by Jeffrey M. Burns
Originally published in The Argonaut, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1994
1967 press conference with Lenore Kandel, 2nd from right
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle
In 1971, Professors Howard S. Becker and Irving L. Horowitz suggested that San Francisco fostered a "culture of civility,"1 a culture which provided greater acceptance of "deviant groups" and cultures, such as the Beats, the hippies, and the growing gay community. Countercultural groups were allowed greater freedom in San Francisco than in any other city in the United States.
On the other hand, in 1993 journalist Mark Dowie wrote an essay in which he dubbed the century between the 1860s and the 1960s as the "Catholic century" in San Francisco.2 While Dowie's essay is overstated, and marred by several factual errors, his essential contention is correct--the Catholic Church in San Francisco exerted enormous influence in defining the contours of San Francisco culture and society, though they were not the only group to do so. Regardless of the reality, Catholics in San Francisco considered themselves the cultural guardians of the City. As such, the Catholic culture contributed to the culture of civility; at the same time it often found itself in conflict with that culture.3 One such instance of conflict was generated by the publication of Lenore Kandel's paean to love, the 825 word poem entitled simply "The Love Book."
In November 1966, police inspectors Sol Wiener and Peter Maloney arrested Jay Thelen and Allen Cohen of the Psychedelic Book Shop in the Haight Ashbury and Ron Muszalski of City Lights Bookstore in North Beach for "knowingly possessing obscene matter [i.e. 'The Love Book'] with the intent to sell." What ensued was the longest Municipal Court trial in San Francisco history, pitting the City's past and present countercultures against the City's cultural mainstream. (A decade earlier City Lights was at the center of another obscenity trial for having published Allen Ginsberg's classic, Howl.)
The trial, begun in late April 1967, on the eve of the Summer of Love, became a showcase for different visions of the City. The proceedings reflected the pre-eminent position of the Catholic Church as cultural authority within San Francisco. The composition of witnesses led defense attorney Marshall Krause of the American Civil Liberties Union to complain that the trial was more a "heresy trial" than an "obscenity trial." Krause complained further, "I am distressed, for the prosecution seems to have taken a religious emphasis, with Catholics trying to apply their doctrine to the rest of the world. And I don't think the testimony at this case is based on sound Catholic doctrine"4 What Krause failed to understand was that the witnesses were not merely projecting the Catholic party line; they were expressing the attitudes of a significant portion of the San Francisco populace, Catholic and non-Catholic. What had begun as a simple obscenity trial had now become a trial with much larger cultural ramifications. At odds were (1) the emerging counterculture and mainstream San Francisco culture and (2) old notions of Catholic morality versus new conceptions inspired by the recently completed Second Vatican Council.
What was exceptionally objectionable about the poem, beyond its description of a sexual encounter between a man and a woman, was its frequent use of several unmentionable four-letter words. The description of "gods" engaging in sexual acts also upset many. But the poem could be quite lyrical, as suggested by the following section:
I kiss your shoulder and it reeks of lust
the lust of hermaphroditic deities doing
inconceivable things to each other and
SCREAMING DELIGHT over the entire
universe and beyond
and we lie together... and
we WEEP we WEEP we WEEP
the incredible tears
that saints and holy men shed in the presence
of their own incandescent gods...
And it concludes:
we are transmuting
we are as soft and warm and trembling
as a new gold butterfly
at night sometimes I see our bodies glow.
Lenore Kandel herself expressed her intent in the most noble terms: "I believe when humans can be so close together to become one flesh, or spirit, they transcend the human into the divine. Unfortunately for Kandel, not everyone saw her poem in the same light.
From the moment of the initial arrests, the events surrounding "The Love Book" and its subsequent trial had a slightly comic quality about them, and suggest some of the excesses of the era. Mayor John F. Shelley immediately condemned the poem as "hard core pornography," and opined, "I certainly wouldn't want my kids to read it." Police inspector Peter Maloney added, "I'm no prude... but where is the redeeming social importance in this book?"5
Typical of San Francisco, a group of professors from San Francisco State leapt to the poems defense. Professors Leonard Wolf, Mark Linenthal, James Scheville, and Jack Gilbert were hired by the City Lights Bookstore with wages of one dollar a day to sell the poem. The professors then sponsored a public reading at San Francisco State. A crowd of more than three hundred persons listened to the poem in "defiance" of the "City's police censorship squad,"6 though the police were noticeably absent from the reading. The reasons the professors gave for supporting the poem were something less than sublime. One observed, "The book makes me want to make love--and I think that's good." And another added, "It seems to me it is a good thing for society to maintain a high degree of sexual excitability... (Prosecuting attorney Frank Shane countered during the trial, "If 'The Love Book' is so exciting, would it not cause hundreds of college students to rush into bed together after readings of the poem, such as been held in the Bay Area?")7
The actual trial began in late April with the prosecution attempting to fashion a jury that "had little or nothing to do with the hippies."8 The jury selected consisted primarily of married women.
The high point for the defense came with their initial witness -- the poet herself, Lenore Kandel. Ms. Kandel added a theatrical dimension to the proceedings, appearing in "a brilliant orange turtleneck sweater, burgundy jacket, and vivid orange stockings." She then read her poem to the jury in tones "more reverent than passionate." In addition, she read selections from the "erotic" poetry of Brother Antoninus (William Everson) and St. John of the Cross. She defended her poem in language quintessential to the 1960s: "Love is a four-letter word," she noted, observing that the really obscene words were "hate," "bomb," and "war". "If we can recognize our own beauty, it will be impossible for any human being to bring harm to any other human being. We owe each other loving responsibility." Finally, when asked if the poem was religious, she responded, "Yes, and everyone who makes love is religious."9
The encounter between Prosecutor Shaw and Ms. Kandel also had its comic moments, and some not quite so comic, as the clash of world views became personalized. One reporter described Shaw in the following manner: "His voice shook with anger much of the time and he used the four-letter words with inflections of disgust for them. Ms. Kandel maintained her composure as Shaw threw "various Anglo Saxon shock words at Kandel and found himself being called beautiful by her." Shaw was not converted. He accused Kandel of subverting fundamental moral values and attempting to "condition us into a new type of morality."10
The rest of the defense witnesses defended the poem in a variety of ways. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti defended the poem's artistic merit.
Professor Thomas F. Parkinson of the University of California at Berkeley was presented as a distinguished literary scholar, and "gave a whole day's testimony on the nature of poetry and the poet's call to truth."11 Parkinson observed: "The sexual mysticism of the 'Love Book' is an attempt to show that through an abandon to the senses one may achieve a kind of spiritual revelation."12 Two women, Mrs. Nina Beggs, the wife of a Congregational minister, and Mrs. Margaret Krebs, testified that the poem was a beautiful expression of sexuality from the "woman's point of view."13 Mrs. Krebs testified, "The general theme is love and it discusses the beauty and the spiritual heights possible in intercourse between man and woman, primarily from a woman's point of view. I am a woman and I identify with it."14 The testimony of both women encountered problems. Mrs. Beggs's testimony was undercut by her statement that she "had never heard of two of the disputed words," and Mrs. Krebs's testimony was disallowed because the court determined that she could not be considered "an ordinary woman."15 Several other witnesses, including G.W. Smith, a professional marriage counselor, Dr. J. M. Stubblebine, director of San Francisco's Mental Health Services, and Rabbi Joseph Glaser, testified that the poem improved the City's mental health by dealing directly and openly with the issue of sexuality. More harmful, they claimed, were the repressive notions of sexuality which had dominated society for too long and resulted in a variety of unhealthy manifestations.
After ten hours of deliberation, the jury found the defendants guilty. They concluded that "The Love Book" was obscene and had "no redeeming social value." In 1971, however, the verdict was overturned.
The trial had two immediate results besides the fines imposed on the sales clerks. First, sales of "The Love Book" skyrocketed. Prior to the trial less than 100 copies had been sold; after the trial sales soared to 20,000 plus. In appreciation, Ms. Kandel donated one percent of the profits to the Police Retirement Association.16
While the trial of "The Love Book" may have little significance in itself, it does provide an interesting window to view several of the basic conflicts in San Francisco in the 1960s. First, despite the culture of civility, San Francisco was racked by the cultural conflicts of the times. Often, in romanticizing the 1960s and the Love Generation, we tend to overlook the profound trauma the counterculture generated for more traditional San Franciscans. On one level, the "Love Book" trial can be interpreted as an attempt to assert the basic values of mainstream San Francisco; values that were increasingly and vigorously being called into question.
Historian Charles Perry has suggested that the trial was not about obscenity at all but was a direct attack on the psychedelic counterculture of the Haight-Ashbury. The two defendants from the Psychedelic Shop were Allen Cohen, editor of The Oracle, the most significant paper of the Haight, and Jay Thelen, its publisher. It is noteworthy that the two stores singled out for violating the community's obscenity standards represented the old counterculture (the Beats) and the new counterculture (the hippies). San Francisco, being a port town, always had a rather high tolerance for "vice." At the time of "The Love Book" trial, topless night clubs were opening up in the City with little harassment from the courts. Perhaps the City was making a distinction between acknowledged vice--few would argue topless dancing had any socially redeeming value--and "vice" which presented itself as virtue. What was dangerous about "The Love Book" was that it was perceived to be presenting a new moral ethic without apology, and the new moral ethic ran counter to the accepted ethic of mainstream San Francisco. As such the trial was a manifestation of the public anxiety generated by the enormous cultural shocks and transitions of the 1960s.
Second, the "Love Book" trial brought to public awareness the conflict that was occurring within the Catholic Church. Catholic squabbling at the trial broke the united Catholic front on moral issues. And with the public squabbling came an erosion of the Church's moral authority within the City. Increasingly it seemed there was no one Catholic voice in the City, but a variety of competing voices. As such, the Catholic influence on the life of the City began to dissipate. What was occurring within the Church, and within the culture at large, was a relentless questioning of the validity of authority at every level. And too often the response of the cultural authority was so muddled or ill-considered that the response served only to undercut further the authority of the challenged institution. In the case of the "Love Book" trial, well meaning Catholics attempted to reassert their position as cultural authority within the City--however, the result was disastrous. The complex story of the cultural transformation wrought by the 1960s in San Francisco is still to be written. One conclusion is certain, however--the "Catholic century" had come to an end.
1. Howard S. Becker and Irving L. Horowitz, "The Culture of Civility," in Howard Becker, ed., Culture and Civility in San Francisco (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1971).
2. Mark Dowie, "Holy Smoke," SF Weekly 24 February 1993, II.
3. For an interesting discussion on the Catholic influence on Labor in the city see William Issel, "Business Power and Political Culture in San Francisco, 1900-1940," Journal of Urban History 16 (November 1989), 52-77.
4. Anne Marie Ferrairis, "Local Testimony on 'Love Book' Trial," San Francisco Monitor, 11 May 1967,3.
5. From the Oregon Journal, 26 November 1966, City Lights Bookstore Collection, Clippings File, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA.
6. From the San Francisco Chronicle, 24 November 1966. Ibid.
7. Donovan Bess, "Witness Explains His Reactions After Reading 'Love Book'," San Francisco Chronicle 12 May 1967, 3.
8. San Francisco Chronicle, 25 April 1967.
9. Donovan Bess, "Lenore Defends the Love Book," San Francisco Chronicle, 6 May 1967, 3; Donovan Bess, "Love Book Poet Keeps Her Cool," San Francisco Chronicle, 9 May 1967,3; Anne Marie Fertaris, "Local Testimony..."
10. Bess, "Love Book Poet Keeps Her Cool,"3.
11. Robert Brophy. "Brophy and the Love Book" (unpublished manuscript, 1993) Copy in the Archives for the Archdocese of San Francisco (AASF).
12. Donovan Bess, "Scholar's Plea for the Love Book," San Francisco Chronicle, 10 May 1967, 2.
13. Donovan Bess, "A Minister's Wife Praises the Love Book," San Francisco Chronicle, 13 May 1967, 2.
14. Sam Blumenfeld, "My Husband's Birthday Gift," San Francisco Examiner, 19 May 1967.
16. Charles Perry, The Haight Ashbury: A History (NY: Vintage Books, 1984), 195.