San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



January 1963

The Turning of the Year
Plea for a Municipal Arts Center
Nuclear Power and Free Speech Radio
The Negro in Vogue Again
Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband
Contrasting Speeches by Kennedy and De Gaulle
Alienation or Frustration?
Moscow and the Chinese Communists
A Poorly Directed Macbeth




The Turning of the Year

Another year. We closed the last one with a dinner show at the Palace Court, my daughter, my secretary and myself, a nice quiet scene — and stayed to home for New Year’s Eve. The turn of the year has always seemed to me to be a time for meditation on past and future responsibilities and for examination of conscience rather than for getting drunk and making a loud racket.

I’m far from a Puritan, but I do feel pensive rather than convivial on New Year’s Eve.

Many years ago, when that I was and a little tiny lad, I arrived in New York one New Year’s Eve, having hitch-hiked from Chicago in a blizzard. A friend put me up in a tent on his roof. I went to bed early, and snuggled down in the feather sleeping bag. The weather had cleared and it was about 10 above zero. I let down the tent and lay there under the crystalline stars and listened to Babylon roar far beneath me at midnight.

I’ve always remembered it as the ideal New Year’s Eve of my life.

Another time, the first winter in San Francisco, Andrée Rexroth and I and another couple climbed Mt. Tamalpais in the dark, all a little tipsy and the girls in high heels, stood on the summit at midnight and slept in the old West House.

Later I used to go up and camp in Potrero Meadows and walk along the ridge from about 11 to 1. The New Year’s Eves of the war years were spent keeping watch in the San Francisco Psychopathic Ward, translating Greek poetry by a small green shaded lamp, while the delirium tremens cases roared in the seclusion rooms.

The Palace Court has reopened with The Music Man, one of the most engaging modern musical comedies. It’s amazing how they get such a big show on and off and around a stage little bigger than a boxing ring. Mary, who considers herself now in show business, was especially interested in the children, of whom, as you know, there are plenty in The Music Man. One of the best things about this production is that the kids act like authentic kids and not the bedeviled little beasts driven before the cameras by monstrous mothers from the rose-covered slums of Santa Monica.

I’m a sucker for these Palace Court shows. I always enjoy myself thoroughly. This time, over and above the glittering and highly skilled cast, I was most pleased by Marylin Brown as Amaryllis and David Mills as Winthrop — two stage children who have the priceless talent for acting like children.

[January 2, 1963]



Plea for a Municipal Arts Center

Since this column is not intended to be newsy, but rather to take the long and considered view, I tend to avoid rushing into print. This is fine, except for one subject — conservation. If you’re dilatory and you put things off, one day you look around and lo! the species is extinct, the freeway has been built, the historical monument has been torn down.

My column last week about incorporating the ballet into the structure of State College created something of a furor in certain circles. Meanwhile, I’ve been turning over in my mind the problem of saving the old Hall of Justice, and a new problem — the threat of the Actor’s Workshop to team up with Stanford. There is one bold and simple answer to all these questions.

We badly need a new municipal theater in San Francisco. San Francisco State College has been gradually drifting away from its old primary emphasis on education courses and is tending to attract more and more students interested in the creative arts, especially literature and drama. Furthermore, the revamped State College system envisages each of its many schools with a definite specialty.

Why not go all out? Why not disembowel the Hall of Justice and build a theater of about 2000 capacity? Why not rebuild the old jail and turn it into a school of the performing arts, attached to the theater? Why not place the whole complex under the administration of the State College system?

The repercussions of such a plan on the life of San Francisco are not only exciting to contemplate, they would be profitable. The thing that makes the difference, the one factor that distinguishes San Francisco from other American cities of its size, is that it is a major cultural center. This not only gives us a favorable trade balance from tourism, people not only come here from all over to spend money on holidays — they also make money elsewhere and come here to settle and spend it for the rest of their lives and to invest it in local enterprise. They do this because they find San Francisco the most civilized place to live.

A great Center of the Performing Arts would be a commercial investment in the future of the city that would pay off far more in hidden dividends than anything else we could do with the site. It would certainly pay off more than “putting it on the tax roles.”

Furthermore, such a use of the Hall of Justice would go a long way towards redeeming the neighborhood and reversing the slow blight that has settled on it. If the buildings that now line all four sides of Portsmouth Square are not slums they are very far from models of urban development, and their contribution in taxes must be quite low.

I know, everybody keeps hoping that magnificent skyscrapers will spring up all over outer Kearny and Montgomery Streets and make everybody prosperous. They haven’t yet. They might, following the redevelopment of the old produce market district; again, they might not.

On the other hand, a vigorous effort to rehabilitate the Portsmouth Square area would create a new center of gravity for major improvement of all of North Beach. I think that strictly tax-wise, as well as in countless other hidden but more important ways, we would get our seed back many fold.

One thing, if we ever do embark on such a subject, let’s call in the people who are going to use it and give them what they want in the way of facilities. I will never forget sitting in the office of a big foundation, looking out the window at the first girders of Lincoln Center in New York and hearing the man say, “Look at that thing. We gave them $30 million and the plans were obsolete before they were drawn. Dozens of small German towns have more modern and more efficient theaters.”

It was both funny and sad to watch the television show of the opening, knowing that every person taking part was only too well aware that the City of New York had laid an egg, had been sold a lemon. If we can’t learn from New York’s incredibly expensive mistake, of course we would be better off to just leave the whole idea strictly alone.

[January 6, 1963]



Nuclear Power and Free Speech Radio

When I was an adolescent, working for the Chicago City News Bureau (adolescents worked in those days), I heard Clarence Darrow draw to a close his lengthy, impassioned, ornate and very expensive defense of Loeb and Leopold. Then I heard the judge say that he was going to give them double or triple life because he had never believed in hanging young boys no matter what they’d done and nothing said in the court room had influenced him one way or the other.

Down the years, confronted with the elaborate appeals of the defenders of hundreds of causes, I have often thought of that day.

On my desk lie two stacks of material, one concerned with the nuclear power reactor planned for Bodega Head, the other with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee’s projected questioning of some of the people connected with radio KPFA and its sister stations WBAI in New York and KPFK in Los Angeles. In both cases the issues are far simpler than the arguments would lead you to think.

There is no question but what this large atomic plant will be dangerous, expensive, and destructive of wild life and scenic values. To the question, “Granted, but where else would you build it?” there is a simple answer, “Why build it at all?”

No one pretends that these things are economical, that they can compete with other sources of power. They are pilot plants, essentially experimental. Perhaps we should postpone building any more until we have another technological breakthrough. As it is, we are wasting an irreplaceable resource, uranium, and piling up a lot of very lethal waste products which everybody admits are in no way safely disposable.

As for KPFA, what have they done to warrant investigation? There is nothing secret about a radio station — after all, it’s on the air, as they say. True, they have given time to every conceivable variety of opinion, left as well as right, center, and plain crazy.

But it is evident from the record, spread on the air for all to hear, that the Communists could well claim to be discriminated against; the extreme right, the Anthroposophs, much less the Zen Buddhists, and the apostles of organic manures have been given many times as many hours of free speech down the years as have ever the Communists. (The reason being that — whenever one of them does talk, the listeners protest, not that he’s subversive, but that he’s dull.)

Going back to the Chicago journalism of my youth, I can remember the Herald and Examiner running a long article by Trotsky during the Russian Revolution — quite a scoop. I assume its sister paper, the San Francisco Examiner, ran it too.

Public affairs radio is journalism and the job of journalism is to give the public as well rounded a picture of what’s going on as possible.

It is difficult indeed to believe that we have come to so sorry a pass that anyone in the United States Senate, who owes his job to a free and controversial press, should dream of questioning the fundamental assumption of journalism in a democracy.

[January 9, 1963]



The Negro in Vogue Again

Early this morning when all was quiet I sat down to do a tape for my book review program. I decided to gather up the books that had been left over from 1962 on the subject of the Negro. When I piled them up I discovered that I had 26 books on everything from the Underground Railway in Connecticut in the years before the Civil War to a biography of Tom Mboya — the ones I had not done. I’ve no idea how many I did do in 1962.

In Langston Hughes’s autobiography there is a sarcastic chapter titled “When the Negro Was in Vogue,” with deliberate ambiguity as to what “Vogue” means — fashion, the magazine, or both. It means both. But those days, when High Society discovered the Talented Tenth, were nothing like this.

In The Examiner on the morning I’m writing this column there are four news stories explicitly concerned with Negroes, here or in the South or Africa, an editorial, and a couple of other stories in which race is not mentioned but where in fact the subject was a Negro. This is not a maximum, but close to a minimum.

I am sure the first syndicate to offer a Negro human interest narrative strip to the funny papers will find a lot of takers. Whatever else is being done to the Negro today he is not being ignored.

For us in California the most significant of this morning’s crop of stories was the one on the bill to be introduced to the Legislature by Senator McAteer setting up a statewide program of compensatory education for children from culturally deprived backgrounds. I am the strongest possible advocate for massive and dramatic action to educate people, especially youngsters, who have come to us from oppressive and discriminating societies to take advantage of the actual opportunities which are available to them here and now.

True, these opportunities may still be limited by indifference and hidden prejudice on the part of some of the white majority, but they nonetheless do exist and they are undeniably not being used to anything like the full.

The post-modern society which prevails in California is difficult for many highly privileged people to cope with. I often think it must be an utterly incomprehensible world out of science fiction to illiterate agricultural workers and unskilled city workers from the urban or rural slums of the South, Puerto Rico or Mexico.

The wonder is that these people cope at all. Most of them do. Most of them, like most impoverished immigrants, are inordinately house proud, child proud, eager for self-improvement. They learn our ways and settle down and bring up wholesome children who far outdistance their parents on the social ladder — thus leading to a whole new set of problems.

They are not all on welfare with six illegitimate children, rioting at dances, throwing rocks at policemen. In fact, as is well known, new groups in the process of assimilation are caricatures of American middle-class respectability, and our newest arrivals are no exception, by and large.

I want to return to the subject of a column of some months ago and urge it again. This first step in the State Department of Education (which of course hasn’t even been stepped yet) is fine and dandy. What we need is action of this type all along the line, in every department of public life, federal, state and local. We need a broad program of basic training in modern life, a phase-in orientation program. There are dozens of names for such things in other fields where such activities are a matter of course.

To take advantage of modern life you have to know things like the multiplication table. You can’t shove your way into the multiplication table. You can’t sit-in at it, you can’t take a Freedom Ride to it. You’ve got to learn it, by rote. You can’t even learn it permissively. I am well aware that this kind of remedial activity will lead to social programs in health, recreation, welfare, education — all the social services, and so result in a kind of de facto segregation — although you’d be surprised at the number of lily white people who need it badly. What else are we going to do? And I am also aware that ensuring that such programs be run as much as possible by members of the minorities concerned might result in a kind of apartheid; as well as being an open invitation to the worst sort of Uncle Toms. These difficulties can, I am sure, be foreseen and prepared for.

It is perfectly true that professionally and technically trained Negroes are doing menial work in laboratories and offices. But it is also true that there are thousands of skilled jobs and professional opportunities now open with no Negroes to fill them. If this is true at the top of the social structure, it is even more true at the bottom. There are too many open doors that too few know how to walk through.

[January 13, 1963]



Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

To the Playhouse to see An Ideal Husband. Audrey Robinson has become one of the most amusing, as well as most beautiful, dangerous women of the local stage. It is always a great pleasure to watch her prance about, kick her train, twitch her aigrets and say in a sinister Edwardian treble, “Darling, there isn’t any Santa Claus.”

What a moral man Wilde was, after all, in spite of his failings. In fact, he is just a little preachy for our jaded age. I don’t mean his ironic advocacy of the sterling Victorian virtues. I mean the real moral behind all his plays — human beings are human, fallible, silly and infinitely forgivable.

And he certainly was brilliant. Not only did he found a special kind of comedy of manners and a special dialogue of ironic badinage, but no one has ever equaled him since. True, some of his epigrams are a little wooden today, but surprisingly few.

In think An Ideal Husband could stand a thorough cutting. There are passages when the characters just swap second-rate Wildean paradoxes that have gone out of date. Since they don’t advance the play a bit, but instead make it drag, they can be pruned away and never missed. Wilde is nothing if not brisk.

Once you’re rid of the dross, though, the play has a splendid glitter, as Wilde would have said, pure imitation diamonds of the first water. And underneath all the frou frou and fashion, the sackcloth of plain timeless Christian charity, and the soft, sad music of humanity.

* * *

Carole Bogard, Margot Blum, Jimmy Schwabacher, James Standard with Alden Gilchrist at the piano, in a recital of Schumann’s A Poet’s Love at the Jewish Center. Everyone was in splendid voice, and since they’re four of the best singers hereabouts, it was an evening of pleasure unalloyed. I must say it was enough of what it was. I have no desire to spend an evening playing all my records of Mr. Schumann’s vocal numbers for quite a while.

What I like best about the intimate concerts at the Center is the family atmosphere. Most of the audience not only know one another, they know all about one another and have for generations. This is the perfect atmosphere for chamber music. No matter how difficult, it is still domestic music. When it loses that quality it bores me.

Fortunately, neither the Chamber Music Society’s concerts nor those at the Center ever do lose their intimacy. I think, once a chamber concert series fills its hall and begins to pay for itself it should bud off another group rather than try to expand. A friend recently said to me that she thought there were getting to be too many chamber groups in the city — that they were competing with one another. I for one would like to see another dozen, until at last some day music returned to the actual family circle, assuming, of course, that the family circle could ever return.

[January 16, 1963]



Contrasting Speeches by Kennedy and De Gaulle

Last week was Big Words Week all over. There were major policy speeches from Togo to Bogota. Most important voices of course were those of President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev. Their remarks on the other hand were not very illuminating.

The State of the Union Message was outstanding for what it did not say rather than for what it did. It left unmentioned practically every important issue confronting us except two — the tax cut, which everybody expected, and the information that we will continue to defend ourselves, which is hardly news.

Ignored were: aid to education, Congressional reorganization, the proposed Department of Urban Affairs, dozens of pressing problems in civil liberties, housing, unemployment, automation, worker retraining. Skimmed over lightly were: The Congo, Vietnam, Berlin, the Sino-Indian conflict.

Skimmed over not only lightly but with remarkable optimism were: the creaky structure of American alliances, especially the problem of General De Gaulle, the Youth Corps, Medicare, conservation, and — not least — the normal functioning of government peace-time, non-crisis services.

Does this mean that the President is preparing to go all out for tax reduction, which he can certainly win, and compromise or abandon the rest of his original program under Congressional pressure? As the commentators and columnists chewed over the speech during the rest of the week many of them seemed to think so. I don’t think so.

Power is President Kennedy’s favorite word. He has had it in his hands long enough to have learned well that when the exertion of power makes a lot of noise, it just shows that the machinery is not working well. In politics, national or international, the best gears are those that mesh and turn over the wheels in silence.

General De Gaulle, on the other hand, although he is always preaching the virtues of silence, loves to make a loud noise. It is hard to believe that he meant what he said in his press conference. In any other man it would be called bluster. Again, I think not. Nor do I think that he is overstating his case and playing for a compromise. Compromise he doubtless will, for the simple reason that, as a matter of bitter fact, he doesn’t have any real power at his disposal, but while he was saying it, he meant what he said.

The General is a Bonapartist. He believes in the Continental System. He believes that France, the most civilized nation in history, should be the head of the Continental System. Over this glorious role, like Richelieu or Napoleon the First or Napoleon the Third, he is bound to disagree with England.

Richelieu and the first Napoleon got away with it, for a while. Napoleon the Third annoyed England and she never lifted a finger when Bismarck struck at France. General De Gaulle had no sooner got the words out of his mouth than his fellow Europeans hastened to repudiate him.

The world is sick to death of “gloire.” Trotsky long ago said that France was sick with a beer belly and a champagne appetite. Chairman Khrushchev, though he might deny it publicly, is doubtless thoroughly familiar with Trotsky’s words. He knows well that people with such a sickness should not play with hydrogen atoms. There’s precious little “gloire” in the bursting of that mushroom cloud.

So the best thing that can be hoped for from the General’s speech is that it will force the Americans and Russians at last into a foolproof accord on nuclear disarmament. If General De Gaulle can make bombs in 1963, in 1970 people like Castro and Tshombe will be making their own, and don’t ever think they won’t.

[January 20, 1963]



Alienation or Frustration?

The other night, at the opening of Herb Blau’s play Telegraph Hill, one of the characters used some bit of current highbrow slang, the typical misuse of a technical term of the sort that passes for profound and learned vocabulary at middle-brow cocktail parties.

I don’t remember what it was — “trauma,” “implement,” “viable,” “maximize,” something of that sort. Anyway, it started me thinking about the word such people as his characters commonly apply to themselves — “alienated.”

Is in fact the left-liberal, left over from the second Roosevelt’s second administration and liberally misinformed, alienated? Are these people divorced from society, resident exiles, because of their radically different system of values? Isn’t it rather that they are impotent?

Watching the cast storm around and yell existentialist nausea and anxiety and guilt at one another, I thought, “You know, these people, who think they are so exceptional, are just like everybody else in the professional, technical and middle classes. They are just more verbal and have read more bad books. What’s wrong with them is simply that they are frustrated. Their lives are determined for them by forces that, as far as they are concerned, are inhuman — vast concentrations of power utterly beyond their control, like the motions of the solar system.

These are the lives we live — only half born. They aren’t, our spottily gracious and responsible lives, really viable. (Look up viable in the dictionary.) We know what civilization should be like. We have brought it to the brink of birth but we can’t get it to walk forth and live. Some pattern of action that would be a really effective obstetrics eludes us.

Mankind could so easily become peaceful, prosperous and cultivated, maybe even loving. Somewhere there must be a lever to pull, a button to push. Meanwhile we push and pull the old ones, and like Pavlov’s dogs when the bells rang and the lights flashed and the beefsteak did not appear, we sink deeper into general social anxiety, even if we don’t live in penthouses on Telegraph Hill and read Camus.

And meanwhile, too, “De Gaulle Slams Door on Britain,” “Chinese May Explode Bomb This Year,” “K and K Near Accord on Atom,” and what did we have to do with it? There’s one consolation: it has never been much different. “Caesar Crosses Rubicon,” “Alexander Burns Persepolis,” “Simon de Monfort Burns 50,000 Heretics.”

It never occurred to people like us that we could interfere in those days, so I suppose we were less frustrated.

[January 23, 1963]



Moscow and the Chinese Communists

One of the most interesting books I’ve read this winter has been the new edition of Professor Robert C. North’s Moscow and the Chinese Communists, published by Stanford University Press ($7.50). There are about 50 pages of new material, dealing with the rise of the Chinese People’s Republic and the developing rift with Moscow.

There is also a new and rather waspish preface. The waspishness is justified. Professor North points out that there is a minimum of scholarly research on this subject. There are vast stores of primary material, much of it untouched, at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, at Harvard, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the woods are crawling with Kremlinologists. Anybody of my generation who once belonged to the John Reed Club or the League Against War and Fascism can put up his hand and Foundations will stuff money into it and subsidize another inside job on what the Reds are really up to.

There are only a handful of dispassionate and disciplined studies of Chinese Communism — Professor North’s book is one of them. If more books of this kind were available to our policy makers and opinion shapers, we wouldn’t make such egregious errors in our estimates of the Chinese — there can be, after all, a fatal egregiousness, even though it is not usually classified amongst the lethal vices.

Still, how many people want to be informed on this subject? The report of Military Intelligence on the Chinese Communist Movement has been available as a public document in the McCarran Committee papers since 1952. How many Senators and Statesmen, much less private individuals, have ever read it?

One of the most impressive things about the new chapters in this book is the sharp change of character, even of feeling, in the narrative. Since 1950 the tone is the hard, cold, abstract and yet deadly accent of Weltpolitik and Machpolitik. We can hear the mills of the gods — or of the godless, if you will — grinding slowly and grinding exceedingly fine. The earlier chapters sound like a collaboration of Talbot Mundy, Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming.

Incongruous as they may sound in juxtaposition, in China as in life, the past explains the present. And it behooves us to understand this past thoroughly. Mao, Chu Teh, Chou En-lai, like Tito and Togliatti, are end products of a generation of Stalin’s betrayals and frame-ups and purges. They survived because they knew when to capitulate, how to reverse themselves and “confess their errors,” where to jump next. The comrades they grew up with are dead and they helped kill them.

They are not idiots. They know perfectly well that Li Li-san was not a Trotskyite Japanese agent, nor Chang Kuo-t’ao a tool of British imperialism. They must hate the Russians who put them through the hoops with a purple hatred — even though they owe their present power largely to 30 years of Moscow-dictated intrigue and bloodletting.

Like Tito, and to a lesser degree Togliatti, the Chinese Reds have a base — arms, real estate and people. They lived through the years of terror and now are in a position to pay off old scores. The chickens, those that still have heads, have come home to roost. They were there, they were the witnesses — ideology means nothing to them. They learned the hard way how much ideology meant. They watched the Stalinist leadership turn ideological somersaults every few months, kicking to death the native Chinese leadership the while. They haven’t forgotten.

Furthermore, unlike the Communists of the West, certainly unlike Tito or Togliatti, they have no regard for human life whatsoever. Only the descendants of Genghis Khan could adopt as a public policy the slogan — “Six Hundred Million People Can Win the Battle of the Grave! China Can Outdie the West!”

In the Kremlin sits Chairman Khrushchev, the prize pupil and teacher’s pet of Dmitri Manuilsky, the man who, through the Comintern, manipulated the organized disasters of the first 20 years of the Chinese Communist revolution. And who has Khrushchev to rely on, on the other side of Europe, on the other side of the political and ideological spectrum? Tito and Togliatti. They were there, too. They were witnesses, too. I think Comrade Khrushchev is in what is known as an unenviable position.

[January 27, 1963]



A Poorly Directed Macbeth

To the Gate Theater in Sausalito to see a production of Macbeth, of which Mr. Jack Aranson is owner, operator, producer, director and also Macbeth. For a brand new company there is considerable promise in these people, but it is still largely promise. Mr. Aranson has told the critics that his is an actors’ not a director’s theater. So it is. What he needs is a good director.

Aranson himself turns in a credible performance as Macbeth, and Suzanne Geier is a frail, intense and believable Lady Macbeth, a character I tend to visualize as massive and indomitable. Otherwise the production is incoherent and inaccurate, by which I mean it simply misses many of the points of the play. Often it is obvious that nobody knew a particular point was there.

Furthermore, the incoherence is intensified by lack of tempo, pitch, modulation. This is what the kind of director Mr. Aranson doesn’t like is for.

The brute enchainment of consequence and choice, the terrible, unappeasable forces of the unconscious — there is an unseen play with supernatural actors going on behind the visible action of Macbeth. The degree to which the audience realizes this is the measure of success in production. I doubt if the audience at the Gate had much wonder in their eyes.

To be specific: The witches are too loud, too active, and do not articulate sufficiently, and do not speak and move in proper rhythm. The apparitions are absurd. One of the most uncanny episodes in the play is missed completely — there is no Third Murderer. Worst of all is the pivot of the play, the Knocking at the Gate. Dion Chesse is a good actor, but he is not the Porter in Macbeth.

More important, these few minutes should be as subtly modulated as the most complex music. Every sound, every motion, must have just the right intensity and interval. Macbeth is the great tragedy of doom and here doom blossoms in the midst of life, in the dead of night, like a lightless, silent mushroom cloud. Only, “Knock, knock, knock” and the gallows humor of a drunken clown. This is what directors are for.

And then to see Rosa Bernd at the International Repertory Theater, on the last night, too late, alas, for me to give them any publicity. As a plot, this play is pure corn, redeemed only by Hauptmans’s immense skill with believable speech. The actors are potentially no better or worse than those in Macbeth.

But what a director Ernest Lonner is! Everybody moves and speaks as though specially composed music had accompanied every rehearsal. And so, in spite of a hackneyed plot and dated message, it is all human and convincing and moving. This is what directors are for. They tell me Lonner is a despot — more despotism to him. Permissive theater is all right in its place — night clubs.

[January 30, 1963]


“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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