Harold S. Kahm
...has authored 28 published books, and, if he lives long enough, may finish his 29th, a work tentatively titled My First 90 Years: an Unauthorized Autobiography. Kahm celebrated his 90th birthday in March with a few dozen friends at a Greek restaurant. "Twice that many people would have come," Kahm says, "if I'd only thought to invite them." Since the birthday, though, writing progress has been slow. "I have a right to take naps now," he says. "I only work when I feel like it. I'm sitting here and my typewriter is in the other room over there. I can't gather the will power. Or the muscle power. I'm developing powerful sitting muscles right here." Kahm points down to the low-slung brown chair where he spends most of his day reading, watching TV, or listening to music. Kahm spends many more hours in the chair daydreaming, thinking, and thinking about writing. "I learn something new every day," Kahm says, "and after 90 years, I'm getting sick of it."
As a travel writer, Kahm has circled the world on other people's money while living nearly 80 years on the same block in Minneapolis. He has been a guest of the Canadian government on a train that ventured north of the tree line along the edge of the Arctic Ocean, and he has seen that there is nothing there. Kahm likes the sea best of all. He has taken 45 ocean liners ("I've been on more sea ships than most captains!") including the sister ship of the Lusitania. "I visited Hawaii twice before it was a state," he says, "when Honolulu was no bigger than the city of Duluth. The last time I saw Honolulu, it was a roaring modern city. The McDonald's on Waikiki beach served sushi!" Kahm has long avoided the Third World, which he considers unfriendly and dangerous. He is partial to civilized accommodations and civilized conversation. He likes to quote Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, and he knows a full repertoire of off-color jokes and ribald limericks. Kahm has received personal correspondence from Henry Miller and Bette Davis, and has talked about writing with Ernest Hemingway at Hemingway's Key West mansion. He has met Samuel Goldwyn and lunched with William Mayo at the Mayo House in Rochester. Kahm is an honorary colonel in the state of Kentucky. Whether or not these stories are true--and I, for one, believe that they are--no one survives to dispute him, and there is something to be said for that.
Kahm once headed the board of advisers of a non-profit West Bank cafe called the Coffeehouse Extempore where he held court nightly for 20 years. He gives his full credentials there from memory: "Rap With Harold, Guru of the East Bank, the West Bank, and the First National Bank. Is your dog gay? Is the Bible a fraud? Would you want your sister to marry a Republican? All topics discussed." He has taught writing at the university level without ever having attended college himself, and he has also taught ballroom dancing. When he meets a young woman--and all his friends are young--he is likely to say this: "You know they say a woman is old when she looks old, and a man is old when he stops looking." He raises her hand for a quick kiss, "I'm looking at you, and you're a beautiful young lady."
Kahm lives alone and he has never been married. "My books are my children," he says gesturing at a bookcase across from his chair, the top two shelves of which are taken up by his oeuvre. "They made money for me. I didn't have to support them." Some of these titles include How to Break into Radio, How to Make the Most of Your Life, The Passion Expert, Shared Woman, and The Westbank Group. Starting with Shared Woman in 1934, Kahm's fiction, which is for the most part racy, has explored group marriage and the outer boundaries of monogamy. "The prose may have been purple," he says, "but the cash was green." Kahm has written two bestsellers. 101 Businesses You Can Start and Run with Less Than $1,000 was translated into Japanese (where he says it was titled 101 Businesses You Can Start and Run with Less Than 350,000 Yen), and it stayed in print for 17 years. "All my books are long out of print by now, though," he says. None is catalogued in the Minneapolis Public Library, and Kahm is loath to lend out his own copies. He claims never to have seen a review of any of his books.
The other bestseller is The Crowded Bed, written in 1967 when Kahm was 61, which sold a half million copies. It was published under the pen name Henry Sackerman. Sackerman was Kahm's maternal grandfather and an officer in the Confederate army. According to Kahm, it holds literary distinction as "the first American book about the menage a trois." Kahm believes this is his finest work and he will talk about it for a half hour without interruption. The Crowded Bed was optioned for film by producer Robert Aldrich, who also directed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Dirty Dozen, and the deal headlined the front page of Variety on Tuesday, July 30, 1968. Kahm has several photocopies of that issue in a box of papers next to his television, and he passes them out freely. Aldrich's production company went bankrupt before the film could be made.
"As for Literature with a capital, L," Kahm says, "I am incapable of it. I would have liked to be Dostoevski or Mark Twain, but I'm not. I'm me. I am a polished writer. I know what readers want to read. Some of them want to be shocked. Some want to experience mystery. Some romance readers want to relive old passions. Sometimes I would like to live another 1,000 years to write all the books I want to write. There can't possibly be enough time."
The room where Kahm spends most of his day is on the second floor of a house he owns in which there are three other apartments. The house is located at the northernmost tip of the Wedge neighborhood, on a small hill, next to a building once called Franklin Heights. The rooms are usually fairly dirty, especially the closet-sized kitchen that Kahm calls "the galley." The walls are yellow from grease. A bag of caramel puffcorn sits half-eaten on the stove. "Don't go in there," he says, "or I'll make you clean it. You'll have to excuse the mess, but my housekeeper went out for a cigarette and she hasn't returned." He pauses, counts silently to three: "That was 30 years ago." He has lived in the building, which his father bought, for at least that many years. There are two gas lights on the wall behind Kahm, which he says may or may not work, and an ornate iron grating on the floor outside the galley that once delivered heat. Kahm does not point these features out and regards them with complete indifference.
Kahm's father managed the large apartment building next door, too, and Harold lived there for about 40 years. That building once housed a store in its basement, but it has been replaced by locked storage and a laundry room. I live in this building now. Across the street, there was once an Episcopal church called St. Paul's. Down the block, caddy-corner from Kahm's house, stood a garage for recharging electric cars. A half a block east is Burch's Pharmacy, which years ago was Ball's Pharmacy; Burch's stationary store fills a space that used to be home to an upscale meat market called Mettler's. A block south, and across the street, is the roof where I believe the Replacements posed for the cover of Let it Be.
From the rounded, wraparound porch of the house--which Kahm claims is practically unequaled in size and circumference anywhere in the city--all the way to his door, the building smells of stale tobacco. Kahm smokes Dutch Treats, a small, fragrant cigar of the Dutch Masters brand, and has done so since he was 16. But never inhaled. When Kahm talks--which he likes very much to do--the Dutch Treats wobble up and down like a conductor's wand, often expanding to two precarious inches of ash before collapsing. Many of Kahm's shirts are pocked with holes from cascading ash, and the floor under his chair has several small anthills of the stuff. "I always try to get shirts that match different color ash," he says.
Despite the cigars, Kahm is in remarkably good health. Sometimes he wobbles when he walks, and when he coughs, the sound is wet and loose. He is mostly bald except for a wispy fringe of hair near his collar that seems to have eluded his barber. When he smiles, he sometimes extends his neck and vaguely resembles a turtle. "My body is so fucking old," he complains, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his arms, as if disgusted with his flesh and bones. "But I'm still a young man. I don't have any friends my age. None of my friends is even half my age. I have engagements almost every night of the week." One of these engagements is a weekly bridge game, which now has been going on for a decade. Kahm usually loses and loses big, but he doesn't mind. A coterie of young friends takes him to dinner with some regularity and help with shopping in the winter. Kahm has a driver's license and a car, a dark red Ford Escort, but he avoids driving after dark. When I ask him how he is doing, he usually answers "as many people as I can." He is equally apt to say: "I am 90 fucking years old--well, 90 years old, at least."
Kahm's bed, which is in the same room as his chair, is always neatly covered with a bedspread and there is never any sign of sheets or a pillow. I have never seen anyone sit on this bed, nor is the bedspread ever wrinkled. Above the bed is a Picasso-inspired painting by a friend who died in a San Francisco bar fight, and next to that, a cherry-colored guitar of unknown make, it's headstock obscured by thick dust. The strings are badly out of tune. On the wall across the room hangs a whimsical nude that Kahm bought in Paris for $50 ("which was a lot of money then") from an artist on a houseboat. Kahm also has a Duke Kahanamoku ukelele from Hawaii, and he used to have a piano, but he lent it to a friend 30 years ago and has not seen it since. Kahm likes musicals--he owns a small collection of videocassettes which includes Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles, and he bursts into song easily.
Kahm's typewriter, an IBM Selectric II, is in the dining room. It's his first electric machine following six manual Smith-Coronas, and although he only bought it this year, he already wants to get rid of it. "The keys are too light," he says. All around the apartment there are pages of typing paper from myriad projects, some decades old, most in all-caps type, strewn on desks and tables, and in boxes and folders on the floor. The Selectric sits on a round fire oak table that expands to seat twelve. The table has three lion's paws at the base. "Everyone asks about that," Kahm says. "It hasn't been used for that many people since my parents died."
Kahm attributes his gifts as a writer to his mother, Jeanette Virginia Sackerman. "When she was 15," he remembers, "she entered a short story contest in the Chicago Tribune. She did a lot of entertaining, and she would write short verses on placards for each of a dozen guests. In Chicago, she set up a secretarial business for herself, serving hotels. It was very unusual for a woman to do that. She met my father at a dance and married when she was 17. At 18, she had me. She said I was her 'little accident.' She proved that by not having another child for 12 years. Later, she helped my father in his business. They had a live-in Swedish maid, Bettina. I was practically raised by my aunt. In those days, spinster sisters frequently lived with their families. Her life was devoted to me.
"My mother had a terrific sense of humor. I'll give you an idea what she was like. When we had company, I was always present with all the adults. One night, Miss Bresky was at the table--she was a lawyer--when I told a naughty story. Miss Bresky gasped. 'How can you say such a thing,' she said, glaring at my parents. And I answered, 'Well, they're the ones who told it to me!'"
Kahm's father, Sigmund, was born to a family of millers in Vienna and emigrated to avoid conscription into the Austrian army. "He first worked as an egg-candler," Kahm says. "When he was 18, my father quit that job, got his own horse and wagon, and started delivering to restaurants. By the time he was in his twenties, he was selling eggs by the carload. Then he set up an amusement park in Columbia Heights. It was called Forest Park. It consisted of a vaudeville theater, a dance hall, picnic grounds, refreshment concessions, and games of chance. The Swedish National Dancers came there every June.
"I spent all my summers in Columbia Heights. It was at the end of the streetcar line then, a village of 300 people. On weekends, the streetcar company attached extra cars to bring people there. Columbia Heights was a few hundred feet higher than the city, and a nice breeze would blow in. It was a delightful place in the summer.
"They also had a couple of dance halls. Fairyland was one--that word didn't have the same meaning then. The Dick Long Band used to play at Fairyland. His first professional job was at Forest Park in the dance hall there, and he finally ended up with his own band at the Curtis Hotel. My father also ran the Cyril Theater, which was one of the first nickelodeons in town. It was at a storefront at 114 Hennepin Avenue. My father was the first secretary of the Motion Picture Exhibitor's Association. I saw all the Charlie Chaplin films at the Cyril theater. Sometimes, when the piano player wouldn't show up, I would fill in. My mother taught me how. Those were wonderful days."
Kahm's eyes are closed as he recalls this; he raises his hands in the air over an imaginary keyboard and begins to play.
In 1927, when Harold Kahm was 21, he followed his parents into the entertainment business, buying a traveling merry-go-round. "It was financed by my cousin in New York," Kahm says. "He played the racetrack. I think he financed it because of the horses." Kahm's merry-go-round featured music from a Wurlitzer Band Organ and ran off a 10-horsepower electric motor. Along with the merry-go-round, Kahm toured with a Venetian swing. This consisted of a triangular iron frame with a suspended wooden gondola that held two passengers. The swing was operated by pulling a pair of ropes. "They were very popular in Europe," Kahm says, "especially in Eastern Europe. I think they still have them there. It was a man-killer to take apart and put back together though. The idea I had was that I could travel with the merry-go-round in the summer and spend the rest of the year as a writer."
Kahm credits Edith M. Penny, a teacher at West High School, with first inspiring him to write. "She told me, 'Harold, it is a pleasure to read everything you write.' I was about 16 then, and I've never been able to wear a hat since. Annie G. Ford was the principal of West High School. At our graduation, she said that life is like the Mississippi River, growing ever wider and deeper as it heads south to the sea. It was a beautiful speech. But then no one gives a fuck about stupid shit like that."
Harold Kahm's first piece of published writing appeared in the American Baptist Publication Society, and it counseled children on ways to make pocket money. His first real paycheck, however, came from True Confessions magazine, which was originally published out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota. In it, he wrote about the Hilton Girls, Siamese twins on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. One of the twins desired to marry, but civic authorities wouldn't allow it. The title of the piece was "'I Want the Right to Marry,' Says Siamese Twin," and Kahm was "handsomely paid for it." "I received about $1,250 dollars in today's money," he says, "or about $125 dollars then." (Whenever Kahm talks about money he was paid long ago, he multiplies by ten to account for inflation. Likewise, when he cannot remember the year that something happened--and he usually doesn't even like to be asked, as this is quite often--he will almost always answer either 30 years or 50 years.) Kahm would go on to write short stories for True Confessions following a formula taught him by then-editor Hazel Birge. "Bad girls did and nice girls didn't," Kahm explains. "In this case, the nice girl sins, and she suffers horribly because of her sins. The only set rule that the editor told me is that under no circumstances may a girl sin twice in the same story."
Another of Kahm's articles advised wives on "How to Make a Man Stay Home." "Cook his favorite foods," Kahm says he suggested. "See to it that home is the most pleasant place for him to be. Smile. Spread your legs." Kahm says this with disgust; his own code, which is nearly as rigid as that of Hazel "One-Sin" Birge, mandates a single maxim: Don't get married. "I would rather write about marriage than do it," he says. Kahm's mother left her furniture in storage in Chicago for a dozen years after marrying, just in case she changed her mind. But Kahm believes that, with few exceptions, women are mostly concerned with securing husbands and locking them down. "Early in life," he says, "I became aware how people changed with time. A young couple couldn't stay away from each other. Three years later they were sleeping back to back. The intoxication of love wears off. I loved the freedom. Men had fought for their freedom for thousands of years and I wasn't about to give mine up." From his experiences at the Coffeehouse Extempore, where "90 percent of the people were men," Kahm has come to believe that women are indifferent to abstract ideas, which he values most highly. "Young women, girls--they're not interested in world affairs or philosophy. They're interested in getting husbands."
"Is that still true?" I ask.
"Damn right!" he says, swatting the arm of his chair. "They want to have someone to fertilize the eggs that they lay! They want babies! It's a powerful instinct from nature's point of view. That's the only reason females are here. The earth is one gigantic baby factory. By the time you've read that line, over a million babies will have been born. Mosquito babies. Fish babies. Every imaginable life form. All of them doomed to death."
Like the characters in his book The Crowded Bed, Kahm was once "informally married," sharing an apartment with two partners, Eddie, an airman at the Fort Snelling base, and Dorothy. They lived together in a basement apartment on Hennepin Avenue in the building where Kahm grew up, until Eddie moved to Florida and married; Kahm believes "it was the biggest mistake he ever made." "She was an ignorant slob," Kahm says with a sigh, "he married the wrong woman." He rubs his hand over the crown of his head in slow circles. "I miss them all, all my old friends."
He had a dog then for 14 years and three months, but it died and Kahm vowed never to get another--"I think I grieve over that dog more than anything else," he says--and he has lived alone since.
The Coffeehouse Extempore was founded by a teacher at the Minnehaha Academy in 1965, and operated at four different sites on the West Bank for some 20 years. For a while, it was located in the Triangle building on Riverside Avenue across from the Hard Times Cafe, where there now sits a holistic health center. For the first year, it was open 24 hours a day, and as a result, it harbored runaways. It was also a meeting place for cops, prostitutes, and the odd race car driver, or so says Harold. "It was a noble idea," he says. According to Kahm, the charter of the Coffeehouse Extempore--or the "Extemp," as it was called--prescribed two things: Promoting the art of conversation and keeping youth off drugs. It failed on the second count. "You could get dizzy just walking through there," Kahm says, declining to comment on whether he knowingly inhaled. But as a forum for discussion, the Extemp succeeded. Guests included two mayors, two police chiefs, congressman Martin Sabo, Leo Kottke, and a young Garrison Keillor. Kahm lists these names proudly. "I spent 20 years of my life there," Kahm says; his novel The West Bank Group (it's about an experiment in group marriage and group sex among three young women and four men) begins with a fictional lecture at the Extemp.
Kahm's skills as a raconteur were surely honed at the Extemp, as perhaps was his proclivity to sophistry, particularly in relation to the existence and character of God, on which he has many colorful opinions. For several decades now ("about 50 years"), Kahm has been writing a book about the teachings of Jesus, some of which, he says, "are as modern as a rocket ship." In the book, which he means to call The Jesus Nobody Knows, Kahm says he connects the philosophy of the Greek physician Hippocrates to the teachings of Jesus, in search of "ideas that are in accord with modern scientific thinking." Kahm says that Adam and Eve should have been Atom and Eve. "Jesus was born in the wrong time and the wrong country," Kahm often says. "He should have been a Greek." Kahm is constantly making notes for additions and revisions to the text. "That's what makes it so hard to finish," he says. "It's like a dog going back to its own vomit." The book is already 500 or 600 pages long and fills a large cardboard carton near the typewriter.
Both Kahm's parents were Jews, although "neither of them ever set foot in a temple. My father told me the Bible was a bunch of fairy tales. I take the viewpoint of modern science. Proof is what matters. I do not believe that Samson's strength was in his hair. I don't believe that Joshua made the sun stand still. I don't believe that demons are the cause of disease. I'm not an atheist in this sense: Thomas Paine said, 'You have only to behold the vast machinery of the universe to realize that no man could have created it.'"
Kahm's mother believed in God. "When I was a child," Kahm says, "my mother would never punish me. Instead, she said, 'God will punish you.'" Kahm nods his head mournfully. "Instead, God punished her. She died horribly. She had cancer for 20 years and was in and out of the hospital." Kahm is the kind of agnostic who talks a lot about God and frequently adopts a Promethean anger at humanity's lot. "If we are all God's children," he says, "God should be punished for child abuse."
One afternoon, I spot a list of diseases on Kahm's desk; it is two columns long and covers everything from crib death to yellow fever. Kahm says it is research for the book, a detailing of God's treatment of his people. "They say that God loves us," he sneers. "Well, that's a fucking lie." Kahm bears the most animosity toward organized religion. "Thomas Paine once said religion is about two things: money and power. Neither has anything to do with God. You manufacture a product which is invisible and after one buys it, there's no evidence it ever existed." This makes him truly indignant, and when it comes to the folly of religion, he does not easily tire of the feeling. Some of Kahm's theology depends on word play or syllogism: "Science is fact without certainty, and religion is certainty without fact," he says. Or: "They build churches to reach up to heaven. Little do they know that half the time the steeples point the other way!"
Kahm often talks about a letter he sent unknown years ago to the Religion department at St. Olaf college, in which he condensed many of his arguments about the endeavor he jokingly calls "saving Jesus from the Christians." No one wrote back. To Kahm, this is a clear forfeit. He takes it as yet further proof of his rectitude.
Kahm does not know what comes after death and argues that it makes no sense to worry about it. The executor of his estate, whom Kahm met at the Coffeehouse Extempore, is 37 years old and the director of the Minnesota Atheists. One thing Kahm would not want to do is live life over again. "Think of all the toothaches. The heartaches. The embarrassment. The disappointment. All creatures have an instinctual fear of death, whether you're a fly or a human. It doesn't make a whit of difference. You die anyway."
Back in the 1950s, Harold Kahm had an episode of writer's block that lasted a full year. "It was as if someone had put his hand inside my brain and turned something off," he says. He got a day job by starting his own company to sell ballpoint pens; soon he had five salesman under him, at which point he sold the company. Recently, Kahm has been challenged to complete the usual 1,000 words a day--a modest total for him. His typewriter ribbon ran out three weeks ago, and when he couldn't readily locate a replacement, he felt relieved. "The executive editor at Bantam, Allan Barnard, who visited me twice here in Minneapolis, is retired 15 years. He may be dead," Kahm says. "I don't know anyone in publishing anymore." On another occasion, Kahm hypothesizes that he has become too lazy to write. "Besides," he says, "I can't see any reason in it.
"Most of my books don't amount to much," he says. "The average non-fiction book is hack-work. Any job is a hack job. You just do your task. If you work for General Motors, you don't design cars. You screw in bolt #643. If you work for a newspaper, the newspaper needs copy, and you fill it. If you have a cause--gay liberation, for example--or if the writing comes from the heart--anger, the desire to help people, the desire to smash evil--now that's not hack work.
"I suppose my writing came from my education at True Confessions magazine. You have to feel the emotion first, and then your reader will too. But I enjoyed writing The Crowded Bed because I can sympathize. The shock to the two men when they discover they're sharing the same woman! Just imagine that situation!"
At other times, Kahm believes his problem is not that the words have left him, but that there are too many of them to fit into his remaining years. For though it goes largely unmentioned, the subject of death is stenciled onto an invisible agenda: When it will happen, how it will happen, why it has not happened yet. "My problem right now," he says "is that there are three books I urgently want to write. And there's a fourth too, which I forget now." In addition to the unauthorized autobiography and the writings on Jesus and science, Kahm hopes to complete an updated version of The Crowded Bed, and a guide on how to enjoy life targeted to retired men. Kahm says they frequently commit suicide, and he thinks there is a market. Which is not to mention the approximately 15 short essays from the last year on topics ranging from euthanasia to domed cities of the future--pieces that don't seem to fit into the unauthorized autobiography. That makes five books. "Most of my ideas come while shaving," Kahm says. "I don't know why."
For the first time, I notice a five-foot long, red felt banner behind Kahm's head--a decorative French calendar from 1970. The months are listed: janvier, février, mars, avril. In two years, 1998, the days and dates will again realign. Meanwhile, out on the street, Caterpillar machines pound the pavement. The next day, an even bigger machine that resembles a Zamboni will peel back all the fractured asphalt as if it were cookie dough. Kahm is being assessed $2,000 in municipal repair expenses for the work the street crews will be doing along his driveway and curb. But the joke is on them. "The payments," he says, "are due over 20 years!"
The next afternoon Kahm is expansive. "You must start writing books, " he tells me. "Books are where the money is. If you write non-fiction, you can query a publisher beforehand. I wrote a book on musical instruments. Histories. Styles. Uses. It was bought but never even published. All you have to do is collect information and write it up. Give me a subject that you're interested in and I'll tell you how to write it."
I tell him that I am interested in a history of lost Minneapolis, and the stories of its last surviving occupants.
"See, that wouldn't do at all. No one's interested in it. There's no market--not even here in Minneapolis. Give me another one."
"I don't think I'm ready to write a book yet," I say then, and Kahm nods his head sympathetically. He has written 28 published books while other people were checking for inspiration, waiting to get ready.
"Think about it, though," he tells me as I walk toward the door. "I could give you advice. Artists write for themselves. They starve. I write to please other people. The only literary award that's ever interested me is the one that comes on small rectangular paper and reads: Pay to the order of Harold S. Kahm."
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