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Gershon Legman

Mark Casida asked on 28th October 1996 who is or was Gershon Legman. To my great regret, I do not know whether he is still alive. My last letter which I sent to him in February 1991 was not answered and although I have asked people who might have known, I have received no further news. If any one can give me any information, I shall be most pleased. I corresponded with him somewhat sporadically between 1968 and 1980 and through him I learnt much about the history of paperfolding. I hope to write at lengthabout Gershon Legman and his contribution to paperfolding in some other place, but in the meantime, here are a few jottings of the cuff. (more or less!).

Gershon Legman was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on 2nd November, 1917. His parents were Jewish and originating from Central or Eastern Europe. At one time Legman said he was a Hungarian, but we cannot be sure about this. At school he became acquainted with another boy, Cyril Enfield (known as "Cy"), who was three years older. Cy was a keen amateur magician, whereas magic held no attraction for Legman. Nevertheless, Enfield came across a paperfold of a bow tie in a book of magic and he showed it to Legman. The fold was a modification of the fold known as the Lover's Knot or Lotus. Its unfolding action is fascinating and it certainly fascinated Legman.

After leaving school Enfield and Legman kept in touch, meeting occasionally. Enfield later became a film producer, while Legman became a free-lance researcher and writer. Among his occupations, Legman was a bibliographic researcher for the Kinsey Institute. Later he concentrated on his own research into erotic aspects of folklore and popular culture, something for which he was much misunderstood. There is no doubt about his skills as a researcher and encyclopaedist, He collected vast amounts of information on his chosen subjects and was able to put his researches into good order and interpret them. His works are learned and scholarly and have contributed to an understanding of hidden and forbidden aspects of human psychology.

It is unfortunate that Legman often adopted an aggressive personal manner. He could be blunt with people, to the extent of unpleasantness, although he saw it merely as peeling off the hypocrisy to reveal the unvarnished truth. It is little wonder that he often became unpopular, particularly among people who could not understand or would not go along with his manner, or who disapproved of the subject matter of his researches. He laid himself open to personal attacks which undermined what he was setting out to achieve.

In 1945, Legman injured his ankle and being laid up, he happened to turn to folding and refolding the lover's knot, to pass the time. He discovered how to make a double version of it and It awakened in him a compulsive interest in paperfolding. Cy Enfield had said that he had found the lover's knot in a book of magic tricks and Legman decided that come what may, he must find that book. His work had made him familiar with the techniques of bibliographic research and he persued his new enthusiasm in the New York Public Library and in the Library of Congress. Research into paperfolding had never been done before and he was tilling virgin land. As one clue led to another, he rapidly built up a knowledge of paperfolding greater that had ever been achieved before.

A significant moment came when Legman discovered a forgotten article in an issue of the United States magazine "Japan" dating from 1922. The article had the title "The Art of Paper-folding in Japan" and was by Professor Frederick Starr of the University of Chicago, who had stumbled across paperfolding during a recent visit to Japan. The article referred in part to children's folding in Japan, but went on to describe volume 233 of a Japanese manuscript encyclopaedia dating from about 1850 which belonged to the Asahi newspaper of Osaka. The encyclopaedia seemed to be a private compilation of all kinds of knowledge and was apparently called "Kan no mado", although it now seems the correct name should be "Kayaragusa". Volume 233 was devoted to a remarkable kind of adult paperfolding, quite unlike the children's folding. Starr's article was illustrated with a magnificent dragonfly from the Kan no mado, but with only partial instructions, which made it virtually impossible to fold the model. From the moment he saw the illustration of the dragonfly, Legman made it his new lifetime's ambition to re-discover the encyclopaedia. Unknown to Legman at the time, Starr had had a facsimile copy made of the paperfolding section of the Kan no mado and on his death it was deposited with his other papers in the Library of Congress where it was forgotten, and lay waiting to be rediscovered. But Legman never did find Cy Endfield's book.

In 1952. Legman privately published the results of his researches in his "Bibliography of Paperfolding", which summarised, in bibliographic outline, almost the whole of paperfolding up to that year. It listed with brief notes books in English and other European languages together with such Japanese books as had happened to be deposited in the libraries, or to which Legman had come across references. The Bibliography is far from complete, but it was a magnificent start. Legman would follow the slightest of clues and in this way, by several extraordinary chances of good luck, he was able to get into contact with other enthusiasts round the world who were working in isolation on this very esoteric subject. A tear-off sheet in a book he came across led to Dr. Solorzano Sagredo pf Argentina. Correspondence with a professor in Argentina about a book by another folder brought him a contact with Ligia Montoya. Both Solorzano and Montoya were following in the tradition of the Spanish philosopher and paperfolding enthusiast Miguel Unamuno and had carried paperfolding to much greater heights than in Northern Europe or North America. Legman's enthusiasm sometimes stimulated others to take up folding, such as George Rhoads and Neal Elias but he also sought out other paperfolding enthusiasts in the West including Jack Skillman and Martin Gardner and tried to encourage them to develop their talents by making suggestions for the development of new techniques. The idea for blinzed bases came from Legman and the first bases devised on this principle were by George Rhoads about 1954. In 1952, while making enquiries about a somewhat ordinary Japanese book, Legman was told by a Japanese correspondent about an unknown folder in Japan called Akira Yoshizawa, whose work had only recently come to light in a series of folds of the Signs of the Zodiac which had been commissioned from him for the January 1952 issue of the Asahi Graph picture magazine. Until then he had earned a meagre living by hawking food-delicacies from door to door. Legman wrote at once to Yoshizawa, but it was only by persisting with numerous letters that he was eventually rewarded with a reply in the following year.

In the meantime, Legman was not finding life in the United States very comfortable. It was the period of the McCarthy witchhunts and the nature of his academic interests aroused the suspicions of the authorities. The Post Offoce began to refuse to deliver his mail. Then, by chance, Legman inherited an old farmhouse in the south of France and he decided to move there to live. He would be able to pursue his researches in the library of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and in the library of the British Museum in London. He received the first letter from Yoshizawa shortly before he left the United States in the summer of 1953. Soon after he arrived in France, however, he received much more. There arrived for him a box of Yoshizawa's incredible paperfolds. Yoshizawa had folded them for an exhibition which he had held in Tokyo. These folds were an astonishing revelation for Legman, who had never seen anything like the magic of Yoshizawa's creations. He at once abandoned his own plans to write a book about paperfolding and instead made it his vocation to bring Yoshizawa's astonishing work to the notice of the West.

After a small exhibition in a garden in the south of France, Legman was fortunate to be able to arrange a full-scale exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the summer of 1955. So Yoshizawa was discovered for the West little more than four years after his discovery in Japan. Legman planned to take the exhibition to Paris and London, but he was never able to achieve this. Fortune had other things in mind.

About a year earlier than Legman, Cy Enfield had also left the United States, though for somewhat different reasons .He hoped to pick up the threads of his career as a film producer in Britain. One of his first films was called "The Limping Man" and it had a minor part for a magician. The South African stage magician, Robert Harbin, who had made his career in Britain was yet another person who had stumbled across paperfolding in 1953, and he too had started his own enthusiastic research into the subject. By an amazing chance, Robert Harbin was suggested to Enfield as a suitable person to play the part of the magician in his film. So Harbin came to be engaged in the film being produced by Legman's old school friend. Enfield came across Harbin practising paperfolding during the long waits on the set and in return, he showed him how to fold a fine peacock from a pound note, which he had learnt not long before. It was inevitable that Enfield should put Harbin in touch with Legman. How fortunate chance can sometimes be!

The contact between the two students of paperfolding was the source of a great cross-fertilisation and was crucial for the future development of Western paperfolding. Legman was able to provide new historical and bibliographic information for Harbin's book, "Paper Magic", which was already nearing publication. In turn, when the book was published the following year, 1956, it gave a wider publicity to Legman's researches than he had ever had before. It even reproduced the Kan no mado dragonfly, so bringing it to the notice of far more people than had ever been possible by Legman's own private efforts. By yet another unexpected turn of events, a copy of "Paper Magic" very quickly came into the hands of Lillian Oppenheimer in New York, where, in about 1953, she, too, had started collecting every scrap of information that she could find about paperfolding. She visited London in 1957 to meet Harbin and through the contact came to learn about Legman, Solorzano, Montoya, Yoshizawa and all the other paperfolders Legman and Harbin had discovered. The new richness of paperfolding on a world scale was something that Lillian Oppenheimer had never expected. It boosted even her enthusiasm and she went on to found the Origami Center of New York in October 1958.

From then on, the story of paperfolding is much better known. The Origami Center became a focus for paperfolders not only in The United States, but throughout the western world and a new age of creative paperfolding suddenly came into being. In March,1959 Lillian Oppenhimer travelled to Japan to meet Akira Yoshizawa and later in the year she helped to organise "Plane Geometry and Fancy Figures", an exhibition of artistic and geometrical paperfolding at the Cooper Union Museum at New York. Legman sent his collection to New York and Yoshizawa's creations were once more displayed to an enthusiastic public in one of the great cities of the Western world. Moreover, Robert Harbin had mentioned a new word "Origami" in his book "Paper Magic". Lillian Oppenheimer adopted it as name for the art at the Origami Center and it is now the word we commonly use for the art in the West as well as in Japan.

So fate brought Gershon Legman, Robert Harbin and Lillian Oppenheimer together and the modern Origami movement was born Without any one of them, the evolution of paperfolding in the West would have taken much longer. It may never have taken place at all, for the parts which came together were widely scattered and no one person had all of the pieces in his own hands. If Westerners had not started a paperfolding movement themselves the impetus would probably have come from Japan, for in the 1950s, Japanese books on paperfolding had already begun to circulate in western countries. Even so, the movement would probably have been of a very different kind,. Yoshizawa had certainly revolutionised Japanese paperfolding both in technique and in artistry this was something quite different from the advanced bases and techniques which were discovered in the West. Had the development of Western paperfolding come from Japan, then it is likely that it would have lacked the dynamism which characterised it very soon after the formation of the Origami Center.

In March 1960 Gershon Legman experienced a vicarious triumph when the Library of Congress announced to Julia and Martin Brossman, who had requested that a search be made, that Frederick Starr's copy of the Kan no mado had been found among his papers. The discovery threw a floodlight on earlier Japanese paperfolding practices. A year or two later, Yoshizawa persuaded the Asahi newspaper of Osaka to search for the original manuscript of the Kan no mado and it was eventually found. It also showed how uncannily accurate was the hand-drawn copy prepared for Professor Starr.

After 1958, Gershon Legman's contribution to paperfolding was not so dynamic as he relaxed into the position of an elder statesman. By making his home in the South of France, he had unwittingly put himself on the margin of the paperfolding world. When he had moved there, it was not for him to know that New York of all places would become the centre of Western paperfolding. Never a great creative folder himself, he could only rarely meet the new paperfolders of the modern movement and many of the new generation of folders were unacquainted with him.

Gershon Legman made rare visits to the United States, and in November 1963, he visited the Origami Center in New York. He was the guest of honour at a special dinner party that Lillian Oppenheimer arranged. She invited some of the other pioneers of paperfolding to meet him. The next year, from 1964 to 1965, Legman was appointed Writer in Residence at the University of California, San Diego, but that was in connection with his profession as a writer and not with his paperfolding. On the way back to France in the summer of 1965, he had to wait for his ship and spent a few weeks at the Origami Center listing he books in the library there for a supplement to his Bibliography of Paperfolding which, however, was never published. He also kept in touch with his old correspondents, but the fire had gone out of his research. Legman was no longer the only Western student of paperfolding and there were many other new workers in the field. However, the work of Dokuohtei Nakano, contained in his remarkable Correspondence Courses of Origami, one in Japanese and the other in English came to Legman's notice. Nakano had adopted Western techniques of folding, but had carried the creation of composite bases beyond anything achieved so far in the West. Legman publicised Nakano's achievements in a long article in the Origamian in 1971. In return, Nakano printed a series of articles about "bilitzing" in his short-lived magazine, "The Origami Companion". It was Legman who had given the name "blintz" to the "blintz base". He had taken the name from the Yiddish word for a folded, filled pancake, but he may have got the wrong word, because, as his mother told him, a blintz is rolled over and over and does not have the corners turned to the centre. There is still however, some uncertainty about this and despite everything, Legman could have been right, for it seems that usage over the vast area of eastern Europe may have varied from place to place.

In particular, Legman greatly admired the folding of the Argentinian, Adolfo Cerceda and kept in touch with him until he died in Madrid on 25th July 1979. He contributed his own collection of Cerceda's folds when Vicente Palacos announced his decision to compile a long-awaited publication of Cerceda's folds in "Fascinente Papiroflexia", published in Spanish 1984.

Akira Yoshizawa paid Gershon Legman the honour of a visit to his home in the south of France. Robert Harbin also visited Legman in the summer of 1974 and with Legman's permission began to take a short cine film of Legman and his chilren, until for what seemed an inexplicable reason Legman rold him not to film any more. Now remarried, with three young children, Legman rarely left his home. His health, too was not good. In particular, he suffered recurrent troubles with his eyes, and at times had to limit the amount of time he spent reading and writing. Apart from paperfolding, his great passion was the music of Mozart.

One of Legman's last appearances among paperfolders was his visit to the magnificent Festival International des Plieurs de Papier organised by MFPP, the French paperfolding society, at Grenoble in France in November 1983, where he was able to meet a gathering of the younger generation of folders from many countries. He gave, in French, a lecture on the history of paperfolding. My own correspondence with him continued until 1980 and I was able to send him specimens of the animal folds of Max Hulme, Martin Wall and David Brill, which he commented on favourably. He was kind enough to tell me his story and give me many valuable insights in to the history of paperfolding. He told me that he would not be writing the history of paperfolding as he had hoped and expressed a hope that it would be written by me. It is a challenging trust, but there is still much to learn.

This is only a brief outline of a fascinating story which has more than its fair share of extraordinary coincidences and unlikely happenings. Gershon Legman was the first Westerner to be fired with a serious enthusiasm for the humble pastime of paperfolding and to him goes a large share of the honour of laying the foundations of Origami as we know it today.

© David Lister 1996.

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