Tuesday, October 23, 2012
A New York Memory
I had not thought of 44 West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village in a very long time. It was an apartment we had lived in many years ago, and then last Sunday morning from the deck of our home in Laguna Beach, I was reading the Sunday Edition of The Los Angeles Times. The day was soft and the ocean was beautifully lit with that sunshine which illuminates the tip of every breaking wave. From the deck we can actually see Catalina, even on a not so clear day. The cerulean blue water stretched to the horizon, broken in the distance by a single sailing ship, while on the rocks below a seal was taking a sunbath. And then the item in the Calendar Section of The Los Angeles Times brought back a myriad of images of a long forgotten time and place.
The year was 1959. Jane and I had been married in 1954, parents now of a son and a daughter. We had lived in two other places, but there was an apartment we coveted. We knew the landlord and he had promised it was ours if it ever became available.
The apartment was located half way between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue at 44 West 12th Street. The former occupant was a composer, a man named Harry Wood, and he told us that his song, “When the Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along” had been written in the apartment. It was a fact we mentioned to everyone who visited hoping they were as impressed as we were to be in touch with such greatness.
The apartment was on the ground floor. Once when one of Jane’s aunts from Davenport, Iowa, visited us, she said with ill-conceived pity, as she entered the vestibule, “Oh, you live in the basement!” Word probably went back to Davenport, Iowa that Jane had made an unfortunate marriage, but it didn’t matter to us. We loved the apartment and felt ourselves most fortunate.
Like most ground floor apartments the layout was typical. The bedroom faced West 12th Street. We assured ourselves that the racket that went on each morning when the garbage was collected was simply “The Manhattan Melody.” It was one of the many fibs we told ourselves in order to live there.
The bedroom was reached by a long hallway off the living room and past the bath and a closet. The living room was spacious, and boasted a fireplace. The first night we moved in we built an enormous fire only to find out that the flue was stopped up and that we had nearly asphyxiated all of our neighbors on the upper floors. The kitchen was miniscule but what made the apartment so unique was that beyond the living room was a room enclosed on all sides, top to bottom, by glass! In winter we would wake on mornings after a snowfall to find ourselves in a scene reminiscent of the dacha in Dr. Zhivago. And wonder of wonders, from that room you stepped out into a garden.
It was a rectangular space with raised flowerbeds, paved with flagstone, several shade trees, and a view of adjacent gardens. It was a safe place for the children to play. For the children we installed a jungle gym, a sand box and a swing. For the family we bought a charcold grill, and for me, ever the country boy, the opportunity to fill the flower beds with wild iris, trillium, ivy and impatiens, just a few of the trophies I found on hunting expeditions in upper Westchester County.
In his book “Here Is New York” E.B. White describes what it was like to live on the New York Island, in the same town with ”giants” and the excitation of the nearness of them. The giants he celebrates are the writers of his day such as Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Vincent Benet.
Many of my neighbors too were people of distinction. My editor at Random House, Belle Becker, lived right across the street with her husband, Abner Sideman, an editor at Look Magazine. The distinguished director Eve Legalienne and her companion, the legendary actress Margaret Webster, lived down the block. There was a plaque on the side of one of the brownstones marking where Edna St. Vincent Milay had lived. The actress Estelle Parsons and her twin daughters were just down the street, and it was not unusual to encounter humorist and writer S. J. Pearlman, on one of his strolls through the village. The cook and author, James Beard, was often seen hurrying along the street, trailed by his disciples, all wearing tall white chef’s hats and carrying trays of food or cooking utensils on their way to some event. I even spotted William Faulkner at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street and successfully managed to keep from engulfing him with the awe his very presence inspired in me. And only a few blocks away was The White Horse, the bar where writers such as Vance Bourjally, James Jones, Norman Mailer and Joe Heller congregated to drink and fight and boast.
I gradually became aware of another celebrity neighbor. Facing our garden from the next brownstone and on the third floor lived a man and a woman. From time to time they would engage in loud discussion which would eventually evolve into heated quarrels. In these encounters the woman would yell, “You may be America’s greatest living poet, but you are one vile son of a bitch!” He would respond with “Go ---- yourself, you stupid whore.”
Curious that “America’s greatest living poet” might be living in such close proximity, I stopped in the vestibule of the building and checked the register of the inhabitants. The occupant of that particular apartment was listed as a woman. There was no mention of a man, much less America’s Greatest Living Poet.
The closest I ever came to the contact with The Poet was one summer evening when I was grilling steaks in the garden. A sudden rainstorm came out of nowhere. The steaks were only half cooked so rather than serving them half done I decided to continue grilling. I ran inside, grabbed an umbrella and went back to my chore.
And that was when America’s Greatest Living Poet called to his lady friend and said, “Come see what this damn fool is doing now!”
I looked up at their widow, but they had withdrawn and had gone back to their quarrel. The steaks were delicious, but I carry grudges. How dare that son of a bitch call me a “damn fool” simply because I was keeping the rain off my steaks!
The relationship between the couple seemed to go from bad to worse. The name calling, the loud quarrels, the screams and sometimes the crashing of furniture or the breaking dishes would echo from their window down into our garden.
One morning soon thereafter I stepped out on 12th Street to walk our cocker spaniels, Clemmentine and Chloe. In front of the building next door was a stack of household effects: Furniture, notebooks, food containers, bookshelves, a desk, clothing on hangers, cardboard boxes marked photos, waste baskets. All evidence suggested that the owner of the stuff had been evicted. We learned later that it was The World’s Greatest Living Poet who had done the evicting. While his lady friend was out of town he had thrown her every possession into the street.
When I came back from walking the dogs, I spotted passersby stopping, examining the stuff, and almost every person picking up some item, an end table, some dishes, books, a drawer containing silver or clothing and taking off with it.
And by the time I left for work later that morning there was little left of the woman’s effects but scraps and a desk that must have been too heavy to steal. I can only imagine her dismay when she returned.
In time I encountered a neighbor we met while walking the dogs, we knew her as Miss Horty. She lived on the ground floor of the next door brownstone and I asked her if she knew either of her upstairs neighbors who had moved out.
“I never met the girl,” she said, “But the man who lived with her was Delmore Schwartz, the poet.” “She used to call him America’s Greatest Living Poet,” I said. “Oh, he was,” said Horty “He’s in all the anthologies.”
I always meant to look up Mr. Schwartz and read his work, but somehow I never got around to it. In time we moved away from New York to follow the television industry to Los Angeles. I had hardly ever thought of him until last Sunday when I was reading the Los Angeles Times down at the beach house.
The article was about a singer, and guitar player who had been a student at Syracuse University where he had been a disciple of Delmore Schwartz’. There was that name again after all those many years. I had never really read any of his work so I looked up the man and found that he was indeed a genius. He was the earliest recipient of the esteemed Bollengen Prize awarded by Yale University for excellence in poetry, and he was praised by such literary figures as T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound.
I learned too that as time went by drugs and alcohol took their toll and he died insane in a seedy Times Square hotel, but when I read his poems, in view of the violent rants that had spilled from his window down into my garden, I was surprised at the tenderness and depth of feeling he had celebrated in his work.
Still, even after all these years I can’t forgive him for calling me a damn fool just because I wanted my steak well done and wouldn’t let a little rain stop me.