Bohemia on Toast


A possibly spurious anecdote the author Dawn Powell liked to relate finds a niece from Ohio declining an invitation to lunch. “I’d just love to, Aunt Dawn,” she explained, “only we’ve planned to take a tour of Greenwich Village and won’t have time to see you.” As the outraged aunt told it, “I was so startled to think I almost prevented them from seeing the mysterious Greenwich Village that I didn’t think to say, ‘But dearie, your Auntie Dawn is Greenwich Village.’ ”

Powell had a point. The novelist, playwright, diarist, critic, satirist, and all-around belletrist became synonymous with the improper bohemia of the ’30s and ’40s Village. Edmund Wilson orating, Ogden Nash snatching drinks, e.e. cummings leering at pretty poetry devotees, D.H. Lawrence’s widow pontificating, and Dylan Thomas shoving two ladies off his lap so that he might untuck his shirtfront and jig all make appearances in her diaries and letters. The novels and plays, too, run on the ample hydraulic power of martinis, gin-and-gingers, rye slugged from the bottle, or planter’s punch when something fancy was called for.

Though her work never received much acclaim in her lifetime, Powell enjoyed considerable popularity as a witty drinking companion. In fact, a casual reader of Powell could not be faulted for thinking that Greenwich Village existed solely for the purpose of raising wrists with inebriated intelligentsia. But people did actually live there, even Powell herself, whose addresses included Perry, Bank, 9th, 10th, and 12th streets, and the southernmost reaches of Fifth Avenue. By the time she rented her Perry Street digs in the early ’30s, the Village had already enjoyed several decades as a certified community of unconventionals, replete with pirate-themed bars, cutie-pie teahouses, professional eccentrics, and legions of the self-invented. Powell dwelled among (and occasionally with) them and became expert at describing just how they lived. She knew a house was not simply a home, but also personal metaphor writ large—not that Greenwich Village rooms are so very capacious. The interiors she describes in her novels serve as metonymies for their inhabitants, putting into sofa, flatware, and wallpaper terms how the occupant would most like him- or herself to be seen. And no one was better at describing how these metaphors failed—how they only accentuated the disconnect between reality and self-conception.

In The Wicked Pavilion (1954, though conceived some years earlier), for example, fading model Jerry—with the encouragement and charge account of her friend Elsie—refashions her “charming made-over brownstone” flat to land a rich man. At the close of an unsuccessful dinner party, Jerry and Elsie sit in their gowns amid the detritus. Powell writes, “The dresses and even the living room had the look of stage properties about to be packed off to the warehouse now that the play had failed. Whatever had gone wrong the fault had certainly not been with the mise-en-scène. . . .

“The wallpaper was the correct silvery-patterned green; the crystal-beaded lamps glittered with suitable discretion; the shining, striped satin of the sofa and chairs, the unworn blond rugs, the cautious blend of antique and modern furniture murmured of ‘taste’ or that decorator’s strait-jacketing of personal revelations that is accepted as taste.” The lovely, soulless apartment mirrors the redone Jerry—an effervescent good-time girl who never wanted to settle down, now desperate to convince a man she would make the most appealing little wife.

Even a much less fetching apartment can have its own air of trumpery, as in The Happy Island (1938). Jefferson—who longs to succeed as a playwright but disdains the trappings of success—takes smug satisfaction in the squalor of his efficiency. “The room smelled of mutton and wet wash. . . . It was three stories above the Armenian restaurant but the jolly shish-ke-bab penetrated the very pores of the walls. There was an electric plate, a toaster, three thick yellow cups, a cracked sugar bowl, four pretty claret glasses from Woolworth’s, a few luncheon plates, three spoons, a knife, and a bent can-opener. [The landlord] would try to find a fork somewhere. Large cracks in the floor suggested rodent opportunities, and the thought was borne out by the wads of cloth stuffed here and there in the larger apertures. . . . Jefferson exulted. . . . Yes, it was a fine place.”

If this furnished room proves only too satisfactory for Jefferson’s conception of the artist’s life, most of Powell’s characters feel more menaced or constrained by their desired quarters. Dennis Orphen of Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) delights in the shoddiness of his bachelor pad, but is in constant danger from electrocution (courtesy the coffee plate in the bathroom) or crushing (by a collapsing ceiling caused by the upstairs Communist’s leaky pipes). And Ebie, the charming graphic artist of Angles on Toast (1940), is hampered by her equally charming studio. “An enormous high-ceilinged room it was, panelled walls, great windows through whose perennially dirt-stained panes the sun threw a stingy little light. But a great cathedral chair, a vast sofa all bought at auction around the corner ready to crumble at a glance, and her easel, drawing board, and reproductions . . . and a few of her own sketches pinned on the wall gave the place quite an atmosphere. In fact, the studio was so romantically bohemian, so much the artist’s dream that Ebie did less and less serious art here and more and more discussion of it.”

Powell well knew the dangers of a home, noting in her diary, “Homes are bad places. Either they are so comfortable . . . yet psychic and family connections are such that you can never enjoy those comforts. . . . Or else you have no comfortable place to work in your home and in spite of privacy or other ideal personal relations are unable to enjoy it. Yet in both cases there is a hold that interferes with your life work that bitches you, ruins you, sends you to the madhouse or the grave.’’ As her homes very often included her alcoholic husband, developmentally disabled son, and numerous dipsomaniacal cohorts, Powell never could work there, and regularly booked rooms in Atlantic City hotels, Coney Island flophouses, or Long Island cottages to write.

But she had to live somewhere, even if she had to write elsewhere, and no other neighborhood would have suited Powell as well as the Village. She delighted in the twisty streets, wood frames, row houses, wrought iron, clandestine gardens, carriage houses, and basement apartments and in its semi-demimonde cast of characters: artists, writers, models, “fairies,” Lesbians (Powell always capped the word), newspapermen, and salonnières. As she wrote to a college classmate soon after her arrival in New York, “I’ve been ‘doing the Village’ quite consistently and feel that sooner or later I’ll be among ’em. There are three stages you go through. . . . First and foremost, ‘Oh-so-this-is-Bohemia!! . . . Bohemia—oh thrills!’ Stage No. II— . . . you begin to see it with jaded eyes. Everyone tries to be a freak—tries to be noticed—does everything for effect and down in his heart is worse than ordinary. . . . Bah! Village theatricals! Bah! Bah! Bah! Stage No. III—you combine and condense and admire and sit—and after all the Village is the Village when all’s said and done.”