By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Barbara Sorel lived a lonely, thwarted, marginal life. As she always used to tell her few friends, who knew her only as Sorel, she was everything America hated: a Jewish, lesbian, communist drug dealer. She had been living alone and isolated in a tiny, unkempt studio apartment on the fourth floor of 331 East 5th Street since the mid '70s, rarely interacting, much less sharing intimacy, with anyone. She died that way, too.
The police guess that Sorel, 54, had been dead nearly two weeks when they found her at 1 p.m. on September 7, just five doors down from the 9th Precinct, face down on the white futon on the floor of her apartment. Her hands were tied in front of her and her legs were bound. Her head was wrapped like a mummy, her nose and mouth were sealed with duct tape, and her frail, fully clothed, approximately 5-foot-tall, 95-pound frame was covered with a blanket.
According to a spokesperson at the Medical Examiner's office, the cause of death was suffocation. There were no signs of forced entry, and there was apparently no evidence of sexual assault. The body was so badly decomposed by the time they found it, however, that according to Sorel's brother, Edward, a psychologist who lives in Ithaca, the police relied on dental records to identify the body.
"They told me to hold off on coming down to identify her," he said, "because they didn't think I would recognize her."
From the description the police gave him, Edward suspects that his sister might have been tortured before she died. The perpetrators may well have been looking for cash and/or stashes of cocaine that one friend recalls Sorel having once plastered into a hole in the wall for safekeeping. (Several friends said that Sorel probably did not have a bank account, and must have kept most of her money in the apartment.) The police believe a possible motive could be robbery.
Though the police seem genuinely puzzled by the death, and have said nothing to Sorel's family and friends about any promising leads, it seems plausible that she may have been murdered by other drug dealers, perhaps her suppliers. Other cases like this have surfaced recently. For example, three weeks ago (probably just about the time Sorel was murdered) several members of a Colombian gang ambushed and killed a retired police detective in the Bronx. One gang member, Fernando Colorado, was fatally shot during the attack, and an address book found in his pocket enabled investigators to link Colorado and the gang to a series of robberies in six states. Some of the victims were drug suppliers and dealers. No official link has been made, however, between the Sorel murder/robbery and the fugitive Colombian gang.
Looking through the window from the fire escape into Sorel's apartment, you can see what look like small bloodstains at the foot of the futon and on the floor next to it, where a pair of white rubber kitchen gloves are lying discarded. A large old ceiling fan softly tills the air and rustles the thick black dust motes dangling around the room. The mirror on the vanity, which stands against the far wall, is covered with hundreds of black flies, some of which take off periodically to slowly circle the room. On the other side of the apartment door the side that faces the inner hallway, and the side on which Sorel stenciled her name above a pale blue plastic star, in mock imitation of a diva's dressing room someone has hung ribbons of flypaper to catch the strays that are buzzing around the fluorescent lights.
Smelling a "foul odor" that seemed to be emanating from Sorel's apartment, an upstairs neighbor was the first person to peek through the window on the fire escape and see Sorel's feet protruding from a thermal blanket, said another neighbor, Craig Osbern. The upstairs resident has been burning sage in a teacup outside her door ever since, in hopes of dispelling both the remnant stench of death and the spiritual pall that surrounds the building.
After she discovered the body, the tenant told Bob, the building's superintendent, to call the police. In what almost seems a grotesque parody of the fierce competition among New Yorkers for affordable housing in the Village, Bob had only this to say about Sorel's death and the empty rent-stabilized apartment that her obituary unwittingly put on the market: "People are fighting for that apartment. They don't give a damn about the murder."
Osbern, a friend of Sorel's for 15 years, lives above her apartment and to one side. He is the only neighbor who admits hearing anything unusual in the last few weeks. He said he remembers hearing what he thought was a scream in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago.
"But in New York you hear these things all the time," he said. "I waited a while and nothing happened, so I went back to bed."
Osbern described Sorel as a dedicated writer and intellectual who sold drugs only as a means of supporting herself so that she could write day in and day out, which she did religiously, he says. He also described her as a loner, and a person for whom social interaction was extremely difficult.
"Two years ago the residents of the building put a petition together to get her out of the building, mostly because she played music loudly late at night. She had a wall-pounding battle with the guy next door and the guy below."
Another old friend, Albert Mobilio, also mentioned the petition, saying "She'd be playing Poulenc at 3 a.m. because she was up. You wouldn't have to be that much of a prig to not like her living next to you. She could easily have been the kind of person that you would have a silent, passive-aggressive war with in the hallway.
"She had her Nellie Melba records and her opera and those were the things that were important to her. She regarded most people warily. Like Wallace Stevens said: 'Only mental things are real.' She was one of those people for whom that was true. And there is a way in which you have to be a bit crazy for that to be the case. She was a bit extreme, to put it mildly."
By way of explaining her lack of ability to compromise or interact peaceably with those around her, all of Sorel's friends, most of whom had broken off relations with her and hadn't seen her for years, told the story of her self- published work, a novel entitled Sorel in Love. Modeled after her favorite writer Marcel Proust's "Swann in Love," Sorel in Love is a deeply introspective work about an obsessive lesbian love affair.
In the late '80s, Sorel managed to capture the interest of a prominent literary agent, Charlotte Sheedy. Today Sheedy remembers the novel as "brilliant and Proustian a memoir that was a novel in the way that In Search of Lost Timewas a novel." Sheedy says she couldn't sell the work as it was, and recalls asking Sorel to make modest revisions to the manuscript. Sorel refused, and that ended their professional relationship. "She was difficult," said Sheedy.
"The thing that bummed her out the most was being marketed as a lesbian novelist," said Mobilio about the incident. "She didn't want to be known as such. She didn't want to be categorized that way. She blew the deal with the agent over it. She felt that people didn't refer to Violet le Duc and Proust as gay novelists, after all, so why refer to her that way?"
"She wanted to be a good writer and a famous writer," said a female friend who did not wish to be identified. "I think she saw herself as a kind of Genet type."
In light of what we know about the crime scene, however, what is most striking about Sorel in Loveis not its dense, probing lyricism, but rather its chillingly accurate foretelling of the circumstances surrounding Sorel's death. In the following passage Sorel is describing the transformative power of her feelings of sexual desire, but she may as well be narrating what it was like to be in her apartment in the last two weeks.
She takes hold of one tiny leg and spins me around on my back, I spin around on the bed like a top, until I black out. I faint away in a delirium of fear and embarrassment and when I awake . . . I have become a starfish, a creature no longer human, a loathsome disgusting thing. I appear mysteriously metamorphosized, somehow, on a beach just out of reach of the water. . . . The sun beats down unmercifully, drying me out, my once viscous arms, now brittle and painfully dry . . . I seem to have risen up out of the sand, created by the heat of some obscene passion. . . . I am the unwanted byproduct of some vile, unconsummated lust. There is pain, I feel pain, there is a foul odor, horrified, I realize it emanates from my own repulsive form. There is great noise and confusion, a crowd has gathered to gawk and point. I sense their presence around me. . . . I feel the crowd drawing close. . . . I feel the heat of their breath . . . I feel suffocated, trapped, hemmed in. There are sounds of people laughing, children playing, boys shouting, dogs, babies crying, but all of this comes to me through a dense fog of static, like the sound of a cheap transistor radio stuck between stations. . . . People begin to poke at me with sticks, someone lifts me up with the tip of a shoe, not wanting to actually touch the thing, he turns me over on my back. I feel shame, I am ashamed of the helplessness, I am ashamed of the repulsiveness of my physical form.
Sorel's lifelong sense of alienation from mainstream America which this passage captures in such Kafkaesque detail took root early, and only got worse as time went on. Though born in New York City, she was raised a "red diaper baby" in Carle Place, Long Island.
"We grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood," said her brother Edward. "It was real white-bread America. We were born of communist parents and it was during the McCarthy era that we were coming up. She was also lesbian, Jewish, short, and dark. She had artistic interests. All these things didn't really help her fit in."
Sorel's father died when she was 13, and Edward recalled that it was a critical event in their lives. Sorel went on to college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and majored in philosophy. Soon thereafter, she moved to New York City. In the early '70s, she worked briefly at Abaris, an art book publisher. According to a coworker there, that was the last job Sorel ever held. Thereafter, dressed always in ripped dungarees and T-shirts she'd found on the street, she dealt marijuana and cocaine to make the rent on what friends described as her roach-infested hovel, and to pay her bills, which she always did on time and in cash. She also developed a cocaine habit. During this period, she hosted a self-styled talk show called The Lesbian Family Hour, which aired on a public-access cable channel, and she wrote a regular column for a gay rag in the Village.
Another East Village writer, Sarah Schulman, recalls seeing her often around this time at St. Mark's Bookshop. "We used to talk about politics and books. She was very intellectual. She was hyper-hypercritical and she thought that people were fake. She was alone a lot."
By the time she reached her early fifties the short, slender Sorel could still pass for a 12-year-old boy, though by then her raffish appearance had begun to deteriorate noticeably. She had learned to ride a skateboard, and was often seen wheeling around the Village looking, as Albert Mobilio said, "like one of Fagan's kids in Oliver Twist." Toward the end, one friend said, she also tended to frequent West Village lesbian bars like the Cubby Hole and Henrietta Hudson in search of some shred of companionship.
"She seemed to get more irritable as time went on and she developed some paranoia, side effects of that cocaine hobby of hers," said her brother. Others described her as being a less severe version of Valerie Solanis, another East Village writer who was briefly famous for shooting Andy Warhol.
But amid all the talk of Sorel's tortured, contentious existence, her brother and her former friends all speak fondly, even reverently of her as a unique, complex, intelligent artist who enriched their lives and the ethos of New York City immeasurably.
"She was a romantic figure to many people," said her brother. "She was a complex person, difficult to get along with. But when you were close with her she was great: engaging, entertaining, and smart."
Laurie Sucher, one of Sorel's ex-lovers, remembers her as "a very, very unusual person with a lot of wonderful things about her and a lot of challenges. The world is poorer for her loss."
"She was the essence of what the East Village once was," said Mobilio wistfully. "This word doesn't mean much anymore," he added, "but she was a true bohemian."
Sorel's friends and family are planning to hold a memorial service for her in the East Village in a few weeks. Police have asked anyone with information to call Michael Wigdor, the detective assigned to the case, at 477-7809.