San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



July 1961

The Meaning of Conservation
Morality Crisis
The Death of Hemingway
Sierra Camps
Sausalito Cuisine and Camus’s Caligula
The Berlin Crisis
Dangerous Bluster over Berlin
The Bizerte Crisis
The New York Ballet



The Meaning of Conservation

Big doings in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite Park, with the dedication of the finally completed new Tioga Pass Road. Plenty of ceremony and celebration and celebrities, but everybody was a little embarrassed. You could smell the twinges of conscience in the air.

Only recently an outstanding spokesman for the Department of the Interior had referred to the project as a serious mistake. Here was a case where recreation and conservation had collided and, in the opinion of the authorities, conservation had been pushed aside, if not totally wrecked.

Is this true? I am by way of being a rabid conservationist myself, but I wonder. What is conservation for? In the final analysis it is always for people. Unless we are sentimentalists, we don’t conserve the bison or the Big Trees for themselves, but for us.

Just because something is natural is no reason why it should be preserved. Just because it is there is no sign it is natural, least of all that it is unspoiled.

I am only too familiar with the Indian worshipers in Taos, N.M., who are willing to fight to the last millionairess to ensure the right of the Indians to ingest plenty of cholera vibrios with their drinking water.

One of the leading exponents of the cult of Lo, the Poor Indian no sooner got in a position of authority than he came up with brilliant notions for restoring to the defenseless redskins the priceless values of their primitive culture — such as the idea that the Crow, who have grown rich off one of the finest cattle ranges in the world, should trade off their cows and go back to living on bison.

As the population explosion goes on exploding and our environment grows more and more mechanical and man-made we must be ceaselessly vigilant to defend and preserve those remnants of the environment from which we came, the organic web of life that nurtured our ancestors when they first started chipping rocks. However we as a species came to crowd the earth, let’s hope we can always save enough of the prehuman world so that we can at least imagine ourselves as part of the balance of Nature. If we don’t, as the fellow said, I don’t know what will happen to us.

Reverence for life in the abstract is fine, but I am willing to let Albert Schweitzer worry about the spirochetes his injections kill. My reverence is for human life. So I am all for the preservation of wilderness areas, but not just so the bears can look at each other.

Conservation does not mean locking up sections of the natural environment in museum vaults from which the public is effectively excluded. It means careful, intelligent use that disrupts the nonhuman ecology as little as possible.

Careful, reverent use comes from the attitude of a whole people, not from a table of prohibitions thought up by the authorities. Switzerland is a pretty crowded country, and yet a lot of it looks pretty much as it did to Hannibal. England is still more densely and far more uniformly populated. No people has ever had a greater love for their countryside. True, it doesn’t look much like it did to Julius Caesar, it looks much prettier.

The point of all this is that while I am prepared to resist any attempt to build a road over the Sierra through the Kings River Canyon or to turn the Golden Gate Panhandle into parking lots, I don’t see any great virtue in refusing to improve an existing road that the public insists on using anyway. After all, the public have a right to at least one place in the state where they can drive to high mountain meadows and alpine lakes. In this instance they have been voting for the right with 40 years of burning engines and burnt-out bearings.

The real conservation problems in Yosemite are, first, the rescuing of the Valley itself from imminent destruction, and second, the education of the public.

I believe all overnight use of the floor of Yosemite Valley should be abolished within the next 20 years. Perhaps the hotel and a few camps could stay for the use of conventions and conferences and other public activities, something like Asilomar. As it is, the place is an outdoor slum.

On the second point, trails, camps and viewpoints littered with gum and film wrappers and beer cans are far more dangerous than the paving and widening of a few miles of mountain road. Switzerland and England are beautiful because of the taste and sensibility of their people. A nation that doesn’t give a damn how much of a mess it makes wherever it goes can pass all the laws and create all the primitive areas it wants, but it won’t begin to understand the meaning of conservation.

Believe me, this is not just the good old editorial about litterbugs. What we call conservation comes out of a kind of spiritual courtesy. It is a Confucian virtue. Confucius had a word for it, he called it “human-heartedness.”

[July 2, 1961]



Morality Crisis

Still up at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, turning over in my mind the problems of man and nature, conservation, private and public use of natural resources. In the long run it’s the question of the relation of private to public morality. I have an article to do for a weekly, and a “Memo” to do for a Foundation and a speech to give at Aspen, all on “Is There a Crisis in Public Morality? In Private?”

I think it is all one pattern, the soaring juvenile delinquency in fashionable suburbs, the divorce rate amongst psychoanalysts and other guardians of the public morals gradually overtaking that which prevails amongst the other castes of celebrities, the destruction of parks and boulevards by freeways and parking lots, shady dealing amongst the organization men of big corporations, the shameful capers of some Americans abroad — and not all of them in unofficial capacities — the Mafia in pre-Castro Havana, debauched wheeler-dealers in a nightclub in Tehran, musical beds in Beverly Hills, opium buyers in Laos, quiet understandings amongst respectable executives, tortured souls destroying each other in the divorce courts while the lawyers gobble up everything they own, kids who say, “It’s a lousy world, so I killed me about 10 people.”

At least we seem to have suddenly become very self-conscious of our faults, and that is ground for hope.

Thomas Aquinas pointed out that sins are acts and so can always be forgiven, no matter how heinous; but the habit of evil becomes ingrained. The evil liver cannot forgive himself.

To judge from the papers, the American people seem to have been shocked into a mood of repentance, and examination of conscience. The next stage in personal life is called “amendment of ways.” This is not an easy thing for a whole society to do. Too many people enjoy their unamended ways.

A few weeks ago I was driving up to Harvard with my publisher [James Laughlin] and another friend. All the way from New York we had been talking about what was wrong with American men and American women and American life — momism, acquisitiveness, alienation, broken homes, conspicuous expenditure, all the clichés of 50 years of highly critical sociology. My publisher drove, said little, left the discussion to the two of us.

At last he said, “You’re both all wrong. What is wrong with American marriage is what is wrong with our life generally. We have never worked out mature and efficient techniques for handling our privacy and our public lives. We don’t know how to be alone. We don’t know how to be two alone together. We don’t know how to be one person in public. We don’t know how to be a couple in public. And we can’t mesh what private and public lives we do have.”

He drove for a little while in silence, while we sat stunned as if with a sudden revelation. Then he said, “I guess this is the definition of civilization. If we don’t learn it, we’ll never be a civilized people. Maybe time has run out and it is too late to learn.”

[July 5, 1961]



The Death of Hemingway

Before I read Joseph Alsop’s vignette of Hemingway I had planned to devote part of this column to what might be called noncommittal tribute to an unquestionably important writer. I’m sorry, but I just have to speak up. I find all this glorification of Hemingway for his manifest evils nauseating.

This picture of a bunch of aging journalists and international bohemians staggering into a peasant cockfight and making grand whoopee is — is what? — you name it. One thing it certainly isn’t, and that is the expression of an appetite for intense significant experience.

I don’t care much for people who enjoy killing things, but I am willing to put up with hunters as long as they don’t carry their habits into private and public life. (Trotsky wired Zinoviev re the Kronstadt sailors, in revolt for the fulfillment of the promises of the Revolution, “Shoot them like partridges.” Bertrand Russell commented, “A hunter should never be allowed to lead a revolution.”)

I abominate people who make of killing a spectator sport. I honestly believe that all Americans who go to bullfights in the Spanish countries should be locked up on their return to the States.

How can anyone say that Hemingway loved life? It was death that fascinated him, as he never tired of saying. Love is not the word — that implies extreme positive evaluation. Death fascinated him as snakes are supposed to fascinate sparrows, with an empty but irresistible lure.

Life comes at the characters of Hemingway’s fictions not as experience, but as sensation. He is master of the brilliant still life — nature like a stereopticon picture, far sharper than reality. Far sharper, but that is all — never more meaningful. Similarly his people are perfectly delineated cutouts, more defined than people, who shade off into all sorts of obscurities, ever are.

His speech, which once sounded so realistic, is the same way — reading Men Without Women, it seems to be in a kind of blank verse, the ceremonial language of a religion without deity, without faith, hope, or charity.

Compare his novel of the Spanish War with Malraux’s. I think much of Malraux’s moralizing and philosophizing is flashy and dishonest. But it is dishonest — when it is so. Honesty, motivation, evaluation, have nothing to do with Hemingway’s story. His Spanish War was not a tragedy — but an enormously complicated fiasco, like a bullfight, but about girls with no place to sleep and men with nothing to do but die.

Do not think I have sat down to write an attack on Hemingway. Quite the contrary. He was a very great writer. His attitudes to life have become a codified faith of the faithless. They make a substitute for religion amongst the technical and professional intelligentsia all over the world — a class far more alienated than ever was Marx’s working class. His empty, clipped, ominous speech is parodied by television detectives and French philosophers. Bullfights are now legal in the country of Montaigne.

Long ago, when his first books came out, somebody — was it Wyndham Lewis? — said that you knew Hemingway was terribly cultured and brainy, because his characters never used good English and never said an intelligent thing. This is what he stood for from the beginning, the conscious rejection of what we call the Humanist tradition. He was a bullfight aficionado because Shaw was a vegetarian and Rolland a pacifist.

For so many, the rationalistic, humanistic society that had evolved in the Western World for three hundred years came to trial in the First World War and was found wanting — utterly wanting. Lady Brett and her pals and the old man and his fish, the indictment never changes. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

People have said that in the face of an empty but still hostile world. Hemingway’s only value was courage. But courage involves fairly complex relationships with other real people. His response was not an act of evaluation, it was rather a reaction, a kind of lonely attitude of flat defiance.

In his own personal life it often assumed the character of childish truculence. Truculence, they say, is an expression of insecurity. Hemingway’s world was awfully vacant; there weren’t any comfortable nooks and shelters in it.

The significant thing is that it is also the world of vast numbers of people, and especially overcivilized people today. Irrationalism, hidden anguish, unrelieved insecurity, defiance — these, once individual, personal qualities or defects, are becoming the characteristics of our civilization.

It is a measure of Hemingway’s stature as an artist that he embodied them unmistakably. He, more than anyone else, first shaped a new archetype, a new myth, a different kind of Modern Man. This modern man is certainly a tragic figure, but the tragedy is not a literary one, it is society’s.

[July 9, 1961]



Sierra Camps

With my two daughters I’ve been visiting the High Sierra Camps run by the Curry Company in Yosemite. I want to do a travel piece on them — they are the ideal introduction to the mountains, but first I want to say a bit about their significance for what I feel must be a new philosophy of conservation.

They are an almost perfect example of controlled use of one of our most important human resources — the still intact American wilderness.

We are still blessed in this country with a vast reservoir of undistorted, genuinely unspoiled, wild country where mankind has so far interfered with nature very little, if at all. This is not just a “wildlife resource,” it is a human resource, a reservoir of recreation, peace and contemplation.

Use which preserves those values is conservation. Use which destroys or inhibits them is not.

The days of the old-style Wild West use of the mountains are gone. Time was when a party of professional people of moderate means thought nothing of hitting the Sierra trails with 30 head of pack and saddle horses and an assortment of packers and cooks and guides. Everybody got drunk, the fish weighed two pounds each and fought for the privilege of swallowing hooks, deer came to rock salt discreetly planted by the guides during the summer and asked to be shot, and all season long the horses gobbled up the meadows while the tin cans grew alongside camp.

For better or worse this sort of thing has priced itself out of all but a very small market. A two-week pack trip for a family of four now costs a minimum of $1000. Meanwhile, some of the finest meadows in the Sierra were turned to deserts of sand, rocks and weeds, and campsites of spectacular beauty into dumps.

I would like to see the extension of the fixed camp with all accommodations, of the type now operated in Yosemite, to all the Sierra. It would be wonderful if all down the crest of the range, from Tuolumne Meadows to Mt. Whitney, and on in to Giant Forest, there were such camps, spaced an easy day’s walk apart — say every nine miles. There is plenty of room. They wouldn’t have to be planted smack in the midst of the famous beauty spots, but as they are in Yosemite, just a little out of the way, beside the trail.

Such a program would make trips possible for thousands of people who now find it too difficult or too expensive to enjoy the exhilarating and healing beauty of the high country, and it would put a stop to uncontrolled destructive grazing.

Of course, those who wanted to could still ride or knapsack or go with donkeys — but how many of California’s present inhabitants know which end of a horse animal is the steering gear? How many can carry a 60-pound pack over mountain trails?

Trouble is, even now, heavily used, established for many years, the Curry Company’s camps don’t make money — and the capital outlay for new ones has become fantastic. The Rockefellers and Fords are always fretting about conservation — here’s a chance to achieve some big results with, in their terms, a minuscule outlay of money.

[July 12, 1961]



Sausalito Cuisine and Camus’s Caligula

My sardonic and sentimental colleague and rival hereabouts may once have referred to me as the Bernard Baruch of the Beat Generation — but with more wit than truth. I am, as a matter of fact, unusually antagonistic to organized Bohemianism.

For a good many years I have avoided Sausalito. There are some things about the place that give me the creeps. When I heard of an excellent restaurant over there I visualized a joint with rubbable waitresses in leotards, and moderne, permissive, abstract expressionist cuisine. I take it all back. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

House guests from New York insisted on being taken to the Ondine, and I discovered one of the world’s pleasantest places to eat and some of the best food hereabouts. Sunset, opal water, tilting sails, lapping waves, Chateauneuf de Pape, duck with oranges, endive, cheese, what more do you want?

Something about eating in a waterscape — comes the Revolution, maybe all restaurants will be so built. Copenhagen — Venice — it is a joy even to eat in the Royal Festival Hall restaurant and watch the sunset over the Thames.

But even if there was a fine restaurant at the end of the Piazzetta in Venice, looking out over the Grand Canal towards San Giorgio and the Saluta, it would be hard put to compare with the vista from the windows of the Ondine. There is a café at that spot in Venice, but it isn’t very good.

Alfred Robin, chef at the Ondine, leaves nothing to be desired; he just turns out perfectly satisfactory, fine cooking. Another of the partners, George Gutekunst, came over to the table and we had a talk about books and authors. Why, he actually turned out to be quite as good a critic as myself. We agreed perfectly. We ended up talking about Martin Anderson Nexo, a name I haven’t heard in 30 years. As I said — what more do you want?

As you may know, I recommend very few restaurants indeed and when I do I’m strictly self-starting; no PR man has been at me.

* * *

Ballet 61 has started off with a bang. We have the only company in the country offering what you’d call summer stock, 6 weeks, 12 performances, each week a new bill. Feature Friday and Saturday was Crucible, a rather Ingmar Bergman number by Kent Stowell, featuring Christine Bering, Fiona Fuerstner and Bobby Gladstein. Coming up will be Shadows, a silhouette ballet of the kind pioneered in my salad days by Dennis-Shawn, choreographed by Lew Christensen, with Jocelyn Vollmar, Sue Lloyd and Kent Stowell.

Working with the inner core of the big company makes it possible to use trained dancers, imaginative young choreographers from within the group itself, and new and radical material without being encumbered by the responsibilities of a big, all-out production. Last year was a real joy and this year promises to be even better.

Went to see Camus’s Caligula at the Playhouse. Kermit Sheets, one of the great movie clowns (have you ever seen Jimmy Broughton’s movies?), is becoming an expert director of bed sheet tragedy — you know, Julius Caesar, Quo Vadis and all that noise. Honestly, this sort of thing is not at all easy to do. A toga is darned hard to make convincing.

The Playhouse vest pocket stage once again, as in Absalom, looks like several thousand square feet and the Romans really act like Romans. Best of all are the two who presumably act like manumitted Greek slaves, René Molina as Caligula’s favorite, Helicon, and Libby Glenn as his fading mistress. David Thompson is as convincing as Caligula as he was as Absalom. He better watch out, the public will come to think of all the great neurotics of history as looking like him, just as my generation thought Disraeli, Richelieu and several other historical figures looked like George Arliss.

I for one found the existentialist propaganda by Camus a mite dated. The whole litany of the terrasse of the Café Flore as of 1947 was there — nausea, alienation, black bile, anguish, and everybody just kept on quoting Pascal about being terrified of the vastness of infinite space, when they weren’t quoting Kierkegaard. I’ve done this myself in my time.

It is all right when it is done with ironic intent, but the young Camus was in such deadly earnest, and, trouble is, none of it is true. With the discovery of the extragalactic nebulae just before this play was written, the black infinities of Pascal’s day were multiplied several billion times, and as far as I can make out, the discovery doesn’t scare anybody a bit.

In its heyday, existentialism was a kind of metaphysical masochism, the philosophy of le monde concentrationnaire, the world in concentration camp. The world is not in a concentration camp anymore. It may well be in something much worse, but the credo — what the French call the “kyriale” of existentialism — just doesn’t seem to fit the case. But see the play. It is far more adult, far more satisfactory entertainment than all but a couple of plays this year.

[July 16, 1961]



The Berlin Crisis

“U.S. ALERT,” “MILITARY EMERGENCY,” “CALL-UP OF MILLION,” and under these headlines, emanating presumably from an inspired source, a list of the advantages of the declaration of limited national emergency, amongst them, “It . . . would lend itself to the building up of a ‘war psychosis.’ ”

Gee, there’s nothing like being frank about it! Or is the word shameless?

Is there an emergency, or are both sides bluffing? The atmosphere of emergency is due almost entirely to the fact that American policy, inherited from John Foster Dulles, is pinned to German reunification. But is this really American policy, or is it bluff, too?

It is my belief that no responsible person in Russia, the United States or either Germany believes in the possibility of reunification in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, nobody wants it, except possibly a slight majority of the East German common people, who aren’t going to be consulted, one way or the other.

I’d rather, if I was asked my druthers, see Germany divided into as many mutually antagonistic parts as possible.

As for Berlin itself. Do diplomats, just to make business, build into all peace treaties the fuses to ignite future wars? Or are they just plain stupid?

What kind of folly thought up Danzig and the Polish Corridor at Versailles? The same kind of folly that thought up Berlin a generation later. They got us all into this mess and it seems to me that we pay their salaries to get us out.

The solution of the deliberately and artificially created “Berlin Problem” is now an enormously complicated technical problem. Nobody shows the slightest indication of willingness to approach it this way, but solely in terms of glory, honor, national integrity, and the defense of civilization. These are not words for communication, but banners designed to arouse emotions.

Maybe we should go to war, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should blow ourselves and everybody else up. Maybe not. But it behooves us all to do a little thinking about it.

Today there showed up in the mail a flyer from the American Friends Service Committee, eight programs running from July 25 to August 3, under the general title, “If You Were President,” on KFAX at 5:30 p.m. There will be talks on all the ramifications of war and peace, disarmament and the atom.

Since it is the Quakers who are sponsoring it, the series will certainly be a strong statement for peace and general disarmament. But it will also include rebuttal from the other side. And one thing about the Quakers, they have a real genius for spotting and avoiding spokesmen for phony “peace fronts” and fellow travelers.

I hope there will be coming up in all the media serious high-level discussions of this sort. It behooves us all to listen to calm good sense. I for one am not in the least interested in being built up as a psychotic.

[July 19, 1961]



Dangerous Bluster over Berlin

Irving F. Laucks sends me regular bulletins from Healdsburg, where he operates what looks like a one-man Committee for Reciprocal Disarmament. There is nothing specially cranky about his letters. They are always calm and reasonable. The latest one, however, proposes something that sounds very cranky indeed.

“Both Khrushchev and we admit a huge mistake was made 15 years ago when Berlin was encompassed by hostile territory. To rectify the mistake we simply move West Berlin into West Germany where it belongs — for all its citizens who want to go. We (with the whole world gladly helping) share the expense. Now — no one’s face is lost. You don’t need to be DEAD, and I don’t need to be RED.” (The last sentence refers to the famous editor’s remark, “I’d rather be DEAD than RED.”)

Jennie Ogden writes the paper from San Francisco, “Buy Mr. Khrushchev’s equity in East Berlin. . . .”

On the face of them, both these suggestions sound ironic or cranky or both. Are they as a matter of fact? How many people realize that in the first 24 hours of the Third World War more people will die than inhabit all of Germany, East and West, more property will be destroyed than could be bought by the present national debt?

We talk about “facing up to the Russians” like we were saying “Remember the Maine.” How sincere is all this big talk? If the heads of the American and Russian states really mean what they are saying, they are still living in another age.

We are not facing up to one another rattling our nuclear warheads. We are facing up to the extinction of civilization and probably to the extinction of the human race and all other vertebrate life on this planet. If this is what we mean, let’s say so. But let’s stop talking as if we were about to embark on the Crimean War.

One thing you’ve got to give de Gaulle credit for — he talks sense. Some years back — was it at the time of the first Berlin crisis? — he was talking with Comrade Mikoyan and the comrade raised the possibility, “What if we did this and you did that and then we did this?” The General replied, “We’d all be dead, but so would you.” This is bona fide facing up, and it is not facing up to pretend that Chairman Khrushchev is Aguinaldo.

Facing up like this requires courage. Courage requires a lively apprehension of the meaning of mass death. Armageddon cannot be comprehended in terms of the advertising copy for Forest Lawn. If our leaders — by “our” I mean all humanity — on both sides of the Iron Curtain mean war, they should say what war means.

Maybe half of us would rather be dead than red and the other half would rather be dead than capitalist, but dead most of us will be if the bombs go off, and we should be aware of this certainty. If they don’t mean it, they are blustering and the possibility of war by misadventure is too high a price to pay for the pleasures of bluster — “acting out,” the psychiatrists call it.

Furthermore, let’s talk about the Berlin crisis in terms of reality. Mr. Kennedy says the problem must be solved on the basis of the universally recognized principle of self-determination. What does he mean by “must”? What does he mean by “universally”? He and I recognize the principle, if by recognizable we mean desirable. Does Chairman Khrushchev? Of course not.

Does anybody believe that the East Germans are ever going to be allowed to vote in free elections on their fate? Since when have the Russians been allowed to do this? “Must” in this case certainly means force, but even after the force had been exerted and our side had won, how would “self-determination” inside the Iron Curtain be implemented and how long would it take to implement it?

Mike Mansfield has been attacked as a Trojan horse for suggesting a very tentative program for negotiation. But he had the right idea. Let’s insist that our leaders stop talking glittering generalities and moral platitudes and talk about the negotiable facts of the situation.

Civilization has already been called on twice to die to make the world safe for democracy, and it is certainly less safe now than ever. Civilization is not a cat; it hasn’t got nine lives, but, from the looks of things, only this one left.

[July 23, 1961]



The Bizerte Crisis

Thank God Mr. Bourguiba [president of Tunisia] isn’t pro-Russian, or we’d probably all be dead. Of all the leaders of the former colonial world, this is the man most on our side. Of all the leaders of the Arab world, he is the most temperate and judicious.

With Nasser’s Radio Cairo abusing him on the east and the FLN and the French fighting back and forth across his borders on the west, he has kept his head and kept his new country on an even keel. Nehru, in a perpetual slinging match with Pakistan over Kashmir, looks positively warlike in comparison.

If shooting is going to break out under the watchful eye of a man like this, what chance is there of keeping permanent peace in the really hot spots of the world?

It is inconceivable that the battle of Bizerte started with the knowledge and connivance of headquarters in either Paris or Tunis. Maybe it is inconceivable — but maybe it did anyway — maybe the leaders of the two countries really did know and consent. This is not a chilling thought, it is terrifying.

The Bizerte battle is just the most dramatic instance of something that is happening all around the world. The postwar status quo is breaking up, the modus vivendi under which we have been living for 15 years is becoming unlivable for many. Cracks are appearing, and in the cracks, gunfire.

Of course the Tunisian settlement is not even that old — it dates only from Mendès-France, and already it has broken down.

Somehow, we assume that affairs are relatively safe in the hands of the Big Powers. Their eyes are on the main chance, and if things come to a showdown it will be the big showdown — the bombs will go off over something important.

We worry about Iran, Taiwan, Portugal and its African colonies, Paraguay or Guatemala. Trouble we think may start in some vestigial remnant, some vermiform appendix and spread through the system and kill us. We are just calming down over The Congo and Cuba.

We forget that there is no guarantee that Lumumbas and Castros, in personality if not in political opinions, may not turn up at the very top.

This is why so many present-day Europeans and Englishmen look on France with a jaundiced eye. The General [President de Gaulle] is not Patrice Lumumba, but he is certainly a charismatic personality in the sense that the French public has endowed him with semi-divine political gifts. He has kept the country from falling apart only because he has held it captive in a mystique which nobody comprehends rationally. Under him, in the higher ranks of the French military, are altogether too many people who think they are Ronald Colman in Beau Geste.

America is a bad place for a charismatic personality to get ahead. The political opportunities for such types are pretty well confined to the Deep South. In Russia they seem to have shot them long ago. Maybe we are lucky, at that. Our only charismatic personality right now is Jackie Kennedy and she is not likely to order anybody to start shooting.

[July 26, 1961]



The New York Ballet

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the New York City Ballet is coming and I am, as always, looking forward to it. However, I am not looking forward to it with any excited anticipation of anything new and startling.

I think there is no real question but what George Balanchine has put together the most polished company now performing. Over the years he has created not just a distinct style, but a style quite unlike any other in ballet history. “Over the years . . .” that’s it, the years have slipped away.

Time was when the little toy dog was new — he isn’t covered with dust, but polished to a razor edge of precision, and he surely stands sturdy and staunch. I fear he is too sturdy for his own good. [Allusion to Eugene Field’s poem “Little Boy Blue]

A few years back I was in France when Mr. B. took the company to Paris. The French, who don’t believe in keeping time, don’t believe in music, and have a hard time finding each other on the stage, compared the New York City Ballet to the Rockettes. I was infuriated and almost wrote a letter to L’Express.

Older and wiser now, and more jaded, I think they had a point. The glittering neoclassic precision is beginning to pall. It wouldn’t do the company a bit of harm to loosen up and romanticize itself a little.

Maybe Diaghilev was too chic for his own good, but he did try manfully to keep up. All you have to do is translate the New York City Ballet into the contemporary idiom in other fields and it is apparent that it is lagging behind a change in taste.

Imagine — choreography by George Balanchine, libretto by Ionesco (whose Rhinoceros would be far better ballet than it is a play), music by Stockhausen, sets and costumes by our local Bruce Conner. Mr. B. would have to hump himself to readjust to this nexus of talents.

That is what is so good about our own King Lear. It is very far from being chic, but, taking advantage of the most contemporary idiom, it strikes the spectator with a kind of terrifying novelty.

All this requires of course a serious redirection of style — not just choreographic style, but the very movements of the dancers themselves need a new and different tone. This in turn means drastic reworking going all the way back to the babies in the ballet school.

Obviously, such a thing is not going to happen. So we perforce put up with what we’ve got. Precision and dynamism is always exciting, and at least it’s not the Royal Ballet, so perfect, so soft, and so dull.

What we need is a small “chamber ballet” like Roland Petit’s was at the beginning. A big company is cumbersome and too expensive to cut out into totally new fields. It’s like the circus. Once they hired a fashionable designer to redo Ringling Brothers and he put it all in dark blue and silver, and coral pink and charcoal gray. Was that a bomb! It took years to get the books straight again.

Ballet 1961 still has those pseudo-jazz numbers from last year. I find them exasperating — as well as choreographically styleless — just studio romps.

Why don’t choreographers and dancers who want to do things like this go to the Fillmore Auditorium some night when there’s a big dance and really study how people move? Or watch some of the exhibition dancers on the Negro circuit? Trouble is, that Palace Time level of the Negro circuit doesn’t have any place to show in San Francisco.

The best jazz in town right now is John Handy’s group at the Stereo Club. This young man is a really dedicated artist, a flawless performer who knows how to find very tasty sounds, and an imaginative writer. Most remarkable is how the neighborhood audience sits and listens devotedly.

People are really getting to know what goes on. Like, they listen. Something they sure didn’t do back in the days of the Little Harlem or the Club Alabam.

If we did have a satisfactory chamber ballet here in San Francisco, I’d love to do one of my own plays with John Handy doing the music. As it is, I have suggested to Lew Christensen another big one like Original Sin. This time a Faust ballet, with music by Charles Mingus. We’ll see.

[July 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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