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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



March 1966

Performing Arts Summing Up
Civic Deterioration
The Bombing of the DuBois Club
The State Department Wine List
An Updated List of Fine Wines
The Book of Job
A Savagely Indignant Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Visit to Pittsburgh



Performing Arts Season

Still time to see the ballet, still time to see the National Repertory Theater.

Eva Le Gallienne was so right in her remarks to Stanley Eichelbaum. She does belong to an old and powerful tradition in the theater, and she is right to identify this with Eleanor Duse. There simply isn’t any tradition operating in the theater today except and thin and distorted trickle come down from Stanislavsky, who was a theatrical reactionary when he started. Today it is called Method, and most of its putative practitioners have only the vaguest idea what they’re doing.

True, there is the new theatricalism, now the dominant style in San Francisco’s own companies, but this is a new style, gathering strength slowly, with no actual connection with the past — except what Hancock, Estrin, Mike Linenthal, Dave Lindeman have been taught in college, read in books or seen in a few silent German movies.

Don’t miss Eva Le Gallienne. If she were to retire next year this would be the last you might ever see of one of the theater’s major styles.

Emphasis on Miss Le Gallienne is a little unfair to Sylvia Sidney, a great actress in her own right, and star of two of the very best old-time movies, now unfairly forgotten.

As for the San Francisco Ballet, the big news is the new stability and cohesion of the company and the appearance of Carlos Carvajal as a full-dress choreographer. He still has to grow, but his ballets are full of ideas and new vocabulary. What they need is dramatic meaning and organization, and intellectual depth.

Once again let me say that I never hear Gerry Samuel without being convinced once again that he is the most interesting conductor in the Bay Area, bar none, and the best ballet conductor since Ansermet in his young days.

He conducts as if he were on the stage amongst the dancers — by which I don’t mean he waves his arms and legs like crazy. Most ballet conductors fight the dancers, a few fight the orchestra, it is the rare genius who can make both into one totally integrated ensemble.

Opera announcements are now mostly complete and we can form a clear picture of the forthcoming spring and fall seasons.

It is most interesting to notice that Spring Opera, which started out as an adventurous attempt to introduce young singers, unheard, whether new or ignored, older operas, new designers, has been forced to become a popular “summer opera,” in fact more conventional than what is I think the country’s oldest, Ravinia, outside Chicago.

On the other hand, the regular season gets more experimental all the time — although that doesn’t mean very experimental — and also, it is building up a permanent company core of San Francisco favorites like Reri Grist and Lee Venora.

I guess the San Francisco Symphony’s venture into modern music was quite an adventure — for the San Francisco Symphony and its patrons. What it was in fact was the progressive music of two generations back as filtered through progressive American musical academia, and some of the more conventional pieces of less conventional and more contemporary composers. A sort of rich man’s Aptos Festival.

At least it was a step in the right direction — back somewhere around the 1910 musical milestone. The contrast with the real milestone from “before the other war” — and several milestones since — the Stravinsky show, was pretty startling. There is nothing like the real thing.

This has been a sort of round robin column at winter’s end, and something of a conversation with my critical colleagues. One last note. Have we ever had, in this generation, as mediocre a season in our museums? What can we do to change this? All the really important shows in the country used to come to one or the other of our three museums.

This year they almost all passed us by, although one went to Fresno instead, and a comprehensive of one of our most famous local painters went elsewhere, I understand, because the museum objected to the cost of the catalog which they would have to share with the other participating museums. What gives?

[March 6, 1966]



Civic Deterioration

For months I’ve had on my desk the State Department’s Wine Committee list of recommended domestic, mostly California wines, for use by our various government agencies, consulates, embassies for entertaining, both at home and abroad.

Something always gets in the way, something’s always hitting the electric fan. The poor old San Francisco community reels, unreels and rereels.

Before I go on to the latest crisis, I promise I’ll do my best to give you a detailed analysis of this very long list next Monday, and I pass on two new developments.

Recent addition to the spicy German type, gently sweet wines, coming on the market is Paul Masson’s Rhine Castle. This is a splendid white wine for crab or lobster salad, with an indefinable taste of its own, something like the Austrian Gumpoldskircheners that taste faintly of quinces. The special bouquet is the result of blending another, secret, wine with Riesling. Try it, it’s now old enough to be smooth.

Another nifty is the cheap mountain reds and mountain whites put out by Samuele Sebastiani at 99 cents a bottle. If there are better tables wines at this price, I don’t know about them — though there are a few equals.

Now for the new mess. The Lindstroms, for years educational directors of the de Young Museum, have announced their resignations with a press release which I hope rocks the kultur klatches of the City.

I can’t vouch for the veracity of every single word, but where I do know the facts, the Lindstroms are right. I wish there was some way the entire text of their statement could be made available to the general public — it’s too long for in toto quotation in a newspaper.

What on earth is wrong with this town? What is the focus of infection, the diseased tonsil or appendix in the social body that accounts for the steady deterioration of the quality of life in San Francisco? Doctor, why are we in this run down, practically cachexic, condition?

What sort of shape are we actually in? Are we still living in the mellow golden San Francisco dear to people like Mrs. Fremont Older or Herb Caen? No, we are most emphatically not.

The lights of the ferry boats no longer twinkle on the Bay. Isidore Gomez’s is closed these many years and its poet laureate Bill Sarovac lives abroad. There aren’t any more quiet family restaurants in North Beach where you can get a good dinner with wine for 50 cents. There are few indeed where you can get a good meal at any price.

Life gets uglier and uglier and more and more vulgar and impoverished. Where once was nourishment at the broad breast of the last community of the age-old Mediterranean life — now we drown in silicone.

Who will lead us out of this winter of our discontent? Who? How? And where will we begin? Meanwhile cities like Pittsburgh, which Henry Miller once said looked like the droppings of a prehistoric monster, take hold of their bootstraps, turn a somersault and start off in the right direction. What can’t we?

[March 7, 1966]



The Bombing of the DuBois Club

The bombing of the DuBois Club is about the most shocking thing to occur in San Francisco in many a year.

A Molotov cocktail or a stick of blasting powder hurled from a speeding car at the doorway of a Negro family in a white neighborhood, or at a radical union leader is one thing. It can be put down as the work of a tiny handful of crackpots or delinquents.

Forty pounds of dynamite or an equivalent charge of nitroglycerine, carefully constructed into an effective bomb (not, thank heaven, an easy thing for an amateur to do) and strategically planted, is the work of well-organized, well-heeled adults, not crazy kids. You don’t buy that kind of ammo at the black market fireworks store.

If it was a time bomb, which it probably was, it was only a miracle that several members of the club were not killed. Had a meeting been in progress, up to 100 young people would have been killed or gravely injured.

As it was, everybody for once went home early. Oh yes, I know. I will get a bunch of letters and phone calls saying that proves they bombed themselves. Curiously enough, orthodox Marxists really don’t believe in that kind of violence under any circumstances.

The only Bolshevik ever given to such capers was Stalin, who in his youth ran a gang of bank robbers. For what it is worth, Khrushchev in his famous secret speech all but said that in those days at least Stalin was a police agent.

This brings up the question — why doesn’t the American Communist Party level with its followers and with the public? All you have to do is read their own literature to know that the DuBois Club is what, in their lingo, they call “a mass organization under Party influence.”

What’s wrong with that, if it is open and above board? Certainly nobody has ever joined it under the false impression that it is under the influence of the Masons or the Jesuits. What is accomplished by all the mystification? It doesn’t seem to have done Bettina Aptheker any harm to “bring forward the face of the Party.”

On the other hand, the smoke had hardly cleared away and the glass hadn’t been swept up before the various Bolshevik splinter groups and the assorted Maoist organization jumped into the act, spouting fire and brimstone.

How on earth is the ordinary layman going to know that the “American-Communist-Party-Marxist-Leninist-Executive-Committee” is a Maoist outfit whose objective seems to be the fomenting of maximum social disorder on any pretext, and besides is a splinter group within the Maoists themselves? Their favorite term for the poor old orthodox Communists is “running dogs of the CIA.” Yet the average person who reads Michael Laski’s crazy statement to the press will come away with the impression that the DuBois Club advocates “answering terror with terror.”

In France and Italy the official Communists are so respectable they are a little comic. They are an accepted part of the political life of their countries, and nobody thinks they are going to assassinate the president or blow up parliament. Not only do they have a vested interest in the status quo, but, Americans always forget, if they ever formed a real, honest-to-goodness united front with the socialists and the other parties of the Left, they would be part of the government.

The reason they don’t is that the Russians are afraid that this would so antagonize the Americans that it would bring down the whole European system. They too have a vested interest in the international status quo. Besides, there is always the hope, which may have been already realized behind the scenes, for the revival of the old Franco-Soviet Pact.

If the “Communist conspiracy” is so hell fire bent on taking over America, why haven’t they taken over France and Italy long since, and why were they so pusillanimous as red revolutionaries when they were in the governments of those countries after the war?

Recent court decisions have reestablished the legality of the American Communist Party. The more legal it gets, the more it too is going to be tied into established American society. At present its policies are those of mildly radical social reform domestically, and internationally a valiant effort to keep up with the twisting course of Russian foreign policy.

What is all the smokescreen for? Especially today, 1966, when half the bishops of France, Austria and the Netherlands have far more radical ideas on how to reform our sick society.

Meanwhile, the sick, sick, sickness of our society right here to home in San Francisco shows in this bombing.

Think back, if you’re old enough, 30 or 40 years. Do you realize the tremendous escalation of violence, hatred, disorder in our own United States, let alone in Africa and Asia?

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” said William Butler Yeats, and that was 46 years ago!

[March 13, 1966] 



The State Department Wine List

While I’ve been busy with other concerns, the other papers have been having a time with the State Department wine list. I’m glad, because now I can answer back.

Whatever the faults of the list, it is very far indeed from being a “rebuff to California.” The State Department certainly did not “snub our wines.” In fact, they included a couple of wineries whose products I’ve yet to get around to drinking.

They also included four small wineries whose wines are hard enough to buy in San Francisco, much less anywhere else. These are: Hallcrest, Mirassou, Parducci, Stony Hill. They omitted Martin Ray and Digardi, which are no more difficult to obtain, as well as real scarce ones like Maitre D’, Assumption Abbey, Ambassador District, Cardenasso, also Mayacamas, which seems to be easier to find in Los Angeles than San Francisco.

One trouble with the list is that it is not analytical. Zinfandel, for instance, turns from a trop ordinaire vin ordinaire of the roughest sort into a fine wine due to only one thing — age. Until recently it was grown nowhere but in California and it is our own very special contribution to the battery or armamentarium of exceptional wines. Young, it tastes like a bad moment with the peasant wine cooperative; old, it is a subtle new sensation.

I don’t think it is a mistake to list the Eastern wines. A cold Meier’s Catawba is delicious with pike caught in an Ohio river and poached with morel mushrooms. I don’t see why it wouldn’t go just as good with a pike from the Loire. Some people don’t realize how crazy the French are for everything exotic nowadays — Yorkshire pudding, kangaroo tail, corn flakes, and Australian claret.

True, the foxy taste of native grapes — vinis labrusca varieties — is pretty startling if you expect vinifera when you pick up the glass, but if it is billed as a new taste sensation, as they say in ads, there’s no reason even Frenchmen wouldn’t at least take a few sips. Besides, in the northern section of the great vin ordinaire country, on the southern slopes of the Massif Central, they do grow all sorts of labrusca-vinifera hybrids, although they are illegal, and they are every bit as foxy as a jar of grape jelly.

I wonder if the State Department list was blindfold, or at least blindfold for each winery. There is a most peculiar reversal of ordinarily accepted valuations in the white wines, especially the young Rhine-Moselle types. I can’t account for it.

As for the omission of the mass-distributed bulk wine producers, which one lady journalist objected to — who’s kidding who? There is nothing wrong with these wines, but they are what they are, and they are not to be served at embassy banquets, even as curiosities, although if exported they’d certainly stand up well alongside most Algerian wine, or even Australian or South African.

Christian Brothers, producers of three grades of wine, didn’t get a very good break. Their new line of varietals are generally superior to Chateau La Salle, which was chosen, while their omitted Cabernet Sauvignon, a sturdy claret like some of the better St. Emilions, will become a spectacular, I’m sure, if kept for a few years more. So it goes with most of the list.

I could pick a lot of nits. Instead, I think I’ll come up with a new one of my own for you pretty soon.

[March 14, 1966]



An Updated List of Fine Wines

Few columns indeed get the response of the ones I’ve written on wine. You can get the State Department’s list by writing to them. There are certainly no bad wines on it, but it is long, there is no comment or explanation, and no distinction between Eastern wines with their odd flavor and California wines from regular wine grapes.

Here is my own list once more, with changes and updating. There is no difference in quality between the wines on the list I gave several months ago [July 1965] and this one. I am just putting this together without consulting the other — there are now so many good wines to choose from it’s good to have a change.

Years ago I used to tell people, “If you want to play safe and can’t remember a lot of wines, stick to Inglenook for reds and Wente for whites and buy only wines with varietal names and vintage dates.” This is no longer sound advice. Both companies’ wines are still very good, but today there is a whole battery of others quite their equal.

Furthermore, in many places you may not find them, or any other specific label if you have only a few to choose from, so you have to have reliable alternates. The ever-increasing excellence of our best wines is putting them all into short supply. Also, some of our best vineyards have developed a big export business. One company at least has an “E” for excellence award from the Department of Commerce, and exports wine to 14 countries, some of them fine wine producers themselves.

So the list:

REDS: Cabernet Sauvignon (claret type), Christian Brothers, Inglenook, Martin Ray. These are all stouter than Bordeaux clarets. Martin Ray is quite expensive. Christian Brothers is new on the market and will improve with aging . . . as of course will most wines. Especially Zinfandel, our own California invention. I recommend Louis Martini, dated and at least four years old. Buy it and put it down for a couple years.

Charbono, Inglenook — this is a heavy claret, the common wine grape of the Genoa districts, where it is even heavier. Ten years old, ours resembles the stouter St. Emilions.

Pinot Noir (Burgundy type, stouter than claret), there’s a wide choice here — Beaulieu B.V., Beringer’s Barenblut, Krug, Christian Bros., Masson, Inglenook, Martini.

Gamay (Beaujolais type) all our Gamays are much stouter and more alcoholic than French Beaujolais, which sometimes run as low as 7 percent alcohol. This is one red wine drunk chilled and young. In Lyons it’s served in cold stone bottles in all the cafés des routiers the year after it’s pressed. Try Krug, Masson, Inglenook, Almaden, Martini, Digardi.

Many modestly priced “mountain reds,” like Sebastiani, resemble Beaujolais, though they are usually from mixed grapes, and can be treated the same way. In mid-summer the French put ice in the light wines of the South. Too French for me.

Barbera (Italian type, like Piedmont wines, not like most chiantis) — Sebastiani is good, but see if you can find Maitre D’. Many Italian wines have a different ferment than the best French clarets and burgundies — but not many French rosés. People not used to them may find them a trifle headachy. Our better Italian type wines do not have this fault.

Grignolino — see if you can find Cardenasso. The best imported chianti is Machiavelli.

WHITES: Sauvignon Blanc — Wente Bros. (Sauterne type, “Haut Sauterne” is an Americanism meaning “sweeter.”) Semillon — Sauterne type — Krug, Concannon, Beaulieu B.V. Chardonnay — Burgundy type — Christian Bros., Stony Hill (hard to find), Wente.

Pinot Chardonnay — Burgundy type — the French say there’s no such grape, but it is now our most popular variety in this type, usually a year or so older before it’s put on the market. Good are Paul Masson, Wente, in fact any top vineyard if the wine has the vintage year on it and is slightly dearer than other whites. Serve very cold. This is the grape of Chablis, Montrachet and other noble beverages of the Côte d’Or, the Golden Side Hills of Burgundy.

Chenin Blanc, the delicate grape of the very sensitive wines of the Loire. Try Krug or Souverain.

Now for Rhine and Moselle types. Johannisberger Riesling, Almaden, Paul Masson. (Masson bottles most of the Mirassou wines. If you can find them under their own label, they are equally good.) Grey Riesling, Almaden, Krug, Masson. Traminer, the same, and also Souverain and Buena Vista. Sylvaner, again the same. Gewürztraminer, a slightly spicy aroma, Almaden, Martini. Masson’s Rhinecastle is a similar wine, rather like the Austrian Gumpoldkirchener, but of a different blend of grapes, and has something of the effect of a Trockenbeerenauslese of hand-picked shriveled grapes . . . at about one-tenth the price.

Hungarian types are Masson, Emerald Dry, a pétillant, or faintly sparkling, wine from a recently developed grape from the University of California, and Souverain’s Green Hungarian.

That will do you for now. I don’t drink rosé and seldom have dessert wine.

We have one unlike any other, Weibel’s Black Muscat, not to be confused with the wino’s favorite drink, muscatel. It is supposed to resemble the Hamburg Muscat wines of Narbonne and South Africa famous in our grandfathers’ day.

[March 20, 1966]



The Book of Job

As we get deeper into Lent I think more about religion. I commonly “keep Lent,” do without something, try to find more time for meditation, do more religious reading.

Favorite Lenten reading with me has always been Job, of all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures the one most provocative of meditation, because it is concerned with the fundamental confrontation, the ultimate moral mystery of man’s creation, the irreconcilability of the absolute and the contingent in the natural order.

Why does evil exist? Whether you believe in God or not, or even in good and evil in the old-time sense, there is still the mystery of what philosophers call the waste of value in the world of facts.

There may be a law of conservation of energy discoverable by scientific experiment. There is no demonstrable law of the conservation of good. This is the subject of the drama of Job.

It has nothing to do specifically with the religion of the Hebrews, in fact the ancient Talmudic tradition is that the book was written in another language and that Job and his friends were what we would call Bedouins. They are taught by the mystery of the desert, the cruelty of nature and the impassivity of the constellations.

Job’s friends are squares, optimists like the now hardly remembered Christian and Jewish clergy of so short a time ago whose optimism was incorrigible and who believed that day by day in every way we are getting better and better, and that justice always triumphs and the good man reaps his reward.

When the Almighty answers from the whirlwind He says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and He closes with a rebuke to the optimism of the friends — “My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as Job has.”

Job had said simply, “I have been just and harmless in heart and deed, and I suffer harm and injustice in the course of events.” The friends had insisted that no one suffers unjustly and that the course of events tends always toward the realization of the greatest good.

The Voice in the whirlwind says this is foolishness, but gives no answer to either Job or his friends. Instead there is the simple confrontation, omnipotence, in Hebrew gedulah, and in response, loyalty, chesed.

Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists and Hassidim, seized on three mysterious words, as telegraphic as Chinese — Job 6:14: “for the fainting — from his friend — loyalty,” and they said that here was hidden the secret of the unsolvable dilemma of Job.

The upholder of the universe takes up Job into communion, with himself, and with the awe and terror of that infinite process. Job then no longer needs vindication. It has become meaningless, a vanished shadow in the terrible illumination of a tragic sense of life.

[March 21, 1966]



A Savagely Indignant Midsummer Night’s Dream

There will be a big anniversary party at the Both/And this coming weekend, from the first to the third of April, with a special bash on Friday. John Handy will be back making the music that has made him famous since he first turned it on at 350 Divisadero.

This is certainly one of the most remarkable jazz rooms in the history of the music. It is a decent, orderly place where people come to hear the best modern music, not to get lushed out or to make evil. Yet it is friendly and mostly for folks, and serves besides as a neighborhood place of civilized entertainment for what the P. H. & D. pie card artists refer to as the culturally deprived.

What do they mean? More significant music is emitted in places like the Both/And and the Jazz Workshop than in the Opera House, and at no expense to the taxpayers. On the contrary, they pay any number of different kinds of taxes.

Meanwhile overeducated young members of the middle class get $12,000 a year for bringing the pseudo-primitive capers of Greenwich Village lady anthropologists to the wondering juveniles of the housing projects. That’s warring on poverty for sure, as far as the Phi Beta Kappas are concerned, but the real cultural life of the American Negro goes on flourishing, in spite of high taxes and police harassment.

The Actor’s Workshop is winding up its season with two great productions. I don’t agree with my revered colleague that The Empire Builders is a poor play and a poor production. I think it is a highly commendable step out into the new international theatrical arena. It is true that this play, like Marat/Sade now running in New York, represents the broadening out, and to a certain extent the vulgarization and formularization of the theater of revolt of Genet, Ionesco, Beckett and the Angries. This is now the established idiom of all but the most commercial theater. Marat/Sade for that reason lacks the terrific punch of the early Brecht, just as The Empire Builders cannot complete with Waiting for Godot. So?

Midsummer Night’s Dream is another matter. This is a spectacularly successful spectacle. John Hancock’s reading of Shakespeare’s play follows pretty closely Jan Kott’s essay, which you can read in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, now a Doubleday-Anchor paperback. Everybody with any interest in the modern theater should surely read this book because it will be influencing interpretations of Shakespeare for many years to come.

Kott, and Hancock, see Dream as a play of savagely indignant eroticism, like Troilus and Cressida, that play in which Shakespeare raised sheet disgust to the level of the highest art.

Hancock adds an additional fillip. His play takes place in a time of plague. It opens with a dead wagon rolling away from a wax dummy of Justice. The upper-class characters wear leaden gray cloaks, presumably saturated with antiseptics, and shelter their faces with huge gray handkerchiefs whenever the poor come near them or the bell of the passing dead wagon rings off stage.

This not only intensifies the general atmosphere of Bosch-Breughel-Goya inferno, but it provides all sorts of cross-reference to the Decameron, with the haut monde reveling in lewdness on the side hills while the lower orders die in the streets in the towns below, and to the “progresses” of the Tudor monarchs from stately home to stately home, with masques and revels every night, while London rotted under the plague.

At the end the monstrous poor dance around the sexually inflamed aristocrats like half-butchered experimental dogs around a bevy of lady dogs in heat, to be beaten away by faceless policemen.

This, needless to say, is not the Midsummer Night’s Dream you played in when you were a senior at the convent.

To get the effects he seeks, it is necessary for Hancock to play down the lyric poetry — much of it comes over a jukebox and can scarce be understood — and to play up the bitter covert scatology and social nausea that makes Shakespeare more Swiftian than Swift.

This is only one Shakespeare, true, but truly it is Shakespeare. That’s what the man says, over and over again, in almost every play, but most especially in the great climax tragedies that seem to have been accompanied by something we would call nervous breakdown. He didn’t like women, and he hated dogs, and never had a good word for one.

Hancock’s production adds up to something most late-medieval-Flemish-Catholic, very like Ghelderode. I’m surprised that Stanley Eichelbaum, who loathes Ghelderode, was so enthusiastic about it. Then no doubt Shakespeare is a better dramatist than Ghelderode.

Anyway, Hancock has demonstrated conclusively that in the great Lincoln Center steal San Francisco ended up with the best of the bargain. Next step — let’s get the Workshop a decent home. Like now, for next season.

[March 27, 1966]



A Visit to Pittsburgh

Recently, I said I didn’t see anything wrong with the State Department recommending Eastern U.S. wines, as long as the drinker didn’t expect they’d taste the same as what he was used to calling “wine.” Well, now I don’t know.

I was back in Pittsburgh, Pa. not Cal., recently to give a lecture. At dinner I thought I’d do like the natives and drink the vin du pays [the local wine], so I ordered a demi of the best selling York State “Sauternes.” For hours afterwards I felt as if I had been hit over the head with a bucket of grape marmalade. (It was a simply awful dinner, too, so that may have helped.)

I was so glad to get back home to my own cooking and a six-year-old bottle of Sebastiani’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine I’d never drunk before. Stout, rich and mellow.

It is interesting how almost all California wines from Cabernet Sauvignon do not taste like the lighter clarets of the Modoc (from the same grape) but like the heavier, fruitier wines up the river from Bordeaux, the stout wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol. I guess it’s the drier climate.

Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities and Pitt one of my three favorite schools to lecture to. It’s a streetcar college like CCNY of S.F. State and full of action. This time it didn’t put on its best face.

I was left to while away the evening and morning is a miserable hotel with a worse dining room — and the bottle of New York Sauternes. The lively and intelligent health director whom I’d known before was no longer in the phone book. A friend had suggested, with what a Japanese poet describing my own former wife called “augmented memento,” that I look up his ex-wife. No phone. So I called the city desk of the Gazette.

“Is the King of Ireland there?” said I. “Yes,” said they. When he came on the phone I said, “Hello. Is this the King of Ireland? This is the King of Bohemia.”

It was Pat O’Neil, formerly of San Francisco, Isidore Gomez’s and The Examiner, and one of the last of the legendary newspapermen.

Although it was 25 years since I’d seen him, when I met him at the bar, I recognized him instantly. In the old days he’d been a fine broth of a boy, lean as a spalpeen with a roving blue eye and a shock of tousled black hair. Today he looks like a swelterweight superior of one of the more affluent orders, with silvery locks, a solemn carriage and the jaws of St. Thomas Aquinas.

But it’s the same Patrick, maybe the last of all the wild Villons of the City Room. F. Phithian Healy, Edd Johnson, Lionel Moise, Jack Molloy, Lew Casey, Ed Kelsey, Ed Parquet — I grew up with these wild men, and now they’re gone.

There’s nobody left but me and Pat, as it used to say on the Prince Albert can, and me — my rival calls me The Examiner’s house philosopher, and Time calls me a Chamber of Commerce institution.

As for Patrick, he may be heavier, but he’s far from tamed, and we spent a quietly roaring evening discussing the lost seacoasts of Bohemia, that are all gone into a world of light.

[March 28, 1966]



“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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