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Untied threads

By Joel Sachs


Unidentified key players are the bane of biographers, who cannot resist the urge to tie all the knots. In my case, writing about the extraordinary life of the composer Henry Cowell, two people resisted identification, both of them connected with the sad story of Cowell’s imprisonment on a morals charge. The offense was so minor — a single act of consensual oral sex with an adult — that even the district attorney later said that if Cowell hadn’t misguidedly pleaded guilty, the offense would never have been prosecuted. By pleading guilty, Cowell landed himself with fifteen years in San Quentin, of which he served four. To say it was a tragedy is to grotesquely understate what happened.

During the lengthy struggle to gain parole, a woman named Helen Hope Page suddenly appeared. She did not know Cowell but admired his work and wanted to help, which she did, constantly reminding him and his stepmother (who was coordinating all the parole efforts) to keep her efforts utterly secret because she was a neighbor of a member of the parole board, and her position in their town, Oakdale, would be terribly damaged if anyone found out. All that I could learn about her was that she lived in Oakdale, had some health problems, a cat, and either she or her presumed husband had a connection with a Stockton, California newspaper. Page seemed to know everyone; she even proposed linking up Cowell’s stepmother with Eleanor Roosevelt. Beyond that, I found nothing. Learning that Yale has some correspondence between Page and Carl Sandburg, I made contact and learned that the library also had no idea who Page was.

I was therefore quite surprised, a few months after the biography was published, to receive an email from someone whose name meant nothing to me, providing me with fascinating information about Page: her birth and death years, the fact that she was editor of the Oakdale branch of the Stockton newspaper, the probability that she was gay, and her birth name. The author presumed that the name Page came from a former husband. Astonished, I asked about the identity of my correspondent. He identified himself as a civil court judge in Vienna, who had a strong interest in American music, came across my book, and read it on a very long train ride. He was able to find Page because, as a civil court judge, he was fluent in the many sophisticated genealogical research tools.

henry cowell piano

Henry Cowell playing the piano, ca. 1913. Copyright Sidney Robertson Cowell. Cowell Collection at the NYPL. Used with permission.

His second discovery was even more interesting. Sidney Cowell said more than once that her husband was protected from sexual assault in San Quentin by a violinist who was the ranking murderer and could put out a “do not touch” order. She assumed that the violinist was one Raoul Pereira, a former pupil of Brahms’s close friend Joseph Joachim. Pereira, however, was in for passing bad checks. The only other possible candidate seemed to be the director of the prison band, an inmate named W. E. J. Hendricks. Cowell knew Hendricks well. He was deeply involved in the band, playing flute (extremely badly, he said) acting as its librarian, doing preparatory rehearsals, and eventually conducting some concerts. He and Hendricks worked together to upgrade the repertory. He does not mention him as a violinist, but seems to have thought highly of Hendricks’ ability. Hendricks was also described in complimentary terms in the autobiography of Clinton Duffy, the reformer appointed Warden in 1940 by Democratic Governor Culbert Olson to clean up the notoriously violent prison, whose guards happily beat up prisoners or consigned them to a horrible dungeon. Although Duffy came in just after Cowell was paroled, he knew the prison very well, having grown up in it as a guard’s son. Since Duffy was clearly a good man, a compliment from Duffy carried weight. Duffy felt Hendricks was an intelligent and basically good man, who could have contributed to society if he had not broken parole and disappeared when he got out a couple of years after Cowell. Hendricks therefore could have decided to protect Cowell, but did he really have the clout? After all, the prisoners included some completely amoral and viciously violent men. Sexual assaults were the plague of the prison.

I should have sent for Hendricks’ file from the California archives, but became so wary of going down peripheral paths that I didn’t. I assumed that if Hendricks got out relatively quickly, he was probably in for a crime of passion. It didn’t seem to matter much in the context of Cowell’s life. My Viennese correspondent had started under the same assumption, but sent for the file and found a different picture. Hendricks and a buddy had robbed and strangled a fellow resident in a World War I veterans’ home and dumped his body into a ravine in Los Angeles dressed only in a belt and the necktie with which they had strangled him. Hendricks got life, but was eligible to be out in 9 years. He, a murderer, and Cowell, a very minor sex offender, would have to serve the same amount of time! Most interesting of all the items in the file, however, was an article from the Utah Republican printed when Hendricks was paroled. Fueled by outrage over Hendricks’ parole, the article is a vicious, gratuitous attack on Warden Duffy – who, recall, was a Democratic appointee. The newspaper claimed that Duffy did not run San Quentin; Hendricks did.

Although one would be hesitant to take the story literally, it is reasonable to think that Hendricks, the band conductor and vicious murderer, was indeed in a position to protect Henry Cowell. Thanks for doing it, Hendricks!

Joel Sachs is Professor of Music History, Chamber Music, and New Music Performance at The Juilliard School, where he conducts the New Juilliard Ensemble. He is the author of Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music. Read his previous blog posts on Henry Cowell: “Henry Cowell’s Imprisonment” and “Unravelling the life of Henry Cowell without unravelling the biographer.”

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