Max Scherr, Berkeley Barb Publisher
Site of Steppenwolf Bar: 2136 San Pablo Avenue
Scherr Residence: 2421 Oregon Street
Max Scherr’s popular newspaper the Berkeley Barb (1965–1980) gave voice to a unique Berkeley blend of New Left radical politics and a counterculture celebration of drugs, sex, and the rock music of the period.
Scherr was born in 1916 to Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant parents in Baltimore. He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1938 and represented the Transport Workers Union in a taxi drivers strike. At the time, members of the Communist Party USA held dominant positions within TWU.
After serving in the Navy, Scherr moved to Berkeley in the late 1940s and earned a master’s degree in Sociology. In 1958 he purchased the Steppenwolf Bar on San Pablo Avenue, an early folk music venue. At Il Piccolo Espresso — later Telegraph Avenue’s “Med” (Mediterraneum) café — Scherr socialized with radical students who had formed the campus organization SLATE. By 1965 Scherr, a 50-year-old with an Old Left heritage, had moved into the emerging world of the New Left. He sold the Steppenwolf and launched the Barb.
In the early years, work on the Barb was mostly done in Scherr’s Oregon Street home, next door to Pauline Kael’s house. Barb writer Judy Gumbo Albert wrote: “The house itself looked like a seedy southern plantation. It had white Corinthian columns and a blue vinyl backseat of a car on the front porch. The kitchen looked like a truck had dumped stacks of mail, newspapers, brown sugar boxes, paper bags, photographs, and an army of bottles all over its chipped black counter. It had a virtual thrift store of dishes, each a different style and color, in the sink or stacked randomly on the oak kitchen table.”
The Barb mixed radical politics with counterculture social values. Scherr was a hands-on editor who famously hawked copies of the paper on the street, urging passersby to “Read the Berkeley Barb. It’s a pleasure, not a duty.”
In 1975, Scherr was embroiled in a nasty palimony trial with Jane Peters Scherr, his partner of 12 years. Two high-profile feminist lawyers duked it out, Doris Brin Walker representing Max and Fay Stender representing Jane. Max prevailed.
The Barb, weakened by a staff revolt in 1969, ceased publishing in 1980. Scherr died the next year of cancer. In his final comments on the paper, he reverted to language of the Old Left: “We had no revolutionary base, no real class consciousness.”
Contributed by Tom Dalzell, 2014