America has a wonderful way of taking its radicals and bohemians and turning them into success stories: from the Bard of Malibu to the Peace Marching President (turned multimillionaire) she sheds her grace bountifully–at least on those who learn to work the system.
Even the Beat Movement which symbolized rebellion in the 1950s seemed to go establishment in later years. There was Allen Ginsberg, the tireless promoter, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, whom younger writers regarded as imperial and who claimed he ignored them.
So it is refreshing to remember that some in that movement remained true to their origins: one was Jack Micheline (1929-1998) who toward the end of his life was still broke and hungry, and, as his friend Alan Kaufman remembered, “hawking his three-buck chapbooks out in the rain under the marquee of the Roxie Cinema.”
Another non-sellout is Ruth Weiss (or ruth weiss as she spells it), who hitchhiked to San Francisco in the fifties drawn, like Micheline, by the bohemian life of the city. For years, Ruth worked as a waitress in jazz clubs while writing her poetry and organizing early jazz poetry readings that Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) later made a hallmark of the Beat Generation.
Early on, Ruth was destined to be a vagabond and outsider. Born in Berlin in 1928, she was the daughter of a Jewish news service editor, whose Hungarian mother “wore big gold earrings” and loved dancing.
With the rise of National Socialism, Ruth’s father lost his position, and in 1938 the family moved to Vienna. It was there that at the age of ten Ruth wrote her first poem–about a bear. Then came the Anschluss, and the family fled to Holland on the last train before Hitler sealed the border.
After a short stay, it was on to America. Though Ruth and her parents escaped the darkness that descended over Europe, many in her family perished in the camps. It was one memory Ruth never could bury. In later years, as a published poet, she would write her name in lower case–not as a tribute to a more famous poet but because the German language she spoke as a child capitalized nouns.
The Lady in the harbor had promised Liberty but that was where the welcome mat ended. It was New York in the thirties, a city in the grips of the Depression. Ruth’s parents struggled to learn English, worked at low paying jobs; for a time, her father supported the family as a dishwasher. To keep eleven year old Ruth from “hanging around on the streets,” she was placed in a Jewish children’s home, in the middle of Harlem. Her parents visited weekends.
In the early forties, the Weiss clan decamped again, this time to Chicago. At twelve, Ruth found herself in a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. One of them, Sister Eulogia, liked to paint and encouraged Ruth in her poetry. Her early poems were about things and objects; the nun kindly suggested she “put people in them.” Writing poetry, Ruth came to believe, then and later, “kept me alive.”
Ruth was pretty and wore her hair in braids. The nun used her as a model for Mary. “After all, I was Jewish,” Ruth remembers wryly.
High school was Sullivan High, a big city public school. Ruth felt alienated from her schoolmates but made excellent grades, studying Latin and solid geometry. She set her sights on the U of C, Mr. Hutchins’s experimental College on the South Side that in the forties was a magnet for prodigies and eccentrics from around the country. But in 1946 after the war, Ruth’s parents took a job with the U.S. government in Germany, and Ruth enrolled in the College of Neuchatel in Switzerland where she wrote short stories, drank wine, and rode her bicycle around the idyllic countryside. “The bike represented my own little bit of freedom,” Ruth later wrote in an autobiographical essay.
In 1949, Ruth moved into the Art Circle, a house on Chicago’s near north side that rented to artists and poets. It was “my first home in bohemia,” she noted in Can’t Stop the Beat (2011), “in the basement.” The new tenant painted her pad black, bought a used phonograph; under a blue light bulb listened to Bird, Lady Day, Bartok.
For rent money, Ruth worked as a dice girl at the Capitol Lounge on State Street and modeled nude for students at the Art Institute.
It was in Chicago that Ruth first began to write seriously. “I followed my own style,” she says of the stream of consciousness poetry that she wrote at night on park benches, or by the ‘L” as it rumbled through the city. Writing was escape–and comfort. Of that period, Ruth would write: “words make wings. protect.”
Ruth took drawing classes at the Art Circle, met the writers who dropped by for a visit: There was Gwendolyn Brooks and Willard Motley, the black writer who wrote white and whose lover, the young hood about whom he wrote Knock on Any Door, had been a classmate of Ruth’s at Sullivan High.
Chicago was jumping. By 1950, “the party was in full swing,” Ruth would remember. One night at the Capitol Lounge, Dizzy blew the roof off the joint when he leaped on the bar and played “Who Parked the Car?” on his trumpet. Forty years later, Ruth could still hear the great riff in her head..
Sitting in her room with the blue light bulb, Ruth read a poem to another resident named Ernest Alexander, a “long & brown” fellow who liked what he heard. He pulled her upstairs, had her read for friends. Someone joined in with a horn; then, someone brushed a drum. “I’m reading to jazz, man,” Ruth described the scene in her autobiography. In a few years, she would transplant jazz poetry readings to San Francisco where they would be taken up by Kerouac, Howard Hart, Philip Lamantia and others.
Alexander had a former girlfriend named Jeri Wantaja who lived in the Art Circle. She was petite like Ruth, Finnish, and had come from Detroit to study art. “My first woman-lover” was how Ruth would recall her in Can’t Stop the Beat.
Chicago became the walls of Jeri’s three cornered studio. Ruth huddled in a corner writing while Jeri painted–birds, “bright and wild” in flight. Ruth was still writing when the trucks pulled up to the warehouse outside the window at dawn.
Then, it was New York, again. Ruth and Jeri rode the streetcar to the edge of town and thumbed their way east. “Break the Apple,” Alexander had told them, but in the city Ruth “was not very happy.” She couldn’t get a job; there were tears. Soon, Jeri was back in Chicago.
Ruth found a room on 11th Street, in Greenwich Village that cobweb of crooked streets and narrow alleys that in the twenties had rivaled Paris as the art center of the universe. And yet, Ruth “didn’t connect with the scene in New York at all.” The art world was run by cliques, the tightest of which was the Abstract Expressionists who gathered nightly in the Cedar Tavern to blow the beer money the powerful galleries gave them to live on. With some irony, Ruth says: “There wasn’t a movement that wasn’t done without a monetary goal.”
Ruth was a trooper. She stuck it out. For rent money, she modeled nude for drawing classes, pulling jobs off the bulletin board at the Arts Students League. Pay was “five dollars for three hours. I managed.”
The best part about life in the city was the underground movies that Ruth treated herself to once a week. Later, in the sixties, she made her own experimental films, sometimes in collaboration with Steven Arnold, one of which, Messages, Messages was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969.
Across the Village, four winds are always blowing, ready to take you to any of the earth’s corners. One day, the door flew open; and there stood Jeri, holding a bag of grapes in one hand and a five dollar bill in the other.
“Let’s go to New Orleans,” Ruth remembered her saying. The city of Wilt Whitman, Tennessee Williams and the French Quarter. Ruth needed no persuading.
Jeri was “street smart,” Ruth knew; she found a better way to travel than on a five dollar bill. On her finger was an engagement ring they hocked to finance their voyage.
Ruth loved New Orleans. “The whole Quarter had that kind of feeling,” she would later say of the city’s bohemian atmosphere.
Ruth and Jeri found a house on Ursulines Avenue for 35 dollars a month and “let the word out.” There were parties, music. The landlord objected to some of their guests, but it didn’t matter. Within a month, after a fight, Jeri was gone–back to New York to take a modeling job. “She was restless,” Ruth notes. She never saw her again.
On her own, Ruth found a place in back of a courtyard on Toulouse Street, a big room that had once been slave quarters.
“I made a lot of friends,” Ruth remembers. One was Bruce Lippincott who published a newspaper for tourists, the New Orleans Quarter News, and played the sax. We “jammed together,” Ruth recalls; and it was in Bruce’s paper that Ruth first published her poetry.
A few weeks after she had hit town, Ruth and some friends saw The Boy With Green Hair, the 1948 movie starring young Dean Stockwell that was playing in one of movie houses on Canal Street. Ruth dyed her hair green; for the next six months that’s the way she went around the city.
Back then, New Orleans was still segregated. “As a protest,” Ruth rode in the back of the bus with the black passengers. There were never any arrests or problems; the bulls knew better. It was wise to leave the pretty girl with green hair alone.
For money, Ruth fell back on her old staple, nude modeling. This time in art classes at Sophie Newcomb, the proper Southern girls college. Some years later, it was Ruth’s modeling that led a West Coast Winchell to dub her “the goddess of the Beat Generation.”
Uptown in the Garden District, the rich merchants who ran the city lived in their mock anti-bellum mansions on quiet St. Charles. Ruth’s world was downtown in the shotgun houses on the edge of the Quarter where, come night, “We bogeyed.”
Mary Jane was around, but Ruth “smoked more” back in Chicago when she hung out with musicians. “In matters like that you gravitate to the circle you’re in with,” she explains. In the Big Easy there were then good local beers which Ruth still remembers fondly.
Through friends, Ruth found a job as a cashier in a small art theater owned by two businessmen. She looked forward to seeing the foreign movies that were then breaking into the U.S. market.
For six months, the only film the theater showed was Bitter Rice, starring the Italian actor, Vittorio Gassman. Finally, the place went belly-up. Ruth guessed it was a tax dodge. She had saved some money; and with that, she realized: “It was time to get out.”
Ruth already knew where her star would take her. One of the New Orleans jazz musicians had talked about San Francisco, a city that “rises out of fog;” and it was that vision that drew her there, where she would write her poetry.
Ruth arrived in San Francisco in 1952, when her last ride dropped her off on Broadway and Columbus. “This is where you belong,” he told her fondly.
It was already evening. After walking a few blocks, Ruth found a hand scrawled sign for a room to rent; she was on Van Ness and knocked on the door of an old Victorian to ask to use a phone.
A slim, handsome young man answered and invited her in. He introduced himself as Philip Lamantia. Ruth asked if he was the poet who had published in View, an avant garde magazine in New York in the forties.
“That’s me,” Lamantia replied.
Philip had grown up in San Francisco, a bright dreamy boy seeped in Poe, radio serials, and Hollywood movies. In 1942, as a teenager, he saw Dali and Miro retrospectives at San Francisco museums and fell in love with surrealism, the artistic movement founded by Andre Breton that drew upon free association and the unconscious to distort reality.
Philip had dropped out of high school and traveled to New York to meet Breton who was in exile there during the war. The young poet’s good looks and talent opened doors; he was taken up by Breton and others, one of whom, Charles Henri Ford, the founder of View, published Philip’s “I am Coming,” a stunning love poem with Daliesque imagery.
Since returning to San Francisco, Philip had published a slender collection, Erotic Poems, in 1946, and was living with his wife, Goldian Nesbit, whom everyone called GoGo.
A “spark” was lighted Ruth’s first night in town, as Philip talked non-stop, and GoGo drifted in and out of her darkroom where she developed her pictures, studies of rocks and nature, like those of Edward Weston, with whom she sometimes worked in Monterrey.
Midnight came and went when GoGo suggested: “Let’s go to Bop City,” the after hours jazz spot that was open from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
Ruth and GoGo cut across town to the Fillmore, then a largely Negro neighborhood, leaving Philip behind. It was mid-week; there were few people in the place. Jazz musicians had not begun to drift in after their regular gigs. Stan Ellis, the house pianist, was on stage, playing solo.
Ruth and GoGo sat apart in the darkened room. “We were both writing,” Ruth remembers, “and wanted to be left alone to write and listen.”
When they returned to the apartment: “She showed me her poem, and I showed her mine.” Ruth was struck that “the images were similar.”
GoGo’s was in capitals:
SPLIT THIS PIANO
FROM STANLEY, NO MORE THAN
ALL BIRDS FLYING PLIGHT
INTO ONE YELLOWSWOLEN SUN
for STAN WILLIS
HANDS ON PIANO
nestling close content
Philip told Ruth that he liked her poem. Its laconic style reminded him of that of his closest friend, John Hoffman, who had died, at 24, earlier that year in Mexico of peyote poisoning. An adventurous spirit, supposedly he was preparing to sail a canoe alone to Ecuador. He and Philip had met in the late forties when Hoffman came to a Lamantia poetry reading. Philip introduced him to marijuana which Lamantia used to inspire poetic images. Later, according to their New York friend, Gerd Stern, both made the journey on heroin together. Philip and GoGo wanted Ruth to “move in with us,” but she had “always been a loner,” and took a room of her own nearby, at 1010 Montgomery.
Ruth’s first year or so in San Francisco, the three were usually together. “We were all short, in our twenties, and always wore black,” Ruth recalls with humor.
“Everything was here and now,” Ruth says of their relationship. There was never any discussion of the future. They would be sitting there, and GoGo would announce: “Oh, I’ve got to talk to Weston,” and she would be off, hitchhiking down to Monterrey to see her mentor.
GoGo had dark brown hair. Poet Gerd Stern remembers her as “smallish, but well-built with an expressive face and an active posture.” But to Ruth: Gogo “really liked hiding. She never put herself out there. She liked nature more than people.” “Mystere” was the word Philip used to describe her in a poem.
Philip “ran from one subject to another,” Ruth remembers. He “loved using long syllables that rolled beautifully on the tongue,” and sometimes toyed with different pronunciations of his name. His poems should be “declaimed, like the Romans,” he used to say.
Lamantia “talked mostly about philosophy,” in those days and turned Ruth onto writers such as Hendrich Von Kleist, the German short story writer whose work Ruth found “very dark.” What fascinated Philip was the “double image–the duality of all of us–both the very positive and very negative things in our make-up.”
Once, Ruth kidded Philip about how “controlling” Breton must have been. Her friend laughed it off: “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. But since his return to San Francisco, Philip had fallen under the influence of another well-known figure, Kenneth Rexroth.
A poet and critic, Rexroth gave his young disciples long reading lists on obscure subjects and gathered them together for Friday night wine and cheese parties where he held court. “[T] he ancient learning,” was how Philip later recalled Rexroth’s dialogues in an unfinished poem entitled “The Mentor.”
Ruth attended one or two soirees, but the scene was “much too structured” for her. “Everything seemed to be put in categories,” she remembers.
For Philip, however, the older critic’s influence crept into his poems, some of which were collected into his first book of poetry, Erotic Poems, and which sometimes seemed to be composed with a dictionary and atlas of the ancient world on hand.
In 1954, GoGo and Philip moved to Mexico City. Philip had been interested in Mexico and its peyote culture since reading Antonin Artaud’s Voyage to the Land of the Tarahurana and had first visited the country in 1950.
In Mexico, Philip walked around the city “by day and night,” and became caught up in the circle of surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, an eccentric beauty who–like Philip–had drawn praise from the great Breton. (San Francisco Beats, ed. David Meltzer, City Lights, 2011)
With Philip and GoGo gone, Ruth landed a job at Bop City as a waitress when, one night, she was told “grab a tray,” after she didn’t have a dollar for admission. “[N]o wages, but there’s tips,” she noted in her autobiography. After Bop City closed at 6:00 a.m., Ruth would walked half a block down to Jackson’s Nook for wonton soup and strong coffee.
Ruth’s typewriter might wind up in hock, but she kept writing. “I didn’t have a regular system,” she now recalls, “Just wrote when I wrote.” But: “I have always been a night person,” and one friend, Hayward King, remembered Ruth sitting in a bar, beer in one hand, “writing in the dark.” She had the eyes of a cat, he once told her.
In 1955, Ruth began waitressing at the Cellar which was owned by four musicians, one of whom she knew from New Orleans. On Wednesday nights, there was “jazz and poetry, beer and wine,” and it was there that jazz and poetry readings started in San Francisco.
These gigs caught on–and soon were all over the jazz clubs and small bars of North Beach. Later that year, word went around that there was to be a big poetry reading involving Philip, who had returned from Mexico and secluded himself in a Trappist monastery before reappearing in San Francisco. The event was to be held at the Six Gallery, a former auto body shop in the Marina.
Ruth knew the art gallery well; it was named after six artists who exhibited there, one of whom, Clyfford Still, the abstract expressionist, had taught Ruth’s new boyfriend, Mel Weitsman, at the Art Institute. A few months earlier, however, a piano had been smashed at a reading that got out of hand. The mishap left Ruth “furious,” and she decided to “boycott” the event.
Kenneth Rexroth was to introduce the poets who included Philip Whalen, a student of Zen, and Michael McClure, a younger poet that Philip knew from Rexroth’s and who shared his interest in Artaud.
The main event was to be Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl,” an unpublished poem that already had an underground reputation. “Howl” faintly echoed an earlier Rexroth poem, but that echo was drowned in the tribal chant and rhythm of Allen’s saga of poets and hipsters of the postwar generation.
Allen knew Philip and John Hoffman from the San Remo, a Greenwich Village coffee house where they hung out with Gerd Stern and Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met in the Psychiatric Institute in the early forties. Allen had been shipped there after being temporarily expelled from Columbia College for involvement in a petty criminal ring. It was Solomon whose Dada stunts–tossing potato salad at a Brooklyn College lecturer–so intrigued Allen and to whom he dedicated “Howl.”
Of the close friendship between Lamantia and Hoffman, Gerd Stern reflects: “Hoffman and I and Philip were very good friends but if you think ‘more’ than that there didn’t need to be more for any of the two.”
In Mexico, Philip had been preparing an edition of Hoffman’s poems, and he decided to read from them, rather than his own at the Six Gallery. Later, Lamantia wrote that he wanted to claim for his friend “a place...the world denied him.”
Philip was having self-doubt about his own work. (Garrett Caples intro. to Tau by Philip Lamantia and Journey to the End by John Hoffman, City Lights, 2008)
Months earlier, in Mexico, Philip had been bitten by a scorpion in a remote mountain Indian village and lay near death. He had visited the village of Jesus-Maria alone, hoping to take part in a peyote ritual, leaving GoGo in the company of their friend, an artist named Andre Vanden Broeck.
In the village, the Nayeri Indians mixed their native rites with a Spanish Catholicism that had been brought to them by Jesuit missionaries. Philip was deeply moved by their ceremonies and later claimed that spiritually he began to return to “the Church–to my own roots,” inspired by his hosts “vision” and a night ritual in their temple celebrating Yana (tobacco) he had participated in. (Philip Lamantia, Becoming Visible, City Lights, 1981)
After the snake bite, in his delirium, Philip had cried out to the Virgin Mother to save him; and his illness and mysterious recovery, propelled him into becoming a “fervently practicing Roman Catholic.” With his “conversion,” as he put it, came doubt about surrealism and his own poetry with its celebration of the occult and the zodiac.
As Philip later told writer John Suiter, he didn’t want to read his poems at the Six Gallery, even though Rexroth told him, “You can’t go on thinking they were all mortal sins.”
But to Philip: “...indeed I was sort of thinking that way–I wanted to withdraw.” (John Suiter, Poets of the Peaks, Counterpoint, 2002) For the next few years, Philip would write poems, then file them away; it fell upon GoGo to persuade him from destroying them.
Sitting on the stage that night was Jack Kerouac, Allen’s friend from Columbia College who had known Philip and John Hoffman from the San Remo, a scene Kerouac later wrote about in The Subterraneans (in which he based a minor composite character on them , or so Philip would claim).
Kerouac’s own great novel, On the Road, was still two years from publication, but an excerpt had appeared in New World Writing, and the rush of Jack’s words, as he and his pal Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), zoomed across the country hankering after “the long red sunset, the lost girl, the spilt wine” created a stir among young writers bored by stagnant contemporary prose.
Jack didn’t read that night, but sat there passing around a jug of wine, taking it all in. Three years later, in The Dharma Bums, he recalled Philip looking “like a young priest,” as he read his dead friend’s poems in “a delicate Englishly voice,” while he flipped carefully though yellow onionskin pages.
The lectern Philip stood behind was made of old fruit crates; the poems he read had been gathered after Hoffman’s death from his scattered papers. Later, Philip would describe his friend’s work as “lyric”–“poems of silent tundra, dunes of interior real stillness-underwater explosions!”
Two other poets read, then came Allen’s moment. In the weeks earlier, Allen had rehearsed before Whalen and Gary Snyder; and it was the performance that turned him from poet into bard.
As Ginsberg recited his lament of “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” Jack began chanting “Yes” and “Go,” and by the end, the audience had joined the chorus.
It must have been a strange evening for Philip. Later, he would describe the experience as “electric.” In the opening lines of the poem, Allen sang of “angelheaded hipsters” who burned for “ancient heavenly connections” and who “saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated.”
This was a reference to Philip and a vision he had had in San Francisco one afternoon after falling asleep on the couch in a Polk Street apartment reading the Koran. In the late forties, Philip had audited classes at Berkeley with Ernest Kantorowicz, a German-Jewish refugee whose biography of Frederick II, a scholarly King of Sicily and crusader who admired Islam, greatly intrigued Philip. Indeed, the Emperor’s interest in Islam was such that the Pope called him a “disciple of Muhammad.”
Philip had told Allen of his vision one evening at Rexroth’s, and they had stayed up in an all-night cafeteria talking about it. Now, Allen enveloped it into his saga, changing the location to New York, along with a reference to Hoffman a few lines later, and the time he had been busted smuggling marijuana through Laredo from Mexico.
A complete stillness came over the room when Allen finished. He and Rexroth were fighting back tears. A lot of wine had been consumed that evening.
Jack and others swarmed around Ginsberg congratulating him. Suddenly, Neal Cassady stepped out of the crowd and joined them. Still dressed in his Southern Pacific Railroad uniform, here was the “Adonis of Denver” whom Allen had proclaimed in his poem.
The three stood together. Off to the side was Rexroth whom Kerouac later put down in The Dharma Bums as a comic figure with his “snide funny voice” and bow tie.
Another seismic shift had shaken the city; the San Francisco Renaissance disappeared. In its place arose the Beat Generation.
Within a week, the Six Gallery poets were booked for readings around the city. Ferlinghetti planned an edition of “Howl.” Ruth and others felt left out. “It was said there was a break-through. Where were the women?” she asked in a poem for Diane di Prima.
Philip tried to help Ruth. “He loved my work,” she later said; but Lamantia had run into problems with his own publisher, Bern Porter, whom he felt had “ripped him off” and had failed to promote GoGo’s poetry book, Graffiti. When Philip recommended Ruth to his new publisher, he was told: “We don’t publish women.”
Ruth kept at her craft. “I write & listen to the ghosts. in a blue moment I head out for the jazz,” she would write in Can’t Stop the Beat.
In the late fifties, Ruth and Mel Weitsman married. He was from L.A. and had served in the marines during the Korean War. “You can’t imagine him a marine,” Ruth later said. Fortunately, he never left the states. After discharge, Mel studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute on the G.I. Bill. During the day, he painted. By night, he drove a cab.
Ruth had kept her waitress union card from Chicago. She worked temporary jobs “at every kind of place”–strip clubs, bars, restaurants. “I treated those jobs as theater,” she later wrote in Full Circle, a memoir published in a bilingual edition in Austria in 2002. Yet, the work also gave Ruth precious time to write and helped pay the rent on the comfortable apartment she and Mel had in the South Mission District.
In 1958, Ruth, Mel, and Zimzum, the family dog, piled in their car and headed to Mexico, all the way down to the Guatemalan border. It was the Eisenhower era, a time of prosperity, and in their wake, the Weitsmans left their countrymen to fidget with shiny household gadgets and television dials.
Mexico spread out its spectacular beauty for the travelers, the cobble stone squares and “clusters” of yellow butterflies that rose up out of valleys as they drove through. At night, Ruth wrote in Compass, her trip journal, “...the Southern sky is over us...all the stars we never see.”
In Vera Cruz, they arrived in the pounding November rain, then were rewarded with the orange sky at sunset after the downpour and the “gold of the mountain in the morning.”
Mexico City proved a special treat. Philip was again living there. He had a small room in a hotel but was alone since GoGo had split. She had left him to marry Andre, the Dutch emigree who had been a friend of theirs. According to Gerd Stern, the Dutchman was “pretentious” and had long pursued GoGo. Others felt Philip’s growing “mysticism” had put a strain on the marriage.
Ruth remembers that Philip seemed to handle the situation well. Among their crowd, there was a “wonderful communion of artists–none of this jealousy crap.” And, upon reflection, Ruth felt Philip and GoGo were “more friends than lovers”–“a surreal couple who connected on an intense creative level.”
Ruth believes that GoGo had moved to Spain with her new husband. In 1963, in fact, when Philip had again stopped writing poetry and turned to philosophy, he visited GoGo and Andre in Nerja, a village where together they studied Egyptian mathematics–“sacred geometry,” as Philip put it. Sometime later, according to Beat scholar Bill Morgan, GoGo and Andre journeyed to an ashram in India.
Mexico City had been beautifully laid out by the French a hundred years before. Philip and his visitors “did a lot of walking,” and relaxing in outdoor cafes. Naturally, Philip “would not stop talking,” Ruth warmly recalls. “It was part of his personality.”
Philip was probably working on some of the poems that appeared in Ekstasis (1959). He quoted to Ruth a line or two from that eponymous poem, which was unusual since he seldom discussed his work. This was part of his private nature that friends like David Amram would later comment upon.
One time, around three or four in the morning, Ruth, Mel and Philip were sitting around “getting high” when someone suggested they drive to the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, outside the city. Along with Anne McKeever, a photographer friend, they headed to the temple where the Aztecs had performed their human sacrifices.
It was cold, the “stone mountain” was covered in mist when they arrived, Ruth noted in her journal. They climbed–“up up up”–reaching the top a few minutes before sunrise.
Zimzum began to bark. Ruth sensed “dead spirits” were all around. “We all believed in ghosts just then,” she recalled.
At the top, Ruth suddenly felt dizzy. Philip and Mel guided her, as they descended the steps. At least, “There were no sacrifices this sunrise.”
Philip loved Mexico. Later, he would tell writer David Meltzer: “Mexico, a Catholic country, was for me, as for Kerouac, a multilayered inspiration.”
Mexican images were woven into Philip’s poetry. He later wrote of the terrifying apparitions of the Pyramid of the Sun and recorded a poem with musician David Amram about the iguana, an image that was sacred to the Cora tribe among whom Philip had lived in the Sierra of Nayarit. He “got that in a dream or something,” Amram remembers of the short poem, “Iguana, iguana.” “It sounds like music when he was reading it.”
Philip’s poetry could be difficult. As Gerd Stern notes: “The difficulties are over understanding who he was and what he knew and how that was what became the poetry he wrote.”
After “Howl,” Ferlinghetti’s pocket poem series took off. Ruth submitted to City Lights, his imprint, a collection of poems, Seven Women, about women she knew or admired (Virginia Woolf). The book was rejected as not “sexual or political enough” by the former Normandy naval commander turned pacificist.
Ruth was not easily discouraged. “Each down produces an up,” she once wrote in a poem. Today, when young poets “call up for advice,” she tells them: “Depend on yourself.”
So, in 1959, she published Gallery of Women on her own in a limited letter press edition. One of the poems was titled: “To GoGo.” It read:
of a morning
twin-flowers into dawn
black-key birds burst
and saw my sister
but not the root
Occasionally, Ruth wrote poetry with Jack Kerouac. “We started doing haiku all night scenes at the Wentley,” she remembers referring to the old hotel on the corner of Polk and Sutter that was a favorite Beat hangout. There were also nights zig-sagging through the crooked streets of San Francisco with crazy Neal at the wheel to catch daybreak over Portrero Hill.
Mostly, Ruth remained on the periphery of the scene, publishing her Mexican journal in Wally Berman’s Semina and her poetry in Beatitude. The latter was a mimeographed magazine put out by Bob Kaufman, an African American poet of part Jewish ancestry whom Ruth describes as “an outsider of outsiders.”
Kaufman accepted all contributions–“without judgment.” Ruth sometimes sold the magazine around town “for beer money.”
Ruth was put off by the commercialism of the Beat movement, what some would refer to as “Beat, Inc.” “Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg knew how to sell themselves,” Ruth wrote in Full Circle. “They traveled around a lot, made contacts, and built up lots of support.”
“Allen determined who was supposed to be important and who wasn’t,” David Amram recalls today. “Philip was not on Allen’s A-list. He selectively never mentioned him.”
Ginsberg was openly hostile to Ruth. She came to “despise” him. At a reading at the Longshoremen’s Hall, billed as “Make Love Not War,” Allen even tried to shove Ruth off the stage as she came up to read. She was saved by Michael McClure who was nearby. To regain her composure, Ruth lit up a joint and smoked it in front of a thousand people.
Always insecure, maybe Ginsberg was jealous of Ruth’s friendship with Peter Orlovsky, his close companion, who would drop by the Wentley Hotel to see Ruth and others. Ruth liked Peter’s poems, though they were difficult to read because he spelled phonetically–“by sound,” as Ruth puts it; but when he read them aloud, they were “enjoyable.”
Ginsberg considered Philip too “cabalistic” and confided to Kerouac that he was not “like minded”–one of them. According to Amram, Allen preferred the “story telling” poems of Gregory Corso, who also shared Ginsberg’s “crazy conduct.”
To Amram, Philip was “much more literary...he was really a heavy poet.” Ruth says of her friend: “He wanted his poetry to pierce people.”
Philip welcomed Allen’s occasional compliment; in a letter to Poetry, Ginsberg praised Philip as “an American original, sooth-sayer even as Poe....” Still, Philip held reservations about Ginsberg, as a person and poet.
Once, Lamantia called Allen and Orlovsky “sinners” when Peter told him of their “love.” “[H]e wants to be a saint,” Orlovsky wryly informed Ginsberg. (A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, Straight Hearts’ Delight: Love Poems and Letters, Gay Sunshine Press, 1980)
After its vogue faded, surrealism became a literary cul-de-sac for Philip, though in the late fifties he wrote a handful of poems in the Beat style. One was for Al Capone. In another,” Fud at Foster’s,” he put down Allen. “Please No More Reality Sandwiches,” he wrote in a take-off on one of Ginsberg’s later poems.
In 1963, Ruth and Mel Weitsman divorced. Mel had abandoned Abstract Expressionism and gotten into Zen. For Ruth, when Mel stopped painting, “our connection was broken. I needed to be around artists,” she remembers. Mel became a Zen Abbbott in Berkeley where he still lives, now in his eighties, the sojun (head) of his own zenal (school).
Ruth moved to a new pad in North Beach. A few years later, she remarried. Her new husband was a sculptor named Ray Isbell who was on and off heroin. In Full Circle, Ruth recalled there were “high times. low times. fun times....” But Roy always went “back to his former love. junk”–and the marriage fell apart. He was later murdered in prison.
The years tumbled over one another. Ruth made her way down “the sheer cliff” and over “the slippery rock” of life, as she later wrote in Full Circle.
For a time, she worked for the U.S. Post Office in the ferry annex overlooking the bay. It was Ruth’s “first steady job in years.” She worked part-time, four hours a day “starting in the late afternoon” to make time to write.
It was the sixties, but Ruth gave the Man a “hard” days work. Her supervisor liked her. The rest of the crew were caught up in “misty hippie–hair-long jibe.” Ruth grew close to one co-worker. “We share inner journeys,” she noted in Full Circle, “chart routes to far away places.” The co-worker changed her name to Rejassa–and departed (inevitably) for India.
Then: it was 1967–the Summer of Love–a glorious time for free spirits when the stars sparkled like diamonds, and the world paraded by their door. Later, Ruth would remember:
“there was a dream,
ten years ago–
Summer of Love, how
we danced–music inside,
music outside. Bring back
One night at the Capri, a hangout in North Beach, Ruth ran into a poet friend from Chicago and his lover, Paul Blake. She and Paul shared a joint. Later, one thing led to another and Ruth and Paul hooked up.
They lived together in San Francisco, then for a time in LA, where, during the Vietnam War, Paul did alternative service in the psychiatric ward at County Hospital. Home was Echo Park, an enclave that had been popular with radicals who had moved from New York in the twenties.
Life has its pleasant surprises. For Ruth, Los Angeles proved one of them. There were underground movies on Western Avenue on Saturday nights and poetry readings at a Unitarian Church on Vermont with Jack Hirschman, a Beat fellow traveler and popular UCLA teacher who awarded all his students A’s just before he was canned.
“I thought it would be phony,” Ruth recalls of LA. “I was surprised how much I loved it.” Instead of driving, Ruth rode the bus “to get the feel of the city.”
Paul was a talented artist; he would illustrate several of Ruth’s poetry books. After returning from Los Angeles, Paul and Ruth divided their time between San Francisco where they had a garden apartment and Mexico where Paul opened a gallery.
Philip drifted out of Ruth’s life, becoming more reclusive. “His depressions were so bad, he had to stay in his room,” David Amram remembers of his friend’s later years.
As ever, Lamantia struggled with self-doubt: Was he a devout Catholic or a wild surrealist who posed for a book cover (Narcotica, 1959) shooting up heroin? Always, there was the dialectic: Surrealism was the “union of opposites,” Philip told himself. “Christ is the marvelous,” he would write in a poem.
Occasionally–this would be in the sixties–Philip and Ruth met, but the memory of those times is hazy, images that fit only loosely together. There was an evening Ruth spent at Philip’s widowed mother’s house in the Excelsior district. The mother, Mary, was a “fabulous cook,” and welcomed Philip’s friends. She adored her Sicilian prince and gave him small sums of money to live on, both Amram and Ruth remember. “In those days, fifty dollars could stretch a long way,” Ruth now says.
Ruth briefly got to know another of Philip’s girlfriends, Nemi Frost, who was blond and had a small shop that sold various plants. Nemi moved in literary circles–and was “very sophisticated, like all of Philip’s women.”
“Women were attracted to Philip,” Amram remembers. “He had a beautiful voice and a sensitivity toward them. A well-mannered gentleman was pretty shocking in the circles we were in.”
Ruth had been influenced by the French New Wave, and increasingly turned to film-making. She made a film of her poem, “The Brig,” and appeared in “a major role” in Steven Arnold’s The Various Incarnations of a Tibetan Seamstress.
In 1961, Ruth wrote a one act play, The Sixty-First Year to Heaven,” that was directed by Diane Varsi. “I connected with her,” Ruth says of the young Hollywood actress who had appeared in Compulsion, but who was then on the outs with her studio over her independent streak.
Looking back on those years, Ruth wrote in Full Circle:”All of my work. the writing, performance, plays are rooted in poetry.”
After twelve years, the landlord yanked their lease, and Ruth and Paul lost their Nob Hill apartment. It was “time to leave the city” anyway, Ruth decided. Where to go? was the question.
Inverness, north of San Francisco, with its shell beach, was a favorite spot of Ruth’s; and on a lazy June afternoon, while she was sitting by a pond with Paul, the fog drifted by in the shape of a dove and her buck; and Ruth knew that was a sign she should live there.
They found a cottage with an oak floor and an Italian marble fireplace built by an eccentric millionaire who had let it go to ruin. In exchange for free rent, the Blakes fixed up the place.
Omens in the sky are not always reliable. With winter, a storm rolled off the ocean. For three days it poured; sludge washed down the mountain. While Paul frantically shoveled away, Ruth consulted the I Ching and composed a haiku “between buckets of mud.” In the end, the house was lost.
Ruth and Paul lived “like squatters. for months.” An old friend from the Post Office named Morrison came to the rescue. She had moved to Mendocino, in Northern California, and told Ruth about a house that needed fixing up in Albion.
And so, after a life of wandering here and there, Ruth finally found a permanent home where “just before sunset. the trees turn red-gold as at sunrise.”
It was “Morning in America.” The President said so. Taxes were going to be lower. Bundling mortgages on Wall Street was avant garde to the younger generation.
Meanwhile, Ruth and Paul did their thing, among the serene redwoods. Ruth published her chapbooks of poetry, in limited editions, for which Paul drew covers.
Visitors were rare. Once, Jack Micheline showed up–“like the wind,” suddenly popping up at Ruth’s door, as in the old days in San Francisco.
Like Ruth, Jack thought the Beat scene had gone commercial. He preferred to be known as a “vagabond poet.” And he was. In San Francisco, he had painted a mural at a local bookshop in exchange for sandwiches, beer, and good conversation.
When he appeared at Ruth’s, Jack announced he “needed bread,” and opened a suitcase full of paintings for sale. Paul, who had just made a sale of his own, bought one–and Jack was gone, along with his lady of the moment. “He was so funny,” Ruth remembers, of her friend, born Harvey Silver in the Bronx.
Ruth also made tapes of her poetry which she sold at readings in San Francisco. It was on one of these visits, in the early nineties, that she ran into Philip.
Their reunion took place at City Lights, the paperback temple that Ferlinghetti had erected to himself in North Beach. On the second floor, there was a small alcove whose shelves were an altar for Beat literature.
Ruth climbed the stairs–and there was Philip leafing through a South American anthology that had some of his poetry. It was years since they had seen each other. Philip had remarried, for the third time, to Nancy Peters, an attractive and influential city editor.
After they talked for a minute or two, Philip suggested that Ruth send something to the journal. “You belong in there,” he assured her.
Ruth brushed off the suggestion. “They’re not interested in me,” she said, recalling that many editors didn’t even respond to her queries. Her meditative Desert Journal (1977) had been turned down by 15 houses before it was accepted by Good Gay Poets, a small Boston publisher whose editor had attended a reading Ruth had given with her friend, Madeline Gleason, the lesbian poet who had been part of the San Francisco Renaissance, and had then approached Ruth about publishing her work.
The meeting with Philip turned into “ a strange scene,” Ruth remembers, as they “screamed” at each other in the alcove over Ruth’s refusal “to get in touch with these people.” It was the first time Ruth had seen “the excitable Italian side of Philip’s nature.” “You’re not in anything,” he complained.
They parted without convincing the other. It was the last time Ruth saw her friend.
Yet, it was odd. Maybe Philip was right: Ruth’s time was about to come. In 1996, her film, The Brink, was screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. That same year, Brenda Knight published her groundbreaking study, Women of the Beat Generation. The book included brief biographies of, and works by, Ruth and other women who had been neglected, including Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, and Brenda Frazer who had known Philip in Mexico and wrote about him in her memoir, Troia. Left out was Goldian Nesbit–GoGo–who had once told Gerd Stern that she deserved more recognition.
After publication of Brenda Knight’s anthology, Ruth was in demand at poetry readings and festivals. She made film improvisions with flamenco guitars and performed at Jazz Fest Berlin. Austria awarded her a literary prize for “the most beautiful book of the year.”
In 2005, a friend told Ruth that Philip had died. In his last years, he had almost totally withdrawn from public life and had re-embraced his faith. While viewing the relics of St. Francis of Assisi, in a local church, he was filled with a sense of “unity” with the divine. All around, the shrine was bathed in light, Philip told his wife of this vision. (The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, ed. G. Caples, A. Joron, N. Peters, University of California Press, 20l3)
The love taught by St. Francis was a theme in Philip’s last poems (a period sometimes referred to as his surrealist-Catholic phase).
Over forty years earlier, Ruth had written a poem to GoGo. Now, she composed one for Philip.
For Philip Lamantia
“the immensity coming back upon itself”
those words smoke out of your mouth
echo & echo
spiral to open the ceiling
bring back the firmament
we sit in your bare-walled
november 1958 mexico city
a room like that to birth such vision?
how could another word follow?
but it did & did and & did
“art life death”
another begin & another & another - - -
“the immensity coming back upon itself”
It was a poem for the young Philip which Ruth had written, the slender youth, whose opalescent poetry had long ago opened the gates to the Great City–“a voice heard once in a hundred years,” Breton had written –and had ushered him into its marvelous castles of alabaster walls.
Who could know that inside the alabaster walls the floor slithered with scorpions? And the White Lady waited-- looking down a corridor of stars spread out before him, a glass heaven filled with angel-headed hipsters for all eternity.
Ron Martinetti for AL. Ron would like to thank Ruth Weiss, David Amram, and Gerd Stern for talking to him about their friendship with Philip. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Marty Pitts, late of New Orleans, Miami, and Los Angeles, filmmaker and poet.