Trash & Treasure: The Rediscovered Life of Jenny Read

Twice a year, town of Chevy Chase, Md., holds a Trash and Treasure Weekend in which local citizens can clear out their attics, basements, and garages of clutter and leave it on the curb to be disposed of. It’s a perfect opportunity for the townsfolk to rid themselves of their old bikes, furniture, games, and other unwanted items for free. But on this occasion, sitting on the curb outside a white clapboard house amid the trash is a true hidden gem, saved from potential destruction by a passer-by who recognized the items for what they were and decided to take them home.

The house on Elm Street had been the childhood home of San Francisco artist Jenny Read, who was carving out a reputation as a promising sculptor before her murder in 1976 at the age of 29. On the curb was a collection of her sketchpads and pieces of her artwork, including still-life drawings of everyday items like teapots and candle sticks, a pen drawing of a female figure, crouched in the fetal position and surrounded by encroaching darkness, and a rough pastel self-portrait of the artist herself, her head covered by a brightly colored scarf. The find also included approximately 200 Kodachrome 35mm slides from Read’s life in San Francisco. The slides give unique insight into the life of a young woman and artist in the center of the counterculture capital of the world in the 1970s. The collection included intimate portraits of Read, street scenes from the Mission District, Telegraph Hill, and Sausalito, and examples of her work, including a 9-foot sculpture called figure on the cross, which, after her death, would become her memorial.

Motivated by an urge to conserve the photographs and artwork, the finder listed the slides on eBay, hoping they’d find a good home, which is when, in March 2015, they came to my attention, described as “taken by a young artist in San Francisco who was tragically murdered.” A rudimentary search on Google using clues from the eBay description returned Jenny Read as the most likely artist, and as the only bidder on the lot, I took delivery of 200 vintage slides by the promising artist.

Further research revealed that Read’s mother later published her daughter’s letters and journals, giving an intimate look at Jenny Read’s thoughts and feelings as she struggled with her sculpture, relationships, and the transition from a peaceful suburb to a city which included its fair share of pimps, pushers, and other characters.

Her naïve outlook and generous nature are illustrated from her recollections of an interaction with a stranger on Thanksgiving Day 1975:

“Hey miss, would your husband mind if I asked you for a dime, or would you mind?”

“I don’t have a husband, what is it for?”

“For food, man, we got some bread, but we aint got nothing to put on it. You mean you aint married yet? I can’t believe that. You don’t get tired pedaling that bicycle?

“No way, this is a smooth ride”

“What do you say, say you’re riding off to heaven?”

She gives the man two bits before riding off and contemplating on his “warmth and courtesy, the kindness in his eyes, though staggering and drunk.”

The book builds a picture of a complex woman who blends a bohemian lifestyle with somewhat old-fashioned values, and anyone hoping for the drug-fueled orgies and hedonism associated with 1970s hippie culture will be sorely disappointed. While there are indicators of a liberal ethos, such as after-dinner pot smoking and offering to lend her copy of The Joy of Sex to her mother, she was also a strong Christian, happy to stop off at a cathedral to sing, “Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord?”

The book is out of print, but copies can still be found online. And when it arrived from the U.S., there was a handwritten inscription from her mother, the author, thanking a friend for “fondly remembering Jenny as a little girl.”

The research also threw up one last remarkable fact: That barely 18 months earlier, the case of Jenny Read, which had stumped the San Francisco Police Department for 37 long years, had finally been solved.

Jenny Read

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On May 19, 1976, Jenny Read had cycled home from a movie. Her route would have taken her across Market Street and the railroad tracks that separated the residential and industrial areas; she parked her lemon-yellow bicycle and climbed the stairs to her warehouse apartment, where her killer is believed to have been waiting for her.

The following day, a friend and fellow artist found her dead, her arms tied behind her back and a butcher’s knife still sticking out of her chest. She had been stabbed 13 times.

As the police struggled to find a credible suspect, their inquiries slowed, and they eventually moved on to other cases. Read’s father, Nicholas, with whom she had been close, hired private investigators to try to solve the case, but they, too, were unable to make any significant progress. In the 1980s, the police briefly investigated the involvement of a satanic cult, but the angle yielded nothing new, and it seemed as if Read’s murderer would remain unpunished and at-large.

Unexpectedly, 33 years later, the case took a dramatic turn. DNA evidence collected from the scene yielded a “cold hit,” leading to the arrest of 63-year-old James Mayfield at the Shiloh Full Gospel Church in the Bayview, where he lived and worked. Four years later, in 2013, Mayfield, who had a history of rape and burglary, was tried for Read’s murder and found guilty, with the jury taking just one day to reach its verdict.

In his 2010 article for Examiner.com, Mark MacNamara gave insight into the man the prosecutors labeled as simply a monster: “When he was a kid, his mother told him he was adopted; hence his lighter skin compared with other family members, but at 16 he finds out that’s a lie. In fact, James is the product of an adulterous relationship his mother had. He makes his first attempt at sexual intercourse at 7, with a girl twice his age. At the time of the interview he’s living with a woman by whom he has a son. Sex is good with his wife, and other women in the neighbourhood. But he admits to the psychologist that he’s raped five women, five strangers, during the previous 18 months.

“He goes onto explain that when this happens he’s ‘not Jimmy.’ His mind gets moving real fast, everything gets moving real fast. He has a theory about why this is; when he was 18 months old he was in an auto accident and had brain surgery followed by months in the hospital.”

Read had not been forgotten in the 33-year period between the headlines announcing her murder and those proclaiming her killer’s conviction. Shortly after her death, memorials were held in Sausalito, Montgomery, Ala., and Washington, D.C., through a Catholic Mass in Spain (where she had spent 3 months studying the language as a teenager), and by tree plantings in Jerusalem, where she had friends. The following year, Antioch University, Read’s alma mater, dedicated a new student gallery in her honor, and she would also be featured in a mural called The Dancing Saints at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, dancing in the company of Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, and St. Francis of Assisi.

In 1982, Read’s mother, Dallas Johnson, published a 176-page collection of her letters and journals, alongside photographs and examples of her artwork entitled, Jenny ReadIn Pursuit of Art & Life, which gives remarkable context to many of the photographs and her life in general.

In one of the early entries from her journal, Read wrote a simple list of “things to do in this life,” a rudimentary bucket list of her hopes for the future, which included desires to make and tend a garden, become a grandmother, visit Jerusalem and Kenya, create a sculpture that would last “at least 100 years,” and “die at home near soft soil where the climate is gentle and birds sing, even before dawn.”

By using her journal as a reference, slides labeled simply as “Hitchhiking” are brought to life by access to their back stories. Read would regularly hitchhike across the Golden Gate Bridge to her Episcopal Church in Sausalito or, more likely in this case, to the foundry in Oakland that was making the small brass figures she had been forced to concentrate on after a horse-riding accident stopped her from working on large-scale pieces. While sitting in the canteen at the San Francisco Art Institute, she wrote, “The hassle was not the mold making, which went more smoothly than any investment I’ve made previously, but in hitching back. I kept getting rides with Friday-night-smashed drivers and I didn’t want to go all the way to San Francisco with a drunk so I would ask to get out and then it’s illegal to hitchhike on the freeway so it was a while before I got home.”

For the most part, her letters are written at night, on buses and streetcars, or on her lunch break — a necessity for someone who held down part-time jobs, attended church, was serious about her art, and still found time to take a wide range of classes from Tai Chi and Japanese Noh theater to movement and “corporeal mime.” A series of photographs of a flea market indicate her love of finding tools and materials for her work. As she wrote to her father, “Your $50 allowed me to go ‘hog wild’ at the flea market, not only on tools — a shovel, a hoe and an axe — but 1,080 pounds of concrete mix and 500 pounds of grout topping and $5 worth of lumber.”

We also see that many of the images are of her homes and neighborhoods as she moves to lower-rent apartments in rougher areas in a bid to save money, originally living for three months in a three-room, $150 per month apartment on the corner of Polk and Greenwich streets before moving to a cheaper, six-room flat on Oak Street, in a poorer neighborhood with more crime. This is something that would be reflected in the apartment being burgled: “The Ides of March. Last night we were robbed for the second time. Again my typewriter and camera survived.”

While most of her jobs would prove to be necessary but annoying distractions, Read found happiness in her work at Fields Bookstore, which she photographed several times, “Thank god for that job. I’m beginning to see how much I depend on it for security (psychologically as well as $). Fulfills need to serve, need to belong, need to be connected to the book world.” She would move again, to Potrero Hill and for the first time in her life gain complete financial independence.

Potrero Hill bears little resemblance now to the place which attracted artists and other bohemians in the 1970s. Many of its quirkier shops have been lost, and longstanding residents complain about gentrification and the ever-rising rents that brings.At the time Read moved to the area, her apartment had no hotplate or shower, which resulted in her joining the International Centre, a gym, so she could use its swimming pool and other facilities. While she felt at home in Potrero Hill, its reputation for crime and violence were obviously on her mind as she wrote to her parents, “Please don’t worry about the neighborhood. If I didn’t have all the evidence and reason to believe it’s safe, warm and comfortable I wouldn’t move here. I am no masochist or danger seeker — I get enough risks on my bicycle.”

In the autumn, her flat mate moved out, leaving her, once again, living on her own. San Francisco had proved to be a very different environment from her idyllic childhood home on Elm Street. Coming from a background of open doors, slumber parties, and a community spirit, she seemed reluctant to be affected by the potential threats of her surroundings, but later came to be more cautious and took to carrying a sculptor’s mallet under her poncho as she noticed the sounds of violence in the night.

As far back as her time living on Oak Street, she had registered potential threats and grown afraid. In one entry, she begins a poem with the line, “A Scream from the street” and goes on to write, “So why if we are equally human, see eye to eye, turn on to identical beats, why am I in fear here right now in my own supposed home, hemmed and pierced by sounds of actions unpeaceful to me?”

The feeling of unease seemed to grow over time. While there are many upbeat entries celebrating her life (“Life is very, very full, in a good way”) and detailing her optimism for the future, there was also a hint of feeling threatened by her surroundings. One entry reads, “Something scary awakened me, and I decide Kafka is not good bedtime reading. I am in a perishable place.”

By January 1976, Jenny Read would have less than five months to live, but the year started in a celebratory fashion with her father taking her on a weekend trip to Assateague Island in Maryland, famous for its oysters and wild horses. The trip saw her return to San Francisco in a joyous mood, but her entries showed how this changed and she would continue to switch between optimism and sadness.

Many of her entries in the final days of her life show her considering “the big questions,” such as the psyche, religion, and the afterlife. She concludes, “I do not believe that we began from nothing. We were born out of pre-existing matter and we fade back into that matter. Generations of human beings become generations of beliefs and images. Has grandmother’s life ended because she is dead? Far from it. How far our lives continue after death depends how fully we live. How complete we are.”

A new urgency about her work also materializes at this time. She resolves to complete pieces and show them, considers going into church art, and contacts the Washington Cathedral to see if there were any opportunities for working on stone, all the while producing religious sculpture of her own.

Although she takes up fasting on Wednesdays for lent — which she duly breaks with an egg custard — she is eating more and describes herself as a “bit plumper.” There are improvements to her work also: “My big pieces are a lot stronger and clearer.”

In her last entry before her murder, the feelings of foreboding return. She recounts her dream, “I am driving a tiny sports car (a Nash or Morris). The rear skids off the road and down the bank and I have to tug things back up and think it is lucky my possessions are down to one knapsack. I am being hunted and dive under a green pallet into a hole in the brambles. I am not sure whether they are friends or enemies.

“We are not all brothers.”

The flat on 15th Street would be her last home. When her body was discovered, there were a number of classified “for rent” ads by the telephone, giving the impression that she had decided to move and was apartment hunting at the time of her death.

Among the slides found are a series of striking portraits of Read herself. Some are time-faded and barely recognizable as she walks through tall grass behind her studio, some black-and-white, starker close-ups of a woman whose opinion of herself shifted as regularly as that of her work. “Blotched with freckles, feeling awkward and in the way, sometimes like a child walking into the midst of adults after bedtime. Ugly, freckled, incompetent, mouth hanging open, heart seared. But there is always more to do in sculpture. I’m certainly not starving or bitter or hopeless.”

Perhaps the most poignant images are those that feature her sculpture figure on the cross. The 9-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide piece was featured in her first-ever show in June 1972 and had already attracted a following from the diners at Julius Castle, the restaurant high on the hill above her studio, who walked down the Greenwich Street Steps to get a better look at the striking figure they called The Jesus. Overall, Read’s show proved a success, with one piece selling for $350, but figure on the cross remained unsold.

Read’s enthusiasm for the piece didn’t dim, however, and she wrote to her parents, “It is more endowed with meaning and life than anything I have ever done.” She would donate the sculpture to the local Episcopal Church in Sausalito The donation proved controversial, with some members of the congregation not liking the piece due to its androgynous nature, but it was dedicated by Bart Sarjeant, the rector of the church whom Read was particularly fond of.

Heartbreakingly, Read’s murder robbed her of a chance to achieve several of the ambitions on her “things to do in this life list,” most tragically the opportunity to start a family and be a grandmother. But through her journals, we find that in her short life she did achieve some of her dreams.

She did, indeed, plant and tend a garden behind her studio and her sculpture, girl with a hoop, which is now on display at Bethesda Park, close to her childhood home, has almost 40 years of public display and will, hopefully, last the century she had wished for one of her sculptures. And after her death, her ashes were buried beneath figure on the cross, which had been placed in a grove of pines in the parish garden near soft soil, hopefully where the climate is gentle and the birds sing even before dawn.

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