In Bohemia with Djuna Barnes

By LindaAnn Lo Schiavo

 

 “Bohemia is a place where everyone is as good as everyone else!”

 

In January 1971, when I was working a full-time job while attending college and trying to launch myself as a freelance writer, I had recently moved to 4 Milligan Place in Greenwich Village.

Our difficult Hungarian landlord Manny Duell [1911-1977] had purchased two adjacent run-down properties opposite the noisy Women’s House of Detention, Milligan and Patchin Place, around the time that Robert Moses was agitating for his Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMAX) plan. Anticipating bulldozers arriving on his doorstep for “slum clearance” and a quick pay-out, both Duell and Moses were disappointed when Jane Jacobs helped slay the LOMAX dragon in 1962.

Duell decided to let the property decay by a lack of maintenance. Daily gripe sessions at Patchin and Milligan only brought his tenants closer.

BOHEMIA_Patchin_Place_Djuna_Barnes_home (1)

The Village has always had its own version of Wikipedia. It’s called neighbors who know everything. Through one of these worthies, I discovered Djuna Barnes [1882-1982] had an apartment at 5 Patchin Place and I was determined to meet the author even though she was reputed to be a recluse.

Armed with good intentions, youthful enthusiasm, and a box of cookies from Bigelow’s Pharmacy, I knocked on her door. She was expecting the painters and opened right away to find a petite young female with a Joan Baez hairstyle.  “Did the landlord send you?” she asked.

Jointly allied against the landlord and his property manager, we had a cause in common. She was also impressed that I owned two copies of Nightwood, which had long been out of print, and she was gracious enough to autograph these. She had a lot of trouble getting my name right because she was going deaf.

The 89-year-old novelist was having breathing problems, thanks to the lead paint, and I suggested a walk outside. She demurred at first, then agreed because she remembered there was a prescription to be refilled at Rexall Drugs. Ms. Barnes was frail and not sorry to have a sturdy arm to lean on. And I was delighted to hear about her experiences with the suffragettes, with the Provincetown Players, and with her fellow expatriate writers in Paris during the 1920s. She was also excited that, after years of being out-of-print, her titles were then being reissued.

With the excuse of getting her away from toxic paint fumes and the mess the plasterers were making of her apartment, I enjoyed many walks with her. Sometimes Ms. Barnes would talk about a meeting she was having with her editors at the Cedar Tavern (82 University Place); at that time it was one of the few places to eat in the neighborhood. She had little to say about her former neighbor, the late poet E. E. Cummings [1894 – 1962], whom she referred to as “that old duck” with private amusement. Occasionally, she would refer to the notorious keeper of Bruno’s Garrett, Guido Bruno; he had published one of her controversial books in 1915. But her recollections usually wandered far afield as she would have a story about attending rehearsals of a Eugene O’Neill play or a dinner party with Hemingway. Her wicked sense of humor about her former colleagues was fabulous.

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Since we often stopped at the drugstore, we had to walk by the notorious Women’s House of Detention (10 Greenwich Avenue), which was across from Patchin Place. The inmates were given skeins of wool so they could knit or crochet.  Typically, there would be women at the windows yelling to a lover, relative or pimp on the pavement.  A stiff box of cigarettes, such as Marlboro, would be slowly lowered, Rapunzel like, thanks to the yarn.  The man would slip an item into the box and the female prisoner would carefully haul it up.

One day as we were looking up at the House of D., I asked her what she thought of the building and the street theatre it orchestrated. She said, “Well, Bohemia is a place where everyone is as good as everyone else!”

Aware that she had been a journalist and I was a tyro to the trade, I asked if she had advice. “Yes,” she said.  “Always write the truth.”

 

BOHO_LL_petting_Lam_Doy

Native New Yorker LindaAnn Lo Schiavo is completing her 2nd documentary film on Texas Guinan [1884-1933].  Recently, she starred in a documentary about Greenwich Village that will be screened in June 2017.

To revive her spirits, she puts pen to paper.

101 Fiction, Hawaii Review, Ink & Letters, Metamorphose, Measure, Mused, Peacock Journal, Windhover, and Nous are recent credits.

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On Twitter as @Mae_Westside

On Facebook as  Mary Louise Guinan  — – for obvious reasons

On other social sites sites I’m under my own name.

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2 thoughts on “In Bohemia with Djuna Barnes

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