Sunday, April 13, 2014

122. Exiles in New York, part 3

     This is the third post on Exiles in New York.  Originally I anticipated only one post, but I found such interesting characters that it soon become two posts, then three, and now four, but four, I insist, is the limit.  New York has always been a refuge and new home for those fleeing oppression – or  scandal or debt or irrelevance – in the Old World.  It is the gateway to the New World, a land of opportunities where people can try out new lives, new identities, new ideas.

Marc Chagall

File:Marc Chagall, 1911, I and the Village, oil on canvas, 192.1 x 151.4 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.jpg
I and the Village, 1911.
    A giant cow’s head with a milkmaid inside it, a trudging peasant with a scythe, upside-down houses, a sprig of flowers, and a huge green human face.  Or a floating couple above a bright red floor, the husband kissing his wife who holds a bouquet of flowers.  Or a winged fish with a violin above a pendulum clock drifting in midair, against a blue riverscape and, on one bank, a pair of clasping lovers.  These are some of the Chagall paintings that I have seen at the Museum of Modern Art, often labeled Surrealist, whimsical, primitive, dreamlike, or Expressionist, though none of these terms conveys fully and accurately the unique quality of his art.

File:Portrait of Marc Chagall.jpg     Born to a family of observant Hasidic Jews near the city of Vitebsk in imperial Russia, all his life Chagall would express in his art the memories and impressions of his childhood, the very images that I would see here in New York.  The 1917 Revolution offered Chagall opportunities denied him as a Jew under the Czars, but in time he moved to France, where he was recognized as a major Modernist artist.  Inevitably, his work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazi authorities in Germany, but after the Fall of France in 1940 he and his wife Bella remained in Vichy France, unaware at first of the threat there to Jews.  With the help of a forged visa supplied by an American vice-consul in Marseilles, they finally left France in May 1941 and arrived in New York in June. 

     A celebrity in a country whose language he could not speak, Chagall lived at 4 East 74th Street, visited galleries and museums, and became friends with other exiles like Piet Mondrian and André Breton.  He especially relished visiting the Lower East Side, where he could have Jewish food and read the Yiddish press, his main source of news, since he hadn’t mastered English.  Yet contemporary American artists had little appreciation of Chagall’s art until Pierre Matisse, the painter’s son, sponsored exhibitions of his work in New York and Chicago in 1941.  Asked by the choreographer Leonid Massine to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet Aleko, he did so with such success that at the premiere in September 1942 he was included in the curtain calls, to tumultuous applause. 

     Chagall’s life in New York was not altogether happy, since he yearned for Paris and Vitebsk, and felt guilty for having abandoned his people in a time of persecution.  To convey his anguish at the Nazi extermination of Jews, his art began to show Christ as a Jewish martyr next to a burning shtetl, a new phase of work contrasting sharply with the childlike and fanciful works preceding it.  In 1944 he was stricken by the news that his beloved Vitebsk, long occupied by the Germans, had been destroyed in fighting between the Germans and Russians, and later that same year his wife Bella died suddenly from an infection, following which he couldn’t work for months.

     Grateful to America for providing him with a wartime refuge, he returned to Paris in the fall of 1947.  He is well remembered here, and two immense paintings of his adorn the front lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

     Me and Chagall:  When I first encountered Chagall’s works here in New York, I was charmed.  Then, over the years, I decided that he was offering a bag of tricks – floating lovers, the fiddler uncle, upside-own houses, the Eiffel Tower, flying clocks – that were repeated far too often; I was tired of them.  Too folksy, too childlike, too naïve or pseudo-naïve.  It all seemed just a bit flimsy, an impression I never got from Picasso, Matisse, or the German Expressionists.  A gifted illustrator and set designer, perhaps, but not a great artist.  Now I find that many critics agree, though just how critical of him they are varies greatly.  It seems a commonly accepted conclusion that early Chagall is good, and late Chagall bad.  And when I see a reproduction of Praying Jew, a 1914 work in black and white showing its subject, bearded and hunched, in a prayer shawl, I am again impressed: no flying figures, no blasts of color, but instead a very solid figure devoid of fantasy and whimsy and engrossed in prayer.  Yes, Chagall had his moments.  I just wish there had been more of them.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

File:Sergei Rachmaninoff LOC 33968 Cropped.jpg    If the Russian Revolution created new opportunities for Chagall, it did just the opposite for Rachmaninoff, since his family were impoverished members of the old Russian aristocracy.   His status as a world-famous composer, pianist, and conductor could not prevent the loss of his estate, his  way of life, and his livelihood.  At age 44, in December 1917 he left Petrograd (soon to become Leningrad) for Helsinki, Finland, with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, taking with him only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and some other works.  After giving concerts in Scandinavia for a year, he decided that the U.S. might offer the best financial opportunities and came to New York in November 1918.  He was soon giving concerts and signing contracts, and in 1921 bought a five-story house at 33 Riverside Drive, near 72nd Street, where he recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, his summer residence in Russia, hiring Russian servants, entertaining Russian guests, and observing old Russian customs.  Homesick, he struck some of his friends as a melancholy aristocrat yearning for a past that could never be recovered.  In 1925 he sold his house and moved into an apartment building at 505 West End Avenue, near 86th Street, which remained his New York residence till the end of his life. 

     Capitalist America was good to the exiled pianist.  In the years that followed, his towering presence (he was 6  foot 6) was seen often in the concert halls of the U.S. and Europe giving concerts of dazzling virtuosity, and he prospered to the point that he acquired a home in Beverly Hills also, and a villa in Switzerland where he spent his summers from 1933 to 1939.  His favorite piano was a Hamburg Steinway, of which he had two for his New York residence, two for his home in Beverly Hills, and one for his Swiss villa.  When he published a letter in the New York Times in 1931 condemning the Soviet regime, that regime banned his works as “decadent.”  He and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1943, and soon afterward he died of melanoma in Beverly Hills, just four days before his seventieth birthday.  He wanted to be buried at his villa in Switzerland, but wartime conditions made this impossible, so he was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Quentin Crisp

File:Quentincrisp1.jpg      Admittedly effeminate from an early age, Quentin Crisp (an assumed name) survived schoolyard bullying to work briefly as a male prostitute in London (looking for love, he found only degradation), and attracted both admiration and hostility because of his bright make-up, dyed hair, and painted fingernails and toenails.  During World War II he cruised about the streets in the blackout picking up G.I.s, whose kindness and tolerance inspired his love of all things American.  His autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was published in 1968, but it was the 1975 TV version, broadcast by both British and U.S. television, that made him famous.  After that he toured Britain with a one-man show comprising an entertaining monologue and a question-and-answer session with the audience.

     For Quentin Crisp, New York City was love at first sight: “When I saw Manhattan, I wanted it.”  He brought his show here in 1978, his stay at the legendary Chelsea Hotel coinciding with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen (see post #121).  Finding Britain homophobic and parochial, and New York more open, friendly, and welcoming, in 1981 he moved  here permanently at age 72, arriving with few possessions and finding a tiny one-room apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, where he lived contentedly in squalor.  (“There is no need to do any housework at all.  After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”)  Listing his phone number in the telephone directory, he talked with anyone who called him.  Dinner invitations poured in, and he accepted them all on condition that his dinner be paid for.  In recompense, he entertained his hosts with colorful stories about his life, so that dining with him was soon said to be one of the best shows in New York.  To support himself, he performed his one-man show, wrote movie reviews and columns for U.S. and British newspapers and magazines, acted on the stage and on TV, and of course dined out.  By accepting every invitation to a cocktail party or premiere, he insisted, one could exist on peanuts and champagne.  Easily recognized by his tilted hat and painted face, he was soon a venerated celebrity on the Lower East Side, where people waved at him on the street, bums greeted him, and deferential young men asked for his autograph.

     Unpredictable and provocative, he outraged the gay community by calling AIDS a “fad,” and homosexuality “a terrible disease,” remarks that could be seen as self-hating and arrogant, or as a tongue-in-cheek bid for attention.  Even as the gay lib movement swept America, he never spoke out for gay rights or endorsed campaigns against homophobia; his role, he felt, was simply to be himself.   By now, for him sexual adventures were irrelevant.  For many in gay life, he was too old-style camp, too flamboyant, not “cool.”  Some critics saw him as jealous: gay liberation meant that he was no longer unique, the most visible queer in town, and he resented it.  Be that as it may, he was certainly a loner, not a joiner.

      Returning to England in poor health to tour with a revival of his one-man show, he died of a heart attack in a Manchester boarding house on November 21, 1999, one month before his 91st birthday; he was cremated there and his ashes were flown back to New York to be scattered over Manhattan.  Some thought his return to “merciless” England (his phrase), a trip obviously beyond his strength, was deliberately suicidal, based on the calculation that if he died in the U.S. he would get an obit on page 10, whereas if he died in England on the eve of a farewell tour, and with a play about him running in London, his death would be front-page news.  To the surprise of many, his estate was valued at over $600,000. 

     His wit was proverbial.  Planning to move to the U.S., he was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in London and asked if he was a practicing homosexual.  “I didn’t practice,” he replied.  “I was already perfect.”

Other instances:
·      Never keep up with the Joneses.  Drag them down to your level.
·      Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave.
·      An autobiography is obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.
·      To know all is not to forgive all.  It is to despise everybody.

     He is now revered for simply being himself, for not hiding his homosexuality but flaunting it, for making the outrageous acceptable.  Kathleen Egan in the New York Times called him “an anarchist armed with a compact.”   His credo:  Be yourself, whatever the cost.  To which one might add:  Above all, do it with flair.

Louis Napoleon

File:Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 1836.JPG     After a failed coup d’état in Strasbourg in October 1836 and a resulting short stay in prison, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great Napoleon and future Emperor Napoleon III of France, at age 29 felt a sudden urge to visit the New World and, disembarking in Norfolk on March 30, 1837, proceeded to New York.  Installed in a hotel here, he is said to have met some of the best French and American society in the city, as well as Washington Irving, who invited him to his country estate.  Already he was sporting the deliciously waxed mustache with its tips curled upward, and the tuft of beard below it, that would characterize his later glory days and become known as an impériale.  His favorite topics of conversation were his uncle the Emperor, the reasons for the coup at Strasbourg, and his conviction that he was destined to rule France.  Perhaps in imitation of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose influential work Democracy in America first appeared in 1835, he planned to tour the country so as to know American institutions better, but when informed that his mother was dying in Switzerland, he left the U.S. in haste so as to be with her until the end, which, after some delays en route, he managed to do. 

     As for his reception here by the French community, I suspect that he was welcomed warmly by the Bonaparte faction and greeted less warmly by the legitimists who wanted a Bourbon restoration, and the supporters of the then current regime of Louis Philippe, the “roi bourgeois.”  Not to mention those who yearned for a republic.  In those days the French, being politically versatile, had many options. 

     Be that as it may, Louis Napoleon was destined to influence fashion in this city and nation.  Once he finagled his way into becoming, like his uncle, the Emperor of the French, his impériale was much imitated by the hirsute faction on these shores.  And his consort, the Empress Eugénie, is said to have launched the vogue of the hoopskirt – a dubious claim to fame, given the difficulty stylish women had in maneuvering its ample proportions.  There are at least three theories as to why she favored this outlandish innovation: (1) she wanted to hide her pregnancy (she would give birth to the prince impériale); (2) her couturier wanted to promote the French fabric and trim industry; (3) though acclaimed as a beauty, she had bad legs and wanted to hide them.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

File:Lorenzo da Ponte.jpg     Jewish by birth, and a Catholic convert who became a priest unburdened by his vow of chastity  (he hung out with Casanova), Lorenzo Da Ponte, known today as Mozart’s librettist, achieved a rare distinction by getting himself banished from  sensual, easy-going Venice, his native city, for immoral conduct -- specifically for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.”  Among his misdeeds were a mistress who bore him two children, and, so the story goes, his living in a brothel and organizing the entertainments there.  His priestly duties, it seems, were a sideline, or maybe nonexistent.

     Forced to leave Venice in 1779, he moved to Austria and finally turned up in Vienna, where he made the right connections and became the court librettist, working above all with Mozart on his best-known Italian operas.  These, his glory days, ended when his patron, the emperor Joseph II, died in 1790 and was succeeded by a monarch who was quickly prejudiced against Da Ponte by his enemies at court.  Da Ponte then transferred his talents to London, where he engaged in various theatrical and publishing activities, until debt and bankruptcy forced him to flee to the U.S., where he had already dispatched his wife and children (yes, he seems to have actually married this one), since she had relatives there.  When, at age 56, he disembarked in Philadelphia in 1805, he possessed a violin and little else, having gambled his scant funds away on the voyage.

     In America he settled first in New York, where he briefly ran a grocery store, then decamped for Pennsylvania, where he may have run a millinery and a distillery (accounts differ).  Returning to New York, he opened a bookstore and a rooming house where the roomers, many of them students at Columbia College, savored his sophisticated talk about the arts, Mozart, and Italian cooking.  He also taught Italian, primarily to young women, which, given his past, might make one fear for their chastity, though by now his sexual misadventures had probably come to an end.  White-haired and toothless, he still managed to ooze an Old World charm that won him many friends, though his tales about himself and his accomplishments were such as to inspire mistrust.  In time he taught Italian literature at Columbia College, where he had no fixed salary but was paid for each student enrolled.  Alas, after the first year he had zero students and therefore zero pay.  But he remained on the college faculty for thirteen years, and so became the first Jewish-born professor and the first Catholic priest to teach there, though by now he passed for an Anglican.

     His two great passions were opera and Italian literature, and he was determined to make them both better known in this raw, vital city in this raw, vital land.  In 1825 he mounted a performance of Don Giovanni in New York, then introduced Rossini’s music to the U.S. through a concert tour with his niece.  In 1833, at age 84, he founded the New York Opera Company, the first opera house in the country, but his financial acumen had not improved, and after two seasons the company was disbanded and the theater sold to pay its debts.  A U.S. citizen since 1828, he died here in 1838 and was honored with an enormous funeral ceremony in the Catholic cathedral on Mulberry Street.  What became of his remains is unknown, since the cemetery where he was buried was closed soon afterward and the graves relocated elsewhere.

      An astonishing life, or maybe one should say lives, since he kept reinventing himself and tried his hand at everything, a Venetian Jew turned Catholic priest turned Anglican with a talent for seduction and debt.  Still, he  initiated the teaching of Italian literature and induced an interest in opera in a city and nation that up till then were blissfully ignorant of both.  Though the location of his remains is uncertain, a tombstone was belatedly put up in 1985 in the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Lorenzo da Ponte
One tombstone could hardly hold all the man's accomplishments.


     So spoke Harold Clurman, when commenting long ago on the characters in a scene presented in the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio.  (A very good scene, incidentally, and well acted.)  His words often come to mind when, returning from errands, I notice the cigarette butts and stray bits of paper tossed in the small front area of the building next door.  That area is well kept by my neighbor, who plants things there.  But Americans, alas, think that every garden is an ashtray, and every park a trash dump.  At times, in the course of my hikes, I have walked for a short distance beside a highway and noticed the litter there: plastic cups and utensils, brown paper bags, cigarette butts, bits of paper, even whole newspapers.  People seem to think that, if they toss trash out a car window, it will somehow disappear.  But it doesn't.  Yes, Americans are pigs.  One welcome exception is the state of Maine, which really strives to keep its highways clean.  Billboards are limited, and there is almost no litter at the sides of roads; you can actually enjoy the landscape, and the landscape there is well worth looking at.  But New York State, like most states I have visited, is strewn with trash.  Yes, alas, Americans are pigs.

This  is  New  York

File:Times Square at Night (7823232238).jpg
Stuart Sevastos

     Coming soon:  To celebrate Easter and the miracle of the Resurrection, next Sunday’s post will be Wonder: Our Need of It, with comments on Mount Canigou at dawn, Chartres, opening buds, brain coral, the first flaring forth, the beauty of mathematics, the wisdom of the body, and related matters.  After that, one more glance at exiles, another at famous deaths in New York, and probably a post on Remarkable Women (I have a juicy trio in mind).

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder



  1. Another excellent post! I had a wonderful long distance phone relationship with Mr. Crisp (I was living in Chicago at the time), and many letters - he suggested writing might be cheaper than talking.

    I didn't get to see his one-man show until I'd moved to Portland, Oregon in 1997. He received a standing ovation at the end.

    I was sad to hear the news about John Hurt's death in January: His performance in The Naked Civil Servant never fails to astound me.

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