If Cincinnati were Paris, Ellen Bierhorst would be its Gertrude Stein.
In July the 71-year-old psychotherapist-poet ended her Lloyd House Salon, a gathering in Clifton where some of the city's most engaged citizens grappled with local leaders and each other about politics, art, life and death. Open to anyone and any topic, the salon convened every week “come hell or high water” for 10 years.
Free from the confines of short soundbites, visitors to the salon such as mayors, City Council members and aspiring public servants often used the forum to stump and debate, and Lloyd House “salonistas” relished the chance to cross-examine them around a potluck dinner table.
Longtime salon-goer Steve Sunderland, 71, a professor of peace and educational studies at the University of Cincinnati, remembers a visit from Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper as emblematic of what made the salon unique.
“He stayed the whole evening, and people had an opportunity to talk to him about what his background was, what his dreams were,” Sunderland says.
When Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan came to present her 2009 campaign platform, salonistas engaged her in a fizzy debate about the planned streetcar project, one of her signature issues, and also questioned her about alternative media, budget cuts, crime, marijuana laws, proportional representation and her endorsements.
Bierhorst extended these chats to a wider community, by emailing detailed notes to a list of subscribers that now exceeds 600 people, and sharing their responses at the salon.
The Lloyd House Salon first convened on the breezy veranda of Bierhorst's historic Clifton home, just weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left Americans adrift in questions.
According to Bierhorst, who is a svelte, Picasso-lipped teacher of the “psychophysical re-education” method known as the Alexander Technique, working in mental health had attuned her to something that was missing in Cincinnati.
“People don't have an experience of 'well' as in, all the women pick up their jugs and go to the well, and they get to visit,” Bierhorst says. “That's ancient Israel. And all the men go to the village gate to transact business and to visit with one another.”
In the early 20th century, she says, similar exchanges happened at Gertrude Stein's salon for artists and writers, the Paris existentialists' cafe Les Deux Magots, and Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury Group in London.
So a decade ago, galvanized by a touch of envy as her youngest child prepared to depart for the conversational vigor of a liberal arts college, Bierhorst announced the salon to everyone she thought would be interested.
Salonistas appeared — many of them snowy-haired, liberal and vociferous. Farmers, scientists, composers, caregivers, students, teachers, cooks, photographers and many activists joined the fray. Meetings began with a motivational passage on democracy — sometimes the Gettysburg Address, or a speech by activist Granny D — and these words:
Although excitement occasionally stimulates competition for the floor, it is our agreement to listen to one another, and to seek out the contributions of those who may have soft voices and meek demeanor.
Participants describe a recurring friction between the guiding values of free speech and non-violence. That friction rose to a boil during the salon's early years, when the table clashed over whether “the 'N' word” should be pronounced directly. Ultimately, the group agreed by consensus to avoid it.
When those present at the final gathering shared what the salon had meant to them, many described it as a rare “oasis” of free expression.
Kaniz Siddiqui, a 60-year old chemist for the Metropolitan Sewer District who grew up in Bangladesh, calls herself “too ultra-liberal for this society ... when I tell the truth, I always get into trouble here.”
But she says the salon's swells of contention made her feel at home.
“I'm used to seeing people discuss things without any filter, and I love that,” Siddiqui says.
Bill Messer, 62, says there were members of the salon who made sure to bring the spirit of the group safely through those swells.
“Sometimes that got a bit too kumbayah for some tastes,” says the photographer, curator and activist, “but you took it in stride.”
Sudden bursts of song were common, and a group rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” graced the final gathering.
Bierhorst says she ended the salon because of a recent drop in attendance and a growing interest in organizing larger events called “Chautaquas.” A contemporary of Europe's 1920s salons, the Chatauqua movement brought live lectures and stories to towns across rural America, often under tents.
Still, Bierhorst believes that community salons are vital for healthy individuals and healthy democracies, and she would like to share what she knows.
“I, Ellen Bierhorst, am willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone, to teach you how to do it,” she says. “There was a lot that I learned ... and I don't want you to have to reinvent the wheel. Whoever you are, whatever your agenda, I will help you get people together talking.”
To contact Ellen Bierhorst or to read her continuing “virtual salon” updates, visit lloydhouse.blogspot.com.