The Night They Declared the Free and Independent Republic of Greenwich Village
A shapeless figure crouched in the midnight shadows at the base of Washington Square Arch, the silent, somber guardian of the Brahman slumber on the north side of Washington Square Park.
When the last strolling couple had passed beyond the pools of lamplight, when the last lone policeman had rounded the corner, the figure slid from the shadows, looked cautiously in all directions, silently opened the door at the base of the arch, put her finger to her lips, and motioned to her fellow revolutionaries gathered on lower Fifth Avenue. One by one, five people emerged from the darkness, quickly crossed the street, and stealthily slipped through the doorway.
And so, on a frigid, lightly snowing night in late January 1917 — exactly 80 years ago this week — Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and four other tipsy Villagers climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch and declared Greenwich Village a free and independent republic.
The story has been jubilantly told in many memoirs of the period and inaccurately portrayed in nearly every Village guidebook since. The details vary in every retelling, but all accounts agree that this mock secession symbolized the Golden Age of the Village rebellion against middle-class, puritan, capitalist America.
In 1917, the Village had only thought of itself as “the Village” for a few years. Just a few blocks north of the arch, at 23 Fifth Avenue, Mabel Dodge had presided over her celebrated salon, introducing American intellectuals to the Wobblies and Freud, Cubism and free love, anarchism and birth control. Just a few blocks west, at 91 Greenwich Avenue, Max Eastman and Floyd Dell edited The Masses, arguably the most influential magazine in the history of American journalism. Just a few blocks south, at 239 MacDougal Street, the lunatic genius Jig Cook and the blackly brooding Eugene O’Neill were transforming the American theater at the Provincetown Playhouse.
The years from 1912 to 1917 were “a joyous season” indeed, or, as another historian has called the period, “the lyric years.” Yet as with so many symbolic moments, the escapade of the Arch-Conspirators — as Sloan titled his famous sketch of the event — signaled not only the beginning but the end of the era it celebrated.
Actually, the leading conspirator wasn’t Duchamp or Sloan but a golden-haired, vivacious young Villager named Gertrude Drick. Born in Texas, Gertrude had vague artistic ambitions and a flamboyant personality. Quickly realizing that the only thing greater than her fervent ambition to become a violinist was her unconquerable ineptitude, she became a painting student of Sloan’s instead. And though she was “a wild little creature” fond of pranks, she also fell into frequent fits of dejection, for, like many apparently lighthearted people, a deep melancholy underlay her effervescence. Gertrude’s solution to her mood swings was simple — she printed up hundreds of black-bordered calling cards embossed with the single word “Woe” so she could hand them out and gaily declare, “Woe is me.”
Gertrude had heard of another Greenwich Village secession movement the preceding summer. Ellis Jones, one of the editors of the monthly humor magazine Life, had called upon his fellow Villagers to join him in a second American Revolution declaring their community independent of the United States. Feeling that Washington Square Park would be too small for the expected throngs, Ellis decided to lead his cohorts into the heart of enemy territory, Central Park. And fearing that it was faced with an anarchist riot, the New York City police department dispatched several ambulances and dozens of machine-gun-bearing policemen to the site. A heavy downpour on the appointed day spoiled Ellis’s revolution, however, for only a dozen or so umbrella-carrying insurgents showed up. One evening half a year after Ellis’s premature revolution, Gertrude happened to notice, on one of her strolls through Washington Square Park, that the door at the bottom of the arch’s western plinth wasn’t locked and that the policeman on duty often wandered away for an hour or two at a time. (The police presence was deemed necessary because several months earlier a vagrant had made his home in a chamber inside the arch, his crime discovered only when, with a soaring sense of security, he hung out his laundry to dry on the parapet.)
Gertrude immediately informed John Sloan of her plan, and the two of them rounded up several of their friends to join in the insurrection‚ the laconically dapper Marcel Duchamp, the actors Forrest Mann and Betty Turner, and the Provincetown Players’ leading man Charles Ellis.
So on the night of January 23, the six revolutionaries, having purchased sandwiches, wine, thermoses, hot-water bottles, Chinese lanterns, cap pistols, and red, white, and blue balloons, quietly slipped through the arch’s unlocked door, mounted the 110 steps of the spiral iron staircase, lifted the trapdoor, and emerged at the top of the arch.
After lighting their lanterns and building a small bonfire in a beanpot, the group spread out steamer rugs, unpacked their sandwiches, and uncorked their bottles for a midnight picnic. Passing the bottles back and forth to the accompaniment of ever more raucous toasts, they began their insurrection by reciting verses. Gertrude, as it happened, was also a poet of sorts, her most memorable lyric — the text of which, alas, has not survived — entitled “The Soul That Took Off Its Stockings and Threw Its Shoes Away.”
Soon soused, the six Arch-Conspirators decided the moment had arrived. They loaded their cap pistols, blew up their balloons and tied them to the parapet, and, in John Sloan’s words, “with suitable rite and ceremony … did sign and affix our names to a parchment, having the same duly sealed with the Great Seal of the Village.” And as the other five cheered, waved their arms, and fired their cap pistols, Gertrude read their declaration of independence — which consisted of nothing but the word “whereas” repeated over and over (surely Duchamp’s inspiration) until the final words proclaiming that henceforth Greenwich Village would be a free and independent republic and calling upon Woodrow Wilson to protect the new country as one of the small, strife-free nations of the world.
The band of revolutionaries then gathered up their steamer rugs and hot-water bottles, made their inebriated way down the spiral staircase, and disappeared laughing into the night, “to ply our various callings” — Sloan once more — “till such time as the demand of state again might become imperative.”
At dawn, Villagers were pleasantly surprised to see balloons festooned to the ramparts of their arch — all but the aristocratic residents of The Row, of course, the 10 Greek Revival townhouses on the north side of the Square, who were dismayed by yet another example of bohemian tomfoolery. Within 24 hours nearly everyone south of 14th Street knew of their new status as a liberated community, and for a week the balloons fluttered in the midwinter breeze as a symbol of a symbol.
What could the authorities do? No one was rounded up. No one, in fact, was even investigated. And the only result of the Revolution of Washington Square — “the demands of state” as interpreted by the unimaginative guardians of the law — was that the door at the base of the arch was permanently locked.
For a few years, Greenwich, Village had already been, in fact, something close to a free and independent republic — of mind and spirit, if nothing else. But by 1916, a year before the Arch-Conspirators, Floyd Dell had already declared that the Village wasn’t what it used to be — the first recorded use of that perennial phrase. The spirit of joyful rebellion had disappeared, Floyd lamented after having been accosted by an uptown type at a local tearoom and eagerly asked, “Are you a merry Villager?” — the rents were rising, the real artists and intellectuals were moving out, the poseurs and tourists were moving in.
As if to confirm, Floyd’s claim, by the time Gertrude and her cohorts climbed the stairs of the arch, Mabel Dodge had already brought her salon to an end and was about to depart for Taos, the editors of The Masses were soon to be indicted by the federal government for conspiring against the war effort, Jig Cook and Eugene O’Neill were beginning the quarrels that would eventually send Jig into exile in Greece and Gene to fame on Broadway, and the era of what Village troubador Bobby Edwards called “Greenwich Thrillage” was well under way — the era of Guido Bruno’s Garret, Tiny Tim and his “soul candy,” Sonia “the cigarette girl,” Romany Marie’s tearoom, and all the quaint novelty shops and garish basement restaurants that constituted the commercialization of bohemia. But of course there were those who looked back at that Village a decade later and said “the Village isn’t what it used to be” — and the phrase has been used every decade since to nostalgically describe the previous decade.
As for the Arch-Conspirators, further countering Floyd’s claim, many of John Sloan’s “lyric years” still lay ahead, Marcel Duchamp had yet to discover “R. Mutt,” and Charles Ellis would later star in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Gertrude Drick? She married James Oppenheim, the founder and editor of Seven Arts, the short-lived but seminal Village magazine of the late teens. And even Floyd’s “merry” Village days were hardly over, for when he issued his premature obituary he had yet to meet Edna St. Vincent Millay, with whom he had the quintessential Village love affair.
So as long as Villagers keep saying “the Village isn’t what it used to be,” they’re keeping its oldest tradition alive. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 5, 2020