Happy 90th Birthday to Leon Litwack–the man who threw gasoline and a match on all my interests. Here is part I of our impromptu birthday interview.
Rhoda: RL! [Yells down the hall] Leon, it’s RL!
Rhae Lynn Barnes (RLB): Where is the birthday boy?!
Leon F. Litwack (LFL): I’m still in my 80s for a few more hours! Don’t push it!
RLB: You got your Ray-Bans and leather jacket on?
LFL: What else. You?
RLB: We don’t match today. But this hat is very Joan at Club Passim so we’re still a pair. Or should I put on my ugly green jacket so we’re Free Wheelin’ it? I have some 90th birthday interview questions for you. Who is your favorite blues artist at 90?
LFL: Oh GOD! Why do you do this to me?! You torture me! I can’t pick that. But I saw a great jazz show last night. Pharoah Sanders. You know him? He was at Yoshi’s.
RLB: You and Yoshi’s! OK, I’ll lay off the blues. What is the most historic thing you witnessed in person?
LFL: I guess it has to be the day my TA at U.C. Berkeley told me to come to some house later because there was someone who wanted to meet an undergraduate history student. His wife was there. I walked in and it was W.E.B. Du Bois!
RLB: WHAT! What the! [Expletives] I forgot this!
LFL: Yes! He wanted to find out what I knew about Reconstruction and how they taught it here. Kenneth Stamp was there.
RLB: That’s insane.
LFL: Can you believe it? Magic. I was in the right place. There was also the smoke-filled Saturday Night at the IWO. Harry Bridges came out (you know Harry Bridges!)
RLB: I mean, not personally, but yes. “Let me tell you of a sailor, Harry Bridges is his name/
An honest union leader who the bosses tried to frame…”
LFL: He came to introduce a surprise guest. It was Paul Robeson! Singing at 2 AM in San Francisco! It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I’ll never forget it. I’ve been very lucky in life in that way.
RLB: This is why I always ask! I am always shocked. But I think one thing we have in common is we show up to be a witness. We like to watch.
LFL: You have to show up and be a witness to be a good historian.
RLB: How big is your FBI file right now?
LFL: Ha! It’s right there! About 100 pages.
RLB: I’m surprised it’s not longer.
LFL: Well, we had one landlady who used to steal the writing off my desk whenever she came in to clean and give it to the FBI, so there is certainly more.
RLB: Have you ever been arrested?
LFL: No! Very close to it. That picture of me in the Chronicle with the ambulance for the black union protest in SF.
RLB: I know you want to go back to Paris. What is your favorite place in California?
LFL: My hot springs that was shut down! No, no, I know it will be back. That answer is easy. It’s always Berkeley. It’s always Telegraph Avenue. It’s really Moe’s Books. I love it there. I am not nostalgic at all for the way Telegraph used to be, either. The change is the point.
RLB: “People in motion/ people in motion…”
LFL: I like the changes. But you can’t get rid of Moe’s!
RLB: I know, you love Moe’s. Moe’s and Amoeba. And you know I like their High Fidelity addition!
LFL: I have a begrudging admiration for LA. The things that persist. The book stores.
RLB: Rhoda and I will keep working on you and LA. I have a thousand questions about you and California. You really lived California in the 20th century. What was the most exciting realization you ever had?
LFL: The moment I realized I loved teaching and I was good at it. I first thought of doing dramatic arts at Berkeley. Then I was accepted into both the History Ph.D. program at Berkeley and Boalt Law School. I attended Boalt for three days and then I had to walk out. I walked down the hill and marched back into the History Department to accept my History fellowship. This was before computers so they didn’t know I was up the hill. They said “this is Wednesday! Where have you been?” I said “Well, I’m here now. It’s a long story.” I taught at Oakland Tech and El Cerrito. I loved teaching high school history. That was the greatest decision of my life.
RLB: It’s amazing when a single choice completely reroutes our trajectory. But *how* did you know?
LFL: You’ve had these moments too. I’ve watched them. You just know.
RLB: You know me. I want to know everything now. How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
LFL: I know.
RLB: What are you most thankful for right now at 90?
LFL: MMM. I wish I could say my good health.
RLB: Stop! You’re still kicking old man!
LFL: That answer is Rhoda.
RLB: I know. I don’t even know why I asked, but it’s sweet to hear. You’ve almost been married 60 years!
LFL: I know, it’s wild.
RLB: What love advice do you have for me? I always ask Rhoda this. I still can’t believe you left her at that bus stop on Telegraph the moment you met to go buy a rare book. But I’d probably do it too…we have our priorities.
LFL: When it comes to being in love, hang on! Falling in love again is always a surprise.
RLB: Hang on to WHAT?
RLB: Hang on to WHAT, Leon? *Laughter*
LFL: Listen, you’ll know when it hits you. Just hang on as tight as you can. And if you ever realize you don’t have to hang on tight with them anymore…
RLB: Don’t think twice, it’s alright?
RLB: God, “we never did too much talkin’ anyway…” really is horrifying. Can you imagine?
LFL: If you can’t talk, you have nothing.
RLB: I guess I don’t even need to ask your favorite rock ‘n’ roller at 90.
LFL: Bob Dylan, obviously.
RLB: Obviously! But let’s talk about it. I know most of these stories, but when did this obsession begin?
LFL: The first time I heard his voice was in Madison, Wisconsin in a record store. I was in one of the listening rooms. I went in and thought it was fabulous. I came home, put the record on. It was a hot summer day so the songs were going out of my apartment and onto the street. My next-door neighbor said “What kind of shit is that?!” so I knew I was onto something.
RLB: Book you love to reread?
LFL: Native Son.
RLB: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to buy a book or get into a concert?
LFL: I don’t do anything crazy to get books!
RLB: Yeah, that time you made me haggle a 50k purchase on behalf of Bancroft using my student ID discount was totally normal.
RLB: I have so many questions about your parents. I love how they met. I think about the Japanese American concentration camp story constantly. I also loved it when the Dreamer kids in Santa Barbara discovered your Dad was also a gardener. OK, I know. Teaching advice?
LFL: Well, everyone knows the big survey course is my favorite. It’s the challenge. I really benefited from getting the first lectures down and every year revising them. The first time you teach these, you drown. You’re always only a day ahead. It’s so hard. But you have to keep improving it. You have to keep modifying your own ideas because history is alive. Your students deserve it.
RLB: Have you ever had a paranormal experience? I’ve never asked you that before.
LFL: A WHAT?
RLB: Paranormal. Ghosts!
LFL: OH! Very memorable nightmares. The first time I smoked dope in SF! I don’t know! HEY! Are you coming dancing? We’ve got a 5-piece band and Kim Nalley is singing!
RLB: I know! I’m excited for Kim. But who throws a beach rager on a Monday night in December?
LFL: 90-year-olds! But I’m still 89 right now, remember?