Peter Stone Brown to Trev Gibb, June 2007
I don’t know if I ever told you about my uncle Mark. He died at the beginning of June on the 6th I believe. He was 93! He was also insane his entire life. Even when I was a little kid, I think I knew he was out of his mind. But being of well whatever generation that was considering he was born just a few months before the start of World War I, I don’t know if people even knew what to do about someone like him back then or even if they should have. Well actually, they should have, someone should have called him on his shit a long time ago but no one did.
He was my mother’s eldest brother. There was one other (older) brother, my mom and then her sister.
Mark would have been perfect for Alfred Hitchcock or even the Twilight Zone. He never left home. He never married. He taught history and he collected. What did he collect? Well all kinds of things, but mostly newspapers. When I was a kid it was always something to go down to my grandmother’s basement because there would be “Time” Magazines, Life magazines, and probably some other magazine stacked to the ceiling.
My grandfather who died before I was born was a dentist and so there was a dentist office in my grandmother’s basement. When I was real little it was occupied by a real dentist and if my brother and I had a dentist appointment my mom would always take us down to the office through the basement. Eventually the dentist moved across the street and soon the magazines took over the vacant dentist’s office.
By the seventies, after my grandmother was removed to a nursing home the stacks like gigantic monsters had moved upstairs, first to the breakfast room, then the dining room and finally the living room. Stacks and stacks of the New York Times. When I was a little kid, I remember a family scandal one day when my mother was cleaning and moved the sofa in the dining room to find that my grandmother was taking my parent’s New York Times and stashing them under the couch for my uncle Mark. Now he already bought two copies of the New York Times anyway, just because there might be an article on the other side of the article he was cutting out that he wanted to keep. Hmm, it occured to me I did not tell you that yes, he would cut out articles and well he put them somewhere I guess.
My father told me my mother told him that when she was a girl sometimes she’d wake up in the middle of the night and hear the snip snip snip of her brother cutting out articles.
He wasn’t born Mark K. Stone, the K was for Kotinsky, my socialist Orthodox-Jew great-grandfather who was part of the socialist Jewish farmers of South Jersey, who wouldn’t allow a piano in the house, made his own wine and was such a religious fanatic that every one of his 15 surviving children became aetheists (I think). He was really born Samuel Meyer Feinstein. But my grandfather was a dentist and well this was long before it was vogue to see a Jewish doctor, lawyer or dentist, so he changed his name to Stone.
Interesting, because he was my only grandparent to be born on the other side, in Russia to be precise, which makes me a goddamn American for sure, since just about every other Jew my age that I know, and even the kids in the neighborhood where I grew up, all their grandparents were born in Europe. Not me. Hell I even had a great grandmother who was born in Poughkeepsie.
I’m not sure what effect having his hame changed at a very young age had on my uncle Mark. It was summer when we found out about it. I think one of my cousins found out. We were all on vacation at the Jersey shore and I remember we ran up and down the beach shouting Samuel Meyer Feinstein over and over. Eventually someone made us stop I guess.
My Uncle Mark was a history teacher and everything he lived, breathed and knew had to do with history. I think the only movie he ever saw was “The Battleship Potemkin.” I seem to remember his favorite photo of himself was him standing in front of the United Nations. When my brother and I were kids if we were doing a history report or project, my mother always had the unfortunate habit of calling her brother and he would come running over with revolutionary war muskets, shoe buckles, civil war hats, you name it. I think the only music he ever listened to was “Ballads of The Civil War.”
He was a staunch communist and the only thing he was interested in besides history was arguing politics. But if you didn’t agree with him, that was it, you were out. And he was as cheap as they come. In my lifetime he bought exactly two cars. Both dark green plymouths. The second Plymouth which he bought after replacing his 1953 one at the very end of the sixties was kind of funny because it was the exact same Plymouth the FBI and all the undercover cops used and he didn’t even realize it. Down the shore he had a dark green beach umbrella with orange blowfishes on it. He would not go to the beach without that umbrella. Despite being a communist, somehow he escaped being fired by the school district of Philadelphia during the McCarthy period. I’m not sure how he did this, though my dad said he made fools of them.
The other thing I remember about him was he didn’t like fish. If he was over which he was almost all the time when I was a kid, usually to collect my grandmother who had annoying habit of visiting perpetually, and my mother was making fish, Mark would go nuts. He would run through the house screaming fish, fish, and then go out and sit in his 1953 green Plymouth reading the New York Times and listening to Lowel Thomas on his car radio until we were done. In fact, he would not come in the house again that night if fish was served.
In addition to collecting newspapers he also wrote them, even the weekly where I had a music column. He would usually write correcting some small detail of history that someone had wrong, like say the Lippenzaur Horses.
In fact the paper, I worked for would have an MK Stone (which was always how he signed his letters) Festival of Letters every six months or so, where they’d print about 10 all at once. For years I kept my identity secret, that I was related to this lunatic. I also knew the editorial page editor and the Philadelphia Daily News (who was once a music critic) and one time I was visiting him at the paper, and by then I had told him I was MK Stone’s nephew, and the editor came in and he said jokingly, sorry but I have to do this. They said, “You have to let us know when he dies.” Well he died, and there was no one there left to tell.
Occasionally he would send me and various other relatives letters, usually telling (never asking) us to do something like donate our bodies to science. They would always come in ancient envelopes with stamps on them that hadn’t been published in decades, lots of stamps. In this decade he even started writing my brother upset because in 1969 my brother was briefly into astrology. He wrote some completely insane letter saying that he was in Mensa (which we never knew) of course accompanied by NY Times clippings saying Astrology was false. My brother wanted to write him back and say, don’t worry Mark, I no longer believe in Astrology because I’ve found Jesus, which could very possibly have caused him to have a heart attack because any kind of religion was the worst thing you could possibly do.
Oh yeah his other big thing was stealing from us, prompted by his mother my grandmother. This happened after my mom died. They would come to the house (they had a key) when we weren’t home and take stuff. First pots and pans my grandmother had given my parents, then other stuff. Decades later he started giving the stuff back. I was at my aunts once for dinner and there was my mother’s high school yearbook. Finally I had him. I KNEW this had been in my house. I went nuts on both him and my aunt. I demanded reparations. But the animosity had been going on for years. I remember back in my 20s I went to visit my grandmother with one of my cousins, and we were getting on Mark big time telling him to get a life. Just everything from maybe seeing a movie to going to a restaurant to digging nature whatever. I remember he told us when we brought up nature, “I went berry picking with mother last weekend.” Anthony Perkins could not have delivered that line better.
In the end, the only person in the family that got along with him was my youngest cousin, Jon (who shot my album cover). Jon was 10 years younger than us, and by the time he was old enough to figure out what was going on all the cousins were either away or at college, so he didn’t have the baggage with MK that we did. He was just able to go, look at this really weird guy who’s my uncle. And so he eventually moved from my grandmother’s house which no longer exists to my aunt’s house which he ruined. He should have had a lot of money, but I think he let himself get ripped off, first by junkie’s in his old neighbourhood, and then he this caretaker.
Once when I was a kid, he did buy me a radio, but that was it. After that, everything was on one condition or another. One thing he achieved other than writing letters, and probably writing letters achieved this, he did manage to get a plaque for Tom Paine installed on the sidewalk in the historic section of Philly. I’ll give him that. And I guess he probably did something or other for the Teacher’s Union. But when I called my brother to tell him that MK had gone onto the great astrologer in the sky, my brother summed it up fairly accurately: It was all a big nothing. It appears there’s not even a memorial service or a death notice in the papers he wrote to. I’m kind of sad there’s no memorial service. I of course wanted to deliver a eulogy. I would’ve worn a yarmulke, and started it off, “Let us pray.”
Afterword: research by Seth Kulick
Apparently he (M.K Stone) wrote to Thomas Merton as well. I was curious a few months ago to look up MK Stone stuff and apparently one of his letters is included in a Merton book.