Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Seven

The Early Sixties in New York

Traveling by PanAm, that wonderful airline that no longer exists (except when it was briefly revived as a TV show), I stopped off in London for a week.  Among other things, I wanted to immerse myself in the illuminated medieval Bible in the British Museum that I had chosen as the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Then in late March of 1960 it was on to New York City, where I went immediately to my new home, a large apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan that I was to share with two other young men.

Perhaps Rome had spoiled me, but the city seemed less welcoming than before. In fact as I sought to reacquaint myself with familiar haunts, New York came to seem downright grim. To be sure, I had been aware of the grittiness during my previous sojourn, but then it had simply underlined the authenticity of the place. In short it wasn’t so much that the city had declined, but that my personal situation had changed, and along with it my point of view.

I continued  my work with McGraw-Hill's Encyclopedia of World Art, where I became Translation Editor. The problems seemed endless, often requiring me to work late without any extra pay. With little experience in such entanglements, I found office politics hard to navigate.

Outside the office I detected little interest in my recent stay abroad. I became something of an Italy bore.  Still, there were entertaining social occasions, and I picked up the basics of holding cocktail parties in the apartment.

To be sure, big challenges lay ahead for the city and the nation, but in 1960 these did not yet loom very large. To be sure, the Civil Rights movement was coming to the fore, with other social issues emerging as well, including a growing crime problem. Yet there was great optimism among the chattering classes because of the election of President John Kennedy in November. Not sharing the euphoria triggered by "Camelot," I had nonetheless voted for Kennedy because I did not want Nixon to win. The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis underscored the fact that we lived in dangerous times.

One of my roommates was active in the reform wing of the local Democratic Party.  One evening he came home from a meeting and announced that they had adopted an ideal New York state ticket: one Italian, one Jew, one Puerto Rican, and one black.  I didn't remember that kind of ethnic politics from my days in California, and found the idea of such "balancing" divisive.  Little did I suspect that this was the way things were going to be in the near future.

At first I went often in the evenings to the Institute of Fine Arts, my academic locus on the East Side. Yet I found it hard to gin up my Ph. D. dissertation, for the work at McGraw-Hill was quite draining.


 I still stoutly refused to watch television, though one of my roommates had a set.  Instead I spent a good deal of time reading, though not very systematically.  My salary was adequate to buy almost any book I wanted.  I began to acquire lots of art books from Germany.  As I lay in bed at night I would prop one of them up before me so as to improve my skills in that language which I would need for my academic research.  It seems that this practice worked, because German has stuck with me down to today.

As for other things I never knew what would turn up next.  The film of Lawrence of Arabia inspired me to read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  From that book I gathered some elementary knowledge of the complex demography.

For a while my friends and I were gripped by Hannah Arendt's New Yorker reports of the Eichmann trial in Germany, which were of course very controversial.  Even in the late forties we had known about the Holocaust, though we did not call it by that name.

Also in The New Yorker I began to read the reports of the brilliant cultural journalist Ved Mehta which were mainly about intellectuals in England.  For example, he gave a lucid account of some aspects of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Despite this encouragement I was unable to get much our of the Philosophical Investigations, an enigmatic book I had first tackled as an undergraduate at UCLA.  I began to read the works of Isaiah Berlin, which I found enthralling.  Then there was C. P. Snow's account of the two cultures, science and the humanities.  He pointed out that scientists are often familiar with some aspects of the humanities, while many in the latter area were almost proud of their scientific illiteracy.  I did not want to be one of those, but at this time I didn't know what to do about it.  Much of this reading, it is now clear, was pointing me towards the British Isles.  I was destined soon to take action in this regard.

I began to read the film criticism of Andrew Sarris, who had imporred from Paris the auteur theory.  In this view the important thing was not the actors or the plot, but the creative role of the director, working in concert with the writer.  Not infrequently these last two were the same person.  In keeping with Sarris' interests I took in the New Wave films of such figures as Truffaut and Godard, which were generally shown in art houses.  At this time Ingmar Bergman was also one of may favorites.  He has remained one.

I developed a new interest in plays. This was the heyday of the Living Theater, an avant-garde outfit run by Julian Beck and Judith Malina on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. Two productions particularly impressed me: The Connection, about drug use, which was not yet very common; and The Brig, graphically exploring the rigors of a Marine prison. Other Off-Broadway theaters featured the work of Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. The latter’s The Blacks captured the racial tensions that were beginning to gather force. In those days Off-Broadway seemed miles ahead of the flashy and expensive Broadway extravaganzas, which I rarely patronized.


I studiously consulted The Village Voice as a guide to the Bohemian pleasures on offer in the city. In those days the paper stayed away from gay topics. Disappointingly, the Counterculture, at least in its New York version, did not seem to interface much with the gay scene, which remained clandestine.

Of course I could hang out in the gay bars in the Village, an amenity (if that is the proper term) Rome lacked. However, the cops, who had long been on the take, began to harass these somewhat seedy establishments.  Ultimately the politicians closed them all, ostensibly to clean up the city for the World’s Fair, which opened in Queens in 1964.

On several occasions I went to meetings of the Mattachine Society of New York, which gathered in premises on West 40th Street. This group was a branch of the gay-rights group that had appeared in Los Angeles in 1950. I also had a habit of picking up copies of ONE, a monthly magazine “from the homosexual viewpoint” that was published in Los Angeles. Little did I realize at this point that gay activism and scholarship would ultimately change my life.

Oddly enough, I did not go back to Europe during my short summer vacations, preferring to visit California. I would go first to LA, to see my mother and some old friends, and then generally swing back via the Bay Area. In Berkeley I enjoyed the hospitality of Chuck McC. and his wife Katherine, who were graduate students there. Chuck was studying philosophy, then morphing into its high analytic phase. Once we went at the University to attend a special lecture by the visiting Oxford philosopher H. H. Price, who specialized in perception. Even Chuck conceded that the banalities espoused by this luminary could easily be replicated by almost any perceptive adolescent.

After I returned to the Gotham, I got hold of some volumes on analytic philosophy, books by J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle.  By comparison with the relentlessly scientistic logical positivists I had known at UCLA, the new crop of English thinkers seemed urbane and reasonable.  Ryle, for example, believed that he had solved he mind-body dualism.  As time went on, though, it seemed that it did not.  This failure, in my view, was emblematic of the shortcomings of the whole enterprise.  Yet academic philosophers do not think so, and have gone on to build a series of specialties on such work.  It may be then that I just do not have a head for philosophy, at least as it currently practiced in our universities.


I also confronted another current orthodoxy: Freudian psychoanalysis, then at the height of its prestige and influence. There was considerable social pressure to start seeing a shrink regularly.

One of my college friends, Bob G., had gone so far as actually to become a psychoanalyst. Towards the end of his training, Bob dropped by to see me at my office on 42nd Street. In our conversation I proffered various theoretical objections. Bob acknowledged these, but countered that one must concede that in fact it works. In other words, Freudian psychoanalysis was a kind of black box: the mechanism might be opaque, but the therapy was effective all the same. I glumly agreed.

Later, when I had settled in London, I learned that the British psychologist H. J. Eysenck had thoroughly discredited the black-box theory. In a massive empirical study he showed that mentally troubled individuals who sought the help of a psychiatrist did not get better more quickly than those who received no therapy at all. In fact there was some evidence that people in the benign-neglect group in fact recovered more quickly. Eysenck’s study, which engendered great anger in the psychiatric community, effectively disposed of the spurious claim that “we don’t know how it works, but it works.”

To return to my situation in New York, by my third year there, in 1963, I found my position at McGraw-Hill, the publisher, increasingly untenable. I didn’t get along with my new boss, an airhead, and it became evident that I was on the fast track to being discharged. I determined to take protective measures. I must quit before they could fire me.


A Fulbright Fellowship to England offered a solution. I chose that country as my base, specifically London, because the illuminated manuscript I had chosen for my dissertation was housed in the British Museum. I had been an Anglophile since my high school years, and two earlier trips to the British capital offered assurance that living there would prove congenial.

My appointment was approved, and in the early summer of 1963 I headed for Montreal where I took a boat for France. In those days still the preferred choice for budget travelers across the Atlantic, the ocean voyage, which took a week, allowed one gradually to adjust, while building up anticipation. It is an experience denied most travelers nowadays, accustomed as they are to a quick jet flight.

Arriving at Cherbourg, I went first to Paris, and then on to Vienna, where I took a short summer course in illuminated manuscripts conducted by my New York adviser, Professor Harry Bober.  One weekend, the group went to Budapest, my first experience of a Communist country.  Once the course was done, I had a whole month left to travel about in Europe. I went first to Corsica, where my Italian boyfriend of Rome days was stationed in the French Foreign Legion. He had changed a good deal, and our reunion was awkward.

Then I traveled for the first time to Spain, still enveloped in the gloom of the Franco years. My high school Spanish came in handy - or would have if I could find someone to talk to for any extended period.  Then and later, the Spaniards struck me as a reserved people.  They were not at all "fandango" as uninformed friend claimed.  As the summer drew to a close, I was off to London by way of France.



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