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Authors: Joseph; Mitchell

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BOOK: Joe Gould's Secret
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I suddenly felt a surge of genuine respect for Gould. He had declined to stay in Norwood and live out his life as Pee Wee Gould, the town fool. If he had to play the fool, he would do it on a larger stage, before a friendlier audience. He had come to Greenwich Village and had found a mask for himself, and he had put it on and kept it on. The Eccentric Author of a Great, Mysterious, Unpublished Book—that was his mask. And, hiding behind it, he had created a character a good deal more complicated, it seemed to me, than most of the characters created by the novelists and playwrights of his time. I thought of the variety of ways he had seen himself through the years and of the variety of ways others had seen him. There was the way the principal of the school in Norwood had seen him—a disgusting little bastard. There was the way Ezra Pound had seen him—a native hickory. There was the way the know-it-all Village radical had seen him—a reactionary parasite. There were a great many of these aspects, and I began to go over them in my mind. He was the catarrhal child, he was the son who knows that he has disappointed his father, he was the runt, the shrimp, the peanut, the half-pint, the tadpole, he was Joe Gould the poet, he was Joe Gould the historian, he was Joe Gould the wild Chippewa Indian dancer, he was Joe Gould the greatest authority in the world on the language of the sea gull, he was the banished man, he was the perfect example of the solitary nocturnal wanderer, he was the little rat, he was the one and only member of the Joe Gould Party, he was the house bohemian of the Minetta Tavern, he was the Professor, he was the Sea Gull, he was Professor Sea Gull, he was the Mongoose, he was Professor Mongoose, he was the Bellevue Boy.

I was still adding to the list when the receptionist cracked my door open and put her head in. “Mr. Gould has just come back,” she said. “He was down at the lunch counter in the lobby all this time, having coffee.”

“Bring him right in,” I said. Then, for some reason—perhaps because of my new-found respect for Gould—I changed my mind. “No, don't,” I said. “I'll go out myself and bring him in.”

I stood up, and as I did so, a thought entered my mind that caused me to sit back down. If I asked Gould the questions I had planned to ask him, I suddenly realized, and if he came right out and admitted that the Oral History did not exist—that it was indeed a mare's-nest—I might be put in the position of having to do something about it. I might very well be forced to unmask him. I found this thought painful. The Oral History was his life preserver, his only way of keeping afloat, and I didn't want to see him drown. I didn't want to blow the whistle on him. I didn't want to tear up his meal ticket, so to speak, or break his rice bowl. I didn't want to have to take any kind of stand on the matter at all. He wasn't harming anybody. He lived off his friends, it was true, but only off crumbs from their tables. Given a long life, he might yet write the Oral History. It would be better for me to leave things the way they were—up in the air. This was probably cowardly, but if it was, so it was. I was thankful now that when I pounced on him he hadn't admitted anything—he hadn't said yea, he hadn't said nay, he had said merely that it wasn't a question of laziness. And there was no law that said I had to ask him questions and try to trip him up and pin him down and worm the pure truth out of him. Suppose he chose to deny everything, and suppose he turned on me and denounced me, leaving it up to me to make the next move. I might be pretty close to certain of this, that, and the other, but I might have a hell of a time proving it. While I was trying to make up my mind what to do, Gould walked in, not bothering to knock.

“Are you going to give me the contribution?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

I gave him the money he wanted. He didn't thank me but said what he usually said when someone gave him a contribution to the Joe Gould Fund—“This will come in handy.” Then he went over and sat in the swivel chair and put his portfolio on the floor at his feet. “You said you had some questions you wanted to ask me,” he said.

“I did have,” I said, “but I don't now. There were some things I thought I wanted to know, but I guess I really don't. Let's just forget it.”

A look of relief appeared on Gould's face. Then, to my surprise, seeming to sense that I didn't intend to go one bit further into the matter, he looked disappointed. I could see from his expression that he wanted very much to confide in me—it was that half-noble, half-fatuous expression that people put on when they have decided to bare their souls—and once again my attitude toward him changed. I became disgusted with him. I was doing my best to keep from unmasking him, and here he was doing his best to unmask himself. “Oh, for God's sake,” I felt like saying to him. “Don't lose your nerve now and start confessing and confiding. If you've pretended this long, the only decent thing you can do is to keep right on pretending as long as you live, no matter what happens.” Instead, I said, “Please forgive me, but you really must excuse me now. It's getting late and I have some things I have to do.”

This gave him the right to be huffy. “Oh,” he said, “I'm ready to go. I've been ready to go for what seems like hours, but you held me up. After all, I've got things to do myself.”

He picked up his portfolio and walked out without saying goodbye.

Fob quite a while after that, Gould distrusted me. He continued to come to see me, but nowhere near as often and never just to talk. He came only when he wanted a contribution to the Joe Gould Fund, and only, I suspect, when he was stony broke and couldn't run down any of his old reliables. He walked in and asked for what he wanted in as few words as possible and got it or some part of it and then stood around awkwardly for a few minutes and then hurried off. Although he continued to use
The New Yorker
as his mail address, he stopped asking for his letters the moment he came in, and, to preserve his dignity, waited for me to give them to him. Hoping to make things easier for him, I began forwarding letters to him at the Minetta. However, as an excuse to see how he was getting along, I would occasionally let a few accumulate and then go by the Minetta and give them to him. The first few times I did this, I behaved as if nothing had happened, and sat down at his table as I always had, no matter whether he was alone or others were there, but I soon found that if others were there my presence made him ill at ease. If someone asked him something about the Oral History, or even brought it into the conversation, he would glance at me uneasily and try to change the subject. I think he was afraid that at any moment I might stand up and announce that there was no such thing as the Oral History, that it was all imagination and lies. I made him self-conscious; I got in his way; I cramped his style. From then on, I never sat down with him unless he was alone. If others sat down, I would look at my watch, and pretend to be surprised at how late it was, and leave. Then, one evening, Gould suddenly became his old self again. I was sitting at his table when a couple of tourists, a man and his wife, came over from the bar and asked him a question about the Oral History. Without glancing at me and without any hesitation, he started describing the Oral History for them, and in no time at all was comparing himself to Gibbon—speaking of what he called “the fortunate immediacy” of his position in relation to New York City as contrasted with what he called “the unfortunate remoteness” of Gibbon's position in relation to the Roman Empire. I was greatly relieved to hear him talking like this, not only because I could see that he had got over his distrust of me but also because I could see that he had got his mask firmly back in place. Furthermore, I couldn't help admiring his spirit. He was like some down-on-his-luck but still buoyant old confidence man. He put his heart into his act. Right before my eyes, he changed from a bummy-looking little red-eyed wreck of a barfly into an illustrious historian. And the most he could hope to get out of the tourists was a few drinks and a dollar or two.

In the spring of the next year—the spring of 1944—a chance encounter that Gould had with an old acquaintance set some things in motion that made life easier for him for a while. Around eight o'clock one morning early in May, he left the Hotel Defender, at 300 Bowery, where he had spent the night, and started out on his daily round of soliciting contributions to the Joe Gould Fund. He was hungry, and he was suffering from a hangover, a bad case of conjunctivitis, and a bad cold. He intended to go first to the subway station at Sheridan Square and stand for an hour or so near the uptown entrance and waylay friends and acquaintances hurrying to work. On the way over, trying to pull himself together, he sat down on the steps of a tenement in one of the pushcart blocks on Bleecker Street. He threw his head back and started squirting some eye drops in his eyes, and at that moment a woman named Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman, who had come down to the pushcarts from her apartment on Union Square to buy some of the small, sweet Italian onions called
cipollini
, caught sight of him and impulsively went over and sat down beside him. Mrs. Berman was the wife of Levi Berman, the Yiddish poet, and she was a painter. She had come here from Russia when she was a girl, and while making a living sewing in sweatshops she had taught herself to paint. Although her paintings were awkward, they were imaginative and they had a hallucinatory quality, and they had been admired and highly praised by a number of people in the art world. She was a gentle, self-effacing woman, and somewhat other-worldly, and she was maternal but childless. She had often run into Gould at parties in the Village in the late twenties and early thirties and had had several long talks with him, but she had not seen him for years, and she was shocked by the changes that had taken place in him. She asked him how he was getting along on the Oral History, and he groaned and shook his head and indicated that he didn't have the strength right then to talk about the Oral History. She asked him about his health, and he pulled up his pants legs and showed her some sores that had recently appeared on his legs. Mrs. Berman got a cab and took him to her apartment. She made some breakfast for him. She washed his feet and legs and put some medicine on his sores. She gave him some clean socks and a pair of her husband's old shoes. She gave him some money. Then, after he had gone, she sat down and made a list of all the people she knew who had known Gould in the period in which she had known him, including some who had moved to other parts of the country or to Europe, and she spent the rest of the day writing impassioned letters to them.

“Joe Gould is in bad shape,” she wrote in one of these letters. “He is using up time and energy he should be devoting to the Oral History running around all over town getting together enough dimes and quarters for the bare necessities, and it is killing him. I have always felt that the city's unconscious may be trying to speak to us through Joe Gould. And that the people who have gone underground in the city may be trying to speak to us through him. And that the city's living dead may be trying to speak to us through him. People who never belonged anyplace from the beginning. People sitting in those terrible dark barrooms. Poor old men and women sitting on park benches, hurt and bitter and crazy—the ones who never got their share, the ones who were always left out, the ones who were never asked. Sitting there and dreaming of killing everybody that passes by, even the little children. But there is a great danger that Joe Gould may never finish the Oral History and that those anonymous voices may never speak to us. Something must be done about him at once. If it isn't, some morning soon he and a part of us will be found dead on the Bowery.…”

Among the people Mrs. Berman wrote to were two old friends of hers who had once been married to each other and had been divorced—Erika Feist and John Rothschild. Miss Feist was a German-born woman who had come here in the early twenties and had become a painter. Rothschild was a New Englander who had roomed with Malcolm Cowley for a while at Harvard and had got acquainted with Gould at a party in the Village soon after coming to New York City to make a living, and had been contributing to the Joe Gould Fund ever since. He was the director of a travel agency called The Open Road, Inc. One night a week or so later, Mrs. Berman received a long-distance call from Miss Feist, who, after her divorce, had moved from a studio in the Village to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Miss Feist said that while she was married to Rothschild she had got to know and respect an old friend of his, a very reserved and very busy professional woman who was a member of a rich Middle Western family and had inherited a fortune and who sometimes anonymously helped needy artists and intellectuals, and that she had spoken to this woman about Gould. Independently of her, she said, Rothschild had also spoken to the woman about Gould. Miss Feist said that the woman had agreed to help Gould to the extent of sixty dollars a month. There were two conditions. First, Gould must never be told who the woman was or anything about her that might enable him to find out who she was. Second, some discreet and responsible person in New York City who knew Gould would have to receive the checks from the woman—they would come once a month—and disburse the money, passing it on to Gould in weekly installments and seeing to it that he spent it on room and board and not on liquor. It would have to be someone Gould respected and would heed. When Mrs. Berman heard this, she said, “Someone like Vivian Marquié,” and Miss Feist said, “Yes, exactly.” Mrs. Vivian Marquié was an old friend of Gould's and the proprietor of an art gallery on Fifty-seventh Street called the Marquié Gallery. As a young woman, she had been a social worker and had lived in the Village. She had met Gould at a party in 1925 or 1926 and had been helping him ever since. In recent years, she had been providing him with most of his clothes; she knew several men who were close to him in size, and she kept after them, and every now and then they gave her some of their old suits and shirts to give to him, He went to her gallery a couple of times a week for contributions to the Joe Gould Fund.

BOOK: Joe Gould's Secret
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