|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 19, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Just to get us started, perhaps you'd like to tell us in the simplest way about where you were born and when?
As long as you don't ask why.
We won't worry about motivation at this stage.
I was born in Boston in 1920 in the middle of winter and I lived in Boston until I was old enough to escape. I was 21 and went to New York where I grew up. Is that succinct enough?
Well, we can go back now to your childhood and perhaps you could tell us a bit about your family ... and the family that you were born into on that winter night, and the events of that night when you were born?
Well, I was too young to remember the actual event but I was told that there was a snow storm ahead ... and in Boston the snow storm can be very high, especially, especially higher if nobody goes around clearing up the snow, which they don't do very much in the slums. So the ambulance came to pick up my mother, she being a heavy little lady, had to be carried on a stretcher by, I think, probably three people, maybe even more, but they had to carry her overhead for about three blocks before they could get to the ambulance. So I became a load to bear even at the very beginning. , I was the fourth child, the fourth male child of the family — unfortunately the other three were stillborn and I was the fourth. So you can imagine the caution that my parents tended upon me.
Were there any more children?
No, no, I became the classic only child but fortunately my parents weren't that cloying as I've seen in other parents be with only children. They were good people, very nice people, except they couldn't get along between themselves and the family broke up. They broke up when I was about nine or 10 I suppose and ...
Did they argue a lot?
Oh yes, oh yes, well a good prelude to breaking up is to argue, to justify the breaking up, and I was given ... I had to live with my mother, she got custody of me, but I saw a good deal of my father because he was only living right ‘round the block and I spent more time away from home than actually in home. So I think my formative influences, or whatever they may have been influences, were actually a result of affiliating with what's called the ‘settlement house.’ It was Elizabeth Peabody House around the corner and the cops obviously had gone to these people and said 'get these kids off the street, we put them all on probation' so the Peabody House found pretexts for breaking up the little gangs. I became involved with Peabody House in what they formed as a science department and I was quite fascinated with chemistry so, one thing led to another, and I became a precocious brat in the science department. I think the social workers of the Peabody House decided, let's give him some responsibility, to keep his energies in check. So they had me teaching other kids various classes. They'd say we are going to have a leather craft class next week, we are going to have metal class next week, metal craft, we are going to be having something in physics — you are going to be taking the class. So between this week and next I had to go through the literature, I ask somebody what it was all about, and stay one tiny little jump ahead of the rest of them. So that way I acquired a sort of a smattering of a pretty wide range of things and, as I say, that kept me busy enough so that I didn't have to spend much time at home.
That was a very early experience ...
... of the teaching that was to become a major, major part of your life.
Yes, yes, somehow or other I found myself in what was called project work — I became involved with projects. The best way of coming to terms with some expert subject, was something hands-on, and especially if you engage in a project to build a typical ... whatever it is ... a printing press, a model of a sulphur mine or something, in the doing of it you discover all sorts of interesting principles and I became involved in that with a vengeance. I liked doing things with my hands, putting things together and I became a bit of a specialist at it so that actually by the time I was about 15 or 16 I was teaching projects, the subject topic projects, to trainee teachers from Harvard, sometimes from Boston University, which was a bit of a gag. Here are these well-educated people being subjected to a high school kid, but that came in very handy; I rather enjoyed teaching.
In this hands-on sort of way, where you actually ended up with a product at the end of it ...
Exactly so, to the extent where ... when Louis Agassiz Shaw, who was a very wealthy guy, decided he was going to do his thesis in education at Harvard on the question — do exceptional children have to be mal-adjusted? — he prepared a seven-year project during which time he would set up summer schools, there would be a summer school for boys and another for girls. And he'd have the same youngsters coming back year after year after year. But he'd pick the youngsters as being exceptional. Now ‘exceptional’ there is not the same word that we have here, exceptional here very frequently means disadvantaged kids, exceptional there was so-called geniuses. So he plucked geniuses from all over Boston from various backgrounds, various families, various advantages and disadvantages; the one thing they shared in common was their IQ had to be exceptionally high. Except, I digress here on the case of one kid whose IQ, Stanford Binet IQ, was about 85, however he could sculpt. And his sculpture was compared to Malvina Hoffman's of the time. He was a savant, an idiot savant, but the other kids ... well the idiot of the rest of the group was a 135-136 and the smart-ass kid was a 191, who was a specialist on insects by the way. There are stories to tell about what these kids could do. Anyway, I became involved with this project.
In what capacity?
As a teacher. The headmaster of this unit was Allison Grant [sp?] and his wife, who was his assistant. He was headmaster of Cambridge Law School, a brilliant, brilliant educator, brilliant. And they had a Polish PhD, Ed Zavatski [sp?]. I say Polish because he was a count and he always used to refer to his heritage, and then they had me, a 17-year-old, and my job was to teach them project work. And the project work was the nucleus of everything they did, for example, they decided one year we were going to provide the dormitories with power. Now how are we going to generate power? Well, let's have a water wheel and in the making of the water wheel they had to involve themselves in physics, in purchasing therefore arithmetic, mathematics. In civics they established a little community around the fact that they could provide themselves with power they ran themselves, they ran their own government, they did all sorts of peripheral studies. All of the sorts of things they might get at school but this time attached to what seemed to be a working project. And so they built their power supply and charged their batteries and lit their dormitories. And the kids progressed year after year, we observed them and reported how exceptional they were progressing, how exceptionally, and whether they had particular hang-ups as exceptional children or whatever. We had nightly reports on them and I learned an awful lot from my seniors.
So you were 17, how old were the kids?
They started at eight and went on year after year through 14 ... up to 14, 15.
Now obviously this was a wonderful education for you, you've talked about your education as really happening at Peabody House, but what in fact was happening with your formal education at this time?
Well, I was doing my formal education. I ... I was going, I went through high school as an average pupil. Then went on to tertiary education. Now there was a choice. I could have had a one-year sponsored scholarship at Harvard. I could have gone to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and have to pay my way. No, I beg your pardon, that was a working fellowship or I could have gone to Mass. College of Pharmacy, which was a four year course with a Bachelor of Science at the end of it, and one that I could afford because money I had earned at the settlement house could be used to pay my tuition there. So I chose that one because they had the most wonderful biochemist teaching biochemistry, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to get involved in biochemistry so I went to Mass. College of Pharmacy, graduated and, not only got my degree, I also took my exam as a pharmacist and therefore I had a backstop. I could do something in case I couldn't do the other. Which came in very handy, by the way. I got my formal education that way. I wasn't the classic student because most of ... I never turned in assignments by the way because I was always busy working at the settlement house but I did manage to get through, and afterwards went to work as a chemist in New York, in a major foods company as a control chemist working with organic things, which ultimately I hoped would lead to biochemistry, but that was not to be a permanent operation.
Before we get you to New York ... and looking at that period of your growing up in Boston ... even though you said that it was your real education began in New York ... but that period in Boston as you grew up ... who out of that time would you say was the most important influence on your life?
Oh there were a number of them. There were a number of them. Bob de Lany, who not only taught acting and was in charge of the theatre, he was the director of the theatre. The Peabody House had a little theatre company, it was called The Peabody Players, and I worked with them as part of putting in my hours to earn the support, as it were.
What kind of work did you do with the theatre group?
I acted, stage-managed, worked backstage, built scenery, you know, we were ... he was a very strong influence I think. Alice McIntyre, who was in charge of the settlement house, she was a social worker. One of the warmest, most intelligent people I have ever known. Two of my singing teachers because they grabbed me and said, you know, this kid has got something of a voice, let's do something with him. One was Fay Dicks, who then passed me onto her teacher Ruth Streeter, who was an enormous influence in my life. She not only insisted that I study voice, she gave me the things, gave me the classes for nothing, and when she knew I was going to New York she arranged for me to study with her teacher, also on scholarship. I never had a chance to pay, well I didn't have money with which to pay. But she provided me not only with a very sound education but an awful lot of understanding of people and put me under a hell of a rotten obligation, because one day when I started making money in New York, I said, ‘now what can I pay you for all the time you've put in?’ She said, ‘nothing, pass it on’ ... [laughs] ... ‘What, what do I do? Do I have to do for other people what you did for me?’ She said, ‘pass it on, don't worry about giving it back.’ So she placed an obligation on me to keep an eye on other people to do the same sort of thing.
The settlement put you in touch with this wonderfully encouraging, discerning, supportive environment that gave you all these opportunities ...
Was that a big contrast to what you actually had at home and what would have happened if you hadn't had the settlement house?
I think so, I think so.
What kind, what was your household like, what was home like?
Well, it was pretty much a matter of survival, we did whatever was necessary to survive, because when the family broke up my father was an invalid and my mother was invalid too. It was a case of what do we do to keep going, so we tried various things including setting up a little shop in a lower ground store ... what was it called ... We called it a candy shop, it was sort of a general store that sold everything. Groceries, lollies, made our own sherbet and from which we bootlegged ... [laughs] ...
Oh, of course, it was prohibition.
Yes it was, and then this was when Joe Kennedy came into his own with the Kennedy clan and co.
And in a small way you did the same thing?
Yeah, yes, we'd get a delivery of, I suppose, 85 percent alcohol each week in a gallon tin and then we'd cut it with water and put it in flat little bottles and I'd be the one to distribute them, and my mother and father weren't getting along too well at the time. My mother was ... well she could hardly ever complete a sentence without some sort of crack about my father. So he very frequently retaliated in kind and on this occasion he put us in to the cops. So we were raided — my mother was put on probation and I was given a warning. So that was one money-making effort that didn't happen.
So where did the money actually come from ... where, what was the most ... ... [interruption] ...
Where did the money come from?
Yes, we both, oh I always have to remember, you are remembering.
Continuity, continuity. Where did the money come from for all this?
Yes, yeah. I'll ask you again so he's got a clean take.
So what was the fundamental source of income for the family during these early years?
Mostly welfare, I mean, until my father got cancer when I was about eight we were pretty secure because he was a house painter and he worked on contract with various companies but after that, once he got crook, we were on the dole or the equivalent of the dole, and especially when we broke up we were depending on both welfare contributions and what I made at the settlement house, so I had to make enough at the settlement house to support my mother and pay the tuition. Now my father got himself a small political job, jobs for the boys sort of thing, so he managed to get along well enough to pay the small needs, to take care of our small needs. But other than that it was always a very close, tight budget.
Was it a humiliating thing to be on the dole?
Oh yes, Oh yes. It wouldn't have been so bad if the kids at school hadn't set me up about it, but quite frequently on two days a week sometimes I'd be standing in the queue and ...
You collected the dole — not your parents?
Yeah, 'cause sometimes my parents ... my mother couldn't stand in the line, so I'd, I'd pick it up. I'd wait in the queue and my schoolmates would go by and send me up there and then when I got to school, sometimes late, I copped it from them again, but the funny thing was that I was in the queue with their parents very frequently. Their mother or father was in the line with me, but it wasn't very pride-making to think that somebody else was having to take care of you.
What decade are we talking about here, what years?
We are talking about the Depression years. We are talking about from 1930 on I think.
So in the area you lived in Boston, there were a lot of people finding it very hard?
Yes, it was a tenement area, not as bad as Harlem, but I suppose equivalent to Redfern in Sydney. It was a borderline slum area in many ways, but fortunately we were surrounded by parks, there were parks were we could go and have our gang fights. There were beaches if you had time to go to the beach, probably an hour's walk from where we were. The school was an hour's walk as well, so we had access to other things. But the actual community itself was not very affluent.
And how did it compare with the rest of Boston ... what was Boston like at that time?
Well, not far away, perhaps a five or 10 minute walk from where we were, was the other side of the bridge, or the other side of the tracks as it were. Beacon Hill, one of the most affluent places in all of the United States. The differentiation, the delineation between haves and have nots was very, very strong there. One could see where the lower class resided and that was us. And then right beside us was the upper, upper class, and then there were all sorts of shades in between, and very frequently in districts surrounding the West End. Mine was the West End, incidentally, I lived virtually beside the Mass, General Hospital and from my door I could see what was called the Ether Dome. The Ether Dome was where ether was first used, the first general anaesthetic. I could see the Ether Dome up there and if we had to go to the hospital ... we couldn't go to that hospital, we had to go the city hospital which was about an hour away.
Because you had to pay to go that hospital. So we had to go to the other hospital. We went to clinics and things of that sort. I mean this sounds terribly like hearts and flowers but, you know, when you are living through it, it's normal sort of, doesn't everybody?
During these hard times did people in your area stick together, was there a sense of solidarity?
They tended to stick together. They were of all backgrounds, all nationalities, all religions and they stuck together pretty well. It was like what [Noel] Coward ... take my, Coward's, hand, sort of thing.
Boston has a reputation of being a fairly straight-laced sort of a city.
... [laughs] ... Yes, the ultimate hypocrisy. The straighter the lace, the doubler the standard. It was a place that professed great liberalism, great thought, great analysis and yet every year the Watch and Ward Society had collected books that they burnt in a bonfire in Boston Common. Every year there was a book burning. We had some of the bawdiest burlesque houses on the east coast. We had some of the most corrupt politicians you'd ever want to know. The governor of the state was thrown into federal penitentiary for fraud of some kind, probably mail fraud, and he continued governing from the federal penitentiary. The settlement house had a lot to contend with, we saw very frequently the things behind the things. My father was a good case in point. He became what was known as a constable — he's a fellow that goes around serving writs or having people kicked out of their homes for non-payment of rent or something. And he got that because he was a ward healer, he was the one who drummed up votes for a political party. The ... the leader of the grey eminence behind this particular party was a fellow by the name of John I Fitzgerald. I wonder if the name rings a bell? Rose Fitzgerald was Mrs Kennedy and John F Kennedy, the F is Fitzgerald, he was the political boss of the area and my father became one of his flunkies and went around drumming up votes. So as a pay-off he was given this job, my father being semi-invalid very frequently and if I had time I'd go with him to serve the writ or help write out the returns on it. I ... this day something or other submitted, I forget what it was, but that was modus operandi, that was payola. That was the way people lived in that community.
What did you take away from observing all of this, that stayed with you for the rest of your life? What did you learn from it?
A resentment of double-think, a resentment of hypocrisy. My father on one occasion when I was very young took me to a funeral of ... and I forget whether it was Sacco or Vincetti. These were two anarchists who had been framed in ... in a murder robbery. And they were duly executed. They were obviously innocent and it became a great cause celebre. But it was a political sort of thing, it was a diversion from the nasty politics that were going on, and he took me to the funeral of one of them, it was an Italian funeral and they marched around the street with a band and the coffin being carried and I was sitting on his shoulder and he said ... ... [interruption] ...
He sat me on his shoulder and as the coffin was going by he said, ‘see son, that's justice.’ Now of course ...
We are going to have to ask you the question again ‘cause we are going to have to cut into it.
Was there anything that happened in your childhood that really summed up for you what was happening in your childhood at that time politically?
A number of things but one of the most notable, I think, was when my father took me to the funeral of either Sacco or Vincetti and I still don't remember which it was. These were two anarchists that were framed as murderers and robbers and they weren't, they were completely innocent — as the later evidence was exposed — and, as the coffin of one of them was being paraded around with the band playing and the slow march, up on my father's shoulder I heard my father say, ‘See son, that's justice.’ Now of course irony can be lost on a kid and it took a little while for me to understand exactly what he meant. But when the cookie did crumble ... [laughs] ... I began to wonder about, not the existence of laws, but the way they are carried out, and even for that matter how laws get to be laws and I suppose this was a very important impression that caused me to challenge. I ... you know when I teach now, I say to the kids who have come from schools where they are expected to sit and take in, take notes and be told, I say to them ‘accept nothing, nothing I say — don't believe a word, challenge everything and only after you have proved to your own satisfaction that it seems to work, then you may want to take it on board, but don't believe a thing.’ I suppose it is a sort of a sceptic philosophy but it is pretty deeply ingrained.
Now Peabody House offered you both experience in science and in theatre and singing. So it was a very rounded kind of exposure you had, and yet in terms of thinking about a vocation you chose the science. Why was that?
Well, the truth of it is, I think I developed a kind of a Messianic complex. I wanted to save the world, this goes with every adolescent, doesn't everybody want to make sure that there's never going to be any poverty and that everybody is going to be well off, and peace on earth and quality of life and that sort of thing? Well obviously, I suppose the confluence of all these things I've been telling you about suggested to me one doesn't like illness, one doesn't like poverty and one doesn't like hunger, and there are people who are hungry. We'd heard about such things as a shipload of oranges being sent to Europe, but because the price was not right the oranges were thrown into the ocean, even though there was scurvy in Europe. I couldn't understand that, so I thought I would become a chemist and therefore cure every ill and make sure that everything grew properly and life would be beautiful.
You had a great belief in science, then?
Yes, I thought that science could do it. It was only after I got into the nature foods factory, which after all was there to promote health, I discovered cynical practices which were very off-putting, very disillusioning and I stormed out of the factory saying something like, ‘the ills of the world are not soluble in chemicals.’ Afterwards I realised what a pompous thing it was, off the top of the head. I left the sciences when I quit.
But the job at the nature food factory had taken you to New York.
And that was a big, big moment for you.
Yes. It meant a lot of things. It meant, obviously, I wasn't on the spot to keep an eye on my mother who I say was not that self-sufficient, and my father seemed to be fairly capable but I still worried about him. It also meant that I was embarking on an adventure which now pinned me down to justifying my education and a course of activity. It also meant that whatever money I was going to make really had to be sent home, so we had to ... ‘me’ in New York it became a 'we' fairly shortly ... in New York I had to pretty much survive on very little, so the money I earned at the nature foods company, most of it went home and I developed a rather resourceful technique of analysis. When samples came in most chemists would take a great big sample, and dissolve things and break it down and throw the rest of it away. I developed a technique of micro-analysis. I'd take a little bit of a nature food, of the synthetic cereal, or synthetic milk, or synthetic coffee, or synthetic whatever.
This was the nature foods?
These were the nature foods and I would analyse a small segment of it and I'd take the rest of it home and my room-mate and I would live off these things. Once a week we afforded ourselves a steak, but beyond that we were eating nature foods. And when that ran out we ate peanut brittle which was a very nutritious lolly, but most of the money had to go back home. So, I can't say it was a great expansive adventure in New York, it was ... another challenge.
When you walked out of the nature food factory, with your pronouncement on its adverse affect on human affairs, what did you do next?
I got myself a job ... [interruption] ...
[end of tape]