Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Five

New York City: 1956-58

I had not been out of California since I was a child. For some of my college friends the prospect of residing in that state for the rest of one’s days seemed just dandy. But not in my case, for in my last year at UCLA it had become clear that I must come East for my graduate education in art history. From my new base I could at last visit Europe, beckoning as the Promised Land.  Perhaps I could even settle abroad, escaping - or so I thought - the deadly conformity and consumerism that held my native land in their grip

My teacher Professor Carl Sheppard had gone to Harvard University so naturally that was my first choice. I applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship there. Harvard agreed to admit me, but without any scholarship funding - an impossible prospect for a poor boy like me. For its part, the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) of New York University did offer some money. I was offered tuition plus $100 a month. In those days $100 was enough to live on even in New York City, though just barely. Still, I was able to supplement this amount with part-time employment in the Institute library.

During the summer of 1956 I crossed the country by bus in a series of stages. After I paid a courtesy call to my relatives in East Texas, I set forth, stopping at various major cities - Kansas City, Saint Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia - along the way to see the museums. Once I arrived in NYC I stayed briefly at the 34th Street YMCA, and then took a small apartment on West 85th Street in Manhattan, which I was to share with my best friend Chuck after he returned from his European sojourn.

Sharing of the apartment with my friend Chuck did not last long, for soon a young woman arrived. It developed that he had impregnated her when they both lived in Paris.  They decided to keep the baby, so they got married - I was the best man - and moved to another apartment in the neighborhood.  For a while I lived with them to save money, but when the child came along I moved out, making do in a rooming house. At the beginning of my second year I was able to move into a tiny garret room in the Warburg mansion at 17 East 80th Street where classes were held. In exchange for some light duties, the rent was free.

The depictions of New York City that I had seen in the movies had not prepared me for the reality. The city was much grittier than I expected, and the people tougher and more hard-edged. Most apartments were dismal, shabby holes with plaster peeling from the walls- - something out of Beavis and Butthead.  In some buildings there were only communal toilets in the hall.  At least these slum abodes were cheap, some of them at least.

Apart from the grit, the city was more diverse ethnically than anything I had experienced. In California the main ethnic division was this: were you Anglo or Hispanic?

Demographically, New York  City was informed by the groups that had begun to come in great streams starting in the middle of the nineteenth century: Irish, Italians, and Jews. Even though I was nominally Irish-American, I felt no bond with the East Coast Irish, who were Catholic, prone to drinking, and generally anti-intellectual. My commitment to art history induced a sentimental attachment to the Italians. But I felt the greatest affinity with the New York Jews, who accepted me as a fellow striver and seemed, at least those I met, sincerely desirous of gaining more education and culture.

An unexpected element was the Puerto Ricans. In high school I had become fairly proficient in Spanish, but did not find this knowledge very useful, as Caribbean Spanish was quite different from what I was used to.  Moreover, in those days Spanish did not rank as an academic language. Some of my gay friends were sexually involved with ‘Ricans, but communicated with them in English.

The overall situation in New York City was challenging.  Rents and food were considerably higher than what I had experienced in Los Angeles. Generally lacking was the easy bonhomie that I had taken for granted in sunny California. As someone put it, every encounter - whether on the street, in a store, or even at a party - was a potential confrontation.  The speech of New Yorkers seemed to reflect their ethos. A common admonition was "Watch yourself at all times!"  If one riled a New Yorker, the individual would be capable of answering "Drop dead: you should live so long!"  I came to dread riding in cabs, because the cabbies often had ways of cheating passengers. Gradually I got used to the toughness.  I even discovered a big streak of toughness in my own makeup, which has sometimes impeded my progress elsewhere.

The money I received was adequate as long as I took care with my expenditures.  Meals were often taken at the Automat, where the food was surprisingly edible - or so it seemed to me in the pre-foodie days. Generally speaking, visits to the theater were out, and I had to content myself with the movies, like most of America.  I remain forever grateful, though, to a wealthy woman who let us students have her box in the nights that she wasn't going to the Metropolitan Opera. Occasionally one of my professors would take me somewhere.  I saw a good many operas that way.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art was free.  The subway, which went almost everywhere, was fifteen cents. In short, there were some perks.

With my uncouth clothing - one horrendous suit was purchased on Hollywood Boulevard - and unpolished manners, I didn't fit in socially.  The contrast was particularly evident with well-healed students who had gone to fancy prep schools, followed by stints at Dartmouth and Princeton, Vassar and Barnard.  Later I learned that one of my colleagues had denounced me as "so Midwestern." She seemed to think that the Midwest stretched from the Hudson to the Pacific Ocean. As for the clothing, after I became more prosperous one of my sophisticated new friends took me in hand and told me that henceforth I must buy everything at Brooks Brothers.  I obviously had no taste whatever, so this was the only safe course to follow.  I am glad to say that those Brooks suits all wore out years ago.

With some wavering, reflecting my European longings, I ended up choosing New York City as my home. I have lived in my Morningside Heights apartment now for forty-four years - more than half my life.  For a while, as crime rates rose in the sixties and seventies, living in New York City seemed problematic. Vigorous action on the part of the city administration addressed the problems.  Today the city is an excellent place to retire to.  Here it is that I live comfortably and do my work.


In September of 1956 I started my classes, which were held in the old Warburg town house at 17 East 80th Street just off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Quite an address! Most of them were taught by wonderful German Jewish scholars, individuals we would now term refugees from the Holocaust. We did not use that last term then, but we knew what their fate would have been had they stayed behind. The faculty had been formed through a wise decision of the founder Professor Walter W. S. Cook, who saw a precious opportunity in recruiting these remarkable figures after Hitler had dismissed them from their posts. Basking in the results of Cook's far-sighted policy, the Institute of Fine Arts became the leading center for the study of art history in the United States.

At first I had trouble understanding my professors' accents, which varied according to the part of Germany they had come from. But once I got the hang of it.  I fell into a kind of sacred trance, which repeated itself day after day. Each course generally began with a discussion of the state of scholarship. This was a new concept for me; I thought that if one was going to study, say, Renaissance architecture, one started right out with the buildings. Not at all, for one's understanding of the buildings changed kaleidoscopically depending on who was interpreting them and according to what principles. Some term this variability perspectivism.

The star professor was the archaeologist Karl Lehmann, who all-seeing eye ranged through the enire course of classical antiquity from the Greek Archaic era to late Roman Art. In addition to his profound knowledge of ancient art and archaeology, Professor Lehmann seemed to have memorized the whole of Pauly-Wissowa’s Realenzyklopädie, the ultimate source for classical studies - all in the German language of course. Encountering him on the street Lehmann seemed a small, almost insignificant man. Yet once the lights went out (as was customary in such lectures) the contents of his marvelous brain unfolded almost magically, or so it seemed to me. The lectures were scheduled for a length of two hours, from eight to ten in the evening, but no one stirred if Lehmann went on, sometimes for an hour longer.

At one point, fairly soon into the series of lectures, I detected a minor error concerning Archaic Greek sculpture. During the break I had the temerity to mention it to the great man. He struck his brow and said “Ach, my boy, you are right!” Lehmann commenced the second part of the lecture by generously acknowledging the point that I raised. Admitting that his own teachers in Germany had made errors, he  admonished us always to bring gaffes to his attention. Imperious and "Prussian" as he was, he was also an honorable man.

I diligently took notes, and was at the library when it opened, staying to close it at night. Many of the recommended readings were naturally in German,  with which I struggled (having had only a semester of that language at UCLA). To keep up, I began private German lessons with Edith Weinberger, the spouse of one of the faculty members. With her long cigarette holder and dated clothing, she seemed something out of a Kurt Weill musical. But she was immensely simpatica. On one occasion, noting that I was thin and pale, she offered to lend me money. I was greatly touched, because I knew that she and her husband did not have very much themselves.

Edith Weinberger may have been colorful, but I am sure that her private life was exemplary. So too were the lives of most of the faculty and their spouses.  An exception was a man I will call Professor  X, who had formed the habit of inviting female students into his office, locking the door, and exposing himself.  I had heard too many accounts from the victims to think that such reports were less than real.  One day, in an incident recounted to me by several people, a young woman ran from the professor's office to the directors office, proclaiming loudly "Dr. X waved his penis at me!"  Failing to exhibit moral courage, the director managed to persuade the victim that she had imagined the event.

At first I hesitated between Chinese and European medieval art.  I took courses with Alfred Salmony, the East Asian specialist, and spent time in the Chinese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In those days, however,  US relations with the People's Republic of China were frosty, and it was not clear when, if ever, I would get to see my adored Buddhist cave temples.

So the medieval option became mine by default. At first I gravitated to Richard Krautheimer, a distinguished architectural historian whose specialty was the Early Christian period.  Interpreting buildings when often only scanty ruins were visible was a challenge, but making the effort was good discipline.  Eventually, though, I decided that I wanted to study illuminated manuscripts, so I switched my allegiance to Professor Harry Bober.  It was under his direction that I eventually completed my dissertation on the illuminations of the Stavelot Bible.


With all this studying, I found a little time for pursuing the gay life. I proceeded very carefully, as I knew that establishing myself in academia meant staying in the closet as much as possible. This cautious policy paid dividends, for in my second year of graduate study at IFA I was invited to live in the building as the sole resident student; my tiny room was rent free. Before taking up this post I had heard a story, possibly a legend, about a predecessor who became a noted academic, who held a gay orgy in the IFA building. At this event, apparently in 1943, the police came. Walter Cook, the director visited the hapless grad student, saying that he would spring him from jail if he agreed to marry. Cook had already picked out a young woman, another student, who was amenable to the arrangement.

Two or three times I had tricks up to my room, but I was very careful. Because of my straightened finances I could only visit the gay bars occasionally. With their wide- open windows and mafia-dominated atmosphere, these bars were different from the ones I had known in California. Still I met a few older men who invited me to their apartments, giving me an idea of the way that ordinary New Yorkers lived. I also became infatuated with two male students. One was already “taken,” as he was being supported in his studies by an older benefactor with whom he lived. I had a brief affair with the other guy, but he turned out to be a hopeless neurotic.


I now digress to another interest, not connected to art history. During my high school years I had started reading the works of Ezra Pound, attracted by his outlaw status. As a resident of Italy during the interwar years, Pound had become a fervent admirer of Benito Mussolini. During World War II he agreed to broadcast for the Axis on Radio Rome. The US authorities monitored and transcribed the broadcasts, so that after Pound was apprehended towards the end of the war he was brought back to America under indictment for treason. This was a capital offense, but Pound cheated death by being judged insane. He was then confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

I was in New York City, an easy, cheap bus ride from the nation’s capital, so I wrote Pound and asked if I might visit him. He agreed, and I visited him twice on a weekend visit. St. Elizabeth’s turned out to be situated in pleasant grounds dotted with old trees--almost a country club. The interior was almost equally agreeable, and the poet held court in his own alcove. There were ten or twelve visitors, and we paid close attention to Pound’s every word, a somewhat challenging task, as he changed topics suddenly and without warning. Some of the other visitors were young students like myself, drawn to Pound because of his rebel reputation. Also in attendance were Pound’s English wife, Dorothy, who seemed quite bewildered by the scene, together with his artist mistress, who (it was alleged) was permitted to pay conjugal visits to the old man at the asylum from time to time.

One of Pound’s main disciples at the time was John Kasper (1929–1998), a far-right activist who took a militant stand against the racial integration fostered by the growing civil rights movement. Educated at Columbia University, Kasper corresponded with Pound as a student. After running a bookshop in Greenwich Village he moved to Washington, D.C., where he befriended Pound, setting up a shoestring company, known as Square Dollar Books, to publish some of the poet's works, as well as those of other writers he admired. Absorbing Pound's right-wing ideas, he formed the Seaboard White Citizens Council immediately after Brown v. Board of Education in order to oppose desegregation. Kasper came to national prominence because of his opposition to the integration of Clinton High School in Tennessee. After dodging the law on several occasions he ultimately served eighth months for conspiracy in 1957.

At the St. Elizabeth’s gathering, I heard crude expressions of anti-Semitism, but I kept my dissent to myself. For his part, Pound was freed in 1960 and returned to live in Italy.

I must have made a good impression on the poet - though not for my political views.  In all events, after I returned to New York he instructed several of his other younger admirers to look me up. One was a Chinese American, David Wang, who had organized a White Citizens Council in New York. When I asked how a non-Caucasian person could fulfill this role, he said that he was only acting as a place saver until some real white person came along to take his place in the organization. As far as I know none ever did, and I never learned of any other members.

The most consequential introduction was with Jack Stafford, a troubled young man who had dropped briefly out of Ohio State University to come and work in the city. I was attracted to him sexually, but nothing came of it, as Jack was in the closet and was soon to return to Ohio. Yet we kept in touch, and eventually he became a librarian, working at the main branch of the Queens Library in the city. After I returned from England in 1967, Jack Stafford became my best friend.

Not long after Stonewall in 1969, Jack joined gay liberation. He was one of the people who started the Gay Task Force at the American Library Association. He recruited me to the group, and I joined him in working on a bibliography on gay studies, commissioned by Barbara Gittings, who headed the effort. When Jack was murdered on the street in Queens in 1973, I was able to rescue the manuscript of the bibliography from his apartment. Before sending the original on to Barbara, I made a photocopy for my own use. In those days I little realized that this text, short and rough, was to be the seed of my later commitment to gay bibliography, and gay studies in general.


I return now to 1957. One of my fellow IFA students, a young woman from Maine, invited me to go abroad that first summer, as an assistant in her parents’ business, which was to escort college students, mostly young women who were thought to need chaperoning, on a European tour. We went first to England, then to the Netherlands and Germany. The longest stint was in Italy, which I liked best. We concluded in Paris. I passed the whole summer in a state of giddy excitement, and I couldn’t wait to spend more time across the Atlantic.

A year or so later an opportunity presented itself. I had been doing some part-time work translating for a major New York publisher. McGraw-Hill had undertaken to produce the English-language version of a big new art encyclopedia, which was being organized in Rome. They were so impressed with my work - and with my seeming knowledge of Italian (partly simulated) - that the McGraw-Hillites invited me to move to Rome as their editorial representative. Those were the days when Italophilia was at its height, the era of the espresso bar, the Vespa, and Italian neo-realism in film, so I accepted with alacrity.



Blogger Lisa Stern said...

Enjoying your memoir so far,

11:23 PM  

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