Bill Cumming, Maggie and Ivar, Ted Abrams, and others . . .

(What follows is lifted from “Keep Clam” a work-in-progress on the life of Ivar and Ivar’s.   This is part of the longer of two books, and will appear somewhat polished only on the net.  The smaller book will be published between covers and available early in 2012.   The longer book will begin to appear on its own webpage sometime early next year and “with many extreas” including recordings, video bits, and a reading of the serial installments by the author for those who like to be read to.)


In her revealing memoir “Wash Your Hearts with Laughter”, following her description of meeting Ivar at a Theosophy meeting, Maggie introduces Ted Abrams, the brilliant craftsman, cook, collector and raconteur. “We became friends with the most interesting man two young and green people could associate with.”  Raised in a southern Jewish family, Abrams came to Seattle a short time before World War One.  He escaped the war years living in Japan, working as a buyer for Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson Department store.   Otherwise Ted Abrams lived in Seattle until his death in 1942.  In a recorded conversation with Emmett Watson and Guy Williams, Ivar begins to describe Abrams, until Williams interrupts him. “Allow me to interpolate. Abrams! I’ll swear he knew everything.” Ivar continues, “He was a genius.”  Guy Williams, Ivar’s college friend and sometimes his press agent as well, was encyclopedic on his own.  As a young boy he was already an accomplished auto-dictate.  Growing up in the gypo lumber camps that his dad managed, Williams read a multi-volume encyclopedia from A to Z and it would seem he remembered much of it.

Ivar and Maggie Haglund with Ted Abrams, rolling his tobacco. 1938

Ivar and Maggie met Abrams at his Club Mauve on First Hill.  Abrams was both the chef and the entertainer with a gift for rendering blues and gospel music he learned growing up in Savanna, Georgia.  Maggie credits Abrams with inspiring Ivar to a more earnest life as a folklorist and songwriter.  Club Mauve was designed around Abrams own collection of antiques and exotic art.  The young couple was so taken with him that when Abram’s club fell victim of the wrecking ball they invited him to join them in West Seattle.  After first distinguishing the old Haglund home on 59th Ave. SW with decorative brick work, Abrams built his own home from salvaged materials on a lot that Ivar donated across a Horton Street that was more an alleyway than a street.  A visit to Abrams charmed construction became a kind of pilgrimage for members of Seattle’s Bohemian community in the 1930s.  Artist William Cummings recalled the interior of Abrams home in his published, Sketchbook – A Memoir of the 30s of the Northwest School.  “The house was crammed with paintings, drawings, sculpture, etchings and first-edition volumes signed by names famous and infamous.  Ted managed to live just above the alleged level of poverty with an aristocratic grace that seldom showed the strained and stressed crevices of daily life.”

Ted Abrams rustic but tight home across Horton "alley" from Ivar and Maggie's West Seattle home. The photograph was lifted from the 1937 tax inventory of King County structures.
I took this photograph of Ivar's and Maggies home on 59th in 2003, my last visit. It was torn down last year for something "greater and taller" - or what is the developer's cliche for this? The ornamental brick work that can be seen behind the bushes and in some decay. It was the work of Ted Abrams.


Another visit to Ted Abrams home is recounted in Bill Cumming’s memoir. It is titled for our subject, “Ivar Haglund.”  He might have titled it “Meeting Ivar Haglund” for nearly a half-century later he notes that their bumping “remains vivid” and a bit creepy.

On a spring Sunday afternoon Cumming accompanied Ken and Margaret Callahan aboard their Model A for a visit to Abrams little salvaged manse next door to Ivar’s and Maggie’s place.  Abrams’ “tiny astonishingly fragile and graceful elderly nymph” of a sister had moved from Georgia to help take care of her fading brother, (Anguished, Cumming could not remember her name.) and the pair accompanied the Callahans for a visit to the nearby Alki Point.  Cumming stayed behind, to explore Abrams’ library and watch his cat Mike “who dozed in a corner while I curled up in a big chair engrossed in a book.”  The stage was set for meeting Ivar.  Cumming continues.

“I was raised from the chair by a thunderous knocking on a fragile door, which threatened to collapse under the attack.  Before I could open it, the door sprang open and on the threshold stood another short stocky figure in ample flesh, pale eyes set over drooping lower lids.  At the moment the whole apparition gave off an air of general hysteria. ‘I’m sorry to bother you.  My name’s Ivar Haglund and I live next door.  I’m a friend of Ted’s and the Callahans’.”  Cummings replied, “Yes.  They speak of you a lot.” However, before he could complete his observation, Ivar “blurted out, ‘Listen! You wouldn’t know how to get rid of a room full of bees, would you? I mean an entire room full, my bedroom!’ . . . Driven by a Spartan sense of duty I walked back with him to his yard.  Creeping through the long grass for all the world like marauding Indians in a B Western, we gained the relative safety of the wall of his house directly beneath the bedroom window, which gaped slightly open.   From within floated the ominous hum of multitudinous wings, a hum of anger and threat.  Rising up until our eyes just cleared the sill, we gazed into the room, then froze in terror and abject fear.  The room was indeed filled with bees, flying, standing on edges and ledges, crawling over bed covers, crawling into and out an hollow containers, into lampshades, out of pillowcases . . . In front of our eyes, barely out of striking distance, the sill was three deep in black and yellow malcontents who glared balefully into our eyes, not yet collected enough to launch themselves across the scant inches between us.  Hurriedly we ducked back down and retreated on all fours through the grass, praying that we would not be hit by a sudden raid from the rear.

“Regaining the safety of Ted’s porch, I slumped in a chair, while Ivar wandered off in search of someone who might be of practical help.  My only suggestion was to burn the house down.  I never met Ivar again.  In fact, I never really found out if it actually was Ivar or not.  If it’s of any significance to scholars, he wasn’t carrying a guitar.”

(The above was written – often copied – during a blizzard sent early from Canada this Monday evening, November 22, 2010.  This morning the 93 year old Bill Cummings died, and the community lost thereby one of its great raconteurs.  He had hosted his last painting class in his home a week earlier.  Last Friday our mutual friend the pianist-producer Margaret Margason serenaded Bill.  She brought with her to Bill’s home some romantic Robert Schumann and some Beatles, and he requested the latter, which she both played and sang.  At the time he was reading again the Jeeves novels by the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse.  About one month ago Bill celebrated his last birthday with the Margasons at their Wallingford home.  A few days earlier I had found in a collection of negatives recorded by the artist Victor Lygdman a series of “artist at work” portraits of Bill that Victor took in the earlier 1960s.  Six of these are included below.)

The dustjacket for Bill Cumming's 1984 memoir, published by the Univesity of Washington Press. Although most likely "out of print" it may be checked out of libraries and probably found on line as a used book. (Click to ENLARGE)

One thought on “Bill Cumming, Maggie and Ivar, Ted Abrams, and others . . .”

  1. I was recently given Bill Cumming’s book for my 67th birthday by fellow artist who like me was a student of Bill’s. My friend and I attended the Burnley School of Professional Art in the 60’s.So much in the art world has changed and the book was a fantastic lift for me. It brought back so many memories of the man and his influence on all of us. I began a painting!This was wonderful as I had made a living at “commercial art” and felt so cut off from creativity and the feelings that creativity gives a human being by the easy plagiarizing the internet has offered. I love my Mac but it cannot replace the hand to canvas to the viewers eye-that wonderful communication!

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