08 Jul Press of the Week: The Loujon Press
“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
― Tennessee Williams
Jon Edgar Webb
New Orleans, Lousiana : Loujon Press, 1961-1970
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Jon and Louise “Gypsy Lou” Webb were bohemian fugitives living in Cleveland, Ohio with a penchant for eccentricities. Jon was an ex-con whose failed jewelry heist landed him a three-year stint in prison. While incarcerated he edited the prison newspaper and after his release wrote a novel based on his experiences. It was Jon’s writing — or typing, to be exact — that attracted Gypsy Lou in the first place. Neighbors at the time, she had heard him typing one day when she walked past his window. Hot spirits in cold town, Jon and Gypsy Lou bought a one-way ticket southbound, where they settled in and eloped in New Orleans.
By the 1920s, the Vieux Carré was already becoming “the Paris of the Mississippi.” It attracted artists and intellectuals, “Dixie Bohemia,” where alternative attitudes and lifestyles were accepted and celebrated. It was “the cradle of jazz” and a literary hotspot for prominent authors such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. A few decades later, the Vieux Carré (Old Square in French) was where the Webbs lived, slept, ate and breathed art. Gypsy Lou made a living selling watercolors in the infamous Pirate’s Alley, across the street from their apartment. Meanwhile, Jon worked as a freelance writer and editor. But his real passion was fixated on creating a new kind of literary magazine, one that would invite other poets, writers, and artists that struggled to fit in some real estate on the page.
The Outsider was the question, solution, and subsequent shout of rebellion which gave voice to Beats, Pacifists, and Black Radical Poets. Its long list of contributors included writers such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Gary Snyder, Langston Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchen. From 1961-1968, four issues of The Outsider, each displaying the unique features which come with a publication that is hand-set, hand-cut, hand-published, hand-sewn, and even hand-decorated. With its high-quality and obvious attention to detail, the journal edged a fine line between a traditional “book” and a work of modern art. This, along with the content, went beyond the French Quarter, attracting a subscription base that was international.
Recognizing their reach, and their talent, the Webbs decided to expand and venture into book publishing. Under the moniker of the Loujon Press, they published the first major collection of poetry written by Charles Bukowski, It Catches My Heart in its Hands (1963). In the colophon, they describe the process as such:
777 copies of this book were printed by the editors of Loujon Press, one page at a time, handfed with 12-point Garamond Old Style for the poems, 18-point Pabst O.S. for the titles — to an ancient 8 by 12 Chandler & Price letterpress; on Linweave Spectra paper throughout, 320 lb. for the cover, 160 lb. for the jacket, 75 lbs. for the text, in shades of white, winestone, saffron bayberry, peacock, ivory, bittersweet, gobelin & tobasco. The printing, all manual, was done thru the steamy months of June to September 1963, in a slave quarters workshop back of a sagging ex-mansion in the French Quarter in New Orleans; and handbound in October — the workshop’s windows gaping out into a delightful walled-in courtyard dense to its broken-bottled brims with rotting banana trees, stinkweed and vine, & moths, spiders, snails, bats, gnats, ticks, wasps, silverfish, ants, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches big as mice & lizards, none of whom gave annoyance except accidently: rats galloping overhead at night loosened showers of 1800s dust & plaster over completed pages stacked on every available level space, & seeping rainwater complemented the mischief so that pages had to be done over; bugs flew & walked into the running press to be ground up into ink; lovemaking rodents scattered alphabets in the typecases; fuses blew with awesome abandon, twice wiring in the aged walls caught fire; & thrice the press broke down, nesters mangled in the machinery or motor… the humidity burst open composition rollers, kept ink from drying on finished runs, & et cetera. But her is the book, written in blood… & printed in blood; but like Bukowski’s, more like the pseudo-stuff that bleeds from the madras tissue between pages 96 and 97 if you wet it and squeeze — for we’ve nothing at all to complain about: the experience was unforgettable, one that could not be bought for gold — or sold to the devil.
— Jon and Louise Webb
Bukowski was so pleased with the publication, he agreed to have his next collection published by the Webbs. Despite being printed in a run of more than three thousand, Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965) was just as distinctive as the first Loujon Press title, but now Bukowski’s poetry was coupled with illustrations by Noel Rockmore, a prolific New Orleans-based artist, best known for his series of Preservation Hall musicians portraits. Accompanying the Rockmore’s images, the colorful and ornate, almost baroque, pages of the two books contrasted greatly to Bukowski’s poetic style — the sloppy and slurred idiom in which all his poems are written. And yet, the texture of the deckled edges complimented the depth and harsh realities Bukowski was known to portray. The combinations of text, image, texture and color were evident in all that the Webbs produced, and when financial troubles moved them to Tucson, Arizona they continued to express their eccentric ways through print, this time collaborating with well-known author, Henry Miller.
“How does one talk about a Loujon creation?
I could roll cigarettes and drink beer all night and write about and end up with all the pages,
and perhaps myself,
on the floor and still not have said it.”
— Charles Bukowski, in a letter to Jon Webb
It Catches My Heart in its Hands
New Orleans, Lousiana: Loujon Press, 1963
xPS3552 U4 I82
Miller sought out the Loujon Press after copies of their publications had been passed along to him. Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel (1966) was produced only one year after Bukowski’s last collection, but exceeded the limits of anything the Webbs had ever done. Three separate editions of the book were printed: the “Cork” edition consisting of 1,399 copies; the “Leather” edition of 99 copies; and an “A to Z Leather Inscription Edition” of only 26 copies. The text — a series of letters from Miller to his Parisian “compatriot,” Hans Reichel — featured excerpts from the original letters handwritten in French opposite their English translations in type. There were also illustrations, crude figures, and diagrams that outlined the philosophical connections between the two men. The notes and the intimacy drawn from the letters, but also the paper and binding, transform the work from a simple “book” to a sort of unique ephemeral artifact.
Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel
Tuscon, Arizona: Loujon Press, 1966
xPS3525 I5454 Z578 1966
The book’s popularity reached the heights of stars such as Nancy Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, who both ordered copies. It even won awards for typography, type direction, and design from the prestigious Type Directors Club of New York. Like Bukowski, Miller was so impressed with the Webbs special style, he had a second work printed. Insomnia: Or, the Devil at Large (1970) came out just one year before Jon’s death, and subsequently the death of the Loujon press.
Gypsy Lou eventually moved back to New Orleans and over time disappeared into obscurity. Without Jon, there was little reason to work. The Outsider and each of the books were typeset, printed and assembled together. Together, they were constantly affected by the conditions of life: finances, health, and society. Despite struggling to fit in all this time, their productions only seemed to ground them within the heart of the counterculture of New Orleans. For Gypsy Lou, alone, it would be a different thing altogether.
The Loujon Press, lasting only a decade, now makes it mark on different readers, ones who can look past the banality of a plain “library binding” and still find the beauty of bookmaking and the power of love.
A special thanks to Richard Hernandez, who brought the fascinating story of the Loujon Press to my attention during his visit to Special Collections.
Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator