Conversations with Marthe Whitcomb
Marthe J. Whitcomb (née Larsen)
Marthe J. Whitcomb (born Marthe J. Larsen), was an important collaborator to the luminaries who brightened San Francisco’s post-war literary life. Intellectually and artistically gifted, Ms. Whitcomb, whose first husband was the poet Kenneth Rexroth, participated in the famed San Francisco Renaissance of the 1940s and 50s. This was an era characterized by burgeoning poetic activity, new social sensibilities, and an array of complicated ties between the second generation Modernist, the Black Mountain, and the Beat Generation poets. Ms. Whitcomb had her own intricate relationships in these separate, but overlapping circles, sharing June birthday celebrations with a young Allen Ginsberg, and, as her marriage to Rexroth deteriorated, falling in love with the influential poet Robert Creeley, with whom she shared a deep, abiding bond. She maintained many friendships over the years with artists and poets in the original group, including Jess Collins, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan and Richard O. Moore.
Ms. Whitcomb assumed a range of roles in her complex relationship with Rexroth who was 20 years her senior, from editing his work, to hosting the celebrated Friday night soirees at their Scott Street apartment, to helping organize Alan Ginsberg’s first public reading of Howl at The Six Gallery. But it was as muse to Rexroth that Ms. Whitcomb emerged most prominently, inspiring many of his best-known love poems of that period.
Although a talented poet and writer in her own right, Ms. Whitcomb’s own voice remained quiet and her work unpublished. Her position in the burgeoning artistic avant-garde of post-World War II San Francisco captured both the possibilities and perils for independent women of that time. In their embrace of countercultural currents and the promise of new freedoms, it was not uncommon for unconventional, idealistic women to find themselves the objects of verse, and the providers of emotional and financial support, rather than subjects in their own stories with access to personal authorship and equal opportunity.
Ms. Whitcomb’s small surviving body or work reflects both the depth of her talents and the despair born of disillusioned hopes, domestic rhythms, and lost love.
I sleep by the sign of the
clock in my room with the
hands that are broken
turned to the dust that I
swept to the corner
in my room with the sign
from a clock timing
love that is lost and
set free in alarm.
Kenneth Rexroth & Marthe Whitcomb
It was during her graduate studies at Berkeley that Ms. Whitcomb met Kenneth Rexroth, with whom she had two daughters, Mary (now Mariana) and Katharine, prior to their divorce in 1961. Ms. Whitcomb was subsequently married to Stephen Schoen, with whom she had one daughter, Sarah, and whom she subsequently divorced. Following her divorces, and consistent with her abiding belief in the power of words to determine personal identity, Ms. Whitcomb legally changed her name, choosing not her original maiden name of Larsen, but Whitcomb, a name that belonged to the birth parents of her father who was adopted.
Ms. Whitcomb was born June 10, 1926, in Dayton, Kentucky, the oldest of four siblings. She was a brilliant, politically active student, who believed that immersion in intellectual life could provide an escape from the limitations and hardships of her early upbringing. Ms. Whitcomb earned a full scholarship to attend college and was the first in her working class family to do so. She moved to San Francisco in her late teens to study philosophy at Mills College, before going on to graduate school in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Later in her life, Ms. Whitcomb returned to graduate school and earned an M.A. in counseling psychology from the University of San Francisco.
A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for most of her adult life, Ms. Whitcomb moved to Brooklyn in 2011 to be close to her youngest daughter and grandchildren. She died in 2013 at age 86. She is survived by her brother James Larsen, her daughters Mariana Rexroth and Sarah Schoen, Sarah’s husband, Steven Tublin, her son-in-law Andrew Leavitt (married to her daughter Katharine, who predeceased her), and her grandchildren Joshua, Eli, Esme, and August.
Marthe & daughter Katharine Rexroth