NEW YORK

The Women at the Table: Writers, Artists, and Photographers in the Early Days of the Voice

From our ‘Voice Lore’ print section: Though outnumbered five to one, women staffers stood tall at the Voice

by

In the current season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Abe Weissman—protagonist Midge Maisel’s father—is greeted by the crabbily avuncular staff on his first day of work as a Village Voice theater critic. “Kennedy for President” posters are plastered throughout the bustling office, and as the editor makes introductions around a conference table plunked right in the middle of the hubbub, we meet the only woman on the editorial staff, Bernie, who is given the straightforward title “News.”

Considering that the story is set in 1960, that’s about right, since at the real-world Voice that year, Mary Perot Nichols was listed simply as “News” on the masthead, editing other journalists and writing her own coverage of street-level concerns in the city.

Nichols (1926–1996) had gotten the job a couple of years earlier after she approached Dan Wolf—who co-founded the paper with fellow World War II vets Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer—to ask that the Voice cover efforts to stop city planner Robert Moses from ramming a roadway through Washington Square Park. Wolf, whose title on the masthead was simply “Editor,” told her to compose the article herself and he would run it. Wolf, Nichols, and other writers beat the drum to keep cars out of the Square, eventually beating Moses in 1958, and Nichols appeared on the masthead for the first time in the September 10, 1958, issue with that broad-ranging “News” title. (Berenice Abbott, a seminal modern photographer, was listed under “Contributors” in that issue; her photos—including a striking portrait of the painter Edward Hopper accompanied by a pot-bellied stove in his Washington Square studio—graced a number of Voices over that first decade.) Editor Wolf had once described the paper as “just one big unhappy family,” and Nichols bowed to none of the male staffers when it came to sharp-elbowed political coverage: The muckraking “Runnin’ Scared” column, which premiered in the late 1960s, was originally bylined “Mary Perot Nichols and The Voice Staff.” Nichols left the paper in the mid-’70s and later worked revamping the foundering WNYC radio station through such provocative shows as “The John Hour,” which broadcast the names of men convicted of patronizing streetwalkers in order to, as Mayor Koch said, “deter people who are considering roaming New York City streets to pick up prostitutes.”

Before Nichols’s time, there had been a few women on the Voice masthead, though they long remained a minority. Out of six folks with actual titles on the very first (October 26, 1955) masthead, only one was a woman, Nell Blaine, listed as “Art and Production.” Blaine (1922–1996) was responsible for the classy, lissome Village Voice logo that ran from 1955 until 1969, but in her off-hours she was pursuing a serious painting career. In April 1960, Blaine appeared on the paper’s art pages in an ad from the uptown Poindexter Gallery promoting her solo exhibition “Paintings of Greece.” What that concise exhibition title elided was the fact that Blaine had contracted polio on the island of Mykonos and, during a difficult recovery, had trained herself to paint left-handed. Six years later, the April 14 issue of the paper featured a Fred W. McDarrah photo of Blaine in a wheelchair, but she remained undaunted as an artist—printed on the facing page was a new Poindexter ad: “Nell Blaine / Recent Painting from St. Lucia and England.”

In 1957, a new female staffer appears on the masthead, though that five-to-one ratio remained the same. Sorting through Voice historical materials uncovers staff photographer Gin Briggs’s jaunty studio stamp—replete with a box camera, squeeze bulb, and birdie—on the verso of pictures of such literary luminaries as one-time Voice columnist Jean Shepherd (of A Christmas Story fame). Briggs photographed street life, art exhibits, and many other subjects, including shooting homey portraits of Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, and an occasional Voice contributor. In one case, Briggs herself became the subject of a front-page article, when she put a poster—“Clean up the Democratic Party”—in the window of her Village studio, a challenge to the machine politicos who had long represented the neighborhood. Her landlord threatened Briggs with eviction, and his wife told the photographer, “They’ll break your window.” But Briggs stood firm, and the article noted, “A native of Ponca City, Oklahoma, and inexperienced in the ways of Tammany politics, the five-foot-two photographer, who is not given to philosophizing, observed succinctly, ‘It’s a free country, isn’t it?’”

Briggs kept shooting for the Voice until 1962, when a notice in the August 23 issue announced that McDarrah would be replacing “California-bound Gin Briggs.” Unfortunately, the trail of her career goes cold from there.

Roughly around the time Briggs was departing, Linda Solomon (born 1937) began covering live music for the paper. In spirited blurbs, she critiqued everyone from folk musicians to bagpipers to jazz guitarists to comics, such as in this May 2, 1963, take in the paper’s “Notebook for Night Owls” section: “Concluding the line-up is comedian Woody Allen, who continues to accentuate the negative with an ounce of wit and a pound of dissension.” When Solomon wasn’t journeying among the city’s cafes, clubs, and coffeehouses, she was reviewing new albums beneath the Voice’s prosaic “Records” slug. In the July 25, 1963, issue, she zeroed in on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, observing that the scruffy-voiced “citybilly … stands outside his problems and writes a credo for people to live by,” singling out “the sharply integrationist, casually poetic, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’” Solomon divined that this second album by the folkie from Minnesota was going to be with us for a long, long time, concluding, “One brief listening to the emotional understatement in his voice emphasizes the power of his lyrics and his genuine concern with the state of the world.”

Solomon moved on from the Voice, contributing to ABC-TV’s Hootenanny and writing for NME and other magazines in later decades. But her early, prescient Dylan review captured the era’s zeitgeist—a “concern with the state of the world” that remains stubbornly relevant six decades on.  ❖

Future “Voice Lore” columns will focus on whatever strikes our fancy—staffers, stories, artworks, ads—to illuminate the Voice’s 67-year-and-counting history.

Highlights