Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recollection: Being in San Francisco in the 1960s (part 1)

People then would ask me "Why did you come to San Francisco?  Did you marry one of our boys in the military and he brought you over here?"  I would reply "No, I came all alone."  They were surprised.  There were several reasons why I left France.  Even though I had traveled to some foreign countries during holidays, I had spent all my childhood and youth in France, mostly in Paris.  Other young people felt like me - after school, wishing to go somewhere else.  I was not trying to immigrate because my life was difficult, on the contrary I had, at 21 years of age, my own car, an apartment in Paris that my parents let me use, and a glamorous job off the Champs Elysees.  Below is a postcard of the Champs-Elysees in Paris around 1961.

I worked as a translator in a music publishing company, translating English lyrics into French, and also translating correspondence to and from British and American musicians, singers and groups.  I met many.  For example, the famous singer, Edith Piaf (1915-1963,) once called the office in late 1960 to change some lyrics on one of her new songs - our secretary was out so I was pleased to get Edith's lyrics changed.  My office gave me a free ticket to hear her sing at the Olympia Music-Hall in Paris - she was exceptional.  Then I purchased the 33 LP record from that 1961 concert. (Click on collage twice to enlarge.)

My hair had been died black by my girl friend because she needed a model for her dye exam to become a hairdresser - my parents were horrified when they saw me... but I liked the color and was a brunette for a couple of years.  Here I am below on the Place de la Concorde in Paris in early June 1961.

US flags can be seen behind me on the right because President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie had visited Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, earlier that week.  I watched the two president parade going down the Champs Elysees and there were US and French flags all along the avenue.  (Pictures below courtesy Life Magazine.)

Another reason for me to travel was that my father, an Armenian born in Turkey and raised in Egypt, was very strict and rarely let me go out, unless a girl friend came to meet me.  I had thought about going to Canada because then it was very easy.  Canada would provide an apartment upon arrival and even a job to a French citizen, but I was afraid of the cold weather.  I spoke English and Italian fluently but I had already gone to Italy during the month of August four years in a row and also been numerous times to England including a year in college to study, so I decided to go to the USA.  I had been told that an immigrant visa would take a long time to obtain.  I knew I would have to work as my budget was not large enough to stay for two years and travel in the US as I had projected.  One way to obtain a visa was to give the US Embassy an amount in escrow (in case they had to repatriate me back to France for some reason) and at the time this was $1,000 which would be about $7,000 in 2013 money.  Below is the US Embassy in Paris now (courtesy Wikipedia France) - then it did not have all the cement blocks in front of the gate.

I did not have the large amount that the US Embassy requested and knew my father, who was against me going anywhere, would never lend it to me.  I went to his estranged first cousin who knew people everywhere.  He had good Armenian friends in Los Angeles and asked them to "sponsor" me.  I thought my visa would take several years to obtain, but within a month or so the US Embassy called me because not many French people wanted to immigrate to the US and the quota was low.  I was not prepared yet and asked for an extension.  They told me to come back 3 months later, in June 1961.  I did and obtained the visa and a permanent resident "green card" which was blue, actually.  Below is a sample showing the back of a "green" card - on the front was a picture with name, date of birth, etc.

I knew I would have to go to Los Angeles first to meet my sponsors but was not sure where to go afterwards.  First I purchased, from the Greyhound Bus Company, a 3-month pass for tourists for $99.  It gave me free transportation on any of their buses in any state for a period of 3 months.  Then I purchased a one-way ticket from Le Havre to New York City on a German transatlantic ship.  In April 1961 I read the special issue of "Holiday" magazine which was devoted to San Francisco.  That magazine is what made me go to San Francisco - it sounded so lovely.  There were many photos of the Victorian houses, the cable cars, the Golden Gate, Chinatown and it said that there was a vibrant art and music life there in the city.

The city was not far from Los Angeles and sounded cultured but mostly there were some good jazz clubs in SF, and I was a jazz enthusiast  Since my teens I had collected many jazz albums, had a subscription to the French magazine "Jazz Hot," listened every evening to the jazz programs on Europe No. 1 radio station.  With my friends I went dancing in jazz cellars on the Paris left bank, mostly New Orleans jazz like Sydney Bechet, but I also liked modern jazz and had seen Miles Davis at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris. Here are some of the jazz albums that I took with me to the US - I had and still have quite a collection.

On October 21, 2010, I wrote a post on New York showing the ship on which I traveled to the USA in 1961, click here to see it.  I'll write more posts on my trip and my years in San Francisco as this post is to give an overview of the nine plus years I lived in the city by the bay, and it cannot be too long... So in mid September 1961 I arrived in Los Angeles (I took the Greyhound Bus from New York and had stopped in many cities.)  I met my sponsors who were very nice and kind.  Mr. Setrag Vartian was a film editor for the Warner Brothers studios in Hollywood and had also acted and produced a movie earlier.  Mrs. Zaruhi Vartian was a singer in the Armenian Church.  They had no children and wished for me to stay in Los Angeles and said they would find me a job in Hollywood at the studio.  Here they are below (most of these old pictures have been scanned from slides- they are 50 years old and show it.)  I am standing in front of St. James Armenian Church (which is no longer at this location I understand.)

I was not interested in show business and really wished to go to San Francisco.  Through a friend I had met on the ship I found a roommate  in San Francisco.  She lived on Larkin Street, in Nob Hill.  She was the only woman there as all the other tenants were gay men.  I enjoyed living there and made many friends.  I spent the month of October in Great Falls, Montana, with my boyfriend and his family - an American I had met in Paris earlier.  I went back there several times with the Greyhound bus.  I also spent Christmas that year in Great Falls.  It is not far from Glacier National Park and lovely in winter.  Below are postcards of Great Falls in the early 1960s, me standing over the Giant Springs (which were discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and are one of the largest fresh water springs in the country,) my boyfriend Patrick and a USA map showing the state of Montana with a red star on Great Falls.

Back in San Francisco I quickly found my way to the Black Hawk, the famous jazz club.  I would go there every evening and did not look for a job until the beginning of the following January.  I just could not believe the talented jazz musicians who came to perform in the club, like Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Horace Silver, Blue Mitchell, etc.  I made friends with the owners and they would give me a ride home after the shows.  They took me to a Thanksgiving dinner in Oakland at the home of Earl "Fatha" Hines where there was a multitude of jazz musicians (I'll write a post on this sometime.)

Quickly I found a job on Post Street, walking distance from our apartment.  I was a purchasing clerk for a drafting and engineers' supply firm, The A. Lietz Company.  The firm was not very large.  They imported many drafting equipment from Japan.  The staff became my family really, and a sales clerk there, Virginia, became by best friend.  Below is a picture of Virginia, in the blue and red sweater, next to me, and the two managers, Merril Yoh on the left and Mr. Crocker on the right.

By then I was no longer a brunette.  I was tired of having to die my hair black so often and decided to return to a light shade.  It is not easy to go back from jet black hair to blonde.  The wife of one of my friends was getting a hair dresser license and referred me to Clairol.  I went to them and since I already had a job, they offered to slowly bring my hair back from dark to light, free of charge, if I would be a model for their company and go to hair dresser shows for them.  I accepted.  This took over a year and I went from black to dark brown, to dark red, all the shades in between until I finally came back to a blond shade.  Below is a (not very good quality) picture showing the dark brown shade.


I did not like to be a model and never wished to have my photo taken by friends because the styles were quite outlandish.  But two pictures were taken after shows when the style was not too strange, as you can see below.


I did not have time to be homesick, as I also took evening courses at the San Francisco Art Institute.  I would take the cable car to the school.  Then it was easy and cheap and there were hardly any tourists on the cable cars.

 My teacher at the Art Institute was an Armenian named Sam Tchakalian (1929-2004.)  He was into abstract expressionism and had tremendous talent.  He was a tough teacher but was great.  He exhibited many of his paintings in the US and abroad and taught painting at the SF Art Institute for decades.  Here he is below with some of his work.

For a time I also worked in an exclusive French restaurant called La Bourgogne, in the evenings, to help out.  I also learned to play the recorder with Carlo, the brother of my best friend Vince Middione.  You can see us below - this was taken during my dark gold shade of hair.  I certainly had a lot of energy then.

This covers the early parts of the 1960s in San Francisco, so I'll have to continue this post in part two.  I'll leave with this photo taken from the roof top of our building on Larkin Street where we would go and sun ourselves.  Maybe I can figure out a way to eliminate the dust and spots on the slides (any suggestions?)  More to come ...




35 comments:

betsy said...

What a wonderful post. One of the best I have read on any blog. And what a life you have had. I would have loved to have lived in San Francisco. My father was stationed there at the end of WW2, and he raved about it. He was a New England chauvinist so his praise meant something. I cannot wait for Part 2.

Jeanie said...

I love reading about this time in your life -- always wondered how you landed here! And really, when you think about it, you were so young, it was so far-- and I think you were terribly brave! And look what it has brought you -- amazing memories and wonderful stories to share!

Molly said...

What an interesting life you've had! We lived for several years in Great Falls. Your pictures of Giant Springs brought back memories.....And we absolutely loved Glacier National Park. Looking forward to part 2!

Geo. said...

Absorbing and delightful! Two of my sons are longtime San Franciscans. I take Amtrak to visit them. I first saw the city as a child in the early 1950s, spent much time there in the '60s. And still thrill to approach it --gleaming in the sun like a jewel. To read your wonderful chronicle is so enjoyable. I look forward to the next installment!

David said...

Vagabonde... Now I know that I've led a dull life! Wow...you have quite a story to tell. I'll bet that your Dad was unhappy with you'll 'escape' to the US. I didn't get to San Francisco until the late 60's. It had transformed into a 'sin city' by then, at least in many people's opinion. I still love San Francisco and the surrounding area...(to visit!) Very interesting blog! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Ann said...

i envy the places you have seen..the things you have done!! my goodness..a true Vagabonde you are !!! such a wonderful post..i so enjoyed it!
xo

GaynorB said...

Thank you, Vagabonde for giving us a fascinating insight into your life at this really interesting time.

Your post is so beautifully illustrated with precious memories and photographs.

I can't wait to read more...

Pierre BOYER said...

Une belle époque...

Pierre

Elephant's Child said...

What a truly fascinating post this is. And to have met Piaf!!!! Yet again, I have loved each word. And I admire your courage so very much.

Nadezda said...

I love reading your stories! These are stories of your life. The old photos give you chance of recollections.
Wait for continuation!

DJan said...

What a wonderful life you have had, VB. And are still having, I might add! You made quite a fetching brunette, but I think I like the lighter colors better. Such great pictures from a bygone era. :-)

Niall & Antoinette said...

What a lovely post :-)

You met Piaff - wow! I have a number of her 1950's LP's which where my mom's. She lived/worked in Paris in the early '50s [lived in the 6eme] and like you was a frequent visitor to jazz clubs on the left bank.

rosaria williams said...

You're truly a vagabonde spirit, ready for adventure, unafraid, self-reliant, curious and intelligent,,,
Glad to know a bit more about you.

Down by the sea said...

It was wonderful to read how you ended up in America. It must have been such an adventure. You look so elegant and fashionable! I am looking forward to part 2.
Sarah x

OldLady Of The Hills said...

GREAT Pictures! I love that first one of you---Very Very Stylish...And Timeless, too!
You had some wonderful adventures in Jazz....Earl "Fatha" Hines...And Oscar Peterson---One of my very favorites! San Francisco was the Perfect place to come (If not NYC)....So much wonderful cultural stuff going on there....! I look forward to more, my dear....!

bayou said...

Unbelievable, Vagabonde! Those are really good memories and I liked all about it. I am fascinated about your start in San Francisco and look forward to reading more. What great times must that have been.

bayou said...

Unbelievable, such good memories, Vagabonde! I love to read more about your start in San Francisco. Sending all my best wishes to you and yours.

Wendy said...

Really enjoyed this post. It all sounds very exciting and romantic to me. I am a fan of Edith Piaf and love the Jazz greats you got to see. I don't think I had the self-confidence to leave home so completely at 21, and I admire your strength. Thanks for sharing

Fennie said...

A fascinating post and I know from reading it that what you did would have been quite beyond me for I am much too timid. It's marvellous the way you embraced this foreign and strange land and made friends with everyone. I am back in France at the moment as it happens, down again the the Cantal, with its soft rolling hills and beautiful architecture. A long way from the jazz clubs of San Francisco; on the other hand there is a music festival over the border in Decazeville in Friday.

Perpetua said...

What a marvellous post. Your blog is very well named, Vagabonde. Your young life was amazingly varied and interesting and you tell the story so well. The illustrations alone are totally fascinating. Really superb!

gigihawaii said...

I lived in San Francisco during the fall and winter of 1968 and lived on Clayton Street off the Panhandle. I did not like the fog and cold weather nor the hippies hanging around Haight-Ashbury. But, there were some good times, also.

dritanje said...

Wow, what stories! You look gorgeous with your hair dark or fair - what an adventure to go off to USA so young. And to have pictures of all those times, again, thank you for your stories. By the way, I'm doing the hair colour going blonde too, because, strangely, my hair is getting very light in colour! Merci bien pour toutes ces histoires et photos, Morelle

claude said...

Coucou !
Il faut ses souvenirs garder et en parler.
Quelqu'un a dit, un homme qui n'a pas de souvenirs, n'est rien.
Merci de nous les faire partager ainsi que tes voyages.
Tu as un joli visage, Vagabonde et je te remercie pour ta carte postale de SF.

Je devais aller à Paris la semaine prochaine, mais j'ai encore un empêchement. Je vais reporter au mois de septembre.
Bises

Optimistic Existentialist said...

This is most definitely one of the most amazing posts I've ever read or seen. Thank you so much for sharing these amazing memories with us.

catherinesherman said...

I really enjoyed this post for so many reason. You are living a fascinating life living in so many interesting and beautiful places, including some of my favorite cities, such as San Francisco.

Thanks for visiting my blog, too!

Arti said...

What a glamorous life you've had... should write a movie script, all your encounters and people you've met. And how cool is that to have written lyrics for Edith Piaf. I didn't know much about her until I watched the movie La Vie en Rose. Yes, I look forward to more of your life stories... and maybe a movie in the future. ;)

Things and Thoughts said...

Je n'avais pas compris que je pouvais laisser un mot en francais, je me sens beaucoup plus a l'aise qu'avec l'anglais.Alors, j'ai suivi tout le trace de votre vie avec interet et j'avoue que c'etait bien passionnant.J'ai beaucoup aime ces photos "retro" et j'y passerai volontiers voir le reste.
Bisous!
Olympia
P.S.Je m'excuse pour l'absence des accents!

Marguerite-marie said...

Bravo pour avoir osé ainsi partir , c'était une belle époque et tu savais ce que tu voulais .
Tu pourrais en faire un livre.. Souvenirs vagabonds!

Dee said...

Dear Vagabonde, your life has been so interesting and filled with so much adventure. You've taken risks and followed your dreams and you have become truly a Renaissance woman. But then I've witnessed that breadth of knowledge and experience in all your postings. Thank you for sharing your life with us. Peace.

Retired English Teacher said...

Dear Vagabonde,
I loved this post! You were such a brave, adventurous young woman when you came to the U.S. to explore and make a new life for yourself. I wish I would have had your spunk and courage. I was way too timid and controlled by my father. I admire you so much.

You really captured the time, the girl, and the spirit of the time and the girl in this post. I can't wait to read more.

Ginnie said...

You should write a book, Vagabonde! HA!

Abraham Lincoln said...

It just occurred to me and I failed to mention it in my earlier comment that your being a vagabond was something like what I was back in 1951 and 1952. When high school was out for the summer I would get $40.00 in cash from my father (a gift) and I'd head for the bus station and buy a ticket for as far as the money would take me. From then on I was on my own and rode my thumb (hitch hiking) to California and ended up for the summer in Tucson, Arizona. I hitch hiked from there across New Mexico and through Texas down to Houston. I found a wallet on the street in Houston and it had several thousand dollars in it. I looked around and this man came running back and told me he had dropped his wallet and it contained money he had withdrawn from the bank. He was in a panic. I handed him the wallet and he walked away. I didn't even get a reward. I had about twenty cents in my pocket.

Fripouille said...

Hi, and I haven't dropped by for ages, partly due to the fact that I didn't subscribe to your posts correctly and thus thought you weren't posting.

And this entry you just put up makes me regret that. It's a beautifully written and illustrated piece. At 59 years old myself I am in a position to appreciate that life consists of different periods, each with its own specific memories and memories both good and bad.

Dunno if that's what you meant to put over with this entry, but that's what I got, so thanks a lot and a good evening to you and all..

Kay said...

I'm just so amazed at all you've experienced. It took so much courage to leave your own country to begin a life elsewhere. I am surprised that you would leave beautiful Paris. Most people want to move there.

madretz said...

I'm glad I stumbled back to your blog, I think via Ginnie's blog. This is so very interesting now that I live in San Francisco! Your life history is absolutely wonderful and I'm grateful you're sharing it.

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