Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco
It’s amazing how much San Francisco has changed since I came here in 1927. Legendary old San Francisco is usually thought of as, to quote that immortal epic The Girl with the Blue Velvet Band, “that city of wealth, beauty and fashion, dear old Frisco where I first saw the light” — the wild and glamorous town of the years before the Fire (Earthquake). But it’s extraordinary how legendary and far away the San Francisco of pre-Depression days has become.
To start, as the tourist does, with Chinatown: a majority of the men still wore black sateen suits and little caps and smoked tobacco in the iron and bamboo pipes that all the honkies thought contained opium. Real hip white people called it a yen hock, which in fact is corrupt Cantonese for the needle on which opium is roasted. There were lots of women with Golden Lilies or Golden Lotuses, bound dwarfed feet, teetering along Grant Avenue where some of the signs still said Dupont Street. Big black limousines full of singsong girls shepherded by a solemn fat mama came and went from Chinese banquets, at which all sorts of depraved capers were imagined to go on. Walking along Grant Avenue of an evening you were never out of the sound of rattling mahjong tiles. The stores all had small paned windows, closed at night with wooden or sheet-iron shutters. I remember the first modern storefront in Chinatown, a restaurant on Washington Street below Grant, long since vanished. Crowds of curious Chinese watched the place being rebuilt, utterly fascinated. The next, the first on Grant Avenue, was the Fong Fong Bakery and Ice Cream Parlor, still there. In the little basement and alley restaurants with their menus only in Chinese, chalked on a blackboard, you could get a good meal for 25¢.
The Chinese community policed itself. It had the highest tuberculosis rate, but the lowest delinquency and crime rate in the City. One thing the tourists were always looking for were Chinese girls, but the days of hundreds of little cribs with the girls calling out “Two bittie looky! Four bittie feely! Six bittie doeey!” were long gone. There were still brothels on Bush Street but the girls were Caucasian and the prices were high. The famous Gentleman’s Agreement had given over the policing of Chinatown to the Chinese community and all interracial “vice” was very effectively banned, except for Chinese lottery tickets which were sold by the thousands every morning all over the City. There was a Chinatown Detail of Caucasian plainclothes police, a bunch of Keystone Cops, whose duties seemed to consist of loitering together on street corners, spitting on the sidewalk, and collecting the clout. The best restaurants were Hang Far Low, Tao Yeuan, and the Moon Café of happy memory. An acupuncturist used to operate on the street, and it was common to see somebody sitting quietly against the wall, stuck full of needles. One of the most fascinating characters was a little old man with a sublimely happy face surrounded with, for a Chinese, quite bushy white hair and beard. He was a trapper in the marshes near the head of the Bay, and each week he brought in a raccoon or a possum or a wildcat or a gray fox, two animals at a time, rolled alive in chicken wire and suspended from a yoke over his shoulder. These he sold to customers, who had them killed and skinned (the skin cured and saved for a health vest — for this purpose the wildcat was considered the best). The meat, and especially the organs, and most especially the bile duct and testicles, was cooked and eaten — guaranteed to put lead in your pencil, even if you didn’t have anybody to write to. Usually he also had a sack of snakes, including defanged rattlers, which he sold for the same purposes. In his old, old age he was arrested by the police of the California Fish and Game Commission, and died in prison.
There were three, sometimes four, Chinese theaters, where the entire repertoire of Chinese opera could be seen night after night, and after ten o’clock admission was only 25¢. Since Chinese plays never really get going until halfway through, it was possible to spend every night watching one of the world’s greatest theatrical traditions for little more than the price of a package of cigarettes. Those were the great days of the Cantonese theater, before the old traditional costumes gave way to gaudy things covered with huge glittering sequins, and when Chinese actors were still trained from childbirth not only in flawlessly perfect acting technique but in the most fantastic acrobatics, and the actresses in equally agile dancing. It was also before the years when the Chinese theater became overwhelmed with male impersonators, women in heroes’ roles.
Today such theatrical performances would be prohibitively expensive. There is no longer a full-time Chinese theater in the City (shockingly enough, there isn’t one in Taipei either), and even the heavily subsidized festival performances nowadays cannot compare with what you got for 25¢ admission a generation ago.
With the change in taste, Chinese theatrical costumes and the traditional clothing of the Chinese upper classes were thrown on the second-hand market and “Mandarin coats” and suchlike could be bought for a few dollars from high-piled tables in the two largest Chinese art goods stores. Chinatown was full of bargains of this sort, and it was hard to figure out how the merchandise, food, clothing, hardware, art objects, could be delivered to the customer at such prices. Along the line, nobody could have made more than a few pennies on each transaction, from the Canton pawn shop to the final clubwoman from Des Moines.
There was another side of the coin. When I came to San Francisco I expected to meet all sorts of people with whom I could discuss the great poets, philosophers and painters of China. But classical Chinese culture was a closed book to all but a few old men who could not communicate with a Caucasian, and a Chinese woman doctor and her brother. When C.H. Kwock arrived from Hong Kong and Honolulu to work on the Chinese World, with an enthusiastic knowledge and love of the classical culture, he was the first person of his kind in the community.
Concomitantly, the hidden, deep-rooted prejudice against the Chinese, which prevailed in all circles of the white community, dumbfounded me. I had been friends during his stay in America with the great Chinese poet Wen I-to, later assassinated by the Kuo Min Tang, and had many other Chinese friends. I discovered that even among radical bohemians here, if I said “At the University of Chicago where I went, an oriental student is a preferred date,” it was as though I had made a mess on the floor.
Having spoken my little piece about the election, I can get back to the short series of columns I hope to do on San Francisco between the wars, and in this one, to North Beach and Telegraph Hill — The Last Bohemia. Now that almost a generation has passed since the first Abstract Expressionists and Morris Graves lived here and the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beats started writing and the Tape Music Center began and San Francisco became for ten years the liveliest culture capital in the world and its artists and writers famous from Asunción to Reykjavik and from Irkutsk to Mexico City and the place every young intellectual wanted to go as soon as possible, it is hard to believe how provincial the City was between the First War and the Depression.
I hadn’t been here very long before I got a visit from the leading artist, who looked around the walls and said, “Waall I see you’re experimentin’ with abstract form like Matissey and Picassio.” Folks were nothing if not loyal to local talent. Everybody, but everybody, believed the greatest living poet was George Sterling, the greatest living novelist Kathleen Norris, and that Papa Hertz was an orchestral conductor and the rubbery sounds emitted by his Symphony were music. My wife and I had to admit it was a change of pace after Paris, New York and Chicago.
There were advantages, as there always are to provincialism and cultural lag. The marketplace was far away. It was quite impossible to make a living as an artist, writer or composer in San Francisco, so the practitioners of the arts were in it for love, and they were mostly very poor indeed. This economic situation produced a Bohemia very like that of New York or Chicago from the 1880s to the First War.
Another important factor was that Prohibition simply didn’t exist. There were several bars on Market Street alone where a perfect stranger could walk in and get a full whiskey glass of respectable moonshine or grappa for 25¢, and it was easy to find red wine for $2 a gallon or less. A studio in the Montgomery Block cost $12. Over on Washington and Sansome were even bigger rooms, gaslit, for $8-10 a month. If you had practically no money at all you could get free buttermilk at the Golden State Dairy nearby and in the produce district as the markets closed all the free vegetables you could carry away, and free fish at the wholesale fish market. There was another place where you could get free dried fruit. There was no problem, if you knew your way around, in maintaining a very healthful diet. None of the cheap hotels in North Beach cost more than a dollar a day. The cheapest Italian restaurants served a full dinner and a glass of red ink for 25¢, and you could put together a Chinese dinner at Yee Jun’s for 25¢ a person — or less.
The hangouts were: the Casa Begine, a wonderful restaurant then entering its decline — Mama and Papa Begine were growing old, and their customers were deserting Bohemia for the Establishment; the Telegraph Hill Tavern, run by a great cook and great lover and bad poet, a lady who called herself Myrtokleia, after a character in The Songs of Bilitis; and Izzy Gomez’s, at first on Pacific, across from the firehouse, immortalized in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. The Casa Begine in its best days was a genuine artists’ and writers’ restaurant where people lingered long after splendid dinners in passionate discussions or intense chess games, and after many glasses of wine ended up singing until after midnight. It must have been something like the Closerie des Lilas in Paris in the 1900s, when the evenings were presided over by Paul Fort, the “Prince of Poets.”
Myrto’s was different. The customers were mostly pure Bohemians — people with artistic personalities but little or no artistic talent, who enjoyed many of the pleasures of the rich while sacrificing many of the necessities of even the poor. The atmosphere was one of muted orgy, liable to break loose at any late hour into gay, bedraggled abandon. Myrto and her friends were always getting busted at the annual arts ball for appearing in the altogether or as they say in French, à poil. Myrto’s was more like the Café Dôme in Montparnasse’s craziest days or the even crazier “bohemian tea rooms” of Greenwich Village or Chicago’s Near North Side — Grace’s Garret, the Purple Pup, the Green Mask, the Gray Cottage, all of them dead long before the Telegraph Hill Tavern was born.
Izzy Gomez’s was something else. Unique. Sui generis. It really was as portrayed in The Time of Your Life, except that it was also a favorite hangout for hardboiled, sophisticated newspapermen of the kind that flourished in the good old days when no self-respecting newspaperman, including even the editorial writers, believed a word of the Social Lie, but knew all the real answers. They gave the place a rowdy, slightly underworld character of half-suppressed brawl. Now they’re all dead. The last to go was handsome Pat O’Niall who died, fat and alcoholic, on the Pittsburgh Press, a legend of awe and wonder to his colleagues in what has come to be called “the profession of journalism.” Izzy’s grappa, the best liquor in town, was 25 cents a shot. He served nothing else but home brew. Bootleg big brewery beer was made only by the Organization and not allowed in San Francisco. For meals Izzy served thick, luscious steaks, French fries and salads — a considerable number of meals and liquor free, not just to starving artists, but to people he liked. I was always a little embarrassed to patronize the place because he would never take any money from me. If I brought guests for dinner I had to give them the money and have them pretend to be hosting me. Even so, Izzy would not usually take the money. [...]
San Francisco’s Bohemia, between the two world wars, may have been provincial, but in those days there was no question whatever that the laissez faire and dolce far niente of la vie méditerranée was stronger and lasted longer here than anywhere on that tideless inland sea itself.
San Tropez wasn’t in it with Telegraph Hill. Most of the hill was still unpaved. There weren’t even real streets on the north side and only rickety wooden staircases on the east. Two different old ladies herded goats in the vacant lots and kept them at night in barns that were part of their own homes. The Italians were almost all from North Italy, the largest contingent from Lucca. To this day the Lucchese have the largest town club in the Bay Area, and whenever I have visited Lucca all sorts of people greet me by name and invite me for a drink.
At harvest time the gutters were purple with overflowing refuse from the vine presses, and an atmosphere of wholesome orgy borne on the strains of mandolins, guitars and accordions enveloped the whole hill. This Latin virtú communicated itself most infectiously to the scattered bohemians who still constituted a very small minority. San Francisco must have been the only city in the United States where intellectuals drank wine rather than hard liquor or cocktails at their parties.
Even the sex was wholesome, though promiscuous. You seldom felt the frustration, tensions and combativeness so characteristic of Greenwich Village. Most parties or even just nightly get-togethers ended with singing. Six months going about on Telegraph Hill would have provided anyone with an immense repertoire of authentic folk songs, old English ballads and the highest quality of classic bawdy songs. Myrtokleia, and after her day the painter Richard Ayer, father of the young woman poet Hilary Ayer, had absolutely unlimited repertoires and could sing all night. So could a man I believe is still alive down in Big Sur, Harry Dick Ross, who had a bellow like the late movie actor Joe E. Brown — which covered the fact he couldn’t sing a note. All Telegraph Hill needed to be the Land of Cockayne come true were those roast pigeons flying around with a knife and fork sticking in them.
There wasn’t much other music in those days. King Oliver had played San Francisco in the early ’20s and so had “Frisco, the American Apache Dancer,” who was the first man to take a jazz band into Palace Time vaudeville.
But this spirit did not last. Perhaps the reason was that the black community in San Francisco was very small. It stretched from Ellis Street to Sutter and from Webster to Laguna, sparsely sprinkled amongst the predominantly Japanese population. Fillmore Street in those days was mostly Jewish. Still, one after another there were wonderful gathering places of the kind that came to be known as “after-hours joints.” The earliest I can remember was a speakeasy called, I think, Timmes’. It was a house, west of Fillmore a few doors, probably on O’Farrell, and it was like an ideal Harlem rent party that never stopped. Timmes’ served excellent liquor, red wine and very good grappo, which I believe he got from the same supplier as Izzy Gomez.
The place had a piano with a fine collection of ragtime rolls, but there was usually somebody around who could play it in an ultra-funky Jelly Roll Morton style. I don’t know where they came from since there was no market for their talents, but all sorts of musicians with all sorts of instruments would wander in and jam until dawn, while between the little tables the customers would roll and bump. After Timmes’ there was a succession of wonderful places. Elsie’s, Blackshears’, Jack Bryant’s in the tiny black district of seagoing folks at Pacific and Embarcadero. Timmes’ and Elsie’s had the friendliest atmosphere of any entertainment places I’ve ever been in. And Jack Bryant had the most beautiful waitresses I’ve ever seen, girls who’d make the chorus line at the Harlem Apollo Theatre look plain and dowdy.
There was, in those days, no hostility directed toward hip white people whatever. Although there were very few of them at the tables, there were always plenty of white musicians jamming, and welcome.
By the time Blackshears’ came along, a faint note of hostility had begun to appear and by the time of Jimbo’s, the most famous of them all, black hostility toward whites gradually became oppressive. When Wilma opened Soulsville a few years ago, white musicians were quietly frozen off the stand — to her distress. I must say that I never felt any discrimination or hostility whatsoever either in the after-hours joints or in regular clubs like Jack’s or the Club Alabam. The latter was pretty funky but Jack’s was very high-class, and although the black community was small, functioned as a kind of black Hungry i. Jack’s introduced a remarkable list of entertainers, even the great bass singer Kenneth Spencer, who went on from Sutter and Fillmore to fame in Bach, Mozart and Monteverdi in Europe.
Years later I came into a Chinese restaurant near the Sorbonne in Paris. Behind me a powerful bass voice was speaking and my wine glass trembled in front of me. “My God!” I said to my wife, “Kenneth Spencer’s in this room somewhere!” So he was. He was with Alberta Hunter, an old friend of mine from Chicago, the first woman to ever sing blues on the concert stage (though the surviving records don’t sound very bluesy). We spent the night talking about the old days.
They were pretty good old days. There was probably less interracial tension and less prejudice against blacks in San Francisco than anywhere else in the world. Private parties, clubs, after-hours joints and big dances were places of pure joy. Something that I have always thought very significant of interracial naturalness, not just tolerance, is the incidence of white male-black female interracial couples. In those days in a place like Jack’s or Timmes’ there were almost as many as the other way around. Alas, today interracial tensions have grown so severe that natural contacts have almost died out — first in interracial organizations like CORE and at last, and finally, in jazz.
Following my last column, people have inquired “How has San Francisco changed? Wasn’t it always a wide-open town? You object to the scene today. What’s the difference?”
Maybe I’m just a petty bourgeois. The difference is between big business and small business, between domesticated “vice” and organized vice verging into high crime. It must be borne in mind that so-called crimes without victims — gambling and prostitution especially — were until recently what we might call civil service occupations in most countries. The only highly organized business at that time in San Francisco was the Chinese lottery. It was at least as common as policy or numbers in the East, and it was played by all kinds of people, of every race. Runners visited stores and offices and even many homes all over the City. Obviously, such an enterprise is big business, but it was tightly regulated both by the police and by the so-called fraternal associations that ruled Chinatown. No hanky-panky was permitted — the control was so tight that nobody was so foolish as to attempt any. Other forms of Chinese gambling were strictly closed to Caucasians, although at night all of middle Grant Avenue resounded with the rattle of mahjong pieces. Similarly, no Oriental-Caucasian interracial prostitution was permitted by the rulers of the Chinese community (following the well-known “Gentlemen’s Agreement”), although limousines with sing-song girls herded by fat, drowsy Mamas came and went in Chinatown all night. Oriental women who came from elsewhere and attempted to work as interracial prostitutes were reputed to vanish. Very few tried. Dolly Fine had a girl whom she could provide for big spenders and leading politicians, named Lala. She was over six feet tall, with a vaguely Oriental caste of features — I think she was Jewish. Her favors could be enjoyed for a minimum of fifty dollars, later a hundred, in the days when an ordinary favor cost two dollars and a half. If the customer objected, Dolly explained that Lala was North Chinese, “They’re very tall you know, and almost as white as we are.” That was it.
Most black people were unskilled working men and domestic servants. Although as the Depression deepened there was a good deal of compensatory prostitution, black and white, on the part of women who simply didn’t have enough money to live on, these girls were strictly controlled by the cop on the beat — who shook them down for whatever he could get, from two bits up, the theory being that “if you clout them you control them.”
Brothels were a different matter. As the Atherton investigation revealed, “The Organization” in San Francisco was the police department itself, ruled by a small group that called themselves the Iron Ring. They permitted, with one exception, no other organization whatever. If you paid off, you could run one brothel, but not two. There were card rooms all over the City, but each was a separate enterprise. Pimps, in the strict sense of the word, were not allowed to exist. A girl could keep an “old man” but she had to keep him out of sight. Any male who tried to hustle the streets for his old lady got short shrift from the police. Although it’s supposed to be completely illegal nowadays, the Municipal Court commonly ordered questionable characters to leave town within twenty-four hours and the police were even more peremptory. A friend of mine from Chicago who had handled some of Capone’s business with that city’s leading law firm visited me unexpectedly one morning and we went over to the Star Dairy Lunch next to the Hall of Justice at noon. A lieutenant of detectives, later Chief of Police, called me over to his table. “Isn’t that so and so?” he said. “Yes.” “Send him over.” My friend came back shaking. “What happened?” “He said ‘Hello Terry? What are you doing in San Francisco?’ ‘Oh, just traveling through on my way to see my sister in Los Angeles.’ ‘Ever been here before?’ ‘No.’ ‘That’s nice. It’s a great place. Get Kenneth to show you around. Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, Seal Rocks. Have dinner at Tait’s at the Beach. If you need a car, we can lend you one. And then, Terry, you get on the Daylight to L.A. tomorrow morning. That’s all, Terry.’ ”
“What in the hell kind of town is this?” my friend asked.
“They run it,” I said.
Yet at the same time San Francisco was a moderate sanctuary. It wasn’t Toledo, Ohio, but still it was a hard place to get expedited from, unless you were hotter than a two-dollar pistol. So, if you kept your nose clean, and didn’t volunteer, the forces of law and order not only ignored you but left a good deal of law and order up to you and your kind. As long as you didn’t try to organize something.
Bookmaking is an activity which naturally proliferates. It’s hard to run just one bookie joint, so the City’s principal bookmaker operated through a chain of cigar stores. He was a very respected citizen, but he got too big for his britches, and they broke him. I had a good friend who was a commission merchant. He liked to think of his business as a cover. He dropped a lot of money at the races, in poker games, and laid a lot of it on very expensive broads. He liked to fancy himself a Big Time Hustler, but he was really just a businessman. One day I was waiting to lunch with him at Tadich’s. In came two characters out of a grade-B gangster picture with their right hands stiff in their coat pockets. They kicked open the wicket and pushed the terrified receptionist out of their way. In about a half hour they came out, and a little after them came my friend, green and quivering like lime Jello. At lunch I got it out of him. “They were from Chicago. They want me to take over the distribution for Capone’s sugar moon business in Northern California.” (Capone had just organized all the big beet sugar moonshine distilleries in Colorado, with a good deal of gun play — a forgotten episode in his career.) “Nothing’s going to happen.” I counseled. “What do you mean, nothing’s going to happen? They’ll dump me if I don’t play ball.” “Don’t worry, you’ll never see them again. They will have them out of town by night.” He never did see them again, but a week or so later their car was found at the foot of the cliff below the narrow road out to Point Reyes Light House. They were both dead, but showed no signs of violence.
Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.