“Who am I?” Allen Ginsberg muses in his poem, Milarepa Taste, “Saliva?/vegetable soup?/empty mouth?” The desire to unlock a personal mystery is at the heart of most autobiographies. If I had to say a prayer to Narcissus, I would have this book do what good bios always do, help the writer understand his or her own life. If I could figure out how I got here, in other words, maybe I could figure out how to go forth. I hope it is amusing. I hope it helps me understand myself a little better. I hope that it helps the few friends and family that will read it to understand me. I hope that it will tickle out some of the motives I’ve been so oblivious to. How did I get to where I am today? I hope it helps me settle some of the quarrels I have with myself.
If I could just figure out what moved me to create Friends of the Los Angeles River, “a forty year art work to bring the Los Angeles River back to life,” that would be enough for the moment, stumbling past my 65th birthday.
Two failed marriages, four fine children, two grandchildren and many an ex-lover later, living alone for the last four years on the 9th floor of a hundred year old office building at the corner of 7th and Spring streets in downtown L.A. on a corner which was once the financial heart of the city. I am surrounded on all sides by hundreds of people living in century old concrete bank buildings. Every day my neighbors follow their dogs down the street, picking up their feces in Glad sandwich bags and depositing it in trash cans.
After ten or eleven o’clock at night the same corner belongs to the shadow people, the penny-ante crack dealers, the weary hard-working people between buses, the zombies who eat out of garbage cans, the guy who wanders out into the middle of the intersection about 10:30 every night, pulls out his wiener as the Priuses whizz past, and pees. Eleven bus lines stop at my corner. An extremely busy fire station is three blocks away. All night long, hook-and-ladder trucks and cop cars, sirens whining, hurtle by. When you walk out the front door of my building, the city – Blam – smacks you flat in the face. I am fairly well-known in my adaptive city, Riverboy, the L.A. River Guy but less than a dozen people have ever taken the elevator to my sky-cave, the 900 sq. ft. “loft” with seven seven foot high wooden framed windows where I sleep and work, watch Lakers games, study the windows of the people who have moved in across the street like a birder.
“Who are yooo?” several friends have snorted when I told them I was writing my autobiography. ”What have you done?” they would say. As if writing an autobiography were some sort of prize you got for a life well or poorly lived. Let me see…
Years ago I wrote a poem about the funeral of an impecunious writer: “What more could a man ask than have his children speak well of him?” Why wouldn’t that be enough for me? Once again I am totally broke, further in debt than I’ve ever been in my life. I won’t bore you with the details. Yet. Now I’m going to try to write myself out of the corner that I’ve painted myself into.
I was born in San Angelo, Texas October 12, 1944 - nine months after my parents married and thirteen months after they met - into a violent time, a world full of mass murderers. Paris had just been liberated from the Nazis. Now the Allied air forces were fire-bombing Germany. The United States Army was fighting its way, atoll by bloody atoll, across the Pacific towards Japan. San Angelo was a small town in a remote part of West Texas. The land wasn’t good for much but running Mohair goats. Its principal tourist attraction was the world’s largest rattlesnake round-up. But the treeless wide open spaces made Tom Green County a fine place for training pilots and bombardiers to hit targets spread across five counties with 100 pound practice bombs.
A 1943 yearbook from “The Wrangler,” the Air Corps’ Stamford Flying School in Stamford Texas (which my dad co-edited) has a picture of him in goggles and leather helmet, his white flying scarf tucked into his leather jacket. On his face is the look of clean-cut determination of an aviation cadet, a pilot in training. Then he “washed out” out of aviation school after attempting to land a plane downwind.
A year later, 1944, in “The Shack,” an annual published by the Cadets at the San Angelo Army Field, my dad’s long face, big ears, and cleft chin are pictured among his fellow bombardier instructors, a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.
My dad was living at 7342 Colgate in University City, Missouri when he was drafted, according to The Wrangler, and attending a Catholic school, St. Louis University. It was a curious place for someone to matriculate whose mother was born Rachael Epstein.
Rachael’s father, Sam had been born somewhere along what was then the Polish-Russian border. He came to America when he was a teenager, and settled in St. Louis where he followed the same trade his forbearers had followed for generations, the whiskey business. According to my father’s older sister, Marion, Sam was a non-observant Jew who thought all religion was a sham. Marion says her dad was a social liberal, who, in the 1930’s, “to the consternation of his children” brought black people into his house as guests. Sam bought a saloon and prospered. Sam’s wife, the former Katy Warshow (Varshavsky) died a few days after giving birth to my father’s mother.
For the next year-and-a-half little Rachael was farmed out to various relatives until Sam Epstein found a second wife and brought Rachael home. Though he had little education, Sam Epstein loved the theater and took Racheal often. “My father adored me,” my grandmother remembered many years later in a brief memoir. “He was a handsome, self-taught man with a mind like a giant.” Rachael skipped high school, “I could never excel in school,” she admitted. “It bored me.” She had her first acting lessons were at The Perry School of Acting and Dramatic Art in St. Louis, where she learned public speaking. It left her with a stentorian tone, which usually kicked in when she felt wounded or angry. Mr. Perry told her father to take her to New York.
So, at age 15, after a trip halfway across the country with her father on the New York Central, a ferryboat ride from New Jersey and the Madison Avenue street car, she entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. The President of the Academy, a tall Englishman, Mr. Franklin Sargeant, gave her the stage name Rachael Acton. She remembered one teacher “who had to teach people how to be graceful and limber. But it was quite the opposite for me. I had to be taught how to stiffen up.” By the time she was 17, she had begun to tour. She said she sometimes stood in for Ethel Barrymore. Half a century later, she could still recite great chunks of Romeo and Juliet from memory.
Her closest brush with fame came when Cecil B DeMille’s older and less well-known brother, William, wrote a play called “Forest Flower” in which my grandmother starred. I am looking at a reproduction of a picture of her in that play.
She’s dressed as theatrical American Indian from her beaded moccasins and buckskins to the feather in her head band. She has full lips and dark skin. I see in her the shape of her mouth; and, before it was broken in football and basketball, my straight nose. There’s something feral about the way she looks at the camera out of the corners of her eyes.
The inventor Thomas A. Edison happened to see her in a matinee of “Forest Flower,” she says, and liked her diction and her voice. He followed her around the country recording her voice, she explained to the occasional journalist who came around to see her in her later years. Eventually he put her voice on his first disc, “which are now known as records.” It would seem to have been an incredible opportunity to get in on the birth of the movies. Many year later she told me why she hadn’t stuck with it. In her day “legitimate” (read theater) actors looked down on people who did movies as little better than whores.
My Aunt Marion, my father’s older sister, viewed things differently. Her mother was “highly emotional;” and didn’t have the self-discipline to make it as an actress. “She did not understand continuity of professional progress,” Marion put it. Around 1920, there was a peripatetic marriage to another actor named Walter Blaine MacAdams, which appears to have never been happy or stable. My Grandmother and Grandfather had two children, Marion Katherine and my father, Lewis Perry, named after an uncle named Hiram Perry who fought for the north in the civil War. Our family still has his military discharge papers. Through Hiram Perry, my father’s family traces its American roots to George Washington’s wife, Martha Custis; and the F.F.V’s, the so-called First Families of Virginia.
Marion remembered her parents working an unsuccessful gold claim in far northern California where they lived in a nightmarish childhood house with snakes in the basement that was always threatening to slide down the bank into a river. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid image of an insecure childhood. Aunt Marion remembers her father as handsome but morose. “He refused to work under any supervision until late in life.”
When Marion was 13 and my dad was eight, Walter MacAdams abandoned his family. He would later claim he had no children. For awhile, Marion lived with her father’s sister, Marion who lived in Cincinnati with her husband Tom Graydon, a member of Walter Camp’s first All-American football team when he was at Harvard. But when the Graydon’s were killed in a car crash, the connections began to fray. – Marion remembers her father wiring her mother for ransom money, claiming he’d been kidnapped on an archeological expedition; but my grandmother never responded.
Walter MacAdams would marry at least twice more, eventually settling down in New York after the war to work for Boeing. Though my dad was often in New York on business and knew his father’s address, he never looked him up. My father never spoke about his childhood to his children or even to his wife my mother told me later, so deep was the hurt.
Where do you go when your dream dies? You crawl back to your family, if you’ve got one. Rachael Acton and her children went back to St. Louis, back to being Rachael Epstein, living with her father and her step-mother and their famil in a small house at 5743 Westminster. My grandmother, my father and family in Sam Epstein’s crowded house his big sister were the poor relations, resented by all.
In 1925, my grandmother got a job running the drama department at Monticello Seminary, a school for young ladies on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois; and Marion would matriculate there. My grandmother put my father in Alton’s Western Military Academy, where he marched to meals and stood at attention beside his chairs in the dining hall. The earliest picture I have of him was in his cadet uniform standing in front of a brick barracks, so small and far away from the camera all you can see is his posture.
Marion stayed at Monticello through her first two years of college. When she graduated in 1929, she moved to New York, lived in a woman’s hotel and worked in the book Department at Macy’s. A friend of hers was going to Paris to study painting; so Marion wrote to her mother asking for money to buy a winter coat, then used the money to buy a boat ticket to France.
She arrived in Paris with $15, but she was 19 and survived the winter in Montparnasse, living in a studio apartment with views across the rooftops, keeping warm in cafes, and teaching English at the Berlitz School. She and her friend hung out on the fringes of Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’ circle. She claims she modeled nude for Henry Miller. But it was the depths of the Depression and after 2 ½ years in Paris, Marion was sick and broke. She let her mother come and take her home. Marion enrolled in nursing school in Evanston, Illinois; and became a public health nurse.
I have no clue what my father did after he graduated from high school circa 1934 – the only thing he ever told me was that he’d once sold radio advertising; but he too must have lived something of a Boho existence. A branch of the Epsteins had settled in Kansas City; my dad had a cousin there he liked named Annabelle, the daughter of my grandmother’s sister, my great- aunt Florence. I only knew Annabelle years later as a brassy bottle blond with a cigarette cough and a ribald sense of humor, married to a very nice schmatta guy named Burt Weenick who dressed like a golf pro. Annabelle produced and/or acted in gory low-budget exploitation films, some so raunchy she didn’t want to sully the good name of Weenick so took the stage name MacAdams. Annabelle adored my grandmother and got her a role in 1973’s Don’t Look In The Basement, low-rent schlockmeister S.F. Browning’s campy “inmates take over the asylum” feature. Grandma only had one scene, a close-up of her tongue being cut out, but it allowed her to resume her acting career after a hiatus of more than half a century.
In 1935, the then-well-known painter and lithographer Thomas Hart Benton left New York for Kansas City in an effort to re-connect with his mid-western roots and express his disdain for Picasso, Cezanne and the entire “School of Paris,” which had pretty much swept regional artists like Benton away. Benton was married to one of his former students, a big, warm-hearted, Italian earth mother type named Rita Piacenza. She cooked up big bowls of pasta and played the guitar. It’s easy to imagine my father as a young man who’d never known a home reveling in the scene’s warmth.
Many years later when my father and I argued about politics, he would often list among his bona fides that in 1939 and 40 he picketed against shipping scrap iron to a re-arming Japan as a way to protest that country’s bellicose policies in Southeast Asia. Benton’s politics were essentially Nativist. When the war broke out he painted a series of violent, grotesque, propaganda paintings. I vividly remember a Benton portrait of drowning U.S. sailors screaming for help against a backdrop of sinking ships as my first exposure to art.
Judging from his photo in the 1943 “Plane Wrangler, the year book of class 43-F of the 308th AAFF Training Detachment at the Stamford Flying School in Stamford, Texas, my father was a good-looking young cadet pilot with a fur-lined leather cap, goggles on his forehead, a white silk scarf tucked in to his flight jacket and a look on his face of resolve. Soon after the picture was taken he committed the ultimate pilot error, landing his plane tail to the wind; and “washed out” as a pilot. I wonder how he handled the disappointment. I guess he just kept going. Less than a year later, he was an officer, a bombardier instructor at the San Angelo Army Air Field, teaching men even younger than himself to drop 100 pound practice bombs on targets painted across five counties of sage..
In the summer of 1943, the tallest building in downtown Dallas was the twenty-nine story Magnolia (later Mobil) Oil Company building, which was crowned by Dallas’ then-most prominent architectural feature, a rotating, neon Pegasus, a “flying red horse” visible fifty miles away. Across Commerce street was the twenty-one story Adolphus Hotel. Built in 1909 by St. Louis beer baron Adolphus Busch, who stuffed the lobbies with Louis XV ormolus and Flemish tapestries. the Adolphus and its supper club, the Century Room, was one of the glamour spots on the prairie
With its outrageous $5 dollar cover charge, the Century Room was not for the hoi-polloi. Everyone from Liberace to/Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played there. Between sets by the Tommy Cunningham Band, the wooden dance floor would retract to reveal an ice rink; then the Dorothy Franey Ice Review skated out. In the Spring of 1943, men in suits mingled with men in uniforms, women wore hats and dresses and furs.
I come from a line of powerful women. My mother’s mother name was Leona Myers (we called her Gammee). She was the only girl in a big Cincinnati, Ohio family who made its fortune with a company called “Fashion Frocks” which catered to “budget-minded housewives” who became Fashion Frocks “Hostesses,” by inviting friends and neighbors over to try on clothes from the Fashion Frocks catalog. The Myers would eventually become big supporters of Hebrew Union College, and even prouder stalwarts of the Republican party.
Gammee was married to Didi: Helman Rosenthal. I don’t know how they met, but they came to Dallas together on the train. I remember him as a slight, quiet, studious man with a weak heart, but I only knew him in decline. He had a wooden spice box from a temple in Jerusalem with a piece of wood broken off at the base. Its sharp, pungent fragrance is the only physical memory I have of him. It was “in the family” for a long time. He was teaching chemistry at Ohio State when the city of Dallas hired him as the chemist in charge of the city’s water purification plant. The Ku Klux Klan had an enormous shadow influence on Dallas civic life in the early 1920’s; and putting a Jew in charge of the water supply set off alarms. I personally think Didi sealed his fate when he banned swimming in White Rock Lake, the community swimming hole - where black people and white people swam separated by a rope tied to a floating bouy - because it was a big part of the city’s water supply.
Gammee told the story of watching a Ku Klux Klan torchlight parade when one Klansman lifted his cowle to call out to my grandfather, “Hi, Rosie!” She told the story almost as if it were a joke, that the Klanner was too dumb to make the connection between a familiar Jew and anti-Semitism; but to me it sounded more like a warning - “Rosie, we know your name.” Though Didi and Gammee weren’t religious, they were members of Temple Emanuel back when it was in South Dallas; and that was enough. Didi had to go. He went into business for himself, something he was never any too good at. I don’t know what his Sche-Rose Corporation did or where the name came from. I just remember it as a laboratory where my grandfather wore wire-rimmed glasses and a white lab coat.
My mother was the eldest of three sisters, Marjorie - later Margie - Elaine and Helen. My mother was 23 in the summer of 1943, just coming out of a broken marriage to a man from a well-to-do Dallas Jewish family named Guy Hirsch. My mother had gone off to Chicago to study theater at Northwestern. Guy Hirsh followed and woo’d her there; then they eloped. Helen, a bit of a hellion herself in her youth, remembers Gammee lamenting that my mom had never disobeyed her once until she ran off and got married.
Making the best of it, the in-laws pitched in and built the newly-weds a small house in Dallas; but the marriage didn’t last. Four years after she left, my mom was back in her parents’ house, working in an East Texas munitions factory. She was probably out for an evening with friends. What bit of fate brought him to the Century Room? The handsome young Lieutenant and the divorcee spotted each other across the dance floor. He came to her table and asked her to dance.
My mom and my dad were excellent dancers; but I don’t know if they jitter-bugged. In 1943, war songs like “Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” were hits. Teen-agers were going crazy over Frank Sinatra in 1943, but my parents were a little bit older. “As Time Goes By” wasn’t a chart-topper when it first came out in 1931; but in 1942, when Dooley Wilson tickled the keys and sang “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca , the lyrics evoked all the bitter-sweetness of lives being torn apart by war. It was my mom’ and dad’s favorite song. I can close my eyes and see them dancing close enough to each other to have felt the spark.
Their courtship began. Every weekend he could get leave for the next four months he hitchhiked to Dallas from San Angelo - 275 two-lane highway miles away. I asked my Uncle Duke, long married to my mother’s youngest sister, Helen, how my dad did it. He laughed. “Your father was a very determined man.” Every day in the summer of 1943, she wrote him. The letters are newsy, jokey, full of daily life at first, but they have a dazzled, moon-lit quality; full of awe and wonder that a love like that could have happened to her; or even exist. She signed them “forever.” It was war time. Everything was sped up. The only letter I’ve seen from my dad during this period was to Gammee and Didi asking for their daughter ‘s hand. They approved. Four months after they met they were married. I wear on my left wrist a silver i.d. bracelet my mom gave my dad engraved “Margie to Lewis August 20, 1944.” I was born less than two months later.
I can’t imagine they had much of a honeymoon. Maybe they had time to go to Missouri to meet my Dad’s family. If they did, my dad would’ve certainly wanted to take her to meet Thomas Hart Benton. The two Benton “American Scene” lithographs from that period that have come down to me, “The Farmer’s Daughter” and “The Edge of Town,” inscribed to Margie and Lewis - were they a wedding present?
The newly-weds set up housekeeping in San Angelo. Many people had the time of their lives during World War Two, my mother once told me. With orders to join the fire-bombing of Germany, or the gradual air encirclement of Japan an everyday possibility. Imminent death imbued everything with purpose. Mom remembered a housing shortage so severe she trolled the obituaries in the San Angelo Standard -Times for possible vacancies. Her pregnancy and my birth gave my dad a modicum of protection from being shipped overseas. I once heard my mother once wistfully recalled a young, single bombardier friend who’d never come back from a bombing run over Italy. “We just hoped he got one of them before they got him.”
My first memory is of a door opening on a bus on a cold gray morning in Lincoln Nebraska, my grandmother climbing down with me in her arms. My dad had been transferred there. His mother had come to stay with us.
I remember my mother singing me to sleep with “As Time Goes By” and “Pennies from Heaven.” The only song I can remember my father ever singing to me was from his mother’s generation, Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy:” “Climb Up on My Knee, Sonny Boy” – very, very early on I was nick-named Sonny - “though you’re only three, Sonny Boy… There’s no way of showing what you mean to me, sonny boy”’