By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
(Background: In 1968 I returned from a year in New York City to Santa Fe and life in the City Different.)
My casita was a few blocks from Claude's bar on Canyon Road, where many of Santa Fe's artists and writers had homes and studios. My friend Alan and I spent most evenings at Claude's, which was the gathering place for Santa Fe's bohemian colony.
The mix of people at Claude's was distinctive. Painters and writers, Indians and Anglos drank there, an interesting but seemingly incompatible mix of characters. There was Paul Washburn, a pop artist who claimed to be a black belt and told me his hands were registered but was missing his two upper front teeth; Eli Levin, a New York transplant and a fine social realist painter; David Briggs, a classical guitarist; Beverly McCrary and Hannah Hibbs, older students at the College of Santa Fe who also ran with the Hollywood crowd when it was in town. Older painters like Hal West and Jim Morris occasionally still came, so did teachers at the Santa Fe Indian School. Stan Noyse, a former rodeo clown turned author who had written the respected novel, No Flowers for a Clown, appeared occasionally, as did artist Jerry West, who developed into one of New Mexico's most significant painters.
A few of the drinkers, like the gaunt-faced and bearded Finn O'Hara, I saw only once or twice. O'Hara belonged to the class of customers that had the status of legends. Some of Claude's drinkers spoke of these legends in awe, almost in whispers. Most of the legends were dead, like Alfred Morang, who had painted small scenes on the walls of a dangerous bar just down the street. Others had once been Claude's regulars but now drifted in and out of town. These characters, as I said, were spoken of almost in whispers, as though they lived in a mythical past, and we, pitiful by comparison, lived in ordinary times.
From what I heard Claude's loungers say of him, Finn O'Hara's name conjured up an image of a dangerous man, a walking time bomb. He was said to have chewed a glass at the bar one night. Had he swallowed any of the glass? Perhaps. I pictured those at the bar watching him in the seemingly incandescent light that saturated the room and made everything so much more intense. Supposing O'Hara had swallowed glass, it would not have cut his mouth or stomach. Such did not happen to legends.
One of Claude's regulars who later became a prominent New Mexico lawyer, had just passed his bar exam and was drinking at Claude's the night before his first job out of law school, clerking for a federal judge. Sometime during the night he passed out. The bar was crowded and noisy and no one noticed him lying on the floor. None of the employees noticed him when they closed up. When Claude's opened the next morning my friend headed to the judge's chambers where the judge's secretary told him to go home and sleep it off.
Another of Claude's regulars was John Hanson, a dedicated abstract artist. I met Hanson through Hal West on the first night that Hal and I visited Claude's in the summer of 1966. Claude's was Hanson's second home. Hanson was Alan's height, about six-foot-four-inches and solidly built. He was raised in Maine and had lived in Santa Fe periodically in the mid-sixties. In 1966 he returned to settle in Santa Fe. Hanson had a deep, booming voice that intimidated some people. He was a heavy drinker and when drunk he seemed ready to explode. He could drink steadily for five or six hours and wake the next morning with no hangover and hike five miles into the mountains.
On one October afternoon after work Alan and I went to Claude's wearing new, very similar sports coats. We stood at the bar next to Hanson.
Hanson looked at us and shouted, "It's Tweedledum and Tweedledee!"
"You noticed," I said.
"YES!" Hanson roared and laughed. It was a sneering laugh.
I stepped away for a moment, but not out of earshot. Hanson was shouting at Alan, who was wisecracking. I heard Hanson tell Alan, "You"—pause—"are an adolescent SCHMUCK!"
"Schmuck's a dirty word," Alan said.
"You're not real!"
"For myself I prefer façade."
Hanson exploded, "GET OUT!"
I stepped back to the bar.
"I heard you call Tweedledum an adolescent schmuck."
"Yes, I did," Hanson insisted. "And with good reason."
"That was very bad manners," I told him.
"Listen, buddy, my manners are impeccable. My mother brought me up with very good manners."
It was easy to get Hanson riled if you knew which buttons to push.
"Don't shout," I said.
"I'll shout if I damn well please."
"What do you mean you have good manners? You've been shouting in my ears for the last two months."
"Yes," Hanson shouted, "that's right."
"That's boorish," I countered.
"Yes! You're damn RIGHT it's boorish."
"Then you're a liar."
"Don't call me a liar! I am NOT a LIAR!"
"Either you're a liar or you're mistaken. You just said you had good manners and now you tell me you're a boor."
"He's right," Alan told Hanson.
"You two"—Hanson paused, then hissed—"are half-wits." He smiled.
Hanson was a perpetual presence at Claude's after five o'clock. Before he began drinking at five, he would be friendly and willing to show his paintings to any interested person. I visited his little adobe numerous times and John would offer coffee and pull out his latest work. In those days they were large, abstract paintings of the New England seacoast, painted in small patches of color showing brush marks.
Hanson, I gathered from one dark painting of an army brig, had a quarrel with army discipline and had gone AWOL or been otherwise frequently insubordinate. Whatever the case, he been thrown into the brig where he had broken down: his mind had fractured there and he still dreaded its memory. The dark core was still in Hanson and he feared it.
Hanson lived off a trust fund and so was able to devote himself to painting, drinking and hiking. Others in the Canyon Road colony had neither painting, nor writing, nor any other art through which they might have staved off self-destruction. One of these, Pete Townsend, became one of Claude's habitués. I met Townsend soon after my return from New York at The Forge, a downtown Santa Fe bar. Hal West and I were sitting at a table at one end of The Forge, looking at a man sitting by himself at the bar. The man wore a brown sports jacket and thin tie and had close-cropped hair. Hal said, "That's Pete Townsend." I caught the scorn in Hal's voice.
Pete looked in our direction, saw us and came over.
"Good evening, Hal," he said, holding his drink in one hand and extending the other. Hal looked at the extended hand, then slowly stretched out his own, but did not ask Pete to join us.
I noticed that Pete's face was just beginning to sag. His jowls were fleshy and his eyes puffy, with bags beneath them. His clothes were ten, twenty years out of fashion. His jacket collar was too narrow, so was his tie. He dressed carefully; his gestures were tight. I came to see that this was how Townsend tried to cover a disintegrating interior.
In the coming weeks as I visited Claude's I was to get to know Townsend, which opened another chapter in my life, and not an innocent one, but corrupt and thankfully brief.
Townsend was urbane and intelligent. He had written advertising copy in New York, or so he said. I was drawn into his life. Our relationship cemented at Claude's where we met to drink and play pool.
The poolroom at Claude's—a small side room usually crowded with loungers and lit by overhead neon lights—was intense with loud talk and the jukebox in the next room. There may have been one good player among the scores that played that table, but most, like Townsend, thought themselves good, if not expert. They were loud and fed one another with mutual praise.
As fall passed into winter 1969, Claude's grew in intensity. In those alcohol-fueled nights, Claude's was a howl of activity in this—the heyday of its life. Great crowds roiled about; bodies danced to the jukebox in the side room, men crammed together at the bar while couples sat at tables by the backroom fireplace. All of this added dramatic background to my conversations with Townsend.
In our first conversations Townsend told me that he not only was a writer but that he had a New York agent, Mary Bradley. I was impressed. Townsend said that many years ago there had been three young stars on the American literary horizon, "There was Norman Mailer . . . Irwin Shaw . . . and me." I believed him. Townsend would then say, "I could have been a contender," imitating Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Townsend quoted that line frequently.
I believed him. After all, he had published one or two short stories, which he showed me. I do not remember anything about them. Certainly they showed promise— no doubt about that—because New York's literary establishment predicted a brilliant future for him. I did not ask him what had happened. The breaks had simply not fallen his way and he had gone into advertising. Here in Santa Fe then was a writer who had not only published and had a New York agent, but had a mysterious, tragic past. He was my friend, and my drinking buddy!
I handed Pete a copy of Lucrezia, a verse drama I had written after the style of Christopher Fry. I sat with Pete as he read it, and watched with great pleasure as he would suddenly say, "My God! This is great stuff!" put down the manuscript and stare into space.
I was greatly impressed and began to think myself another Christopher Fry, or better yet, Christopher Marlowe. Pete encouraged these fantasies. He said, "This is as good as Fry," and he himself professed a love for Fry's best known play, The Lady's Not for Burning, parts of which I would declaim.
In the autumn of 1968 I was trying to recreate Fry's verse in a landscape as incandescent as his words. The leaves on the nearby mountains were covered with gold-leafed aspens that tinkled and shimmered. The air was cool and crisp. Time fell away. I took long walks, bit into yellow apples, big and crisp, and felt I was crunching into fall itself. I was intoxicated with words.
I had no doubts about my genius. (I had my illusions as the loungers at Claude's had theirs.) There would be time enough to write my experiences. Meanwhile I would satisfy my appetites. And I did. I lived for food and women. I wrote little and read carelessly. What interested me in poetry was sound, not meaning.
Townsend marveled at my words, which was the reaction I craved. Or did Townsend truly marvel? Townsend, I learned months later, was a conman and liar, such a liar that he had perhaps convinced himself of the truth of his lies.
Later that fall, as Townsend repeated to me that he had been one of the three most promising young writers in America, he began reminiscing about his early years. He had been in the Korean conflict and told the story of a horrendous firefight he had experienced. As the shells pounded his platoon from all sides, Townsend saw his buddies screaming and calling for help as they were blown to bits. How he escaped was by the grace of God alone! As Townsend told this tale he began sobbing. He put his hand over his eyes. The sobs came louder; he cried and slunk off his chair onto the floor, kneeling and crying.
I tried to comfort Pete.
When I saw this performance a second time, I began to see what Townsend was, but would not see a completed portrait until spring.