Jimo was an acclaimed photographer who captured iconic images in San Francisco and Italy. A longtime North Beach resident, Jimo claimed to have been orphaned as a young boy and to have served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War Two, making 346 combat jumps.
Transcript: Jimo Perini (1926-2017)
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Jimo Perini on June 12, 1996. interview was conducted by Judith Robinson, an author, historian and member of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a community organization, and the interview took place at Robinson’s home in San Francisco, California. This interview is part of the Italian-Americans of North Beach series of interviews that were conducted from 1996 to 2004 by Judith Robinson with funding from U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The interview was transcribed by Charles Versaggi and edited by John Doxey in 2020.
Format: Originally recorded on 2 audio tapes. Duration is 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Attribution: This interview transcript is property of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Quotes, reproductions and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Jimo Perini, June 12, 1996. Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.
Summary: Jimo Perini was a talented photographer, based in North Beach, who shot primarily in black and white and produced two celebrated books of his photos. According to a biography that appears on the website https://www.jimosphoto.com, Jimo was born in San Francisco in 1926. While he was still very young, his father was deported back to Italy and his mother died. He then went to living on the streets of San Francisco, being cared for by a succession of Italian and Chinese women. At the age of 11, he was taken in by Father Flannigan and lived at Boys Town in Nebraska until he was 16. It was at Boys Town where he developed his love for photography. When World War Two broke out, Jimo ran away to sign up, lying about his age. During the war, Jimo spent time as a POW and escaped with other prisoners to France where he joined the Underground. He served with the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA) and was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross for his valiant service and the injuries that he sustained. Back in the States, Jimo pursued his photography with a passion. He captured on film the faces of the famous and the everyday person with an insightful eye that speaks to anyone that sees his work. He took thousands of photos and created two books, "San Francisco Grip" (1969) about the cable cars in San Francisco and "To Marci With Love" (1981) for his only daughter, Marci. Jimo’s work has been associated with Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both of whom he reportedly met in France during World War Two. Jimo loved Italy and visited friends and relatives there whenever he could. When he was told by his doctors that, because of health concerns his next trip might kill him, he said he couldn’t live long enough in the states to beat dying in Italy. Always remember two things that Jimo would often say, "Life is Beautiful" and instead of goodbye, "See you in church!" Jimo died in San Francisco in 2017 at the age of 91 with his wife, Helene, by his side.
Note: It should be noted that the information presented in this biography and oral history has not been verified. Internet research by the transcriber of this interview, Charles Versaggi, found several discrepancies between Jimo’s oral history narrative and reality. For example, it appears that Jimo was born in Chico, California, rather than San Francisco, and that neither of his parents were born in Italy. It is also likely that many of the stories Jimo tells in his oral history interview – including meeting Spencer Tracy and photographing Katherine Hepburn, joining the OSS at age 16, being captured and imprisoned in a World War Two prison camp where he met Cartier-Bresson and being declared one of the top international photographers in the past 100 years – are untrue and part of a personal mythology that Jimo developed.
Throughout this interview, Jimo shows various photographs he’s taken to interviewer Judith Robinson and describes his admiration for all things Italian. Jimo describes his parents’ emigration to the United States in the mid-1920s, which he terms “illegal;” his plans for a book called “Italian-American” and his reluctance to discuss stories and information that might appear in this book; his experience at Boys Town, where he developed skills and passion for photography; learning how to develop film at Vitalini Fotografia, a business located in what's now the City Lights building; how he built his first cameras in the 1930s from shoe boxes, bricks and tape; his early memories of North Beach, including descriptions of Columbus Avenue and International Settlement; his experience as a visiting professor at California State University, Chico; photo assignments with local political notables, including Willie Brown, Phillip and John Burton, George Moscone and John Ertola; the poor pay and low status generally suffered by freelance photographers; his experiences with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War Two, which he says included 346 combat jumps; discrimination suffered by queer opera singers in the 1930s and ‘40s; the paving of Columbus Avenue; San Francisco’s first Black commercial fisherman, Captain Bill Dillon; ways in which San Francisco changed during World War Two, including more women in the workforce and rising costs; the inspirations for his books “San Francisco Grip” and “To Marci With Love;” local photographic assignments, including Columbus Day parades and Double Ten Day in Chinatown; his memories of escaping a German POW camp during World War Two with Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom there is no love lost; the technique of “pushing” film; and awards and recognitions he’s received for his work.
Charles Versaggi, John Doxey and Judith Robinson have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should keep in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
[Transcriber’s note: It appears that Jimo and Judith began the interview perusing Jimo’s photos, some of which are from his 1981 book “To Marci With Love.”]
JUDITH: This is Jimo Perini interviewed by Judith Robinson on June 12th, 1996, for the Italian-American oral history project, at her house … where was that address again?
JIMO: 1312 Jackson Street.
JUDITH: So you live there now?
JIMO: In those days. Everyone … I live across the street. Everyone was born at home. A few women went to the hospital. Women have come a long way since then. In those days, uh, one out of every 10 mothers who delivered died in delivery.
[Transcriber’s note: Jimo was living at 1279 Jackson Street at the time of this interview. He was born across the street from where he lived, as described in his 1969 book “San Francisco Grip.”]
JUDITH: One of 10?
JIMO: One of 10. Ten percent. Including my mom…
JIMO: And she was 19, almost 20, and left five children. They kept them barefoot and pregnant. And, uh, that’s it.
JUDITH: Did you lose her when you were born?
JIMO: No, I lost her, uh, later. I think my sister was born. I’m not sure who. Life took us out on the street. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently stating that his mother died during or following the birth of his sister.]
JUDITH: [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently pointing to a series of photos here] Oh, that’s…
JIMO: Venezia. Dorsoduro, by the university. I take a couple of trips a year to Italy. And I don’t know how or why, but I guess I’m sent by people who like my work and they pay for the trip, and I would do whatever it is they want.
JUDITH: Now that’s…
JUDITH: Milano! Now, what year was that?
JIMO: It’s a couple of years ago … a year ago. This one isn’t even marked … can you believe I’m carrying around a print that isn’t even signed? … some days you can’t win. But I have, I’m attempting now, and this one is between us … not publishable … for my new book coming up. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is referring here to his plans for a new book called “Italian-American.”]
JIMO: It’s northern Italy, Conselve Padova. It’s 200 years before Christ, and in keeping with the Italian spirit of endurance, this is a classic illustration of how Italians don’t repair anything, they just build on to it, you know. Something will hold it together. It doesn’t matter if it’s plaster or mud, or what it is, it will hold it together. But it really doesn’t need holding because most Italian, in Italy, structures have walls that are two feet thick. My, they know so much that we don’t. [Transcriber’s note: Conselve Padova is a commune in the Province of Padua.]
JIMO: Did you ever jog?
JUDITH: Jog? No.
JIMO: This is where San Francisco’s elite jog, see, at Fort Point. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently pointing to another photo here]
JUDITH: That’s right. Wonderful water splashing up there on the breakwater. And the city behind it.
JIMO: It can’t be obtained anymore, because in their infinite wisdom … a storm knocked out this whole thing, and they built it back. But they built it so you don’t get the water action that you did before.
JIMO: And it’s, you know, it’s practical, but what did they do? They should do something for us, the romantics, you know.
JUDITH: Oh, now that’s…
JIMO: Lunedi. Monday. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently showing another photo here]
JUDITH: Monday, wash day. Hanging over the canal, all the underwear … charming! Now is that contemporary Italian?
JUDITH: Things don’t change?
JIMO: They don’t change too much. This shot, when I was 16 years old, I was behind the lines … OSS with a camera and hand grenades. And I took this shot at that time, and I don’t, unfortunately, have those negatives anymore. But I went back last year and did it again. Two centuries before Christ, above Palermo, Sicilia, with a bomb crater. They don’t repair some things because religious marches go here, and they want everybody to see what we’ve been through.
[Transcriber’s note: the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was a wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War Two, and a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). William J. Donovan directed the OSS during World War Two.]
JUDITH: That’s marvelous! A big bomb crater in an ancient cobbled street.
JUDITH: That’s very impressive.
JIMO: [Transcriber’s note: Jimo shows another photo here] And this is something that everybody recognizes … it’s local.
JUDITH: Ah, North Beach. Coit Tower.
JIMO: North Beach.
JUDITH: Where is that from, about Castle Alley?
JIMO: Castle Alley, between Union and Green. Telegraph Hill…
JUDITH: That is a classic. I’d love a print of that!
JIMO: I was privileged to speak recently to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association … whatever it is. And it’s an interesting group. I spoke off the top. And I had a bunch of photos, and I held them up in the air and walked around with them and then I … nobody left the place after the speech. And I think it was six people who gave me cards, and what have you, and told me as soon as I get back from the trip I was going on to call them and they would buy prints. I put in calls to all six of them, nobody’s returned a call yet…
JUDITH: Well, maybe…
JIMO: …some days you can’t win.
JUDITH: Aw! Another wonderful shot, the other way at Fort Point, looking at the Golden Gate Bridge, with the water splashed up. What a spectacular photo. Wonderful!
JIMO: In order to stay alive as a freelancer, and I’m sure you appreciate this, you have to do something better than everybody else in your field. And if you don’t, you’re not alive. And if I haven’t done anything else in 54 years, I’ve learned a little each day. And I haven’t wasted it. I have nothing, but my camera has found homes for 50,000 orphans free. Free photos, my daughter modeled, I did the photos. For everything from Jewish Welfare to Boys Town, where I spent a couple of years. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently referring to charitable organizations to which he’s contributed.]
JUDITH: Oh! What is this? Another Italian…?
JIMO: It’s Italian … Jews from the tribe of Benjamin, who ran from Spain during the Inquisition. Their costumes and their families in this group are from the 17th century. It’s the same families, now they’re Catholic in the Italianose. And you’re looking at illustrations for my new book, called “Italian-American.” [Transcriber’s note: it’s unclear what Jimo means by “Italianose.”]
JUDITH: Wonderful! Wonderful! But they maintained some of their legacies?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. They maintained a lot of it … [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently showing another photo here] The front door saying “Provincia di Roma.”
JIMO: This illustrates how two centuries before Christ, when that cobble was laid, exactly like it is, they had water control. When it rained on the flat part of the top of the hill, the water went down in the gutter, and the people walked with dry feet. There’s a lot in the book that is not here. This is only a sample that I have…
[Transcriber’s note: Jimo apparently shows another photo here.] I have 17 godchildren. Most of ‘em are Italian in some sort. This is Italian and Chinese, number 17.
JIMO: Natasha from London. Unlike you and me, Natasha is forced to work, forced to learn and she’ll earn everything she gets. But she was born a multi-millionaire.
JIMO: She never really has to do anything … but these are the people I really feel sorry for. Because if you don’t have to anything … you have to have something to inspire you, because if you don’t accomplish anything in this world, you’re dead. There’s no point.
There should be one shot of furniture … stuck in here somewhere … and it’s Italian. Italian or I wouldn’t take the time to look for it. My people are a great people. Necessity is the mother of invention. My cousin’s house, one of my cousins in Italy, is 400 years old. And this piece of furniture, my bed in Italy, uh, was built and put in the day the house was built. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently showing another photo here]
JUDITH: Four hundred years ago?
JIMO: And, of course, the mattresses have changed. [chuckles] Which is better than what I’m doing at my house.
JUDITH: Beautiful, wood-carved panels…
JIMO: Yeah. Everything is…
JUDITH: Where is that?
JIMO: It’s in, uh, it’s in one of the small towns, just outside of Brescia.
JUDITH: Brescia, which is over there in…
JIMO: Northern Italy.
JIMO: They run Turino, Milano, Brescia, and then the home of, uh, Romeo and Juliet … and all the way over you get to Venice. That’s across the top rim. The people are, uh, northernly, which is … northernly is pretty interesting. They’re doing what Californians have always done. We wanted to divorce Los Angeles. Well, the northernly wants to throw away southern Italy and Sicily. And Sicily could care less. [chuckles] It’ll never happen.
JUDITH: Now, is that where your family come from?
JIMO: My father’s family … we have an odd family, so there’s not one father, so to speak. Uh, my father’s family is from, uh, Brescia. From the province of Brescia. And my mother was born in Lucca. And her parents came from the south of Italy, a place called Trivigno. T-R-I-V-I-G-N-O. Potenza. [Transcriber’s note: Trivigno is a town and comune in the province of Potenza in southern Italy.]
It’s nowhere. They don’t even have a good soccer team. But it’s going to be the capital of Southern Italy someday, because the industry will come there. They have the land for it, everything for it. Seaports on both sides.
JUDITH: So her family were from the south of Italy … but she was born in Lucca?
JIMO: Yeah. She was born in Lucca.
JUDITH: Well, what was your father’s full name?
JIMO: I can’t give it to you.
JIMO: My father, uh, came to this country, and like a lot of fathers, and did very well with some things, with other things he didn’t. And he was constantly on the run, and he ultimately was … and I’m getting close to my book … was forced to leave the country. And, uh, with my brothers, we started from there. That’s just about the story. My brothers … we had five brothers, by four mothers, who were all cousins. And no marriage … uh, not good. And my mother, and her husband, had other children. [Transcriber’s note: it’s unclear if these relationship descriptions are accurate.]
This happened a lot of times in those days. It happens a lot of times when immigrants come here from other places, and they are afraid to go on the record for anything. You’re Italian, both sides?
JIMO: You’d pass for Italian.
JUDITH: [laughter] I am dark skinned.
JIMO: At the turn of the century, we had more Italians in New York than there were in Rome.
JIMO: That’s a fact.
JUDITH: Do you know when your mother and father came to the U.S.?
JIMO: Yeah. They had been back and forth. But they came here, as near as I can tell, just before I was born. And that was either in ’24 or ’26, we don’t know. St. Mary’s burned down, and the birth records were there. I advertise it in my publicity as ’26. But, uh, OSS had me, in the service, they made it ’24 to justify the fact that they were taking children, uh, when they needed them. And so I think it’s possible they engineered ’24 and ’26 was right. Who cares? I’m here, and I’m going to stay for a while. Then I’m going to the happy hunting grounds and look down and laugh at all these people.
JUDITH: Well, you have an interesting first name: J-I-M-O. Is that a nickname or a full name?
JIMO: No, it’s a full name … and, uh, in the south of Italy, near my mother’s parents’ area, there was a town called Montalbano Jonico. There’s no “J” presently in Italian. There was then. And there still is for proper names, and for names of cities. And so everybody from that particular area in Provincia Potenza who has a “J”-sounding name they in fact use a “J.”
[Transcriber’s note: Montalbano Jonico is a town and comune in the province of Matera, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. Jimo is apparently incorrect when he states that Montalbano Jonico is in Provincia di Potenza.]
JUDITH: And so why did she use the “J”? What is the Provincia Potenza? P-O-T-E-N-Z-A?
JIMO: P-O-T-E-N-Z-A. Provincia is a province. It’s like our county.
JUDITH: Right. But why? What does that have to do with your name?
JIMO: Uh, it has to do with the fact that everybody did something a little different. Even when the “J” wasn’t there any longer, they kept using it.
JUDITH: I see…
JIMO: And what it means … it probably should have been Giacomo, which is James in Italian. But it wasn’t. I never, almost never, use my middle name, which in Italian is Allegretti, which is the mother’s maiden name. The mother never changes her name.
JUDITH: How do you spell that?
JUDITH: And that was your mother’s maiden name?
JIMO: My mother’s maiden name. But they never have maiden names. If you’re married in Italy, you’re so and so, the wife of so and so. And he is so and so, the husband of so and so. And the woman, as she did in the ‘30s, and still does in a lot of places in San Francisco, the woman runs the whole shebang. In Italy, and when I was a little kid in San Francisco, the woman has her own room in the house. It’s the biggest and best room. It has sewing equipment, and her hobby and what have you, and when there’s conjugal visits with her husband, they are in his room. She goes to his room. She runs the education, she runs the religion, and to educate a mother is to educate a family.
JUDITH: Marvelous. Was your mother educated?
JIMO: My mother, as young as she was, was a pretty bright person, I understand. She spoke five languages at 19, and, uh, she seemed to be very good at everything except picking men. [laughter] She didn’t do too well at that.
JUDITH: And she died in childbirth at 19 leaving five…?
JIMO: She died in childbirth at 20, actually.
JUDITH: And she spoke five languages?
JIMO: Five languages.
JUDITH: Same number as she had children. Now, you were going to say when you thought they both came to America.
JIMO: I thought, I know they came to America illegally. But I don’t know exactly when it was. It was probably, uh, around March of ’24 or March of ’26.
JUDITH: Because you were born here on Jackson Street?
JIMO: I was born here on Jackson Street in ’24 or ’26 in August.
JUDITH: Um-hmm. You know it was August, anyway?
JIMO: Yeah, uh, I have friends who were on Jackson Street at that time.
JUDITH: And what was the address where you were born?
JIMO: 1312 is where I was born. 1279 is across the street. That’s where I live.
JUDITH: And your last name is P-E-R-R-I-N-O?
JIMO: No. One “R.”
JUDITH: P-E-R. One “R.” Is that right?
JIMO: That’s right
JUDITH: Well, now, your father did a variety of things. Your mother was a homemaker, and…?
JIMO: My mother had babies. [laughter]
JUDITH: Your father disappeared early?
JIMO: My father was just an Italian.
JUDITH: Do you remember him at all?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. Yeah … I had bad experiences with my mother’s husband, who was also Italian and also a cousin … but my father was a gem. It’s just he wasn’t straight, you know. That’s it. And my philosophy of that is he was my father, and God judges him, I don’t. Uh…
JUDITH: Did he live out a full life, and did you know him…?
JIMO: He lived out a full life, and I saw him only a few times … and, uh, we’re on to the book now.
JUDITH: OK. Well, so I do know from what Marsha told me, that you did go to the Boys Home. So you were a child on Jackson Street. And then did you want to tell a little bit about how life was…? [Transcriber’s note: it’s unclear which Marsha Judith is referring to.]
JIMO: …But now we’re going into the book. I can tell you how life was…
JIMO: …but it was different for us. If there was competition between Mafia groups, and we had ‘em in those days, uh, then the Italian general population didn’t take in, uh, the children of those groups for fear they would be judged to be on one side or the other. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo seems to imply here that his father was a Mafia member.]
And, ultimately, I was, and my brothers were, members of those groups and we left here and ultimately, were stopped emulating our fathers in Omaha, Nebraska. And the voice behind us said, “Your Honor, I’ll take those boys.” And I spent a couple of years there.
JUDITH: At Boys Town?
JIMO: Yeah, at Boys Town.
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Boys Town, formerly Girls and Boys Town and officially Father Flanagan's Boys' Home, is a non-profit organization dedicated to caring for children and families based in Boys Town, Nebraska. Boys Town was founded in 1917 as an orphanage for boys. Originally known as "The City of Little Men", the organization was founded by Edward J. Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest.]
JUDITH: When you were pretty young?
JIMO: I was their first photographer.
JIMO: Yes. I was very young.
JUDITH: So you started photographing then?
JIMO: I was photographing long before then. I sold newspapers on Columbus Avenue, right next door to a sign that you can still see if you go in City Lights and look at the floor: “Vitalini Fotografia.”
JIMO: I traded them a newspaper every day and they gave me chemistry and...
JUDITH: That’s spelled…?
JIMO: I’ll have to check it … I think it’s V-I-T-T-A-L-I-N-I. But you can go into…
JUDITH: Vitalini what was it called?
JIMO: Fotografia. F-O-T-O-G-R-A-F-I-A.
JUDITH: That’s right. That’s on the floor at City Lights. [Transcriber’s note: City Lights, located at 261 Columbus Avenue, is an independent bookstore and publisher that was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin. Vitalini Fotografia Italiana was a business run by Charles Vitalini, who immigrated to San Francisco from Italy in 1880.]
JIMO: It’s on the floor at City Lights, just before you go upstairs. It used to be a separate entrance. And Vittalini was upstairs.
JUDITH: And so you sold newspapers there and got rights to…?
JIMO: I sold newspapers for two pennies. And I gave them a newspaper a day for training. And of the two pennies, one went to me and the other went to the Call Bulletin publisher. I was talking to my friend the other day, Joe Rosenthal, and we were laughing about this. And he’s even older than I am, and Joe, uh, worked for the News in those days…
[Transcriber’s note: Joe Rosenthal was a celebrated photographer who took the iconic World War Two photo of U.S. Marines planting a flag on Iwo Jima.]
JUDITH: He did? For the News before it was the Call Bulletin?
JUDITH: The famous photographer of the World War Two flag on Iwo Jima. Joe is in his 90s, isn’t he?
JIMO: He’s in his mid-80s.
JUDITH: Oh, is he? … and how badly you were paid, I’m sure. [laughter]
JIMO: Wait a minute, nobody ever paid a photographer. They pay the social photographers and the commercial people in New York. And it’s politics on how they get their assignments. It has nothing to do with talent. If you had talent, you could never charge for it in photography. Because they say it’s not an art.
JUDITH: And so this, uh … was the Fotografia a shop that made photos…?
JIMO: They made, uh, plates and stuff for publication for newspapers, even before photography was popular. In those days, most of the stuff in newspapers was line drawings. And, uh, anyway it was a place to start. I learned a great deal about four or five chemicals. And, uh, that’s it.
JUDITH: And so that’s where you learned to develop, really? And, uh, did you acquire a camera at some point along the way?
JIMO: You made your own. You got a shoe box with a brick and tape. And you got enlarging paper, you put it in the back of the shoe box. And you put a pinhole in the front, equi-distant from the four corners. And there was no lens. You took the tape off from where the pinhole was. The light penetrated, you put it back, picked up the whole thing and ran to the darkroom and developed the print itself. You didn’t have a negative, so you put two pieces of paper, face to face, and shined the light through ‘em, and then developed that, and you had a paper negative.
JUDITH: Marvelous! So, when was this? In the ‘30s?
JIMO: ’31, ’32, ’33. In there.
JUDITH: Boy! You’ve seen photography come a long way.
JIMO: Oh, yeah. At Boys Town we used glass plates most of the time.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. So, you recognized as a very young person that this was something that consumed your interest…?
JIMO: This is something that seems to happen in my immediate family. Marci and I are the immediate family. And when she was five she knew she was going to sing in the opera.
JUDITH: Your daughter?
JIMO: Yeah. And she practiced. Now she’s going to be 28 in October. And she does, in fact, get some parts in the opera. And, uh, it’s her life … nobody ever told me I couldn’t be a photographer. And I don’t tell her she can’t sing. If I describe my daughter, she’s five foot three, 107 pounds with four octaves. That’s it!
JUDITH: Well done. Good for her!
JIMO: The kid knows volume. She’s very good.
JUDITH: Do you want to say what your mother’s name was?
JUDITH: And, uh, your father’s name you can’t say…?
JIMO: I’d rather not … he was actually known under three or four names.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. How interesting. Um, well, now did you just have the one daughter just through your family?
JIMO: Yes, uh, I have Marci … when you’re transcribing, forget this … but, uh, along with my brothers, we were quite concerned over the fact that our mothers were all cousins. And, uh, we were a little afraid of having children…
JIMO: And mine came about where I didn’t really have a choice. And, uh, I didn’t want a choice. When she got there I decided to raise her.
JUDITH: So you raised her as a single parent?
JIMO: Uh, most of the way. Yeah.
JUDITH: Oh, really? Well you did break away from tradition… [chuckles]
JIMO: Well, a lot of us did.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. Well, tell me a little bit about San Francisco as a boy. Do you remember…?
JIMO: Well, your part of San Francisco, Columbus Avenue, had tracks up the middle. That’s why it’s so wide. There was a double track in the center.
JUDITH: Was that the F streetcar that came up the middle?
JIMO: I don’t know. Now it was a streetcar, and then they used it for trains also, for freight…
JUDITH: …down to the Belt Line?
JIMO: And, uh, the Belt Line was, like, very popular. There was very in little truck transportation, but there was a lot of horse and buggy. And they came through North Beach. And Columbus Avenue outside of the tracks was mud…
JUDITH: Into the ‘30s?
JIMO: Yeah. The police were on horseback. They spoke Italian only.
JUDITH: Oh, wow! I understand there weren’t very many here, because there wasn’t much crime, maybe one or two…?
JIMO: Well, there was some, you know. Coming into North Beach proper and Pacific Avenue was the International Settlement, where if you wanted to buy a sailor you could buy one.
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, International Settlement was an entertainment district located along a one block stretch of Pacific Avenue between Kearny and Montgomery Streets, whose popularity lasted from 1939 to 1960.]
JUDITH: Right. And the International Hotel…
JIMO: Don’t get your kids too near, because they’ll disappear. It was a lot to watch for, I guess. And then they had turf wars like they do today. Only the narcotic was alcohol, which was … as long as it’s not available, there’s big profits. That’s why I’ve always believed that under supervision, like they have in London, they should legalize narcotics, control everything and, uh, let it go from there.
JUDITH: So you’re talking about, in particular, Prohibition in the U.S…?
JUDITH: …when it was … when it became a commodity for…?
JIMO: There were alcoholics all over…
JUDITH: Sure. And were the Mafia involved in that kind of traffic, or was it…?
JIMO: It was gangland. A lot of people use “Mafia” as kind of a catchall for everything. And I suppose it was one of the two major organizations, “Drogana” or “Mafia.” One is Napoli and the other is Sicily. And…
JUDITH: “Drogana?” D-R-O-G-A-N-A? [Transcriber’s note: Internet research finds no reference to an organized crime group called Drogana.]
JIMO: I don’t know how you spell it in English. But it’s something that I would strongly advise you strongly to look up in Italian section of the library. And, uh, there was great competition between the two. And at one time … a lot of San Franciscans think they’re Sicilian, and they’re not, uh…
[Transcriber’s note: there is a break in the audio recording here.]
JIMO: …from what they called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, until 1860, 1861, when the Unification came about and Cavour and all of that. Then it became one Italy, and the island was still Sicily. But, uh, a lot of Americans know nothing about where they came from, and they know the general name. And if the parents told them the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, you know, they thought it was out there on the island.
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, Count of Cavour, Isolabella and Leri, generally known as Cavour, was an Italian statesman and a leading figure in the movement towards Italian unification.]
JUDITH: Do you remember there being turf wars between provinces or provincial Italians in San Francisco…?
JIMO: No. Only between organizations.
JUDITH: OK. I mean I’ve been told the Sicilians lived on the waterfront…?
JIMO: They did, and they stayed apart, and, uh, this is something that most respectable Italians will not discuss. And I’m respectable. But I want you to know that 99 percent of the Italians of San Francisco never had anything to do with crime or organizations or anything like that. Uh, this was unfortunately a few who were on the run and they made a choice, which I think was a bad choice. But be that as it may, it’s their life.
JUDITH: But you all had to live with this, so I guess you felt a certain discrimination?
JIMO: Well, you lived with it. But in Italian houses, uh, the man takes care of everything out of the house, the woman takes care of everything in the house. And the woman, in order to keep the family safe, the woman knows nothing about what happens outside of the house. Nothing. She knows everything about education, religion, the direction of the children. The whole thing.
JUDITH: She made a point of keeping her…
JIMO: …They all made it. What happened on the other side of the door was never discussed.
JUDITH. Uh-huh. That’s interesting. Well, did you go to school, uh, grade school, high school, church?
JIMO: I went to Spring Valley for a year, two years…
JUDITH: Was that a grade school?
JIMO: Yeah. I went to, uh, the Red School in the Mother Lode. [Transcriber’s note: per Wikipedia, Spring Valley Elementary School is currently located at 1451 Jackson Street. Mother Lode is the name given to a long alignment of gold deposits stretching northwest-southeast in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It was discovered in the 1850s.] …
We’re on the book now, so I don’t want to explain further for a short spell. And then I did a little schooling in Boys Town. I had four years of grade school, and I am distinguished visiting professor in the university system. [laughter]
JUDITH: [laughter] Oh, that’s wonderful! At Cal State, distinguished visiting professor, Jimo Perini, nato in San Francisco… [Transcriber’s note: Judith appears to be reading an article or document that references Jimo’s role as a visiting professor. Internet research shows that Jimo was a visiting professor at California State University, Chico in the 1970s.]
JIMO: Born in San Francisco. That side is for Italy [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently pointing to a photo here.] And the other side…
JUDITH: …and Marci’s father?
JIMO: That’s me.
JUDITH: …and Marci’s father. Photo artist and Marci’s father. That’s charming!
JIMO: We never ate too much, but be that as it may. Uh…
JUDITH: So, that was the extent of your formal schooling?
JIMO: That’s it. I go to the university now as a distinguished visiting professor. Which is a real political panic because I get, when I lecture, $1,000 a year. If I were really stupid and knew nothing about photography, I could do what a lot of stupid people do: they get a degree and they teach photography, and they know nothing, and they get $35,000 a year … as a matter of fact … the Burtons, the remaining Burton, and I’m trying to get him together with Willie, who’s photography I did when he first started.
JUDITH: Mayor Willie Brown?
JIMO: Yeah. And he’s never thanked me yet. Uh, be that as it may, I never got thanks from the Burton family. Except Sala. [Transcriber’s note: Sala Burton represented San Francisco in the U.S. Congress from 1983 until her death in 1987. She is the widow of Phillip Burton, who represented the same district from 1964 until his death in 1983.]
JUDITH: Didn’t they pay you?
JIMO: Moscone and Ertola [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is referring to former Mayor George Moscone and former Supervisor John Ertola] paid me a few dollars because they wanted to see him get a break. And, uh, you get paid very little for political. You keep thinking that someday they’re going to consider you, but they don’t … and we’re going to be asking for something in the future. We’re going to be asking that in photography, in a special bill, uh, those … and I think there’re only two … who have been distinguished visiting professors in photography, be, uh, elevated to professor so that they can teach in the university system.
JUDITH: Absolutely, that’s the way it should be. So, you started out with your shoe box in North Beach…
JUDITH: …and graduated to Kodak?
JIMO: …I graduated to Boys Town, to combat … and after combat to 54 years...
JUDITH: Well, now, you were in World War Two in the Special Forces? Behind the lines?
JIMO: I was not Special Forces. I was in Donovan’s Army, OSS…
JIMO: …which is now CIA. CIA was born after the war, the day OSS died.
JUDITH: Right. The Office of Special Services.
JIMO: Yeah. Actually, Office of Strategic Services.
JUDITH: Strategic, right. And you know Tom Cara was also in…? [Transcriber’s note: Thomas Cara was born in North Beach and operated a Cookware and Espresso Machine Shop. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project features an oral history of Cara.]
JUDITH: Well, how … were you inducted, or did you join?
JIMO: That’s a good question…
JIMO: …and we’re on the book. I can’t go into it.
JUDITH: OK. Well, anyway, you served. Over in Europe or…?
JIMO: I served in Sicily, Italy and German prison camp.
JUDITH: Oh, no!
JUDITH: Good heavens!
JIMO: We’re solidly into the book now…
JUDITH: OK … can you, just to go back a little bit before, I enjoyed your images of the city, Columbus Avenue. Can you remember some other things…?
JIMO: Oh, there were a lot of things…
JUDITH: …about the city?
JIMO: If I were in your position, and I were going to attempt to paint a picture, as I think you’re doing, of the Italians of North Beach, among others, uh, I wouldn’t forget that all opera in those days, came from the Italian language. And I wouldn’t forget names like Father Pellegrini, uh, who should’ve been in the opera and instead he was a priest who handled the choir. And I wouldn’t forget people who were great, great singers, but who unfortunately didn’t, how can I say this? … their sexual callings were not what straight people would call normal. And, uh, so they didn’t get recognized for their talent … anyway, without the last two sentences, if you strike that, you get to the name Adrienne Mericone, which was probably one of the greatest singers this town’s ever had. And she went nowhere. [Transcriber’s note: internet research finds no reference to a Father Pellegrini or an Adrienne Mericone.]
JUDITH: A woman Adrienne Mericone…?
JIMO: Mericone. M-E-R-I-C-O-N-E. She lived at 24 August Place [Transcriber’s note: the correct name is August Alley.]
JUDITH: Is that here in the North Beach area?
JUDITH: August Place?
JIMO: August is just off of Union, the second block from Columbus.
JUDITH: OK. And she was a…?
JIMO: …she was one of Father Pellegrini’s choir. This choir could have substituted in the early … and this is later in the ‘30s … his choir could have substituted for any opera company in the United States.
JUDITH: Opera quality?
JIMO: Opera quality.
JUDITH: And where was Father Pellegrini? At Saint Peter & Paul?
JIMO: Please … saints. Saints Peter & Paul. Everybody does that. And some Italians do it, a lot of ‘em…
JUDITH: It’s like London, St. James’s Park.
JIMO: Right. Well, here it’s two saints: Saints Peter and Paul. In Italian it’s “SS.” You see “SS?” It means two saints.
JUDITH: And Father Pellegrini, P-E-L-L-E-G-R-I-N-I?...
JIMO: I think that’s right.
JUDITH: …as in the water?
JIMO: I want you to make a phone call to Saints Peter & Paul and they will give you the exact spelling.
JUDITH: And the dates that he was with them?
JUDITH: Well, now why was it that Adrienne Mericone was not recognized? Are you implying that she was gay?
JIMO: That’s right.
JUDITH: OK. And so she couldn’t make it in the, uh, traditional opera world?
JIMO: No. You got no opportunity at all.
JUDITH: Um-hmm. How interesting. And when would that have been? In the ‘30s or the ‘40s?
JIMO: I don’t recall. I think we’re speaking of the ‘40s or maybe even late ‘40s. I don’t know. I was gone until ’45, ’46 … and then I was in a VA hospital … it was late ‘40s because I knew her personally, and I knew Father Pel, and I did photos of that choir, and I, uh…
JUDITH: Oh? But it was famous here in the city?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. In North Beach. It was something else. I didn’t sing there. I put in, I guess, 20 or 30 years at 566 Bush Street, Notre Dame des Victoires. I was the only Italian singing Latin in the French choir. And, uh, I can’t sing worth a damn. My daughter will tell you I couldn’t carry a note in a bucket. But I was with the bass section, singing Gregorian chant, six notes, for I don’t know how long.
JUDITH: After the war?
JIMO: Yeah. At that time, every man had been in the underground or OSS … or a prisoner. And nobody knew. It was kind of a club meeting every week.
JUDITH: Wow, interesting! It was kind of a rejuvenation for you?
JIMO: Oh, yeah.
JUDITH: Right. You were the only Italian you say?
JIMO: I was the only Italian. Most of ‘em were French underground. And they served our army or theirs in the same way that our outfits served our army. We were Intelligence, and intelligence was a camera. And, uh, you didn’t have satellites, and you didn’t have a lot of stuff.
JUDITH: So you did photography as well during the war service?
JIMO: That was my specialty.
JUDITH: Well, these are more things about North Beach that I hadn’t heard. That’s fascinating! Too bad we don’t…
JIMO: Did anybody tell you about? … I can’t even remember the name of the market, where the bank is at Green and Columbus…
JIMO: … on the corner. There was the best produce market in the world. [Transcriber’s note: The market was called Buon Gusto.]
JUDITH: Oh, wasn’t it the Little Village?
JIMO: No, it had an Italian name, and I don’t know what it was now. I have to find out for my book, too.
JUDITH: Uh-huh. Where the bank now is?
JIMO: Yeah … you know it’s … that ugly new building where that…?
JUDITH: Oh, yeah.
JIMO: Well, right across the street from it on the corner. There’s a bank. And in the same building there’s a Radio Shack or something.
JUDITH: It was on that corner?
JIMO: That building, yeah.
JUDITH: Right. How interesting. Well, the area then had a lot of those wonderful, family-owned businesses.
JIMO: Yeah, it did. But this one … it was, uh, almost a complete produce market by itself. And then the real produce market in the financial district was all Italian. And the fishermen were all Italian. Uh, actually, the fishing fleet was all Italian until probably the ‘50s. And in my first book I have Captain Bill Dillon, a black guy who was the skipper of the “Ino” … I know where the fish are, you know … and, uh, I don’t know where Bill is now. Last I heard he was wearing a uniform and he was the skipper on one of the jet fairies or something.
JUDITH: “Ino.” Do you use the letter “I?” I know?
JIMO: Yeah. I-N-O. That was the name of the boat. And “where the fish are” is what the people would say. “What’s that mean?” And he’d say, “I know where the fish are.”
JUDITH: And he was the first black fisherman really?
JIMO: He was the first black fisherman.
JUDITH: And that was in the ‘50s…?
JIMO: I think he was the first non-Italian fisherman. [laughter] There might’ve been some with white names, but let me tell you they were part Italian…
JIMO: …or they had the blessings of Southern Italian or Sicilian groups.
JUDITH: So there weren’t, uh, rivalries between the Sicilianos and the Genovese and the…?
JIMO: There were rivalries, but generally they just didn’t talk to one another.
JUDITH: And didn’t intermarry?
JIMO: Well, you were supposed to marry a Catholic only, an Italian only who happened to be Catholic. And if you weren’t, uh, you were out of your mother’s family and still in your father’s…
JUDITH: [laughter] Right. Well, some of them started marrying Irish, so you began to get…
JIMO: That’s Catholicism.
JUDITH: …Irish-Catholic, Irish-Italian.
JIMO: They’re a great people. That’s why we let ’em in the church 500 years ago.
JUDITH: [laughter] When did they pave Columbus Avenue?
JIMO: That’s a good question. It must’ve been while I was away at the war.
JUDITH: During the war, maybe?
JIMO: They probably did streets and highways and things like that, that were paved during the war because somebody recognized that we needed to get military traffic over there fast. And San Francisco was a pretty busy place in war support, you know … Atlantic and Pacific.
JUDITH: So it sounds to me as if church, even though you didn’t have formal schooling and a formal kind of environment, was important to you culturally?
JIMO: Yeah. Well, it’s important to everybody from my generation.
JIMO: …I still know every word of the mass in Latin. And, uh, we didn’t have as much to distract us. Now, it’s impossible to study Catholicism with one of these going. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently pointing to a cell phone.] Or you have to know where your connection’s going to be for pot next week.
JUDITH: Right. Were you active in sporting activities at all?
JIMO: No. I was, after the war, pretty active in city leagues, and what have you. But, uh, not in school. There was no time. I was athletic … anybody who was with OSS was athletic. And even after the war … I totaled 346 combat jumps with a camera. And, uh, you know, the feet are rebuilt…
JIMO: …total knee replacements, new wrists, the whole bit. But I wasn’t athletic, in that I said “we’re number one” and…
JUDITH: Three hundred jumps?
JIMO: Three hundred and forty-six, all told.
JUDITH: Wow! By that time you actually had real cameras. [laughter]
JIMO: Oh, yeah, we had some pretty sophisticated stuff.
JUDITH: And, uh, when you returned, did you see a great change coming about the city as a result of the war?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. The women had all the jobs.
JIMO: And they weren’t ready to give them up.
JIMO: And those who had things for sale realized, rather speedily, that, uh, if the women weren’t going to give the jobs and the men had to have jobs, they were going to have two salaries. So everything doubled in price.
JIMO: Immediately. I made this point in the book also. It is a good point. It’s for anybody who’s evaluating anything. And it’s a World War Two story, think of that…
JUDITH: The two-income consumer.
JIMO: That’s right. We went immediately … you could go back to old magazines and newspapers and the ads and see within a couple of months after the guys got home that everything doubled.
JUDITH: Well, also more consumer goods were available because all that war machinery was converted to making refrigerators and stoves and so on that you hadn’t had before....
JIMO: Well, part of it, we sent to Israel. And I watched them using it later … chalk it up anyway you want.
JUDITH: Yeah, another way to make money.
JIMO: Yeah, well, you give it to Israel and they sell it.
JIMO: Actually, the biggest economy in the world today is Israel.
JUDITH: Yeah, it’s very healthy.
JIMO: Yeah. But it’s … too bad they’re going the direction they are, in general, because sometimes I wonder if I’ll live longer than Israel, or Israel will live longer than I do. It’s a sad world.
JUDITH: Well, the world became much more global didn’t it after the war.
JIMO: It became smaller.
JUDITH: And the nations couldn’t live an isolated environment.
JIMO: That’s right. And San Francisco grew with it. We’ve had, and have to this day, major growing pains. And in my neighborhood, for example … you would think that right up the hill that not much would happen, even at night. The newspapers don’t publish anymore because they don’t want to scare away tourism. But in the last month and half, there’ve been two dead and four wounded on the street in my neighborhood. And the whites just stay out of sight. The blacks and the Asians: turf war.
JIMO: And I know what this is like because I saw it when I was young.
JUDITH: Turf wars between the Italian groups. What about between Italians and Irish gangs and so on?
JIMO: No. They have rivalry, certainly, but Italians had never anything to do with criminals who weren’t Italian because they didn’t talk to … people like that.
JUDITH: Is it true that the Irish lived at the top of Telegraph Hill and the Italians lived lower?
JIMO: People say this, but I don’t think it’s true. I think Telegraph Hill was a pretty large hodge-podge. There were a lot of Germans up there. There were a lot of Italians. There were some Spanish-speaking people, uh, on both sides of North Beach, but not in the center. That’s why we got Nuestra de Guadalupe. We needed a Spanish-speaking church here. We had two Italian-speaking churches and one French-speaking church. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is referring to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church at 906 Broadway Street.]
JUDITH: Well, it was known as an international community as early as back in the last century, Because Phoebe Hearst, for example, sponsored several kindergartens here. And they were very multinational. Do you remember Phoebe Hearst?
JIMO: Phoebe Hearst … she was good, bad and indifferent. And I think had there been, uh, Jews for Jesus or a violence organization of Jews at that time, Phoebe would’ve been there to back them, too. She backed everything in sight. Good, bad and indifferent.
JUDITH: [laughter] Do you remember the Hearst kindergarten on Union Street?
[Transcriber’s note: according to Judith Robinson, The Hearsts - An American Dynasty (4th printing, 2011), “The first of many Hearst Free Kindergartens was in North Beach, initially called the ‘Latin Quarter’ for its Italian and immigrant populations, located at 560 Union Street, beginning in the 1880s.” The Phoebe Hearst Learning Center at 560 Union Street was the legacy of Hearst free kindergartens.]
JIMO: I don’t physically remember it … but I knew and know a lot of the Hearst family…
JIMO: …through the years.
JUDITH: Did you work for the papers at all?
JIMO: Not very much. I freelanced, which means that I got the pictures first, then the papers talked to me.
JUDITH: OK. So you were largely a freelance photographer all your life?
JIMO: I was freelance and assigned. I still do assigned work sometimes.
JUDITH: Ah-ha. And that’s been your work. You’ve managed to live by your, the love of your…?
JIMO: My camera. That’s it.
JUDITH: That’s great. And record a lot of interesting things in the process?
JIMO: Well, I have. I have well over a million negatives. And, uh, there’s a lot of history there. You know, it used to be you could pick up a shot that you took yesterday, and there’s no history. Now I pick up a shot and it shows shooting down Columbus Avenue with one-third of the Transamerica building up. And so I always have photos up, or a photo, a 16 by 20, the only photo that’s in Caffé Puccini. And it changes every eight or 10 days or whatever. Marci goes by there to check it out. And then she’s got some of my photos, too.
But, uh, it records different things. One day, for example, I put up a shot that I called “A Portrait of North Beach.” And it’s shooting right down Columbus Avenue in the old days, and you see both churches, Sts. Peter & Paul and St. Francis Assisi, and you can pick out this building or that one. And a companion shot, uh, has Telegraph Hill from Broadway, North Beach and the bottom of the shot going up. Anyway, the Tel-Hill Association [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is referring to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers] really liked them, but I can’t give them to them.
JUDITH: And you have published several or books …?
JIMO: I’ve published a book called “San Francisco Grip,” which if I do say so, was the best cable car book ever out. It was kind of “Family of Man” in the world of cable cars. And it had everything from the birth of my daughter, in color, natural childbirth, to death. Birth to death. And, uh, it had the mechanics of cable cars in the cable car world, like nobody has ever seen. My daughter still owns the rights, or we do, to that book. Marci my daughter. And “To Marci with Love” … Sometime I’ll let you look at it … I’m not sure if I can get you one … but I’ll let you look at … or you can go right over here…
JUDITH: Can I look at it in the library?
JIMO: Yeah. They’ve got a copy of “To Marci with Love” by Jimo Perini.
JUDITH: Is that the name of it or is it called “SF Grip?”
JIMO: No. “To Marci with Love” is the second book.
JUDITH: Oh, that’s the second book?
JIMO: Yes, that’s the second book. “SF Grip” is the first one.
JUDITH: OK. And “To Marci with Love” is the one about birth to death.
JIMO: No, “SF Grip” is. “To Marci with Love” is … nobody ever described it. But it’s a letter from a father to his daughter about this world to be read when she was 18. But she read it when she was 13. I’m uneducated, so I didn’t think I could write until “To Marci with Love” came out. I got more compliments on the writing than I did on the photography. And it was picked by an international association as number two in the world in the history of black and white photo essays. It’s a good book. It’s…
JUDITH: It won an award, in other words?
JIMO: It won award after award.
JUDITH: When was it published?
JUDITH: OK. And “SF Grip” was published when?
JIMO: “SF Grip” was ’69.
JUDITH: And now you’re preparing another book?
JUDITH: Which will incorporate some of your life history as well?
JIMO: Yeah. But I’m not sure in the final analysis what will be there. Whether I’ll separate the photo essay from the other story, or I’ll put them together. We’ll see.
JUDITH: Do you remember this malt factory operating and the belt railroad trains going around?
JIMO: Yeah, I remember belt railroad. And, uh, we used to go down to Ghirardelli. I guess it was on Saturday. And they would inspect to see that our hands were clean, stand in line, and they’d give us a square of chocolate in one hand, and a dime in the other. The dime was for the movie.
JUDITH: Ah. Now, when would that have been?
JIMO: I don’t remember … the ‘30s? … it was after I got out of Boys Town. I think it was in about ’39 because I came for the…
JUDITH: Fair? The fair at Treasure Island?
JIMO: Yes, we … Buster Crabbe and Clyde Divine and Ann Curtis. And those were the Aquacade. And we were the children’s Aquacade … and it was about ’39.
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Billy Rose's Aquacade was a music, dance and swimming show first produced at the Great Lakes Exposition in 1937. Aquacade later moved to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, before opening in 1940 in San Francisco at the Golden Gate International Exposition.]
JUDITH: Silent film, or were they talking movies?
JIMO: We had both. I saw “The Jazz Singer.”
JUDITH: Ah! So those were the kind of movies you went to?
JUDITH: Where did you go to the movies?
JIMO: We had a little place on Fillmore we used to go to. I don’t know if it’s still there. I think it’s still a theatre. And then there was a place on Union … it was old, old, old.
JUDITH: So you’d go down Saturday morning and get your chocolate, with your clean hands and a dime, and go to the movies?
JIMO: That’s it. And I want to tell you from the Italian perspective, uh, from Larkin Street all the way to Columbus Avenue in North Beach. From probably Washington Street, all the way this way to Union Street, was all Italian-speaking in those days. You talk about North Beach … it was all Italian-speaking.
JUDITH: From Union to the waterfront, and Washington … I mean from Washington to the waterfront, and, what, Leavenworth to the top of Telegraph Hill?
JIMO: Probably, probably. From Leavenworth … when I was a little kid, nobody spoke anything but Italian on our four blocks. And that’s Leavenworth and Jackson now.
JUDITH: Right. What other kinds of things did you do as a child like to amuse yourselves? Did you hop freights on the train?
JIMO: Once in a while. And then, you know, they used to put a grater in front of the streetcars and what have you, and in the back…
[Transcriber’s note: first second audiotape ends here. The second audiotape doesn’t appear to pick up where the first left off.]
JIMO: You know he was really genuine, good guy. And then as the men would say, if you’ll pardon the expression, in politics he was hard ass, you know. And he didn’t always keep his word to other politicians. He didn’t always keep his word.
JUDITH: You remember those days with, uh, Moscone, Phil Burton and Willie Brown was starting out…?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. I remember quite well. I was one of the prime photographers, and, uh, I did … Moscone’s in “To Marci With Love” … the last shot of him.
JIMO: Gina was my friend … she’s, uh…
JUDITH: Mrs. Moscone? [Transcriber’s note: Gina Moscone is the widow of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated in 1978.]
JIMO: Yeah. I guess you might say that we were quite close. I have notes from George and from Jack Ertola and from different people, saying thank you for this, thank you for that … including, off the record, seven presidents and three popes. And I still do Vatican work. [Transcriber’s note: John Ertola was a member and president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and a San Francisco Superior Court judge.]
JUDITH: Wow! You photographed seven presidents and three popes? Wow.
JIMO: Yeah. But I’m low key. And it’s never been big money or anything. It’s been stay alive in this field. I didn’t even consider money until Marci was born. And then, you know, you’re looking at spending $22,000 a year for education.
JUDITH: So she went through formal education…?
JIMO: Oh, yeah. Marci has a degree. Two degrees. [chuckles]
JUDITH: College degrees?
JUDITH: You were saying you remember some of the rivalry between the Ertolas and the Burtons’ side…?
JIMO: There was a lot of rivalry, and there were a lot of reasons. And some of them I wouldn’t want to pursue, not that it’s in my book. It isn’t. But the survivors are alive and here, and, uh, for something like that I would go to the survivors. But, uh, it would be an understatement to say that there was a rivalry. I was in, for example, a stretch limo with Phil Burton and his brother…
JIMO: Yeah, all of us, when we went to 566 Bush, the French church, Notre Dame des Victoires, to greet what’s his name, the big man, the leader of France.
JUDITH: Mitterand? Or someone like that?
JIMO: No, before.
JUDITH: De Gaulle?
JIMO: De Gaulle, yeah.
JUDITH: Ah! When he was president?
JIMO: Yeah. I photo’d him when…
JUDITH: Charles de Gaulle?
JIMO: Charles de Gaulle. The big man. He should’ve played basketball … I have to excuse myself for a minute.
[Transcriber’s note: Jimo apparently takes a bathroom break here. There is a break in the audio recording here.]
JUDITH: … I was wondering if you ever remember the feluccas sailing, the fishermen sailing their felucca boats? [Transcriber’s note: a felucca is a small wooden fishing boat with a sail.]
JIMO: No, I don’t.
JUDITH: OK. That may have kind of ended with the gasoline engines.
JUDITH: …because I’ve always wondered if anybody … I’m a sailor, too.
JIMO: I didn’t pay too much attention to the waterfront until after the war.
JUDITH: Well, now you were telling about that you went down to meet De Gaulle, and we were about to talk about the rivalry … you were in the limousine with John and Phil…?
JIMO: Yeah, we’re all in the same limo. And, uh, I felt pretty honored that I was with all these big guns. But the fact of the matter, and it’s … turn that thing off for just a minute… [Transcriber’s note: the conversation about rivalry between the Ertolas and the Burtons, two political families in San Francisco, ends here.]
JUDITH: Anything more about the city you remember, the kind of colorful or unusual…?
JIMO: There’s a lot. Probably most of it would be [Transcriber’s note: unintelligible word here] after the war. And I guess I have a complete photo record. But there used to be two jumping parties at one time every year. Columbus Day, of course, was the 12th of October. And the Chinese Ten Ten is the 10th. So we’d get two parades on one weekend, and often in one day. One would be … Columbus Day. And then night Grant Avenue, Chinatown. A half million people. The fire department couldn’t get a truck or anybody in there in to save their soul … but it was exciting times.
JUDITH: You said Ten Tens. What’s that?
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Double Ten Day is celebrated annually on October 10. Double Ten Day is the anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising, a revolt that led to a declaration of independence from the central Chinese government by Wuchang and several other provinces in 1911.]
JIMO: Ten Ten. The tenth month, the tenth day.
JUDITH: And that’s their new year?
JIMO: Chinese Independence Day.
JUDITH: Oh, independence? Meaning Taiwan’s…?
JIMO: I don’t know. They have ten independence days…
JUDITH: Chiang Kai-shek?
JIMO: …one of the big … yeah, Chiang Kai-shek. And in my book, I have a shot of my daughter and the grandson of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek saluting with the wrong hand … stupid kid.
JUDITH: In the parade?
JIMO: No. In school. North Beach, Chinatown.
JUDITH: Uh, is that where she went to school?
JIMO: Yeah. She and Stephen Tropiano were the only two non-Asian kids. And everybody wanted their kid there because, you know, it was tumultuous times. But during those times you realize that any place the great grandson or grandson of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is there, there’s gun guards all around. So nobody was going to bother a little North Beach Chinatown Center, which was government-supported, as long as that kid was there. And that’s one of the reasons my kid was there. [Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Tropiano is author of several film-related books.]
JIMO: I’m no fool.
JUDITH: Where was it located?
JIMO: It still is. It’s on…
JUDITH: Are you talking about the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center now here, down on Lombard?
JIMO: It’s on Lombard and…
JIMO: No. You know where the Gap is?
JUDITH: Oh, yeah.
JIMO: The second house up. It’s low key. But it’s still, I think, North Beach Chinatown Center.
JUDITH: And it was protected because Chiang Kai-shek’s grandson was there?
JIMO: And my favorite lady in that place, if I was born in ’26, was Mrs. Chang. And she represented China in the Olympics in 1926.
JUDITH: Wow! So, you’ve got some good knowledge of friends in the Chinese, the old Chinese…?
JIMO: Yeah, I’ve got knowledge of friends in all of the groups.
JUDITH: What was the Chinese woman athlete’s name?
JIMO: I think it’s Miss Chang. Anybody there today will tell you about her … I’ve got pictures of her. [Transcriber’s note: the correct name of the athlete to which Jimo is referring is unknown.]
JUDITH: And she represented them in the Olympics?
JIMO: She represented China.
JUDITH: In 1926?
JIMO: The 1926 Olympics. I believe she was a track star.
JUDITH: Ah! Wow! I’m interested in that because I’ve done a book about women athletes.
JIMO: I’ve done a lot about women…
JIMO: I haven’t put it all together yet. But, uh … and I may never. It’s just in my research file … I keep an on-going research file so I can have all of the filler material I need.
JUDITH: Of unusual women, or all kinds, just the life, the way women…?
JIMO: I don’t think they were unusual. In some ways they may have been. Unheralded might be a more accurate description.
JUDITH: OK … oh, do you know or would you like to suggest some others who might contribute to this archival history, who are still with us?
JIMO: I was thinking of that. Have you talked to Peter Macchiarini? [Transcriber’s note: Macchiarini was an American Modernist jeweler and sculptor, who was a pioneer in the field of avant-garde jewelry. He maintained an art studio and shop on Grant Avenue. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project features two oral histories of Peter Macchiarini, one by Judith Robinson for the Bancroft Library.]
JUDITH: I have.
JIMO: I helped him move into his place when he came to this town.
JUDITH: Oh, tell us about that.
JIMO: Well, it’s just that it’s the old Macchiarini jewelry store…
JUDITH: Down a few blocks on Grant Avenue?
JIMO: Yeah. And I went to his 70th or 80th or 90th birthday celebration recently. I don’t know which.
JUDITH: Yeah, over at Enrico’s. I was there. So you’ve been a friend of his for many years?
JIMO: I’ve been a friend … I’m not sure we’re always friends, because he’s very political. And I won’t join him in doing things for the artists, whatever that is. I do things because of merit. If it’s good, it’s good, and it goes by itself. Not because … this is not an anti-Semitic dig, but in my generation a comic was called, uh, by his name. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, what have you. And now they say the comedian, you know, so and so. And you’ve never heard of him. And he has nothing funny to say, and he only insults his family. Well, it’s the same in art. A lot of people think if you’re a North Beach artist, you’re one of the greatest. And they’re not.
JUDITH: But there has been, uh … you must’ve been associated with other artists and photographers and musicians then who became noted…?
JIMO: I have friends in all areas. But I never associated, so to speak, with anyone, uh, unless it was on a personal friendship. Joe Rosenthal, yes. Andre Kertesz was my friend, my confidant. [Transcriber’s note: Kertesz was a Hungarian-born photographer known for his groundbreaking contributions to photographic composition.]
JUDITH: How do you spell that?
JUDITH: And who was he, I’m sorry?
JIMO: He was the teacher of Henri Cartier-Bresson, in photography. And in 1971 or 1972, I don’t know what it was, an international judgment, which wasn’t accepted in New York, was Henri Cartier-Bresson, number one; Jimo Perini, number two; Andre Kertesz, number three, in the world of art photography. [Transcriber’s note: Internet research doesn’t find reference to this photography award.]
JUDITH: And when was that?
JIMO: 1971 or ’72. It was uh just a little thing. It didn’t have a great amount of money, and…
JUDITH: It was a show?
JIMO: No, apparently it was a complete study of all books and works in black and white photography for a hundred-year period. And nobody knew it was going on, there were no nominations or anything like that. Just one day they came out and sent certificates to people. And I’ve got the list somewhere. I may even have one of the certificates somewhere, but…
JUDITH: So you were honored with this certificate?
JIMO: We were duly honored, let me tell you.
JUDITH: And by whom?
JIMO: By an outfit, which, uh … called themselves the International Congress of Judges, or something. I don’t know what it was. At the time I was covering combat. I was in the air two hours out of every three for a whole year or two. And, you know, I just really didn’t have time for laurels. Because you eat eggs for breakfast, not laurels.
JUDITH: [laughter] So it was during the war?
JIMO: It was during one of the wars. I’ve covered all of them.
JUDITH: You were honored for your photographs for the war?
JIMO: Yeah, from virtually everything. It was a lifetime honor.
JUDITH: Oh, that’s wonderful!
JIMO: This thing that they did is much like getting a lifetime achievement award…
JUDITH: That’s wonderful.
JIMO: …but some of the very famous people in the United States weren’t mentioned. And the New York press condemned everything. It didn’t start in New York. That’s why we don’t have international competitions anymore. The last time we had international competition, the last five years I won first place. And the top four places in the last five years, years ago, were won by San Franciscans or two people from Monterey … and that’s it, you know. Ansel wasn’t there, and you know, a lot of them. Kertesz was always there, and I was always there, and Cartier-Bresson was always there, and that’s it. [Transcriber’s note: Jimi refers here to photographer Ansel Adams.]
But, you know, I really could care less about how I match up with somebody who did a magazine article on something. The truly great photographers, alive and dead, are remembered by all professionals. One of them was a kid who did the work for his father, and he was killed in a small plane accident. His name was Phillippe Cousteau. And I did the timing, and the underwater timing and everything with him. And [Transcriber’s note: unintelligible word here] harbor and the works. But…
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, Phillippe Cousteau was a French diver, sailor, pilot, photographer, author, director and cinematographer specializing in environmental issues, with a background in oceanography. He was the son of Jacques Cousteau. He died in a plane crash in 1979.]
JUDITH: That was Jacques Cousteau’s…?
JIMO: Jacques Cousteau’s son, Phillippe.
JUDITH: And you worked with him?
JIMO: Well, he came to me every time he had a problem in film “pushing.” And, uh, it’s kind of like this … I don’t know how much you know about film, but this is a 500th of a second, at midnight, in a rainstorm. No flash and no fill.
JUDITH: The picture of Coit Tower and Castle Alley … 500th of a second?
JIMO: 500th of a second. Impossible.
JIMO: But it’s a film pushing…
JUDITH: It’s so clean!
JIMO: It’s people who know what they’re doing with film.
JUDITH: Ah, so that’s what you mean by film “pushing?”
JUDITH: How to push the film to the limits?
JIMO: Yeah. And they learned it from the people who photographed the Civil War.
JUDITH: Which means pushing the film to get the most out of it you can?
JIMO: That’s right.
JUDITH: Wow! So, you learned that…?
JIMO: In the schools they can’t teach it. Because of you push Tri-X, for example, it gets all grain. And, uh, they’ll tell you that you need 100 for this and 200 for this and, you know, and I say, if you’ll pardon the expression, bullshit, you know. What you need is to be able to have a few tools and use ‘em to the best of your ability.
JUDITH: That’s amazing! Well, how do you that? Is it the quality of the film?
JIMO: No. Essentially, there a number of things involved, and I won’t tell you some of them. But essentially, 400 film, if it’s recommended that you develop it in seven minutes, that’s 400. If you develop it in eight minutes, that’s 800. If you develop it in nine minutes, that’s 1600.
JUDITH: So it’s the developing time?
JIMO: It’s developing process. But what they don’t teach in school, and I won’t go too far into it, is that, uh, it’s developing process in accordance with planning ahead. And that is how you take the shots with the developing. Without one, the other is dead.
JUDITH: Very interesting. Now, is that another example of that pushing the film? [Transcriber’s note: Judith apparently points here to another photo.]
JIMO: Everything I do is pushed.
JUDITH: Yeah. [chuckles] That’s wonderful! Do you have any … I mean, are those some of your heroes? Cartier-Bresson…?
JIMO: Cartier-Bresson was a friend … we escaped prison camp. Uh, he was a hero of the underground, a doctor’s son who never had to work. A painter who Kertesz trained in photography. But who never acknowledged, to this day … Kertesz has been dead for years … he never acknowledged … and then somebody went to Cartier-Bresson maybe 10 years ago … Fifteen years ago I used to get calls on my birthday from Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson … Ten years ago, you know, Kertesz is gone and what have you, and somebody from New York is reputed to have, I wasn’t there, asked Cartier-Bresson about me, and he said he didn’t remember me. Well, he didn’t remember his teacher either. I remember my teachers, you know.
[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was a member of the French Army during World War Two. He was captured by German soldiers in 1940 and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor under the Nazis. His third escape attempt was successful. Afterward, he worked for the French underground, aiding other escapees and working secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation and then the Liberation of France. Jimo has asserted that he was in the same German prison camp with Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson, and that the three photographers escaped at the same time.]
JUDITH: What day is your birthday?
JIMO: Thirteenth of August. Tredici Augusto.
JUDITH: A Leo?
JUDITH: And who are your teachers? Cartier-Bresson? Kertesz?...
JIMO: I never had a teacher, really. I had teachers in Vittalini, their lab. I had a 100-year-old guy who used to come to Boys Town. Uh…
JUDITH: He was literally 100 years old?
JIMO: He was 100 years old. He came on horse and buggy once a week and, uh, to work with me. And he said I was going to be great, you know. [chuckles]
JUDITH: Do you remember his name?
JIMO: He was Italian…
JUDITH: Oh, he was?
JUDITH: In Nebraska?
JIMO: In Nebraska.
JUDITH: How wonderful! So you pretty much taught yourself?
JIMO: I’m self-taught in everything. I’m self-educated. And that’s why I have no real education, no formal education to speak of. And depending on who you talk to I’m either very intelligent or a Don Juan, you know. [laughter] It goes the whole gamut.
JUDITH: Do you teach yourself at all? Do you give seminars?
JIMO: Yeah, I lecture as a distinguished visiting professor. And I lecture at universities and schools of all sorts in Italy when I go there.
JUDITH: Do you teach some of these skills, so that people will be able to carry them on?
JIMO: I’ve had 36 students. Four are dead, two are still studying and the other 30 have international prizes from 22 different countries.
JIMO: But it’s all low-key and underpaid. I doubt that if I’ve had $7 an hour for teaching ‘em, if you really added it up.
JUDITH: But those skills, think of the richness there to you and them, and the world.
JIMO: Well, they’ve served the world pretty well.
JUDITH: So you’re proud of your teaching?
JIMO: I’m proud of the whole crew. I don’t know what you … I just grabbed this on the way out…
JUDITH: Well, I’m glad you did…
JIMO: …to show you one or two things. [Transcriber’s note: Jimo is apparently showing a camera or other photographic equipment to Judith here.]
JUDITH: Do you generally carry a camera with you? Or cameras?
JIMO: Quite often I do. There’s a thing I don’t want on tape. I just got back…
[Transcriber’s note: There is a break in the interview here.]
JUDITH: I gather that you are fluent in Italian?
JIMO: I get along in Italian.
JIMO: Most people who are fluent in Italian in San Francisco don’t get along too well in Italy.
JIMO: They say they speak Italian. And I get along very well in Italian. I only have two cousins who speak any English.
JIMO: And I can interview in Italian.
JUDITH: So you have cousins you mentioned still in Italy?
JIMO: Oh, yeah.
JUDITH: Where, in Brescia?
JIMO: All over.
JUDITH: All over?
JIMO: From one end of Italy to the other.
JUDITH: And you enjoy going to Italy? Do you like, do you feel comfortable…?
JIMO: I enjoy it, yeah. A little thing like a robbery doesn’t bother me. I show I’ll not intimidated by anyone, you know.
JUDITH: Well, that’s horrible.
JIMO: I put my camera in the backpack and go again.
JUDITH: Oh, sure. Get back on the horse … well, that’s very, very interesting. You’ve had a very interesting new life … to date! Every day is a new day…
JIMO: So far. Another 50 years.
JUDITH: [laughter] It’s wonderful, though, that you’ve made a record of so many things with your camera.
JIMO: I have, and we have things … I do things for people that they really don’t realize are records. For example, a couple of years ago, I think it was the 113th year of A. Cavalli & Company bookstore. Which is right there where I sold newspapers, and Vitallini was next door to them. Uh, anyway, they were boasting this with a little banner in front of their store. So I took a picture one morning, postcard style, you know, of this store, you know, and the banner, 113 years and what have you, and made a copy of it, and gave it to John, and he really liked it. And, uh, we go back to … his kid was in the hospital when my daughter was [Transcriber’s note: unintelligible words here] syndrome. They were three or four years old, and now they’re all the way up…
[Transcriber’s note: Jimo is referring to John Valentini, a third-generation owner of A. Cavalli & Co., an Italian bookstore in North Beach. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project features two oral histories of John Valentini, one by Judith Robinson for the Bancroft Library.]
JUDITH: Someone suggested that Mr. Cavalli might be a good person to interview. Is that…?
JIMO: Uh, I would suggest … and I don’t know whether … what you should do is you should go by there, and I won’t even give you last names right now. John is the owner, and his wife is … knows more about the Italian community in North Beach than practically anyone. And she’s a very, very good, down-to-earth person.
JUDITH: John and Rosanna Valentini?
JIMO: That’s it.
JUDITH: The Cavalli Italian bookstore…
JIMO: That’s right. And tell Rosanna that Jimo Perini referred you, and that, uh, with exception, I didn’t know whether she wanted to be referred or not … and I have not talked to her. But she’s a great woman, and she’s straight forward enough to tell you yes or no.
JUDITH: Well, someone else suggested that, too. Just go talk to them and see if they’re willing. Anyone else, if you think of them, we’d be happy to learn about them.
JUDITH: You don’t have to do anything…
JIMO: Do you have a card or something?
JUDITH: Yes, I’ll give you that. Oh, I just want to clarify: The Cavalli bookstore, which I gather is about 100 years … or 130 you say…?
JIMO: It’s a 115 or 116 now…
JUDITH: Now. It was originally located down near where Vitallini was, below Broadway?
JIMO: There was no bars. Across the street were … what’s the name of the famous bar?
JUDITH: Spec’s on…?
JIMO: No, across the street from Spec’s.
JUDITH: Oh, the one next to City Lights?
JIMO: Yeah. Well, that was A. Cavalli bookstore.
JUDITH: That was A. Cavalli?
JUDITH: Well, that’s why it has all that wonderful, decorative front, then?
JIMO: That’s right.
JIMO: Marsha’s place is there. [Transcriber’s note: it’s unclear which “Marsha” Jimo is referring to here. He may be referring to his daughter Marci.]
JUDITH: Where her office is, yeah. I always wondered why that building was so beautiful, it’s very Italianate.
JIMO: It was A. Cavalli & Company.
JUDITH: Oh, that’s great. OK. Well, that’s a precious corner, that corner.
[Transcriber’s note: there is a break in the recording here.]
JUDITH: …Vesuvio’s, right?
JIMO: Run by the guy who during the famous Beatnik days … he had Miss Miss Tea Room on Upper Grant…
Right. Which became the Coffee Gallery…
JIMO: … with sawdust on the floor … became the Coffee Gallery, uh, and you know, I was the only platonic pal for the gal down the street, Margo St. James. And I did her birthday cards [laughter].
[Transcriber’s note: Margaret Jean "Margo" St. James was a prostitute and feminist. In San Francisco she founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization advocating decriminalization of prostitution, and co-founded the St. James Infirmary Clinic, a medical and social service organization serving sex workers.]
JUDITH: Really? The professional prostitute?
JIMO: Yeah, I’m on her … I’m on her list of people as sponsors for the board of supervisors.
JIMO: I got so disgusted with what they’re appointing and what they’re doing that I think Margo would do a better job than they’ll ever do, you know. At least she tells the truth.
JUDITH: Right, she is that…
JIMO: … if you ever want to do a story on women, Margo should be in there. She started with abuse. And, uh, she’s done more for charities and more for people who are down, including me, 35 years ago, 40 years ago, than anybody I know.
I have a shot I’m threatening to use in the book, and this is almost a parting shot here … but the scene is … you have an old toilet, and it’s down there, and it’s a platter, and out of it comes an American flag. On the side there’s a flag that says “A Tribute to Lenny Bruce.” And leaning over, nude, 35 years ago, is Margo St. James. [laughter]. And she says, I can use it anytime I want, anything I want. And she’s, uh, a really good person, and she’s a lot like another good friend of mine who’s gone to the other side, Sally Stanford. Which would open up a completely different thing...
[Transcriber’s note: Sally Stanford ran one of San Francisco's more notorious brothels in the 1940s. In 1950, Stanford opened the Valhalla restaurant in Sausalito and later was elected mayor of Sausalito.]
JUDITH: Yeah, they were…
JIMO: Don’t ever sell Margo short for her occupation, because, uh, she’s touched a lot of lives. One day she announced, for example, that she was going to retire from her work. And by then it was Call House Madam, you know, and do a book. The next day she was living in Marin. Nobody knew what happened. And every name in this town would be in that book. And Jimo would be in there. But it would say “Jimo Perini: my only platonic pal.” That’s it.
JUDITH: She’s done a lot for ladies of this profession.
JIMO: She’s done a lot for everybody.
JUDITH: Well, this is very interesting.
[Transcriber’s note: interview ends abruptly here.]
JUDITH: That ends Jimo Perini, interviewed by Judith Robinson. Mr. Perini wore on one sleeve, the left sleeve of his jacket, a medal representing his being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross medal for his service in World War Two, which he said was second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
[END OF INTERVIEW]