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The Hotel Chelsea Keeps on Keeping On

Romance of the Rogues: The Hotel Chelsea Keeps on Keeping On
February 11, 1980

today will pass
as currents of the air
that veer and die
tell me how souls can be
such flames of suffering
and of ecstasy
then fare
as do the winds fare

Edgar Lee Masters’s poem is printed, in bold italics, on the promotional brochure of the Hotel Chelsea. It is its come-on. The Hotel Chelsea sells a Romance.

Certain artists are known as much for how they lived or died as for what they created. They are the ones who live in glass houses and throw stones from the inside. Their names are signals, and we can place them, but we know them best as myths. It is a Catholic concept, part of the tradition that saw Dante descend through the nine circles, made Francois Villon an anti-hero, named Hollywood Babylon, Monroe a martyr, Jagger Lucifer. It is the Romance of the Artist in the West, and the Hotel Chelsea may very well be the Last Romantic.

Brass plaques at its entrance at 222 West 23rd Street proclaim the one-time presence of Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thom­as, Brendan Behan. Stanley Bard, the Chelsea’s manager, will say fondly that all three would make merry, ribald scenes in the lobby when returning from a drunk. “Brendan Behan’s wife,” he says, “seemed unable to have children. But while they were staying here she became pregnant. It’s a very creative place.”

Naked Lunch, The Lost Weekend, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were written at the Chelsea. So was a lot of Beat poetry. Stuart Cloete chose it for the ultimate bomb-shelter in his novella, The Blast. Andy Warhol made Chelsea Girls there. The woman who shot him, Valerie Solanas, founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), lived there while he was shooting. So did Viva, who superstarred in the movie. Rock flowered there, and punk decays.

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When Alfius Cole, who is 102 (and a painter) moved in about 50 years ago, the hotel was already in the second phase of a process of architectural parthenogenesis which is only now nearing completion: Once it held “baronial” apartments. Today, all but a very few of the hotel’s 400 units are efficiencies, studios, and one-bedrooms.

In 1883, when Hubert Pirsson & Co. finished building the “Chelsea Apart­ments,” the city’s first duplexes were pro­vided for the needs of its first occupants, a group of wealthy artists who formed the city’s first cooperative. The duplexes were on the top floors of the 11-story building, and their upper levels were studios, where the best-established artists could enjoy unobstructed views, sunsets, and early-­morning northern light. For a short time, the Chelsea was the city’s tallest building.

By 1906, patronage had dwindled, and with it the banquet-ticket of com­missioned portraiture (Warhol’s book of coupons is, after all, a fairly recent phenomenon). Arcadia gave way to de­mocracy, but Arcadian vestiges remain. The Chelsea’s lower floors are rented out, for the most part, to transients. And as people move in, they await vacancies on the higher echelons. Inside, the building’s spine, an elaborate spiral of brass, tarnishes.

From the steps of the library across 23rd Street, the Chelsea looms into focus. “Victorian Gothic,” “Freestyle Queen Anne,” of “Picturesque Secessionist,” it is a broad, lumbering, red-brick behemoth. A pyramidal mansard tower, gables and giant chimneys roost over the balconies like cranky robber barons. The Chelsea was the first building to receive landmark status both on architectural grounds and for “its long-time association with the lit­erary world of New York.” It is that rare thing, an iconoclastic institution.

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•••

Virgil Thomson, who is 83 and has lived there since 1940, has the prestige of a national treasure and presides — in one-­half of one of the original tenth-floor apartments — over the old guard. Many American members of the new guard chose the Chelsea out of galloping nostalgia­ — the hotel is a repository for the sensibilities of decades past. Jim Pasternak, who is in his mid-thirties, makes films and teaches at the New School. He moved to the Chelsea in the early ’70s when his marriage was ending. “During the first two weeks I was here, I fell in love with five different women, and within three weeks had affairs with all five. It was quite a wild place then. A ’60s feeling was still ram­pant.” The Chelsea has been described as a stopping off point on the international bohemian underground railroad; Europe­ans flock to it — and use it as a hotel. Few plain old American tourists are registered.

Neither the old guard nor the new claims any interest in or responsibility for the transient caste. To most, they are untouchables. Literally, a transient would be anyone who stays at the hotel for brief stints. Actually, a transient is someone who has not been given a context by those who have given it to each other. It is often the transient who makes the news. Jim Pasternak’s apartment is directly above the one shared by Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and he was home the night she died. “I only know because a police officer came by and asked me questions the next morning,” he says. “I couldn’t tell him anything. The walls are very thick here and no one I knew knew them.”

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When current tenants are mentioned, Stanley Bard turns cautious. When un­pleasantries are mentioned, he turns off. Otherwise, his conversation is riddled with anecdote. He grew up with the Chelsea­ — his father ran it before him — and his office has the scent of obsession.

Although Bard is devoted to the myths of the Chelsea, he’s considered penny-wise in his attentions to the building itself. Almost everyone has complaints about the plastering, or the plumbing, or the heat, or security. One longtime tenant says Bard sometimes rents rooms “to people who might be better off in hospitals,” yet he has been known to waive rents for months on end to people in whom he has faith, or for whom he as a soft spot. His credo is that the pulse of the culture beats quickest away from the mainstream — his commit­ment is to the Chelsea’s tradition as beacon to the fringe.

The lobby is a reliquary of the ’50s and early ’60s. First impression is of bright lights, patterned wall-to-wall, vinyl-­seated gargoyled wooden benches, chrome, more vinyl, a blur of Everyman Abstract Expressionism, a dash of Pop, and a Sput­nik hanging from the ceiling. Paintings cover the walls like easy-to-fit pieces of a large puzzle. They look like tired versions of what we have come to know as masterpieces, and the paint seems to be describ­ing those times: they are orange and blue and green and yellow oil and acrylic nota­tions, and they hang like writing on the walls. In 1956, Bernard Shapshack, a sculptor in residence, proclaimed the lob­by “the signboard of the people.”

It is a lobby without coherence. No Hilton Kramer, no Clement Greenberg ever reviewed it. Certainly no sister Par­rish ever decorated it.

•••

The Chelsea — “Oasis,” “lower depths Brigadoon,” “a really funny hotel” — is a labyrinth of self-referential environments. Upstairs spring jungles of personal icono­graphics.

•••

At noon Stella Waitzkin is making tea. She has lived at the Chelsea for about 10 years, is a hippie, a grandmother, and an artist. Her one-bedroom apartment is what she makes. She makes books. Books of sandstone, glass, and resin, baked in kilns, often encrusted with dolls’ heads, or bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, or things un­definable. The books are everywhere. “What you see,” she says, “is just the tip of the iceberg. I keep another room here to store more books and I keep a lot in the country, where I do most of my baking.” As she speaks, two cats appear and disap­pear among the stacks, then pause and pose like bookends. She points at a sagging bookcase. “Can you imagine what would happen if that wall gave in? The plaster­ing here is one thing I’d like people to know about the Chelsea.”

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“I’ve thought of moving to Ireland on occasion,” says Isabella Gardner, “but I could never live anywhere else in New York.” Isabella Gardner was an actress, is a poet, and was once married to a poet, Allen Tate. She also keeps “another room” at the Chelsea, “to work in though I never use it. I usually go to the country to work, to MacDowell. It’s difficult to work here, I find… there are distractions, the city, you understand…” Isabella Gardner’s hair is long, straight, and red and it lists in and out of a topknot. She moves in slightly awkward sequences on long thin, colt legs.

“Everything I need is easily available here. I know exactly where to go to get my shoes cobbled. I know all the bellmen and I can get special service. I have good friends here. I’ve lived here off and on since… oh… the early ’60s… I was traveling a great deal then… and my daughter, you know lived here too for a while… in her own apartment of course. She knew all the rock people then… Janis Joplin and all… I only knew them by sight. Nowadays I don’t have anything at all to do with the transient traffic.” She stops for a second and looks purposefully askance: “and I mean traffic in every sense of the word.”

Isabella Gardner’s apartment has the aura of permanence. She has a stained glass transom over her front door and has had the paint stripped off the mahogany moldings — “as Virgil says, ‘hotels tend to paint over everything with beige paint.’ ” She’s a bit of a curator: “During the blackout of 1977, as I made my way to the lobby, I had a candle in one hand, a rag in the other, and I polished my way down. At other times I’ve been tempted to go at it with a can of spray paint.”

Mildred Baker, a friend of both Stella Waitzkin and Isabella Gardner, has lived at the Chelsea for 40 years. She is a brisk woman. She stands erect. Striding through the lobby, calling greetings to the desk, she is a ballerina field marshal. Now retired, she was director of the Newark Museum, and used to split her week be­tween the Chelsea and a house in New Jersey. When she joined her husband (who worked for FDR’s Relief Administration) at the hotel during World War II, she would “come in to find sailors cavorting in the lobby. The British Merchant Seamen kept a canteen going here. And some Catholic charities kept space as well, for sheltering refugees. The old management, this Mr. Bard’s father, and Mr. Gross, and dear Mr. Krauss — he was an angel to us­ — were all of Hungarian descent. They worked here during the Depression and were able to buy it from the Knott Hotel Corporation for $50,000 down, which they borrowed from a bank down the street. They also took in many Hungarian refu­gees after the uprising in 1956.”

Mildred Baker’s muted walls bear many abstract landscapes and many in­scribed photographs. As she excuses herself to prepare for a trip she is about to take to the Red Sea, she mentions that the pictures are all that matter of her possessions.

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•••

A traffic cop on Eighth Avenue: “the Chelsea is okay for a single woman, for a couple of nights maybe, if you’re careful.” Further west toward Ninth, a waiter in a Chinese restaurant: “the Chelsea is not so nice. You be better off at Holiday Inn on 58th Street.”

East of the hotel is headquarters for the toy and novelty business — year-round ghosts of birthdays and New Years. Facing it are a “Y” and a branch library. To the West, London Terrace, a bulking Tudorish apartment complex, and toward the River, an Alphaville of highway, trucks, and diners. There is one flicker of Merry Olde England at Mr. Spats — where a stew and a stiff drink help brighten the way to New Jersey. But night hits hard on 23rd Street.

Heading back to the Chelsea out of darkness is like heading back to a dorm after a late night out. There is always someone sitting there to watch you. And even if it’s 4 a.m. and the someone is nodding out, enough energy remains to lift a head and an eye that follow you: Are you a transient? Are you Someone? Are you good for a hit?

Susan from San Francisco is at the bar of El Quijote — which is to the Chelsea what the Polo lounge is to the Beverly Hills. She has been practicing Spanish with Jose, the bartender, and it keeps getting better as she drinks: “I can’t speak a word of Spanish, but just listen to me go. When you want to communicate, language is no barrier.” She is a freelance secretary in town for a conference. Her boss is at the Plaza. “Did you know that Dylan Thomas used to drink right here? Got to admit this place has a lot of history.” The plaque at the hotel entrance reads: “Dedicated to the memory of Dylan Thomas, who lived and labored last at the Chelsea Hotel and from here sailed out to die.”

•••

The Artist as Sage, the Artist as Addict, the Artist as Albatross, the Artist as Package. All of them live at the Chelsea.

•••

“My apartment doesn’t cost anything like what it looks like,” says Virgil Thom­son, “and my paintings are by people I know. I never have pictures around by people I don’t know. That kind belongs in museums.” Evidence has it that he knew Florine Stettheimer and Marcel Duchamp rather well. Mr. Thomson’s favorite paint­ing, however, is by an artist less well-­known, Christian Berard. It is of a saltim­banque. “It moves around the canvas. A good picture shouldn’t be too stuck there.” He also likes a more recent sculpture that looks like a flower made of congealed brown paper bags. It is about five feet high, like Mr. Thomson, and it stands its twisted stand at the entrance to the living room. “The process by which this was made is the same process used to dip babies’ shoes. You know, when they are bronzed as souvenirs.”

He is equivocal about the Chelsea’s management. “They have to give you a minimum of service and they do. All hotel service everywhere is economized and ab­breviated. It’s easy to make the bed. A young man comes to work for me in the mornings and he takes the right side, I take the left, and poof, it’s done. I don’t wriggle much in bed. That’s a sign of age. The young tend to destroy their beds every night.”

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“The people I associate with here are mostly older people or others trained clas­sically to music.” But he remembers Janis Joplin, whom he “would nod to, in a friendly manner, in the elevator. She had a wonderful dirty voice. The finest dirty vocal tones I’ve ever heard.”

Some of the overflow of Virgil Thom­son’s art collection can be found in Gerald Busby’s apartment. Busby is custodian to a smaller relative of the paper-bag flower, and to several paintings by an artist Mr. Thomson describes as “a little French criminal I used to know.” Mr. Thomson’s distinct round face appears in the fore­ground of one of them. Gerald Busby is in his late thirties and was trained classically in music. “I share a birthday with Brahms,” he says.

“My first job in New York (after leav­ing Texas) was as organist to a congrega­tion of Methodist alcoholics. I wrote the score for Robert Altman’s movie, Three Women, and Altman gave me a small part, the part of the alcoholic Baptist minister, in A Wedding. This sort of thing happens to you when you’re from the South.” Laundry comes through the door. A housepainter leaves the kitchen. John Cheever calls to talk about Robert Altman. A friend arrives; they are going to a screening.

“It’s been fun living here. Whatever new goes on in the city can sooner or later be had here. There are always all sorts of rumors flying round here. I heard once about being able to order drugs through room service, but I’ve never tried it so I’ve no idea about any truth to it.”

It seems unlikely. Room service is vir­tually nonexistent, although Isabella Gardner says, “One can make arrangements with the bellmen.” Other rumors, however, are grounded. In October 1974 The New York Times ran an article which stated that “two gunmen held ten men and five women hostage for more than two hours at the Chelsea Hotel.” Jim Pasternak: “They were pimps, big dudes in white hats who had a floating crap game at the Chelsea on Saturday nights. Ap­parently two other pimps came over from Queens to make trouble:” Virgil Thomson: “I’ve lived in Kansas City and Paris, which are the great centers of sin and corruption, so I was neither shocked nor vastly entertained by small time dope selling or gambling. You know, at my advanced age I’m not that interested in gang-bangs, but they do have them around.”

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Other rumors concern fires at the Chelsea, of which there have been several. Pasternak says, “A big one two years ago was started by an enraged woman who set fire to her lover’s trousers. He was not in them at the time, but another young man — I believe he had a weak heart — died from the fumes.”

“I could hear the desk clerk and the bellboy pounding up the stairs,” William S. Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch, “I took the self-service elevator down, walked through the empty lobby into the street. It was a beautiful Indian Summer Day… I had to stock up on junk fast… I took a taxi to Washington Square, got out and walked along 4th Street till I spotted Nick on the corner. You can always spot the pusher.”

Jim Pasternak: “We mostly have crimes of passion here. Viva, in the days when I first moved here, had some spec­tacular lovers’ quarrels. One morning while sitting at my desk working, I looked up and noticed a bicycle fly past my window. I guess she couldn’t throw him out the window, so the bicycle was the next best thing. People are also very fond of their animals here. During the fire a while back, everyone gathered in the lobby with their pets. It was like a family reunion. A few people actually admitted to having grabbed their animal before their loved one.”

George Kleinsinger, who wrote the mu­sical Archie and Mehitabel, about the love between a cockroach and an ally cat, has a cat named Mehitabel. “My skunk bit my second wife, dear Kate, then it made the mistake of biting me and I had to get rid of it.” Mud, trees, turtles, canaries, parakeets, finches, aquariums, an incubator, and “a nuclear family of ring­necked doves (including eggs) who love each other very much” remain. A black baby-grand piano and tape machines take up what remains of the studio.

“I moved to the Chelsea 20 years ago, dear one, to escape Roslyn, Long Island. Suburbia! I leave the Chelsea only when I go to St. Thomas. I love, love, love the tropics. I love to have sex many times during the day. I love love.”

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When his friend Brendan Behan died, he composed an elegy that includes an insert of Behan’s singing. “Yes, yes dear one, I recorded Brendan right here. After a bit of drinking, dear Brendan would come here and sing, sing, sing. All that drinking and singing, he was a big bore really. I drink too much too, dear one, but the Irish and the Jews have a lot in com­mon. But I’m not an alcoholic… because I’m Jewish.”

“My girl left me last night to go to Australia and I hate to be alone, dear one, and a fellow from downstairs came up here and offered me his girl for an hour for $50. They needed the $50 but I felt terrible. Instead, I told him they could both spend the night on my floor — they had run out of money, you see, and had no place to stay. So all night long, I got up to tuck the blankets around them. I was afraid they would catch cold.”

•••

Don Quixotes of plaster, Don Quixotes of steel, wood-carved Panzas, plastic Dulcineas people the bar of El Quijote. The wall facing the bar is a dusky mural of scenes from Cervantes. The kitchen door is canopied with three-dimensional cut-outs, Disney-colored. Accessible from both street and lobby, El Quijote is a collision-ground of sensibilities: Grand ladies of the Chelsea, at banquettes, gloves poised on white linen, might as easily be in Schrafft’s.

•••

One woozie Dulcinea, wearing several Christmas ornaments, French, named Jacki, weaves into the lobby with soup in a take-out coffee container. “I have lost my dog. Mon chien. He was very beau­tiful. Where is my chien? I cannot find heeeem.” She sits on one of the gargoyle benches and slurps for a moment. Two beefy teenaged boys walk in. They seem shy. Jacki spots them, shrieks, and throws a gartered leg over the nearest gargoyle and singsongs, “We are putanas, we are putanas, boys, how you like that we are putanas.” The two scan each other and hotfoot it out of the lobby.

Jim Pasternak: “It’s very easy to drift and get all whacked out at the Chelsea.” The year before last a young art historian did more than get whacked out. Another tenant says, “Please don’t say who I am, but I knew him when he first came to the Chelsea. He was straight as a board. He dressed like an accountant — three-piece-­suits, the whole bit. But then he changed completely. He wore leather all the time and never had any money. And when he couldn’t pay the rent, he’d sleep in the lobby or if he heard of a vacant room, he’d climb into it from one of the balconies. I told Stanley [Bard] that he belonged in a hospital, or at least with his family. May­be if he had been kicked out of here he would have gone to his brother’s in Brooklyn. I was very fond of him. He was someone special. Well, one morning I opened my window to check the weather and when I looked down I saw him lying next to his brains, on the parapet just below me. All I could say to myself was, ‘why did my eyes have to see this, why!’ ”

Gert Schiff, a professor of art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, moved away from the Chelsea at about that time. He had lived there for 13 years, “I had had enough. I love it there, but I had had enough of the punks and junkies. It is true that people always find something to grouse about. In the ’60s they groused about the ‘hippie invasion.’ The older ones get cranky about newcomers, but this bunch seems particularly sordid.”

A man of about 30 is in the lobby in pajamas. He has been there for over a half­-hour talking to a stray kitten. He is Brit­ish. “You know, I really came down here because I ran out of cigarettes, but don’t you find this to be an unusually lovely kitten? Kitty, I would love to take you home with me, but I just can’t. I already have a kitty and my kitty doesn’t like other kittens very much. This hotel’s real­ly quite wonderful you know. Every morn­ing I am awakened by the sound of Mr. Kleinsinger’s birdies.”

Angus Wallace, also British, is “sort of an entrepreneur of the avant-garde.” He no longer lives at the Chelsea, but people don’t really leave — they become alumni. “I went to Summerhill as a child and think I was very changed by it, you know. The Chelsea reminded me a lot of Sum­merhill. The same sort of freedom. The same sense of waking up in the morning knowing that you have to build your life, and that no one can do it for you. The Squat Theatre — I was managing them — ­came to the Chelsea when they first arrived in New York. In fact — for better or worse — I think the Chelsea gave them their first clear picture of New York, of America really. They had a goat with them, for one of their plays, and kids and all, and they were permitted to keep their goat tethered up on the roof. It was sum­mer then, of course. But anyway, I’ve stayed at the Chelsea when I’ve really been down and out. No money at all. And Stanley Bard was extraordinarily good about that. He was really very patient and didn’t press me at all. I knew someone at the Chelsea — he was a very famous fash­ion designer and a good friend of mine when I lived there; his name was Charles James. And, well, I supposed he had come upon hard times. Now that he’s dead I don’t suppose there’s harm in mentioning that I don’t believe he paid any rent for something like twelve years.”

“Poor Charlie James,” says Mildred Baker. “He was really quite alone, I’m afraid, by the time he died. The poor man fought with everyone.” “Poor Charlie,” says Richard Bernstein, a commercial ar­tist who keeps a studio at the Chelsea, “was hustled all his life. And now some of the people who hustled him are putting up a plaque in his honor. I’m sick of the romance of the Chelsea. They’re always making heroes of pretty sad cases.”

Susan Sontag once wrote that “for the modern consciousness, the artist (replac­ing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer.” And in fact the Chelsea does sell a rather morbid Romance. But it would be unjust to give a damning send-off. We need the Chelsea. It stands for the rebel, the roman­tic, the freak in us all. Brendan Behan put it more simply: “There is more space in the Hotel Chelsea than in the whole of Staten Island.” ■

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The Wonderful World of the White Horse

West Village I: The Wonderful World of the White Horse
June 22, 1961

The young man fresh out of Dartmouth College left the $8-a-week room he’d just moved into on Greenwich Street and ventured into the oppressively muggy late afternoon. Although a newcomer to the West Village in that summer of 1951, he made tracks to the White Horse Tavern like an old-timer. People at Dartmouth had told him about the “The Horse.” Traditional watering-place for writers, longshoremen, Bohemians, pub crawlers, socialists, and just-plain-drunks, it was the kind of scene he’d dreamed of.

“Dartmouth” looked around at the West Village as he marched along, taking in the grimy streets, the weary brownstones, and tenements, the massive brick warehouses. There was something backwaterish about the neighborhood, tired. Looking on down 11th Street past the NY Central elevated line, then the elevated West Side Highway, he spied the ramshackle docks. They seemed lifeless too. The whole scene reminded him of the arid, yellowish-brown desolation of a 1930s Depression painting. But it was quiet. And quiet — plus cheaper rents — was why he’d chosen the neighborhood over the rest of the Village.

As a matter of fact, that quiet was symptomatic of what had happened to the West Village since its raucous, teeming Irish immigration days. By 1951, those dozen or so historic blocks extending from Hudson Street to the North River, and from Leroy up to Gansevoort, were so much at ebb tide the city had long before marked them as a blighted area. Not that they really were slums. But the city makes strange distinctions, and though Dartmouth didn’t know it, the redevelopment axe hung heavy over his new home as he walked along that day.

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Summer Commandoes

On the corner, the afternoon picked up. Three neighborhood Irish kids in ragged clothes and 25-cent haircuts popped up like summer commandoes from behind a line of rusty garbage cans. They took one look at Dartmouth’s Brooks jacket, his button-down shirt and rep tie, and squawked, “Hey, faggot, why don’cha go back to Ha’vard!”

Dartmouth winced. But he never looked back as a shower of stones whistled demonically past his ears.

And then he fronted the White Horse on Hudson and 11th. Multicolored with checkered trim, ship-shape square, it emitted a low drone of talk from its open door. This was Dartmouth’s big moment. He was landing on Bohemia’s shores after four dry years in New Hampshire. Man!

Inside, the Horse was gloomy but cool. Dark was the ornate wood paneling, with saloon-Victorian lamps, decorated by tiny horse heads hanging down from the ceiling. An English pub, no less! The heavy, old-fashioned bar was crowded with men, most of them in sweaty work clothes with ILA buttons on their caps. In the adjacent backroom a few other people, including a man with a Smith Brothers beard, poked at chessboards.

A Navy Vet

The men were making one hell of a noise. An elderly man they called “Ernie,” with a great white towel around his expansive midriff, shoved beer at them by the gallon. Timidly Dartmouth joined the men, feeling conspicuous in his Brooks clothes. He was. A stocky, red-faced type, with shirt sleeves rolled over his knotty, proletarian arms, frowned and muttered something as the young man nudged by him. Dartmouth felt uneasy. But what the hell, 18 months in the Navy had put some muscle on him too (it was tough in Philly in ’46 mothballing those destroyers and inventorying 3 million bars of soap).

He ordered what the longshoremen were drinking — half-light, half-dark beer — and drained his thick white mug. The frowning man was looking him up and down. Only the frown had pulled down to a scowl of gale force 10. Dartmouth belted another ’alf and ’alf. Courage, as it does occasionally to all men, came to him. The scowler tacked unsteadily alongside, his breath that of a hundred hop-fat breweries. “Hey,” he said.

Dartmouth refused to acknowledge the battered face glowing there in Heinz-tomato ripeness.

“Hey. Hey you, necktie,” the sodden voice persisted.

Slowly Dartmouth turned to his antagonist.

“You wanna know sumpin? Used to be guys like you never come in here. Now you’re on the joint like flies. You’re ruinin’ the place. Why don’t you go back uptown?”

Dartmouth was getting mad. Which was unfortunate.

“Hey,” the scowler persisted. “I’m the kinna guy belongs here. I belong in this part of Green-witch Village, not you.” Suddenly his face beamed with pride. “You know why? I’m a sailor. A ship’s engineer.”

“A ship’s engineer,” Dartmouth grinned coldly. “Well, where’s your engine?”

Goodnight, Sweet Dartmouth. When flights of 6th Precinct cops have borne you to your rest at St. Vincent’s you will be glad to learn the jaw was not broken — only badly bent.

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No Outsiders

Those were the breaks in 1951. The West Village could still brawl once in a while, and the longshoremen, truck drivers, or white collar folk (many of Irish descent) whose families had lived around there since the 1870s and ’80s, just didn’t take to outsiders. The ship’s engineer who clobbered Dartmouth was an extreme, of course, and his aggressive kind were usually kept in line by Ernie Wohlleben, the man who ran the Horse for nearly five decades. But once in a while things did get out of hand.

The Horse had already gone through whole phases of West Village history — even by 1951. And because it was such a durable pub, it reflected those changes about as readily as any popular neighborhood bar does. A longshore hangout since the ’80s, it survived the roughest days of what was known as the American Ward, when the Hudson Dusters gang used to pick fights with its customers and occasionally break the windows. Another indication of how solid a part of the community the Horse was by the end of World War I was the effect Prohibition had on it — that is, damn little effect!

In the late ’30s, the Horse again reflected changing times, but entertaining left-wingers in its backroom. Singing of radical songs became a nightly procedure back then, and though Ernie was a patient man, when the lyrics got around to bomb-tossing and unfettering of chains he got annoyed. “Listen,” he said to the radicals one night, “can’t you sing those songs as much as possible in some foreign language?”

Literature Moves In

After the Second World War, the Horse stated going literary. And it was Dylan Thomas, of course, who gave the joint such poetic class. Thomas used to stop while on U.S. lecture tours, bringing a whole coterie of admirers with him. It is often said he took his last drink there, before dying in late 1953. But the Horse was still no intellectual spa. A day or so after Thomas died, somebody passed the hat for his widow.

“Thomas. Who’s he?” a longshoreman wanted to know.

“Some drunk who used to ball it up in here,” his companion enlightened him.

Around the same time, a series of Sunday afternoon literary-political discussions started in the backroom. Norman Mailer, Calder Willingham, Oscar Williams, Vance Bourjaily — these were a few who held forth, sometimes by the hour. But the discussion tended to wander, the afternoons to get longer, and finally the whole thing fizzled out. “We wanted to transplant ideas, but we picked the wrong hothouse,” a participant said later.

So the White Horse changed. As more and more people like Dartmouth discovered the West Village, so the balance of population shifted from the Gaelic. The area was removed from the slum map in 1954 and renovations started. Rent went up. Dartmouth, by the way, had made it into a $110-a-month two-room garden job by 1955. But there were certain old-time elements in those blocks who resented this invasion. Some had good reason too, for they were losing their apartments to renovators. When property started getting scarce, a longshoreman earning $5,000 a year is hard put to compete for space with a copywriter pulling down $8,000.

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McCarthy Evenings

Politics reared its ghoulish head too. That was during the McCarthy hearings. Some patriotic West Villagers who approved of “good old Joe” decided the people who congregated at the White Horse must be Communists, atheists, or fags. They were different, weren’t they? So fights started in the streets. Then one night a bunch of these stalwarts invaded the Horse smashing beer mugs over peoples heads and kicking in the front windows. Minor variations of this took place all through that time. Diplomatic Ernie tried smoothing things over, but only when the draft grabbed the McCarthyites and directed their hostility toward North Koreans did the tensions ease off.

Other Voices, Other Bars

To return to friend Dartmouth. By the late ’50s, he was a big man in the Horse. Everybody called him by his first name, and the owners let him keep a tab. But ingrate that he was, he took to wandering to other pubs for variety. Up to El Faro on Greenwich and Horatio, he drank and played Lola Florez records on the jukebox. Back down on Greenwich and Perry, it was the poetry readings at the International Bar that caught his attention for awhile. Sitting alongside longshoremen, writers, and anyone else who drifted in, he listened to Bridget Murnaghan and the others by the hour. The International, too, had its hour of poetry before lapsing into somnolence.

Sometimes Dartmouth missed sitting and having a drink with the Irish. They’d been vanishing slowly from the Horse (some of them from the West Village altogether). He found them still, in the Cathedral Bar on Christopher, or in the waterfront Foc’s’cle with its sailors from Norway, truckers from Tulsa, and its star character, Popeye. Popeye, who loves the hop, gets so full of it he takes to directing traffic on West Street. He has three whistles for his work — a giant blaster for trucks, and average tweeter for cars, and a tiny peeper for jeeps and scooters. “I’m a federal traffic expert,” Popeye hollers as a truck driver in a 10-ton semi glares down at him. “President Kennedy just gave me sleeping privileges in the Red Ball trucks.”

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‘Horse’ Today

And what of Dartmouth’s Horse today? Although many of the longshoremen have gone, writers, painters, editors still gravitate there. The poet in residence is Delmore Schwarz. But college kids literally pack the place on weekends, and its nearly impossible to find a place to sit down. In the backroom, Socialists, like Mike Harrington, discuss the world but don’t cut loose with the radical songs anymore. They folksinging crowd which had come in over the the past few years makes all the racket now. The indomitable Clancy Brothers, Logan English, and others sing of their ethnic backgrounds until the little room rocks. They have displaced politics.

Dartmouth can’t stand the singing. He can’t stand the outsiders either, or the weekend crowds. “It isn’t the same,” you can hear him griping, “you should have seen it 10 years ago. Real people then!” And he’s become a loyal West Villager too. With the people once again thinking of redeveloping the neighborhood (it has improved tremendously in 10 years), he’s ready to man the barricades against the Planning Commission. Just ask him the next time you’re in the Horse. He’ll grab you by the shirt, back you against the old grandfather clock, and tell you what a great place his neighborhood is by the hour.

 

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Mossa Bildner & Phil Gibbs

This duo’s improvisational take on the poetry of Dylan Thomas is noteworthy for introducing the dazzling British guitarist Phil Gibbs (who performs in another configuration at Brooklyn’s Shapeshifter Lab on Tuesday) to New York audiences. A shredding comproviser with a style somewhere between John McLaughlin and Derek Bailey, Gibbs is highly regarded for his collaborations with saxophonist Paul Dunmall, and free-improv connoisseurs will want to catch at least one of his six local dates.

Sun., Oct. 28, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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POEM PICS

Conceived in 1951 by Peter Grippe, director of renowned graphic-arts workshop Atelier 17, 21 Etchings and Poems was published in 1960, an era of collaborative ferment between artists and writers. (Painter Alfred Leslie’s multi-contributor compendium of art and text, The Hasty Papers, was also released that year.) A painter and sculptor as well as a printmaker, Grippe etched an intense graphic replete with mushroom cloud for Dylan Thomas’s “The hand that signed the paper felled a city,” while Franz Kline’s slashing abstraction starkly complements Frank O’Hara’s succinctly titled “Poem.” This exhibition includes all 21 etchings, and though Ben Nicholson’s image for Sir Herbert Read’s “Tenement” was printed sideways, the lithe cubist line work overpowers the publisher’s mistake.

Sat., March 3, 6:30 p.m.; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: March 3. Continues through April 29, 2012

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A Dance to Jules Feiffer

When Jules Feiffer was still “a kid, hanging out in the Village,” he says, “unemployed and unemployable, without the weekly cartoon in the Voice,” he met a young woman who would sleep with him. She was a modern dancer.

So besides revivals at the Thalia and nights at the White Horse hoping Dylan Thomas would drop by, he joined his girlfriend in churches and basements for dance concerts. “These were young bohemians in their first recitals,” Feiffer, now 82, recalls. “The dancers would feel compelled to explain what you were about to see. What was amusing to me was the contradiction between the way they danced, which was full of exuberance because they were young, and the message they were conveying, which was that we are all about to die.”

When the Voice hired him a few years later, in 1956, he included a Dancer character among his inky clan of neurotic explainers. Clad in the period uniform of black feetless tights and black leotard, she leapt from one improbable position to another while intoning an ode to summer (“In this dance I symbolize the desire to escape … from all the inadequate pleasures”) or the end of summer (“The solstice in its declension … and insect repellant, gathered in an organic unity”) or revolution in the streets.

Over the decades, she grew more political and less buxom (at first her boobs had a choreographic mind of their own), but she never made it onto celluloid—trans-formed like Superman into a live action figure! Until now.

This Saturday, July 9, Judy Dennis’s shorts To Spring, To Art, To the Loss of Innocence, and to other milestones premiere at the World Financial Center as part of the River to River Festival. The six two-minute films—each playing on its own screen in a continuous loop from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. for nine days—are meant to be stumbled upon the way you would a strip in the newspaper: serendipitously.

Before an edgeless, sky-colored backdrop that reflects the nowhere and anywhere of the blank page Feiffer set his characters against, the dances imagine the steps between the cartoon cells without flattening the Dancer’s trademark ups and downs of fortune and mood. To conjure the homemade feel of Feiffer’s lines, the camera resists any flashy maneuvers. We see the Dancer (the statuesque and radiant Andrea Weber) from head to toe as she lunges, twirls, and deflates to her own quizzical thoughts (voiced by actress Jennifer Dundas) or to jazz composer Jane Ira Bloom’s pleasingly casual riffs.

Feiffer is so moved by the films, which he gave his blessing to but did not meddle in, that he “can’t even talk about it,” he says—and doesn’t for several seconds. Eventually he explains, “They translated my cartoon dancer into both cartoon and something very poetic and very real, with its own sweetness and innocence.” But they kept his wit. Anyone who has ever wondered if modern dance would be better off with supertitles will giggle over a dancer who backs up her every random and extravagant move with a whole paragraph of exposition. And anyone else—who knows how little dance and talk have in common—will appreciate the goofy aplomb with which the Dancer exposes the art form’s naïve hopes and pretensions.

Susan Marshall, one of the films’ two choreographers, encountered Feiffer’s Dancer upon moving to New York in the early ’80s and “loved her, I always loved her,” she says. “She captures this great desire to express that young dancers especially have. And what shape that takes is almost irrelevant because the dance means what she wants it to mean because she feels it so deeply.” The choreographer laughs. “Dance is not the medium for abstract thought, and the fact that she feels she can express this stuff is deeply charming. That’s the comedy.”

No one left interpretative dance farther behind than Merce Cunningham, and yet Weber, an eight-year veteran of the Cunningham troupe, identifies completely with Feiffer’s creation. “It’s so funny how often I think about steps as I traipse around New York” working out her feelings and adversity to the world. “Feiffer really got that about a dancer’s spirit.”

Larry Keigwin, who choreographed two of the films as well as the upcoming revival of Rent, recognizes himself in the Dancer, too. “She’s so funny. There’s a sheer joy that can be really funny. She gets so passionate about her story that it overcomes her and she has to dance.”

And what would she have to dance about today, I ask Feiffer. His answer comes quick: “The loss of America.” We have become “a series of tribes living under the same roof.”

Still, she would be dancing: “Implicit in her very existence is a desperate clinging to hope,” he says. “However much she is smashed to the ground, she rises and dances all over again.”

In addition to the Dancer Films (July 9–17), the World Financial Center will host an exhibition of Dancer cartoons and watercolors (through August 14) and a Dance-In (July 10 at 2 p.m.), with Andrea Weber and Jules Feiffer, rivertorivernyc.com

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A Martha Graham Masterwork Revived at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Plus a Little Robert Wilson

One great theme haunts many of Martha Graham’s dances: The hero-artist must descend into the depths, struggle with demons, and experience a kind of death in order to emerge fully powerful and enlightened. A phrase in a John Donne sermon, “Our issue in death shall be an entrance into everlasting life,” gave Dylan Thomas the name of his wartime poem “Deaths and Entrances,” a title shared by Graham’s epochal 1943 dance.

The heroine of this rarely seen masterwork, revived for the company’s 85th-anniversary season last week, is one of three sisters (as was Graham). Graham found her surrogate in Emily Brontë and structured the events in Deaths and Entrances as fleeting dreams and memories that both invite and discourage conventional interpretation. The dark house conveyed by Arch Lauterer’s fragmentary set and Hunter Johnson’s haunting score is alive with comings and goings. Only the main character (Miki Orihara, in a stunningly eloquent performance) never leaves the stage.

Her encounters with her rivalrous sisters (Katherine Crockett and Blakeley White-McGuire) and with two men identified as the Dark Beloved (Maurizio Nardi) and the Poetic Beloved (Tadej Brdnik) seem ignited by the sight of various objects (two chess pieces, a vase, a shell, two white urns, a blue goblet) that are brought in and taken away by the dancers billed as “The Three Remembered Children.” Two other men pass through—at one point joining a ballroom dance of changing partners that makes the women’s long silk gowns swirl and subside.

Deaths and Entrances begins with the three sisters making challenging moves with the chessmen and ends with Orihara triumphantly placing the goblet on the board and the other women falling back, thunderstruck. The only plot is the simmering of the heroine’s mind; she may slide from Nardi’s domineering grip to nestle against Brdnik (both excellent), but she’s not choosing between them. All that she envisions drives her into a hair-raising solo in which she both skips like a child and wrenches herself into distortions that signal a descent into madness. Through that “death,” she assumes control of her life.

Ever since Graham died in 1991, her company, now directed by Janet Eilber, has had to commission new works that complement hers; it also strives to make her towering works user-friendly through devices like pre-performance speeches. Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s Chasing, a world premiere, might also be called Chaser, as if we needed a few gulps of happy frolicking to cleanse our palates of the deep taste of Deaths and Entrances. Chasing was intended to allude to elements of the 1943 work, but the main connection is a riot of entrances and exits by six jokey, sportily clad people. See Brdnik as a cigar-chomping comic! See Nardi get sunny! See White-McGuire get kissed! Deaths and Entrances was edited slightly to make room for this discouraging piece. The payoff? In the words of a man heading for the elevator after the show: “They seem like a fun group.”

The theme of referencing Martha ran through the first two nights and included Graham’s enjoyably silly comment on herself, Maple Leaf Rag (1990), and Robert Wilson’s 1995 Snow on the Mesa, a gorgeous and visually immaculate pageant of images drawn from Graham’s work and life. Musical selections by Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee allude to Asian theater influences on her work. Sound effects and Wilson’s always stunning interplay of light and color incite—or are incited by—the dancers’ movements. Watching Snow on the Mesa is like seeing Graham fragments in slow motion or as tableaux embedded in ice; afterward, you remember how they looked, not all that they once conveyed. Symbols abound. Coyote heads hint at Graham’s interest in the Southwest. Coyly seductive Xiaochuan Xie—wearing a slim, ankle-length white skirt and one of costume designer Donna Karan’s seminude tops—has to traverse a very long white bench to tempt or tangle decoratively with Brdnik in “Shaker Duet.”

There are arresting visions like “Ghost Walkers” with long, white, fabric beards. Wild-haired Carrie Ellmore Tallitsch performs a furiously sexy solo with a snake grasped between her teeth. In group passages, arms and legs angling in different directions create elegant designs. Red-gowned Crockett, channeling Graham, drains a long-stemmed glass and reclines to deliver a speech about her memory-crowded mind.

Speaking of snakes, one of the few flaws in White-McGuire’s virtuosic performance as the crazed Medea in Graham’s 1946 Cave of the Heart is her inability to make us believe that she is devouring the red cloth snake of jealousy that she draws from her bosom. And Xie’s smug smile robs Medea’s innocent, doomed rival of her innocence. Crockett, however, gives a wonderfully rich and complex performance as the Chorus who comments on the tragedy that Graham unfolds in Cave with such uncanny and imaginative theatricality. In fact, the whole company is dancing superbly. Me, I don’t give a damn whether they’re a “fun group” or not.

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GET A ROOM

Oh, if only the walls of the Hotel Chelsea could talk. Many legendary characters have checked in to this historic hotel, including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Arthur Miller—and some never checked out (the poet Dylan Thomas and, famously, Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, both died there). But, apparently, the one thing that has never happened in any of the hotel’s suites is a play: Pale Fire Productions now presents Room #103, Hotel Chelsea, set inside the room that features the actual bathroom where Sid allegedly killed Nancy. Director-writer James Veitch’s site-specific show, which is centered on Thomas’s life and his alcohol-fueled demise, also features drop-ins from hotel guests such as Janis Joplin and Jack Kerouac.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 & 9 p.m. Starts: March 18. Continues through March 27, 2010

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The Edge of Love Teeters into Period Genre Trap

No longer weighted down by the perukes she had to wear in The Duchess, Keira Knightley returns to the simpler chignons of Atonement in another World War II-set prestige piece with a starchy literary pedigree-this one scripted by her mum, Sharman MacDonald. Knightley sings and affects a Welsh whisper as Vera, a childhood friend of Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys, the gay sib on Brothers and Sisters), who meets up with the pickled poet in London during the Blitz. When Thomas’s even more aggro spouse, Caitlin (Sienna Miller, in a role originally attached to Lindsay Lohan), arrives, Vera opens her flat to the couple, and the trio becomes one big cuddle-puddle. Adding a fourth wheel, Vera hastily marries stoic soldier William (Cillian Murphy); while he’s fighting in Greece, the threesome decamp to adjoining cottages in Wales. Director John Maybury showed a defter hand with the artist biopic in his 1998 Francis Bacon film, Love Is the Devil. Here, he repeatedly falls into the genre’s traps, creating an inert, claustrophobic movie in which the constant sound of inhaled cigarette smoke is as showboaty as Rhys murmuring Thomas’s poetry and Murphy’s shell-shock. Occasionally, Angelo Badalamenti’s fine score will pleasantly remind you of Mulholland Drive. Knightley and Miller’s pseudo-sapphic tub-splashing will not.

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Listings


WEDNESDAY

NOVEMBER 5


Art

NANCY SPERO

“The War Series 1966-70” is nearly 40 years old, but its watery images on paper are absolutely consequential—and timely. The groundbreaking series that Spero called “manifestoes against our incursion into Vietnam, a personal attempt at exorcism” is multivalent, scatological, horrific, and spiritual: The malevolent helicopters, spurting heads, bomb angels, and scrawny eagles impaled on swastikas are barely there but perfectly calibrated. LEVIN

Through December 6, Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, 212.315.0470

Film

‘THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS’

Don’t go expecting the secret of the universe. Title notwithstanding, the saga has devolved from metaphysical migraine to action spectacular—not necessarily a bad thing. Once Matrix Revolutions locks and loads for Zion’s last stand, the mayhem is even more shamelessly aesthetic, not to mention abstract, than in Kill Bill. Sensational graphics short-circuit anything resembling abstract thought. HOBERMAN

Opens today

Music

‘CALI COMM. 2003’

Lyrics Born, of Latyrx, brings complex melody to delicate, dense lyricism on his solo debut, Later That Day. Abstract Rude, a homie of Aceyalone’s, is one of the L.A. underground’s great unheralded talents, but the gem here is his city-mate Pigeon John, a sing-rapper with a heavy dose of self-doubt and a sly spiritual streak—peep his excellent new album, Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister. With the insipid Ugly Duckling and Grouch & Eligh, of the Bay Area survivors Living Legends. CARAMANICA

At 8, S.O.B.’s, 204 Varick Street, 212.243.4940

TOM HARRELL QUARTET

He can swing as hard as anyone and maintain a lilting lyricism that, combined with his frequent brashness, may, at times, remind you of the sainted Clifford Brown. His quintet is tight as a drum and features saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Quincy Davis. GIDDINS

Through Sunday at 9 and 11, Saturday also at 12:30 a.m., Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, 212.255.4037

 

SHELBY LYNNE

Anna Montgomery and Steve Conn open for early show only. Shelby Lynne’s last album—Love, Shelby, produced by MOR-man Glen Ballard—wasn’t the unmitigated failure critics entranced by her surprise 2000 comeback wrote it off as. She still wrote a mean lyric and sang it with heart. For the haters, though, her new album, Identity Crisis—a broad collection of roots music, embracing everything from country to gospel—should beguile. So there. CARAMANICA

Today and Thursday at 6:30 and 9:30, Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.539.8770

PREFUSE 73+BEANS+DABRYE

A better post-rap lineup you will not see this year, or next. Prefuse 73 is the breakbeat-happy project of Atlanta’s Scott Herren (his new mood album as Savath + Savalas is pure genius), the alias he uses when producing for MF Doom or Aesop Rock. Dabrye reps for Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International (and moonlights as an Amen destroyer on Rewind) and makes stunning, broken hip-hop. Both beatmakers would be perfect partners with Beans (formerly of Anti-Pop Consortium): He raps like they produce. With Def Jux’s Shadow-alike RJD2. CARAMANICA

At 8, Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 212.533.2111; Saturday at 9, Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.230.0236

PAULA WEST

The impressive contralto, who breathes dotted whole notes just to warm up, continues to affirm her jazz standing—and, once again, with the Eric Reed Trio, no less. She’s got a terrific ear for songs that time has forgotten, warm timbre, dependable pitch, and relaxed rhythmic feeling. GIDDINS

Today, Thursday, and Tuesday at 9, Friday and Saturday at 9 and 11:30, through November 15, Algonquin Hotel Oak Room, 59 West 44th Street, 212.840.6800

Photo

ADAM FUSS

Never one to shy away from big issues, Fuss takes on life and death in this ambitious show. One room contains 103 snapshots of Fuss as a child reproduced as enameled oval gravestone cameos; another, 14 daguerreotypes of human skulls, the mirrored surfaces of which bring viewers right into the frame for an unexpected postmortem dialogue. A life-size, silhouetted silver figure with an erection is the show’s ruling satyr, saluting life amid the elegant memento mori. ALETTI

Through November 15, Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, 212.242.7727

Theater

‘PRIVATE JOKES, PUBLIC PLACES’

“Dancing about architecture” is a stock phrase for writing about the inexpressible. But something like it may actually take place in Oren Safdie’s satirical drama about a controversy over a student’s thesis project for a public swimming pool. Praised Off-Off, it’s moving to an Off-Broadway run, with Rent‘s Anthony Rapp now heading the cast. Call it Commedia dell’Architettura, maybe. FEINGOLD

Opens today, Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place, 212.239.6200

 


THURSDAY

NOVEMBER 6


Dance

ROSEANNE SPRADLIN DANCE

This Oklahoma native won a Bessie in September for under/world, a 40-minute trio that plumbed sexuality, body politics, and ritualistic behavior, to music by Gavin Bryars and Kenneth Atchley. You can see that and the brand-new duet Rearrangement (or a Spell for Mortals), which has a new score played live by composer Atchley. ZIMMER

[

At 8, and Friday and Saturday, and November 13 through 15, the Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, 212.255.5793, ext. 11

Film

‘MARGARET MEAD FILM & VIDEO FESTIVAL’

This annual event pushes the definition of documentary to the limit. Subjects range from genital mutilation in Kenya to soccer in Iran to the search for footage of Pancho Villa; there are portraits of avant-garde actor Joe Chaikin and Guyanese leader Janet Jagan and a new old film by Bill Morrison. HOBERMAN

Through Sunday and November 15 and 16, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West and 79th Street, 212.769.5200

Music

LYLE LOVETT

Personal turmoil’s brought Lyle’s themes closer to home in his first new songs in seven years. They tend toward the upbeat and nearly danceable, not the famously quirky and sardonic—with a higher percentage of outright honky-tonk and western swing than he’s offered since his first records, labeled “country.” His longtime core band will be on hand to do the fine new twang and pop true justice. MAZOR

At 8, Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, 881 Seventh Avenue, 212.903.9600

Theater

‘THE LADY NEXT DOOR’

A love affair between neighbors leads to increasing complications in Leon Kobrin’s 1916 comedy. If that sounds like the setup for a British farce comedy, you know what they say: Think British, speak Yiddish. The latter is precisely the language Kobrin wrote in, and that’s how the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater plays it, under Allen Lewis Rickman’s direction. Relax—they’ve got supertitles. So go already and laugh a little. FEINGOLD

Opens today, Jewish Community Center, 334 Amsterdam Avenue, 212.239.6200

 


FRIDAY

NOVEMBER 7


Art

CHRISTINE HILL

In her last exhibition, Hill produced and hosted a TV talk show. For her current venture—the latest incarnation of Volksboutique—the entrepreneurial artist performs office tasks, develops products, and mans the reception desk in a fragmentary old-fashioned “Home Office,” replete with wainscoting, wallpaper, steamer trunks, ledger books, and other irresistible vintage details. Is it art as life or social sculpture as theater? She calls it “an exercise in labor.” LEVIN

Through November 15, Ronald Feldman, 31 Mercer Street, 212.226.3232

Film

‘ANOTHER RUSSIA: A TRIBUTE TO LENFILM STUDIOS’

The Soviet off-Moscow studio provided a home for many less conventional filmmakers—notably the “eccentricist” team of Kozintsev and Trauberg, Alexei Guerman, and Alexandr Sokurov, during the silent period, the ’60s “thaw,” and the days of perestroika. This 30-film tribute spans 75 years, from rediscovered silents to Sokurov’s latest, Father and Son. HOBERMAN

Through December 4, Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, 212.875.5600

‘IN MY SKIN’

In Marina de Van’s body-horror tour de force—easily the year’s best debut feature—self-mutilation is not (as in so many other movies) a self-esteem issue but an expression of existential panic and extreme corporeal alienation. Witty, beautiful, terrifying, at times almost unwatchable, it’s as gruesome and inspired a riff on the mind-body split as we’ve ever seen outside the Cronenberg oeuvre. LIM

Opens today, Angelika, Houston and Mercer streets, 212.777.FILM

Music

BOTTLE ROCKETS

After a long layoff to consider their life options, Missouri’s greatest alt-Americans have put together their sharpest album in nearly a decade, revising their lineup and folkifying their studio approach as they go. Live I bet they still boogie. Live you’ll still hang on Brian Henneman’s every word. With the Hangdogs. CHRISTGAU

At 9:30, Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.230.0236

Photo

GERARD PETRUS FIERET

There’s something alarmingly obsessive about Fieret’s ’60s portraits and nudes of young women, not the least of which is the eccentric Dutch poet-photographer’s compulsion to scrawl his signature and rubber-stamp his name all over their images. This strange need to claim and disfigure the photos—along with the ruined condition of the prints themselves—renders them fetish objects, an impression only underlined by the dark, furtive, and fiercely sexual nature of the pictures themselves. ALETTI

Through November 29, Deborah Bell, 511 West 25th Street, 212.691.3883


SATURDAY

NOVEMBER 8


Theater

‘ANNA IN THE TROPICS’

Because you always really wanted to know what might happen if somebody read Anna Karenina aloud in a cigar factory, Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play will finally hit New York, in a production from Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Director Emily Mann’s cast, headed by Jimmy Smits, includes Obie winners Priscilla Lopez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and John Ortiz. Be careful crossing the railroad tracks. FEINGOLD

In previews, opens November 16, Royale Theatre, Broadway and 45th Street, 212.239.6200

‘THE BEARD OF AVON’

If you’re one of those snobs who won’t believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, Amy Freed’s play will help to fuel your suspicions. But we sane people might have a good time at it too, given that cunning director, Doug Hughes, and a cast headed by Tim Blake Nelson as Will and Mary Louise Wilson as good Queen Bess. As Larry Hart once said, “She could not have been a prude or/She would not have been born a Tudor.” FEINGOLD

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In previews, opens November 18, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 212.239.6200

 


SUNDAY

NOVEMBER 9


Music

BLINK-182+BUBBA SPARXXX

This punk-plus-rap billing might seem a TRL-worthy novelty, but it’s way better than that: Blink’s brat-punk ethos has given way to mature emotional spills lately, and their snappy rhythms and unstudied tunefulness are thankfully still in place. Bubba’s also downplayed his novelty appeal even as he’s played up his redneck roots, and his twangy, eccentric flow is among the best the Dirty South has to offer. With the Kinison. HOARD

At 7, Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212.777.6800

KRS-ONE

You can say lots of mean things about KRS-One: He’s out of step with the genre he’s so integral to; he’s a cipher to the young people; he’s a bit senile, maybe. But here’s one bad thing you can never say: He puts on a half-assed show. His back catalog is as energizing as Jay-Z’s, and his commitment to stagecraft is damn near unmatched. CARAMANICA

At 10, S.O.B.’s, 204 Varick Street, 212.243.4940; Monday at 9, Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.230.0236

 


MONDAY

NOVEMBER 10


Books

DYLAN THOMAS: ‘RETURN JOURNEY’

The sexual impostor, dipsomaniac, brassy orator, genesis-dreaming poet laureate of incantatory lyricism is revived by fellow Welshman Bob Kingdom in his one-man show based on your man’s poems, plays, and stories. Dead at 39, Thomas nevertheless managed some of the most passionate writings in the language—raging against the dying of the light, mapping love’s contours, defying death’s dominion, and inspiring a cruelly nostalgic Don Henley hit. REIDY

At 7:30, and November 10 at 8, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 212.415.5500

Music

BELLE & SEBASTIAN

Their new DVD retrospective is smartly called Fans Only—they aspire to, and inspire, the cultish devotion enjoyed by bands much smaller than themselves, even while they aim for Great Pop Moments. Highlights of the new album: Stuart Murdoch endorses prayer in his jaded-choirboy tenor, and the whole frail ensemble rediscovers garage-rock. With mod/new wave flag-wavers My Favorite (Monday) and cello-goths Rasputina (Tuesday). WOLK

Today and Tuesday at 8, Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, 212.840.2824


TUESDAY

NOVEMBER11


Dance

BALLET HISPANICO

Take a theater in a newly built student center, turn it into a Latino cabaret, and fill it with NightClub, a world premiere in three parts conceived by artistic director Tina Ramirez and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, Alexandre Magno, and Sergio Trujillo, to music by Astor Piazzolla, Tito Puente and Pink Martini, and a mix of DJ St. Germain, Gotan Project, and XAlfonso, respectively. ZIMMER

At 8, and November 12 through 16, Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, 212.992.8484

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Bohemia on Toast

A possibly spurious anecdote the author Dawn Powell liked to relate finds a niece from Ohio declining an invitation to lunch. “I’d just love to, Aunt Dawn,” she explained, “only we’ve planned to take a tour of Greenwich Village and won’t have time to see you.” As the outraged aunt told it, “I was so startled to think I almost prevented them from seeing the mysterious Greenwich Village that I didn’t think to say, ‘But dearie, your Auntie Dawn is Greenwich Village.’ ”

Powell had a point. The novelist, playwright, diarist, critic, satirist, and all-around belletrist became synonymous with the improper bohemia of the ’30s and ’40s Village. Edmund Wilson orating, Ogden Nash snatching drinks, e.e. cummings leering at pretty poetry devotees, D.H. Lawrence’s widow pontificating, and Dylan Thomas shoving two ladies off his lap so that he might untuck his shirtfront and jig all make appearances in her diaries and letters. The novels and plays, too, run on the ample hydraulic power of martinis, gin-and-gingers, rye slugged from the bottle, or planter’s punch when something fancy was called for.

Though her work never received much acclaim in her lifetime, Powell enjoyed considerable popularity as a witty drinking companion. In fact, a casual reader of Powell could not be faulted for thinking that Greenwich Village existed solely for the purpose of raising wrists with inebriated intelligentsia. But people did actually live there, even Powell herself, whose addresses included Perry, Bank, 9th, 10th, and 12th streets, and the southernmost reaches of Fifth Avenue. By the time she rented her Perry Street digs in the early ’30s, the Village had already enjoyed several decades as a certified community of unconventionals, replete with pirate-themed bars, cutie-pie teahouses, professional eccentrics, and legions of the self-invented. Powell dwelled among (and occasionally with) them and became expert at describing just how they lived. She knew a house was not simply a home, but also personal metaphor writ large—not that Greenwich Village rooms are so very capacious. The interiors she describes in her novels serve as metonymies for their inhabitants, putting into sofa, flatware, and wallpaper terms how the occupant would most like him- or herself to be seen. And no one was better at describing how these metaphors failed—how they only accentuated the disconnect between reality and self-conception.

In The Wicked Pavilion (1954, though conceived some years earlier), for example, fading model Jerry—with the encouragement and charge account of her friend Elsie—refashions her “charming made-over brownstone” flat to land a rich man. At the close of an unsuccessful dinner party, Jerry and Elsie sit in their gowns amid the detritus. Powell writes, “The dresses and even the living room had the look of stage properties about to be packed off to the warehouse now that the play had failed. Whatever had gone wrong the fault had certainly not been with the mise-en-scène. . . .

“The wallpaper was the correct silvery-patterned green; the crystal-beaded lamps glittered with suitable discretion; the shining, striped satin of the sofa and chairs, the unworn blond rugs, the cautious blend of antique and modern furniture murmured of ‘taste’ or that decorator’s strait-jacketing of personal revelations that is accepted as taste.” The lovely, soulless apartment mirrors the redone Jerry—an effervescent good-time girl who never wanted to settle down, now desperate to convince a man she would make the most appealing little wife.

Even a much less fetching apartment can have its own air of trumpery, as in The Happy Island (1938). Jefferson—who longs to succeed as a playwright but disdains the trappings of success—takes smug satisfaction in the squalor of his efficiency. “The room smelled of mutton and wet wash. . . . It was three stories above the Armenian restaurant but the jolly shish-ke-bab penetrated the very pores of the walls. There was an electric plate, a toaster, three thick yellow cups, a cracked sugar bowl, four pretty claret glasses from Woolworth’s, a few luncheon plates, three spoons, a knife, and a bent can-opener. [The landlord] would try to find a fork somewhere. Large cracks in the floor suggested rodent opportunities, and the thought was borne out by the wads of cloth stuffed here and there in the larger apertures. . . . Jefferson exulted. . . . Yes, it was a fine place.”

If this furnished room proves only too satisfactory for Jefferson’s conception of the artist’s life, most of Powell’s characters feel more menaced or constrained by their desired quarters. Dennis Orphen of Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) delights in the shoddiness of his bachelor pad, but is in constant danger from electrocution (courtesy the coffee plate in the bathroom) or crushing (by a collapsing ceiling caused by the upstairs Communist’s leaky pipes). And Ebie, the charming graphic artist of Angles on Toast (1940), is hampered by her equally charming studio. “An enormous high-ceilinged room it was, panelled walls, great windows through whose perennially dirt-stained panes the sun threw a stingy little light. But a great cathedral chair, a vast sofa all bought at auction around the corner ready to crumble at a glance, and her easel, drawing board, and reproductions . . . and a few of her own sketches pinned on the wall gave the place quite an atmosphere. In fact, the studio was so romantically bohemian, so much the artist’s dream that Ebie did less and less serious art here and more and more discussion of it.”

Powell well knew the dangers of a home, noting in her diary, “Homes are bad places. Either they are so comfortable . . . yet psychic and family connections are such that you can never enjoy those comforts. . . . Or else you have no comfortable place to work in your home and in spite of privacy or other ideal personal relations are unable to enjoy it. Yet in both cases there is a hold that interferes with your life work that bitches you, ruins you, sends you to the madhouse or the grave.’’ As her homes very often included her alcoholic husband, developmentally disabled son, and numerous dipsomaniacal cohorts, Powell never could work there, and regularly booked rooms in Atlantic City hotels, Coney Island flophouses, or Long Island cottages to write.

But she had to live somewhere, even if she had to write elsewhere, and no other neighborhood would have suited Powell as well as the Village. She delighted in the twisty streets, wood frames, row houses, wrought iron, clandestine gardens, carriage houses, and basement apartments and in its semi-demimonde cast of characters: artists, writers, models, “fairies,” Lesbians (Powell always capped the word), newspapermen, and salonnières. As she wrote to a college classmate soon after her arrival in New York, “I’ve been ‘doing the Village’ quite consistently and feel that sooner or later I’ll be among ’em. There are three stages you go through. . . . First and foremost, ‘Oh-so-this-is-Bohemia!! . . . Bohemia—oh thrills!’ Stage No. II— . . . you begin to see it with jaded eyes. Everyone tries to be a freak—tries to be noticed—does everything for effect and down in his heart is worse than ordinary. . . . Bah! Village theatricals! Bah! Bah! Bah! Stage No. III—you combine and condense and admire and sit—and after all the Village is the Village when all’s said and done.”