In the Coen brothers’ movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” opening Friday, Oscar Isaac plays a folk singer barely making a living in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, sleeping on the couches of downtown friends, presumably unaware of a singer from Hibbing, Minn., who has just hit town and will change the world — but not quite yet.
The universe inhabited by Llewyn Davis — who is loosely based on the musician Dave Van Ronk — is a hermetic one, composed mostly of traditional music purists like himself, occasionally branching out to the cultural cognoscenti of the Upper West Side. But although the early 1960s folk scene in New York was just that insular, the city around it was in the midst of larger cultural ferment, its myriad subcultures in jazz, art, dance, film, theater and journalism undergoing their own seismic shifts.
On a single night in New York in 1961, it’s possible to imagine Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis playing clubs in and around the Village, while Gloria Steinem and Robert Benton traded newspapers at Jim Downey’s Steak House uptown. James Earl Jones was starring in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” at the St. Mark’s Playhouse, while Edward Albee, having already galvanized off-Broadway with “The American Dream” and “Zoo Story,” was writing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Stephen Sondheim might have been noodling ideas for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Andy Warhol might have been preparing Marilyn Diptych or 100 Cans and other works for his first solo pop art show the following year.
During an era that ran roughly from 1960 through 1963, those worlds were known to overlap in fascinating, felicitous ways. It wasn’t uncommon for Steinem — then an emerging journalist working at the humor magazine Help! — to call up an emerging comedian named Woody Allen, inviting him to contribute to the satirical fumetti the magazine specialized in. Robert Redford, having recently left art school and beginning to work as an actor, saw a young Streisand while she was playing Village clubs like the Blue Angel and the Bon Soir, never dreaming they would be acting together on screen a little more than 10 years later.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” were introducing a new cinematic grammar to American filmgoers. Journalists absorbed the spontaneous rhythms of those films while documentary filmmakers internalized the raw, confrontational intimacy of new off-Broadway productions. Painters went to hear jazz, playwrights went to see modern dance and Beat poets went to the folkie coffeehouses — a cultural cross-fertilization that’s briefly reflected in “Inside Llewyn Davis” when a character played by Garrett Hedlund tells Davis that he acted in the off-Broadway play “The Brig.”
That’s a moment of poetic license: In actuality, that play didn’t open until 1963. In 1961, when “Inside Llewyn Davis” takes place, Kenneth H. Brown — who wrote “The Brig” — was tending bar, hoping for a break in the theater. That same year, D.A. Pennebaker, who would go on to make the Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” was making films with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock at Life magazine, where they had invented a portable, lightweight camera with synchronized sound that would give rise to a new kind of nonfiction filmmaking some would start calling “cinema verite.”
In 1961, a 24-year-old named Dustin Hoffman was rooming with another emerging actor named Robert Duvall, taking classes, working odd jobs and getting small roles on TV and Broadway. Michael Kahn, now artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, was preparing to graduate from Columbia University and exploring the new world of off-Broadway theater. Robert Benton was the art director at Esquire magazine, where Norman Mailer — soon to be joined by Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern and Gay Talese — was beginning to invent the subjective, self-consciously literary writing style that came to be known as New Journalism. He was also dating Steinem, who was working at Help! and sharing an apartment with an artist and illustrator named Barbara Nessim.
In 1961, the folk and blues producer Sam Charters and his wife, the future Beat biographer Ann Charters, had just returned from Europe to New York, where they occasionally visited Van Ronk, Sam Charters’s former roommate on MacDougal Street. A teenager named P. Adams Sitney was working with Jonas and Adolfas Mekas at Film Culture magazine; a year later the Mekas brothers would form the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which distributed films by avant-garde auteurs Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith.
An aspiring magazine designer named Walter Bernard was living in a Weekhawken, N.J., rooming house, studying at night with the legendary magazine designer Henry Wolf, and saving up enough money to move to Manhattan. The future art historian and critic Barbara Rose — a Washington native — was working as an archivist for the composer Edgar Varese that summer. Shortly she would depart for Europe on a Fulbright scholarship and marry the artist Frank Stella, whose work had been part of the pivotal “Sixteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art two years earlier.
Each of them was a part of the vibrant New York world outside “Llewyn Davis.” Here are some of their voices.
‘A totally different New York’
P. Adams Sitney: There was so much going on, in any area you want to mention. Paul Goodman published “Growing Up Absurd,” John Cage published “Silence,” and Grove Press brought out an anthology called “The New American Poetry.” It was as if the world had turned upside down with those three books. At MOMA there was a big Rothko [retrospective] and they had the “Sixteen Americans” show around that time. . . . Up in a townhouse on the Upper East Side, Leo Castelli was showing Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. You could see Merce Cunningham at the Judson Memorial Church. . . . It was a wonderfully exciting time. And of course, we believed that cinema would change definitely and dramatically forever, which turned out not to be the case.
Kenneth H. Brown: Merce Cunningham’s studio was right upstairs from the Living Theatre at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. I used to go up and sit in the corner and watch rehearsals. I thought it was magnificent, and he thought we were great.
Walter Bernard: Between 1960 and 1963, before the reality of tragedy hit everybody, there was a lot of energy concentrated on the arts and that kind of thing, because it wasn’t about protesting yet. Things were bubbling up about civil rights and feminism, but not Vietnam. So it was a very fertile period.
Barbara Rose: The art world was still very, very small, very experimental. One pole was organized around John Cage and Merce Cunningham, the other pole around the critic Clement Greenberg. . . . Samuel Beckett, whose plays were being produced in New York at the time, was very important. Cage’s music and philosophy and Buddhism were very important. Cunningham’s choreography and philosophy were very important. . . . It was a totally different New York City. Things were much more open and less planned and strategized. It had to do with how much energy or talent or commitment you had. It didn’t have anything to do with money at all.
‘It was all underground’
Kenneth H. Brown: I was an ex- Marine, I went to Columbia on the G.I. Bill. I wrote “The Brig” while I was a student at Columbia. And I passed it around from hand to hand for several years, from 1957 to 1962. Then one day I was working behind the bar in a very elegant French restaurant right off Sutton Place called La Popotte, on East 58th Street, and [Living Theatre co-founder] Julian Beck calls. He had called my parents to try to find me and they gave him the number at the bar. My customers were like the Kennedys and the people who owned the New York Times, those were the people who ate there. And I’m behind the bar in this very elegant setting and this guy calls me and says he wants to do “The Brig.” I’d never heard of him, and I’d never heard of the Living Theatre.
Michael Kahn: I was a kid. We were all kids. I was still at Columbia and I was directing at Barnard. I remember I directed the French Club’s production of “Orphee” by Cocteau, and I was a friend of Andy Warhol’s at that time, so Andy did the set. At that time he was still working at I. Miller doing shoe advertisements.
Caffé Cino [was owned by Joe Cino], a fat Italian guy who loved theater, so he had a coffeehouse and had plays in the evening. . . . And a lot of them dealt with subjects that hadn’t been dealt with before, like incest and madness. At La MaMa, Ellen Stewart began bringing in theater at night, people would come to see the play and have coffee. I don’t know if it was a coffeehouse during the day or not, but I did a whole bunch of things there. Ellen just scraped by, but she was a major figure. She was a swimwear designer and her job paid for the [theater]. She was a wonderful character. When I first met her, I don’t think she had a Caribbean accent, but somehow she got one.
P. Adams Sitney: Down in an off-Broadway theater, Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” opened. People like Roscoe Lee Browne, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones — everybody was in it. I think I went three or four times. Every time I had a date I wanted to impress and I had some money in my pocket, I went to “The Blacks.”
Barbara Rose: It was all underground. There was a very big wall between the practitioners, who were their own audience, and the civilians.
‘You’d argue about movies more than you would argue about painters’
Robert Benton: From my point of view, the most interesting thing was this sudden influx of films from France and Italy and Sweden and Japan. They changed our notion about film. An art form which wasn’t thought of as an art form suddenly blossomed. . . . You’d have dinner and you’d talk about movies more than you would talk about books. You’d argue about movies more than you would argue about painters.
Michael Kahn: American movies were not giving us anything interesting to look at visually, whereas European movies were. Like Antonioni, who had a whole new language and way of looking at things and also a very different tempo. Antonioni was the most important filmmaker to me. There was something about the vision of the world and the anomie of the world. . . . Even though we were eager and busy, there was something very attractive about anomie.
Barbara Nessim: We would go to “Jules and Jim,” all those French films, and the Italian ones. You know, they were all existential. You came out and said, “What happened?”
Robert Benton: David Newman and I wrote “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1963. I had been fired from Esquire, so I left and began to try to find out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I loved movies, I spent most of my time talking about movies, along with David, and I had told him about the glamorous life of screenwriters, which was totally made up of whole cloth. . . . Of course in those days the world was much smaller. We read a treatment to Helen Scott, who was a close friend of Truffaut’s, and we wanted it to be a New Wave movie. Truffaut gave us help with it, although he didn’t end up doing it because he had other commitments. Then it was turned down by everybody until Warren Beatty showed up.
Barbara Rose: Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” I’ll never forget it. It must have been at Film-Makers’ Cooperative. We were all interested in experimental film, anything that was outside the boundaries, transgressive, anything that wasn’t your normal gray flannel-“Mad Men” thing. This was a moment in which there was still extreme revulsion against bourgeois culture, and it’s the last moment in which there was.
D.A. Pennebaker: When we did “Primary” [in 1960], [Robert] Drew told the magazine that this was going to be a breakthrough behind-the-scenes film, but [none of Life’s television stations] would run it. They were making so much money, they didn’t need it. But filmmakers saw it and saw right away that this was where film was going to go. . . . A lot of this kind of filmmaking comes out of theater, oddly enough, because you’d watch a play and you’d watch people come out onstage you’ve never seen before, they’re usually not well-known actors, and they talked the play through. It all had to do with recognizing the drama within the spoken word, within the reactions of people.
‘Everybody was emulating Miles’
Sam Charters: [It was] the great golden, shining moment of modern jazz. We went to a little cafeteria on Greenwich Avenue, pay a buck for a beer and there was the original Miles Davis Quintet. Charlie Mingus was playing at the old Five Spot, it was just everywhere in town. Jazz musicians were hanging out with folk musicians, folk musicians were hanging out with painters, everyone was drinking a lot and we felt that we were in this damn thing together.
D.A. Pennebaker: Folk music, I had no idea about it. Because we were much more sophisticated. We were listening to Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman. . . . So in 1965 when Albert Grossman asked me to come make a film about Dylan, I didn’t know much about Dylan at all.
Kenneth H. Brown: I used to go to the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street and I heard the best jazz ever made in there. That’s where the Miles Davis Quintet played with Coltrane. Everybody was emulating Miles, so you had to wear dark suits and you never sat down because you didn’t want the crease to go out of your pants.
D.A. Pennebaker: There were a couple of places downtown, one called Nick’s [Steakhouse] and the Stuyvesant Casino. And jazz bands from New Orleans would appear there and everybody would go. You bought a pitcher of beer for a dollar-and-a-half and you danced all night.
Sam Charters: The folk scene was a way of approaching our society. Yes, we sang folk songs, but it was part of an opening to what made life exciting at that moment.
Barbara Rose: If Thelonius Monk was playing, I was going. And of course Larry Rivers played jazz saxophone. [The jazz world] was a black world. Just being with a black person was avant-garde. The Village [folk] scene seemed sophomoric, like a bunch of white kids. Very square.
‘It was always political’
Sam Charters: We were all committed in one way or another. How many demonstrations did we do to get Pete Seeger on TV? It was all part of the view that America should change. We didn’t sing “On Top of Old Smoky” because it was a great song, we sang it because we wanted change.
Kenneth H. Brown: We were always out in the street demonstrating and getting arrested. . . . We were always putting on a play, going to a demonstration or getting someone out of jail.
Ann Charters: It was always political. And politics included sexual liberation and contraceptive advice. We’re talking about a repressive and puritanical society that was denying contraception advice unless you were wearing a wedding ring. . . . Dave [Van Ronk] had a huge glass jar filled with diaphragms of all sizes, so take your pick. In the cold water flat on MacDougal Street that he shared with Sam [in 1958], I was astonished to visit them and see this huge jar very prominently displayed on the sink.
Barbara Nessim: I was one of the few women illustrators working in 1960. When I went out with my portfolio in the beginning, guys would want to know, “Why aren’t you getting married?” They couldn’t believe that this was something I really wanted to do. And how you deflected it was important, because you still wanted to get work.
P. Adams Sitney: For my gay friends, it was like the beginning of the universe. Because suddenly, [we saw] openly gay artists like Warhol and Jack Smith and Cage and Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg.
‘She started to sing, and I started to cry’
Robert Redford: John Hubley was doing things in animation, Charlie Byrd I went to see. . . . I didn’t see Dylan. I missed him. But [I did see] Barbra, she was before Dylan. What was the name of that place down in the Village? It started with an ‘S,’ a small little club. And she was just a kid. We’d just go out to see new people and so forth, and there she was. And I said, Wow. New York was fabulous in those days.
Dustin Hoffman: Streisand was going to the same acting school I was, and I was [dating] her roommate. And she said, Barbra’s going to be on TV this Friday, she’s going to be on this local show with Mike Wallace. I turn it on, and I remember Wallace is interviewing her and she was kind of aggressive. She was sitting on a stool chewing probably five wads of gum. And I thought she was playing the Brooklyn accent more strongly than usual, she was going for an image, and kind of trashing the whole idea of the show. And finally he says, “Are you gonna sing something?” And she takes this wad of gum, I remember she put it underneath the stool. And she started to sing, and I started to cry. It was magical.
‘It was a great time to be poor’
P. Adams Sitney: For many of us, the cheapest place to eat was the Belmore Cafeteria, at Park Avenue South around 28th Street. Vegetables were 15 cents apiece, you could get a heaping plate for 45 cents and make your own lemonade by squeezing lemons into seltzer water and putting the free sugar into it.
Robert Benton: In the early 1960s, I lived on 56th Street between First and Second avenues, then on 82nd between Park and Madison. Right across from me was Lillian Hellman, and next to that there was a home for unwed mothers. . . . There was a sense of romance about living in New York. There were less billionaires per square foot. And that changes the atmosphere of a city.
P. Adams Sitney: Robert Moses was going to build the [Lower Manhattan Expressway]. His plan was to destroy what is now called SoHo. So all the businesses that could afford to, got out. Everyone knew it was doomed, so artists and various weirdos began to move into very cheap spaces. . . . I could have bought a Johns drawing if had 25 bucks. I could have bought a de Kooning drawing for 50. There was a set of [Josef] Albers prints that I loved, but it cost 60 bucks at the time.
Barbara Rose: We lived in Frank’s loft at 84 Walker Street on the first floor. We had no heat and no furniture — we slept in a sleeping bag. Everyone lived illegally in their lofts. They’d sleep on a mattress and put a platform on top of it, so when the police would come you’d say, “It’s my model stand.” Nobody had any money at all. So you had to be together, because somebody [might have] enough money to cook chili one night. It was just crazy.
P. Adams Sitney: It was a great time to be poor. You could get a meal at Hong Fat’s for under a dollar. There was still Horn & Hardart [Automat], where you could sit all night with a cup of coffee. We did a thing we called “midnight knocking.” There was a rule that you couldn’t leave a sandwich more than 24 hours. So at exactly midnight they’d throw all the sandwiches away. If you stood in front of your favorite, about 30 percent of the time, the guy on the other side of the window would give it to you instead of throwing it in the garbage.
Kenneth H. Brown: Larry Rivers, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Koch, Allen Ginsberg — they were all downtown people. Uptown people like Susan Sontag and Gloria Steinem and the guy who wrote “The Paper Lion” [George Plimpton], they were the uptown scene. And they had money. I think they were kind of like the Ivy League. And we were the CCNY people, even though I went to Columbia.
P. Adams Sitney: We had nothing to do with the people uptown. Except occasionally, a guy named Doc Humes, one of the founders of the Paris Review, had a salon on Sunday so you could go up there and eat and stick food in your pockets. [You could] get meals for a week by going to Doc Humes’s salon.
‘Sit in a booth and just read the papers’
Walter Bernard: [Henry Wolf] became art director at Esquire in the late 1950s. He’d do these covers where he signed his name if he did it completely. So I knew there was this guy Henry Wolf. It was in 1961 that I started to look for an art school to get my portfolio together, so I went down to the School of Visual Arts to enroll, and there was a brochure [announcing] that Henry was teaching. So of course I wanted to take that course.
Robert Benton: This was before fashion magazines became catalogues. They presented extraordinary short stories in every issue, they weren’t just one outfit after another. And the design of those magazines, whether it was Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue or Seventeen or Esquire, was about a certain sort of style. It was a shift away from the American magazines of the ’40s and early-’50s towards a more European design sensibility.
Barbara Nessim: Henry was pure. He believed in white space. He believed in simple design to tell a story. He did Harper’s Bazaar and tilted the ‘a.’ And really understood words, and pacing.
Robert Benton: It was also a time when magazines were still a viable thing. I don’t know how many magazines there were in New York but there were a lot. And newspapers. The Herald Tribune hadn’t folded, so there was the Times, the Trib, the Wall Street Journal, the Mirror, the News, the Post and one other paper. We would go over to Jim Downey’s around 8 o’clock and sit in a booth and just read the papers and pass them back and forth and talk and have dinner. It was a lovely, lovely time.
Barbara Nessim: I did commercial jobs for girlie magazines. “Gentleman,” “Nugget,” “Swank.” I started in 1960 when I was still living at home [in the Bronx], and I also did work for little advertising agencies drawing handbags for $3 apiece, whatever I could get. For “Nugget” I illustrated an article by Terry Southern and people of that ilk. That’s who was writing for these magazines.
‘I took everyone to the Peppermint Lounge, and taught them how to dance’
Robert Benton: We played croquet in Central Park on Sunday mornings. I don’t know who had the croquet set, but a group of us — Gloria, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who wrote “The Fantasticks” — would meet and have this murderous croquet game and then go off and have breakfast somewhere. . . . Gloria also invented a game called Spoons, a wonderful, lethal form of double solitaire.
Barbara Nessim: I used to like to go Latin dancing, which I still do. I used to go to the Palladium, where I saw Machito, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, all the great Latin bands. . . . I liked to go on Wednesday night. Nobody did the Twist, so I took everyone to the Peppermint Lounge, and taught them how to dance.
Barbara Rose: The art world was hip. We liked jazz, and we liked rock-and-roll, which was very tied to pop art. I remember going to the Peppermint Lounge with Jasper Johns to dance the Twist when Chubby Checker was there.
Walter Bernard: We’d see all the foreign movies, obviously, especially French and Italian movies were a big deal. But you could go to off-Broadway and see “The Fantasticks,” “Waiting for Godot,” Albee. There were still coffee shops where people would read poetry or play music. Even Broadway, you could stand for not very much money. I think first thing I saw was “West Side Story.”
‘And that was it’
Dustin Hoffman: I remember when I heard Bob Dylan the first time, I didn’t think he’d go anywhere. But I heard him when he hadn’t found his own voice yet. He was still doing Woody Guthrie. But I was a snob also, because I preferred modern jazz. Duvall and I were kind of the same in [that] regard.
Kenneth H. Brown: There was an actor in “The Brig,” Steven Ben Israel, and he was a comic in those cafes on MacDougal like the Gaslight when Dylan was singing there, so he was a friend of Dylan’s. So Dylan came to see “The Brig” in ’63 and Steve introduced me to him, and he said that “The Brig” was the first play he ever saw. He said, “Are all plays like that?” And we laughed and said, “No, Bobby, all plays are not like that.” I don’t know if he ever saw another one.
Sam Charters: Bobby was sucking up to everybody. I had published “The Country Blues” in 1959, so I was one of the hot names that Dylan hustled. [When] I started working for Prestige Records, Dylan would show up wanting to play piano. But when he started writing the songs, it was different. Dave and I would drink, we’d hit the Irish whiskey, and around 2 o’clock in the morning, he would start trashing Dylan. But I remember one night he said, “You know, I introduced Dylan at the Gaslight, and he sang “Hard Rain,” and I just went outside and stood in the street and said to myself, ‘None of us wrote that song. He was the one who wrote it.’ And that was it.