Searching for Spencer Holst
Spencer Holst, a Greenwich Village storyteller who lent his energy to the burgeoning New York avant-garde scene in the 1960s and 70s, died of complications from emphysema on Thanksgiving Day of 2001, two months after the destruction of the World Trade Center turned his neighborhood into a bastion of panic and den of sorrow. I would not learn of his work until the following year, when I was a junior at the University of Southern California. That year, my friend Noah lent me a tattered copy of The Language of Cats, which he had found at the Strand in New York over spring break.
McCall published The Language of Cats, Holst’s first collection to be released by a major publisher, in 1971, nearly forty years after he had dropped out of his Toledo high school and moved to New York to write poetry. It’s a thin volume with a bright orange cover adorned with a cartoon picture of a grinning cat. Many of its stories had already been self-published by Holst in the collection 25 Stories, which he printed and bound with the help of his wife, the abstract expressionist artist Beate Wheeler, who also did his illustrations. The two sold copies of the book at performances of Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre for one dollar. At the time of its publication, Holst had already been performing these stories for friends and admirers, in churches, cafes, bars, and parks for at least three decades.
The stories in this volume are whimsical, often dealing with talking animals and surreal situations. They read like Aesop’s fables if Aesop had had access to psychedelic drugs (I have no evidence that Holst himself used psychedelics, though he was known to enjoy marijuana). Many times, like Aesop’s fables, they espouse morals; in “The Zebra Storyteller,” Holst teaches his reader the function of a storyteller. Usually these stories take an unexpected turn, as when Holst identifies the Santa Claus murderer as none other than his own little sister. They range in length from a few short paragraphs (“The Mona Lisa Meets Buddha”) to about nine pages (“The Language of Cats,” the book’s title story). These stories are fairy tales for adults, and I found reading them a return to the pleasure usually reserved for youthful readers, an escape I had forgotten.
Holst did not publish another collection until 1976, when Horizon released Spencer Holst Stories. The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award for this publication, which included an unfinished version of his longest story, “The Institute for the Foul Ball.” In commemoration of the book’s publication, he read this thirty-one-page story in its entirety at Carnegie Recital Hall in March. The book also included a section he called “Pleasures of the Imagination: 64 Beginnings.” As the name suggests, the pieces included here are not so much stories as they are fragments; they are like snapshots of striking scenes. The writer explains in his introduction that these beginnings are the product of “a different kind of writing”:
you sit down at the typewriter, just as before and write a beginning. But when it comes to writing more—nothing happens. You have many thoughts, your mind is aswim with phrases, but your hands don’t move toward the keys. Finally, you begin again, and write a new first line.
Though he had intended these fragments to become stories, when no stories materialized, Holst decided to go ahead and publish them anyway. I would come to learn that the bulk of his writing over the next decades would be comprised of such beginnings. Eventually he would publish many of them in the collection Brilliant Silence, which like his other later publications was released from the struggling independent publishing house Station Hill, run by his good friend and sometimes-collaborator George Quasha.
I continued to search for books written by Holst while making the rounds at my favorite used book stores in LA, and in the bookstore I worked at after I moved to San Francisco. I never did find much, however, and I didn’t think too much more about him until the summer of 2006, my third semester of completing my English M.A. at Boston College. I was taking advanced research in the summer semester because the general wisdom was that the demanding course was much more manageable in its condensed form, and the instructor, Robert, was rumored to be much cooler than the professors who taught it in the spring and fall. Our first major assignment was a complete annotated bibliography of works on or about an obscure writer, and I immediately thought of the strange orange book I hadn’t seen since college.
It turned out that Spencer Holst was almost too obscure. Despite the high-powered subscription databases at a university like Boston College, the first stop in a search this thorough is still Google. A Google search of Spencer Holst’s name will produce about 121,000 hits, but very little information. It’s easy to find obituaries, tribute sites, and some legitimate web publications of his writing, as well as links to his books on Amazon and the like, but one finds very little evidence of the breadth of his work. He had no archive and limited presence in the archives of others. My eventual completed bibliography yielded twelve books written by Holst, six stories published in magazines and anthologies, three books translated by Holst, and one critical review that I deemed the “most informative.” The vast majority of these works were out of print and unseen by me, as their annotation suggested. I would later come to find this bibliography pitifully incomplete.
Holst seemed to exist in a strange netherworld; he had devotees who insisted that his work had changed their lives, and in my research I found evidence of his association with some of the biggest superstars in all branches of the arts, yet he seemed to be well on his way into oblivion. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know, but my research was so frustrated by his absence.
Research can be addictive, and I was hooked. There comes a point in any successful project I undertake at which I am completely consumed by it, and it was a relief to feel this project overtaking me. On the phone with Adam, my boyfriend in San Francisco, I recounted every detail of the project and the difficulties I was having with it. It was his idea for me to look for Spencer’s widow.
Spencer and Bea met in 1959, shortly after she had moved to New York from Berkeley with her boyfriend, the sculptor Mark di Suvaro. It wasn’t long before he had moved into her apartment on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. Three years later, their son Sebastian Holst was born, and the family moved to Staten Island, where rent was cheaper and they could afford a larger home. They stayed there until 1970, when Bea’s application to reside in the newly opening Westbeth Artist’s Housing was accepted.
The west side’s new artists’ housing project, on the site of the former Bell Laboratories, was the most expansive and visionary of its kind. Designed by Robert Meier, who later received the Pulitzer Prize for architecture, the cavernous building looms at thirteen stories and still retains the air of its former, more scientific incarnation. The application process is rigorous, and the rents are adjusted on the basis of means. For the Holst family, Westbeth represented an opportunity to move back to Manhattan and to continue to pursue the art they loved. It was here that they would meet many of the artists with whom they would collaborate and mutually support through the next decades: the dancer Sally Gross, the composer John Cage, the concert pianist Grete Sullivan. Westbeth is where I found Bea Holst that summer; she was still living in the loft that she and Spencer had shared.
The first time I tried to call Bea, using a number for Beate Wheeler I had acquired through a Yahoo! People search, I reached the wrong party. The woman was rude and abrupt, and I hung up the phone feeling completely deflated. Though she had told me that she had never heard of Spencer Holst, I felt certain that I had been blown off. As hard as it had been to make that call, that first rebuff was almost enough for me to abandon the search entirely.
I didn’t, however, and on my second try I got the real Bea. She had a small, shaky voice, and received me with an attitude that was a mixture between exhaustion and relief. She was only 74, but on top of her husband’s death she had survived breast cancer and suffered from Parkinson’s, and many of her closest friends had passed in the last decade. The burden of Spencer’s possessions was far too heavy for her to bear, and since she hadn’t known what to do with his things, they had sat untouched and unorganized. She agreed with me that his possessions should be placed in an archive, but was reluctant to get involved, afraid that she would get dragged into a painful and laborious process. With a little coaxing, I managed to get her to agree to let me come to New York.
I had the perfect lead for my second class project, an annotated edition of a piece of writing by an author of our choosing. I had only a week and a half to complete the project, and the prospect of entering such uncharted territory was certainly daunting. While my classmates were digging through dusty archives and scouring Boston College’s databases, I boarded the Chinatown bus for the four-hour ride to New York.
Strangely, though Bea had not been able to touch Spencer’s things, I would come to find that she had an uncanny sense for where all of his papers and possessions were in the apartment. She guided me with relative ease to his manuscript, his correspondence, and the various fliers and posters promoting his readings that were scattered throughout the loft. I bought a digital camera and began taking pictures of some of the more delicate items. I copied pages of manuscript and put the copies in folders. When Bea showed me the remaining audiotapes and reel-to-reels of Spencer reading that were in her possession, I procured a portable tape recorder so that we could hear his melodic, rhythmic tellings. While we sifted through these her late husband’s effects, we talked, and she told me the story of their lives together. She put me in touch with Mary-Ella Holst, Spencer’s sister, and with Sally Gross.
For my project I selected a story that I was pretty sure had never been published. I had found and copied several different drafts of the story, which was in many ways a startling departure from the typical Holst piece. In it, a pair of geologists use fertility drugs and give birth to septuplets, four of whom die. Two of the remaining children grow up as identical twins, while the third is alike, but slightly different. One day, the entire family goes on a camping trip and the twins die from pneumonia that they contracted due to exposure to inclement weather. The piece is elegiac, dealing with loss and mourning in a way that his other work never began to do. I cobbled my notes from my interviews with Bea, Mary-Ella, and Sally together into an introduction and wove the most complete versions together from the manuscript pages I had procured from the loft. The finished project was hastily done and not as polished as the editions my classmates had created from their archival research. Perhaps I had not followed the assignment to the letter, but I felt I had contributed something more substantial and spent my time in a more meaningful way. I decided to return to New York for the last weeks of the summer, to continue to sort the Holst papers and begin to look for an archive to house them.
I had procured a bargain sublet in Brooklyn some blocks south of Park Slope, the only stipulation being that I would be cat sitting for the tenant while she traveled in South America. The studio apartment was on the third floor of a house occupied by three generations. Stacy didn’t believe in air conditioning, which was unfortunate since the lone window on the far end of the room provided no ventilation, and New York was seeing one of the worst heat waves in recent memory. The first night I stayed I went to a party on the roof of a warehouse in DUMBO. It was four in the morning by the time I left, and I fell asleep on the subway on the way home, waking up in Coney Island. When I finally arrived back at my sublet, the sun was out, and I slept blissfully. The second night, I found myself in bed at a more reasonable hour, but when I awoke the next morning I was covered in painful red welts. One of my feline charges, toward whom I had faithfully fulfilled all of my duties, had shat on the floor, and the apartment was sweltering. On the third night, despite the stifling heat, I wore my hooded sweatshirt and sweat pants to bed to protect myself from the ravenous bedbugs. I awoke with hands the size of baseballs and stinging feet. On the fourth day, I purchased a window unit for the room, which helped with the heat but not with the bedbugs. On the fifth day, one of Stacy’s friends came by to take the cats to a kennel and I vacated the premises.
I checked into the Millennium Broadway in Times Square, and took all of my clothes to a laundry service. Walking in and out of the hotel in my tank top with all of those swollen bites, I must have resembled a strung-out rock star. I found a new sublet at less than a bargain, on Tompkins Square Park, with two rooftop terraces.
For the next month, Bea and I combed the loft for her late husband’s belongings. We collected all the pages of manuscript, fliers, photographs, letters, and drawings that we could find. I purchased large moving boxes and we filled them. Bea wanted to handle every piece of paper, every photograph we found. Hearing her explain the personal significance of each item helped bring the past into clearer focus, but otherwise impeded our progress, a matter exacerbated by the fact that she only wanted me to come over for two hours a day. Sometimes I’d buy a pint of ice cream for us to share, or she’d offer me a bite of one of the desserts she was brought with her delivered lunch. Bea found my visits both emotionally and physically exhausting, but still we kept at it. My anxiety about our progress was heightened by my knowledge that the school year would be starting soon, and I felt that I had entirely too much time on my hands. I spent most of my days on my terrace, writing and playing poker on the Internet.
I sent an email to the Greenwich Village Historical Society, and was surprised by how overwhelmingly enthusiastic they seemed about helping me with the project. My contact there felt that their archive, which was small and dealt mostly exclusively with architecture, would not be the right fit for Holst’s collection, but she assured me that she was well connected with the archivists at NYU and Columbia and would petition them on my behalf. In addition, she suggested that we consider hosting some kind of event to raise community awareness about Mr. Holst, in the form of a reading or lecture.
One day while Bea and I were searching through the books on the shelves upstairs, looking for inscriptions, we found a neatly folded seven-page manuscript tucked between two volumes. It was unlike anything else that Holst had ever written, more lyrical, in the first person, and almost metaphysical; usually his stories read more like fables or parables. I photographed it and sent the pictures to Sebastian Holst, who responded with a thoughtful and insightful analysis of the piece, which he hypothesized had been composed in the latter decades of his father’s life. Much of the manuscript consisted of evolutions of the piece entitled alternately “Charlie Morrow’s Bracelet” and “Unpierced Pearls Strung,” his favorite choice for performing in his later life.
Like the “beginnings” published in Spencer Holst Stories, “Charlie Morrow’s Bracelet” was not a complete story, but was rather a sequence of sentences, each in its way telling its own story, each in a way somehow incomplete. In his later life, when his emphysema made it difficult to breathe, he began to do his readings with another reader, often Jennifer Farbar, the wife of his good friend, the actor Garry Goodrow. The two would alternate lines, and it was from this method of reading that Holst devised the concept of a “doublebook,” a book in two parts for two readers to read to each other. His stories were never meant to be read to oneself, but to be shared, and in the doublebook he found the solution to the problem of how to translate his verbal art to the written format, and, he believed, the solution to Station Hill’s financial troubles. Quasha declined to publish the doublebook, and Station Hill continued to flounder. Brilliant Silence, which was released in 2000, never enjoyed the notoriety of his earlier books, nor did The Zebra Storyteller, the definitive edition of Holst’s collected work, which Station Hill had published in 1993. Bea showed me boxes of books written by various Station Hill writers that Quasha had given to the Holsts to distribute. Most of them would be thrown away when Bea moved the next year.
Holst seemed acutely aware of the tenuous place occupied by a storyteller in the annals of history, and for this reason seemed constantly bent on reinventing himself and his art. The broad publication of Spencer Holst Stories and The Language of Cats had given him a taste of the recognition that was possible, and the inclusion of his stories in anthologies like the Norton’s Anthology of Fiction had shown him that his work was admired and in demand. Still, he and Bea struggled to make ends meet, and neither could be considered a household name. His frustration and uncertainty are palpable in his later manuscript.
After about a week, I followed up with my contact at the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, who told me that while the NYU archivist had declined to see the collection, Columbia would be happy to stop by and take a look at what we had. I convinced Bea to let me put in a few extra hours here and there so we would be ready to show the Columbia archivist the collection. Although this was only our first opportunity to try to place the papers, I would be leaving within days, and we both felt that Columbia might just be the perfect fit. We agreed that the collection should stay in New York if possible, and Columbia’s vast archive of beat writers included the papers of many of Holst’s intimates.
When I had finished showing the fragments we had gathered to Michael Ryan, Columbia’s head archivist, he appeared to agree with us. He shook my hand as we closed the last of the boxes and told me that Columbia would indeed be able to house the collection, but only if I could make myself available to them to work on it. It would take my depth of knowledge and understanding of the materials to make sense of what was otherwise an extremely disorganized assortment of ephemera, he explained. He mentioned their oral histories project as an additional resource we could use to chronicle Mr. Holst’s life. They would of course pay me for my services, but it wouldn’t amount to much. He said a sweet goodbye to Bea, shook my hand, and was off as quickly as he had come.
After he left, we stared at each other for moments in disbelief and elation. Not only had he agreed to take our collection, but he had just offered me a job on the spot.
The next day I got back on the Chinatown bus to go back to Boston with a feeling of triumph and accomplishment. I had saved Spencer Holst from oblivion.
Over the next four months, I talked to Bea a couple of times, but she always seemed surprised when I called, and always claimed that she had nothing to report. My interaction with Michael Ryan was even sparser and less yielding; we exchanged a couple of emails, and he explained that they would be unable to move on the collection until I was ready to return to New York. I noticed a profound change in his attitude from the day he had stopped by the loft and was unable to find specific answers to my questions about the status of the collection or the description of the job that awaited me. Time seemed to have frozen in New York.
I spent Christmas break in California that year, away from the harsh Eastern winters I had not adjusted to. San Francisco was wet, but warm. I had grown worried about the status of the Spencer Holst papers due to my fruitless correspondences with both Bea Holst and Michael Ryan, so I decided to schedule a personal meeting with Michael Ryan in January. I would fly to New York then take the Chinatown bus back to Boston, as I had grown accustomed to doing in my numerous trips between the two cities. I was apprehensive about meeting him since his emails had grown increasingly curt over the months, but I wanted some answers.
From the beginning, it was clear to me that our second meeting was not to be as affable as the first. I met Mr. Ryan in his office in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, on the 6th floor of the Butler Library on Columbia’s main campus in Morningside Heights. Immediately, he went on the offensive.
“So,” he said with a glint in his eye, “please tell me what it is you think is valuable about this collection.”
Before I knew what I was saying, the word unique had left my mouth, and I knew the battle was over. The best response I had been able to come up with was a word I taught my students never to use, a word that was vague and bland and completely inadequately descriptive. I was screwed.
As soon as I said it, Michael Ryan was all over my case. “Really?” he asked. “Have you ever done library research?”
The heat was rising in my face; I could tell I was being patronized. I began to stammer, barely able to control my anger. I could sense that Mr. Ryan was enjoying my discomfort, and I wondered if he had agreed to the meeting solely for the opportunity to humiliate me. “Of course I have,” I answered him.
The next fifteen minutes or so were the longest I’ve spent. The archivist ever so patiently explained to me that I was not a scholar, but a writer, and had no understanding of what made a collection worthwhile. His own interest in the material, he explained to me, stemmed from my fascination, as though he took some benevolent pleasure in indulging my fancy. I left seething, with all of my pressing questions left unanswered. I was full of doubt that Mr. Ryan was going to follow through with the promises he had made the previous summer, but still uncertain as to what Columbia’s intentions were.
I didn’t make it back to New York for an extended period until September of 2007, and while the boxes remained in the corner of the loft where I had left them, it was clear that our status with Columbia’s archive was now tenuous at best. Bea had rented another unit, still in Westbeth but smaller, cleaner, and higher, an apartment more suitable for a widow who had some difficulty moving around and caring for herself. Sebastian Holst had kept the loft downstairs for the month of September and suggested that I move into it while I created the finding aid and the biographical sketch that Michael Ryan had told me the collection would need before Columbia could consider its acquisition. I rented a car, packed up my desktop computer, my research materials, and some clothes, and drove into Manhattan.
I spent my first night back in the city on the floor of an apartment shared by my 20-year-old niece, Amanda, her girlfriend, and a boxer named Chloe. The loft wouldn’t be available until the following day, and even though my surroundings were cramped, I was glad to be around young people, away from the loft with its aura of dust, detritus, and decay. The next day I would have to schlep my belongings across Lower Manhattan to Westbeth, where the long and winding corridors and fluorescent lights always gave me the vague sensation of being trapped in an insane asylum.
Despite the gentrification that had changed the face of New York so drastically since the early 1960s, when the Holsts had lived in their first shared apartment on St. Mark’s Place, the Village is easily still my favorite part of the city. Hippies and beatniks no longer rule the fray, but the neighborhood still buzzes with trendy cafes, restaurants, and bars, and the importance of having been one of the most influential cultural centers of the country for a century still informs the general atmosphere. I was offered free rent in one of its most historical buildings, a building where generations of artists had contributed some of our most cutting-edge music, dance, theater, and writing. In many ways, my apprehension at moving to the loft made no sense.
I had work to do, however, and I didn’t know where to begin. Michael Ryan had already explained to me that I was a writer, not a scholar, and I was certainly no archivist. If I was going to do the job of one, I was going to need help. Over the course of the last year the archivists at Columbia had revised their relationship with my project from one of sponsorship to one of assistantship. They would provide me with sample finding aids and supplies, in the form of folders, pads, and boxes, but were unwilling to commit to accepting the collection. To my relief, my meetings were no longer with Mr. Ryan, but first with a young archivist named Leah and later with the curator of manuscripts, Susan Hamson. I lugged the heavy folders and boxes from Morningside Heights back to the Village, where they sat on the floor next to the unopened boxes. What had first seemed like discovered treasure to me now looked as it must have in Michael Ryan’s eyes, as boxloads of crap.
Every morning I walked to the deli on the corner to purchase an egg sandwich and a Diet Coke, which I would eat on a neighbor’s stoop while reading the New York Times. Sometimes I’d browse the shelves at the nearest bookstore; occasionally I’d walk down 6th avenue towards NYU and people watch. My niece, at whose apartment I’d left my heavy desktop computer, wasn’t answering my calls. I found a Red Sox bar not too far away and began watching playoff games there, even developing a friendly relationship with the bartender. And still the boxes sat.
My conversations with Sebastian Holst became increasingly antagonistic. Although he was in Ohio, and had never expressed any interest in the work that I was there to do before my arrival on the scene, he seemed to feel that he should have a controlling hand in the enterprises. We argued about what Columbia’s role in the project should be (by this time I had decided that their decided lack of interest indicated that even if they were to accept the collection, they were not, in fact, the perfect fit we had initially suspected). Oddly, we seemed to argue about the details of his father’s life; the information that I had gathered through my research and my interviews with Bea, Sally, and his sister Mary-Ella contradicted Sebastian’s remembrances and understandings, and my quest for the factual underpinnings of Spencer’s story seemed to create friction between us. As a liberal arts major, I had been conditioned to accept the murky truthfulness of history, and while I hated that I never felt very secure in the timeline I had tried to piece together for Holst’s life, I refused to accept his son as the final authority on any matter. And still the boxes sat.
The turning point came in late September with Adam’s arrival in New York. He had always been my go-to guy in stressful situations, and he came through for me in the clutch once again. I had done nothing for three weeks, but with his help the piles began to turn into neatly sorted folders, into sorted file boxes of folders, each with its own listing. Some nights he slept on the floor; in the afternoons, we’d walk to the upscale restaurant on the corner and eat ahi tuna burgers and drink three or four beers each.
In mid-October the Holst family surrendered the loft to Westbeth, to be rented to a new tenant in the following month. The racks of paintings that they’d built into the wall and the bed over it needed to be torn out, the chair that Grete Sultan had gifted them when Spencer became too sick to climb the stairs needed to be removed, and the entire unit needed a thorough cleaning before management could start to show it to prospective tenants. In the previous month, Adam and I had sorted and classified nine boxes and fifty folders of Spencer Holst’s legacy, including manuscript, proofs, letters, poems, obituaries, cards, drawings, newspaper articles, posters, paintings, and photographs. I hadn’t accomplished everything I had wanted to, the collection was still unplaced, there were friends I hadn’t spoken with, and the writing I had pursued was limited to the biographical sketch I’d appended to the finding aid. I had, however, accomplished something that had at one point seemed impossible to me.
In retrospect, the work that I did during the summer of 2007 was a beginning of sorts, much like the sentences and paragraphs that Spencer Holst plied at. So much remains to be done with the Holst papers and the Holst legacy, and I regret that I have allowed those boxes to sit and gather dust in the corner of Bea’s apartment and that I haven’t given her a call recently. I hope that someday the Holst papers are placed at a university, and I hope that someday I return to work on Spencer Holst’s life and writing. If I never do, however, my work over the course of those two years will stand alone as a testament to the power of the storyteller, my own snapshot of the scene of a small, animated man swaying as his captive audience sits hushed, waiting for his next words.