San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1965

An Atrocious Tennessee Williams Play
Natural Urban Renewal
Casting by Talent, Not by Color
Prophets and Profits
The Philosophers of Power
Negro Riots
What’s Ahead for the Negro?
Unlimited Responsibility
San Francisco’s Pitiful Patronage




An Atrocious Tennessee Williams Play

If the opening last week was, as many people seemed to think it was, the acid test of the reorganized Actor’s Workshop and its new director and manager, the results were inconclusive.

The reagents chosen could only give baffling results. They were an abominable, naturalistic, Broadway-aimed play, and a theatrically spectacular production, and three talented actors trying manfully and womanfully to make utterly unsayable clichés convincing.

Best actress was Sally Kemp, for the simple reason that her lines were so utterly hackneyed — the standard Broadway hack comedy goofy Vassar girl secretary — that she, by nature one of our best actresses, could put them across. Winifred Mann as a dying queen of All the Beautiful People, and Robert Benson as a sort of fizzled and castrated Gary Snyder didn’t stand a chance, though Lawd knows, both sure tried.

The veriest schoolboy knows that Tennessee Williams hates women. Why should people pay money to be told this ad nauseam? There isn’t a line in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore which hasn’t been milked dry of all meaning in the course of Williams’s long war of attrition with the rival sex. Furthermore, his venom is not effective. It’s just tiresomely annoying — not prussic acid, just tainted herring. And it is all so monstrously unjust that it misses any possible point.

The woman who, to judge from any number of keys, is the original of the leading character happens to be a very dear friend of mine, and of hundreds of other writers and artists of my generation. She won the parade à poil three years running in competition with the models and courtesans of Paris at the Quatre Arts Ball. She lived in a remodeled windmill outside Paris and entertained all the genuinely beautiful people of the Beautiful Epoch. She lives in a castle on top of a mountain in Italy, and so on. She has also published, when they were poor and unknown, dozens of the leading writers of our time.

She went into Italy on the heels of the American army and worked tirelessly to resurrect Italian art and letters and restore them to the international community. She was in fact the very first spokesman and organizer, after the Second War, of a mass movement for a free European community, and to this day, instead of a national initial on the back of her car, there’s a plate that says “C de M” — citoyennesse du monde — and so she is.

She’s old now, and as giddy as ever, but still beautiful. If Tennessee hates her and wants to make money sneering at her — so much the worse for Tennessee; she, I’m sure, will stay as debonnaire as ever.

Why on earth did the director and manager choose this play? The most charitable assumption is that Williams financed the production. If so — never again. San Francisco is not Baltimore. We are not a tryout town and our audiences are not guinea pigs. The Actor’s Workshop should not be used for shows that, if they make it, will come limping into Geary Street as old tired road shows, looking for burial.

In the very choice of this play I sense a certain contempt for us weed monkeys out in the sticks on the part of highly cultivated Woggle Bugs, thoroughly educated, from the Big Apple. We’ll just flock to see a highly sophisticated play by that jet set hillbilly all the Lovely People just love.

There’s a similar attitude reflected in the prospectus. Brecht, Bellow, Molière, Albee, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg — these are among everybody’s favorites, but really, couldn’t we have just a teeny weeny mite of relief from the old familiar faces? Things have been happening to the European theater since it tired of being absurd.

How about Topal — he was just here and could have been asked. How about Hugo Klaus? How about the vital Catalan theater? The Polish? Audiberti just died. Has he ever been done in America? If you want the evils of the pre-jet jet set, how about Gabriel Marcel, who has never been done in San Francisco?

How about an original? There are plenty of locals, believe it or not, Dr. Hancock. Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti get exposure in Paris, Tokyo and Prague, why not at home? Holly Bye had a preview of her White Angel at the Playhouse recently — it was incomparably better than Milk Train. Germaine Firth has been writing wacky plays, sort of Arrabel-in-the-San-Joaquin, around here for years. No director will even read them.

As for Hancock’s contribution to Milk Train, it was superlative, just the kind of rhythmic, acrobatic theatricalism I would like to do myself, and he surely got out of his cast all those awful lines would permit. But it was all so incongruous. You can do this with Lear or even Uncle Tom’s Cabin; you can’t do it with drawing room spite. It’s more incongruous than Meyerhold doing Little Women and not for laughs. Anyhow, we’ve got us an imaginative and disciplinary and young director.

[August 1, 1965]



Natural Urban Renewal

Last week we did a tour of the Golden Gateway houses and apartments. Except for the corner apartments with three bedrooms on the top floors, or the largest of the houses, I can’t see myself living there, but this is certainly the way most people want to live nowadays. I prefer the expansive opulence of Victorian domesticity.

The modern working wife prefers apartments that operate themselves. I had heard that the Golden Gateway rents were extremely dear. They aren’t, they’re about half what such apartments on upper Fifth Avenue cost, and there’s a considerable difference between looking out on the little Central Park reservoir and looking over forty miles of Bay and mountains. One of the best things about this project is the landscaping — the handsome square and fountain and the arrangements of the courts and patios so that the tenants are shut away from traffic.

The square resembles some current Japanese landscape architecture, and this in turn is based on the most ancient Japanese sacred enclosures. The first place in America to use mysteriously placed hummocks of grass and uprights of stone was Bayer’s plaza at the Aspen Foundation headquarters. Golden Gateway’s is bigger, there was more scope and, of course, more experience. If we want to perk up the Civic Center Plaza, we could do worse than to use the same landscape architects. The ghastly thing that won that prize is, if it isn’t a hoax, a pitiful keepsake of an out-of-date fashion which was a passing phase in the anti-human crusade of art between the wars.

We have one district north of Market left for reasoned development in this town, Urban Renewal’s Western Addition number two and the as yet untapped number three — that is, the western and southern edge of the Fillmore, Hayes Valley, and the north and east Haight-Ashbury. Key to this is the rehabilitation of the Civic Center itself, which has never been a Civic Center at all, but an outlying, windy, inhospitable complex of handsome office buildings.

I remember when it was first built, and everybody thought the surrounding neighborhoods would boom. Boom they did, but they went down instead of up. Only now is there beginning a slow de-slummification, almost all of it the result of small-scale, purely individual private enterprise. There just aren’t enough close-in places for the new professionals to live, so they take over the sturdy old flats and restore them.

This natural, un-government-interfered-with type of growth is creating real community — not the namelessness of the typical “project.” Any false moves in large-scale development, beginning with the Civic Center itself and radiating from there, and including any and all park, plaza, apartment complex, freeway, and all other massive changes, will cripple a growth which is so far proceeding nicely without official aid or even encouragement.

[August 4, 1965]



Casting by Talent, Not by Color

The other day we had a modest family celebration. My former secretary, Marguerite Ray, got a nonsinging role in the S.F. Opera’s Fledermaus. This is the first real break this young lady has had in six or seven years of being conspicuously one of the best actresses hereabouts. Sadie Thompson, Cassandra, Anna Lucasta — I’ve forgotten whether as Reri Grist’s sister she will be playing a nice girl for a change, but anyway it’s pretty big time — hitherto, like most Negro actresses, she has been confined to fallen women of one sort or another.

All my lifetime there have been Negro singers in opera; not just stars, but choristers as well, and when I was a boy spear carrier in Chicago there were Negroes in the mob scenes in Aida and such like. Why has opera always been so far ahead of the legitimate stage?

It’s not just the recognition of a great voice like Reri Grist or Leontyne Price. Maybe it’s that opera appeals to an upper-class audience with less race prejudice and is run by people free of the cheap pandering to the cheapest common denominator that is the essence of show biz as she is bizzed. Outside of the Playhouse, the Mission Community Players and the San Francisco Mime Troupe nobody in San Francisco tries straight interracial casting, regardless of that last refuge of the pusillanimous director, “theatrical illusion.” Why?

Worst offender in this regard was the Actor’s Workshop under Irving and Blau. No Negroes in The Birds. Herb apparently had never heard of the Two Black Crows. No Negroes in Caucasian Chalk Circle, though half the cast was masked and wrapped up in rugs and could have been English-speaking polyps from Mars for all anybody’d have known. This is one chance for John Hancock to get off the dime and overtake and surpass the laggard liberalism of his predecessors.

Still, he had a chance, first off, and didn’t take it. Let’s grant him theatrical illusion till the audiences get inoculated — but why wasn’t the bodyguard in Milk Train a Negro? Since it is widely believed in show biz that all Negroes are either gangsters or prostitutes, or, if not, store-front preachers and/or recipients of lynching, here was a real chance for separate but equal opportunity.

I hope to see the day that a courageous big time, or at least big “Off Broadway” time, director throws that theatrical illusion out the window and gives us a Negro Ophelia and a Negro Desdemona. As for a dark-skinned Shylock, it’s an absolute natural for LeRoi Jones, maybe with a Jewish Antonio and Bassanio. . . . LeRoi, take it away. Me, if I was a black girl, I’d get up and say, “I ain’t gonna fall no more, I want to play Jo in Little Women.” If fall she must, why not Camille? After all, the author, if he’d been American, would have been a legal Negro, so presumably he knew all about falling. He played the saxophone, too, honest, though not from birth. [Alexandre Dumas fils, author of La Dame aux Camélias, was one-eighth black.]

The end in view of all this struggle is the day when it won’t matter, when nobody will notice. The papers made something of a to-do about the Stern Grove Bohème because two of the principals were Negroes. They weren’t chosen for that reason at all, but because they seemed the best available. That’s as it should be, and let’s hope someday our audiences will be as objective as Kurt Adler has shown himself to be down the years.

This is my attitude right now, and in this particular case I don’t really like to “beat the boy,” in fact I was raised to believe it was bad manners — you acted, at the point of production of discrimination, you didn’t talk and talk and bore folks. What pleases me is that a dear friend got a good part, and I’d be just as pleased if she was Swedish — the rest is all applied sociology.

Reversing roles racially in the world’s dramatic literature is an interesting speculation, nonetheless. Why not a rich cosmetic heiress of color and a brutalized German coal heaver in The Hairy Ape? Why not a white Santo Domingan at the time of the Haitian revolution for Emperor Jones? Hamletism, as is well known amongst folks, is the besetting sin of the half-assimilated American Negro intellectual — what a chance to give the part current meaning! Ibsen’s Wild Duck — what a perfect picture of an unsuccessful interracial marriage.

In fact, much of the Workshop’s winter schedule would be greatly improved by the addition of this new and illuminating “illusion.” Don Juan, Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Strindberg’s Father . . . just cast them interracially in your mind and think of the new meanings. And as for Mr. LeRoi Jones — change parts around in The Dutchman and The Toilet and it’s obvious what you’ve got. We have a name for this when the author has blue eyes and blond hair.

[August 8, 1965]



Prophets and Profits

A busy week, my friend Hayakawa’s International Semantics Conference at one end, and my friend Bill Monahan’s Freedom and Authority symposium at USF at the other. We started off at Grace Cathedral, listening to Dean Bartlett preach on the Christian as prophet. Certainly it is true that the Old Testament is the story of a people chosen out as prophets, as witnesses to justice and righteousness, as voices to admonish the time.

The New Testament is likewise, whatever else it may be, the story of a man and his disciples fulfilling the same role. Today, insofar as church or synagogue stands against the evil of the world, it commands respect. So far as it does not so stand, it is dismissed with contempt.

Today, as in the time of Christ or Socrates, the old rigid crust of custom is breaking up. The leading artists, writers, historians, philosophers, and finally, and late, churchmen, reject the whole system of values under which contemporary society functions. There is a veritable din of prophecy in the world today, a myriad-voiced warning of imminent destruction and a call to repentance and change of life. No other civilization in history has even been rejected in so wholesale a fashion by its best minds.

This is the significance of the Revolt of Youth, the New Left, of all those activities of challenge and withdrawal amongst people under thirty-five which have suddenly become hot copy for the papers. The prophets and the profit system are in head-on collision, like those two nebulae so far away which are crashing into each other and bursting with super-novas and making all that racket in our radio telescopes billions of light years away.

I pointed out years ago that who the poet Allen Ginsberg most resembles is the prophet Hosea. It is the emphasis on honesty, lack of hypocrisy, which accounts for the seemingly undue emphasis on “dirty words” — on straight speaking. I am inclined to agree that is would be better to use four letters rather than four syllables for the words for the acts of procreation and elimination. What stands in the way is the crust of custom, and that is breaking up and foundering.

Rows like the one between Ronnie Davis of the Mime Troupe and the Park Commission, or the rumpus about LeRoi Jones’s The Toilet and The Dutchman are a case in point. The Park Commissioners paid no attention to Ronnie’s play, except to be outraged by the mildly bawdy comic routines. Davis, on the other hand, undoubtedly thinks of himself as calling society to judgment for its immorality — in the prophetic way that all great comic drama has always done.

Trouble is, those who he arraigns can neither listen nor understand. Meanwhile The City semi-officially advertises itself — “You Can Find Most Any Kind of Pleasure You Want in San Francisco,” the mob takes over North Beach, and the cops adopt entrapment as the solution for prostitution in the Fillmore. Who is immoral? Never the twain shall meet. It’s a question of semantics, freedom and authority.

[August 11, 1965]



The Philosophers of Power

The last few days I’ve been rereading and rereading St. Thomas More in preparation for Fr. Monihan’s symposium on More, Erasmus and Luther. At the same time I’ve been doing an immense amount of reading relevant to pieces I’m doing in my “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review, those on the trial and death of Socrates and on Plato’s Republic.

More’s Utopia opens with, considering his fate, a dialogue of foreboding. The subject is, “Can the philosopher, or even the just man, accept a position as the counselor of a king — or any other government — without not only compromising himself, but discovering that he must lend his skill as a moral rhetorician, a skilled public relations man, to justify positive evil?”

Heads of state all down the ages have welcomed the intellectual, the prophet, the saint. They have been glad to make a comfortable seat for him at the council table. They have been delighted to reward him for ghost-written speeches which give profound and theological sanctions to what is right — as long as that means that what the holders of power want to do is what is right.

More wrote this dialogue during the very days when he was representing Henry VIII in Flanders and when he returned to London and both Wolsey and the king were working on him to enter the government. Wolsey was an outstanding historical example of the intellectual who lends himself to injustice until he becomes even more corrupt than his master. Henry, of course, is the very model of the unjust ruler and the dissolute man. Both started out in life as “philosophers” of a sort. It was the Pope who gave Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” still borne by the English monarch.

More and his fictional guest, Raphael, disagree. More hopes that he may move his ruler towards the good. They pass on to listen to Raphael describe a society in which such problems cannot arise because it is founded on and pervaded by justice, where power is not a problem because all men are equals. And then, the book written and printed, More passed on to the council of Henry, and then to Wolsey’s job of Chancellor after Wolsey had died a broken man with a broken heart, and then at last to his own death, unbroken, and with a cheerful heart.

The substance of the Platonic dialogues that describe the trial and death of Socrates is finally quite simple — the very definition of philosophy is “conscience judging power.” This is the role of the just man and a just society is one where all men can do exactly this all the time.

More was martyred by a tyrant. He fell before pride and luxury — and, as he was careful to point out in his last days, he died not for the power of the Pope as against the power of the British throne, but for the spiritual power of his own conscience. Socrates was martyred by a middle-class democracy. He fell before vulgarity.

What his accusers objected to most was that he had devoted his long life to calling into question every accepted idea of public policy, every custom disguised as morality, every prejudice enshrined as principle. It was the autonomous, self-controlled man who insisted that all experience be treated as new going down before the anonymous inertia of the mass with its horror of novelty. Inner-directed man martyred by other-directed mass man, to use modern slang.

All over the world today this ancient conflict, old as organized society, is rising to a new level, undergoing a profound qualitative change. Millions of people are saying, “Things can’t go on this way anymore or we will all be dead.” In his recent condemnation of the use of the atomic bomb the Pope may not be speaking as the voice of the Deity, but he is certainly speaking for the “consensus orbis terrarum,” the opinion of most of the people of the world . . . outside the United States. All the arguments we can marshal in defense of America’s policy, at Hiroshima, at the Bay of Pigs, in The Congo, in Vietnam, are not prevailing. The United States is feared and mistrusted by most of the world today, and that fear and mistrust are changing to hate.

True, the same goes for Russia or China — but that is exactly the point. Power conflicts which were accepted in another age, and apologies which were once plausible — self-determination, defense of democracy, all the paraphernalia of the just war — no longer make any sense to the masses of the world. They are not in the least interested in the righteous reasons advanced by the philosophic counselors of Peking, the Kremlin, or the White House.

Right or wrong, they have only one massive answer — “Stop!” If the policy makers in the three warring capitals don’t know this, they are proceeding on very dangerous assumptions. Do they? No. There are too many glib philosophers who have made a philosophy out of “Whatever you do, sir, is right.”

[August 15, 1965]



Negro Riots

I was a boy when the Chicago Negro riot broke out, living then as now on the edge of the ghetto, and it raged all around me. Shortly before there had been riots in Houston and St. Louis. Since then there have been riots in Indianapolis and Detroit and dozens of other cities, and who know how many riots in Harlem.

After each one the psychiatrists give interviews, the Ku Kluxers say “We told you so,” the politicians say it was all because the loot wasn’t cut up right, their bunch didn’t get enough dough and enough power. Meanwhile the same old scene goes on.

Goes on? It gets worse. Segregation, slummification, hostility, hopelessness, demoralization increase. Measures for amelioration or reform change little in general concept. If anything, the overall philosophy of the reformers is less radical, and the practical measures, though certainly well financed, are less effective.

I can remember when you could wander, your girl on your arm, from one rent party to another of a Harlem Saturday night. They put a child on the door with a cigar box for contributions and screwed red and blue bulbs in the chandelier and left the door open. That was it, come one, come all. Today, Harlem is not safe for anybody, night or day.

All our efforts to cope with the problem lag far behind the dizzyingly accelerating reality. Things get worse geometrically and better arithmetically. Like the economy of India, all the programs and all the money don’t even keep us where we were, we slowly slip back. We are on an escalator going down.

Whose fault is it? Like most problems of acceleration, it is a problem of inertia. Inertia is everybody’s fault because it is nobody’s.

Over vast areas of our Negro ghettos, buildings or building use are patently illegal. Code enforcement is log jammed, too many cases, too little help, too many loopholes and delays, not enough money.

How about the Negro responsibility? These riots have nothing to do with “civil disobedience” or the civil rights movement. The civil rights leaders live far away from the civil riot neighborhoods. Ask the Harvard and Howard educated lawyer, doctor or politician about one of these pool hall hangers on — “Would you have one home to dinner? Would you want your sister to marry one?”

As the Jews moved up the social ladder in America the upper class never completely lost its connections with the lowest class. Some of the leading citizens of San Francisco still go to temple or synagogue in the Fillmore.

The cultural desegregation of the Negro outcast poor is going to depend ultimately on the direct, personal assumption of responsibility by the Negro middle class, motivated by a sense of overwhelming crisis and by a sharpened conscience. It is not so important right now to get daughters into the Cotillion, most important is the lost connection with the Fillmore Auditorium.

Let The Man do it? It is obvious The Man can’t, he can’t even keep up with it.

[August 18, 1965]



What’s Ahead for the Negro?

This weekend the Cabrillo Music Festival began. Next week will be the last of the Music at the Vineyards concerts for the summer. Opera is coming up very soon. The Athenaeum concerts on Mt. Tamalpais have at last opened up that wonderful site to music and drama of civilized interest and significance.

I should write another piece in defense of Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe, the sort of thing the Park Commissioners should be encouraging all the time, instead of suppressing.

I should do a bit on Bishop Jim’s difficulties. The attack on him by a little group of self-styled “Catholics” shows so clearly that he is in fact in the forefront of “Catholic Renewal” and they are lost somewhere in the antiquarian romanticism of 1840.

But between me and my schedule something has been interposed — the riots in Watts and Chicago and elsewhere about the country. All it is necessary to do is to list these items in juxtaposition to see the connection.

What kind of life do I live? What are its goals and satisfactions? They are noncompetitive, noncommercial. Although some of my activities are expensive, for instance, the Opera, they aren’t all that expensive. If I was poor or a student or “culturally deprived” I could get free tickets to most anything.

I live in the Negro ghetto. People say Watts is a slum because few homes there have been built since 1939. I live in a seven-room flat built in 1880. Guests, if they’re Europeans, say, “This is the first time I’ve felt at home since I arrived in the States.” I drive a 1956 Chev, in perfect condition.

Down the street lives a friend, a skilled mechanic. They won’t let him in the union, but even so, he makes more money than I do. He had a year of college in a southern Jim Crow school. I had five years formal education altogether. His flat, half the age of mine and with many more once-modern improvements, is a slum. He drives a 1963 Cadillac, which was a dog when he got it and is chronically sick.

We go to church. He puts it down as the opium of the people. Once a week or so I drop into the Both/And around the corner. He despises jazz as coon music. He is upwardly mobile. The Rexroths haven’t changed much in status, economics, politics, racial attitudes, artistic taste, since they were German Abolitionists near Cincinnati, smuggling Negroes across the Ohio, getting together with their friends and neighbors to tootle chamber music, supporting various movements of social reform which were far more radical, way back there, a hundred and twenty years ago, than any going now.

I am telling you this not to show how holy I am, but for the opposite reason. My family traditions, stretching back hundreds of years, have endowed me with an absolutely priceless asset. They have made me comparatively independent of our commercial, predatory culture of expensive vulgarity and organized waste.

We speak of the northern Negro as culturally deprived. How? These young fellows live all about me. They are inseparable from their transistor radios. Hour after hour, all day long, driving, walking, at home watching TV, even while making love, they are absorbing “culture,” the folkways, values, motivations, of white American civilization. Behind them in the South they left a culture of poverty, now falling to ruin, but offering all sorts of life satisfactions, in the church, in music, in play and group ceremony. They can never go back, it’s not there for them.

But what is ahead? All the drives of the society about them, all its lures and enticements, call on them to, as Jim Baldwin said, integrate into a burning house, the moral slum of our white culture of insatiable, artificially created appetites. If they turn to the Negro magazines, what do they see — Negroes in well-shined shoes who have learned the genteel sicknesses of white suburbia . . . flanked by advertisements for bleaches and dekinkers.

What do we propose to do with these young men? Go right on manufacturing frustration for them and calling it assimilation? Will they be integrated when they can go anywhere they want in Las Vegas? When they can spend their union wages on built-in obsolescence from kitchen to bedroom to garage? They can do this now if they can just get the money, or break enough store windows. That’s what makes them wild, even if they don’t know it.

On the other hand, another neighbor, descended from the same kind of family in Cincinnati, does not have these problems. Both he and his wife are trained professional people. They want the same things out of life I do. They know how to fight the forces that stand in the way. It’s their country, too. They know they made it, and can unmake it and remake it.

After years of suburban ranch house living they moved back to the ghetto. They are attacking the evil at the point of production. They are the only members of the old Negro elite of this country who I know who have done this, except for a few churchmen. Which is why they are trusted by my neighbors and the alrightniks who have joined the left liberal wing of the [two illegible words].

[August 22, 1965]



Unlimited Responsibility

Whom the gods destroy they first make mad. The response of what Jim Baldwin calls the “white power structure” to the explosion in Los Angeles is hardly to be believed. I have always thought the term a misnomer. Now I know. White it is, structure it has none, power it cannot exert.

There is much talk today about disrespect for authority. I find, on the contrary, the greatest respect for true moral authority wherever it exists, most especially on the part of those categories — youth and racial minorities — who are supposed to have least of such respect. What there is no respect for is the vacuum where authority should be, the double talk and evasion on the part of those who should speak fearlessly.

What on earth is the purpose of the committee appointed by the Governor? What can millionaires, generals, corporation lawyers, judges, ever possibly find out about what goes on amongst the rats and broken glass in the Negro ghettos?

At least the Governor came back from Greece. As of this writing Mayor Yorty has yet to so much as visit Watts. Politicians, police, all the leading Toms, all are scampering about passing the buck. Passing? They’re playing ping pong with it. Always it goes to ground at last in the hands of “the hoodlum element,” “the cotton-picking recent immigrants,” the Black Muslims, “the barnacles of society who must be scraped off and removed” in the words of one of L.A.’s leading Negro Christian pastors.

But it isn’t a ping pong ball. It’s a hand grenade with the pin pulled. If the power structure, black and white, persist in tossing it back to the people who have nothing to lose, not even decent chains, it is going to blow up again and again.

How can a minister of Christ talk about scraping off barnacles, in referring to the very scorned and outcast Christ came to minister to? Yet what difference is there between his statement and Cardinal McIntyre’s? Answer: the Cardinal went to a better seminary, where they teach more prudent diction.

The Christian is a person who is always conscious of his own unlimited liability for the evil of the world. This is what the charity is that St. Paul speaks about. This is what the highest type of Christian prayer is, the offering up of the tragedy of man in the chalice of each individual Christian’s heart. This is what Teilhard de Chardin did when he offered up all the world in his Mass in the Gobi desert. I am responsible. I share. I communicate with all of it, the beauty and the horror, just as I communicate under the form of bread and wine.

Until every man, cardinal, governor, preacher, civil rights leader, bureaucrat, social worker, merchant, policeman, and you and me, whether we are black, white, rich, poor, sits down and says, “I am going to start with the assumption that I am responsible. How? Not Elijah Muhammad, not Chief Parker, not the white race or the capitalist system, but me, what is my guilt?” we are not going to take even the first step toward solving this problem. And the solution can’t delay much longer, or our society will fall apart.

[August 25, 1965]



San Francisco’s Pitiful Patronage

This weekend marks the close of San Francisco’s summer season of music and the arts. In the past five years our summer activities have attracted almost as many, maybe they have attracted more, people than our winter ones. For a town with as huge a summer influx of tourists as San Francisco, this is just as it should be.

The interesting thing about this development, however, is that it has grown up largely independently of both the old line Native Son patronage and of official civic aid. Another significant aspect, most of it is outside the city itself, and some is at the very limits of the San Francisco region.

Again, many of the activities are in fields in which the politicians, even those anxious to corral the beard and sandal vote, and the old line families who consider themselves the only real patrons of the arts, are actively disinterested, if not bitterly antagonistic.

The Monterey Jazz Festival is recognized, especially by the participating musicians, to be the best in the country. Because it is run by people who genuinely understand and love the music, it has been singularly free from the rowdy scandals and the vulgar commercial exploitation of some of the other mass jazz events. On its list of sponsors you will find few names from Northern California’s Hundred Families.

The Cabrillo Music Festival is one of the most civilized of its kind. The programming is at once varied, balanced and adventurous. The quality of performance is uniformly high. Gerry Samuel is, taking everything into consideration, my choice for northern California’s best conductor. The community is hospitable, the site is beautiful. What more can you ask? Again, the patronage and audiences are almost entirely independent of the old guard.

This season at Music at the Vineyards has been perhaps the most successful to date. Once again — this is a new activity of the highest quality, and one of the very few examples of corporation patronage in northern California, something which is commonplace in more civilized communities, like Pittsburgh, or even in less, like Milwaukee.

Ballet 65, the San Francisco Ballet’s summer season, is largely self-financing. In the stately homes of Sea Cliff, Presidio Terrace and Pacific Heights, it is considered très hip to put down the S.F. Ballet. Yet this company is one of America’s two best. No other American company has ever played more show time, all year long. No other company has ever had a whole season of showcase performances of new dances and dancers like Ballets 65-64-63-62.

The most spectacular rise to rank of a major program has been the Marin Summer Festival of the Arts in the Mountain Theater on Tamalpais. This was started with very little money, but with gumption, good taste, and an infallible sense of what is of interest to all the new, young audiences hereabouts, all of them, too, in their thousands, “unknown” to the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden Faubourgs. Significantly, representatives of that tight little clan may have tried to bring pressure to bear on the State Park officials to close up the whole show because the management dared honor their commitment to Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe, a little band of willful actors.

Here we come to the crux. San Francisco trundles along with the Pop Concerts and the Stern Grove Sundays, commendable gestures of largesse towards the proletariat, but almost as dated as the band concerts in the park. We are more and more dependent on the surrounding communities to provide quality tourist entertainment. We have parks and public facilities that could be kept busy all summer long.

Why not dance recitals on the green where they occasionally have folk dancers? Why not poetry readings in the little open air forum in the redwood grove? Why not jazz concerts and folk singers in the neighborhood parks? There is a line of parks stretching across town on both sides of Fillmore Street and all sorts of open space by Hunters Point. If these were used as often as possible for the kind of entertainment, largely self-generated, that the people in these neighborhoods want, there would be just that fewer people making Molotov cocktails.

Of course it wouldn’t be the kind of entertainment once given at Auntie So-and-So’s mansion. And that’s just the rub. How long are we going to put up with only stuff that is fully comprehensible and utterly unobjectionable to each and every member of the Board of Supervisors, the members of the Pacific Union and Bohemian Clubs, and the N. S. & D. of the Golden Faubourgs? Till comes the Revolution, like it or not?

[August 29, 1965]


“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.

Previous Month   Next Month

Index of the Columns

Rexroth Archive