‘What Ever Happened to Joe Gould?’


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August 21, 1957, Vol. II, No. 43

Joe Gould, Bohemian

“What ever happened to Joe Gould?” At least someone in the Village must have asked that question every day for the past five years. The secret is now out — and the story is over. Joe Gould died on Sunday night at the age of 68 in Pilgrim State Hospital, Brentwood, L.I.

His whereabouts was the best-kept secret in the Village. Some old friends knew, but no one told. An ex-editor who had published a number of his poems recently put off a reporter who wanted to do a story on him by saying “It’s better if no one knows.”

Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Harvard ’11, was, until recent years, one of the extraordinary sights in the Village, reminding newcomers of weirder and wilder days. He always dressed in castoffs which were invariably too big for him.

The son of a well-to-do Massachusetts family, Joe himself never wavered from the penniless way of life made up of thousands of meals that consisted mostly of free ketchup from local diners. He stayed on in the Village long after his generation of pre-World War I Bohemians had gone on to better, or worse, things. He stayed on until one evening in the winter of 1952, when he disappeared into the admitting room of Bellevue and from there was taken to the State Hospital, never to return to his haunts or to add another page to his life work, “The Oral History of Our Time.”

The “Oral History” was a collection of almost 40 years of overheard conversation, faithfully recorded on dime-store notebooks and bulking as large as the collected works of Shakespeare twice over. The notebooks were never found. Joe Gould in his declining years could not remember where he left them.

But for many, the best-remembered Professor Sea Gull, as he was called, was the little man cheering on the poetic muse with his familiar picket sign that read: “Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Hot Shot Poet from Poetville, a Refugee from the Ravens. Poets of the World, Ignite. You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Brains.”

[Journalist Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker stories about the eccentric Joe Gould, published in 1942 and 1964, would later become the basis for his book, Joe Gould’s Secret, which in turn was made into a 2000 film directed by Stanley Tucci and starring Ian Holm as Gould and Tucci as Mitchell. Also in 2000, the Voice provided an interesting coda to Gould’s “secret.”]

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]