Joe Gould’s Secret History


When Joseph Mitchell finished the second of two landmark New Yorker profiles of Greenwich Village barfly and fringe literary player Joe Gould in 1964, he had come to the firm conclusion that Gould’s infamous 10-million-word oral history only existed in one place: Gould’s head. But a sliver of Gould’s writing survives to this day, hiding in plain sight just blocks from the bohemian’s Village haunts. Quietly tucked away within NYU’s archives are 11 dime-store composition books that make up a nearly 150,000-word diary—one apparently unknown to Mitchell, whose New Yorker articles form the basis of Joe Gould’s Secret, a film opening this week starring Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci, who also directed.

Gould’s diary, long forgotten in NYU’s Fales Collection, offers a rare glimpse of the bombastic, ragged five-foot-four Harvard graduate in his own words. It also bolsters rather than contradicts Mitchell’s suspicions about the oral history—this often mechanical day-by-day account of Gould’s life from the years 1943 to 1947 is a far cry from the magnum opus he famously boasted about. But its respectable size also affirms his claim, when confronted by Mitchell about the nonexistent history, “that it wasn’t a question of laziness.”

Gould entrusted the journals to Harold Anton, an abstract painter who lived next door to the Minetta Tavern on Macdougal Street. After failing to find a publisher, Anton sold them to Izzy Young, Village archivist and owner of the now defunct Folklore Center. Reached by telephone at his home in Sweden, Young recalled that reading the diary “caught me in a very big intellectual problem,” i.e., whether to maintain Gould’s reputation by destroying them, or vice versa. Practical instincts prevailed, and Young sold them to the Fales Collection for $750 in 1967. Today housed in the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, overlooking the park where Gould sometimes slept, the notebooks share shelf space with the work of David Wojnarowicz, Dennis Cooper, and other outsider artists.

The diary covers what might be called Gould’s golden age, when Mitchell’s 1942 profile “Professor Sea Gull” turned him into an international celebrity. These were also the years when a mystery patron’s stipend gave him for once a modest level of comfort. It might have been the opportune moment to realize his ambitions. But, as the evidence shows, it was not to be.

Reading the fragile, yellowed pages of these journals, with their blotchy, messy script (his handwriting has a tendency to become impenetrable just when he starts to say something interesting), is an exercise in frustration. On the very first page, Joe, with novelists Slater Brown and Dawn Powell, prepares to head off to a New Year’s Eve party being thrown by anarchist Carlo Tresca. But the deliciously bitchy gossip and drunken monologues he would have been privy to at such an affair never transpire. In a foreshadowing of disappointments to follow, Gould decides to stay home. To take a bath.

The diary’s 1100-odd pages are first and foremost a record of baths taken, meals consumed, and dollars bummed. It’s clear that Gould’s favorite subject was himself. Other people were mere bit players in the movie of his mind, and the bustling city he lived in no more than a backdrop. Aside from a few gaps between notebooks, virtually every day is accounted for. Gould’s painstaking attention to everyday routines and mundane matters suggests that he had found the one place to impose order on a life that knew little. And there is the unexpectedly quaint touch of noting holidays and other commemorative events in the heading. The entry for August 4, 1943, begins: “Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday. Bugs got on a rampage. As a consequence I got up late.”

Gould’s day usually began in one of the cheap cafés that dotted the West Side in that era. Though he ate a lot of ketchup consommé, he was sometimes flush enough to indulge his taste for seafood. On one grand occasion, he dined on lobster thermidor, black coffee, and spumoni. Evenings found him cadging drinks at the Minetta. Sometimes he crashed the Raven’s Poetry Club, reciting doggerel like “A Flatbush Grows in Brooklyn”:

Said Johnny Cashmore

To little Noel Coward,

We want no trash more,

Brooklyn can’t be defloward.

In between dining and drinking and declaiming, he solicited for the Joe Gould Fund. The record shows Joe Mitchell and Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon were generally good for a couple of bucks, with e.e. cummings, Dwight MacDonald, Weldon Kees, and others chipping in slightly less. Illustrator Don Freeman appears to have been his most consistent and generous supporter, even splitting the fee he got from PM newspaper for drawing Gould’s portrait.

In one of his more elaborate solicitations, he began calling on editor Maxwell Perkins. “Gould reported last week that Scribner’s is interested in a fragment of his Oral History,” Time magazine mentioned in a footnote to its 1943 review of Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Perkins played along with this charade, permitting Gould to show up every Monday, deposit a few chapters of the History (very likely the obsessively rewritten autobiographical pieces Mitchell discussed in his second profile), and pocket a bill or two. Their meeting of July 30, 1943, reveals Gould’s vast literary pretensions. Of one submission, called the Bank chapter, Joe reports that Perkins “liked it very much. I said I thought it was the best child stuff in the English language with the exception of Tom Sawyer. He said he liked Huck Finn better.”

There was also time to examine a matter of artistic license: “We discussed the episode of the turd. He thought it should be printed. He understood that I was not using nasty words for the sake of being nasty. I told him I thought it brought out the idealism of the chapter.”

When McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, a collection containing “Professor Sea Gull,” was published, Gould’s star rose even higher. The entries from August 1943 are littered with evidence of a heightened visibility: A man from Larchmont hails him on the street. A husband and wife stop to buy a poem. Photographer Philippe Halsman books an appointment. “I found he was the photographer for Time,” proudly notes Joe. “He had just done [Wendell] Willkie and [Harold] Ickes.”

Reporters quickly discovered that Gould was reliable copy. When Time magazine checked in with him in 1944, he announced plans to publish Why Princeton Should Be Abolished: “Most present-day publishers are illiterate and also from Princeton,” explained the Harvard alum. To a wire correspondent, he expressed his mayoral ambitions. He obliged when photographers asked him to strike a pose in Washington Square, but later carped in his diary that “I had to sit on the edge of the pool with my back to the arch. I was supposed to be eating peanuts. This is something I never do.” He was tickled to see the press snapping his picture as avidly as Eleanor Roosevelt’s when he went to hear her speak. But Gould wasn’t necessarily deluded about his popularity, confiding to a friend that it was largely based on “my special brand of foolishness.”

As the dispatches from Macdougal Street circulated overseas, Joe’s fame billowed. With the end of war, and a surge of tourists and demobbed servicemen passing through the city, it seemed like all roads led to the Minetta and Joe. GIs returning from Italy, Bali, and Ceylon came to pay their respects, as did the founder of the Joe Gould Club in Manila. Joe was pleased to hear he was known to the president of the Puerto Rican senate and that the young scholars in Harvard Yard regarded him as a hero.

Old friends like Eugene O’Neill enjoyed looking him up. “I said that as a Yale professor, he had to meet Harvard men to get a bit of an education. He laughed and said I seemed to know all the answers.” Weegee invited him to a cocktail party where one of the swells tried to yank his beard. “I socked him,” reports the feisty diarist. “He seemed surprised.” Don Freeman’s wife Lydia had the wiggy idea to invite Gould and Salvador Dalí to a preview of Lil’ Abner, the Broadway musical comedy. Dalí’s reactions to Gould or middlebrow theater are unfortunately lost to time, but Gould reports that the surrealist planted a paper-stuffed handbag on 42nd Street and stood back to watch.

But quite apart from the giddy notoriety, to most people he was still a bum, or worse. Nursing an afternoon beer in a downtown bar called Byrnes, Joe found himself being turned into an object lesson. “[A man] gave a very jaundiced account [of me] to his sister. He said I have never worked in my life and that I was spoiled by the New Yorker article. He said, ‘Would you want to live like that?’ I left.”

Even on home turf he took some guff. “I went to the Minetta. A bum was being chased out just as I came in. Everybody laughed. The bartender said, ‘One comes and one goes.’ ” Strangers chastised him for being too bohemian and, on “I Am an American Day” in 1945, scolded him about his beard.

Physically, he was in precarious shape, prone to blackouts and other maladies. “I got home late,” he writes of one episode. “Must have had a fall as there were blood clots on the top of my head.” He suffered two hospitalizations, the second coming on the heels of a friend’s death. Wheeled into the OR, Gould is spooked by a nurse, “terrifying . . . in her uniform.” A friend arrives later, promising him “a pint of blood. I told him it made me feel like Shylock.”

Seemingly mundane matters take on an element of suspense and comic pathos. Consider this shaggy-dog saga of Joe’s efforts to stay clothed in Village hand-me-downs: June 7, 1946: “I saw Bele De Triefant. He said he had a pair of shoes for me. I had an ale at the Minetta.” June 8: “De Triefant had not brought the shoes. I had a drink at the Minetta.” June 11: “I saw De Triefant. He had shoes for me. I took them. I went to the Minetta. I drank.” June 12: “I went to Goody’s. I had some beers. I lost my shoe. I went to the Minetta.”

Gould bore the humilations and the deprivations with nary a complaint. Rare are admissions like “I felt ashamed to be so dingy” or the time he asked Max Gordon “if he thought I was a social error.”

But these hairline cracks in Gould’s psychic armor didn’t facilitate any noticeable introspection. Nor is it evident that he possessed any abiding curiosity about the world beyond his own. Here’s how the momentous events of 1945 are played out. On April 13, Gould reports from the Minetta that “everyone was a bit unsettled by FDR’s death. . . . Jack Sellers came with a poem about Roosevelt and we told him to beat it. We said he ought to know better that to read a poem about a Democrat to us.” He commemorates V-E Day by noting that “Max [Gordon] gave me a dollar to celebrate Hitler’s death. I ate in the Mexican Gardens.” But his description of V-J Day could have been scripted by Beckett: “There were a few bedbugs. So I slept poorly. Also there was a lot of noise.”

The notebooks taper off in the spring of 1947. Six months later, his subsidy dried up. To this day, the identity of his patron remains a mystery. cummings, who occasionally spoke of Gould in his letters to Ezra Pound, cryptically noted in 1948 that “I’ve been seeing a lot of Joe G lately & wondered why;parait que his erstwhile refugee-backess decided she’d put her dollars on the foreign poor,pour changer perhaps:or maybe Gould got fresh?”

Joe wandered the streets until 1952, when he was committed to Pilgrim State Hospital. His death and subsequent funeral were memorably reported in the Voice on August 28, 1957.

According to writer Dan Balaban, none of Gould’s well-heeled friends attended—no Mitchell, cummings, or William Saroyan. But representatives from NBC, CBS, and the print media mobbed the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church. The mourners were a cross section of neighborhood characters (Princess Wa-Wachaw, Gould’s cousin Lawrence Woodman) and, if you can imagine, the Lions Club of Greater Greenwich Village. The good burghers among the Lions even dreamed up a grandiloquent touch worthy of the deceased. They announced the establishment of a Joseph Ferdinand Gould Scholarship Fund to NYU, with an initial bequest of $100 (no trace of the fund exists today). Why they didn’t just spring for a headstone is anyone’s guess; today, some 40 years later, the grave at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, Westchester County, remains unmarked. His surviving literary corpus provides no epitaph either. ❖