The King of Bohemia

This post is a day late. I always get discombobulated whenever we switch time.

Sadakichi Hartmann in 1899

Yesterday, November 8, was the birthday of a very interesting guy named Sadakichi Hartmann. He hung out with Walt Whitman, danced with Isadora Duncan, introduced the symbolist poetry music to America (along with haiku and tanka poetry), invented the psychedelic light show, published some of the earliest avant garde magazines, wrote a play called Buddha (and one called Christ), appeared in the Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and was BDB (that’s Best Drinking Buddies) with John Barrymore and W.C. Fields.

Sadakichi Hartman was born in 1867. His Japanese mother died in childbirth, and his father, a German trader, placed him in the care of one of his German uncles. By the 1880’s he was in America, and already having had met Whitman, was an art critic for several Philadelphia newspapers. His accomplishments and projects are too numerous to go into here. Suffice to say that he was a champion of art and artists, uncommon thinking and the free spirit; he protested the rising tide of conformity, and published books on subjects ranging from photography to Shakespeare to Whistler.

In the later decades of his life, the primary role he played was that of the ex-King of Bohemia, and it was also the way he made his living, giving lectures, and when paid appearances were not in the offing, he freeloaded. It led George Santayana to call him an “importunate beggar,” and W.C. Fields to say he was a “bum and a moocher.” They were compliments.

By the 1930’s Hartmann was, as George Knox describes him, “An almost forgotten figure in American art and letters, [living] in a clapboard shack he called ‘Catclaw Sliding’ amid the chaparral of the Morongo Indian Reservation east of town.” The town being, Banning, California.

You can read Knox’s essay “Sadakichi Hartmann’s Life and Career” here. In 2005, the New York Sun did a profile available here.

Perhaps, the best account of Hartmann is in Gene Fowler’s book Minutes of the Last Meeting which also chronicles the misadventures of The Bundy Drive Boys, Hollywood’s original Rat Pack, a group that included the aforementioned Barrymore, Fields, and Fowler, as well as Errol Flynn, John Decker and some other Tinsel Town characters. Sadakichi Hartman was their court jester.

Here are a few fragments from the mind of the man Walt Whitman referred to as “that dammed Japanee”:

Every true artist is a revolutionist by instinct, by special endowments, by necessity. His talents, no matter in what direction they exert and propagate themselves, are always exceptional, this in itself constitutes revolt, as the public, bent on enjoyment without study or meditation, will accept willingly and cheerfully on the conventional and traditional in exchange for monetary recompense. The artist who lives, survives, and ‘does’ is entrenched most of his life; he takes part in many skirmishes, carries the torn flag of beauty and liberty through the firing lines to summits far beyond the fighting crowds.

A great statesman is rarely a great humanitarian. He is occupied with the routine of the existing, and the desire to make a good impression on those he rules.

The trouble is that there are two kinds of morality. One which everyone feels – a man’s conduct towards women, his family, animals, his business associates, community and state interests, which concerns all – and we regulate these actions more by intuition, an inner urge to do right, than anything from outside, while the other morality that clergy and government, religious and political reformers, founders of new creeds and social orders, force upon us (necessary as they may be for mob discipline) is hypochondriac and hypocritical, false and destructive of what it is desirous to being about.

Do something absolutely berserk and you are sure of immortality among men.

Every person one meets bristle with advice like an angry porcupine, and although spines may hurt, people take more readily to bad advice than to reliable directions.

Zen Buddhism in direct opposition to Confucianism raised nature worship almost to a cult, Confucianism was becoming dry and hard, forstering a strict obedience to the letter of the law, not unlike Christianity in the hands of the Calvinists. Zen, on the other hand, held that nature and man (similar to Swedenborg’s doctrine) were two parallel forces running perfect sympathy through universal life.

Slander is like throwing mud at a wall. If it does not stick, it will at least leave a mark.

What can the individual do? I advise myself like this: Do what you like and what you can do best. Try and be more of an individual, influence stagnant crowd-thinking and mass-meeting mentality. Don’t bother too much about others, but give actual personal help when you can. Be sure not to harm anyone directly or indirectly. There is little else that can be done. However, this can be done by everybody.


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