Coming of Age in Bohemia: the Tosh Berman Story

They were a self-referential lot. Allen Ginsberg wrote about himself, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in Howl. Kerouac wrote about Ginsberg, Cassady and Burroughs in On the Road. Their wives (Carolyn Cassady), lovers (Joyce Johnson) and children (Jan Kerouac) churned out books about the founding Beat fathers. The latest in this ever-expanding cottage industry is Tosh: Growing up in Wallace Berman’s World (City Lights; $16.95), a memoir by the son and the only child of bohemian and Beat Generation parents who were also secular Jews. Tosh’s father, Wallace, was an experimental filmmaker and an assemblage and collage artist who edited and published the magazine, Semina. The Beatles put his picture on the cover of “Sergeant Pepper.” Dennis Hopper gave him a walk-on part in Easy Rider.

Tosh Berman’s mother, Shirley, who is on the cusp of 84, was a dancer and a muse for Wallace (1926-1976) who was largely apolitical, though in true bohemian fashion he liked to shock the bourgeoisie. On one occasion, a bank commissioned him to make a work of art. On a document from the financial institution, Wallace superimposed an image of a woman performing fellatio and called it “Bank Statement.” In 1957, he was found guilty of displaying lewd and obscene material and fined $150.  Tosh himself is only a tad more political than his father. “I don’t think I could have taken Vietnam,” he writes. “If nothing else the humid weather would have destroyed me.”

Tosh describes the life and times of an eccentric young man, his eccentric parents and their friends, many of them misfits and non-conformists, though some, like Dennis Hopper, had careers in Hollywood. Tosh also tells the story of an ordinary American boy who read comic books, loved Disney, adored Brigitte Bardot and wallowed in teen anxiety. Soon after he graduated from high school, he bought his first car, a white Datsun, with money from his parents. “I needed a car,” he writes in the chapter titled “Driving.” He adds, “I lived in the middle of nowhere.” In his case, nowhere was Topanga Canyon—North and East of Malibu, West of Beverly Hills. In 1969, Tosh’s favorite rock star, Neil Young, recorded an album in Topanga called, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”  On the single of the same name, Young sings, “I gotta get away/ From this day-to-day/Running around.” Tosh got away.

In his memoir, which covers the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, he offers a boy’s view of west coast bohemian and Beat Generation circles that gave him and young people like him a sense of belonging somewhere that wasn’t primarily abut making money and getting ahead. In the pages of his memoir, Tosh doesn’t grow up and doesn’t want to. Now 63, he says in an epilogue to his narrative, that he still feels “like the child in this book.”

Tosh is built on the back of simple declarative sentences. “My father Wallace Berman was an artist,” he writes at the start of his tale. “Or, should I say, he is an artist; though his body is not here anymore, his art is very much part of this world.” He gets older, but the sentences stay simple.

Tosh’s account of bohemia offers unique portraits of artists, writers, actors and filmmakers including Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Marcel Duchamp, one of the fathers of modern conceptual art. Tosh met Duchamp in 1963 in Pasadena, California, and, while he doesn’t provide new information about the artist, he describes his own feelings about the encounter. “It was my first lesson in how fame can affect other people,” he writes.

There would be many more lessons. All of them helped to educate Tosh about the nature of fame in the U.S. after World War II when men like Wallace Berman, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg could become legendary for their devotion to their art. Before Tosh reached his teens, he was a boy legend in bohemian circles. He was “Tosh” and didn’t need a last name.

He and his parents would have been at home in the first bohemia, which took shape in Paris in the 1840s and spread to New York and California. Henri Murger wrote about the first Bohemia in a series of articles for a literary journal in 1847 and 1848 that were later collected and published as Scenes of Bohemian Life. One of the bohemians that Burger portrays becomes a bourgeois success, one reason why Karl Marx found bohemians suspect.

Marx wrote about them with a mix of fear and loathing in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he also noted famously that the important events in world history occur twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In Marx’s view, the Parisian bohemians tended to be “vagabonds,” “swindlers,” “tricksters” and “beggars.” Kerouac himself called Ginsberg and Cassady, “con-artists.” One-hundred-years before the publication of On the Road, a secret police agent got an invitation to the Marx household. He sent report to Prussia from London, England in which he described Marx as “the communist chief” who lives the life of “an intellectual Bohemian.” Marx’s apartment was “dirty and covered with dust,” the agent wrote. Kids toys were everywhere. Jenny Marx’s sewing was mixed in with Karl’s “manuscripts and newspapers.” The agent added that, “Intellectually spirited and agreeable conversation makes amends for the domestic deficiencies,” and “one even grows accustomed to the company.” For much of Tosh’s early years, the Bermans lived in circumstances not that different than those of the Marx family. “I remember being numb with cold because there was a broken window in my bedroom,” Tosh writes of a houseboat where he lived with his parents.

Tosh doesn’t condemn Wallace and Shirley and their friends, though some of them were drug addicts and petty criminals. Tosh says that his father was a shoplifter and at times “passive aggressive.” He also explains that his father “required a woman who would support his one-way route to art-life and not put restrictions on his time and his need for attention.”

I’m a generation older than Tosh, and, while I share some of his experiences, my parents, unlike his, were members of the Communist Party. The only famous people I met when I was a boy were lefties like Leon Bibb and Bella Abzug. When I was 22 and living with my 18-year-old-girfriend and our friends in an apartment in Manhattan, my father disapproved. “We’re not bohemians,” he said. “We’re Communists.” He identified with the John Reed who went to Russia and wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, not the John Reed who lived in bohemian Greenwich Village, nor the John Reed who followed Pancho Villa’s rebel army and wrote Insurgent Mexico.

In California in the 1970s, my parents became hippies. They’d enjoy Tosh’s story as well as the dozen photos of him in the book, nearly all of them by Wallace, who documented his son’s journey from boyhood to young adulthood. Tosh’s memoir might make his father more famous than he is. It will put Tosh on the map of the American counterculture that includes hipsters, beatniks, hippies and punks and who descended from Rimbaud, Verlaine and Heinrich Heine, the German Jewish bohemian, whose poems Marx published in his journal Forwards and helped spread his fame.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.