In Letters from Bohemia, Ben Hecht declares his friend Maxwell Bodenheim “more disliked, derided, denounced, beaten up, and kicked down more flights of stairs than any poet of whom I have heard or read.” In his lifetime Bodenheim was at least as well known for his drunk and dissolute behavior as for his writing. Today he’s mostly remembered for the tawdry way he died.
He grew up poor and Jewish in smalltown Mississippi. He was bright but viciously boorish, physically handsome yet repulsively slovenly, and argumentative to a fault, with a genius for the insult that could end any discussion, usually with his being punched in the mouth. As young men Bodenheim and Hecht were the pranksters of the Chicago Renaissance. According to Allen Churchill’s The Improper Bohemians, they once filled a hall for a literary debate on the topic “Resolved: That People Who Attend Literary Debates Are Imbeciles.”
Hecht strode center-stage to announce that he would take the affirmative. Then he stated, “The affirmative rests.” Bodenheim shambled forward, scrutinized his confident opponent, and said, “You win.”
Bodenheim — Bogie to his long-suffering friends — was twenty-two when he blew into Greenwich Village with other Chicago émigrés in 1915, and instantly made a name for himself in the neighborhood as a poet of promise. Reading his facile, gaudy verses now, it’s easy to think that it was the brute force of his sociopathic presence, rather than his poetry, that convinced the best poets in the Village at the time that he was one of them, potentially even the greatest of them:
You have a morning-glory face
Whose edges are sensitive to light
And curl in beneath the burden of a smile.
Remembered silence returns to the morning-glory
And lattices its curves
With shades of golden reverberations.
Then the morning-glory’s heart careens to loves
Whose scent beats on the sky-walls of your soul.
Tellingly, those not directly in his orbit seem not to have been fooled by the clever romance-novel sham of such verses — and neither, apparently, was Bodenheim himself, though he would go on roaring about his genius for decades. Hecht records that after entering 223 poetry contests and failing to win a single one, he took to signing his letters to editors “Maxwell Bodenheim, 224th ranking U.S.A. poet.”
He did have a real talent for scandal, easy enough to generate during Greenwich Village’s prolonged drunken orgy in the Prohibition years. His haughty, insulting demeanor, and his habit of trying to steal other men’s women right under their noses, got him regularly socked on the jaw and thrown out of bars, soirees and the fauxhemian revels at Webster Hall.
Turning from poetry to prose, through the 1920s he wrote a string of best-selling, sensational potboilers like Replenishing Jessica, about a free-loving bohemian, Georgie May, about a fallen prostitute, and Naked on Roller Skates, about a middle-aged “onetime hobo, circus-pegger, doughboy, sailor, anarchist, con man, all-time sensationalist and wanderer of the world” who leaves a small town with a much younger woman who “wanted to try everything at least once.” They sound better than they read. Hecht called them “hack work with flashes of tenderness, wit, and truth in them.” When the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought Bodenheim to trial in 1925 on an obscenity charge for Replenishing Jessica, his defense lawyer used a familiar tactic of demanding that the prosecutor read the entire text aloud to prove his case. Judge, jury and the reporters covering the trial dozed as the prosecutor droned on and on, and the unaroused jury voted Bodenheim not guilty. Mayor Jimmy Walker agreed with the verdict. “No girl was ever seduced by a book,” he quipped.
For a bohemian poet, commercial success and celebrity could bring on a full-blown personality crisis (as it would do Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac and Kurt Cobain). Bodenheim squandered the money he made from his novels on drink and gambling, as though he couldn’t throw it away fast enough. He preferred to demand loans and cadge drinks from everyone around him, like a true bohemian poet should. Meanwhile, his reputation in these years as a daring, risqué writer attracted a cloud of what we’d call groupies today, many of them the sort of teenagers from the outer boroughs and the hinterlands who flocked to the Village in the 1920s to throw off the shackles of mainstream morality and abandon themselves to the neighborhood’s non-stop pagan revels.
He took his pick. One was Gladys Loeb, 18, from the Bronx. In 1928, he ended a brief fling with her, adding that her poetry was doggerel. Her landlady soon found her with her head in the gas oven, barely clinging to life, and to Bodenheim’s portrait. A few weeks later he did the same thing to twenty-two-year-old Virginia Drew, who threw herself into the Hudson and succeeded where Gladys had failed. When police went to question Bodenheim about Drew’s suicide, he’d slipped off to stay with fellow Villager Harry Kemp in Provincetown. Gladys, having recovered from her own suicide attempt, followed him there — trailing her irate father, cops and reporters. Bodenheim talked his way out of their clutches, but not out of the newspapers all over the country, which had a field day with lurid tales about the Greenwich Village Lothario.
Then came Aimee Cortez, widely feted as “the Mayoress of Greenwich Village.” She earned the title by stripping naked at private parties and Webster Hall shindigs and gyrating a wildly erotic dance. According to Churchill, this display sometimes ended with her going off with some lucky male, but other times she’d stop abruptly, with a look of terror and confusion, and run off. In a later era she’d be prescribed a drug for this clearly disturbed behavior, but in the Village of the late 1920s, where “a hideous lust… pervaded the air” as Bodenheim’s My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village put it, she was merely celebrated as the queen of the modern-day bacchantes. Not long after Gladys and Virginia made the papers, Aimee was found with her head in her own oven, also clutching Bodenheim’s portrait. She was dead at nineteen.
Bodenheim was indirectly implicated in the sad end of another lover, a teenager from the outer boroughs with the improbable name Dorothy Dear. When she wasn’t with him in his MacDougal Street apartment, he wrote her love letters that she carried in her purse. One afternoon she was aboard a rush hour subway train heading from Times Square to the Village when it derailed at a faulty switch, killing sixteen passengers, including Dorothy. Bodenheim’s love letters were found scattered around the wreckage.
By the end of the 1920s Bodenheim was a wreck himself. From the 1930s until his death he was a fixture on the streets and in the bars of the Village, by turns annoying and sad-making, decaying before his old friends’ eyes into a stinking, toothless ghost, “tottering drunkenly to sleep on flophouse floors, shabby and gaunt as any Bowery bum,” as Hecht put it. Still, Hecht gallantly added, “Bogie hugged his undiminished riches — his poet’s vocabulary and his genius for winning arguments. He won nothing else.” He cranked out more cheap novels, drank the money, and stooped to hawking his poems to tourists in Washington Square for a quarter each. Wiseacres in the bars fed him gin and laughed at his drunken mumblings and rants, which sometimes yielded a famous line like “Greenwich Village is the Coney Island of the soul.”
Poets were the main entertainment at Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in the mid-1930s. Gordon couldn’t afford to pay them; they performed for whatever change the patrons tossed at their feet. Poet Eli Siegel, later founder of the Aesthetic Realism movement, was the emcee in the early years, but the crowd really came to see three ghosts of the Village Past — Joe Gould, Harry Kemp and Maxwell Bodenheim. They hung out there because Gordon tolerated them and his patrons were easy marks for a few free drinks. In his memoir Live at the Village Gate, Gordon describes how Siegel would call Gould out of the crowd with the cry, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Harvard terrier and boulevardier, Joseph Ferdinand Gould!” Gould would shuffle up to the spotlight and do his schtick, while Bodenheim, tall and imperious, would stalk the shadows at the back, “point his finger, and shout, ‘Eli Siegel! I hate you, Eli Siegel. You rat!’” Gordon continues:
Eli would wait for Bodenheim to shape up so he could call on him to recite. But it was no use. Bodenheim, swirling crazily, eyes glazed, arms outstretched, would suddenly stop and point his finger at a frightened girl who had refused him a dance during intermission. “Rat!” he’d shout at her.
Despite the frightening deterioration of his physical and mental hygiene, Bodenheim still attracted a certain type of desperate woman, usually in decline herself. He met the last of them in 1951 when Ruth Fagan bought a poem from him with her last quarter. She was thirty-two, he was a fifty-nine-year-old derelict, and within a couple of weeks they were going around as Mr. and Mrs. Bodenheim, though it’s not clear they ever bothered to make it official. They decayed together for the next couple of years, chronically broke and drunk, descending from cheap rooming houses to flophouses to sleeping in hallways and doorways. She turned tricks when she could, and he beat her when he found out. In 1952 they made a horrific spectacle of themselves at a fancy reunion for surviving members of the original Chicago Renaissance group, where he panhandled the guests while she propositioned them.
If the Bodenheim of the early 1950s was a disgusting or amusing clown to the tourists, and an embarrassment and bother to his old friends, he was something of a martyred saint to the generation of bohemians who came to the Village after World War Two. In his headlong descent into the abyss, his lust for the extremes of degradation, his lust for lust itself, he was like a dark archangel of negative capability for them, representing the ultimate rejection of bourgeois virtue and mainstream values, even to the point of total self-destruction. He comes up several times in the published diaries of Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theatre, from this period. One night in 1951 she and her husband Julian Beck were in the San Remo, the dark and smoky bar at Bleecker and MacDougal Streets that Bodenheim often haunted:
A ragged drunk approaches our table. In terrible shape. Ash blond hair askew. He lurches forward, his hands resting on the table. Directly to Julian: “What’s your name?”
“My name is Julian Beck.”
“My name is Maxwell Bodenheim. I’m an idiotic poet.”
And he turns and moves off before we can speak.
The late Roy Metcalf, who was a young newspaper reporter in the early 1950s, also encountered Bodenheim in the San Remo. “Bodenheim had a great face, an alcohol-ravaged face,” he recalled. “Once a guy from uptown wanted to see Greenwich Village, so we went down to the San Remo. There was Bodenheim. He said, ‘Bring him over, let’s buy him a drink.’ He expected Bodenheim to say something. Bodenheim by that time was so paralyzed by alcohol that all he could do was bray, ‘Aaaaargh.’”
In 1953 Malina went into the Waldorf Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue, where artists hung out. The food was lousy, the lighting made people look so bad they nicknamed it the Waxworks, and the other patrons tended to be bums, drug addicts, tough guys and cops. The staff was not particularly welcoming to arty boho types. So naturally that’s where Bodenheim and Ruth went to celebrate his birthday. Malina writes that a friend stole a pumpkin pie from the counter as a present for Bodenheim. “A cop sees him, but is somehow content with my explanation that Maxwell Bodenheim is a great poet and that his birthday should be celebrated. The counterman is not so generous: ‘I ain’t doin’ this for love.’ We all eat. Ruth Bodenheim curses the cafeteria. Some junkies come and tell horrible tales of hospitals and arrests. One taps his eye with a knife to show us that it’s glass. Ruth Bodenheim smiles in an aristocratic manner: ‘I’d never have believed it wasn’t real,’ as if she were consoling the owner of false jewels.”
“Do we not idolize Maxwell Bodenheim although we are sometimes loath to talk to him and always ashamed of our condescension to him?” Malina wonders in another entry. “What we admire is Bodenheim’s refusal to resist. We fight all the time, resisting temptation. We admire those who don’t. Even if it’s suicidal.” And later: “Even self-contempt when fierce enough is magnificent. The virtue of the extreme is its extremity. Nature loves extremes as much as she loathes a vacuum.”
In 1953, Ruth took up with a violent, mentally unstable dishwasher named Harold Weinberg. One night in the winter of 1954 the three of them wound up in Weinberg’s room off the Bowery. Bodenheim roused himself from a drunken stupor to see Ruth and Weinberg having sex. He attacked Weinberg, who pulled out a .22 and shot him through the heart. Then Weinberg stabbed Ruth in the chest. The last photos of Bodenheim show him and Ruth lying dead in the squalid room.
“The hideous death of Bodenheim blankets the Village in a funereal spirit,” Malina wrote. “Who dares confess to the wrenching excitement of seeing a companion’s mauled corpse on the front page of every newspaper, and all of us knowing that the worst has again triumphed?”
Cops picked up Weinberg a few days later. At his trial he called his victims Commie rats and shouted that he “did the world a favor” by getting rid of them. He sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he was led out of the courtroom and off to Bellevue.
Today, Bodenheim is remembered more for this tabloid end than for any other achievement. Even his memoir was a dispiriting sham. My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, published posthumously in 1954, was ghostwritten by a hack who, like everyone else in the Village, had bought him drinks to listen to his drunken ramblings. It’s a loose collection of vignettes, anecdotes, and racy gossip that was already antique when the book appeared. His old friend Hecht, who sent a check for $50 to help pay for Bodenheim’s cheapjack funeral, based his 1958 Off-Broadway play Winkelberg on him. (“There was never a man as irritating as Winkelberg.”) It ran for a month at the Renata Theatre on Bleecker Street, then sank into oblivion along with much of Bodenheim’s own writing.
by John Strausbaugh