There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee
Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee
The world has its share of oddballs and Mendocino is no exception. Back in the 70s and 80s when I owned the Sea Gull, I had occasion to meet many eclectic folks, some colorful, some dark, some funny, some reclusive, some show-offs, some just plain nuts. One, Wanda Tinasky, caused quite a stir among the literati inhabiting the Gull, more heartburn even than Herb Caen who enraged the local foodies by calling the Mendocino Coast “a culinary wasteland.” Boys will be boys.
And, that’s the rub. Was Wanda Tinasky male or female or hermaphroditic? And, who REALLY wrote all those letters? An even wilder thought: was Wanda Tinasky a comical chimera composed out of the spare parts of several local writers and poets strictly for the amusement of the local cognoscenti and not easy to understand by anyone on the outside?
One of those on the outside who took a stab at the Wanda Tinasky mystery was Donald Wayne Foster, professor of English at Vassar College, literary sleuth, and known especially for the unmasking of Joe Klein as ANONYMOUS, the writer of that famous book on the Clinton campaign of 1992, Primary Colors (a book once again fashionable given the current campaign of HRC against DJT).
What possessed Mr. Foster to write Chapter 5: Wanda, The Fort Bragg Bag Lady in the book that highlights his sleuthing activities (Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous)?
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr.
You know, that famous author who wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Mason & Dixon, and among other somewhat less successful books, Vineland. Vineland, because it is situated in Mendocino and Humboldt counties and because it was researched and written around the time of Wanda’s letters, led to speculation by some of the local Pynchon aficionados hoping for their Warhol-prophesized fifteen minutes of fame that Wanda Tinasky WAS Thomas Pynchon or the other way around.
Another reason Foster took on the Wanda Tinasky affair was a chapter (Is Thomas Pynchon “Wanda Tinasky”?) from Ron Rosenbaum’s book The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms. Rosenbaum outlined the Wanda story and presented convincing circumstantial evidence that Pynchon was Wanda Tinasky. Much of this evidence was parroted from The Letters of Wanda Tinasky by TR Factor. Foster decided then that it was worth looking into the matter.
This entire affair is of interest to me because many of the signature events occurred at The Sea Gull Cellar Bar and Restaurant not to mention that some of those who figure into the story were Sea Gull employees at one time or another. So here I go on my own search for fifteen minutes of fame.
I’ll let Don Foster set the scene.
From 1983 to 1988, if you were someone who hung out Wednesdays at the Sea Gull Bar, you could tell when a new Wanda letter had appeared in the AVA. Some Albion Ridge or Ten Mile River bard would shuffle into the Sea Gull with a rolled-up AVA tucked under his arm. With hand in pocket, fingering an imaginary Smith & Wesson, the dejected poet would ask his fellow artistes one by one, “Are you Wanda Tinasky?” (“ Not I.” “Don’t look at me!” “Ain’t me.” “Nope.”). The latest victim of Wanda’s serial criticism would then take a seat beside his colleagues at the Gull— many of them fellow victims of Wanda Tinasky’s ridicule— and drown his sorrow in Boont Amber Ale or Belk’s Extra Special Bitter (local brews), or a horn of zeese. (The Anderson Valley, home of the AVA, has its own dialect, called “Boontling,” with a homegrown loggers’ vocabulary that goes back to the days of the vertical redwoods. A “horn of zeese” is a cup of coffee. A few Mendoland bards have written whole poems in the Boontling tongue, with never a word of praise or encouragement from the likes of Wanda Tinasky.) Wanda was tough on artistic morale in Mendocino County. In “I Remember Wanda,” Karin Faulkner recalls her colleagues at the Sea Gull plotting a futile revenge on Wanda Tinasky, and on Bruce Anderson, too, for giving column space to that bilious witch. Some wrote anonymous replies to Wanda, or even forged Wanda letters of their own for publication in the AVA, just to get her goat. (Wanda hated that!) Karin never forged one herself, though she knew she “could imitate the style. Any good writer with an imagination could. Letters to the Editor are so short. And print is such an easy place to conceal identity.”
Foster, Don (2014-02-04). Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (pp. 210-211). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Don Foster’s Chapter 5 is fascinating reading and with some amazing good luck he demonstrates that (1) Thomas Pynchon is not Wanda Tinasky and (2) a local man named Thomas Hawkins wrote some of the letters.
The story revolves around a complicated circular argument in which one Thomas Donald “Tiger Tim” Hawkins comes to believe that “jack green” (publisher of an underground Manhattan newspaper called “newspaper”) was ACTUALLY the novelist William Gaddis who himself was ACTUALLY the novelist Thomas Pynchon who many including Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser (a small newspaper in Booneville, California) and his one time employee TR Factor (Diane Kearny) come to BELIEVE is the illusive Wanda Tinasky who is ACTUALLY Thomas Donald “Tiger Tim” Hawkins himself in drag. If this confuses you, you are not alone. But it does make for a good story.
Foster’s work was enough to cause one of the significant Pynchon-is-Wanda crowd, Bruce Anderson, owner/editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA), to write in his book The Mendocino Papers:
My faithful correspondent, Wanda Tinasky, a literary bag lady who lived on the Mendocino Coast, turned out to be an old San Francisco beatnik named Tom Hawkins. One couldn’t have known from Hawkins’ Wanda’s always funny, always optimistic letters that Hawkins would murder his wife torch his Fort Bragg house and drive himself over the bluffs into the sea. Some people still think the letters were the work of Thomas Pynchon, the famously reclusive author.
Yes, that was the horror story Foster uncovered—Hawkins killed his wife, burned her decomposing corpse by burning down their house, and then killed himself by driving his wife’s car over the cliffs into the ocean.
There are those who remain unconvinced by Foster, who maintain that some, if not all, the letters of Wanda Tinasky were penned by Thomas Pynchon. Most notably this includes TR Factor whose book The Letters of Wanda Tinasky catalogues, illustrates, and documents most of the Tinasky correspondence.
Here is Foster’s story:
When he first learned from Fred Gardner (then from TR Factor, then from major news organizations) of The Letters of Wanda Tinasky, Thomas Pynchon speculated, not implausibly, that Wanda was really Bruce Anderson and that the Pynchon attribution was a hoax designed to gain attention for the AVA. He was mistaken about that. TR Factor and Bruce Anderson believed that Wanda really was Pynchon. They, too, were mistaken. Hawkins, who never intended for Wanda to be misidentified, believed that Thomas Pynchon was really William Gaddis, who was really jack green. Hawkins was only two-thirds mistaken. Gaddis is Gaddis, and Pynchon is Pynchon, but jack green was not really jack green. The publisher of newspaper was actually John Carlisle, the son of Helen Grace Carlisle, author of The Merry, Merry Maidens (1937). Carlisle adopted the “jack green” nom de plume in 1957 after he quit his job as an actuarial clerk for Metropolitan Life Insurance, grew a beard, and founded newspaper.
A few years ago, selections from jack green’s newspaper were republished under the title Fire the Bastards! (1992), edited by Steven Moore. This is the same Steven Moore who wrote the definitive Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1982), and this is the same Steven Moore who (twist upon twist) wrote the foreword to TR Factor’s edition of The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. When publishing his scholarly work on jack green and William Gaddis, and when contributing to the Tinasky volume, Professor Moore (who really is Steven Moore) never knew or suspected that Wanda was a fellow admirer of jack green. For Moore’s money, Wanda was Pynchon. (“ Well, if it ain’t Pynchon,” wrote Moore, “it’s someone who has him down cold: his inimitable literary style, his deep but lightly worn erudition, his countercultural roots, his leftist/ populist politics, his brand of wit and humor, his encyclopedic range of reference, his street smarts and raffish charm, his immersion in pop culture and sports, and his hatred of all agents of repression.”) 43 The inimitable Tom Hawkins would doubtless have been pleased with the epitaph. He was not Pynchon and never pretended to be, but the Wanda Tinasky story was his best laugh ever, and as Pynchonesque as any story not by Thomas Pynchon will ever get.
Foster, Don (2014-02-04). Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (p. 220). Henry Holt and Co., Kindle Edition.
So, we appear to have PART of the story as told by Rosenbaum-Foster-TR Factor et al. But, is it ALL of the story?
No doubt the conspiracy theories surrounding the Tinasky-Pynchon connection are reinforced by the reclusive nature of Thomas Pynchon himself who remains a mystery to nearly everyone even today. He eschews the press like other reclusive authors such as J. D. Salinger. When Time magazine sent a photographer to Mexico City, where Pynchon was living at the time, he supposedly hopped a bus and headed into the mountains. An overgrown mustache he was wearing fanned the legend that the locals took to calling him “Pancho Villa.” Pynchon himself and his wife and literary agent steadfastly maintain that he is not Wanda Tinasky and did not write any of the letters. But, this does not convince the true believers.
There is something irresistible about hoaxes and unsolvable mysteries that peaks the fascination. Consider The Hoax by Clifford Irving where he tells the story of his faked Autobiography of Howard Hughes. I posted a blog about this HERE.
Another intriguing mystery is the author B. Traven who wrote several novels set in Mexico. I’m drawn to Traven not just because of the mystery he represents but also because of my love for Mexico. Wanda mentions Traven in one of her letters:
I knew it wasn’t true when they told me B. Traven was dead.
Wanda speaks about President Ronald Reagan in several of her letters:
January 9, 1985 … to the AVA
TV shows us inspiring things, such as the fact that the President of the United States is a liar … e.g. Ronzo claims he doesn’t wear makeup on TV—the likeliest story since Linda Lovelace claimed she thought she was getting a tonsillectomy. On TV, our President looks at times as if he’s either coming out of the closet or going into the ground. Well, Ronzo has a lot on his mind these days trying to get Nancy wrung out for the inaugural ball. But I think you and AVA should give him something else to chew on before 1985 gets much older, Mr. Anderson, and I will try to help out and keep in touch.
This brings up a connection I have with Wanda through my great uncle Lewis Foster. He directed several Ronald Reagan movies (for example, The Last Outpost, Crosswinds, Tropic Zone among others).
Apart from many local writers, several authors of note visited the Sea Gull Restaurant and Cellar Bar while I was there. One that preceded me was Chester Anderson who wrote The Butterfly Kid. The book was nominated for a Hugo Award as best novel in 1968. An author I wrote about in a previous blog was Richard Brautigan who stayed at the Sea Gull on a trip to Mendocino for some R&R.
Truman Capote wandered into the dining room one afternoon for a bowl of soup. No one bothered him but he was recognized. The trip is documented in: Truman Capote: Conversations by Truman Capote and M. Thomas Inge, where he recalls the visit to Mendocino:
Q: Do you have a “motto?
A: Sort of. I jotted it down in a schoolboy diary: I aspire. I don’t know why I chose those particular words; they’re odd, and I like the ambiguity—do I aspire to heaven or hell? Whatever the case, they have an undeniably noble ring. Last winter I was wandering in a seacoast cemetery near Mendocino—a New England village in far Northern California, a rough place where the water is too cold to swim and where the whales go piping past. It was a lovely little cemetery, and the dates on the sea-grey-green tombstones were mostly nineteenth century; almost all had an inscription of some sort, something that revealed the tenant’s philosophy. One read: NO COMMENT.
No comment indeed! That would be an appropriate inscription for Wanda Tinasky’s grave if she has one.
Mendocino is known as a great place to write and to read, to create art and music, and to live. Writers of all types visit, live, and work in the area. Most of them at one time or another walked into the Sea Gull during its heyday. The previous owner tells me that Leonard Cohen ate in the Coffee Shop and left a poem for the “very attractive girl” who waited on him.
One of my favorite Wanda letters from the TR Factor book reads as follows:
June 7, 1984 … to the commentary:
I honestly do think poetry is important to people, in much the same way that clean air and food and water are important to people. I do not have my head up my ass; I know that people are being murdered so that I can have bananas three pounds for a dollar. I know that most of the human race goes to sleep and wakes up hungry. I know that most of the wealth of the earth comes to my country and turns to atomic waste. I know that every hour species of my fellow beings born with Adam will become extinct. I know this planet is being poisoned to death because of vanity and fear and hate, and I know these things are mine. I believe that poetry is an immediate answer and an ultimate answer to these things; I believe that poetry is the language of the Muse, Who exists in a far different way from cute conceit. I don’t think there are such things as “good poetry” and “bad poetry”; I think there is a part of language that’s the language of the Muse. Who is a goddess, and God help us all!
Best wishes to Tinaskys everywhere.
Tinaskys everywhere. An innocent statement that Wanda feels at one with many others or an admission that there are several Wandas?
Wanda was often political in her letters. It’s no surprise that she mentioned Supervisor Norman deVall in her letters (see below). The Sea Gull sponsored a fundraising event for Norman deVall when he ran for Supervisor. I’ve documented this even in three posts on the blog HERE, HERE, and HERE. That’s another connection I have with Wanda.
… And anyone who wants to unseat Chormin’ Norman before he moves up to Sacramento will either have to act more decent than he does or do a better imitation of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
For the record, my great uncle Lewis Foster (who directed Ronald Reagan) wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He won an academy award for it. These odd connections I have with Wanda keep cropping up. Here we go again.
Wanda wrote about the eclectic economist Thorsten Veblen (Theory of the Leisure Class) who taught at Stanford, my alma mater.
October 15, 1986 … to the AVA
… filler quote from Veblen: “The ostensible serious occupation of the upper class is that of government, which, in point of origin and developmental content, is also a predatory occupation” … do you imagine, Mr. Anderson, that the distinguished Palo Altoan would have made that cogent observation if he had not known that the Chinese have the same word for “to govern” & “to eat”?
In fact, there are so many allusions to people I know, to the restaurant I owned at the time (I sold it in the middle of the Tinasky affair), to other events in my life before Mendocino that one might conclude … HORRORS ! … that I wrote the letters myself … OR … at least some of them.
My good friend, Gordon Black, whom I consulted while writing this post, told me:
“ … the question is not, Who is Wanda Tinasky, but rather, which of the letters were written by whom? That’s the real literary sleuth job. The sleuth has to do the work and prove it, not just get admissions from publicity seekers. The Real Wanda is not going to confess anything.”
No, she’s not. But if you want some incite into the mental atmosphere of the Mendocino Coast in the 80s, Wanda is as good a place to start as any.
I refuse to say more on this subject on the grounds it may incriminate me.