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Richard John "Dick" Stryker (October 16, 1924 - November, 1995) was an esteemed composer who worked closely with Judith Malina and Julian Beck in the formative years of The Living Theater. He collaborated with the likes of John Cage, John Ashbery, Jackson Mac Low, and Frank O’Hara. In the 1950s he had been Harold Norse's lover.
Being gay, he was a WWII conscientious objector who served time for his beliefs. He struggled all his life, some might say he was defeated by life, brought down eventually by poverty and bad luck and old age and ill health, and certainly has been nearly completely lost to history. Judith Malina remembered him, but only just.
Harold Norse was Dwight Ripley's obsession of the 1951 season, and Norse was richly rewarded by him with the gift of an expensive Picasso that made it possible for him to move to Italy. Fidelity was not a Norse characteristic; as Rupert Barnaby, Ripley's longtime partner, later said, "Dwight is not a griever or a whiner. Gone are the snows of yesterdays." Norse portraied Dwight in his memoirs as the millionnaire "Cyril Reed". Norse had an apartment at 573 Third Avenue, where he lived one floor above a New Zealand painter, Glyn Collins (for a short time in 1945 the husband of Muriel Rukeyser), who was commissioned by Dwight Ripley to paint a portrait of Tony Bower. When Collins gave a party he invited his upstairs neighbor Norse. Other guests that evening included the painter-and-poet couple Theodoros Stamos and Robert Price; the Abstract Expressionist painter William Baziotes and his wife, Ethel; the Living Theatre's founders-to-be Julian Beck and Judith Malina; the social philosopher Paul Goodman and his wife, Sally; John Bernard Myers and his roommate, Waldemar Hansen; the poet Ruthven Todd; and Dwight and Rupert. Dwight, reports Norse in his memoirs, was drunk, fell for him with a "thud heard round the room," and before passing out inquired what he most wanted. Norse had no way of knowing that Dwight a decade earlier had complained, "I long to say just $20." No doubt he did know, but way of Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden, the story of Denham Fouts and the liquidated Picasso given to him by Peter Watson. "Taking it as a big joke," writes Norse, "I blurted out with drunken laughter, "How about a Picasso?" "Is that all?" he screamed. "Daahling, it's yours!" A few days after the party a limousine arrived on Third Avenue, and the surprised Norse opened his door to find a chauffeur, in uniform, who had come to dliver a 1923 Picasso gouache, a ten-by-sixteen-inch study for The Dancers, certified by Pierre Matisse. In his memoirs, Norse gives a vivid account of the ensuing affair (dinners at Le Pavillon and Chambord, trips to the galleries, visits to the New York Public Library, where Dwight read War and Peace in Arabic), and he reveals also that his new admirer never touched him. He credits the forbearance to his own virtue and not to Dwight's. It all came to an end on a winter evening outside the Chelsea Hotel. "He had told me earlier," recalled Norse, "because he was a masochist, if you ever want to get rid of me, and you'll never see me again, just say "I love you" and you'll never see me again. So outside this hotel he said, "Harold, do you love me?" and I said, "Yeah," and I never saw him again." The previous autumn, Ripley recorded in his diary that Norse and Norse's lover during the whole affair, Dick Stryker, were going to Wappingers Falls, Ripley's country house in Upstate New York, to spend the weekend. He made a not to get his drawings down from upstairs. Fifty years later, when Douglas Crase, Ripley's biographer, asked Norse by telephone what he thought of Dwight's drawings, he replied, "I never knew Dwight could draw or would even bother to do something artistic. Dwight an artist, no, I had no idea. I can't believe it."
Richard John "Dick" Stryker was the son of Norman R. and Katherine Stryker. He was a pianist and composer; he was jailed for being a conscientious objector during World War II; he spent two years in a prison in Ohio; his father kicked him out of the family; he moved to New York; he was gay; he was an alcoholic; at some point, he burned his face off somehow; he might have been homeless for a time; he refused to have anything to do with his family. He partecipated in an early production by the Living Theatre; he was roommates with Judith Malina and her partner and collaborator Julian Beck. He wrote music for many of their early plays. He hung out with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara; he played one of the radios in the first performance of John Cage's Imaginary Landscapes IV; he studied with composer Lou Harrison; he wrote the score for one of Jackson Mac Low's plays, and Larry Rivers played saxophone on the recording. He attended anarchist meetings. He dated a poet, Harold Norse, who wrote many poems about their tumultuous relationship. Once he and Judith Malina get into a physical altercation. The incident is recorded in detail in Harold Norse's memoir: backstage after a concert, Dick confronted Judith about a debt, she slapped his face, he pushed her, she tried to steal a flute from a flautist with the intention of beating Dick with it, the flautist wouldn't let go and struggled with Judith, she bit his hand until he bled, and then Dick spat on her and ran away. It wasn't the end of their friendship; they continued to live and work together. But a year later he moved out, and after that his name rarely appears in her diaries.
He was active in the pacifist movement, and knew Bayard Rustin from politcal meetings. He became interested in Gestalt psychology, and was a patient of Isadore From for a time. He seems to have broken the young James Baldwin's heart. He wrote an organ passacaglia that was performed by a famous organist at Columbia University. The orchestrated version won third prize from a music foundation, and was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a reharsal; Dick's friends pooled their money to send him to Chicago to hear his music, but they didn't have enough. In the late 1950s, he had an affair with a poet named Murray that was so all-consuming that he stopped focusing on composition. Murray had a wife and kids, but his wife knew about Dick and they were all close; when Murray's family moved to San Francisco, Dick moved with them. That didn't go well, and Dick moved back to New York. But he remained close to Murray, who died young of leukemia a few years later. Dick visited him many times while he was dying. After that, his love life remained unstable.
He almost died in a fire. The fire was probably in 1971, on Perry Street. He was smoking and fell asleep and it started. He tried to escape but couldn't get the bars out of his windows. The firemen broke in and found him badly burnt and unconscious. He was disfigured and they had to reconstruct his face. Unable to work, and living on disability benefits, he became a loner, refusing to see many of his old friends because he was ashamed of his face. He withdrew from social life, and rarely composed. One of the few pieces of music he wrote after the fire was for a doctor named Dr. DeFilippi. When he was slipping in and out of consciousness in the emergency room, he said that every time he woke up, Dr. DeFilippi would be sitting there praying for him, even though he didn't know him. He might have credited this praying with saving his life. He remained friends with DeFilippi. Later, the doctor's wife was murdered, and Dick wrote him a piece of music as a gift, or an elegy. A few years before he died, Dick fell down the subway steps. The station was missing its handrails, because of construction. He was badly hurt, and sued the city. This money made his last few years easier, until he got lung cancer. He was in chemo and doing well, but then he caught a cold and died of pneumonia.
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