Alexander Sesonske Remembered
Alex wrote, late in life, a wonderful, twenty-five-thousand word autobiography entitled “My Life and Good Fortune,” which he shared with friends and colleagues. I remember some of the more recent things that he writes about. Alex first describes how, in the 1880s, his leather-working Jewish ancestors walked out of Russia by night, hiding in the forest by day. They joined a band of gypsies on their exodus and stayed with them all the way to northern Italy. Despite the grim situation of this unlikely traveling company, a procession of gypsies and Jews bound for Italy calls up frolicking Fellini-esque images. His enterprising ancestors ended up in upstate Gloversville, New York, making leather gloves, as of course they had to. In 1917, Sam Goldfish (soon to be Goldwyn) offered his old partner Charlie Sesonske (Alex’s father) a job that might have made him a Los Angles movie mogul, but Charlie, having done business with Goldfish before, declined it. So, on November 19, 1917, Alex was born, not amidst the bright lights of Hollywood, but in less-well-lit upstate New York. Alex describes growing up in this part of New York, as the son of a father who owned and operated several movie theaters. He started going to the movies in 1920 at the age of three, watching Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, and, no doubt, although he does not mention him at that point in his autobiography, his beloved Buster Keaton. In one way or another, he kept going to the movies for ninety more years. Alex loved the movies – the beautiful and funny people, the bright light on the silver screen, and the darkness.
On a September night in 1946, Alex walked into his first-ever college class at Long Beach City College and sat down behind a woman with luxuriant, reddish-brown hair and a wonderful laugh. This was when Alex met Sally. He found, as I have, that colleges and universities are the best places for meeting women. She and Alex were married for over fifty years, until Sally’s death.
On a September night in 1950, I walked into my first-ever graduate seminar and for the first time saw Alex Sesonske with his black, gray-flecked crew-cut hair that made him look as if he might have just been discharged from the army. He was sitting on the living room couch beside his friend Stanley Cavell, who had blonde, wavy hair. (Also present were graduate students Mary Ferrell, Martin Golding and his wife, Jerry Stannard, Peter Walton, Julius Stein, and my wife Joyce.) Alex and Stanley were among the few saving graces in that dreadful and memorable seminar (with its drunken teacher) that initiated Julius and me into graduate school at UCLA. A little bit later, Alex and Stanley began writing papers together. Abe Kaplan urged them to submit the pieces to journals. To the astonishment and envy of the other graduate students, the papers were published as articles in the Journal of Philosophy and Mind. They were still mid-level graduate students! They remained approachable and friendly as before. Alex and Stanley were preternaturally good at philosophy, and they bonded over the movies – which they had grown up watching.
In September of 1951, Joyce and I moved into the amazingly cheap UCLA Veterans Housing Projects (old, two-story wooden buildings that swayed but withstood earthquakes). Alex, Sally – a fabled cook – and their young daughter Alexandra already lived in the Projects in an apartment just across the way. It was then that getting to know Alex began, although this was not an easy thing, for, as he says in his autobiography, he “did not do small talk.” He was a bit like the stone-face persona of his favorite film comedian Buster Keaton. Of course, Alex had no trouble speaking; his words came out forcefully, even explosively, in an urgent rush. He and I became good friends but not close friends. But Alex was a very good friend, and his autobiography reveals that he and Sally had many close friends.
During our teaching years, I saw Alex at countless APA and ASA meetings, and we talked and ate meals together. We both worked in aesthetics, but our writing interests did not overlap, so we did not have issues to argue about. We corresponded during those years and after, always keeping in touch. We talked on the phone occasionally, until, more than a year ago, Alex’s deafness made this impossible. He did not make it into the e-mail era.
Whenever I was a conference-program chair, I always invited Alex to talk, and he did wonderfully well with the likes of Monroe Beardsley and Isabel Hungerland. At the ASA meeting at Princeton in October 1967, when Susan Sontag did not show up for her gig, Alex, without preparation, filled in for her and talked to us wonderfully about movies He loved to talk about movies.
In a conversation that must have been about our military experiences, Alex told me of the time when his army unit liberated a Nazi concentration camp with its corpse-like inmates and piles of real corpses. His face went white. In his autobiography, he describes this terrible experience in a matter-of-fact way that things can take in the calm abstraction of writing.
Alex was of an age that required him to spend virtually the whole duration of the war in the service. He ended up in the Fire Direction Center of the 142nd Army Field Artillery Battalion calculating trajectories of 155mm howitzer projectiles. Alex’s outfit landed in Africa after it had been secured, and moved north to Italy, where he and his howitzers helped destroy the Abbey on Monte Cassino. He regretted that. On his way to invading southern France, the explosives-laden LST Alex was on was bombed, so he thought it best to start swimming in the Mediterranean. He was picked up by a small boat, which shortly sank, so he resumed swimming. At dawn, Alex in his life jacket swam ashore onto the red beach of the French town of San Rafael. He was destined for old age. Alex vowed then to come back to that beach. He returned to San Rafael with Sally, where I am sure Alex must have pointed and said to her, “There – that’s the exact spot.”
Alex met Jean Renoir while he was still a graduate student in the early 1950s. Later when he was teaching at Santa Barbara, Renoir came to give a talk, and, over Sally’s food, Alex and Jean became friends. He became a regular visitor at the Renoir house in Beverly Hills, and their talks formed the basis for Alex’s book on Renoir, which is entitled Jean Renoir, the French Films, 1924-1939. The book was published by Harvard University Press in 1980. Through Renoir, Alex met other legendary movies people and was soon flying to Paris to look at movies at the Cinematheque. It must have been a lovely time for him.
In the late thirties before he went into the army, for three or four years, Alex made a living gambling on horses – usually not at tracks but from what he calls “horse rooms” where he could bet on races at many tracks. He knew to bet on Seabiscuit in his 1938 match race with War Admiral. But it was, Alex told me, very hard work doing the research that made such a life possible. I think that if he made a living gambling on horses, philosophy must have been a snap for Alex.
What a varied, colorful, and productive life Alex lived. He grew up with the movies – first silents and then talkies – gambled on horses, fought in World War II, studied and taught philosophy, and worked with Renoir, and through Renoir, met Fritz Lang, and other movie legends. What a shame Alex never met and talked to (or stood silent with) Buster Keaton.