Joe Gould's Secret History

The Diary of a Legendary Village Bohemian Surfaces at NYU

When Joseph Mitchell finished the second of two landmark New Yorker profiles of Greenwich Village barfly and fringe literary player Joe Gould in 1964, he had come to the firm conclusion that Gould's infamous 10-million-word oral history only existed in one place: Gould's head. But a sliver of Gould's writing survives to this day, hiding in plain sight just blocks from the bohemian's Village haunts. Quietly tucked away within NYU's archives are 11 dime-store composition books that make up a nearly 150,000-word diary—one apparently unknown to Mitchell, whose New Yorker articles form the basis of Joe Gould's Secret, a film opening this week starring Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci, who also directed.

Gould's diary, long forgotten in NYU's Fales Collection, offers a rare glimpse of the bombastic, ragged five-foot-four Harvard graduate in his own words. It also bolsters rather than contradicts Mitchell's suspicions about the oral history—this often mechanical day-by-day account of Gould's life from the years 1943 to 1947 is a far cry from the magnum opus he famously boasted about. But its respectable size also affirms his claim, when confronted by Mitchell about the nonexistent history, "that it wasn't a question of laziness."

Gould entrusted the journals to Harold Anton, an abstract painter who lived next door to the Minetta Tavern on Macdougal Street. After failing to find a publisher, Anton sold them to Izzy Young, Village archivist and owner of the now defunct Folklore Center. Reached by telephone at his home in Sweden, Young recalled that reading the diary "caught me in a very big intellectual problem," i.e., whether to maintain Gould's reputation by destroying them, or vice versa. Practical instincts prevailed, and Young sold them to the Fales Collection for $750 in 1967. Today housed in the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, overlooking the park where Gould sometimes slept, the notebooks share shelf space with the work of David Wojnarowicz, Dennis Cooper, and other outsider artists.

The diary covers what might be called Gould's golden age, when Mitchell's 1942 profile "Professor Sea Gull" turned him into an international celebrity. These were also the years when a mystery patron's stipend gave him for once a modest level of comfort. It might have been the opportune moment to realize his ambitions. But, as the evidence shows, it was not to be.

Reading the fragile, yellowed pages of these journals, with their blotchy, messy script (his handwriting has a tendency to become impenetrable just when he starts to say something interesting), is an exercise in frustration. On the very first page, Joe, with novelists Slater Brown and Dawn Powell, prepares to head off to a New Year's Eve party being thrown by anarchist Carlo Tresca. But the deliciously bitchy gossip and drunken monologues he would have been privy to at such an affair never transpire. In a foreshadowing of disappointments to follow, Gould decides to stay home. To take a bath.

The diary's 1100-odd pages are first and foremost a record of baths taken, meals consumed, and dollars bummed. It's clear that Gould's favorite subject was himself. Other people were mere bit players in the movie of his mind, and the bustling city he lived in no more than a backdrop. Aside from a few gaps between notebooks, virtually every day is accounted for. Gould's painstaking attention to everyday routines and mundane matters suggests that he had found the one place to impose order on a life that knew little. And there is the unexpectedly quaint touch of noting holidays and other commemorative events in the heading. The entry for August 4, 1943, begins: "Queen Elizabeth's Birthday. Bugs got on a rampage. As a consequence I got up late."

Gould's day usually began in one of the cheap cafés that dotted the West Side in that era. Though he ate a lot of ketchup consommé, he was sometimes flush enough to indulge his taste for seafood. On one grand occasion, he dined on lobster thermidor, black coffee, and spumoni. Evenings found him cadging drinks at the Minetta. Sometimes he crashed the Raven's Poetry Club, reciting doggerel like "A Flatbush Grows in Brooklyn":

Said Johnny Cashmore
To little Noel Coward,
We want no trash more,
Brooklyn can't be defloward.

In between dining and drinking and declaiming, he solicited for the Joe Gould Fund. The record shows Joe Mitchell and Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon were generally good for a couple of bucks, with e.e. cummings, Dwight MacDonald, Weldon Kees, and others chipping in slightly less. Illustrator Don Freeman appears to have been his most consistent and generous supporter, even splitting the fee he got from PM newspaper for drawing Gould's portrait.

In one of his more elaborate solicitations, he began calling on editor Maxwell Perkins. "Gould reported last week that Scribner's is interested in a fragment of his Oral History," Time magazine mentioned in a footnote to its 1943 review of Joseph Mitchell's McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. Perkins played along with this charade, permitting Gould to show up every Monday, deposit a few chapters of the History (very likely the obsessively rewritten autobiographical pieces Mitchell discussed in his second profile), and pocket a bill or two. Their meeting of July 30, 1943, reveals Gould's vast literary pretensions. Of one submission, called the Bank chapter, Joe reports that Perkins "liked it very much. I said I thought it was the best child stuff in the English language with the exception of Tom Sawyer. He said he liked Huck Finn better."

Next Page »