Friday, December 14, 2012

Lauren Collins' New Yorker Piece on "The Last Bohemians" 2006 Photo Exhibit


Last Bohemians

by March 13, 2006

“My life’s an open book,” Harriet Sohmers Zwerling declared the other night. She was wearing a maroon bustier and Pharaonic blond bangs, and was leaning on a cane. Zwerling, the writer and grande horizontale, has been a sort of den mother—she would get smashed and have everyone over for lima beans—to five decades of Greenwich Village misfits. Recently, she appeared in a documentary, “Still Doing It,” about sex and older women. “Every time it’s shown, I get e-mail from young guys who want to get it on with me,” she said. “Which is wonderful. I’m seventy-seven fucking years old.”

Zwerling was in the gallery at Westbeth, the artists’ complex on Bethune Street, at a party for the opening of an exhibit of photographs, “The Last Bohemians,” and the publication of her friend Edward Field’s new memoir, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag.” The book is every bit as gossipy an accounting of lives, his own and others’, as its title suggests. (The Man, by the way, was the critic Alfred Chester.) Few of Field’s cohorts were offended by his dredging up of youthful indiscretions. If profligacy has been their social imperative, its moral corollary is unflinching tolerance. They seemed highly entertained, and even a little proud.

“In those days, I lived in a former coalbin, which I shared with Jean Garrigue, on Ninth Street,” Stanley Moss, the poet and art dealer, said. “If I went to bed before four o’clock in the morning, I thought I was doing something awful.” He went over to say hello to Field, who was sitting behind a table, set with a few books and a cigar box for contributions. “We met,” Field said, “because a friend was having an affair with a guy who was married to a woman Stanley had had an affair with.”

“A wonderful thing about Edward,” Karl Bissinger, a ninety-one-year-old resident of Westbeth, said. “He had a friend that he lived with. The friend left him and, just after, went blind. Edward is still taking care of him after all these years.” Bissinger, a fashion photographer who abandoned his career during the Vietnam War to help draftees escape to Canada, was referring to Field’s partner of forty years, Neil Derrick. “I’m very glad to see you,” Bissinger said, turning to a sweaty, hulking man in a “Poetry at Gunpoint” T-shirt who had flecks of fried egg in his wiry white beard.

Bissinger and the man, Ira Cohen—star-stream poet, shaman, mythographer, ex-publisher of the exorcist journal Gnaoua, bat-eater—shook hands and talked for a while. Cohen began to reminisce. “I’ve known Edward since the sixties,” he said. “I met him and Neil in Tangier many years ago. We liked to smoke and hang around and enjoy the Socco Chico, the little square in Tangier. It was full of policemen, hustlers, smugglers, rich ladies. Those were the slapstick Beckettian dog days. I’ve also lived in Kathmandu and San Francisco. They all have a similar magic center of vibration.”
Field, at the table, continued to greet well-wishers. He regarded one of them, a trim Creole man in a suit and sweater, with amazement. “That was Basil Browne,” he said. “He was in my Greek class at N.Y.U. in 1946.” Field and Derrick live on the third floor of Westbeth; their close friend the anthropologist and rumored cannibal Tobias Schneebaum, to whom the exhibit was dedicated, lived on the fourth. He died in September. His apartment is being kept intact until the Met can catalogue his collection of Asmat artifacts. “I’m watering Tobias’s plants,” Field said. “I met him at Yaddo in 1955. He was a painter before he became an explorer of the jungles of the world.

“This is Ana Maria Vandellos,” he went on, grabbing a dignified woman by the arm. “She’s the only straight woman in the group.” (Vandellos, it turns out, was once married to Stanley Moss.) Field pointed to a photograph on the wall. “That was the two of us in 1951, at a party for a play based on a Christopher Isherwood book.” The picture showed a jaunty Field, leaning in on Vandellos, who was smoking a cigarette and holding a tumbler.

Across the room, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling was finishing a plastic cup of red wine. A woman approached and let Zwerling know that she and her friend were leaving.
(Harriet in Paris in the 1950's)

“We want to have a hamburger at the Corner Bistro,” she said.

“It’s so crowded,” Zwerling said. “We’re going to Philip Marie. It’s not gourmet, but they have very nice drinks. The Bistro is all college kids now. It’s not very interesting,” she said. And that was the end of it.

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