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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for August 29, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories
Chapter Two

Chapter Two—Meeting Marlene
Gilbert Seldes' The Lively Arts
Norman Mailer’s Voice column
Giving parties to meet strangers

SELF-AWARENESS has never been my strong suit. The simple act of sitting down and quietly examining who I was and where I was heading, was not something that even entered my mind until I was much older. In those early days in Greenwich Village I was too much in love with my new home to have time for any diversion. To this young immigrant writer, New York was exciting. It seemed to have everything: a variety of attractions from theater, opera, ballet, museums, ice hockey, enticing bars, and great restaurants, that people invariably listed as their reasons for not being able to leave (even if they never went to any of them).

As it seemed to me then, this volatile city was indeed one of rosy allure. It seemed to embody all the clichés with which the songwriters had endowed it: gleaming spires, teeming hordes, sweeping avenues of adventure. It was a joy to walk around the Village’s beguilingly peaceful streets, all bathed in what now seems to have been a perpetual springtime. Muggers? A term, maybe even a concept, not yet invented. Money? Hardly seemed important even if one didn’t have much. Things were cheap. Life was promising. I was still friendless but with so many things to do I didn’t devote much time to thinking about it.

I’m fully aware of how our memories always enhance and subtly polish what might have been not quite such a radiant reality but honestly, thinking back now, all I can remember is how happy I was in this big, all-too-accessible city. I’ll take Manhattan. Indeed.

In the years to come, I now realize, my professional preoccupations became directed much more to the future than the present. What were the implications of this? What was going to happen next? It’s still something that guides my thinking whenever I write about some new trend or document, some apparent prediction. But in those early days of my new life I was really living for the moment. “Each day… a little life” wrote Schopenhauer.

Knowing virtually nobody, I spent my first few weeks in tiny Greenwich Village bars basking in the enticing allure of sentimental Frank Sinatra records on the jukebox and speaking to no one. It was only when I rented a street-level apartment on Waverly Place and hung my hammock from the railings, that I made my first new acquaintances from among the curious passers-by. There’s nothing like reclining in a hammock to provoke envious or admiring comments, especially when the hammock adjoins a busy sidewalk.

And now I had my first job, working as an assistant editor on the pocket-sized Pageant magazine whose editor, Harris Shevelson, was a zealot about participatory journalism. One of his ideas was to zero in on a Waverly Place apartment building and introduce readers to the lives of people who lived here. Next he bought a crate of whisky and invited the staff to drink it all, subject to being timed and tested every hour on how ineffectual we had become at performing various tasks as we got progressively drunker. One of my assignments was to obtain all the racing papers for the previous week and laboriously match the results against what forecasts had been made by a handful of tipsters beforehand.

In magazine terms I was still wet behind the ears but I learned a lot from Harris Shevelson. One of his unusual ideas was to discourage selling subscriptions to Pageant on the grounds that newsstand sales would tell him what he most wanted to know: were more copies sold this month than last? And, if so, what might be the reason? Like most magazines we had to construct three or four cover lines for each issue: one always had to contain the word sex.

THE VILLAGE seemed so peaceful in those days, still basking in the memories of the artists, publications, and literati who had spread its name around the world. Delmore Schwartz edited the Partisan Review on Astor Place, Eugene O'Neill had overseen productions of his plays at the Provincetown Players on MacDougal Street and a host of famous writers had met, lived or worked in nearby Washington Square: Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Hart Crane. Henry James had written a novel bearing its name and a plaque on the square's north side marked where he had lived.

Chumley's, the unmarked bar on Bedford Street, became one my favorite spots, its walls carrying the framed covers by novelists who had preceded me: John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Dreiser and others whose names were yet unknown to me. I used to wonder wistfully if one day something of mine might be among them.

I hadn't read all these authors but I'd heard of them and was aware that the Village's reputation for publishing avant garde papers and magazines went back for well over a century. I searched for some mid-20th century equivalent but found nothing except an existing paper, the Villager, which carried news of local tea parties and an insipid column ostensibly written by the editor's cat named Scoopy Mews, a piece of camp that was a decade or two before its time.

Climbing the steps to a jewelry store on 8th Street, I went in to ask its bearded owner Sam Kramer: "Why doesn't this famous bohemian Greenwich Village have a proper newspaper?"

"Why don't you start one?" was Sam's rejoinder, and within a week of my arrival I had pinned up a notice in a Sheridan Square bookstore asking for volunteers. Through that I met Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, both then working at the New School but not quite as penniless as myself. More than a year was to pass, however, before we met again at which point Fancher decided to cash in his telephone stock and finance a weekly paper, assisted by Dan, then a press aide at the Turkish Information office; Jerry Tallmer, an editor at The Nation and myself.

I remember Dan telling me that his boss used to subscribe to a clipping service about Turkey but got so flooded with irrelevant clips around Thanksgiving that they declined to renew. It was the only joke I ever heard him tell. Dan's girlfriend Rhoda had gone to school with Norman Mailer whose The Naked and the Dead, a treatise about his Korean War experiences had recently become a best seller ("Write us a good antiwar novel, man"--"Well, just a minute until I shoot another gook man, then I'll sign up" was how Kenneth Rexroth sardonically described that event). My cynical observation was that famous authors who were paid by the word had a tendency to be a bit windy.

Mailer, who came up with the paper's name after we'd all filled reams of paper with less desirable suggestions, decided to write a weekly column, the first of which began:

"Many years ago I remember reading a piece by Ernest Hemingway and thinking, 'What windy writing..." The column was basically an apologia for its own existence but went on to suggest that novelists were "more columnistic than the columnists. Most of us novelists who are any good are invariably half-educated; inaccurate, albeit brilliant on occasion; insufferably vain, of course; and, the indispensable requirement for a good newspaperman, as eager to tell a lie as the truth".

The second week doubled his Wind Quotient:

Quickly, a column for slow readers lapped over the two full columns into an adjoining single column and concluded on a six-inch turn further back in the paper. Devoted to the subject of communication, it predated McLuhan in containing a real truth that nevertheless was virtually unintelligible, concluding with:

"Therefore brethren, let me close this sermon by asking the grace for us to be aware, if only once in a while, that beyond the mechanical communication of all society's obvious and subtle networks there remains the sense of life, the sense of creative spirit...and therefore the sense no matter how dimly felt of some expanding and not necessarily ignoble human growth".

This pretentious and condescending rubbish was not being sympathetically received by Voice readers, some resorting in response to parody, but most accusing the star columnist of pomposity, verbosity, half-baked opinions, being patronizing, and suffering from "illusions of grandeur". Understandably, however, the publicity brought welcome attention to the paper, and this was magnified when Mailer chose to devote a half page ad reprinting all the crappy reviews that had appeared deriding his third novel, The Deer Park.

In the course of time, however, this book did get some good reviews. Writing almost thirty years later, Mary V. Dearborn judged that although “its philosophical claims are meager, (it) is a highly enjoyable and provocative book, the writing stylistically Mailer’s strongest”. The Deer Park sold more than 50,000 copies and rose to sixth place on the New York Times’ best seller list.

In his sort-of autobiography, Advertisements for Myself (1959) which pointedly omitted me, and only me, from his list of Voice staffers, Mailer confessed that the book had stemmed from his adoption of marihuana which had led to a revolution in his thinking. “I felt that I was an outlaw, a psychic outlaw, and liked it, liked it a good night better than trying to be a gentleman”.

IN MY EARLIER LIFE in Canada, I had attended a lecture by Gilbert Seldes, known to me only at the time as somebody hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to give an introduction to this new medium, television, on which CBC had just embarked. Now, a year or two later, I read about his reputation as a culture critic and author of a best seller, The Lively Arts, and urged Jerry Tallmer to accompany me and invite him to contribute a column to the Voice. Our tentative suggestion that he might write for us ”occasionally” was met with a vehement: “No I will not. I will only write for you if I can write regularly." Thus, we acquired our second star columnist, a gracious contrast to Mailer.

But, even as the paper’s circulation began to pick up, Ed and Dan realized that it was not fast enough to survive financially without outside help. Tallmer and myself were working 16-hour days for $25 per week, and with all the other expenses, Fancher's original $14,000 soon ran out and after a series of fierce rows, Mailer and a young loafer-about-town named Howie Bennett agreed to refinance the paper.

Their conditions were that if Fancher and Wolf couldn't make a go of it within a year, they would take over and run the paper. Before that 12 months was over though, Mailer had, to all intents and purposes, bailed out. He offered me a joint once, but in those days I was too dumb to know the difference between marihuana and other drugs (as many people still are even today) and nervously turned it down.

The Voice deserved to be noticed if only for sponsoring such pioneering concerts as those of electronic musician Edgar Varese and the by-then almost-forgotten Billy Holliday. And the fledgling Off-Broadway movement, which did so much to boost little theatres, only became so through the efforts of Tallmer, our drama critic. But there was just no money coming in and Fancher's stake plus the input from Bennett and Mailer was soon exhausted.

UPTOWN, i.e. ANYTHING NORTH of 14th Street, was anathema to me in those days, but occasionally I'd venture into midtown streets invariably pausing for a few words with the blind poet/composer Louis Hardin, known to most people as Moondog and an even more familiar a figure than most politicians. Bizarrely dressed in an abundant felt robe with a twin-pointed Viking-style hat, he would stand motionless on a corner in the West 50s for hours, holding upright a six-foot spear, soliciting--but never asking--for money, by offering for sale his poems (“Be a hobo and go with me, to Hoboken by the sea”) or playing a rhythmic number on his drums. "I have to make my overhead" he would say, always keeping his remarks to a minimum and displaying almost no curiosity about his interrogator.

"I came here to seek fame and fortune" he once remarked, "and so far I've achieved fame". Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Julie Andrews and Charlie Parker have all claimed to be among his friends and many years later, Atlantic Records released an album of his music, Sax Pax for a Sax in 1997 when he was reported to be living, aged 81. in Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

BY THIS TIME I had made a few friends in New York, often by striking up conversations in the subway (it was a more innocent time) or in the bars. Invited to a party in a Bleecker Street loft, I asked Bud Waldo, the host, if he'd like to "share" another party some day, explaining that we each invited a few friends and stumped up $10 apiece (it was a much cheaper time) for a barrel of beer and paper cups. After Bud agreed we pulled off several successful gatherings with my guests usually the result of handing out stamped cards:

Next party on.......at.........

on which I had filled in the relevant blanks with date and address. The parties were terrific largely because I circulated constantly introducing people I didn’t know to other people I didn’t know. Amazingly enough, this strange mix of writers, plumbers, artists, tourists and what-have-you mingled so well that I was constantly being complimented, even years later, by strangers who said they had rarely attended such heterogenous gatherings. And, of course, it's true that most of the parties we attend are with people of "our own kind", whatever that may be. Judy Collins, Woody Allen, Orson Bean, Sally Kirkland, Mary Travers and Hugh Hefner's brother Keith were among our early guests and Jeff Blyth, a former newspaper colleague of mine from Newcastle-on-Tyne, went off and married an old girl friend, Myrna, after I introduced them. She reached the editorial heights in the women’s magazine field but apart from a casual meeting at a party years later, never spoke to me again. I was often being told of similar Cupidic match-ups for which I'd been responsible.

(Chapter Two continues next week)

Chapter Two—Meeting Marlene
Steve Allen derides TV columnist
In Marlene Dietrich’s apartment


Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.


comments? send an email to John Wilcock

also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World

National Weed (1974, issue #3)


Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW


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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

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