Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Lillian Gish on 53rd Street

Lillian Gish, 1919
Portrait by Hamilton King 

One summer during the mid-1970s, I had a job working for a literary publicist who was a hard-driving woman. The imperious Alice started barking orders at 8:30 in the morning, flounced out to expense account lunches, and harassed us till quittin’ time. But she deserved her excellent reputation. Her clients included the top New York publishers.

The office, located at 515 Madison Avenue, was messy and drab with old furniture. It didn’t have to look nice because no one ever saw it except for the few employees. We spent a lot of time moving around cartons of books in order to clear work space that continued to elude us.      

The agency’s tip of the hat to modernity, an enormous photo-copier, occupied center stage. It’s a dim memory now, but in those days office machines broke down often. There would be a paper jam of egregious proportions, and perhaps one employee had the magic touch, and if she failed, and we had pried open all of the wings and doors and pressed reset a thousand times, and perhaps inflicted a few whacks, it would be necessary to call a repair man who always took his own sweet time.

The books that Alice promoted tended to be how-to’s and tell-all’s; unfortunately, I can’t remember any except for Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish, the gorgeous actress whose first big film was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. Its other title was The Clansman, but no one blamed Miss Gish for that. (However, she had been a member of the America First Committee before World War II; that ended when Hollywood blacklisted her.)

Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, started as child actors during the silent film era and became stars of early cinema. After Dorothy died at age 70 in 1968, Lillian decided to write a book about the two of them, more scrapbook than biography. Scribner’s published it in 1973. The book must have faded fast, because a few years later Alice was hired to get the lot sold.

Her idea was to throw a big party for Miss Gish. She invited reporters who covered culture and fashion, all kinds of book people and famous New Yorkers, and somehow this did the trick. The former star – who would live to be 99 – sat on a loveseat all evening and charmed everyone. Really, she had remained so exquisite that you couldn’t stop looking at her.   

All of this floated back earlier this month when public radio’s “Writer’s Almanac” noted that the American poet Louise Bogan was born on August 11, 1897.

There’s a connection.

The office was located about a block away from the old Doubleday Bookstore at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. It’s “old” because the space has been occupied by all kinds of stores since its demise about 25 years ago.

I found Bogan’s collection of poems, The Blue Estuaries, in Doubleday during that summer of 1975. The book had been published in 1968 yet still could be found in a bookstore seven years later. That’s how things used to be.

In order to reach the poetry section, you had to go upstairs. That meant climbing Doubleday’s spiral staircase. It was solidly built, but the ascent felt slightly disconcerting because the treads were wide and the steps were open.

But it was worth it for Bogan’s poems, some of which appealed to an emotional young woman, me.

              Back through smoke
              Back through noon
              Back along love
              Back through moonlight

That was my summer on 53rd Street.

Doubleday Bookstore staircase, 2016;
now sheathed in white plaster

*Louise Bogan never became as well-known as Lillian Gish. The poet won Guggenheim Fellowships in 1933 and 1937; edited fiction at The New Yorker; joined the likes of Du Bois and Faulkner in condemning Franco’s bombardment of Madrid in 1936, and became U.S. Poet Laureate in 1945. Lillian Gish rode a wave of mass culture and celebrity. Generally, critics acclaimed her work. She wielded unprecedented influence as a Hollywood actress. Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote the part of Blanche DuBois for her but she turned it down because her ailing mother required attention.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

James D. Corrothers Set Forth to be a Writer

Discouraged by his lack of success as a writer,
James D. Corrothers trained to be an amateur boxer. 

When it is told, the life of James D. Corrothers appears as a success story about persistence and a few fortuitous encounters with influential people.

In truth, Corrothers’ life was a zigzag of good turns and bad turns: those he chose himself and those that others dealt him. Nearly every achievement was followed by a setback. Corrothers had a hard time keeping on moving forward. 

There are some discernible reasons. He hampered himself; he slammed into the poisonous racism of his time, and he was victimized by powerful Black clergymen. It may be useful to say that he felt optimistic about the future of Black Americans. Actually, he never strayed from the harsh view he expressed in 1894:

. . . that the race question would never be definitely settled in America; that the whites would never extend to us the full social and commercial privileges which other races enjoy here; that all we had suffered and done in this country was merely disciplinary and temporary, and that the Negro’s destiny was AFRICA.  

Born in 1869, neglected by his parents, and raised in Michigan, James had a close relationship with his grandfather. From a young age, he wanted to be a writer.

As the only Black boy growing up in the lumber town of South Haven, Michigan, Corrothers got in the middle of a race riot that started during a July 4th celebration when visitors came from neighboring towns. He was unhurt but did have to fight every white boy in order to take a place at school. The teachers whipped and punished him.

Harder times came. James and his grandfather moved to Muskegon where the 15-year old worked an 11-hour day in a lumber mill.  He went from the mill to a skating rink to a farm; survived typhoid fever, returned to the mill. Living in a freight car, James got to know an Irish sailor named Jack who persuaded him to go to Chicago where they would work together on a boat. Unsurprisingly, they could not get a berth together.

The men soon met a “brisk quick-spoken chap who had a foreign accent.” He told them there was work to be found on canal boats in upstate New York. James decided to go with him. But he ended up by the side of the road, the stranger having “borrowed” all of his money.

Next James found work at a hotel in Liberty, Indiana; this time a 17-hour day spent scrubbing floors and waiting tables. He still found time to read the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, Longfellow, and Tennyson. A few months later, as a field-hand on an Ohio farm, he thought about attending Wilberforce University (the oldest African-American university in the U.S.).

"Yes James," she repeatedly protested to me, "you wrote it
but who was the author of it?"

Instead he became a coachman in Springfield, Michigan, where the editor of the local newspaper published one of his poems. The wife of his employer did not believe that it was Corrothers’ work:

              “Yes James,” she repeatedly protested to me, “you wrote it but who was the author of it?” 

Finally, Corrothers got work on the Peerless, one of the freight boats that plied the Great Lakes. By the time he arrived in Chicago, he had saved $90. He bought a suit and was hired as a porter in a barber shop. One day the muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd walked in and they got to talking about literature. Through his wife, Lloyd had a connection to the Chicago Tribune. When he left, Lloyd took a few of James’ poems which were published in the paper. 

Elated, Corrothers accepted an offer to be a porter in the Tribune’s counting room.* He had never earned so much money. He also became a frequent guest at the Lloyds’ home, where he met Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Booker T. Washington.

A Tribune editor, Robert W. Patterson, invited Corrothers to write a story “about the progress of the coloured people of Chicago.” After considerable research and interviews conducted during his time off, Corrothers produced the article. Patterson assigned a white reporter to edit it. The reporter rewrote it entirely in what was called “Negro dialect.” Corrothers was mortified. When he complained, Patterson laughed in his face. Then Patterson fired him from the counting room.

After the Civil War, many Black men found work as “dinner waiters” in Northern hotels, where they fought for stale bread and the leftover meat on diners’ plates. Joining the ranks, Corrothers decided that he would never have a career as a writer and should become an amateur boxer. He trained, but he never got there.

Instead, Corrothers was invited to recite his poem, “The Psalm of the Race,” at the first meeting of the National Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890. The League, established by Timothy Thomas Fortune, editor of the Black newspaper, the New York Age, preceded the NAACP by two decades.

Now hailed as “Chicago’s coloured poet” and “the coming poet of the race,” Corrothers ran into a long-lost aunt who, with Henry Demarest Lloyd, provided money for him to enter Northwestern University. Later, James met WCTU president Frances Willard, who also helped fund his education. He studied there from 1890 to 1893.

Then along came the Reverend Dr. Charles Nelson Grandison, purportedly the grandson of an African king, who dreamed of starting a Christian Negro Republic in Africa (a decade before Marcus Garvey launched the Back to Africa Movement). He persuaded Corrothers to join him on a tour of the South – at the height of Jim Crow – and stay on at Bennett College in North Carolina to study and teach.

Corrothers detested the South although he readily acknowledged that African-Americans who lived in the North encountered just as much racism.

Back in Chicago, Corrothers married
Fannie Clemens, with whom he had two sons.
He decided to return to Chicago where he married and had two sons. He got by writing articles for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Daily Record, Chicago Journal, and Chicago Times-Herald. His earnings picked up when he started to write in Negro dialect. At this time, he began to write the stories that would be collected in his 1902 book, The Black Cat Club.

But still he despaired of ever making a living from writing.

*In the newspaper business during the late 19th century, advertising and sales were managed in the counting rooms. “Counting-room journalism” referred to papers where the goal of increasing circulation drove the editorial content. Joseph Pulitzer was considered its greatest exponent; later it would be known as “yellow journalism.”

See also August 17 and September 7 posts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

By Way of an Introduction to James D. Corrothers

James D. Corrothers, 1890s

Around 1900 while James D. Corrothers was the pastor of a Methodist church in Red Bank, N.J., he attended a banquet at a New York hotel.

The dinner honored Elbert Hubbard, a socialist, writer, self-improvement fiend, and adherent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, now largely lost to history.

In his autobiography, Rev. Corrothers described how he stood out as the sole Black person among 250 dinner guests. He sat near a woman journalist who wrote for the New York Times. She tried to guess his identity, he recalled years later.

“I know that coloured man!” she exclaimed. “It’s Booker T. Washington!”

But she learned her mistake.

“Oh, I know now whom he is! It’s Paul Laurence Dunbar!” she declared.

Then somebody told her my name and calling.

“Oh, I know whom he is now,” she explained. “He’s only a darky minister from Red Bank!”

In Reverend Corrothers’ autobiography, In Spite of the Handicap, he noted that the journalist, a Southerner named Zoe Anderson Norris, and the man she married, the illustrator J. K. Bryans, would become warm personal friends.

Indeed, Bryans, who specialized in comics and silhouettes, drew the pictures for Corrothers’ book, The Black Cat Club, Negro humor & folklore, published in 1902.

That book is a bit of a surprise, written as it is entirely in Negro dialect.

“I have grown to consider the book a very poor one, and regret exceedingly that it was published,” Corrothers reflected in 1916.

But he explained that his inspiration lay in the work of the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who popularized the use of Negro dialect.* In fact, some Black authors embraced “dialect literature” until the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance around 1920. And Black intellectuals of the day, including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, lauded it. **

Historians and critics have analyzed this phenomenon. Was it a satirical device? A roundabout way for the Black elite to distinguish itself from less sophisticated brethren? A means to preserve Black folklore after the Civil War? Various interpretations exist.

Illustration, The Black Cat Club
(by J. K. Bryans)

It appears that Rev. Corrothers intended The Black Cat Club to be a send-up of the pretensions of well-educated Blacks and their delusions about assimilation. The book opens as its main character, Sandy Jenkins, nicknamed “Doc,” exults in his newly established Black Cat Literary Club in Chicago. Doc celebrates with a drink:

“You black people been raisin’ san’ wid yo’ Shakespeare ack,” observed Billy “Spooks,” the bartender, pouring out Doc’s drinks. . . “See whut de papahs said ‘bout you dis mo’nin’?”

“Nevah pays no ‘tention to such small mattahs,” answered Sandy; “might, ef I wuz raised pickin’ cotton in de backwoods down South lak you. I’se a genamun ma’safe.”

The Black Cat Club is an interesting artifact.

However, a poem entitled “An Indignation Dinner,” which Corrothers published in The Century Magazine in 1915, is far more compelling. It starts:

              Dey was hard times jes fo’ Christmas round our neighborhood one year;
              So we held a secret meetin’, whah de white folks couldn’t hear,
              To ‘scuss de situation, an’ to see what could be done
              Towa’d a fust-class Christmas dinneh an’ a little Christmas fun.

As the meeting progresses, the men become increasingly angry about the deprivation they routinely endure, and decide to steal a turkey, chickens, hogs, and sweet potatoes from a nearby farm. The last stanza:

              Well, we lit right in an’ voted dat it was a gran’ idee,
              An’ de dinner we had Christmas was worth trabblin’ miles to see;
              An’ we eat a full an’ plenty, big an’ little, great an’ small,
              Not beca’se we was dishonest, but indignant, suh.  Dat’s all.

*Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the son of slaves, began writing at an early age and published books, stories, and poems although he was never able to support himself. His work, while admired widely, has been criticized for promoting racial stereotypes.

**During these years, white writers and artists also employed Negro dialect in books, songs, and plays for white audiences. Its use by whites was considered deeply derogatory.

Continued in August 24, 2016 post.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Passing Through in the Seventies

Upon entering his shop, you bumped into a glass case
 full of what’s now called “Boho” jewelry. . . 

In the summer of 1971, I went hiking through Yellowstone National Park as part of a cross-country group trip sponsored by the YMCA.

We were walking along, minding our business, when a guy with a walrus mustache stepped out from behind a tree.

“Hey man,” he said, “want some acid? Want some red devils? Want some yellow-jackets?”

We said no thanks and scurried away; not feeling threatened, just uncertain.

That trip was my first exposure to the Midwest, the Plains, and the West Coast. We even swooped down to Tijuana.

Of course most of us were in our early teens and a bit too young to reflect deeply on some of the things we perceived –

Namely, the discomfort we engendered as fast-talking suburban kids.

You couldn’t miss it in the eyes of housewives when we descended on a laundromat in Abilene, Kansas, filling the machines and then sitting around waiting for the clothes to be done.

You could see parents gather their children when we swarmed into a diner near Colorado Springs. Everyone stood back. We drew wary attention wherever we went.  

One might think that the generation gap, still in the news at that time, had reared its head. But now I don’t think that’s the case.

It had more to do with the locals’ recognition that we came from out there, not here. That makes sense because in 1971, although most Americans owned a television, a culture gap persisted between those who lived within and those who lived outside of metropolitan areas.

Nothing new, of course. The 1920 U.S. census was the first in which more people resided in urban than rural regions. During the decade that followed, the expansion of radio and rise of mass culture enabled access to new information, fashion, and ideas no matter where one lived.

But one thing that did not change was the image of the dangerous city, with its corrupting influences, which prevailed in parts of the country with dwindling populations. People who believed and behaved differently – largely immigrants; also “city slickers,” “high society,” and other urban stereotypes – often aroused apprehension if not fear.  

So it’s not surprising that during the early 1970s, even a bunch of gregarious white kids could bring out strong feelings: Who is this? What is this?

After Los Angeles the tour wound down and we made short work of the rest of the trip, driving northeast through Missouri and Kentucky, on to the village of Nyack, N.Y., from whence we started.

And then how lovely to return to the hometown groove, back to Mt. Vernon, a place just as comfortably familiar as Abilene, Kansas, was to its citizens.

The ice cream store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, bakeries, stationers, Woolworth’s, Chinese restaurant – a streetscape still etched in my mind.  

And now, located between a funeral home and a pizzeria, something new had appeared: a store run by the man who had stepped from behind the tree in Yellowstone. It sure looked like him.

Of course it couldn’t be. This guy wasn’t selling drugs (so far as we could see).

Rather, upon entering his shop, you bumped into a glass case full of what’s now called “Boho” jewelry. Batik pillows, wood carvings, and ceramic incense holders covered various surfaces. Tie-dye shirts, dashikis, and peasant blouses hung in the back. And tumbling from the ceiling, spider plants suspended in macramé hangers. The latter were integral to the unfortunate decor of the seventies.

Already the counterculture had morphed into “over-the-counter culture,” to quote Susan Sontag.

In the course of a few encounters, we found the proprietor to be a very nice man. But how on earth did he land in Mt. Vernon? Definitely a miscalculation!

Our city’s young people, largely middle-class and racially and ethnically diverse, gravitated toward Army & Navy stores on the city’s South Side.

He would have fared better in the affluent village next door, where most of the kids actually wore love beads and walked around with lots of cash.

The store couldn’t last long. Within a year, it closed.

I wonder where he came from and where he went next; a hippie merchant, passing through in the seventies.

Collage by Claudia Keenan

See posts July 6, August 10, Sept. 27, 2016.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Education of Willard W. Beatty

End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser;
monumental plaster cast sculpture was commissioned for the 1915
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco

In February 1936 while an extreme cold wave swept the nation, Willard W. Beatty boarded a train to go from New York City to Washington, D.C.

The energetic progressive educator had just been appointed Director of Indian Education in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

“Fresh from the rich New York City suburb of Bronxville, where he superintended a model school system operating at an annual cost of $233 per student,” Time Magazine noted sarcastically, Beatty was “prepared to dispense the blessings of his faith to 81,000 young Amerindians.”

“White children’s loss will be Indian children’s gain,” retorted the editor of Progressive Education Magazine.

When FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, tapped Beatty for the position, he hoped to advance the work of what was called the “Indian New Deal.” In the eyes of many government officials, academics, and reformers, the Indian New Deal presented the last opportunity for the federal government to begin to undo its institutionalized oppression of American Indians.

Now Willard Beatty would take up a challenge that had interested him at least since his college graduation in 1913 – perhaps further back, for he had awakened early to this persecution.

That occurred because he grew up under the wing of his uncle Earle A. Walcott, having been orphaned at the age of ten. It happened that his uncle was a civic leader, author, journalist – well, really a polymath with a zeal for reform – who became involved in nearly every issue that affected the state of California between 1890 and his death in 1931.

Earle Walcott reared Willard in San Francisco during remarkable times. He introduced him to history, art, literature, and more. After Willard graduated from high school and went off to Berkeley, Earle and his intellectually precocious nephew remained close.  

Willard W. Beatty, 1913 
(UC-Berkeley yearbook)

The development of deep lifelong interests, especially if they originate outside the classroom, has always intrigued me. There’s schooling, on the one hand, and education on the other.

My guess is that Willard Beatty’s attraction to American Indian culture, and his concern about the obstacles faced by Native Americans, grew out of two particular occurrences.

The first relates to The Commonwealth Club, a public affairs forum founded in San Francisco in 1903, whose members studied Progressive Era issues.

They were journalists, educators, judges, legislators, architects, philanthropists, urban planners, businessmen, etc. Over the years, they explored problems that ranged from prisons to child labor to conservation. The club become known nationally for tackling controversy. Even politicians considered its work above reproach.

Commonwealth Club, 1905 record; 
Earle Walcott is chair of Social Welfare

A founding member of The Commonwealth Club, Earle Walcott became its secretary in 1909. That year, the program included “Indian Rights and Wrongs.” Walcott invited three guests to make remarks following the presentation.

First, an attorney named C. E. Kelsey, a Special Agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs assigned to take a census of non-reservation Indians who lived in the state,

Second, a Berkeley anthropologist, Alfred Lewis Kroeber, whose specialization was the language and culture of West Coast Indians,

Third, Cornelia Taber, chair of the Northern California Indian Association which aimed to teach self-sufficiency and the gospel.

These three people represented the way things were for California’s Native Americans around the turn of the 20th century. They meant well, but it was business as usual with negligible improvement in quality of life, education, and opportunity.

However, historians consider the 1909 meeting an important step in bringing attention to grievous policies. Willard Beatty, whose uncle drew him into the work of the Commonwealth Club when he was quite young, surely found the presentation enlightening.  


A second event animated Beatty’s interest in American Indians: San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.

The 1906 earthquake created an opportunity for the city to reinvent itself. Among the most vocal proponents of a new urban vision, Earle Walcott made the case for hosting a world’s fair even as the city smoldered. Within a year, he had helped to form the Panama Pacific Exposition Company.

Corporate sponsorship figured large in the exposition, which drew nearly 19 million visitors. Ironically, one of the railroad companies, whose expansion devastated American Indians, built a pavilion where tribal members performed. In 1913, the San Francisco Municipal Record reported:

A reproduction of the Grand Canyon of Arizona and the Pueblo Indian village will be the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s exhibit at the 1915 Universal Exposition.    Indian tribes and villages will include representatives of the Pueblo, San Domingo, Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes of Indians. They will present their dances and customs in native costume. . .

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad built a "Grand Canyon exhibit"
for the 1915 exposition

Elsewhere at the fair, tour-goers viewed the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection of photographs of American Indians, as well as “specimens showing the advancement of the Indian in civilization” – blankets and rugs created by students at government-run Indian boarding schools.  

Neither The Commonwealth Club nor the organizers of the 1915 Exposition could claim that their work improved the lives of the California Indians.  

However, the 1909 meeting and 1915 exposition did inspire Willard Beatty.

Years later, as Director of Indian Education, Beatty closed the notorious boarding schools and opened day schools. He introduced bilingualism to Indian schools and added Native American culture and crafts to the curriculum, which tied into the progressive education philosophy of “learning by doing.”

Beatty addressed hundreds of issues in Native American life until he retired from the Department of Indian Education in 1952. These included health, discrimination, kinship, and poverty.

Today, historians debate Beatty’s legacy, especially his postwar tilt toward a policy of assimilation -- which he thought inevitable. Beatty’s nephew, who spent some time in the field, once told me that the family connection proved to be a mixed blessing.

Still, there is the story of young Willard Beatty; filled with passion, committed to action.

See other posts: January 23 & 16, 2016; November 4, 2015

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...