Friday, October 26, 2018

Al Koblin, Night Bartender and former owner of the Lion’s Head, 1966 to 1984

Al Koblin, Night Bartender and former owner of the Lion’s Head, 1966 to 1984, interviewed by Dylan Foley, January 2009  

The Lion's Head was the fabled Greenwich Village bar that was located on Christopher Street. It was open from 1966 to 1996 and was patronized by such famous New York journalists as Pete Hamill, Dennis Duggan and Jimmy Breslin. The bar witnessed the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and was a headquarters of Norman Mailer's second mayoral bid with Breslin. The bar was famous for its Jewish drunks, Irish lovers and Italian intellectuals.The physical bar later became the Kettle of Fish, the old bohemian bar which moved from another part of the Village. It is now patronized by NYU students.

Al Koblin was a bartender then a half-owner of the Lion's Head from 1966 to 1984.

Al Koblin: I’m from Massachusetts. I got to New York in 1953 when I was in the Army and just stayed there.

Dylan Foley: How did you wind up at the Figaro Café in Greenwich Village?

AK: When I got out of the Army I worked in advertising for years and that sucked. There was a recession, what they called the Eisenhower recession in ‘58 or ‘59. I had started to hang out in Greenwich Village. I took a job as a dishwasher at the Figaro, then made sandwiches and became the manager. I was there for about five years. I did other stuff--off-Broadway. I was a stage manager for a few things. [Editor's note: Cafe Figaro was a famous Village coffee shop on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, which was open from the 1950's to the early aughts.]

I’m not that familiar with the San Remo. That’s where the grown ups went, the big boys, guys a couple of years older than me. They were harder drinkers longer than me and got prettier women than me, and things like that. I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. I was in that in-between Generation. [Editor's note: The San Remo was a mob-owned bar, also on Mcdougal and Bleecker that was colonized by intellectuals and writers.]

There was a woman who used to hang out there named Winnie.

DF: What was the story of Gregory Corso screwing her on the table at the San Remo?

AK: During hours, during some late night bacchannal. Winnie was very heavyset big and fat black woman, famous for having gotten on the 6th Avenue bus and the driver just drove her to Bellevue because she was completely naked. I remember walking into the Kettle of Fish. Winnie was sitting there and took a liking to me. She grabbed me around the waist and started to pull me towards her.  “I’m going to take you home with me.” I saw this woman I knew, who was not my wife. I said, “Not now. I’ve got to go meet my wife.”

Winnie said, “I don’t fuck around with married men,” and let me go. Winnie was actually a lovely person when she was not whacked out of her head. She had a smooth complexion and a lovely singing voice.

DF: Did you drink at the Kettle of Fish?

AK: That was more where I drank than the San Remo. Before I got there, Maxwell Bodenheim drank there. A lot of the guys who drank at that bar worked as furniture movers.

DF: What was the vibe at the Kettle of Fish?

AK: Like at most bars, it was the booze. That’s what the Lion’s Head was like. It wasn’t about wit or literary accomplishment or even getting laid. It was more about booze. The Kettle was like that, a place to hang out. [Dermot McEvoy] calls it Hogan’s Moat.

I started at the Lion’s Head as a bartender for six years, then I was a 50 percent owner for the next 13.

[The Lion's Head] started on Hudson Street. It was owned by Leon Seidel. He took on Wes Joyce as a partner. Leon died. Wes was not a good businessman He had substance-abuse problems that were very expensive. Finally, the place was going to get shut down by the IRS or the state tax police, or something like that.

In 1971, I finally quit being a bartender. I was a month away from turning 40. If I was a bartender at 40, I would be one at 50 or 60. I became Wes’ half partner, then managing partner for 13 years.

It was going to cost me $15,000 for 50 percent. Bartenders in those days kept lots of money in their mattresses because they didn’t have the same tax problems you have now. Now the government mandates a certain amount be held in lieu of tips. In those days, you’d declare what you wanted. You’d lie about it.

Some local guy  lent me $5000 with no vig. [The big is the interest on a street loan from a loan shark.] There were semi-hood guys we knew from the neighborhood. These were petty thieves and minor criminals…one I knew from Figaro was named Mark.

The lease was about to expire 1984 a Jewish mobster’s widow’s rent  that was $1000. It was a 500 percent increase

(Last night at the Lion's Head, 1996 (Chang W. Lee, NYT)

DF: What was the environment like at the Lion’s Head?

AK: I was the first night bartender. We had a little U-shaped, copper-topped bar, with room for one man to turn around in.
We had a pretty empty bar. Very few people came around. The only customers we had that were notable were the Clancy Brothers. They were the first that hung out there.

There was this guy who would come in around midnight, have a few drinks and would leave. He turned out to be a rewrite man for the New York Post, Normand Poirier. One night he said, “I like this place.” Sure enough, Vic Zeigel started to show up, Larry Merchant and Pete Hamill, guys from the Daily News and from the Herald Tribune, like Jim Flanagan, Warren Berry and the Mancini twins. All these newspapermen started showing up, as well as the writer Dave Markson. The agent Knox Berger started coming in. That’s how this whole bunch of people started coming in. Mostly newspapermen, but sometimes David Markson would bring in people like Kurt Vonnegut or Bill Gaddis.

Somebody wanted their book jacket up on the wall, and that started the whole tradition of book jackets up on the wall. By the time I was the owner of the place, people I never saw in the place would come in with a book jacket for the wall. That’s what writers are like.

(Bartender Tommy Butler at the Lion's Head)

Like Freddie Exeley…whenever he was in town, he’d come to the Lion’s Head. He was a terrible drunk. Exeley came in when I was still a bartender. He turned out to be a virulent anti-Semite, and I happened to be Jewish. Freddie couldn’t hold his liquor. He was hostile to people at the bar and to me as the bartender. He said to me once, “Come outside and I’ll whip your skinny Jewish ass.” He was a good friend of Markson’s. [Markson was also Jewish.]

(Denis Duggan, Judy Joice, Pete Hamill, Frank McCourt at a 1996 Barnes and Noble celebration)

DF: Do you remember Anita Steckel and Alice Denham?

AK: You can’t forget Anita. I told Dave Markson that he’s more proud for Alice Denham saying he’s the best stud she ever knew than any of the books he wrote. Mailer came into the Lion’s Head a few times, but he was by no means a regular. There was a great fight…there was another bartender, Mike Riordon, a Boston boy like me[Reardon marries a Jewish woman…most handsome Jew in New York.]
One weekend night, Mike and I were behind the bar. There was this guy named John Culver, this senator from Iowa, came into the bar. Used to be a fullback at Harvard. He was in there and so was Joe Torres and Pete Hamill, and this visiting writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jack McKinney, and Joe Flaherty. These are a bunch of big beefy guys, not that Jose was Irish. For some reason, Culver and Flaherty were getting into a verbal head butting. It was turning into a real mix up, then it started being a punch up. Hamill was in it, Jose was in it. I knew it was serious because Jack McKinney was at the end of the bar. He took his false teeth out, put them on the bar and went to join the fight. Mike Reardon and I were standing behind the bar. We weren’t going to break the thing up. There were 2000-lbs. of beef there. Mike turned to me and said, “Who’s the big guy?” I said, “That’s Culver, the liberal senator from Iowa.  Reardon said, “Liberal? What are the conservatives like out there?”

Like most bar fights, it just broke up. People realize, “I’m going to get hurt if this keeps up.” Most times, people are standing around laughing. That’s enough to break up a fight.

I would see guys, regular customers, come in  to meet a woman at the bar. Their eyeballs would light up. To them, booze was more important than going home with a woman. Instead of just having another drink or two, and saying “Hey Honey, let’s go,” they’d want to hang out ‘til four in the morning. At that time, they’d be useless and the woman would be long gone. What you see at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning is really a phantasmagoria. People who start as Eagle Scouts go into a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.

DF: How do you think drinking  has changed in America since the 1950s?

AK: A lot of the guys like Flaherty and Hamill, they knew they were going to die. That’s what happened to Normand Poirier. Normand became a real heavy drinker. Normand had been told, “Quit or die.” He didn’t  quit, so he died.

DF: What was your view of the poet Joel Oppenheimer?

AK: He was a sad drunk, but everybody loved Joel. He became a very good friend of mine. He was a true alcoholic. He once had a headshrinker tell him, “You are not going to quit drinking, but every time you have a drink, write it down. He had this notebook. He used to drink Heaven Hill bourbon with a beer back, and he’d write it down. It didn’t cut down on his drinking. He finally went on the wagon.

One of the wittiest guys at the Lion’s Head was not a writer. His name was Jack Cullen, from Brooklyn. He worked at Todd Shipyards in Hoboken. One afternoon, a woman came into the bar and asked, “Is this the place that is frequented by writers with drinking problems?” Jack said, “No, ma’am, they are drinkers with writing problems.” This line, I’ll credit to me because it was me. We often had these blue-haired ladies come by from Westchester County who spoke with vaguely British accents.

“What type of clientele comes to your establishment?” she asked.
I looked down the bar and saw Liam Clancy, Tony Mancini and Joel Oppenheimer. You know the old clichés? The drunken Irishman, the Italian lover and the Jewish intellectual. I said, “Ma’am, It’s a strong ethnic mix. We have an Irish lover, an Italian intellectual and a Jewish drunk.”

DF: What was your view of the Clancy brothers?

AK: I never saw a church-going attitude among the Clancy Brothers. Paddy was the best of the Clancy’s, in terms of getting along with people. Tommy could be truculent. Liam made some anti-Zionist comments.  I almost got into a fight with Liam when I asked, “Which side were the Irish on during World War II?”

DF: Did you know Frank McCourt?

He was a quiet, nice guy with a difficult first wife.

My wife used to work at the Bells of Hell for Malachy as a waitress.

When I came to Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, a couple of black guys walking up Sullivan or Thompson Streets, it wasn’t a good idea. The interracial dating made them crazy.

DF: What was the reputation of the bar Romero’s?

AK: A white woman could walk in there with a black guy.
There is a great line about Johnny Romero, who was quite spiffy and had a haughty attitude, and spoke with a cultured accent. There was a black writer who hung out there, Eli Waldron. One day, Johnny walks into his own place and Waldron was there. Somebody looks up and says, “My Johnny, don’t we look continental?” Waldron said, “And we know what continent that is.”

Romero’s was one of those lower-depths places. Next door to the Lion’s Head was the 55. The 55 was truly like something from Shanghai in the 1920s. They had one or two deaths there of methadone overdoses. You’d see all kinds of crazy things happening in the 55. It was the counterpoint to the Lion’s Head, which was a genteel, middle-class, mostly white place. The 55 was the lower depths.

Eve Ensler worked at the Lion’s Head as a waitress. Jessica Lange was the third-best-looking waitress at the Lion’s Head…that was my line. She was a very pretty, quiet girl.

DF: What was Anita Steckel’s place at the bar?
AK: Anita was a pain in the ass. She was loud and flamboyant.
The Lion’s Head was a male chauvinistic place. If a woman went there, they were there to get laid. There were very few women who…

Guys would stand around, and drink and laugh and argue. Women were really supposed to sit primly by and wait for the guy to say, “Okay, let’s go.” It was pretty male chauvinistic. I thought of hiring a woman or a black guy for behind the bar…it wasn’t a good idea.

The bar was not specifically racist. Amiri Baraka would stop by.
[run in with LeRoi Jones…playing ball at the hardtop at Horatio and Hudson Street. Lion’s Head team used to play against the poet-painter-hippie guys. LeRoi was a good ball player…he dove on `the asphalt…he wouldn’t talk to me for months.]

Nick Tosches was a strange guy…we didn’t know he had all those books in him.

The same with Dermot McEvoy. I said this to Dermot. You sat around all these years, sipping your Guinness and not saying a word. What you were doing, you were not supposed to be doing in a bar. You were thinking. You were drinking it all in.

DF:  What keeps a great bar going all these years, a 30-year run?

AK: The myth among bars is that it is the bartender. You see that movie with Tom Cruise, with bartenders doing their shtick? Nah. You could have robots tending bar. It’s the people. You’re there to serve them drinks and to collect the tips. If they’re regular customers, you buy ‘em back a drink and they’ll feel good. We had perhaps the most welcome guy…there was a pilot for Aer Lingus. Dick Quinn was his name. Everybody loved him. He’d play the penny whistle or strum on a guitar. What was great about the place was the mixture of various types. The brits had a word for it, fug. A good pub has a fug going. Often at night in the Lion’s head, you could feel that going. People were standing around and there was a rosy glow. I remember one night, an impromptu singalong started. It was Dick Quinn playing the penny whistle, Liam Clancy playing his guitar and Dave Amram was playing his horn. Then this kid Jerry Rosen, who played violin for the Detroit Symphony, took out his fiddle. You had Irish folksingers, a jazz musician and a symphony fiddle player all doing Irish songs.

DF: Could you tell me about the longshoreman, novelist and political operative Joe Flaherty?

AK: He lived across the courtyard from me on Barrow Street. He was a good guy to have around. He was very funny, very passionate about his beliefs. He was articulate them. He was a good arguer and a horse player, which was a big thing among a bunch of us. Joe was a hale fellow, well met.  He had prostate cancer.

DF: Were you involved in Norman Mailer’s mayoral campaign?

AK: The Lion’s Head was one of the centers of the campaign. [I’d show up at 8am and go to work.]

Bella Abzug. Her campaign manager was Doug Ireland. One day, Doug came into the Lion’s head almost doubled over. “I was having an argument with Bella in a cab and she punched me.” Bella slugged him in the stomach.

Ed Koch didn’t drink. The Village Independent Democrats  were cheap…14 people sitting around and all of them wanting separate check. They were a waitress’s nightmare.

DF: Can you think of any other drinkers at the Lion’s Head?

AK: Wilfred Sheed. He wrote some great criticism. He had a wife who was Southern trash, who thought she was uppercrust. There was also Tom Paxton.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Painter Sherman Drexler, interviewed in Newark, NJ, in October 2009

(Sherman Drexler in the 1950's)

Sherman Drexler was a young painter when he started hanging out at the Cedar Tavern on University Place in Greenwich Village in the 1950's. With his good looks and easygoing manner, Drexler quickly became friends with Elaine deKooning and Franz Kline, the Abstract Expressionist painters on the cusp of art world stardom. Sherman himself remained a figurative painter.

Sherman Drexler was married to Rosalyn Drexler, a fierce woman artist who painted, as well as writing plays and for television.  Rosalyn Drexler was one of the first woman Pop Artists.

Sherman Drexler died of cancer in Newark in 2014.

For the interview, I met Sherman in Newark, where he had moved to with Rosalyn Drexler twenty years before from their residence in Manhattan. We met over tapas. “Moving to Newark was the biggest mistake of my life,” chuckled Sherman. He was an engaging, courtly interview subject.

DYLAN FOLEY: How did you wind up hanging out at the Cedar Tavern?
SHERMAN DREXLER: We were living in Washington Heights at the time. I worked with a playwright called Don Peterson, who wrote a play “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” that I think Al Pacino was in. His wife was an art critic and painter named Valerie Peterson. She introduced me to Elaine de Kooning. It was an era when everybody was open and interested in everybody else. If an art book was mentioned, you had to go get it. What happens now, the young people have no interest and little history.

I became friendly with Franz Kline and Elaine de Kooning, as well as a host of younger painters. Bud Hopkinson has became a UFO [fanatic]. He hypnotizes people he works with who claims they have been abducted.

We looked on de Kooning, Pollock and Kline as they elder wisemen. It was great to see them at a point before they exploded.

It was a macho environment.. Rosalyn had a funny encounter with a Greek artist named Aristodimos Kaldis.  He was like Zorba the Greek, a great storyteller.  He had hair growing from his nose. His shirt was always open. He liked to come on to the girls like a mad uncle. He once tried to kiss Roslyn on the lips and at the same time tried to feel her right breast. He was close enough where both things were going to happen. She turned her face and said, “You can have the breast but not the lips.” That broke everyone up, including Kaldis. Her thing was that it was the lesser evil. Kissing him, she thought., would lead to death. He didn’t wash too much.

(Sherman Drexler)

DF: Elaine de Kooning was having an affair with the gallery owner Charles Egan, who represented Willem de Kooning. Could you tell me about Elaine and his wife Betsy Egan arm wrestling?

SD:I met the wife and she was strong and tough. She and Elaine immediately became friends when their arms strained against each other.  [Betsy Egan] was sure she was going to obliterate Elaine, who was secretly in good shape, despite the drinking and smoking.

I had promised Elaine, if she could stop smoking, any painting of mine she wanted. She said, “You’ve lost your best painting. She could stop drinking, but she could never stop smoking. She died of lung cancer.

DF: Did you know the composer Morton Feldman at the Cedar Tavern?

SD: He was supersmart. He could be obnoxious. He and Philip Guston were very close, and he turned against Guston. That was unforgivable.

 (A Sherman Drexler nude)

DF: How about Fielding Dawson?

SD: I like that he idolized Franz Kline. Kline was as admirable a guy as I had ever met. He once admired one of Rosalyn’s sculptures. He said, “I’m taking this. I’ll give you something of mine. He gave us one of his drawings on a telephone book page. We needed to stay in Provincetown one summer, so we sold it for 700 bucks. It paid for the whole summer. Now just for the sentiment, I wish I’d kept it.

Kline’s liver was gone The doctors said “No more hard liquor, so he switched to jugs of wine. In his mind, that is not hard liquor. He really couldn’t stop drinking. He’d been a baseball player as a kid.

Did I tell you the story about Pollock attacking him? Pollock lifted a table full of glasses and dumped it into Kline’s lap. Kline said, “Don’t do that.” Pollock said, “You want to fucking fight?” They started rolling on the floor. Pollock realized that though Kline was smaller, he was stronger. It looked like they were trying to choke each other. Pollock said, “Not so hard, Franz.”  That was told to me by Tom Hess. That I didn’t witness. It was not so hard to make Kline laugh. They put their arms around each other and went back to eating.

I knew Ruth Kligman, also. She lives on 14th Street, in Kline’s old studio. She inherited his old space. She dated Pollock, de Kooning and Kline. The best part of it was she dated Jasper Johns. People would say, “What do you mean? He’s gay.” She was just friendly with Johns, but people assumed she’d converted him. [Editor’s note: Ruth Kligman died in 2010]

There is a great photo in Rosalyn’s writing room of Kline and de Kooning staring at the back of a zaftig woman, and it was Kligman. Everyone is standing outside the Cedar Bar and studying this shapely woman.

Did you hear the Herman Cherry/Franz Kline story? The great part of the story, telling Kline how pitiful he was, Kline didn’t want him to do that poormouth thing. He said, “You owe me a fuck.” I’m not buying how pitiful you are. When Kline saw him, he said “Wipe that expression off your face. We know you are happy.”

I was working with narcotics addicts on North Brother Isalnd, next to Riker’s Island. While working there, I organized a show of student work. To make sure that people came, I got work from de Kooning, Kline and Marisol. Kline was in a bathrobe and hungover. I came to see him at 3:30 or 4pm. He started drinking. By 8pm, I was completely drunk. He was completely restored. To restore himself, he drank a little more. He came back to life.

DF: What was the change at the Cedar?

AS: It was wealth, it was growing older. When it became a total celebrity situation, there was no longer this feeling of “We are all in this together.” It was totally isolating.  Fame, money and the whole thing.

DF: Everything is connected. Rosalyn wrote the play “Home Movies,” which starred Freddy Herko. I have heard there is a documentary on Freddy Herko in the works.

SD: Freddy Herko was the sweetest. He was so gay that you couldn’t hate Freddy. He could walk into a bar in Red Hook. He was so far out, they couldn’t hate him. Jill Johnson and Freddy Hrko did a roof top dance. Under drink and drug, he’d walk the edge. His death was half suicide, half thinking he could fly.
It may have been someone saying, “Jump.”

DF: Could you tell me about Rosalyn Drexler working at Judson Poets Theatre?
SD: One story is that Rosalyn walked in and had both a cross and a Jewish star on. She was ready for any kind of religion.  Al Carmines knew immediately that they should do her play. Once Rosalyn saw the Theatre of the Absurd, like Beckett and Ionesco, she felt there was a home for her there. She had already been writing that way.

William Klein, the photographer, helped get I am the Beautiful Stranger published.

Dick Schraf and Carolee Schneemann were discussing her nude photos and nude videos. “I don’t know why men are always hitting on me,” she said. She’s an exhibitionist.

I think Carolee Schneemann is an awful painter. I think that “Meat Joy” was too easy.

I met Elaine when I was at a party with Rosalyn.  Elaine slept with a lot of people but she never tried to sleep with me. We were friends. Bill and Elaine had total admiration for each other. It was total attraction.

Elaine felt betrayed by Lee Hall’s book and her emphasis on Elaine and Lee Krasner’s competition.

Edwin Denby…cleanest, most elegant prose.

DF: Did you know Allen Ginsberg?

AS: I introduced Oppenheim to Allen Ginsberg. We knew Ginsberg in California in ’55 or ’56. When Rosalyn and I lived in Berkeley, we didn’t lock the door.Allen was rapacious with young boys.  If you had a 12-year-old kid, Allen was not the guy to introduce him to.

DF: Did Rosalyn do salons  at the White Horse with Norman Mailer?
AS: They were fascinated with Rosalyn. Before she married me, she hitchhiked from Florida to New York at the age of 18. A couple of t2ruck drivers wanted to have sex with her. She got one to laugh, she got the other to talk about his mother. Their intent was to park on the side of the road and to rape her.
She had wanted to get a suntan to impress me.
Calder Willingham was a wonderful writer, though no one ever talks about him anymore. When you realize how careers are built and unbuilt, it’s just not fair.

I’ll be 85 in January.
We met in Van Courtland Park. She went to Music and Art, but was ushered out.  She cut gym and had been late too many times. The woman said, “This is the end for you. You’ll never get married or go to college.”

Years later, Mailer asked her, “How much have you lost?”
Mailer practically adopted some 17-year-old girl who was serving coffee at the Living Theatre. Mailer and Jack Gelber were interested in this girl. To free her from juvenile deliquency, Mailer adopted her. He made her box with  him. He was desperate for a sparring partner. Do you know what his last sport in life was? A writer friend of mine named Larry Shandler became close to Mailer. Mailer became a mad thumb wrestler. He had to do something competitive.

Mailer was sweet and generous, and aware of other people’s talents, then he had that crazy streak. It was a small guy wanting to be tough.

The great Bill Ward story was that Bill Ward was chatting away with another woman at a bar in Provincetown. Onlookers watched Harriet Zwerling go through the room. He’s being charming. She brings up her fist and punches him out. He never even saw it.

I always felt that Rosalyn never got enough attention. She stopped painting for a while when she got angry at the art scene, which was a big mistake because they had a big retrospective on Pop Art and they didn’t include her. All the male pop artists asked, “Why wasn’t Rosalyn included?” It’s like rewriting history, for she was part of that scene.

Brooklyn Rail is reintroducing I Am a Beautiful Stranger. They are reintroducing To Smithereens. Her novel Below the Belt failed on every level.

DF: Is it true that Rosalyn once threw her publisher across the room?

SD: He was an obnoxious guy who grabbed her and said something like “Come here, honey.” He did it to the wrong person. She worked on Lily Tomlin’s special. She got an Emmy for that.

The wrestling thing was an obsession on mine.. She was not interested, but she would take any kind of dare.

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.