Karl Bissinger: A Retrospective

Karl Bissinger: Hope, No Matter What

A shorter version of this article was printed in the winter issue of WIN as a memorial to Karl, who died on November 19, 2008, shortly after his 94th birthday.

For Karl Bissinger, the road to the War Resisters League and the Peace Pentagon was a long and winding one, covering every continent but Australia and the richest and poorest that the world offers. “I always considered myself an anarchist first,” he said, “but the more wars there are, the more of a pacifist I become.”

Karl’s Early Years

Karl was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1914. His family founded and ran Bissinger Chocolates, widely regarded as the best of its kind and time. He lived with his parents, grandmother, and four sisters and brothers in a large house with a wonderful garden where he played and developed his love for tending flowers and plants. The family’s needs were met by a staff of servants. Thus Karl received an early education about power relationships and class and race differences: he saw firsthand not only the sharp contrasts between the wealthy and those employed to take care of them, but also the differences between the upper-level white servants and lower-level servants of color. Despite their wealth, the Bissinger family did not escape the effects of the Great Depression. Karl’s father died, his mother remarried, and his half-sister was born.

The Family in Karl’s Adult Life

When Karl moved East, leaving the other Bissingers behind, like so many other transplanted New Yorkers he needed to create a new family. A great many people quickly began considering Karl one of their most loved relatives: he was outgoing, cheerful, a wonderful storyteller, a good host, and more generous in every way than most. And, all through his life, as a photographer, a restaurateur, and a peace movement activist, he was fortunate to work closely with people who shared his passions and his politics.

In the late 1940s, Karl met Richard Hanley, a handsome, gentle, and talented New Englander who said he loved Karl from the minute he saw him and absolutely had to spend his life with him. In fact, Karl and Dick were together almost from their first meeting until 1990, when Dick died suddenly. He was only 64. They spent their last day together, in bright sunshine, staffing a WRL table at an Earth Day commemoration in Central Park. It was only one of countless peace activities that the couple attended together.

They also traveled the world together, read quietly together, and enjoyed a uniquely close personal partnership. They sustained each other privately in the early years when gay relationships were not celebrated, and then later they were able to share their happiness with each other more publicly. “It was nice to finally be able to kiss Karl hello and good-bye in the street,” Dick said in his characteristically understated way, having taken to walking Karl partway to the WRL office each morning.

Like Karl, Dick was an artist. He began his career as a fashion magazine illustrator and went on to become the preeminent fabric designer of the preeminent fabric house, producing distinctive prints in rich colors that still adorn homes around the world.

Dick’s death was a terrible blow to Karl, and he always struggled hard with the loss.

There were, though, other family members who brought Karl great pleasure: his son, David Fechheimer, David’s wife, Diane, and their two sons, Zachary and Sam. A private investigator based in San Francisco, David travels the world on assignments and visited Karl in New York often. Karl also traveled extensively with David’s family; they visited China together a decade ago, and went to several European countries. Zach is taking after his grandfather; he is a photography student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Sam, a student at the University of Southern California, is still deciding on a career.

The Surfacing of Karl’s Artistic Talent

While in high school, where he studied Latin, Karl nurtured his artistic talent by also attending the Conservatory of the Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts. He then moved to New York City to enroll in the Art Students League. Working with the noted artists on the school’s faculty, he focused on drawing and painting.

Earning a living as a painter was not a possibility, Karl soon realized, and he channeled his artistic eye toward an early career as a stylist and set decorator. While shoppers dreamed of the purchases they would make the following day, Karl worked the nights away, dressing the windows of Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. Along with his colleagues, he regularly engaged in a small subversive gesture: exchanging dirty socks for new ones from the men’s department displays that he designed. Before too long, he traded in the store’s sock perk for a job styling for the Condé Nast Photographic Studios, where he met and was mentored by some of the preeminent fashion photographers of the day.

Karl’s Illustrious Career as a Photographer

A summer spent on Cherry Grove, Fire Island, solidified Karl’s budding interest in photography, as he became friends with Richard Avedon, whose career as a portrait photographer was just taking off. Avedon encouraged Karl, lent him cameras and other supplies, and even supplied his first portrait subject: his wife, Doe Avedon. Another willing subject was James Baldwin, also just beginning a career that would bring him wide acclaim as a novelist and essayist. Karl’s portraits of Baldwin, taken during an afternoon walking around Manhattan, were good enough to win him the first of nearly 50 years’ worth of fabulous photography assignments from the most prestigious magazines of their time.

Fashion Photography. “I wanted to do portrait photography,” Karl said, “but the only way for me to work with people was to become a fashion photographer.” His fashion spreads were spectacular, admired for the novel and creative ways he used light to highlight the models, and they became familiar to readers of Jr. Bazaar, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Theatre Arts, and Town & Country. Even today, when photographic equipment is far more sophisticated and technology makes the opportunities for uniqueness greater, Karl’s 50-year-old stark black-and-white layouts stand out for their originality, simplicity, and elegance.

Photographic Portraiture. Despite his success with fashion magazines, Karl yearned to capture artists with his camera—theater people, painters, poets, and writers—whose lives and worlds were far more exciting than the anticipation of the next fashion season’s collections. “I wanted to relate my photographs to people’s lives,” he said, “to show the connection between the subjects and their backgrounds.” He preferred to photograph, and to spend time with, Bohemians—the people who paid little attention to convention, who devoted themselves to nourishing their creativity and living true to their sometimes avant-garde ideas. They reflected an important aspect of Karl’s own personality.

It was not until 2003, though, that even a portion of Karl’s portraits were collected in a single volume. The Luminous Years: Portraits at Mid-Century, published by Harry N. Abrams, introduced the public to more than a hundred photographs, taken some 50 years previously. The large, beautifully designed book presents Karl’s vision of the most gifted artists the world had produced: toiling in all the creative fields, engaged in both exotic and mundane activities; at work and at play; in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and back on Broadway in New York. The black-and-white photographs in the book include portraits of Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, Colette, Carson McCullers, Raphael Soyer, Hoagy Carmichael, Robinson Jeffers, and Max Weber.

Gore Vidal wrote the introduction to The Luminous Years. In it he described the singularity of Karl’s approach to portraiture. “He shows us only what’s there; particularly if it’s unexpected,” Vidal wrote, expressing admiration for the way that Karl could find the essence of his subjects even when they tried to present him with a less honest face to photograph.

Karl is especially proud that the photograph of himself on the book jacket was taken by his grandson, Zach Fechheimer.

Ten pages from The Luminous Years: Portraits at Mid-Century were reprinted by Vanity Fair, and another ten pages appeared in the London Times. The photographs from the book are included in a current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. In addition, an exhibit of Karl’s photographs from the book is making its way around the country, and a video documentary of him and his work is under way. The acclaim that he did not get when his camera was in hand is now, finally, coming his way.

The World in Photographs. If Karl loved photographing people, he loved equally traveling the world and chronicling what he saw. As a staff photographer for Flair, a short-lived but legendary magazine known as one of the most visually beautiful ever to be produced, he became one of the most important photo essayists of the 1940s and ’50s.

Flair sent Karl to Marrakesh, among other exciting locations around the world, and Morocco became one of his favorite places to visit. He returned at least five times, often to visit his friends, the writers Paul and Jane Bowles. “I loved Morocco. It was the most exotic place you could get to so quickly: A 20-minute ferry ride from Spain and you’re there. It was like traveling to another century.” His Marrakesh photographs were published widely soon after he took them, first in the magazine and then in an anthology, The Best of Flair. Twenty-nine of them found new life, and new acclaim, in 2001 when they were used to illustrate The Voices of Marrakesh. It was the only work of travel writing by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Elias Canetti, who died in 1994. The large, lavishly produced book was issued in very limited release, and each copy was signed by Karl and William T. Wiley, who provided etchings for the book. Karl then worked on another book of Marrakesh photographs, this one to have a much larger print run.

Though Karl loved England and Paris and spent considerable time there, between his travels around the world, New York City remained his home. In 1948, with Johnny Nicholson and Edna Lewis, the noted Southern chef and chronicler of Southern foods, he opened a restaurant, Café Nicholson, on the Upper East Side. Tending its garden and keeping its clients happy became Karl’s main contribution to the business. The restaurant was a very popular drinking and eating spot for the artists and Bohemians whom Karl had photographed in the garden and all over the world.

Karl and His Antiwar Roots

Very Early Radicalism. Karl’s first memory of his innate radicalism was an argument he had with his father about hanging the flag on their home on the Fourth of July. He always thought of himself as a pacifist, he said, although he did not name his views until many years later, and in the post-World War I period his politics were no different from those of a lot of other Americans. He joined the Communist Party when he first came to New York, but when he saw the contempt with which party members held pacifists, he realized he would never be a good Communist. “I couldn’t be a good anti-Communist either,” he said. “Also, I realized that the ‘coming revolution’ would mean bloodshed, and it would be the blood of the young that would be shed.”

Karl was opposed to World War II, but by the time Pearl Harbor was bombed pacifism had become a distinctly minority position. Because he was gay, he did not have to face the dilemma of the draft.

Anti-Nuclear Protests and the Living Theatre. Karl’s commitment to nonviolence remained dormant for some years, but the development of nuclear weapons rekindled his desire to be politically active. “Getting rid of those weapons was more important than anything else, I thought. I kept a newspaper clipping of the first New York civil defense protests on my refrigerator, and the next year I went to City Hall Park to join the demonstration against the air raid drills.” While the first resisters to take cover during the mock air raids had drawn only activists from the War Resisters League and the Catholic Worker, the second City Hall demonstration brought out more than 1,000 protestors. The police had anticipated that a single paddy wagon could accommodate all the civil disobedients, so they arrested only 28 resisters from the crowd. Karl was one of them.

The arrestees spent the weekend in jail and were greeted upon their release by Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the antiwar, avant-garde Living Theatre, who brought flowers and gave a party in their honor. These acts of solidarity sparked Karl’s close friendship with Judith and Julian, which led to his traveling through Europe with the Living Theatre for several years as its official photographer. He also flew down to Brazil with Julian’s mother to offer comfort and support to members of the troupe who had been arrested on a marijuana charge and were putting on plays for their cellmates.

Anti-Draft Work. By now, the Vietnam War was raging, and the Living Theatre was working with the Greenwich Village Peace Center, a local antiwar and draft counseling group that operated out of Washington Square Methodist Church. Karl took a course in counseling from the American Friends Service Committee and became a frequent Peace Center volunteer. “I was the token man because the Peace Center was run by women, a lot of them writers and artists with free time during the day. For the first few years I was also the token non-Villager, because Dick and I didn’t move to downtown until the building we lived in on the East Side was torn down, practically with us still in it.” Karl and the other Peace Center volunteers provided draft advice nearly every evening, maintained a noontime vigil on Saturdays, organized local demonstrations, and coordinated buses for Washington actions.

Karl wanted to engage in more radical action, though, and to make a political statement as well as provide individual men with help: “My model was the Village minister who publicly protested anti-abortion laws and privately helped women get abortions.” So he educated himself about the ways that draftees and members of the service could move to Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam and found safe places for them to stay during their journey. “The ‘underground railroad’ that we created was an important part of the resistance work at that time,” he said.

Karl and the War Resisters League

The Greenwich Village Peace Center functioned as the New York City local of the War Resisters League, so it was inevitable that Karl would begin to work with WRL as well. Feeling ever more frustrated by the toll that the Vietnam War was taking on Americans and Southeast Asians alike, Karl became interested in working to win amnesty for the resisters and deserters. When WRL offered him a full-time job to begin its campaign for amnesty, he decided it was time to put aside his career as an award-winning photographer, if not his cameras.

Indeed, some of the most memorable photographs of antiwar actions to appear in WIN Magazine and the Nonviolent Activist carry Karl’s credit line. At one large Central Park demonstration, Karl laid down his camera on a bench while he ferried boxes from a car to the WRL literature table. “No one would steal a camera on a day like this,” he said. But, alas, his camera, an old, irreplaceable personal treasure, disappeared. Only Karl was amazed to find it gone.

Amnesty. Karl spearheaded WRL’s amnesty project for years. For him, the issue of amnesty for Vietnam-era resisters and deserters went beyond redress for specific individuals who left the country rather than kill for it; it was a way to publicly recognize the principles of those who refused to fight. To protest the government’s anti-amnesty stance and to lobby for a reversal, Karl helped create coalitions with other national peace organizations, most notably Gold Star Mothers for Peace, a group of women who had lost sons in Vietnam.

Karl asserted:

In addition, when a president did declare amnesty, and each president had the power to do it, we wanted to be sure that we would be in touch with as many draft dodgers and deserters as possible—the men in Canada and Sweden, and the organizations in those countries that helped supported them. We couldn’t keep records, of course, because they would be seized, but even without an official list, we were able to contact thousands of men, tell them their rights under the amnesty agreement, and do whatever we could to help them come back if they wanted to. Some did want to return, but others were happy in their new countries.

WRL’s campaign for amnesty was, of course, only partially successful, but it turned out that Karl’s other contributions to the organization were far greater.

Bringing Artists under the WRL Umbrella. The War Resisters League had always been an organization of activists, with many of them considering resistance a fulltime job and a subsistence wage a sufficient salary. So while WRL’s demonstrations were usually large, contributions from members were not, and its cash reserves were generally less than was needed to support its many programs. Karl realized that artists—so many of whom opposed the Vietnam War and were social and political radicals, even pacifists, and a good many of whom were his friends—were a great untapped resource for WRL. Instead of simply soliciting contributions from them, he proposed that they be asked to donate pieces of art that WRL could sell.

It turned out that a large number of artists, particularly those who were part of the late-century minimalist school, were eager to help WRL in such a personally authentic way. Working with the artists and their agents, and with gallery owners, Karl arranged for several shows whose proceeds would benefit WRL. At the openings, well-dressed art patrons from New York and elsewhere, who brought their discerning eyes and their checkbooks, mingled with WRLers, who may have known almost nothing about contemporary art and even less about what to wear to a posh Soho gallery opening.

One artist, William King, a respected sculptor known for his large and witty pieces, wanted to do more for WRL than just contribute something to a group show, and he also wanted to create a new sculpture expressing his views on the violent days ahead. Together he and Karl decided that a stop sign would be the most effective way to convey the prevailing pacifist sentiment. The giant red stop sign—500 pounds of aluminum—that King ultimately produced said “Stop World War III.” Karl arranged for it to be displayed for six months in 1982 in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across from the United Nations. Its presence at the very popular tourist site covered the period when the largest peace demonstration ever was held, on June 12 in front of the United Nations, and when a major civil disobedience action targeted the United Nations to protest nuclear proliferation, on June 14. The sculpture then moved on to the lawn at Southampton College, near where King lived. Ultimately, it was purchased by a Philadelphia collector who agreed to display it properly and permanently on his property. Proceeds from the sale went to WRL, as did a tremendous amount of publicity for disarmament and nonviolence, and for the organization itself.

The Peace Calendars. Another major contribution Karl made to WRL was his management of the production of the annual peace calendar, a valuable promotional tool and significant source of income. Each year he would prompt the WRL National Committee to decide on the calendar’s theme, making well thought-out recommendations for topics, based on ideas provided him, his own beliefs about what would interest prospective calendar purchasers, and research to determine the types of material and volunteer help available. He would then cajole an expert or two on the topic to serve as the editors and work with them and the calendar committee to select interesting prose, poetry, music lyrics, and artwork to fill the 128 pages.

Karl would also put his photographer’s eye to work, poring over photographs and other graphics in the New York Public Library, to find just the right illustration for the written material. He also, once more, solicited his artist friends for appropriate material; some artists created illustrations specifically for a calendar and others simply opened their existing portfolios and told Karl to take what he wanted. If Karl brought to WRL’s calendar projects the full weight of his considerable talent, he also brought his considerable physical energy. He spent months good-naturedly walking the streets of New York City—going from artist studios to libraries to the homes of the editors and committee members to the WRL office and back again—lugging samples and doing the hard footwork that made possible the production of each year’s calendar as cost-effectively as possible.

Karl’s partner on the calendar project was usually Dick Hanley. Dick was the designer of several calendars, he supplied appropriate drawings for several more, and he always served as a knowledgeable consultant on the visual aspect of the peace calendar.

Civil Disobedience. Karl hasn’t counted the number of times he was arrested. “It’s not important,” he believes. Still, he has been arrested dozens of times, in New York, in Washington, and elsewhere. Sometimes he was with Dick and sometimes with artists who decided that having Karl beside them provided the courage they needed to commit civil disobedience for the first time.

Perhaps most notable was his arrest in 1978 on the White House lawn. With ten other WRLers, he unfurled a banner saying “No Nuclear Weapons—No Nuclear Power—USA or USSR.” At the same time, 12 more WRLers were doing the same thing in Red Square in Moscow. The pacifists arrested in the Soviet Union were arrested but released immediately, whereas Karl and the other demonstrators in the nation’s capital spent a weekend in jail and ultimately were convicted in a jury trial and fined.

Karl was arrested for the last time in 1999 at One Police Plaza in New York City to protest the murder of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant peddler from Liberia, by four white plainclothes police.

Karl in His 80s

For a long time Karl ignored his official WRL status as retired, walking the mile between his home and the WRL office nearly every day. As he had for three decades, he managed WRL’s literature program, helping to select the publications to sell and filling orders. He also was the office’s official greeter, making all visitors feel welcome. He had a wide smile and cheerful hello for everyone, a genuine interest in learning about peace activities around the country, and a great capacity to listen to even the most trying among them. He also consulted with activists on the phone and provided both visitors and callers with exactly the materials they needed for their vigils and demonstrations and for their leisure-time reading.

In the year or so before Karl’s 90th birthday, the spring in his step began diminishing, though the sparkle in his eyes remained as bright as ever. He went to the WRL office with decreasing frequency. He did not move into this less active phase of his life with his usual gusto, and railed against old age with the same vigor as he always railed against war and injustice. But his grandson, Zach, came by frequently, friends also dropped by and called even more often, and his rooftop garden was one of the best places in New York in which to entertain. He still had at least one book of photographs to complete. And he continued to say, as he had for decades, “You need to live as if there is hope, no matter what.”

Wendy Schwartz spent hundreds of hours at the home of Karl and Dick, sipping vodka and grapefruit juice and producing WRL calendars.

Wendy Schwartz

Wendy Schwartz has worked with the War Resisters League for more than 40 years and is a writer, editor, and researcher for non-profit organizations and publishers.