Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Dudley Williams was raised in Harlem and the Bronx. He danced for May O’Donnell and Martha Graham before he joined Alvin Ailey’s first standing company in 1964. Williams performed with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for more than four decades.

In high school, I danced for May O’Donnell. She was the first person who ever paid me for dancing--$5 for carfare. I quit dancing for a year. My mother would complain. “Get a job!” she’d say. I got a job at Macy’s. Shipping and receiving. It was around Christmas time. I don’t think those kids ever got their packages.

I was a student at Julliard for two years. In 1960, Martha Graham came to teach a masters class. After class, she invited me to her studio. I had a scholarship. I cleaned mirrors and I took classes. After a year, I was in the company.

In ‘61, I saw Alvin Ailey perform in Central Park. I said, “That’s what I want to do. It is now, it is of the time.” Alvin was always of the moment, where Graham was way, way yesteryear.

I joined Alvin’s company is 1964. Alvin paid $75 a week. I still have the receipts. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink. That was a fortune in 1964. That was the beginning of Alvin’s company. He had a company before, but it was Alvin calling up dancers and saying, “Hello? Can you dance with me? See you at rehearsal.”

We were busy trying to make our own groove. Alvin Ailey and his dancers were trying to make their mark. We went to London and Paris and made our mark. It was a mixed company and the subject matter that Alvin choreographed in “Blues Suite” and “Revelations” were things about the black experience.

We weren’t unionized. Alvin could get what he wanted out of us. We rehearsed until we dropped. We were all for it. Alvin gave us a stage to perform on. We took it, no matter how long we had to rehearse or perform.

Neil Derrick, novelist, 80

The writer Neil Derrick was raised in California. Under the pen name Bruce Elliot, he published “The Potency Clinic” and other novels. In 1970, Derrick had a brain tumor removed and lost much of his sight. With his partner Edward Field, he wrote the novel “The Villagers” in 1980. Field and Derrick have been together for 52 years.

(Photo: Neil Derrick (l) and his partner Edward Field)

I came to New York in the summer of 1956. I was fresh out of one semester of graduate school at Berkeley and fresh out of the Army. I was interested in being a writer and I was interested in being in New York.

(Neil Derrick in Venice, 1962)

I had a job at MoMA. Another guy who worked there wanted to be a writer, too. He stopped by my desk with the name of a publishing company that I don’t think exists anymore. They didn’t call it soft-core porn then. They called it porno. They were looking for treatments of porno novels, paying a $1500 flat fee for books. That was a lot of money in the 1960s. I sent them a silly idea and they accepted it. It was a book called “Up and Coming,” which was published in 1969. Then there was “Sticky Fingers,” about a girl growing up to be the mistress of the President. I tried to write hard-core sex scenes, but I couldn’t do it. I started writing crazy sex scenes and I really enjoyed it. I quit my job at the museum. I had dreams of moving from porno to something better. Then my operation took place.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

PATTI BOWN, singer and pianist, died in 2008 at 76.

I interviewed Patti Bown in her apartment several years before she died. Ms. Bown had been crippled by several accidents and when I met her, she was bedridden and had a full-time home-care attendant who was coached to answer the phone, "Miss Bown's residence." The apartment was stuffed with boxes and Ms. Bown regaled me with a loop of stories from her bed, tooting her own achievements as a pianist and jazz singer and her battles with racism and sexism in the music world.
I met a second Patti Bown when I came back with the photographer to take her portrait for the exhibit. She was gleefully nasty, telling the same stories and keeping me basically hostage for three hours as she did her make up and moved at a glacial speed. She wanted the company.

Patti Bown was a native of Seattle and has been playing the piano since she was two years old. In her distinguished career as a pianist and singer, she had played with many of the greats, from Dinah Washington to Quincy Jones. Bown moved into Westbeth in 1973.

Here's an excerpt from our 2005 interview:

I was the youngest of six girls, We all had perfect pitch. My mother didn’t want me to be in nightclubs. I made my mind up that I couldn’t do it in Seattle, that I had to come to New York. I came here in 1955 or ‘56. I had these weird jobs. These guys would book me into nightclubs where old businessmen would try to grab me. I’d slug them and be out of a job.

Word spread fast that I could play and I could sing, and that I was a nut and could entertain people. When Quincy Jones found out that I was in New York, he called and I went to his house for dinner. He said, I’m forming a band and I want you to be the pianist. I was with Quincy’s band in Europe in ‘59 and ‘60. We had two hit records.

It was hard for a woman to get a job, A lot of men wouldn’t hire a woman. That was a serious, hard thing for me. I knew I could play. They said Benny Goodman was looking for a pianist. I went down there. The people auditioning me clapped like crazy, but he wouldn’t hire me. Goodman’s musical director said, “You sure can play, but he won’t hire you. He’s got some kind of complex about chicks. He thinks they draw too much attention.” Some wicky wacky prejudice.

KARL BISSINGER, photographer and antiwar activist, died at age 94

I had the profound honor of interviewing Karl Bissinger in the spring of 1995. He had recently suffered a series of strokes, but I caught him when his mind was sharp and the stories he told as both a photographer and legendary antiwar activist were brilliant. By the time I had the opening for the photo exhibit I produced at the Westbeth Gallery, Karl had lost his mind. His loving daughter-in-law gently took him through the exhibit. He was a great artist and a gentleman.

When Bissinger died in November 2008 at the age of 94, he received numerous international obituaries that discussed his wonderful career. Interestingly, the big New York Times obituary by William Grimes shoved Karl back in the posthumous closet, not mentioning his 42-year love affair with the artist Dick Hanley.

Bissinger was one of the top American fashion photographers of the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Bissinger gave up his brilliant career to become a prominent activist against the Vietnam War, helping American soldiers escape to Canada. Bissinger lived in one of Westbeth’s graceful penthouses. His book “The Luminous Years,” which collects his 1940s and ‘50s photographs of actors, writers and celebrities, was published in 2003.

Here is an excerpt from our interview:

I was born outside Cincinnati in 1914. On one side, my family was Irish, basically illiterate. On the other side, they were from Germany. They owned a candy factory. I was raised in this strange family. That is what made me a radical. As I grew up, I became a red.

I came to New York, not only because I wanted to be an artist and to get out of Cincinnati, but I wanted to practice radical politics, which I couldn’t do in Cincinnati.

I was at the Art Students League. I wanted to be a painter, but it was the Depression and no one was going to buy anything. I was bisexual back then and moved in a gay circle. Everybody at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, all the men, were gay. You couldn’t make a living as a photographer unless you shot fashion. I met Dick Avedon and we became friends as kids.

Along the way, Dick Hanley and I found each other. He was an artist. We lived together for 42 years.

The Vietnam War really changed me. I was working with the Living Theatre and they did a lot of anti-draft work. I started doing draft counseling. It wasn’t that photography was not rewarding. I became obsessed with what my government was doing. As a white male, I was outraged that I was part of it, whether I wanted to be or not. I became a pacifist and I still am a pacifist. Mainly, I wanted to help soldiers desert. Our job was to get them into Canada. It was an underground railroad.

(Karl Bissinger portrait of Tennessee Williams)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

JOHN DOBBS, painter, age 79

John Dobbs was raised in Boston and Washington. He taught at the Brooklyn Museum and John Jay College. Dobbs and his wife Anne raised two sons at Westbeth.

After the army, I came back to New York City in 1954. The art scene in the mid-1950s was changing with the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock and the Cedar Street Tavern crowd. I wasn’t taken by the Abstract Expressionists. I was brought up in a different way. I was a figurative painter and went after the figurative painters. A lot of my contemporaries thought I was crazy, that figurative painting was dying. I didn’t care for the new thing. I thought it was a bunch of ink spots painted by space cadets. In a sense, I picked the losing side. Non-objective art didn’t interest me at all. I don’t like the word “abstract.” Non-objective art means there is no reference to anything but the inner voice. Somebody once said that the inner voice is easy to fake. Objective art you can’t fake.

The older figurative painters were glad to see me because the younger painters were going off in a different direction. I made friends with them and they still had a lot of clout. They gave me a lot of assistance and helped me get my first shows.

We lived in France for much of the sixties. In ‘72, I got a job at John Jay College. I taught painting and drawing there until 1996. It took very little time and paid a lot of money.

By 1960, I was attracting private collectors. I started showing at the ACA Gallery in 1965. I’ve sold a lot of paintings. Success to me was whether my paintings were any good, from my own opinion.

I work from ideas and feelings. Since 9-11, I feel the country has been out of whack. Our country has lost its way. Everything we talk about has a false feeling. We are on a tightrope and we are out of balance.

I was opposed to Westbeth at the beginning. I thought it was a bad idea separating the artists from the rest of the people. Artists are a lot better off if they don’t hang out together. However, the rents were right at the time. I was 39 when we moved in. We had two small sons. We met interesting people and made friends that we still have. They expected more turnover with Westbeth, for people who became successful to move out. But to move where?

Edward Hopper painted three or four paintings a year, sometimes less. No gallery would be interested in him today. Some successful artists go into production mode. You have to be able to supply galleries with 100 paintings a year. Also, the galleries are not too happy with changes. I always got in trouble. I’d have a show that would sell out, then two years later, I’d have another show with different, new work. The gallery owner would say, “This is not what you did before.” I’d say, “I did that before. I am doing this now.”

Barbara Garson, Playwright, 70

Barbara Garson was raised in Brooklyn. She went to Berkeley and was a leader in the Free Speech Movement. In 1966, she wrote the anti-war satirical play “MacBird,” which became a nationwide sensation. Garson came back to New York in 1973 and a few years later moved into Westbeth. She has written five plays and three books.

The last bohemians will go out with the last rent control apartments. Every apartment you can afford in New York City has a struggle attached to it.

When I was in high school, the bohemian life in the Village was already a style, a fashion. In ‘62, I went to California. For me, it was 10 years of writing plays and political activity. Then due to our activities, like the Free Speech Movement, it became Haight-Ashbury. What we thought was about life became about lifestyle, hippies with long blonde hair and a stylized way of being free. The Greenwich Village bohemia was much deeper and lasted much longer.

I sold 205,000 copies of “MacBird” and Grove Press sold about 300,000 copies. It was selling at 95 cents and 75 cents. I didn’t become rich. The secret of my success was that I didn’t do anything. People were banging down my door. Oh my god, I was against the cult of personality. I couldn’t waste my time being Barbara Garson. I ran away as far as I could in the political sphere. I went to work at a G.I. coffeehouse, an anti-war coffeehouse, in Tacoma, Washington. The idea was to be away from the world where I was Barbara Garson.

Near Westbeth in the 1970s, there were the trucks where people went to have sex, there were the queers, male prostitutes dressed up as women, in the Meatpacking District. Mind you, that made it completely safe. There were gay guys and their customers. None of them were interested in me.

This building hasn’t produced a density of artists who are critical and supportive of each others’ work. I don’t know why Westbeth never took off as an artists’ community. There are good artists here, but the community part never took off.

I didn’t capitalize on my success. I regret it in only one way. I have a great new play and I don’t even have a play agent.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tobias Schneebaum Interview, New York Observer

This interview was the first time I met the magnificent Tobias Schneebaum, the sexual anthropologist, who lived in Westbeth. I was introduced to Tobias by Laurie Shapiro, half of the horrid brother-and-sister duo who made the clunky 2000 documentary "Keep the River on Your Right" about Tobias. Fortunately, Tobias' brilliant life overcame the amateurish filmmaking of the Shapiros.
Tobias and I remained friends until he died in 2005. It was a friendship that helped change my life and started me on the road to making "The Last Bohemians."

New York Observer
Nov. 2, 1999

Literati Ex-Cannibal on Film

By Dylan Foley

"Who is the cannibal?" boomed the announcer of a 1969 episode of the game show "To Tell the Truth." "Shy Tobias is the cannibal!"

Tobias Schneebaum, a painter, fixture on New York’s literary scene and probably New York’s only gay, Jewish ex-cannibal is about to re-emerge after three decades of obscurity in a new documentary film. Mr. Schneebaum first burst into the 1960s limelight with his memoir, Keep the River on Your Right, which detailed his experiences living and eating with a cannibal tribe in Peru in the mid-1950s.

Mr. Schneebaum went to Peru on a Fulbright to study painting. Instead of painting, he walked into the Amazon jungle and hooked up with a cannibal tribe. Several months into his stay, his hosts took him out on a raid on another village, killed some men and ate them, making Mr. Schneebaum eat some flesh as well.

In the 1970s, he would go to New Guinea, studying the sex lives of ex-cannibals and sleeping with them. He lived in uncharted and dangerous areas where a decade before Michael Rockefeller may have been killed and eaten.

During the same period he traveled to Peru and New Guinea, Mr. Schneebaum developed friendships with New York’s literary figures, socializing with Norman and Adele Mailer and Hortense Calisher in the 1950s, and the novelist Allan Gurganus and playwright Craig Lucas in the 1980s.

"I was supposed to be the rabbi," said Mr. Schneebaum, 76, with a rueful smile for his religious upbringing on the Lower East Side. He is a handsome, modest man with heavy-lidded eyes and thin white hair. His small West Village apartment is sunny and full of intricately carved shields from the Asmat tribesmen of New Guinea.

"It took me years to exorcise what happened in Peru," said Mr. Schneebaum. Even 45 years later, his answers are conflicted. "I felt coerced...I wasn’t, but I felt I was. They wanted me to take part and I did," he said, with an unblinking gaze. "I was kind of in a dream-like state. I wasn’t quite sure where I was or if it was real." The cannibal incident sent him into a deep depression and he returned to New York.

After 30 years of lecturing and writing about the cultural and sexual practices of "so -called primitive men," Mr. Schneebaum is about to be rediscovered. This fall, a brother-sister directing team are trying to put him back in the public eye by bringing him back to Peru and New Guinea to shoot a documentary of his life, with the working title, "I Was a Cannibal."

"Tobias went to the heart of darkness two or three times, going to places that no white men had gone before," said David Shapiro, a 34-year-old artist and video editor, who is directing the documentary with his sister Laurie, a 32-year-old novelist.

"The Schneebaum project started five years ago when David Shapiro found a bag of books in an East Village garbage can, among them being the Peru memoir. Mr. Shapiro read the book. "Where else would this guy be living but New York?" said Shapiro. He found Mr. Schneebaum’s phone number and called him. The Shapiros then bought the rights to his Peru memoir and life story. They start filming in the barely charted jungles of New Guinea in October.

Life Among the Cannibals

The book caused a storm when it came out in the late 1960s, but it was only one milestone in his career. Mr. Schneebaum went on to write about the sexual practices of tribesmen from Afghanistan to Malaysia, many times having sexual encounters himself. He finally focused on New Guinea, where he has visited and worked for 25 years.

In New Guinea, Mr. Schneebaum lived in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of the island, staying in the jungle with the Asmat tribesmen, recently Christianized ex-cannibals and headhunters. He catalogued their shields and other carvings, and helped set up a museum for Asmat culture. "He’s a maverick anthropologist and a respected expert on the Asmat," said Laurie Shapiro. "He knows as much, if not more about the Asmat than anyone."

Michael Rockefeller Not on Menu

"I always write about myself in relation to other people," said Mr. Schneebaum. His sexual experiences with the Asmat men are detailed in his 1988 memoir, Where the Spirits Dwell (Grove). He also wrote about the lifetime homoerotic bonds between Asmat men and now-banned practices like wife swapping.

"I wish I had a good answer about why I push myself to go so far, but I don’t," said Mr. Schneebaum. "Maybe I am trying to commit suicide," he said laughing.

When making the initial contact with the Asmat, Mr. Schneebaum would go into the jungle naked except for his sneakers to prove his peaceful intentions. "When I was with people who were naked, I would go naked." He admitted that he had to make culinary concessions. "I have to bring peanut butter into the jungle with me because I have trouble eating sago," which are pancakes made from palm trees.

Michael Rockefeller had disappeared in that area in 1961 while studying and collecting the intricate Asmat carvings. Mr. Schneebaum had lived with the same tribe, the Otsjenep, who had claimed to have eaten Rockefeller.

"The Otsjenep said they killed and ate him," said Mr. Schneebaum. "They were such good actors," he said with a chuckle. "It is a big deal to kill a white person." A local bishop had said the Asmat would not have eaten him -- they believe his flesh is too powerful and would kill anyone who ate it. Based on accounts he heard from other Asmat, Mr. Schneebaum believes that Rockefeller drowned when his boat flipped over.

Mr. Schneebaum gave a brief tour of his New Guinea skulls, which are on his bookshelf. Some were gifts and some he’d traded for axes and tobacco with the nicotine-addicted Asmat. "These are literally their ancestors," said Mr. Schneebaum, explaining that the Asmat men often used their own fathers’ skulls as pillows. "They may have eaten the brain out of this one," he said, noting the side of the skull had been chipped off.

Mr. Schneebaum’s writings on the Asmat have not made him a wealthy man. For the past 20 years, however, he has supported himself and his trips to the Asmat by giving lectures on luxury cruises that go to New Guinea. "The cruises are for very rich people," he said. "I had one of the astronauts and Mick Jagger. Jagger told me that he’d read my books.

"The Asmat way of life has been destroyed by outsiders, tourists going in," he said. "I am as guilty as the rest. Now they want canned sardines and sneakers. Who am I to say what is good for them?"

The cannibal tribes of Peru fared much worse. In the late 1950s, the Brazilian government gave planes and bombs to highways contractors. The cannibals were then blown off the face of the earth.

Mr. Schneebaum’s travels have slowed down a bit after three painful hip operations. He has just returned from the summer up at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in Saratoga, New York, where he worked on another New Guinea memoir.

Loving the Wildman of Borneo

The roots of Mr. Schneebaum’s sexual interest in primitive men extend to his New York childhood. "Toby went to Coney Island when he was a kid and fell in love with the Wildman of Borneo at the sideshow," said Edward Field, a respected West Village poet and friend of Mr. Schneebaum’s for 45 years. "I think he was looking to discover what felt natural in sex."

"He felt homely as a child," said Neil Derrick, the novelist and a neighbor of Mr. Schneebaum’s for two decades. "The tribesmen looked at him in a different way. But he had to draw the line at eating stuff."

The documentary will delve into his life in 1950s New York. "When I first met Tobias, he was so graceful...it was like he was moving through water," said Field, who met Mr. Schneebaum at Yaddo, the writing colony in Saratoga, New York. "Back then, you didn’t write about being gay or Jewish."

Field spoke of a whirling social scene, parties with older poets like John Ashbury and ascending ones like Frank O’Hara. Downtown, gays could be open about their sexuality, but uptown with the publishing crowd, gays were in the closet. "May Swenson had two parties -- one for her straight, uptown friends and another for her gay friends," said Field.

Mr. Schneebaum had studied painting at the Brooklyn Museum after he graduated from City College. He financed his trips to Latin America and other areas by silkscreening Christmas cards at the Tiber Press, which was owned by the painter Floriano Vecchi.

"This group loved success," said Mr. Vecchi, of the social scene, which included Norman and Adele Mailer, the poet James Schuyler and the painter Grace Hartigan. "People were having their paintings bought by museums, their stories bought by The New Yorker."

"Tobias was a bit of a loner because he was always away traveling," said Vecchi, "but he was the most honest, outspoken person I’d ever met. "Mr.Vecchi also employed a young Andy Warhol, who he said he taught how to make silk-screening prints.

At one point, Mr. Schneebaum was harassed by the FBI for being gay. "It wasn’t only the Communists they were after," said Mr. Field. "They would harass homosexuals and artists, too."

Through the 1950s, Mr. Schneebaum lived on East 2nd Street, next door to Norman Mailer and his second wife Adele. "I remember one night, Toby called us at 2 a.m. and woke us up," said Adele Mailer. " He wanted Norman to come over and tend to a dead mouse under the radiator. ‘I just can’t possibly deal with it,’ he said."

Mentoring the Next Generation

The Schneebaum documentary will also focus on his experiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mentoring the next generation of artists. "Tobias would have these dinner parties that would attract great thinkers, a combination of well-known older artists and promising, attractive people," said the novelist Allan Gurganus, the author of Plays Well With Others. Parties would mix novelists Hortense Calisher and Curtis Harnacker with the younger generation -- Craig Lucas, writer Mona Simpson and the artist Melissa Meyer.

As the AIDS epidemic ripped through New York, Mr. Schneebaum was at the hospital ministering to dying gay men. "He literally spent most of every day at St. Vincent’s looking after people -- bringing milkshakes or dealing with a family in the Philippines. He did not count the cost to himself. He saw it as a tribal responsibility."

Mr. Gurganus ascribed mystical qualities to Mr. Schneebaum. "If you would ever meet a genuine shaman, it would be Toby." He recounted when Mr. Schneebaum went into the hospital for a series of excruciatingly painful hip operations, he turned away the pain medication. "It hurt his powers of concentration and he couldn’t communicate with those who visited.

"Toby was once told by his father that he was one of the ugliest human beings ever born," said Gurganus. "To be told that can either make or break you. I think for Toby, this is why his heart goes out for those on the margins of society."

Malarial and Hollywood Infestations

Mr. Schneebaum has been criticized by other anthropologists for sleeping with his subjects, saying he lacked the scientific objectivity. "Critics of Toby say his work is not on a scholarly plain," said David Shapiro, "but here we have the experts in their Banana Republic clothes as distanced observers, versus Toby who is having first-hand experience naked with the natives."

The Shapiros and their small documentary film crew will travel to New Guinea with Mr. Schneebaum and film him while he lectures on a luxury cruise by Zeagrahm Expeditions out of Seattle. They will go ashore with him in the Asmat jungle, searching for the tribes Mr. Schneebaum has lived with before. This will be the first time Mr. Schneebaum will have been in the jungle since the early 1990s and he will be conducting research on Asmat shields and sexual practices.

The harsh conditions of Irian Jaya will present formidable obstacles to the Shapiros their film crew and their equipment. "In the area we are going in, there is a 50 percent infection rate for malaria," said Laurie Shapiro. "Our filming is dependant on the tides of the rivers," said David Shapiro. "It will be a logistical hell."

Besides the malaria they face, the Shapiros have experienced the serious barrier of Hollywood in getting Mr. Schneebaum on film. As first-time filmmakers, David and Laurie Shapiro wrote a screenplay of Mr. Schneebaum’s life. Milcho Manchevski, the director of the Balkan drama, "Before the Rain," expressed strong interest in the project. Funding for the film was set up, then quickly yanked. "To look at it in crass Hollywood terms, this might only be seen as a film about a gay cannibal."

"The reality of the market really hit us in the face," said Laurie Shapiro. "We’d really struggled hand-to-mouth to keep this project alive." Now, the documentary is being produced through Lifer Films, the Shapiros’ company. "It will be an independent production with money from private investors," she said.

"With everything that happened to Toby," said David Shapiro, "people in the 1950s were not ready for him. People still might not be ready for him."