Los Angeles, February 1972
When I myself was a child, in Italy, and toured the country with my parents, we would visit churches, basilicas, and cathedrals. Either for religious fervor or as a cultural duty I was always compelled to enter those dark cold buildings, smelling of pungent incense, and stand in front of ancient paintings which looked to me all the same, admiring painted glass and mosaics with vibrant colors and listening to boring speeches (only later did I learn that they were “sermons”). If I had to do the same thing with you, I would take you instead to tour banks. Do not laugh! First of all because nowadays the bank is the venerated temple of the materialistic society, but also because it is inside and in front of banks that one can find the art treasures of our time; those institutions can afford to pay any price for a masterpiece, mostly if it is tax deductible.
I am back at Westwood, ready for my lecture at U.C.L.A. tomorrow, and my retina is still impregnated with vivid images of gorgeous façades along Wilshire Boulevard. I took a bus heading to downtown to do some research in the Public Library. On my right, for almost one hour, I saw beautiful modern buildings, mostly banks. I decided to ride the same bus on my way back and this time I started rating those buildings like one would do with restaurants in France: three stars for Crocker Bank, two stars for the Bank of California, and so on.
Wilshire Boulevard is one of the largest avenues in the world, it could be one of the nicest if there were some more benches for pedestrians to rest, some cafés to sit at, sip an apéritif and look at the passerbys, and a little less garbage in the non-built zones (flowers, fountains, and children playing instead). Here finally is an American town with sidewalks (and broad ones) made on the human scale!! Unfortunately people use cars to drive on it instead of walking. But one day I will still come back and walk along it from downtown to Santa Monica!
The jewel was a sculpture in front of a bank with iron bushes, extended like crooked arms, and water cascading with an interesting and beautiful play of lights. It looks like one of those modern sculptures of Brazilia by Bruno Giorgi or Maria Martins.
I wish I could come back here with you someday, to run altogether along Wilshire Boulevard, the future Via Appia Antica (or Moderna) of America, up to Santa Monica where your mother would be waiting for us on the large, clean, sandy beach in front of the deep blue ocean.
I kiss you,
Los Angeles, November 1973
I left San Francisco last evening and upon my arrival at the International Airport I rented a car (despite the warnings to the contrary of Richard who was afraid that I would get lost in those “complicated” freeways) and went immediately to Wilshire Boulevard to see “my banks” at night. I know that you are going to laugh as you did last year when I sent you a letter about my pilgrimage to the Mecca of capitalism. Later, when you will be older, I am sure that you will understand either the wisdom or the humor of my observations, Anyway, I was very disappointed last night because I could not find “my” water—sculpture, although I went twice over the long avenue in both senses, although it was 1:00 AM. My only consolation was to rent a room in a motel near the Ocean Beaches and smell the sea.
But this afternoon I unraveled the mystery, and discovered my “poor” sculpture. I call it that because, deprived of light and of water (the energy crisis!) it has become an arid bush, undecorative, lost in a corner, abandoned like a blind paralytic stray dog. I went to console it and talk to it (in Italian, of course, the only language that birds, pets and wild animals understand, as Saint Francis proved). When I asked her her name she didn’t even know, I wanted to take a picture, but I had forgotten my Polaroid. I decided that I would ask somebody in the bank the name of the sculptor and of his (her?) artwork. Unfortunately California banks close earlier than Oregon’s and I was about to give up when I noticed that there were people entering by a door in the middle of the building.It gave access to upper floors. I entered. A security guard stopped me, I felt like a thief but I stammered the information I was looking for. The man looked at me even more suspiciously (the damn accent!) but gave me a telephone number and indicated to me a public booth in the same corridor. A very kind feminine voice answered that I was talking to the wife of the President of the Bank, that her husband was still in his office, and that I could reach him at such and such a number. I was so intimidated that I felt that she must have thought that I was a bank robber and should have hung up the phone on me or, at least, not volunteer so much information on her husband’s habits. It might though be that she was so intelligent and intuitive that she understood what it was all about. I dialed the second number. The secretary said that Mr. Sheehan was at an important meeting of the Board of Directors of the Bank and could not be disturbed. All I wanted to know was the name of the artist, and perhaps she herself could answer. She couldn’t. She had me talk to half of the people in the buildings nobody seemed to care or even know about the sculpture, much less the name of the artist. Therefore the same secretary had to admit that only Mr. Sheehan (still in his meeting) would be able to satisfy my curiosity. Can you imagine the conversation between her and her boss? “Mr. President, there is a crazy nut, down here, with a strong accent, who lives in Oregon and wants to know the name of a statue. What should I do?” She certainly expected him to say “send him to hell” but probably Mr. Sheehan was bored with his figures and stockholders and even a brief distraction was welcome. He came to the phone. The sculpture had been made ten years before by Clair Falkenstein and was worth one million dollars. Why was I so interested? I don’t like to lie, even to my wife or to the police, but was Mr. Sheehan going to be able to understand that a romance languages professor was in love with a piece of metal? Nobody would see me blushing and saying immodestly, “Well! I am a college professor up in Portland and deal with art…” “But… Do you really like that sculpture?” “Oh yes, very much. I discovered it last year…” and I told him the whole story. “Well, if you like it so much YOU CAN HAVE IT!” I can’t tell you how long my silence lasted. Was he joking? Was he crazier than I was? Was he so rich and so generous that he was moved by my odyssey? After all we were near Hollywood, where all dreams become true…. The explanation came very logically: “Due to energy problems we have been considering offering the sculpture to a College or University. We have two or three institutions interested but they are all in California and go through the same difficulties with energy. Your College has a chance. Of course, you would have to pay for the transportation. Talk to the people who administer your college and let us know.” I was laughing and trembling and visibly emotional (the security guard was watching me more and more suspiciously through the panes). I could swear he had his hand on his gun ready to pull it out and he was talking all the time on the telephone while tracing all my movements on the TV screen in front of him. Was he talking to the police? To the insane asylum? Perhaps I was being bugged. (It was anyway before Watergate) but I dared ask Mr. Sheehan if he had a picture of the sculpture. I figured that a man who would play Santa Klaus and offer you a one million dollar sculpture, could also offer a photograph. Yes he had a postcard, and if I would come up to the 11th (?) floor the secretary would give it to me. He was sorry not to be able to meet me but he had to return to his meeting.
I have the picture, you will see, although it is not as impressive as the original.
Useless to say that after all this I was in such a good mood that I danced in the car while driving and ignoring all the red lights.
Love to all of you.
Back home. My son receives me with a skeptical shaking of the head: “You should have used your American Express credit card, take a U-Haul truck and loaded the fountain!” Although born in Switzerland and raised in Brazil, the little brat had quickly acquired the pragmatic mentality of his rich peers at Jesuit High School. My wife does not see any fun in the situation. For her it is more a confirmation of my daydreamer’s attitudes: “You were never able to make an extra buck, how do you think you can make a deal with bankers? Are you so ‘naive’ (censorship impedes me of using the real terms of the conversation) that you think somebody is going to offer you a one million dollar present? How can I go on living with a Utopian like you? Why don’t you pay the telephone bill instead of running after your delusions of grandeur?” And so on. My daughter gave me a little more comfort with one of her enigmatic smiles which nobody at home ever knows what they mean (like Mona Lisa’s): condescendence, derision, sympathy? My close friend, an art historian, said that after all that piece of art was not so marvelous and that I would have a “lot of trouble” with the propulsion engine and so on, but that it was worth pursuing the matter, for the fun of it (with cynicism, I thought).
Where should I start? Chairmen? Deans? None of them would dare to take the responsiblity of making a decision. I should hit right at the top. I asked an appointment with the President. Fifteen days after the Big Man received me. He doesn’t share my taste or my enthusiasm for the sculpture but admits that it would enhance the aspect of our campus. Where would I install it? Under the library in the space where stones, gravel and plants form a small patio in front of the first floor exit. The President sees it looking better where the Kiosk is. I am easily convinced: there it would be more visible, more central, more decorative.
My task, before leaving for a long Overseas assignment, is to make sure that the deal is feasible, his to study mechanical condition: how many horse—power has the motor, how much energy and water are needed. Very experienced in administering funds the President tells me “To a given horse I do look in the mouth!”, And tells me the story of a gift received by a University he was administering before. It was a huge computer worth one million dollars. It looked like a luxurious present. But it took two years to approve funds in order to construct a building to house the computer. Two years and two million dollars. Plus, the Japanese industry, in the meanwhile, had invented the pocket computer that could perform the same task. The masthodontic device was obsolete. What would be the trick behind the fountain?
I called Mr, Sheehan who was vacationing in Acapulco until after New Year. The secretary recognized my voice and my “case”. Yes we are serious about the deal. Yes your application will be given proper consideration, Yes your interest has been discussed.
Before leaving for France I wrote them a letter confirming my conversation with the President and asking them to deal directly with him and, if possible, to send me a copy of all correspondence.
In Paris, the story amused my friends very much as being symptomatic of what they called “the energy hysteria in the USA”. They were more receptive to my Californian adventure than my Oregonian friends or my own family had been. New worries made me forget the whole story. No letter ever came, neither from Mr. Sheehan, nor from my President.
Nine months later I returned to campus: no visible fountains. After interviewing the President I learned that he had gone to Los Angeles, had seen the sculpture, had talked to the responsible party. The energy crisis ended and the wave of panic was over. They were not concerned anymore. They would keep the fountain.
The sculpture is still there. My last pilgrimage was the saddest one: energy is back, water is back, but “my” fountain is still an arid plant, forgotten in a corner, a dusty, occasional refuge for ants, birds, leaves, pieces of paper. Once a year a crazy nut deposes a bouquet of flowers at its feet, But the fountain does not know. She does not know her own name, she does not know who her father or mother was. Is Clair a masculine or a feminine name in English?