[ MEMOIR ]
The following story is intended as a commentary on the political culture of the New Left during the Vietnam War period; it is also intended to amuse.
Tod and I sat in the reception area sipping from containers of take-out coffee and traded last minutes strategies for the meeting with Bernie Mazel, Direct Mail Czar of left-wing causes in the U.S. Bernie wore two other power hats, publisher of Mazel Books, high quality texts for the medical profession and Business Manager of the New York Review of Books, of which he was one of several co-founders. Bernie was also a tough, cigar-chomping New York Jew with the gruff manner of the Garment Center, and you’d better have your shit together if you showed the chutzpah to approach him with a deal.
If Bernie wasn’t a wide eyed Left romantic, neither were Tod and I. We ran our Safe Return Amnesty Committee like a small business.1 By the early seventies we’d established the group as a 501 c3 tax exempt foundation – Alternatives to Militarism (ATOM, Inc) – which opened the way to spread our funding base by getting into the mails at the then preferential rate of 2.4 cents per unit. Bernie had seen one of our early mailings, sent a critical note, but offered to teach us the ropes. We responded that we wanted his help, but that we already had a plan.
When Bernie finally called us in we started to make nice and he told us to skip the bullshit. ”Whadda ya want,” he snapped, through the side of his mouth not corked by the ubiquitous half-smoked stogie. So we laid out the scheme. I. F. Stone was about to merge his weekly newsletter – some 33,000 names – with the New York Review, but first Izzy had agreed to give us a one-time use of the subscription list for a fund raising letter under his signature. We had a line of credit with a mail house and a printer, but nothing close to the twenty-five hundred bucks needed for postage. Would Bernie front the money?
Came then the proverbial pregnant pause as Bernie locked his eyeballs onto ours. “Alright,” he barked, following some private set of calculations sizing up the odds of getting repaid. “But you’ll pay it back from first receipts.” We agreed, shook on it and left before he had a chance to change his mind. Bernie did this, not just from a long standing commitment to progressive causes, but to promote the benefits of Direct Mail, a funding tool much employed by the Right, but avoided in New Left circles - some puritanical hang-up about business, associating the risks inherent in any venture with a form of gambling.
When the returns started pouring in it took Tod and I all morning the first week or two to open the stack of BREs – business reply envelopes – and enter the checks onto deposit slips. Izzy Stone’s list was dirty – lots of bad addresses – but none of our subsequent direct mail campaigns ever did as well as this one – netting a 5% return. Suddenly we were rolling in dough, but we retained a prissy New Left edge of our own. Safe Return’s staff of two, sometimes three or four – including Tod, a lawyer - continued to subsist on Movement wages, and in my case, on my disability from Vietnam.
There were a few modest cultural dividends. We got some vicarious jollies raking in contributions from Hollywood liberals whose sympathy for the Left we had never expected. Leonard Nimoy, fifty bucks. Dennis Weaver, a hundred. We even got a check from Helen Gahagan Douglas, who Nixon had dubbed the Pink Lady and defeated in the 1950 campaign for the U.S. Senate. But the high point came one morning when I slit the flap of a BRE and a check for $500 popped out signed by Alexander Calder.
I was so ignorant of the art world that I didn’t even know who Calder was; Tod was a bit savvier. He suggested I write Calder immediately, not only to acknowledge his generous gift, but to request a meeting that summer of ’74 when I planned to travel in Europe coordinating political actions with American servicemen in what remained of the GI resistance there. Tod’s idea was to have Calder donate a painting from which we could design a poster for amnesty. The artist responded with a two or three line hand written note inviting me to his home south of Tours; I should come down in July, he wrote, when my business in Germany and Paris was completed.
The suburban station servicing Calder’s village was shut down for the French midday siesta when my train arrived. Undaunted, indeed inspired by an anecdote of how Friedrich Engels once trekked across Europe before assuming control of his father’s Manchester mill, I shouldered my pack and schlepped the remaining nine kilometers on foot, my first exposure – innocently decontextualized - to the unparalleled beauty of the French Chateaux country.
One approached the Calder complex – several sprawling grey-sided structures spread over acres of grassy rolling fields – from a road that passed a diminutive village square crisscrossed by narrow cobble-paved lanes and alleys, hemmed in tightly by stone dwellings and commercial houses dating from the Middle Ages. Gracing the epicenter of the tiny common was a scaled-down Calder stabile, amazingly harmonious with its ancient surroundings.
Calder’s son-in-law – an American expat living in Paris – welcomed me into the home-studio and introduced me to the artist and his wife, Louisa, both well into their seventies. They were seated at a long trestle table of polished rough hewn timber adjacent to the kitchen. The interior of the building was entirely open, some three to four thousand square feet, with the work space where Calder painted and designed his sculptures at the opposite end from where I now stood. Approaching the table I passed a large box under glass displaying dozens of the playful circus figurines in twisted wire, another of Calder’s celebrated talents.
The three men, Calder, the son-in-law and I clustered toward one end of the table, while Louisa – a stern and formidable presence looking very much the Pennsylvania Quaker lady she most probably was – sat knitting at the other. A recent stroke had deprived Calder of his speech; his few words were barely intelligible. So while I explained my mission and the work of the committee, Calder listened intently and the son-in-law posed questions about our politics. Like many progressive liberals Calder had a hard time with the revolutionary rhetoric that peppered the idiom of New Leftists; it was an old tick about communists held over from the thirties, I guess. Calder wanted to be assured that he wasn’t dealing with the acolyte of some disciplined Leninist sect.
When it came out that I myself was a veteran of the war, Calder’s doubts evaporated and he led me over to the work space, showing off a collection of gouaches he’d recently completed, gesturing for me to select one. I could pick it up, the son-in-law suggested, in New York that fall when the artist and his family returned for their annual visit to the States. Back at the table, Calder turned festive and reached for a second bottle of Bordeaux, since we’d already killed the first one. Louisa looked up and spoke for the first time. “Sandy, don’t use this as an excuse to get drunk.” With the only clear words he was to utter in my presence that afternoon, Sandy replied, “Don’t need no excuse.”
Back in New York, Calder’s painting became the centerpiece of an Art Benefit Tod and I had organized for the early winter of the following year. And here I should point out that, aside from this foray into the upper heights of the American art world, and despite our mutual involvement with the cultural scenes of jazz and theater, neither Tod nor I had any contact with contemporary artists in the city life. We looked upon artists as petit bourgeois dilettantes who indulged vanguardist fantasies of the more-left-than-thou variety, despite the fact that so many veterans of the antiwar movement continued to describe themselves in one flavor or another of antiimperialist politics. This topic, alas, touches the many variations of self-destructive sectarianism that riddled the New Left in those days, complicated in my own case by a suspicious personality and intensified further by the wounding of my psyche in Vietnam.
The art fund raiser went on as planned. We secured donations of works from the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, Judith Krassner, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Nancy Graves, Alex Katz, Frank Stella, to name a few, as well as from some artists long associated with the Left, like Leon Golub, then relatively unknown.
A friend in Soho lent us her loft and secured as well the space of the adjacent, well established, Onasch Gallery. Lucy Lippard, a powerful voice in the art community even then, volunteered to hang the show with my assistance. As we worked quickly and in silence, a large, hirsute man in bib overalls entered the space, holding a manila envelope. His manner was rude and overbearing. “I’m Carl Andre,” he announced, demanding that I produce rubber cement, which he spread on the wall just inside the door, then slapped an 8×10 sheet of white paper, covered with a geometric pattern of typescript, onto the adhesive.. “This,” he said, handing me the envelope, “is the original.” Turning on his heels he left without another word, shooting me a disgusted look over one shoulder when I called after him, “How much should I ask for this?”.
Andre, you may recall, was tried in New York several years later for the murder of his wife who tumbled from their 34th floor apartment off Mercer Street. The way the rumor circulated in the city was that, despite the testimony of neighbors who had heard shouts of “No, no, stop,” and experts who maintained that, in similar cases, suicides don’t customarily yell out, Andre was acquitted.
Since Lippard had only a few free hours that Saturday she took off before hanging the entire show. One of the pieces remaining against the wall was Leon Golub’s, a four foot square of Masonite where the artist had stenciled slogans like “Hands Off Chile,” and “CIA Assassins Killed Allende,” in a style similar to placards one would see at demonstrations, against a background of day glow orange paint. Good politics, Lippard and I had agreed, but dubious art.
With so many details to attend before the opening, I left soon after Lippard without putting up the remaining works, asking Marjorie, the loft’s owner, to complete the task if she could. Only when the guests were already arriving the next afternoon did I realize that Golub’s work was nowhere to be seen. Fearing the artist might show up and make a scene, I spotted Marjorie across the room. “Where’s the Golub,” I mouthed, rushing over to her. Marjorie’s psychiatrist boyfriend was pumping her with heavy psychotropics in those days to curb her allegedly wild, unfocused energy. A slightly maniacal expression curled her smile as she led me to a corner where the wine and cheese were spread. Lifting the white table cloth to reveal a Masonite edge, she snickered, “It’s right here.”
1. Safe Return: Committee in Support of Self-Retired Veterans [Deserters] played an important leadership role in the left-based movement to win Universal, Unconditional Amnesty for all resisters to the Vietnam War, whether draft or military, and to redress the issue of less-that honorable discharges given to more than half a million GIs during that era. The work of Safe Return is, in part, the subject of my political memoir in progress, Famous Long Ago: Radical Politics in New York of the Seventies. The unpublished draft appears, as it is being written, on my website: www.veteranscholar.com. Readers Welcome!