By Robert Heide
I arrived in Greenwich Village in the early Fifties in the midst of when the area was regarded as the place where the true bohemian lifestyle was the order of the day. My father moved me into my apartment on Christopher Street just across from St. John’s Church my Village community headquarters where everyone gay or straight was welcome. Though I didn’t mention it to my father, I had read in Confidential Magazine that Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were roommates in an apartment in the Village. It said that the two were big slobs and that after starting to paint the place purple, gave up, and left the paint cans on the floor. I later learned that their address was 124 Waverly Place. The first gay bar I went to was Lenny’s Hideaway on Tenth Street, a downstairs cellar dive that is now called Smalls Jazz Club, still a fun place although not gay as it was in my heyday. The proprietor then, Lenny, wanted it just to be a gay man’s enclave for hanging out and meeting sex partners. In those promiscuous times it was primarily the pick-up spot for a one-night stand. Sure, committed relationships were part of the scene but gay marriage was a long time off in the future. The full bar at the end of the small space was tended by a young handsome man named Robbie who invented a special and expensive Lenny’s ‘get high quick’ drink ‘The Clinker’ which consisted of a high alcohol level Brandy with other secret ingredients and served in a large copper cup with a handle. Of course a bottle of beer was the mainstay. I didn’t meet Marlon or Wally here but the place was where I had my first meeting with Edward Albee who was standing at the bar with his companion of thirteen years William ‘Bill’ Flanagan, an esteemed music and theater critic whose uptown job helped to pay the rent for their six-story tenement style walk-up Village apartment on West 4th Street just around the corner from Lenny’s Hideaway. Edward had not yet inherited the money from his grandmother (which when received enabled him to jumpstart his playwriting career with The Zoo Story) and that left Flanagan to pay the bills. A big coin-operated colorfully lit jukebox played the latest recordings of Judy Garland, Perry Como, the Andrews Sisters, Dinah Shore and other pop singers and bands.
Other regulars at Lenny’s were Terrence McNally, later to become one of Broadway’s most prolific playwrights (Love, Valour, Compassion, Ragtime, etc.), Jerry Hello Dolly Herman, Cecil Beaton, Ian Orlando Macbeth, the composer Ned Rorem and other occasional drop-ins like Tennessee Williams and the volatile Tallulah Bankhead. Eventually Edward would write the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The idea of the play was based on get-togethers at the Albee-Flanagan pad where, after four in the morning and the bars had closed, an after-hours party ensued. As in the play the late-night invitees had to endure ‘Get The Guest’—a game which often meant some kind of trip-into-the bedroom for a tumble in the hay, or whatever. At a later point in this ongoing history I had a talk with McNally who went through the same game which he called ‘Hump the Host’ after which both he and I usually suffered severe hangovers. Edward also had hangovers and he and I would often meet at about four in the afternoon and go to the counter at the local walk-thru drugstore (entrances to the pharmacy were on both Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue—it is now an all-night walk-thru Deli) where we would have an ice-cream soda or a malted milk followed by a cup of black wake-up coffee. There was often a silent stillness in Edward and afterward we would take long nowhere walks around the Village where he barely spoke as if he were in a trance. I later realized that in his mind he was writing a play and, yes, along came The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, The Death of Bessie Smith, The American Dream and other one-act plays. Edward connected with the producer Richard Barr and these plays were first presented off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse and the Cherry Lane Theater. Later, of course, with Virginia Woolf, it was Broadway all the way ultimately leading to three Pulitzer Prizes.
There were many other hot ‘gay’ spots in the Village, including the oldest bar in town, Julius’ on the corner of 10th Street and Waverly Place still going strong. Eighth Street between 6th and 5th Avenues was where Mary’s and The Old Colony held forth for many years. Later, of course, Christopher Street was home to Pieces, The Stonewall, The Monster, Boots and Saddles, The Hangar, and Tys, some still functioning today as well as the Lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, three blocks south of Christopher. On MacDougal Street the top place to have fun and be seen was the old-time Italian bar and restaurant San Remo which was the home of Village Beatnik regulars including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. There is a bronze plaque with the names of many other famous habitués. It was there one memorable night that quite a celebrity crowd gathered after the rave reviews for Albee’s Virginia Woolf? came out—people had come to see the newly-minted American playwright in the flesh, and he arrived that night attired in a dramatic white cable-knit turtleneck sweater. I met up with my director friend Ron Link who came with Billy Linich, later as a photographer at the Warhol factory renamed Billy Name; sitting at the bar was Leonard Bernstein, Living Theatre impresario Judith Malina, French actress Simone Signoret and others.
Through all of this Bill Flanagan turned into a rampant alcoholic and after entering into a downward spiral dive, one of the ‘two owls’ as Bill and Edward were often called, died. By then the two men had separated. Edward moved into a spacious apartment on 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues where party guests might include celebrated film and theater bigwigs like Rock Hudson. All of this was a far cry from the days I attended a college preparatory school, Carteret School for Boys, in West Orange, New Jersey. Memory image: one night, driving around in New York in my new rich friend Dick Byrne’s four-door 1948 Cadillac with a bunch of boys, we stopped for a light and we all laughed at once at an exaggerated-looking bleached blonde and bejeweled elderly dame coming out of her jewelry store. She heard us and coming up to the window said, “You wait. You just wait till you get old—you’ll see what its like.” I later learned that the old dame was Magda Gabor, the famed Gabor sisters’ mother. A highlight of that year-long experience at Carteret was being taken by Hanford Farnum, one of our favorite teachers, to One Fifth Avenue to listen to music and drink. I met a pianist there who asked me what I did, “I act and I sing” said I, and he said, “sing something” and I sang a bit of “I’m in love with Miss Logan” from New Faces of 1952, the Broadway revue, which was followed by a round of applause and a free drink.
A lot has passed under the bridge since those days. I went to school at Northwestern, studied acting with Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, wrote some plays for the Caffe Cino, celebrated today as the first off-off Broadway theater with two plaques on the building at 3l Cornelia Street (one from the National Register of Historic Places) including The Bed (later made into a movie by Andy Warhol) and Moon, a play about two couples in the Village and an unexpected visitation from an angelic upstairs neighbor, played by my boyfriend (then and now) John Gilman, wrote other plays and, with John, over a dozen books on American popular culture—with an emphasis on Art Deco and Mickey Mouse. One day, a few years back, Edward called and asked me to visit him at his duplex Tribeca loft. John and I were received by a slim, good-looking, shoulder-length straight black haired youth who introduced himself as “an artist living and working on the premises.” Edward’s long time lover had passed away, and he himself, was declining and in the last days of his life. I held his hand and we talked about the old days in the Village. I told him the story of sitting one night with Jimmy Hendrix who was wearing a lavender silk shirt, crushed velvet culottes with matching colored boots in the Café Feenjon on Macdougal (now the Olive Tree Café.) That night a drunk Marine, staggering up to our table, asked us how to get around the Village and then loudly commented, “I can’t stand to be around Village queers.” Jimmy embraced me closely and said, “He’s my lover man!” prompting the young Marine to bolt for the door.
Thinking of Hendrix and Edward Albee and Terrence McNally and Joe Cino, and so many other friends who have passed away, I remembered a song entitled “Death” written by John Wallowitch, now departed himself, that he often sang at the opening or closing of his nightclub appearances and on his musical television shows. It had an upbeat and fast rickety-tick odd-ball sense of off-beat existentialism. Smiling and rolling his eyes and pounding on the piano keys, John sang,
Death! It’s the latest—it’s the end.
Take your life and chuck it.
Death! Go and kick the bucket.
Death! Let’s transcend.
It’s gonna getcha in the end.
Read more about Robert Heide’s Village exploits in Greenwich Village—A Primo Guide to Shopping, Eating, and Making Merry in True Bohemia, published by St. Martin’s Press available at Amazon as is his latest publication Robert Heide 25 Plays published by Fast Books Press.