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An Excerpt from "Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World"

by Tosh Berman

Chapter One: Wallace

My mother, Shirley Morand, first saw her future husband—my father—driving a convertible, with a cat wrapped around his neck, somewhere on the streets of Hollywood. Wallace Berman, at that time, never left the house without his cat. The 19th-century French writer Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster named “Thibault,” and he would take it out for evening walks through Paris, attached to a silk leash. Wallace, in his fashion, was returning to the eminent, artistic, eccentric personalities of 19th- and 20th-century Paris. Without a doubt, he made backward glances to the artists he greatly admired and their peculiar habits. I learned style through both parents, due to their knowledge of such dandies of the past and present, as well as the art and literature that dwell in that world of provocateurs and visionaries. I understood the importance of the past as a reference for the ideal life, and I inherited a passion for artists and poets who didn’t belong in the world, who had to invent a landscape in which they could live and do their art. I learned that from Wallace, due to his numerous homages to the artistic set that lived before him.


A picture of Shirley Berman by Wallace Berman; Copyright by The Wallace Berman Estate/Kohn Gallery

At the time of my mom’s first sighting of Wallace with his cat, he cut quite a striking figure that screamed “Los Angeles dandy.” A man who had an understanding of the criminal street life, he knew that the results of such a life had to be fine clothing, which to him meant zoot suits. It was World War Two, the height of the zoot suit craze, and there was, in fact, a law on the books that forbade the zoot suit, owing to the excess fabric in making the outfit; all surplus material was expected to be sent to the government for the war effort. What could attract a criminal-minded youth more than wearing such clothing at the height of war?


My father’s family had come from another part of the world. His mother Anna and his grandmother were Russian Jews. They settled in Staten Island, New York, where his father was an owner of a candy store. According to speculation, the store was a front, either for a speakeasy or for bootlegging. My grandfather seemed to have too much money just for owning a neighborhood candy store. In the only picture I’ve seen of Wallace’s father, he’s wearing tennis clothes—long white pants, tight white shirt—with a racket in his hand. My mom also told me that she used to own a photograph of Wallace’s mother and father in a large car with a chauffeur. When he died, which I think was from the aftereffects of tuberculosis, he only left two books for Wallace, a collection of tales by Oscar Wilde and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926). After his death, the family, which by then included Anna’s brother Harry, relocated to Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.


At the time, Boyle Heights was a community of Japanese Americans, Latinos, and Jews. Much of the neighborhood’s population changed after the 1950s, when the freeways were built. The Berman clan eventually moved to another Jewish neighborhood, in Fairfax, which is very close to Hollywood. Around this time Wallace had a best friend by the name of Sammy Davis, Junior. My grandmother Anna said to me that her heart began to race one morning when she went into Wallace’s bedroom and saw Sammy asleep in the bed. At first, she thought Wallace had turned black, but he was sleeping by the bedside on the floor, giving Sammy his bed. I remember my dad telling me how he and Sammy went to the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Boulevard to see Glenn Miller and his big band and weren’t allowed to go in because of Sammy’s skin color. Wallace never told me how they initially met, but I presume they first laid eyes on each other on Central Avenue, in one of the jazz or dance clubs of the 1940s. They totally lost touch with each other after their teenage years, but right before Wallace died, he saw Sammy at the dentist. Wallace popped his head into the office and said hello. My dad told me that Sammy—dental tools still in his mouth—nearly perished in the chair. Wallace said a quick “Hello, how are you?” and then got out of there.


During his late teens, in the middle of the ’40s, Wallace underwent a series of failures. First, he got kicked out of Fairfax High School for gambling. Then he enlisted and got kicked out of the Navy due to a nervous breakdown. Then he went to Chouinard Art School, and was kicked out of there for reasons unknown. Be they cause or effect of these failures, my father’s taste for the outsider’s life and distaste for mainstream American life were firmly established. It’s been hinted to me that my dad was involved in the criminal world as a teenager, though I’ve never heard any stories of his actual criminal activity. But he clearly never felt comfortable in the “straight” world. The nine-to-five schedule wasn’t for him. He had no problem with people who preferred that life, but for him, there was another world out there that was so much more attractive, the world that existed in the night. The key to that world was, at first, criminal activity, but that led to his beloved pursuits of jazz, poetry, and the visual arts.


Wallace discovered the world of books at the Los Angeles Downtown Library on Fifth Street and Flower. This library was probably where he discovered the poetry of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and perhaps the early surrealist writers. For sure, he became acquainted with the visual world in the library’s art department. At the time, in Los Angeles, there weren’t any huge contemporary art collections. So his initial exposure, specifically to art made in the past, came from books. The very first painting that I was conscious of as a child was Henri Fantin-Latour’s Coin de Table (1872), a portrait of Verlaine and Rimbaud among other poets of their time. My mom and dad had a print of this painting on the wall in our house in Beverly Glen. I looked at this work, not knowing anything, really, except who Rimbaud was—even though, of course, as a child, I never read him. My father taught me his name as soon as I began to form words on my own.


But Wallace also kept an eye on American popular culture. Ever since he was a kid, he had a love for Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon. The comic was published in the newspapers beginning in 1934, the year of my mom’s birth. He was fascinated by Raymond’s drawings, and the design of the strip inspired him to emulate Raymond’s skill, matching it with his love for jazz and surrealist culture. He was also a fan of the Flash Gordon film serials that came out of the 1930s, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash. To Wallace, both media were equal, and the serials pretty much followed the pictorial sense of Raymond’s vision in the comic strip. My dad later used images from the serials in his film Aleph (1966) and in the Verifax collages, and I think for him, Flash Gordon followed a natural progression from the comic strip to the big screen to his artwork.


He also appreciated the design and costumes in the Flash films; in a way, they were not that different from those of a Diaghilev ballet. Both the Flash Gordon serials and the Ballets Russes were highly in tune with my dad’s sense of aesthetics, for my dad without a doubt appreciated the art of dance. There are images of the dance world in his artwork, and he loved ballet. Or, I should point out, he loved the images of the ballet. I don’t recall him ever going to, or showing interest in actually attending, a dance recital. But I was raised with a variety of portraits of Vaslav Nijinsky in the family home. He never commented to me about his love for Nijinsky or the ballet. Many people would have sat you down and talked about why they liked a particular artist or entertainer, but not Wallace. His reasons were in his head, and he often showed his love for these artists in his artwork. I believe he felt that his art alone explained everything.


Wallace was also a huge admirer of Nijinsky’s diary, the disjointed writings of a man who lost the plot, but nevertheless left a large shadow of genius on its pages. Nijinsky being part of the Ballets Russes (the company started and controlled by Sergei Diaghilev with the help of Picasso, Erik Satie, and Jean Cocteau, among others) also held a tremendous appeal for Wallace. The dance world is a vast spectacle. For a sharp-minded borderline street thug like my dad, that world must have seemed impossible to attain, but reasonable to imagine. And while he never attended a ballet, Wallace was heavily into swing dancing. It was a portal through which to make progress in another culture, and he was never afraid to step through that entrance to see what was on the other side. One of the many pleasures of big band jazz was the dancing and the whole world within the dance club. Dancing also led to his discovery of numerous musicians who were part of the big bands, and in turn became part of the be-bop movement in jazz. That world never left my father’s aesthetic. As much as he took in contemporary music, he never tired of the late ’40s to early ’60s experimentation in sound, fury, and beauty known as be-bop.


The earliest artwork that exists to my knowledge by “Wally Berman” is the cover for Dial Records’ compilation Be-Bop Jazz (1947), renowned as the first appearance of Charlie Parker on a 78 rpm recording. It’s a highly collectible record on two fronts: one, if you’re a Charlie Parker fan, this is the holy grail of his recordings; and two, it was the first appearance of Wallace’s artwork for public consumption. The label head, Ross Russell, had a record store in Los Angeles that specialized in be-bop, called Tempo Music, which was located at 5946 Hollywood Boulevard. Besides the Downtown Library, this was the crucial location for Wallace. The record store was devoted exclusively to be-bop, and I imagine every great musician had been through its doors. Due to my father’s hanging out at the store, Russell hired him to draw the artwork for the cover. Wallace also went to the original recording session with Charlie Parker on March 28, 1946. He saw Parker as one of the great artists of his time, yet he never conveyed his thoughts on the session, or what it was like to be in the presence of Parker, or his favorite singer at the time, Billie Holiday. He told me that he delivered food or perhaps some pot for her, but I can’t remember which. Perhaps both?


A picture of Tosh Berman by Wallace Berman; Copyright by The Wallace Berman Estate/Kohn Gallery

The drawing had been made when he was a teenager, but Wallace was 20 when he selected it for the cover of Be-Bop Jazz. He also designed the original logo for the Dial label. Jazz has traditionally been an important element in the world of the arts, and Wallace was only one of many who felt its seductive pull. There was just an incredible amount of communication between the visual arts and the music. Around the same time that my dad was hanging out at Tempo Records, Boris Vian in France was in the process of opening the world of American jazz to the French public through his writing and his activity as an A&R man for various French labels. Although they never met, they clearly belong to the same generation of artists and writers who were drawn to jazz. Wallace had one foot in the jazz culture of his time, and the other in the fine arts. The jazz world called out to my father, and he embraced the sounds and culture with open heart and arms.

 

TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World is available at City Lights Books: Click Here

 

Excerpted from TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman. Reprinted with permission from City Lights.

 

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