Monday, August 15, 2011

Irving Dart Tressler

This blog entry is dedicated to a writer whom I have never met but who I feel I know pretty well. It all began with Ray, my mother's father, who loved to read. He collected a trove of Readers digest condensed books and was a member of the book of the month club. After he and grandma retired they moved a great deal of their personal belongs into a caretaker's house that was located in the field behind the home where we lived at the time.

That home had been a school house before the local school district discontinued its use. It remained neglected and abandoned until my mom and dad bought it in 1958 and set about making it into our home. The caretaker's house was located away from the school itself, I assume to grant the caretaker some degree of privacy.

My grandparents sold their home in Payette Idaho and hit the road when they retired. They had two daughters and a son still living in those days, and then of course my mom. We lived in Oregon. Their plan was to spend a little time with each of their kids and not maintain a home anywhere. That decision on their part is what introduced me to the wonderful writer named, Irving Dart Tressler.

My grandfather's book of the month collection got placed in a cardboard box and was one of the things stored in the caretaker's house. After mom's and pop died, that's how we kids knew them, their belongings in the caretaker's house were sorted through and disposed of. During that clean up my sister rescued a copy of Irving Dart Tressler's, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People from the collection of books stored away in that old cardboard box.

When my sister read that book she loved it. She passed it on to my younger brother who also enjoyed it. In time it made its way to my hands. I too found his humor wonderful. None of us had any idea who that man was but my brother and sister were not content to let that lack of knowledge stop them.

In the front cover of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People was a list of other titles Irv had authored. I recall titles like, Readers Digest Very Little, The Human Anatomy-Up To A Certain Point, With Malice Toward All, and others. My brother and sister set about placing adds in various rare book publications and in time they had collected a great deal of Irving's books.

But the question remained, who was Irving Dart Tressler and more importantly what had happened to him? We noted that he quit writing in the 1940s which was timely to W.W.II, and we logically figured he must have died in that war. But beyond our speculation we had no information until one fine spring day while living in Springfield, Oregon.

I had rented a house in that small city adjacent to Eugene, Oregon and my sister who had done so much work tracing down the Tressler books joined me there. Over time I had written several nonsensical letters to the various publishing houses who had published Irv's books and of course none of them had ever replied. But on that spring day we determined to dig a little deeper into it if we could.

We had already looked him up in Who's Who in America for the late 1930s, a copy of which was available in the stacks of the University of Oregon Knight Library. From that research we had discovered several things about Irving that we didn't know. But perhaps the most important of those discoveries was the name of his wife, Anne Kendall. We discovered that she had graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

On that spring day I had already called the war department and found out how to try to trace someone who may have died in W.W.II. It was a complicated exercise that required a lot of letter sending and waiting and for some reason I decided I was not going to do that. Being thus impatient my research ultimately led me to the switchboard for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin.

When I explained what I was trying to do the telephone receptionist connected me to the alumni association who dutifully retrieved a book of paid up alumni members. In a moment she told me that Anne Kendall had become Anne Kendall Tressler and then had become Anne Kendall Foote and was last known to reside in Mendocino, California. She either would not or could not give me an address or phone number.

I didn't need one.
I called directory assistance for Mendocino and was elated, a little scared and yes surprised to discovered they did have an Anne Foote listed and they gave me her phone number. I remember looking at my sister across the table and asking, "Should I call?"
"Why not?" she replied.

A mature but steady woman's voice answered and I asked, "Is this Anne Foote?"
"Yes." she replied.
"Is this Anne Kendall Foote?" I further inquired.
"Yes." she replied again this time somewhat inquisitively.
"Is this Anne Kendall Tressler Foote?" I finally asked, and there was a dead silence which lasted for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds. It was a long time for someone to be silent and I was about to say hello or something else when she answered ever so slowly, "Yes, this is she."

I didn't know what to do.
I didn't know what to say.
This had all begun with an old old book from the past and a writer long gone and now I was talking to his wife, someone who had known him. It was as though I had just stepped through a time portal into the past.
What should one do next?
What should I say?

"I don't know what to say." I said to her. "I hope I did not intrude." I recall I added. I then went on to explain that we were just some old hippies who happened to be groupies of Irv's. I explained that we had determined to trace him down to find out what had happened to him. I apologized and said it was foolish and insensitive of me to spring it on her like that.

She replied, "Don't be silly, of course not. It is just that it's been more than 40 years since anyone has spoken that man's name and I was uncertain of who you are or what you wanted."
Did he die in the war?" I asked her.
"Heavens no, he killed himself. He put his head in a gas oven and he just about killed us all in the process." She told me.
"I am so sorry, " I said. I am certain I must have sounded surprised. I was.

We talked for about 5 minutes or more and she told me she was an art instructor for the Mendocino School of Art. She then blew me right out of my chair when she said, "This weekend is the art fair and there will be tons of local art on display. Just come on down here and join in. You can stay at my place. I would love to meet both you and your sister."

Now what?
I really didn't know her and it was totally off the wall for her to be inviting us like that. She didn't know us either. I had never been to Mendocino and knew nothing about it. I turned to my sister and this time it was my turn to ask, "Why not?"

We determined we could dive from Springfield to Mendocino in a day. I told her if it turned out to be impossible when we got there we could sleep on the beach and drive back the next day. What did we have to lose? Why not indeed!

Mendocino is a beautiful place. It is situated along the California coast north of San Francisco. We love the drive down the Oregon Coast so while there are quicker ways to get to Mendocino we chose to connect to Highway 101 just west of Eugene/Springfield and we drove south from there.

From the small community of Florence, Oregon we traveled down Highway 101 to the wonderful little town of Willits, California. Just south of Willits, which is located in the heart of the California Giant Redwoods forest, highway 101 intersects with highway 20 west, also known as the Fort Bragg/Willits road. That small two lane road winds up over two small mountain passes in the California Coast mountain range before dumping down onto Highway 1, the California Coast highway just south of Fort Bragg.

That part of the world is truly a fairytale land.
There were wild flowers everywhere.
It has beautiful vistas.
We could look out seemingly forever into the vast, beautiful, blue Pacific Ocean.
It was and still is totally awesome.

In Mendocino we found Anne's house without much trouble but we didn't get to visit with her much. She was busy about the art fair and her various responsibilities. But we did make arrangements for dinner at her place where we finally got a chance to talk to her.

She told us that Irv was one of the finest men she had ever known. She explained how he had worked his way up in a very competitive writer's world. He had finally been employed as an executive for Life Magazine, a very prestigious assignment at the time. She related that after the successful sales of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, he had been driven down a ticker tape parade in a convertible sitting next to Jimmy Durante.

We talked about a lot of things that evening. We sat around the floor of her living room and drank wine and laughed and talked. She was in her 70s then and so was her boyfriend, Gene. He made picture frames for some of her silk screen art.

Anne was the first woman to be hired and given a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin. In those days woman did not work outside the home much and no woman was ever made a professor. But after Irv's death Anne was given her professorship. She was a very talented silk screen artist and we still own three of her pieces today.

In one of his books titled, With Malice Toward All, Irv talks about a road trip that he and Anne made into the south in their automobile. It was a 1936 Studebaker and it was aptly named, Diderot. I assumed they named it after the famous French writer and philosopher of that same name. The following is a very brief passage from With Malice Toward All that is significant to this story:

The whole matter started as we were driving along a main New Jersey
highway in the rain. I commenced singing "A tisket, a tasket! A red
and yellow basket!" and Anne spoke up in a merry tone,
"Darling, your know its not a red and yellow basket; it's a green
and yellow basket!"
"Sweet," I replied laughingly, "that's just where I have you! You're
trying to teach me the words to a song I learned when I wasn't old
enough to go to the bathroom alone-it's red and yellow basket, darling!"
"But, dearest," she responded, "all the radio songsters sing it 'green
and yellow basket' and you know how careful they have to be!"
"Listen, precious." I came back "I know they have to be careful, but I
also know what I was taught when I was a kid! It's been 'red and
yellow basket' to me for 25 years, and I'm afraid it's going to stay
'red and yellow basket'!"
"That is tantamount to saying that you know more than the publishers
and radio songsters do, isn't it?" she retorted.
"If you care to put it that way," I replied, "Maybe I do! I've often
wondered!"
"You would!" she said sarcastically.
"I notice I manage to earn enough with my brains to keep you in clothes
and take you on trips to Florida!" I said.
"I thought you would bring that up!" she answered, "Only you forgot to
mention my permanent wave and my silk stockings!"
It went on like this for about 60 miles, and I got very hungry, but
neither of us had spoken a word to the other. Finally Anne sighed and
said, "Oh, all right, I'm hungry, too! Pull in at the next hamburger stand,
and we'll make it 'red and yellow basket'!"



That night sitting on the living floor of Anne's house in Mendocino I don't recall if it was myself or my sister who asked her, "Now tell us, after all of these years, is it a red and yellow basket or a green and yellow basket?"

I think that at least a variation of that incident from his book must have actually happened and it was not just simply made up to add to the book's content because Annie at once burst out laughing at our question. She then turned to her boyfriend and said, "Gene. I think these kids are crazy!"

Irv Tressler had epilepsy. The most profound part of our visit that evening was Anne explaining to us how in those days the medical community believed that epilepsy was a mental disorder. She told how all of any extra money they earned went to pay psychiatrist who tried to get to the bottom of why Irv would choose to have such uncontrollable fits. They believed he could stop doing it if only he wanted to badly enough.

She went on to explain how he had an epileptic seizure in the executive washroom at Life magazine. When he was discovered wrapped around a toilet everyone was very embarrassed because they supposed he was seriously mentally ill. He was soon after dismissed from that very prestigious job.

When Irv could not take it anymore he put his head in the gas oven and I can fully understand why. There are many of us who have been labeled, denied respect and then rejected. We are condemned, vilified, ridiculed and dismissed. Irv had no reason to feel guilty about anything, even given the highly trained professionals who were at the time telling him just how aberrant and irresponsible his behavior was.

I think of many things as I write these words. Of course, "Pray Away The Gay," and all of the other associated, quack and so-called reparative therapies are first to come to mind. Looking back into the memories of my youth I see a picture of a very somber Catholic Priest shaking his head and telling my mother that I needed to go see a psychiatrist. I wonder what that priest thinks about the physiological causes of epilepsy? I wonder how he felt about all of that in 1940? I have personal information that that old man is still very homophobic to this day. Curious!

In my case and in the case of other LGBT people it is the issue of both sin and bigotry. Bigots simply meter out their hate onto anyone they can find who might stand still long enough to take it. They feel some undefined real pain inside and out of ignorance the only way that they can think of ridding themselves of that pain is to pass it on to someone else, anyone else. People of various ethnic groups or sexual identities are just some of the victims whom they attack.

In the case of the sin the issues goes to the roots of various religious beliefs and it is those foundations of faith that are at stake. Since forever those religions have been tallying up just what is good and what is bad. They have then set about teaching that they are the only way to remove the bad from your life. You must follow their rules. You must belong to their organization. You must give to that organization or you will be forever engulfed in the bad, whatever that bad is, and if you refuse to play the game you will ultimately perish forever in a cauldron of fire in hell.

So it becomes easy for me to understand how if someone steps forward and says that some particular bad isn't so bad after all that all of those religions are going to instantly object. To make such a statement is to go to the very root of their existence. If one bad can be questioned and ultimately moved from the bad list to the good list then what of all the other entries on the bad list? If some of their historic advice can be brought into question then all of any advice they have ever given must also be brought up for review. It is a slippery slope that they will resist with vigilance and might.

There are many more images that come to my mind about now but there is no need for me to list them out here. What is important is that Irv was not guilty of anything and neither am I and nether are any of the LGBT community. We may have individual issues, but we are not guilty of anything simply because we are LGBT.

Neither Irv nor myself nor anyone in the LGBT community has made a simple choice to be who we are. Who we are is a product of our birth. In Irv's case it was an affliction for which there was ultimately a successful therapy. In my case it is a characteristic of who I am. It is an immutable characteristic which is an integral part of my personality. In either case it was never a choice in spite of the various opinions to the contrary.

Irv was not gay. He had a physical affliction that wrestled control of his body from him. Irv was not mentally ill. No amount of prayer or therapy could ever free Irv from his physical affliction. Drug therapy has helped many with the same affliction that Irv suffered from.

I am gay and I too am not mentally ill. That is the basics similarity between myself and Irv. That and the fact that we are both writers. No amount of prayer or therapy will ever change who I am. If some people have been actively involved in a gay relationship and then after a degree of prayer and or therapy have decided to become actively involved in a heterosexual relationship then so be it. I am happy for them. But that says nothing about who I am. It only says something about who they may have been.

I didn't understand just how profound the lesson of Irv's passing was until many years after Anne had told me the story of his illness, his persecution at the hands of well meaning therapists and his ultimate death. It was only then that I had a computer and an internet to help me.

On a lark one afternoon I looked up epilepsy and I discovered that about a year after Irv killed himself the medical community began to experiment with the drugs that would ultimately begin to control those seizures. Different articles have set different time periods and dates for when that all began, but on average it was about a year after Irv had died that tests of the various drugs were being undertaken across the country. It was more than 10 years after that before the whole of the medical community was on board but it began just after Irv was gone. Things move slowly sometimes. Too slowly it seems.

No, I won't say that Irv should have hung in there just a little bit longer. For me to say that would be for me to presume that I could assess just how difficult it had become for him to cope and then pass judgment on his actions. What I will say is it is often very very painful for many of us. And I for one have in the past cursed the safety controls inherent in the modern gas cooking ovens of today. For better or for worse they didn't have such safety devices in Irv's day.

To that I must also add that for the most part I am cursed with the silly mental sickness known as hope. I tend to get so pissed off and discouraged that I have to go bang my head against the wall sometimes. Sometimes I go to walk alone in the park where I give the lord of all creation a good, thorough and well deserved dressing down. But ultimately I return to the keys here on this infernal machine to write just a little bit more.

It is fitting that I should then close this brief history of that other very successful though somewhat unknown writer with a personal message to two old friends.

To Irving Dart Tressler, wherever you are today, I want you to know that I still enjoy your work some 70 odd years after you produced it. I am a writer too and although I may never rise to the standard you have set with your life and work, I do what I do today just as you did what you did then. And I want you to know that you are an inspiration to many of us who have felt your pain and learned how to laugh just from reading your carefully chosen words.

And to Anne Kendall Tressler Foote I want to say thank you for a very memorable evening in such exotic surroundings. It is a night I shall never forget. Too, let me offer that your art is still an inspiration to me. I have projected some of your work internationally, half around the world, reflected in my Skype camera onto the monitor screens of friends. And for what it's worth you were right, 'these' kids are a little crazy!