The Daily Heller: The Day I Met Jean Genet and Elbert Howard

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On May Day 1970 there was a series of court trials in New Haven, CT, with members of the Black Panther Party. The charges ranged from criminal conspiracy to felony murder. The trials were a magnet for many left groups and Civil Rights/antiwar demonstrators, and I was among the 15,000 protesters.

I traveled from Grand Central in New York City with my good friend and mentor, Brad Holland. It was the first time I wore the motorcycle helmet a friend gave me for protection against billy clubs, a common injury at events like this (along with tear gas respiratory and eye discomfort). We were told by someone from the activist mobilization committee to gather at the Center Church green, near the entrance to Yale, which had opened its gates, dorms and colleges to the demonstrators. The gathering was also later attacked by club-wielding, tear-gas-shooting New Haven cops. The Connecticut National Guard was on call and its commanders positioned platoons of armed troops and armored vehicles on the side streets.

After we got off the train with likeminded provocateurs, we followed others to the green near or opposite Yale. I had never been to New Haven before (and only three times since). Excitedly we were walking amidst a small army of dissenters when all of a sudden, I looked to my right and saw a familiar-looking short bald man in a leather jacket walking with an imposingly large companion. I immediately recognized him from photographs as the iconic French author and former incarcerated criminal, Jean Genet. His books, journals and plays were mandatory reading at Walden, my progressive high school, and NYU, my briefly-attended university. The guy with him was aptly called Big Man (real name Elbert Howard,) and was among the six original founders of BPP. Genet had become an ally and advocate for the Panthers.

Without thinking, I said, "hello, Monsieur Genet." He couldn't speak much or any English, so I mustered up a little French, and told him what an honor it was to meet such a great writer as him (considered by Sartre as "the greatest writer of his generation"). I self-consciously raised my fist to Big Man, who nodded back. It was but a moment—an unforgettable sliver in time—that neither of them would ever recall again. But for me it was the thrill of a lifetime. Later, I learned that Genet was not allowed by the government to even be in the U.S., no less at a major protest, giving a speech in support of the Black Panther Party.

The Thief's Journal, first published in 1948—a collection of "horrifyingly" vulgar stories about his life as a thief ("always set in a framework of subtle reflection," noted a critic), written while serving a long-term sentence in Fresnes Penitentiary—was banned in the U.S. But when I returned home, slightly bruised from the melé with cops and guards that ensued on the Yale campus that May Day evening, I went to the long-gone University Place Bookstore in the old Hotel Albert and bought all the Genet books I did not already have. This 1954 edition was published by the controversial Olympia Press in Paris, founded by Maurice Girodias. Coincidentally, I was later hired as a designer for its unpublished magazine "O" (named after The Story of O) while in my early 20s, one of my credentials was I had "met" Jean Genet.

I love the simple design by Sam Blumberg in 1954. On the back cover read the simple sentence "Not to be introduced into the U.K. or the U.S.A."