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Archive for March, 2010

She Saw Hitler

Eleanor Roosevelt with Dorothy Thompson in 1942

New York, N.Y.

Dorothy Thompson house

237 East 48th Street

Dorothy Thompson (1894-1961), one of the most intrepid foreign correspondents of her day and the author of I Saw Hitler, was once married to writer Sinclair Lewis, but the great love of her life was Christa Winsloe, author of the novel upon which the classic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform was based. After the break with both of them, Thompson lived alone in this three-story brownstone in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan from 1941 to 1957. She spent more than $20,000 for renovations to make it, as she wrote, “the most perfect small house I have ever seen.”

Thompson’s “small” home included a library with more than 3,000 books, five fireplaces, and a third-floor study for writing. In the drawing room, a wine-colored satin sofa could hold, she bragged, five of “the most distinguished bottoms in New York.” When the renovations were complete, Thompson invited a reporter from Look magazine to inspect the final product, and he remarked admiringly on the many telephones, intercoms, and labor-saving devices throughout the house.

In the front door were eight painted glass panels showing Thompson in medieval attire performing various tasks – writing, lecturing, greeting guests. There was also the house’s motto: “Gallus in sterquilinio suo plurimum potest.” (“The rooster on his own dunghill is very much in charge.”) New York’s Historic Landmark Preservation Center placed a medallion on Thompson’s brownstone in 1995.

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Lowell, Mass.

Jack Kerouac Commemorative

Eastern Canal Park

Bridge Street

Following on the heels of my most recent post on City Lights Books… Writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born in this old mill town to French-Canadian parents, and did not learn to speak English until he went to school. Kerouac left Lowell at 17 for New York City, where he briefly attended Columbia University. In 1944, his girlfriend, Edie Parker (later his first wife), introduced him to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and the triumvirate formed the core of the Beat poets.

Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was written in three weeks on a scroll that he made out of sheets of paper taped together so that he could type without interruption. A tour of the scroll began making its way to universities and museums around the country in 2004.

Kerouac married three times and had one daughter. (Also a writer, Jan Kerouac committed suicide in 1996.) He also had a variety of male lovers, among them his fellow Beats and writer Gore Vidal. An alcoholic, he died young of complications of the disease.

Lowell erected this sculpture to its native son in 1988, after several years of dispute about whether the town should memorialize an alcoholic. Citing his literary contributions, Kerouac supporters won out, and Ginsberg read some of his early poems at the dedication. “Kerouac is the heart and spirit of what has brought us together!” Ginsberg proclaimed. The granite panels, created by artist Ben Woitena, are inscribed with excerpts from Kerouac’s work, including the opening paragraph of On the Road.

There are other tributes to Kerouac in different parts of the country. Most notably, the bungalow in Orlando, Fla., where Kerouac was living when On the Road was published and where he wrote much of The Dharma Burns (1958) now houses the Jack Kerouac Project, a residency program for writers.

For the Kerouac Commemorative I sought images which sculpturally communicate and honor his philosophy of life and the genius of his literary talent. Conceptually, the park is structured in the form of a mandala; that is, a diagram of symbolic geometric arrangements designed to make clear the relationship between the quoted texts and the visual images which inspire them.”

-Ben Woitena

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San Francisco, Calif.

City Lights Books

261 Columbia Avenue

The legendary City Lights Books in San Francisco, which was founded in 1953 and remains a literary landmark, has just been named bookseller of the year by trade magazine Publishers Weekly. City Lights was an informal center for the Beat poets in the 1950s.

City Lights’ publishing arm was founded in 1955 and has a distinguished history of publishing cutting-edge and queer work. In the most famous example, the co-founder of the bookstore/publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was present at Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” in 1956, and asked if he could publish the poem. The following year, after copies of Howl were seized by customs officials, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling the book, which was deemed “obscene.” In his subsequent trial, the ACLU defended Ferlinghetti, and the judge ruled that Ginsberg’s work was not obscene. “‘Howl’ knocked the sides out of things,” Ferlinghetti later said. Kudos to City Lights for its long history of championing queer voices.

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I just found out about an exciting queer history project initiated by Steven Reigns, an L.A.-based poet and educator. It’s called “The Gay Rub” and it’s devoted to collecting rubbings from LGBT tombstones, markers, signs, plaques, monuments, and so forth. Steven is looking for collaborators from around the country and the world, and has a wish list on the website of rubbings he’d like to collect. But he’s also open to suggestions of sites and markers that people may like to contribute. He will even mail you the materials if you can’t afford to buy them yourself. Check it out… and then start rubbing!

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