James Wolcott: 'Lucking Out' In 1970s New York

Nov 8, 2011
Originally published on November 8, 2011 4:04 pm

When critic James Wolcott was a college sophomore, he wrote an article about Norman Mailer for his student paper. After the article was published, Wolcott found Mailer's address in a copy of Who's Who and mailed him a copy. Mailer wrote back.

"[He said]: 'When you leave college, I'd be willing to write a letter for you to editor Dan Wolf at The Village Voice," recalls Wolcott.

Wolcott knew he couldn't wait the two years until graduation. He wrote back to Mailer.

"I said, 'Can you write it now?' " Wolcott tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And to Mailer's credit, he did it. And that's how everything got started."

Wolcott left Frostburg State College after his sophomore year and joined the staff of The Village Voice. It was the fall of 1972 and a time of great turmoil in New York City. Crime rates were soaring. The city was barely breaking even financially. X-rated movie theaters and prostitutes lined Times Square.

"How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell," writes Wolcott in his memoir Lucking Out. "I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was in my own present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance that seemed like normality."

On Tuesday's Fresh Air, Wolcott reflects on that first decade he spent in New York, navigating the city amid its culture and crime.

"[Things] were beyond what I would have expected," he recalls. "I knew about prostitutes from movies, but I didn't actually ever see them working the street. When you see a prostitute pulling a knife on another prostitute, that's something suburban Maryland didn't prepare me for."

In the early years, Wolcott remembers writing about all sorts of topics. He covered political primaries, as well as municipal meetings, the punk-rock scene and New York's comedy clubs.

"The great thing about The Village Voice was that they didn't pigeonhole you," he says. "They would let you write about theater, if there was something you wanted to write about — or if you wanted to write about a record. They didn't slot you."

Wolcott eventually became part of an influential circle of young critics led by the The New Yorker's Pauline Kael. She had reached out to Wolcott after reading a piece of his in the Voice and started inviting him to movie screenings.

"That's part of the lucking out that happened to me," he says. "It wouldn't happen now, and not only because Pauline Kael isn't around. The whole culture of journalism has changed. ... We would go to screenings and invite people from The New Yorker and then [go] to the Algonquin or [a café] and talk over the movie."

Wolcott also found himself dancing alongside punk rocker Patti Smith at CBGB's and watching pornography in darkened Times Square movie theaters.

"This was a time when New York Times editors would sneak off on their lunch hours and go see Deep Throat," says Wolcott. "When Deep Throat became a sensation, the kind of people who went to [the society hangout] Elaine's were going off there. ... You had to have an opinion about it."

Wolcott's opinion? "I was raised Catholic, so guilt is part of the package," he says. "It was my way of being bad, as it were, even though nobody was going to judge me. I was judging myself."

Unlike others in the porn theater, Wolcott says he never shouted at the screens. But he did follow the one cardinal rule of X-rated theaters, he says.

"Nobody ever came to the beginning of the movie and left at the end. Everybody arrived at different parts of the middle. Because no one was fooling themselves that they knew what the story was," he says. "So it was a transient experience."

James Wolcott has written for Esquire, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and The New York Review of Books. He is a longtime critic for Vanity Fair, where he writes about media and pop culture.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. James Wolcott says he was lucky to arrive in New York in 1972 as everything was about to go to hell. Life in that hell and all the unusual opportunities it afforded is the subject of his new memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." He describes arriving in New York with a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer, getting a job at The Village Voice, becoming a friend of Pauline Kael, from whom he learned a lot about writing criticism, writing about Patti Smith and the punk scene at CBGB's, and getting introduced to pornography. Wolcott became the TV critic for The Village Voice. He's been a columnist for Vanity Fair since 1997, where he writes about media, politics and popular culture.

Let's start with a reading from "Lucking Out" about the neighborhood Wolcott lived in when he moved to Manhattan.

JAMES WOLCOTT: The IRT stop closest to my 92nd Street apartment was a convenient four blocks north. But those four blocks often required nimble footwork and ninja awareness of impending action. So much of New York did. Most of the parks were safer walking around than through. I was warned about venturing into Riverside Park, where I got the impression dead bodies were always being discovered after having rolled downhill the night before. Entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes. And even sections of town that didn't resemble standing rubble had stretches that you avoided had you been properly briefed. Otherwise you'd be walking down some leafy block, moderately carefree, turn the wrong corner and find yourself staring down the barrel of a hostile street, forced to either retrace your steps or run for your freaky life like Cornell Wilde in "The Naked Prey."

It wasn't just the criminality that kept you radar alert, the muggings and subway car shakedowns; it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuate the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break. That strip of upper Broadway was the open air stage for acting out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully-loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms. Then, as now, the 96th Street crosstown nexus was a irredeemable eyesore that served as a magnet for unmanned shopping carts abandoned on their sides or commandeered as homeless moving vans.

It was at the newsstand on the southwest corner of 96th that I picked up the copy of the Daily News would be arresting headline "Ford to City, Drop Dead." And it was the perfect spot to receive notice of impending collapse.

GROSS: James Wolcott, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how did you feel about living in Manhattan after growing up in the suburbs and suddenly dealing with like danger and squalor, the kinds of things you really weren't used to? You can make that sort of thing seem very romantic in retrospect. In real time, in reality, it kind of isn't.

WOLCOTT: No, but it's one of those follies of youth where you don't really anticipate anything bad will happen to you personally, even though you know it can. But you think somehow you have this magic, you know, force field of protection that you're, you know, looking through it but you can't really be injured. So, so much of it I was sort of just taking in, but at the same time there were things that just completely threw me. I mean they were beyond what I would have expected. And I had been sort of fairly innocent growing up. I did not know about drag queens, for example. I knew about prostitutes from movies but I didn't actually ever see them, you know, working the street. You know, when you see a prostitute pull a knife on another prostitute, that's something that, you know, being in suburban Maryland didn't prepare me for.

GROSS: So let's talk about how you got to New York. You wanted to be a writer, you loved Norman Mailer.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Wrote an article for your school paper about Mailer being a guest on - was it Cavett's show?

WOLCOTT: Yes. He was on "The Dick Cavett Show."

GROSS: And Mailer actually - you sent the article to Mailer...

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: ...he read it and liked it. What made you think that this article was worthy of sending to Mailer? I made that really takes courage and confidence.

WOLCOTT: Well, I don't know if it's courage. There is a little confidence, but I think part of it is simply the blessing of not knowing any better. I didn't - I was so naive that I didn't know that this was kind of a nervy move. But also I didn't really anticipate any real reaction. I wasn't sure it would get to Mailer. You know, I took an address that I had gotten from the college library's Who's Who, and so I didn't know if I would actually hear back. And then when Mailer wrote back and said when you leave college, you know, I'd be willing to write a letter for you to Dan Wolf of The Village Voice, that's where the nerviness came in, because I knew I had to act then. If I waited - because by then I was in my sophomore year of college. If I had waited until graduation, it would be two years later, I probably would have lost my nerve by then, because by then I would have thought, oh, it's - time has passed and maybe he won't write the letter now and now what do I do? So the bold thing I did, and I'm not a person for bold moves, the bold thing I did was to write back to Mailer and say, could you write it now? And it is to Mailer's credit that he did it, you know, that he actually wrote it. And that's how everything got started.

GROSS: So what did The Village Voice mean to you when you first started working there?

WOLCOTT: I had been reading The Village Voice as a high school student, a college student. The Village Voice was incredibly important then. It was not only a countercultural paper, it was a political paper. It had a rough texture to it. It wasn't like the psychedelic papers that were also popular in the late '60s. It had real reporters. Also it had a lot of critics. The Village Voice had one of the great cultural sections and, you know, the coverage was amazing they did, of theater and dance and movies. I mean Andrew Sarris was their movie critic and Jill Johnston and Deborah Jowitt were their dance critics. So it was an incredibly exciting place. It was also a place that took on nobodies. So you didn't have to be a by-liner. You didn't have to be a name to make its pages. It wasn't about that.

GROSS: So you start out at The Village Voice basically doing, you know, administrative kind of work. You're working at the circulation desk. You're looking through the slush pile.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then you get a chance to start writing and you start writing more and more for the Voice. And you're in an atmosphere there where people - the other writers and the editors are not only honest with each other...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...about whether something was good or bad; I mean it can be like so honest it's almost like brutal in its honesty.

WOLCOTT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like it was as if people had no choice. Like they had to tell you the truth and they couldn't possibly sugarcoat it in any way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what was good and what was bad about that as a young writer?

WOLCOTT: What was good about it was it really toughen your hide. When you had people tell you, you don't know what you're talking about, you never should have done that piece, you know, you made a fool of yourself, you know, to your face, you either get really - you get your back up or you lash back or you think, okay, well, this is part of the hazing process, this is part of what's done. And I mean I remember someone coming up to me at the Christmas party and telling me I had just made a fool of myself in a piece I had turned in, that I was ridiculous, I didn't know anything about politics. This was a piece in which I had traveled with Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire and I said that I really thought he could be the Democratic nominee. But you know, that was not...

GROSS: Wow, that was stupid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: Yeah. That was really - that was really dumb. And, of course, I basked in, you know, when he won in primaries later on, I basked in that. But now, I'm overstating a little bit because there was also a lot of, you know, consideration and kindness, in the sense of that when you were edited by an editor, you sat down with them and they went over the manuscript with you sentence by sentence. I mean it was very hands-on editing. This is pre-computer, so it's not like I'll send you the piece in an attachment with my changes in the margin and you can okay them or not. It was like very much going over it. Like just pouring over like, you know, with, you know, a biblical manuscript or something. Not that it was on that level, but you know, each comma mattered, each phrase mattered, and writers don't get that. Now, on the one hand, you were knocked around a bit. On the other hand, you were nurtured.

GROSS: My guest is Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott. His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Wolcott, who writes about popular culture for Vanity Fair. He has a new memoir about the '70s called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York."

You became a critic and for years you wrote about television for The Village Voice, but you've also written a lot about books and movies and Broadway. I mean any popular culture that's interesting to you, you can write about. Did you aspire to be a critic? I mean you point out in your memoir that few children think, oh, some day, some day I'm going to be a critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what did you aspire to be and how did you become a critic?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think I just aspired to be a writer. But when I started out, being a critic was easier because those departments were open to you at The Village Voice. They accepted things, you know, unsolicited from staff members. Whereas, for example, one of the, things about being a reporter is unless you're going to play the voice of innocence, you really have to know something. And when I got to New York, I really didn't know very much. There was no way that I could be, say, a City Hall reporter or even trainee because I didn't know the basics of it. Then being a critic just sort of became the thing. I was always someone who was very critical. I was always someone who was analyzing things. And I think that that did appeal to me. Also I was someone who - I tended to stay more aloof. Even though Norman Mailer was my hero, I wasn't somebody who really felt comfortable throwing myself into the fray. You know, I wasn't somebody who walked into a room and looked around as if to say is there anybody here I need to punch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: You know, that was really not my style. You know, I didn't have that kind of, you know, belligerence, you know, that kind of duck waddle to do it. And so the great thing about the Voice was they didn't pigeonhole you. They would let you write about theater if you saw something you wanted to write about and no one else was doing it, or if you wanted to write about a record. They didn't slot you.

GROSS: You write a lot about Pauline Kael in your memoir. And she was, of course, perhaps the best and the most influential film critic ever. What did she represent to you as a reader?

WOLCOTT: As a reader there was such courage and energy in her voice. When you read her, you knew she wasn't worried about, oh, you know, I'm going against the consensus, I'll be out here on my lonesome. You know, she would make her stand and then, you know, through the magnetic force of her writing, her stand would become the thing that everyone else had to respond to. And you know, also I just love the voice in her writing. It was a very conversational voice but heightened. It didn't have slack to it.

GROSS: How did Pauline Kael first contact you?

WOLCOTT: I had done a piece for The Village Voice that she had liked. I'm not sure which piece it was. It may have been a piece on a comedy club called The Improv that was very popular at the time and may still be around, on a very dangerous part of Times Square. And I went and saw the comedians and I simply wrote about the culture of comedians. And she loved comics. She loved standup comics, she loved comics of all type, and she really enjoyed that piece. And I was in that little apartment on 92nd Street and I got a phone call and it was this voice saying, hi, it's Pauline Kael, you're a hard person to reach. And I, you know, and I'm like holding the phone like, whoa...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: As if she were, you know, in the room. Because again, the idea that a writer as well-known as Pauline Kael would take the time to call a complete unknown, which is what I was, I mean that's part of the lucking out, that that would happen to me. It wouldn't happen now and not only because, you know, Pauline Kael isn't around, but the whole culture of journalism has changed. So from that I was invited to a movie screening and eventually another screening and then I became part of the gang.

GROSS: Did reading Pauline Kael make you think that writing criticism could really be important, it could have an impact on readers, it could have an impact on the individual or the industry that you're writing about?

WOLCOTT: It definitely gave me the sense that you could matter in people's lives. One of the things I remember was that The New Yorker came out on Wednesday and people would, you know, make a point of being there to get The New Yorker first thing on Wednesday to read Pauline. It was that important to them. They wanted to know immediately. Also, because it was pre-Internet, no one knew what she was going to be writing about from issue to issue. It wasn't the sort of - the way it is now where everything is sort of teased to readers online and all that so you just never knew. You never knew what she was going to do. And I could see how it really - it changed the dialogue.

People reacted to the way – to what she wrote about.

GROSS: So what do you feel like you learned from reading her and from knowing her about honesty in criticism and what that means?

WOLCOTT: The thing I most learned from Pauline is that even before writing, you can't fake your reactions. You have to be true to what your response was. If your response was unsettled, you have to honor that and write from that viewpoint. If your response was ambivalent, you have to do that. You can't, in the act of writing, turn it into simply a position paper. You know, you have to acknowledge that it hit you on some personal level that has to be analyzed and brought out.

GROSS: Pauline Kael had a circle of young critics whose work she respected and who greatly admired her and were very influenced by her and learned from her. Did you consider yourself to be part of that circle?

WOLCOTT: Oh, I was definitely part of that circle. I mean, there were overlapping circles but I was definitely part of the circle. I would - you know, we would go to screenings. She would invite people from "The New Yorker" and then we would repair to the Algonquin or Cafe Un Deux Trois and talk over the movie.

GROSS: One of the articles you wrote is referred to in Brian Kellow's new biography of Pauline Kael and it's an article that you wrote in "Vanity Fair" shortly after you got there called "Waiting for Godard," and I'll quote Kellow here. It was a devastating piece about the Paulettes. And the Paulettes was the name given...

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the nickname given to the circle of critics who were close to her, the young critics who are close to them. So it was a devastating piece about the Paulettes, branding them as a band of hopeless imitators who had squandered their own talents by falling under Pauline's spell. Wolcott was reasonably careful not to place Pauline herself in his crosshairs, but he didn't really need to. The article heavily implied that she had encouraged sycophancy and slavish devotion.

Pauline was stunned that someone whose career she had worked so assiduously to advance could've written such a piece. And you acknowledge that it kind of ruined your relationship with her and...

WOLCOTT: Yeah. It - well, there were other things going on. And I mean I do regret the tone of it. I think in some ways Kellow overstates the matter, but I mean I don't think I was impaling people. I was talking more that so many of the people influenced by Pauline had never gotten beyond it and they were still using the same mannerisms, the same phrases, 20 years later.

I mean, I do regret, I think - I do think I was too rhetorically, you know, rolling down the track, and I...

GROSS: Does that mean mean?

WOLCOTT: And I phoned her before...

GROSS: What's that mean?

WOLCOTT: Well, I mean I think that I – I think I was like trying to make too, you know, trying - within the context of the piece I was trying to, like, you know, raise a little thunder. And you know, and I told Pauline, and I - I said this is really not about you, and – but I, you know, in retrospect that was very dumb of me to think that she wouldn't take it that way. I mean, of course she would take it that way.

And I tried to repair things later and it was too late. And it is something that I feel very bad about. I still feel bad about it.

GROSS: My guest is "Vanity Fair" columnist James Wolcott. His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Wolcott. He writes about popular culture for "Vanity Fair." His new memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," is about his life in the '70s when he moved to New York and started writing for The Village Voice. And note to parents: We're going to be talking a little bit about pornography. Not in a graphic way, but nevertheless if that's going to be a problem, you should know.

So okay. Moving on. One of the chapters in your memoir is about pornography and starting to get really deep into pornography.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And these are the pre-video days when you actually had to go to movie theaters. So...

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: Why did you want to include that in the book? My theory being that no one really wants to think of someone else reading or watching porn.

WOLCOTT: That is true, and I did wonder about it, but then I thought the fact is that porn was a huge cultural influence that came out of the '70s and Times Square, the scene in Times Square, the squalor of Times Square, people always think of the movie "Taxi Driver," that is an, you know, that is an integral part of the city in the '70s and the porn scene and pornography, it's had a huge influence.

You have to recall, this was a period in which New York Times editors would sneak off during their lunch hour to go see "Deep Throat." When "Deep Throat" became a sensation, the sort of people who went to Elaine's and, you know, worked for the slick magazines, they were going off there, you know, some of them hoping not to be spotted by other people they knew.

GROSS: But that film was a sensation and you had to have an opinion about it.

WOLCOTT: You had to have an opinion and usually the opinion was yuck, because it's like, you know, it was a truly horrible movie. You know, it's like – and you know, just terrible, awful, corny humor. But, you know, people felt like, oh, I feel this is important. And there were, you know, there were a lot of pieces at the time on – people thought that pornography was going to emerge as its own kind of art form, a kind of outlaw art form which needless to say did not happen.

But people felt like – and then you have to recall, too, there were great intellectual defenses of pornography. Not the Time Square type, but of literary pornography. You know, so people felt very like, oh, well, nothing – I'm, you know, nothing is really going to phase me. You know, I've read Susan Sontag about blah, blah, blah.

And then when they actually went and saw these things, it was like, aye-yay-yay...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: You know, which way to – you know, where can I find – you know, I don't know if Purell was invented back then, but now they'd be, like, compulsively washing their hands and washing their face afterwards.

GROSS: But what was it like? What was the experience like for you of being in a pretty squalid movie theater, you know, watching pornography in the '70s? And if you felt guilty, dirty, comfortable, uncomfortable, if you felt like a critic - like you were doing your job, in part, because pornography's part of the culture, if you were there just to be turned on...

WOLCOTT: Well, let me say as a prelude to all this...

GROSS: Yeah.

WOLCOTT: ...that I was raised Catholic.

GROSS: Okay.

WOLCOTT: So guilt is part of the package. You know, so you go in there and it was sort of my way of being bad, as it were, even though really no one was going to judge me. I was in a sense, you know, judging myself. The odd thing is a lot of the theaters were actually fairly well maintained. They were actually much better maintained than the double feature houses on 42nd Street that showed horror films and kung fu films.

Those places were like almost free-fire zones, I mean because people were just, you know, shouting at the screen. One thing about pornography is that there was very little talking back to the screen and what there was was often really hilarious. You know, it was by people who almost considered themselves connoisseurs of the genre. And also, another thing about the porn theaters was nobody actually ever came to the beginning of the movie and left at the end.

Everybody arrived at different parts in the middle because there was no - no one was fooling themselves, like, well, if I miss the first five minutes I won't know what the story is. You know, there was none of that. So it was a kind of transient experience.

GROSS: You have two quotes at the beginning of your memoir.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One is from the film "All About Eve" by the really – really nasty, corrupt critic Addison DeWitt, and the quote is: We come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. If we don't blow them, who else will? And then the other quote is from J.J. Hunsacker played by Burt Lancaster, in "Sweet Smell of Success," and he's this, like, really corrupt, like, mean gossip columnist. And that quote is: I love this dirty town.

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: So of all the quotes in the world, why did you choose those two?

WOLCOTT: I chose the first because New York City in the '70s truly was a dirty town. It was a dirty town in a dirty time and at the same time I did love it. I mean, as much as I recoiled from a lot of it, I did love it. I mean, there was a true excitement in the air and it was a great time for dance and movies.

And I now think that a certain type of grime and grit is what you need for the friction to make other things happen. The second one has to do with the fact that, you know, to be a writer – you know, there's so many writers who practice a kind of false modesty as if, like, they're just, you know, they've just sort of at their desk and they're just sending these little things out into the world and, you know, on little angel wings.

But the fact is people write for recognition. I mean, it's one of the main reasons people write. Not necessarily for power, but for recognition. People want to be known. And so you have to occasionally toot your own horn. And I also was sort of anticipating that people would say, well, who are you to write a memoir? I mean, you know, why do you think you should do it?

And in a sense, writing a memoir like this is, you know, tooting your horn. And, you know, you hope that you do it in a way that's entertaining. But I was sort of acknowledging that, you know, ego and the need for recognition are what drive us.

GROSS: Well, James Wolcott, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WOLCOTT: Well, thank you.

GROSS: James Wolcott is a columnist for "Vanity Fair." His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org or you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and join us on Facebook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.