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Big Daddy Kane: The AfraKane King

On Big Daddy Kane’s record cover, three Nubian hand­ maidens in a regal, Greco-Ro­man fantasy tend to the every wish of the Cameoed King. Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin’) one whispers as she leans over his shoulder, proffering a goblet of Calvin Cooler. Pause, then flip over this bad, blood-filled, basement-party album. Centuries later, Kane plays a game of Trouble in a Brooklyn living room with Mad Money Murf, while the same unnamed virgin looks on. DJ Mister Cee rests, dreaming of another master plan or mix. Dancer/rapper/barber Scoob Lover, dancer Scrap Lover, and a teddy bear chill.

A historically-hushed rift is implied by these two images. Between ancient Afra­kan vivacity—ripped off and up by un­educated Greeks and post-their-Renais­sance Europeans—and modern-day African-American samo-samo lies a chasm of truth, one that opens long ago near the Grand Lodge in Luxor, Egypt. As George G. M. James reveals in Stolen Legacy, as Martin Bernal expounds in Black Athena, and as Kane alludes in the exultant “Word to the Mother (Land),” Luxor is where Socrates saw the words “Man Know Thyself,” then bit ’em, sure that they’d work great as a slogan back home. He was right.

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The rift widens. Much gold around a king’s neck might hint at Luxor’s heyday, at Kane’s revision of the Staple Singers’ warm, wet, free-at-last Utopia (also called “I’ll Take You There”), or of the great Kankan Musa. Tells historian Maulana Karenga, this Malian mansa, or emperor, left on a yearlong pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, taking along 60,000 baggage men, royal secretaries, soldiers, and Black ur­ban professionals. Passing through Cairo with these, 80 to 100 camel loads of gold dust, and a generous attitude, he gave away so much gold that its Egyptian price was depressed for the next 12 years.

Yup. Kane’s fat gold ropes might re­mind you of Mansa Musa from Mali. Then again, they might just remind you that DeBeers/Botha break Black backs with demonic regularity in South African mines. Today, the hoops and dookies are cold sold for a king’s ransom, not given away, in stores with door buzzers and inch-thick glass. So, Big Daddy—where you at? Past, present, or Black to the future? Are you the ruler of old on the album’s front, your toplofty tone most domi­nant in “Long Live the Kane,” or an around-the-­way on the back, endear­ingly dope in “On the Bugged Tip,” lovestruck and longing on “The Day You’re Mine”?

What he is is a point-­blank African-American, complete with the requi­site wish list. Kane supports Minister Farrakhan and the fact of Afrakan historical primacy, though crit­ics still fiending for Public Enemy’s warm jockstraps, Rakim’s glowing brilliance, or acid house probably haven’t noticed. Kane plays the riffs and rifts well (Afra­kan or American? Gold trunk jewelry or Black rule in South Africa? Light skin or dark? B’klyn or anybody else?) over an original music made from scraps of origi­nal music. Five-Percenter self-sufficiency gets with Roy Rogers, Gucci, and Kel­logg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, and it all comes to a head. In 1988 Blackland, drug dealers are arbiters of taste, and We, descendants of Afrakan kmgs and queens (but lacking diplomatic immunity), are target practice for the 5-O. For Kane, as for James Brown, Hendrix, Coltrane, Beethoven (Black, caucasianized for the record), and other new music makers, here the future of music (dope) meets Black life’s particularly present-day dick­-downs (dog food).

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“I wanna get into my thing!” Kane quoted one June night at the Apollo. “Can I get into my thing? MOVIN’? GROOVIN’?” Then, as Scoob ‘n’ Scrap twisted, shook, and folded their unfailing­ly limbered physiques, the Microphone Lord dropped a brand new bomb and “Set It Off,” popping pailfuls of pentametrical poetry, knotting together metrical foots trochaic and trisyllabic. The crowd searched hard for their minds, hyped by this smooth ‘n’ sweaty show­man’s versificatory variations. If Rakim flows, Chuck D jump-cuts, and KRS ONE conversates, then Kane blurs. He’ll race, as he does on the upcoming, rabid “Wrath of Kane,” or he’ll rhyme like he wrote the lyrics out on a chalkboard, smeared the words with an eraser, then said that. His tone is teeth-sucking, like a brother sounds when he’s about to wax the behind of some recalcitrant bass­kicker. “You don’t want none o’ this!” Kane insists on “Set It Off,” right before one of his velvet-gloved beat-downs—hyperbolic, discombobulating, gentlemanly assaults so swift you don’t realize you’ve been insulted ’til much later (“Get you a nurse … too late! Get you a hearse!”). Nobody’s spared, with “Raw,” muscular rhetoric front to back. “Shut the fuck up,” Kane snorts mock-pissedly on “Mis­ter Cee’s Master Plan” when his DJ gets mike-happy. From “Half-Steppin'”: “I grab the mike and make MCs evapor­ate/The party people say, ‘Damn, that rapper’s great!'” Spoken wistfully over producer Marley Marl’s odd, dreamy, butt-swingin’ groove, the boast comes off as a most sublime mastery of understatement.

Big Daddy Kane, the man who would be king, is, in a way, hip-hop’s most nor­mal, gimmickless artist. That is, if L.L. Cool J was state-of-the-art in 1987, Kane’s the same in ’88. Not to say at all that L. is outta here, y’all, but yo: If he ever takes off the Kangol, there best be a Hi-Lo below.

P.S. Editor Marty Gottlieb & Co. say: “Doesn’t being thanked on the back of Kane’s album affect your critical credibil­ity, Harry?” I’m not a critic. I’m a brother who speaks the people’s truths on their terms, and I’m thanked for that. My credibility? Most intact. ❖

Big Daddy Kane will be at the Apollo November 18.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Wild in the Clubs: Sex Makes a Comeback

THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium paja­ma parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Down­town Divas” musical re­vues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly in­vited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-­Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.

A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny”  — so em­barrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narra­tive slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.

All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and com­bust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vod­ka haze.

The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is start­ing to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — ­like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a funda­mentally traumatized club scene that as­sumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.

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AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in­ — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.

In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau plea­sure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co­-owner of the World, told the Times re­cently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.

Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects peo­ple’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-head­ed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re fur­ther blurring the lines of gender and pref­erence: all kinds cheer for male and fe­male strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd present­ing semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.

It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin caba­ret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tun­nel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and en­joyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O ac­tion if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.

Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.

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In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gap­ing hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much atten­tion to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged po­litical columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)

Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for tem­porary promises and inevitable long-­range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterra­nean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Repub­lican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both do­mestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized some­thing else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).

It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent pur­pose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.

THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” men­tality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moon­walk” — a giant trampoline-like air mat­tress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Por­nography Ring party. He’s a walking par­adox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.

Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publici­ty. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, mid­dle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year­-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.

The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret show­cases by which to get there.

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For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that an­nounce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fab­ulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.

The club scene is one of girls who­ — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie top­less on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a pro­moter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!

Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hy­perbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Blood­bath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”

The kids don’t do much coke — it’s ex­pensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typi­cal elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabu­lous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is there­fore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Ro­bots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigan­tic, communal joke.

The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.

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But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys be­tween her legs and one shamelessly work­ing the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-­to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people real­ly are starved for it.

The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to fea­ture two paid strippers posing onstage — ­turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo ses­sion in the club office. Within millisec­onds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photogra­pher already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with any­thing he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scruti­nizing this scene and panting with voy­euristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and over­worked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.

True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous com­bustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein­ — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club star­dom. Another opening, another show.

And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was al­ways my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”

Stuff like this, of course, used to hap­pen nightly in discos and in backrooms — ­darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with commu­nal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infa­mous sling to watch people get fist­fucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into ev­erything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one­ — keep it safe.

The orgy may have broken the rules­ — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-­no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnera­ble; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Ratio­nality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.

The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nib­bled and toyed with hundreds of obscene­ly sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.

The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her au­dience doesn’t squirt milk, her star at­traction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shoot­ing milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)

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A trained dancer, Brown changed ca­reer course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone­-berserk plethora of extensions, her mad­deningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admit­ting she later changed her mind.)

The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho bou­tique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and­-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a ret­ro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo­-Victorian constipation that was threaten­ing to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)

Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzle­dazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other col­orful, poised-on-the-brink, painted side­show escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redun­dant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-­loving bunch of young, often foreign de­signers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; in­stead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as pos­sible, either to-die-for or drop-dead ab­surd.

“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-­every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bod­ies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more impor­tant because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the rea­son I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”

Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very im­age of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column de­scribing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman­ — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.

While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-­up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-­cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have acci­dentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the sur­face everything Bartsch is too good-na­tured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voy­eurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve re­sponded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.

Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talk­ers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant di­rector). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was noth­ing illegal about it,” he says. “I was pay­ing the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose ad­ministration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent chil­dren (there haven’t been so many home­less kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.

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He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the mo­ment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.

The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”

On another night, Alig presented a T-­shirt winner with a bottle of cham­pagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a type­writer in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them­ — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-­goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”

AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An edi­torial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The edito­rial notes that in the future, “Secret po­licemen, Undercover Agents, CIA min­ions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to in­crease drug-hysteria in the american press.”

Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got in­volved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”

Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harass­ing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do vio­lence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were in­vited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.

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“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only know­ing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and ap­proved, more of an anything-goes-be­cause-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.

In the last years of the Weimar Repub­lic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. To­day, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kini­son, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).

The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censor­ship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of cer­tain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Pe­ter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also charac­terized by

excitement, in part from exuberant cre­ativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, pro­pelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. 

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Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

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Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

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That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

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From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

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To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

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These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖

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Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country

FAVORITE DAUGHTERS

Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■

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Langston Hughes: A Genius Child Comes of Age

Warts and all, the Langston Hughes who emerges from the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s exceptional biography doesn’t suffer badly in comparison with the var­nished Poet Laureate of Negro America that blacks have been raised on for generations. A staple of high-school curricula and home recitation, Hughes figures in African-Ameri­can life as significantly as in its letters, a literary hero the culture cozied up to like a warm hearth. Hughes was the first black American writer many of us ever read, and some of his verses hold the high honor of having been accepted into the canon of black mother wit — “Son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is the most famous; “Nobody loves a genius child” runs a close second. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillen, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron were all bene­ficiaries of Hughes’s lifelong encouragement of younger dark writers, and his career re­mains an inspiring model for black writers determined to make a living solely from their work.

Well, an inspiring model of sorts. As Rampersad details, Hughes spent the first two decades of an adventuresome life chas­ing fortune more doggedly than literary fame. He was fortunate in having fame thrust upon him early — publication in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis in 1921 brought him the kindness of patrons black and white. Nevertheless, his youth reads like a 20th century guide to writing your way into history on $5 a day. Being a pauper didn’t keep him from covering the globe; much of Rampersad’s volume is spent tracking Hughes’s movements from the Midwest to Mexico, New York, Africa, Russia, and Spain.

Blessed with a facility for cheeriness, Hughes seems to have made it on little more than good vibes and curiosity. In the late ’30s, his veteran-bohemian advice to Man­hattan newcomer Ralph Ellison was “Be nice to people, and let them buy your meals” (according to Ellison, it paid off immediate­ly). Still, the specter of capital, or rather the lack and hungry pursuit thereof, viciously haunts Rampersad’s Hughes. In plying the writer’s trade to serve the race and feed himself, Hughes made considerable artistic, personal, and political sacrifices and com­promises. These form the core of the biogra­phy’s character revelations, though Rampersad appropriately notes how deeply Hughes’s upbringing conditioned his adult persona.

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True to the old saws that artists need unhappy childhoods and bad relationships with their fathers, Hughes spent at least half his life drawing upon the misery fate had doled out to him on both counts. His parents, James and Carrie Hughes, separat­ed not long after he was born, and young Langston thereafter saw little of his mother, who left him for long stretches in his grand­mother’s care. She was out seeking clerical work where she could find it in the poet-to­-be’s birth-state, Kansas. On his mother’s side, Hughes was descended from distin­guished free blacks, the abolitionists Charles and Mary Langston, who’d worked for the underground railroad. Mary lost her first husband, James Leary, in the Harpers Ferry raid. Hughes’s father, the self-educated son of slaves, was anything but a race man. “Detesting the poor, he especially disliked the black poor. He was unsentimental, even cold. ‘My father hated Negroes,’ Langston Hughes would judge. ‘I think he hated him­self for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.’ Where Carrie’s parents had instilled in her a sense of noblesse oblige, Jim Hughes seemed to look upon most blacks as undeserving cowards.”

Rebellion against his father, as certainly as the race history he got on grandma Lang­ston’s knee (she used to wrap him in her first husband’s blood-stained shawl), played a large part in Hughes’s decision to become a race-conscious bard. Growing up in all­-white neighborhoods throughout his school years, he developed a diplomatic approach to race relations and an intellectual and emotional rapprochement with black work­ing-class culture. Like many subsequent black middle-class writers, he entered into a professional relationship with that culture which derived in equal parts from a sense of mission and a need to work out his own obsessions. The desire to resolve the conflict between responsibility to the race and re­sponsibility to literary ideals informs much black American writing. Hughes’s resolution would both nourish and compromise his art.

In 1915, when Hughes was 13, he was taken to a revival meeting by his aunt and lied about having been saved by the Holy Ghost. While he wept over the lie, he also recognized its necessity in allowing him to keep faith with black culture. “At thirteen, Hughes probably already viewed the black world both as an insider, and far more im­portantly, as an outsider. The view from outside did not lead to clinical objectivity, much less alienation. Once outside, every intimate force in Hughes would drive him toward seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obses­sion of his life.”

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After high school, Hughes went to Mexico to live with his father, who responded to his wish to write for a living with the advice that he should learn a skill which would take him away from the United States, “where you have lived like a nigger with niggers.” Fueled by his father’s hate, Hughes wrote poems that fused his personal hurts with his desire for love from blacks — black maternal love in particular. Through these poems, he would eventually find a home in Crisis and an empathetic editor in Jessie Fauset, doy­enne of the Harlem Renaissance. After going to New York in the fall of 1920 to attend Columbia, Hughes upped the ante with ra­cial verse aimed as much at unnerving his father as at providing uplift for the masses. According to Rampersad,

At lectures and readings at the Harlem Branch Library on 135th Street, Hughes met the black intelligentsia; but his main interest was the people, of whom his vision was both intensely romantic and cold.. . Fastidious and yet bohemian, moral but determined never to judge his people, Hughes instead celebrated his kinship with these 

Dream singers,
Story-tellers,
Dancers,
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate­ —
My people … 

Dishwashers, elevator boys, maids, crap­shooters, cooks, waiters, hairdressers, and porters — he sang the ordinary and the low. In this way he met his father’s contempt for black folk and for the poor.

Hughes also wrote his pioneering jazz and blues poems in this period, works that forged the bond between the muse of black poets and 20th century black music:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway … 
He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

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In June 1923, Hughes shipped out to Africa as a sailor. As Rampersad notes, he saw Africa before elder Africanists Marcus Gar­vey and W. E. B. Du Bois set foot on the continent. Significantly, his initial observations of Dakar were anything but romantic and bordered on racist. “Hughes’s first im­pression was of crudeness and absurdity. Wandering through the town in ninety de­gree heat, his head spinning from glasses of cheap white wine, Langston that day saw Africa as ridiculous — black men dressed in billowy white gowns, sweating market wom­en with bare breasts, children stark naked to the world. Giddy, he sat down to describe the scene to his mother. ‘You should see the clothes they wear here,’ he wrote Carrie, ‘everything from overcoats to nothing. I have laughed until I can’t. No two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue cloths fastened around their necks and feet blowing out like sails behind. Some have on preachers’ coats, others knee pants like bloomers, with half-hose and garters. It’s a scream!’ ” But by the end of August, Hughes would see Africa less as a “blur of exotic images” than as a place held in underdevel­opment by colonialism’s grip. For Hughes, Africa had become “ten year old wharf rats offering nightly to take sailors to see ‘my sisters two shillings,’ ” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows.”

“The white man dominates Africa,” Hughes would write. “He takes produce and lives, very much as he chooses … And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower below the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws made in Europe for the black colonies.” Hughes had been writ­ing African-identified poetry but found that no African believed him, with his copper-­brown skin and straight Indian hair, to be black like them. In response, he began to write poetry inflected with the Pan-Afri­canist ideal.

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

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Hughes visited Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924, just as the well-engineered Harlem Renaissance was entering full swing. Yet his participation in the many fêtes aimed at securing white patronage and book contracts for black bohemian intellec­tuals would be stymied by a move to Wash­ington with his mother. Life in Washington, as an upstart black poet, brought him into conflict with the black middle class, toward whom he turned up his nose in a bohemian sniff. It’s nearly tragicomic that what Hughes thought about his upwardly mobile brethren and sistren of the day describes a fair portion of their ’80s successors to a tee. “The younger blacks were obsessed by money and position, fur coats and flashy cars: ‘their ideals seemed most Nordic and un-­Negro.’ Lightskinned women coolly snubbed their darker acquaintances. College men boasted of attending pink teas graced by only blue veined belles almost indistinguishable from whites … they had all the manners and airs of reactionary ill-bred nou­veaux riches except that they were not really rich. Just middle class.”

Washington was also responsible for Hughes’s sharpening his knowledge of blues and jazz culture and further developing his working-class consciousness. Hilariously, the anything but mellifluous Hughes once dared to unleash his brand of blues singing on the Rock Creek Bridge. It provoked a passerby to rush to his aid, mistaking his unsoulful moans for agony. Hughes had en­counters with notables black and white in D.C., including famed black historian Carter G. Woodson, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom he slipped some poems while working as a busboy. In Baltimore, he met Bessie Smith. When Hughes asked for her “theory of the blues,” Smith dished how all she knew was that the blues had put her “in de mon­ey.” (Though Rampersad gives this seemingly trivial rejoinder short shrift, it would carry considerable weight with poststructur­alist blues scholars and folklorists.)

In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Between 1926 and 1939, he would write and publish much of the best and most influential work of his prolific career — his second volume of poems, the controversially titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (“When hard luck over­takes you/ Nothin’ for you to do/ Gather up yo’ fine clothes/ An’ sell ’em to the Jew”), a short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, the novel Not Without Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, several children’s books in collabora­tion with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, and the most financially successful of his plays, Mulatto. He also spent time gathering information and soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Haiti, did a foreign correspondent stint in Spain during the Civil War, and spent a year in Russia. The Russian sojourn came about in 1932, when Hughes and a host of young Harlemite writers and activ­ists were entreated by a German film com­pany to star in a fiasco production of a working-class musical.

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His flirtations with socialism were partly out of self-interest — when mainstream pub­lishers wouldn’t come through for him, New Masses would pick up the slack. But his leftist poetry compromised little of his plain-spoken lyricism and engaged some very radical views. While undertaking his Russian expedition, Hughes wrote the most radically strident poem of his life, “Good­bye, Christ,” — all the more blasphemous for its sermon-like cadences.

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day I reckon­ —
But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too.
Called it Bible —

But it’s dead now.
The popes and preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers­ —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s church …
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson.

Hughes never intended for this poem to leave Russia, but it was passed on to black American communist leader Harry Hey­wood, who published it. This was much to Hughes’s later regret when the rabid evan­gelist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted an attack that gathered black church forces behind her.

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There was a profound contradiction be­tween Hughes’s radicalism and his need to be accepted by the black masses. He was neither the first nor the last black intellectu­al to feel tugged apart by the ideological demands of a white-dominated left and his nationalist tendencies, as Harold Cruse’s ep­ochal work on that conundrum, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, makes clear. To his sometime patron of the ’30s, Noel Sulli­van, Hughes confessed that since poverty seemed to be his lot, “the only thing I can do is string along with the Left until maybe someday all of us poor folks will get enough to eat, including rent, gas, light and water.”

Hughes’s disavowal of politics in the late ’30s was influenced by dollar signs more than politics or feeling for the masses. “To a large extent, he gave up on radicalism not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer. Radicalism paid very poorly in America; it also tended to estrange him from the black masses. Accordingly, he had been returning the needle of his conscience to its oldest and deepest groove, that of race. But instead of attempting to explain or jus­tify this realignment, Hughes had done ev­erything he could to conceal it … he could point to his renewed emphasis on race as proof of his distance from communism, and pass off as deep alienation what was in fact pragmatic withdrawal.”

In 1940, when Richard Wright’s Native Son became a Book of the Month club best-­seller and the best-selling black book ever, Hughes reacted with dismay and envy, not least because he had shelved a project simi­lar to Native Son, fearing it would have no market in New Deal America. Talk about your deferred dreams. Rampersad leaves Hughes still struggling (acclaim and notori­ety notwithstanding) to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whose welfare he assumed like a guilty burden rather than the duty of a loving son. In his need to become the most beloved genius child in black liter­ary history, he had sacrificed his writerly independence and forced himself to bedrock his maturity on filial responsibility. How Hughes’s recurrent conflict with mom, muse, money, and the masses is played out will surely add to the drama of Rampersad’s next chapters. ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: Volume 1, 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America By Amold Rampersad Oxford University Press, $22.95; $9.95 paper

[Editor’s note: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the photographer credit for the illustration at the top of this article is “Griff Davis / Black Star,” while on the original page back in 1988 (below) the credit is for “Greg Davis / Black Star.” We recently learned that this portrait of Langston Hughes was indeed taken by Griffith J. Davis, a storied photographer who was Ebony magazine’s first Roving Editor. Starting in 1949, he became an international photojournalist for the the Black Star Publishing Agency, and was later a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during the early U.S. civil rights movement and the Independence Movement of Africa. More information is available at www.griffdavis.com.]

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American Zealots: Shoot Out in the Kingdom of God

It is an easy drive to the mouth of Par­ley’s Canyon. The ascent is so gentle I feel safe glancing away from the high­way and back to the valley — to Salt Lake City, laid out in a fastidious grid, the outlines of its commercial center geometric and distinct in the late after­ noon sun.

In a blink the city is gone from my rearview mirror, obscured by the twist­ing gullet of the canyon. On either side, the peaks of the Wasatch Range rise in volcanic swirls. Snow begins to fall, one of those freak blizzards that blow in unan­nounced during the early spring. All I can do is hold to the road, barely creeping through the curtain of flakes until — as quickly as it came­ — the blizzard stops. The mountains have reced­ed. In their place is a high valley stretching silent, white, and dreamlike beneath the snow.

I follow a well-paved country road west, turning just before the village of Kamas onto Upper Loop Road. And there it is, sitting at the top of an unpaved lane — the Singers’ cabin. It appears innocent, its aging mortar spilling out between the logs just as one of its occupants had described it, like “white frosting on a chocolate cake.”

Weeks before, when I had seen the house on the evening news, it had ap­peared menacing and inaccessible, the hideout for a family of fundamentalist Mormons who had bombed a church in nearby Kamas. The suspects were the clan’s matriarch, a frail blond woman named Vickie Singer, and her son-in-law, Addam Swapp who, apparently, was mar­ried to two of Vickie’s daughters. For nearly two weeks the Singer-Swapps — numbering six adults and nine children­ — barricaded themselves in the cabin and, armed with an arsenal of handguns, ri­fles, and sawed-off shotguns, held off an army of county deputies and federal agents. On the 13th day, the standoff erupted into a gun battle that left one officer dead.

As far as I could tell from the muddled accounts coming out of the highlands of Utah, the Singer-Swapps were harboring a complex set of grievances against not only the Mormon Church, but the State of Utah and the United States of Ameri­ca. The bombing of the Kamas Stake Center was apparently intended as a pro­test against “wickedness.” Beyond that, however, it seemed to have a mystical significance peculiar to this corner of the world. The explosion, which lifted the roof off the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was meant to ring in the millennium, heralding the second coming of Christ — and the resurrection of Vickie’s husband, the late John T. Singer.

“If you’re going up there,” I had been told, “be sure and get there before nightfall. Visitors after dark make them nervous.”

It is well before twilight when I ar­rive, and driving slowly up the rutted lane, I park in the shadow of several outbuildings. Running along the walkway to the back door is a wire still strung with a makeshift warning system, fruit jars filled with bolts.

On the other side of the door, there is the sound of children laughing. It opens suddenly to reveal a teenaged girl with a long skirt and a lustrous blond braid. She is holding a baby. I recognize Charlotte Swapp from photos taken after her ar­rest, when she and her sister, Heidi, and their mother were being shuttled from jail to court in chains. She looked at least five years older then, her expression dumb with shock. Charlotte and Heidi were held in custody 12 days before U.S. prosecutors decided that, unlike their mother and husband, they had no active role in the bombing and released them.

Charlotte’s sweet face is radiant with goodwill. “Any trouble finding us?” she asks, ushering me into the living room. It is comfortable and surprisingly middle­-class, like some civil servant’s idea of a hunting retreat. The fieldstone fireplace, which occupies one entire wall, appears to be largely for show since the seven­-room cabin is heated by an enormous woodburning stove in the kitchen.

Charlotte motions for me to sit on a section of couch upholstered with bold orange sunflowers. She sits nearby cra­dling baby John Swapp to her thin chest.

“You’re not afraid we’ll take you hos­tage or anything?”

We laugh. The scene is so absurdly se­rene I am hard put to imagine how eight weeks earlier the living room was an armed camp. The irony of this seems to elude Charlotte, who talks on about her absent mother and husband as if they were away visiting relatives. What is fore­most in her thoughts, at this moment, is not the prospect of her loved ones down in Salt Lake behind bars, but whether she can get Addam’s birthday gift completed in time for the trial. (His birthday hap­pens to fall on the trial date, April 6. This is also, by certain Mormon calculations, the birth date of Christ.)

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She had been working night and day at her beading loom, fashioning cuff orna­ments for a new buckskin jacket. She clisplays them proudly, two beaded strips bearing a set of arcane symbols.

“What do these mean?” I ask her.

She looks mysterious, then replies with mock exasperation, “You’d just have to know Addam.”

More ambitious than the cuff piece is a larger design that is still on the loom. It seems to be a flag with blue and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. This unfamiliar standard is the work of Charlotte’s older sister, Heidi, who has been hovering on the periphery of this congenial scene like a glowering wraith.

Heidi Swapp is a handsome woman in her early twenties. Ruddy and freckled, she wears her long red hair in a braid like her sister’s. Wherever she moves she is surrounded by a swarm of small chil­dren — I count five — whose screeching and tugging have put her in a foul mood. But I quickly perceive that Heidi’s irrita­tion extends to me.

“You write about murders?” she asks. An intermediary has sent her a collection of my articles. “What do you want with us? We’re not a murder.”

Not exactly a murder, I am tempted to say. But Lieutenant Freddie Floyd House was killed on your lawn not two months ago.

I hold my tongue.

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The real reason Heidi is so hostile, I suspect, is that she assumes I am a gen­tile (a term that Mormons apply to any non-Mormon). T0 be a gentile is to mix with and be contaminated by the world. To be one without understanding. But I understand Heidi’s thinking better than she imagines. When I read those strange news accounts of her family’s dangerous, enchanted world, I experienced a shiver of recognition. Not that I had ever known any of the Singer-Swapps personally. They, barricaded against the wickedness in the wilds of Utah, and I, rubbing el­bows with it in lower Manhattan, do not exactly run in the same circles. But I, too, was born a Latter Day Saint.

This is not quite accurate. I was born a Reorganized Latter Day Saint — a distinction that requires a few words of explanation. The Reorganization — a singularly graceless designation — refers to a faction that bears somewhat the same relation­ship to the original Utah Mormons as Reform Judaism bears to the Orthodoxy. The two were splinters of a church that scattered after 1844 when Joseph Smith was shot by an Illinois mob. The largest group followed Brigham Young to Utah. The next largest coalesced around the prophet’s son and settled in what would later become my hometown of Indepen­dence, Missouri.

We the Reorganized prided ourselves upon being more enlightened than those people in Utah. The church authorities saw fit to admit blacks to the priesthood as early as 1871 and three years ago or­dained women. When I was employed as a guide one summer at church headquar­ters, l was instructed to inform visitors politely but firmly that the Reorganiza­tion never practiced polygamy. (That was true.) Nor, in fact, had Joseph Smith ever preached it. (That was not true. The prophet’s first wife, Emma, devoted her widowhood to rewriting history.) In all respects the RLDS are a rather more easygoing outfit than the Mormons. I never heard of anyone being excommuni­cated. No one ever broke with the church. They just did what I eventually did. Drifted away.

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Although I recall summers of faithful attendance at vacation church school studying instructive stories from the Book of Mormon, my religious training played in the background of my upbring­ing like elevator music. Now, almost 20 years since last attending church, I can’t remember any particular tune. (Perhaps this is due to the merciful offices of deni­al.) I am, however, left with one lingering, powerful impression — call it an appre­hension — that at any moment, a perfectly ordinary street scene is liable to dissolve into a passion play. A Latter-day Saint­ — be he Mormon or Reorganized — is taught to admit the possibility of miracles as part of daily life. Every coincidence is fraught with divine import, every hunch is “the voice of God.” In the world of the Latter-day Saint, God speaks to humans as casually as Dr. Ruth chats with call­-ins.

Among the more vivid memories of my youth is that of the Wednesday night “prayer and testimony” service, where solid, sensible citizens would stand and report on the wonders that God had worked for them that week. In the grand scheme of things, these were only “little miracles,” which God performed to help ease his children through the trials of everyday life. I remember one Wednesday night, a schoolmate stood and told how her father had been laid off at the plant, and the family larder had been down to one pack of hot dogs. But they had prayed and, behold, the dogs had multi­plied to feed everyone. This Miracle of the Frankfurters sounds a little ridiculous as I now tell it, but on that Wednesday night, in a setting of uncritical belief, it sounded perfectly plausible.

There were, of course, unspoken guide­lines as to what constituted an acceptable miracle. The modern variety was under­stood to be more modest in scope than such Old Testament triumphs as raising the dead. To a true believer, such things were still possible. But no one at prayer and testimony would ever have presumed to put God to a test. There was an unspo­ken fear perhaps, that He’d lost His touch over the centuries. That if one tried to provoke the fireworks of antiqui­ty, one was bound to be disappointed. What struck me so profoundly in reading about the exploits of the Singer-Swapps was that they clearly had wandered over the line from “little miracles” to visions of the millennium, not only accepting the possibility of a resurrection, but actually making plans for it. The Singers were living in a full-blown Second Reality, where God was still a god of major miracles.

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Faced now with Heidi’s suspicion, I am tempted to invoke our common Latter-­day Saint heritage. She does not, howev­er, seem the sort whose heart might be softened by the prospect of women hold­ing priesthood.

“Well, Heidi,” I proceed gamely. “I would like to hear about your father.”

I do want to hear about Heidi’s father, who was, after all, the man upon whom this mega-miracle was to turn. During the early ’70s, John T. Singer enjoyed a modest celebrity when he took his chil­dren out of public school in Marion, Utah. The reasons he gave were diverse. He objected to sex education, he objected to drugs in the schools, he objected to a curriculum that taught equality of the races. Singer chose to instruct his chil­dren at home where they would not be polluted by worldliness.

Heidi’s resistance softens visibly at the mention of him. She is now eager to explain.

“My father knew all there was to teaching,” she says. “He taught as long as he pleased. He taught us when he pleased. He taught us arithmetic in our heads and not on paper. Then he’d teach us a hymn. You’d have to do exercise, jog around the hills a little. Some days we’d go out and school was gardening.”

Two of Heidi’s children are now scuf­fling noisily on the floor. She gives one a quick slap. Embarrassed by this outburst, Charlotte indicates that Heidi has been under some unusual pressures of late.

“I’m going to stand,” Heidi announces abruptly. “I have to stand. If I don’t, Dad died for nuthin’.”

It is not clear what Heidi means by “stand.” It seems that two months ago, she and her family “stood” for something — I’m not sure what — and got the wind knocked out of them. But here Heidi is, up again, seemingly ready for a fight. And all in her father’s name.

Exactly what it was in John Singer’s memory that inspires this fierce devo­tion — the compulsion to make “a stand” — is only hinted at in his photograph, which rests against a chalkboard above the couch. He is smiling slightly and his expression reveals a curious playfulness. But there is also a steely intractability — ­the quality that apparently infuriated the town fathers of Kamas during the weeks before he was shot one January morning in 1979.

Singer’s father was a German who came to America before World War II to raise money for the Nazis; his mother, a devout Mormon. This strong-willed pair apparently wore each other out and Herr Singer, intent that his two sons not join the Mormon church, packed them off to Germany where he enrolled them in an SS training school.

John Singer professed to have hated the Nazis and, indeed, to have been ex­pelled from the school for “rebellious be­havior.” After the war, he returned to America and later joined the marines, which he did not seem to like much bet­ter. John Singer could not endure any form of regimentation.

In his late teens, he was lured to Utah by the offer of work from his father’s brother, Gustav Weller, who owned a con­siderable amount of land in the Kamas Valley. In that tiny and predominantly Mormon mountain community, Gus Wel­ler was regarded as an eccentric who held dangerous opinions.

Since the late 1800s, the church had been quietly ridding itself of certain embarrassing doctrines, chief among these, polygamy. Plural marriage was one of the holiest tenets of the early Mormon church. The argument went that a man who had one wife possessed such a tenu­ous claim on eternity that he could only hope to go to the Celestial Kingdom — the highest rung of Mormon heaven — as a minor angel. But the man who spread his seed widely might actually aspire to be­come a God. For justification, the church pointed to certain Old Testament patri­archs who took many wives. During the late 19th century, however, this apologia did not play well throughout the rest of the country, particularly Washington, D.C., where the territory’s petition for statehood was under consideration. The church foresook polygamy, and Utah was admitted to the Union.

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To fundamentalists this was unthink­able hypocrisy. Despite the threat of swift and severe retribution, they contin­ued to espouse polygamy among other discredited beliefs. Gus Weller was one of these malcontents. He taught fundamen­talist tenets to a handful of followers in his home on Upper Loop Road. Among those in regular attendance was his nephew.

Mormon fundamentalism, with its ap­peal to megalomania, found an ardent adherent in John Singer. Years later his family would tell how, as a young boy, Singer had shot a bald eagle, which fell and landed at his feet. He interpreted this as an omen that one day America would bow before him. It must therefore have been the source of some discomfort that by the time he reached 30, he had not only failed to secure the fealty of the nation, but could not even find a woman to marry him. He had gone hat in hand to a number of eligible young women in­forming them that God had directed them to become his bride only to be re­buffed or chased off by some boyfriend or father.

With Vickie Lemon it was different. One of the most popular girls at South Summit High School, she accepted a date with John Singer and was struck, as she later described it, by his “smell of fresh pine.” He later took her to the cabin he was building on a two-acre plot Gus Wel­ler had given him. She was impressed by his self-sufficiency and impeccable grooming. As she sat on the couch in his unfinished living room she recalled a “perfect peace.”

A few weeks later, they eloped over the border to Nevada. Vickie’s parents were certain that Singer had thrown some sort of spell over their daughter, and dis­patched a posse of gun-toting town folk to get her back. But Vickie insisted that she was quite sane and intended to live out the rest of her life with John Singer in his cabin atop Upper Loop Road.

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During the early years of their mar­riage, Singer worked with his Uncle Gus in a television repair shop in Salt Lake City. This lowly occupation, however, did not suit his opinion of himself as a man destined to be a spiritual leader, and he would wander off without warning to teach outlawed doctrine to German im­migrants. Gus was dismayed to learn that his protégé was not only falling down on the job but usurping his spiritual prerogatives.

As the breach between the two men grew, so too did Singer’s estrangement from the community. During Sunday ser­vices in Kamas he would stand, Book of Mormon in hand, point to passages of discredited doctrine, and taunt, “If you people don’t think this is right, let’s tear it out and throw it away.”

The Mormon church, which esteems conformity above most other virtues, moved to end these challenges by excom­municating the troublemaker. In Mor­mon society, where social and profession­al advancement depends on the good opinion of one’s neighbors, John Singer found himself an outcast.

He did not appear to mind. He scorned his scorners, claiming that his questions made them ashamed of having aban­doned their own spiritual roots. Eventually the TV repair business failed, and he retired to his little homestead, devoting himself to the business of being a patriarch.

The life that Singer fashioned for him­self and his family was partly the product of his romantic imagination, partly para­noia. The frontier had always held a fas­cination for him as an ideal of self-reli­ance. He dressed in buckskins, Vickie in long dresses. They raised livestock, kept an orchard, and operated their own flour mill and granary and stocked enough pro­visions to last for two years. The possibil­ity of catastrophe loomed large in their minds. Like many fundamentalists, Sing­er was convinced that the economy was on the verge of collapse at which time “mobs” would come up from the city and overrun the farm. Singer often carried a Colt automatic.

In the beginning they had a child a year. Heidi, Suzanne, and John Timothy. When Vickie’s health began to fail, babies came further apart. Charlotte, Joseph Hyrum, Hans Benjamin, and Israel Mo­roni. John Singer greeted the arrival of each new child with joy. On the first night of its life, the newborn would sleep in an exquisite wooden cradle that Singer had carved with his own hands. John Singer’s children were, as Heidi and Charlotte were fond of telling me, “the apple of his eye.”

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Some say Singer’s anger at the public schools began when Heidi’s schoolmates began to tease her about her old-fash­ioned clothes. For certain, he was not pleased when his oldest girls brought home what he called a “haughty atti­tude.” Although sex education in the Marion school consisted only of a basic biology course, Singer was appalled that anyone but himself should be allowed to raise with his children the sacred subject of procreation.

The final outrage came one day when Suzie Singer brought home a history text showing George Washington, Betsy Ross, and Martin Luther King on the same page. In accordance with the teachings of Joseph Smith, Singer had taught his chil­dren that they should not mingle with blacks (known as “Canaanites” after an ill-favored grandson of Noah). He marched down to the school and led his children out behind him.

In the beginning, the school board de­ferred to Singer’s wishes, offering to sup­ply textbooks and teaching plans. Singer spurned this assistance, teaching his chil­dren “as long as he pleased … when he pleased.” The results, contrary to Heidi’s blissful recollections, were not fortunate. Four years after the Singers left school, the state sent a psychologist up to the farm to test them. Dr. Victor Cline noted that the children were “happy, kind, lov­ing to each other, dutiful to their par­ents,” but that the drop in their intellec­tual development was “shocking.” The children registered IQs almost 30 points below their progenitors. As the youths moved into adolescence, the psychologist noted, there was no way that they could be protected from all of life’s unpleasant experiences. “It might be wiser,” he con­cluded, “to teach the children to cope with these while they grow up rather than let them experience only a protected un­real life at present.”

John Singer would have argued that the life he envisioned for his children was just as real — more real, perhaps — than the one the school system had in mind. He had created on his two and a half acres a self-sufficient world where chil­dren obeyed their parents out of love. In one sense, that life was a model of peace and security. Yet that security was illu­sory. Dr. Cline’s report made it clear that the passionate reliance which the Singers had upon one another was based largely upon fear. Fear of abusive schoolmates, fear of contamination from gentiles, fear of the mobs coming up from the city. Rather than return his children to the world, Singer withdrew them from it alto­gether.

The state of Utah charged John and Vickie with child neglect. After that, the Singers kept to their property for more than a year, living off supplies from the root cellar and keeping an eye on Summit County sheriff’s deputies who kept an intermittent vigil at the foot of the lane. Vickie was spotted wearing a pistol and a leather holster. Heidi grew proficient with a bow and arrow. Whenever John Singer left the house, he would be watched by one of his family positioned at the living room window with a pair of binoculars.

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John Singer could have diffused the hostility by simply answering the com­plaints against him. He had already in­corporated his “school” as a private acad­emy, and had he been willing to make a few more minor concessions, he would have been allowed to teach his children at home. But he refused, insisting it was necessary to make a stand, as the early American patriots had by throwing tea into Boston harbor. And so, declaring his two and a half acres an independent prin­cipality, he raised over the cabin a blue and white flag of the same design I had seen Heidi beading the day of my visit. He called it the Flag of the Kingdom of God.

Even when there was a contempt cita­tion out for his arrest, John Singer flout­ed church and civil law by taking a sec­ond wife. This was a woman named Shirley Black who lived on Upper Loop Road. Shirley was 49 and the mother of seven children. She was also married. But in the fundamentalist belief, a woman could be released from an existing mar­riage if the man was unworthy — in Death of an American, a brief biography of John Singer, Shirley claimed that her husband beat her — and enter into a plural union if it was sanctioned by God. John, Shirley, and Vickie all claimed to have revelations that this was to be. Shirley’s husband was, not unsurprisingly, infuriated when she took four of their children and moved into a little house at the back of the Singer cabin. He vowed to get his chil­dren back. The townspeople of Karnas were once again outraged by Singer’s te­merity and rallied to the assistance of Dean Black.

On the morning of January 18, 1979, John Singer walked down the lane to the mailbox, when suddenly he found himself rushed by state and federal agents on snowmobiles. The lawmen later claimed that Singer raised his gun to fire and caught a blast of buckshot under his right arm.

Charlotte Singer, who was on duty as sentinel that morning, saw something quite different.

“Dad was aimin’ the gun at them like, ‘leave me alone,’ ” she recalls. “He turned and was runnin’ home. And that was when they shot him … They wanted Dad dead and they murdered him.”

From Charlotte’s mouth it is startling to hear so harsh a judgment as “murder.” Her gentle features contort slightly in a spasm of anguish. It is exactly the expres­sion I had seen on her mother whom I had visited, just that morning, in the Salt Lake County Jail.

My mental image of Vickie had been formed by family photos of her taken during her thirties when she was a pert blond, frag­ile but tough. Cheerleader turned frontierswoman. But when Vickie took her place on one side of the glass in the visitor’s room, however, I was shocked. She was only 44, yet her mouth was sunken like a crone’s. (She lost her teeth due to various illnesses and, as she placed her faith in God rather than doc­tors, was still waiting for Him to grow her a third set.) The only suggestion of youth was her shiny blond hair, which, it is said, John Singer loved to stroke by the hour. Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, a cool and piercing blue.

How, I wondered, does the world look from the other side of those eyes? Does Vickie Singer see the bars and the sorry circumstances of her confinement, or is her gaze still wandering somewhere over the enchanted terrain of a Second Reality?

It is a matter of public record that shortly after her husband’s death, she received a “revelation” that he would re­turn. The night after John Singer was killed, Vickie spent the night listening to her children cry.

“In the early dawn,” Vickie told me, whispering through the mesh, “I felt the most marvelous peace … my husband spoke to me. He said, ‘Vickie. Don’t sor­row. Rejoice. Don’t look back. Look for­ward to the things to come forth.’ ”

“Did you hear a voice?” I asked. “Did you see something?”

“No,” Vickie replied. “Just a knowing. It’s like a marvelous burning … through your whole body … You can’t hallucinate something like this,” she explains, antici­pating my skepticism.

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Vickie tells me how during the days after his death, John Singer also comfort­ed his daughters. Charlotte had fallen se­riously ill, and her father appeared in a dream one night to explain that “Heaven­ly Father took me before it hit me.” Thereafter, Vickie came across a passage in the Book of Mormon that planted the idea that her husband had only been “marred,” not killed. She was also con­vinced that he was the “one mighty and strong,” whom Latter-day Saint prophets foretold would rise up and restore the original church. Each new revelation ap­parently supported the next until Vickie Singer and her daughters were convinced that John Singer’s return was not just s possibility, but a certainty.

Into this web of grief and expectation stepped Addam Swapp.

Addam was a country boy from Fair­view, Utah, about two hours south of Salt Lake. His cousin Roger Bates remembers Addam as a devil-may-care companion. The two of them would go on double dates and Addam, dark-eyed and good­-looking, got along well enough with girls his own age. He was not, however, part of the in-crowd. As Charlotte later ex­plained it, “He didn’t try to please peo­ple.” Addam Swapp, in fact, had the same stubborn, antiauthoritarian streak that had characterized John Singer.

In junior high, a fundamentalist class­mate had quietly introduced him to the discredited Mormon doctrine, which held that Adam, a mere man, had become God. Indeed, any mortal man could be­come God. It was a concept that appealed as mightily to Addam Swapp as it had to John Singer. After that, Addam read widely among unauthorized texts, which left him with contempt for the religion which he felt had abandoned its origins. He was in high school when blacks were allowed into the priesthood. It left him disgusted. After that, he never again set foot in church.

That was 1978, the same year he first laid eyes on 14-year-old Heidi Singer. It was during the 13-month siege, and she was telling a television reporter who had come up to the farm how her father had kept her “clean from the world.” Addam Swapp told himself, “I’m going to marry that girl.” In fact, he fell in love with the entire Singer family. John Singer, he felt, was one of those few men who “stood on truth.” Addam had decided to load up two guns in his car and go up to help out, but two days later John Singer was dead.

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If Addam Swapp had come of age in the mainstream church, he would have been sent on a mission. As a fledgling fundamentalist, however he was denied that formal avenue for spiritual adven­ture. His father, Ramon, later explained to me that a young Mormon male is usu­ally “full of vim and vigor, and wants to save the world.” The plight of the Singer women, left husbandless and fatherless, appealed to his son’s sense of destiny. “A seed,” as he put it, “in a fertile field.”

A month after Singer died, Addam went up to the farm and introduced him­self to the Singer women. Shortly there­after, he brought his cousin, Roger Bates, who began courting the 16-year-old Su­zanne. Addam, for his part, laid claim to Heidi. That fall, the four of them went to the woods behind the cabin and ex­changed wedding vows.

The Swapps’ first year of married life was apparently rocky. Addam later told me in a jail-house interview that he and Heidi were “bullheaded” and that he found the farm a little cramped. They moved for a time to an apartment in nearby Midway, and Addam worked with Roger selling tire casings. It is not exactly clear what Vickie made of all this except that she was upset over losing her “babies.” She also had to contend with Char­lotte, who had taken to her bed weeping.

Charlotte, then 11, claimed she was also in love with Addam, who treated her like a kid sister. A few years after his marriage to Heidi, he had a revelation to put things right. In this dream, he and Heidi were standing by a river. She was tempted to travel down it but Addam, seeing that it led to a wicked city, said to her, “No, it will destroy you.” Instead they took a narrow path that led into the mountains. At one point they encountered Charlotte standing in the middle of the path, and they both took her by the hand. All three tried to cross a crystal pond, but Charlotte sank. They pulled her up and walked together toward the glass doors of a shining city.

Addam interpreted this as divine reve­lation that he should marry Charlotte. In the protected, unreal world of the Singer-­Swapps, this announcement seemed to provoke only a flurry of resistance. Heidi sulked a bit at first, but inasmuch as Addam’s direction had come from God, it had to be credited. Addam took Heidi back to the farm where he married her sister, who was 15. After that, he was said to have divided his time equally between the two, who lived in their separate huts behind the cabin. Addam eventually had five children with Heidi and one with Charlotte.

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Vickie Singer apparently approved of this menage because, among other rea­sons, she was in need of a man about the house. Her eldest son, Timothy, who had taken over many of his father’s chores, was crippled in a logging accident and confined to a wheelchair. And she found herself embattled on many fronts. Gus Weller’s children, under the guidance of his son, Jared, tried to have her evicted from her property. She went to court, arguing that Gus, now deceased, had al­ways intended to deed the property to John. She won that round, but her legal problems were just beginning.

Vickie was grieved not only by the loss of her husband but the circumstances un­der which he died. A fundamentalist friend and a sympathetic physician had slipped into the mortuary and photo­graphed Singer’s body: he had clearly been shot in the back. With the help of John Singer’s brother, Vickie secured the services of the flamboyant Wyoming at­torney, Gerry Spence, and filed a $110 million wrongful death suit in U.S. dis­trict court against the State of Utah. Vickie was enthusiastic to the point of euphoria about Spence, in whom she per­ceived an invincible champion against the temporal world. Her joy was cut short, however, when the suit was dismissed on the grounds of “insufficient evidence.” She appealed, but that, too, was denied. Vickie’s outrage, which might have been dissipated by a proper hearing in court, continued to fester. To the Singer-Swapps, the failure of the civil suit was evidence of a conspiracy that, in their eyes, encompassed the Wellers, the Mor­mon church, the State of Utah, and the United States of America. In the years to come, any person or entity that appeared to threaten the interests of the family joined the swelling league of culprits. In the summer of 1986, the Marion Water Works was added to the roster.

Water is not a trivial issue in Utah, and during the dry summer of 1985, senti­ments were enflamed in the Kamas Val­ley. Until then, Vickie Singer had enjoyed rights to a spring above her property. The Water Works, however, dug a line that reduced her flow to a trickle. She appealed to the commissioners to restore her water, but met with no success. The argument dragged on well into the sum­mer of 1987, when Addam Swapp took matters into his own hands and dug a trench to bring the water back. This trench, unfortunately, ran straight across the property of Jared Weller.

One hot morning in July, two of Jared’s sons caught Addam on their land. Heidi ran up from the house to see what was going on, and the sight of the three men in fierce argument impressed itself upon her memory. Several nights later, she had a dream that she and Addam were standing in the lane, when they were confronted by a black bull. The bull then turned into a man with knives on his fingers. “He was supposed to cut and kill me,” Heidi later wrote in her journal, “but I knew Addam would shoot [him]­ — and Dad would be there to stop it also.”

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Heidi’s dream electrified the family, be­coming the subject of endless interpreta­tion. The bull, it was decided, represented their enemies. Vickie, whose longing for her husband had reached agonizing pro­portions, wrote that “the bull striking would be the cause of Dad coming home … right in the nick of time. I had a dream awhile back about John’s being home,” she continued, “and I said to him … ‘Oh, John, I want to hold you … God, help me. It’s been so long …’ ”

She even went so far as to speculate about what John might do once he had returned. He would help her discipline their sons. He would give a piece of his mind to his brother, Harald, who had insulted her by suggesting she get a job. “My husband knows that I already have ‘a job,’ ” she noted. “He also knows the tremendous serious stand that is required of us at this time, and that we are in no position to go out among the gentiles.”

Making the stand became the gateway through which this modern miracle would pass. The stand would set the molecules of the temporal world aquiver. It would summon God from his “hiding place” and John Singer from the dead. Together they would rescue the family from peril. The stand, then, became the frontier between the First and Second Reality.

Vickie seemed to go out of her way, just as John had nine years earlier, to provoke the authorities. She refused to reincorpo­rate the academy under state law, noting that it might “give them an excuse to come against us.” She also declined to pay the portion of her property tax that was earmarked for the school, reasoning that the board had had a hand in killing her husband. As a result, she got a notice that her home was being “sold for prior taxes.”

Addam wrote an angry letter to the county commissioners asking how “this wicked government,” after leaving Vickie Singer a widow, now had the nerve to take her home. “If you try to take away our land,” he warned, “you will have a fight on your hands and God will fight our battles.” Addam also sent letters to the Marion Water Works and the school board, suggesting that the Lord would “strike them down.”

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Addam’s scarcely veiled threats upset enough of the local citizenry that the Summit County sheriff’s department dis­patched three deputies to visit him on the farm. As Vickie described this encounter in her journals, Addam went out with guns on, telling them to stop or he would “hand them their heads.”

“Addam said he was surprised about what happened next,” Vickie mused. “His hand went straight into the air with the gun and he fired a shot.”

After that there was a standing felony warrant for his arrest.

Addam grew increasingly cocky. This bravado was due to yet another dream. He had been crouching behind logs firing at “the enemy,” when John Singer ap­peared in front of him and commanded him to “fight like a man.” Suddenly, Singer caught a hail of bullets in the back shielding Addam, who walked away un­scathed. Vickie interpreted this to mean that, since her husband had “paid the price … they couldn’t hurt Addam when he had to stand against them.”

The effect of this was to leave the fledgling patriarch feeling invincible. He would be a champion who, unlike John Singer, could not be destroyed. In the minds of the Singer women, the distinc­tion between the two men was growing increasingly blurred. Heidi had foreseen Addam and Dad saving them from the bull. Vickie then had a dream that Ad­dam had started talking to her in a German accent. When she looked at him he had been literally transformed into her husband.

Addam seemed to accept his destiny enthusiastically, assuming Singer’s fron­tier dress right down to the fringed buck­skin jacket. Whenever he left the house, he carried Singer’s old Colt. Once, after spending three days of fasting in the hills, he returned with a fresh revelation that he and John Singer were destined to be­come prophets. It had been shown to him that Singer would return to gather the tribes of Israel — all except for the Ameri­can Indians, which were to be Addam’s responsibility. (Addam had always had a special affinity for the so-called “Laman­ites” whose skin was dark because of their iniquities but who God had prom­ised would turn white if they repented. He even claimed to have some Indian blood in his veins, a fact which his par­ents later denied.)

That three-day fast produced another revelation. Addam was to take a third wife. The young woman in question was a daughter of Shirley Black. This news sent Heidi into a funk. She knew that a proph­et of Addam’s impending stature should have many wives. And she had accepted his marriage to her little sister, but an outsider was different. Heidi suffered for several days, during which time Vickie noted in her journal that this torment had also been foretold by the bull dream. “The bull meant death,” she wrote, “but in this sense ‘death to her mortal-ego self.’ ”

Heidi finally wrestled her troublesome ego to the ground and gave Addam leave to go courting. One morning in late No­vember, he put on his guns and Indian moccasin boots and paid his intended a call. His courtship was short-lived. Julie Black, who had been a child living at the Singer compound during the 13-month siege, hoped to forget the past and cer­tainly wanted nothing more to do with those people up on the hill. Her brother announced that he would rather see his sister dead than married to Addam and later drove up to the Singer’s lane to shout, “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

The hostility that Addam was arousing in the community alarmed Vickie’s moth­er, Marge Lemon, who saw her estranged daughter plotting a dangerous recreation of old tragedy. She wrote a series of let­ters pleading with Vickie to come back to earth.

“You have been a good mother,” she allowed. “You sure have some good kids. But this thing you have about John has got to end … Do you think that all peo­ple has to do is sit around thinking up revenge on you? You are the one that is dwelling on it … I do believe it’s within your power to control whether Addam’s life ends like John’s,” she warned. “Don’t make a martyr out of Addam.”

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By the fall of 1987, the Singer-­Swapp family, which now included Addam’s younger brother, Jon, was living in a world that they reinvented daily, weaving in the details of each new revelation. While Ad­dam was prophet-designate, it was Vickie who seemed to be the chief interpreter of the family’s dream life. Her journal en­tries for the next three months revealed a woman for whom material and meta­physical considerations had become vir­tually indistinguishable. In one breath she talked of getting the driveway paved and new chairs for the kitchen; in the next, she was scheduling social calls for her dead husband. Each minor inconve­nience that arose presented the opportu­nity to make a stand and thereby trip the switch on reality.

I remember reading Vickie’s journal well into the early morning hours and thinking that the difference between her and the stolid burghers who attended those prayer and testimony meetings of my youth is that she had no temporal curbs on her imagination. Neither did her family. Living as they did in their pro­tected, unreal world, they reinforced one another’s fantasies, crediting each dream with apocalyptic significance, finally fall­ing under the sway of a mass hallucination.

What was most amazing, however, was the detached and sometimes blithe fash­ion in which she would write about these events. It was difficult to tell how much of which reality she was experiencing during any given entry. There was one particularly surreal exchange that she was having with a small-time film pro­ducer who had contacted her, with the intention of making a TV movie of John Singer’s life. (Charlton Heston, it was hoped, would play the lead.) I was sur­prised to learn that Vickie was engaging in this kind of commerce. Even more surprised to learn that she was taking an active role in shaping and editing the screenplay, an uncompleted draft of which she had included in the journal. (Wings of Morning, as it was called, was the sensitive story of a high-minded po­lygamist. In this version, John Singer goes to the mailbox unarmed.)

A cynic might conclude that Vickie Singer was quietly laying her plans for Armageddon in hopes of providing a socko last scene for a movie of the week. A more charitable interpretation — one which I eventually came to adopt — is that she simply saw in the screenplay one more avenue to reinvent reality by writ­ing an ending to her liking.

Ironically, it was the producer who un­wittingly triggered the final episode of the Singer-Swapps’ real-life drama. Around the first of the year, he sent Vickie a videotape containing footage of John Singer during the school battle, sug­gesting thoughtfully that “You could view it on John’s birthday.”

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The following evening, the entire fam­ily gathered around a rented VCR to watch the tape. As Vickie later described that experience, she and Heidi wept. So did Addam. “It was a very profound spir­it that came upon us,” she wrote. “It strengthened Addam in his stand … He watched the film over and then again.” One week later she reported, “Addam says he knows what he had to do. He believes, or knows, it has to take place on the 18th. (The ninth anniversary of John’s martyrdom.) God be with us.”

What “it” might be was not spelled out in Vickie’s journal. Nor were the prepara­tions. Vickie, in fact, was sufficiently oblique as to allow her defense to argue that she had no knowledge of what was actually to occur. The U.S. attorney later filled in for the benefit of a jury the details of those preparations, which in­cluded the amassing of 23 firearms and the purchase of 100 pounds of explosives.

Vickie does mention the possibility of blowing up Jared Weller’s reservoir. The reason why they settled, instead, upon the Kamas Stake Center is unclear ex­cept that the previous year Addam had gone down to the church to get his name taken off the membership rolls and ended up in a shoving match with Jared.

On Friday, January 15, Addam made what Vickie described as a “blood-red pole” — it was more of a spear, actually­ — to which he attached nine white feathers and a message reading, “J.S. Jan. 18, 1979 — Church, state and nation will now be destroyed.” Vickie prayed as to wheth­er she should allow her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, to go along to carry the pole. It was revealed to her that he should. As Addam, his brother, and Benjamin trudged one and a half miles over the snowy fields, their cargo in tow, Vickie prayed for “The explosives, that thy blessing be upon them, that they will not malfunction …”

The blast was delayed by a timer, which allowed the bombers to clear the scene. They were back up at the cabin when the church blew. Addam thought it looked like many evil spirits were rising above the chapel because of the eerie red glow and the smoke in the darkness.

“It is very serious,” Vickie noted. “The battle has begun.”

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It is a virtual certainty in the temporal world that when someone dynamites a site of interstate commerce — which oddly enough the Kamas Stake Cen­ter was held to be — federal agents will gather quickly. Peering through the eyes of the First Reality, they found the blood-­red pole with its cryptic allusions to John Singer stuck in the snow in the church parking lot. They followed a set of tracks to the bottom of Upper Loop Road and by Sunday afternoon, the Singer cabin was surrounded by 150 law enforcement officers, including Treasury explosives ex­perts and FBI men. The Weller relatives at the end of the lane were evacuated to accommodate sharpshooters.

The Singer-Swapps, who were listening to the details of these preparations on a Bearcat scanner, were gleeful at having inconvenienced Jared and his family. Ad­dam broke spontaneously into a hymn, and Vickie hoisted John Singer’s old Flag of the Kingdom of God. That afternoon, they received a visit from Addam’s cousin and brother-in-law, Roger Bates, who had been dispatched as a peacemaker. Bates came back down the lane to tell reporters that the Singers were “just waiting for John to come home.”

On Monday, lawmen patrolled the perimeter quietly, hoping not to agitate the family on this, the proposed day of resur­rection. But it passed quietly. The ground did not open. The graves did not give forth their dead. And John Singer did not return. Vickie, that constant chronicler of the Second Reality, was curiously silent on this disappointment. She observed that certain TV reporters had pointed to this as the resurrection day, noting with irritation, “We haven’t set a ‘day.’ ”

Government agents operating out of a command post in the church parking lot ruled out rushing the cabin. The Singers were known to be well-armed and to be stockpiling dynamite. And the cabin was filled with children. They were also aware of the bungled attempt to capture John Singer.

For the next five days, police tried to flush the Singers out with nuisances. They cut off their electricity and water, buzzed them with helicopers and bom­barded them with lights. The sense of embattlement only seemed to make the family more peaceful. Charlotte played hymns. They all sang. “We cooked a nice dinner on the stove,” Vickie wrote at one point. “And also popped some after din­ner popcorn.”

“This is some STAND,” she rejoiced. “A little family against a whole army of ‘lawmen.’ ”

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But by the weekend, the euphoria had begun to wane. The FBI had posted a set of sirens, which shrieked throughout the night. The children muffled their heads with pillows. Vickie complained that the “terrible shrill sound penetrated my head so much I got a deep headache and began getting dizzy.” Addam and Jon Swapp first shot at the speakers, then went out and pulled them down. On Sunday, they allowed a visit by Ogden Kraut, a fellow fundamentalist and old family friend, who had offered his services as negotia­tor. Ogden greeted the children, who were very excited to see a visitor, and ex­plained to Vickie very gently that there had been “a spiritual resurrection. Look at all the attention he’s getting with ev­erything being brought up again.”

Ogden also offered Vickie Singer a chance to air her grievances. He would hand carry letters to the governor of Utah. Vickie agreed and subsequently penned a poignant account of her frustra­tion and anguish.

“I have not been able to have my day in court,” she wrote. “I have been perse­cuted by my neighbors in that they tried to have me thrown out of my home since my husband was shot to death, but by the grace of God they did not succeed …

“ALL in ALL the grievances suffered by this family in a ‘free’ country can hardly be told, let alone believed … We talked until we were ‘blue in the face’ so to speak, but could not be heard … ”

Addam also wrote a letter, and Ogden Kraut came for them as promised. They did not go to the governor, however, but to the command post where the FBI read Addam’s angry militant rhetoric and de­cided that the Singer-Swapps were hell-­bent upon confrontation.

The FBI felt that if Addam Swapp could be isolated and captured, then the rest of the family would surrender peace­fully. That evening they contrived a plan to remount the noisemakers this time with a booby-trapped explosive, which would stun the Swapp brothers if they tried to dislodge them. At that point, state officers hiding in a trench nearby would unleash dogs to bring the men down. The Swapps came out as planned but the flash fizzled and the dog that was to have attacked them turned instead and bit his handler.

The following morning, Addam and Jon walked out to the goat pen as was their custom. Lieutenant Fred House, a state corrections officer who was hidden in an outbuilding a few yards away, sig­naled his dog to attack. The dog balked. House leaned out the door to give the animal encouragement. From an upstairs window of the cabin where the invalid Timothy Singer was posted as lookout there came a shot that hit House in the chest. He slumped back against a wall. The color left his face, making him ap­pear, in the words of a fellow officer, “very similar to a cartoon.”

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A sharpshooter opened fire, catching Addam in the ribs. He fell to the snow, where he lay bleeding for a moment, then dragged himself into the house, where he was encircled by his dazed family. He asked for a blessing, then told them, “I’m going to have to surrender and get to a hospital.”

Vickie and Addam, as well as Timothy Singer and Jon Swapp, were charged in U.S. District Court with 32 counts of federal firearms violations and attempted murder of a federal officer. (The State of Utah held off bringing its own charges for the death of officer House until the feder­al government had concluded its business with the family.) After a trial that ran throughout April and half of May, they were convicted of virtually every charge. (Vickie was acquitted of attempted mur­der and possession of a sawed-off shot­gun.) The outcome surprised no one.

During the siege and after their arrest, all four defendants had made admissions of one kind or another. The only defense left to them was to plead insanity, but they would not hear of it. The family’s court-appointed attorneys had hoped that by focusing upon why their clients had acted as they did, they might elicit sympathy. The government, however, called a numbing succession of federal agents who kept the focus trained narrowly upon how they had accomplished their mischief.

All that remained then was the faint hope that the defendants might find sym­pathizers among the jury, which was drawn from the predominantly Mormon Salt Lake County. These were, after all, just the sort of people who might under­stand the nature of miracles. As a matter of faith they accept the premise that God speaks to man today just as he did in antiquity. And what God could do then, he could do now. But resurrection is a tough trick to credit. To good mainstream Mormons for whom the Second Reality is largely a Sunday exercise, the Singers probably were, as their patriarch once claimed, a prick in the conscience. They certainly were an embarrassment. The family elicited no sympathy from their Mormon brethren.

In the days thereafter, the family tried to put the best face on things, pointing out that Addam had been spared, they claimed, because John Singer had “paid the price.” A sign that God’s word had been fulfilled. Addam Swapp remained defiant, wearing to court each day the buckskin jacket that his wives had so carefully decorated with Indian symbols and the Flag of the Kingdom of God. He took the stand, against his attorney’s best advice, and claimed full responsibility for the bombing. Even this selfless gesture failed to move the jury, which appor­tioned guilt more or less equally.

After the verdict, Addam issued a Dec­laration of Independence, signed by Vickie and the others, declaring their se­cession from the Union.

“We have suffered the conspiracys [sic] of Wicked men in both Church and this the American Government,” he wrote. “We have suffered Publick Humiliation and the Defamation of our character .. By hounding, Persecuting and Depriving us of our Liberties … They have tried to … Wipe us out all in the name of the U.S. Government …

“Let it be known, to all Nations … that we are a Nation under God. That we are Independent, seperate [sic] and Free.”

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Several weeks after Addam issued his declaration, I made another visit to the Singer farm to see how the new republic was faring.

Charlotte answers the door with none of her usual perkiness. Her eyes are listless and she moves into the living room slowly, like an old cat.

I am not sure, now that the waves of spiritual euphoria have subsided, how much of her present condition she actual­ly comprehends. So I ask tentatively.

“What has Addam said about how all of you will be cared for?”

“Oh, boy,” she rallies slightly. “Day by day there are little miracles just showin’ us that the Lord is takin’ care of us.”

“Little miracles?” I ask, recalling invol­untarily the childhood image of hot dogs multiplying wildly in a Frigidaire. “What kind of little miracles?”

“Sometimes people send us some mon­ey. But people mainly bring us food … We’re doin’ just as good now as if Addam was goin’ to work.”

She cannot maintain this rush of optimism.

“I get depressed,” she confesses. “It’s hard, really hard, to believe, you know … because the Lord has promised us cer­tain things … Like Mom getting new teeth … He’s promised us that Dad is gonna come home. And it’s really hard because you know how you get in the mortal way of thinking and you think ‘How can that ever happen?’ ”

But doubt does not befit the wife of a patriarch. And whenever these heretical thoughts come upon her, Addam gives her a stern talking to from prison. If there is one thing the Singer girls are conditioned to respond to, it’s the rally­ing cry of the patriarch.

Outside dusk is falling, and from the window I can see all the way down the lane to the mailbox mounted on the post. It is the hour during which the Singers become uneasy about visitors. A witching hour when little miracles lose their com­monplace proportions and loom with fantastic promise. Bathed now in the glow of unreal light, Charlotte announces gravely, “I’m expectin’ a miracle. That’s the only thing that’s gonna free them is a miracle.”

In another room, her baby and the other children are playing under the watchful gaze of John Singer’s photo. They already know his legend by heart. They have heard countless times that his “blood was spilt” and that he “paid the price” for them. They saw their father shot down in the front yard — just as their mothers saw their own father shot down nine years earlier. Each time their fathers have done battle with the forces of the First Reality they have been beaten bad­ly. But adversity is mother’s milk to a zealot.

Just the other day, one of the younger boys set the dog on Jared Weller as he ventured too close to the cabin. And, I wonder, listening to the shrieks and gig­gles, if it will be him, or his brother, or his cousin, who will be called to make the next stand. ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

In Search of a Soviet Holocaust

A 55-Year Old Famine Feeds The Right

Something therefore always remains and sticks from the most impudent lies…
The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed.

— Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

The girl is dying. She looks about five years old, but we know she may be older, dimin­ished by hunger. She leans wearily against a gate. Her long hair falls lank about bare shoul­ders. Her head rests against her arm. Her neck is bent, like a stalk in parched earth. Her eyes are the worst — large and dark, glazed yet still wistful. The child is dying, starving, and we feel guilty for our witness …

The Ukrainian émigrés who made Har­vest of Despair knew a gripping image when they saw one. The black-and-white still, played over an arching, minor-mode chorus, was chosen to close the Canadian documentary on the Ukraine of 1932-33. The same photograph was used to pro­mote the film, to symbolize a long-dor­mant cause célebre: a “man-made” fam­ine, “deliberately engineered” by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and cow a stubborn peasantry into permanent col­lectivization. Seven million Ukrainians were killed, the narrator tells us, as “a nation the size of France [was] strangled by hunger.”

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The result, intoned William F. Buckley, whose Firing Line showed the film last November, was “perhaps the greatest ho­locaust of the century.”

The term “holocaust” still burns the ears, even in our jaded time. As we watch the film and see corpses piled in fields, bloated bodies sprawled in streets, pale skeletons grasping for bits of bread, we wonder: How can such a terrible story have been suppressed so long?

Here is how: The story is a fraud. The starving girl, it turns out, wasn’t found in 1932 or 1933, nor in the Ukraine. Her picture was taken from a Red Cross bulletin on the 1921-22 Volga famine, for which no one claims genocide. Rather than an emblem of persecution, the photograph advances the most cyni­cal of swindles — a hoax played out from the White House and Congress through the halls of Harvard to the New York State Department of Education. Pressing every pedal, pulling all the strings, is a Ukrainian nationalist lobby straining to cloak its own history of Nazi collabora­tion. By revising their past, these émigrés help support a more ambitious revision­ism: a denial of Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews.

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possi­bly one or two million, Ukrainians died — ­the minority from starvation, the major­ity from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffer­ing. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.

In 1932, the Soviet Union was in crisis. The cities had suffered food shortages since 1928. Grain was desperately needed for export and foreign capital, both to fuel the first Five-Year Plan and to counter the growing war threat from Ger­many. In addition, the Communist Par­ty’s left wing, led by Stalin, had come to reject the New Economic Plan, which re­stored market capitalism to the country­side in the 1920s.

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In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move toward socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — ­hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thou­sands of party activists assassinated. Production superseded politics, and many peasants were coerced rather than won to collective farms. Vast disruption of the 1932 harvest ensued (and not only in the Ukraine), and many areas were hard-pressed to meet the state’s grain requisition quotas.

Again, Stalin and the Politburo played major roles. “But there is plenty of blame to go around,” as Sovietologist John Arch Getty recently noted in The London Re­view of Books. “It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and offi­cials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter ani­mals, burn fields, and boycott cultivation in protest.”

Such a balanced analysis, however, has never satisfied Ukrainian nationalists in the United States and Canada, for whom the “terror-famine” is an article of faith and communal rallying point. For decades after the fact, their obsession was con­fined to émigré journals. Only of late has it achieved a sort of mainstream credibil­ity — in Harvest of Despair, shown on PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and at numerous college campuses; in The Harvest of Sorrow, an Oxford University Press account by Rob­ert Conquest; in a “human rights” curric­ulum, now available to every 10th-grade social studies teacher in New York State; and in the federally funded Ukraine Fam­ine Commission, now into its second year of “hearings.”

After 50 years on the fringes, the Ukraine famine debate is finally front and center. While one-note faminologists may teach us little real history, they re­veal how our sense of history is pulled by political fashion until it hardens into the taffy of conventional wisdom. And how you can fool most of the people most of the time — especially when you tell them what they want to hear.

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THE FILM

Harvest of Despair was the brain­child of Marco Carynnyk, a Ukrai­nian translator and poet who lives in Toronto. In 1983, Carynnyk found a sponsor in St. Vladimir’s Institute, which formed a Ukrainian Famine Research Committee of well-to-­do émigrés . The committee raised $200,000 for the documentary, including a major grant from the Ukrainian Cana­dian Committee (a spiritual descendant of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), and a loan from the simi­larly right-wing World Congress of Free Ukrainians.

As chief researcher for the film, Caryn­nyk had two major functions — to locate and interview famine survivors, and to find archival photographs. Talking heads would not be enough to make a case for genocide. To gain its intended shock val­ue, the film would have to show what the famine was like. “There can be no ques­tion,” assessed The Winnipeg Free Press, “that without the films and photographs uncovered from the 1932-33 famine, the film would lose much of its authority.”

“I gave them two sets of photographs,” Carynnyk said. “I told them, ‘Here are the ones from the 1930s, and here are the ones from 1921-22.’ But in the cutting of the film, they were all mixed up. I said this can’t be done, that it will leave the film open to criticism … My complaints were ignored. They just didn’t think it was important.”

One problem, Carynnyk said, was that producer Slawko Nowitski faced an im­possible five-month deadline to ready the film during the famine’s 50th anniversa­ry. (In fact, Harvest of Despair would not be completed until late 1984.) But the researcher believes it was more than mere sloppiness at work. “The research com­mittee was more interested in propagan­distic purposes than historical scholarship,” said Carynnyk, who has sued the Famine Research Committee for copy­right violation. “They were quite pre­pared to cut corners to get their point across.”

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In October 1983, Carynnyk left the project — “relieved of his duties,” accord­ing to Nowitski, “because he did not pro­duce the required material.” Three years and seven awards later, the lid blew last November at a meeting of the Toronto Board of Education, where terror-famine proponents were pressing to include the film in the city’s high school curriculum. The show stopped cold when Doug Tot­tle, former editor of a Winnipeg labor magazine, stood up and declared that “90 per cent” of the film’s archival photo­graphs were plagiarized from the 1921-22 famine.

Tottle traced several of the most graphic photos, including that of the starving girl, to famine relief sources of the 1920s. (Some of these resurfaced in 1933 as anti-Soviet propaganda in Voelk­ischer Beobachter, an official Nazi party organ.) Other pictures were lifted from the 1936 English edition of Human Life in Russia, by Ewald Ammende, an Aus­trian relief worker in the earlier Volga famine. Ammende attributes them to a “Dr. F. Dittloff,” a German engineer who supposedly took the photos in the sum­mer of 1933. The Dittloff pictures have their own bastard pedigrees — three from 1922 Geneva-based relief bulletins, others from Nazi publications. Still other Ditt­loffs were also claimed as original by Robert Green, a phony journalist and es­caped convict who provided famine mate­rial to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935. Green, a convicted forger who used the alias “Thomas Walker,” reported that he took the photos in the spring of 1934 — almost a year after the Ukraine famine had ended, and in direct contra­diction of Dittloff.

Although Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935, right-wing émigrés have used his spurious photos for decades. “It’s not that these pictures were suddenly discov­ered in 1983 and accidentally misdated” in the film, Tottle noted.

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Tottle had done his homework. Caryn­nyk confirmed that “very few” photos in Harvest of Despair could be authenticat­ed, and that none of the famine film footage was from 1932-33. But the Ukraine Famine Research Committee de­cided to stonewall. At first they insisted that any photos from the 1920s were used only when the film discussed the Volga famine — a blatant evasion, since that segment lasts a scant 28 seconds and uses only two still photos, neither especially potent. Committee chairman Wasyl Jan­ischewskyj recently softened that stance: “We have researched further and made discoveries that some photos we thought were from 1932-33 were not … We are now having further deep investigations of these pictures.”

In the main, however, the filmmakers have sought to justify their fraud. “You have to have visual impact,” said Orest Subtelny, the film’s historic adviser. “You want to show what people dying from a famine look like. Starving children are starving children.” A documentary, added producer Nowitski, must rely on “emotional truth” more than literal facts.

“These people have never attempted to refute my claims,” said Tottle. (His book on the subject, Fraud, Famine, and Fas­cism, will be published this fall by Toron­to’s Progress Books, an outlet for Soviet releases.) “They have tried to lie and cover it up, but they have not tried to refute it.”

Nor have the nationalists refuted Tot­tle’s contention that several “witnesses” in the film were Nazi collaborators, in­cluding two German diplomats who served in the Third Reich and an Ortho­dox Church layman who blessedly rose to bishop while the Third Reich occupied the Ukraine in 1942.

“Just because they’re collaborators,” countered Nowitski, “does that mean we cannot believe anything they tell us? Just because they’re Nazis is no reason to doubt the authenticity of what happened.”

This slant pervades émigré research on the famine. Soviet sources are rejected out of hand, while Nazi sources (or known liars like Walker and Dittloff) are accepted unconditionally. In the Goeb­bels tradition, the nationalists’ brief al­ways serves their anticommunism — no matter how many facts twist slowly in the process. Harvest of Despair follows unholy footsteps, and never breaks stride.

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THE BOOK

According to a 1978 article in The Guardian of London, Robert Con­quest got his big break shortly after World War II, when he joined the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office. Staffed heavily by émigrés, the IRD’s mission was a covert “propaganda counter-offen­sive” against the Soviet Union. It was heady, hands-on work for a young writer, a chance to slant media coverage of Russia by adding political “spin” to Eastern bloc press releases and funneling them to top reporters. The journalists knew little about the IRD, beyond the names of their mysterious contacts. The public knew nothing at all, even as their opinions were being sculpted.

After Conquest left the IRD in 1956, the agency suggested that he package some of his handiwork into a book. That first compilation was distributed in the U.S. by Fred Praeger, who had previously published several books at the request of the CIA.

The shy and courtly Conquest has come a long way since then, from gray propagandist to éminence grise. He is now a senior research fellow at the Hoo­ver Institute at Stanford, as well as an associate of Harvard’s Ukrainian Re­search Institute. But his heart and his pen never left the IRD. The Soviet Union would be Conquest’s lifetime obsession. He churned out book after book on the horrors of communism: The Nation Kill­er, Where Marx Went Wrong, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. His landmark work of 1968, The Great Terror, focused on Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. But by 1984, his work had turned surreal; What To Do When the Russians Come was the literary equivalent of that politi­co-teen-disaster flick, Red Dawn. Yet he remained a mainstream heavyweight, coasting on reputation, his excesses ac­cepted as Free World zeal.

In 1981, the Ukrainian Research Insti­tute approached Conquest with a major project: a book on the 1932-33 famine. The pot was sweetened by an $80,000 subsidy from the Ukrainian National As­sociation, a New Jersey-based group with a venerable, hard-right tradition; the UNA’s newspaper, Swoboda, was banned by Canada during World War II for its pro-German sympathies. (The grant was earmarked for Conquest’s research expenses, including the assistance of James Mace, a junior fellow at URI.)

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The nationalists knew they’d be getting their money’s worth. At the time, famino­logy was virgin ground. There was little source material available, since the Soviet archives remain sealed. More to the point, most non-émigré historians viewed the 1932-33 famine as an outgrowth of collectivization, not a political phenome­non of itself, much less a stab at geno­cide. But Conquest was different. In his Terror book, he’d already concluded that more than three million Ukrainians were killed by the famine. Here, clearly, was the right man for the job, a man who once stated: “Truth can thus only perco­late in the form of hearsay … basically the best, though not infallible, source is rumor.” And with no one on record to dispute the issue, Conquest’s rumors could rule.

In The Harvest of Sorrow, Conquest outdoes himself. He weaves his terror­-famine from unverifiable (and notorious­ly biased) émigré accounts. He leans on reportage from ex-Communist converts to the American Way. He cites both “Walker” and Ammende. Black Deeds of the Kremlin, a period piece published by Ukrainian émigrés in 1953, is footnoted no less than 145 times.

Conquest can be deftly selective when it suits his purpose. He borrows heavily from Lev Kopelev’s The Education of a True Believer, but ignores Kopelev when the latter recalls Ukrainian villages that were relatively untouched by famine, or relief efforts by a Communist village council.

By confirming people’s worst suspi­cions of Stalin’s rule, The Harvest of Sor­row has won favorable reviews from The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. But leading scholars on this era are less im­pressed. They challenge Conquest’s con­tention that Ukrainian priests and intelli­gentsia — two major counterrevolutionary camps — were repressed more ruthlessly than anywhere else in the country. They point out that the 1932-33 famine was hardly confined to the Ukraine, that it reached deep into the Black Earth region of central Russia. They note that Stalin had far less control over collectivization than is widely assumed, and that radical district leaders made their own rules as they went along.

Most vehemently of all, these experts reject Conquest’s hunt for a new holo­caust. The famine was a terrible thing, they agree, but it decidedly was not genocide.

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“There is no evidence it was intention­ally directed against Ukrainians,” said Al­exander Dallin of Stanford, the father of modern Sovietology. “That would be to­tally out of keeping with what we know — ­it makes no sense.”

“This is crap, rubbish,” said Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania, whose Russian Peasants and Soviet Pow­er broke new ground in social history. “I am an anti-Stalinist, but I don’t see how this [genocide] campaign adds to our knowledge. It’s adding horrors, adding horrors, until it becomes a pathology.”

“I absolutely reject it,” said Lynne Vio­la of SUNY-Binghamton, the first U.S. historian to examine Moscow’s Central State Archive on collectivization. “Why in god’s name would this paranoid gov­ernment consciously produce a famine when they were terrifed of war [with Germany]?”

These premier Sovietologists dismiss Conquest for what he is — an ideologue whose serious work is long behind him. But Dallin stands as a liberal exception to the hard-liners of his generation, while Lewin and Viola remain Young Turks who happen to be doing the freshest work on this period. In Soviet studies, where rigor and objectivity count for less than the party line, where fierce anti-Commu­nists still control the prestigious institutes and first-rank departments, a Con­quest can survive and prosper while barely cracking a book.

“He’s terrible at doing research,” said veteran Sovietologist Roberta Manning of Boston College. “He misuses sources, he twists everything.”

Then there are those who love to twist, and shout — to use scholarly disinformation for their own, less dignified purposes. In the latest catalogue for The Noontide Press, a Liberty Lobby affiliate run by flamboyant fascist Willis Carto, The Harvest of Sorrow is listed cheek-by-jowl with such revisionist tomes as The Auschwitz Myth and Hitler at My Side. To hype the Conquest book and its ter­ror-famine, the catalogue notes: “The act of genocide against the Ukrainian people has been supressed [sic] until recently, perhaps because a real ‘Holocaust’ might compete with a Holohoax.”

For those unacquainted with Noontide jargon, the “Holohoax” refers to the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

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THE CURRICULUM

In 1982, the New York State Depart­ment of Education set out to blaze a new trail: a definitive curriculum on the Nazi holocaust. The department assembled a distinguished review committee, including such Holocaust ex­perts as Terrence Des Pres and Raul Hil­berg. It assigned the actual writing to three top-rated social studies teachers. The finished two-volume project, which went to classrooms in the fall of 1985, does credit to everyone involved. It is a balanced mix of archival documents, sur­vivor memoirs, and scholarly essays.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the high schools: The Ukrainian nationalists stole the show. Their point man was Bohdan Vitvitsky, a New Jersey attorney and author who was invited to join the state’s advisory council, which would steer the curriculum’s develop­ment. Vitvitsky’s first move was to gain inclusion of an excerpt of his book on Slavic victims of the Nazis. His second victory was to eliminate all but passing mention of Ukrainian war criminals.

“I took the position they should be dealt with,” said Stephen Berk, a Union College history professor and advisory council member, “but Vitvitsky insisted there should be no dwelling on [Nazi] collaborators.” (The Catholic lobby didn’t fare so well; over its protests, the curricu­lum includes a critical assessment of Pope Pius XII’s inaction.)

But Vitvitsky’s major coup, helped along by a nationalist letter campaign, was to install material on the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. In the curriculum’s second draft in 1984, the famine was treated as a 17-page precursor chapter to the second Holocaust volume — a plan which met heated resistance from Jewish groups. By the time the material reached the schools last fall, however, it had swol­len into a separate third volume, with 90 pages on the “forced famine,” and anoth­er 52 on “human rights violations” in the Ukraine.

A key player in the transition was As­semblyman William Larkin (Conserva­tive Republican, New Windsor), a retired Army colonel, assistant minority whip, and old friend of Gordon Ambach, then the state commissioner of education. Lar­kin had ample incentive to help; his dis­trict contains about 8000 ethnic Ukraini­ans. He arranged “four or five” meetings between the state education staff and 20 upstate Ukrainian nationalists in 1985. He also enlisted other Republican assem­blymen to press for the famine book, and says he spoke personally to Ambach. The commissioner “offered to do any­thing be could,” Larkin said. “But if we didn’t go up there in force, if we didn’t push it, it wouldn’t have happened.”

By most accounts, the political pres­sure was intense — enough to squeeze a department deemed relatively apolitical. The Ukrainians mounted “an enormous letter-writing campaign with the Board of Regents,” said Robert Maurer, the execu­tive deputy commissioner. “There were phone calls and visits. There’s not often that much interest in curriculum matters; it was very unusual.”

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The famine boosters found an especial­ly sympathetic ear in Regent Emlyn I. Griffith, then chairman of the committee that unanimously endorsed Volume Three in 1985 — a vote which ensured its future use. “As a member of a minority people put down by a majority govern­ment, I emphathized” with the Ukrainian nationalists, said Griffith, an ethnic Welshman. “There was a significant lob­bying effort … It was persuasive. It wasn’t threatening, it was positive.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who made the fatal decision on Volume Three. Griffith said his committee acted on a strong staff recommendation. Ambach failed to return phone calls for this story. Maurer lodged responsibility with Deputy Commissioner Gerald Freebome, who in turn pointed to Program Development Director Edward Lalor, who referred questions to a low-level official named George Gregory, the chairman of the Hu­man Rights Series advisory committee.

Shrouded by this corporate haze, Vit­vitsky ran in an open field. No one chal­lenged his basic premise. The famine “certainly does represent another exam­ple of genocide,” Gregory asserted. “It was a planned attempt by Stalin to elimi­nate the Ukrainian people.”

(“George is the consummate bureau­crat,” said one educator involved with the series. “His experience is mainly in grade-school curricula — like ‘Appreciat­ing Our Indian Heritage,’ or ‘The Impor­tance of the Finger Lakes Region.’ When I started up there, he really didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.”)

To write the famine material, Gregory hired Walter Litynsky, a Troy High School biology teacher and a local chair­man of Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine. For the job of principal review­er, Litynsky recommended James Mace, the Conquest protégé who also directs the Ukraine Famine Commission under a $382,000 congressional appropriation. Mace and Litynsky proceeded to stack the review committee with Ukrainian academics, the omnipresent Vitvitsky, and four upstate nationalists. “No contrary [review] letters were either solicited or received,” Berk acknowledged. “I’m sorry this came out, because it was distorted — ­but I felt it was a fait accompli.”

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When asked about contrasting view­points from such scholars as Lewin and Viola, Gregory was unmoved. “Quite frankly, we have not heard of any of them,” he said. “We tried to present a balanced point of view. We didn’t ask for the Soviet opinion, since the Soviet view was that the famine never happened. [In fact, the Soviets now concede that a fam­ine was “impossible to avoid,” because of drought, mismanagement, and kulak sab­otage.] We relied heavily on James Mace; he’s the leading historian of that time period.”

This paean would startle academe, where Mace’s work is infrequently read and rarely found in footnotes, the base­line of a scholar’s importance. He is wide­ly regarded as a right-wing polemicist, an indifferent researcher who has made a checkered career out of faminology.

“I doubt he could have gotten a real academic job,” Manning said. “Soviet studies is a very competitive field these days — there’s much weeding out after the Ph.D. If he hadn’t hopped on this politi­cal cause, he would be doing research for a bank, or running an export-import business.”

The Mace-Litynsky partnership yield­ed a predictable end product — the undis­tilled nationalist line. The state curricu­lum on the Ukraine famine apes both Harvest of Despair and The Harvest of Sorrow. (The education department now supplies the embattled documentary, as an audiovisual supplement, to any inter­ested teacher.) Like the film and the hook, the curriculum features faked pho­tos from Ammende, dubious atrocity tales (including 16 selections from Black Deeds of the Kremlin), and sections of the “Walker” Hearst series, all without caveat. Like Conquest and Nowitski, the famine volume red-baits anyone who challenged the genocide scenario, such as New York Times reporter Walter Dur­anty. It goes Conquest one better by re­ferring to the region as Ukraine, with no article, in deference to a sovereignty that exists only in nationalist fables.

The curriculum is most obviously ex­posed in its estimate of the famine death toll: “… it is generally accepted that about 7 million Ukrainians or about 22% of the total Ukrainian population died of starvation in a government planned and controlled famine.”

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How did Litynsky arrive at this talis­manic figure, cited over and over again in emigre literature? “I don’t pretend to be an expert on this subject,” the biology teacher said. “This is not my field. I had a list of people who went from 1.5 million to 10 million. In my reading I saw seven million used more than any other figure, and I decided that was realistic. It got to the point where it was so confusing that you had to decide.” (Mace has opted for 7.9 million Ukrainian famine deaths in his own work, with an “irreducible mini­mum” of 5.5 million. Conquest fixes on seven million famine deaths, including six million Ukrainians, with no appendix to show how his numbers are derived.)

But the magic number, like the geno­cide theory it shoulders, simply can’t pass scrutiny. Sergei Maksudov, a Soviet émigré scholar much cited by Mace and Conquest, has now concluded that the famine caused 3.5 million premature deaths in the Ukraine — 700,000 from starvation, and the rest from diseases “stimulated” by malnutrition.

Even Maksudov’s lower estimates are open to challenge. Writing in Slavic Re­view, demographers Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver maintain that limited census data make a precise famine death count impossible. Instead, they offer a probable range of 3.2 to 5.5 million “ex­cess deaths” for the entire Soviet Union from 1926 to 1939 — a period that covers collectivization, the civil war in the coun­tryside, the purges of the late ’30s, and major epidemics of typhus and malaria. According to these experts, and Maksu­dov as well, Mace and Conquest make the most primitive of errors: They overesti­mate fertility rates and underrate the im­pact of assimilation, through which many Ukrainians were “redesignated” as Rus­sians in the 1939 census. As a result, the cold warriors confuse population deficits (which include unborn children) with ex­ cess deaths.

Which leaves us with a puzzle: Wouldn’t one or two or 3.5 million fam­ine-related deaths be enough to make an anti-Stalinist argument? Why seize a wildly inflated figure that can’t possibly be supported? The answer tells much ahout the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and about those who abet it.

“They’re always looking to come up with a number bigger than six million,” observed Eli Rosenbaum, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. “It makes the reader think: ‘My god, it’s worse than the Holocaust.’ ”

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HIDDEN AGENDAS

Your husband’s courage and dedication to liberty will serve as a continuing source of inspiration to all those striving for freedom and self-determination.
— Letter from President Reagan to the widow of Yaroslav Stetsko, ranking OUN terrorist, murderer, and Nazi collabora­tor, read by retired general John Singlaub at a conference of the World Anti-Com­munist League, September 7, 1986.

In the panel discussion that followed Harvest of Despair on PBS last fall, Conquest addressed the issue of Ukrainian war crimes. “It’s not the case,” he said blandly, “that the Ukrainian nationalist organizations collaborated with the Germans.” Once again, the aging faminologist had tripped on the public record. It is one thing to suggest, rightly, that Ukrainian nationalism had little popular support among the peasantry. (It was actually a narrow, urban, middle-class movement.) Millions of Ukrainians fought with the Red Army and partisans. Many others can be accused of nothing worse than indifference, and a smaller number risked their lives to save Jews from the Ger­mans. But on the matter of the OUN, the principal nationalist group from the 1930s on, the record is quite clear: It was fascist from the start.

In its original statement of purpose in 1929, the OUN betrays a raw Nazi influ­ence: “Do not hesitate to commit the greatest crime, if the good of the Cause demands it … Aspire to expand the strength, riches, and size of the Ukraini­an State even by means of enslaving for­eigners.” This sentiment was echoed in a 1941 letter to the German Secret Service from the OUN’s dominant Bandera wing: “Long live greater independent Ukraine without Jews, Poles, and Germans. Poles behind the [river] San, Germans to Ber­lin, Jews to the gallows.”

As the authoritative John Armstrong, a staunch anti-Communist and pro-Ukrai­nian, has written: “The theory and teach­ings of the Nationalists were very close to Fascism, and in some respects, such as the insistence on ‘racial purity,’ even went beyond the original Fascist doctrines.”

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But the OUN storm troopers, like any terrorist group, prized action over theory. Their wartime brutalities have been am­ply documented (Voice, February 11, 1986, “To Catch a Nazi”). They recruited for the Waffen SS, pulled the triggers at Babi Yar and Sobibor, ran the gas cham­ber at Treblinka. During their brief inter­ludes of Nazi-sponsored “independence” (in the Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939 and in Galicia in 1941), pogroms were the order of the day, in the spirit of their revered Simon Petlura. They strove to outdo the Nazis at every turn.

And when the Third Reich fell, the nationalists fled — to Munich, to Toronto, and (with the covert aid of the U.S. State Department, which viewed them as po­tential anti-Soviet guerrillas) to New York and Chicago and Cleveland.

This is not ancient history. The Ukrai­nian émigré groups still contain more than a few former OUN members, and many of their sons and daughters. The nationalists still heroize their wartime past. On occasion their old passions sur­face as well — as in Why Is One Holocaust Worth More Than Others?, recently pub­lished by Veterans of the Ukrainian In­surgent Army: “In 1933, the majority of the European and American press controlled by the Jews were silent about the famine.”

From this perspective, the “conspira­cy” lives on: “In (February} 1986 the Jew­ish newspaper Village Voice … published one-and-one-half pages of accusations against a high-standing member of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, Mykola Lebed.”

And finally, most transparently: “Tens of millions of people have been killed since the Zionist Bolshevik Jews, backed by the Zionist-oriented Jewish interna­tional bankers, took over Russia.”

Not surprisingly, Ukrainian émigrés are among the harshest and most power­ful critics of Nazi-hunting. They have sought to kill both the Justice Depart­ment’s Office of Special Investigations and the Canadian Deschenes Commis­sion — and with good reason. Sol Littman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto, recently presented the com­mission with the names of 475 suspected Nazi collaborators. He reports that Ukrainians were “very heavily represent­ed” on the list.

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It may not be sheer coincidence that faminology took wing just after the OSI was commissioned in 1979. For here was a way to rehabilitate fascism- — to prove that Ukrainian collaborators were help­less victims, caught between the rock of Hitler and Stalin’s hard place. To wit, this bit of psycho-journalism from the 33 March 24 Washington Post, in a story on accused war criminal John “Ivan the Terrible” Demjanjuk: “The pivotal event in Demjanjuk’s childhood was the great famine of the early 1930s, conceived by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a way of destroying the independent Ukrainian peasantry … Several members of [Demjanjuk’s] family died in the catastrophe.”

Coupled with the old nationalist ca­nard of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” faminology could help justify anti-Semitism, collabo­ration, even genocide. An eye for an eye; a Nazi holocaust in return for a “Jewish famine.”

Just as the Nazis used the OUN for their own ends, so has Reagan exploited the famine, from his purple-prosed com­memoration of “this callous act” to his backing of the Mace commission. Faced with failing fascist allies around the world, from Nicaragua to South Africa, the U.S. war lobby needs to boost anti­-Communism as never before. Public en­thusiasm to fight for the contras will not come easy. But if people could be con­vinced that Communism is worse than fascism; that Stalin was an insane mon­ster, even worse than Hitler; that the seven million died in more unspeakable agony than the six million …. Well, we just might be set up for the next Gulf of Tonkin. One cannot appease an Evil Em­pire, after all.

As Conquest noted on PBS, after the starving girl’s image finally faded from the screen: “This was a true picture we saw … It instructs us about the world today.”

It turns out that the picture is far from true — that the purveyors of a famine genocide are stealing a piece of history and slicing it to order. It’s a brash bit of larceny for Conquest and company, even within the prevailing vogue of anti-Sta­linism. But if they say it loud enough and long enough, people just might listen. Lie bold enough and large enough, and — as the man once said — it just might stick. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Eric B. & Rakim: Titty Boom-A-Rooney

The levitation of our dreams confirms the gravity of our wakefulness.
— 
Hollis Frampton, filmmaker and theorist

Demonic is the first word that the title track on Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader (Uni) brings to mind. Before the jam inspires dance, prance, or make-romance, it says call the exorcist. An appre­hension birthed of the fact that where most raps go off in your face, this mono­logue aims at your interior. The music on “Follow the Leader” is spooky, a science-­fiction score that sounds straight out of the Tangerine Dream songbook. Rakim’s on an elocutionary speed-trip, a black bullet train slitting through hyperspace. The rhymes are telemetric, tracking sucker-soft targets with a monomania more relentless than anybody’s Terminator. In rap’s ongoing war for poetic su­premacy, Rakim has metaphoric space he can call his own, though for others it’s a danger zone.

While Public Enemy shakes the shit out of white people, Rakim is the rapper who makes my blood run cold. Listen to “Microphone Fiend” and you say, Gött­dam this is the dope jam (mainly because the lyrics seem to mock PE’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”).

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Like Boogie Down Productions’ rapper KRS One and PE’s Chuck D, Rakim brings his own worldview into rap, his own philosophy. These brothers are hip-­hop’s major thinkers. Somebody once ex­plained the difference between the minds of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as Powell being more likely to drop a heavy insight on you about the state of the world and Monk being more likely to lay something deep on you about Monk. Chuck D’s forte is the overview, Rakim’s is the innerview. KRS One’s homilies are more down to earth, more streetwise, than either of them. He makes the most conversational records in the idiom. Think of him as hiphop’s Sonny Rollins to Chuck D’s insane Coltrane.

“If you’ve ever picked cotton,” says the Rev. Al Green, “you will appreciate a cool drink of water.” Rakim’s persona is that of a sagacious gangster, like Miles Da­vis’s. The rapper, too, works an aesthetic steeped in the sort of cool that can’t be bought off the rack, not even at Yoji Yamamoto prices. We’re talking about that school of self-confirmed bad-assed-ness, where you don’t need spectators to know you’re looking sugarshit sharp. Drop Miles or Rakim on the moon, they’d still be chilly-most. This is less about profiling cool than about putting that iconic presence to work (yes, in the diva sense of the word, chile.)

Rakim’s work on last year’s “I Know You Got Soul” comes closer than anything ever heard in rap for matching the incisiveness of a Miles statement. Seeing Miles at Pier 84 a few weeks back — best show I’ve heard since ’75 — made me real­ize once again where these hiphop/jazz comparisons fall to pieces: tonality. I’ve yet to hear a rapper with a sound like Miles, that sonorous simulation of sex when it’s too good, killer ecstasy slipping across pain’s Cambodian border.

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Still the Miles comparisons mount with Rakim. He’s the one rapper with a mystique as devastating as his rhymes. As with Miles again, what you hear in Rakim is black cultural difference exem­plified in ways so high-handed it makes negritude or nationalist countersupre­macy sound crude. “I Know You Got Soul” is race-championing by aristocratic example, not ideology. Rakim does his ennobling African ancestry proud through the finesse and poetry of his performance alone.

Picture a mike: the stage is empty
A beat like this might tempt me
To cold show my rings and my five gold chains
Grab the mike like I’m on Soul Train
But I wait, ’cause I master this
Let the others go first, so the brothers don’t miss
Eric B. break [brake?] the sticks

The LP those lines came from, Paid in Full, is a confirmed hiphop masterwork. Masterful because like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, it shows how color­-struck the hiphop palette has become. I tend to be big on records, like Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, where each composi­tion is a microcosm, painted with signa­ture strokes even when the artist is work­ing in revived forms. Paid in Full is avante-garde and formally prodigious in that way. But it’s an avante-gardism whose rhythms and textures speak from an intimacy with the communalism black pop conveyed in the ’70s.

Eric B.’s rare groove choices take me back to the proletarian house parties my grandmother, a hip barber, dragged me to in Ohio. These were folk for whom party­ing hardy was synonymous to partying with family. Eric B. once told Harry Al­len that he and Rakim make records that their parents can listen to and under­stand. I can hear that, especially on the new LP’s “Put Your Hands Together.” The mix-construction on Follow the Leader is different from that on Paid in Full. It’s harsher, more jagged, jarring and less sensually inviting. On Paid in Full, Eric B.’s mixes match Rakim’s rhymes for contemplated restraint, in­vention, and lyricism. There Eric B. rocked us with more orchestral detail than anybody outside of PE in late ’80s hiphop. He also brought understatement to hiphop drum programming — almost as if he’d taken to heart Lester Young’s soft-­shell admonition to drummers, “No bombs, just titty-boom.”

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This is just a hunch, but I think Eric B. and Rakim have been taking lessons in the art of noise from Public Enemy, like PE has been going to Eric B. & Rakim’s work, among others, to study up on melo­dy. I’ve heard complaints that there are no classics on Follow The Leader like “I Know You Got Soul” or “Move the Crowd.” But those who been bitchin’ just need to listen. I said it, I meant it, and I even represent it.

On that note: Inquiring minds want to know what I think of Chuck D (the Living Messiah) branding yo’ reporter The Village Voice‘s porch nigger and a sell-out in the current Spin — os­tensibly behind doing the right thing and busting PE’s monkey-asses on charges of homophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. What I think is grits ain’t groceries, and the Mona Lisa was a man. ❖

Categories
CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mario Cuomo: The Governor Looks the Other Way

It’s time we started taking Mario Cuomo seriously.

He’s in his sixth year as governor, and mamma stories, as rich as they are, just won’t wash anymore — at least not as a substitute for governance. The four-year presidential tease of the Great Liberal Hope is over; an ethnic northeastern governor with a record is the nominee. The disenchanted of this state — the homeless, tenants, environmentalists, minorities, and reformers — can’t afford more schmaltzy personality profiles that devote a few buried paragraphs to Mario Cuomo’s government. It’s time to judge him for who he is and what he is doing, rather than forever anticipating what he may become.

This is the story of one test of Mario Cuomo’s government: its ethics. The governor has set a rather high moral standard for himself. He says he is inspired by no less than Saint Thomas More, who was executed for a principle. Son Andrew Cuomo, who at 30 is the only man Mario Cuomo actually listens to, has been attracting news attention for years about the ties between his booming law practice and his father’s governments. He practices in a Park Avenue office under a picture of Thomas More.

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More had a word or two for moral miscreants. “The air longs to blow noxious vapors against the wicked man. The sea longs to overwhelm him in its waves, the mountains to fall upon him, the earth to spilt open beneath him, hell to swallow him up after his headlong fall…” The wicked don’t drive Mario Cuomo quite as mad. Indeed, as the six episodes in this story demonstrate, he is gracious in the face of wrongdoing, even when committed by those with whom he has intimately shared his public trust. Loyalty is also a More virtue, but in these tales, Cuomo takes it to perverse lengths.

Documented here is a record of Cuomo indifference to the grave ethical errors of several high state officials, ranging from longtime Cuomo confidant Al Levine, who twice helped set up companies in his daughter’s name that indirectly did business with the state agency he worked for, to onetime Battery Park Authority chairman Robert Seavey, the Cuomo appointee who formed an upstate business partnership with a developer seeking designation on a Battery Park site.

This two-part series starts with the takeover of a seemingly mundane state agency, the Thruway Authority, by Levine and Hank Bersani, another Cuomo aide who’d been with him for a decade. It details their apparent attempts to turn the Authority into their own personal toll booth, and their determined support of a new Thruway exit seemingly designed to benefit a major Cuomo contributor. The final episode this week deals with the same Cuomo contributor’s attempt to secure a lucrative state lease. Three Cuomo officials — Seavey, OGS Commissioner John Egan, and State University Construction Fund chairman Sheldon Goldstein — play disturbing roles in the exit ramp or lease tales.

In each of the instances that will be described this week and next week, Mario Cuomo emerges as a man who empowers sleaze, watches in silence when news of it surfaces, and then, if pressed, publicly forgives it. Even Cuomo’s admirers have long found his tolerance for the tawdry as curious as it is consistent; it clashes with his studied monasticism. He has put himself on a contemplative hill, revering “the law” while sectors of his government slide toward the sewer.

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Under the glare of an aroused media after the first suicide attempt of Donald Manes, Ed Koch has had to answer for his government’s ties to and handling of the less-than-sublime. Well, Mario Cuomo has his own Victor Botnicks. His are less notorious, mostly because they and the governor who appointed and excused them have been protected by the Albany cocoon, operating daily 180 miles outside the range of city cameras.

While Cuomo will not discuss these issues, his secretary, Gerry Crotty, his counsel, Evan Davis, his son, Andrew, and other advisers will. They make some good points for him, and these arguments should not be a footnote to this story.

The Cuomo advisers point out that he took on the legislature in 1987 to fight for an ethics bill. He did, it got dirty, and the governor stood his ground. He vetoed a bill and forced them to make it better. It is a fact that the performances of assembly speaker Mel Miller and senate leader Warren Anderson have frequently made Mario Cuomo look saintly; but this story is not a course in comparative ethics.

Andrew describes a father who at a gut level would not broach a wayward turn. He has his own tales — about the governor dispatching him in a helicopter on a Saturday morning to a park retreat when they learned that two high officials had brought their wives there on a weekend lark at state expense. He recounts how the governor gathered lists of the state’s summer employees and compared them with the names on his own executive chamber payroll, looking for relatives who might be getting a well-placed perk.

Andrew, whose own virtues include the fact that the private HELP group he founded for the homeless may build more permanent housing than his dad’s government, tells these stories with conviction. In the end, though, Andrew’s anecdotes only make the governor’s, and his own, conduct in these tales even more inexplicable. They are apparently quite willing to resist their own finer instincts.

I asked Evan Davis three times to name a single personnel action by the governor that sent a message that he will not tolerate unethical conduct, even if that conduct does not lead to a criminal indictment. Davis kept dodging the question. The governor missed the essence of More — who spit in a king’s eye rather than acknowledge his illicit marriage, even though the king was his friend. Sometimes a moralist has to be mean.

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Al Levine’s Thruway Dowry

When Mario Cuomo was appointed secretary of state by Governor Carey and assumed his first public office in 1975, he began a 12-year relationship with a savvy former Air Force major who’d already been working at state for years, Al Levine. Except for a brief stint during the second Carey term, when Levine was employed by another state agency, he would work directly for Cuomo until his abrupt resignation as Thruway director last November.

Levine was so close to Cuomo that during the dark days of 1981, when Cuomo was lieutenant governor and his chief of staff was arrested for stealing the paychecks of fictitious employees, he asked Levine to assume the top staff job. Levine continued to run Cuomo’s office throughout the gubernatorial campaign of 1982, and he and his wife handled the computerized mailings to campaign donors out Levine’s suburban home. When the new governor took office in 1983, Al Levine, a high school graduate who’d worked his way up the military ranks as an enlisted man, was given the title of administrative director of the executive chamber, making him a centerpiece of the new power structure on the second floor of the Capitol building.

In March 1984, Cuomo made Levine executive director of the Thruway Authority, a traditional patronage haven. Levine came into the Authority shortly after a new Cuomo chairman, Hank Bersani, who also had been with Cuomo since the start of the governor’s public career.

Neither Levine nor Bersani had transportation, engineering, or even top-level managerial backgrounds. But the two did share a similar, seedy élan: the white-haired, deal-talking Bersani, who’d risen from the street politics of grimy Syracuse, and the burly, tattooed Levine, who’d ingratiated himself with the Cuomo clan, particularly the governor’s wife, Matilda, over the years. On one wall in his Thruway headquarters office Levine hung a framed copy of the governor’s speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. On the other wall he displayed half a dozen photos of his favorite trotters.

Though ensconced after 1984 at his own public agency for the first time, Levine assiduously maintained his ties to the state’s first family. That year he set up the Executive Mansion Preservation Society, a private, prestigious corporation charged with raising funds to refurbish the Albany mansion that the Cuomos rarely left. Levine met frequently with Matilda Cuomo to plan the renovations, and managed the $850,000 collected from wealthy donors like Harry Helmsley ($25,000). He used the Thruway Authority’s accounting firm to manage the books and his own lawyers to incorporate and represent the society.

When Thruway chairman Bersani had to resign suddenly in June 1987 — provoked by revelations about his criminal past — Cuomo once again turned to Levine, describing him publicly as “a trusted old friend” and asking him to take Bersani’s title while retaining his own. The combination would have made Levine the first simultaneous chairman and director of the Authority. But six days after Bersani’s resignation, a letter signed “Concerned thruway employees” was delivered to key senate Republicans. The letter leveled detailed charges about Levine’s involvement in a computer services firm that provided software to engineering companies under contract with the Thruway Authority.

As soon as the governor’s office formally submitted Levine’s nomination to the senate in mid-June, Gerry Crotty, then the governor’s counsel, got a copy of the anonymous note from a legislative source, and immediately passed it on to Cuomo’s in-house inspector general, Joe Spinelli, who began an investigation. Levine withdrew his nomination a few days later, labeling the charges in the anonymous letter “totally unfounded.”

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The next day Cuomo urged the anonymous tipster to come forward, promising his “personal protection.” He also warned that the issue should not be blown out of proportion. “Let’s not elaborate this to unreality,” he said. The IG’s investigators, however, went to the Authority immediately and found willing witnesses — including the two top Carey holdovers there, deputy director James Martin and counsel Bob Farrell, both of whom were at odds with Levine and had been identified by insiders as possible authors of the letter.

Levine took sick leave for a week while the charges exploded around him, mostly in upstate newspapers, but the decision was made to stick with him. Cuomo told reporters: “I choose to believe that he is a man of the highest quality and I have seen no evidence that proves otherwise. I know him. I love him. He’s a good fellow. The process will work and it will prove he did nothing illegal or unethical.”

But while Levine remained director, Cuomo had to come up with another candidate for chairman. Former Power Authority chairman John Dyson turned the offer down when he couldn’t get assurances from Cuomo that he could replace Levine with his own director. “I knew that Al Levine had to go,” Dyson said later. “I had heard he might have ethical problems,” referring to a period before news of the IG probe broke.

Cuomo then turned to Bill Hennessy, the former Carey transportation commissioner and ex-state Democratic Party chief. Hennessy’s first act as Thruway chairman was to fire Martin and Farrell. Levine remained in charge for months, while the suspected whistleblowers were already out the door.

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Betasoft Bombshells

Looking over IG Joe Spinelli’s shoulder virtually from the inception, and questioning many of the same people approached by him, was the State Investigation Commission (SIC), the quasi-independent, anticorruption irritant that had dogged the Cuomo administration on many ethical cases in recent years. Also a recipient of the anonymous letter, the SIC took a temporary back seat to Spinelli, but the inevitability of its eventual report had to be a prod, pushing the IG probe. In the end, Spinelli came up with hard evidence of Levine’s misconduct, then laid the details of it out in a report bereft of meaningful conclusions.

In October, the report was referred to two state prosecutors, but Spinelli carefully told reporters: “This referral does not represent a finding with regard to possible violations of the law.”

Indeed, Spinelli’s written recommendation was that a prosecutor “review” the allegations “to determine if there is a basis to commence criminal proceedings” — a curious conclusion since that was ostensibly the purpose of his own probe. The highlights of Spinelli’s factual findings were:

● After determining that the Authority needed precisely the sort of software Betasoft would eventually offer, Levine set up the company and put together a small group of investors and directors, including his daughter Michelle, which met 30 times in Levine’s home during the two-year life of the firm. The four initial partners, in addition to Levine’s daughter, an employee of the state Parks Department, were also state employees long tied to Levine — two Thruway staffers, the computer chief in the governor’s office, and the deputy general manager of the State University Construction Fund. Levine’s wife incorporated the firm and opened its checking account, and Levine personally attended all its organizational and board meetings, offering advice and acquainting himself with all of the company’s business activities.

● Betasoft’s business was almost entirely based on the solicitation of engineering firms under contract or seeking contracts with the Thruway Authority. Even after Thruway staffer Cynthia Bloom became Betasoft’s chief operating officer, she remained at the Authority, reporting only to Levine and contacting potential Betasoft customers from Thruway offices even though the customers were Thruway contractors. According to Bloom, Levine even gave her computerized lists of Thruway consultants to solicit. In three instances he brokered discussions between Thruway contractors and Betasoft, playing a central role in the company’s first sale. Though 30 per cent of the Authority’s consultant payments went to the four engineering companies that did business with Betasoft, Levine, who single-handedly selected the consultants for the Authority, talked of going to work for Betasoft when he left state government.

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The governor refused to comment on the findings, but his new Authority chairman Hennessy concluded: “There’s no criminality of any kind even inferred here.” Hennessy said Levin was “hurt” by the Betasoft controversy, “but he’s fine. He has no misgivings about his role in it and he knows perfectly well this will have to play itself out.” Levine’s criminal attorney, Richard Meyers, said Levine had viewed his participation in Betasoft as a “good idea for his child.” In what some saw as a reference to Mario Cuomo’s role in setting up the Manhattan law firm that employs his son, Andrew, and represents clients that do business with the state, Meyers said: “Presidents and governors do it.”

The 59-year-old Levine was on sick leave when the report was released, and had already quietly submitted his retirement papers. He was awarded a discretionary disability pension, meaning that his retirement was technically not due to the findings of the Spinelli report, but to a heart condition. Combined with his federal pension, Levine began collecting $44,480 a year in benefits.

The only disciplinary action to result from Spinelli’s findings involved George Kash, a Levine protégé and $58,000-a-year data processing supervisor in the governor’s office. A shareholder and active director in Betasoft, Kash was orally reprimanded by Cuomo aide Hank Dullea for not seeking clearance from the governor’s counsel about “the appropriateness of his outside business activity.” Though the governor’s press office once claimed that Kash would also be transferred to another state agency, he still runs Cuomo’s computers.

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The SIC took another five months before releasing its own report, which drew the conclusions Spinelli had hesitated to make. “The Commission has concluded,” said the April 1988 report, “that Levine crossed this line between unethical and criminal conduct,” suggesting that upstate federal prosecutor Fred Scullin “consider the merits and feasibility of a prosecution for extortion.” The unequivocal SIC judgment was that Levine’s “conduct falls within the Hobbs Act definition of extortion,” a reference to the federal criminal statute.

The Commission was also tough on Levine’s state-employed partners, blasting Kash because he knew that the company was owned by Thruway employees, yet sold software to Thruway consultants, and criticizing the Thruway employees for “violating the Code of Ethics” and “conducting Betasoft work during Thruway work hours.” But the report was harshest in its description of Jay Handwerger, the counsel and number-two man at the State University Construction Fund. Though the SIC assailed his “poor judgment” in “overlooking the ethical issues,” Handwerger wasn’t even admonished. The governor’s counsel, Evan Davis, says that Cuomo, who appoints the Fund’s board, is powerless to act.

All the governor would say about the SIC findings was that they were “consistent” with Spinelli’s. He expressly rejected the legislative recommendations made by the commission concerning conflicts of interest, saying that the changes in law sought could be adopted by regulation. John Baniak, a Levine protégé, was inserted in his place at the helm of the mansion preservation society, and as the new number-two man on the staff of the Thruway Authority.

The SIC decision to refer the case to the feds was more likely to lead to a prosecution than the governor’s earlier decision to send Spinelli’s report to the office of Albany D.A. Sol Greenberg — a burial ground for public corruption cases. Even though Greenberg had not questioned a single witness named in Spinelli’s report, he had already publicly dismissed the possibility of any criminal case against Levine.

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Second Time Around

Almost as a footnote to its report, the SIC uncovered an early warning of Levine’s propensity for this sort of conflict of interest. The Commission found that Betasoft was the second time Levine had helped set up a company to do indirect business with the state agency he worked for, and the second time he’d used his daughter as a shareholder.

The first time was in 1980, when Levine was with the state’s student financial aid agency, the Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), working with another protégé, HESC’s executive vice-president, Michael Cruskie, a computer whiz with a straight-arrow reputation.

The SIC reported that Cruskie, Levine, who was HESC’s director of system support development, and three other top officials of HESC combined to form Charter Account Systems Inc. expressly to sell computer services to the same lending institutions that were participating in HESC’s loan programs. Indeed, one service marketed by Charter to the banks, sometimes by Cruskie, was the administration of their student-loan portfolios, including the filing of reports with HESC. While Cruskie and the others invested directly, Levine’s stock was held by the then 19-year-old Michelle.

What the SIC did not examine was whether Levine’s role in this blatant conflict was known within the governor’s inner circle for years and ignored. In fact, it was, and the high-level indifference to Levine’s prior moral lapse may have been one of the factors that led him to believe he could get away with Betasoft.

The Cruskie/Levine affair was extensively described in a December 1981 memo by HESC counsel Gilbert Harwood, who concluded that the three Charter partners then still with HESC had “failed to meet” the ethical standards of the Public Officers Law. Harwood also noted that Levine had left HESC and had pulled out of the company when asked to ante up $7,500 on top of the initial $2,500 investment. “Insofar as Al Levine is concerned,” Harwood wrote, “inasmuch as he’s no longer with HESC, the issue as to him is moot.” As a result of the Harwood memo, Cruskie was required to sever his ties to Charter, and he claimed in a March 1982 letter that he was complying with that directive. Neither HESC nor Cuomo will answer questions about whether Levine’s involvement in Charter was known within the Cuomo inner circle at the time it surfaced in late 1981, when Levine was simultaneously taking over the management of Cuomo’s lieutenant governor’s office.

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On Levine’s recommendation, Cruskie was appointed Cuomo’s deputy commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services in March 1983 (three months later Michelle Levine went to work for him as a project assistant). In the spring of 1984, he had to file his first financial disclosure report with the state’s Board of Public Disclosure, and the board’s counsel, Bennett Leibman, noticed that Cruskie had disclosed his membership on the Charter board, an apparent violation of a Cuomo order barring such corporate connections. Leibman wrote a memo to two disclosure board members — Michael Delgiudice, the governor’s secretary, and Gerry Crotty, his counsel — calling the Cruskie revelation to their attention. They instructed him to look further.

Leibman retrieved the Harwood memo and noticed Al Levine’s involvement. He wrote another note to Delgiudice and Crotty, reviewing the findings regarding Cruskie and mentioning Levine’s role. Both recall learning of Cruskie’s and Levine’s involvement, but add that they “don’t think” they told the governor. All they did was instruct Cruskie to step down from the Charter board, an automatic requirement under the governor’s regulations. Though Crotty conceded that Cruskie’s reported activities “bothered” him, no further action was taken against Cruskie.

When the Charter issue resurfaced as part of the SIC’s probe of Betasoft, Cruskie tried desperately to cover up the fact that he had never cut his ties to the company as required in 1982, even “fabricating” a stock certificate and lying before the Commission, according to the report. A perjury and obstruction of justice case against him has been referred to prosecutors. Earlier this year Cruskie suddenly resigned from Criminal Justice, and went to work at Charter.

Mario Cuomo has yet to make a single public comment about any of the HESC or Thruway conduct, or amend the last sweeping public endorsement he made of his old friend Levine. Neither has the newly installed leadership at the Thruway Authority passed a resolution or issued a statement acknowledging any wrongdoing and pointing toward a new way of doing business. State officials have made no policy or personnel changes directly attributed to either Levine affair.

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Loyalty for a Bagman

When Lee Alexander was elected mayor of Syracuse in 1969, Hank Bersani, the president of Syracuse Canada Dry and longtime Democratic kingmaker, was the electoral engineer. A few months later, shortly after Alexander began 16 consecutive years as mayor, Bersani, already in his 10th year as treasurer of the county party, started making kickback collections for Alexander from city contractors.

Appointed by Alexander to the Planning Commission, Bersani’s job was to make periodic deliveries of cash payoffs to Alexander — usually set at 10 per cent of the value of a city contract. When Bersani would arrive at City Hall for a private visit with the mayor, Alexander would open the top left-hand drawer of his desk and Bersani would drop the envelope into the drawer without saying a word. If Alexander got confused about who the cash was from, Bersani would write the name on one of the lift-up pads kids play with, and then erase the name with a yank of his wrist.

Before Alexander was fully indicted, this onetime president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors would collect millions in bribes, burying them as nearby as in a floor safe built under his laundry room, and as faraway as Panamanian bank accounts.

After fundraising for Alexander’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1974, Bersani pulled back from the day-to-day tribulations of being an Alexander bagman, and went to work for Hugh Carey’s new secretary of state, Mario Cuomo. He would later claim he left because Alexander got too greedy, escalating his demands; but Alexander, backed by Bersani’s replacement as a bagman and a contractor, would later say Bersani was dropped because Alexander suspected him of shorting him on a $9,000 bribe. In any event, Bersani introduced his open-palm substitute — a business partner — to contractors at meetings in his bottling plant, and gradually drifted out of the kickback scheme.

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No one ever figured out just what Bersani’s public responsibilities were as a community affairs coordinator in Cuomo’s office, but he still did campaign fundraising and organizing in the Syracuse area for local and statewide campaigns, including Cuomo’s in 1978 and 1982. Eventually, his cousin Gene Bersani, a Syracuse lawyer whose firm did millions in city business and kicked back hundreds of thousands for it, also became an Alexander bagman. For years, Hank Bersani’s paychecks came from whatever office Cuomo held — switching from the secretary of state job to the lieutenant governor’s staff, and finally to the governor’s office, always holding the title of Cuomo’s area representative in Syracuse. He had long ago given up his troubled soda business and had been dabbling in local real estate, getting headlines when he stiffed city government for $50,000 in back property taxes. His 1984 appointment, at age 63, to head Cuomo’s Thruway Authority was a backroom toll-taker’s ultimate dream.

But a year after Bersani began his nine-year term at the authority, U.S. attorney Fred Scullin began the grand jury probe of Alexander. Finally, in August 1986, the FBI raided Alexander’s home, as well as the home of Bersani’s bagman successor, seizing records that detailed the scope of the extortion scheme. By September, even Bersani’s cousin was a cooperating witness. Though the writing was on the wall, Hank Bersani held out. Since his bag operations were supposedly more than 10 years old, the statute of limitations might have run on his crimes, unless he was charged under the RICO statutes. All the time he bartered with the government, Bersani remained Cuomo’s man at the authority, even though prosecutors soon discovered he had already brought some of the Alexander predators into a Thruway deal.

In early 1985 Bersani moved to declare a three-acre parcel owned by the authority, located just outside of Syracuse, to be surplus property. Thruway staff was mystified because the property was used to stockpile supplies and change authority truck tires. But Bersani pushed for an immediate sale of the property, staging an auction a month after the property was offered for sale and getting only one bid. The buyer, who paid the authority’s minimum price of $260,000, was a Syracuse developer who’d gotten $1.5 million in no-bid construction contracts from Alexander and had become a target of the grand jury probe.

Four months after Bersani signed over the deed, the developer sold the property to a national motel chain at a $400,000 profit. The developer used two brokers on the deal — Gene Bersani and an Alexander appointee on the city’s zoning board — and paid them $66,000. Federal investigators are still examining this deal.

The prosecutors, and the FBI, kept the governor’s office broadly informed about the case against Hank Bersani. While the FBI described Bersani’s bag operations in the conversations with state officials and predicted Bersani would be indicted, Scullin was more sanguine. Scullin says he told the state that Bersani was “a concern to us,” and that his office was “looking at certain things” involving Bersani very closely. Scullin says he gave state officials no advice about whether or not they should dump the Thruway chief, adding that he told them to “proceed as they normally do.”

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Bersani Hangs On

Mario Cuomo and his advisers decided that the sketchy information they were getting — combined with the uncertainty of Bersani’s indictment — justified retaining him until the picture cleared. One predictable lobbyist for this posture was Bersani himself, whose name was by then popping up in upstate news stories about the Alexander probe. He roamed the corridors of the second floor, assuring the governor’s staff that he believed he could emerge from the case unscathed. Though Scullin now says Cuomo’s office had no basis to take action against Bersani during this period, he did remain in a key public position for a year after the first revelations about his kickback activities, even though there were indications that he was engaged in suspicious land deals at the authority.

Scullin eventually sent an indictment of Bersani to Washington without a recommendation that it be approved. “I dropped it in their lap,” he says. Washington rejected a RICO conspiracy count, so Scullin gave Bersani limited immunity, meaning he couldn’t be charged for any crimes he testified about, but could still be nailed in the second phase of the probe that is still ongoing. Only when the Alexander indictment was imminent did Bersani finally resign.

Bersani’s June 1987 resignation was attributed in news stories to the fact that he had been drawn into the Alexander probe. All the governor’s office would say was that he’d quit for “personal reasons,” insisting that his departure had “nothing to do with the activities of the Thruway Authority.” But then, when Bersani was named as Alexander’s “bagman” in the July indictment, the mum Cuomo finally had to answer questions at a press conference. He called Bersani “a very, very fine individual who gave us public service” and insisted, “I know nothing but good things about him.”

When a reporter said that Bersani had been implicated in the Alexander case, a combative Cuomo challenged him: “He was not implicated. I wish you would not say that. He was not named in the indictment. I hope you don’t report that. Let’s get something clear. He was not named. He was not accused. He is not charged. Maybe he will be. I don’t know.” This was precisely the distinction Bersani had been making for months. But, in fact, though he hadn’t been indicted, he was named in the Alexander indictment and called a bagman.

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The Bersani issue largely disappeared until March 1988, when the Syracuse Herald American sent Cuomo copies of Bersani’s grand jury testimony, released by prosecutors as part of a presentencing memo about Alexander, who had pleaded guilty. The Herald American wanted Cuomo to examine the testimony to see if it warranted a state investigation of Bersani’s Thruway dealings, especially after the revelations that the owner of one of the companies that paid Alexander bribes was also a Thruway contractor who’d used Al Levine’s software company. A Cuomo press spokesman said he was too busy to read the testimony, and wouldn’t react to it.

Then, on the heels of this stubborn defense of Bersani, the governor named a new Thruway chairman with his own ethical baggage. Bersani’s replacement, Bill Hennessy, a longtime Albany pol, had been running his own consultant business since 1985, earning most of his money lobbying the state transportation department he’d once headed. When Hennessy took the authority job, he and the governor’s office issued an unusual statement, announcing that Hennessy would remain a 90 per cent partner in his lobbying firm, and the firm would still be permitted to lobby state agencies. Hennessy agreed, however, not to share in the profits the firm makes from its lobbying activities. (The $25,000-a-year part-time chairman, contacted by the Voice at his lobbying firm, said that his only outside earnings now are from the real estate appraisal end of his business and that he “hopes” he will be able to leave the authority soon and return to full-time lobbying activity. He acknowledged that other than a listing of his firm’s lobbying clients with the authority, the policing of this arrangement has been left to him.)

One current Hennessy client, on a $30,000-a-year retainer, is Unisys, the defense contractor whose New York lobbying operations are a focus of the Pentagon probes. The Hennessy firm began representing the company in 1987 and reported lobbying the executive chamber, the division of the budget, the comptroller, and the Office of General Services about the state’s procurement regulations concerning the purchase of information systems. Hennessy chose a former transportation department deputy, John Shafer, to replace Levine. Hennessy had appointed Shafer to his earlier transportation post, had subsequently lobbied him on behalf of private clients, and had even received a $13,000 consultant contract from Shafer.

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Highway to Heaven

In January 1984, when Mario Cuomo appointed Hank Bersani to the Thruway Authority, he also made one other Thruway announcement. In his State of the State address that month, the governor declared: “We will also explore a number of highway improvements elsewhere in the state that may have significant economic development value — for example, the construction of a new thruway interchange near Sterling Forest.”

It was an unusual statement for several reasons. The top management of the Thruway Authority had no idea it was coming, neither did the local Democratic assemblywoman who was trying to attract support for such a ramp. New exits off the thruway rarely occur. None have ever been built as a trigger to development; transportation and traffic needs have dictated thruway policy. In addition, an exit at Sterling Forest — the 30-mile tract of Orange County private timberland only an hour from the city — had been rejected repeatedly when raised in the 1960s and 1970s because of traffic studies that demonstrated it wasn’t warranted.

The other unusual feature of the Cuomo announcement was its specificity, not at all characteristic of the broad sweep of so grand a speech. Neither before nor since has the governor, the authority, or anyone else surveyed the 400 miles of thruway to determine where it might make sense to open exits for economic development reasons. Instead, the only consequence of the Cuomo declaration was that the new team at the authority — Bersani and Levine — made the Sterling Forest interchange a top priority.

Levine pushed the interchange relentlessly despite the opposition of his own planners and those in the Transportation Department. One top deputy recalls that when he raised numerous technical problems with the exit, Levine stopped making rational arguments and said simply, “This is heavy-duty political stuff.” Misrepresenting a neutral report on the exit as if it were an endorsement, the governor announced in June 1985 the submission of an end-of-the-session bill to authorize up to $7 million to build it. That July, Cuomo went to the Orange County Fair to sign the bill with great fanfare, despite the emergence of environmental issues that would’ve stalled a strip-miner.

The environmental questions began with the fact that the state identified the Sterling Forest tract, owned by the Home Group Insurance Company, as the prime potential beneficiary of the interchange, suggesting that several corporate research facilities be built on the timberlands, as well as a conference center and hotel. But at the same time, New Jersey’s and New York’s environmental agencies were contemplating acquiring portions of the tract, which lies in both states, for conservation and outdoor recreation purposes. So, in addition to the howls of environmentalists, the interchange managed to earn the enmity of the environmental agencies of both states.

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New Jersey was in a rage because the interchange-connected development of the timberlands would destroy its nearby reservoirs, the source of water for two million people. Even the New York environmental agency wrote repeated letters questioning the premises of the project, ultimately concluding that there was “little need for it other than speculative purposes,” and warning that the department “may be unable to make a positive finding” in favor of the exit.

Even as these issues publicly surfaced, Levine was quoted as insisting that the project was still one of the governor’s top priorities. It also attracted the leeches at the Cuomo Thruway Authority. The Authority awarded a no-bid design contract for the interchange to a consultant represented by a law firm that once included Gene Bersani and still did joint legal work with him. The consultant was then approached by Levine, who suggested they use Betasoft to handle their computer services.

One active developer in the region is Shelly Goldstein, a tough-talking, Rockland County-based owner of luxury condos and federally subsidized apartment complexes. Goldstein, who has personally given $49,000 to Cuomo campaigns, was one of the governor’s largest individuals donors when he was scratching for money in the struggle against Ed Koch in 1982.

At that time, Goldstein was also the most important client of the small Manhattan law firm that Cuomo’s longtime aide Jerry Weiss had set up, at Cuomo’s request, as a possible nesting place should Cuomo lose the gubernatorial race. Weiss also became a Goldstein partner in a major real estate deal, and candidate Cuomo went out to a Rockland golf outing hosted by Goldstein to raise contributions for the campaign. Over the years Cuomo became friendly with the flashy 59-year-old Goldstein, who drives a new silver Mercedes convertible, dresses “Miami Beach,” and, at one point, dyed his hair jet black.

Once Cuomo became governor, he appointed Goldstein to the chairmanship of the State University Construction Fund. Goldstein’s son Jeffrey began getting contracts to manage state housing projects. Neither Goldstein nor the governor will answer questions about whether they ever discussed the interchange; Weiss told the Voice he never had anything to do with the project.

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Goldstein’s Land Grab

What’s clear is that Shelly Goldstein has owned property in Orange County that would benefit from the interchange for 20 years, and that he began to develop a 30-store shopping mall on a 28-acre site in the Town of Chester shortly after the new exit was announced. Goldstein also bought a 160-acre site owned by the International Nickel Corporation (INCO) and his own environmental impact statement found that the development of this site would be enhanced by the interchange. Most importantly, Goldstein submitted a $35 million bid in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Sterling Forest tract itself, principally for the same sort of luxury housing he planned to build on the INCO site.

By the time Goldstein bid on the Sterling Forest property in 1986, however, he was no longer represented by Weiss, who’d abruptly quit the practice of law in late 1984. Andrew Cuomo, who had worked summers at the Weiss firm while in law school and joined as a full partner in 1985 at age 26, and his then girlfriend, partner Lucille Falcone, had taken over the banking and real estate interests of Shelly Goldstein. The relationships that developed were so close that Goldstein placed Andrew Cuomo on the board of a Union City, New Jersey bank as part of a settlement that permitted the bank’s management to avoid a Goldstein takeover attempt, and did the same for Falcone at the Savings Bank of Rockland, where Goldstein is a major shareholder.

At one point in 1986, the Sterling Forest acquisition was clearly the biggest deal in Andrew Cuomo’s life. He was not merely representing Goldstein, as he did on two Rockland co-op conversion plans filed with the state attorney general’s office; Cuomo was scheduled to get both legal and real estate brokerage fees on the sale, and Goldstein was going to allow him to retroactively invest those fees as a partner in the purchase.

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Goldstein and Cuomo, who ran his father’s two gubernatorial campaigns and was a special assistant to the governor during the early days of the administration, had another partner in the venture with powerful state ties — Bob Seavey, chairman of the state’s Battery Park City Authority. Seavey, 61, a developer of subsidized housing projects in the city, had been appointed by Cuomo in 1984 as the part-time head of the Battery Park board. Seavey’s son Avery later became a partner in the Cuomo firm, and Seavey and his wife joined it in 1986 — not as partners but as counsels to it. Lucille Falcone and the senior Seavey, a rumpled and grandfatherly figure, now head the firm’s booming real estate department.

A millionaire with homes in the Hamptons and Williamstown, Massachusetts, Seavey allowed one of his state- and city-subsidized projects — a luxurious complex located at 401 Second Avenue, built long before the Cuomo era — to become home for the singles wing of the Cuomo network, including at one point everyone from Falcone to Cuomo’s daughter Maria to the daughters of Cuomo friend Jimmy Breslin. The failure of many of Seavey’s tenants to meet the income requirements of the subsidy program was of little apparent concern to anyone.

Seavey’s connections to the Sterling Forest deal with Goldstein were somewhat awkward. Seavey’s Battery Park board was then in the middle of selecting a developer for its next phase of state-subsidized luxury housing. One of the finalists was Shelly Goldstein. In addition, Seavey was helping to raise financing for his and Goldstein’s Sterling Forest bid. Sometime between May and October, several developers with Battery Park City sites, including the Milsteins, some of the principals of Dic Underhill, and Related Housing, were asked to invest in the project and told that Seavey was a partner in it. Seavey’s board had acted on leases for some of these same developers, all of whom eventually declined to invest. But then, Seavey has made a career of living on just this sort of edge.

Seavey first became a focus of media attention in the mid-’60s when the State Investigation Commission criticized him for wearing two hats — representing both the cooperators in Mitchell Lama co-ops and the builder. The SIC also focused on Seavey’s relationship with Tammany Hall leader Ray Jones, the first black county leader in New York and Seavey’s number-one client. Seavey’s financial records were subpoenaed, revealing a pattern of four $5,000 payments from one Harlem housing company to Seavey, each of which was followed by huge withdrawals from Seavey’s account.

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Later a Seavey corporation and his partner were indicted in Brooklyn on charges of bilking the Mitchell Lama project at Cadman Plaza; but, after waiving a jury trial, they were acquitted by then Supreme Court judge Vito Titone. In the late ’70s Seavey was also eyed in the city’s day-care lease scandal and the comptroller wound up withholding $158,000 in rental payments to him because of suspicious overcharges.

In August 1986, just as Seavey, Goldstein, and Andrew Cuomo were getting together their bid for Sterling Forest, the Voice and Mike Oreskes, a reporter for The New York Times, were preparing news stories about the curious clients attracted to Andrew Cuomo’s small young law firm. Both Seavey and Goldstein became the focus of reporters’ questions. In a letter addressed to Mario Cuomo, dated August 26, the day before both stories appeared, Seavey referred to a conversation he’d had with the governor the night before and announced he would be resigning from the Battery Park board, effective five days later.

In an extraordinary sequence of events, Goldstein’s partner wrote a letter to Battery Park two days after Seavey’ resignation from the authority, withdrawing his proposal for Battery Park designation. The letter noted that Goldstein’s organization, the Lynmark Group, had decided to “stay within our geographic area,” adding that it has “entered into negotiations on one of the largest parcels in that area,” an obvious reference to the Sterling Forest deal. A month later, however, Home Group Insurance Company rejected the Seavey/Goldstein offer.

Seavey and Goldstein got so friendly during the course of this deal that Goldstein installed Seavey on the same Bank of Rockland board as Falcone, and bought a condo in the Sovereign, a luxury building at 425 East 58th Street where Seavey has lived for years. Andrew Cuomo, too, continued to work closely with Goldstein, joining him in a Florida bank takeover bid that blew up in ugly court cases and uglier headlines last year. While Cuomo managed a successful settlement of the Florida situation, he says he was disturbed enough by Goldstein’s performance in this and other cases that he “has not talked to him for six or seven months.” Cuomo says Goldstein “threatened to kill” the bank’s resistant owners.

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Andrew’s Answer

In a wide-ranging defense of the events surrounding the interchange, Andrew Cuomo contended that there was no conflict because Goldstein was a Rockland developer who did not enter the Orange County market until after the interchange was approved. In fact, Goldstein owned substantial property in two Orange County towns — Chester and Woodbury — and started discussing the development of a mall with Chester officials in 1985. Cuomo, who says he knows nothing about these properties, handled Goldstein’s purchase of a third Orange parcel, the INCO site, and maintains that Goldstein’s option on this site was obtained after the passage in July 1985 of the bill authorizing the interchange. Neither Cuomo nor INCO officials, however, will say precisely when that option was signed or show the Voice a copy. INCO’s president, Sam Goldberg, testifying in a local zoning case, refused to get specific about the timing of Goldstein’s initial interest, though he did concede that the property was put up for sale within days of the 1984 Cuomo speech.

Cuomo’s argument also ignores Goldstein’s longtime dominance as a developer in neighboring Rockland, even though the governor’s memo on the interchange bill said that the exit would “enhance significantly the economic development of Orange and Rockland Counties.” Vincent Monte, the Democratic county leader in Rockland and a private realtor who’s handled title insurance for Goldstein, told the Voice that Goldstein “had always intended — long before the governor’s speech — to expand his Rockland condo development into Orange County.”

Finally, Cuomo sweeps aside the importance of the on-again, off-again nature of the governmental approval process, particularly with a project that has so many downsides and roadblocks. Goldstein, Seavey, and Cuomo could afford to speculate on the likelihood of future state actions that might impact on the interchange with a little more certainty than the next guy. If the Andrew Cuomo group had actually become the owners of this tract in 1986, the state would then have been put in the difficult position of conducting a highly controversial environmental impact review to justify the construction of a virtual driveway into the governor’s son’s land.

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Cuomo’s defense of Seavey, who would not comment, is that if any of the Battery Park developers had joined the Sterling Forest bid, “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the deal, and I don’t think Bob would have either,” which makes it even stranger that Seavey asked them. Cuomo stresses Goldstein’s withdrawal from Battery Park and Seavey’s resignation as acts that minimized the “appearance of conflict,” adding that “any solicitation” Seavey “may have done” of BPC principals “may have happened” after his resignation. “Once all the pieces were put together on a deal” for Sterling Forest, if the offer had been accepted, he and the others would’ve analyzed the package and, if there was a conflict, “we wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.”

A year after the Goldstein bid was rejected, the exit project was suspended. By then the project was awash in opposition elicited during the environmental process and buffeted by a Times story a few months earlier that explored some of the conflict issues. New Thruway Authority director John Shafer, who had shepherded the interchange through the Department of Transportation when he was there, issued a terse and inexplicable explanation for the suspension. He cited concerns that the project would be “inconsistent” with “the possibility of state land acquisition or land-use planning for park and other environmental purposes in the vicinity.” That problem had been apparent from the inception of the project three years earlier.

Various top Cuomo officials have made contradictory claims to the Voice about how it died. Hennessy says he decided to stop it without ever talking to the governor who announced it. Cuomo’s counsel Evan Davis says it was killed “on the advice of condemnation lawyers from the attorney general’s office.” A spokesman for the attorney general says a representative from that office attended a top-level 1987 meeting on the second floor about the interchange but made no recommendation of any sort. Supposed decisionmaker Hennessy knows nothing about this crucial meeting. The demise of the ramp is as mysterious as its origins, and these conflicting recollections appear to conceal the hand of the one man with the power to both create and kill the project, Mario Cuomo.

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Lease Lust

Around the same time in 1984 that the governor first announced the Sterling Forest interchange, his largest campaign contributor, Shelly Goldstein, was getting himself involved in another controversial state project. He began discussing a partnership arrangement with Rockland County builder Harry Partridge, who had bought the old police property building at 400 Broome Street in Little Italy. Partridge had snared a multi-million-dollar state lease for the dilapidated and abandoned building in the dying days of the Carey administration, and when Cuomo became governor, he was going broke trying to renovate it.

Goldstein’s interest in the building would ultimately become a titillating feature of a SIC investigation that raised questions about his own conduct, as well as Andrew Cuomo’s and that of another top state official, General Services Commissioner John Egan.

The criminal focus of the Broome Street saga was on the relationship between Partridge and Joe Siggia, a middle-level OGS director who picked sites and helped negotiate leases for the move-out of thousands of state workers from the World Trade Center. Siggia retired from OGS and went to work for Partridge shortly after delivering the lease to him, just as he did for two other landlords who won state leases in the move-out sweepstakes. Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau eventually indicted both Siggia and Partridge on bribery charges but convicted them only of lying under oath at the SIC about whether or not they’d discussed Siggia’s future employment while Siggia was still in his state job. A judge dismissed the perjury counts after the conviction, and his ruling is now being appealed by Morgenthau.

But the SIC did not spend two years conducting over 200 interviews and 25 audits because of a penny-ante relationship between an unknown builder and a hustling bureaucrat. Beneath the surface of these shady dealings were intimations of an extraordinary power play pitting Cuomo and son Andrew against the ex-governor’s appointments secretary and Democratic Party chief John Burns.

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It was lobbyist Burns, retained by Partridge, who managed in late 1983 to get his old friends from the Carey days — OGS commissioner John Egan and Cuomo deputy Hank Dullea — to approve the state’s rental of an additional Broome Street floor. And it was Andrew Cuomo, then his father’s special assistant, who mysteriously got wind of this last-minute boon for Partridge, and the old boy network that produced it, and turned himself into a one-man state police force, interrogating deputy commissioners in the middle of the night and taking days to plough through OGS’s files on the lease. Not surprisingly, Andrew Cuomo’s expressed suspicions prompted Egan to cancel the new floor he’d just ordered, and Mario Cuomo’s displeased questions quickly convinced his deputy Dullea to turn his back on Burns.

The Cuomo version of these events is that sleuth Andrew smelled influence peddling and blew the whistle. The SIC, which never released Andrew’s testimony and never grilled the governor, could not settle the question of whether or not there was any connection between the actions the Cuomos took to block the rental of the additional floor, and Shelly Goldstein’s reasons for wanting it blocked. But the apparent coincidences of the Broome Street affair, when combined with the similar coincidences of Sterling Forest, present a disturbing scenario of possible conflict — one that has now been embraced in an ongoing civil suit brought by Manhattan Savings Bank, which financed Partridge’s renovations.

The bank’s attorney, Terry Gilheany, has argued in court that Andrew Cuomo acted “at the behest of a major campaign contributor to the governor.” The bank’s court papers suggest that the Cuomo-provoked cancellation of the additional floor, and the state’s refusal to pay the full rental that Partridge claims he is due, were part of a campaign to either force Partridge to sell up to 60 per cent of Broome Street to Goldstein at a discounted price or at least to punish Partridge for defaulting on an unrelated contract he had to install windows in a New Jersey building owned by Goldstein.

Goldstein concedes in his own SIC testimony that he “blew up” at Partridge when Partridge failed to deliver new windows on a 21-story federally subsidized project Goldstein owned, with Jerry Weiss and others, in New Jersey. “I threatened to ruin him in the state of New York. I threatened to do anything,” Goldstein testified. Partridge recalls that Goldstein said: “I am going to fucking destroy you so that you will never do business again in New York State. I am going to fucking destroy you in a way that you will know exactly where it came from, and how it was done, but you will never be able to prove it.”

Paul Adler, a Partridge lobbyist who’d known Goldstein for years and was well connected in Albany, testified that Goldstein threatened him at the same time in almost precisely the same language. “He told me my name would be mud,” said Adler.

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A Sudden Reversal

The Broome Street brouhaha climaxed in January 1984 — the same month that Mario Cuomo announced the Sterling Forest interchange. The governor simultaneously embarked on a sudden and angry campaign to get at the root of OGS’s decision to award Partridge an additional floor. His counsel, Gerry Crotty, got the lease file from OGS. Then, according to SIC testimony, the governor summoned one of his top deputies, Hank Dullea, and grilled him about his contacts with Burns, asking if anyone had suggested that the governor had a personal interest in the issue of the extra floor. Once Cuomo told Dullea he’d gotten the facts wrong about the need for an additional floor, Dullea left the meeting “very troubled.” Later Dullea, approached by Burns to talk about Broome Street near the elevator on the second floor, accused him of misrepresenting the situation in their previous discussions, and walked away.

After Crotty returned the file, Andrew Cuomo reclaimed it. Andrew would subsequently testify, according to the SIC report, that his interest in the lease was piqued by an anonymous oral tip that made no clear allegation but merely suggested that “it would be worth looking at 400 Broome Street.”

The flurry of intense activity at the highest levels of state government that following this “tip” was most unusual. In a Voice interview, Andrew Cuomo conceded that anonymous callers did not frequently get through to him in the executive chamber, and that his information might not have come from one, but rather from a confidential source whose identity he has since forgotten. He insists that it wasn’t his father, Goldstein, or Goldstein’s lawyer and Cuomo confidant Jerry Weiss who suggested he begin his unusual investigation. Andrew Cuomo also could not explain why he didn’t turn this inquiry over to the SIC, or the comptroller’s office, or a D.A. In any event, shortly after Cuomo began his internal investigation, he told Egan to kill the deal.

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By February, an embarrassed Egan, who had awarded Partridge the additional floor against the advice of all his top staff, traveled out to Broome Street, introduced himself to Partridge for the first time, and told him that he couldn’t go through with it. Egan told the Voice that his conversations with Andrew and others had convinced him that the governor himself was “damn upset” about the maneuverings to deliver the floor.

Then suddenly Goldstein’s attitude changed. He had learned all about the Broome Street lease and, according to Partridge and Adler, began talking buyout. “He indicated to me that he could cure” the extra floor problem, Partridge testified. And in a letter Partridge wrote in 1985, he claimed that Goldstein promised “to make me a rich man again” if Partridge brought him into Broome Street, suggesting he could get the lease negotiated.

A macho man who wore cowboy boots and fashioned himself a frontier entrepreneur, Partridge was by then on his knees, damaged by the decision about the additional floor and the escalating costs at Broome Street. “He broke down crying at one meeting that he was being ruined because of this building in New York,” recalled Goldstein. “Harry is a big man. This really cracked us up a little bit.” Partridge says he refused to sell to Goldstein; Goldstein says Partridge just never gave him the hard numbers on which he could base an offer.

At one point, lobbyist Adler says Goldstein told him: “What the hell’s the matter with that guy — isn’t he afraid of me, of what I can do to him? Tell him to see — he’ll be rich again.” But Partridge never buckled, ultimately lost the building, and went bankrupt. “I think it was too close a coincidence,” Adler told the SIC, “and I think there was an opportunity there to take advantage of a business venture at a weak point. I think the eighth floor was taken away.”

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A Blast from the Past

With contradictory testimony and no clear resolution, the SIC dropped this aspect of its probe. Its May 1986 report was instead an unprecedented attack on a sitting state commissioner — the gregarious career civil servant Egan. “The predominant and disturbing conclusion of the Commission’s investigation,” said the report, “concerned the utter failure by OGS to demonstrate an appropriate degree of concern for the standards of conduct required of state employees.” Citing the $371 million OGS budget, the report said that “attitudes towards ethical conflicts within the agency must be profoundly changed, from the field level employees up to the Commissioner.”

The rationale for this assault was Egan’s apparent indifference to Siggia’s conflicts with Partridge and two other landlords associated with the World Trade Center move-out, as well as his accommodation to Burns on Broome Street. The SIC characterized the Broome Street dealings as “self-serving behavior and favored treatment for old friends,” concluding that Egan’s “evaluation and professional judgment appeared to have been formed to a far greater extent on the basis of who last spoke to him rather than on the merits of the transactions.”

The SIC may have come down on Egan this sharply because, after pouring resources into its two-year probe, the commission stopped short of bringing the Cuomo/Goldstein issues to any conclusion. In any event, its hard-hitting findings against Egan have been blithely ignored by the governor’s office. Indeed Andrew Cuomo’s attitude about the SIC probe is one of contempt, even though three of the seven commissioners who conducted it, including the chairman, David Trager, were appointed by Governor Cuomo and came from the top levels of the U.S. attorney’s office. A fourth commissioner, appointed by the assembly, was Joe Hynes, whom the governor subsequently named special state prosecutor.

A couple of weeks before the report was released, Goldstein quit his post as chair of the State University Construction Fund, but Andrew Cuomo says the resignation had nothing to do with Goldstein’s bullying conduct in the Broome Street affair. Of course, Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with him grew closer in the aftermath of the report, so there was certainly no attempt by the Cuomo family to distance itself from him.

Half a dozen top OGS officials immediately below Egan were slammed in the report, or embarrassed at the hearing, none more savagely than OGS counsel Emeric Levatich, who was described as routinely approving the most blatant conflict-of-interest arrangements between OGS staffers and firms doing business with the agency. Egan and Levatich respond that Siggia’s employment by landlords who benefited from his state decisions didn’t violate the law until new legislation was passed last year — a law the SIC recommended be adopted.

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While one deputy commissioner has left the agency to return to a high-level post at the Corrections Department, it is unclear that this transfer was in any way connected to his role in the lease scandal. Other than him, a couple of low-level agency personnel were demoted. This record of response tends to confirm the indifference the report identified.

Egan says he’s survived because the governor “has a lot of trust in us.” He says Cuomo “was very much aware of the report,” and that “if the governor thought any of the allegations were true, I’d be long gone.” The commissioner makes an impassioned defense of his agency’s overall record for honesty, citing the World Trade Center move-out as an aberration that bypassed the normal leasing procedures. He also points out that he referred the case against Siggia to the D.A., though it was long after the SIC had opened its own probe, initiated by a complaint from the Republican senate.

John Egan is a man who learned early in life how to please those with power. He personally handles the petty favors in Albany that make powerful friends — everything from state cars to office furniture. Just as he had shuttled feverishly from side to side during the Broome Street battle, he appeared to weave back and forth again as a witness at the SIC a year later. In his first appearance he testified that Andrew Cuomo hadn’t advised him to cancel the eighth floor, and then, after Andrew said he had, Egan confirmed Andrew’s testimony in a second appearance. He says he didn’t know about Andrew’s intervening testimony.

Egan advertised himself during a Voice interview as someone who’d been around long enough to anticipate what governors and those with power expect of him. At the SIC he might’ve anticipated wrong. But in the end, his performance obviously satisfied the only audience that really mattered. ❖