One Degree Away from Anything

Some time around 2005, when we began to get a handle on the volume of W. Eugene Smith’s tape recordings (his 1740 reels yielded 5089 cd’s) and the surprising variety of his recorded material, we started using an offhand phrase to describe our research; we’d say, we’re one degree away from anything.

Today that phrase came to mind when I noticed that consecutive Books of the Times columns in the New York Times, by Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner, were relevant to our research.  Yesterday Maslin reviewed Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Time Inc.’s founder and “autocrat,” Henry Luce.  That connection is easy to explain.  Gene Smith created his legend within Luce’s empire at LIFE magazine before resigning his lucrative staff position and retreating to the derelict loft building and struggling.  My feeling has always been that when television began to threaten Luce’s power, his editors tightened reigns, and Smith’s quixotic struggles, never easy for either side, became incompatible.  LIFE had no more rope to give him at just the moment his ambitions were peaking.  I look forward to Brinkley’s book and learning if it that’s what happened from Luce’s point of view (I doubt he mentions Smith in the book specifically).

Today, Garner’s review connects on a more far flung level.  He reviewed a new book about a scientific project called SETI which stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI’s first conference was held in 1961 which was the height of the Cold War and Space Race and alien paranoia.  Stories of UFO sightings and alien abductions were a recurring theme of Long John Nebel’s  late night radio talk shows broadcast live in New York City on WOR.  Smith enjoyed and recorded many hours of Nebel’s shows.  Below is one of the first images reproduced in the JLP book.  It is the cover of a vinyl record we found on ebay:

long john nebel ufo

1961 was also a prime year inside 821 Sixth Avenue, as well.  Virginia Wald’s poignant memoir, “1961 in the Loft,” written for this blog a couple of months ago, described living in the loft with saxophonist Lin Halliday that year.  You can also check out the “timeline” section of our main site and see what else was coincidental to SETI’s first conference.

-Sam Stephenson

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