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Bad Brains: Hardcore of Darkness

Hardcore? I can’t use it. Not even if we talking Sex Pistols. ‘Cause inner city blues make me wanna holler open up the window it’s too funky in here. And shit like that. Or rhythms to that effect. But listening to the Sex Pistols is like listening to a threat against your child, your wife, your whole way of life: You either take it very seriously or you don’t take it at all. Depends on whether or not you’re truly black or white I guess. Or so I thought. Because never mind the Sex Pistols, here come something for the ass. Namely, the Bad Brains. Baddest hardcore band in the land, living or dead. So bad bro that even if you ain’t got no use for hardcore on the blackhand side, you’ll admit the Brains kick too much ass to be denied for the form. Whether you dig it or you don’t. Besides which, sis, sooner or later you got to deal with this: The Brains are bloods. That’s right, I’m talking a black punk band, can y’all get to that? Because in the beginning, the kid couldn’t hang — I mean when I was coming up, you could get your ass kicked for calling an­other brother a punk. Besides which, very few black people I know mourned the fact that Sid Vicious fulfilled his early promise. But, then, being of black radical-profes­sional parentage, the kid has always had the luxury of cultural ambivalence coupled with black nationalist consciousness. That’s why my party affiliation reads: Greg Tate, Black Bohemian Nationalist. Give me art or give me blood. Preferably on the One, but everything I do ain’t got to be funky. So, a black punk band? Okay, I’m game.

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Dig: Formed in District Heights, Mary­land (a black low-moderate income D.C. suburb) around 1977, the Brains turned to hardcore from fusionoid-funk after getting sick of the AM/FM band and hearing a Dead Boys LP. Or so the story goes. Less apocryphally, virtually anybody who cares will tell you that Chocolate City’s hardcore scene begins with the Brains. Which means that to this day defunct punkateers like Minor Threat, Teen Idles, S.O.A., and the Untouchables still owe the Brains some play for being the first to say “Let’s take it to the stage, sucker!” Or however one punks out to that effect.

Now when spike-headed hordes of mild-mannered caucasoids came back from the Brains’ first gigs raving that these brothers were ferocious, I took the brouhaha for okey-doke. Easily in­timidated, easily titillated white primitivism is how I interpreted that mess. Just some freak-whiteys tripping behind seeing some wild youngbloods tear up white boy’s turf. No more, no less. But when my own damn brother — Tinman we call him — came back raving the same shit, I had to stop and say, well, goddamn, these furthermuckers must not be bullshitting. And now that the Brains got this 14-song cassette out on ROIR, it’s for the world to know they ain’t never been about no bull­shitting. Hardcore? They take it very seri­ously. You say you want hardcore? I say the Brains’ll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I’m talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Mean­ing that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain’t, funk it ain’t hardly, and they’ll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain’t that a bitch? Especially considering that sound unseen some y’all could easily mistake these brothers for soulless white devils. Because unlike Hen­drix or Funkadelic, the Brains don’t trans­mute their white rock shit into a ridimically sensuous black rock idiom: When I say they play hardcore, I mean they play it just like the white boy — only harder. Which is just what I’d expect some brothers to do, only maybe a little more soulfully. Complicating this process in the Brains’ case is that while 95 per cent of their audience is white, they’re also Jah-­praising Rastafari who perform hardcore and reggae (albeit discretely). Making them two steps removed from the Funk, say, and a half-step forward to Mother Africa by way of Jah thanx to the Dead Boys. Or more specifically the British Rasta/punk connexion.

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While only three tunes on the Brains’ cassette are Ital — if mediocre — roots mu­sics, Rasta permeates their hardcore via a catch-phrase they use liberally: P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude. In practice, this means that unlike many of their hardcore contemporaries the Brains don’t shit on their audience — which last time they played D.C. was two or three dreads, a whole lotta skinheads, lunatic funkateers, heavy-metal rejects, and some black fash­ion models — but instead reason with them in hardcore dialect, a messianic message of youthful unity, rebellion, and optimistic nihilism. Which is somewhere not even a “progressive” punk anarchist like Bellow Appalachia of the Daft Kindergarteners has gotten to yet. In The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige says that the critical dif­ference between Rasta and punk re­bellion — one life-embracing, the other death-defying — derives from Rastas hold­ing to the dream of an African utopia and punks seeing themselves as locked into a culture without a future. The Brains’ ex­traordinary synthesis of the two is of course made possible by the fact that they’re black. Nobody seems to know how or why they arrived at this synthesis — ­apparently not even them. But the contradictions such as fusion reconciles are not only profound but very handy: How to be black (not Oreo) punks and how to be punks and look forward to waking up every morning.

And while that may just sound like some seriously schizzy shit to you, sis, I don’t think the Brains’ mutation into tri­ple-identity Afro-American/Rasta/punk was brought on solely by an identity crisis. It was also encouraged by their convic­tions. Because when the Brains adopted British punk’s formal conventions and “classic” thematic antipathies — toward mindless consumerism, fascistic authority, moral hypocrisy, social rejection — they took to them as if they were religious sacra­ments. And when the Brains play hardcore it is with a sense of mission and possession more intense than that of any of the sadomasochistic Anglo poseurs who were their models. And yet, though locked into the form by faith and rebellion, the Brains inject it with as much virtuosic ingenuity as manic devotion. Their hardcore jux­taposes ergs of sonic violence against a surprisingly inventive slew of fusion-fast sledge hammer riffs, hysterical stop-time breaks, shrieking declensions, and comic asides (like the surf harmonies and soul arpeggios in “Sailing On” or bassman Dar­ryl’s gonzo Segovian intro to “Banned in DC”). And onstage, the band’s Scot­-screeching frontman H.R. throws down like James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, backflips, splits, and skanks.

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Ironically, the Brains’ genuine feeling for this music isn’t unlike what British rock’s first generation felt for the blues. Ironic because the Brains are black; hard­core is white (and no matter how much Hendrix and Berry they ripped, it still ain’t nothing but some whiteboy sounding shit now) and who would’ve ever thought that one day some bloods would go to the white boy looking for the spirit? Not to mention the revolution! I mean, if the Brains wasn’t so serious I’d think they were trying to revive minstrelsy. Because while they play hardcore as good as any white man ha ha, like it was in fact second nature, their reggae ain’t shit. Not only does it have less bottom than their punk, it also sounds half-assed and forced; more an outgrowth, like Dylan’s nascent gospel, of sanctimonious intent than of innate reli­gious fervor. Signifying, if nothing else, how far down river the Brains’ missionary work has taken them from the wellspring of most black music’s spirituality — ­namely, the black community. Because where punk’s obnoxious energy is an at­tack on the parent-community, Rasta-in­fluenced reggae draws strength from the ideal of a black community working in harmony. An ethic which isn’t foreign to black music not from Yard either: the Funk Mob identified it as one nation under a groove, James Brown called it soul power, and I call it doowop tribalism. The need for which makes even such outre individualists as Jarman-Moye-Favors­-Mitchell-Bowie bind into “Great Black Music” ensembles; makes Cecil Taylor work himself into a “Black Code Method­ology/Unit Structure”; makes Ornette Coleman improvise a funk-based, demo­cratic system of notation. The need, in other words, for a unified black community respectful of both holy tradition and indi­vidual expression. An ideal which leaves me respecting the Brains for their principled punk evangelism and worried for their souls. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Robert Mitchum, A Seasoned Champion

Trouble waits in sullen pools along the way l’ve taken.
Silent windows stare the empty street.
No love beckons me save that which I’ve forsaken.

And the anguish of my solitude, sweet. 

 — Robert Mitchum, circa 1932
Verse written to his mother while he was serving time on a chain gang in Chatham County, Georgia

Shortly after he drowsily recites this “sophomoric” poem written at the worldly wise age of 15, Mitchum invisibly shifts gears and tartly remembers, “How­ard Hughes always said to me, ‘Robert, you’re like a pay toilet, aren’t you? You don’t give a shit for nothing.'” Hughes was wrong, but the self-deprecating Mitchum would be the last to care. At 65, the only observation he makes on his own behalf is “I know shit from pound cake, I know bad from good.” His slang is pep­pered with references to bodily functions. He returns from the bathroom, self-satis­fied, announcing, “That was a three-flush piss. I feel like the frog-prince.”

Robert Mitchum confides his poetic sentimentality and communicates his vio­lent antiauthoritarianism in the same voice, that husky, gravel-purr monotone two octaves below basso profundo, just at the edge of audibility. His lack of inflec­tion alerts listeners to content. An acid rain of profanity sears the air after the humid sweetness of a stray confession. He wears the fragrance of Tequila like after­shave, chain-smokes Pall Malls and what­ever other filterless weed is within reach. He is a reluctant interview, likening his promotional tour for That Championship Season to serving time (he’s been in the slammer on 11 occasions, for everything from vagrancy to conspiracy to marijuana possession, and refers to prison as “the great leveler”). But much as he wants to hold back, he’s a congenital raconteur, rapping improvisationally with a jazz man’s syncopation and stream of con­sciousness, immensely articulate if, at times, semicoherent.

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He’s large. Burly shouldered, barrel chested, ample bellied, Mitchum, upon our introduction at a publicist’s lunch, intimidates me by barking, “Fuck you and the boat that brought you!” I smile, “No boat, sorry,” and he gets raffishly apologetic, extending his hands, which I inspect to see if the knuckles are still tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE” from his role as the evil fundamentalist preacher in Night of the Hunter. “Been in so many fistfights since then, they got erased,” he drawls, his lazy, bruised mouth curling. For those of you, like me, worried about the condition of his hams, he still has the digit severed in The Yakuza. Impulsively, he gives me a bear hug, and what I’ve suspected for 30 years is confirmed: I’m in love with Mr. Love/Hate, and he acts out every contradiction he projects on screen.

Alternately mucho macho and muy simpatico, Mitchum respects people who hold their ground, because he’s always held his and knows it’s hard. After lunch I arrive at his Waldorf suite for the inter­view (“You’ll have to be nude between the sheets,” he’d instructed me, “and wear a false mustache”), and we discuss his vagabond childhood, how his railroad­worker dad was killed in a train accident, how his mom, he, and two siblings were always the new folks in town. “My brother and I were always put in the position of proving ourselves. The trick was to push the challenger’s nose to the back of his brain without giving him a cerebral hemorrhage.” Mitchum slithers off the settee and forcefully rearranges my face without doing any damage, while I silently get hysterical and imagine Post headlines (ACTOR REVISES CRITIC’S PAN) but hold my ground. He’s respectful. He’s let­ting me know how far I can pursue this line of questioning. I ask him a little more about the early days, and he’s disgusted. “Why should I tell you when I can write it myself and get a $1 million advance?” He’ll tell some, but not all.

Dad’s early death. Gypsy life with his mother, brother, and half-sister. Mom’s a newspaperwoman who worked her way up from the linotype room. Robert was a habitual runaway and scrapper, given sax­ophone lessons as therapy (“Because I shit in the teacher’s hat or something”), and by his account, which sounds more mythopoetic than documentary, he played instrumental scat-tattoos during the “Star Spangled Banner” while his classmates plugged perfunctorily away. At 15 he was in Manhattan attending high school and working after school as a lyric arranger at WMCA. (“At the age of 15?”   I ask. He doesn’t answer.) He idolized Johnny Mercer and new music, which was jazz. Various arrests. (How?) Pissing in alleyways, vagrancy. Chain gang. Hopped a freight for California during the mid-­’30s. Wrote some radio plays. Directors told him whenever he wants to be in front of the mike, he’s hired. He accepted. He can ride a horse, so he was hired as a movie extra. Because he’s dumb enough to do his own stunts, he was in constant demand as actor/stuntman, directors get­ting two performances for the price of one.

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Since 1943 (he was 26), Mitchum has been in 100-plus movies and slowly chiseled an acting career of Rushmore monumentality. He brought a new kind of love to the postwar screen (sex) and a new kind of ethos (stoic doubt). His bedroom eyes and barroom mouth bespoke the rig­ors of the sack and the sauce. In the two movies be made with Jane Russell — ­Macao and His Kind of Woman — the pair are so sultrily laconic and sleepy (they look like twins) that it seemed as though they were filmed between rounds in the boudoir. When I mention my fondness for these films, he dismisses me with “You just like tits, Carrie.” I reply: “Hers or yours?” Almost guffawing, Mitchum growls, “Hers are bigger, mine are fur­ther.” I don’t know what he means, nei­ther does he, but we both know a punch line when we hear one.

For Mitchum on screen, sex wasn’t about romance or conquest; it was an expansive, immensely pleasurable, re­ciprocal trade agreement. When he and Jane Greer size each other up in Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s echt film noir sizzler, the feeling is mutual. In Pursued, the first Freudian Western, Teresa Wright tries to kill Mitchum on their wedding night, and they literally pistol-whip each other before disarming in a hot embrace. In Mitchum movies, women were always equals, had to be, or he’d wipe them off the screen, and I think it’s as much a function of his persona as it was of the scenarios. Of all the postwar actors — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark — only Mitchum imme­diately figured out how to be a man’s man and a woman’s man at the same time. His Kind of Woman could just as well be titled Her Kind of Man.

World-weary, battered, unpretentious, Mitchum epitomized postwar masculinity. Here was the conquering hero conquered by self-doubt, who never feared reprisal for confessing this weakness (self-doubt never entered the consciousness of John Wayne, for example) because Mitchum could defend himself with a truly terrifying physical strength. A typi­cal Mitchum character never dictated good and evil, because all he could see through those heavily lidded eyes were shades of gray. Mitchum precociously gave ambivalence a good name, anticipat­ing a ’60s ethos. A swaggerer nonetheless, Mitchum was a hipster John Wayne, never suggesting might makes right though he’d acknowledge that it sure helps. Cast against type very rarely during his 40 years of screen sleepwalking, he was the brick men could rely on, the hooligan who could be chastened by Susan Hay­ward’s wide eyes in The Lusty Men, by Deborah Kerr’s nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. He had a sense of sexual and professional protocol. Self-reliant, he ex­pected the same of others, and be never seduced a woman who made herself un­available. Though this reinforced the femme fatale/good girl mold of ’50s women characters, it acknowledged that women had a right to their own desires.

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And for a man committed to holding his own ground, he sure gave his co-stars plenty of room. Explaining his philosophy of strength — which is visible on screen­ — Mitchum gestures, pounding his left fist into the palm of his right hand, “Just because I’m bigger than you and can maim you doesn’t give me any right to bash your brains in. You don’t get away with shit in this world and your only alternative is figuring out what you can give to others, not take from them.” His conception of a destiny distinct from the manifest kind is probably what makes his movies and performances seem so modern today. His presence in a ’40s and ’50s movie was enough to reinvent genres. Out of the Past was the first no-win film noir, Pursued the first psychological Western, The Lusty Men the first “modern” West­ern, set amid the present-day rodeo circuit.

Mitchum is loath to talk about acting as his way of giving. “Circumstance got me in front of the camera,” he tersely dismisses his vocation. The only self-as­sessment he grudgingly offers: “I take ’em on a trip, with authority!” But his author­ity is fundamentally antiauthoritarian, laissez-faire; he tries to inflect the word, can’t, and stresses it by raising his voice, slightly. On the Scranton, Pennsylvania, location of That Championship Season, Mitchum wittily distinguished the older generation of movie actors from the new: “These kids only want to talk about act­ing method and motivation; in my day all we talked about was screwing and over­time.” He evades the subject of movies (“My favorite movie? The Last Time I Saw Archie. Never saw it, but it was the first time I made 500 grand for a month’s work, that’s why it’s my favorite”), prefer­ring to teach me slang etymology and dish his former colleagues with brutally funny anecdotes.

“Billy Wellman?” Mitchum introduces the subject of the man who directed him in The Story of G.I. Joe and Track of the Cat. “He had a gentle heart and septic tastes,” he observes, and this could be autoanalysis. Of Raoul Walsh, director of Pursued, “A marvelous man, he’d cry at card tricks.” Mitchum describes Walsh as the indifferent auteur: “He’d call ‘action!’ and turn his back to the scene and try, unsuccessfully, to roll cigarettes with one hand on the side of his bad eye. He’d fail after four times or so; then he’d turn back to the actors in disgust and scream, ‘Cut!’ Yet his movies are the best.” Mitchum has worked with almost every major Hollywood director and is clamorously impatient with the aesthetes, preferring the wham-bam of action director Nick Ray (Macao, The Lusty Men) to the actor’s directors Cukor and Minnelli. “Cukor … Zukor … Pukor …” he rhymes, his nostrils flaring at the stench of Desire Me. He proceeds to do a devastating impersonation, puffing out his flattened lips to resemble Cukor’s full mouth, mimick­ing the director with damning precision. (Mitchum, though uninflected in his own speech, can ape anybody, everybody, and when he thought I was being dumb or beside the point, delighted in a breathless mimicry of me.)

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Minnelli? “Vincent was essentially a designer,” analyzes Mitchum, dismissing their first collaboration, Undercurrent, as Underdrawers. “But in Home from the Hill he had to invent a genre while every­one at the studio was getting pink-slipped.” A Cain and Abel melodrama antici­pating the tension of That Championship Season, Home from the Hill stars Mitchum as a tormented, ambivalent pa­triarch. (Offscreen, he loathed George Peppard’s Method posturing and did his best to coach rookie George Hamilton, who once confided that he still sends Mitchum a card every Mother’s Day.) Only Charles Laughton escapes the barbed praise. “Charles should have directed all the time … I’ve never felt a keener sense of trying to please a direc­tor,” he recalls of the man who made Night of the Hunter, the first time Mitchum enacted a character outside his own experience.

Since then, except for Ryan’s Daughter and The Last Tycoon, Mitchum’s best performances have been in playing a character not unlike Robert Mitchum. He’s cast against type in That Championship Season as a homily-spouting basketball coach whose hypocrisy runs counter to Mitchum’s own straight-arrow, live-and-­let-live ethos. Although a true believer in laissez-faire economics and sociology, this battle-scarred vet of every private and public war imaginable has no trouble enacting a patriarch-under-siege in the role that was originally intended for Wil­liam Holden. As the coach, Mitchum pulls out all the stops to get where he wants to go. From the flow of our conversation, certain corrections he makes, I get the notion that the fatherless actor’s charac­terization of the coach might be based, in part, off Howard Hughes, about whom Mitchum (with uncharacteristic awe) re­calls, “Howard would always look through you, past you. If he said it, it was true.”

Mitchum conveys his antiauthority through the negation of eye contact: his drowsy peepers are all but hidden behind swollen bags. I ask him to take off his oversize spectacles so I can look at his eyes. They’re indigo — matching his shirt and his mood. He really doesn’t want to talk about how he made his living, he prefers to talk about living. Mitchum gets almost animated (his body lurches toward me, out of his customary slouch) when he recalls his love for music, particularly the music and lyrics of Johnny Mercer. He sings “Fare Thee Well to Harlem” in a voice that should be reserved for gospel. (Laughton knew: he made Mitchum sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” in Night of the Hunter. And Mitchum did have a hit single, Thunder Road, in 1959, theme song of his movie.) He wants to rap, teach me new slang. “Brush ’em easy, he boxed out,” he says of a Pensacola dude, a dealer in contraband, who warned Mitchum not to disturb the privacy of a spacy street character. “Boxed out … that’s the opposite of prison, of being boxed in, that’s total freedom of imagination,” Mitchum says.

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“You know the origin of the word hip?” asks Mitchum, simultaneously the world’s oldest and youngest hipster, the guy who makes a trench coat look like a suit of armor. “Comes from hep, synonym of cool?” I volunteer. “Nah, like every important slang term, it comes from the Chinese opium trade … when you smoke, you lie on your hip. The you say, ‘I’m hip,’ that means you know the life.” He’s hip. About his verse he says, with regret, “I think the price of poetry is that it opens the door to more people than I have room for.” The anguish of his solitude, all the sweeter because he’s a loner who likes company. Dorothy, his wife of 42 years, wanders through, trying to open a window to air the room of its smoke and liquor aromas.

Mitchum’s last act as I prepare to leave is to teach me a self-defense trick. He wants people to hold their ground. ❖

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

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Vampirical Evidence

Vampires don’t know what they look like. Dracula says so himself, speaking through Fred Saberhagen in The Dracula Tape. They don’t show in mirrors, you see, so unless they ask someone they have no way of knowing whether their ties are straight, or their hair’s gone gray. Luckily, or so the count says, they don’t need to shave.

Vampires get gray hair? Yes, if they don’t drink blood often enough — and that’s just one question I never asked that was answered by these books. Did you know that a vampire weighs 20 pounds more than a human of the same height and build? That’s what Jan Jen­nings says in Vampyr, and though she doesn’t explain the reasons for this physi­ological quirk, she does suggest that it ac­counts for the myth about vampires and run­ning water. They can’t swim, so when they’re chased to a river bank they have to stand and fight. Old-time vampire hunters didn’t understand, and got the idea that the vampires were afraid of water.

And get this: vampires have erectile tissue under their fangs. That too is from Dracula via Saberhagen, and while it’s obviously con­venient for vampires to tuck their teeth away when they’re not in use, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that drinking blood arouses them. That’s just what I’d expect, of course. You don’t have to watch women scream for Frank Langella to know that vampires are supposed to be sexy, and that their real horror — also their forbidden delight — is that they make their victims sexy too. If Dracula did nothing but drink blood, what would he be? Just a killer with an especially messy MO. What makes him horrid is that he drinks young girls’ blood; he taps their most blushing feel­ings, and then uses his legendary vampire power to turn them into lascivious creatures of the night.

Whoever does that has to be evil, right? Bram Stoker certainly thought so, and installed three wanton vampire tarts in Dracula’s castle, as if to demonstrate where the vampire life leads. When he shows us one of Dracula’s victims, his writing almost trem­bles with disgust. Lucy’s virgin sweetness, he insists, “was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and her purity to voluptuous wantonness.” Her eyes were “Lucy’s eyes in form and color, but Lucy’s eyes unclear and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.” She was a good girl once, in other words, but now she’s bad. Under the kiss of her vampire Don Juan, she’s suffered, in the never so apt old phrase, a fate worse than death.

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But that was years ago, in another coun­try. Maybe sex is ghastly still — you’d get that idea from recent horror fiction — but on the other hand virginity is not exactly fashion­able. Being sexy by itself isn’t enough to make modern vampires bad: they have to prove themselves, in effect, by being monstrously evil. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot they take over a town; in Robert McCa­moon’s They Thirst (New York Post award for the most garish cover of the year) they take over Los Angeles. It helps, of course, if they’re vicious and corrupt. Daughters of Darkness is an unsettling film that ought to be shown much more often; in it, the languorous Delphine Seyrig dooms three poor souls with manipulations of straight and lesbian sex so unscrupulous that being a vam­pire is the least of her crimes. In Salem’s Lot, King carries on (with all the subtlety of a villain twirling his moustache) about why the town deserves its doom. “The town knew about darkness,” he begins. “It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.” Well. The town has its open secrets, but behind them are really secret secrets. People know that Albie Crane’s wife disappeared, and they think she ran off with a salesman from New York; what they don’t know is that “Albie cracked her skull open after the traveling man had left her cold … and tumbled her down the old well.” Everyone knows that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, “but they don’t know what he made her do first.” What, Stephen, what? In a Mexican film I came across on TV at some nameless hour of the night, the vampire is a family’s aged mother, kept locked in a crypt like a secret shame. When the horrors surface, it’s the innocent who are most horribly menaced. Both Count Yorga movies end with lovers doomed as they’re about to escape. One, bitten earlier, becomes a vampire and attacks the other. Whom can you trust? I can’t recall the name of the inept but astounding film about the vampire’s son who consumes raw meat in­stead of blood and fights his vampire heri­tage — literally, with a stake through his father’s heart. But his bloodlust breaks its bounds when his father dies, and with bared fangs he chomps his girlfriend, whom a few moments earlier he’d saved from being his father’s prey. There’s nastiness inside everyone, these stories seem to say, and vampires bring it out. That explains the power of my favorite bit of fangy lore, the old story that vampires can’t come through your door uninvited: the corruption they spread is really your own. Or as Lemora, the Lady Dracula, puts it in the movie that bears her name, “I only show people what they are.”

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That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. We might call it the pessimistic modern view: horror, horror everywhere. In the most recent crop of vampire books it finds its strongest expression in The Hunger, Whitley Strieber’s nasty follow-up to the much better Wolfen. Deathless vampire husks locked for­ever in their coffins are baleful tokens of Strieber’s apparent belief that horror allows no escape. But there’s also an optimistic modern view, according to which we can study, catalogue, understand, and even live with the turbulent emotional soup we’ve got inside. Most vampire tales I’ve read lately seem to be saying something of the sort, which must be why they read like little Kinsey reports, full of tasty trivia about vam­pire life, a subject that used to be shrouded in mystery and fear, like sex. Are you ready to open the forbidden curtain? Vampires have a body temperature of 68 degrees and a pulse rate of 35; they have internal guidance sys­tems like missiles or migrating geese; as they get older their fangs grow and they get less tolerant of light; they can starve to death but can’t catch cold; they can’t see well when they take the form of a mist. Fred Saberhagen even wants us to believe that they can be­come human again if their hearts are pure (it’d help, I guess, if we clapped for them as we did for Tinker Bell). Can these domesticated, near-sighted creatures really be vampires?

Vampyr begins with a vampire’s medical exam. Police in They Thirst stumble on dozens of vampires in their daytime sleep and cart them off to a hospital, to baffle the doctors (they wake up too soon, though: good-bye doctors, before they’ve learned any­thing). Even in The Hunger there’s a subplot about medical research that may reveal the secret of a vampire’s eternal life. Early in Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry there’s a fundamental reexamina­tion of vampirism in a lecture we assume is authoritative because the lecturer is the vampire himself, addressing people who think he’s speaking hypothetically. “The corporeal vampire,” he tells us, “would be by definition the greatest of all predators, living as he would off the top of the food chain … He would learn to live on as little as he could … since he could hardly leave a trail of drained corpses and remain unno­ticed … Fangs are too noticeable and not efficient for bloodsucking … Polish versions of the vampire legend might be closer to the mark: they tell of some sort of puncturing device, perhaps a needle in the tongue like a sting that would secrete an anticlotting substance.” If you think a vampire who needs an anticlotting substance is a little short on supernatural force, read on: Charnas turns the usual vampire tale on its head. It’s not the humans who are fatally attracted to the vam­pire, but the vampire (against his better judg­ment) who’s fatally attracted to humans. Our world begins to sap his strength. Ballet traps him with its seductive form, opera traps him with its passion, and psychotherapy traps him with its honesty, the most fatal snare of all. How did you feel about last night’s vic­tim? the therapist asks: “She was food,” the bloodsucker answers, with deep feeling, and later admits that the straightforwardness of therapy is “healthy in a life so dependent on deception as mine.” Not so, however: if any vampires reading this are in therapy, they’d better tell their doctors good-bye. Charnas’s hero gets his feelings muddled, loses the de­tachment a predator needs, and has to retreat into hibernation. It’s good pop psychology, I guess, but is it really a vampire tale? What kind of vampire sucks confusion from his victims instead of strength?

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And then there’s the ultimate excess of vampire revisionism, vampires who’ve been misunderstood and may even be virtuous. I’ll forgive Fred Saberhagen for making Dracula a loyal — if for hundreds of years lapsed —  Catholic because, routine plotting aside, The Dracula Tape and The Holmes-Dracula File are lots of fun. (An Old Friend of the Family isn’t much more than a routine thriller, with Dracula a kindly old vampire man bemused by American life.) Through selected quota­tions, The Dracula Tape allows Stoker to convict both himself and his hero van Helsing as intolerant prigs. Dracula made Lucy a vampire, if the truth be known, only to save her from the fatal effects of blood trans­fusions administered in an age when nobody knew about blood types. “You have done it before, butcher,” thunders the count in what we can almost believe is a long overdue reversal of roles. “Has any victim of your blood-­exchanging surgery yet lived?” Animal blood is his usual food, of course, and when you think of it, why not? As he himself says, we humans eat meat, but does that mean we eat human flesh? In The Holmes-Dracula File Dracula’s vampire dignity is badly shaken by an attack of amnesia, and if Dracula and Sherlock Holmes look alike (as passages from Stoker and Conan Doyle do suggest) it’s no coincidence: Holmes had a vampire twin brother. Not only that, he’s Dracula’s nephew, but the count spares him this knowl­edge. I’ll buy all this because Saberhagen’s just kidding around.

Jan Jennings, on the other band, thinks she’s serious. Valan, her vampire heroine —  “slender, beautiful, rich, cosmopolitan,” ac­cording to the jacket blurb — loves the all too human Theo, a “tall, handsome, brilliant” medical scientist with incurable leukemia. Get the point? These vampires are like Jane, the girl next door who puts on too much eyeliner one day and respells her name Jayne. “We are not Vampires, horrid nightstalkers who drink your blood,” they might say: “We are vampyr!” They feed from the willingly proffered necks of dumb beasts, who adore them because they’re so close to nature. (My fingers nearly refused to type that.) We humans, of course, are “only partly awake, partly alive.” At least Jennings understands vampires well enough to give each vampyr a fearful inner Beast, which it’s her life’s work to confront, but in spite of vampire murders and a ritual vampire beheading, these creatures don’t live the lives of “violence, lust, and strange bedfellows” they say they do, or at least no more than humans might. In the end, these vampyr are just, well, slender, beautiful, etc., and above all rich as hell (thanks to interest compounded over cen­turies) — a secret, glamorous, immortal, pretentious jet set.

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There’s one revisionist vampire book that’s deservedly become a kind of classic­ — for reasons rooted in traditional vampire fic­tion. Anybody with a vampire obsession who hasn’t read Interview with a Vampire has a vampire obsession that’s sadly incomplete. Anne Rice is not afraid of blood: her vampires are killers. They swoon in blood, and find their senses sharpened but their sensibilities dulled. Nothing in any vampire writing I know can match the sleepy luxury and final cruel shock of the vampire narrator’s first kill, accomplished under the guidance of his mentor:

The sucking mesmerized me; the warm struggling of the man was soothing to the tension of my hands; and there came the beating of the drum again, which was the drumbeat of his heart — only this time it beat in perfect rhythm with the drumbeat of my own heart, the two resounding in every fiber of my being, until the beat began to grow slower and slower, so that each was a soft rumble that threatened to go on without end. I was drowning, falling into weightlessness; and then Lestat pulled me back. “He’s dead, you idiot!” he said with his characteristic charm and tact. “You don’t drink after they’re dead! Understand that!”

Maybe you’re not impressed — one sensi­tive reader I know calls the book a soap opera — but compared to most vampire writ­ing, this might as well be Proust. Lestat’s “Understand that!” is a cruel joke because, in Rice’s world of shadows, understanding — sci­entific or emotional — is just what vampires lack. They’re too self-absorbed, too callous, and too routinely cruel to deserve their immortality and their sharp sensual delight­ — but if they had the human feeling to drink in the heightened excitement only a vampire can know, they’d be guilty, reluctant, ineffec­tive killers (cf. Suzy McKee Charnas), cut off from the soothing and searing experience that makes them what they are. They’re cold, in a word, frozen in their deathless lives just as, in the book’s most chilling metaphor, the immortal adult mind of a child vampire lies frozen in her five-year-old body. These vam­pires disappear in silence to die after a few hundred years, as Rice’s narrator perhaps does at the end, leaving his mortal in­terviewer/victim weak from excitement and loss of blood, searching through his tapes for the address of a vampire he may be able to trace, another lost soul seduced by the false hope that his vampire life would be better than his human one. Nobody but Anne Rice has penetrated a vampire’s heart like this, not with a stake but with pitiless clarity.

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The point, of course, is that she can look at vampires with the unswerving gaze of a revisionist, and still doesn’t forget what vam­pires are. Michael Talbot, on the other hand, so blindly ignores his vampires’ nature that I’ve almost forgotten to mention his book. Ignore the enticing blood-on-burnished-gold cover; The Delicate Dependency is incompe­tent nonsense, in which Victorians say “sort of” and “forget it,” use “virus” to name a kind of organism years before the word meant that, and refer to what anyone in their time would have called a deerstalker as a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” The plot, such as it is, dissolves into bursts of incoherent ac­tion — attempts to create suspense while the truth about vampires is revealed a little bit at a time. And what is that truth? That the vampires are a secret society of illuminati, the source of all human knowledge. For this I read nearly 400 pages? Talbot could have told the same story without making his heroes vampires, and, despite a nice gruesome bit about servants who wear scarves around their necks to hide their bites, actually seems to forget for tens of pages at a time that his illuminati drink blood, or in fact that there’s anything unusual about them except a bit of superhuman brains and brawn. This is sublimation with a vengeance. Romantic fanged jet-setters are bad enough, but vam­pires who turn their bloodlust into intellect have forgotten who they are. They probably even have reflections; instead of checking to see if their ties are straight (I’ll bet they are), they should turn from their mirrors in shame. Vampires without blood on their teeth aren’t vampires to me. ■

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THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY By Suzy McKee Charnas, Pocket, $2.75

VAMPYR By Jan Jennings, Pinnacle, $2.95

THEY THIRST By Robert R. McCamoon, Avon, $2.95

THE HUNGER By Whitley Strieber, Pocket, $2.95

THE DRACULA TAPE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.25

THE HOLMES-DRACULA FILE By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $1.95

AN OLD FRIEND OF THE FAMILY By Fred Saberhagen, Ace, $2.50

INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE By Anne Rice, Ballantine, $2.75

THE DELICATE DEPENDENCY — A Novel of the Vampire Life By Michael Talbot, Avon, $2.95

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Sisters Under the Skin: Confronting Race and Sex

Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute divi­sion than sex, a more basic determi­nant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to say that one social division is more absolute than another. I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of different kinds of division. Most blacks and whites live in separate communities, in dif­ferent social, cultural, and economic worlds, while most women and men share each other’s daily, intimate lives and cooperate, even if unequally, in such elemental activities as fucking, procreating, and keeping a household going. On the other hand, a man and a woman can spend their lives to­gether and have such disparate ver­sions of their “common” experience that they might as well live on different planets. Do I feel more distant from black women than from white men? Everything else (class) being equal? (Except that it usually isn’t.) In some ways yes, in some ways no. But whatever the objective truth, my sex feels more basic to my identity than my race. This is not surprising: in a sexist society it’s impossible to take one’s femaleness for granted; in a racist society whiteness is sim­ply generic humanness, entirely un­remarkable. Suppose, though, that a black revolution were to seriously challenge my racial privileges? Suppose I had to confront every day, every hour, the question of which side I’m on?

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Such questions excite and disturb me. Like talk about sexuality, discussions of the racial­-sexual nexus radiate danger and taboo — a sign that the participants are on to some­thing. Lately such discussions, mostly in­itiated by black women, are happening more often. They raise the heartening possibility of connecting, and in the process revitalizing, the unhappily divergent discourses of feminism and black liberation. This could be the first step toward creating a new feminist radicalism, whose interracial, interclass bonds go deeper than lowest-common-denominator coalition politics.

One of the women at the meeting suggested that I read Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase­-Riboud’s controversial historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress. I found it a devastating study of the psychology of mas­ters and slaves, the politics of romantic love, the relations between black and white women, and the institution of the family. Much of its power lies in the way the author merges the race and sex of each character into a seamless whole, bringing home the point that to abstract these categories is al­ready to falsify experience. So long as white­ness and maleness remain the norm, white women can think of themselves as “women,” black men as “blacks”; but black women, doubly the Other, must be constantly aware of their dual identity at the same time that they suffer from both racial and sexual in­visibility. In forcing the rest of us to see them, they also present us with new and far less tidy pictures of ourselves.

This suggests that confronting the op­pression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues. It also means questioning the intellec­tual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist move­ments have set up. If race and sex are ex­perientially inseparable, can we (should we) still analyze them separately? If all women are subject to male supremacy yet black and white women play out their relations with men (both inside and outside their own communities) in different ways — do they still have a common core of female experience, a common political oppression as women? Theoretically, the different situations of black women and black men should raise the same sort of question. But in practice black women single out their relation to white women and feminism as the more painful, problematic issue. This subject is now bursting through a decade’s sediment of sloganeer­ing, ritualistic condemnations, and liberal apologies to inform some provocative new writing.

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But first, I feel I have to say something about Angela Davis. Women, Race and Class may have been inspired by all this ferment, but the kindest judgment I can make is that it misses the point. From Davis’s orthodox Marxist perspective (still CP after all these years!), in which economic relations determine all, while sexual relations have no material status and sexism is merely a set of bad attitudes, the question of how racial and sexual politics interact loses its meaning. Da­vis strips racism of its psychocultural dimension and treats it strictly as a form of economic exploitation; she tends to ignore sexism altogether, except when invoking it as an excuse for white bourgeois feminists to undermine the struggles of black and work­ing people. (For instance, she rightly condemns the racism of white suffragists outraged at the prospect that black men would get the vote before white women — but rationalizes the sexism that prompted black men to sell out women of both races by agreeing that the black male vote should have priority. Black men’s “sexist attitudes,” Da­vis argues, were “hardly a sound reason for arresting the progress of the overall struggle for Black liberation” — and never mind the effect on that struggle of denying the vote to half the black population.) Still, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Davis’s book as an anachronism. In more subtle and am­biguous forms, its brand of left antifeminism continues to influence women’s thinking. Besides, Angela Davis is a public figure, and Women, Race and Class will undoubtedly outsell both the books I’m about to discuss.

Gloria I. Joseph is black; Jill Lewis is white. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, they attempt to explore their separate his­tories, confront misunderstandings, and move toward “collaborative struggle.” The book has the flavor of an open-ended political conversation; for the most part the authors write separate chapters, each commenting from her own perspective on various aspects of sexual politics. The result is uneven, full of intellectual loose ends and contradictions, and both writers have an unfortunate penchant for clotted, obfuscatory prose. But Common Differences does help to clarify touchy areas of black-white conflict. Joseph’s, chapters — which taught me a lot, especially about black mothers and daughters — are a valuable counterweight (and an implicit re­buke) to the tendency of white feminist theo­rists to base their generalizations about the female condition on white women’s experi­ence. In discussing black women’s lives, Jo­seph uses a time-honored feminist method: she records group discussions and individual comments, picks out common themes and contradictions, and tries to draw conclusions. The immediacy of this material exposes white feminist parochialism more effectively than any abstract argument.

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Without denying the movement’s short­comings, Lewis sets out to debunk the stere­otype of the spoiled, elitist “women’s libber.” The feminist movement, she maintains, de­serves recognition as the only social move­ment to challenge the status of women as women. She argues that white feminists have been struggling toward a deeper understand­ing of race and class, and that even those sectors of the movement most narrowly ori­ented to white middle-class concerns “have engaged in and won concrete struggles that potentially open up new terrain for all women.”

In their introduction, Joseph and Lewis agree that “as a political movement, women’s liberation did and does touch on questions which in different ways affect all women’s lives.” But Common Differences is much more about difference than about commonality. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism Bell Hooks strides boldly be­yond pluralism to the rockier ground of synthesis. While Hooks also stresses the uniqueness of black women’s experience and the ways it has been discounted, her aim is to enlarge the theoretical framework of feminism. To this end she analyzes black women’s condition in a historical context, tracing the basic patterns of black-female oppression to slavery and developing three intertwined themes: black men’s sexism, white women’s racism, and the effect of white men’s racial-sexual politics on the relations between black and white women. Hooks is a contentious writer, and I don’t always agree with her contentions, but Ain’t I a Woman has an intellectual vitality and daring that should set new standards for the discussion of race and sex.

The central political question these books raise is why the contemporary feminist move­ment has been so white. Most critics of the movement have offered a simple answer: white feminists’ racism has driven black women away. This indictment is true as far as it goes, but it already takes for granted facts that need explaining. Why, in the first place,­was it primarily white women, rather than black women or both groups simultaneously, who felt impelled to mobilize against sexism? And why did so many politically conscious black women reject the movement (in some cases the very idea of feminism) out of hand, rather than insisting that it purge its theory and practice of racism, or organizing groups committed to a nonracist feminist politics? Antifeminist leftists have typically argued that sexual politics are inherently a white middle-class crotchet, irrelevant to women, who are “really” — i.e., economically and racially — oppressed. Or else (this is Angela Da­vis’s main strategy) they redefine feminism to mean women fighting together against ra­cism and capitalism, and conclude that black and white working class women have been the leaders of the real feminist struggle. Ei­ther way they imply that sexism is not a problem for black women, if indeed it is a problem at all.

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Hooks, Joseph, and Lewis reject this idea. They assume that black women have a stake in women’s liberation, and see white feminists’ racism as part of a complex social history that has shaped black women’s politics. Bell Hooks argues that estrangement between black and white women goes all the way back to slavery. The terms of the conflict, as she sees it, were defined by white men who applied racism to a Victorian sexual (and class) ideology that divided women into two categories: good (chaste, delicate, to be pro­tected and idealized) and bad (licentious, unrefined, to be exploited and punished). While the white upper-class southern woman represented the feminine ideal, black female slaves were stigmatized, in schizoid fashion, both as bad women — therefore deserving to be raped and beaten — and as nonwomen: in doing the same work as men, black women threatened the ideology of female inferiority, a contradiction resolved by def ming them as neuter beasts of burden.

At the same time, the white woman’s power to collaborate in oppressing blacks softened and obscured the realism of her own inferior position. She exercised this power most directly over female slaves, whom she often treated with the special viciousness of the insecure. No doubt the degraded status of black women also reminded her, subconsciously at least, of what can happen to any female who provokes men into drop­ping the mask of patriarchal benevolence. As Hooks observes, the manifest cruelty of white women’s own husbands, fathers, and broth­ers “served as a warning of what might be their fate should they not maintain a passive stance. Surely, it must have occurred to white women that were enslaved black women not available to bear the brunt of such intense antiwoman aggression, they themselves might have been the victims.” As a result, the very identification that might have led white women to black women’s defense probably had the opposite effect. White men’s sexual pursuit of black women also exposed white women’s humiliating position: they could neither prevent their husbands’ behavior nor claim a comparable freedom for themselves. Instead they expressed their anger, salvaged their pride, and defended their own good­-woman status by vilifying black women as seducers and sluts.

Hooks shows that what she calls the “dev­aluation of black womanhood” did not end with slavery but remains a potent source of black women’s rage. Her account of how black women are systematically disparaged as whores, castrating matriarchs, and sexless mammies explains a crucial ingredient of black female hostility to the women’s move­ment. Clearly, when white feminists ignored black female experience and in effect equated “woman” with “white woman,” the result had a double meaning for black women: it suggested that we were not only enforcing white supremacy but trying to have it both ways by preserving our mono­poly on femininity and its rewards (respect, status, financial support) while demanding the option of rejecting it. This perception of bad faith fueled the angry denunciations of feminism as “white women’s business.”

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But envying white women’s “femininity” is a trap for black women, as Hooks is well aware. Idealization of the white woman’s status has tended to divert black women from demanding sexual justice to attacking black men for their inability to support stay-at­-home wives. Many black women have en­dorsed black male demands for female subservience in the hope that at last they would get a crack at the pedestal. At the same time, their envy of white women has been mixed with contempt, an emotion that led some black women to insist they didn’t need a movement because they were already liberated. Another illusion in Hooks’s relentless catalogue: strength in adversity and the need to make a living are not the same thing as freedom.

Gloria Joseph emphasizes the painful col­lisions of black and female identity. As she says, “an individual cannot be two separate entities. Yet black women suffer from two modes of oppression and so are implicated, like it or not, in two social movements at once. At best this involves a double burden, at worst a continuing conflict of loyalties and priorities. Joseph shows that deep ambivalences permeate black women’s think­ing — on black men (distrust and antagonism mixed with solidarity, affection, and protectiveness), on sex (“a desirable no-no,’ an ‘attractive nuisance'”), on feminism itself (most of Joseph’s respondents reject the movement but endorse its goals). Her argu­ment suggests that black women have been slow to commit themselves to feminism — especially the more radical aspects of sexual politics — for fear of weakening their ties with the black community and the black struggle. Jill Lewis points out that white middle-class women could focus single-mindedly on feminism because “they did not have the stakes of racial unity or solidarity with White men that the Black women had with Black men” and because their privileges left them “free of the survival struggles that are prior­ities for minority and working-class women.” If anything, class and racial privileges (par­ticularly education) spurred their conscious­ness of sexual injustice by raising expectations that were thwarted purely because they were women.

Ironically, Joseph exemplifies the dilemma she describes: like many other black women who define themselves as feminists, she draws the line at calling black men op­pressors. While Joseph and Lewis agree that black and white women are oppressed as women, they uncritically assume that male supremacy is a product of white culture, and that the concept does not really apply to male-female relations among blacks, except insofar as all white institutions and values shape black life. Lewis asserts that institutionalized sexism in America was imported by European immigrants, as if Native Ameri­can, African, and other nonwhite cultures were free of male dominance. In fact, no anthropologist, feminist or otherwise, has ever come up with convincing evidence of a culture in which some form of male domi­nance does not exist.

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Lewis and Joseph argue that because black men do not have the same worldly power as white men, “Male dominance as a salient problematic factor in male-female sexual re­lationships cannot be considered as a univer­sal trait applicable to all men.” But Joseph’s own descriptions of black women’s attitudes toward sex, men, and marriage — not to men­tion their struggles to bring up children alone — belie this view. Rather, her evidence confirms that despite black men’s economic and social subordination to whites they share with all men certain male supremacist prerogatives, including physical and sexual aggression, the assumption of male superior­ity, and refusal to share responsibility for child rearing and housework. Joseph and Lewis also make the puzzling claim that ex­ist repression is more severe for white women because “Black women can be kept in their places via racism alone.” Does racism alone account for black women’s oppression as mothers, workers (including domestic work­ers), welfare recipients, prostitutes, victims of rape and sexual exploitation?

All this adds up to a bad case of conceptual confusion. You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism — that men have power over women. Women who engage in this form of doublethink still have a toe or two in the camp of left antifeminism; while rejecting crude economism of the Angela Da­vis variety, they assume that sexism is perpetuated not by men in general but by a white capitalist ruling class.

Hooks insists on the reality of black male sexism. Discussing the experience of female slaves, she angrily refute the cliché that “the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery … was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. This idea, she argues, merely reflects the sexist assumption that men’s experience is more important than women’s and that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman.” In fact, though all slaves suffered brutal oppression, “black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role.” Not­ing that American blacks came from African patriarchal cultures, Hooks rejects the idea that black men learned sexism from whites and the myth (repeated once again by Angela Davis) that within the slave community men and women were equal. On the contrary, the slaves accepted the concept of male superior­ity, and black families maintained a sexual division of labor, with women doing the cook­ing, cleaning, and child care. Nor did slaveholders assign black men “women’s work.” Black women, however, were forced by their white masters to perform both “masculine” and “feminine” functions, work­ing alongside black men at backbreaking la­bor in the fields, while also serving as house­workers, breeders, and sexual objects.

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Hooks implicitly links what she sees as black women’s false consciousness about sex­ism with their political isolation: while the sexism of black male activists has forced black women to choose between asserting themselves as women and maintaining racial solidarity, the racism of white feminists has reinforced and justified that split. Ain’t I a Woman describes how this combination of pressures undermined black women’s efforts to participate in both 19th and 20th century feminist movements. In dissecting the rhetoric of the contemporary black and women’s movements, Hooks shows how sex­ism has been promoted as a cure for racism, sisterhood as a rationale for ignoring it. Black power advocates, confusing liberation with the assertion of their “manhood,” embraced a white man’s contention that a black matriarchy was the cause of their problems, and called on black women to advance the black cause by being submissive; some even suggested that sexual equality was a white racist idea, indicative of the white man’s effeteness and decadence. Black Muslims tried to reverse the racist Victorian para­digm, defining black women as the feminine ideal and white women as devils (and estab­lishing rigid patriarchal families).

Meanwhile the early radical feminists were claiming that the division between men and women was the most basic social hierarchy, and that since men had ruled every known political system, racism was basically a male problem (“men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest” — Redstockings Man­ifesto). This analysis, which I and most of my political cohorts then subscribed to, has had a good deal of influence on the movement as a whole. It has two erroneous implications: that it’s impossible for white women to op­press black men, and that racial conflict be­tween black women and white women has no objective basis, but is (on both sides) an inauthentic antagonism that only serves the interests of men. Radical feminists under­stood, theoretically, that to build female unity white women had to oppose racism and change their own racist attitudes and behav­ior. We were sharply critical of liberal feminists who defined women’s freedom in terms of professional careers and formal equality within a racist, class-stratified social system. Yet emotionally our belief that sex as a more basic division than race allowed us to evade responsibility for racism. It is tempting to imagine that simply by doing what we wanted most passionately to do — build a radical feminist movement — we would also be fighting racism; tempting, too, to play down how much we benefited from being white. For while feminism seemed a way out of the classic bind of white middle­-class radicals: we no longer had to see ourselves as privileged people wondering where we fit into the revolutionary struggle; we too were part of an oppressed class with a historic destiny.

Hooks’s anger at this refusal to be accountable is well-deserved. But when she gets down to specifics, she tends to oversimplify and at times rewrite history. In her indict­ment of “white upper and middle class feminists” (Abby Rockefeller aside, who are these upper-class feminists I keep hearing about?), the movement becomes a monolith. The political difference between liberals and radicals, the social conditions that al­lowed the former to co-opt snd isolate the latter, the fierce intramovement debates about race and class are ignored or dismissed. White feminists’ main aim, Hooks charges, has been to join the male power structure; the movement has posed no threat to the system.

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This is silly. The women’s movement has been no more or less opportunistic than the black movement, the labor movement, or any other mass movement successful enough to attract power mongers. Feminists have not succeeded in making a revolution (neither, I believe, has the rest of the left), but — as Jill Lewis ably argues — we did create a new polit­ical arena and set a revolutionary process in motion. (Among other things, we established the political context in which a book like Ain’t I a Woman can be written and read.) The best measure of our threat to the system is the virulence of the reaction against us.

Hooks also indulges in overkill when she tries to explain white feminists’ appropria­tion of female experience in term of two different, even contradictory forms of racism. My own view is that the right explanation is the obvious one: we were acting on the un­conscious racist assumption that our experi­ence was representative, along with the im­pulse to gloss over racial specificities so as to keep the “complication” of racism from mar­ring our vision of female unity. Hook makes these points, but she also argues that white feminists have shared the racist/sexist perception of black women as nonwomen. In the process she accuses white feminists of claiming that black women are oppressed only by racism, not sexism, and denying that black men can be oppressive. These charges are, to put it mildly, befuddling. If there was any point radical feminists insisted on it was that all women were oppressed because of their sex, and that all men had the power to oppress women. In response, antifeminist black women (along with black and white male leftists) made the arguments Hooks now puts in our mouths, and denounced us as racists for attributing a “white problem” to black people. Inevitably, many white women have echoed these arguments, but it’s perverse to blame feminists for them.

In fact, white feminists have generally been quite conscious of black women as women; it’s their blackness we’ve had trouble with. Straightforward reactionary racism ex­aggerates differences and denies common­alities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite. Since the denial of black women’s “femininity” is such a central issue for Hooks, she mistakenly assumes that protecting an exclusive claim to femininity is equally an issue for all white women. On the contrary, white feminists felt free to challenge received definition of femininity because we took for granted our right to be considered women. And it was precisely because our claim to womanhood was not an issue for us that we were in­sensitive to black women’s pain at being de­nied it by racial fiat. Many white feminists recognized that the division between white women and black women had something to do with good girls and bad girls. (Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, discusses this idea at length.) What we didn’t see was the asymmetry: we could decide to be bad, or play at being bad; black women had no choice.

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Hooks’s misperception of white feminists’ psychology also leads her to argue that their analogies between women and blacks were designed “to evoke in the minds of racist white men an image of white womanhood being degraded” by association with black people, especially black men. Again, the “im­age of white womanhood” had much less resonance than Hooks imagines, either for white feminists or for the white liberal and leftist men who were our immediate targets. The main reason that ’60s feminists relied so heavily on comparisons between sexism and racism is that white male politicos recognized the race issue as morally legitimate, while dismissing feminism as “a bunch of chicks with personal problems.” If anything, we were trying to evoke in these men the same guilt about sexism that they already felt about racism; since we hadn’t yet ex­perienced the drawbacks of liberal guilt, we craved its validation. We also hoped, naively enough, to convince black men to renounce their sexism and identify with the feminist cause.

Hooks takes a hard line on analogies be­tween women and blacks. She argues that they always imply a comparison between white women and black men, that they make black women invisible, obscure the issue of white women’s racial privilege, and divert attention from racism to white women’s problems. Certainly racial-sexual analogies have been misused in all the ways Hooks cites, but I don’t see these misuses as either invariable or necessary. Many feminists have made analogies between women and blacks in full awareness that they are talking about two overlapping groups; what they mean to com­pare is two sets of oppressive relations, male­-female and white-black. And though the dynamics and effects of racism and sexism differ in important ways, the parallels — legal, social, ideological — do exist. Which is why antiracist movements have been so instrumental in stimulating feminist consciousness and revolt.

Hooks refuses to recognize this. Scoffing at the idea that abolitionism inspired the first feminist wave, she says, “No 19th century white woman could grow to maturity without an awareness of institutionalized sexism.” But of course 19th century white women — ­and for that matter my generation of white women — did exactly that. It is the essence of institutionalized sexism to pose as the natu­ral order; to experience male dominance is one thing, to understand that it is political, therefore changeable, is quite another. For me and most feminists I know, that politicizing process was very much influenced by the civil rights and black power movements. Conversely, though feminism was not a mirac­ulous antidote to our racist impulses and illusions, it did increase our understanding of racism.

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Surely, the answer to exploitative com­parisons between women and blacks is not to deny the organic link between antisexist and antiracist politics. Here Hooks, too, gets trapped in contradictory thinking. She ar­gues that the issues of racism and sexism cannot really be separated, yet she re­peatedly singles out racism as an issue that is not only separate from sexism but prior to it. According to Hooks, “American society is one in which racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism,” and all black people, black men included, are absolutely lower on the social scale than any white woman. In other words, it is illegitimate for feminists to regard sexism as a category that can, at least theo­retically, be abstracted from (and compared to) racism; but no comparable stricture applies to black liberationists.

Gloria Joseph agrees that “In the end, it is a question of priorities, and given the nature of racism in this country, it should be obvious that the Black liberation struggle claims first priority.” Most black feminists whose views I know about take a similar position. It is easy to see why: because racism is intertwined with, and in part defined by class oppression, black people as a group suffer an excruciating combination of economic hardship and social indignity that white middle-class women and even most white working-class women es­cape. (Of course this does not necessarily hold true for individuals — it can be argued that a middle-class educated black man is a lot better off than a white welfare mother from an Appalachian rural slum.) Besides, as Hooks points out, women without the insula­tion of racial or class privilege are also the most vulnerable to sexist oppression: a white professional woman can buy liberation from housework by hiring a black maid; she can also (for the time being) buy the legal abor­tion Medicaid patients are denied.

Left antifeminists have often used this line of reasoning to suggest that sexual issues should wait until racism and poverty are abolished. Black feminists, by definition, have rejected that idea. But what then does it mean, in practical political terms, to say that despite the irreducibly dual character of black women’s oppression, their sex is less immediate an issue than their race? Specifi­cally, what does this imply for the prospect of an antiracist feminist movement, or, more modestly, “collaborative struggle” between black and white women?

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While Hooks never really focuses on strategic questions, Joseph and Lewis often write as if black and white women are on fundamentally separate tracks. They refer, for instance, to “White feminism,” a concept as self-contradictory as, say, “male socialism”; while one can speak of a feminism limited and flawed by white racist bias, it is feminism only to the extent that it challenges the subjection of women as a group. (The mechanical pluralism underlying the notion of separate-but-equal “White” and “Black” feminisms also impels the authors to capital­ize “White.” Though capitalizing “Black” may make sense as a polemical device for asserting black pride, racial self-assertion by white people is something else again.) But in discussing abortion, Jill Lewis endorses a specific approach to integrating feminism with race and class struggle. The strategy she describes has developed as a response to the abortion backlash, but the basic idea could be applied to almost any feminist issue. Since I think it’s both appealing and fallacious, I want to discuss it in some detail.

Lewis argues that to “isolate” abortion as an issue and defend it in terms of freedom for women betrays a white middle-class bias: since black women suffer not only from being denied safe abortions but from sterilization abuse, inadequate health care, and poverty — ­all of which impinge on their reproductive choices — a radical approach to “reproductive rights” must address all these concerns. The trouble with this logic is that abortion is not just one of many medical or social services being rolled back by Reaganism; nor does the present opposition to abortion stem from the same sources or political motives as pressure toward sterilization. Abortion is first of all the key issue of the new right’s antifeminist campaign, the ground on which a larger bat­tle over the very idea of women’s liberation is being fought. In essence, the antiabortionists are arguing that women who assert their free agency and refuse to be defined by their childbearing capacity are immoral. (In con­trast, no one defends poverty or forced sterilization on principle.) So long as this moral attack on women is gaining ground, present­ing abortion primarily as a health or social welfare measure is ineffective because it evades the underlying issue. Our choice right now is to defend abortion as a pivotal issue of women’s freedom, or lose the battle by de­fault. This is not to belittle the urgency of opposing sterilization abuse (which is, among other things, another expression of contempt for black femaleness) or demanding better health care. Nor is it to deny that all these issues are linked in important ways. My point is only that the reproductive rights strategy does not resolve the touchy question of priorities. Rather, while purporting to cover all bases, it submerges sexual politics in an economic and social welfare program.

Is this good for black women? Gloria Jo­seph points out that on the issue of abortion rights, “Black women have even more at stake, since it is they who suffer more from illegal and abusive abortions.” They also suf­fer more from having unwanted children un­der horrendous conditions. If a sexual-politi­cal strategy offers the only real chance to preserve legal abortion and restore public funding, it is clearly in black women’s inter­est. Since black women are faced with so many urgent problems, they may well have other priorities, but it doesn’t follow that white women who concentrate on abortion are indulging a racist bias. On the contrary, they’re doing a crucial job that will benefit all women in the end.

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All this suggests that the question of whether racism is worse (or more basic, or more pressing) than sexism matters less than the fact that both are intolerable. Not that I agree with the white feminists Bell Hooks castigates for dismissing racial differences on the grounds that “oppression cannot be measured.” It’s clear to me that in demon­strable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the meas­uring. Once it’s established that black women are the most victimized group, and that most black men are more victimized than most white women — then what?

In my experience, this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead pro­vokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their anti­feminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about assert­ing feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them in the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that sexual and racial equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate re­sults are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men (“We can do something for blacks or for women, but not both, so you folks fight it out”). Black women, caught in the racial-sexual crossfire, stand to lose the most.

Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than some­one else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical move­ments are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.

The logic of competing oppressions does not heal divisions but intensifies them, since it invites endless and absurd extension — for every person who has no shoes, there is al­ways someone who has no feet. (One might ask, by this logic, what Bell Hooks has to complain about next to a woman from a dirt­-poor third world country who was sold to her husband and had her clitoris cut off at age four.) White women will not become com­mitted allies of black women because they’re told that their own suffering is unimportant. What white women must be convinced of is that it’s impossible to have it both ways — ­that the privileges we cling to are an insuperable obstacle to the freedom and equal­ity we long for. We need to learn this lesson again and again. Good books help. ■

WOMEN, RACE AND CLASS
By Angela Davis
Random House, $13.50

COMMON DIFFERENCES: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
By Gloria I. Joseph & Jill Lewis
Doubleday/Anchor, $8.95 paper 

AIN’T I A WOMAN: Black Women and Feminism
By Bell Hooks
South End Press, $7 paper

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words

Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine — and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every fucking galley — ­first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paper-­back editions.

— Jerzy Kosinski, May 13, 1982

None of the trappings — the appearances on Johnny Carson, the adulatory profile in the Times magazine, the featured part in Reds — ­would matter if Jerzy Kosinski weren’t apparently a writer of talent. But he did astonish the world with his first novel, The Painted Bird, in 1965, and followed that triumph by winning a National Book Award for Steps in 1969. Though his fiction has been in precipitous decline since then — Pinball, the latest, is a mess — those first two novels alone would seem to guarantee Kosinski an honored place in the literary history of our time. That place is in jeopardy, however, for Kosinski’s ethics and his very role as author have been seriously challenged, and his many explanations lack the ring of truth.

There are, in the world of publishing, certain conventions. Informed readers are not surprised to discover that cabinet ministers or major league pitchers have re­ceived professional assistance in preparing their books. We assume, too, that even “literary” novelists — Updike, Barth, Tyler — are edited by the people who pub­lish their work. But no novelist with any claim to seriousness can hire people to do without acknowledgement, the sort of composition that we usually call writing. To purchase another’s words is to cheat the reader, to trash the tradition. For al­most 10 years now, Jerzy Kosinski has been treating his art as though it were just another commodity, a widgit to be as­sembled by anonymous hired hands.

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He evidently grew used to this mode of work during the late 1950s when, under the pen name of Joseph Novak, he published the first of two anti-Communist tracts in which the Central Intelligence Agency ap­parently played a clandestine role. It is perhaps this dirty little secret that ex­plains the fast shuffle of autobiographical tales making up the Kosinski myth.

Kosinski is, it should be noted, an abso­lutely spellbinding teller of tales. Whether he is providing after-dinner entertainment to the de la Rentas or charming the brains out of a reporter, he is a pleasure to be with. But in the frantic manufacture of fables, as if to cloak his hollowness, Kosinski is, if anything, too inventive. He has made it a central fact of his biography that at some point during his lonely youth­ful flight from the Germans, he was struck dumb. Yet even though he, like many children of the Holocaust, is the sole source for our knowledge of that time in his life, there is more than one story about how the trauma occurred.

Barbara Gelb in a recent New York Times Magazine profile writes that “Kosinski’s dreadful journey reached its climax when, aged 9, he was flung for pun­ishment by sadistic peasants into a pond of human ordure that closed over his head. Something in his mind clicked off and he was struck mute.” But in an interview in the current Penthouse, Kosinski says the key incident happened “in June 1942, while I was serving in a Mass as one of the altar boys. I was supposed to transfer the Bible from one side of the altar to another but fell with it … I am convinced I lost my speech from the tension before the actual fall.” Kosinski, who called the Times and had the paper run a correction of the date his mother died, let the lurid Gelb nar­rative stand unchallenged.

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The point here is not to question which (if either) version is true, but to note that Kosinski encourages the conflicting stories which surround him, that he denies the notion of truth. To some extent, this may be the almost reflexive desire of a Holocaust survivor for disguise — a habit of con­tinuous self-invention — but it may also be a sophisticated smokescreen laid down to obscure objective truths Kosinski would rather hide.

Consider, for instance, the question of precisely how Kosinski came to this coun­try in 1957. A reporter who interviewed him for Life magazine shortly after his arrival now says that “there was no mys­tery. He just came over on a student visa and decided to stay.” A few years later, he told the editor of an early novel that he’d “escaped ” from Poland by adding a zero to the check he’d won in a photography con­test and increasing his prize tenfold. The notion that he’d created fictional professors in Poland to write recommend­ations for him and thus fooled the bu­reaucracy into giving him a visa seems to have appeared for the first time six years later, in a 1974 interview with Professor Jerome Klinkowitz. The same story appeared a year later, as straightforward fic­tion in his novel Cockpit, but it is alto­gether absent from Kosinski’s first Eng­lish-language “autobiography,” a 1958 let­ter he wrote to the Ford Foundation apply­ing for a grant.

The Ford grant is itself the subject of yet another confusion. In his second inter­view with the Voice, Kosinski ridiculed the notion that he had a multiyear grant: “Nonsense,” he said, “I had a grant for a year.” The Ford Foundation’s press office reports that he had grants totaling about $8000 from 1958 through ’61, a very re­spectable stipend for a full-time graduate student. Indeed, working thorough the var­ious accounts of that period in his life, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Kosinski was uniquely favored. According to the most thorough academic biography, Norman Lavers’s Jerzy Kosinski, pub­lished in 1981 by Twayne Press, Kosinski arrived in the United States on December 20, 1957, without having any prior contact with any U.S. institution, with only a rudi­mentary knowledge of English, and $2.80 in his pockets. A few weeks later, he was accepted as a doctoral student at Columbia; a few months more and he received a generous foundation grant; less than two years after that, he had signed a contract with Doubleday and Company for a non­fiction book about daily life in Russia. (In his final interview with us, by the way, Kosinski denounced Lavers’s book, saying he had never heard of it until it was done, and could correct it “only on the phone, never in letters.” Emily McKeigue, the book’s editor, reports that Kosinski was sent a manuscript which he corrected heavily. Not all of the changes were ac­cepted, but when he was sent a copy of the finished book, Kosinski “told us that he was fairly pleased with it.” According to McKeigue, there were “many” exchanges, but Kosinski never objected to the book’s description of his 1957 English as “rudimentary.”)

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•••

Kosinski, it appears, has a habit of say­ing anything that he thinks his listeners will find interesting, or attractive, or flattering. The net effect is that almost noth­ing he says can be relied on; everything must be checked (as the Times magazine should have done before it awarded him a nonexistent Columbia doctorate). In an interview with Eliot Fremont-Smith a few weeks ago, Kosinski was utterly plausible, even winning, as he discussed his hiring of assistants.

Yes, it happened regularly, but always with the knowledge and approval of his present publisher, and only after that publisher had set the original, Kosinski-pre­pared manuscript in type and returned the printed galleys to him for correction.

“The book doesn’t end with galleys,” Kosinski explained. Instead, that’s when revisions begin — “and I pay for it.” First galleys are worked over, then retyped into a “new manuscript,” and sometimes this process can be repeated through several successive sets of galleys. Since, he says, house editors can’t spend the effort and time necessary to satisfy his bent toward the meticulous or his urge to perfection (“Hardly anybody can spell better than I can”), he hires free lancers to collate corrections, check galleys against retyped manuscript, and watch for errors (e.g., a word used too many times, an action inadvertently repeated).

As he described the process in a later interview, the job of his assistants was mechanical. Sitting on the couch and dis­playing the two colors of pencil scrawl all over an early galley of Cockpit, Kosinski said, “This has to be now retyped, all retyped, once again. Now imagine how many things can go wrong, do you realize? For instance, let’s say I write ‘I also have also,’ … Little things like this, nobody is going to catch. This would be retyped by Kiki [von Frauenhofer, his assistant and companion] to a new manuscript, then Hackett [the assistant in question] would be given the new manuscript to make sure that all this was properly transferred.”

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Earlier in our discussion, Kosinski had insisted that Cockpit had been put to­gether without any outside assistance, but when I mentioned the name of John Hackett, he relented and allowed that Hackett had done some proofreading. He further minimized Hackett’s work by de­scribing him as “a student, who needed money … it didn’t work out … he couldn’t sit still … there were drugs.”

I was stunned. I first met John Hackett, now an English professor at the University of Texas, more than 20 years ago, when he was my best friend’s roommate at Holy Cross College, and I had believed him ab­solutely when he’d insisted that his work for Kosinski had been strictly editorial. Though there is an ethical question about a novelist secretly retaining a private editor as his own employee before showing his manuscript to a publisher, it seemed to me clearly a venial rather than a mortal sin, and I’d been expecting Kosinski to be as generous to Hackett as Hackett had been to him. The assault on his former friend’s character seemed senseless.

Perhaps, being as kind as possible, one could assign this casual calumny to ten­sion. (Kosinski, in a bit of manipulation so clumsy as to be nearly winning, had asked if he could have an observer attend our interview. Thinking it was his lawyer, who had already called the Voice, we agreed. “Good,” he said. “It is a woman examining victims of the Holocaust under situations of stress.”) But it also seems that Kosinski has a great deal invested in maintaining the image of absolute veracity, as though any chink in the armor, however small, would render him suddenly and com­pletely vulnerable

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In any case, Kosinski’s character as­sassination didn’t work. Hackett, told of the conversation, coldly remarked, “I was at that time an assistant professor of Eng­lish and Master of East College at Wesleyan. I was not the sort of person you would hire as a proofreader.

“Jerzy asked me as a friend and col­league to come down and help him because he’d had an accident and was worried about his ability to function efficiently. I came as a friend, and I am disappointed in him.” The drug use charge, he added, “was absurd.”

Despite Kosinski’s claim, Hackett did apparently work on the manuscript and not on galleys. Their joint efforts were spread over about a month during the summer of 1974; Houghton Mifflin archives show that the manuscript of Cockpit wasn’t even received at the pub­lishers until October 10.

But Hackett was just brought up to give Kosinski a chance to be gracious. Barbara Mackey is a different story. She met Kosinski in 1971, when she was a graduate student at Yale, while Kosinski was on the faculty. A friend, Rocco Landesman, who was working with Kosinski during the final revisions of Being There, introduced them, and a year later, when Mackey was in New York working for Joseph Papp’s Perform­ance and Scripts magazines, she began to help Kosinski on The Devil Tree.

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As she describes their work situation, “We were in [his] apartment on 57th Street. He would give me a sentence, talk philosophy, then come out with an idea that he wanted crystallized in a paragraph, a page, a chapter. Sometimes it was a little like taking dictation, at others, I was more like an instant editor. I prepared a first, handwritten draft that was then typed out by Kiki.

“The ideas were all his — I think he is a brilliant thinker, central in the world and in American culture — but the words were often mine. The term ‘collaborator’ isn’t right — I shouldn’t say that, anyway — it was more organizational. A collaborator would have a roughly equal input, but the intellectual notions are all his. If I had been a collaborator,” she added wryly, “the book would have been very dif­ferent — especially about women.” (I had agreed to get back to her to verify these quotes, but Mackey, now assistant director at the Denver Arts Center, suddenly stop­ped returning phone calls.)

Asked again to clarify the work pattern, to make certain that galleys were not in­volved, Mackey reiterated that her “hand­written copy was typed up overnight so that we could work on it again,” and that all the ideas were Kosinski’s. “All I did was put it into English.” (On the other hand, putting a novel “into English” is what writing is all about.)

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Mackey also worked on the early stages of Cockpit, and was eventually succeeded by Hackett. On the next book, Blind Date (1977), Faith Sale, now an editor at Put­nam, worked with Kosinski at what he calls the “proofreading” stage; we have been unable to reach the woman alleged to have been of earlier assistance. For 1979’s Passion Play, however, Kosinski retained Richard Hayes, a former professor of drama at NYU and Berkeley. Hayes, whose name Kosinksi brought up only in his final interview with us last week, says that his association with Passion Play be­gan when he “met Jerzy, in full military regalia, on the corner of 88th Street and Broadway one hot August night.”

Unlike Mackey, who worked sometimes from typescript, sometimes from conversa­tion, Hayes invariably worked from lengthy sheets of typing — “triple spaced and with wide margins, so there was room for my work.” Though he is emphatic that his work was not mere proofreading, he too rejects the “collaborator” title. “I would say instead that I combed, fileted, elevated or amplified his language — that I invested it with a certain Latinate style which was sometimes more Hayes than Kosinski” (and on which style, indeed, the Village Voice reviewer remarked when the book was first published).

As an example of a typical working exchange, Hayes (who like all of Kosinski’s assistants was paid by checks drawn on Kosinski’s corporation) says, “Often I wouldn’t see him for several hours; it would be just Kiki and I there in the living room, but I recall his once coming out with a rather exotic passage and jauntily drop­ping it down in front of me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Poeticize this sex.’ ”

Suppose, I asked Hayes, he had not worked with Kosinski. What would Pas­sion Play have been like? After some thought, he responded, “That’s really im­possible to say; the initial manuscripts were so raw they could have led in many directions. All one can say for certain is that it would have been very, very dif­ferent.”

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•••

A number of people scattered across the geographical and age spectrums — without any discernible axe to grind — agree that they have “assisted” Kosinski. Beyond that, one of us has actually seen xeroxed sheets of reworked manuscript. Thus the question is how an author whose grip on the English language and on himself was so attenuated that he needed help putting early drafts of his novels together, ever managed to write — all by himself, and as claimed, in English — the book that stands out among all his works, The Painted Bird. Despite his frequent moving pleas that he could only have written it in English be­cause he remained inhibited by his native languages of Russian and Polish, he proba­bly wrote it in Polish.

Early in 1973, one Halina Bastianello, a translator, wrote a letter to a New York Times reporter claiming that some years earlier she had answered an ad for a Polish to English translator placed by Kosinski in the Saturday Review, and that he had wanted to hire her as the translator for The Painted Bird. (Though the Times never followed the story up, Bastianello retains a copy of her letter.) After a three­-and-half-hour interview, she wrote, Kosinski “found me ‘perfect.’ ”

“There was one hitch, unique in my experience: he was adamant about his re­fusal to give me credit for the translation, or have my name mentioned in connection with the preparation of the book. (Query: Who WAS the ghost?)”

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Pressed in an interview to confirm this story, Bastianello was adamant that the man who had interviewed her was Kosinski, that the work to be translated was in manuscript form in Polish and in no way a collection of documents or of previously printed materials, and that “be­fore I did sight translation, I asked him for a scenario of the book, and he gave me, as though he was a book reviewer, the plot of Painted Bird.” When the novel subsequently appeared in English, she read it and reports that it appeared to be substan­tially the same, though she cautions that “without that original manuscript before me, there is no way I could swear to its being identical.”

Asked, in his first interview with Fre­mont-Smith, about a time when he might have advertised for a translator, he said that after Painted Bird was published (in 1965), there were challenges to its factual veracity. In order to counteract these charges, he acquired two collections of documents by and about children of the Hitler era published in Polish. The project was dropped, he said, when Paul Brooks, one of four editors he worked with at Houghton Mifflin, said that since The Painted Bird was fiction, the defense was unnecessary.

Subsequently, however, perhaps realiz­ing that the date of an advertisement could be checked, Kosinski moved the date of his search for a translator back a year, claim­ing that it took place while he was having difficulty finding a publisher for Painted Bird. His fall-back notion of a nonfiction book about children of the Holocaust was, he says, dropped once Houghton Mifflin accepted the book in the late fall of 1964.

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All things considered, this was a pru­dent alteration. During the five-year pe­riod from 1962 to 1966, research shows that only one advertisement seeking a Polish-English translator appeared in Sat­urday Review. That ad, which reads ”TRANSLATOR WANTED, Polish to English, for full-length fiction to be translated in short time. Must be thoroughly experienced in both. Box F-9-35,” is dated March 7, 1964, more than a year before The Painted Bird was published.

In his follow-up interview with the two of us, Kosinski claimed that Fremont-Smith had asked whether Kosinski had consulted translators’ ads (an odd question, given Fremont-Smith’s knowledge of Bastianello’s letter) and said, “I don’t recall advertising certainly not for fiction.” The qualification seemed disingenuous since we had politely agreed that our conversation was solely about that slippery time when he was seeking a translator for nonfictional documents.

Kosinski’s attempts to distance himself from the ad lend credibility to Bastianello’s claim. Absent his strange response in the second interview, one might be tempted to think that her memory had grown confused over the years especially since an English manuscript of The Painted Bird was submitted to Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which declined it) less than two months after Bastianello says she met with Kosinski. This is very close to the absolute minimum time it  would take a translator to handle a work of that length. (After five different owners, two transcon­tinental moves and one bankruptcy, Sat­urday Review‘s box-holder records for that era are no longer available.)

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•••

These discoveries further complicate the murky history of Kosinski’s early American years, for now we must ask how a man who needed assistance and transla­tion through his novelistic career managed unaided to turn out two early and ex­tremely smooth books of journalistic prose in 1960 and 1962. Once again, it appears more than likely that he didn’t.

As Kosinski has told other interviewers, and as he told us last week, the “Joseph Novak” books began when a fellow student in the Columbia doctoral program read some of his papers and thought they would make a book. Since the student, Roger Shaw, was a junior editor at Doubleday, this judgment was more than cafeteria conversation, and ultimately led to a profitable contract for Kosinski. The first of the two books, The Future Is Ours, Com­rade, was promptly serialized by the Sat­urday Evening Post, condensed and trans­lated by Reader’s Digest, and sold to many foreign publishers. Eventually, it earned its author over 150,000 pre-inflation dollars.

There are, however, a couple of prob­lems with the Kosinski version of this lucky tale. First of all, Doubleday’s person­nel files for the period show no record whatsoever of any employee named Roger Shaw. Second, the Doubleday editor who did handle the book never met Kosinski. Adam Yarmolinsky, at that point Double­day’s public affairs editor, says he was told the author’s identity needed to be pro­tected and recalls that “all work on the book was handled through an in­termediary.” He professes to be unable to recall who that figure was, but at the time he told colleagues it was Frank Gibney. (Prompted, Yarmolinsky now says he suspects it might have been Gibney, but is not sure. Gibney has denied both to us and to Yarmolinsky that he was the conduit for this book).

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Gibney, a Time-Life correspondent who worked with the CIA in publishing The Penkovskiy Papers through Double­day, was one of many figures involved in what the USIA described to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967 as its “book development” program. Under this scheme, which began in 1956, at least 104 titles were published — some with direct subsidies to the author, others with purchase guarantees to the publisher — by American companies and distributed abroad by USIA. At least some of these titles were later discovered to have been chosen — and funded — by the CIA. All the books were sold through domestic book stores and book clubs as well — with, of course, no indication whatsoever of government subsidy or sponsorship.

The program was extensive — Praeger was the most notorious publisher involved; Farrar Straus the most prestigious — but Doubleday was a highly enthusiastic par­ticipant. Though many publishers drop­ped out as Vietnam heated up, Doubleday continued to participate at least through 1966, when it published Time correspon­dent Jay Mallin’s Caribbean Crisis: Subversion Fails in the Dominican Re­public. It is just barely possible — though it would require prodigies of naiveté — that neither Kosinski nor Yarmolinsky suspected that “Joseph Novak” was re­ceiving a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Yarmolinsky, carefully drawing no in­ference from the fact, points out that the manuscript “came in clean. There was virtually no editing to be done on it.” Cer­tainly, based on a comparison of Kosinski’s 1959 letters to the Ford Foundation (which he showed us, but refused to let us copy) with the text of the book he allegedly wrote at the same time reveals so vast a gulf in language and style that it appears virtually impossible for him to have written The Future Is Ours, Comrade without substantial editorial help — which, all parties agree, he did’t receive from Doubleday.

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•••

Jerzy Kosinski has a lot of questions to answer. But though he promised effusively at the end of our second interview that he would answer follow-up queries left with his service over the weekend and would even call us on Monday during a change of planes from La Guardia to Kennedy, he did neither.

The silence is not because he takes our probing lightly, however, for a number of the people we talked to over the past few days reported they’d just heard — for the first time in years — from him. He is, I think, right to be worried, for unless he can come up with some answers to the obvious questions, it appears that he has betrayed his own talent along with his craft. No one thinks less of Italo Calvino because he writes in Italian (though one praises his translator, William Weaver), and Italians presumably don’t complain that they get twice-translated Beckett. And even the compositional help, though it is obviously more problematic, would seem less of­fensive if it hadn’t been screened behind a passionate, believable — and therefore ultimately repugnant — wall of denials.

But even without Kosinski’s answers, one can construct a scenario that explains his odd behavior and his contradictory stories — and Novak is at the root of it. Not only did the book bring him considerable wealth, it brought him a wife. In 1960, Mary Weir, the millionaire widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir, wrote “Novak” a fan letter and ultimately married him. When the sequel, No Third Path, which reworked much of the same territory, failed to do as well, Kosinski turned to fiction.

With the success of The Painted Bird, and his wife’s death (and the reversion of her trust to her late husband’s estate), Kosinski was virtually “trapped” into the life of an author — which at least in its talk­show and charm-the-Times aspects, he has carried out with quite spectacular success. But though his work for human rights is unassailable, the books grow worse and worse, the tales of his derring-do more and more farfetched. Finally, without at all forgiving him his lies, one feels sorry for Kosinski.

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•••

“When I was a little girl,” says “Vavara” in No Third Path, “I wanted to learn all I could about the behavior of various animals. I remember how once a group of us kids caught a sparrow in a trap. He struggled with all his might — tiny heart thumping desperately — but I held on tight. We then painted him purple, and I must admit he actually looked much bet­ter — more proud and unusual. After the paint had dried we let him go to rejoin the flock. We thought he would be admired for his beautiful and unusual coloring, become a model to all gray sparrows in the vicinity, and they would make him their king. He rose high and was quickly surrounded by his companions. For a few minutes their chirping grew much louder and then a small object began plummeting earthward. We ran to the place where it fell. In a mud puddle lay our purple sparrow — dead. His blood mingled with the paint … The wa­ter was rapidly turning a brownish-red. He had been killed by the other sparrows, by their hate for color and their instinct of belonging to a gray flock. Then, for the first time, I understood …”

This “nonfictional” account, which eventually became the central metaphor of The Painted Bird, is compelling, but checks with the Museum of Natural His­tory, the Audubon Society, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal no variety of sparrows that would possibly behave in such a way. Besides, as a Fish and Wildlife special agent said, “If you paint a bird, it won’t fly.” ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Richard Hell: An Antidandy at the Peppermint Lounge

RIFFS

It was the only area appearance of rock bohemia’s legendary symbol, but on June 25 the spanking-new downtown Pep was crowded with refugees from 45th Street — ­rock and roll youth out to get laid, lighter on hitters than the Ritz, but nowhere near as effete as Danceteria or as schlumpy-­collegiate as Irving Plaza or CBGB. The one familiar face I spotted was that of Terry Ork, Richard Hell’s original im­presario. At two Hell came on with his latest band, who aren’t called the Voidoids even though they feature Ivan Julian and aren’t called the Outsets even though that’s their name, delivering a brief intro in his patented kindergartener-on-the-nod drawl: “Hello ladies and gents — we were children once.” Then they launched into “Love Comes in Spurts,” the song Hell chose to kick off his debut album almost five years ago. As the set rocked on I no­ticed a few ravaged old-timers observing from the sidelines. I also ran into Giorgio Gomelski, the Rolling Stones’ original im­presario, who dubbed Hell “a symbol of elegance,” spraying me with saliva as he did so.

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As we collegiate schlumps often forget, it’s not impossible to symbolize bohemia and elegance simultaneously (cf. Walter Benjamin on the Flaneur). But though Hell apparently values his red top, which he wears on the cover of his follow-up album, it proved less noteworthy than the black leather and ripped T-shirts out of which he constructed the avant-punk anti­dandy back when Malcolm McLaren was strictly a haberdasher. Hell put on a strong show, but he made no waves in a casually dressed-up audience to which he related only as the professional entertainer he’s never much wanted to be. Once he defined, and I quote, a blank generation; now he disparages, and I quote again, the lowest common denominator. Over a five-year haul, symbolizing bohemia can get to be depressing work.

At the time of Blank Generation, Hell really was the quintessential avant-punk. With no more irony than was mete, he presented his nihilistic narcissism not as youthful hijinx but as a full-fledged philos­ophy/aesthetic, and though he never quite put his heart into proselytizing, he was perfectly willing to go along with im­presarios who considered his stance com­mercial dynamite — and to con others when the money ran out. Nor was he merely purveying a stance. Though it was the musicianship of Bob Quine — a much denser, choppier, and more nerve-wrack­ing player than his romantic rival, former Hell associate Tom Verlaine — that made the Voidoids the most original and accomplished band of the CBGB era, Quine was and is a sideman, worth hearing in any context but lacking the visionary oomph to create one. The band was Hell’s, and that it embraced former Foundation Ivan Julian, whose slashing leads I’ve misiden­tified more than once as Quine in a warm mood, and future Ramone Marc Bell, a converted heavy metal kid of surpassingly simple needs, says a great deal for his ambition and his outreach. That it sold bubkes, of course, may say just as much for his laziness and his hubris. But the prob­lem didn’t begin, or end, with Hell. The impresarios were just plain wrong.

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So Blank Generation stands off in its own corner of the boho cosmos as the ultimate CBGB cult record. It had no ap­parent antecedents, and until Destiny Street was finally released by Marty Thau, the New York Dolls’ original impresario, its only descendant was Lester Bang’s Jook Savages on the Brazos. If the new album feels just a little tired despite its undeniable attractions, it’s not because Hell’s musical concepts have been lowest­-common-denominatored. With Material’s Fred Maher replacing Bell and postpunk engineer (Y Pants) and bandleader (China Shop) Naux on second guitar, it’s fuller and jazzier than Blank Generation with­out any loss of concision or toon appeal. Although producer Alan Betrock is a noto­rious pop addict, it was Nick Lowe who added ooh-ooh backups and cleanly articu­lated thematic solos to “The Kid with the Replacable Head,” back when Jake Riv­iera was doing time as Hell’s impresario; the version Betrock oversaw is chock full and coming apart, a real New York rocker. What’s changed is Hell’s head. He’s matured, as they say, and I’m not sure it suits him.

The problem begins with the two theme cuts — the title parable, a vamp-with-talk­over in which nostalgia and ambition are rejected in favor of the good old here-and-­now, and “Time,” in which an inescapable medium-tempo melody is attached to lines like “Only time can write a song that’s really really real.” Both are grabbers, and both soon let go, as music and poetry re­spectively. Elsewhere, the bohemian sym­bol’s destiny seems bitter indeed, as a glance back at Blank Generation makes clear. “Lowest Common Denominator” is the only all-out putdown, but where “Liars Beware” reviled power brokers, Hell is go­ing after scenemakers this time, no doubt the hitters and collegiate schlumps who’ve ruined his favorite hangout and orgiast’s dream. In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” “sexy love” was communitarian “fun,” but now he prefers to “get all de­-civilized” at a “dropout disco” that sounds more like some after-hours hideaway than the Peppermint Lounge. In fact, all the old escapes have lost their magic. “Ignore That Door,” a throwaway rave-up that’s the most sheerly fun thing on the record, op­poses scag as unambivalently (vaguely but unmistakably) as “New Pleasure” praised it, and twice Hell complains of feeling “alone.” So where “The Plan” and “Be­trayal Takes Two” equated private sex with Faustian sin, these days the poéte maudit manqué is looking for love that doesn’t come in spurts. In “Staring in Her Eyes” he explicitly surrenders his narcis­sistic nihilism (and his “looking around”) to achieve the bliss described in the title, which sure as shooting he takes to an un­healthy extreme: “Stare like a corpse in each’s eyes/Till you never want to come alive and rise.”

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Admittedly, the song is affecting even at that, its lyricism intensified, as so often with Hell, by the yearning inexactitude with which he pursues its melody. And I sympathize in principle with Hell’s new head, as you probably do. I just don’t feel he has his heart in it. “Betrayal Takes Two” is a genuinely evil song, a seducer’s alibi worthy of Kierkegaard before Christ, while “Staring in Her Eyes” is sweetly creepy at best — a little easier to sell, perhaps, and a real truth for the chastened Hell, but with less to express and hence less to tell us. And no matter what Marty Thau thinks, it won’t be very easy to sell. Hell might conceivably follow in the foot­steps of David Johansen, the New York Dolls original, who now makes a decent living as a legend, but there’s a big dif­ference between the two — Hell’s aversion to the lowest common denominator. He’s just not a professional entertainer, and though his regrets over the multiplication and fractionalization of rock bohemia may be justified, his potential audience is no blank generation. Yet it was with that anthem that Hell tried to climax his show. It went over all right, of course — it’s a good song. But the audience remained rock and roll youth out to get laid, and the Pep didn’t look any more like a dropout disco when he was through. ■

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

Little Richard & Solomon Burke: Sex & God & Rock & Roll

The first time I encountered Little Richard, his face was plastered against a Bedford-Stuyvesant wall — the poster advertised a show at the Breevort Theater. It may have been 1962, I don’t quite re­member. I do remember the shock of see­ing his face for the first time, the open mouth and blackened lips (or so I thought since I couldn’t imagine a man wearing lipstick), the sweat running through the pancake makeup, the hair piled crazily on his head like a barely contained torrent cascading across his forehead to join the streams of sweat. I also remember the animated crowd gathered around the poster. They were saying that Little Rich­ard was planning to get a sex change opera­tion so he could marry another popular black singer. Even today I can still hear the delighted roars of laughter as the crowd by the Fulton Street bus stop feasted on this malicious bit of nonsense.

Little Richard, of course, epitomized everything parents feared about rock and roll. His music was brash and deviate, a screaming rush of inchoate frenzy guaran­teed to get teenage blood boiling. He looked the way the devil might look if he descended on us as a rock and roll singer and if other rockers wanted to deflower the daughters of America, Little Richard wanted to bugger the sons. He was the King of rock and roll and would have re­mained King if he hadn’t chickened out, and given up his throne after three chaotic years. By the time he tried his first come­back in the early ’60s his kind of rockin’ had been effectively neutralized along with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis’s legion of billyboys.

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Of the lot, Little Richard was the most dangerous. If Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis were prisoners of sex, imagine the horror of Little Richard who refused to be a prisoner of homosex just when America was finally feeling frisky enough to admit that people who “slept” together didn’t always sleep. Little Rich­ard’s sins, real and imagined, made Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and the pornography collection of another famous ’50s rock and roll star seem like schoolboy games. If Little Rich­ard hadn’t gotten rid of himself he would have been the first to go anyway.

More than 20 years later, Little Richard has finally found redemption. He isn’t one of the new Born Again, Little Richard has been born again so many times that he appears to be getting younger. The years of reckless living don’t show — his magnetic good looks remain unscarred. Tonight the face is holding forth at the Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Harlem. In his latest incarnation, the former King of rock and roll is serving the King as a sometimes Seventh Day Adventist, sometimes Bap­tist evangelist. He is now a hired lip, stalk­ing the globe; exhorting the crowds who flock to his “sermons” drawn by the still incandescent aura of his notoriety.

The little church is packed to capacity. Television cameras prowl the aisles. In­stamatics join in the chorus of light. Little Richard is in his glory, he may be starring for the Lord, but he’s still a star and every­one in that auditorium from the pious to the pitiful knows that they have crowded into this sweltering auditorium on a Mon­day night for no other reason than to see a star in performance. Even if Little Richard has given up rock and roll, rock and roll isn’t about to turn him loose, and predic­tably most of the “sermon” is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

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“Did you ever have so much money that you couldn’t count it, that you didn’t want to count it?” he taunts the crowd.

“No!” is the shrieked reply.

“Well I did,” he begins to strut and preen. “I had so much money that nobody could tell me nothing … I didn’t know what to do with myself and I became a practicing homosexual. Some people may not like it but I’m gonna talk about homosexuality because you know homosexuality is even creeping into the church.”

The crowd titters nervously. But Little Richard has another zinger.

“You know ladies,” he says, insinua­tingly dropping his voice to a stage whis­per, “even some of your husbands are homosexuals.”

The congregation cracks up.

“I don’t want you to laugh,” snaps Lit­tle Richard. “I ain’t here to entertain you, I’m here to give you the gospel. God sent me here to tell you what to think. Ain’t nothing funny, when a man goes with an­other man that’s a sick occasion. I know because I’ve been a homosexual all my life.”

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Suddenly the church is still. Papers stop rustling. People on their way to the bathroom return to their seats. The congregation leans forward. Little Richard pauses dramatically.

“From a little boy down in Macon, Georgia — I was different. I started dating with George and Cecil. I saw myself going deeper and deeper into homosexuality. I got so bad I wanted to be a real lady, that’s what homosexuality is, a man wants to be a woman. I got so that I got more from being around a guy than being around a girl. I had girlfriends but it was a front. I wanted Bobby, I didn’t want Martha, and there’s a whole lot of men today who don’t want Martha.”

The church roars and starts to applaud. But Little Richard doesn’t want to be in­terrupted.

“Don’t clap, just be quiet and listen. There’s a lot of men that got married to Martha and wish they could get rid of her right now. You don’t know what it’s like to be married to a homosexual, you living in hell. But let me get back to my own situ­ation. Every year I found myself slipping, every year I found myself getting a little lower. I got so bold that I didn’t care what anybody thought about it, I was gay, take it or leave it. It didn’t matter because I figured, I’m a king, I got money, you can’t do nothing to me no more, I’ll buy what I want. But you can’t buy good love. That’s all a homosexual is looking for you know.

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“But homosexuality is still a sin. It’s unholy and God said, ‘Little Richard, I want you to go and tell these folks that time is running out.’ If God had wanted homosexuals he would have made Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve. The women, they been getting by a long time. Nobody says too much about lesbians. You know there’s a lot of men who don’t mind if their wife has sex with another woman as long as they can watch.”

By this time the crowd is getting rest­less, moving around in their seats. Little Richard is quick to give attribution where it’s due.

“I’m not talking about nothing I’ve read,” he explains to the restive multitude, “everything I’m talking about, God gave me the word.” The throng is somewhat reassured.

“There are a lot of women that are feminine, lovely, and beautiful, and have children and they’re lesbians. Some men think that a woman can take their wife, if a woman can take your wife, something wrong with your wife, a real woman don’t want no woman feeling on her and a real man don’t want no man feeling on him. If a man let me fool with him, he’s just as guilty as Little Richard. Some fellows say to me, I’m not really gay but the bread is fine, I like the money, they be talking about they bisexual. But that ain’t nothing but a trick from the devil. A bisexual ain’t nothing but a educated word for a homo­sexual. Sex is beautiful, God ordained it, but there is a time and place for it. It’s for marriage, it’s not for everybody, it’s for people that are married, if you’re not mar­ried you shouldn’t do it. Why lose your soul for 30 seconds of pleasure. That’s all it is.” He makes a loud sexual noise and moves his body suggestively. Everyone is in stitches.

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“I want everybody to be quiet,” he says, trying to still the uproar. “You know you got some people saying, ‘That Little Rich­ard is a disgrace. He should find some other words.’ Well I don’t know no other words, I’m not educated, the only B.A. I have is that I been born again. The man thought I was a disgrace because I was open, but God told me to tell you all this … ” His voice begins to rise in desperation. Apparently some people agree that he’s a disgrace because a few of them start to walk out.

“I bet he’s still a homosexual,” the woman beside me sniffs. She starts to get her things together to leave, declaring, “I’ve heard enough about his sex life.” She’s joined by the bishop of one of Har­lem’s biggest churches, who can barely conceal his rage as he stalks out. Earlier he had been trying to give me the word, but as he storms out of the church, he isn’t in an ecumenical mood.

“It is a disgrace,” he fumes. “That wasn’t a sermon, it was an exhibition and not a very good one at that. I don’t know what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing but he probably converted more people to drugs, homosexuality, and rock and roll than he did to the word of God. He has some nerve carrying on like that in front of women and children.”

He calms down long enough to once again invite me to his church, telling me how “handsome” I am. As he gets into his car, I notice something hanging from the rear view mirror. It isn’t a cross. It’s a Playboy rabbit-head insignia.

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•••

“A minister in bed is still a man with the same feelings. He just says, in the name of the Lord, we’re gonna do it, baby,” says Solomon Burke.

He doesn’t look to me like the kind of guy who would be the father of 21 or more children, but he is. Of all the Soul Clan, he seems the least likely. Wilson Pickett, ab­solutely. Joe Tex, without a doubt. Otis Redding, if he had survived, sure. Arthur Conley or Don Covay? Why not? But Solomon Burke? And Burke isn’t content with just any woman. He goes for exotic types like the ravishing Tamiko Jones (a former wife) or his present wife, an Orien­tal beauty at least half his age.

It must be the charm, the good looks, and the heavenly connection. It could also be the money. Burke has plenty of all of the above. It might not seem likely. After all, Solomon Burke was just one of the great soul singers of the ’60s. Some may argue that he was the greatest pure singer of his era and he did have big hits like ”Cry To Me,” ”Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms),” ”If You Need Me,” and ”Got To Get You Off My Mind.” But you can’t live off those royalties forever and Solomon Burke has never tried.

He was born into a gospel ”empire” founded by his grandmother that he says has now grown to include 161 churches all over the country. He is now the Supreme Bishop of the organization. Burke says even when he became a star, he never left the church (except for a brief period just before his 10th birthday when he says he became a pimp). Apparently he wised up because by the time he was 12, he was known as the Wonder Boy Preacher of Philadelphia and had his own church and radio show.

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Solomon Burke doesn’t live in Philadel­phia anymore. Most of the time he runs the empire from one of his two houses in Bev­erly Hills. The rest of the time he spends on the road visiting his churches or taking his message into nightclubs, bars, or any­where that people will listen. Solomon Burke is a rock and roll preacher and his message is very simple, God wants you to enjoy yourself. If his 21 or more children are any indication, Solomon. Burke believes in God.

“Only God can judge the whore­monger,” Burke says as he begins to de­vour a huge meal. “I’m sure I’ve been a fantastic whoremonger myself … but I’m high on God, I get high on love, I get high on just the thought of making love to the woman I love. When a man and woman is in love and they’re making love to each other and they’re about to reach a climax, nothing else exists and they come to the end of their journey. That’s love and life and this is what we’re trying to teach peo­ple. God wants you to enjoy your life. If you want freaky mirrors in the bedroom so when you look up at night you can see the action, go ahead and get it because if you don’t some other sucker will. That’s the message. I’m against pimpism, I’m against women being abused, and I’m against pros­titution and homosexuality, but I’m not against people enjoying themselves. One thing I want to leave behind is the thought that Solomon Burke came, he saw, and told the truth: and he left the message that if we live the life that God gives us now, we’ll know what it is to die. Don’t bring me no flowers when I die and I don’t want no men pallbearers. I want some fine, sexy, beautiful sisters to carry me out. It may take 20 of them to carry me, but let each one of them get a good grip.” Burke laughs heartily and digs into his steak.

“We have to live this life because we living in heaven and hell and we have to make it what it is. I love God, money, and women in that order … I had 11 children by one lady and I had other children along the way. I don’t feel it was a downer to have all these children, I feel it was a blessing. God has just put me in the direc­tion of being able to touch on different people’s lives. I’m very proud to be the father of all those kids. If somebody walked up to me and said, ‘Do you know this is your kid?’ I’d only have to do three things to see if he’s mine — check his feet, hands, and find out if he has any talent. I’m very happy because all my kids look like me. Thank God there’s not too many people that resemble me. I believe in control, but I don’t believe in abortions. I certainly believe that the Black man today must not be controlled to the point of being told that he can only have two chil­dren.”

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It’s almost time for Burke to hit the stage. Tonight he’s bringing his message to a little club in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s black neighborhood. Burke says if the people won’t come to church, he’ll take his church to the people. But unlike other rock and roll preachers (Al Green, Brook Benton, and Little Richard) who have given up the music that made them fa­mous, Burke continues to sing his hits.

“There was this one waitress there last night,” he says to his brother who plays guitar in his band, “and she came backstage after the show and said, ‘I’ve never heard any of your songs before but I was really moved.’ ”

“Was this the one with the big tits?”

“Yeah, you know the one I’m talking about. So I tell her, ‘The Lord loves beauty and so do I and the Lord must have really loved you because he sure gave you a lot of it.’ I tell her she needs to be baptized and to let the spirit of the Lord move in her. All the time she’s agreeing with everything I’m saying and all the time Satan is telling me it’s okay to mess with her. I wouldn’t listen. to Satan last night, but I can’t wait to get over there tonight. There was another girl down front, and all the time I’m singing she’s sitting there with her mouth wide open. I could hardly concentrate on my singing, ’cause she was so fine and she looked just like a Big Mac to me.”

Burke and his brother crack up and head for the limousine which deposits them in Jront of the club. As he enters, Burke is crushed by female flesh.

“Lord help me,” he mutters without much enthusiasm. “Maybe I should go up­stairs and meditate.” He decides against it and instead plunges into the mob of fans, accepting their adulation and kisses.

“This is not a show,” he tells the crowd, “this is a revival of heart, soul, body, and mind. We’re gonna bring back memories and songs that meant something to you and I. Most of the songs you hear on the radio today don’t mean anything. Well the songs I sing mean sometll.ing because I’ve lived them all.”

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He launches into his hits, but does oth­ers like Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point” and Brook Benton’s “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” He chooses carefully, picking songs with which the audience is thoroughly fa­miliar and material that emphasizes his immaculate voice, one of the greatest in­struments in the history of soul. The audi­ence knows most of the words, they sing along or cry out, “Talk to me baby,” “Sing it Solomon.” He smoothly segues in and out of songs, delivering a message that goes something like this.

“Some people say, ‘I love you’ because they want sex or they want money, but those words were meant to be taken seri­ously. When you say you love somebody, you better mean it and when you say you gonna make love to somebody, you better know what you talking about. I can hear some of you fellas saying to the woman you with, ‘baby when I get you home tonight I’m gonna do it to-you until you whupped.’ He ain’t lying either ladies. He’s gonna get you home and as soon as he’s finished he’s gonna be fast asleep.” The audience con­vulses in their drinks.

“I’m telling the truth now, and the Bible says the truth will make you free. Don’t use nobody in the name of love, don’t sleep with nobody in the name of love. There are two thousand ways to make love but there’s only one way to say it.”

All this talk about making love is too much for one woman. She screams, “Come on over here and sing to me baby, there ain’t no man at my table.”

Burke looks briefly in her direction but doesn’t move toward her. He continues, “I’m physically and spiritually moved by each and every one of you and every one of you is being blessed. It’s good to have somebody to love, not just somebody to Make love to … even when you don’t got nothing.”

The same woman, who is now deep in the .cups, jumps out of her seat and screams, “You got my $8.50.”

“And you got my heart,” Burke replies.

The woman isn’t satisfied. “Well, I want some of your money,” she says staggering toward where Burke stands in the spot­light.

“You can get anything you want baby.” Burke refuses to back down.

“Can I get a ride in your Cadillac too?”

“When you get in my Cadillac and that door shuts behind you and those windows roll up, it won’t be time for jiving, you gonna have to give it up.”

“Well in that case,” she shouts back, “we don’t need no Cadillac. We can do it right here.”

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Burke doesn’t have an answer for that one. Instead he goes into “Don’t You Feel like Crying.” The woman comes closer and as he sings, she does a slow erotic dance. After the song is over she tells him how she has loved him all these years and how she used to buy all his records and wants to know where he’s been. He tells her he’s been out making 21 children. That seems to sober her up and she goes back to her seat. But three more women take up the challenge. As he sings “Send Me Some Loving” one grabs him and begins to do a slow grind. He doesn’t resist as two more grab him from behind and join the grind. The waitress notes with a gleam in her eye “It’s always like this when Solomon Burke comes in here.”

At the end of the night, the owner of the club is less than ecstatic. Even though he’s made more money with Burke than with anyone else he’s ever brought in, he refuses to give Solomon the rest of his money. It seems one of the waitresses has developed a fatal attraction for Burke and the owner, who regards all the waitresses as his per­sonal harem, is furious.

Burke doesn’t get mad; instead he tells him, “That’s all right man, I don’t need the money. You keep it, but tomorrow night, you get up there and sing. You know how they carry on for $8.50, imagine what they gonna do when they get in and don’t see me.”

He gets in his limo and with the waitress roars off.

“That dude don’t know me man,” he says evenly. “You see my man right here? He wanted to blow the dude away. My man is bad. He comes from a part of town we used to call the Hole. To him moving to the ghetto was moving up. But I don’t like violence and I don’t need the money.”

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The next day is Mother’s Day and Burke treks to Philadelphia to pay re­spects to his mother, who is also a minister. As I enter the storefront church, Mom is exhorting the congregation to employ the services of the church beautician since God wants them all to look good. She assures them that it’s not just for the women, God wants the men to pay more attention to their personal care too. When it’s Solomon’s turn to speak he starts off by handing his mother a $50 bill and instructing her not to spend it on anybody else but to go out and have a “bugaloo good time.”

The church amens its approval.

Burke tells them how he has been testi­fying for the Lord in the field of battle (meaning the previous night’s engagement). He tells how the people were moved by his witness and how the devil made him hemorrhage while he was on stage but how it wasn’t enough to stop him. He tells of one young man who was so moved by his preaching that he suddenly discovered his own singing abilities (probably referring to the club owner). Burke tells the children to honor their mothers in particular because “you can do without a father but you can’t do without a mother and I ought to know. Every time I start talking about kids, with the 21 I got, my mom gets nervous.”

After the service is over, dinner is served. One visiting minister who is stay­ing at the house of Solomon’s uncle tells me what a wonderful man he is and how she gets advice from him all the time. She says his favorite spot is the piano in the living room.

Solomon’s uncle has been dead for three weeks. Another preacher affiliated with one of Burke’s churches joins us. As he sits down to eat he announces that he wants to give everyone at the table a blessing, but he particularly wanted to give one to Sister Mary. Burke says to no one in particular, “He’s probably gonna give one of them show-business blessings and nine months from now a star will be born.”

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The preacher ignores him and con­tinues to dispense his blessings. They are cones of incense that he instructs everyone to burn at “6 a.m., not 5:55 or 6:05 a.m.” I got to go get my blessing. The preacher puts the blessing in my hand after kissing it and taking my hand in his he begins to quaver. I decide to get my share of the spirit. “Praise the Lord,” I intone sol­emnly.

The preacher opens his eyes and fixes me with a glare of indignation. “Don’t interrupt me when I got the spirit,” he warns.

Later I learn that while he was getting the spirit, the Lord had revealed the num­ber to him. The preacher promises the faithful that if they burn the incense and play the number the Lord had revealed, they would all be rich by next week.

I follow the instructions to the letter and play the number. On Monday the number comes up 083. On Friday it is 788. The preacher had said the Lord told him it would be 783.

I should have kept my mouth shut. ■

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Death of John/Diane

Talking Heads

Resting their minds from the Palestin­ian slaughter and the killing of the economy, some New Yorkers turned their at­tention last week to a diverting little crime, the murder of Diane Delia.

A dark pouting model, Diane Delia was the apex of a love triangle at whose base were her accused killers Robert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold. The murder itself, which took place in a Yonkers wood last October, was accomplished with four straightforward shots to the head, two, the prosecutor alleges, fired by each of the accused. The cause of death is one of the few details of the Delia case that is a certainty, that and the obsession the ac­cused killers had for the victim. Both Rob­ert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold were emotionally entangled with Diane Delia — Ferrara married her, Arnold was in love with her — and both date their involvement to the days before her operation, when Diane Delia was still John Delia, a man.

The Transsexual Love Triangle, as the tabloids call it, was being played out in high colors against the grim backdrop of the criminal court building on Centre Street. In a ninth-floor courtroom the dev­otees gathered, toothless trial junkies, a woman who follows the trials in police costume, the Super-8 filmmaker Eric Mitchell, reporters, parents of the accused, and friends of the deceased. Pastel chalk squeaked as the television news artist sketched the witnesses, while they, in turn, painted a picture for the jury of John/Diane, as the victim, for convenience, was called.

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A medium-height man from a middle-­class family, John Delia was dark-skinned and slight. His body and face were so smooth that, when at 16 he first began dressing in women’s clothes, there was never any stubble to betray him. His drag impersonations, lip synching to Diana Ross records, were so convincing he made an act of them, performing first at local clubs, later in Manhattan, billed as an impersonator of women even after this was no longer the case. Miss D., as his friends called him, had small hands, a naturally feminine voice, beautiful legs, and a reck­less humor. He was compulsive, rude, and funny. He was casually immoral, and loyal. He had big feet and a taste for cheap clothes. The boaty pumps that are pivotal evidence in the prosecutor’s case rested on the courtroom table — weird icons. Like ev­erything else in the John/Diane story, they’re purple.

Robyn Arnold, the surgeon’s daughter and accused murderess, met John Delia at the Playroom bar in the late ’70s. They became lovers. She offered him money and her complete attention. Friends say that as many as 40 framed snapshots of John De­lia litter Robyn Arnold’s bookshelves. Sev­eral large blowups of Diane Delia decorate her wall. It was Arnold who paid for Delia’s sex change, when, several years into their relationship, he met and fell in love with Robert Ferrara, a bartender from New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was Arnold who paid for surgery to prettify Delia’s nose and heighten his cheekbones. Hard but not unpretty, Robyn Arnold hid behind a fringe of hair in court, as witnesses de­scribed for Judge Rothwax, the press, and the jury, her aggressive, manipulative sex­uality and her emotional enslavement to Delia. Sitting beside her, Robert Ferrara listened as the prosecutor mounted his case.

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When Delia became enamored of Fer­rara they began to live together. Arnold continued to pay the bills. Claiming that Ferrara could not accept himself living in a homosexual relationship, Delia planned and Arnold engineered the sex change: the two were married. Delia was as proud of his new anatomy as a child with a toy and made a party trick of showing the altered parts. Neither Diane Delia nor Robert Ferrara saw marriage as a binding proposition, though, and both had affairs. In 1980 Delia left Yonkers for Montreal, where she was hired by a modeling agency for her “Latin look” and shot an Avon ad for a Foxfire robe (“Wrap yourself in luxury.”). She took a lover there. In her absence Robyn Arnold and Robert Ferrara cemented their friendship. Piqued by this, Delia returned to New York and the three were reunited, after a fashion. Delia’s nature was com­pulsive, sexually and emotionally. Her extramarital affairs with men were expected, but when she started to sleep with women, the climate changed — this betrayal was the final straw.

In the prosecutor’s scenario, Delia’s husband and friend arranged on the night of Wednesday, October 7, to pick her up in Arnold’s Cadillac Seville to go dancing. They drove her instead to a wood and shot her, leaving the body for some days before returning to dispose of it in the Hudson River. It washed up three weeks later. The prosecutor’s case is circumstantial and tri­angular: it hangs on the motives of the accused, on Diane Delia’s shoes, which were later found by a friend in Robyn Arnold’s possession, and on the yellow acrylic blanket in which the body was un­luxuriously wrapped. Witnesses claim the blanket came from Miss Arnold’s bed. At presstime, none of this had been proven.

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The courtroom has been tickled when suited men take the stand to identify evidence: “Of course, I know those pumps,” said one. “I used to wear them.” It has been shocked by the excessive violence of the shooting. The first bullet killed Delia; the others blew out her eyes. It has been chilled by the sight of Delia’s death outfit, once lavender, now mottled river-green. It has been amused by the courtroom antics of Arnold’s lawyer, a silver-haired ham given to improvised outbursts. And it has been bemused by the image of the two accused killers. Silent, drab, impassive at their table, they are diminished even after her death by the late John/Diane, whose flamboyance was seductive and whose seductions proved fatal. The received wis­dom about transsexuals suggest they are born imprisoned in bodies of the wrong sex. For John/Diane Delia this seems inac­curate. In her desire to please and be ac­cepted, she treated all sex as the right sex. As a man and as a woman she accom­modated both men and women lustily, equally. It may be that her democratic nature was the end of her. ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Housing NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Once a Woman of Quality: Portrait of a Survivor

There was one painting that Nancy was hoping to find. And that was, as she described it, a small Watteau in which the painter had created a forest of gigantic trees, then placed in a clearing at their base a tiny man playing a violin. Her recollection of it was vivid, although it had been many years since she first saw it hanging here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So we circled the corridors of European masters, checking this canvas, then that one, like a pair of darting fish.

In doing so, we drew curious stares from other browsers who must have concluded that Nancy was an eccentric old aesthete with her niece in tow. Had she been alone, she might have elicited a more reproving scrutiny from the guards because her ap­pearance was odd, like that of a gnome from a New Yorker cartoon. She was bun­dled in a fake mouton coat tied with a maroon sash from some unrelated gar­ment. Pulled down around her ears was a peaked red wool cap and from under its edges extended an unruly haze of hair brindled from tinting. The sourness of her face, which bore a general disgruntled expression, was quite unintentional and de­rived from the mouth, which had sunk over toothless gums. She was shy and smiled infrequently. She also had a nervous habit of squinting, but when she was at ease those muscles relaxed, revealing a most remarkable pair of blue eyes. She was old, in her mid-sixties, but her cheekbones were still high and round, her skin still Celtic pink, hinting at some beauty that this strange ruined woman must have been.

Earlier she had listened while I told her of my own fondness for museums. Nothing changes there. While friends and lovers pass in and out of one’s life, the marbles and oils ensconced in the halls of a well­-endowed gallery are constant. She did not reply to that. So I felt a little embarrassed when at length we could not find the Wat­teau. (There is, I later learned, a canvas picturing a clown playing guitar in the forest, but it has been retired to storage.) Nancy took the disappointment with equanimity, as though finding it as it had been pinned in her memory was too much to expect. And in letting go of that she went on to cultivate new favorites, particu­larly Rodin’s bronze Adam, whose neck was arched in a most excruciating posture of guilt. Nancy loved Adam instantly and ardently. It is this quality in her that I most admire, the capacity for spontaneous pleasure. And I suspect that it has been the secret of her survival.

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That Nancy has survived at all, let alone with sensibilities intact, is amazing. That she has gone through some hell is clear, though the full scope of it is not. The details of her passage are blurred by her own imperfect recollection. Some episodes are quite solid, others smoke. Some, I suspect, she obscures intentionally be­cause she does not want me or anyone else to think she was a “bad woman.” From time to time throughout her 60-odd years, Nancy has lived on the streets of New York, in doorways and train stations. She has spent time in public and private shelters and she now lives on federal as­sistance in a charitable SRO on Times Square. It is a most precarious existence, since any change in her circumstance — a small increase in rent, a lost check — would send her back to the streets.

I met Nancy at a shelter called the Dwelling Place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was there doing research on the homeless — more particularly look­ing for one old woman who had, I was told, studied music at Juilliard and still played classical piano. My intent, partly profes­sional and largely personal, was to discover how a woman with considerable gifts could end up on the streets. I never did find her. She did not exist or she had disappeared in the flux of women who wash in and out of the Dwelling Place.

The Dwelling, a five-story walk-up, is run by four Franciscan sisters whose char­ity is boundless and whose resources are limited to 14 beds for homeless women. About 12 more can sleep sitting up in the living room, if they prefer, and many do. Beyond that the sisters offer breakfast and dinner to anyone who needs a free meal. The Dwelling’s founder, a casual blue-­jeaned nun named Sister Nancy, helps them fill out forms for welfare.

The sisters’ facilities are nearly strained to bursting, particularly at the end of the month when government checks have run out. Then one sees in this tiny microcosm the entire range of homeless women. It is something one does not find in the city’s shelters, where paperwork bewilders and frightens the most disturbed women, who prefer to hide from society in corners of Penn Station. Those same women, how­ever, seem to gravitate naturally to the Dwelling Place, which keeps no records and allows them to rest undisturbed. They sit side by side: the filthy deranged who mutter lunatic monologues to the air and an assortment of more composed, de­pressed, and embarrassed women, some in their twenties or younger, who for some reason have found themselves needing a bed or a meal.

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The more ordinary the reason, natu­rally, the more unsettling. One heavy Ital­ian woman in her mid-thirties professed to be a schoolteacher who took her dinners here because she was having trouble making ends meet. She discussed Italian li­queurs with a strong-willed blonde woman in her early forties who said she had spent some time in Rome when she worked on a NATO base in southern Europe. She was receiving a welfare check now and her check had been interrupted. She occupied a bed at the Dwelling until she could untangle the red tape.

Sister Nancy pointed out to me the elegant old women whose careful grooming and alert kohl-rimmed eyes indicated they must at one time have been women of quality. They had lived in expensive old hotels and been pushed out by con­versions. Now, unable to accept the com­paratively shabby accommodations at the Times Square Motor Hotel, where the sis­ters try to place their chronic homeless, they will check into an expensive hotel and spend their entire Social Security checks during the first few days of the month. Then for the next few weeks they must check into shelters or sit up in stations, postures erect, trying to maintain the il­lusion that they are still ladies of quality waiting for a train.

What is strange is that these women in their helpless confusion can be so frighten­ing. One can’t approach them easily. The classic “bag ladies” hovering in doorways might prick the conscience, but they can be dismissed as the Other, species of subhumans who must somehow have brought about their own decline. When they are en repose at the Dwelling, they must be reckoned with like Ghosts of Christmas Future who presage something menacing — that one could end up just like them, elbows resting on oilcloth in the Franciscans’ kitchen. I am afraid of it. And in the weeks surrounding my visits to the Dwelling several well-fed, well-clothed, and safely housed women I know confided that they too fear ending up homeless and broken. It comes, I think, from a feeling that everything is ephemeral and that no matter how one tries to build a dike against chaos, everything — a good marriage, a bank account, friends — may be ripped away. That in the end, one is really entitled to nothing. It is probably a middle-class indulgence to ponder so excessive a ruin. During the Depression there were people who lost everything but did not lose their faculties and disintegrate on the streets. One psychiatrist who had studied the women at the Dwelling Place observed that many prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were stripped of everything and still managed to maintain their essential hu­manity. It is difficult to distill those quali­ties peculiar to survivors. But they exist in the complex person of Nancy Pomeroy.

Nancy came to the shelter in the spring of 1978 looking for a bed. After a time she was resettled in a cheap hotel room on Times Square. She now comes only for the free dinner, generally macaroni and peas or hash and eggs. It was after the paper plates had been cleared away one night that Nancy, whom I had not noticed, leaned across the table and said to me, “I’ve been admiring your beauty.” She went on to clarify that it was my hair, the angle it made at the jaw and the auburn color that she liked. Tendered as it was so matter-of-factly, the compliment was af­fecting. It was a rare overture in a milieu where I had been struggling to elicit revel­ations from women too damaged or embarr­assed to speak. So I turned to study Nancy Pomeroy. She wore an immaculate black tent dress with red and white daisies on it, neat nylons, and little black shoes with tassles. She was smoking a small Dutch Treat cigar. I asked her where she had come by this critical appreciation for color and line.

Nancy replied in precise declarations. She was not quick but deliberate. (She is a Libra, she explained, and Librans always aim for balance, although they might never achieve it.) Many years ago as a girl of 17 she had studied art, she said, at a place called the Grand Central Palace School. Her first semester they had given her a black portfolio with white paper and char­coal and set her to drawing figures of clas­sical statues. She had not realized that art might involve some tedium, and she grew bored with the white torsos. Had she stuck to it she would have moved on the next semester to oils, where the colors might have held her interest. But she dropped out after two months. She recounted this with some disgust and reviled herself as a dilettante. The outlines of Nancy’s past emerged gradually, from anecdotes drop­ped by her in conversation. She did not like to be questioned too closely. Later I found a few people who had known her family. Their memory of her was not dis­tinct but helped somewhat to flesh out her origins.

Nancy was born October 15. She will not divulge the year, but events she claims to have witnessed would place it around 1916. There is no birth certificate on rec­ord under her name. She was apparently adopted and grew up as an only child in the Queens suburb of Forest Hills Gardens. The Garden, as it is called, was a self­-consciously quaint community of English Tudor buildings modeled after the London suburb of Kew Gardens. Conceived origi­nally as an experiment to house blue-collar workers in comparative elegance, it was quickly taken over by writers, artists, and wealthy professionals. During the early part of the century it was a stronghold of Republicanism, where denizens were al­ways on guard against the twin evils of communism and flapperism. In the Gar­den a few old families comprised the aristocracy: Stowe, Marsh, Keller. The Pomeroys apparently were not part of the inner circle although the family was said to have had a good deal of money. One neigh­bor recalls them as “splashy.” Nancy’s father, who had been an officer in the war, returned to civilian life as a copywriter for an ad agency. Nancy recalls that when the war ended her father’s men gave him a silver tray with his name on it because, she said, they loved him so much. Neighbors said he died when Nancy was in her teens. Mrs. Pomeroy, who had a rough time ad­justing to widowhood, became a successful real estate agent. She and Nancy moved into one of the Tudor houses in a place called Pomander Walk.

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Nancy invokes the name of Forest Hills as though it were Eden. Before her fall from grace, she grew up there in comfort among “nice people.” She was, by her own account, a “passable” beauty with clear pale skin. One of her contemporaries, later the wife of the local Episcopal canon, re­calls that she and Nancy were in early grades together at what was known as the Little Red School House. They took danc­ing classes in the foyer of the Forest Hills Inn.

She was not an extrovert but was in­trigued by “glamour.” She admired the great screen stars of the era, chiefly Joan Crawford. Every Saturday she would come into Manhattan with her mother to shop at B. Altman and Lord and Taylor. Then after “luncheon” they would catch the vaudeville show at the Hippodrome. Shapely swimmers dove into a pool sunk in the center of the stage. It was all so lovely, she told her mother she wanted to become an actress. Mrs. Pomeroy said that was fine but it took discipline.

Nancy never understood discipline. She seems to have wandered through events as a sightseer, stopping now and then to focus upon some exquisite oddity. That was apparent in her recounting of a trip she took to Europe when she was 23. Mrs. Pomeroy, having apparently despaired of persuading her dreamy daughter to go to college, thought she might benefit from travel. Nancy had come into a small inheritance when one of her aunts in Massachusetts died. So Mrs. Pomeroy booked Nancy on a tour of Europe for young ladies escorted by two old dowagers. Europe itself was in the earliest throes of World War II, but the dowagers’ tour was a civilized affair con­sisting of playgoing and teas in London townhouses. Nancy allowed herself to be carried along, not much impressed by the ostensible highlights. The passion play in Oberammergau she found a tedious spec­tacle. All that stood out to her of Venice were the orange peels in the canals. The thing that excited her was a boat excursion on Lake Como in Northern Italy to the chateau of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. In one of the upper rooms was a glorious orchid and chartreuse rug. She stood look­ing at it for as long as time allowed. It was the high point of her trip.

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She did regret never having made it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and that is how our excursion came about. I asked her if she had been to the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and she said once, 10 years ago. (Nancy, I learned, had no accurate sense of time’s passage. She pegged every salient event at multiples of five years.) I asked her if she would like to go with me to the Metropolitan. The prospect of that excursion to the museum aroused con­siderable anxiety in her. She was eager to go, but impediments loomed in her imagi­nation. She did not have the “car fare.” That, I assured her, was no problem. I could take care of it. But that offer struck her as charity, and she was very proud. She insisted that she would pay me back when her check came in.

But the real barrier was less material. The Metropolitan, only a 20-minute ride by subway, must have seemed as distant and unapproachable as did Moscow to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Nancy is at­tached to her territory and apparently ven­tures infrequently beyond Times Square. She shops for sundries at the Walgreen in the Port Authority. She will browse through the bookstores in the terminal, Sister Nancy told me, putting art books on layaway. Sometimes, particularly at night, she will just sit in the terminal absorbing the scene and waiting for a “fiancé” to whom Nancy claims she is to be wed next year. No one seems to have seen this man, and Nancy herself confesses she does not know where he lives. At any rate, Times Square is Nancy’s world, and for her to venture beyond it took some courage.

On the day we had set for the excursion, I went to the Woodstock Hotel where Nancy now rents a room. The Woodstock, once an elegant old hotel with an ornate stone facade, had fallen to ruin and was inhabited by pimps and prostitutes until the mid-’70s when it was taken over by a private nonprofit charitable corporation called Project Find. It is one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels left in New York, and certainly one of the few where the elderly poor can find a room for $150 a month, the maximum their fed­eral entitlement checks allow them. But there is no place for the Woodstock or its fragile tenants in the grand development scheme of Times Square. It is, in Nancy’s words, “not much of a hotel.”

Nancy does not have a phone in her room so I could not ring up from the lobby. Curious at any rate about her accommodations, I took the elevator to her floor and knocked on her door. She opened it a crack and I could see nothing of the room, only that she was pale. She had an intestinal ailment. A friend had told her that it was probably because her room had been without heat for three days. Anyway, she could not get out and about.

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I asked her if there was anything I could get her. She said she would like some Kaopectate but that she had no money. So I went to Walgreen and bought Kaopectate, stopping on the way back to pick up black coffee with sugar and some hard rolls. Nancy seemed pleased with the coffee but said she would have to soak the rolls in water or they would hurt her gums. The following morning I went to see her again, and this time she was bundled up and ready to go. Her jaw was set and she was very quiet on the subway.

Once inside the museum, she needed a cigarette. I cringed at the thought of her smoke permeating the canvases of the Eng­lish masters before whom we happened to have parked ourselves. I was also embarrassed at the thought of being chastened by an unimposing female guard standing at one of the doorways. But I said nothing. Nancy shrewdly noted the guard, weighed the risks aloud, then decided the prospective pleasure was worth taking a chance on. She lit her Salem and drew a blissful puff before the guard moved in with an admonishment to snuff it. Nancy did so without resentment. I felt a little embarrassed at having been cowed by the authorities here, and figured that in this respect, at least, Nancy must have an ego made of rawhide.

Once she had relaxed, she was drawn naturally to certain pieces. Her observa­tions revealed a considerable amount of reading. She had read Hendrik Van Loon’s fictional biography of Rembrandt and a couple of “scholarly works” besides. She had bought books on Gothic architecture and antique glass, but a malicious couple who lived across the hall from her in some SRO long ago had broken into her room and thrown her books out the window. It was raining and the books lay wet and ruined in the alley below.

Beyond whatever eclectic expertise she had gleaned from books, she responded instinctually to various works. She sur­prised me, while gazing at human figures on the bas-reliefs of an Egyptian tomb, by observing that the sculptor had not learned to portray his subjects in profile. And that was true. The rows of rigid courtiers were cut with faces in profile, but their bodies were shown straight-on because artists of the time, Nancy explained, hadn’t learned to foreshorten the shoulder.

In the gallery above, she made a beeline for a marble sculpture of children lan­guishing around the feet of an old man whose face wore an expression of anguish. She discovered from reading the inscrip­tion at its base that the man was a Pisan Count named Ugolino who was imprisoned and left to starve with his sons and grand­sons. At learning this Nancy recoiled and muttered that she wished she had never seen it. Being hungry was an awful thing.

***

It was not until this Ugolino episode that Nancy had made such a visceral re­sponse to privation. She had alluded to living on the streets and mourned the loss of “good food” she had known as a child, but the dark side of her experience she considered a private and shameful thing and she kept it to herself. I could not really grasp the fact that this woman, who could be such a perceptive and enjoyable companion, might have lived without shelter and food. She had known something frightening, something that was not civ­ilized.

To my chagrin I had taken a voyeur’s peep at her unsettled interior the day be­fore. Nancy was in the bathroom down the hall taking the Kaopectate I brought her. And I, left alone in the hallway, pushed the door of her room open to take a look inside. What I saw frightened me so badly that I quickly shut the door. Nancy’s little room was awash with clutter. Shopping bags, newspapers, old magazines, old clothes covered everything. The bed was so laden with this monumental debris that it could not have been slept in for some time. There was no clear space on the floor where one could safely tread. When Nancy padded back down the hall, her lips chalky from the Kaopectate, she found me looking guilty and anxious outside her door. As she did not invite me in I could not ask her about the chaos. I was not, at any rate, eager to talk about it, as it seemed danger­ous.

One night about a week later I went up to Nancy’s room. I knocked and there was no answer, but the light was on and I heard a soft rustling of papers. I called her name but there was no response. I imagined her treading back and forth across the debris, doing what she called “involved thinking” and surrounded by dark memories.

It is not clear how Nancy first came to be beleaguered by the Crooks. They did not exist in Forest Hills, that’s for certain. But she holds them responsible for her fall from the Garden. From comments she dropped over successive encounters, I surmised that her descent was gradual. She did not get along well in grammar school because she never understood math. Her father assured her that she was “not stupid, just slow,” but she was so in­timidated by algebra and terrified by the thought of being left back that she drop­ped out of high school after her freshman year. Later she dropped out of art school and, abandoning notions of becoming an actress, she decided she wanted to become a singer. So she auditioned for a big band leader at one of the Manhattan hotels who told her that “with training” she could amount to something. He gave her a letter of introduction to a voice teacher, a bald­ing, brown-eyed man named Raul Querze (she took pains to spell his name for me) who had a studio at Carnegie Hall.

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Querze agreed to teach her at reason­able rates and Nancy, who had apparently determined to make it on her own, got a job in stenography at the McAlpin Hotel. She was embarrassed by this menial work. Throughout her studies with Querze she did not learn to read music and was plagued by terrible stage fright. After a year, she became ill. “Just an illness” — that’s all she will say about it. She had to enter a hospital. When she got out, the house on Pomander Walk had been sold. That sale was recorded in 1944, around the time, says a neighbor, that Mrs. Pomeroy, who had been suffering from a palsy, died.

Nancy does not believe her parents are dead. She concedes only that they were “sick.” As years went by, however, she came to believe that they had been kid­napped by ubiquitous scoundrels whom she called the Crooks. One of them, it turned out, was the man with whom she had lived for many years. She met him, she says, in the hospital. He was a rogue, a “nut,” whom she later came to “cordially despise.” But at the time she thought she loved him and she agreed to live with him because he said he wanted to marry her. He broke that promise and many others. She was so ashamed of living in sin that in corresponding with a friend, a Spanish woman living in Atlanta, she maintained the fiction that she was happily married.

He worked intermittently as a carpen­ter and sign painter. But when his asthma flared up, he was more often than not unemployed. She worked as a salesgirl in the basement of Macy’s, selling cheap net gowns. Then she sold jewelry at Korvettes and later designer dresses at an expensive boutique. But those jobs were apparently short-lived because she didn’t move fast enough. She was a very deliberate person. And her man was jealous of her working. He couldn’t control her, Nancy surmised, if she had money of her own.

They never had a proper home. They would check into a hotel, then be kicked out because he got into a fight with man­agement or because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then they would spend nights on the streets in doorways. Next morning they would get coffee at a restaurant and she would use the bathroom to discreetly wash herself in the sink. She was a very clean person. They were together for many years. Nancy says 10, it may have been longer. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she said she tried. But some­times when you’re right in the middle of a situation the answers don’t seem so clear. She left him several times but always re­turned because she had no money except the dividends from a small trust fund her mother had set up for her. That was next to nothing, and being with him was all she knew.

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Her man became involved in increas­ingly nefarious dealings with some blacks in Harlem. Nancy professes not to know the nature of it, but it apparently had something to do with shaking down prostitutes. Then one night he abandoned her in Peon Station with only 10 cents to her name. She never saw him again, and al­though she had warned him to leave her parents alone, he joined the Crooks who had kidnapped them.

So in the spring of 1978 — she was in her early sixties — Nancy Pomeroy took up res­idence in Penn Station for three weeks, not as a festering grotesque rolled in rags on the restroom floor, but as one of those women of quality sitting up all night wait­ing for mythical trains. The dignity of these women often fools passersby. It isn’t apparent how many “normal” people mil­ling and sitting about the stations are ac­tually homeless until one studies the crowd. I went out one night to the termi­nals with the city’s pick-up van. One of the social workers said, “You can always tell by the shoes. They are run down because they always have to be on the move.” The police, of course, can spot them and prod them to move along. So not even a lady of quality can get a good night’s sleep. Just an hour here, two there. Pretty soon a narcotic confusion settles over the senses and even those whose personalities were whole begin behaving strangely. If this goes on long enough they lose their pride and slip into purgatory, retrieving bagels out of trash bins to survive.

Nancy had begun to slip into a stupor. The police harried her, one rapped her on the hand with his club, so she found a place near Madison Square Garden where she could hide and sleep uninterrupted. She was vulnerable to muggers; she has been robbed 14 times over the years, she says. She put aside her pride and began to beg — she never took money, she said, without promising to pay it back — and when she had enough she bought bagels and cream cheese. She had already begun to de­teriorate physically and life in the terminal hastened it. The clear skin she had been so proud of as a young woman became in­fected. It had become a problem sometime earlier when “the nut” had checked them into a room where the sink was clogged and there were no handles on the shower so she couldn’t bathe properly. In Penn Station she would go into the restroom at some early morning hour, pull her dress and slip off of her shoulders, and try to wash the sores that were ulcerating her arms and chest. But an attendant once threatened to call the police so she abandoned her toilette.

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It is difficult to imagine that there is no one from her privileged past upon whom Nancy could call. If there were relatives who had escaped the clutches of the Crooks, they were not in evidence. She had briefly checked in to the city shelter on Lafayette Street, but she became fright­ened when they proposed sending her to an adult home in Far Rockaway. As she was unmarried and had worked so erratically, she had no apparent claim to Social Secu­rity. The city sent her uptown to apply for SSI, a federal entitlement for the poor and unemployable, but she made a mistake on the forms and her benefits were delayed. She could most likely have prevailed upon the officers who held her small inheritance in trust at Citicorp Center to give her a loan on the dividends, but in her confusion she could not figure out how to get across town. She did not understand the protocol of dealing with banks and governments. The logistics of helping herself were too abstract.

Nancy cannot be coaxed to reflect on Penn Station except to say she thought she might go insane from the shame. Her de­cline was checked by a suggestion from one of the other “ladies” at the terminal that she might try the Dwelling Place. The nuns took her in and gave her a bed, and one Sister Liz, fearing that Nancy’s lesions might be scabies, undertook to supervise her bathing and massage her afflicted flesh with calomine lotion. The sainted Sister Liz eventually left for Bolivia to work with the lepers. But not before she got Nancy set up in cheap room of her own on Times Square with a small income of federal as­sistance and dividends that came to less than $300 a month.

The nuns continued to give her what help they could. And two years ago when a Hollywood casting director called the Dwelling Place looking for a street woman to work as an extra in a feature film, the sisters suggested Nancy, because they knew she could use the money. Fifty dollars. So she went to Soho one cold night, stood on a street corner before whirring cameras and pretended to be in love with a shabby middle-aged man smoking a cigar. I asked Nancy and the sisters the name of the film, but no one had bothered to find out. Shortly thereafter I was invited quite by chance to the screening of a silly romantic comedy called Soup for One. Nancy’s gnomish form appeared on the screen in a wordless sequence of short takes. Her name did not appear among the credits.

***

I invited Nancy to dinner at Stefanos, a basement restaurant with a deluxe diner menu several doors west of the Woodstock. She appeared in the lobby turned out in an amazingly chic maroon felt hat. Its brim dipped over one eye à la Garbo. I admired it enthusiastically and she seemed at once bashful and pleased. As a girl she had been a stylish dresser, she said. Back then she had had more money and more time. The parts of her arms and chest left exposed by the immaculate tent dress showed faint rosy scars of the now healed sores.

There was a chance, Nancy said, that her fiancé would join us at Stefanos. He was a psychologist, she said. They had known each other for about six years. So we took a booth that would admit at least one more and ordered seafood. I, red snap­per and Nancy, deep-fried scallops. She ate slowly, savoring the food with the same submissive bliss as she did the cigarette at the Metropolitan museum. We had white wine, which she sipped moderately. And for dessert she ordered ice cream, which she spooned into our respective coffees.

I noticed on the third finger of her left hand a jade band. She said it was a gift. From previous conversations I knew that “gifts” were not something given her, but rather tokens she had purchased for her kidnapped parents. She had an odd idea about sacrifice. In fact she once had a vision in which Christ appeared to her, his brow covered with a blue drape, and he whispered “sacrifice.” She had taken to buying and hoarding gifts — rings, per­fume, portable radios — to bestow on her parents when they were finally released. She felt guilty because of the money they had spent on her and she, after all, had wasted those opportunities.

Nancy was plagued by mischievous per­sons who masquerade as her mother or father. She once ran into one, it’s not clear which sex, in a coffee shop, and she was duped into paying for its meal before she realized the fraud. This obsession under­standably wreaks havoc upon her delicate circumstances, as her entire monthly in­come — dividends and government check­ — leaves her about $140 after rent. The nuns once tried to help Nancy manage her money but she declined. Sensible budget­ing didn’t accommodate her obsession with sacrifice.

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Nancy therefore spends most of every month with no money, bumming cigarettes and taking her meals at the Dwelling. There is an unfathomable gulf between having no money and one dollar, as Nancy herself revealed to me in a dispassionate recounting of what had happened before she found her present room at the Wood­stock. Late one afternoon she was thrown out of her room at the Times Square Motor Hotel for nonpayment of rent. She bought coffee in one restaurant, nursed it as long as she could, then bought hot chocolate in another and drank it until dawn.

As I could not imagine the prospect of being even without one dollar, the inequity of our positions was embarrassing. I gave her a bill I had in my purse. At first she demurred, saying she could not pay back, but I told her that it had been a good year for me. Perhaps next year I would be broke, and she would be on a streak and she could help me out. It was a feeble little fiction but if there was anything Nancy could understand it was the fluctuating nature of fortune.

During that meal at Stefanos, her fiancé did not materialize. We did not mention it. “Nancy,” I asked her, apropos of nothing. “How did you get to be so tough?” She was offended by “tough” and I had to amend it to “resilient.” “Well,” she replied in her deliberate way, “I went through hell but I loved beauty.”

When I asked Nancy to accompany me once more to the Metropolitan so that she could be photographed among the art, she agreed, seduced by the anticipation of see­ing her beloved bronze Adam. But Adam was no longer there. He had been taken off his mounting to be prepared for an imminent exhibit called “The Gates of Hell.” Not even marble and bronze stay constant. They go the way of the Watteau. ❖

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Was Walt Whitman Christ?

Whitmaniacs at Large

The big embarrassment of Walt Whit­man’s later years was not his poverty (groups of writers in England and America had to take up a collection) but the cult that arose around him. Ardent followers celebrated him as Messiah, Christ, maybe a god. Some of these followers were individuals of genuine distinction, not exactly in the first rank of intellectual life, but not without talent either. William D. O’Connor, who wrote the pro­-Whitman tract, The Good Gray Poet, was a formidable polemicist. More formidable yet was the poet’s doctor, R.M. Bucke, an ac­complished figure by anyone’s lights. Dr. Bucke was a leading Canadian psychiatrist, superintendent of a lunatic asylum in On­tario, and president of various psycho-medi­cal societies. He was also a man of worldly experience. Five years of his youth were spent in the American West, prospecting and driving a wagon train. He fought Indians, almost discovered the Comstock Lode, lost one foot and part of the other to frostbite.

And yet as a result of two strange ex­periences that he associated with Whitman, Bucke subscribed wholeheartedly to the cult. The first experience occurred during a visit to London. While riding a hansom after reading Whitman and other poets, Bucke was suddenly enveloped in a flame-colored cloud, which he thought was a fire in the city, but then realized was an inner illumination. A drop of “Brahmic Bliss” fell on his heart. The second experience came when he presented himself to Whitman in the flesh. A few minutes of chat, and Bucke ascended into a “spiritual intoxication” that lasted six weeks. Un­der these circumstances it was natural that he would wonder about Whitman’s more than human powers and qualities and begin referring to him as “the Christ.”

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Dr. Bucke’s great achievement was to come up with a scientific theory to explain Whit­man’s messianic role. You can see this theory in his biography of Whitman (1833), his let­ters, and his tract Cosmic Consciousness, which is regarded as a classic in certain circles and is still in print (Dutton, $6.25 paper). Eons ago, the theory went, mankind made a dramatic evolutionary leap from animal con­sciousness to human consciousness. Now the human race was about to make its next great leap, from ordinary human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness, which means full awareness of eternity and the universe. Dur­ing the last couple of thousand years, a hand­ful of superior individuals anticipated this evolutionary development. These individuals, who stand in relation to ordinary people as humans do to dogs and cats, included Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed. Also Balzac. Greatest of all was Whitman, the harbinger of evolution’s next step, who of­fered in his own person the fullest picture of what the future of the race would be like. That future was on its way and would take hold initially in the United States. Wealth and poverty would be abolished, and demo­cratic socialism would reign. Whitman, who had absorbed the entire human race, would in turn be absorbed back by every individual who attained the higher spiritual level. Bucke wrote in the biography that, just as the gospels and Pauline writings were the Bible of Christianity in the past, so Leaves of Grass would be the Bible of Cosmic civilization in the future. This, however, was a disputed point. In his later tract Bucke said that Cos­mic Consciousness would have no Bible.

All in all, it was an excellent theory, and commendable particularly for its optimism. “The immediate future of our race,” Bucke wrote, “is indescribably hopeful.” What was not indescribably hopeful, indeed was hope­lessly bleak, was the future of Walt Whitman so long as his reputation rested in the hands of Dr. Bucke and the other cultists.

Bliss Perry, the eminent editor of the At­lantic Monthly, addressed this situation with a biography of Whitman in 1906. (Perry’s book, not Bucke’s, has been reprinted by Chelsea House.) Dr. Bucke was mildly cracked, Perry implied. Whitman was a mere human — a very talented human, even a ge­nius, but a mere human nonetheless, and with too many objectionable flaws. Perry’s account of these flaws reflects the literary sensibility of turn-of-the-century Boston, which readers may find irksome and prissy. But one can salute him for the role he played in the history of Whitman criticism. He was the great de-Bucker and he brought the age of cultism to an end. So far as Whitman’s literary reputation was concerned, the dra­matic evolutionary leap was right here. Whit­man could be celebrated as a mere poet, not a messiah.

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Only the problem with Perry is that Bucke­-ism won’t entirely go away, no matter how much you want it to. It’s not just that in his old age Whitman tolerated the cult and se­cretly collaborated with Bucke on the 1883 biography (all the while protesting against Bucke’s overenthusiasm). The messianic urge had been with him all along, ever since his emergence as a poet in the 1850s. Messianism exuded from the deepest struc­tures of his thought, indeed something very much like it exuded from his person, and Bucke was not the only one to make the observation. “You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York,” Thoreau reported after a visit to Whitman. “He occasionally suggests some­thing a little more than human.” Exactly.

Something a little more than human exudes even from Whitman’s occasional prose writings, at least the prose writings of the 1850s. You can see it in the reviews of his own book that he wrote and published anonymously in the press, where he described his whole purpose in life as “to stamp a new type of character, namely his own,” on American civilization. Or better still, look at his strange 1856 political manifesto, The Eighteenth Presidency!, which you can find by thumbing through back pages of the fat Library of America volume (thumbing through is your only chance: the Library of America edition is the most complete one-volume Whitman ever published, and a handsome book to boot, but has an almost useless table of contents, and no prose index at all). In this manifesto Whitman denounced the two political parties as a collection of pimps, malignants, VD suf­ferers, and body snatchers, along with murderers, kept editors, carriers of concealed weapons, and similar undesirables. And then unexpectedly the name “Walt Whitman” pops up as a possible alternative. You can’t confound this with other political manifestos.

Or turn to the front of the volume and read the celebrated Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, where he called for an American “bard” or “seer” who will incarnate the nation, be more popular than the president, and be the universe’s greatest lover. The preface was written in a peculiar exalted prose that almost lifts off into poetry. In his own edition of this preface, the poet William Everson has abolished the almost by setting Whitman’s sentences into verse-a clever stroke which improves the readability. But I think the reason Whitman wrote in prose was to sug­gest a prose degree of literalness. He was being sober here, more or less. The preface was relatively restrained.

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Where he let fly was in the poems that he intended as poems. Messianism was at the heart of the Leaves central character, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” who is the brother of Jesus, who sometimes becomes Being itself, and who promises to return in 5000 years. More especially it was part of the book’s technique and tone. I mean the King James­-style bombast and bluster, but also the half-­spectral, half-sensual intimacy that certain passages achieve — and the way one tone plays against the other. An example is “So Long!,” the last great poem in Leaves, which begins with bombastic Buckean prophecies: “I announce natural persons to arise,/I an­nounce justice triumphant,/I announce un­compromising liberty and equality,/I an­nounce the justification of candor and the justification of pride.” But then the big guns fall silent and he shifts to an infinitely more powerful tender intimacy:

My songs cease, I abandon them,
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you.

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?) It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms — decease calls me forth.

The opposed tones correspond to the two elements of a messiah. On one hand a messiah must be a spiritual teacher who converts you to his doctrine by broadcasting what he has to say through sermons or poems. Those are the first lines, in which Whitman hurls his bombast. On the other hand a messiah must go beyond being a spiri­tual teacher. He must aim at redemption, and for this he needn’t broadcast at all. Instead he must establish an almost physical pres­ence, and let his message flow from him to you in direct communion, without any me­dium at all. As Whitman says in another poem, “I and mine do not convince by argu­ments, similes, rhymes,/We convince by our presence.” That is what he does in these second lines from ”So Long!” he establishes direct communion by springing into your arms, on the occasion of his death, in a vaguely sexual embrace.

Whitman does this so casually you may barely notice what he is about. The casual­ness is characteristic, and might lead you to think he is merely being chummy or touchy­feely. You might not think of sacraments at all. No matter: Read with an open heart and your hair will stand on end. Bliss Perry, confined by the mere-human conventions of secular criticism, cannot explain this. But a reader beginning with Dr. Bucke’s pre­posterous assumptions will realize that here is the more-than-human moment of redemp­tion. The messianic vocation is not just prom­ised, it is fulfilled, and Leaves of Grass is its fulfillment.

***

 

The authenticity of Whitman’s vocation accounts for why his admirers have always responded in extraordinary ways to him. He seems directly at hand, his lips pressed to yours in casual communion, and it would hardly feel right to experience this and not respond in some way. Dr. Bucke’s circle of Whitmaniacs (the term came from Perry) was one response, though not a very good one, and not fated to last. Better responses, liter­ary ones at any rate, were bound to emerge. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, a remarkable anthology edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, is a record of precisely this. These editors show that from Swinburne to Dave Smith, scores of poets have responded to Whitman by talk­ing to him in their writings, as if in a con­versation across the ages. Some of this talk has been in essays, more of it in verse. Whit­man has been addressed directly in the sec­ond person, as when Hart Crane said, “My hand in yours, Walt Whitman”; and in the third person, as when Allen Ginsberg de­scribed him eyeing the supermarket boys. There have been so many invocations of Whitman by so many poets that one might say they constitute a modern genre. Call it the Walt-iad. Ed Folsom observes, “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in English or American poetry — a sustained tradition, a century old, of directly invoking or address­ing another poet. It has become a litany running through our poetry.” Not just ours, as the anthology shows, but poetry in Span­ish and Portuguese as well. The Walt-iad is an Anglo-Hispanic phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, the Walt-iads have fol­lowed several of the major themes of the original Whitmaniacs — the celebration of Whitman as sexual liberator, for instance, which was a concern of O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet as early as 1865, and later ap­peared in Bucke ‘s biography. Something of the same celebration can be seen in “Saluta­tion to Walt Whitman,” a 1915 poem in Portuguese by Fernando Pessoa, who struck a Ginsbergian level of sexual exuberance and humor: “Walt, my beloved old man, my great Comrade, I evoke you! … Open all the doors­ for me!/Because I have to go in!/My password? Walt Whitman!/But I don’t give any password … /I go, in without explaining … ” Or in a completely different fashion, the same response can be seen in the title poem of John Gill’s 1982 book, From the Diary of Peter Doyle (Alembic Press, $4.50). Peter Doyle was Whitman’s real-life companion for a number of years, and the poem is a fictional homosexual love letter, dry and restrained but still tender, to Whitman by Doyle.

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The old Whitmaniac democratic and so­cialist themes survive in any number of Walt-­iads. Hart Crane celebrated Whitman for his democratic vision of America. Langston Hughes credited him with a definition of America that included everyone. June Jordan echoes Dos Passos (who is omitted from the anthology) by declaring, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman,” then further declares that Whitman is comparable to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, which is a dreadful thing to say. Another horrendous left-wing Walt-iad is by the Dominican poet Pedro Mir, whose idea is to convert Whitman’s individualist “Song of Myself” to a collec­tivist “Song of Ourselves.” On the other hand Thomas McGrath’s Walt-iad wittily places Whitman at a Marxist meeting. Kenneth Patchen in a poem and Meridel LeSueur in an essay place Whitman in the old American socialist tradition by remembering the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books editions of Whitman, published by the old Socialist Party. A Walt-iad by Neruda, a true son of Whitman, invokes him for a militant protest: “Because I love my country/I claim you, essential brother,/old Walt Whitman with your gray hands,/so that, with your special help/ line by line, we will tear out by the roots/and destroy this bloodthirsty President Nixon.”

What seems to have departed since Bucke’s day is a sense of Whitmanian op­timism. Not a single contributor to the anthology regards the future of mankind as “indescribably hopeful,” except possibly Henry Miller, who in a 1956 essay took the Buckean position that Whitman was a harbinger of a future golden age. A major theme of democratic Walt-iads is instead to contrast miserable present-day America to the fine democracy that existed in Whitman’s time. I’m not sure this Walt-iadic theme is fair to Whitman, since he never thought that Amer­ica in his own time was all that wonderful — ­on the contrary, he thought the country was ruled by pimps, malignants, VD sufferers, and body snatchers. Democracy was going to triumph in the future. Anyway, many Walt-­iads offer the contrast, beginning with a De­pression-era “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Ste­phen Vincent Benet, a dreary poet, who ex­plained to Whitman that things were not going well in these States. Dave Smith, in “With Walt Whitman at Fredericksburg,” dilates on nearly the same theme: “I want/to tell you how progress has not changed us much.” But traffic booming in the distance chants: “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.” End­less variations of this sort have been worked on the Open Road. In “A Supermarket in Cafifornia,” Ginsberg quietly contrasts the supermarket’s open corridors to the in­vigorating open road. Louis Simpson asks: “Where are you Walt?/The Open Road goes to open the road used leads car lot.” Ernest Kroll says: The “The open road leads only into space … The love of comrades is a hopeless case.”

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Some poets look to Whitman for technical reasons, which is a decidedly unBuckean theme. William Carlos Williams cited Whitman for blazing the trail toward that dubious technical concept, the variable American foot. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan praise the long line, and Galway Kinnell de­livers up the opinion that Whitman’s break with counted meter is the culmination to­ward which all prosody has been striving since the King James Bible. In a brilliant essay Muriel Rukeyser observed that Whit­man’s sensuality was a technical matter: “He remembered his body as other poets of his time remembered English verse.” By no means are all the selections in the anthology wild about him. Poets as different as Edwin Markham and Ezra Pound stressed their objections in verse, before agreeing to admire him. Pound wrote: “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — /I have detested you long enough.” Louis Simpson and Robert Bly have contributed essays expressing reserva­tons not so different from Bliss Perry’s complaints in 1906.

And yet nestled among these varied selections are a couple of contributions that do suggest the continuation of an almost religious current of Whitman worship. A single Chistological Walt-iad from 1901 by a minor British Whitmaniac stands for the old cult of Bucke’s day. From the new day Michael Kin­caid, in a shrewd essay, declares himself an adherent of Whitman’s poetic religion — care­fully keeping the quotation marks around “religion.” Patricia Hampl explains that she turned to Whitman for solace during the evil days of Vietnam and still reads him as gospel, or “good news.” This is different, less silly, than what the old Whitmaniacs had in mind, though I don’t doubt that a community o£ emotion stretches from them to more than a handful of contemporary writers.

In one respect the whole anthology can be seen as the continuation of a Whitmaniac custom. The Camden cultists used to repeat stories about Whitman’s amazing effect on certain individuals. Dr. Bucke’s flame-colored cloud and spiritual intoxication was one such story. Another, passed along by Justin. Kaplan in his biography, was the experience of a British Whitmaniac who paid a call in 1891 and underwent a palpable vision of his late mother. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song is in a sense a 400-page collection of stories like these, only told by poets, each to his own fancy. The old Whitmaniacs published a volume of birthday greetings to p their idol; here we have a volume of poetic greetings from our own day. What is striking is the continuity of love expressed in all this— gushing, reserved, off the wall, begrudging, levelheaded, scholarly, ecstatic, yet love nonetheless. ❖