An Interview with the Poet and Hellraiser Brigid Murnaghan on Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, May 2014
By Dylan Foley
Murnaghan had requested that her interviewer bring her a bottle of Coke. The home-care attendant chided, him, saying, “She takes anxiety pills, but Coca Cola makes her hyper…what’s the use of medicine if you drink Coke?”
I’m an opera buff. I went to see "La Boehme" at the Met and I was enthralled. After it was over, we’d all go to a nearby cafeteria. They had cafeterias in those days. We all talked about the performances. Most of them [the other fans] were homosexuals. I said, “I’m saving up every penny, so I can go to Paris, ‘cause I finally saw people that I could live with.” This fairy at the end of the table said, [affecting a mincing voice], “You don’t have to go to Paris. You just have to take the D-train to West 4th Street.” Guess what I did? I was 14, going on 15. The war had just ended.
Q. What did you see?
Boom. There were women in jeans. I was already in jeans because I was very hard on my clothes. My first pair of jeans were bought by my mother. My mother came from the North, Co. Down, and my father came from West Mayo. God help us.
I got downtown and I walked all around the West Side. I found out about the cafeterias. Those people weren’t drinkers or raising hell. There were a lot of homosexuals. Nice people. Much nicer than anyone in the fucking Bronx, except for the zoo.
One day, I had my girlfriend Penny…I’d found out about the bars. I’d been asking questions. We went to the Minetta Tavern. We were 15, but I was tall, 5’10 ½”. I ordered. They gave me a drink. I ordered a drink for Penny.
Penny and I met on the subway because we were both reading books. We
Q. What was the environment at the San Remo?
A. Lovely. You drank. Everybody left you alone,. They were trying to get in your pants, but that was beside the point. It was a world and a half from the Bronx. I was sleeping on people’s floors. Many a morning, I’d wake up in this apartment with people sleeping on the floor. I’d go, “Ah, memories.” Some not so young, some bombed out of their minds, sleeping here and getting up to go to work.. More than once, I’d go down to the drugstore and buy razors and cream, giving it to them, so they could get themselves together, so they could go to work. Nobody would fuck anyone. I guess it all had to do with alcohol. I’ve been here 40 years.
Brigid Murnaghan in Saloon Society's "The Nice Thing About Tweeds"
Q. Who were the San Remo characters?
A. Maxwell Bodenheim. I loved Max. Max liked me. Then there was a painter named Harold “Popsy” Anton. He was a character. He lived on Bleecker Street in a loft. He’d go around selling paintings the size of a large notebook, then he’d have enough money to drink and buy drinks. I loved his work. I don’t have any of his work. It’s all been stolen from me.
Q. When did you finally leave home for good?
A. 1946, I guess.
Q. Did you live in a cold-water flat when you moved to Manhattan?
The whole nine yards. I lived on Fifth Street, between A and B.
I hit the San Remo and never left. At that time, the San Remo was getting famous or infamous. All sorts of celebrities were coming. There were more writers at the San Remo. At the Cedar, I knew all the painters--de Kooning, Franz Kline, all those guys. De Kooning says that I looked like James Joyce. I’d rather be that than Maureen O’Hara.
Q. When did you know that you wanted to write?
A. When did I first admit it to myself? Sy Krim, who edited The Beats, grabbed me and asked me for some work. I’m in that first anthology.
Very little happened at the Minetta.
I can’t drink water, because fish fuck in water. They don’t fuck in Pellegrino.
I loved Delmore Schwartz. There was a poet named Milton Klonsky and he introduced me to Delmore. It was love at first sight. No, we didn’t fuck [Home attendant’s catcalls in background…”your mouth is like a sailor, it kills me.”] He and I really liked each other. He was crazy. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I said, “Where have you been?” He says, “I’m living uptown. 42nd Street.” He was living in a hotel. I really started worrying about him.
I met Delmore with Klonsky. Klonsky and [Anatole] Broyard were kissing cousins.
(Brigid Murnaghan with her daughter at the Kettle of Fish Bar, 1960's)
Q. Did you like Broyard?
It was Delmore, Klonsky and Anatole. Clement Greenberg had already made it. He once made a pass at me.
I loved Klonsky. He was a short guy. He was handsome in a way. He had a big nose and lovely eyes. Thirty years later, I was walking on 14th Street. He said “Brigid Murnaghan,” and he had such a smile on his face. I said, “How you doing dear?”
Romantic, what is romantic? I was a kid, but he was my boyfriend for a while. When he thought about me, he thought about me fondly. That’s when he got a place in my heart.
Q. What about your writing?
I never talked about writing in those days. It was a great big secret. That had to do with male chauvanist pigism. It was very, very bad. Every once in a while, you would say something and they would do you in.
Q. How did you support yourself?
A. Please! Half the time, I was going home to the Bronx. I slept on floor. Viva La Boehme.
No. Maneuvers is the best word for it.
Norman Mailer wasn’t at the San Remo. He didn’t come until after his book was published. He was a Jewish guy. I liked Jewish guys.
[Phone call.] I’m in A.A. That was one of my complainers. 31 years sober. Don’t talk about it. That’s the only thing I’ll ask you.
I knew Frank McCourt before the Lion’s Head.
I went from the San Remo to the Kettle of Fish to the White Horse.
Q. Was the Kettle rough?
They were all pussycats. They were my friends.
Q. Do you know anything about the Kerouac assault in front of the Kettle?
Don’t believe the bullshit. I would have known. He was with his mother. He was a mamma’s boy. [Murnaghan refers to a famous Kerouac photo that is on her dresser] It’s a picture of Jack before he died. He and his mother are at the kitchen table. He’s sitting and she’s standing with her hand on his shoulder. I looked at it, and said, “She’s finally got him.” He was all bloated. There was a drink on the table. He went home to die. That look on her face…”I have him now.” He was all bloated. He was a little guy.
Q. Did you know Allen Ginsberg?
I knew Ginsberg from the San Remo. I knew him early. He was a faggot. We were at a big, big reading and he said, “You’re not going to be drunk?” I said, “I never drink when I read.” That was my relationship with him. I knew Peter Orlovsky.
Next to McDonald’s, there was a Mafia-owned nightclub.
Q. When did the Kettle become important?
When we took over? That’s what we did. The food was better than the San Remo. They all thought we were crazy.
Q. Was it a takeover?
That’s how it worked. One would go, another would go, then everybody would go.
Q. Did you go to Louis’ Tavern?
I went to Louis’, then it went… We went to Julius’ for the cheeseburgers. You never hung out because it was so faggoty. They had the best cheeseburgers and they were cheap. Many a night, I ate my dinner at Julius’. You had money to drink on, or at least you had the entrance fee. Entrance fee is very important. That’s the first drink you buy, then some guy tries to hit on you, or you know somebody. The next thing you know, you walk out and say, “How the fuck did I get so drunk? I only had five bucks.”
Nothing was 15 cents. Fifty cents, maybe. I had a fight with one of the bartenders at the Remo, something stupid.. I said, “Fuck you,” and went to the Kettle of Fish, then to Louis’ and the White Horse. They were all pick up joints. You needed an entrance fee.
Larry Rivers did a portrait of me. The bars had their own personalities.
At the Cedar, the painters were no fun.
I had boyfriends. I stuck around with them for a while, I had a child. I stayed square for a few days, then I went back to the high life, or the low life, or whatever fuck kind of life you want to call it.
The painters were very aloof. They were the highest in the realm of art. I once got a lecture from a painter on how the painters were more important than the writers. I can see his face, but I can’t remember his name. I didn’t even fuck him. Franz Kline was a very nice guy, but the artists were pains in the asses. They had no senses of humor.
Q. What did you think of Frank O’Hara?
I knew Frank O’Hara at the Remo. I knew him early. He was a little guy with a punched-in nose, like a fighter. It made him nicer. He was a 110 pounds soaking wet.
John Ashbery and I talked about how we wanted to open a theater that just showed coming attractions. There were no conversations about Baudelaire. They were just light conversations.
Q. Did you know Joe LeSueur, Frank O’Hara’s roommate?
They must have fucked once or twice. They weren’t a couple. They were friends.
Q. What was your view of Jackson Pollock?
I liked Pollock. I don’t give a fuck what anybody says. He was a very shy guy. You’d say hello to him and he’d jump out of his skin. De Kooning was lovely. De Kooning was a gentleman.
The White Horse had the would-bees.
I remember Dylan Thomas. What a pain in the ass. I went up to the bar to get a drink. All of a sudden, this guy turns around, and I said, “Oh, it’s you. Hi, how are you doing?” I ordered a drink. [Thomas gave her a furious, dirty look.] They talk about him being gay. Dylan Thomas was not born gay. He had these couple of guys going around with him. He was a switch hitter, obviously.
Q. What was your reaction to his death?
Q. What was the White Horse like after Dylan Thomas died?
I loved the Clancy Brothers. Paddy was my favorite. He was the smartest. I liked Tommy. Paddy was quiet. I screwed Paddy. He took me home one night in a cab and the next thing I knew, he was on top of me. Whoever it was , it was a guy I trusted. I wondered which one it was. [Checks face of the man.] “Oh, it’s Paddy Clancy.” It just happened once.
Seymour Krim was very nice.
A lot of people hung out. They weren’t as loud as I was. I had my opinions.
Delmore had not nice things to say about Elizabeth Pollet. “You stick all woman in one bucket,” I said to him. Anyone else would have gone out and found another woman.
I adored Milton Klonsky, but he certainly didn’t know what to do with me. There was this little pack of guys. They were all chauvo pigos. I once said that I wanted to be a poet. I might as well have said that I wanted Josef Stalin in the White Horse. I was a girl. I had no right to say I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to go into a profession that was completely male dominated. Let me explain me…I was young, I was beautiful and I was wild. They had a lot of prejudice, my fellow women. When the women’s lib movement came, I took to it like a duck to water.
I have a son, Cade, called Cado. At this point in time, he’s not talking to me.
Q. What was the Lion’s Head like?
The writers there were newspapermen. My daughter loved the Lion’s Head. She’s a photojournalist. Annie Hagman McDermott. She hung out at the Lion’s Head. That was her saloon, so I stayed away from it.
Q. I have heard that the 55 Bar on Christopher Street was famous for customers having sex in the bathroom. Have you heard of this?
That’s not sex. Another place that did that was the Lion’s Head. I know a couple of the blow-job queens from the Lion’s Head. One of them is in AA with me. In AA, you tell the truth.
I was 15 when I went into the Remo. A shot and a beer. That’s what you do. A shot of Johnnie Walker Black and a beer back. Nobody asked me how old I was. That is one of the secrets of drinking before your time. They watch you drink the shot, then they forget about you. I was one of five girls. They knew I was wild, but they also knew that there was nothing they could do with me. They knew I was a writer before I became a writer. It was a dream then…you had to put up with all that bullshit of women being treated as second-class citizens.
In the San Remo, I liked the bartenders, except for one. I liked the people. It was a lot of fun. Good times were had there. Practically everybody is dead. There were some really good times there. Then the celebrities would come. I swore I would never be a celebrity.
Q. Did you know any of the Partisan Review writers?
You’re talking squares. You are not talking all squares, but they tend to the square bit. They had that whole kind of superiority that squares get, that any normal person would be ashamed of to act like that.
Delmore Schwartz was so beautiful. He was taking downers. Paranoid? He invented the word. No one knew how to spell it before he came up with it. I loved him so much. He was just one of those people you love. He was so nuts. It scared me about writing. Would I get nuts like that? Cado came when I was 30. It calmed my dinties down. I’m grateful. It tied me down.
Q. Which of your children was born in 1960?
That was Annie. You might as well show the children the bar. Cado is in A.A. Annie, I don’t even ask.
Boyfriends are very hard. You have to pay attention to them.
You got me thinking of Delmore Schwartz. Smart guy. Smart guy. He knew he couldn’t get to first base, that he was a friend.
People who knew me for years never knew that I wrote.
Q. How would you describe Joe LeSueur?
He was a cunt. It fits right on the money. That kind of looks, I knew he wouldn’t age gracefully.
Q. Did you know Winnie Myers?
Did I know Winnie? Let me tell you, there were nights when we slept in the same bed. I loved her very much. She was very smart. The only thing she had was alcohol. If I’d known about AA then, I’d have taken Winnie to AA. She would have done very well. Winnie was as black as the Ace of Spades. She really had an ear for languages.
Q. Do you know the story of her doing a reverse striptease on the 6th Avenue bus?
You’re asking me, who heard it from the mouth of the woman who did it. On 6th Avenue and 8th Street, across from the Waldorf Cafeteria, there was a skinny bar and it was very hot. These were the days before air conditioning. Winnie was hot. She took off all her clothes , folded them neatly, put them on the bar and went out for a walk. She had big tits and a big ass. If she went out naked in Africa, you’d never look at her twice because everyone looked that way. They got her. They took her to Bellevue. They asked her at Bellevue why she did it. She said, “It was hot. I’m an African.” They gave her 30 days, to make sure that she was sane.
I did my turn in Bellevue, because my son’s father finked on me. Mr. White Protestant, and me raging mad, wanting to get my hands on him, so they put me in to see that I was sane. I didn’t assault him, but I was trying. Why are you calling the cops for?
Q. Were you friends with Gregory Corso?
Darling, I was important in making Gregory Corso famous. I had a boyfriend named Art Franklin, who was a genius in PR. It was the 1940s. You had to feed the newspapermen good stories to get in their columns. I introduced Gregory to Art. We all liked Gregory then. Gregory was a very close friend. Art got a piece on Gregory in one of his columns.
Art would get Gregory in all these columns. Gregory became famous. He took all the clippings to the West Coast. West Coast writers were talking about Gregory showing off all these articles. Those were the pieces that Art had put in the paper for him. I wish Art had done it for me. Art was the press agent for all these black artists in the 1930s.
I can’t explain any of those guys, except they were nice. Then fame hit. They were all drunks. Allen wasn’t a drunk, but Allen’s boyfriend Peter Orlovsky was a drunk… Allen set him to drink.
Q. Did you drink with the painter Sheri Martinelli?
Of course, I knew Sheri. I loved her. Sheri and I got along very well. When I first met her, she was going out with Anatole Broyard. She was a very funny woman. She was very petite. She was smart and street smart. She was much more sophisticated than any of us.
Q. How about the doomed Iris Brody?
She hung out at the Remo. Iris was quiet in a way, but you knew not to turn your back on Iris. Sheri wouldn’t stab me in the back. I liked Iris a lot. Is she dead, too? I think I knew that.
Iris was one of Marshall Allen’s girlfriends. He was a rich little guy from Connecticut. He owned a house on 13th Street. He was rich and had all that bullshit going for him. He could fuck. That’s one thing I can say.
Q. Were you involved with him?
Not very long. If our relationship was fucking, I’d be with him today. When you got out of the good part of him, you never wanted anything else. He was smart, he wasn’t dumb, but he was stupid.
Iris ran around with him.
A lot of people hung around with him, like Delmore Schwartz. He got Delmore out of some trouble. I know he gave money to Delmore. He couldn’t do what we could do. He once said, “Your little poems. I don’t write little poems. I’m not a little person.” He once told me, “I’ll buy you as many drinks as you want, but I’ll not buy you anything to eat.” I’d always go with him to a restaurant with a bar. My plot would always be to get him to feed me.
Q. Did you know Helen Parker, the woman who took Allen Ginsberg’s virginity?
She was somebody out of the twenties. She didn’t look it at all, but she had that twenties mentality--”I’m sexually free,” not sexually free like we were. She never went in the street and did what we did. She was really nice. She was married for a while and had two sons. The husband took the sons and she took to drink. Always had boyfriends. She was a good-looking redhead. Real red hair, not out of a bottle. Irish red hair. She looked very Irish. Anyplace she drank, I drank. We were very friendly. She was older than I was. She gave me a lot of free advice on how to run my sex life. I couldn’t say love with a straight face. She always had a guy hanging on her, switch hitters, both men and women. She wasn’t but the guys were. Numerous amounts of them were switch hitters, because they were so kind. There is a lot alike with her and Tennessee Williams’ women. She wasn’t tough, but she stood up for herself.
Helen was somebody, if she was sitting at the bar by herself, if the stool next to her was empty, I’d put myself down next to her. She said, “I’m going to teach you how to drink all night.” She was my role model.
You know how they fade away? That’s what happened to her. She got some guy to keep her. Marshall Allen was very generous to writers, but he got to be so pompous. He had such a nice apartment. He had a million and a half books. I never left without a handful of books. Those who had courage made a pass at me. The cowards were afraid of me. I once heard somebody say I was so tough. I never laughed so much in my life. That’s one thing I am not. Loud, maybe, but not tough. I never had a fight with a woman.
I met Norman and Adele at their parties. How do you get out of a fight with Adele Mailer? She started up with me. Norman was there. I said, “Norman, get her off my back.” I came from five sisters. None of them ever raised a hand to each other. I am a born feminist.
Once Liz Diamond stayed with me for Christmas. We bemoaned our fates that we were orphans in the storm. [48th and 8th].
Liz Diamond called Norman up and asked him if he was having a party. He invited us down to his garden apartment in the Village. Everybody was smoking dope in the garden. Everybody smoked, but everybody hid the smoking.
Q. Who was Liz Diamond?
She wanted to be a singer. She was a nice woman. She fucked them all, absolutely all of them. She was very attractive Jewish girl. We had a love-hate relationship. She hated my long legs. She came into the Remo at the end. She fucked everyone.
Q. What was your view of Jack Kerouac and his mother?
(Referring to an infamous photo of Kerouac’s mother standing over him.) Her standing over him. The look on her face. “I have him now, “a half dead man there. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.
Q. Were you ever involved with Gregory Corso?
He started out at the Remo. Gregory was in it for the money, but he was too stupid to make money. He got off on drinking and doing dope. You couldn’t say Gregory was a heroin addict because he was too mixed up to be one. If you gave him a shot of heroin or a drink, he’d think it was the same thing.
Gregory was so much fun. We’d go to the movies all the time.
Nobody dated Gregory Corso. You couldn’t say with a straight face that you dated Gregory Corso. He just wasn’t there for that.
I never fucked any of them. I don’t know how I would have gotten up in the morning and looked in the mirror. They were my friends. I went outside for fucking. You don’t fuck a member of your family. I went uptown for fucking. I didn’t bother with my friends I boozed with and drank with and smoked with. I wouldn’t want one of those guys coming into the bar and saying, “Are you coming home with me tonight?” I had a reputation to uphold. I’d always say, “Go home to your mother.”