The Worst Thing That Can Happen: Gertrude and Howard


Olive Hershey


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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone, edited by Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox, and Michelangelo Sabatino, published by the University of Texas Press, expected August 2020.

Making Houston Modern Part Five
The Worst Thing That Can Happen: Gertrude and Howard

When Howard Barnstone landed in Texas in 1948, fresh out of Yale, it seemed as if he and Gertrude Levy were fated to meet in Houston’s contemporary art scene. With a job offer to teach at the new University of Houston architecture school, Howard moved to town and settled in. That was the opening scene in the marriage play starring Gertrude Levy and Howard Barnstone. Equal parts comedy of manners and domestic melodrama, the play’s action was driven by the protagonists’ complex psychologies, which sometimes produced uproariously funny situations and often profoundly wrenching ones. The setting for the drama was Houston at the midpoint of the twentieth century, a city emerging simultaneously as a booming business powerhouse and a burgeoning center for modern art and culture.

Howard Barnstone and Gertrude Levy, both possessing brilliant intellects and magnetic personalities, formed a marriage that generated enormous creative energy and achievement. These two complex, talented people had professional interests and ambitions that inspired in each a powerful impulse to excel in their chosen disciplines: Howard as the Texas interpreter of Philip Johnson, and Gertrude as an actress, artist, and activist. Paradoxical characters driven by their passions and ambitions, Howard and Gertrude experienced intense emotional stress while playing their roles in a city undergoing tremendous cultural and economic change. . . .

Icons of the midcentury American scene, both Barnstones, in quite different ways, conjured in their professional work varieties of spatial, visual, and theatrical legerdemain. It may be that Howard and Gertrude were each essentially accomplished dramatic actors who adopted and played out the roles that were most appealing and useful at key moments. It isn't surprising that they both became popular models for younger activists. Gertrude's direct challenge to conservatives on the school board made her a polarizing figure, whereas Howard's sophisticated and understated style of speaking, dressing, and designing spaces was aimed at a softer sort of revolution. Both Barnstones aimed to overturn power structures that were overly self-important, authoritarian, and humorless. Their methods were those of the satirist, wit and irony.

About the Author

Olive Hershey, a native Houstonian, is a Texas writer, poet, and novelist. She is currently working on a biography of the actress and artist Gertrude Levy Barnstone (1925-2019) who was married to Howard Barnstone from 1955-1969.


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