Back when I was living in Philadelphia and discovering the the blogosphere, I came across a comment on another blog--perhaps it was a line cast, a hope followed-- by a blogger who called herself rexroth’s daughter. I was intrigued. I had been interested in the poet, critic, translator, and essayist Kenneth Rexroth since the late 1990s, when I learned that he had spent much of his childhood in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. And I knew that Greg Brown, who comes from Iowa City, the town where I grew up, had written a song called “Rexroth’s Daughter.”
I didn’t expect that she was Mary (Mariana), Rexroth’s first daughter by his third wife Marthe Larsen. (A second daughter, Katharine, died in 1996.) But I asked her, just in case. She had, as I suspected, taken the name from Greg Brown’s song. And so I got to know Rexroth’s Daughter, along with her husband, Dread Pirate Roberts, through their blog, the new dharma bums.
Recently, both of them have been writing under their own names. Of course they’re still the same people, and I still love their blog, but I miss the wonderful pseudonyms.
Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie The Princess Bride knows about Dread Pirate Roberts. But what of Rexroth’s Daughter--not the elusive, mysterious woman of the song, who was the inspiration for Robin Andrea’s blog name, but the original Rexroth’s Daughter, who may or may not have inspired Greg Brown to write his lyrics.
Katharine Rexroth Leavitt led a very private life. I don’t think she could have been Brown’s inspiration. Mary, who changed her name to Mariana in 1975 (to get rid of the “excess baggage” of Mary Delia Andree), is a more likely candidate. Born in 1950, she was named for Kenneth’s mother Delia Reed, (though every legal document I’ve seen lists her as the more prosaic Della) and his first wife Andree Schafer.
She certainly had a difficult early life, with a lot more excess baggage than her name. While Rexroth doted on Mary, he was, to put it mildly, less than an ideal husband. Marthe, tired of his extramarital affairs and his demands that she serve him as an unpaid secretary, finally moved out of their San Francisco apartment, and fled with her daughters to New Mexico with poet Robert Creeley. Mary was about five at the time. Marthe later returned to San Francisco, but their attempt at reconciliation was not a success. In 1958 Kenneth made a cross-country tour, leaving his wife and daughters behind. Later that year the family went to Europe, making another attempt at reconciliation.
When the couple finally split in 1961, Marthe went first with her mother. When Marthe moved in with Stephen Schoen and his three children, Mary was miserable. In September, 1962, she showed up at Rexroth’s Scott Street apartment. Though Kenneth Rexroth was the quintessential avant-garde San Franciscan, he expected his daughter to be very proper. According to Linda Hamalian’s A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), Mary was not allowed to come to the breakfast table in her bedclothes. He had exacting standards for any potential suitor: the sleeve vent on his shirt had to button, the moons on all ten of his fingers had to show, and he should know how to cook a light supper in formal evening dress. “No beatniks for his daughter,” writes Hamalian. “He wanted Mary to attend Radcliffe and marry a Harvard man.”
Mary’s return to Scott Street led to the arrival of Carol Tinker, who served as secretary to Rexroth and caretaker to Mary. Tinker became Rexroth’s fourth, and last wife. In late 1966, Kenneth, Mary, and Carol embarked on a round-the-world tour. By this time, Mary was an accomplished dancer, and would continue to study ballet on their return to San Francisco.
Her dance studies led her to earn money belly-dancing. And in the early seventies, she starred in several triple-X films, and posed for the Playboy article, “The Porno Girls,” (October 1971) which portrayed porn stars as “the girl next door.” As recently as a year ago, you could still purchase a couple of her films over the Internet. You probably still can. (That’s capitalism for you: You can’t get DVDs of a classic 1970s TV series like “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” but “classic” porn from the same era is readily available.)
Does the line in Brown’s song, “I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me/And they are so daily naked for all the world to see,” refer to Mary’s stint in the skin trade? Possibly. But since most American women don’t wear gloves and a veil, the reference could be a simple juxtaposition of the private and public.
She was married to John McBride at the time of Kenneth’s death in 1982, but was no longer married to him when Hamalian’s book came out.
Brown won’t say whether “Rexroth’s Daughter” actually refers to Mariana Rexroth. So we can only speculate. I’ve wondered whether he might be referring to Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan, who did a lot of wandering in her too-short and troubled life. But “Kerouac’s daughter” just doesn’t work with the meter
A few years ago, I looked for Rexroth’s daughter. I found her, or at least I think I did. I was working on an article about Rexroth in Indiana--something which I’ve put aside because of my moves to Philadelphia and Bloomington-Normal. She was adult education coordinator at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. (Kenneth Rexroth had been an Anglo-Catholic for most of his adulthood, but converted to Roman Catholicism near the end of his life.) I sent her an e-mail, asking her for any anecdotes her father had told her about life in South Bend and Elkhart. I didn’t get a reply. I’m sure she’s deluged with requests, both literary and otherwise.
Kenneth Rexroth wrote a number of poems to and about Mary. My favorite is “Halley’s Comet,” because I can imagine four-year-old Kenneth, in the duplex on West Marion Street in Elkhart, watching the spectacle:
When in your middle years
The great comet comes again
Remember me, a child,
Awake in the summer night,
Standing in my crib and
Watching that long-haired star
So many years ago.
Go out in the dark and see
Its plume over water
Dribbling on the liquid night,
And think that life and glory
Flickered on the rushing
Bloodstream for me once,
All who have gone before me,
Vessels of the billion-year-long
River that flows now in your veins.
Kenneth Rexroth, "The Lights in the Sky are Stars",
from In Defense of the Earth (1956)