I had my first taste of Woodstock—a nibble—some time in the late fall or the winter of 1948, when I was a freshman at Columbia College. It was something exotic and alien which, like oysters or black olives, one needed to develop a taste for, but which, in a pinch, might be worth developing a taste for. Soon the tables were reversed: I was something alien to Woodstock, which Woodstock did not exactly develop a taste for, but which it considered assimilating, or at least allotting a niche to. Woodstock, in canon with Columbia College, was a critical turning point in my life. It radically altered my values, my opinions, my attitudes, my behavior, and my intentions. It is hard to imagine my identity without its influence.
Woodstock was my father's
territory—a colorful and idiosyncratic personality, long separated from
my mother, whom I knew very little until Woodstock brought us together
into a complicated father-son minuet. My "Woodstock"
is incomprehensible without a sketch of Sam Eskin, and there
I must begin.
He was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who had settled in South Baltimore, where my grandfather worked for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, first as a locomotive fireman, then as a driver—an unusual trade for a Jewish immigrant. Though his wife was orthodox, he himself was something of a freethinker, a libertarian, and strongly anticlerical. He seems to have had some kind of basement den—or maybe just a corner of the cellar—in the little Baltimore row house, where he made a point of frying up things like ham and eggs, as a ceremony of defiance against obscurantism. Occasionally, he seems to have enlisted, or admitted, his son Sam into these conspiratorial proceedings. Sam had a proletarian youth, and was proud of it. He learned to play pool, poker and hooky, garnered soft-shelled crabs in Chesapeake bay, and acquired a reputation as a dangerous wrestler: a tough guy, in short. When not playing hooky, he listened moodily to his schoolteachers, neither inspired nor inattentive.
Uncontrollably restless, he dropped out in the eighth grade and left home, prompted partly by the image of locomotive engineers going away, far off over the horizon, deep into the land. Locomotiveless himself, he rode the rails a lot, hobnobbed with hoboes, was a hobo, took every variety of odd job, for short stretches, and kept moving. He was a cowboy—of sorts—in Wyoming, a factory hand in an Alaskan sardine cannery, a housepainter, a construction worker, a taxi driver in San Francisco, and especially, for several extended periods, a merchant seaman. This last, to be sure, answered to his urge "to see the world," as the expression goes, but also to a much deeper, more neurotic, almost superstitious need to keep moving, not to be bounded, not be crowded. He flirted unofficially with the Wobblies, whose highly romantic blend of European syndicalism and rugged Americanism was tailor-made to attract a personality like Sam, who probably saw something of himself in the idealized Wobbly troubadour and martyr, Joe Hill, and their tough-guy leaders like Big Bill Haywood. Even less officially ("I'm not a joiner", he was flirting all his life with some notion of Marxism-Leninism.
In 1925, he sailed into San Francisco, where he fell in with a radical/bohemian crowd of artists, writers, intellectuals, and hangers on, associated mostly with Telegraph Hill. He became the house proletarian for a while, perhaps a sort of mascot, but was soon of them, fishing around for his art. For some years it was photography; for a briefer time it was sandal-making. My birth certificate indicates "writer" as my father's profession, because he happened to admire Jack London and had thought of emulating his career. The two indeed had much in common, but Sam was no writer. Eventually, his art turned out to be folk music, the singing of it, mostly at parties, or occasional concerts and benefits, and, more important, the collecting of it in all parts of America, and some other corners of the globe. His stock account of his avocation was that he was one of the folk and had been singing these songs long before anyone told him they were folksongs.
His passion for folk
music was of professional grade and provided precisely the right pretext
for his roaming and rambling. He made a few records—both of his own
singing and of field material collected in America, Ireland, Mexico,
Israel and the Caribbean, and became well known to many practitioners
and scholars, but not to the general public. His work was recognized
by such folk music professionals as Charles Seeger and his famous son
Pete, Alan Lomax, Woodie Guthrie, Bertrand Bronson, and Moe Asch, the
founder of Folkways Records, with whom Sam repeatedly collaborated.
When Sam came to visit us in Berkeley in the early sixties, where I
was teaching in the English department, I was pleased to be able to
invite my colleague Bertrand Bronson, the courtly and whimsical medievalist,
eighteenth-century scholar, and specialist on the Child ballads. Someone
like Bronson, who was painstakingly trying to reconstruct the tunes
of the Child ballads, found Sam's compilations of oral-tradition variants,
collected in the field, invaluable. Sam even met an unexpected success
as a songwriter with the music to which he set a text by Lilian Boss
Ross, called "The Ballad of the South Coast," which decades later became
a Kingston Trio hit.
He met my mother in San Francisco in the mid-twenties, where she was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, having hitchhiked down from the backwoods of Montana and diligently seeking to expand her horizons. Her art was dance and the writing of somewhat sentimental poetry, and she too hung about Telegraph Hill, provisionally miscast as one of the bohemian crowd. It was there that Sam met her, was quite taken with her as a good-looking gal and an intellectual-cum-artist-in-the-making, and persuaded her, perhaps just for the hell of it, to marry him. I can imagine him thinking, "Never been married. Try anything once." They wandered across the country, working at odd jobs and working up a nest egg for a cultural discovery trip to Europe. She turned into a francophile and settled in France. Nothing came of dance, and all her life she earned her living as a secretary.
Sam came and went out of her life (or she out of his), siring a child at her request on the way. When she settled in France he stayed in America. At the end of the twenties he bummed about moodily, looking for and not finding satisfactory work. Picking up from Telegraph Hill, he became an habitué of art colonies: Greenwich Village, Arden, Aspen, Provincetown, the Big Sur, and, more definitively, Woodstock. If he had believed in an afterlife, he would now be in the Art Colony of the Great Beyond, but straining to take off.
Paradoxically, given economic swings, he was more unemployed than employed until 1930 or 31, when he got a job with the United Parcel Service in New York. He had worked briefly for them on the West Coast, where it was founded by an entrepreneur of some genius named James Casey, but Sam was too footloose to stay with them. At the end of his rope in New York, he signed on with them just as they were organizing operations there, intending to follow his usual practice of working for a while, then heading for other climes with whatever he had saved up. But something of a minor miracle happened (no, not a miracle, for a miracle by definition cannot be accounted for without assuming divine intervention, whereas Sam's career, though improbable, can). The near-miracle was not that he was good at his job, which had to do with figuring out the most efficient ways of coordinating UPS trucks with the department stores that were their principal customers in those days, but that UPS was growing so rapidly that Sam was sent from one city to another to help synchronize trucks with stores. Thus, while it is inconceivable that he could have lasted in a nine-to-five headquarters job, his restlessness was sufficiently nourished by UPS expansions—Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, etc.—that he stayed on and on. He tried to quit after ten years, but war was looming and he was begged to stay on for the duration (he was not draftable because of an arrhythmic heart, which had interfered with enlistment in the Marines when he was seventeen, but not with the Hemingwayesque way of life that ever claimed his allegiance). .
Thus he stayed with UPS until 1945. He took maximum stock options, and found himself, after fifteen years, with a modest independent income that enabled him to wander about the world as he pleased, collecting and singing folksongs whenever the occasion arose. UPS, meanwhile, continued its astonishing, unceasing escalation, which made him eventually fairly rich—richer, in any case, than anyone realized, because his rugged lifestyle tended to eschew the normal signals of wealth, like Cadillacs and swimming pools, fancy restaurants and luxury hotels: he hardly ever set foot in one.
Except for wrestling and pool, he was not a sportsman. Nor was he an outdoorsman, except when exploring new territory on his trips. I rarely saw him taking a walk in the Woodstock landscape that was one of the principal attractions for thousands of residents, guests, and tourists. After all, the arts colony, according to the legend, had been founded by Peter Whitehead, the wealthy English disciple of Ruskin and William Morris, who came hiking over the mountain, beheld the Woodstock valley rolling out below him, and decided that there was the spot to establish an arts-and-crafts commune. Fair weather or foul, Sam Eskin was much more likely to be found in his house reading, playing or listening to music, puttering about, or socializing than sitting outside looking at his view, let alone hiking around.
This last—and long—phase of his life, began with no fixed abode—only a well-equipped house trailer with which he zigzagged the U.S.A. from coast to coast and north to south, frequently mooring his vehicle to the houses of hundreds of friends all around the country. Knock, knock; enter: "Can't a fellow get a drink in this goddam place?"
"Well, look who's
In this way he maintained independence and sociability in a blend perfectly tailored to his personality.
He always had legions
of friends, everywhere. Just to mention a few off the top of my head:
Earl Brooks in Arden (later Boston), "Tiger" Thompson, "Red Dog" Haines,
Faith Petric in the Bay Area, Lilian Boss Ross at Partington Ridge on
the Big Sur (and, for that matter, Henry Miller and his wife Eva), Cornelia
Evans in Washington, the Burkees in Aspen, Chia Greer in Houston, Virgilio
Lopez in Guanajuato, Trudi Blom in San Cristóbal de las Casas,
Harry and Charlotte Gordon in London and Málaga, Sonia Malkine's
mother in Paris, Mike Elkins in Jerusalem, Sean and Catherine O'Brien
in Dublin; occasionally a relative or a childhood friend in Baltimore;
and, as the occasion arose, one or the other of his sons, equally peripatetic
but for different reasons, in Berlin, Paris, Berkeley, Bennington, Damascus,
Belgrade, or Reykjavik. This list, of course, omits the New York/Woodstock
circuit, which became something like "home."
Sam Eskin settled in Woodstock in 1949—or came as close there to settling as he ever would anywhere. He did manage, in time, to stay put perhaps an average of half of the year. The rest of the time he might be found most anywhere: Mexico often, the U.S.A. north to south and east to west, Amazonia, Hong Kong, Europe, Israel, the Caribbean, the Soviet Union, and more. It was, in any case, in Woodstock that I became more fully acquainted with my eccentric father and his colorful territory. I was, at eighteen, not exactly on my own, but feeling out some sort of emancipation—slouching, as it worked out, toward Woodstock to be born.
My first memory of Woodstock, late in 1948, was a big dinner party in the Maverick where, if I'm not mistaken, Jim and Pete Turnbull had a house at that time and where Sam had parked his trailer. Jim and Pete Turnbull were artists (Pete was the wife—Petra, I think). In their own way, they were quintessentially "Woodstock" of a certain type. Neither was very successful. He did socially-conscious realism in the thirties and forties, but found his stride (and some sales) later in whimsical, Calderish stabiles, mostly of animals. Socially, he carried off with aplomb a shuffling, mumbling demeanor, with hints of Charlie Chaplin, and was endowed with a repertoire of remarkably mobile, often comical facial expressions, enhanced by a little brush mustache.
Pete was one of those artists who, as far as I am aware of, never produced anything. I'm probably unjust and not aware of many things, but after some decades one did get the impression that she was an artist, somehow, by definition, not achievement, as Talleyrand, say, was a bishop. Whatever her artistic stature, socially she was a wit, a raconteur, and an articulate dispenser, in easily swallowed capsule form, of the prevailing political wisdom. She was southern and spoke with a pronounced drawl in which she told hilarious tales of her home territory. She had a round, slightly pudgy face and sharp, skeptical blue eyes, and tended to speak out of the side of her mouth, between tight lips, as witty people often do.
In time, Jim and Pete became also quintessential "Woodstock" of that set in having built up a modest little nest egg that enabled them to live well enough. This came about through the good offices of Belmont Towbin, a Wall Street investment genius, inventor of Diners Club—which is to say, of the credit card—and dabbler in bohemia, who from time to time offered to parlay tiny sums into a tidy bit of capital—one of his numerous contributions to the arts, and the source of his status as artist, not by definition, in his case, but honoris causa. His wife Phoebe was a painter of modest accomplishment, who perhaps suffered from an inherent disadvantage when wealth and modest talent combine: does recognition come from the talent or the wealth? I don't remember specifically, but have a feeling that Belmont and Phoebe Towbin were at that first party of my Woodstock career.
I do remember specifically Sidney Reisberg, who impressed me immensely with his skill as a wit and a raconteur: these were prized attributes, which I, sadly, lacked and bitterly envied. I remember his telling a bad joke about a fellatrix who saves the semen (perhaps my very first "Woodstock" dirty joke, of which legions whirled about the landscape). He impressed me also with army lore he had brought back from Anzio and the Italian campaign as a captain in signal intelligence. He was a small, wiry man with a thin mustache, thin lips, and a distinctive staccato laugh. He was an assistant professor of German at N.Y.U., but in the process of changing professions. Thus, he too was not an artist, but adept at letting the aura rub off of him.
That initiatory party surely introduced me to more of the later familiar faces: Jenne and Ethel Magafan, perhaps (the celebrated twins—both genuine artists) and their artist husbands, Ed Chavez (who, at a later epoch, found it more fashionable to revert to his native "Eduardo") and the gentle, low-keyed Bruce Currie; Bernard Steffen, even gentler and more low-keyed; Anton Refregier, in contrast, supremely smooth and self-assured, with carefully slicked-back hair, a muralist and social realist of some repute, he too given to political and aesthetic pronouncements of canonical status; the gruff, Hemingwayesque painter Fletcher Martin, with a handlebar mustache, who had made a certain name for himself with a wider public for battle scenes published in Life; the moderately prominent, now rather forgotten Ed Millman; Arthur Zaidenberg, taken with hedged seriousness as a painter, but obliquely admired, or envied, for his wide success with a series of Anybody Can books — Anybody Can Paint, Anybody Can Draw.
On the literary side, the most prominent was Howard Koch, one of the writers of Casablanca (some film historians say he was brought onto the team to provide political content), and of many lesser screenplays; maybe John Striebel, the cartoonist; and Ira Wolfert, whom I remember as a pugnacious little man who wrote novels but was most successful as a condenser for the Reader's Digest, and who, some years later, explained to me why his abridgment of The Brothers Karamazov was better than the original (though I may be confusing him someone else whose name I've forgotten).
Surely many of these, probably not all, were introduced to me at that first party, and some others besides. Much wit flew about, much startling political discourse, much unimaginable profanity and lurid jokes—an atmosphere of revelry, creativity, and brains (perhaps in that order), the whole punctuated by Sam and his guitar, which provided my entré and my point of reference: such was my introduction to Woodstock in the winter of 1948-49—to "Woodstock."
I was a thorough alien in Woodstock for two reasons. One was my exotically conservative French background, padded out with the conservative Americanism of a California uncle provisionally thrust at me as substitute father. (It was this uncle who, when Sam suddenly reappeared in my life when I was sixteen, reluctantly accepted assignment as counselor to warn me against my father's promiscuity. Milo circumnavigated the subject by muttering about how multiple liaisons made men no better than animals. I think I largely failed to understand what was the issue was.) I was also alien, more currently, because I was feeling my way into the scholarly/intellectual/literary mode that was the upshot of my Columbia experience and the genesis of my career. "Woodstock," for all its braininess, was a remarkably anti-academic, and, with some notable exceptions, anti-intellectual place. The keynote was creativity and lively sociability, preferably with a plentiful admixture of sexiness— for men, in the form, if possible, of a certain tough-guy gruffness. Sam fitted in perfectly, I not at all, except that fate after all provided one or two niches—the initial one, naturally, supplied by Sam.
There were of course many circles in Woodstock, in Byzantine hierarchies, with some blending at the edges: a very Proustian world. My "Woodstock"—i.e., Sam Eskin's—was generally considered pretty upscale. One needed qualifications, and mine was exclusively Sam. In time I extrapolated my own entré to a very restricted version of that circle; but it is remarkable how precipitately I was "dropped" when Sam died. I am consoled by learning that I was not the only one that happened to. The in-crowd protected its purity, saw to its standards. If creativity was the key, it alone wouldn't do it. On the other hand, there were numerous allowances, as already indicated, for non-creative categories. It was almost as if there were quotas: so many slots for the money category (like Belmont Towbin), so many for sheer charisma (like Pete Turnbull), so many for glamor and success, so many just for good Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist political credentials . . . etc. Some, like Ed Villchur, the acoustics wizard, tried hard on the basis of professional standing, impeccable political credentials, and, in time, a great deal of money from the AR speakers: but he remained always on the fringes.
I was squarely "in" in those early days because of Sam, yet the environment, however familiar it became, remained alien, and I, ill-at-ease. People made a point of asking me how many languages I spoke—a dubious attribute in "Woodstock." When I moved from a classics major to comparative literature, I was repeatedly asked what I was comparing it to. Pete Turnbull slightly overdid insufficiently funny jokes about Columbia University and "Columbia, the Germ of the Ocean." The painter Eugene Ludens ended up, over the years, seriously irritating me by constantly addressing me as "professore"—I suppose to put me in my place, and also to console himself for his long sentence to slave labor as an art professor at the University of Iowa, which he lost no occasion to lament. (It seems the Towbin miracle hadn't worked for him.)
If I've taken my distances since, at the beginning, in 1948-49, and for some time afterward, it was all extraordinarily exciting to me, and influenced me beyond measure. I must have come up more than once in the course of that spring but remember nothing specific. I had to wait till summer vacation for the Woodstock experience to accelerate and crystallize. The summer of 1949 was the most sustained Woodstock residence I ever had until I moved there with my second wife and second son for six years in 1982. It was by far the most intense.
The first things that happened was that Sam, at long last, settled down. He bought six acres a mile and a half from the village, on a dirt road, now named Chimney Road, off California Quarry Road, itself off Mead's Mountain Road. (It was Mead's Mountain Road all the way to the village green; the stretch now called Rock City Road came later.) A man named Joe Cannon owned the entire lower south side of Overlook Mountain, and, stricken with cancer, had decided to parcel our his holdings for sale. What Sam got with his acreage was a barn, a corncrib, a chicken house, a rambling sort of open shed, and a well capped by a quaint WCTU fountain, which now rests in front of Victor Basil's hairdressing establishment on Tinker Street. It seems that the Women's Christian Temperance Union was given to setting these up in front of saloons to encourage drinkers to switch to water. Sam was delighted with it. It corresponded with splendid irony to his view of Christianity and of temperance. Possibly also of women.
Sam parked his trailer by the shed while he surveyed his new domain. Cannon, who was a friendly fellow, allowed us to live in the "big house," a few hundred yards down the hill, until it was sold. It was a rather eccentric structure, each room painted a different color, and often of different material, including a copper-plated bathroom and a closet partitioned off by heavy, dangling chains. Cannon was an idiosyncratic man, among whose hobbies was the raising of prize cattle and of llamas, as well as of tame lions. Sam's barn, it seems, had been the residence of the prize cattle and the llamas. A story, doubtless apocryphal, circulated for decades about a Woodstock artist in his cups after a wild party, encountering a llama in the dark on his way home, and swearing off alcohol for life.
Sidney Reisberg bought the small ice-house across the road from Sam and joined us in the big house while he started fixing it up. He was a lapsing academic at N.Y.U., about to launch in a wide variety of alternate professions, which ranged over the years from the dry-cleaning business, to professional fund-raising, to the founding of something called "Book Records"—early LP's with lots of text, including some folksong creations in which Sam had a hand. He did have a PhD. in German, for which he tended to be somewhat apologetic, though, on the other hand, listed himself in the phone book and on his album jackets as "Dr. Sidney Reisberg." Sid played the guitar a bit and had a small repertoire of songs, as did Ed Chavez, Bernard Steffen ("Steff," also handy at the dulcimer), and several others: the guitar was an icon in "Woodstock," and Sam, rightly or wrongly, was pretty much number one at it.
Another early proprietor
and early habitué was Nat Resnick and his wife Ernie, who bought
land further up California Quarry Road, and eventually built a house
there. Nat too prudently played down an associate professorship of English
at Long Island University, affecting scorn for both, the better to fit
into the Woodstock ethos. This he did with very limited success, for,
unlike the sharp and socially skilled Sid Reisberg, he was afflicted
with a somewhat wimpish personality, even less adapted than mine to
Woodstock razzmatazz. He could manage a few chords on the guitar, but,
without a PhD., could not, alas, list himself as "Dr. Resnick."
Sam embarked upon his homeowning phase with his two sons. I got to know my half brother Otho, five younger than I, a high school student living in Washington D.C. with his mother, the independent minded and immensely intelligent Cornelia Evans Goodhue. Two sons fitted in well with Sam's homeowning vision. The first thing we did, as Sam always put it, was to ''shovel cow shit and llama shit out of the barn, and chicken shit out of the coop." The coop was the first building we worked on, because it was much smaller than the barn and could more quickly be made habitable. The summer was not very far advanced when, with the help of an irascible German carpenter named Horst, Sam had sufficiently finished the coop to be able to move in. In time, under Adolph Heckeroth, plumbing and electricity arrived. The WCTU fountain was replaced by a submersible pump and relocated at a nearby spring for auxiliary water—often needed because the shallow well furnished insufficient water until it was deepened tenfold. We moved out of the big house, and, when Sam moved into the chicken coop, Otho and I took over the trailer. The barn was well enough along to be the venue for big parties, while a ping pong table and a massive pool table furnished the corncrib, which eventually became a game room and Sam's tool shop. The shed became a garage and miscellaneous storage space. The major remodeling work was in the capable hands of Sam and Horst. Otho and I were assigned such chores as scrapping paint and digging holes, and, occasionally, outside painting. Neither of us was very gifted, and we were often made to feel we lacked the proper spirit.
Nineteen years old, I was of age to learn how to drive. Sam's vehicle at that time was a Ford pickup truck, long before these things, for reasons I have never understood, became preferred household transportion among a certain set. The Ford had unsynchronized gears that required double-clutching, and a compound-low gear: it was not the easiest vehicle for a beginner. Nor was Sam pedagogically gifted, and, after much snorting and scornful grumbling, he wisely decided that Sid Reisberg ought to take over. Sid served tolerably well, and I managed in time to double-clutch, start and stop without stalling, and to parallel park sufficiently well to toodle off to Kingston for a successful driving test. From Sam, I learned further refinements: how to downshift, how to brake and accelerate at the right moments on curves, and how one could take the inside left curve at night because an oncoming car would be seen by its headlights. I think I may have learned also not to worry about drinking and driving. It seems appalling in retrospect, and I can remember a couple of hairy moments. But nobody thought much about it in those party-filled nights; fortunately, there was much less traffic.
I certainly learned to drink in Woodstock. The very dry martini was the drink of choice even among the artistic tough guys, though anything would do. Bourbon was second best, and scotch third. Long drinks were for the faint of heart, except for bloody maries at brunches. Beer was abundant, as well as cheap California wine by the gallon—even, I imagine among those who could afford better: vintage connoiseurship was not "Woodstock." Neither was gourmet food. Instead, large casseroles of rice and chopped meats and vegetables ruled the party circuit, or potfuls of spaghetti; also frankfurter and hamburger cookouts. Steaks might appear for special occasions, or a big baked ham. Lots of people smoked. I started with a pipe, in imitation of my father, but switched to more ubiquitous cigarettes, and kept at it fairly moderately until I learned better. Marijuana and hard drugs were virtually unheard of, and prescription uppers and downers frowned upon.
Sex, of course, was in: at least there was a lot of talk about it, and, I suppose, a lot of activity. I observed Sam that first summer keeping up his reputation by flirting or making out with a considerable variety of women. It was the year of the Kinsey Report, which was the subject of little discussion but much bawdy joking. I remember a burlesque in rhyming couplets of the Ten Commandments circulated—or perhaps composed—by Sid Reisberg, with lines like "Thou shalt covet thy neighbor's ass,/ Especially if she's a lass." I myself tried to get into the spirit of it but was woefully innocent and inexperienced, and affllicted with unnaturally prolonged virginity. I was quite out of sync with the highly charged sexual atmosphere of Woodstock, which doubtless intimidated me, and probably itself perpetuated my humiliating paralysis. My dysfunctionality might have bothered me more (or maybe less) if I had not, later, found my stride elsewhere.
Which brings me to the subject of the Padwa family—the most important Woodstock people after Sam. The Padwa family was Alexandra Padwa, universally known as "Vadia," and her daughter Tania. Vadia, who must have been in her late thirties, or perhaps just forty at that time, was a good-looking, vivacious, and extremely intelligent emigré from Estonia. She had short, curly brown hair, a handsome face, a good figure, a perk, slightly upturned nose, and a magnetic way of opening her eyes wide with attentiveness and looking straight at her interlocutor. She spoke an articulate, well-modulated English colored by the strong Slavic intonation that was so intimately hers that it still seems to me to be one of the necessary keys in which "Woodstock" was played. Emigré is the right word, for she was from a upper-class Russian/Estonian family and, as far as I understand it, fled from the Revolution for Berlin, then Paris, some time in the twenties with her husband, a virtuoso pianist, who eventually brought her and Tania to America with a successful group called The First Piano Quartet. She was divorced from her husband and had bought an old farmhouse on Chestnut Hill Road, where she lived all her life (though with long periods of commuting to or from New York), very much at the epicenter of the Woodstock social elite.
Yet Vadia was different from most of the Woodstock set—cultivated, extremely well-read, fluent in at least four languages, and carrying off with incomparable flair the role of grande dame, legendary hostess, and arbiter elegantium. She cultivated all of the arts but practiced none (though it turns out that she had tried painting at one time, and given it up without ever speaking of it). At some point in her trajectory from Tallinn to Woodstock she had adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology which she somehow managed to integrate, in an idiosyncratic form but again with great flair, into the rich fabric of her life and personality. She, indeed, had her idiosyncrasies. She is the only person I know who spent the better part of six decades in Woodstock without ever driving a car. In those days, Chestnut Hill Road was not accessible to Route 212 except by foot, or horseback, or, in a pinch, with a four-wheel drive vehicle, which meant that she lived a good distance from town: one had to drive to Zena and pick up the other end of Chestnut Hill Road. Vadia always managed to get rides to wherever she was going (and she went a lot), yet without ever seeming to impose on anybody: flair again. She was also the only person of her cultural level I knew who persisted throughout the sixties and seventies in refusing to buckle her seat-belt, a requirement she considered an infringement on her personal liberty. One would never have dared ask how that fitted in with Marxism/Leninism.
Her daughter Tania was sixteen and had just finished her freshman year at the University of Chicago under Robert M. Hutchins' experimental program that admitted exceptionally bright students before they had finished high school, and then intensively accelerated them toward a bachelor's degree with a curriculum built around the famous, voluminous "Great Books." Tania was very much her mother's daughter—pretty, lively, popular, intelligent, and talented. She played the piano and the accordion, and later became for several years a serious Woodstock painter, before abandoning that for a more remunerative career as a medical writer/editor. Her fairly long auburn hair was usually tied into a pony tail. Her voice was mellow, and the timbre of her laughter, together with a way of wrinkling her nose, were the ordained expression of her finely-tuned sense of humor. In the summer of 1949 I found her totally captivating, and, indeed, we became an "item" For years certain Woodstockers, I think, remained surprised that we never formed a definitive couple. I associated Tania with Audrey Hepburn, with Natasha of War and Peace, and with Shakespeare's spirited Rosalind of As You Like It.
The Eskin met the Padwa family at—where else?—a big party: I don't remember whose—maybe at the Towbins. Vadia's well-synchronized transmission moved quickly into high gear. She rather adopted us and made a project of inserting us even more deeply into Woodstock society. "Sam and His Two Sons" became themselves an item as a unit—de jure perhaps, on top of Sam's de facto status. Soon we became habitués at the Chestnut Hill house, and I, because of Tania, even more so.
The summer blossomed into a miraculously romantic period, including such staples as long walks in the moonlight, sweet kisses, and an endless rapture of talk. If it was the year of the Kinsey report, it was also the year of South Pacific. The Rogers/Hammerstein schmalz should have been quite incongruous with the "Woodstock" music and ethos; yet, echoing through the Catskill foothills, it became somehow entirely appropriate to the occasion. Some Enchanted Evenings indeed! In the course of the following year, it was mandatory that Tania and I go hear Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin sing all those songs: "Has Anybody Seen my Gal?" "Dites-moi pourquoi," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "There Is Nothing like a Dame." It was the first musical to stir my enthusiasm. (It was perhaps also the last.) My sexual problems, of course, caused me consternation and humiliation, though it's possible that it looks more humiliating in retrospect than I felt it then. I felt mostly frustration, but took satisfaction in being attached to a pretty and popular girl. (That always remained an important category in my relationships with women—a questionable one, no doubt, but not entirely uncommon.)
I neglected my renovation chores for Tania and the Padwa household—and earned a measure of sarcastic flack for it. The long walk from California Quarry Road to Chestnut Hill and back became routine. Further on in the summer, there was not only Tania, but a Russian class which Vadia undertook to teach, consisting of the Turnbulls and me. (Tania knew Russian.) I worked hard and was the star student, but never got beyond Chapter 11 of Bondar's New Russian Method. Pete and Jim had good intentions but ended up mostly clowning around with the impossible Russian grammar and pronunciation. There was a good deal of ping pong playing at Sam's and at Vadia's. I was a moderately competent player in the lower leagues, but never able to come near beating Sam, who, though uninterested in sports other than wrestling and pool, was nimble, competitive, and possessed of unreturnable slices. He thought there was too much ping pong going on, anyway, and became furious once when one of his tools was damaged in the heat of an exchange: "Your goddam ping pong!"
Sam had no swimming pool, but throughout that summer we had access to the spring-fed pool in the adjacent vacant property (later bought by Bill West, and now owned by Clark Bell). We dipped in a lot, day and night, and I can remember several parties ending up with moonlight swims. At one in particular Sam, uncharacteristically, got so drunk that he fell in. He rarely swam, but swam well, and came out a bit sobered and roaring with laughter. Once, Tania and I went swimming in the nude—gently, and still to no avail.
There were parties,
parties, parties! The most romantic in a South Pacific vein was Dr.
Kingsbury's stargazing party on Hutchin Hill at the height of the meteorite
season. John Kingsbury, a rotund, whimsical man with a little white
goatee, had been a prominent public health official in the Roosevelt
administration, who had retired to the Woodstock hamlet of Shady. The
Turnbulls had built a modern streamside house in Zena, and were frequent
hosts, as were the Curries, the Chavezes, the Towbins, Fletcher Martin
higher up Mead's Road (he with a swimming pool), the Millmans higher
up California Quarry Road, the Refregiers at the eastern end of Glasco
Turnpike, with an old farmhouse and an enormous barn that was his studio,
and many more. Above all, there were parties at Vadia Padwa's. There
were even parties on top of Mount Overlook, where a platoon of revelers
would trudge up with party foods, gallons of wines, and thermos-fulls
of ice-cold martinis. I find it alarming in retrospect to envision these
merrymakers knocking down martinis on one of those mountaintop ledges.
Nobody ever fell off.
Sam's barn was always a venue for parties even under restoration, and became fully serviceable by the end of the summer, when he had laid in a cork floor, finished the paneling, installed a modern kitchen, and built himself a huge, trapezoidal coffee table in front of the brick fireplace, which, on occasion, he would use as a platform to dance to dixieland and blues records in a highly idiosyncratic style, alone or with a partner. ("Sam's been dancing that way for years," Pete Turnbull would say when contactless dancing came in.) Sam had an astonishing capacity for alcohol, and, Socrates-like, could drink most anyone under the table and get up as usual at the crack of dawn. Only once in a blue moon was too much too much, and he ended up blotto. In a pinch, twenty people could sit around that table with platefuls of spaghetti or some more esoteric improvisation. A frequenter of garage sales, he had acquired a yard-wide frying pan in which, on special occasions, he whipped up various concoctions. (His triumph, some years later, was a paella, the handiwork of many volunteer sous-chefs under his command, which took so long that most guests, and all of the cooks, were hopelessly sloshed by the time it emerged.)
Birthdays provided one more occasion for partying, and it may have been that first summer that Sam celebrated his July 4 birthday with a small party at Sid Reisberg's (the house was small), and received, among other presents, something claimed to be an ostrich egg, I think from Fletcher Martin. We took it home and contemplated it for several days, debating whether it was a joke or, indeed, an ostrich egg. Eventually, Sam opened one end with a jigsaw: it was after all an egg, and I made a very large omelette in the celebrated pan.
Some time in 1950 or 51, Sam and Vadia joined in an important liaison for which Vadia, I think, entertained high hopes—though in the end Sam stuck to his identity as the unmarriageable man. That first summer of 1949, however, Vadia was being squired by a fellow named Dick Burlingame, who looked like Cary Grant, spoke with an extraordinarily well-modulated voice, had a reputation as a superb mixer of martinis, and drove a white Cadillac convertible. He was very much a fixture of the party crowd when I first encountered Woodstock, and only later discovered that he was, like me in respect to Sam, a hanger on to coattails, an annex admitted strictly because he belonged to Vadia. When he and Vadia separated, the in-crowd, I learned much later, rather brutally dropped him. Proust . . . (It's also been intimated to me that Dick had a questionable attraction to Tania—but I don't know the accuracy of that rumor. I heard the same about Anton Refregier, and do remember Ref's suave and intimate manner with Tania.) I remember Dick Burlingame particularly vividly as a dispenser of martinis at one of those Mount Overlook expeditions. He played the banjo socially, as it were, making modest contributions to the festivities with old campfire songs like "On Top of Old Smoky," "Down in the Valley," and "Good Night, Irene."
In music, the Rogers/Hammerstein vein was was clearly a diversionary oddity. The Maverick Concerts provided their enduring touch of classical, and a group called the Turnau Opera Company was soon to function for a few summers at Byrdcliffe. Jazz—mostly hot—was widespread, and I distinctly remember becoming aware of Calypso when Belmont and Phoebe Towbin started doing well-rehearsed, intricate steps that impressed me immensely and filled me with incapable envy. The Rock-and-Roll era was not even in sight, but the groundwork for Bob Dylan and the celebrated Festival That Did Not Take Place in Woodstock was being laid by the increasing popularity of folk music. Burl Ives had already spread the fashion to a wide public with "The Blue-Tail Fly" and other hits; Pete Seeger and many others were in the ascendant.
In the Woodstock of
1949 and subsequent years, the prevailing musical wind was folk-song,
which put Sam Eskin in a strategic position. He had a rich repertoire
of standard folksongs and of variations and unusual items collected
in the field, from "Who Killed Cock Robin?" and his rousing version
of "Rye Whiskey" to extraordinary curiosities like:
There were sing-along songs, like "Roll the Old Chariot Along," and "It Takes a Worried Man"; spirituals, like "Mary and Martha," "There's a Golden Harp in That Heaven for Me," and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"; and many social and political songs, like "Cryderville Jail," "I'm Sticking to the Union," and the one about a British Communist leader, Harry Pollitt, allegedly assassinated—
Now Harry was a worker,
and one of Lenin's lads,
(There seems to be a dating problem with that song which I can't resolve, because Pollitt is reported dying at sea in 1960; yet Otho and I both distinctly remember it from the 50's. Maybe we've got the name wrong and it's another Harry.) Sam could launch into the chorus of the Italian Communist song, "Avanti, Pó;polo!" and manage renditions of the Spanish Civil War classics (more often alloted to Ed Chavez):
Sam also became adept at Flamenco guitar, which he carried off with appropriate flamboyance, knuckle percussion and all.
Not only had religion been flushed away, but my moderately conservative politics as well. I had been a sort of internationalist Willkie/Vandenburg republican, and deplored Harry Truman's triumph over Dewey in 1948—the last time I was ever to favor a republican. I became at once an intemperate atheist and Marxist/Leninist. (Since then, I've long dropped the latter and become slightly less militant about the former, though religion still bugs me.) I also switched from economic to sexual laissez-faire, irregardless of my problems and shyness. In other words, The Works: a total revolution in thought—in part prepared, I should add, by Columbia College: Euripides, Lucretius, Spinoza, Rabelais, Montaigne in the celebrated Humanities A1-A2; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau,Voltaire, Marx in Contemporary Civilization—the equally celebrated "CC."
CC had only provided The Communist Manifesto. That summer I set about reading Das Kapital in the big Modern Library edition, and it became quite obvious that the only source of wealth was labor, and that surplus value was something stolen by capitalists from the proletariat. In theory, I think there's still something to it. A bit later in the summer I plunged into the works of Freud—also as a Modern Library Giant. For some reason, Sam (I guess), observing me, set Sid Reisberg on me to make sure I got the right slant—that Freud represented the perceptions of a fin-de-sìcle middle-class world, not to be taken as canonical. (He refrained from saying, "unlike Marx.") I remember that the third big book I read that summer was the four volumes of Les Miserablès, which perhaps also fed my new-found radicalism.
So it was with enthusiasm that I listened to the political discussions and joined in with the political songs, however muted because of my retiring personality, social insecurity, and indifferent voice. There were political parties, such as those for Veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and, a year or two later, for the Hollywood blacklisted. I remember Dalton Trumbo giving a talk on, of all things, Shakespeare. It was also Trumbo who declared that only two newspapers told the truth in America: The Daily Worker and The Wall Street Journal. Anton Refregier, who had achieved notoriety in the thirties with a mural in the San Francisco Post Office depicting, among left-wing figures and militant workers, a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt, cultivated connections in the German Democratic Republic, where he was periodically feted as the right kind of American. He had much to report on the people's republics and the U.S.S.R. He occasionally made a stab at dancing the kazatzka, which, one had the impression, did not come naturally to him but had been strenuously practiced for its social and ideological effect.
The keynote of that set in Woodstock was not just Marxism but in fact a latter-day Stalinism. In retrospect, it all seems quite improbable, but in 1949 it was the party line right down the track. The rationale was the Stalinist principle of "socialism in one nation": the future of socialism—and therefore civilization, indeed, humanity—depended wholly on the survival and power of the Soviet Union (a name pronounced reverentially), which World Capitalism was bent on destroying. Men and women of good will must rally round. The USSR, together with the Cominform, like the Third International before it, were clearly the wave of the future. Witness powerful Communist parties in France and Italy, deprived of legitimate power only by capitalist conspiracies such as the Marshall Plan and the Voice of America; anti-colonial stirrings in Africa and Asia; the victory of Mao-Tse-Tung (as he was then transliterated) in the colossus of China. Sputnik was the ultimate triumph—the clearest indication of the way the wind was blowing. It was blowing for Mankind. Vadia Padwa, who might perhaps be aptly labeled a Leninist humanist, took a high visionary view of Sputnik: space travel meant that Man was now truly immortal, empowered to leave earth when, in the course of the aeons, it became uninhabitable, and go elsewhere, ad infinitum. The Soviet Union had shown the way; for us to follow. ("We," of course, did just that, and carried on, to date, as far as the moon and a poke around Mars.)
The Berlin airlift, the workers' revolt in East Germany, the Korean War, The Hungarian uprising of 1956 were all counter-revolutionary, foolishly and fruitlessly retarding the wave of the future. The purpose of the Suez crisis of 1956 was to divert attention from capitalist aggression in Hungary. The great purge trials of 1937, the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, were all justified by the supreme need to fortify the Soviet Union. So, later, was the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. The suppression and harassment of artists, the intentional starvation or exile of "kulaks" and other undesirables, the carving up of Poland, and the assault on Finland were topics brought up only by deluded boors or counter-revolutionary propagandists. The horrors of the cultural revolution and of the Khmer Rouge were still to come. Lysenko's cockamamie, party-line theories of genetic transmission of acquired characteristics were triumphantly celebrated. I could even make my own contribution from Columbia, whose psychology department was unswervingly behaviorist and where I was, dubiously, fulfilling one of the lab science requirements by tossing pellets at my very own bar-pressing white rat, named Nebuchad- nezzar, who had an admirably sound grasp of the correct Woodstock/ Moscow line regarding heredity and environment.
This Woodstock Stalinism of the forties and fifties was to a certain degree, I think, a prolongation of the wartime pro-Soviet ethos, when they, after all, were our allies. Someone like Vadia Padwa felt—and was—perfectly justified in vigorously organizing Russian war relief in the earlier forties, and carried on the momentum in the latter part of the decade. The whole thing became more muted in the course of the fifties, but was still alive in the sixties and seventies, and probably endures somewhere in the hills. I remember Pete Turnbull—it must have been in the seventies—pronouncing categorically that, if it was good for Israel, it was politically incorrect. In the eighties, I remember the ninety-some-year old Howard Koch standing up at a meeting of the Catskill Alliance for Peace, waving a back-page news item about a standing Soviet resolution at the U.N. calling, with a myriad loopholes, for a nuclear ban, and crying indignantly, "Why don't we know about this!" The last time I saw him, during a screenwriters' strike, he declared he was of course observing it but that it was interrupting his progress on a scenario about some Russian triumph in space.
Vadia, Ref, and Pete Turnbull were the most articulate political commentators, but, for me, Vadia was the one to listen to, and from 1949 through the fifties, I hung on her every word. Her overarching view was that human survival was the supreme value and criterion, and that the far left was most consistently and effectively devoted to that end. From the perspective of 1998, it all seems rather preposterous, but the historical momentum to the Finland Station, with connecting trains to the future, however misguided, remains ineluctable. My own political radicalism eventually abated, but not before I had gotten on some people's nerves, including a Czech economist, a fugitive fleeing the Communist machinations that culminated in the coup d'état of 1948, who had landed a lecturing job at Columbia and was teaching a section of Contemporary Civilization B, which deals with economic structures and issues. He was explaining market forces and such and must have alluded to events in eastern Europe. I must more than once have challenged the profit motive and asked what was wrong with wanting a marxist regime, because at one point he slashed out angrily: "You don't know anything about those people! They're thugs!" Both assertions were doubtless true enough. My banker uncle in California pretty much crossed me off his list of respectable guests because of my truculence.. By that time I was teaching in Berkeley, and although my Woodstock/ Leninist phase was subsiding my militancy was considerably prolonged, in a different key and with more justification, because of the Vietnam folly, of which I was an early and intransigeant opponent.
Since 1949, I've always located myself at some point on the left in the political spectrum, though, no doubt, moving closer to the center with the years. All in all, I think one of the principal troubles with the far left—including both the Moscow and the Woodstock branches—was a monolithic and rigid view of "capitalism," which is a variegated, shifting and morally ambiguous phenomenon; while one of the principal troubles with the right is a correspondingly monolithic view of "communism." Thus was engendered the ignorant and obsessive post-war American anti-communism that has so skewed the consciousness of the republic. There is no doubt that there was a Soviet threat. It was principally military, with concomitant propaganda and infiltration tactics. The USSR was a dysfunctional system where a decision was made to invest heavily in military power at the expense of everything else. Everything else went from bad to worse.until it all fell apart. Meanwhile they managed to convince our anti-Communists that we had to combat a vast Communist conspiracy everywhere in the world. "Communism" became an absurd buzz-word, befogging real military problems and ignoring huge differences between Moscow and Beijing, Havana and Pyongyong, Angola and Vietnam, the Sandinistas and the Khmer Rouge, the French and the Italian Communist parties, etc. etc. Campaigning against them all as if they were battalions in formation was inane. It is clear that a root problem was—and remains—paranoia, which flourished on both sides of the cold war, and that paranoids are very dangerous people. The Woodstockers of the forties and fifties, however, were not so much paranoid as frivolous and ill-informed, and were not dangerous. They were a bit misleading for a nineteen-year-old, but they were stimulating.
Woodstock, with its late, lamented Playhouse, had a theatre side which our crowd partook of. The Playhouse was one year the venue of a fund-raising burlesque about the gold rush, called "Gold in Them thar Hills," which starred Sam as an old forty-niner with a yard-long beard, and included Bruce Currie and Helen Martin, Fletch's current wife, who was a professional actress. Vadia Padwa's playreading group became a minor mythic institution over the early fifties. (Creating mythic occasions was one of Vadia's many areas of proficiency.) We did Shakespeare, Chekhov, O'Neill, Williams, Odets, and more. There was a memorable King Lear, in which I was, I think, Edgar to Sam's sonorous Lear. If he wasn't Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he should have been.
Sam's barn from time to time hosted prominent visitors (even transformed into a comfortable home, the house remained "the barn," the guest house "the chicken coop," and the game/work room "the corncrib"). Buckminster Fuller was an old friend of his, and bought a piece of land above Sam's where he proposed building a geodesic dome which never materialized. He was an extraordinary talker, and I still remember him spinning out complex social/mathematical/engineering theories while fiddling with a bunch of tooth picks and a tube of glue. He ended up with two miniature geodesic domes which he glued together into a totally uncrushable sphere. Emory Cook, the electronics wizard who is said to have invented the long-playing record (according to a fifties New Yorker profile), became a close friend and associate of Sam. He was often in Woodstock, though the relationship turned into one of those love/hate affairs, with Sam given to grumbling about "Goddam Emory Cook . . .!" Emory founded a record company which published several albums with or collected by Sam. They went on expeditions together to Mexico and the Caribbean, one result of which was Sam's increasing irritation with, as he saw it, Emory taking jacket-cover credits beyond his actual contributions.
Together with Ed Villchur (inventor of the AR speaker and, much later, the Resound hearing aid), Emory Cook served as wiring and acoustic consultants for Sam's accelerating interest in top high fidelity equipment. If he avoided many acoutrements of wealth, he did not hesitate to treat himself to the best when he felt like it. (Someone once said that Sam was the only person he knew who could wear a two-hundred-dollar Brooks Brothers jacket as if it were something he had picked up at a yard sale.) The hi-fi equipment was imposing. From an early period Sam could cut his own records; he tried wire recorders when they first emerged; and went through a variety of professional-quality reel-to-reel tape machines, amplifiers, and speakers. It was Ed Villchur, I think, who instructed Sam on how to build an optimal base speaker, which resulted in an eight-foot long wooden horn with a five-foot flare, jutting out into a good third of Sam's living room. There was a certain piquancy in observing one or another of these eminent experts crawling around Sam's cork floor, following a maze of wires to figure out why a tweeter wasn't making a connection.
Sam (like Vadia) had a knack for getting services out of a variety of people; his charisma made them only too happy to help. Ever thrifty, he was also on the look-out for bargains, for good deals—"I can get it for you wholesale"—and readily took advantage of anything that came his way. The head of a big New York travel agency made herself useful for years. He had a bookbinding connection from which he got dummy mock-ups of books with blank pages, which he used as fancy notebooks. When he died, I found myself with forty or fifty cans of anchovies, which must have been some sort of deal from somebody.
There were, of course, innumerable other visitors to Woodstock besides the distinguished ones. One old regular went straight back to Sam's childhood. His name was Clayton Gentry, though he was also known as Charley, because he was either a bigamist or the next thing to it, and had two households who both played the game that the other did not exist. When visiting him in Baltimore, which I did once or twice with Sam, one had to take great care in addressing him and remember which was which. He was a genuine character who had been one of Sam's poolhall pals and challengers, a Baltimore city fireman, and a familar among low-level ward politicians of various degrees of corruption. He was bald, missed several teeth, and had a face that somehow seemed slightly crunched together from crown to chin, leaving a crooked nose and a jutting chin. With a different accent, he could have stepped out of a Dickens novel. He rarely smiled or laughed, but wore a perpetually bemused, ironic, shrewd expression. He was a lower-class Irishman, and probably as anti-semitic as he was racist. Young Sam presumably constituted the Jewish exception that confirmed the rule.
From to time to time Sam, in a mood to tune into a different frequency from his artistic, bohemian, left-wing environment, would invite Clayton Gentry for a week-end. The two would stay up half the night, playing pool and drinking the cheap bourbon Gentry brought up from Baltimore, where he obtained it most certainly through illegal channels and which Sam, ever on the alert for a bargain, bought ten cases at a time. They spent much time berating each other's Weltanschauung, but with remarkable, almost comical unflappability, and reminiscing about adolescence. "Bigoted, racist son of a bitch," Sam would mutter afterward. "I don't know why I put up with him."
His father also came up a few times, looking suspiciously around the place and Sam's way of life, unconvinced that it amounted to anything worth while. Sam's favorite story about his visits had to do with an Emory Cook record. Cook had done a series called "Sounds of Our Times," which included Sam's own "Song of All Times." The idea was to record the variegated sounds of contemporary life; one of them offered the sounds of a railroad yard and roundhouse. While the old locomotive engineer was sitting outside on the terrace, Sam put on this record of clanging and chugging and clicking, and much whistle blowing. It had been made from an edited tape, and Sam kept looking outside to observe any reactions. None were forthcoming, no matter how high he turned the volume.
"Pop, don't you hear
I'm not sure when Sam's affair with Vadia Padwa started, nor exactly how long it lasted. My recollected perception is that it was in place not too long after that first summer, and that it went on for a year, maybe two. It no more crystallized into a household than any other of Sam's liaisons. For one thing, he travelled for a good half of the year and infrequently took his women with him. Vadia, for all her cosmopolitanism, never travelled anywhere. For a while, I suppose, Vadia/Sam and Stanley/Tania looked like a father-son, mother-daughter foursome, but in fact we largely went our own ways, fusing only at Woodstock social events. I think that Vadia had set certain hopes on Sam. Much later, after another important relationship which she terminated because her partner was too young—though passionately in love with her—Vadia told me that, between that and Sam, she had had "no luck" with men—probably a questionable appraisal. .
Even later, she mentioned to me that she thought Sam had a homosexual side, which rather took me aback and still doesn't convince me much. She said that his way with women was extremely peculiar—which may have been the case but doesn't necessarily signify homosexuality, latent or active. One incident seemed to prey on her memory, having to do with Sid Reisberg. It seems she was spending the night at Sam's, when Sid, across the road, rang up and persuaded Sam that he must come over because something "interesting was happening." Sam left her in suspension and returned hours later. She was convinced it had something to do with a homosexual episode. She added that she saw nothing blameworthy in that allegation regarding Sam, and would have been surprised if a man of his temperament hadn't tried a bit of everything. I remain skeptical. Sam did on occasion have a distinct sense of "male bonding," as with Emory Cook. That may have happened in the early days with Sid Reisberg. It was more evident in later friendships, like that with the noted photographer Lee Friedlander. None of it seemed remotely homosexual to me. Some of these friends, like Lee, were considerably younger men, and I sometimes vaguely felt the shadow of a competing father-son situation—which may have made me feel I did not quite measure up: I was not an eminent photographer, not a self-confident social presence, not one of the boys.
His wife Sidney was for many years a very active folksong collector (an "ethno- musicologist" is my encyclopedia's designation of her)—hence the inevitable connection with Sam. She too, possibly, was something of a genius, but of a different order. She seemed to have a photographic memory which, in conjunction with an unchecked tendency to free association, made her an extraordinary but compulsive talker. She had many interesting things to say, but poured them out in such unstoppable avalanches that one lost track and invariably stopped listening. Like Vadia, she was cultivated (she had been partly educated in Europe), but without the old-world elegance and panache. She was originally from northern California and had travelled widely in all continents. She related, repeatedly and with particular relish, how she had accompanied her first husband to Zürich, where he was scheduled to study psychoanalysis with Jung. Jung, however, immediately lost interest in him, but wanted to work with her instead. I'm not sure what the upshot was.
She was a dominant personality, and possessed unlimited self-assurance. She was judgmental about people, but unpredictable in her judgments, and sometimes downright wrong. When my second wife, Barbara, and I showed up with an infant son, she told me that he was overfed, and that many parents often thought that they should keep shoving food into their babies, which was a mistake. This was an odd recommendation from a childless woman to an, after all, reasonably sophisticated couple, about a perfectly normal baby.
She could be something of a name-dropper.
"He's the best we've got," she told me about Charles Libow, the excellent concert violinist, who was a close friend and neighbor of hers.
"Well," I might venture, knowing little about the inner hierarchy of violinists, "is he really in a league with, say, Yehudi Menuhin?"
"Oh, Yehudi is a delightful man, and certainly very good . . . but nothing like Charles."
She was an ample, matronly woman, peering through myopia glasses, whom I envision more readily in her later days, well-esconced in a comfortable chair, where she received many visitors. She also had many cats, and for some years fed marshmallows every evening to legions of demanding raccoons congregated outside her kitchen door. She felt that as one grew old, it was good to cultivate animals because one became less attractive to other humans.
The Cowells lived in Shady, one of Woodstock's constituent hamlets, and insisted they had no connection with the art crowd. They had driven in once on route 212 from the west, and bought their property without realizing in was adjacent to a famous art colony. Sidney was an unlikely spouse for the mild-mannered, fey Henry Cowell. The story isn't clear to me, but it seems that Henry, an unmistakable homosexual, had been convicted and jailed on a morals charge in California, where Sidney (then Robertson) took up his cause, got him released, married him, and became the manager of his career. As far as I could judge, it suited him fine, though I once overheard him in a telephone conversation with someone he evidently had not been in touch with for a long time, merrily giggling and saying, "Yes! Can you imagine? I'm married!" Henry had two passions, music and bridge. The latter he rarely indulged in, and when he did, it was almost always with Sidney as one of the players and required exemplary patience, for she was as uncommitted as Vadia to efficient bridge.
"You had no stopper in spades?"
"Hmm . . .. stopper in spades? . . . I guess I shouldn't have bid three no trumps . . . Oh well . . ."—followed by an indulgent and bemused chuckle from Henry.
Sidney and Sam had an affair, but I was quite unaware of it at the time. It may have been most active at times when I happened not to be around. Rather, I remember Sidney and Sam as long-standing friends, with Sam, once again, frequently grumbling about her, but clearly fond of her. She could grumble back about him on occasion: she thought his compulsive competitiveness was a deplorable trait in respect to his sons; she esteemed him a mediocre guitarist and only a passable singer, and critized his affectation of a vaguely Afro-American enunciation in many of his songs—"This heah ham-muh/ Killed John Hain-ree, . . ./ But this heah ham-muh/ Ain't a-gonna kill me!" She may have been right, but it was the only overt musical complaint I've heard against Sam. In spite of their spats, she remained as fond of him as he of her, and was a periodic visitor at the house, but usually not within the inner-circle party circuit, in which she indeed had no interest. She and Sam were both early risers, and it was perhaps as a kind of capsule eulogy after his death that she recalled crack-of dawn phone calls he sometimes made simply to say, "Isn't this a splendid morning!"
There was a period when Henry was, socially, out of the picture, but, later, when he was reintegrated. He sometimes showed up at Sam's parties, and could be prevailed upon, amid the rest of the merrymaking, to do tone clusters and string effects on Sam's piano. He was, indeed, a lovely man, who died in the mid-sixties. I was fond of both of them, and Sidney, second after Vadia, provided continuity with my original "Woodstock" throughout the years, though Sidney, as she became very old, was more and more difficult to take.
Vadia's Christmas parties remained a sacrosanct ritual over many years. There were two parties on Christmas eve: a cocktail party for all of the in-crowd, plus some, then dinner for the in-crowd of the in-crowd around the big table, with turkey, herring salad, and her famous baked ham (I don't remember what made it famous: that was perhaps simply part of the myth). Dinner was always very late because one had to wait for the uninvited to vanish. At a certain point, we gathered around Tania at the piano for the standard repertoire of Christmas carols. Somehow, this congeries of atheists, aesthetes and sensualists managed a convincing balance of festiveness, irony, earnest participation in the mythic ritual, and passable vocal quality. I remember that Dick Burlingame, who was still on the scene that first Christmas and had attended prep school somewhere, made a point of pronouncing his "v's" as "w's" and hardening his "g's" and "c's"when singing "Adeste Fideles": "Natum widete/ Reghem anghelorum." Tempted to show solidarity as a student of classics, but realizing that this was medieval Latin traditionally anglicized in Christmas caroling, I hedged it in both directions.
The following summer I was in France, but returned to Woodstock often throughout the school year. Sam had bought a jeep, which, to my great joy, he gave me ample use of and let me keep over the winter, when I parked it on 118th. Street for weeks on end: such were the days! I learned to start it in mid-winter by squirting starter fluid into the carburetor, or rolling it down Broadway into the 125th.-Street dip. In the fall and spring, when Sam was still around, I spent many weekends in Woodstock. By this time, the ex-chicken house was a guest studio and my quarters. The trailer, permanently parked, provided more guest space, and the ex-corncrib, in warm weather, accommodated overflow. I sometimes came with a group of friends who themselves became Woodstock familiars: Ed Schuster—for many years my best friend until we had a falling out—soon accompanied by his wife, Jane, whom he had married, it seemed to me, from one day to the next; Ary Zolberg, a bouncy and bright Belgian refugee from the Nazis who became a prominent political scientist, and his young wife Vera; and, less often, Mel Townley, a wispy homosexual who somehow ended up as a hanger-on in the margins of this crowd. Ed Schuster was a bridge player too, and on occasion melded into Woodstock "sinful bridge."
There was no Thruway. One reached Woodstock either via the Taconic State Parkway—the first limited-access highway of any importance—then across the Poughkeepsie Bridge to Route 9W; or across the George Washington Bridge and up 9W all the way. (Joke of the times: "Do you spell your name with a 'V,' Herr Wagner?" "Nein, 'W.'") By bus, one took a Greyhound bus at the Dixie Hotel on Forty-Second Street, between Eighth and Ninth, and had to be picked up in Kingston at the old bus station on Broadway. By rail, one could take, as now, the main line of the New York Central on the left bank of the Hudson, to Rhinebeck, and cross over on the Kingston ferry. For a short time, there still was a slow, right-bank passenger line to Kingston, via Newburgh and New Palz.
We mostly used the jeep. It was an old, military-style vehicle, which closed badly with a snap-on canvas top and could be frigid in cold weather. On one severely rainy trip, the windshield wipers broke down and Ary Zolberg, perched cavalierly on the hood, cleared the glass for me with a rag. These trips took several hours, and sometimes we sang songs over the roar of the engine.
Many merry dinners
and parties awaited us at Sam's, and, of course, much drinking. However,
these visits were not without tensions. Sam was a very fussy host who
brooked no interference with his habits, and could readily get into
a foul mood over various infractions—or sometimes, probably, just because
he wanted to be left alone. This could cause me, as intermediate host,
much anguish. On the other hand, there could also be a lot of fun. For
a time, charades became a frequent diversion, to much hilarity. Around
this time, Sam's lady of the moment was a gorgeous blond named Evelyn
Crawford. I vividly remember, probably for good reason, her representing
a phrase or word by rapid thrusts of her pelvis, with her team calling
out every conceivable sexual term—"Sex!" "Screw!" "Fuck!" "Rut!" "Make
Out!" "Put Out!" "Go Down!" "Cunt!" "Snatch!" "Twat!"—until the whole
game dissolved in chaotic raunchiness. Alas, I don't remember what the
answer was; maybe we never got to it. Meals somehow got cooked amid
the general revelry, and cleanrd up afterward. I was often anxious about
its all working out without mishap.
I must have seen something of Tania on holidays, but it wasn't till the following summer and subsequent year that our romance resumed, with more intensity, more insistence, more earnestness, but no more fulfillment. There was more continuity, too. Tania, bachelor of arts at eighteen, now came to New York, got a job with Union Carbide, and took a couple of extension courses at the Columbia School of General Studies. (The graduate faculties looked upon Robert Hutchins' Wunderkinder with condescending skepticism.) As for me, I had crammed some concentrated summer courses to graduate a year early because the draft was breathing down my neck, and, for some unfathomable reason, I wanted my degree before getting shot at in Korea. As it turned out, I got a graduate deferment for my master's the following year, and even the year after that, when I started on my PhD. They got me in 1953.
In 1951-52, then, I was still at Columbia, living in Furnald Hall, attending Eleanor Rosenberg's master's seminar for sixteenth-century literature, and digging away at a somewhat pedantic thesis on the influence of Catullus in Renaissance poetry. Tania had a room on 114th. Street, where, though I was a frequent visitor, my mortifying block persisted in spite of all efforts—and they were many. Nonetheless, once again, we were clearly a couple. She was part of my Columbia crowd. We had parties, probably mostly at Ed and Jane Schuster's, and organized a playreading group—the downtown branch of the Woodstock institution. I'm not sure whether I still had the jeep, but, once again, we headed up periodically to replenish our Woodstock spirits at the source.
I do not remember taking much advantage of the city's cultural resources. I took Tania to my first fancy restaurant—and my last for a very long time: a "continental" place called Quo Vadis? —perhaps without the question mark. I must have made a point of showing off what was left of my French culinary wisdom, but probably trying not to be an ass about it. Otherwise, I was buried in Butler Library noting any obscure lyric that looked like it might have a trace of Catullus, and preparing for my general and major-period exams. I assembled my poems and wrote a quick thesis around them, which Tania valiantly typed out for me. Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus . . . I vaguely assimilitated the Roman poet's effervescent eroticism into the Woodstock ethos. Da mi basia mille, deinde centum . . I had even taken a graduate course on Catullus, in which I was the only student, from the very Germanically named but gentle and scholarly Professor Kurt von Fritz. It didn't help solve my problems.
For reasons that escape me, Tania and I sometimes exchanged letters. Perhaps we had temporarily broken off. She once wrote that I repelled love, which I proceeded immediately to interpret as meaning that I was repelling, and ready to bow to it: a sort of beauty-and-the- beast situation. She responded with profuse reassurances that, no, that was not what she meant at all: how could lovely, sweet Stanley be considered "repelling?" So it lingered on for some time. I had an unthreatening rival in Tania's building named Duncan, also a graduate student in English, doing a dissertation on Donne. He was a scholarly, demure young man clearly yearning for Tania. It was another one of those situations where I took delight in being the top guy with the pretty girl, and also in having a whole dimension beyond graduate school that he didn't have: "Woodstock." I may have had other rivals that I didn't know about.
At the end of that year, Tania went to Paris for a year, where she met and briefly married a German artist, who turned out to be a bit of a dud, but who fathered her son, Michael. I was intensely unhappy, though I'm not quite sure precisely about what. I remember drinking something like seven martinis in a a row and ending up groaning on the bathroom floor, probably at Ed's. A year or two later, when Tania returned and we met briefly, she said, "It should have been your baby." Perhaps that is why, though over the years I've run into Tania extremely infrequently, I later became friends with Michael. I saw a lot of him in Vadia's later years, and during her long terminal illness, for we shared a particular love for that extraordinary lady. Tania herself, however, remained a wisp from the past, a phrase or two from Some Enchanted Evening, better left at that.
In 1952-53, Tania gone, I pursued a romance with the equally pretty Cornelia Hartman, equally unconsumated, but less frustrating because, somehow, the terms on which it proceeded were different. "Romance" is the right word—a sort of prolonged flirt. Her gentle, good-natured parents liked me and promoted the liaison. I persisted in my dubious syndrome of basking in having the prettiest girl in town (as someone, in fact, once told me). We took walks in warm weather, were frequently in attendance on the party circuit, and went to square dances, where, somehow, I managed not to totally disrupt the figures. She was an undergraduate at N.Y.U., and we saw a bit of each other in New York too. Cornelia acquired a certain importance also because, when I was finally hauled into the army, she was at that point ?my girl": a soldier off to the wars, after all, had to carry his girl's picture in his wallet. We exchanged letters to and from the front, which, as it turned out, was not MacArthur's battlefields, but first Alabama and then the U.S. Commander's office in Berlin—a satisfactory post if one had, after all, to be serving one's country.
Later reports had it that the F.B.I. snooped around Woodstock a good deal, looking into my background for a top-secret clearance, which, in fact, never came through because it was so thorough that I had finished my service before they were done with it. That may have been just as well. Woodstock was not the best association in those McCarthy-infested years, and it seems that Sam had a dossier provided by an informer, which gave him some brief passport trouble. I was mutedly muttering opinions about American foreign policy, but kept them prudently obscure and passed no secrets on to the KGB or the Volkspolizei. My immediate superior, Master Sergeant Coffey, a savy and ironic battle veteran, took my political opinions as a joke. I sweated out the appearance of a fat security dossier marked, "Eyes Only, Major Baldwin," and figured I was done for and would be flung into the 6th. Infantry Regiment for the rest of my service; but it turned out to have to do with the general's chauffeur, who was gay and thus considered blackmailable. The Woodstock security-clearance issue can't have been too bad since it did not keep my brother from pursuing a successful diplomatic career.
"Where you from, Eskin?"
I think to this day that imprecise response lingers as a useful answer to "Where are you from?"—which otherwise requires a torturous explication. I resumed physical contact when I returned to Columbia to prepare for my orals and begin my dissertation, but the drama and romance of the early fifties were receding. Paradoxically, Sam, even roaming the world, remained a fixed point. He kept the "barn" locked and drained, but gave me the use of the "chicken coop," if I wanted to venture there by kerosene light, space heater, and with water hauled in from the WCTU fountain fifty yards away. I occasionally did that, but nothing memorable happened. Vadia, broke, took jobs in Lakeville, Connecticut, Pleasantville, and eventually Manhattan, but regularly checked in at Chestnut Hill Road, where I also showed up for visits and holiday reunions. The Christmas tradition lingered bravely on.
Vadia Padwa, more than anyone, had been my mentor in the culture and ideology of "Woodstock." In my early twenties, she was the standard of judgement, the source of wisdom, the arbiter of value. Later, she came to puzzle me and to seem a bit contradictory. Then I got used to the contradictions, which appeared normal and necessary. Vadia was a multi-dimensional woman. Her wide culture was both traditional and contemporary: she attended symphony concerts and liked jazz; she appreciated the classics of theater, and avant-garde plays as well; she read Balzac and Jane Austen, Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer and Alain Robbe-Grillet. While none of this is totally inconsistent with Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism in the West, Vadia's cultural mix was somewhat incongruous with its Woodstock version. There was a sense in which Vadia and I shared another world that the others didn't: perhaps that was one of the bases of the longevity of our friendship.
There were other complexities. Vadia had very little money, but, as I've indicated, carried off with great panache her role as premiere hostess—with classic sit-down dinners around an immense table, rather than the favored Woodstock paper plates balanced on the lap. Furthermore, she cultivated "wealth" with ease and considerable approbation. Part of it was radical chic culture, of which the Woodstock version was the Towbin syndrome. (Not Sam Eskin, who, even if he had money and was radical, could by no stretch of the imagination be labelled "chic." But with Vadia, it went further. She was perfectly ready to hobnob with people who were anything but radical, and attribute a certain independent value to the sheer presence of wealth. I remember once expressing surprise to her that an older, not very attractive nouveau riche of our acquaintance had reputedly made repeated passes at an exceptionally seductive girlfriend of mine. "Ah, well, "she shrugged, "the privileges of wealth, you know . . ."—as if that were somehow perfectly acceptable as the ineluctable nature of things. In short, she nurtured attitudes and styles—indeed, values—dubiously suited to "Woodstock" but perfectly coherent with old-world charm and standards. Yet, she swept everybody off their feet with whatever manner she chose to adopt, and, as if effortlessly, made it fit.
Vadia's multidimensionality became clearer to me in later years when she lived in New York and spent weekends in Woodstock. She ended up with a job she plunged into with energy and success, running the arts program for an Upper-West-Side community service organization. Fund-raising brought her into contact with such wealthy luminaries as Leonard Bernstein and Edgar Bronfman—environments where she functioned with spontaneous élan. Some constellations still confused me sometimes. I encountered repeatedly a well-heeled, elegant couple to whom she was quite close, who had connections with South America. I remember being somewhat taken aback when they expressed unqualified enthusiasm for Argentina at a time when that country was run by one of the more abysmal cliques of fascistic generals in sight. I never explicitly discussed politics with them, but they struck me as susprisingly right-wing. Vadia was good at compartmentalization—perhaps wisely so.
I shared a small apartment with Bob Sherwood, a sophisticated, very Harvardish fellow doctoral candidate, who came to Woodstock on occasion. Sam liked him because of his personableness and wry wit, but Vadia Padwa disapproved of a decadent, cynical side which ruffled her humanism. Another friend was Fred Karl, who later made a brilliant career at City University and as the biographer of Conrad and Faulkner. Fred and his wife Dolores also were visitors in Woodstock. They usually got along well with Sam, though there once was a real flap over a superb lasagna for which Dolores had brought up the complicated ingredients, and which, for hours, wouldn't cook properly because Sam, determined not to let his oven get dirty, insisted on placing it on aluminum foil, which deflected the heat. I guess the lasagna got baked in the end, but at the cost of considerable ill-humor, and embarrassment to me.
In the summer of 1958, Sam was, exceptionally, out of town most of the time, but now allowed me full use of the house. I holed myself up to type my doctoral dissertation, another of those topics that, somewhere in my disjointed consciousness, bridged "Woodstock" and Columbia. It was entitled "Hedonism and the Concept of Nature: the Work of Rabelais and Montaigne in the Context of Western Literature." The subject had been suggested by Maurice Valency, and I jumped at it doubtless because it fitted in nicely with the radicalism and sensualism of the Woodstock connection. The spirited doctor and lapsed Franciscan monk who told bawdy tales might not have been out of place around the trapezoidal table, nor the genial, pleasure-loving skeptic. To save money, I had undertaken to type the definitive version, in five copies, myself, on an ancient Remington standard with two sticking keys. With bottom-of-page footnotes and four carbons to fuss with, it was slow going indeed. The project sounds gruesome in retrospect, but I may in fact have found the drudgery relaxing after the effort of research and writing. It's easier in this computer age, but there is a certain inoffensive pleasure in watching one's finished manuscript sputtering out of a machine: it might be the last pleasure it will provide.
Toward the end of the summer, as I was winding up my chore, I met, at Bob Sherwood's sister's wedding party, an attractive girl with reddish-auburn hair, a scintillating— occasionally shrill—laugh, and a jaunty personality. Bob suggested, partly jokingly, that we three take a spin up to Woodstock for the weekend, and Carol Hollett (that was her name), laughed gaily and said she was game. We left on the spot and had a ball. There was an opening at the Polaris Gallery, then on Chestnut Hill Road and owned by Edgar Rosenblum, who later married Cornelia Hartman, bought the Woodstock Playhouse, and went on to higher things in theater production. Carol had been an art student in Washington D.C. and painted a bit. She had recently settled in Manhattan with a job in the production department of the avant-garde Grove Press, and, like Rastignac in Paris, was eager to take on the Big Apple. She mingled happily with the art crowd at Polaris, and, in retrospect, I think that "Woodstock" may have been the genesis of a misunderstanding that led to a bad marriage. She thought she had landed in Greenwich Village Upstate, and that I was part of it—as indeed I was, but with ambiguities and complications she hadn't factored in.
In any case, we saw a good deal of each other in the course of the year in New York and in New Haven, where I had my first job—infrequently in Woodstock. Eventually we were married, and she found that being a faculty wife in the rather stuffy Yale English Department was something of a joke. A Fulbright fellowship to Paris in 1960 and an appointment at Berkeley the following year seemed to offer alternative possibilities, but it was really the New York "scene" that beckoned to her, and to which she returned from California three years later, with our year-old son. It was an amiable divorce at first, then, as New York didn't work out as rosily as she had hoped, a painfully fractious one. Carol, in fact, maintained her own affiliation with Woodstock, and seems even at one point to have cultivated Tania and her wealthy second husband, Frank Chillrud. She often visited Sam, who generally got along with her and liked the idea of a grandson. He was rather good with other people's children, who often adored him. Tania's son, Michael, remembers him with great fondness, and was inspired by Sam to become an excellent guitarist.
"You're just suppressing
your vulnerabilities, Sam. You'd be more of a man if you confronted
In the end, she had to admit defeat and married a jazz trumpeter named Bud Freeman instead. I saw her once or twice in New York; she took an interest in my psychic health and warned me not to imitate my father—doubtless good advice.
The late fifties and sixties was the era of Sonia Malkine, who was much younger than Sam and is still very much around in Woodstock. I was in California and Europe for much of that period and missed many phases of it; thus, for example, I hardly remember her four little children who, it seems, Sam was helpful with, both financially and psychologically. Nonetheless, I came to know Sonia fairly well. For one thing, we had something in common in that she was French, which had not kept her from becoming a total Woodstocker. I think it pleased Sam to have his own French connection to display to me. She had been active in the Resistance and had a lively, radical mother: the right kind of French, unlike the unfortunate crowd that my mother had fallen into and foisted on me.
Sonia was married to Georges Malkine, a French surrealist painter, who had once been well known, then had declined into oblivion and creative paralysis. (He has more recently been partly resurrected posthumously.) She was, on Sam's testimony as well as personal observation, a very sexy woman (and perhaps still is). There seemed a curious analogy to the Sidney/Henry Cowell situation: Sam displacing a sexually dysfunctional but artistically gifted husband. She was endowed with a limpid soprano voice, which Sam parlayed into a successful folksinging career, for which she was always immensely grateful. She was perhaps on a somewhat lower intellectual rung than many of Sam's other mistresses, and had an unfortunate penchant for astrology, which periodically sent him into more of those fits of muttering.
She was his mistress for many years, until an unfortunate occurrence provided him with a pretext for bringing the affair to an end. He was returning from his long winter trip abroad and, at the last minute, had wired ahead for her to pick him up at the Albany airport. Sam did indeed pride himself on total self-sufficiency, but admitted to a partiality for being met at docks and airports. It so happened that this was the very day and time that she was auditing for her own folksong program at a Kingston radio station—an important opportunity for her. Sam was so insensed at her non-appearance that he decided on the spot to have nothing more to do with her ("After alI I've done for her . . . and her family . . . !") She was heartbroken, and only occasionally reappeared on the margins of Sam's social life.
Such incidents recurred in his life, with friends as well as mistresses. One ceased being surprised to visit him, one day, and learn that he wasn't Ahaving anything more to do with goddam X." Nat Resnick, for example, the lackluster little English professor and librarian who, for some reason, had been an early member of Sam's inner circle, made the mistake one year of putting up "no trespassing" signs on his California Quarry property above Sam's. This for some reason infuriated Sam: "Goddam Resnick! Who the hell's he think he is? I don't go around putting up no-trespassing signs, do I?" For years he refused to socialize with them, much to their puzzlement, I think, because he declined also to explain what had offended him.
I myself skirted ostracism
once or twice, but blood turned out to be thicker than troubled waters.
I remember once being invited with him to a big dinner party at Ed Villchur's
estate across Mead's Road, with a stunning view of the valley below.
Sam was in one of his darker moods and, as Edgar Rosenblum, the theater
producer, was discoursing on something inoffensive, turned to me and
said, "I don't think much of your friend Edgar." Since this came out
of the blue, and in no way was Edgar a particular friend of mine (he
was primarily the guy who had married someone I used to go out with),
I unwisely riposted, AWell, I don't think much
of some of your friends either.A We were not on
speaking terms for some time after that, a situation fortunately masked
by Sam's departure soon afterward for one of his extended voyages. Though
unwillling to make a direct approach, he clearly tried to make up by
carrying through with a project he had promised me—copying on disk a
series of records of New Orleans jazz from his collection that I particularly
liked. This was a time-consuming effort just before the widespread use
of magnetic tape. Sidney Cowell told me, "Sam went to a lot of trouble
to do that." Father and son resumed their rocky affection.
On occasion, Sam fell
out with friends over financial matters, usually trivial. He could be
quite generous, but, conversely, could suddenly flare into suspicion
that somebody was trying to sneak one over on him. When he died, among
the carefully arranged documents detailing his assets in his safe deposit
box, we found a note: "Harry Gordon owes me
Harry Gordon, a jazzy friend of his—painter, sculptor, and successful designer/advertising man—had built a spectacular villa in Mijas, overlooking the Spanish Mediterranean, where he lived with his wife and children, one of Sam's favorite spots. (Sam was lucky to have missed the catastrophic tourist development of the entire Costa del Sol since the mid-seventies.) I remembered Sam lately muttering about "Harry Gordon has a porous memory about money . . ." and understood vaguely that it had something to do with a loan to buy the Mijas property, but hadn't expected to find it so categorically listed. When I was in Spain a year or two later, I mentioned it to Harry, who affected surprise and said he thought it had all been settled. I don't know who was right. Another sore point was long-distance telephone calls. A guest had better check the toll with the operator and leave $ 2.87, clearly identified, by the phone, or risk being blacklisted for the next five years.
Sam thus could be remarkably unpredictable in the nurturing of his friendships. For someone who could cultivate or dismiss the likes of Harry Gordon, Buckminster Fuller, or Anton Refregier—or, for that matter, Vadia Padwa—he might, on the other hand, sometimes be found hanging out for years with what seemed like real duds. He was vulnerable to flattery, though he could so readily get praise that it's hard to understand why he let some of those people impose on so much of his time. Not that he wasn't aware of that too and grumbled much about those—sometimes in the form of half-rhetorical question:
"What do you think
Dr. Solomon was in fact one of those. In his case, the "Dr." was a real M.D., but he didn't practice much. Some rumors had it that he had made a fortune as an abortionist. He and his wife Florence lived in a fancy ranch-style house on top of Ohayo Mountain, with swimming pool, Cadillac and all, and frequently buttered up Sam—who tended to sit morosely by the pool, at least until he'd had a few drinks. For some unfathomable reason they all went on a trip to Mexico together one year. Sam reported that Dr. Solomon kept going on a regimen of stimulants in the morning and sedatives at night. It was in fact Dr. Solomon who introduced me to dexedrine, which I found extremely useful when I was preparing my PhD., and, occasionally later, trying late at night to work up a class on an unfamiliar subject. Fortunately, I limited its use to such emergencies and did not become an amphetamine addict. Solomon used to provide me with free samples at the Ohayo villa, first ceremoniously holding my wrist for two seconds, saying, "I've got to give you a physical exam, by law!" He would wag his finger and dramatically repeat, "By LAW!" A man with a serious doctorate.
Sam must have harbored considerable scorn for Dr. Solomon, for he was hypersensitive about getting addicted—or merely accustomed—to anything. If he could drink anybody under the table, it also didn't seem to bother him much if he didn't have a drink, which sometimes happened for weeks on end, when a sudden, whimsical concern for his waistline sent him on the wagon. He smoked a pipe regularly until, as he told it, he pulled out his pipe one day, patted his pockets for his tobacco pouch, rumaged for his pipe cleaner, scoured out the pipe, then had to look for matches. "Why am I doing this?" he said to himself. He put down all the paraphernalia and never smoked again. He took no medication that I know of, and made a point of saying so. The point always had to do with "the jungle," a metaphor for the roaming, self-reliant life he was committed to: "Suppose I'm in the middle of the jungle and need an aspirin—then what do I do?" There were, I think, relatively few jungles in his life —the back country of Chiapas, a boat trip or two up the Amazon—but the image was firmly implanted in his moral landscape. Maybe he was addicted to women, but certainly liked to think he could do without that too, if necessary. He was not like that friend of his—a writer only whose first name, Alan, I remember—who once wandered into Woodstock when I was there without Sam, and paced up and down for three days asking me phone numbers of girls he could call up. "I gotta find a girl, Stan. There's no way around it." I was no help at all, but I think he didn't believe me and frowned on me suspiciously as an ungenerous hoarder.
That sort of thing got prolonged into my Bennington period, where, Bennington being what it is—equalitarian and eccentrically academic—I was an undifferentiated member of the literature faculty, untitled, undepartmented, and contractually untenured. From Berkeley—and on sabbatical in Europe with an ACLS fellowship for a year—I was necessarily an infrequent visitor in Woodstock. From Vermont, and, later, Cambridge, I showed up more often at Sam's if he was home—otherwise at Vadia's, when she was there, with perhaps a quick detour to Sidney Cowell's.
There was a Woodstock diaspora. Sam, of course, was in and out, as was Vadia Padwa. Some of the old crowd had died, such as Jenne Magafan. For some time, according to Vadia, the central subject of in-crowd gossip was speculation about who would be the lucky girl to land her widower, Ed Chavez. Frontrunners were named, and I wouldn't have been surprised to hear bets were placed. It was like an eligibility in the royal family. Money won out in the person of the daughter of a wealthy local entrepreneur (whose company, if I'm not mistaken, made components for the guidance systems of ballistic missiles).
Fletcher Martin, long divorced, had remarried and moved to Mexico, at Marfil, a lovely suburb at the foot of Guanajuato, where a number of artistic, left-wing American expatriates lived cheaply in well-appointed houses with household staffs. Arthur Zaidenberg, the Anybody-Can-Paint man, had set up a palatial home nearby in San Miguel Allende. Jim Turnbull died, and Pete began more often to winter in her native south. These and other changes floated only dimly across the screen of my consciousness. Ed and Terry Chavez raised a family and lived an opulent life for years, and broke up, before I ever caught up with events, and found that, money or no money, Terry had become marginalized by the in-crowd. The multi-careered Sidney Reisberg underwent the most startling change that was suddenly thrust on my attention. I knew he had married and had a son, but it came as a shock when I learned that he and his whole family had plunged into the word of Transcendental Meditation, levitation and all, where they eventually disappeared. This was astonishing: in 1949 he had been for me the epitome of hard-headed dialectical materialism, the source of incisive critiques of contemporary society, the teller of many jokes and stories, a woman's man, and a rival to Sam as a cynosure at parties
Sam was slowing down, though so gradually that one hardly perceived it. He still disappeared for half the year, but drove a Dodge Dart or a Peugeot instead of a Land Rover. The jungle was no longer on his itinerary. One year, he booked himself on a cruise—an uncharacteristic mode of travel for him—but try anything once. After he returned, a meek little woman he had met, whose name I've forgotten, showed up in the barn once or twice, where she was clearly out of place, but adoring and hopelessly hopeful. He began to nose more often around Florida, and considered moving there. Or perhaps joining the Woodstock colony in Guanajuato/San Miguel—familiar territory to him for decades.
My ex-wife Carol continued her relationship with Sam and Woodstock and often brought up Nathanael, re-baptized "Mac" in the Soho loft circuit, to horse around with his grandfather. Nothing was working out for her, and she had become an alcoholic. She was so unpleasant to deal with that I avoided her as much as possible, resulting, alas, in a truncated relationship with my son, which was of advantage to no one. Occasionally, Sam would call me and tell me "Mac" was visiting, and I might take a run over to keep some contact. But Sam himself soured toward Carol when she tried to pressure him and Anton Refregier into sponsoring a complicated art shop/gallery project, which she asserted they had initially encouraged. Sam in the end unceremoniously turned her down. "It's not at my time of life that I'm going to start going into the gallery business," he grumbled at me. For some time, Carol and Nathanael dropped out of Woodstock, and Sam's advice to me was, "Start another family."
In the early seventies Sam had a road mishap while visiting Lee Friedlander and his family in Nyack. He dismissed this as a momentary dizziness that sent him bumping harmlessly into a tree. Later, we learned there had been two such episodes, and that Dr. Burg of Woodstock had advised him to slow down because of heart problems. His thoughts continued to revolve unhurriedly on the possibility of moving from Woodstock. Methodically, he began getting rid of some possessions, and packing up others, gearing up to go somewhere; he hadn't decided where. He had the property up for sale, but at such a high price in a depressed market that no buyers were likely.
Perhaps it was through real-estate agentry that he formed his last liaison, with Helen Lieberman, an amateur real estate agent. Or perhaps the causation was the other way around: he was involved with a real-estate agent and decided that was a good opportunity to put the house on the market. She was thirty years younger than he, self-confident and gregarious, but altogether a feather-weight as Sam's women went. She flattered his ego by her age and attractiveness but constantly provoked his explicit contempt by her conversational babble. "Is anybody listening to this bullshit?" he would interrupt, which left her remarkably unfazed, and babbling on. They went on trips together, and she impressed him, among other things, by always paying her own way. I suppose he saw that as a buffer against being taken for a ride, cultivated for his money.
I spent 1974-75 as a Fulbright professor at the National University in Mexico City. In the late summer of 1974 I was on semester break, staying at one of Sam's favorite places, Na Balom in San Cristó;bal de las Casas. It was the large, lovely home of Trudi Blom, widow of the Danish anthropologist Franz Blom, which functioned partly as a research center, partly as an inn for carefully screened guests. Trudi Blom was a formidable lady from Switzerland, who had come to Chiapas decades before as a journalist to interview Blom, found him, Stanley-and-Livingston fashion, in the middle of the jungle, where he had virtually discovered and was studying the remote Lacandón Indians, and married him. They both became famous for their work with these sweet, exotic descendants of the Mayas. Well into her old age, Mrs. Blom rode horseback and took week-long treks into the Lacandón jungle. She rose at dawn and always began the day by doing a series of high kicks. She supervised her garden and her kitchen, and at meals presided with intimidating authority over her guests, summoned by an imperious gong to the enormous refectory table. My entrée, once again, had been Sam Eskin, whom she knew well. I wouldn't be surprised if the two had had a fling, for Franz Blom had died many years before.
It was ironic—or perhaps appropriate—that it was at a place so closely associated with Sam that I was summoned back from a walk because a phone call announced the death of my father. This came as a total shock to me, as to hundreds of others, who had come to consider Sam quite as incapable of mortality as of settling down. Another irony was that Carol had just turned up at the barn with twelve-year-old Nathanael, seeking a reconciliation and announcing she was going to settle in Woodstock. He put them up and was happy to reconnect with his grandson (as I learned from his last letter, which I picked up only weeks later). Thus it was Carol who had found Sam stretched out on his living room couch, where he had evidently lain down, feeling discomfort, and died of a heart attack.
He was seventy-six. It was not the worst way for him to go. Otho had just arrived, together with Cornelia Evans, his mother. With considerable complications, because of my car, which I had to leave behind—a nightmarish bureaucratic situation in Mexico—and because of the picking of my pocket in the Mexico City subway, I hastened back and joined the conferees at the barn. In addition to the two sons, these included Connie, Carol, Sidney Cowell, and Helen Lieberman. I found it unhelpful to have Carol involved in the proceedings.
The spirit of Sam's instructions was clear enough: "No fancy stuff: just pickle the remains in good whiskey and wait for the second coming." Elsewhere, he had specified he wanted his body left "to science." We telephoned a lot of people, had death announcements printed up and mailed all over the world, and threw a big party. It was the last time the old crowd gathered at the barn: Vadia, Bruce and Ethel Currie, Ed Chavez, Anton Refregier, Pete Turnbull, Ed Villchur, Sonia Malkine, and a number of others—including, oddly, some total strangers invited in by Sonia. Sidney Reisberg was there, and I approached him, saying, "It's good to see you, Sid. It's been a long time." He stared at me intently without saying a word.
"What's the matter?"
Not having avoided his gaze, I felt merely irritated and somewhat hurt by someone who went back a long way for me, and left him with a shrug of my shoulders. "So much," I said to myself, "for Transcendental Meditation."
Sam had left behind a pile of quotations he was in the habit of jotting down when something struck him. I read a few of these. I proposed that we consider ourselves merely a small selection representing a much wider circle of friends, since Sam, for a private individual, was known to a remarkably large number of people. Sidney Cowell misinterpreted that and told me I was right in stressing how private a man Sam really was. Otho had made a selection from the tapes of Sam singing. Sonia and Helen wept profusely; Vadia and Connie did not. Who is to say which actually felt deeper emotions? I might have taken bets. Carol contributed by turning off her wit and her strident laugh. Pete Turnbull was uncommonly nice and said the event had hit just the right tone. Emory Cook sulked outside, chain-smoking throughout, evidently considering the proceedings and the other guests unworthy of his own feelings. "We were brothers," he muttered when I queried him.
Immediately after the memorial songs, a young man came up to me, identified himself as Helen Lieberman's son, and said he was interested in buying Sam's power tools. He was fast to move in but slow to pay after he got some of them, which I complained to Helen about when I returned from my second semester in Mexico, but nothing ever came of it. As for Helen, she announced that she had shortened her name to "Lieber," because the "man" had gone out of her life, but was consoling herself with a jolly, fittingly prosaic retired business man.
I made another mistake in respect to Carol when I offered to let her and Nathanael stay in the house until it was sold. They were there for seven or eight months, and the place turned into an astonishing junk yard, as Carol experimented with the manufacturing of various toys, clothes, and notions for local crafts and souvenir shops. The floor seemed hardly ever swept, let alone scrubbed, dirty dishes accumulated alarmingly, and an untrained puppy made extensive contributions—a further ironic twist for a house which Sam kept, not exactly spic and span, but certainly ship-shape. "I'm well organized," he used to say, "because I'm lazy." Perhaps that was Carol's revenge on Sam for not backing her gallery project. To it she added an article deflating the Sam Eskin legend, published in the Woodstock Times, in a series that included a put-down of the Woodstock artists of Sam's circle for being totally unmodern and, in their stupor, letting the age of abstract expressionism, of Diebenkorn and Rauschenberg (some of her favorites) pass them by. There was also a piece attacking the local entrepreneur Kevin Sweeney, who had had the misfortune of giving her a job, as a philanderer. She did not leave Woodstock in a blaze of popularity.
Sam, I think, had regrets about not having better assembled his material—and the record of his experiences—into a coherent form: a book, maybe. I regret never having suggested working on such a project with him. But who knows what that would have yielded? Perhaps mostly misunderstanding and aggravation. In a corner of his consciousness, for all his bravado, he was a disappointed man, who felt he should have done better in his chosen field. He certainly didn't yearn for fame, but I believe he came to feel he might have made a more substantial impact in the community of folklore professionals.
Since Sam had not lived into extended dotage, in the hands of a caring woman to whom he left his estate, I found that I could afford, if I wished, to abandon teaching. I had, in fact, become progressively disaffected with the profession. Perhaps I'd chosen the wrong profession, for I was not a skillful teacher, and I did not have the laborious temperament and driving vision of a real scholar. I was more something of a moderately anxious dilettante. At Berkeley I was not scholarly enough; at Bennington I was insufficiently wedded to "The Bennington Idea" and the communal spirit. Woodstock may have nurtured visions of firebreathing radicalism, but at heart I was an old-fashioned humanist. The profession seemed to have changed from under me. An Arnoldian humanism, even modified by, say, Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye, no longer seemed unquestionably viable and relevant. In fact, irrelevance was building up into major academic debate, though, as die-hard humanists groused, one question remained unclear: relevant or irrelevant to what? The winds of Deconstruction were already blowing, along with radical feminism and obligatory obeissance to "ethnic studies." I am glad to have had the chance of getting out. If I have to have political correctness, I prefer to nurse the memory of the old Woodstock version. My impression, from the wings, is that too many university departments have been hijacked by a very small clique of people with special ideological agendas, and that this has been of little advantage to the stature of American universities, some of which were the best in the world. Maybe I'm wrong.
At one point, in Vermont, I thought of opening a restaurant and inspected a French place for sale in Manchester. Sam took a look too and dissuaded me: "What the hell do you know about the restaurant business?"—an easy enough question to answer. Thus, when I found a few years later that I could live without teaching, I gladly took the opportunity. I decided, more or less, I would become a "writer." I worked at all sorts of projects, but with minimal success. Perhaps I had bungled a profession again, but, after a number of near misses, also felt I had uncommonly bad luck. Now that I've reached genuine retirement age, I can call myself "retired" instead of "writer," but still scribble away at this and that.
I pondered where I would like to live, and finally decided Woodstock was not a bad place after all, if amplified by a New York possibility. I tried it out one summer by renting a place on Byrdcliffe from, of all people, Frank Chillrud, Tania's now estranged husband. Plus ç;a change . . . I threw a big party. Vadia was around and drummed up support. Ed Villchur and his wife were there, Sonia Malkine, I think Michael Hunold, and perhaps Edgar and Cornelia Rosenblum. Some new neighbors and acquaintances showed up, and a bunch of people from Bennington, New York, and Boston. Almost none of the old crowd came, in spite of Vadia's efforts. I was out of the loop in Woodstock, occasionally plugged back in when Vadia was in town and had a party. So it would remain.
In the course of 1976 I bought a tiny but charming fifth-floor walk-up on West Eleventh Street as a Greenwich-Village pied-à;-terre, and settled on Woodstock to be my headquarters. Woodstock, Greenwich Village: a symbiosis sealed by natural law. Sam's house was gone, and, after much house-hunting and hesitation, I bought a frame house and three and a half acres, with a small pond and a pleasant meadow as a sort of front lawn. It was on Hutchin Hill in Shady, a fragment detached from the old Kingsbury estate of the stargazing parties of 1949. The house was perfunctory, but, in the course of the years, underwent many improvements which made it quite spacious and attractive. The set-up when I bought it was a larger section, into which I moved in the spring, and a small "in-law" apartment which I rented out to Judith Simon, a reliable and friendly tenant in whom I had no sexual interest, and vice versa. It worked out fine, since I was gone a lot of the time, but someone remained on the grounds.
Woodstock was only marginally "home." I think I identified more with New York City. I was gone much of the time, not only to the Village, but to Europe and Latin America. I suppose I was imitating my father, but I also had my own agenda. I went back to Bennington for a visiting appointment, and to Guatemala on another Fulbright professorship. I started doing some research on a critical biography of Georges Simenon I had settled on as my next project. This eventually was published, but to no great success in America, somewhat more in Europe, where it was translated into three languages and even won a prize in Italy. Carol died of cirrhosis of the liver, and I was not very good at parenting Nathanael, who was in boarding school, then college, then a drop-out, and only much later emerged out of the depths.
I had become something of a skiing enthusiast over the years and was often on the slopes in Europe, after visiting my mother and my French "mother" near Paris. In 1977-78, I took Nathanael to Chamonix during his Christmas break, and it was there that I met Barbara Lazarek, who was German but spoke French and English quite fluently, was unattached, and attractive. We saw each other a good deal in the late seventies, and were married at the end of the decade. I lived in Bremen with her, where she was teaching and where our son, Julian, was born in 1982. We moved to Woodstock that winter, when he was three months old.
We remained on good terms with our neighbors the Lewises, in spite of Howard's and my entirely disparate sensibilities, tastes, senses of humor, and modes of intelligence. I'm attached to the cultivation and articulation of my opinions; he is almost allergic to opinions, particularly political ones. Perhaps he's right: Immanuel Kant also considered the realm of opinion as unworthy of attention. Howard probably considers me a bit of a contentious pest—but we'll remain friends. Ted Denyer, on the other, will long remain my indefatigable and delightful interlocutor on Big Questions: What is art? What is life? What is science? What is spirit? We'll be discussing Buddhism, I'm sure, through many reincarnations.
This was the era of the Catskill Alliance for Peace, and of Ronald Reagan—there was a causal connection. I became involved briefly when it was a tiny and chaotic organization, but found the chaos and the interminable non-sequiturs of committee meetings exasperating. After being sent as a delegate to Syracuse to represent the Alliance at the formation of the nuclear freeze movement in anticipation of the 1984 elections, and finding a woman there I'd never heard of named Maureen, introduced to me as the delegate from Woodstock, I got annoyed. It seemed the Alliance was, technically, "owned" by its founder, a Woodstock doctor, and Maureen, of all things, was a paid employee of the Alliance. There seemed to be two Catskill Alliances, with impenetrable problems in fusing them. Then, when AFreeze-Voter '84" got under way under a high-powered, fast talking, well-paid fund-raiser, then suddenly fizzled out because the whole project had built up an insurmountable deficit, I got totally fed up.
Barbara took over as the Eskin member of the peace movement, and became extremely active, the guiding spirit of the Alliance for several years, organizing fund-raising, chairing meetings, making campaign speeches for Walter Mondale, and dispatching teams of canvassers to bring out the vote. Our range of acquaintances, though perhaps not of friends, multiplied through the Catskill Alliance. Out of it grew Barbara's women's group. Julian's playgroups were another circle, fading when circumstances changed. It was an altogether other "Woodstock" for me.
But Vadia Padwa still remained a constant—a tiny, perhaps golden, thread of continuity of the old Woodstock. She had confided to me some years before that, since she was to be a single old lady, she would see to it that she would be a singularly eccentric one. Actually she did not change much from the Vadia we always knew, who was eccentric enough. What did, in the end, force change, was a massive stroke which she suffered in the late seventies, which extensively paralyzed her. She had neglected to call for emergency care at the first symptoms. Subsequently, she struggled, with courage and optimism, toward rehabilation for a very long time, and took her condition with extraordinary jauntiness. But she did end up permanently in a wheelchair, in need of continuous nursing. "We're paying for our former excesses," she told me when I myself underwent a serious stomach operation.
Her spirit never sagged: it only became very gradually clouded, as did her intelligence, and she raged with considerable success for a very long time against the dying of the light. She managed many more parties, and received many visitors with unflagging graciousness. She kept up her spirits by giving her nurses a hard time, fine ones and useless ones alike. She had difficulty reading, but people read to her. I read her part of the Simenon biography in manuscript. She acceded to the video age and watched many movies—often classics. In time, traffic at the old farmhouse slowed. Some of the surviving in-crowd continued to come by, others seemed to be put off. I always thought Woodstock society had a Proustian side; this was a bit in the spirit of Swann trying to advise the duc and duchesse de Guermantes that he is dying, which they emphatically do not want to hear about. There were loyal visitors: the Ludenses, the Koches, Romy Villchur, Ed Chavez once in a while, and, once in a while, Pete Turnbull, but even many of these paced their visits further and further apart. Some of them died. Tania, of course, came up from the city, but, I imagine, had serious mother/daughter problems. I very rarely saw her.
On the other hand, we came to be good friends with Michael Hunold, and later his wife Jaye. I had gotten to know Michael better after running into him in Mexico some years before, then often in Woodstock. He was (and continues) an extremely personable, alert, good-natured, intelligent, and thoroughly informed young man, at one time envisioning a career in photography, then in film, and now in theater directing. He is talented in all of these fields, and others. In short, he honors a tradition. Further, he turned out to be an exemplary grandson, who for years came regularly from New York to converse with Vadia, to nurture, entertain, and cheer her up, to help keep up her social life, and to organize increasingly complicated logistics. In the end, when she fell into a near coma, he would sit by her bed and play the guitar and sing to her. He said that she occasionally regained consciousness, and would sometimes request one of Sam's old songs, particularly "Roll the old chariot along, and we'll all hang on behind." When Vadia died in 1995, it was truly the end of the old Woodstock for me. Michael owns the house now, which is a good thing.
By this time, we ourselves had moved to France, then, for complicated reasons, back to Bremen for a time. We kept the house on Hutchin Hill Road, and always summered there. So Woodstock lingered on. The other "Woodstock." The original remained in its time capsule. Finally, now, in 1998, we have moved back to America, but have decided on Boston, mostly for educational reasons. The Woodstock house is sold. I'll be only another visitor now—surely a reduced status. For fifty years, somehow, it was something more.