Saturday, June 29, 2019

Rest in Peace, Harriet: Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, memoirist, ex-nude model and West Village sexual adventurer (March 26, 1928-June 21, 2019). Aged 91.

My friend, the poet Edward Field emailed me last Friday, June 21st to tell me the horrible news that Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, a memoirist, ex-nude model and sexual adventurer died that morning in a long-term rehab in Brooklyn. She was 91.

I met Harriet in 2005 when Edward and I organized a photo exhibit at Westbeth of old bohemians who came up in New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Edward introduced me to Harriet and I went over to her apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Harriet was an imposing woman, standing six-feet tall with shoulder-length yellow-white hair and a deep voice.

“Kids today,” Harriet said in our first interview, “they don’t fuck.”

Harriet was probably the most fearless person I’ve ever met when it came to discussing her own sexuality and sex life. Under a picture of a nude painting of herself done by an art student in the 1960’s, Harriet told me epic stories of her wild youth and her sexual escapades. After she threw off the chains of her uptight middle-class youth in Manhattan, Harriet went to the radical Black Mountain College, then transferred to Berkeley. Working in the campus bookstore, the 21-year-old seduced a 17-year-old Susan Sontag with the line, “Have you read Nightwood?” referring to the Djuna Barnes novel.

In 1950, Harriet took a ship to Paris with $200 in her pocket. She got involved with a Swede who gave her gonorrhea. She then hooked up with the entrancing future playwright Maria Irene Fornes, a Cuban-American, who may have been the great love of her life.

Harriet rekindled with Susan in Paris when she left a Fulbright to escape a bad marriage and motherhood. Their fights were physical. Harriet and Susan hosted the Beat exiles at their hotel room in Paris, including Allen Ginsberg. Noticing a big bruise on Susan’s face, Ginsberg said to Harriet, “You hit her because she is better looking than you.”

Harriet came back to New York in 1959 and Susan stole Irene from her, breaking her heart. Distraught, Harriet borrowed $25 and flew to Provincetown, Mass. She started dating Bill Ward, the editor of the Provincetown Review.  Harriet was an editor there when the federal government tried to shut the magazine down for publishing the Hubert Selby Jr.’s story “Tralala,” an excerpt from his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. Harriet had to go into hiding for a short period of time.

Bill Ward’s best friend was Norman Mailer. Harriet and Mailer despised each other, and she repeatedly attacked Mailer’s height and hypermasculinity. In the summer of 1961, Mailer coerced his wife Adele Morales Mailer to fight Harriet. The two women punched each other, pulled each others’ hair and wrestled on the ground while the men cheered and took bets.

Harriet’s fight with Adele Mailer was caused by the Mailers’ earlier menage a trois affair with Irene Fornes, which Irene ended because of her deep affection for Harriet. This angered the Mailers. The summer fight was directly linked to Mailer stabbing his Adele that fall.  Five decades later, Harriet could still get angry discussing the big fight.

While dating Bill Ward, Harriet met her future husband Louie Zwerling in the Cedar Tavern, the artists’ hangout. Louie tried to pay Harriet for sex, thinking she was a prostitute. After a turbulent dating period, they married and had their son Milo in 1963. “Being married to a seaman was great for having affairs,” Harriet once told me, with her typical candor.

Harriet continued her prolific and varied sex life. She told me with unsupressed glee that she would frequent the 55 Bar on Christopher Street, where pot smoking was encouraged and there were often two people in the bathroom stalls at a time. This was Harriet’s life as a young mother with a husband on the high seas.

Harriet later became a public schoolteacher in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where she worked for 28 years. She saw the parents of her students in the old Polish neighborhood as racist.

In her late seventies, Harriet self-published a collection of essays and autobiographical pieces called Notes of a Nude Model, referring to her years modeling at art schools. There were pieces about her stint as a “Rent a Beatnik” and the time she shot heroin with the artist Larry Rivers. The book became a surprise hit. Harriet starred in Deirdre Fishel’s documentary “Still Doing It” about older women and sex. She also stole the scene when she was in Nancy Kates’ “Regarding Susan Sontag” documentary, where she discussed her seduction of Sontag. Harriet also starred in Michelle Memran’s documentary on Irene Fornes called “The Rest I Make Up.”

In 2014, Harriet published Abroad: An Expatriate’s Diaries, 1950-59, which were excerpts from her Paris diaries. The diaries are rollicking good fun, with several orgies and the Sontag fistfight, as well as the roots of her simmering feud with Norman Mailer.

 (Harriet in the last decade)

In the 2006 photo-and-text exhibit that was held at Westbeth, the artists’ housing on Bethune Street in the West Village, Harriet was the star.
The exhibit was called “The Last Bohemians” and was to support Edward Field’s memoir, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag. The exhibit included the sexual anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, the writer Elizabeth Pollet, the photographer and anti-war activist Karl Bissinger and actress and experimental theater legend Judith Malina.

Harriet showed up in a maroon bustier, preparing for a night out. The young New Yorker reporter Lauren Collins grabbed on to her and wouldn’t let her go. Harriet was featured in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section, referred to by Collins as a grande horizontale. [An old French term for a courtesan, which would be inappropriate for Harriet.] At the end of the piece, Harriet extolled the virtues of the Corner Bistro’s burgers. A cartoon of Harriet accompanied the piece.

By his forties, Harriet’s son Milo Zwerling had become a successful musician and the leader of the band Milo Z. Eight years ago, he and his wife Tamara had their daughter Sierra. Harriet suddenly had a gorgeous granddaughter she could dote on and love unconditionally.

In the last five years of her life, Harriet was plagued with falls and did several stints in physical rehab facilities after a spine injury. She remained a vibrant sexual being. Several years ago, she published a poem about the number of people she had slept with over the course of her life. She then recorded a video of herself reading the poem.

Harriet also joined a website for cougars, older women looking for younger men. She had a date with a man fifty years her junior. They made out in her beloved red car, but she refused his pleas to come back to her apartment for obvious safety reasons.

In the last several months, Harriet’s health took a turn for the worse. She had several falls and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, winding up in the rehab in the Bronx, then to Mill Basin, Brooklyn, where she died. Deprived of her physical independence, Harriet was still fierce to the end. She gave the poor staff in the Brooklyn rehab hell.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

An Interview with the Greenwich Village Poet and Hellraiser Brigid Murnaghan, Bleecker Street, May 2014

An Interview with the Poet and Hellraiser Brigid Murnaghan on Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, May 2014

By Dylan Foley

(Brigid Murnaghan and her son in Greenwich Village, 1960's)

The poet Brigid Murnaghan was an eternal Greenwich Village rebel in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in 1930, she escaped the Irish Bronx in 1945, couch surfing so she could stay in the Village. Famous for her high-cheekboned beauty and her long legs, Brigid frequented such famous bars like the San Remo, the Kettle of Fish and the White Horse.

Brigid’s poetry was featured in Seymour Krim’s seminal anthology The Beats (1960), she was a subject in the Frank O’Hara’s poem about his time living over a gay bar and  a character in Bill Manville’s “Saloon Society” column in the Village Voice.

Brigid has lived for more than 50 years in the same Greenwich Village walk-up tenement apartment. For years, she ran a poetry slam on Sundays at the Back Fence, a nearby bar on Bleecker Street. During a recent visit in May 2014, the 85-year-old was a  witty interview subject. Though her short-term memory was very hazy, her long term memory was sharp.

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?”

Q. How did you wind up in Greenwich Village?

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
went to the theater together. Later on, Penny became a lesbian, but she wasn’t when we were close. When I hit the Minetta, there were two guys--John O’Malley and Warren Finnerty. He’s an actor. He was in films. He wasn’t then. He was just starting out. “Why stay at the Minetta?” asked Finnerty. “That’s not where the action is. The action is at the San Remo.” They could have taken us to an opium den, for Crissake. I went to the Remo and I was home.

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?

He had a good look about him. He was very into himself. As my mother would say, he was very into himself. As I would say, he thought he shat ice cream. He always had women. I never saw him as a sex symbol, but he was nice and always nice to me. He was younger and wilder.
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.

Q. Did you ever have a straight job?

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.
Q. How did you wind up drinking at the White Horse?

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?

What a fucking waste of time. He was so talented.

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.
De Kooning.
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.

Winnie would take out a tit and stick it in somebody’s face. The woman loved being naked.

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.

Q. Did you ever hang out with the Mailers?

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.”

Friday, October 26, 2018

Al Koblin, Night Bartender and former owner of the Lion’s Head, 1966 to 1984

Al Koblin, Night Bartender and former owner of the Lion’s Head, 1966 to 1984, interviewed by Dylan Foley, January 2009  

The Lion's Head was the fabled Greenwich Village bar that was located on Christopher Street. It was open from 1966 to 1996 and was patronized by such famous New York journalists as Pete Hamill, Dennis Duggan and Jimmy Breslin. The bar witnessed the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and was a headquarters of Norman Mailer's second mayoral bid with Breslin. The bar was famous for its Jewish drunks, Irish lovers and Italian intellectuals.The physical bar later became the Kettle of Fish, the old bohemian bar which moved from another part of the Village. It is now patronized by NYU students.

Al Koblin was a bartender then a half-owner of the Lion's Head from 1966 to 1984.

Al Koblin: I’m from Massachusetts. I got to New York in 1953 when I was in the Army and just stayed there.

Dylan Foley: How did you wind up at the Figaro Café in Greenwich Village?

AK: When I got out of the Army I worked in advertising for years and that sucked. There was a recession, what they called the Eisenhower recession in ‘58 or ‘59. I had started to hang out in Greenwich Village. I took a job as a dishwasher at the Figaro, then made sandwiches and became the manager. I was there for about five years. I did other stuff--off-Broadway. I was a stage manager for a few things. [Editor's note: Cafe Figaro was a famous Village coffee shop on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, which was open from the 1950's to the early aughts.]

I’m not that familiar with the San Remo. That’s where the grown ups went, the big boys, guys a couple of years older than me. They were harder drinkers longer than me and got prettier women than me, and things like that. I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. I was in that in-between Generation. [Editor's note: The San Remo was a mob-owned bar, also on Mcdougal and Bleecker that was colonized by intellectuals and writers.]

There was a woman who used to hang out there named Winnie.

DF: What was the story of Gregory Corso screwing her on the table at the San Remo?

AK: During hours, during some late night bacchannal. Winnie was very heavyset big and fat black woman, famous for having gotten on the 6th Avenue bus and the driver just drove her to Bellevue because she was completely naked. I remember walking into the Kettle of Fish. Winnie was sitting there and took a liking to me. She grabbed me around the waist and started to pull me towards her.  “I’m going to take you home with me.” I saw this woman I knew, who was not my wife. I said, “Not now. I’ve got to go meet my wife.”

Winnie said, “I don’t fuck around with married men,” and let me go. Winnie was actually a lovely person when she was not whacked out of her head. She had a smooth complexion and a lovely singing voice.

DF: Did you drink at the Kettle of Fish?

AK: That was more where I drank than the San Remo. Before I got there, Maxwell Bodenheim drank there. A lot of the guys who drank at that bar worked as furniture movers.

DF: What was the vibe at the Kettle of Fish?

AK: Like at most bars, it was the booze. That’s what the Lion’s Head was like. It wasn’t about wit or literary accomplishment or even getting laid. It was more about booze. The Kettle was like that, a place to hang out. [Dermot McEvoy] calls it Hogan’s Moat.

I started at the Lion’s Head as a bartender for six years, then I was a 50 percent owner for the next 13.

[The Lion's Head] started on Hudson Street. It was owned by Leon Seidel. He took on Wes Joyce as a partner. Leon died. Wes was not a good businessman He had substance-abuse problems that were very expensive. Finally, the place was going to get shut down by the IRS or the state tax police, or something like that.

In 1971, I finally quit being a bartender. I was a month away from turning 40. If I was a bartender at 40, I would be one at 50 or 60. I became Wes’ half partner, then managing partner for 13 years.

It was going to cost me $15,000 for 50 percent. Bartenders in those days kept lots of money in their mattresses because they didn’t have the same tax problems you have now. Now the government mandates a certain amount be held in lieu of tips. In those days, you’d declare what you wanted. You’d lie about it.

Some local guy  lent me $5000 with no vig. [The big is the interest on a street loan from a loan shark.] There were semi-hood guys we knew from the neighborhood. These were petty thieves and minor criminals…one I knew from Figaro was named Mark.

The lease was about to expire 1984 a Jewish mobster’s widow’s rent  that was $1000. It was a 500 percent increase

(Last night at the Lion's Head, 1996 (Chang W. Lee, NYT)

DF: What was the environment like at the Lion’s Head?

AK: I was the first night bartender. We had a little U-shaped, copper-topped bar, with room for one man to turn around in.
We had a pretty empty bar. Very few people came around. The only customers we had that were notable were the Clancy Brothers. They were the first that hung out there.

There was this guy who would come in around midnight, have a few drinks and would leave. He turned out to be a rewrite man for the New York Post, Normand Poirier. One night he said, “I like this place.” Sure enough, Vic Zeigel started to show up, Larry Merchant and Pete Hamill, guys from the Daily News and from the Herald Tribune, like Jim Flanagan, Warren Berry and the Mancini twins. All these newspapermen started showing up, as well as the writer Dave Markson. The agent Knox Berger started coming in. That’s how this whole bunch of people started coming in. Mostly newspapermen, but sometimes David Markson would bring in people like Kurt Vonnegut or Bill Gaddis.

Somebody wanted their book jacket up on the wall, and that started the whole tradition of book jackets up on the wall. By the time I was the owner of the place, people I never saw in the place would come in with a book jacket for the wall. That’s what writers are like.

(Bartender Tommy Butler at the Lion's Head)

Like Freddie Exeley…whenever he was in town, he’d come to the Lion’s Head. He was a terrible drunk. Exeley came in when I was still a bartender. He turned out to be a virulent anti-Semite, and I happened to be Jewish. Freddie couldn’t hold his liquor. He was hostile to people at the bar and to me as the bartender. He said to me once, “Come outside and I’ll whip your skinny Jewish ass.” He was a good friend of Markson’s. [Markson was also Jewish.]

(Denis Duggan, Judy Joice, Pete Hamill, Frank McCourt at a 1996 Barnes and Noble celebration)

DF: Do you remember Anita Steckel and Alice Denham?

AK: You can’t forget Anita. I told Dave Markson that he’s more proud for Alice Denham saying he’s the best stud she ever knew than any of the books he wrote. Mailer came into the Lion’s Head a few times, but he was by no means a regular. There was a great fight…there was another bartender, Mike Riordon, a Boston boy like me[Reardon marries a Jewish woman…most handsome Jew in New York.]
One weekend night, Mike and I were behind the bar. There was this guy named John Culver, this senator from Iowa, came into the bar. Used to be a fullback at Harvard. He was in there and so was Joe Torres and Pete Hamill, and this visiting writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jack McKinney, and Joe Flaherty. These are a bunch of big beefy guys, not that Jose was Irish. For some reason, Culver and Flaherty were getting into a verbal head butting. It was turning into a real mix up, then it started being a punch up. Hamill was in it, Jose was in it. I knew it was serious because Jack McKinney was at the end of the bar. He took his false teeth out, put them on the bar and went to join the fight. Mike Reardon and I were standing behind the bar. We weren’t going to break the thing up. There were 2000-lbs. of beef there. Mike turned to me and said, “Who’s the big guy?” I said, “That’s Culver, the liberal senator from Iowa.  Reardon said, “Liberal? What are the conservatives like out there?”

Like most bar fights, it just broke up. People realize, “I’m going to get hurt if this keeps up.” Most times, people are standing around laughing. That’s enough to break up a fight.

I would see guys, regular customers, come in  to meet a woman at the bar. Their eyeballs would light up. To them, booze was more important than going home with a woman. Instead of just having another drink or two, and saying “Hey Honey, let’s go,” they’d want to hang out ‘til four in the morning. At that time, they’d be useless and the woman would be long gone. What you see at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning is really a phantasmagoria. People who start as Eagle Scouts go into a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.

DF: How do you think drinking  has changed in America since the 1950s?

AK: A lot of the guys like Flaherty and Hamill, they knew they were going to die. That’s what happened to Normand Poirier. Normand became a real heavy drinker. Normand had been told, “Quit or die.” He didn’t  quit, so he died.

DF: What was your view of the poet Joel Oppenheimer?

AK: He was a sad drunk, but everybody loved Joel. He became a very good friend of mine. He was a true alcoholic. He once had a headshrinker tell him, “You are not going to quit drinking, but every time you have a drink, write it down. He had this notebook. He used to drink Heaven Hill bourbon with a beer back, and he’d write it down. It didn’t cut down on his drinking. He finally went on the wagon.

One of the wittiest guys at the Lion’s Head was not a writer. His name was Jack Cullen, from Brooklyn. He worked at Todd Shipyards in Hoboken. One afternoon, a woman came into the bar and asked, “Is this the place that is frequented by writers with drinking problems?” Jack said, “No, ma’am, they are drinkers with writing problems.” This line, I’ll credit to me because it was me. We often had these blue-haired ladies come by from Westchester County who spoke with vaguely British accents.

“What type of clientele comes to your establishment?” she asked.
I looked down the bar and saw Liam Clancy, Tony Mancini and Joel Oppenheimer. You know the old clichés? The drunken Irishman, the Italian lover and the Jewish intellectual. I said, “Ma’am, It’s a strong ethnic mix. We have an Irish lover, an Italian intellectual and a Jewish drunk.”

DF: What was your view of the Clancy brothers?

AK: I never saw a church-going attitude among the Clancy Brothers. Paddy was the best of the Clancy’s, in terms of getting along with people. Tommy could be truculent. Liam made some anti-Zionist comments.  I almost got into a fight with Liam when I asked, “Which side were the Irish on during World War II?”

DF: Did you know Frank McCourt?

He was a quiet, nice guy with a difficult first wife.

My wife used to work at the Bells of Hell for Malachy as a waitress.

When I came to Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, a couple of black guys walking up Sullivan or Thompson Streets, it wasn’t a good idea. The interracial dating made them crazy.

DF: What was the reputation of the bar Romero’s?

AK: A white woman could walk in there with a black guy.
There is a great line about Johnny Romero, who was quite spiffy and had a haughty attitude, and spoke with a cultured accent. There was a black writer who hung out there, Eli Waldron. One day, Johnny walks into his own place and Waldron was there. Somebody looks up and says, “My Johnny, don’t we look continental?” Waldron said, “And we know what continent that is.”

Romero’s was one of those lower-depths places. Next door to the Lion’s Head was the 55. The 55 was truly like something from Shanghai in the 1920s. They had one or two deaths there of methadone overdoses. You’d see all kinds of crazy things happening in the 55. It was the counterpoint to the Lion’s Head, which was a genteel, middle-class, mostly white place. The 55 was the lower depths.

Eve Ensler worked at the Lion’s Head as a waitress. Jessica Lange was the third-best-looking waitress at the Lion’s Head…that was my line. She was a very pretty, quiet girl.

DF: What was Anita Steckel’s place at the bar?
AK: Anita was a pain in the ass. She was loud and flamboyant.
The Lion’s Head was a male chauvinistic place. If a woman went there, they were there to get laid. There were very few women who…

Guys would stand around, and drink and laugh and argue. Women were really supposed to sit primly by and wait for the guy to say, “Okay, let’s go.” It was pretty male chauvinistic. I thought of hiring a woman or a black guy for behind the bar…it wasn’t a good idea.

The bar was not specifically racist. Amiri Baraka would stop by.
[run in with LeRoi Jones…playing ball at the hardtop at Horatio and Hudson Street. Lion’s Head team used to play against the poet-painter-hippie guys. LeRoi was a good ball player…he dove on `the asphalt…he wouldn’t talk to me for months.]

Nick Tosches was a strange guy…we didn’t know he had all those books in him.

The same with Dermot McEvoy. I said this to Dermot. You sat around all these years, sipping your Guinness and not saying a word. What you were doing, you were not supposed to be doing in a bar. You were thinking. You were drinking it all in.

DF:  What keeps a great bar going all these years, a 30-year run?

AK: The myth among bars is that it is the bartender. You see that movie with Tom Cruise, with bartenders doing their shtick? Nah. You could have robots tending bar. It’s the people. You’re there to serve them drinks and to collect the tips. If they’re regular customers, you buy ‘em back a drink and they’ll feel good. We had perhaps the most welcome guy…there was a pilot for Aer Lingus. Dick Quinn was his name. Everybody loved him. He’d play the penny whistle or strum on a guitar. What was great about the place was the mixture of various types. The brits had a word for it, fug. A good pub has a fug going. Often at night in the Lion’s head, you could feel that going. People were standing around and there was a rosy glow. I remember one night, an impromptu singalong started. It was Dick Quinn playing the penny whistle, Liam Clancy playing his guitar and Dave Amram was playing his horn. Then this kid Jerry Rosen, who played violin for the Detroit Symphony, took out his fiddle. You had Irish folksingers, a jazz musician and a symphony fiddle player all doing Irish songs.

DF: Could you tell me about the longshoreman, novelist and political operative Joe Flaherty?

AK: He lived across the courtyard from me on Barrow Street. He was a good guy to have around. He was very funny, very passionate about his beliefs. He was articulate them. He was a good arguer and a horse player, which was a big thing among a bunch of us. Joe was a hale fellow, well met.  He had prostate cancer.

DF: Were you involved in Norman Mailer’s mayoral campaign?

AK: The Lion’s Head was one of the centers of the campaign. [I’d show up at 8am and go to work.]

Bella Abzug. Her campaign manager was Doug Ireland. One day, Doug came into the Lion’s head almost doubled over. “I was having an argument with Bella in a cab and she punched me.” Bella slugged him in the stomach.

Ed Koch didn’t drink. The Village Independent Democrats  were cheap…14 people sitting around and all of them wanting separate check. They were a waitress’s nightmare.

DF: Can you think of any other drinkers at the Lion’s Head?

AK: Wilfred Sheed. He wrote some great criticism. He had a wife who was Southern trash, who thought she was uppercrust. There was also Tom Paxton.