LIFE? AT PRATT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
When my three art teachers at the University of Michigan told me that I had to get the hell out of there if I hoped to have an art career, I had no idea where to go to school. In 1956, the choices of art schools were few. Harvard was mentioned, but it was a known fact that they taught Abstract Expressionism. So, did nearby Cranbrook, where I ended up attending summer school, between two years at Pratt Institute. That left few choices. I’d heard there was a school in the basement of the Chicago Art Institute, and another in California that, at the time, focused on industrial design. And Pratt! I chose Pratt simply because it was in New Your City. What a misconception. It was actually in an ugly neighborhood in Brooklyn. And Pratt offered so much homework that nobody I knew ever crossed the bridge to NYC. Our life was centered around that ugly factory building, the cafeteria on the first floor, and the two segregated dorms that no one of the opposite gender was allowed to enter.
I was determined to derive at least a modicum of benefit from being in New York. So, one day, I took the subway to The “Old” Metropolitan Opera House, and met a miraculous lady at the box office, who became, in a matter of speaking, my fairy godmother. The cheapest subscription to the opera cost $45 dollars, in 1956. For that, one saw half the operas, one every other week. When I appeared at the ticket window, all the subscriptions were sold out. But this kind gentle lady took pity on me. I gave her $90 of my parents money, and for that, she saw to it personally that I saw an opera every week. It was, in effect, my own unpredictable double subscription. On Monday, a ticket would appear in the dormitory mail box for me. I never knew what night, or what opera it would be, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. But one day every week, I traveled to Manhattan to see another opera. Well, I didn’t always get to see the opera, but, at least, I could be there, and hear them. And I think I loved just being there more than the music. My seat was different every week, always in the highest balcony, and often comically awful. There were actually columns in the Old Met, and several times I sat behind one. Worse still, the entire theater was shaped like a giant horseshoe, therefore, if one sat on a far side, they couldn’t see the stage at all. It didn’t matter; I loved every minute of it.
In the course of the year, I attended a performance of every opera the Met presented, and heard the greatest stars of the era. I bought a huge fat book of opera stories, and when the Monday mail revealed which opera I would be seeing that week, I memorized the plot synopsis. The first Opera I attended was Bellini’s Norma. Would you believe, starring Maria Callas? Throughout the year, I heard Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Zinka Melinov, and all the current greatest singers. I witnessed Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle, out of order, naturally, but performed as it might have been in Wagner’s day, with naturalistic scenery, not on a stainless steel hamburger skillet, as it might be performed today. Siegfried fought a giantic smoke breathing dragon puppet, and there was smoke again, as Wotan’s Magic Fire engulfed Brünnhilde’s mountaintop. Animated flames were projected on several levels of scrims to stunning effect. And her immolation at the end of Gotterdammerung, in which the Rhine River rose up and swept away Valhalla was amazing. I often left the theater, as the expression goes, “humming the scenery.” I especially loved the second act love duet of Madam Butterfly with real flashing fireflies. And I adored Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris as portrayed in La Bohme, little suspecting that I would be there, living it first hand, just two years in the future.
Meanwhile, back at Pratt, the dormitory was a hotbed of frustration. Much of the student population lived at home, and traveled to the school by subway, every day. But those of us in the two isolated dorms were limited in our social life to the handful of members of the opposite sex in the dorm across the way. The huge amount of homework that Pratt dished out left little time for socializing, anyway. And there was really no place to take a date, except perhaps a movie, or occasionally to a local bar to share a pitcher of beer. The drinking age in New York State was 18.
Guys used to gather in a student’s dorm room, hug pillows, and share fantasies about which of the inhabitants of the girls dormitory they fancied. And not finding many that attractive, or attracted to them, in return, they would speculate about the imaginary new faces that might arrive with the "new crop" of student bodies that would appear midyear.
Most of the girls attending Pratt were studying Home Economics. So, unlike Michigan, where all but three of the art students in my class were women, there were few girls in the illustration class at Pratt. But there was one that I found fascinating. Throughout the first half of the first semester, I had been going through the painful process of mutual realization that there could be no future with my former girlfriend, become pen-pal, Lois Malzman, who remained at Michigan. To render remaining faithful, even more impossible, Lois had just been elected president of her sorority.
By the time my eye began to rove again, the subject of my fantasies, a spectacularly stout young lady from Charlotte South Carolina, Leslie Lynn White, was already dating another classmate, a guy named Allen Nurmi. Alan was a man of few words, and even less personality. His verbal brevity masqueraded as profundity. A group might be chattering about a new movie, and eventually someone would notice that Allen hadn’t said a thing; so they would ask him what he thought of the film. Then, he would deliver a one word answer: “Good!” And everyone seemed to see that as the final word.
Leslie Lynn spoke with a deep melodic Southern accent. She said “you all” a lot. And there was a lot of “her all” there. She was what I would call, pleasantly plump, very pleasantly, indeed. Leslie was, not only, a Southern Belle, she was shaped like a bell as well. And anyone who has ever seen my figure drawings would realize that she was my idea of the perfect gal. In spite of her impressive size, which I saw as voluptuous, she had a very narrow waist, what one would call an hourglass figure. And, to my eye, the sand was distributed just right.
For some reason that will always remain a mystery to me, Allen, realizing that I liked her, said he would willingly palm her off on me. While Leslie and I both lived in the dormitories, Allen had his own apartment. So, he arranged a party. Thus, in an evening, awash in candlelight, Leslie and I happened to find ourselves together on a bed in an adjacent alcove. Alan’s plan had been successful.
Around this time, Easter break arrived, and when I came back from that, I was driving one of my dad’s Cadillacs. The plan was that when school ended, several weeks later, I would fill it with all my stuff and drive it back to Detroit. Pratt miraculously allowed me to keep it in the school parking lot, a rather dark deserted area, protected on three sides by tall buildings. So, for the next several weeks, Leslie and I were “going steady.” That meant, essentially, going out to dinner, daily, and venturing into the country for picnics on the weekends. Here’s one of many photographs I shot, on one of those occasions. Then, every night, we ended up back in the parking lot, for the remainder of the evening.
Religion had rocked my previous romance with Lois Malzman. When I visited her house in the then elegant Grand Concourse in the Bronx, which I assume is now less classy, I was helping with the after dinner dishes, when I ignorantly picked up the wrong bar of soap! And her parents, nearly "plotzed" at the realization that I didn't know Kosher from Shinola. Thus, they encouraged Lois to find a real Jew. This did not dissuade her, but time and distance made her parent’s wish come true. She married a doctor!
When Leslie's parents, her father was the director of a country club in Charleston, came to pick her up from school at the end of the school year, they took us out to dinner at a Dixieland Jazz bar in NYC, to look me over. Coming from Dixie, they liked Dixieland. So, over an ear shattering cacophony of jazz, they grilled me about Religion. They were particularly interested to know if I had ever had a Christmas tree! How funny is that, considering? In the end, according to Leslie, I was too Kosher for them. They "encouraged" Leslie-Lynn to find a nice Goy boy instead. This was just one more example of how formal religion and its BS has plagued me, all my life.
The next year, I got an apartment, and Leslie Lynn White got one too. Hers was in an old boardinghouse, with her former boyfriend, Alan, renting the next room. That was the end of that! They got married, before the year was over, and eventually had two sons.
Meanwhile, I shared an apartment with Harley and Chris. This page from my sketchbook depicts Harley, playing the recorder, Chris is on the left, and on the right is a friend from Canada, John Honeyman. I can’t recall who was playing the guitar.
I, more or less, hated the second year. No longer living in the dorm, or eating in the cafeteria, made the new crop of females even more difficult to meet. I dated a girl named Norma, a few times. Norma was attractively enormous, but we had no common interests, from the neck up.
The previous summer, just for something to do, I had attended Cranbrook, a seemingly prestigious art school, near my home in Michigan. All it amounted to was being given studio space, while the teacher wandered around, praising Abstract Expressionism, and dismissing figurative art with the expression: “If you like that sort of stuff!” I did a big messy painting of a woman with some puppets. It hung in our apartment. Harley liked it, so I gave it to him. The last time I saw him was twenty years ago, just before he moved to Florida. He told me, then, that he still had the painting.