Volume 76, Number 28 | December 6 - 12, 2006

Courtesy Cardoza Publishing

Alice Denham, lover of literature, and its heavyweight authors, in the Peter Basch photo from 1962

Spilling the beans of the heady, literary ’50s and ’60s

By Jerry Tallmer

Grishkin is nice: her
Russian eye is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
— T.S. Eliot, “Whispers of Immortality”
And so, Lord knows, does the photograph of Alice Denham that appears on the front cover of her book and on this page. Pneumatic bliss and a come-hither look. It was taken by Peter Basch in 1962, some few years after Alice, a sweet little thing from Jacksonville, Florida, had defied her strict, straitlaced, outraged mother and come to the big bad city to (a) become a writer, (b) get to know all the bad boys of the arts — writers and actors and that lot — who were getting famous all over the place, and (c) survive principally by modeling for ads and the like with or without much clothes on, mostly without.

What do James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Dean, Philip Roth, William Styron, Jack Kerouac, Anatole Broyard, David Markson, Evan Connell, Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, and, yes, Hugh Hefner all have in common?

In the high ferment of the 1950s and ’60s, they all knew Alice Denham and she them — in (by her account) the Biblical sense, or otherwise. (Her idol, Katherine Anne Porter, was otherwise, but very important.)

Some of them — Norman Mailer, for one (with whom she did not sleep) — are still among her friends to this moment. Even Adele Mailer, the wife who tore off her own clothes and danced on a sofa at a Mailers’ party in fury over Norman’s interest in Alice — the Adele whom Norman would stab with a penknife on another demented occasion — is Alice’s friend all these years later:  sisters under the skin of Women’s Lib. Adele has supplied a nice blurb for Alice’s just-printed and very readable — if in dire need of tighter editing — memoir of those heady days.

“This book,” said the author of “Sleeping With Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties” (Book Republic Press / Cardoza Publishing), “is about an era when art and literature mattered. When Manhattan breathed literature, like art in Paris in the previous century, and this was before Money” — i.e., before big money got into the whole process.

Alice Denham, still no bigger — that is, no taller — than a minute, perky as blazes, dark reddish of hair, said all this the other evening in the Cornelia Street Café where she’d lately done a reading from the book. She lives a couple of blocks west, in the Village. During the years she writes about, she was either ensconced in a tiny apartment on “scummy” West 55th Street or, much of the time, in the writers’ colony at San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“It was there, in San Miguel, in 1993, that I started to remember it all” — and to go back to the notes, drafts, and attempts at stories about it all that she had been putting her hand to at the time these things — the guys, the Village, the literature, the cultural-and-sexual revolution — all happened.

“I didn’t know what I’d do with it,” she said now, “but I wrote it down. And then, in a review by Paul Theroux of Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock,’ I read this sentence” — she delivers it verbatim —  ‘Nobody under 60 can possibly understand the magic that fiction writing held for the two decades following World War II.’

“And I thought: Ha!”

Well, her memoir isn’t fiction — one trusts — and whatever else its merits and demerits, it has the strong cleansing addictive smell of essential truth. One believes that the girl from the South — “but not from crackers or rednecks” — the girl who, despite her mother’s prejudices, had cheered every one of Joe Louis’s victories, could indeed strike up an immediate close (and hero-worshipping) friendship with the James Baldwin who was to write “Blues for Mister Charlie” and “Notes of a Native Son.”

One believes her deep — “not being in love but loved, a sexual friendship” — with the young James Dean whose talent and radiance had knocked her out when she first laid eyes on him at an audition. One believes her luscious description of the variety of sexual joy imparted to an (almost) innocent maiden by James Jones — “I was so naïve, I didn’t know anything.” One certainly believes Hugh Hefner’s businesslike, piston-like coupling of her in bed with him while she graced the pages of Playboy as a centerfold — and then forgetting her existence the instant that month’s issue was replaced by the next one.

And one believes as, a lot less lasciviously, one reads every gruesome word of her description — the best passage in the whole book — of the first of her three enforcedly illegal abortions, this one when she was still in college, all three in Florida, all three without anesthetic. It was — all three were — enough to turn her into a Women’s Libber for life.

But it has not kept her from liking men, especially the man she mentions — but does not name — in the last sentence of her book. Well, this book. (A much earlier book, “My Darling From the Lions,” a novel about her first marriage, has just been reissued. The abortion passage, censored out of there, is what reappears in “Bad Boys.”)

The person mentioned at the end of this book is the man she met in 1980, and married. Met him how? “Picked him up on the street in San Miguel.” Is still married to him. He is John Brady Mueller, an accountant, a Texan, “a seminarian when he was young. And when we decided to get married, I made him go back to that spot and get down on one knee and propose to me.”

You are a Southern belle.

“That’s right.”

A New York Times reviewer of “Sleeping With Bad Boys” called Ms. Denham “phallotropic,” a plant turning “to the light of the male member.” Ms. Denham begs to differ. “The truth is they [the bedmates] were chasing after me, because I was famous.”

How many men, Ms. Denham, have you … er … er …been with, in your life?

“Lots. I know how many, but I don’t tell anybody. I don’t want to shock people.”

Well, maybe it’s not a talent to shock, but it is, as someone once said in another connection, a talent to amuse.

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