Monday, June 18, 2018

Vincent Livelli: A Greenwich Village Ladies’ Man Speaks of the 1940’s, Anatole Broyard and Sheri Martinelli

Vince Livelli in 2014

An interview with Dylan Foley
Vincent Livelli is 98 now. The hale Italian American was immersed in the bohemian scene st the San Remo in the 1940’s. He eventually left his native Village in 1948 to travel the world on cruise ships as a cruise director. He still delights in recounting stories of his many romances and sexual conquests, comparing his body count to Casanova’s.
Though he was not a literati like his friends Anatole Broyard, Milton Klonsky and William Gaddis, Livelli still had a keen eye on the vibrant intellectual culture, the parties and the bar scene of Greenwich Village.
The two interviews took place in the summer of 2008 at his apartment on Perry Street. I also interviewed him a third time in 2014, at a restaurant near his home.

Vince Livelli was born in Greenwich Village in 1920, where his family owned an apartment building on Sullivan Street. In 1938, Livelli enrolled in Brooklyn College. There he met Anatole Broyard in the cafeteria. Both men dropped out of college that year.
At that time, Livelli introduced Broyard to the San Remo Café on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, a bar patronized by local Italians and owned by the Mafia-connected Santini family.
Livelli and Broyard reconnected after the war in 1945 and lived as roommates in a railroad flat on West 4th Street. Broyard founded a small bookstore on Cornelia Street, and Livelli gave Broyard $1,000 from a wealthy patron to buy stock.
Broyard was a Village Romeo, with both his friends and enemies believing he could pick up any woman he wanted.
Livelli left the Village in 1948, to become a cruise director on ocean liners. Livelli has kept the same apartment on Perry Street since 1964, when his rent was $50. When I first interviewed Livelli in 2008, he was paying $550 for three rooms. His unscrupulous landlord was trying to triple his rent.
The back two rooms of Livelli’s apartment were done up like a harem tent, with textiles from his world travels stapled to the wall. Livelli also had screens inlaid with mother of pearl, a hookah pipe and ornate lamps from his four decades of travel to foreign ports. Also stapled to the floor were cotton woven rugs, which gave the place a dusty feel.  “You shoulda seen this place before the fire,” he said. “It was really something.” The fire happened several years before our 2008 meeting.
Originally, I met Livelli at a book party for Bliss Broyard on her memoir and history One Drop, which chronicled the Broyard family’s tumultuous relationship with race. The party took place at a townhouse in Chelsea.
Bliss Broyard’s father Anatole had been a prominent book critic for the New York Times, up to his death in 1990. On his deathbed, he revealed to his family that he had hidden his African-American heritage, “passing strange” in the larger white society. Several years after Broyard’s death, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard outed the late critic in The New Yorker, causing a stir in the American literary establishment.
At the party, Livelli handed me a piece of paper with his phone number on it. We made plans to meet.
Livelli is a great storyteller, though everything for him started in 1938, in meeting Anatole Broyard. He was perpetually obsessed, even at aged 94 in 2014, with the women he’d slept with in the 1940’s. “I had 120 women,” said Livelli. “Casanova beat me by two. He had 122.”
Livelli has always maintained friendships with younger singers and dancers because of his deep roots with Latin music. Several years ago, a friend set up a Facebook page which detailed Vince’s social life. In 2016, A young photographer named Lewis Lazar published a book called Historietas of Livelli’s essays about growing up in Greenwich Village, the social scene in the 1940’s, his four decades as a cruise director on ocean liners and his travels to Cuba.
In November 2017, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation interviewed him for their audio archive. In 2018, friends of Vince Livelli threw a blowout 98th birthday party for him in his beloved Village.
Here are the combined 2008 interviews:   

Q. How did you wind up at the San Remo in the 1930’s?
1938 was the year that Anatole and I decided to drop out of Brooklyn College. When I was three months old, we owned 117 Sullivan Street. The Village became home for me, and now for Anatole, as well. He was looking for someplace to get away from Bedford-Stuyvesant with his family. He was able to shack up with me. I knew about the Village and was into the Village. The San Remo opened its door to me. In 1938, it was a social club environment for local bigwigs. It later became Anatole’s homestead. He became the leader of a literary movement, founded by him at the San Remo in the 1940s.

Did you read my article “San Remo Nights”? It hasn’t been published, but it has been distributed.

I’m Italian from Brooklyn. I hate to be identified with Italians. Believe it or not, there’s a certain stricture of notoriety. I want to be an American.
Q. What was Anatole’s bookstore like?

To have a high-class bookstore in Greenwich Village in 1946 was useless, for people weren’t prepared for it. I have an essay called “The Birth of the Bookstore: A Story of Life and Death.” This one’s priceless.
The only reason the Santini brothers and Santos the waiter tolerated us is that we spoke about Gabrielle D’Annuncio and Pirandello. We were able to warm the owner. We took over the San Remo. I just found out two days ago that Allen Ginsberg used to hang out there. They hung out there because of Anatole. He laid the groundwork for people like that to come to the San Remo.
The San Remo went through three phases--it was a social club for the guys who had the neighborhood by the throat. Anatole created a pleasant environment of literature discussions until the discussions themselves got kind of violent over Marcel Proust. Then you had the homosexuals coming in, then the tourists coming in. There was no room.

In 1948, I left the Village. When things were starting to get drug laden, I said, “I’m getting out of here.” The quality of people was disheartening. I couldn’t stand to see what was happening to my Village.

Q. What happened to the San Remo?
It closed down and it is now called Cario’s. [Editor’s note: In the last five years, it was a chain coffee shop, but the shop is now closed and the space is for rent. There is a plaque outside commemorating the San Remo.] It became gay, totally.

Q. In the 1940’s, did you know Milton Klonsky?
Milton was my dearest friend. I cry when I hear his name. I was at his bedside when he died. Anatole was the best man in a hospital wedding to Klonsky’s girlfriend. [Editor’s note: the writer Alice Denham told me that the woman Klonsky married was his pot dealer, so the dealer could get his rent-controlled apartment.]

Q. Could you tell me about Klonsky and wife?
She was a communist and she MADE Milton into a communist, a card-carrying communist. Her name was Rhoda. Rhoda married W.H. Auden. Imagine marrying Auden? We all met at Auden’s for literary parties. {Editor’s note: The British poet Auden lived in the East Village for many years.]
My favorite story about Delmore Schwartz is what Milton Klonsky told me when we were going to see Delmore. We went to his house on Charles Street. I said. that’s typical of Schwartz to marry somebody who’d make him angrier. [Schwartz was married to the writer Elizabeth Pollet.] I said, “God, Milton, his library is bigger than yours.” At that comment, Schwartz jumped up and said, “Get out! Get out!”

Milton and Anatole were constantly at each other’s throats like booklovers, over who was the better author. It reached a point where they were really hostile to each other. There were enough women to go around for everyone. Milton was very successful, despite not having a nice appearance. He was a noble, charming, brilliant guy. Anatole and Milton had a fight where they were not talking to each other for a week. Imagine that.

The women were coming to the Village in waves, depending on when school was out—Smith, Bennington. They would come into the Village in droves like bees to honey. When school was out, a tremendous number of wealthy, intelligent women came to the Village looking for Anatole. His fame spread very easily.

Anatole and I mingled well together, swapping Latin records and books, sharing Village gossip and trading girlfriends. We ended up opening up a bookshop on Cornelia Street in 1946.

We were overcome by the forces of history. The homosexuals, the drug addicts, the tourists just drove us out. The tourists drove the prices up. Before them, we could have the manicotti, the house specialty, for 75 cents. This was when the standard tip for a taxi driver was 10 cents.

Q. What were the waiters and bartenders like at the San Remo?
That was a playful attitude. They were paying customers, after all. We were entering a world where no one really spoke English. We were able to warm these guys. Anatole was charming and polite, and brought some beautiful women in.

Anatole and I would meet for dinner near Pete Martin’s bookstore at West 4th Street. While we waited, we would be browsing. We would take a walk from the bookstore on West 4th Street and 7th Avenue, over to the Remo, which took 10 minutes at the most, and we would discuss authors and works that we knew we could bring up at the table for conversation. We were cheating, having prepared ourselves en route. My role was to steer the conversation in the direction Anatole would pick up on, so he would be able to quote from the works of Auden, Freud and Kafka, appearing to be a genius with a photographic memory. It was like champions dueling or playing chess with words. Anatole would always win. He had a system. I’d throw him a quote from D.H. Lawrence, where Anatole had already gone over it. Milton would come back with a quote by William Blake, and Anatole would respond with something about Andre Michaux, who Klonsky knew nothing about. They had this rivalry which was beautiful. There was an exhibition of literary spectacle.

I would walk into the Remo with a beautiful woman. The employees who worked at the Remo, they would stop and yell out, “Valentino, Valentino,” In his book The Recognitions,  Willie Gaddis Calls me Valentine, and has me wearing black and white shoes, the mark of a rhumba dancer, which I was doing at the time. It wasn’t because I was so handsome. It was because I had a beautiful woman with me at the time.

The local women who lived in the Village were like Stella Brooks, who married Kerouac.[Editor’s note: That’s wrong…it was Stella Sampas, who was Kerouac’s last wife. Stella Brooks was a bohemian singer in the Village.] She went with Anatole for a while.

Sheri Martinelli, 1940's
Q. Did you know Broyard’s girlfriend Sheri Martinelli?

Anatole lived with me on West 4th Street. Sheri Martinelli’s first suicide attempt was putting her head in the oven when Anatole lived with her. The second attempt was when she went on the fire escape naked, threatening to jump off, and the neighbors called the cops. The third attempt was an overdose of sleeping pills, but she had her stomach pumped at St. Vincent’s. The 4th attempt was throwing herself down a set of very steep steps in the company of Stanley Gould. [Editor’s note: Stanley Gould was known as “the Jewish junkie.” When he lost his false teeth, Norman Mailer paid for a new pair…he survived to the early 1980’s, dying of AIDS.]

If you read Anais Nin’s diary in December ‘45. I rescued a homosexual from jumping off a ledge at one of Anais’ parties. I pulled him back in and saved his life.

Anatole introduced me to Anais through Sheri. Anais had wanted to see me the next day for an afternoon liason. I wasn’t the only one. At one point in the evening, the woman throwing the party, Toshka Goldman…Her bookstore was the number one bookstore for avant-garde literature. {Editor’s note: Livelli is referring to Rosetta Reitz, who owned the Four Seasons Book Shop on Greenwich Avenue in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her single name was Toshka Goldman.]

In the middle of the party…it was mostly homosexuals…Anais gathered them around her. Anatole, Sheri and I were the only straight people at the party. I think Anais was bisexual. At one point, Goldman gets up in the middle of the floor, with her hands on her hips. This was the highlight of the party.  She says, “There’s not a fuck in the whole place.” She wanted a man. Finally, a guy took her up to the roof. Back in those days, we used to make love on the roof a lot.

I could have had an affair with Maya Deren, but her hair was too much. [Editor’s note: The filmmaker Deren had a dense, red Afro. She was famous for a documentary on Voodoo in Haiti]

Q. Why did the Bennington College girls come to the San Remo?
Anatole. The word spread that he was the magnetic type. My style was different than his. I was overly successful. This is the most boastful thing that I can say. I had 120 women. Casanova had in his diaries that he had 122. Son of a gun. He beat me by two.

Q. Did you know the writer Chandler Brossard?
He made the Village sour. He turned sweetness into sourness by exposing Anatole as a poseur. [Brossard’s novel To Walk in Darkness initially revealed Broyard’s race secret, but Brossard changed this detail when Broyard threatened to sue him.]

I’m getting desperate from that robbery. (A man posing as a Verizon worker stole money from Livelli.) My rent is going up from $552. It almost tripled. I’ve been here 44 years.

Q. Did you know Jay Landesman, the editor of the short-lived Neurotica?

He came to the Village from St. Louis to be a bohemian.
Landesman was a good student and picked up things from Anatole.  He added a Jewish wit.
Milton was difficult to get along with. If you weren’t a sharp person, he thought he was wasting his time associating with the wrong people.

At the end of his life, Jay was drinking martinis, double, to the point where it was keeping him alive.
When Jay went back to St. Louis in the 1950’s , he changed his name to Stan Stunning. Gershon Legman was like Schwartz. They were angry poets. Gershon was nuts.
When I met him in London, Landesman started to cry when he talked about his marriage to Fran. He had him living in the basement. His place was cluttered, the kind that would indicate psychosis. She lived upstairs in the normal house. She was torturing her husband for his infidelities. He made himself a martyr. He had a sad face and was not the Landesman I knew from the Village. Did you know he carried a cane? It made him very aristocratic.

Jay never achieved his family’s level of expectations. He became the black sheep of the family. When his nephew Rocco was approached to produce a revival of “The Nervous Set,” he said, “I don’t deal with crazy people.” Rocco owns five Broadway theaters. Why wouldn’t he produce this shitty little play to please his uncle. [In the early 2000’s, when Landesman was trying to remount his musical “The Nervous Set,” Rocco owned the Jujamcyn theater chain on Broadway.]

Q. How did the Village change in your eyes?
In 1948, it was a lovely afternoon in the Village, and Anatole and I were walking through Washington Square Park. We pass some of our friends who are sitting on the street, against the wall in the dirt. One was Stanley Gould, one was Stella Brooks, and perhaps a character named Frenchie. Stanley Gould and Stella were in the San Remo all the time. Anatole and I were well dressed in jackets and ties, for there were women involved in our lives. We took pride in our appearance. We saw the three of them in the garbage. They said, “Come join us.” I said, “That’s what is going to happen in the world. They are going to sit in the street and put flowers in their hair. That’s when the world divided in two. You had Anatole’s clique going in one direction with class and cheerfulness, then you have the pre-hippie, pre-Beats, sitting on the street and bringing society down to a lower level.

The Beats came in such large numbers that Anatole and I couldn’t hold our fingers in the dike. We couldn’t hold back the barbarity.

Milton Klonsky was turned on to LSD.

Milton adopted Anatole’s style with women. I was a dancer. Anatole used words. I used touch. This was the language I conquered women with. Before language, humans were communicating through touch and gesture.

The physical touch got to them deeply. All women love to be led by a virile man, as all men prefer a docile, receptive woman.

I have to get some money going here. A Latin music project at the University of Washington gave me 250 bucks. They are going to make a lot of money.

Q. Were you involved with the Off-Off-Broadway play “Klonsky and Schwartz”?

I gave a lecture to the people in the lobby as they were coming out. [Livelli hands me pictures of myself from our last meeting]

I used to hang out at the Cedar Tavern every chance I got.

Anatole started Greenwich Village. I started that, too. I brought Broyard and Klonsky into the bars. They never would have allowed Anatole, half a black, into a social club. That was not the way that local people acted in those days. Blacks were not welcome.
I knew he was black in 1938. At Brooklyn College, we both had obstacles. I was considered a fascist as an Italian American in the Jewish environment of Brooklyn College, so I didn’t fit in. Anatole stood out in a strange way., coming from New Orleans and dressing in a different manner. He dropped out at 18, saying that Brooklyn College didn’t fit with his frame of mind. One word to describe Anatole was irresistible, and the word to describe Klonsky was noble. He had a sweet, gentle quality. He tried to cover up his sweetness with a manly, attacking personality, which is more in keeping with the Village character. You couldn’t be a sweetheart. You had to be a fighter. He had a literary personality and was poetic in his speech. He was loving in his relationships with both men and women. He had a streak of hostility when it came to his area of specialty. He became hostile if you opposed him. His favorite writers were Charles Dickens and William Blake, whereas Anatole’s favorite writers were John Updike, Wallace Stevens and Henri Michaux.

Q. What did the bars represent to Klonsky?

Klonsky was doing something radical. He saw that Anatole had established himself as a literary ringleader at the San Remo. He had objections to Anatole on many points, so in revenge or rebellion, Klonsky thought that he would start a salon similar to the one at the San Remo. Guess where? Later at the Cedar Tavern. He would try to get people at the San Remo to follow him to the Cedar. The walk to the Cedar was a long haul, and it was removing yourself from the heart of the Village. The Village was concentrated at MacDougal and Bleecker. Charles and Perry  Streets were considered the wasteland. [Charles and Perry] were Irish and Italian, while MacDougal and Bleecker were all Italian. The Sullivan Street area where I was born and brought up, was predominately Genoese, and you had some Piedmontese. My grandfather owned our building and ran a bar. He was a blacksmith in Italy.

I was instrumental in bringing Klonsky and Broyard together. I may have introduced them. I was able to bring Stanley Gould, a drug addict, into the bars.  Stanley was very important. He was one of the founders of the hippie movement. He had absolutely no money. We’d invite him in. He used to sell stolen goods. He’d go up to the Garment District and buy stuff stolen off the trucks. He sold white-on-white shirts. I bought from him. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel.

Q. Who were you hanging out in the Village?
I went to the Cedar when my ship came in for two nights. I’d go out on 38-day cruises, and stay for two nights and three days. I’d see what was happening and would get caught up.

Have you heard of Stella Brooks? I think she married Jack Kerouac. Stella was one of the original hippies, before there was a Kerouac. She must have influenced him. She was one of the leading feminine personages in the Village, along with Sheri Martinelli and Maya Deren.

Stella hung with us--Anatole, Milton and I, at the San Remo. She was the only woman with us until Sheri came along. She was a wonderful woman and had a warm personality. She was absolutely normal, unlike Sheri, who was far out, because of a guy named Shu, who turned her onto cocaine and heroin. Sheri had a lot of talent to begin with and the drugs brought this out, until she went downhill.

When Anatole and her first got together she was beautiful, radiant sunshine, a girl from Philadelphia. She used to dance in the streets, do turns and skips. Anatole met her under those conditions and said she was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. She had been married to an Italian painter. She brooded over him and her child. She took Anatole over as her child. The love she transferred to Anatole was phenomenal, deep-rooted, mother type tight hold love, which suffocated Anatole. He was a freedom-loving man. He felt for her and lived with her on Jones Street. When she met Shu, she became more expressive, more intelligent. He didn’t know she was on drugs. I knew it because she came to me in confidence, to keep her relationship with Anatole going, to speak well of her. The relationship was faltering because he found her antics too exaggerated.

If you read Kafka, there was a part where he was carrying her around the streets of New York, because she had a bad heart. It was fake. He would carry her upstairs and downstairs.

Klonsky’s friends were politically involved, while Anatole was more literary.

I was a protector of Greenwich Village culture. My grandfather was a landowner, and I belonged to, if you want to use the word, the nobility of the West Village. I’m 88 and I can say what I want to say. If somebody threatens your culture, it is like threatening your household, your family.

There were outsiders coming into the Village…Anatole was from Bed-Stuy, Klonsky was from Flatbush.and Landesman was from St. Louis. Stella came from near Boston, Sheri came from Philadelphia and Willie Gaddis came from Long Island.

They were allowed by me to join in. Stanley Gould wasn’t a thief, but he was a shill and a black market operator. He had a purpose. He was very young, but gave us a certain perspective.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Ghosts of Greenwich Village #2: The San Remo Cafe


(William Burroughs, left, standing outside the San Remo)

The San Remo Café at 189 Bleecker St. was located on the northwest corner of MacDougal and Bleecker, occupying two storefronts. The mob-owned bar was taken over by writers and artists. Though the Italan owners and locals were hostile to gays and outsiders, they begrudgingly tolerated their business. Allen Ginsberg drank at the Remo before and after his stint at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Hanging out at the bar were writers from the Partisan Review like Clement Greenberg and Delmore Schwartz hung out there, as did the poets Frank O’Hara and W.H. Auden (on opposite sides of the bar). The bar’s literary heyday went from the end of World War II to the late 1950s.

During the early 1950s, Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s theater company The Living Theatre made the Remo their de facto headquarters and the center of their parties when they were renting the nearby Cherry Lane Theatre and doing such iconoclastic shows as Genet‘s “The Maids.” The novelist Gore Vidal proudly boasts that he picked up Beat legend Jack Kerouac, took him back to the Chelsea Hotel and screwed him.

The bartenders and bouncers at the San Remo, considered to be “minor Mafia” by the hipster patrons, were a bit too liberal with the baseball bat kept under the bar. Frank O’Hara immortalized the incipient violence of the staff of the Remo in one of his poems, “The penalty of the Big Town/ is the Big Stick.”

By 1960, the Remo had become primarily a gay bar, stocked with hustlers that hung out at Washington Square Park, and the “A-men,” gay men on amphetamines. Andy Warhol loved the Remo, and stocked his early Factory with men he found at the bar. One of his infatuations was the dancer Freddy Herko, who starred in Rosalyn Drexler’s “Home Movies” at nearby Judson Poets Theatre. Herko’s career was cut short when under the influence, he danced out of a six-story window.

By the 1970's, the socialist Michael Harrington reported that the old San Remo had closed and had become a Chinese restaurant. In the 1980's and 1990's, it was an Italian coffee shop/restaurant. Recently, it was micro-chain coffee shop, but now, as of January 2018, the last coffee shop there went out of business, and it is for rent again.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

James McCourt on his Writing Process, his Opera Classic "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" and his new 3200-page Fiction

My goal with this interview with Jimmy McCourt was to capture the talent and genius of a great writer. I also wanted to fill in some holes in the biography that is out there about Jimmy McCourt, including his successful battle against alcoholism and his 48-year love affair with Vincent Virga, the brilliant novelist and photo editor. Jimmy McCourt turned 72 on July 4, 2013. McCourt is presently at work on a family memoir.

(This interview originally appeared in The Recorder in 2007)

James McCourt burst onto the New York literary scene in 1972, when the New American Review published his short story “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” about a tempestuous red-headed Czech opera star, the over-the-hill diva out to destroy her and and the fans who adored her. The story caused a stir in New York intellectual circles, beginning McCourt’s illustrious literary career

McCourt, 65, was raised in New York City and educated at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School and Manhattan College, when it was considered the Irish-American Harvard. McCourt briefly studied acting at the Yale School of Drama, but left with fellow student Vincent Virga in 1964 to go to London, to experience the exploding theater scene there. McCourt and Virga have been a couple ever since then. They stayed in London for two periods, from 1964 to 1967, and 1969 to 1971, resettling in New York City.

After McCourt’s story was published in the New American Review, the legendary writer and social commentator Susan Sontag helped McCourt find a publisher. In 1975, McCourt published the expanded “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” in book form. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times called the book “A gloriously flamboyant debut. Take it in spoonfuls and you'll find passages to fall in love with. Sooner or later, you may even find yourself reading them aloud to your friends.”

McCourt wrote short stories for the New Yorker, edited by the late Victoria Geng, which were later published in the collection “Kaye Wayfaring in ‘Avenged’”(1984), introducing readers to the movie star Kaye Wayfaring.

As the AIDS crisis exploded in the 1980s, the devastating personal toll on McCourt and his circle of friends inspired him to write two long fictions that were collected in “Time Remaining” (1993). The critic Harold Bloom has called “Time Remaining” one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

Later fiction by McCourt included “Delancey’s Way”(2000), and “Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake”(2002), revisiting characters from his earlier books.

In 2003, McCourt published “Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-85,” a glorious examination of gay culture in New York and America. The New York Times called the book “A heroically imaginative account of gay metropolitan culture, an elegy and an apologia for a generation."

Though McCourt’s work has been championed by such prominent literary figures as Sontag, Bloom, Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy and the poet Richard Howard, fans of his fiction have often formed a select club, championing his books and hand selling them to other readers and writers.

The novelist Dennis Cooper has written that “McCourt is that rarest of contemporary American authors -- a true iconoclast, a devoted high stylist, and a holder of the unfashionable opinion that prose is a natural extrovert and beauty that deserves the brightest polish, the best accessories, the most extravagant costumes.”

McCourt is now finishing up “Now Voyagers: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein,” his 3200-page fictional saga picking up the story of Mawrdew Czgowchwz. McCourt started this reworking of his fictional diva’s life 33 years ago, shortly before his first book was published. “Now Voyagers” will be published in four books by the Turtle Point Press, with the first part, “Book One: The Night Sea Journey” coming out in the fall of 2007. For the uninitiated, the name of McCourt’s lifelong opera heroine is pronounced “MAW-DEW GORGEOUS.”

The Recorder had previously published extensive excerpts of McCourt’s 1950s Dublin scene from “Now Voyagers."

McCourt and Virga split their time between New York City, Washington, D.C., and County Mayo, Ireland. McCourt spoke with Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Washington, not far from the Library of Congress, where both McCourt and Virga have offices.

Q. What is your family background?

A. My father started out as a banker, but then the banks closed during the bank holiday (of the Depression). By the time I was born in 1941, he was the head timekeeper on the (Manhattan) waterfront. This meant that he was management, but he was on the piers. Later, I called him “a suit on the waterfront.” He was basically an accountant, but had a great relationship with the men, specifically the checkers, who determined who was going to be in the shape up that day. My father mostly worked on the docks of what is known as the North River, which is what the Hudson is called below the George Washington Bridge.

My mother was a schoolteacher, teaching music. Both my parents were from Yorkville. My father’s family arrived in 1830. They had a quarry in the Hudson Valley. In the second generation, they became stonecutters. My great-grandfather worked on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My mother’s family came to Philadelphia in the 1760 from Dublin..

I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. Back then, half of Jackson Heights was Irish, half was Jewish.

Q. How did you wind up becoming a serious opera fan?

A. I’ve always had a love of music. My mother and her friends used to go to the opera. When I was a teenager, the opera became a place to hang out. Another thing was that it was bohemian. The opera always had an aura of the sexual to it, because the fans are sort of febrile. Straight and gay sex were discussed. There were more gay people “on the line,” but there was a strong straight influence. It was very bohemian, like the Village. Every night, the opera line stretched down Broadway. There were a couple of hundred people. I started going to the opera at 15, for Maria Callas’ debut in 1956.

I was on the line from 1956 to 1965. When I started going to Manhattan College, I went all the time, maybe 40 times a year. I followed Victoria de Los Angeles, a soprano from Barcelona. She eventually became my friend.

Q. Was Victoria the model for Mawrdew Czgowchwz?

In the book, she’s Mawrdew’s friend, but she’s nothing like Mawrdew. The model for Mawrdew Czgowchwz is hard to figure out. One is Jarmila Novotna, who was Czech and a partisan during World War II. There’s nothing about Callas in Mawrdew, but I used the fact that Callas got fired from the Met, and had that happen to Mawrdew so the plot would thicken.

Q. What was your inspiration to be a writer?

A. I have no idea. It just started when I was 11. I started writing neighborhood plays. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper.

Q. What were the seeds of “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”?

A. When I was in college, I wrote a story about the opera line called “Vesti La Giuba,” which is an aria from “Pagliacci,” because there was a guy in front of the opera who sang it all the time. Leoncavallo wrote it.

I wrote this story for the college literary review called “Mawrdew Czgowchwz.” It didn’t take long to write. Donald Lyons, who is now a theater critic for the New York Post, got me to take it to the New American Review in 1971. I handed it to the editor Ted Solotaroff personally. We went back to England. Several weeks later, he sent me a telegram telling me it was great. That year, I wrote the rest of it in New York. Ted put it on the cover of the magazine and it caused a small literary sensation in New York. That’s when Susan Sontag read it. We had come back from England and Vincent was working at the New York Review of Books, where he met Susan. She asked, “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”? Vincent told her the book was in trouble, for Ted had left Simon and Schuster. Susan said, “That’s nonsense. There is only one publisher for the book, and it’s my publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.” Vincent, my agent and Susan sent the book to FSG without telling me.

Q. Were you satirizing the opera world with “Mawrdew Czgowchwz”?

A. I wasn’t trying to satirize anything. I was trying to write a fable, where it is necessary to have an adversary. It was easy to create an old bag of an opera singer, a superannuated diva to try to undermine Mawrdew. It’s necessary for the protagonist to have an antagonist. It’s a simple story. It’s not a novel. It’s a fable because it is mostly dialogue and atmosphere. One of the most interesting things said about the book was by this guy who loved the book, but he said it’s odd, she’s a ghost in her own story. That hit home. That meant that I had to develop her as a real woman, which I did. I put her in other stories and aged her. I had been writing the sequel, but then I got the idea a few years ago to frame it as a story told by her from the point of view of now, and to incorporate the first into the new book as a text written by several schoolboys.

Q. Is this 3200-page fiction a novel?

A. No, it’s not a novel. It’s a saga. I always try to avoid the word novel. Any way I can get out of it, I use it. I don’t like the idea of the novel. It’s commodified. Nothing I’ve ever written has ended. They don’t end. They stop, then start again in another book. Novelism almost always means using a linear narrative.

Q. You’ve been with your lover, the novelist and editor Vincent Virga, for 42 years. How did you meet?

A. We met at Yale Drama in 1964. We were both in the acting program. He didn’t want to stay. He was unhappy with the acting teacher. He wanted to go to Catholic University. I said, “In a pig’s eye.” I couldn’t follow him to Washington. I didn’t have the energy to look for another guy. I spirited him to England. I got two English people, a married couple, to sponsor us in London. We were together in London. We bonded. We studied acting, then we got jobs. Vincent got lots of odd jobs and made a lot of money because he is so smart. He’d work for temp agencies, then he’d end up running the show. We quit acting so we could go to the theater all the time. I wrote a couple of plays. One was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Scarecrow.” Another was a kind of farce. A third was a play about twin brothers, an O’Neillian type of thing. I was very taken by O’Neill.

Q. What effect has your partnership with Vincent Virga had on your writing?

A. It’s very hard to say. I just do it and it is appreciated. He is critical sometimes. We don’t exchange ideas and he never reads the manuscript until I am finished. It’s like living with Virginia Woolf in that respect. He doesn’t read it, then he does. We are just supportive of each other’s work. We are also both crazy about the theater. We’ve fueled each other’s passions for the theater. We have both written about theatrical situations. His novel “Gaywick” is very theatrical. It should be noted that he is the author of the first gay gothic novel.

Q. What was the London scene like during the 1960s?

A. It was wonderful. I was more into the actors than the playwrights at the time. The older actors were Edith Evans, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Peggy Ashcroft was an enormous influence at the time. The actors of today’s generation were just staring out. They included Judy Dench, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Maggie Smith was becoming a big star in “Othello” with Olivier.

What did you do when you returned to America in 1971?

A. That was when I was drinking heavily. Vincent was working at the New York Review of Books. As they say, I was “home for the day.” I don’t really remember the seventies that well. My story was published in the New American Review in 1972. The book was published in 1975. The reason it took three years was because I was drinking all the time.

Q. You've written about the Everard Baths, the gay bathhouse on 28th Street. What was the environment like?

A. It was the late 1950s, early 1960s. I was already legal. It was basically a lot of very literate guys without their clothes on, in white robes having sex and talking, talking, talking. A lot of them were on speed. The Everard closed after a fatal fire in the 1970s. The heart and soul had already gone out of it by then. The Everard succumbed, like all the other gay baths, to the drug culture. We didn’t consider speed to be a drug. You could easily get a prescription for it. We called it pep pills. Typically people would come in smash drunk at the Everard and would sober up in the steam room, then take some speed. The baths couldn’t regulate marijuana and other drug use, so they went straight downhill.

Q. Was the story that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association owned the bath true?

A. The PBA owned it. How they did, I don’t know. They ran it. The Everard was one of the most lucrative venues in town.

Q. On June 27,1969, you were at the Stonewall Bar in the West Village at the time of the famous riots. The mood was tense because Judy Garland’s funeral was that same day. The fighting between the cops and the drag queens started early the next morning. What did you see?

A. It’s all described in “Queer Street.” I thought I had been to the riots. There were two “takes” (cash pickups of bribes) by the police that night. The regular precinct officers came earlier and there was no riot. Then the vice quad came by later in the evening for a second take. The bar refused to pay and the vice squad got rough. The queens started carrying on. They were on amphetamines. Everyone at the Stonewall Riots was on amphetamines. I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got a call the next day that the Village was burning and I never went back. We went back to England the next week.

I witnessed an incident around the first pickup. A drag queen threw a stinger in an Irish cop’s face. One cop restrained the other. It was the Italian cop stopping the Irish cop. He said, essentially, “We have to cut them some slack. They are in a bad way because of Judy.” There were a lot of straight guys involved with Judy Garland. Judy was a universal. The straight guys into Judy would understand. While this was happening, Judy was lying in state uptown at the Campbell Funeral Home.

Q. “Time Remaining,” your collection of two novellas, has been acclaimed as one of the more poignant depiction's of the human toll of the AIDS epidemic. What were your motivations with the book?

A. lot of my friends had died. I used to take the Long Island Railroad out to East Hampton, often late at night, both drinking and sober. I decided it was a perfect set up. At every station, the conductor would come by and call out a station. That would signal a turn in the story. Once you have a set up like that, you have a highly formalized structure. As The New Yorker said, it was a kind of travelogue. Basically, it was a wake with stories, like an Irish wake. The bodies weren’t there. They were distributed all over in the text. It was my most highly formalized and most successful book in aesthetic terms. That is why I want it republished.

Q. As a younger writer, you drank very heavily, but you stopped at age 38. How do you compare writing while drinking and writing while sober?

A. When I was drinking, I lived in a very enclosed world. The problem with “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” even though I loved it, it was a world in a bubble. I wanted to break out of the bubble, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t stop drinking. When you are drinking, you are very isolated. When the bubble finally burst, I couldn’t write for a year or two. I didn’t know if I would ever write again. A woman from The New Yorker came in and she was responsible for my new beginning. Her name was Veronica Geng. She got me on my feet again. She said she wanted me to write a story for the magazine and you don’t get offers like that. In her brother’s memoir, he wrote about Veronica screaming in The New Yorker offices, “I don’t understand why you people don’t think this story is terrific.” That was me she was screaming about most of the time. I based my movie star character Kaye Wayfaring on what Veronica would be like if she was a movie star like Faye Dunaway.

As a drinker, I was acting out, and then I found a way to act in, which I had learned at Yale Drama, but I wasn’t able to do because of the drinking. “Acting in” has become an important part of what I do and what I taught. I taught a version of the Stanislavski Method applied to writing. The Stanislavski Method came to America in the days of the Group Theatre with Stella Adler, and was perpetuated by Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagan in all different ways.

Method acting features things like sense memory, emotional recall and the object. In other words, each scene has an object and four questions.--who am I, where do I come from, what do I want and where am I going? They are very easy to apply to writing, characters and situations, as well as to the narrator himself. I used this method when I taught writing at Princeton and Yale.

Q. You and Vincent Virga spend several months living in Co. Mayo every year. When did your annual Irish sojourn start?

A. We’ve been going since 1985. We first went to Ireland in 1966 and I went back several times after I decided that Mawrdew Czgowchwz was part Irish. In the new book, there are extended sections that take place in Dublin, and I couldn’t have written them without being in Dublin. Vincent and I went to Dublin for Joyce. We went to Mayo to see “The Playboy of the Western World” territory. We fell in love with Mayo because it is beautiful and remote. The people love us and we love them. It’s village life in the village of Crossmolina.

The verbal culture, the rural quiet and beauty are conducive to writing, as well as the interest of the people. They are not necessarily interested in what you are writing, but that you are writing and how many books you have written” “Ah, those two fellas are out on the Errew Peninsula writing books.” They mean it, because they are very literate people.

Q. How did your idea for “Now Voyagers,” your 3200-page fiction, start?

A. I started working on it right before “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” was published in 1975, as an extension. It was written in the same style as the first book. I began to realize that it wouldn’t work. It was repetitious. When I finally quit drinking, I figured out why. I started in earnest in 1979 recasting everything. The book is modeled on the epics, “The Odyssey” and “The Aneid,” and “Moby Dick.” All those epics are used.

Q. How did you find a publisher willing to publish the book in four parts?

I am publishing “Now Voyager” with Jonathan Rabinowitz of the Turtle Point Press. I’d admired what he’d done is his beautiful bookmaking. I’d only met him once, but I called him up to ask if he’d be interested. After he read the manuscript, he said it was the book that he was born to publish. He’s in seventh heaven now because he’s been getting great advance quotes from writers like Colm Toibin.

Q. Will this be the definitive story of Mawrdew Czgowchwz?

A. It will be Mawrdew Czgowchwz, as revealed by the people pictured therein, in letters, voices and things like that. I was hellbent to create a heroine who was not a ghost in her own story, and who was a great artist.

Q. How do you describe your work habits?

A. I work all the time. I write in the afternoon and through the evening, with a break for dinner. A lot of work is wool gathering, going along, thinking about nothing and gathering impressions. I write them down on anything, scraps of paper, anything that there and put them in the computer. I do a lot of writing by hand, but all my rewriting is on the computer.

Susan Sontag once said an important thing to me about writing. She said, “I am not so sure I can write when I sit down, but I am sure as hell that I can rewrite.” In my case, the writing grows by accretion, piece by piece. I work constantly and steadily, usually on three or four things at once.

Q. You’ve been called a writer’s writer’s writer, which means that you are read by writer’s writers like the novelist James Salter. What do you think of that label?

A. When I was called that, it was rather disconcerting. It was the playwright Bill Hoffman, the author of the wonderful AIDS play “As Is.” It was 1993 when “Time Remaining” came out and he interviewed me. It was meant as such a high compliment and I took it as that, but it is difficult. It abstracts you one more degree in terms of general readership. I don’t get anything out of being a secret. I’m convinced that there is a wider readership for me, if it can be reached.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Jimmy McCourt on YouTube!!!

 (James McCourt, 2008)

Last Saturday, March 9th, 2013, I had the honor of sitting down with James McCourt, the great American novelist, to discuss a wide variety of subjects on video, including the genesis of his opera classic "Mawrdew Czgowchz," his experiences in the Everard Baths in the late 1950s and his upcoming memoir, which covers his parents' tumultuous marriage and ends with a four-year-old Jimmy traumatized in the aftermath of the news of Hiroshima in August 1945.

(James McCourt as drawn by the legendary David Levine)

There are six videos covering the Standing Line at the Metropolitan Opera, a surreal event Jimmy witnessed in the Stonewall Bar right before the riots broke out on June 28, 1969 and his teenage stalking of Jack Kerouac.

Here is Jimmy McCourt on Stonewall.

Here are the other McCourt videos.