San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



June 1961

Urban Uglification
The Celebrity Elite
Nurturing Student Creativity
American Provinciality
Another Investigation of Campus “Subversion”
Interracial Casting
The Moiseyev Dancers
Government Is Not Business



Urban Uglification

Periodically San Francisco comes down with a kind of running and barking fits — the freeway meemies. It would seem that there are a lot of people in Sacramento and in City Hall being paid an awful lot of money to make the town as hideous as possible. I never met anybody whatever who isn’t opposed to their machinations, lock, stock and barrel.

But it doesn’t do any good. They always seem to get their way. Each attack of the freeway horrors is fatal to another square mile of a city that is only seven miles on the side.

I wonder where the impulse to uglification comes from. It seems to be a special vice of those to whom the public entrusts its parks, recreation and city planning. Commissioner Moses in New York managed to pave a good percentage of the few open spaces of the city with asphalt or cover them with buildings before the citizenry could slow him down.

Thirty years ago San Francisco had huge areas of open space left to the public by some of the old families of the town. Bit by bit most of this has been sold off to make taxable property.

Every year or so a new building goes up in Golden Gate Park and uses up just that much more open ground. Every five years or so a new freeway is slashed across the town. Seven times seven is 49. How many square miles of solid concrete are now occupied by the bridge approach octopus?

I hear the city engineers think the Mall in Golden Gate Park should be destroyed and replaced by parking lots. They have no business thinking such thoughts. The taxpayers pay them to think thoughts of exactly the opposite sort.

What is this? C. Wright Mills says the Power Elite is a Conspiracy of Mediocrity. I don’t know about the Power Elite, but it seems to me that a dry rot of mediocrity and vulgarity is slowly penetrating all our municipal life.

Aristotle said that democracy was the worst of all forms of government for a city. I am by way of being an ultra-extreme Jeffersonian democrat (small d) myself, but I must admit that San Francisco was in almost every way a better city back in the days when it was under the benevolent spell of one man,* who held two, three, four (and once on the Art Commission, five) ex-officio and proxy seats on all the vital commissions. Nobody would ever have said he was a man of exquisite sensibility, but, on the other hand, he was far from a vulgar ignoramus.

In his time the town was wide open, but it was an easy, gracious place to live. Like certain old towns near the Mediterranean, Aix-en-Provence, Lucca, Vicenza, the very stones gave off an aroma of civilization. San Francisco had a tone that was unique in the Western Hemisphere.

Lincoln Steffens said that bad government was good government. Something has certainly gone wrong with San Francisco ever since the last war. Maybe it is the population explosion and the overwhelming influx of ungovernable squares from the benighted rest of the country.

What is happening is not “good government” in Steffens’s sense. We are hardly suffering from reform. San Francisco is slowly being vulgarized out of existence. In a little while it will just be a hilly Wichita.

Pretty soon we will be hiring a new mayor. I hate to be the first frog to ask the crane to rule over us, but I wonder if it would help if a man of wide general culture, independent means and courage and originality could be persuaded to offer himself? Some way has to be found to restore imagination to the corporate life of the city. As it is, every year there is just a little less to go round.

* * *

It’s late to write about the Pacific Ballet, but Alan Howard says they expect to run a short season in the fall. They certainly turned in two thoroughly creditable performances. I thought the choreography a little meager and surprisingly old-fashioned. The Miraculous Mandarin was exciting. Grace Doty was marvelously dramatic and convincing, but this is an odd ballet.

The music is tremendous. There is ample opportunity for interesting if not spectacular dancing. But, as a friend said in the lobby, “As far as meaning goes it is — what should I say — somewhat egregious.” Only too true, egregious is the right word.

The surprise of the show was Christine Bering. Out of ten numbers in two nights, she danced a lead part in six. This was a killing schedule, and yet she carried it with aplomb, enthusiasm, grace, style, everything — an unkillable girl, and a continuous joy to watch.

Janet Sassoon of course was style personified. She is by far the most exciting dancer hereabouts. She has that umja-cum-spiff that is the special radar of the prima assoluta — she imparts that quiver of the scalp, that new shiver. What a pity the young Grand Dukes can’t draw her droshky down the Nevsky Prospekt. Absolutely.

[June 4, 1961]

*Presumably either James (“Sunny Jim”) Rolph, Jr. (mayor 1912-1931) or Angelo Joseph Rossi (mayor 1931-1944).



The Celebrity Elite

Wright Mills in his Power Elite came up with one distinctly new and original insight. He pointed out that as the wielders of power become in fact less and less effective they merge with the elite of celebrities.

Major politicians and great business executives can be seen nowadays, or nowanights, mingled inextricably in a confusion of movie stars, playboys, fabled courtesans and heavyweight boxers in some 30 or 40 nightclubs scattered over the world. It is part of their job to be there, and besides, they apparently love it.

The country’s greatest banker back in the days of the Robber Barons may have put an actress on the silver dollar, but in her company he kept out of the public eye and the public prints. The heir of the greatest throne in the world appears surreptitiously in the dressing room of Zola’s Nana, but he appears incognito.

Today the throne of a tropical despot [Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, assassinated May 30, 1961] tumbles into the lap of the male playboy of actresses and glamour girls and everybody is interviewed on television. The pressing problems of the Caribbean are about to be solved . . . by the sage counsel of Miss Gabor.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no moral objections. I am all for bread and circuses, especially if Theodora, the Empress-to-be, dances on the head of a bear. All I am wondering about is — where have the sources of real power really gone to?

I don’t think it is wrong or degrading that the American President and his wife drive down the boulevards of Europe while thousands cheer hysterically — exactly as they cheer, and for exactly the same reasons as they cheer, for Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye or Louis Armstrong. Everybody knows nothing will happen. Nothing does. They admit it. In the cellars of Washington and Moscow the men in white coats feed punched cards into the mechanical brains. It’s all pretty frightening. But is it diplomacy?

Mrs. Kennedy is pretty and fashionable and good. She won the hearts of Europe. Everybody else just came along for the ride. But for what? The people of Europe are not going to die in millions for the hair-do of a pretty woman. Of course it’s all a show. But these are the people who are supposed to run the show.

Who does? I am afraid it just runs itself. It is some consolation that the world of IBMs and ICBMs is decorated with graciousness and loveliness.

[June 7, 1961]



Nurturing Student Creativity

In the last couple of weeks there have come to my desk, as they say, two student publications that make me feel better about the human race.

One is Transfer, the literary magazine of San Francisco State College. The other is Touchstone, put out by the students of Jefferson High School in Daly City. Both are, what shall I say, monuments of inspired pedagogy. They show what teachers can do with the potential that is always there in students and is, almost always, untapped.

Transfer compares favorably with any literary quarterly in the country and is far better than all but a very few student publications.

What is SF State? In the eyes of the Ivy Leaguers, or even of the University of California, a half-reformed Normal School, a streetcar college. Certainly grade-wise it is an awful lot easier to get into than Harvard. A poll of the contributors to Transfer would likely reveal that all of them, not just a majority, were working their way through school. Why should they do so much better work?

The reason is simple. On the faculty at State there are some dozen thoroughly professional creative writers teaching creative writing. They are widely published and respected. More important, they like to teach. Nobody interferes with them. They teach what they want. But they want to teach.

The big prestige schools hire big prestige names who immediately decide they have “sold out” and who hate their students.

There is nothing political about this “selling out.” Short of overt advocacy of the Communist Party, the more of a rebel you are nowadays, the more likely you are to get a good job in a good school. Obviously, the job of a teacher is to stimulate the minds of the young. My literary colleagues in the blue-ribbon schools don’t like the young at all and loathe stimulating them.

They feel sold out not because they once belonged for a few weeks to the American branch of the 4½ International, but because they know they are obtaining money under false pretenses.

They would so much rather be sitting in Greenwich Village flats talking about who is sleeping with who and what so-and-so said about so-and-so in the last issue of the latest quarterly. This is not good pedagogy.

The potential is always there. Students are much alike, whether they are the young of steelworkers in Pittsburgh’s skyscraper university or kids of steel barons at Yale or ministers’ daughters working their way through Howard. Creativity is always there; those who love to teach can always draw it out.

Pedagogy is a great art. Unfortunately it is not one that interests most writers. It does interest the people who teach at State — hence the spectacular results. All you need for good education is good teachers. Simple, isn’t it? All you need to do is find them. So simple.

Far more spectacular than Transfer is Touchstone. It is absolutely unbelievable that this is the work of high-school students, many of them freshmen 14 years old. There is no special concentration of genius in Daly City. It is hardly San Francisco’s most fashionable suburb. Once again, this potential, which again I want to emphasize is always there waiting to be developed, has been drawn out by great teaching.

In this case it is largely the work of one man, the poet Kenneth Brown. I recommend him to the attention of my colleagues in the local offices of the news weeklies. This is a man who should be featured in the “Education” sections of their papers and made famous.

It is saddening to think that the right person could do this with the kids in most any high school in the country. The lovely poems in Transfer deserve the utmost praise. The kids themselves wrote them and of course theirs is the final credit. But how many hundreds of thousands there are who could experience the same creative wonder and never will. And what will happen to these boys and girls when they leave high school and go on to college or get jobs?

If all this goes for literature, it goes for the teaching of the sciences, too. What sort of world would it be if everybody from childhood on all through life could share, if only a little, in that creative life which keeps our bumbling, self-destructive species going and keeps it human?

[June 11, 1961]



American Provinciality

Last week I entertained a visitor from India, Mrs. Amrita Malik. She is a fellow journalist, critic and creative writer. With a number of other women writers from Asia and Africa she is on a State Department-sponsored tour of the USA and has just completed a similar trip across Canada.

We went to the Cho-Cho for dinner and to King Lear. She was delighted with both. She thought the costumes in Lear terrific, but had one criticism — she found the play too high pitched and high strung throughout, so that climaxes were lost is one general crescendo. I suppose she was right, although certainly Lear does not lend itself very well to modulation. Anyway — she was duly impressed by the high level of accomplishment.

I am not sure Shakespeare and Japanese food are what the State Department thinks of as The American Way of Life, although the combination is certainly part of the San Francisco Way of Life.

We have a good many friends in common in the literary world in London and India. As intellectuals do, when out of the public eye we did not talk of books and authors or politics or ideas — by and large we gossiped. So it was not until just before she left that I discovered something highly significant.

All across Canada she had been interviewed by the press, and on radio and television, and had talked for colleges and other groups. She was not asked very often what she thought of the Canadian Way of Life. She was asked about India. The Canadians were eager to learn as much as they could about Indian art, literature, drama, dance, about the political forces emerging as the Congress Party regroups itself, about the difficult and imaginative economic program.

Mrs. Malik is a thoroughly competent and devoted spokesman for in some ways the most interesting country in the world today. The Canadians got all they could from her.

So far the Americans have shown no such interest. We have been too busy telling her. The assumption always seems to be that these people should be brought here, shown the seven expensive wonders of the American Way of Life and sent home converted. We did the same thing with Nehru a few years back.

I think we have the cart before the horse. Whether bankers, politicians, artists or writers, the elite, the leading class (rather than “ruling class”) of Asia and Africa are citizens of the world. They are as internationally minded and as highly cultivated as the Swedes or Dutch. There are very few of them and they face awesome responsibilities.

We don’t need to convert them to the virtues of the Free World. Far more, we need to listen to them. What they have to tell us, their problems and their hopes, are of crucial importance to the future of all of us.

It is we, not they, who are provincial and unaware of our worldwide responsibilities.

[June 14, 1961]



Another Investigation of Campus “Subversion

Maybe it’s the fiscal year or something. June seems to be a great month for reports. They are blossoming all over the place. Here at home we’ve got two beauties, one taking the city apart [presumably the Blyth-Zellerbach report, discussed on June 28], one seeking subversion in the University of California.

A curious thing about all these subversive committee reports, national and State: The testimony is usually sensational, the final summation is comparatively mild, sometimes even scholarly. The State Senate’s Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities held no hearings and created no sensations while gathering material, and its report, as such things go, is hardly alarmist.

[University of California] President Clark Kerr may have spoken with just a trace of quiet irony when he said: “After two years of investigation the subcommittee has found no specific evidence of successful infiltration by subversive groups of our faculty or of our representative student organizations.”

Nevertheless, his statement is quite true to the letter of the report. The report names only one UC student as a Communist and points out that he is the son of a veteran Communist.

I think it is most significant that the committee discovered, as a general rule, that the more orthodoxly Marxist a student rebel was, the more likely he was to have come from a family of old-line Marxists. I thought it was rock-ribbed Republicans and unreconstructed Dixiecrats who were supposed to go in for hereditary politics.

What this indicates is clear. Orthodox Bolshevism is simply not germane to the issues agitating youth today.

They may thrill to Uncle Vanya’s stories about Hunger Marches and Scottsboro Boys and the General Strike, just as they may thrill to Grandpa Lefty’s tales of his days in the woods and harvest fields with the IWW. It is all very romantic, but it is very far away, sometimes so far away it is a little comic.

A favorite song of the kids at the most fashionable girls’ school is the number from the Wobbly Song Book to the tune of “Red Wing”: “Shall we be slaves and work for wages? It is outrageous! Has been for ages!”

The young men and women who take the Party Line seriously seem to be the ones who do just what Mom and Dad tell them. The real rebels are something else again.

They are opposed to capital punishment. Is Khrushchev? The Russians just extended it to a whole series of crimes.

They are for colonial freedom. Is Comrade Kadar [puppet ruler of Russia-dominated Hungary]?

They are opposed to abuse of the judicial and investigative powers of the state. Like Vyshinsky [prosecutor during the Moscow Trials]?

So it goes with peace, disarmament, racial equality, all the popular campus issues. You’ve got to be buried in a stack of 30-year-old New Masses to believe that Bolshevism is the answer to these problems in mid-century America.

What is really agitating the campuses today — and I know, for I have visited dozens in the past couple of years — is a moral awakening, not a political one. Politics, peace, labor, race, civil rights — young people are demanding that these issues be considered on moral grounds and not be subject to cynical manipulation for ulterior motives. It might be alleged that this is profoundly subversive of the prevailing social order, but it is totally subversive of the principles and practices of “Marxist-Leninism” and no alleging about it.

True, the report reveals that the Communist Party has elaborate plans to take over the student movement. It is the students who are moving, not the Communist Party. By definition a Communist is someone never at a loss for a Plan or a Program. They are expert at coming along behind the significant movements of American society and shouting, “Lookie! Lookie! Me too! Me too!” Curiously enough, they know it only too well of themselves. They have a special, Bolshevik jargon name for it — “tailism.” At every mass purge they have screamed it while kicking each other out of the Party for the past . . . my gosh! it will soon be 40 years!

The reason they are, and always have been, except in the depths of the Depression, at the tail of social change is simple. Their programs and plans and the slogans and demands that embody them are constructed at the dictates of Russian foreign policy. Now Russian foreign policy may be fine for the Russians, but it simply doesn’t translate into the terms of American social change.

A little tale to end with: During the Depression certain radicals in the trade unions proposed to solve unemployment with the 30-hour week. The “theoretical organ” of the Communist Party attacked them with a barrage of scholastic verbiage as “Techno-fascists.”

Why? As a matter of fact because at that time the workers in the Workers’ Fatherland were working a 10-hour day, five days out of a six-day week. Such naïveté has a certain charm, but this kind of thinking is not likely to make much impression on a bunch of sharp-witted student rebels.

[June 18, 1961]



Interracial Casting

By and large I hope to keep entertainment and art out of the Wednesday column and deal with such subjects on Sundays, leaving Wednesday for social comment. However, this time entertainment leads directly to social comment. Also, I want to write about the production of Anna Lucasta and the Mission Community Center, and it plays only this coming Friday and Saturday.

This is a surprisingly professional show. There is nothing very amateurish about it. It is quite as good as anything any of the older little theater groups in the city would do and well worth seeing on its merits just as a well-acted play.

My impulse was to write of it and never raise the issue of race, but since it has been raised, I want to voice my disagreement with my colleagues who have reviewed it.

To the best of my knowledge, Anna Lucasta is the first attempt hereabouts at straight interracial casting. The children of the Lucasta family are played by Negroes. The mother and father are white people.

Marguerite Ray as Anna plays a tortured, father-dominated daughter who might be of any race. She puts across with great conviction the realization that her tragedy is all too universally human. The others do excellent jobs of a kind of in-group Negro humor. Many of their lines go straight over the heads of most of the white members of the audience, but arouse maximum response in the Negro members.

To my mind, however, the father and mother are completely convincing . . . so much so that I for one accepted one or the other immediately as a stepparent. We accept Negroes as Cho-Cho-San or Ophelia or maybe even Desdemona. Why shouldn’t it work the other way round? As the play rolled along I began to realize why.

One of H.L. Mencken’s wittier remarks was, “Never forget that Stalin comes from Georgia, and that means the same thing over there that it does over here.” What Melville Herskovits called “the heritage of the African past” is there all right, but you have to be an anthropologist to dig it out.

With the exceptions of a few customs and an almost indefinable musical influence, American Negro culture is simply Southern culture. The agricultural student from Alabama, the religious bigot, the overworked mother, the rebellious girl, the wiseacre brother-in-law, the hip young sailor — segregation does not divide these types. They are simply members of the rising poor, migrated from the South, caught in our own unmanageable “revolution of expectations.”

Furthermore, the cultural lag of the Southern poor has preserved amongst both Negroes and whites the heritage of the American past. My neighbors in the Western Addition, fresh from Arkansas and Texas, are full of the talk and lore and songs I learned from my grandparents who were pioneers in the Middle West.

[June 21, 1961]



The Moiseyev Dancers

Summer is cummin in and I am up in Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in Yosemite. The next couple of weeks I will be writing about the outdoors, but I still have left over from town a couple of indoor items.

A word of warning. I have never seen the Sierras so early open, nor so many people coming up so soon. If you plan a mountain vacation and haven’t made reservations, you’d better get on your horse. This is not a pitch; I’m serious. This place was full up the third day it opened.

Back to town — I spent a very Russian week. First the Moiseyev Dancers and then a children’s benefit at the Russian Center at which my daughter Mary made her stage debut. The two events were remarkably similar.

Remember I commented on the utter innocence of the Ballets Africains? So too the Moiseyev Dancers. This is probably the largest and most wholesome romp in the history of show business. The only thing remotely like it with us is the Ice Follies.

This perfectly trained, internationally acclaimed troupe of professionals gives off the same rare perfume of joy and wonder as the little girls in their butterfly costumes, first time on any stage, at the Russian Center. I am well aware that they aren’t all that pure and naïve — but the point is, that is the theatrical end in view.

I sat next to one of the leading dancers hereabouts, who is certainly adequately sophisticated. She was in a very tizzy of pleasure. “How they enjoy it! That’s the way all art should be. The work should give the conviction that the artist simply loved doing it.”

I thought of that troubled thing they call the Soul of Western Man, which Mr. Toynbee says has a schism in it. There wasn’t much evidence of such on the stage.

I don’t think it has much to do with Socialism. I’ve known some pretty depraved socialists in my time. The Soviet system has preserved and encouraged the folk culture of the Russian peasantry and the national minorities of the USSR. It has, at least until recently, also held the country back from the maelstrom of mid-century Western European taste and morals. There is nothing Socialist about this; rather, it was a reflection of Stalin’s provincialism and the freshly acquired literacy of the Russian masses.

I don’t doubt but what many of the dancers in the Moiseyev secretly read Jean Genet and Allen Ginsberg — but they sure give the impression they never heard of Dostoevsky, let alone something like Artzybashev’s Sanine, the great shocker of the eve of the Revolution.

The moral climate they create in the theater is what the Russian audience wants. And — Madison Avenue to the contrary notwithstanding — it is obviously what the American audience wants. Even the gowned and starched-bosom first night audience clapped in rhythm, stood, cheered and otherwise carried on like the common folks.

New on the bill was a gypsy, or at least putatively gypsy troupe from Bessarabia, recently acquired by the USSR. The contrast was pretty startling. They didn’t do a thing except wiggle their arms a bit and roll their eyes — but they looked absolutely lewd. It was a bitter note from the Western Sex War and it was certainly dissonant.

What have we done to sex and love and marriage and the family here in our Free World? What do we in fact have of what counts in life, us inhabitants of the Have Nations? We can take the story of a shipwrecked nun or an Alaskan schoolmarm and make it subtly obscene.

In contrast — folk dancing, whether of the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, or Guinea, is largely devoted to portraying courtship and lovemaking. In the Slavic and Central Asian dances the girls wiggled and rolled their eyes too — but somehow there was all the difference in the world. Boy meets girl. Boy ogles girl. Girl ogles boy. Eventually they do a dance that symbolizes more intimate relations. But they enjoy it. There is nothing predatory about it. No false demands. No hidden cruelties. No feeding on one another. By contrast, the really quite wholesome gypsies looked like erotic cannibals.

I don’t go along with Tolstoy who wrote a famous book to prove that sweaters, canoes and Beethoven’s music led straight to perdition. But something is wrong with us that isn’t wrong with the Russians. Not at least with the image of themselves they prefer to believe in.

I am sure that Zinoviev was not the last of a thoroughly corrupt circle of Leningrad intellectuals. I think Stalin probably did murder his ballerina. I am sure a lot goes on over there. But at least they don’t glory in it.

There are probably a minimum of three quarters of a billion thoroughly wholesome people running around outside the Iron Curtain. What a pity they can’t seem to get a little publicity.

[June 25, 1961]



Government Is Not Business

The other day when I spoke of not wanting to be the first frog to ask the crane to come rule over us, I didn’t know how prophetic my irony was. The column was no sooner in print than along came the Blyth-Zellerbach committee report.

There is no doubt but what we need is greater assumption of direct responsibility for the community life of San Francisco on the part of our leading families. There is even less doubt but what this was not the way to go about it.

It is too bad that this committee effort bears the names of two revered gentlemen who have done so much to stimulate the regeneration of San Francisco. The committee probably simply hired some efficiency experts and management consultants who had proven their mettle working on Montgomery Street. This is going to be a hard report to live down. I for one am glad it’s not named after me.

The trouble of course is the unimaginative application of the principles of business economy, efficiency and authority to municipal government. In theory this is fine, but the bitter fact is that government is not business.

It is never cheap or efficient and governmental authority that is not subject to constant challenge soon becomes corrupt.

Some of the suggestions of the report are pure fantasy. Maybe they are designed to draw the fire of critics while the other provisos slip by. Imagine trying to let wages cut themselves in a closed-shop town with one of the highest wage rates and cost of living in the world. Imagine trying to give away the parks to the real estate speculators. Somebody is pulling somebody’s leg.

I suppose the best thing about the report is that it will serve to open up the whole question of charter revision. The present charter was written with what might be called a strong Jeffersonian — not even Democratic, but practically anarchist, bias. The theory was that the less city government there was, the better; the less that government was enabled to do, better still; the more checks and balances there were to interfere with doing anything, more better stiller.

This is my theory of government too, and it is also the laissez faire business notion of the State. The more government could interfere with business, thought the liberals of the last century, the worse government it was.

Today life in our big cities has become so complicated and so delicately and dangerously balanced that we simply have to permit more executive authority and give that authority more freedom of action. Also business, that once wanted just to be let alone, nowadays has a nervous hankering to interfere with government.

The general issue, and all the many related issues — housing, zoning, use and development of facilities and resources, human ecology, city planning in the widest sense — all this is vastly important today. Like all the big cities of the world, San Francisco has reached a climacteric. It is about to grow up into what the books used to call The City of the Future. Those outlandish illustrations in Le Corbusier, those last scenes of The Shape of Things to Come are about to become reality. The future is upon us.

In the next 10 years we will be deciding the structure of the San Francisco of the latter half of the century. We will be making the molds, cutting the templates, that will shape the urban living of our children and grandchildren.

[June 28, 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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