San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



April 1961

More on the Black Muslims
King Lear
A Few Days in New York
New York Jazz Clubs and Genet’s The Blacks
Ionesco’s Rhinoceros



More on the Black Muslims

Here I was going to write a nice inspiring column for Easter, but people have written in with grievances, problems and protests and things have been happening, so I am not sure, sitting down to the typewriter, that I’ll ever get around to being inspiring and Eastery before the wordage is used up.

No, of course I don’t approve of the conspicuous faults of the Black Muslims. It is all right to be anti-white. On the issues concerned, I am pretty anti my own race, taking it as a whole, but I hope in a more rational manner, and without hatred. Much worse than a general hostility to the white race is the specific anti-Semitism of the Black Muslims. They deny it, but it is a matter of record. True, as Malcolm X and some of the other younger and better educated leaders have begun a quiet struggle for respectability, anti-Semitism has been played down and the rather remote anti-Zionism, anti-Israel “solidarity with our Muslim brothers” has taken its place. But the hostility directed at the Jewish merchant or pawnbroker in the Negro ghetto is still there.

As for what is called “self-segregation,” of course it is not a solution. The life and destiny of the two races are inextricably entangled here in America, and no apartheid will ever separate them now. However, some of the most respected leaders of the race have advocated self-segregation in years gone by — notably W.E.B. Du Bois. So it is not a crackpot idea.

One of the principal objectives of current Black Muslim policy is acceptance as a bona fide sect of Islam. Needless to say, race hate, even self-segregation, is abhorrent to the whole teaching of Mohammed — the original one, not Elijah. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t embrace Islam because it accepts all races equally, and take with you into Islam (which means peace, by the way) the mirror image of white chauvinism at its worst.

On the credit side — it is almost as though the leaders of the Black Muslims had taken a book like the great Negro sociologist Franklin Frazier’s study of the American Negro and gone through it and checked all the faults and disabilities and said, “We are going to correct all this,” and proceeded to outlaw them all.

They are not to be commended only for their prohibition of drugs, immoral living, alcohol, tobacco, immodest or eccentric dress, conspicuous expenditure, the exploitation and abuse of relations with white people, and so forth. One of the most remarkable achievements of the movement has been the reconstruction of the chaotic family relationships inherited from the slave past and, as any Negro social worker can tell you, still common, especially amongst poor and uprooted recent immigrants from the South.

It’s so simple. The unskilled Negro man has a hard time getting and holding a job. “Last to be hired, first to be fired.” His wife can always go to work for the white folks as a domestic, and usually bring home more money. The effects of this on the man’s self-esteem and stability are self-evident, as are the sequels in quarreling, desertion, delinquency amongst the children, and so on and on.

The Black Muslims have stopped this tendency towards social disorganization at the source of social life — dead in its tracks, and reversed it. The typical Muslim family is a normal structure of responsibilities, respect and duties. It is not “patriarchal” but each parent has clear responsibilities and therefore real authority.

This is an amazing accomplishment. Perhaps it might be a good idea if the tortured people who disgrace our domestic relations courts took an overdose of Man-Tan and joined up.

* * *

All sorts of telephone calls and letters about the Peace March. The idea that the Friends’ Service Committee is influenced by Communists or fellow travelers is absurd. Coming from an old pietist family myself, I’ve have plenty of experience with Quakers, and let me tell you, they may be nonviolent, but they have wonderful techniques for putting the quietus on people who try to use them. Much more effective and friendly than any goon squad.

The Agitprop Commission never got to first base with them — but neither did Cromwell or the kings of England.

A.J. Muste is one of the oldest anti-Communist radicals in America. It would be possible to put together a book of clippings the size of a volume of the Britannica of nothing but Stalinist abuse and vituperation directed at poor Muste, ever since he was director of Brookwood Labor College in the 20’s. If he is a fellow traveler, so is Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Eleanor Roosevelt and myself — I think we are all on some committee of some sort for some worthy cause right now. At least we have been often enough in the past.

Membership in the Committee of Correspondence does not seem to be incompatible with employment by the Rand Corporation, the armed forces think tank. It was founded by a group of sociologists, psychiatrists, writers, physicists and such like, to explore the most effective possibilities for a negotiable disarmament. Its founders include Erich Fromm, David Riesman and myself. Me, I have been around for two generations and can smell a Red coming by guided missile.

Of course they’d like to take over the bona fide peace and disarmament organizations in the USA. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Don’t believe everything you read. They aren’t very smart. They can’t keep their mouths shut. They have to echo old Nik’s latest speech, and they give themselves away . . . at least to the sophisticated.

Happy Easter, anyhow!

[April 2, 1961]



King Lear

In answer to the gentleman who wrote in — it just so happens that from all over this side of the Iron Curtain these Peace Walks are setting out this spring with precisely Destination Moscow. We shall see what we shall see.

During the first war Lenin and his right bower, Zinoviev, whom Stalin later murdered via the most evil of the evil Moscow Trials, never tired of heaping scorn and contumely on all advocates of peace. However, if our side labels these footsore bands of idealists Red dupes, I am sure Khrushchev is enough of a “petty bourgeois revisionist,” that is, cunning enough, to welcome them with brass bands and caviar sandwiches.

Enough for world politics. I want to talk about King Lear. Goodness gracious, what a caper! I’ve seen a good many Lears in my time, but never one like this, and never one so utterly Learish. It is not just revolutionary, a “theatrical bombshell,” it’s positively atomique as they say in French.

And yet it is more Elizabethan than the Elizabethans, exactly what The Man (Shakespeare) ordered, or would have if he were still around.

Very early on, the more astute Shakespeare critics pointed out that King Lear was not, judged by the classic canons derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, a tragedy at all, but a comedy of horror. Lear is not a noble character with a “tragic flaw,” he is all flaw — a disgusting Angry Old Man. Even in his milder moments he is full of senile self-pity.

Goneril and Regan are worldly, hypocritical women who turn into monsters before our eyes. But all they want in the first place is to cut down their father’s board bill. Cordelia is one of the sillier prigs of all literature. These are the noble characters with tragic flaws — and the tragic flaw is Lear himself.

As I said a while ago, quoting Max Scheler, “Hell is the inability to believe that you are loved.” This is the hell in Lear’s heart that takes flesh in the horrible comic inferno on the heath. The love and loyalty of Kent is helpless and anonymous — he is us — the audience on the stage. Edgar, his love of his father betrayed, feigns, and not altogether feigns, madness.

The love of the Fool is unwanted and unvalued, and his rejection and helplessness throws him into paroxysms of terror. Lear rants and raves and the wind howls and the lightning flares. He is the prehistoric, crowned ancestor of the damned and love-lost, demonic characters of Dostoevsky — Smerdyakov and Raskolnikov.

It is relatively easy to read the play this way. To objectify such a reading on the stage is another matter. This the Actor’s Workshop have done to a T. Not just Herbert Blau, as director, or Michael O’Sullivan as Lear, but everybody. It is all one compacted whole and the impact is stunning.

The scene design and costumes by Bob LaVigne look like a bunch of Martians and Aztecs had divided up the contents of a gorgeous, lunatic rag bag. Morton Subotnik’s “concrete” music sounds as if it were being emitted by the tortured corpuscles of the actors. O’Sullivan plays what is certainly his greatest role to date. But he is not alone. Everybody fits the over-mastering design.

I don’t suppose it is possible to get much more modernistic. The stage set looks like the badly patched underwear of a streetwalker found dead in a gutter. Lights of different colors turn it into everything from a throne room to a tornado-filled moor set about with cromlechs and menhirs. And yet it is all curiously Elizabethan.

You can see the stock company cast of Shakespeare’s later plays. Boosted by musique concert, O’Sullivan rants like Burbage, and Hamlet’s gravediggers and Macbeth’s porter are there, and Ophelia, as foolish as Cordelia, and what an Ariel Robert Doyle, who plays the Fool, would make — and of course, what a Prospero, O’Sullivan.

In fact, watching the plot unfold — or explode — I realized how exactly King Lear is the image in a mirror of horror of The Tempest. Perhaps Caliban is the bridge between the two plays. It is hard to keep William Major’s Edgar straight in your mind. He continuously merges into Caliban, helped certainly by LaVigne’s costume, which gives him the appearance of one of Bruce Connor’s half-decayed babies.

There is a theory, not altogether crackpot, that The Tempest is an entirely symbolic play, an occult, Rosicrucian sort of thing, the acting out in a kind of code of a secret Mystery Ritual of redemption. It isn’t, of course, but it is illuminating to think of it as such. If so, then I suppose King Lear is a mystery ritual of damnation — or is Lear penitent and redeemed at the end?

It is Shakespeare’s greatness that we cannot say.

And so we come back, on Low Sunday, to Easter and Peace.

We live in a world of the love-lost. But who can say how love-lost? After all, it still goes on. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said in his greatest poem, “there broods the dearest freshness deep down things.” How many thousands died in peace in Hiroshima or Auschwitz?

[April 9, 1961]



A Few Days in New York

In New York for a round of literary business — lectures, readings, meetings with editors, literary lunches and dinners (I don’t drink cocktails, literary or otherwise). This has all become an essential part of the racket nowadays.

At least I manage to avoid going through it except for a couple weeks out of the year. When I think of my friends who are doing it every working day in the year for a living, the very thought gives me the shivers. It would be easy enough to be in their place in San Francisco, but as you may know, I do not interview visiting authors and notabilities, either for the paper or for KPFA. If I entertain them, I try to do so in my own home.

You may have noticed that when I write about restaurants and clubs in San Francisco, they are always unpretentious places, run by people who love doing it. “I keep my shop, and my shop keeps me,” sort of places. I keep away from the posh hangouts of celebrities and celebrity viewers. I seldom go where I can nod to my colleagues, the other columnists, the models of the year, lecturing Englishmen and slumming stars of the silver screen. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not my world.

In New York there are a few restaurants that I have known for years, some of them all my life, and love dearly. I usually manage to get my hosts to take me to them, even though they are relatively easy on the expense account.

One of them is the Del Pezzo at 33 West 47th St. Years ago it was farther downtown, very cheap, and very Italian. For 30 years it has been at this address. It has slowly grown dearer, and today it is far from cheap, but the food is better than ever. Last year the Santiccioli family who have run it since 1904 sold out to the former vaudevillian, Jimmy Dwyer, but the only way he changed it is to make the decor a little more old-fashioned elegant and put out a canopy.

The chefs, Spicola and Puppo, who have been there for a generation or more are still there, and still as good as ever. The food is no longer high-class proletarian New York Italian, it is genuine Italian high cuisine of a kind not easily come by even in Italy. The sea food is possibly the best, cooked Italian style, in New York. I had mussels marinara and a small plate of plain paste to smear around in the juice after the mussels were et, and the house wine, like a Scala D’Ischia, and some cheese afterwards, which made a very sustaining lunch.

Sunday I went to Mass at St. Luke’s, Trinity, on Hudson St., where I was baptized, and walked across Greenwich Village to Second Ave. Sunday in Manhattan is now the city’s only good day. The traffic is gone and most of the inhabitants. Downtown New York is once more a gracious, feminine city. The 18th and early 19th century houses with their shell porticoes and Ionic columns and delicate ironwork stand out and the warehouses and skyscrapers and slums recede into the background.

I walked over to Second Ave. to have lunch in Rapaport’s. This, and the slightly more posh Ratner’s next block up, are like no other restaurants in America. They are Jewish restaurants which serve only vegetarian dishes and fish, so the kosherness of the food is not a problem. They are the last major institutions to survive relatively unchanged from the great days when New York was second only to Warsaw as the cultural capital of the Yiddish world.

One night I was taken (it’s a little beyond my own means) to Mirko’s on East 64th. This is new, by my terms, but it is certainly one of my favorite places. Mirko is a bright-cheeked Balkan gentleman who hosts and plays the guitar. There is a pianist who looks like a Serbian banker and a thoroughly internationalized Englishman from a London which is gone who plays the violin. They play all that velvety, deathless corn you hear on a Greek or Italian liner. “Velia” comes around a couple of times during the evening and “Dark Eyes" and "Moscow Nights" even oftener than that. They can even play “Ciao, Ciao, Bambina!”

It is a hangout for Greek shipping magnates, Ukrainian wheeler-dealers, importers with head offices in Istanbul or Alexandria, and the most intensive concentration of expensive-looking women in New York . . . really, not obviously, expensive. The curious thing about it is that money has made no difference to these people. They still carry on just like they did at the Greek and Russian picnics 35 years ago when they were all making $20 a week or less. Massive, gray-haired, distinguished gentlemen get up and roar out that thing about the bells so dear to the hearts and lungs of Russian bassos. Greeks in plain dark suits that cost 300 bucks arise and wail the songs of the shepherd of Mt. Olympus and maybe dance a few steps like bears. The ladies in the impeccable $25 pompadours clap, sing and beat tambourines. Waiters run about with flaming shasliks. The Metaxas brandy and the slivovitz flows. The poulets au Kiev is the best in New York. And the place is uncrowded and about 20 feet square.

One night I walked through the Village and looked in the windows of the immense espresso bars, bigger than any Automat or Child’s ever was, full of insecure young men who all looked exactly alike and who all seemed to be talking earnest about exactly the same subject. Kafka? Ionesco? Henry James? It was easy to see what had happened to the Bohemia of my youth, with all its uninhibited, exceptional people. Only the rich can still afford it.

[April 16, 1961]



New York Jazz Clubs and Genet’s The Blacks

NEW YORK. — Visited the Jazz Gallery; this is the new place run by the Termini brothers, owners of the Five Spot, New York’s most consistently exciting jazz room. Max Roach has a show, produced by himself, called Another Valley. It has been hailed as a sort of Orpheum Circuit Cry of Revolt, and it is true, it has a faint flavor of African Nationalism about it.

Max makes a little speech about what a terrible time the Black Man has getting anywhere in the USA, all dressed up in a jacket, I think of hand-woven raw silk, that looks like it cost a couple of bills. There are a couple of Neo-African Dancers from Pearl Primus and Her Group — or maybe it’s Katherine Dunham. A sallow poet recites an interminable poem about the rough time he had growing up in Chicago. He certainly serves effectively to clear the house. Star of the show is Abbey Lincoln.

Miss Lincoln is an extraordinary example of what you can do with good looks, determination and that special talent known as “show business.” She can’t sing. I mean she can’t sing at all, and she can’t even give a convincing imitation of singing. But what she can do is look like she owns the place and everybody in it. She has a special arrogance and projection that is worth the door charge.

In other words, she is a very considerable actress, and I wouldn’t mind at all having her on the bill with me, even if she isn’t Galli-Curci or even Lady Day. Just incidentally, she is beautiful. She is reputed to be the leader of a small group of African Nationalists herself — a term rapidly becoming synonymous with “bohemian intellectual” in Harlem.

She, along with some other people, are rehearsing Jean Genet’s Les Nègres. In this she should be absolutely wonderful. The play itself should make as much commotion as the Scottsboro trial. There is something in it to offend everybody. Genet, as all the world knows now, is a French ex-convict who claims a past considerably more lurid than Chessman’s.

His plays are windy and very wacky. The Blacks is specially windy and wacky. It is also an interpretation of the Negro race from the point of view of one of the most sinister varieties of French hustler. This is a stereotype, as false as the minstrel show, the faithful darky, the Muslim trumpeter, or the evanescent Left Liberal Negro the white Left Liberals are always seeking, so tirelessly and so futilely, in the other race. But Genet’s stereotype is so crazy and so perverse it should shock everybody, without exception, right out of their seats.

When it opens, I hope everybody, but everybody, the NAACP, the KKK, the Urban League, the John Birch Society and the Trotskyites, will be down in front of the theater with picket lines. Trouble is, everybody will say it’s Great Art and drool over it. That’s all right, too. Maybe it is. It is certainly pretty frightening.

In France they had great difficulty holding the cast. As the meanings sank home, people quit. It is a genuinely shocking play.

Our local theaters are always moaning about how they have no roles for Negro actors. Here’s their chance. It would leave the community stunned.

Jazz-wise, New York is pretty dull right now. Mingus is off at the Copa in Jamaica — Long Island, not the Antilles. What they call security seems to have released Charlie, and he’s off in all directions, amazingly fertile in ideas. Charlie could play “Dardanella” and make it great art. It so happens that he has come up with a whole brace of notions, novel even for Mingus — and they don’t sound like Ornette Coleman.

Count Basie has a great show at the Apollo, Bill’s band in all their glory playing on what is now home field. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Red Foxx, Norma Miller’s Dancers, Aretha Franklin, Baby Lawrence, and Singer’s Midgets in the Kitchen Sink. The contrast with Another Valley is not a point to be belabored — but it is sure obvious. There is a kind of splendor to a show like this that calls back the brave old days of Shuffle Along. Between you and me, it’s better in many ways than that fabled show, which had some grim moments.

This all raises in my mind the question — why can’t we put on a show in San Francisco? Just before I left town I dropped into the Stereo Club for the Charlie Parker Memorial Monday night and the place was packed solid, more crowded than any San Francisco club I’ve ever been in. If just the rumor that a few celebrities might show up and tootle off a bit of Ornithology could bring out such a swarm, what would happen with a real full dress show?

I know three girls who happen to be neighbors who can sing circles around the people in Basie’s show, let alone Miss Lincoln’s. Who? Ada Moore, Marguerite Ray, and a girl who lives down the street and has never had a real date, Margarite Green. Dick Gregory is packing the Blue Angel. We’ve got Dick Gregorys of our own. Bands are no problem. And I have yet to see anybody around New York to equal the combination of Sally Bailey, Mike Smuin and Zack Thompson . . . and no late-born Café Society Africanism either. I humbly submit the idea to Mr. Benjamin, my friend of the Stereo Club. I’d just love to help.

[April 23, 1961]



Ionesco’s Rhinoceros

Remember I said once that Ionesco was similar to, but not as good as, Buster Keaton? His Rhinoceros has been packing them in on Broadway and everybody is saying, “Look at us, ain’t we civilized?” This is silly and provincial. There is nothing highbrow, let alone avant-garde, about Rhinoceros.

It is, in fact, a vulgar play. It reduces one of the great problems of our time, the mass acceptance of evil, to a mildly funny platitude. Except in the disputes of metaphysics there is no such thing as abstract Evil. There are only specific evils.

Everybody from Eichmann to Schweitzer, like Cal Coolidge’s minister, is “opposed to sin.” The question of course is what content we give those empty terms.

Conformity is not an evil as such. It is one of the many techniques for coping with certain problems of life. On the Bay Bridge we are all conformists. Sick communities do not turn into funny rhinoceroses, they turn into Nazis or witch hunters or die of boredom and strange lusts.

The rhinoceros must be characterized to be meaningful. Otherwise you’ve got just another night of cheap entertainment.

During the Second War painting in America, beginning in Seattle, San Francisco, and to a much lesser degree in New York, underwent a great change. The box-like space inherited from Raphael or Poussin, and characteristic of all modern French painting, was abandoned for the open space of Far Eastern art and the great baroque ceilings of Tintoretto and Tiepolo, and the intact colored object was replaced by dynamic brush work.

This is all the revolution of Abstract Impressionism amounts to. Contemporary painting is subject to the same canons of judgment as any similar painting in the past.

I make these remarks because I have little doubt but that many young French painters, seeing Mark Tobey or Rothko, believe it is all a stunt, and that as citizens of the capital of Fashion, Perfume, Art and Vice, they can pull of better stunts than any hick from Seattle, Wash.

At the moment there is on view in New York a show that has, to the best of my knowledge, not received a single unfavorable review from a respected critic, though some have been mildly ironic. A young Frenchman, Yves Klein, is exhibiting a room full of rectangles painted blue all over.

That’s right, just blue, one smooth coat of Royal Blue. There’s nothing odd or subtle about the shapes. They are standard French canvas sizes. The blue is blue. The propaganda from a leading European gallery director, the statements to the press issued by M. Klein, the whole PR blowup, are hilarious examples of unblushing effrontery. In my very young days I was once a burlesque candy butcher, so I derive considerable aesthetic pleasure, as an old pro, from observing so outrageous a pitch.

The paintings cost a pretty penny and rate with the choicest of the chic. I am sure that any large paint company would be delighted to provide exact duplicates free to any chic matron in return for a casual mention at cocktails or bridge of the brand name. Really, I ask you, whither are we drifting?

Back in town. Dinner at the Boule Noire, where my friend Nausica has taken over as head of the kitchen. (There’s no such word as chefess.) Had chicken Napoleon and it was really something. Sonny Wayne, one of the owners and once drummer at The Cellar, says they are going to have dancing, a good trio, a good pianist and intimate singer for intermission, and eventually a whole bill of French acts.

What a pity no booking agent can get an entire show lifted from Paris and off on the Road. I think Brassens, the bitterest and wittiest singer of our day, the clowns, Les Frères Jacques, Germaine Montero singing the songs of Aristide Bruant about ’90s tarts and murderers, a couple of dancers, and one of those typical combination monologuists and magicians, a bill like this would make a whole lot of money for perhaps ten clubs in the USA. Maybe the Boule Noire can start something in that direction.

Then across the street to one of the great actors of all time — Raimu in the trilogy, Marius, Fanny, César. Raimu is possibly the only really great man ever to become a movie actor. Watching him is pure joy. The trilogy is the epic of Marseille and Provence.

The year we lived in Aix there was never a week one of the pictures wasn’t showing somewhere within 100 miles. But, alas, they simply don’t have the substance to stand six hours of a straight runoff of all three. They’ll not be shown again till 1985. The producers of the musical Fanny have bought all rights and intend to hold then off the market for 25 years. So this is your last chance.

[April 30, 1961]


“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.

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