Where’s the map? While there’s much to praise and enjoy in John Strausbaugh’s social and cultural history of Greenwich Village, there really should have been a map. People who have visited New York as tourists are likely to know that “the Village” comprises the streets and neighborhoods around Washington Square. You do know where Washington Square is, right? Near New York University? This book needs a map.
I emphasize this mainly because Strausbaugh deals with very specific places — bars, restaurants, theaters, clubs, apartment buildings — and he repeatedly identifies their exact locations. Can you visualize the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia streets? Can you pinpoint Patchin Place, once the home of writers E.E. Cummings and Djuna Barnes? (It’s a little mews off 10th Avenue, near Sixth.) How far is it from the Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara hung out, to the White Horse Tavern, where Delmore Schwartz and William Gaddis did their drinking, to the Lion’s Head, the longtime watering hole of Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt and Pete Hamill?
Such questions of proximity matter because Strausbaugh emphasizes the intensity of Village life. While it’s hardly a gated community, Greenwich Village does possess a kind of “under the dome” quality, with musicians, writers, artists and rebels of every kind living next door to each other and out of each other’s pockets. You can walk from 14th Street to Houston Street — the rough northern and southern boundaries of the Village — in just over half an hour.
People have always gravitated to this tight warren of streets because of its implicit philosophy of total freedom. Strausbaugh calls it “a magnet for misfits.” Here, if anywhere, you could realize your true self, you could be as wild, creative, promiscuous or weird as you wanted to be, and you would actually fit right in. If you were, say, a kid growing up in Ohio and you yearned for a literary life, you naturally daydreamed about having a drink with W.H. Auden at a bar near St. Mark’s, dropping by Eli and Ted Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop, listening to Bob Dylan at the Cafe Wha?, having your novel published by Grove Press, and shedding a tear when the book ended up on the remainder tables at the Strand. In every way, “The Village” sounded like heaven.
Yet for every masterpiece created, for every career launched, there were scores of broken lives. “The history of Greenwich Village,” writes Strausbaugh in his introduction, “is littered with the corpses of those who drank themselves to creative ruin or death, overdosed on various drugs, committed alcohol- or drug-fueled murder or suicide, or partied themselves into oblivion.” In truth, until rents grew outrageous, the Village was largely the haven of penniless dreamers, for those just starting their careers or those who were convinced that — despite the failures, the drugs or the drink — they could somehow still make it. The lucky and talented ones nearly always ended up moving uptown to an apartment on Central Park West or out to a house in Connecticut’s Fairfield County.
In its structure, Strausbaugh’s history may be likened to a portrait gallery. Starting in colonial times and working up to the present, he organizes his chapters around brief biographies of seemingly hundreds of “beats and bohemians, radicals and rogues.” If nothing else, the book represents an enormous amount of research and provides hours of entertaining reading.
Back in the 1850s, artsy Villagers frequented Pfaff’s, a restaurant-saloon “in the cellar of the Coleman House” (which still stands on Broadway). There you might find all the vagabonds and loafers of the city, including Walt Whitman, the brilliant writer Fitz-James O’Brien (now best remembered for his fantasy stories, such as “What Was it?” and “The Diamond Lens”) and the free-spirited poet Ada Clare, who defied convention by trumpeting the fact she was a single mother by having her calling card inscribed “Miss Ada Clare and Son.”
Throughout his book Strausbaugh emphasizes the sexual freedom found in the Village and almost nowhere else. In the 1890s the Slide, “possibly the first drag bar in the city . . . was at 157 Bleecker Street between Sullivan and Thompson streets, the site of the music club Kenny’s Castaways.” (See why you need a map?) Nearby on West Third was an equally scandalous basement called — wonderful name — “the Golden Rule Pleasure Club.”
In the years just before World War I, the Village enjoyed its first great flowering. At the salon of Mabel Dodge one might encounter a cross-section of its inhabitants, including — in Dodge’s own words — “Socialists, Trade Unionists, Anarchists, Suffragists, Poets, Relations, Lawyers, Murderers, ‘Old Friends,’ Psychoanalysts, IWWs [Industrial Workers of the World], Single Taxers, Birth Controlists, Newspapermen, Artists, Modern Artists, Clubwomen, Woman’s-place-is-in-the-home Women, Clergymen, and just plain men.”
Radical politics and cutting-edge art have always flourished in the Village, and Strausbaugh duly discusses revolutionaries Emma Goldman and John Reed (author of “Ten Days That Shook the World”), John Sloan and the Ashcan school of painters, the proletarian magazine the Masses, the innovative theatrical triumphs of Eugene O’Neill, the career of red-headed poet and heartbreaker Edna St. Vincent Millay, the satirical novelist Dawn Powell, the scandalously bisexual chanteuse Libby Holman, photographer of the grotesque Diane Arbus, such beat legends as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and, not least, guitar wizard Jimi Hendrix.
Besides chronicling cultural activities, Strausbaugh interweaves accounts of local politics, from the era of Tammany Hall through the administrations of mayors Jimmy Walker, Fiorello La Guardia and Ed Koch (all with Village connections). I didn’t know that before he entered politics Walker wrote songs, including “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” But, then, such serendipitous discovery is part of this book’s charm and usefulness. Who would have thought that for many years one of the Mafia’s most powerful bosses, Vincent Gigante, deliberately pretended to be a shambling half-wit to throw the Feds off his trail?
Still, for all the craziness of Village life throughout its history, one is still awed by the amount of sheer talent that sometimes congregated in this one small neighborhood. When Harry Belafonte, before he decided to become a singer, signed up for an acting class with Erwin Piscator at the New School, his was “the only dark face” in the class. “He introduced himself to the other nobodies: Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Bea Arthur, and Bernie Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis.”
The last chapters of Strausbaugh’s book focus, to a large extent, on the post-1960s gay Village, including discussion of the notorious clubs the Toilet and the Anvil, the epoch-making riot outside the Stonewall bar (two doors down from the Lion’s Head), and the AIDS epidemic. He ends, as he must, in the present when the old Village is fast disappearing, growing increasingly gentrified and upscale. And yet. To stroll along Sullivan or MacDougal streets or parts of Sixth Avenue is to feel strangely energized even in 2013, as if Greenwich Village were still and would always be the land of dreams.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues
A History of Greenwich Village
By John Strausbaugh
Ecco. 624 pp. $29.99