Birth of a Voice, Chapter 4: The best job in the city | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Birth of a Voice, Chapter 4: The best job in the city

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Jules Feiffer and Bill Manville not even didn’t get paid, they schlepped their weekly drawing and/or written contributions in by hand — their own hands and feet — every Sunday, to where I, all alone in the office, was preparing the next edition for the printer.

One such Sunday I looked up from proofreading all of next week’s ads ($4.50 an inch) to find “Saloon Society’s” Bill Manville, the hotshot $30,000-a-year uptown advertising executive — that would be $300,000 today, or maybe $3 million — looking down at me as, handing over his copy, he said, with wonder and astonishment: “Why, you have the best goddamn job in this whole f—— city!”

I thought I did — knew I did — too. So I was — we all except Susan and Florence were — at zero income, followed by a couple of years at bare-survival income. Until I gritted my teeth and squeezed out from Ed a bare-subsistence raise when, four years on or so, it became apparent that new wife Louise and I were soon going to become the parents of twins.

Forget all that. I wasn’t in it for that, for the money. None of us were. Not in the beginning. We were out to change the shape and scope of journalism — in my own case, to restore the id, the ego, the personal statement, the vocally identifiable point of view — oh hell, the soul — of journalism in general and theatrical / cinematic / literary / artistic criticism in particular… .

Off Broadway was bursting into bloom at that very instant in American culture. A perfect match. The Off Broadway theaters were almost all within walking distance of the VV’s dingy little floor-through, one flight up at 22 Greenwich Avenue, next to Sutter’s Bakery, across 10th Street from the Women’s House of Detention where Dorothy Day and her warrior Catholic Workers would stand on the sidewalk for many frozen days at a time, singing Christmas carols to the inmates calling down from behind iron bars above.

Let me tell you two things Susan Ryan and Florence Ettenberg did to keep The Voice alive and breathing in its first few months of existence:

When we had gone from a printer down on Warren Street to a printer in Washington, Pennsylvania, the other side of New Jersey, and had no other place to go after they each had thrown the job out as too difficult and finicky, Susan looked at me and said: “How about Clay Matthews?”— the agreeable Irishman out at Bay Shore, Long Island, whom we had talked with, had drinks with, and had forgotten months earlier. Clay now took us in, like orphans from the storm, and that’s where The VV was cheerfully printed from that week onward for a number of years.

P.S. Anybody who for some strange reason thumbs his way through ancient issues of The Voice, may be curious about a tiny item between hairline rules in the middle of a theater review by yours truly back in November of 1960. Here it is:

 

Final score, November 25

Kennedy 1, Tallmer 2

 

November 25, 1960. That was the day John F. Kennedy, Jr. was born. It was also the day that Abby and Matthew Tallmer — Louise’s and my twins — were born.

Years later, long after John-John had saluted that coffin and pierced the heart of the world, around the time he was fooling around in New York with actress Daryl Hannah, I was introduced to him at an Upper West Side restaurant for which Frances was doing publicity. I seized the moment to mention that tiny 1950 birthday joke to J.F.K. Jr. He looked at me as if I were in need of help.

Every newspaper — print newspaper — has what are called fillers: Short half-inch or 3/4-inch items to plug a space at the bottom of a column. (It was one such one-inch filler in The New York Times that in those same 1950s would draw the attention of a Chicago-born rebel named Barney Rosset to a strange new play in Paris called “Waiting for Godot” — a play that, as it happened, a young New Yorker named Howard Fertig would actually have seen, in London, before he showed up at The Village Voice one day to write about it.)

At The Dartmouth, the college daily — “oldest college newspaper in America” — on which I learned my trade and had edited before and after WW II, we had a filler that became a running gag: I guess it was originally plucked off some AP wire. Here it is:

 

“In 1938, the State of Wyoming produced one-third of a pound of dry edible beans for every man, woman, and child in the nation.”

 

That ran, unexplained, every now and then in The Dartmouth during my tenure and the tenure of those who proceeded and, I should guess, followed me. I ran it in The Village Voice from time to time, as a beloved joke, and once, some months after Rupert Murdoch took over the New York Post, I planted it there. And nearly got fired for my pains. (The firing would come after Murdoch broke the union — the New York Newspaper Guild and its contracts.)

I seem to have left Flo Ettenberg dangling on a limb.

But to get to that incident we have to go back to Norman Mailer, whom I met for the first time in my life — two weeks or so after that lunch at the Chinese joint on Eighth Street — at another schlocky Village restaurant, this one up some stairs on the corner of Sixth Avenue at Ninth Street. It was Dan Wolf’s idea, I guess, to bring Norman and me together because we were all going to work together.

At some point during the lunch, Norman took the opportunity to tell me what I’d already been told: That he was a silent partner who was only interested in this new (then nameless) newspaper as an investment — to make money. He might contribute an occasional — very occasional — short piece on something or other from time to time, if we asked him.

Here I have to borrow from myself — steal from myself — from what I wrote in The Villager (not The Voice) about Norman right after his death on November 10, 2007.

 

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport. 

 

And the greatest sport for the gods is when they can knock off two for the price of one. That happened this past week. On Sunday’s obit pages in The Times there is a photograph taken in 1969 by Fred McDarrah, the longtime Village Voice picture editor who died at 81 in his bed in Greenwich Village, sometime during this Monday / Tuesday birthday night of November 5 and 6, 2007. The photo is of Daniel Wolf, the first (and best) editor of The Village Voice, at his desk in Sheridan Square, listening with amusement to a dramatic arm-waving harangue by Voice founding partner and sometime columnist Norman Mailer, who is now himself dead, in Manhattan, at 84, of acute renal failure, early Saturday morning, November 10.

These two men, McDarrah and Mailer, together and separately, mostly separately, live on in the photo gallery — more properly, the timeless, spaceless, dimensionless, ceaseless, motion-picture screening room — in my own head. On the opposite page are some of the things I remember about Fred McDarrah. Here, what I remember first is the early morning in 1956 when, with one more issue of the struggling young Village Voice put to bed at the printers, I came into the office — there was no one else there — as the telephone was ringing.

I picked it up. A raging voice — Mailer’s voice — said: “Tallmer, you schmuck, why don’t you take your thumb out of your asshole? It’s nuance … nuance,’ not ‘nuisance!’ ”

I said: “Norman, don’t talk to me like that,” and hung up, still body-weary and half-asleep, not having the least idea what the hell he was talking about.

And thus began the great Village Voice battle of the typo, an internal war that almost strangled that infant newspaper in its cradle.

Brief explanation. Norman Mailer, the silent partner (“I’m only in this for the money”), waited about 15 minutes after Volume I, No. 1 of The Voice, to launch himself as a weekly columnist, beginning with a great quote from Andre Gide: “Please do not understand me too quickly.”

He wrote the columns — an exploration of hipness intermingled with sneering put-downs of Village intelligentsia — by hand, with pen or pencil, in a sort of looping grade-school script, and brought or sent them in, always too late, much beyond deadline, and always, always, far exceeding the allotted space.

Our two secretaries, Susan Ryan and Flo Ettenberg, would decipher them, type them, and off we’d all (less Norman) go at 6 in the morning, having had little or no sleep whatever the past 72 hours, all the way across New Jersey to the printers in Washington, Pennsylvania.

Somewhere along in there, the three words “nuances of youth” in Norman’s column that issue, had come out “nuisances of youth.” Nobody had caught it. We were lucky, in our blinding exhaustion, to have caught “t-h-e.” And when you come to think of it (as I did, much later), “nuances of youth” and “nuisances of youth” aren’t all that far apart and make almost equal sense.

But not to Norman. Dan Wolf was one of Norman’s oldest friends. Danʼs wife-to-be, Rhoda Lazar, was best friends in Brooklyn with Norman’s kid sister, and worshipped Norman himself.

To Norman Mailer, extreme Socialist, who prided himself on “trying to throw a ladder from Marx to Freud,” Dan now acidly declared: “Norman, you’re acting like the worst caricature of a capitalist in The Daily Worker.”

Long story short: Ed and Dan stood by me. Norman and a rich boy named Howard Bennett tried to grab the paper from them. The war raged, legally and otherwise, for I think almost a year, complicated by the fact that Norman’s father, I.B. Mailer, had been the Voice’s first bookkeeper. In the end, Ed and Dan held onto the paper by some magical numbers and the skin of their teeth.

Norman to me, at a party, sometime during all that, as his eyes (which never missed anything) took in my battered off-white saddle shoes: “When are you going to stop being a college boy?” (I was then 35 years old — and, until The Voice came along, going nowhere fast.)

When Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” arrived on these shores, and I was among its earliest and warmest admirers, Norman took pains to write a full-page put-down of the masterpiece he had never yet either seen or read, terming it a hymn to impotence. Later, after he had seen it, and his then wife, Adele Morales, said, as they were leaving the theater, “Baby, on this one you f—– up,” he took out and paid for a full page in The Voice — his own newspaper, so to speak — in tiny type so as to get it all in, an apologia of sorts.

Which is to his credit — and Adele’s.

Here’s another story to his credit, a counterbalance you might say:

In its earliest days and months, The Voice had huge distribution problems. Most of the distributors were thugs of one sort or another. Finally, Norman volunteered to do the distribution to newsstands by hand, himself, by car, taking along Flo Ettenberg for assistance.

One night during this process, Florence said to him with a laugh: “Someday I’m going to tell my grandchildren how I helped Norman Mailer hand-deliver The Village Voice to newsstands.” Norman with his own burst of laughter said: “Yes, and they’re going to ask you: ‘Was that before or after he wrote ‘The Naked and the Dead’?”

 

Let me interrupt this obit for an aside.

When we got down to organizing The Village Voice, putting together dummies and all that, thanks to the truly graceful minimal typography of Ed’s friend painter Nell Blaine, who taught me the poetic impact of italics married to boldface — all of which gracefulness was tossed into the garbage can by VV regimes of later years — during all that, we had more than one meeting just to decide on a name for the new newspaper.

Norman later said The Village Voice was his name. I thought — still think — it was mine. The truth probably is that we both hit on it at the same time. I do know that the long-running masthead tagline — “A weekly newspaper designed to be read” — was mine. Until it was killed by some later regime.

A further truth is that from the beginning The Village Voice looked to be four newspapers.