This President's Grandson Was More Interesting Than You'll Ever Be
Chester A. Arthur III was a DTF Ivy League dropout, Irish Republican Army activist, experimental-film actor, commune leader, gold prospector, teacher at San Quentin, and bisexual sexologist/astrologer.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States, who gave us the gift of Gavin
Presidential descendants come in every shape, but one of the GOAT presidential descendants was Chester A. Arthur III: He was an Ivy League dropout, an Irish Republican Army activist, an experimental-film actor, a commune leader, a gold prospector, a teacher at San Quentin, and a bisexual sexologist/astrologer. An early gay rights activist and a practical prototype for the hippies, Arthur lived out the gap between Walt Whitman and the Summer of Love.
Born in Colorado Springs in 1901 to the former president's spoiled-rotten, hard-partying, skirt-chasing only son, young Arthur III was raised mainly by his mother, Myra, a California heiress way into the Eastern mysticism that was just starting to make inroads among the American upper class. She passed that love of the esoteric down to her son, and by the early 1920s, both of them were members of the Tantrik Order of America, a sex-magicky group headed by America's first yogi: an Iowa barber's son by the name of Perry Baker, a.k.a. the "Omnipotent Oom."
Around the same time young Arthur was helping lay the cornerstone for today's "yoga-industrial complex," he was attending Columbia, where he became spellbound by the works of Edward Carpenter, a hardcore socialist poet/philosopher now known as the "Walt Whitman of England" and the "Gay Godfather of the British Left."
The film featured a transatlantic cast of Roaring 20s-style counterculture titans and sexual adventurers whose escapades made Fleetwood Mac look like Mormons.
Carpenter's massive prose-poem "Towards Democracy" electrified young Arthur. Since he felt it told him pretty much everything he needed to know and had no need for a pesky career (since his father's 250,000-acre Colorado ranch allowed him and his parents to pursue various interests without being employed), he dropped out of Columbia, married a writer/dancer named Charlotte Wilson, and dove into Irish nationalism. Arthur moved back-and-forth between America, Switzerland, and Ireland, funneling a chunk of his allowance to the IRA for bail and weapons.
While living in Ireland with Wilson, Arthur leaped at the chance to meet his hero Carpenter in England. Despite the fact that Carpenter was almost 60 years older, the two jumped in the sack together; Carpenter went on to tell him all about how he had once done the same thing with Walt Whitman, going as far to show him Whitman's "moves." (Decades later, Arthur described their fling in graphic detail in a letter to his buddy Allen Ginsberg.) At one point in their ensuing correspondence, Gavin told Carpenter that he hoped to become for Ireland what Whitman had been for America and Carpenter for England.
It didn't turn out that way, though: By 1930, Arthur had turned to acting. He co-starred in the British silent avant-garde film Borderline, which featured a transatlantic cast of Roaring 20s–style counterculture titans and sexual adventurers whose escapades made Fleetwood Mac look like Mormons.
There was Paul Robeson, the legendary African American lawyer, actor, opera singer, former All-American football star, and future Communist and civil rights activist, and his actress/writer wife Essie Goode. Goode published her first book, Paul Robeson, Negro, that same year, more or less an unauthorized biography of her husband that detailed his serial adulteries. Also: Hilda Doolittle (a.k.a. HD), the American British avant-garde poet and writer lionized by future generations of feminists, and her long-term lover Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman), who was daughter of a shipping magnate and a famed writer herself.
Complicating matters, Borderline was produced and directed by Bryher's bisexual husband Kenneth Macpherson, a man who accepted that Bryher's trysts with HD were non-negotiable. For his part, Macpherson impregnated HD two years before the menage collaborated on Borderline. Given that the Wilson-Arthur union was also on the rocks, the tension on the set must have been unbelievable.
Trashed by critics after its release, the film has since been lauded as technically groundbreaking and thematically ahead of its time, as it revolves around the then-taboo subject of an interracial love triangle—and an adulterous one at that.
Nevertheless, it marked the end of Arthur's film career and his marriage to Wilson. He next washed up in California, where he helped set up Moy Mell ("pastures of honey" in ancient Gaelic), a utopian beach commune nestled in the dunes on the Central Coast. (You've probably seen those dunes and don't know it: Ansel Adams made them famous.) Every good commune leader needs a rad name, and it was here Arthur decided henceforth he would be known as "Gavin" Arthur. (It was an ancestral name he thought sounded cooler than Chester.)
As usual, he dreamed big. The "community of individuals" would support itself via the Dune Forum, a magazine he envisioned as the "New Yorker of the West." The artists, writers, nudists, astrologers, vegetarians, and other presumed societal misfits gathered around the campfire and shot the shit; those fireside chats were transformed into articles, and those articles were intended for the masses, who would presumably be inspired to form a New Utopian States of America.
That didn't happen. The Dune Forum folded after a half-dozen issues, but the "Dunites" seem to have had a hell of a good time along the way—especially considering the country was then in the depths of the Great Depression. Every time an issue went to print, Gavin's mom would send down a case of champagne. They feasted abundantly on netted fish and giant clams dug from the Pacific; every Saturday night, Gavin would roll out barrels of ale and casks of wine made from local grapes and honey, and they'd have a dance.
John Steinbeck dropped in and read selections from his still in-the-works book Tortilla Flat; John Cage also made a pre-fame appearance, and Upton Sinclair popped in a time or two—as did Indian mystic Meher Baba, decades before he publicly declared himself the Avatar, God-in-Human-Form. In 1935, Edward Weston shot nude photos of his lover Charis Wilson in the Oceano Dunes, some of which he deemed too hot for public display.
Gavin donated Moy Mell's land to the Coast Guard during World War II, and his cabin on the property was eventually moved to the train station in nearby Oceano, where it remains today. Following the demise of Moy Mell, Gavin dropped out of public view for a couple of decades. He'd lost his seat aboard his dad's gravy train, and then his second wife—Esther Murphy, an utterly brilliant, hard-drinking lesbian heiress—kicked him to the curb.
He had to hustle for the first time in his life: He sold newspapers on the streets of San Francisco, the city where he would spend his final years. He panned for gold in the mountains, 100 years too late. He enrolled at San Francisco State and finally got the degree he failed to complete at Columbia decades before. He palled around with Ginsberg and the other Beats and reportedly had sex with Neal Cassady, better known as Jack Kerouac's On the Road sidekick and the driver of Ken Kesey's magic bus.
And he delved deep into both astrology and sexology. Gavin took his star charts very seriously: When one self-administered reading told him he was heading to prison soon, he immediately drove to San Quentin and took a job as a teacher, the better to prevent going in as an inmate.
In 1962, he fused his passions for the heavens and knocking boots in The Circle of Sex, a sort of Zodiac of the boudoir, which placed all humanity into a wheel of 12 different sexual archetypes. That book put him back in the public eye, and soon enough, he was giving lectures and readings and appearing in San Francisco newspapers and on TV, identified as "a mystic" and a "renowned astrologist and grandson of the 21st president."
We're no Gavin Arthur, but the stars tell us we won't see another presidential descendant like him for many, many moons.
Follow John Nova Lomax on Twitter.