Sunday, May 6, 2018
353. Fascinating New Yorkers: Why and How I Wrote It
Some of my friends have asked me why I wrote Fascinating New Yorkers and how I researched it. Here are some answers in the form of an imagined interview.
1. All right, Cliff Browder, why did you write it?
Because I’m fascinated by the history of New York City and want to share it with others. New York is, and always has been, a mecca for hustlers and doers of every kind, some now remembered and others forgotten, and their stories are fascinating. I had told many of these stories in posts for this blog. Finally, having already written one award-winning book based on posts from the blog (No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World), I realized that I could do another, this one, if I grouped the posts in sections and did a bit more research.
2. What kind of research did you do?
The book is part history, part memoir. For the history, I went online and googled the names. Of course I usually got a New York Times obit or another such obit, and a Wikipedia article, but they give what everybody knows, and Wikipedia has to be used with caution, so I dug deeper. If you get twenty pages of online references and scan them, you’ll find lots of irrelevant stuff, but somewhere around the seventh or eighth page you often find obscure but relevant bits of information that the main sources have missed. These are valuable.
3. You say the book is part memoir. How so?
I’ve been in the city since the 1950s and have accumulated all kinds of info on these people.
4. Did you know any of them personally?
Yes, two: Ree Dragonette and Anaïs Nin. We weren’t close friends, but I socialized with them a number of times, and did a reading with Ree. So I have vivid personal impressions of both.
5. Did you have contact with any of the others?
Long ago I heard Walter Winchell on the radio; you had to hear him, to understand his impact. In college I heard Dylan Thomas read – unforgettable, but not for the best of reasons. With Taylor Mead I had brief encounters here and in San Francisco. I saw several of the early Living Theatre productions, which Julian Beck and Judith Molina produced and sometimes appeared in, and all the “happenings” – and weird things they were – that they staged when they returned to this country in 1968. And I remember how some of these people first became known to the general public.
6. Who would they be?
Roy Cohn, Thomas Dewey, Nicky Barnes. And of course the Dragon Lady, Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
7. She’s a New Yorker?
She lived here in retirement for many years and died here. But I learned of her long before, during the Second World War. I attended a Methodist Sunday School, and the Methodists were very concerned about China, where there were many Methodist missionaries. They and the whole country hailed Madame Chiang, the wife of the Generalissimo and herself a Methodist, as our noble ally in the war against Japan. After the war things changed, and I changed my mind about her.
8. How so?
The corruption in her husband's party became known. And I heard a very revealing story about her from a friend of my mother’s, who got it from Nehru’s sister, Madame Pandit. It’s in the book.
9. So your book has stuff not known to the general public, or even known obscurely online?
Yes. One of my friends gave me stories about Cardinal Spellman that he heard from standees at the Metropolitan Opera. Another friend had stories about Andy Warhol, whom he knew in his early days. And when I edited Dorothy Norman’s memoir, I learned things about her from the in-house editor I worked with. But there are other ways as well to learn about people you don’t know personally.
10. For instance?
From places associated with them. When I visited the Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, I learned a lot about Eliza Jumel, who lived there and furnished it. And I was a standee at the Old Met, and attended performances at both the Old Met and the New, when Rudolph Bing was the general manager. And when I walked in Inwood Hill Park and Van Cortlandt Park, I could see how Robert Moses cut them up by pushing his highways through. It didn't endear me to him.
11. Any other ways to get to know these people?
By reading their works. The poetry of Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Rudolph Bing’s and Polly Adler’s memoirs. And Ayn Rand, whose interminable Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged I managed to get through. And old movies – Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell – not for the facts but for their legend. And when I was still a kid back in Illinois, my father told me about speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan and the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who tried to “save” Texas – what characters those two were!
12. Do you wish you’d known any of these people?
I don’t have a thing about getting to know celebrities, but there are exceptions. Certainly Texas Guinan and Polly Adler, Queen of Tarts. And above all Brooke Astor. She loved to dance, I love to dance. She and I could have danced up a storm.
13. Do you admire, genuinely admire, any of them?
Helena Rubinstein and Elsa Maxwell. Nobodies who made themselves somebodies.
14. Any you could do without?
The mobsters and David Berkowitz. Berkowitz committed six murders and left several other victims maimed for life. But other people in the book are fun and some of them are downright sexy.
15. Aha! Who’s the most fun?
Texas Guinan. The police kept raiding her speakeasy and dragging her off to jail. “I like your cute little jail,” she said once. “And I don’t know when my jewels have seemed so safe.” And her sixth raid ended up in a nine-hour party that she gave at the station house.
16. She sounds like fun, all right. And who’s the sexiest?
It’s a toss-up between Madame Chiang, with her slit skirts, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Madame Chiang vamped the mighty of the world, and believe me, she knew how. As for Edna, though you don’t get it from her photographs, she had something special going for her. At the sight of this redhead from Maine via Vassar, every heterosexual male in Greenwich Village fell head-over-heels in love with her. Edna took full advantage, when not writing sonnets or sleeping with her own sex.
17. Hmm... Maybe that’s enough for now, mustn't risk spoilers. Any last word?
Get to know these people. Whether you like them or hate them, admire them or deplore them, I guarantee you won’t be bored.
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Release date July 26. You can order it here from Black Rose Writing. Also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Signed copies are available now from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed), though in limited numbers.
Coming soon: The Oculus: Boondoggle or Architectural Wonder, and the 9/11 Memorial.
© 2018 Clifford Browder