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Rexroth Autobiography (2)



[Soapboxes, salons and speakeasies]

[Early 1920s. Both his parents have died and he is a teenager living in Chicago.]

More than any of the official education and cultural institutions my favorite school was the Washington Park Bug Club. This was a spontaneously evolved public forum which met every night except in the dead of winter in a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park. Years later it was to be moved to another part of the park and equipped with a concrete floor, benches, a podium, and an all-powerful Party faction. In those days it looked like something in ancient Greece, very sylvan and peripatetic, and I suppose, if the truth be known, it really was like ancient Greece, of which possibly the cynical Jewish doctor St. Luke was a better judge than Plato or Pater. Here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy. There were Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites, sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs, De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists. There were even leftover apostles of Free Silver and unemployed organizers of the Knights of Labor. It was better than Hyde Park. In fact, the only place I have ever seen anything as good is Glasgow. [...]

I don’t want to give the impression that I had become a self-educated antiorthodox precocity, because I had not. I spent my time reading history and the sciences and philosophy. The lunatic fringe of radical Chicago in those days — the Hobo College, the Bug Club, the Dill Pickle, Bughouse Square — taught me one thing, that the orthodox view of the universe, although acceptable and empirically satisfactory, was probably so only because millions of men had devoted their work and their attention and their consent to seeing the universe in that way. If it were possible for a ragged hobo in a gaslit room off West Madison Street to work out a fairly adequate world picture, it is obvious that if historically men had worked along lines which had in fact diverged from the accepted orthodox path to the understanding of reality, they could have evolved an equally acceptable but radically different scientific universe.

Rather than being converted to the deliquescence of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, so characteristic of our time, I was inoculated against it. The radical disbelief which has been characteristic of all my contemporaries I shared from the beginning, but I was never led by it to embrace any of the extraordinary follies which were to become fashionable in intellectual circles in the next thirty or forty years. I have known Socialist-Realist novelists who religiously consulted the astrology column in the daily newspapers every morning before breakfast. The whole Socialist movement after the First War, led by Frank Harris and Upton Sinclair, embraced the Abrams electronic diagnosis machine. Twenty years later, after the Second War, the reborn Anarchist movement committed suicide in the orgone boxes of Wilhelm Reich. Anyone who had taken a course in high school physics would have known that this stuff was arrant nonsense but the trouble was that these people had lost belief in high school physics along with their belief in capitalism or religion. It was all one fraud to them.

Dr. Abrams had been San Francisco’s leading diagnostician. He almost certainly was self-deluded. The same is true of Wilhelm Reich, who before he was persecuted first by Freud, then by the Nazis, then by the Stalinists, was one of the more valuable of the second generation of psychoanalysts. Both Abrams and Reich were taken up by criminal promoters who used their madness to defraud thousands of people and to make hundreds of American radicals ridiculous. Being a skilled public nuisance, I got a job back in those days going around to public meetings addressed by the Abrams-machine apostles and asking embarrassing questions and demonstrating to the assembled innocents that a fourteen-year-old boy whose knowledge was no greater than that of the electrical handy man at the corner could expose the fraud. This was a lot of fun, but it only lasted for a couple of weeks. As soon as everybody in the expensive, high-pressure Abrams organization came to know me, my usefulness was over; but the gullibility of my elders who considered themselves scientific Socialists taught me something about the nature of scientific Socialism.

[105-106, 119-120]

* * *

The great Chicago salon of those days — the incredible house of Jake Loeb, [was] a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.

Jake Loeb was an outstanding example of what a civilized man can do with comparatively little money. Although he was a member of the Loeb family, which includes some of the richest men in the world and is intermarried with almost all the other older rich Jewish families of America, England, Switzerland, France, and Germany, he himself was an insurance broker of modest circumstances. The bohemians of Chicago who came to his home doubtless thought him a billionaire. He had a Chicago Romanesque house, possibly built by Richardson, on Goethe Street on the Near North Side. There were five in the family — Jake; his wife Claire; two daughters, Esther and Sara-Jo; and a son, Myndiert. Still, there seemed to be plenty of room in the place to put up all sorts of visiting notables, impoverished friends, and just plain bums. On Thursdays the Loebs kept open house, but there wasn’t much difference between Thursday and any other day — the place was always full of people. It was usual to have twenty people helping themselves to a big pot of stew or spaghetti at dinnertime.

I was taken there by Esther Czerny toward the end of Jake’s life and I knew the place only in its last couple of years. There I met everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town — D.H. Lawrence, Mme. Kollontai, G.K. Chesterton, Harold Bauer, Prokofiev, Bertrand Russell, the Loeb who founded the Loeb Library, Sen Katayama, Micho Ito, Isadora Duncan, Eleanora Duse, and various European painters I can no longer keep straight in my memory. Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there: Clarence Darrow, Eugene Debs, Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, Mary Garden, Rosa Raisa, Adolph Bohm, Sam Putnam, John Alden Carpenter, Leo Sowerby, Frederick Stock, Eric Delamater, Rudolph Weisenborn, Edgar Miller, Emil Armin, Fred Ellis, Bert Eliot, Stanislas Szulkawlski, Frank Lloyd Wright — the list could go on for pages. Every few days the neighboring florist sent over a boy with flowers to decorate the house and a suitcase full of the best cognac and Scotch whisky. The florist’s name was Dion O’Banion. There were young people — Ruth Page, Lawrence Lipton, Oscar Williams and his wife, Gene Derwood, and two boys of my own age, Nathan Leopold and Dick Loeb. Present, too, were all the leaders of the labor and radical movement of America — Bill Haywood, Bill Foster, Carlo Tresca, Morris Hillquit, Bill Dunne, Abe Cahan, Fitzpatrick (who organized the great steel strike), John L. Lewis. Charlie Ashleigh, the Wobbly poet, lived there. Even Morris Fishbein, the head of the American Medical Association, and Dr. Lindlhar, the country’s leading naturopath, were there.

I remember them as arguing in every room in the house about all the most important problems the human race has ever concerned itself with. At the time of the famous [Leopold and Loeb] murder, the gutter press tried to make out that this intellectual commotion had a deleterious effect on Jake’s nephew and his friend. It certainly had a wonderful effect on me.

Once introduced, I went there night after night and sat quietly in the corner and left long after midnight to travel back to the South Side in the cold empty rattling elevated trains, my head full of fireworks. Every time I heard a book mentioned I wrote it down and went to the library and got it out and read it. Every time I heard a subject discussed that I didn’t understand I did my best to bone up on it. I’ve never understood how Jake managed to let in the door everybody who rang the bell and yet kept the bums and bohemians under control. If you attempted something like that now in any of the major cities of the world, the place would soon break down in a shambles and be raided by the police. Yet at Jake’s the conversation was always dominated by the mature, the successful, the intelligent. If psychopaths and drunks interrupted Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, or Harold Bauer when he was in the midst of an argument, I have no memory of it. I suppose a great deal of the credit goes to Claire Loeb, who was a hostess of consummate skill, inconspicuous in the way she managed people. It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect. None was an academician whose ideas had never encountered any more severe tests of reality than his students’ acquiescence.


* * *

Chicago in the first quarter of this century was characterized by a rash of “at homes.” They were not all radical or bohemian. The grand rich had evenings of the conventional type, where you met only the very famous, but even these were surprisingly tolerant. But the best place of all was Jake Loeb’s, and it gave the tone to a whole decade of Chicago’s intellectual life. Actually, a place like Jake’s took the place of the café terrasse in France, rather than of the salon. By the time of his death an open house like his was already beginning to get out of hand, and just about this time this sort of thing took a public and commercial form.

It was early Prohibition. Bars in Chicago were grim and the liquor was bad. Furthermore, women wished to take part in public intellectual conviviality, as they had not much in the days of Rector’s or the Herkimer Wine Company Bar. There arose in Chicago and New York, and then in all the principal cities of the country, that now utterly vanished and never successfully revived institution, the bohemian tearoom. I don’t remember the first one in Chicago, but the first one to attract much attention was The Wind Blew Inn, run by a young girl circus performer. It started about the time I went to high school, and provided me with a place to meet people, to sit and listen and try to look sophisticated. All my young days I was a marvelous listener, something I find it almost impossible to believe of myself today.

There had already been in existence for a number of years a most important part of the mythology of the Chicago of the Twenties — the Dill Pickle Club. Originally this had been a bona fide club of radical bohemians, founded by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the people around the Charles Kerr Socialist Publishing Company, the Chicago leaders of the IWW and a few artists and writers. In the course of time it became a private enterprise in the hands of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s ex-husband, Jack Jones. These were remarkable hands in themselves, because they lacked several fingers. Like the McNamara brothers, Jack had been a sabotage expert, employed by various unions. He was an Anarchist and did not belong to any union himself, even the IWW, but whenever things got hot and the boys wanted to make some trouble for the bosses, they used to send for Jack. He was an expert at dosing gasoline with sugar, putting sulphuric acid in the lubricating oil and emery powder in the bearings, crossing wires, and turning off and on the wrong valves. In a strike in the northern Michigan mines he’d blown off two or three fingers on each hand souping nitroglycerine out of blasting powder in a frying pan on the kitchen stove. He was the author of a pamphlet on sabotage often attributed to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, whose untimely publication helped break one of the great Eastern strikes. [...]

On Sunday nights Jack ran a lecture, followed by an open forum. He had only one principle of publicity. He would bill a lecture on relativity theory — and he had amazing talent for getting really important scholars to talk for him — under a lewd title, such as “Should the Brownian Movement Best Be Approached from the Rear?” Saturdays the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays the Little Theater put on Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, Lord Dunsany, Synge, and the early plays of Eugene O’Neill. Jack was a fair actor and fitted the early seagoing plays of O’Neill as though they had been written for him. The rest of the company had trouble learning their lines and finding their way on and off the stage. On the walls there was always an art exhibit of the leaders of early Chicago modernism. As the years went on, Jack got old and pretty crazy, the Dill Pickle grew more and more vulgar, was finally taken over by the Organization and turned into a rough and fraudulent operation. Jones had lost his last wife out of a small boat in a terrific storm one night on Lake Michigan, and on the anniversary of her death he always went quite mad. Finally, on the night of the twentieth anniversary of her death, he killed himself. The Pickle had long since become a dangerous tourist trap.

In its heyday, in spite of all Jack’s veneer of foolishness, the Pickle was an exciting place. Every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities, Jack asked to lecture for him, and most of them did — for free. The admission was little or nothing. Although the actors in the Little Theater were often dreadful amateurs and the sets were painted by Jack himself, in a kind of house painter’s amateur Expressionism, and the lighting was dim and artistic, the plays were the very best. He put on not only all the classics of early twentieth-century revolt from Shaw to Wedekind, but ethereal things like the dance plays of Yeats and Ezra Pound’s translations of Japanese noh plays and any even passable play by local talent. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any local playwriting talent except Ben Hecht and Max Bodenheim. The Pickle’s star exhibit of the Chicago Renaissance was a dreadful thing by Hecht and Bodenheim called The Master Poisoner. They managed to invent a new shudder of bad taste.

The Dill Pickle occupied a row of remodeled barns in Tooker Alley. Out the alley and around the corner was Bughouse Square, where every variety of radical sect, lunatic religion, and crackpot health panacea was preached from a row of soapboxes every night in the week when it wasn’t storming. The soapboxers, or at least the political radicals among them, hung out in the Dill Pickle and constituted the inner core of club membership. Then there was a group of girls who were almost all prostitutes who had drifted in off North Clark Street, lonely for coffee and company, as whores always are. In the course of time they became the mistresses of various newspapermen, IWW, Anarchist, and Socialist leaders who hung around the place. One was the girl of Lionel Moise, pronounced Mo-ees, the man who is supposed to have taught Ernest Hemingway how to write. At least she was one of what whores call his wives-in-law, and shared him with a newspaperwoman, a sculptress, and the daughter of a millionaire judge. Saturday nights, when the girls got drunk on Bugs Moran’s gin, the battles over the beautiful, beloved body of Lionel Moise were epical — deserving, as they say, the pen of a Creasy. None of these people was a fool or a hoodlum. All of the girls were beautiful; even the one who went by the name of Sloppy Liz was fairly good-looking, and they all made devoted mistresses, wives, and nurses for husbands who were always being put in jail or beaten up for alcoholism or the Revolution, or both.

Lionel Moise had sound ideas about good writing; ideas of which Hemingway’s Marquis of Queensbury esthetics are only a caricature. Another habitué was the famous confidence man Yellow Kid Weil, the first and original Yellow Kid, who looked like a prime minister of some small, busted nation and was similarly soft-spoken, flashily dressed, and reputed to be shockingly depraved. There were even a number of intellectual gangsters, white-collar hoodlums, lawyers, fixers, accountants for the Organization in white shirts, black ties, and blue serge suits, none of whom ever raised his voice. This leaven of the underworld and of the toughest operators for the labor movement gave the Dill Pickle society a worldly character of a sort never found in bohemia, and from the Pickle, types like these spread all through Chicago’s highbrow circles in the Twenties. A world less like Greenwich Village or Saint-Germain would be hard to imagine. Curiously enough, in Paris, on Montmartre, now that the intellectuals are coming back and mixing with the hustlers in the cafés, and always back of the Boulevard Montparnasse on the Gaîté and the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, there is a kind of ragamuffin bohemia of petty crooks, carnival performers, models and prostitutes, and bad, penniless artists and unprinted poets, which greatly resembles Chicago in the Twenties. As the twentieth century slowly overtakes Paris, every year there is less of it.

Like Gaîté Montparnasse, North Clark, Dearborn, and LaSalle Streets were lined with cheap hotels, the winter quarters of carnival and cheap circus people, burlesque queens and comics, stars of the Chautauqua circuit and pitch artists and grifters. They hung around the Pickle and some of them, who had not only acting ambitions but a surprising amount of dramatic education, used to act on its stage. Strippers like Angela d’Amore and “Lucrezia Borgia” played Miss Julie and Hedda Gabler, and there is nothing whores like better than to play a whore on a Little Theater stage. I suppose these lumpen entertainers are the loveliest people Western civilization has produced. Today they have vanished from America — radio and TV performers are appalling scissorbills — and there are few of them left even in France. In the early Twenties they gave the Near North Side bohemia both solidity and fantasy of a sort that artists and writers will never be privileged to encounter socially again.

Best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the iron core of Anarchist and IWW free-lance soapboxers. Although most of these men had once been Wobblies and some of them had even been members of the Socialist or the Socialist Labor Party, and others had been members of organized Anarchist circles, by the time I knew them they were all free-lancers, completely disillusioned with the organized radical movement. However, whenever there was a hot strike or a free-speech fight they would volunteer their services — as agitators but never as organizers. The most contemptuous term in their vocabulary was “pie-card artist.” They were men of total cynicism, absolute courage, and completely irreconcilable intransigence.

In those days the soapbox was still a most important working class — or at least migratory working class — educational institution. If you were any good, it was possible to make quite a decent living. There was a regular city circuit — two corners on West Madison Street, the Haymarket, a wide area down where the Municipal Pier is now, the Bug Club in Washington Park, and Bughouse Square on North Clark Street in front of the Newberry Library. I never became one of the stars, but if I made all of these points over a weekend I could always pick up a minimum of fifty dollars — a lot of money in those days for two days’ work for an adolescent boy. [...]

Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses. I didn’t have any theories or principles about it. We all used to recite a certain amount of stuff. I tried a whole pitch of it one night and got a big collection and went on doing it because it was profitable and I enjoyed it. All during the period of Proletarian Art I found the discussion of proletarian poetry rather unreal, because I had actually tried poetry on the proletariat and my experience didn’t match the theories at all. I used to recite Patrick Magill, Service’s Songs of a Wage Slave, Belloc’s poem to his little son, Vachel Lindsay’s socialist poems, Lola Ridge, James Oppenheim, Arturo Giovanitti, and all the other old chestnuts of revolt that can be found in the anthologies of Marcus Graham and Upton Sinclair. This was all right with the stiffs, but what they liked best was the world-weary poetry of the English Decadence — The Rubaiyat, Housman, Ernest Dowson, and best of all, Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine.” This always made a perfect number to go out with and added substantially to the collection. I’ve often thought, roaring it out into the windy night under a sputtering arc lamp, that its last verses perfectly reflected the hopes and ambitions of the average hard-rock miner, lumberjack, or harvest hand.

In a few years I took this act on the road, so to speak, and found it very successful. Not only was it easier to peddle Red cards [IWW membership cards] in Fargo or Big Timber or Kellogg or Spokane or Puyallup with a brief recital of the preamble to the Wobbly constitution and a big dose of Fitzgerald, Swinburne, or John Davidson, but I discovered that the nooks and crannies of the Northwest were filling up with old-timers, living the lives of hermits in the midst of society, who knew quite as much about this sort of thing as I did. The only poets in the modern taste who were liked as well were Whitman and Sandburg.

[135-139, 142]

* * *

I had been spending a lot of time around the Green Mask, a tearoom on Grand Avenue and State Street across from where Jazz Limited was later. It was in what Chicagoans call an English basement. Upstairs was a row of limestone-front houses which had been knocked together to form one immense brothel run by the Greek Syndicate. Alongside, in the other English basements, were marginal businesses like key makers and petty coal merchants. The Green Mask had nothing to do with the enterprise upstairs and neither the patrons nor the employees ever came in, although the madam was a fairly frequent visitor. She was stage-struck and had intellectual pretensions. However, the Greek Syndicate afforded the place free protection, and it was not subjected to shakedowns and payoffs. Also, State Street and Grand Avenue were in a neutral zone between the territory of the North Side and the South Side gangs. Also, the madam upstairs was the mistress of the boss of detectives at the East Chicago Avenue police station. These details are important to the success of an enterprise in Chicago.

The Green Mask was run by June Wiener, a slightly plump girl with a black Dutch bob, a large white nose, a rather beautiful face, and a most harum-scarum manner. She had been carnival performer, burlesque queen, chorus girl, and snake charmer. Her partner, Beryl Bolton, had been the leading lady of the famous old heavy Frank Keenan. They had made a Garden of Allah-type movie, perhaps that very picture, in which she had ridden a camel on a treadmill all day into an airplane propeller at which two men continuously shoveled sand. This had removed the skin from her face, and she lived the rest of her life on the damages. They ran an extraordinary bohemian tearoom, quite the best that I have ever seen. Somebody else in the family died, so I got a few hundred dollars, and I invested it in this enterprise. Here I was, just kicked out of high school, part operator of a joint.

Both June and Beryl wrote poetry and painted pictures, all of a pagan sort. Around the walls were blue nudes dancing with silver fauns under crimson trees and shelves with books of free verse and books about the sexual revolution, and all the current little magazines. These in the course of time withered away as the customers stole them.

The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business. June and Beryl seemed to know everyone of importance from Mercedes the Strong Woman to Little Mercedes, the Strong Woman for Singer’s Midgets, and from Eva Le Gallienne to Bert Savoy. After the show the place filled up with headliners from the Follies and the Orpheum circuit as well as people from the burlesque shows. The girls had a friend, Gertrude, who was a concert pianist devoted to modern music, and she brought everyone in serious music who came to the city — composers and performers. So in a couple of years I met everybody in show business and in music who was of the slightest importance, and in addition the great female impersonators Bert Savoy, Julian Eltinge, who was not supposed to be gay but who had huge natural breasts, and Carole Normand, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” known to her friends as “The Queer Old Chafing Dish.” The latter were more than welcome but lesser fry came to stare and grew disorderly; and almost every night I had to kick out a savage little Mexican fairy known as Theda Bara, and her knife-toting pal, who weighed about four hundred pounds, the Slim Princess.

We gave poetry readings or lectures once a week. The chairmen were people like Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson. Once we had Clarence Darrow.

After we’d been in business a few weeks, in came a gaunt man with a bald, scabby dome of a head, banjo eyes with great pouches and irises like spittle, broken teeth and pendulous blue lips, a turkey neck which seemed stuck with pinfeathers, an immense Adam’s apple, and huge, nicotine-stained hands with spatulate fingers that had thick, gray, broken nails. He took off his coat. He had on a dirty fancy vest, a candy-striped silk shirt with garters on the sleeves, and a black patent-leather snap-on bow tie. He sat down at the piano and started to play. And there he stayed from then on. He came in just as we were clearing away the dinner dishes every night and left when we did after the joint closed. He had either no bladder or a motorman’s bottle, because he never left the piano stool. Each night he’d start off with a tumbler of gin and a sniff of coke. Once he got going, he’d open a cigarette case full of big cigarettes of marijuana made on a Russian cigarette machine, and smoke them chain fashion all night long. We provided the gin and he had his derby upside down on top of the piano for a kitty. He was known as K.C. Frank or just plain “Kansas City.” For years I thought he was K.C. Frankie Melrose, but this man, I discover, was about my own age and came up years later and played almost entirely in the joints and roadhouses around South Chicago and northern Indiana. This K.C. put his name on a record date, probably in imitation of our man, who was no small-time bum. Our K.C. had once been a pianist with Joe Frisco, who was in the place almost every night when he was showing in town.

K.C. Frankie attracted many early jazz musicians to the place. I suppose all the ones that have since become legendary figures were in and out all the time, cornets and trombones under their arms. To us, I’m afraid, they were just a social problem and few of them seemed as good as Frankie himself. [...]

One night a skinny little boy came in with a whole mess of drums. For once we all realized we had a great artist. It was Dick Rough [Dave Tough], the first and greatest of the hipsters and one of the few really great musicians in the history of jazz. It turned out that he also wrote poetry no better or worse than my own, a precocious kid’s poetry. He and I became friends. In spite of the entire repertory of minor vices which were to become part of the jazz-man stereotype of a generation later, he was always welcome in the place. High, sick, gone, lushed, or just plain scared, everybody still loved him. He’s been dead these many years, but I understand that a manuscript of his poetry still survives somewhere, and I wish some publisher would find it and take a look at it.

June Wiener had been a friend of Emma Goldman, and both girls were friends of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the editors of The Little Review. I believe June came from an old Jewish Anarchist family. So we got the leaders of all the various radical sects in Chicago, a slightly more aristocratic crowd than hung around the Dill Pickle — editors of radical newspapers and publishing houses, strike leaders, and theoreticians. For a long time June managed to replenish the book stock as fast as it was stolen. On the shelves were all the early books of the poetic avant-garde and the theoreticians of revolution. Their authors were around the place if they lived in Chicago or when they were passing through town.

June and Beryl had both lived in France, and amongst the books in the library were French poets that I met for the first time. June was very fond of Alfred Jarry, on whose spirit, if not on his exact example, I think she patterned her life. She was always discovering wonderful poems in German, French, English, or Yiddish, chanting them over and over, staining them with coffee rings, tearing the books apart, and pinning them up on the wall. For a while all the literature of the avant-garde in the heyday of Dadaism was as available as the newspapers in an old-fashioned French restaurant. The stuff in foreign languages was stolen much more slowly than the stuff in English, and not only did I get a chance to read it if it was French, or to have June translate it for me if it was German or Yiddish, but now at last it wasn’t just something in a book. Here I was, living it out, part of the scene, just like Tristan Tzara, even if it was only on Grand Avenue in Chicago.

In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee. There was a hermaphrodite violinist: a tall yellow-faced youth with slit eyes, a prognathous jaw and a shock of hair that looked like a wig. He played the violin while his mother and father did a contortionist turn in carnivals and cheap vaudeville. His name was Aldebaran — they’d really named him that. There was a still very beautiful but quite demented ex-show girl and now unsuccessful prostitute — she scared all her tricks away — who looked exactly like a slightly faded blonde Gibson Girl. Her name was Angela d’Amore. There was Willy McCauley, a mediocre, “decadent” sculptor and worse poet, but a boy with a special talent for an outlandish, adventurous life. There was a very light, freckled-faced Negro, what Negros call a “marino,” who claimed to be the illegitimate son of a British admiral and a Haitian princess. Since there aren’t any Haitian princesses, there was something wrong with his story. He had dyed red hair, ultraconservative clothes in the height of fashion, and wore an egg-shaped eyeglass without ribbon or rim. There was Mick McCann, the beautiful, dark Irish captain of the Boston Bloomers and the world’s champion lady boxer, with whom I fell in love; Louis Rosenberg, a beery hobo tenor with a bouncing belly who got odd jobs as a burlesque comedian; and, last, a spectacular redheaded burlesque queen known as Lorelei, although she was Irish.

Gertrude, the concert pianist, was a close friend of Chicago’s leading Negro banker, and an even closer friend of his two mistresses, “Black and White.” One was very dark and always wore white clothes, and the other was white and always wore black. They brought a lot of South Side high society, music, and underworld to the place. Another close friend of Gertrude’s was Lillian Hardin, Louis Armstrong’s first wife. Lil was a young woman who had been valedictorian of her class at Fisk and had started out as a concert pianist with ambitions to be a composer. Contrary to legend, the music of the bands that she played with in those days was not blown spontaneously into the air, but was composed, written down, and carefully coached on the piano by Lil. I have little memory of others of the Oliver band around the place; possibly this was before its formation. Just before I left Chicago I met Louis, then an innocent youth too big for his collar, with a farm-boy manner. He was eager for culture and busy absorbing all the education Lil could give him. I developed quite a crush on Lillian Hardin and used to go out to the South Side to the places she was playing. However, the Sunset, Dreamland, and later places were terribly expensive. In the first years our favorite hangout and the hangout for most musicians who weren’t working was a dirty little dump called the Fiume, the customers of which were very sinister characters indeed. It had been a spaghetti joint in the days when Eighteenth and State was an Italian neighborhood and nobody ever bothered to change the sign. It served nothing whatever except moonshine made of potatoes in dirty white coffee mugs. The staff had the stench of an ill-kept morgue, but it was guaranteed never to leave you with a hangover. All the early musicians and singers of the kind the discographers now call primitive played there.

We got a few of these people back up at the Mask, but mostly more educated and sophisticated Negroes like Alberta Hunter, Isabel Du Cagne, and Jimmy Yancey. Irene Castle was a regular visitor to the Mask and she was always showing up with people who had been in Jim Europe’s band, the men who founded the New York school of jazz.

Fenton Johnson, who remains one of the best Negro poets, was a close friend and I suppose could be called one of my early teachers. I don’t think he was any relation, but he knew the Johnson brothers and always brought them around when one or the other came from New York. Bands were already appearing on the road with Frisco and Jimmy Durante and I believe there was a colored band in either the Scandals or The Passing Show of those years. Anyway, they all came to the Mask after showtime and we used to pile in cabs and take over the Fiume along about dawn.

Joe Frisco was billed in Palace Time first as the “American Apache” and then as the “Jass Dancer.” He had a little girl partner who looked just like Moreau’s “Salomé.” With her, too, I fell in love; all the pronounced types seemed to attract me in those days. I used to take her out when she wasn’t working and desperately tried to learn Frisco’s routines. These were the first “air steps” anybody in the North had ever seen and resembled the most advanced jitterbugging of the end of swing. I presume that Frisco had learned them by watching the conniptions in Congo Square. Imitating him, I was always getting chucked off dance floors for hurling around some foolhardy girl.

I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. People were always trotting in and out with horns under their arms — Dick Rough played something else beside the drums, although for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. Great as he was, we weren’t very enthusiastic about the services of volunteer drummers. Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool. “Cool” is far from a new concept. I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, “For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!”

Then, even as now, some jazz musicians were difficult types. The best musician in the Coon-Saunders group had been shell-shocked, and at the sound of an automobile backfire or a fire engine he would go into a fit like furor epilepticus and start throwing chairs and tables at people. Another one in the group was always jumping out of windows, although he usually picked low ones. The girl who was the mother goddess and Great Mother of the group, and kept them alive, dropped out when they went to New York, and as I remember the group broke up in a rash of suicides and psychoses.

Those were the days before entertainment licenses and unionization, so that we had a continuous free floor show. Many nights when the Follies was in town Bert Savoy would keep the crowd entertained from one to four in the morning with an always new stream of drag-queen jokes, far filthier than any he ever pulled in the Follies, although those were filthy enough. Alberta Hunter used to sing, and I realize how long ago this was, because she is the only singer still in the business left from those days. Alberta, of course, has long since ceased to sing blues. She plays mothers and old servants in the movies and sings lead parts in chorales of Bach and Mozart. Bert Williams was another free entertainer and he, too, had a private repertory which never got on the stage, although in his case these numbers were simply authentic Negro humor. There were a lot of great burlesque and circus clowns who used to come and go, but I don’t remember now who they were.

There was a beautiful and wealthy Negro woman who used to sing excessively modern salon songs, like Milhaud’s settings of Tagore. I wrote some words for her to a couple of the Sodades Do Brazil, “Leme” and “Botofogo,” which I wish I had today. As I remember, most of this stuff was a bit thick. Back in those days there was a huge repertory of vocal music of the Pierrot Lunaire order, of a rather theosophical cast, very mystical, like female unicorns (female unicorns do not exist — the unicorn is only male, but he doesn’t exist either) bleating, lost in a dense fog. It seems to have gone out of favor. Cyril Scott, Leo Ornstein, Van Dieren — all the heart-rending settings of Maeterlinck and D’Annunzio — where are they now? It was before the shawm and the clavichord had invaded night clubs, but we had disciples of Arnold Dolmetch, who played Bull and Byrd on the piano with all the archeologically correct mordents in the right places.

In spite of this array of talent, by far our most successful evenings were the Thursdays given to poetry. We got everybody to read, even Chicago’s most seclusive and asocial poet, Edgar Lee Masters. There was a succession of Negro poets, of whom the best was Fenton Johnson, locally, and Langston Hughes from New York; also Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, as well as many others of the leaders of the New Negro who started out in life writing verse and later became sociologists, anthropologists, politicians, trade-union leaders. It’s remarkable how many of them in those days were poets. In fact, the Talented Tenth of the Twenties all seemed to have started out on their careers writing verse, not unlike Chinese mandarins.

A lot of the poetry readings were trash, but all the important poets around Chicago read there, too. Here happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of. The readers were several people I can’t recall and Mark Turbyfull, Sam Putnam, Louis Rosenberg, and myself.

I suppose it was Dick Rough who brought down a whole lot of drums of a kind I had never seen before. I guess they were congos and bongos and such. I remember some Chinese and Japanese drums. Anyway, there was a most exotic percussion battery, and to this and a piano and a horn and once in a while a bass I read some poetry. The percussion makes it sound frightfully arty, but it couldn’t have been too arty with K.C. Frank at the piano. Who the others were, I don’t know. The horn was so drunk he could hardly stand, and eventually blew very nicely sitting down on a backward kitchen chair. About this time Langston Hughes was doing the same thing in New York. I read the poems I had read on the soapbox, a lot of Whitman and Sandburg and popular low-life poetry to what nowadays would be called primitive piano as accompaniment. That is, the piano took the line most of the time. Besides this we did more pensive numbers to slow and solemn music — like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” And then, too, I read translations of contemporary French poetry to modernist improvisations by Gertrude, full of tone clusters and hand- or table-knife-plucked piano strings, just like Leo Ornstein or, years afterward, Henry Cowell.

There was never any dearth of poets. In fact, some of the leading ones of those days, like Vachel Lindsay and Maxwell Bodenheim, had to be forcefully discouraged. Bodenheim and his wife Minna, who was the office secretary for the IWW, ate in the place every night. On Saturdays Minna helped out as waitress. Minna was busy feeding Max up because she was anxious to have a child. We provided the high-protein diet.

Sandburg was just beginning his career as a folk singer, and he came down several times with his guitar. [...]

No rubberneck buses unloaded at the door. June simply refused to seat tourists, and if they got past her she had such a devastating way with her that they quickly left. Also, the myth of the Twenties falsifies history. In its early days Prohibition worked fairly well. Liquor was hard to get and most people drank relatively little. We did not serve liquor, only setups, and the customers were not allowed to put bottles on the tables or even on the floor. If they got drunk they were thrown out. I think the place was probably too serious to attract tourists, although we didn’t think we were being serious at all.

Another thing, everybody in Chicago in those days of any importance in the arts considered himself a Red, which doesn’t mean a Bolshevik. The city editor of the Herald and Examiner and the highest-paid reporters on the Tribune carried Wobbly cards. Most people called themselves Anarchists. I have no memory of anybody who believed in capitalist society, its values or its political parties. In fact, I can’t even remember anybody, except a few aged leaders, who was bourgeois enough to call himself a Socialist. This radical atmosphere kept out the squares and scissorbills.

The citizenry stayed away from places where Negroes were seated at their tables and where somebody might burst into “I’m a stranger in your city, my name is Paddy Flynn,” or one of the Joe Hill songs, or, after midnight, “The Three Old Whores of Canada,” and the whole room take it up. This scared people back in those days and we were left to ourselves. That was fine, because there were plenty of us.

What I was witnessing was the development in a few places in Chicago, New York, and Paris of a culture pattern that was to spread all over the world. In another generation all professional people of any pretense to bohemianism in Sydney and Oslo did the things we did, but back in those days we all knew one another.


End of part 2 of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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