San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



October 1962

Show Biz Plugs
Racial Discrimination and Resentment
Opera Too Light
A Flawless Twelfth Night
Shakespeare and Opera
To Each His Own Hula Hoop
Bolshoi versus Kirov
The Bolshoi Ballet
The Cuban Missile Crisis




Show Biz Plugs

Sometimes I think the papers should have a big section frankly labeled “Publicity Outlets.” Don’t you dare let on that I snitched, but some in fact have, but without the label. Anyway, I never have enough space to plug the things I’m really interested in. Besides, I circulate in a narrow enough round, narrow, but, ah, glittering. I go to the opera, the ballet, high-brow theater, the symphony, all the chamber music I can get.

I eat out in Nam Yuen’s, La Strada, Orest’s, Cho Cho, the Poodle Dog, Ondine, the Trident for Sunday brunch, the Palace, and almost nowhere else.

Nightclubbing I go to the hungry i and the Purple Onion and that’s all. My café sitting I confine to Enrico’s. For jazz — the Hawk and the Workshop.

So it goes. I am a dreadful guide to high life. There are hundreds of places I’ve never been, some of them frightfully posh. However, to speak posh, je suis content.

Usually, if you discover me taking off in a new direction, there will be a pretty woman mixed up in it somewhere. Admired, alas, from a distance, but there, nonetheless. I find them in unlikely places — like the S.F. Symphony, or amongst the relics of King Tut.

I’m glad I gave Peter, Paul and Mary one of their first rave notices. But “The Lemon Tree” notwithstanding, what I recall with most pleasure is that lissome girl twitching her Veronica Lake hair-do like a nervous race horse.

The reason for wasting all this space on frivolity is that I have more than I can do. I’d like to talk at length about Der Rosenkavalier. It’s one of my favorite operas, and Schwarzkopf was marvelous. It’s a perfect example of what I was talking about recently — music drama. It’s an ancient plot, treated with great subtlety. The point of it is that the Marschallin is in fact a young and beautiful woman who gets trapped in her own acting out of a fading beauty, but who accepts her desertion by her lover because she finds him just too callow for words. It’s all terribly Viennese and Strauss’s music reflects this weary sophistication and underlines it with pathos. It would be easy to write a 7000-word article on what happens in Der Rosenkavalier, but I have an urgent call from the Actor’s Workshop.

Friday, the 5th, they’re opening with Twelfth Night. All through its run they will be selling season subscriptions — seven plays for the price of five. If they could sell 12,000 they would be totally in the clear and never have to sell another ticket at the door. They won’t, but block subscriptions are wonderful business entertainment for the likes of that problem buyer from Selma who is known to read books.

And one more publicity bit — I do hope you are aware that Sol Hurok is about to overwhelm the city with dancers. Shankar on the 14th, the Bolshoi on the 18th, and the Foo Hsing Theater on the 24th.

The first two will take care of themselves, but I’d like to point out that although the Foo Hsing actors are 9 to 16 years old, this is in no sense an infantile or precocious troupe. Companies of very young actors like these are traditional in China and at various times have been at least as popular as the adult theater.

That should do it for the fall crop of unabashed plugs.

[October 3, 1962]



Racial Discrimination and Resentment

One morning last week the paper said, “Tense Oxford Bides Its Time” and directly alongside that story, “SF School Board Sued by NAACP.”

While my daughter and I were waiting for our sugar cubes, a young woman with a little girl walked out in the street, down to a place in the line. There was extremely heavy traffic going by at that moment and the cop on duty said, “Excuse me, lady, but please walk on the inside of the sidewalk, the other side of the line. Your little girl’s liable to get bumped by a car.” “Oh thanks, you S.O.B., for calling me a lady,” said the woman. Not until then did anyone notice that she was a very light Negro. The cop just grinned and winked at the crowd and she went on her way, still out in the street.

A neighbor said to me the other day, “Every time I see a headline like that,” pointing to the story on Mississippi, “I want to punch the first white man I meet in the nose.”

My daughter once said to me, “I don’t like Miss So-and-So.” “Why not?” “She’s too mean.” “What does she do to you?” “Oh, she doesn’t do anything wrong to me, she’s lovely to me. She’s terribly mean to the boys.” “What boys?” “The Negro boys.”

Miss So-and-So happened to be a Negro.

We all can tell dozens of incidents like this. Thousands occur every day, and for thousands of days to come they are going to increase. There is no de jure segregation in San Francisco and each year there is less de facto. Discrimination grows less all the time.

Since 1940 the Negro population of San Francisco has increased many fold and has spread from eight blocks on Webster and Buchanan Streets over an appreciable part of some of the most desirable sections of the city. This has happened without a single case of the kind of interracial violence that explodes every week in New York or Chicago.

It is true that Raphael Weill Grammar School is almost solidly Negro — but youngsters from Presidio Terrace, children of the town’s leading socialites, others of Japanese, Filipino and Mexican ancestry, from Arguello St. and Second Avenue, and Negroes from the northwest corner of the Western Addition mingle on the best possible terms at Grant, a school with one of the best ratings academically in the city. So, too, with the nearby Roosevelt Junior High, where there was a minimum of racial tension until it was deliberately fomented by professional interracialists. On the other hand, Hoover Junior High in the Sunset District is almost lily white.

No leader of public opinion in this community is content with the Negro ghetto. All informed people are well aware that oppression and discrimination repay the society that practices them with a deadly feedback. No educator who commands the respect of his colleagues believes in perpetuating indefinitely situations like that at Raphael Weill, which is, incidentally, a very well staffed school, unlike New York and Chicago where the poorest teachers and equipment are assigned to colored schools.

On the other hand, a mechanical solution which makes the Negro child conscious, five mornings a week, that he is a Negro and a special social problem, is not, obviously, a healthy solution.

We have to realize that oppression, discrimination, frustration, result in bitterness and hostility. Human nature being what it is, that hostility expresses itself, not where it is suppressed by terror, but where it can — where the individual is relatively free. It is perfectly true, as some white people say, that Negroes in the northern cities constantly do things for which they would be shot dead in Mississippi. As long as the oppression exists, the oppressed are going to take it out, not always in the hardest way, where taking it out will do the most good, but in the easiest way — on their friends.

Maybe the headlines about the happenings in that place in Mississippi so oddly named Oxford make my neighbor want to punch white San Franciscans in the nose, but, on second thought, he does realize that it is white men who were killed at Oxford, and a largely white Federal authority which intervened.

It is a simple fact that there are no Negroes on the Supreme Court, and the Attorney General is white. And note that, in accordance with the style book of practically all American newspapers, Negro in this column is capitalized, white is not.

Notwithstanding, though the Negro is rising in America against discrimination, so, too, is the lower-case white conscience.

[October 7, 1962]



Opera Too Light

Last week at The Daughter of the Regiment my companion whispered to me, “I’m willing to agree that this is opera, but what makes it Grand? It seems to me it is Light. In fact it is lighter than Rosemarie, let alone West Side Story or Take Me Along.”

So true. It has always taken a good war to put La Figlia over. A good war and a vocal acrobat who can act and play the drum. Jolanda Meneguzzer can act; she is bright, charming and pretty. As a drummer she is not to be compared with Philly Joe Jones. As a singer she is not the graceful yet florid vocalist that Lily Pons was in the role, much less another Frieda Hempel, the girls who sang the part of Maria in Wars II and I respectively.

I believe in corny opera on principle. There is a kind of corn without which opera turns into something else — usually much cornier, as in Wozzeck. But Donizetti isn’t corny that way; he’s corny corny. In fact, he was a lazy, unimaginative and vulgar musician, with an admitted contempt for all but the shoddiest librettos.

We’ve had Lucia di Lammermoor and La Figlia del Reggimento. We are grateful to the opera company for bringing us these curious period pieces, but now let’s pass on. If we have to have this particular idiom, let’s have Bellini, who at least was an honest craftsman. In my opinion there are only two things good about La Figlia, she neither goes mad nor dies of tuberculosis.

There was something very good about our performances, however. But it just goes to show that nobody notices the waiter. That’s the title of an old little theater chestnut about how the husband she has ruined serves a woman and her lover, one New Year’s Eve in the private room of a wicked restaurant. The lover seduces the lady and then somebody poisons somebody — I’ve forgotten which. Neither notices the husband who goes on, imperturbably waiting table.

Between the acts I said to one of the town’s critics, not on one of the papers, but a most astute and observant man, “Best thing on the stage was Joss. Next best was Sue.” He gave me a blank look and then said, “Oh, ah yes, lovely voice, quite a surprise.”

Jocelyn Vollmar and Sue Loyd happen to be in the ballet. Sue has the most individual style of any of the young dancers in the company. Jocelyn gave a light role terrific polish, delivery and pure grace. They redeemed what would have been otherwise a pretty foolish evening.

I wonder, how many opera goers notice the ballerinas? It’s sure the world’s most thankless job. And somewhat harder than being a combination waiter and fry cook in a busy all-night restaurant.

[October 10, 1962]




A Flawless Twelfth Night

Well, the Actor’s Workshop has certainly started off the season with a bang. Twelfth Night is not only a flawlessly, superlatively produced and acted show, but it is also, without question, the best thing the Workshop has ever done. Of course, they had a good script by a thoroughly experienced playwright with an exceptional talent for pure theatricality, but then, they made the most of it.

All last year the Workshop was slowly approaching it, but with this play they have arrived at the goal of every great theater in dramatic history — perfect integration. Everybody and everything was in phase. It all fitted together like one of those Chinese wooden elephant puzzles. Only the most dedicated repertory theaters ever achieve this, and then usually after years of trying.

The outstanding example in modern times was, of course, the Moscow Art Theater; another example seen recently in San Francisco was the Kirov Ballet. It is decidedly not true of the Old Vic or of anything connected with Laurence Olivier.

On the other hand, it may by lucky chance occur in a high school production of Julius Caesar with the kids all togged out in bed sheets. I remember one summer we were in Stratford-on-Avon when Olivier was playing Coriolanus. It was awful. It fell apart around his egregious stardom. It was corny — at the end he was hung up by the heels, just like Mussolini, as the press hastened to point out.

In the outdoor theater, with the traffic of summer evening canoes and punts going by on the Avon in the background, Queen’s College Belfast put on Ford’s The Broken Heart. I particularly wanted my daughter to see it, because like French in Orléans and Italian in Sienna, the accent of Queen’s Belfast is supposed to be the most perfect spoken English in the world. It was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life — flawless, integrated with exquisite precision, like the delicate machinery that handles the experiments of nuclear physics.

“You know,” said I to Mary during intermission, “I don’t think the lead is from North Ireland.”

“She’s not,” said Mary, “she’s the girl who played Viola in Twelfth Night at State College.”

“You’re having hallucinations,” said I. But so it turned out when we spoke to her after the show was over. A student of Jules Irving’s and Herb Blau’s, who had made for herself the lovely career of wandering around Europe acting in Elizabethan drama.

This new Twelfth Night is just such an experience, with the added virtue of long, experienced professionalism. It is impossible to know where to begin, but one of the most remarkable details is that it is an actor-directed play in which the actors as such vanish into the parts.

Robert Symonds directed and also plays Sir Toby Belch. Now it happens that this character runs through a number of Shakespeare’s plays — Falstaff, the porter in Macbeth, and so on, were all parts written for the same actor. All too often they are all too obviously the same man. Symonds’s Sir Toby is essentially different from his Falstaff last year.. He doesn’t even look like the same actor.

Most startling is Tom Rosqui, who is usually recognizable as Tom no matter what he is playing. When Malvolio came on the stage, I took a quick look back at my program to see if I had made a mistake. It certainly looked like Malvolio and it didn’t look a bit like Tom. So with Priscilla Pointer and all the rest. I don’t know just how Symonds managed, but he pulled them all completely out of themselves and into living people lost on the seacoast of Illyria.

This is a play that every child within bussing distance of the Actor’s Workshop should see, and I hope every teacher in central California knows that all it requires is a telephone call to arrange for a block of seats at special rates.

Also — all through the run of this show they’ll be selling subscriptions to the whole season’s repertory. Try this one as a sample and then go and turn in your single performance tickets for a season’s book. I’m pretty sure you will. The show itself is the best possible stage pitch.

There’s no denying the Workshop has a special talent for Elizabethan plays. I hope they do a Shakespeare each season from now on, and I wish they’d do another with it, a play by Webster, Jonson, Middleton, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher — there’s no shortage of great plays. We see all too few of them and we will never see them better than as done by the Actor’s Workshop.

P.S. How about the greatest play since Sophocles — The Tempest?

[October 14, 1962]



Shakespeare and Opera

Tomorrow is the opening of the Bolshoi and my daughter is beside herself. I suppose somehow you got tickets — all the world seems to be going. If ballet continues to increase in popularity they are going to put it under one of Bucky Fuller’s five-acre geodesic domes.

Tomorrow is also Otello at the Opera. This is one of the finest things they’ve done this season, superlatively sung and acted. That isn’t all. It is also one of Verdi’s four best operas, and one of the 10 best of all.

W.H. Auden says it is better than Shakespeare’s play and he just might be right. Othello is certainly the poorest of Shakespeare’s major plays and I myself believe that Verdi’s music drama is more convincing and better organized.

We’ve got Shakespeare all over the lot. Falstaff is another of the season’s achievements at the Opera House. Geraint Evans did an excellent job, very like Robert Symonds’s Sir John at the Actor’s Workshop last season, but with, if anything, a more subtle sense of the streak of evil in the old man.

I did not like the women — except for Simionato’s most Elizabethan Dame Quickly. I suspect this was the director’s fault, because they were all too coy and did far too much bobbing about. The permanent stage with projected scenery was just right, a sort of combination of the Globe and the Bauhaus.

After a rather dubious, in fact scary, beginning, with disappointing performances of La Bohème and Carmen, the San Francisco Opera is winding up the season in a positive blaze of glory. I am continuously impressed by the successful coordination of each show into genuine music-drama. Pagliacci was a case in point.

Time was when the little toy dog was new and this was a revolutionary introduction of the realistic tragedy of low life into the heroic preserves of opera. “Verismo,” Leoncavallo and Mascagni, the author of Cavalleria Rusticano, called it. For two generations both operas were anything but realism or “truthism.” They were vehicles for vocalists. This Pagliacci is completely convincing as a window opened onto the life of a tramp theater in rural Italy a century ago. As such, it is the only one I have ever seen of which that could be said.

Last — Anthony and Cleopatra at State College. Don’t be put off by the simply dreadful costumes. They make the show look like something in the parish hall to pay off the mortgage on the roof. If Lani Ball weren’t togged out in mama’s portières she’d be a terrific Serpent of Old Nile. As it is she creates a role that finally, in spite of its haberdashery, establishes its own complete illusion . . . and she is sure beautiful.

Sensation of the show is Richard Rekow as Enobarbus. This young man should consider very seriously making a life career of the theater, if he hasn’t done so already.

[October 17, 1962]



To Each His Own Hula Hoop

Monday week, Oct. 29 and 30, 8:30 at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Chamber Music Society will open its season with the Mills Chamber Players in a very meaty program. Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” Ingolf Dahl, Webern, Berg, and Beethoven’s “Kakadu Variations.” I am all for heavy chamber music, but after that one I think I’ll go home and put Kreisler’s “Last Rose of Summer with Variations” on the talking machine.

Month after month for 10 concerts the Chamber Music Society marches on, inexorably making no concessions to what used to be called popular taste. Time was when a newspaper columnist would be fussing about this. Not I.

Renaissance and Baroque music on the hautboys, shawms and serpents, Netherlandish eight-voice vocal fugues with brass accompaniment, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Lou Harrison, Schoenberg, it’s all a little dizzying to somebody who remembers the days when the only Bach on records in America was the Gounod “Ave Maria,” followed in the course of the years by the soft and silken renditions of piano pieces and choral solos by Leopold Stokowski and full, very full, orchestra.

All you have to do is drop into the corner record shop to see that programming like the Chamber Music Society’s is in fact popular taste today. It may not be popular with the devoted audiences of the SF Band in Golden Gate Park, but it is what chamber music listeners want.

Critics of modern America refuse to see the extraordinary sales of  very difficult recorded music, the vast number of deep and complex works in paperback editions, the silk-screen reproductions of modern paintings in the homes of mechanics, postmen and waiters. Certainly all the working class does not read Kierkegaard, listen to Monteverdi’s madrigals or put Miró over the mantel. But some do, and some used car salesmen or their wives do, and some stockbrokers, and some newspapermen.

The curious thing is that so few of our social critics have caught on to this fact. The average intellectual, when he looks out on American society, looks at it through colored glasses, one lens labeled “Marx,” one labeled “Sinclair Lewis.” Believe me, I am not red-baiting; I’m not talking about the fellow travelers. There are hardly any of them around any more. It’s deeper than that.

We are still, in so many instances, trying to interpret mid-twentieth-century society in terms of economic theories derived from the transitional period of English capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century and notions of popular culture derived from the mores of Gopher Prairie and Zenith in the 1920s.

Occasion for these remarks is a book by Vance Packard, The Pyramid Climbers, coming out soon. This is another study of the Organization Man, the gilded cog in the regulative machinery of the big corporation.

What fellows like Packard and White and Galbraith and Eve Merriam and Wright Mills and all the rest don’t seem to realize is that they are themselves part of the regulative mechanism. They are what David Riesman called, with tongue somewhat in cheek, “engineers of taste.” They are more sarcastic, but not necessarily more right than the interior decorators and charm school professoresses they despise.

In addition, most of them are rigorous puritans. Galbraith doesn’t like us spending our fleeting, inflated money — those paper fire balloons labeled $10 in the corners — on hula hoops. He wants us to spend it all on roads and schools. It annoys Vance Packard that a box at the Symphony and a Braque in the bedroom confer the highest status. He says the people who sit in the box don’t really mean it. He suspects the couples lie in bed under the Braque and look at TV or read Playboy. So what? They paid their own money for the box and the Braque and everybody at the office was absolutely impressed and all the neighbors too. That’s a step up from Gopher Prairie.

In a Keynesian economy if we don’t spend an appreciable part of our money for hula hoops, the system will break down. Everybody has his own hula hoop. The government has its billion-dollar firecrackers made of wires, glass and alloys (that is, the cost is mostly for skilled labor that otherwise would be rioting in the streets), my headshrinker friends have yachts, the kids have goofy shorts, Phyllis Frazer has over 30 Clara Bow evening dresses of which she is now tired.

Me, I dig fine wine, beautiful women, expensive cigars, old dogs, a good fire and chamber music. Any objections to my hula hoops?

[October 21, 1962]



Bolshoi versus Kirov

Well, it certainly was a great week. I said recently that the opera promised to go out in a blaze of glory and it proceeded to outblaze itself in a series of perfect performances all in one week — Don Giovanni twice, Otello and The Rake’s Progress. The latter will be repeated tomorrow night and it is surely worth an effort to see: it’s one of the very best things we’ve ever done here.

The same week, competing with the opera, sold out houses for the Bolshoi Ballet. Since the last performances are this afternoon and tonight, again — there just may be tickets. On both bills will be Les Sylphides, the most glorious of all ballets.

The Bolshoi is a hard outfit to pan, because then all your intellectual friends who know nothing about dancing will say you’re just a hireling of the capitalist press and making Cold War propaganda. Sorry — hold on to your little red shirts, kids, ’cause here goes.

First, without a doubt the Kirov has ruined us for the Bolshoi. It is both the ultimate perfection of the Russian idiom and the last word in general stylistic refinement. Besides, its dancers are simply better dancers.

Opening night was pretty much a shambles. The orchestra played something that vaguely resembled the score, but it didn’t make all that much difference since dancers kept taking off two or three beats before, or usually behind, the music. Everybody was going easy on the feet after a hard trip and stayed on half point as much as possible.

Plisetskaya is a very, very Pavlovoid dancer. I remember my mother digging her fingernails into my arm and whispering, “Her toe shoes are full of blood!” Pavlova to the contrary, I really doubt if it hurts that much to dance the role of Odette. This is known as the prima assoluta facies and is best seen from high in the gallery. I’m not just talking about facial expression of pained contempt — it was a tone that pervaded Plisetskaya’s whole reading of the part.

Once the company got warmed up, however, the final act of Swan Lake was a most stirring experience. For those who haven’t seen the so-called Khrushchev ending it must have hit with the impact of an earthquake.

Vladimir Levashev was better than the Kirov man as Rothbart, and he was magnificent. Of the girls, I liked Maya Samokhvalova best. She is beautiful, has exquisite style, and dances always with intelligence and taste.

That is really the point of the whole matter. Stalin lived in Moscow and got the kind of ballet he liked. The leaps are Olympic and the splits are physiologically unbelievable; if they make a point they underline it three times.

Up in Leningrad the Kirov was a ballet for those rotten diversionists, wreckers and Trotskyite mad dogs — in other words, Western European intellectuals, just like me.

Still and all, the Bolshoi is the world’s second or third best in many ways. It’s just that a refined taste is not one of the ways. I do hope none of my old friends have me shot for preferring the Kirov.

[October 24, 1962]



The Bolshoi Ballet

Most effective of the Bolshoi Ballet performances, at least to my taste, were Ballet School, Les Sylphides, and Paganini.

They all had serious faults. When the bad guys and Superman were loose on the red-lit stage in Paganini the temptation to giggle was almost irresistible, and the girls — the good side — could have done without the blanchisserie. They were perpetually waving long veils in a pale blue light with a Monday morning along the Volga effect. They could have done exactly the same things with their arms and hands without the laundry and been many times as moving.

I am not being sarcastic when I say that one of the major accomplishments of the corps of the Bolshoi is a superlative skill in walking and running. I saw Vladimir Vasiliev as Paganini and I am still wondering how he lives through such a fantastically demanding job of hard work, let alone how he does it with unflagging wiry nervous grace.

Ballet School is a leotard ballet and it shows what the Bolshoi could do if they could just put material like this together so that it meant something dramatically. They certainly have what it takes, and I don’t mean human cannonball plunges and interminable pirouettes. They have the potential of great style; all they need is a few choreographers with taste.

Walpurgis Night makes you wonder. Are they mocking the taste of the vulgarians who run Russia? I have been going to ballet for over 50 years and I never saw anything like this, not even in the Bucklin Opera House in Elkhart, Indiana, long about 1910 — as early as my memory goes back. I assume there were things like this done in Ekaterinaslav or Omsk or Tomsk back in the ’80s of the last century. Alexander Fried compared it to the early Cecil De Mille. He was being kind. How did they ever resurrect such stuff? There’s no record. Taste of this sort long antedates the invention of moving pictures. Soloviev made a fine Pan. But Ben Turpin would have made a better.

Giselle, on the other hand, was a genuine period piece. That is what it must have been like when it was new. You could easily imagine Gautier and Hugo and Baudelaire and Guys and Delacroix and all the rest of the founding fathers of Romanticism sitting in the boxes in their red velvet and gold waistcoats and their tight pants and their beehive hairdos. It was, I am sure they would all have agreed, one of their dreams come true.

Chopiniana (Les Sylphides) is the purest and noblest of all ballets. All you have to do is dance perfectly and you can’t go wrong. There is no question that the Bolshoi people can dance. Compared with the Kirov they were a bit heavy handed, and they were not utterly without flaw, as was the Kirov performance I saw. But then, that was one of the major moments of my life, and I don’t expect to repeat it every year. The Bolshoi performance was certainly ennobling enough to satisfy anybody, no matter how noble his taste.

Out of all the little season of two weeks, which has certainly left my head in a literal whirl, what returns most often to memory is the finely chiseled beauty and exquisite style of one girl, by no means the most featured dancer — Natalia Ryzhenko.

That’s the trouble with these State Ballets, they are like the Post Office; after all they are civil service jobs and opportunity depends largely on seniority or pull. But then — there are plenty of capitalistic private enterprise ballet companies of which the same could be said. I do hope to see more of Ryzhenko in years to come.

I wonder if I’m getting senile? I wasn’t kidding last week when I said one of my life satisfactions is the contemplation of beautiful women. We have just closed our finest opera season. Even in its palmiest days under Mary Garden the Chicago Opera never managed anything like this, and the Met, as everybody knows, is ridden with concessions to bad taste, whether low-brow or, worse, high-brow.

Out of it all the clearest image that comes back, and comes back again and again, is the little passage in Don Carlos in which Suzanne Stalley as the Countess Aremberg gets fired from the court. She doesn’t sing. She doesn’t even act very much. She is borrowed from the ballet and is there simply because she is young and beautiful. She crosses the stage, holds hands with the Queen, cries a bit, and goes out, and all the music and drama and decor and costume take meaning in a fleeting image of a beautiful human being.

Just like life, or am I getting senile?

[October 28, 1962]



The Cuban Missile Crisis

So much goes on sometimes I wish I were writing a daily column and then the thought of being wise and witty and bright and gay and well balanced and mature and gossipy and sentimental and ruthless and all of that every morning after breakfast rises in all its horror in my mind and I go back content to my twice-weekly knitting.

For one thing, I’m not going to offer any observations on The Crisis, even though I was in Washington when it broke, until it has gone away — and it hasn’t yet, by a long shot, to use a gruesome but appropriate figure of speech.

Just one thought — perhaps most impressive to the objective observer has been the relief of tension in the entire population — except once again that marginal area of the human race, Los Angeles.

Everybody else, those who were in favor of the President’s action, those who were opposed to it, the most irreconcilable pacifists, the noisiest saber rattlers, Democrats, Republicans, probably even the Communists, even though we were facing possible immediate total extermination, everybody breathed easier because at last something, anything, promised to happen.

This is a mass psychological phenomenon, not a political or partisan one, and its universality should give us all something to think about. Just what have we been doing to ourselves, living in the slowly mounting tensions and intermittent frustrations and always abiding dread of 15 years of Cold War? If I, who am middle aged and completely cynical and case hardened against the follies of mankind, feel this way — what have we been doing to the minds of children?

No wonder the kids who have come to the age of discretion in a time of unrelieved anxiety should be alienated — in San Francisco and Moscow, London and Delhi, Tel Aviv and Cairo.

If we don’t stop pretty soon, what is going to happen when these same kids come to their maturity, born and bred in the psychosis of the Cold War? What is going to happen along about 1977 if anybody is still here, when they become the “takeover generation”?

Whatever the merits of a hard line, whatever the consequences of a showdown, the hope is that we will get at least one benefit out of it all. Fifteen years is a long, long time to suffer a war of nerves. We have been living in doom and luxury, maximum welfare and maximum insecurity long enough.

Let’s hope the statesmen put all their cards, and not their shoes, on the table.

Let’s hope the diplomats talk about realities and not stunts and evasions. Our side has said, “No more nonsense” in the strongest possible terms. Let’s hope the nonsense abates.

Fifteen years of deadly nonsense is an awful lot of nonsense.

[October 31, 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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