Thursday, March 5, 2015

An Interview with the Novelist David Markson, July 2007

An Interview with the Novelist David Markson, July 5, 2007
David Markson was a novelist who moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s and spent the last six decades of his life there. He was friends and drinking companions with Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac and many other literary figures.
Markson’s books included The Ballad of Dingus McGee, Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Epitaph for a Dead Beat. After many years of being a revered cult novelist, Markson had a late-life literary renaissance, gaining wider  attention with his last several novels, including The Last  Novel and Reader’s Block.
With his dark good looks, Markson was also a famous Village Romeo. In the early 1950's, while his friends like Michael Harrington (America’s last great socialist) and Clement Greenberg (the powerful art critic for The Nation and the Partisan Review) were in the back room of the White Horse arguing politics, Markson was in the front room picking up women. From the 1960's onward, he drank at the Lion’s Head, a famed journalist’s bar on Christopher Street with the likes of Pete Hamill, the novelist Frederick Exley, the Clancy Brothers (known at the time as the “Irish Beatles”) and Frank McCourt, who was just a schoolteacher then.
Markson died in the Village at the age of 82 in 2010.
In July 2007, we spoke at Markson’s rent-stabilized apartment in the West Village. In our meeting three years before his death, he was still a good-looking man. With his high cheekbones, corona of white hair and his sensual lips, I could see the outline of the old 1950's ladykiller.

David Markson

Q. How did you wind up going to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street?
Everybody went to the White Horse. I'm one of the few people, possibly the only one, who was taken there by Dylan Thomas in 1952. He did a reading, I chatted with him and I asked him he'd like to have a drink. He met us at the West End Bar, up by Columbia. We had a pleasant evening. Afterwards, I asked him if I could give him a shout, and he said, "Sure, call me at the Chelsea.”  When I came down there with several friends, he said, "Let's go to the Horse." I didn't know what he was talking about. It was the White Horse. A few times, we went elsewhere and wound up there. Eventually, I began to spend time there by myself. I made up a list of White Horse regulars. I'll read it to you.

There's Dylan, of course.
Michael Harrington,  author of The Other America, which taught the Kennedys about poverty.
--Will Barrett, the philosopher used to come in. What's that book about the existential philosophers? The Irrational Man.
--Nick Pileggi drank there for a few years.
--Greg Corso was always there. He was a pain in the ass. One night, he was screaming at a part-time bartender named Kevin Rooney. "I'm a poet. I'm life. You're an editor. You're death." Kevin vaulted over the bar and dove at him, shoved him through the door and threw him to the sidewalk. Kevin was literally hammering Corso's head on the concrete.  I was nearest. I threw myself at Kevin, knocked him off, grabbed Gregory and pushed him to the corner, and said, "Asshole. Stay away for a day or two." Kevin Rooney, not that much later, actually killed himself. That's the kind of temper he had. He was ready to kill Gregory.

Gregory was that way. I'd be at a table with a woman, and he'd say, "I'm a poet. We have orgasms. You people don't have orgasms." He hadn't written anything yet.
At the White Horse, there was also
--Kevin Sullivan, an academic, who wrote a very good book about Joyce called Joyce Among the Jesuits.
--Fred McDarrah, the Voice photographer
Pat Moynihan, before he was a senator.
Will Geer, an actor. Marcus Bewley, Clem [Greenberg], Bewley and I would go to Bewley's apartment a few blocks away and play the I-Ching 'til four in the morning, to tell our future.

The Novelist William Gaddis and David Markson in the 1960s

Q. What was the scene like at the White Horse?

When Dylan was there, people would stand around staring. One night we came back (to the bar). He had done a reading. I'd made a date to meet him with a girl I was going with who he hadn't met yet. Oscar Williams, the old anthologist, had introduced him at the reading, which was at the old theater on Commerce Street. We strolled into the bar together and pulled a few tables together. There was only one backroom then. I became aware that people were just staring at us. It became damn clear after a while when you are that much the object of people's attention. I remember sitting alone with him at the bar, bullshitting. I did him a favor once. I got him a reading. He was only getting $100 at the time. Remember the economy in 1952. It was $100 plus expenses. I knew somebody up at Skidmore that I called. When he came back, he wouldn't let me buy a drink for a week.

I remember he was angry about something. We were sitting at the bar. I was drinking a beer. He was drinking boilermakers, as he frequently did. We talked about problems at length. Nobody bothered us. He was like another customer.

Q. What was your relationship with Dylan Thomas?

A. He[Dylan] was the first poet I ever knew. I was in correspondence at the time with Malcolm Lowry, who later became a very close friend. [It helped that] I was able to mention that. Everybody in England knows each other. They drink in the same three saloons. That gave me an entre. It was at most a dozen nights together. We never corresponded. I can't tell you how famous or infamous he was. His reputation has faded to some extent, I gather. Hugh Kenner was already dismissing him 20 years ago. He was so popular then. I discovered him in college. He was my favorite living poet. There was a certain honesty in my desire to be with him.

I never saw him recite at the bar. It was casual conversation. He was quick witted. He once said something like "So and So and his wife don't have enough wits to run a hen farm." Sometimes I would meet him with a couple of friends. It would be like any other conversation.

Caitlin was there a few times. She's get pissed off because people were paying more attention to him than to her. One day, we were at the table in the back. She took out a cigarette and nobody noticed her. She said, "Would one of you satellites give me a light?" On a different night, I noticed that she had been gone from the table for a while. I said, "Dylan, hasn't she been in the ladies room for a long time?" "Oh, David, she's in the saloon across the street because she's pissed off that she's being ignored." She gave as well as she got. Dylan said, "Do me a favor and go buy her a beer and bring her back. She'll be less angry if you show up than if I do." He was right. She was in whatever the nearest bar was. I said Dylan was sorry or whatever I said. She cursed, but she came back.

You'd walk in on a Friday or a Saturday night and it would be eight deep at the bar because Dylan was there.

One night after he died, somebody walked in and yelled, "So this is where they buried Dylan Thomas?” The bartender said, "Throw the guy out."

It was mobbed after he was dead. It became a shrine.

Q. I heard the back room was for talking and the front room was for pick ups?

The owner's son once said to me, "God damn it, David, I'm facing the door and your back is to the door. Every time a beautiful woman walks in, even before I've noticed her, you've moved next to her at the bar."

Michael Harrington and I talked about it years later. "You were in the back room talking politics," I told him. So was Clem Greenberg. Clem might have been a public intellectual, but in the saloon, Clem Greenberg was just a guy having a beer.

I was always in the front, looking for women. You are who you are. If your interest is politics, you sit and talk with your friends about that. You did have a sense, though, that there were a lot of young people who wanted to be writers and talked about it.  They went to the White Horse because it was a writers' center. One guy was going to be "the world's greatest novelist." I've forgotten his name. He died young, and he published one book at two o'clock on a Tuesday that was forgotten by 2:07 p.m. I liked Chandler Brossard better than Anatole [Broyard], for Chandler worked for a living.

Everybody would occasionally walk into the San Remo for a drink, but I didn't know the crowd there. You'd go if you were in another place and somebody would say, "Let's go."

I was in the San Remo when a very minor writer was sitting there and said, "Holy Shit...Jim Agee just died." I had been talking with him on a street corner two days before. It's a strange thing. The newspaper said he died in a taxi. We had been talking at either 6th Avenue and Washington or Waverley, and after a while, he said "David, I've got to run. I've got to get to the doctor.” He went in a taxi cab. I think it was a day or two earlier.

Q. Did you notice changes in 1950s sexual culture?

I'm the only person in New York who gets laid in Dan Wakefield's book New York in the Fifties. I said to him, I don't understand what the bullshit was about a sexual revolution in the 1960s. When I was in the Village in the 1950s, in a phrase, everybody fucked. If you were talking to a woman who was mature or sophisticated enough to come in alone or with friends, if you walked out together, it was understood that you were going to bed. It must have been the deeply entrenched, middle-class people who felt so little freedom. I told Dan, "Everybody was doing it."

One night, I was at a bar at Columbia. It was the night of the Kentucky Derby. The beer we were drinking for 15 cents a glass. I get into an argument with this Columbia football player who was a friend. Who could get laid the most?

What time was the Derby? Five or six o'clock. Who could get laid the most times between then and midnight? I won 3 to 2. The minute the bet was made, he walked over to one girl and I walked over to someone else. There was no rule over not sleeping with someone who you had been to bed with before. I came back in a couple of hours and found someone else. About 10pm, I was with this young woman in what was probably a one-room apartment. There was a banging at the door. "David, emergency!" I realized they wanted me back. "I don't know what it is," I said.  I got dressed and said good night to the woman.  They said, "He's with another woman. Get back there.” This was 1951.

In December of 1947, I was 20 years old.  Elaine and I split 25 years ago. I moved in here. I was going with someone else. This place is rent stabilized. I live on very little money. I just got an award from the American Academy for $7500. I panicked that it would affect my rent subsidy. My rent would jump permanently by $200 a month.

Q. Do you think that the sexual revolution started in the 1950s?

I went to Union College in Schenectedy. We went to Skidmore all the time. Skidmore girls were screwing the late 1940s, early 1950s. I didn't understand what this sexual revolution was about. It's no news that a good-looking woman gets around. It depends on what circle you move around in. Look at Alice Denham's book Sleeping with the Bad Boys. Look at all the writers she's been with. She was a writer herself. She was the only Playboy playmate centerfold who had her own short story in the same issue of the magazine. The story wasn't there because she was taking off her clothes. It was a reprint. It had been in print elsewhere.
In the '20s or '30s, people were screwing, but because of the mores, they didn't talk about it. Don't you think in the Jazz Age that Scott and Zelda were screwing before they got married?

Q. How did you support yourself?

I had a couple of editorial jobs. I worked at Dell Books. I worked as an editor at Lyons books. It is now defunct, but I worked at a place called Magazine Management. A number of good writers worked there. Bruce Jay Friedman worked there. Mario Puzo worked there. You worked in a place like that, who are the friends of these people? Somebody had a party. "You know my friend Joe Heller?" He was working in public relations. Everybody was sleeping with everybody. I never understood that "sexual revolution."
Before he wrote Catch-22, Joe Heller was a "writer." When Elaine and I came back from Mexico, people told us, "Joe's just finished his book." It sounds exotic, but dentists know dentists, stockbrokers know stockbrokers. Writers get to know writers. A lot of them aren't really writers. Nothing is really going to happen for them.

Q. Was there food at the White Horse?

They didn't have hamburgers then. One of the reasons Thomas liked it, I've heard, was that the bar looked like an English pub. They had hard-boiled eggs. The old man who owned it was German. He lived upstairs. His wife Frieda would make meatloaf. She'd bring down this good meatloaf, solid as a rock. You could get a slice of meatloaf and hardboiled eggs. If you wanted a hamburger, we'd go to a place on 10th Street. It's still there. I think it's gay…Julius’. Thomas knew the Village well enough. There were two Julius'. He startled me once when we were going for hamburgers and he said "Let's go to the good Julius'."
Q. How did you start going to the Lion’s Head?
I was drinking a little in the bar next door, the 55. This great bartender, the ultimate Village dropout Malcolm Raphael, who had a law degree and a masters in anthropology, and he was tending bar. One day he sent me next door. “The poet John Lofgren really likes your work,” he said. He described him and I went to talk to him. That would have been it, but the next day, somebody else dragged me in. Who was there but Pete Hamill and another writer that I knew. I started drinking there and was locked in until it closed. That was 25 years. I was there all day, every day. You are a writer and alone. Even if you are married with kids, you are still alone. The kids are at school, the wife is at work. Any time of day or night, there would be intelligent, sensitive and creative people do talk to. The last few years, I wasn’t drinking at the bar, but I ate there so much. I figured I’d paid my dues. I’d stand at the bar and I didn’t have to fake it with a club soda. Two days before it closed…naturally I was there the last night and the next morning…I walked in the back room and Rod Steiger was there. Where else would you find something like that?  You’d walk into the bar and there would be half the journalists in New York. The New York Post was a good liberal paper before this Murdoch guy got it. All those guys. The Voice, which I don’t read anymore, was good and active and was right next door.

I made a long list [of the Lion’s Head regulars].
--Pete Hamill,. He was the center. He’s awfully bright. He quit drinking after a few years.
--Rupert Sheed. Some people thought he was an important writer. He had a column in the Sunday Times book section. He wrote novels.
--Fred Exley. I brought Exley into the Lion’s Head. He’d get the New Yorker and just live in there.
-Joe Flaherty, who was the house wit.
--Mike Harrington. He was a big socialist, but moved to the country to get better schools.
--the only non-writer, the high school teacher Frank McCourt.
--the American Indian spokesman Vine Deloria who wrote Custer Died for your Sins. He never spent a night in New York without spending it at the Lion's Head.
--Ted Hoagland, Edward Hoagland. I knew his second wife very well.
--Richard Price. The novelist used to come in in the afternoon in the later years.
--Derrick Mahon--the great Irish poet. Some people think he's better than Seamus Heaney
--William Kennedy
--John Leo, who was the only non-liberal in the bar.
--Rod Steiger
--The writer Nick Tosches. I asked Dennis Duggan if he'd ever spoke to Nick Tosches. He said he sat at the front of the bar, with his back to the window. "Everytime I came in, we nodded hello, and that was it. We nodded hello, but we never spoke."
--Jack Neufeld.
--Malcolm Brawley, the novelist. One of his books was just reissued. (On the Yard.)
--Jim Bounton, who wrote Ball Four, which is probably the most popular baseball novel ever. Jim would be in the backroom. People would eat in the backroom, and sit and order drinks. It's a different mentality. You stand at the bar and talk to everyone. You go in the backroom and you sit and talk with your friends. The good-looking women were in the bar.
--French-horn player David Amram, a major figure in the music community.
--Lawrence Ritter, who wrote The Glory of Their Time, which some people think was a great baseball book.
--Vic Ziegel
--Sidney Zion, he was a Times columnist.
Mike McAlary, the Daily News columnist. Every third day, on the cover of the News there would be a 1920s scoop by McAlary. He wore out shoe leather... He was always there.
--Dennis Duggan, the Newsday columnist.
[During the big anti-war march in Washington…] It was on a peace bus. I knew the guy who punched Dennis out. I'm visualizing the guy. He was a tough guy, who'd been a rodeo rider. They'd picked up the Lion's Head contingent. All these guys were drunk. These guys were singing and Dennis was making noise. Finally, he punched Dennis out.

You know that Jessica Lange  and Eve Ensler were waitresses there.
The actor Jack Ward used  to come in.
--Ed Sanders, the writer. He was a member of The Fugs. He was a good poet and died young. [NOTE: ED SANDERS IS STILL ALIVE]
----Al Koblin --was part owner of the Lion's Head. He'll talk to you forever, unless he's in a rotten mood.
--Barry Murphy--he''s a friend of mine who drank there all the time. He's a fancy carpenter.

Q. How did you wind up in the Village?

I came down here in 1951, but then I lost my apartment.. When Elaine and I got married in 1956, we weren't going to live anywhere but the Village. We lived on 11th Street. We lived in Mexico for three years, then we were back on 11th Street. We had kids and we were in Europe for a year and a half. Then we came back and got that place on West 4th Street. It as called 39 1/2 Washington Square South, but it really could have been a West 4th Street address. Except for three years in Mexico and a year and a half in Europe, it has always been the Village.

When Elaine and I got married, we were looking for an apartment. We stayed at a place called the Hotel Earle, on the northern edge of the park. We had a one-bedroom with a dining room. I swear to God, we paid $97 a month. Cigarettes cost 17 cents, coffee cost a nickel. Robert Rauschenberg offered his landlord two pieces of art in lieu of $15 rent. His landlord said no.

The woman I went out with after I broke up with Elaine, the painter Joan Seney, got into SoHo early. One night, she took a cab to Spring Street and Mercer. The cab driver said, "Lady, I am not going to let you out here."

I don't know if it would have closed if somebody wise was running it. Wes and Judy were spending money like crazy.. They had their kids in the best schools. They had a fancy boat. Everybody went to that saloon. Nobody could believe that it was closing.

Q. What is your own history with alcohol?

I just drank too much. A lot of drinkers have the same story.. One morning, I said, "I'm not going to have a drink 'til noontime. By 8 am, I grabbed the nearest bottle. I finally said, "That's it." I quit. No A.A. No nothing. That was right before Elaine and I broke up. After a couple of years, I had a glass of wine. With one exception, I haven't had hard liquor in more than 20 years.
I don’t  do the bars anymore. I was a real drinker. A quart [of vodka] a day was nothing. As a lot of alcoholics do, I had excessive tolerance. I wrote a volume of literary criticism and I was drinking from 8 in the morning…I didn’t mix up Schopenhauer and Spinoza. I’d walk into the Lion’s Head at 5 o’clock and everybody was just off work, buying each other drinks. People didn’t know that I had been drinking steadily all day. When I lived with Elaine in Mexico, I had a wobbly table. I cut a hole in it that deep, a quarter-inch, to rest the glass in for when the table wobbled all day long. Down there, it happened to be rum, which was cheap, so I wouldn’t spill it. My son said to me recently, “Gee, Dad, it wasn’t until I left home that I learned that not everybody had a glass of vodka in their hand at 8 in the morning.

Q. What was the quality of the pick ups at the Lion Head?

Women came in, yeah. There were romances. The women who came in were relatively sophisticated.
--Everybody was there. It’s shocking and sad that no one has done a book on it. I tried to persuade Denis Duggan to do a book on it. He was thinking about it, but he was doing a column and he was a little old. He couldn’t see putting all that time into it.

The San Remo was there when I was in the bars. Remember, I started in these places before the Lion’s Head. I was there for the first time after it closed a few months ago An Irish friend, Joe Kennedy, was in town. We had to do an event on John McGahern. It‘s over. I said, “Where do you want to go?” He said, “I‘d like to see that Lion‘s Head, to see what‘s become of it.” We walk down there. It is physically exactly the same, except the picture and book covers are not on the wall. And the graffiti is pretty low grade in the bathroom. The average age was 19. It was 8 dollars for a glass of beer, and they have a guy at the door checking IDs. Joe and I looked like a couple of narcotics cops.

The list of the dead is getting longer.