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Henry Cowell’s imprisonment

By Joel Sachs

Many people begin a conversation about Henry Cowell by telling me why he spent four years in San Quentin. Although I prefer to dwell on Cowell’s enormous accomplishments as a composer, theorist, performer, and educator, there is no need to run from the matter.

The misinformation begins with the idea that he was convicted of a morals charge. He was not convicted; there was no trial. Cowell, who did not trust lawyers, pleaded guilty without advice of counsel, to the accusation that he had engaged in a single act of oral sex. No one had ever been prosecuted under the relevant law and the district attorney doubted that Cowell would have been either. Unfortunately, as he put it, Cowell’s plea set the wheels of justice rolling and there was no way to stop them.

Cowell was accused of violating section 288a of the penal code, which made oral sex punishable by one to fifteen years in prison. Both participants were to be prosecuted; homosexuality isn’t mentioned. The other participant was a young adult, part of a crowd of youths that Cowell had allowed to build a swimming pool in his back yard. The young man with whom he had oral sex was never arrested; he later said was to have been attempting to blackmail Cowell to get him to turn over his car. A claim that Cowell had been set up because of his leftist sympathies was a fantasy of his communist friends.

Cowell’s first problem was the press. The local Hearst paper made the arrest a front-page, banner headlined story. Another newspaper printed vicious attacks on Cowell after failing to blackmail him. The press coverage reduced any probability of mercy.

At the sentencing hearing, the discussion revolved almost entirely around homosexuality, despite not being mentioned in the law. Even a prison psychiatrist spoke in favor of probation, emphasizing his belief that Cowell wasn’t truly homosexual. Unfortunately, the local probation officer alluded to a similar incident (of questionable relevance and amicably disposed of) in another community many years earlier, and proclaimed Cowell incurable. In an awkward position because the law offered only prison or probation, but not counseling, the judge felt compelled to respect the probation officer’s judgment and commit Cowell to prison.

The final decision about the length of imprisonment was made by the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles — a group of unqualified political appointees, not the court — at the end of the minimum term, which was one year. Sentencing Cowell to the fifteen years reflected their “gut” reaction to a case blown out of proportion by ongoing hysteria about sex criminals. Constant attempts to win parole garnered enormous support but the three Board members were true hardliners. Cowell’s prospects finally changed in 1938 when a new governor addressed the scandalous conditions in the California penal system and replaced the Board. In 1940, he was paroled after spending four years in San Quentin.

There he had written a theoretical treatise and numerous articles, composed as much as time allowed, and gave music classes to thousands of inmates. His performances won him the respect and admiration of many prisoners, and the protection of the ranking murderer in the prison — the violinist-conductor of the prison band. His more than 200 visitors included celebrities like Percy Grainger and Martha Graham. Cowell never complained, but while his placidity was a mark of his extraordinary character, all prisoners knew that guards liked to beat up complainers. The one fear he expressed was that he and his music would be forgotten.

When Cowell was offered an important job in the war effort, he couldn’t accept it without being pardoned. His new wife Sidney Robertson then undertook the huge job of campaigning for the pardon. Although everyone — including the hearing judge and the district attorney — signed on to the pardon, Governor Olson declined to consider the application. Sidney then called in the heaviest of her heavyweights, who asked the governor to give it a chance and at least read it. Henry Cowell was issued the pardon just before Olson left office at the end of 1942.

Regrettably, the whispering about him persists to this day.

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 post: “Unravelling the life of Henry Cowell without unravelling the biographer.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Toby Dorsey

    A conviction is what happens when someone is found guilty by a jury — or by a judge. With or without a trial.

    When someone pleads guilty, the judge decides whether to accept or reject the plea. If the judge decides to accept the plea, the person is convicted.

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