Joe LeSueur lived with Frank O'Hara from 1955 until 1965, the years when O'Hara wrote his greatest poems, including 'To the Film Industry in Crisis', 'In Memory of My Feelings', 'Having a Coke with You', and the famous Lunch Poems-so called because O'Hara wrote them during his lunch break at the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked as a curator. (The artists he championed include Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Rauschenberg.) The flowering of O'Hara's talent, cut short by a fatal car accident in 1966, produced some of the most exuberant, truly celebratory lyrics of the twentieth century. And it produced America's greatest poet of city life since Whitman.
Alternating between O'Hara's poems and LeSueur's memory of the circumstances that inspired them, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara is a literary commentary like no otheran affectionate, no-holds-barred memoir of O'Hara and the New York that animated his work: friends, lovers, movies, paintings, streets, apartments, music, parties, and pickups. This volume, which includes many of O'Hara's best-loved poems, is the most intimate, true-to-life portrait we will ever have of this quintessential American figure and his now legendary times.
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Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara
WHO I AM AND WHERE I AM COMING FROM
According to "Four Apartments," Frank and I met on New Year's Eve 1951 at a party John Ashbery gave in his Greenwich Village apartment. Not so, it turns out, and it was John who set me straightJohn, who has always been known for his infallible memory and for never being wrong about anything. But I had a more compelling reason for accepting his account of how Frank and I met. For when, in the spring of 1969 not long after my memoir appeared in The World, he sidled up to me at a party downtown and asserted in that cool, confident manner of his, "Joe, you and Frank met earlier that fall at a concert," it was as if he had commanded, "Open, sesame!" Instantly, before he spoke another word, the door to the storehouse of my mind flew open and everything came back to me: my running into John during intermission at a Town Hall concert one Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1951 his introducing me to someone with whom I barely had eye contact, and, just as the warning bell sounded, my introducing them to the person who had come with meno, we could not have had a conversation, because that, through the years, would have kept the afternoon alive in my memory.
And now, as John continued with his account of the concert, reminding me that it was a program of contemporary American music, I remembered the searing self-consciousness that had swept over me as we were exchanging introductions, my blushing as I was wont to do in those days, usually when I thought I was being admired or scrutinized, but on that occasion for an entirely different reason: I'd come to the concert with a black man who was physically unattractive, which could not have been said of any of the Negroes I went to bed with and was happy to be seen with. Was I aware how heinous it was of me to be ashamed of my companion? You bet, and I reproached myself even as I wondered what John and his friend made of him. Oddly, it didn't occur to me that John, being up on everything, would know him by name: he was Howard Swanson, whose Short Symphony had just wonthe Music Critics Circle Award, which meant that I, being vain and callow, could have taken pride in being seen with him, no matter that he was unprepossessing.
As for John's friend, as to how he figured in all of thisagain, I wasn't thinking; after all, this might be the only time we'd ever see each other, so on top of everything else it was ludicrous to care what he thought. And that wasn't all. As I'd learn in a couple of years, Frank had a predilection for black men that was so great, so inclusive, there was no way he could have entertained the notion that my companion wasn't sortableor as tacky queens said back then (the only equivalent for that Gallicism?), "not for streetwear."
No doubt about it, we met at that Town Hall concert in the fall of 1951, and I suppose I should leave it at thatexcept I can't resist adding a proviso of sorts about another concert, an earlier one, where I may have caught my first glimpse of Frank, a likelihood that came to Frank's and my attention because of, albeit indirectly, an inane line of dialogue spoken by Joan Crawford in a 1941 movie called A Woman's Face. We'd just seen it on The Late Late Show at one of John Button's TV evenings, probably in 1958, and as we were turning in, we began tittering over the line that earlier had John, Jimmy Schuyler, and the two of us roaring with laughter. Conrad Veidt is playing the piano for Joan Crawfordtossing off a Chopin nocturne, if memory serves. "Do you like music?" he inquires, as though the question is one of great subtlety. "Some symphonies," she answers grandly, "and all piano concertos." To us, that was camp of a high order, so I was a little surprised when now, at home, Frank seemed to have changed his mind: he abruptly stopped laughing and allowed, quite seriously, that he knew how the Crawford character felt. "I have yet to hear a piano concerto I don't like'" he averred. I had no reason to disbelieve him, works like Paderewski's soupy Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff's feeble Fourth being only two of the meretricious essays in the form I'd known him to sigh over. At the moment, however, I thought I knew of one piano concerto he wouldn't like. "What makes you think I haven't heard it?" he shot back when I proposed that possibility. "Because it can't have been played much since its first performance," I told him. "Whichyou heard," he put in. "Right," I said, "and I'll give you a hint. The pianist was the composer's wife." Frank said, straight off, "That could only have been Joanna Harris." "Very good," I said. "And Roy Harris gave his concerto the silliest title" "The Pan-American Piano Concerto!" Frank broke in triumphantly. "It was played in Los Angeles in 1946, at the Wilshire-Ebell. And I loved it." "You were there?" I said in astonishment. "Just before my discharge from the navy," he said. "Wasn't Werner Janssen the conductor? He was married to Ann Harding, remember? Funny," he mused, "both of us being there before we knew each other." I thought a moment; I cast my mind back. "I remember seeing a sailor there that night," I said. "It was you, it had to be." Frank looked skeptical. "You were in the balcony," I continued, "three or four rows down from where I was sitting with a girlfriend from high school." He smiled, still unconvinced. "Of course I'd be in the balcony," he said. "It's all I could've afforded." As additional proof, I offered more details that admittedly may have come into my head through the power of suggestion. "You were alone, you arrived late, and you were the only sailor in the house," I told him. "Naturally, I'd be alone," he said. "It was hardly the sort of thing my buddies went to on leave." "I still think I saw you there that night," I insisted.
Whether I did or not seems unimportant to me now, because the picture I hold in my mind's eye, of a slightly built sailor slipping discreetly into his seat as the house lights dim and the conductor strides to the podium, is as vivid and indelible, and therefore as true, as anything I'll be writing about in these pages.
Let us go back to "Four Apartments" and its assertion that I met Frank on New Year's Eve 1951, at a party given by John Ashbery. Paul Goodman said, "There's a poet named Frank O'Hara I think you'll like," and led me across the room to him. And that, of course, was my real introduction to Frank, the one that took. It led somewhere and for that reason became etched in my memory.
At the time, Paulthe first intellectual, the first poet, and the first bohemianor nonconformist I ever got to knowwas still in my life, still of some importance to me, and the hold he had over me, sporadic in the three years we'd known each other, came to an end once and for all when, by introducing me to Frank, he unwittingly turned me over to him. I don't mean to say I was a pickup with no will of my own, someone who was passed around, nor was I as deferential in my relations with Paul as might be inferred. Yet without question, I was unduly compliant and even submissive with friends I thought of, usually with justification, as superior to me in intelligence and accomplishment. Need it be added that I sought out exceptional people? I had since high school and I continued to do so through college and later, after I went to New York. While reflected glory was obviously what I sought, it could also be said that I was an intellectual climber, one with vague, pretentious notions about becoming a writerwhich is to say, my desire to be a writer was not so much an ambition as a fantasy.
When Paul Goodman and I met, or introduced ourselves, under circumstances that might strike some readers as disreputable, I was due to graduate from the University of Southern California in a month and a half. Understandably, it was a period in my life fraught with uncertainty, so that my tendency to be acquiescent and susceptible to influence was more pronounced than eversurely, an opportune moment for this messianic figure to enter my life. Yet Paul and I wouldn't have gotten together, I wouldn't have been drawn to him in the first place, had it not been for another desire, a desire far more compelling than my addled ambition to be a writer.
A classmate at school put his finger on it. "You're like Madame Bovary, languishing in the provinces," he kidded me, aware of my dissatisfaction with Los Angeles but not realizing his jest was no exaggeration. For just as poor Emma devoured sentimental novels, I was voracious since adolescence for anything that evoked New Yorkthe gargantuan Sunday New York Times and the urbane New Yorker, which I pored over at the public library, and any book that had anything to do with New York. But at an even earlier age, when I was ten or eleven, I was having fantasies about big-city life that stemmed from movies set in Manhattan, most of them glossy M-G-M productions thatso often seemed to feature a long-suffering, rags-to-riches Joan Crawford (yes, her again!), with whom I identified for the simple reason that, having read in Photoplay that her real name was Lucille LeSueur, I had become convinced we were related.
Before long, I deemed it my destiny to live in New York; there, and only there, would I find the glamorous and exciting life denied me in Highland Park, South Gate, Huntington Park, and Lynwood, the dreary communities of my childhood and adolescence. Why so many different places? Because my family, hard hit by the Depression, moved every two or three years in search of ever cheaper rentals. And with each move, my dissatisfaction grew along with my dreams of big-city life. But not until I was a senior in college did those dreams loom as an attainable realityattainable because of the one-way, cross-country Greyhound Bus ticket I bought without telling anyone. I remember carrying it in my wallet; at odd moments, I'd take it out and look at it, simply look at it. It was my ticket to freedom and a new life. Its departure date: one month to the day after graduation.
"But why do you want to go to New York?" my mother cried, taken aback when apprised of my plans. "Let him go," said my father, who didn't care what I did. My mother, whose possessiveness more than matched his indifference, then wanted to know how long I'd be gone and what I'd do for money (yes, she treated me as though I were years younger and had never been away from home). "I've saved enough to see me through the first three or four months," I said evasively. Her litany of misgivings continued, but I stood firm; I had made up my mind.
Or had I? As graduation approached, nagging questions began to weigh on me: Did I have the courage to go someplace where I didn't know anyone? How would I support myself? What would I do? I had no vocation or skills, and I knew that my liberal arts degree was worthless. Plagued by second thoughts, I even entertained the notion that my mother might be right when she said I should stay put and get a job after graduation. But then, she didn't know me, the real me, for she was unaware of my dreams and aspirations, and had no inkling of my secret life, of its dire and shocking nature. So howcould she advise me? She couldn't, of course she couldn't. Yet, no matter what I told myself, I became increasingly indecisive; and with time running out, I felt my resolve slipping away.
Enter Paul Goodman. The time: a Saturday night in the spring of 1949. The place: Maxwell's, a saloon right out of a Hollywood Westernroughhewn, unadorned, with a high ceiling, exposed beams, and a rickety-looking staircase. Along with other respectable homosexuals, I was drawn to the place because of the trashy element that thronged its unlovely premises, riffraff of every stripe, an all-male assemblage of hustlers, drifters, rough trade, and transvestites kept in check by an indulgent, potbellied cop who appeared unruffled by his unusual beat. "It's so sordid," I remember purring in appreciation the first time I entered the place with two other thrill seekers from USC, "sordid" being a key word in our lexicon, the standard to which we held our libidinous experiences. But Maxwell's wasn't simply sordid, it was also the best queer bar in all of southern California in the years immediately after the war, not to mention the most notorious dive in the red-light district of downtown Los Angeles.
Socially, too, it was the place to be. I met Christopher Isherwood there one night, but the pandemonium of the place made conversation impossible; it wasn't until a number of years later, through Don Bachardy, that Christopher and I got to know each other. Paul, on the other hand, was unfazed by the turmoil and deafening din of Maxwell's; he singled me out, got me to talking, deftly drew me away from my companions. "You look like you go to college somewhere," he began, and with supreme confidence took it from there, plying me with questions about my studies at USC, where my major was English, and thereafter engaging me in a discussion of the present-day international literary scene, whose principal protagonists, I soon found out, were William Faulkner, Jean Genet, and the very person who was alternately holding forth and seeking my opinion, thereby impressing but not intimidating me.
Our improbable conversation must have gone on for close to an hour, during which I was flattered into thinking that I was as intellectual as I sometimes pretended to beno doubt the desired effect of my wily interlocutor.I was being taken seriously, I was holding my own with a well-read and articulate writer who might be as important as he claimed. And my new friend was from the city of my dreams!
Suddenly, blinding lights flooded the place as last call was announced over a blaring loudspeaker: it was ten minutes to midnight, closing time for Los Angeles bars in those days. As always, there was an immediate stir in the crowd as frenzied queens clamored for one more drink while others, singleminded about finding a bed partner, tried to score at the last minute. To add to the commotion, a fight broke out when the potbellied cop, now out of patience, herded several troublemakers in the direction of the exit, prodding them with his billy club as if they were cattle, while at the same time, not far from where Paul and I stood, two johns began fighting over Ace, the star hustler of Maxwell's, a sullen youth whose extraordinary endowment was displayed through torn, tight-fitting Levi's. I remember thinking that it was the best night ever at Maxwell's.
Paul looked alarmed; it occurred to me that he'd never before been to a rough place like Maxwell's. "Let's go!" he shouted above the tumult. "Want to have coffee with us?" he added, taking my arm. By "us," he meant himself and three ordinary-looking men who, on cue, appeared at our side; and before I could respond to Paul's invitation, introductions were made with last names included, not the usual gay bar protocol that eschewed such formalities. Feeling as if I had nothing to say about what was happeningresigned, as well, to not making out that nightI drifted off with my new friends, pausing at the exit to wave a nonchalant goodbye to my erstwhile companions, whose jaws dropped in dismay over the company I was keeping.
Later, one of themthe same classmate, incidentally, who likened me to Madame Bovaryasked about Paul. In this instance, he was more baffled than amused. I don't remember how his question was putit was along the lines of "Who the hell was that cruddy-looking guy you took up with at Maxwell's?"but I remember my indignant reply: "That was Paul Goodman, an important avant-garde writer from New York." He roared with laughter, and rightly so, as I'd not read a word Paul had written nor did I even recognize his name when he identified himself. "Paul Goodman?" said myfriend, who prided himself on being well-read. "Never heard of him." (In another part of the country, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was in his third year at Harvard, Frank O'Hara had yet to meet Paul Goodman, whose cult following barely existed at the time, yet he was already reading things of Paul'sstories, poems, and critical piecesthat appeared with some regularity in the little magazines. Which I suppose says something about the disparity between the lives Frank and I were leading in 1949.)
I could hardly disagree with my classmate's assessment of Paul's appearance and physical attributes, for he was truly a sight, beginning with the way he dressed. Shabby and ill-fitting and in what I remember as dismal shades of gray and brown, his pathetic, makeshift wardrobehe'd wear any old thing, I would soon learngave the impression that he had no regard for his appearance, while the overweening confidence he exuded gave a contradictory impression, one that bespoke complete satisfaction with what he was wearing, not to mention an unawareness that his was a face marked by nature's cruel indifference. His eyes were lackluster, his nose a misshapen hook, his mouth an unlovely orifice. In fairness, I suppose I could add that he had a head of thick brown hair; but it was matted, had no sheen, and appeared not to have been recently washed.
Afraid my classmate might draw the wrong conclusion about the night's activities, I explained that I only went to have coffee with Paul Goodman and his friends, omitting any mention of where I ended upnot, as I had expected, at the gathering place after Maxwell's closed, a sleazy, all-night cafeteria at Broadway and Third Street, but at a rambling, nondescript frame house on a street called Benton Way, a fifteen-minute drive from Maxwell's, where Paul's hosts lived and where he was being put up during his two-week stay in Los Angeles. Five people lived there, the three men I'd met at Maxwell's plus two other members of this unusual communal arrangement, a man who was described to me as a poet and a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman, "the resident fag hag," as I was informed later by one of their friends. All of the men, by the way, were between five and ten years younger than Paul, who was in his late thirties at the time.
I don't remember whether we actually had coffee, all I remember is thateveryone talked a lot and that it was like nothing I'd ever heardknotty, incisive, often with a psychoanalytic thrust. Except for the fag hagin reality, an attractive woman who was a fanatic cat fancier and an inveterate reader of mystery storieseveryone was Jewish: that, I concluded, had a lot to do with the tenor of their conversation, its intensity and intellectual rigor. I seem to remember there was talk about poetry, Partisan Review, Wilhelm Reich, Wittgenstein, Marxism, Freud. Of course it was all a jumble to me as I gamely tried to grasp the gist of their abstruse discourse. I was hooked, nevertheless, so that by the time I made my exit, at about two in the morning, I knew I wanted to see more of Paul and his interesting friends.
Over the next couple of weeks before Paul's departure, I frequently got together with this spirited band of gay bohemians, which was how I thought of themthough, I might add, more bohemian than gay, since they weren't run-of-the-mill queers defined by their sexual orientation but fiercely independent intellectuals who happened to be homosexual; and to me, they constituted a new breed, an elite brotherhood whose ranks I instantly wanted to be part of, like a child who dreams of running away to join the circus.
As absurd as that last bit sounds, it was pretty much the way I feltand how could it have been otherwise? I grew up in a large Mormon family from which, at an early age, I felt alienated. I knew I was different from my brothers and sisters and knew, too, by the time I was an adolescent, that the day would come when I'd have to carve out a life of my own, a deviant, subversive life that would also be intellectually stimulatingvery much like the lives of Paul and the Benton Way crowd, though in my case I'd be saddled with something they knew nothing of: the burden of a strict religious upbringing. In order to be free I'd feel compelled to react against it by going to extremes, by leading a wild, dissolute life, by defiantly doing everything I was taught not to do, everything disapproved of by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: drinking coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages; smoking, masturbating, ignoring the Sabbath, taking the Lord's name in vain; having sexual relations outside marriage; and, most egregious of all, recognizing and acting upon what I knew was natural to me, a curse (that was how I thought of it) I acknowledged from the time I was eleven or twelve when my olderbrother, irritated with me over something, innocently called me a queer, a word I'd never heard before, causing our mother to stop what she was doing and admonish him, "Never call Joe a queer! It's the next worst thing to being a murderer." A queer! The word resonated, took hold; whatever it meant, I embraced it, I knew I was a queerwhy else would Mama take on so, leap to my defense? And from that moment on, through adolescence and early youth, my conviction that I was an outsider and a pervert, along with the concomitant feelings of guilt and shame I experienced, colored my perception of myself and the world. How fortunate, then, that my lust should prove far more efficacious than any negative feelings thrust upon me, so that what I once thought of as a curse I came to regard as a blessing, a blessing that enabled me, year after year, until the advent of AIDS, to wallow in lusty, uninhibited gay sex.
Now an unpleasant development that I'm sure you saw coming: on Paul's last night in Los Angeles, I stayed over at Benton Way and wound up in bed with himthe last thing I wanted to happen, but what could I do? He was persuasive, not to say coercive, and, more important, I set great store by his offer of friendship, his insistence that I look him up when I came to New York. Still, though I had something to gain by not rejecting him, it might be wondered why I was so accommodating, then and on future occasions. Well, how often do attractive women endure sex with unattractive men, without anyone thinking twice about it? Isn't it what we expect? Such women are powerless, and through sex with repulsive but powerful men they appropriate power. To some extent I was like those women, since I sometimes played a comparable role with aggressive men who possessed none of the physical attributes I ordinarily sought in bed partners. Yet power wasn't what I was after, not exactly. It was something else, something undefined and therefore far more elusive.
I didn't finish telling you about the night of the New Year's Eve party at John Ashbery's, which was for cocktails, though I'm sure it dragged on until midnight or later, with martinis and Manhattans (very à la mode in those days) served along with a few bags of potato chips. From there, from John's modest,sparsely furnished apartment, I taxied uptown to Francesco Scavullo's townhouse and studio on East Sixty-third Street, where a large, lavishly catered New Year's celebration was already in full swing and where Gianni Bates, Scavullo's assistant and my lover, about whom you'll be reading more later, was impatiently awaiting my arrival. Without waiting to be introduced to the fashion model he was standing with, and without so much as an apology for being late, I shouted above the din, "I just met the most terrific person!" Those were my very words, not an approximation or paraphrase, for as I write this, an unbelievable five decades later, I remember sensing the importance of the occasion, that in Frank O'Hara I'd happened upon what I'd been searching, hoping, waiting for in my two and a half years in New York. But what, exactly? An opportunity, a way of life, an avatar? Perhaps all three, though not a new lover, not someone to replace Giannithat was one thing I was sure about. Otherwise, what I felt was nebulous, purely instinctual, which means I didn't question or analyze what had happened between me and the warm, animated person I'd met that evening, someone to whom I was not, by the way, sexually attracted. Then, too, I felt so confident that he liked me and wanted me for a friend that I didn't stop to wonder if his interest in me extended to sex. Nor did I wonder why I had been drawn to him any more than I understood what had happened in the hour and a half I'd spent with him. All I knew was what I felt, an eagerness and a sense of security, the conviction that my life would be different now, and better.
I'd like to go back two and a half years, to the beginning of my New York adventureto an early morning in mid-July 1949, right on schedule, just as I planned, exactly a month after I received my useless bachelor of arts degree.
Weary, scruffy, eager to put my ignominious cross-country experience behind me, I alighted at a place that was more like hell than the city of anyone's dreams: the old, now-defunct Greyhound terminal off Times Square, the acme, the crown jewel, of all the vile bus stations I'd been exposed to from Los Angeles to New York, and especially hellish now because of the foul air and stultifying heat of the city in midsummer. It was there I lingered until I thought it seemly, late enough in the morning, to turn up at Timothy Hobson'sMurray Hill apartment, Timothy being the only person I knew in New York apart from Paul Goodman. They would never meet, I saw to that: to me, they represented incompatible worlds, in a sense what would prove to be my two lives, my superficial uptown life and my seriouspseudo-serious?downtown life.
Paul had barely returned to New York when I met Timothy, whose appearance in my life seemed no less providential than Paul's. He'd come to the West Coast on a business trip with Herbert Jacoby, the nightclub and cabaret entrepreneur who employed Timothy as a troubleshooter at the Blue Angel on New York's posh East Side. I don't remember how or where Timothy and I met; all that comes to mind now is a steamy weekend at Laguna Beach and being told, before we parted, that I'd stay at his place when I came to New York and I'd spend the first two weeks of August with him in Provincetown, all of this stated in no uncertain terms, as though I had no choice in the matterfine by me, since having Timothy as well as Paul awaiting my arrival in New York gave me double entree to the city, not to mention the promise of an affair with an attractive guy who knew his way around.
A year younger than me, though he gave the impression of being several years older, partly because he smoked a pipe and spoke in peremptory tones, Timothy seemed ideal for a pleasure seeker plainly destined to muddle through life. But the person who loomed as a potential lover in the afterglow of Laguna Beach was someone I never got to know. Significantly, I was unaware that he was linked to the most sensational court trial of the day until one morning, a week after my arrival, I opened the Times and found his name emblazoned on the front page. Found it? It jumped up at me from a dense block of print, as forcefully as if it were my own name: Timothy, identified as Alger Hiss's stepson, was scheduled to testify that afternoon at the perjury trial that was tearing the country apart. So that was why he'd gotten up at dawn and taken an early-morning train to Washington! I was at once stunned, apprehensive, and titillated; yet when I saw Timothy late that night at the Blue Angel, where I sometimes joined him for a drink, I said nothing about the story, nor did I subsequently refer to it or bring up his relationship to Hiss. That was how close we were; there was nothing but sex between us,though I didn't fully admit it to myself at the time. Also, in retrospect, I realize that the curious way I dealt with the Alger Hiss situationdidn't deal with itsays a lot about my style at that time, my social and psychological disposition, if you will: I had the crazy notion that if I asked questions or confessed my ignorance about something, I'd appear gauche and unsophisticated, the last thing I wanted. At all costs, the impression I had to give was that nothing shocked, daunted, or touched me.
Meanwhile, amid all this Sturm und Drang, had I become so distracted that I was unmindful of what brought me three thousand miles across the country? Not at all. Map in hand, walking fifty, sixty blocks a day that first heart-pounding week, resorting to the subway only to get to far-flung parts of Manhattan, I eagerly surveyed the reaches of the island I'd so long ago decided would one day be my home. Yet the place I'd envisioned paled beside the realityan understandable reaction for me to have, since all I ever knew, all I could compare the city of my dreams with, were dismal suburban sprawls where nobody walks because there's nothing to see, where there is no spring, summer, fall, or winter, only unchanging days of humdrum sunshine that lull you into thinking comfort is all that matters in life. Small wonder I was agog over what I instantly recognized as the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a true city, whose want of any hint of provincialism thrilled me to the quick and whose awesome scale, ceaseless roar, and pounding tempo at once stunned, stirred, and seduced me. God, how the place bustled with people and activity! And it was now my home, it was where I would live.
But what of the mesmerizing messiah who'd had me under his spell back in Los Angeles? (Did I make clear what a stimulating talker Paul was, how his overbearing confidence was matched by his perspicacity?) Anything but forgotten, he was seldom far from my thoughts, because more than ever I felt drawn to what he represented, the kind of life I knew I'd promptly pursue if and when Timothy gave the signal that we were not seriously committed to each other. And, indeed, the very day he made it known that he didn't expect us to spend every night togetherit was right after our two weeks in Provincetown, a less than thrilling experience for both of usI was on the phone to Paul and in no time was wending my way downtown to a tenementon Ninth Avenue off Twenty-eighth Street (I may not be entirely accurate about the location), where, in a fourth-floor walkup, what I soon learned was called a cold-water flat, he lived with Sally and their young son, Matthew.
Never had I seen a dwelling of its kind before. With a sinking sensation, I wondered if this was what lay in my future. There was no refrigerator, I remember, and only the barest necessitiesa pinched, woebegone scene, to be sure. But because of the presence of books, hundreds of them, and an upright piano, it was inevitable that I would romanticize the whole thing, and that I'd do it in hackneyed, bohemian terms: the struggling artist, his humble garret, a life of high-principled sacrificeactually, not far off the mark, however myopic my point of view. But it would be a while before I fully understood the unusual nature of Paul and Sally's relationship, which seemed to be determined as much by her permissiveness as by his insistence on selfgratification. At least it was my impression that she was as approving of his egocentricity and homosexual activities as she was of the radicalism he lived by, principles that kept him outside the system and prevented his making a decent living. True, he had published a score of books by then and his work appeared regularly in the little magazines, but the proceeds from his writing amounted to very little, certainly not enough to live on. Come to think of it, I don't know how he and Sally made out before the publication, eleven years later, of Growing Up Absurd, which brought him recognition and economic security.
Paul was admirable, no question of that; but without pretty, bespectacled, quiet-as-a-mouse Sally in his life, he would have been forced to change his ways. She made everything possible, including the small, brief role I played in the Goodman householda role, incidentally, that involved my baby-sitting Matthew several times, naturally without remuneration from Paul. All of which might sound like a menage à trois. Well, it wasn'tbecause Sally and I weren't close enough for such an arrangement. It was simply that this intelligent, private person, to all appearances oblivious of whatever might be going on between Paul and me, didn't make me feel unwelcome on those occasions when I dropped by and went off with her derelict mate, to whom, bythe way, she wasn't legally married, since the state could not, in Paul's view, have anything to do with his private life.
A couple of months later, an old friend of Paul's congratulated me on passing the "Sally test"indisputable evidence, I was given to understand, of the power wielded by this quiet, unassuming woman who was the mainstay in Paul's life. At the same time, in regard to her attitude toward Paul and me, it would be an exaggeration to say that our peregrinations had her blessing; I suspect she was indifferent, even relieved, to have him out of the house, as he could not have been easy to live with.
What, then, were her feelings toward Paul? Was she in love with him? Was she ever in love with him? It was my impression that she was somewhat in awe of him, as so many of us were; otherwise, I had no idea what she felt about him. And Paul? Well, one could see that he cared for Sally and needed her, and he clearly had great respect for her, his philandering notwithstanding. But did he love her in a more or less conventional, romantic sense? Somewhere he has been described as "ostentatiously homosexual and ostentatiously heterosexual at the same time," which must have come from Paul himself. (So struck was I by this brazen assertion that I made a note of it.) To me, it's a joke; I never knew him to show the slightest interest in women, and I can't believe he had an eye for them. Like all the self-proclaimed bisexuals I've ever known, he had a pronounced preferencein his case, for what can be described as the male shiksa. Sally I remember as more boyish than womanly, also as a prototypical shiksa. Maybe that tells us something about the soi-disant bisexuality of Paul Goodman.
None of these considerations crossed my mind at the time, doubtless because I was too busy thinking about myself; I don't even remember wondering how Sally felt about what was going onthat was how callow and self-absorbed I was. Thus, with Paul as my Virgil, I blithely set forth on a pilgrimage that put me in touch with what would form the nucleus of the downtown life I referred to earlier. And what comes to mind when I think of that phase of my New York adventure? Before anything else, one of three bars, the crypto-queer San Remo, the macho Cedar Street Tavern, and the blusteringWhite Horse Tavern. A couple of times, Paul took me to a workingclass bar on the waterfront where he sometimes sat at a table and wrote his stories and poems. Next, I remember down-and-out parties of cheese, crackers, and jug wine. At one such gathering I was asked, quite seriously, if I was a Stalinist or a Trotskyite; I guessed right and claimed allegiance to the Trotsky camp. And in a grim and dusty industrial loft on the Bowery, Anarchist Club meetings were held on Saturday afternoons; they were solemn, earnest, somehow touching to meit was as though its downtrodden members (including a young poet named Irving Feldman) believed that their utopian flights of fancy might someday materialize. Less portentous but more amusing were the gatherings at the Gotham Book Mart, receptions for famous writers crowded with shabby literary types and freeloaders who had no compunctions about lifting first editions when the cranky, gray-haired proprietor, Frances Steloff, wasn't looking. The most notable book party of all was the one in honor of a sodden, bleary-eyed Dylan Thomas, who looked as though he wanted to be someplace else. I went to recitals of modern dance and recitals of experimental music that I pretended to like; at a storefront gallery on Third Avenue I sawand didn't know what to make ofa group show of Abstract Expressionist paintings; I was present at the first productions of the tacky yet exciting Living Theatre (exciting, that is, unless they were mounting one of Paul's didactic, singularly undramatic plays); and then there were Cinema 16 screenings of grainy, amateurish "art" films in a cavernous auditorium in Chelsea, a cheerless experience that was not a bit like going to the movies.
It was all very heady, my having moved so abruptly into a world different from anything I'd ever known, beginning with its imposing dramatis personae, the people I met through Paul. A list of their names, when I reel them off, is for me like a mantra that magically evokes the essence, spirit, and soul of the downtown New York I knew in 1949 and on into the early fifties: Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Parker Tyler, John Ashbery, Willard Maas, Marie Menken, Dorothy Van Ghent, Edouard Roditi, John Bernard Myers, Harold Norse, David Sachs, John Button, Alvin Novak, Jean Garrigue, Marguerite Young, Oscar Williams, Gene Derwood, John Cage, Merce Cunningham,Lou Harrison, Irving Feldman, José Garcia Villa, Anaïs Nin, Ned Rorem, Edwin Denby, Harold and May Rosenberg, Percival Goodman, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, George Dennison, Fritz and Laura Perls, Isadore From, I. Rice Pereira, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and, if we forget that prior meeting through John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara. Some of these names are now forgotten and will be recognized only by readers who were on the scene at that time. As for me, I remember each person as sui generis and equally consequential, each his or her own person. And because of Paul, because he made me feel at ease with these writers, artists, and intellectuals (he drew me out, brought me into their conversations, treated me as their peer), I felt that New York was where I belonged, a conviction he instilled in me and then, a couple of years later, gratuitously underminedan ugly development I'll cover in due course, along with a rundown on Paul's brief, abortive friendship with Frank.
I did not stay with Timothy for long. Less than a week after our return from Provincetown, we parted amicably, without regret, and I moved directly from his place to the apartment of a window dresser with whom I'd struck up a conversation at one of the bird circuit barsthe Blue Parrot, I believe. We had nothing in common and we didn't especially like each other, but he needed a roommate to split the rent as much as I needed a place to stay. Down to my last few dollars by then, I was confronted with the necessity of finding work, any kind of work. No, I couldn't write home for money, because there was no money to write home for; my family was hand-to-mouth working class. And of course Paul was in no position to help, nor had I any other friends I could turn to. Yet I dragged my feet for weeks on end, slept around, had a good time, did nothing to improve my lot. I survived by accepting every dinner invitation that came my way, mostly from casual friends I made in Provincetown, and at other times by making a meal of hors d'oeuvres served at cocktail partieson balance, as I look back, an exhilarating if somewhat trashy phase of my youth. Unquestionably, the initial excitement of being in New York had not worn off; it kept me enthralled, it fed the illusion that what I was doing had point, validity, meaning.
Then one morning, after resourcefully holding my anxiety at bay for close to a month, I awoke with a start and had no idea where I was until I glanced around and saw that I lay in bed next to a stranger whose apartment, I gradually remembered, was on the Upper West Side, some hundred blocks from the window dresser's downtown digs, a hike I did not look forward to on what I could see with a glance out the window was a blustery, rainy day (subway fare was only a dime, but the night before I'd foolishly chipped in my few pieces of change, all the money I had, for the taxi ride uptown). Only then did the full extent of my plight hit home and compel me to act. Without waking the cute guy at my side, foregoing the pleasure of another coupling, I eased myself out of bed, gathered my clothes and dressed as I tiptoed out of the apartment, carrying my shoes until I was in the hallway, at which point I buzzed for the elevator and finished dressing. I was on my way; I had already begun putting my life in order.
It was an endeavor that entailed a grim ritual. Beginning that very morning, and for the next week and a half, I started each day by scrounging through litter baskets in Washington Square Park until I found that morning's New York Times, which in 1949 went for the princely sum of three cents. On one such morning, around the beginning of October, I ran across what I was looking for, an ad in the help wanted section that seemed right up my alley. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY were the key words that caught my eye. Next thing I knew, I was applying for a clerical job in the garment district.
Never had I felt so dejected: the place turned out to be a sweatshop of what I imagined to be Dickensian squalor. But what could I do? I had no options, so I took my lumpsthat is, I took the job when it was offered to me, at $30 a week before withholding taxesand then, determined to save enough money for a Greyhound ticket back to Los Angeles, I showed my mettle by dutifully turning up for work through all of October and all of November and well into the month of December, until exactly one week before Christmas, which was when my days of woe, the misery and humiliation of punching a clock, of sorting, stamping, and filling orders, came to a screeching halt thanks to the sort of experience that befalls most carousing homosexuals: I had a chance encounter in a bar that altered the course of my lifefor a second time, now that I think of it, because meeting Paul at Maxwell's should also be counted as a turning point.
On this occasion, it was the now-defunct San Remo in the heart of Greenwich Village, at the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Street, one of the places Paul had introduced me to, a dark, smoky, cramped establishment with a big espresso machine, loud jukebox, and crowded tables, whose patronsseedy literary types, grubby bohemians, quiescent queers who shunned screaming gay barsmainly drank fifteen-cent glasses of tasteless draft beer. The night in question was an unusually slow night in the middle of the week, when there was a lot of talk and no serious cruising, so that it could have been as early as half-past ten when I resignedly set my empty glass on the bar, shook my head as the bartender approached, then turned to leaveat which point, out of nowhere, a man in his early thirties, tall, square-jawed, with regular features, a face and demeanor out of an Arrow Shirt ad, magically materialized, smiled openly, and asked, as though he meant what he said and wanted an honest answer, "How're you doing?" And indeed that was the kind of person Humphrey NoyesReichian therapist, Yale man, scion of an Oregon lumber familyproved to be, decent, up-front, uncomplicated. And what did I say in reply? Perhaps feeling maudlin from too much beer, though I'm sure I also hoped to be provocative, I made this preposterous assertion: "I'm a failure." Humphrey said, "You're too young to be a failure," and took me home with him.
As so often in the past, I allowed myself to be swept along by what seemed an inexorable march of events. Actually, it was Humphrey who in this instance shaped the immediate course my life would take, and he did so from the outset when the usually obligatory "Your place or mine?" went unspokenhe simply hailed a cab and gave his address. Thus, the next morning, I was not terribly surprised when, over coffee, he suggested that I quit my job and move in with him. "Just call them up and quit," he said, handing me the phone. "All right," I said, relieved I'd never again have to set eyes on the place. And later the same day I carted my few belongings uptown to Humphrey's unimaginative but comfortable apartment. "Let's get away for a couple of weeks," he said as he watched me unpack. "It's hell in New Yorkduring Christmas." Before I knew what was happening, I was whisked off to Sea Island, Georgia, for a winter vacation.
I took these whirlwind developments in stride, as if I had never planned on returning home or knew all along I'd be rescued in time. Also, it was with great aplomb that I settled into and soon took for granted my cushy life. How cushy? Let me think. In the top drawer of his chiffonier, my benefactor-lover kept an ivory box stuffed with twenty- and fifty-dollar bills so that I need never ask for pocket money, and as a guideline he offered these words, which I interpreted as leave to indulge myself: "When in doubt about financial matterssay, you can't decide whether to take the subway or a cabstop and ask yourself, 'What would Humphrey do?'" And that became the byword when I was with certain of my indigent friends: "What would Humphrey do?" I'd suddenly whoop when we seemed to be heading for a subway station; then, stopping in my tracks, I'd hail a cab with a flourish, gaily shouting, "Taxi!"
To my credit, something mattered more to me than taking cabs and throwing money around: the cultural advantages I could now enjoy, concerts and plays to my heart's content and afternoons whiled away in art galleries and museums and, to give my life structure, three graduate literature courses at Columbia University. As a concession to Humphrey, for that was how I thought of it, I also sat in his Orgone Box three times a week, twenty minutes each session, and tried to get through one of Wilhelm Reich's weighty tomes. I was not in love, but I was content.
Then disaster struck in the form of nightmares, nosebleeds, headaches, and, most distressing of all, a sleep paralysis that seized me afternoons when I lay down to read. Almost immediately, I'd grow drowsy and then, as I hovered between consciousness and a curious state of sleep wherein I knew I was dreaming but was unable to stir myself awake, it would happen. With my eyes wide open, staring at objects in the room, I would be riveted to Humphrey's sofa as a buzzing sound emanated from the ceiling, swiftly descended, and headed straight for the middle of my head where, instantly transformed into what seemed a dentist's drill, it would zip across my teeth, both upper and lower rows, before flitting off into space, from whence itcame. Then and only then, with a spasmodic jerk, would I be released from the immobility that had gripped me moments earlier.
A strange phenomenon, indeed; and stranger still, it became my secret fetish, an experience I compulsively courted. For as much as I feared it, I desired it: I thought of it as my scourge, a retribution visited upon me; and somehow, along with my nightmares, nosebleeds, and headaches, it caused me to treat Humphrey wretchedly, as though he were to blame, which in a way he was, for in retrospect I realize that my life with him, its comfort and security, gave me the luxury to experience symptoms that pointed to my being repressed and in need of help.
At the time Humphrey understood better than I what was going on, and I'm sure he knew why I drank too much, slept around, was frequently sharp with him: I wasn't cut out to be a kept boy. Sono surprise, I knew he'd had it with mehe decided against taking me to Europe for the summer and proposed that I remain in New York, get a job, find a place of my own, and begin seeing a psychoanalyst. I assented to all four suggestions, with alacrity to the last, and not simply because I liked the idea of being analyzed (it seemed glamorous). I knew I needed help and I wanted it more than I wanted a trip abroad, because as sybaritic as I was, I clung to an idealistic notion that so far had not motivated me: I feltI had to believethat there was more to life than having a good time. Undergoing psychoanalysis was surely a step in the right direction.
It was not a Reichian Humphrey sent me to. "You need depth analysis," he said. "There's a Jungian I want you to see." Had his decision anything to do with my having had a number of ineffective, Reichian-derived sessions with Paul Goodman, who had recently become a lay therapist? (Lay therapist, indeed. Paul saw nothing unprofessional in being intimate with someone he was treating.) To this day, I don't know if Humphrey knew of those clandestine sessions or, for that matter, of my wretched ongoing liaison with Paul. In any event, it is interesting that Humphrey should have turned to a highly respected analyst trained in an entirely different discipline from the one he embraced. (Laterhow labyrinthine it all became!I learned that the group of Reichians he was working with took it upon themselves to investigateme and then, having concluded that I was a notorious Forty-second Street hustler who would surely undermine Humphrey's efforts to go straight, urged him to end his relationship with me. Instead, he terminated his affiliation with this particular group of Reichians.)
There is no point in my going into the menial job and the cheap apartment I found: what signifies is the treatment I underwent, and even there I am reluctant to go into detail, one's psychoanalysis being about as interesting to other people as one's dreams. But it's an important part of my story, so hang on.
My analyst was a woman named Assia Abel, who must have been in her late sixties when my sessions began in the spring of 1950. A taciturn, dwarfish Russian Jew lame from an automobile accident that took the lives of her husband and only child, she immediately made me think of Maria Ouspenskaya playing the part of a gypsy fortune-teller inwas it The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr.? Yes, I think so; and a B movie at that. No matter; transference was immediate, and within a month my psychosomatic ailments vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared.
(Psychosomatic ailments? Since they were bound up with an anomalous period of two and a half years, a period that relates neither to what came before in my life nor to what came after, I feel it's appropriate that parentheses enclose and set apart my account of that time. Self-contained, irrelevant, surrealthat is how the experience strikes me now, as something that happened to someone else, a story I read or a movie I saw. Another odd aspect to it: for all the discomfort and misery of those years, what I mostly remember is the exhilaration I felt at being on my own for the first time in my life, with no family or church to stifle and constrain me. Young for my age, just out of high school, I should have been homesick but I wasn't, so thrilled was I to be living with men, exclusively men, one of whoma beautiful Swede from Kenosha, Wisconsin, as straight as I was queer, at twenty-six an older man to menot only returned my love but made the first move, drew me to him, kissed me on the mouth, so unlike the others who jerked off with me outof frustration, not out of love, and turned away afterward. Need it be added that these two and half years were the time I spent in the service?
Drafted into the army, I served as a medic attached to the mine platoon of an infantry antitank company that saw action at the tail end of the Second World Warspecifically, during the last phase of the Italian campaign when Italy was known as the Forgotten Front and Allied troops were deployed in a holding action. Inevitably, my wartime experience came up early on in my sessions with Dr. Abel, who drew me out until I found myself describing an incident I'd never until then thought about or spoken of with anyone. It was immediately following my outfit's baptism of fire, in the summer of 1944, when we were stationed in a rest area awaiting further orders. Along with seven other medics, I was ordered on a detail about which we were told nothing except that a truck would pick us up and that we'd be separated for the day from our respective platoons. Medics weren't assigned to details like KP, guard duty, and digging latrines, so we knew it had to be something else; but what that might be, we hadn't an inklingnot until the truck arrived and we caught sight of what was in the back, four litters and a pile of mattress covers, and then saw that the officer up front, sitting next to the driver, was "a fucking chaplain, for Christ's sake," muttered one of the men.
When we set out it was already brutally hot and still, except for the distant sound of artillery. For maybe an hour we drove over a rough, hilly terrain before pulling to the side of the road, and it was only then, after we dismounted, that our detail was explained to us. "Let's get to it, men," concluded the pale, frightened-looking chaplain. We hung back, having assumed he was coming with uswhy else would he be in charge? But he shouted, "Go on! You have your orders," and remained with the driver while the rest of us paired off and, with litters and mattress covers, fanned out over the area where, two days earlier, one of the companies in our regiment had seen action for the first time and had suffered unusually high casualties. Because the bodies would quickly decompose in the intense heat of mid-July, the evacuation had to be done without delay. So, off we went in search of corpses that lay scattered about, over low, rolling hills, in ravines and rifts. But as I tried to describe toDr. Abel what it was likehow I felt, what the men did, said, how they reactedmy memory became clouded. I couldn't remember feeling anything but a strange numbness. "What was happening didn't seem to be happening," I said. "Does that make sense?" Dr. Abel nodded for me to continue. I vaguely remembered laughterbut over what? The absurdity of the situation? Then, clearly, I remembered my partner shouting to the others before we went our separate ways, "Let's not let the rear echelon bastards get anything." And that, I seemed to remember, was what happened, though several of us had no part of it: bodiestorn, bloody, rotting, exuding the stench of decomposed flesh, with flies and bees buzzing around themwould be stripped of watches and money before they were slipped into mattress covers and placed on litters that with great effort were lugged down to the road, where the chaplain stood waiting beside the truck. He would mumble a prayer, clutching his Bible, his eyes averted, and we'd toss the bodies onto the truck as though they were sacks of flour or meal. We'd take a ten-minute break, then get fresh mattress covers and go off to collect more bodies strewn over the Umbrian hills; and after a while, the pale, frightened-looking chaplain didn't bother to say a prayer over the dead men but kept his distance, moved away when we approached, urged us to hurry and not waste time. "The son of a bitch," said my partner. I remembered all that; I could see the scene clearly as I spoke to Dr. Abel. "Yes, yes," she would say. Now it was late afternoon, the sun still blazed mercilessly, the bodies were four deep in the truck and our work was done. Before long, a truck with a kitchen unit arrivedthis I remembered more clearly than anything else, no doubt because it was a reprieve, a welcome end to the day's grisly activities: a line of steaming vessels was quickly assembled and we knew we weren't getting C or K rations, which was what we expected, but a hot meal that we set to like ravenous dogs, our appetites keen from our arduous labor. "Vut else?" said Dr. Abel when I was finished. "Nothing," I said, "that's it." She sat quietly across from me, waiting. "You told me you received a medal," she said. "Tell me about that. Vut did you do?" I said I couldn't remember exactly, but I knew it was nothing; it was just something that happened. "And I wasn't scared," I told her, "not like in my dreams when I stand up in my foxhole andscream, and then the others know I'm a coward." She asked if I had my citation; that would tell us what happened. "I lost it in Italy," I told her. "You have no record of it?" she said, clearly surprised. "There was a story about it in my hometown paper," I said. "I'm sure my mother kept it; she was very proud of my medal." Dr. Abel had me write home for the newspaper clipping, and a couple of weeks later I brought it to one of our sessions. She had me read it out loud:
SOLDIER WEARING BRONZE STAR RETURNS TO HUNTINGTON PARK
Pfc. Joseph M. LeSueur of Huntington Park, who recently returned with the gist Infantry Division from Italy, is a typical example of the heroes who form the medical corps in action.
During action near Monghidoro, Italy, Pfc. LeSueur was with his platoon in a building taking shelter from an enemy bombardment. He saw a vehicle receive a direct hit and one of its occupants thrown seriously wounded on the road under heavy artillery fire. Immediately he hurried to the wounded man.
Because the man was too seriously hurt to be moved, Pfc. LeSueur stayed in the impact area and treated him under fire. After he had rendered sufficient medical attention to the man, he carried him to the building and continued his treatment. For his courageous action, Pfc. LeSueur was awarded the Bronze Star medal ...
And there you have it, the storythe causeof my psychosomatic ailments and their cure.)
In the weeks that followed, we continued to talk about my experiences in the waror I did; Dr. Abel merely prompted me on occasion. "How did you do that?" I asked when my headaches, nosebleeds, and strange sleep paralysis had ceased. "Dat is not important for you to know," she answered, reminding me more than ever of Ouspenskaya. In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, we moved on to archetypes, the collective unconscious, my persona, my animaall by way of the wild, primordial dreams I was having and ofwhich I kept a record. At each session, three times a week for three years, I described my nocturnal life and free-associated while Dr. Abel sat in brooding silence, her curiously beautiful dark brown eyes burning holes through me. We rarely touched on the quotidian; whom I was seeing, what I was doing, whether I was happy or unhappynone of this seemed to concern Dr. Abel; my soul was all that mattered. Not until my last session did I think to inquire about my homosexuality. All she said was: "You do not have to be homosexual. Follow your nature."
Perhaps what was most extraordinary about my analysis had to do with the role Humphrey played. He was no longer involved with me once we broke up, yet he paid for all of my sessions without asking to be recompensed. That I didn't pay for my own analysis was a matter Dr. Abel and I had to deal with, or rationalize, at the outset; it was resolved the first day I came to her Riverside Drive apartment, so desperately in need of help was I. Meanwhile, during the three years of my analysis, Humphrey was helping others, all without question more deserving than IHoward Swanson, for instance (I'd gone to that Town Hall concert with him because Humphrey was suddenly indisposed); and there was another black musician, a pianist named Eugene Haynes, whose debut at Carnegie Hall was made possible thanks to Humphrey.
I don't remember ever expressing my gratitude; I imagine I didn't. But when someone saves your life, how do you thank that person? You can't; you don't.
This brings us back to New Year's Eve 1951, when Paul Goodman said, "There's a poet named Frank O'Hara I think you'll like," and led me across the room to him.
COPYRIGHT © 2003 BY THE ESTATE OF JOE LESUEUR