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Last Tango in Paris: Redeeming the Sordid — Inevitably

Film being what it is, i. e., canned celluloid, it’s not often that a movie showing becomes an Event — a unique, don’t miss, tonight-only presentation on the order of the one-night stand of a theatrical performer or politician. But due to its prospective problems with Italian censorship, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS,” shown closing night at the New York Film Festival, was just that, and runs the danger of becoming a collector’s item in the audience’s memory. The single just­-completed print was rushed in to the festival, and immediately withdrawn for submission to the Italian censorship board, whose approval it must have to qualify for funds as an Italian production. All very complicated, and whether this affects its release here by its distributor United Ar­tists, remains in some doubt. Even in the relatively lawless and licentious ambience of the New York meat market, where it could certainly open with an X rating, the spectacle of Marlon Brando performing acts that have hith­erto been restricted to the reper­tory of anonymous princes of porno in West Side grind houses, has the power to shock (Alice Tully’s marble pillars are still re­verberating). And the techniques used to lead the young French girl, played by Maria Schneider, from tearful objections to groaning surrender, prove there are still frontiers and inhibitions to conquer, and miles to go before we sleep the dreamless sleep of the totally released!

The combination or Brando, Bertolucci, the Subject and the circumstances of the showing created a natural stir beforehand. Variety reported the scalpers’ price for tickets was $150, but from the looks of the lonely enthu­siasts badgering, pleading for tickets in front of the Hall, I don’t think that kind of money was available on the open market. At any rate, nobody was selling (one-upmanship being priceless in these circles) and if the film had only been half as good, half as sensational or half as erotic, it would have stood the audience on its collective ear. In the lobby afterward there were rumors of walkouts by board members and vomiting by well-dressed wives. Audience reaction varied widely and very much according to gender — in those categories I keep trying to avoid, but which keep forcing themselves on our attention. The gays, as a group, were the most negative; men of heterosexual persuasion (check one to 10) either liked it with “strong reservations” or didn’t like it at all — one notorious ladies’-man-about-town and dabbler in decadence called it “childish” and “rubbish.” Women were either negative, with an undertone of disapproval, or wildly partisan — the group in which I find myself despite previous resistance to both Bertolucci and Brando. Here they conspire magnificently, some­times awkwardly, to create not just a film about an affair, but the affair itself — an affair which we have the option of resisting or ac­cepting on a gut level, and which like most affairs (and unlike most current films) is better experi­enced than written about.

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I don’t intend to speculate on the whys and wherefores of reactions other than my own (and my turned-on sisters’), except to say that in this case reactions by sex are probably justified. Because it is a film about sexual attraction, about an affair “for sex only” (which ultimately disproves its very possibility), about de-­repressing a woman, initiating her into all the low-down lusts and body needs in a relationship that, unlike those in Miller and Lawrence and most eroticists, does as much — perhaps more — ­for the woman as for the man.

Brando, a golden, brawny, will­fully seedy American in a camel-­hair coat with camel-hair hair, picks up — in a manner of not­-speaking — a young French girl, a frizzy haired doll-faced hippie, in an apartment for rent in Passy. They screw standing up as the sun streams onto the dirty rug of the empty apartment, to which they return in the following hours and days for more and different and better and worse of the same. Bertolucci manages the extraordinary feat of making Brando 20 years and many miles from the caricature stud of “A Streetcar Named Desire” seem strange to us. Although the vitality and humor of the Williams-Kazan cre­ation are still there, he seems to be working out his own destiny (and perhaps script) with, ironi­cally, less method virtuosity and more faith in character, in his own and in others. The veils of celebration are less obtrusive, the humor more mordant and spontaneous, the stillnesses more daring. He works with Schneider even when he is deliberately ig­noring her to bring her through the gutter of sexual loathing to the discovery — fatal to him — that the sex principle is as close to Thanatos as to Eros.

Meanwhile we see them, in their lives away from each other, involved in other forms of love and death and comic horror: he with the suicide of his French wife, proprietess of a fleabag hotel which harbors remnants of the Italian cinema like flies on flypaper; she with her boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is making a film of her, which includes a multitude of “hom­mages” to French and American cinema, and particularly re­sembles the way in “Le Petit Soldat” the hero (Michel Subor alias Jean-Luc Godard) circles his beloved, framing her into art, freezing her into the object of his love-creation.

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There is a fine reversal in the contrast between the two men: the paradox that from the country of puritans has come the ultimate lover, while the country of lovers has turned into aesthetes and ob­servers. Leaud idolizes the girl, framing her into an image for posterity; Brando degrades and abuses her, takes her, without a name or identity, in the here and now. Leaud ignores the underside of a woman, the change, and lust and “unspeakable” desires. Brando celebrates these, the en­trails, the viscera, the dark knowledge of human beings turned inside out, like the figures in the Francis Bacon paintings which form (a little too self-cons­ciously) the visual theme of the film. It is only when he has her pinned to the wall, screaming that she will do anything, anything, he asks her, that she realizes —­ perhaps — that he is the one man who hasn’t used her.

But then, one might object, Bertolucci never dares to be real­ly ugly. The romantic is always redeeming the sordid, not sani­tizing it so much as redeeming it. We are always turning from their bodies to look at their faces, to question their feelings. But this is the glory, and the defeat, of the erotic — that it is at its most exquisite just as it is turning into its opposite, the spiritual and romantic. That it happens at a dif­ferent time for these two people is their tragedy.

If we never quite believe the depth of passion called forth from her, Maria Schneider gives a remarkable performance as she moves from a bright, spoiled doll to a distraught woman.

Is it possible to have an affair “for sex only?” the film asks. I have asked it myself. Bertolucci finds, as I found, that the answer is No. It is necessary. But not pos­sible. The person who asks the question has already ack­nowledged that split between mind and body which aspires to a closing of the gap in the mind’s terms. ❖

 

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‘The Godfather’ Reviewed

films in focus

It seems that the first question everyone asks about “THE GODFATHER” is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. More exclamation, in fact, than explanation. More than one whisperer intimated that Brando’s make-up (by Dick Smith, the auteur also of Dustin Hoffman’s Shangri-La face-furrows in “Little Big Man”) was so masterful that the Brando we all know and love had disappeared completely beneath it. I must admit that some of the advance hype had gotten to me by the time I sat braced in my seat for the screening of “The Godfather.” I was determined to discern Brando beneath any disguise mere humans could devise.

The picture opened with a face outlined against a splotched blue background with no spatial frame of reference, a background not so much abstract as optically mod with a slow zoom to take us into the milieu by degrees. But that face! I was stunned. How had Brando managed it? The eyes, the ears, the nose, the chin. It didn’t look anything at all like Brando. And the voice was equally shattering in it unfamiliar pitch. I began groping for adjectives like “eerie” and “unearthly.” Gradually the face began to recede into the background, and I heard a familiarly high-pitched voice somewhere in the foreground. I suddenly recalled the plot of the novel and thus I realized that the face looming in front of me did not resemble Brando’s simply because it wasn’t Brando’s. (I learned later that the face and voice in question for the role of Bonasera belonged to a 20th-billed actor named Salvatore Corsitto who gets no points for looking like himself.)

When Brando himself finally materialized on the screen as Don Vito Corleone, I could see it was Brando all the way. There was no mistaking the voice even with the slow-motion throaty whine Brando used to disguise it. Brando’s range has always been more limited by his voice than his Faustian admirers cared to admit. That is why his best roles have always played against the voice by negating it as a mechanism of direct communication. Brando’s greatest moments are thus always out of vocal synch with other performers. Even the famous taxicab scene with Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront” operates vocally (though not physically or emotionally) as a syncopated Brando soliloquy, a riff on the upper registers of sensitivity and vulnerability resonating all the more in counterpoint to Steiger’s more evenly cadenced street glibness and shrillness. Curiously, Brando has come to embody, often brilliantly, a culturally fashionable mistrust of language as an end in itself. The very mystique of Method Acting presumes the existence of an emotional substratum swirling with fear and suspicion under every line of dialogue. Hence, it is surprising that Brando has not played gangsters more often. The Machiavellian bias of the Method is ideally suited to the ritualized conversations of organized criminals.

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So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about “The Godfather”: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone, a role Lee J. Cobb could have played in his sleep without any special make-up. Brando’s triumph and fascination is less that of an actor of parts than of a star galaxy of myths. Which is to say that he does not so much lose himself in his part as lift his part to his own exalted level as a star personality. The fact remains, however, that though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone has much the biggest and most challenging role in the film, and gives the most problematical performance. It is with Pacino’s role that fact and fantasy come most discordantly into conflict. And it is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-scenarist Mario Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual’s daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.

There were many ways to adapt Puzo’s novel to the screen. (There is no question here of fidelity to a text that was merely the first draft of a screen treatment.) Puzo quotes Balzac no less in a foreword conveying a Brechtian implication: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Brando claims to have been representing a typically corporate personality from the ruthlessly American capitalistic system. But “The Godfather” as a whole does not sustain this particular interpretation as effectively as did Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” some years ago. That is to say that Kurosawa and his scenarists came much closer to conjuring up the quasi-criminal ruthlessness of a conglomerate like ITT than do Coppola, Puzo, and Brando. Coppola’s approach tends to be humanistic, ethnic, and almost grotesquely nostalgic. There is more feeling in the film than we had any right to expect, but also more fuzziness in the development of the narrative. “The Godfather” happens to be one of those movies that can’t stay put on the screen. There are strange ghosts everywhere like Richard Conte’s authentically Italian gangster kingpin Barzini evoking memories of “House of Strangers” and “The Brothers Rico,” and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane (alias Frank Sinatra) reportedly walking off the stage of a New York supper club just before “The Godfather” opened and apparently disappearing into that thick mist of forbidden fictions.

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Part 2: March 23, 1972

“THE GODFATHER” is providing additional ammunition, if indeed any were still needed, for the kill-kill-bang-bang forces in the film industry. No, Virginia, this will not be still another article on violence in the movies. The lines forming for “The Godfather” can speak for themselves. What interests me at the moment is less the apparently insatiable hunger of the masses for homicide than the curiously disdainful attitude affected by the popgunnery purveyors toward their material. Gordon Parks, for example, refers derisively to “Shaft” (and, I suppose, the upcoming son of Shaft) as the kind of popular entertainment he must concoct in order to obtain the opportunity to do more serious work. Since Mr. Parks displays no discernible talent in private-eye melodrama, it is to be hoped that he obtains more “serious” assignments as quickly as possible. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola has made it abundantly clear that “The Godfather” was undertaken quite consciously as a “compromise” with the commercial realities of the film industry. And now even Mario Puzo is making noises to the effect that “The Godfather” was written merely to provide the freedom and leisure necessary to turn out something comparable to “The Brothers Karamazov.” Tant pis and all that when we recall that there have been at least a score of gangster movies that have been artistically superior to any of the film versions of “Karamazov.”

Not that there is anything new about the Puzo-Coppola brand of voluptuous Faustianism, which might be subtitled: I sold my soul to the devil for filthy lucre and the roar of the crowd, but I still have my eye on the higher things. John Ford was eulogized through the thirties for turning out three commercial flicks like “Wee Willie Winkie” for the moguls in order to pay for any one serious film like “The Informer” for the mandarins. In retrospect, “Wee Willie Winkie” was never all that bad, and “The Informer” was never all that good. But Faustianism has continued to flourish even to this depressed day when Hollywood swimming pools are hard to come by for even the most corruptible radicals. No one seems to have learned the hard lesson of movie history that the throwaway pictures often become the enduring classics whereas the noble projects often survive only as sure-fire cures for insomnia. Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage the once fashionable game of kitsh-as-catch-can.

That “The Godfather” is almost fatally tainted with condescension follows almost logically from the revelation that the Coppola-Puzo second choice for the title role (after Brando) was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. There’s nothing like a classy performer to get the public’s mind off the questionable cultural credentials of a popular subject. Still, publicity is publicity, and I have no desire to single out Coppola or Puzo for derision. Any artist is vulnerable enough in the journalistic jungle to claim the privilege of saying that he is saving his best for some later project still safely beyond the claws of the snarling critics. Coppola, particularly, has done good work in the past. His first film,”Dementia-13,” is unknown to all but the most dedicated archaeologists of American-International Corman horrifics. Coppola’s official first film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” was completely eclipsed by Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate.” What I said at the time (in The American Cinema) is still pertinent: “Francis Ford Coppola is probably the first reasonably talented and sensibly adaptable directorial talent to emerge from a university curriculum in filmmaking. ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ seemed remarkably eclectic even under the circumstances. If the direction of Nichols on ‘The Graduate’ has an edge on Coppola’s for ‘Big Boy,’ it is that Nichols borrows only from good movies whereas Coppola occasionally borrows from bad ones. Curiously, Coppola seems infinitely more merciful to his grotesques than does anything-for-an-effect Nichols. Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.”

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Since 1967 Coppola has been heard from with varying degrees of decisiveness in two commercial disasters — “Finian’s Rainbow” and “The Rain People.” Coppola had set up his own studio in the San Francisco area to revolutionize what was left of Hollywood. He sponsored George Lucas’s “THX-1138” and was informally associated with John Korty in what might be called the San Francisco School of lyrical realism and dissonant humanism. “Finian’s Rainbow” was a hopelessly anachronistic project to begin with, a moldy bone to the blacks tossed by self-satisfied liberals of the forties in the mistaken belief that bigotry was confined to that picturesque terrain South of Schubert Alley. Coppola did his best with Petula Clark and the badly miscast Fred Astaire, but the show simply sank into the realistic landscape. Another compromise perhaps? Certainly, Coppola’s heart was more completely committed to “The Rain People,” an itinerant production of uncommon emotional intensity.

I met Coppola at Bucknell when he was making “The Rain People” aboard a land yacht, traveling, as it were, across the real face of America in search of sociological truth with an improvised scenario. I remember being as impressed by Coppola’s intelligence as I was suspicious of his professed intentions. People who go out looking for America always seem to know in advance what they are going to find. Alienation and Anomie, Loneliness and Lethargy, Late Night Whining and Daily Paranoia. Coppola never succeeded in establishing the characterization of Shirley Knight’s wandering wife, and thus his narrative drifted without a psychological rudder. Still, the wife’s encounters with James Caan’s punchy jock and Robert Duvall’s sympathetically lecherous state trooper lifted the film to the behavioral heights (and fights) of “Petulia” and “Point Blank,” two of the more brilliant explosions of the San Francisco area, if not of the San Francisco school, the formal sublimity of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” representing, of course, a different tradition altogether.

The failure of “The Rain People” and “THX-1138” and the Korty films can be attributed partly to the inability of the traditional distribution and exhibition patterns to funnel a new kind of audience that is presumably panting for it. Or is there really that much of a new audience for movies? Whatever the explanation, Coppola had the satisfaction of having established his artistic identity as a director at the cost of his commercial solvency as a producer. He therefore approached “The Godfather” less as a creative opportunity than as a crutch for his stumbling career.

I am convinced that “The Godfather” could have been a more profound film if Coppola had shown more interest (and perhaps more courage) in those sections of the book which treated crime as an extension of capitalism and as the sine qua non of showbiz. Much of the time spent boringly in Sicily might have been devoted to the skimming operations in Las Vegas, and to the corporate skullduggery in Hollywood. A very little bit of the corrosively Odetsian wit of the fifties in “The Big Knife” and “Sweet Smell of Success” could have gone a long way here in relating the Mafia to our daily life. Instead, Coppola has taken great pains to make “The Godfather” seem like a period piece. Antique cars, ill-fitting clothes (especially for loose-framed Diane Keaton’s WASP wardrobe), floppy hats, vintage tabloid front pages featuring dead gangsters of a bygone era all contribute to Coppola’s deliberate distancing tactics. Worst of all is the sentimental distinction between the good-bad guys and the bad-bad guys on the pseudoprophetic issue of narcotics distribution.

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The production stories connected with “The Godfather” seem to take pride in the concessions granted to organized crime so that the film could be shot on New York locations without being shot up and shut down. Hence, there is no reference to the “Mafia” as such or to the “Cosa Nostra” as such, but merely to “The family.” It is as if producer Albert S. Ruddy were trying to enhance the diabolical reputation of his subject so that audiences would feel the chill of gossipy relevance. Since “The Godfather” is about as unkind to the Mafia as “Mein Kampf” is to Adolf Hitler, it is hard to understand why the local little Caesars didn’t pay Ruddy a commission for all the free publicity. However, even if Ruddy had not made all his noble sacrifices to the Mob for the sake of his muse, it is fairly certain that a realistic director like Coppola would have insisted on shooting his scenario on authentic locations. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of Coppola’s original safari from Hollywood to San Francisco: to escape from Hollywood’s synthetic sound stages and infinitely illusionist set designers?

And so we see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton walking out of the Radio City Music Hall ostensibly during the Christmas Season of 1945. How do we know it is 1945? The marquee has been made up to advertise Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” And here we have one of the paradoxes of plastic realism. It just so happens that I saw “The Bells of St. Mary’s” at the Music Hall in 1945, and the scene Pacino so painstakingly recreates before my eyes is false and strained in every way except the most literal. As the production notes tell us, “crowds gathered to stare at the old-time automobiles and ancient taxis with the legend ’15 cents for first 1/2 mile’ fare rates painted on the doors. Meanwhile, ushers ran up and down the street informing the public that the film playing was Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf” and the stage show was the 1971 Easter Show.”

Nonetheless, the plastic realism of the marquee and the old cabs cannot compensate for the sociological distortion of the empty sidewalks and the absent hustle and bustle. Around Christmas of 1945 at the Music Hall was a pre-television festive crowd tableau such as we shall never see again in our lifetime. An old-time Hollywood illusionist like Vincente Minnelli would have captured the populist lilt of that moment whereas Coppola has captured only the plastic lint. Minnelli’s vision would have been that of the warm animal kingdom whereas Coppola’s is merely that of the cold mineral.

Similarly, few of the “more than 120 locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Richmond” justified the trouble they took with any special aura of authenticity. Indeed, too often the studied and constricted framing of the “real” location only emphasized the artifices of the scenario. So little of Mott Street is utilized for gunning down Brando that the entire effect could easily have been reconstructed on a back lot. Location shooting has always been more of a Pandora’s Box than realistic pundits have ever wanted to admit. If I see one more set of play-actors cruising around the canals of Venice with all the natives looking for the camera (or for Erich Segal on one of the gondolas), I shall sing “O Solo Mio” a cappella. To escape from the alleged tyranny of the set it is necessary to conceive a much looser scenario than any now envisaged for most movies.

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As it is, Coppola spends much too much time savoring each location as if he were afraid audiences might not sufficiently appreciate its authenticity. There is remarkably little elision of movement for a modern (or even a classical) movie. People walk through rooms, clump, clump, clump, as if they were measuring the floor for a rug. At times I would have welcomed even a wipe to jolly things along with page-turning dispatch.

Coppola’s treadmill technique is merely a symptom of his sense of priorities. The trouble began with the scenario’s lack of concern for the characters it could not wait to slaughter. The first murder is a genuine shocker, not simply because of its bizarre choreography (even more gruesome than in the book), but also because even after the unexplained first murder in “The French Connection,” we are still not accustomed to having people we barely know bumped off on the screen. Puzo always provided a background dossier on his victims in his novel, and some objective mechanism for doing these dossiers a la “The Battle of Algiers”might have been devised for the movie. Coppola prefers to skim the surface of the novel for violent highlights, and thus discard all the documentation. However, it has been my impression that the rumored involvement of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the narrative was the big talking point of the novel. Who cares that much about Joe Profaci and his brood except on the mythic level of glorified gangsterdom? By contrast, Sinatra and his colleagues and conquests have always provided the stuff of forbidden fantasies for precisely the type of urban wage-slave that stands on line to see “The Godfather.” After Vegas and Hollywood, how can you keep ’em down on Long Beach?

Coppola does his best to narrow the focus of “The Godfather” to manageably monstrous proportions. His film is neither tragedy nor sociology, but a saga of monsters with occasionally human expressions. Even the irony of invoking the “family” as the basic social unit is not pursued beyond a desultory conversation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). The irony is not that the Corleone family is a microcosm of America, but rather that it is merely a typical American family beset by the destructively acquisitive individualism that is tearing American society apart. It is an idea that Chaplin developed so much more profoundly in “Monsieur Verdoux:” that if war, in Clausewitz’s phrase, is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business. This notion is mentioned here and there in “The Godfather,” but never satisfactorily developed. There is simply no time. Another shot, another murder. And the crowds are keeping a box-score on every corpse. Let’s not disappoint them with a meditation on machismo and materialism. We can do that on the next picture, the “serious” one, the one the crowds will stay away from in droves. ❖

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Frontierswomen in Love

“Patience and Sarah,” the story of women in love — with each other — in America early last cen­tury, is a novel with a past. Unable to find a publisher for the book when it was completed in 1968, the author published it herself as “A Place for Us” in a “Bleecker Street Press” edition and sold 1000 copies out of a shop­ping bag. Last year the American Library Association honored it with the First Annual Gay Book of the Year Award. I understand that it has been an underground classic in the Women’s Movement and that many young gay women cherish and find support in it. Its surfacing in bookstores now is welcome because the book was doubtless intended to move and delight a more general audience as well — and I am sure it will.

The novel was inspired by a few facts about the life of Mary Ann Willson, an American primitive painter of the early 1800s, who settled with a “devoted female companion” in Greene County, New York. Miss Miller writes in her afterword: “We know about their ‘romantic attachment’ to each other, their quiet peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, and their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints — berries and brick dust­ — the paintings sold for 25 cents to neighbors who carried them all over eastern North America, from Canada to Mobile. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone frorm their hill is a crystal ball.”

Although we learn little of Patience’s paintings, the idea of them infects and unifies this remarkably original book. The writing has the directness and whimsicality of primitive paintings — it is like spiked ginger­bread or surprising samplers. The tone is sweetly bold. And the tale evokes many kinds of frontier at once. Although the women live in a churchly community in Connecticut where they feel restrictions, it also feels like the frontier. And their dream is to go west to York State and the wild, authentic fron­tier. It is refreshing and wonder­fully suggestive for a new women’s love literature to be an­nounced from the pole of civilized history opposite decadence. And it is a witty pleasure to read a frontier tale where the explorers, the pathfinders, the hunters, the new builders are there, but meta­phorically — as gay women!

As in other frontier stories, ev­erything between these pioneer lovers is improvised and fluid. Experience is sometimes so new it precedes language — in loving, their bodies tell them what to do and they invent names for their sensations. And social custom is so young that public censure is fumbling. Patience decides their first kisses will not show: “Her face showed glory so bright I might have worried except that I was sure no one else had any basis in experience for recog­nizing it.” Though Patience’s fa­ther beats her painfully when he knows, her mother and many sisters are moved by their love. Martha — caught in a marriage of murder by pregnancy to Pa­tience’s brother Edward — dis­covers the unlaced lovers, wonders and envies a sweetness and eros she never knew. And their heat sometimes makes even righteous Edward glow.

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All this makes me muse on Leslie Fiedler who, beginning with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” argued that men in the crucial 19th centu­ry American literature turned from heterosexuality toward each other to know their deepest selves. So here do women turn. But if those American writers were able to imagine only sexless idealized women, Isabel Miller re­troactively gives them the lie and creates women so strong and juicy no men or marriage will answer.

The love between the two women here would be mythic were it not for the reality of the lovers. As in a myth, Sarah’s first kiss brings immediate recognition to Patience: “I knew why she’d been afraid and wondered why I hadn’t been, why I had lured this mighty mystery and astonish­ment into the room, into our lives. I turned my head to save my life.” Then she turns it back, thinking, “Whatever this was, I would live it.”

True, there are retreats. There are moments of confusion as love defines itself. There are alternat­ing initiatives — they take turns getting lost in the present, leaving the burden of their future to the other. Sarah, 21, raised by her fa­ther as a boy, is all honest im­pulse; she first wants to rush with her love to the wilderness, then seeing something of the world’s complexity, would drug herself with a life of secret Sundays in Patience’s room. Patience, 27, is intuitive and in many ways artful; she first fails her love in boldness, refusing her flight, then insists on it, arranging it so her brother will finance it. Strategic retreats, but no doubt about the love, after that first moment no fear of its nature, no pain given or got in it, no en­during loss felt for the exile it causes, almost no cost. Not mythic, it is love in its pastoral phase. The reader doesn’t really want it different, because the book has authority on its own terms, as does the wrought love of the women.

Some of the best adventures in the book yield bemusing commentary on women. When Patience’s nerve fails her, Sarah tries to go west alone, cutting her hair and calling herself Sam. But when her lack of beard makes people stop her for a runaway apprentice, Sarah concludes, “I began to see how boys aren’t much better off than women. Men are the ones who get their way and run the world.”

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She takes refuge in the wagon of an itinerant bookseller. A New York family man, a restless intellectual, the defrocked Parson Peel shares his dreams, his learning, his curiosity, his alphabet with Sarah. Believing her to be a boy, he eventually touches I her knee, assuring her that “men have loved and embraced each other since the beginning of time.” With her unmasking he drops his pursuit and “differences came creeping in, like Parson started helping with the book boxes, and he never said another cuss word in my hearing, and I think a little at a time he stopped educating me. I mean, he seemed to stop saying whatever came into his head. There’d be little waits, it seemed to me, while he thought out what it was fitting or useful for a woman to know.”

Patience had been educated and finished and knew the secret merits of these things. When Sarah was being beaten by her father for trying to see her lover, Patience thought, “It is a sin to raise a girl to be a man believing in strength and courage and candor. We can’t prevail that way.” When they are finally trav­eling together and a man accosts Sarah on a Hudson steamer because of her frank smile, Pa­tience regretfully gives her lessons in being a lady. It’s not that Sarah hadn’t learned holds and throws when she was Sam on the road. But she can’t prevail that way and has to learn to gaze idly into space and not to hear men’s remarks. Patience sums up her method: “You are a very rich, very ill-tempered 50-year-­old lady who has always had her ­own way in everything. You do as you please, and you walk like a lord, and you are deaf.”

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It is the 19th century, after all, and ladies’ accomplishments were still more appropriate than karate. When she was born, Patience’s father, “wondering how someone with all that go could stand to be a woman,” said “he’d half hoped naming me Patience would help a little.” It did. One wonders what helped Isabel Mill­er and other writers like her stand the arcane, early American taboos of the publishing industry so long. Well now the territory is opened, and we can watch the settlers fill up the frontier.

***

An afterthought — two tests for the uncertain buyer. (1) If you like the cover, the primitivesque rendering of Sarah and Patience in formal marital embrace, you’ll like the book, because it fits. (2) Did you like Charles Portis’s “True Grit”? Some of the droll ingenuousness when Sarah speaks is like that. Better buy it — this is not so likely to be made into movie. For one thing, there’s no part for John Wayne. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Where Have All the Hipsters Gone?

What’s going on around here? Where the hell is everybody? I’ve been living in the West and East Villages for the past 13 years and I’ve known a gang of people all over New York, but where are they now? I went to the recent peace congregation in Washington Square and with the exception of a pair of friends from a subterranean newspaper and the peripatetic Nat Hentoff, I saw not one face I recognized. Not one! including those on the speakers’ platform, and I’ve been pounding against the abomination of this war since 1964. Where is that whole happy tormented crowd I used to know? Driven from the Village to the Lower East Side too … where? Where are they? Or maybe the question should be: where am I?

Recently I decided to break out of and away from certain stultifying and treacherous patterns to which I had anchorweighted myself; things as simple as always taking the same out when going from one place to another. When I lived on Charles Street in the Village (’59 to ’63) I pretty much stayed in that community. Since ’63 I have lived on the Lower East Side (nine bleeping years! a quarter of my life!). Since I’ve been here I haven’t gone back to the Village much so I decided that for old times’ sake I’d right-angle it down MacDougal and east across Bleecker one Wednesday morning a week or so before the peace thing. It was a bad idea. It has become Desolation Row.

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In the early ’60s residents of the Village complained that creeping moneylust was going to turn Bleecker and MacDougal into another Coney Island. On that recent Wednesday morning ramble I couldn’t help thinking it should only look as nice as Coney Island. The old familiar places the crucially vital organs — gone: the Remo the Figaro the Kettle of Fish the Cafe Bizarre … now vacant stores and even the occupied ones have dusty windows the hue and texture of pavement. No one — but no one on the street. Wine bottles lumping in clusters of paper bags in the doorways — and somehow I couldn’t believe they were left by the cheerfully wrecked poets and painters of beat-time — but rather by those professional mourners from a few blocks further east where Third Avenue bends into Bosch.

Where are they? Where have all the hipsters gone? The people whose speech was musically suffused with slang five years before people in Boston and Chicago even knew what the words meant. People who did all the new dope before others knew it existed. I remember a black actor-friend in 1960 telling me (as we went out to haul beer back to the endless party) of “this really insane dope I took. I don’t even know what it’s called — but it’s just a little brown [word missing] cube of sugar and I stayed high all day Man …” People who dressed like Bonnie and Clyde in 1963 — before it became fashionable — when it was hip. You had to have some kind of together head to carry that.

Someone recently asked me, “What’s happening on the Lower East Side?”

I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t lived there for three or four years.”

“But I thought …”

“Oh my apartment is still there. And I sleep there almost every night. I just don’t live there.”

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It’s been too scary. In ’63 I could sleep comfortably stoned in Tompkins Square Park on a bench by myself and be awakened around dawn by pure sweet saxophone music. Lately I get nervous there on Sunday afternoons with four friends. The last time I walked the length of Avenue B was two and a half years ago when I moved into the place in which I now life. I had to go to the lumber yard on 13th for bookcase material. The lumber yard and most of 13th Street between B and C is now gone — as though the hand of Wotan descended from empyrean precincts and removed it as some kind of arcane warning to us witless mortals.

And the joints. Those warm giddy bars and stupormarkets which used to pump such fine bright highs into the neo-bohemian nights. Stanley’s, at 12th Street and Avenue B, once the best hip bar in the city, seems to have reverted to the Polish-Ukrainian neighborhood tavern it was before the onslaught of chinhair and tits at the beginning of the last decade.

The Otherplace looks foreboding, and we all know what happened to Linda and Groovy downstairs from the Annex which was putatively responsible for its closing. In order to travel the streets of the Lower East Side at night on foot you have to be with a paranoid of friends, totally ripped on booze, or so stoned on something else that your interest is psychopathically focused on things not concerned with survival.

The jollies I got in the Village I once could get on the Lower East Side. I even got an 11-pound novel out of it. I don’t get those jollies now in either place — but there is an area in town where I do still get that fine jumping rush, an area where the women seem more together in their heads than elsewhere, where men regard one another with apparent friendly warmth (which is not to say that there is a lack of healthy cynicism), where blacks and whites still seem able to inter-act without visible hostility, an area where you can say “Bird” or “Brautigan” or “gesso” and people will know what you’re talking about. SoHo.

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I’ve been roaming SoHo lately and though the fear-vectors are somewhat present for me (they’re everywhere now I guess) there is that precious old rush that jab-and-tingle of intense energy-levels loose on any given seemingly-deserted block. You can actually feel it zapping out of the buildings and it shakes your nervous system by its very vitals. It is as though you become enveloped in a dense paisley fog of productivity. That dance.

Frug on down to SoHo any Saturday afternoon on West Broadway on Prince on Spring … and you’ll see a lot of people who look like the people who used to come to the Village on Sunday to pin the beatniks. Very like them. They stream into and pour out of the galleries and honky-tonks. Remember how it used to be on 10th Street between Third and Fourth? Same number. A couple of months ago a painter-friend said (as we ate a midweek lunch of beer in a rather charming little bar/restaurant he had introduced me to that very day), “You should make it down here on a Saturday afternoon when the painters take this place over.” At the time the clientele was composed of about one-third painters, one-third truckdrivers, and one-third indistinguishable others.

The following Saturday I did go back. When I pushed through door were perhaps eight people in the front half of the smallish establishment. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I got a beer, sat down at an empty table, and began rather offhandedly jotting down first-draft notes for a recipe I’m thinking of writing. Twenty minutes later I looked up from the scribbling and there were 400 people in the place and 20 times more hair than there was on the stage at the last Miss America contest. It was Stanley’s and it was 1963 again. You couldn’t get to the men’s room. The waitress had to quit waitressing because she couldn’t get herself, let alone a tray of lush, through that luscious throbbing jam. Theoretically one could probably have gotten laid (or maybe “stood” would be a more accurate word) without anyone but you and and your sexual conspirator knowing it. It was not a little exhilarating. Everybody seemed to know everyone else and it was like the kitchen at home on Christmas Eve. Like a warm hip square-dance in the wilderness with everyone simultaneously doing the calling to his own private do-see-do allemande left. Even I knew a lot of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Since the Lower East Side was alive and not fraught with incendiary creeps and ghouls. I saw people from Stanley’s. And people I had been avoiding calling for months and the relationships were pretty much all cool and straightened by the time I left. I miss that kind of place.

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But some people who live down there have told me that they give the scene maybe two years in its present state — and that made me sad. Maybe they’re wrong though. There are no quaint shops and art movie houses and charming brownstones down there such as those which attract accountants and their wives to the Village. No Nathan’s. No Blimpies. Just a lot of shabby gray loft buildings. And a few galleries. And a few choice bars. And a couple of sweet little eatfood places. And probably more intensely concentrated creativity than you’ll find anywhere in America. Maybe even the world. But you can’t see that from a tourist bus.

Talent in New York does have an abstruse way of coming together like that. In ’63-’64 at Stanley’s (before anybody knew who most of them were) you might have walked in on any given afternoon or evening and encountered writers such as Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Ron Sukenick, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, and Lennox Raphael; actors like Moses Gunn, Mitch Ryan, Lou Gossett, and Cicely Tyson; musicians such as Odetta, Marion Brown, and Richard Andrews; Khadeja the fashion designer who was Afro before people knew what that meant; Tom Dent, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theatre; Walter Bowart, who tended bar there and later was the original publisher of EVO — and Clark Squire, one of the Panther 21.

Perhaps a variation of the old Circle Theory is in play after all. When the coin-schleppers drove less fortunate artists and writers from the Village more than a decade ago they repaired to the Lower East Side — a veritable slum — but rents were more agreeable — some even fair. There are now buildings down here — renovated to be sure — which command $380 a month for three rooms. In a slum. Dig that. It is not inconceivable that the time is coming when wretched poor people won’t be able to live in this slum — when artists who Have Not Made It won’t be able to live here either. Then the apartments will go to the quasi-hip brokers and lawyers who want to vamp Where It’s Hapnin Baby (or was). These situations in New York City have been historically cyclical. Greenwich Village, for instance, was a black ghetto for some time after the Civil War — before Harlem. And Harlem. My mother lived in Harlem for a few years in the ’20s while she waited tables midtown. Today she wouldn’t go there in an armored car with the Mayor riding shotgun.

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Ten years ago speculation had it that when the Lower East Side would inevitably turn into the East Village (as we knew it would have to) all of us lesser lights would probably then make it to the Lower East Side (where some had even then already moved) to Stanton Street and Essex and Delancey. But the hot action moved to SoHo — where the painters and sculptors and craftsmen (and craftswomen) (and craftsgays) (have I got everyone?) can’t be all that poor judging by the rents. Lately I hear more and more of the successful of their number are buying the buildings they live in — and the moderately successful banding together as corporations to buy their individual lofts in buildings as a whole. It is hard to tell where the as-yet-unsuccessful strugglers are living — but they’re partying in SoHo. The vibes are apparently of the right intensity and consistency. Or else all the artsy-smartsy dudes know the right gangster landlords.

There are priorities and necessities which must be present (on all sides) in the emerging of any “artists’ colony” — and economics is certainly one of them. In the summer of 1963 I lived on the Lower East Side for more than three months on something less than $150 cash. Today it would take a grand. Minimum. From the speculators’ point-of-view it seems that the very presence of artists in abundance is sufficient: they follow close on their heels judiciously snapping up properties, naming them with hysterical designations such as the Hip Bagel and the Hippydrome and the Rock and Roller Skating Rink, and when they own everything they’ve killed their golden goose and then must begin following the next exodus to the new land of paint and money. The people who already own businesses in the area before it “happens” (once they get over their abject disgust at bohemians and begin catering to what money they have and that which their presence attracts) flourish while they are there (like Bleecker and MacDougal — like Avenue B and Saint Marx) and languish when they have been driven elsewhere. You don’t have to wait in line in the cold at midnight to get into Stanley’s on a Thursday anymore.

Yet maybe my informants are right after all. I went to the aforementioned bar in SoHo after the peace mingle (I won’t give the joint’s name because then you’ll steal it from me) and walked into it shortly after 3. The bar and tables were almost completely filled with about 40 people in their 30s and 40s all of whom looked like they had alighted from a bus from Queens or Staten Island. They left together shortly after I arrived and I asked the bartender who they were. They were from Virginia. Yes Virginia, there is a SoHo. SoHo knows there is a Virginia. And that it is coming to get them.

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But it can’t happen to SoHo! (A discotheque in a cleaned-up loft called the Paint Rag?) What about all the rats down there? Big as small babies. What about the panhandling winos and the apprentice corpses in the doorways? They carry pistols and machetes. What about the huggermuggers lurking in every shadow just waiting for purses and watches maybe desperate enough to kill? They are men (and women) without consciences. What about the narrow repugnant streets? They’re all right if you don’t mind puke-covered shit. And there’s nothing down there at night … it’s deader than Wall Street for chrissake! What about …

Perhaps in the virtues of voyeurism lie its own rewards.

Note: After having written this, last Sunday, jiving along down Second Avenue at 14th Street I heard my name called out from the window of a bus. A black radical whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time because he had fled The Man to a commune in New England:

“Bill!”

“Hey Baby!” (Lock palms and thumbs — no more popping.) “Whas hapnin?”

(Bus begins to pull away.) “I’m staying down on Spring Street in SoHo under the name of *** *****! CALL ME!”

I guess maybe it takes one to know one. ♦

 

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

In the Sahara, Searching for the Rolling Stones

Arm-wrestling the Midnight Rambler to a draw

Last November I read an article in Harper’s by Professor William Irwin Thompson of the Humanities program at York University, Toronto, entitled “Planetary Vistas.” It was prefaced with three italicized analogies, the first of which ran as follows:

ANALOGY ONE

“Imagine insects with a life-span of two weeks, and then imagine further that they are trying to build up a science about the nature of time and history. Clearly, they cannot build a model on the basis of a few days in summer. So let us endow them with a language and a culture through which they can pass on their knowledge to future generations. Summer passes, then autumn; finally it is winter. The winter insects are a whole new breed, and they perfect a new and revolutionary science on the basis of the ‘hard facts’ of their perceptions of snow. As for the myths and legends of summer: certainly the intelligent insects are not going to believe the superstitions of their primitive ancestors.”

***

We left Massachusetts the day of the first snow, for Africa. I will not tell you what country we went to because the next time I need to lick my index finger and hold it up to the solar wind I won’t want a gallery. Suffice it to say that it was the geographical ozone of the pre-Saharean mountain wilderness, a place where the map makers fudge and the guides shill. We did not know what we would find where we were going which was just as well since in the ozone if you think you know where you are going you will get lost but if you don’t know where you are going you may lose yourself. We drove toward the Sahara on a corugated track that was wider on the map than it was on the ground. An hour after the sun went down it might as well have been midnight and when after 50 kilometers of pre-Saharean zilch we turned a switchback and the Fiat headlit the rusted-out exoskeleton of an upside-down Land Rover, we realized that the end of the road would not be when the road disappeared — the one we were on hadn’t appeared in the first place — but when it became more treacherous to try to turn around then to keep on going, that what is terminal about the end of the road is not that it stops you, but that past it you may go further than you can.

“I could really dig finding a place where there was mountain music,” I said.

“Like in that Leary book,” Alison said.

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We had holed up for a few days that summer with a husband and wife dealer team in the Santa Cruz hills and they had a copy of Timothy Leary’s “Prison Notes,” in which the acid exile tells how novelist and ab initio way-station on the hash trail Brion Gysin had taken him from Tangiers into the Rif Mountains to hear the piping and drumming and singing of the Master Musicians of Joujouka who, Gysin had discovered, still celebrated — on the pretext of the Muslim Ramadan — the Roman Lupercalia, the annual feast of Pan, patron of forests, pastures, fields, and flocks. “The World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band,” Leary, blown quite away, called them.

“Too much to ask,” I said.

We had long overdriven the odometer reading that should have put us in a village with a small inn before we came in sight of a group of buildings, windows dark as a pre-Saharean midnight, which we took to be the hotel. “Check-out time,” I announced, and began to backtrack four or five hours to the last place we had stayed. When I went forward the Fiat bottomed out on the mount between the wheel-ruts; when I went back the Fiat began to slip down the embankment toward the desert floor several thousand feet below.

So, we stopped and waited for an intervention.

The geographical ozone is a realm of supraordinary synchronicity so we didn’t have long to wait. Down the hillside came a flashlight, carried by — why, a waiter, of course, in a white coat, carrying a towel over his arm. He motioned us in the direction of a switchback so steep it looked like a hill you would build a switchback to climb. It led to the parking lot of the hotel. We were not burdened by relief any longer than was necessary to step into the entrance hall of the place, a long room with a bar at the end. Along the left-hand wall sat two young German couples staring goggle-eyed at the opposite wall along which were sitting 12 young Berber men, mumbling, moaning, and grunting, occasionally coming into phase rhythmically just long enough to resolve a melody, then lapsing into a silence whose discomfort they attempted to relieve by much adjusting of burnooses and subrespiratory chuckling.

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“Too much — ,” I said, taking my seat opposite them.

” — to ask,” said Alison.

The boy behind the bar brought us a bottle of wine. Delightful boy. Most remarkable boy.

We drank it.

He brought us another.

We drank it too.

Still the burbling up and down of rhythms and melodies. Some ten­tative finger-tapping on table tops. Some clapping of hands. Silence. And then, at length, a young man at the far end of the room spoke.

“Bon soir m’sieur madame. Est-ce que vous connaissez … ‘Sex Machine?’ ”

It was the only time I had ever felt like I needed a drink when I was already drunk.

“Oui,” I managed.

Affirmative aahhing and urrhing from underneath the hoods across from me.

“Par Zhems Bquun?” he asked. Zhems Bquun? Oh!

“Oui. Oui Oui,” I ouied.

“Pourriez-vous le chanter?” he asked.

I tried to sing it as best I could — I did James Brown all right, but the Famous Flames parts were sort of rough. When I was done they all shook their hands out of their burnooses and applauded.

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”Maintenant, connaissez-vous ‘Hold On, Ahm Comingue?’ ” said he for whom it was too much to ask.

“Oui,” I said, “mais nous desirons vous ecouter!”

“Non,” he laughed, and spoke to the others. in Berber. “Non, non, non,” said the others, laughing.

“Oui!” I insisted.

“Non non non,” he said.

“Oui, nous voulons que vous chantez pour nous.”

‘N’est pas possible.”

“Je vous en prie, messieurs!”

“Nous vous en prions,” he said. “Nous ne pouvons pas chanter comme Sam et Dev.”

“Non! Pas Sam and Dave!” Oy. “Votre musique — un chanson, er, natif!”

“Eh?”

“Uhh — un chanson … local?”

“Nous ne vous comprenons pas,” he said apologetically.

“Mmmm — un chanson de ce ville-ci.”

“Est-ce que vous voulez dire, un chanson folklorique?”

So that’s what they call folklore in French Africa — la folklore.

“Oui, oui, bien sur, folklorique, oui, s’il vous plait.”

And they immediately struck up an air, 12 voices insinuating a song composed exclusively of grace notes arranged in synco­pated triplets. It was unques­tionably the most folklorique sound I had ever heard. And, strangely, I found it evocative of the Rolling Stones: How thoroughly bizarre, I thought.

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When they were done, my in­terlocutor, who, it turned out, spoke French because he was the teacher at the elementary school — the darkened “hotel” we had come upon — asked if I could teach them a song.

“Est-ce que vous connaissez,” I asked, “les Rolling Stones?”

The question drew as blank a blank as I would have expected 10 minutes before if I had thought to ask, “Pardon me, my new-found Berber friends, but do you happen to be acquainted with Stax-Volt product, most especially that classic Memphis tune ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ by that hot buttered soul man, Mr. Isaac Hayes?” No, these particular tribesmen had never heard of les Rolling Stones.

Nevertheless, I tried, to teach them “Paint It Black,” which seemed to resonate with the song I had just heard — Nyaa-nyaa­nyaa-nycia-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa nyaa- nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-aah . . .

The Berbers stared at me like ­the Germans had been staring at them.

“I see a red door and I want to paint it bla-ack … “

Pre-Saharean zilch.

“A very German sentiment,” observed one of the German men. “In Germany zey vont to paint everyzing black.”

The Berbers just couldn’t get behind the Rolling Stones. As we sat there across that oddly shaped culture gap, at some points yawning abysmally and at others overlapping, the door opened and a slight young Berber man swaggered in. Suddenly the 12 began to clap and cheer and stamp their feet and laugh hear­tily.

My first thought was that this was their sarcastic greeting to a friend who had been out in the oasis making it with Aisha the Coleman lamp fuel-seller’s daughter.

Instead, the newcomer threw off his burnoose, cocked a hand on his hip, and, as an enormous flute appeared from under one bur­noose and drums appeared from under others, began to sing in a piercing reedy tenor with the 12 booming in with a choral response every other verse.

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The applause had been the pre-­Saharean rhythm section’s wel­come to their lead singer, who had begun to wail not merely immediately but, seemingly, retro­actively. This resonance with the Stones’ stage act and those with the music that followed were so concordant that I saw there was no point in teaching them “Paint It Black,” that they could already paint it any color they wanted. Too much to ask!

Retroactively he had us on our feet, Jews and Germans dancing with Arabs, and I would have pinched myself but I knew I wouldn’t feel anything. I can’t describe the double-time shimmy-­shake circle-dance he did as he sang because I was trying to do it too hard myself while simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to drink wine faster than I was sweating it out. How long this went on I cannot tell you. The end­ing of each song save the last was the beginning of another; the dance never stopped until it was done. Then the Berbers went home and the Germans and us went to sleep in the hotel’s bedroom

That’s right, its bedroom.

The bedroom.

I awoke in terror at some ghastly hour of the morning, flashing forward to trips I hadn’t taken yet. The bedroom was filled with psychomorphic squid ink, and as I held onto the floor I felt like the Desert Nasties were snuffling up to me like grim shades of the beneficent forest creatures who snuffled up to cop a visual on new­born Bambi in the movie of the same name. “Here on the edge of Forget It where the tech­nosphere’s penetration into the biosphere is at least energetic,” they said in unvoiced tones of pre-­Saharean menace, “there is no­thing to interfere with your recep­tion of our emanations. You para­noid twerp, the life-cycle of this plant will expunge Man before he manages the opposite. If you think your kind’s puny dereliction of mysteries of their own inven­tion has weakened the vital powers of the Zone, tell us what you think of these little green apples!”

And the floor began to fall away at the speed of darkness and me with it and I said to myself oh boy, don’t I get one telephone call to a party of my choice? And I struggled to fall fast enough to be able to hang in close enough to the floor to climb onto it and walk toward where I remembered the door should be and step —

Outside and close it on the Nasties. Whew. But now the cold gust off the desert was blowing on me naked and hung over and the air was cacophonous with dog­barks and donkeybrays and I decided I was going to go back in­side and go to sleep, anti-matter Bambi-snufflers or no.

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I went back inside and lay down. “Back for more, with your hand-wringing fantasies?” asked the Desert Nasties.

“Aw, go fuck a duck,” I said, and went to sleep.

Summer will come again to those who are hot for it, I dreamt. I have informed myself of my rites. 

We awoke in daylight, dressed, and went outside. We could see for the first time that the town was built on a steep hill. As we stood there a single line of women dressed in black appeared around a corner and began to file down the zigzag of switchbacks.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ca?” I asked the boy.

“Une femme a mouru pendant le nuit,” he said.

We watched the procession pause at a doorway as the woman’s shrouded body was brought out. They resumed their descent, carrying her to a rocky knoll just outside the town. There they lay her down and piled rocks on her and keened over her and consigned her to the desert.

I decided that the Nasties who had visited me earlier that morn­ing were ill-tempered outriders of the perambulatory vortical presence that had sucked the woman’s juice out of her. I don’t know that the Berbers call that mortifying infundibulum but we Hebrews call it Moloch Ha­movess, the closest English trans­lation of which is, Midnight Rambler — as in, ev’rybody got-ta go.

Soon a film crew arrived, complete with Arabs in tinted aviator glasses, bell-bottom trousers, and faded denim jackets. They interviewed an old man and his donkey. What was it that the Nasties had been saying about the penetration of the technosphere? The musiciens folkloriques of the night before trickled into the morning-after parking lot. We looked at each other like we had all balled together, which essentially, we had. Too much to ask, but not a moment too soon.

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***

Shortly after our return to Babble-on, I discovered that while we were gone Rolling Stones Records had released a disc called “Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.” Well what do you know. Seems Jones and his Nagra recorder had been escorted to Joulouka Tatoof by Brion Gysin in 1968, but it was only now that the Stones had their own label that they could get the master he made released — too late for Brian, who was found floating face-down in his swimming pool in mid-1969. The album included a text by Gysin:

“Pan, Bou Jeloud, the Father of Skins, dances through eight moonlit nights in his hill village, Joujouka, to the wailing of his hundred Master Musicians. Down in the towns, far away by the seaside, you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raitas; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind. Below the rough palisade of giant blue cactus surrounding the village on its hilltop, the music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below … All the villagers dressed in best white, swirl in great circles and coils around one wild-man in skins. Bou Jeloud leaps high in the air on the music, races after the women again and again, lashing at him fiercely with his flails … He is mad. Sowing panic. Lashing at anyone; striking real terror into the crowd. Women scatter like white marabout birds all aflutter and settle on a little hillock for safety … They throw back their heads to the moon and scream with throats open to the gullet … Pipes crack in your head. Ears popped away at barrier sound and you deaf. Or dead! Swirling around in cold moonlight, surrounded by wild men or ghosts. Bou Jeloud is on you, butting you, beating you, taking you, leaving you. Gone! The great wind drops out of your head and you hear the heavenly music again. You feel sorry and loving and tender to that poor animal whimpering, grizzling, laughing, and sobbing there beside you like somebody out of ether.

“Who is that? That is you.

” … Up there, in Joujouka, you sleep all day — if the flies let you. Breakfast is goat-cheese and honey on gold bread from the out door oven. Musicians loll about sipping mint tea, their kif pipes and flutes. They never work in their lives so they lie about easy. The last priests of Pan cop a tithe on the crops in the lush valley below. Blue Kif smoke drops in veils from Joujouka at nightfall … ”

I could hardly be surprised at the kinship of the music on this record to the music we had danced to — such reserves of surprise as I still had were exhausted that night. The charts were different, shall we say, but the bomp was syncopated in the same hypnagogic way.

The album stiffed, of course. Music that people stoned on gelignite kif have danced to for eight nights a year for 4000 years could hardly be expected to engage the attention of rock critics, rack jobbers, and prog/rock play­listers.

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***

I was out at the farm in Walled Lake, Michigan, where Creem, America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine, is put together, marshaling my faculties for a series of journalistic encounters with the Rolling Stones tour. Dave Marsh, the noted Teenage Dwarf, who edits Creem, flew into a rage at my eagerness. “It was Brian! The Stones are nothing without Brian. You’re going off to see a band with a hole in it!,” and he dragged me off to Ann Arbor to see a screening of “The TAMI Show.” Topping the bill of that kinescope of a 1964 telecast were the Stones complete with Brian. All I could see was a blond kid with a winning smile and losing bags under his eyes, strumming a guitar.

“Well?” pressed Marsh, dwarfishly.

“My gazoogo was not flonged, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

***

I guess I expected that the music of the Rolling Stones live and in person would sweep me off my feet. Instead it planted me more firmly on them. It was an ultrasonic brain enema, kilo-hertzing loose the scud of 50 per cent jive and 50 per cent bullshit and making me kiss it bye bye. It was was menschische music and I could not value it more highly.

But the audience response disappointed me to where I was flying to Detroit on my own nickel in the hope that I would be able to see the Stones perform before a live audience. I don’t mean that the audiences I saw didn’t hoot and holler and do a little light trucking in situ. I mean that in New Orleans the night before the Mobile date we went to Crazy Shirley’s on Bourbon Street and they were snake-dancing to Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, but there was no snake dancing at any Stones concert. I mean, I watched Jagger try again and again to get an audience to sing along on the refrain to “Sweet Virginia,” the one that goes, “Come on, come on down, you got it in ya/ Uh-huh/ Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes,” before giving up late in the tour, and that I’ve seen solo accordionists at bas mitzvahs get more people to sing along. I mean it wasn’t long before Jagger stopped asking the audience to “kiss the person next to you” and that I’ve seen people do weirder things to each other on the Simon Sez-so of Borscht Belt tummlers.

I didn’t expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy — hmm, well, okay, maybe I did expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy. Why shouldn’t I have? “You gotta move,” the Stones had sung on their last album, and for this tour they had composed music to move by, music too powerful to capture on a piece of vinyl, which is why a lot of album reviewers do not consider “Exile on Main Street” their fave rave.

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My first analysis was that the audiences’ stolidity could be accounted for mostly by the fact that the tour management’s attempt to democratize the ticketing procedure — $6.50 top, computer-assigned seats, etc. — had created the first rock audiences chosen under the McGovern reform rules, i.e. what do you expect — 90 per cent of us have never been to one of these things before. (And upon all of us in discreet votaries of rock and stroll, O Orpheus, the curse of the Underground Gourmet: May you stand on line forever hungering to sup at the table you sold maps to.) The audiences were for the most part too stunned at being in the presence of the Rolling Stones to react — it was, after all, like seeing a resurrection right before your eyes, in that everything the Stones stand for is dead and gone except, wonder of wonders, them­selves. In meaner moments I chalked it up simply to the endemic callowness and inbred lethargy of the generation that dogged the footsteps of mine, slogging along zonked on Sopors. Kids today etc. etc. etc.

Which led me back to the liner notes of the Joujouka album and a reconsideration of whether it was possible that there was something lacking in the Stones’ music that sapped its power to actualize the rhetorical imperative “You gotta move” so that people would sim­ply have to move.

“I don’t know if I possess the stamina to endure the incredible, constant strain of the festival,” wrote Brian Jones. “Such psychic weaklings has Western civilization made of so many of us.”

When I first considered the Joujouka album, I assumed out of hand that Jones’s flirtation with the music of the Moorish highlands was nothing more than late ’60s pop-star dilettantism, that it was nothing more than late rites practitioners wore fur vests and lolled about sipping mint tea and copping tithes. But having seen this tour and re-read that liner note, I began to wonder whether Brian hadn’t been searching the African hills for the musical root of incredible, con­stant strain, looking to incorporate that root, collected first-hand, into the Stones’ music along with other African musical roots that had been transshipped from Gambia to Virginia to the Missis­sippi delta country to Kansas City and Chicago, arriving as “de blues,” and thence by post to Richmond, England, none the better for wear. Was “Joujouka” recorded as a sample of a transhistorical eight-day full-tilt­ boogying rhythm track for the rest of the band to cop licks from like they had from old Chuck Berry sides? Did he as rhythm guitarist and multi-instrumentalist intend to build a set of chops into the band’s music that would have the same effect on audiences as the raitas had on the Joujoukans, i.e., “striking real terror into the crowd,” the Lupercalian panic we read about in “Julius Caesar”? That would expose those who were not got to move to themselves as psychic weaklings, made so by Western civilization? That would turn every Rolling Stones performance into a rite?

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We won’t know whether the Teenage Dwarf was right for the wrong reason or wrong for the right reason because Brian Jones is no longer with us, such a psychic weakling had Western civilization made of him. The question is far from moot, however: The Master Musicians of Joujouka are still there, as are the Master Musicians of the Rolling Stones. On the last two American tours there was no rhythm guitarist “replacing” Brian Jones — Mick Taylor plays second lead, augmenting the im­pact of de blues on audiences; at times he seems to play a blues track, as much a part of the Stones’ music as the bass track or the lead vocal track. I am beginning to think that it is arguable that the entire body of de blues, from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” as recorded 50 years ago in a San Antonio hotel room to the  Stones’ version as performed July 26 at the Garden, is a music of, by, and for psychic weaklings — wound-down entropic insect-winter music.

I know that a bunch of kids in a desert hill town made sounds that put my rear in gear and somehow activated in me the vestigial ulte­rior consciousness that some of us have more of and some of us have ess of, and that within hours I had arm-wrestled the minions of the actual Midnight Rambler to a draw. I doubt many people were forced to have that kind of experi­ence in the aftermath of the con­certs on this tour, though, that Gambler rambles throughout this land as he does in no other, and baby, it’s no rock ‘n’ roll show, and how much you w11nt to bet he’s beefed up his security since Wallace got shot?

Categories
From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Littlejohn & the Mob: Saga of a Heist

Littlejohn & the Mob: Saga of a Heist

Tuesday, August 22. Home about 10 p.m. A message from a friend on my cassette phone unit. “Just heard a couple of homosexuals are holding up a bank in Brooklyn and they’re holding people hostages. Thought you’d be interested. Bye.” I made a couple of quick calls and got through to the CBS local newsroom. “Yes, two men have been holding seven hostages at gunpoint since 3 this afternoon at a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn. We have the bank’s phone number.” I called. “Hello, this is Arthur Bell from The Village Voice. Can you tell me what’s happening?” The voice at the other end said, “Arthur, am I glad it’s you. This is Littlejohn.” “Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?” “I’m one of the robbers.” “Jesus Christ!”

John Wojtowicz, whom I’ve known through Gay Activists Alliance as Littlejohn Basso (Basso was his mother’s maiden name), proceeded to tell a bizarre story. He said he met a Chase Manhattan bank executive at Danny’s a Greenwich Village gay bar, some time ago. The executive told him how he could rob a branch of $150,000 to $200,000. The money was expected to be delivered by armored truck at 3:30 that August afternoon. John said that he and a couple of friends, Sal (Natuarale) and Bobby (Westenberg) entered the bank shortly before 3. They discovered that a mistake had been made: the big money had been called for at 11 a.m. So instead, they took the $29,000 on hand. As they were about to leave, several cop cars pulled up and surrounded the bank. Somehow Bobby managed to escape. But Sal and Littlejohn were stuck inside. They had no alternative but to hold the bank staff hostage until they cleared out. They had six women and one man and now the place was surrounded by cops and FBI and onlookers and Littlejohn was sure the boys in blue wanted to pull an Attica. They wanted him dead.

So he had issued a list of demands. One of them was to release Ernie Aron from Kings County Hospital. Ernie is the part-time transvestite whom John had married in a $2000 mock Roman Catholic ceremony in December. John wanted Ernie to enter the bank in exchange for one of the hostages. Another demand was to bring hamburgers and Cokes to the bank. The third was to provide transportation to Kennedy Airport and to have a plane waiting there to take Sal and Littlejohn and the hostages to points unknown. They would release two hostages at a time at stops along the way, until they reached their final destination. The FBI, he said, was reneging. They brought Ernie from Kings County, but Ernie didn’t even get near enough to kiss John. Littlejohn couldn’t believe Ernie was that terrified, and thought it was an FBI plot to keep Ernie away. The hamburgers didn’t come. Instead they brought pizza, which he didn’t like. He said he paid for the food anyway. He tossed a lot of bills out the bank door. Now he was afraid that the cops would screw him up with the plane plans. “We’ve got guns and rifles and bombs here and I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to get out of here alive.” He told me that Sal was uptight and mad as hell because the radio reports were labeling him a homosexual. “Sal’s not gay. I’m the only gay one here.”

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Could I do anything, I asked. Could I come down and talk to him? John said, “Yes, you come down and be our mediator. Tell the FBI chief that I want to talk to you, and I’ll tell him at this end. He’ll let you in.” I confessed it’s been a long time since Flatbush Avenue days and I didn’t know how to get to Brooklyn and it might take a while. John said, “Grab a cab. I’ll throw a few $100 bills out the window.” “Sit tight,” I said, “don’t do anything. I’ll call you back in a few minutes,” and hung up.

I then called Voice City Editor Mary Nichols at her home and explained the situation to her. Mary made a few phone calls. Twenty minutes later, Sergeant David Durk, the honest cop who testified before the Knapp Commission, and Ed Powers, another efficient cop, showed at my apartment. They were to have guested on the Barry Farber radio show that night and minutes before showtime they were called off to whizz me down to Brooklyn. I phoned John at the bank again to tell him I was on my way. He gave me the phone number of the female wife whom he had separated from, to call in case anything happened. “I’ve got news for you,” he said. “I think they’re going to give us the boot. We’re not going to walk out of here alive.

“That money, I wanted it for a sex change operation for Ernie. Now I can’t even see him to kiss him. Come here as quick as you can. Do you want to speak to a hostage?” He put on Mrs. Shirley Ball, a teller from Brooklyn. “It’s a damn shame that nothing’s being done and the FBI are sacrificing seven lives for two. They’re backing John against a wall and I don’t know how long our luck is going to hold out.” Mrs. Ball said that John was okay, that Sal was trigger happy. She’d been allowed to call home and spoke to her husband who was waiting outside the bank with the rest of the mob.

About 11:15 p.m. a radio car from the 19th Precinct showed up in front of my apartment. David Durk phoned Brooklyn FBI headquarters to tell them we were on our way. We zoomed down FDR Drive, sirens blazing, about 90 miles an hour, got off at Houston Street, picked up Mary Nichols, and whizzed down the drive again to Brooklyn. Twenty minutes later, we were in the thick of the hubbub. Thousands of spectators. Hundreds of cops. Dozens of city officials, and hordes of reporters. David Durk directed us through the mob to the FBI chief of operations. No dice. Change of plans. He wouldn’t let me near the bank. Why? He shrugged his shoulders. Was he afraid of my safety? No answer. Had they a master plan afoot? No answer.

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So I broke and tried calling the bank again, but this time Littlejohn wasn’t answering. Mary Nichols and I mingled among the crowd of reporters and spectators. A radio guy, from a network better left unmentioned, said, “I never thought I’d see the day when fags could pull the punches. Grab the little punks.” Obviously the whole reverse macho trip was part of the street excitement. Homosexuals are supposed to be victims. And here’s a tough guy John Dillinger victor. Instead of demanding his Lady in Red, Littlejohn was asking for his transvestite in pajamas.

John’s male wife (I don’t know how else to describe Ernie Aron — they were married) sat in a barber chair at the Palestinian Barbershop, which was set up as police headquarters. Wan, despairing, his eyes two blank sockets, his face white, his body weed thin, clad in hospital garb, a bedraggled bathrobe, bunny slippers, a Kings County guard constantly at his side. Two days before, Ernie had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He refused to go near the bank because of John’s bad temper, “but he was also good-natured, and that was the problem. John and I couldn’t live together because of mental problems on both sides. It would never have worked out. John was sadistic in his sex habits. He could control himself, but sometimes he went overboard with such things and he terrified me.” When I told Ernie about John’s admission to me that the money was to pay for a sex operation, Ernie claimed he wasn’t aware of this at all. He broke down. And he insisted he’d go to the bank with me to speak to John. I went to fetch an FBI officer again, and again the answer was “definitely no.”

I spoke to John’s former male mistress. Earlier in the day, he had been called by Littlejohn to come to the bank, and in front of an approving crowd they kissed smack in the mouth at the bank doorway. The mistress believes that John loved Ernie but wanted him. “John robbed the bank for two reasons. First for Ernie’s sex change, second to run away with me. But I don’t think he had the brains to mastermind a plot like that.”

According to at least two intimates, the real story is as follows: Alleged soldiers in the Gambino organized crime family were behind the hold-up. (This is not the first foray of the Gambino family against the Chase Manhattan Bank. The big boss, Carlo himself, is under indictment for conspiracy to rob a Chase armored truck a few years ago.) Ernie knew it, others around town knew it, and the hold-up was in the planning stages for a long, long time. Ernie, however, found out only last Sunday, when Littlejohn received at least one of the guns used in the hold-up from Mike Umbers (long involved in the Mafia gay bar and pornography and prostitution scene). Ernie tried to stop Littlejohn and threatened to kill himself if his lover-husband went through with it. John didn’t buy. Ernie took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed to Kings County Hospital. The following day, Umbers gave himself up to the police department on an unrelated charge. The charge dated back a couple of weeks and involved promoting obscenity. It stemmed from a police raid on two of Umbers’s buildings and the discovery of a treasure trove of pornographic movies, photos, books, and magazines. Umbers told the police he surrendered because things were just too hot in town. Those close to the situation speculate that Umbers’s real reason for surrender was so as not to be implicated in the robbery planned for the following day. Nevertheless, Umbers was released on $2000 bail.

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According to the informants, the senior Mafia members’ share of the big heist was to have been 50 per cent, or $75,000 to $100,000. The other 50 percent was to have been divided among the three robbers (originally five were involved; two chickened out). The sex change story, said Voice sources, was peripheral to the motive.

To digress a little, my own recollections of Littlejohn date back to May 1971 when John first came to the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse. He brought his little son with him and claimed the kid was the youngest member of GAA. John was pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive. Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement. The next day, the mattress was removed, and there was talk about removing Littlejohn from membership. In June 1971, he requested that the members allow him to use the Firehouse for his wedding to someone who wasn’t Ernie. A heated floor debate followed: is a homosexual marriage against the goals of gay liberation, or did the goals of gay liberation encompass all life styles? I supported John’s marriage, but Arthur Evans, one of the big guns at GAA protested vehemently about John’s use of the Firehouse to perpetuate the worst of heterosexual life styles. I believe the marriage motion passed, but John decided to postpone the wedding. Interestingly, about two weeks later, John in his dumb, earnest way asked Arthur Evans if he could deliver Arthur’s nominating speech for his delegate-at-large platform. John did a beautiful job — an homage to Arthur, “it’s better to love and forgive.”

About a month later, I interviewed Mike Umbers for The Voice (“Christopher’s Emperor,” July 22, 1971). Mike’s mouth ran diarrhetic. He described himself as a veritable Joan of Arc, a straight man who was a “gay catalyst” providing jobs for down-at-the heels teenagers, such as running messages for him and helping out at his Christopher’s End. He talked about his porno connections, his real estate involvements, the call boy service he operated from his Studio Book Store, and touched on his acquaintanceship with Jerome Johnson, the man who hit Colombo and was subsequently killed by an unknown assassin. (The genesis of Johnson’s gun has never been discovered. Johnson, incidentally, roomed for a while at the Hotel Christopher, where Christopher’s End was located, and was involved in the making of porno movies.) A few days later, Umbers’s Christopher’s End was raided by the New York Joint Strike Force Against Organized Crime. The End was closed down for a couple of days, then reopened. Umbers advertised “Weird Sex — Now.” Gay Activists didn’t like it, and threw together a demonstration to protest Mike and the Mafia and the exploitative ripping off of the gay community. Littlejohn attended the protest plan meetings. He relayed secret GAA information to Umbers. When the march took place (plans were formulated and carried out in one day), John stupidly placed himself outside Christopher’s End with a “Mike Is Good” sign, thereby blatantly switching affiliations. He was rarely seen around the Firehouse thereafter. I bumped into him on Christopher Street a few times. He was always friendly and open and never with Ernie. Last April I asked him if I could interview him for a story I was doing on gay marriages. He said Ernie had left town and the marriage was on the rocks. The last time I saw Littlejohn before the Brooklyn escapade was at the Christopher Street Liberation Day march at the end of June.

To get back to the scene in Brooklyn, about 3 a.m. the crowd heard a shot. We were told it was a prankster’s firecracker. Later, a cop leaked that the shot came from within the bank — fired shoulder-high through the back door. Apparently Sal thought someone was breaking in. At 3:50, Littlejohn came out of the bank with a rifle strapped around his shoulder, a peacock strutting, a little man holding a magic wand. He talked with U.S. Attorney Robert A. Morse. Not long after, John ordered all of the cops, including the brigade in bulletproof vests, to drop their guns. A grin crossed his face. “I want them all down on the ground, please.” Guns fell, and John slipped back into the bank. Then one by one, the hostages walked the tightrope from the bank to vehicle — the magic carpet that was to take them to Kennedy and to faraway lands. Noises erupted from the crowd behind. A man tried to push through. “Who are you?” asked a cop. “I want to see if my wife goes into the car.” “I’m sorry, you’ll have to step back.” “But she’s my wife.”

All but one hostage hopped into the vehicle. The car zoomed away, and the crowd cut loose and rushed the bank. Dozens of officers blocked the entrance. Only the fingerprint squad and officials high in FBI and police circles were allowed inside.

An hour later, David Durk, Ed Powers, Mary Nichols, and I rode back to Manhattan. And not long after — it was dawn — I turned on the radio to hear that Sal Natuarale was shot dead by an FBI agent at Kennedy while waiting for the airplane. Littlejohn was taken into police custody, and the hostages were all okay.

***

A couple of days later, I attended a Gay Activists Alliance meeting at the Firehouse. The attendance was about double what it usually is. After the usual order of GAA business, I was to moderate a discussion on the bank robbery. Did it or didn’t it, should it or shouldn’t it relate to the gay liberation movement? I couldn’t effectively participate as a speaker because the discussion was based on the facts that the papers had carried to that point and my knowledge about the organized crime hook-up could not be divulged on the GAA floor. However, someone I’d never seen before, a former bartender at Danny’s named Gary Badger, showed up to make a plea for money to bury his best friend, Sal Natuarale. Gary’s plea came before the general Littlejohn discussion, and met with a less than enthusiastic response from the membership. Gary said he had to talk to me, and we left the general meeting and climbed up to the third floor of the Firehouse. Gary discussed what he knew about the robbery. His information jibed with the information I received from Littlejohn’s friends. When I asked him “why are you telling me all this?” his answer was “because after Sal’s death, it hit me that Umbers and the Gambino people were using young kids without giving a fuck about life or death to rake up money and power.” We returned to the meeting proper, Gary sat next to me. He did not sit quiet. Following an inane statement by a long-winded GAA filibusterer, Gary shouted, “It’s not as simple as that. The robbery was planned in April. You’ll know a lot more when next week’s Village Voice comes out.”

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At 10:30 that evening, Gary and I split. I went to the Barry Farber show where Farber quizzed me about the events of last Tuesday and where, again, I could only speak up to a point. Farber raised the question several times. Had the FBI allowed me to see Littlejohn, would events have been different, would a life have been saved? While I was verbally gymnasticizing with Farber, Gary Badger, in his raw-nerve state, visited New Jersey, then went back to the Village. He called me early the following morning to claim that he had been pot shot at the Morton Street pier and he wanted to see me because he had a lot more to tell. I called The Voice. Mary Nichols and Assistant City Editor Alan Weitz picked me up at home and we drove to Gary’s place in the Village. We whisked Gary into the car and headed toward The Voice office. The place was teeming with cops and firemen. There had been two bomb threats at The Voice from the time Mary left the office to the time we returned — a period of no more than an hour. With Gary and me stooped low in the car, we drove to FBI headquarters, where Gary told the feds what he had to tell. We returned to The Voice again later in the day. There was a phone call from Ed Powers of the New York City Police Department. Powers said the police had raided Mike Umbers’s Mark-Litho Printing Plant earlier in the day and confiscated printing press material valued at $500,000. A new warrant was out for Umbers’s arrest on that charge.

Here’s how it stands, this Tuesday morning, August 29. Mike Umbers, the “gay catalyst,” is roaming the streets somewhere or sitting tight, his heart in his mouth; a 19-year-old kid is dead, his body on ice, about to be removed to Potter’s Field; Littlejohn is under federal custody; several dozen people are stuck with sewer hole memories in their heads; organized crime, like the March of Time, marches on; homosexuals continue to frequent bars run by the Gambinos since there are few alternatives (ironically, the Stonewall, the bar that precipitated the first gay riot and the beginning of the gay liberation movement, was a Gambino operation); and members of the gay liberation movement, including yours truly, are having a helluva time figuring out how the whole Littlejohn thing relates to gay liberation — and it does — and what we can do about it, if anything.

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit Uncategorized

A Ride on the New York Subway

December 21, 1972The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world. Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners — sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another…

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.

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***

Not too long ago, at 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, I found myself for the first time in more than ten years on the Times Square station of the IRT subway, in the midst of the grueling workday rush hour. Although I grew up in the Bronx, working and attending school in Manhattan throughout my adolescent years, trudging on and off the subways twice a day during all that time, it had been a veritable lifetime since I had had to use the subway at this unholy hour. Now, having an odd chance to visit a relative still living in the Bronx of my childhood, I stood here, surveying the scene which, during a decade of absence, had become entirely foreign to me.

I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York’s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks… I looked around in alarm.

The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed. All in all an atmosphere of total, unutterable abandonment; one in which the people have vanished and the rats have taken over. “Dear God,” I thought in a silent panic, “how can they live this way? How can they live this way?”

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In this insufferable gloom, the men and women all about me seemed to take on some of the darkness emanating from the walls, the ceiling, the floor of the tunnel in which we all stood, causing their own natural darkness to appear almost menacing. Faces were closed, sullen, expressionless; eyes were dead, vacant, staring; limbs folded and inert. A black man in a red shirt and a porkpie hat pushed up onto the back of his head stood beside me, a dead cigar stuck in his mouth, his unregistering eyes fixed on some distant point down in the track pit; a rush of people spilling down from behind made me lurch into the man in the red shirt; he continued to stare, unblinking, out at the tracks. A few feet away, a young Puerto Rican woman, wearing a pink plastic rain slicker and carrying a large black leather handbag, leaned against a black metal pillar; she, too, stared sightlessly as she was flung about by people pushing past her in both directions at once. A heavy-set black woman holding two little children tightly by the hand glared momen­tarily at a man whose elbow had jabbed her; but then she quickly subsided into the somnolence that had previously enveloped her. A brown-skinned couple, incredibly small and thin, she in scuffed plastic wedgies, he in a black imitation-leather jacket, stood with their arms entwined about each other’s matchstick-narrow waists; on their faces, also, a fearful vacancy, an extraordinary submission. People looked as though they dared not see, hear, or respond. A sense of dread began to leak through me: It was as though I found myself in a universe of abdicating intelligence, some hellish vacuum of human refusal… alone, entirely alone; should anything happen, I knew, there would be no help coming. No help at all.

A young black man appeared in the crowd not five feet from where I stood. He was surely no more than eighteen or nineteen, and was dressed in a spotted blue nylon shirt and a pair of shiny black cotton pants. The smile on his face took me by surprise: so unexpected! so reviving! I had not realized the level of tension building in me until I felt welling up in me the relief caused by this single evidence of human friendliness. But then I saw that the smile on the young man’s face was blind, unfocused, turned inward; and that his eyeballs were rolling gently about in his face, his legs were turning to rubber beneath him, his arms were flailing the air in some imaginary prizefighter’s motion. What I had taken for cheerful connectiveness was in fact the solitary and antisocial vision of the drugged; and as the young man’s loosely clenched fists thrust closer and closer toward me, and his blind smile widened, and his legs twisted fearfully about, he became an eerie creature, sinister and unrecognizable to me. I flinched, and moved backward in a panicky effort to protect myself.

A train pulled into the express side of the station. I strained toward it. No hope of boarding it. Fifty people jammed the space between myself and the tracks, forming a single pushing wall I was no longer expert at inserting myself into. As I stood there in confusion, one eye on the addict at my side, the other wildly seeking some way out, three black boys rammed me and everyone around me, and went charging toward the train. They headed not for the doors but for the small open ends of the cars protected by linked chains, bulling their way through the crowd. Despite the presence of a conductor whose head was protruding from the small window at the end of the car nearest them, the three boys wrenched the chains apart, and with a wild war whoop leaped onto the open platform of the linked train cars, nearly knocking two women to the ground as they went. I looked into the faces of those boys, and I grew frightened. Their eyes seemed to glint with a kind of ferocious triumph, their mouths twisted into laughter that was a grimace, fury burned in their flared nostrils, their tensed arms looked, almost, as if they held weapons; for one hallucinating moment I imagined I saw flames licking at their feet. “Dear God,” I thought. “Who are these people? Who are they?” The train jerked itself together, roaring out of the station, and I remained where I stood, my head reeling.

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Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd, and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker — staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her. Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then — as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing — I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a zoo. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at 17 (she was no more than 18 or 19), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking, drawing the same ironic conclusions she was now drawing… The kaleido­scope stopped spinning and transformed itself into a tunnel of time down which I was quickly transported.

Twenty-five years ago these subways were filled with working-class Jews, and my father was one of them. Twice a day, for a quarter of a century, my father endured this subhuman exhaustion in order to stand eight hours a day at a steam iron in a dress factory on West 38th Street. Twice a day he gathered together with thousands of other Jewish immigrants here in this black gloom to hang from a strap in the final galling hour of a sweat-filled workday, drained of all thought and energy, his glazed mind able to concentrate only on a single fixed point: the moment when he would walk through the door of that railroad flat in the Bronx he called home. At 17, I took my place beside him on the subway (although he was already gone: dead at 51 of a heart attack), entering the ranks of working-class straphangers. But with a single vital difference: I was now a college student, already in that process of cultural absorption that would leave me with a kind of double-vision for the rest of my life. At 17, I knew well enough the difference between “us” and “them”; what’s more, I also knew how “they” saw “us”; I had read Hutchins Hapsgood’s turn-of-the-­century study of Jews in the “ghet-to,” and had thought, as I read his descriptions of small, squat Semites on the Lower East Side jabbering  Yiddish at the tops of their lungs, eating odd-smelling foods like gefilte fish, and wearing the skull caps, beards, and black clothes of the Middle Ages, “My God, that’s us he’s talking about!” And I remembered, now, as though it were yesterday, a day on the subway when I hung from a strap, my City College books under my free arm, surrounded by Jews of all sizes and shapes (mostly short and fat), speaking uneducated Yiddish to one another at the tops of their voices, and a tall slim man with blue eyes and straight blond hair stood at the far end of the car, staring unashamedly at us  — exactly as though we were animals in a zoo.

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The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about… How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?

The young black addict at my side began to grow uncontrollable. He staggered around in wheeling circles, his legs buckling dangerously beneath him, a thin trickle of spittle drooling down the side of his mouth, his head down and coming straight at me. Then — and I will always wonder: Could it have happened before I had thought all this? — the black man in the red shirt and the porkpie hat sprang into action. He grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the path of the addict, half ­pushing me behind his own body. Our eyes met for a moment: In his was the same mixture of fear and disgust that undoubtedly flickered in my own. His lips tightened and he shook his head slowly from side to side in agreement, we are on the same side. I nodded at him, and for first time since I had descended into the subway I felt safe, back among my own people, back among people who saw danger where I saw it, and implicit in that single sight were shared assumptions about the value of certain kinds of human behavior. More I could not ask from the strangers all about me.

Another train pulled into the station. The man in the red shirt took firm hold of my upper arm and propelled me through the crowd, into the jaws of the iron monster. After that I was back on my own. Pushed, shoved, jammed, rammed, poked, pulled: That was the ride uptown. Fifty people packed into a space properly occupied by 25; everyone remained silent, and protected the last memory of separate humanness by meeting no one’s eyes. Hot breath poured down our necks and sweat rolled down the sides of our faces. Arms atrophied and legs grew numb. Elbows tried desperately to extricate themselves from ribs. Everywhere a frantic lookout for pickpockets.

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An enormous black woman broke the sucked-in silence. Her huge bosom almost at the level of my eyes, she looked down into my face as the train swayed and jerked along the tracks, shook her head solemnly from side to side, wiped her hand across her sweating eyes, and said, “Oh, honey! Ain’t this somethin’. Some dessert after a day’s work!” She sounded exactly like my mother, who spent years of her life railing against the subway. Only my mother, inevitably, would have ended with “A black year on all politicians! The mayor should be forced to ride the IRT every day for a month.”

At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Scene Theater Uncategorized

Candy Darling, Where Were You the Night Jean Harlow Died?

We were seen around New York, Candy Darling and me, for a week or two we had a little whirl, a movie star and reporter in Alan Ladd trenchcoats sipping Singapore Slings at Daly’s Dandelion, watching home movies at Taylor Mead’s apartment — Candy all milkskin white curled up in a bed, bored until her face appeared on the sheetscreen, last summer at Fire Island, the arrival of the legend in black dress and pieplate sun­glasses, “stop the camera, Tayl­or, can you run it in slow motion” — at Holly’s opening, Max’s Kansas City, the Pink Teacup, Francesco Scavullo’s Ash Wednesday party, the Cine Malibu with Candy’s cinema voice honeypouring from the screen, “I’m only a woman. What have I to offer? A glittering facade?” A glittering facade.

When the milkskin darling was a little darling, he had other names, a male first name and a surname that was Irish. He was very close to his mother and he loved going to the movies.

At the age of nine, his life took on a direction. He saw “The Prod­igal.” Lana Turner, the high priestess, blonde and pure, clad in scarlet, stockinged in gold, gilded, glittering, beautiful beyond belief. Men kissed Lana’s hand and died for her, and Lana, in true Metro tradition, leapt to her death from a 1000-foot pedestal into a ring of fire. Then handmaidens gasped and the pagan drums boomed. This is how life should be. The young boy from Forest Hills had to have it for himself. He became Candy Darling.

Alone in the house, Candy would conjure up a Lana scene. She’d run a lukewarm bath and drop blue food coloring into the water. She’d move the potted palm from the family living room to a spot next to the hamper, perfume the room and drag her mother’s ocelot coat out of the closet, a royal bath carpet for ruby toenails to tread on. She’d play Yma Sumac music and recite Lana lines. “When they see me, they will stop this madness.” Then she’d drape herself in a towel, held together by mama’s rhine­stone broach, and slink through the house, a regal empress, her French poodle a movie tiger by her side.

Candy Darling, CANDY DARLING, she wrote in her diary. The name is magic.

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Sixteen, and already ensconced in a cloak of sexual ambiguity, she left home to live with her uncle in Greenwich Village, spending little time at the apart­ment, freewheeling it on Chris­topher Street where sex is nei­ther one thing or another but a collage. Candy’s collage was an unorthodox mixture accepted by lesbians, scorned by the middle­-ground “unsure of status” male homosexual, lusted after by straight men and macho gay, envied and feared by the plain­-jane male transvestites with illusions of personal grandeur. Candy didn’t give a damn about her rivals. She stood aloof, a glacier in a sea of open-mouthed whales, stunning, a genuine un-genuine woman.

One sunny summer day, her uncle, in a jealous rage, told her never to darken his doorstep again. Candy then began what was to be a series of affairs with men who abused her, humiliated her, raped her, made love to her, but seldom loved her. Love became internalized. With the help of Photoplay and Silver Screen and the mirror on the wall, Candy began a romance with her­self, a love affair with an image that was a reality — and also a commodity. Candy Darling, the supreme package, blonde, glit­tering, gilded, beautiful beyond belief, high priestess, eternal virgin on the brink of rape, queen of films, queen of the universe, the last laugh at them all.

The commodity was picked up by Andy Warhol about five years ago. Candy was playing an actress in Tom Eyen’s “Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway.” Andy saw the show and put Candy in “Flesh.” The impression was POW. She became a Warhol darling, floating around Andy’s New York, the galleries, the right parties, the wrong parties, ruby lips and platinum hair at society bashes. Candy, shy and demure, with Marisa Berenson and the Brenda Fraziers and Cobina Wright, Jrs., of the ’70s, at movie premieres exchanging lipstick and boyfriend information in powder rooms with best friend Sylvia Miles, then hitting Chris­topher Street and the dives with sycophants, often dragging her­self home to mama Teresa “Darling’s” modest home in Mas­sapequa Park for an hour or two of sleep — and the dreams.

The dreams. Candy remembers them and writes them down in her notebook. One night, around New York, we talked dreams, Candy and me. Here’s one she dreamt after attending a George Plimpton party with Gerard Malanga, whom she was in love with at the time.

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“I was going to the opening of a night club,” said Candy from a divan in an empty room, a flash­back look seeping from widow’s peak to jaw, as though a camera were panning in for a close-up. “It was the biggest club in the whole world. It had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, surrounded by trees and tables covered in white. I was with Andy Warhol and Gerard. Andy hated the gown I wore, a gray-blue see-through with rhinestone sequins and feathers at the bottom. I wore my trenchcoat over it. Andy thought I looked cheap. Yet he introduced me to everybody at the night club. I was to be paid $500 for being there. After a while, several wealthy men talked to me. I told them, ‘I’m so happy you asked me here,’ but was anxious to get away from them. I looked over my shoulder and saw Andy walk out, like he always does, leaving me frantic and alone. Finally, I got rid of the two men I was talking to and saw someone with a black leather coat who I thought was Gerard. I walked over to him quickly and it wasn’t Gerard at all. ‘Did you see Gerard?’ I asked. The man in the coat turned his back on me. All of the other men were standing in little groups, closed in among themselves. I went running from one group to another” (Candy got up from the divan and acted out the dream vi­gnette: she ran to different corners of the room, breathlessly, hysterically). ” ‘Is Gerard here? Is Gerard here?’ The men all turned their backs, they wouldn’t look at me. Finally someone said, ‘Oh, Gerard left 10 minutes ago.’ And I was left there completely alone. But I still had the $500 in my trenchcoat pocket and I felt it and held it and took it out and when I looked at the money it was velvet on one side and it wasn’t real money. That’s when I woke up. I was terrified.”

A couple of nights before St. Pa­trick’s Day, Candy and I were caught in the rain. We ducked into a spot for a drink. Never straight bourbon or scotch, always some­thing fancy with a swizzle stick. The music from the machine was playing sentimental, an oldie, “a telephone that rings but who’s to answer.” In the corner of the cafe, caught in the mood, Candy played true confessions, a touch of Kim in “Lylah Clare,” a dab of Ava in “Pandora.” I remember how she looked at me, those hazel eyes shifting from my hazel eyes to linger on my lower lip, and I remember exactly how she looked and what she said. She looked like every blonde product who has ever made it from the earring counter at Woolworth’s to be molded into a director’s Dada, total myth outside, myth fighting to win control over reality inside. And she said to me, “I’ve been here before. My spirit was once that of a movie star’s. I believe it was once Jean Harlow’s. I was captivated by her death as far back as I can remember. I read all of her obituaries on special microfilm. She died during the shooting of ‘Saratoga’ and they photographed much of the film with a double showing back shots. Long before the Harlow revival, I had my hair dyed platinum and my eyebows plucked and pen­ciled. When I was young, I drew a lot, mostly animals and women. The women all had white hair. Jean Harlow or Kim, before I knew them, or looked like them.”

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Death, the glamor of early death, often runs through Candy’s mind. Kim Novak dying young in “The Eddy Duchin Story,” Kim Stanley dying young in “The Goddess,” Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe dying young on Page One. Make it big when you’re blonde and beautiful, pound out that imprint for eter­nity, leave the worshiping masses a glorious platinum memory.

The second night of our town-tripping, Candy had given instructions to a friend, what to do on the death of Candy Darling. Nothing morbid, just movie star security. I couldn’t worm it from her. Cremation? Forest Lawn? A red rose on a white casket? Call AP, UP, mama, and Rona Barrett? “All I can tell you is that I’d will my money to a Candy Darling Me­morial Theatre Fund to help struggling actors. Let’s talk about the future.”

The future, Candy would like to do a Broadway show. A revival of “Little Me” would be nice. She’d adore the Eve Harrington role in “Applause” with Sylvia Miles as Margo Channing. There’s a possibility of playing a Marlene Die­trich “Destry” slut in Paul Mor­rissey’s soon-to-start Italian west­ern. A couple of films shot in Germany are on their way — Candy’s big in Germany. “Women in Revolt,” after a short run at the Cine Malibu, is soon to play the boondocks, and “Some of My Best Friends … ” shows up intermittently on 42nd Street. Videotape, too, is on Candy’s mind. She does a bad take-off of a drug-crazed junkie — Needle Park would laugh rather than panic — but Candy wants the world to know she’s an actress as well as a star and will shortly dance the heroin blues for a hand-held camera. She’s also talking of needling Tennessee Williams into pulling out a masterpiece or two from his trunk: Candy as Blanche in “Streetcar” or Alma in “Summer and Smoke” or Ariadne in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

She’s happiest when she’s work­ing. “I’m like Jeanne Eagels. I don’t care if it’s a big Hollywood part or a small role, as long as I have something to say about it. So often I have to do exactly what directors say and so often I know more than the directors. ‘Some of My Best Friends … ‘ is one movie where the director should have listened to me. He treated me like a child, as if I were a very touchy delicate thing. It was hard for me. I consider myself an ar­tist. Of course I want admiration and I want them to like me, but I can take criticism.”

She can also give criticism. She told Holly Woodlawn “you’ll never be a star because you can’t boil an egg” which led Holly to crack “it’s just like Candy, so im­practical, when I become a star I’ll have my cook boil my eggs.”

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Candy admits her impracti­cality, her ambivalence toward men, toward stardom, toward life. She admits “I’m filled with guilt and instability. I tremble when I go places and hear people calling Candy Darling, CANDY DARLING, yet I love it.” She describes herself as soft and vulnerable and strong as an ox, a barometer — “I am what I am now, in a few minutes I’ll change and be something else.” She says in one breath that she wants to be an actress, and in the next she’ll tell you she’s a star. She’ll tell Jackie Curtis, “Your thoughts are so strong, I’ve got to be alone with my own thoughts,” then question her own thoughts out loud — “Should I be cooperative, tell them everything they want to know, how much I eat, what I weigh, what color underwear I wear, how many times a day I go to the bathroom, or should I be mysterious so that they’ll always come back for more.” She’ll say that men are kings and that women were meant to be slaves, then confide that she’s all for women’s liberation. She’ll coyly demur that “most men are really afraid of me, they think I’m a delicacy or something, too rich for their blood,” then, under Taylor Mead’s nose, vamp away his boy friend of the evening and whisper to me, “I’d hate to have this be the highpoint of my life.”

 

Categories
From The Archives IMPEACHMENT ARCHIVES

The ’72 Election May Be Held as Scheduled

The ’72 Election May Be Held as Scheduled
April 16, 1970

Has Richard Nixon asked the Rand Corporation to prepare a scenario in which Richard Nixon cancels the 1972 Presidential election? A four-paragraph item on page 21 of the Staten Island Advance of Sunday, April 5, reports that the White House has ordered a study of that possibility because Presidential advisers are “increasingly concerned about the country’s internal security and the chances of radical elements disrupting governmental operations, including national elections.”

The proposed Rand study, according to this report, “would be to envision a situation where rebellious factions using force or bomb threats would make it unsafe to conduct an election, and to provide the President with a plan of action.”

The story in the Advance was called to my attention by a man whose girl friend had heard about it from a Staten Island cab driver. But, as far as I can tell, it is no put-on. It was one of the several items “compiled by the Advance’s Washington Bureau” which turned out to be the Washington Bureau of the Newhouse newspapers, a chain noted for its bland conservatism. I called the Bureau and reached William Howard, who filed the item. Howard stuck by his story. He said his source was “good,” indicated it was close to the Rand Corporation, and mentioned that the wife of a Rand Corporation executive has also been overheard talking about such a study. Howard said the White House and Rand had denied that such a study was under consideration. He speculated that if such a study had been requested it would be couched in much more bland language, and that the Rand people involved were “probably under orders to give oral rather than written reports on their findings.”

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Howard had been writing a story on federal government plans to step up surveillance of radical groups and individuals — plans justified by the government as means of protecting innocent citizens from bombings by identifying and apprehending potential bombers before they can act — when he came across word of the Rand study of the ’72 elections.

I next called the White House, and spoke to John Andrews, an assistant press secretary, who told me he had received some inquiries about the story. “I’ve made a pretty careful check from both ends,” Andrews said, “and haven’t found anything to this story at all.”

I asked him if he had asked the President himself. Andrews said he had not but that “I talked with all the members of the President’s staff who would have been involved in getting this under way — the ones who deal with radicalism, violence, law and order, law enforcement, that type of thing — and they say it just is not being done.”

I asked him if he could tell me who exactly these people were who “would have been involved,” but he refused to identify them. I asked him if he had checked with anyone in the Justice Department, and he said he had not.

I asked him whether, if the report actually existed and was highly secret, he would have to issue a denial anyway. He told me that “if the report were secret the Rand Corporation would have called me and said ‘we are doing this thing and this is how we’re brushing off inquiries,’ so that we could get our stories straight, but Rand called me and said they had been getting calls and they didn’t know anything about it.”

I decided it would be futile to ask him whether, assuming the report did exist and the Rand Corporation did call him and say “this is how we’re brushing off inquiries,” he would then tell me, “Yes the Rand Corporation called me to tell me it exists and this is how we’re brushing off inquiries.” Too metaphysical.

But I did ask him if he thought such a study of the ’72 elections would be against Nixon administration policy and he told me, “I can’t comment on that, you only asked me if there was such a report.”

When I called the Rand Corporation’s Washington office, I was put in touch with L. J. Henderson, a vice-president. He was rather firm in his denial: “It’s absolutely not true, there’s not one single iota of truth, it is totally out of whole cloth, I don’t know how it got started,” he told me.

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I asked him whether, if the report did happen to exist and was highly secret, he would deny it to the press anyway. “I’d probably just say ‘no comment’ in that case,” he told me. “There might be things we couldn’t discuss the existence of, but this just doesn’t exist.

Again avoiding getting into metaphysics, I asked Henderson how he was so certain the story was untrue. “I’ve checked with every one of our people here, asked everybody here who knows anything about our research, and none of them had ever heard of it,” he said.

I asked him if Rand Corporation policy would allow it to accept a contract to study ways of canceling Presidential elections in the U.S.

“I can’t comment on a theoretical question like that — it’s hypothetical.”

“Isn’t all your research hypothetical?”

“Yes — ha ha — I can’t comment on that, too hypothetical,” he repeated.

Barring further leaks, there is no way of finding out whether Nixon is studying the possibility of canceling the ’72 election — until sometime in the fall of 1972.