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 controlled 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.