Don’t Leave Europe: My Memoir of Harold Norse, 1981 to 1991.
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.
It was hard to miss Harold Norse at Café Flore in San Francisco during the 1980s and early ’90s when I lived there. He was a short, old man with a round, slightly wrinkled face, who wore a black, leather jacket, blue jeans, biker boots, and a black toupee that never fit quite right but which, nonetheless, I never saw him without. Norse could be found most days around lunchtime at one of the café’s tables usually alone but sometimes locked in discussion with one or two writers. There he would sit into the early afternoon, reading a book, writing and looking at the people and the traffic passing on Market Street, until he headed for home, down 16th Street towards the Mission. Flore was where Norse held his “office hours” as he called them since he received so few people at his carriage house on Albion Street. Steve Abbott introduced me to Norse at Flore sometime around 1981. Unfortunately, I didn’t record this first meeting in my journal.
From what I can recollect, however, Norse didn’t seem very impressed. He gave me a quick, critical and perhaps dismissive once over with his dark, sharp eyes. At first glance, he appeared to me to be the sort of abrasive curmudgeon who didn’t suffer fools. I also had the impression that Norse was afraid I might be one of those empty-headed, pretty-boy, literary gay tourists/groupies who wasted his time wanting to know what it was like to be one of San Francisco’s Beat Generation.
The next time I think I saw Norse was when Abbott took me to one of John Norton’s Christmas Anonymous parties in Pacific Heights. He was sitting by himself in the living room looking out at the skyline until Abbott and I came over to sit and talk with him. I remember it took a while to get to know Harold—to be given access to his circle, to show him I wasn’t just another pretty face, and to gain his confidence enough for him to allow me to publish in No Apologies in 1984 and 1985 excerpts from his memoirs about his life in New York with Chester Kallman and W.H. Auden that would later become part of his book-length Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, A Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey, published by William Murrow in 1989.
My proximity, contact and confidence increased when I moved to 20th and Guerrero in the Mission in November 1982, joined the Small Press Traffic Bookstore’s gay men’s writing group the next spring, started collecting work for the first issue of No Apologies that summer, began working at the SPT that autumn and then at the Walt Whitman Bookshop on Market Street in early 1984 where I edited the second issue of No Apologies.
The first journal entry I have about Norse is from 3 February 1984:
“Ran into Harold Norse at Café Flore by accident on my lunch hour from Walt Whitman. Harold dove right in and told me how nervous he was about Robert Peters publishing a new collection of his poetry which would only be available to libraries. He felt honoured for posterity sake, but sad that people wouldn’t be able to buy his new book in bookstores. Harold was sitting with a friend named Floyd. Both them had to be 30 years older than me, but they solicited my opinion on various questions concerning publishing as if I were an equal. That’s what I like about Harold. No pedestal & no worship required.”
By then I had become much more welcome in Norse’s circle and I sent a letter on the 29th, to The Advocate in praise of Norse’s:
“…groundbreaking memoir of W.H. Auden…because it tackles many of the barely discussed problems of gay writers…(including) working with a literary past which has been deliberately distorted or sanitised…discussing the exploitation of younger gay writers by older ones and vice versa (Auden later “stole” Norse’s boyfriend, Kallman) and the reluctance of powerful gay writers such as Auden and Forster to come out of the closet to create a better world for gay people.”
I added that: “in the 1940’s—(gay) men lived as eccentrics or in constant fear of being discovered and posed the question couldn’t:
“Auden’s regular rhyme schemes and meters in an era of broken forms be seen as a way to buy into some form of respectability while describing his awareness of the apparent dissolution of the modern world?”
In a letter to Phil Willkie dated 10 March 1984, I wrote:
“Just back from Harold Norse’s house where I talked with him at his invitation about my poetry. He’s really amazed that my work hasn’t gained more notoriety in S.F. He went over “Intimations of Frank O’Hara” with me, pointing out what he thought were weak lines that could be altered or removed. On the whole, he really likes the way I zero in on people and the scenes around them. I told him I like to concentrate on one person, just one person in my poems—sort of do portraits. I also left him with some more recent work to look at—“Words Sentences and Paragraphs” and a couple new poems, which were in process and with which I am not emotionally attached so they can be dissected by him without any emotional ambivalence or resistance on my part.”
In this letter, I also tried to convince Willkie to do an interview together with Norse for both my magazine, No Apologies and Willkie’s James White Review. Another letter to Wilkie dated 19 March states that:
“I spent most of the day Saturday, 3/17/84, with Harold Norse going over two or three poems, Harold reminiscing about William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Hart Crane, etc. Harold also showed me some of his early poems (written between 18-24) literally hundreds of them all publishable. He showed me one entitled “High School” which as an imitation of Auden and which had strong evidence of his homosexuality before he (Norse) was even consciously aware of it.
I told Harold that you were interested in having him read maybe in the fall and the terms (I read your letter to him). He said he will be reading in St. Louis and Detroit in the fall, so I’m sure you could snag him for a couple of days in Minneapolis. (He seemed very excited about your offer).”
I continued the letter by writing that:
“Harold did an incredible amount of opening up to me—telling me about his life as a child in the slums of N.Y.C. His mother fighting with his father over a bottle of milk that his father tried to guzzle down in derision—his mother yelling — “it’s for the kid—it’s for the kid!,” meeting Tennessee Williams & Auden for the first time, living overseas in Spain, Italy and Greece for 15 years. He’s led a very adventurous life.”
In April 1984, Rink took a series of individual and group photos at Café Flore of Norse and I with Jacob Lowlander (Jim Holmes), Phil Wilkie, and Steve Abbott for The Advocate. This was for an issue headlined “New Writing and Erotica” in The Advocate’s 1 May 1984 issue. Headshots of Wilkie and I were included with Robert Fero’s to represent the more traditional writers at the top of the left hand page and those of Boyd MacDonald, John Preston and Phil Andros, to represent the erotic writers, atop the right-hand page.
It was during this period that Norse began to telephone me and he began to emphasise the importance of what I was doing with No Apologies. As I got to know Norse better, we also began to share some of the non-literary parts of our lives. During one phone conversation I told him about the gold and orange clouds that would sometimes roll across my white ceiling as I lay in bed breathing deeply. I had thought this was just a hallucination after a hard day’s work, but Norse seemed to think it was some sort of psychic gift. He told me not to be ashamed of gifts and to use them. He told me he was impressed with my magazine and my poems. He especially liked my poem “The Cyclist” about a man’s struggle to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito against the wind. I thanked him for his comment by dedicating the poem to him and read it a month later at the No Apologies benefit.
It was this belief in my psychic ability which coloured the description of a telephone call from Norse, the important points of which (including his anticipation of his journey to read at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam) I recorded in my journal of 16 May 1984:
“I was think(ing) about Harold Norse, Robert Goldstein and the magazine (No Apologies) tonight as I sat at the kitchen table finishing my dinner. It must have been ESP because a few moments later, Harold called on the phone and asked if I’d gotten his message (the part about how happy he was at the No Apologies #2 benefit reading and how outstanding and unique he feels the magazine is). The other half is that he’s going to Europe to give readings later this year to celebrate/promote the translation of Beat Hotel into Italian.”
Harold took a great deal of time to tell me how important he thinks No Apologies is, in fact he thinks that #2 is even better than #1. He said that the magazine will make literary history as the first collection of good, gay writing and that it could be the proper vehicle for a career in writing or editing if I should choose those paths. He did stress most of all that I must continue with the magazine no matter what to destroy what we both call the conspiracy of silence about the lives of gay writers and explicitly gay works by the straight, dominant literary establishment. We also talked about how Ginsberg and Kerouac have still to win the approval of the straight dominant literary mafia. Harold’s encouragement was most gratifying to me. He also said that my writing is just as good as if not superior to the group of writers I hang out with and he mentioned a paper on gay writing he was doing implying that he would mention me in it. I feel great! Harold wants to see me on Saturday, so I’d better get some new poems ready.
As Harold began to know me better, he began to tell me about the gay writers and editors who came through town. Once, he mentioned that Donald Allen, a very distant man and Frank O’Hara’s publisher, was in town. Allen came by the Whitman to talk to the owner, Charles Gilman. I can’t remember the occasion, whether it was for a reading, or just to chat with Gilman up on his podium office at the back of bookshop behind the type of twilled, thick burgundy rope used at cinema or theatre premiers to keep out the riff-raff, but Norse mentioned somewhat later that I must have made a good impression on Allen because Norse commented: “You melted the iceberg.” (Allen corresponded with me at least twice over the next year once in a short note on Grey Fox stationary dated 17 May 1984 and the other sent to Brown University on 19 February 1985. The first note praised No Apologies’ first issue and asked the magazine published short fiction…?” The second came with a review copy of “Richard Hall’s new book of stories” (Letters from a Great Uncle). Allen again asked if I’d be “interested in publishing any of Hall’s shorter stories?”)
In May 1984, Norse was the star reader at No Apologies’ second benefit reading held at Newspace, the art gallery and performance space across from New College at Valencia and 19th and next door to the Valencia Rose, the LGBT comedy cabaret and café. Norse agreed to read, but he demanded top billing. Further conditions were that he would only read if he had a microphone and if someone was at the door to stop people from walking in during his reading.
As Norse had predicted, just as he got up to read, a disheveled, disoriented, gray-haired man in his 60s started jiggling the front doorknob. I went outside and made several attempts to reason with the man and steer him away from the door. Several times, however, he turned back towards the door and I had to take his hand and walk him down the street a few storefronts further. By the time he finally decided to leave, I returned to Newspace just in time to hear the applause of those inside. I realised I had missed all of Norse’s part of the reading, but I rationalised with myself that this was just one of those sacrifices hosts made to take good care of their guests. Fortunately, Norse’s reading was not interrupted and no one missed me. I went back inside, thanked Norse for his contribution and introduced the next reader as if nothing had happened.
Over time, I was able to gain more credibility with Norse as a writer and as a publisher. We had a short period of intensive correspondence between September 1984 and April 1985. During this time I published a six-page excerpt, part 1, of Norse’s Honeymoon memoir in No Apologies #3 (autumn 1984) and a much-longer, 16-page excerpt, part 2, in No Apologies #4 (spring 1985).
In a typed postcard dated 16 September 1984, Norse wrote that he “loved yr letter…a breath of fresh air…like Marco Polo discovering Cathay.” This must have been in response to my letter about my removal to and my new surroundings in Providence, Rhode Island where I attended Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program for the next two years. I had literally moved from one end of the county to another, substituting California’s sunny, warm clime for an already cold, New England autumn. (I remember calling my landlord in September to ask why the heat wasn’t on and he just laughed). I also tried to fill in Norse on my first impressions of Brown’s campus, its students and the locals. Harold envied my ability to travel and to start a new life in a new place. A few lines later he wrote: …I wish I were there…but I’m not. I’m here (San Francisco)…not in Berlin, or Lugano or Amsterdam.” The reason was because of “a bad heart.” Due to this, Norse wondered if he would still be able to make it to his “European reading tour” later that year. He mentioned further: “people were organising a big benefit reading for me because of the frightful huge costs of the treatment.”
Always the self-promoter, Norse also wrote short notes at the top and bottom of the typed postcard. He mentioned that the current Poetry Flash had “his mug on the cover and a long retrospective review of his Mysterie of Margrite.” At the bottom he wrote that the current Advocate had his Tennessee Williams memoir. Harold’s roommate, Robert Goldstein also sent me a letter around the same time. He wrote that Norse had misplaced the card I had sent him that motivated his comments above. He also said he’d enjoyed reading at the No Apologies #3 benefit in San Francisco and had enclosed a poem, “H2O,” for my consideration.
In December 1984, one of the writers, who had also read at Dutch poetry festival with Norse, complained to me when I saw him on the East Coast. He said that Norse had demanded a two-page introduction before he would read. After editing Norse’s two-part memoir about his relationship with Chester Kallman, how W.H. Auden stole him away and Norse’s knowledge of other notables in New York in the early 1940s, however, I didn’t feel such an introduction for a well-known, 70+-year-old, Beat poet was unwarranted.
Goldstein wrote me again around the first of the year. In his letter he said that Norse was “ungoing chelation therapy…He feels hopeful about his condition so his condition has improved.” Whether real or otherwise, Norse was always preoccupied about some ongoing ailment whether it was his heart or something else.
The next letter was from Norse. It included a handwritten note dated 15 January 1985 and a clipping from the 8 January 1985 Advocate that included a photo of him standing next to Jim Holmes, James Broughton, Steve Abbott and Dennis Cooper at the One World Poetry Foundation in Amsterdam as part of a “Poetry Gone Gay” evening reading. He assured me that he would have the manuscript of his memoir for No Apologies #4 ready “very soon.” Norse also asked that this time his memoir appear in the front of the magazine and not at the back as last time (when Kevin Killian guest edited the magazine whilst I was getting settled in at Brown). He then wrote that Beat Hotel “was now being read by the youth of Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Finland, Greece” and that he “was among the handful of 5 or 6 contemporary Americans they admire.” He added that he felt his reading in Amsterdam had been “a triumph” and that “I will consent to an interview for N(o) A(pologies).”
Norse’s next missive was a half-page, typewritten note dated 23 January 1985. He wrote that he was still working on the second part of his memoir for me. He also mentioned that he was reviewing “(Kallman’s) stepmother’s book, Auden in Love, for The Advocate.” Norse reassured me that what he was putting in his memoirs for me was “a first-time publication,” and that it “completely confutes Farnan (Mrs. Kallman) whose book distorts and sentimentalises without making any mention of me.” Norse continued that his health was still “touch and go,” and that he was “spending his last money on the only treatment that can help, but there’s no guarantee.”
Then, Norse sent me a full-page typewritten letter dated 30 January 1985. He continued to discuss the difference between his memoirs based upon “the letters of C(hester) K (allman)” which was “a first for biographers and scholars” and Auden in Love’s “romantic twaddle.” He also mentioned meeting Armisted Maupin at a party at Steve Abbott’s and how “delighted” he was to find that Maupin was a “rabid fan.” Maupin, according to Norse said that “it was red-letter day for his diary” and that he extended an invitation to Norse “to come visit.”
The second half of his letter was concerned with corrections and notes that should be added to the second part of his memoir that I was about to publish. He also mentioned that all of his surviving correspondence with William Carlos Williams was about to be published in HELIX and gave instructions to mention the Lily Library and a copyright note in a first page footnote of his memoir.
The last letter I have in my possession from Norse is a two-page, typewritten missive dated 10 February 1985. This letter is concerned primarily with two additional copy corrections. It begins, however, with the sad news that Norse was mugged just outside his apartment on the first of the month as he was carrying his groceries home. Norse wrote that the man used a “choke-hold, pulled me to the ground, and tightened his arms around my larynx. Luckily he let me go before I passed out.” He wrote that due to the hold “he still can’t talk”… and he had made an appointment with “a throat specialist.”
I had suggested to Norse in a previous letter that he leave out the last letter in his memoir, which commented on a letter by Kallman, because it made Norse “look bad.” Norse disagreed. He said that his letter in the memoir illustrated “the growing separation between us (Norse and Kallman) that dates from this period—Wystan begins to drive a wedge between us—” and that Norse was trying to “establish the roots of a future rift.” He added the World’s Fair description was “essential for on-the-spot interest in the contemporary scene of New York—slice of life—in contrast to Chester’s Disneyland in Calif.”
In the second last paragraph of the letter, Norse mentioned Judith Malina’s Diaries (Grove Press, 1984), which mentioned “me, Chester, Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, Nin, W.C. Williams, Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, all of us from 1947-57 literary NY.”
This second page also includes two handwritten notes: one at the bottom of the page and one in the left hand margin. The former mentions that Goldstein offered his services for distribution (of No Apologies) and the latter a list of where and to whom he wanted review copies of No Apologies #4 sent.
After this letter, I received another from Norse in gold, handwritten script. Norse thanked me for publishing his memoir and told me again I should continue with my magazine and my writing. Unfortunately, this letter was stolen by a Silicon Valley roommate in 1988. After I discovered this, I deposited all my literary correspondence into a safe deposit box.
Thus ended my formal correspondence with Norse. When I returned to San Francisco in 1987, my contact with Harold was almost exclusively via the telephone with some occasional journal entries. On 16 October 1989, I mention of a visit to Harold’s carriage house. I noted that:
“…nothing had changed…Harold met me at the door and said I looked the same thing. I told him he looked the same also (I lied. He also had on his black toupee with some grey hairs to make it look more natural, but it still looks awful on him). We talked about Brown and his noisy neighbours and roommates who kept him from his writing. I told Harold about some big readings I’d organised at Brown and showed him a photo of myself standing with Olga Broumas and Dennis Cooper and picture of my ex-, Jim Guglielmino, sitting next to a Christmas tree. I also showed him pictures of Hans van K. from the Netherlands and that I would like to move there. Harold talked about going to read there in 1984 with Steve Abbott and Dennis Cooper at the One World Poetry Festival. He said while in the Netherlands, a man had offered him a loft space for as long as he wanted so he could to write. Harold said he wrote continuously for six days. Then he ran out of money and had had to come back to the States.
“Harold spent a great deal of time rummaging around in his cabinet to make some tea, but all he came up with were a bunch of mouldy mixes, so I took him out for tea at a Mexican café on 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero.
We talked a little bit more. He told me he was going to read that night at Fort Mason with Allen Ginsberg as part of National Poetry Week. I told him I had heard Ginsberg read at Brown and that Ginsburg had read spectacularly (whilst accompanying himself on a zither). Then Harold began to go on about how Ginsberg couldn’t read well anymore. I assured him Ginsberg was in top shape and that he had read Howl in its entirety and an excerpt from his then unpublished, White Shroud. Harold then apologised and said (that) if Ginsberg had read Howl, he must in been in top form that night.”
A flyer in my files for the month of November 1989 from A Different Light Bookstore lists a reading for Norse on Sunday, 19 November at 3 PM. I also have a signed copy of his book, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel which reads: “For Bryan Monte */With warm feelings & strong feelings that you will be recognised for your gift as a poet. * Best, Harold Norse, SF 19.XI.1989” repeated the same warm feelings (and the exact words) he used in when he signed my copy of Beat Hotel in March 1984. I don’t remember attending this reading, however, nor is it mentioned in my journal.
My next mention of Harold is on 2 December 1989 when I telephoned him to try to arrange an on-air interview with him during my Lavender News & Interviews segment on Fruit Punch on KPFA-FM. On the phone, however, Harold “complained of having a cold, so he decided to stay in today and rest up for his book signing tomorrow at City Lights. I asked him if he heard my announcement on Fruit Punch last week and he said imperiously: “It was announced.” I said: “Of course. Remember, I told you I would do it?”
In June 1991 I met Norse for the last time at the annual gay pride parade near a monument in the Civic Center close to Market Street. It had always been my dream to live in a Queen Anne Victorian house, to spend Christmas together and to go to the gay parade with my lover as we called partners back then. Unfortunately, none of these things ever happened in San Francisco. Watching the parade go by, I was alone and depressed and found myself being cruised by a shirtless, muscleman who’d had both nipples pierced with rings big enough for the nose of the county fair’s prize bull. Just as I was considering something I would probably later regret, I saw Norse. We talked for a while and then caught the MUNI, an hour or two ahead of the crowds, up to the Castro and spent time together at Café Flore for the last time.
While we sat and listened to the music, Norse told me his health was failing compared to when I’d known him in the ‘80s. He also told me that the two biggest regrets he’d had were first coming back to the US from Europe and then moving from Monte Rio on the Russian River in Sonoma County down to the City. He told me that if I ever got to Europe, to stay there, to write and to edit, and never come back.
I remembered this advice as the insurance company where I worked went through its fourth reorganisation in three years and I hadn’t been able to find another job in California after an 18-month search. I remembered this advice once I found my first job in the Netherlands in 1993 and I was living in two, un-insulated attic rooms. I remembered his advice again when in 1996 my friends back in San Francisco wrote or phoned: “Come back. No one’s dying of AIDS anymore,” due to combination therapy I had reported about on the radio in 1990, or in 1998 when they contacted me again and said: “There’s plenty of jobs,” just before the Dotcom Bubble burst.
I did come back on holiday almost annually around Christmas. However, every time I visited, I overheard the same, desperate, worried conversations in supermarkets, gyms and churches—not about AIDS or losing jobs—but about the skyrocketing rents and real estate taxes in the City. I thought of Norse’s advice as I sat down at my second-hand dining table in my one-bedroom, Ikea-furnished flat in the Netherlands in a poor, predominantly Turkish and Moroccan neighbourhood, which my Dutch friends referred to as an achterbuurt (Eng.: slum), and corrected my students papers. As a free-lance and later tenured college English teacher with single-payer healthcare and a roof over my head as long as I lived, I could no longer believe that San Francisco, despite its natural beauty and its vibrant gay and literary communities, was the best place for me to live.
I remembered Norse’s advice and I did my best to hang on and make the best of my new life in Europe for as long as I could. After work or at the weekend I tried to retain some energy to attend readings in Amsterdam’s and Utrecht’s many bookstores and art and cultural institutions whilst continuing to write mostly poetry, sometimes in pencil in the margins of my students’ papers and exams. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write much my first 17 years in Europe, but ironically due to my disability, since 2011 I have finally had the opportunity to write and edit as Norse had always encouraged me to do. AQ