I’ve noted on this blog in the past the role of Jim Hughes’ 1989 biography of Smith in my ongoing saga following Smith’s footsteps. Jim has been supportive of me in person over the years, as well. I like to say that I’m standing on his shoulders; the big, strong body an essential base.
In response to my post earlier this week, “Flurb,” Jim chimed in with this excellent note from the home he shares with his wife Evelyn in Maine:
Sam:I am old enough to remember New York’s old naming system for telephone exchanges. The LA 4-6935 shown in Sonia’s photograph of Gene’s “b&w” phone stands for LAckawanna-4 (I have no way of knowing if that was actually his number at the loft, even though I did call him there; the phone pictured may have been brought in from elsewhere, with an old number still attached). At any rate, years earlier, there was only LA-2 for that exchange, but then NY Tel had to add numbers and expand many exchanges to accommodate a growing population. When I first moved to Brooklyn, for example, our number was MAin 5-1521. Ours was a comparatively small neighborhood, and I seem to remember only having to dial 5-1521 for a few years for calls within the exchange until the telephone company changed to all numbers, making us 625. Then it was 212-625. Later it became 718. Plus 622 and 624. Other exchanges were added by the time we moved to Maine, where we are now back to one area code for the entire state and two exchanges for the town.
There may be poetry in your quoted definition of Flerb as it may or may not apply to Gene, but I don’t think he would have misspelled it, given his penchant for word play and punning. Rather, I think he was using “FLURB” and “FRILB” (I see a B onscreen, but it could be a D or even a P) as mnemonics, pointing to the letters on the rotary dial to indicate numbers. I think it was probably easier for Gene to remember FLURB than 35872 (or CHelsea 3-5872) or FRILB rather than CHelsea 3-7452 or GRamercy 3-7452 — since the exchange referenced could also have been GRamercy 3, an adjacent neighborhood. Perhaps these were numbers for local food places that delivered. Or any of hundreds of other possibilities. At this point, there’s little way of knowing.
(I should note that for many years I carried all my my friends’ telephone numbers, many photographers included, in my head, and could retrieve them at will. They are all gone now. If my theory is correct, then Gene had a better system!)
Evelyn follows your blog (computer screens give me a headache and a stiff neck!), and alerts me to stuff she thinks I might want to see. Such as Gene’s phone. I also remember your showing a new-looking Olympus half-frame at one point. Attached is a photograph of the Olympus-W (for Wide) that Gene preferred. Note the bleach-and-hypo-stained fingerprints. Gene gave the camera to one of his hardworking assistants for the Jewish Museum show, Leonard Gordon, who eventually sent it to me, since it was jammed beyond repair. I keep it on a shelf, along with Gene’s 8×10 Burke & James with red bellows. On the wooden focusing bed of this behemoth, under the lensboard, was the following note, written in Gene’s distinctive block-letter hand with a felt-tip pen, that I think was intended for Carole to discover:
‘If you really love someone, you wish to say “I’m Yours” in that you strive for unselfishness. This in mutual love works out to a great and beautifully respectful equality — with passion — SMILE, I LOVE YOU!’