A forgotten Fortean, and an . . . important is the wrong word: emblematic one, I guess . . . not so much for what he did but because he was a node in so many Fortean networks. It is possible to tell much of Forteanism’s middle history—from the 1940s to the 1950s—through him.
I’ve written about George Leite before, years ago, but more information has come to light (pun unintended, but apposite), or I’ve done been research, or something, but the story is more complicated and interesting than my earlier version had. Richer, at the very least. And—be warned—much, much (much) longer.
George Thurston Leite was born 20 December 1920 in Rhode Island to Joaquin and Margaret Thurston, making him among the younger of the early Forteans. By the time he was born, Fort’s first book had already been published, and his entire corpus would be finished—and Fort dead—before Leite turned twelve. Joaquin, born in 1880, was from Portugal, immigrating to the States in 1912; Margaret was from Massachusetts. George was their only son. They were married around 1917. Joaquin was a preacher in Fall River, Massachusetts, for the Baptist Convention. He was also a mason.
The 1930 census listed the family on Sunnyside Drive in San Leandro. They owned a home worth 5,000, but did not have a radio set. Joaquin, naturalized, was said to be a public school teacher. Margaret, some nine years younger, was also a teacher. George was in school, and apparently a diligent and upright citizen. In 1931 he was recognized by the Oakland Tribune for being on the Junior Traffic Reserve Honor Roll. He finished high school, presumably around 1938, and started at the University of California in Berkeley (presumably, again) around 1940—a later report from the University’s student newspaper listed him as a drop-out from the class of ‘44. He may have been taking pre-med courses, in hopes of studying psychiatry.
The 1940s were a full decade for Leite. He was quickly swept up into social and artistic vortex then swirling about the Bay Area. Leite became an acquaintance of Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Lamantia, and Robert Duncan. He produced the Bay Area’s seminal literary magazine and was involved with the artistic community in other ways, too. He experimented with drugs, and turned on others, too. He worked menial jobs, and also created a vibrant center for the artistic community. Married, a father, he experimented sexually, both for reasons of science and the heart. He was a poet and an author. So much happened, in such a short period of time, it’s hard to pin down the exact chronology. The census has him in two places. At home, with his parents, he was listed as a student; he was also boarding in Berkeley, where the census had him working as a yacht hand (earning $300 over the course of 39 weeks). Leite was living at 2530 Chilton Way, one of four boarders in the home of Olly J. Kern and his wife Jesse. (Kern was a retired professor who had taught agriculture classes.) Both were in their seventies. The other renters were Virgis Morrisette, a 25-year-old restaurant worker from Washington; Jacob Bass, a 38-year-old Russian native with no job given, and Warren D’Azevedo, a fellow University student, a few years older, from Modesto.
According to a University publication from 1942, Leite was still a student that year, and married to another student, the former Nancy Ann Kramer. She was bit younger than Leite, born 24 August 1921 in Minnesota, the oldest child of Charles and Theresa Kramer. Charles had been a salesman in Minnesota, a poultry farmer in San Leandro as of 1930, then switched back to his prior profession by 1940. George and Nancy’s first child, Nancy Lanice Leite, was born 26 December 1942—just after her dad’s 22nd birthday. Meanwhile, in 1941, George and Warren had started up a rebellious literary magazine, apparently with the help of Mary Fuller McChesney, called “New Rejections”—a play on the independent publishing firm “New Directions,” started in the 1930s by James Laughlin which was publishing the likes of Henry Miller and other late modernists. It ran until 1943. D’Azevedo remembered, much later, “New Rejections . . . became for a brief run the forum of a few aspiring young writers whose work had been spurned by the authorized student literary publication which, of course, we held to be vapid and regressive in content. But what I now find most notable about that little venture is that its three annual issues spanned an interim in which our lives were rerouted. With the final issue we were no longer students and the outlook was transformed.”
There’s nothing in the historical records I’ve seen to suggest why Leite was drawn so forcefully to radical politics and radical modernist literature—but by the early 1940s he was entrenched in both. He followed “New Rejections” with “No Direction,” which seems to have been co-produced with the Nebraska writer Weldon Kees. I have seen neither of these publications—I’m not sure copies of them even exist anymore—but it seems that “No Direction” may have been a one-shot that appeared in 1943. By this time, D’Azevedo had graduated (minus a few credits). In lieu of military service, which he opposed as a pacifist, even as he could not condemn the war because of the evil he saw in Fascism and the respect he had for the Lincoln Brigade, he joined the merchant marines—a favored finesse of other associated writers, like Robert Duncan and Jack Kerouac. There was also a new, important face in town: Bern Porter. A physicist with the Manhattan Project (he had been assigned to a lab at Berkeley), Porter was an artist at heart, moved by modernists such as Miller, whom he went to see in Beverly Glen (near Hollywood), where Miller was living late in 1942.
Leite seems to have had some association with the merchant marines, too. Like D’Azevedo and several others involved with California’s radical politics and literature, he was a pacifist and supposedly a conscientious objector. (I have found no record to support this contention, and no draft card.) He is listed on the manifest of the “West Modus,” a ship running from British Columbia to Seattle in January 1942; it was in “U. S. Maritime Commission,” and Leite was credited as an Ordinary Seaman (O. S.) with five months of experience. (Warren would later get his A.B., making him an Able Boatman, a higher rank.) The “West Modus” had shipped out in December of 1941, shortly after America entered the war. Also around this time, Porter met Leite—he was drawn by “No Direction”—and introduced him to Henry Miller. Porter remembered, “Like their title [No Direction], the editors were unhappy or bored with one another and mostly hating one another. Among them was the unhappy George Leite, who wanted to break away from the old group and start his own direction.”
A 1943 register from the University of California still has George Leite as a student. (Nancy was too). But he never finished. According to one report, he was expelled for refusing to take a mandatory military course. Likely, the name of both Leites in the register was simply a matter of records not catching up to reports, since it is unlikely that Nancy would have still been a student now that she had a young child and other official documents do not list either Leite as a student. George, after whatever marine career he had, took up a series of menial jobs, notably driving a taxi a few times a week to make ends meet, and tending bar. He had grand ambitions, too. Leite was contemplating a new literary magazine, perhaps to be called, again, New Rejections, but eventually titled “Circle.” He had read some of Henry Miller’s (open) letters to Emil Schnellock, courtesy of Porter, and wrote to Miller asking if he would contribute to the new magazine. Perhaps, he suggested after Miller agreed to contribute, he could publish some of Miller’s other stuff: a volume of letters about (the banned) Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn by fans and readers; maybe he’d even try to publish Tropic of Cancer. And Anaïs Nin’s diary, which Miller might obtain from his ex-lover. Porter already had plans to publish a bunch of other Miller volumes.
Miller was only one—an important one!—of a congeries of enthusiasms that drove—that obsessed—Leite, a slew of radical ideas that hung together loosely, marking him, like many associated with the so-called San Francisco Renaissance that preceded the Beat Generation, as a left-libertarian. There was his pacifism, and a penchant for anarchism (although he seemed to be more sympathetic to communism than the leaders of the movement, Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, more like his ex-roommate Warren D’Azevedo). His taste for modern literature and obscure forms of art, in which he saw the future prefigured. He was intrigued by Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky, and saw Miller in occultist terms: “You have become whole and real in the way Christ must have been to the apostles,” he told Miller. (Miller shrugged to Nin: “I know the are making quite a cult of me—I can’t help that—it’s the writing that causes it.”) There was his concern for the underprivileged, prisoners and blacks and others denied their civil rights. He was also a devotee of the renegade Freudian Wilhelm Reich and his Orgone theory—which connected the cosmic force that imbues the universe to sexual orgasm.
By this point, Leite seems to have developed relationships with a number of important writers. He knew Robert Duncan, the Berkeley poet, and Kenneth Rexroth, godfather of the San Francisco Renaissance (and creator of many of the Bay Area’s left-libertarian institutions). In April 1944, he introduced Rexroth to the teen-aged Philip Lamantia, who would go on to re-invigorate surrealism; indeed, the next day, Lamantia left for New York to meet Andre Breton and work for a surrealist magazine. (Irritated by Leite’s later actions, Rexroth would write this episode out of history.) Some time in this period, Leite began teaching a course on experimental literature, which got him associated with some of Berkeley’’s more mainstream poets, such as Josephine Miles, a professor at the University, as well as others more exotic, such as Duncan’s friend Jack Spicer. The exact nature and status of this course is not clear, but the first issue of Circle said Leite was “in charge of an experimental-writing workshop at the University of California, Berkeley.”
In 1944, Henry Miller moved from Beverly Glen to Big Sur; that year, Porter published a number of Miller’s works, including his gigantic fuck-you to the war state, “Murder the Murderers.” The Leites also moved to Big Sur, to be near Miller, renting a convict’s shack. (This may have spurred a nickname I have seen only referenced once, “Blackie the Bandit,” which was also obviously a reference to Leite’s skin color.) By this point, Leite and Miller were very close. In April, Miller had gone up to Berkeley and seen him—and this may have been the occasion when Leite (re)introduced Miller to marijuana. It was Miller’s second toke, and still had no significant effect: “all I felt is my usual love of dancing,” he reported to Nin. For Leite (and others), Miller was a mystical father. Leite told him, “You have helped me more than anyone I have ever known, you have given me the faith to be myself, to continue being what I know I am.”
That same year saw Leite and Porter putting out the first issue of Circle, sometime in the spring. That first issue was mimeographed, but later ones were published—9 between 1944 and 1946, with a tenth coming out later, almost as an afterthought. Circle was an important little magazine, with circulation going around the world. The first issue announced it would hew to no school— “When a technique becomes a school, death of creation is the result. Eclecticism is the only approach to Art in which there is no death. Circle is completely eclectic”—but there were certainly affinities. Leite himself was inspired by Ezra Pound. A group of poets known as “The Activists” had their work published in Circle; Lamantia did, too, and there’s a sense in which Circle was extending the surrealist tradition, though mostly stripped of its communist roots and linked with Henry Millerian anarchy. The magazine was not just poetry and prose. Porter, especially, was interested in photography, the merging of science and art in what he called sci-art, and some of his experiments were published here. Another photographer, George Barrows, did some of the covers. (These would inspire the budding science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, down in Southern California, and he used Barrows to illustrate the cover of “Dark Carnival.”)
The birth of Circle was about more than the coming of a magazine, though. Circle produced a number of books, some on poetry, explicitly in the tradition of Wallace Stevens. The Egyptian writer Albert Cossery had his “The Men God Forgot” put out by Circle, as was Miller’s “Varda, The Master Builder” and Durrell’s “Zero.” Miller, early on, was active in recruiting potential writers. He put in a good word for Leite and Circle to Nin, to the professor and close associate Wallace Fowlie, and to the writer Lawrence Durrell. (Leite was trying to put out Durrell’s “Black Book.”) The first issue had Miller’s open letter to the publishers of small literary magazines (addressed to Leite, reprinted in “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird”), advising them that even if they cannot pay their writers in cash, they should send something, or ask if they could help them with their work. It was true that Leite wasn’t paying, for which Miller apologized to those he solicited, even offering to pay them instead, though he himself had no money. But Miller thought, at least initially, that Leite was doing things the right way. He wrote an acquaintance: “There is George T. Leite, another new-found friend, who edits out of his own pocket a little magazine called Circle at Berkeley, California. George Leite has a wife and child and works as a taxi driver a few days a week. Out of this he sends me royal gifts every now and then, always at a crucial moment, for he has a nose for my needs. In addition he does things for me which my oldest friends would never dream of doing. He can find the time though he has less time than nearly any one I know.” Among those things was sharing with Miller everything that Nin wrote to Leite or circle. It turned out that, despite Miller’s fears, Nin had liked the issues of Circle she saw and was contributing.
Around this time, Leite started to become active in Communist politics. Stephen Schwartz says Leite may have been drawn to it through Warren D’Azevedo, who was certainly becoming more politically radical in the mid-1940s, though it is hard to see exactly how Warren could have influenced George (and Schwartz’s proposed genealogy for how communism passed from Berkeley professors to Warren makes sense in theory but falls apart when one actually considers the historical record and what Warren was up to at the time.) Warren had left the merchant marines, become an ordinary seaman and joined a union—but was upset that the union was not respecting strike lines. He seems to have been teaching at some communist institutions, including the “California Labor School,” which had been founded in 1942 and was a source for communist education. (D’Azevedo himself had been reading communist tracts he found on ship’s libraries.) But most of World War II he spent aboard ships, and the earliest connection I can find between him and the California Labor School—in a California state report on Un-American activities—is 1946.
By contrast, George Leite was teaching at the California Labor School as early as 1944—so perhaps the influence went the other way, with Leite bringing Warren into the school. On 30 October 1944, with the war still raging, Henry Miller wrote to Wallace Fowlie, “Last night I attended a class in the Labor College where George Leite lectures on Art and Lit. Spoke on Dadaism. What a strange sensation I had. As if transported to another planet. What meaning can such a subject have for these Californians? If there was once a bridge between the old and new worlds, it now seems gone. The whole farce and futility of education (cultural education) in America suddenly appeared in the grisly light of reality. I tell you, the reality of this moment is that the whole shooting match is about to be extinguished. What I realized (with blinding clarity) as I sat there, was that the poets prefigured the end long ago. We are simply going thru the motions, life [sic] sleepwalkers.” The report says more about Miller’s projection of Philistinism on California than it does about the actual art community of the time, or its intersection with radical politics. From the letter, it is clear that this is not the first time Leite lectured at the Labor School—and this was in addition to his lecturing at the experimental-writing group connected with the University of California.
Radical politics and radical art mixed in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as there was a strong libertarian streak, communism was not always welcomed. Certainly, there was a strong labor movement in California, and that drew energy from communism. At first, too, surrealism was closely associated with communism—early on Lamantia would have communist sympathies, like Leite. But Rexroth, Duncan, and other of the intellectual leaders in the art community took a dim view of communism. (As did Miller, it must be said.) Rexroth was particularly incensed by Leite’s turn toward communism. He wrote the founder of New Directions James Laughlin,
“All indications are that George Leite has gone over to the Top of the Mark unit of the Communist Political Association. It is only to be expected. He is completely without ethics, principles or morals, and they will feed him cocktails and give him small sums to print them and their friends. There is nobody else out here to do it. I certainly am never invited out, as they say. The great trouble with the [Henry] Miller outfit is their antinomianism—the characteristic sin of all irresponsible mysticism. The thing they don’t realize is that the primary channel of spiritual realization is prayer, and prayer is the highest form of responsibility. People who are so unworldly that they have no regard for the truth or other people’s property are, according to the best authorities, Devil worshippers. I used to think Henry was tarred with the same brush, but since I have met him, I doubt it. It seems to me that he is simply careless and inarticulate, and encourages vices in others simply because he himself is too innocent to be aware of them. The trouble [with these writers] is that they have no real understanding of evil. They can never make up their minds and waver between dualism, and complete denial of the existence of evil. This is the old, old story—first century Gnosticism was gnawing the same dilemma. I am afraid I am incurably orthodox.”
That was in March 1945, the start of a bad period for Leite.
Meanwhile, after hearing Leite lecture at the California Labor School, Miller took a trip across the country, prompted by his mother’s illness. While in New York, he met Janina Lepska, a brilliant student from Bryn Mawr who had won a scholarship to Yale (where Wallace Fowlie taught). She was 21, Miller in his fifties, but he swept her off her feet: she left behind Yale and traveled across the country with him, stopping to marry in Denver, January 1945, and on to Big Sur, with its primitive conditions, falling down shacks, and groceries delivered twice a week by mailboat. It was quite a shock. Miller expected her to become kind of an factotum so that he could focus on his writing. Lepska did have some intellectual outlets, though. As Bern Porter remembered, she would come up to Berkeley and help to edit Circle. The Leites were much closer to her in age and, reading between the lines, they seemed to forge a good relationship.
By the end of 1944, Leite and Porter had produced four volumes of Circle. Leite was married, with a child. He was teaching (and driving a taxi). Philip Lamantia, young and energetic, was back in town, disillusioned by what he’d seen in New York, hungry to continue remaking surrealism into something different. Leite had met one of his idol’s, lived near him, and worked with his wife. Miller was still on his side, still trying to get good work for him to publish. As late as July 1945, Miller wrote to Lawrence Durrell, “George is waiting impatiently for word to go ahead from your agents. True, he has no money. But he can borrow it for this undertaking. There is a demand for the book. Anyway, he’s doing Cossery’s. That’s good too. I love Cossery’s work. Very close to myself, I find—or imagine.” There were still good things on the road ahead, but there would be unravelling, too, as well as weird knottings up. Things got more and more complicated.
Some time in 1945, Bern Porter and George Leite had a falling out. The exact nature of the dispute is unclear. Arthur Hoyle, one of Miller’s more recent (and astute) biographers has them fighting over editorial control of Circle. That’s a bit vague, though. Porter’s own “Ive Left,” written some thirty years on, suggested that he had a very different vision of art’s future: not in words, but in images, in its complete mixing with scientific processes. Leite was still rooted in surrealism, to an extent, and an admirer of Ezra Pound and Henry Miller, craftsmen of words. That could have caused a falling out. It’s also true that Porter was going through an intense emotional period, first dropping out of the Manhattan Project—mostly depriving himself of his only financial support—and then a crisis of conscience after the explosion of the atomic bomb. His last issue as assistant editor of Circle was number six, late in 1945, although some of his material did appear in the combined 7-8 issue.
At the same time, the events swirled about and engulfed Leite. Warren D’Azevedo left his union and joined the more radical National Maritime Union (earning a beating in the process, he later remembered) and became attached to the California Labor School. In August 1945, Nancy gave birth to the Leite’s second child, George Daliel. Daliel was also the name of a new bookstore and gallery that Leite opened around this time, though it was always styled with a lower-case d. daliel’s became an important hub of the artistic community, where people like the communist anthropology professor Paul Radin, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Kenneth Rexroth, and others could meet. It sold copies of Reich’s work, of course, and there remained a strongly mystical bent to the whole group—an antinomic one, as Rexroth had it, blending Theosophy and other bits of occultist lore. (D’Azevedo sheepishly remembered reading through volumes about the lost continent of Mu as he studied the anthropology of the South Seas while aboard ships plying those waters.) Late that year, in October, Lepska came to live with the Leites for a while. She was pregnant and past due, needing to be nearer medical centers than Big Sur. Eventually she gave birth to a daughter, Valentine.
Perhaps it was the financial strains imposed by all of his publishing ventures, his family, and his other commitment; perhaps it was his tendency to flirt the law—he smoked joints and, according to an acquaintance, Lee Watkins, liked to brawl. Whatever the case, some time during this period—a poet-friend William Everson said it was at the end of the War, and he certainly wasn’t in the area before the war ended, as he had been holed up in a conscientious objector’s work camp—Leite got into some legal issues. (I have not found records proving this, only recollections.) According to Everson, “During the last year of the war, [Leite] was working as a taxi driver in the East Bay. One night he allegedly took a drunk to a bar, followed him into the men’s room, and came running out fast. The drunk came lurching out, muttering that Leite had taken his wallet. A few days later the police arrested him and he was brought to trial for assault and robbery. He asked a number of his friends, including Lee Watkins, to act as character witnesses for him, but he refused to take them into his confidence as to what he was charged with or as to his guilt or innocence.” According to Everson, it wasn’t until they were all actually in the courtroom that they realized what was going on. The prosecution didn’t have, finally, enough evidence for conviction, but Watkins didn’t appreciate being manipulated in that way and after the trial he wrote Leite a letter telling him he wanted nothing more to do with him. Rexroth and his friends had been giving him much support, but because of incidents like this drew back from him.” Of course, it’s another reason he may have been nicknamed “Blackie the Bandit,” a less playful, more mean-spirited one.
Watkins supposedly wrote a character analysis of Leite in 1945, after this incident, but did not donate it to the University of California, Davis, for a few decades more. It is excoriating. And, indeed, Rexroth’s dislike of Leite grew, reason for him to write Leite out of the story of the Bay Area literary community. Watkins—in contradistinction to Miller—thought Leite was “a complete egotist,” only interested in other people as far as he could use them. He claimed that Leite liked to shock people by “pulling the homosexual act” but was nothing but a “poseur and pretender” who read enough only to maintain an intellectual façade. His interest in mysticism was of a piece with his egotism: mysticism was easy, certainly easier than studying science, as Theosophy, for example, presented an entire system of thought, an entire history of the world. And it marked him as unique, when which was what Leite wanted the most: “he made a cult of being different,” Watkins said, and would do anything to cement that image: “George had the kind of ego that would believe or preach any kind of shit if he thot [sic] it would get his name before the public. He is the sort that would fuck his grandmother if it would gain him headlines without jail.” Rexroth was pithier, telling Laughlin in November 1946, “Miller and Leite get shittier and shittier. I can smell them from here. I think it’s that little retired chambermaid of Hank’s that is destroying him. Leite is headed for the gas, sure’s hell.”
As 1945 ended, Leite had lost significant parts of his support system, Porter and Rexroth and Everson and Watkins and Miller’s friend in Big Sur, Emil White, who was jealous of Leite’s friendship with Miller, and worried that Leite might elbow him away. But he still had his fans. There was Nin and Duncan and Philip Lamantia, for example. Tiffany Thayer called him a “good boy” and Ezra Pound was apparently something of a fan, at least of Circle. He had a wife and two children. There was Lepska. In time, he would have a mistress, as well. And there was still Henry Miller himself. Miller told Wallace Fowlie, in April 1946, “Yes, he is a wonderful fellow—and a ball of dynamite too. How he accomplishes all he does is beyond me. Naturally, he has not the means and facilities of the big publishers, but I think his following is a good one. He is printing only good books. Began with the Egyptian’s book, followed by Durrell’s Black Book, and will probably continue with Giono’s study on Melville. It is possible he may do Rivière’s study on Rimbaud in translation. His magazine is reaching out all of the world now. I think he will make good. . . One thing is certain, you can rely on his word. He may not get things out on time—his only failing—but he will execute everything he promises to do and will always be a loyal friend. And he will make as good, if not better, terms with you as the commercial publisher.”
No surprise, then, that Leite was spending time in Big Sur, close to Henry Miller. Although, by accounts, life here, on the Pacific Coast, was as chaotic as in Berkeley or San Francisco. Judson Crews was there at the time, a publisher of little magazines from Waco, Texas, and Miller fan; he recorded his memories in the 1970s, some 1,500 pages of them that were eventually whittled into book, although his memory is not always to be trusted, or, at least, it fails to match up against the records. According to him, in late 1945, Leite and Nancy “were not fucking, and George ran all over Berkeley asking anybody—and most of them said no. Nancy evidently hadn’t liked this very much, and she felt a certain power now to whet the grudge she still felt.” George’s tomcatting came while Nancy was pregnant with their second child, Daliel—namesake of the bookstore—who was born 2 August 1945. Their other child, nicknamed Lanice, was “elfin,” Crews said, with a scatological vocabulary, appending any number of nouns to to the word shit in order to make her feelings known: chickenshit, pigshit, turkey shit. (If Crews is to be believed, Leite’s favorite judgment was measuring something’s worth against a duck’s fart in the water, whatever that meant.)
Rexroth came to visit at some point—to hitch himself to Miller’s star, in Crews’s estimation, though that doesn’t seem right. He didn’t get along with many people—according to Crews, nobody down there got along with anybody—especially Emil White, as both had been involved with Chicago’s Bohemia and the Dill Pickle Club (which also hosted the future Fortean Robert Spencer Carr). But Rexroth did have an eye for the ladies, Crews said, and was on the make. Everyone was on the make, Crews said, but few people were getting any. Leite insisted he needed to have an orgasm each day, “or go crazy. And he admitted he generally got it jacking off. The confession awed me a little. He was only about the third person in my life ever to admit to jacking off—which was generally built up in those days as the most shameful sex practice on earth, which in a sense it is. But George was open enough on this question.” In between the (apparently failed) love lives, Leite drummed up funds for Circle, approaching John Steinbeck or working in the canneries of Monterey, which were heavily populated by Portuguese immigrants. Like Rexroth, Crews did not have a particularly high regard for Leite—“a scattered fellow,” a “sick guy,” —he might have been intelligent but never gave anybody a chance to find out. Crews was “disgusted with Emil and George Leite—their attitudes toward women. They were reprehensible examples of manhood.” He did have grudging respect for Nancy, though given backhanded: “Nancy was a peculiarly horse-faced, dumb-looking girl, though as it turned out, very bright.”
In January 1946, Leite gave up his shack to the Miller’s. It was near Emil White’s house, in a section of Big Sur that had once housed convicts, and was extremely primitive. And it was the house that Lepska had to return to, now with a baby in tow. The Leites, with their own two children, Daliel only a few months older than Valentine, stayed on in Big Sur, and Miller had Jean Varda, the artist fix up their new shack. By this point, according to recollections Leite was committed to the work of renegade Freudian Wilhelm Reich and had come to posses an Orgone Accumulator, which was a box one sat in, where the energy of the universe was focused and collected for use of the owner. (His enthusiasm for Reich might also explain his insistence that he orgasm daily.) Leite did not purchase his Accumulator—the sale of which would one day cause Reich trouble with the FDA, along with the selling of related materials—but built his own, and his lover remembered that it stood outside of his office. (Bern Porter was also a Reichian.) His mistress continued, Leite “explain[ed] to me that Wilhelm Reich was a genius who worked under Freud and that Reich had invented this marvelous devise to step up an individual’s vital powers, necessary because we’ve all been horribly crushed and injured by a suppressive society.”
That lover was Jody Scott, who arrived from Chicago some time in 1946 to take classes at the University of California. Three years younger than Leite, Scott had been born Joanna Huguelet to a family of garage owners in Chicago. She attended Northwestern University before moving to California and, like Leite, supported herself with menial jobs. Scott was the surname of her first husband; she apparently didn’t bother with the name of a second husband, Wood. (Unfortunately, I can find no records of her marriages, but she was definitely Jody Scott by the time she reached Berkeley.) The sexual arrangement was complicated—later in life Scott would be identified as a lesbian—and she explained to a historian, shortly before her death in 2007, “I shared a house, his wife, and Circle magazine, and coauthored a book with George Leite.” Nancy told the same author, Christopher Turner, for his book “Adventures int he Orgasmatron,” “We had a wild and crazy life.” After he deaths, there would be claims that Scott did most of the editorial work on Circle, but this cannot be true—she was there at the end of its run—and ran daliel’s, which may be true. By the time Scott arrived, Circle had gone through its first six issues, the major part of its run. She could have helped with issues 7 and 8, which came out in a combined volume, and number 9, all of which appeared that year.
That year—1946—continued Leite’s hard times. The combining of two issues already suggests he was stretched for funds, and had lost friends—though the arrival of Scott probably made life easier and more enjoyable. In May, he and Duncan got into a major fight. Duncan had written an important poem, “An African Elegy,” which had been accepted by John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1942. Before it could be published, though, Ransom cancelled the acceptance—because Duncan had come out publicly as a homosexual, and Ransom thought “African Elegy”’s references to the “dark continent” was code for homosexuality. Leite was interested in publishing “African Elegy” in “Circle,” along with the surrounding correspondence. Leite himself was sympathetic toward homosexuality, and, according to Lee Watkins, played the part of a gay man at times, whether that included having sex is not clear. Duncan, though, wa put off by Leite, writing—as quoted in James Gifford’s “Personal Modernisms”—he “doesn’t see at all what I am doing. His enthusiasm is so damnd [sic] mistaken.” Leite, though, won him over, and a week later Duncan told a friend, “Leite has written me an exceedingly winning letter—winning by its rather surprising maturity of tone and countenance; the result of which is, specifically, that he is printing the African Elegy and the correspondence with approval. I shall read the proofs carefully myself etc. The result, generally, is that I no longer am minded to boycott CIRCLE and shall make what contribution I can to him in the future.”
A more substantive break came at the end of the year, when Henry Miller turned on him. Already Miller had realized that Bern Porter could promise more than he could deliver; and he thought that Judson Crews (at least according to Judson Crews) was making him look bad, Crews’s “unconventionality . . . drawing attention to him, giving him a black eye.” He and Lepska had major disagreements over the raising over their children. And in December Miller became fed up with Leite not paying, not following the dictates that he had laid out in the open letter which appeared in the very first issue of Circle. To Miller Leite was “a bastard.” He was particularly incensed that Leite had missed the deadline on Durrel’s Black Book, and then dropped it altogether. (New Directions took over.) Leite even seemed to have botched Durrell’s “Zero,” which Miller couldn’t find in any bookstore. Miller wrote Leite, asking him for status updates, but Leite didn’t respond. By this point, he was back in Berkeley, and there was little chance for a face-to-face meeting.
There would be no Circle in 1947—the magazine looked dead, however auspicious its beginning, only three years before. A year earlier, Leite had become involved in a new project, the “Art in Cinema” group associated with Berkeley. It was taking up some of his time, which must have already been spread thin, given his jobs, his kids, his wife, his mistress. Leite helped to put together a symposium at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1947, with Douglas MacAgy, director of the Museum and Circle contributor. In addition, Leite was the program manager for the Committee, which had some connection to the University of California. “Art in Cinema” championed avant-garde films. It was another aspect of cultural reform that he was trying to perform, renew the world through better modes of art. There was only so much that could be done with poetry, prose, even the poster poems and photo poems he had helped compose with Porter. As Fort had said two decades before, cinema was the art of the future. Leite wrote,
“With the invention and eventual development of the motion picture camera there was for the first time a machine to lie alongside the pen and the brush, a machine for the creation of the art of the machine! A medium with motion implicit, not tricked from the canvas as the Futurists had attempted; with machine as the viewer and viewed rather than the sought after and worshipped as in Hart Crane. The camera forced the artists to gather and gather together.
“The machine forces collectivity. Two-dimensional art became for the first time the joint work of artists and even the scientist was included. Directly connected with he laboratory and the machinist as enjoyment, the vanguard film became the finest basis for a truly collective and democratic art form.
“As the editor of an art-literary magazine I see the creative film as the best possible means of broadening the cultural front. The best possible means of tightening the critical centers of the greatest numbers of people. I see the vanguard film as one of the most important creative arts today, taking the place of none, but taking the place it has created for itself. I see the vanguard film giving impetus to the reading of poetry, listening to music and to the enjoyment of painting; I see it as the vanguard of art, drawing new thousands into participation. I see the vanguard film repairing the dangerous breach caused by the bifurcation of art and science and giving new strength to both, as being but two two sides of the same coin. I see an art form, collective and fresh, big enough for the entire world.”
Not much came of that project—but there was more bad news. That was the year Crews left for Taos, New Mexico (which had also drawn Robert Spencer Carr, and right about the same time; another Fortean, Fredric Brown would also shortly make his home there). In April, Harper’s published Mildred Edie Brady’s “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy,” an attack on the shenanigans in Big Sur, particularly Miller, but also Leite and his circle and “Circle.” Brady had a couple of axes to grind. She disliked Reich—and, indeed, the entire Freudian superstructure, following this article with one in the New Republic the following month: “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich”—and, schooled in old-fashioned Marxism, she did not like the anarchism and mysticism of the new generation of Bohemians. Crews believed that Leite was the entire source for the article—which seems as wrong as his claim that he did not appear in it even as a ghost, since one of his magazines was name-checked. There’s a lot of Rexroth in it, too, blasting the Bohemians for their antinomianism and vague mysticism. But, Turner reports that, according to her secretary, Brady was fascinate by Leite, his Reichian enthusiasm and his unusual living situation—certainly the article supports this contention, since Brady is especially vigorous in attacking Bohemian men for living a life of ease while letting the women do all the work.
Whomever might have been the sources, none of the targets were happy, even if they didn’t otherwise get along—enemy of my enemy and all that. Rexroth dismissed her as an apparatchik of the Communist party. There was talk of suing for libel. But the hits kept coming, as the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst paper, picked up the baton and ran a series of articles on what it called a “cult of hate,” tracing Miller’s—and by extension all Bohemian youths—anarchism to Emma Goldman. The very existence of civilization was at stake. The article roused Circle back to life, in 1948, for one last hurrah:
“CIRCLE IS BREAKING A TWO YEARS’ SILENCE with this issue because no other current literary magazine is equipped to function in the new world. From Fascist Review to Coyote’s Coccyx to Last Ditch, a picture with equal dimensions of reaction and confusion is presented. The old ground has been plowed so often that even the worms can hardly survive, and turn instead to ore lucrative pastures and slick covers.” After reviewing why so many of the other little magazines were ill-fit for the current situation, “The Editors” continued,
“We might add parenthetically that, in spite of the libelous mud thrown last year in HARPER’S MAGAZINE, the Hearst press and a hundred other irresponsible sources: CIRCLE is not the representative of Sex and Anarchy. If such a cult exists anywhere the most likely place would be San Simeon [Hearst’s home], where a library to go with it is already established. As for Henry Miller and ‘followers,’ Mr. Miller and Mrs. Miller live at Big Sur with their daughter Valentine in a cabin on top of of of the steep Pacific Coast mountains. Mr. Miller is busy writing; he receives few visitors. George Leite is doing research in criminal psychopathology, is creatively married and is the father of two children. Kenneth Rexroth is enjoying a Guggenheim fellowship and is not associated with CIRCLE. Dr. Wilhelm Reich continues to practice psychiatry in New York. Mildred Brady, wife of a professor of economics at the University of California, is herself a serious student of sexual cults and aberrations, so has left Berkeley for England and greener pastures.”
That “creatively married” was a wink at Leite’s relationship with Scott, which had by now definitely carried over to “Circle”: she was listed as associate editor, though spelled here with two Cs, the position Bern Porter once held. (Nancy Leite was business manager.) The issue was a complete one, over 100 pages, though it did not continue a piece by Henry Miller that was started in 1946. It did include Duncan’s “Toward an African Elegy,” sans correspondence. It also included a story co-authored by Leite and Scott—the prose is definitely similar to that which would be developed in Scott’s later novels (“Passing for Human,” “I, Vampire”). It was a Fortean tale of sorts, opening with the death of an organist after a mouse was stuck in the instrument, forcing another piece to break free and shoot into his body. It then backtracked to tell a complicated, interrelated tale—in only a few pages—of what might be called OSS people: Koss and Moss and Joss, a gangster, a laborer, and the various ways they are screwed over by the system; as well as a capitalist who, to prevent a war that might enroll his son, sets out to destroy the capitol of the newly communist world, by dropping an atomic bomb and shooting out deadly bacteria and viruses—only to fail to find the city and witness the communists rocketing into space, and a better world. Notably, the brief biographies given of the contributors did not include anything on Sccott.
The endpapers promised another issue, including the conclusion of Miller’s piece; and Writer’s Market for 1949 listed Circle as a viable place of publication; but it never appeared. Duncan’s poem and the story by Leite and Sccott were the last two pieces ever to appear in “Circle.” By then, the impulse for a literary magazine had bene redirected. Philip Lamantia was editing “The Ark,” which was to be an expression of Kenneth Rexroth’s vision of anarchism, with Robert Duncan and William Everson as Rexroth’s other lieutenant. “The Ark” didn’t last long before Lamantia, then Emerson gave up on Rexroth and his vision. Leite was nowhere in the pages of its one issue, Spring 1947. He was suffering other troubles in the months after Brady’s article appeared. (Some have suggested that Brady’s articles were the cause of “Circles” decline, but that’s clearly not the case.)
One problem was with his love life—apparently not complicated enough for Leite. In the summer of 1947, Anaïs Nin arrived in California, stopping in Berkeley to meet the editor of “Circle.” It was an awkward event, as she recorded in her diary: “When I arrived, I was amazed by his appearance. He is like a white Gonzalo [her Peruvian lover]: six feet tall, round head, black curly hair, big dark eyes. He is of Portuguese descent. He moves impetuously, with a quick jazzed rhythm. Leaped into his old car, drove me to his home, a half-empty cottage, where his wife waited. They had children. They had offered to put me up in the parlor. We sat and drank coffee. George and his wife were like people from a foreign country, after New York. They were inarticulate. Between each phrase, often an unfinished one, they had to move. Books, people, places, were mentioned in a fragmented, incomplete way. Themes were picked up and dropped. I could never recover what was said. There was something disquieting about George. Restless. Evasive. Mobile. He placed records on the phonograph. They were like signals and messages, a secret code. I do not know enough about jazz to classify or name the players. I listened. It was as if we could not speak the same language. Slang, jazz musicians’ lingo, a phrase thrown out, a silence in place of an answer. He seemed amazed that I left them. It was an unfinished evening. The Leites took me out. But first of all George insisted I swallow a pill. I did not know what it was. Suddenly the evening became cottony and diffuse. No talk. We went to a night club. In front of the night club, I saw a pool of blood. It was not a pool of blood. It was red wine, from a broken bottle. George seemed to be driving like a maniac. We danced on rubber feet. The jazz music whirled. Again, they were amazed that we separated. At last I understood. We were supposed to sleep together, the three of us. I kissed them and sent them on their way. The next morning I left for Monterey.”
The other problem was one he may not have known about, but was consequential nonetheless. One of Ezra Pound’s acquaintances, tired of the old poets fascist sympathies and racist views, told him that Leite was not an Aryan, but of Portuguese dissent. Incensed, Pound let loose with a long stream of invectives. One more supporter gone for Leite, even if this one was more theoretical than involved in the daily grind. I do not know what effect Pound’s disapproval of Leite had on Tiffany Thayer. Nor do I know if Leite ever learned of the event. It would have hurt, given how much Leite admired Pound, and how sensitive he was about his Portuguese ancestry. By that point, according to an acquaintance of Scott, writing in her obituary, Leite thought of himself as something of a new Lincoln, poised to heal America’s racial wounds.
There was other strife, visible today only in fragments. I’m not sure, exactly, what Leite was up to after he put out the final issue of Circle in 1948. Clearly there were financial issues, or there would have been a number 11. And daliel’s wouldn’t have been sold. But therein lies a complicated tale, but one mostly lost to history. In its 15 October issue, Publisher’s Weekly reported that daliel’s had been purchased . . . by Donald L. H. Sccott and Joan M. H. Sccott—both of whom had their last names spelled with two Cs—and who were to operate it together. That was Jody Scott (or Sccott), Leite’s mistress, and Donald must have been her first husband. On her website, written some fifty years later, Scott called Donald (admittedly spelling his name with a single C) a buddy, and said he was gay, which might suggest that their first marriage, whether official or not, was a marriage of convenience, the each the other’s beard. The purchase would also explain why Scott’s friend later thought that she ran the entire gallery—she had purchased it. Meanwhile, Warren d’Azevedo had returned from sea to Berkeley and was doing graduate work in anthropology—where he became more closely associated with the communist professor Paul Radin. Leite might have taken up with his old buddy again.
The only other information I have on what Leite was up to during 1950—besides the obvious familial obligations—was writing a book with Scott. In October 1951, Harper published the paperback “Cure It with Honey” by Thurston Scott—a pseudonym composed of Leite’s middle name and Scott’s married name. The story was about a psychiatrist from San Quentin who became involved in a murder mystery among the Pachucos—the hard-edged Mexican gangsters of Oakland. The book was raw for its time—tame for now—with suggestions of easy sex between a teenager and older man, references to marijuana and homosexuality—but had a strong Romantic feel, the Pachucos held up as a vital, salt of the Earth group, just trying to make their way in a foreign land. Clearly, Leite’s interest in racism and psychiatry went into the book, which was widely praised, including by (science fiction and mystery author, as well as fellow Fortean) Anthony Boucher. It was reprinted in 1958 under the title “I’ll Get Mine.” The publication came with loss, though. In the 23 June 1951 issue, Publisher’s Weekly reported that daliel’s had gone out of business.
Marijuana, though, was passé by this point, at least among the circle of Bohemians. Peyote was becoming the drug of choice. The exact history of its penetration into the Bay Area scene is hard to date, obviously. It’s effects were well-known by this time, however. The sex researcher Havelock Ellis—matriculated into the Fortean Society near the end of his life—had tried its derivative, mescaline, before the turn of the century, and in the early part of the twentieth century a group of Native Americans formed the Native American Church, an important aspect of which was the consumption of peyote. Antonin Artaud had written about his experiences with Peyote in “Les Tarahumaras,” published in 1947. Artaud was deeply influential on the avant-garde, and Lamantia, at least, had read that book no later than 1949. Miller and Artaud had been close in Paris, and it is likely that Leite might have happened upon his book via Miller; it’s also possible that, spending time with the Pachucos of the Bay Area, he came across some who had access to Peyote from Mexico; that may have even been the pill he gave to Nin. At any rate, Lamantia was known to be experimenting by 1951, first via trips to Mexico, later making the discovery that buttons of the peyote cactus could be purchased through seed catalogs. He turned on a number of friends; if Leite wasn’t already involved, he likely would have been made aware of Peyote by Lamantia.
And if he still hadn’t known, then it was Warren d’Azevedo who could have introduced him. Part of D’Azevedo’s anthropological research was on the Washos of Nevada and their use of Peyote. In 1954, George Leite arranged a meeting—almost assuredly through Warren’s intervention—between Lamantia and his wife (Goldian) and some Washos in Woodfords, California, where there was to be a peyote ceremony. By this point, it seems, Jody Scott had left the area—at least, she’s no longer mentioned and would, eventually, leave. There were forty or fifty people there, seated around a fire, drumming, singing, and hallucinating. For Lamantia, “The sky tasted like crystal star meat.” There’s no record of what Leite experienced.
Soon enough, though, it all became too much for him, the sex, the drugs, the jazz, the complicated relationships and menial jobs. He was just entering his thirties and was burning out. Henry Miller was writing the memoirs of his time on the Pacific Coast, “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” which were to include a lambasting section of Leite and his many, many failings. The publisher’s lawyers wanted to make certain Leite wouldn’t sue, and Miller could produce a letter from Leite giving him the rights to publish whatever he chose. Unfortunately, as Miller’s biographer Arthur Hoyle notes, Leite’s permission was written on letterhead from the Napa State Hospital. He’d suffered a nervous breakdown after mixing dexedrine with peyote. He was also suffering from tuberculosis. That letter was written in June 1955; “Oranges” appeared, with hardly a mention of Leite, in 1958, suggesting that there had been no more contact between Leite and his idol. When Leite was finally released, he became a school teacher, like his parents, according to Hoyle, teaching math. I have no records showing that, but Nancy did go to work for the Contra Costa County School District.
Scott would go on to have a cultish writing career—using the name with a single C—producing a few short stories and a couple of novels (with at least one promised publication that never appeared) as well as continuing to work menial jobs. On her website, she claimed to have worked for a pornographic theater in Monterey at one point, and that might have been after leaving the Scotts. (Donald L. Sccott may have traveled some, but seems to have ended up back in Oakland, working for public transit. He died in 1989). Jody Scott died in 2007. Nancy Lanice Leite married James Hammill on 1960, and Daniel J. O’Connor in 1977; George Daliel Leite married Elizabeth A. Fischer in 1966. For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, Daliel and Elizabeth ran Weathervane Books out of Walnut Creek, putting out, inter alia, their co-authored book “Simply Beautiful: Licing with the Earth in Mind” and and Daliel’s book on poison oak. He’s also been involved with protecting harbor seals and documenting the art of rock balancing.
George Thurston Leite died in August 1985. He was 64 years old.
It is not clear where, when, or how Leite first came across Fort, the Fortean Society, or Forteanism more generally. Certainly, there were plenty of opportunities, as Fort seems to have been a significant topic of conversation in the Bohemian circles of the San Francisco Bay Area during the war years and after. Indeed, it seems that Fort was first popular among the literati and vanguardists before he became a celebrity among pulp and science fiction writers. Rexroth had connections with Fort—his father supposedly new him in New York, and he may have heard about him from Ben Hecht, in Chicago or New York. Rexroth was known to occasionally lecture on Fort at his various gatherings. Lamantia, too, seems to have known Fort from an early age, as part of his interest in the unusual. (His archives at the University of California, Berkeley, include scrapbooks kept as a child, some made up almost entirely of clippings of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” comic.) There’s reason to believe that Fort influenced Lamantia’s style. Fort would also have been known among Berkeley poets of Leite’s acquaintance: Jack Spicer, one of Robert Duncan’s circle, was interested in and read science fiction. (He roomed with Philip Dick for a time, although this was later, after Leite would have been introduced to Fort.) Down in Monterey and its environs, Fort was, for a time, popular with Steinbeck and Varda; Miller had read Fort before ever reaching Big Sur, and enthused about him to Nin, more possible ways Leite could have been introduced to Fort. Thayer’s 1941 publication of the omnibus Fort would have made it easy for Leite to read the books, which before then had mostly been out of print and often difficult to find.
Fort fit into the temper of the times, the vibe of the place. There was the mysticism, of course—which Fort himself would have opposed, no friend of the religious, even the fuzzy variants—but Fort seemed to offer support to those with a mystical or Theosophical bent, proof of occult forces, the limits of science, and, possibly, the intervention of divine (or at least higher) beings. Fort’s phenomenology was strictly rooted in the experiential, and personal liberation was highly prized among the various San Francisco intellectuals, whatever their political differences might have been: Miller, Rexroth, Leite, they all saw the renewal of American culture as stemming not from socialism and its variants but individual spiritual growth, individual experiences that stood against—and could not be erased—by the growing power of the state, the military, and big business: what Dwight Eisenhower had not-yet named the military-industrial complex.
It’s also true that Fortean writing resonated with surrealism, especially as that movement was detached from its political moorings. In a sense, Fort was documenting the culture’s subconscious, the things it had forgotten or could not see. His writing style anticipated the fragmented, cut-up, collages of 1940s’ surrealist writings, such as Lamantia’s and, after him, William Burroughs, and also the abstract expressionism that took hold at San Francisco’s art institute. Miller, who had done much to uncouple surrealism from communism and attach it to anarchism became increasingly interested in Fortean topics after his move to Big Sur, his reading on the occult, magic, and flying saucers crowding out his reading of literature. Lamantia followed a similar process—originally attracted to communism as a part of surrealism, he broke from both, then embraced a version of surrealism that was personal rather than political. So, again, from a different direction, the area’s artistic concerns were drawn to individual experiences, and Fort was chronicler of these, Forteanism a promoter of them: these things happened, no matter what official culture might say.
There is no doubt (pun intended) that Leite had read and been influenced by Fort no later than 1944. That was the year he (and Bern Porter) put out the first issue of Circle, the magazine an explicit reference to Fort. The opening words of the first issue’s manifesto were, “A circle can be measured beginning at any point: we decided to start our measure on the West Coast.” (The circle that Leite was trying to measure was the literary circle. He started in the West Coast, the manifesto proclaimed, because good work—virile work—was being done there but ignored on the East Coast.) There’s no doubt that Leite’s source for this was Fort. In the fourth issue, there was a page of mock reviews, “What They Are Saying about Circle” which listed a bunch of quotes about circles from famous and not so famous artists—Klee, Joyce. One was Fort’s famous maxim, “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”
Nor is there any doubt that Leite saw Fort as part of the literature that would renew culture—part of the avant-garde. The fourth and fifth issues, from 1944 and 1945, both advertised the works of Fort and noted that the editors could provide copies. By the sixth issue, Tiffany Thayer had made a connection and was asking for readers to provide a copy of the first issue of Circle to him. In the sixth issue—also from 1945—he paid to advertise the Fortean Society. The first advertisement captures how Fort was seen to relate to modern literature—the text reads as though it were written by Thayer, and it certainly goes against Aaron Sussman’s advice not to offend the buyers—but it also placed Fort in a tradition that Leite would have understood and approved of. It quoted Dreiser’s assessment that Fort was “The most fascinating literary figure since Poe,” Ben Hecht’s paean to Fort as “The Mad Hatter and Jack of Clubs,” and Booth Tarkington’s comparison of Fort to Blake and Cagliostro, then noted that “If you haven’t read” Fort, “kind and simple folk, you will remain kind and simple folk [sic] But if you do read him which out [sic] and we urge you to read him for your own self-respect.” The book sold for an admittedly high $4.50 but “it costs a lot to be freed from stupidity.”
There seemed to be good relations between Thayer and Leite in the mid-1940s. They had some correspondence, only pieces of which are extant, and it seems that Thayer may have mentioned he was close to Ezra Pound, and Leite asked Thayer to ask Pound for something for Circle. Thayer reassured Pound that Leite was a “good boy.” That was in May 1946. As it happened, Pound never did appear in Circle, although the advertisement for issue 11 said that the issue would carry some of Pound’s Cantos. (Which is interesting, since Pound would have heard about Leite’s heritage around this time.)
The year Thayer was promoting Leite to Pound was also the year Leite was first mentioned in Doubt, although it was a passing reference. Issue 16 had a piece by Thayer recommending a Albert Cossery’s collection of short stories, “Men God Forgot”: “A book in boards, with cloth back, published by Circle (the magazine), which is the activity of MFS Leite and Bern Porter, on the coast, associated with MFS Henry Miller. Its 139 pages include five short stories about people in the slums of Cairo, Egypt. They fairly take the hide off. Order from the Society, $2.50.” That Leite was an MFS—Member of the Fortean Society—didn’t necessarily mean he was paying dues; he was pretty poor after all, and Thayer was generous in extending membership to those who offered something else—in this case Thayer and Leite were swapping magazines. It is worth noting, though, that Porter was not listed as a member, suggesting that was a conscious decision on his part—perhaps as a scientist he was offended by Fort’s depiction of astronomy.
Leite only appeared in Doubt once more, in issue 25. By this point, the pulp writers and science fiction fans of San Francisco had rallied to Fort and formed Chapter Two of the Fortean Society (Thayer’s operation was honored as Chapter One). It is not clear to me that any of the various poets and artists associated with Leite and Miller and Rexroth ever attended any of these Chapter meetings. But in this issue of Doubt, Thayer—then excited by the Chapters, and generally interested in organizing Forteanism, a late-1940s rash of enthusiasm he would piss away in the next decade—reported on the Chapters, and in his discussion of Chapter Two made mention of Leite: “No other Chapters reported any activity, but George Leite, proprietor of daliel’s, 2466 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, is looking for people who are unable to sleep.’ daliel’s sells DOUBT, so you can send friends there for extra copies.”
That Leite was selling Doubt suggested some attachment to the Fortean Society, and Thayer, but it is clear that Leite’s Forteanism was always of a different type than that mostly promoted by the Society—and, indeed, that his connection to Forteanism recasts understanding of the Society in general. Leite may or may not have been interested in the various anomalies recounted in Doubt, in Thayer’s political ramblings, or the various Theosophical and astrological musings of its members—all of these were well within his bailiwick. But he was also after something else, not just scientific or political reform, but cultural revolution—one that went beyond Marxism, even if he was, for a time, a communist. Leite wanted to use art to recreate individuals, and from that a new society would grow, an anarchist, left-libertarian, aesthetic perspective that was never really displayed in Doubt. (Thayer himself was opposed to aesthetics in principle, and not particularly interested in cultural renewal, though he did generally cheer for anarchism and left-libertarian causes.)
But if we take seriously Leite’s connection to the Society and Forteanism generally—as well as the serious attention Forteanism received from others in his circle—Doubt, the magazine, starts to look a little different. It certainly stood in the tradition of fringe pamphlets—Thayer was friendly with other pamphleteers—and heckling magazines—Harry Leon Wilson’s “Puck” was an obvious influence—but it also belonged to the class known as “little magazines,” one of the main vehicles of cultural modernism during this period. The content looked different—not much poetry or art, only a few stories—but the political stance, the cultural concerns, the responses to industrial capitalism and militarism, the expressions of alienation and the critiques from outside the system—these marked Doubt and the Fortean Society as profoundly part of the avant-garde. There’s a reason that Leite and Thayer—both enthralled by Ezra Pound—would swap magazines, after all.
The fate of the Fortean Society, then, also starts to look different. It’s easy to explain on an individual level: Tiffany Thayer died in 1959, and with him went the Society. But there were broader forces at work, too. As Stuart D. Hobbs delineated in his 1997 book “The End of the Avant-Garde,” avant-gardism and the high modern project reach the end of its life cycle in the 1960s. The movement had been based on an alienated critique of modern capitalism, one that sometimes embraced socialism, other times stood against collectivism. But int he 1960s, it was co-opted into the various system it deplored: Cold Warriors pointed to the avant-garde as proof that America was a freer culture than communist countries, in a language that was very similar to that used by the avant-gardists themselves: one that was rooted not in collective change but individual experiences and creativity and imagination; artists joined the ranks of the universities and museums, making them part of the very system they criticized; and finally, as consumer capitalism replaced industrial capitalism, Bohemianism and avant-gardism became just another lifestyle choice, something that could be bought to create a particular kind of personality.
Forteanism suffered from some of these changes as well, although I do not have a good enough grasp on the history of the movement, yet, to fully outline the parallels and differences: the claims here are meant to be suggestive, not definitive. So, for example, I don’t have a fully thought-out story about Forteanism’s relationship to Red-Baiting. Nor am I sure how much Forteans became attache dot particular institutions that may have offered legitimacy in return for dampening the power of their critiques. It is true, thought, that later iterations of Forteanism, coming after Thayer, were deeply connected to consumer capitalism and used by people to construct personalities—something to by and showcase, an individual hobby, say, but one that no longer had a sharp edge of critique. perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I think of Vincent Gaddis’s perpetuation of Theosophical ideas, however outlandish, into the 1970s as weak sauce. They fit into the pluralist consumer society that America had become, no longer an outside view of the world.
Forteanism profoundly changed in the 1960s, in ways beyond what I want to analyze, and it reaffirms to me, from a new direction, that I am right to see the Forteanism that ran from 1919 to 1959 as a particular epoch, one that should be analyzed without too much regard to what came later.