First published for the monthly newsletter of Openhouse Services for Our Community
June 2012, San Francisco, CA
In his home perched on Bernal hill, Selwyn Jones tells me he hasn’t done anything outstanding. Given his apartment full of original art and shelves boasting his own published essays and poetry, this assessment is far-fetched. Selwyn Jones is humble and extremely likeable. At 91 he delights in his many friendships across the age spectrum. He hosts dinner parties, takes friends to the ballet, and instructs the weekly Openhouse art group in collage. Just last year he ended his decades-old love affair with his community garden, and his membership in the SF League of Urban Gardeners. “For some reason,” he says, “I just have less energy.” He then offers me raspberries from his plants — which he continues to tend.
His eyes sparkle as he begins a story that includes hob-nobbing with the beatniks, extended stays in Rome and Paris, and a love lasting decades. He was a bohemian before the hippies, and it is clear that his free-spirit and fierce intellectual curiosity has not waned with the years.
Selwyn Jones was born on a farm in East Texas. He describes his childhood roaming the creeks on horseback, “locating wild beasts.” He attributes his present good health, and his love of plants to growing up in the country. “We had no money, but we had almost everything else. Virtually everything we ate came from our land.”
Selwyn’s parents were farmers until his mom re-turned to school, when he was in high school. At this time, he says, he became a “third parent” to his only brother, five years his junior. “My mother went to school so I was asked to watch him, to keep him out of the fire place, and to stop him from falling off the porch.”
Selwyn ascribes his early creative leanings to his mother. “My mother was the start of my artistic life. She crocheted, quilted, and later worked as a beautician. I learned aesthetics from her. She had a natural feel for color and design.”
But Selwyn’s interest in art took on new life after leaving Texas. Drafted into the Air Force during War II at age 21, he went oversees for the first time. Trained in Intelligence, he was stationed in the small town of Spinazzola, 300 miles south of Rome. “Here I was — a farm kid, dumped into Italy. I got to go to the ballet, the museums, the opera. It wasn’t culture-shock. It was a revelation.” Asked whether he faced homophobia in the highly Catholic country, he says no; he was never targeted. “Things were not out in the open. I did not openly show affection.”
Selwyn says he didn’t know “what gay was” until he went into the military. He recounts being appointed by a commanding officer to write a record of another soldiers court-martial. As it turned out, the man had been caught in a gay relationship off-base. “It was the first time I had heard the word homosexual. I think I knew I was gay from the time I was born, but I didn’t know the word.”
Still, growing up in East Texas in the 1930’s did not run counter to homosexual experiences. “It was almost an advantage that no one talked about sex there. They all did it, but no one talked about it; plus it wasn’t in the culture to have a girlfriend before marriage. That left open other possibilities.”
Selwyn’s first significant sexual experience with a man was at age 21 while on break in Capri, Italy. It was there that he met 17 year-old Vincenzo. Though they only spent one evening together, the two continued to write and send each other poetry, letters, and pressed flowers for years to follow. Selwyn says he used the help of a military interpreter, who was also gay, to aid in their correspondence.
In 1949, while attending art school in Colorado Springs, Selwyn met Randy, a fellow art student, recently divorced from his high school sweetheart. Selwyn and Randy connected over art. It didn’t hurt that Randy was the kind of guy Selwyn was attracted to: “handsome, blonde, and three years younger. I knew he was gay before he did.”
They would become life partners, staying together for 42 years. Selwyn emphasizes that though the two were committed, they were never monogamous. They lived together in Houston, TX for six years and then moved to the mountains outside of San Jose, CA while Selwyn got his teaching credential at San Jose State.
“The reason we came here from Houston was because the police had started raiding the gay bars. One night Randy and I escaped through the bathroom window. Our friends got arrested.”
Seeking escape from such repression, the two visited friends in the Bay Area during the summers. “We’d go to the Black Cat in North Beach, where Jose Sarria was doing his drag opera. We liked it here immediately. Even back then, the gay life was so open.”
In 1958 the two moved to San Francisco where Selwyn taught art at Westmoor high school until 1969. He then went on to teach at the De Young Art School from 1970 to 1985. Though he specialized in calligraphy, studying the craft in Austria and London, he taught everything from sculpture to print making. When the De Young Art School folded in 1985, Selwyn retired and moved to Bernal Heights.
Formally retired, Selwyn volunteered for hospice at the height of the AIDS crisis. “A lot of my friends had AIDS. I would take men to go see their doctors, and do chores for them, but I burnt out after a few years. I would meet these beautiful young men, and they would not live very long. They would die, and I would have to go through it over and over again. I couldn’t take it anymore.” In 1992 Selwyn was hit again when he lost Randy to AIDS.
Asked about the best memories of San Francisco, Selwyn is quick to respond: “The Summer of Love, before and after. I identified with the hippies. I got to know Allen Ginsburg, visited Lawrence Ferlinghetti in his store (City Lights), and I lived on the same street as the poet Michael McClure.”
But Selwyn wasn’t just rubbing shoulders with the bohemian elite, he was involved, creating art, and seeking engagement — a participant, not a spectator. Ask and he just might tell you about a rather standout en-counter with the Michel Foucault at a local bath house.
San Francisco’s activist community also drew Selwyn to the Bay. He says with a laugh that he cannot possibly say how many times he marched up and down Market St. against the Vietnam war. He describes receiving his file after the passage of the Freedom of In-formation Act to discover that the FBI and CIA had been following him since his 1962 trip to Russia as part of the International Congress for Peace and Freedom.
Today he continues his art and his activism, some-times marrying the two, as reflected in his winning design for the ACLU of Northern California’s 50th anniversary party poster. Having discovered a love of collage in recent years, his home is adorned with striking geometric works. They reveal a love of ballet, men, travel, the natural world, and humanity in all its diversity. Selwyn Jones, it seems, is a true romantic.
Sadly, he says he believes our country has hit “rock bottom.”
“The McCarthy era was bad, but this — the situation in Palestine, the financial crash, all of these unnecessary wars…making enemies all over the world.” He describes his antidote to despair: “engagement.”
Indeed Selwyn’s bleak assessment of world affairs doesn’t contradict his sunny disposition and can-do attitude. As he astutely comments on his political contentions, he relishes in all that he finds so beautiful.
Interview By Fairley Parson, MSW