Tag Archives: Edwin Treitler

William Sage Dalzell (1929-2018)

 

 

‘William Sage Dalzell (1929-2018)’

 

 

 

Bill Dalzell was one of the first people I got to know after moving to New York City. I will never forget his kindness to me. My friendship with Bill was a long and enduring one.

If you got to know Bill well, as I did — if you were privileged to know him — you will probably know the following things about him, and, if you do, will know that they are all true.

He never cared about externals. Dressed simply. Lived by intuition. He followed politics closely but was fundamentally an apolitical person.

He believed absolutely in the spiritual, in mysticism, and in bona fide psychics such as Edgar Cayce and the medium Grace Cooke, author of the White Eagle books. He was interested in the writings of mystics such as Meister Eckhart — in the case of Eckhart, in the concept of detachment or disinterestedness: renouncing self-interest to attain spiritual enlightenment.

He believed without any doubt that there was an afterlife on “the other side.”

He was skeptical of much of what is considered orthodoxy — he used to say, “Science marches backward.” A paradox with an element of truth in it.

He absolutely did not believe in medicine or doctors. He had no bank account, as far as I knew.

He had an interesting mind, in many respects totally unconventional. Was a nonconformist. Yet he was one of the kindest, politest, most civil persons you could hope to meet. He was a true gentleman. He had a warm, mellifluous voice with an inflection, which he never lost, that bespoke his Pennsylvania roots.

He thought for himself and by himself. He had an interesting way of expressing original concepts. For example, he told me that he liked to call cats “fur people.” He said it made it easier to conceptualize having a relationship with them. And, then there was his concept of the “foot philosophy,” which he explained by saying that when he couldn’t decide which bus or train to take, whether to go to a museum or the cinema, or whether to walk uptown or downtown, he would go wherever, instinctually, his feet took him, follow his feet.

He did not put on airs. Just the opposite. He used to say to me, when he was living on East 5th Street between Avenues A and B, “I live in a slum and I like it.” At that time (which was the time when I first met him), urban renewal and slum clearance were in the air.

He was a deeply religious person and, especially in his later years, a churchgoer. This despite the fact that he detested religious dogmatism.

He was a very earnest thinker. He dwelt all day long, every day, in the realm of ideas. He thought long and hard about things. Over and over again. Immortality and the afterlife. What is truth? The truth of art. The spiritual. Past lives. Places.

He did not have much use for formal education, although there was an English teacher at the prep school he attended, Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, whom he never forgot, who taught him to appreciate poetry. He wasn’t impressed by scholarship or academic credentials. He developed his own credo, but it was never set in stone. He would often say, quoting some philosopher: “Truth is like a butterfly. If you pin it down, it dies.”

He had acute tastes in art and loved the arts.

He was an earnest seeker after truth. In a conversation we had a few months ago, he told me something a philosophy professor in a college class he was enrolled in said many years ago: “The question is not whether a philosophy or belief system is true, it’s whether you like it nor not; does it appeal to you, say something to you? The same thing applies to art.” He sent me a postcard of Notre-Dame de Paris on a trip there in the summer of 1969. I remember in essence what he wrote. That he would continue seeking truth wherever he went. That he was in search of truth, repeating the word several times.

 

 

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Some biographical details about Bill.

He grew up in Wilkinsburg, a borough adjacent to Pittsburgh. He loved the hills. The trolley cars. The movie theatre. How he went to a film once and before the film heard music, which he later learned was Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. He wasn’t expecting it. The music overwhelmed him. It was a mystical experience. Bill’s grandfather had a 78 rpm record of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Bill played it over and over again and said to me in old age that he had never ever tired of it.

He moved to New York in the 1950’s. He loved his adopted city. He used to say, “Would you care to hear me sing the praises of New York?” He used to marvel at the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities lived cheek by jowl in harmony. At how much the City had to offer by way of culture and places to enjoy at modest prices.

He made friends with many spiritually inclined people and, also, readily made friends with artists such as his lifelong friend Edwin Treitler, an artist, writer, and spiritual healer; the “magic realist” painter Gregory Gillespie; and the Greek-American painter Bill Komodore. He had an affinity for people in the arts. Gillespie’s portrait of Bill Dalzell, “Bill (in Studio),” was painted in the mid-1980’s when Bill was living in Pittsfield and Gillespie was living nearby in Belchertown, Massachusetts. The painting is owned by the Forum Galley in New York City. Bill had befriended Gillespie when the latter was studying at Cooper Union in New York in the late 1950’s.

He would on occasion speak about his parents: his father, who would visit Bill from time to time at his apartment on East 5th Street; and his mother, who died tragically of cancer in middle age. He felt an unnecessary operation led to her death. He never mentioned that his great-grandfather John Dalzell was a congressman from Pennsylvania.

He used to go the Metropolitan Museum of Art every weekend. He said that going to the Met was his equivalent of attending church. He would always begin by sitting in the cafeteria for an hour or so nursing a cup of coffee, lost in thought.

He had his favorite haunts. Besides the Met: the Thalia theater, an art movie house on West 95th Street; the Staten Island Ferry; the automat. He loved being able to see two films for the price of one at the Thalia and discovered art films there (as well as at the Museum of Modern Art). He loved to take the Staten Island Ferry to Staten Island and back. We did it together several times. Bill would recommend getting off on the Staten Island side and having a cup of coffee or walking around for a while. In his early New York days, he would get off and see a movie in Staten Island, then take the ferry back.

He had a discerning eye for art. He was an admirer of the painter Edward Hopper. During museum trips we made together, he would point out how Hopper made use of light. “The light is different in America,” Bill would say. By “different,” he meant brighter. More brilliant. An observation which was true.

Bill loved the painting “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the American folk artist Edward Hicks and how the painting depicted visually Quaker principles: the lion lying down with the lamb. He would often go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the painting.

Bill singlehandedly made me into a discerning filmgoer. He got me to appreciate foreign films such as Ivan the Terrible, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew, films that most people would be unlikely to know about.

He loved the D. W. Griffith film Intolerance, which he had seen I don’t know how many times. The film ends with an idealistic vision of a day “when prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance will no longer prevail” and spectral prisoners in striped uniforms are seen moving through prison walls which disappear. A scene remarked upon by Bill.

He only recently called my attention to a film he loved from his early days in New York City: 3rd Ave. El, which was made in 1955. The music, as Bill pointed out, is a Haydn concerto played by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Bill thought the music was great and that it made the film. He made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”

His aesthetic senses were astute. Yet, it was all intuition, never tendentious. I learned much from him about how, while trusting my own intuitions, and being guided by them, to discriminate between the most profound works of art (chiefly films and paintings) and currently popular ones which (he could see) were of only passing interest at best or works that did not speak directly to him. He told me once that a good “measuring rod” for films was to ask oneself: do you still think it’s great, are you still thinking about it, the day after?

This kind of thinking — a sort of seat of the pants ratiocination — influenced me strongly. I feel that Bill never got credit for it and that it was overlooked. Another thought of his along these lines was a remark he made about traveling. When one arrives home after an overseas trip, he said to me, one is not quite home yet, mentally, and is still, mentally, a traveler. It takes a day or two to feel fully back home mentally, and, during that day or two, one is experiencing one’s own city as a traveler would experience it.

 

 

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I remember Bill at 218 East 18th Street like it was yesterday and wish I could bring those times back. The cubbyhole in the cellar where he had his printing press. The pay phone in the hall on the bottom floor on which he would get calls from clients. How Charlie Bloomstein, the executive director of the New York Friends Group, would haggle Bill about paying part of the monthly phone bill.

In the 1960’s, he was kept busy printing flyers for the War Resisters League and Women’s Strike for Peace. Handouts announcing a march or demonstration. They trusted him; he was their printer of choice. “The war is good for business,” he would say to me jokingly.

Bill and his printing press. How he seemed to keep it working with rubber bands and paper clips and would, in his own words, get down on his knees and pray to the press to not stop working. How he would read his New York Times as the press was humming with sheets coming out of it. He had bill pads he had made up with the words: “William Dalzell, Quality Multilith Printing.” He explained to me how a multilith printer worked. The key thing to keep in mind, he said, is that “oil and water don’t like each other.” He loved to observe how mechanical things worked, and he loved old inventions. In a Thanksgiving card Bill sent me in the 1980’s, he wrote about visiting the Science Museum in Boston with Ed Treitler and his daughter Anya. “My favorite thing was the steam engine,” he wrote. “I love steam engines.”

My job title at the New York Friends Group was Workroom Supervisor; my responsibilities included mimeographing. Bill would patiently try, repeatedly, to show me how to stack a ream of paper so that the ends lined up. I never quite got the hang of it.

 
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Bill’s mind interested me because, like mine, it ranged all over the place. Nothing was seemingly too mundane for him to notice and consider, think about, and nothing was too arcane or “airy.” He once got to talking about waiters. He didn’t like coffee shops because he preferred not to have to be waited upon. He preferred places such as a cafeteria or fast food place where you could place your order and take it to your table. “Americans don’t make good waiters,” he told me. “They don’t like to be in a subservient position.”

Bill said that he had once had an experience in a restaurant in Europe (he was no snob and was anything but an epicure) with the perfect waiter. “A good waiter,” he said, “is someone who is there when you want them and is not there when you don’t.”

 

 

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Bill was a great traveler. The places he went to (on a limited budget)! Europe. Mexico, where he lived for a while on a Friends Service Committee project. Alaska and Labrador. The Aran and Orkney Islands. The Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland. Russia. The Monastery of Trinity-St. Sergius, which is located near Moscow in what was then known as the town of Zagorsk. Bill had what he described as a mystical, or near mystical, experience there.

He had interesting observations to share — some of them “episodic,” but nonetheless fruitful. “The Scotch are in a class by themselves when it comes to love of books and reading,” he told me once. “You go into a bar and you’ll see a working man in working clothes with a worn [meaning its cover] book sticking out of his back pocket.”

His favorite place was Notre-Dame de Paris. He said that Notre-Dame was “the most holy place” he had ever visited.

He was in the United States Merchant Marine during his young adulthood. It must have been his first experience of travel. He told me that there is a lot of time on a ship where one is doing nothing and can presumably read and reflect. He said that as far as his duties on the ship were concerned, they almost always involved painting. Bill was not afraid or too snobby to do menial jobs.

He was not much of a writer, in terms of output, but he would write occasionally when he was away, always a very short communique — by design — usually a postcard. His writing was notable for its deliberate plainness and its sincerity. And his neat printing, which resembled calligraphy. He was a generous and thoughtful giver, on a limited budget, of gifts. If he wished to share a book with you, he would give you his own copy to keep, such as his ink stained copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and a book by Edgar Cayce.

Bill’s favorite poem was Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which ends with the following lines which Bill would recite:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2018

 

 

 

Bill Dalzell's note to Roger

This note from Bill Dalzell to Roger Smith was inserted in a copy of a book, “Edgar Cayce’s Story of Jesus,” given to Roger by Bill.

 

 

 

“I went to the school of New York.”

 

 

 

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

 

 

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I was talking on the phone today with my longtime friend from my first days in New York, Bill Dalzell. He told me something that his dear friend Edwin Treitler once said to him. Ed Treitler, who recently passed away, was an artist, writer, and spiritual counselor/healer.

The quote, which struck me forcibly and rung true, was short and pithy: “I went to the school of New York.”

The school of New York. Herman Melville would have perceived instantly what this meant.

It rings so true when I consider my own experience.

 

 

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I had a very good education, for which I am very grateful. Then, I went further.

I moved to New York City right after graduating from college, and my education really began. Or was on a new plane. Something like that.

I had never seen a really good film. Had never, I believe, patronized an art film house. Had often frequented bookstores, but had never seen so many used bookstores cheek by jowl with so many interesting books, including many by avant-garde writers who were usually not taught in college.

I had never read so intensely and deeply before in such weighty works. I had never met such intellectually stimulating people. Many of them, most of them, I met in totally offhanded and unanticipated ways, in places where you would not expect to find someone smart and interesting, often in the workplace. (It reminded me of Theodore Dreiser’s friends in his early Chicago days; see below.)

I met many such persons in my early days in Manhattan: a poet who it seemed had read the whole corpus of great poetry — and knew all those currently active, including the New York School of poets (and who took me with him to poetry readings in Manhattan) — and practically every important work of literature from time immemorial, ranging from Roman poets such as Juvenal and Sextus Propertius to the most recent and challenging fiction by writers such as Thomas Pynchon … a printer who was thoroughly immersed in mysticism and the visual arts (and whom I tagged along with to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney; from him I became acquainted with painters such as Edward Hopper, whom I had never heard of) … and so many people whose ideas piqued me and who submerged me in new areas of thought and “mental adventure” and who introduced me to books, painters exhibited in the City’s museums and galleries, filmmakers, and such that I would probably never have learned about.

The true intellectuals, I find, are often buried in the woodwork, are in the back office or hunkered down over a desk doing drudge clerical work (as was I).

I had such stimulating conversations with people I met at random in taverns and at work, or with their friends. Almost none of them were well off, and most were at a stage in their lives where they were starting out and did not have impressive credentials, or were perhaps older but had never become credentialed. They were barely making it. But they had a deep passion for ideas, the arts, and culture.

I instinctively took to such a milieu as a duck to water. I bathed in it, drank of it. I grew immeasurably intellectually. I became sophisticated culturally and intellectually. I became a hundred percent better informed, better read, better educated.

 

 

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It has been said that New York is like no other city in the world. For me, this was true. There is an openness to ideas there, a wonderful tolerance, an acceptance of people without any expectation that one must conform. Loners are accepted. (I was afraid I might be perceived as a loner when I first came to New York knowing no one.) Eccentrics are accepted. People of all ideologies and belief systems are accepted, and of all backgrounds. Stimulating conversation by highly aware, well informed, intellectually alive, and intelligent people is the norm.

Cultural sophistication comes with the territory. The arts are almost upon you, so to speak, are omnipresent. It’s almost impossible to be in New York and not to be aware of them and influenced, liberated, and exhilarated by them. New York broadens you, stimulates you, educates you anew. And keeps right on stimulating and educating you.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 3, 2017

 

 

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Addendum: In his autobiographical work Dawn, Theodore Dreiser portrays an individual he met as a young worker in Chicago during the 1890’s. Dreiser was employed in the warehouse of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company, a wholesale hardware firm, at a salary of five dollars a week, as a “box-rustler” and “stock-piler.” A coworker whom Dreiser befriended and who fascinated him was Christian Aaberg, a Dane. Dreiser describes him as a “little rickety, out-at-the elbows, shambling man, with a wrinkled, emaciated, obviously emotion-scarred face, who at forty or forty-five and after God knows what storms and rages of physical and mental dissipation, still had about him that indescribable something which for want of a better word I must speak of as breeding.”

Aaberg was of little or no value to the firm, for he could do no hard work and the powers that were could not trust him with the more complicated, though less strenuous, task of filling orders. As he himself admitted, he drank and dissipated here as in the past and often wondered aloud why it was that … the firm stood for him. … He was shabby and sickly to look upon. Yet … there was that strong, seeking, vital light in his eye at times. … within two or three weeks we were fast friends intellectually, and there followed a series of conversations on life and character, the import of which has endured to this day.

He had read—God knows what! —everything! And he it was who talked to me of Ibsen, Strindberg, Grieg, Goethe, Wagner, Schopenhauer. He would talk to me by the hour, as we piled pots and pans or buckets of bolts or rivets. of the French Revolution and the great figures in it, of Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander, Also of Peter the Great and Catharine of Russia, Frederick the Great and Voltaire, whom he admired enormously. But not the silly, glossed, emasculated data of the school histories with which I had been made familiar, but with the harsh, jagged realities and savageries of the too real world in which all of them moved. And, again, of Greece, of the age of philosophers, logicians, playwrights, sculptors, architects, statesmen, warriors. He revealed as much as any history could—why it was that Aristotle was the first of the organic and realistic thinkers; why Heraclitus would always be remembered. He also told me why Socrates had been compelled to drink the hemlock; that the cross was originally a phallic symbol; elucidated for me the mysteries of the Egyptian temples, the religious festivals of the Parsees, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Persians. … When I told him that that our family was Catholic and I still went to church, he smiled. “You will come out of that,” he said. “You are already out and don’t know it?”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, Dawn: An Autobiography of Early Youth, Chapter 61