We’re saddened to learn that ruth weiss—poet, playwright, performer, and artist—departed the world July 31, 2020 at age 92.
ruth was a truly remarkable woman. Born in 1928 in Berlin, ruth and her family fled the rise of Nazism to Vienna in 1933, and then narrowly escaped to Amsterdam, before coming to America in 1939. They landed in New York, and moved to Chicago. Following World War II, they briefly returned to Europe as American citizens, her parents working for the Army of Occupation, while ruth went to school in Switzerland, and spent time hitchhiking and writing. They returned to Chicago in 1948.
ruth soon discovered the Art Circle, a bohemian community of artists, and gave her first poetry reading there in 1949. She wandered the country for a few years, drawn to places like New Orleans where jazz was happening, and arrived in San Francisco in 1952, where she rented a room at 1010 Montgomery (where Ginsberg later lived), in close proximity to the bars and jazz clubs of Broadway, where she became a fixture on the North Beach jazz scene. She later lived at the Hotel Wentley on Polk Street. Jack Kerouac would stop by after work on the railroad in the evenings with a bottle of red wine (ruth always preferred beer), and they would write back and forth to one another in haiku. Neal Cassady would often show up, and the three would take harrowing midnight drives out of the city, careening around the precarious cliffside curves of Highway 1 at high speed.
In 1956, The Cellar opened in North Beach, and hosted jazz bands. At one point, ruth got up onstage and began reading one of her poems to the accompaniment of the musicians. It was the first performance of its kind in San Francisco, and such jazz and poetry sessions would soon become a Beat Generation calling card from coast to coast, though ruth herself acknowledged that other, more famous male poets were given the credit. ruth always identified with jazz, and considered herself a jazz poet, rather than a “Beat poet,” as did many others who were uncomfortable or ambivalent about that label, though in her later years, she said she came to embrace being part of the Beat Generation, and the wider recognition it afforded. In the late ’50s, she also ran a salon-style gathering at her apartment, and published where she could (in those days, she notes, a lot of presses told her “we don’t publish women”), often in smaller publications like Beatitude.
In 1961, ruth completed “The Brink,” a longer narrative poem, which drew the interest of painter and aspiring filmmaker Paul Beattie, who approached her about adapting from it a script. The fruit of their collaboration is a 40-minute film of the same title, and in which ruth herself appears. In a letter to Jonas Mekas, filmmaker Stan Brakhage called it “…one of the most ambitious ‘first’ films I’ve ever seen, attempting to pitch the actors into situations preordained by ruth weiss’ poetry yet leave them free of the context, unaware of the poetic narrative intended, to develop synthesis of poetry and image highly structured but containing a residue of very real immediate, almost haiku, feeling.” She also collaborated with filmmakers Steven Arnold in the late ’60s, and others.
The 1960s also bore Desert Journal, which ruth considered her most significant work, begun in 1961 and completed in 1968. The book-length poem, 200 pages long, is the meditation of a mind 40 days in the desert, five pages a day, such that each day’s pages comprise a poem of its own, a section of the whole.
All of ruth’s work is intended to be performed aloud, preferably with accompaniment, and she continued to perform live throughout her life, traveling often to Vienna to participate in the vibrant jazz scene there. In 1990 she won the Bay Area Poetry Slam, and released a recording of that reading, Poetry and Allthatjazz. ruth has been widely anthologized, and appeared in numerous documentaries and histories of the Beat Generation, including Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Brenda Knight, Anne Waldman, Anne Charters, editors), and Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers (Nancy M. Grace and Ronna C. Johnson).
In 2019, filmmaker Melody C. Miller released the documentary ruth weiss: the beat goddess, named for the accolade bestowed by Herb Caen. Another documentary, One More Step West is the Sea: ruth weiss, is forthcoming from Thomas Antonic.
ruth was also our dear friend. She gave numerous performances at the Beat Museum, at our Beatnik Shindig conference in 2015, and at Monroe on Broadway (formerly the Jazz Workshop, where she both worked and hung out in her youth). In her later years, ruth lived in Albion, California with her partner of many years, Hal Davis, and she would visit us whenever she was in town. In 2018, in celebration of ruth’s 90th birthday, we held ruthFest, a day of readings by women of the Beat Generation.
We are honored to have known such a uniquely powerful poet and performer, a woman so dauntless in spirit and strength, whose gentleness and light shone upon everyone she met.
Goodbye and godspeed, ruth. Thank you for all you were.
ruth touched so many people throughout her 92 years. If you have a tribute to share, please leave it in the comments below: