January 7, 2023
Fifteen years after the “Summer of Love,” I lived briefly in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The hippie era was decidedly over, but like a retreating wave leaving a trail on the sand, its bohemian aura lingered on. Whether you were gay or straight, the order of the day was to lead a bohemian life, which is what, exactly? One image crystallizes it for me: you can’t pay next month’s rent the day before it’s due, but you can scrounge together enough pennies to buy the best cup of espresso in town, together with a divine slice of “death by chocolate” cake from “Kiss My Sweet’…,” the Haight Street pastry shop.
While there were no true bohemians in my immediate social circle—my residence in the Haight was only a sort of exile from the Castro district, where the rents were higher—I came across them by gestalt. Painters, sculptors, or poets, neighborhood fixtures or friends of acquaintances, they displayed their wares on the sidewalk or on the bright lawns of Golden Gate Park. As a person with artistic aspirations, I was drawn to their passion, their dedication for their art, but I was as practical as I was artistic. By then, I already had enough sense to choose making a steady living drawing landscape plans assigned by my boss over producing paintings of my own invention, hoping for an occasional sale. That was the intriguing thing about the bohemian artists: they didn’t seem to care whether they made money or not. Sometimes I envied them that purity and that freedom.
Even more intriguing was the question of why they didn’t care about money. Did they lack ambition, and if so, was that because they considered it an “ego-trip” or a “copout,” two hippie terms left on the beach by that wave? Were they like Buddhist monks in their conviction that art was so sacred an endeavor that it transcended the worldly demands of capitalism? Or was it because, having heeded Timothy Leary’s exhortation to turn on and drop out, it simply didn’t occur to them that they could make money? Since I didn’t know any of them well enough to ask, the answer remains an enigma to me to this day.
That enigma was very much on my mind when I read Alysia Abbott’s fascinating memoir, “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father.” When Alysia was only two years old, her mother died in an auto accident. Her father, an aspiring poet, moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, taking Alysia with him. In the Haight, he led a bohemian life, exploring his gay identity and going from one live poetry reading to another. Alysia became a latch-key child at an early age.
One day when Alysia was nine or ten years old, she came home from school to find that her key was missing and her father was not home. Buzzing other residents in the building, she was let in by a remarkable man who soon became a sort of uncle to her: Robert Pruzan. As Abbott describes it, Robert had studied mime in Paris with a protégé of Marcel Marceau; he had mastered ichibana, the Japanese art of flower-arranging; he was an avid gardener; and he was an accomplished photographer with a darkroom in the apartment. Working as a photo-journalist for The Bay Area Reporter, he documented gay pride parades and Harvey Milk rallies, not to mention the Castro and Folsom Street fairs. In other words, Robert Pruzan was an amazingly talented bohemian whose photos are now held in an archive at the San Francisco LGBT Center.
When I read Alysia’s account of meeting Robert, my jaw almost dropped, and not just because I had lived, at the same time, only a block and a half from their apartment at 545 Ashbury Street. It was also because I knew the name Pruzan. Robert’s father, Carl Pruzan, was my dad’s attorney and architectural client. Robert had graduated from my high school, Seattle’s Roosevelt High, only a few years before me, but the only thing I knew about him, before encountering him in the pages of “Fairyland,” was that my parents had told me, vaguely, that Carl’s son was a gay guy living in San Francisco. As it turned out, I never had a chance to meet him before he died, of what else? AIDS. Here was the ultimate bohemian—a man who had mastered not one, not two, but three fine art forms, without becoming wealthy or achieving more than local fame. I would have loved to have had the chance to ask him, “Did that matter to you?” Now I will never know.
The Haight is the Haight, but New York City is an entirely different matter. It fascinates me to compare Robert Pruzan’s San Francisco experience with the story of two contemporary bohemian New Yorkers, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. In Smith’s gripping account, “Just Kids,” she ran away to the City from her conventional family life in suburban New Jersey. Mapplethorpe plucked her off a bench in Washington Square Park where, penniless, she had spent the night. This turned out to be the beginning of a decades-long passionate love affair and/or devoted friendship, depending on which day, week, or year one chooses to examine it.
After fighting fever and struggling to stay warm in their hovel of an apartment, the couple managed to move into the famed Chelsea Hotel, where you could give the landlord a work of your own original art in lieu of a down-payment or as collateral against a future breach of your rent payment. Surrounded by an intense group of creatives, Mapplethorpe and Smith thrived at the Chelsea. Eventually, Patti found her true form as a singer-songwriter, while Robert became not only one of the most celebrated photographers of the twentieth century, but equally renowned and reviled for his exploration of queer S & M eroticism. I don’t know about Patti, but, like Andy Warhol, Robert actively sought out money and fame. Does that mean he handed in his bohemian credentials? That is the pertinent question.
In the 1990s, my brother, Bliss, explored bohemia’s antagonistic relationship to capitalism in an amazing play co-produced and staged called “The Yellow Kid.” With a large cast and even a goat or two on stage, “The Yellow Kid” told the story of the famed cartoonist, Richard Outcault, who created the character of the same name for his comic strip, “Hogan’s Alley.” Appearing in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World from 1895 to 1898, the Yellow Kid introduced affluent New Yorkers to the squalid world of life in the tenements, fomenting an activist movement to confront poverty. Unfortunately for the bohemian spirit of “Hogan’s Alley” and the Yellow Kid,” William Randolph Hearst enticed Outcault away to his own newspaper, the New York Journal American, for a significantly higher salary. After a few years, and presumably at Hearst’s direction, Outcault dropped the Yellow Kid and replaced him with “Buster Brown,” a distinctly bourgeois strip with a moralizing tone. In turn, the comic was “monetized,” as we would say today, when Outcault and Hearst licensed its name to the popular brand of shoes.
The lesson Bliss drew from the Yellow Kid’s transformation into Buster Brown was that capitalism corrupts art by paying the artist to abandon his true spirit, his embrace of social justice. This axiom would have it that he exchanges his truth for wealth and position. Alysia’s father, the poet Steve Abbott, stayed true to his conscience, remaining a poor bohemian until his own death by AIDS in 1992. But the examples of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe prove that you can stick to your artistic vision and still make it big. It’s unfortunate that so many of the struggling Haight Ashbury artists I witnessed, contemporaries of Steve Abbott and Robert Pruzan, did not live long enough to realize they could have it both ways.