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Los Angeles' Man About Fine Letters

September 06, 1987|Ward Ritchie | Ward Ritchie, founder of the Ward Ritchie Press, now lectures on the arts and still prints by hand at his Emerald Bay home

LAGUNA — Only a week or so ago I was sitting with one of my oldest friends, Jacob Zeitlin, making plans for the celebration of his 85th birthday on November 5. He was not well, having just experienced open heart surgery, but Jake was hopeful and as always bursting with ideas and with stories gathered from his long association with books and authors. Then, days later, the word came that his heart had failed him. This brought back a flood of memories of this man who was the catalyst around which "a small renaissance, Southern California style" developed in the 1930s.

I remember some 60 years ago when he was a struggling, though visionary, book peddler who carried a valise full of his wares to show to lawyers, doctors and movie producers who might be interested--and to the impecunious as well. He finally found a foothold in a converted hallway on Hope Street just around the corner from 6th Street, then the bookseller's row of Los Angeles. When the opportunity came he moved to 6th Street in slightly larger quarters, at 705 1/2. Lloyd Wright designed the shop and made it attractive, as all of Jake's shops were to be. It was more than the half-shop the address indicated; though not large, it accommodated a few shelves of those fine press books for which the 1920s were renowned, new English first editions which few local bookstores had and a small gallery where he gave many local artists their first showing.

Somehow, Jake attracted creative people. His shop was a magnet to them. His own enthusiasm, his innovative mind and his drive to start things resulted in many cooperative ventures with his friends. He spent almost as much time on these ventures as he did selling books.

With so many young writers and artists hanging around, it was only natural for Jake to suggest that they start a magazine in which they could sound off and offer their opinions. Obviously it was named Opinion and with each of the sponsors helping cover the printing costs, it was issued for a year or so beginning in 1929. In addition to Jake, such writers as Louis Adamic, Walter Arensburg, Merle Armitage, Gustave Boehme, Will Connell, Phil Townsend Hanna, Carl Haverlin, Paul Jordan-Smith, Carey McWilliams, Joseph Pijoan, W.W. Robinson, Jose Rodriguez, Sidney King Russell, Lloyd Wright and Judge Leon R. Yankwich made up this Los Angeles aristocracy. Its objective, as stated, was "for the sole purpose of giving currency to pure passions and prejudices, intelligently written on subjects of pertinence and interest. It is inspired by no revolutionary motives, scorns all crusades and reforms, and denies itself equally to the sophistical attitudes of obvious poseurs."

Jake, as a young man growing up in Texas, had been writing poetry when he was discovered and encouraged by Carl Sandburg. After his emigration to California, he gathered together a number of these poems; his friends, Theodore Lilienthal and Leon Gelber, who had a book shop in San Francisco, published the book, "For Whispers and Chants," under the imprint of the Lantern Press in 1927. Ed and Bob Grabhorn printed it, Valenti Angelo illustrated it and Sandburg wrote a short foreword, saying:

"Now we have the boy, the young man, Jake Zeitlin, stepping forth as a poet. Dreams and impressions come to him and they take word shapes, and he must put down the words. He has the value, the merit, and quality, that accompany the inevitable."

In the back of his mind Jake also harbored the desire to publish an occasional book. The opportunity came when Margaret Eyer Wilbur translated an early book about Los Angeles by an Austrian visitor, Ludwig Louis Salvator. She agreed to partly subsidize it; Bruce McCallister printed it and Grant Dahlstrom helped with the design.

Meanwhile, before that book was finished, Sandburg had included a couple of manuscript poems in his occasional letters to Jake. I was learning how to set type at Frank Wiggins Trade School and Jake showed me Sandburg's poem "Soo Line Sonata," asking if I'd like to print it for him. Naturally, I was eager and set it in type only to be disappointed when Sandburg told Jake that he did not want it printed but that he could publish the other poem, "M'Liss and Louie," which Jake sold for the inflated price of $1.00. These were the first things I printed and the first poetry that Jake published.

In the next few years he became more and more involved in publishing and formed the Primavera Press using the fawn as his imprint. To relieve himself of some time-consuming details, in 1933 he asked Phil Townsend Hanna to join him as the press editor, and me to handle production. Later McWilliams, Lawrence Clark Powell and Cornelis Groenewegen were added to the staff. The press continued to publish some fairly distinguished books until 1936 when the Great Depression took its toll.

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