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We Built This City

It’s hard to pick a favorite among the sparkling profiles that appear in Julie Scelfo’s recently published anthology, The Women Who Made New York. There are over one hundred of these subjects – I won’t refer to them as “town mothers” as that suggests they were simply an auxiliary to the “town fathers.” And they were so much more than that.

Scelfo’s volume includes the well-known – Shirley Chisolm, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amanda Burden, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mae West, Bella Abzug, Diana Vreeland among others who pored over blueprints, hoisted placards and trailed spangles. Then there are the quieter forces such as Mother Cabrini, Eliza Hamilton, and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who fought tirelessly to relieve the plight of  orphans, the elderly and the poor. One particular stand-out is Dr. Sara Josephine Baker who first made the connection between personal hygiene and the epidemics that ravaged New York each summer. Her sleuthing is credited with helping to isolate the Irish cook known as “Typhoid Mary.” According to Scelfo, a former correspondent for Newsweek, Baker chased the suspect through the streets, apprehended her and confined her to an ambulance where she sat on her until they reached the hospital.

One of the most enjoyable reads is Scelfo’s profile of A’Lelia Walker, an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s mother, Madam C.J. Walker, was the country’s first black, female millionaire, having developed and marketed nationally a line of African-American hair products. Scelfo writes;

With phenomenal sums of money at her disposal, [a] love of the arts, and experience traveling around the globe in the world’s most elite circles, the younger Walker hosted a series of parties at her posh townhouse on 136th Street…where champagne flowed, nightclub quartets crooned, and urbanites of all backgrounds rubbed elbows in close quarters.

The country’s first black heiress, who cut a striking nearly six-foot figure…brought together downtown poets, financiers, enabling blacks and whites for the first time to socialize on near-equal terms.

And they socialized up close… Langston Hughes recounted in his autobiography an occasion when a royal personage (‘A Scandinavian prince, I believe’) arrived and found no way to get through the crowds into the actual party so he sent a message to the hostess; demonstrating both her wit and stature, Walker sent a message that she couldn’t find a way out either, but she would gladly send refreshments to his car…

Scelfo’s profiles are interspersed with whimsical portraits by the illustrator and stylist Hallie Heald. Seal Press took a  great deal of care with the art direction and it makes for  a beautiful package. The Women Who Made New York is a perfect gift for the NewYorkophile on your holiday list.

Judith Malina, 1926-2015

Judith Malina died earlier this month at the age of 88. Her appearance seemed not changed much over the previous four decades. That gypsy black hair and seductive gaze? Still intact. But an accomplished actress can sustain an illusion forever.

Malina and her husband, the late Julian Beck, both scandalized and revolutionized New York theater of the Fifties and Sixties when they founded the Living Theatre, referred to more commonly as “The Living.” Their experimental off-off Broadway productions blasted through the proscenium and pulled – sometimes literally, pulled – audience members into the performance.

The Beck/Malinas were self-proclaimed anarchists and pacifists who used their art as a weapon against authoritarianism in any form. And they did it with such joyous abandon. As Bruce Weber wrote in the New York Times. “In the name of art, they ran afoul of authorities on three continents.”

Judith was notorious for performing nude. Yes, as recently as 2011. She was in her mid-eighties when she appeared in Maudie and Jane. Perhaps that exhibitionistic quirk overshadowed her more substantial credits. She not only acted, but wrote and directed. She and Julian produced works by Gertrude Stein William Carlos Williams and Bertolt Brecht.

It was a production in the late 50s that brought the pair into direct confrontation with the U.S. government. She and Julian mounted The Brig, a play by about the brutal life in a Marine prison. The theater was shut down by the IRS, possibly retribution for its radical politics. At least members of the Living thought so. During the resulting trial, Malina remained defiant telling the judge, “You can cut out my tongue, but you cannot stop me from saying that I am innocent. I will not grant you that privilege, sir.”

She and Beck were found guilty and sentenced to some jail time, which appears to have been was waived when they agreed to a period of self-exile in Europe.

I first met Malina in 2011. I’d read her two published diaries – The Diaries of Judith Malina: 1947-1957 and The Great Despair – this with an eye to excerpting them for a Modern Library anthology. Her entries were wonderful, on par with those of that Ur-diarest, Dawn Powell. Judith’s life and art — she rarely made a distinction between the two – were given to sometimes convulsive self-examination. On November 11, 1953, she wrote:

Put my right hand through a pane of glass in a fit of fury and emerge bloody but only scratched. I take satisfaction in such violence and no little pride in the ability to be so reckless and unthinking, though I think of myself as a cautious person.

She was probably pretty high.

A gentler side of her nature emerges in her personal relationships. She recalls reading her son Garrick a Babar book in which an elephant dies from eating a poison mushroom. Garrick asked her to tear out the page with the “bad picture,” and he begins to cry.

“Julian and I,” she writes, “are amazed that our child knows the meaning of death.”

Malina and Beck had a frankly open marriage and Judith’s sexual questing was a constant. At a “small party” in 1952 she flirts with the “unsettlingly handsome” Joseph Campbell who encourages her to “experiment with the darker arts.”

I would not mind bewitching him [she writes] … but, no, the resplendent (choreographer) Jean Erdman is wearing a red dress. And I am quite powerless, even in my black satin, especially in black satin…

Malina had consistently better luck at the bar, San Remo, a hang-out for Greenwich Village theatrical types, She and Julian were regulars. One night she spots James Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Agee more properly belonged at the competing watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, which catered to a compagnie of writers, among these Norman Mailer. But Agee found the morose atmosphere of the San Remo more to his liking. Malina determines on the spot that he will be her lover. Theirs was a bittersweet relationship where most of the power is on his side. She comes when he calls. It doesn’t work the other way. But in the end, Agee’s demons, alcohol among them, causes her to write him off as “too torn for me to lean on.”

As a diarist, Malina’s careful observation of detail was extraordinary. She could reconstruct a scene with the eye of a dramatist. For instance, On June 21, 1953 she writes:

The Rosenbergs in their coffins. Their faces pale, like the divine masks of the Noh…
The bridal white in which they are shrouded adds to the unexpected look of composure that seems to belie the turmoil and anger and agony which surrounds their deaths. I think my impression of them hallucinatory; because the newspaper photographs have been so pitifully crass, but I am told that all corpses have this peculiar glow.

The Living Theater never had a permanent home, but Malina seemed to thrive on vagrant uncertainty and improvisation. In January of l964 she wrote:

These are the best rehearsals. In our living room where the furniture is disarranged to approximate a stage. .Every night after rehearsals we plunder the ruins for floorboards, dodging the ubiquitous police.

No matter how strapped the theatre was for rent money, Malina always paid her actors. Sometimes it was just a pittance, but enough so that they would experience the respect due professionals. She was especially generous to the young.

I visited her once while she still occupied the Lower East Side apartment above her last, lost theatre. Her living room was a cozy den of Bohemian Victoriana, with actors and production techs bustling about. There was a rehearsal in progress on a floor below. (The play was Korach, an original work written by Judith concerning an anarchist who bucks Moses on the flight from Egypt.)

And I remember as we were concluding the work of choosing excerpts for our anthology, a young actor approached her, mortified, abject and apologetic for having missed a cue during the previous night’s rehearsal.

“But darling,” she exclaimed, “you were magnificent!”

That kid looked like he’d been kissed by God.

Judith Malina is survived by her children, daughter Isha and son Garrick, by two grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.