Village Rogue: The poetic life of Maxwell Bodenheim.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:25

    During the first third of the 20th century, Maxwell Bodenheim enjoyed a reputation as both a poet ranking with Ezra Pound and Edgar Lee Masters and an obnoxious caricature of the Great Lover. Born in Hattiesburg, MS, Bodenheim received no formal education. He falsified his age to enlist in the Army. There, a lieutenant ridiculed Max as a Jew. Private Bodenheim slugged him with a rifle, leading to six months in the guardhouse. This and other events led to an eventual dishonorable discharge.

    Max drifted to Chicago, where he met Ben Hecht. Then a daily newspaper reporter living the life he later distilled into The Front Page, Hecht published the Chicago Literary Times, "the bull-in-the-bookshop," a hair-raisingly radical review inspired by anti-establishment critics H.L. Mencken and James Gibbons Huneker. Bodenheim came to Greenwich Village as the CLT's eastern correspondent. In The Improper Bohemians, Allen Churchill ascribed the move to the contrast between morally conservative Chicago and Greenwich Village, which was, as Jacob Rachlis told Jeff Kisseloff for You Must Remember This, a pretty freewheeling place. Thus began, as Kisseloff wrote, Max's "equally long trails of empty bottles and broken hearts."

    Through the 20s, Bodenheim's novels, such as Georgia May, Replenishing Jessica, and Naked on Roller Skates, were controversial and often popular. He had published several collections of verse, and his poems frequently appeared in fashionable magazines. Given his present obscurity, Bodenheim's reviews are astonishing. For example, Burton Rascoe, the literary editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, then called him "?the Rimbaud of the arts, a remarkable and gifted poet."

    In 1926, Bodenheim and his publisher, Horace Liveright, were hauled into court by John S. Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Sumner, Anthony Comstock's successor as champion of bigoted morality, had suppressed James Joyce's Ulysses in 1920. Now he claimed Replenishing Jessica, whose heroine found "the simple feat of keeping her legs crossed?a structural impossibility," was obscene and indecent. This time Sumner's case was dismissed, although not before it had unwittingly burnished Bodenheim's reputation and made his novel a bestseller.

    This meant nothing to Bodenheim. Even as the royalties flowed in, Bodenheim attacked even favorable reviewers: "The poverty of (New York's) ash cans cannot match the pathetic debris in the heads of its literary critics." He enjoyed offensively declining invitations: Hecht recounts one such refusal, sent to a wealthy Chicago hostess: "Thank you for inviting me to dine at your house, but I prefer to dine in the Greek restaurant at Wabash Avenue and 12th St. where I will be limited to finding dead flies in my soup." Nearly everyone who ever did Bodenheim a favor made him a mortal enemy. For example, his friendship with Rascoe ended when, after learning the poet had not eaten for several days, the newspaperman gave him two dollars for lunch. The editor's failure to drop everything, take Max to lunch and pick up the tab was a grievous insult. Thereafter, Bodenheim denounced Rascoe as, among many other things, "?a literary prostitute [who, like] all the others in this gilded bordello of publishing parasites?kowtowed to nincompoops and well-known mediocrities."

    In the summer of 1928, during "sixty days of flaming notoriety," as Churchill wrote, Max Bodenheim won renown as the Great Lover. He had been notorious for cutting in on a dance floor and, after enfolding some unknown girl in "a lecherous grip, and insist that she go to bed with him, pronto." Bodenheim blamed women for his misconduct, writing: "Since the dubious dawn of human history, dancing has been one of the more adroit female ruses for the sexual stimulation of the male. A young woman who embraces a man while he is being assailed by primitive drum beats and bacchanalian horn tootings, may pretend she is interested only in the technique of dancing. I wonder if the same young woman, naked in bed with a man, would insist that she is only testing out the mattress."

    One suspects his genius for weaving romantic words was more effective, and though they sound silly now, they worked at the time: "Your face is an incense bowl from which a single name arises." However, like many accomplished seducers, Bodenheim didn't really like women: He merely enjoyed games of pursuit and abandonment, usually with a final savage twist of the knife.

    Gladys Loeb, a dark-eyed, dark-haired 18-year-old from the Bronx, had dallied with him in early 1928. By summer, Bodenheim was bored. He told Gladys that her love poems to him were "nauseous trash." After he left her studio, Gladys clutched a picture of Max and turned on the gas. The police broke down the door in time. Waving Bodenheim's photograph, Gladys told the reporters that the poet had driven her to suicide. The resulting coverage probably inspired Virginia Drew. The 22-year-old Westsider wrote a letter to Max asking to confer about her poems and a projected novel. He replied, they telephoned, she went to his apartment on MacDougal St., and he used her.

    Amidst all this, Bodenheim stayed briefly in a hotel at 119 W. 45th St.. The hotel staff later recalled Virginia Drew going up to Max's room one night at 8:00 and not coming down until 3:00 a.m.. Max later claimed she had arrived declaring her intention to kill herself, and he had spent the next seven hours dissuading her. Then he had walked her to the Times Square subway station and bade her good night.

    The hotel desk clerk said Virginia had left alone. However she left the hotel, she never went home. Her father and a brother tracked Bodenheim to the hotel to find the poet not in; when Max returned, the switchboard operator told him of their visit. Max checked out the next morning. Four days later, Virginia's body was found near the East River.

    The police interrogated the Drews, and Bodenheim's name was mentioned. Now even the New York Times made it a front-page story: BODENHEIM VANISHES AS GIRL TAKES LIFE. Gladys Loeb, too, had vanished. Her father somehow learned where she had gone and rushed to Provincetown, MA. He arrived outside Bodenheim's cottage with two reporters and a local constable. They knocked on the door. Bodenheim was alone. When Gladys arrived on the afternoon bus, she was intercepted by her father. Bodenheim returned to New York by train. Fearing the cops might be at Grand Central with an arrest warrant, Max changed trains at Stamford, CT, disembarked at the 125th St. station, and, true to form, went to the Rose Ballroom on 126th St., where he picked up a girl. Someone recognized him, and the cops picked him up. By then, however, the medical examiner had decided Virginia Drew was a suicide, and the poet was freed.

    Yet another young woman, Aimee Cortez, had a fling with Max. Aimee loved to declare at parties that she had the most beautiful body in New York, disrobe to prove it and swing into what Churchill described as "an erotic, uninhibited dance." Aimee, too, turned on the gas while holding Max's photograph. She was less lucky than Gladys. The landlady found her dead.

    Finally, Dorothy Dear, a teenager, wrote to Max. He invited her to MacDougal St. and, surprisingly, Max liked her. Dorothy was carrying his love letters in her purse in late August, 1928 when, at Times Square, her subway train derailed, its cars shattering against the tunnel walls. She died instantly, and Max's letters were found among the wreckage.

    His fame soared beyond notoriety. Every major American newspaper and the European press had featured his adventures. Mencken denounced Max as "a faker and a stupid clown." Hecht later wrote that the critic's attack had placed Bodenheim beyond the pale. Bodenheim replied in his fashion: "H.L. Mencken suffers from the hallucination that he is H.L. Mencken. There is no cure for a disease of that magnitude," adding, "Mr. Mencken, who is constantly informing his readers of his libations, is a total fraud. He drinks beer, a habit no more bacchanalian than taking enemas." Nonetheless, Bodenheim became "more ignored than any literary talent of his time."

    More importantly, Max stopped writing the novels that had proven so lucrative. As the Depression deepened, his royalty checks vanished. Emily Paley, whose mother owned Three Steps Down, a cafeteria on W. 8th St., told Kisseloff that her mother always fed Max Bodenheim although he had no money, saying, "Just keep a little book of what you owe us." Even in his good years, he arrived at parties with a burlap sack into which he loaded all the liquor bottles and canapes possible before being thrown into the street. He drank at Village bars such as the San Remo, swilling gin from a water glass. Once the bars closed, he would move to the Waldorf Cafeteria, on 6th Ave., which resembled "an enormous bathroom bathed in sickly yellow-green light," and sit for hours over a single drink or cup of coffee.

    In 1935, he began working for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal emergency employment agency. Bodenheim worked on projects such as the guidebooks New York Panorama and New York City Guide. After the WPA's arts projects were curtailed during WWII, Bodenheim became a homeless wino, scribbling doggerel on scraps of paper to sell for drinks. Some magazine editor occasionally bought a poem for $25 or so.

    By the early 50s, the "tall, cadaverous, unwashed" Bodenheim spent much of his time drinking straight grain alcohol. Hecht wrote that, after awakening at Bellevue from a two-day coma after being picked unconscious out of a Bleecker St. gutter, Bodenheim explained, "I must have had a drop too much." After one of Bodenheim's visits to Hecht's house in Nyack, Hecht realized Max had ransacked his closets, stealing socks, shorts, ties, shirts, pajamas and a pair of shoes. He responded by retaining Max for $35 a week to send him a poem or two pages of prose.

    His last affair began one rainy night in Washington Square when Bodenheim met Ruth Fagin. The 29-year-old later explained, "He had an umbrella, and I did not." They married, and she thereafter seldom left his side. They occasionally slept in rented rooms or flophouses, more often in subways or doorways or on park benches. Occasionally, Bodenheim beat her and, after knocking her down, kicked her in the head.

    In the fall of 1953, they met Harold Weinberg, a dishwasher with a history of psychosis and petty crime. The night of February 6, 1954 was bitterly cold. Weinberg had a room on lower Third Ave., just above the Bowery. The Bodenheims went there. Weinberg shared his whiskey, and then Weinberg began making love to Ruth. Bodenheim rose to his feet. Weinberg drew a pistol and shot the poet in the chest.