A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.
The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.
Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.
In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.
The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.
Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.
In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.
In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:
ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.
The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.
OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.