Sunday, May 25, 2014

128. Village Eccentrics: Joe Gould and the Baroness

       New York has always been a mecca for hustlers, and Greenwich Village, in its bohemian glory days before gentrification, was certainly a magnet for eccentrics.  This post is about two Village eccentrics of yore.  The high-rent West Village of today has an eccentric or two, but they pale in comparison with those of the early twentieth century, when the Village was still a low-rent district that attracted wannabe artists and writers and agitators, usually penniless, and the tourists who flocked there to live just a little bit dangerously by observing the scruffy inhabitants in their bars and cafés and getting just a little bit – or maybe more than a little bit – drunk.  So here are two inhabitants who would not have disappointed the visitors.

Joe Gould

    He called himself Professor Sea Gull and Hot Shot Poet from Poetville, and the Village bartenders who served him, when he could cough up the price of a drink or, more likely, get someone else to pay for it, called him the Mongoose and other things as well.  Only 5 foot 4 in height and weighing less than a hundred pounds, he knocked around the Village for decades with a wild, bushy beard and rumpled clothing, his balding pate topped by a beret or a yachting cap, his mouth graced with an ivory cigarette holder.  Born to an old Boston family in 1889, he was a Harvard graduate who had come to New York in 1917 to work as a journalist, but soon learned that he could not or would not hold a steady job and succumbed to the charms of bohemia.  Long before the Beatniks made dropping out fashionable, he professed to despise the automobile, the radio, zippers, money, and writers and reviewers, and dismissed skyscrapers and steamships as “needless bric-a-brac.” 

     Perennially penniless and sometimes homeless, Gould slept in flophouses or on benches in parks, and in diners wolfed down free ketchup by the spoonful.  Turning up at Village parties to gobble snacks and gulp down cocktails, he would jump up on tables to give lectures with impossibly long titles, or deliver his poem “The Sea Gull” by leaping about, flapping his arms, and screaming, “Scree-eek!  Scree-eek!”  Or he recited his two-line “religious” poem: “In the winter I’m a Buddhist, / In the summer I’m a nudist.”  He was charming, he was silly, he was close-lipped with the aura of a brooding genius, and he was always – or was always trying to be – entertaining.

     But Joe Gould was more than just a clown and an eccentric; he was, the Villagers believed, a genius in the rough, a writer.  Not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill writer – the Village was full of them – but a very special kind of writer.  Scribbling in longhand in dime-store composition books (he scorned the typewriter), he was writing a huge work-in-progress, “An Oral History of Our Time,” consisting of life histories told him by others that he had written down with the help of total recall, the chapters having titles like “The Good Men Are Dying like Flies” and “Why I Am Unable to Adjust to Civilization, Such As It Is.”  He insisted that the nine-million-word Oral History weighed more than he did, and that later generations would hail him as the most brilliant historian of the twentieth century, his writing destined to last as long as the English language.  Impressed, local poets, artists, shopkeepers, and restaurant owners gave him handouts of money or food to speed the project on its way.  Starting in 1944 he was subsidized by a patron who worked through an intermediary and insisted on remaining anonymous, thanks to whose largesse he was lodged in a clean, comfortable room in a rooming house in Chelsea.  Gould was obsessed at first with learning the identity of his benefactor, but never did.  The subsidy was terminated abruptly in 1947, without explanation, and Gould soon ended up in yet another Bowery flophouse.  The patron later turned out to be a Chicago heiress named Muriel Gardiner.  Why she suddenly cut Gould off remains a mystery.

     Not everyone, I suspect, treasured Joe Gould’s less than subtle sense of humor.  Not everyone welcomed his barging into their party to gobble viands and make like a sea gull or recite – yet again! – his two-line poem.  His repertoire was admittedly limited.  And not everyone believed in his oral history, since its nine million words were nowhere in evidence, the manuscript being allegedly stashed for safekeeping at various sites in New York and New Jersey.  Certainly he was a clown; was he a con man as well?

     No, said journalist Joseph Mitchell, who met Gould in 1942, talked with him at length, and published a profile of him, “Professor Sea Gull,” in the New Yorker.  Though he had never seen the manuscript, Mitchell believed in its existence, and his article made Gould a media event and tourist attraction.  Reporters flocked to him, strangers bought poems from him, photographers found in him a willing subject, and there was even a Joe Gould Club in postwar Manila.  Yet when Mitchell put Gould in touch with several New York publishers interested in publishing excerpts of his opus, nothing came of it.  Gradually, Mitchell came to the belief that Gould was indeed a con man, and that the manuscript was a colossal hoax. 

     Meanwhile Gould’s health was fast deteriorating.  He suffered dizzy spells, then confusion and disorientation, and collapsed on the street in 1952.  Hospitalized in the psychiatric division of Bellevue Hospital, he was transferred to Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where he died of arteriosclerosis and senility in 1957.  He is buried in an unmarked grave in Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester.  In 1964 Mitchell published another profile in the New Yorker, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” revealing that the “Oral History” didn’t exist.

     But that’s not quite the end of the story.  In 2000 The Village Voice reported the discovery, in the archives of New York University, of eleven composition books constituting an 1100-page diary in Gould’s near-illegible scrawl, meticulously recording his daily life from 1943 to 1947, a work evidently unknown to Mitchell, who died in 1996.  Gould had given them to an artist friend who, failing to find a publisher, later sold them to an archivist who sold them in turn to NYU.  Was Gould then a literary genius after all?  Alas, the diary simply recorded baths taken (for Gould, an event), meals eaten, dollars bummed, with the focus always on himself.  His comment on V-J day and the end of the war?  “There were a few bedbugs.  So I slept poorly.  Also there was a lot of noise.”  Hardly material to enrich posterity.  Yes, Joe Gould was a con man, but at least he was an interesting one, and the money he got by it was trivial; let’s not begrudge him that.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

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In all her glory.
      She burst into Greenwich Village in 1913, Dada incarnate with a bit of Surrealism thrown in, and was soon the most gossiped about, wondered about, photographed and sketched and painted, and praised and reviled character on the scene.  Her outfits, like her art, consisted of objets trouvés (found objects) that she scavenged from trash on the city’s sidewalks.  She showed up at the office of the avant-garde Little Review, which had published some of her incoherent poetry, in a bolero jacket, kilt, spats, and dime-store bracelets (she was definitely not in the chips), with tea balls hanging from her breasts.  Her morals were as eccentric as her dress, for on that first visit the light-fingered visitor filched five dollars in stamps.  And since she needed more than found objects for her art, she shoplifted art supplies from department stores and was arrested more than once, becoming intimately acquainted with the Jefferson Courthouse jail.

     An instant legend, her startling presence became a fixture at Village romps and revels, where she appeared with teaspoons or matchboxes as earrings, a bra composed of tomato cans, a birdcage around her neck with a live canary inside, false eyelashes made of parrot feathers or porcupine quills, and hats made from peach baskets or wastepaper baskets.  She marched into a reception for the British coloratura Marguerite d’Alvarez with a peacock fan, one side of her face adorned with a canceled U.S. postage stamp, her lips painted black, her face powder yellow, with the top of a coal scuttle for a hat.  What the singer thought of this is hard to say. 

     She lived in a tenement on West 14th Street amid squalor that visitors did not find picturesque, with stray cats and dogs poking about in the clutter of scavenged objects; by all accounts the place simply stank.  On her forays from there she carried small dogs and large sculpted penises, these last a significant icon since she was aggressive in pursuit of men.  When she made a pass at Wallace Stevens, he refused to set foot below 14th Street lest he encounter her again.  And a Russian painter, when he turned on the light in his apartment one night, was startled to see her crawl out naked from under his bed.  Alarmed, he fled to a neighbor across the hall, but the intruder refused to leave the premises until the painter agreed to follow her up to her own apartment.

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William Carlos Williams, a 1921 passport photo.
     In his autobiography William Carlos Williams tells of seeing a sculpture of hers that looked like chicken guts in wax and, hearing that she loved his poetry, decided to look her up – not easy, since she was in jail for stealing an umbrella.  So he met her on her release, a fiftyish woman with a lean, masculine figure and a strong German accent, and took her to lunch.  He was attracted to her, and on a later occasion she informed him that what he needed to make him great was to contract syphilis from her and thus free his mind for serious art – a suggestion that he chose to ignore.  She pursued him for months, and when he proved to be uncooperative, hit him on the neck with all her strength.  So Williams bought a small punching bag and began practicing his jabs.  The result: when she attacked him again one evening on Park Avenue, he flattened her with a stiff punch to the mouth.  He then had her arrested, and from behind bars she promised not to bother him again.  Heartbroken by this rejection, she is said to have shaved her head and lacquered it vermilion, then stole the black crepe from the door of a house in mourning and made a dress of it.  Always an artist, always unpredictable.

     As for her poetry, it bristled with phrases like “spinsterlollypops” and “Phalluspistol.”  But what should one make of this?

                           (He is dead)
                           Ildrich mitzdonja-----astatootch
                           Ninj-----iffe kniek-----
                           Ninj-----iffe kniek!


                           HYEEEEEE PRUSH
                           HEE HEE HEEEEEEAAA

I leave it to equinophiles to decide to what extent this conveys the neighing of a horse. 

     When printed in The Little Review alongside chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, her effusions elicited two responses: some readers hailed her as an avant-garde genius, while others begged the Review to stop printing gibberish.  The latter view has since prevailed, but feminist scholars have hailed her as a pioneering woman and neglected artist who exerted a significant influence on the Dada movement, and seen in her the first American performance artist.  In 2011 her mostly unpublished poetry was published posthumously as Body Sweats, which caused the New York Times to salute her as a “furiously witty and aggressively erotic experimental writer,” though I haven’t had the courage to look into it.

     Was she really a baroness?  By marriage, yes.  But who really was she?  Recent scholarship has given us some clues.  She was born Else Plötz in Swinemünde in Pomerania, Germany, in 1874, her father a mason who abused her in her childhood.  Escaping young in 1892, she became an actress and vaudeville performer and, sexually hungry from an early age, mingled limbs and loins with artists in Berlin, Munich, and Italy.  Tall, slender, and handsome, in 1901 she married August Endell, a renowned Berlin Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architect, but soon became involved with a friend of his, poet and translator Felix Paul Greve, thus initiated a merry ménage à trois that for a while bounced around the continent together.  She and Endell divorced in 1906.  Greve meanwhile was convicted of fraud and served a year in prison, his reputation shattered, though he used his time inside to write a roman à clef recounting Elsa’s sexual escapades.  After his release she and Greve lived in voluntary exile in Switzerland and then in France, and were married in Berlin in 1907. 

     Greve was soon in deep financial trouble again, so in 1909 with Elsa’s help he faked his own suicide and sailed for Canada, then relocated to Pittsburgh, where his wife joined him in 1910.  The couple briefly ran a farm in Kentucky, though the idea of Elsa on a farm anywhere is both ludicrous and enigmatic, but she wasn’t there for long.  Greve left her in 1911 and moved to Canada, where he remarried without bothering to divorce Elsa, and took the name Frederick Philip Grove and became a well-known Canadian novelist.  Deserted in rural Kentucky and with only a limited command of English, to support herself Elsa modeled for artists in Cincinnati and finally ended up in New York where, in 1913, though technically still married to Greve, she married the impecunious German-born Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven, thus acquiring the title of baroness.  Little is known of the Baron, but when World War I broke out in 1914, he set sail for Germany to join in the war effort, but was captured by the British en route and interned; later he committed suicide, leaving her nothing but her title. 

     To support herself in New York, the Baroness worked in a cigarette factory and posed as a model for various artists, including Man Ray.  When Dada reached these shores, she was celebrated as its epitome, as one who dressed it, loved it, lived it.  One of her more memorable “ready made” sculptures, often attributed to another artist, was a plumbing pipe she titled “God.”  She may also have helped inspire Marcel Duchamp’s controversial sculpture “Fountain,” an upturned urinal; her love for him was apparently obsessive.  She even starred in a short film by Duchamp and Man Ray entitled “The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair,” beside which Andy Warhol’s later efforts seem to verge on timidity.

File:Morton Schamberg - "God" By Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg - Google Art Project.jpg
"God."  But does it really belong
in a museum?
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Duchamp's "Fontaine."  It probably
upstaged "God."

     When the war ended, many of her friends decamped for Paris, and she longed to follow them.  With help from her Dadaist acquaintances, in 1923 she went back to Berlin, hoping for better opportunities there, but instead found an economy devastated by World War I.  She remained there, impoverished and mentally unstable, immune to the decadent charm conveyed by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, reduced to selling newspapers on the street.  A letter to Djuna Barnes describes the ensemble she wore to the French consulate, hoping to get a visa that would let her go to Paris: ropes of dried figs around her neck, postage stamps as beauty spots on her emerald-painted cheeks, and topping her head a sugar-coated birthday cake with fifty flaming candles.  The consulate officials probably decided that Paris had enough nuts already and didn’t need another; she didn’t get the visa.  Meanwhile she was bombarding friends, acquaintances, and ex-lovers with letters and letter/poems pleading for money.

     In 1926 an inheritance let her at last get to Paris, where Djuna Barnes paid the rent on her apartment, and she resumed modeling and tried to market her poetry to the few exile journals publishing in English.  In 1927, at age 53, she died of asphyxiation in her apartment, when the gas was left on overnight.  Suicide or an accident?  It isn’t clear.  She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

     Artistic genius before her time, pioneer feminist, sexual adventuress, exhibitionist, obsessive narcissist, and nut – she has been called all these, and more.  Certainly, when she came to New York, she crossed the vague line separating charming eccentricity and self-expression from out-and-out weirdness, but that was just what the Dadaists wanted.  Dada raged for a few brief years in Paris and Germany, but to judge by photographs the Dadaists there dressed more or less normally and put weirdness into their art; she was unique.  And yet, in her later years at least, she seems to have been mentally unstable.  As for her death, maybe it really was suicide; being perpetually onstage and perpetually broke may have worn her out.  And if she is celebrated by feminists today, I suggest that posthumous celebration from a safe remove is quite different from dealing with such a phenomenon in the flesh.  Given her brazen advances and grotesque behavior, even in such an enlightened age as ours some people might be perversely tempted, taking inspiration from William Carlos Williams, to punch her in the mouth.

This is New York

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Schuyler Shepherd

     Coming soon:  More immigrants: yak meat and momos, and why prayer flags flutter in the breeze; getting free of the burqa in an alien land; and how a people who revere the earth came to work high in the sky.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder