Joe Gould's Secret History

The Diary of a Legendary Village Bohemian Surfaces at NYU

There was also time to examine a matter of artistic license: "We discussed the episode of the turd. He thought it should be printed. He understood that I was not using nasty words for the sake of being nasty. I told him I thought it brought out the idealism of the chapter."

When McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, a collection containing "Professor Sea Gull," was published, Gould's star rose even higher. The entries from August 1943 are littered with evidence of a heightened visibility: A man from Larchmont hails him on the street. A husband and wife stop to buy a poem. Photographer Philippe Halsman books an appointment. "I found he was the photographer for Time," proudly notes Joe. "He had just done [Wendell] Willkie and [Harold] Ickes."

Reporters quickly discovered that Gould was reliable copy. When Time magazine checked in with him in 1944, he announced plans to publish Why Princeton Should Be Abolished: "Most present-day publishers are illiterate and also from Princeton," explained the Harvard alum. To a wire correspondent, he expressed his mayoral ambitions. He obliged when photographers asked him to strike a pose in Washington Square, but later carped in his diary that "I had to sit on the edge of the pool with my back to the arch. I was supposed to be eating peanuts. This is something I never do." He was tickled to see the press snapping his picture as avidly as Eleanor Roosevelt's when he went to hear her speak. But Gould wasn't necessarily deluded about his popularity, confiding to a friend that it was largely based on "my special brand of foolishness."

As the dispatches from Macdougal Street circulated overseas, Joe's fame billowed. With the end of war, and a surge of tourists and demobbed servicemen passing through the city, it seemed like all roads led to the Minetta and Joe. GIs returning from Italy, Bali, and Ceylon came to pay their respects, as did the founder of the Joe Gould Club in Manila. Joe was pleased to hear he was known to the president of the Puerto Rican senate and that the young scholars in Harvard Yard regarded him as a hero.

Old friends like Eugene O'Neill enjoyed looking him up. "I said that as a Yale professor, he had to meet Harvard men to get a bit of an education. He laughed and said I seemed to know all the answers." Weegee invited him to a cocktail party where one of the swells tried to yank his beard. "I socked him," reports the feisty diarist. "He seemed surprised." Don Freeman's wife Lydia had the wiggy idea to invite Gould and Salvador Dalí to a preview of Lil' Abner, the Broadway musical comedy. Dalí's reactions to Gould or middlebrow theater are unfortunately lost to time, but Gould reports that the surrealist planted a paper-stuffed handbag on 42nd Street and stood back to watch.

But quite apart from the giddy notoriety, to most people he was still a bum, or worse. Nursing an afternoon beer in a downtown bar called Byrnes, Joe found himself being turned into an object lesson. "[A man] gave a very jaundiced account [of me] to his sister. He said I have never worked in my life and that I was spoiled by the New Yorker article. He said, 'Would you want to live like that?' I left."

Even on home turf he took some guff. "I went to the Minetta. A bum was being chased out just as I came in. Everybody laughed. The bartender said, 'One comes and one goes.' " Strangers chastised him for being too bohemian and, on "I Am an American Day" in 1945, scolded him about his beard.

Physically, he was in precarious shape, prone to blackouts and other maladies. "I got home late," he writes of one episode. "Must have had a fall as there were blood clots on the top of my head." He suffered two hospitalizations, the second coming on the heels of a friend's death. Wheeled into the OR, Gould is spooked by a nurse, "terrifying . . . in her uniform." A friend arrives later, promising him "a pint of blood. I told him it made me feel like Shylock."

Seemingly mundane matters take on an element of suspense and comic pathos. Consider this shaggy-dog saga of Joe's efforts to stay clothed in Village hand-me-downs: June 7, 1946: "I saw Bele De Triefant. He said he had a pair of shoes for me. I had an ale at the Minetta." June 8: "De Triefant had not brought the shoes. I had a drink at the Minetta." June 11: "I saw De Triefant. He had shoes for me. I took them. I went to the Minetta. I drank." June 12: "I went to Goody's. I had some beers. I lost my shoe. I went to the Minetta."

Gould bore the humilations and the deprivations with nary a complaint. Rare are admissions like "I felt ashamed to be so dingy" or the time he asked Max Gordon "if he thought I was a social error."

But these hairline cracks in Gould's psychic armor didn't facilitate any noticeable introspection. Nor is it evident that he possessed any abiding curiosity about the world beyond his own. Here's how the momentous events of 1945 are played out. On April 13, Gould reports from the Minetta that "everyone was a bit unsettled by FDR's death. . . . Jack Sellers came with a poem about Roosevelt and we told him to beat it. We said he ought to know better that to read a poem about a Democrat to us." He commemorates V-E Day by noting that "Max [Gordon] gave me a dollar to celebrate Hitler's death. I ate in the Mexican Gardens." But his description of V-J Day could have been scripted by Beckett: "There were a few bedbugs. So I slept poorly. Also there was a lot of noise."

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