President John F. Kennedy in a White House photo portrait.
BY CAROL GREITZER | Fifty years. Hard to believe. Like most people, I can easily remember many of the terrible events of that day, possibly because other happenings that very same day were so meaningful to me and to other Villagers. It was a day that started out so beautifully, and ended so tragically.
I thought about these events a few weeks ago when, at the Museum of Modern Art, I ran into Barbara Fisher, an artist who used to llve in the Village. It must have been 40 years or more since we last saw each other, and as we reminisced about artists housing, I recalled the important milestone that took place the morning of the Kennedy assassination.
To go back to the beginning — it all started when West Villager Ann Lye, a real estate broker who was also the wife of a noted artist, Len Lye, discovered two loft buildings at 12th and Greenwich Sts. that were up for auction. The city had taken possession because of nonpayment of local taxes and there was still a federal tax lien. The premises contained some artist studios, but only two AIR’s (artists in residence) could live there legally because the buildings were zoned for manufacturing.
Ann convinced several Village activists that artists should be able to live legally in their studios, and felt that these two buildings were architecturally suitable to become a pilot project — if we could get the city to go along. So was formed the Committee for Artists Housing. In addition to Ann and myself, members included Marty Berger, Tony Dapolito, Bob Jacobs, Wally Popolizio, Pierre Tonachel, Carey Venema, Rachelle Wall and Ruth Wittenberg. Artist Ruth Richards became our liaison to the artistis community.
We reached out to Jack Kaplan (of the Kaplan Fund) who generously lent us seed money and paid off the $47,000 federal tax lien. Mayor Wagner agreed to forgive the city taxes and structured the auction so that the property could be sold only to a nonprofit group committed to providing facilities for artists.
Thus we came to the morning of November 22, 1963, date of our first sit-down with Buildings Department commissioners and other officials to discuss steps that had to be taken to make the premises acceptable as living spaces. We met at the Tribeca office of Max Lehman, the city administrator, an office that does not seem to exist today. Everything went smoothly; the agencies were cooperative, and I left in an ebullient mood, emerging into the brilliant sunshine.
It was a gorgeous, warm day, unusual for late November, and I decided to walk home. (Interesting that years later, 9/11 occurred on a similar day of brilliant sunshine shining down on the dazed people walking up Sixth Ave. from Lower Manhattan.) When I arrived home, the first thing I did was phone Mary Nichols of the Village Voice to tell her about the meeting. Mary was holed up in a local hotel (I think the Albert) to work on an article away from the distractions of her family. And that’s how I learned that the president had been shot.
Mary knew that much. But there was no radio or TV in her room and she was unable to get an outside phone line, so she couldn’t find out what was happening. I turned on my radio (I didn’t own a TV then), and held it close to the phone. Mary and I listened together to the news accounts, talked about the ramifications, and probably shed a few tears when the end was finally announced about half an hour later. No Walter Cronkite in that radio coverage…though I have often, in recent years, seen rebroadcasts of his effort to control his emotions as he announced the sad news. Odd that in my long walk from below Canal St. to 12th St. I got no inkling of this tragedy. The rest of the day — even the next few days — are much less vivid in memory — a blur of shocked reactions to subsequent events and speculation about the new president.
As for the artists housing project, the work proceeded. Ann Lye worked with an expediter to move things through the Buildings Department. The two buildings became one, with one bank of elevators being converted to bathrooms, and 799 Greenwich St. was on its way.
A major hurdle was overcome when Assemblyman Jerry Kretchmer sponsored an amendment to the Multiple Dwelling Code to allow artist occupancy in “M” (manufacturing) zones. Our pilot project created just 12 residential units, but we paved the way for later larger residential conversions at Westbeth and Soho.
A few words about Ann’s husband, Len Lye. Though not too well known today in this country, Len did innovative film work years ago on then popular “March of Time” newsreels. He is famous today in his native New Zealand for his fascinating and unique kinetic sculpture. It was a privilege to be invited to a “showing” of these motorized works at his West Village studio. I particularly remember a 12- or 15-foot-long piece of sheet metal. When its motor was turned on, it wriggled like a meandering river making metallic clanging noises.
Even more memorable was another piece — a circular metal band about 3 feet long that seemed sexually turned on when its motor was activated. The piece undulated sensuously, writhing to the accompaniment of suggestive erotic wails as it slowly turned itself inside out.
November 22 invokes sad recollections. I like to remember J.F.K. at happier times. The only time I met him was in September of 1960 when leaders of the Democratic Reform movement, many of whom had supported Adlai Stevenson for president, were invited to meet with the candidate. It was a small suite at the Waldorf crowded with district leaders and the few public officials that reformers had managed to elect at that time. I was there as president of the Village Independent Democrats, which was still an insurgent club and had yet to elect district leaders.
While waiting for Kennedy, some of us — mostly women — gathered around Marietta Tree (later the U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights), who had recently returned from filming “The Misfits,” in which she had a small role. Just as she started to give us a firsthand account of what it was like to kiss Clark Gable, our candidate arrived.
Kennedy addressed the problem he perceived he had with us head on.
“I know I’m not your first choice,” he said, “but I’m all you’ve got…so I hope I’ll have your support.” The charm and charisma were better than kissing Clark Gable. We were converts…and we mourn his loss today.
Greitzer was a New York City councilmember from 1969-91, representing the Village and other parts of Downtown. Prior to that she was the Village’s Democratic district co-leader with Ed Koch in the mid-1960s.