Friday, September 02, 2011

Lesy on the Twenties

Rearranging some books (or maybe she just needed a coaster), Mrs. B pulled out my copy of Michael Lesy's Real Life: Louisville in the Twenties, otherwise available at Amazon for a penny.  I must have bought it just shortly after it was published in 1976, memories of my own Louisville years (1960-68) still fresh in my mind.  Bought it, but didn't pay much attention to it: many if not most of these "memories" are just too grim and depressing to invite careful study.  Not surprising: it is I believe a companion-successor to Lesy's  Wisconsin Death Trip, which as I recall was a good deal more  notorious and, if you can believe it, even more grim and depressing.

Forty-three years on, I'm sufficiently far away from Louisville that I can encounter it now without risk of being caught up in its clutches.  I think I see more compassion than I saw then, together with an irony that is gentler, more appreciative of the purposes and aspirations of people just trying to Make it Through the Night.  There are even flashes of humor--not all, I think, unintended.  One thing you get here which I suspect you don't find in the Wisconsin book (I haven't laid eyes on that one for years) is a good deal about black life.  These stories of black life include many instances of humiliation or worse, but a fair amount of simple dignity and self-possession.  And there's this (I take it to be a black man speaking):

I got a job bellhopping at the Seelbach Hotel...You didn't make no money.  You had to pay the head bellman fifty cents a day to let you work.  ... The hotel didn't pay us nothing.  The people would tip us a dime, maybe fifteen cent, never hardly got a quarter for a tip. . .  I was working at the hotel when Graham Brown, the  man who built the Brown Hotel, stopped in the Seelbach during Derby Week; and he was cutting pillows and throwing them out on Fourth Street.  So the man that owned the hotel, Otto Seelbach, sent the houseman up there and told him that he he didn't quit cutting and throwing them pillows out on Fourth Street--see they were flying from Walnut Street all the way down to Fourth and Broadway--that he was gonna put him outa the hotel. And Graham Brown told this houseman, he say, 'You go back and tell Otto Seelbach that he ain't got nothing but a dump to live in, and five years from today I'm gonna have a hotel in this town.'  And the next year, he built the Brown Hotel.
--Michael Lesy  Real Life 140 (1976)

That's J. Graham Brown up topside, note from Lesy's book.  A bit of Googling tells me that both the Seelbach and the Brown names survive on Louisville hotels, though I bet they look different today than they did then.  I had my first Louisville job interview in the fumed oak chophouse at the Brown (from Bob Crumpler, then assistant city editor of The Louisville Times;  I understand he died last year, at 92).  My daughter had a brown teddy bear; sometimes her parents called him J. Graham Brownbear.


dilbert dogbert said...

" Wisconsin Death Trip,"
Do you have any advice on how to prepare yourself for reading WDT? Sounds sort of like taking up reading about Hitler vs Jews as beach reading.

Anonymous said...

i was in the newsroom with jack some of those years and later i worked in a democratic campaign (henry ward for gov, wendell ford for lt gov) as full time staff and we headquartered in the old seelbach, seventh floor. rented the whole floor for the runoff campaign. i dont have as depressing memories of louisville as jack does. ky politics was fascinating and it was my beat. glad crumpler lived to old age of 92 -- vicissituded of city desk must not have debilitated him.

Buce said...

I have allowed myself to be misunderstood! I had some wonderful times in Louisville, not least in the city room of /The Louisville Times/, and fond memories of Bob Crumpler (I think he always thought I was a bit full of myself, but he might have been right). I also think Lesy overdoes it; but the point is if there are any bad things to remember about Louisville, Lesy will remind you.