San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



June 1960

New American Poetry and Jazz
San Francisco Theater and Chicago Architecture
Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
Slum Clearance?



New American Poetry and Jazz

A generation ago there was a man at Harvard named Ellsworth Huntington and he said it was all due to sun spots. They caused stormy climates that killed off the dinosaurs, stimulated the cave men to paint pictures, caused the rise and fall of civilizations, and provoked earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He even said the change of electric potential in San Francisco twice a day was too stimulating and drove people to suicide, alcoholism and gross immorality. Just right was his native New England. Maybe he had something.

I haven’t kept track of what the sun spots have been up to this spring, but the human race has been behaving badly, and now nature has cut loose. About the human race you can do something infinitesimal, but something. You can write a poem or raise your voice in an editorial or carry a banner. It does no good to defy what insurance companies call “acts of God.” Job found that out. The only thing to do is to observe and take it to heart.

How puny we are with our little evils! They must be quite imperceptible to the astronomers on Mars. As the speeches at the United Nations come over the Martian radios, only the most learned specialists can tell them from the poems of Gertrude Stein or the conversation of an Eskimo village about a beached whale. Still, what they don’t know is that with our microscopic angers and our invisible betrayals, we, too, have tapped the power of the earthquake, the volcanic eruption and the tidal wave.

As the whole Pacific basin goes on a rampage, we might take thought that we, too, have the power to play, in a petty way, at this game. There are men sitting at a bank of buttons 24 hours a day who can produce, in a matter of seconds, a childish imitation of the Chilean disasters. They, of course, are intelligent, and the unstable earth’s crust is not. But remember, when the first astronauts from Earth land on Venus, the intellectual cephalopods, dissecting their visitors in their laboratories under the Venusian sea, will have great difficulty distinguishing the tissues of our brain from our finger nails. They are overspecializations of the same embryonic membranes.

Unlike executions, U-2’s and riots, that is about all one can say at this juncture, so finally I can get on to music, drama, art and literature — subjects I greatly prefer to write about.

Grove Press has just brought out an anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. This is the first comprehensive and comparatively unbiased picture of the poetic renaissance that has been making headlines and even the movies these last few years. About half the contributors are from San Francisco or have lived here at one time or another and owe a great deal of their stimulation and freedom from literary cant to this, our local “permissive” and Mediterranean culture.

Unlike most anthologies of “young poets,” which usually end with somebody like me, this one goes down to Ron Loewinsohn and David Meltzer, San Franciscans who were born in 1937. That’s young enough, I guess, nowadays when the young mature so late.

The most impressive thing about the whole collection is that this is mostly genuinely popular poetry. Once you’ve caught on to the modernistic idiom, and that just requires a little patience, you’ll find that it is poetry which speaks in the language of today about things that people want to hear. Beards and sandals to the contrary notwithstanding, these poets are very much part of the community of San Francisco and very clearly its voice. We did it.

I was going to write most of this column about Cannonball Adderly, who just finished a most successful show at the Jazz Workshop. I never like to agree with Time magazine about anything at all, but this time I have to. I was disappointed. In the first place, I dislike solo exhibitions of virtuosity on principle. When the great Miles Davis walks on the stand, sneers, blows, sneers and walks off, I’m sorry, but I just want to hiss.

The Adderly group is not that bad. In fact, as human beings, the two Adderly brothers are among the most likeable people in music or show business. Cannonball’s saxophone is always a pure joy, and Nat’s trumpet is even better than it was last fall. Together they make the same kind of happy warbling that Mozart did in another age. But I do wish they would put together a little thicker and more extended ensemble work. Not enough goes on. The band provides interludes, partial accompaniments, pedals. I have often thought of Miles Davis. Why does he bother with a band at all? Why not just him? It would save a lot of money.

Also, it seems to me that, musically, even Nat and Cannonball at their best moments were sticking close to the sure-fire, proven and tested material that was guaranteed to send the customers. Why do this in San Francisco, where the audience would welcome Ornette Coleman playing a book by Lou Harrison and John Cage? The Jazz Workshop is not the Dallas Elks Club. This is the place to come to start things. I thought the Adderlys had found that out last fall.

All this season the Actor’s Workshop has been using jazz in its productions. The lad behind this is one of the very best drummers on the coast, Herbert Barman. Herbie has played with the big name bands, but they’ve been bands where the drummer was there for the whishawhisha, the sock, the roll and the bump. Herbie has always had too many ideas for this role.

Recently, he go the idea of putting together a moderately sized big band and introducing it under the auspices of the Actor’s Workshop. Last Sunday was the first concert, and a very tasty show it was. Not only were they 13 of the best musicians you could find on the coast, but they fitted, they were relaxed, they went together just as smoothly. On the other hand, the effect wasn’t silky.

The arrangements were by Al Cohn, Barman, John Coppola, Dick Collins, J. Hill, Vernon Alley and the general style was that of Al Cohn. Musically, this is very little like Jimmy Lunceford, but the emotional effect was more or less Lunceford (Sy Oliver’s arrangement) brought up to date. Bright, sharp, lyrical. I suppose the words for it are brilliant but swinging.

Most important, the band and Herbie himself, leading and talking to the audience, gave off an atmosphere of pleasure in what they were doing and of good will toward men that sent the customers away very happy. Afterwards at dinner, Herbie said, “I don’t lead, I just phone everybody to be there and make out the checks.”

On the contrary, he has a most admirable talent as a leader. If you listened you could tell that the subtle and strongly moving phrasing that tied the band together and at its first performance gave it its own special character was his work, backed up by Vernon Alley on bass.

Although there was no advertising and little publicity, quite a crowd turned out. Still, there was room for more. They’re going to do it again next month. Everybody come!

[June 5, 1960]



San Francisco Theater and Chicago Architecture

We went to see the Actor’s Workshop’s production of The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. It is a strangely Swiss play. Some of the satire, directed against the besetting sins of the Swiss, a certain smugness and tightness of mind, more or less misses the point for an American audience. That is, the play misses the audience, rather than that the audience misses the play. On the other hand, it has a rambunctiousness and free falling folly that would be an ideal influence for local playwrights trying to combine the current dramatic revolution with American scenes and situations.

As with all this stuff, some people seem to find it hard to understand. There is nothing profound or complex about it. In fact, it is pretty corny and obvious. All you have to do is relax and accept the special language of the postwar theater. It is only a slapstick comedy with a level of sophistication a little below that of a good New Yorker joke. The Actor’s Workshop people play it as if it were The Drunkard, which is just right.

I for one think the script should have been cut drastically. There is much too much talk. What really good lines the play has tend to get thrown away, rammed home by the theme and variations treatment. A play like this is simply witty, modern entertainment, and nobody in the production should be so intimidated that he is afraid to trim it up a little and make it neat.

Once again, as with Ionesco, The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi raises the questions, “Why can’t we do this here at home? Why can’t we do it somewhat better?”

Is it because our “serious” noncommercial playwrights are too serious and too noncommercial? You’d think dramatic freedom, fantasy and immodest satire would be “typically American” virtues. Is it that we can’t manage bitter humor because we haven’t got enough sense of humor about ourselves?

Maybe the highbrow play has fallen into the wrong hands. The Ford Foundation has recently financed a group of rather grim young American novelists, attaching them to various theaters around the world to learn stagecraft and start a renaissance of the American theater. Maybe they should have turned some money over to Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman and told them to go ahead and write plays.

After the show I took off for Chicago for a weekend of reading dates. I grew up in Chicago and left it 30 years ago. I never went back. Believe me, I have never regretted it. For a generation, Chicago, once the most exciting and culturally alive city in the country, has been in a coma. Years of unbridled political criminality left the inhabitants punch drunk and drove most of the vital people out of the city.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that things are looking up. The place is full of life again. In the background the old brutality and crookedness still flourish, but they are in the background now; not all over the lot. I saw quite a bit of local painting. For years Chicago’s modernism was like its politics, gaudy and violent. There’s been a change. I saw an impressive amount of sensitive, even delicate work, much of it done by quite young people. Also, there were parties that pullulated with poets. There was jazz at the Blue Note and the Sutherland. There was the Negro Beatnik Bohemia at 35th Street. Pretty weird to see innocent, debauched high school kids imitating white people who have gone in for an evil, chauvinistic imitation of the Negro. Odd, indeed.

Oh, yes, I was on the air with Jeri Myazaki, the California girl who is the new lead in The World of Suzie Wong. I have serious difficulty remembering who else was there, although the show lasted all night. You know how it is. I’m looking forward to the San Francisco opening. Seriously — it was such a sweet, sentimental book, but the play is a bit awful. As they say, it’s an “audience play” and who cares what the critics think? Anyway, Jeri works like a trooper and makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Art, music, theater, to the contrary notwithstanding. . . . As they say, you go to Ferrara for the lasagna verde; you go to Chicago for the architecture. It was thrilling reading in Louis Sullivan’s great Auditorium Building, perhaps the liveliest business structure of the first decade of the century anywhere in the world. I made a Sullivan tour, because so many of his buildings are coming down soon. Some of the best have already gone.

Sullivan dots old Chicago with grace. It’s like seeing deer in a forest. Richardson dominates it. What a great artist that man was! Archaistic, “revival,” eclectic architecture is usually pretty dull, although it’s not as bad as certain slightly dated highbrows think. Not Richardson. He is more Romanesque than the Romanesques.

Massive gray and brown granite, pillow capitals, catenary arches, windows divided by pillars delicate as lilies: they are everywhere in Chicago. It is as though Richardson’s wonderful Monadnock Building had spawned as many babies as a salmon. All over town there are spectacular new ideas by Skidmore or Mies Van der Rohe or such like, but Richardson still dominates them all, like an organ where the theme marches up and down in the pedals and the rest is just pretty arpeggios.

Unfortunately, hundreds of buildings from Richardson’s office or from his disciples’ are coming down. Several square miles of the Negro ghetto have been flattened. Here and there in the wastelands are rising things on stilts by Mies and his pals that look like plastic dry fly boxes stood on end, as homey as filing cabinets. Sure, I know the old places were slums, but some of them were Richardson slums, and once they had been the noblest mansions in America.

Couldn’t somebody, just one firm, try building a Richardson project in interracial urbanism? Just one complex of buildings. It wouldn’t have to be Romanesque Revival; in fact, it shouldn’t be. If only somebody could catch a little of that massive dignity, that sense of muscular exaltation. Richardson had it and he stamped it on Chicago. He gave the city its very face, not like a portrait painter but like some genius of a plastic surgeon.

It is depressing to think that it is all going to be replaced by a lot of chi-chi, pseudo-functional stereotypes that might just as well be in Delhi or Brasilia or Canberra. “Functionalism” means that you build your vulgar decorative theories into the plumbing instead of ornamenting the façade with them. You seal the building hermetically, and then forget to make sure the air conditioning works. Ask the man who has one. I visited those two towers of Mies’s on Lakeshore Drive. They would frighten bees.

Next week, since we are up to our armpits in the reconstruction of the Fillmore district, I hope I can talk a little more about what this means. Humanly speaking, not just as design. Is there any difference between these terms in good architecture?

[June 12, 1960]



Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author

Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. In modern times it ranks with Ibsen’s later plays, with Chekhov, with Strindberg. In English drama the comparison would be with Tourneur and John Ford: Pirandello is not in the class with Shakespeare or Jonson or Webster.

Watching the Golden Hind show the other night, I realized that he is not as great as Ibsen, Chekhov or Strindberg, either. He is certainly the least of the major modern playwrights. He is the least of the four because he is the most sentimental. His plays all have the same theme. Reading them one after another is insufferably tedious. Performing them in repertory would be impossible. After the third or fourth the audience would find them ridiculous: the illusion would evaporate in absurdity.

Some 40 years ago Pirandello said of himself, “I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all) which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory. My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves; but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny which condemns man to deception.”

This is not a very mature philosophy. It bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the adolescent at the high school dance or the tourist in Bohemia or the middlebrow among highbrows, who compensates for his own social insecurity and embarrassment by accusing those about him of being “poseurs.” Alas, as you grow older you discover that people are not posing, and often you wish they were.

Only minor tragedies follow from people’s pretenses. The major tragedies are the results of what they really are. This is as true in life as it is in dramatic or literary criticism. Vast frauds run through all human life, like the streaming currents that flow through the world’s oceans. They are greater things by far than personal deceptions.

What is important to understand in human destiny is the human integrity that stands against these frauds. What is most tragic in life, in history, in drama, is that this very integrity may go wrong and bring down the noblest individuals and the greatest nations. Aristotle said this long ago. So the tears that result from deception can never be the material of the highest art. They are too cheaply come by. Then too, the time comes when deception no longer shocks, or even perturbs us. That may be tragic in itself. Perhaps it is the first lesson in the primer of tragic understanding.

Most of the world’s drama is thin stuff at best, and so, comparatively speaking, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a great play. Pirandello’s Henry the Fourth is a greater play because it does hint of deeper understanding, beyond this immature formula of universal deception.

As You Desire Me may be better also. It is more normal, more human, and strikes nearer home. In the history of the modern theater, Six Characters has had the greatest impact and influence. With Strindberg’s Spook Sonata it establishes the type that has become the most fashionable theatrical form of our time — the tragic farce. Without these two plays, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Arrabal, Adamov and all the rest would never have been.

Not only that, I think it questionable whether any of these playwrights of this second postwar literature, except Beckett (and then he only in Godot), has ever come up to Six Characters. Pirandello’s philosophy may be a vulgar misunderstanding of Italian idealism (Croce and Gentile) demoralized by four years of study in fin de siècle German universities, but it is a philosophy. Genet has only a bundle of attitudes, Ionesco only formulas.

Furthermore, if you base your dramatic method on the assumption that all men are pretending, your achieve your dramatic effects by probing beneath the pretenses. So your characters necessarily have some sort of interior life. Except for Beckett, the characters of modern theater have no insides at all.

In the case of Bertholt Brecht, this is deliberate. He believed that characters in a play should be as empty as marionettes and should so be played. Since he was, in fact, the best of our modern playwrights and incomparably greater than his own theories, his own characters betray him, and do have the richest interior lives of any in the contemporary theater. The irony of this situation would have delighted Pirandello.

The point of Six Characters is that the imaginary people of drama or fiction are more real than the actors who are called on to portray them, or, in the last analysis, than the real life people whom the characters portray. This is ingenious, and it makes for very gripping theater — profoundly moving farce — but like all farce, it isn’t true.

On the other hand, like all great farce, it is tremendous entertainment for the audience, and a marvelous vehicle for imaginative actors. The actors don’t have to be very good. I am not at all sure that the Golden Hind could handle one of Chekhov’s great quiet plays nearly as well. They are imaginative, they have brio — spunk — and that is what counts here.

The whole play is carried by the Father and the Stepdaughter. Aldo Bozzini and Marcia Taylor are more than just professionally competent. Marcia Taylor, in fact, is pretty fine. The essence of their role is that it be convincing or “realistic” in a way none of the other roles is. This is the point of the play. She handles it so well the audience must feel it is eavesdropping.

After the show we dropped in for an hour at the Stereo Club. This is something there hasn’t been in San Francisco in many a year — a quiet, clean, orderly — do I dare use the word? — respectable, neighborhood jazz room. A place less like the more famous of the two after-hours joints in San Francisco would be hard to imagine. It is just around the corner from where we live, on Divisadero between Oak and Page.

The boss, Horace Benjamin, is a young man in the newspaper business by day. He leads the band, plays a very tasty saxophone, and from the bandstand keeps the audience attentive, happy and peaceable. He is so good a host he never seems to have to function as a bouncer. If a bit of potential trouble wanders in, he quietly leaves the stand and sort of soothes the wandering drunk out of the place before the fellow knows what has happened.

Don’t let me give you the impression the band plays country music. They are young, up on the latest styles, and yet have distinct individualities of their own. The audience is young too, courteously and unselfconsciously integrated. They are there to drink beer or wine and listen to music.

The [two or three illegible words] and cheap, and the music is very civilized indeed. My memory in the Fillmore goes back to Timm’s speakeasy, and I’ve seen them all: Elsie’s Blackshear’s, Jack’s. This is the best yet.

[June 19, 1960]



Slum Clearance?

In the last couple of years almost every large city in the country has embarked on one or more wholesale slum clearance projects. When we came back from a year in Europe I was dumbfounded to see the entire Fillmore District flattened. Several square miles of Chicago and Philadelphia have come down. A proportionate area in New Orleans is being wrecked.

Strange how all these things I have been talking about recently in this column draw together. I sat in Lake Meadows, the huge integrated housing development beside the lake at Chicago’s 35th and Cottage Grove and talked to Era Bell Thompson, the managing editor of Ebony, about problems of housing and employment: the underemployment of trained Negro professional and technical workers.

I could look across a plain of rubble to State Street, where Louis [Armstrong] had once played and Ethel Waters sung. Then I took a cab up to a reading at The Gate of Horn, and whom should I meet but a friend who had been with me when we put on the first performance in English, from a manuscript translation, of Six Characters in Search of an Author. There must have been some wrinkle in the fourth dimension.

Lake Meadows is quite a project. It is a complex of large apartment buildings about the size and quality of San Francisco’s Stonestown. It stands on the former site of some of the worst slums in America, which had the second or third highest crime rate in the country. Two-room apartments start at about $110. It is about 70-30 integrated, 70 percent Negro, 30 percent white and “other.”

What happened to the slum dwellers? Nobody knows for sure. The city social services had an elaborate relocation program, but the bulk of the people, especially the poorest ones who were not recipients of public welfare, just vanished. Presumably, they doubled up in other slums, or moved into fringe areas which they have now reduced to slums. In the course of time there will be a large number of lower-cost subsidized housing units which will take care of the more stable elements of the old slum area, those with regular employment or those on regular relief.

Much of the northern half of the flattened area will be taken up by an immense complex of medical buildings and dwelling units for medical personnel. The whole development will be racially integrated — about 30 percent Negro and 70 percent white in the medical complex. (This is about the present percentage of employees in medical work.)

The apartments will almost all cost much more than the slum dwellings they have replaced. This is true even of the subsidized units. Chicago, of course, with the oldest mass urban Negro community in the North, has plenty of Negroes in the upper brackets and the professions and business. There will be no difficulty about finding occupants.

All this is very important to San Francisco. The Fillmore District was largely, in recent years almost exclusively, occupied by Negroes and Japanese. On the whole they enjoyed a considerably higher standard of living than the people who lived around 35th and State Streets in Chicago. However, from the brief sampling I took, they paid lower rents. Also, however deteriorated, the old bay window single homes (divided usually into small units) and the flats of the Fillmore had yet to sink into the appalling levels of whole blocks of the Chicago area.

What happened to these people? How planned was their relocation? Many Japanese families, on the whole better off than the poorer Negroes, seem to have moved north and east, toward Pacific Heights and the western slope of Nob Hill. What happened to the poorest Negro families? Many of them seem to have crowded into the Hayes Valley District to the south, at considerably higher, in fact sacrificial, rents. This overcrowding is bound to result in progressive slummification of this area. Others have gone south of Market and to Butcher Town, with the same results.

When the new buildings go up, what proportion of Negroes and Japanese will come to occupy them? I doubt if the Japanese are a problem. (I don’t wish to sound chauvinistic. I mean “Americans of Japanese ancestry,” but this is just too darn complicated to repeat each time.) They seem to be one of the most thriving communities in San Francisco.

Presumably, there are many prepared to pay any reasonable rent for decent housing. But where is the Negro middle class? Due to the newness of our Negro community, the business, professional and technical class is still quite small. As a new community without a large professional group, San Francisco Negroes have tended to rely upon white people already here for professional and business service.

Furthermore, although San Francisco prides itself on being the least prejudiced city in the country, it has not formed the habit, as have Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, of employing Negro professional and technical workers on any broad scale. So for those that are here, there is very serious underemployment. My postman has a degree from Southern University. Another, on the next beat up the street, has a law degree from Harvard. These people are not going to be able to pay $185 for a two- or three-room apartment.

It should never be forgotten that slum clearance does not mean the tearing down of poor buildings and the putting up of expensive ones. If it is going to be socially valuable, it must mean the efficient reorganization of the human resources of the community.

Long ago, Friedrich Engels, partner of Karl Marx, wrote a sarcastic pamphlet, On the Housing Question. In it he said that housing was not part of the capital structure of industry. (Although, carried away by his own polemic, he denied this a few sentences later, that was just rhetoric.) He said that the landlord and the tenant confront each other, like any other buyer and seller, irrespective of the fact that the landlord elsewhere may function as a capitalist and the tenant as a worker. This may have been true back in the days of free competition, although I like to think even then it was questionable. Like most Marxist notions, it is simply not true today.

Whether we admit it or not, today we live in a planned, highly coordinated society. Decent housing for working people is just as important as any other part of the plant, the capital structure of industry and commerce. It is in exactly the same class as modern machinery, or efficient factory buildings. If it does not exist in sufficient quantity to ensure the happiness and efficiency of the worker on the job, or if it takes a disproportionate part of his income, it’s bad for business.

We no longer can afford shipbuilding plants or oil refineries which are unsafe or which can’t turn out the expected product, or which cost too much to maintain. Nobody would dream of suggesting that we can. Adequate housing for people who work in the plants and refineries is just as important, and in exactly the same way. The great steel companies of Pittsburgh have found that out. The Russians are learning it the hard way.

[June 26, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Previous Month   Next Month

Index of the Columns

Rexroth Archive