How Bern Porter Saw the World

How Bern Porter Saw the World

In his 93 years on this Earth, Bern Porter contributed to the invention of television, worked on the Manhattan Project and the Saturn V rocket, and made the acquaintances of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Werner von Braun.

By Alex Irvine


Crucifix of the Virgin, photogram, circa 1946.
During this period, Porter was occasionally exhibiting photographs and sculptures and publishing a poem or two. He also began his career as a publisher, bringing out small editions of Henry Miller's antiwar essays, which in fact were Miller's first American publications. In the 1940s, Porter published Bay Area poets Kenneth Patchen, Parker Tyler, and Kenneth Rexroth.

Then came August 6, 1945. And, three days later, August 9. Porter left the Manhattan Project almost immediately, saying later that this action "wasn't wholly from guilt, nor could it be called strictly a compensating contribution to society. . . . My reaction from destruction was simply that I had to do something constructive with what limited talents and funds I had."

What he did was immerse himself in the cultural life of the Bay Area. Watching the early flowering of what would later be called the San Francisco Renaissance (a movement with which he is often wrongly identified), Porter met and married Helen Hendren, a University of California student. The age difference and his various obsessions, including sexual difficulties, wrecked the marriage after only a year—a year during which Porter was offered, and declined, the opportunity to publish William Burroughs's first novel, Junky.

n 1948 Porter established an art gallery in Sausalito, California, alongside a "house of creative thought" he called the Schillerhaus. Here he drafted the early versions of the Sciart Manifesto, which was to be a guiding principle for the rest of his life. Here too, in 1950, came the event that seems to have broken his life in half.

Porter at a picnic with his parents at Shelter Cove.
Porter's parents came out to visit the Schillerhaus and see their son the "cultural entrepreneur," as James Schevill would later characterize Porter in his biography, Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter. During this visit, Porter's father was arrested for fondling a 12-year-old girl, and Porter discovered that his father had a long history of molesting children in Maine. Refusing to see his father, Porter ran, not just from his family but from America. He spent the next five years in Guam, first working for the Guam Daily News and moonlighting as a waiter at the Club Bamboo, then writing for an ad agency. During this time, Porter traveled widely in the South Pacific and spent several months in Japan, meeting artists and writers and observing the rebirth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On his return, he wrote I've Left, a sort of strange apologia for his life so far. Schevill writes that I've Left is part of "the tradition of distinctive autobiographies that express meaningful rebellion and the discovery of a new identity," and it seems true that Porter's Wanderjahre in the Pacific changed him. When he returned to the United States, he began designing books and broadsides. His second wife, Margaret Preston, had known him before he left for Guam, and about a year after his return they were married. In contrast to his comfortable marriage, Porter's working life became very difficult during these years; the paranoid security apparatus of the time and his own prickly personality resulted in his leaving a number of military/technical jobs after only a few months, often followed by unflattering assessments of his mental health.