The Eulogizer: Avant-garde poet Ira Cohen, eclectic entrepreneur Cyrus Harvey


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here.

Ira Cohen, 76, poet and artist

Poet and visual artist Ira Cohen may have been better known in post-hippie and avant-garde artistic circles than by peers and colleagues who got their start in the Beat era, but he continued writing and creating art in various forms until shortly before his death at 76 on April 25, and many in the art world noted his importance.

“Ira was a major figure in the international underground and avant-garde,” said Michael Rothenberg, editor of Big Bridge magazine. “In order to understand American art and poetry post-World War II, you have to understand Ira Cohen.”

A group of artists seeking to expand a scanned trove of 10,000 documents of Cohen’s work and post them online in a digital archive said that Cohen was “a consistent presence in the arts for more than 50 years [who had] shown the highest commitment to artistic integrity, transformation, knowledge, and the enactment of symbolic understanding. The combined breadth and depth of his contribution to poetry, photography, multimedia performance, and publishing (among his many accomplishments and activities) is singular in our time.”

As late as last fall, Cohen was reading poetry in New York venues. A wry comment on a video of that reading said, “Ira was an observant world traveler who wrote it all down. He once told me that Allen Ginsberg made sure New York City wasn’t big enough for two bearded Jewish poets.”

Among his last published works was “Whatever you say may be held against you,” a 2004 poetry chapbook from Shivastan Press in Woodstock, N.Y, printed on handmade paper from Kathmandu. A venture of Cohen’s from more than 30 years prior to that book, Bardo Matrix Press, printed its books on handmade rice paper, also from Nepal.

Like others of his generation, Cohen was entranced by Eastern mysticism. Among his more well-known projects was “Kings of the Straw Mats,” a film of the Kumbh Mela Hindu pilgrimage that in 2001 included 60 million participants, “making it at the time the largest gathering anywhere in the world in recorded history.”

Other works of Cohen, besides an unending stream of poetry, included the 1968 experimental film “The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda.” A Village Voice review in classic hippie-speak said the viewer left the theater “perched full-lotus on a cloud of incense, chatting with a white rabbit and smoking a banana.”

Cohen created the short-lived journal Gnaoua, named for a Moroccan dance and music style that is now an annual festival, while in Morocco. A copy of the magazine is on the fireplace shown on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.” 

He published “The Hashish Cookbook,” which contained real recipes, in Morocco in 1967 under the pseudonym Panama Rose. A search online found listings and commentary about the book but no actual copies available for sale.
In addition to films, Cohen’s photographs documented his extensive travels. A fascinating catalog and listings of his pictures can be found here. He also developed a method of using Mylar for photography, which led to photos in surreal and fantastic shapes. One of the most famous is an image of Jimi Hendrix.

Cohen was born in the Bronx in 1935 to deaf parents.

“I grew up constantly surrounded by these wonderful, loving people with strange voices like doves cooing in the eaves of a country house,” he said.

Cohen graduated from the prestigious Horace Mann School at 16 and attended Cornell and Columbia universities.

In Tangiers in the late 1960s, he lived and worked with writers William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. Cohen was in Nepal in the 1970s and returned to New York in 1981, where he lived until his death.

Cyrus Harvey, 85, eclectic entrepreneur

Cyrus Harvey, whose broad and quirky interests brought America both foreign “art” films and the faux-English soap company Crabtree & Evelyn, died April 14 at 85 in Connecticut.

Harvey founded Janus films, one of the first distributors of films by European and Asian directors, including Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, with a friend and partner with whom he ran the Cambridge, Mass., art film house Brattle Theater.

Harvey’s wife, Rebecca, said he learned about such films during a stint in Paris as a Fulbright scholar. “Instead of spending two years at the Sorbonne, he spent two years at the cinematheque,” she said.

Harvey and his partner, actor Bryant Haliday, showed the films at the Cambridge theater and at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York. They named the company for the Roman god Janus, who was generally shown with two heads facing in different directions.

“They named it that because they themselves were opposites,” Rebecca Harvey said. “Bryant was gay and Catholic. Cy was straight and Jewish. They really liked that.”

Haliday, who appeared in a half-dozen horror films, among other acting credits, died in 1996.

Films that Janus brought to the U.S. included several that are acknowledged masterpieces of world cinema, including Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Fellini’s “La Strada,” and Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” and “Virgin Spring.”

“The creation of Janus Films is one of the biggest moments that any cinephile can point to and say that their lives were ultimately changed due to it,” film blogger Joshua Brunsting wrote.

Harvey was interested in far more than cinema, though. After expanding the space under the Brattle Theater into a shopping area that included one selling exotic soaps, he and his wife developed a business that became Crabtree & Evelyn, which is now a retail chain that sells fragrances, foods and toiletries as luxury items.

By the time they sold the company to a holding company in Malaysia in 1996, it had more than 150 stores. Crabtree & Evelyn filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and closed many outlets. The company, founded in his Connecticut home, was named for a 17th-century conservationist and 18th-century horticulturalist.

The Harveys were devoted gardeners and once owned a luxurious home in the English countryside, Chantry House. They sold it in 2007 for nearly $6 million. 

Harvey was born in Cambridge to a father from Lithuania and a mother from Poland. His father sold baby furniture and toys. Harvey graduated from Harvard after serving stateside in World War II and then went to Paris.

Along with film and gardening, Harvey’s other passions included opera and Welsh corgi dogs.

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