DAWN POWELL AND GREENWICH VILLAGE
I wonder how many readers in the United Kingdom will have heard of Dawn Powell ? She was born in 1897 and died in 1965. In her lifetime she published fifteen novels, two dozen short stories, had three plays performed, and wrote articles for various publications such as The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. If Gore Vidal is to be believed, one of her plays was turned into a movie, and another staged by the Group Theatre in 1933. Among those who spoke highly of her work were Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, John Updike, John Dos Passos, and E.E. Cummings. A long-time resident of Greenwich Village, Powell attracted some notoriety for living in a ménage à trois with Joseph Gusha and Coburn Gilman. Wilson described her novels as “among the most amusing being written” and Vidal, commenting on a dismissive review of one of them by Diana Trilling, mockingly said: “Apparently to be serious a novel must be about very serious – even solemn - people rendered in a very solemn – even serious – manner”.
Powell did not only write about Greenwich Village and its characters, but the two novels I want to look at are more or less set in that environment and have some relationship to the bohemian idea. The Wicked Pavilion was published in 1954, and The Golden Spur in 1962. Both are what might be called “conventional” novels in terms of their structure and overall intention, i.e. to tell a story in a witty and entertaining manner while casting a perceptive eye on the sometimes wayward behaviour of the personalities involved.
Much of the action in The Wicked Pavilion takes place in the Café Julien which is based on the café at the Lafayette Hotel, “off Washington Square at University Place and Ninth Street”. At one point in the novel, Dalzell Sloane, an artist, reflects on the nature of cafés and why he goes to them: “One came here because one couldn’t decide where to dine, whom to telephone, what to do”. And there was a possibility of meeting other people: “Someone barely known might come into the café bringing marvellous strangers from Rome, London, Hollywood, anyplace at all, and one joined forces, went places after the café closed that one had never heard of before and never would again, talked strange talk, perhaps kissed strange lips to be forgotten next day”. Dalzell is clearly someone who has lost his bearings, especially since his friends had gone: “Marius dead, Ben lost for years”.
With Marius dead, dealers are desperate to locate any of his work, his sudden demise having pushed up prices and increased the demand for it. When Ben re-appears, he and Dalzell hunt for Marius, who they believe may still be alive, and discover a stack of his unfinished canvases at a house In a suburb of New York. Both of them are broke and can’t find buyers for their own work. They decide to finish the paintings, and paint a few more, and market them as by Marius, claiming that he left them to Ben. After all, they reason, Marius wouldn’t have minded, had he still been around: “he had to die to make a living, but the fact was he never even tried to get anywhere. He didn’t want to be anybody. All he wanted to do was paint what he liked when he liked, have the dames he liked, get as drunk as he liked”.
They find out that Marius really is alive and, in effect, hiding out at a lady friend’s farm. The story about his death arose from him being badly hurt in an accident in Mexico, and he realised that he was happy to be “dead”: “Creditors, fights, dames, then borrowing this guy’s car – that is, without his knowing it – Well, I had about every bone in my body broken when I wrecked it”. Ben and Dalzell try to encourage Marius to come back to New York to take advantage of his new-found fame. He refuses and tells them to carry on their work of forgery with his paintings. He doesn’t even want the money they offer him. But he asks them never to tell anyone that he didn’t actually die.
I’ve outlined just one story from the several that intertwine throughout The Wicked Pavilion, and there are others that are similarly entertaining. The café setting provides for people coming and going, and mixing. It also allows Dawn Powell to introduce characters who have a close resemblance to real people. A rich gallery-owner named Cynthia is more or less based on Peggy Guggenheim, well-known for supporting certain artists and also having affairs with them. A sequence entitled “We all go up to Cynthia’s house” brings in the inevitable party which often seems to be a hallmark of novels about bohemia (Dachine Rainer’s The Uncomfortable Inn, to take just one example), and which brings together many oddballs, including Hoff Bemans, “a middle-aged, beery fellow in black beret, black flannel shirt and plaid jacket”. He’s a survivor from the 1920s and with his companions talks with scorn of so-called bohemians who wallow in the “middle-class euphoria of neo-modern furnishings, TV rooms, Sunday roasts, blended Scotch, and Howdy Doody”.
The last few pages of The Wicked Pavilion describe how the Lafayette Hotel was demolished in 1957 (it had been closed since 1949, which suggests that the novel is set between 1945 – there is a reference to someone returning at the end of the war – and that date), and with it the premises that provided the inspiration for Dawn Powell’s Café Julien. The book has a nostalgic final paragraph: “The Café Julien was gone and a reign was over. Those who had been bound by it fell apart like straws when the baling cord is cut and remembered each other’s name and face as part of a dream that would never come back”.
Gore Vidal described The Golden Spur as Dawn Powell’s “last and perhaps most appealing novel”. In it, a young man, Jonathan Jaimison arrives in New York in the early-1950s. He’s looking for information about his mother who, in 1927, had spent some time in the city, and had returned pregnant to her home-town in Ohio. She married a local man who later left her and her son, and Jonathan grew up never knowing who his real father was. He has a notebook in which his mother had jotted down a few names of people she’d known in Greenwich Village. His intention is to trace them, if they’re still alive.
Along the way he encounters some of the residents of Greenwich Village, among them a couple of young women who invite him to stay with them. They’ve both been involved with a painter called Hugow, a bawdy Jackson Pollock-like figure, but he’s left his studio in their possession and gone to live with Cassie Bender, a rich gallery-owner and patron of the arts (another version of Peggy Guggenheim) who enjoys the company of artists in more ways than one.
Many of the people Jonathan meets drift in and out of the Golden Spur, a bar where artists in particular congregate to drink, argue, and sometimes fight. It’s based on the Cedar Tavern, in the 1950s a well-known gathering-place for the abstract-expressionists. A couple of other bars do get passing mentions. There’s the White Horse, where Dylan Thomas was said to have downed his final, fatal drinks. And the San Remo where the New York Beats hung out. You can get an idea of the period from the fact that when Jonathan enters the Golden Spur one of the first things he notices is a man reading Encounter. There may be a clue, too, to some of Powell’s own feelings about new trends in the arts when Jonathan asks the bartender if Hugow is any good as a painter, and the man cryptically replies, “He gets away with it”. Later in the book one of the old bohemians Jonathan has met refers to “West Coast bums” moving in, which may be a reference to the Beats and the mistaken notion that the movement started there.
Among the people from his mother’s past that Jonathan wants to meet is a lady called Claire Van Orphen, whose name is in his mother’s notebook. She had been a popular writer in the 1920s – garden and travel articles and love stories for family magazines - but has since fallen on hard times and struggles to survive. But the fact that Jonathan persuades her to meet him at the Golden Spur leads to her being introduced to Earl Turner who, twenty or so years ago, had edited a short-lived little magazine called The Sphere. He’s since scuffled to make a living from writing. When asked by a more-successful writer what he’s done recently, he replies: “Nothing new, now and then - a review – eight bucks for fifteen hundred words of new criticism in a little magazine, or forty for six hundred words of old criticism in the Sunday book sections. A pulp rewrite of a De Maupassant”.
Turner talk to Claire about her writing and explains to her that in the “old days the career girl who supported the family was the heroine, and the idle wife was the baddie……and now it’s the other way round. In the soap opera, the career girl is the baddie, the wife is the goodie because she’s better for business”. He helps her rewrite some of her old stories and she later tells him: “Well, you were right. CBS has bought the two you fixed, and Hollywood is interested”. She has a deal with him to share the money she makes on a fifty-fifty basis, and the fact of a relatively steady income for a time, at least, persuades Turner to abandon plans he was making to move to Mexico. Powell was writing in the early-1950s when TV and advertising were advocating the virtues of domesticity, bright furniture, washing machines, and stay-at-home mums.
There is also Alvin Hardshawe, a successful novelist with problems who Jonathan thinks might be his father, and Professor Kellsey, a hard-drinking academic who had met his mother and could be another candidate for the role. And George Terrence, a prominent and wealthy lawyer, is someone else who might fit the bill. Jonathan is beginning to realise that his mother had more adventures during her short stay in New York than she’d ever admitted to.
Jonathan suddenly comes into a large inheritance from a surprising source, and is soon being pursued by a number of people anxious to help him spend it. Cassie Bender, entices him into investing money in her venture, and he becomes Associate Director of the Bender Gallery. He seems set for success, but the role doesn’t suit him. They have an exhibition of Hugow’s paintings and the opening is attended by the kind of people Cassie knows and likes, the rich and influential.
Jonathan realises that he’s ill-suited to such a setting, and leaves the gallery: “He thought wistfully of the pack of gallery-flies prowling through the night, battering on doors to be let in, brawling and bruising down to the Golden Spur, and he thought those were the real backers of art, those were the providers, the blood donors, and Cassie’s salon of critics, guides, and millionaires were the freeloaders, freeloading on other people’s genius, other people’s broken hearts, and when it came to that, other people’s money”.
By chance he runs into Hugow and a young woman named Iris who Jonathan has taken a liking to. Hugow has left Cassie: “He wanted to throw up the whole scene, the fine yellow gin, the perfect studio Cassie had fixed for him, the successful authors and actors and art-lovers and Bennington girls – “the cream of the Cape”, as Cassie said – their Good Conversation; Christ, how sick you could get of Good conversation. “Good Talk”.There was no such thing as Good Talk. Talk was Talk and worse than marijuana for getting you high and nowhere…….he wanted “to get back to a slum full of overturned ashcans, Bowery bums sprawling over the doorstep……..he wanted to get back to a studio that had no comforts, just light and nobody in it”.
Jonathan gets in the car with them and though initially he doesn’t know where they are going, “He was very glad that Hugow had turned back downtown, perhaps to the Spur, where they could begin all over”.
I haven’t read everything that Dawn Powell wrote, so I can’t say whether or not Gore Vidal was right in calling The Golden Spur her “most appealing novel”. But it’s certainly one that I thought was funny, well-written, astute in its portrayal of different characters, and certainly appealing in the way that it deals with people who, for all their faults, have a certain kind of adherence to a way of life that isn’t likely to lead to always being comfortable, but has its compensations in terms of lively company and provocative experiences.
The Wicked Pavilion by Dawn Powell. Vintage Books, New York, 1990.
The Golden Spur by Dawn Powell. Virago Press, London, 1991.
Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell. Steerforth Press, South Royalton, 1999. Originally published in 1936 this novel, while not set in Greenwich Village, offers a satire of the New York literary scene.
Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960 by Ross Wetzsteon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002. Includes an informative chapter on Dawn Powell.