By John Livelli
One of the West Village’s most storied residents—author, raconteur and world traveler Vincent Livelli, hits the century mark on April 9. Still youthful and active, Livelli is a respected expert on Latin music, and was long a professional salsero himself. His sense of adventure has taken him around world as a pioneer cruise director. And his love of books and learning made him a central figure in the post-war literary scene in the Village. Nor has he slowed down much: he recently appeared as an extra in Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman, and was featured on a recent Drew Binsky travel podcast.
A long-time Perry Street resident, Livelli grew up on Sullivan Street, where he lost most of his hearing at a young age. But his handicap never held him back. As a young man, Livelli learned photography. One of his first assignments was helping shoot Orson Welles during the famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. He also had, ironically, an ear for languages, which led to his being assigned to the OSS during World War II. Always on the scene, Livelli was present at the Japanese surrender, and later opened a dance hall for US servicemen near the Ginza in Tokyo.
After the war, Livelli started studies at Brooklyn College, where he met and became close friends with Anatole Broyard, a brilliant writer who later became literary critic for the New York Times. Livelli and Broyard became immersed in the Village literary scene, first opening a bookstore on Cornelia Street. Livelli then arranged for the use of a back room at the San Remo Café on MacDougal Street, which became a legendary hangout for writers and intellectuals, lasting through the Beat era. Livelli’s and Broyard’s gatherings often turned into soirees at Sherry Martinelli’s place on Jones Street, with musicians like Charlie Parker and writers like William Gaddis in attendance. Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions features characters based on Livelli and Broyard. Broyad himself later wrote of some of his adventures with Livelli in When Kafka Was The Rage. More recently, Livelli helped Broyard’s daughter Bliss with background for her father’s biography, One Drop. Livelli himself became a prolific and insightful essayist.
He’s had much to write about. Over several decades, Livelli’s life was marked by scores of ocean voyages. Livelli arranged tours to dozens of countries, usually also serving as entertainment director, often to the rich and famous.
Livelli’s life as a Latin dancer started in 1937 at the Park Plaza in Spanish Harlem, where he learned from some of the best salseras and salseros. Livelli pursued his dance career in Havana, Miami and New York. While traveling through Cuba, Livelli had a pivotal encounter with a famous santero, who prophesied that Livelli would carry Afro-Cuban music throughout the world. And so he has, working with many of the greatest Latin dancers and musicians, and lecturing, writing, and collaborating on scholarly works on the subject.
To read many of Livelli’s essays on his incredible life, check out https://salsalivelli.blogspot.com/
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