Reprise: This Much I Know

An entry from 2008.

Twelve years of Internet and six (?) of Wikipedia have made me very flabby mentally.

Once upon a time, if I wanted to know something, I would gladly scour libraries’ card catalogs for many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. Now I just Google, and if it’s not there, it’s not there.

Nevertheless there are at least a couple of things NOT found in Google or Wikipedia or YouTube:

1) The mid-1950s M&Ms TV commercial. I know I’ve seen this, years afterwards, possibly at the Museum of Broadcasting.  It starts with a live-action shot of a little girl with a dirty face. A male voiceover goes, Susie! You’re a chocolate mess! You should eat M&Ms chocolate candies! Switch to an animated cartoon of the talking Plain and Peanut candies. The Peanut is lying in a chaise longue by a swimming pool, sunning herself and talking in a Southern Belle voice. I’m an M&Ms Peanut. Fresh roasted to a golden tan, then drenched in creamy milk chocolate—whereupon she jumps off a diving board into the milk-chocolate swimming pool.

2) Conjecturism. This was a somewhat cranky mail-order art-history course, advertised in places like the NY Herald Tribune Book Review, circa 1960. Don’t Learn About Art This Way! was the hed, above a Fitzpatrick-style heavy-ink-style editorial cartoon showing the rear view of a big thug wielding a club before a cowering little man and saying, Now look, I’m an Authority on Art, so you better listen to me—or else. The National Lampoon or some other publication did a parody of this back in the 70s, when it was still fondly remembered. But you can’t find any reference to Conjecturism on the Net these days. At least I can’t.

Possibly 1) was plunked down the memory hole for reasons of taste and political correctness. Ive written the M&Ms people for the whereabouts of the commercial, but have received no reply. Even the Prelinger Archives have no record of it. But what happened to 2)? Surely Conjecturism was no flakier than Esthetic Realism.

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.

*** ***

POSTSCRIPT: Well whaddya know? I Google again and there in the December 1964 issue of Commentary magazine—in amongst the ads for self-help books, flash cards, and Bank Leumi—we have an elaborate two-page spread for Conjecturism! Alas, the double-truck does not include the thug with the club. But fascinating.

Mr. Theodore L. Shaw, it would appear, had a certain amount of money and an unlimited grudge against some long-departed art-history teacher he crossed swords with around 1923. Surely there’s a book in this.

Reprise: The Great Impostor (2010)

Preserved from an old blog.

To the Algonquin for a lunch in the Round Table Room today. A dinky little place, the Algonquin, full of dinky undistinguished-looking people, but that is part of its appeal. My event today was a literary MeetUp group that a rotund little lady put together in impromptu fashion, mainly by contacting her Twitter pals. I’m not sure how I got on her list. Anyway, there were 60 or 70 of us, mostly women, mostly Caucasian, mostly middle-aged. Arriving just before luncheon was served, I got put at one of the outlier tables, boasting several younger-than-average people and two women of color, one of them in a wheelchair.

For the main course we could choose between mustard salmon en croûte and chicken paillard. Most people had the salmon. It wasn’t that great.

This is what it’s like when you get old, I guess, I remarked to the young publishing bunny on my left. Lunch with lots of women and hardly any men.

That’s the publishing world, she cheerfully replied. Mostly women. (Is this because it doesn’t pay for shit, or because it’s so femmed up that any male in publishing feels he should be a fag?)

One of the published authors at the table was a lady diesel engineer who has piloted both a tugboat and riverboat. She definitely had the most interesting story to tell, though like a tugboat her tale was modest in size and kept close to home. The one male at the table kept urging her to read a really ripping book he’d picked up recently. Life on the Mississippi, by Mr. Mark Twain. Tugboat Annie made a note.

Me. I explained I did a little copyediting for Penguin Putnam, but that paid little under the best of circumstances, so mostly I worked in ad agencies as a Flash developer. Amazingly, most of my companions seemed to know what that was. So I warmed to the theme: I am the world’s worst Flash developer! Yes, ladies and gent. I get jobs and then lose them when my employers discover my incompetence. This usually takes a few weeks. Fortunately there are many many ad agencies doing pharma Flash development, and they can’t afford to be too picky.

The colored woman in the wheelchair and the PR bunny were wide-eyed at my brazenness. How do you get away with it? Don’t they test you or anything when you start?

Test! Who has time to test? Ha ha! You know, this is a pretty good idea for a book!

And they all agreed that yes indeed it was.

More Adam Parfrey Stuff

As I recently told a friend, I was contributing some memories to an Adam Parfrey oral biography. It started as a memoir-cum-biography, but then Adam dropped dead.

Instead of meaty memories, the biographer was mainly getting bland, milksop encomia. As I described the problem:

They were all saying things like, ‘Oh yeah, great guy, loved that book he did. Had drinks with him once. Funny funny guy.’ Then I come in and it’s like I’m recounting the Alger Hiss case.

So I wrote a bit and a bit more, and the biographer and I planned to talk eventually. Once the pump was primed, the Adam memories kept pouring out. As a pendant to my earlier screed to the biographer (posted a week ago, though password-protected: send me e-mail if you wish to read), the following rolled off the memory spool. I may pw-protect this, too eventually.


Adam made a habit of collecting notorious weirdoes. Early in our friendship he took me to Burbank to meet his friend Nick Bougas. Nick was ostensibly a video maker and film editor, but he is best known for his grotesque cartoons. For years he contributed hilarious, highly transgressive pen-and-ink drawings to Tom Metzger’s newspaper W.A.R., signing them “A. Wyatt Mann.” To call the work “racist” or “bigoted” is to diminish it. Often it was just hackwork, subtle as a toilet seat (AIDS victims wasting away while the Grim Reaper laughed at them; innocent Aryan maidens being ravished by rubber-lipped negroes), but often his conceptions approached high art. One of his routine minor pieces, an impossibly ugly, greedy Jew rubbing his hands together, has become a ubiquitous template for an internet meme, “le happy merchant,” and you will find mainstream articles online about this. Nick was very much undercover until about ten years ago, separating his above-ground self from the dank cartooning one. Now he’s moved to the Atlanta area, and disavows his cartooning work as just a big joke.


Nick’s private hobby, which seldom saw the light of day, was corresponding with famous prisoners and sending them drawings on request. One was John Wayne Gacy, the clown murderer of kiddies. Another was John Hinckley, who asked for and got many cartoons of himself with Jodie Foster in various poses, sexual and otherwise. Nick was delighted to take these out of his correspondence folders and lay them out on the table for us, and tell us what the latest happenings were with his star prisoners. It was like stepping into the unpublishable, netherworld side of Apocalypse Culture. I think Nick corresponded with Charles Manson too (he certainly drew him), and this was what got Adam interested in Manson.


I’d been aware of Nick for years. His stuff was immediately recognizable. There was a comic book going around in far-right circles called “Tales of the Holohoax” (easily searchable online). He had drawn this against a script by Michael A. Hoffman, I believe. I was deeply offended when people asked me if I had done it, because I thought it was horribly drawn, by a lazy self-taught artist who drew entirely out his head and couldn’t be bothered to get reference scrap to copy accurately.


That was how I thought 30-odd years ago, but when I see Nick’s stuff again these days, I realize that his drawing wasn’t all that bad, and his heavy-handedness was the whole point. He achieved the same effect with his line that Andrew Anglin and weev do with their humor in The Daily Stormer. By deliberately being over-the-top and crude, he hit high notes of satirical brilliance that can’t be reached any other way. A throwback to those French satirists who got put in jail for drawing Louis Philippe as a fat pear. This has some parallels with the Adam Parfrey publishing model.


Not Tom Metzger, but rather Lawrence Osborne

Tom Metzger was a dependable source of humor and news stories in Southern California. If you haven’t checked in with Tom, you might ask if he’d like to contribute memories of Adam. He lived in Fallbrook, a desert hamlet in northern San Diego County just under the Orange County line, east of Camp Pendleton. He earned his keep as your friendly local TV repairman. But he was best known for his clownish antics as a “Klansman” or “Nazi,” sometimes running for Congress. At the Reader, people had relied on him for years for entertaining copy. Journalists had to pretend to go tsk-tsk about his antics, but he was so open and enjoyable to know, Tom was really a public treasure. He went bald, and for a while in the 80s wore an egregious rug. This is apparent on his old video interview show called “Race and Reason” (shown on some public-access channels in those days). You could tell he had a hairpiece, as either Adam or Keith Stimely pointed out to me, because there was no hair at the temples. Then he lost the wig and just reveled in being an old skinhead.


I suppose a lot of far-right people hated him for being a clown and seemingly satirizing their point of view. (Paul Theroux’s son Louis used him heavily in one of his documentaries some years back, “Louis and the Nazis”; you get the full flavor of Tom there.)


Toward the end of my Reader tenure, Adam and I had tea with Tom in a cafe across the street from the Reader. When he came driving down India St. in his Fallbrook TV Repair van, Adam and I stood out there on the sidewalk, waving (or saluting) to him. “Oh boy, what a welcome, I have to visit the Reader more often!” Tom exclaimed. He and his son John had a high regard for the Reader because we were “fair” to them. That is, we kept the tsk-tsking to a minimum, and let him say his piece. But it really was just part of the Reader’s business model, being controversial and highly profitable at once.


*  *  *


Jim Holman

This is either Jim Holman or James Woods. You be the judge!

The Reader’s founder/publisher/editor Jim Holman carefully straddled the line of the moralistic and the transgressive in his editorial direction. In appearance he looked like the actor James Woods, a younger and shorter brother. (“He looks like a priest. Like he needs a shot of testosterone,” said Adam of Jim, who had seven kids.) Jim was well known to be an earnest, conservative Catholic. Out of the Reader offices he did another publication, Catholic News Notes. This newsletter—I think it was monthly—had almost nothing to do with Catholicism. It was an anti-abortion rag, seemingly tailored to win favor with a broad mix of “social conservatives.”


As a Catholic traditionalist myself, I should have had a good “in” with Jim, but I had a decidedly different point of view. Conservatives in the 1980s got beaten into a corner: we were allowed, or encouraged, to beat up on queers and whine about abortion mills, but really substantive political points were otherwise off-limits. I guess that accounts for Jim Holman’s abortion obsession, and the Reader’s occasional stance against the local Gay Lib spokespeople. My attitude was, what if you’re not into gay-bashing and you think there are a lot of things worse than abortion? To me, Jim Holman’s public stance was everything wrong with so-called Christian Conservatism. Of course I was in one or another lesbian relationship at the time, so maybe my opposition was easily put down to that, in Jim’s eyes. Anyway, straddling that line seemed to be very profitable for Jim in those days. He could publish practically anything in the Reader because he was ultra-conservative Jim Holman, editor of Catholic News Notes.


*   *   *


Almost from the start, Jim recognized Adam for the mischievous prankster he was. Adam and got into the Reader at the same time, like a matched set. I was this hi-class normie woman from New York whom he brought in, evidently to balance out Adam’s dark side. I mean, if Adam was friends with me, he was probably not a bad person. That may have been a good front for Adam, yeah—at the beginning. But eventually I got tarred with Adam’s brush, and it was a disaster for me.


I told you about the Lawrence Osborne brouhaha and my legal conflict with the Reader after I left, but I forgot one telling detail. I happened to tell Adam that I’d just been down in Tijuana, and bought the usual trinkets, but also brought back some M-80s. M-80s are large firecrackers. I still don’t know why they’re called M-80s, but the name is scary if you don’t know them. When I was a kid firecrackers and fireworks were pretty much verboten, things you had to drive though back roads in Kentucky to buy. So I bought a bag of them. And Adam dropped this news to Lawrence, and probably Emily and other people, with the implication that I had bought “armaments” and was going to blow up Lawrence’s car with them.


When Jim got the story (it was around Christmas 1991; I think he and his family were out of the country) he recognized it as nonsense, but by then the damage was done.


Then, a couple of years later, there was that campaign of harassment against me and my magazine. Someone from the Reader was calling around, reporting me as a “nazi” and “homophobe” and whatever. Where did this come from? Well originally it must have come from Adam. Adam fed stories to Judith Moore and others. He told them that I was friends with the IHR people (as was Adam). No real substance there, but the stories festered.


Why, beyond being a compulsive mischief-maker, did he do this? Well I think it was because Adam was still getting a tidy little income from the Reader. Judith Moore was looking to give him the boot too, and Adam thought that, somehow, bad-mouthing me would extend his tenure. And it did, for a little while. But he was oblivious to the trouble he caused me. I brought the matter up years later. He was vague and dismissive.


Adam’s technique when you caught him out was to deny or minimize what he’d done. In the Lawrence Osborne business, he said to me, “Well you DID say you bought a bunch of M-80s in Tijuana.” (Umm, yeah, Adam . . . but I didn’t tell you to tell everyone else with the suggestion that I was somehow planning to use them against Lawrence.) He shrugged and blew it off: “Well what do you expect people to think? Why would you tell me if you didn’t want me to spread it around?”


So he wasn’t really much of a friend, if by friend one means confidant. You couldn’t really tell him things, because he’d twist them and use them against you. Laura, a girlfriend of mine who met him once, in 1993 or 94, told me, “I don’t think he’s your friend. I don’t think you can trust him.” Out of the mouths of babes!


Adam and I had good times together. But Adam was a crippled person, with a sociopathic side, though also warm and hospitable on occasion.


Curious Cousins: Admiral Raymond Spruance and Alger Hiss

I happened to notice that Admiral Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969), perhaps the most effective American naval commander during the war in the Pacific, 1942-44, was born in Baltimore and that his mother’s family name was Hiss.

Hiss and Baltimore: this got me curious.

Turns out that Annie Ames Hiss, the Admiral’s mother, was second cousin to Charles Hiss, father to State Department official, founding Secretary-General of the UN—and suspected Communist spy—Alger Hiss (1904-1996).

Charles committed suicide in 1907 when Alger was very young, but his cousin Annie lived until 1938, when she was past 80 years of age.

Their common ancestors were Jacob Hiss (b. 1762) and Elizabeth Gatch (b. 1766).  Alger is the great-grandson of their son Jesse Lee Hiss (b. 1788), while Raymond descends from Jesse’s younger brother Philip (b. 1795).

The Hisses were a fecund clan, and Hiss is a common name around Baltimore. It is possible, even probable, that Raymond Spruance and Alger Hiss were completely unaware of the family connection.

But what I find most remarkable is that both family strands—most of their relatives, in fact—remained in Baltimore for nearly two centuries, or six generations. Among my own ancestors for the period, it is rare to find a family in the same place for more than about two generations. Perhaps having vast number of relations in relations within a small area gives one an emotional incentive to stick around, even if you don’t really know most of them.






The Future Is for Robots

There will be no jobs in the future. Robots will do it all. That delivery boy who brings your groceries and adult beverages—he’ll soon be replaced. You’ll like that, because you won’t have to tip anymore. If you try to tip a robot a couple bucks, the robot will probably just make a grindy-sounding sneer, then eat it.

Your doctor and dentist. They’ll be robots too. The upside is they’ll make housecalls (and you won’t have to tip them, either). The downside is, no arguing with them. They know best, and when they refuse to write you a prescription for that really swell anti-depressant/painkiller everyone’s doing these days, you’ll just have to grin and bear it, and maybe find yourself a somewhat more expensive Dr. Robot-Feelgood.

Your cosmetologists and makeup artists will all be robotic. The Sephora chain is already planning for this, by staffing its shops with low-grade hominids. Sephora wish to find out the bare minimum of intelligence needed for working in the makeup field. The way things look now, your Sephora robots will be powered by two flashlight batteries.

All lawyers, judges, paralegals and court clerks will be replaced by robots. As with the medical trade, your excellence of service will be dependent on the type of robot-attorney you can afford.

Travel agents will be replaced by robots, too. Or they would be, if there were any more travel agents to replace. (When did you last call your travel agent?) But the real change in the travel industry will be replacement of travelers themselves.

Instead of spending a week on a business trip, or two weeks on a pleasure trip, a robot will do it for you. Every day they’ll email you memos and upload photos of exotic locales you no longer need to visit. If you wish, they’ll even drop you a postcard, to be delivered by your robot-mailman the old-fashioned way. “Having time, wish you not here, love kisses.” Only then will you realize how lucky you are, no longer having to pack your bags so the airline can lose them, leaving you to stroll down the Rue de Faubourg St-Honoré wearing magenta jeggings and a Université de UCLA sweatshirt from the airport souvenir shop.

It’s a hard life, but somebody has to do it. And since the robots are doing it so well, maybe it’s time to ring up that gilt-edged Dr. Feelgood automaton everyone’s using these days, and have him drop by with a vial of suicide pills. They’re vacuum-sealed for your safety. By robots.