Camelot, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the End of Innocence

CubanMissileSplashimage1The media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been inescapable these past few weeks. Much has been made of our nation’s loss of innocence when Camelot came tumbling down, but if I had to choose a pivotal event that triggered my disenchantment in that era, it would be the Cuban missile crisis the year before, in October of 1962, when Kennedy and Kruschev played a game of brinksmanship that brought the world close to nuclear annihilation. 

I was a junior at Barnard that fall, living in an apartment on West 110th Street a few blocks from the Columbia campus and deeply in love with the man who would later become my first husband. I didn’t own a television. With the limited programming available back then, I considered it hip to do without, and my extensive collection of jazz LPs more than sufficed for entertainment. 

But I remember spending days with my boyfriend, glued to the radio, in a panic that the world was about to be blown to smithereens. Before it did, I was desperate to get married. Why this seemed so critically important, I can’t recall – I wasn’t religious, and we’d been lovers for over a year already. After nearly two interminable weeks, the crisis passed, and we remained single for the time being, but the emotional turmoil of that time remains vivid in my memory. 

I was a senior by the time Kennedy was killed the following year. I came out of a medieval art history class, where I’d been looking at black and white slides of sarcophagi in a class taught by an elderly lady professor nicknamed “the Barnard coffin,” into the venerable marble halls of the lobby, where everyone was in an uproar about the shooting. I hurried back to my apartment; by the time I got there, he’d been declared dead.  

I was shocked and saddened, but by then my “innocence” was already lost, and the assassination didn’t have the emotional impact of the Cuban missile crisis the year before. And I still didn’t own a television. As the child of two journalists, I was loyal to the print media, and the iconic still photos of the killing and its aftermath soon found their way into the imagery of my paintings.  

World's Fair - Flushing Meadows, NY 1964

World’s Fair – Flushing Meadows, NY 1964

Actually I had never expected to live till 1963. Like the rest of my pre-Boomer generation, I grew up with school civil defense drills, where we were taught to take shelter under our puny wooden desks, and with talk of bomb shelters and nuclear holocausts. Back in the late 1950’s, when there was talk of a World’s Fair planned for 1964 in New York City, I thought the idea was absurd – we’d all be nuked into oblivion by then. But the World’s Fair came to pass, and my husband and I visited as newlyweds. 

So all this talk about the loss of Camelot innocence is nothing but doggy doo doo, in my opinion. Even so, there was a special aura about the Kennedys. Though I didn’t watch them on TV, I did see Jack Kennedy twice in person. In 1956, my mother and I were in the audience at the Democratic National Convention, because she was “Madly for Adlai” –

Jack Kennedy in Chicago, 1956

Jack Kennedy in Chicago, 1956

Stevenson, that is. JFK came very close to winning the nomination for Vice President, and his gracious concession speech made him an overnight sensation. Like so many others, my mother was instantly smitten by his eloquence and good looks, and she rightly predicted we’d be seeing a lot more of him. 

My second sighting of Kennedy occurred in the Harvard Yard when I was a sophomore at Radcliffe. By now he was President, and word got out that he was on campus for a Harvard Board of Trustees meeting. A crowd gathered near the John Harvard statue outside Memorial Hall, and we were eventually rewarded by the sight of JFK descending the steps and waving a greeting before he was spirited away.

John Harvard, by Daniel Chester French

John Harvard, by Daniel Chester French

It was a cold winter day, as I recall, sunny with snow on the ground, with a thrilling sense of optimism and potential, and although the event isn’t graven in my brain like all the horrific images that came later, I prefer to remember Jack Kennedy the way he looked that day in the Harvard Yard.

Kennedy with flag

 

 

Lou Reed’s Graceful Exit

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Lou Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson describes his death on October 27th:

Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed 2002He didn’t give up until the last half-hour of his life, when he suddenly accepted it – all at once and completely. We were at home – I’d gotten him out of the hospital a few days before – and even though he was extremely weak, he insisted on going out into the bright morning light.

As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.

You can read the full interview by clicking on the following link:

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/laurie-andersons-farewell-to-lou-reed-a-rolling-stone-exclusive-20131106#ixzz2kYzUEW8k

Lou Reed

What a beautiful description of an ideal way of dying, and what a contrast to people’s expectations at the height of Lou Reed’s fame in the early 1970’s, when he and Keith Richards were at the top of the lists of rock stars most likely to die next. As they grew older, both reportedly cleaned up their acts, abandoning the outrageously drug-addled ways of their youth. Against all odds, Lou made it to 71, and Keith will turn 70 this December. (May he rock on for many years to come!) 

Keith Richards

Keith Richards

No doubt it was their passion for music, along with the long-term love of good women, that sustained them into old age. Since Lou Reed’s passing, I’ve read many tributes to his music and his seminal influence on rock musicians from punk to grunge and beyond. I’ve got nothing to add in that regard – truth be told, I wasn’t a huge fan – but all the eulogies call up vivid memories of the place and time we shared – lower Manhattan in the late 60’s and early 70’s. 

Though I never met Lou Reed, I did meet his early manager, Andy Warhol, one night on the corner of St. Marks Place and the Bowery. We’d paused for a red light, and somehow we struck up a conversation. Looking inscrutable behind his dark glasses, Andy asked where I was from, gave me what amounted to a mini-interview, but evidently decided I didn’t pass muster as a potential Chelsea girl, because we went our separate ways. 

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

This was the late 60’s, and no doubt I was on my way to or from the Fillmore East to hear Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead or some other band I found more musically exciting than the Velvet Underground, who were still very much under the radar of FM rock radio. Reading about Lou Reed in Rolling Stone, I realize I may have heard him in an early incarnation of the Velvets, because they used to play live accompaniment for experimental films in the small grubby theaters I frequented. If I did hear him, he didn’t make much of an impression. 

But he did impress me in the late 90’s at a concert in Bethel, New York, site of the original Woodstock Festival. On a makeshift temporary stage, he shared a bill with Joni Mitchell and Donovan – all artists I admired but had never heard live, and all marvellous. Typically, he dressed entirely in black and kept his dark glasses on throughout the performance – a cool hipster, not unlike Miles Davis with his shades in nightclubs in the 50’s. (Now I’m really dating myself, but hey, I’m only a year older than Lou Reed.) 

After the concert, I wandered around in pitch blackness searching for my car in the abandoned fields, an experience far removed from the festival I lived through and showed my paintings at three decades before. The Bethel Woods arts center now occupies the site, but I haven’t yet been back.  

In my Nia class this morning, near the end of the routine, our teacher guided us in moving our energy up through the chakras, through the belly and heart to the head. Afterwards, I told her about how Lou Reed died doing tai chi, and recommended she look up the article, but she was only vaguely aware of who he was. (She was born in 1964, the year I finished college.) 

Nonetheless, whenever I’m absorbed in a practice that involves moving my energy up through my body, I’ll remember Lou Reed and the way he died in a state of grace.