By JERRY TALLMER | Take a letter, any letter… . After all, there are only 26 of them in our language.
Take the letter “K,” for instance — “K” as in King Street in Greenwich Village, where one evening six years ago I was knocked down by a car driven by a lively young woman who stopped, dusted me off, spotted a couple of books under my arm, and, this being Greenwich Village, asked me what one single book I liked best to read in all this world. When I said maybe Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma,” she looked at me strangely.
I said: “Oh, well, how about Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ then?”
“Now you’re talking!” the girl said.
It is early (Page 13) in a superb new book, not of fiction but of fact, an heir of Stendhal in scope, length, complexity, sophistication and human voice, that we learn of the post-Colonial role of South of Houston’s parallel King, Charlton and Van Dam Streets in replacing the golden splendors of Richmond Hill (now Varick Street), where once Abigail Adams reigned supreme and Aaron Burr and John Jacob Astor had built their mansions. All of that was replaced with a fly-speckled “museum” and such 1830s tourist traps (50 cents box seats, 25 cents in “the pit”) as a Richmond Hill Theatre and a Miss Nelson’s Theatre, where Off Off Broadway still has its outposts today.
Perpetual story, then and now. …
The book, all 624 pages of it (HarperCollins, $29.95), is simply titled “The Village,” with all the rest in the subtitle: “400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues — a History of Greenwich Village,” by John Strausbaugh, former editor of the now defunct weekly New York Press.
On the evidence of those 624 pages, Mr. Strausbaugh is a natural writer, i.e., he writes the way he breathes and breathes the way he thinks. You know, the old William Saroyan “breathe in, breathe out,” daring young man on your flying trapeze. Better yet, E.M. Forster’s “Only connect.” Mr. Strausbaugh connects everything to everything across 400 years of U.S. and Greenwich Village history.
Reading straight on, for instance, from the bottom of Page 13 to the top of Page 14, we’re reminded of the neon sign on an aged town house at 39 Grove Street proclaiming it the locale of Marie’s Crisis Café, a hidden-away piano bar in the basement where this observer many years ago first laid eyes on entertainer Mark Nadler ripping the joint and the piano apart a la Jimmy Durante.
Well, I’ve been vaguely aware of that neon sign and Marie’s Crisis Café for — what? — sixty-something years? — but I never knew till I read it on Pages 13 and 14 of Mr. Strausbaugh’s masterwork that one of this country’s (and my own) greatest heroes, Thomas Paine, “didn’t do much in the Village except die there,” at this very spot, unloved, unsung, unwanted, on June 8, 1809, despised as an atheist who defiantly proclaimed: “My own mind is my own church.”
The “Crisis” in that neon sign is for Tom Paine’s battle-cry pamphlet, “The American Crisis,” and its “These are the times that try men’s souls,” eight gleaming words that, 165 years later, carried one future Greenwich Villager all the way through World War II. The Marie in the sign is for Marie Dumont, the original proprietor of Marie’s Crisis Café.
The index alone of Mr. Straussbaugh’s opus is a masterwork of another sort, 30 pages of tiny type adding up, if my arithmetic is correct, to some nearly 3,000 entries, from “Abbey Players (Dublin),” Page 108, to “Zoo Story, The (play),” Pages 356-357.
Let us revert to the letter “K” and pick out a just few of its indexed highlights of interaction with Greenwich Village.
“Kaddish,” the wrenching poem by Allen Ginsberg mourning the death of his mother.
Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer.
Kaprow, Allan, creator of “happenings.”
Karp, Ivan, pioneer Soho gallery owner.
Kaufman, Murray (“Murray the K”), disc jockey.
Kennedy, John F., president.
Kennedy, Robert, senator, attorney general.
“Kennedy’s Children,” a play
by Robert Patrick.
Kent State shootings (1969).
Kern, Jerome, songwriter.
Kerouac, Jack, a dozen entries from
“Lenny Bruce and” to “On the Road” to
“The Town and the City.”
Kettle of Fish, watering hole and hangout on MacDougal St.
Kiesler, Frederick, architect, artist, theatrical designer
Kilgallen, Dorothy, gossip columnist.
King, Martin Luther, Jr., civil-rights leader.
“King Kong,” motion picture.
Kingston Trio, song group.
Kirkland, Sally, actress.
Kitchen, The, culture gallery.
Kitt, Eartha, actress/singer.
Kluver, Billy, artist.
Koch, Ed, mayor.
Koch, Kenneth, playwright.
Kornfeld, Lawrence, director.
Kramer, Larry, playwright.
Krasner, Lee, painter.
Krassner, Paul, satirist.
Krim, Seymour, writer.
Kubrick, Stanley, moviemaker.
Kupferberg, Tuli, musician of The Fugs.
That should give you some idea of the range, grasp, and impact of Mr. Strausbaugh’s “The Village,” in the lines and between the lines — just for the letter “K.” And much of the history of Greenwich Village starts in the 1600s, way before all the above, with “half-free” blacks given tiny patches of land to protect New Amsterdam’s Dutch settlers from sporadic raids by the displaced Lenape Indians.
What is now Washington Square was then and subsequently a potter’s field burial ground for the criminal and impoverished, a military parade ground, and the gallows for executions by hanging (but not from the great, over-credited “Hanging Elm” that still spreads its arms over the northwest corner of the park).
Strausbaugh begins this all-embracing story with a loving pen portrait of the now-going-on 83 years young David Amram, composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, author, memoirist, actor (“Pull My Daisy”), and keeper of the eternal flame — a Villager to his roots even when not always a resident of Greenwich Village. When we leave Amram, far deeper in the book, he has pulled out a flute and is playing “Amazing Grace” at the May 2012 memorial services at The Cooper Union for Samuel Beckett’s good American friend, lifelong radical Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset. It was one of Rosset’s favorite songs.
Much of “The Village” — the book and the place itself — pivots around the concept of Bohemia and its Bohemians, terms invented in 1834 by French journalist Felix Pyat and echoed 15 years later, Strausbaugh tells us, by Henry Murger’s international smash hit “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.”
Everybody his own artist. “Greenwich Village is a state of mind,” as we used to say when creating The Village Voice. Or as Strausbaugh wryly puts it, “With all these new freedoms came another: the freedom to starve.” Two of its greatest exponents: doomed, restless Edgar Allen Poe and “two-fisted,” London-based butterflying James McNeil Whistler.
David Amram has been too productive all his life to be tagged “a Bohemian,” though I’m sure he has done his share of starving. So have we all, including, I’m further sure, John Strausbaugh. Let us pray that his tide has now turned.
The closing pages of his book dramatize the hatred of warrior playwright Larry Kramer for the rigidly closeted Mayor Ed Koch, two men who frequently had to face one another every morning in the same Eighth Street apartment-house elevator.
“Plague had played a significant role in the early nineteenth century,” Strausbaugh writes. “Now another plague” — the H.I.V. that swept like the black death through the 1980s — “contributed to its transformation at the end of the twentieth.”
May that be not the end of the story, just one of Greenwich Village’s thousand and one new beginnings.