Thursday, November 09, 2006

Looking for Rexroth's Daughter

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,
and for
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)

15 comments:

robin andrea said...

I love this journey you have taken looking for rexroth's daughter. I had been a fan of the beats for most of my young adulthood, and read Kenneth Rexroth's haikus. It's only been much later that I started to read his other poetry. I am particularly moved by writers who take that long sweeping view of life and can with great understanding write lines like this:

All who have gone before me,
Vessels of the billion-year-long
River that flows now in your veins


But, there was also something about Greg Brown's song that really sang to me. That
life is a thump-ripe melon,
So sweet and such a mess

perspective, quite different from the billion year view, but rich with the simple, daily realities of the short time we have here on earth.

I didn't know that Ms Rexroth had been a porn movie actress, so the lines "hands and mouth" being "naked for all the world to see" just rang true to me about the intimacy of all lovers. It's that collision of public and private, we hardly ever acknowledge in our lives.

I hope you find the real Rexroth's Daughter.

I think you may have once left a poem in our comments that Kenneth Rexroth had written about his mother, perhaps sitting by her grave? I saved it on my computer in my "Saved Gems" folder, but my hard-drive crashed last year and the poem went with it. Do you recall the poem? I'd love to read it again.

TDharma said...

Lovely post. I linked from your comment on the bums' site. I love this poem, the lines that Robin quotes really thrill me as well.

Hope the search continues and that you find more interesting facts and stories....

robin andrea said...

I meant to say, also, that I met Jan Kerouac at the Kerouac conference in Boulder, Co in 1982. I don't believe she was the reference to rexroth's daughter in Greg Brown's song. I submit this based only on my own faulty intuition.

Peter said...

I enjoyed learning something about which I knew nothing before. Thanks for a good, sensitive read.

steve said...

Robin: Here's the poem. You had this wonderful post where you asked us to describe our experiences with you and the pirate. You arrived on the train, and we went out to Grace Lawn Cemetery in Elkhart to visit Delia's grave. We recited the poem there:

DELIA REXROTH
Died June 1916
Under your illkempt yellow roses,
Delia, today you are younger
Than your son. Two and a half decades —
The family monument sagged askew,
And he overtook your half-a-life.
On the other side of the country,
Near the willows by the slow river,
Deep in the earth, the white ribs retain
The curve of your fervent, careful breast;
The fine skull, the ardor of your brain.
And in the fingers the memory
Of Chopin études, and in the feet
Slow waltzes and champagne twosteps sleep.
And the white full moon of midsummer,
That you watched awake all that last night,
Watches history fill the deserts
And oceans with corpses once again;
And looks in the east window at me,
As I move past you to middle age
And knowledge past your agony and waste.



I'm sure you're right about Jan Kerouac, but since Mariana, as far as I know,is a San Franciscan born and bred, and did little wandering, Jan seemed a more likely candidate.

TDharma: Thank you for your nice comments. "Rexroth's Daughter" is one of those seemingly tuneless Greg Brown songs that grows on you.

Peter--I appreciate your comments as always.

robin andrea said...

Thanks for the poem, Steve, and for reminding me of that post. I had completely forgotten we'd asked for those stories.

I have often thought that the reference to Rexroth's Daughter in Brown's song is really the description of someone who had inherited his poetic grace, rather than his genes.

gerry rosser said...

Wonderful post. I really like learning about things and people I otherwise would never hear of, know nothing about.

Bureau of Public Secrets said...

A generous selection of Rexroth poems is online at
http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/poems

The same website has lots of other material by and about Rexroth (essays, autobiography...).

steve said...

Gerry--I appreciate your comments. I enjoyed reading your Walking Distance series.

bps--Thanks for the link. I've visited your site many times.

Bureau of Public Secrets said...

Incidentally, I have another correspondent from Elkhart, Tom S., who is also very interested in Rexroth. If you don't already know him and would like to, write me and I'll give you his email.

Ken -- knabb@bopsecrets.org

Patry Francis said...

I've always admired Rexroth's poems, but knew little of his life. Thanks for this, Steve--and for the poem at the end. You've sent me back to an old volume of his work.

Anonymous said...

The cover picture of Rexroth's Collected Shorter Poems:

[url]http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Shorter-Poems-Kenneth-Rexroth/dp/0811201783[/url]

shows him flanked by two young girls - presumably his daughters.

The girl standing on the right has a powerful and mysterious beauty - definite muse material, I'd have thought.

Anonymous said...

The song, "Looking for Rexroth's Daughter" has always spoken to me of the need to go deep within, to search for and to reclaim the innocence, openness, natural curiosity, spirituality and unconditional love that we all exhibited when we were 21 months old, as was Rexroth's daughter when he penned "The American Century":

Blackbirds whistle over the young
Willow leaves, pale celadon green,
In the cleft of the emerald hills.
My daughter is twenty-one months old.
Already she knows the names of
Many birds and flowers and all
The animals of the barnyard and zoo.
She paddles in the stream, chasing
Tiny bright green frogs. She wants
To catch them and kiss them. Now she
Runs to me with a tuft of rose
Gray owl’s clover. “What’s that? Oh! What’s that?
She hoots like an owl and caresses
The flower when I tell her its name.
Overhead in the deep sky
Of May Day jet bombers cut long
White slashes of smoke. The blackbird
Sings and the baby laughs, midway
In the century of horror.

Larry who was there said...

Jeez. This now as I write is many years later, maybe ten, since all this wonderful back and forth, and here's the magic of cyberspace: this conversation has been sitting in the ether waiting to be rediscovered.

For what it's worth, let me add a little. in the spring of 2015 - today - I remembered someone I met long ago, and put the name "Mary Rexroth" into a search engine and found all this.

I was a reporter in San Francisco 45 years ago, and dropped out and went on the road for a while, and came back, and found that an old friend, a reporter on the Chronicle, had talked Jann Wenner at the almost-new Rolling Stone into fronting him a grand for a story about the just-starting-to-get-big pornographic film business, and my friend was desperately trying to finish the article and collect the second grand, and was blocked! It turned out, to his amazement, that he was a lot more of a puritan than he had imagined. He begged me to help him by going along with him and providing him with a second set of eyes and ears, and renewed purpose.

We went to the "world premiere" of a moderately successful arty porno movie that starred Mary Rexroth, and met her, and arranged to have an interview the next day. She was, it turned out, a wonderful girl, smart and pretty and socially skilled and about as nice as anyone I'd ever met. Unfortunately she had a regular "old man," or I definitely would have tried to put some moves on her. (It's been so long; is that how we put it?)

I've always remembered something she said. The acting was just a side-thing, épatéing the bourgeoisie and dad, I think. Her "day job" was as a sex therapist, mostly of the talking variety, although I'm sure the other sort came up occasionally - she was a very modern young woman. We wanted to know if she had come to any conclusions about the nature of sexual desire, and she said, it seems to be infinite. If you can think of something, anything at all you might think of as a "perversion," she said, there is someone, somewhere, who is into that.

Johnston said...

I do believe Mary sister Katherine also dabber in x rated films in the mid-70's