When the young Beat novelist (Kerouac) met the old bohemian poet (Bodenheim) in 1951, they were headed in opposite directions. Jack Kerouac was just lighting his Roman candle, having already written On The Road (though it would be six years before publication) and Max Bodenheim (one-time prolific novelist and roustabout poet) had thoroughly burned his candle at both ends. Two eras meshed in the incubator of Greenwich Village, where abstract expressionists, musicians, dancers, dramatists and stage hounds caroused nightly. Kerouac scholar Paul Maher Jr. examines this seminal meeting when a baton perhaps unwittingly was passed.
Jack Kerouac met Maxwell Bodenheim in Greenwich Village on September 27, 1951, a Thursday night. There had been other long nights of the soul ending in sweaty frantic debauches. They could have run into each other before, but this was the first time Kerouac recorded it for posterity in a notebook. Kerouac and Bodenheim’s birth dates were separated by thirty years, but poetry is ageless and they were both poets to their souls.
Bodenheim was street-hardened and helpless by the time he met Kerouac. He was living with his third wife, Ruth Fagan, in a flophouse at 165 Bleecker Street. He was recently widowed, having lost his second wife, Grace Finan, to a long-gestating illness. Before meeting Ruth, his life was already fraught with chronic indigence. He suffered various physical ailments such as chronic hemorrhoids aggravated by intestinal gastritis. He was advised to undergo surgery which he opted to postpone: “I dread,” he wrote old friend and fellow writer Ben Hecht, “the prospect of a crowded drab ward in a city hospital, with cursory attention punctuated by questionnaires from a social worker concerning one’s ability to pay at least a nominal sum for the hospitalization.”
Through the ‘40s, each year had been worse than the last for Max. He and Grace walked a greased tightrope over a hostile apathetic world. He saw no beauty sufficient enough to distill into sonnet form. “[B]eauty,” he explained to Hecht, “has become a wounded ignored vagabond; truth dodges wearily through a host of figures pretending to be truth; and imagination is a ghost flirting with tantalizing memories.” The people on the streets of New York appeared sad-faced and ghoulish. The poetry Max had once written so effortlessly to describe the strange and terrible beauty of the world, now dribbled feebly from his pen. After Grace’s death, the cloak of death fell over him. He gave himself up, much like Melville, entirely to self-annihilation.
“[B]eauty,” he explained to Hecht, “has become a wounded ignored vagabond; truth dodges wearily through a host of figures pretending to be truth; and imagination is a ghost flirting with tantalizing memories.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Ruth Fagan appeared in Washington Square like a deranged angel with fathomless eyes. Max was sitting dejectedly in the rain. She had been in and out of mental institutions. An honor graduate of the University of Michigan, she was a kindred lost soul who gravitated toward Max with the uncanniness of the insane. They remained in each other’s company from that fateful day. They married.
Though Ruth did nothing to quell Max’s drinking, she remained his stoic after others had long since given up (with the exception of smut peddler, Samuel Roth, who gave Bodenheim drinking money in return for typing an autobiography published as My Life and Loves In Greenwich Village after Bodenheim’s death). Ruth even managed to peddle his early novels back into print as lurid mass market paperbacks. They had no other means of income to help support their day-to-day living and so they persevered, cadging drinks and coins from bar patrons. Ruth was a charmer, and countered Bodenheim’s surliness with her outgoing demeanor.
Oftentimes they fought. Gossip columnist Dorothy Killgallen witnessed one such encounter: “Ruth used to work herself up to a point of furious anger, and one night at the San Remo bar, she marched in with atom bombs in her eyes, walked over to the table where Bodenheim was sitting, picked up a beer bottle and crashed it over his head, knocking him to the floor.” On other occasions, they stood on opposite sides of a street hurling verbal abuse. Afterwards, they walked arm-in-arm like nothing happened. In Washington Square, they lie in each other’s embrace drinking from the same bottle filled with cheap liquor and high dreams. For passers-by, they were portraits of despair. Ruth became haggard. She was sometimes bruised from the blows rained on her by Bodenheim.
When Bodenheim was lucid, he accosted unsuspecting drunkards with strange monologues: “Poetry takes on the guise of a multi-colored, naively wise, innocently searching child trying to survive in the ugly and inane uproar created by prosaic adults.” Most people barely gave the emaciated poet a glance and left him to the tourists. Others ignored him altogether. Max was scorned by blue-collars only there to quaff a beer after a long day’s work. On Skid Row, a man’s business was his own.
Judith Malina of The Living Theater ran into Bodenheim at the San Remo (her and her husband, Julian Beck, had their own booth) on many occasions. She wrote in a diary her first encounter a month prior to Kerouac:
“A ragged drunk approaches our table. In terrible shape. Ash blond hair askew. He lurches forward, his hands resting on the table.
Directly to Julian: “What’s your name?”
“My name is Julian Beck.”
“My name is Maxwell Bodenheim. I’m an idiotic poet.”
“And he turns and moves off before we can speak.”
Bodenheim struck Malina as vindictive. “Death,” she wrote several months later, “hung in the air.” Later, Bodenheim was thrown in jail. The dirty, dazed and disheveled poet was picked up by transit police along with six other men in a nightly roundup of vagrants found sleeping in trains at the Euclid Avenue terminus of the Independent Subway. That night he was arraigned at the east New York Magistrate’s Court before Magistrate John F. X. Masterson. The six other men pleaded guilty and were sent back to jail because they lacked the $2 fine. With $5 in his pocket, Bodenheim pleaded not guilty and was sent back to jail. The next day, acquaintances raised the money for his release.
Following his arrest, Max returned to the San Remo. He claimed to Malina that he was suing Time magazine. In her diary, she wrote: “A recent benefit for him [was] given by some Villagers to put him in some possession of some money, so he bought me beer, and gin for himself, and quickly became incomprehensible.”
By the early 1950s, the Beats were encroaching on Bodenheim’s lost kingdom. The Village natives, bartenders, old poets and other self-created types, perceived these startling differences as night-and-day. Karl, a San Remo barkeep, explained after Bodenheim’s death, “You see, I knew the real pros––men who had mastered the craft long before this Beat Generation was born. Why, right here at this very bar I nourished the spirit of the Old Original Beatnik. These Kerouacs and Ginsbergs you talk about aren’t fit to drink out of the same gin bottle with him.” Karl kept Bodenheim’s gin glass as an object of sanctity, refusing to let anybody else drink from it.
In the San Remo, Bodenheim sometimes held court in his favorite booth where the women came to him. “Kerouac,” Karl explained, “has to ride across the country to chase his women. A thing like that would have made Max die of shame. He had his pride.”And reading poetry to jazz music? Max had already published a book of verse, Bringing Jazz in 1930 that was meant to be read to music. Not only did he apply jazz rhythms to his poems, he also made a tacit confession of jazz faith. He approached it dividedly, leaning on it as a bulwark against a shabby civilization. Bodenheim once defined the purpose of true poetry as that of entering “delicately imagined plateaus” removed from dominant purposes and feelings. His own plateau throbbed from the melody of “sad horns” blowing to the shuffling feet of crooks, molls, frauds, posers, flirts, and debutantes quivering beneath the steel-gray glint of gangster guns. It conjured a strange picture, and when it chilled after a night of frenzy by the cold dawn, Max waved his baton, and the nightmare faded. Then he stood in the center of his plateau, chanting these haunted lines:
“I’ve got the dark, stark, long-nailed blues
I’ve got an old, black mood.
My heart’s a room with nasty news
Enough to make an angel brood.
I’ll take a long, deep raspy breath
And walk right down those railroad-ties.
But when I keep my date with death
He’ll find a straight look in my eyes!”
Bodenheim set club dates around the Village and read his verse accompanied by jazz piano. He did this 25 years before Kerouac took to the stage of the Village Vanguard to read his bop prose and poetry. In fact, Bodenheim stood on that very stage doing the same for Max Gordon who fed him chump change to keep him in gin. At the advent of Bringing Jazz, the Great Depression was upon the nation, and Max and his writings slipped out of the public eye. Bodenheim through the 1930s and ‘40s, elicited pointed commentary on the political and cultural scenes of America. When he is perceived in that light, via his down-and-out persona and as a man of excess, he unwittingly anticipates the Beats.
“All you think about is money-grubbing, while we men of genius starve in the gutter. How could you ever hope to appreciate poetry like this? Ah, how tragic, how ironic, that I am driven by hunger to sell my priceless manuscripts to the likes of you! Five dollars, please!”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. When Max was in need of cash, he hung sheets of poetry with borrowed clothespins, stood back and waited for a customer. When someone passed who appeared to have a surplus of coins, he would start hollering:
“You dirty bourgeois! You soulless exploiter of the poor! It’s people like you who are stifling the arts in America and stomping the flower of civilization into the bloodstained mud of Wall Street. All you think about is money-grubbing, while we men of genius starve in the gutter. How could you ever hope to appreciate poetry like this? Ah, how tragic, how ironic, that I am driven by hunger to sell my priceless manuscripts to the likes of you! Five dollars, please!”
That’s how Maxwell Bodenheim rolled. He was a survivor with the street-smarts of a Bowery hobo. He could be seen at the Waldorf cafeteria waiting for someone to buy him soup. When that did not materialize, he stirred ketchup into a cup of hot water and called it a day. He wrote poems and sold them for drinks. He would start at a buck and, as the day waned without sales, reduced them to 50¢ and finally a 10¢ beer. He explained to those who listened, or not, that he was a “scarecrow body and a dead soul.”
In September 1951, after Kerouac left his wife, Joan Haverty Kerouac, he returned to live with his mother at Richmond Hill, Queens. Joan was pregnant and she said it was Jack’s. He denied paternity. It was a mess that would not go away which made it all the more frustrating because he was on the verge of a literary breakthrough. But that week of late-September 1951, he had not written much anyway. He was recently hospitalized for phlebitis at the Kingsbridge VA hospital. Though he physically suffered, he felt “peace & joy & wisdom & dignity” as he emerged from the hospital doors with heightened awareness. Not long after, he was accosted by his wife and a lawyer attempting to deliver a court summons demanding child support. The following day, he was sent to jail. After ten minutes, he was released.
Kerouac was furiously adamant: “The fruit of my labours will not go to her.” Approximately five-and-a-half months earlier, in his wife’s company, he had typed an immense unbroken draft of On the Road on a long roll of paper. However, his editor, Robert Giroux, was unimpressed. He wanted a follow-up to The Town and the City that would earn his firm some money. He demanded that Kerouac’s ‘road’ novel be delivered on single sheets of manuscript paper before he would attempt to read it. Kerouac, who desperately needed money to go to Mexico, among other things, was trying to find middle ground where he could sell the novel without selling himself out. Unable to reconcile to either, he drank.
On September 24, death weighed heavily on Kerouac’s mind: “when I look back on my family’s life, have no destination but the grave through a road of misery & shame.” A few days later, September 27, his death-brooding led to a drinking binge. He had done little writing with the exception of a few lines scribbled in a cafeteria. He went to fellow-novelist John Clellon Holmes’s apartment and drank beers as Holmes typed (he was writing his 1952 novel, GO). Allen Ginsberg joined them. They moved on to friend and Columbia graduate, John Kingsland’s loft. Before Kerouac knew it, he woke up drunk on the floor of a strange house. He was gasping for breath. His body twitched. Streaming imagery raced across his brain. Undaunted, he was back at it after showering. Kerouac shook martinis, indulged and asked himself, “when was my novel going to get written, my over-the-hurdle piteous second novel which was going to shoot me into my lifetime work . . . see?”
Then it was off to an uptown cocktail party: “I get drunker and drunker, on manhattans, eating only chips; off we fly now really stewed in taxi downtown with last dimes and invade store of Jerry Newman and go in the backroom and start on gin and Jerry played my recording of my chapters on jazz in On the Road and it is on street loudspeaker, my own writings, my own lonely voice, saying, “it was a warm mad night in San Francisco in 1949 and me and Neal…etc.”
And then they were back at the San Remo.
The San Remo, as one patron recalled during the 1940s, “was a scene from some middle world between earth and hell; a nonchalant, easily posing group of smiling young people. No books. Only cigarettes and beer.” The patrons came and went through two doors facing Bleeker and Waverly. There were jazz records in the jukebox. From the patterned sheet iron ceiling hung three white globes. The aura was “dull, lifeless and unexciting.” It was up to the drinkers and smokers to bring color.
The San Remo was one of poet Dylan Thomas’s favorite bars. Others flocked there, too: Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara, William Styron, James Agee, Jackson Pollock, Miles Davis, and crime scene photographer, Weegee. Gore Vidal tried to pick up Kerouac there. It was the setting of Holmes’s GO, and served as The Masque in Kerouac’s novel, The Subterraneans. The San Remo was reputed to be mob-owned and was taken over by writers and artists between 1945 and the late 1950s. Kerouac arrived with others from the last party. At the bar, he met actress Barbara Hale and jazz photographer, Hugh Bell. And then . . . Bodenheim.
Bodenheim was a wreck. His teeth were missing. His gums, black. His clothes hung in tatters. He was asking for money from anyone who appeared within eyesight of his booth. He used multiple excuses: his teeth, his health, a fictional friend on the brink of suicide. If one did not comply with his request, they were attacked for their meanness. If one complied, they were insulted for their affluence. Max was looking for those with a soft touch.
For everyone, Bodenheim was paradoxical. He was a sentimentalist who overcompensated with bursts of savagery. Most mistook the manner for the man. He was, in the estimate of Jazz Age critic and poet Louis Untermeyer, “a neurotic bundle of hatreds which usually made him hateful.” As a poet, Bodenheim was an oddity adept at capturing grotesqueries. He saw himself as a dying star among the has-beens and would-bes. To most, he was a gadfly. To his son Solbert, from Max’s first wife, Minna, he was a disgrace to the family name. He was either a minor-league Keats or a monster. It only took a poet to know a poet, and even Dylan Thomas tenderly wiped the ever-present trickle from Bodenheim’s nose.
Kerouac knew of Bodenheim. He was a Village legend, known more for his scandals than the nine books of verse and twelve novels he had written. Most of his books were out of print. Bodenheim was a relic among the hardened Village types. Most of his contemporaries either left the Village or were dead. Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Boardman Robinson, John Reed, and Art Young were all dead. They came of age in the shadow of Walt Whitman who died only thirty years before Modernism peaked in 1922. Now it was different. Bodenheim was quoted as saying, “The Village used to have the spirit of Bohemia, gaiety, sadness, beauty, poetry. Now it’s just a geographical location.”
Though there were similarities between that generation and those infiltrating the Village, there were also differences. To the old school Villagers, the Beats and their ilk did not truly object to the machine because they still wanted the product of the machine: the telephone; a can of beer; a jukebox; a fast car. The car and the highway was their home, not a Village coffee house. Neither generation wanted to be slaves to the machine. What Bodenheim and the Beats had in common was that they were envied. The clerk trapped in his office job admired them because they possessed the courage to break away from it all and to live, love, drink, travel, and publish books. They had discovered the secret of escaping the machine and of finding freedom through sheer nerve and talent.
Yet, Bodenheim, unlike the Beats, remained a paradox. He was indifferent to social and revolutionary ideals. Though he was frightfully neurotic, he was in love with his neuroses and afraid he would lose them if he listened to the Freudians. Max hated those who tried to help him. His neurotic pattern was a ‘going-toward’ death, and many Villagers marveled that he had survived for so long. Had he not been a poet, some assumed, he would have either been a criminal or an adolescent suicide.
It was this that correlates him to Kerouac. They had similar backgrounds. Bodenheim wandered the American road before he became a poet. He drank bad whiskey and shared a pot of stew in hobo jungles all over the Midwest and South. He had a kinship for drifters and wanderers. He learned to co-habitate with outcasts and underlings. He parlayed with misfits and miscreants. During the Prohibition, Bodenheim learned to drink rot gut and bathtub gin with the best of them, granting him the tolerance to withstand bouts of violent drinking. When the poets and critics turned their backs on him, he settled with the Bowery bums to trade stories of his checkered past.
In 1910, Bodenheim faked his age to enlist and serve in the army. After going AWOL, he was jailed in the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth. This, likely, initiated a lifetime of unpatriotism and the ordeal proved symbolic for him, a descent into the labyrinth somewhere down there in the infernal region beneath society. Through the remainder of his life, he carried himself with ungovernable pride. His mockery of others was withering. He was the grand heckler of other poets’ recitals when he cruised through Chicago’s Tenderloin district ensconcing himself front and center in a Bohemian tea room. Max was a word slinger among the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. He did not permit himself to be molded by penury, nor crushed by critical defeat. He was pushed like excreta through the bowels of the Great Depression, when he was sullied by personal scandal. After lampooning William Randolph Hearst in a 1935 essay of biting criticism, Max was relegated to gossip fodder in the columns of Hearst’s tabloids. His books were barely reviewed. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, before he and his wife were brutally murdered by a deranged dishwasher, Bodenheim had no need to reconcile with newer and hungrier writers trying to put their own peculiar stamp upon the world. To him, they were merely the same types with different faces.
Kerouac persuaded a reluctant Jerry Newman, who owned a portable Wilcox-Gay Recordio “disc cutter,” to record Bodenheim. The three left the San Remo to go to Newman’s record store. In a little cubicle, rheumy-eyed Bodenheim sat talking to himself. The vast and varied concoctions he had swallowed over the years were fermenting inside of him. His brain was stewed, yet he was still sustained by pride. Newman pressed “record” and Bodenheim began reciting his misty origins as an Imagist poet. Kerouac and Newman (with headphones on) sat on the floor drinking beers and listening. Max recited several poems before passing out. Kerouac called Ginsberg who arrived with his own poems. He began reciting in what Kerouac called “a hollow and crazed subterranean river night voice”, the poem “The Shrouded Stranger”:
“The Shrouded Stranger’s reft of realms
Abhorred he sits upon the city dump
His broken heart’s a bag of shit.
The vast rainfall, an empty mirror.”
The poem may have well been about Bodenheim who had woken soon after Ginsberg began reading. This was short-lived. Newman grew bored of the proceedings and called it quits. Allen, Jack and Max staggered out of the record store and to Bodenheim’s “poor cell of a room on MacDougal south of Bleecker.” However, there was a curfew and the landlady refused visitors after 10:30 (though Allen claimed it was because they were making too much noise). They left and stood in the autumn street talking poetry before casting off hatless Bodenheim into the chilly night, possibly for the last time. He was, as poet Herman Spector wrote in 1977, one among “all the demented and despairing folk who are cast off by the whirling gears of the city, washed up like scum on the black sidewalks by the tides of time.”
Kerouac and Ginsberg walked roughly nineteen miles to Louis Ginsberg’s home at 416 East 34th Street in Paterson, New Jersey where they promptly fell asleep. The next morning Kerouac woke “with a wondering fear and persuasions of my imminent death.” After eating breakfast, Jack and Allen walked five miles around Paterson talking about Mexico and the Shrouded Stranger. They returned to Ginsberg’s house and spoke with his father, who asked how Bodenheim was faring. In Louis’ estimate, Bodenheim had squandered his talent on alcohol. (“I’ll be godamned,” Kerouac wrote in his journal, “if that’s not what I’m doing.”) Louis was well-acquainted with Bodenheim and his poetry, having attended many of his recitals. He remembered at a meeting of the Poetry Society of America in the 1930s when Bodenheim pissed on the floor and was “dis-membershipped.” He owned Bodenheim’s poetry books. Allen, during his early teens, had only skimmed them. He did not make much of an impression on Allen. Ginsberg wrote Bodenheim biographer, Michael Sweeney, that he had met Bodenheim of the blood-shot eyes (“or other trauma”) when he sold him a poem for a dollar. Thereafter he saw him several dozen times between 1945 and 1954. He was a familiar sight; always drunk. Ginsberg’s deranged mother, Naomi, claimed that her enemies were calling her a “whore” and had dispatched agents to kill her because she had slept with Bodenheim. Ginsberg called Bodenheim, “too beat.”
The impact of Bodenheim’s life and/or art upon the Beats was negligible. Beyond Kerouac’s journal entry of their brief encounter, there is nothing else. Ginsberg, for all of his interest in poetry, harbored no indebtedness toward the old bard. William S. Burroughs, who was a frequent visitor to the San Remo, wrote Sweeney: “I have never read any of Bodenheim’s writing. I did run into him from time to time in the late 40s in the San Remo and Minetta where he was regarded as a character like Joe Gould. My impression was of someone completely lost though I could not understand exactly why.” On one occasion at a party, Burroughs recalled Bodenheim repeatedly screaming, “I’m Maxwell Bodenheim” before rushing out the door.Days after his encounter with Bodenheim, Kerouac dove into the next stage of his radical prose. Sitting in the Village Vanguard with a pencil and notebook, he wrote on the first page, “On the Road –– A Modern Novel” and beneath, a reminder: “Now Blow As Deep As You Want To Blow.” Thinking of Bodenheim, he wrote: “growing old for no reason but broken loss, and to go and die die and be dead and gawk in graves.” He crossed it all out and began again: “Yesterday’s no time, / always is never, / Or when ragged Octobers / rip the soul outspoken.”
Bodenheim fell into further drunken oblivion. He and Ruth were murdered in a cold water flat by a deranged mental patient during a frozen winter night of February ‘54. Kerouac rode the fame rocket that took him as high as he was willing to go before he too flamed out in 1969. The former slipped into obscurity, the latter, to everlasting literary fame. The Village remained hushed in perpetual twilight, dimming out one dying star after another.
Paul Maher, Jr. blog: Hobohemia
Naked City – “Hold For Gloria Christmas” (September 19, 1962)
Loosely based on the character of Maxwell Bodenheim, this episode of Naked City was directed by Walter Graumann – Written by Arnold Manoff and starred Burgess Meredith. Meredith’s character was loosely based on the character of Maxwell Bodenheim.
MORE FROM PKM:
HOW JACK KEROUAC SAVED WESTERN CIVILIZATION
MY BOYS: STERLING LORD ON JACK KEROUAC, LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI AND KEN KESEY