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Berkeley’s Own Don Quixote

Diana Stephens
Friday July 31, 2015 - 09:20:00 AM

August 13, 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the first issue of the Berkeley Barb. While there are still many “factions” among those who worked at the Barb, there is also a feeling of community. To honor the best aspects of the Barb, there will be a series of events to mark the occasion. Please visit to find out where to enjoy the festivities.


You can learn a lot about a person from their obituary and I’ve found ten of them for Max Scherr, the publisher of the west coast’s most popular underground newspaper of the 1960’s, the Berkeley Barb. All comment on Max’s contribution to the protest movements, several refer to his unique personal style with special attention given to his long-haired, unkempt appearance. A few mention his family. What is a consistent theme, however, is that Max was a very controversial person and people who knew him well had their own conflicting opinions about him. What is also clear, is that his belief in a free press led to many stories about individual freedoms and civil rights for all kinds of people, police brutality, government spying, economic inequality, environmental concerns, and the legalization of drugs. The Barb was way ahead of its time. 


I interviewed Max’s oldest daughter Raquel, who is the designated family historian for her branch of the family. We met at her home in north Berkeley, a quaint cottage nestled among several others that she had shared with her late husband. She inherited her father’s bound copies of the Barb, as well as his passion for Leftist politics. Raquel’s relationship with her father was, however, complicated, as Max left his wife and their three daughters children to take up with a young woman when Raquel was just a girl. So, while she defends her father ferociously against his many detractors, she harbors her own very personal resentments. 

There are certain facts about Max’s life that are generally agreed upon, and Raquel elaborated on them. Originally from Baltimore and trained as a lawyer, Max was forced out of town by “goons” after trying to organize taxi drivers. He rode the rails to California and then headed south into Mexico because he was told things cost less, a lifelong trait. There he met his wife Estella, but soon thereafter was drafted into the U.S. Army and served by following the troops into Normandy. After the war, Max relocated his family to the Bay Area, finally settling in Berkeley as a student working at the Bancroft Library. He lost that job, however, because he took offense when asked to sign the university’s mandatory loyalty oath, so instead of working on campus he opened a beer and wine bar called The Steppenwolf that served the bohemian crowd in Berkeley, and a few years later used the proceeds from the sale of that place to publish the Barb

Max had been concerned about social issues and civil rights for a long time before coming to California. In fact, the paper’s banner showed an image of a Don Quixote, which reflected his image of himself as a man on a mission to right the wrongs of society. The Berkeley Barb became a popular alternative source of information as Max’s writers covered the civil rights, labor rights, and anti-war protests much more sympathetically than the traditional press. His commitment to Leftist politics was well-established by the mid Sixties, although certain ethical questions arose from time to time when his belief in freedom of speech and press delivered unexpected (and to many, unwelcomed) consequences. Max was not prepared when that true freedom of expression he longed for later evolved into sexist content in his paper, which in turn created unforeseen profits. 

My own interest in the Barb stemmed from the fact that I had first seen it when I moved to the Bay Area in 1972 at the age of thirteen. At that time, the Barb was primarily considered a pornographic paper, and entering my teens made me an avid “reader,” when I could get my hands on it. I remembered this a few years ago while doing research at the Berkeley Main Library and thought to ask to look at some old copies of the Barb. When I opened the first bound volume, which was published in 1965, there wasn’t anything even remotely risqué about the content. To the contrary, it was clearly a Leftist political newspaper dedicated to an anti-war and pro-civil rights agenda. Yet, five short years later T & A dominated the pages. I needed to know why this had happened. 

I sought out other people who had known Max and that led to an interview with Judy Gumbo Albert, who worked for the Barb selling their well-known classifieds, often referred to as “personals.” Judy was a student at Cal at the time, and much younger than Max so she viewed him as a smart and interesting old Jewish grandfather type because he was in his fifties. She freely acknowledges that Max could make a person feel special, like when he agreed to print one of her essays about the women’s movement, yet she also referred to him as a “total son of a bitch” because he entitled that article, “Why the Women are Revolting.” She was left to seethe while he reveled in his double-entendre. 

Max and the other editors at the Barb covered the marches, rallies, riots, love-ins and the alternative viewpoints that other news sources refused to offer. Gar Smith became Max’s peace beat reporter after participating in the Port Chicago vigil and standing trial in the San Francisco District Court. Gar wasn’t paid for his reporting, but his political messages were published weekly for months and that was worth a lot to these young idealists. Gar described Max as scruffy and earnest, sweet and gentle, a “genial provocateur.” He fondly remembers Max moving briskly down Telegraph Ave., quick to stop and engage with anyone who wanted to converse. Yet, Gar admitted to being clearly agitated after reading an expose on Max’s financial success in the late Sixties, saying, “We were risking our lives and Max has all this money and we’re not even being paid,” which in itself was clearly contrary to Max’s own sympathies with regard to labor rights. I don’t believe Max meant for his politically progressive paper to morph into a revolutionary weekly dominated by sex ads, but that is what the free press looked like within its pages. The Berkeley Barb was one of the first public outlets for suppressed urges among many people to express both their political views and sexual appetites. We could think of it as a precursor of the internet age. 

There have been many reports of Max’s miserly ways. It’s true that Max lived a very simple lifestyle and eschewed materialism, but he had an uncanny way of squirreling money away. John Jekabson worked for Max both early on in ’65 and ’66, and then again in ’68 after a stint with the Peace Corps. While John was an editor at the Barb and was paid accordingly, he described Max paying writers 50 cents an inch and making deductions for fractions of an inch. John assumed that because Max carried his cash around in a shoebox that he couldn’t have much money, and it never occurred to him that Max was putting money into personal bank accounts. However, the New York Times reported that by 1975, Max had contracted to give $250,000 to a trust that would support him for the rest of his life, leaving only his personal effects to his children. 

John also described a side of Max that others have only lightly touched upon. As mentioned earlier, around the time that Max sold The Steppenwolf and started publishing the Barb, he met a young woman, Jane Peters, and entered into an affair. Ultimately, he left his wife and children (though never legally divorced) to start a new life and family with Jane. When asked about their relationship, John described a few situations in which it was quite clear that Max had a large ego and a quick temper. Some of those situations occurred at the weekly dinner that Max hosted at his house after each week’s paper was sent off to the printer. Every Friday the staff would enjoy an evening off while Jane cooked for everyone and Max held court. One of those evenings Max had a special guest, the folksinger Phil Ochs who was enjoying a bit of celebrity at the time. Making a special effort, Jane prepared an artichoke soufflé, which just didn’t turn out well and was a disappointment for all, but for Max was just one more way in which Jane had proven herself lacking. He yelled at her, calling her horrible names and swearing at her in front of everyone. So while Max could be a charming, genial host, he also publically exhibited a certain disregard for his new, young “wife", who was also working with him on the Barb. 

Each person I have spoken to focuses on some aspect of Max that made the most impact for them, and as a result I have also found that Max’s family life was an important part of what made him so controversial. By the mid 70’s Max and Jane had split up, but there were no reliable laws in place to resolve the financial impacts of the dissolution of a marriage that was not official. Anyone who had been around long enough knew Max was married to Juana Estella and had four children with her (one died young in Mexico), and that he lived with Jane and their two daughters, Dove Shalom Scherr and Appolinaire Scherr. This situation evolved into a lawsuit deciding one of this country’s earliest modern family palimony lawsuits. It seems Jane’s case collapsed when Estella testified to always having been married to Max, while Max hid behind her skirts to avoid community property laws and child support. Estella would not voluntarily grant Max a divorce, but no one is exactly sure he asked for one either. At the same time, Jane (who to this day goes by the name Scherr) is usually referred to as Max’s second wife despite the lack of legal documentation, and of course, it was their “divorce” that caused such a ruckus, especially among feminist lawyers. 

Raquel was particularly defensive when the topic of Max’s lawsuit with Jane came up in conversation. Clearly biased, Raquel didn’t feel Jane should get any money aside from child support as she was never married to Max, and was especially angry about how some feminists used Jane and Max’s relationship to establish legal precedents benefitting common law families. She felt it was ironic that Jane and the lawyers (Doris Bryn “Dobby” Walker for Max and Faye Stender for Jane) were fighting over the profits derived from sex ads that they expressly hated. Frankly, there was no need to worry. It seems in the end, the only people whoever benefitted from the profits made at the Barb were attorneys, and to some degree, Max himself, although his modest lifestyle quickly dispels any notion that he fully took advantage of it. And a reliable source says that Faye Stender in the end took only $5000 for her work. 

Max Scherr was full of contradictions, and he fought many battles that have yet to be won. He was not the only person trying to define the new morality of that age, but he did tilt his lance toward many windmills more visibly than most. So while his friends and acquaintances would comment on his Leftist leanings and commitment to freedom of speech, some criticized his reputation as a “capitalist bloodsucker,” and would question his exploitation of women in his paper. Often as not, these contradictory comments came from the same person. 




Editor’s Note: Jane Scherr declined to be interviewed by the author, but I have talked to her myself and added a few corrections from her perspective to the story.