Issue date: August 05, 1998

GUEST OPINION: The mystery of Henry Cowell's imprisonment explained GUEST OPINION: The mystery of Henry Cowell's imprisonment explained (August 05, 1998)

Editor's Note: This story is written by Frank Helfrich, treasurer of the Menlo Park Historical Association. It is based on information published in the Journal of the American Musicological Association, dated January 1992, and donated to the association by Stephen Whitting of Australia, who visited Menlo Park while doing research on Henry Cowell.

By Frank Helfrich

One of the more interesting stories in Menlo Park's past involves Henry Cowell, an internationally known composer who was charged with homosexual conduct by local authorities and arrested on May 21, 1936, at his cottage off the Alameda.

At first, Mr. Cowell denied the charge in the warrant, but under interrogation, he confessed to "improper relations" with several of his friends. Within a week he had written a confession and plea for leniency. At first he declined to hire an attorney, but only until he had consulted with his father and stepmother. Without counsel they attempted to obtain his release by promising to remove him from the area -- even from the country, if necessary. Their efforts collapsed and the charges were not dropped, so Mr. Cowell hired Duncan O'Neal, the junior member of a prestigious San Jose law firm, to defend him.

The press, in particular the local papers, followed the trial in Redwood City, as Mr. Cowell's international fame had brought unprecedented coverage to the case, even by the Hearst newspapers, for whom sex crimes among less prominent people were almost daily fare. This coverage forced the judge to make an example of Mr. Cowell, even though to do so seemed to confirm the errors in the newspapers. (He had been charged only with a single instance of homosexual contact, yet the San Francisco Examiner painted him as a promiscuous child molester.)

Mr. Cowell's friends reacted variously to his plight. Some turned against him, including composer Charles Ives, who refused all communication with Mr. Cowell between the time of his arrest and his marriage in 1941. Percy Grainger, the world-famous composer/pianist, was among his defenders.

On July 8, 1936, Henry Cowell entered San Quentin, the largest prison in a penal system that had been rated the second worst in the nation. Here Mr. Cowell would have almost no access to a piano and, with neither desk nor table in his cell, could compose only on score paper laid on a book. In spite of having to work long hours in the prison jute mill, he not only composed a number of pieces in his cell, but also played at the monthly vaudeville nights in San Quentin.

In the intervening years his stepmother was able to obtain testimonials of his good nature from 87 prominent citizens, including Lewis Termen, the Stanford psychologist, who had known and studied Mr. Cowell's intellectual achievements for 26 years.

Later, while still in San Quentin, Mr. Cowell found himself immersed in music when he was transferred in order to work with the bandmaster in the prison's education department. Here, Mr. Cowell proved himself indispensable, as he had created the thriving school of music. As of June 1939, Mr. Cowell had had 1,549 registrations in music classes, 343 registrations in elementary correspondence courses and 59 more in advanced courses.

Still, with all this activity, he continued to write and arrange for performances of his music outside prison. His activities included writing a book on melody and 11 journal articles, as well as composing more than 50 musical works.

His good behavior resulted in his sentence being reduced to under 10 years, and in June 1940, with less than half of that time served, Mr. Cowell won his parole and moved to White Plains, N.Y., where he worked for Percy Grainger. He was back in the musical world he really loved, but on a parole basis. He soon went to work for the government on a project that would eventually lead to his pardon.

His pardon came about through efforts of his many friends -- in particular, Daniel E. Sullivan, a friend and neighbor who lived about a mile down the Alameda from Mr. Cowell. Mr. Sullivan, who had nothing to do with prosecuting the original case, was an assistant district attorney over civil matters. He recommended a pardon, not because he thought the composer innocent, but because he thought him more in need of treatment than punishment. Many other local authorities agreed with this opinion. Later, in 1942, his wife of 14 months pled for executive clemency.

In 1943, with a full and unconditional pardon in hand, Mr. Cowell became senior music editor of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information.

Frank Helfrich is treasurer of the Menlo Park Historical Association and contributes occasional articles to the Gate Post, the association's newsletter, where this piece originally appeared.

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