Saturday, June 29, 2019

Rest in Peace, Harriet: Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, memoirist, ex-nude model and West Village sexual adventurer (March 26, 1928-June 21, 2019). Aged 91.


My friend, the poet Edward Field emailed me last Friday, June 21st to tell me the horrible news that Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, a memoirist, ex-nude model and sexual adventurer died that morning in a long-term rehab in Brooklyn. She was 91.

I met Harriet in 2005 when Edward and I organized a photo exhibit at Westbeth of old bohemians who came up in New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Edward introduced me to Harriet and I went over to her apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Harriet was an imposing woman, standing six-feet tall with shoulder-length yellow-white hair and a deep voice.

“Kids today,” Harriet said in our first interview, “they don’t fuck.”

Harriet was probably the most fearless person I’ve ever met when it came to discussing her own sexuality and sex life. Under a picture of a nude painting of herself done by an art student in the 1960’s, Harriet told me epic stories of her wild youth and her sexual escapades. After she threw off the chains of her uptight middle-class youth in Manhattan, Harriet went to the radical Black Mountain College, then transferred to Berkeley. Working in the campus bookstore, the 21-year-old seduced a 17-year-old Susan Sontag with the line, “Have you read Nightwood?” referring to the Djuna Barnes novel.

In 1950, Harriet took a ship to Paris with $200 in her pocket. She got involved with a Swede who gave her gonorrhea. She then hooked up with the entrancing future playwright Maria Irene Fornes, a Cuban-American, who may have been the great love of her life.

Harriet rekindled with Susan in Paris when she left a Fulbright to escape a bad marriage and motherhood. Their fights were physical. Harriet and Susan hosted the Beat exiles at their hotel room in Paris, including Allen Ginsberg. Noticing a big bruise on Susan’s face, Ginsberg said to Harriet, “You hit her because she is better looking than you.”

Harriet came back to New York in 1959 and Susan stole Irene from her, breaking her heart. Distraught, Harriet borrowed $25 and flew to Provincetown, Mass. She started dating Bill Ward, the editor of the Provincetown Review.  Harriet was an editor there when the federal government tried to shut the magazine down for publishing the Hubert Selby Jr.’s story “Tralala,” an excerpt from his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. Harriet had to go into hiding for a short period of time.

Bill Ward’s best friend was Norman Mailer. Harriet and Mailer despised each other, and she repeatedly attacked Mailer’s height and hypermasculinity. In the summer of 1961, Mailer coerced his wife Adele Morales Mailer to fight Harriet. The two women punched each other, pulled each others’ hair and wrestled on the ground while the men cheered and took bets.

Harriet’s fight with Adele Mailer was caused by the Mailers’ earlier menage a trois affair with Irene Fornes, which Irene ended because of her deep affection for Harriet. This angered the Mailers. The summer fight was directly linked to Mailer stabbing his Adele that fall.  Five decades later, Harriet could still get angry discussing the big fight.

While dating Bill Ward, Harriet met her future husband Louie Zwerling in the Cedar Tavern, the artists’ hangout. Louie tried to pay Harriet for sex, thinking she was a prostitute. After a turbulent dating period, they married and had their son Milo in 1963. “Being married to a seaman was great for having affairs,” Harriet once told me, with her typical candor.

Harriet continued her prolific and varied sex life. She told me with unsupressed glee that she would frequent the 55 Bar on Christopher Street, where pot smoking was encouraged and there were often two people in the bathroom stalls at a time. This was Harriet’s life as a young mother with a husband on the high seas.

Harriet later became a public schoolteacher in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where she worked for 28 years. She saw the parents of her students in the old Polish neighborhood as racist.

In her late seventies, Harriet self-published a collection of essays and autobiographical pieces called Notes of a Nude Model, referring to her years modeling at art schools. There were pieces about her stint as a “Rent a Beatnik” and the time she shot heroin with the artist Larry Rivers. The book became a surprise hit. Harriet starred in Deirdre Fishel’s documentary “Still Doing It” about older women and sex. She also stole the scene when she was in Nancy Kates’ “Regarding Susan Sontag” documentary, where she discussed her seduction of Sontag. Harriet also starred in Michelle Memran’s documentary on Irene Fornes called “The Rest I Make Up.”

In 2014, Harriet published Abroad: An Expatriate’s Diaries, 1950-59, which were excerpts from her Paris diaries. The diaries are rollicking good fun, with several orgies and the Sontag fistfight, as well as the roots of her simmering feud with Norman Mailer.

 (Harriet in the last decade)

In the 2006 photo-and-text exhibit that was held at Westbeth, the artists’ housing on Bethune Street in the West Village, Harriet was the star.
The exhibit was called “The Last Bohemians” and was to support Edward Field’s memoir, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag. The exhibit included the sexual anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, the writer Elizabeth Pollet, the photographer and anti-war activist Karl Bissinger and actress and experimental theater legend Judith Malina.

Harriet showed up in a maroon bustier, preparing for a night out. The young New Yorker reporter Lauren Collins grabbed on to her and wouldn’t let her go. Harriet was featured in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section, referred to by Collins as a grande horizontale. [An old French term for a courtesan, which would be inappropriate for Harriet.] At the end of the piece, Harriet extolled the virtues of the Corner Bistro’s burgers. A cartoon of Harriet accompanied the piece.

By his forties, Harriet’s son Milo Zwerling had become a successful musician and the leader of the band Milo Z. Eight years ago, he and his wife Tamara had their daughter Sierra. Harriet suddenly had a gorgeous granddaughter she could dote on and love unconditionally.

In the last five years of her life, Harriet was plagued with falls and did several stints in physical rehab facilities after a spine injury. She remained a vibrant sexual being. Several years ago, she published a poem about the number of people she had slept with over the course of her life. She then recorded a video of herself reading the poem.

Harriet also joined a website for cougars, older women looking for younger men. She had a date with a man fifty years her junior. They made out in her beloved red car, but she refused his pleas to come back to her apartment for obvious safety reasons.

In the last several months, Harriet’s health took a turn for the worse. She had several falls and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, winding up in the rehab in the Bronx, then to Mill Basin, Brooklyn, where she died. Deprived of her physical independence, Harriet was still fierce to the end. She gave the poor staff in the Brooklyn rehab hell.