Sunday, December 8, 2019
(This interview was done during the time "The Last Bohemians" photo exhibit was up at the Westbeth Gallery. Edward and I produced the exhibit. Edward was interviewed by Jerry Tallmer, one of the legendary founders of the Village Voice.)
Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006
The Last Bohemian
By Jerry Tallmer
My subject, Dear Muse, is Fidel Castro
Rebelissimo and darling of the Spanish-American lower classes
A general who adopted for his uniform
The work clothes of the buck private and the beard of the saints
A man fit for ruling a great nation
But who only has an island.
Irene, the beautiful Cuban, has his picture over her bed
Between Rudolph Valentino and the Blessed Virgin –
He stands large and flabby between the perfect body and the purest soul
Doves on his shoulders, on his open hands
And one dove for crown standing on his head –
He is not afraid of birdshit, his face is radiant.
— from “Stand up, Friend, with Me,” poems by Edward Field, Grove Press, 1963
Irene, the beautiful Cuban, in the second stanza above — that would be Maria Irene Fornes, even then, in the early ’60s, an oncoming and most irreverent playwright. Today an internationally celebrated playwright, director, and teacher of drama, but when Edward Field first knew her, or first heard of her, she was merely one member of a ménage à trois, the other two legs of which, if one may put it that way, were Susan Sontag the brainy writer and Harriet Sohmers the stunning 6-foot Art Students League model.
Edward Field first heard of her — Irene — through his friend Alfred Chester, the mad, stone-bald, ludicrously bewigged 1950s-’60s storyteller, essayist, and near genius who is one of the central figures of Field’s unputdownable new book, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag.” Alfred Chester was in fact the man — he died, of drugs, drink, and/or suicide in Jerusalem in 1971 — a homosexual, who wanted to marry Susan Sontag. As a career step.
Indeed, to read “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag,” which is subtitled “And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), is to begin to believe that the whole world, if not homosexual, then is bisexual. Edward Field himself has been gay approximately since the cradle, and for the best part of his 81 youthful years, proud of it.
Chester had ended up in Jerusalem after being coldly rebuffed in Morocco by his comrade-in-arts and sometime hero, composer/novelist (“The Sheltering Sky”) Paul Bowles; it may even have been Bowles who, in the end, got Alfred Chester expelled from Morocco.
Paul Bowles is in any event another central character in the Field memoir, along with the rather more interesting and to some minds (mine) more talented Jane (Mrs.) Bowles, the playwright (“In the Summer House”) who, calling herself “Crippie, the kike dyke” and signing her letters “The Spider’s Wife” — her husband having cannibalized her writing energy to fuel his own — could show Alfred Chester cards and spades in damaged dementia.
“The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag” is a rich compilation of these and dozens of other to-the-life sketches or full portraits of people like Sontag herself, Alan Ginsberg, Truman Capote, Jean Garrigue (everyone’s fascination), poet Arthur Gregor, poet May Swenson (whom Field deeply admired and learned from), poet Frank O’Hara (whom Field deeply admired and, for all O’Hara’s goyischer detachment, had a love affair with for a time).
From the book, in a chapter evoking Greenwich Village in the era of Pollock, Kline, De Kooning, the Living Theater, the Cherry Lane, the San Remo, the Cedar Bar:
The fifties were an age when, if you were “sensitive,” you had to be “neurotic,” which meant you had problems of “guilt” and “anxiety” and “adjustment,” which always had “sexual problems” at the root. Sex, itself, was usually looked on as a sickness in those moralistic years. In fact, almost everyone I knew in New York was in therapy of one kind or another and many gays beside me were driven to try to go straight. Frank was tolerant of all that, but he himself would have none of it.
Salted in with all this are hundreds of tiny, invaluable nuggets — casual asides — along the lines of: “[Among] the aging Masters [of poetry], each with the distinctive voice and unassailable technique, if nothing new to say — it was only Robert Frost who spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunt.”
“Irene Fornes,” said Edward Field the other morning, as he surveyed four walls of photographs of still living “old Bohemians” in or out of his book. “Alfred Chester knew Harriet Sohmers and Irene and Susan. They [the ladies] switched off in every possible combination. After Susan kicked Harriet out, she installed Irene as her lover. Harriet then went straight and stayed straight to the end of her life.”
The present writer said he’d interviewed Susan Sontag once or twice, and found her to be friendly but cool.
“She could turn it on and off,” said Field. “A lot of successful people give you one minute of intense attention, so you get a glow.”
What was undeniable — and Field forcefully agreed — was that Susan Sontag had been one of this city’s great beauties. Had he liked her? “No, never. But I do a tribute to her in the book because of how she spoke out for what she believed.”
Then, laughing, he bespoke a folk tale of musical beds — one bed actually — involving not Irene and Susan and Harriet but Irene and a certain outspoken novelist and the novelist’s then wife, who came home, took in the scene, said: “Move over,” and expanded the duet into a trio. There have, in fact, always been as many men who were wild about Irene Fornes as women, if not more so.
Well, Irene and all the other people on those walls — Judith Malina, Barbara Garson, Rosetta Reitz, George Bartenieff, etc., etc. — are still living except one, Tobias Schneebaum, the slim, willowy gay-caballero painter and author who walked alone into the Amazon jungles of Peru one fine day, only to discover purity and joy in the arms of naked “savages” of the male gender who would rather screw him than put him in a pot and cook him.
The photographs — by Michael Sofronski, with accompanying texts by Dylan Foley — are in an adjunct room of the street-level Westbeth art gallery, 55 Bethune Street. They’ve been held over through the end of this month. Toby Schneebaum, who died last September, lived upstairs.
Edward Field has lived upstairs at Westbeth since 1972. He and Neil Derrick, his companion, mate, other half since 1959 — “with a two-year hiatus when we broke up, and then we straightened out our heads” — are a familiar sight in Greenwich Village, walking together, Neil’s hand on Edward’s shoulder. Derrick has been blind since a brain-tumor operation also in 1972.
What is not in the book, except in the briefest of references, is the combat experience of Second Lieutenant Edward Field as navigator on an Eighth Air Force B-17 during World War II. He long ago wrote a long poem about it — you can find it in his “Variety Photoplays,” Grove Press, 1967 — and now, sitting there at Westbeth, he dispassionately recounted the basic details:
“We were returning from a bombing run over Berlin in the winter of 1945. It was my fifth mission. We’d got shot up, lost two engines, the gas tank was shot out, we were limping back to England over the North Sea on one and a half engines. Then the last engine gave out, and we hit the water [“… just like hitting a brick wall,” the poem says — “Who would ever think water could be so hard?”]
“I was in the water about half an hour. There was no room on the rubber raft. Then one of the enlisted men, a gunner, got off the raft to let me on. First he took his clothes off — a mistake. The water was freezing. I’d tried to go swimming in the North Sea in summer, and the water was too cold then. The gunner died. [From the poem: “It was like those who survived the death camps by letting others go into the ovens in their place.”]
“In all we lost two men. Another gunner — the tail gunner — was gay. He and I discovered it after the crash when we were on rest cure in Liverpool, but we didn’t come on to each other. I gradually learned what the system was in the military. The chaplain’s assistant was always gay, and Special Services — the ones who put on the camp shows — were gay. When I finally got to Paris, it was full of gay soldiers.”
Edward Field, born June 7, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Lithuania (his father) and Poland (mother), went into the service at 18 “to get away from NYU.”
He had always known what he was — Jewish and homosexual — even before the word “gay” came into general usage.
“But I didn’t know of the whole gay world — the world of restaurants and bars and cruising and the underground — the world that was all around me. I thought you had to be an underground criminal to be gay.
So Greenwich Village, when I reached it, was a tremendous revelation. You know, in that recent documentary film about Greenwich Village, where Norman Mailer says that as a teenager he used to come to the Village to get laid? That was the only true thing in that whole movie.”
Edward Field had grown up in Lynbrook, on the south shore of Long Island. “The German-American Bund was big in that town. They used to meet in the schools. Nassau County would have voted in Hitler. We were practically the only Democrats around.”
He was never religious. “All that phony-baloney.” But he was nevertheless a Jew, and he soon found out that “the poetry world was very hostile to Jews back then — was full of Anglo-Saxon contempt for Jews.” As for the rest of it: “When I tried to get a job before the war, I couldn’t get seen. Auschwitz and Israel changed everything.”
But did not change anything to do with homosexuality — i.e., with Edward Field’s fundamental subject matter. “Although nowadays I write about everything. It’s like journalism. I’ve just done a new poem, ‘Better Keep Your Parachute Harness On, George.’ ”
Few if any Old Bohemians, gay, straight, or on the bias, would quarrel with that proposition.
Sunday, November 24, 2019
(Neil Derrick in the 1960's)
In 1959, the poet Edward Field was working as a temp typist at an advertising agency in Manhattan. The manager sat down next to him a muscular, handsome young man with fair hair named Neil Derrick. “You two should get along,” she said.
“We talked all day,” said Edward. “She separated us the next day, but by then it was too late.” A few weeks later, Edward moved into Neil’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Thus began a relationship that spanned 58 years until Neil’s death on January 4th, 2018
I met with Edward in his spartan apartment in Westbeth, the artists’ housing in the West Village, where he has lived since 1972. We discussed Edward’s relationship with Neil, Neil’s writing and his work writing pornography for Grove Press and other publishers.
Edward spoke of their tumultuous break up in the late 1960’s at the height of Gay Liberation and their reunion that was provoked by Neil’s brain tumor and post-surgical blindness.
During the last four decades of their relationship, Edward and Neil traveled to Morocco and developed a routine where they lived in Paris, Berlin and London on a regular basis. Together, they also wrote the novel “Village,” a saga about a multigenerational family in Greenwich Village.
DYLAN FOLEY: We are near the first anniversary on Neil’s death.
EDWARD FIELD: Yes, he died on January 4, 2018.
DF: You’ve had diarrhea recently?
EF: I’m pretty sure it started because of Neil’s anniversary.
DF: Do you think that it was stress related?
EF: I’m sure. There is nothing in my life that would give me diarrhea except that. I am of the generation that believed in psychosomaticailments. That’s old-fashioned psychology, but if you believe it, it’s true.
DF: Could we start from the beginning? How did you meet Neil?
EF: I was working as a temporary typist. You could make a living, you could live on what you made as a temporary typist. Rents were low, food was so cheap, restaurants even. I was an actor, and my acting teacher said, “If you want to be an actor, learn to type.” Well, I already knew how, but I didn’t want to be a typist. I did it anyway. I was working at an advertising agency in the typing pool. The first day, the supervisor brought over a young man and sat him down at the work station next to me. “I think you guys will get along well.” Indeed, we didn’t stop talking all day. The next day, she moved me to the back, so we weren’t together, but it was too late.
DF: What was Neil’s family background?
EF: He grew up on a ranch in the Central Valley of California.
DF: What was his childhood like?
EF: He has a sister, Diane. They’re WASPs. The mother was Canadian, so there was an overlay of Canadian gentility to the ranch and the cowboy image. I always felt because of the Canadian connection, they had a respect for the monarchy.
DF: Do you know if Neil had a happy childhood?
EF: He didn’t complain. He had his mother’s attitude towards his father. She thought the father, a ranch manager, was a boor because she was so genteel. I don’t really know much about his childhood, except he was adored. He was such a cute kid. Growing up in a conventional environment, he always looked with wonder at the New York experience, growing up like I did.
DF: What was Neil’s birth year?
EF: ’31. I was born in ’24. There is seven years difference.
DF: Was Neil drafted?
EF: He was drafted for the Korean War. He spent two years at the U.S. SHAEP headquarters, outside Paris, the big joint-military headquarters. He was first stationed in Chicago as an army clerk and saw a notice of a vacancy at SHAEP, applied, and went to Paris for the rest of his service.
(Edward Field and Neil Derrick)
DF: How did Neil wind up in New York?
EF: Neil was studying journalism at Berkeley, with his junior year at Exeter College in England. When he graduated from Berkeley, he came straight to New York where his sister was living. When I met him, he had just come back from his sister’s wedding in California. I’ve always thought that as significant, that he was free to make a relationship because she had.
DF: What kind of jobs did Neil have?
EF: He worked as an editorial assistant for trade magazines. When we got together, he got a job at the Museum of Modern Art. He, too, wanted to be a writer. Of course, I encouraged him. I didn’t have a book yet, but I had been published a lot. Though I was in the poetry world, and he wanted to write fiction.
DF: What year did you meet?
EF: It was ’59.
DF: Where were you living then?
EF: When I met Neil, I had been living on Central Park West with an actor I had performed with the summer before. I had been the leading man in a summer theater company outside Pittsburgh. I had a very good if short acting career. I played big roles and knew what it meant to stand on the stage before an audience.
(Edward and Neil in the aughts)
DF: Was Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen?
EF: Yes. I moved in there very quickly.
DF: The situation was not ideal?
EF: It was a railroad flat with the toilet in the hall. The rent was $42 a month and it was on West 47thStreet between 8thand 9thAvenues. The police station was right across the street, so it was very safe.
We were once going to the Apollo Theatre on 42ndStreet. When we had sat down to watch the movie a police officer came over and called us out and put us up against the wall. Then drove us to the police station. We learned that a police officer from out of town had been walking behind us and heard us talking about the murder of a woman upstate, like we knew something about it. We did not. After two hours of questioning, a top detective came in and said, “If you know anything about this, come back and tell us. We are going to keep an eye on you.”
DF: Did you move because of your neighbor?
EF: We called her the Widow Murphy. She had a big family and a lot of parties. It was pretty noisy. So we moved into Alfred Chester’s loft in the South Village. I knew him from NYU. We then found a furnished apartment. We went from place to place. You could do it back then. We finally found an apartment.
DF: Could you describe Neil physically?
EF: He had a wonderfully athletic body, though he wasn’t an athlete. He just grew up on a ranch and rode horses. And he did exercises regularly. One shoulder was short, because his shoulder blade had been broken at birth and he had an operation to repair it. But he had terrific posture, a beautifully straight spine, and was very attractive.
DF: You were together through the ‘60’s?
EF: Yes, then he started having seizures, epileptic seizures.
DF: Was Neil sleeping with other men?
EF: Not much. Being from the east, I'd had a wild sex life. He really didn’t. Then, after we were together about 10 years, I woke up one night and he was having a grand mal seizure next to me! And they kept happening. A brain scan showed nothing, no cause for the seizures.
Eventually, the seizures were controlled with pills, anti-seizure pills. The medication worked. Having had a lot of psychotherapy myself, I asked him if he had any idea what was causing the seizures? He confessed that he was very frustrated. Especially with gay liberation breaking out all over, all around us in the Village was a sexual frenzy. It was freedom, freedom. Everybody was screwing around. He had never done that and I had.
Also, in 1963, my first book was published, “Stand Up, Friend, with Me.” It was very successful. Wherever we went, people would scream, “Edward Field, the poet.” And Neil, this gorgeous guy I was with, was ignored. That was a factor.
I told him, okay, do what you have to do, and I'll get out of your way. I am going to go to Afghanistan. You're free.
I went to Afghanistan and when I came back, he was living in Chicago and then London. Finally, he came home and we were living in the same apartment, which was impossible.
DF: Were you still broken up at this point?
EF: We were. Essentially, I had to find a place of my own. (Chuckles) He was not going to find the place. I went to Westbeth. I said to the manager, “I can’t stay in New York if I don’t get an apartment here.” The manager said, “That’s what we are here for, to keep artists in the city,” and gave me a studio.
DF: Did you have any understanding to get back together after you got back from Afghanistan?
EF: No, that was the end. Of course, I was still madly in love with him.This is hard for me to tell…(Edward’s voice cracks and he starts to tear up. It’s okay, he said, I’m a crier.) Then he started having blackouts. And a doctor looked in his eyes and said, “You have a brain tumor. I can see it.” I think there was pressure on the optic nerve which showed in his eyes.
He had an operation and lost most of his sight. After going through a blind training program in West Haven, he tried living alone. I was now at Westbeth and he was on Perry Street in our apartment there. But it was too difficult. He was even robbed. The police station had said that people should register their electronic equipment with the police, so he brought in a sheet listing all his blind equipment—talking book machines and recorders. The neighbors said that men came down loaded with suitcases one day. All his stuff was taken away. It’s hard not to believe that it didn’t have a connection to the police.
DF: Neil lost 98 percent of his sight?
EF: He had two percent peripheral vision. He couldn’t go on living by himself. I was going over and cooking for him. This was not romance.
This was really love. I loved him. He finally moved in with me here in Westbeth. I moved into Westbeth in 1972. And we lived together for 46 more years. We were together for 58 years all together.
Neil had another brain tumor at one point, and I took him to Johns Hopkins for pinpoint radiation. They targeted the tumor and burned it out, but it killed the hearing in that ear.
There could have been another tumor. In the last year of his life, he lost the rest of his sight and then his hearing.
I figure we had a terrific life together. Whenever I could, I would connect him with sex. Not me. I never found anybody else. We went to baths in Europe. In the steam room I would take his hands and put them on someone. That’s what they were there for.
DF: You guys stopped sleeping with each other?
EF: No more. We never had sex again [after we got back together]. It was just not on. We had stopped. Somehow, the break up of two years…I got the message. It was all right. I’m okay.
Can I tell about my private life? Because he was always walking around naked, it was gorgeous. I had living porn all the time and I whacked off over him constantly. I really had a very good sex life, I figure.
DF: You did not have sex together again?
EF: No. No more.
DF: Neil lost interest in you?
EF: He really didn’t have an interest in me. You see, I was family. When you become family, it’s devastating to your sex life.
DF: What was Neil’s writing career like?
EF: He was not unsuccessful. When he was sighted. Did you ever see his books? [Edward pulls out a stack of 1960’s pulp paperbacks.] He had a half dozen soft-porn novels published, one by Grove Press, “Sticky Fingers.” I think the Stones took their album title from it. It’s about a lady who can’t stop fooling around with her pussy. All of his books are fun.
When he lost his sight, he said, “I can’t write anymore.” I said, “Well, let’s see.” I was going to Yaddo for a month or two. Before I went away, I plotted with him a novel, chapter by chapter. I went to Yaddo and he had written the whole novel by the time I came back. He was a typist. But he couldn’t revise what he wrote.
I helped him rewrite the novel and he called it “The Potency Clinic.” We published it ourselves. A Berlin publisher found it in a gay bookstore and published it as “Die Potenz Klinik.” It was in print for several editions in Germany.
(The German edition of The Potency Clinic)
An editor friend, Bob Wyatt, said, “You know that proposal you sent me about four generations of a family in Greenwich Village? We like it. Could you write a synopsis and I'll submit it to the board.” We'd never proposed anything like it to him, but we put together an outline. Two pages. And he gave us a contract for “Village,” by Bruce Elliot, which we wrote together.
DF: How did your temperaments work together?
EF: We fought. We fought over every line. At the end, it was all right. It was just part of the process. We wrote “Village” here and in Europe, in The Hague, over the winter, in my brother-in-law’s house while he was working in Berlin. We wrote a quarter of the book there in 1980. We delivered it on time and the book came out in 1982.
DF: You were obsessed with rewriting the book in the aughts?
EF: A small press wanted to reprint it, so we revised it. Neil was not happy that the small press published it with our names on it. He was obsessed with privacy. I always felt it was part of being a WASP. He didn’t want his name on anything. He used Bruce Eliot, a pseudonym. Also, Anita Parker. He had a lot of pseudonyms for his porno books. “Sticky Fingers” was written under the name Eleanor Bartlett.
DF: I find it interesting that Neil was a gay man writing about heterosexual sex.
EF: I helped him with a lot of the sex scenes. He did some gay sex, too. “The Potency Clinic” was gay, and “Inferno of Women” had lesbian sex.
DF: Was that based on the Women’s House of Detention on Greenwich Street. How was it?
EF: It’s fun to read. All his books are fun. And on line they are now selling for quite a lot.