How Philadelphia Inspired David Lynch to Make “Eraserhead”

As Peggy Reavey, David Lynch’s first wife, notes in this week’s cover story on the Eraserhood, the iconic director was “very terrified” of Philadelphia during most of the time he lived here (from 1965 until 1970), even as he was getting his lauded career off the ground. So why did he come to Philly in the first place, enduring all the terror borne of the cityphobia that then afflicted him, when he’d spent most of his life to that point in small, easygoing towns in Idaho, Washington and Virginia?

Well, he was desperate. Nineteen years old and hoping to become a painter, Lynch had already quit art schools in D.C. and Boston after very brief and difficult stints, and he was struggling to find himself. He was living with a friend in Alexandria, VA, and working odd jobs when his high school pal Jack Fisk, who was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, convinced Lynch to relocate to Philadelphia and give PAFA a chance. Maybe his last chance at becoming an artist.

“I remember having coffee with Jack and him telling me about his friend David,” says Reavey (born Peggy Lentz), 65, a painter who was also attending PAFA student at the time. “Jack said, ‘My friend David Lynch is the unluckiest person in the world.’ At that time [David] was having a hard time with some things in his life.”

Lynch moved into Fisk’s tiny apartment at 13th and Wood, sharing the corner with a greasy spoon diner, the Heid Building (home of an accordion-fold-envelope manufacturer) and the old city morgue. Lynch would stare out the window at the bodies being dropped off, or the body bags being hosed down outside; after a while, he received invitations to go inside the morgue and see the bodies up close.

Flat-broke art students, Lynch and Fisk survived on oatmeal and the infrequent trip to White Castle. Reavey, who lived on Walnut Street and was friends with the pair before becoming romantically involved with Lynch a couple of years later, recalls Fisk telling her that during that time his stomach “had shrunk to the size of an orange.” Lynch’s probably wasn’t much bigger.

A native of Chestnut Hill, Reavey’s mother was a social worker who brought her young daughter to areas like Kensington to help deliver meals to the needy, so Reavey felt comfortable in Philadelphia’s rougher industrial areas. Not Lynch. She discovered his deep fear of cities—the noise, the violence, an ever-present feeling of danger—and not just Philly. “He was afraid to go visit his grandfather, who he loved dearly, in New York City,” she remembers. “It really took a lot of encouragement from a lot of people to go see him. He wouldn’t go unless I went with him. It just really frightened him.”

Still, Lynch managed to remain quite composed around others. “I remember him as someone blond, quiet and bien élevé [well-raised],” says Becky Wasserman, whose late first husband, H. Barton Wasserman—one of Lynch’s PAFA classmates—gave the financially strapped budding filmmaker $1,000 to buy his first proper camera.

“He was very modest, very polite,” recalls Bruce Samuelson, another classmate and friend of Lynch’s who’s been a fine arts professor at PAFA since 1973. “It was the ‘60s and most of the students had long hair and were sloppy and a mess, but no matter how poor David was, he was dressed impeccably—a crisp white shirt and jacket; clean, neat, sharp—and he seemed like he had it together, although once I got to know him I could tell something was a little off.”

Both Reavey and Samuelson noticed a shift in Lynch’s early paintings, from bright colors to grays and blacks and darker narratives. Samuelson thinks the constant apprehension Lynch felt living in the city may have played a part in that. “You can’t help but have your environment influence you,” he says, noting that at the time he also lived in a somewhat rough part of Philly, about five blocks from Lynch. “A lot of my work has been dark and grey and distorted figures. One of the art critics described my work as grotesque and violent. David got that, too.”

After about a year at 13th and Wood, Lynch and Fisk moved out of their apartment to the 2400 block of Aspen St., near the art museum. In 1967, Lynch and Reavey got married. By 1968, the couple was living in a house at 19th and Poplar, near Girard College, and had welcomed a daughter, Jennifer. At that point, Lynch had graduated from PAFA and was transitioning from painting to cinema, having made two peculiar short films—Six Men Getting Sick and The Alphabet—that hinted at his ability to compel and disturb.

But his feelings of dread continued in the new neighborhood. Their house was broken into, and their windows were shot out. And then one day, a young man was murdered—shot in the back of the head—in front of their house. “After that it was like, ‘Let’s get out of here,’” says Reavey. She and Lynch hopped in a car and drove out to rural Schwenksville, PA, where they looked at some rental places, but the couple opted to stay at the Poplar house. “He was terrified, but at the same time he loved it. There were some scary times, but it was a very creative time, too.”

With a grant from the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute, Lynch made another compelling film, The Grandmother—about a boy who grows a grandmother from a seed—and in 1970, he was accepted into AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies. The family packed up and moved to L.A., where Lynch would spend the next six years mining his fearful Philadelphia experiences for Eraserhead. Lynch and Reavey divorced in 1974, during the making of the film, but remain good friends.

After leaving Philadelphia, it was another 42 years before Lynch set foot in the city again. This past March, he slipped into town for a two-day visit. He was here for two reasons: PAFA is planning an upcoming Lynch show featuring his paintings, drawings and other artwork—they’ve yet to announce when that’s happening—and Lynch dropped by the Academy to meet with the curators and look at the exhibition space. Also, a Lynch documentary is in the works, and a film crew followed him on a driving tour of the Eraserhood and his other old haunts.

While Lynch was here, Samuelson hung out with his old buddy for about an hour at the bar inside the Le Meridien hotel. “We were reminiscing quite a bit, and we were talking about how the city has changed,” says Samuelson. “He said, ‘I remember when the city was gray and dirty and deteriorated and ugly and a real mess and had real character, and now it’s all bright and shiny just like every other city.’”

“He said, ‘I preferred it the way it was.’”

PhilaMOCA will hold an opening reception for Eraserhood Forever on Fri., July 13, at 6pm; Performances begin at 8:30pm. $10. 531 N. 12th St.

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