Bill Berkson's Memoirs


Avenue de la Bourdonnais

"We call it a one-and-a-half," said the bright old Russian lady, gesturing at the bed that just fit in the alcove of the one room apartment, the top of the duplex, the lower half of which she and her husband occupied on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. "You know"—and here she smiled at Maxine and me together, although we were not a couple in that way—"You put one leg over the other person." Maxine had found the place that summer while I was traveling in the south of France with a side trip to Venice. It was perfect, otherwise roomy, with a large desk by windows giving onto the broad avenue and an enormous bathroom featuring a tub and two big sinks. The previous tenants, I soon found out, had been Helmut Newton and his beautiful wife June (on whom, when they came to collect things left behind, I developed an instant crush). I stayed there for about eight months, from August 1963 into the following March. There were very few poems, if any. Frank O'Hara visited, as did my mother. In November John F. Kennedy was killed and the French press went straight to conspiracy theory. David Budd gave me a Nat King Cole LP called Love Is the Thing. I went out dancing a lot and lived much of the time with a Welsh-born, raven-haired fashion model named Morfa Mansi. But the best was that apartment. My Russian landlady was a painter whose husband served in the merchant marines and also in the French Resistance; his memoirs had just been published and included an account of how, during the 1940s war, she had crossed the channel from England to help rescue him from a German prison. Both of them were short. He was stocky and shuffled around in a tough-guy manner like Jean Gabin, un vrai mec. She was very thin and smoked Gauloises in a black vintage cigarette holder, periodically relighting to take a few short puffs until she got the cigarette down to a tiny nub. What her paintings looked like I never found out. In her youth she had known all the avant-garde artists of Moscow. "I went with Mayakovsky," she confided one afternoon. "He invited me. We were together all night in a private room. I knew it meant my family would be furious and they would punish me, but it was worth it."

Three Visions of Dame Kind

As the Cecil Taylor/ Steve Lacy album starts spinning, Lynn asks the title of the first cut. "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," I say; then sit down next to her on the settee. The thoughts in my head have turned to solid rock, through which another part of my mind is drilling, drilling. Eyes closed, teeth clenched; bits, flakes, chunks of "thought" fly off in all directions as the drill whirls deeper. After several minutes of this, snapping out of it, I look at Lynn beside me and tell her, "You are Sparkle Plenty."

Sitting with Lewis Warsh on Francisco Mesa in view of the Bolinas lagoon and Mount Tamalpais ridge. Across the estuary, the ridge jiggles wildly, enormous folds of flesh expand and contract—a sprawling Bacchus or old drunk satyr. The external world, so to speak, pulsating. Inside, at the exact center of my skull a tiny pea bursts open, flooding downward, warm wash, node of all Beauty, whereupon I am "reduced to tears."

A few years earlier, 1969, in the dark, lying on the floor of the Connecticut shoreline home of one of my Yale students, watching images of the history of Modern Art—Mondrian, Léger, Picasso, Gorky, Matisse, Miró et alia—a memory slide show projected from mind onto her living room wall. Afterward, the nice young girl and I go for a walk along the rocks under a bright, bright moon.

Truman Capote Ball; Woodstock

Truman Capote Ball; Woodstock

My Generation

I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote's Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. About the ball, which I attended as my mother's escort, I have little recollection. I had a basic black domino and my mother a slightly more elaborate white creation. A newspaper photograph shows us entering the ballroom right behind Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra. Otherwise, I recall watching Arthur Schlesinger on the dance floor with Lauren Bacall and thinking the timing for this whole event was way off. The upshot was, aside from Capote's hard work inviting every celebrity he could get his hands on, very little of any interest happened.

Woodstock was something else. I went because John Giorno called up and said there was a concert and would I like to ride there, to White Lake, with him in a friend's car. By the time we got there it was dark and Joan Baez ("Joanie Phony" Jim Carroll liked to call her) was warbling about Joe Hill from the bandstand to a huge crowd. En route, I had taken a healthy dose of "Sunshine" acid, the orange-barrel variety common at the end of the 60s. John and I soon drifted apart and didn't see each other again until the festival was over and together we found a ride back to New York. The rest of that first night is a blank. The next day was gorgeous, the hallucinogen still thrumming, people and music performing in kind. In between it had rained. Then the mud—I recall threading my way through bodies lying on the slope stretching up and away from the stage and picturing myself as Tolstoy's Pierre among the wounded at Borodino, curious, detached and not a little lost. Many years later, looking at a picture in The New York Times, I spot myself in a cross-section of the crowd: more solitary than the rest, eyes closed, head resting on one hand, listening hard, or so it seems, and smiling along with the music.

BILL BERKSON's most recent books include Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems; a collection of art writings, For the Ordinary Artist; Not an Exit, with drawings by Léonie Guyer; and another words-and-images collaboration, Repeat After Me, with watercolors by John Zurier. He is Professor Emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, a contributing editor (poetry) for, and a corresponding editor for Art in America. He is working on a collection of autobiographical writings entitled Since When: Memoirs in Pieces.

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