Underground Saints: Roger Richards and Gregory Corso
In New York, few rare-book dealers are more legendary than Roger Richards, and few stores as legendary as his Greenwich Books, which was just off the corner of 14th and 8th. It's been closed for a decade now, but people still talk about it.
"We had unbelievable stuff in that shop," Richards told me, when, with the help of Clayton Patterson, I was able to meet with him at the White Horse two weeks ago. "I had these incredible Veronica Lake photos that were poster-sized... A Charles Manson demo record... At the end, I had a crayon drawing that Jimi Hendrix had done of Otis Redding. The biggest painting that ee cummings ever did, this 6-foot-by-4 thing. Incredible Henry Miller stuff..."
Richards was a friend of Miller's and, in 1978, published one of the last things Miller ever wrote?a chapbook with a print run of 200.
"He did exactly what I didn't want him to do," Richards says of the venture. "He had just taken a terrific beating by Kate Millett and, I think, Mary McCarthy, and he was totally shocked. I mean, his sexual humor was like Catholic school, seventh or eighth grade?'I fucked her and she stayed fucked.' I mean who's ever stayed fucked? Anyway, he was in a state of shock, so I'd asked him to write 'The War Between the Sexes' but instead he wrote 'The Love Between the Sexes,' and it was so bland. I thought, should I rewrite it? But could you imagine rewriting Henry Miller? It was kind of disastrous."
Roger Richards is a small man in his mid-60s with a thin face, glasses, a salt-and-pepper mustache and an ever-present cigarette. He arrived in New York in the 50s, a naive kid just off the farm from New Hampshire, who went on to, among other things, become a regular at Andy Warhol's Factory, a pioneer in public access cable and a confidant to most of the Beats. He was also, for the last 15 years or so, Gregory Corso's caretaker and best friend, until Corso's death on Jan. 17. Sad thing is, you do some research into the histories that have been written about the Beats, and Richards' name is nowhere to be found. Talk to people who were there, though, and his name will inevitably arise.
"[Herbert] Huncke and Gregory and Carl Solomon?even Burroughs would come over occasionally," he said. "Allen [Ginsberg] would come over. So our store would attract all these college kids who just wanted to see these people. It was insane at the end. A ton of kids hanging out, Gregory and Huncke holding court, the place was always jammed. You couldn't sell anything, but it was fun."
Long before the store, though, and long before Richards became a contact point for so many, he was already running with some of contemporary culture's biggest names?if only by accident.
"The first guy I met in New York, incredibly enough," he told me, "was Hunter Thompson. We had answered the same ad for some kind of writing job. Neither one of us got it. He was so strange. I mean this guy was really fucking strange. I stayed a couple nights at his place on Waverly, then we both stayed at this place near Columbia University?it was full of Juilliard and Columbia students. And he would sneak out into the hall and go 'Eee! Aaah!' real loud, and he'd startle everybody. Then he'd go back in his room. There'd be broken glass all over his floor."
They lost touch after Thompson hit it big, but by then, Richards had found himself in the Factory scene.
"I was living...on 28th St., and saw these two guys who were really strange?they would dress in women's clothes and stuff. I'm a kid off the farm in New Hampshire, and this is really funny to me. They were getting evicted and I felt sorry for them, so I said, 'You can stay at my place if you don't mind sleeping on the floor.' Within a week, there were 30 fucking people living in my place! Half the Factory drug crowd was there."
Despite the fact that they stole his records, his books and his clothes, took lots of drugs and openly performed sexual acts in the middle of his floor, Richards says he viewed them all as a group of "underground saints."
"To me," he said, "they were like a delivery."
While working a bunch of odd jobs to cover the rent (including a two-year stint writing the ancient Greek etymologies for The American Heritage Dictionary), Richards became more deeply involved with the local drug scene. Amphetamines were the drug of choice at the Factory, he said, but after four or five days, they'd want some dope to come down. Richards, being the straightest-looking of the lot, was sent to cop.
"I'd never even heard of Essex St., Norfolk and Rivington?they were scary in those days. And since I looked like a college kid, they figured I wouldn't get popped?and if I got popped, who cared? Some stupid kid from New Hampshire. I don't want to say that they were cynical or anything, but I think I was pretty disposable."
Through it all, he became close with Warhol, whom he still calls "odd," but in an affectionate way. And he credits Warhol with aiding the later success of his bookstore, given that Andy would send rich people over on a regular basis. The 30-year friendship also gave him access to plenty of Warhol obscuranta.
"I had Andy's first book, where he signed it 'Andrew Morningstar.' I still have the only copy of the SCUM Manifesto that Andy ever signed. He jumped about three feet in the air and said, 'Oh, Roger, you have such nerve!' but he signed it. About 10 years later, I snuck another one in with a bunch of stuff, hoping he [wouldn't notice], but, would you believe he said, 'I told you I'd only sign one copy.' So that's gotta be absolutely unique."
In the 70s and 80s it was the Beats who started hanging around his store. And most of them went on to become guests on his mid-70s cable access show, Greenwich Books Presents (which was produced by Richards' partner at the bookstore?his wife of many years, Irvyne). The thing that surprised Richards was discovering that the Beats weren't the tight, chummy band of friends they were always presented as.
"They hardly knew each other," he told me. "You know who was the scene was Allen. Allen knew all of them, and promoted them as a group. I remember once I was going to Burroughs' place on Prince and the Bowery, and I ran into Carl Solomon. I said, 'Carl, hey, I'm going over to Bill's, c'mon with me'?and he said, 'Oh my God?I could never go over there without being invited.' This is Carl Solomon?the guy that Howl is dedicated to! Anyhow, I talk him into it, and a few blocks later we run into Lucien Carr, who's the guy that Kerouac helped roll the body into the East River. Lucien almost word for word says the same thing?'I wouldn't dream of going over there without being invited.'"
The fact that they weren't always hanging out together just makes sense, though, he said. "Are real artists ever clubby and cliquish? Not really. So the Beats themselves were a bunch of loners. Even Allen, for all his gregariousness?you don't write that much unless you spend a lot of time alone."
Near the end of his life, according to Richards, Ginsberg?who had singlehandedly created the movement?"started doing revisionist history. He was writing Peter Orlovsky out. He wanted to write the junkies out. He was really cleaning it up... Huncke became invisible. Allen was a generous guy, a great guy, but he was incredibly moralistic. He was basically just a nice Jewish boy at heart, who had a lot of prejudices about drugs.
"I remember one night holding his hand, listening to what a fraud he was, what a fake he was, why do people expect so much of him?and I'm saying, 'Allen, are you kidding? What do you have to prove?' The next night there was a party at St. Marks and I'm invisible again, because there are stars around. Alone with Allen, he was one person, and in a crowd, he was 'Allen Ginsberg.' Without him, though, Gregory would've just been a poet that no one ever heard of." (Interestingly enough, Corso's first book was published before Ginsberg's.)
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the character of Gregory Corso, who would become a central figure in Richards' life. "These are the two real Beats," Richards says of Corso and Huncke, so often considered "secondary" Beats. They were the street punks, the hustlers, the junkies the others tried to emulate. As it turns out, their paths had crossed long before "The Beat Movement" was invented.
"They had had some silly hassle where one beat the other for dope. I mean, this is 30 fucking years ago, and they hadn't spoken in all that time, so they didn't even know each other."
Huncke and Corso came to know each other again in Richards' store. They screamed and shouted at each other, he said, but eventually arrived at a mutual respect. But that wasn't until fairly recently. Before that, Corso was always on the move. San Francisco, New York, Italy, wherever. Always scrounging and crashing and writing his poems.
"Gregory was never anything but a poet... He totally invented himself as a poet. This is a guy who wrote poetry before he ever heard the word. Here's a guy who had six years of school and was on the streets. His childhood makes Dickens sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
Foster home after foster home, later jail after jail. At 17, Corso landed in prison for three years. While in there, one of the other inmates told him, "Don't serve time?let time serve you." So he began reading voraciously?encyclopedias, Victor Hugo and a lot of poetry.
"He wrote these poems before he even knew what they were. He just had this instinct. He discovered the New York Daily Mirror, where Nick Kenny had a column. He had this baneful, doggerel poetry in there?'roses are red/violets are blue' kind of stuff. And Gregory said, 'Oh wow, this is what I'm writing.' He could see that it was formatted and had a rhyme scheme."
Not long after he was released from prison, Corso returned to New York and started meeting some of the other characters he'd be associated with for the rest of his life.
"He met Ginsberg," Richards told me, "oddly enough, in a lesbian bar. He didn't even know it was a lesbian bar. Ginsberg, like a lot of fags?Herbert, too?they like the really straight-looking guys. And no one looked straighter than Gregory?this curly-haired Italian kid. So I guess Allen was trying to hit on him, and Gregory found out he was a poet. This was the first poet he'd met?he just discovered a few years earlier that he was a poet?so he was really fucking excited.
"He tells Allen that he's been looking out of his window and seeing this couple fucking, and wishing he could get in on the action. Incredibly enough, it was Allen. Allen was making it with some chick. Allen went through 10 or 12 years of 'Am I a guy? Am I a girl? What am I?' I think he probably forced himself to do those kinds of things."
The next few decades are very well documented?Corso traveled, and wrote and published and got into trouble. But come the mid-80s, he finally settled down for the first time, moving into the West Village apartment of Richards and his wife, who became the family he never had.
"Almost congenitally," Richards explained, "he couldn't trust people. You gotta realize that he was betrayed and abused as a little kid by the very people who you're totally dependent upon. I don't think you ever get over that. I think he trusted my wife more than anyone on this Earth. And I think he would've gotten rid of me, if he coulda done it in some nice way."
As the years passed, Richards says, Corso calmed down considerably, and became a bit more open. Living with a real family, he thinks, helped a lot.
"He became 100 times more accessible than he ever was before. So he actually did meet a lot of people... When he was first with us, if someone came to the house, bam, he'd be in his room. It was a wonderful side of Gregory that came out. I guess he was relatively happy and was in incredible health until he got sick."
Corso lived with Richards until the mid-90s, when the apartment next to theirs opened up, and he moved in.
"That was the first apartment he ever really had on his own, and the first checking account. He didn't really care about those things very much. Unfortunately, he got sick not long after that."
A few weeks before he died of prostate cancer, a 70-year-old Corso?knowing the end was near?moved to Minnesota, where Corso's daughter, a registered nurse, took care of him until the end.
"This guy, Bobby Yarra, from San Francisco?a longtime friend of Gregory's?" Richard said, "he's a lawyer and, like my daughter, he's really good at it. He's taken Gregory on tours and trips and all that stuff. He contacted some people in Italy, and Gregory's ashes?at least half of them, so far as I know?are going to be buried right next to Shelley, who was Gregory's favorite poet."
So now, alongside Shelley and Keats, the Testaccio Non-Catholic Cemetery will be Gregory Corso's final home.
"Gregory was a loving guy, for all his silly shit," Richards said. "He was a really tender guy. Always treated me like a kid... What's going to save Gregory is that his poetry is so good."
Richards reminisced a while longer about friends now gone. Then, as he gathered himself together to leave, he said, "Y'know, the world is a much poorer place now than it was 10 years ago."
A memorial service for Gregory Corso will be held Sun., March 11, 2-5 p.m., at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, 172 Norfolk St. (betw. Stanton & Houston Sts.). Call 529-7194 for information.
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