Rhett Stuart in Memoriam

Rhett Stuart
Rhett Stuart died on October 11, 2009 in San Francisco, California.

He was the first poet published by Freedom Voices (in 1989) and his book, Man Offbeat, is still in print.

Rhett Stuart grew up on the James River in Virginia with dreams of becoming a singer. In the 50's he studied journalism in Europe and music in New York. In 1960 he came to California where he sang baritone in a show at the Pasadena Playhouse. A Tenderloin District and San Francisco resident for many years, Stuart performed and read at diverse venues in the Bay Area including: the San Francisco Press Club, the 509 Cultural Center, Intersection for the Arts, Small Press Traffic, KPFA radio, and cafes, libraries, and senior centers. He was an active member of the San Francisco writing community and before his death lived in the Hayes valley neighborhood.

A memorial service for Rhett was held on January 9th, at Hospitality House. You can view the photo gallery at http://freedomvoices.org/new/rhettphotos

If you knew Rhett and would like to post a picture or comment please send email to following address rhettmemorial@freedomvoices.org, You can read the comments so far posted by clicking the comment link below. An obituary appeared in the S.F. Chronicle November 15, 2009.

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the surprising thing

the surprising thing is how well rhett could convey the story of his entire person since age 3 without being a complete bore. and could not do otherwise. i’ve never met someone so in touch with his memories in such vivid detail as to practically relive them daily through conversation or writing. but i guess great writers can do that.

if i close my eyes and envision myself touching rhetts hand, i am reeled through images from over seven decades - half of which i was not alive to witness, but nevertheless feel and see perfectly. as if i had been his omniscient soul in munich when he pulled out his writing tablet in the small upstairs attic which he found to be romantic. i get excited about our jaunt down 42nd street the first time rhett discovers it; or when we wander into afternoon shows on or off broadway; or meet dee for a drink.
were leaning out the window of his brownstone just to see what it looks like here, now. then rushing to the mirror to record the look on rhetts face. just to see what happiness looks like on rhett, he used to say.
then daydreaming for a minute or an hour about the james river, the ships going in and out of the sunset-lit harbor; me, us crouched in the grass along the shore or running to greet the familiar soldiers stationed in newport news.
i have my own layout of the town and travel it internally by air or street cam -- from rhett’s big house and yard, friend betty’s car parked in the drive, kelly yapping behind me, spitting image of lassie, down the blocks to the theater and afterward to grandmas for grape juice in cut glass on ice and later roasted chicken drizzled with lemon. oh she spoiled us, rhett would say.
his bosses are behind desks glaring at us as rhett sits comfortably in the hot seat, disinterested. we didn’t get the job, yeah!
out on the street again to look, wander, see and find something. to smile at people, or languish at distraught tree branches thoughtlessly chopped by city workers obviously not sensing the soul in every leaf.  to sing a song all the while, seeking music, beauty, and friendship of artists.

now were gonna jump on a train for the weekend to see mom and sing beside her on the piano.
or now, when the piano teacher leaves the room, we dash to the bench and lay out a jumpy tune to the laughs of rhetts classmates.

fastforward to now. were in rhetts apartment on hayes street in san francisco. its morning. we’ve got our instant coffee that needs no apology. a solid ray of sunshine splits through the window to land upon a treasured rock collected in big surr, as another one spins a rainbow on the opposite wall, while elliot the angelic, ageless cat purrs at our side. calmly, slowly, rise, to the mirror to record the face of this feeling. happiness.

When I met Rhett (2001)

Rhett (2001)
When I met Rhett Stuart a few years ago, he was playing the piano and singing a song his mother had taught him sixty years ago in Newport News, Virginia. We were at a potluck dinner and poetry reading at a community center in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that Rhett knows well, of which he says in a poem:
“It’s harsh and hard and not tender – and nameless.”

That night we heard from many poets of the Tenderloin. Rhett played old songs and read poems. I noticed his big graceful hands on the piano keys, and the soft drawl in his voice that me: here is a man from the South. I was fascinated by the way he seemed like a child dressed up as an old man.

I have gotten to know Rhett over the years. He is a poet many people have never heard of, who continues to read his poems in public a few times every week. He published a book a few years back and doesn’t seem interested in it anymore, because there are always new poems to read.

As a young man, Rhett went to New York, hoping to be on Broadway. He never was, but that doesn’t bother him. The problem, as he put it, was that he enjoyed his life too much to be very ambitious. A friend tried to get him an agent, but by the time Rhett got around to going for an audition, the building that had housed the agent’s office had been demolished. It didn’t matter. He remembers the friends he made there, the musicians and actors and writers who were all staying at the YMCA when he arrived. He remembers the Broadway stars he met, like Nancy Walker. In my own childhood she was the woman who declared Bounty paper towels to be “the quicker picker upper”; in Rhett’s memory she is a great star of Broadway and a wonderful lady. He met her once on the street, and says, “she was so nice to me”, still amazed that someone like her could be real and would talk to him.

You would not think that this is a man who has suffered like other people. I only know a little: that he was badly beaten on the street in the Tenderloin several years ago: that his family lost all their money when he was a teenager and he won’t say how; that there were other things in his childhood that he’d rather not talk about. I also know that he knew love as a child; that his mother’s singing voice carried him through; that their house was full of interesting people. As he says, “There were no bridge clubs, or parent-teacher meetings, or anything like that, cause, you know, my mother was an artist- a singer.” He spent many hours on a little spit of sand on the James River, singing and walking with a dog by his side, creating a wonderful world in his mind. He was chosen to be Ichabod Crane in a high school play without even trying out, so tall and skinny was he: and he went on the play in comedies and to discover the joy of making people laugh.

“I’m living on six thousand a year and it’s wonderful. Sense
another lifetime around the curve. And if it doesn’t happen, am content with circumstances as I’ve made them.”

Rhett has had a more difficult life than some people who end up bitter, yet there is still joy in his eyes, and he is happy to read his poems to whoever shows up. He says in one of them:
“Depression never gets too bad for me.
I’ve suffered too much for that.
I’ve the constant reprieve of what pleasures me in little things.
And the beat went on, goes on.”

When Rhett was seventeen, a friend said about him, “You know what Rhett does, he takes the best from a situation and leaves the rest.” Now, he’s seventy years old and his eyes are still bright, and he still cries when he hears the overtures of certain Broadway shows. Somewhere inside himself he is singing, as if he were walking on that strip of sand by the river. As if he were still that child singing his way through the streets.

-Chris Willging

Published in San Francisco Chronicle on November 15, 2009

Photo Albert Rhett Stuart Died October 11, 2009 from an aortic dissection. He was born September 18, 1931 in Newport News, VA and reveled in memories growing up on the banks of the beautiful and wide James River. Rhett showed an early aptitude and interest in music. Despite formal piano lessons, he learned the songs he loved by ear and played throughout his life in F-sharp (the black keys). In his 20s he moved to New York to become a Broadway singer/actor. He lived there through the decade of the fifties, studying voice and immersing himself in Broadway's heyday of musical theatre. Rhett interned as an NBC page and loved sharing tales of the stars that came before his desk. In 1961, he came west and played a Zook brother across from his real brother, King, in a production of Plain and Fancy at the Pasadena Playhouse, before following the coast up to San Francisco. In the early 70's Rhett began to direct his love of rhythm and voice into poetry. He often said he loved nothing more than a blank page and he wrote on a daily basis. Musicality and joy of word play influenced his work, which he read at dozens of San Francisco venues, riffing on reminiscences and daily life. Years of training as a singer and at the National Academy of Broadcasting came through in the mesmerizing smoothness of his lovely, baritone voice. In a culture where it's not always easy to find those who follow the bohemian credo, Rhett was a mentor and an inspiration to many. He made connections throughout the art community of San Francisco, much of it in the Tenderloin. He attended writing workshops at Hospitality House and the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center, where he also sat on the Board of Directors. Rhett was a great believer in treating oneself with kindness, just as we would others we care about. Deeply spiritual and philosophical, Rhett helped establish the Tenderloin Self-Help center and was one of the original peer counselors who went to Esalen for training in reflective-listening. In 1989 his book Man OffBeat was published by Freedom Voices, and reprinted in 1990 and '94. This past decade, Rhett enjoyed creating colorful sketches while continuing to write and play music. He generously shared his work with family and friends. Rhett is survived by three cherished brothers-King, William, and Gray-and a large, extended family. He will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure to know him. A celebration of his life and art is being planned and will be announced on his memoriam website at FreedomVoices.org.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle on November 15, 2009

From: Laura Feldman

I have a zillion and one letters and poems from Rhett.  Once, sometimes twice a month I would expect to find that familiar envelope in my mailbox.

We corresponded some 16 years after I left San Francisco.  This was dotted with phone calls but those were somehow not as intimate as the letters.  He wrote to me wherever I happened to be in the world or in my world.  Letters filled with love, spiritual reminders, some of the stuff of life but more the feeling of life.  And always a poem (or two or three).  He was one of the most prolific poets I've ever known.  We met in the wonderful Tenderloin Writer’s Workshop, back in the day, before he began publishing his work—a poetic journey journal of his life, as was he —truly sui generis. 

We would spend hours talking about how we were in the world.   We walked miles in these conversations.   Late one night walking home through a deserted China town, just as we came to the big intersecton of Stockton and I want to say and Bush Streets, money started floating down around us, like snow, fluttering $20’s.  We ran around snatching the bills off the ground, catching them in the air, laughing like kids.  When others appeared to grab their share we walked on. 

Once when I was having trouble sleeping he suggested I do what he did to get to sleep—watch one of his favorite movies or plays in his head.  I gaped –you mean the entire thing?  Yes he said, songs et al.

Once when I was describing some life struggle to him-- he said—that’s wonderful—you’re so true to yourself and you don’t even know who you are!

Ah Rhett, my mentor, my dearest friend. 

He was one of those people who made the world lovely and sane.



From: Dennis Finnegan

Rhett was one of the first people that I met when I came to San Francisco. He was probably the most enthusiastic person about music and art that I’ve ever met. I would play him a guitar piece that I’d been working on and he would be utterly engrossed and silent until I finished. He and I went to the opera once and I will always remember the joy in his face, I thought to myself; I haven’t felt that way since I was a child. That was Rhett: a man who somehow managed to keep that immense enthusiasm his entire life. I miss him.

From: Gray Stuart

As you can imagine my thoughts have been with brother Rhett since he died. I have wanted to say some things about him but he had such a multi-faceted personality it has been hard to select what to say.But here goes. As we know he had a keen sense of humor. When I had a stroke he called me at the hospital and bombarded me with questions and his wishes for me. I finally interrupted him and said "Stop your whining" and both of us had a good long laugh. His call was great medicine.

When he was a mid-teenager he made friends with a neighbors Red Irish Setter named Lady.He felt sorry for the dog who was confined to her yard most of the time. He went to see the owner of the dog and asked if he could take Lady for a walk from time to time.She, the owner, said yes and from that time on Lady and Rhett were inseparable. When Rhett approached Lady to take her out for a walk her tail was wagging at a hundred miles an hour. She covered him with dog kisses and then they would cross the road to the riverbank in a search for new adventures.

It is my belief that people who love animals are generally good people. Rhett was a good conversationalist and listener.He was a good student of the things he loved and they were many. He loved his family and friends,animals,art,the written word,the theater,reading,acting and singing and more.

Need I say that we need more folks like him.

From: Kathleen Moore

What I remember most about Rhett was that he lived for art and defined himself in every way as an artist.  This was not a choice on his part, he just was.  His accent was old East Coast and he was a gentleman.  He and I shared some sort of special rapport that was built on maybe a common romanticism and aesthetic viewpoint.  I just know that we were mutually delighted in each other’s presence. Rhett enriched my life in many ways small and large.  I am grateful that I got to share so many lovely moments with him

From: Terry Messman, Editor Street Spirit Newspaper

Farewell to a Gentle Poet

Rhett Stuart, an accomplished poet and active member of the San Francisco writing community, died on October 11, 2009. His book of poems, Man Offbeat, was published by Freedom Voices in 1989, and is still in print. Stuart’s poetry was published many times in Street Spirit.

His writing was a creative outpouring of convoluted sentences, unexpected word choices and wildly unpredictable grammatical structures. His poems were often gentle, introspective, and elegiac, as he contemplated the arc of his lifelong journey. His poetic re-creation of the course of his life carried him from poignant recollections of early childhood to the bittersweet passage into his later years. Many of Stuart’s poems contained lyrical passages expressing joy and wonder at the beauty of nature, and, in nearly the same breath, scathing indictments of a technological society he blamed not only for despoiling the earth, but for ravaging the human soul itself.

For all his appreciation of wild nature, Stuart was primarily a poet of the inner city, intimately acquainted with the pulse of San Francisco, and with a vast and curious love of the people who lived on its streets and slept in its alleys. Through his poetry, Stuart gave visibility and voice to the otherwise unseen masses of homeless people and desperate souls living on the stark streets of the Tenderloin.

Stuart was a gentle, poetic soul, yet his artistic voice sometimes rose in fierce indignation at society’s mistreatment of the outcast poor. He loved the beauty he found in art, in nature, and in his memories of his beloved parents; and he fiercely hated the injustice of society, and the persecution of the poor. He expressed reverence for the human souls stranded on the streets of the inner city, and it was the depth of that reverence that led him to condemn the societal forces that had abandoned them there.

He was an integral part of the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center, a group of artists and writers dedicated to celebrating the humanity and creativity of people living on the margins of society in the Tenderloin. Stuart grew up on the James River in Virginia, and even though he lived on the< rough, raw streets of the Tenderloin District, he somehow carried himself in a courtly manner, with a trace of chivalry that seemed to come from another time and place, somewhere a little more gallant and refined.

Like many San Francisco poets, Stuart was a nonconformist from head to toe. He willingly chose a life of spartan simplicity, because it gave him the freedom he needed to devote himself to his art. As a sensitive soul, he refused to buy in to our dog-eat-dog society.

Instead of ambition and materialism, he had his poetry. Instead of spending his life as a slavish worker-drone, he was a misfit, a gentle rebel, a willing outcast who chose a life of contemplation.


From: Mike Mewborn

I met Rhett for the first time through Eric and Freedom Voices, about the time FV was considering for publication a short novel I'd written. Rhett was reading some of his poetry at a TREC open mic. I was struck by his urbanity and poise. Eric introduced us and, wishing to contribute to the exchange, I offered my small book to Rhett for his perusal. He graciously put aside whatever he was currently reading to give my book a looksee and then took the time to write a very supportive note. That was ten years ago. I still have the note, written in cursive long-hand, blue ink. Rhett flatteringly quoted this or that phrase from the novel and, in his characteristic jazzed-up style, described the effect each segment had upon him. Nothing could have been more encouraging to an as yet unpublished writer. I later asked Rhett if I could quote his letter for use as a blurb on the back of the book and of course he had no objection. When I returned to S.F. to promote the novel, Rhett put me up in his small apartment for three days, over the course of which he and I had a number of fine discussions regarding the writing life. In a culture where it's not always easy to find older males who continue to follow the bohemian credo, Rhett was a mentor and an inspiration.

From: Kitty Costello


Last time I saw Rhett was at the library. We shared just a short pause for a hello and how-de-do with me on my way to work the front desk and Rhett on his way upstairs... to Literature or the Music department no doubt. Later, when I heard he’d died, I had to wonder, “Would I have done it differently if I’d known that was our last time?” And the answer was no. If I’d known, I probably would have filled our moment with something too chattery or cloying. It wasn’t like that with Rhett. It was simply his presence, his clear attention, his kind kind heart. All of that was right there in the moment, and in retrospect it was a perfect moment.

Rhett was maybe the only guy I know that wasn’t walking around buzzing and beeping with gagetry to keep in touch, and I’m so glad he got out of this life without ever burdening himself with cell phone or twitter. He stayed in touch right then and there in the here and now. He wouldn’t allow his day, his attention, his being to get swept away in busy, pestery clap-trap. Poetry was the most important thing. And poetry wasn’t just ink on a page. It was a way of being present, fully in relation in the world, to the world. May we all continue to absorb this wise lesson of being ever-more-deeply for a long time to come.

You always got the feeling from Rhett that he wasn’t quite from here, but he wasn’t from anywhere else you could put your finger on either. Yes, he was from Virginia, from small-town life along the James River, but I imagine that folks from there would say he was from somewhere else, too. He was a guy passing through, but not on his way to somewhere in particular. He was a fully-present observer, yet he was in his own world, one more sensitive, more awake, more kind than the rest of us. And one where the sounding out of things was done for the shear pleasure they gave in the throat and ear... sounds full of rich story, but even more importantly, with rhythm driving and carrying from inside, underneath.

Rhett had a priest-like quality to him. I remember calling him when our cat, Emily Dickinson, died. We adopted Emily after Mary TallMountain passed away, and we had her for her last 3 years. Rhett was a cat-lover and a dear friend to Mary, but I called him more because he was a deep spirit, deep and wide. I was having a desparate moment of feeling like I didn’t know how to properly honor Emily’s passing, what rites to perform, what words to say, how to make it holy. Rhett was the guy I called, not so much to tell me how, but to put me back in touch with the holiness inside of me, the part of me that knows my own how, and rests safely there.

In retrospect, I think Rhett was also priest-like in the sense that one could confess things to him. I never particularly availed myself of this, but I feel a certainty that I could have told Rhett anything that felt like a secret or a sin, and he would have received and absolved it without judgement. He had that power to absolve.

It seems so universal that we all second-guess ourselves after the death of a loved one, but with Rhett’s death I find myself surprisingly devoid of should-haves, wish-I-wouldas or if-I’d-onlys. I think that is mostly due to Rhett’s way of being. He did the whole thing, complete, right in each and every moment, nothing left over or left out.

Yet it has felt hard to begin formulating memories or eulogies. As others have begun to have their say, I’m realizing that together -- no rush, over time -- we’ll be carving out a collective true-to-life portrait of the “Man Offbeat.”

I think more than anything, I’ll remember the way Rhett would greet me or say farewell by puttng his palm sweetly to my cheek, looking me full in the eye and calling me “Darling” with that slight, Virginia drawl. “Hello, Darling.” “Take care, Darling.” I sure am gonna miss that.

From: Jane Stuart Edel

Rhett was my uncle
and Godfather.  He was such a sweet, special spirit, and saw the best
in everyone.  I'm sad he's no longer with us, but happy for him.  He is
in a MUCH better place now, and he's not in pain anymore.  

During Christmas time in 2007, he sent my
family a type written poem that has been on my refrigerator since then.
Titled, "Said Again", it is as follows:

All changes,
except heart--
in remembrance of gone loved ones--
in friends now here,
every passing stranger,
animal, bird, tree,
grass blade,
breathing rock and wave, sand grain.
Live, now
whether old, feeble or ill,
life here responding.
Life responds.
Hallowed, be our time,
heart, love
of no gender,
here alongside you in every living being,
here, and ones gone
only from sight.

-Rhett Stuart  December 4, 2007

The day I heard he'd died, I came home and
read this poem again.  He was wise beyond wisdom.  He would often say
things that I wanted to jot down immediately, he just had insight into
people and this world.  My 8 year old daughter said a couple of nights
after he passed at the end of her nightly prayer, "And God?  Please
take care of my mom's uncle, because he's new up there.  Show him
around and make him feel welcome!"  I think Rhett will be running
things in no time.  God bless you Rhett, I love you.

Jane Stuart Edel

Thanks for the beautiful

Thanks for the beautiful poem, Rhett was something wasn't he.  I am
inspired to go find some poems he wrote me in the times we worked
together and pick one to share as well.  A beautiful tribute. thanks

A little collection in honor of Rhett

Eric Robertson and I put together a little collection in honor of Rhett which includes some favorites and some ones we only read after his death. Hope folks enjoy them.

From: Douglas Marshall

A man who not only had a talent for speaking, and creating, but also for listening and caring, and giving well-intended advice and guidance, when called upon for it. A good friend and someone who made a difference in this world, and to all he came in touch with.  He left his mark on this world.

From: Eric Robertson

Rhett had such an interesting history. He had hundreds of stories. Some of them were just little snapshots of his life that I loved to hear over and over again. I think my favorite was when he was hired to play Davy Crockett to promote the movie that had just come out. Rhett was costumed in the full suit of fringed buckskin and coonskin cap and sent to some little strip mall. I believe this was when he lived in NYC and the mall was somewhere in New Jersey. Rhett was a big man, 6'5", and a southerner ta boot so you might figure this would be a good fit. Anyway, a kid came up to Rhett and said, "Hey Davy, what'd you do with that Bahr (a southern pronunciation, though probably not a Virginian pronunciation, of bear). Rhett looked at the kid and said, "Bahr. What's a bahr?" The kid looked at Rhett with an expression of disgust and walked off dismissing him with a wave, saying, "Awe, your not Davy Crockett." I loved to watch Rhett act that out.

Rhett never took jobs too seriously, though. Jobs for the most part where just a way for Rhett to get by so that he could do what he really loved--which was to witness art, listen to art and create art. He loved to go to the movies and believed he was one of the luckiest people on earth to have lived in NYC during it's Broadway heyday. Whether it be singing, playing piano, writing, or drawing, Rhett was a true artist. He loved the process of making and reveled in other's creations.

I will miss his poems and his drawings and his piano playing and most of all I will miss his voice, his concern, his caring and his humour. He was a great friend.  


From: B. Jess Clarke

Rhett was above all committed to art. 

His keen perception and intimate love of words yielded a hybrid abstract /sensual poetry that challenged, soothed, puzzled and amused.

I'm sad at Rhett's physical passing but feel his deeply rooted spirit is still flowering.

Rest in Peace Rhett!

Jess Clarke

About Rhett Stuart

Some Information
Rhett Stuart grew up on the James River in Virginia with dreams of becoming a singer. In the 50's he studied journalism in Europe and music in New York. In 1960 he came to California where he sang baritone in a show at the Pasadena Playhouse. A Tenderloin District and San Francisco resident for many years, Stuart performed and read at diverse venues in the Bay Area including: the San Francisco Press Club, the 509 Cultural Center, Intersection for the Arts, Small Press Traffic, KPFA radio, and cafes, libraries, and senior centers. He was an active member of the San Francisco writing community and before his death lived in the Hayes valley neighborhood. His memorial site can be found at http://freedomvoices.org/new/rhettstuart You can view the photo gallery at http://freedomvoices.org/new/rhettphotos.