March 3, 2021 — When Ferlinghetti died I thought maybe I should write what I knew about Shig’s accusation. But maybe I shouldn’t. Why tarnish the reputation of a man everybody respected (including me)? I called friend for advice and he convinced me to let it slide. “You only have Shig’s word for it,” he pointed out. I dropped the idea and felt relieved. Why offend the friends and admirers of Lawrence Ferlinghetti? I’ve offended enough people.
But given my Quixotic delusions, failing to report the rip-off of an employee by a business owner would be dereliction of duty. So, here’s the scoop. In the early '70s I was working for L-S Distributors, which only coincidentally spelled LSD. The owner and boss was Lou Swift, a bearded, white-haired man in his mid-60s who ruled his domain from a wheelchair behind a desk in a small office from which he could see the front door.
L-S was located on Post Street, off Geary. Pallets on the ground floor held stacks of magazines, mass market paperbacks, The New York Times and other publications. The four men who loaded the trucks and made deliveries were employees of Lou Swift's Ellis News company and belonged to the Teamsters Union. Downstairs was a subterranean warehouse of “quality paperbacks” lining the walls and stacked on steel shelves that created four long aisles. The downstairs crew were non-union and made $100 a week. They/we were either English majors glad to be working around books or political organizers hoping the old man would get their manifestos onto Bay Area newsstands as he had done for The Realist. My week was split between working in the warehouse and “outside sales,” which meant calling on and delivering books to vendors from Sawyers in Santa Rosa to the De Anza College bookstore in Cupertino.
Shig would visit the warehouse once a week to replenish City Lights's inventory of paperbacks. Without a list, he would slowly cruise the aisles with a small shopping cart provided by L-S, pulling books that he thought the bookstore needed or ought to have. Eight copies of The Art of Massage. Five Jonathan Livingston Seagulls. Paperbacks from Vintage about Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Sisterhood is Powerful. Small is Beautiful. A few Andrew Weils, RD Laings, Maslows, Piaget, Houseplans... Shig liked to talk and I would follow him as he shopped to hear his thoughts about the book trade and the state of the world.
One rainy day he was there at closing time and asked if I would mind giving him a ride home. Gladly, said I. On the way he confided that his diabetes had taken a turn for the worse and that he had asked Lawrence to give him his promised share of the business —and that Lawrence had reneged. I left that job soon afterwards and didn't stay in touch with Shig. I had always thought highly of Ferlinghetti (above all for the Prévert translations). I never wrote about what Shig told me, although it wasn't in confidence and he knew that I was an unconstrained leafleter. Life went on. I myself got ripped off by a partner whose word I trusted, and God knows how many times I've seen or heard about it happening to others.
When I watched Shig limp away from my car in 1974, I would not have believed that he had many years of productive life ahead of him. But he did. After leaving City Lights (or being driven out), Shig made the Caffe Trieste his hang-out and produced more than 70 issues of a small-batch zine featuring his own poetry, prose and collages. He died in 1999. His life story is told in an excellent website created and maintained by his friend Richard Reynolds, who interviewed Ferlinghetti and others in 2003 hoping to understand the sad falling out.
Ferlinghetti told him, “We had a publishing office on Upper Grant. So I was running that and wasn’t paying much attention to the bookstore. I didn’t realize what bad financial shape the bookstore was in. We were almost out of business and didn’t know it.”
Nancy Peters, who had been with City Lights since the early '70s and was then co-owner, told Reynolds that Shig had overlooked too much theft. “This was the period of Steal This Book,'' Peters said, “and everyone in the world felt that they could come to City Lights and steal books. Howl was making lots of money and Lawrence was making lots of money, supposedly, and therefore the store was kind of like the free food movement.”
Reynolds wrote, While Shig was recuperating from his stroke, Ferlinghetti put Joe Wolberg in charge of the store, and Wolberg... set about making some changes. 'The idea,' he says, 'was to sell [books], as crazy as that sounded to the Beatnik imagination.'
“Wolberg wanted to put in an antitheft system but claims Ferlinghetti considered that a 'fascist, big-brother thing' and wouldn’t agree to it. (After Wolberg left, Nancy Peters did institute such a system.)
“By the time Shig was ready to come back to work, City Lights was a very different place.
“'I wasn’t a businessman, and neither was Shig,' Ferlinghetti told me, adding that he wanted to keep Shig as manager and bring in a 'businessman' to keep track of finances...
“Some years earlier, after Shig took over management duties, Ferlinghetti had given him a one-third interest in the bookstore as payment for his sweat equity. Now the two came to an arrangement wherein Ferlinghetti paid Shig off for his share of the store with monthly payments over the next few years.
“The split was wrenching for Shig and Ferlinghetti alike, and many of their mutual friends felt conflicted. Ginsberg continued to stay with Shig when he came to the Bay Area and remained close to Ferlinghetti as well. Ginsberg lobbied Shig for many years to return to work at City Lights... But this stubborn, proud man refused to consider returning and never again spoke to Ferlinghetti.
“As Shig told Neeli Cherkovski in Cherkovski’s biography of Ferlinghetti, 'Lawrence writes his poems with no one standing over him and telling him how to write, and that’s how I ran the bookstore, without any outside help.'“
So my scoop du jour turned out to be no scoop at all. But if you're looking for negativity, read on.
'Howl' Flick Nixes Shig
In 2010 Hollywood gave the world a movie called 'Howl,' starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, James Rowland as Ferlinghetti and nobody as Shig because Shig wasn't in the script. Shig was in City Lights, behind the register on the night of June 3, 1957, when two undercover SFPD officers bought a copy of Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (for 75 cents) and then arrested him for ringing it up. He spent an unpleasant night in jail.
Ferlinghetti, charged as the publisher of an obscene book, turned himself in a few days later. The case was filed as People of the State of California, Plaintiff vs. Shigeyoshi Murao, No. B27083 and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, No. B27585, Defendants. At the end of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn dismissed charges against Shig because the prosecution hadn't established that he was familiar with the contents of Howl. The case was renamed People vs Ferlinghetti and the publisher was found Not Guilty on First Amendment grounds.
When Howl, the movie, was being made, Patricia Wakida, a curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, asked the producers about the portrayal of Shig Murao and got no reply. She wrote to them: “It would be blasphemy to leave out the most ironic character in the ‘Howl’ story — the Japanese American who is put into American internment camps, then serves in occupied Tokyo in the U.S. Army, who then becomes the long-time manager of City Lights bookstore and who is actually arrested by the S.F. police for selling ‘Howl’ and actually goes to jail. Ginsberg was in Tangier (Morocco), and Ferlinghetti was in Big Sur. Shig was the one who took the fall.”
Wakida wrote a piece about Shig for the Nikkei West website, describing him as “a Bohemian Nisei” and “a consummate book lover, a confidant for nearly every major San Francisco 'Beat' literary figure, the man responsible for creating the very ambience, the 'soul of City Lights bookstore.” She outlined the biography she hoped to write:
“Shig was born in Seattle in 1926. His father, who came from a Samurai family ran a butcher shop called Annex Meats, “Following the implementation of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the Murao family was incarcerated, first in Camp Harmony/Puyallup Assembly Center, then in Minidoka, Idaho, where Shig and his sister Shiz graduated from Hunt High School. Just shy of 18, Shig then trained and served as a Japanese language interpreter for the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service in occupied Tokyo in late 1945, while his older brother Shigesato joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Following service in the MIS, Shig returned to the U.S., traveling through New York, Chicago, and Reno, before settling down in San Francisco, where he would hold court in the North Beach neighborhood for the rest of his life.”
In another piece on the Nikkei West site, Wakida states: 'What’s ironic is with Chinatown and a burgeoning Filipino population flanking North Beach on one end and the jazz scene going full blast up and down Broadway, the forced removal of the JAs and the exotification of all things Japanese and Chinese by the Beats, it’s impossible not to look at the story from the race perspective and how it was absolute in its influence on the art, music and poetry of this particular scene... How ironic and sad that the white establishment had to write out such a critical part of the ‘Howl’ story — the very man who, a mere 10 years before, had been forced into an American concentration camp would be the one to take the fall for defending the right to freedom of speech and in the name of literature, only to be deliberately forgotten a generation later with the creation of this film.'“
Ferlinghetti's Role Model
Ferlinghetti was obviously influenced by the French poet, Jacques Prévert. In 1964, as number nine in the distinctive series of “Pocket Poets” paperbacks, City Lights published half the poems in Prévert's best-seller, Paroles. Ferlinghetti wrote in an introduction that he had translated them “for fun.” (French had been his first language.) He saw a political affinity between Prévert, a Communist, and the hipster/left of Allen Ginsberg and C. Wright Mills:
“Many other poems in Paroles grew out of World War II and the Occupation in France, and it is plain that Paroles means both Words and Passwords. Prévert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the war, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from church and state. Since then we have had our own kind of resistance movement in our writers of dissent — dissent from the official world of the upper middleclass ideal and the White-Collar delusion and various other systemized tribal insanities. Prévert was saying it in the '30s.”