San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



March 1962

Folkloristic Hokum
John Glenn
Loving Care for the Mentally Ill
Isaac Stern, Prokofiev, and a Lovely Harpist
Peter, Paul and Mary, and Eugene O’Neill
At the Matisse Opening
A Visit to Tucson
Generation Gaps in Tucson




Folkloristic Hokum

Nowadays you can’t go into a coffee house in Tokyo or Brazzaville without some chick in a B.B. [Brigitte Bardot] hairdo, Jeanmaire maquillage and joy sox coming up to the table, beating a guitar and bleating, “Why dos ye brand sae dreep wi’ bluid, Edwaard, Edwaard?” or “I saw Joe Hill the other night,” without the faintest idea of what the words mean.

The Pete Seeger Revolution has seized power and is consolidating its gains on a worldwide scale. Its minion are everywhere — Jakarta and Cedar Rapids have fallen long since.

I am all for sweet solemn singers like Joan Baez or even intellectuals turned ethnic, like Frank Mechau’s family of happy memory. (What ever happened to them?) But most of this stuff turns me instantly into an unprincipled wrecker and diversionist. Nothing is more sickening than a cheap nightclub weedhead mimicking the voice of the workers and peasants, unless it is a cheap politician.

However, audiences of a perverse and crooked generation that knew not Jacob seem to eat it up regardless.

I am happy to announce that the worm has turned and the man has bitten the dog. The other night I was in the Purple Onion and suddenly became aware that the Gold Coast Singers, who look even more like Bobby and Jack as small boys than they did when they first appeared early this winter, had burst into an opening number of kazatsky pig Latin that might possibly be Old Slavonic, but certainly was not Russian. The audience applauded with enthusiastic unction — hands across the sea and one step more towards the cultural understanding that will end the Cold War, you know.

I thought the numbers in English in that set were a trifle lame, but there was a lovely (there’s a hilarious one about Freedom Riders in the other set) pseudo-Mexican bit that sounded like a Finn ordering chile con carne and tamales — interspersed with a few drops of wicked authentic Mexican slang that my possibly have occurred by accident. In gobbledygook as in house-to-house salesmanship, “the law of averages will take care of you.”

Then they announced a shepherds’, or rather a sheepshearers’ song from the kibbutzes of Israel. “After the sheep are sheared,” said the one who looks like a young Jack, “the shepherds of Israel pile the wool in a great heap in the village square of the kibbutz, and all the warm spring night under the full moon, the young men and maidens, the kibbutzniks, dance around it, leaping in and out of the huge pile of wool and sing this song . . .” whereupon they launched into something that sounded like an erotic Sioux Indian with a Yiddish accent.

Still as little mice, reverent as though at a funeral in Grace Cathedral, the entire audience sat, rapt away in a Progressive Ethnic Trance. Folklorism filled the room like High Church incense.

Following that same law of averages, an appreciable number of the audience must have been of Jewish birth and have heard the Sabbath prayers somewhere and have picked up a few Hebrew and Yiddish phrases. It didn’t matter. Words sacred to the gray flannel mind had been uttered — Kibbutz, Folksong — nobody was listening to anything but his own preconceptions.

My companion and I looked at each other in wonder and suddenly she burst into an unladylike guffaw. People turned around and shushed us hoarsely. We fell out. Somebody else called Barney Drew and I suspect complained that there were anti-Semites at large in the cellar.

When the boys came down off the stand I asked, “Doesn’t anybody ever laugh at the kibbutz number?”

“I guess nobody understands it,” said the one who looks like young Bobby. I guess not.

It must be a great satisfaction to give a hot foot to the liberal mind. But night after night, without a response? I don’t know, though. Nightclubs always make me very philosophical. Maybe this is history — a reenactment in little of something that has been going on in the big time of world politics and deep thought since the Battle of Waterloo.

I for one haven’t enjoyed myself so much since Sandy Jacobs’s Ethnic Music broadcast on “The Folk Roots of the Yellow Rose of Texas.” However, it was deadpan stunts like that that got him, KPFA’s only program participant with a sense of humor, fired for affronting the dignity of the audience.

This is very risky business. Imagine what would happen if you sneaked up on Adlai during a solemn passionate speech and tickled the back of his neck with a feather?

[March 4, 1962]


John Glenn

I have been trying to keep out of outer space the last week or so. The papers have assigned a lot of expensive talent to that beat and it seemed to me it was getting adequate coverage.

Then I got a letter from a leading magazine of literary and social criticism. The editress (editrix?) is a lifelong friend and every once in a while she tosses a bone across country and out my way. She had just read a pair of columns by a well-known Washington political analyst on astronaut John H. Glenn. Instantly she thought of me as just the one to take after him.

Trouble is, I read the columns and I don’t feel that way at all. I agree. The Russians and Americans have figured out what William James long ago called a moral substitute for war. Nobody knows how long it will work. It is working at present. We are all still more or less alive. Who can deny that a race for the moon is preferable to a race for oblivion?

The race for oblivion is going on, too, but the hope is that the more wholesome forms of peaceful competition will gradually take over and someday the hundred-megaton bombs will be dismantled and the guerrillas of Southeast Asia will be allowed to go back to burning joss sticks and dancing in the moonlight.

You can’t have it both ways. If you are going to have a moral substitute for war it is going to be moral and it is going to have heroes who seem extremely nice in comparison with many other kinds of heroes. Social critics, writers, artists, what the Negro press used to call “The Talented Tenth,” are going to find such people excessively folksy.

The American government is not crazy. They aren’t recruiting astronauts from the cocktail parties of the news weeklies, the avant-garde quarterlies or the Museum of Modern Art.

I doubt if astronaut Glenn has ever seen Waiting for Godot. I doubt if he would like it. He isn’t a bit like anybody in it. Good. What has been called “the ethics of alienation” is shifty ballast out amongst the stars.

The social critics can’t call for a counter-tendency to the general social foul-up and then start grousing because its representatives are too wholesome.

William James, who was pretty conventional himself by present standards, wrote what is maybe his best piece on just this subject. It is about a visit to the strawberry ice cream Utopia of Chautauqua. Everybody was kind, everybody was gentle, everybody was soft and clean in speech.

It bugged him. Not as much as if he were Miles Davis or Jack Kerouac, but it bugged him. He longed for somebody to do something loud and nasty. Still, he recognized that this was virtue triumphant.

I think the Eagle Scout aspects of Colonel Glenn have been pretty heavily accented. I am sure he is thoroughly human. At the same time he seems to be a generally successful living human being . . . an ideal hero for the moral substitute for war.

Who do my colleagues want whirling around the earth up there? Les liaisons dangereuses of la dolce vita? The hero of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night?

As a matter of fact, these are the guys who, scrubbed and polished, are sitting in the chancellories and ministries and on the boards of directors. That’s one of the things that is wrong. The alienated don’t just write difficult poetry. Too damn many of them are trying to run the world.

[March 7, 1962]



Loving Care for the Mentally Ill

Those of you who have followed the newspapers’ reports of recent conventions are aware that, inside the profession, there is a growing dissatisfaction with our treatment of the mentally ill. This is not the old standard objection — shamefully overcrowded hospitals and monstrous case loads — but a strong suspicion that even under the best conditions, we are not getting anywhere.

Several control projects have been run that have accumulated statistical evidence to show that spontaneous recoveries equal and sometimes surpass recoveries of patients under the best institutional care. Other statistical surveys have called into question the validity of all office psychiatry, but especially psychoanalysis.

The human ecologists, students of how people live together with each other and their environment, have studied the asylum and have discovered what anyone who ever worked in one could have told them — these places are what they call symbiotic communities. Everybody lives off everybody else, like the inhabitants of a tide pool. Orderlies, nurses, doctors, the whole staff, resemble the sea anemones and limpets and barnacles carried around on a crab’s shell. To use their terminology — it’s a kind of symbiosis of morbidity.

This criticism does not come from cranks. Books like Erving Goffman’s Asylums and T.S. Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness may fall into the class of convention shockers, but they are by thoroughly competent men who know what they are talking about.

The plain fact is that society’s response to mental illness is itself pathological. If you become physically ill you are cherished and nourished and all factors of your environment and care are designed to return you to health on the best possible terms. Society meets serious mental illness with the techniques it employs to cope with criminality.

Perhaps we unconsciously recognize our collective responsibility for the mentally ill; certainly guilt and fear linger on, hidden under even the best therapeutic methods.

It is now pretty well recognized that the solution lies somewhere in the direction of the establishment of as normal an environment as possible, and one of ever increasing normality. (As Goffman points out with considerable wit, whatever your diagnosis when you go into a typical asylum, when you come out you are quite likely to be more or less stir bugs — just like anybody discharged from any forced institution, a prison, or for that matter, the army.)

In Holland and Belgium for centuries the mentally ill have been cared for in private homes, in villages where the people have had a special vocation for this sort of self-sacrificial work since the pietistic movement of the late Middle Ages. We’ve come a long way from the spiritual dedication to a life of loving service that produced the Beghards and Béguines, the Mennonites and Quakers. It is hard to believe that anybody could find this kind of charity within himself any more.

Somebody has. In England, in Russia, in Scandinavia there is a growing movement for day care centers in which the patient is free in as normal a community of his fellows as it is possible to create, and out of which he participates in the larger community of society to the fullest extent of his ability. The vicious circle of psychopathology as a way of life is broken and the whole process is turned about and started flowing in the opposite direction.

This is a long introduction to say that somebody has taken this step in San Francisco. I plan to write another column going into detail on the work of the Psychiatric Day Center. It is a long time indeed since any experience has made me feel so good, so hopeful of the human race, as a lunch I had there the other day. The implications are tremendous, and not just for psychiatry.

Here is a case where a person of good will and means saw a need, went to work, prepared herself, and met that need. The Center is the creation, at first largely single-handed, of a woman with a concrete vision — Mrs. Helen Cline. I can’t think of any more conclusive answer to those who say, “Life is so vast and complicated and overspecialized today, the individual is helpless.” Here is proof that, on the contrary, we live in a time when individual direct moral action can be more telling than ever before. It is a very exciting story — “more 2 cum.”

[March 11, 1962]



Isaac Stern, Prokofiev, and a Lovely Harpist

Last week’s symphony was perhaps the best of the season. Isaac Stern is a great local favorite, so there was a general air of home-town conviviality. For a change the place was full and the orchestra was in good morale. Stern was in fine fettle and played with strength and facility.

I had always thought of him as a rather sonorous, sometimes even schmaltzy violinist — good schmaltz, like Heifetz — but he certainly didn’t play that way last week. Partly it was the seldom-played Mozart “B Flat Major Concerto,” which is that way anyway, but even in the Prokofiev “Concerto in D,” which can be played in very gutty fashion if desired, Isaac Stern was uniformly fine, high, dry and light.

This is the kind of fiddling that makes dogs whimper and crawl under the piano — fiddlers’ fiddling. The audience responded as though they were all violinists.

What I liked best was the Prokofiev. I think the real reason is that Prokofiev always puts in some harp music and I can sit and watch that beautiful blonde harpist as the gold shimmer of the strings moves back and forth across her golden hair. I wish somewhere, sometime, she would play the Debussy “Trio Sonata,” the distillation of Debussy’s own special sentimentality, surely his best work and one of the most decorative pieces of harp music ever written.

However, I don’t care what she plays. She can play “Sleepy Lagoon” and I will be all ears — and eyes.

The Love of Three Oranges always throws me, the way “The Kashmiri Love Song” or “La vie en rose” throw other people. I was there are the Chicago premiere, just turned 16, in my first white tie, huddled in the corner of a box amongst the ivory perfumed shoulders of divas and dangerous women and the snowy shirt fronts of the Grand Rich. The sub-deb who was with me is now a grandmother with several fascinating divorces behind her and the hope of more to come. The roses are faded and the snows of yesteryear are melted and gone but the melody lingers on.

It was one of Chicago’s great moments, like the party that welcomed Seurat’s La Grande Jatte to the Art Institute.

I remember Boris Anisfeld’s designs, which hung in the corridor of the Institute for years but now are gone.

I remember Prokofiev banging out a knot in the score on the piano at Jake Loeb’s. It got so exciting that Stanislaus Szukalski jumped clean over the piano and broke three ribs. (He was a sculptor — not a danseur noble.)

I remember the ravishing Nina Koshetz in the leading role. What ever happened to her? I’ll never see her and hear her do it again, but at least I can watch and listen while Anne Adams strums her harp.

[March 14, 1962]



Peter, Paul and Mary, and Eugene O’Neill

Few things are more enjoyable than watching good troupers troup. The other night in the hungry i, after Peter, Paul and Mary had finished their act, the girl who was with me, a sometime trouper herself, said, “How well I understand that girl. She darns the socks, irons the collars, presses the pants, cooks supper, gives the baby his formula, calls the cab, and goes on the stand and projects pure sex maniac.”

I don’t know if she’s married, much less got a baby, but she is certainly constantly alert to the audience. She uses a semi-Veronica Lake hairdo like a sophisticated trout fisherman uses a barbless hook. So too, Peter and Paul — they haven’t got a lot of pretty yellow hair, but they’ve got the same living connection, and they never let it drop for a second.

This is the kind of hard-working, precise, careful craftsmanship that distinguishes the typical European act from most American ones. Les Frères Jacques or the Wiere Brothers — you have to go back to vaudeville in its prime to match this kind of attention to business amongst Americans. It’s nice to see the younger generation taking up a great tradition.

Which leads us into the main subject — the show at the Garden Court of the Sheraton-Palace. I guess I had misled myself because I was sure surprised.

I can take amateur Strindberg or Shakespeare, but amateur magicians, ventriloquists and musical comedies usually make me feel as if I were going to have kittens. So, thinking it was going to be a vest pocket super colossal with semi-social matrons in the chorus line, I stayed away from Guys and Dolls. The other night, still doubtful and diffident, I decided to take a chance on Take Me Along [a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!]. What a shock! As a show this is one of the most finished jobs of work I’ve seen in a long time. It’s put together like a racing yacht and has the same precision and delivery.

Besides being a thoroughly competent actor in very heavy roles indeed, Dan Dailey doubles in brass as probably the best old-style song and dance man now in the business. This is just the right combination for the role of Sid in Take Me Along. You couldn’t ask for a more infectious lyrical comic — yet the quiet undertones of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! come through.

I don’t know how far you can go with this sort of thing. Juvenile delinquency in the West Side slums, Bernard Shaw, Lancelot and Guinevere, next thing we know there will be a rollicking musical comedy based on Macbeth or The Duchess of Malfi.

In the case of Ah, Wilderness! — Take Me Along, it works. Not only does it work, but the best qualities of O’Neill, his George M. Cohan, bar-room, leprechaun theatricality and winning ways, are what make it work. I for one prefer this, much, to the mystique of The Iceman Cometh.

When Dan Dailey and Oliver Cliff, in the braided suits and straw boaters of the 1900s, break into a soft shoe routine the house does everything but stand and cheer. Not only that, but behind the scenes, so to speak, you get a vision of Eugene O’Neill as he might have been if he had been a happy man.

And, just like Peter, Paul and Mary, the younger generation comes up, brave in the old hoofer tradition — but with “spectacular new and original improvements.” Jerry Dodge as the boy hung up on young love and Omar Khayyam is superlative. What a trouper! What a hard, honest worker! The girls are agile and pretty, the older women are gracious and moving, but this is a show made by the three lead men — three expert hoofers of widely assorted ages.

Earlier I had begun to get disillusioned, even bitter, about the Sheraton-Palace. Now that everything has settled down, I must admit that the change is all for the best.

The food is every bit as good as the show. I had a chicken breast gourmandine which would have cost a very tidy sum in the Tour d’Argent and which couldn’t have been any more perfect — to use a bit of dubious grammar.

As is obvious — I for one had an absolute ball.

[March 18, 1962]



At the Matisse Opening

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who is a director of the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation was out here and we were talking about the decline of local patronage.

In previous conversations we had discussed schemes for awakening the newly rich who have flooded into the Bay Area since the last war to their social responsibilities. People are always turning up in the papers who have just built a million-dollar house in Belvedere or Hillsborough and who are unknown to the social register and conspicuous by their absence from the boards of museums, the symphony and the opera. The extent of their cultural contribution to San Francisco is limited to a round of drinks once in a while at the Matador while their wives listen to Johnny Cooper’s soul-stirring chords.

I have always believed that there must be some way to involve these unknown jeunesse dorée in the city that seems to mean to them only scenery and some climate. My foundation friend, being hot for stimulating local initiative, had always agreed, and we had amused ourselves in the past belling this batch of cats in a variety of imaginary expeditions.

The other day he was all against it. He had become convinced that the take wasn’t worth it. The real potential was in wide-scale community involvement — the democratization of patronage. More was to be gained from enlisting the enthusiastic cooperation of clerks and dentists, longshoremen and the owners of dress shops, than in trying to smoke out the indifferent newly rich. I perforce agreed, although I would still like to see some of that gaudy new money going to the cultural life of the city.

What had happened to change his mind? He had been talking, amongst others, to George D. Culler, the new director of the San Francisco Museum.

The other night at the Matisse opening, Mr. Culler certainly proved his case to the hilt. It was really a new members’ party, the climax of a membership drive as intense as anything ever staged by any mass organization — the Red Cross, the Democratic Party, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I haven’t any idea how many people were there. The place — the whole place, every corridor and gallery — was swarming all evening long.

I don’t know what the new recruits thought of the Matisses, much less of the junk sculpture show, but they stopped and looked and pondered.

I have always found openings a bit on the dismal side. At this one everybody seemed to be having a splendid time. I did myself. Why? Because everybody else was. Presidio Terrace and Sea Cliff were not very well represented, nor were the posher suburbs. Nevertheless, the women were pretty and beautifully dressed and they chattered entertainingly about Matisse and the musical glasses, and their escorts bowed and smiled and, of all things, talked about Matisse and the musical glasses too. And the band played on — rather better than usual at these affairs.

I’m all for it. Oh, democracy! Mr. Culler, I salute you. Maybe you really have found the answer.

[March 21, 1962]



A Visit to Tucson

Down to Tucson to give a reading at the University of Arizona and to spend a week talking to students. On jobs like this my hosts are always diffident about allowing the students to impose on me. I guess most poets are surly self-conscious beasts and people make them nervous. I just love it.

It’s the student parties and conferences and seminars that attract me, not my own performance. I can’t teach much — just bring a little common sense from the world outside academia and impart a bit of distrust of literary nonsense — and I can entertain.

That they seem to enjoy. After a series of leafy, starry, moony poems, a young girl once rose from the audience and asked, “Mr. Rexroth, don’t you ever make love indoors?”

Of one thing I’m sure — I learn more than I teach, especially nowadays with all the ferment and searching going on amongst the young. I wonder what it is I have. I feel that students say things to me they wouldn’t say to Barry Goldwater. If he’d learn to play the guitar, sing folksongs, wear a false beard, sit on the floor and drink beer out of a can, he’d find out things I don’t think he knows.

The university people quartered me at the Santa Rita Hotel, and who should turn up managing it but Fritz Hartung from Carmel and the Bay Area. This is the stockmen’s hotel in this part of the country and a place of considerable color.

I landed smack in the middle of a horse and cow convention, with the lobby full of massive characters in big hats, diplomatic-looking Latin Americans and beautiful women speaking Spanish. I guess I have reached the right degree of portliness and battered visage, because it was simply assumed that I was just another successful cattleman. Gee, I was sure flattered. After conversations about beef prices, horse flesh, range conditions, water, and the sins of the Government, I had trouble convincing them I wasn’t the Examiner’s cow editor.

For a while I thought things had changed little since I was a boy, except that everybody was much, much richer. And then I noticed that, unlike the university, I was more at home amongst cattlemen of my own age. The young ones seemed hard and fast and bright in a new way that I couldn’t quite connect with — the reflection of vastly changed conditions.

I am afraid that, like all the world with incomes of over ten thousand a year, there was something of Madison Avenue about the younger men.

It’s great country, all right. But it has, right now, come to the make-or-break point. I’d like to get to Phoenix soon and see — they say it has become just another suburb of Los Angeles.

Tucson hasn’t. The Spanish past and the cattle business have given a true form to the local culture. It is not just tourism. Tucson still is a Spanish and American frontier cow town grown big and civilized. The big hats and the string ties are authentic. All over the Fair Grounds were women in the lovely banded squaw dress and Navaho jewelry, worn perfectly naturally.

The Symphony was playing Bach and Kodaly. The Museum specializes in Spanish Primitives. The student poets at the university want to talk about Robert Creeley, French modernists, or Thelonius Monk.

Yet there isn’t the aliveness I felt at Flagstaff last year. Behind the boosterism the Spanish siesta lingers on. You don’t ever get the sensation that everything’s jumping all over the place that you do in California.

Tucson seemed to me to be top heavy with tourism — very definitely overdeveloped. As a city it is an outstanding example of modern shopping-center, semi-urban diffusion. The downtown district looks drained, almost abandoned. It is not just that it has been allowed to grow or languish in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. Considering the manifest wealth of the community, it looks niggardly.

Downtown property is still obviously pretty cheap. The city could profitably take over blocks of it for an imaginative and beautiful central development. Urban renewal costs money and money means taxes and somehow the beautiful homes amongst the saguaros in the Santa Catalina foothills look like they were there because of what are called tax inducements.

The probabilities are that Tucson will come to maturity as a ring of swimming pools, patios and lanais around a declining, incoherent center.

That’s life. Especially in the New West.

[March 25, 1962]



Generation Gaps in Tucson

Sitting in the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson in the midst of a cattlemen’s convention I got to pondering, not about the passing of the Old West, which was all long before my time, but on the short lifespan of almost all stable societies.

One person could have seen as a child the founders of the Italian Renaissance when they were old men, and have witnessed in his own great age the ruin of Italy by the wars of the Holy Roman Empire and the end of all that glory. The heyday of Athens was less than a lifetime. From the accession of Queen Victoria to the First World War, when the British Empire started to stumble to its end, was only another long lifetime.

Who first called the 20th the American Century? It may well so go down in history, but it isn’t over yet.

What had happened to this special little social order — the well-to-do ranchers of the Southwest — to separate me from the generation little younger than myself and make communication so difficult? I certainly felt perfectly at home with men my own age or older.

The people in their 60s were in fact the second or even third generation in the country. They were remarkably uniform in appearance and behavior. The men were massive, kindly, relaxed, still robust, though on the heavy side. Their relations with their wives were characterized by a kind of easy devotion that I have not seen in a long time. Their wives shared all their husbands’ physical and moral characteristics, and reciprocated with the same kind of devotion. In addition they were gentle, feminine and wise — the way I remember the folks back home.

It was hard to believe the next generation, those in their late 30s and 40s, were related to their parents in any way. Both men and women were lean, nervous, beautifully dressed and oddly remote, from each other and from everybody else. Their faces almost all showed little tell-tale signs of sexual frustration and too many cocktails.

Watching them it was easy to believe the novel Georges Simenon wrote when he lived in this country, a tragic tale full of big money, hard drinking, musical beds and utter boredom.

As I was cogitating about all this there passed through the lobby just such a grandpa and grandma, behind them, just such a Mum and Dad, and behind them, the kids — two vain little blondes, French Twist and Beehive, teetering on high heels at 11 and 13, spoiled, petulant faces, and between them, Sonny, with a semitransparent face like a badly embalmed ear and a voice like one of the soubrettes at Finnochio’s.

That’s the way it was. They never had it so good. The Falernian wine spilled on the roses and the mullet was cooked to a turn. The slave girls sang all night like nightingales and at dawn somebody noticed the place was on fire and the Goths were in the gates.

[March 28, 1962]


“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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