On August 14th, 2021, award-winning critic, curator and author Alastair Gordon held a spirited dialogue with Robert Rubin, art collector and cultural historian, at the Church Arts Center in Sag Harbor, NY. The event was held in conjunction with the center’s “Road Rage” exhibition to which Rubin was a principle lender.
Author Alastair Gordon and architect Chris Coy discuss the work of Barnes Coy Architects on the publication of Gordon’s “Assembled In Light.” Follow the firm’s adventurous residential projects, from the fashionable Hamptons, to the high desert of Palm Springs, to the tidal swamps of Georgia and the jungles of Central America. Coming in September, the book chronicles fifteen of the firm’s most compelling houses (Published by Rizzoli USA and Gordon de Vries Studio) To hear full 30-minute podcast, click here.
“Houses are deep, rich, sonorous, stirring, melodic, dreamlike, romantic journeys.”
“The Taoists say ‘hug the earth, embrace the sky’,” said Norman Jaffe, sitting in the fourth booth back at the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton. It was the first time we had met, and I was surprised by the childlike intensity with which he spoke, not what I’d expected from an architect known for his flamboyant and expensive beach houses. I ate my grilled-cheese sandwich while Jaffe explained something about the new sanctuary at the Jewish Center. It was 1985, mid-week, late autumn, and there were only a few other people having lunch that day.
While describing the project, Norman drew a sketch on the back of an old manila envelope explaining how the rabbi would stand at the center and be surrounded by the congregation on three sides. This, in turn, lead to a discussion about sacred space, the ancient stone circles of Britain, Gothic cathedrals and how Muslim architects diffused light across the ceilings of their mosques. We had both read Mercia Eliade’s essay about the symbolic “break in space” and how it defined man’s place in the universe. There was also mention of Louis Kahn’s love of light as “giver of all presences,” and how shadows belong to light; and Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s book about aboriginal space.
The lines of our own conversation split into other directions and moved from religious architecture to beach erosion, Hollywood Noir and over-development in the Hamptons. (I still have the scrappy notes I took at that first meeting.) Over the next few years we would meet several times for similarly non-linear discussions.
For Jaffe, architecture, especially residential architecture, was not a detached, scientific investigation so much as a “romantic journey.” He believed in the transformational powers of a house, like Wright who wrote of the “fire burning deep in the masonry of the house itself,” and was convinced that domestic architecture stood at the very core of the American experience. He was open to every imaginable influence from Wright and Piranesi to Kabuki theater, Mayan temples, potato barns and music theory–all combined and synthesized somehow through his own furtive form of alchemy. “Norman’s vision of architecture was as an experience of theater and emotion,” said his son, Miles Jaffe. “What does this thing make you feel like? How do you respond to it?” A former associate put it another way: “He believed that architecture could be a kind of salvation, a magic crystal… a kind of Pythagorean alignment and somehow, out of this geometry, you could open up a door to the other place.”
But Jaffe was very much a product of his image-driven times and intuitively understood the power of imagery over words. He was broodingly handsome and frequently posed for professional photographers. More than one female client, struck by his good looks, recalled Gary Cooper’s portrayal of heroic architect Howard Roark in the Hollywood adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. (Some of Jaffe’s presentation drawings bear an uncanny resemblance to Roark’s drawings in that same movie.) He seemed to think in flat, two-dimensional terms, envisioning his houses as set pieces, seen from a single angle, on approach, like the opening sequence of a Hitchock film. He would stalk the perimeter of a site, waiting for something to arise and give him direction. Jaffe made frequent use of the German term zeitgeist, well before it became an overused cliché.
“There are walkers and talkers,” he said. “Talking prevents a building from listening to its site. Walking helps.” After listening, Jaffe would start to draw. He worked quickly, improvising, smudging and rubbing the medium into the paper with his fingers. “The essence of you is Jet Black extra smooth 6325 racing over yellow tracing paper,” wrote one female admirer on his 45th birthday.
“Sometimes I try to seduce the clients with all the graphic facility that I can muster to win their support and fall in love with the projected image I wish them to finance,” said Jaffe, who drew his houses as self-contained objects on the landscape, angular and sloping, with empty lawns or sand dunes in the foreground. His elementary roof forms signified shelter, hearth, and a sense of tranquility and unity that Jaffe seldom attained in his own fragmented life. But it was there on paper as an imaginary place, or destination, however unattainable.
Some of his drawings suggest an inner struggle, a kind of Gothic Sturm und Drang, for which one is unprepared in modernist design, especially in the realm of vacation housing where one expects breezy beach cottages saturated with sunlight and salt air. Others are drawn from an impossibly low vantage, and the houses appear to be looming on a craggy cliff with dark clouds gathering in the background––the proverbial house on the hill––loaded with import and mysterious calculation. Roof planes and overhangs are cantilevered to the extreme, defying gravity, extending to the breaking point. Light and shadow are played against one another for the most extreme effects of chiaroscuro.
Most of his clients were upwardly mobile New Yorkers who worked in advertising, publishing, real estate, TV, movie, the fashion and recording industries. Many, like Jaffe himself, were the children of Jewish immigrant parents: urban and cultured, secular and progressive in their politics, but protective of their privacy. “The journey from New York to the Hamptons is a long and arduous one,” said Jaffe who understood the price his clients paid for their success. Most of them lived hectic, stress-filled urban lives and needed quiet places to unwind and lick their wounds. But while they wanted to express their individuality, they also wanted warmth and intimacy, not full exposure and the laboratory-style living of hard-edged modernism.
The standard glass box was too severe for their emotional needs. They wanted domestic space that was charged with meaning and this was a promise that Jaffe tried to fulfill: “I’m dealing in dreams,” he said. “I build houses that are an adventure to live in if the people are qualified for this adventure…” and yes, you had to “qualify” for such an adventure.
Jaffe knew how to create the comforting illusion of refuge and retreat as well as a sense of “arrival.” His clients loved the romantic, woody feeling of his interiors, his sunken living rooms and stone fireplaces, his sensual use of materials. “The materials of a vacation house should be alive with the snap and vitality of the natural,” he said.
During client meetings, he liked to probe and ask the most intimate kinds of questions. “Norman interviewed me almost as though he was my analyst,” confessed one homeowner. “He wanted to know things like how I felt about being closed in, or the reverse.” In theory, his houses would counteract the nagging sense of urgency that followed them all the way out the Long Island Expressway and infected their weekends. “We try to calm them down,” he explained, speaking as the architect/rabbi/therapist.
“They’re busy people; they come to the Hamptons to rest. We don’t clutter up their minds and eyes with a lot of paraphernalia,” as the complexities of late 20th-Century living could be modified by design. But again, as with Wright, he believed in the healing powers of his profession, and if everything came together just so––the angle of the roof, the right combination of materials, the perfect saturation of natural light––there would be a certain lift, a poetic moment that transcended the mundane indignities of city life.
For Jaffe, every commission was a work in progress from inception to completion, and he would keep worrying the problem until the very end. He used to say that “Only God knows how to make four good elevations,” while he, himself, was hoping for two, maybe three, but always made sure to have at least one good elevation. He would rework his drawings with a pre-digital process of collage: splicing together Xerox reductions, cutting out foreground silhouettes and pasting them onto pre-drawn backgrounds, or drawing over photographs to find the right balance of forms.
Unlike most architects, he saw the construction phase as part of the same intuitive process. For him, there were no sacrosanct lines between “design” and “build.” “When I’m building one of my own buildings, I’m really seeing the work drawn at a larger scale,” he said. He would visit the construction sites on a daily basis, getting to know the workers, lending a hand, moving a slab of stone, choosing the right length of lumber, shaping the landscape with a bulldozer or placing shrubbery in such a way that would highlight the architectural lines. It was a highly articulated process from start to finish.
Jaffe was infamous among Long Island builders for his indecision and last-minute changes. His office would produce official construction documents, but the final decisions were often made on site. When he saw a problem or changed his mind about some aspect of the design, he would simply do a sketch on a shingle or a scrap of sheet rock and hand it to the contractor, explaining how a wall should be moved one way or another, how a ceiling should be dropped another foot, or how the angle of a staircase should be shifted a few degrees. He saw a certain plasticity and flexibility in wood-frame assembly that baffled and infuriated contractors: “Seeing in various stages of framing and sheeting the forms that I had thought of and how I had the opportunity to further express these forms, simplify them, perhaps revise the proportions slightly,” he explained to the uninitiated.
Sometimes he would go to the site of a half-built house, take a sequence of Polaroid photographs, cut and paste together a composite image, then redraw the facade in question and go back to the building site the next morning with a list of revisions. (In many cases he was obliged to pay for these changes himself and would end up losing money.) Work crews joked that they would frame out Jaffe’s houses with light-gauge finishing nails so they could pull it all apart when the architect changed his mind, as he inevitably would.
After construction was completed, Jaffe spent an inordinate amount of time having the houses photographed, finding the single “money shot” that best expressed his original intentions. (In some cases, he drew out detailed directions for the photographers to follow.) Even then, the project was not truly finished. He would revisit his favorite houses to see how they were doing: how the light moved across a certain wall, how the Japanese Black Pines had filled in around the terrace. In one instance, he went by a house with a swimming pool and removed a diving board that the homeowner had installed after the fact. (Jaffe hated diving boards.) In another instance––and again, without consulting the clients––he climbed up on the roof and removed an offending television antenna. “What is the meaning of architecture?” asked Jaffe. “The meaning of architecture for me lies in the collision that occurs between the function of a building (be it a house, a cathedral, a theater, a store, an office building) and the architect’s response to that function, his sense of life.”
On August 23, 1993, I heard the news of Jaffe’s disappearance and like everyone, was stunned. I had seen him earlier that summer at a Shushi restaurant in Amagansett and he seemed so vibrant, so himself. He left behind a heart-broken circle of friends and family as well as an extensive body of work that has never been fully digested or critically assessed. There’s a lingering sense of unfinished business, as if his legacy will take some time to sort out. Norman Jaffe never yielded to the role of an architect going about the prosaic business of designing buildings. Architecture for him was, rather, a mysterious means to a less definable end, a lifelong quest to reach another plane of understanding, to find the door and maybe even step through that ineffable “break in space” that we’d discussed in the Candy Kitchen, eight years earlier. Jaffe’s work can best be understood in the light of that quest.
Ten years after his disappearance, I curated a museum retrospective of his work. I also produced a documentary film and wrote a book, but I only grazed the surface. There was so much that I didn’t know and would probably never know. On this, the 27th anniversary of his disappearance, the architect remains an enigma and continues to visit my dreams, a friendly spirit standing in the waves, holding forth a book that I am unable to open or read.
• • •
To learn more about Norman Jaffe, watch “Beyond the Beach: The Life and Death of Norman Jaffe, Architect,” a half-hour documentary by Alastair Gordon:
An earlier version of this essay was published in Romantic Modernist: The Life and Work of Norman Jaffe, Architect, by Alastair Gordon, New York: Monacelli Press, 2005
© Gordon de Vries Studio, 2020
An early settler described the waters off of Coconut Grove as being “afloat on a sort of liquid light, rather than water, so limpid and brilliant is it”. Another described a “veritable fairyland of wonders, beauties and unpolluted purity”. Over its 100-year history, Coconut Grove has grown into a unique entanglement of culture and nature.
It is the oldest continuously inhabited community in Miami. Where other parts of the city are about standing out–being conspicuous in one’s show of wealth and status–the residents of the Grove pride themselves on a certain restraint, preferring to lay low beneath the lush canopy of trees. The legendary canopy shades most of the village with a dense weave of leaves, limbs and vines of the gumbo-limbo, swamp laurel oak, banyan, mahogany, coconut palm, fig, mango, bullet tree, making up the only true jungle in North America. Longtime residents are particularly proud of the natural legacy and talk about the canopy as if it were a singular living entity with a soul of its own. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, outspoken journalist, feminist, naturalist who lived in the Grove for 83 years, wrote poems about the canopy and the “dark lift of trees [where each leaf] pools its separate and particular moon gleam”.
Since its inception in the 19th century, the Grove has been known for its fiercely independent spirit, going back to the early settlers, the wreckers and tolerant, free-thinking writers, naturalists, suffragettes and artists, growing into a diverse melting pot of cultures that includes a black Bahamian community (West Grove) and one of the first fully integrated school systems in Dade County. When the City of Miami forced an annexation referendum in 1925, the majority of Grove residents voted to remain an independent municipality, but they were outnumbered. Subsequent generations have continued to rebel and fight for political autonomy, attempting to de-annex the village from greater Miami.
“The people who settled Coconut Grove have cultivated their gardens to such good effect, that they have planted trees and set out vines on old walls, and kept intact, successfully, the tangles and by-paths [of the past]”, wrote Douglas. Vintage black-and-white photos from the mid-19th century show plaited fronds and the riotous tangle that she described: thatch, serpentine roots, dangling air shoots of the banyan, palmetto scrub, spiky agave, mangrove “walking trees”, as if the air itself were sprouting new life.
By the post-Civil War era a few souls begin to appear among the shadowy grain, as if hidden among the thickets: pioneers, lighthouse keepers, wreckers, plume hunters, Bahamian sponge fishermen, subsistence farmers. There are men, like the two Pent brothers, clearing ground with machetes, building homesteads, harvesting coontie, the small, palm-like Zamia that grows wild in the pine woods around the Grove. They grate and grind the roots by hand to make a kind of starch, similar to arrowroot, that is much in demand and brings good money.
Land was divided up into 160-acre blocks in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862. A homesteader can claim a plot, pay a small filing fee and then live on the site for five years before receiving title from the government. Early homesteaders include Dan Clarke, an old man who lives in a cabin by the bay. Johnny Frow builds a house out of fine white pine, most of which he “borrows” from the wreck of the Three Sisters, after the hurricane of 1876. Judge T.W. Faulkner has a place at Snapper Creek, while Sam Rhoads, a prospector, lives with his son, Walter, near Dinner Key.
Dr. Horace Philo Porter opens the first post office in 1873, calling the village “Cocoanut Grove”, even though there are only one or two coconut palms in existence at the time. Charles “Jolly Jack” Peacock arrives from London with his wife Martha Snipes and an army of children–nine sons, two daughters–and they settle in a compound at the Southwest end of the curving bay or “bight”. Indeed, the bay-front area will thereafter be known as “Jack’s Bight”. Ned Pent is a boat builder but makes extra money making coffins. He is known to drink quite heavily and one night, while making a coffin, gets confused and fabricates the coffin complete with a centerboard.
The Grove becomes a fluid, interdependent community of year-round residents, winter visitors as well as a number of Seminole Indians who paddle out of the Everglades in their dugout canoes and come to the Settlement to trade alligator skins, egret plumes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins in exchange for flour, calico fabric, buttons, knives and other dry goods. There’s Cypress Tiger and Big Tiger, son of war chief Tigertail, and other Seminoles who gain trust and are gradually accepted as part of the greater Grove community.
RUSTIC BOHEMIA: 1833
Charles Peacock and his wife Isabella, also known as the “Mother of Coconut Grove”, move from London to the Grove on the urging of Charles’ brother, “Jolly Jack”. They buy 31 acres of bay-front property–a section of John Frow’s original homestead–and build a two-story house that they name “Bay View Villa”. The couple begin to take in guests and change the name to the Peacock Inn, the first hotel in Miami-Dade, that soon becomes the Grove’s social centrifuge for the next twenty years (1883-1902). A room costs $10 a week and sailboats can be rented for $2 a day. The dining room is the only real restaurant in the area. Henry Flagler eats there during his first visit to Miami. The Peacocks’ afternoon teas are also popular and attract an eclectic mixture of winter visitors and locals.
By the mid-to-late-1880s, a different breed begins to appear: outsiders from the north escaping winter weather: gentlemen wanderers, intellectuals and literary types, ministers, sailing enthusiasts, independent women, amateur botanists, student drifters, making the Grove into a kind of rustic bohemia and South Florida’s first real destination, years before Miami became a popular retreat.
The prime tourist era begins in the winter of 1886-1887 when curious northerners descend and fill the rooms of the Peacock Inn. Christmas is celebrated at the inn with almost everyone then living in the area. Dinner is a feast that begins with grapefruit and sliced mango, followed by green turtle soup, a platter of baked land crabs, a main course of broiled mangrove snapper with grits and French-fried dasheen, and lastly a salad of palm cabbage with coconut jelly and orange flower honey.
Soon there are even more winter visitors and the original inn expands with several additions, a two-level porch and sharply pointed dormers. Several new out buildings are also built including a boathouse, changing rooms for bathers at the water’s edge, and additional guest cottages. An informal salon begins to meet on the inn’s front porch while other guests come and go. One of the regulars is Kirk Munroe, a journalist and author who writes adventure books for boys: The Belt of Seven Totems; Ready Rangers; Through Swamp and Glade.
A photograph taken by Ralph Munroe (circa January 12, 1887) shows the cast of characters, many of them will play major roles in the Grove’s future development. It’s a moment of 19th-century idyll captured for posterity, something that Gustave Caillebotte might have painted, or Renoir. Some are sitting casually, slouching on the Peacock’s front steps. Others are standing to the side, looking directly at the camera or at a slight angle. There’s the writer Kirk Munroe, and Thomas Hines, and the botanist Isaac Holden, and Rev. Charles E. Stowe (son of Harriet Beecher Stowe); Miss Flora McFarlane; and two who claim descent from European nobility: Count Jean D’Hedouville from Belgium, and Count James L. Nugent, a strikingly tall and bearded Frenchman whose grandfather was a general under Napoleon. Then there’s Mary Barr Munroe, Kirk Munroe’s pathologically shy wife, who has her back turned to the camera. It’s as if all had been posed like that by the photographer, to make the most artistic composition possible.
A few weeks later, there’s a Washington’s Birthday regatta in the waters off of Coconut Grove. William Brickell, skippering gaff-rigged Ada, is the winner. After the race, a group of yachtsmen enjoy a celebratory dinner at the Peacock, and this leads to the formation of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. Ralph Munroe serves as commodore, Kirk Munroe is secretary and his wife, Mary, designs the yacht club pennant that is raised over Munroe’s boathouse.
Using lumber salvaged from a wrecked ship, a small Sunday-school building is built in 1887, not far from the inn, with pitched roof and vertical board-and-batten siding. The one-room structure serves as a makeshift church until a proper stone edifice is built in 1916.
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE: 1891
Ralph Middleton Munroe is a man of many talents: sailor, marine architect, naturalist, photographer, author, and accomplished builder. After spending several winters at the Peacock Inn, he decides to build his own home on a property just south of the inn. First, he constructs a boathouse and lives on the second floor while completing work on the main house, a one-story structure raised up on columns, eight feet off the ground. The front porch is decorated with crisscrossing ornamental brackets that have a rustic, oriental feel, a theme that is emphasized by the tapering pagoda-type roof clad in terracotta tiles.
There’s a Chinese-lantern lightness reminiscent of Andrew Jackson Downing’s stick-style houses in the Hudson valley, and Munroe’s self-built home is unabashedly romantic, playful, exotic and sets the tone for many other Grove houses to come. The center foyer is an octagon with rooms branching off from every side. A square cupola for ventilation sits at the very peak and helps to cool the interior. The pyramidal shape of the roof with its central opening are the reasons that Munroe decides to name his house “The Barnacle”.
Munroe poses his subjects in wildly overgrown settings. At first, it’s hard to even see the person. Human figures blend into the background of tangled roots and palm fronds, and are almost invisible. The eye adjusts to the wild patterns and then, only gradually, a face, a hand, a full body begins to emerge, not unlike the hidden figures in Henri Rousseau’s jungle tableaus.
A young girl, about ten years old, sits on a downed gumbo-limbo tree. Her hair is long and curly, matching the texture of the palm fronds and gnarled branches that surround her. One can detect a certain amount of stagecraft. Perhaps the photograph, however naturalistic it seems, is not entirely of the moment. (Munroe works out his compositions while lying in bed at night). His camera is a cumbersome, large-format instrument He has to cut away a clearing just to set up the tripod. Undergrowth is flattened to make room for the apparatus and the subject. Several palmetto fans are bent back, and the girl appears to be propped there, in the middle of the frame, smiling but a little unsure of herself, a little uneasy. On closer inspection, you can see the long stick she’s using to balance herself on the limb of the tree, a propping device that Munroe uses in other photographs.
An older woman stands among a densely woven landscape of gnarled oak branches and exposed roots. She is standing on top of a thick, curving mangrove root, as if hovering in suspension, and uses the same long stick to keep herself from falling). A 20-year-old woman is dressed in her Sunday best, a striped dress with ruffles, a straw, and she’s propped high on a felled oak tree, playing a banjo.
Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons becomes the first woman to practice medicine in the Grove. She and her husband, Captain Albion Simmons, build a small barn on their property––the future Kampong––using native limestone. (Her brass nameplate is still on the door). This becomes her clinic where she treats winter visitors, locals and also cares for the Seminoles who come to her for medicine. Some days, she makes her rounds in a small sailboat. On the side, she and her husband start a business making and exporting jelly and wine from the fruit they grow on the property.
On April 15, 1896, Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway reaches Fort Dallas on Biscayne Bay, the site of present-day Miami. At the time, it’s a settlement of fewer than 50 inhabitants. A few months later, the name is changed and Miami is officially incorporated as a city with a population of just over 300. The main railway station is there, but the Grove gets its own station near the intersection of Day Avenue and Douglas Road and this has a gradual effect, changing the configuration of the town by pulling development further west, away from the bay, towards the railroad line. Flagler builds the Hotel Royal Palm on the north bank of the Miami River. The grand, five-story building has 450 guest rooms and boasts the area’s first electric lights, elevators, ballroom and swimming pool.
The railway and hotel have an immediate impact on the area, bringing hundreds of new visitors: sun seekers, dreamers, land speculators. Over the next few years, Miami will grow exponentially from a tiny settlement to a population of several thousand, soon overshadowing the Grove.
The Grove has a legacy of strong, independently minded women, community leadership and a pioneering form of feminism that go back to the earliest days of the settlement. Flora MacFarlane, the first woman homesteader and the Grove’s first school teacher, founds the Housekeeper’s Club in 1891 with the purpose of educating young women and serving the community at large. The original wood-framed clubhouse is built in 1897 on land donated by Ralph Munroe. Club members put on pageants, picnics, and organize a series of gala events designed to raise money for charitable causes.
The Peacock Inn goes out of business in 1902, and the Grove loses its social/cultural center. Ralph Munroe establishes Camp Biscayne on a long narrow lot that stretches from the main road down to the edge of Biscayne Bay, only 250 feet south of where the inn stood. A Main Lodge and 12 quaintly designed cottages are spread across the property, connected by winding pathways. Each cottage is named after one of the trees or plants that grow on the property: “Oleander Cottage”, “Banyan Cottage”, “Orchid Cottage”, etc. At the very center of the property is a little reading room made out of bamboo. Camp Biscayne is a comprehensively planned compound, the first “gated community” in South Florida.
FOUR WAY LODGE: 1915
The quietly diminutive scale of early Grove architecture begins to be challenged by the scale and relative extravagance of several new houses such as Four Way Lodge, William J. Matheson’s rambling rustic affair with rough-hewn cypress arbor for shade, and a hint of Japanese temples in the horizontal lines and the low belvedere with hip roof. Matheson is an industrialist, born in Wisconsin, educated in Scotland and founder of the National Aniline and Chemical Company. The house, built on what is now Poinciana Avenue, is named after Kipling’s poem: “Now the Four-way Lodge is opened, now the Hunting Winds are loose”, and is designed by Robert W. Gardner, a New York architect who professes to be an expert in ancient Greek vernacular.
Matheson is all style and becomes one of the most recognized personages in the settlement. Whenever he leaves his house for a walk through the Grove’s byway, he wears perfectly buffed white shoes, a five-button linen jacket and a winged bow tie, the rim of his Panama hat pushed back in a rakish manner.
Matheson is also a restless soul, always launching new projects. After only a few years, he sells Four Way Lodge and builds himself a much larger house that he names “Swastika Lodge”, after the ancient Sanskrit word for “good fortune”. (Because of its associations with the Nazis, the name will later be changed). It is built at 3645 Ingraham Highway on a 15-acre lot, with a wide breezy veranda overlooking Biscayne Bay. Dubbed the “most southerly house in the United States”, Swastika Lodge features exotic vines growing up the walls and evokes the feeling of a deluxe Robinson Crusoe hideaway. The spacious living room is filled with artifacts that Matheson gathered during his world travels: pottery from South American, teapots from Japan, lanterns from China, tribal spears from Africa.
David Fairchild buys the Kampong from Mrs. James Nugent and converts the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory where he begins to plant some of the tropical species he has brought from around the world. The seven-acre garden flourishes and eventually expands to nine acres as Fairchild claims this part of south Florida as the only true sub-tropical jungle in North America.
The Plymouth Congregational Church opens its doors at 3429 Devon Road in April, 1916. Known as the “Church in the Garden”, it’s designed by New York architect Clinton McKenzie in the Spanish Mission Style with twin bell towers, corrugated clay roof tiles and the walls are made from native oolitic limestone. (All of the stonework is done by Felix Rebom, a local mason). The exterior of the church is soon covered by thick pelts of ivy, giving it a rusticated, ancient look, even though it was built in the 20th Century. The big, oak-and-walnut front door is, however, the real thing. The 400-year-old artifact was relocated from a monastery in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain.
MILLIONAIRES ROW: 1917
Architectural tastes shift. The casual bungalows and compounds of the early years give way to a grandiose scale and eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Italianate and neo-classical styles. The big new estates are designed for wealthy denizens who have begun to flock to the Grove: oil and railroad tycoons, steel magnates from Pittsburgh, automobile barons from Detroit. It’s no longer the easy-going flow of the early settlement. Property lines are redrawn, old trees removed, formerly open boundaries are walled off and gated.
The simple, back-to-nature charms of Camp Biscayne are replaced by a baronial mansion for A. H. Swetland. Architect George Fink conceals the house from prying eyes with high walls and ornate metal gates. Kirk Munroe sells “Scrububs”, his rustic, bay-front property, to attorney John B. Semple from Pittsburgh who hires Richard Kiehnel to design “La Brisa”, a rambling Mediterranean style mansion with loggias and shaded arcades branching off from a central tower. Pittsburgh steel magnate, John Brindely, builds El Jardin, a Renaissance palazzo on a ten-acre site overlooking Biscayne Bay. The Mediterranean-style stonework is specially aged to make it look ancient.
While the rest of the world is still at war, a contingent of ladies from the Housekeeper’s Club gather for an afternoon of pageantry at Bindley’s romantic El Jardin. They are dressed in diaphanous Greek costumes, flowing multi-layered gowns, headbands made from lace and silken fripperies. All is hushed as pretty little Eunice Isabella Peacock–14 years old–prances her way up the garlanded pathway like a nymph with strands of wild flowers (larkspur, swamp rose, hurricane lily), all twisted and plaited throughout her wild red hair. She pauses for a moment in front of the vestal virgins–or whatever classical legends the ladies are meant to represent–then dances her way across Brindley’s sprawling poolside terrace and out the other end of the grotto while a shirtless boy in Puck-like pantaloons stands atop the coral colonnade and plays a hauntingly simple tune on the panpipes.
During the great freeze of 1917, ice forms to a quarter inch on exposed water buckets in Coconut Grove. Thousands of swallows fall out of the air, dead, frozen in mid-flight.
“…the stones walls, carved and scalloped,
were surmounted by endless festoons of
ramblers and creepers. Within the immense
gardens stood a palace of pillared
splendor, crammed with such treasures
gathered from the Old World that the mind
grew dizzy under the fabulous story of one
man’s wealth, derived from selling ploughs
and reapers to farmers…”
– Cecil Roberts
There are hardly any signs of economic strife, no Great Depression, no sense of time or history in the golden land of unbridled entitlement. Cecil Roberts, English travel writer, has only just swanned into Florida from a dreary winter in London. He falls instantly under the intoxicating spell of the Grove’s sea-flecked light, its tropical canopy, banyans, hedges of hibiscus and bougainvillea. He makes a tour of Vizcaya and some of the other estates along Millionaire’s Row.
Roberts visits Villa Woodbine, the home of industrialist Charles Boyd, built high on a ridge overlooking Biscayne Bay. He is entranced by the formal allée of Royal Palms that lead the way into Ernest C. Coles’ “Treasure Trove”, and the manicured grounds that feature a heart-shaped pool, statues of Neptune and other mythological figures, and a collection of rare tropical plants that Coles has imported from around the world. Roberts is also invited to see “Entrada”, an entire compound of breezy Mediterranean villas that Hugh Matheson has built at the southern end of the Grove. The 20-acre property features man-made canals and a yacht basin. But none of the estates in all their glory can come close to elegance or sheer magnitude of Vizcaya, James Deering’s 180-acre wonderland at the northern end of Coconut Grove.
Even though it was supposed to be only a short visit, Roberts decides to stay for another month and he writes a dreamy account of the wealthy denizens and luxurious estates of the Grove, but his first impression is of Vizcaya and it colors everything else he sees. The Italian-Renaissance palazzo appears as if ancient, rusticated by the centuries, but it’s less then twenty years old, and Deering, its creator, has only just died at the age of 65 while sailing back from Europe aboard the SS City of Paris. The man has already assumed mythic stature, and Roberts hears many different tales––some true, some wildly exaggerated––about how the eccentric socialite and heir to the Deering Harvester fortune, hired a special train to transport the entire cast of the Ziegfeld Follies down from New York for his personal amusement; or how Deering arrived at his own house-warming party in a gondola, dressed as a Renaissance prince; or how he collected monkeys and exotic birds in specially designed cages; or how he projected Charlie Chaplin movies onto the side wall of his estate.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is published in 1925, the same year as Deering’s death, and it’s hard not to detect certain similarities between the two. One long-time acquaintance describes Deering as “a reticent man with impeccably proper manners,” and he was an enigmatic figure who few people really got to know. He never married. He seemed anxious, troubled, uncomfortable in his own skin. He hated to be photographed, and was quite obsessed with bringing his grandiose vision for Vizcaya to fruition. (More than ten percent of the Grove’s population were hired to work on the villa over a three-year period).
Despite the millions, he was seeking something beyond reach: an earthly paradise, a private utopia. He personified an American type–lonely bachelor inside colossal mansion–and he lived out a very Gatsbyesque kind of American tragedy. In December 1916, Deering hosted a Christmas party to celebrate the completion of the big house at Vizcaya. His guests came dressed as Italian peasants and were greeted by a 2nd-century statue of Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, standing guard over a Roman marble basin. An impassioned, almost obsessive collector, Deering had made repeated trips to Europe with his friend and design advisor Paul Chalfin. They purchased whole villages, monasteries, ancient villas, gathering art, extravagant furnishings and architectural relics and shipped it all back to Florida.
The guests walked through chambers festooned with Renaissance tapestries, paintings, Baroque and Rococo carvings, and came out onto a broad limestone terrace that looked out over Biscayne Bay. And it was true. Deering arrived in a gondola, stepping onto the landing like a Medici, while miniature antique canons fired a salute, and Chinese lanterns flickered in the trees, and the discretely hidden orchestra struck up a festive tarantella.
Deering’s half-brother Charles, the art patron, attended the party, as did the painter Gari Melchers and his wife Corinne, the Swedish artist Anders Zorn, and silent film stars Lillian Gish and Marion Davies. Mrs. Gaston Drake, Miami socialite, came wearing a multi-hued dress with velvet bodice, linen headscarf and holding a gypsy tambourine that she rattled whenever being introduced. F. Burrall Hoffman, architect of record, kept to himself in a back room, chatting with Phineas Paist, gaunt-faced associate who did most of the drawings for the villa, while under the sometimes tyrannical direction of Paul Chalfin, who was also there, fussing and fretting with the staff, making sure that the festivities went according to plan.
Deering himself came gliding up from the landing and stood like a statue in the center of the grand foyer, greeting guests, but saying very little, frustrated that the gardens weren’t finished. In fact, it would take another seven years before Vizcaya’s grounds were complete. The intricate geometries of the formal gardens were laid out with marble retaining walls and elliptical parterres, interspersed with sunken gardens, classical follies, ceremonial urns, secret grottoes made of coral, imbedded with seashells, and a 200-year-old fountain designed by Filippo Barigioni that Deering imported from Italy. Subtropical species––strangler figs and ancient oaks––were transplanted from the Everglades, and mixed in with boxwood mazes, orchids, Bitterbush, lilies, and lush banks of Maidenhair ferns. (The rarest plants are were cultivated in a greenhouse that Deering built at the other end of the property).
“I glimpse a high belvedere, a palm-grit grotto, a balustraded terrace of dolphin fountains, Tuscan-tiled loggias, vine-shaded pergolas”, writes Cecil Roberts after his visit to the palatial estate. “Stone windows reveal the arabesques of Spanish, the pointed arches of Venetian-Gothic, the crenellated brickwork of Florentine architecture…” It beggars the imagination and demands comparison with Kubla Kahn’s Xanadu. There’s even a large, man-made lagoon with picturesque little islands and a Venetian-style bridge that leads to an enchanting belvedere on the water’s edge.
The most unusual artifact of all was the “Italian Barge”, a 158-foot-long folly that sat out in the bay, in front of the main villa, like a grounded ship, ingeniously designed to function as a breakwater. Paul Chalfin had suggested “baskets of sea fruits and trophies of sea treasures,” but Alexander Stirling Calder, the Philadelphia sculptor, had surpassed all of that. He carved the barge from oolitic limestone with every manner of fish-tailed sea serpent, mermaid, caryatid, sea nymph, tritons, obelisk and gushing fountain.
JOHN SINGER SARGENT
In February 1917, less than two months after Deering’s gala, John Singer Sargent, the famous Anglo-American painter, is working on the final panels of his “Triumph of Religion” murals at the Boston Public Library. The work is exhausting and Sargent is still recovering from influenza so he decides to take a break and travel to Florida. First, he goes to Ormond Beach to paint a portrait of John D. Rockefeller. Then he continues south on Flagler’s East Coast Railway to Miami where he stays with his old friend Charles Deering, on Brickell Point. Charles is the older half-brother of James Deering, a wealthy businessman in his own right, art patron, and amateur artist who has known Sargent since their student days in Paris.
But, 61-year-old Sargent is restless in the slanting Florida light. His doctor advised him to stop work and recoup his strength, but the painter finds it impossible to accommodate the lazy routines of his host who spends most of the day lying in a hammock. Charles finally takes his guest to meet his famous half-brother and see the villa. Sargent becomes enchanted with Vizcaya and ends up spending more time there than at Charles’s place. It reminds the painter of his favorite sites in Europe that have become inaccessible because of World War I.
Sargent meets Lilian Gish, silent-screen star, at the Vizcaya swimming pool one afternoon and they talk about motion pictures and art. He is not impressed, surprised by how small and frail the actress appears in person. He paints the Greek statues that flank the entryway with deep shadows falling across the surrounding oaks and casuarinas. He paints the spiky fronds of the palmetto plants. By the next week, he has ventured out to the surrounding hammock with its jungle-like foliage and he notices a group of African-American laborers who are working on the “Mound”, a sloping earthwork near the western end of the property. They are young, well-built men from the Bahamian community of West Grove.
Sargent paints them in a series of homoerotic compositions, loosely drawn, colored with fast strokes of pigment, blurred and bleeding around the edges. The men’s muscular physiques are naked in the glaring sun, lying about in the languorous heat, along the beach, or alone, recumbent in the shade, or leaning over a lily pond. Semi-classical in style, they are also sensual, furtive and slightly forbidden in content, and at first he doesn’t show them to his host, but keeps them in a separate folio.
“It is very hard to leave this place”, writes Sargent to his cousin, Mary Newbold Patterson Hale. It’s late March. He’s been in the Grove for more than a month. His Boston clients are anxious, calling for him to return and finish the library murals, but he demurs. He lingers. “There is so much to paint here”, he writes. “Coconut Grove and Vizcayacombine Venice and Frascati and Arunjuez, and all that one is likely never to see again. Hence this linger-longering…”
Before leaving, Sargent paints a watercolor portrait of his gracious host, Deering himself, sitting in the Italianate foyer, light glancing off his receding hair and spectacles. The background is dark olive, burnt umber shadow, in contrast to the glowing foreground of starched white shirt and linen suit. Deering, the quiet American aristocrat, has a commanding presence, but Sargent also understands the follies of wealth and captures something in the face, something forlorn, a far-off look as if questioning, the mouth slightly pinched with impatience or is it discontent, an impending sense of mortality? (Deering is well aware of the disease that will kill him in another few years).
WHITE ROSE: 1922
The Grove is officially incorporated as a municipality in 1919 and the spelling is updated from “Cocoanut Grove” to the more conventional “Coconut Grove”. A new headquarters for the Housekeeper’s Club is built on the corner of South Bayshore Drive and McFarlane Road. The building, designed by Walter De Garmo, is a basic box with a curving gable roof, rough limestone walls and arched windows. The club raises funds to help the plight of exploited Seminole indians, and sponsors the “Alligators”, the first Girl Scout troop in southeast Florida.
In December 1922, two sisters named Myrtie and Gertie, come by train from a suburb of Indianapolis to spend their winter vacation at “Glenwood”, an ivy-covered bungalow overlooking Biscayne Bay. They bring their Kodak Cartridge Premo, a 32×44 mm format box camera, and document every aspect of the trip. Myrtie poses beside a stuffed alligator. Gertie feeds a live turkey named “Vincent”. Both go fishing with Captain Jasper B. Vreeland and display their catch at the yacht club. During an outing into the “Floridian Jungle”, Myrtie and Gertie pose in front of an ancient banyan tree and are particularly fascinated by the strangler fig (ficus aurea), and the way it spreads its tentacle-like roots across the limestone rocks.
By chance, Myrtie and Gertie meet President Warren Harding who has comes south to escape the cold and a political scandal that’s been brewing in Washington. He gives a speech in the Grove, goes fishing at the Cocolobo Cay Club, and has himself photographed with Myrtie and Gertie on the esplanade. (“As posed for me”, writes Myrtie on the back of one shot).
A few days later, the peripatetic sisters stumble across D.W. Griffith, the great Hollywood director, who’s in the Grove to shoot his latest feature: The White Rose, starring Mae Marsh. The 12-reel silent movie is a scandalous potboiler with illicit lovers, philandering clergy, an illegitimate baby, and an attempted suicide. Marsh plays Teazie, a pretty young orphan who falls for Joseph, a recently ordained minister played by Ivor Novello, the British screen idol.
Griffith shoots some of the scenes in the tropical hammocks of the Grove with sunlight shimmering off of Marsh’s wavy locks. Other scenes are shot along the beach, or in front of the Congregational Church on Devon Road. Griffith looks dapper in a three-piece suit, barking directions through a megaphone to crew and cast. Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s longtime cinematographer, invites Myrtie and Gertie to look through the lens of the camera, and they meet Novello and other members of the cast. Back in Indianapolis, a few months later, the sisters select 98 of their favorite gelatin silver photographs and mount them in a leather-bound album. Gertie glues the black-and-white prints into the album while Myrtie writes lengthy captions in graceful, swirling penmanship.
David Fairchild converts Dr. Simmons’ former clinic into a laboratory and surrounds himself with plant samples, books, maps and horticultural charts. This is where he will document, cross-fertilize, photograph, and write about his botanical subjects with increasing devotion. At the main gateway he plants a banyan (Ficus benghalensis) that stands guard with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, and shoots. Further into the property there are jackfruit, Talipot, mango trees and cycads interwoven with bell-shaped figs, ant trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia, and carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet.
Fairchild’s wife, Marian, is the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, and the famous inventor often visits the Kampong. He stays in the old jelly factory that Albion Simmons built on the Kampong grounds. Even in old age, Bell finds it impossible to relax and do nothing. During one visit, he invents a desalinization system, a “Sun Still”, for ship-wrecked sailors, and takes an interest in the biological anomalies of the manatee (trichechus manatus), the “sea cows”, that abound in Biscayne Bay but are becoming endangered as fishermen prize them for their meat, which is said to tastes like pork. Bell publishes a study in The Journal of Heredity, urging for their preservation and encouraging the state of Florida to declare the manatee a protected animal. Bell dies later that summer at the age of 75.
Against the residents’ will, Coconut Grove is annexed to the City of Miami in 1925. Over the next fifty years, there are ongoing efforts to de-annex the Grove. A hurricane with sustained winds of up to 150 mph rips through south Florida in 1926, causing $78 million of damage, and destroying many of the plants that Fairchild planted at the Kampong.
VOICE OF THE RIVER: 1926
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author, conservationist, and social activist, spends most of her life in the Grove. In 1915, after a brief marriage, she gets divorced and moves to Florida to live with her father, Frank Bryant Stoneman, Editor-in-Chief at the Miami Herald. In 1926, she builds a modest cottage of her own, at 3744 Stewart Avenue. “I didn’t need much of a house, just a workshop, a place of my own”, she writes in her autobiography, Voice of the River. “All I wanted was one big room with living quarters tacked on. I knew an architect, George Hyde, who drew up some plans. He mostly built factories, which was fortunate, because I hoped my little house would be as stout and as sparse as a factory with not much to worry about.”
The house is built in an eclectic Tudor style with rustic hand-split timbers, stucco walls and hardwood floors. The roof is clad in cedar shingles set in wavering lines to resemble thatch, with overhanging eaves to block the sun. There is no driveway because Douglas never owns a car or learns to drive, and there’s no air conditioning or dishwasher. She never remarries, finding her work as a writer and activist more important “than getting tied up with a man”. She lives alone with a cat for the next 72 years, until her death at the age of 108. It’s here that she writes The Everglades, River of Grass (1947), her most enduring work that effectively changes the perception of the Everglades from being a worthless swamp to a unique ecological system. Douglas receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1993 and her cottage is designated a national historic landmark in 2015.
Only four years after D.W. Griffith’s visit, Hollywood comes to the Grove again in the form of the Player’s State Theater, a movie cinema that Irving J. Thomas and Fin L. Pierce build on the corner of Charles Avenue and Main Highway. The building is a Mediterranean-style confection with twisting columns, striped canopies and an ornate fountain in front of the cantilevered marquee. It’s ironic that the first movie shown, premiering on January 1, 1927, is Griffith’s own Sorrows of Satan starring Adolf Menjou and Carol Dempster. The movie is based on a novel by Marie Corelli and tells the story of a young writer who sells his soul for financial success.
Every seat is full on opening night. Arnold Johnson conducts Hugo Riesenfeld’s musical score with a 12-piece orchestra. Celia Santon plays the Wurlitzer Concert Grand, one of the largest organs in the country. The 1,130-seat theater operates as part of the Paramount chain, and shows popular silent movies until 1929 when it installs speakers and shifts to sound. Despite initial success, however, the theater struggles through the depression years and finally goes out of business in the mid-1930s. The building is boarded up and lies vacant for the next twenty years.
DINNER KEY: 1934
Despite an economic decline in the aviation business, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airway System (PAA) expands throughout the Great Depression, and holds a virtual monopoly on overseas air travel. In 1931, Trippe introduces the Sikorsky S-40 “American Clipper”, amphibious flying boat, with a range of 950 miles. In 1934, he moves PAA’s Miami hub from the 36th Street airport to Dinner Key in the Grove, taking over the old Naval base and turning it into a million-dollar seaplane station. It is the most technically advanced and most luxurious airport in America.
An allée of Royal Palms leads to the three-story terminal designed by New York architects Delano and Aldrich. The Art Deco building features cream-colored stucco walls, dark blue trim and a terra-cotta frieze that incorporates PAA’s logo into its design. People flock to Dinner Key just to watch the hydroplanes flying in from Cuba, and to see the wealthy passengers and an occasional celebrity, disembark. It is pure theater. “The terminal is a rendezvous for presidents, princes and movie stars of the world, flying down to Rio and other parts”, reads the Pan American brochure. Porters are dressed in navy-style uniforms, and lead the passengers into the sumptuously decorated concourse. The coffered ceiling is decorated with iridescent signs of the zodiac, and a large globe of Planet Earth rotates at the center of the booking hall.
PENCIL PINES: 1940
During the 1930s, poet Robert Frost and his wife Elinor rent a quaint cottage on Avocado Avenue, not far from the Congregational Church. Elinor dies in 1938 and despite the loss of his beloved wife, Frost continues to visit the Grove and in 1940, at the age of sixty-six, decides to build his own house. He buys five acres on SW 53rd Avenue for $1,500 and builds a home out of two prefabricated Hodgson US Assembly cottages that are shipped down by rail from New England. Ralph Lamb, a local carpenter, bolts the kit-of-part sections together and connects the two structures with a picket fence. Frost names his new winter refuge “Pencil Pines” after the tall thin Dade County pines that grow on the property.
Frost does all of his own gardening. he goes to David Fairchild at the Kampong for advice on what and when to plant. Fairchild gives him seeds and cuttings from his experimental garden. Frost clears the land and builds a wall out of rough limestone rocks. Journalists from Life magazine come and take photographs of the white-haired poet working on the wall and run quotes from his famous Mending Wall poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
Soon after moving into the house, Frost suffers the agony of his 38-year-old son, Carol, committing suicide. He lost his wife and now his son. Frost writes frequently about death, what he calls “the abyss”, but finds solace in working outside with his hands, cutting trails through the woods at the back of the property, planting orchids, mango and avocado trees closer to the house. He mulches and fertilizes all of the plants himself and calls himself a “Florida farmer”.
Frost teaches a seminar on poetry and gives lectures at the University of Miami. On weekends, he gives tea parties and cookouts at Pencil Pines for neighbors and friends. He works on his post-Elinor/post-Carol collection of verse, scratching the poems out in long hand with a Schaeffer fountain pen, then typing them up on an old manual typewriter that makes a loud clacking sound. Frost reads the new poems out loud to his students, describing the work as a “modest description of America”. He attends a theatrical event featuring Bea Lillie at the Grove Playhouse wearing a pale-blue jacket and canvas shoes without socks. On Sundays, he often goes for lunch at the Surf Club on Miami Beach with his friends Annette and Hervey Allen. After lunch, they take long walks along the beach.
Later that winter, Frost’s daughter Lillian and grandson Prescott come south and move into the smaller of the two cottages. Fellow poet, Wallace Stephens, stops on his way from Hartford to Key West and visits his old friend. Sitting together in the front parlor, Stephens reads from “Nomad Exquisite”:
“As the immense dew of Florida
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life…”
Frost continues to spend his winters at Pencil Pines until the time of his own death in 1963.
WAITING FOR GODOT: 1956
George Engle, a wealthy oilman from Kentucky, buys the derelict cinema for $200,000. He hires architect Alfred Browning Parker to turn it into a performing arts theater with a proper stage for dramatic productions. Engle is a flamboyant character with a vision: he intends to bring “Broadway to Coconut Grove”, and spends more than $700,000 turning the old Playhouse into one of the top regional theaters in America. “George just wants to do something good for the community,” says his wife Dorothy. Architect Parker restores the thirty-year-old structure and simplifies it, removing some of the wedding-cake ornamentation from the facade, re-plastering and painting the walls a Robin’s egg blue. He expands the lobby and adds cheery striped awnings over the main entry.
Opening night, January 3, 1956, features the U.S. premiere of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s two-act tragicomedy. Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell play the characters Vladimir and Estragon. The set is a bare, end-of-the-world landscape with a single leafless tree and a rock. Hardly anything happens. Vladimir and Estragon are waiting around for someone named Godot, but he never appears. The 1,130-seat theater is packed.
It’s a coup for Engle and a most auspicious moment in the cultural history of Coconut Grove. A miniature oil derrick spews rum punch at the after-party reception as Engle and his wife greet their guests. Godot is the hottest, most controversial play of the period, and even though it receives luke-warm reviews in the local press, the performance puts the Playhouse on the national map as a place of serious theatrical intent. A few weeks later, Tennessee Williams stages a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire with Tallulah Bankhead playing Blanche DuBois, and after a month of sold-out performances, the production moves to New York. A few weeks later, Engle takes Marlon Brando to the Playhouse to see Bea Lillie perform her one-woman comedy. Brando is at the peak of his fame and gets mobbed by a group of teenage fans.
• • •
It started as a series of rudimentary sketches and collages: the suburban American house deconstructed, re-imagined as a sequence of subverted facades, splayed out like one of De Chirico’s early cityscapes–“The Melancholy of Departure”, say–in which barrier upon barrier, wall upon wall, has been stretched out and delaminated over time. This was how the first iteration of the Spear House, AKA “Pink House”, at 9325 North Bayshore Drive in Miami Shores, appeared on the cover of Progressive Architecture and made a lasting impression.
Early studies by Rem Koolhaas and Laurinda Spear (daughter of the clients and still an architecture student at Columbia) reduced the program to essentials: palm tree, lush foliage, beach, egg-yoke sun glued to tissue-paper sky in full-blooded, Endless Summer orange and yellow. The house is almost an afterthought, dropped casually between jungle and sea. A masonry facade is perforated by the oddly small rabbit hole, or so it appears, and there’s a staircase and narrowly enclosed “street” that branches off into seven mysterious chambers. The most incongruous features are two highways that extend orthogonally through either end of the facade. This was not just about sun, water and tropical fecundity. It was about expanding horizons and the mythology of drive-through mobility.
A lap pool penetrates the right flank of the house and stretches to infinity. In theory, one could swim (like John Cheever’s heroic swimmer) from the driveway, beneath the house and out to the edge of the bay and beyond. “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”, wrote Cheever in his short story “The Swimmer” (1964). Koolhaas is an obsessive swimmer himself. “I swim every day wherever I am”, he said in a recent interview.
Spear and Koolhaas submitted the project to Progressive Architecture’s annual awards program. A four-person jury met in New York to deliberate. They were intrigued but also befuddled. “It’s not the work of an architect”, complained Paul Rudolph, father of many experimental houses himself. “It’s either very great or very, very bad”, said Eberhard Zeidler, not quite sure what to think. “It’s so much at the edge of absolute disaster, yet it has such fantastic poetry”. Ivan Chermayeff found it “undeveloped” as a building, but successful as a “poetic diagram”, as if a “mad poet has stretched it out; taken the drawings and laid them down like a child’s cutouts.”
All agreed that it was urban, enigmatic and conceptually rich, with multiple layers of meaning. Peter Eisenman (Koolhaas’s friend and mentor at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies) praised it for being a “kind of utopistic gesture in the midst of this awful middle-class suburbia”. Even Rudolph acknowledged that it had a certain “surrealistic quality… a kind of power that was inexplicable”. Despite dissension, the Spear-Koolhaas proposal was awarded a first-place citation and featured in the January 1975 issue of the magazine. Meanwhile, back in Miami, clients Harold and Suzanne Spear were getting more and more anxious. They rejected the plan, seeing it more as a philosophical proposition than a place to live and encouraged their daughter to try again.
After completing her studies at Columbia University, Laurinda reworked the plan with newfound partner and husband, Bernardo Fort-Brescia. (By then, Koolhaas had returned to Europe to finish work on Delirious New York, his “retroactive manifesto”, and launch the Office for Modern Architecture [OMA]).
Spear’s renderings for the revised version combine the moody romanticism of Chagall with the hippy innocence of Alicia Bay Laurel’s Living on the Earth. In one drawing, there’s a shooting star and a sliver of moon glowing in the night sky. The house rises out of a cornflower-blue bay, a dreamy scaffolding, planar with square, punched-out openings and backlit screens, as in Kabuki theater. A sleepwalking woman stands by the railing and gazes out to sea. (Is this Spear herself?) There are echoes of Giacometti’s “Palace at 4AM” (1932), but this dream house is inundated by water with a sailboat moored to the banister and steps descending into the bay at either end. A faintly penciled caption below reads: “I will wait for you…”
As built, the Pink House is a progression from water to water, a color-coded conversation between lap pool and Biscayne Bay, setting up a sequence of rhythms, reflections and alternating syncopations, beginning at the 115-foot wide facade and proceeding through other layers and colored foils, from blushing rose on the first wall, to wild flamingo on the second, to a paler, conch-shell pink on the two-story wall of the main house. “The alignment of colored planes seems to evoke the idea of screens to protect the nucleus of some secret spatial heart”, wrote Fulvio Irace, an Italian critic who wrote the first deep analysis of the project (“The Dream of a House”, Domus, January 1981). But where, exactly, does this secret spatial heart hide itself?
There are subtle hints of numerological symmetry throughout. Six square windows in the main house correspond to the six palm trees in the front courtyard. Three panels of translucent glass block are rippled like water and suffused with sea-flecked light. The foundation plinth was not a neo-classical affectation but arose in response to a flood-control law that required the first floor to be eleven feet above grade. The entry staircase leads to an open-air terrace that, in turn, surrounds a narrow sixty-foot-long pool which assumes a central role and confirms the project’s conceptual bias towards wetness.
The first-time visitor can preview this underwater “chamber” through a luminous eye that gazes out from the center of the main facade in cool chlorinated blue. It is round like a porthole or camera lens and is the true metaphysical entry to the house, suggesting other ironic subversions of the American Dream: Cheever’s “quasi-subterranean stream”, David Hockney’s homoerotic pool culture, or Joan Didion’s “subaqueous suspension”. (Both Jay Gatsby and Joe Willis, narrator of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, are found dead, floating in their respective swimming pools). The aquamarine lens is also a peephole for watching unsuspecting swimmers–what Irace refers to cryptically as the “voyeur’s ambiguous game”–a ritual that evokes Miami Beach’s early days of Aquacade ballets and glass-bottomed boats. Morris Lapidus designed an underwater bar at the Eden Roc Hotel with a similar porthole (but much larger) for watching scantily clad mermaids dance in dreamy syncopation.
The house was completed in 1978 at a cost of $277,000. While some of the early responses were negative–“NEIGHBORS SEE RED OVER PINK HOUSE”, ran a headline in the Miami Herald and Councilman Ralph Bowen grumbled something about the color being “inappropriate”–but most reviews were enthusiastic. Besides design journals like Progressive Architecture and Domus, the house quickly rose beyond the insular world of academic architecture and became a pop icon, featured in mainstream publications like the New York Times, Vogue, Time, Newsweek and House Beautiful. It was also a favored location for fashion shoots and TV commercials.
Bruce Weber shot a 10-page spread for the February 1980 issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) with male models lounging around pool and terrace. Actor Hart Bochner (Breaking Away) poses in a turquoise cotton sweater (Ron Chereskin, $42), his figure mirrored in the background by a submerged, semi-naked model in goggles, posing on the opposite side of the infamous porthole. There was even a feature in Life magazine–“a study in integrity”–that included the double spread of a bikini-clad woman, faceless and floating on the surface of the pool in an unabashedly erotic pose, her long legs dangling off a rubber raft.
The Pink House embodied a certain moment and mood: European rationalism cross-fertilized with the tropical surrealism of Miami. Everything about the place–the color, the pool, the translucency–seemed to exude a simmering, barely sublimated sexuality. It also represented a crucial turning point for the city at large. Suddenly Miami appeared to have a culture that went beyond retirement plans and palm trees, a culture that was edgy and slightly dangerous, with fast cars, cocaine cowboys, cigarette boats and outrageous architecture.
Pink would be the color associated with Miami. Maybe it had always been that way, with the flamingoes, sunsets and bougainvillea, but now it was ingrained into the very DNA of the place, connoting an environment that was exotic and irreverent in its pinkness, an impression that was reinforced in 1983 when Christo created his “Surrounded Islands” installation for Biscayne Bay: eleven small islands collared with bright pink polypropylene fabric. Some of the islands could be seen–pink to pink–from the terrace of the Spear House. A year later, Miami Vice went on the air and one of the first episodes, staring Bruce Willis as a brutal arms dealer, was shot on location there, setting the tone for things to come.
The Pink House was an auspicious first move, an experiment conceived in collaboration with one of the most influential architects/theorists of the 20th century, further developed and refined over a four-year period, becoming Miami’s most iconic single house while launching its principle authors–Spear and Fort-Brescia–towards successful careers as founding partners in Arquitectonica, a firm that recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary.
• • •
It was about this time that Dr. King first came into our lives. My father had been corresponding with him since 1956, and invited him to come preach in the spring of 1959, but King was stabbed in Harlem by a crazed woman wielding a letter opener and couldn’t make it.
I remember the winter of 1960–near the end of January–when King took the train up from Washington DC and my father and I picked him up in the old Peugeot station wagon at the Trenton railroad station. He was traveling on his own and seemed to my 8-year-old imagination surprisingly short and unassuming when he stepped out onto the platform wearing a woolen coat and Homburg hat. I’d heard my father speak of this man and his leadership of the civil rights movement: “For me he is one of the rare prophetic voices in the land,” said my father, but I didn’t really understand what that meant.
We took him to our house on Ivy Lane and I remember the roads were icy and my father drove very slowly because we’d been in an ice-related accident a few days earlier and the back door of the Peugeot was smashed in. My dad had tied the door shut with a piece of twine but it broke and the door flew open as we rounded a traffic circle near the train station. Dr. King reached out and grabbed me so I wouldn’t fall out of the car.
My mother was standing on the front porch, shivering in the cold, smoking one of her filtered cigarettes. She greeted Dr. King and led him up to the guest room at the top of the stairs and made sure he was comfortable and had everything he needed. King was charming and took time to chat about things that my sister and I had interest in. He asked us about school and what books we were reading and what sports we liked to play.
He then took a nap and came down a few hours later to meet the professors, students, civil rights workers and campus leaders of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) who had assembled for the evening in our living room.
Sadie Ray, our cook, was in the kitchen making roast beef, mashed potatoes and string beans, her fingers long and splayed, greasy with Crisco and battered with bread crumbs. It was her standby meal for large groups, but she was already complaining to my mother. Her minister at the First Baptist Church on Green Street had preached a sermon the week before about King being a troublemaker, a “self-loathing Negro”, in his words.
At first, she snubbed Dr. King and refused to serve him dinner. My mother was mortified and didn’t know what to do. She just stood there by the swinging pantry door, aghast. Dr. King soon took things in hand and walked into the kitchen, introduced himself and sat at the round table near the stove, eating Sadie’s delicious food while explaining the civil rights movement and the challenges of the NAACP. It was a one-to-one seminar, while the rest of the guests sat in the chill of the formal dining room, wondering what was going on back there in the kitchen.
Dr. King was the sweetest, most humble guest, a friend, a luminous presence, a beautiful voice, right there in the room with you, making direct eye contact while speaking, shaping rhythms with his words, insisting on helping with the dishes after dinner, the center of attention but deferring to others, possessing an inner warmth and sense of love for the everyday as well as the eternal, a soaring figure for any age, but none of us understood that yet. (Needless to say, Sadie was forever won over).
The next time he came to visit–on April 29, 1962– Reverend King preached in the university chapel in tandem with Dr. Karl Barth, the legendary Swiss theologian. Seventy-five-year-old Barth was the principal author of the “Barmen Declaration” and one of the first public figures in Germany to stand up against Hitler. Because of his Swiss citizenship, Barth managed to escape with his life, but his compatriot Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by Nazi thugs in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
My father was thrilled to bring these two champions of human dignity, King and Barth, together. King had written his thesis on “Barth’s Conception of God” (1952), but it was the first and only time the two great moral leaders actually met. After the service, they came back to our house and sat side-by-side at the dining-room table, deep in conversation. This time, Sadie was prepared and showered King with love through the food she prepared: deep fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, collard greens, buttermilk biscuits and thick, giblet gravy.
Dr. King was supposed to come back for another visit in 1965, but his schedule didn’t allow it and he wrote an apologetic letter that I recently came across among my father’s papers: “Due to the temper of events in the struggle for racial justice, I have had to adopt a policy spending the next several months working on the grass roots level in various communities to grapple with the problems of discrimination that Negroes still face in our country. It has also become necessary for me to spend much more time conducting non-violent workshops throughout the nation… Please know that I deeply regret my inability to accept your gracious invitation. It is my hope that I will have an opportunity to serve you sometime in the future. Please do not hesitate to call on me. With warm personal regards, I am very sincerely yours, Martin.”
The day he died, three years later, on April 4, 1968, my father was cradling his right hand with his left. Somehow, he’d injured his thumb.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Shot!” He shook his head. “Assassinated! Shot down in cold blood! Just like that.”
He was weeping, turning his face away from the light. That’s what the men on the street must have been talking about. I’d been so preoccupied with my own problems, age 16, that I hadn’t understood the gravity of the situation.
“The bloody fools shot him down, a prophet in his own land.”
And I will never forget the way he spoke those words that evening: “A prophet in his own land”, trembling with emotion.
We all sat in the living room watching the reports coming through the television screen, Walter Cronkite speaking slowly, as if fighting back tears himself, explaining how King had been shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It happened at 7PM and my father was already on the phone making arrangements to get to the funeral.
My mother drove him to the emergency room that same night and after taking x-rays, the doctor told him that he’d broken his thumb and proceeded to wrap it with bandages and a metal splint.
A few days later, he flew to Atlanta and marched at the front of the procession, near Coretta, and spent most of the afternoon with Dr. King Senior who told him about how young Martin had seemed to understand his fate, and sensed that he only had a short time to live.
Later that week, my father returned to Princeton and conducted a memorial service to a packed chapel. He wore a long purple chasuble and I could see the metal splint and bandage when he raised his hand to make the sign of the cross during the Benediction.
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…”
This is the sixth in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s extraordinary life. See also:
• • •
“I think we are in the rats’ alley Where the dead men have lost their bones.”-T.S. Eliot
Someone was barking through a megaphone: “Keep moving … not too fast.. don’t look at the cameras…” and we were told to walk deeper into the sandy pit, slowly, towards a group of people wearing black plastic capes at the bottom of the slope. We wore pink buttons that read: “GAS – I AM A HAPPENER” and blew whistles as we marched downward towards a sandy cliff and stacks of multi-colored oil drums that were pushed from a ledge. Then we were told to roll them back up the slope through the sea of fire-fighting foam. I guess I was too young to pick up on the sexual allusion at the time, but the foam felt oddly comforting as it oozed around my ankles and bubbled up to my waist, making me want to pee in my pants. Mud stuck to the drum which made it all the more difficult to roll it up the slope, but I kept pushing because there were men with movie cameras and I was going to be on TV!
Even though I was only fourteen year old, I sensed a topsy-turvy shift in the mood of the day, an altered state of perception.
What’s easily forgotten today is the pre-digital fizz of untethered space and effervescent spontaneity that bubbled everywhere in the late 1960s, in the street, on campus, in mini busses, geo-domes and communes and even in outer space with Apollo astronauts bouncing through the gray shadows of the moon. It started somewhere in a whorl of swirling lines and color emanating from the source, pulsating, protoplasmic, spiraling outward like one of Jung’s mystic mandalas. Suddenly the air was charged with an ineluctable sense of gathering as in a storm brewing or the threads of a fable being woven around an ancient fire. My first inkling of something different, something unpredictable, came, oddly enough, at the East Hampton Town garbage dump in the Summer of 1966, Summer of the Happening.
Years later I learned that this wasn’t as spontaneous an event as I had imagined. A New York artist named Allan Kaprow orchestrated this and several other happenings in the Hamptons area, all scripted and produced for a CBS show called “What I Did On My Vacation.” As defined in the Columbia Encyclopedia, a happening is an “artistic event of a theatrical nature, but usually improvised spontaneously without the framework of a plot.” Kaprow himself had coined the phrase back in 1959 with his ground-breaking “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” a melange of sensual experiences that verged on street theater and broke from conventional art boundaries. To the younger generation of artists, including Kaprow, Jackson Pollock’s ritual splatterings (as captured on film by Hans Namuth) seemed more important as performance than conventional painting. Noteworthy happenings of the period included Claes Oldenburg’s “Store” (1961); Robert Rauschenberg’s “Map Room II” (1965); Robert Whitman’s “The American Moon” (1960); and Kaprow’s own “Calling” (1965). These early happenings were precursors of the performance art that would come into fashion twenty years later.
The Hamptons were already in the process of change. The old WASP gentry of the Maidstone and Meadowbrook clubs were giving way to a much more flamboyant summer crowd. The first real auger of disruption came on August 31, 1963 when a debutante party for socialite Fernanda Wanamaker Wetherill turned into an all-night bacchanal. Affluent young guests rioted and practically destroyed an ocean-front mansion in Southampton. Windows were smashed, people literally swung from the crystal chandeliers and a grand piano was shoved onto the beach and destroyed. The party, a spontaneous kind of Ur-Happening without any art critics in attendance, made front-page headlines and marked an end to Social Register ways. There were reports of pot parties on the beach and free love in the dunes. Mitty’s, the first discotheque on the East End, opened in Watermill. L’Oursin, a club that featured psychedelic light shows, opened in the North Sea area. Then came the happenings, transforming the quiet summer enclave into a multi-media event.
Locations were scouted beforehand. “Picture that dump yard for cars–the one on the way to Springs,” said Kaprow. “I want to have beautiful little children eating picnic lunches in the cars there… Something unthinkable and strange-and magical!” An announcement was made at East Hampton’s Town Hall, and the organizers ran ads in the East Hampton Star and other papers.
It started on Friday, August 5, with a parade at the Southampton railroad station. People pushed oil drums down the street. Others carried weather balloons inflated with helium. A woman was dressed up as “Miss Liquid Hips” in a silver skating costume with white Courréges boots and a space helmet. She stood atop a homemade hover craft and floated down the street. Kaprow himself was dressed as the “Neutron Kid” in a black plastic poncho and World War I aviator’s helmet, riding his own strangely menacing hovercraft device. It was incredibly loud and threw up gritty clouds of dust and sand.
The flyer for the next afternoon’s events read:
Gas – A Happening
Place: Amagansett Coast Guard Beach
Date: Saturday, August 6, 1966
Time: 2:30-3:30 PM
Procedure: Children and adults may help
release helium balloons, frug on the
beach, help to start plastic skyscraper,
Two different rock bands were playing simultaneously, but there was a technical glitch and no one could figure out how to get the generators working. One band finally got going and played a strained rendition of the Stone’s “Satisfaction.” Girls in bikinis danced the Frug while giant helium balloons were released into the sky. A skywriting plane flew overhead and spelled out the word “A-R-T” in giant letters. Everything was going according to plan when a red smoke bomb exploded and four skydivers jumped out of an airplane. They were supposed to parachute onto the beach but two of them were blown out to sea and almost drowned. A group of young men paddled out on surfboards and rescued them. For seven-year-old Eric Kuhn the day started off just like any other. “I didn’t know my first Happening was even happening,” he said. “A magnetic flow of people moved eastward along the shore and I followed them towards this giant black inflatable thing.”
This, the “soft skyscraper,” was being inflated by four vacuum cleaner engines but it took a long time as the tower waved flaccidly back and forth, and there was much comment and sniggering from the crowd. “The fun is in the struggle,” remarked art critic Harold Rosenberg who happened to be standing nearby. The inflatable finally reached its fully erect position for a few spectacular moments before toppling over and exploding. Then, in a Lord-of-the-Flies moment, it was torn apart by a group of young boys.
On Sunday morning there was a happening at the Shelter Island South Ferry. Kaprow’s idea was to have nurses in white uniforms (recruited from Southampton Hospital) beckoning like sirens from the ferry slip. They pulled a big black curtain across the slip and cars coming off the ferry had to drive through the curtain. The nurses then climbed into hospital beds that were parked in the middle of the road.
Later that same day another happening, the final act, was staged out at Montauk Point. Fire-fighting foam spilled down the cliffs and onto the beach. I arrived late but made it in time to run through the foam on the beach and say hello to Kaprow who was supervising. This, in many ways, was the most lyrical and painterly of all the happenings and of all Kaprow’s pieces that weekend, felt most like a tribute to Pollock’s spirit: overlapping lips of foam descending and engaging with the landscape, streaming over the ridges and outcroppings of rock and dirt, the stoney beach, waves rolling ashore, foam meeting foam.
Time magazine later described the Hamptons Happenings as a “combination of artists’ ball, carnival, charade, and a Dadaesque version of the games some people play.” Each event was loosely scripted and open to free-form elements of chance, but at the same time Kaprow’s happenings had to be coordinated within a fairly tight agenda for CBS. (The budget was more than $30,000.) In the end, Kaprow was disappointed by the general lack of spontaneity. “I was looking for more surprises, and everything came out very orderly,” he said.
I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time. To me, the foam and balloons and plastic inflatables were all a kind of fairy dust, a hint of wilder things to come…
• • •
At first, it’s hard to tell what it is, a section of flesh against a canvas backdrop, a limb, oddly posed on a little stool or step, gradually revealing itself to be a man’s leg with tropical ulcers, the calf deformed, bent in the wrong direction, and scarred by pockmarks or perforations, like blackened cavities. The pale foot, almost lost in the light, has been flattened out, splayed, as if crushed by something heavy.
My father was all-thumbs when it came to anything mechanical, so I helped him set up the projector in the back of the living room. I propped it up with a book so that the lens was pointing at the right angle. We set up the retractable “Rocket” movie screen in the far corner of the living room, the same corner where the Christmas tree always went. When he gave me the signal, I would walk around the room and switch off all the lights so that the presentation could begin.
Setting up the machine and showing the slides was something of a ritual, a way to get closer to my father and that part of his life that I barely understood. For me it became a rite of passage: I would take the slides out of the yellow box and hand them to him, one by one, each in its “Ready-Mount” cardboard sleeve, each one numbered. The machine’s cooling fan was so loud that he had to raise his voice to be heard above the whirring noise. He told his war story in simple, elliptical sentences: the battles, wounds and imprisonment boiled down to essential ingredients, stages of a pilgrimage, a kind of 20th Century Pilgrim’s Progress, that led inevitably to the central mission in his life: his ministry, his faithful service to Christ.
The projector had a powerful bulb that sliced through the gloom and made a perfect cone of light. More images flashed by: ghostly apparitions clustered around a pyre, bodies near the edge of a pit, men in loincloths, lined up with vacant faces, humiliated and exhausted, hands tied behind their backs, the stump of a severed arm, a makeshift prosthesis made from bamboo, a hand resting on a bloated belly, hands holding onto shovels or carrying logs to shore up the rail bed. I try to imagine him there, but it fills me with anxiety. Some of the figures are slumped over, dying or already dead, struggling to sit up and put on a smile for the stealthy photographer. Overlapping ridges of stone appear rumpled and folded. Vines and branches fuse into tangled adumbrations. Human limbs metamorphose into aerial pockets of dust. As far as my mother was concerned, these were forbidden images, and she scolded my father for letting me stay and watch, claiming I was far too young. A few months later, she relented and agreed to let me stay up to help him. After all, she had criticized him for not spending more time with me, so at the least, this was a form of father-son bonding.
He had a story for every slide–the soldier who stole a single potato and was hung by his thumbs; three officers who tried to escape, were caught and executed without trial–but there are moments when he loses concentration, pauses to clear his throat, straining, working the mechanism, sometimes fretfully, in an effort to regain whatever stream of thought he had going.
I look back at my father, standing beside the projector, talking to the guests, (grad students, friends, visiting faculty) who’d been invited for dinner, not necessarily suspecting that they’d be watching a slide show about the Railway of Death. They shake their heads in disbelief, look at one another and then look up at him, tall and handsome, wondering how he managed to make it back alive.
How did it make me feel to see these images as an eight-year-old? It was sickening, and in some cases I closed my eyes and refused to look, but it was also how I learned about my father’s war, about his long ordeal and though I often wished he was more like other dads–dads who showed vacation slides of Yosemite and the Jersey shore–I knew that this was what set him apart and made him a heroic figure in many people’s eyes.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my father was just beginning to form a narrative, finding a way to speak about the unspeakable, while learning to map out his own internal landscape, trying out different voices, different story lines on his dinner guests, and he used the slides as prompts to help him reconstruct the most convincing sequence of events. (Years later, I would learn that several important parts of the story had been left out.) It would be at least another year before he sat down to write his own book about the Kwai River, but the informal slide talks were a formative part of the process.
There were periods when it felt as if I were living among the forbidden images, and they were like sentient beings, phantoms and figures, lost souls, rising from the darkest part of my father’s psyche and sneaking into our peaceful home–the faces of the dead, voiceless and forsaken–haunting my eight-year-old imagination.
I crouch in a corner, patting Fiona, our four-year-old Golden Retriever, and listen to my father’s voice coming from the back of the room, explaining how the darkness serves as a background for the light, a common theme: darkness as background for light, punctuated by relevant passages from the Bible: “Light shall shine out of darkness… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…” But who was this man who called himself my father? Sometimes, I looked up in disbelief, and it feels as if I have two fathers: one who is healthy, robust and living in the present; the other who is beaten, almost dead, imprisoned in the past.
More than once he rushes the presentation and forces a slide into the chute before the last one has been properly retrieved. A tiny flange on the aluminum sleeve bends back and causes an irrevocable jam, forcing the slides to sandwich together and produce a bizarre double exposure: a map of Thailand overlaid with a belly distended from beriberi.
The photos are grainy and out of focus, often shot with primitive, handmade devices. Many of the exposures were ruined by jungle humidity, and the images simply dissolved or went completely black.
Being caught with any kind of camera brought severe punishment; often death, and many of the images in my father’s slide show were shot at great personal risk. George Aspinall, a young Australian POW, concealed a folding Kodak 2 camera throughout his period of captivity. He used single strips of X-ray film that he’d stolen from a warehouse in Singapore and learned how to process the negatives himself, in the middle of the night, pouring fixative into bamboo containers, rinsing the negatives in a stream near the camp. (Aspinall’s most iconic photograph shows three human scarecrows standing in front of the medical tent at Shimo Songkurai).
Some possess the density of early glass-plate photographs, an eerie sense of time withheld, the way that light filters through the tiny aperture over a long exposure. Some are so murky and out of focus that it’s impossible to tell what’s taking place within the darker folds and overlapping shades of gray. In one, (“Dysentery Block, Kanya, 1943”), a shadowy black mass pushes forward at an angle, dividing the composition into four equal sections. Towards the left, there are poles, a low fence and a cluster of human figures lying on the ground. Perhaps these are the dysentery patients gathered in their misery, hanging over the open latrines, but it might just as easily be a stack of lumber, or sacks of rice.
In another, also by Aspinall, there’s a platform made from bamboo with a stream running through it, or it might be a raft sinking into the river, and there’s a tangle of human bodies crouching to one side, as in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, huddling together in a single mass. Are they washing themselves in the river or are they cowering in fear? Another shows the railway cutting at Hellfire Pass and it looks as though the rock embankments have liquefied into molten matter, as if the film’s emulsion of cellulose nitrate had dissolved, the only certainty being the curving metal rails that catch the light as they recede towards a narrow cleavage of light.
When I first saw the man hanging on the wall, I assumed it was my father, and I kept looking for his face among the skeletal figures lifting railroad ties, or among the men waiting to be fed, gaunt-faced armies and their emaciated bodies, ashen, toothless, burdened and dark-eyed in the slow, blurred exposures taken with secret pin-hole cameras. Would I be able to recognize his face among so many others? There was a line of them waiting for their daily ration of rice. One of them had a hairline that receded in such a way that it might have been my dad.
I would gaze into the shallow darkness, anticipating a moment of recognition, hoping to find him there, in the middle of a group or in the jungle that loomed around the periphery of the frame, but so many of the photographs had been corrupted by tropical humidity and it was impossible to tell. Would he not stand out for being taller than the others? Would he not emerge from the background as a gaunt and emaciated presence, if only I looked hard enough? Sometimes I imagined that he had only just stepped outside the camera’s frame, but was actually there, only a few feet removed from recognition.
Another showed a group of POWS lowering a railway sleeper into place–it must have been further north, near Takanum–and one of the workers, a figure on the left, wearing only a hat and loincloth, had the same shoulders as my father, but he was turned away from the camera at such an angle, and it was impossible to see any facial features.
Then there were the drawings, the hurried charcoal sketches and ink renderings scratched onto paper with a bamboo nib. These were as disturbing as the photographs, maybe even worse. Drawing was strictly forbidden in the camps, so the renderings were done in haste and then, just as quickly, concealed. Philip Meninsky was caught doing a caricature of a Japanese officer at Tarsau and beaten senseless, close to death. It was an act of resistance, and perhaps it was the fear, the sense of defiance, that made the images so urgent and, in some ways, closer to reality than the photographs. Unnecessary details–facial features, fingers and hair–were left out, and this made for a raw kind of expressionism made up of bold gestures and elementary forms.
Jack Chalker sketched a pack of fifty men crammed inside a salt car, all shadow and overlapping forms, except for a single beam of slanting light. The drawings of Lt. John Mennie, a former bombardier in the Royal Field Artillery, were starkly metaphysical: elongated figures walking through battered landscapes with lightly rendered, almost ethereal, backgrounds. Leo Rawlings, who my father knew at Chungkai, drew the railway viaduct at Wampo with a burnt stick, in deep chiaroscuro. He managed to capture the complexity of the crisscrossing timbers, the improbable geometries, the turn of track, the semi-vertical baulks stacked in seven tiers, curving and diminishing in perspective, shrinking in size as they receded into the distance, not an easy effect to achieve with nothing but a burnt stick. (Rawlings hid his artwork in an old milk tin that he kept buried behind the latrines. Mennie rolled his artwork into a bamboo walking stick.)
The artists improvised with whatever materials they could find. Brushes were made from bamboo and human hair, colors from wild flowers and onion skins. Pigments were ground down and bound with rice water. Charles Thrale mixed his reds from boiled roots and lipstick. Rawlings made his browns out of blood and clay, his greens from crushed leaves, his blacks from boot polish mixed with ash.
At some point, after my ninth birthday, I learned how to load the slides myself, remembering to drop them into the holder backwards and upside down, not fully understanding how the imagery was reversed–quite mysteriously–by an internal alignment of mirrors. I pushed the mechanical arm into the side of a box-shaped apparatus–to the sound of soft alloy dragging against hardened steel–and it caught a crimped notch on the sleeve, pulling the slide through a slot into the body of the machine, sometimes requiring a jiggle of the red plastic knob or a gentle push to force it through.
Gradually, I became quite an accomplished operator, better than my father, and he allowed me do run the machine myself, which gave him more freedom to concentrate on his talks. He would give me a nod, meaning that I was supposed to advance the next slide and adjust the lens so that each image came into focus. At one point he bought a special attachment, a kind of multi-slotted magazine that allowed us to load as many as twenty slides at a time and project them without interruption. I became quite obsessed with the machine, the powerful AO-300 slide projector, manufactured in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with its gray, non-chip finish. I read the instruction manual and learned how to clean all the parts with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. “The Model AO-300 provides the rugged construction, uniform illumination and superior blower-cooled operation for which American Optical projectors are justly famous,” read the manual. I wanted to understand how it worked, so I unscrewed the side panel and drew a cut-away rendering of the inner workings–all the wires, switches, mirrors, lenses–as accurately as I could manage.
While operating the projector, I observed how the light was more compressed after it came out of the lens and how it widened and began to dissipate as it reached further across the darkened room. Flecks of dust were caught in the celestial cone of light and they were swept upwards by drafts of air. It was all about the angle of light, luminous precision, the focus, reading through the penumbra, forcing oneself to look without distraction, to stare into the tumescent gloom, into the deepest part of the shadow, the umbra, and continue looking until you found the thing or the person you were searching for.
I wondered if the dust was everywhere, or only isolated within the tapered channel of light and multiplied there, as if breeding. Did the light curve around the darkness, or did the darkness give shape to the light? I imagined a luminous world in which humans were specks of dust caught in the cone of light for a moment before drifting into the infinite abyss.
“God is light and in him is no darkness,” said my father who concluded his talk with the image of a jungle altar and a message about how God came into the camps towards the end of captivity and brought a spirit of self-sacrifice and compassion that flourished among his comrades. “Suffering no longer locked us up in the prison house of self-pity,” he said, standing in front of the projector. “It brought us into what Albert Schweitzer calls the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.'” Then, I would switch off the projector and turn all of the room lights on again. The show was over.
The POW images still haunt me today, more than fifty years after the fact. Shortly after my mother died, I helped my father move into a smaller house and that was when I rediscovered the 35mm slides. They were in a brown box marked “POW Lecture”, almost exactly as I remembered them. It would take another week before I could bring myself to look through them, one by one, in an old-fashioned Bell & Howell viewfinder, confirming the fact that they were real enough, not just the exaggeration of a young boy’s macabre imagination.
• • •
This is the fifth in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s extraordinary life. See also:
“Gardens are philosophy made concrete”.
– Mark Dion
Karl Ove Knausgraard, chain-smoking, angst-ridden Norwegian author, recently announced that “the physical world is gone”, and he has a point. So much has been lost to Google and flat-screened placelessness that we can hardly estimate the damage to our personal geographies. Knausgraard himself fought oblivion by writing a 3,600-page novel that recreated his own physical world in Proustian, sometimes crushing detail.
Mark Dion, artist, has conjured up his own incantations for the physical through a lifetime of rummaging, collecting, cataloguing, exploring, traveling, and digging through dead people’s attics and archives. He assembles, arranges and exploits that same materiality to reach a kind of equilibrium in which of all periods of history (including the future) converge and press down on a self-conscious present.
“Gardens are philosophy made concrete,” said Dion, who was recently invited to create an installation at the Kampong, a botanical garden in Coconut Grove, Florida, that was the former home to botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild. Fairchild is an heroic American figure, co-creator of the Everglades National Park and founder of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, he was responsible for bringing more than 58,000 species into the country. He also helped to define the city of Miami as much as any developer, architect or urban planner ever did, and it’s impossible to understand the genie of the place without understanding Fairchild’s vision, a vision that is fully manifest in the gardens and workshops of the Kampong.
In his books–Exploring for Plants (1930); The World was My Garden (1938); the World Grows Around my Door (1947); etc.–Fairchild comes across as a Zelig-type visionary and latter-day Johnny Apple Seed, who goes everywhere, meets everyone, travels the globe to gather rare specimens with Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy bachelor, imports mango trees from Trinidad, tung seeds from China, alfalfa from Peru, shaddock seeds from Iran, raisin grapes from Italy, sausage tree seeds from Egypt.
In 1905, he marries Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They hang out with Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as they take their first manned flights in North Carolina. In 1916, he buys the Kampong and converts the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory, and plants many of the species that he gathered during his travels. His seven-acre garden flourishes and expands to nine acres as Fairchild claims this part of south Florida as the only true jungle in North America.
His refuge through all of this was an old building made from oolitic limestone that lies on the south side of the property. In 1923, he converted it into an office and laboratory and surrounded himself with plant samples, books, maps, horticultural charts, and this was where he documented, cross-fertilized, photographed, and wrote about his subject with increasing passion. Dion’s brief was to reconstruct the interior of the lab in a way that Fairchild might have left it if he’d walked out one day and never returned. The work is part historical reconstruction, part 18th-century Kunstkammer, part poetic exegesis. Working with scanty evidence, a small collection of original documents, and one or two grainy photographs, the artist assembled a roomful of artifacts, arranging books and objects on shelves and table tops with old botanical prints, maps and typewritten notes pinned to a cork board, specimen jars, tweezers, pencils, plant presses and drying racks, seed pods lying in enameled trays, rubber stamps, drafting and measuring tools, an encyclopedic litany of material culture culled from the first half of the 20th Century.
At times, one feels suspended between artifice and authenticity, but that seems to be the realm that Dion chooses to inhabit, the ultimate bespectacled amateur–archeologist, entomologist, ornithologist, paleontologist–armed with pith helmet, butterfly net and fine-arts degree, surfing a thin line between museology, botany and installation art. It’s a liminal realm he’s explored in both his personal life and art, whether in collaboration with other artists and scientists, in museum installations, or in his founding vision for Mildred’s Lane, the hundred-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania that continues to serve as experimental Petri dish for artists, dreamers and students, a place where the accidental and natural often converge.
While many of the prevailing assumptions about the natural world have, since Fairchild’s time, been dismissed as leading to environmental catastrophe, Dion’s Kampong installation is not a platform for critical analysis or condemnation. There are allegories and clues throughout, and intricately composed vignettes that might be read as fragmentary narratives within an art historical context, however arbitrary they might be in the positioning and overlapping of textures, colors, volumes. Rusting awls, hammers, snips and knives are hung from a custom-made tool rack, fetishized like a Beuys installation, as is a cluster of mason jars filled with organic specimens suspended in clear liquid. A still-life grouping of stoneware jugs summons forth Morandi, while below that, a collection of wooden boxes has been stacked and clustered like a Cubist relief with a red Savarin Coffee can as the only moment of pure color and reminder of Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960) that also featured a red Savarin can. This may be reading too recklessly, but the point is made that Dion’s practice is as much a selective exercise as any form of studio art.
The internal artifice leads inevitably out to the riotous tangle of the Kampong’s grounds–Fairchild’s true laboratory–nine acres under the “big-finned palm, the green vine angering for life”, the Royal and Talipot, Sagisi and Pejibaye, the bright orange fruit of the Arikury palm (from Brazil); jackfruit, heliconias, mango trees and cycads laced and interwoven with bell-shaped figs creeping up the walls of the main house, ant trees, rubber trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia, and carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet now filling in with thickets of mangrove and stalked by a somnambulant iguana.
A giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) hangs over the main entry with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, shoots, buds, and all of these plants and vibrant colors, these “green sides and gold sides of green sides” can be seen within the context of Fairchild’s greater legacy: a museum of living matter, indexed and catalogued despite the apparent wildness.
While Dion never lays hands on the exterior landscape, his reclamation and reconstruction of Fairchild’s second-floor laboratory serves as a kind of lens through which to view, re-frame and re-experience the living thing itself, the garden of forking paths and “slovenly wilderness” while shedding light on the very culture of exploration and selection that Fairchild helped to invent.
Quotations in italics are borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ “Nomad Exquisite”, 1923.
All photographs by Alastair Gordon.
“Well, as I say, the first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up.”
– Captain Bal Hendry
The bedroom is small with barely enough room for a queen-sized bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, but my father seems happy, looking over the luminous waters of Gardiner’s Bay. The name that got us started was Titikarangan. I was startled. While his short-term memory continued to disintegrate, his long-term memory seemed to be getting stronger, and now this odd-sounding name arose from the depths of his subconscious like a magic incantation: Titikarangan. I had never heard of it before, but he said it with absolute conviction. I Googled it and even though my spelling was wrong, the name popped up on a map of modern-day Malaysia, a real enough town in Kedah Province, just to the south of Merbau Pulas.
The battle started early on the morning of December 17, 1941, only ten days after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were dressed in native turbans, wide-brimmed hats and sarongs and were moving out from the rubber trees and onto the road, as if they might be Malay workers taking flight from the Japanese advance. Everyone was fooled. Lt. Bremmer cried out: “hold fire,” in a loud enough voice for everyone, including the Japanese, to hear, revealing ‘A’ Company’s position and thereby losing the advantage of surprise. (It was the Argylls first encounter with the enemy).
There was a brief moment of hesitation when my father had to remind himself not to run or hide, but the moment passed and he felt a relative sense of calm, considering the fact that live rounds were now buzzing past his head, shredding leaves on the tulip trees. He was fine. The fear was only in his mouth, dry and metallic.
The first wave went down, wounded or dead, or playing dead. Then came another wave, ignoring the crossfire of the Bren guns. “They came crawling through the monsoon drains and crawled into the Lalang grass,” said my father who now realized that the Japanese weren’t the soft targets they’d been ridiculed as being in the Straits Colony press, with buckteeth and bad eyesight. They were fearless and fast, all too eager to run straight up the hill, bearing their chests to the fire, falling willy-nilly.
My father got up and shuffled into the bathroom for a pee, but was now sitting in bed again, clear-eyed and remarkably lucid. (Could it have something to do with his Parkinson’s medication?) He told me about the battle with a breathless urgency that I’d never heard before, almost as if he needed to get it off his chest. He began to sketch a map on the back of an envelope with a wavering line for the Karangan River, a double line for the bridge and another, straighter line for the road that ran south through Serai and Terap. (He drew “X’s” to represent each squad, “O’s” for machine gun placements and “M’s” for mortar positions).
The enemy troops were bunched up together, confused and unsure of where to move next and they made easy targets in the cross fire. “We killed more than two hundred during the first assault,” said my father, leaning to one side, while I handed him a mug of tea. The official history puts it closer to a hundred, but it was surprising to me that after all these years of being a Servant of Christ, he was still proud of the number that had been slaughtered that morning.
Now my father could see them scattering, rolling down the escarpment toward the river. They didn’t mind getting killed and they continued to run quite recklessly into the barrage coming from the other flank. There was a brief lull and then another wave came up the hill, even faster this time, making a flanking move to the north. That was their strategy: the deep circling move. The Argylls killed another thirty but that didn’t stop them and my father worried that his men might be cut off and have to fight their way back to Serai or be forced to surrender.
The ones who’d been in the vanguard were already down but more kept coming, heads down, carrying Type-92 machine guns, trying to set them up with their clumsy tripod legs, but those men were also shot, and then another squad moved in to take their places and managed to maneuver themselves into a better position. My father was convinced that this was the vanguard of the encircling movement and he felt the urge to move up, laterally, towards the enemy and cut them off before they could gain further ground. One of the Japanese snipers climbed a tree and started firing at an angle across ‘A’ Company’s position. My father signaled L. Cpl Gray and two others to move back behind the sniper which they did but the sniper shot Gray and turned to shoot the others but somehow got his feet tangled in the branches of the tree and Pvt. McEwan was able to shoot him from the other side. (He promptly fell to the ground, dead).
That was about when my father stood up, all six-foot-three of him, and started running, waving two of the jocks–Pte. Logan and Pte. Gibson, he thinks–to follow him as he raced along a narrow footpath that traversed the ridge. (I imagine how he ran that day, with his loping gait, as if he were back on the rugby pitch at St. Andrews, slightly dazed and out of breath, not wanting to fuck up).
All he felt was a ping and numbness in his hand, then a damp red circle blooming on his shirt. “I seem to have been hit,” he said to Sgt. Skinner in the most nonchalant way. Then he couldn’t catch his breath because one of his lungs had been punctured by a 7.7 mm round from an Arisaka machine gun. (The bullet also penetrated the deltoid muscle and shattered part of the scapula and clavicle). His heart stopped, missed a number of beats and started again, rapidly this time and out of rhythm, and that was when he passed out, both knees buckling, his large frame tumbling through space. Was there a second explosion near his feet, or something inside his head unspooling, some neurological fail-safe that created the impression of extracorporeal suspension when, in fact, he was simply dying, going from brightly sparking networks of thought to nothing, apa-apa, as the native Malays called it? Two of the jocks dragged his body around the back of the Cengal tree and that was where he lay for what seemed like hours.
He could see how their legs were bowed out like cartoons and a part of him was still running towards the high point, as if his other body, his wounded body, were still in forward motion after he’d fallen, as if he could still engage and withdraw and recapture the ridge. Was he hallucinating or were there decisions still to be made? Could he fall back to the river, through the kampong and rendezvous with ‘C’ Company with their armored cars on the road to Serai at No. 14 milestone, or to Captain Bardwell of ‘B’ Company who was holding the narrow bridge with three-inch mortars?
He was vaguely aware of black branches on the tree overhead, and he was aware of warring factions within his own nervous system, adjusting to the shock, sending out contrary signals–prepping for death?–and he imagined a network of bifurcating nerve ends, skipjacks and wireworms. He should have seen them coming, re-routing and bypassing the damaged tissue, but he faded in and out and there was an incandescent burst near his head and then another to the west. He could see cassia, stunted palms, ancient mossy angsana around the blurred periphery of his vision. Were those birds or were they bullets? He couldn’t be sure.
Something flies in and away…
He’s dead and someone is coming towards him. There’s no golden stairway or white light, but there’s an oddly pleasant sense of release, of running up Whim Hill behind Aunt Jean’s house, and a ghostly figure standing by the oily tarn off Roxburgh Street where the boys broke bottles. He thinks he hears a woman singing somewhere near the slit trench, a woman’s voice coming from the very heart of the battle, while a slanting part of his consciousness is telling him to wake up and take command.
His soul, or whatever had been flapping its wings outside his body, was suddenly back inside his body and he could move his hands again. He tasted cordite in the air and the sweet nectar of ginger blossom, of being alive, and slipped back into his damaged corpus, suddenly aware of the fact that he was lying in a shallow depression behind the Cengal tree.
The advance was beaten back and the hill was retaken.
Cpl. Boyd of the medical corps sprinkled sulfa into my father’s wound and applied a field dressing. This being Boyd’s first combat casualty, he may have over-injected the morphine, and my father remembers vomiting, tripping on the morphine and experiencing an expanded sense of the infinite, while assuming, once again, that he was being left to die.
The battle was over in less than two hours and the Japanese faded back into the swamps of Perak Province. The Argylls, after calling off their plan for a counter-attack, fell back to Kupang.
Padre Beattie, regimental chaplain saw blood pooling around my father’s neck and assumed he was gone. “Dear Lord, embrace this your servant…” They took him to a dressing station at Terap where he was revived and given a blood transfusion. Two days later he was transferred to Kuala Lumpur and then, during the endless train ride south to Singapore, he began to wonder about the voice that sang to him on the battlefield, just after being shot. There was something familiar about it. (His mother, Sarah, was an opera singer).
As a child, I’d always seen something numinous in the outline of my father’s war wound. It looked like a vaccination mark, but bigger, a circle of crinkled skin, about the size of a quarter. It was his badge of courage, and during the summer, when he went around the beach house shirtless, he would let me touch the damaged tissue with my finger and trace the trajectory of the bullet as it went in and came out the opposite side. The scar was the only tangible connection I had to his war, a one-inch-diameter portal to his past. By touching it, I felt a connection to his pain and suffering.
But my father never spoke about the battle. He never wrote about it, not did he bring it up in his lectures or sermons. I never knew that he was one of the first to be wounded and knocked out of action. I wasn’t so much disappointed as I was surprised because I’d carried impressions since childhood of ongoing battle in jungle conditions with retreat and counter attack over a period of many weeks, even months. But that wasn’t the way it happened. As Bal Hendry, his best friend and succeeding commander of ‘A’ Company, said: “The first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up,” stating the facts as they occurred.
We were done for the day. My father turned over to take a nap and ended up sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. I picked up the lunch tray and carried it into the kitchen. It had been a good start. Some door had flipped opened and I wanted more. A few days later, he had a visitor, a woman in her seventies, sniffing around, now that my mother was gone. I didn’t disturb them and let her talk about the old days, but after she left I showed him the book I had bought on amazon.com.
“It says here that your commanding officer yelled at you for getting wounded,” I told him. It was a freshly published history of the Malayan Campaign and as soon as it arrived in the mail, I flipped to the index and found twenty-seven references to “Gordon, Capt. E.”, but it was the passage on page 53 that grabbed my attention: “The wounded Tiny Gordon, a very big man, was assisted back,” I read out loud while my father climbed back into bed, trying to suppress his irritation.
“‘Stewart approached him,'” I continued to read, “‘and according to some accounts Gordon, far from receiving any congratulations for ‘A’ Company’s efforts, was fiercely and very publicly reprimanded…'”
“Nonsense!” cried my father, interrupting, but I ignored him and kept going: “‘…reprimanded for allowing himself to be wounded so early in the battle. A year of jungle training wasted!'”
“Is that true? Were you reprimanded?”
“No! Stewart came around to see me,” he said. “He was concerned.”
“Why would anyone write that if it weren’t true?”
“How should I know? I never received a scolding from Ian Stewart. He only expressed sympathy for my wound.”
According to the author of the book, it was David Wilson, another captain in the Argylls, who’d been the source of the “well-known” story. But why was Wilson telling tales at such a late date? Colonel Stewart didn’t mention anything about it in the official account of the Malayan Campaign that he published in 1947: “About 10.45 hours Captain Gordon, Company Commander, was wounded and Captain Hendry took over.” That was all. He didn’t say anything about reprimanding my father, nor did he criticize any of the actions that he’d taken as commander of ‘A’ Company. Perhaps Stewart was frustrated that he’d lost one of his best officers so early in the campaign. I could understand that and perhaps he said something to my father in a scolding but friendly way: Och, did you really have to go and get yourself shot so early in the day? Something like that which might have been overheard and misinterpreted by one of the men?
After some research, I learned that Captain Wilson hadn’t been anywhere near the battlefield that day. He was 400 miles to the south, at Fort Canning, safely eating breakfast with General Haig’s staff, so why would the author cite him as a reliable witness when he wasn’t even on the scene and probably only heard about the incident second hand, if indeed there had been such an incident in the first place? (Was Wilson harboring resentment against a fellow officer? Had he been passed over in some way?) I wanted to believe my father’s version, but I also felt that there must have been some vestige of truth to the story. Had he screwed up somehow? Disobeyed orders? Shown hesitation or cowardice? I don’t know. I prefer not to think about it. If anything, it made him more existential and human, less of the heroic action figure. I felt ambivalence mixed with curiosity, torn between wanting to stand up for my father, while remaining detached. (Now I understood why he never spoke about the battle. It was complicated.) And anyway, almost everyone involved was dead so I would probably never know the truth.
The photograph was taken early in 1942 against a darkly mottled backdrop at the Imperial Studios on Jervois Road, and it’s signed in the lower right corner: “Best Wishes, Ernest, 21/1/42”, January 21, 1942. On that same afternoon, five RAF Hurricanes were shot down over Queenstown, so there’s an understandable degree of urgency in the eyes, intense but distracted. Yamashita’s 25th Army had reached the Johor defensive line, and the city was under constant bombardment. The morning heat caught the smell of rotting flesh and spread it across the entire harbor area. There were three corpses and a dead horse lying in a ditch near Keppel Road. Mitsubishi bombers were coming in from the east, dropping anti-personnel grenades that exploded overhead and sent deadly shards of metal into the streets.
While everything outside the camera’s frame was chaos, inside the frame he’d conjured up the impression of calm, measured calm, looking straight into the lens, eyes wide open, very awake, alert. It’s amazing to me that he had the time and temerity to walk into a studio on Jervois Road and have his photo taken when, all around, the skies were crashing down. Only five weeks earlier, almost to the day, he’d been shot through the shoulder, but now he wanted to send proof home of his robust state of health. He looks shorn, his hair cropped on the sides but rising over his forehead in dark, glistening waves. He’s lost quite a bit of bulk after three weeks in hospital–the morphine made him sick–which only accentuates his square jaw-line and forehead, yet the lips lie gently across the face, soft and shapely, almost feminine. This would be the last photograph he sent to his parents before the fall of Singapore. They wouldn’t hear from him for another three and a half years.
This is the fifth in a series of ‘discoveries’ about my father’s life. See also: