Unless It’s Unkind or Violent

When I arrived at Mr. John Gruen’s the following day he was not standing at the top of the stairs as I thought he might be. Instead, when I turned the corner, he was in the entranceway to their apartment. His hand was raised well above his head, his extended fingers paralleling the climb of the doorframe, and from his wrist to his crisscrossing feet his torso and bending legs nearly formed a parabola that defied some sort of mathematical logic. As I moved towards him his head bent in the opposite direction.

I walked through the doorway into the dimly lit apartment. He waited for me to be fully inside, then closed the heavy door, shoving its summer-swelled shape into the frame. In the next room was the yellow glow of a lamp that sat atop a table illuminating an old framed photograph of a beautiful woman wearing a large floppy hat. The woman photographed had a certain unconscious smile that I thought could no longer exist since the camera’s invention.

As he moved past me and through the doorway Mr. Gruen said, “You remember Jane, right?”

Unaware if he thought that in a day I could forget having met her, or if this was an aristocratic formality with which I had not yet been acquainted, I said, “of course, how could I forget?” She sat beside the table and the photograph in a green felt chair, half lit by the lamp’s yellow light. Every inch of rubber at the bottom of her black leather shoes made contact with the wooden floorboards. They seemed to lie rather than sit, in the way flower petals do. Covering her lap and scattered to her left and right were pages of the New York Times. She looked up and into my eyes. I smiled and so did she. But hers, unlike mine, was devoid of self-consciousness. Her smile and her knew one another well and no longer needed small talk and aperitifs before embracing a guest.

I said, “Hello Jane,” and “it’s good to see you again.”

“I’m happy you’re here,” she replied, more so with her eyes than her words, much less with her mouth, that no longer smiled, than with her softening stare.

“Come, I’ll show you the apartment,” John said.

He walked past me and I turned from Jane to follow him. He skirted his hand across the backs of two wooden chairs that, like the other four of darkly stained wood, surrounded a large oval dining table. I followed him past small paintings of a barn and a street scene that hung on the wall surrounded by wallpaper of geometric greens and reds, slightly peeling toward the top.

“I love the wall paper,” I said.

“Yes,” he placed his hand on the baby-grand piano and turned around, “it’s Rennie Mackintosh.”

The black keys of the piano shimmered beneath a light that projected downward from a stand on which an open Haydn score rested. The white keys seemed to absorb that same light, composed of a yellow that grew from the edges to their opaque and off-white centers, polished beneath the compression of so many decades of dancing oily fingertips.

“Do you play?” I asked.  I liked the way that sounded—‘do you play?’—simple, in-the-know, dignified.

“That is one of the great tragedies of my life. I no longer can. You see, I have something called glau-co-ma.” He pronounced this word in such a way that it carried with it the weight of centuries, as if released from the mouth of a Greek physician in a time long before Christ. “Have you heard of it?”

“Yes, I have,” my voice giving off what I felt was sympathy.

“I can only play from sheet music, but now I can no longer read the score. My daughter and I used to play four-hand piano. And at parties, I would perform for our guests. Some people can play from touch and from ear, freely like Jazz musicians, but I need the score, or else, I am completely in the dark.”

We walked past the kitchen, which John did not mention. But, the look of the old deeply inlayed sink and the warp of the floor, coated in immeasurable layers of discolored and hidden materials, inspired an eagerness to step inside—to feel the past wash over me like the thick suds of a now defunct brand of semi-toxic soap.

On the wall of the hallway was a painting of a young girl and a photograph of the glamorous John and Jane sometime in their twenties, or, maybe thirties or even forties. People of those earlier generations always seem to look older than they actually were when the photograph was taken. Not necessarily more aged, but more mature. The grace and confidence of the decades they had not yet lived somehow already filling out their skin.

John walked into a small room and pulled the cord of a bronzing desk lamp. The swing of the beaded and tarnished cord made the light flicker on the glass-encased portraits that hung on the walls. There must have been one-hundred black-and-white faces glaring softly down into the room, one-hundred differing moments suspended in the current one, time ticking between us like the flickering light which first illuminated and then disguised their frozen eyes.

“In the corner, by the bathroom, there is a chair for you,” John instructed me.

I stepped behind him and the black swivel chair, balancing between them and the framed photographs that laid in bubble-wrapped, waist-high towers on the floor. I grabbed the chair and unfolded it. I positioned myself next to John. He brushed his hand back and forth across the desk like a dog tracking a scent. He found and clicked the mouse. We sat in silence as the computer’s blue light engulfed us.

He turned to me, “I need you to go into the hallway and find a box marked ‘Photographs of John Pearl’. I received an e-mail yesterday from my book designer. She needs a headshot.”

I walked into the hallway, passed the kitchen where brown light entered, muffled by the old yellowing lace curtains with oil marks at their base. I stopped to look for a moment. There were white metal cabinets beneath the sink, designed sometime in the 60’s. Metal drawers with stains on them splattered like birthmarks, as sturdy and permanent as the surfaces on which they happened at one point to splash. Those sorts of clean, quietly translucent, stains that time alone is responsible for.  Behind the two white trash cans was a shelf that nearly touched the ceiling, filled by cook books with split bindings from all around the world: “Hungary”, “China”, “Czechoslovakia”, “Ethiopia”, “Spain”.

I turned and followed a crack in the wall that continued from where I stood to the front door. How many times, I wondered, had that door opened and closed. How many guests had entered this home, persuading this crack, like a lifeline, to spike and fall, extending it and the length of the party, as the ashtrays were cleared and the drinks were filled once more?

As I passed the front door I turned to my left to find Jane quietly reading, her fingers fishing for some snack in a small Tupperware on the table next to her. In the narrow hall, it felt like the vertical fields of books could at any moment collapse. I don’t think this was because the shelves lacked stability, though with all the books they contained, they may have. Perhaps it was the height of the shelves which made the space seem slightly threatening.Perhaps I was intimidated.

On the opposite wall were stacks of cream-colored boxes labeled “A” through “Z”. And beside these there were boxes with more descriptive names. I scanned their titles from top to bottom: “COUPLES”, “GROUPS”, “PHOTOGRAPHS OF JANE BY VARIOUS ARTISTS”, “PHOTOGRAPHS OF JANE BY JOHN GRUEN”, “PHOTOGRAPHS OF JOHN GRUEN”. I slid the last one out from beneath the others. It was heavier than I thought it would be, especially with the tower of other boxes descending as I removed it.

I carried the box on my forearms like a fine china tea set. I stood in the doorway. John looked up at me and announced with a smile and a soft clap of his hands, “you found it!”

“I did,” I responded mimicking the smile while walking carefully behind him. He scrunched his knees up against the desk to let me pass. I sat down on my chair and positioned the box on my lap. I slid the top off, which was pulled downward by the vacuum of air and all that the box did or did not contain.

“There are a few photographs in there, but find a recent one,” he told me.

A few? There must have been hundreds. Most were black and white, but some of the larger ones extended to the walls of the box and bordered the many others in a frame of color. I removed the photographs and placed them beside me on the desk. A photo of a young man posing in front of a plain background with his graduation cap on, softened beneath a sepia tone that grew like moss from the pores of the paper. A photograph of that same man, slightly older, in a cardigan holding a bald infant. A man with a crew cut, dressed in military fatigues. A man with eyes magnified by Buddy Holy glasses, in a bowtie, his arm around a slender and gorgeous young woman with hair that framed her full lips and a long black dress that hugged her curves. If death can be said to be contained within the body—the corpse we conceal when time is up—then in this box, devoid of flesh, an entire life sat in the cool shade being lived out continuously. With each photograph I passed, the man sitting beside me grew older or younger, skipped decades ahead, then fell backwards to childhood. On a sofa with graying hair, at a party amongst muted laughter and cigarette smoke, as a young boy sporting that centuries-old, parent-sponsored rite of passage: the mushroom cut.

The next photo I came across was bent and washing away in a range of grays. I flipped it over and read the inscription on the back: “Johnny, Kindergarten, Berlin, Germany 1931”.

“What’s this?” I asked John, holding the photo into the light carefully with my thumb and index finger.

John grabbed the photo quickly with both hands and, as if by instinct, pulled it abruptly away from me and within inches of his face. He examined it, moving the photo rather than his eyes. “This is a photo of me in school as a young boy in Berlin. I’m sitting in the center.” He pointed his finger vaguely in the middle of the paper and handed it back to me.

It was a group of some 30 young boys sitting in rows behind long wooden tables and crowding around the back to fit themselves within the camera’s view. They had been asked, it was clear, to place their hands in front of them on the desk. But each one, unable to control the spasms of youth, held their hands differently. Some clenched them together tightly as if to ward off the being growing rapidly inside them. The distracted ones let them lie like disconnected and dead ferrets on the table before them. Some got lucky, their hands invisible, cropped from view by others’ heads, and allowed to make mischief in the secret parts of the scene: poke friends, flick buggers or fiddle with their penises. In the background pinned to the wall was a row of the students’ drawings. And in the front row a boy sits with his immaculate hair combed to the side. He holds his hands together before him as if it was dinnertime and his father was saying grace. The boy next to him, had he been in school today, would be hopped up on enough Ritalin or Adderall to kill a horse. So distracted was he that I don’t think he even saw the camera in the room. Next to him sat a boy that slouches as if the spine weren’t fully formed. Then there was attentive little big-ears, followed by a boy catching flies with his open mouth, made forever dumb by the half inch of space he left between his lips. With the exception of the clothing worn, it could have been a photograph taken at any time of any group of kindergarten boys.

I followed the image three rows back to the center of the photograph. I could tell by the round and slightly bulbous nose I had found little John. He sits shoulder-to-shoulder with another boy. He has excellent posture and remains perfectly calm as if somehow already aware of himself and the tiny appendages that moved him through the world. To the left and behind him I saw it. The thing that in an instant invaded the little faces like a lie that comes true. In a child’s hands suspended like a blanky was a flag inscribed with a swastika—a little Nazi flag.

“Yes, that photo must have been taken just before we left Germany for Italy,” John told me, closing his eyes in long intervals. “When we began seeing signs on shop windows, ‘Dogs and Jews Not Allowed’, my father rightly decided it was time to go.”

I glanced at the photo once more, at their faces, and all humor—lighthearted or perverse—was pulled from me at the look in the little boys’ eyes. It should have been a hopeful look, and perhaps it was. But I knew something they did not and for this reason no hope any longer could reside in them.

“My father was a Jew born in Egypt. And I was born just outside Paris, in a casino town.”

I looked from John back to the photo. I couldn’t stop myself. Light seemed to enter the photo from the right. Half of each face was illuminated and fading into white, and on the other side their attributes were held in place by soft shadow. I assumed there was a large window there. Perhaps it looked out onto trees and sunny skies, or a courtyard for recess. Then, again, there it was.  The small NAZI flag suspended there from little hands: a seed slowly growing outward, stretching across the entire photograph. The same seed sat in each boys mind, watered at night by scared and impoverished parents looking for a cause for life’s miseries. I could see the little thorny plants growing inside each one of them. The childish pranks evolving, becoming handfuls of rocks and bloody noses, the name calling becoming more direct and stabbing, until one day there was only one name left, and it divides them like train tracks and locomotives that carry classmates to their death.

“How good is your German, John?” I asked.

“Its pretty good, but my Italian is far better.”

I at last released the photo onto the desk and continued through the box. Photos of John in Central Park with his daughter on his lap; reclining on a sofa with a dachshund on his chest; as a boy in a sailor’s outfit standing between his parents on a beach somewhere. There was a small piece of newspaper, so old, warn-down, stained, and ripped at the edges, I was surprised there was anything of it left at all. It was a photo of 54 boys all dressed up in the same little outfits: the same socks, trousers, boy scout-like tops, and hats with tassels. I knew there were exactly 54 of thembecause they formed 6 perfect rows, with each row 9 boys long. I could multiply them like tiny wingdings in a spreadsheet [this photo has since been lost] . I tried to read the Italian at the base of the image using what minimal Spanish I could recall. There was one word that stood out among the rest. A word that, had I been half blind and nearly illiterate, would still have had some sort of affect: “Fascista.” They were 54 little fascist Italians standing in rows, their chins held high and hands stuck down at their sides doing their best, as the little Germans had done in the previous photograph, to restrain their impulse for permanent movement and hide the fact that they were little boys.

Reading the Italian text out loud, I asked John the meaning of ‘Figli della Lupa’.

Fee-lee de-la Loo-pa!” He cried with an enthusiasm veering towards pride. “In Italian it means ‘Sons of the She-Wolf’ because of the pendant attached to our hats of two little wolves suckling the teats of the She-Wolf.”

I looked closer at one of their hats. Printed on the pendent was a depiction of Romulus and Remus. And sure enough, they were ‘suckling the teats of the She-Wolf’.

I looked back at the newspaper clipping and considered the name, ‘Sons of the She-Wolf’. Pretty mythical stuff, I thought. A bit like asking a child to enter a fairytale and then to make reality of make-believe. They were invited to enact what before they could only dream. They were, after all, super-mutants—half boy, half wolf.

In the far right corner of the photograph was an “X” marked in pen below what appeared to be one of the tallest boys in the group.  Above him, in cursive, was the name “Johnny.”

“That’s you… the one marked ‘Johnny’?” I asked, aware of the answer, but eager for his response.

“Yes…JJJaaw-nee!” he cried with the same enthusiasm as before. “That’s what they called me as a child.  I loved my life as a young Italian boy.”

The way he said ‘Johnny’ rang in my ears attaching itself to visions I imagined of his life: his mother, who from previous pictures appeared rotund, calling down from their balcony into a narrow cobblestoned alley below their home, ‘JJJaaw-nee… JJJaaw-nee!’ Her voice petering out like a dinner bell and cascading with the sharp afternoon sun down brightly painted shutters, reflecting off windows and walls into the street below, where young boys threw stones at rusted cans. Only one of them glances upward to where the beckoning voice derived. He begins to run home, pulled by his mother’s voice and propelled by a group of high-pitched voices behind him chanting in unison, ‘Ciao JJJaaw-nee, ciao!’ He turns in mid-sprint, splotches of dirt smeared across his upturned cheeks, and with open palm and strained breath gives his farewell, ‘Ciao!

I think I was able to consider such a sunny outlook of his life in Italy, both because of his enthusiasm and the outfits of those little Italian boys. I didn’t know as much about fascist Italy as I did about NAZI Germany and, for this reason, their attire, in comparison to their German counterpart—the Hitler Youth—made them seem so much less threatening. Tassels swinging from the sides of their hats, shinny pendants pinned to their chests, and socks—nearly leggings—reaching their knees. All these accouterments and knickknacks, like add-ons to a set of dolls belonged, in my eyes, to the harmless realm of stylizing aesthetics. But, of course, this was exactly the point. Radical political thought cannot erase cultural upbringing entirely, not right from the beginning anyway. It must sneak in lightly, carried unnoticed at first in the heavy shoes of poverty and swing like freedom from caps worn proudly atop the open minds of children.

“I always thought as a boy that the “M” on our chest-pendants stood for Mamma… not Il Duce, not Mussolini,” John told me.

I grinned and released some air from my mouth, then glanced at the 54 boys once more. I mentally juxtaposed them with the many images I had seen of the Hitler Youth, in outfits that were so practical, so streamlined, so aerodynamic that if you were to shoot one of the boys out of a cannon he’d hit his target every time.

“You made your mark on two out of three of the great Axis Powers of World War II,” I said with a sympathetic smile, “not bad…” I hoped he would understand my dark humor, though the topic was so personal. I hoped he would know that I was intelligent or empathetic enough to at least grasp, in part, the magnitude of his early life.

“Ha, yes,” he laughed, then paused, “but soon thereafter we were forced to leave Italy too, when Mussolini signed a pact with Hitler and we were no longer welcome. I was thirteen and could hardly understand. I pleaded with my parents to let me stay with the family of my best friend Paolo. I couldn’t imagine leaving Italy with my parents. They were soold.”

“And that’s when you came to America?”

“Yes, we boarded a ship with many other Italians bound for New York. I felt free and saddened, not knowing when I would return home again. For days we were at sea, but it wasn’t as if we had left because everyone around me still spoke my language. It wasn’t until early one morning when the crew called us up to the deck to see the New York skyline as we approached. It was freezing. The coldest day I had ever experienced and the sun was rising, reflecting off the windows of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. It was only then that I began to realize my life was about to change.”

“Had you ever seen pictures of New York before?”

“Of course, often, in movie theaters. It was only when I had arrived in New York that I learned all my favorite Hollywood stars spoke English, and not Italian. I was shocked, but this was also how I would come to learn the language. Taking the train to midtown to watch the faces I had known so well interact in a language I could hardly understand.”

After placing the newspaper clipping on the table among the other images I continued through the box, until I reached more recent photos and thick stacks of headshots from various decades tucked away in envelopes. Peeling the old adhesive away from the backs of the envelopes, or pressing together the wings of the little metal butterflies that fastened them shut, I slid the top photo out from each stack. There was a couple from perhaps the 60’s or 70’s, a few from the 80’s, then others from the 90’s. In each he wore glasses and positioned his hands near his face, under his chin, or clasped together. In each photo his hands, his partial smile, and eyes magnified behind lenses and frames indicative of the era, combined to form the image one would expect of a writer, an intellectual.  But, from the short time I had known John I knew they were also images of him. Of course they were, for obvious reasons, but it was also clear that this was how he wanted to be perceived. These were the men for each specific decade that he wanted those around him to acknowledge. I wondered how my desired image would change over time and if it already had, or if yet I even had an image at all. What did people see when they looked at me? What would I want them to see in the future when I began to age and the need arose to highlight certain attributes when others declined?

As I looked through these headshots, I thought mostly of death. Not John’s specifically, but anyone’s. This must be somewhat like the experience one has when searching through the photographs of a deceased relative. Searching for one that does their life justice. Searching for just one among all the others that enlivens the dead man’s life. Testing out photos like ties or cufflinks for the occasion, dressing the dead in the distracting garments of life. It can’t be too young—that’s just dishonest. It can’t be too old—that’s just grotesque: it would remind the living of what had occurred and what does occur to everyone. The goal, I assumed, was to seamlessly detach the photo and his name from any reference to the current state of his body and, like a slight of hand trick, allow them to drift, immortal, through liquid memory.

I pulled out one, probably from the late 90’s, and held it to the light. John grabbed it quickly and brought it within inches of his face.

“Yes, that one’s perfect!” he said, tapping me on the back.



John Gruen and I met at distant ends of adult life—myself, in my 20’s and John, in his 80’s. We worked together for some five years, collaborating on several books of photography. He is, and forever will be, one of my dearest friends.

Below, is his biography, in his own words, that he used during the final years of his life. It encapsulates a portion of his professional and artistic achievements, but none of the shimmering stars that composed his day to day.

“Unwilling to pursue a single career, Paris-born John Gruen embraced no less than four callings:  Composer, playwright, journalist and photographer.

Studying with composer/critic Virgil Thomson, Gruen’s earliest compositions, a series art songs set to the poetry of Rilke, Kafka and e.e. cummings, launched one of America’s great record labels: Elektra. Gruen’s “New Songs” became Elektra # 1 in 1951.  Specializing in vocal music, Gruen later collaborated with playwright, Arnold Weinstein, and poet Frank O’Hara, in composing the songs for the musical “Undercover Lover”…

Gruen’s career as playwright began in the late 1950s, when a series of his one-act plays were produced by Ellen Stewart’s Café La Mama under the direction of actress/director Gaby Rodgers.  In the subsequent years, Gruen applied for and was admitted into the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio.  Working with Lee Strasberg, Gruen’s play, “Smut and the Baritone,” was given several performances at the Studio.   The recent years found several of Gruen’s acerbic comedies successfully produced by Medicine Show Theatre.

As a journalist, John Gruen became a music and art critic for the New York Herald Tribune, for which he worked from 1960 to 1967. Upon the demise of the Tribune and for the next 25 years, Gruen became a noted cultural writer for the New York Times, Vogue Magazine, New York Magazine, Architectural Digest and Dance Magazine.  During this time, he also authored 17 books, including biographies of Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, Erik Bruhn and Keith Haring.

Gruen’s career as photographer, under the name John Jonas Gruen, began in the early 1950s and continues to this day. Specializing in black and white portraiture, he has been widely exhibited, and, in 2010, received a one-man exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  The Whitney has some 300 of Gruen’s portraits in its collection. Gruen has published eight books of his photography, including “Facing the Artist,” “Young in the Hamptons” and “Leonard Bernstein: An Album of Family and Friends”

John Gruen is married to the painter, Jane Wilson. Their daughter, Julia Gruen, is the Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation.”

New York Times Obituary  dated July 19, 2016.


About the author

Sam Swasey is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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