by Laura Rozenberg1
Edited by Jane Rosemarin

Editor’s Note: This article is a followup to a shorter piece by Laura Rozenberg in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Paper (No. 133). The Paper’s article gives additional information about Gershon Legman’s background and Laura’s own research.

St. Philip’s Church, main entrance. Photo: Laura Rozenberg, 2017.

“At some time or other the conscience of society will awake and remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis, and can be left as little to the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community. … It may be a long time before the State comes to see these duties as urgent. Present conditions may delay its arrival even longer. Probably these institutions will first be started by private charity. Some time or other, however, it must come to this.”
(Sigmund Freud, “Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Therapy,” 1918)

The meeting took place at the beginning of 1952 at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 133rd Street in the heart of Harlem. On that winter afternoon, 35-year-old Gershon Legman entered through the rear patio that opened onto the rectory and descended the wooden staircase into the shadows, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light. What he saw was an area supported by several slender, unpainted columns and filled with room dividers and several simple cabinets and desks, all suggestive of activities taking place there, resembling a stale black-and-white film.

The Lafargue Clinic in the church basement. Photo: Lisa Larsen, 1948.

Each of the desks had a chair on either side, and Legman observed that in each case, one chair occupant was Black and the other white. The white person’s lab coat conveyed the identity of a doctor. Legman could discern voices across the room, where pairs of individuals spoke in soft tones, absorbed in their dialogs and unconcerned with what was being said at adjoining desks or elsewhere in the room. A bit farther away, a group of African-American children sat silently in a circle on the floor, their gaze fixed on the person who had just entered the room, as if they had been awaiting his arrival for an eternity.

Legman held his breath. It was thrilling to be there, to witness for the first time the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, which provided free psychological assistance to Harlem’s Black and Latino communities.2 Having waited patiently for an appointment to volunteer at the clinic, he had at long last been given one. A welcoming sensation came over him, and he took care not to disturb the hushed murmuring that prevailed in the space. A man stepped forward to greet him. This was Dr. Fredric Wertham, the institution’s guiding light and Legman’s longtime acquaintance from the crusade against publishers of violent comic books targeted at children and adolescents.

Children playing at the clinic together with Fredric Wertham. Photo: SCRBC, Lisa Larsen, 1948.

Wertham was the person who had invited him to visit the Lafargue Clinic that afternoon to conduct a trial that Legman had proposed to him by telephone several days before Christmas. On that occasion, Legman had reminded him of the pioneering contribution to early childhood education made by Wertham’s German compatriot, Friedrich Froebel. He had also spoken of origami, the paper-folding art of which Froebel was a major proponent. The proposal, Legman told him, was to set up an origami workshop at Lafargue, a manual activity that would help distract young people from “bad examples” and the dangers of “juvenile delinquency,” two phantoms of the era that were suspected by a large part of society to have their roots in comic books teeming with crime stories and violent images. Wertham was one of the leaders of the anti-comics movement, and Legman’s idea interested him. He brought together several patients and invited the young Legman to engage them in some voluntary activities.

The Lafargue Clinic was the showplace of one of the most progressive factions of New York psychoanalysts. It had been founded six years earlier at the initiative of a group of intellectuals opposed to the theory that the origins of mental disturbance were purely genetic. This line of thought maintained that effective treatment needed to move beyond possible genetic influence to consider interpersonal relations and the patients’ social environment.

At the head of this movement in New York was Fredric Wertham, a German born in 1895 who had been educated in Freud’s Vienna as well as such other early 20th century meccas for psychoanalysis as Paris and London. Although he had initially absorbed the Freudian orthodoxy that “made diagnosis based on symptomatic readings and theoretical assumptions,”3 Wertham developed a greater affinity for the teachings of his mentor, Emil Kraepeling, who “emphasized family history in interaction with social and economic factors.”4

Wertham relocated to the United States in 1922. Working initially in Baltimore, he later moved to New York City, where he eventually became chief of psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital (Manhattan’s major public hospital). He was dismayed to discover that large sectors of the city’s population were denied access to mental health services.

Such people were either excluded entirely as patients or treated with electric shock, the era’s cruelest form of treatment. There was no middle approach. The Black population of Harlem was so terrified that they avoided Bellevue Hospital at all costs.

As insidious, or worse, was the way in which even hospital staff, from doctors to nurses, disguised the discriminatory practice through pseudo-paternalistic language that failed to acknowledge the human capacity of Black patients to feel emotion, love and suffering like any other person. A 1940 pamphlet written by one of the staff physicians that was in use at Bellevue Hospital stated, “Most colored folk seem able to accept life as it comes and take trouble in stride. They are apt to make a fine recovery after operation because of this calm, positive flair for living in the moment. They do not get so tense and flurried as other people, and it just doesn’t occur to them to expect the worst … The average negro is often too inured to discomfort for his own good. Being less physically, mentally or aesthetically sensitive than a white, what he will stand without a murmur is sometimes amazing to the staff.”5

This line of thinking absolved doctors of their professional duty and led them to neglect the mental health of a group that was not only the most deprived sector of the population but also the most likely to suffer stress and other mental conditions.

Concerned about this situation, Wertham attempted to secure public and private funding fora health center to be located directly in Harlem. When, as expected, he was unable to obtain the necessary funds, he shifted to “Plan B”: opening a clinic staffed entirely by volunteers.

A story is told that this idea was born at a gathering of friends at Wertham’s home facing Gramercy Park, one of Manhattan’s most exclusive locations. Seated next to his wife, Florence Hesketh, he leaped to his feet and asked his guests, “Do we really need money? All we need is talent. Those who think they can help should come. Let’s show that we can provide psychiatric care to the poor.”6

A Lafarge Clinic brochure. Photo: SCRBC.

Although it initially seemed outlandish, the proposal took shape when Shelton Hale Bishop, rector of St. Philip’s Church in the heart of Harlem, made the rectory basement available to the project. On March 8, 1946, with little publicity, the Lafargue Clinic opened its doors.7

The Lafargue Clinic staff and a young patient. Photo: SCRBC.

The all-volunteer professional staff consisted of 14 psychiatrists, 12 social workers and other specialists in addition to administrators. The clinic was open Tuesday and Friday afternoons, charging 25 cents per session. Those unable to pay were seen at no charge. While the services were intended for Harlem residents, no one was turned away, and the clinic treated Blacks and whites, adults and children, and residents of other New York City boroughs.

It had not yet been a year since the end of World War II, and the festive spirit that had briefly taken over the streets following the liberation of European cities met head-on with the stark reality of thousands of fallen soldiers, destroyed families, and the sobering awareness of the awesome power of nuclear weapons. The conflicts were far from being resolved, and the final years of the 1940s were clouded by the emergence of the Cold War.

In this context, young people were living in an age that seemed like a schizophrenic reality. Economic prosperity, bolstered by the expanded job supply and increased salaries, did not succeed in improving the mood, which was marked by discontent.

Illustrations of crime and horror were regular comic book features.

While middle-class youth found comfort in the uniformity of fashion and the musical and literary tastes inspired by the beat generation, the less well-off were faced with a dangerous void that was difficult to fill.

This is where the paths of Fredric Wertham and Gershon Legman intersected. Perhaps independently, each had identified violence as a factor threatening the future of a generation. This violence not only represented echoes of the war but also continued to make its presence felt every day in the media, even in the so-called comics. As Legman and contemporary critics like Dr. Wertham observed, these were not comic at all.

Legman had made Wertham’s acquaintance through Robert Latou Dickinson, a gynecologist who had helped Legman avoid the draft by issuing him a certificate of unfitness for combat and later hired him as a secretary and bibliographer.

When they met, Legman and Wertham discovered that they had much in common. Wertham was a staunch critic of violent comic books, and he was convinced that crime stories — carried to an extreme in the comics through graphic depictions of decapitated bodies and tortured women — and tales of gangsters and shooting sprees incentivized juvenile delinquency, especially in the poorer classes, and – last but far from least – made specific use of racial stereotypes. In this view, comic books represented not entertainment but a danger to society, perpetrated in hundreds of titles with new editions being purchased at newsstands and in drugstores every week by millions of avid readers.

For Wertham, the link to crime was as obvious as it was direct: a father sent off to combat, a mother working outside the home in the war effort and children without normal family controls devoting unlimited free time to consuming this literature and testing out their sadism8 together with the local gang.

In Legman, who was 22 years his junior, Wertham found an intelligent ally who could serve his cause. Despite lacking a university degree, Legman was a voracious reader and original writer. While Legman might occasionally be prone to exaggeration and was not entirely reliable (Wertham was convinced but not concerned that the young man distorted certain facts he described as “proven;” and in keeping with the old saying that “he who steals from a thief earns 100 years of forgiveness,” the psychiatrist borrowed certain anecdotes told to him by Legman, such as the one where he swore having seen a child vomit onto a comic book out of disgust).9

It was Legman’s turn in the spotlight when Wertham invited him to address a group of psychoanalysts at the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy.10 These perspectives became the basis of his book “Love and Death: A Study in Censorship.” Published in 1949, it alleged that the censorship that reigned during the era provoked a set of substitutions in which sex (censored) was replaced by violence (permitted in the media). Legman estimated that by 1948, a boy who had been a six-year-old in 1938 would have “absorbed an absolute minimum of eighteen thousand pictorial beating, shooting, stranglings, blood-puddles, and torturings-to-death from comic (ha-ha) books alone.”11

Legman himself did not emerge unscathed from this circumstance. While debate continued over the future of the comics – a debate that reached national proportions and went on for years12 – Legman saw his own freedom of expression restricted when the Postal Service suspended distribution of his book “Love and Death.”13 His actions from that point forward involved two strategies, the first of which was to try to survive. To achieve survival, he needed an escape: some activity to separate him from the conflicts that invariably tripped him up each time he dealt with a thorny issue.14 The second strategy was to start searching for some location outside the United States where he could live without major upheaval.15

The solution to the first strategy appeared almost as a matter of course. Seeking a way to earn a few dollars, he wrote a couple booklets on magic and card tricks that he sold to a publisher he knew.16 While these did not achieve success, the idea of games of invention led him to thoughts of paper folding.

“Knowing no foldings myself except the airplanes and the Hindu lotus, I went to the trusty public library for more information and found it in the very large and miscellaneous picture collection from clippings from magazines, created as a make-work project during the 1930s.”17

A helpful librarian at the New York Public Library allowed him access to a box of newspaper clippings on handicrafts that contained an illustrated note regarding a Spaniard, Vicente Solórzano Sagredo, living in Argentina. Legman was astonished by his folds. They resembled nothing he had learned as a child.

True to his style, Legman threw himself into a frenzy of information gathering. He sought materials everywhere, wrote letters, rummaged through forgotten manuscripts in libraries, at each step intensifying his interest in increasing his knowledge about this craft that both intrigued and excited him. Origami seemed to him to be a lost art that deserved to be rediscovered. This was surely a practice with roots in Japan and other remote and unimagined locations. In sum, it was a history filled with secrets, having an exoticism and richness that seemed tailor-made for him.

His idea gradually took shape and expanded. A moneymaking opportunity truly seemed to be in motion. It occurred to him that some major newspaper might buy the rights to a weekly column that could be syndicated to other papers and magazines across the country. It was hard for him to contain the euphoria such thoughts generated. He wanted everything to happen immediately, but patience was required.

He spent his afternoons at the library, copying diagrams from books for possible use in future productions.18 He was interested in not only the process but the provenance as well. Some of the Solórzano Sagredo folds were similar to those created by the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. Was there a Spanish folding tradition? When he found the same folds in Japanese books, he asked himself how they came to be there. Over time, he amassed an important collection of books on the subject. In those pre-internet times, it was essential to have a bibliography to carry out any research effort and to share knowledge with other enthusiasts. This is how, in the summer of 1952, he came to pay out of his own pocket to produce an eight-page booklet with book titles, authors and often a brief notation of contents. The volume was published under the title “Bibliography of Paperfolding.”

In the meantime, he communicated with friends to exchange ideas.“I'm trying to avoid saying how much – at many levels – getting this folk-art into the national bloodstream would mean to me ... how the steps can be published in a small amount of space for newspaper syndication,”19 he wrote to Ethan Allan Brown, an allergist in Massachusetts who was also a publisher of books and magazines on health topics.20

The idea found favor with Dr. Brown, who consulted several friends and told Legman that they could discuss the matter in Boston or New York. But Legman replied that he had already changed his mind and that a better idea would be to produce individual sheets printed with fold patterns that could be sold in packets in kiosks and bookstores.21 (It is remarkable that Legman anticipated by several decades ideas that are commonplace today but sounded extremely strange back then.)

Legman spent the 1951 Thanksgiving holiday and the days that followed folding models frombooks and analyzing original figures mailed to him from Argentina by Dr. Vicente Solórzano Sagredo. In this way, he acquired experience, although he always considered himself to be a poor folder.

Legman enjoyed sharing his ideas, and he looked forward to receiving comments on them. “I enclose a particularly fine Moon-Fish, an Argentine folding,”22 he wrote to his faithful friend, Dr. Brown. In a subsequent letter to the doctor, he wrote, “Enclosed is a little fantastic sea horse which I have just perfected after beginning it on the train down from Cambridge. If you will perk the wings up and out, it will stand erect on its tail as a proper sea-horse should.”23

Dr. Brown expressed great interest in Legman’s project, responding, “I have taken up the question of the Sea-Horse with my friends, and it would appear that it and its associates belong first of all, in a book and thereafter in the various media we discussed.”24

Legman’s answer was not long in coming. On the day after receiving the letter, he sent Dr. Brown an enthusiastic reply that nonetheless reminded him that the plan was not merely a book but in fact a kit with instructions and papers, actually a toy to be included as a prize together with the purchase of a newspaper: “I still think the proper way to introduce paper folding is – and can only be – by packets of practical sheets to fold, newspaper-syndicated squares with lines etc.” This was a revolutionary concept since origami books had already been marketed and it was necessary to find new ways to attract the public. “There have been a dozen good manuals of simple and complex figures – the Murray which you have is the best of the simple volumes.”25

As Legman continued to await news from the publishing world – a favorable reaction to his good ideas, perhaps, or agreement to publish a book or one of its variants – time passed until it was almost the end of the year. On December 16, 1951, Legman phoned Fredric Wertham, with whom he had not spoken for some time. He had learned through the press that Wertham was still engaged in his battle against the publishers of horror and crime comics. He also wanted to congratulate him on his testimony against racial segregation in schools.26 Above all, however, Legman wished to discuss the Lafargue Clinic and a “brilliant” plan that had occurred to him. This was an idea with a social significance, he assured Wertham, and the psychiatrist was just the person with whom to share it.

Miraculously, the traces of this conversation were retained in the files stored by Wertham, which today constitute part of the Wertham Papers, an extensive archive housed in the Division of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. that can be consulted by authorized researchers.

The two standard-size cardboard file boxes are yellowed with age. Their contents include the key elements of a conversation that mixed eroticism with paper folding. Both topics were the focus of Legman’s research, and he routinely discussed them with acquaintances.

F. Wertham notes of phone conversations with Legman (red underlining by Wertham). Photos: LoC, DRBSC.

From the list of topics, the following stand out:

Legman, 12.16.51 (→TO on phone) ...
4. Paper-folding. There it
is a commercial thing;
here it is a human thing.
7. Froebel, student of Pestalozzi,
invented kindergarten in
the 1830’s or ’40’s. Introduced
paper-folding. ...
There is a
Froebel fold.
8. ... Teaching with kindness instead of with horror.

Without doubt, Legman was looking for a way to attract Wertham’s attention. He spoke of folding’s commercial aspect but in opposition to its “human” aspect, which is certainly what Wertham was interested in hearing. And to draw him further into his idea, he referred to Friedrich Froebel, who not only created the concept of kindergarten but developed a method of paper folding known today as Froebelian.

Citing Froebel, Legman spoke of “teaching with kindness instead of with horror.” This was enough to kindle the interest of Wertham, who instantly understood the message. Could paper folding be the “civilizing” response to the violence of comic books? While one act might not resolve the other, the Lafargue Clinic could certainly test whether Froebelian methods could succeed in moderating problematic behavior in children.

Other than the contents of these file boxes, there is considerable evidence that Legman effectively put his idea into practice while he was working at the Lafargue Clinic beginning in early 1952. He began by relating his activities to Frederic Melcher, with whom he kept up regular correspondence. Melcher was one of the most important publishers in the United States, recognized for his specialization in children’s books. While Melcher’s support was highly valued by Legman, it was only verbal (the publishing contract he surely hoped for did not materialize).

In February 1952, Legman left solid evidence of his presence at the Lafargue Clinic in a letter sent to Melcher in which he related, “I have been teaching paper folding to children in the free the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem under Dr. Fredric Wertham.”27 In this letter, Legman referred to a collection of Japanese books that Melcher had donated to the New York Public Library and that had arrived at a very opportune time, since it “included many paper activities in great varieties.”28 He also noted that the Japanese children’s magazines were “adorable” in comparison to the “horrifying” comic books published in the United States and asked Melcher’s permission to request the library relocate the material since his fear was that the books would be filed away there forever.29 “The situation with these books in the Library is now this: the Children’s Division has taken what they feel to be the most interesting pieces, and the rest are now in the Oriental Division where it is not intended to catalog them but, according to the librarian, to send them to dead storage in the Library Annex building, where there is an excellent chance that no one will ever see them again.” According to Legman, it was the Oriental Division librarian herself who had suggested that he contact Melcher, and “therefore, with your permission, it would be possible for me to be given that group of the books which the Children’s Division has not been able to use, for use with our children in the paper-folding games.30 The whole tone of these Japanese magazines is so wholesome and charming – as opposed to the unhappy overall motion toward gruesomeness in American comic books at present: our opposition literature, as it were – that it would really be a pity to see your materials land in dead storage, and we would much appreciate your permission to put them to live and better use.”31

By the time of this correspondence, Legman had discovered that Miguel de Unamuno had a liking for the miniature folded bird figures known in Spain as “pajaritas,” and he sent Melcher one of these together with his letter. “The enclosure is a folding originated by the Spanish philosopher Unamuno, who interested himself for many years in this art,” he told Melcher.

In a prompt and positive response, Melcher encouraged Legman to solicit the library to make available to the Lafargue Clinic whatever material it did not intend for active use. “Indeed I am interested to know that some of the Japanese books which I have been receiving have found a use in the Lafargue Clinic. I am delighted to have this material put to further use, and this seems to be an admirable opportunity.” Melcher even offered to put other materials at Legman’s disposal. “Couldn’t you come in and talk to me about it? I have a couple more packages from Japan this week, and they are sitting here in my office.” He also thanked him for sending the folding, which he viewed as something exotic and extraordinary. “I am fascinated with the gift you have made me of a folding originated by Unamuno, and it is one of the most intriguing pieces of art and craft that I have ever seen.”32

Legman’s idea (supported by Wertham) of interesting children in paper folding and thereby diverting them from their reading of comics appears in other letters, including his correspondence with Megumi Nakajo, executive of a Japanese literary magazine:

“The reasons for my interest in this, and in Japanese education of children generally, is that I am teaching paper folding to children in the Lafargue Free Clinic in the segregated negro district of New York called Harlem. This is a psychiatric rather than a medical clinic and no charge is made for any services. It is the only free clinic of this type in the United States. The children naturally feel very strongly the difficult position as members of a discriminated-against minority and get into all sorts of trouble with the school and police authorities. The motives of their “badness” being implicit in the situation, they need only the incitement and inspiration of horror and crime comics to tell them exactly how to get into the worst possible trouble. This is exactly what happens, and it is from this that my bitter anger over comic books in particular stems.”33

What Legman did not yet know was that, precisely one year later, he would begin his correspondence with Akira Yoshizawa, known today as the father of modern origami. In time, Yoshizawa would gain fame with his sophisticated models, with Legman taking his own place in history as Yoshizawa’s “discoverer” for the Western world.

In one of the first letters he wrote to Yoshizawa, Legman referred to his work at the Lafargue Clinic and the reason for practicing origami there.34

“With the aid of other psychiatrists, we made a crusade against the horror comic books. I wrote articles, even a book; I gave speeches and traveled over the country showing displays and trying to organize parents and teachers to prevent the comic books. But we failed, and now they are worse than ever and stronger. Our main problem since that time has been the quieting of the children's nerves and the retraining them into less violent ways than what the comic books, and the similar horrors of gangster movies, and television programs are teaching them. Several children have committed murders exactly imitated from the comic books. They are then put in jail for life, while the manufacturers of the books reap a million dollars yearly.”

Finally, in that same letter, Legman once again mentioned his activities at Lafargue Clinic and proclaimed himself – arguably – to be the only instructor of paper folding in the United States.

“Actually in desperation I began giving informal courses in simple origami to the children at the clinic, hoping to teach them a pleasant art and at the same time quiet their nerves. In this I was able to succeed, and I believe I am at the present time the only person attempting to teach origami in this country.”35

The last reference to Legman’s connection to the Lafargue Clinic appears in a letter dated July 2, 1952 from the Argentine paper-folding artist Ligia Montoya. Written in Spanish, Montoya’s commentary is somewhat vague, implying that Legman had told her something about the clinic but that perhaps, due to language difficulty, she had not managed to understand what he had been trying to say: “Con especial alegría he recibido su carta tan cordial, al saber que mis noticias pueden llegar a servir para algo tan simpático como la enseñanza del plegado a niños que, por lo que se desprende de la palabra “clinics,” representan casos especiales.”36

After this date, the subject of the the Lafargue Clinic no longer appears in Gershon Legman’s correspondence, leading to the inference that his activity there was brief, possibly consisting of only a few visits.

Whether or not Legman was the only person teaching origami in the United States at that time is debatable.37 What is certain is that origami came to Harlem in 1952. And it arrived long before Lillian Oppenheimer began to offer instruction at her house in 1958.38 Legman was ahead of his time, and he taught the craft in the least likely location, where hardly anything would appear at first sight to have less practical value than paper folding.

There is more, however: Legman, without being aware of the significance of his action, put into practice a kind of therapeutic activity that today is associated with art therapy. He of course lacked professional training and was only capable of describing in a superficial manner origami’s capacity “to quiet nerves,” as he described it in simple language. But the mere fact of having realized this and advocated for it in a setting where it could thrive as a therapeutic tool indicates Legman’s clarity of vision and entrepreneurial spirit.

Without a doubt, Legman could have had a productive experience in art therapy The conditions were right, and if we take the liberty to speculate, we can see the fruitful results of an imagined contact between Legman and Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer, the two great pioneers of art therapy, who were then involved in the most effective phase of their work in New York. It is indeed unfortunate that they and Legman never crossed paths since given their idiosyncratic methods and interests, they would have exchanged experiences and knowhow.39

Naumburg had worked as a psychotherapist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where she had honed techniques to use art therapy to arrive at diagnoses. The model was also offered to patients, especially children, to help them use hands-on activities to free the unconscious and put painful situations into words.

It would have been even more interesting for Legman to have met Edith Kramer, who was working at that time at the Wiltwyck School for Boys, located a short distance up the Hudson River from New York City. Like the Lafargue Clinic, the Wiltwyck School, founded with the support of the Episcopal Church, welcomed a largely African-American student body characterized by serious behavioral problems and juvenile delinquency. The Austrian-born Kramer’s program at Wiltwyck was the first of its kind. Unlike Naumburg, who utilized art as a tool in the service of therapy (“art opens avenues of expression”), Kramer regarded art as a therapy in itself (“art heals”). Accordingly, it is conceivable that Legman’s project was, even in a rudimentary way, an activity that would fit within Kramer’s understanding (origami “calms the nerves”).

In the summer of 1953, Gershon Legman exiled himself to France, discouraged by the climate of censorship that prevailed in the United States (his name was on the blacklist of the CIA, which was hounding intellectuals suspected of being communists). He therefore left behind a chapter in which he could have developed closer ties to the pioneering achievements of art therapy. Despite the benefits it could undoubtedly provide, origami was not viewed until many years later as a valid option within the range of tools available to art therapy. There are those even today who feel that origami is too structured to be a tool for expressing conflicts. By contrast, specialists like the Spanish psychologist Cristina Belló believe that origami is an excellent tool with which to construct a bridge to verbal communication. Belló maintains that “while it may be true that origami involves certain pre-established steps that must be followed in the creation of a figure, I believe without question that we can regard it as a tool for art therapy due to the richness of its procedures, its ways of permitting the expression of conflict, anxiety and difficulties of communication, and so much more.”40

The Lafargue Clinic closed its doors in 1958, a victim of lack of funding and the exhaustion of the staff, who had worked unremittingly as volunteers over the years of its existence. The historical record of the work achieved by these heroic professionals can be accessed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem not far from St. Philip’s Church, where Gershon Legman arrived one afternoon in the mid-20th century to teach origami to the Black children of Harlem.


1. Translated from the Spanish by James Buschman.

2. Harlem is an undefined neighborhood within the Borough of Manhattan, generally situated between the northern edge of Central Park and 155th Street.

3. Susan Davis, Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs: The Uncensored Life of Gershon Legman (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. 2019). See also Bart Beaty, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (Jackson, Mill.: University Press of Mississippi, 2005).

4. Davis, Dirty Jokes.

5. Gabriel N. Mendes, Under the Strain of Color: Harlem's Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry) (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2015).

6. Mendes, Under the Strain of Color.

7. Lafargue Clinic was named in honor of Cuban-born physician and philosopher Paul Lafargue, co-founder of the French Workers Party together with other revolutionaries. Lafargue was also the son-in-law of Karl Marx and the author of several books, the best-known of these being The Right to be Lazy.

8. The comics had sub-categories, including cartoon animals (by Walt Disney and others); action (Superman, for example), with generally less explicit violence; horror (Zombies, Haunted Horror, etc.), featuring stories that exuded blood, sadism and explicit torture; and other genres.

9. Carol L. Tilley, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics” Information and Culture: A Journal of History 47, no. 4 (2012): 383- 413. Electronic access via Project Muse (DOI: 10.1353/lac.2012.0024).

10. Legman, “The Comic Books and the Public,” Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy Vol. II(1948): 472-77.

11. G. Legman, Love and Death: A Study in Censorship (New York: Breaking Point, 1948).

12. Social pressure led to a kind of self-regulation on the part of comic book publishers, who passed a code of ethics (Comics Code Authority) in 1954.

13. The United States Postal Service had wide-ranging powers of censorship that it exercised arbitrarily and with little objectivity, and this had a devastating effect on businesses like Legman’s that depended on mail orders.

14. Legman’s specialty, for which he is known throughout the world, is the study of sexual expression in popular literature and culture. While he had no formal background in anthropology, the field recognizes Legman for his vast analytical work on erotic jokes, bibliographical compilations, essays on mass culture and critical studies of groups such as hippies.

15. One year later, in 1953, Legman relocated to France.

16. and Magic Made Easy: Sixty Tricks Anyone Can Do were published under the pseudonym John Thursday in 1945.

17. Published in Gershon Legman, Windows of Winter (Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2018).

18. A collection of several dozen of the earliest of Legman’s hand-drawn diagrams is part of the Legman Archive at the Origami Museum in Colonia.

19. Letter from G. Legman to Ethan A. Brown, November 9, 1952.

20. It is amazing that Legman should have had the same idea that would be published only a few months later in Fujin Koron, a magazine in which Akira Yoshizawa had begun to publish his diagrams in a space no larger than today’s standard cell phone. But in 1952, Legman had not yet heard of Yoshizawa.

21. It is noteworthy that all these ideas, which at that time had virtually no chance of becoming reality, would be adopted years later by major companies like Barnes & Noble and other publishers.

22. Letter from G. Legman to E. A. Brown, October 24, 1951.

23. Letter from G. Legman to E. A. Brown, November 9, 1951.

24. Letter from E. A. Brown to G. Legman, November 19, 1951.

25. Letter from G. Legman to E. A. Brown, November 20, 1951.

26. Fredric Wertham’s testimony was critical to the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

27. Letter from G. Legman to F. Melcher, February 13, 1952. Legman Archive, Origami Museum, Colonia, Uruguay.

28. G. Legman to F. Melcher, February 13, 1952.

29. It is obvious from this letter that Legman had the clinic in mind as a destination.

30. Legman was naive on this point since many Japanese publications printed violent images that probably would have scandalized him. Ms. Nakajo observes this below.

31. Letter from G. Legman to F. Melcher, February 13.

32. Letter from F. Melcher to G. Legman, February 15, 1952. Legman Archive, Origami Museum, Colonia, Uruguay.

33. Letter from G. Legman to Nakajo, March 15, 1952.

34. As of this time, no further written references describing Legman’s activities at Lafargue Clinic have been found. It cannot be ruled out that other references exist and will be discovered in a review of the contents of archives other than those I was able to inspect at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem that now houses the files of the Lafargue Clinic.

35. Letter from G. Legman to A. Yoshizawa, May 21,1953.

36. “I was especially pleased to receive your friendly letter and to know that my information may support such a worthy activity as teaching paper folding to children in special circumstances, from what I can infer from the term ‘clinics’.” Letter from L. Montoya to G. Legman, July 2, 1952.

37. If he was not the only one, it is beyond doubt that he was one of the few. Origami instruction, whether formal or informal, had not yet been developed. It is possible, however, that some instruction had been a component of activities in the camps that interned those of Japanese background living in the United States prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, books of “things to do,” including paper folding, were very popular at boy- and girl-scout camps and would have required some form of instruction. Origami was of course amenable to individual learning by merely following the steps shown in the books, although the diagrams were rather confusing prior to the introduction of the notation system popularized by Yoshizawa, Randlett and Harbin. For that reason, it was always preferable and more enjoyable to learn in a group setting or with the help of an adult.

38. Lillian Oppenheimer started a new era by demonstrating origami on television and founding the Origami Center in New York.

39. This is mere speculation since the existence of “therapeutic” origami left an almost invisible footprint at the Lafargue Clinic, and many years would pass before the topic would resurface in the field of art therapy. In addition, Legman relocated to France in the middle of 1953, searching for a less oppressive climate than the one he left behind in the United States in the McCarthy era.

40. Cristina Belló, personal communication (June 20, 2015).


Beaty, Bart. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Belló, Cristina. “Origami Joins the Palette of Art Therapies,” The Paper, the Magazine of OrigamiUSA, issue 120 (Winter 2016)

Davis, Susan. Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs: The Uncensored Life of Gershon Legman. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Legman, Gershon. “The Comic Books and the Public,” Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy, Vol. II (1948) 472-77.

Legman, Gershon. Love and Death: A Story of Censorship. New York: Breaking Point, 1949.

Legman, Gershon. Bibliography of Paperfolding. New York: Breaking Point, 1952.

Mendes, Gabriel N. Under the Strain of Color: Harlem's Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, Kindle edition, 2015.

Tilley, Carol L. “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics.” Information and Culture: A Journal of History 47, no. 4 (2012): 383-413.

Documents (letters and photographs)

Wertham Papers (documents and photographs). Division of Rare Books and Special Collections. Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (LoC, DRBSC).

Archive of the Lafargue Clinic (documents and photographs). Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York. (SCRBC).

Letters, photographs: The Gershon Legman Collection. Museo del Origami, Colonia, Uruguay. (MOC, TGLC)


October 26, 2020 - 11:26am SJCOLE43