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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for November 7, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Seven: EVO
The singing Tit-o-Gram
The East Village Other
Art & Forgery
Birth of Black Power
The Underground Press


Sherrie and Walter

A Few Few Notes About the Village Square

In the beginning was a sign in the window of the Eleven Arts Bookshop in Sheridan Square. I had been in New York for one week had been moving around the Village and had asked Sam Kramer: "If Greenwich Village is so famous for its Bohemians, why doesn't it have a proper newspaper (The Villager, in my view, being exactly right for little old ladies). Said Sam: "Why don't you start one?"

The bookstore sign aroused about a dozen enthusiasts, among them a pretty chick named Cindy Lee, none of whom had any money. It was about a year later in the back room of Julius' that Ed and Dan (whom I'd met at one of Cindy's parties) told me that they'd raised a few thousand bucks and were going to launch the then-unnamed Voice. (Mailer provided the name after we'd all mulled over endless lists of banal titles).

In the summer of 1955 we sat around in the office above Sutter's bakeshop on Greenwich Avenue constructing and painting an office notice board, planning features, checking out the work potential of numerous volunteers (two out of every three wanted to write a column). The office, formerly an apartment, had a shower and bed in the back and an occasional homeless volunteer would sleep there overnight. A pity the bed couldn't write its memoirs.

Jerry Tallmer, who'd been working for The Nation, and myself (who'd spent my first New York year at Pageant) were the only ones with newspaper experience at this time so much of the early writing fell to us and friends of Jerry's. I bitterly resented some of Mailer's ideas which seemed so impractical and unprofessional (in retrospect, of course, they seem so much less so) and we fought a good deal. Mostly over Mailer's post-deadline arrivals with overlong columns that he wouldn't allow to be changed by so much as a comma. In Mailer's documentation of those early days, “Advertisements for Myself” (Putnam) my name is not mentioned.

The first office employee, Florence Ettenberg, was a small, brown-eyed, dark-haired refugee from the uptown scene: Park Avenue where she lived with her parents who displayed initial skepticism about this sudden involvement with “beatniks”. Her boyfriend was even more disapproving. It was Florence in her role of secretary, salesman, receptionist, and Girl Friday who sold our first ad: one inch ($4.20), bought by the Willow, a ceramic shop on West 4th Street.

Issue number one, in October 1955, brought congratulations--including the gift of a potted plant--and rumors that we were communist. However the rumors began (and my story on the folksingers in the square might have helped) they were assiduously promoted by our rival's advertising salesmen and this made the battle harder than it might have been.

In the early days this column (which I planned as a kind of naïve investigation of things everybody takes for granted) carried no byline. Its pre-publication title, The Village Idiot, was badly received so The Village Square was chosen as a triple pun, at least partly as an antidote to all the “hipness” Mailer was projecting.

The first column was about Lower East Side artist Ray Johnson and the peculiar collages he called moticos. Number two was about Larry Maxwell, a Villager whose hobby was buying one share at a time of whatever generous companies gave quarterly stockholders' luncheons. Around column number four I began to put my name on it. This is column number 499.

Ray Johnson, photo by Rose Hartman

When the Voice started to attract a little attention uptown I had the idea that Village politics was a circulation detriment and for several weeks the Voice experimented with split-run editions in which the uptown version carried more general stories, including a column called Oliver Johnson's Village. One of Oliver's early columns (my middle name is Oliver) was written from the top of the Washington Square Arch where I found about a score of tennis balls.


In the nine and a half years since, this weekly column has dealt with a thousand different subjects, The columns I used to enjoy writing the most--the essay type--seemed to be less popular than a listing of some of the offbeat eccentricities I have come across, obscure publications I had read, esoteric organizations promoting unpopular causes etc. This kind of column, through pressure of mail, eventually came to pop up about every month. The Village Square has been written from and about Sweden, France, Tangiers, London, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, India, Turkey, Greece, Canada, and many parts of the United States, usually while I was working on a travel book.

This column has been carried by two San Francisco papers, one Philadelphia weekly, and a paper in Paris, all now defunct. It is also carried by Chicago's Near North News, Australia's OZ magazine, and the Toronto Daily Star. It still appears weekly in Tokyo's Mainichi Daily News and the Los Angeles Free Press in addition to the Voice.  Only the Voice pays me for it. My relationship with the Voice, in which the column operates as an independent state, has varied from close involvement to armed warfare and is now amicable.

Out of nearly 500 columns only four have been rejected outright: dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses, bidets, a love letter I misguidedly addressed to some girl and a guest column by Paul Krassner. Because The Village Square has appeared weekly since The Voice's first issue there's a tendency to associate its author too closely with the paper itself. I am not informed of Voice policy, have no influence with the paper's management, and do not see mail sent to the paper unless it is addressed to me personally.

Within a few months I had left the paper.

+                   +                  +

During what was to be my last year as a Voice columnist I met an attractive lady named Sherry Needham and before leaving for Europe dallied with her just long enough to plan a four-picture 'story' for my column in one of those 25c photo booths. Before my return, however, she got involved with Walter Bowart, an East Village artist, who was planning a new kind of paper, the East Village Other. He had been in New York only a short time, the consequence of tossing a coin back home in Oklahoma to determine whether to begin his new life in the East or the West.

Sherrie and Walter

Warily, he agreed to attend the 'photo shoot' we had planned before I went away. This consisted of Sherry holding a French Legionnaire's hat in front of her chest for the first three pictures and replacing it on her head for the fourth--thus revealing a shapely bare breast. “The Singing Tit-O-Gram“ was the title it bore when it ran in that week's column. In return, I agreed to write a (free) weekly column for the fledgling EVO, devoting my first Other Scenes column to one of my favorite themes: the subject of artist forgery.

There’s an age-old precedent for forgery in the art world, the best-known practitioner probably being the eccentric Dutch art dealer Hans Van Meegeren whose specialty was painting fake Vermeers atop 17th century canvases, one of which he sold to Hermann Goering. His emulation of The Last Supper fetched $7.5 million. Van Meegeren created at least a dozen originals in the style of earlier Dutch masters which predictably caused near-panic in art business circles.

A former FBI art forgery expert, Joseph Chapman, once estimated that half of the modern paintings sold in the U.S. each year were not painted by the artists whose names they bore. As for Europe, he said, faking Utrillos was France's fourth largest export industry. Who could possibly estimate how many of the 'masterpieces' in the world's top museums were actually fakes--despite the assurances of 'experts'?

Thomas Hoving asserted that in the decade and a half he spent as director of New York's Metropolitan Museum,  he probably examined 50,000 works of art. "Fully 40 per cent" he later wrote, "were either phonies or so hypocritically restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries". And Picasso, asked once how he could remember the details of his voluminous output, explained: "If I like it, I say it's mine; if not, I say it's a fake".

Forgery, in fact, is one of the art world’s ever-sustaining stories and I presume there have been more than a few books and films about it. The prime subject, I suppose, would be the loveable old rogue who chooses to reproduce one dollar bills rather than twenties--art for art's sake, you might say, especially as nobody likes to get stuck with a dud twenty (although  most people I know wouldn't hesitate to pass it along if they thought they could get away with it).

And if you’re writing for the underground press, as I now was, there’s a whole other configuration to be assumed: the radical actions of artists against the state. Resist Authority in whatever way is timeless.

Every government, despite its hypocritical posturing, is in the forgery business: copying currency, passports, etc. for its spies and fake documents to undermine enemies. In WWII, the Germans planned to flood Britain with millions of fake ration books; the British were paying off suspected double agents with phony money, and in prison camps everywhere there were no scruples about reproducing any kind of document that would help in escapes.

But if some of these former prisoners apply their copying skills back home, listen to the outraged cries! We’re warned that it’s immoral and criminal to make for yourself a document when nobody will issue it; to trade with your own money; to use Mexican pesos in slot machines or slugs in parking meters and to use stamps of your own design on your letters.

Because of their importance as Establishment symbols, such things as stamps, banknotes, and currency have always been a target for artists: forgeries to make a point rather than a profit. The old artist paradox of resenting the way art is evaluated by $$$ rather than aesthetics while simultaneously watching the way their prices rise, can still be found today in the inevitable era of Damien and Koons.

ANYWAY, the best part of the art forgery scam came into my view later when, as a publisher, I ran across the astonishing work of J.S.Boggs some of whose fine work I was later able to publish.

J(ames) S(tephen) G(eorge) Boggs uses only Kohn-I-Noor pens, colors, and his skills, to duplicate currency all over the world. He never tries to pretend they’re the real thing and thus has achieved the ultimate irony of producing bills so "real" that they became collector's items and sell for more than their face value. He’s created £10 notes in England, 100-franc bills in France and Switzerland, Deutsche marks in Germany, whatever happens to be called for.  

His method is simple, entering a café or other public space and, on the spot, sitting and copying a banknote in exact detail. Then, he offers the waitress the phony bill to pay for his meal, and carefully packages in a take-out baggie the change, the check, and details of the transaction. This he takes to his Swiss art dealer, Rudi Demenga, who on the radio offers to pay ten times the face value of the note for any Boggs originals. More than one coffee shop waitress who accepted a hand-drawn tip, found her faith rewarded with a $500 profit. One Swiss taxi driver who volunteered to drive the artist from Basle to Zurich--a $700 journey--was repaid with a unique (non-existent) 30-franc created especially for him.

A fake bill by J.S.G. Boggs

By the time Lawrence Wechsler wrote about him in an 1988 New Yorker, Boggs had completed 700 transactions of this nature and the gallery was maintaining a waiting list for his work which often brought thousands of dollars.

"Part of my work", Boggs explained, "is to get people to look at bills closely--the detailing, the conception, the technique. This brings art directly into daily life, achieves something I've wanted for years. I think artists throughout history have desired to reach the man in the street without compromising their art. I've found a way of reaching people who don't go to galleries and museums".

One of my earliest friends in New York was a charming fellow named Hugh Paulk, who came to most of my parties where he captivated everyone with his insouciant manner and friendly smile.

Starting as a door-to-door bible salesman in Maryland, Hugh had acted as an advance man for a carnival, saw service as a naval officer and produced the first jazz concert in the Symphony Hall at Boston where he settled into a mail order business. His first big success came with his purchase of tens of thousands of surplus parachutes in Kansas City. Material was scarce after WWII, and women used the parachutes to make curtains, bedspreads, and many other things, including wedding dresses.

I met him soon after his move to New York when he adapted my Surprise Club (readers of my columns were sent off items such as Hong Kong lottery tickets) into a commercial enterprise. “You won’t know what you are going to get” his ads ran, “You won’t know when you are going to get it, and sometimes you won’t know what to do with it when you get it.”

One item was a set of twelve Fake Book Jackets with such titles as:

Funerals Can Be Fun! by Mort Tition
Pregnancy, Its Cause and Cure by Justin Case
Six Sure Ways to Tell a Virgin and What to Tell Her

as well as the one shown below. This brought him an invitation to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. For a couple of years, Hugh’s partner in the mail order business was Ed Downe, later owner of the Ladies Home Journal, Family Weekly, etc., and many TV stations, and he developed other products with partners who died before they could be brought to fruition. Now semi-retired, he lives in Florida and is writing books.

One of Hugh’s book covers

AND SO, TO BACKTRACK, here I am writing Art & Other Scenes for Walter’s new paper, in my waning days as a Voice columnist. Two days after Other Scenes appears I am summoned before Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf. They demand that I abandon EVO or forfeit my Voice column. Other Voice contributors were writing for numerous publications but EVO presumably seemed a dangerous rival. Iconoclastic radicalism vs. namby pamby liberalism. A new era had dawned which the Voice clearly did not appreciate.

Canned after ten years and 500 columns, I moved into the grubby storefront on Avenue A in the East Village from which the next nine issues of EVO emerged bearing a masthead proclaiming--Walter's little joke--"Editors: William Randolph Hearst & John Wilcock".

Walter and I were good for each other, at least professionally, because as an artist his preference was for white space over text whereas my writerly preferences were always for cramming in as many words as possible. Naturally we ended up compromising, which taught me more about layout and possibly increased his editorial skills. (Years later when we met he was the unlikely editor of Palm Springs Life).

At any rate, before we take leave of the subject of forgery, which is how this chapter began, I hope I’ve been able to emphasize how important a weapon it is for the powerless, lingering as it does in the twilight zone between crime and antisocial behavior, a place where anarchy is acceptable in the guise of art: a battle ground on which the individual can always fight a biased system.

In the mid-Sixties most of the world's youthful protest movement coalesced around two major issues--the Vietnam War and marihuana. Revolution was in the air and Walter Bowart was finely attuned to the changing mood. He devoted an issue to the plight of America's Indians at a time when it was just about the last thing on anybody's mind, and then turned his attention to broader themes. Black Power was the headline that filled EVO's front page, reporting a speech by Stokeley Carmichael. It was the first time I became aware of that particular phrase. The Streets Belong to the People....The Music is  the Revolution....Support the Smoke-In.... were among our hectoring admonitions.  Ending the war and legalizing dope were the twin aims of the emerging new society and our discussions in the EVO office centered around how to focus some of this discontent. We had run some eye-catching covers including mug shots and fingerprints of "America's Most Wanted", a mock poster featuring Tim Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Ginzburg whose aesthetically beautiful Eros magazine was causing fury among American puritans.

My editorial formula was Pot, Art, Religion, Politics, Sex, Sociology, Revolution, and Humor and every issue I tried to have each category represented, not necessarily in separate stories. A picture story about the short-lived trend for transparent bras, for example, might cover--oh dear!--a couple of different aspects.

One afternoon I sat at the typewriter pecking out the manifesto that Walter, EVO co-founding Katzman brothers, and cartoonist Bill (Captain High) Beckman were painstakingly constructing. It was born of the realization that as our beliefs seemed to be shared by Max Scherr's Berkeley Barb, Art Kunkin's Los Angeles Free Press, the San Francisco Oracle, Jeff Schero's The Rag in Austin, and The Paper in Lansing, Michigan, a syndicate should be formed through which we could swap papers and share stories. But what would it be called? My childhood memories of the French Maquis, the underground, were endorsed enthusiastically: thus, the Underground Press Syndicate.

I was later to define “underground” at the request of Andy Warhol who sought to include my thoughts in a special issue of a magazine called Aspen he had been invited to edit. (It was presented in a fake soap flakes box).

...

NEXT:
Chapter Seven—The East Village Other (continued)
The Underground Press
Army revolt:  fragging officers
Bowart goes to Millbrook

...

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)
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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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"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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