mid-December 1942, it was announced that Allentown was the site of a new aircraft production plant. Vultee Aircraft and Consolidated Aircraft announced that Consolidated Vultee (later known as Convair) would lease Mack Truck’s Plant 5C for production of the Consolidated Vultee TBY-2 Sea Wolf Torpedo Plane for the United States Navy. … was dedicated on October 10, 1943. [3] When the plant reached full production it employed several thousand people, over half women … In September 1943 Consolidated Vultee received an order to build 1,100 TBY-2 Sea Wolf torpedo bombers for the Navy. However, production delays of almost a year caused the first aircraft to come off the line at Plant 5C on 20 August 1944, and the first production aircraft to be delivered to the Navy on 7 November. By this time, the usefulness of the plane became limited as the Grumman TBF Avenger was the primary torpedo bomber in combat. Subsequently, only 180 TBY-2s were produced and none saw combat, being used as trainers by the Navy in the United States.”

Many of the people working in the plant came from southern California and Florida and the women wearing cork wedgies and short-shorts would stream into the plant each morning while the Amish women, clothed from bonnet to buttoned shoes, would cluck their tongues and say “They’ll never make a plane by Wultee”. They almost had it right.

My father was back in New York in the fall of ’44.

The TBY 2 torpedo bomber

Projects for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

As the war drew to a close my father made a one-hundred dollar bet with a colleague that after the war there would be such a crush of back-logged construction that architectural firms would abandon the practice of contracting with engineering consultants and form their own in-house engineering staffs. The giant architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was one of the first, if not the first, to do so and their first hire was AJK to head up either the electrical engineering staff or the whole engineering staff, I’m not sure which it was. He also won the hundred bucks.

Gordon Bunshaft

AJK joined SOM just as they were embarking on two architectural trend makers, Manhattan House and Lever House. Both brought him into collaboration with Gordon Bunshaft, a principal in Skidmore and follower of Bauhaus designer Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Bunshaft was notoriously difficult to work with but my father never said anything along that line.

Manhattan House

All I remember of AJK’s remarks about Manhattan House were that it would be completely self contained housing with all necessary shops and services on the street-level floor and, as he said, one could live there without ever leaving the building. It was being built on a site where there had been a streetcar barn going all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century.

The president of Lever Brothers at the time was Charles Luckman, the “boy wonder”, himself an architect who wanted a new headquarters building that would be a signature as well as an office. For example, an image of the building was used in the company’s letterhead and may still be. (Luckman resigned after it was completed to return to architecture with William Pereira so the Lever employees called it “Luckman’s last erection”. I heard the same joke years later applied to the Hoover Tower at Stanford University.) AJK worked closely with Gordon Bunshaft in designing the first glass curtain-walled skyscraper, a trendsetter. My father described the construction to me, the projections from the steel frame supporting the glass wall. (From Wikipedia: “Some designs included an outer cap to hold the glass in place and to protect the integrity of the seals. The first curtain wall installed in New York City, in the Lever House building (Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, 1952), was this type of construction.”)

Lever House

My father told a funny story regarding a matter incidental to this job. While the building was under development on the site of their former headquarters Lever Brothers created a temporary replacement by remodeling an old loft building on Varick Street in lower Manhattan. Luckman had a large, very posh, all mahogany office on the first floor. One day AJK was summoned to see Luckman there. When he walked in he saw an enormous kidney shaped mahogany desk with not a thing on it, Luckman peering over the center. At Luckman’s request my father had designed precisely aimed pinhole pot-lamps in the ceiling to illuminate the desktop. When AJK asked what the problem was Luckman said, “Look”. Still not seeing the problem he asked for a fuller explanation. The angle of the beam over Luckman’s head was such that there was too much reflection from his bald spot. So the ceiling was ripped open and the offending lamp moved a foot or so.

I do not know the chronology of any of the following projects.

Petroleum Consortia Towns:

Project Creole, Amuay Bay, Venezuela

SOM designed three whole towns for various oil consortia, probably intertwined. First was Project Creole designed for twenty-five thousand people including housing, dormitories for single men, administration buildings, movie theater and other meeting spaces and so on. It was built for the Creole Petroleum Corporation by Bechtel in Amuay Bay, north of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. The remote, nearly inaccessible location required a complete electrical system, starting with large scale generating equipment.

Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran

was an existent fenced-off town that must have been expanded and redesigned at the time AJK worked on it. Originally built to house foreign workers but gradually being “Saudi-ized”.


Here is the Wikipedia entry. I do not know how many people were accommodated in the original village.
“Rumbai at present is a district of Pekanbaru, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. It was founded in the early 1950s as the Sumatra headquarters of Caltex Pacific Oil Company, now known as Chevron Pacific Indonesia, on the shores of the Siak River. In the early 1950s, Rumbai could only be reached from the outside world by river boat, from Pekanbaru or from Bengkalis. A road was built by Caltex to the Minas and Duri oilfields and camps. Caltex staff (mostly American) traveled to Rumbai, Minas and Duri by plane from Jakarta or Singapore to Pekanbaru airport and then by boat across to Rumbai. The oil camp of Rumbai was a completely self-contained mostly expatriate community with offices, homes, school, hospital, water treatment, diesel generators, commissary, country club, swimming pool and golf course.”
The one thing I remember my father telling me about this project was that he specified a special cable, coated several inches thick with natural untreated latex to protect it from a very acidic soil. The cable was manufactured by Turtle and Hughes a supplier he had used during the war years for similar non-standard cables.

Rumbai, Sumatra

Thule Air Base, Greenland

Location of the Thule base

I don’t think I heard of this job until after its completion. AJK spoke of the problems of construction in northern Greenland, about the need to anchor building supports to the permafrost but especially the problems of freezing and thawing in the upper layer of earth for buried services such as electricity and water supply.
I am uncertain as to whether he actually went to Thule. At one time he said he had and at another seemed to be saying he had not. I had some reason to be skeptical which I’ll discuss toward the end of this post.
One story he told is both amusing and puzzling. Alcohol was prohibited at the air base. My father and his New York colleagues would prepare crates of supplies for their Greenland contingent and would include television sets, insides scooped out and replaced with liquor. Yes, television sets! I doubt that there was any sort of transmission going on up there, so I can only conclude that whoever was supposed to be policing those shipments didn’t know that and failed to see the contraband booze. (Another possibility has just occurred to me. Perhaps the whiskey was put in cartons that had contained TV sets, resealed. Those boxes would have had all sorts of warnings about the fragility of their contents. This possibility seems more plausible but still depends on the credulity of the inspectors.)

Thule Air Base

Ethiopian Airfields.

After the end of WW II the U.S. sold off surplus C-54 cargo airplanes at very low prices to help war damaged countries recover. Several went to Ethiopia. Airfield development there dates back to 1929 but fields capable of handling large aircraft only started to appear after Haille Selassie was re-installed on the throne in 1941, after the British defeated the Italians.
The Ethiopian government wanted to be able to bring products from the very mountainous regions, which were almost inaccessible by road, to market. (Some of the “products” were wild animals for zoos and the like and there were entertaining stories in the news of leopards escaping their cages during flight trapping crews in the cockpit.) AJK was sent to Addis Ababa to help with airfield development in those regions. I assume his contribution was based on his wartime work with portable airfields. He told me that a photograph was taken of him and Selassie and that, like La Guardia, he towered over the emperor. The Lion of Judah was barely five feet tall, a fact widely known in my younger days, mention of which seems to be studiously avoided nowadays.


One day AJK appeared wearing a Karakul hat which he said he bought in the same shop used by Ayub Khan. The only other thing I recall from this event was his saying, “Rawalpindi is the armpit of the universe”. I can only assume that this was another airfield related project.

Brookhaven National Laboratory, the 60 Inch Cyclotron.

I don’t know the story here but will recount what I think I remember. The heart of the machine was a large toroidal magnet divided into quadrants, each of which weighed a ton or thereabouts. AJK created an innovative design for an electric hoist motor to position the magnets which had a “high speed” of something like two inches per minute and, at low speed, could position a magnet within one thousandth of an inch in three dimensions. The phrase “constant torque” is in my murky memory but that may apply to something else altogether. One thing I do remember with some clarity is a number of phone calls, some quite late in the night, to our home from physicists and others with questions or problems involving the hoist.

60 inch cyclotron

A Moonlighting Interlude

Very shortly after the end of the war, early 1946 I would guess, Spyros Skouras and a number of other wealthy American Greeks financed the construction of a new, state-of-the-art hospital to be built on Peloponnesus. My father took on the electrical design, a major feature of its modernity, as a private party, a moonlighter. The reason this stands out in my memory is that he had me do the drafting for the job. I already had a drafting table in my room and he provided me with a set of templates and supervision. I did pretty well for a novice, if I do say so myself.
All the patients’ rooms were two beds, with cove lighting provided by fluorescent tubes at the head of each so that each patient could have sufficient light for reading without disturbing the neighboring patient. Electric outlets were provided every few feet in the hallways to allow rapid electrical supply for emergency equipment – and so on and on.

Ammann and Whitney

At some point in the early fifties, perhaps around late 1951 or early 1952, AJK left Skidmore. I do not know the circumstances surrounding this but think that SOM may have gone back to the old model of hiring engineering contractors and disbanded their own staff (except for structural engineers who are integral with the architectural staff). He joined Othmar Ammann at Ammann and Whitney.
Othmar Ammann was a one man bridge building machine. “Othmar Ammann designed more than half of the eleven bridges that connect New York City to the rest of the United States. His talent and ingenuity helped him create the two longest suspension bridges of his time. Ammann was known for being able to create bridges that were light and inexpensive, yet they were still simple and beautiful. … Famous bridges by Ammann include the following:

George Washington Bridge (opened October 24, 1931)

Bayonne Bridge (opened November 15, 1931)

Triborough Bridge (opened July 11, 1936)

Bronx–Whitestone Bridge (opened April 29, 1939)

Walt Whitman Bridge (opened May 16, 1957)

Throgs Neck Bridge (opened January 11, 1961)

Verrazano Narrows Bridge (opened November 21, 1964)” (Wikipedia)

He also consulted on the Golden Gate Bridge.

He once said the main engineering challenge in designing a bridge was financing.

Othmar Ammann

Ammann did the original design work on the Triborough Bridge in 1925 but by the time construction was to start in 1929 the crash and depression stalled the project. In the ‘30s when my father was working for the Department of Parks, Robert Moses seized control of the project and with considerable skill and brass put together financing from the WPA, the City of New York, the State and private financing (bonds) and wherever else he could find a dollar, almost losing his job in the process. My father, working for Moses, worked on a number of parks included in the design and as I have surmised, must have had contact with Ammann while doing so.


Written on the back of this photograph is “San Remo Feb ’53”. So it would seem that Ammann and Whitney posted AJK in Paris in 1952 and that he traveled to other projects from there.


MILA, Cape Canaveral:

I do not know what my father was doing over the next couple of years but I think a good guess would be military projects, most likely for the Bureau of Yards and Docks of the U.S. Navy. Then, out of the blue, I received a mailed note, perhaps a Christmas card, with a return address in Cocoa Beach, Florida. About six months later I received another note on “company” stationery with a return address “MILA – Merritt Island Launch Annex” Cape Canaveral, FL. I have concluded, based on a very dim memory and as much historical information as I can find that the first note was sent in the fall or winter of 1957. I think he stayed in Cocoa Beach for about a year. The project would have been developing the power system for MILA which was employed by the newly formed NASA for Project Mercury in 1958.

After that he returned to Paris. Again, I think it was for military work. My evidence for this is an anecdote he told me about being the MC or chairman of a chapter meeting of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) where he introduced the bridge-designer guest speaker with a left-handed compliment, saying he was the most eminent bridge engineer “now that Dr. Steinman has retired”. (Steinman was thought of as a rival of Ammann’s, who did the Mackinac and a number of other famous bridges.) His personal life in Paris is the main story, which I will take up in the final section.

Subic Bay Naval Base

In 1964 (I believe) my father passed through San Francisco on his way to Olongapo, Luzon, the Philippines to conduct a project for Budocks in the Subic Bay Naval Base. A couple of weeks later the base commander lifted his permit to enter the installation and demanded that his company replace him because he was showing up for work intoxicated. This was the humiliating coda of my father’s remarkable career.

Alcohol  … and Sally

The 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing the 19th or Prohibition Amendment was ratified December 5, 1933, three weeks before my fifth birthday. When I was about three years old my father walked behind me down Main Street, Flushing, carrying a milk bottle full of homemade whiskey. I would hold up the bottle for passing pedestrians and say “Mother’s milk”. This frat-house prank was typical of my father and his pals at the time (see the post “How they electrocuted my father”). It is also emblematic of his personality and biography.

First, note that he went to the trouble of making alcoholic drink – he couldn’t be without. Second, note that it was whiskey not “bathtub gin” that most home distillers were making. As I understand it, it was also a fairly respectable home product. After distilling he passed the liquor over activated charcoal to simulate barrel aging and remove congeners (which he called “fusel oils”). In everything he did he went “all in”; some other examples: a group of engineers in midtown formed a bowling league and within a year he was one of the top bowlers; at another time a group was formed around playing badminton and he soon became the top player.

Alcohol was a leitmotif all of his life. In the last year of her nearly ninety-seven, my mother told me that AJK’s father, Peter was a drunk. He dropped dead of a massive stroke in 1928 while my mother was carrying me. It appears that AJK did not become catastrophically alcoholic until the late fifties.


Around or before 1950 he entered into an affair with a woman in his office named Thelma Truhan, called Sally. She was far from the sexy young office vamp one imagines in such situations. She was a middle-aged, slightly dumpy Bronx-Irish widow and very amiable company. She seemed to function more as a surrogate mother than lover. He handled the transition from my mother to Sally in a clumsy manner, explaining his long absences as business trips to out-of-town locations. When my mother finally figured it out, she got a legal separation with provisions for her support which my father observed in the breach half the time. One of the oddities of their relationship was that neither one initiated divorce proceedings.

AJK and Sally literally had a ball in Paris. They took up ballroom dancing and competed in Tango contests winning a number of trophies. He became a member of the The Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin which Wikipedia describes as “an exclusive bacchanalian fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts”. They lived at 19 Rue des Pyramides (which I gleaned from a return address on an envelope), which seems a very desirable location, one block from Rue Rivoli and two from the Louvre.

My sister, Joanne Jauregui visited our father and Sally a couple of times in Paris. On one memorable occasion Josephine Baker was in the same restaurant as they were and gave Joanne an autograph.

19 Rue des Pyramides

AJK and Sally visited my wife Barbara and me at our flat on Clay Street in 1960 (according to step-daughter Carla Adams) when Barbara was pregnant with our son Alexander. AJK arrived with a suitcase which contained two bottles of VS, two bottles of VSOP and one of Napoleon Hennessy cognac. They were consumed in three days. They visited again when our son was two or three years old. On that occasion we met a Chilean friend of Sally’s named Jimmy who flew mail over the Andes from Chile to Argentina, when airplanes could barely make it over the crest, for Juan Tripp in the early days of Pan American Airways. AJK was showing signs of serious deterioration at that time, suffering a seizure when we were seated on the floor of the Tokyo Sukiyaki restaurant (Sally said to ignore it, that he would recover in a few minutes).

In 1964 after the ignominious return from the Philippines, when he was 63 years old, Amman and Whitney put him out to pasture but didn’t fire him, keeping him on the payroll until his pension was vested, an act of unusual generosity. I think his pay was much diminished however and in order to stretch their income they moved to Athens which they grew to love also. In 1969 he died. Sally returned to the Bronx and several years later came down with cancer and died.

Joanne’s Photographs of her Visits in France

This and the next were taken in Nice ca 1959

Dad & I had a great time in French Rivera in 1959

This looks to be earlier, perhaps 1954?

I have no idea of where or when

Perhaps in the ’60s. Note the waxed mustache tips. Later he sported a “full Dali”, long curled waxed ends.

Postscript: The New York Post Editorials

Note: these are PDFs. To read them click the links. The pages will show up in a new tab. To make them more legible, click Automatic Zoom and 100% or 125%. Close the tab to return here.

The first editorial, dated August 13, 1942 New York Post Editorial

The first follow-up dated August 17, 1942 NY Post Editorial 8-17-1942

The second editorial dated August 21, 1942 Second editorial, part 1

The second editorial, continued second editorial, part 2

The third editorial, dated August 22, 1942 Third editorial, 8 22 42 part 1

The third editorial, part 2 NY Post 8-22-1942, part 2

As I expected the Program from the first Artists Equity Association Spring Ball, held in May of 1950 turned up recently. The story of the Association and these fundraiser balls is told in my earlier post “Having a Ball”. What I didn’t expect was to find I had a very flawed memory regarding my mother’s entry in the program and, apparently, my father’s and Herbert Kliegl’s role in getting her the commission.

There can be no doubt that Joe Presser got the Kliegl Brothers ad via my father’s friendship with Herbert Kliegl. I can only assume that my mother’s ad for Century Lighting was via the same path. Century was new to me but a little searching reveals that both companies were not only operating in the same arena and era but that there were mutual friendships among staff members. This clip is from the excellent “A Brief History of Stage Lighting” (http://www3.northern.edu/wild/LiteDes/ldhist.htm)

Kliegl No. 5N
5″ 1000 watt spotlight

8″ 1000 watt spotligiht1936
  • 1904: Louis Hartmann builds a small (5″ lens) spotlight, a baby lens, which used a 50 candle power (approximately 50 watt) lamp for David Belasco’s production of The Music Teacher.
  • 1906: Hartman uses 4– 250 watt baby lenses (in addition to 31– 1,5000 watt carbon-arc spots) in Belasco’s The Rose of Ranchero.
  • 1907: Edison General Electric introduces the 500 watt lamp.
  • 1911: Edison General Electric introduces a “concentrated filament” lamp for use in a lens hood (spotlight).
  • 1913: Kliegl Brothers markets the No. 60, a 5″ Baby Spot built around a 100 candle power lamp. According to the catalogue, the unit provided a “mild ray of light.”
  • 1913: The 1000 watt lamp becomes available.
  • 1916: Designer Norman Bel Geddes replaces the carbon arc lamp in a lens box with a 1000w incandecent lamp.
  • 1920s: 5″, 6″ and 8″ PlanoConvex spotlights (lens hoods), using a 1000 watt lamp, begin replacing the Lime Light and Carbon Arc lamp.The illustration on the left is of a Kliegl No. 5N, a 5″ Lens Box with a 1000 watt lamp (1926). Note the similarity between the No 5 and the No 5N.
  • 1929: Kliegl Brothers introduces the Fresnel lens spotlight.
  • 1933: Both Kliegl Brothers (Klieglight) and Century (LekoLight) introduce the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight.
  • 1971: Altman Lighting introduces the 360Q axial ellipsoidal.
  • 1992: ETC introduces the Source4® ellipsoidal reflector spotlight

Herbert Kliegl was known as a prominent citizen of Forest Hills and a lover of the opera and theater and a benefactor of the arts. His support of Artists Equity was to be expected.


My Grandfather, the Greatest Journalistic Hoaxer

“This produced a stream of articles penned by a journalist, Joseph Szebenyei, and published in the ultra-conservative Morning Post. Harry Hanak has termed it one of the greatest newspaper stunts in English press history.” Mark Cornwall

From the minutes of the House of Commons, sitting of February 26, 1917:

37. Mr. DILLON

asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been directed to the charges made by Dr. Seton Watson against the “Morning Post” newspaper that that journal has been made the instrument of a German-Magyar intrigue to deceive English public opinion, through the medium of its Budapest correspondent, as to the feeling in Hungary on the War, and in other ways has been used for enemy objects; whether he is aware that this correspondent is accused by Dr. Seton Watson of fabricating leading articles, purporting to have appeared in Budapest newspapers, and forging speeches purporting to have been delivered in Parliament by Hungarian statesmen, with the object of misleading this country for enemy purposes; whether he is aware that the same charges have been independently made by an official organ in Paris; whether steps have been, or will be, taken under the Defence of the Realm regulations to investigate these charges against the “Morning Post”; and whether, if it is found that the charges are true, steps will be taken to punish those responsible for these publications?

  • Sir G. CAVE

My attention has only been called to the matter by the hon. Member’s question. I understand that the charges are strongly denied, and I do not see my way to take any action in the matter.

  • Mr. DILLON

Am I to understand that the right hon. Gentleman, when such charges are made, not only by responsible persons in this country, but by one of the leading semi-official journals of Paris, will take no steps to ascertain whether they are well-founded or not?

  • Sir G. CAVE

I do not see my way to take any action. The hon. Member has already put questions to the Foreign Office, which has given a similar answer.

  • Mr. DILLON

If he was an Irish newspaper editor he would be sent to penal servitude.


Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the editors of this paper whether any uninterned alien enemy is in regular communication with them?


  • Sir G. CAVE

No, Sir; I have had no cause to make any such inquiry.

  • Mr. WHYTE

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the editor whether a Magyar named Joseph Szebenyei is in the employment of the “Morning Post,” and will he take the trouble to satisfy himself and the public that the articles which have appeared in the “Morning Post” and which have seriously misled people in this country are bonâ fide articles?

  • Mr. DILLON

They are forged articles by foreign spies.

  • Mr. WHYTE

Or whether they have been composed in London out of speeches and articles which did not appear in the enemy capital to which they were attributed?

  • Sir G. CAVE

If my hon. Friend will give me any material on which to proceed I will make inquiries.


Has the right hon. Gentleman not taken the trouble to investigate the material referred to in the question?

  • Mr. KING

Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to approach the “Morning Post” and ask for their explanation of this extraordinary incident? …


From the minutes of the House of Commons, sitting of April 25, 1917:


asked the Home Secretary whether he has concluded his inquiries into the case of Joseph Szebenyei?

  • Mr. BRACE

My right hon. Friend completed his inquiries in this case some weeks ago, and after a review of all the circumstances decided that Szebenyei should be interned. This decision was carried into effect on 28th March.


I think “carried into effect” meant the drawing up of the order of internment because, according to my grandfather, Joseph Szebenyei (Hungarian: Szebenyei Jozsef), he was sent to an internment camp on July 17, 1917, where he abided until September of 1919. This event may have had some historical significance. I will attempt to provide the background and the circumstances leading up to it and speculate on its consequences.

Family Background and Biographical Fragments

(In 1951, two years before his death, my grandfather Szebenyei published a book of autobiographical anecdotes in chronological order, titled Reporters, Kings & Other Vagabonds which I have relied upon to provide information I did not have or confirm facts I was uncertain about. I will refer to it as RKV .)

As I recounted in the post about my great uncle Erno and the sinking of the City of Benares my great-grandfather Sandor Szekulesz married Johana Lasicz who had a daughter, Jeni, in 1879. Johana died shortly thereafter (childbirth and tuberculosis). Jeni was my father’s mother.

Sandor then married Johana’s sister, Berta Lasicz, who had five children: Jozsef in 1881, my mother’s father (so my parents were both first and second cousins, my sister is also my second and third cousins and so on – endless merriment); Erno in 1883; a girl, Szidani in 1884 who apparently died in childhood; another son, Imre born about 1893, murdered by the Nazis in 1944; Stella born about 1897, spent the whole first part of her life in a tubercular sanatorium, came to the United States in 1940 and lived here until her death several decades later.

Sandor, his two wives and his first four children were all born in Keczel (pronounced Ket-sel, now spelled Kecel) a small southern Hungarian village then and now. Sandor, a gentleman farmer, owned one hundred acres and rented three thousand from the regional archbishop. In 1889 he moved his family, Berta and the four children, to New Jersey where he tried being a gentleman farmer again – which didn’t work out. Imre and Stella were born in New Jersey and, it would seem, Szidani died there. In 1898 Sandor died and Berta moved the family back to Keczel where she had inherited a small farm, probably from her parents. I assume the New Jersey property was either rented or went to the bank.

kecel map

Not long after returning to Hungary Joseph entered university in Debreczen (pronounced deb-retsen, now spelled Debrecen) to study law. He took jobs as a stringer for local newspapers, probably to support himself at school. It was at this time he took the name Szebenyei (“from Szeben” then a county of Hungary, after 1920, Romania) to conceal his Jewish identity in his anti-Semitic homeland. (This was a common practice, especially for people in the public eye. Some others of the same era were Ferenc Molnar (Neumann), Alexander Korda (Kellner), Eugene Ormandy (Blau) and Lajos Biro (also Blau). (Many Hungarians remain anti-Semitic – I read recently that an ascendant right wing political party openly proclaims anti-Jewish policies.)

Joseph dropped out of law school and worked as a reporter in Debrecen for about two years. In 1902, at age twenty-one, he was called to his mandatory service in the Hungarian army. Conscripts fell into one of two categories: “volunteers”, those with a high school or better education who served only one year and had rank and privilege not unlike a junior grade officer; everyone else, who served three years enduring the most menial duties and gratuitous humiliations. At conscription time the prospective soldier was allowed to choose his outfit. Joseph chose the 38th Hungarian Infantry Regiment, called the Mollinaris, a prestigious organization stationed near Kecskemet, not far from Budapest where he had a physician uncle.

Apparently, his American high school diploma wasn’t deemed sufficient at first and he was put in the three year group but this was later corrected through a complicated series of events and he was made a “volunteer”. One of the events involved was that he was detailed to write a history of the regiment which garnered him considerable recognition with all that went with that, including volunteer status. The experience also made him acquainted with the Mollinaris time in Wallonia (Belgium) which was the basis for a history of the Walloons which he wrote some years later.

After completing his military obligation and another stay in Debrecen, Joseph went on to Vienna where he was employed by the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, a major paper in its day. He then went to Budapest where he continued his journalism career working for a newspaper called the Pesti Naplo (Pest Journal). Around 1906/1907 he married Rozsa Marie Klein, who was about five years younger than him, and had two daughters, Clara, born in 1908 and Agnes (my mother) in 1909.

In March of 1913, armed with agreements with several Pest newspapers to pay for an article or two per week, he went to London, leaving Rozsa, who approved of the plan, and the two girls in Budapest. In his first week in London to satisfy his Hungarian clients he scored several big name interviews, including Anthony Asquith, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. At the end of the week he was granted an interview with Sylvia Pankhurst who was recovering from her last jailing and hunger strike. In his usual serendipitous manner he dreamt up a lecture tour of the Continent by Pankhurst, sold the idea to a lecture bureau and Pankhurst and acted as the paid advance man for the multi-city trip. His first reporting job in England was an article for Pankhurst’s suffragette newspaper.

After the completion of the Pankhurst tour the owners of the lecture bureau helped Joseph in getting a job with The London Morning Post, a very conservative newspaper. By 1915 his reporting assignment was to appear as though he was in Budapest, reporting sympathetically on Hungary’s circumstances, politics and suffering. (This bit of dateline chicanery was blown out of proportion for British political purposes and was the cited reason for interning him in 1917.) It appears that many Hungarians felt there was a good chance that the Axis would lose the war and that maintaining presumed good relations with Great Britain might help Hungary get out from under the Austrian boot and maintain its multinational empire. I’ll have more on all of this later.

Not long after, perhaps in 1914 or shortly after the war started, in 1915, Rozsa and the girls made their way to London. The trip was not without event. The itinerary was: trains across Hungary and Germany to the Holland border and then ferry to England. Germany was not allowing emigrants they suspected were heading for England across the Holland border or to take any money or valuables such as diamonds with them. The little girls, Clara and Agnes were taught to speak English by their father (to such an extent that my mother lost whatever Hungarian she may have had by the time she was six or seven years old) but on this trip it was imperative that they not do so. Rozsa had sewn money and jewellery into a muff she was carrying. Clara had an Easter basket she had carried with her all the way – but had left on the train at the Dutch border. As they walked down the platform Clara shouted “My Easter basket!” and Rozsa immediately muffled her (pun intended). Fortunately no one heard her and they and the muff safely made it to Dover.

The family stayed in Golders Green, a north London suburb, during the first two years or so. Later, during Joseph’s detention, Rozsa and her three girls (Eva was born in 1915 in England) lived in Kew, just across the road from Kew Gardens, which was conveniently located about halfway between central London and Feltham where he was interned. My mother often talked about their neighbors, a retired English colonel and his wife, who just loved “the little Hungarian girls”. I took my mother to Kew in 1991 but we couldn’t figure out how to locate where they lived.

Feltham is in the lower left corner and Kew about dead center

Feltham is in the lower left corner and Kew about dead center

I have included his narrative of the internment from RKV at the end of this post which not only contains almost the whole story but is very entertaining as well. The account of how he arranged for the inmates of the camp to create a toy factory and thus earn an income for themselves and their families is worth the price of admission.

I will comment on an interesting omission when discussing the politics of all of this.

In the spring of 1920, as soon after his release from the Feltham camp as possible, the family emigrated to New York. It appears that Joseph very quickly managed to get articles published in several quality magazines of the time. During the early years of the depression he had a feature column in the Nepsava, a Hungarian language daily newspaper, the largest in the U. S. He lost that job over a political dispute with the publisher and lived by his wits much of the rest of his life. In the 1940s he started a Hungarian language monthly called Magyar Magazin which he wrote on his old L. C. Smith typewriter with a very wide newspaperman’s platen, laid out, had printed and personally distributed (often carrying large string-tied bundles on the subway). It had a circulation in the low thousands. For years a restaurant on east 79th street, called the Balaton, provided Rozsi and him with free dinners, every night of the week. I was present at one fund raiser held in the Balaton. Being Szebenyei’s grandson made me a minor celebrity with that crowd and they would come up to me and ask in Hungarian if I spoke Hungarian, an easy enough question to recognize. When I replied “Nem” their puzzled looks were very funny. He also gambled, playing dominoes with his cronies, but I think he lost at least as much as he won which led to big fights with my grandmother.

At one point he imposed on his nephew and son-in-law, my father, to co-sign a five hundred dollar loan, a very large sum at the time which he never made a payment on. It led to major family stress, as you might imagine.

After the war until his death in early 1953 he made a modest living from his little magazine.

Personal Recollections

 My recollections of my grandparents go as far back as my fourth or fifth year. Rozsa was about forty-two when I was born and my understanding is that she was considered very pretty in her youth which made her quite vain. I was trained to call her “Rozsi”, the affectionate form of her name, as soon as I was able to talk (before my first birthday, I’m told), and my grandfather, “Joe”. My earliest memory is of a squalid apartment, a dark room with a single undraped window looking at the Sixth Avenue El tracks which were at the level of the window about fifty feet away. All conversation stopped every ten minutes or so when a train went by.

Joe took me to my first movie around that time at the Roxie Theater. The huge screen was rather frightening to me but much worse came when the movie ended. All the house and stage lights came up suddenly, a band emerged from the pit and a line of chorus girls kicked and stomped their way across the stage. I was terrified and kept crying “Joe, tell me to go home” until he relented and we left the theater.

By the mid-30s they were living in an apartment on the fifth floor of 101 West 78th Street, a wonderful location right on the NW corner of Amsterdam and 78th with the park attached to the American Museum of Natural History across the avenue. (The Google Street View images show that a couple of years ago the place was nearly unchanged from my memory of it; the more recent view shows that it was being renovated and remodelled.)

101 w 78th 2013

101 w 78th museum of nat hist

When I was about eleven or twelve years old, (1940, 1941) early every Saturday morning I would take the Q28 bus down Crocheron Avenue and Northern Boulevard to Main Street Flushing, take the IRT to Times Square, transfer to the Seventh Avenue line and get off at 79th Street, walk to the Museum’s side entrance and be there waiting for the guard to unlock the door. At noon I walked to my grandparent’s place where I was given lunch and then back to the museum and then home. This routine went on for at least a year – I got to know the museum better than the people working there.

After Rozsi died I tried to cheer up the old man by offering to collaborate with him on a translation of the Madach classic Az Ember Tragediaja (The Tragedy of Man) but he wasn’t in the least interested, which was just as well since I have no idea what I might have contributed to such an effort.

Writing and Publishing

 My grandfather’s earliest publications would have been the stringer reports that he did while a student in Debrecen. His next publication was probably a history of the Molinaris as I’ve already described and then after that, I’m not certain when, would have been the history of the Walloons. At some point in his twenties he translated some of Rudyard Kipling’s barrack room ballads into Hungarian. For this he was awarded a gold medal by the Emperor Franz Josef. There is an interesting oddity here: he makes no mention of the translations or the medal in RKV, which I’ll discuss later. I assume the medal found its way to the pawnshop, probably after 1920.

He published three novels and two collections of poetry in Hungarian in his younger years. I found references to all of them in catalogs in Hungarian of Hungarian authors. I found one of the poetry volumes as well. All on the World Wide Web.

I’ve mentioned that his first newspaper article in London was for Sylvia Pankhurst’s newsletter – he may have done others after that. From 1915 to 1919 he wrote articles for the The London Morning Post at least once a week. These were the articles that led to his internment. At the time, there was a political dispute going on in the UK over Hungary’s fate after the war. The liberals, led by R. W. Seton-Watson, favored stripping Hungary of its domination of all the states surrounding it. The conservatives and their press, led by The Post, wanted Hungary to retain its overlord status. In Hungary there was a group that felt that Hungary and England had had a mutual friendly relationship and fearing that Hungary was on the losing side of the war tried to maintain back-channel connections. This was the reason my grandfather’s articles were purported to be from Budapest and it was the reason he was interned – it was a political coup by the liberals and must have in some degree contributed to the outcome at Trianon in 1920. It would seem that at that time my grandfather was a supporter of the empire and the throne of St. Stephen but I never heard him address the irony implicit in his actions. The only comment I recall regarding the 1920 treaty was anger at Hungary’s loss of Fiume, Hungary’s only access to the sea.

Here is Cornwall’s account of my grandfather’s part in the whole affair:

“In contrast, another small pressure-group on behalf of Hungary had secured influence in the press for a full three years until early 1917. This produced a stream of articles penned by a journalist, Joseph Szebenyei, and published in the ultra- conservative Morning Post. Harry Hanak has termed it one of the greatest newspaper stunts in English press history .33 Although based in London, Szebenyei pretended that he was a correspondent working in Budapest. The Morning Post editor, H.A.   Gwynne, used the articles as evidence that Hungary was in fact Our Friend the Enemy , and urged the Allies (August 1914) to announce that they had no territorial designs on Greater Hungary. Szebenyei in turn detailed the Magyars alleged commitment to an early peace, their hatred of Austria and Germany, and their admiration for Britain: for the Hungarians too had always been the standard bearers of chivalry and fair play in war and peace alike. In February 1915 he observed:

Though we are at war with England English literature is quite a feature in the Press and theatres in Hungary [ ] a great cinema theatre is advertising a Conan Doyle series of pictures .34   The ruse was only ended in early 1917 when Seton-Watson exposed the Post articles as forgeries in the New Europe. However, Seton-Watson’s claim to the Foreign Office that it was a deliberate campaign to mislead British public opinion did not go unchallenged. The critical response indicates that, to many, the liberal nationalist case for Hungary’s dismemberment still remained to be proven. When asked, Max Miller commented:

It must be remembered that Mr Seton-Watson is a fanatic, if an honest one, and would be sure to regard the point of view supported by the Morning Post with a prejudiced eye. His idea of a Hungarian campaign to mislead public opinion through the instrumentality of Szebenyei is to my mind a flight of the imagination.

H.A. Gwynne himself concurred. Since Szebenyei’s articles had been based on actual material received from Budapest, Gwynne felt they were justified, for one might need eventually to conclude a compromise peace and in that case Hungarian good will would not be a bad asset .35 Despite this, a few months later Szebenyei was interned.   In a typical compromise, worthy in 1917 of the fence-sitting at the Foreign Office when it came to Austria-Hungary, Szebenyei was still allowed to translate Hungarian documents for Gwynne but not allowed to leave his camp to confer with the editor.36


Here is Hanak’s comment corresponding to the beginning of the Cornwall comment above: “Secondly there was the very numerous group of those who, mainly for sentimental reasons, wished to preserve the integrity of the kingdom of Hungary. Their campaign – intrigue would perhaps be a more appropriate description – centered largely on the Morning Post who employed a Hungarian, Josef Szebenyei, to write articles purporting to come from Budapest. He was not exposed until early in 1917 and even his internment did not silence ‘Our correspondent, Budapest’”

After returning to the United States in 1920 he published a number of political articles in several prestigious magazines such as Century Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Cassell”s and McClures. An online catalog of authors has this entry:

SZEBENYEI, JOSEPH (1879?-1953); Hungarian-American journalist, author, editor, publisher and translator. Born in Keczel, Hungary; died in New York City. (chron.)

_____, trans.

The earliest articles took up such questions as who should be the next king of Hungary. Later evolution led to pieces condemning the emperor and Horthy. There were a number of other articles in addition to those shown the above clipping.

In 1930 he published a story, apparently part truth and part fiction, titled “The Master of the Conjurers’ Guild”, in a popular pulp magazine named Adventure, which has some small significance in the history of detective fiction. Here’s the entry in Michael Grost’s exhaustive catalog of mystery/detective/crime fiction writers:

Joseph Szebenyei http://mikegrost.com/rogue.htm#Szebenyei

Rogue fiction gradually disappeared after World War I. Joseph Szebenyei’s “The Master of the Conjurers’ Guild” (1930) shows traces of it, although the story is not narrated from the criminals’ point of view, but from a reporter trying to track him down. This is a beautiful story, with many clever plot twists, and a sweetness that is not always present in mystery fiction. This tale is set in Vienna, and was published in Adventure, a magazine that encouraged exotic foreign settings for its tales, unlike most mystery publishers, who wanted their detective stories set firmly at home, among surroundings familiar to the reader. Blochman and Stribling also published in this magazine.

He reprinted this story with only trivial amendments in his final book, RKV. I have included it here as an appendix. I have no idea how much is truth and how much is fiction or embellishment.

In the clipping from the writers catalog there are two short pieces by Ferenc Molnar translated by my grandfather (actually, there were quite a few of such items). A novel by Molnar with the English title “Prisoners” shows the translator on the title page as Joseph Szebenyei. In the New York Times obituary which was given to the Times by his oldest daughter, Clara, it is stated that he translated Molnar’s plays The Guardsman and Liliom. In the published form of these plays (and most of the other plays) it is stated that they were translated (sometimes “adapted”) by Benjamin F. Glazer. Glazer was born in Ireland to a Hungarian Jewish family, became a lawyer in the U.S. and became rather prominent in the movie industry. He is generally credited with the first English translation of Liliom in 1921 but there is no mention, outside of the books, of translations or “adaptations” of the other plays. There is something distinctly “fishy” about all of this. I do remember several very angry discussions at my grandparents’ in the mid-30s with talk of lawyers screwing my grandfather out of something. I also remember mention of his name not appearing in The Playbill but for what production? I have no idea. I have a suspicion that there is some semantic sleight-of-hand behind all of this, something like this: my grandfather did a first rendering into English and then someone else, such as Glazer, edited for style and diction and other adaptations and then took complete credit for the translation. I do not believe Clara and her two sisters made it up or were mistaken. There is a comprehensive survey of Molnar’s works and the various translations at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/molnar.htm. It shows Glazer as the translator of Liliom and a pair of translators, Grace I. Colbron and Hans Bartsch, for The Guardsman.

Finally, there was several years’ worth of columns for the Nepsava and the autobiographical collection of anecdotes, Reporters, Kings and other Vagabonds.

The Political Arc

 I’ve noted in passing several anomalies in my grandfather’s accounts of certain events. I think they may be explained by his political evolution. Clearly, in his younger days he was all for the Emperor and the Hungarian Empire. Then, after he had been in the United States for a few years, he wrote several articles in American magazines critical of the Emperor and the Hungarian government. I think this explains the omission of his receiving a gold medal from Franz Josef for the Kipling translations.

In the 1930s his eldest daughter, Clara, who was a favorite of her parents and influenced their thinking, became a Communist. He wrote articles critical of Horthy and he was fired from his Nepsava job by the reactionary publisher for espousing Communist opinions. One of the ugliest consequences of his “conversion” occurred at Rozsi’s funeral where a nasty verbal fight between the followers of right and left broke out right in the funeral parlor. I have always had the feeling that my grandfather really wasn’t very committed to his avowed political beliefs but was just parroting Clara.

(A digression about Clara: in 1935 she was one of the protesters who boarded the Bremen in New York harbor just as it was about to set sail for Germany, tore down its Nazi flag and chained themselves to the ship’s railing. I don’t think the protesters reckoned just how thuggish the Nazi sailors were and were severely beaten for their ignorance. The New York police had to rescue the protesters – a very ironic situation.)

I don’t know for certain why he was so coy in explaining the reason he was interned in 1917 but I guess he might have come to realize that his charade may have contributed to the harsh treatment dealt out to Hungary in the 1920 Trianon treaty.nyt obit


 His Writings

First is the chapter from RKV on his internment in Feltham. It’s just a great story.

Next is the very entertaining Master of the Conjurers’ Guild

And then several of the magazine pieces from the 20s.

Supporting Documents

First is Mark Cornwall’s article about the dismemberment of Hungary after the first World War. It’s about as clear an explanation of the strange politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Britain as you’re likely to find.

Next is Harry Hanak’s piece closely related to Cornwall’s.


In a British Internment Camp

On July 17, 1917, three months after the United States had entered the First World War and after a number of questions had been raised in Parliament concerning my status and why I had not been interned, two agents of the Ministry of Interior (Home Office) called at the Morning Post and very courteously requested me to go with them to an internment camp. I asked them to sit down until I could notify the editor. Mr. Gwynne received the news quite calmly and told me I needn’t worry, he would get me back in a day or two. Within a day or two I was notified at the camp that I might continue writing my daily articles for the Post; but as to being released, two years passed before the question came up for consideration.

The agents took me to my home to pack up whatever I would need at the camp. I consoled my wife with what Mr. Gwynne had told me and took leave of the little family, now comprising three children, Eva, the youngest being a year old.

The camp was a low-roofed, large factory building1in the east of London, flooded every time it rained, which was practically all the time. There were five hundred beds in rows of fifty, set close together, with barely enough space for a man to stand between them. We had to keep our bags and boxes on our beds, because the floor was wet, often covered by three or four inches of water. Luckily I only stayed there for a month or so; then I was shifted to Feltham Camp, near Richmond, in the north just outside London. I learned that the rest of the men were also transferred somewhere else only a week before twenty- five German planes bombed the place to smithereens.

I don’t even recall the name of the place. It may have been Stratford. The internees were of all nationalities, mostly Germans and Austrians. The Germans were merchant seamen, all civilians. It was a nightmare. The commandant was a fat, round-faced and awfully stupid-looking fellow who was always playing the bully. He thought the way to handle these mostly inoffensive and hungry men was to be harsh and gruff with them. He called me into his august presence when the order came from the Ministry permitting me to continue my writing for the newspaper, and warned me not to write a word about what was going on in the camp or he would break every bone in my body.

“Are you speaking for publication?” I asked.

“What d’you mean? I was just telling you not to dare to mention the camp.”

“I thought I could mention you, Sir, and what you just said to me.” I was only trying to razz him a little. People in the camp had commented on his stupidity and arrogance. He was unlike any officer I encountered in other camps or any English officer I have ever known. He spent half an hour assuring me that the privilege would be withdrawn if I should write anything about the camp or about persons—any person—connected with it.

As a matter of fact, there was nothing of any consequence one could use in a newspaper exposé. The people in general didn’t care a hoot about how badly the German internees were treated. The British interned in Germany had a more sorry time of it, no doubt, and I suppose the German camp commandants were a thousand times worse than our fat boss on his worst days. I just felt like kidding him a bit. Before we parted, he told me not to expect any privileges and that I should consider myself no better than any other internee. I replied that I did not expect and would not accept any privileges even if he offered them to me.

At Feltham Camp, to which I was transferred, our commandant, Colonel Johnson, was a very fine gentleman, as was his assistant Major George Tyer, a tall, fine-looking and lovable Englishman, who soon befriended me and remained one of my best friends throughout the rest of my stay in England.

Feltham Camp was a large modern building, formerly a reformatory for wayward boys. I had a separate room to myself. There were spacious grounds where we could take recreation and spend the time as we pleased without being pushed around as we had been in Stratford Camp. The internees at Feltham were mostly soldiers. There was not a single German among them. They were Poles from German Posen and Danes from Schleswig-Holstein, the territory which was returned to Denmark after the war. The civilians were mostly Danes, Hungarians and Poles, too. They had concentrated the “friendly nationalities” there for some reason. Later on they recruited Polish soldiers from among our men for the Polish Legion in France and also some of the Czechs.

Most of the men were sent out every morning to neighboring farms and factories to work. They received a shilling a day and this was a great help to them for they could augment their food with it. The food we received in the camp was rather unsatisfactory, the main dish being salted herring three or four times a week. These herrings must have been stored up for years—and they tasted awful. I only tried one, and never again. Of course, it was easy for me, for my wife brought in food twice a week and Major Tyer often invited me to dinner or lunch in his own quarters, or took me to the near-by village to buy food, and I usually could supply my friends with it, too. There were about forty or fifty civilians in the camp and most of them were without outside ties, without any income whatever. For weeks I pondered some way to secure a little income for the civilian internees, who could not even earn the shilling a day the soldiers were earning, for they were not permitted to work outside the camp. There were all sorts of artisans among them: carpenters, toolmakers, woodworkers, painters; and they were actually starving on the rations we received.

After weeks of thinking over the situation, I managed to cook up a scheme that was destined to solve the problem of penury among the boys. Before I could put it into execution, however, something happened that threatened to upset my charitable plans.

My birthday came around, and, feeling rather miserable that I had to be away from home and the children, I decided to go home and spend the evening and the night with the family. An old Irish doctor came to the camp daily to administer to the sick, and usually left by way of the South Gate, to which he had a key. That afternoon I stationed myself close to the gate and waited for the doctor to leave. He was riding a bicycle. When he reached the gate, he unlocked it and I, as if I had every right in the world, walked through it, greeting him pleasantly and passed through without anyone seeing me, the buildings being far inside the grounds. There was no sentry posted there, as the door was supposed to be locked, and high walls surrounded the place, a barbed wire fence protecting even the top of the walls. The doctor suspected nothing, thinking, I suppose, that I had a pass. I walked to the railway station and caught a train to London, and an hour later was at home. We spent a happy evening together and in the morning I went back, waiting at the South Gate for the doctor to come and open the door at ten o’clock. He came on the dot and let me in. A nice old fellow, very obliging, asking no questions. He rode away on his bicycle and I started walking towards the camp building, where in the courtyard the morning count was to take place at ten-thirty.

I hadn’t reckoned on the vigilance of Sergeant Philips, however, who stood at a distance and saw me enter with the doctor. He walked towards me and I knew the jig was up.
“When did you get Out?” he asked in an officious manner.
I thought it was best to tell the truth. “Yesterday afternoon,” I said.
“Come along.”
He took me straight to the hoosegow and locked me in a cell without any explanation whatever. It was an awfully bleak and uncomfortable place. These cells prepared originally for the wayward boys who were our predecessors in the place, and, I suppose, they had to be treated harshly to get them back into a mood for good behavior. A hard, wooden bunk with no blankets, no pillows, and not even a chair to sit on, was all the furniture in the place, and the half-hour I spent there didn’t help to elevate my spirits. Then back came Sergeant Philips. The commandant wanted to see me.

“I understand you broke out of camp yesterday and returned this morning,” he said with rather severe face.

“Yes Sir. It was my birthday and I wanted to spend the evening with my family.”

“You are the most intelligent man in the camp, and if this is the sort of example you give the others, I am afraid you will do more harm than good. I am sorry; I have to put you in solitary for fourteen days. You may go.”

That was the most he could give me according to the international convention affecting prisoners of war. It was rather tough, but I could not blame the colonel. He was perfectly right. I would have done the same in his position. Sergeant Philips took me back to the cell and told me that the doctor would come and examine me. It was the rule that every man sentenced to a term in solitary had to be medically examined before beginning to serve his time. He must be physically fit to undergo the discipline. A few minutes later, the old doctor came in, shaking his head.

“I didn’t know you had no pass. I wouldn’t have let you out,” he said, and asked me to show him my tongue. I did so. He shook his head again: “You are sick, you are not fit to serve a sentence.”

“I am perfectly all right, Doctor,” I protested.

“Shut up. The colonel told me to find you unfit, and an order is an order. What am I supposed to do?”

He walked out in a huff, and a few minutes later Sergeant Philips appeared again with the announcement that the colonel wanted to see me. I walked back to the colonel’s office under escort. This time he was very calm and serene. “I am sorry that the doctor found you unfit. I have no choice but to let you off.” He didn’t know, of course, that the old doctor had told me he was acting on orders from the colonel. I just said: “Thank you, Sir.”

“However, you must promise never to break out of camp again. That is my condition.”

“I am sorry, Colonel Johnson, I can’t promise you that. I have been put in here for no good reason at all. I should have received a decoration instead of this kind of treatment. I did not deserve it. It was a matter of expediency with the government. By breaking out of camp I only demonstrated my objection to my internment.”

“I see your point, but I work under rules and regulations and can’t change them on my own. I have to treat you the same way as any other prisoner of war and I have no right to question the intentions of the government. That’s not my business. I am in charge of this camp and I have to keep up its discipline.” “I accept all that, Colonel, and I concede that you are within your rights in enforcing the rules of discipline. On the other hand, as a prisoner of war I have every right to try to escape.” “You are right in that,” he said, “but how about asking for a pass if you want to leave the grounds for good reasons? You ask, and I’ll give you the pass.”

He smiled pleasantly and I could have embraced him, were it not for the matter of discipline with which he was so much concerned. I could only say: “It’s a bargain, Sir.”

News of my internment had reached Hungary a day after I was escorted to Stratford Camp and though the British newspapers devoted only a few lines to the event, the Budapest papers gave it quite a splash. Some of them called me “traitor,” others defended me and acknowledged that I had been trying to save the integrity of Hungarian territory and that the enemies of Hungary had placed me in my present predicament. I didn’t worry about what they had to say, for I was planning to return to America as soon as the war ended; waking and sleeping I had been looking forward to that happy day almost constantly. I had dreamed at least once a week that I was back in New York, roaming the familiar streets and talking to my boyhood friends.

I reported for a pass two or three times a week and Colonel Johnson always handed it to me with a smile: “A bargain is a bargain,” he would say, and wish me a pleasant day in London. I usually returned before nine at night. On these days I wrote my column in the editorial offices and time passed fast and pleasantly. However, towards the end of the year, the editor “gave me the sack,” as they say in England. Apparently, in the situation in which I existed, I did not rate the money be paid me. This gave me quite a shock, for I had expected more generous treatment from him, considering the precarious position I was in, but it was all in the day’s work, and I didn’t worry over it too long, as it has been my habit all through life not to take the knocks too seriously, however thick and fast they came.

I still had money enough to last us for a year or more, quite an unusual circumstance in my poverty-inured life, so I felt we were better off even as things stood than we had been when we started out.

I settled down to a life of internment and began to think seriously of other people who were worse off than myself. I mean my comrades in the internment camp. I had a scheme all worked out and all it needed was execution. The aim was to secure a weekly income of some sort for the civilians.

The scheme consisted of establishing a toy factory in camp. Before the war all children’s toys came from Germany. There were no toy factories in England, the reason for which I could never fathom. Now, German toys not being available, there was a shortage. I figured that if we forty or fifty civilians in camp, would set up a factory and manufacture all sorts of wooden toys, such as wagons, elephants, dogs, wheelbarrows and other things, we could sell them to a wholesaler and make enough profit to ensure every man working there two or three shillings a day —perhaps more, perhaps less. We had expert labor; we could get the raw materials—wood, paint and glue, these being the most important, and all we needed was a place to work and the machinery and tools.

First, I consulted Major Tyer, the assistant commandant, who promised to help us set up the factory. Then I called a meeting of the civilians and put it to them:

“We shall work on a co-operative basis. Every man will earn as much as the other and will have to work as much as any other.” I undertook to manage the concern and sell the products. We had all sorts of artisans, though none of them had ever worked in a toy factory. I had never even seen one—outside or in.

Those who knew something about machinery and woodworking tools compiled a list of what we needed. The estimate amounted to one thousand pounds, including raw materials for a month or so. Major Tyer had already allocated a special six-room guardhouse for the factory—six large, airy rooms and a courtyard. Now all we needed was a thousand pounds, half of which I had actually saved up, an amount which was to keep my family until after the war. I had planned to use my own money and get it back in installments, but then I had a better idea.

I had two friends in London who could easily spare a thousand pounds each and all I would have to do was to approach them. Both were Hungarians. One was Mrs. Rothschild, the wife of Lord Rothschild’s second son, a lovely young woman, a schoolmate of my wife’s, who came from the same town in Hungary and whom we often had visited while I was a free man. At the start of the war she asked me to list the names of all women whose husbands had been interned (the Hungarians, of course), and she had sent them weekly checks large enough to take care of the families for three years. Some three hundred families were involved. I knew she would send me the thousand pounds the minute I asked for it.

The other friend was a pearl merchant, Norman Weiss, who also spent thousands during the war helping the families of interned Hungarians. He was tiny, a five- foot stocky fellow, about forty at the time. I had met him during my first week in London, before the Sylvia Pankhurst incident and when I was still worrying about tomorrow’s lunch. At that time I was talking to some new Hungarian acquaintances at the Vienna Restaurant on New Oxford Street on a Sunday afternoon and was telling them that I was planning to establish a sort of news agency for the Budapest papers, but would need five hundred pounds to start and I had no money. A little fellow sat at the next table. He must have heard what I was talking about, for he turned to me and said:

“I’ll give you the five hundred, Mr. Szebenyei.”

I looked at the man in surprise and had to smile, for he didn’t look anything like a person who had five pounds, let alone five hundred. I smiled pleasantly and thanked him for his kindness, but took no more notice. He left soon after, and one of my companions at the table offered to give me four hundred and ninety-five for the five hundred if I cared to sell it to him. He knew who the guy was.

“Why, who is the fellow?” I asked.

“Norman Weiss, the pearl man. If he says he’ll give you the five hundred you can bank on it.”

He was the one in fact, who bought the Czar’s jewels from the Soviet Government some years later, paying millions for them.

Things turned out well, as you will recall, and I did not need Mr. Weiss’ money, but I always appreciated his fine gesture and we became very intimate friends later on. Many a poor Hungarian family would have gone hungry during the four years of war if it had not been for Norman Weiss.

I decided to turn to Mrs. Rothschild for the thousand pounds. She mailed her check to the camp by return mail. Colonel Johnson was amazed—I was not.

Next day I went out to buy machinery and tools. My experts made up a list of what we would need in a small- scale toy factory of the kind we planned. Forty men needed a good many hammers, saws, borers, planes, chisels, and tools of all kinds; also work benches, not to speak of the machinery we needed to cut wood and plane the boards that went into the wooden toys. I went to London to a second-hand machine dealer and bought everything. It was quite a large establishment with hundreds of machines of all sizes, motors and tools by the score. A government decree prohibited the sale of tools and machinery for private purposes at the time, and I knew that I couldn’t get anything delivered if I revealed that it was for prisoners of war who wanted to manufacture toys. When they asked me who it was for, I just said it was for Feltham Camp. That sounded military and official and no objections were raised to the purchase. I asked for the bill, which was about seven hundred pounds, but the manager said they would send it in time, I needn’t worry. Before returning to camp I deposited the check and waited for the bill to come. They sent the machines and the motors and tools, but not the bill.

We started to work. Not having any toy designer who could have given us an idea as to how and where to begin I bought some books on the subject and became the designer myself. During the first two weeks we built a dozen models of all kinds of toys. Hay wagons, elephants, moving trucks, dogs, cats, carts, wheelbarrows, snakes that wiggled and looked like real ones, scooters and other funny and lovely things. We worked out an efficiency and time saving system and settled down in earnest to earn our bread and margarine. When the line of samples was complete, I placed them on an army truck, many of which were attached to the camp to convey prisoners to and from farms and factories, and drove to Holborn to see the wholesalers. The first buyer I saw was our first and only customer. He asked for the price of the various toys and I gave him the list as we had prepared it. Our prices were lower than those of any other manufacturer, and I left the place with an order sheet in my pocket calling for “all your output”.

The first difficulty we had to eliminate was the matter of procuring lumber and wood of all kinds. Lumber was also restricted and dealers were not permitted to sell to persons not holding government permits. No prisoner- of-war gang could get a permit, of course, whatever they wanted to manufacture. When we began to work on regular scale we found ourselves with no lumber, and without wood we were as badly off as a baker would be without flour. We had to get wood. I called a meeting of the co-operative and some soldier friends who were interested in the enterprise and had been helping at night during the first stages. Some of them were experts in one phase or other of the work and were willing to put in their evening hours after a day’s work outside the camp. One of these, a Danish corporal, suggested that the men who were working in factories and farms outside could provide a good deal of wood, boards and boxes, and could bring it into the camp aboard the trucks which fetched them back from their place of employment, and all we would have to give them in return was a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread was a thing of great value to the soldier, because he could not buy it, though there was no restriction as far as the bakers were concerned. The soldier prisoner, however, did not have a chance to go into a bakery. We civilians could get as many loaves as we wanted in the neighboring village bakeries.

He went around and passed out the word to bring in as much wood and boards as they could lay hands on, promising white bread for it. Next day they stood in line with long and short pieces of wood, wooden packing cases, large tins of paint of all colors, glue and nails, tacks — in fact, everything that wasn’t nailed down where they were working in the daytime. The loot came in such quantities that I was afraid the two thousand soldiers would stop all British industry in time. I had to hire a truck in the village to ship the hundreds of loaves of bread I bought at the bakers in Feltham and Ashford.

On Saturday mornings, the army truck delivered the finished goods to the Holborn wholesaler, and a week later we got the check for the shipment. The first dividend we paid was over a pound for each man, the second was close to two pounds for a week’s work, and there were weeks when we each made as much as three pounds, the stolen raw materials helping out greatly in the matter of cost. We had no overhead, no rent to pay, no electric bills, no power expenses to cover. As a matter of fact, for many months we laid out no more than a few shillings a week for materials and our only costs involved the bread we bought at the bakers at four pence halfpenny a loaf. Soon I discovered that wooden fences along the highways had been utilized by my soldier suppliers, who tore off long boards and brought them home—to earn a loaf of [1 we bread. Even some of the camp fences were stolen in time. We needed a great deal of wood, though we made use of every splinter and wasted none of the stock.

Months passed, and the little factory was doing land office business with material coming in by the truckload and costing no more than the price of a few loaves of white bread. For an extra loaf soldiers reported for work after they returned from the farms and factories, and a night shift did the painting and planing of the boards so that is on, we increased production week by week. Everything was perfectly satisfactory. The only thing that worried me was the strange circumstance that the machine and tool tacks dealer had failed to send his bill for seven hundred they pounds. I waited for months, then again for months, but such no bill came, nobody demanded the price of the factory installations; when eight months had gone by without a hint from the merchant, I thought I’d better go and yes of inquire.

“Was it Feltham Camp, you said?” asked the bookkeeper-cashier at the Holborn establishment when I inquired after the bill.

“Yes, Feltham Camp.”

He turned the leaves of a big ledger and found the item at last.

“Here it is. It was paid by the Ministry of Munitions. It’s all right; you don’t have to worry.”

Good old Lloyd George had paid for our toy factory. It seems the merchants sent all bills relating to camps and other military institutions to the Ministry of Munitions and here nobody inquired into the disposition of loaf, the goods billed. They just paid and asked no questions.

I called a meeting of the co-operative and told them what had happened. I asked them for suggestions as to what was to be done with the seven hundred pounds. There were several suggestions, most of them to the effect that we divide the money among ourselves. They liked the idea of getting twenty pounds each for nothing. I had to explain the situation to them.

I told them the money rightfully belonged to Mrs. Rothschild. If we had no use for it, we should return it to her. Legally, however, the money belonged to the British government, because it had paid for the machinery which should have been paid for by us. However, if we disclosed that we had bought seven hundred pounds’ worth of machinery and had been using it for months, the man who sold it to us would be punished, for he had no right to sell it to us, and perhaps our own commandant would be taken to task because he permitted us to establish the factory and to buy machinery and material. The situation being very delicate, I proposed that we consult Colonel Johnson, the commandant and Major Tyer, and act according to their advice.

The members of the co-operative had to agree. I told them to name one other member to accompany me to the colonel, but they insisted that I go alone.

It took an hour to decide the course we were to follow. Colonel Johnson was terribly upset over the affair. He had known nothing of the transaction, not even of the fact that I had been buying machinery. He thought I had just picked up old pieces of junk here and there. He was of the opinion, as I had been, that the Ministry of Munitions must be reimbursed. He undertook the task of seeing one of the undersecretaries at the ministry, explaining the situation to him, and convincing him that we were doing valuable work for the country by manufacturing toys. Perhaps the colonel could persuade him to let us continue, and the ministry accept the seven hundred in payment for the machinery. It would be evident to the official that we, by offering to reimburse the ministry, were acting in all honesty and fairness, and that we could have kept quiet and retained the money if we so desired. That ought to gain us leniency and recognition—and it did. I even received a receipt and a letter of thanks in addition to their forgetting to collect excess-profit taxes from us, which would easily have amounted to another seven hundred pounds. They were decent enough to regard prisoner-of-war production as not taxable.

When November 11, 1918, came along we were expecting to be released almost immediately. The war was over, and it was natural to assume that nations would now exchange their prisoners. Nothing of the kind happened. Three months passed before the first group was sent home — the soldiers only. Civilians were kept there for some reason. In April, 1919, some of them were released; others, including myself and the Czechoslovaks, were still at Feltham Camp. I waited patiently for two more months and then asked my wife to go to the ministry and find out why they kept me interned seven months after the armistice. They said they couldn’t find my papers in the files. Two weeks later, she inquired again. Still they could not find my files. They were doing their best, but we must wait till they find the papers. The summer was over when she went to see them again. Only five of us were left at the camp by then. All others were released. The official at the ministry began to hunt for my files in earnest, and this time with success. I am sure you won’t believe this, but it’s God’s truth. A short girl typist had been sitting on the files, for she had to sit on something to reach her typewriter, and instead of using the telephone book like other good stenographers, she had put a dozen bunches of papers from the files on her chair, and there she sat on my liberty for all those months. I could have been free five months earlier if the girl had been taller. The authorities apologized; that was all.

It was September, 1919, when I left the camp for good, nearly a year after the armistice was signed. I was a bit disgusted and on my way to the railway station I began to make plans to get back to America.


The Master of the Conjurer’s Guild

I had some friends among the top reporters in the Austrian capital and I had a hunch that one or another of them might be able to get me a job. And I was right. The Viener Allgemeine Zeitung was willing to give me a chance. I was to cover police headquarters. My German was rather unsatisfactory, but “someone would edit my copy.” In three months’ time it needed no editing.
I’d been on the job for about five months when at 11:25 P.M. on a Saturday night we were playing cards as usual in the pressroom. At eleven thirty we had to report to the night editor: “Last call, no news.” The forms closed at eleven forty-five. If there happened to be some trifling item, we would recite two or three lines of it so as to have a record of it in the morning issues. These were usually minor suicides, burglaries or accidents. At eleven thirty-five on that memorable Saturday night, the lieutenant in charge of the pressroom, whose job it was to hand out the releases, entered just as we were about to conclude the card game and adjourn to a more lively locality above the Ronacher Orpheum.
“Anything new?” we inquired.
“Yes,” he said. “Something quite unusual.”
We gathered around him and listened to the most amazing story I had ever heard. He told it in a hurried, spasmodic manner, watching our surprised faces as we gasped and refused to believe it. We were a hard-boiled lot of boys and men, some well advanced in years, veterans of the police pressroom, accustomed to weird happenings. Yet, the unprecedented strangeness of the story took us by surprise. It sounded too mysterious and preposterous, too irrational to be accepted in those matter-of-fact surroundings where mystery usually meant some murder where clues seemed to elude the detectives who were, as a rule, a sleepy bunch of incompetents and would only wake up to the importance of a case when it happened to involve some member of the Imperial family.
“It happened at the Imperial Opera House,’ he began. “The Archduchess Amalia and her two escorts, Duke Branderdorif and Count Eszterhazy, the two court chamberlains, occupied the royal box. Just opposite their box sat Baron Krondheim, the famous bank president, and the Baroness Krondheim. The Baroness was wearing a pair of earrings with a single pearl in each. This was the first time she had had them on. The baron had brought them from India and it appears he had paid a million kronen for them. They were unusually large and beautiful pearls, and were perfectly matched. Everybody gazed at them throughout the first act and people discussed them as sensational. Then, during the intermission between the second and third acts, a royal lackey entered the baron’s box and addressed the baroness:
“‘Her Royal and Imperial Highness, the Archduchess, would like to inspect the gems more closely. Would the baroness be good enough to permit her to do so?’
“Baroness Krondheim took one of the earrings from her ear and handed it to the lackey. That was the last they saw of the lackey and the pearl.”

“How so? And the archduchess?” we asked.
“The archduchess knew nothing about it. She had sent no messenger. The man was an impostor. He was attired in the royal household uniform. The baron swears that he wore the uniform of the court servants. As the archduchess sat directly opposite them, and had previously smiled at the baroness and greeted her cordially, she had certainly no reason to doubt the genuineness of the request. The archduchess is very much upset over the affair, she being the favorite granddaughter of the emperor.”
Of course, it was plain, as plain as A B C. The emperor would have heard the story by now and must have sent word to the police to get the man. He feared nothing more than scandal or ridicule and the case smelled of both. That a member of his family should be involved—even at a distance—in a scandal of this sort, was enough to awaken his ire. No wonder the police were on their toes and excited beyond measure. In fact, even as the lieutenant related the story, we could not help hearing the commands in the corridors, the hurried and noisy departure of the reserves, the humming of the crowd within the spacious building. Suddenly they had become alert and ambitious. Police cars were pulling up at the main entrance, the Chief of Police came hurriedly to take charge of the hunt, detectives were rushing Out of the building in pairs and singly. Two thousand men were mobilized in a few minutes.
Baron Krondheim, the banker, was a shrewd, brainy man. The money the pearl represented meant nothing to him. He would have kept silent about the loss if he had had his choice. It was the silly simplicity of the plot that annoyed him. People would laugh at him, he surmised. He was supposed to be the brains of Austrian finance, the genius who had attained his present position by cunning and by sheer brain power. And some petty thief had come along and made him look like a fool.
We rushed to see him, but he would say nothing. He sent word through his valet that the matter was in the hands of the police and that they would give us all the information there was to give. He had nothing to say. Anyhow, we had nearly forty-eight hours, for the story was too late for the Sunday papers and on Mondays the dailies did not come out. Sunday was our day off. We re treated to our usual night haunt over the Ronacher Orpheum and discussed the case until four in the morning. Then we rang up the inspector of the day at headquarters. There was no development whatever. The men were out working on the case. Any clue? No, not that he was aware of.

It was noon on Sunday when we sauntered into the pressroom again. There were several releases on our desks, as usual. One dealt with the pearl case. It told all about it, and of the efforts of the police to hunt down the thief. At one o’clock another release was distributed among the reporters. This is what it said:

Police Headquarters, Vienna Press Department
At 11:30 A.M. this morning a man attired in the uniform of a
captain of the State Police called upon Baron Krondheim, the
banker, and, representing to have been sent by the chief of the
state police, requested the banker to let him have the mate of the
pearl earring that was stolen the night before at the opera house.
He said the chief of police needed the second pearl in order to
facilitate the search for the stolen one. Having brought a written
receipt with him, the banker let him have the pearl without
suspecting anything. However, the chief of police stated that he
had not authorized anyone to call for the pearl and that it is
evident that the “Captain of Police” was the same person who
by a clever trick succeeded in getting possession of the earring
the night before. The investigation is being carried on.

“That takes the cake,” said Baumgarten, of the Tageblatt. “A mastermind! A genius! He deserves to get away with it! Imagine the impertinence of it! Going back for the second earring!” He laughed uproariously and we all joined in.
“And he will get away with it. A fellow of his caliber can outwit the police of the whole world, let alone those of Vienna,” remarked Gus Friedlander, of the Fremdenblatt.
“Well, there is a reward of ten thousand kronen offered by the banker,” the police lieutenant informed us, and upon the remark of Gus that he wouldn’t buy it for a nickel, there was general and hearty laughter.
As the afternoon wore off and no progress was being made by the police, we found ourselves rooting for the thief. There was a pretty fair description of the man in the hands of the police. True, the “lackey” was described as six feet tall, while the height of the “Captain of Police” who had called for the second earring was given as five feet eight by the banker and the doorman at the mansion. But the description of the face tallied somewhat. Both had small, piercing eyes, both were described as having longish faces and hollow cheeks, and both were estimated to be about fifty-five years of age. The police were convinced that the two impostors were the same person. A lone worker, and a clever one.
It was to be a first-page story and a long and sensational one, too. We were all hard at work writing and collecting data, exchanging information, conferring with our “cartel members,” and hiding special information from other groups who belonged to other cartels. There was keen competition among the groups, each composed of three or four of us. Gus Friedlander was the star man in my group. He directed the co-operative work. He came over to me and whispered: “Go and see Master Gibbons at the Erzherzog Stephan Hotel. Get his theory on the subject.”
I took my hat and walked out. Master Gibbons, in spite of his English-sounding name was a full-blooded Austrian. He had been a vaudeville performer in his younger days and had adopted that name for stage purposes at the time. He still used it. He had left the stage some twenty years before, and devoted his time to inventing tricks for the use of conjurers. He was known as “the master of the Conjurers’ Guild.” He would invent some canny trick and sell it to a conjurer, or to groups of them in all parts of the world, and live on the income for years, until he came forward again with a new device. It was he who had invented the “levitation” trick, where a girl, lying on her back, rises in the air seemingly unsupported, slowly dropping back on the floor; it was he who first made a box three by two feet, into which he would place a girl and then pierce the box with sharp swords, fifty of them, from all angles, and the girl would still be in the box unharmed; it was he who invented the guillotine trick, beheading a person with a regular guillotine, the head visibly dropping from the body as the ax fell upon the “victim”; and the next moment one saw the conjurer replacing the head with no ill effects to the subject. Most of the sensational and inexplicable conjurers’ tricks were his inventions. He was a genius in solving problems and finding facts from which to deduce other facts. We never failed to get his views on any major criminal case, ‘and whatever he said was always interesting. Even the police consulted him quite often.

I found the master seated in the cafe of the hotel in the company of a young detective. I have often seen the younger man at headquarters and immediately surmised that he, too, had come to ask the advice of the master in the mysterious pearl case.
“May I join the conference?”
“Certainly, take a seat. What will you have?” asked
Mr. Gibbons. “This is my nephew, George Gastein,” he added.
“We have met before,” I said, shaking hands with the detective. “Have you heard the latest, Master Gibbons?”
“George was just telling me about it. I was suggesting to him to go straight to Mr. Krondheim and tell him to return the pearls to his wife. It sounds like an insurance job. But George tells me that the pearls were not insured. I said, in that case, it is a family affair. The banker, perhaps, could not afford to spend a million kronen ($200,000) for earrings, so he chose this way of getting them back from his wife.”
“You don’t want me to quote you on that?” I asked.
“No, of course not. I am just fooling. It’s most unlikely. Still, that would be the first thing to suggest itself to me, if I were working on the case.”
“There is certainly a great deal to it. It never occurred to me,” said George.
“And it wouldn’t occur to a good many others, either,” said the old man with contempt in his voice. “They blow this affair up into a tremendous criminal case. It’s nothing of the kind. Just a clever thief. A bit of brain work, that’s all. They have to go out and find the man. Just as in any other criminal case. They ought to have a description of him. Half a dozen people must have seen him in his two uniforms.”
“Do you think he will try to leave town?” asked the detective.
“No, not with his brains. He’ll just stay indoors for some time. He knows the trains and stations are watched. He knows there is a description of him circulating all over the country. A man of his abilities stays indoors and waits. He knows that he couldn’t sell the loot on this continent. He had his plans laid before he took the first step, if I am any judge of men. I am afraid they will never get him. If it was the baron who engineered the thing through an accomplice, he will deny it and will know how to hide his man. How would you prove him guilty? No way, and who would think of charging him with the crime? No one. Besides, how can you charge a man with stealing his own property? You can’t.”
“What for publication, Master Gibbons?” I asked.
“For publication? Just say that I think this man is a great fellow, whoever he may be. That he worked with brains and mathematical precision. That he ought to be invited to join the detective bureau of the State Police. That a man of his abilities should have been employed by the state and not permitted to run amok with all that genius directed against society instead of for its benefit. Imagine what that man could do in the way of harm, if he once got going!”
I made notes of what the master said and left. Back in the pressroom, I gave the notes to Gus and my two other pals. When I casually mentioned that George Gastein was with the master, Gus told us in a whisper that George Gastein was not the master’s nephew, as he liked to call him, but his son.
It was a queer story, characteristic of Master Gibbons. The old boys, who had known him in his youth, recalled that affair of his with a vaudeville dancer who had committed suicide some twenty years before and had been Gibbon’s assistant on the stage at the time. It was after her death that Gibbons had retired from the stage and begun inventing tricks for the profession. George Gastein was the dancer’s son and, it was surmised, also that of Gibbons. It was never learned why she took her life. She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl in vaudeville in Europe. She carried off the beauty contest prizes among vaudeville people every year. It was whispered at the time that she had wanted to leave the conjurer and branch out in an act of her own. But Gibbons wouldn’t hear of it. So she killed herself. Of course, this was just talk. It might have been true or it might not. At any rate, those who were close to him knew that she had a son and that Master Gibbons had brought him up and paid for his education. They also knew that ever since the girl had died, Master Gibbons was a changed man. He never again appeared on the stage, he was never known to associate with any other woman, and he lived a secluded life, studying constantly and pondering over thrilling tricks that amazed the world and set audiences gasping.
Of George Gastein, the young detective, some people at headquarters knew that up to the time he had entered the service he had been a drifter and a good-for-nothing. He was educated and naturally intelligent, and he inherited the beauty of his mother, but nothing of the brains and genius of his father. He had tried his hand at various jobs, but was unsuccessful everywhere. It was Gibbons’ influence with the higher-ups at the Ministry of the Interior that had landed him the job in the detective bureau. George had not been very successful there, either. He was considered a mediocre man at detecting crime and was never given an important assignment. He was one of those fellows who would hold his position while his influence lasted, or until a new regime would come and sweep him out with the rest of the none-too- necessary bunch. Only those were retained by a new regime in the police department who showed exceptional ability and had performed some laudable and memorable act in the course of their service.
Detective Gastein had had nothing to his credit during his two years’ service at the bureau; not even ambition or initiative. Captain Wanger, Chief of Detectives, whenever he met old Gibbons at the cafe, where he would drop in now and again to look over the newspapers, did not enthuse over the old fellow’s protégé. He would have expected Gibbons’ son to exhibit greater powers of deduction and reasoning. He had kept on merely to please the old man who often helped the police with advice in major criminal cases and who was respected and befriended by the high officials of the ministry.
The fact that Detective Gastein was in conference with Mr. Gibbons when I went to interview him brought out all this information from my colleagues when we met after the day’s work was over early in the morning. We found it natural that the young detective should go to his father and get the benefit of his experience and specially- fitted mentality in a case of such importance as the Krondheim pearl case. The old man would certainly help his own kin first, and we soon came to the conclusion that Gibbons was giving the young man advice that he would not give to anyone else, and certainly not to reporters. We took it for granted that the suggestions he had dropped to me that afternoon were intentionally misleading, camouflage rather than anything else, and that his real tip, if he did have one, went to his son. We also surmised that the son was badly in need of some distinguishing deed if he hoped to keep his job for any length of time. We had implicit faith in the genius of old Gibbons. We knew of a number of big cases where his theories had been followed by prompt results. He had never worked on a case personally. We had never known him to take the slightest part in any. He just planned campaigns, drew innumerable plans on the marble tops of cafe tables and directed operations from the Cafe Archduke Stephan.
This being the case, we decided that in order to scoop the other “cartels” and all the rest of the newspapers, we would have to keep an eye on young Gastein and follow his activities, for we felt sure that old Gibbons was straining his brains as he had never strained them before in order to get a break for his son. At least, that was the theory we adopted, and now it was up to us to find out whether it was sound or just a hunch.
They put me in charge of this phase of the operations; I being the youngest in the group of four. The youngest fellow usually gets the toughest tasks and the toughest deal, as I have always experienced in my dealings with my colleagues around the pressroom. And I can’t deny that the boy who later joined us and relieved me from my position as the youngest got no better break from me than I had had from the older ones in my time.
I got up at an unearthly hour the next morning. At nine o’clock I was already consuming my breakfast at the cafe in the Hotel Archduke Stephan. I wanted to see if the young detective would meet old Gibbons there before he started out for the day’s work. Master Gibbons was there all right, but Gastein failed to turn up during the time I sat there. Before I left the place I sauntered casually across to Mr. Gibbons and inquired after his health.
“By the way,” he said, “is there any break in that pearl case?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied.
“How does it look to you?” he inquired.
“The pressroom is rooting for the thief. A clever guy can always command our sympathy,” I went on, “unless, of course, it’s a murder case. It’s always good fun to watch a fellow get away with a couple of pearls, so long as they belong to a millionaire banker”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” the old fellow reflected.
“Sure enough, if they fail to catch the thief it will be an everlasting blemish on the name of our police.”
“How is young Gastein doing?” I asked, turning the conversation in the direction I was most interested in. “I hope you gave him some sound dope to start him on the job.”
“Yes, I always do, whenever he needs my advice. He is young and ambitious and a little advice can’t hurt.”
“Have you any theory as to the thief?”
“The case itself is such that it presents but one theory,” he answered. “You see, the man and his work are both unusual and out of the ordinary. No habitual criminal of the usual type has brains enough and humor enough to conceive a piece of work such as this. You’ve got to search for the man somewhere where thinking is being done and where men with brains gather. You’ll never find him in a pub, a second-class hotel, or in the cheap suburbs. The very simplicity of the work shows a disciplined mind and a calculating brain. Sometimes I think I could have been the only one in Vienna to perpetrate a job like that,” he said with a smile and a proud gleam in his eyes. “I don’t know of any other man in this town who could have evolved the scheme. True, the man must be superior to me inasmuch as he could not only plan it but also carry it Out. I would have proved myself inferior there. You see, I can plan and construct the most unusual things in my own profession, but when it comes to trying them out and putting them on, I have to get my colleagues to do it. I couldn’t face an audience with any of my tricks any more. As a matter of fact, I never could. I was a second-rate conjurer while I was active on the stage. Some people are clever with their hands, others with their brains.”
He laughed good-naturedly and looked at me with his half-closed eyes as if to fathom my thoughts. I am sure he could have read them if he cared to. I felt like a looking glass whenever I talked to the man; he was so uncannily wise and so terribly superior. I noticed that he was evading the subject, so I persisted: “What angle is Gastein tackling?” I asked.
“Oh, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you? I’d say it would be unwise for him to show his hand, for the least little thing might upset the theory. You’ll have to wait and see. He may be chasing a phantom, for all I know. There is one thing, however, I am able to tell you, and that is that he has a theory of his own and is working on that and not on any of my hunches. True, he discussed it with me, and I gave him a couple of hints, but he is certainly working on his own initiative and testing his powers. I hope he succeeds,” he added after a pause.
I left him sipping his coffee—audibly enough. A crafty old fox, Master Gibbons! And a boastful one at that. He was the only one in Vienna to put over a job like that! He was the only brainy and mathematical intellect in town. And though I disliked braggarts, I had to agree with him. Perhaps it was he. Who knows? He might have been saying that just to sidetrack any suspicion we might have had. Ah, nonsense! Nobody would dream of suspecting him, the friend of all the big men in town, the wizard who had spent twenty years of his life in respectability, and was reputed to be a man of considerable means. Besides, everybody knew his face. He would have been recognized anywhere. My mind played with the fanciful idea merely because it would have been good story material, and because I had dreamed of winning a scoop for my “cartel”
one day that would establish my reputation as a reporter
among the boys.
I planted myself at the opposite corner behind one of those advertising set-ups—broad, round, wooden columns covered with posters—and watched the door of the cafe. I was waiting for Detective Gastein to turn up, and then to follow him and get a line on his theory. Meanwhile I
weaved fantastic dreams, trying to connect old man Gibbon with the theft. I had had enough experience by then to know how to start at the bottom of every case: to look for the motive first of all. What motive had Gibbons? He could not possibly sell the pearls. He could not risk
getting caught red-handed. He could not risk the reputation of a lifetime for money. There must have been some other motive. Perhaps he wanted to make a monkey of the Chief of Police. I had to laugh at my own stupidity in dwelling on a theory as preposterous as this. I would not have dared to hint at it to my colleagues lest they laugh me out of the pressroom. Really, I had no reason to suspect the old fellow at all. It was just the imagination of a youthful dreamer. And yet the hunch somehow persisted and I could not get my mind off the idea that the old man had played the trick as a prank, or with some more sinister purpose in mind. I could not fathom his motive. His own admission that he alone could have thought of a thing like that—though said as a joke—continued to excite my imagination, and I could not rid my mind of the suspicion that he had said that in order to carry his joke a step further, and to enjoy my stupidity in accepting his
words at their camouflaged value.
What made this hunch even more preposterous than it appeared to, be was the fact that old man Gibbons was noted as a man of golden heart and endless charity. They said he had given away fortunes every year to people who were hard up. He was beloved by all and his smiling eyes always gleamed with sympathy and love for all.
I hated myself for my hunch and was trying to dismiss my ugly thoughts when my meditations were interrupted suddenly. I saw Detective Gastein entering the cafe. Through the large windowpane I could see him approach the table where Gibbons had been just before, where he usually sat reading the morning papers. But I could not make Out whether the old man was still there or not. I advanced a few steps so as to get the sun out of my eyes and have a better view into the shady nooks of the cafe. Gastein was still standing and talking to a waiter. Gibbons was gone. Then I saw the detective emerge from the cafe and stand waiting in front of the terrace, as if at a loss, looking about him furtively as if he were pondering where the old man had gone. He glanced towards the hotel entrance now and again, as if expecting someone from there. I remained behind the post and watched.
A moment or two later I saw an officer dressed in the gala uniform of the Hussars emerge briskly from the hotel. He had two golden stars on his collar, denoting the rank of a lieutenant colonel. He was tall, slim and stately, with a small goatee and thick moustachios, pointed at the ends. He seemed typically Hungarian, with a walk of authority and the air of bravado that characterized the Hungarian Hussar officer throughout the realm. He carried a small brief case in his right hand, holding his sword under his left arm. The porter was busy getting a cab for him, and I had time to study him with considerable admiration while the cab drew up hurriedly and the man entered it. The cab drove off and I turned my attention again to Gastein. He looked after the departing cab for a moment, then darted towards the middle of the street where an empty taxi was slowly cruising and opened the door while it was still in motion. I saw him pointing at the departing cab as though instructing the driver to follow it.
In a flash I drew the conclusion that the officer in the lieutenant colonel’s uniform must have been the thief. The fact that he wore a different uniform, one that commanded respect, after having already used two other classes of uniforms with success, indicated to my mind that Gastein was perhaps on the right track and that it must have been the old man with his deductive mind. who had tipped him off to the theory that the thief would have to be sought in a uniform of some sort. A lieutenant colonel of the Hungarian Hussars would not be subjected to suspicion. It stood to reason. No police officer would dare accost him, or venture to breathe a suspicion of the mildest sort accusing one of the caste. And this one was dressed in a gala uniform; perhaps he was on his way to the emperor for an audience. A clever thief of the kind we had to deal with would resort to a uniform that would ensure immunity when making his escape. All this passed through my mind while I was frantically searching for a taxi to follow the two. Luckily, there was no traffic deserving of the name in Vienna at the time and the two minutes that passed between their departure and my finding a taxi did not make much difference. They were driving along the Great Ring towards the opera house and the Royal Burg and I could still see them in the distance, about ten blocks away, when I got into my taxi and ordered the driver to catch up with them.
The first car stopped in front of the Royal Palace. The officer motioned to the cabman to wait for him. The great iron gate was wide open and the colonel walked straight through it with the air of a man going home. The detective’s car drew up behind the first one just as the officer had entered the gate. I stopped my taxi on the other side of the broad ring and watched the drama enacted in front of the palace. It was short and to the point. The two sentinels in front of the palace saluted the officer by standing at attention and running their hands down the straps of their shouldered rifles and gazing after him with stiffened necks and bodies. Gastein jumped out of his car and rushed to the one in which the officer had come, telling the driver that he was a police officer. Then, opening the door of the first car, he took the brief case the officer had left in the cab. This done, he made a determined effort to run after the officer. The two sentinels, however, barred him from entering. I could see him showing his badge, arguing with the soldiers, but they would not budge. They had standing orders not to permit any civilians to enter. He blew a whistle and soon the uniformed man on the near-by post came trotting up. While he waited for him, Gastein opened the brief case and drew from it a small white package. I could see him unwrap it and gaze at the contents with amazed eyes, fingering the small objects for a moment and then slipping the package into his trouser pocket. The two cabs waited. Gastein took the serial number of the first one, then instructed the uniformed man to wait. He must have told him to arrest the lieutenant colonel of Hussars when he returned. Then jumping into his cab, he drove to a cafe three or four blocks away and rushed to the telephone. I followed and entered the adjoining booth to listen to what he had to report. I heard him say:
“Send a squad of men to surround the palace, Captain. He is in there. . . . Why not? Hell, the emperor needn’t know… . There will be no scandal at all. . . . No one will observe. . . . I put a uniformed man at the gate. . . . But he might escape through some other entrance. . . . You must. . . . I’ve got the pearls, all right. . . . Well, go and consult the chief. . . . Hurry up, for God’s sake, he’ll get away…
I watched the detective rush out of the place and enter the cab again. I thought I had seen enough. I was elated and happy. Good for Gastein! He had made good; his promotion was assured. I was torn between duty and admiration for the young man. Should I rush to the pressroom and tell my “cartel” members, or should I run to the Archduke Stephan Hotel and tell old man Gibbons first? It would be on my way anyhow. I drove back to the hotel, walked up two flights and knocked on the door of Gibbons’ apartment. I could not wait for the “come in” signal. I pushed the door open and entered. Old man Gibbons was standing before the mirror, tearing off his false beard and mustachios; the tunic of the Hussar’s uniform was lying on a chair and the trousers were still on him. I must have stared at him with protruding eyes and stammered some apology as I was on the point of drawing back when he turned. He had seen my entrance reflected in the looking glass. He said:
“Come in, old boy. Don’t get so excited. Sit down. I’ll be ready in a tick.”
I closed the door and bolted it with an automatic movement. He noticed my action.
“You seem to have more sense than I have.”
I was unable to utter a word. I sat down and watched him smear off the mucilage. He looked at me and smiled benevolently.
“You see, I saw you from the cafe, hiding behind the advertising post. Then I saw you following Gastein in a cab. I didn’t expect you to come up here. I thought you’d dash to the pressroom or to your paper.”

“I wanted to tell you” . . . . I stammered. “But what’s the meaning of ?” . . . .
“Well, you see, I am expecting to join my ancestors soon and I was afraid George Gastein would never make good in the department. I wanted to give him a lift before I cleared out. I have nothing to leave him, so I just wanted to put him right with his job.”
He paused and glanced in my direction to see how I took this confession. Then in a casual manner:
“I am sure your father would have done that much for you if circumstances had warranted it. You see, I tipped him off about the Hussar officer, who lived next door to me in this hotel. I rented the room a week ago in this uniform and my make-up. Gastein doesn’t know. He is hunting for the officer now, I bet. I knew they would not let him follow me into the palace. He is so dumb, you can put anything over on him.”
He had by this time resumed his original face, put the uniform away, and pulled on his dressing gown. Then he lit a cigar and sat opposite me in a big armchair.
“Thank God it’s over. I suppose it will be a good story for your paper. I am sure they won’t prosecute me, considering that I let them have the pearls back. But George will lose his job.”
“No,” I said, “he won’t lose his job on my account.”
“I knew he wouldn’t on your account,” he said. “You see, you have to help the other guy if he is weaker than yourself. He’ll gain confidence now and his pride in himself will urge him along. Now he’ll make good, I am sure.”
There are certain things one doesn’t even tell one’s cartel members. There are stories one doesn’t care to write for some reason or other. This was one I waited thirty years to tell, and I am not sorry.

 A Sample of Fugitive Pieces

century hapsburg-1 century hapsburg-2 century hapsburg-3 century hapsburg-4 century hapsburg-5 century hapsburg-6Supporting Documents







Having a Ball

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


Memorias de Mexico

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

Then and Now – a Prescript

 The events and their locales described in this post date back to the end of 1953 and the beginning of 1954, more than fifty-eight years ago. To say that things have changed is a laughable understatement.

The population of Mexico City then was around four million; today it is over nineteen million. Cuernavaca proper was about fifty thousand and now is about 400,000 (a few years ago several nearby towns, such as Tepoztlan, were administratively joined into a metropolitan region with Cuernavaca as its core with a population close to one million). Since the catastrophic earthquake, a considerable number of Mexico City residents have moved to Cuernavaca and became commuters, the roads having been vastly improved and the outskirts much more developed.

The crowding and overcrowding of structures, apparently totally uncontrolled, and the lack of concern for design in architecture and construction have done awful damage to central cities and close-in residential areas. Add to that the increasing importance of tourism to the economy (from Wikipedia’s article on the Mexican economy: “Tourism is one of the most important industries in Mexico. It is the fourth largest source of foreign exchange for the country. Mexico is the eighth most visited country in the world (with over 20 million tourists a year).” Services, much of them involved with hotels, restaurants and tourism activities, provide 70% of the employment.  So, adding insult to injury, many town centers are turning into Disneylands.

I am noting all of this here and now so that I don’t keen over every assault on your sensibilities as we go on – but I will briefly note the differences.

One other observation I’d like to make is the time scale. For example, Emiliano Zapata was murdered in 1919. I was born in 1928, just over nine years later. Just sixteen years before our visit Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil. The third of the PRI’s presidents, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines had been in office less than two years – and so on. It was still an early time in Mexico’s modern history.

 Our Time in Mexico City

 As I mentioned in the post about Satish Gujral my mother and I went to Mexico around the beginning of November 1953 for a stay of six months (the limit on a visitor permit). The very start of the journey was more exciting than I expected or desired. We took Eastern Airlines from Laguardia to Miami where we were booked with a nonsked named Guest Airways. I haven’t been able to find any mention of this outfit so it apparently sank without even making any bubbles – which is as it should be.

The first view of the airplane, probably a recycled military DC4, was a bit of a shock – its exterior was actually rusty – up to that time I had never seen a rusty airplane. When we boarded my jaw and heart dropped – the interior appointments were literally in tatters – there was some sort of fabric hanging from the ceiling in swaths which made the scene like something out of an Addams cartoon. My mother had never flown before and clearly had no idea of how things ought to look but in the interests of avoiding any hysteria, I said nothing. As soon as we were aloft we both had a martini and then we had a couple more … Right from the start the plane made odd noises, clanking and grinding sounds, and I was getting more and more apprehensive. My mother, in blissful ignorance noticed nothing and was quite happy sipping martinis.

About two or three hours out we hit a bit of weather. The plane not only rose and dropped great distances suddenly so that you either felt much heavier or nearly weightless but it also rolled and yawed making me feel quite dizzy. This went on for hours. The flight was supposed to take eight hours but ten, eleven and twelve went by and I couldn’t help worrying about the fuel supply. Finally, about thirteen hours into the flight we were going through a wide valley approaching the airport. It never crossed my mother’s mind that there was anything wrong. When I asked her if she was at all nervous she asked, about what? Good martinis.

I can’t remember where we stayed the first night (the Reforma?) or whether we had made some sort of arrangements in advance or not. I do remember that the next day we found a Mexican government tourist agency on Guzman near the Paseo de la Reforma (note: I cannot find any street named Guzman in current maps. I remember it going off at an acute angle from the Paseo de la Reforma, not far from the Hotel Reforma) where the agent was a very tall young Mexican who spoke perfect, unaccented American English. When I asked if he had grown up in the States, he named some mid-western state. He suggested the Maria Cristina which turned out to be the first in a number of pleasant, almost sensuous, experiences in Mexico. The lobby contained a lush set of large potted plants with great dark green leaves (with the obligatory split-leaf philodendrons, of course) and huge, intensely colored flowers. Apparently the plants were removed – the publicity photos for the present hotel show only one skinny plant at the foot of the spiral staircase.

The front of the Maria Cristina today. The lush plants in the lobby are now reduced to one split-leaf philodendron.

Because of limited finances we only stayed there about a week and somehow found a casa de huespedes (guest house, boarding-house) located at Rio Guadalquivir 19.

The house was a large single family residence located near the best known monument in the city, the Angel of the Independence.

One of the most famous glorietas in the world. The broad, divided street running from lower left to upper right is the Paseo de la Reforma.

In all her golden glory

The red marker shows where the casa de huespedes was.

This is actually quite a large house. In 1953 there were no other structures immediately adjacent. There is a large walled-in back yard and garden.

For some reason cab drivers never seemed to know where this address was so the first words of Spanish that I learned were “izquierda, derecho, lentamente, aqui, halto” and so on. Once after going through this drill and giving the driver a tip (which you were not supposed to do), he said in perfect, unaccented English, “Thank you very much, sir”. When I asked why the hell he didn’t let me know he spoke English, he said “I thought it was good for you to try Spanish”. I took this lesson to heart and never opened a dialog in English after that and it stood me in good stead. Inevitably, if the other party spoke English, he/she would relieve me of the effort to speak Spanish but my attempt always ingratiated me with the other person.

The owners, whose names I’ve forgotten, were what we would call middle class but seemed to enjoy a status more like what we consider upper class. They were “pure” Spanish which allowed them to lord it over the Indians and mestizos who were their servants. I never got used to this and committed little acts of rebellion whenever I could. We were given strict instructions not to tip the household staff so as to not “spoil” them. When we left I gave tips on the sly of fifty USDs, about 400 pesos at the time, each to the housekeeper and the cook – spoil them indeed.

The husband was an insurance broker. He would show up for breakfast about nine, have a leisurely breakfast and go to work around ten. Then he would show up for a leisurely lunch around two and head back to the office at three-thirty or four; at seven he was home for dinner. The siesta never really disappeared.

The wife, who ran the boarding-house, had once owned a bar near a fronton (jai-alai court). One night several frontoñeros (jai-alai players) got into a shoot-out, both inside and outside the bar, over a woman. I don’t know if anyone was actually shot but that didn’t matter to the authorities. They took away her license, closed the bar and prohibited her from ever having a drinking establishment again and the building was prohibited from containing a bar forevermore. The frontoñeros aren’t the only ones playing hardball down there.

There were five other tenants in residence. First was Pepe, or Señor Pepe, a middle-aged taciturn Spaniard who appeared to be a long-time resident and was held in some sort of special esteem by the landlady. I only saw him at some dinners and never had any conversation with him. There was a young couple, Dell Adams and his Mexican wife. He was a geographer from Minnesota or Wisconsin who had worked for several years for the state of Vera Cruz doing an extensive geographic survey of the state and its resources. The state had stopped paying him some time back and he was in the Federal District trying to collect what was owed him, about a year-and-a-half’s pay. The Mexicans translate names along with everything else, so he was Señor Dello to the locals (there was a popular series of boxed match sticks, made of twisted waxed paper rather than wood, called Classicos, with reproductions of famous paintings on the boxes – all were rendered into Spanish – my favorite being “autoretrato de Alberto Durero”).

The last pair was a middle-aged widow, Señora Rosa, and her pretty twenty-five year old son. She was always elaborately made-up and wearing ornate black dresses. Towards the end of the sixties there was a nice piece by George Steiner (with whom I was acquainted in 1948 when he was an occasional fellow Kelly Hall lounge lizard at the U of Chicago) on the Spanish nearly erotic love-affair with death. Señora Rosa was a vivid, living example. In mid-November one of the Italian drivers in the Fourth Panamerican Carrera went off the road, killed some of the roadside crowd watching the race and died himself. Señora Rosa, who certainly had no interest in road racing, went to the train station to see his body brought to Mexico City.  Less than three weeks later Jorge Negrete, the most popular movie star in Mexico (described to me as a combination of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers and John Wayne), collapsed while visiting Los Angeles and died in Cedars of Lebanon of liver failure. Señora Rosa was among the immense crowd when his body was returned to Mexico.

Señora Rosa was filled with proud anticipation of her son’s marriage to a young woman of German ancestry. It seemed an odd marriage at first, the vain handsome son and a somewhat overweight, somewhat unattractive young woman with some sort of hip or leg deformity, but I found out that the German last name was what it was all about. There were three distinct periods of German immigration in Mexico. First were the Austrians (mostly) who came in with the Hapsburg court. Next were the refugees after the First World War and then the refugees from the Second. I was told that the original German line were the hidden, behind the scene powers in Mexican politics and business. Señora Rosa was using her son to do a little social climbing.

It was very cold in Mexico City that winter, the locals claiming much colder than usual but I was skeptical. There was no heat in the house. The only sign of heating was a fireplace in the entryway foyer but I think it was just a decoration. In any case it would not have been the least bit effective in heating anything but the foyer. During the day we thawed ourselves by going outside. The bright sun in the thin air provided a nice level of warming. So, a number of times during the day we would go into the back garden to warm ourselves like the lizards in the bougainvillea climbing the broken-bottle topped wall.

In the evenings we went to a huge cocktail lounge in a modern hotel on Juarez which was a hangout for American tourists and residentes. I remember befriending a woman of around sixty, expensively made-up and coifed, hair dyed blonde, and her “boyfriend”, the headwaiter, named Romo, who was about the same age or a little younger and was married. I don’t know if he was a for-hire gigolo or was getting some sort of compensation or not. In any case, the woman was certainly not naïve and would have had a perfect understanding of the situation and was acting on her own volition. We had dinner with them a couple of times and I found Romo to be an intelligent and pleasant companion who seemed to show genuine affection for his “client.”  Two rules apply here: things aren’t always what they appear to be and it’s best to check your prejudices at the door.

Another popular gathering place for Americans was the cocktail lounge in the Hotel Geneve, one of the most unusual that I’ve seen. It was a very high-ceilinged greenhouse or solarium, the glass roof supported by two rows of tall carved stone pillars which were completely encased in climbing plants, mostly the ever-present huge split-leaf philodendrons. The leaves at the top grew towards each other nearly concealing the glass, the humidity was saturated and there was a mossy odor, all of which created the sensation of having one’s drinks in a tropical rain forest. The hotel has been extensively remodeled since then but it appears that the greenhouse is still there, the plants removed and the space repurposed into an in-house restaurant operated by Sanborn’s (that name will come up again at the end of this post). The hotel itself was also popular with Americans: it offered good accommodations at reasonable prices. I stayed there on my last night in Mexico.

The former cocktail lounge of the Hotel Geneve is now a Sanborn’s restaurant. The pillars were completely encased in climbing plants and the glass ceiling was obscured by the overarching leaves

On to Cuernavaca

A week or so into December we decided we had had enough of the Distrito’s cold and, having heard that it was much warmer there, headed south and down to Cuernavaca. Although only fifty miles or so south of Mexico City it is, at 5000 feet, about 2300 feet lower – and that made all the difference. We went to the turismo (limousine) office on Nezahuacoyotl, a street not far from the center of town, and took the hour-and-a-half trip over the old highway, said to have been built by Cortez. At the crest there was a cluster of tall crosses fashioned from galvanized iron pipes that marked where a number of Zapata’s men were tricked into going and were ambushed, just one of the many atrocities  committed by Huerta.

 After the long ride down from the top of the ridge to the entry road to the city of Cuernavaca we were enclosed on both sides of the highway by huge Flor de Noche Buena bushes with “flowers” (more properly, “bracts”) the size of a waiter’s tray. (These plants were first brought to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, a physician and botanist and first U.S. Minister to Mexico, under Jefferson, hence the name “poinsettia”.) This glorious display of color warmed our spirits as much as the benign weather did our bodies.

I don’t remember how we came to choose the first hotel where we stayed. We might have arranged a reservation in Mexico City or, for all I know, the turismo driver may have recommended it. It was the Marik Plaza, perhaps Cuernavaca’s only modern hotel, situated across the street from the alameda, around the corner from the Jardin Juarez, right in the center of the town. It had an acceptable restaurant and a nice, small bar, both with outdoor tables. To the rear was a very attractive sunken yard with a large pool which was rarely used for swimming. (What I remember most vividly about the pool was the yard man every morning silently skimming the bougainvillea blossoms off the top with his home made sweeper – one of the most serene scenes I ever inhabited.) Obviously, everything was designed to attract tourists, who were mostly Americans and in a matter of a few days we became acquainted with nearly all the Americanos in the area.

The Marik Plaza hotel seen from the southwest. The outdoor dining and bar service was along right side across from the alameda.

A publicity photograph on a souvenir post card. I don’t recall seeing anyone actually swimming in the pool.

The first two Gringos we became acquainted with and who became our constant companions over the following four months were Rhea Loeb, a divorcee accompanied by her twelve year old son Johnny, who was also a  resident of the Marik Plaza, and Al Phister, a retired school teacher.

On the left, Agnes Kovach, then Rhea Loeb. Author seated.

Photo taken the same day.

 We would meet with both of them nearly every day, often at the lunch hour, in the outdoor cocktail lounge of the Marik Plaza. Here we encountered the other Americans and some Europeans and an incessant stream of young women, adolescents actually, with a baby on one breast and a stack of stoles over the opposite shoulder. “Rebozos señor? Estoles? Rebozitos?” The goods were brightly colored, very lightweight machine knitted synthetics, probably from the Orient. They were attractive enough and cheap enough that one often bought one or two – we wound up with a hell of a stack before we were through. Later I would learn something interesting regarding the saleswomen mamacitas.

 My mother was a jewelry junkie. After only a day or so she found a very small shop in a row of souvenir stores on the east side of the small town-center park, Jardin Juarez, which consisted of a Victorian gazebo which served as a bandstand during civic celebrations, some paved paths and a patch of worn grass. The shop was simply called “Doris” after the owner. She had elegant silver pieces of her own design, often adorned with jade or turquoise or cinnabar or malachite stones. My mother bought a couple of bracelets and brooches done in a mixed French and Mexican style, repoussé silver with low relief carved jade heads, reminiscent of Olmec sculpture. Doris was from Dallas, had a studio factory in Taxco where young smiths she had trained produced her designs. I only learned her last name last week when I looked her up on the Web: Doris Hall. She became a regular in our little circle.

One of the casuals was Irving Gordon’s wife. He was a well known songwriter whose most famous pieces were “Mister and Mississippi” which was on every juke box in the greasy spoons of Chicago’s south side when I was a U of C student, and “Unforgettable” which became Nat King Cole’s signature song in the 1990s. They were residents at the time, with a big brick house, which was rather unusual, several servants and their two young kids.

One day when I was walking in the alameda I confronted a man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place. Apparently he had the same feeling and we stood there looking at each other, then pointing at each other until one of us finally said “Where do I know you from?” Then, in a matter of a few seconds we both realized the answer. He was Henry Bacmeister. He and his wife May had lived across the breezeway from us when we lived on Crocheron at 190th street in Flushing in the late thirties and early forties. We didn’t know the Bacmeisters but they were a source of entertainment for us in those days. Henry was slightly built and not very tall (actually somewhat like me in those regards) with a small brushy moustache, who we equated with the cartoon figure Caspar Milquetoast. May was half a head taller, twice his volume, with a big pouter pigeon bosom, like a Helen Hokinson cartoon character. They always had one or two dachshunds and when Henry came home from work, before he did anything else, he had to walk the dogs.

The reason Henry was in Cuernavaca was fascinating to me. It turned out he was born and raised in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. His slight accent was only partly German – the rest was Spanish. His grandmother or great grandmother was in the entourage of the Empress Carlota. (Maximilian made the house in Cuernavaca’s Borda garden his summer residence where he kept a native mistress, Margarita Leguizmo Sedano, who became the legendary India Bonita – more on all of this elsewhere.) Henry told of the time when he and his grandmother had to lie on the floor of her Mexico City apartment while the Zapatistas and the Mexican Army exchanged cannon fire over their heads.

During the time the Bacmeisters were our neighbors Henry worked for the Eli Lilly drug company. When he was a year or two from retirement he was fired, a common ploy of big corporations that allowed them to avoid, or seriously reduce, pension payments. Since he was still a Mexican citizen (as well as American) he was allowed to own property in Mexico. The Bacmeisters bought a chicken ranch on the edge of the baranca that ran along the edge of town. (This place had an extraordinary view – from there Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl appeared to be side by side even though they are something like fifty or sixty miles apart and both about that distance from Cuernavaca.) Henry would receive two or three flat cartons flown from LA, each containing one hundred week-old chicks. He raised these for about six weeks, until they were just about a pound in weight, slaughter them and sell them to the local restaurants who would serve a half chicken for a dinner entrée. It was a tough way to make a living – the bird losses were often very heavy.

The Bacmeisters were excellent company, good conversationalists with cheery dispositions and we spent a fair amount of time with them. On a couple of occasions we went to Mexico with them which turned out to rather frightening. May had very high blood pressure and looking back probably heart failure as well. She would insist on walking at the high altitude and she would turn flame red and start puffing, a most unsettling thing to see. We also had a number of dinners with them at their place. On one occasion I noticed one of their two dachshunds sniffing at what looked like a dust bunny. I went over to see what it was and found it to be an alacran, a scorpion. I kicked the dog away and stepped on the bug. It turns out that scorpions love chicken shit so they were a pretty common sight at the ranch. A couple of weeks later the same dog got too close to an alacran and got stung on the nose. It lay about struggling for breath for about a day and then was perfectly alright. (I was told there were three varieties of scorpion in that part of Mexico called blonds, redheads and brunettes. I never saw any of the much smaller first two kinds which were said to be a lot more dangerous than the brunettes. The brunettes were actually a sort of battleship gray, about an inch and a half long, including the curled tail, and, apparently, not very dangerous. Somebody introduced us to a young American woman who was about seven or eight months pregnant. She lived in a most unusual place, a series of rooms laid out in a line, only a couple of which were directly connected by a doorway. The others were reached by an exterior boardwalk which gave entry to all the rooms. Next to the boardwalk was the largest split-leaf philodendron I’ve ever seen, with air roots more than a foot in diameter. We were told that the house originally belonged to one of Cortez’ lieutenants for what that’s worth. In the rooms were beams running from one side to the other under the peaked roof creating scorpion freeways. Scorpions are rather clumsy and not good at hanging on, so as we were having tea with this young woman, scorpions kept plopping on the table, which I brushed off with a napkin and squashed. A couple of weeks later we heard that the woman had been stung and taken up to a hospital in the Federal District. A day later she was home and neither she nor the baby was any the worse for the experience.)

The Bacmeisters took us to visit some friends just down the road from them with the same view of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, which they said was the reason they were there. He was a retired Yugoslavian ambassador with a Hungarian wife. When you met him and extended your hand for a handshake, it came back holding a cup of Turkish coffee. I remember asking him if he knew Stoyan Gavrilovich, Yugoslavia’s delegate to the UN Charter meetings – of course he did. A local woman was allowed to attach a primitive domicile to their house and she paid her rent by making tortillas for the ambassador every day; you could hear the pat-pat-pat prelude in the mid-afternoon. They were the best I have ever had.

 Day Trips

 I was particularly interested in seeing Tepoztlan because of Robert Redfield’s work there several decades earlier. Redfield was not only a widely respected and popular professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, he was also the father of Joanna Redfield who was Ed Asner’s girlfriend through much of my association with the University Theatre. (Joanna Redfield Guttman died in 2009. A brief obituary says she retained her interest in theater, performing for the Goodman in Chicago.) She told of “camping out” with her family, living in a tent, mother cooking over an open fire, while her father did his field work at Tepoztlan. We went to see the sixteenth century monastery. There was only one other person within sight, a guide who provided a tour for us. The only thing I remember is an eye-shaped aperture at the end of an upper level walkway. The guide said it was supposed to be the eye of God, sort of an architectural conscience for the monks. Judging from the pictures on the web, today Tepoztlan is a major tourist attraction with all that goes with that.

From someone else’s blog. The eye was on the upper walkway.

 Most people do not realize that Hernan Cortes, who led all sorts of expeditions, engaged in battles, overcame conspiracies and so on, was all the while a farmer. One of the most enduring of his legacies, the Palacio de Cortes in Cuernavaca was built as a home for an agricultural enterprise, Cuernavaca being selected for its benign weather and fertile valley. There was another hacienda built some miles south of Cuernavaca to grow a variety of crops and livestock, eventually only sugar cane, called Vista Hermosa. This was left by Cortes to his widow and sons and remained in the family’s possession for more than a century.

 Over the years both the Palacio in Cuernavaca and the Hacienda fell into disrepair. The Palacio was eventually rescued by local government (this was when Rivera’s mural on the Revolution was created) but the Hacienda was saved by a private group interested in developing it into a hotel after the second war, about seven years before our visit. The Hacienda had a most unusual distinguishing feature, a Roman style aqueduct, built to bring water to the sugar processing facility. The new owners took advantage of the aqueduct by putting tables and chairs under the arches and setting up a restaurant to serve them. There has been a great amount of refinement since, including a pond, a number of hotel rooms and so on. It is now a very classy place to stay. We went just for an afternoon, lunch and drinks.

I don’t recall the pool. I think it was created more recently. Certainly when the aqueduct was in practical use it wouldn’t have been standing in a pool.

Dining under the arches – a very appealing setting.

On the return trip we deviated a few miles from our route to see an enormous, windowless monolith of a building that was a sugar refinery. During the revolution, under the influence of a primitive communist, Zapata and the Zapatistas knocked down a number of refineries belonging to the sugar grandees. Then the revolutionary government realized that without refining capacity the peasant farmers couldn’t market their crops, built this large facility and surrounded it with “company” owned housing as dreary as any mill or mining town in the U.S. This may have been part of the basis for the communist journalist advisor to Zapata (played by Joseph Wiseman in the film, Viva Zapata!) in Steinbeck’s fictional account.

At least that’s what we were told.

It was either on this trip or, more likely, on the somewhat longer drive to Cuautla that I had an experience that has stayed fixed in my mind ever since. We had just passed a stretch of road which went through an ancient volcanic plain. There were bizarre stone towers standing everywhere and the entire scene was a dark brown color. I remarked that I wouldn’t be surprised if a dinosaur were to peek around one of the columns – it had such a primeval feeling. A little further on we came across a lone man trudging down the highway carrying a huge cube, perhaps four or five feet on a side, of cut sugar cane on his back, held there by a wide strap of fabric. He was bent over so far that his upper body was almost parallel to the road surface. A few seconds later it dawned on me: I hadn’t seen anything green in some time. Where had he come from? Why was he there? Where was he going? There was nothing to see down the road. The whole scene is so fraught with meaning – poverty and pain; determination and endurance. That’s how the Indian will win over the Conquistador in the end – he will simply outlast the bastard. I still see that scene in the middle of a sleepless night.

 We Move On 

One morning, after we had been in residence at the Marik Plaza for about six weeks, I was summoned to the front desk and told we had to vacate the next day. It was some shock. They told us we had failed to tell them when we originally registered how long we would be staying and they had a reservation for the room. I later figured out it was for the movie company that was coming and I think they made up the rule on the spot to suit their purposes, that the reservation was just recently made.

 I found only one room available in town, at a hotel called La Florida. It was the worst place I have ever stayed (and I have been in some truly awful places), with actual holes through not only interior walls but to the outside as well. Among other things, this meant we couldn’t keep flying bugs out of the room and my mother was the worst entomophobe that ever lived – if a moth flew into the room, she would have a screaming, hysterical fit.  So, we had ample incentive to find another place quickly. Al Phister was renting a little apartment and directed us to an agency that handled such rentals. That’s how we found Ken Belden’s place where we stayed until leaving Mexico.

The place, which was on the second floor over Ken’s studio and gallery, consisted of a small living room with a day bed and an even smaller bedroom and a bathroom. There was a small refrigerator, a two burner hot-top and a wood fired hot water heater. In front of the living room was a tiny deck just big enough for a small table and two chairs, which looked over the wall of the Borda Gardens across the street at a cluster of very large royal palms with twenty to thirty foot fronds which would set up a noisy clatter when the sudden windy spring squalls rushed through. The deck served as our dining area when we ate at home. The distant view was down the baranca for many miles. In the morning we would see tiny specks in the distance which would slowly get larger and larger until a half-hour later a flock of zopilotes (“bone cleaners”, turkey vultures) would swoop right over our heads.

I have tried without success to locate this place using Google’s Street View. I think it must have been on the short curved roadway on the north end of the Borda Gardens. I recall that it was pretty nearly a straight walk to the beginning of Dwight Morrow road which took us to our favorite restaurant, La India Bonita.

 Ken Belden 

 Our landlord was in his mid-forties, a Kansan and he looked it, weathered skin drawn taut over a nearly fleshless face, a turkey neck with a large goozle and a wiry frame – he looked a lot like Woody Guthrie to me. He was married to a very handsome India half his age, with long, straight, jet black hair that reached her waist. I think there was a rather new baby – can’t remember whether there was another child.

Ken was one the most thoroughly decent people I have ever met. I consider it a privilege to have known him.

He made his living by producing and selling a species of art work made from cut sheets of metal of different sorts in different shapes, bent, riveted and soldered onto a background sheet and washed with different acids. This produced a three dimensional framed piece, looking like contemporary abstract art (such as Calder), with a variety of rich colors which were quite appealing. He made and sold these in the gallery and workshop below us, which had a large enough window to show some of his work to the street. The family lived in a space behind the studio.

After we had been there for a month or so I noticed that once weekly, or perhaps fortnightly, a line of ten or more of the “rebozitas”, babies in arms, would form along the narrow sidewalk to the gallery door. It was a strange sight and aroused suspicions in me, I am ashamed to confess. After seeing this several times, I asked Ken about it. He told me that because civic weddings were not considered weddings at all and because church weddings were too expensive for the majority of the local young, the fifteen and sixteen year old girls of the area would “shack up”. Of course, birth control was unknown (and taboo to Catholics in any case) and when the girls found themselves pregnant the males would take off for parts unknown, leaving the girls with no prospects and a baby to feed. Ken came up with the idea of selling stoles to tourists, taught the girls how to deal with them, a few phrases of English and may have gotten them their inventory on consignment as well. (I think the “baby on a tit” ploy may have been his idea as well. It was a subtle sort of extortion, playing on feelings of guilt and, for some, discomfort at the sight of a bare breast.)

He had an arrangement with Meals for Millions in Los Angeles which made a protein rich food supplement from soy beans and other materials. He had the assistance of doctor specialists in nutrition at UCLA and in Mexico City. With the aid of local food and cooking experts he devised a variant on Meals for Millions for a fortified tortilla meal which produced an acceptable pancake. (Earlier, the UN’s World Health Organization had tried a similar strategy with bad results. The people wouldn’t eat tortillas prepared with their supplement because they didn’t taste right and bags of the meal were left open on the floor until bugs and rodents consumed them. From that time forward organizations engaged in such projects sought assistance from anthropologists or other experts on the intended recipients’ tastes.) The queues I saw were the young mothers waiting for their ration of Ken’s tortilla meal. Ken mainly supported this project out of his own pocket by selling his art works. He said he did have a few contributors in both LA and Mexico City.

One afternoon there was frantic knocking at our door. It was Ken’s wife, quite excited, who was machine-gunning me with Spanish. After I yelled “Lento, lento, lentamente, lentamente” a few times she calmed down enough to make me understand with a few words of English, some Spanish and many gestures that there was a prospective customer downstairs, an American, and that Ken was up in Mexico City. She wanted me to be the salesman (that’s a laugh; I’ve often said I couldn’t sell a starving man a free meal.). I went down and found the customer to be the American novelist Willard Motley accompanied by a frail young man with very light blond hair, maybe bleached, who Motley introduced as his driver. (The film of Motley’s first big success, “Knock on Any Door”, starring Humphrey Bogart and featuring John Derek in his first big role in a studio movie, was released about four years earlier. I was surprised to find out today that Motley is buried in Cuernavaca.) I actually made the sale for something like five hundred pesos.

 Day to Day   

 While we were staying at the Marik Plaza we mostly took our meals at restaurants around the center of town because the hotel’s restaurant was too expensive and there was more variety and better quality to be had at the alternatives. We had breakfast most mornings at a little place run by an old couple, he American, she Mexican. He was retired from a long career as a cook on ships of the Cuba Mail line so, naturally, he was called The Skipper. I believe they were only open for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast is a habit meal for most people and my habit was huevos revueltos, frijoles refritos and chilis verdes; scrambled eggs, refried beans and a big egg cup full of small fresh green chili peppers, affectionately called bullets. They were very flavorful but they were very hot as well. I ate so many that by the time I went to San Francisco I was allergic to all such peppers. To this day if I eat anything with more than a hint of capsaicin, my insides let me know. After we moved into Belden’s apartment we made our own breakfast with items obtained at the public market and only occasionally went back to The Skipper’s. Our favorite breakfast item was a bolillo (a small hard-crusted, chewy inside, football shaped roll) with butter.

 When we first arrived in Cuernavaca we were told by nearly all the gringos we met that the place to have dinner was the India Bonita, a modest storefront restaurant a block west of the Jardin Juarez on Dwight Morrow. The food was well prepared by the very congenial fifty-year-old owner, Maria, whose last name I never learned. (Someone, perhaps Dell Adams or Ken Belden, once told me that nearly all women in Mexico were really named Mary. For instance, Victoria is Maria de la Victoria de Los Angeles, Mercedes is Maria de Las Mercedes and so on.) The menu was varied according to availabilities and prices were modest, about a dollar or two for most items. One meal that stands out in my memory was a whole rear leg of a day old kid, a delicious fatty treat. (All through the spring we would see women going to market with a new born kid, feet tied together, slung over a shoulder, arm thrust through the gap between front and back legs.)

Google Maps and Street View reveal that La India Bonita still exists but it is a long block further west on Dwight Morrow and instead of a twenty foot plain front it is now at least forty feet with a fancy covered entry. The propaganda on the restaurant says that it is constructed from the walls of Dwight Morrow’s garden and occupies the area of that garden. (This surprised me. I thought Morrow’s home was much further west, at the far end of the street named for him.) They now even have musicians playing there!

La India Bonita today seen from the west. This is part of Dwight Morrow’s garden.

  I remember one amusing incident at the India Bonita. Cuernavaca was overrun by cockroaches – not the little guys most of us think of when we say cockroach, but the big ones we called Croton Bugs in New York (they came through the pipes when the Croton reservoir was opened), the real cucarachas. They would emerge from the storm drains at twilight and skitter all over the street. After a while I played a game trying to step on a roach with every step as we made our way home for the evening. One evening in the restaurant I noticed one of the indoor tribe running up and down the frame of the door to the kitchen. I summoned Maria by beckoning and when she was near pointed to the doorway with my hand hidden in my lap so the other patrons wouldn’t become aware of the situation. Maria walked quickly towards the kitchen, swept the roach to the floor with a flick of her apron and stepped on it. She picked up our dinner tab that night.

While on the subject of bugs I should mention fleas. Our first encounter was from bus rides in Mexico City. Since we were not familiar with fleas or flea bites we were confused as to what bit us. In Cuernavaca we went to the local movie house which was open only on week-ends, from Friday evening to Sunday, on two or three occasions. The first time produced a massive infestation. Then someone told us about talcum powder with DDT. It came in a little round cardboard box which could be squeezed thereby emitting a puff of talcum and insecticide. Before going to the movie house we would put a puff in each sock, in the crotch of our underpants and a shot under each arm. It worked like magic – no fleas, no bites. We found another use for the powder. One day in the Belden apartment there appeared what looked like a painted stripe about an inch wide up the wall next to the water heater. It turned out to be a massive parade of ants. I noticed there seemed to be no deviation from the path and shot some of the talcum across the stripe in two or three places. In a few hours – no ants. I did have to repeat the process on several other occasions because new colonies would appear.

The last time we went to the movies it was to see “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” still one of my favorite movies. I had seen it when it first came out but forgot a small detail. Here we were then surrounded by local peones, some a little oiled by pulqe, all with their ever-present machetes under their feet and here’s Walter Huston referring to Mexican women as “squaws” over and over. I was getting more uneasy by the minute and started following the Spanish subtitles to see how squaw was rendered. To my relief it was simply “mujer”, woman, without any negative connotation.

One day as I was walking from Morrow to the Centro I passed a barber shop where I saw two men playing chess in the window next to the entrance. As I watched for a few minutes the barber, tall, skinny and very animated came out and kept saying “meestair, meestair, come in.” Reluctantly I went in and was introduced to the players. One, a man in his seventies I would guess, dressed in a suit and tie which was extraordinary for Cuernavaca and sporting a very fancy carved cane, was introduced as “El Maestro.” Then the effusive barber started inviting me to play a game with El Maestro. I was even more reluctant for two reasons: one, as I said elsewhere I never was a very good player and two, I hadn’t played in more than eight years. After further prodding and pleading I relented and sat down to play a game. To my surprise, I won. The Maestro looked quite chapfallen but remained very gracious in defeat. That cemented my future welcome and after that every time I passed the shop the barber ran out to invite me in again which I occasionally accepted. The old man and I were pretty evenly matched and each of us had as many wins as losses.

One Sunday morning I was out and about early on the north/south street from Morrow to the Juarez Garden. There was nobody else around – the streets were empty. Then I heard the hoof taps of a couple of horses, turned around to see an unforgettable display. There were two vaqueros, riding single file, on jet black horses wearing entirely black outfits. Everything was adorned with silver – their outfits had silver buttons, silver beads hung on strings from their hat brims, the saddle pommel was covered with open work silver, the stirrups were similarly coated, the stirrups too, the bridle was silver and spurs and so on. Both riders sat straight and tall like grenadiers hands resting on the pommels and reins drooping without control being asserted. They advanced in near slow motion one step per second, clop … clop … clop. It was pure machismo, distilled testosterone and wonderful to see. Peacocks are pale in comparison.

 The Town Center

Then, as now, the center of activity, social and commercial, in the town was the Jardin Juarez with its Victorian gazebo and neighboring shops.

Cuernavaca Centro

In the Google satellite image above you can see the Juarez garden just above the center with the white lid of the gazebo clearly visible. As I said earlier, in 1954 there was very little besides the kiosk in this park, no commercial activity and not much going on. There were no structures surrounding it that were more than two or three stories high.

Today it looks like this:

The famous gazebo in Jardin Juarez. It was unadorned and there was no commercial activity in the park.

Looking up into the lid of the gazebo. The only use I saw made of it was as a bandstand for holiday concerts.

Across the street from the north side of the park there was what looked like a former grand house serving as a hotel, the Bella Vista. It had a deep veranda running along the entire front which was used for al fresco dining. It was owned by Elizabeth King who was in her nineties (born during our Civil War!) and still living there and was wheeled out onto the veranda by her attendants. There was a story about her hiding Zapata under her bed when Huertistas were trying to kill him. There were bullet holes still visible on the front of the building.  Today, the north side looks like this:

As I recall there was a slight rise in the ground. The Bella Vista was elevated a few feet above the level of the park.

The east side contained a row of small shops, including Doris’ jewelry, two or three stories high. The upper floors were residences for the owners of the shops below. In a pretty standard souvenir shop I met two young brothers who were sons of the owner and part of the town’s emerging intellectuals. I’ll talk about them in awhile.

Today it looks like this:

This is where there was a row of low lying shops, mostly two floors high.

Referring back to the satellite image, the large brown building on the south side, state government’s offices, didn’t exist but I can’t recall what, if anything, was there. To the east of that is the alameda, or what’s left of it. The elaborate road and entrance in front of the Palacio Cortez didn’t exist and I think the park extended further east. I don’t remember any trees. It was just a large grassy area with a single paved walkway circumnavigating it.

The alameda was just a grass patch with an asphalt path, no commerce, no stone walls and so on.

On some Sundays there was charming old-fashioned mating ritual carried out in the alameda. Young women, usually with a chaperone, all done up in Sunday finery, would walk  counter-clockwise around the path and young men would walk clockwise giving everybody a chance to see all the prospects.

On two occasions some sort of carnival was set up at the west end of the park that attracted large crowds. A roofed four-sided counter was set up, complete with a PA system, for playing bingo. The cards were not marked with letters and numbers but little images so those that couldn’t read were able to participate. Beans, handed out with the cards, served as markers. I can still hear the announcer shouting into the microphone, “La Vaca Azul, La Vaaa-ca Azoool!” and “El Diablo Rojo, El DiABlo Rojoooo!.”

Referring back to the satellite image once again, the large concrete rectangle (marked Centro Commercial Las Plazas) has an entry in the center. I think the Marik Plaza was either at about that point or just to the west of it.

The east end of the Marik Plaza about here; either where the entry to Las Plazas is or just to the left.

(I found this in some sort of travel forum. I present it “as is” to capture the flavor of the original. Note that Steinbeck stayed there in 1945 – may have influenced his handling of the script for “Viva Zapata!”








The two young men mentioned in connection with the souvenir shop were aspiring poets which I found out in conversation in their father’s store. The father was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey (they told me that Turkey was a major haven for refugees from the Inquisition, second only to Holland). After a couple of such dialogs I invited them over to our apartment for drinks and told them to bring along some friends. This started a weekly gathering, Friday afternoons as I recall, of five young men interested in the arts. I served martinis and crudité and they acted as though the drinks were high-powered but in fact they were quite the opposite. They were made with a low proof Mexican gin called Oso Negro which came with a little plastic black bear tied to the bottle. By the end of our stay I had a small drawer full of them.

I can only remember the name of one of the group an aspiring architect, locally educated, Justino Beltran. His father had a zapateria (sandal shop) no more than ten feet wide in the Public Market. Tino’s living quarters and studio were in the tiny room above the front of the store. His drafting table took up half the room. I don’t recall whether he was in his last year of school or had just graduated. He showed me a design he had done for a movie theater, an appealing combination of Mexican functionalism and Modern, all done with concrete of course. The other participants were the two Sephardic brothers, a Creole artist (painter) from Vera Cruz and one other now only very dimly remembered, perhaps interested in film. The painter was classic Caribbean, part African, part Indian and part Spanish, with a wonderful, lively sense of humor.

Much of our conversations centered on the all-important question of what constituted modern Mexican art or, put another way, was Rufino Tomayo Mexican or Parisian (or a New Yorker)? After the Revolution Mexican intellectuals were struggling for a distinct national identity reflecting its Indian culture. I contended Tamayo’s color, the nature of his abstractions and other characteristics were quintessentially Mexican. Just look at the famous “watermelon slices” series. They said his years in Paris and New York had Europeanized him. I commented on this same set of issues in India after liberation from Britain in the Satish post.

An Ugly Incident

There was a boy of about ten years of age who harassed the patrons of the Marik’s sidewalk café seeking handouts. He was hyperactive, jumping about, gabbing and laughing incessantly and sticking his hand right under your nose to extract your cash. Although he was an awful nuisance, most of us took a liking for him because he was so good natured, lively and funny. In the spring he seemed to have disappeared and we asked the locals what had happened to him without result.

In the Easter season a number of male field workers would gather in Tepoztlan in a week-long orgy of dancing and drinking. Apparently the boy went up there to watch and according to his nature he was being a pest and making jokes at the expense of the dancers. One of them took a swipe at him with a machete and lopped of the three lesser fingers of his left hand raised to ward off the blow. After a couple of weeks he reappeared working the café patrons, still full of laughter and chattering, by shoving his left hand covered by a bloody, filthy bandage in the face of his “donors.” He made more money than ever and seemed quite pleased with his new found extractor.

Hollywood Invades

It must have been in the early part of February when a large group of people showed up, filled the Marik Plaza and a number of other facilities around town. The Marik bar filled up with a crowd of cowboys who were very rowdy and rude. It turned out to be the advance wave of the film crew for “Vera Cruz.” The featured performers appeared a few days later: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Cesar Romero, Ernest Borgnine, Denise Darcel and Sarita Montiel.

I never saw either Darcel or Borgnine as far as I can remember. (Both before and after the movie troop I saw Katy Jurado, whom Borgnine married about 5 years later, around town. She had a home in Cuernavaca. Perhaps they became acquainted during the filming.) Every afternoon after the day’s work was done Sarita Montiel (over her career she has been Sara, her proper name, and Sarita several times – couldn’t make up her mind, I guess) would be at a table with a dolorous looking fifty year old Spaniard – dark skin, prominent nose, black downward turned eyes. She would start yammering at him, high-speed, unceasing yammering and he never said a word in response, only an occasional small nod of the head. I assume he was her agent or manager and had to put up with her – poor guy. She was a major star in Spain, their sex bomb. I never saw her socializing with any of the other performers.

Montiel was using the name Sarita at this time. She was a champion high speed talker.

The cowboys were stunt men and horse-riding extras. Their ring leader was Jack Elam whose behavior was just as bad as all the others. On top of being boisterous, making their presence unpleasant enough to cause people to leave, they were arrogant and overbearing with their Mexican hosts, bullying them with the power of the dollar. This was the behavior of the fabled “Ugly American” of that time. It took me years to be able to watch Elam who turned into a good comic actor using his funny wall-eyed face as his primary tool.

Cesar Romero didn’t seem to socialize with his colleagues very much but he was visible and congenial with everybody. One evening when we were sitting at a tiny bar table in the Marik, he approached and asked if he might join us. He said he had spent the entire day trying to make a phone call to his mother in New Jersey. Long distance calls, even within Mexico, were famous for their infuriating difficulty. Making a call to the US east coast must have been a nightmare. He had to call his mother because Luella Parsons (referred to by first name only) had printed an item saying he was sick in Mexico. “I told my mother I was alright – it was just that I had to sit on the toilet all day.” The rest of the conversation was the usual superficial bar talk. I think he offered us a chance to watch the shoot in Cuautla but it could be that someone else invited Rhea. I’ve already described the trip. The shoot turned out to be not much. We were kept about two city blocks back on a bleak dirt road and couldn’t make out any of what was going on.

Wherever Lancaster went he was the center of a roving party. He showed up several times at Maria’s with two or three table’s worth of happy friends. I remember him trying to impress Maria with how al dente he wanted some spaghetti, “We Italians like our spaghetti al dente, half cooked.” For years I wondered if he might be part Italian – I don’t think so.

Gary Cooper was the most noticeable of the whole lot. In part this was due the local kids. They realized how bashful (no other word will do) he was and proceeded to tease him. Cooper would be walking on a sidewalk when some ten year old boys would fall in behind him and start chanting, “Gahry, Gahry, Gahry Coopair; Gahry, Gahry, Gahry CoopAIR”. He would then walk faster, the boys ran faster, he ran even faster and so did the boys and eventually he was making long-legged loping strides, with the boys in hot pursuit still chanting. It was a wonderful comic sight, reminiscent of a scene in a Jacques Tati movie.

And then there was the night when I almost brained Gary Cooper…

Virtually all shops in Mexico have a corrugated steel roll-down door which is lowered at night and padlocked to keep out thieves and vandals. With businesses like restaurants where patrons spend a span of time the practice is to lower the door partway when closing time approaches. This indicates to late arrivers that no more customers will be served and, of course, requires those on the inside to duck under the door as they leave.

Maria had an unusual scheme of décor for a restaurant. On the back wall of the service area was a white wall about ten feet wide. Tacked to this wall, from floor to ceiling, were hundreds of customers’ business cards. I’ve seen this in several bars in the US, even one where the cards were tacked on the ceiling as well, but never in a restaurant. Just about dead center on this wall was dime-store glazed picture frame with three cards in it. The top one read:

Miguel Aleman Valdes

El Presidente de Mexico

Palacio de Presidente

Mexico, Distrito Federal


The second one read Miguel Aleman, jr with the same address.

The third one read Gary Cooper and some address and phone number, probably his agent’s.

One evening Cooper and his wife were at the next table in the India Bonita. It was late and Maria had lowered the steel door halfway. Cooper stood up to leave and as he turned to go he was standing right next to my chair looking down at me. This is a slightly awkward situation; you feel obliged to acknowledge the person looking at you, to say something. What I chose to say was especially injudicious. I pointed towards the framed cards (more or less) and said you ought to be careful who you associate with. This got him so flustered (again no other word fits as well) that he backed away from me looking confused and a little panicked and slammed his head into the steel door with a resounding clangor. I ducked my face into my plate – I didn’t want to add insult to injury.

Cooper was around for a couple of weeks more but was not very visible. I think he was there for some location filming for “Garden of Evil”.  His co-stars, Susan Hayward and Richard Widmark were not to be seen if, in fact, they were even there.

On to San Francisco

Our six month visitor’s permits were up in early April. We took a room at the Hotel Geneve and the next morning I put my mother on a plane to New York. I was to stay one more night and fly to San Francisco the next morning.

After my mother was safely on her way I went to the center of the city. I walked on Avenida Juarez past the Libreria Cristal and the Palacio de Belles Artes on my way to Sanborn’s for lunch when I heard someone calling my name which was unexpected to say the least. I turned to see who was speaking and got yet another surprise – it was Rene Anselmo.

Rene Anselmo who led an extraordinary life.

Rene showed up at the University Theatre about a year and a half after I started with the troupe. He was a sort of groupie, doing odd jobs such as selling tickets in the booth outside of the Commons and inviting himself to cast parties. For some reason that I never figured out he seemed to particularly latch on to me which I found to be a nuisance. He had an annoying big-shot manner, loudly proclaiming his importance in whatever was being discussed.

He told me he was running a couple of art movie houses in Mexico City and then went on to tell me what had transpired with the theater group in the nearly four years after I left. He said he had initiated a revolt against George Blair, the director of UT, by sending a letter to the Maroon, the student newspaper, complaining of his arbitrary dictatorial behavior. A group called “Tonight at 8:30” which performed one-acters in Ida Noyes Hall arose and Rene was active in its formation and early leadership. Needless to say I took all of this with a grain of salt. However, in recent years I learned it was all true.

When I looked up about Rene I was astonished to find that just a few weeks after our encounter he started working for Televisa becoming over time the head of their US operations and going on to form a satellite company and more. He became enormously wealthy and built his own version of Xanadu in Greenwich, Connecticut where he became a major pain in the neck tearing up “for sale” signs from other people’s lawns. (The house was put on the market in 2010 for 39 million dollars.)

Shortly after Rene’s death in 1995 Bill Richardson, then a US Congressman from New Mexico, read a tribute to Rene into the Congressional Record. I have attached it to the end of this post. A couple of stray notes: at least one biographer says he studied theater at Chicago. There was no drama department; the UT was a dean’s function, there were no courses or credits of any kind and there were only two paid employees, Blair and Chris Rohlfing the designer. There is confusion over Rene’s “real” name. Some, such as Richardson give it as Reynold, others as Reynolds but Janet Coleman in her history of “the Compass”, presumably with Rene’s signed letter to the Maroon right in front of her, gives it as Renaldo Anselmo.





Friday, September 29, 1995

Mr. RICHARDSON. Mr. Speaker, I want to ask my colleagues to join me in paying special  tribute to a remarkable individual whose long  and  distinguished  career  can  forever  be  a  symbol  of  determination,  perseverance  and  audacity. Mr. Rene Anselmo, who died earlier  this month from heart disease, was not only  the  millionaire  chairman  of  Alpha  Lyracom  Space Communications, operating under the  name Pan American Satellite, but also made  a lasting contribution to the Hispanic community by helping to create television’s Spanish  International Network [SIN], now Univision.

Reynold Vincent Anselmo was an energetic and restless young man who joined the Marines in 1942 at the age of 16, spend 31⁄2 years as a World War II tail-gunner, and completed 37 missions in the South Pacific. After the war, he enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Great Books programs and after earning a theater and literature degree in 1951, he moved to Mexico where he discovered an affinity for Hispanic culture.

In Mexico, Mr. Anselmo directed and produced television and theater shows, and in 1954 he started working for Mexico’s largest  media company, Televisa, selling its TV programs to other Latin American companies. His  hard work and dedication attracted the attention of Mr. Emiliano Azcarraga Vidaurreta, the  founder and head of Televisa, who in 1961  hired  him  to  start  up  television’s  SIN,  now  Univision Two years later, Mr. Anselmo moved  to New York to manage SIN and oversee the TV stations.

At that time, Hispanics comprised less than 5 percent of the U.S. population, and the only Spanish-language stations were on the UHF channels that most TV sets were not them  equipped to receive. Mr. Anselmo, however, used his Mexican connections and experience to build the business. By 1984, SIN had 400 TV stations and cable affiliates and served the more than 15 million Hispanic people in the  United  States  who  represented  the  fastest- growing segment of the population. SIN pro- vided an alternative to the U.S. media, which did not pay too much attention to the Spanish community or when it did, cast it in a less than favorable stereotype.

In 1986 SIN was under siege by the Federal Communications Commission, which claimed that  SIN’s  ownership  violated  rules  against ownership  of  United  States  networks  by aliens. As a result, Mr. Anselmo abdicated his position in 1986 and separated from his old friend and partner Mr. Azcarraga. Instead of retiring, Mr. Anselmo founded Pan American Satellite Corp. [PanAmSat], the world’s only private global satellite services company. To do this, Mr. Anselmo had to fight against steep odds to break the monopoly on satellite trans- mission of video images held by the Inter- national Telecommunications Satellite Organization, or Intelsat owned by 120 governments, including the United States.

Before Mr. Anselmo launched his satellite company, no  one  had  challenged  Intelsat’s  international  monopoly.  Today,  PanAmSat  handles  a  significant  share  of  transatlantic  news, transmissions by ABC, CBS, CNN and the  BBC;  and  channels  financial  data  for Volvo, Citibank Corp. Latino, and others.  In addition to Mr. Anselmo’s devotion to his companies, he was a loving husband, father and grandfather, and a great neighbor. In fact, he was probably best known in his hometown of Greenwich, CT not for his business success, but for his beautification of the town. Mr. Anselmo personally paid for the planting of tens of thousands of bulbs each spring.

Not only will Greenwich, CT be a less pretty  place  with  his  passing,  but  all  of  America  loses a great businessman, family man and  war veteran. For a better understanding of this great man, my colleagues may be interested in reading a profile of him which was published in Continental Profiles in August 1991.

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


A year or so ago Ted Bower crossed my mind. I did a cursory search and found somewhere that he had died. Having other things on my mind at the time, I didn’t follow up on the information. Then the other day I read an article in The Pacific Sun, a Marin County (California) weekly newspaper, on Daniel Liebermann, an architect who worked on Frank Lloyd Wright’s last, posthumous project, the Marin Civic Center, after Wright’s death. (Article url http://www.pacificsun.com/story.php?story_id=5377 ). This led to another search for Ted Bower and better results – which I will share below.

I didn’t know Ted all that well, spending time with him on four or five occasions in Molly’s apartments in New York, but we seemed to hit it off and respect and liking seemed to be mutual. The last time I saw Ted was just about forty years ago when he and his wife, Diana, visited their son who was living in an ashram in Oakland, and came to spend an afternoon with Barbara and me at our Larch Road house in Bolinas.

To recapitulate the Bower family context, as spelled out in the Satish Gujral post: the father was a surgeon, professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania and Chief of Surgery at Philadelphia General Hospital; the mother was very religious, becoming more so as she aged. They had six children, three boy-girl pairs named, in birth order, Jack and Jill (really), Theodore (Ted) and Joan (pronounced Jo-ann) and Robert (Bobby) and Mary Margaret (Molly).

Jack became a dentist, moved to Iowa, probably his wife’s home and a Baptist bible-thumper (wife again?). Jill was mentally impaired from birth and was the origin of much misery in the family, including the mother’s religiosity. The much more sensible siblings eventually convinced the parents to allow Jill to live in a house of her peers where she had companionship, suitable work to do and was very happy.

I’ll talk about Ted later. Joan went to Wellesley, fell in with a crowd of graduates of Carnegie Tech’s theater school in New York, married Arnold Horwitt a writer of musicals, had two (?) children, divorced and eventually became an Anglican priest in Connecticut. (Horwitt went to Hollywood where he wrote for TV game shows. He died of bone cancer at age 58 in 1977.)

Bobby followed in his father’s footsteps and became a surgeon. I know nothing more about him other than he is retired. Molly was a year ahead of me at the University of Chicago, a roommate of my first wife, Terry Flambert, in Kelly Hall and my lifelong friend until her death from cigarettes in 1997. I believe that Joan, now in her late eighties, and Bobby, now in his mid-eighties, are still living.

Leslie, one of Molly’s daughters, told me that at some time in the last decade or so, Satish came to Washington, DC and hosted a dinner with Ted and her self present. She made special note of how gracious a host Satish was. Contentment comes with a long life well lived.

My search this time was much more productive both for biographical facts and pictures. First, I found an obituary for Ted in the local, Lopez Island, Washington, newspaper.


Next, I found this article in Docomomo-wewa, the website for the western Washington state branch of Docomomo-us, an organization dedicated to appreciation and awareness of modern movement architecture and design.

Bower, Theodore D.

 (1922 – 2009)


Theodore “Ted” Dixon Bower holds the distinction of being one of a

handful of Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture (Taliesin)

graduates who practiced in Washington State during the 1950s and 1960s.

Bower was born on May 29, 1922 in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. After attending Amherst College in Massachusetts for a year (1940-41), he then

apprenticed at Taliesin until 1948.


As one of Wright’s long-term apprentices, Bower played a key role in

designing and building several homes at Wright’s planned utopian

community of Mount Pleasant, in upstate New York. Bower also supervised

the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Weltzheimer House (1949) in

Oberlin, OH and the Sol Friedman (1948) House in Pleasantville, NY. Upon

leaving Taliesin, Bower traveled in Europe and then took a job as a “Jr.

Architect” for the government of Punjab, India in 1950. While there he

worked with Pierre Jenneret on buildings and plans for the new capitol

city at Chandigarh. Then in 1952 he went to work as an architect for the

Besant Centenary Trust working on designs for schools throughout India.




In 1954, Bower migrated to the northwest and worked briefly for the

architectural firm of Durham, Anderson & Freed; and Fred Bassetti (1955)

before opening his own private practice in Seattle. Notable projects

include the Harold & Margaret Ogle House (1959) in Vancouver, WA which

was featured in a variety of Sunset Magazine articles; the Pearce

Apartments (2221 NE 46th Street) in Seattle, a 1963 Seattle AIA honor

award winner, and an addition to Western Washington University’s

physical plant (1971). Bower also designed in partnership with Wendell

Lovett, the pedestrian walkway shelters for the Century 21 Exposition.


In 1977, architect Folke Nyberg joined Bower in a short-lived

partnership, however any projects by them are unknown. By 1979, Bower

was a sole practitioner again. After retiring to Lopez Island, Bower

became heavily involved in the Center of Nonviolent Action near Poulsbo.

He designed a clubhouse for the organization, called the “Ground Zero

House” in 2005.


Bower passed away on Lopez Island on November 27, 2009. Docomomo WEWA is seeking additional information about the life and work of Ted Bower.

Note the mention of Chandigarh. Satish has a much more elaborate notion of Ted’s career in India.

I met Ted for the first time when he was working for Wright on the Mount Pleasant project. He told me at that time that he left Taliesin West the way everyone did – after a big and bitter fight with Wright. Mrs. Wright also figured prominently in these unpleasant exits.

A chat room discussion after Ted’s death was filled with insights, large and small.

{ http://www.savewright.org/wright_chat/viewtopic.php?p=25282&sid=9d743409fbf95ce9c402a6104f2dd7ba }

Palli Davis Holubar

Location: Wakeman, Ohio


PostPosted: Wed Dec 09, 2009 12:38 pm    Post subject:          Reply with quote

Much of Ted Bowers time at Taliesin was during WWII. Those were frustrating years when the life of art and community at Taliesin was constrained within a war economy. Rather than active work in the drafting room, the common bond was the understanding that “war was the real enemy” (Randolph Bourne’s words). Howe and Davidson had been stolen away to sit in prison, unable to mentor and buffer other apprentices in the wake of Wright’s genius and the fury of Mrs. Wright’s insecurities. Ted Bower’s spirit survived the experience.

 Finally, in 1948, Ted Bower took the opportunity to leave Taliesin without leaving the work of Taliesin- supervising the Weltzheimer House. I can imagine the unleashed zeal he brought to Oberlin as he managed the clients and the construction- all the while learning with his hands, resolving one problem after another.

 The Weltzheimer perforated board design is wholly Ted Bower’s design and it adds distinction to the staid L-plan Usonian that stands as a final work of the board and batten period. It was Bower’s hard work (and hard-won luck) that from the Weltzheimer House he moved on to Usonia to realize the idiosyncratic Toy House, the quiet grace of Serlin and his own designs of the Glass House and the challenging Scheinbaum House. He crammed important houses into his last Taliesin years before launching his own practice and living his own considered life in art.

ted and wright

Photo taken at the Friedman house site, in Reisley’s book.
From left: Ted Bower, Robert Chuckrow, Wright, (unidentified), Aaron Resnick, David Henken, Sol Friedman

Another item, recalling Ted’s work with Wright after leaving Taliesin and their prickly (to say the least!) relationship:

Posted: Wed Dec 09, 2009 4:58 pm    Post subject:

Reisley’s account of Bower’s interaction with Wright:

When critical of a design Wright would shoot off an exasperated, even caustic, letter, as a 1949 exchange with Ted Bower shows. Bower, a former Wright apprentice [sic], was dispatched by Taliesin to oversee construction of Wright’s Friedman House. He also designed a few of his own. Commenting on Bower’s preliminary sketches for the Scheinbaum House, Wright wrote:

Dear Ted,

our disconnected opus — a nightmarish abuse of privilege —

is at hand …. Try again and don’t take originality at any cost

as an objective … don’t make game of your sojourn at

Taliesin. Try to do something free from such affectation.


Frank Lloyd Wright

As if that were not damning enough, Wright later told Bower that the low concrete dome on the roof looked like “a bald pate with excema (sic-rpk).” Bower, known to be a little confrontational himself, replied, “I could do without the sarcasm that was smeared so thick (sic-rpk) over your criticism.” However, accepting Wright’s comments, he added, “I think the faults of the design were out of awkwardness, not affectation. I wanted to use the dome form not only because it seemed appropriate to the site but also because it seemed possible to economize by spanning the house with an arched shell instead of a flat heavily reinforced slab. I am interested not in novel effects but in integrity.”

He redrew the house according to Wright’s suggestions, explaining, “The roof shell is not to be bone-white but a light earth-red, just dark enough and colorful enough to take well the mellowing effect of the weather.” The house was a tiny hexagon. Seen from the road, the red shingled dome surrounded by white gravel, all encircled with a red fascia, became an iconic image. Ted recalled a female member of the co-op saying, “that roof practically gives me an * every time I go by it!”

The following pictures are taken from Roland Reisley’s book “Usonia New York: Building a Community With Frank Lloyd Wright
There was an interesting article in The New York Times on Reisley and the house Wright built for him.
scheinbaum house

Glass house

Scheinbaum house
Scheinbaum house

bower 1

Scheinbaum house