San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



December 1963

The True Mourning
Thoughts About Death
A New and More Satisfying Symphony
Redevelopment Dilemmas
The Challenge of Utopia
Ghosts That Haunt the Public Mind
Drama Pros and Cons
To Men of Good Will
An Impenetrable Maze




The True Mourning

It would seem that every aspect of the assassination of the President and the ensuing events has been discussed literally ad nauseam, by everyone who could catch the public eye or for that matter who could be shoved in front of a camera or enticed into an interview.

During the worst period of uninterrupted milking of the public emotion, ’round the clock on TV and radio, I got two calls from women I know — both hysterical, one mildly drunk, both demoralized. Both said, “I’ve been sitting glued to the television set for three days. I don’t know what to do.”

Said I to both, “It seems to me the answer is simple. Turn the damn thing off and go for a walk.”

“I tried that,” said one, “but I stopped in front of a store and listened to the radio and burst into tears and ran home. What have you been doing to keep sane?”

“Working. I turn the radio on twice a day to pick up the most recent hard news.”

“But think of what you might miss!”

I did miss the televised murder, “the most sensational 30 seconds to ever go over the air waves.” I certainly am not in the least sorry I didn’t see it. I picked up my daughter at school on Friday and we stopped at St. Anne’s in the Sunset. People were already beginning to come to church. Many of them were obviously not Catholics and had never been in a Catholic church before, but they were all kneeling and praying.

Sunday we heard a powerful sermon on the unlimited liability of all Americans for the hate and disorder that has risen like a flooding river in our country and that has become the accepted way of life over much of the world. Later in the week we went to an evening Solemn Requiem Mass. No sermon, no collection, no announcements, nothing but the congregation dedicating “the soul of His servant John” to God in the ancient words of the liturgy, tested by almost two thousand years of grief.

I am telling you this not to show how holy we are in our family, but to answer those critics, one a local columnist, who have spoken slightingly of the ceremonial and ritual, the “pompes funèbres,” of those days of loss and grief.

“When the heart trembles,” said Confucius, “we quiet it with ceremony,” and he was an atheist by our standards. How lucky were all those people who could turn to the accepted, ancestral forms of consolation and mourning, whether Jewish or Christian, Buddhist or Muslim. The special society gave them ballast and sheet anchor in a time when the hearts of men were overturned.

Is this wrong? I think not. Because those who did not have such refuge were left out in the storm, caught in the highly efficient wind tunnels of “the media.” I can feel grief myself, I can comprehend the horror of a social disaster myself, I can express my mourning in solemnity with other men and women in a community of sorrow. I do not need the help of men and methods which ensure profitable public response to movies in which a half billion dollars have been invested, and guarantee the sale of toothpastes and laxatives.

The shoe is on the other foot. It is not the Cardinal at the altar, the widow and children kneeling alone by the coffin, the empty saddle, the heads of state marching in procession, the lamp burning at the grave as it does at the graves of the simplest Italian and French peasants — these were symbols of participation with which all men could identify themselves, freely, in so far as they had the capacity.

It was the manufactured grief, the manipulated horror, that was saddening. It wasn’t disgusting; it is wrong to view it with contempt; the occasion was saddening and horrible enough. But it was infinitely saddening to think that many men needed such massive transfusions of synthetic grief because they had lost the capacity for profound response within themselves. They could not respond — they could only react like experimental animals in a psychological laboratory.

Were they really all that many? Were they the majority? I doubt it. What was heartening was the obvious evidence that millions upon millions have persevered, each man in himself, the individual, personal wellsprings of a public grief and a public conscience. Millions were brought face to face with tragedy. It staggered them, but they faced it. They faced their own involvement in an explosion of hate, the senseless destruction of the innocent, the waste of all bright and noble things. This is true mourning, and millions rose to it.

Mourning confers a kind of grace on the mourners. Let us hope that grace persists, for we shall need it.

[December 1, 1963]



Thoughts About Death

For almost two weeks now, Americans have been thinking and talking about death. A single death, yes, in the first instance the death of a young and happy man at the pinnacle of power, but secondly a death that brought every individual face to face with the significance, absurdity, meaninglessness, but certainly inevitably the fact, of death in his own life and those about him.

Recently death has taken a number of old-timers, and some not so old, from The Hearst Newspapers, the most recent, Jimmy Hatlo, who started drawing for The Call when I first came to town, 35 years ago. Monday I was horrified to read that my colleague Irving Kupcinet’s daughter was found strangled in Hollywood. She was beautiful, intelligent, adored by her father, as I love my daughters.

I realize how powerless that love is to ward off the irrationality of fate.

Americans are supposed to be afraid of death and guiltily ashamed of it, as the Victorians were of procreation and elimination. We are accused at length in three popular books of hiding it under soothing syrup, bad perfume and dirty money. Once again I think the picture drawn by sensational publicity had been confused with the stark and commonplace reality which millions of people who are neither fools nor celebrities face with dignity. Surely last week we were all aware of an American family facing death with natural majesty.

Majesty in the face of a great mystery — this is the opposite of the self-pity that encourages commercial exploitation.

After all, death is the most normal thing in life. All sorts of things can happen in any given life — but one thing is sure to. This is why priests and physicians make better counselors for the distraught than do the optimistic types so common amongst lay therapists. They know that there is only one ultimate prognosis for all sickness of mind and body. So they have learned to deal with the passing turmoils of the mind with considerable equanimity and skepticism.

The most absolute of all critical points — the instant of transition from being to not being, or from time to timelessness — it is always there, waiting, like the boiling and freezing points wait for water — the only certainty.

Last week the careless, the sentimental, the frightened, have seen it comprehended with the profound dignity that is the awe-inspiring potential within the human heart.

It is this comprehension of unfathomable mystery that perhaps above all else makes us truly human.

[December 4, 1963]



A New and More Satisfying Symphony

Already it is apparent that we can look forward to a new, individual and more satisfying style in the San Francisco Symphony. The first thing you noticed when you came into the Opera House on opening night was that everybody had dressed up. It wasn’t just a socialite first-night parade, it was an expression of good will on the part of the community.

There is nothing like a sympathetic audience, as any jazz musician can tell you, to bring out good music.

No doubt everyone on stage felt himself more or less on the spot. It was not only Maestro Krips’s debut as regular conductor, it was Philip Boone’s as president, and even Joseph Biskind’s as program annotator. Scattered through the orchestra were many new faces. A potentially great group of people was starting off on a new musical career. So it is no wonder that things sounded a bit strained at first.

The Mozart Jupiter Symphony was certainly safe. Many critics rank it as one of the few perfect artistic utterances of mankind, along with Raphael’s School of Athens, the opening of Plato’s Republic, Homer’s description of the watchfires before the walls of Troy. They played it safe, a straight reading with no odd notions, curiously in the English rather than in the Viennese tradition, but with a meditative emphasis that sometimes dragged a little.

The Richard Strauss Don Juan picked up sharply; everybody seemed to be enjoying himself. I felt that this was a specialty of Mr. Krips, a favorite piece, primarily because he understood it so thoroughly and voiced it so clearly. If it is not clearly voiced, it can be, like much of Strauss, very muggy indeed. This time it sang.

The Brahms Symphony Number One was still better, still more relaxed. In addition, it was very Brahmsy, something it isn’t always. Not for nothing has it been called “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony.” It is easy to interpret it that way, but this time that special autumnal sentiment we think of as characteristic of the later Brahms was picked out and underscored.

Last week’s all-Beethoven program was precisely the sort of thing which has given Mr. Krips his reputation. The orchestra was still more at ease, the strain is going, they drag less. I felt there were fewer and fewer passages where the rapport between the conductor and players had slipped. Yet, contrary to his reputation of being something of a martinet, it seemed that there were long passages, especially where the phrasing was self-evident, where Mr. Krips gave the orchestra its head and let them interpret on their own.

Even if this was not so in fact, they certainly communicated that impression and it was an exciting thing to witness, much like the performance of one of the great swing bands of the pre-war days. It would be surprising indeed if we were to discover that Mr. Krips had a lot in common with Jimmy Lunceford.

There is no denying that that is what he says he wants — “a singing orchestra, where the musicians think of the music as coming out of themselves.” This is the same thing as “a swinging band where everybody is in the groove.” The San Francisco Orchestra is not that, but it is surely exciting to think that it might become so. Like groovy, man.

I have only one objection to offer in advance of the coming symphony season. The kindest word for the programming is “provincial.” There isn’t anything obnoxious, or even too conservative about the choice of music to play, it is all just safe.

Furthermore, it is a little snobbish and prestigious. I would like to see a lot more local talent, both composers and soloists. There is certainly no shortage of such in the Bay Area. Many of them have better reputations than some of the imports.

Again, I’d like to see more risks, both in revivals and in modern music. Suppose they do lay an egg with a number by John Cage, Morton Subotnick or Ussachevsky among the moderns, or a Romanian contrapuntalist or a Dutch Art Nouveau Suite for eight harps and assorted woodwinds — it makes for liveliness, amuses the young, misleads the snobs and annoys the stuffed shirts.

[December 8, 1963]



Redevelopment Dilemmas

Justin Herman, executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, is anxious to get on with his plan for redeveloping Western Addition Area 2. This is almost half a square mile, 276 acres, bounded roughly by Bush, Fulton, Steiner Streets, and Van Ness Avenue.

He is sure that he has an operable plan that will not repeat the errors of Western Addition Area 1; the Council for Civic Unity, on the other hand, seems to think that the present inhabitants of the district would be better off left as they are than subjected to wholesale redevelopment.

As is well known, the Urban Redevelopment Agency is called in some circles the Negro Expulsion Agency. Last time people were simply pushed out to the perimeters of the flattened district — precisely this new Area 2. Without carefully guided relocation, slum clearance surrounds the cleared area with worse, compounded of newly created slums.

The problem is to resettle the former inhabitants in the same area, but in improved housing which they can still afford, and at the same time to break up racial ghettos and solid concentrations of economically and culturally deprived populations. It is essential to diversify these neighborhoods, so that they encompass a wide variety of different kinds of people and yet are true neighborhoods, not great barracks and sterile row houses devoted to enforced namelessness.

“Anomie” the planners call what happens to the Project Dwellers. It is precisely this lack of a sense of community and the resultant lack of sense of individuality which we have learned in planning circles constitutes a kind of guaranteed, built-in source of delinquency and social decay. Experienced slum dwellers have to be forced into such places and loathe them. The recently completed projects down the street from me on Page Street would have caused a first-class riot if offered to the boys on Alcatraz. Yet over half the families in Area 2 have incomes of less than $5000 a year — what else than federally subsidized low-cost housing will get them new housing at a price they can afford?

On the other hand, it would be impossible to build enough housing of this sort to take care of the people in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas ready now to come North and move into it.

The problem is to take care of the people we have now without creating new slums and at the same time build a socially profitable community for a diversity of income brackets.

Mr. Herman is in a hurry to get on with it, but since hundreds of other cities have found this an all but insoluble problem, I, for one, think that we should act only after our plans are as practicable and practical and foolproof and widely acceptable as they can possibly be made.

[December 11, 1963]



The Challenge of Utopia

This has been one of those weeks. Three new shows opening, all very good, very original, very civilized — Ubu Roi, which Ronny Davis’s Mime Theater is doing at 3450 10th St., Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Playhouse, Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Actor’s Workshop.

Then there’s the exhibition of Turner watercolors at the De Young Museum, almost a hundred paintings never shown outside of England before, and many of them seldom up on the walls there. Then there’s the very good chamber music concert coming up tomorrow — Monday — at the Hall of Flowers, which I should give a plug.

Last, Bob Kirsch, Eric Hoffer, Herb Gold and I all spoke at the recent librarians’ convention at the Palace. Herb did a separate stint on the nature of creative fiction, the rest of us a panel on “The Writer in the Automated World of Tomorrow.”

I could and should do a column on each of these topics, but most especially the latter. The civilization of the last quarter of the 20th century is going to be well along in a revolution which will surpass the effects of the invention of pottery, agriculture, weaving, domestication of animals, town living and the specialization of labor — the so-called Neolithic Revolution.

Our children will grow old in a culture the like of which we cannot even imagine. If we don’t all exterminate each other we are on the brink of a life in which labor will be voluntary, and necessary only in response to genuine vocation. This is a Utopia perhaps, but a special kind of Utopia.

The Utopias of the past have been planned in terms of strictly limited and usually isolated populations, smaller than the actual communities which were the contemporary experience of the Utopian planners, as Plato’s Republic is obviously smaller than Periclean Athens, much less Alexandria or Rome. We are about to see the evolution of a utopia of billions, a world in which man as worker is going to be ever more redundant. We refuse now to face the fact that we are already well into this state of affairs.

We are in fact subsidizing unemployment, if not leisure, in thousands of housing units, depressed areas, and whole countries whose people’s efforts are economically unprofitable.

What sort of role is the writer, the artist, going to play in such a world? Nobody really knows. Whether Lenin, Ruskin, or the Catholic Guild Socialists, men once sincerely believed that, comes the revolution, an incalculable potential for creativity would be released in mankind.

Trotsky once said that the day would come when the ordinary citizen would surpass, as a sort of domestic activity for home consumption, the greatest achievements of Beethoven or Leonardo. Today we see the problem in reverse, and fear the coming of a time when the moulders of public taste and morals will be more debased than the mobs of the Roman amphitheaters.

Nobody knows the answers, but at least we do know the questions. We know now, still on the brink, that a life dependent on push buttons, punched cards and computers is fraught with the gravest dangers. We may wake up in our jet-propelled streamlined lucite incubators and discover that we are no longer human.

So back to a plug for those three plays. They are all curiously concerned with dehumanization. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu is the kind of vicious infant we think of as flourishing in Santo Domingo or Paraguay. Jarry thought of him as the typical Paris petty bourgeois — an unbridled bourgeois. Ronny Davis has presented the play as a grand romp of inspired amateurs — the very essence of what we used to call the New Theater. It’s sure funny.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote in Troilus one play which shows the end result of 10 years of war, of violence, intrigue, and false crisis. It is one of the very greatest of the great unpleasant plays of the world, and so it is seldom performed. It is too easy for each age to recognize itself in its ruthless mirror.

Brecht wrote in The Caucasion Chalk Circle perhaps his greatest affirmation of the thin blood-filled artery of human love and loyalty that keeps life circulating through the insensate disasters of history. In other words, the doom that hangs over us in the electron was there, just as ominous, in the tools and weapons of iron or stone, in Troy, in Elizabethan England or Paris in 1900, there’s just more of it now. Maybe the day will come when the creative artist can no longer avert it from his fellows, but at least he can try.

[December 15, 1963]



Ghosts That Haunt the Public Mind

A paranoiac is a person who thinks life is far more reasonable than it really is. He believes that the random happenings of life have meanings they do not have, and that other people have all sorts of deep-laid intentions in the fugitive, chattering, thoughtless things they say.

In actuality the events of life go by, most of them, like red and white balls in a gambling device, and most people most of the time simply chirp like blackbirds on a wire. We have seen so much of deliberate evil intention in the twentieth century that we have become suspicious of everything.

The recent kidnapping of young Sinatra was so bungling from the start that lots of people thought it was a fake. Now it turns out to be just another example of low-grade folly. Of course, no one but a fool would ever kidnap anybody, because the price you have to pay if caught is simply not worth any possible ransom, and built into the crime are numerous clues and booby traps that will practically ensure that you do get caught eventually.

What prompts these thoughts is of course the assassination of President Kennedy. I doubt if any person of the slightest political sophistication accepted the story at face value as it came over the air.

It looked like the classic plot of dozens of tales and actual occurrences of political assassination by professional agents provocateurs. Of course we may yet discover that this was what happened in Dallas, but it no longer seems very likely. I can imagine no move on the part of the government more conducive to social hygiene than the current investigation. Early on, as commentators began comparing the case to the murder of President Lincoln, I wondered — do these men know what they are saying?

To this day, due entirely to the ineptness of the other Johnson administration, following the murder of President Lincoln, serious scholars, much less unreconstructed Rebs and Abolitionists, debate the complicity of various public figures in that assassination. Whole books have been written “proving” that Stanton, the Radical Reconstructionist Secretary of War, was responsible. His colleagues, led by Ben Butler and Thad Stevens, constantly intimated that President Johnson had prior guilty knowledge. Jeff Davis was actually tried in absentia.

The ghost of Booth still poisons relations between the North and South. I have come to the conclusion that the Dallas events are best explained as the work of a madman, a fool and a bunch of good old-fashioned flatfooted cops, that the death of President Kennedy was no tragedy of conscious opposing forces, but another example of the vast irrationality, folly and menace of all life.

Whatever it was, let us hope that Justice Warren and his associates will lay all the ghosts that still now haunt the public mind — once and for all. Of course that too is too much to hope — ghosts are aspects of that same old folly, menace and unreason.

[December 18, 1963]



Drama Pros and Cons

Christmas is coming and everybody had ought to love everybody, so just to be ornery I’m going to be ornery. It is my customary custom to be nice or keep my mouth shut but for once I’d like to say some of the things I don’t say — perhaps as a kind of Christmas present to myself.

So let’s take the things I plugged last week. I’m all for them and I think you should go see them, but I have reservations I’d like to voice for once.

First, the Actor’s Workshop. I think for one thing they need an agonizing reappraisal of their choice of original work, especially local work. Being an English professor at San Francisco State should not automatically permit anybody to waste the public’s time and money for a couple hours of acutely embarrassing exhibitions of dramatic ineptitude.

This has been going on for years, and meanwhile the writers who have given San Francisco its current prominence on the international literary scene have not only never been shown, they have never been considered. Plays by Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others have been performed elsewhere in the country — but not here.

Practically every member of the San Francisco Renaissance has written at least one play. Has the Workshop ever considered any? As a matter of fact, they should not just consider — they should commission. Instead we have had to endure a succession of academic attempts at hack work devoid of any skill whatsoever, and horrors of bad taste and silliness like The Rocks Cry Out, on which the Ford Foundation spent a small fortune.

Also, good as it is, The Workshop’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a disappointment to the few people who saw the superlative State College version as few months back. The young drama student Rekow was much better than Fry in the role of Azdak, although I must say that Fry made the best of a serious error of casting. Except for the wonderful costumes of fake Persian rugs and the masks, the staging of the Actor’s Workshop show was decidedly inferior to State College’s.

The Workshop read the Induction straight. Apparently they believed every word of it. Brecht, tongue in cheek, was mocking the evil Beria, who had exterminated precisely the group of Georgian collective farmers who introduce the legendary play.

I think this puts the finger on what is wrong, basically, at the Workshop — a revival of the innocent progressivism of the ’30s.

If Falstaff is merely funny and Genet merely dirty, the essential point has been missed. This is why, of course, the Workshop’s King Lear was incomparably the finest thing they have ever done. Shakespeare simply did not permit any social optimism or determinism.

Kermit Sheets at the Playhouse suffers from a somewhat similar fault. He is too good a man. He knows it. He deliberately chooses plays that show forth the corrosive forces that eat away the integrity of men and women. Yet plays like Caligula and Absalom, and even The Exception and the Rule lack precision.

In Troilus and Cressida things have become nasty indeed. Shakespeare probably wrote this play shortly after the accession of James, as a farewell to the Elizabethan epoch with its wars, plots and betrayals. His side had won.

In the play everybody is ruined, too — the picture is far more drab than Homer’s or even Chaucer’s. The only man with any integrity left is Ulysses, simply because he has always functioned on the level of the lowest common moral denominator. A.J. Esta plays him with precision — Shakespeare himself speaking, where he most resembles Edmund Burke.

The youngsters, Troilus and Cressida, are simply silly children grown up in wartime, and Cressida is in addition a greedy nihilist — a beatnik. Paula White plays her with great skill — this girl promises to be the ideal Shakespeare heroine of the local theater. Still, her Cressida is redeemable. I don’t think Shakespeare’s was.

Both The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Troilus and Cressida have huge casts and both theaters have seized the chance to give a whole lot of new people a break and to move up others into more important roles than they’ve had hitherto — for this I have nothing but loud praise. Whether Marguerite Ray as Cassandra or Henri Brown as Achilles — two superlative jobs, or Carol Locatell as the sister-in-law in the Brecht play, this is the kind of go-out-and-find-them-and-bring-them-in casting we need.

[December 22, 1963]



To Men of Good Will

The angels sang, says the Greek, “Doxa en hypistois Theo, kai epi ges eipene en anthropois eudoxia.” The English of the King James Version says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” This is a comforting distortion. In ages of turmoil, betrayal, senseless disasters, it has sustained many men to believe that the Power that governs the universe does in fact have good will toward men, a conclusion often not readily deducible from the evidence of history. But the Greek means — “Peace to men of good will.”

Will is out of fashion today, good or bad are out of fashion too. It’s all due to bad housing, broken homes, cultural deprivation, skin color. Abe Lincoln, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Bunyan, Martin Luther King, they never suffered from such crippling disadvantages. They didn’t have to choose or persist in their choices, it all came by luck and environment. They were well adjusted.

The truth is that ill will gathers in the body of mankind and finally bursts and floods the bloodstream and corrodes the brain of all society. We have seen in our time malevolence mount like the Mississippi in flood and barriers we had assumed were part of the immutable order of nature wash away and whole peoples go under. Perhaps never in history has hate and anger driven so many men. It is far easier to believe in evil than in good — evil has become a patent fact of every day.

We seldom face the fact that most of what we think of as news is concerned with gross malignancy — and I don’t mean what we classify as crime news.

But once a year people gather in the candlelight and the smell of incense and pine boughs and sing the ancient melodies that have come down from almost two thousand years and the carols that were sung in the Middle Ages when civilized Europe was a little place, and remember in their hearts “those who are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.”

Men have always been in adversity, from the chippers of flint to the splitters of the atom, most men most of the time, and every man, no matter how fortunate, eventually.

It is an effort, an act of heroic faith, to believe that good will too grows and spreads from man to man and suffuses all the community and brings with it peace. The evidence is all that good will brings not peace, but the sword of martyrdom. We forget that without its sustaining force the world would have perished altogether long ago.

[December 25, 1963]



An Impenetrable Maze

As the year comes to an end I usually write a column of retrospect and prospect. This time I don’t feel much in the mood.

One of the leading Washington commentators said, in a column written just before the President’s assassination, that the inner circle of White House advisers was beginning to feel that most of the pressing problems of the domestic and international state of emergency in which we live were insoluble. It already looks as if President Johnson is going to learn the same thing. He is already coming to resemble one of those experimental beasts who busily push buttons, ring bells, pull levers and shove doors — bells ring, doors open, but nothing happens but a few mild electric shocks. The bunch of bananas still hides far off in the center of an impenetrable maze.

I can’t imagine anything more disrespectful than comparing the leader of one’s nation to a rat or even a chimpanzee in a maze — but it is a comparison that springs spontaneously to mind.

I didn’t set up the labyrinth of frustrations that surrounds any national leader in the crazy world in which we live. At each year’s end since the Second War, about all we can say is, “Well, the human race is still here.” All the great and powerful can say is, “Well, I didn’t lose my temper and push the red button out of pure frustration.” So all I can say is, “Happy New Year, President Johnson. I hope you make a splendid success of your new job.” While all the time I feel more like offering my commiserations.

De Gaulle, Erhard, Home — they’re all in almost as bad a fix as Sukarno, their countries just look neater, but the Indonesian gets in more whoopee. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll be as fouled up as ever, or maybe a bit more so!

That’s mostly what I do between Christmas and New Year, besides saying my prayers. I do love to eat, and I am an unregenerate wine bibber. I haven’t been drunk in, how long is it now? Sometime before the war. Whisky is something they wash the grease out of Scotch sheep with or embalm Kentucky Colonels in, as far as I’m concerned. Cocktails always remind me of my childhood when we used to test the batteries on our bicycles or home-made wireless by putting our tongues across the poles. But fine wine, now that is different. I can’t carry a tune, so with me it’s wine, women, and good food.

For my birthday we had black mushrooms stuffed with crab paste, roast pork and snow peas, prawns and bamboo shoots, and broiled squab in an indescribable sauce, just one of Nam Yuen’s routine repasts.

Christmas Eve, the darndest meal in that wonderfully tongue-twisting place — Ristorante Oreste Orsi. Limestone lettuce, cannelloni, capon Val D’Astino, a tenderloin to which they’d done something as mysterious as the Chinese had done to that squab, cheese and port.

For Christmas, guinea hens Grand Marnier, stuffed with pistachios, bulgar wheat, apricots, baked potatoes, artichoke hearts in beignets, crab salad, and a marzipan Christmas log cake. I cooked that dinner myself. I am not the artist Orsi is, he is one of the most conscientious chefs I have met anywhere, but I do take care.

A critic recently called me a disappointed man. Looking back over the years, I don’t think I am at all disappointed. Nothing turned out the way I thought it was going to, but I’m not disappointed.

What did happen was quite interesting enough. The world is a most beautiful place and offers all sorts of side benefits along with its tragedies and disasters. All you have to be is lucky, and live through it in good health and modest prosperity. Of course only a large handful of people over the earth and down through time ever have been that lucky, but looking back over a single year or over 58 of them, I can be at least grateful that I was numbered amongst the small number of the elect.

I wish I had learned to play the piano. Sometimes I wish I had become a doctor instead of, or along with a writer and artist. Still, I wouldn’t change places with any man, least of all the troubled mighty teetering on the pinnacles of power. It was another year of disasters, folly, shocking tragedy, but another year of poignant beauty, joy of the senses, and love and loyalty, too.

[December 29, 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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