Friday, December 14, 2012

Lauren Collins' New Yorker Piece on "The Last Bohemians" 2006 Photo Exhibit


Last Bohemians

by March 13, 2006

“My life’s an open book,” Harriet Sohmers Zwerling declared the other night. She was wearing a maroon bustier and Pharaonic blond bangs, and was leaning on a cane. Zwerling, the writer and grande horizontale, has been a sort of den mother—she would get smashed and have everyone over for lima beans—to five decades of Greenwich Village misfits. Recently, she appeared in a documentary, “Still Doing It,” about sex and older women. “Every time it’s shown, I get e-mail from young guys who want to get it on with me,” she said. “Which is wonderful. I’m seventy-seven fucking years old.”

Zwerling was in the gallery at Westbeth, the artists’ complex on Bethune Street, at a party for the opening of an exhibit of photographs, “The Last Bohemians,” and the publication of her friend Edward Field’s new memoir, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag.” The book is every bit as gossipy an accounting of lives, his own and others’, as its title suggests. (The Man, by the way, was the critic Alfred Chester.) Few of Field’s cohorts were offended by his dredging up of youthful indiscretions. If profligacy has been their social imperative, its moral corollary is unflinching tolerance. They seemed highly entertained, and even a little proud.

“In those days, I lived in a former coalbin, which I shared with Jean Garrigue, on Ninth Street,” Stanley Moss, the poet and art dealer, said. “If I went to bed before four o’clock in the morning, I thought I was doing something awful.” He went over to say hello to Field, who was sitting behind a table, set with a few books and a cigar box for contributions. “We met,” Field said, “because a friend was having an affair with a guy who was married to a woman Stanley had had an affair with.”

“A wonderful thing about Edward,” Karl Bissinger, a ninety-one-year-old resident of Westbeth, said. “He had a friend that he lived with. The friend left him and, just after, went blind. Edward is still taking care of him after all these years.” Bissinger, a fashion photographer who abandoned his career during the Vietnam War to help draftees escape to Canada, was referring to Field’s partner of forty years, Neil Derrick. “I’m very glad to see you,” Bissinger said, turning to a sweaty, hulking man in a “Poetry at Gunpoint” T-shirt who had flecks of fried egg in his wiry white beard.

Bissinger and the man, Ira Cohen—star-stream poet, shaman, mythographer, ex-publisher of the exorcist journal Gnaoua, bat-eater—shook hands and talked for a while. Cohen began to reminisce. “I’ve known Edward since the sixties,” he said. “I met him and Neil in Tangier many years ago. We liked to smoke and hang around and enjoy the Socco Chico, the little square in Tangier. It was full of policemen, hustlers, smugglers, rich ladies. Those were the slapstick Beckettian dog days. I’ve also lived in Kathmandu and San Francisco. They all have a similar magic center of vibration.”
Field, at the table, continued to greet well-wishers. He regarded one of them, a trim Creole man in a suit and sweater, with amazement. “That was Basil Browne,” he said. “He was in my Greek class at N.Y.U. in 1946.” Field and Derrick live on the third floor of Westbeth; their close friend the anthropologist and rumored cannibal Tobias Schneebaum, to whom the exhibit was dedicated, lived on the fourth. He died in September. His apartment is being kept intact until the Met can catalogue his collection of Asmat artifacts. “I’m watering Tobias’s plants,” Field said. “I met him at Yaddo in 1955. He was a painter before he became an explorer of the jungles of the world.

“This is Ana Maria Vandellos,” he went on, grabbing a dignified woman by the arm. “She’s the only straight woman in the group.” (Vandellos, it turns out, was once married to Stanley Moss.) Field pointed to a photograph on the wall. “That was the two of us in 1951, at a party for a play based on a Christopher Isherwood book.” The picture showed a jaunty Field, leaning in on Vandellos, who was smoking a cigarette and holding a tumbler.

Across the room, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling was finishing a plastic cup of red wine. A woman approached and let Zwerling know that she and her friend were leaving.
(Harriet in Paris in the 1950's)

“We want to have a hamburger at the Corner Bistro,” she said.

“It’s so crowded,” Zwerling said. “We’re going to Philip Marie. It’s not gourmet, but they have very nice drinks. The Bistro is all college kids now. It’s not very interesting,” she said. And that was the end of it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Edward Field's Poem "The Last Bohemians"

This poem was dedicated by Edward to his friend Rosetta Reitz, who ran the Four Seasons Bookshop on Greenwich Avenue in the late 1940s.

This poem also inspired my "Last Bohemians" project, which Edward and I launched with a photo-and-text exhibit at the Westbeth Gallery in 2006.

--Dylan Foley

The Last Bohemians

By Edward Field
Taken from Edward Field's recent book of poems After The Fall, Poems Old and New (University of Pittsburgh Press).

for Rosetta Reitz
We meet in a cheap diner and I think, God,
the continuity, I mean, imagine
our still being here together
from the old days of the Village
when you had the bookshop on Greenwich Avenue
and Jimmy Baldwin and Jimmy Merrill used to drop in.

Toying with your gooey chicken, you remind me
how disappointed I was with you for moving
to Eighth Street and adding gifts and art cards,
but little magazines, you explain, couldn't pay the rent.
Don't apologize, I want to say, it was forty years ago!

Neither of us, without clinging to our old apartments,
could pay Village rents nowadays,
where nobody comes "to be an artist" anymore.
Living marginally still, we are shabby as ever,
though shabby was attractive on us once -- those years
when the latest Williams or Stevens or Moore was sold
in maybe five bookstores, and the Horton
biography of Hart Crane an impossible find.
Continuity! We're still talking of our problems
with writing, finding a publisher,
as though that was the most important thing in the world.
Sweetheart, we are as out of it as old lefties.

Someone came into my apartment recently and exclaimed,
"Why, it's bohemian!" as if she had discovered
the last of a near-extinct breed.
Lady, I wanted to protest,
I don't have clamshell ashtrays,
or chianti bottles encrusted with candle wax,
or Wilhelm Reich, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence,
much less Khalil Gibran and Havelock Ellis,
on my bricks-and-boards bookshelves!
But it's not just the Salvation Army junk she saw,
or the mattress and pillows on the floor.
My living style represented for her
the aesthetic of an earlier generation,
the economics, even, of a time,
our time, Rosetta, before she was born.

The youth still come weekends, though not to
"see a drag show,"
or "bull daggers fighting in the gutters,"
or to "pick up a queer or artist's model."
But there is something expectant in them
for something supposed to be here, once called,
(shiver) bohemian. Now it's I who shiver
as I pass them, fearing their rage against
an old guy with the sad face of a loser.
Daytime, it's safer, with couples in from the suburbs
browsing the antique shops.
I find it all so boring, but am stuck here,
a ghost in a haunted house.

At a movie about a war criminal whose American
lawyer daughter blindly defends him blasted by the critics
because it is serious and has a message
the audience is full of old Villagers, drawn to see it
because it's serious and has a message,
the women, no longer in dirndles and sandals,
but with something telltale about the handcrafted jewelry,
the men not in berets, but the kind that would wear them
couples for whom being young, meant being radical,
meant free love. Anyway,
something about them says Villager,
maybe the remnants of intellect, idealism
which has begun to look odd on American faces.

Nowadays, there's nothing radical left, certainly not
in the Village, no Left Bank to flee to, no justification
for artistic poverty, nothing for the young to believe in,
except their careers, and the fun of flaunting
their youth and freaky hairstyles in trendy enclaves.

Leftovers from the old Village, we spot each other
drifting through the ghostly
high rental picturesque streets, ears echoing
with typewriters clacking and scales and arpeggios
heard no more, and meet fugitive in coffee shops,
partly out of friendship, but also, as we get shabbier and rarer,
from a sense of continuity like, hey, we're historic!
and an appreciation, even if we never quite got there,
of what our generation set out to do.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Last Bohemians is on Twitter

The Last Bohemians is on Twitter. Check us out @lastbohemians. My tweets will address a wide variety of current events and will update my "Last Bohemians" blog and book project. Please follow me for periodic tweets.