Monday, July 4, 2016

Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

July 4, 2016

On Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth…Deconstructing the Myths of Joe Gould and Joe Mitchell

By Dylan Foley

Less than a year after the Harvard historian and writer Jill Lepore published an epic New Yorker article on the Greenwich Village eccentric and writer Joe Gould and his relationship with the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, she published a book version of the piece called Joe Gould’s Teeth. Getting the slim volume in the mail from the Knopf publicist, I thought it was going to be a lightly buffed up version of the article in book form.

I could not have been more wrong. In Joe Gould’s Teeth, Lepore has written an engrossing portrait of the “last bohemian” writer Joe Gould, who came to New York from the Boston suburbs in the teens of the last century, was part of the counterculture of 1920’s Greenwich Village, then stayed for the next 30 years, as a quirky leftover, cadging money for his Oral History of the World.

Ransacking university libraries and archives around the country, Lepore goes through Joe Gould’s extensive paper trail, letters asking for money, letters showing that he was a willing participant in the eugenics movement of the teens and ‘20’s, letters attacking various writers in New York.

Lepore turns her formidable academic mind to the story of Joe Gould and comes up with a meticulously researched, fluid story of Gould’s turbulent life in New York and Joe Mitchell’s two very different profiles of Gould.

In 1942, Mitchell published his New Yorker profile “Professor Sea Gull,” which created an endearing portrait of a semi-homeless intellectual trying to create a massive oral history, recording the speech of the common man and woman, in all their banal glory. Mitchell’s piece made Gould a Village celebrity. He was given a free meal at the Minetta Tavern (as long as he ordered a cheap pasta) so he could write in the window, showing off a real bohemian to the tourists who came down.

Gould lived off handouts from friends and acquaintances. In Mitchell’s 1942 profile, Gould claimed that he could speak to seagulls, and he lived off a tomato soup he made from hot water and tomato ketchup stolen from diner counters.  He aggressively solicited donations to write this history.

In “Professor Sea Gull,” Mitchell recounts that the proprietor of a 6th Avenue bar named Goody’s would give out free drinks to Gould and the down-and-out poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who hated each other. The two fallen literatis would rip into each other with zestful viciousness for the entertainment of Goody’s patrons.

Mitchell, a failed novelist, whitewashed the story of Joe Gould in the 1942 profile, covering up the fact that he had been arrested numerous times for groping women on the street and had been saved at one point from commitment to a mental hospital by the famed poets e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound, who wrote letters in his support. (Both poets were well-known anti-Semites.)

Lepore also details Joe Gould’s hounding of Augusta Savage, a sculptor from the South who had become one of the major movers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Gould pursued her so relentlessly, implied Lepore, that she left Harlem and became a subsistence farmer near Woodstock, N.Y. Or as Lepore also notes, Savage may have fled Manhattan because she may have been unmasked as an FBI informant, spying on her fellow African-American artists.

(Joseph Mitchell, 1989)
Every young aspiring journalist should read the work of Joseph Mitchell, including his titanic profiles in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, like “The Old House at Home” (the great McSorley’s essay) and “King of the Gypsies.” Raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, Mitchell adopted the manner of a country writer, still enamored by the big city ever since he arrived in 1929.

While Joe Mitchell’s 1942 article “Professor Sea Gull” develops the eccentric bohemian’s striving for the impossible task of an oral history of the world, his posthumous view of Gould in 1964 was a much more searing portrait, revealing Mitchell’s view that the Oral History of the World only existed in Gould’s mind.

Mitchell compared Gould’s failure to write the oral history with his own failure to write a novel on North Carolina he had written in his own mind. Despite having become the New Yorker’s foremost profile writer, he compared himself to Gould by saying, “He is me.”

According to Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, the death of Mitchell’s father and his close friend the New Yorker writer Joe Liebling in 1963 and the intense reporting and writing of “Joe Gould’s Secret” helped plunge Mitchell in a deep depression that made the Gould profile his last published work at the New Yorker. He went to the office for the last three decades of his life and devised several profiles that were never published.

Lepore recounts that after his second profile of Gould, Mitchell received number of letters from friends and benefactors of Joe Gould, including people who had many of Gould’s notebooks in their possession, indicating that a substantial part of the oral history may have existed. Mitchell gave his correspondents the polite brushoff, as his recently released letters archived at the New York Public Library indicate.

Despite Mitchell’s brilliant writing skills, Lepore points out that a posthumous examination of his writing has shown that Mitchell often made up composites of characters to move a story along, and invented characters when it was useful for a piece. The fact-checking rigor of the 1940’s New Yorker were also not as ironbound as those of the modern New Yorker.

One senses towards the end of Lepore’s slim volume on Joe Gould that she is exasperated and by her subject. As she takes down the legend of Gould the genial eccentric, she replaces this with a more toxic view of the man—a serial groper, a man who hounded and undermined the career of a prominent and talented sculptress and who may have destroyed Joseph Mitchell’s ability to write publishable material.

Gould’s end was grim. After a concussion, in the early 1950’s he eventually wound up at Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island. This is where Gould’s story takes a grim turn. The director Dr. Harry Worthing was a gleeful practitioner of lobotomies from 1945 to the mid-1950’s. He published a study of 350 lobotomies performed in his hospital, a procedure often done on rebellious or violent patients. Gould may have been patient case #231.

Though she can’t confirm that Gould was lobotomized, she found a published case study of a 57-year-old man who had physically resisted shock therapy. The lobotomy made the patient more compliant and stopped his prolific letter writing.

Gould died in 1957 at Pilgrim. The director sent out a telegram, asking that his body be claimed. Mitchell, whose original profile of Gould put him on the Greenwich Village map as a bohemian eccentric, was asked to give a eulogy for Gould. He declined, saying that he was going to be out of town. e.e cummings did not attend the memorial service, and the famed editor Malcolm Cowley was a no-show, as well.

The packed service on August 23, 1957 was covered by the fledgling Village Voice. Reporter Dan Balaban wrote that the service, for Gould at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on the Upper East Side was financed by Campbell and the local Village Lions Club president, a Grove Street lawyer who was one of Gould’s long-time benefactors. In his coffin, Gould was neatly arranged looking like a little wax doll, with a trimmed beard and make up covering a famous scar on his forehead. With the more famous friends of Joe Gould like William Saroyan missing, the ceremony was attended by about 80 people, including some surviving bohemians from the 1920s, younger hipsters and members of the Lions Club.

Gould was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, N.Y. According to a Village Voice article from 2000, the grave is still unmarked.  After Gould’s funeral, the Lions Club donated $100 to start a scholarship fund under Joe Gould’s name at NYU. No trace of the scholarship today exists.

Here is the link to Jill Lepore's original article:

Friday, May 27, 2016

Missing Neal Cassady Letter Found! Gerd Stern Cleared of Beat Libel!

The real story behind the long-lost, drug-fuelled ‘Holy Grail’ letter that inspired On The Road

National Post (Canada)


Neal Cassady (left) with fellow Beat figure Jack Keourac. Cassady was a central character in the novel On the Road
Wikimedia Commons Neal Cassady (left) with fellow Beat figure Jack Keourac. Cassady was a central character in the novel On the Road.

Beat movement figure Gerd Stern carried the blame for 60 years for losing a 16,000-word typewritten letter, about to go up for auction, that inspired the revolutionary style of Jack Kerouac’s celebrated novel, On the Road.

The 1950 drug-fuelled letter, written by Beat legend Neal Cassady and valued at more than $500,000, was thrown overboard on Stern’s California houseboat.

Or at least that’s the story Kerouac told the press.

“It appeared in various literary journals and it was annoying,” says Stern, now 87.

“I never thought that I had destroyed it.”

Gerd Stern / The Beat Museum
Gerd Stern / The Beat Museum Stern in 1963. The Beat figure was blamed for over 60 years for losing Cassady's letter

Stern, a poet and artist who was connected to the writers known as the Beat Generation, was finally vindicated in 2012 when the long-lost letter was found in the home of a man unconnected to both Kerouac and Stern.

“The reason they are so interested in the letter is that it’s one of the few remaining artifacts that has been brooded about for all those years,” Stern said.

Christie’s recently announced the letter will be up for auction on June 16 in New York and estimates its value between $523,500 and $785,250.

Christie's / AP
Christie's / AP16,000-word typewritten letter from Cassady to Kerouac was thought to be lost for over 60 years

Cassady’s 18-page letter to Kerouac describes a drunken and sexually charged visit to his hometown of Denver, Colorado. The honest and fluid nature of the single-spaced, double-sided document directly influenced Kerouac’s prose.

“I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names in his case, however (being letters),” Kerouac told the Paris Review in 1968.

“I got the flash from his style.”

The novel-esque letter, known as the Joan Anderson Letter for its description of a brief romantic encounter with a woman, was apparently completed during a three-day writing binge while Cassady was high on Benzedrine.

“He was a speed freak,” Stern said of Cassady.

Kerouac told the Paris Review he passed the exceptional letter on to friend and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who then loaned it to Stern. Kerouac believed Stern lost the letter over the side of his boat, forever gone at sea.

“Allen shouldn’t have been so careless with it, nor the guy on the houseboat,” Kerouac told the Paris Review.

Tom Palumbo / Handout
Tom Palumbo / Handout Kerouac's writing style was directly influenced by the letter's honest and fluid nature.

But Stern says the story was a lie conjured up by Ginsberg.

“It was Allen’s conclusion. Allen was mischievous,” Stern said.

Ginsberg had mailed the letter to Golden Goose Press in San Francisco, with the hopes of getting it published. Instead, it sat unopened — buried among other unread submissions — until the publishing house closed down. It was about to be thrown out, until an operator of a music label, who shared an office with the publisher, took all the archived documents home with him. His daughter, Jean Spinosa, uncovered the letter while cleaning out her late father’s house in 2012.

Spinosa, a Los Angeles performance artist, took the letter to Joe Maddalena, owner of auction house Profiles in History, to authenticate it.
It’s just as significant as the original scroll version of Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road
“I wasn’t terribly impressed with it when I read it; it’s about an affair that Neal had, and no one has ever been able to identify who the woman was,” Stern said of the letter.

“He had quite a few affairs.”

Jerry Cimino, founder and director of the Beat Museum in San Fransisco, said the letter is “literally the holy grail of the Beat Generation.”

“We’ve all been hearing about this thing for 60 years, and it was considered lost, it was considered destroyed, and nobody really ever read the whole thing,” Cimino said.

“It’s just as significant as the original scroll version of Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road.”
AFPThe original scroll manuscript of Kerouac's On The Road. The scroll was bought for US$2.4 million by James Irsay in 2001

The letter was first put up for auction in 2014, but was taken off after both Cassady and Kerouac’s estates claimed ownership. The estates have since reached an amicable settlement, allowing the letter to once again go on the market.

Cassady’s influence on Kerouac and Ginsberg was perhaps his biggest contribution to the Beat movement, said Gord Beveridge, literary expert and professor at the University of Winnipeg.

“He was a muse. Allen Ginsberg refers to Cassady as ‘the hero of On the Road’,” he said.
On the Road character Dean Moriarty was based on Cassady, who died in 1968. Cassady’s travels with Beat figures including Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs was the basis of Kerouac’s 1957 novel.

“He is certainly important with his relationships to the Beat writers, but even at the end, he and Kerouac did not get on at all,” Beveridge said.

“They had nothing much to say to each other when they met again just before Kerouac died.”
Being such a critical document to Beat scholars and literary lovers, Cimino said he hopes the letter will eventually be on public display. Cimino has even spoken to a few potential donors about raising enough money to purchase the letter for the museum.

“We would love to have it here…. This is the type of thing people ought to visit.” Cimino said.
But despite the letter saga, Stern continued to be a part of the Beat scene and knew Allen for the rest of his life.

“I wasn’t fond of either Jack or Neal. I was a little bit fonder of Allen.”

Stern said he will be attending the auction in June. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Patti Bown, Singer and Pianist. The Long-Form Interview

Patti Bown, Pianist and Singer, died in 2008 at 76.

Patti Bown was a native of Seattle and began playing the piano when she was two years old. Bown attended the University of Seattle on a music scholarship. She moved to New York in the mid-1950’s. In her distinguished career as a pianist and singer, she had played with many of the greats, from Dinah Washington to Quincy Jones. In 1958, Bown came out with her album “Patti Bown Plays Big Piano”(Columbia). The next year, she traveled through Europe, performing with Quincy Jones’ orchestra. She returned to the United States to work on the Sammy Davis Jr. musical “Free and Easy,” which failed to make it to Broadway.

In the early 1960s, Bown worked for the singer Sarah Vaughn as her musical arranger. She played piano in thr orchestra pits of Broadway musicals and wrote music for film and TV.  Bown moved into Westbeth, the artists’ colony in the West Village in 1973.

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 myself and the photographer hostage for three hours as she did her make up and moved at a glacial speed. She wanted the company.

Patti Bown died in March 2008, in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, far from her beloved Village. Here's an excerpt from our 2005 interview

My dream was to be here in New York. My mother didn’t want me to be in the nightclubs.                                                                                                    
I was the youngest of six girls.. We all had perfect pitch.  We could hear anything and play it. I made up my mind that I couldn’t do it in Seattle. I had to do it in New York.

I came here in 1954 or ’55. It takes a while for the union to let me play. I had these weird jobs. These old guys would book me into nightclubs where old businessmen would try to grab me, I’d slug them and be out of work.

Dinah Washington and I never had a rehearsal together. We went to Asbury Park. She called me. She used to call her Chrysler the Blue Beetle. “The Blue Beetle is coming to pick you up and we are going to Asbury Park.” She talked in the car. She sang and my perfect pitch told me what key she wanted. Quincy called her and told her I was in New York.

Quincy Jones grew up partially in Seattle. There’s a documentary called “In the Pocket.” I’m in there. Crazy things happen.

Patti Bown's record, 1958

Word spread fast. This very nice Jewish guy from the Bronx said that he was going to turn me on to Columbia Records. They had signed a lot of black artists, like Aretha Franklin, but didn’t promote any of them.

When I was with Quincy’s band in Europe, we had two hit records. I came back to New York to work at the Village Vanguard.

I played in Birdland. Steve Allen and all these famous people were there. I got a standing ovation. Word spread that there’s a gal from Seattle, Washington, who can play her butt off.

I got a call from Mary Lou Williams. You want a job?” she said. She called Joe Wells of the Wells Restaurant in Harlem and I got a job with Count Basie. He had a club uptown. I got a call one night. “This is Lil Armstrong. I understand you’re hot. I got Katherine Basie here with me. We’re taking a cab from St. Albans to Harlem. You better be hot tonight, sister.” I’ve never been scared. I started playing as a small child. You learn how to concentrate on what you are doing and not trying to impress the audience or having phony motivations. It comes from your heart.

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. He never gave me a reason. Goodman’s musical director called me and said, “You sure can play, but he won’t hire you. He has some complex about chicks. He thinks they draw too much attention.” Some more wicky wacky prejudice.

When I first moved here, my dream was to live uptown. My dream was to play jazz in Harlem.. I was grateful for the many jobs I was offered, which I couldn’t take., because I had a son who was ill. I came home one night and found him in a pool of blood.

Q. How old was your son when he passed away?

Why do you want to know? You’re an age freak. I don’t want to go into that..

Q. What was the jazz scene like in the 1950’s and ‘60’s?

It was popping. Everywhere you looked, there was someone. I walked into some place and there were so many outstanding people.

The word spread that I could play and I could sing , and that I was a nut and I entertained 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 want you.”

I left my job, thinking we would start in a week. It took a year.

His manager Rory Alexander offered me my own TV show on Channel 13. I was excited, but when I spoke to the sponsors, they wanted me to explain jazz in their context, not mine. I realized I couldn’t do that.  I knew the show was going to fail. They thought because they had the money, they could dictate the show. Another girl took it and it folded in a week.

I lived on Christopher Street. I met a lady in a nightclub. I rented space from her on Christopher Street. It was ’58 or ’59.

Q. What were the important jazz clubs?

The Blue Note was on West 3rd. I met Thelonius Monk and Charlie Rouse. Sometimes when they would finish work, they would pop in on me. Thelonius said that he was going to try to get me work at the Five Spot, but they didn’t hire you unless you had a record. I didn’t have a record. It was very hard to get work as a female. Most men didn’t trust that a woman could play strong.

I did some record work. It wasn’t the greatest. I went to one place and the guy said, “I thought you were Patrick Bown.” “Well, I am Patti Bown. You are losing hundreds of dollars a minute. Give me a shot.” When I played, he said, “I’ve been looking for you. I’ve got a lot of work for you.” It was hard for the average woman to get decent work. I got really frustrated at one point. When Quincy said that he was forming his band, I thought, “Something’s going to pop with this.”

Q. How long did you play with Quincy Jones?

I worked with Quincy from 1959 to ’60. We were living in Paris. We came back because we were doing a show with Sammy Davis, “Free and Easy,” that was supposed to go to Broadway. We nicknamed it “Freaking Greasy.” Crazy musicians. The guy who was the producer never collected the money. He announced one day that the tour was over.

We got into Europe. We did a few interesting things. We toured with Nat King Cole. He was very arrogant. One night I played with the band and got a standing ovation. I told Quincy one night that some of the guys in the band started to hate me because you gave me these piano solos.” Quincy told me, “Don’t tell me how to run my band. Do you know what you do? You’re a female and when you go out and start to platy, you cook, so those guys have to play.”

Q. How did you make ends meet?

 I was freelancing. I never knew what was coming up. Sometimes the word would spread that I could play and I’d get a gig someplace. I felt bad because I really wanted things to happen. Many of these people you’d see in little places wouldn’t help you.

There was Thad Jones, the trumpet player. I sat in with him . He dropped out.  It was only me and Sonny Payne.

Dizzy Gilespie gave me a few gigs in New York.

I had an apartment further down in the Village, when I came home from Europe with Quincy’s band. I was living on Morton Street. I lucked out on the apartment. Some places down here wouldn’t rent to me because I am black. There was a coterie of people who wanted to keep the Village Italian. I met a super sweeping in front of a building. I asked if there were any apartments available. He said there was one, but I probably wouldn’t like it. “The woman who had the apartment was over 100 when she died.  The walls were painted black.” I said, “I’m black. I can handle it.” He laughed.

The apartment had a fireplace and shutters. I had a friend build up the fireplace so I could look into it. A lot of people came to my funky apartment—Sarah Vaughn, Tennessee Williams. I had a big thick carpet on the floor. I spackled the ceiling and spray painted it. It looked like a cafe. The rent was $75 a moth. There was a tub in the kitchen and no heat.

I came to Westbeth in 1972. I was invited by the board of directors to live here.

Westbeth had a lot of problems in the beginning. They used unlicensed labor. I had an architect friend of mine come by. He told me the wiring was messed up in the basement. He told me all the problems. Do you still want to live here? he asked. I said yes, it was the right place. I trusted my instinct. When I heard all the artists were going to be here, I got really excited.

Q. How has the Village changed in your time here?

Commercially, the Village is trying to aim to the people with the big bucks. It doesn’t have much love for us artists. Many of us don’t have millions of dollars. In the beginning, the management was crooked. Many of the people who live here are not artists. Some people who got in here have no artistic talent whatsoever—they can’t paint, they can’t play piano, but they paid off somebody. Some people rent their studios out to other people.

I wrote a song for this building when it opened. I had a 10-piece band. I believed in this place. It went askew. I felt so bad. I used to participate in the community, but it killed my spirit.

Q. When did the Village stop being hospitable to artists?

They commercialized the Village. It became a lot of hippes and freaks and the whole character of the place changed. The artists still wanted to live here.  I always wanted to live in the Village.

If you notice, wherever the artists go, other people want to come. The artists take a bad neighborhood and bring it up. The next moment, the rents go up.

Q. Financially, could you have stayed in the West Village without Westbeth?

 I think I would have been able to get by. I was born with my million dollars. When I discovered music, my whole body lit up. I found something in my life. I used to see people in Seattle, going to jobs they hated because they had to pay the rent. I felt so fortunate. 

One of my mother’s best friends was Marion Anderson. She’d call up and go, “Green, what’s in the pot?” She knew that blacks couldn’t stay at the hotels in Seattle. She would come and my mother and her would pig out. My mother would send us upstairs. Me and my sister would watch these women eat all this food with their fingers. I was about four years old.  I asked, “Why is it that Marion Anderson can eat chicken with her fingers and I can’t?” My mother said, “Because she’s Marion Anderson and I’m your mother. Go upstairs.” On Saturday nights, my mother cooked up a lot of food. My father made dandelion wine. One room would be the dancers. Another room would be the painters. Another room would be the musicians. Everybody just kind of took over the house. We had a party that lasted. They knew this was really the only place where they could get down with people in their profession.

Now, with myself not being able to walk. I had three different car accidents. I was playing a private Japanese club, a geisha girls club. I fell off a moveable stair. I liked to wear a gown. I had people in my band. I used to bow, then gracefully walked down the stairs. This night, the stairs weren’t there. I fell about 35 feet. I really hurt everything. Sometimes you can’t prophesize how things are going to go.

I still believe in this building. I just hope it doesn’t go down.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

An Interview with Anita Steckel, a controversial feminist artist, who used erotica to challenge and mock the patriarchy.

 (Diane Arbus, 1971)
 The feminist artist Anita Steckel was born in Brooklyn in 1930, the daughter of Russian immigrants. She was educated at the High School of Music and Art and Cooper Union.

When she was a teenager, she rented a loft on University Place in Greenwich Village, where she held salons. At the age of 19 in 1949, she dated Marlon Brando, who was then performing on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In the Village, Steckel hung out at the San Remo Café, on Bleecker and MacDougal. She would sell sketches for a dollar for drinks, spending time with the dissolute poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who would recite fragments of poems for shots of whiskey. She was also befriended by Anatole Broyard, who wrote about her crew of young hipsters in his essay “A Portrait of the Hipster” in the Partisan Review.

Steckel started exhibiting as a painter in the early 1960s. Her first project to get major attention was a series of drawings called “Giant Women,’ which showed giant nude women climbing through the iconic skyscrapers of New York, including one woman who was impaled on a spire.

In the early 1970s, Steckel moved into the Westbeth Home for the Arts, the artists’ colony in Bethune Street, near the Hudson River. She was befriended by her neighbor, the photographer Diane Arbus. Before she killed herself, Arbus took gorgeous photographs of Steckel.

In 1973, Steckel was up for a job in the art department of Rockland Community College and was warned to remove all sexual items she had in the exhibit. She added more sexual artworks in response and caused a media firestorm. Needless to say, Steckel did not get the job.

During the rockland controversy, Steckel broke out with a feminist manifesto on art. In biting satire, she mocked the predominantly male curators refusal to allow images of erect penises in their museums.
If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women,” wrote Steckel in March 1973. “And if the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women then it is more than wholesome enough to go into the greatest art museums.”
For 26 years, Steckel taught at the Art Students League. As a drinker and as a lover, she hung out at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street, famous for the journalists and novelists, like Pete Hamill and David Markson, who drank there. Steckel also frequented the 55 Bar, two doors down, famous as an interracial pick up joint with an anything goes atmosphere, where bathroom stalls were often occupied by two people.

Steckel continued with the provocative artwork. She moved on to photo collages. When I met her in 2008, the project she was working on consisted of euphoric women water skiers in a line, with the face of George W. Bush pasted to their groin areas.

I first interviewed Steckel at her cluttered Westbeth live-work studio, where a hammock took up a large chunk of the room. We met a second time at the Bus Stop restaurant off Abingdon Square near Westbeth, where Steckel took most of her meals for the last decade of her life.

Anita Steckel died at the age of 82 in 2012.

Here is my interview:

Q. How did you meet Marlon Brando?

A. I met him through (the folk singer) Dave Van Ronk. My relationship with Brando never leaves my life. People are always interested in that.

Q. At your loft on East 10th Street, did you run a salon in the 1940s?

A. That was a big part of the bohemian scene. Mark Connelly, the playwright, went there. He wrote “Green Pastures.” Brando brought people there because it was such an extraordinary place. The Katherine Dunham Dance School would come and dance, playing congos.

Q. You  were friendly with Anatole Broyard in the 1940’s. What was he like?

With the mambo, it was the same thing. Anatole was always a little outside. He was a delightful person. He wanted to be an insider, but he wasn’t.

Q. You knew Diane Arbus at Westbeth?

A. I have a series of photographs, 10” x 14”, taken by Diane. She was a fan of my work. She came to some of my shows. She was trying out a new lens. She gave me the contacts and negatives.

Q. Where did you socialize in the Village?

A. I drank at the 55 and the Lion’s Head. Dennis Duggan (the late newspaper columnist) thought I was some ideal of the female species. The group at the Lion’s Head was wonderful. It was Irish and it was journalists. We partied outside the bar. We became a family outside of the bar. I was going through some very hard times. For about seven years, I was drinking heavily. Being with the Irish during those times was the most wonderful thing, the way they look at hard times. Somebody dies, and of course they will be sad, but then they have a party. They have a wonderful sense of life. Frank McCourt was the main one.

The Lion’s Head wasn’t the most enlightened place. They had bartenders that were very rude to the women. I was a very strong person. I didn’t go for being attacked. It didn’t stop me from being with people I wanted to be with. Women who came into the bar often felt that they were being mistreated.

Q. Were the women treated like meat?

A. No. That would have been nice. That was the 55.

Q. Was the 55 a dating bar?

A. The word “date” was a little fancier than what went on. It was an interracial bar. That was its big thing. People would come down there.

Q. How did you become involved in making photo collages?

A. Did you ever hear of Ray Johnson? He was a very close friend of mine. We had a friend in common named Bill Wilson. He wrote about Ray and collected his work. In 1962, Bill sent me four sepia photographs. The photos saddened me, so I started painting on them, changing the reality here and there. I started laughing. I had a show of those collages in the Hacker Gallery in 1963.

I became heavily involved with the feminist art movement.

Censorship issues? I was completely uninhibited, so the work I did was completely uninhibited. In the late 1960s, the women’s movement was very prescient. I was aware that I was a painter, but then I became aware I was a woman painter. My work became gender identified. Previously, women did not want their work to be gender identified. If someone said, “You work like a woman,” that was an insult.

I had a show at the Rockland Community College. They tried to close the show. This was the early 1970s. One of the teachers called me and said, “If you want a job here, you better take anything sexual out of the show.” That threw me into a tizzy. It became clear to me that I could not censor the show, for it became clear to me that I would find myself censoring myself in the future. That’s the worst thing I could do as an artist.. I brought in everything I had that was sexual to the show. I went in fighting. I also brought a paper that was about censorship.

The next morning, I was awakened by a radio show.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Alice Denham, Novelist and Sexual Adventurer, RIP, January 27, 2016, Aged 89

My friend Alice Denham died on January 27, 2016 at the age of 89. She was a Playboy centerfold, novelist and sexual adventurer, pursuing some of the biggest writers of the 1950's and 1960's, including Philip Roth and James Jones. (The married Joseph Heller would only make out, no sex.)

I interviewed Alice in 2009. She was a charming Southern belle, very honest and witty about her dating past.  She could also be steely. When I mentioned that her ex-lover Ted Hoagland had wrote a derogatory description of her in his own memoir, she noted that he never brought women to orgasm because his erections were never fully hard, like a piece of asparagus.

Alice was a Playboy centerfold in 1956, and had a short story published in the same issue. She had sex with Hugh Hefner and said that he was technically proficient, but more like a metronome than a lover.

 In Alice's memoir "Sleeping with the Bad Boys," she noted that her relationship with Playboy ended when the magazine's ad executives tried to pimp her out to their major advertisers. When Alice Denham refused to be used, the magazine cut her off.

--Dylan Foley


Alice Denham, Who Kissed and Told About Literary New York, Dies at 89

Alice Denham in 1962. Credit Peter Basch/Cardoza Publishing
Alice Denham, a writer and former Playboy centerfold who left a vivid chronicle of her literary and sexual adventures in her 2006 memoir, “Sleeping With Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties,” died on Jan. 27 at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.

The cause was complications of ovarian cancer, her husband, John Mueller, said.
Ms. Denham came to New York in the early 1950s, fresh from the University of Rochester, with two things on her mind: literary fame and romance. The city held forth the promise of both, in abundance. “New York in the fifties was like Paris in the twenties,” she wrote in her memoir.

A stunning beauty with a talent for repartee, she made her way easily into Manhattan’s literary salons, and her presence did not pass unnoticed by a long list of editors, publishers, film producers, actors and writers — most of whom made a play for her, quite a few successfully.

“Manhattan was a river of men flowing past my door, and when I was thirsty, I drank,” she wrote.
Her conquests, she said, included the actor James Dean, a close friend until he fell hard for the Italian actress Pier Angeli; the authors James Jones, William Gaddis, Evan S. Connell and Philip Roth; and Hugh Hefner, whom she had persuaded, in a clever gambit, to feature her as a centerfold and reprint, as part of the package, her first published short story.

“Of course he was no egalitarian,” Ms. Denham wrote. “But he possessed one of the finer male characteristics I was aware of: He liked my writing.”

She counted among her many friends Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal and the painter Ad Reinhardt. “As a proper Southern girl, I was bred to be good at men,” she wrote. “I was, too.”

Alice Denham was born on Jan. 21, 1927, in Jacksonville, Fla. Her father, a stockbroker, lost everything in the Wall Street crash and moved the family to Coral Gables, Fla., where he found work as a property manager for a large company. In 1940 he was hired by the Federal Housing Administration, and the family moved to a Washington suburb, Chevy Chase, Md.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1949 she won a scholarship to the University of Rochester, where she earned a master’s degree in English the following year, writing her thesis on T. S. Eliot’s plays.

Ms. Denham headed immediately to New York, where, through an actress friend, she met James Dean. “This Jimmy boy looked like an adolescent, like my kid brother, with surprising maturity and great swaths of infantile petulance,” she wrote. She gave him high marks as a lover.

Ms. Denham plunged into the bohemian life. She modeled by day, posing at camera clubs and doing photo shoots for romance and detective magazines, paperback covers, comic strips and movie posters. For a spread in True Adventures magazine, “Girl Gun Runners of Saigon,” she posed as four different Vietnamese women holding an array of weapons as they took position on a ridge.

Always, she wrote. In 1955, Discovery, a well-regarded literary magazine edited by Vance Bourjaily, published her story “The Deal,” about a young woman, an aspiring artist in Las Vegas, who agrees to sleep with an aged gambler for $1,000. The story, she wrote, “ made me a novice artist among artists, I hoped, not a mere model.”

Years of struggle followed. Playboy, after reprinting “The Deal,” with an illustration by Leroy Neiman, in the July 1956 issue that included her centerfold, rejected two more of her stories, informing her in a letter that it did not intend to have any more women’s bylines.

While she searched in vain for a publisher for her first novel, about the love affair between an artist and a composer in New York, she wrote jacket copy for publishers, acted in films with titles like “Olga’s House of Shame” and modeled at industrial shows, appearing as Miss Minute Maid in 1957 and 1958.

Socially, her dance card was full. “Every month I had a mad new crush, a fabulous new romance,” she wrote.

Her novel, “My Darling From the Lions,” eventually came out in 1967, attracting little attention. She had asked her many writer friends to contribute a blurb. None did.

Ms. Denham later wrote the novel “Amo” (1974), about a feminist centerfold who has a fantasy life on another planet, and “Secrets of San Miguel” (2013), a tell-all chronicle of the expatriate artistic community in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which she visited for many years.

Ms. Denham’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, she is survived by a brother, John, and a sister, Leila Starke.

“Sexual friendships taught me politics, race, class, countries, temperaments, occupations, all useful for a novelist,” she wrote of her heyday playing the literary field. “But that wasn’t my motive.”
“Sex,” she added, “was my great adventure.”