Blending New York City History, Anarchism, Contemporary Painting, and Home-brewed Ale

AleA fascinating slice of synchronous civic history was on display on the Lower East Side of Manhattan recently. At 50 East First Street, on a one-of-kind block tucked just north of East Houston, is a new gallery/activist venue called OSMOS Address. Kyle and I enjoyed the exhibit at the purpose-driven space run by socially conscious curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. The show features the paintings of Peter Dreher, who for forty years has devoted himself to painting domestic objects—a water glass and a chalice, for instance—in an ongoing series of meditative still-life works. Along with Dreher’s mesmerizing paintings, the evening offered visitors to the gallery the chance to taste a savory reddish pale ale—brewed by Austin Thomas, artist, gallerist and craft brewer—with aromatic fresh-baked bread from Table on Ten in Delaware County, New York, each small loaf sporting a sprig of rosemary—serving as an earthy tasting companion to the ale.Bread

Quoting from a handout distributed at OSMOS Address, the small batch ale was brewed as part of an homage called “Beer on Sunday,” honoring a distinguished nineteenth century tenant of this same address, “a German-American anarchist named Justus Schwab, who kept a ‘Beer-hole’. . . where writers, artists, radicals and other misfits met to drink and talk in to the night.”

The free-thinking anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) knew Schwab well and said this about her close friend:

“Schwab was the traditional Teuton in appearance, over six feet tall, broad-chest, and strait as a tree. On his wide shoulders and strong neck rested a magnificent head, framed in curly red hair and beard. His eyes were full of fire and intensity. But it was his voice, deep and tender, that was peculiar characteristic. It would have made him famous if he had chosen an operatic career. Justus was too much the rebel and the dreamer, however, to care about such things.”

A reprinted article on hand, originally appearing in the New York Times of March 7, 1879, chronicled a criminal trial in which Schwab was the defendant. He had been arrested at 50 East First on July 22, 1878, accused with dispensing alcoholic beverages at his Beer-hole shortly after the clock turned midnight and ticked over in to that early Sunday morning. Arrested at 12:15 am, Schwab was charged with a violation of Sunday closure laws—aka “blue laws”—a sign of churches’ influence on local regulations, which were still on the books in many municipalities well in to the twentieth century. Hearing the case, a three-judge panel found in Schwab’s favor, pointing out that the law as written forbade the serving of alcoholic beverages between one o’clock and five o’clock in the morning, and made no mention of midnight as the cut-off. Schwab was acquitted and the judges ordered court costs to be paid to him by the arresting officers. A pretty big win for the activist who not only kept beer taps in his establishment, but also operated a printing press with which he issued broadsides and political pamphlets in service of the causes embraced by Emma Goldman and other radicals of the time. The plaque about Schwab at 50 East First Street relates a friendship he shared with keen misanthropic writer Ambrose Bierce, a writer primarily identified with San Francisco, whose later disappearance during the Mexican War remains a mystery. I was unaware he had spent time in NYC.Schwab plaque

Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Austin Thomas presented all this lore alongside the works of Peter Dreher in an adroit blend of hitherto hidden history and adventuresome aesthetics. I look forward to attending other events at OSMOS Address—where Rabinowitz told us she plans to set up a printing press—and at shows put on by Austin Thomas of Pocket Utopia. Kyle and I also enjoyed meeting longtime residents of 50 East First Street, artists Christin Couture and William Hoise, keen appreciators of nineteenth century aesthetics and collectors of objects and antiques from the era.

New B.B. King Documentary Opening May 21


Last year I saw a great documentary on the blues, “Born in Chicago,” and now it looks like this film on the life and career of B.B. King will also be terrific. At B.B.’s site is a full listing of the more than twenty-five cities in which the film will be opening later this month. In NYC it will be showing at Village East Cinemas.

Best Day Yet this Spring

Vivian Maier Was The Real Deal, the Ultra Opposite of Joe Gould

I was stunned by the new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Kyle and I saw yesterday. Below is the trailer, if you haven’t seen it yet, or the film, which was directed by John Maloof, and two of her photographs. He bought a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. At the time, neither he, nor anyone, yet knew who Maier was, or that she’d been making a photographic record in Chicago where she lived since around 1949.

vm_newsstandVM hands
I continued thinking about the movie all day after walking out of the noon screening. Today, I’m still mulling some major points that struck me. Below is an attempt to corral what I’ve been thinking about the film.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009) embarked on and then sustained over many decades the production of what we can now see as a truly monumental visual and documentary legacy. It’s a microcosmic yet vast history of modern urban America and many Americans, seen through the sensitive eye, lens, and mind of one person, a woman whose work as a nanny somehow allowed her the means and opportunity to conduct this personal journalistic enterprise. Until Maloof’s discovery, the enterprise was completely unknown, yet it was hiding in what amounted to (somewhat plain) sight, in auction houses, storage lockers, and in the records of the families she had worked for over the years. Some of them were still paying storage fees on her property. With impressive industry and inspired sensitivity to Maier’s mission, Maloof has excavated the extant physical record. I’m very thankful to him for doing this, for his open-heartedness and his willingness to plunge in to Maier’s work. In bidding at the fateful auction, he went all the way up to $380 for the box of negatives,* not small change. He said on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show last Friday that when he bid on and won the box he hoped to be able to harvest images from it for a photographic history of Chicago he was organizing for Arcadia Books (the publisher that does city histories). Turned out the pictures weren’t good for the book, and he put them in a closet. But sometime later, he posted more than 100 images on his Flickr page, essentially blogging with them. The reaction was a palpable “Wow” from street photography lovers and has led ultimately to this amazing documentary, which I want to see again.

Thinking more about Maier’s dedication, I’m amazed at how pure her motivation was in producing it all. She created this legacy, even though she never, so far as is known, sought an audience for her work, and had no child, relation, friend, or agent–not a single person–to whom she could leave her work; I wonder if she even had a will. Nor does it seem Maier solicited the interest of another photographer or an institution that might have taken an interest in her archive. Perhaps Maier knew best, not wanting to broach rejection. In the film, Maloof reports on what became a futile attempt to interest MOMA in the work. Even with their storied photographic collection, curated for many years by Peter Galassi, who didn’t retire until 2011, they perfunctorily declined. There ought to be some embarrassment at the museum over this and I think it would be a good thing if an arts journalist with a source at MOMA would seek on-the-record comment from them about their refusal. I concede that everybody makes mistakes–like editors who turned down On the Road and Catcher in the Rye–but it’s best to own up to them when they occur. So, instead of falling in to the hands of a responsible party at the time of Maier’s death in 2009, the hundred thousand negatives, many 8 mm and 16 mm film reels, and cassettes of audio recordings she made with people she interviewed–making her a veritable podcaster, decades before the term was coined–were basically put out to sea, cast adrift, and headed perhaps for a destructive crack-up on the rocky shores of time. That they didn’t suffer shipwreck–or submersion in a landfill–borders on a secular miracle.

I’m also thinking of Maier’s lack of an audience in a personal way, in relation to my own creative output, my two blogs (to be sure, humble by comparison). Here and on Honourary Canadian, I write and share about what interests me, what compels me, and hope that readers will care about these things, too, and appreciate the way I express and present them. I do like knowing that readers are finding items of interest and mutual relevance, though I wouldn’t change what I’m writing about just to gain more readers. It doesn’t matter greatly to me if some pieces aren’t widely read, because I’m also writing for myself, for the clarity of mind that I derive from the effort and experience. Fortunately, I do have readers, and what amounts to my own printing press, the WordPress blogs themselves. Maier, in this regard, didn’t seek, or at any rate, didn’t have the opportunity to have her work seen by others. Yet, she seems to have hardly flagged or despaired over not having a speck of an audience or appreciation, and no way to get them. This makes what she did all the more singular and remarkable.

On America’s most prolific diarist, Edward Robb Ellis; “Joe Gould’s Secret” by The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell; and Vivian Maier

Readers who follow the books I’ve edited and published over the years may recall my author Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), whose A Diary of the Century was quite a popular book for me, published in 1995, republished in 2008, still easy to find, still highly recommended. I mention it here because Eddie, as friends knew him, is the writer in my experience with an enterprise most closely analogous to that of Vivian Maier, though interesting distinctions exist between them. He kept a diary longer than anyone in the history of American letters, beginning his enterprise at age 16 during the Christmas vacation of 1927, when he dared a few pals, and himself, to start keeping a diary, and then they’d see who among them could keep it the longest. In his 20s, he also became a newspaper reporter. Basically, Eddie never stopped writing until the year he died. As Pete Hamill observed in his Introduction, Eddie wrote in print for the public, yet also for himself in the diary, which years later he wrote helped him become a more mature, an even happier, person. But even with the diary’s private reflections on intensely personal matters, Eddie also showed an interest in writing for the sake of the future, for posterity; he ultimately wanted the diary to be read by others, in hopes it might enrich the future with useful knowledge and pertinent information on his times–his entries cover the quotidian; the cost of things; which songs were on the hit parade; what movies were shown on a weekend when he worked his part-time job as an usher at the local cinema; along with current events and historic incidents that shook the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which certified Ellis’s achievement in the early 1990s, his diary comprised more than 22,000,000 words, nearly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a work with hundreds of contributors, while like Vivian Maier, Eddie created his work entirely on his own.

Ellis’s prodigious achievement was so well known among his fellow journalists that when Diary was published the week after Labor Day in ’95, Eddie scored a rare publicity hat trick: He was invited to appear, and went on all three network morning chat shows all within that week, interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Matt Lauer, and Harry Smith (on ABC, NBC, and CBS respectively) each network overlooking the usual policy they had against booking a guest who’s just been on a competing show. In the last decades of his life, the diary by then grown to many bound leather volumes and associated boxes, Eddie spent much anxious energy contemplating where his magnum opus might end up–he tried deeding it to a number of institutions, but even with the Guinness stamp of approval, there were few willing takers. Fortunately, as I wrote in a Preface to the 2008 paperback reissue of Diary, Eddie’s life work found “a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus.” I added that I hope to publish another volume of the Ellis Diary someday, for it had been “my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the diary…and I promise the reader that I found no dross there.” A Diary of the Century

While working with Eddie Ellis from 1993-98, bringing out three other books of his, including The Epic of New York City, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s classic New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In it, Mitchell chronicles for the reader his lamentable discovery that a longtime legendary denizen of lower Manhattan, Joe Gould, who for years had purported to be writing a magnum opus/History of the World was ultimately a bluffer, a failure, and a fraud. (In the pretty good movie version Ian Holm plays a grizzled Gould while Stanley Tucci takes on the role of Mitchell, a North Carolina writer working for the magazine.) Working with Eddie, I used to think how lucky I was to be working with a real-life Joe Gould-type, only Eddie was the real McCoy.

But now, thinking once more about Vivian Maier, I can see that unlike the others, she created her magnificent magnum opus without an audience, nor hope for one. By contrast, Gould hoped for adulation from others, though he did little to earn it, while Eddie Ellis, though not creating his work primarily for others, did enjoy praise, and came to see how his diary could be useful to others, and so arranged to share it with the world. But not only did Maier disclaim an audience for herself, she didn’t even claim posthumous credit for her achievement, like say with a “To Be Opened on the Occasion of My Death” letter, with information on where her affects could be found. She just died, and fortunately John Maloof was there to connect with her work. This is all a striking contrast to her male predecessors Gould and Ellis, the former phony, the latter authentic. It leaves me in greater awe of what she accomplished, and all the more appreciative of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”

*I objected to the penultimate paragraph in Manohla Dargis’s NY Times review of the documentary, where she quibbles with the fact that Maloof stands to gain financially as Vivian Maier’s star rises higher. The guy has unearthed this magnificent work, and devoted several years of his life to it, at much expense I’m sure–I hope he does well from it all. Glad to see that art critic Jerry Saltz and I are in agreement on this point, as he wrote this in his New York magazine review of “Finding Vivian Maier”:  “The Times’ otherwise excellent Manohla Dargis churlishly labeled this documentary ‘a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work.’ This sort of cynical snappishness is cropping up a lot in many critics’ work of late—the idea that if there’s any profit involved, the work must be less pure, less good, more suspect. Whatever: I love this advertisement. Besides: Maloof tried to get MoMA interested in Maier’s work. In the film, he shows us and reads the perfunctory rejection letter he got from the museum. He was on his own. No one else wanted to take on the responsibility of unearthing and bringing to light this truly great artist. History will be grateful to him, and no one should look back cynically at his commitment to Vivian Maier.”

Remembering Woody Guthrie’s Sad Convalesence at Greystone Hospital

Wardy Forty postcardFriday night at Valentine, the gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, Kyle and I attended the opening of a very powerful exhibit, “Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty,” also the title of an accompanying book by photographer and curator of twentieth century ruins Phillip Buehler. It refers to the name Guthrie himself assigned to the section of Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, in Morris Plains, NJ, where he lived from 1956-61. On WoodyGuthrie.org, the site maintained by the late folksinger’s daughter Nora, the biographical sketch of Woody explains the circumstances surrounding this chapter in his life (edited for length below, I suggest you make time to read the whole sketch):

“Toward the late 1940s, Woody’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic, moody and violent….He was beginning to show symptoms of…Huntington’s Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease that gradually and eventually robbed him of his health, talents and abilities….It was later discovered to be the same disease which thirty years earlier had caused his mother’s institutionalization and eventual death. Shaken by inexplicable volatile physical and emotional symptoms, Woody left his family…taking off for California with his young protégé, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott….Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young woman who became his third wife….Becoming more and more unpredictable during a final series of road trips, Woody eventually returned to New York with Anneke, where he was hospitalized several times. Mistakenly diagnosed and treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, his symptoms kept worsening and his physical condition deteriorated. Picked up for ‘vagrancy’ in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into the nearby Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital where he was finally diagnosed with…the incurable degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s Disease or HD. During these years, Marjorie Guthrie, family, and friends continued to visit and care for him. A new generation of musicians took an interest in folk music bringing it into the mainstream as yet another folk music revival. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs, and many other young folksingers visited Woody in the hospital, bringing along their guitars and their songs to play for him, perhaps even to thank him.”

For his part, Phillip Buehler explores, photographs, and appreciates modern ruins. His website is called Modern-Ruins.com. When he stumbled on to Greystone the grounds had been abandoned for more than forty years. As it’s described in an statement accompanying the exhibit,

“After coming across thousands of negatives in the deserted darkroom, he researched the hospital and discovered that Woody Guhtire once lived there. He reached out to Guthrie’s daughter Nora…who gave him Guthrie’s case number. Buehler was then able to pull negatives from Guthrie’s file…beginning a ten-year journey that led to Wardy Forty: Greystone Park Hospital State Hospital Revisited.”

Copies of the book, a landscape format photography album with illuminating captions and text, were on hand at Valentine, while on the walls were hung small snapshots, many black & white, of Woody and family at Greystone; large format 4-color photos of the crumbling structure that was Greystone as Buehler found it; a slide show with the original text of Woody’s intake interview at the hospital running at timed intervals, which strikes the viewer with the singer’s innocence of the fact that his interlocutors seemed as it went along to increasingly believe he was mentally ill; and projected images of photographs taken of Woody at widely differing times, sadly showing his inexorable decline in health and demeanor. In a hallway off the main room is a display of intake photos of many Greystone patients with their patient number hovering above them, including that of Woody.

Nora Guthrie and Phillip Buehler were both on hand Friday night at Valentine. When Kyle and I came upon them, they were talking among themselves, but they welcomed us into their conversation and we enjoyed talking over the next little while. Nora told me with enthusiasm about the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which she’s recently helped to establish in her father’s home state. She explained that it’s a study center for researchers, an educational facility for students of all ages, and a concert space for live music performances. Nora’s a warm and friendly person and it was a privilege to meet her this night. Buehler is also full of enthusiasm for his enterprises, and I was excited to tell him I share his interest in industrial archaeology and physical artifacts, as with my website photography of maritime and architectural artifacts, such as the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

I recommend you check out Phillip Buehler’s book, which A.M. Homes has called “hauntingly beautiful.” It is available for purchase at WoodyGurthrie.org. I also urge you to see the exhibit, which will be up at Valentine until April 13. Below is more info on the exhibit and the gallery, along with pictures I took the other night, including this one of Nora Guthrie and Philip Buehler.Nora Guthrie&Philip Buehler

Possible Photo of Lincoln’s Funeral Procession Prompts Personal Reflections of a Missing Friend


When I had my bookstore, Undercover Books, we stocked and sold a majestic photography book called The Face of Lincoln, which collected every known photograph of Lincoln. It came out in 1979. Face of LincolnA few years later, I gave it as a wedding present to my Franconia College classmate and close friend Robert Henry Adams, who after college in New Hampshire had moved back to his hometown of Chicago where he became a dealer in rare books, prints, and fine art. The third member of our troika of friendship was Karl Petrovich, a dear friend to both of us. A few years after that, by which time I had moved to NYC, Rob gave me an original Lincoln photograph by Alexander Gardner, a contemporary of Matthew Brady. Sadly, Rob died in 2001, a dear friend whom I still miss all the time. Karl died a few months after Rob, early in 2002.Lincoln by Gardner

I thought of Rob yesterday when I heard CBC As It Happens’ interview with a US archivist who believes that a fellow staffer of his recently discovered a photograph of Lincoln’s funeral procession as it passed in front of Grace Church at Broadway and 10th Street in Manhattan, near where Matthew Brady had his photographic studio. It’s a segment that would’ve fascinated him, and he would have had an educated opinion about whether these pictures do show the Lincoln funeral. You may listen to the story about the discovery via this link. Along with pictures of The Face of Lincoln and the Lincoln photo Rob gave me here are some more shots: of Rob himself, with me; Karl Petrovich; his wife Sandra Adams; his sons, Jesse and Sam; and my wife Kyle Gallup. Cross-posted on Honourary Canadian.

Always Happy to See Novelist Walter Tevis Remembered and Appreciated

Thursday January 28, 2016 Update: Though saddened by the recent death of David Bowie, I was buoyed to to learn that “Lazarus,” Bowie’s musical, is described as a sequel to the 1976 movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which itself was based on Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel of the same name. Although Tevis died in 1988, I’m glad to know that his longtime agent, Susan Schulman, is still finding ways to license and repurpose his work, and in this instance to keep alive Tevis’s interplanetary visitor, Thomas Jerome Newton.

Monday February 10 Update: In a pleasant coincidence, this morning’s email brings more affirmation of the talents of the late Walter Tevis, whose novels I praised in yesterday in the post below. It was announced in the daily deal memo of Publishermarketplace.com that another his novels has been optioned for film:

Walter Tevis’s MOCKINGBIRD, to Robert Schwartz at Seismic Pictures, by Susan Schulman at Susan Schulman Literary Agency.*

Walter Tevis, gone 26 years and still having his books optioned. Pretty amazing, huh? Here’s a shot of an old galley I have of the novel. Mockingbird
Sunday, February 9
Good essay by Malcolm Jones in the Daily Beast on how Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, published in 1963, differs from the 1976 film version directed by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie. I still love all Walter Tevis’s books, especially his chess novel, Queen’s Gambit. I met him when he was touring for that book in 1983. He came to visit Undercover Books despite a blizzard in Cleveland that day, because his editor at Random House had urged him to come see our bookstore. Though he had limited time between flights, he was genial and met several of our customers while signing copies of the new novel.

Tevis, who died in 1988, is way under-appreciated. He never wrote a mediocre book. His others include his pool novels The Hustler and The Color of Money (also both adapted for memorable films) and his other science fiction novel, The Steps of the Sun, which I brought out in paperback in 1988 when I was an editor at Collier Macmillan. Tevis’s characters were often in the midst of existential crises, certainly true for Bowie’s alien character in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”; Beth, the struggling teenaged chess prodigy in Queen’s Gambit; and Eddie Felson, the hard-drinking pool-player in “The Hustler,” played by Paul Newman opposite Jackie Gleason. For years there have been rumors of someone making a film of Queen’s Gambit but no one’s done it yet. Guess it’s in the same category as Jack Finney’s Time & Again, also much loved as a novel, and much discussed as a film, but not made, at least not yet.

Steps of the SunSteps of the Sun back cover
* Coincidentally, some years after I published Steps of the Sun, Tevis’s agent Susan Schulman introduced me to Eleanora Tevis, the late author’s widow, a Scotswoman. She in turn introduced me to friends of hers in Scotland, who then became good friends to me and my whole family, lodging us numerous times at their comfortable home in Glasgow. This was the Metzstein family, whose patriarch Isi was a notable architect, whom I eulogized after his death in 2012.

Fun Friday Night Seeing Art on the Bowery


LuloffHad fun seeing art last night with Kyle, and the city was surprisingly quiet, especially for a Friday. The subways, sidewalks, and galleries were not so crowded, which made getting around in the cold and ice almost a piece o’ cake.

The exhibit I tweeted about by Laurel Luloff was a highlight of the art we saw. Her paintings are a breath of summer, with several of them hung as floating, transparent, colored sails. We also enjoyed the mouse drawings of Jashin Friederich. The show is up through March 1, at The Hole, 312 Bowery. Here are the pictures I took, including one of Kyle and Luloff, plus info on Skit, curated by Tisch Abelow, the other exhibit currently at the gallery.