San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1964

Intangible Values
The Kremlin’s Madison Avenue
Looking Back on the Opera Season
Post Mortem on Prop. 14
The Kirov Ballet
The French Communist Party
Answering the Correspondence
A Parking Problem
The Paucity of Patrons




Intangible Values

Back in the days before the First War, the IWW, who believed in direct action in the economic field and who disdained to vote for people for any office, nevertheless always voted. They voted “yes” on all money bills of whatever nature on the principle, “Force the Bosses to spend money and bankrupt the capitalist system.”

Their philosophy, stood on its head, is still that of the rock-ribbed conservatives. There are still plenty of rugged individualists who believe that every penny spent on schools or public parks is another step towards socialism and bankruptcy.

When we spend public money we buy capital investment or more efficient labor, just as we do in what economists call “the private sector.” The principal difference is that in the public sector many, sometimes all, of the returns on such an investment may be intangible. Often we are buying only the enrichment of human experience.

It is hard to measure such values against the dollars and cents marked on commodities. Perhaps the majority of livestock ranchers tend to be opposed to the very existence of state and national parks, and even more to their extension. The value of beef or mutton can be measured, so many cents a pound. The value of a redwood grove as a place of recreation for humans is both immeasurable and unmeasurable.

Everybody is for education now — almost everybody. It is fairly easy to get a good vote on school bonds. We are all scared, we’ve got to get a lot of red-blooded dogs and monkeys and men on the moon before it gets all crowded with Red Russian dogs and monkeys and men.

But that is not what we are really going to be buying. We are moving into an era in which human relationships will be undergoing the most profound changes in ten thousand years. All through society we are going to be needing people capable of assuming responsibility, choosing intelligently and acting with confidence.

The returns on investment in an educational system in which the majority of the youth of the state will go through college will only begin to come in years hence. The only way we will know if we have invested wisely is if we are still alive and happy. If we have been foolish, we will all be dead or at best living by snaring rats and rabbits in the ruins.

Time is running out for both San Francisco and California. Soon it will be too late to equip ourselves for the future with the proper tools and personnel. The IWW and the advocate of rock-ribbed thrift were both wrong in their day, and they are wronger still today. This is one time when, if we don’t spend lots of money, we certainly will go bankrupt.

There are only two propositions on the ballot that I want to speak up strongly against. One is No. 14, which is not a repeal of the Rumford Act but a new law in its own right. It is almost certainly unconstitutional, but before it is found so, it will have created a mountain of trouble, both legal and racial, and will have cost the people of the state an indefinitely immense sum of money. Here is one case where all we would be buying is a fantastically expensive and destructive nuisance. Note I have said nothing about the justice of the matter — that is a problem for your own conscience.*

The other real lemon is No. 16. I have no strong opinion one way or the other on whether the state should operate a lottery. That is not what this is. It is an outright gift of millions to a specifically named private corporation. I, for one, think there should be some way in which the franchise could be protected from such an attempted grab. How can such a measure get on the ballot?

[November 1, 1964]


*The Rumford Act prohibited housing discrimination of the basis of race, sex, religion, etc. California Proposition 14, which passed overwhelmingly, enabled property owners to discriminate as they pleased. As Rexroth accurately predicted, it caused an immense amount of expense and trouble (among other things, it was considered a factor in provoking the 1965 Watts riot), and was struck down by the California and US Supreme Courts just a few years later.



The Kremlin’s Madison Avenue

One more bit of Kremlinology and then I will shut up on the subject until, to quote Lenin, the locomotive of history jumps the track again. Some years back “public opinion” was aghast at some Madison Avenue big shot who admitted that he wrote political speeches indiscriminately for both sides. Politicians employ ghost writers who they must know are going to vote against them.

I recently did an interview for Radio Frankfurt-am-Main. One of the questions they wanted answered was, “Do you think Goldwater is being sabotaged by his ghosts?” It has got around that the struggle for power is no longer naked. It is clothed in ideas and ornamented with phrases that can be bought at the notion counter.

The Russians have always pretended to be different. Marxist theory was supposed to be all important. Although an ideologue might be ordered to promulgate a theoretical justification for a given policy, when that policy failed he went down with it, into either obscurity or oblivion. Not just economists, but agronomists, geneticists, philologists, even ichthyologists, found their careers wrecked, were imprisoned or exterminated, because the Line with which they had been identified had suddenly changed.

One of the most remarkable things about the recent coup is that this has so far not been true.

Readers of the late Damon Runyan know that gangsters have functionaries known severally as The Man, The Front Man, The Difference, The Greeter, The Brain, The Mouthpiece, The Windbag. Any high school class in current history could match several of these jobs with the top Russian apparatchiks. Everybody knows that Mikoyan is The Greeter. Bloody hands come and go. The glad hand goes on forever.

Most experts have thought that Mikhail Suslov was The Brain or at least The Think Tank, the Marxist-Leninist theorist of the old type, chosen because his particular ideology coincided with the Khrushchev Line of peaceful coexistence. It turns out that there is no longer any Line, any pretense of ideological integrity before the face of the world.

Suslov, alas, is just a rather disagreeable PR man and his dialectical materialism just a sales pitch merchandized to the highest bidder. It is not that he led the theoretical justification of Khrushchev’s policies one day and acted as his dialectical prosecutor the next. It’s that his new employers made no bones about it and neither did he.

The rulers of the Kremlin at last admit, quite unabashed, that Marxism doesn’t mean anything. It is something you buy and apply, like mayonnaise, and when one brand wears out, you don’t even have to go to a different store.

Of course mature people have known that ideas, much less words, meant nothing in power struggles at least since Machiavelli. But at least Machiavelli advised against admitting it.

[November 4, 1964]



Looking Back on the Opera Season

One of the evidences that San Francisco is a true civic community, like the Greek city-states of old, is the ceremonial elegance with which it marks the turning of the year.

We have seasons, not like the Riviera’s spasms of commercial fashion, but like the church has Lent or Eastertide or Christmas. Our seasons, except maybe tourist time on Broadway, reflect deep realities in the life of a special community in a special environment. Now the long Indian Summer that is the city’s best time is drawing to a close and with it a whole group of autumnal activities come to an end.

Not the least of these in the Opera. I suppose the Opera is the main cultural focus of those great eight weeks when all the time seems one long dreamy Golden Age afternoon. It was quite an opera season. One of the officials of the Opera Association asked the press, “Why don’t any of you fellows ever point out that we show greater variety and courage in our choice of repertory than companies with seasons twice our length?” I guess that man doesn’t read the papers, because I say just that so often that it is monotonous — and so do several of my colleagues.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Gianni Schicchi, Carmina Burana, Nabucco, Katerina Ismailova — those are not shows you can drop in and see every week at the Met. Two of them I think are in bad taste, but that’s my opinion, and we sure put them on with pomp and circumstance.

Which two? Die Frau — thanks be to Betsy we’ve come to the end of Richard Strauss’s sesquicentennial, or whatever it is. This is a gent who never put down a note in good taste if he could find one in bad, and once he got hold of a sheet of music paper he just couldn’t stop himself. I can take Elektra and Rosenkavalier but then I draw the line, and if I were doing them, I’d cut both drastically and play Rosenkavalier for bawdry, not for elegance. That’s the way it was first intended. Why don’t we open with the folks in bed where they’re supposed to be? Most all movies open in bed nowadays and the public eats them up.

As for Carmina Burana, it’s okay, but is it opera? No. It is a sort of Ziegfeld’s Gregorian Follies staged at Sid Grauman’s Troubadour Theater. It is in the same kind of superlative bad taste that makes the circus the joy of the exquisite and over-refined intelligentsia. Maybe next time we could do it on ice skates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it, but is it art? No, it is folk art.

Gianni Schicchi was, without question, by far the best thing we did this season. Opera-wise, this is a kind of Brancusi’s Golden Bird, a marvel of brilliance and compression. Nobody wearies me more than the critics who think Puccini is lowbrow, just because he wrote “tunes the workers could whistle.” That imagined fault is in itself one of the characteristics of the strictest classical intellectual discipline.

The quotation above was from Stalin’s criticism of Shostakovich’s opera and led to its withdrawal, and almost to the withdrawal of Shostakovich. Here it comes again, refurbished and retitled. The workers still can whistle nothing in it but a couple of folk tunes.

I don’t like Shostakovich. He is a sort of enormously inflated Menotti, and he suffers from a common modern defect of sense — he doesn’t understand how music means. He goes ooh-ooh when he should go aah-aah, eee-eee when he should go ow-ow. So Katerina Ismailova is an excellent play in which the characters sing musical prose whose only dramatic content comes from the changes of volume, to a very, very, very loud symphony on a quite unrelated subject, if any.

Although Stalin was quite right, it is nonetheless a terrific show and I must say we gave it the works. It provides Vickers with one of his most impressive roles, and as for Marie Collier, I hope she comes back next year and sings at least once a week. She is one of the finest actresses in opera, and once in a while the music permitted her to sing and she turned out to have a splendid voice as well. Please, Marie Collier, come back and sing a Monteverdi opera for us?

And now the winter season begins and with what, even if it were to be repeated every week, would still be one of the greatest artistic experiences of a lifetime — the Kirov Ballet. These are artists so flawless in accomplishment, each and every one individually and all of them together, that it is hard to believe they are real.

In the traditional Far Eastern paintings of Amida’s Paradise the vast assemblage of supernaturals is often being entertained by dancing young Buddha-angels. Maybe that’s where the Kirov recruits its dancers, because they are literally heavenly, even if they are dialectical materialists.

[November 8, 1964]



Post Mortem on Prop. 14

Post-mortems are chilly amusements at best, but it is certainly cold comfort to California Negroes and their friends to console themselves with the conclusion that two-thirds of the population of the state are bigots because they voted for Proposition 14.

Victims of discrimination commonly picture themselves as totally guiltless and their opponents as delusional paranoiacs. Innumerable books on race prejudice blithely assume that there exists no justification whatever for the interracial tensions that have dogged human history since its beginning. I certainly believe that racial prejudice is a sin, and in that sense unjustified. But I also refuse to delude myself. Objective and all too real factors exist which spark most racial and national antagonisms.

The Catholic who denies the Spanish Inquisition, the Irish American who denies Tammany Hall politics, the Protestant who denies puritan priggishness is simply refusing to examine his own conscience. Jew, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, German — all of us who went to make up American society brought to the melting pot our peculiar ores, each compounded of precious metal and dross.

Dick Gregory says that things are worse in San Francisco than in Mississippi and that if California repeals the Rumford Act all the Negroes of the world will boycott our fruits, vegetables and wines and bring us to our knees, bankrupt and begging for mercy. I am getting tired of this kind of talk.

The movement for Negro liberation in America is at least 150 years old. One thing its leaders and spokesmen never did before was bluster. Can you imagine Frederick Douglass or John Mercer Langston making a statement like that? Or like LeRoi Jones saying, “I am a permanent pariah, an outcast from American society by the color of my skin, as I said the other night on television to Reinhold Niebuhr.” Or James Baldwin saying to any white colleague who will listen, “You enslaved me for four hundred years. I hate all white men.”

I am not a neurotic white woman at a Greenwich Village party. Such talk does not excite me sexually and I refuse to buy it. If Jim wants to go at theeing and meing, I fought the bloodiest war in history to free him. I don’t feel in the least guilty; ancestors of mine were hung on the Underground Railway. I was myself in “the movement” not only in the days when he was lolling in Paris cafés and saying, “I’m not an American Negro . . .” but before he was born.

This sort of bull is turning many less sophisticated people than myself against the Negro Movement and the sooner it is stopped, the better. Objectively, its promulgators serve the role of provocateurs.

Meanwhile, unlike all Negro intellectuals whatsoever, I do live in what they call the Ghetto. The week the Rumford Act was repealed my friends and neighbors set up a Midtown Improvement Association, to make our neighborhood, which we like even if Baldwin doesn’t, a happier, cleaner place, rich in its own community culture.

Let the pseudo Black Nationalist hobohemians call us Booker Ts, we plan to do something about the broken glass on the streets.

[November 11, 1964]



The Kirov Ballet

If you haven’t seen the Kirov Ballet, you can still go this afternoon or tonight. It has been held over an extra day. You will never see better dancers.

Sure, they’re out of date; Russia has kept her windows on Western Europe closed for almost forty years. Modern numbers, like “A Distant Planet,” must be forgiven them. After all, they haven’t been permitted anything like this in over a generation. They are timidly feeling their way back to where Russian ballet was in its great days just after the Revolution. Bacchanals like the Polovetzian dances from Prince Igor seem childish and disorganized to us and Fokine’s fusty choreography something for the Pantages Circuit.

Maybe that’s all to their credit. I don’t think there is much question but what the Russians are far more puritanical than we are. These wholesome boys and girls have never seen an orgy, never will, and don’t want to.

When you have made these allowances, you are left with the most flawless performances of the great classic ballets that you will ever see, for the simple reason that you can’t get more flawless than flawless. The purer the ballet, the better the company.

All their leading dancers, both girls and boys, are extraordinary. No other company can put five such stars at the top of the program. But in Irina Kolpakova they have something intrinsically matchless.

Cynics are always saying, “All ballet girls look alike.” A generation ago or more I was engaged to the prima of the Pavley and Oukrainsky Ballet. I can still see her beautiful face several times in any company I go to. Kolpakova is a totally new type. Not only does she look unlike anybody else in the history of dance, she has a frail, exquisitely precise style that only she could have. Once in a great while the vast sea of the theater casts up an utterly irreplaceable person — Bernhardt, Duse, Nazimova, Ida Rubenstein, Mimi Aguglia, Dorothy Gish. Irina Kolpakova is such a person.

It is relatively easy to be either unique or great; each accomplishment is the end product of a system. It is rare indeed to be both, and those few who are convey an overwhelming impression of their humanity at the most intense realization of its potential. So, in a sense, Irina Kolpakova surpasses dancing altogether.

* * *

Speaking of humanity. There used to be a magazine published in Oakland called MAN! Marcus Graham, the editor, was an individualist anarchist and the most indigestible individualist I ever knew. Back in those Thirties when everybody who wanted to be anybody had to join something and individuals carried as many membership cards as drummers now do credit cards, Marcus joined nothing, except the human race. He baited the Communists, the Chamber of Commerce, the New Deal, the Ku Klux Klan, the AFL, the CIO, without fear and with equal disfavor.

Once the Immigration Department tried to deport him, but he refused to admit to any nationality or race besides the human race to which he most passionately belonged. I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. After a long life devoted to wholesome troublemaking, he died in peace on a drowsy old California farm now obliterated by a tract development.

When the San Francisco Museum, the De Young and the Palace announced their three-decker joint exhibition to be called ”MAN — Glory, Jest, and Riddle” I thought of Marcus. As every schoolchild knows, art for over half a century has been pretty anti-humane. Much of it today is either pure fraud or a deliberate attack on humanity’s humaneness. It would be good to stage a big show, one decided gesture against the tide, one reassertion of the nobility of the highest of the anthropoids.

This isn’t that show. I realize now that it would be impossible. It should include Raphael’s School of Athens, which the Vatican is not going to chisel out of the wall, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, Delacroix’s Greece at Missolonghi, some Roman portraits, Ikhnaton fondling his pot-bellied daughters, and lots of other things of that kidney. Such a show will never be, but it could make a profoundly moving book.

On the whole, the best collection is at the San Francisco Museum. George Culler has shown a subtle and modest taste in his choices. Except for the sillinesses in the back ward of up-to-date painting, this is a genuinely humane collection.

At the other museums there are some unexpected novelties and a few old favorites I never expected to see again. James Tissot is perhaps my favorite realistic anecdotal painter and his lady charioteers at the Cirque Medrano are nothing if not startling. There is a Tiepolo Banquet of Cleopatra quite different from his other renderings of that subject.

And so it goes, all rather small in impact, but all certainly adding up to “Man,” although without the exclamation point. I do hope this is just a beginning and we have many more such three-museum shows. It’s a splendid idea.

[November 15, 1964]



The French Communist Party

I am not much given to flattering the boss, but I think the Hearst Task Force talk with the leaders of the French Communist Party a remarkable piece of journalism, a good example of the exercise of gumption, imagination and originality that makes for vital and exciting reading in political reporting.

If you read it carefully I hope you notice something half implicit, half overt, but extremely important. The Line of the French Communist Party is simply a harder version of the Line of De Gaulle himself.

Of course they say, “De Gaulle must go,” but the conditions under which they envisage his going are very unlikely to be realized — a Popular Front government in which the Communists play an important role. They advocate withdrawal from NATO and the Common Market. De Gaulle threatens to withdraw from both unless he can run them to suit himself.

Agricultural policy, which is extremely important in France, where the “farm bloc” is far more powerful than our own, was not discussed by the Task Force. It so happens that the P.C.F. [Parti Communiste Française] has no farm policy, they simply borrow from the Gaullists and sharpen it up a little for popular consumption. The genuinely radical farm policy is almost exclusively a monopoly of the “JACists,” the Catholic Young Peasants’ organization.

As for relations with America, the French Communists, obeying the line of peaceful co-existence and “the outstretched hand,” are at least more polite than the Gaullists, and as part of an international movement, they are certainly more knowledgeable about America.

Things have not changed in French Communism with the ouster of Khrushchev. The Line is still rhetorical opposition to De Gaulle for show and “critical collaboration” in fact. Four or five years ago the P.C.F. was the only nominally opposition party which was not intransigently critical of De Gaulle’s Algerian policy.

The bishops of the French Army denounced the torture of prisoners long before the Communist intellectuals of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Latin Quarter revolted against the leadership and published a manifesto which was as much against their own party’s silence as it was against the acts of the army and the police. That faction is now included in the ranks of the leadership; some were present at the Task Force conversation, and they too now carry on a policy of “loyal opposition.”

What is the reason for this? It is simplicity itself. Whatever quadrilles of amity German and French leaders may dance before television cameras, the French and Russians share a deadly fear of resurgent Germany. The door to the old Franco-Russian pact must never be quite closed.

It is not that the Russians fear the United States, they fear a Germany armed and supported in another lebensraum adventure by the U.S.A. So, too, France fears a United Europe financed by America and dominated economically by Germany.

If these threats ever become too real, the leaders of France and Russia want at least the opportunity to quickly join hands. Like divorced parents with a dangerous problem child, they are united by what separates them — Germany.

The French Communist Party will not be permitted to destroy the common ground of maneuverability which the two nations must always keep open and from which they can move against the sudden threat of danger.

[November 18, 1964]



Answering the Correspondence

In answer to the people who wrote in and asked, “Don’t you mean Lillian Gish?" Yes, I meant Lillian Gish rather than her sister. Although both were great actresses, it was Lillian who had that special quality of being irreplaceable. After they had retired from the movies, the team of Nazimova, Lillian and Dorothy Gish in Chekhov and Ibsen gave the American theater a series of performances the like of which will never be seen again. Irina Kolpakova, if she ever stops dancing, was born to play Chekhov’s Three Sisters or The Seagull, which is why, I suppose, I remembered, wrongly, the Gish sisters.

In answer to the wide spectrum of correspondence on the bit I did on the vote on Proposition 14 — I guess I will just have to state as clearly as I can my position on the race issue. I think racial prejudice, discrimination, segregation — in other words, racism at any level of intensity — a mortal sin, if the person is aware of the implications of his stand. I am for total equality for all humans before the law, and complete freedom of opportunity, movement, domicile and association. I am for the strongest, most effective means of bringing such freedom about right now.

I do not think Black Chauvinism, truculence as a principle, or abusing whites for kicks are strong and effective means, however profitable such behavior may be in show business . . . or in bed.

I am doubtful of leadership by celebrities under any circumstances. Most celebrities live in an already desegregated and miscegenated High Bohemia. What they give voice to is their own frustration in that society, which is neurotic for quite other reasons than its free mixture of races. That’s OK, but these are not the problems of a Negro scientist married to a white professional woman in Pacific Heights, nor are they the problems of the letter carrier and his family, recently come from the South, who live down the street in the Western Addition.

At the other end of the social scale, the lower Bohemia of Beatniks also speaks only for itself, even when its members foreswear gunk and mimic Malcolm X — who, be it noted, doesn’t talk that way anymore. They may think of themselves as the Berkeley and State College Mau-Mau, but they are just performers in Allen Ginsberg’s Minstrel Show. That’s OK, too, but it has nothing to do with the problem of one-tenth of a nation.

This doesn’t mean I am a tired white liberal. Far from it, on this question I am a wide awake radical. I am for concrete measures, directly applied, but I am certainly tired of “beating the boy” just because it gets a big hand.

As for the two-thirds who voted for Proposition 14. Neither I nor The Examiner were for the measure. On that the record is clear. I do say that it is just self-pity to dismiss this vote as that of benighted bigots. Bigotry is not in fact a common human failing.

The vote is shocking. Let’s hope it shocks a few people to their senses and leads them to a careful analysis of the motives that inspired it. Wars are won by strategy and tactics that take into careful consideration the opponents’ motives and objectives. They are not won by the sympathetic magic of paper cannons, nor by self-consoling abuse. Domestic conflicts are never “won” like wars. They are settled only by the spread of mutual understanding. Juridical equality is comparatively easily obtained. But look at Great Britain — anyone who has ever lived in those isles knows that there are still rankling prejudices separating the English, Welsh and Scots — while as for the Irish!

While I am doing my mail, I should say something about the great mass of conservationist literature that comes to my desk every week. Those fellows sure have a good PR. With me they don’t need it. I think the more conservation we have, the better.

I think the filling of the Bay should be stopped right now, and that baywards from the freeway the shores should be turned into parklands. I am in favor of abolishing the State Highway Commission and reconstituting it on a different basis, with conservation written into the enabling legislation. I am in favor of saving all the Redwoods, now. Whatever it would cost the state and federal governments to buy out the lumber interests would be repaid within a generation, and then enjoyed for another thousand years. Once gone they cannot be replaced within a time equal to all recorded history.

Well, that moved some of my correspondence off my desk and into the files. I think I’ll go up to Yosemite for Thanksgiving.

[November 22, 1964]



A Parking Problem

Sometimes I think the main job of a newspaper columnist is to foster the Delusion of Participation amongst the powerless general public.

We write think bits about the Red Chinese and the atoms, or the immorality of the younger generation, or the inside dope on the mysterious policies of Charles the Great of France. We spread abroad the wishful dream that not only do we, the minions of the Press, really know, but that we, all of us, you and me, can do something about it — are, in truth, each of us exerting out little inch-ounce of pressure on the levers of history right now.

Maybe. But it’s a whole lot less than an inch and an ounce. If any of us ever swerves one electron in the whirligig of history he can consider himself a man of power.

Now right close to home there are so many things we consider it beneath our dignity to so much as mention privately to our friends, much less in print. For instance. We talk about city planning and the blight of the automobile and dream up Americas the Beautiful of ivory-towered palaces undimmed by human tears (caused by carcinogens of exhaust fumes). At the best we discuss parking problems in terms of long-range plans that will involve restructuring the city.

I want to talk about a problem that is simple indeed and that finally has got my goat.

There are fewer and fewer parking facilities in San Francisco where you are permitted to park your own car. You are forced to turn it over to the mercies of an attendant. If you don’t like it, take the autobuses of public transportation, which never run and take forever to do so.

Except for the city-owned facilities, parking attendants are casual labor of the most random quality, mostly post-adolescent floaters of the Hell’s Angels type. Their greatest joy in life is abusing machinery. Next time you park your car downtown, pause for a couple of minutes and listen to the steady screaming of tires, the squealing of brakes, and the exploding exhausts.

If you know how, you can completely destroy a perfectly good clutch and not drive the car over a hundred feet. One good goose will throw the automatic choke out of commission and foul up the carburetor so that it must be cleaned and readjusted. And boy! Do these lads know how!

And you, you never realize what has happened until you’ve driven away a few blocks, and then it’s too late to complain.

I drive a car which I keep in apple pie order, but I have not turned it over to an attendant the last four times but what I have had to have it readjusted, and a few months ago I had one destroy a brand-new clutch and then laugh in my face. “Go on, sue me,” said he. Maybe if we all got together and kept careful track some of us could sue, though I doubt we’d win.

If we can’t do anything about so simple an abuse as this, what indeed can we do about Mao and his atoms? He’s a long ways away and besides we’ve never met him.

[November 25, 1964]



The Paucity of Patrons

I was going to devote this column exclusively to the second session of the Vatican Council and to the new liturgy which is being introduced into San Francisco Roman Catholic churches today.

Meanwhile my dear friend Jerry Ets-Hokin has stirred up a rumpus about the narrowness of The City’s cultural life. Being one of the paper’s culture beagles, I guess I’m supposed to say something about it. I agree completely with Alexander Fried, only more so. Although it is being overtaken in population by some of its satellite cities and their satellites, San Francisco is the cultural metropolis for all California north of the Tehachapi. We provide the bulk of the entertainment, art, music, drama, dance, for an area larger than most states.

Not only that, but we also provide the social environment out of which grows an appreciable amount of the nation’s culture. Writers, artists, musicians, come to San Francisco because it is a city of civilized freedoms, the last stand in the world of La Vie Méditerranée. Meanwhile, the base of patronage and civic responsibility continuously narrows.

San Francisco is one of the worst cities in the world, financially, for a painter. No literary publishing houses are located here, and few have offices, and those that do specialize in movie-oriented money-writers. No national magazines are published here, though Contact and Ramparts are published in the suburbs.

Musicians and dancers have more outlets and are better supported. We have the best highbrow theaters in the country. We have three museums, one of which has just announced that it is anti-local-painters, and a fair to middlin’ art school.

All this is supported by a handful of people and a few grudging civic funds. If the cultural life of the city is run by a clique, it is so run by default.

One evening I was visiting with Merla and Steve Zellerbach. “What is this character?” said I, “It says here in the paper that he just spent a half million dollars on a house in Belvedere.” “Never heard of him,” said Merla and Steve.

If Merla had never heard of him, who had? He certainly had never appeared on the Symphony board nor in the Inner Room at TVic’s, nor ever given a check to the United Crusade.

Northern California teems with those upwardly mobile young married we are always reading about in the sociologists — the new rich of the affluent society. Nobody knows them. Nobody sees them. They must spend their money on liquor and horses. They certainly don’t spend it on culture.

The bitter fact is that Jerry Ets-Hokin himself is a member of the same group he attacked. He must be related 20 ways to each of the 20 families. None of these people has remotely as much money as “Pickles” Heinz, whom Alexander Fried mentioned, much less Henry or Paul Mellon or Joe Scaife. These young men have been literally taking Pittsburgh apart and putting it together again, but they have, again literally, billions to do it with. Our great patrons of culture are wholesalers, manufacturers of overalls, electronic equipment, paper, or at the most, regional bankers.

Jerry thought he could raise $500,000 from those sections of the business community that stood most to profit by his projected Music Festival. Where is it? The larger hotel chains must spend that much daily around the world on advertising and publicity.

Meanwhile a tiny piece of the profits from a popular brand of blue jeans has been going to San Francisco culture for four generations. The most devoted patron of the ballet is the manager of a department store. He is probably about one one-hundredth as rich as John Maynard Keynes or Lincoln Kirstein, the historic ballet angels of London and New York.

The great majority of the 20 families who are responsible for the cultural life of the city are Jewish. They are closely interrelated, everybody is everybody’s double cousin. They have been here a long time, and are about as near to an aristocracy as any set in America. Like all aristocracies, they are slowly dying out, or running out in daughters, or moving away, or all three.

I could name ten families that were part of this circle when I came to town in 1927 and who are here no more. Those who remain dominate the boards and committees because there is nobody to take their places.

If Jerry knows a lot of rich youngsters in their forties who want to write a half dozen checks for a few thousand a year each, and more expensive — donate hours and hours of their time, he really ought to bring them around. I don’t think they’d be snubbed.

Meanwhile, The City, like all cities, slowly turns into a conglomeration of freeways, condominiums full of the anonymous and irresponsible new rich and subsidized housing projects full of the anonymous and irresponsible new poor. You can’t run much culture on that set-up.

[November 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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