Michael Herr, at 50, is one of the last hipsters. He is a hipster with a tweed jacket, a discreet collection of facial tics and a way, after all these years, of still hiking his shoulders when he walks across a restaurant.
Does anyone remember what a hipster is or was? Not a hippie or a beatnik -- Herr is a hipster, with a hipster's way of nestling into the old Cosmic Shrug when he sits down at his table, the shrug as philosophic premise in the lost Greenwich Village persona of the '50s and early '60s. As it turned out, this was a persona that dined well on the endless meaty ironies of Vietnam, where Herr spent a year as a journalist, a year that would make him famous in a book called "Dispatches."
He has just published "Walter Winchell," a screenplay that both he and Hollywood decided was better as a novel, even with the camera directions left in it: "We see Walter in close-up, a heightening of intensity." He has come over from London, where he lives with his English wife and two daughters, to publicize it.
He has a soft, warm hand and an eight-year-old beard he scratches at as if it were new. He has a flat, soft face and a deep, soft voice. He uses the word "man" as punctuation. He sounds as if he's either exhausted or saving his energy in case he becomes exhausted, a slow, smooth voice that makes listening to him like sticking your fingers in a jar of cold cream -- a droll mutter, a streetwise grumble. He smokes Gauloises, which he extracts from a pack that never leaves his sport coat pocket. "I started that in Vietnam, man. They had people there would steal the tips off your shoelaces." Much about him seems hidden, shrugged over until it's hard to tell what color his eyes are behind his glasses, how good his teeth are behind his smile. He is pure hipster oblique, as someone at the table points out.
This provokes an instantaneous one-word joke, a watchword retrieved from North Beach or McDougall Street in the heyday of sidewalk existentialism:
It denotes a quickening to some possibility or other, or to some impossibility. In either case, it denotes the heightened, sidelong state of hipness itself.
"It's a long haul, man, a lot of time, cultivating this attitude."
He started cultivating it when he was 12 or 13, the son of an owner of a store in Syracuse, N.Y., a store where he worked in the record department, "a kid in Syracuse and working in a record store and watching between 1954 and 1957 the walls break down, you know, and seeing these kids come in who were new kids. This isn't Archie and Veronica and Henry Aldrich coming in, man, this is like the new bit -- it was terrifying to a lot of people. And to me. But attractive. You know. It wasn't long before I was on the other side of the counter. Some of them were really heavy people, you know, bad kids."
They were modal personalities, as historian Warren Susman would say, of their time, from West Side Story gang kids to jazz fans wearing sunglasses in the darkest corners of Birdland -- the saintly psychopaths of the hip 1950s, building their surly, giddy utopias out near the nerve ends, gliding and shrugging around with the James Dean wince, the pained Marlon Brando cool, the Lenny Bruce timing, a way of being that was celebrated by Norman Mailer in essays such as "The White Negro," collected in "Advertisements for Myself."
"I can remember, I was like 17 years old, reading 'Advertisements for Myself,' and I was gone, I was gone, I was so in love, you know, and I loved the dangerousness of those thoughts. I don't know what would happen if I read that book today but I can tell you what happened then. I remember sitting in a dentist's office in Syracuse, New York, reading a chunk of it in Esquire, and thinking, boy, man, where do I sign? You know. Where do I sign? This is what I want to be when I grow up, you know. It was so sexy. And the language was so great, the language was so great."
So he spent some time at Syracuse University, working on the newspaper. He spent a year bumming around Europe. He settled in Greenwich Village, writing film criticism for the New Leader, then travel stories for Holiday magazine. He married an artist. Then he decided to check out Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire.
"Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony," he would write in a much-quoted passage in "Dispatches." "I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you've never heard it." As Herr has said, you couldn't cover the war with conventional journalism any more than you could win it with conventional weapons.
Herr's journalism had a cool, moist, ironic rhythmic heft to it, like a good combination of rock music and some kind of prime meat marinated in marijuana. It was a hipster's combination of mysticism and an ongoing shrug. His most celebrated line was, "I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods." He wrote with soulful precision of detail, though his chronicling of fact as most journalists know it took second place to the evoking of atmosphere. He respected, admired and sometimes loved his subject in all its vulgar tragedy: the war and the men, particularly the enlisted men, who fought in it. He understood that war is hell, and hell, as he put in a chapter title, sucks. But he also understood that hell is beautiful, which is why so many people end up there.
He didn't publish "Dispatches" until 1977, but the magazine pieces that were the bulk of it made him a cult figure before the war even ended. He was said to be holed up in an apartment in Greenwich Village, never sleeping or always sleeping, writing nothing or writing an endless unpublishable screed, nobody knew. A psychic casualty. Drunk or stoned. Or a junkie -- this was back when heroin still had a martyred macho authenticity, and the idea that Herr was addicted to it only added to his legend.
"Yeah, 'strung out on junk.' It's all untrue, man, that's all I can tell you, because I was always afraid of heroin. I mean, I put the odd grain up my nose, but I was never, you know... ."
He broke up with the artist and took up with the woman who is now his wife. He got by with a little help from family and friends. It took years, but he finally finished the book.
"Well, you know, man, it took me a long time to do that, because I really wanted it to last, you know. I was very ambitious with that book, I mean really ambitious. I knew I had my subject and I knew, you know, I could write that book -- whatever it took, I could write it. I knew it. And, you know, how good that book is, only the authors know how good their books are, you know?"
When "Dispatches" came out, Herr the cult figure got promoted to Herr the culture hero, one of the last male literary culture heroes America has produced, along with Hunter Thompson and Ken Kesey.
"I felt it, man, I felt it happening, because I'm not stupid, I knew what was going on, and it was great for six months, and I had a wonderful time, I loved it man, it was everything I ever wanted out of, you know, writing. But it had nothing to do with me at all, like it had nothing to do with me, and it could be ugly, it could be ugly, the need you see in people, the need, the horrible hunger, because they don't know what they want from you, deeply ugly, it's painful. You know what I'm saying?"
He left for England. He wrote scripts -- he got screenwriting credits for "Apocalypse Now" and "Full Metal Jacket." He wrote extended captions for "The Big Room," a book of paintings of Las Vegas celebrities. One of them was Walter Winchell, a failed and nasty vaudeville hoofer who became the most powerful gossip columnist in America in the '30s and '40s, faded in the '50s, and died in 1972, an anachronism who had lost even his power to annoy.
As Herr sees it, Winchell created the modern celebrity machinery that every year turns out more and more of the plastic junk of gossip and fame that gets stuck in our minds the way pacifiers get stuck in babies' mouths.
"He was sort of a miserable human being but he was a great American life. I felt that his life had a lesson and meaning for us because he was the architect and the inventor of the end of private life, the end of any kind of private internal life, and of what we have now, and it weighs on all of us, it oppresses -- the media, you know, the incessant, you know, promiscuous, endless river of facts and distractions and gossip, and, so, the people, it's like you're never alone, you're never alone, you're never left alone."
Once, Winchell had his column in more than 1,000 newspapers, six days a week. He had a radio show heard by almost half the people in America: "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." Then television came along, and while his rival columnist Ed Sullivan was great on it, Winchell looked, Herr says, like "an angry middle-aged man yelling at the camera." Toward the end of his life he did a guest shot on the "Tonight" show. He came on carrying his hat and a raincoat in some sort of ridiculous claim of newshound authenticity, and Johnny Carson said: "You worried it's going to rain in here, Walter?"
Herr says, "He was, you know, the founder of this culture that we live in now, which for me is enough to put him on Mount Rushmore, it makes him a giant American historical figure."
In "The Big Room" Herr proposed P.T. Barnum for Mount Rushmore too. These proposals are not without irony, but not entirely with it either. Winchell was the antithesis of hip. He was a direct, overstated, vulgar purveyor of the obvious rather than an oblique, understated, esoteric purveyor of the ironic.
But without Winchell and all the sleazy confections of the media, we might not have had the prophets of Bohemia, the underground, the counterculture and so on. We might not have had Michael Herr. It's a thought.
"Who that Winchell really is, is my father. You know, the psychology of that guy. He had sort of the energy and mannerisms. My father wasn't, you know, a powermonger or anything, but I used certain of his characteristics to flesh out this character. I mean, it came more from him than it did from any Walter Winchell that ever lived. I don't know who Walter Winchell really was, you know. I read a lot of books and a lot of columns, a lot of columns, thousands. You could feel the man, all of him, his wit and his energy, his viciousness and all of it, you know, his vulgarity and his charm, all of it in those columns, they're terrific."