San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



June 1964

Nehru and India
Interracial Marriage
The Goldwater Effect
Library Architecture
Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan
A Drastic Solution for Market Street
Spring Opera and the International Repertory Theater




Nehru and India

Last week I did a column on a civilized American politician. Two young men from India, walking around the world on a peace walk, came to call. Nehru died. The Indian art show opened at the De Young. From Madras University one of the world’s greatest scholars, Dr. Ragavan, came to dinner. These events connected in my mind with stronger ties than coincidence.

Whatever Nehru’s faults, he was certainly the kind of man you would like to have to dinner. When he spoke, you knew his words had been deeply pondered. They represented the application of a consistent philosophy of life to the affairs of men. He was hampered in his role of the world’s pre-eminently civilized politician because he spoke for a country which was only civilized in patches. He could afford to defy China, He could not afford to defy hordes of monkeys and cows who devour the scanty substance of India.

Ignorance, barbarism, superstition, unbelievable poverty within — machpolitik, cold war, disintegrating atoms, and a disintegrating British Empire without — he had a hard time. He wanted India to play a healing and nurturing part in the comedy or tragedy of nations and he had no effective power.

“How many battalions has the Pope?” said Stalin. Nehru had scarcely more. He believed that even in politics wisdom could be effective, even without power. Sometimes he was right. It is amazing that he was ever right at all.

The communal riots demonstrated that the potentiality for utter chaos is unlimited in India. The country is held together by the sheer will of a tiny elite, like a Sierra forest kept from burning up by a few lookout towers. From the outside, the Congress Party often looks like a collection of ward heelers, crackpots, bureaucrats and adventurers. In other words, just like over here. India is not as favored as the United States. It can only survive if it can always turn up leaders like Nehru. We can get along with Coolidge. They have to have a Lincoln or a Roosevelt every day of the week.

There is reason to hope. My guests were common types in the Indian elite. The boyish peace walkers, E.P. Menon and Satish Kumar, were typical — ingenuous, earnest, full of curiosity and good will. They took notes and argued politely. They were extraordinarily knowledgeable, in world affairs and human conduct as well as in philosophy and literature. They’d seen everybody. De Gaulle gave them an audience and deported them the next morning. Someday, DV, they’ll be leaders in their country.

Dr. Ragavan already is. In addition, he is an authority on Sanskrit, on the ancient theater of India, on the modern theater, on the dance. He gives the quiet impression of knowing everything and having a most accurate estimate of its importance. Unlike administrators elsewhere in the world, he obviously has within himself that peace which the young men were walking around the world to find. As long as there are enough people like him in India, the country will manage. There are very few, but more, I think, than elsewhere, and let’s hope, sufficient for the task at hand.

[June 3, 1964]



Interracial Marriage

As I told you recently, one of my colleagues on the paper said I talked too much about the Actor’s Workshop, the ballet, the opera. He thought I should write about more controversial subjects.

I’ve been thinking over the list: miscegenation, communism, homosexuality, dope, birth control, AuH20, the HUAC, the ILWU, the NAACP, and so on from A to Z. PDQ. Trouble is, I have written about most of the controversial subjects several times.

Maybe I’d better start back and go through them seriatim, like I did in the Wednesday column series on poverty. Trouble is, there are so few genuinely controversial subjects left in modern life.

First, let’s get the Actor’s Workshop out of the way. The Chalk Garden at the Encore is at the wrong theater. It should be in a larger house. It’s a wonderful job; all the parts read with great intelligence. I think it does the women of the company good to get away from their husbands for a change. They were excellent in The House of Bernarda Alba, too, where they were all by themselves.

The Birds doesn’t make it. They expanded text is far from an improvement on Aristophanes. It is not topical enough, nor satirical enough. To match that great Greek it should be broad, bawdy, biting, bitter, a combination of Second City, Mort Sahl, and an old-time burlesque show of the kind that got raided once a week. Moms Mably — that’s the ticket. Second, they lose control of the stage. Only Nancy Bond, who plays the owl, finds her way through the confusion with confidence and manages to project. Best thing in the show is Dave Van Kriedt’s music.

Now let’s go on to miscegenation. I’m in favor of it. Like all members of very old American families, I have colored blood, Indian and Negro, way back in all directions. As near as I can figure, I’m one sixty-fourth Negro and one-sixteenth Indian, if I add up the strains of all my great-great-grandparents. I just happen to be able to trace my ancestors back six generations. Yes, at least two got hung, but they were collaterals, not direct, and it was for ferrying runaways across the Ohio on the Underground Railway. I’m the most disreputable member in the direct line.

As everybody knows, this is the subject which haunts the feverish dreams of all white Southerners. It is the question which must be faced up to in all discussions of social integration. I get letters every time I write on racial problems — “Would you let your daughter marry one?” “Would you marry one yourself?” “Would you go out with one?” In these questions the word “one” always carries a special accent, as though it was “aardvark” or at least “cannibal.”

The answer is “Yes.” These being the latter days of the twentieth century, I doubt if I could stop my daughters from marrying anybody they set their minds to. If asked, I hope I’d judge the man as a man. I have been engaged to a Negro girl. We failed to marry, as we planned to marry in the first place, for reasons that had nothing to do with race. As for going out, I do that whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The truth is, intermarriage is remarkably rare in America. Furthermore, it does not take place at the hot frontiers of race relations — in jazz or Beat or protest organization circles — anywhere near as often as it occurs amongst the inconspicuous middle classes. Most of these marriages proves slightly more stable than the average. Most parties to them I have interviewed are reasonably happy, and manage their social relations with a minimum of tension. Most of the children are considered Negroes, and get along satisfactorily with their companions of both races.

On the other hand, miscegenation amongst the Beats and the college rebels seems fraught with trouble, tempest and turmoil. Most such unions break up within a year or so and leave behind bitterness, usually for the other partner’s entire race, and unwanted children who have a rough time. The same is true to a lesser degree amongst the poorest class, where mixed marriage is actually most frequent. In both these sections of the population, instability is built into the life patterns of the participants, and has no essential connection with race.

It is interesting that marriage between Negro girls and white men is commonest, proportionately, amongst the top professional classes, especially amongst academic people. I don’t know why more Negro men marry white women than vice versa. It is easy to be psychologistic about it, but if you go out and investigate, you soon discover that these theories don’t hold. When somebody recently pointed out this disproportion in an article in The Nation, irate readers wrote in accusing him of race prejudice. Why? It is certainly a fact.

Another interesting fact is that most mixed bloods who “pass” over to the white race get bored with it and pass back. As my friend Horace Cayton says, there are advantages to being a Negro that whites find it hard to understand.

And this is the crux of the matter. Over the centuries the coffee in the American race mixture will probably slowly diffuse and vanish into the milk, but it will take a long time, for the simple reason that people marry, by and large, the kind of people they are used to. Their ideals are usually based on their parents. The Negro, when he becomes freely negotiable socially, doesn’t want the white man’s sister. He wants somebody like his own sister.

[June 7, 1964]



The Goldwater Effect

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of any political organization to the left of William McKinley? How do you stand, sir? Answer yes or no, or I’ll splash you with fluoridated water.”

Most northern liberal Democrats have been strongly in favor of Sen. Goldwater as an opponent. Now it looks as though they might get their wish. To many people the ideal combination would be the Senator as candidate for President and Gov. Wallace for Vice President.

The theory of course is that the Tweedledee-Tweedledum pattern of national politics would at last come to its end. Me-too-ism on both sides would be done with. We would have a liberal Democratic Party and a conservative Republican Party. The voter for the first time in a generation would be given a meaningful choice in terms of policy rather than personality.

I wonder if this is true. I suspect that many Democrats hope that Sen. Goldwater’s campaign will destroy the Republican Party forever. Their hope is far from groundless. There is no question but what the balance in California was tipped in his favor and against Gov. Rockefeller by the reactionary — even extreme — right.

If, from this point on, the Senator pitches his campaign at these people, if he not only accepts their support but obligates himself to them, and involves their leaders in the structure of his machine, the Republican Party will become a permanent minority party in the course of the next six months. Its campaigns will be protest demonstrations or mass education efforts, exactly like the other minority parties — the Prohibitionists, the Socialists, the Social-Laborites, the Trotskyites, and the Communists.

In 1964 the demonstration will be pretty big — so, too, was the Socialist vote for Debs in two elections — and then it will gradually decline until only a hard core of unreconstructable rebs remains.

Our children may well live to see the day when one national weekly newspaper, called The Jeffersonian Democrat, or The Federalist, can be found on a few street corners in the bigger cities. It will be filled with strange old-fashioned prose — Gamalielese, Mencken called it — discussing the issues of the day in terms of principles which were unreal when new, 60 years before.

It will be just like what a friend of mine once called the most accurately named paper in the radical movement — The Weekly People, organ of the Socialist Labor Party.

Only in two or three states with liberal electoral laws will the Republican Party still be on the ballot.

Richard Nixon is a more astute politician than Barry Goldwater, yet he defeated himself in California by presenting himself as the candidate of the people who had nowhere else to go and who would have voted for him anyway. It is not at all easy to sell the American electorate conservatism. Senator Taft found that out. We are all “progressives,” even the Communists and the Wall Street Republicans.

I am not judging their principles, they may be estimable, but there just aren’t enough principled reactionaries to elect a governor of the state, much less a President. A political party which commits itself into their hands will find itself deserted inexorably, whether quickly or slowly, by the conservatives, the real sources of money and power.

[June 10, 1964]




The trouble with being controversial nowadays is that all the controversy, except for the racial question, is far away on the right. Our society has become mildly tolerant, gently progressive, timid when faced with old and tried and true ideas, greedy for any shocking novelty to relieve the tedium — dissent is a hot commodity precisely because it is so rare.

This is why the racial struggles, the radical right, AuH2O, rifle clubs drilling in the Malibu Mountains, get such a good press. They kick up a delectable rumpus; it is not their principles that create the headlines.

I was just fixing to write a piece on homosexuality when the clergy got together at Presbyterian Medical Center to listen to a group of doctors lecture on the subject. We ran a calm and judicious story on it. A generation ago, everybody concerned would have been run out of town. It is precisely the deeply conservative institutions, like the Anglican Church, which have, in England and the United States, led the way towards an enlightened treatment of this problem.

The most interesting development is the gradual waning of emphasis on morbidity. Less and less is homosexuality discussed by psychiatrists and those entrusted with the cure of souls as a devastating sickness, quarantinable, extremely infectious, and life crippling.

True, certain people are thrown into a purple rage at the very mention of the subject. Nowadays we are inclined to think that they are the sicker ones. Other people remain throughout life incorrigibly square — “straight,” as “queer” people call them. They reject the testimony of their senses. They refuse to recognize homosexuality when it is all about them. “I’m sure,” said a dowager acquaintance of mine about a pair of tenants, “Dr. So-and-So refers to his friend as his wife just to indicate what a strong bond of affection and loyalty there is between them. I’m certain neither man would be capable of an act of immorality.”

However, she is 70 and has led a sheltered life, and then, too — who has ever plumbed the depths of deadpan duplicity in a 70-year-old sheltered dowager? Maybe she was having me on.

Certainly most people in the professions, especially the so-called new professions, the glorified services, ignore the subject. Some are, some aren’t, it’s nobody’s business but the individual’s. Male homosexuality, although it is, to put it mildly, powerful amongst show business people, is no longer confined to the arts and the more or less ladylike occupations where the public has long learned to expect it.

“Some people can be cured, but it’s a difficult process,” said the doctors at PMC last week. Nobody got up and asked, “Cured of what? What do you mean, cured?” Even though the sickness aspect was de-emphasized, it was still there. Even the books by homosexuals tend to slip into the language of psychopathology.

I prophesy that this attitude will wither away during the next 20 years. I am neither “for” nor “against” such a development, but as a social diagnostician I can see it before me as an objective process. American society is coming to accept homosexuality between consenting adults, not as an unfortunate but tolerable affliction, like epilepsy, but as a condition like albinism or color blindness which should not enter into the judgment of most of our relations with our fellow humans.

From then it will only be a step to considering it something like red hair or hazel eyes.

Is this good? It is certainly good for human beings to be tolerant, kindly, considerate. It is true that most of the sickness connected with homosexuality is due to the lack of these virtues in this context — to conflict, ostracism, guilt, neurotic compulsive drives, emotional instability, and, not least, the resulting difficulty in forming enduring love relationships. Many wise men who have come through the fire of these struggles have matured to be of vast help to others — the “normal” people.

The most influential American psychiatrist of recent years was himself openly homosexual. Many clergymen with special talents as confessors and counselors are obviously what the public calls homosexual types. This does not mean, as most agnostics seem to think, that they are “queer,” that they are practicing homosexuals. They are simply chaste, as their heterosexual colleagues are chaste.

[June 14, 1964]



Library Architecture

One of our major social problems is the San Francisco Public Library. It gives us something to fuss about, like Adam Clayton Powell does New York. But problem it is, naetheless. Librarian Holman is a great leap forward over his predecessors, but he is continually grappling with technical, financial and personnel problems that are intrinsically insoluble — assuming, of course, that the end in view is a first-rate library for San Francisco. We do not have the books, nor do we have the services, enjoyed by dozens of smaller Midwest cities.

Ruth Isaacs was doing wonders with the literature department. Her little revolution boded nothing but good for the future, but now she has resigned, I don’t know why. She wasn’t the Secretary of State, but in her own bailiwick she was a dedicated public servant. Somebody, speaking for the citizens of San Francisco, should thank her for many years of devoted service. I haven’t noticed anybody else speaking up — so here do I. Thank you, Ruth.

Various other rustles and rumbles would indicate that something is cooking on the east side of the Civic Center. Once again they are talking about tearing the Main Library down. It isn’t efficient. Granted, but the inefficiency is primarily in the great staircase and main hall. This is a noble and dynamic volume, in the best tradition of American imperial architecture.

The model was the Boston Public Library, I suppose, certainly one of America’s major architectural achievements. The New York and Chicago PLs are similar, and it is a great tradition, not lightly to be put aside. It is efficient, for its purpose. The purpose of great halls and broad stairs is to impress on the public the notion that they are entering a cathedral of learning. Their function is educational and quasi-religious, like the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral.

Today the cost of such a building as the SFPL, like the old Hall of Justice, or New York’s now vanished Penn Station, would be not just prohibitive, but inconceivable. San Francisco was lucky to have completed the main units of its Civic Center before the trade unions forced on America the eighty-story prefabricated Lucite hen house. How would you like it if the Civic Center were lined with disciplinary barracks like the Federal Building or the new Hall of Justice?

Trouble is, we are dealing with a forward generation of young architects who know not Brunelleschi and believe all the nonsense they read in the Boys’ Home Le Corbusier. Each generation of intellectuals hates its fathers, which is why they become intellectuals, and wants to tear down everything done thirty years before. After a hundred years, whatever it is becomes Art again. We need a committee. Of fathers to protect our heritage from the immediate past.

As for the library, let them build a high-rise book stack on the northeast corner of the lot. That’s what it was left vacant for in the first place.

[June 17, 1964]



Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

Once again let me urge you to visit the show of classic sculpture from India now at the De Young Museum. This is an experience not likely to be repeated in your lifetime.

My colleagues in reviewing the show have mentioned the Greek, or at least Hellenistic, influence which is apparent in several of the pieces. It is not generally known that after Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire to its eastern limits at the Indus River he established a number of Greek, or Greek garrisoned, cities in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cut off from the rest of the Greek world, Greeks ruled here until the beginning of the Christian Era.

This was the Bactrian Kingdom which at one time included most of Afghanistan (Bactria is the Afghan city of Balkh), Turkistan, Pakistan, and even, for a while, a large section of India south of the Indus.

We know little of the rulers, but they left behind their faces on the coins, the finest examples of portrait coinage ever done. Their subtle, arrogant faces look much like the British gentleman adventurers of the East India Company who were to come after them in 2000 years. Eucratides even wears something remarkably like a pith helmet.

Here Mahayana Buddhism grew up, flourished, and spread across Asia to Japan. With it went artists and decorators who filled the temples and monastic caves of Further Asia with paintings and sculpture that derive their plastic inspiration from the far away Greek Mediterranean. Their artistic output was incredible; its limitless bulk staggers the imagination. Although I suppose it was what we would call today a kind of commercial art, the product of studios organized on a modern production basis, it is nevertheless unquestionably the finest expression of the Greek genius after the days of Alexander, except possibly for some work done for the Romans during the reign of Augustus.

This is one of the most fascinating episodes of history, and it is tantalizing because we know so little about it and what we do know is so extraordinary.

We know that the plays of Euripides were performed in courts that looked out from the Hindu Kush over the deserts of Central Asia. We know that Hercules and Vishnu, Bacchus and Shiva were confused on their coinage. We know that Buddhism, originally a kind of atheistic religious empiricism, was turned into a Mystery Religion of the Mediterranean type.

A Mahayana Sutra, The Questions of Milinda, has as interlocutor the adventurer Menander who, driven out of Bactria by invading barbarians, conquered a sizable piece of western India. Here and there along the coasts as far south as Bombay are gravestones with Greek names. Some dedicate the dead man’s soul to Buddha and his Bodhisattvas, some to the Hindu gods, some to the deities of the homeland, half a world away.

All this has little enough to do with the main body of Indian art. Modern Indian critics and historians, intensely chauvinistic, resent any implication that they owe anything whatever to the West, at any time, ever. It is true that the main India tradition in sculpture had its origins northeast of the Ganges and in the non-Aryan south, and in the course of time came to push aside all Hellenistic influence from the northwest.

Had this been a show of the art of Pakistan, the story would have been different. It is there that most of this Greek-inspired sculpture — called, by the way, Gandharan art, after a place in Pakistan — is to be found.

A last detail — for a long time philologists were puzzled by an Aryan language spoken by a few savage, murderous, filthy robber bands in the mountains and valleys of the Northwest Border. They were certainly the most debased and intractable of all the inhabitants of an intractable region. Then somebody pointed out that the language was simply a degenerate form of the language of Plato.

A friend just asked me, “Is this sort of thing good newspaper copy?” Why not? I can’t be controversial three weeks running. I get elastic fatigues, like a tired bridge. It is unusual and fascinating information. And it is relevant and bears pondering. Amongst what sort of savages in what lonely mountains do you suppose English will survive two thousand years hence?

[June 21, 1964]

NOTE: Two of Rexroth’s plays are set in Afghanistan during the period discussed here — see Beyond the Mountains (New Directions).



A Drastic Solution for Market Street

Just what is happening in the big office in City Hall? The city’s Market Street Committee has come up with what might be called a bare minimum plan for getting up and down the street. Actually it is doubtful if, once all public transportation was routed down the middle lanes of the street, it would be able to move at all during peak hours. Market Street, as everybody in the business knows, is one of the world’s worst planning and traffic problems. Besides, or because of that, it is also a frightful example of blight.

From the Civic Center to the Ferry Building lies a business potential of billions. In the way is a litter of dirty paperback shops, hamburger joints, pinball hippodromes and, at night, cruising hoodlums in tight jeans and boots, known in the lingo as studbusters.

What would Paris be if the Place Vendôme and the Champs Elysées were given over to the enterprises of the honky-tonk Place Pigalle? The answer is, this is in fact happening, on an expensive level, and it has the French government beside itself with worry.

The Market Street problem is not going to be solved with a timid, mousy gesture, but only by the most drastic and radical action. This is going to require the cooperation of all the major investors along the street and the financial institutions behind them. The individuals connected with these bodies are concerned and anxious to start action, but when they come to meetings they suddenly assume the faceless inertia of the corporate personality.

Whatever happened to Rugged Individualism? I thought we fought two world wars and are now fighting a cold war just to keep it going. Here is a spot where we could use some of the ruthlessness of the Robber Barons who made San Francisco.

In my opinion, the problem of The Slot can only be solved by multiplying by three.

Turn Market Street into a parkway and mall with public transportation beneath it and no surface automobiles.

Make Mission and Howard Streets one-way streets and create very enticing inducements to investors — financial inducements, not unbridled permissiveness to put up twenty-story junk piles.

Elevate the pedestrian traffic on both streets. Bury as many cross streets as possible.

Is this going to happen? No. But if something like it does not happen, Market Street and eventually all downtown are going to wither and die. Not next week, but eventually. There is not much take for a community, in taxes or anything else, in automatic portrait booths, pinballs and girlie magazines.

[June 24, 1964]



Spring Opera and the International Repertory Theater

A couple of weeks ago Spring Opera went out in a blaze of glory. Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers was smooth as silk, coordinated like an expensive watch and funny as three sacks of monkeys.

There is not much music that is funny in itself. Mozart’s comedies, for instance, are musically much like other Mozart. The Italian Girl is not just comic opera, it is comic melodically and harmonically. This, naturally, makes it a bit hard to sing at times, but the cast acquitted themselves with grace and distinction. It was Spring Opera doing what it seems able to do best of all.

I know of no other off-season opera season which is anywhere near as good. In a very short time we have achieved something to be proud of here in San Francisco. As opera goes, we have done it at bargain rates. I have here some figures which George Hale was kind enough to send me. I am going to give them in detail because I think Spring Opera should be a broadly supported activity rather than the concern only of angels with bottomless moneybags. Here is one place to start democratizing patronage.

Total operating expenses are $237,170. Operating income is $155,981. Operating deficit is $81,189. Non-operating income, which I think I should give you in breakdown, is $70,354, distributed as follows: contributions, $31,154; Ford Foundation, $25,000; San Francisco Foundation, $6000; hotel tax, $5000; other, $3200. This leaves a deficit for the entire season of $10,835, which may be less than that for a single performance at the Met.

If one dollar were added to the ticket price, the deficit would be wiped out, but the Spring Opera Board feels that minimum prices are essential to a major purpose of the opera, which is to develop a new and broadly popular audience. True, there are several pieces of jewelry in the first-night audience worth considerably more than $10,835, but mostly the seats and boxes are occupied by plain people like you and me and the show is put on for us.

George Culler has demonstrated that a museum of modern art can find patrons amongst stenographers and grocery clerks in numbers large enough to make a big difference. Perhaps Spring Opera could do with a drive to get money from the masses.

Just to kick it off, we stenographers and grocery clerks and newspaper men who have enjoyed the show might send a modest check to George N. Hale, Jr., Treasurer, Spring Opera of San Francisco, 333 Franklin St., S.F., Calif. And thank you so much.

Another of my favorite institutions, led by one of my favorite people, is undergoing a revolution. Ernst Lonner’s International Repertory Theater is moving from its little store-front theater on McAllister Street to a regular house at 895 O’Farrell St. They’ll now have a 180-seat auditorium, but still with arm chairs and coffee and the intimacy of the old place, and a 40- by 50-foot stage with a new lighting system. Considering the miracles Lonner was able to accomplish on a pocket handkerchief size stage, he should be able to produce Aida or The Miracle without even trying.

The first show, Strindberg’s trilogy To Damascus adapted into a single play, will open Sept. 4 with a company which has just signed an Off-Broadway Equity contract. The coming season will be rich with plays from the heroic age of modern drama, Strindberg, Ibsen, Lorca, Tagore, Maeterlinck, Claudel, Dostoievsky, as well as moderns like Ghelderode and dramatists from the more distant past like Kleist.

This is Lonner’s specialty. He is a little older than I am, yet somehow he has made contact with the theatrical tradition of pre-World War I Middle Europe. If you want to know how it was done in Berlin or Vienna or Copenhagen from 1880 to 1914, under the eyes of the playwrights themselves, the International Repertory Theater is the place to go. I am well aware that all sorts of things have happened in the theater since, but Lonner is preserving a priceless heritage.

In addition, beginning in July there’ll be a school of drama, too, with courses in acting, speech, body movement, diction, music, history of the theater, makeup, dance, and history of fashion. Don’t tell anybody, but that fellow who writes columns on the upper right of the Sunday editorial page of The Examiner [i.e. Rexroth himself] will teach the history of the theater.

[June 28, 1964]


“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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