My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter
The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

Kerouac & friends on the road again

Friends and fans of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tom Waits, Michael McClure — plus all the rest of you Beat Generation buffs — will be glad to know they are alive and well again (still) thanks to a new documentary now out on DVD, after a round of screenings across the country. One Fast Move or I’m Gone is a fascinating road trip back into Kerouac’s Big Sur.

Co-producers Curt Worden, Gloria Bailen and Jim Sampas (Kerouac’s nephew) have put together an intriguing mix of old and new footage tracing the gifted 60s icon along his journey through San Francisco and retreat to Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin. Everybody’s talking about the choice of new music by Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, rather than the jazz with which Kerouac is automatically identified, for the film.

I caught the show in New York a couple of weeks ago at the Clearview-Chelsea Theaters on W. 23rd, one of those 10 PM events at which, if you’re old enough to remember the 60s you are forgiven for falling asleep. Didn’t happen. The oldies — Carolyn Cassady still quite beautiful, Ferlinghetti still his charming and articulate self — are vibrant enough to explain their fascination to earlier generations, and the newbies who are still drawn to the scene acquitted themselves OK for this oldie.

It didn’t help that the E line wasn’t running and no one had told HopStop, which led to my getting back to the Upper East Side around 3 AM. One Fast Move will convince you that Kerouac isn’t gone at all, and explain why it was even worth staying up late to check him out a half-century later.