Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004


Helen Gee, 85, proprietor of famed Limelight cafe

By Jerry Tallmer

Once upon a long time ago, when I was trying to become a writer in Greenwich Village and doing almost anything to keep from sitting down and writing, I was delegated to go uptown to pick up a daybed from someone and bring it back down to an apartment near Sheridan Sq.

The someone had an odd name: Helen Gee. A Chinese lady, I must have thought, somebody dark and small, but when I looked up from wrestling a cord around the daybed’s brown-paper wrapping, what met my eye was the face and figure of an absolutely gorgeous but very serious radiant blonde.

Serious and, as it would turn out for the next 55 years or so, sometimes unsparing, of herself and everyone else. Serious and sympathetic, intellectually generous, quick on the trigger, adventurous, rebellious, inventive, nurturing, passionately committed to photography, writing, painting, Greenwich Village, all the arts.

It was that radiant blonde who flashed into mind when the obit page of the New York Times sucker-punched me last week with the news that on Sun., Oct. 10, 2004, Helen Gee, creator/proprietor of the Limelight Coffee House and Photography Gallery, 91 Seventh Ave. S., had gone and left us at 85. According to The Times, she died at a Village hospice.

The seven glorious years of that cultural/social nexus of the Greenwich Village state of mind were 1954-1960, a story spankingly well told by Helen herself in her “Limelight: A Memoir” (University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

“[The Limelight] was, to begin with” — I recalled in these pages when the book came out — “just a beautiful space — for New York of that decade the first of an entire clean new concept: white-on-white walls punctuated by a half-dozen black boxlike 19th-century ships’ lanterns; simple milk-glass-topped wooden tables, bentwood chairs, plain white Bowery china, skylight lighting.

“And then the photos, back toward Barrow St. in the gallery proper — the only such of its kind in New York since Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘291’ a half-century earlier — providing voltage and raison d’etre to the whole thing . . .”

The place quickly became a hangout for some of us who had started The Village Voice a few blocks away, and it was the venue where we held the first three years, I think it was, of the Off-Broadway Obie Awards.

As a sendoff of sorts for Helen, here is something more of that 1997 memoir about the memoirist:

Pages 293 to 295 of her book list the 70 shows that Helen presented there in the seven years, a roster that’s like a pantheon of the greats: Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, Moholy-Nagy, Stieglitz himself, Brassai, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, Imogen Cunningham, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, Gordon Parks, Minor White, Rudolph Burckhardt and on and on and on . . .

Many of them, by the way, not as well known then as they would be after Helen put them into the limelight at Limelight.

The story of her struggles to start that establishment, and to keep it going, for seven years, against all odds — landlords, bookies, the Mafia, unwanted druggies, building inspectors (with hands out), the Fire Department, the unions, the lawyers, the money lenders, the quixotic help and good-looking waitresses, with all their personal problems, the aberrant managers, the even more quixotic and aberrant photographers (some of them) — is what she’s told in her vivid memoir.

That, and the story of the actual carving and shaping of this gem out of the dust-coated shambles of a long-abandoned striptease joint where there’d once been a murder, four steps down from sidewalk level — an act of architectural creation by two gutsy young Villagers, golden-blonde Helen Gee and dark-haired Peggy Muendel Tallmer, a skinny, beautiful, bluejeaned girl in her early 20s . . .

Scattered also through the book are brief glimpses of the huge odd lot of distinctive personalities who passed through or hung out at Limelight: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Maya Deren, Zero Mostel, Norman Mailer, Shelley Winters, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Isamu Noguchi, James Baldwin, Frank O’Connor, S.J. Perelman, Lorraine Hansberry, Meyer Schapiro, Edward Steichen, Alger Hiss, Weegee, Jason Robards, Geraldine Page, Jerry Orbach, Ed Asner, Julie Bovasso, Peter Falk, Sidney Poitier . . .

What she hasn’t told in the book . . . is what brought Helen Gee down from 135th St. to Greenwich Village in the first place, at the age of 16.

Helen Wimmer, daughter of Peter Wimmer, wife and widow of artist Yun Gee, mother of artist Li-lan Gee, ex-wife of the late Columbia University English Professor (and White Horse habitué) Kevin Sullivan, was born in Jersey City.

Pneumonia had taken Helen’s mother, Marie Ludwig Wimmer, when Helen was 18 months old.

“My father,” she said to this journalist one night in her apartment at 61 Jane St. off Abingdon Sq., “was a house painter and decorator of the old school. After my mother died, leaving three children, it was very, very difficult for him. What woman would want a man with three small kids?

“Finally he answered an ad in the Stadts Zeitung, the German-language newspaper in Yorkville. There was this woman in Clifton, N.J., with three children of her own. Wonderful — she had three children, he had three children. They were married in three weeks — and it was the mistake of his life.

“This woman could have qualified as commandant in a Nazi concentration camp. It was still Prohibition then, and my father — a Sunday-school teacher in the Dutch Reformed Church — discovered to his horror that she was into bootlegging on the side.

“So my long-suffering father pulled out and came back, with us kids, to a coldwater railroad flat in New York. I was 7. When I was 13 he married again, another disaster, and we moved into the basement of this woman’s building on 135th St., near C.C.N.Y. She was the superintendent. They called her The Hitler of Washington Heights. The second one! Incredible.

“I became quite rebellious, and more than that when my father started taking me to rallies in Yorkville with all these men in brown shirts screaming and yelling. I watched this peaceful, sensitive man, my father, change into a Nazi sympathizer.

“My big fight with him came when I read in the newspapers about Jewish women being made to scrub the streets of Vienna [with toothbrushes]. I read a lot. I became, shall I say, left of center . . . “

To escape stepmother No. 2 and everything else, teenager Helen starting going down to the culture-rich YM-YWHA at 92nd St. and Lexington Ave. There she was taken under the wing of a teacher named Mary Hutchinson.

“She thought I had some talent as a painter. She changed my life. Mary knew an artist down in the Village. His name was Yun Gee. She took me down there, to 10th St. and Sixth Ave. The door opened. I saw this Chinese man standing there. He was gorgeous. Do you know, I’d never talked to a Chinese person in my life, except a laundryman.

“So I tell you, the minute I walked in that studio, that was it. The place was also full of birds — 40 birds, canaries, skylarks.

“Mary decided to paint his portrait. He would pose for her every Saturday, and I’d go along. While Mary was painting him he played music on a Chinese flute called a er-hu, and I was just enchanted . . .

“Yun was very courteous, but he never said anything to me. On the last day Mary was washing her bushes when Yun said in a low voice: ‘May I paint your portrait?’ The heavens opened for me.”

At 16, 17, she moved in with Yun . . . . The heavens closed some eight years later, in 1945, when, after a series of Yun’s mental breakdowns and hospitalizations, “his behavior” — she writes — “began to border on violence.” A difficult pregnancy had climaxed with the birth of Li-lan (named for an orchid that grows along a river in China). With her infant in arms, Helen had to get away.

“I took the crib, some clothes and a few books, and left. I had a dollar and a quarter and the offer of a job.”

The job was in a factory painting rosebuds on heart-shaped porcelain boxes at $12 a gross. Then she painted roses on hampers and garbage cans. But “out of the blue came a call from John English, the art director of ‘Today’s Woman,’ ” who had heard through his wife — a fellow breast-feeding mother of Washington Sq. Park — that Helen had facility with an airbrush. “Could I handle a food shot?” . . .

She could, she did and a door opened to the career that would carry her financially all through the Limelight years and beyond — retouching high-fashion transparencies with one single strand of a camel’s hair brush. Which opened the door to the universe of photography. Which opened the door to 91 Seventh Ave. S. In truth, even now, that door has not closed.

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