City of Exquisite Decadence
When she screened a film (or “movie,” as she unfailingly called them), Pauline Kael usually sat in the back row, directly under the projector. Dramatically breaching cinema decorum, she talked during the showings, especially during porn flicks, loudly narrating the action in an arch tone to the great annoyance of the men in trench coats seated attentively in front of her, who were attempting to decode the salacious signifiers embedded in Misty Beethoven.
Kael’s chats in the dark were often conducted with a young journalist freshly landed in New York City from rural Maryland named James Wolcott, now enthroned before his Vanity Fair blog console, writing tart dispatches about the lithe sirens of Hollywood as they sashay from one mise-en-scene to the next.
It seems that Kael was a fan of Wolcott’s acerbic reports in the Village Voice and she called up him one night to fawn over a piece he’d written on young East Coast comedians. The film critic particularly enjoyed a derisive swipe he had taken at the celebrated French mime Marcel Marceau, whose performances Wolcott described as being “like watching Mickey Mouse put on an existential show.”
Soon Kael and Wolcott were attending screenings together, bantering on the phone, and trading in Hollywood gossip. In 1978, the Polish director Roman Polanski fled the US after being indicted for sodomizing a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot for French Vogue. Kael liked Polanski and defended him to Wolcott, “It’s not as if he could physically hurt those girls. Have you ever seen Polanski? He’s quite tiny and slight, about the same size as those girls they’re talking about. They’re on an equal scale.” Even the great Pauline had her blind spots.
Kael opened a pathway for Wolcott into a more elevated level of New York society, the people who eat at Elaine’s and write for the New Yorker and attend parties in the Hamptons. At one such gathering, Wolcott recalls bumping into the writer Nora Ephron, lately and acrimoniously split from Carl Bernstein. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Wolcott backs out of the conversation by saying, “I’ll see you later.” To which Ephron icily slams the door, “Probably not.” So it goes in the rarified orbit of New York elites.
As chronicled in his kaleidoscopic and at times aromatic memoir Lucking Out, Wolcott’s career is replete with such fortuitous collisions with celebrity. In 1971, then a student journalist at Frostburg State University in the Maryland piedmont, Wolcott had the temerity to send a letter to Norman Mailer enclosing a piece he had written on the infamous cage-fight between Mailer and Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show. It was one of the few pieces sympathetic to Mailer’s priggish performance that night and Mailer seized on it. The author of The Naked and the Dead wrote back enthusiastically, telling Wolcott that he “might have a career” in journalism and offering to introduce him to Dan Wolf, editor of the Village Voice.
Despite his reputation as a bully, Mailer could be incredibly generous, especially toward young writers who sucked up to him. I know. I was one of them. In 1978, I spent a long night drinking with Mailer in Indianapolis. I was a sophomore at American University at the time, at home on summer break. I told Mailer that I was bored with school and wanted to drop out and write a screenplay or a novel. He jabbed me in the chest with one of his thick fingers and snapped, “Go back to DC and learn to write about evil and politics. [He really talked like that.] The novel is dead, anyway.” So I trudged back east and Norman proceeded to prove his assertion about the cadaverous state of American fiction by writing Ancient Evenings.
Looking for any excuse to escape Frostburg, a town known primarily for cowering under the shadow of a skeletal steel replica of Noah’s Ark built by the God’s Ark of Safety Ministry, Wolcott dropped out of school and decamped to New York for the first time, waving Mailer’s letter as a passport to the city. In the 1970s, miracles still happened. Against all odds, Wolcott succeeded in convincing Dan Wolf to give him a job—not as a writer, but down in the mailroom of the Voice, where, oddly enough, much of the real action seemed to be happening. Even more miraculously, Wolcott was able to locate an apartment, decrepit though it was, in Manhattan while working at a low-wage job and pitching stories to the Voice as a freelancer.
Wolcott spent his nights prowling the libido-drenched streets of the city, from Harlem to the East Village, hunting for stories in sex clubs, bars, artist lofts, porn houses, and, most fruitfully, rock venues, like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, where a bracing new music, call it American punk, was being thrashed out by bands like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Dictators, Television and the Talking Heads.
Enthralled by the raw sound of the Patti Smith Group, Wolcott began promoting her performances in the Voice with the same kind of devotional zeal that Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau shellacked on Bruce Springsteen. Wolcott presents Patti as the Rimbaud of the New York demimonde, capturing the noirish spirit of the times in a brutal poetics—poetics with powerchords.
“She’s a poet of steely rhythms,” Wolcott writes in a crush-like trance. “Her work demands to be read aloud—so language is her narcotic, her lover, her mustang. And her body is as eloquent as her voice. Scrawny and angular in repose, it becomes supple and expressive when the music sways. Dressed in black jeans, black coat, and loose T-shirt, she dances with a smooth sassiness, her boyish hips tenderly pistoning, her bamboo-thin arms punctuating the air for emphasis.” James, snap out of it! Are you there, James?
Others fared less well. There’s a depressing sketch charting the terminal descent into Manhattan of that tormented genius Lester Bangs, who Wolcott describes as writing “in key-clacking Kerouacian binges, cannonballing through paper hoops of deadlines and then spilling more copy than they could use.” Following an unsuccessful (if not humiliating) flirtation with performance art, Bangs was set to abandon the New York, but died of an overdose in 1982 in his flat on Sixth Avenue, after swallowing one too many Darvons chased down by a bottle of cough syrup. Bangs was just one of many creative spirits in the City who would be reaped by the dark chill of the 1980s.
Wolcott is at his best when he is writing acrid portraits of the perversities of celebrity culture or when he is slicing and dicing at the airy pretensions of the New York intelligentsia, from Joan Didion and the absurdly pompous Harold Brodkey to Susan Sontag and Renata Adler, she of the noose-like train of hair. The grandiose Adler comes in for particularly poisonous (and richly deserved) treatment in retaliation for her vicious shanking of Kael in an 8,000-word hit job in the New York Review of Books.
I felt short-changed only by Wolcott’s rather restrained evocation of his colleagues at the Voice. Surely an entire chapter could have been devoted to the strange habits of film critic Andrew Sarris, the eccentric huckster of auteurism, who Wolcott gently sideswipes as “His Tetchiness.” He does, however, provide an amusing glimpse of the Dean of Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, at work, scribbling away on his grade-sheets, casually deciding the fate of hopeful new bands, dressed only in his scarlet briefs.
Time also seems to have healed some old wounds. After many years of jabs and counterpunches, Wolcott confesses that Alexander Cockburn was “the Voice’s brightest journalist star.” He describes Cockburn “whooshing in and out of the building on a jet stream of daredevilish charisma.” Wolcott should catch Alex’s act in Petrolia.
Lucking Out unfolds like a fraying psychic map to a Manhattan that no longer exists. Some of the landmarks remain, but only as shadowy curios of a lost era, the darkly mythic 1970s, when New York was grittier, more dangerous, more alive, teeming with an exquisite decadence.
This Week’s Playlist
Jill Scott, The Light of the Sun (Warner Bros.)
The Kills, Midnight Boom (Domino)
Louis Armstrong, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 (Columbia)
Johnny Winter, Roots (Megaforce)