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.

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