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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

13 JUNE, 2013

The Beat Night Life of New York: Jack Kerouac’s Gotham

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“Might as well enjoy it. . . . Greatest city the world has ever seen.”

New York City is arguably one of modern history’s greatest literary muses — Frank O’Hara extolled its dirty streets, Gay Talese marveled at the social order of its cats, and countless essayists channeled Central Park’s glory. Among Gotham’s many admirers was Jack Kerouac — passionate teenage diarist, admonisher against popular opinion, sage of literature and life.

Somewhere between young Gay Talese’s New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey and E.B. White’s classic Here Is New York comes a chapter titled “New York Scenes” from Kerouac’s 1960 gem Lonesome Traveler (public library) — a kind of narrative emotional cartography of Manhattan, woven of fascinating sketches of Gotham’s vibrant life and cast of characters as recorded in Kerouac’s travel journals, written in his signature style of spontaneous prose, complete with his famous disdain for apostrophes.

He opens the chapter with a loving appreciation of his mother, a testament to parents’ power of cultivating genius and encouraging “horizontal identity”:

[M]y mother was living alone in a little apartment in Jamaica Long Island, working in the shoe factory, waiting for me to come home so I could keep her company and escort her to Radio City once a month. She had a tiny bedroom waiting for me, clean linen in the dresser, clean sheets in the bed. It was a relief after all the sleepingbags and bunks and railroad earth. It was another of the many opportunities she’d given me all her life to just stay home and write.

I always give her all my leftover pay. I settled down to long sweet sleeps, day-long meditations in the house, writing, and long walks around beloved old Manhattan a half hour subway ride away. I roamed the streets, the bridges, Times Square, cafeterias, the waterfront, I looked up all my poet beatnik friends and roamed with them, I had love affairs with girls in the Village, I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.

Kerouac proceeds to invite us into the inner circle of the beatniks and their experience of the city:

My friends and I in New York city have our own special way of having fun without having to spend much money and most important of all without having to be importuned by formalistic bores, such as, say, a swell evening at the mayor’s ball. — We dont have to shake hands and we don’t have to make appointments and we feel all right. — we sorta wander around like children. — We walk into parties and tell everybody what we’ve been doing and people think we’re showing off. — They say: “Oh look at the beatniks!”

He then offers a guided tour of a beatnik’s New York, full of Kerouac-isms (“Men do love bars and good bars should be loved”) and irreverent romance (“…some romantic heroes just in from Oklahoma with ambitions to end up yearning in the arms of some unpredictable sexy young blonde in a penthouse on the Empire State Building.”) One by one he sketches out some of Manhattan’s most iconic places and faces, then takes us to the crown jewel of tourist attraction and ogles it with equal parts cynicism and awe:

What’s Times Square doing there anyway? Might as well enjoy it. — Greatest city the world has ever seen. — Have they got a Times Square on Mars? What would the Blob do on Times Square? Or St. Francis?

Next, he turns to the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, “near the great Whelan’s drug store,” to echo the eternal New Yorker’s lament over the city’s ever-changing landscape:

Across the street you can see the ruins of New York already started — the Globe Hotel being torn down there, an empty tooth hole right on 44th Street — and the green McGraw-Hill building gaping up in the sky, higher than you believe — lonely all by itself down towards the Hudson River where freighters wait in the rain for their Montevideo limestone. —

Gliding downtown for some night life, Kerouac takes us to the East Village to visit with some jazz legends and recounts a charming anecdote about his beatnik brother-in-arms, Allen Ginsberg, who once famously mistook Patti Smith for “a very pretty boy.”

The Five Spot on 5th Street and Bowery sometimes features Thelonious Monk on the piano and you go on there. If you know the proprietor you sit down at the table free with beer, but if you dont know him you can sneak in and stand by the ventilator and listen. Always crowded weekends. Monk cogitates with deadly abstraction, clonk, and makes a statement, huge foot beating delicately on the floor, head turned to one side, listening, entering the piano.

Lester Young played there just before he died and used to sit in the back kitchen between sets. My buddy poet Allen Ginsberg went back and got on his knees and asked him what he would do if an atom bomb fell on New York. Lester said he would break the window in Tiffany’s and get some jewels anyway. He also said, “what you doin’ on your knees?” not realizing he is a great hero of the beat generation and now enshrined. The Five Spot is darkly lit, has weird waiters, good music always, sometimes John “Train” Coltrane showers his rough notes for his big tenor horn all over the place. On weekends parties of well-dressed uptowners jam-pack the place talking continuously — nobody minds.

He then turns to the party scene of the underground artists, socialites, and literary types. One of them, Leroi Jones, who self-published Yugen Magazine “on a little cranky machine and everybody’s poems are in it,” Kerouac describes as a “historic publisher, secret hipster of the trade” — an early use of “hipster” at the dawn of its popular coinage. But then, true to the rebellious beat spirit, he urges:

Let’s get out of here, it’s too literary. — Let’s go get drunk on the Bowery or eat those long noodles and tea in glasses at Hong Fat’s in Chinatown. — What are we always eating for? Let’s walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and build up another appetite. — How about some Okra on Sands Street?

Shades of Hart Crane!

But the full vibrancy of Manhattan and its multitude of eccentric characters, the full range of the beatnik existence in the city that never sleeps, comes aglow under Kerouac’s gaze in the Village:

Ah, let’s go back to the Village and stand on the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and watch the intellectuals go by. — AP reporters luring home to their basement apartments on Washington Square, lady editorialists with huge German police dogs breaking their chains, lonely dikes melting by, unknown experts on Sherlock Holmes with blue fingernails going up to their rooms to take scopolamine, a muscle-bound young man in a chap gray German suit explaining something weird to his fat girl friend, great editors leaning politely at the newsstand buying the early edition of the Times, great fat furniture movers out of 1910 Charlie Chaplin films coming home with great bags full of chop suey (feeding everybody), Picasso’s melancholy harlequin now owner of a print and frame shop musing on his wife and newborn child lifting up his finger for a taxi, rolypoly recording engineers rush in fur hats, girl artists down from Columbia with D.H. Lawrence problems picking up 50-year-old men, old men in the Kettle of Fish, and the melancholy spectre of New York Women’s prison that looms high and is folded in silence as the night itself — at sunset their windows look like oranges — poet e.e. cummings buying a package of cough drops in the shade of that monstrosity. — If it’s raining you can stand under the awning in front of Howard Johnson’s and watch the street from the other side.

Beatnik Angel Peter Orlovsky in the supermarket five doors away buying Uneeda Biscuits (late Friday night), ice cream, caviar, bacon, pretzels, sodapop, TV Guide, Vaseline, three toothbrushes, chocolate milk (dreaming of roast suckling pig), buying whole Idaho potatoes, raisin bread, wormy cabbage by mistake, and fresh-felt tomatoes and collecting purple stamps. — Then he goes home broke and dumps it all on the table, takes out a big book of Mayakovsky poems, turns on the 1949 television set to the horror movie, and goes to sleep.

And this is the beat night life of New York.

Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac’s first authentically autobiographical work, is an endless delight in its entirety. Complement it with Anaïs Nin on the poetic of New York and Sylvia Plath’s notorious New York summer.

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12 JUNE, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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What a catalog of superficiality reveals about the complex inner worlds of young women.

On June 1, 1953, twenty women in the summer before their senior year of college were selected to travel to New York City from all over the United States to work for one month as guest editors of the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. The young women had already been members of Mademoiselle’s College Board, feeding tips about college life to editors in New York “on frosted pink paper…the general effect was that you were corresponding with an older, very stylish, very sweet, and very pretty friend.”

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (public library) by Elizabeth Widmer is a fascinating chronicle of a busy month in the lives of these twenty young women, made famous by one of their own when guest editor Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known artist and children’s book author, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — published her novel The Bell Jar under a pseudonym in 1963. In writing about Sylvia Plath’s life before her marriage, many have tried to scour her letters, her diaries, her taste in clothes, music, poems, and men, as signposts on the way to an inevitable end, and her month at Mademoiselle as the breakdown that started it all. But this short time was also a period of joyful and intense work for nineteen other women, a summer that was far more about living than dying. In 2003, when the surviving women returned the Barbizon, the hotel for women where the guest editors lived, it was apparent that the famous month was a sliver of time in the lives of these women: “You rarely have a reunion of people who only knew each other for a few weeks.”

'Six Girls in a Two Room Apartment in Greenwich Village, New York,' from LIFE Magazine, January 1954 (Photograph by Lisa Larsen)

In the early 1950s, the single girl living in the city was such a curious phenomenon that the merited a spread in LIFE Magazine, curious about how a young girl could possibly take care of herself at the age of twenty. An array of objects stands in for their hopes and dreams:

There are makeshift desks piled with raspberry jam, toast, tea-cups, leaf-shaped ashtrays and packs of Chesterfield cigarettes. Black Bakelite telephones, hatboxes, and corkboards pinned with glamour shots and modeling cards. Rusty radiators, guitar propped by the window…

It’s a telling description of the Mademoiselle girl, a catalog of accomplishments and things, more suitcase than personality. In her application letter to Mademoiselle, Sylvia addressed her vocational skills: she was a “skilled” waitress, an “excellent” spinach-picker, a governess, a villanelle writer, and a “reasonably” good typist. Her first assignment was to interview the poet Elizabeth Bowen, (and for Sylvia to have her photograph taken while interviewing her). She was concerned about her appearance as she knew it was a powerful and creative force. For months before she left, she had collected “blouses of sheer nylon, straight gray skirts, tight black jerseys, and black heeled pumps.” She wore her very best outfit to interview Bowen, with pearls, gloves, and a hat.

Sylvia Plath is photographed while interviewing poet Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle

One of the most confounding and exhausting parts of the experience was that the girls were both charged with creating a product — writing and editing an issue of Mademoiselle — and simultaneously living that product, showing up neatly pressed to cocktail parties, attending lingerie shows. That June was hot during the week, and it rained every weekend, but the pressure remained to appear dewy and fresh each morning. The month was a mania of seeing and being seen, where every girl expected to be both the model and the mind. The “Millie” guest editor was a member of the most glamorous finishing school of the day, in which the final product was shipped to young women all over the country.

Plath in a Mademoiselle photo shoot of the guest editors

June, 1953 may have been one of the most well-documented months in Sylvia Plath’s life, but she barely wrote about it in her diary. On the night of Friday, June 26, the girls celebrated their last night on the rooftop of the Barbizon, and Sylvia hauled up her suitcase and threw every last nylon, slip, skirt, and blouse off the roof. The next day, she borrowed a skirt and peasant top and, without a single item she brought with her to New York, took the train back home. There was no job after the month at Mademoiselle. Any girl who stayed in the city had likely been spotted by a model scout or hired by a fashion designer she had met during the monthlong gig.

That August, the college issue of Mademoiselle went on newsstands. It contained thirty-three advertisements for secretary schools, an article written by Sylvia about famous poets teaching on college campuses, a column by the inventor of the “Beat Generation” that claimed “careers are passé among young women” next to an add for blouses with French cuffs for career girls, ideas for dorm crafts, how to pin the perfect curl, and tips on finding the perfect Ivy League boyfriend.

Only nine years later, a new kind of magazine would give young women hope for an empowered existence.

The August 1953 college issue of Mademoiselle, which Sylvia Plath worked on.

The college girl, the career girl, and the wife each had their set of accessories, and the choices women had — to be an intellectual, a mother, an editor — were characters to play, not lives to live. That July, small tragedies compounded for Sylvia: a rejection from a fiction writing class, a boyfriend leaving for officer training, depression, electroshock therapy, and twenty-one days without sleep. On August 24, just as her issue was about to leave newsstands forever, Sylvia crawled into the basement of her house with a bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills and made her first medically documented suicide attempt.

Pain, Parties, Work might at first appear like a frivolous account — a catalog of clothes, shoes, haircuts, suitcases, lunches, dates, parties, typewriters, letters, nylons, and men — but it allows that the banalities of the exterior life do affect the interior life, that madness, moods, and depth of feeling exist within the same world as morning coffee and an egg sandwich on the way to work. Most of the working women of Mademoiselle didn’t simply exist on a polar scale of benign beauties and basket cases, burning out their creative energies, but instead lived in that month the best anyone could, and moved on. Complement it with 18-year-old Plath’s meditation on life, death, hope, and happiness.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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06 JUNE, 2013

Taschen’s Jazz: An Illustrated Portrait of New York in the Roaring Twenties

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Band battles, brass classics, Cotton Club etiquette, and how to do the “double roll” like a pro.

“Jazz is the music of the body,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “…and the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life.” From the fine folks of Taschen () — who have given us such visual gems as the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, and the history of menu design — comes Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties (public library), a remarkable time-capsule of Gotham’s swinging golden age by music journalist Hans-Jürgen Schaal, edited and gloriously illustrated by German graphic designer, illustrator, and book artist Robert Nippoldt. The lavish large-format volume, which comes with a CD compilation of the era’s most celebrated songs, covers iconic venues like the Cotton Club and the Roseland Ballroom, legendary recording sessions, and the epic “band battles” that dominated the club scene, among other curious and lesser-known facets of the Roaring Twenties.

Also included are illustrated micro-biographies of twenty-four of the era’s greatest icons, alongside little-known and often amusing anecdotes.

But perhaps most delightful of all are the infographic-inspired maps and morphologies of the jazz scene and its geography, technology, and human topography:

Complement Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties with Herman Leonard’s rare portraits of jazz icons, W. Eugene Smith’s ambitious Jazz Loft Project, and William Gottlieb’s magnificent photos of jazz greats.

Images courtesy Taschen

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