San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1962

A Very Official Poetry Festival
Why Not Abolish Market Street?
The Continuing Destruction of San Francisco
In Praise of Live Music
Bad Painting, Fair Hamlet
The Glass Menagerie
Richard Nixon and Bertrand Russell
Thanksgiving in Yosemite




A Very Official Poetry Festival

Just back from the first National Poetry Festival in Washington last week. I wonder what it accomplished?

Of course, it is nice that the government, as a matter of policy, is now taking notice of the arts, and a large number of school kids now get a chance to see a substantial number of contemporary Shelleys plain, but unlike the ones we stage here it didn’t seem much of a spontaneous expression of the city of Washington.

I thought our last Poetry Festival at the San Francisco Museum had some dreadful spots. Sometimes it gave the impression of Winnemucca trying to be Las Vegas. Nevertheless, it had a widely representative collection of poets and a series of capacity audiences, full of interest in what was going on.

The Washington thing was pretty official. The list was carefully picked for maximum respectability (not too easy a thing to do amongst poets) and was dominated by the now late-middle-aged, self-styled Reactionary Generation. Needless to say there were no Beats present, but they were everywhere in the talks.

These good gray professor poets seem to be terrified of the trick-or-treat antics of three quite harmless and rather ingratiating and ingenuous young men. Or is it that either Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti alone outsell all of them put together?

Of course the reason for the spectacular sales of the Beats is that for better and often for worse, they say things people not only can understand, but want to hear. I don’t remember a Beat performing at the last San Francisco Festival; the audience here has pretty well outgrown the Beats. But this same audience had come confident that it would hear something it not only could understand and wanted to hear, but that expressed it — the audience, that spoke for it and embodied its ideas and emotions in the words of a great art.

Not so in Washington. The atmosphere was a cross between a women’s club and a high school assembly. Questions from the floor were mostly on the level of “Do you-all think your poems up or do they just come to you?” The kids were there because they’d been brought, the housewives because they thought they’d ought.

Some ten years ago someone said of a local poet that he had made poetry a social force in San Francisco. So it is still and more so, but it will take a good many National Poetry Festivals before it ever, if ever, becomes so in Washington.

The reason for this contrast is that, in spite of its faults, its freeways and parking lots and chaotic planning and unimaginative politicians, San Francisco is an organic community still. There is a vital interrelatedness amongst the inhabitants and this finds outlet in living utterance, in the arts or in baseball or in any other group expression.

Washington, by the very conditions of its being, is a less natural community than even Los Angeles. As a community Washington is a political abstraction, and the Poetry Festival was a political abstraction, too, and for the same reasons.

I thank the government for its interest in me. Any time it wants, it can give me a medal or invite me to perform. But I politely decline any more active interest on its part. I do not see any way it can help me in the practice of my art, or any other art.

I am well aware that, as Aristotle would say, the state always strives to maximize its potential. This makes work for the educated who otherwise might become disaffected. But I for one don’t need their projected Department of Fine Arts, even though it will give jobs to all sorts of friends of mine.

Back in San Francisco for the Foo Hsing Theater, the best Chinese theater to come to these shores in a generation. Then to Pajama Game at the Palace Court, one of the most entertaining things they’ve done. This restaurant theater is still the greatest entertainment bargain in town. And then to the chamber music concert at the Hall of Flowers in the park. It was excellent, but what was best about it was that it had come out of the people who were listening to it.

They as a community had evolved it, with no help from either the United States government or Paul Mellon’s Bollingen Foundation. And so, it being their baby, they very obviously loved it. And I do, too.

[November 4, 1962]



Why Not Abolish Market Street?

Last Sunday Dick Nolan did a column on Market Street and the planners. He cast a jaded and jaundiced eye on both. I got the feeling he looked on Market Street as a cross we will always have to bear, and as a make-work issue for unemployed planners. So far, too true.

Having seen the Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh and a few other drastic, all-out, jobs of urbanism, here and abroad, I am for going whole hog in the matter of Market Street. Burnham and Polk, the architects who drew up the plan to rebuild the city after the Fire, said that Market Street was a fatal mistake. So why not abolish it altogether?

The first step would be to tear down every building under six stories high. The next step would be to take up the pavement and put all motor traffic and public transportation underground, including the eccentric cross traffic from two sets of streets laid out in complete contradiction and antagonism to each other.

Meanwhile the property acquired by the city could be leased for carefully planned and well designed skyscrapers separated by open spaces equal to their heights.

We talk about a mall on Grant Avenue. Why not a great parkway like the Panhandle stretching from the Embarcadero to the foot of Twin Peaks? At one swoop San Francisco would become one of the world’s most beautifully planned as well as its most beautifully situated city.

There is no point in saying that it would be too expensive or too inconvenient. Market Street today is a slum, grimier and more provincial than 42nd and Broadway — more like 42nd and 8th Ave. in fact.

You can’t tell me that a steadily deteriorating main stem of this character is profitable to the community. You can’t tell me that a hundred juke joints and cheap bars, haunts of the tight blue jeans and Wellington boots set and their mauve sports jacketed friends pay more taxes than 20 Zellerbach Buildings.

What is going on now in Market Street is a struggle between Main Street, Los Angeles and Rockefeller Center. Why not just pay the Main Street contingent to get lost?

I not only believe such a plan would be immensely profitable to the city. I believe that if only such things could be done that way it could be set up as a private enterprise, a development corporation, and like the bridges, make its stockholders many large pots of money.

Not least, it would save the substantial businesses, essential functions of the city’s life, now threatened by a deleterious public image, the shoddy environment which has grown up around them.

[November 7, 1962]



The Continuing Destruction of San Francisco

The other evening at the theater I was talking with my fellow critics and columnists in the lobby about conservation of San Francisco in the face of the rapacity of the new urbanism that threatens to turn the city into a tangle of freeways, glass skyscrapers and parking lots where the only creatures that feel at home will be those that eat gasoline. We all agreed that our problem was to come up with some new way of putting our case. We’ve all talked about this subject so many times the public is dulled and deafened to our cries of alarm.

I would like to save the Fox. It is the last of the great Spanish Baroque movie houses. This is a perfectly genuine architectural style, admirably fitted to entertainment palaces. Highbrows who look down their noses at it are just out of date.

I know the problems of servicing the place, keeping it clean, enlarging the stage, and lastly, filling it, are not easy to solve — but, Mies Van Der Rohe to the contrary notwithstanding, it is a work of art and a perfect expression of an epoch of American life, and, as the city grows, we will need its seating capacity more and more.

If we destroy it, someday we’ll just have to build something like it, most likely a poorer thing and far more expensive.

So with the old Hall of Justice, one of the finest buildings in the city and totally beyond the budget of any contemporary administration that might try to reproduce it. Surely there must be some use for this handsome edifice?

Now I hear that eventually they plan to tear down the Health Department building on the southwest corner of the Civic Center. This is an essential element of the noble imperial style of the Civic Center; once gone it would be prohibitively expensive to replace it with anything comparable. We’d just get another glass and concrete chicken coop.

Why is it they are always trying to destroy the Montgomery Block, the irreplaceable homes of San Francisco’s only great architect, Willis Polk, the Fox, the Hall of Justice, or fill the Bay, or shave off a few useless acres from Golden Gate Park? Nobody ever suggests tearing down 6th and Howard, or building high-rise apartments on Potrero Hill.

Are we mice or men? If they keep throwing up these Mies boxes we are going to be living like White Leghorns, that’s for sure.

* * *

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I move contentedly in a narrow gilded rut as far as entertainment, dining out and such like go. Last week I kicked over the traces.

For instance, all the years I’m been dropping in to see the show at the hungry i, I never ate dinner there, even back in the days when they used to give away beans. I guess, being very finicky about my victuals, I suspected the food wouldn’t meet my persnickety standards. Last week, running late on my evening appointments and with a date at the i for the final show, I called up and reserved a table for dinner at 9:29 in the Other Room. I was surprised to get a lovely meal, most graciously served.

Only one other couple was dining there that night, so maybe the management will welcome a mention.

Also, I have always wondered why the Opera House and the Civic Center complex generally is situated in the midst of a culinary desert. For years there was only one decent place where you could park your car, walk to eat, walk to the Opera House — Foster’s.

Going on for a year now, people have been telling me, “You should try Rocco’s on Golden Gate.” With my typical journalistic alacrity I finally got around to it the other day. I was delighted. The food is standard for a first-class Italian restaurant, and so are the prices; the service is fine and the decor is that highly polished imitation of the Victorian elegance of Maxim’s that seems to be becoming standard too.

I don’t want to give the impression that Rocco’s is just a stereotyped restaurant; quite the contrary; just that it is comparable to any of the better Italian or French restaurants in town and it is a short walk from the Opera House, or for that matter from the Civic Auditorium. If your date is so exquisite that she won’t even walk that far, I can’t help you.

They serve lunch, too — which seems to please the Power Elite in the government buildings, City, State, and Federal, because the place is crowded with them at noon.

That’s something else that died out of San Francisco life in the Depression — a restaurant for bon vivant politicians, like Harvey’s in Washington or Brasserie Lipp in Paris. I guess maybe politics became too grim to permit open and shameless bon vivanting. Now, with the Affluent Society, we may yet live to see the day when Senators and Governors never drink anything but champagne, and that out of pink lace slippers.

[November 11, 1962]



In Praise of Live Music

Last year somebody said, “Only you could write about a performance of the San Francisco Symphony solely in terms of the feminine beauty of its lead harpist!” Too true. And it’s the same way with chamber music. There is only one person as faithful as myself in attendance at all quartets, quintets, trios, madrigals and motets — the town’s handsomest model.

She’s the real reason I go, and sit there, gnawing my nails, washed over by the schwärmerei of Brahms and the glistening glissandos of Schubert. Who is Heifetz to me or me to Heifetz? Now Jo Heifetz, his daughter, is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met — but I didn’t see her at the concert last Sunday.

Seriously — it was a wonderful evening. What was wonderful about it was not that it was, as the menu said, a “musical summit meeting,” but that it wasn’t. It was, in fact, very domestic indeed, as chamber music should be.

My mind went back to childhood, and the Relic House on Lincoln Park West or the restaurant of the Nordside Turnverein on Sunday afternoons and people who worked at dull jobs all week dropping in with oboes and violas under their arms to steal a few hours of nobility from life. So, too, these great men, all of them great enough to be modest, managed to transmit to the audience a sense of participation in a chamber music jam session in Heifetz’s living room of an autumn evening.

I am an incorrigible addict of live music. I have a huge record collection and a hi-fi that, strung out along the side board, looks like the American Navy at Manila Bay. I hardly ever use it.

I’m all for pure music, but I like my pure music mixed with plenty of impurity — Leon Fleisher humming the lead strings as he plays piano — as well as acting out everybody else’s, part . . . the imperious face of Piatigorsky, like one of the Fathers of the Church (as Mary whispered to me, “All he needs is a cave, a book, a lion and a donkey!”) . . . Primrose, playing with that unbelievable intonation, equaled only by Casals in my lifetime, or turning pages for the others with a kindly aplomb, looking completely like what the British call “a very clubbable man.”

I am sure that if they put their minds to it IBM could turn out a pile of apparatus that could emit fugues electronically that would make Bach sound like a duffer, or Casals or Schnabel sound clumsy. Maybe someday they will and that’s all there’ll ever be forever after.

But I will remember De Pachman’s crazy eyes seeing Chopin standing beside the piano, or Paderewski’s storm-tossed beehive hairdo, or Harold Bauer with the dignity of an International Banker or an Anglican Bishop, or Heifetz, worn with years of spiritual discipline, or Piatigorsky, who really does look like St. Jerome.

And of course, that lovely model. Someday maybe I’ll write a book, “Women I Have Watched at Concerts.”

P.S. I did so listen. I liked the Schubert best.

[November 14,  1962]



Bad Painting, Fair Hamlet

Everybody seemed to have a good time at the San Francisco Museum party for the opening of the show of contemporary British painting. That is, as long as they stayed in the rotunda and danced and kept away from the galleries.

The show itself is simply abominable. The young painters are bad imitations of 10th Street, New York, or the San Francisco Art Institute, and seem to be utterly devoid of any inkling of why American painters paint the way they do. The older painters, Hepworth, Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, are represented with mediocre work.

Best thing in the show is a dog by Elizabeth Frink, who specializes in sculptures of desolated and desolating dogs. She and Ferlinghetti should do a book together, except that his are mostly autonomous and happy dogs.

I suppose the orchestra was trying to play like a British dance band in South London — the thought that they weren’t playing that way deliberately is too awful to contemplate. I am getting tired of these Mickey Mouse bands at parties. Why doesn’t somebody break through and ask Herb Barman or Rudy Salvini or even Anson Weeks to put together a dance band for the next semi-public semi-social function?

What is badly needed in town is a place where a large group of first-class local musicians can play together at least once a week. Then they can build a repertory and learn to fit together smoothly. For what it is worth, I recommend to music lovers in the hotel business that they try one of the hotel ballrooms for a Sunday afternoon concert, and see if maybe it doesn’t pay off as a regular thing. I think they could count on enthusiastic press support.

Went to see Hamlet at the Interplayers, a most active Hamlet, as he might have been played by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Direction and costumes were excellent, but the acting left something to be desired. The best were Walter Mahoney and Kay Williams as Claudius and Gertrude.

It is my theory that Hamlet is not indecisive but, on the contrary, that his tragic flaw is impetuosity. So the play was read this time, and that is good to see, for it very seldom is so interpreted. It is arguable whether Hamlet is impetuous, but one thing he certainly is not. He is not petulant. It was a consistent note of petulance that weakened William Wilson’s interpretation of the part and robbed it of the nobility essential to this kind of tragedy.

Tonight the Griller Quartet is playing, along with Mozart and Ravel, the great Beethoven Quartet No. 12 in E Flat at the Jewish Center. Then there are the two Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts on Wednesday and Saturday, and the following Monday at the Hall of Flowers the Capella di Musica in a tribute to Darius Milhaud, now 70 years old. I for one am not going to miss any of this — busy as a musical bee.

I do plan to take two days off and drive up to Yosemite for Thanksgiving dinner. This is a tradition of long standing with me. Thirty-five years ago, our first year in California, Andrée Rexroth and I hitch-hiked to Yosemite for Thanksgiving. On the way up we slept under a huge black fig tree, somewhere near Mariposa, watched the cold bright stars go by and ate frosty sweet figs for breakfast.

Andrée has been dead for 22 years this month, and now I make the same trip with my little daughters. I don’t suppose, though, I will ever hitch-hike again or sleep out in the fields under a fig tree.

The weeks from the decline of the autumn foliage to the first heavy snowfall are the quietest time in Yosemite. The crowds are gone, the waterfalls are narrow and filmy, “like a downward smoke” as Tennyson said. The last bright leaves are going from the dogwoods and maples, sometimes it snows only to melt again, the Valley drowses into winter. There are good accommodations at the Lodge, and you can get a more or less standard restaurant Thanksgiving dinner for no more than you’d pay in a middle class restaurant in the city.

There is much to be said for going places out of season. Venice, for instance, is one of my favorite spots on earth, but I have never been there in season. I love Perugia in midwinter, dry biting cold and vine and olive smoke in the air, or Paris in January, blanketed in numbing wet smog, the windows of the cafés opaque with steam and the tarts coughing over their brandies.

There are no Tintorettos or Raphaels in Yosemite, nor any tarts either, but it is an immensely calming place to visit in November, as you’d never guess if you saw it only in August.

[November 18, 1962]



The Glass Menagerie

Thanksgiving, and once again I can call to mind all the people I might have been, a starving Indonesian peasant, a Mongoloid idiot growing old in a State hospital, a London whore, a GPU officer, a southern state Senator, Ezra Pound, a professor of creative writing, or indeed, but for the Grace of God, even worse — and I think how wondrously happy, in spite of deaths and heartbreaks, my life has been, and I am thankful.

A splendid concert of the Griller Quartet at the Jewish Center, a fluent Mozart and a majestic Beethoven, but best of all Ravel’s Quartet in F, for which they seemed to have special insight. Music like Ravel’s has been out of fashion for some years and it is good to hear it interpreted with sympathy once again. There’s no doubt — it really does sound like Stan Getz or Pacific Jazz.

This was the debut of the reconstituted Griller, with Harry Rumpler new on viola and Jacob Krachmalnick on violin. This is surely one of the strongest, most confident groups in the country. Their outstanding characteristic is the authority with which they play.

The Glass Menagerie at the Actor’s Workshop. Maybe this is Tennessee Williams’s best loved play, but it does not impress me. I think the socio-poetic monologues between the scenes are absurdly sentimental and self-conscious and should simply be cut out. They serve only to accentuate the same faults in the play proper, which itself is inflated and could stand considerable cutting.

After a ruthless surgical operation of this sort, you’d have a good pathetic television one-acter and such are in short supply. As it is, you spend a whole evening in the theater being invited to feel sorry for Tennessee Williams’s youth before he gave up all for art. I don’t feel a bit sorry for him. Seems to me he’s done right well.

There’s nothing wrong with sentiment in art — it’s bad only when the author insists on mixing himself up with it, and this Mr. Williams certainly does.

However, most people do like The Glass Menagerie and you couldn’t ask for a better production. Tom Rosqui as the son, Roberta Callahan as the daughter, James Gavin as the Gentleman Caller are all perfectly convincing, and Shirley Jac Wagner as the hypertonic mother is so real she’s a little scary. So the play is much worth seeing just as a job of theatrical craftsmanship.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and I don’t like Tennessee Williams, and nobody agrees with me, so I guess you will have an even better time.

[November 21, 1962]



Richard Nixon and Bertrand Russell

Everybody has written an obituary for Richard Nixon and I would just as soon not join the throng. I certainly have no desire to kick him while he’s down, and only wish him well, but I would like to make some observations on his defeat, and on another recent event with no obvious relationship. This was Bertrand Russell’s appeal to Khrushchev and Kennedy at the height of the Cuban crisis.

Both Nixon’s campaign and Russell’s telegrams seem to me to be conspicuous examples of lack of creative imagination in public life.

I am not a partisan of either Mr. Nixon or Lord Russell, but neither am I especially against either of them. My criticism is purely objective and concerns what I suppose you could call a question of style. Both are guilty of stereotyped reactions to opportunity. Neither of them managed to meet the chance for creative response. Civilization, said somebody once, is the art of substituting response for reaction.

Nixon, or his advisors, made the great mistake of selling the already sold, and worse, of selling them something they couldn’t sell to anybody else. The enthusiastic crowds at the Nixon rallies were not given anything that would enable them to go out and convert the skeptical and indifferent. There are plenty of people in California who are willing to believe that Pat Brown was soft on Communism, soft on crime and soft on dope. But there are also people willing to believe that Eleanor Roosevelt was a secret agent. There just aren’t enough of them to elect a governor.

Nixon had a chance to shine as the completely competent technocrat, the skilled administrator, the totally briefed politician who knew your problems better than you did yourself; in other words, the good Machiavelli.

He could have spoken to the young executives and professional men, the “takeover generation.” He could have been presented as a man like themselves, an organizational man, true, but a relatively young one, full of new but concrete ideas, mature enough to have learned by experience, but with his eyes on the future, a knowledgeable man, solidly informed about everything important.

This would have meant a Richard Nixon presented to the uncommitted voter as a radical conservative — something like Rab Butler in England. Instead, he was presented as a reactionary, and the plain truth is, reaction does not attract brains.

We need a conservative party in America and a conservative policy. As it is the Republican Party in California, and possibly throughout the nation, is very likely to fall into the hands of the radical Right, who even now are crowing “I told you so.”

In the years to come I think there may well take place a complete swing away from such reactionary policies — because they simply won’t win elections. We may see a new Bull Moose come to life inside the elephant, the product of a kind of New York-Oregon axis. But that day is not yet.

So at the opposite end of the political spectrum — what a chance Russell lost to play the role of a wise man intervening to save the human race! Certainly there are plenty of people around the world who agree with his general position on war and disarmament.

He could have spoken with the even-handed justice of the world’s greatest philosopher, appealing with sublime impartiality to politicians quarreling with destruction in their hands. He could have been the voice of sanity and of the unborn billions of men yet to live.

Instead, what did he do? He sent a message of embarrassing sycophancy to Khrushchev and an abusive note to Kennedy. So great was the popular demand for a voice of wisdom at the moment of crisis that most of the press played his communications up as though they were what alas they were not. They were far from being the voice of a more noble wisdom; they were not even neutral, but partisan.

Not so Chairman Khrushchev. He called in the most hard-nosed and skillful boys from the Agitprop Department and turned out an answer which was a model of magnanimity and equanimity. Maybe it was all just PR — but it was good PR. You would have thought he was the anarchist-pacifist philosopher, as it was only too obvious Bertrand Russell was in fact an irresponsible sentimentalist.

I for one am all for nuclear disarmament and peace and I don’t thank Bertie for his help. I do wish that in this age where “we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and of flight, where ignorant armies clash by night,” somebody, once in a while, would speak out with great style, with the creative imagination that challenges the brutality of inertia and routine.

[November 25, 1962]



Thanksgiving in Yosemite

Thanksgiving in Yosemite Valley was paradisiacal — warm sunshine, clear skies, smoky air, cold nights, all garnished with the red gold and green gold of the Kellogg oaks, and all wrapped up in a profound quiet.

I am a strong believer in home and family at Christmas time, but if you want to take a trip, Christmas Eve in Yosemite Valley is an experience you will always remember, and so will your children. Many people have come up every year for most of their lives. Before the war the Ahwahnee Hotel used to put on quite a celebration. I imagine they still do.

Last week, as I watched the people enjoying themselves, eating in the dining room, sitting in the lounge, bicycling about the golden park, it occurred to me that places like Yosemite act as a kind of screen. Only certain types of people go there. Such an outing would bore many to tears.

Sometimes I feel like the Hebrew prophets. The evil of the modern Babylons in which we live gets too much for me. I look about and it all begins to take on the character of an illimitable game of musical beds, played by hostile women and flaccid men, in an alcoholic fog, over the bodies of neglected children.

I think of all the people I know who are unable to love and afraid to live, of those whose lives are demoralized and catastrophic because they have lost or never known the power to act against the inertia of blind chance, of the malevolent, and the maimed, the victims. It seems to me then that man is at the end of his tether, that the species has failed, and the sooner the Bomb clears the evolutionary slate, the better.

Then I realize it isn’t all that way. All children are not delinquents, all marriages do not end in divorce, all people are not miserable, even in San Francisco everybody is not an alcoholic, some people walk across the Golden Gate Bridge without jumping off.

Maybe in some cases there was misery in the past and disaster in the future, but of all the crowd in Yosemite for Thanksgiving — everybody at least seemed happy, at least for that day.

Husbands and wives looked loyal and devoted, children looked happy and moderately obedient, teenagers looked wholesome, even the grass widows looked merry. Perhaps it was all delusion, but I doubt it.

So it’s not just the birds and the butterflies and the flowers and the trees and the bears and the deer that bring me to the mountains for periodic recreation — you meet such a nice class of people.

[November 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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