San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



July 1964

Feedback on Controversies
Arts Festival in Milwaukee
Milwaukee’s Public Philosophy
Mellow Milwaukee
A Buddhist’s Request
On Church and Ecology
The Danger of Unanimity
Wedekind’s Lulu
The Harlem Riots




Feedback on Controversies

Recent Sunday columns on racial intermarriage and homosexuality have brought considerable commendatory mail and three letters of intense wrath. One, consistently obscene, accused me of being a filthy mongrel and advocating miscegenation. Two accused me of boasting that I was part black.

I have no interest in advocating racial intermarriage. It takes place amongst a tiny minority of the population, uninfluenced by the most stringent laws against it, which is why most northern states have repealed such laws. Most miscegenation occurs in the South, in the victimization of woman servants by their white masters. Men who rant about the purity of southern womanhood seem unaware than many southern women are Negroes and interested in preserving their purity from assault by men of the other race.

As generations pass, children of such unions grow lighter and lighter and are eventually absorbed into the white race. I am inclined to suspect that this results in far greater contamination of the fancied purity of the white race than ever will come from serving children desegregated hamburgers or permitting all adults to vote — or from legal intermarriage.

As for my own blood contamination, all I meant was that I was just like any other descendant of old American families — the Vanderbilts or Fairfaxes or Adamses or whoever. My maternal great-grandfather’s grandmother was a “mixed blood” of English, French, Huron and probably Negro ancestry. My paternal grandmother’s grandmother was “River French,” again a mixture of three races. They were all, for their day, educated women, the wives of traders on the old Northwest Frontier. Besides, I have a distant relation to a family named Saturday, now on the Winnebago Reservation or dispersed in the cities of the Midwest. Originally I think they were Kickapoos or Potawatomies.

The lady who takes me to task for “advocating homosexuality” says, “You must be a Jew.” I appreciate the compliment. It is nice to be thought a member of that intelligent and humane people. Alas, I am just an Anglo-Catholic and considered priggish on this subject by some of my emancipated friends. Homosexuality is less common amongst Jews than amongst any other people in our population. This probably is a heritage from the Jewish law which say flatly, “there shall not be one in Israel.” In the days when the Torah was written, they simply liquidated them.

The Marxists are the ones who started this notion that if you believed history was taking a certain turn, you must of necessity advocate that turn. As for me, I think history has taken many a turn which was disastrous. Not only that, it is still doing so. It is not on my side, nor am I on its.

I think it most doubtful if this particular problem should be treated like the common cold or red hair. However, we will never know how to handle it sanely until we cease to view it with rage and horror. That, by and large, we are doing. It is quite likely, in the increasing moral indifference of our society, we will go too far in the other direction.

[July 1, 1964]




Here I am at Milwaukee, one of five trained seals at the Arts Festival of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. The others are Ruth Currier, José Limon’s dancing partner; Gene Frankel, one of the more imaginative theater directors; the composer Leon Kirchner, whom lots of us know and admire from his Berkeley days; and the painter Lester Johnson.

It’s a solid bill, in the mainstream of contemporary Palace Time, and we should put on a pretty good show for the next couple of weeks. But as always in show business, the management is, to be polite about it, characterized by an embarrassing combination of dishevelment and parsimony.

Things are quieting down, but at first it was grim. We are now in an early Tudor stately home beside the lake, but at first they put us in a Peace Corps housing apartment that looked like someplace they locked you up while you waited for your Wasserman. We more or less went on strike. Poor Kirchner was beside himself.

I said, “Now you know what a lucky dog you are being a straight musician. This is the sort of thing the jazz boys go through every night just to earn from $10 to $30. That’s why they take dope.”

As the days have passed, what seemed malevolence at first begins to assume its true character of inexperience — utter lack of knowledge of what a group of busy, successful and mostly middle-aged artists needs to function; as well as that old fault of people who run such things — inability to delegate and organize authority and responsibility. I say this because, if we ever do put on that all-out Festival in San Francisco, I have learned, here and at Aspen, some important things not to do.

From U.S. Steel to Harvard University and the White House, modern enterprise is run by administrative assistants and Girl Fridays. The job of the executive male is attending “business lunches.” And rightly so. The female of the species is more efficient, more attentive to detail, more considerate of petty human needs than the male. Most of these festivals have long since discovered this and employ a full-time loose-end-tier-upper.

Another exemplary institution is the pair of student host and hostess, youngsters who take you around and show you where the nearest laundry is and where you can buy the hometown paper or get your typewriter adjusted — which this one badly needs. I pass this on to my friend Jerry Ets-Hokin, just in case his dream boat does come in and he turns San Francisco, California, into Salzburg, Austria for three weeks next summer.

When I came into the garden of this storied manse we’re now in, I said, “Good Lord, I think I was here at a party when this place was given to a girl as an engagement present!”

So I was, and the lady, now about my age, lives, I believe, near San Francisco. I used to come up from Chicago, courting a girl who went to Milwaukee Downer, now part of UWM. She had been a Wave in the First War — I think they called them midinettes — and was finishing school on something that corresponded in a feeble way to the GI Bill of War Two.

She was the model, just before I met her, for the girl on the Venida Hairnet package. Any time I want to stop by the drug store, I can see her as she was in her girlish glory. Where she is now I have no notion, but here I am back in Milwaukee, after 40 years, stout and grizzled.

It’s still the same Milwaukee. The radicals in the Socialist Party may have thought that Milwaukee-style “municipal socialism” was betraying the Revolution, but a long generation of insistence on the strictest honesty and the most careful planning produced a unique community.

This is the only big city on the Great Lakes which has not fouled its nest. It is one of those low-grade Utopias, like Salt Lake City. Like it, Milwaukee is a kind of abstraction of the virtues of the Midwest small town, raised in power to a metropolis, a kind of cubed White Pigeon or Dowagiac. Broad lawns, tree-shaded avenues, everywhere kids on bikes — the Alredales, the chain porch swings, the teams of dappled grays are gone, but otherwise, this is where I grew up, above the river in Elkhart, by the patent medicine barons and the musical instrument dukes.

It has preserved its fine old architecture and its stately homes are still stately and even the homes of the middle classes are pretty imposing. That tragedy of blight that Cleveland let strike Euclid Avenue, once perhaps the finest street in the Midwest, was never allowed to happen in Milwaukee.

In cultural matters, compared to its sister Germanic cities, St. Louis and Cincinnati, it is still definitely a low pressure area. Life rose to the level of the Reader’s Digest, found it good and leveled out in vast content. Still, the new and chaotic University is staging a four-week-long Arts Festival with ambitious events and people who are still pretty far out — for people with graying hair, anyway.

[July 5, 1964]



Milwaukee’s Public Philosophy

As you know if you read the Sunday column, I’m in Milwaukee as one of the performing dolphins at the University Arts Festival. Since the town is almost exactly the same size as San Francisco, and about as unlike as it could be, I jumped at the chance to come, poke around, eavesdrop, gad about, and make a few comparisons.

Newspaper men love to do jobs like this for the going rate of wages, jobs that support academicians in busy idleness on Foundation money for years on end.

Milwaukee has the same problem all cities have today, from Leopoldville to Liverpool to San Diego. It has a huge new migrant population which has come north seeking freedom from terror, opportunity, or just some of that good old Yankee relief. It found itself not just subsidizing indigence, but subsidizing the proliferation of indigence. Like ours, its aid to needy children program began to give its sociologists bad dreams.

Here is one area where the peculiar amalgam that makes up the Milwaukee public philosophy — a blend, and it is a blend, of survivals of LaFollette Progressivism, municipal Socialism, German conservatism, Polish piety and machine politics, and right Republicanism, from AuH2O to the more advanced forms of Birchism — all these focused on the good old Middle Western notion, “Those who do not work shall not eat.”

I suspect much of the steam behind the original proposal was punitive, a more humane Newburg scheme, but whatever the intent, the town now has a work relief program of the type of the New Deal WPA.

Since the more ruthless elements in the power structure do not have the trained cadres, the technical administration necessarily is strongly influenced by progressive ideas. The emphasis is, as it should be, on rehabilitation, training for an urban, industrial life, and what James Baldwin disdains as moralistic middle-class values, like how to keep four fatherless children well, clean, and fed on a minimum budget. In this particular aspect of the program, the hope is to teach those unwed mothers to live lives free of demoralization and disorder and to use many of the trainees to teach others.

The young men are a harder problem, but here, even a modicum of useful work cuts down on paralyzing idleness and self-hate — or if it doesn’t, it keeps them out of mischief for a few hours a day. Highly trained people who have fallen out of the machinery of production are encouraged to develop their own projects.

I know a young man who is doing vital, neglected research for a public institution, a job he created for himself and sold to the administration. He is not as happy as a mudlark, but at least he doesn’t feel he has failed to meet the standards of an alien society.

Could such a program work in San Francisco? I doubt it. It doesn’t work any too well here. You have to find jobs that do not compete with the unions or with private industry and yet are not the only thing more soul destroying than useless idleness, that is, useless made work.

[July 8, 1964]



Mellow Milwaukee

Still in Milwaukee. It’s a strange place, because it isn’t at all strange, an anomaly in this age of forced deprovincialization. I hope, in my last Sunday column, I didn’t give the impression that it was still lost on the level of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. On the contrary, a generation of assiduous self-improvement has raised it to the cultural level of Sinclair Lewis himself.

Remember the time I went to both Pocatello and Flagstaff in one season and wrote back about parties where the women come and go talking of Ionesco and high school art teachers and sculptures that look like three bushels of spindles thrown against the wall?

There’s a recent book about Indonesia in which an outsize dusky nymphomaniac in a bedraggled Dior says to the journalist, as she points to a picture of a naked Papuan with fuzzed-out hair and bones and feathers through his nose, “That’s what I used to be — a Purple People Eater. Now I’m an Abstract Expressionist.” She had been and was, for true.

The Decline of the West, if that’s what it is, has yet to overwhelm Milwaukee. It’s still happy with the bones and feathers of a mellower day — and German restaurants of the kind that are getting scarce in Germany.

We went to the annual outdoor art show. It was uniformly mediocre. The moderns looked like commercial artists, and it turned out that most of them were. The others were mostly Sunday painters and looked it. Just like San Francisco. It is a great shame that in all cities the better artists boycott these shows, and the law of diminishing returns takes over. I am dead set against this.

What ever happened to the great tradition of Salons des Refusés and No-Jury Societies, to which, once, all vital artists belonged? You know what happened? Money. As one non-exhibiting artist said to me, “You can’t afford it. It depreciates your product and destroys your Image.” Un huh.

When in Milwaukee — Holsteiner schnitzel is beginning to come out my ears and liters of brown beer have made me as edemic as a pregnant woman. Three well-known restaurants survive from my youth, Ratsch’s, Ernst’s and Mader’s. Including in Chicago’s Red Star Inn, these are the best German restaurants this side of the water. They’re about a third of the price of the once great and now tragically debauched New York one which I shall leave nameless — and they are about four times as good. Each had its special charm and favorite dishes, though Ernst’s is the oldest and most relaxed.

Another unheard-of virtue — they are lonely survivals from the days of great service. Waiting table is still an art, lost everywhere else in maelstroms of affluence and population explosions. But maybe this is a special virtue of the city, even Frenchy’s — a place full of Victorian junk with pattable waitresses in can can tutus — has, amazingly indeed, beautiful service, not all bunnied up as you might expect, and surprisingly good food.

These are the tourist places. Maybe I’ll write about the others, unknown to Duncan Hines, though I hate to do this. As you know, I’m an anti-three star epicure, and I’d hate to spoil a good eatery with publicity.

Sure wholesome, this place. In San Francisco where aged beauties in diamond dog collars are supposed to consume pecks of LSD and peyote while listening to Wozzeck, and the MC at Pinocchio’s once seriously considered running for the Board of Supervisors, and the constructors of automatic pornographic Neo-Dadaist “happenings” are eagerly sought as dinner table wits by the best hostesses, we tend to forget that America still exists. And in Milwaukee it does, only more so.

It must, somehow, be one of Toynbee’s fastnesses. The social life is much like that in Taunton or York or Exeter along about 1902, but not English and no longer German, though the perfume of sauerkraut lingers on. I just love it. Believe me, I’m not trying to insult the town, I think it is absolutely marvelous, my long-gone Edwardian youth come back in simple splendor.

And it’s got iron and irony underneath. Don’t forget, though the late Sen. Joseph [McCarthy] was Wisconsin’s principal contribution to history after Bob LaFollette, Milwaukee gave one of the greatest modern novelists, and the only still readable proletarian one, to the world — B. Traven, author of The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.* I wonder how many Milwaukeeans know that?

[July 12, 1964]

*This is probably not true. Though there was a time when B. Traven was thought to have originally been an American IWW, there is now overwhelming evidence that he was from Europe.



A Buddhist’s Request

Last week I was walking home from Mass through the bosky park along Lake Michigan. I was at peace with the world and far away from all its troubles, whether in the Cow Palace or Laos. I sat down to do some mail on a park bench — moist flickering shade and the flickering light from the turquoise baby Mediterranean of the Midwest enveloped me in an easy, unimportant bliss.

And then I read this letter I am going to give you almost in full. As you may have noticed, I never include letters in the column. I always feel that the boss may think I’m trying to get out of work — or you may think so. But you’ll see. This in itself is startling enough just as journalism.

Dear Mr. Rexroth,

Recently I saw in an old Life magazine (22 May 1944) a picture of a skull of a Japanese soldier that an American soldier had sent from the South Pacific as a souvenir to his fiancée in Phoenix, Ariz. Further, Time magazine (June 26, 1944) carried an article describing how an American Congressman had sent to President Roosevelt a letter opener made from the forearm of a Japanese soldier killed in action.

I am a Japanese Buddhist priest. I firmly believe that as long as such thoughts of hate and bitterness are not removed from our hearts, true and lasting world peace can never be achieved. I further believe that such relics of those who sacrificed themselves for their country should be treated with the utmost solemnity. Such remains are not partisans in a war now ended 19 years.

I wish to devote myself to returning such relics to their homeland. If you know anyone who possesses such, or anyone who has any information regarding such, please be so kind as to inform me at my address.

I sincerely trust that Americans will show the same spirit towards the slain Japanese soldiers as they once showed towards the fallen British of the American Revolution — the spirit preserved in the poem over the grave of the British soldiers at Concord, Mass.

              They came three thousand miles and died,
                  To keep the past upon its throne;
              Unheard, beyond the ocean tide,
                  Their English mother made her moan.

Sincerely yours,

Shinko Sayeki
c/o Mr. Horioka
36 Garfield St.
Cambridge, Mass.

Unimportant bits of bone left over from a war everybody wants to forget, yet when called back from the past by a simple act of piety, terrifying as outward physical signs of an inward spiritual reality. It is an inward reality that is always there, in all of us, ready to rise up and take over.

We are all Eichmanns in potentia. The horrible whipsawing of the soul that went on between Vishinsky and Bukharin in the Moscow Trials goes on in miniature in thousands of divorce courts and at thousands of breakfast tables all over the world. Leviathan and Behemoth lie chained at the foundations of the world. We pretend they are not there. We forget the frequency with which they rise and shake the earth and befoul the sky.

We want to forget because, of course, they are not chained in the deeps off Mindanao, or under the Antarctic ice, but in our own hearts.

Jacques Maritain asks somewhere, “What, in the face of plain evidence of impending doom, has kept Europe alive all these centuries?” and answers his question, “The prayers of the contemplatives in the monasteries.”

In the sense in which he meant it, he is right. There is a door in every heart which opens on the Worm Ouroboros, the Dragon of the final ruin of the world. There is another door that opens into what the Reverend Shinko Sayeki would call the Buddha Nature.

It is there, that enclave of supernatural peace, in everyone. Anyone can enter, any time.

And so the Reverend Sayeki makes an act of reverence, a ritual of prayer that through the instruments of bits of insignificant residues of mortal boys, assumes responsibility for the locked doors of our consciences, the doors we lock on peace.

[July 19, 1964]



On Church and Ecology

Still in Milwaukee. Last Sunday was a gracious and balmy day after a week of weather straight from the Amazon, so I walked home from Mass at All Saints’ Cathedral through the parks along a glimmering turquoise Lake Michigan. It stank. The Lake, that is, but before I go on to that I would like to make an irrelevant parenthesis.

Time was when the Diocese of Milwaukee and its sister Fond Du Lac were the world capitals of Anglo-Catholicism. Here the movement of liturgical revival, of a liberal yet evangelical Catholicism, which had died out or gone underground in the Roman Catholic Church, found uninhibited fulfillment.

Now the great awakening led by European churches like Maria Lauch and St. Severin, dedicated men throughout the whole spectrum of the Church — the worker priests, the French Dominicans, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Bea, and a Christ-like Pope — have changed all that. Solemn High Mass at All Saints’ seemed oddly remote and dated, like some bygone French cathedral. The sense of dialogue with the Presence on the altar was feeble. True, the congregation gave the important responses, but otherwise they sat and were entertained by choir and organ. I seemed to be the only person downstairs singing the hymns, but I wasn’t embarrassed. The sermon was devotional and moving, but it was not ethically activist — quite the reverse. Things are no better in San Francisco — though at least we sing.

We have been overtaken and surpassed, and the voice of Rome is today the voice of Baron von Hügel and Monsignor Duchesne and Lord Acton, maybe even of the once scorned and rejected Father Tyrrell. This is just a note from me in Milwaukee to Archbishop McGucken and Bishop Pike. I do wish they could get together. I for one would be much more content — religionwise.

Back to the Lake, by a remote approach. One of the silliest remarks of recent weeks was Khrushchev’s putdown of Danish architecture. “Too small” — all Jutland should be one State dairy farm.

What is wrong with the politicians of the world is that they never heard of ecology and are incapable of learning by experience. Khrushchev failed in his outsize suitcase farming of the “Virgin Lands” and we have turned the Great Lakes into a blighted area — like Lake Tahoe. Lampreys devour the most delicious fresh water fish in the world, deal alewives, another invader from the ocean, litter the shores, pollute the water and air, Chicago lowers the lake level and purulent algae take over and upset your stomach as you walk through the parkways, a quarter of a mile away.

When are we going to learn how life lives together, all of it, from bacteria and nematodes to the putatively intelligent anthropoid, ironically named sapiens? When? We don’t even know how to live with ourselves.

[July 21, 1964]



The Danger of Unanimity

Remember yesterday I wrote about ecology and religion — two apparently disconnected topics, at least in that column? But there is a connection and it shows up in things like the Republican Convention, which I studiously ignored.

It’s not just the Republicans; the Democrats differ hardly at all. It doesn’t have anything to do with principles or ideologies, Right, Left, Center or Eccentric, either, at least not overtly. It is the ever-increasing charismatic nature of leadership and the accelerating drive of sheer mass towards an all-obliterating unanimity. What is the ecology of charisma?

Webster says that charisma is supernatural power or virtue attributed especially to a person or office regarded as set apart from the ordinary by reason of a special relationship to that which is considered of ultimate value and as endowed with the capacity of eliciting enthusiastic popular support in the leadership, symbolic unification or direction of human affairs. Ecology is the science of the interrelationships of organisms with one another and their environments.

Every four years since FDR, the conventions of both parties have witnessed an increase in unanimity and a decline of conflict and contradiction. The deadlocked struggles that produced the candidacies of Harding or Davis are long forgotten. The smoke-filled room is a thing of the past. The slightest deviation from enthusiastic immolation under the juggernaut is punished mercilessly.

Remember what happened to Bob Myner, the Governor of New Jersey who dared to suggest that the Kennedy steamroller should have at least token opposition? No, you don’t and neither does anybody else. They saw to that.

San Francisco has been treated to charisma in the halls and marchers and counter-marchers in the streets. Where are we? Baghdad?

In a sense, yes. We have reached a point in the growth of our mass civilization in which quantity is changing into quality. Something basic is happening to the human race. There are no essential men. There are no anointed leaders. Yet today the parliamentary processes by which an administrative caste once jockeyed for relative power are vanishing. The Man on the Balcony speaks directly to the Mob in the streets, and this relationship replaces religion for the modern mass man.

Only God and his Anointed were once thought absolutely indispensable. Now any small-town lawyer or merchant may find himself catapulted into that role, or any unscrupulous adventurer may try, and often succeed, in seizing it.

What is happening? The population explosion is not a threat to life in the foreseeable future. We could, with modern techniques, feed the city of New York on foods grown in the housing project windows. The earth could support 20 billion anthropoids that looked much like us.

But will they be human as we mean the word? I doubt it. And every step towards the relationship of queen bee and hive is a step away from humanity as we know it.

I don’t like unanimity. I don’t like indispensable men. I don’t like charismatic leaders and their intoxicated masses. They aren’t human, or if they are a new kind of human, they certainly are neither humane nor humanistic, nor humanitarian.

[July 22, 1964]



Wedekind’s Lulu

On my last night in Milwaukee I went to the show by one of my fellow bicycling bears, the director Gene Frankel’s production of Pirandello’s Henry IV. In Italy this is usually read with a great deal of solemnity. I last saw it in the Teatro Fenice with Italy’s greatest Pirandello actor. The pace was slow, business was reduced to stark ritual.

Gene, with Alvin Epstein brought from New York for the title role, treated it as a farce of horror. Frankel is, though younger than I, one of the very few survivals of the days before the theatrical counterrevolution that has vulgarized and diluted the art of drama for more than a generation. After three weeks of intense labor with a local cast of twelve who were far worse than untrained, he turned out a play which moved, moment by moment, like a Buster Keaton comedy with a Grand Guignol plot.

I don’t know what Milwaukee thought of it, but I wish it would come here after it finishes in New York. I wish Gene himself would come here for a stint. Each big job he’s done in the last few years is better than the last — Brecht on Brecht, The Blacks, now Henry IV, each is an advance towards the old goals from which even the highbrow theater has been retreating for so long.

The first night home in San Francisco, however, I was treated to more of the same, so I can’t complain. If ever there was a farce of horror, Frank Wedekind’s Lulu is it, and Lee Breuer gave it precisely that interpretation. It would be improved by tighter control over the pacing. The slow, pulsing rhythm he apparently tried for simply lags and drags at times, rather than pulses. I for one am a great believer in beating time at every rehearsal, or doing them to a drum. The fourth act falls apart. Here Breuer seems to have lost control altogether.

Lulu is a farce, true, but it is very far from being funny, and if the actors insist on being funny, the incongruity defeats the dramatic meaning. The best examples of this fault are Chaplin’s Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, where Chaplin’s technique defeats itself in embodying subjects which are too far from amusing to ever be funny.

The last act is a nightmare of highbrow ghoulishness and comes across with sufficient impact. Still, even it would be improved by another week of rehearsal and an insistent rhythm that tied together the ghastly episodes so that they really marched. As it is, they wander, and action suffers from a continuous slight fuzziness.

Susan Darby as Lulu has her first full length, full depth, full breadth leading role. I have always thought of Lulu, especially in the latter half of her career, as a woman — as post-mature, as they say of old orange groves. Sue plays her throughout as a gamine, rather like Brigitte Bardot in En Cas de Malheur. This is no mean compliment — the movie was B.B.’s masterpiece. Infantile sexuality pulling the world down around its ears — that’s one reading of Wedekind’s script, and Sue does a fine defense of it in act.

Still, it is a bit startling to an old Wedekind fan who inherited his fondness for that crazy and revolutionary German from his slightly decadent and very advanced Edwardian parents. I think my mother always wished she could have played Lulu, as did her best friend, Bonnie Dean. I am sure she would have done it with icy, fragile elegance. To each her taste.

I have gone on at such length about this play because I hope lots and lots of people will go and see it. It is a very great play and is done with imagination. But more important than that, it is the libretto for perhaps the greatest modern opera. Alban Berg’s Lulu is to his Wozzeck as Verdi’s Otello is to his Macbeth. I have been quietly suggesting that we do it in San Francisco for years and years. Nobody paid me any mind and now we have been scooped by, of all places, Santa Fe — and following that by half the opera companies of the country.

Go to the Playhouse after having listened to a record of the music and imagine what this show would be like given the all-out treatment with stage designs by Bruce Connor and with — ah, with who? — in the role of Lulu. Gerda Lammers? Inge Borkh? I’ve never seen Ilona Steingruber, but her recording is bone-chilling enough. Problem is, the lady has to act, and very well, look frigid and sexy, and give a reasonable imitation of a dancer. Besides, it’s what the movies call a talcum powder epic — she has to age convincingly. The average soprano has trouble doing any one of these. Since the public seems sold on the idea that Negro girls should only play women of easy virtue, here’s a great chance for somebody, but not Miss Price.

Please, Maestro Adler, will you please do Alban Berg’s Lulu, please, soon, before I’m too old to respond fully? Time’s a-wastin’, for me if not for thee.

[July 26, 1964]



The Harlem Riots

The debbil-debbil theory of history is a great comfort in time of trouble. Devils with bat wings, just like in Doré’s Paradise Lost, flew through the air from the Kremlin and stole Cuba from the benign, paternalistic, welfare state of Batista, just when he and his American helpers were about to banish poverty, vice and illiteracy from Cuba forever. One hundred and twenty-five percent of the population were inalterably opposed to Castro and all his works and still are. All we need is to spend a billion dollars more on the CIA and the debbil-debbils will all fly away, back to the Kremlin, or even better, to Peking.

If any genius, specializing in adverse public relations and secretly in the pay of the Russian Foreign Office, had wanted to anger and outrage the ordinary Negro American citizens around the country, and spread trouble in ever widening circles, he couldn’t have chosen a better means than blaming the Harlem riots on the Communists. Anybody who has ever bothered to take the subway to 125th Street and walk around for a half hour knows perfectly well what caused the Harlem riots.

If I had a sick dog I would chloroform him before I would board him out in Harlem.

It is very true that the adolescents who stormed through the streets, stoning policemen and looting stores, showed no respect for law or order or person or property. Have the New York police, rotten with bribery, ever shown respect for law? Are they accustomed to show respect for the person of an indigent Negro petty thief when they get him in the station house rumpus room and show him the goldfish?

What respect for property is shown by the owners (some of them upper-class Negroes) of rat-swarmed slums with hallways that look like the tenants indulged nightly in artillery duels, with one set of plumbing facilities, almost always broken, for a nine-room flat with people stacked five in a room, with heat that works only fitfully in the coldest winter months, if at all, and which goes out of commission once the temperature hits 10 above zero?

Do the housing inspectors who accept bribes to ignore these conditions respect property? How about the Negro religious and political leaders who quarrel in public over the division of the loot from the numbers racket? Do they show respect for God or man?

The fact is that the Negro slums of New York have become an intolerable and insoluble problem. So have those of Chicago and a dozen other northern cities. They will produce hysterical frustration and insensate violence until they are evacuated and their entire populations started off on another course.

When will that happen? Maybe never. So we can look for a generation of turmoil. But don’t say we weren’t warned.

Here in the Bay Area we can halt and reverse the process before it is too late. But it is far later than we think, so we’d better get busy. Or those debbil-debbils from Moscow will sneak in through the air when nobody is looking because everybody will be busy earning $200 a week making surveys.

[July 29, 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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