Black Mountain College, 1948
Sylvia Ashby

Sylvia Ashby
This image is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

In October 2012 I turned the corner to 84. So when I write about my errant youth, you know it was a long, long time ago.

Sylvia Ashby: "This sketch of me was a birthday card for me done by room mate Sheila Oline (later Marbain) who had a print studio in Manhattan for decades ( Maurel Studios). The inscription reads 'I have a birthday in my pocket.' The costume was pretty much the BMC uniform."

This item is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

I like to write in old blue books. Not just old blue books but old, used blue books. When you sit down to write in a torn-up blue book, even if you’re writing drivel, at least you’re not wasting paper. Maybe that’s why I like to write in those discarded exam booklets. My blue books belong in a museum. They were used when I taught Freshman English in days of yore. Of course, I’d never taken Freshman English or Freshman anything for that matter. The idea was that students wrote on one side of the five-cent booklet, then made corrections on the opposite side. After finals, there’d be a stack of left-over blue books. I’d tear out the first few scribbled-on pages and have the rest for my very own. There’s something comforting, non-threatening about an old blue book. As for reading, I like memoirs—that’s my genre. I like reading about everyone’s life. Though not my own. When you think of memoirs, you think of confessions. I wonder if this is my confession--this story from my slightly errant, mostly clueless youth: Almost eighteen, an idealistic young thing, I rode the bus from Detroit to a college that was totally unaccredited—no grades, no hours, no tests, no majors, no rules. Black Mountain College, on a farm near Asheville, North Carolina, was the outpost of progressive education the U.S. At its height, when I arrived in 1946, there were at most 100 students.

Sylvia Ashby, second from right, with washboard.
This image is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

In the summer session of 1948, the faculty included Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller. I’d like to say I was cool and understood how fascinating these folks were, but alas, I was a naive, self-absorbed Midwesterner. So many of the students had either grown up on the streets of Greenwich Village or were GI’s returning from the exploits of WWII. If “avant-garde” was the typical description of BMC, you could safely say I was bringing up the rear.

I thought the world’s first geodesic dome, which Bucky Fuller fashioned from rolls of aluminum venetian blind strips, was somewhat peculiar. Besides, it fell down a few days later.

Every night after dinner, John Cage serenaded us with an Eric Satie concert, perhaps the world’s first, possibly last, Eric Satie Festival. A few years before, Cage had chunked bits of hardware into the bowels of a piano thus creating his so-called “prepared piano.” Just what it was prepared for I’m not certain. I’ve read that BMC was credited with the world’s first “Happening” that summer, though again, I’m not sure what happened. I do remember then-student Arthur Penn, he of Bonnie and Clyde fame, directing a Satie script in which Merce danced (his wonderful “Monkey Dances” stayed in his repetoire) and Bucky proved a capable comic actor. I guess my claim to fame is that I danced with William de Kooning, though it lasted less than the required fifteen minutes. I’d heard he was supported, even then, by art patrons. Personally, I thought he should get a job. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit to studying acting with Arthur Penn, and played the ingenue in his “Hello, Out There” and “Shadow and Substance.” Though a BMC student, Arthur was already a theatre professional, coming up through the ranks of the Neighborhood Playhouse, NYC bastion of Stanislavski’s Method Acting. In my defense, I’ll add that I did recognize his brilliance and fine future.

Our beloved literature teacher M. C. Richards had translated the Satie piece (and later translated Artaud’s “Theatre and Its Double”). M.C. looked kindly on the few scraps of poetry I’d managed to turn out. Attending a conference at the university in Greensboro, she showed my collected works to poet Randall Jarrell. He said I was operating under the influence of e. e. cummings. Bingo! If she’d shown him my prose, he would have said I was under the spell of Gertrude Stein, also true: I had just learned to discard all punctuation marks. Capital letters, I decided, were a bourgeois hindrance. But, as you can see, those determined little marks have crept back in. Occasionally visitors would appear on the scene, coming to check us out—to see just what was going on there. I recall James Farmer, a leading civil rights crusader from the 60’s and beyond; Denzel Washington played Farmer in a 2007 film. Photographer Irving Penn came out of curiosity, but mainly to see his kid brother Arthur. For me, most intriguing of visitors was Anais Nin, on the scandalous side even then, a reputation enhanced by her relationship with the more notorious Henry Miller. What impressed me about Anais was her make-up: I had never seen anyone with such a painted face, not even on canvas. All pinks and lavenders with bold dark lines, it had the exaggeration of ballet stage make-up--not that I’d ever seen a ballet. In fact, I’d never heard of Anais Nin. As for Mr. Miller, forget it. I’m sure Wikipedia could tell you who portrayed Anais in the film Henry and June.

America made history when Southern colleges and universities were desegregated in the early 60’s. But BMC, in that same segregated South, had black students when I arrived, and even before I arrived, and nobody paid any attention. I guess we slipped in below the radar. There was no public transportation, so on one of those rare occasions when I got to town—Asheville—I was walking down the main street with Jeanne, a pretty black student from Tennessee. We passed a Woolworth’s Five and Ten. “Let’s go get something to eat,” I said. Jeanne quickly turned, “I can’t do that!” She was shocked, no doubt, by my general cluelessness. The point was made more forcefully during the first Christmas break. At the train station in Asheville I discovered we could not sit together. Our small group sat in one car, but Jeanne would have to sit several sections back. You’d think I could have figured out that much by now. But BMC was so isolated, and so few people had cars, we could have been dropped by parachute onto another planet—a very beautiful planet.

Unlike most—no, make that all colleges—BMC had no Regents, no Board of Directors, no Deans. Instead there was a faculty council. No surprise, toward the end of my first year, they voted to put me on probation. I responded with a simple letter. Again, M.C. was pleased with my writing, longer than the compacted bits I usually squeezed out. M.C. read my letter at the next meeting. Arthur, as student rep on the council, was there too. Some faculty members feared I was suffering from a case of Terminal Stanislavki, contracted from over-exposure to Arthur’s “Method Acting.” Maybe there was madness in the Method? Had I been permanently transformed? My rebuttal must have worked: The BMC governors granted a last-minute reprieve, for better or worse.

At the end of two years, all my friends were leaving. Writer Isaac Rosenfeld, part of the 1948 summer faculty, preached the value of the orgone box; this was a mysterious invention of Wilhelm Reich, émigré psychoanalyst who, in a handful of years, would spend time in jail on fraud charges. The orgone box, a wooden structure you sat in, was somehow supposed to improve your sex life. Naturally, a few friends left in search of the Holy Grail—a.k.a, the orgone box.

I don’t know where everyone exited to. Arthur to U. of Perugia. One group traipsed off to start a commune in Oregon, though that term was not yet in common usage—not in the 40's. Those who headed for San Francisco became in short order the forerunners of Beatniks and Hippies. That’s when Peggy Vaughn, living on a houseboat in Sausalito, pioneered the Tin Angel, a famous San Francisco night spot. My childhood friend Marion, returning to UCLA, gradually evolved into an Oscar-nominated film editor. Sheila went back to Manhattan, living with her boyfriend in a $6 a month cold-water flat. In time, Sheila mastered silk-screen printing; decades later she gave me copies of the posters she’d made for the likes of Andy Warhol, plus the iconic LOVE poster of Robert Indiana. But, Chick Perrow went straight, ended up a Yale sociology prof.

I returned home to Detroit. Isaac, the orgone box advocate, had encouraged me to try a university, maybe something in the mid-west. Jim Herlihy was a BMC buddy: we were about the same age, both from Detroit, both interested in acting and writing. He called me up. “So, what are you going to do?” “I don’t know,” I said. By now it was late August. “I’ve been accepted here at Wayne and the University of Iowa. I don’t know where to go.” Jim, who would later write Midnight Cowboy under his full title—James Leo Herlihy—found an almanac in his fairly-bookless, tar-papered home and read to me over the phone: Iowa City was a small town of 10,000 with a river running through it. Thank you, Jim. That did it. So off I went, once again. This time trading freedom for structure. And that’s when I saw my first blue book....

Sylvia Ashby: "I was born in Detroit, now reside in Texas, and have lived in North Carolina, northern and southern California, Hawaii, Florida, Nebraska--not necessarily in that order. I concentrated on acting when I was a student at Black Mountain College and at the University of Iowa, and as a grad student at the University of Hawaii. In Iowa, I acquired a theatre-historian husband; we have two grown children. I have published 15 scripts for family audiences, with some 2,000 productions. The most popular, Anne of Green Gables, has been produced on three continents. In the last decade I returned to acting: favorite roles were in Gin Game; Beauty Queen of Leenane; Importance of Being Earnest."

For a YouTube history of Black Mountain College, go

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