Photography courtesy of Anne Dick
Until she sold her jewelry business in 2007 (at the age of 80), Anne Dick was still designing pieces for fine-art and museum shops all over the country. She writes poetry. And now, at 87, she’s finishing her autobiography, Anne and the Twentieth Century or Gullible’s Travels. That title hints at her dry humor, and though it’s true that everyone has a story to tell, Anne’s is funnier, stranger, sadder, and more astonishing than the average bear’s. Also, as she admits in the first chapter, all her life she just wanted to “read, read, read”—which is surely one of the reasons she herself is such a compelling storyteller.
Born Anne Williams, she spent her earliest years in a suburb of New York City; after her father died, her mother moved back home to St. Louis, bringing Anne with her. Anne’s published a collection of letters written by her grandfather, turn-of-the-century St. Louis businessman Moses Perry Johnson, who ran off with a wild, redheaded Gibson Girl. But her best-known book is The Search for Philip K. Dick, described by The New York Times as invaluable to fans and scholars of the late sci-fi writer because it immerses the reader in Anne’s day-to-day life as Dick’s third wife, when the pair lived together in a glass-walled modernist house in Point Reyes Station, California. “I never did understand why our marriage broke up,” she says, “so I wrote this book to try to figure it out.”
Anne Dick still lives in that house, which she bought with her first husband, poet Richard Rubenstein; she raised her four daughters there. She herself had become a young widow when Rubenstein died at 36 from a reaction to a drug. Three weeks later, she met Dick. “He’d already written maybe 100 short stories and about ﬁve science-fiction novels and about ﬁve literary novels,” Anne says. “He was well on his way. But he said I was like the second-stage rocket that pushed him up into outer space.”
Her new autobiography includes just a small “interlude” about her years with Dick; it’s more of a look at her early years in St. Louis, which she evokes in rich, novelistic detail. She writes about an older cousin who worked at Boatmen’s Bank, who saw people lying on heating grates in the warehouse district down by the river during cold weather. Every morning, a horse-drawn cart would ride through the streets, accompanied by a policeman, who’d nudge the figures with his nightstick. If they didn’t move, two men would stop the cart, load the bodies into the back, take them to Potter’s Field, and dump them into a grave. “During lunch, he’d go down to the river,” she says of the same cousin, “and there was a big Hooverville there. It was all made out of packing cases and corrugated paper. People who had been upper–middle class were living there… They were digging roots up and eating them; they had nothing. They would polish shoes or sell apples. But they were starving.”
She also writes about Little Bohemia, the riverfront bar started by Jay Landesman, painter Savo Radulovic, and her future husband; Landesman would later start the Crystal Palace in Gaslight Square. “There wasn’t any other bar like that in the United States, unless possibly New York,” she says. “It was really unusual… I was so young, I didn’t notice a lot of things, but it was a fascinating place. The whole jukebox had nothing but Edith Piaf on it. My college friends and I, we used to call her Edith Pilaf.”
Rubenstein had returned to St. Louis after living in Greenwich Village, where he’d founded Neurotica with Landesman. It was the country’s first counterculture magazine, and the first to publish Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
“His sole aim in life was to write poetry,” she says of Rubenstein. He waited on her at the bar, and she guessed he liked her: “He called me up about 17 times, and I started going out with him and ended up marrying him.”
After the Rubensteins moved to the Bay Area in the late 1940s, Richard would found two more little magazines, Inferno and Gryphon. The latter published work by e. e. cummings and Cid Corman, as well as the young Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov. Anne taught herself how to set type, running off pages on an old anarchist’s press in a half-flooded basement. She came up with the name Gryphon, too, a figure from Greek mythology, which she read voraciously as a child.
They lived on Nob Hill in San Francisco, hanging out with painters and poets, including Kenneth and Marie Rexroth; they furnished their apartment with the first Eames chairs, ate then-exotic Chinese dishes like ginger ice cream and braised chicken claws, heard John Cage and Ravi Shankar perform, and witnessed Ginsberg’s controversial first public reading of “Howl.” During a brief three-year return to St. Louis, Anne and Richard moved into a big, rambling Victorian house down the block from Jay and Fran Landesman. (Anne says Fran once told her that the song “All the Sad Young Men” was written about her and Richard. She wryly notes she later heard Fran on Fresh Air, telling Terry Gross it was about someone else.) After Richard’s death in California, Anne never came back to St. Louis, so she’s never seen the Gateway Arch.
Just as Anne’s book on her late second husband was invaluable to people fascinated with his novels, her autobiography provides an invaluable window into what life was like during 1930s and ’40s St. Louis. It’s also just a gorgeous literary memoir filled with very human characters (Anne’s mother, Hazel, emerges as one of the most vivid). The cities Anne inhabits also emerge as characters—as does the 20th century itself.
“I am a friend of this young man in Spain,” she says, “and he said, ‘You’ve got to write about the 20th century. It was such a fantastic century’—so I did.”
Anne and the Twentieth Century or Gullible’s Travels, An Autobiography is scheduled for publication later this year. For more titles by Anne Dick, contact Point Reyes Cypress Press.