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Interview with: Gertrude Barnstone
Interviewed by: Jane Ely
Date: March 25, 2008
JE:This is an interview with Gertrude Barnstone. It is Tuesday, March 25, 2008. Talking to her in her home. Are you a native Houstonian?
GB: Yes. My mother made a trip back from New York – she was up visiting her family – she made a special trip back so I would be born in Texas, and in Houston.
JE:Well, good for you! That was smart of your mother. Where were you born? What hospital?
GB: Hermann Hospital. It is now called the Memorial Hospital. Very close to the library on Memorial .
JE:Where did you live? Where did you grow up?
GB: Well, I think . . . when I was born, I saw my birth certificate where it called my father a prospector because he worked for an oil company. But it makes him sound like he was out looking for gold or something.
JE:When were you born?
GB: September 5, 1925. We lived at 1515 Lamar, way downtown Lamar and then sort of grew up in apartments. I always lived in apartments. I still think that is how people are meant to live, in a dense situation, you know – somebody next door, up and down. And then, on Colquitt . . .
JE:Wow, you did live close in, didn’t you?
GB: Yes, right there by Sears.
JE:Are you an only child?
GB: Yes, only child.
JE:Well, where did you go to school?
GB: I went to Poe, Lanier and San Jacinto.
JE:Everybody went to San Jacinto, didn’t they?
GB: Yes, and then I guess it was maybe the year I started there or some time when I was in high school, they opened Lamar and a lot of people went to Lamar. I didn’t see any point in going that far away. I sort of found school dull and boring and everything anyway so it didn’t matter. My life was involved with theater then, things like that.
JE:What did yo do?
GB: Well, Margot Jones had been brought to Houston - I think I was 13. She was this brilliant, unbelievable person who graduated from the University of Texas, had gotten her Ph.D. I think at 18, something like that, from Livingston, Texas, and then she had gone on a tour of the world. She got to Russia and stopped and visited the theater, the Russian art theater, Stanislavsky. And then she went to, I believe the Pasadena Playhouse, worked at the Pasadena Playhouse in California where there was a wonderful woman who headed up the Houston Parks & Recreation Department – I cannot remember her name but I can still see her. And, of course, I was a kid so she seemed like older than old. She was fabulous. She learned about Margot, knew about Margot and she got her here, hired her to head up the community playhouse of the city of Houston. My mother read about it in the newspaper. My mother was from New York and was very involved while she lived there - grew up there though she was born in Vermont – grew up there and was very involved with actors and actresses and playwrights and, you know, a whole artistic thing, and art to her was the most important thing in the world – art, in its many forms - but mainly visual art, but nonetheless, theater also. So, she took me down when she read that there was going to be tryouts, to meet this new woman.
It was a glorious site. It was down Houston Avenue, right there by the freeway. I think the jail is there now . . . on the bayou. The bayou runs in back of it. The jail . . . I think the courthouse is in there. At the time, it was all just land and trees, a few houses.
JE:Wasn’t the old courthouse there?
GB: I always think of the courthouse as being east of Main. This was west of Main, by Memorial. If you think of where Memorial and Houston Avenue . . . Houston Avenue immediately west of Memorial. Anyhow, it was just glorious. There was a building along the bayou that was vanilla -- a big, elongated box -- and that was the proscenium theater, the audience, the stage. Then, there was this house that some people – I never really figured it out, I wasn’t worried with that – people seemed to live there but also, we used it . . . I was accepted to be part of this thing. It was like a repertoire almost. It was very casual and very exacting artistically and dramatically but it wasn’t a highly structured thing, and there wasn’t something for children and something for adults. It was just sort of for actors.
JE:All mixed up together?
GB: Yes, wonderful. And in the house, we would have Sunday play readings. I remember Sundays, we would read, and the chairs in the living room and the readers would be sitting here, and I remember our reading Gibson, Peckoff. It was so exciting. That is why I found high school dullsville and, you know, junior high and all that, it was just . . .
JE:Hanging out with all those exotic adults.
GB: She had the proscenium (sp?) theater there. Then, in the summertime, Intimate Theater it was called then, Circle Theater – it was very new, she went in _____ in the summertime. And in the mezzanine of, sometimes, the Lamar Hotel, sometimes the Rice Hotel, sometimes I think the Texas State maybe once or twice, but in the mezzanine of those hotels were some large rooms. The chairs would go around for the audience and the actors acting in the middle. And it was comedies – Noel Coward and light things like that. Well, that was great experience and I was just in a lot of things. Shakespeare and, well, you name it. Just all kinds of things. That was a wonderful thing.
Then, there was this one woman who was very active. Everybody who was involved, it was sort of the center of their lives. You know, they worked at Sears or they delivered mail or did things like this to keep going but they were true amateurs. The love of their life was theater. Margot was such a vibrant, exciting young person and so knowledgeable and so feeling. It was a fabulous experience. There was this one young woman who would go to all the rehearsals and just sit and watch Margot direct and guide. She was handsome, she wasn’t pretty – she was a kind of a clothes horse – and she would get a part every now and again. She wasn’t great shakes of an actress but she was learning, learning. She was Nina Whittington from Yokum, Texas. I remember she went to my mother once and she said, “Oh Mrs. Wheezy, I just don’t know what to do. I have such a great time with my boyfriends from A&M. We have fun . . . because this older man named Milton Vance, he wants to marry me. I just don’t know what to do.” She married him and became Nina Vance. She was learning. The whole time, she was . . . I mean, she was smart. She was watching Margot and drinking it in and learning about directing. She also taught theater, taught acting or whatever, at San Jacinto High School where I went to high school and I did one term take her class. There were people like that. It was interesting and it was exciting.
JE:Did you stay there until Margot Jones went to Dallas?
GB: Yes, I did.
JE:When was that?
GB: I don’t remember. It was somewhere about the time I was in high school or maybe about to graduate from high school. She went to New York first and directed, I think Ingrid Bergman in “Joan of Lorraine,” and sort of made a name for herself. She was very close to Tennessee Williams and she did, I think, the first production of “Summer and Smoke.” Then, she went to Dallas and then she just so cruelly died of . . . she was living there and doing great -- I think they had a theater named for her and she was really ensconced there in Dallas with her own theater. She lived in sort of a high rise, not terribly high but an apartment in kind of a residential hotel. She went on a trip. While she was gone, they cleaned the carpet and the drapes with tetrahydrochloride or something poisonous. And either they didn’t realize she was coming back when she did or they didn’t know it was pure poison or for whatever reason . . . she comes home, goes to sleep and never wakes up.
JE:I didn’t know that.
GB: She was poisoned by that. I will never forget . . . groups of us would go . . . and my parents and I and some other people would like go out in the evening, and I remember so well literally sitting down on the floor listening to her talking and her saying, “Baby, don’t ever forget the interrelatedness of the arts, the interrelatedness of the arts.” And the other big thing, one of her mantras was, the decentralization of the theater. “The theater shouldn’t just be in New York and Los Angeles. Theater is part of everybody and it needs to be everywhere.” The intensity and the beauty of how she said it, for a teenager, wow! I was just drinking all this in. It was just a great thing. So, they could have thought, well Houston is the end of the world – I mean, who would go to a barbaric place like that, but there were gems here like Margot that made it very, very special.
JE:Well, did Vance take over the moment Margot left?
GB: No. It was, I think a couple of years later, she found the spot on Main Street to have her own theater, the Alley, because you had to walk down the street between the two buildings . . .
JE:Yes, it was on ______ and Travis.
GB: South Main.
JE:Where Brennans is now, across from it.
GB: Yes. And so, she started her own place with some of the people she had known down at Margots but then a lot new because this was a few years later.
JE:O.K., well, you were doing part of this I guess at the end of the Depression?
GB: Well, yes. I started art school at the Museum when I was like 7 and that was really the Depression. It was about in 1932. And, again, people who, like my teacher . . . Bob Joy had come here from Philadelphia with his wife and a couple of little tiny kids, he found a job here in Houston in the early 1930s.
JE:How was the Depression in Houston? Were you aware of it?
GB: Not really.
JE:No soup lines that you saw or anything like that?
GB: No. People would come by and beg and my mother would always give them food or whatever, whatever there was to give, but I don’t remember . . . I had later heard that it wasn’t as bad here as it was in other places. You didn’t see evidence of it. Of course, maybe because we didn’t go to town or I didn’t spend a lot of time downtown.
JE:What were the parameters of Houston then?
GB: Well, for me, it was Bartlett Street between Broadacres and Montrose. It was Jet’s Grocery Store and Maddings Drug Store. Right there very close to where the Glassells School is, a tiny bit north of that.
JE:How did you get to school?
GB: I walked. I loved it. It was a magic kind of walk because we lived in apartments that were at the end of Bartlett and ends where . . . there is a Broadacre Park which is the beginning of North Boulevard and South Boulevard. It is a crescent-shaped, sort of park. And that was my playground. It was such fun. And there were other kids that lived in those apartments. So, we would go through the hedge, and trees to climb in and make believe in the trees and a great lawn. There was a park to run in and play. And then, there was North Boulevard and South Boulevard. I would just walk up North Boulevard to Poe School. It was a wonderful walk and it was fun. I can still see those few times when it would be cold enough that there would be ice crystals on the trees and how the sun would hit the little things of ice and they would glean colors – yellow and blue.
JE:Did you walk to Lanier?
GB: No, my mother drove me to Lanier.
JE:What about San Jacinto?
GB: She drove me to San Jacinto. That was very close but still, for some reason . . . I guess it was Main Street and things like that, too.
JE:So, did they have that little amusement park at the other side of Rice on Main Street, probably about Braeswood, that everybody in Houston claimed . . .
GB: Oh, where the ponies . . . of course. In fact, that was still there . . . when my children were little, I took them there when they were tiny toddlers to ride on the ponies.
JE:Ride the ponies.
JE:Was that kind of the end of the world in terms of . . .
GB: Well, maybe, although, you know, it was sort of thought an area . . . my parents being from elsewhere were very curious about Texas. The same as Howard being from Maine, he wanted always to see more. That is why he ended up doing that book on Galveston, I think, because he saw it all with fresh eyes. My parents very much were the same. And we loved to go to Galveston, my parents and I, when I was little. I would go on the beach and get in the water. It was a real magic time. Just all around Houston.
JE:Well, what restaurants do you remember? What movie theaters? What stores?
GB: Foleys, Levy Brothers. People always thought we were related to Levy Brothers. We said, “No.” Anyway, there were a lot of Levys in Houston but they were all rich. There was a Dr. Levy whom everyone loved, and there was the Levy Brothers store and there were others. We were the poor Levys!
JE:Did your daddy stay in the oil business?
GB: Yes. Right.
JE:He had his ups and downs.
GB: Yes, they would periodically try to . . . they would put money into a well that everybody thought, this is going to be the big one. Well, it never ever was, of course. He worked for the Texas Company . . . well, he ended up being a consultant, an independent consultant, who worked for himself. He enjoyed that. He was fascinated by the oil business with my mother and by Texas – the whole thing, the place just fascinated him.
The restaurants – Kellys. I remember Kellys. And Kellys downtown, I remember going with my daddy when I was little and getting raw oysters, which I still love.
JE:Across the street from the Rice Hotel?
GB: Exactly. I can see it like it was yesterday.
JE:Were you aware that they used to dance at the top of the Rice Hotel?
GB: Yes, right. I guess the Empire Room was lower down. I think my high school prom, or whatever they call it when you are a senior trying to get out of the place, I think that dance was on the top of the Rice roof.
JE:Well, if you didn’t like school, how did you wind up at Rice?
GB: Well, my mother wanted me to just go to art school and forget all this college nonsense, although she had graduated from Hunter and my father graduated from University of Vermont but, as I mentioned, to her, art was the only thing that really had reality and meaning in life. So, she thought that would be a waste of time. I was pretty curious about it and interested. I liked learning and I liked reading. My daddy was more, you know, you go to college, you develop your mind, etc. I thought it would be great to go away to school – go to Cornell, go to William and Mary. I don’t know why – but there wasn’t any money to do that so I applied at Rice which was totally free then, totally scholarship. If you were accepted, nothing, except a few lab fees and your books. You bought your books and you paid a lab fee. When I graduated 3 years later, during the war, so you went year round and you did 4 years in 3. So, I was 19 when I got out of Rice. What was I going to say about the . . .
JE:Your mother wanted you to go to art school and you went to Rice.
GB: Yes, and when I graduated, they sent me a check for, I don’t know, like $36. I had overpaid a certain number of lab fees. So, I mean, it was wonderful.
JE:What did you major in?
JE:What did your mom think about that? You weren’t an art major, although I guess English was art.
GB: She tolerated it. There was not much she could say about it. It was fun.
JE:Is that where you met Howard?
GB: No. I got married right after Rice to a guy I had met at the UFO, down at, it was the Ambassador Hotel, Auditorium Hotel there. It is still a hotel. I do not know what it is called now, there on Texas.
JE:I am not sure it is still there.
GB: Across from Jones Hall or something. Anyway to some guy in California. That didn’t last very long. Then I was back here. No, I met Howard about 10 years later.
JE:Did you move to California?
GB: I did for a brief period. He went to Stanford, this guy I married. Then I came back. I mean, I was young but I was emotionally . . . I mean, I was so immature. I was unbelievably immature. I can’t believe I was able to survive, I was so immature. So, I came back home.
JE:What did you do?
GB: I just threw myself into theater stuff. There was a lot of activity here then. There was wonderful stuff at the little theater. They had Ralph Meade, he would come here with his family from California and he did . . . actually, a very demanding director, very knowledgeable and very good. So, I did that there and, I don’t know, some other places around. Then, I sort of would get back into art and periodically, it would be real debate within myself. What do I really get down into, theater or art? Well, finally, after quite a while, I finally decided it was going to be art because art was much more basic. Theater was . . . I enjoyed it most in the rehearsal period. I enjoyed developing the character. I didn’t enjoy the performance as much. The art was more, in a sense, more creative. It brought more out of yourself, the art, although theater demands a lot out of you as well.
JE:You were living with your parents obviously?
GB: Yes, they kept supporting me. Then I met Howard at the Contemporary Arts Museum. He had just come down. He graduated after the war. He had been in the war, in the Navy. Then, he had gone to Amherst and then to Yale to architecture school, and before settling down . . . he didn’t know to go to Maine or New York and start his career as an architect . . . he wanted to drive through the country and see the United States. So, he took a loop down here through Houston because he had some, like, 8th or 9th cousins who lived here. While visiting with them, he heard that the University of Houston had just started their architecture department. So, he went out one day and sat in on a class. They had an interesting man, Dick Lilith (sp?) who headed up the architecture department that was just beginning, he was starting it. He was not an architect, so he didn’t have the inner friction that I understand is sometimes present. He wasn’t trying to keep down anybody else as an architect. Anyway, in the course of the class that day, with Lilith talking about an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, something architectural . . . well, Howard had seen it the week before. So, afterwards, he goes and talks with him, they get into quite a conversation, and it ends up with Lilith offering him a job. So, Howard figures I can put off going to see California. Yes. So, he took the job and settled down and got active with the Contemporary Arts Museum in time. I was doing volunteer work with them and that is how we met.
JE:When did you marry?
GB: In 1955.
JE:And you have always lived in this general area as an adult?
GB: In the Montrose area, yes.
JE:Where was your house that was the party house?
GB: Oh, the party house? That was on North Boulevard. 1720. It was between North Boulevard between Dunlavy and Woodhead. And, again, very close to Poe. It was a house I had walked past 1,000 times when I was a kid going to Poe, and here were my kids now walking from that house up just a couple of blocks to Poe.
JE:Now, as I recall, you were a painter?
GB: Yes, I would start with painting two-dimensional, and then I got, I guess with Charles Shorey (sp?), I took a sculpture class. He was mainly a painter but he also did three-dimensionals. And I got into three-dimensional stuff and I thought, well, this is it. This really feels right.
JE:Didn’t we have an art show for you at Alfredos Bar?
GB: It could have been.
JE:I think so.
GB: It could have been.
JE:That would have been Jack Crisswell and Jack Weeks and a bunch of people. I think you came and had all your stuff there. It was a hell of a party.
GB: Yes! Howard was totally sympathetic and in tune with doing art, having something outside of just being a housewife and in time, mother and that kind of thing. He would have been bored stiff and I would have been insane.
JE:Well, you started out with painting. This kid that did some research here said that you knew when you were 11, you wanted to be a sculptor?
GB: Yes, I guess that is about the time when I started . . . I had this class . . . maybe it wasn’t ______ - I forget who taught it but it sort of turned me but it doesn’t turn me on to three-dimensional things.
JE:You have 3 kids?
JE:Do any of them live in Houston?
GB: Yes, they lived in Houston. Two of them still do. One of them, the oldest, Dora, the one who was the assisted living places and all, she and her family live in Tampa. But the other two live here. In fact, George, my youngest who is, he will be . . . he was born in 1963, so whatever that makes him - he will be 45, I guess, this year, he just moved down the street, he and his wife.
JE:What does he do?
GB: Real estate.
GB: Yes. He did law, passed the Bar, became a lawyer and, as many lawyers do, found it was not for him. I understand that is the profession that has the highest dropout rate of any. Practicing law.
JE:I think so.
GB: Attrition, I guess they call it.
JE:When were you elected to the school board?
GB: I was elected in 1964. George was born in 1963 and it was later in 1963 that Kennedy was killed. It was November. I had heard that, or it was on the news, that Hattie May White whom I did not know but admired greatly from seeing her on TV on the school board, she was on the board then. And, at the meeting following Kennedy’s death, the conservative majority were saying at the meeting, “Absolutely shocking, unbelievable, what is to be done? The children, when they heard that Kennedy had been shot, they hoorayed and clapped,” and on and on and on. Hattie May, she was so brilliant, she said, “How can you pretend surprise? You sit here week in and week out and you [she didn’t say damn but in effect, you damn] the federal government because of integration/segregation. You do nothing but talk bad about the federal government. What do you expect these children to pick up from that?” Well, they were shocked, horrified even more of her expression and demanded that she get off the board.
JE:How did she get on in the first place?
GB: Elected. I think her name being White had something to do with it.
JE:She was the first black probably on the school board.
GB: I think she was the first black.
JE:Though I am not sure.
GB: And she was an extraordinarily fabulous person. So, they were demanding that she get off. Well, Howard and I at that time belonged to the Council on Human Relations and this was a group who wanted desegregation of everything and I remember talking to . . . I went to their office -- it was a wonderful group of wonderful people – you can imagine – and spoke to, oh, I can’t remember his name but the guy who was the federal judge . . .
GB: Woodrow Seals. He was a friend of ours. Woodrow was in the office. I said, “Isn’t this the worst thing? What can we do? We’ve got to do something for Hattie May White.” He says, “I’ll tell you what you need to do.” I mean, right there – he had it all in the front of his mind. He said, “You get someone to help you and you give a big public tea honoring Hattie May White, open to everyone.” I said, “O.K., I’ll do it. Who do I get?” And he suggested Joe Alessandro whom I had known when we had lived on Colquitt Street. We lived a block apart. We were the same age, went to school together and were good friends. I hadn’t seen her in a few years. O.K., so we put together this public tea at the Rice Hotel. I had never done anything like this before in my life but wow, it was fun. So, we made all the arrangements. Of course, she knew all the people . . . Joe Alessandro knew Hattie May, and she was just knowledgeable about a lot of public groups and public . . .
JE:I know that name.
GB: She then married Marks, A.D. Marks. Anyway, we said we were going to have it on the 13th of ______ Sunday. The middle of December. Not too close to Christmas but long enough . . . a couple of weeks in so we had time to do it. The 13th of December. People said, “Oh, you can’t have it that close to Christmas. Everybody is out shopping. Nobody is going to come.” Well, we have to have it then. We can’t have it any later. If we are going to do it, it’s got to be then. So we did it. Didn’t know, come that Sunday – a beautiful day, mild, sort of like today - didn’t know if a soul was going to show up. Well, we get down there at whatever – 2 in the afternoon – there is a line around the block. It was fabulous. It was the most exciting, beautiful thing and, of course, Hattie May loved it. Everybody loved it. It was just one of those prime days. Well, that evening, Howard and I got home – just great. And a friend of ours who had been down there, we were sitting talking and he said, “You know, if you feel this strongly about the school board and what is going on – integration – you need to run for the school board. I said, “I’d never run for dog catcher. I don’t know anything about politics. I am not going to run.” “No, you’ve got to do it,” and he left it at that. Well, by the time I woke up the next morning, I knew that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t accept that challenge, if I backed away – “Well, I don’t, I can’t, I shouldn’t.” I had these 3 tiny little children, one of them wasn’t even a year old but I knew I just couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I didn’t try. Anyway, just try it. So, I did and it all worked.
JE:Were you all were elected city wide?
JE:No districts, right?
GB: City wide. That was another great experience. Just while they . . . Lee Marsters, somebody had said he is the campaign manager. All right, fine. And I don’t know – there were other people, I can’t even remember their names now – they have long since either died or moved out of town but they all sort of pulled together and became my staff, as it were. We got an office on South Main there near Alabama. Somebody contributed the space. And Lee Marster says, “You are not to show up in this campaign headquarters. You, Gertrude, are going to have to be out on the street. That is where the people are. You have got to go to the people all over the city.” So, they mapped out on a map the schedule: Monday, here; Tuesday there; Wednesday . . . and I would go out and I would spend the day passing and giving out my cards, saying, “I am Gertrude Barnstone,” etc., etc. It was the greatest thing. I had a blast. It was terrific. And literally all over town. Well, you don’t do that now. If you run for school board, it is districted. I mean, I saw parts of Houston I had never been to. It was terrific.
JE:Where were your kids?
GB: Well, I guess the little ones were at Poe School. I mean, the girls were at Poe School, and because of Howard and my agreeing that I was not a stay-at-home mom, thank you very much, we always had, from the time the first one was born, we had live-in help. We had that big house on North Boulevard so she had her own bedroom and shared a bath with the kids, and you know, we would all just live together for 5 days a week and then she was off and we would find somebody else but we made it work.
JE:Well now, you ran alone, right? You weren't a slate or anything?
GB: That's right. Citizens for Good Schools. I still find people who think I was with Citizens for Good Schools. That was years later when I was getting out.
JE:Well, did you defeat an incumbent or was it an open seat?
GB: A guy named Robinson, was it Tom? Robinson. I ran for his seat. I don't know how that was selected. He was up for reelection. That conservative majority was so entrenched, so really entrenched, that he didn't even campaign. I think he was off on a trip to Europe or something most of that summer or fall, whenever it was. I guess the fall. He wasn't even around.
JE:Bob Eckels was on that school board.
GB: Bob Eckels. And Butler. Joe Kelly Butler. Now, that is why people think that Asbury Butler, one of the reasons, a major reason he was elected was because they associated Asbury Butler with Joe Kelly Butler. Well, they couldn't have been more different. And Mrs. Cullen who admitted . . . she was up front about she was a member or had been a member of the White Citizens Council. I mean, they were a bunch, I'll tell you.
JE:That was Nina Cohen, wasn't it? What was Ms. Cohen's name?
GB: No, she wasn't related to . . . the story was she wasn't related to any of the familiar names.
JE:Well, what did you do when you got on the school board now that you are elected and there?
GB: Well, it was very dramatic. About one month after I was elected, before taking office . . . you take office right on January 1, at the 1st of December, Elmer Bertleson from the Chronicle called and asked something about, "What do you think Mrs. Barnstone about Christmas in the schools?" or prayer or something about religion in the schools. I said, "I don't think it belongs there." By chance, that week, I was reading these big, fat, legal kind of journals that someone had given me, some lawyer had given me. They were the product of the Supreme Court case on prayer in the schools. And it was fascinating reading, including things like the Baptists who came forth saying that no, there should not be prayer in the schools. You leave prayer to the preachers, that is wrong. Interesting things like that but nonetheless, I was in the middle of reading it and I was up to here with the whole subject. "What do you think of" . . . "No, it doesn't belong. No prayer in the schools." Well, it is banner headlines that evening. I mean, bang, bang. Phone calls you would not believe, of course. People I thought were sort of friends, at least friendly neighbors looked the other way and this persona non grata and then some. It was quite something. I remember Margery Johnson who was a friend of ours, she wanted to write something as an op ed or editorial or something.
JE:She had a column then.
GB: Yes. I said, "Well, this is a perfect time to do some education of the public. People do not know the background of why this country is a separation of church and state and why prayer does not belong in the schools. This would be a perfect time to inject that and bring them up to speed." She did not want to. She felt it would get too hot or something. I don't know. For whatever reason. I never understood that but be that as it may. So, in time, it sort of died down. Then, once I got on the school board, it became an interesting way of how, when you are in the minority, how to get something done because it was 3 to 4 or 3 to – how many board members were there? 7?
JE:I don’t remember.
GB: But anyway, we were outvoted.
JE:Who was the third one?
GB: Asbury Butler, Hattie May White and me. So, it boiled down to do your homework, number one. Get every fact. Before you bring something up, get every, every fact so they can’t come back and say, “Oh, we brought so and so,” and then cut it all out from under you. Get every fact on whatever issue and then, present it gently. I never did work the other side in terms of like talking to any of them beforehand which I think is what you are supposed to and that kind of thing. But we were not on good terms. I don’t think any of them would have spoken to me. I don’t know quite how to do that kind of thing anyway. And also, get all the facts down. I remember getting them the federal aid through because they would not take one penny of federal aid because with federal aid would come desegregation and I had suggested that a committee, at some point several months later, that a committee be appointed to study the cause and I had enough facts of how much aid was going elsewhere in Texas, to Texas cities, how much aid we were not getting, what we could do and a committee president, appoint a committee, to study what we do, get what we don’t get and why and just bring us the facts. Well, McCullough, one person voted with us and that was it. That got it started. So then, the papers fixed it up, too, because I had the facts and there was a lot printed, so the people . . . that was the other thing . . . if I could get the public to push on their board members, even if they were very conservative, they respond to things like money . . . that will be the extra vote. So anyway, it did go through.
JE:How long were you on the school board?
GB: Five years. It is a 4 year term but they, the conservative majority, decided before the next election or at some point that, so that this would never happen again, that two Liberals would be elected, Asbury Butler and myself. What they had to do was get school board elections off of the general election because minorities come out to vote for president so you don’t want school board elections at the same time. So, they moved them to 5 years. They got their person in the state legislature to put up this bill that affected only cities over, I don’t know, 500,000, whatever. Anyway, so it clearly affected only Houston because we were the largest city . . . that their school board election be held on odd years which was interesting. God forbid they should cut off and bring it back a year, so they would have only 3 years, so they extended everybody’s term and made it a 5 year term.
JE:But you were directed at staggered times, right?
JE:Did the whole school board _______?
GB: No, I don’t think so.
JE:Well, why did you get off?
GB: I sort of had enough. There were great moments but I was in the process of a divorce, I had 3 little kids, and I felt like I just had enough and I wanted out. So, I did not run again. And that is when George Ozer (sp?) founded Citizens for Good Schools. But I’ve got to tell you about the moment that . . . one of the most delicious . . . I don’t know how I thought this up. I made a motion that the Houston school board go on record that it always obeyed the law. Now, what I had in mind, of course, was Brown versus Board of Education, that being the court decision which made it illegal for school desegregation. And Hattie May or somebody seconded it. So, they had to vote on that and they knew so well what I was driving out, was that they couldn’t vote not to obey the law. They just put up their hands like this.
JE:Now, was the school board still downtown at that time? I can’t remember.
GB: I can’t remember either. I think it was.
JE:They didn’t build this thing on Richmond until . . .
GB: Taj Mahal. Yes, I fought that. I seemed to be fighting everything.
JE:The first time I walked into that, they had buckets there because it was leaking.
GB: Yes, and it cost a skillion dollars and it had all this fancy stuff and it was in the wrong part of town. And now, they have torn it down and they are moving even way further out west. Oh, well. I don’t really keep up with it at all anymore.
JE:They were still televising them when you were there, weren’t they?
GB: Oh, yes. Then they discontinued. They kept it on maybe 1 year or something like that but then, they got rid of it.
JE:That was a great recreation in Houston.
GB: Yes. Monday night at the ________.
JE:Yes. Isabel Brown covered the school board for the Post. She may have been gone by the time you were elected. What were you doing with art while all this was going on?
GB: I did a little while I was on the school board. I started doing ink, Russian ink, cortical portraits of people. Ken Benson, Sr., who had gone to architecture school with Howard, wanted me to do . . . he said, “Would you do a drawing of Mary?” his wife.
“I don’t want a photograph. I don’t want something that looks just like her. I want something to catch sort of the way she moves or sits, something about her, that suggests Mary without being photographed.” O.K., so I did that. It was fun work. I may have done a couple more then or maybe later, I did several of other people, commissioned, but I didn’t do a great deal while I was there. I found I had to focus because there was so much to that school board thing, so much research. Like somebody called me and said about the library. She had come from Iowa and the school library was so much better and this and that. So, I start looking into the library situation. I found that these libraries, that Houston school libraries were not up to the certification or whatever that they were supposed to be. It was a big, big thing. I loved doing those kind of thing – getting on to it, get the facts and get them out there, and then, something can change.
JE:You and Howard had a pretty convivial divorce, didn’t you?
GB: No, not at all. He would not speak to me for quite a while but then, I guess in the 1980s . . . we started speaking, sort of, about the mid 1980s, and then he called me one day and he said . . . he saw the children, of course, a lot and all and took them on trips. That was fine. I wanted them to have a good relationship with their father. You know, he was . . . of course, then, he had serious problems. Maniac depression. But anyway, he called and said he knew that I was having money problems always and that I did not have any health insurance – if I would marry him on paper only, just paper – he would put me on his University of Houston health insurance and I would be covered. Well, I said I would think about it. So, it went back and forth. Well, I finally ended up, O.K., so we remarried about 6 months before he died.
JE:I did not know that.
GB: And thank goodness because I am still on his Social Security which is much more than mine would have been, more than mine was.
JE:Well, did you ever work to have Social Security?
GB: I had done things like modeling years before and there was something else I did. Oh, I did things like voiceover things for advertisements. Things of that sort. Not very much.
JE:Go back just a minute. What did you do for recreation, say, when you were in high school besides the Margot Jones thing?
GB: Ice skating. Figure skating.
GB: What was it called? It was on McGowan way east of Main. What was it called? I can still see it. But I did that a lot. I was pretty good, figure skating, fancy stuff. That was the main thing. And swimming in the summertime.
JE:Where did you swim?
GB: Well, my parents had joined the Braeburn Country Club which is way out . . . it may still be there.
JE:I think it is still there.
GB: It is built up around there. I think I did go past it within the last year or two. Swimming. Going to Galveston.
JE:How did you go to Galveston?
GB: Drove with friends.
JE:That was past the inner urban days?
GB: Oh, yes.
JE:So, you went down in 1975, was it? They didn’t have the Gulf Freeway.
GB: No. Howard and I were dating when they were building the freeway.
JE:And probably they were still building it when you remarried.
GB: Yes, right. I think, to some degree, it is being rebuilt as we speak!
JE:After you divorced, you still lived in that home. I remember you had parties for every cause.
GB: Yes, well, we were both big on opening up the house and . . . in fact, my mother once at Thanksgiving, I guess or something, she rather disdainfully said, “You are just the Salvation Army.” I said, “Well, thanks. You betcha! Come on. Because I wanted my family and everybody. The yard man. Anybody and everybody. Whether they had a place to go or whatever – to come and . . . we had a big house.
JE:But almost any cause.
GB: Any cause.
JE:You had a jillion women’s movement phase and the ACLU.
GB: ACLU and Ellsburg, Daniel Ellsburg, I remember. And it turned out that he had been, I think, a college roommate. Not this winter college but I think he had been a roommate of Bob Sakowitz.
JE:I didn’t know that.
GB: Well, I didn’t either! And he said when he got there, he said, “It is Bob Sakowitz.” Maybe beforehand. Anyway, somehow, it was made known that he would appreciate it if Bob Sakowitz could be invited because they had been roommates in college. I forget what college or university. So, I did invite Bob Sakowitz and he did come. Daniel Ellsburg. Oh, yes, all kinds of everything. It was fun and we had that pool and the trampoline.
JE:O.K., well, you were really kind of getting into art then.
GB: Oh, yes, I had really gotten back to art.
JE:Is that when you went into sculpture?
GB: Well, I had sort of been doing it on and off but once I got off the school board, after I had rested up a bit and had gotten my life somewhat stabilized, I really wanted to run for City Council. That was it. And the local levels, you are really close to people’s lives. You are really close to the day-to-day. Of course, it all is but that was my thinking at the time. And I was aiming at that. And then, I caught pneumonia. I was up in Washington, D.C. and I caught viral pneumonia which, I learned the hard way – that is the bad kind. Bacterial is the usual kind of pneumonia. They can give you some pills and then you are O.K. Viral pneumonia, at that time anyway, there was nothing they could do for it except to replace the electrolytes; in my case, potassium, that had been killed off by the virus. Anyway, so I almost died. I really came close to dying. By the time I got back to Washington, by chance, somebody put me in the hospital and as I was recovering from that and I was really . . . the doctors said later that I had about a day and a half left in me and then I was gone . . . as I was recovering, I went on this high – it was like an epiphany – no more politics. Back to art. That is you. That is the real you, so forget all this other stuff. Stop it. So, that was it. It was just like that.
And so, when I got out, I had already started taking . . . I sort of edged my way back into it a little bit by taking a welding class. I had on and off times about wanting to get back to art and I had done this one very big piece at the S and H Greenstamp Company – it no longer exists – out there on Holcombe near Almeda.
JE:I always thought it was on Main Street.
GB: Well, I think it was S and H Greenstamp. Anyway, building and as they were building, I was commissioned to do these 2 big huge things of aluminum. I did the kit of them, I designed them but I had to get a company to fabricate it and so, I am thinking, you know, of you ever need to do a big thing again, you want to be able to do it yourself and not have to have it done for you. So, I went to the community college and started taking welding. Loved it. So, by the time I got over the pneumonia and I knew what road I was going to take, I got a job in a little factory welding.
JE:O.K., you went to work just as an actual welder, right?
JE:What prompted that?
GB: I had to make some money. I tried little things after the school board. Oh, actually, I had had a good thing in there, too, I have forgotten about. My other life as . . . right after I got off the school board, immediately after, I did get a job with Channel 2 doing community relations for a few months. And then they came to me and said, “Gertrude, the SEC says that we need to . . . this is an NBC station but Sesame Street was having a mighty effect, and thank God, on children’s television . . . the SEC says that we have to come up with a children’s program that is educational and worthwhile. See if you can think of a program, an idea, and if we like it, you will produce it. Do you know what a producer is, Gertrude?” “Yes, thank you. I know what a producer is.” So, I did come up with Sundown’s Treehouse which was this children’s program where the children, as it were, taught children. It wasn’t an adult child thing. And they would go once a week to visit their friend Sundown who was an antihero. He lived in a treehouse. He dressed up like, I don’t know, make believe stuff. It was rather extemporaneous, a group of maybe anywhere from 4 to 6, at most, 7 children, would go visit him once a week and they would tell him what they had been doing and they would play games with him and they would put up a clear piece of plastic in front of the camera and draw things so that that the drawing appeared on the TV screen. The children and I would work out what it was sort of going to . . . number one would be talking about this. Number two would be such and such. We would sort of map it out. But then, they would extemporize what they said and it got to work very, very well, and I loved it. I had a great time. The kids were small but they weren't as young as they sort of looked. They would try to get them like 7, 8, maybe 9. They looked a little younger because they weren't big physically. And they would bring in new ones. And even did one of handicapped children because the schools were opening up classes at that point -- HISD was opening up classes to kids partially sighted or this or that, instead of having them ghettoized. And so, we had some of those children to show that, you know, they are kids like all the other kids. And so, they could explain what kind of things they read or what their life was like. So, it was great fun. They left me alone. Management left me alone because just having it was fulfilling their obligation to the FCC and I did not have much budget but I did not need much budget. But then, I got involved with the union, a dirty word and they found they really didn't need me after all. That was the end of that, after a few years.
JE:But you did do a few years, right?
GB: Yes. The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was the best locally produced children's program in the country. So, that was nice.
JE:Were you actually on the school board when the order for desegregation came down? I mean, I am talking about in Houston.
GB: I know that is something we worked on constantly and we were working with, what was it, the Justice Department? It was a lot of back and forth. And those people would come down and it did get to the thing - the brother/sister. I am a little hazy on all that stuff. It seems a long time ago.
JE:All I remember is in the late 1960s.
GB: Yes, I was there. The late 1960s. I was there from January of 1965 until January of 1970.
JE:A federal judge, and I think he was in the Fifth Circuit, wrote an opinion that just kind of tipped it over completely, and he actually wrote kind of English. It was pretty clear. I guess that was about the time that they were talking about doing the Westheimer School District. Do you remember that?
GB: Well, I remember but not in detail. I remember the words.
JE:It never got off the ground but they were going to try to start a separate school district on the west side of town. Back to welding - how long did you do that and what kind of . . . how long did I do the welding? It was about 7-1/2 years until it closed in the 1980s. The oil crisis. The bottom dropped out here in Houston. And it closed. The place closed. It was Southwestern Plastics, was the name of the company. They made plexiglas sky lights and I welded the aluminum frames the sky lights went into. And I loved this - it was on the corner of Daffodil and Buttercup Streets.
JE:Really? Where in the world are Daffodil and Buttercup Streets?
GB: Out there near Fondren and Richmond, Hillcroft. Way out west. Well, it is not way out but it is west of here. I loved welding and this was aluminum welding, a different thing than steel welding. It doesn't have the bad fumes of steel, it is very delicate. It is a skill, really a skill thing. And, like all welding, the more you do it, the better you get. And I was very good, I must say.
JE:Had you moved here then?
GB: To this house, yes, by then. I had moved here in the mid 1970s. I finally was able to sell the place on North Boulevard.
JE:Were your kids pretty well up by then?
GB: Oh, yes.
JE:So, you moved straight here from North Boulevard?
GB: Right. I was still in Montrose, thank goodness. The garage here, the people I bought it from were do-it-yourselfers, so the man had already turned the garage into a shop to do things and they did stuff around the house. So, it had a level cement floor, it had shelving and this, that and the next thing. All I had to do was put in more electricity for a welding machine and I moved right in. It is still my studio.
JE:When working on the school board, did you put in the free lunch program?
GB: Yes. I was so proud of that.
JE:How did that happen and how did you get it through?
GB: Again, a lot of research on what all of the city districts all over the country did and I worked up the paper that comes out, or used to come out anyway, of an adding machine. I worked up this thing, it was about yay long or I could hold it up. It was all printed up with how much we were not getting that we were paying taxes on but we were not getting but all of these other districts to begin with all through Texas were getting in the way of food for kids. Anyway, just the hard numbers of what we could get and what we were not getting, and what we could do and were not doing. And their attitude had been . . . I remember when I first brought it up, I believe . . . I can't remember which one of them said, "Well, Ms. Barnstone, if you know of any hungry child, you just bring them in here, let us see." I wonder, are you really human? But that was their attitude. But anyway, that was a case where the public really started pressing on the other members and the papers picked it up and editorialized on the thing. And so, that was one of my happiest moments when that went through. And then, I got the free breakfast program in. That was a year or two later. Again, a lot of research to show the difference it makes in kids' performance. And, at the time, it was interesting because at the time, I read about a district somewhere that gave free lunches to all kids whether they were "poverty kids" or not. Rich, poor, indifferent - they all got their lunch because the District recognized you had to feed them for their minds to work. Well, of course, that was the furthest thing from anything they would do and I wasn't trying for that at that point, but I was just thrilled -- was it some time last year? -- the current superintendent of HISD announced they were going to have free lunches for all the kids. I could not believe this, a dream come true. I wrote them a letter, congratulated them and said how happy I was.
JE:Well, you were involved with an ACLU lawsuit against the police department?
GB: The police and the city, too. That was in the 1970s, the mid 1970s. There was a City Council meeting and someone appeared - I can't remember where they were from, maybe they were from the police or something. Whatever. They appeared and they said, "Are you aware," to the mayor and City Council, "that the police intelligence section," I am blank even on . . .
JE:It was intelligence.
GB: It was an intelligence thing . . . "has been spying on and keeping records on Houston citizens?" Well, no, nobody had ever heard of that. And so, the mayor says, "Well, like who? Name some names." Well, it was Gertrude Barnstone, Barbara Jordan, and the Houston Chapter of the ACLU, and then Larry Sauer was another one.
JE:Who is he?
GB: He is a lawyer. He and his wife they now live in Austin, have for many, many years. But he was a lawyer very active with the ACLU. Anyway, so the ACLU got on that pronto and I was a named plaintiff and Larry Sauer and the ACLU office. And so, we brought this suit in federal court, Singleton's court, John Singleton. It did not get us where we wanted to get. Apparently there were enough cases, not major things but major enough - there had been enough cases in the few years preceding that nationally that showed, well, the police could do some tracking of people if they felt it. But, they opened those eyes. They destroyed the files.
JE:They destroyed them. Did you see your file?
GB: I don't think I did. It was mainly going to places I made speeches and followed me around. But anyway, the objective was to have them destroyed which I always had a tiny bit of trouble with.
JE:Was Welch in there then?
GB: I am not sure. I think he was. It would have been Welch or Lanier. Was it Lanier?
JE:No, it would have been Hofheinz if it wasn't Welch.
GB: I just don't remember which one it was. And I also sued . . . again, didn't have the desired result but I sued the University of Houston and Channel 8 because they canceled "Death of a Princess." Remember that?
GB: That preceded this other.
JE:Do you remember the de Menils Broken Avalisk? They were going to put it down by the City Hall or something and the city thought it was obscene. It was a phallic symbol or something like that.
GB: Well, it was dedicated to Martin Luther King. It was worse than a phallic symbol.
JE:Oh, is that it?
GB: Or maybe in addition to, but that was the . . .
JE:The big thing is it was Martin Luther King?
GB: It was dedicated to Martin Luther King and that was just unseemly. The City was, I think, to pay half and the de Menils would pay half, so they ended up buying the whole thing and putting it there at Rothko Chapel.
JE:Was Rothko Chapel already there?
GB: Or maybe it was just going up then. Maybe it was all sort of one part of the same process. I don't recall.
JE:O.K., now, you are still welding? Are you selling it?
GB: I do commissions. That is about all I do is commissions. And I am usually behind on those, like right now. I wake up at 3 a.m. and say, gosh, you've got to get through with that, you've got to finish it soon.
JE:When you were growing up in your early years, how were you aware of Houston? What was Houston to you? Was it your hometown or was it . . .
GB: Well, I was always sort of split between Houston and New York because we were constantly going back. I mean, I remember it felt like half my childhood was on a train going from Houston to New York, just my mother's family, and she was 1 of 9 children. All the rest of them lived in New York and in Mount Vernon, New York, immediately outside of Manhattan right there. I remember once before we left, I got a jar and filled it with dirt from where we lived here in Houston and the first thing I did when I got to my aunt's house up there in Mount Vernon where we stayed was go in the backyard and dump out the Texas dirt, so I was sort of bringing Texas to New York. Yes, again, it was a place where I did things.
JE:When you were in the theater, did it ever occur to you to go to New York?
GB: Well, I guess I had been so indoctrinated by Margot with her decentralization of the arts, so it didn't really and, I guess, again, if I made up my mind that I was going to dedicate my life to theater and not to art, I probably would have.
JE:For the City of Houston kind of as a whole, were the arts important back then?
GB: I don't think like they are now. I mean, we've got several theaters now that just do terrific work. I mean, everything has just sort of grown exponentially. And again, it was the people coming in. That is why I was always so happy when I would hear about more people moving to Houston because out of a whole batch, some of them were going to be sophisticated, intelligent, knowledgeable people dealing with art, theater.
JE:So, you thought Houston needed that, needed an influx . . .
GB: Oh, yes, of course. Always. Always needed more. And the examples that were around me were people who had come like Margot and like my dancing teacher, my ballet teacher, Kutchitowsky (sp?). He would come here. He had been in the Russian Ballet and he and his wife came here and started a school. My mother found out about that and I started there when I was tiny, tiny, and did that for years. Ballet. Again, it was the people coming in. And Houston always had . . . I guess with the oil business, I know, through my father, I met people from around the world. A member of a family from Scotland, they were here because of oil, some company brought them. And they had a daughter, Ireni, who was my age and we became good friends. And there was another guy in oil that my father knew who was from Romania. And all these people still had these wonderful accents because they were here fresh from their homes. So, that was nice. It wasn't dull.
JE:Were you aware that Houston was a port city?
GB: Maybe mildly so but not particularly.
JE:Did you think that it was a hick town?
GB: In some ways, it did seem . . . I guess there was always the tinge of hick town, the tinge of that but, as I say, I was lucky enough to have contacts with people who were not hick and who opened up other worlds. So, I knew there was that also.
JE:Were you aware of Houston's growing? I mean, just size?
GB: Oh, yes, because that was advertised a lot in the papers. I guess when I was coming along, there must have been 200,000, probably if that at some point when I was a teenager.
JE:In the early 1960s, it was the 7th largest city. It just became the 7th largest city really in the United States. No one in Houston really knew that.
GB: No, I didn't much care. Well, again, I welcomed anything that they said about it growing because I figured that meant a certain percentage were going to be civilized people. Then, there were all these others that were . . . it wasn't just hicks, they were so right wing.
JE:Were you aware of the Minute Women?
GB: About the time that I got on the school board, yes. They were very rather high profile. I knew of them for a few years before I got on the school board.
JE:Did you ever feel physically endangered when you were on the school board?
GB: Sometimes a little. Not when I was out. I can't remember the times now but there were a couple of times at home I did feel that. Of course, it was interesting in terms of danger. You get -- I am sure everybody still does -- these horrible phone calls night and day, night and day, and you cannot believe what people will say on the phone. Well, luckily, just about the time I was elected, maybe just before or just after I was elected, we had some people over to dinner. The man was a minister and his wife, the minister of St. Stevens up here that Helen Havens later became the minister of. Well, this guy, and I do not remember his name - a lovely man - we were talking. He said that he had put in the school. I think it was just maybe kindergarten through 3rd grade at that point, just for starters. Well, it is now a complete school, I think, at St. Stevens. But anyway, he was integrated and he said, "You wouldn't believe the phone calls I have gotten and I just tell them all God Bless You and that takes care of it." So, thank God he told me that because I started doing it. Whenever I would get these calls, you know, just snarling on the phone and saying things you would not believe, "God Bless You." And I could hear a stunned silence for an instant before I hung the phone up. And it just made me feel so calm and nice. I am so glad he taught me that.
JE:You were the president of a lot of organizations.
GB: A couple . . . women’s . . .
JE:Equity Action League.
GB: Women’s Equity Action League.
GB: That was to get economic equity for women job-wise, pay.
JE:Did it work? Did you do it?
GB: Well, I think we got a little ways, a little bit. You know, it all inches it along.
JE:The Women’s Caucus for Art.
JE:What did you do in there? What is that?
GB: I am not sure if it still is or not. I stopped being active with it quite a while ago. It "addressed" the inequity of gallery exhibits and museum exhibits for women artists, opportunities for women artists, the general, at that time, lack of profile in the art world of women artists. We had exhibits. It is a national thing. I was the Houston president for a while. Just doing things to . . . it was a support group for women to encourage them and all. So, they put on exhibits and lobby. We would try to push if any legislation came along that might affect it.
JE:Did you ever mess with the City much, the mayors and Council members?
GB: Not that I can remember. I have appeared down there but I can't remember now what for particularly. I had been down as part of a group, say, apartheid issues and things like that. Allen Parkway Village.
JE:You have been an activist certainly all of your adult life and you have lived in this general area, the Montrose area and the extended Montrose area all your life practically except what you did in California, I guess. And I am not sure North Boulevard would like to be called Montrose but it . . .
GB: Well, I call it Montrose.
JE:But it is extended Montrose, in my view.
GB: Of course.
JE:In that sense, do you think that you really have a feel for the scope of Houston?
GB: I mean, well, not in any way except in how remarkable and how, sort of in a way, exciting it has been in times when I discover . . . and this has been usually through political things like block walking. Areas way west, way that way, the Heights and edges of the Heights and further north, like Polish areas. This was several years ago when I ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate, and I walked a lot from 43rd Street and North. And I was just so taken with and just, wow, it was thrilling - these areas, blocks end, that would be an ethnic national group, lets say, as well as ethnic groups.
JE:You are in district 15?
GB: Yes, right. Jack Ogg.
JE:Was he already there?
GB: He was there and it wasn't a well-considered move on my part at all but it was interesting.
JE:When would that have been?
GB: That was 1972.
JE:That was when we went to single member districts. The legislature went to single member districts in 1972. That was when Craig and Anthony and Mickey and Jenny Reyes and all that bunch got elected to the legislature.
GB: Right. And Hobby became Lieutenant Governor. That's right.
JE:Your involvement in politics, who have you campaigned for over the years?
GB: McGovern. I guess that is the main one. I am blank right now on who else.
JE:Did you go to the convention in 1973?
GB: I went to more than one -- I don't know how many -- county conventions and state conventions, and I did go to one national convention that was in New York when Carter was nominated and I went as an uncommitted because I was for Jerry Brown.
JE:That was the first time he won in 1976 then?
GB: Yes, 1976. Exactly.
JE:Not the year that Ted Kennedy ran. That was the year Barbara Jordan and John Glenn gave the keynote addresses.
GB: Was that the one that Clinton or was that a different one . . .
JE:No. Well, I can understand why the McGovern campaign took it all out of you. Who are the community leaders that you have been aware of over the years and what did you think of them?
GB: Oh, goodness! Community leaders.
JE:Well, an elected officer is a community leader.
GB: Well, Sissy, of course. For the most part, and largely coming from the time I was on the school board, I was mightily disappointed in just about everybody including all the ministers and whatnot because nobody had the guts to take the strong stand on desegregation.
JE:Well, were you aware that the news media was blocking news of desegregation?
GB: I knew when something was desegregated, they blocked it, like when Foleys . . . they sort of padded it down so people didn't rise up when something was being desegregated.
JE:Woolworths, hotels, movie theaters.
GB: Yes, right. That is right.
JE:All of that. Were you aware that it was happening and it was not being reported?
GB: I don't know if I knew it at the time but I knew it later, shortly afterwards.
JE:Was that a good idea or a bad idea?
GB: That, I couldn't figure out. I could see why they were doing it but I objected on principal to the idea of not getting the news out. And I feel, in so many of those things, it is not just the information, it is how you couch the information, how you tell it, what spin you put on what has happened. I think, today, if I was faced with it, I would say do it right and let people know but don't do it in a way that is going to be inflammatory.
JE:It would have been kind of hard in those days. Just reporting it would have probably made it inflammatory, wouldn't it?
GB: I guess. I don't know.
JE:I guess out of all the things that you have done, which are many, many, what do you feel are your most significant contributions to the city?
GB: Getting federal aid in the schools and the free lunch program in the schools. Helping. I think with just being part of what Margot did, helped create a real climate for theater here. And now, I don't know that it is a contribution but I feel good about so much of my work, my sculpture is, in a sense, public in that it is out on the street, it is _______ and things that are seen by everybody going by. I am not saying that is the real contribution but it is just something that makes me feel good _______ that it is out there, not a private behind-doors thing.
JE:Have you ever been sorry you stayed in Houston?
GB: No, and I get less sorry all the time. I have had moments saying, you know, it is so not this and it is not that but again, it is so open that it can be. I remember so well the woman that I met through the Women’s Caucus for Art. She lives in Philadelphia. We were talking one day and she said, "You know, Houston is so wonderful. It is so open. In places like Philadelphia and with places east, everything is set in concrete and it is very difficult to make changes or things to grow. Well, here, it is wide open." And so, for that reason . . . I was thinking just the other day, if I didn't live in Houston, I would be very bitter. I would be very unhappy that I did not live in Houston.
GB: Yes. I read that thing in the Times Magazine section on Marie Carmen Rodriguez who is the curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts and it had that wonderful spread on her and Latin American art, that the Museum of Fine Arts is fostering in the Times Magazine just last Sunday. It was really exciting and I am thinking, God, just think of the people who live in Des Moines or Chicago or New York or New Haven. Wow, that's the place to be! That is where things are still happening.
JE:Do you remember when they built the Astrodome?
GB: I do. I do indeed. Bucky Fuller and his wife, Ann, were good friends of Howard and mine. Howard had brought him here before we were married. I remember Howard said, "Would you drive with me to Austin to go pick up Buckminster Fuller? He is coming, I've got him - he is coming down to speak to my class and do a project with my class." He taught architecture at the U of H all his life from that initial thing with Lilith. "Sure." So, we go up. Bucky had been up there. And we had this unreal drive. Howard, me, Bucky, driving back to Houston one afternoon from Austin where he had done a thing with classes and architecture there. And then, we heard him speak that night a long time. I mean, we were in the front row getting just hours and hours and hours. But that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. They would come and stay with us. We took trips together to New Orleans. We became really close friends, good friends. Well, when Howard found out that Hofheinz, Sr. was going to build the Dome, he contacted Bucky to come here. He got an appointment for the two of them to go and meet with Hofheinz because he thought it would just be perfect if Bucky Fuller did the Dome. He had done geodesic domes in, I think there is one in Japan. Anyway, around the world. And one here would just be great. Well, they went and had their appointment, they met, they talked and then some local - I can't remember who - got the job. And we were very disappointed that it wasn't a Bucky Dome. I don't know if it was too pricey. I never found out quite why. I just figured well, Philistines! Anyway....
JE:Did you get any kind of kick out of it? I mean, they are talking about tearing it down now. Should it be torn down?
GB: Well, I have never seen it as the gorgeous thing it could be. It is fine. It is O.K. Maybe it has had its time. Tearing things down does not disturb me like it seems to disturb everybody else. I figure, well, it is time for the next. It is time for tomorrow. If it was some glorious thing . . . I would hate to see a Frank Gary building torn down. I mean, that would be like tearing down a work of art but otherwise, it does not really . . . I have a friend who still gets a pitch in his voice when he talks about tearing down the Shamrock Hotel. I said, that was why Frank Lloyd Wright says, "I can see the Sham but I don't see much rock." I said, "That was a mess of a building." "Well, I know but." He gets sad. It is ridiculous.
JE:What buildings do you think are neat in Houston?
GB: I like the Pennzoil Building. I do get a kick out of seeing the Enron Building with all the glass. There is not a whole huge lot for all the money that has been spent on some major places. Of course, the Cullen and Hall of the Museum is pretty fun. They don't call it Cullen and Hall anymore. I forget what they do.
JE:I am not sure but I know what you are talking about.
GB: Yes, the one with all the glass. That first major one. I think they are going to do a third building now. I just hope they really get something notable architecturally. They have been so timid, I mean, in general. Not just the Museum but a lot of outfits have just been timid, or they just haven't got an eye to see . . .
JE:What do you think about the Contemporary Arts Museum?
GB: Yes, I rather like that, I must say.
JE:A lot of people call it the Quonset hut.
GB: Well, I feel sort of connected to it because after that big flood many years ago, I guess Heresies (sp?) was the director then and he asked me to do something with the inside. They were going to have a benefit sale so I took hundreds of yards of mylar, silver mylar, and strung it and looped it and hung it all through that space from the ceiling. That was great fun. So, I got attached to the building then.
JE:Are you active at Rice alumni?
JE:But they awarded you a distinguished alumni award.
GB: Yes, that was nice.
JE:What was it for?
GB: Damned if I know!
JE:Where is it?
GB: I saw it the other day. It is in yonder, a little glass thing. It is sort of nice. I remember . . . you are supposed to speak, say something, so I got up and I said, "You know, I was the class of 1945, one of those that went to school 4 years in 3 years during the war and all. I got out of here with a feeling - one thing I remember from Rice that I learned here and have never forgotten but I was able to put words to it later when I was involved in politics because they would say, 'Don't let the bastards get you down.' That was it. Just hang in there."
JE:Do you think you have done that in your life? Not let the bastards get you down?
GB: Well, on the school board, certainly, and trying to get something really rolling art-wise because this is a lot of times when you think, nobody cares, nobody is looking, nobody knows and yet, you feel, God damn it, I know it is good. I've got to hang in there.
JE:Do you feel that you have had any support in this from anybody in Houston? A politician, a money person?
GB: Do you mean with all those various things?
GB: Yes, I have had good friends like Jim Calloway, the Hobbys. There have been others that, just moral support.
JE:What do you think of the Hobby Center?
GB: I think that Stern could have been a little more daring, made more of an architectural statement.
JE:From what you say, I take it that you would encourage someone to move to Houston.
GB: I think so because if you see it needs doing, get out and do it. I haven't tried anything like that in the last few years and I don't know if that is still the case, I don't know what the forces are that would prevent it but coming from where I am coming, I would tell them yes. I would tell them don't make this your only home. You know, great if you want to have a place in New York or Florida, wherever. California. That is a most interesting place. But this is certainly a place where you can map out, you can see what is needed, map it out and just start doing it.
JE:Would you describe that as the spirit of Houston?
GB: Oh, golly. That sounds like the Chamber of Commerce.
JE:I don't think so. I don't think the Chamber of Commerce is into the spirit of Houston.
GB: Yes. To try new things. Just doing it.
JE:It is kind of an open city, I mean, in that regard. You can pretty much do what you can do.
GB: That's it. I remember somebody did an article - I've got it somewhere or other - when I was on the school board and I said the best thing about Houston are the possibilities. And some old Houstonians didn't think that was such an attractive thing to say but that is what expressed it for me.
JE:Well, it was Oveta Culp Hobby who said that she thought she would like Houston if they ever finished it.
GB: That's right. It is still becoming. Thank goodness.
JE:Well, you have kind of had a lower profile in recent years. Does that mean there is nothing left you want to do?
GB: Well, what I am wrapped up in is my work, my art, my functional art. Gates, tables, this, that. I may be doing something soon up in San Antonio for a new shop, a building that is going in. So, I mean, that is what I am focused on.
JE:Where are some of your pieces?
GB: Well, let's see. There is a gate right up the street at 2415 View Pond. I've got something in Evergreen. I am about to put something in this coming weekend on the stoop of a townhouse on the corner of Crawford and Hadley, sort of that midtown area of just townhouses like crazy, condos or whatever they are. Anyway, this is the second story entrance. I am doing a piece for that stoop. I've got a piece at the Menil in their collection but it is not ever on view. It is in their collection, the Menil Collection.
JE:That is pretty heady, isn't it?
GB: Yes, that is nice. It is not steel, it is plexiglas.
JE:You weld plexiglas?
GB: No, I don't weld plexiglas. You work it. You cut it, heat it, bend it, do stuff with it. I did it years ago and Jerry McAgee bought it. And then when she died, everything she bought, she left to Dominique de Menil and Dominique gave everything to the Menil Collection. So, it is over there in the basement or wherever they put stuff.
JE:Well, that is another museum.
JE:Is it a good museum?
GB: The Menil?
GB: Excellent. You know that.
JE:I think what I am getting at is that in a lot of ways, that a lot of Houston, in my view, it is kind of a bunch of communities in one sense.
GB: That's right. And so, you can think of it as oh, it's so conservative and yet, there are some good radicals here.
JE:They have all been at your backyard at one time or another.
GB: Yes, exactly. You will find pockets of everything here. The same as you will find the different national groups here. You know, when you read today of how many not dozens of thousands but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people from Salvador, from here, from there, from all over the world, it is pretty great. It is pretty terrific.
JE:You are going to stay?
GB: Yes. Something else I like about Houston that I think most people question - I have always, as long as I can remember, I love the flat. I love that flat. And when I get away from it and come back, ah, how nice. Nice and flat again.
JE:You don't object to a tree or two, do you?
GB: No, the trees are fine and I can enjoy hills and mountains - that's fine - but it just feels so good to get back to that flat.
JE:At one time, the homes row dump that they covered over was reported to be the highest point in Houston.
GB: What was it, 75 feet or something?
GB: Well, I am glad it is down now. I don't want any interruption of that nice flat.
JE:I think we will end it here.