Hello. Back in September 2017, I announced on these pages that we were closing up shop on the Village Voice print edition. It was a shame, I told our then owner, because the Voice had been calling BS on Donald Trump since the late ’70s—our historical insights might’ve helped the nation better understand the 45th president’s grifter instincts.
Well, it turns out that, like Joe Biden, we just needed a few years off—and at 66 years old, we’re still a decade younger than the 46th commander in chief. Besides, we never completely left—we’ve been showcasing highlights from the Voice archives on our website all along, and will continue doing so.
But print? In 2021?
Sure—why not? This is New York, a town where few pleasures are sweeter than sitting in a café or on a park bench with a cup of king-hell coffee and a sheaf of prose that sets the mind to musing—and also rubs off on your fingers.
In January of 1955, before this paper even existed, one of its most prominent future contributors wrote a letter to a one-year-old men’s magazine: “As a writer, I peruse some fifty odd magazines each month and Playboy is one of the finest. I read every single story. [Signed] Fred W. McDarrah, NY, NY.”
Even then, Playboy—that pioneering arbiter of all things sybaritic—had a penchant for pulling the pipe out of its editorial “we” mouth to deliver a bit of snark: “Didn’t know there were that many odd magazines being published, Fred.” But what neither slick publication nor hopeful writer knew then was that a sui generis newspaper was coalescing from the free spirits of Greenwich Village. This new tabloid would certainly have its odd aspects, but it would ultimately be more like another great American creation: jazz. There might not be a lot of profit in this new venture, but it was going to be adventurous, original, soaring—when not guttural—and the province of highly dedicated, skilled, innovative, and provocative practitioners. Three World War II vets bankrolled it—novelist Norman Mailer, psychotherapist Ed Fancher, and a struggling writer named Dan Wolf, who divined the zeitgeist of the Eisenhower years in a phrase that still resonates today: “The vulgarities of McCarthyism had withered the possibilities of a true dialogue between people.”
Indeed, the Voice would begin a dialogue with America that has never abated. Typically pugnacious, Mailer’s byline first appeared in 1956, in “QUICKLY—a column for slow readers.” A writer at the New York Daily News drolly responded, “In his new column in the Village Voice, Norman Mailer calls Hemingway a ‘windy’ writer. Mailer’s first novel was almost 700 pages.”
Chicago-based Playboy couldn’t get enough of what it termed, in the late 1950s, “the unofficial organ of Greenwich Village,” noting with approval that it was read by “the beatnik set.” And although he wasn’t yet on the masthead, by early 1960 McDarrah was placing ads in the Voice for his venture capitalizing on the county’s alternating fascination with and revulsion at a nascent counterculture: His “Rent Genuine Beatniks” service promised “Badly Groomed But Brilliant” raconteurs of either sex.
McDarrah would eventually appear on the masthead in 1962, as “Staff Photographer.” Over the decades, it would become more accurate to say, “world-famous photographer.”
But there was someone unknown on that first masthead who was destined for fame: Nell Blaine, listed as “Art and Production.” Blaine began a mutually beneficial tradition at the paper: artists of all stripes doing paste-up as their day job. It was Blaine who designed the elegant logo gracing the first issue, one that appeared on newsstands across the city (and eventually around the world) every week until a more modern, sans-serif logo replaced it in 1969. Blaine was a committed artist, and in 1959 she traveled to Greece to paint, where she contracted polio on the island of Mykonos. After months in an iron lung and years of recuperation, she taught herself to paint with her left hand, creating dynamic canvases that are now in the Met, the Whitney, and other major museums.
Digging into numerous newspaper archives from before 1955 reveals no hits on the search term “Village Voice.” But later in the decade, its alliterative moniker, if not its ethos, could be found in America’s heartland. In 1957, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, daily reported that a local trailer park had its own newspaper, The Village Voice. By 1966, a women’s club’s newsletter in Cincinnati had also taken up the name. Where was a slick New York copyright lawyer when you needed one? In the 1960s and ’70s, singing groups also took notice, such as the “Village Voices,” 12 students from Utah State University who were “ready to share their bright, springy style with the soldiers stationed around the Caribbean.”
“Bright” and “springy” were perhaps not the first notions that leapt to the minds of Voice readers back in its hometown. A cocktail, though…. In 1963, Esquire magazine came up with “All the News That’s Fit to Drink,” imagining potables for newspapers ranging from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Atlanta Constitution. For the Voice, they envisioned “a Martini with gin and dry vermouth, but make it seven to one. Add a dash of Scotch. Chill, drink, then put out several more editions.”
Once the Sixties shifted into high gear, the Voice was known as much by its readership as by its writers. In 1965, photographer Bob Adelman followed Andy Warhol around town, snapping the Pop maestro buying a Voice from an overflowing newsstand and later reading it on the fire escape of his Silver Factory. (When we printed the photo as a spread in the February 22, 2012, issue, we got the date wrong in the caption. Warhol was actually reading the June 24, 1965, edition of the paper.)
Conservative commentator William F. Buckley was also keeping an eye on his ideological opposite. In one of his syndicated columns, from February 1968, he quipped, “The Village Voice is a little New York journal which energetically does its iconoclastic push-ups….” He went on to dismiss it as “the critic did Thomas Hardy, commenting that his work was the village atheist talking to the village idiot.” And yet Buckley, who began publishing his own National Review a month after that inaugural Voice in 1955, couldn’t resist expounding on a Jack Newfield essay in the Voice that took a deep dive into the political calculations of Robert F. Kennedy, speculating on whether RFK, certainly one of Buckley’s last choices, would be able to ride the rising youth vote into the White House in November. Or would a Voice endorsement instead land Kennedy in the “Freak House”?
No one can ever know, since a few months later Bobby Kennedy, along with Martin Luther King Jr., was fresh in his grave, and the Voice printed a McDarrah photo of RFK that captured the pathos of a nation losing its way.
That same year, four chums in director Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman set out to attend the Brooklyn funeral of a writer friend. They circle Sheridan Square in a red Volkswagen Bug, twice passing the huge sign, mimicking Blaine’s logo, for the Voice’s offices. The quartet squabbles among themselves, gets lost, and ends up attending the wrong funeral. Lumet, who grew up on the Lower East Side, was a fan of his local paper, featuring it in a number of his films. Was this a metaphor for the well-known infighting among Voice writers?
A few years later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote an expletive-not-deleted missive to the editor in answer to a letter published in the Voice a week earlier, in which a reader dismissed Yoko as a “semi-failed and rather incompetent ‘avant-garde’ artist who married a man rich enough to afford her expensive filming equipment.”
Over the next month, letters appeared in the paper by turns decrying and defending the star couple, and the contretemps spilled onto a Dick Cavett episode in September 1971. An audience member queried guests John and Yoko: “You wrote a letter to the Voice in defense of Yoko as an artist … It was a rather strong letter, and I wondered if you’ve regretted it since, especially in the light of the strong reaction that it has provoked.”
John leapt to his wife’s defense again: “I don’t mind if a few fat liberals got excited about my letter.… One of the replies to the letter I wrote was, ‘It’s nice to see how well John and Yoko take to criticism.’ The letter wasn’t criticism.… He’s never seen her work, read her books, or seen any of our films.… I’m not an intellectual. I’m not articulate. I’m working class, and I use few words. I use the words that the people around me used when I was a child. I talk like that. So if somebody’s going to say a lot of [deleted by broadcasters], I’ll say a lot of [deleted]. It’s as simple as that.” [Applause.]
A year later, the blaxploitation hit Superfly employed a copy of the Voice to more pragmatic ends. During the stylish montage sequence of drug dealers processing and then delivering their wares to their ever-higher clients—set to Curtis Mayfield’s bopping “Pusherman”—one dealer, striding up the subway steps, uses a folded Village Voice to conceal his key of cocaine from prying eyes. Sharp viewers might’ve spied one cover subject—that happiest of hookers, Xaviera Hollander.
In occasional issues ranging from September 1973 through February 1975, artist Adrian Piper bought ad space in the Voice as a component of her “Mythic Being” project, in which she asked, in part, “What would happen if there was a being who had exactly my history, only a completely different visual appearance to the rest of society?” Seventeen tearsheets from the Voice have found their way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, yellowed newsprint capturing an art world in constant flux.
In 1975, Sidney Lumet again turned to the Voice for inspiration, this time not to get exterior shots of the offices but as background fodder for Dog Day Afternoon, which was based on a real-life event. As investigative journalist Arthur Bell wrote in the August 30, 1972, issue of the Voice, he had received a message the week before that “a couple of homosexuals are holding up a bank in Brooklyn and they’re holding people hostages.” He wrote that he tracked down the Chase branch’s phone number, and called: “‘Hello, this is Arthur Bell from The Village Voice. Can you tell me what’s happening?’ The voice at the other end replied, ‘Arthur, am I glad it’s you. This is Littlejohn.’ ‘Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?’ ‘I’m one of the robbers.’ ‘Jesus Christ!’” Bell knew the perp from meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance and, a dogged reporter, he covered all the angles: Was it a heist to pay for a sex change operation for John “Littlejohn Basso” Wojtowicz’s lover, or just a standard-issue mob heist? Bell chose the mob angle, pinning it on the Gambino crime family. Lumet, though, knew which would make for a better screenplay.
In the spring of 1976, the Voice made headlines across the nation when we published the Pike Papers, an exposé of “dangerous government adventures.” Leaked by journalist Daniel Schorr, the disclosures recalled the battle between the federal government and whistle-blowers during the Pentagon Papers controversy a few years earlier. Needless to say, the Voice did not endear itself to the powers that be.
Two years later, it seemed that Lou Reed was no happier with the Voice than ex-president Gerald Ford had been. On his Take No Prisoners live album, the acerbic rocker launched into a rant about the Consumer Guide feature: “Critics—what does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe fucker? Man … Christgau’s like an anal retentive. Nice little boxes. B+. Can you imagine workin’ for a fucking year and you got a B+ [for Street Hassle] from an asshole in the Village Voice?” [Audience cheering and applause]
Shortly thereafter, Christgau rated Prisoners— “essentially a comedy album”—a C+, and graciously thanked Lou “for pronouncing my name right.”
Perhaps channeling Reed’s sardonicism, the Voice was voted #67 in a “BOTTOM 100” readers’ poll in the June 1979 issue of Punk magazine. For the record, “Disco” topped that particular chart.
Also that year, the Voice was there firstest with the mostest to cover the scion of an outer-borough real-estate-empire family who already had a rep for shady dealings and mendacious boasting.
In 1981, the Voice was again in national news, this time for coming in second—but then, first—for the Pulitzer Prize. Papers across the country initially reported on the Washington Post winning for a feature on an 8-year-old heroin addict—a tale that turned out to be fabricated. Once informed, the Pulitzer committee awarded the prize to Teresa Carpenter, for her compelling story on the life and death of Playmate and budding actress Dorothy Stratten. (In 1983, Bob Fosse adapted Carpenter’s feature for his movie Star 80.)
Lumet was back on the Voice beat again with his 1982 Deathtrap. Christopher Reeve, looking to avoid the typecasting that doomed an earlier actor too closely identified with Superman, plays a conniving, murderous wannabe playwright who tells his lover, portrayed by Michael Caine, that it is basically greed, lust, duplicitousness, and power that make life—and Broadway plays—go around: “Come on, don’t be such an old Nellie. I mean just look around you, Jesus Christ, you don’t have to read Hustler, you know, just read, uh, Village Voice.”
Such cynicism was simpatico with Reagan’s dominance of a decade that would prove a forerunner of our current “own the libs” moment. In 1983, Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed sent Milo and his grandfather, The Major, out to hunt liberals: “Whadya use for bait?” “A back issue of the Village Voice.” In the last panel they carry away their bound quarry, who pleads, “Couldn’t I just read the ‘Feiffer’ cartoon?”
In that same year’s iconic film The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum sports a Voice T-shirt as he despairs over a journalistic profession he feels cares most about sensationalism, dieting recommendations, and self-promotion: “Don’t knock rationalization—where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
Of course by the ’80s, many people were saying that the Voice was losing influence (as others had already said in the ’60s and ’70s). But U2 frontman Bono was having none of it. In 1987, as he accepted the Album of the Year Grammy for The Joshua Tree, the singer intoned, “Soul music, that’s what U2 wanted to make,” adding that without soul, performers “like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a great storyteller, but he’s much more than that. Without it, U2 would probably be getting better reviews in the Village Voice. [Audience laughter] That’s a joke. Sometimes they don’t understand.”
Sashaying into the ’90s, Madonna was causing outrage with her metal-bound Sex book. Gossip columnist Michael Musto was a Madonna fan, and decided to go full monty for the sincerest form of flattery.
A year later, Esquire magazine tapped Musto to demystify “the strange circumstances that catapult mere non-achieving humans into overweening celebrities.” The Voice veteran put it succinctly, “Standing naked in public is probably the easiest way to become famous.”
And there was Playboy again, in its Baseball preview special, singling out the Voice for the Best Headline award, one which assessed both local teams’ chances in 1992: THEY’RE HERE, THEY SUCK, GET USED TO IT. (The Mets ended that benighted year 70–92, and, like the Yanks at 76–86, landed fifth in their division.)
The ’90s was just another decade that the Voice had plenty of detractors. Even Mystery Science Theater 3000 took a shot at the paper, when the crew deconstructed the 1964 Ann-Margaret vehicle, Kitten With a Whip. As the camera pans across newspapers scattered over a suburban front lawn, Crow T. Robot quips, “Ah, nobody reads the Voice anymore.”
Seinfeld, too, was questioning the Voice’s point of view. In one episode, the gang separately attends a screening of Rochelle, Rochelle (a recurring joke in the series, an unseen movie reminiscent of the soft-core porn flick Emmanuelle), each not knowing the other is there until they hear each other groaning about the movie, with Elaine summing it up—“Does this movie stink or what?”—and Jerry concluding, “Let’s get outta here.” The voiceover for the trailer before the movie had declaimed, “The Village Voice called the film a masterpiece.”
Not everyone, however, felt the Voice was off the mark. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino, still basking in Pulp Fiction’s win at Cannes, told Charlie Rose that, contrary to press speculation, his youthful job at a video store had not been his “… film school. It was kind of—a closer equivalent would be—it was like my Village Voice. And I got to be J. Hoberman. I got to be Andrew Sarris at the store … putting films in people’s hands and arguing my points of why this movie was good or why that movie was bad.”
Another behemoth of pop culture, Sex and the City, was one TV series that couldn’t avoid its hometown paper. In a 1998 episode, “Three’s a Crowd,” Carrie opens a red Voice box and pulls out a paper while the voiceover intones, “But the bigger question remained, if Charlotte was actually considering a threesome, who wasn’t? The Village Voice had more ads looking for threesomes than it did for small rat-infested studios running for $1,000 a month. But who actually answered these ads?”
The Aughts brought The Devil Wears Prada, in which Anne Hathaway’s character shucks fashion world sophistry in favor of resolute journalism at a downtown paper. As the Wall Street Journal put it in their review, “Andy wants to write about serious things, and she is dressed for success—but success as a journalist at, say, the Village Voice; her sensible shoes, skirt and sweater bespeak her cluelessness about haute couture.”
When Julie Delpy directed and starred in 2 Days in New York, her search for accurate locations brought the film crew to the Voice’s offices, which were then at 36 Cooper Square. As the paper’s review of the movie points out, Delpy and her co-star, Chris Rock, “meet cute in the offices of the Village Voice.” Despite the onscreen love, Nick Pinkerton’s coverage pulled no punches in assessing Delpy’s attempt to evoke life’s innate messiness: “If life is a jumble, that doesn’t mean art necessarily should be.”
In 2017, Zoey, on Blackish, is wondering if she should go to NYU; her father tries to discourage her from leaving L.A. with a homemade snowball, warning, “They throw snowballs at your face. If this was Brooklyn it would have been tires.” However, little sis Diane (a precocious fan of SATC), pumps for the big Apple: “There’s a magic in New York. Like, walking out of your building in a strappy Manolo, hailing a cab, covering your hair from the rain with the Village Voice.”
Well, 2017 hadn’t exactly been magical for the Voice. In fact, WBAI’s Peter Bochan included the paper in the obit section of his annual aural mashup, Short Cuts. Halfway through, we hear Lenny Bruce telling an audience, “This is a newspaper I’m reading. It’s brilliant. It’s called the Village Voice, and it has a very brilliant editorial staff, plus some very erudite contributors. Let’s see, we’ve got Nat Hentoff.…” You can just picture the legendary comic turning the pages of one of those early Voice editions.
It’s a bit of serendipity that local radio fixture Bochan found a clip of Bruce to bid the Voice farewell, since, over the past few years, actor Luke Kirby has been nigh-resurrecting the outlaw comedian on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Fans of the wildly successful Amazon comedy/drama/occasional Busby-Berkley-like phantasmagoria are probably aware that Abe Weissman, father of rising stand-up star Mrs. Maisel, will have a new job in Season 4. His upcoming gig was foreshadowed late in Season 3 when, after a midlife crisis has driven him from academia to search for his youthful activist roots, he writes a freelance article for The New York Times and later discovers that his daughter is supplementing her comedy income by doing commercials, rehearsing one for right-wing, anti-Semitic demagogue Phyllis Schafly. Midge has no idea who Schafly is—“It’s a paycheck.” Abe sighs, and responds, “If you’re going to have a voice, you better be careful what that voice says.”
Fast-forward to the season finale: In one scene, Abe, strolling through the theater district, is pelted with tomatoes by the irate subject of his Times piece. Back home, still in his splattered suit, Abe tells his wife, Rose, how thrilled he was at the reaction—“My words incited theater people—people who make a living sitting down. It incited them to get up and commit an act of physical violence…. The written word—it’s going to change the world.”
Indeed, in the season’s penultimate scene, Abe gets a phone call in a house full of family: “Hello? Yeah from where? The village what? I can’t hear you—I live in a lunatic asylum.” Cut to the foyer, where Midge is preparing to leave for a European tour. Abe strides in as if across cloud nine: “That was someone from the Village Voice.” Rose: “What?” Abe: “It’s a newspaper.” Rose: “We don’t need a subscription.” Abe: “They were not selling subscriptions! They want me to be their theater critic!”
For the Maisel bunch, it’s 1960—they don’t know the triumphs and tragedies yet to come.
For us, it’s 2021, and although Donald Trump has been demoted from POTUS to poster boy for white supremacy, he and his most extreme followers remain a clear and present danger to democracy. And I still have faith in the Voice to fight on the side of our better angels. In fact, I never lost it, and although my education in Catholicism has come mostly through art history studies, I know from proofing decades of Voice Bulletin Board pages that St. Jude can bring the heavy intercession just when you need it most. So in that “last” issue, back in 2017, I bought a classified ad similar to so many I’d seen over the years:
The wording lets you know that I just knew the paper would have a second act.
You’re holding it in your hands. ❖