the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Three—The Village Voice
In the early days of the Village Voice we used to meet at Riker's in Sheridan Square at about 4am on Thursday mornings, driving out to the printer in New Jersey, the radio tuned to Jean Shepherd's all-night musings on WOR about whether people still drank champagne out of actresses' slippers and if Rock Hudson would be considered a good actor if he looked like Jose Ferrer. Our avuncular publisher Ed Fancher, a therapist who was given to stroking his red beard in a manner familiar to all who have watched shrinks conning their patients, was very taken with Shepherd and later hired him to write a column and plug the paper on his show.
Anyway, we'd all be beavering away at this grotty printing plant when our new columnist Norman Mailer would arrive bearing his lengthy column, insisting it appear word for word in the already made-up tabloid. This would involve cutting a story here and another one there, jig-sawing in the Great Novelist's priceless prose an inch or two at a time. Here was this young guy who'd written a best seller while barely out of his teens, who'd thus acquired all the arrogance of a star without any of the graciousness. The worst thing, as I saw it, was that unlike my newspaper friends he'd never been edited--and was never likely to be. There's something about being paid several dollars per word for one's writing that doesn't encourage brevity and so, good writer though he was, he could have been infinitely better. Like most of us he would have benefited from a good editor, one not intimidated by his instant fame.
He was temperamental, too, once throwing a hissy fit because a typo in one of his columns came out as "the nuisances of growth" instead of the nuances. Boy, did he create a stink over that one! An apology was never enough for Mailer; what he demanded was complete obeisance.
A letter in response to one of his columns noted that he had made a total of 43 references to himself (I, me, my, I'm, I'll etc ) and added: "Anyone who didn't know what a swell guy you are, might think you were in love with yourself".
Thus, our fights were inevitable. Although I was a cocky, young newspaperman, unfamiliar perhaps with the deference that most readers seem to have for novelists (I never read any), I was determined to hold my ground as a professional journalist against what I saw as an arrogant intruder (although he had given the Voice its name, and was soon to own half of it). In retrospect, I think I backed the wrong side. Ed and Dan, conservative in everything except politics, were essentially cautious people—they had passed up the chance to print the paper in the newly-popular offset mode--whereas their tempestuous partner really was an outlaw. Maybe if I’d backed him instead of defending my own ego by fighting with him, I might have made a difference. But I doubt it. I was nobody’s favorite around that office, although to this day I’m not sure why.
There were occasionally serious moments when he would read a piece of poetry or quote somebody like Robert Service or George Ade. But mostly it was just a continuous narrative, punctuated by occasions when he would urge his listeners to place their radios outside their windows and turn up the volume. Then he would yell: "You filthy pragmatists; I'm going to get you".
Discussing a recent trip abroad or his attendance at some sporting activity, Shep (as he liked to be known) sounded uncannily like he was sitting right next to you indulging in some casual conversation. An entire generation grew up listening to him, utterly captivated by his personality and, who knows? having their views shaped for years to come.
He was under contract to WOR when Fancher and Wolf first introduced me to his all-night rap on our trips out to the printer, but when his initial 18-month contract expired, the radio station decided he wasn't commercial enough and let him go. Hundreds of his fans--Shep called them the Night People--gathered to protest in the recently burned out Wanamaker Building near Cooper Square. He told them: "Radio is governed by beliefs rather than thinking, beliefs that are cleverly called ideas. One of them is that there is such a thing as the average man and he is 10 years old".
WOR brass read about the massive gathering in the next day's papers, concluded they had been too hasty and rehired him. But a couple of days later he was off the air again when, responding to a caller's challenge that he could be commercial and sell soap with the best of them, he plugged his favorite brand, Sweetheart.
Sweetheart wasn't paying for any commercials at this time but when they read the publicity and noticed the response, they instructed their ad agency to call WOR with an offer to sponsor Shep's show.
Then along came Shepherd's make-believe book, I, Libertine as yet unwritten. On the DJ's urging, customers began to besiege bookstores for copies. "I had gotten into a discussion with somebody about those people who pretend to know everything and we thought it might be a good gag to create a demand for a book that didn't exist. We dreamed up the title, and the author's name--Frederick R. Ewing--on the spot", Shepherd told me over a drink at a 6th Avenue bar, recalling how he had plugged the book endlessly on his show and even smuggled the title into the New York Times Book Review.
Friends would call me to say they'd met people at cocktail parties who claimed to have read it and some disc jockey in eastern Pennsylvania actually interviewed the mythical Ewing on his radio show. Whoever played the part had a slightly irritated British accent".
Pausing in his tale, Shep looked over mischievously. "Another drink?" I pointed to my almost-untouched beer and shook my head. Shep rattled the ice cubes in his glass, picked one out with two fingers and slipped it into his mouth. "Mmmh!" he said, rolling his eyes appreciatively. "I'd say a '59 Frigidaire ...(pause)...from one of the rear trays".
He spat out the ice cube, summoned the waitress for another Scotch on the rocks and continued his story.
Doubleday's 5th Avenue store had received 27 requests for the book in a single morning, he said, a tactic that was repeated all over the country when an airline pilot who was a listener persuaded his colleagues to spread the word. At the Philadelphia Public Library, a Shepherd disciple who asked the reference department for "any information about Frederic R. Ewing" was shown Ewing's name in a card index. Beneath it was neatly typed the word 'Excelsior'--an expression Shep used frequently on his show. At Columbia University, a student who submitted for his thesis a review of the non-existent book received a B-plus. Underneath it the teacher had annotated: Excelsior!
The thing was really picking up speed by this time. Next thing I knew was a call from Ballantine asking me to write the book that everybody was asking for. To cut a long story short, I sat down with Ted Sturgeon and knocked it off in ten days. Ballantine printed 25,000 copies."
I, Libertine became such a success it eventually sold almost a quarter of a million copies and an autograph party at a Times Square bookstore brought out more than a thousand crashers, most of them barefoot.
By the late Sixties, the Voice was preoccupied with what eventually became a successful battle with the autocratic Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who had proposed a highway through Washington Square. The paper, supporting the Village Independent Democrats and Ed Koch against old time kingmaker Carmine De Sapio, had replaced me with a more politically-minded news editor. But my weekly column, The Village Square, was taking up most of my time.
After the first few issues of the Voice, I had no trouble filling the column, aided by the floods of mail that poured in from readers all over America--and eventually all over the world as the Voices I left with or sent to various foreign contacts got passed around. By this time I was living in a $46-a-month apartment on Perry Street and had gotten a job on the travel desk at The New York Times. My column was being handled at the paper by the surly Jerry Tallmer who was always scornful of what he felt were my banalities. Even today, half a century later, he won’t reply to my letters.
I was never popular at the paper--and to this day Ed Fancher and his cohorts insist that I was not "a founder"--at least partly because, never one to mind my own business, I would take it upon myself to return unacknowledged mss. or reply to readers' inquiries that had lain unanswered on the editors' desks for weeks on end. My meddling eventually got me evicted from the office but I continued with the column. When Lyle Stuart published a collection of them I wrote to ask Kingsley Amis who was teaching at Princeton if he would be kind enough to review it. A curt note came back to inform me that he wrote only for money.
So much junk mail was arriving that I devised something called The Surprise Club, inviting readers to send me stamped, self-addressed envelopes which I would return filled with book galleys, seeds for midget vegetables, 12c Mexican lottery tickets, origami, and London matrimonial brochures. Walter Winchell had been nearing the end of his reign when I arrived in New York and apart from my one-subject columns soliciting funds for foreign aid programs and listing numbers for usefully located public phones, I was being drawn more and more to the three-dot style.
Most people who have started newspapers will affirm that of the dozens of volunteers who seek to write for them, nine out of ten want to write a column. Unfortunately, the vast majority of such people have only one subject on their minds and their columns soon exhaust it. The natural form for a writer is the essay and the beauty of a column is that in most cases it doesn’t have to have a “today” angle: it can be unapologetically about anything at any time. I understood immediately why Gilbert Seldes preferred to write every week rather than occasionally.
With the Village Square, I realized that if I sufficiently condensed the myriad subjects that came to my attention, the three-dot column was the obvious solution. In the next chapter I’ll reprint one of my earlier columns.
I unashamedly modeled my style (although not the content) after the master, and although three-dot columns were far from rare at the time, the only other writer using similar material was the San Francisco Chronicle 's Herb Caen. His column was almost always local, mine was international, aided by items I picked up from the London Sunday papers which were little read in the U.S. at the time.
According to a 32-page marketing research survey the Voice commissioned in November 1960, The Village Square was the third best-read feature in the paper, after the ground-breaking cartoon by Jules Feiffer and the letters. The average Voice reader was reported to be 29.4 years old, with 72.7 per cent being college graduates.
In the early days of the Voice, Fred Mc Darrah was unfairly criticized by some people as a lousy photographer but as I constantly pointed out in his defense, even if that was true (which it wasn’t) the important thing is that he was there. Covering a beat which few others bothered about, he missed very little of consequence, building up what is probably the most complete documentation of early-60s New York. His specialty initially was the art scene and he was reputed to have shrewdly built up an impressive collection of works, by swapping photographs for pictures from artists who later became famous. Remaining “consultant” picture editor at the Voice until his death, he was sometimes bitter about the cavalier way the paper treated him.
In one of his letters to me he mused about the fact that, although still on the masthead, when he walked into the Voice office nobody except the picture editor knew him and he could rarely get any pictures into the paper. Eighteen months before he died (Nov 2007), he wrote:
“This will be my last word on that piece of shit called the Village Voice.Betty Friedan died and there was not one word in the paper on her, considered by those retarded pricks as old hat “like nobody remembers her”. Fortunately the so-called managing editor Doug Simmons is on his way out…”
I began to head my column—which I subtitled, "The Column of Lasting Insignificance"—first with my own picture and then vintage engravings. I would inform readers how to enter the annual Calaveras County Frog Jumping contest inspired by a Mark Twain story, or where they could buy coffee cups with permanent lipstick stains (promoted for lonely bachelors); drop unstamped letters in the street to see if anybody would mail them; seek challengers on behalf of a wandering British tiddlywinks team; publicize the efforts of a talent agent who planned to install stand-up comics on subway trains.
I wrote about The Embarrassment Shopper who stood ready to obtain items for people too abashed to shop for themselves. Who had the nerve to ask for such items as Mr. Clean or fig newtons? I followed up ads on the back of book matches, solicited generic love letters that I could pass on to other readers and surveyed poets to reveal how they lived without working. Always in search of eligible women I couldn't resist asking my laundryman why a bundle on his shelf was labeled "Sex" and on learning it was short for one of his customers, Miss Sexton, insisted on leaving her a note. She was amused but told me she had a steady boyfriend.
For one column I rode the A-train to Harlem to meet the much admired poet Langston Hughes, controversial because of false accusations of being a Communist, based presumably on the fact that he happened to have toured Russia and whose writings displayed an obvious sympathy for the underdog. The title of one of his books The Ways of White Folks, a droll recount of practices that might have become a polemic in angrier hands, pretty much epitomizes this gentle human being. But what had attracted my attention was the warmth and understanding of the “Simple” books, perceptive musings by his fictional alter ego Jesse Semple.
Hughes died in 1965 but lives on in the title of a play which was taken from his poem What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
On another occasion, I asked readers to concentrate at a particular time while I tried to transmit a picture to them telepathically (none of the postcard replies got it right), another time I persuaded the Taylor Wine company to seal a note in a champagne bottle before I tossed it off the Staten Island ferry. (While I dreamed of making a pen pal in the Seychelles, it was actually picked up disappointingly close, down the New Jersey coast).
Every year I invited readers to send in poems for an annual contest which I was able to persuade Kenneth Patchen and Randall Jarrel to judge, and my letter to Ezra Pound asking why such a great poet was also an anti-Semite was answered with a testy postcard--long since lost--justifying his stance. Damned as he was for his controversial broadcasts for the Nazis, he was obviously half crazy. But I was impressed by his ambiguous admonition that "a slave is one who waits for someone to free him".
As a general rule, Ed and Dan gave me a free hand with my column but on at least three occasions they refused to print what I wrote, the first occasion being my disclosure that the use of that new-fangled European invention, the bidet, was gaining in popularity. In this current era of $2,000 models, the public seems to take them for granted but back in the Fifties their very mention seemed to be upsetting to the Voice editors. I think “bad taste” was the reason for the column’s rejection, just as was the column by Paul Krassner whom I invited to guest-write my 50th column. The most annoying rejection was when I wrote about the habit of Jehovah’s Witnesses of knocking on apartment doors early on Sunday mornings and inveigling respondents into conversation fronted by an attractive young lady who soon stepped aside, allowing her hitherto unseen proselytizers to step forward with their distinctly unwelcome sermons.
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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
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"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."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner