by George Wallace

Remembering Adolph Rothman


(Editor's note: "One good man I met in Northport...was Adolph Rothman," writes Jack Kerouac in a letter to a friend in 1963. Though Rothman died in 1998 before we had a chance to talk with him, interviews with his wife Barbara Rothman, as well as figures as diverse as sister Shirley Gershen and cousin Arthur, student/friends Dan Richman, Peter Lownds and Bob Spong, and even former US Congressman-turned-author Bob Mrazek, suggest a figure of force, culture and character that would well have repaid the attentions paid to him by the Beat author.

That Rothman was a teacher and scholar beneath his rough, clam-digger exterior is a fact known to more than a few of his acquaintances. He was a poet too - a fact less well known. "We don't wear our art on our sleeve as do the Coffee-House kind," wrote Rothman to Richman in the 1990s. But with his funeral in 1998, that may have begun to change somewhat: a volume of his poems printed for the occasion revealed a writing talent of formal dignity, careful culture, and restrained power.

The lives and works of many associates of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and WS Burroughs - arguably the Beat generation's core figures - are well documented. And now, thanks to an off-hand comment in one of Kerouac's personal letters, a portion of the story of another such character - Adolph Rothman - is, just a few years after his death, being gathered.

"I can't believe how much interest there is in my brother Adolph," said Gershen recently. "It wasn't like this when he was alive."

Thanks to the fond recollections of acquaintances of Adolph Rothman, from California to New York, the story of this most colorful figure - whose presence was felt in Greenwich Village, Northport and further afield - is being preserved.)

According to Shirley Gershen, Adolph's younger sister, seven years younger than him but a person who was there when the Rothman kids were growing up in Brooklyn, Adolph had a singular nature - which she recalled cropping up at summer camp in the Catskills. "I remember my brother catching fish, and keeping them in the bathtub in the cottage," said Gershen. "Adolph was always a different sort of person."

That different-ness, distinct even in the youthful memory of his sister, was a feature that carried through Adolph's adult years: as a teacher, student of linguistics and indigenous cultures, Melville aficionado, film maker, and clammer on the North Shore of Long Island - and may have been a key to what attracted Beat novelist Jack Kerouac (a resident of Northport Long Island during the late 1950s and early 1960s) to him.

"Their souls were connected," recalls Barbara Rothman, reflecting on the relationship between her husband and Kerouac. "They understood each other - they were tortured by the same things."

Kerouac aside, Adolph Rothman was able to establish a rapport with other writers, artists and musicians who frequented Greenwich Village haunts in the 1950s in NYC. Or so says his cousin Arthur Rothman, an artist living in Manhattan, with whom he started "hitting the bars" like the White Horse Tavern after the end of World War II. "He was a man's man, a big guy," said Arthur. "People liked him. He looked like a rough and ready character, but he was more the intellectual type. We ran into Delmore Schwartz there, and Dylan Thomas. One time we sang with the Clancy Brothers in the back room."

It didn't hurt that once he established a home on the North Shore of LI, Adolph made it a practice to haul sacks full of clams, over his shoulder, to Manhattan, where he would cook up a big stew at one or another of the downtown bars. Rothman also brought the downtown art scene back to Northport. "It was always fun with Adolph," said Barbara Rothman. "He would bring a lot of people from the village out here to Northport." Lee Krasner came to visit. Peter Leventhal would come to clam. The couple knew Peter and Lafcadio Orlovsky, whose family lived in Northport. "The whole gang of them would get together and talk, like at Stanley Twardowicz' artist loft. It was a man thing - they would wrestle and have fun, until someone got hurt."

And he was friends with Jack Kerouac.

It should be noted right away that Adolph Rothman (ca 1925-1998) was a Columbia graduate who came to the Northport in the 1950s, where in addition to befriending Jack Kerouac he impacted the lives of a number of young people and artists for forty years. But the Kerouac connection is a key one in understanding the importance of his experience in the small town.

"Adolph and Jack spent a lot of time together," said Barbara. "They did everyday things - drinking, talking. For example, Jack liked Flamenco music and Adolph knew someone who played Flamenco at a Spanish Restaurant in Huntington." Additionally, Adolph would drive Gabrielle Kerouac, Jack's mother, to the store for food shopping.

Importantly, the two men explored their mutual love of language together. "He liked the way Jack used language," said Barbara. "One time, for example, we were living on Makamah Beach and Jack was there with us. We went to take a walk on the beach, and Jack began mentioning the smell of the wild grapes. It was beautiful, the way he described it."

Why did Adolph come to Northport? "Adolph never wanted to live in the city - he was allergic to the city," said Arthur. "Northport was such a pretty place." Added Barbara: "The place reminded him of Herman Melville, and Moby Dick."

The Moby Dick connection is no incidental one, says Dan Richman. "I think Adolph's interest in Moby Dick was that it was an invocation of the implacable grandeur of the sea," said Richman, who was deeply influenced by Rothman in his late teens and continued to correspond with the man for thirty years as he established a career as a writer and contractor in San Francisco. "In Northport he engaged in a struggle of his own, a struggle in the dangerous and awesome theater of the sea."

In the 1950s and 60s, there were a lot of clam diggers in Northport. "Understand, there were 1300 commercial licenses in the town of Huntington, and a lot of them were in Northport," recalls Peter Hendrickson, a childhood friend of Richman's and a man who traces his family history in the Northport area back to colonial days. "There were a lot of boats and a lot of clam diggers. They were an individualistic bunch." Hendrickson, who spent years on the waters of Northport harbor and the greater bay area, recalls personalities like Ellis Wood, who lived in a power boat and worked marginal shellfish areas. "We called it arming," said Hendrickson, a lifelong Long Island resident. Then there was a female clammer named Whip, "the only woman clammer I ever knew. Her boat was neat as a pin. Whip kept her hair short - from far off, you couldn't really tell she was a woman. I remember she used tobacco to numb the eels before she caught them." And there was "Piss Clam Charlie," who would dig steamers. "That's hard work," said Hendrickson. "You have to have a certain knack. If you're not careful by the time you dig the hole they've gone too far down."

Adolph Rothman stood out even among such rough and ready characters as these, say those who knew part because of his physical size, in part because of his singular demeanor - but also because he was apparently a darn good clammer. "Adolph was a mythological figure, a superman clammer, to us kids," recalls Peter Lownds, now an actor, author and professor in Los Angeles. "We were kid clammers in Northport, we did arming too, going out in the evening to the places where the clammers had their beds, places that weren't legal but where the clammers would plant clams and knew they would be able to go back and harvest them." Adds Bob Spong, who is still a bayman on the waters of Northport Harbor: "Adolph was a very striking guy, with his beard and moustache, clamming in waders, working the rake backwards like a harness clammer."

Richman recalls another reason Adolph stood out: his friendliness "He was no loner," he noted. "He loved the companionship. Adolph loved being part of the society of clam diggers."

These days people who recall Adolph Rothman on the streets of Northport tend to recall him for his connections to clamming society. Many are unaware that he was a teacher in the local schools off and on in the fifties and sixties. And one who made a strong impression in the schools, it seems: in fact, Rothman quickly established a reputation for his unorthodox methods as a teacher.

One of Adolph's distinctive qualities as a teacher, it seems, was his inspirational, wide-open approach. It was an approach that won him life-long loyalties from some of his students - but often, also landed him in hot water with the 1950s era school administrators. "Adolph Rothman was my favorite teacher going through public schools," said author and former US Congressman Bob Mrazek. "I had a number of fine teachers, but he was the most inspirational to me. Adolph made me believe in myself." Rothman taught Mrazek at the Woodbury School, sixth grade, in a time "when you had one teacher all day. I remember him encouraging us to use our imagination. His style was definitely unorthodox."

Later Adolph taught in the Commack schools, where Barbara Rothman was a speech therapist. "He was the world's best teacher," she said. "The kids loved him. When he taught them about germs, he set up a boxing ring in the classroom, and the white blood cells would fight against the germs. They did movies on poems, like Miniver Cheevy. The kids would hang around after school with him - they didn't want to leave."

But not all the kids felt that way. "He sure broke the model for an elementary school teacher in Huntington, New York in 1956," said Mrazek. "Every other teacher I had at Woodbury was straightforward. I felt like I could take on any challenge after meeting him, but he didn't impress all the kids that way. I know there were complaints."

Rothman's intellectual curiosity and earnestness informed his life outside of the schools as well, and impressed people like Dan Richman, who got to know Adolph - and Kerouac - in the late 1950s at the Northport dock, and for whom the teacher/clammer was like a foster father. "I had been reading Moby Dick, and I got to talking with him about it," said Richman. "You know, a lot of young people think they discover things. Now here was this grown man who was living it, was enthusiastic about it. He talked to me as a human being. It was an epiphany for me, at the age of 18, to meet a man like Adolph Rothman."

So much so, it seems, that he kept up a correspondence with the man through the 1990s. And as Richman made preparations for publication of a collection of his poetry entitled "Farming in San Francisco" recently, he dedicated the book to Adolph Rothman.

Among Richman's fond recollections of Rothman? "How we first met when I was eighteen, you ten years older, at the Northport dock in mid-winter, the harbor frozen, the wind cruel, my middle-class head full of Melville, amazed to discover an adult, an adult! who was passionate about a book about a whale. Adolph as a clam-digger, a Jewish clam-digger, who had to fight his way into acceptance by the others. About how through the years he opened me to classical guitar and film-making, and most important, the dark and mysterious history of words, the words of the many languages with which you were more than familiar."

Or the time they went with friends to the Vietnam Peace Demonstration in DC and Adolph helped "levitate" the Capitol Building with Allen Ginsberg.

The dedication in Dan Richman's volume of poetry reads "To Adolph Rothman, in the certain knowledge that wherever he is he has already learned the language."

This is not hyperbole. Adolph was a keen student of culture and language from early in his life, and as time went on he became immersed in the etymology of words, and the study of indigenous cultures - the "fellaheen" celebrated by Kerouac and others.

That interest, recalls sister Shirley, goes back to Adolph's Army days. "He was sent to Panama to guard the Canal, and that's how he got interested in Spanish and Central American culture," she recalls. "Adolph took lessons in Spanish, and he got so good at it he taught Spanish."

Richman recalls that one of Rothman's passions was the study of words. "He would trace words to their origins, but not like you ever heard before," he said. "He would go to the Egyptian, to the Sanskrit. I learned how strange language is, that it's just difficult for us to see that because we use it all the time. The image that flashes through my mind is that every word has an ancient history - and that there is a deep connection between all the languages."

"Adolph embraced a lot of things," explained Barbara Rothman. "He was collecting indigenous languages in Central America, places where people didn't even speak Spanish. We were living in a VW Camper, he would learn crafts, make movies. He would make friends with guitar makers, they would make us guitars." For several years Rothman had a base of operations in Guanajuato, a town known for its exceptional colonial architecture, where he took an interest in translating the Chilumbalu, an ancient myth of Mexico. "He wanted to save those languages because the native people were being killed off, especially in Guatemala." Barbara remembers traveling to Central America with her Adolph and her children Adrian and Paul, living in a volkswagen bus at times. According to Adrian, Adolph Rothman was known by some in these countries, affectionately, as "El Hombre Grande Con Mucho Pelo Blancs."

In later years, Adolph Rothman continued his travels, until deteriorating health finally caught up with him. "When Adolph died a year or two ago, we went out on Bob Spong's boat to spread his ashes in Northport Harbor," said Barbara Rothman. During the ceremonies, she read from Walt Whitman's poem Goodbye My Fancy. "Whitman writes, 'Maybe it is you ushering me to the true song, who knows,'" she said. "That fancy could be a lot of things - creativity. The muse."

That creativity - and involvement in literary pursuits - was for most of Rothman's life a hidden aspect of his life. Copies of his personal correspondence donated to the Northport Historical Society by Dan Richman contain uncollected poems of Rothmans, and are frequently peppered with references to Dryden, Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer, Marianne Moore and of course his favorite, Herman Melville.

But the extent to which The Muse played a hand in Adolph Rothman's life became more clear at his funeral. That's when a small booklet containing a group of Rothman's poems, entitled Sonnets for Surfers, was distributed. "Adolph worked for a long time at it," said Barbara of the taut, formalist poems. "He messed around with them up until he got sick." Among them is this:


This is the final moment of the light,
The doubloon-spitting-sea churns up its gold;
The sun disk flowers then falls...and now the night
In lavender chants exequies. Behold!
The surfers have now paddled past the reef
And rest within the heavings of the sea.
Hoorah! All havens gone, at last they're free
Of land, of love, of family, of grief.

Oh summer boys rise up like kings of old
To greet her coming, mother of us all.
See as she comes, herself her self enfold.
Rise up! and ride that raunchy mare 'til foam
Gathers at her flanks and at last she falls
On this dark beach to which she has come home.

During these interviews, Barbara Rothman was quick to point out details of the photo on the back of the booklet - a color view of Adolph in Guatemala "holding a puppy," she explained. "We were staying at this house, across a little bridge past an orange grove, a Spanish style house. The lady who owned it rented it to us." There was a dog that came with the house, she recalled. "The second year we were there the dog had puppies, and someone had fed them poison. All of them were very sick. Adolph would put them in his back pack every day, and go up the mountain on this path to the druggist for something to give them. He would cook them a special mixture every morning. But they all died, one by one. That puppy was the last of them."


Poetrybay seeks fine poetry, reviews, commentary and essays without restriction in form or content, and reserves first electronic copyright to all work published. All rights to published work revert to the author following publication. All Email submissions should be in body of email text.

To submit poems write to:

PO Box 114 
Northport NY 11768
or email us at

send comments to

first electronic copyright 2004 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to