Woodstock’s munificent Christmas impostors

Ralph Whitehead

It’s strange, I realize, to ruminate on impostors at Christmas. Although isn’t Santa Claus an impostor revealed that wrenching moment childhood ends forever? Wouldn’t an atheist say Jesus was an imposter, if the Carpenter from Nazareth lived at all? Many believe that a certain leader of what was once called the Free World is an imposter (unless of course he was elected without assistance from our enemies.) Inestimable numbers of insiders who’ve worked for innumerable stars of the stage and screen complain bitterly about just “who they actually are once you get to know them.” (Personally, I’ve never failed to be disappointed in getting to know any hero — except Sam Shepard — and so I admire from afar in order to admire at all.) Today sex crimes perpetrated by beloved entertainers, powerful moguls and trusted leaders justify far worse terms than “imposter” (except when old rules of an old game known to all players of that old game are rewritten by faux naifs.) And to put a star at the top of the tree, the reputation of Sigmund Freud, himself, has recently fallen so low that esteemed journalists now consider him an imposter who hoodwinked an entire century!

Hervey White

However my investigations this Christmas won’t concern those pretenders who’ve hurt through hoax but instead those who’ve assisted others while claiming to be what they’re not; that is, impostors who’ve fulfilled the responsibilities of an assumed role more completely than many an authentic model.

Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead was an imposter, but not because he was an Anti-Semite — a vast majority were back then. (The goyim had to blame America’s failures on somebody.) Whitehead was an imposter because when push came to shove he sided with wealth, not with the down-trodden whom his mentor, John Ruskin, sought to uplift and defend. Still Whitehead brought the arts to Woodstock in 1901 when he built our first art colony, Byrdcliffe, and so a few of us forgive him. Besides, he paid for his sins in being what his protégé Hervey White called “the most unhappy man I have ever known.”  Though Hervey was an imposter of a sort, himself — we’ll get to that.

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Although it sometimes seems Woodstock has ridden the coat-tails of what didn’t happen here more than what did, the town has indeed been graced with several geniuses, two of whom endured allegations of “imposter!” and taught the world much through such endurance.

Philip Guston

Essentially a conservative art colony, Woodstock didn’t pay much attention to Philip Guston when around 1960 he sequestered himself in the Maverick, just over the town line. Until, that is, Guston’s Abstract Expressionist paintings made him famous. “Famous for what?” most local painters scoffed. “Being the newest tailor to stitch The Emperor’s New Clothes?” But such didn’t make Guston a fake for the avant-garde, merely among a bunch of back-water fuddy-duddies. What drew the undying enmity from “the New York School” of Abstract Expressionists was that Guston returned to representational art and so became a turd floating in the punchbowl of Modernism. For to reverse oneself in a revolution means you couldn’t have really been a revolutionary at all. Somewhere in some way you were an imposter all along. Today Philip Guston remains the hero of any artist in any medium who takes the heat and goes it alone.

Something similar befell Bob Dylan when he abandoned the ideals of the folk movement and went both electric and eclectic. Admittedly, Dylan didn’t help matters much when — to really rankle ‘em — he claimed to have written “Masters of War” to make a lot of money. This meant that Dylan had been an imposter, right? So the whole time millions of us were inspired by his songs to march against segregation and the war in Vietnam — he was a fake! He fooled us! But if you believe that, who’s the fool?

Bob Dylan

Dylan has moved at the speed of spite ‘til he spited spite, itself, to embrace faith in God, until he didn’t, until he did again. So to try nail him down to a single personality or belief or style is like demanding that a chameleon remain one color. Which begins to approach the realm in which “the imposter” becomes the only honest one among us, in so far as many compartmentalize vastly differing sectors of personality, while feigning a unified whole.

“No, I’m not. I’m both an actor and an archbishop.” Those were the words of Woodstock’s beloved Father Francis. But due to the scathing if impressively argued letters of Rowan Dordick this writer was compelled to reconsider his loyalty to FF. Deeper research found that, no, FF was not verifiably tied to the Scopes Monkey Trail, except through his own self-glorying testimony. And so this rogue Archbishop indeed could have created or exaggerated his own history. More aggressively stated: a pathological liar could have abused his own authority to live in luxury in Manhattan while charming wealthy parishioners into writing exorbitant checks to build soup kitchens and hospitals for the poor. Dreadful! Then through who knows exactly what dark means FF came to Woodstock where he hypnotized Jane Whitehead and her son, Peter, who fulfilling his Mother’s specious promise eventually deeded FF lands promised by Lady Jane. (Which proves the thoroughly wretched nature of his nature.) But let’s remain tough as my critic is, let’s say “as an imposter” he became a shepherd to various orphans of a storm known as the 1960’s. Yes, and he seduced grown men and eventually shuttled his ward-of-a-wife to the looney bin, while allowing himself to be adored by a rag-tag flock. Meanwhile FF traveled among his diocese preaching The Teachings of Christ in a manner oddly acceptable to Christian, Agnostic and Atheist, alike — how terrible. So at worst, Father Francis was a fake whose fakery eased the pain and suffering of an era, with treatment of his wife his most glaring sin, as was subtextually noted by Father Francis when to his own father he scoffed: “But Dad Jesus would never come to see me — He knows me far too well!”

Hervey White

But if Father Francis was an imposter, he was one thoroughly understood by another fox named Hervey White who fulfilled an even more important function in Woodstock — that of mentor to artists who, like himself, lived poor and struggled towards mastery. Hervey too, was a master of deception, although he didn’t lie — instead he suppressed and/or manipulated innumerable truths about himself, including the fact that he was a secret Christian (deemed “the opiate of the masses” amongst Hervey’s circle.) This, aside from shared and unacceptable homosexuality, absurd erudition, and basic altruism, resulted in a unique friendship between White and FF. For each leader realized his own secrets, if known, would diminish and so disqualify a now “lesser man” from the mantle of Saintliness.

Hervey’s greatest accomplishment (aside from an early masterpiece he suppressed because it revealed him) was the invention of the art-engine called “The Maverick Festival,” wherein “the millionaire philanthropist” was removed from an equation known as “an artist’s colony.” By taking talents of every sort out of their chosen medium Hervey orchestrated a hodge-podge of spontaneous creation which, as spectacular yearly fund-raiser, was only defeated when the Festival, itself, appeared to be what the Maverick was all about. Behind the scenes, the fame of the festival inspired a great vanity — even among the Maverick colonists — and so the Serpent entered the Garden. (Indeed, a longing for fame or the need to bury shame is usually at the root of all self re-invention.) The early festivals were pure alchemy. Local folk were drawn by the magic lantern and Woodstock found its natives marrying artists at a remarkable rate. Families were the result but families hope for income beyond poverty, and to receive such income an artist requires fame. So Hervey’s alternative to bankers and their banking finally failed, until his banner was taken up again by Woodstock’s Flower Children in the 1960’s.

But where’s Christmas in all this? Where’s Christ and where’s Santa Claus?

Well, consider for a moment why parents engender faith in a Messiah or deceive their children with the legend of Ole St. Nick in the first place. Isn’t it to instill the notion of love and kindness defeating a cold, cruel world while jobs and schools and wars all stop!…and bow before this Grand Illusion, which — for Christmas at least — becomes reality? Though we’ll all grow up and see through the guise of Santa won’t most of perpetuate his myth with our own children? And even as those whose rational minds defeat beliefs in God or Justice or “The Land of The Free,” might not even these recall an Eden in childhood known as “Christmas?”

In the 1920s, America’s greatest tragedian, Eugene O’Neill, came to Woodstock to work on a play, during roughly the same period O’Neill’s anarchist pal, Hippolyte Havel, served as first cook at Hervey’s restaurant, the Intelligentsia. Shortly afterwards Hippolyte edited “Road to Freedom,” an anarchist magazine. Keep all this in mind for a moment and add that Hervey’s last protégé was a young intellectual named James Cooney, who lived and wrote in the thirties in New York City. At this time street poets and musicians supplied entertainment in the dives where those who could, drank to stave off The Depression. Cooney befriended an Irish poet named Henry Murthau who often recited the poem printed below, which Cooney memorized and recited in an interview conducted by Fritzie Striebel and Jean Gaede circa ’65.

Yesterday afternoon I fell asleep

At a table in a backroom of McSorley’s Old Saloon

On Third Avenue and 7th Street.

I dreamt that Mary mother of Jesus tapped the beer,

Then drawing up a chair she sat discretely by me.

“My,” she said, “the flies are awful here.”

We spoke of many things but only two I now recall.

She said the vinegar and gall of Calvary

Were sweeter to her son than those who sought

To foster creeds around his name and tame

The spirit of truth that for a while he fanned to flame.

Then speaking of herself she said,

“I think the poets might as well be blind

As far as any likeness of me is concerned. How ever that may be

I do think Da Vinci’s Mona resembles me…

Am I right?”

And she smiled that smile that still beguiles this world.

When I awoke the room was bare.

There was no one there but myself and

At a nearby table Hippolyte Havel,

Asleep on the Road to Freedom.

When O’Neill wrote his epic The Iceman Cometh, Hippolyte Havel served as model for Hugo Kalmar “the Foolosopher.” The premise of “Iceman” being that we all need a “pipe-dream” in order to withstand the disappointment we otherwise represent. O’Neill’s point is that we are all imposters, for that is how we survive. You might prefer Paul Simon on the hoax of his own accomplishment: “This feeling of fakin’ it…I still haven’t shaken it” or the retort of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy shouts: “Oh— You’re a very bad man!” “Oh, no my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.” Lastly, there’s T.S Elliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” A bottom line remains the same.

When charlatans do no harm we usually find they serve us in kindly dispensing most necessary unreality. When they fall we stone them, yet while they remain shiny and bright — we feel shinier too. So hold tight to your own illusion this Christmas, friends — and indulge the fantasies of your dear ones. Remember, even Einstein imagined he played a wonderful violin, and the nasally-challenged Bobby Zimmerman’s first great desire was to be the next Elvis Presley. So yes, forgive the imposter who does no harm, especially the one in the mirror. At least…on Christmas…++

Tad Wise expresses thanks to Rowan Dordick and Tom Sanzillo. He also offers “apologies for not including Hanukkah or Kwanza in this article. Without authentic relationship to these holidays I don’t feel qualified to comment on the spirit accompanying them…”

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