Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
8532 words
SHJ Issue 11
Winter 2015

Remembering the Sixties: A Conversation with Robert Gover
(2 November 1929–12 January 2015)

by Thomas E. Kennedy

On January 13, 2015, in the White Lamb (a two-century-old serving house in Copenhagen), I met a young publisher from Harlem in New York City who told me, inter alia, that he had just discovered Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, the best-selling novel published by Gover in 1961. The young publisher, named Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press, said that he loved OHDM. Earlier that day I had been informed by Christopher Klim, a great friend of Robert’s, that Gover, “the last handhold of the spirit and passion of the 1960s” had died the day before at the age of eighty-five. Sorrowfully I conveyed the information to Ross, but thought how pleased Gover would have been to be discovered by yet another new generation.

I recall how welcoming Robert had been when I approached him about a dozen years before and unashamedly identified myself as a long-term fan. I had never dreamed when I read his novels in the ’60s and beyond that I would actually meet him. Not only did I meet him but he was overwhelmingly generous in sharing his memories, knowledge, and experience; his critical judgment; his support; and his friendship.

The following conversation was conducted by email before I actually met Robert. However, I met him in person and his wife Carolyn on several occasions afterwards, and dined with them. I cherish the memory of each of those meetings.


In celebration of the republication of Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding (Hopewell Publications: Titusville, New Jersey; 2005; 225 pages; $15.95)

An added pleasure to my rediscovery in 2006 of Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, reissued by Hopewell Publications in 2005, is that, thanks to the wonder of electronics and the fact that I knew the publisher, I also found myself in an email conversation with Robert Gover, between Delaware and Denmark. Then 77 years old, Gover was 15 years my senior and, to my delight, willing to answer questions about his experience of those seminal years in American cultural history of the 1950s and ’60s when writers like Henry Miller (1891-1980), Terry Southern (1924-95), Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), “Maxwell Kenton” (a.k.a. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg), Joseph Heller (1923-99), Ken Kesey (1935-2001), Jack Kerouac (1922-69), J. P Donleavy (1926- ), Warren Miller (1921-66), Elliott Baker (1922-2007), Ken Kolb (1926- ), Bob Dylan (1941- ), Jim Morrison (1943-71), Hunter S. Thompson (1938-2005), Ishmael Reed (1938- ), and Robert Gover himself, with his One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding (1961), were helping to chase with laughter the American terror of communism as well as its sexual, linguistic, and racial hypocrisy.

Ronald Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War in the 1980s, but Kubrick’s and Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove had already done the lion’s share of that work in 1964 by making us laugh ourselves sick over Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper who feared nothing so much as the commie-inspired fluoridation of children’s ice cream and the profound sense of depletion that followed an alliance with a woman; or Keenan Wynn’s Colonel Bat Guano, who accuses Peter Sellers’s Wing Commander Mandrake of trying to organize a mutiny of “preverts.” By the time we finished laughing, following Slim Pickins’ Colonel King Kong waving his Stetson hat as he rides an A-bomb down to its Russkie target, we were no longer afraid of the bomb—as the film’s subtitle had promised—Dr Strangelove—Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb!

Similarly, Robert Gover’s 19-year-old white college boy, J.C. Holland, and 14-year-old black prostitute, Kitten, make us laugh—mostly because young Kitten knows so much more of life than J.C. (“College guys like I will be leaders of the entire free world one day”). J.C., who fears intellectuals as “eggheads” and who doesn’t know the difference between foreign affairs and national defense, sees the most pressing need in America as taxes to pay for adequate armaments. The joke here is that the self-serious, self-righteous J.C., who considers himself a great salesman and a great lover, even with a pistol in his hand, is outwitted twice by the “hoes,” with young Kitten in the lead. “Good grief!” thinks J.C., wondering if he will have to use the pistol. “Think of the scandal!” And Kitten ponders, “All whitemen stupid.”

My first question to Robert Gover was which of my literary heroes of those days he had known.

Robert Gover: I made a list and was immediately struck by how many of the ones I knew are now among the Silent Majority: Henry Miller, Jim Morrison, Hunter Thompson, Walker Percy, Nelson Algren, James Dickie, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin...

Back around 1958, I sent Henry Miller a letter asking about moving to Big Sur—would that be a good place for a striving novelist such as me? He wrote back saying, “We must each find our own Big Sur.” When he read the British edition of my first novel and raved about it, he did not recognize my name, so when we met and I reminded him of that letter I’d written him, we were both amused by the coincidence. He was in his 70s then. The last I saw of him, he was jogging down Fifth Avenue to grab a taxi to the airport, on his way back to Big Sur.

During the 1950s, I had also admired the works of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, but had no contact with either till my first novel came out. Gore Vidal’s comments about it in his regular column for Esquire Magazine gave it a tremendous boost. The publisher, Ian Ballantine, took me to visit Vidal at his family estate north of New York City along the Hudson River. This was back when Ballantine Books was Ian, his wife Betty and an editor named Bernard Shir-Cliff. Gore trudged up from the basement to serve us wine and cheese. He explained that he was broke and living in the basement to save money, and pestered Ian about reissuing his earlier works. Gore and I exchanged some banter and then discussed a sit-up board sold by Abercrombie and Fitch. You could carry it around in a suitcase and workout in hotel rooms. Gore dubbed it the “Paul Newman Memorial Sit-up Board,” as Newman was shown using it in the movie, Sweet Bird of Youth. Gore said he was embarking on a series of historical novels and was happy to be leaving Hollywood behind. But he would soon return to LaLa land for another shot of cash.

Thomas E. Kennedy: You and Norman Mailer both were pressured by your publishers to transform your “fucks” to “fugs.” Did you and he ever meet and discuss that?

Gover: Yes, we did. I met my hero Norman Mailer at a PEN cocktail party and was immediately knocked back on my heels when he went into a boxer’s stance and told me it wouldn’t be easy to take his title. He executed some fancy footwork and flicked out a few faux jabs and, when I didn’t join in the sparing, accused me of being psychologically armored. Actually, I was so awed by his presence that I was incapacitated. Together we knocked down a few drinks and had a few laughs. He invited me to call him in Brooklyn but, I later realized, didn’t give me his phone number.

I met James Baldwin through a mutual friend, Dan Rosen. Baldwin had just published The Fire Next Time in the New Yorker and was becoming famous for revealing the unconscious racism in well-meaning Liberals so Rosen warned me I was in for a rough time. But Jimmy and I got along wonderfully well. We exchanged admiration for each other’s works, then discovered we both had royalty income stalled in escrows while lawyers were running up big billable hours. What I recall most clearly is Jimmy strongly advising I move to Paris or somewhere outside the US. Any novelist whose stories attacked the American status quo, he believed, was much better off living abroad.

Around this time, I met the young Bobby Dylan, then on the cusp of becoming famous. We were introduced by a journalist (whose name I do not recall) who was interviewing me when Bobby walked into the White Horse Bar in Greenwich Village. This was before “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a huge hit. Bobby and I wound up going out to dinner together at an upscale Spanish Restaurant, where he pulled out his guitar and began singing a song he was working on. The maitre d’ kicked us out. To finish dinner we went to a less upscale eatery and shared spooky tales from the dungeon where pain and mystery marry to produce the magic of inspiration. We speculated about where inspiration came from, and later that evening, Bobby took me to a basement club featuring folk singers. He’d been telling me about a song his record company excluded from his first album, “Masters of War,” and at one point, jumped up on the stage to sing it. When Bobby got down from the stage and the regular show continued, his manager Albert Grossman, appeared and gave him a royal scolding. Grossman was struggling to get Bobby well-paid gigs and did not appreciate his spontaneous free performance. We drank and talked late into the night and started breakfast the next day, around noon, with wine. We agreed to keep in touch but later, when I wrote him a note from Florida, it came back: Addressee Unknown. I later learned he’d moved out of the Village to Woodstock.

Kennedy: When your One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding finally caught on in the US, following its success in Europe, that must have been wonderfully vindicating for you. Suddenly you were a “star.”

Gover: The book caught on but I was still unknown. When I went to do one of my first book signings, I was told by the bookstore owner that I was not Robert Gover, that Robert Gover was a lanky black guy, a sharp dresser with a porkpie hat and had just dropped by and signed some books. I had to produce identification and call Grove Press to verify. I had purposely not sent Grove an author’s photo. I knew that using alternating first person viewpoints meant some readers were going to assume the story was autobiographical. I was trying to emphasize that I was neither the white boy nor the black girl in the story, that I made the whole thing up. The idea that a novelist could invent characters came as a shock to some literal thinkers.

Kennedy: In a recent book by Stephen Davis (Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, 2004), I read about some of your exploits with Jim Morrison. What you experienced in Las Vegas with Jim sounds pretty frightening.

Gover: I had not heard of Davis’ book until you mentioned it. I’m out of the loop here in what is sometimes called “slower, lower Delaware.”

Kennedy: Me, too, in “little Denmark,” although it was a Danish bookseller who gave me the Davis book in thanks for my giving a public reading at his store.

Gover: Davis scrambles some facts. The overall story is close enough but some of the specifics are off. We met in a restaurant in LA, not NY. I lived in a house on the beach in Malibu, not an apartment. It had eight doors and we used to leave all eight unlocked. Jim liked to put in surprise appearances. Like we’d come in and find him sitting at my desk picking over whatever I’d be writing.

Kennedy: J. P. Donleavy told a similar story about Brendan Behan. How Behan broke into Donleavy’s cottage when he was away, drank his liquor, ate his food, and started editing the manuscript of Ginger Man, signing every page on which he made changes. But Donleavy—who refers to himself as “one”—said, “One was quite annoyed, but when one got over one’s annoyance, one found oneself accepting several of his edits.”

Gover: With Jim, we might wake up around 4:00 a.m. hearing a prowler—Jim raiding the refrigerator. Or I’d be upstairs at my typewriter and feel eyes on my back, turn and find him peeking over the deck of the upper balcony, having chinned himself to this position, hanging precariously by white-knuckled hands waiting for us to do something because there was a three-story fall to the beach below. Whatever we’d planned for the day would be arrested by such a show-stopper as that so we’d usually light up a joint, go for a walk on the beach, cavort, talk.

And contrary to the Davis account, we did see each other after the trip to Vegas. Jim came to a party we threw in the Malibu house and lit up the guests by getting a blowjob in the moonlight on the deck just outside the big picture window. I did not include the blowjob in my article, and there are other things I left out because the point I wanted to make was that although Jim was wild he also had a load of talent and was a surprisingly brainy, philosophical, well-read guy.

The way I’d met Jim was that The New York Times Sunday Magazine editor called and asked if I’d do a story on the lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison. I jumped at the chance. “Light My Fire” was a radio hit at this time, and I was wowed by it. A luncheon with Jim and The Doors’ management was arranged. We sat around a huge round table in a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. The “suits” did all the talking. Jim sort of glowered from the far side of the table till we were on our way out, and he asked if I’d like to take a walk. Soon Jim was asking me how he could get a book of poems published. I invited him to brunch at my Malibu beach house the next day and he brought along a cute young groupie, and we loosened up and talked and I learned his version of The Doors’ history, and that they had just fired the management team I’d met the day before. The Times called to ask how the project was going and inform me that Jim was “a creation of his management.” I said that didn’t make sense, for he was an amazingly free spirit. They decided I’d been misinformed and took me off the assignment, but Jim kept coming out to the beach house, and we had some long and memorable conversations late into the night about the nature of art and commerce. Perhaps our favorite topic was who really “owns” a work of art. The ones who “packaged” and got it out to the public? Or those who responded, absorbed it into their beings, “ate” it as a delicious aesthetic delicacy? What made Jim so special to me was his amazing grasp of profound concepts in his early twenties. But you always had to be on guard. One night he suddenly rushed the turntable, yanked the freshly released second Doors album off, smashed it to the floor and proceeded to stomp it with his boots. I told him he should destroy his copy of the album, not mine. That put us into a philosophical nuthouse for hours which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

My girlfriend Beverly Mitchell and I went to some Doors’ concerts as his guest, and we talked about collaborating on a screenplay of my novel, The Maniac Responsible (1963). Jim wanted to play the lead role and direct as well as co-author the script. At this time, Maniac had been optioned to a famous producer—it would eventually be optioned numerous times without ever making it to the big screen. It got to be customary for Bev and me to wake up and find Jim asleep on our big leather living room couch, having devoured the contents of our fruit bowl sometime in the wee hours. I was about 15 years older than Jim, but my lesser literary fame was nothing compared to the pressure cooker his rock-star fame was fast becoming. Years later I wrote that article about how Jim and I got arrested in Las Vegas, the one Davis apparently got hold of. Sad to say, the last time I saw Jim he was miffed because I would not agree to go to Europe with The Doors and write a book about it—I declined because I had to finish a novel I was working on. I sometimes wish I’d dropped the novel and gone on the tour but Jim was a difficult, bipolar kind of guy to hang out with.

Kennedy: According to the account in the Davis book, you were both bailed out literally at the eleventh hour, just in time to avoid getting bashed by the night shift in the Vegas town jail.

Gover: Yes, Bev got us out just in time over Jim’s protests that he wanted to file charges for false arrest. I published a detailed account of that evening in the Santa Barbara News & Review on March 19th, 1981—mainly to correct the misrepresented version of Jim in Jerry Hopkins’ and Danny Sugarman’s book, No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Kennedy: Speaking of Vegas, I cannot help but think of the great Hunter S. Thompson.

Gover: I first met Hunter Thompson while in Washington, DC, to write a piece about the antiwar movement for an underground newspaper, Art Kunkin’s LA Free Press. A group of us “offbeat” journalists gathered at the home of Dan Greene, feature writer for the National Observer. We sat around Dan’s dining room table, laden with whiskey and pot. Hunter arrived late, and soon had us breaking up with laughter as he described his taxi ride out of DC to Dan’s house in Bowie. At first, his description (“I had to rip open the bastard’s throat and gouge out his eyes”) was a bit unnerving, coming from this big guy who looked like a Nazi Storm Trooper in casual sports clothes. But we quickly realized that Hunter liked to embellish his tales by using blood and gore as hyperbolic metaphorical adjectives and adverbs. He then produced a bottle of ether and a box of poppers, explaining that you could buy these over the counter so there was no need to indulge in such illegal substances as marijuana.

The last time I saw Hunter, he’d called repeatedly the afternoon I was packing up a houseful of furniture to move, saying he was with the Malibu Sheriff’s Department and was coming to investigate. He arrived around 2 a.m. with his entourage, including his famous Gonzo lawyer buddy. I’d been asleep about an hour, snug with wife and new baby son, when the lights went on and here’s Hunter yanking my arm, telling me I had to get up and party. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to remember when they all left, but the next evening we did gather around the pool of a motel on Pacific Coast Highway—Hunter, his Gonzo guy and me. The motel management woke me the next day with the news that our beer cans littering the pool area were not appreciated. Hunter and Gonzo were gone, and I did not hear from him till years later, when he called from his lair in the Colorado mountains to discuss the fine points of paranoia.

Kennedy: You mention having met Raymond Carver?

Gover: I met Ray Carver at the home of Noel Young, publisher of Capra Books in Santa Barbara in 1973. He and his wife Judy had a brunch one Sunday morning for half a dozen of Capra’s writers. I’d read a book of Carver’s short stories and could see that he was very talented, an original. The “headliner” that day was a guy Kerouac wrote about in On the Road, Alan Watts, Zen philosopher. He did hatha yoga exercises on the kitchen bar. I had a more in-depth conversation with him. I had a hard time recalling his name just now because later that night, a couple of girls who liked to notch their belts with famous names balled him, even though they said he was “reluctant,” and shortly after that he died of a heart attack.

Around this time I met Walker Percy. The mother of my two sons is from Mandeville, Louisiana, and we’d gone down there to visit her parents, and I had lunch with Walker Percy, who lived nearby. We ate at a bar and restaurant fronting Lake Ponchatrain—I think the name of the restaurant is, or was, Bejack’s. The owner decorated the walls with book jackets by local authors and of course Walker’s The Moviegoer was prominently featured. He was elderly at this time but twinkle-eyed and spry. I told him I admired his novel Love in the Ruins and we exchanged horror stories about dealings with publishers.

Kennedy: Who else did you get to know around that time of the writers who helped make it possible for people to come out from the shadow of the censor?

Gover: Back in New York, before I moved to the West Coast, I hosted Nelson Algren in my apartment for a couple of weeks. He’d had the movie rights to Man with the Golden Arm stolen from him and used the money he’d made from Walk on the Wild Side to pursue a trans-Atlantic law suit that came to nothing—when his money ran out, his lawyers quit working. Some years later we met again at a writers’ conference in Colorado and hung out with James Dickie. The three of us watched each other’s backs at social events when college English department people liked to deliver putdowns of us, one at a time. This was just before the publication of Dickie’s Deliverance, and he was looking at Algren and me like the cat who’d swallowed the canary. Later I guessed he’d already made the movie deal but wasn’t telling us.

The editors at Grove Press introduced me to a number of their authors, but the writers I saw the most of were Native American novelist Hyemeyohsts (Chuck) Storm (Seven Arrows, Lightningbolt), Lennox and Maryanne Raphael (whose book about their interracial marriage, Garden of Hope, is out from Hopewell), Walter Bowart (author of the CIA-banned book, Mind Control) and novelist and poet Ishmael Reed, who pioneered the East Village Other with Walt Bowart.

In 1964 Lennox and Maryanne were a spectacular “mixed” couple, he from Trinidad, she from Ohio, and both bright with promise. It was hard to believe that Maryanne had won the Sorbonne’s first prize for a novel in French written by a foreign student, for she was built like a ballerina and glamorous as a magazine model. Lennox wrote an off-Broadway play, Che!, in which the US President and Che Guevara dialogue in the Oval Office, in the nude, moderated by a nun, The Sister of Mercy. The President speaks in advertising slogans, Che in political slogans. At the opening, I sat next to David Merrick, the famed Broadway producer. Che! had a surprisingly long run off Broadway even though Lennox was arrested and tried for obscenity. You must know Lennox—he now lives in your city, Copenhagen.

Kennedy: I had the great pleasure—through your introduction!

Gover: Lennox, Ishmael, Walt Bowart, and I spent a memorable Sunday afternoon at the home of poet Walter Lowenfels, who’d shared a prize with e. e. cummings but had been dumped by the literary establishment because he’d taken a job with the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper. He was broke and needed income. Later he was raided by an FBI swat team in the wee hours, during which his wife Lillian suffered a stroke that paralyzed her right side. Walter’s neighbor Pete Seeger came by and played some of his songs, and I hatched the idea to do an anthology of Lowenfels’ works. With his stories from the 1930s and 1940s, Lowenfels was a literary father figure to many during the Sixties.

Ish Reed and I shared an interest in Voodoo (which he liked to call hoodoo and spell a variety of ways).

Kennedy: You wrote a nonfiction book about voodoo—Voodoo Contra: Contradictory Meanings of the Word.

Gover: Yes, the word means “creator of the universe” or “energy that permeates the universe” in the original African tongue. One day while walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, talking voodoo, Ish and I heard something that stopped us cold: the first sounds of the first album made by Dr. John, resurrecting old New Orleans voodoo. We rushed into the record store and each bought a copy and tried to figure whether Dr. John was black or white. At the time, Ish was living in an unfurnished apartment, having upgraded from an East Village slum to a teaching job at UC Berkeley. He was teaching a course in black consciousness in American literature and invited me to put in a guest appearance, which got him in trouble with the department head because my skin is white. I had lunch with him and his wife, Carla Blank, in 2000, not long after he’d won what is called the MacArthur Genius Award.

Walt Bowart resurfaced in my life during the 1980s when we met at a writers’ conference in Monterey, and we hashed over the Sixties when the astounding happened so often it seemed commonplace. We congratulated each other for surviving those wild times and talked about becoming better adjusted to these more restrained times. Walt was making ends meet as editor of Palm Springs Magazine. I had just gotten together with Carolyn, now my wife of 20 years. Walt and I decided to take a trip down to Cochise country, the mountains of southeastern Arizona where he owned a piece of canyon-laced land, upon which we fantasized we might build something commercially viable. We drove down there in Walt’s SUV, leaving my car with his girlfriend Becky, and when we got back to his house near Palm Springs, we found that she had wrecked my Maxima by hot-rodding it off road, a kind of belated punctuation point to the Sixties.

Kennedy: I cannot help but think our paths must have crossed a time or two back then, although I was hopelessly unplugged in, a bewildered spectator, trying to learn to write, while practicing the art of hitchhiking and keeping out of jail.

Gover: I was bewildered too during the Sixties and often felt out of it. It’s likely that our paths did cross. I was about 10 years older than most of the activists I met but did not look my age so “passed” most of the time. In fact, the momentous events of those times were such that, when I went to the ’68 Democratic Convention street protests in Chicago, I decided to bring a movie camera in addition to scribbling notes. I bought an 8mm with a zoom lens and promptly found it was useless at night, and a hazard because Chicago policemen were ordered to whack cameras. I have a clear memory of seeing out of the corner of my eye a cop moving toward me with his club raised. I dodged the movie camera just in time, then ran. I put together a half-hour documentary and showed it to a film producer named Bob Story, and he promptly turned it over to government people who didn’t return it to me for months and only after I signed some kind of statement promising not to distribute it commercially. I made two copies. One was stolen from my house in Santa Barbara, the other years later from an apartment in Penns Grove, New Jersey, where I lived briefly. This was the late-1980s when I was betwixt and between, going through a variety of difficulties, and struggling to keep body and soul together. As a shorthand explanation, I sometimes tell people I stayed too long at the party of the Sixties, but that is an oversimplification.

Kennedy: You mentioned attending the Doors’ concerts. That must have been fantastic, especially being backstage, although I confess concerts give me earaches.

Gover: I was not a big concert fan and was mostly interested in Morrison’s talent and The Doors as a phenomenon. Going to rock concerts gave me a headache too and I fled when I could. Also, around this time I worked with a couple of not-so-famous friends, songwriter Bob Harvey and photographer Frank Mullen, writing and trying to get a musical produced, titled Us Them. Harvey had played with the original Jefferson Airplane. We never did manage to get the musical produced, and eventually we lost track of each other but in recent years both friends have kind of resurfaced in my life. Harvey, now retired from the Navy, has put together a group and is writing songs and performing again.

During the Sixties, I felt I was witnessing revolutionary change, that the country would never be the same—that’s how it seemed in California. When the dust settled around the mid-1970s, I was left feeling somewhat disoriented. Not only from dashed expectations but also from drugs and booze and too much promiscuous sex. I thought the money I made then would be enough to last me a lifetime, but it was blown away by a couple of wrong-headed decisions. I came out of the Sixties broke and an emotional wreck.

Kennedy: Who else from the Sixties impressed you? Who were the most impressive?

Gover: Well, two people of note were certainly Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. I attended the last House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hearing when their “street theater” antics turned that anti-democratic ritual into a farce. I was amazed, delighted, and fascinated in October 1967 by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and their merry band of pranksters, bent on an absolutely whacko project: “to levitate the Pentagon.” No one believed this was possible, of course, yet everyone found a role to play in this magnificent spoof. I flew East for the occasion and my friend Dan Greene introduced me to Abbie and the night before the big event we spent some hours walking the streets of downtown Washington, DC. Abbie led us into a sandwich shop for a bite to eat and by the time we left he had everyone there either confounded, collapsed in laughter, or both.

Top Pentagon officials, who directed the mightiest military the world had ever known, were totally undone by Hoffman, Rubin, and the estimated 50,000 demonstrators they brought together for the ha-ha levitation. The media turned out in force. Helicopters prowled overhead. Soldiers surrounded the Pentagon, faces frozen in deadly determination. Police cars zoomed back and forth on surrounding streets as throngs of people—many dressed in mythical costumes (witches, warlocks, voodoo priests, gremlins, Roman gladiators, etc.)—moved toward the Pentagon’s front entrance, having been prevented from surrounding it. The atmosphere was electric with slapstick magic.

Out of this day “Flower Power” was born, and the comedy was ordered continued by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which called before its august members Abbie, Jerry, and assorted other leaders of the antiwar movement. Jerry Rubin donned a Revolutionary soldier uniform for his appearance, and on another day carried a toy M1 rifle that frightened the guards, till they pounded him and captured the gun and discovered they’d been had.

I think it was on the second day of the hearing that Abbie pulled his most memorable spoof. He put on a USA flag shirt and left the hotel, crossed the street toward the entrance to the building where the hearing was being held, and was immediately assaulted by half a dozen cops, who tore that flag shirt off only to discover that he’d painted a Vietnamese flag on his back. They then grabbed him and strong-armed him down the side street, where a black police van was parked. They locked him in the van and were then distracted by demonstrators across the street, heckling them. During this distraction, a longhaired hippie type sneaked up to the police van and, circling it on his haunches, let the air out of each tire. So when the police turned back to their primary duty, they could not drive the van and had to call for backup.

Abbie’s lawyer, William Kuntsler, had him out of jail and back at the HUAC hearing by noon, as I recall, where he continued to work his slapstick witchcraft on those Kafkaesque interrogators, causing their power to disintegrate right before our eyes. How in the world could they deal with this Yankee Doodle clown, who worked a no-man’s land between crime and comedy? Who had, not long before “the levitation of the Pentagon,” rained down money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, causing another pandemonium. How could throwing money at stockbrokers be illegal? It seems no one was ever sure how much money Abbie and co. had thrown at the brokers, or even if their money had been US Treasury Notes or monopoly game currency. It didn’t matter. The act was worth a zillion words.

Abbie was an amazing genius, able to transform volumes of debate into one comedy act that sunk such institutions of oppression as HUAC in a single burst of laughter.

Kennedy: He was one of the Chicago 8, too, wasn’t he?

Gover: Yes, Abbie was one of the Chicago 8, or 7, after the judge muzzled Bobby Seale and then threw him in prison for four years for contempt. It’s getting arrested for the flag shirt and then Vietnamese flag painted on his back, the police van sabotage, that I remember best. I caught that sequence with my trusty 8mm movie camera. A sign of these times is that it’s very difficult to find online any account of his appearance before HUAC. Seems that’s been censored Soviet-style out of existence except for a piece written as a thesis by an LSU student of the performing arts. The censors missed that one.

I also caught with my movie camera live televised images of tanks rolling through the streets of Chicago summer of ’68 pushing a wall of barbed wire, mowing down demonstrators. Those images have also been destroyed or hidden, for they are not shown in contemporary documentaries about that event. Which is another reason I mourn the loss of that little documentary I made.

I have read some books about the Sixties and they have mostly been about headline people and events, whereas my own personal experience of the Sixties—my keenest memories—are of not-so-famous people and places and events. I joined an NAACP chapter in Gifford, Florida, and wrote a novella based on the happenings there, which my agent at this time, Scott Meredith, disappeared without a trace, saying he knew nothing about it, when I’d given him the rough copy at his request and he’d promised to have it typed up and returned to me for further work. It seems Scott Meredith (his business name) believed that novella would destroy my reputation because at the time I was viewed as a “comic writer” and this novella got into some unpublicized horrors of the racial situation.

Kennedy: Racism and xenophobia are on the rise in Europe these days, even in the Netherlands and Denmark, where 13% of the people have voted for a party that pushes decidedly xenophobic policies and does so rather successfully, working hand in glove with the majority party. Have you been to Europe recently?

Gover: I’ve been hearing about the rise of racism in Europe. My first thought is that xenophobia is a universal human affliction. My second thought is that this most recent outburst is happening during an opposition of Saturn and Neptune (structures threatened by erosion), and in the US there is a huge upsurge against the importation of cheap labor from south of the border, which of course has racist overtones as well as economic ramifications. People fighting each other protects the economic assumptions that grind down the poor. I hear the American soccer team has to move about Germany quietly, for there are many there who would like to express their anger at Dubya (at that time President Bush) by bashing the team. It seems we are into another season of xenophobia and I suspect it will get worse before it abates. Inside the USA now, there is nastiness between Democrats and Republicans, and between a growing number of the population against Congress and other branches of government because it’s glaringly obvious they are selling the people out to the big corporations. The way I see it, the atmosphere is very much like it was during the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War, when Pluto was last where it is now. My hope is that the media machine that manipulates public opinion will break down or be revealed for what it is and people will come out of this period ready to make democratic improvements.

I went to Amsterdam May–June 2005 to give a couple of lectures at the International Society of Business Astrologers convention, then visited Lennox Raphael and his wife Helga and daughter Papaya in Copenhagen and then showed my wife Carolyn Paris. I hadn’t been to Europe since 1970 and it had changed tremendously. Back in 1969 I was given a tour of Paris by a gal who’d been involved in the student uprising and that was an eye-opener. There were soldiers on the main street corners then and Parisians were in a surly mood, especially toward Americans, but on this last visit, the mood was cheerful and my wife and I were treated wonderfully.

Amsterdam seemed especially upbeat, the people healthy and happy. The Danes aren’t exactly as outgoing as the Dutch but they seemed in great shape too. As did the French and Germans. I admire the French—when their government threatens to pass laws detrimental to the general wellbeing, they strike en masse and shut down the country till the government relents. I would like to have gotten to Spain and seen the changes there, for I’d lived in Majorca during the last days of the Franco regime.

Kennedy: Can you tell something about that?

Gover: Well, I had a 3-book contract with Pocket Books which then merged with Simon and Schuster and my editor, Herb Alexander, was handed his head by the new boss of S&S who then promptly canceled the 50,000 hardback first printing of my novel Poorboy at the Party—even though it was featured on the cover of Publishers Weekly that week. Review copies had already gone out so he sent out notice to not review, that the book had been canceled. He eventually changed “canceled” to “postponed” and brought out an edition of 5,000 copies and then told me the book didn’t sell! He killed it. Later he canceled my contract and when I said, “Hey, that’s illegal,” he smiled and said, “So sue.” My agent, Scott Meredith, let me know that suing was not a viable option—it would cost millions that I did not have and the publisher had my life insured for $8M via a Canadian company. Scott advised I make myself scarce. Not long after that, I moved my wife and our newborn to Spain, Majorca, where the Guardia Civil was stationed every night at the head of the only road down to our place, an apartment in what had been an ancient watchtower. We took trips to various other places in Europe from Palma de Majorca, busiest airport in the world at that time, it was said. When we first landed there, we were surrounded by soldiers with assault weapons pointed at me. I was told not to be afraid, they were just trying to be good allies of the US. They confiscated my typewriter, tape recorder, camera, and a movie camera. They soon gave me back all but the movie camera. It wasn’t returned for several months. Then, just when I was thinking what a mistake I’d made choosing Spain, a reporter and photographer from the Balearic newspaper showed up to do a most flattering interview and photo, even though OHDM was banned in Spain then. So we settled into the apartment in Deya and made the best of it.

Kennedy: Did you have contact with other writers there?

Gover: Robert Graves was our neighbor. He and I used to meet each other taking walks, and occasionally we’d stop and chat, small talk. One early winter morning I went down the stairs to go out the front door and around into the stable under the apartment to get fire wood and was blinded by bright lights, which turned out to be those of a German TV crew filming Graves standing by my front door. They explained that it looked more like a place a writer would live than his more upscale home. Graves and I had a laugh about it, but the German director was on a tight budget and miffed. Graves joked that maybe they should shoot us chatting by my door, but I was wearing one of those heavy Arab pullovers against the cold, and he was nattily dressed with his huge-brimmed hat, and I had nothing to do with the story they were shooting. I got the firewood and watched the filming from my bedroom window.

We made friends in Majorca with the Blau’s, who were ordered out of the country ostensibly because Mrs. Blau wore miniskirts to the market each day, where she shopped with the locals. They were busted, their mail shut off, so we paid their way out, and we all flew to Copenhagen where he had a possible job waiting for him, teaching. He was a “radical rabbi.” I was very sick when we arrived in Copenhagen. The water in our tank in Majorca had been poisoned by a rat who’d taken the poison our landlord had set out, then crawled up into the water tank and died, and I had brushed my teeth with this water and became very ill. When we got to our hotel in Copenhagen, the desk clerk called a doctor who almost beat us to our room and then saw me through a rough illness, visiting daily. When I wanted to pay him something, if only a tip, he put up his hand and made a face. So Copenhagen has a special place in my heart, for I don’t know what would have become of me if I’d collapsed in Spain at that time.

Kennedy: You’ve written a book about economic astrology and I have the impression you are a serious astrologer. How have readers responded to that?

Gover: I wish I had what it takes to make economic astrology an entertaining read. But it’s a brain-strain. It’s outside our usual frames of reference and most well educated people have been convinced it’s superstitious nonsense, although they haven’t studied it or looked at the evidence. Those who have studied it—like one of the lecturers at Amsterdam who teaches physics at the U. of Moscow—have gone through major changes of mind. But because it combines mathematically precise astronomy with ancient pantheistic mythology to explain the findings, it is “neither fish nor fowl,” so most modern, rational intellectuals can dismiss it as “unscientific.” Each moment in cosmic time is unique—the planets of our solar system are never arranged exactly the same way twice—so scientific duplication is not possible. Yet there are definite correlations between planetary and economic cycles, which help explain how history repeats but does not duplicate.

Well, I seem condemned to explore these “outside the lines” kind of things: miscegenation, voodoo, and astrology as the most ancient and enduring way to predict future economic conditions. It doesn’t make a lot of money but it keeps the brain cells dancing.

Kennedy: What are your plans for the future—more fiction? I hear you have a novel coming out soon.

Gover: The novel was written in 1990. I didn’t think it was worth taking to New York because I had listened to editors there scoff at “old has-beens” coming to town with new books they’d just written. So I just put it in the proverbial trunk. Back in the mid-1980s when Carolyn and I made a move from California to New Orleans, we parked a lot of stuff with a very supportive neighbor but before we could get back to reclaim this stuff and cart it to our new place in NO, she up and married an Argentinian and moved. And her daughter, with no knowledge of who the stuff belonged to, had it all carted away to the trash heap. It contained notebooks full of my tour through places where voodoo is practiced under various cult names, plus a couple of novels and about three dozen short stories, a screenplay, and other writings. I had quite a few clips from the Sixties in that stuff, articles written for the East Village Other and the LA Free Press. I was devastated for quite a while but eventually saw it as a sign that I should either start over or quit writing entirely, and since quitting was hardly an option, given my nature, it meant start over. I had managed to bring with me one novel. I didn’t haul the novel out again till earlier this year when novelist Christopher Klim asked to look at it and brought it to Hopewell Publications. It’s titled On the Run with Dick and Jane, she being a 12-year-old runaway, he being a 63-year-old retiree recently widowed and not yet able to get SS and Medicare, and the illness of his late wife Mae has cost him two houses and his pension nest egg, and he still owes a pile of medical bills. Jane, it develops, is being pursued by “good church-goers” who have already pre-sold her to an Asian prostitution ring, and they are determined to retrieve her. I see their situations as symptoms of the disintegration of what once promised to become the best society on Earth.

Right now I am at a crossroads, it seems. In years past I made either too much or too little to pay into the Social Security fund, except for the years just out of Pitt when I worked as a journalist. I just sent off a query to Mother Jones Magazine to do an article about Iraq’s switch from dollars to euros to sell oil back in November 2000, and persistent rumors that Iran is building a bourse to do the same. Protecting the dollar, it seems, is the hidden reason behind Bush and co.’s aggressions toward both those countries. “Whoever controls the money, controls the world.” If Mother Jones wants this article, I will probably do more along this line. I have in mind one that would explore the power of public relations to shape public opinion to the will of the oligarchy that now owns and operates the US and other governments. My premise is that we are now on the cusp of either a new Dark Age or a revolution that will refine democracy and catapult us into a better world circa 2020. I see the contending forces as democracy versus the global corporate oligarchy.

You yourself, Tom, have done an amazing body of work. And neither of us are “the chosen” by the guys who run the US media corporations which own and control the marketing infrastructure for books, movies, news shows, entertainment, etc. It took me some years to realize there is an upside to being on the outs with them. We don’t have to try to conform to their wishes and expectations, which leaves us free to explore subjects and situations we might avoid if we were among their “stars.” Years ago, a publishing house executive called me a genius, and when I wondered out loud about that, since I had not proven myself yet, he let me know it was because of how much money one of my novels made. So if you make money for the merchant princes of today, you’re called a genius, and if you don’t, you’re called a failure. That’s how it is now but the only constant is change.

Kennedy: The fact remains that you were there and you made a difference, and One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding is a classic.

Gover: Maybe so. Who knows? The literary world has changed so much. I ducked out more or less in the mid-80s. At the 1985 PEN International Conference in NYC, I was given a left-handed kind of award: “Most Unsung Writer in the USA.” Not something I was eager to frame and hang on the wall. That conference was very strange, too. A lot of poets and novelists were banned from entering the USA by the State Department, but the People’s Republic of China had a very large and conspicuous contingency of around 100 all in the same black “pajamas” and wearing translation headsets. Norman Mailer was the effective MC, although I forget his official title. He took a lot of heat for the government’s nastiness toward so many “leftist” writers. The NY Times focused on Israeli authors as though the conference was all about them, while the conference itself ignored them to the point of shunning, which did not improve the overall mood. Kurt Vonnegut MC’ed the awards presentation and, during this long ceremony, got falling-down drunk on stage. It was like the CIA sprayed the area with xenophobia infection, for Latino writers applauded their own and booed everyone else, as did American black and women writers, and East Block country writers stomped and hissed, etc. All in all, it seemed more like a mud wrestling event. That’s how it was then. I’m scheduled to attend the next Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, among other things to attend a panel on your work, which is overdue—“A Lifetime of Literature.”

Kennedy: When the poet Mark Cox was asked if he was attending that panel on my work, Mark looked concerned and said, “I didn’t even know he died.”

Gover: Yes, that word “lifetime” does hit a nerve when one gets past age 60 but considering the alternative... Let’s see how different the 2007 AWP Conference is from the 1985 PEN Conference. Now, of course, the public mood has morphed into something other than it was then, and I don’t anticipate the AWP will be anything like that PEN thing. But, again, the only constant is change.


A footnote to this conversation: On March second, 2012, colleagues and friends gathered in Chicago to pay Robert Gover tribute at the AWP panel, “Robert Gover: A Life of Radical Realism.” Ironically, the event was held in the Hilton Hotel, which had housed the 1968 Democratic National Convention, forty-four years earlier, across from Grant Park which had been the scene of the clash on that occasion of 23,000 police and National Guardsmen with 10,000 protestors of the Vietnam War. Gover filmed the 1968 event, but his film was confiscated and stolen.

—Originally published in altered form in The Literary Review (Vol. 50, No. 2, Winter 2007) and reprinted later that year in Perigee (Issue 17); reprinted here by author’s permission


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury