A snapshot in time: Looking back at a 50-year-old photograph showing the glories and shortcomings of Santa Cruz’s literary scene

Many in Santa Cruz's literary community gathered together for a photo at the Cooper House in the spring of 1973
Many in Santa Cruz’s literary community gathered together for a photo at the Cooper House in the spring of 1973, including the irrepressible poet and publisher George Hitchcock (bottom right in hat). The faces in the photo include: (window, left side, from left) Steve Levine, Victor Perera, Jim Hall, T. Mike Walker; (window, right side, from left) Peter Beagle, Robert Lundquist, Morton Marcus, Anne Steinhardt, James D. Houston; (standing, from left) William Everson, Mason Smith; (seated, from left): John Deck, Lou Mathews, Nels Hanson, George Hitchcock.
(Via Gary Griggs)

From the vantage point of a half-century later, Wallace Baine examines an image shot in 1973 on the steps of the now-demolished Cooper House, tracing the paths of George Hitchcock, William Everson, Morton Marcus, Jim Houston and the others whose timelines intersected that weekend morning in Santa Cruz.

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Judged by contemporary standards, as a portrait of a literary community, the photo is — to use the argot of today — problematic. Of the 15 writers in the image, there isn’t a single person of color. And all but one of them are dudes.

Obviously, the concept of diversity was not invoked much in 1973. And to the degree that the Santa Cruz literary scene was indeed dominated by the entitled-white-male point of view in those days, then maybe the photo got right what today we would likely view as wrong.

Still, despite its demographic monotony (or perhaps because of it), the photo is a fascinating peek back into the past, to an era rich in bohemian freak-flag flying, if poor when it comes to inclusion.

Many who have read about Santa Cruz’s history have seen this noteworthy photo, as it’s been reproduced in various media, from local newspapers to literary journals. This spring marks the photo’s 50th birthday, a chronological high point from which we can ponder it today.

The photographer, in this case, was Gary Griggs, well-known UC Santa Cruz professor and geologist who, 50 years ago, was just another young man on a cultural scene that seemed to be in freefall. The Watergate hearings were on TV exposing unprecedented corruption in the White House, the Vietnam War was lingering despite a peace agreement, and Santa Cruz was in grips of a terrifying run of serial murders from three different, unrelated killers. The bright promise of the hippie ’60s had soured into political division, divorce and family chaos, and the ravages of dangerous street drugs.

In the midst of all that sturm und drang, as Griggs tells the story, writer James D. Houston (top right, in the window) gathered up as many of his literary friends as he could muster to meet at the Cooper House on the old Pacific Garden Mall. They congregated at a table at the sidewalk cafe near where Don McCaslin and his jazz band, Warmth, played live just about every day of the year. Most of them went inside the Cooper House to peer out the window at the sidewalk.

“[Houston and I] were doing a lot of things together,” said Griggs. “So, one morning, he said, ‘You know, we’ve got to get all these people together and take a picture.’ So he called everybody, and I was doing a lot of photography. And we went down to the old Cooper House on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and everybody came, surprisingly.”

“The band is playing just off to the right of the frame there,” said T. Mike Walker, writer and Cabrillo College instructor, who’s also in the photograph (the figure on the right in the left-side window). “It was very hectic getting everybody there at one time.”

T. Mike Walker, chronicler of "Hip Santa Cruz."
T. Mike Walker in a March photo.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Included in the photo shoot were some of the now-legendary figures of the time: the dandy-ish patriarch of the poetry scene, George Hitchcock (lower right, with hat), the publisher of the literary magazine Kayak, one of the most popular West Coast poetry journals in the country and a coveted landing spot for poets looking to be published. A hostile witness before the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee, Hitchcock arrived in 1970 in Santa Cruz, where he taught poetry and playwriting at UCSC and continued to publish Kayak, as aggressively free-spirited and iconoclastic a magazine as you could find on the newstands in that era. (Hitchcock died in 2010.)

Behind Hitchcock, in the thick beard, stands William Everson, like Hitchcock a poet with a prominent side hustle. He was a popular poet and teacher — indeed, he was poet-in-residence at UCSC — but he was just as well-known as a small-press printer, and as a spiritual seeker. He was a Dominican Order convert also known as Brother Antoninus. Famed West Coast poet and critic Dana Gioia called Everson a “prophetic visionary” and put him in a tradition of great California figures such as John Steinbeck, Jack London, and John Muir. (Everson died in 1994.)

Directly behind Everson, also in thick black-framed glasses, is poet and critic Morton Marcus, an iconic figure at Cabrillo College for decades, an often combative and brutally honest poet and essayist, and perhaps Santa Cruz’s most prominent film critic. (Marcus died in 2009.) If the New York-born Marcus brought a direct, two-fisted style to the local scene, Jim Houston was the yin to Marcus’ yang. The laconic, courtly Houston was born in San Francisco to parents with roots in Texas, and his writings reflected that quintessential Western spirit. His many books of fiction and nonfiction always seemed to be in search for the undefinable essence of California, the West and, in later life, Hawaii. (Houston died in 2009.)

Other accomplished names in the photo include:

Stephen Levine: (far left, left-side window) Writer, poet and publisher who was widely considered a pioneer in the U.S. of “conscious dying,” exploding the taboo of talking about death in Western culture. He was also an explorer of Buddhist spirituality, and he is the father of Buddhist spiritual teacher Noah Levine. He died in 2016.

Peter Beagle: (far left, right-side window) Acclaimed Hugo Award-winning fantasy writer and author of the best-selling “The Last Unicorn,” who lived in Santa Cruz for about a decade in the 1970s. Today, Beagle is 84 and has just published a new edition of “The Last Unicorn,” and is still writing fiction.

A historic group photo of luminary Santa Cruz musicians, brought together to honor the retiring “Sleepy John” Sandidge,...

Victor Perera: (second from left in left-side window) Guatemala-born journalist and writer who taught journalism at UC Santa Cruz. Through his writings, he explored the lives of modern-day descendants of the Mayans in southern Mexico. He died in 2003.

Anne Steinhardt: (second from right, right-side window) The only woman in the photograph was a prominent counterculture figure of the time, as an author of the memoir “How to Get Balled in Berkeley” and other books, as well as a musician with various bands of the era.

James B. Hall: (second from right, left-side window) Short-story writer, poet and teacher, founded the creative writing program at the University of Oregon, and came to Santa Cruz in 1968 as the founding provost of Porter College at UCSC. He also published the guide for writers, “The Art and Craft of the Short Story.” He died in 2008.

Robert Lundquist: (second from left, left-side window) Poet originally from Los Angeles who published poems in the Paris Review and The Nation, and who later became a psychoanalyst. Was declared by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the “Best 100 American Poets.” As of 2019, he was still seeing patients from his office above The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles.

Lou Mathews: (seated, second from left) Well-known Los Angeles-based writer and teacher who spent a bit more than a decade in Santa Cruz. His books include the collection “Shaky Town,” set in working-class Los Angeles.

What do you know about any of the figures in the famed 1973 literary photo? Please share stories and memories at wallace@lookoutlocal.com.

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