I never could figure out that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. Am I one degree or two degrees removed from someone a friend or acquaintance of mine knows? Whatever, as kids a generation ago used to say.
Through political eminences I have known, I suppose I’m semi-adjacent to various world rulers of yesteryear, but the challenge is to see how far back in time one can go.
This is my best shot. When our daughter was one year old, she sat on the lap of my friend Henry W. Clune, the Rochester novelist who was then 105 years of age. Henry’s father grew up in a neighborhood whose luminaries included Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator who called the Flower City home from 1847 to 1872. Pop Clune told Henry that when he was a lad he had seen the animal-skin hat of a man who was walking on the other side of a hedge or wall. Boys being boys, or rather apprentice devils, he hurled a rock at the moving cap. He didn’t hit it or the costard upon which it sat, thank God, but the fellow at whom he aimed the stony missile sure was sore. And that fellow was… Frederick Douglass!
Now, I suppose Old Man Clune may have embellished the tale — or maybe not — but as the newspaperman says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And the fact/legend says that a girl born in 1994 is but one (or is it two?) degrees removed from a kid who threw a rock at Frederick Douglass’s head.
Henry gave us another Civil War connection: he knew Alice Hay Wadsworth, daughter of Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay and sugar-mama of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. He was also the last living person to have known Kodak founder George Eastman well. Lonesome George once told Henry that he had never laughed until he was forty years old. No one ever called Rochester the Mirth City.
This all came to mind in a roundabout way when I stumbled upon the jarring, or perhaps entirely predictable, fact that a transient troublemaker I knew as a boy went on to become mayor of a noted midsized American city. So there are second acts in American lives — or maybe the desire to rule others was simply a continuation of his childhood disorder.
This discovery led to a family conversation about schoolmates or playmates who had seemingly disappeared into the Great American Vastitude. My mother recalled the “very nice” valedictorian of her little high school’s Class of 1957, a “genius” named Allan Cohen. Mom knew Allan had gone on to be a doctor and an adherent of an offbeat religion, but the organizers of her high-school reunions have not been able to track him down. So Mom, exercising her previously undicclosed online sleuthing skills, went to work.
The next day she reported that Allan Cohen, likely the only Harvard Medical School graduate LeRoy High has ever produced, became a leading exegete of the teachings of Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual leader whose followers believed him to be the avatar of God. On a less lofty plane, Meher Baba popularized the phrase “Don’t worry, be happy.” His most famous disciple was the guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who. (The title of “Baba O’Riley” — the “it’s only teenage wasteland” song — now makes sense.) Baba is said to have abjured speaking aloud from 1925 to 1969. Color me skeptical of that claim, but hey, I wasn’t there.
LeRoy’s valedictorian contributed a sitar-backed track, “Allan Cohen Speaks,” to Happy Birthday, the 1970 Townshend-produced tribute album dedicated to Baba. Sample lyric:
As you’ll be able to see
He has a fantastic sense of humor
And God certainly needs one
Baba says he especially loved children
Because it is the purpose of people to become totally childlike, but with full consciousness
It is a birthday party.
And that is the link, by way of a mute Indian guru, between Pete Townshend and Genesee County, New York.
The expenses associated with my mother’s birth, as it happens, were paid by the seigneurial grandees of the Jell-O fortune, the Woodward family, on whose LeRoy estate my grandfather was a handyman. So I guess I’m just two degrees removed from Lime Jell-O fruit salad.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.