Friday, July 15, 2011

Jay Landesman, Editor and Impresario (1919-2011)


(Jay Landesman, 1994)

Jay Landesman, the founder of the pivotal 1940s literary journal Neurotica, “written by neuurotics, for neurotics” died in London this past February at the age of 91.

In 1948, Landesman was the scion of a prominent antiques family when he published Neurotica on a lark. The 5000-copy print run sold out, so Landesman pushed forward with another edition. That year, Landesman moved himself and his magazine to New York, hobnobbing with the writers he cultivated, including Anatole Broyard and Judith Malina, the founder of the Living Theatre. Landesman also introduced the Canadian social scientist Marshall McLuhan to American audiences for the first time.

Landesman championed Gerson Legman, whose diatribes on censorshoip and erotica caused a stir in the 1940s. Legman, whose previous work before Neurotica included a book on oral sex called Oragenitalia. After his time at Neurotica, Legman moved to France and into almost complete obscurity. Before he died in 1999, Legman produced his masterwork, Rationale for a Dirty Joke.

As the editor of Neurotica, Landesman cut a foppish figure in New York, carrying a cane and holding court at the San Remo, the Village’s bohemian epicenter of the late 1940s. Landesman came to New York after a divorce, so he used his magazine to pick up women. When his ex-wife Pat came into town in 1950, he proudly boasted in his memoir four decades later that she had incurred the envy of the local women by finding the poet Dylan Thomas in Greenwich Village and seducing him after only being in New York for two days.

At a visit to Rosetta Reitz’s Four Seasons Bookstore on Greenwich Avenue when he first moved to New York, Landesman was horribly snubbed by Philip Rahv of the Partisan Review, but Reitz offered him a return visit, so they could spend some time together in her orgone box, which she kept in the back of her store.

In 1950, Landesman gave Ginsberg his first professional publication when he ran Ginsberg’s poem "Pull My Daisy," but only after giving it the less racy title of “Fie My Fum.”

Landesman also published two tragicomic essays by Ginsberg’s fellow psychiatric inmate and friend Carl Solomon on his experiences being subjected to electroshock therapy at the New York Psychiatric Institute. The doctors were trying to turn the bisexual Solomon into a full-time heterosexual.

In his rollicking memoir, Rebel Without Applause, Landesman recounted meeting Solomon on the street in Times Square.

Ginsberg introduced Landesman to Solomon. “[Solomon] immediately told us that he had sustained a series of shock treatments administered by doctors who didn’t know what they were doing while they were performing the procedure,” wrote Landesman of the meeting.

“’They constantly checked in the manual on shock therapy while they were connecting me up,’” said Solomon to Landesman. “His laugh was more hysterical than mine; we both saw the humor of the situation.”

One day Landesman was walking down 42nd Street, and was accosted by a man dressed as Mr. Peanut. Mr. Peanut turned out to be Solomon, who was handing out promotional peanuts. “’Nice one, Carl,’ I said, offering him a cigarette. The two of us stood there, conversing quite naturally with Mr. Peanut letting out a jerk of smoke occasionally.” As they parted, Solomon said, “’Good seeing you Jay, I’ve got to get a move on now. I never know who they may have following me.’ Before he left, I wanted to give him a goodbye embrace, but feared someone might get the wrong idea.”

Solomon’s resulting essays were written under the pseudonym Carl Goy. Despite the grim nature of his treatment, Solomon wrote with a black wit about his months of incarceration. Solomon would be granted leave from the hospital on Sundays. “Generally, still rather hazy, I would be escorted by an old neurotic friend to a homosexual bar, where I would be informed, I had formally spent much time....in my corpulent forgetfulness, I no longer resembled a ‘butch’ fairy or ‘rough trade,’” wrote Solomon. “I had lost all facility with ‘gay’ argot and was incapable of producing any response to the objects proffered me.”

Solomon also recounted a disastrous attempt by the institution staff to celebrate Halloween. A Fellini-esque riot was the result.

“The psychiatric ineptitude of the official lower echelons became incredibly evident,” said Solomon, “when one week before Halloween, it was announced to the patients that a masquerade ball would be held on the appropriate date, that the attendance was to be mandatory, and that a prize would be given to the patient with the ‘best’ costume...the work of sewing, tearing, dyeing, etc., was done in Occupational Therapy, where at the disposal of all, there was an infinite variety of paints, gadgets and fabrics.

“Furiously we labored, competing with one another, even in regard to the speed of the accomplishment, fashioning disguised phalluses, swords, spears, scars for our faces, enormous cysts for our heads.

“When Halloween Night arrived, we were led dazed and semi-amnesiac, into the small gymnasium that served as a dance floor. Finally, the Social Therapists seated themselves in the center and ordered us to parade past them in a great circle; one of the nurses sat at the piano and played a great march...There were several Hamlets, a Lear, a grotesque Mr. Hyde; there were many cases of transvestitism...Suddenly, the music stopped; the judges had chosen a winner, rejecting the others. We never learned who the winner was, so chaotic was the scene that followed. There was a groan of deep torment from the entire group (each feeling that his dream had been condemned). Phantasmal shapes flung themselves about in despair. The nurses and social therapists spent the next hour in consoling the losers.”

Landesman’s parties on the East Side were legendary for the quirky literary talents they brought together. In his book Representative Men, the novelist John Clellon Holmes, a great observer of 1940s counterculture New York, described one of Landesman’s parties:

In an essay about Landesman, Holmes said that Neurotica provided writers with an outlet during the bleak Cold War period. Landesman’s contributors were a motley crew, as Holmes described when he wrote about a 1950 Neurotica party.

“They were a strange bunch, these contributors, as they wandered in and out of Landesman’s eccentric living-room-cum-office on Fifty-Third Street in New York,” wrote Holmes. “Surfacing out of different worlds, most of them probably would not have met another if not for the magazine. Carl Solomon appeared in two issues under related pseudonyms that were characteristic of both his irony and pain, moved warily around Anatole Broyard, later to become an influential critic, who appeared then to have little need of the mask of pain. Marshall McLuhan chatted about Elizabethan literature as pot was smoked in the kitchen...Legman scowled on the couch, indomitable and fatalistic as a ticking time bomb, like Lenin in Europe.”


In 1950, Landesman married Fran Deitsch, a woman from a wealthy New York family, who was famous for dating jazz musicians. Landesman turned over editorship of Neurotica when he moved back to St. Louis to Legman. The magazine closed after one more issue in 1951.

Back in St. Louis, Landesman opened a popular avant-garde cabaret. Fran Landesman went on herself to have a brilliant career as a writer of torch songs. The couple eventually moved to London, where he wrote a musical called Dearest Dracula, which was roundly panned by the English critics. He also wrote a 1959 musical called The Nervous Set, which chronicled New York’s Beat culture, and included a young actor named Larry Hagman (J.R. on “Dallas” in the 1980s) as a black-clad hipster. The show made it to Broadway, where it bombed.

Sources:

Landesman, Jay, “Rebel Without Applause,” 1990
Landesman, Jay, and Legman, Gershon, “The Complete Neurotica,” Hacker Art Books, New York, 1963