Ted & Joan Wilentz, Bethesda MD 1993
photograph by Jonathan Williams
Before I write of Theodore Wilentz in a personal way, I have to take you back to my own personal particulars in America after World War II (as very quickly as I can). My WASP forebears from Georgia and North Carolina were two generations off the farm. They were conventional Baptists. They ate ham, fried chicken, a little beef, vegetables, sweets, buttermilk and sweetened iced tea-- and not much else. They mixed with their own. My father was one of the only family members who opted to go North to work during the Depression. He worked hard and did well. In 1949 I had graduated from St. Albans School, spent three abortive semesters at Princeton, and then went to the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, DC, to study painting with Karl Knaths. I was 20 years old. I had never had a Jewish friend. I didn’t know about matzo ball soup. It wasn’t until I was 23, in the Army Medical Corps, that I had a black friend. How “closed” it all was. Fifty years on, horrifying things still go on every day in the Deep South and everywhere else in our remarkably violent country.

As I say, I have to write a little memoir of that time to show how I came to know Ted Wilentz. Back to Washington, 1949. I stayed with Clark and Mairi Foreman, as liberal people as the South has ever produced. They introduced me to Ben Shahn, Izzy Stone, and W.E.B. DuBois, among many others One of the people studying with Knaths was Esther Gould, a lovely person. She invited me to dinner and to meet her husband, Max, who worked at the Securities & Exchange Commission. Max had been a newspaper man in Paris in the 1930s. He knew the expatriate writers. He could read, and explicate , FINNEGANS WAKE like no one I have ever known. I stopped buying my books at Woodward & Lothrop’s Department Store and Brentano’s and started going to specialist shops like Mrs. Reifschneider’s on G Street, Lowdermilk’s, and Franz Bader’s shop at Dupont Circle. These people had odd names, by hillbilly standards. He was a Viennese refugee and a superbly intelligent man. Where were the Baptists? Who were these people called Goyim?

Later that year I assailed Manhattan. I had a rather van-goghish room for $8.00 a week at the intersection of West 4th Street and West 12th Street in the Village. I was studying etching and engraving at Stanley William Hayter’s “Atelier 17,” on East 8th Street, convenient to McSorley’s for lunch.. (The Liederkranz and Bermuda Onion sandwiches on rye remain unforgettable). I fell in love with a fellow student from Rockville Center, Long Island-- a strange thing in itself. And what bookstores!-- Pete Lader and Larry Sackin on West 4th Street. Larry was so pious about Holidays his little basement shop was seldom open at all. He had the best books of anybody. And the best prices. There was Ben Abramson uptown, where I bought my H.P. Lovecraft and Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen. And the zany Harold Briggs of “Books N Things” on the Fourth Avenue Book Row. I think there is no way that Harold didn’t start life as Aaron Berkowitz, or something close to it. What a nice man.

And then one day on West Eighth Street I met Ted and Eli Wilentz. Who were these civilized guys from the Old World, out of a tradition about which I knew so little? I was no “Fiedler on the Roof,” as Leslie joked about himself. I admired Eli’s cool, but Ted had warmth, all the savvy in the world, and the most impeccable sense of manners of any man I have met since then, ie., over 52 years. He was “the perfect, professional bookman,” bar none. Writers loved him because he cared about their work and because he knew how hard it was for them to do it in a mindless, consumerist society. He was particularly helpful to writers with medical problems and personality quirks that left them very vulnerable. I think of Kenneth Patchen, Larry Eigner, Alfred Starr Hamilton, and Douglas Woolf, among many. Ted would even lend or give money to Beatniks!-- that is when generosity becomes “beatific.”

I worked at the Eighth Street Bookshop for about a year during 1959-60. The Wilentz brothers were pleasant to work for. The job brought in a few bucks that helped my companion, Ronald Johnson, and me live while he managed to graduate from Columbia College. I mostly stayed downstairs, wrapping and shipping books, pushing the cart up Sixth Avenue to the Post Office. I loved making neat packages. (In 1952 I’d wrapped 12 Christmas packages for House & Garden magazine and used the money to buy the manuscript of THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT, by Kenneth Patchen, from Ben Abramson.) It’s too bad I missed most of the fantastic customers. One minute: Pee Wee Russell, the next Geraldine Page, the next Edward Dahlberg, the next e.e. cummings. Ted would be on cue, like Toscanini-- absolutely poised.

The years passed, as they are said to do without our quite realizing it. My Jargon Books and the Wilentzes’ Corinth Books combined to do fine editions by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Bob Brown. I kept up with Ted in New, York, New Haven, and Washington. And with Joan (bless her!). Once, to celebrate a Jargon Society anniversary, they even managed to come down here to Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, Macon County, North Carolina-- “that bourne from which no traveller returns,” to quote Shakespeare, or the Bible, or Milton, or maybe Mel Brooks. Ted had been here in the Piedmont of North Carolina in training time during the War. Now it’s Jesse Helms Country, but he came anyway. Blessed be our 4,000,000 Baptists, especially the super-obese ones I see at Wal-Mart’s in the county seat of Franklin!

Getrude Stein, The Ineluctable, said: “When a Jew dies he’s dead.” Well, yes, But NO! As long as breath is taken here at Skywinding Farm, Ted Wilentz will be here with us. I know how many hundreds feel the same way. My knowledge of ancient Hebraic thought must be more than mildly suspect, but the notion of the Lamed-Vov, the Thirty-Six Great Souls, has been something I have thought about since I was 22, as a friend of Ephraim Doner, a painter in Carmel Highlands, California, a dear friend of Henry Miller’s, and an Hasidic Jew from Poland. The Lamed-Vov didn’t know they were Great Souls. They were ordinary people on one level. But, if Jahweh couldn’t find 36 Great Souls-- He would simply pull the plug on this difficult, flensed earth.. I have always thought that Ted Wilentz was one of the 36. The plug ain’t pulled!

L’chayim, my friend!