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The Flower District

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

This week, Nick Carr‘s great film location scout oriented blog Scouting New York features the flower district on 28th Street, right around the corner from 821 Sixth Avenue.   It’s titled: The Jungles of West 28th Street – Exploring New York’s Flower District. Today, I heard Smith reference his loft space as a kind of jungle while I was cataloging a tape made from his first  guest appearance on the Long John Nebel late night radio talk show.

Here are some excerpts from Jazz Loft Project oral history work from retail and wholesale florists on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street. I’ve selected paragraphs where Sam Rosenberg and Mitchaell Vlachos talk about flower district history.  All interviews conducted by Sam Stephenson in 2006.  And visit their stores and check out their websites in the links below.

Sam Rosenberg of Superior Florist Ltd on 828 Sixth Avenue:

“And it was exciting.  The neighborhood was much more interesting than it is now.  It changed, and as far as I feel, it didn’t change for the best.  The neighborhood was full of furriers.  And furriers were predominantly Jewish and Greek, as were the florists in the neighborhood were mostly Greek.  And we happened to be one of the few Jewish florists around.”

They were wholesale, now.  They weren’t retail.  They weren’t artsy-type guys.  They were a bunch of tough guys that were here at three o’clock in the morning, and they went until about twelve or one o’clock in the afternoon.  And they were a tough bunch, really tough bunch.  And it was all Greek, Italian, a couple of Jews.

And at night, you’d come by and hear all the music coming out of these buildings.  They would practice at night.  There were a lot of hangouts here.  There was a luncheonette that was the busiest place around was called Sloppy Joe’s.  It was a filthy place, but the food was decent.  Then they had the Rainbow that you mentioned.  Sloppy Joe was owned by a Jewish fellow.  The Rainbow was Greek.  And they had Nedick’s.  Nedick’s was where you were able to get your doughnuts and coffee.”

“Yeah, there was a place on 27th Street.  What happened was a lot of farmers or farm-type people had tables in these big places.  The big place was on 27th Street and Sixth Avenue.  It was called – I forget the name of the building.  The building is gone.  But they used to ring – it was a few floors – and they would ring a bell to start selling the flowers.  The farmers would come in with their trucks and set up their tables and sell them.  But I don’t even remember that.  That was in the ’30s.

So, the flower market started on 26th Street, from 26th Street to 29th Street.  Now, it’s just a couple on 28th Street and a few on Sixth Avenue.  You couldn’t get through the street.  This was a two-way street; it’s now a one-way street.  And there was an elevated line running on this street.  It was a subway run.  And that came down in the ’30s, but I remember when a piece of it was up on 34th Street.  It turned in on 34th Street, and a piece was left up.  The elevated line – the steel was sold to Japan before the war.”

From Mitchell Vlachos, owner of wholesale florists Harry Vlachos, Inc:

“Well, you’d see in the photograph, you’d see Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see anymore.  There used to be a lot of Railway Express trucks that would come into the area.  A lot of flowers would come in from the West Coast and California on rail and Upstate on rail.  So, there were a lot of Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see now.”

“Well, many of the wholesale florists represented or were established by greenhouse growers in the area, in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York State, or Long Island.  And they needed a place for their product, so they opened up a wholesale house under their name normally.  And I guess that was where many of them came from.  And then lots of people just started.”

“My father first was a retail florist up on 207th Street and Broadway.  And then he decided, I think, at some point – I never really discussed it with him – that he would prefer to be a wholesale florist.  I think he thought that activity was more promising than being a retail florist.  So, he opened up on 28th Street; he opened up in the Market.  No, he worked with someone he knew in the Market for perhaps two or three years and then decided to go on his own.”

“Between – in one of those big – I guess it was in one of those – there are a few big buildings down in that area.  I’ve never gone and seen the particular building that they went, but the Market was on 16th Street for a few years.  It left 28th Street and went to 16th.  Then it came back to 28th.  I don’t know all the particulars.  I wasn’t involved in that one.  I don’t know whether my father – I don’t think my father ever left this area.  But they tried to establish – I guess rents were a significant factor.  It’s only in recent years that – the space between 30th Street down to 14th Street on Sixth Avenue was a kind of no-man’s-land.  There were lots of blank old buildings and small buildings and things.  This area wasn’t utilized at all.  It just seemed to be one of those dead spots, you know, that area from 30th Street down to 16th Street.  And I think that’s one of the reasons the Flower Market survived here as long as it did, because there was just no push in the area.  You know?

(Sam Stephenson):  Why was it a dead spot?

“I don’t know.  Just because it was too far from 34th Street where the action was, and it was – you know, there was some action on 23rd Street.  Then there was again, I think, more action on 14th Street.  But that spot in between just happened to be a low-demand section.  Is that the way to put it?

(Sam Stephenson):  Low demand?

Yeah, low demand.  No one wanted to rent there.  So, wholesale florists wanted space, and they probably found it.  There were wholesale florists in all of these buildings along that side of 28th.  Even in that big building, they occupied the downstairs floor, a wholesale operator.  And then they were in the big building over here.  There were wholesalers in this one, going down a little bit, you know.”

“I remember there were a lot of wholesalers.  They were interesting people in the flower business at that time.  I think back, and lots of them were pretty capable individuals, the employees, the people that were employees in houses and things.  They probably worked because it was – you know that was during the Depression times and everything else, and work was hard to find.  But there were some very bright capable people in this business.”

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

We don’t have a transcribed interview from the folks at Bill’s Flower Market (pictured above) but they’ve been very helpful to the Jazz Loft Project and they run a wonderful business. Also, check out a brief history of their store and a cool photograph from 1946, also on their website.

It was a pleasure to meet each of these people who work in New York’s flower district. And profound to hear some of their history and stories. Do check out the Scouting New York blog and pay a visit to these flower sellers’ websites, and especially to their stores if you’re in the market.

-Dan Partridge

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“Who killed Davey Moore?”


“You know, Gene used to, in the darkroom sometimes, put a red filter on a TV set so he could watch some of the games, some of the football or baseball games.  And some people are just horrified at this, that it sounds a lot better if he was just listening to music.  But you know, when you’re living, you do normal stuff.” -Carole Thomas

On November 13, 1961 American boxer Davey Moore fought a rematch versus Japanese challenger Kazuo Takayama, successfully defending his title as the Featherweight Champion of the World. The bout took place in Tokyo, where W. Eugene Smith was on extended assignment via Cosmo Public Relations on behalf of Hitachi. During the broadcast, Smith made a recording of the scene in his Roppongi apartment, which doubled as his studio. Smith is audible directing some of his Japanese assistants in the darkroom, where they are listening to and maybe watching the event. He also checks in with them about the results, since he’s presumably working in an adjoining room.

Sadly, Davey Moore would die on March 25, 1963 from injuries sustained in a boxing match four days prior. The event made worldwide news and both Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan wrote songs about it. Dylan’s song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” was covered by Pete Seeger, a brief  roommate of Smith’s in the 30′s. Each of these songwriters have songs that show up on Smith’s recordings. And Dylan and Seeger might have also been in Smith’s loft, though we haven’t confirmed it.

A 21 year old Bob Dylan played Town Hall in New York on April 12, 1963. And he played “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Robert Shelton’s New York Times article seems to be  reintroducing Dylan to the masses almost 2 years after his landmark September 29, 1961 review of Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City. In the later article, Shelton compares Dylan to Holden Caulfield, Woody Guthrie, Rimbaud, and Yevtushenko. The following year is when loft veteran Daniel Kramer began photographing  Bob Dylan. We’re excited to have Kramer visiting us this month and speaking on the 13th. This recently cataloged tape, featuring Smith and Moore in Tokyo, seems to resonate  with some of our latest blog entries and a set of somewhat disparate events.

-Dan Partridge

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On the Trail of Gene Smith in Berkeley


After leaving Monterey on Monday I drove up to meet with Professor Stanley Brandes in the Anthropology Department at Berkeley.  Later that night I went to the nearby home of ninety-two year-old photographer Wayne Miller.  I had been introduced to both men by the noted photographer Ken Light of Berkeley’s journalism and photography programs.

Brandes has done extensive research on Gene Smith’s classic “Spanish Village,” some of the work in tandem with Jesus M. de Miguel of Barcelona.  Their work points out discrepancies between Smith’s documentary work in Deleitosa in 1950 and the reality of the village at the time.  Brandes and de Miguel have painstakingly shown that Smith had something particular in his mind when he went to Spain – a traditional village under domination of Franco – and that’s what he intended to portray no matter what he found there.

Brandes told me, “Smith thought he could singlehandedly halt a loan from the United States to Franco’s regime by showing a backward Spanish village that had been stifled and abused by Franco.”

The work of Brandes and de Miguel is much more complex than I can state here.  Much of their work was published only in Spanish and I have not had time to translate it, yet.  Smith is Brandes’ favorite photographer, so this work isn’t about debunking Smith, per se.  It’s more complicated than that.

What Brandes had to say jibed with what Wayne Miller told me later that night.

Miller’s ninety-second birthday had been Sunday.  He first met Smith at a restaurant in Washington D.C. in 1942.  Miller was a stalwart in Steichen’s naval photography unit, which Smith was disallowed to join for physical reasons.  Instead, Smith landed journalistic assignments in the war from Ziff-Davis, LIFE, and others.

Miller’s wife Joan was with him that night at the restaurant in 1942 and here she was with Miller during my visit in Berkeley on Monday night.  They’ve been together for seven decades.  I hadn’t counted on this bonus, and that’s why you do this work in person, if you can, and not over the telephone.  Joan remembered that earlier that day in 1942 Smith had landed his first war assignments with Ziff-Davis and he was elated.  Joan said, “I clearly remember him saying, ‘I’m twenty-one and about to go off to war.’”  Smith was actually twenty-three at the time but to bend the truth slightly for impact would have been natural for him.

Wayne Miller, who like Smith went on to join Magnum, clearly relates to Smith fondly:  “We were great dreamers.  Photography was about what you felt rather than what you saw.  There was a sense of empathy.  You pursued a gut feeling.  Our work wasn’t for intellectuals.  We were participants in our photography emotionally and we weren’t embarrassed about it.  We wanted to scream out the importance of what we felt and how we reacted to what we saw.”

When Smith moved into 821 Sixth Avenue and left his family in Croton-on-Hudson, “He put himself into exile, damn it,” said Miller.  At roughly the same time Miller began photographing his family with profound connection and emotion – his wife giving birth, his kids from infancy through school ages.  It’s clear today that Miller is most proud of this work, more than, say, his acclaimed photojournalism from the streets of Chicago.  Miller stressed that he and Gene, after a certain point, took different paths.  The two men were born in 1918.  Smith died in 1978 of, by and large, self-destruction, and Miller is still alive and healthy today and so is Joan.

Meanwhile, 22 tons of Smith’s life’s work rest peacefully in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  How do you measure this trade off?  It makes you wonder.  It makes me wonder.  I’ve generated a so-called career from Smith’s archive.

It’s clear I’m not a natural photographer, because I sat there in Wayne and Joan’s home for a couple of hours and it never occurred to me to make a photograph of the two of them to document my visit.  My instinct is that of a writer; to get out a pad and pen, turn on an unobtrusive audio recorder, and be quiet, to talk only enough necessary to (I hope) express sincerity and gratitude and engagement.  That’s what I did.  But I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of Wayne and Joan.

I did, however, snap a shot with my iPhone of a beautiful Live Oak next to their house.  Ken Light told me that Wayne planted this tree as a sapling when they moved into the house in 1951.

-Sam Stephenson

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Circuit of Lofts

Recently JLP received an email from saxophonist Wendell Harrison of Detroit.  He was one of the surviving participants in the 821 Sixth Avenue scene that we hadn’t tracked down and interviewed, yet (there’s still plenty of work to be done), so we were very happy to hear from him.  Last week I caught up with Wendell by telephone.  Below is an excerpt from his comments and memories.  Go HERE to read about Wendell’s work in Detroit today. – Sam Stephenson


Wendell Harrison:  “A writer from Detroit, W. Kim Heron, called me and said I was listed as part of your Jazz Loft Project.  I was delighted to know about it.  I remember that loft scene well.  In fact, the loft you are talking about was part of a circuit of lofts back in those days.  I got all my gigs at those lofts – with Grant Green, Hank Crawford, Sun Ra – it all came from the lofts.

“I’m sixty-eight years old now, so I was one of the youngest cats in the lofts when I moved to New York from Detroit.  I was in my late teens when I moved there around 1961.  I was in awe of guys in their 30’s – Miles, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane – who were already so highly developed musically.  But I was able to get some footing on the scene in the lofts.

Jimmy Stevenson in your loft was somebody I knew growing up in Detroit.  There were musicians from Detroit all over New York.  In fact, when we were in high school we all knew we were going to New York when we graduated.  We all started jam sessions back in Detroit at places like the Unstables and the Minor Key or at somebody’s house.  We’d play and get high.  We smoked plenty of herb back in the day (chuckles).

“The McKinney brothers from Detroit were all in New York and they were a big part of the loft scene.  They were legends in Detroit.  In fact there’s a street in Detroit named McKinney’s Way in tribute to the late great Harold McKinney, pianist, composer and producer. His brother Ray McKinney was a bassist who had a loft on 6th Avenue across the street from your loft and his brother Earl McKinney was a drummer.  I remember walking out of one loft and across 6th into the other loft. It was up around 32nd or 33rd steet.

“I also lived in Bernard McKinney’s loft down on 89 East Broadway, below Canal Street near the Manhattan Bridge.  He was a trombonist and changed his name to Kiane Zawadi and he got into Hindu traditions and vegetarian food.  He encouraged a lot of us to eat meat less.  He baked his own bread, wheat and rye, and made a lot of salads; beans, soy beans.  He got up early in the morning.

“The same crew went from loft to loft in those days.  Bennie Maupin, Henry Grimes, Wilbur Ware, Lex Humphries, Clifford Jarvis, Donald Green and Charles Green, Roger Blank, Thaddeus Griffin, Arthur Hopper, Reggie Workman, Charles Tolliver, John Hicks, Joe Henderson.  There were many more.  You can’t name them all.  Gary Bartz, Archie Shepp, Oliver Beaner, Ali Jackson, John Gilmore, Pharoah Sanders, Edgar Bateman.  Ah, Edgar Bateman, do you know about him?  He was an unbelievable musician who never really made it big.

“The lofts were an essential part of the scene.  It was kind of the bottom of the industry.  The lofts had a lot of musicians who wanted to hone their crafts and become proficient.  It was a referral service. If you were good enough you could get gigs out of those lofts and make it.

“We liked to go back to the lofts after gigs.  We’d get high and really open up.  In the clubs you had to deal with cover charges and pressures, and they said they don’t want us to bother anybody.  Sometimes we weren’t even free to walk around the club.  There were more people who were really into the music in the lofts.  If they weren’t really into the music they wouldn’t know about the lofts so they wouldn’t be there.

“There were some crazy things that happened.  At 89 East Broadway we had a rooftop and sometimes we’d jam on the roof.  One night my step-brother James Lockett, saxophonist, was on the roof and the phone rang down stairs.  He went down to pick up the phone and when he returned to the roof somebody had walked off with his sax.  He was depressed.  Sonny Rollins went up to him and said, “Hey, James, don’t worry about it.”  Then Sonny went out and returned with a brand new Selmer saxophone and gave it to James as a gift!

Rollins released an album in 1966 called “East Broadway Run Down,” perhaps a reference to the loft Wendell is talking about.

Wendell continues:  “One time Dave Garroway from TV (Garroway was the original host of NBC’s Today Show) came over to 89 East Broadway and he said he was going to come back with Steve Allen and they were going to film a TV show on the loft scene.  But it never happened. Some of the guys were paranoid about it.  They thought Garroway was from the FBI.  If they’d come back and filmed the sessions the loft scene might have become more famous.”

Over the telephone, I played Wendell a few tracks from Gene Smith’s tapes on which he appears.  The sessions were from August 1963 and musicians included were Wendell, trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Paul Plummer, Earl McKinney, and others.  Cherry can be heard leading the musicians through several tunes, including “Solar” by Miles Davis.  Wendell listened and responded:

“Man, this is great listening to this.  That’s Jimmy Stevenson on bass, or at other times it sounds like Ray McKinney.  That’s Earl on drums.  He’s playing some hip stuff.  He’s in a nursing home now here in Detroit.  I could hear my voice talking at one point.  This is how we learned tunes.  Don is trying to pull it together.  He’s trying out the changes, experimenting, and getting us to follow along.  There was constant experimentation like this.  Everybody was trying to get away from the status quo.”

I asked Wendell to name some of the musicians from the loft circuit who stood out in his memory, perhaps some musicians who were obscure to most people.  He immediately became excited talking about Edgar Bateman.

“Aw, man, Edgar Bateman was incredible.  He was my favorite drummer.  He played his entire drum kit backward.  It was a mirror image of how everybody else set up the kit.  He played the bass drum with his left foot and the hi-hat with his right.  He had the whole kit turned around.

“Edgar had a hump back, and he wore a cape and top hat all the time.  We called him Bat Man. He was a very, very creative artist.  He was ultra-hip, slick, very witty.  He refused to play traditional music.  He had his own style that was highly developed and thought out, always surprising.  Sometimes musicians who are that good – you’d rather listen to them than play with them.  Roy Haynes is another one.  He’s an incredible artist, but he’s always doing something you don’t expect, so sometimes you’d rather just sit and listen to him and enjoy him, rather than play with him.

“Not everybody liked Edgar because he was hard to get along with. He wouldn’t talk sometimes.  That’s why he never made it big.  He was a natural introvert and very dedicated to his style.  He wouldn’t compromise.  Sometimes it came off as arrogant.

“You see, in order to make it big you have to have the right politics and your politics have to jibe with your music.  Somebody has got to like what you are doing.  It’s just the way it is.  Edgar never had that.  He was as good as Elvin Jones, but he never had Coltrane like Elvin did.  He was as good as Tony Williams, but he never had Miles like Tony did.

“Edgar was the Thelonious Monk of drums.  He had Monk’s stubborn, quiet demeanor and Monk’s commitment to his own style. But sometimes the people who are the most creative need the most help. Monk had the Baroness and his wife.  They understood him and allowed him to do what he did, even if it meant not getting any gigs sometimes.  I don’t think Edgar ever had that kind of support.”

After Wendell and I said goodbye and hung up, I had a new version of a pleasant thought that’s recurred over the years:  If Gene Smith hadn’t made all those tapes, I wouldn’t have met Wendell Harrison. – S.S.


For more on Edgar Bateman on the JLP site, click HERE.  From there you can also link to Ethan Iverson’s tribute to Bateman.

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By Harvey Overton

We are proud to present A Death in the Family, a poem about Hall Overton by his younger brother Harvey.  We have two versions here; a video of Harvey reading the poem made by JLP Research Associate Dan Partridge in Chicago in 2002, and the text of the poem below.  Harvey was born in 1921 in Bangor, Michigan, the second of the three Overton sons.  For several decades he taught in the humanities department at Western Michigan University before retiring to Chicago where he still lives today – S.S.

A Death in the Family by Harvey Overton from The Jazz Loft Project on Vimeo.

From Harvey Overton’s volume of poems, Hanging Out in Space – Album in Black and White (1992)

A Death in the Family

Seduced from the detritus of boyhood
by a siren ear,
your untutored hands startled octaves;
your gift enlarged under the masters
of counterpoint,
you set notes for searing strings,
a lapidary engraving chambered sounds.

You also heard another voice who spoke
to you
in hot and cool and blue through keyboard
riffs in clubs of smoke and saxophones,
and there, booting the tempos of your
joie de vivre,
you chimed chords with celebratory horns.

Then in your metered years,
after the accolades, in haste to measure
scores against your measured time,
you waited for your temptresses
to collect their dues.

That night the chain stitch pulled,
unraveling arteries,
that night physicians cried,
and in the waiting room we turned
our faces to the wall to say
too soon, too soon.

* For a video of a JLP program on Overton at NYPL for the Performing Arts last spring, click here.

* For Sara Fishko’s JLP radio series episode on Overton at WNYC, click here.

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Remembering Loft Veteran Phil Dante

We were delighted when Rich O’Connell, a family member of loft veteran Phil Dante, contacted us a few days ago.  Rich wrote, “Smith was the best man at my in-laws wedding in Brooklyn in September 1960. A funny story that has been past down in our family is that Smith did not own shoes so he wore a pair of galoshes for the ceremony.”  He also told us, “My wife, Michele, born in 1961, remembers going to visit Smith as a little girl. She says one thing she remembers is waterbugs.”

Phil Dante was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City in 1934.  Phil was a musician and a photographer who spent time in the loft working as Gene Smith’s assistant. He was a founding member of the photography collective En Foco. In a 2004 Jazz Loft Project interview with Sam Stephenson and Dan Partridge, Phil describes visiting the loft and meeting Smith:

Well, my best friend was still in music; he  was a drummer who played with some very big names, and he would let me know when there were jam sessions.  And such a jam session occurred in this loft on 6th Avenue and 28th Street.  And the little corner of the first landing belonged to Hall Overton, pianist and composer.  And there was a session that particular night with Zoot Sims and others, and my friend.  And during a break in the music, Hall came to me and spoke to me, and I told him my interest was photography.  And he said, “Well, right next door to me lives a former Life photographer by the name of Gene Smith.  You ought to look him up.”  And this is, I was–  In whatever field of music, field of interest I’ve ever had, I’ve tried to reach people at the top. When it was the music, as a bass player, I was hanging out with people that played at Birdland.  I always reached for the top, to learn, to learn.  And in photography I was willing to learn from anyone, and for him to tell me that, I would be willing to do anything.

And so a week later I knocked on his door.  In 1959, just before Pittsburgh broke.  I knocked on his door, and the door opened, here’s this quiet man in an overused t-shirt.  And he said, “Yes?  Can I help you?”

I told him my name.  Well, he didn’t ask me in yet, I’m standing outside.  I said, “I’m a friend of Hall’s.”

“Oh, come on in.”

And we talked. “Mr. Smith, I want to learn photography.  I’m willing to do anything—sweep, clean, whatever, whatever, anything in order to be near you and learn from you.”

And I really didn’t know who he was.  I didn’t know his reputation.  I didn’t know who I was talking to, just that Hall had mentioned him. And he said, “Well, I can’t afford an assistant at this time.”

He was interested in the fact that I had played at one time, that I was a musician.  He asked me questions about that.  And we spent about ten minutes talking, and he said, “Well, why don’t you call me in a week or so?”

That’s all he said.  I was living in Staten Island at the time, with my grandmother.  I called him in two weeks, and, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.  You’re the fellow.  Why don’t you come on over?”

So, yeah, it meant taking a bus, a ferry, a train.  Finally I’m on 28th Street.  And then I’m walking up, as I come to the bottom of the stairs he says to me, “Can you use a hammer?”

And I said, “What do you want me to hit?”

And that’s how we started.  He was putting up a partition on the first floor landing, a plywood four-by-eight, four-by-six.  So I came up, he handed me a hammer, and we did no nailing.  For three hours we leaned on this piece of wood while I asked him questions, the most basic questions in photography.  I mean, I had so many questions to ask…About chemicals, about paper, about emotion.  All the questions that someone eager and new to photography is hungry to know.  And here you are, you’re standing with a professional master, and he has all the answers.  And was very patient answering.  And we just talked and talked and talked.  Finally, after about—I think it was about three hours of this talking back and forth, he said, “All right, enough of this.  Let’s put up this wall.  No more questions about developing and the hypo.”

And I think in five minutes we had the damn thing up, and I think it stood for, I don’t know, for years.  Eventually it got painted over by one of his kids.  Every time I walked up the stairs—there’s our work.  And then it was, that real first meeting, was really—it was wonderful.  Looking at the images, he sat in his recliner, and we talked and we talked and we talked.  I always had questions, and I’d look at something, and he’d say, “Well, that’s from an essay that failed.”  Or, “That’s from ‘Spanish Village. That’s from ‘Nurse  Midwife,’” so forth and so forth and so forth.

We learned from Rich that Phil passed away in December of 2004, just a month after Sam and Dan recorded this interview.

- Lauren Hart

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