There was some happy irony, back in 1992, when Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel -- a collection of the long-time New Yorker writer's best and earthiest reportage -- began its improbable climb up various bestseller lists. Up in the Old Hotel began flying out of bookstores at almost exactly the same moment Tina Brown was making her first, fumbling efforts to tart up The New Yorker's image, and there was clearly an autumnal tinge of nostalgia in the air. Readers responded to Mitchell's unflappable, offhandedly graceful prose, as well as his interest in characters (saloon keepers, street preachers, bearded ladies) whose lives were otherwise utterly unsung. Still very much alive, Mitchell felt like an absolute relic -- an apparition from another journalistic era.
Readers who admired Up at the Old Hotel may not want to shell out $13.50 for this compact, reissued edition of Mitchell's 1965 book Joe Gould's Secret -- after all, the two profiles of Gould that make up this volume appeared in 1992's omnibus bestseller. But Joe Gould's Secret does seem worthy of note, if only for putting Mitchell's two articles about this famous Greenwich Village writer and panhandler, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1942 and 1964, back together again. (In Up in the Old Hotel they appeared in different chronological sections.) Just as notably, Mitchell's spare, careful prose seems better served in this new edition; it's a slim, lovely book that reminds us, in an era when length is used to indicate seriousness, how much more rewarding (and well-crafted) small books can be.
Joe Gould -- if you don't know his story -- was a famous character in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s and '50s. A graduate of Harvard and the scion of a well-to-do Boston family, he nevertheless lived like an outcast, sleeping in flophouses and, as he tells Mitchell, living on "air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup." (Gould was infamous in New York restaurants for emptying two or three bottles of ketchup onto his plate and eating every drop -- free food! -- with a spoon.) At the same time, Gould claimed to be working on a massive book, a collection of overheard conversations and offhand remarks that would be titled An Oral History of Our Time. Friends saw him as "the Samuel Pepys of the Bowery." Gould's claim was backed-up by his unlikely friendships with e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound and other Village literary figures, and Gould even managed to publish some pieces in magazines like The Dial.
There's a slightly rueful quality to Joe Gould's Secret as the true story behind Gould's "book" begins to emerge. But the real joys here are in Mitchell's calm evocation of Gould's wildly complicated life and personality. He was, Mitchell writes, "one of those men who are too shy to talk to strangers but not too shy to hold up a bank." In Joe Gould's Secret, it's Mitchell who makes off with the loot. -- Salon
Based on two profiles written for The New Yorker between 1942 and 1964, Joseph Mitchell's enchanting account of the frenetic Bohemian, Joe Gould, is also an equally touching and sensitive portrait of a man who became a puckish, ribald myth during his life--and, one can almost add, before he was born.--
Books of the Century, the New York Times review, September, 1965
Joseph Mitchell is one of our finest journalists, unique in his compassion and understanding for the haunted little lost man Joe Gould. He transforms a forlorn, intolerably pathetic gentleman panhandler into an engaging, Dickensian orphan rogue. -- The Washington Post
What people say is history -- Joe Gould is right about that -- and history, when recorded by Mitchell, is literature. One hopes that his book will stay in print forever. -- The New Criterion
Read an Excerpt
Joe Gould is a blithe and emaciated little man who has been a notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich Village for a quarter of a century. He sometimes brags rather wryly that he is the last of the bohemians. "All the others fell by the wayside,- he says. "Some are in the grave, some are in the loony bin, and some are in the advertising business." Gould's life is by no means carefree; be is constantly tormented by what he calls "the three H's"-homelessness, hunger, and hangovers. He sleeps on benches in subway stations, on the floor in the studios of friends, and in quarter-a-night flophouses on the Bowery. Once in a while he trudges up to Harlem and goes to one of the establishments known as "Extension Heavens" that are operated by followers of Father Divine, the Negro evangelist, and gets a night's lodging for fifteen cents. He is five feet four and he hardly ever weighs more than a hundred pounds. Not long ago he told a friend that he hadn't eaten a square meal since June, 1936, when he bummed up to Cambridge and attended a banquet during a reunion of the Harvard class of 1911, of which he is a member. "I'm the foremost authority in the United States," he says, "on the subject of doing without." He tells people that he lives on -air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup." Cowboy coffee, he says, is strong coffee drunk black without sugar. "I've long since lost my taste for good coffee," he says. "I much prefer the kind that sooner or later, if you keep on drinking it, your hands will begin to shake and the whites of your eyes will turn yellow." While having a sandwich, Gould customarily empties a bottle or two ofketchup on his plate and eats it with a spoon. The countennen in the Jefferson Diner, on Village Square, which is one of his hangouts, gather up the ketchup bottles and hide them the moment he puts his head in the door. "I don't particularly like the confounded stuff," he says, -but I make it a practice to eat all I can get. It's the only grub I know of that's free of charge."
Gould is a Yankee. His branch of the Goulds has been in New England since 1635, and he is related to many of the other early New England families, such as the Lawrences, the Clarkes, and the Storers. "There's nothing accidental about me," he once said. -I'll tell you what it took to make me what I am today. It took old Yankee blood, an overwhelming aversion to possessions, four years of Harvard, and twenty-five years of beating the living hell out of my insides with bad hooch and bad food." He says that he is out of joint with the rest of the human race because he doesn't want to own anything. "If Mr. Chrysler tried to make me a present of the Chrysler Building," he says, -I'd damn near break my neck fleeing from him. I wouldn't own it; it'd own me. Back home in Massachusetts I'd be called an old Yankee crank. Here I'm called a bohemian. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other." Gould has a twangy voice and a Harvard accent. Bartenders and counterinen in the Village refer to him as the Professor, the Sea Gull, Professor Sea Gull, the Mongoose, Professor Mongoose, or the Bellevue Boy. He dresses in the castoff clothes of his friends. His overcoat, suit, shirt, and even his shoes are all invariably a size or two too large, but he wears them with a kind of forlorn rakishness. "Just look at me,- he says. -The only thing that fits is the necktie." On bitter winter days he puts a layer of newspapers between his shirt and undershirt. "I'm snobbish," he says. "I only use the Tinies." He is fond of unusual headgear-a toboggan, a beret, or a yachting cap. One summer evening he appeared at a party in a seersucker suit, a polo shirt, a scarlet cummerbund, sandals, and a yachting cap, all hand-me-downs. He uses a long black cigarette holder, and a good deal of the time he smokes butts picked up off the sidewalks.
Bohemianism has aged Gould considerably beyond his years. He has got in the habit lately of asking people he has just met to guess his age. Their guesses range between sixty-five and seventy-five; he is fifty-three. He is never hurt by this; he looks upon it as proof of his superiority. "I do more living in one year," he says, "than ordinary humans do in ten." Gould is toothless, and his lower jaw swivels from side to side when he talks. He is bald on top, but the hair at the back of his head is long and frizzly, and he has a busby, cinnamon-colored beard. He wears a pair of spectacles that are loose and lopsided and that slip down to the end of his nose a moment after he puts them on. He doesn't always wear them on the street and without them he has the wild, unfocussed stare of an old scholar who has strained his eyes on small print. Even in the Village many people turn and look at him. He is stooped and he moves rapidly, grumbling to himself, with his head thrust forward and held to one side. Under his left arm he usually carries a bulging, greasy, brown pasteboard portfolio, and he swings his right arm aggressively. As he hurries along, he seems to be warding off an imaginary enemy. Don Freeman, the artist, a friend of his, once made a sketch of him walking. Freeman called the sketch "Joe Gould versus the Elements." Gould is as restless and footloose as an alley cat, and he takes long hikes about the city, now and then disappearing from the Village for weeks at a time and mystifying his friends; they have never been able to figure out where he goes. When he returns, always looking pleased with himself, he makes a few cryptic remarks, giggles, and then shuts up. "I went on a bird walk along the waterfront with an old countess," he said after his most recent absence. "The countess and I spent three weeks studying sea gulls."
Gould is almost never seen without his portfolio. He keeps it on his lap while he eats and in flophouses he sleeps with it under his head. It usually contains a mass of manuscripts and notes and letters and clippings and copies of obscure little magazines, a bottle of ink, a dictionary, a paper bag of cigarette butts, a paper bag of bread crumbs, and a paper bag of hard, round, dime-store candy of the type called sour balls. "I fight fatigue with sour balls," he says. The crumbs are for pigeons; like many other eccentrics, Gould is a pigeon feeder. He is devoted to a flock which makes its headquarters atop and around the statue of Garibaldi in Washington Square. These pigeons know him. When he comes up and takes a seat on the plinth of the statue, they flutter down and perch on his head and shoulders, waiting for him to bring out his bag of crumbs. He has given names to some of them. "Come here, Boss Tweed," he says. "A lady in Stewart's Cafeteria didn't finish her whole-wheat toast this morning and when she went out, bingo, I snatched it off her plate especially for you. Hello, Big Bosom. Hello, Popgut. Hello, Lady Astor. Hello, St. John the Baptist. Hello, Polly Adler. Hello, Fiorello, you old goat, hoVre you today?,
Although Gould strives to give the impression that he is a philosophical loafer, he has done an immense amount of work during his career as a bohemian. Every day, even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, he spends at least a couple of hours working on a formless, rather mysterious book that he calls "An Oral History of Our Time." He began this book twenty-six years ago, and it is nowhere near finished.