Monday, April 25, 2011

"The Making of “The Last Bohemians” by Dylan Foley

In 1997, I was working as a freelance writer in New York City and looking for good stories. An acquaintance was completing a documentary on Tobias Schneebaum, a painter and writer who had lived with a cannibal tribe in the Amazon jungle in the 1950s. I set up an interview.

I went to Tobias’ apartment at Westbeth, the old Bell Labs building on the Hudson River that had been converted to artists’ housing in the late 1960s. The apartment was an explosion of hanging plants and carved shields from the 25 years Tobias had lived among the ex-headhunting Asmat tribes of New Guinea, as well as three shelves of beaded human skulls that were gifts from his Asmat blood brothers. Tobias was in his late seventies then, a shy and genial man who was more reminiscent of a retired city college professor than a sexual anthropologist who had slept his way from Afghanistan to Malaysia and Burma, writing about homoerotic sexual practices in dozens of countries.

I overcame Tobias’ wariness by bringing him pastries and tea. We became friends and Tobias introduced me to Edward Field, a well-respected poet who also lived in Westbeth. Edward shared an apartment with his partner of 42 years, Neil Derrick, who was a pornographic novel writer until he went blind in 1970. I met Tobias, Edward and Neil for lunch twice a year and they regaled me with stories from the 1950s, including tales of their friend Floriano Vecchi, who founded the avant garde Tiber Press and published monographs which paired the paintings of Grace Hartigan with the poems of Frank O’Hara. Then there was the relicmaker Barton Benes, who collected celebrity garbage, like a drinking straw used by the Presidential concubine Monica Lewinsky, and made them into relics. The stories were brilliant and the social networks extensive. Edward had dated O’Hara and Tobias had been friends with Norman Mailer and the novelist Vance Bourjaily, and had mentored some members of the younger generation of artists, including the fiction writer Allan Gurganus and the painter Melissa Meyer.

In 2005, Edward told me that he was publishing his literary memoirs, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag.” We decided to produce a photography-and-text show of old bohemians who emerged in New York City and Greenwich Village during the 1940s and 1950s. We developed a list of exceptional people, which included Judith Malina, the founder of the Living Theatre; Karl Bissinger, a famed fashion photographer who gave up his career to become the heart and soul of the resistance to the Vietnam War at the War Resisters’ League, and Dudley Williams, a founding member of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre’s first standing company, and who danced with the company for 42 years. I interviewed Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, a former nude model and an editor at the controversial (and now defunct) Provincetown Review, who slept her way through the Cedar Tavern and Provincetown, and met Rosetta Reitz, who ran an influential bookstore in Greenwich Village where novelists Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison used to hang out.

Instrumental to the success of the exhibit was the Westbeth Gallery director Jack Dowling, who introduced me to several exceptional artists at Westbeth, taught me how to hang a show and resolved several crises on the opening day of the exhibit.

“The Last Bohemians” exhibit in January 2006 was a great success. After the packed opening, the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Daily News all ran features on the event.

In doing research on the book project, I started noticing historical trends among the artists and writers, as well as important meeting places, like the White Horse Tavern, the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern. Digging around, I found that many important literary figures and painters in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and 1950s hung out at these three important bars, as well as a host of smaller cafes and saloons. By going through obscure memoirs and letters and conducting interviews with survivors of the period, a picture of the chaotic postwar cultural and sexual revolutions emerged.

Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac started their climb to fame while they were drinking at the San Remo in the late 1940s. Dylan Thomas finished his downward spiral at the White Horse, a disintegration observed by a young novelist named David Markson. In 1959, the photographer Robert Frank and the artist Alfred Leslie pulled the now-famous Ginsberg and Kerouac, and the poet Gregory Corso from the Cedar Tavern to make their film Pull My Daisy. Frank O’Hara drank at the Cedar almost every night, and collaborated with or posed for such artists as Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.

My book proposal came together when I framed the book as a biography of the bars of Greenwich Village in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I have found incredible stories through the mostly forgotten characters like Jay Landesman, who first published the Beats in the long-defunct journal Neurotica. Harriet Sohmers Zwerling enlightened me on the sexual environment at the San Remo and the Cedar. David Markson told me about his friends Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac at the White Horse. From the bars to the wild afterparties and the “art happenings” in the galleries of East 10th Street, the groundwork was laid in the Village for the American political and social upheaval that took place in the 1960s.

Along the way, I have had some thrilling moments, like meeting the actor and producer George Bartenieff, and having him regale me with tales of Judson Poets Theatre, which tried to replace the stodgy, old theater world with an avant garde hybrid of dance, poetry and acting. I was almost held hostage by an 80-year-old bedridden singer-songwriter during a photoshoot, for she was desperate for the company. Some moments were tragic, like the great bohemian figures I missed. I tried hard to interview the publisher Floriano Vecchi. He canceled our interview due to severe back pain, then died of a heart attack several days later. My friend Tobias died at the beginning of “The Last Bohemians” project in 2005.

The fascinating stories I have found of the young writers, artists, hustlers and thugs who drank at the San Remo, the Cedar Tavern and other bars will make up this book. “The Last Bohemians” will be a popular history of art, literature, drinking and sex after World War II, and the cultural explosion in Greenwich Village that has influenced American culture for the past five decades.