Saturday, 3 September 2016

Eccentrics and I - Umberto Tosi

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris and friend
The other day, my inamorata, the artist Eleanor, called me her oddball lover. That seemed a stretch, considering the surreal narrative figures for which she is justly celebrated.

Thanks, I told her, but I've never thought of myself as peculiar. I came from a family of larger-than-life characters who attracted more of the same. I was always the bookish kid taking mental notes, growing up with vague intentions to write, 

I felt inadequate to the swashbuckling biographies of famous authors whom I admired. I wasn't one to go off and fight wars or book passage on tramp steamers like Hemingway or Harlan Ellison. When I landed a newspaper job, I ended up editing and writing features while admiring my more gritty colleagues who had come up as police reporters in the Walter Burns tradition– a rare breed now in the age of j-school grads.

Au contraire, mon cher. You are quite strange, Eleanor insisted, and made her case, listing various quirks of mine of which I'm only faintly aware.

Humpf, I mused. You should have met the real oddballs I've known over the years to whose eccentricity I could only aspire.

I was reminiscing about Warren Hinckle, one of my erstwhile San Francisco maverick journalism colleagues, ambivalent hero, and sometimes nemesis who died recently at age 77.

The late Warren Hinckle and friend
RIP the great Hinckle, relentless muckraker, dandy, eloquent scribe, swashbuckling, one-eyed anti-establishment marauder and above all, master showman. I worked with him on two characteristically provocative publishing ventures he edited in the 1970s and early 80s: Francis Coppola's "City of San Francisco" [brilliantly designed by the iconic Mike Salisbury, on which the great director invested upwards of $1.5 million of his Godfather money] and "Frisco," both weeklies and much too short lived. He burned brightly. Standing too close, you could get singed, but would never forget the adventure of putting out always unique, hell-raising editions from his favorite taverns - Gino & Carlo's in North Beach, the Dovre Club in the Mission District and other smoky pubs, but rarely if ever, from behind a desk.


He was already famous when I met him in 1974, having been the editor of Ramparts Magazine, one of the most controversial and widely read leftist magazines of the 1960s that scored scoop after scoop investigating the lies and assumptions that led the United States into its tragic involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as civil rights battles at the time. Hinkle subsequently founded another muckraking leftist magazine, Scanlon's Monthly, with a more satirical irreverent style. He also ran for mayor of San Francisco and gave voice to a tongue-in-cheek movement to declare San Francisco a city-state during the Nixon Administration.

Hinckle had the gifts of Irish loquaciousness and limpid writing brimming with cultural ironies that I could only envy while I savored. Conversing, I always felt like he was playing at 45 rpm whilst I spun ralentando at 33 1/3. And while I carefully watered my drinks and paced myself to stay sharp, he would seem to gain more clarity, not less with each double shot of Jameson's and water, basset hound at his side, except when he'd leave the sad-eyed pooch at the office while I dog-sat as I put the edition to bed and he went off with his lady-friend du jour. 

The Great Hinckle was by no means the first nor the last out-sized literary character I shadowed in ambivalent awe. As a teen, I worked for a while part-time after school in the shop of Verrico the Bookbinder of Hollywood. That's what the sign read, in block letters above a tired storefront on a seamier stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Alfredo Verrico, a rotund, nimble jester, had hired me – to sweep floors, run errands and fill glue pots – as a favor to my mother, with whom he had been involved in launching a Los Angeles opera company for which she had sung Puccini roles in 1949 and 50.


Verrico's restored rare books for wealthy patrons in the movie community, along with binding archive volumes for companies and other organizations, for example, horse show books. He had learned his craft during World War II while interred in a US government camp for enemy aliens. 

Verrico (always called by his surname only)  delighted in pointing out the irony of his internment, being that he had fled Italy as an anti-Fascist newspaper editor in the 1920s. Alfredo Verrico, you see, was nearly the spitting image of dictator Benito Mussolini, and had framed, 8”x10” glossy photos of himself, arms folded, pouting arrogantly, in Il Duce's uniform to prove it. He got himself in trouble running that image with satirical articles about the great leader he published underground from his hometown of Avelino, outside of Naples, just ahead of Il Duce's paramilitary Blackshirts, until he finally escaped into France and then sailed for New York. There, he became an impresario for Italian theater and ballet performances married to a jealousy-prone ballerina with whom he said he fought constantly.

Verrico made it okay for this 1950s kid to love reading, foreign films, and nonconformity. I didn't know much about the bohemian lifestyle at the time, but looking back. He epitomized it. His shop was crammed with books, papers, binding spools and presses. He spent most of his time in a large kitchen at the back of the place with an espresso machine, drinking coffee and grappa discussing - I should say, arguing about -  philosophy, the arts, and politics with various cronies, singers, artists, writers, and wannabees who drifted in and out, in two languages. 

He would stride to the front whenever the little bell on the front door announced a customer, sometimes donning his Mussolini generalissimo hat on the way as a prank. He'd size up anyone new – no matter how big the potential order – and throw him or her out summarily if he didn't like the vibes. Perhaps his days as an underground anti-fascist or his internment years had made him paranoid. Or perhaps he was rightly guarded, being an avowed socialist in the blacklisting Hollywood of the red-baiting McCarthy era. I wasn't savvy or bold enough to ask. 

Signor Verrico reinforced my notion that real creative people had adventures of which I could only dream. It was many years before I realized that there is little correlation between being colorful and capable. Some creative geniuses are odd, but others come in a plain brown wrapper. Indeed, one does not have to be a genius to write in the first place, else most of us would be out of work forthwith. 

I'm sad to say that I have no photos of Afredo Verrico, only memories. I wonder what Verrico would have to say about Donald Trump, who – in the right light – also bears resemblance to Mussolini, but, unlike my old mentor, in a sinister way that daily seems to threaten the world a lot more than the original Il Duce, when you think about it.  

----------------------------- 
Umberto Tosi's novels and novellas include Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street, Gunning for the Holy Ghost, and Our Own Kind. His short stories have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Catamaran Literary Reader, Another Flash in the Pen, and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor. During the 1980s and 90s, he played with several improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written hundreds of articles for major newspapers, magazines and online publications over the fifty five years of his career. 

2 comments:

Jan Needle said...

Bloody fantastic! What more need I say?

Umberto Tosi said...

What more can I say than "thank you, Jan!"