"Wanna go for a drink?" I asked Norman Mailer, standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, when I realized I'd fucked up. I'd been out all night at the Mudd Club with a skinny Jewish girl with large breasts, drinking, doing coke, and getting my dick sucked, when I suddenly remembered that I had a girlfriend...
"No," Norman huffed, pulling up the collar of his ski jacket. "Not now..."
I didn't want to show my disappointment, but I was so hungover that if I didn't get a drink or a valium soon, I was in for full-on delirium tremens. My nervous system was so shot even my synapses were hunchbacked. Norman was brooding about something, went to a pay phone to make a phone call, so I couldn't tell if he was annoyed at me for asking.
"Just one beer," I prayed, deluding myself again .
Norman got off the phone and came back over to where I was standing, ready to puke into a corner garbage can. He was wearing that impish grin of his that bathed you in all the warmth of his celebrity. "So Legs, how the hell are you?" "Bad," I answered, "really bad. I fucked up with Carol..."
Norman listened patiently and then said, "Well, it's like I wrote in The Naked and the Dead..."
Norman put his arm around me and walked me down 14th Street. I babbled how I'd been out all night with another woman and now thought it was all over between me and Carol. Norman listened patiently and then said, "Well, it's like I wrote in The Naked and the Dead..."
"I never read that one," I confessed sheepishly.
"You will, you will," Norman reassured me. "In it, there's two guys in a foxhole in the South Pacific, and Joe has just gotten a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He's pissing and moaning about it and the other guy says to him, "Come on Joe, in a month you'll be the King of the Manila whorehouses..."
"And Joe says, "Yeah, I know—but what about tonight?"
It was pretty funny, and I knew exactly how Joe felt. Only Norman had the power to drag me out of my alcoholic self-obsessions. Even better, he then said the magic words, "Let's get that drink..."
I was so happy I could've kissed him. We walked into a dark bar on the corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, taking refuge from the evil sunlight. I took a seat on a stool while Norman stood talking to me. I ordered a beer, Norman had a scotch. He was wearing his trademark brown Safari shirt and a ski jacket; I was in my standard black leather jacket, black jeans, pointy Beatle boots, and the sunglasses I had stolen from the girl from the Mudd Club. But I didn't need them. The bar was dark and seedy enough, just the way I liked it.
"When I put you in the play you're gonna be rich," Norman assured me as he sipped his drink and rubbed his belly. "You can get Carol back with all the money I'm gonna pay you—more money than you've ever seen..."
Norman was one of the most generous guys I'd ever met, but he was on some kick about producing a play based on his book Of Women and Their Elegance, his fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe. The play starred his daughter, Kate Mailer, who was just stunning as Marilyn Monroe. It was the best impersonation I'd ever seen—more like she was channeling Marilyn than imitating her. And Norman wanted me to play some sociopath who sweeps Marilyn off her feet and steals her away on his motorcycle—but I knew it would never happen.
Discussing the play was the official reason Norman let me hang out with him, but I think the real reason was because I made him laugh. Just this morning, when I saw him, I said, "Wow Norman, you've lost a lot of weight, you look great! Oh shit, you don't have cancer or anything, do ya?"
Norman thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard, and he kept repeating, "Oh shit, you don't have cancer or anything, do ya?" like it was a punch line. I finished the beer and ordered another one. Norman ordered another scotch and paid for the round. Like I said, he was generous. So generous, that I was feeling twinges of guilt about going to Provincetown last summer to fuck his ex-wife, Beverly Bentley—not that I did, but that had been my intention. I just hoped Norman never found out about it—and kept the beers coming...
See, before I hooked up with Carol, I had been living at the Boho Club (short for Bohemian Club), an old vaudeville rehearsal loft on 14th Street, with Tom Baker, an actor, writer, and all-around raconteur who was 20 years my senior. Tom was a handsome Irish guy with sharp cheekbones, a thick head of hair, and a hunky physique. And the ladies liked him, a lot.
Tom had had a long association with Norman, having performed in Mailer's theatrical production of The Deer Park, based on his book of the same name. I'd met Tom at one of Norman's parties and afterwards put him to shame at One-Uni, Mickey Ruskin's hipster bar at One University Place. A whole bunch of us were sitting in a booth and Tom was reading the Village Voice review about his 1970 movie Bongo Wolf's Revenge, a documentary about some Hollywood weirdo who thought he was a werewolf, which for some reason was written up by Jack Newfield over a decade later. I grabbed the review out of his hands and started reading it out loud, making up shit as I went along:
"Tom Baker, that notorious pedophile, debuted his kiddie-porn film; Blinky Wolf's A-hole, about a notorious squirrel who sodomizes baby chipmunks at church picnics... Baker said, 'This important interspecies fuck-fest is a cinematic achievement on a par with Citizen Kane and Viva Las Vegas...'"
I had everyone in hysterics, including Tom, who didn't mind being the target of my drunken spiel. A month later I was living with him at the Boho Club, sleeping on the stage, next to an old black-and-white TV that all the touts from the OTB across the street would gather round on Saturday afternoon, when they'd televise the horserace from Belmont. "Louie the Book" and "Anne of a Thousand Bags" would gather with the rest of the losers from OTB to watch the last double on our tiny TV—and I'd inevitably hear Tom shouting, "Anne, leave my Wingo tickets alone, get your own goddamn copy of the Post!"
The Boho Club was owned by Bob Brady, an acting teacher at NYU who looked exactly like Mark Twain—and I was never sure if he liked me or not. Tom was a great friend though; he would buy me my Valium on 14th Street every morning, well, afternoon actually, since I couldn't keep down my "beer for breakfast" that Tom always drank to ward off the shakes. Baker would also buy me a coffee yogurt to go along with my morning "V" and spoon-feed me while I waited for the Benzodiazepine kick in.
"Come on Legs, ya gotta eat," Tom would say. "Open up, here comes the airplane flying into the hanger, vvvrrrrroooom, hurry, it's coming in for a landing..."
"Tell me about the time you were busted with Jim Morrison for hijacking an airplane?" I pleaded, never tired of hearing the story.
It was true. Tom had been good friends with Jim Morrison of the Doors; he'd even fucked Pamela, Jim's soulmate, before he met the rock star. Jim forgave Baker, much to the displeasure of the rest of the band and management, who blamed a lot of Morrison's drunken antics on Tom. Apparently the two of them egged each other on, to the point of utter chaos and destruction.
The incident on the plane happened after Jim had been arrested at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami for allegedly exposing himself and was waiting to come to trial. Since he couldn't tour because of the arrest, Morrison decided to buy a bunch of Rolling Stones tickets and hand them out to the fans as they entered the Stones concert in Phoenix, Arizona. It was an innocent enough plan, but he took Tom with him to Phoenix. Of course they got drunk on the flight and caused such a scene that the FBI was there to arrest them for "interfering with a flight in progress," when they stumbled off the plane.
They never got to see the Stones.
Instead they went to jail, and later fucked the two stewardesses who testified against them during their "skyjacking" trial. That was my favorite part of the story, and by the time Tom got to telling it, the Valium was washing over my body, and I was back again, ready to face another night of endless possibilities.
It was Baker's idea to go to Provincetown; he had hooked up with Joseph Bonanno, the heir to the Bumble Bee tuna fortune and worked out some scam involving Norman Mailer, who kept a summer home at the end of Cape Cod. I wasn't really sure why we were going, but before we left, I needed two things: more Valium and a woman.
The woman was the easy part: Samantha, another skinny Jewish girl, agreed to go with me. But the Valium was another story. I bought my drugs in 14th Street's Union Square Park, which at that time was a decrepit stretch of badlands where Broadway crossed Fifth Avenue, usually empty except for the drug dealers lurking in the shadows. Unfortunately the cops occasionally swept through the park and rounded up all the amateur pharmacists, and for a day or two afterwards, it was harder to cop.
I was in the park for an hour or so, searching for a dealer; and when I finally found one, he didn't have the yellow five milligram tablets with the V in the middle—just the blue 10 milligram ones, that were a bit more dangerous to mix with alcohol. I bought twenty pills, all I could afford, and then the four of us, Tom, Joseph, Samantha, and I drove to P-town.
I was reading A. E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway on the drive to Cape Cod; I was deeply involved in Hemingway obsession that many young male writers of a certain age indulge in. As was my habit, instead of reading books by Hemingway, I was reading all the books about Hemingway, since I always preferred nonfiction to fiction. Still, Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, A Moveable Feast , and To Have and Have Not, were what originally hooked me. Hemingway wrote about beauty in such a profoundly simple way—you never felt like you were reading a Hallmark greeting card or anything like that. Ernie let you experience the beauty of simplicity.
"Hey, there's a picture in here of Beverly Bentley with Hemingway," I said, finally pulling myself out of the book as the car crossed the border of Connecticut into Massachusetts.
"Wasn't she married to Norman?"
"Yeah, and apparently she's gonna turn up in his next novel," Tom cracked from behind the wheel. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and writers, the real scoop on the artists who shaped our culture.
"I don't like novels," I mumbled. "Fiction blows..."
To me, modern fiction never held any weight, because the writer was basically lying. I felt, that with very few exceptions, there weren't any new Charles Dickenses or Joseph Conrads writing today. Besides, they wrote nonfiction disguised as fiction.
"Legs, you wanker," Tom sneered, starting a tirade on my literary education, before I quickly stopped him.
"Just shut up and tell me about Beverly..."
"In the new book she's a brunette," Tom explained, "and this guy says, 'I thought you were a blonde?' And she says, 'My pussy hair was bright gold in high school, until I went out and scorched it with the football team.' Ha, ha, ha!"
Samantha and Joseph were laughing, but I was too preoccupied with the picture of Beverly partying with Hemingway to join them. The realization that there was a living human being who was a direct link to Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer enthralled me. I'm sure Norman was well aware of the Hemingway connection when he hooked up with Beverly, and it made me wonder that if I could capture and possess her— have her—I might be the next big thing, too?
Of course, it was a ludicrous notion, since I was barely a writer and not exactly the macho type, but it became my mission on this trip to possess Beverly. Since I always opted for the easy way out, so did my fantasies, and what could be a faster way to becoming a famous writer than by fucking my way to the top? It worked for me, and it was an idea that lodged inside my brain as we crossed over the Sagamore Bridge onto Cape Cod. Twenty milligrams of Valium and a six-pack of Bud helped keep it there.
"If only I could fuck her..."
Beverley Bentley met Norman Mailer at P. J. Clarke's in 1963, and she became his fourth wife later that year. The problem with Beverly was alcoholism and a failed acting career, and Norman helped her out in both departments—they drank together, and he featured her in his plays that never made any money. Beverly was the only wife, out of the six he married, that Norman wouldn't talk to after they broke up. Theirs was a nasty run that wasn't truly over until 1980, when their divorce went through. She was being championed in People magazine as the woman who fought back against Norman. I didn't know anything about all that at the time; I only knew I wanted to fuck her.
As soon as we were settled in a hotel, we left Samantha and Joseph behind, while me and Tom visited Beverly at Norman's first Provincetown house on the far side of Commercial Street. Beverly was in her 40s and even more voluptuous in person than in People. She had the cocky swagger of a woman who held that "her cunt was her chariot," as Norman once described her—something that I was dying to find out if true. Luckily, before long we were all drunk and the talk turned to skinny-dipping.
The water was still and dark, except for gentle swells that rippled across the surface of the water and surged onto the beach. The waves broke with the constant shushing of a running faucet, lending a calming, white-noise echo to the Provincetown Bay. Even though the moon was full, shadows covered our bare bodies as we all sloshed into the water and started to swim.
I had a bottle of wine and corkscrew in one hand, and breast-stroked with the other, behind Beverly and Baker, trying to keep up. They'd just reached the floating dock when the bottle slipped out of my hand and sank to the bottom. It was about eight or nine feet deep, so I thought it would be no problem to dive in and retrieve it. Five tries later, I still came up empty-handed and I looked over at the dock to see Baker climb on top of Beverly and start to penetrate her desperately.
"HEY, I DROPPED THE BOTTLE!" I called from the water, but there was no answer. I tread water, watching the two bodies writhe on the dock, under the full moon. I finally swam to shore, cursing Baker the whole way. I should have been cursing myself, as I already had one girl and wanted another—the story of my life. I was too greedy for that first rush of a new woman opening herself to me—representing all those delicious possibilities—so much so that some might say I suffered from pussy envy.
I don't remember the drive back to New York City, only that Samantha was crying a lot, so I was pissed and wanted to go on to the next woman before her tears dried. I hated when girls cried, though I never changed the things in myself that made them cry in the first place. It would mean a fundamental change in my entire being, so why bother?
When we returned to the Boho Club, we went to see Chet Baker, the famous junkie jazz singer and musician; we got drunk and melancholic and went back to the Boho Club, arm in arm, singing "My Buddy." A few nights later, Baker told me that the Boho Club was having a special guest that night and that I should be on my best behavior. Tom was uptight and nervous, an unusual condition for him, so I couldn't imagine who our special visitor could be...
Finally our guest appeared, but Tom took him first into the seedy kitchen off the hallway, and didn't come back for a long time. I was getting impatient, wondering what the hell was going on, when Tom emerged from the kitchen and said, "So, Legs, you wanna meet Chet Baker?"
Thrilled, I followed him into the kitchen—where Chet had his jeans and underwear bunched down around his knees, one hand cupped and lifting his scrotum, while the other held a syringe, as he looked for a healthy vein on his uppermost thighs.
"Ohhh Chet man, what are you doing?" Tom scolded him, "Come on man, this ain't cool!"
Chet looked up for a second, then quickly went back searching for a vein. Tom motioned for me to leave the kitchen, and I retired to the stage, where I watched bad TV, waiting for the all-clear signal that never came. Instead I heard the door slam shut; Tom locked the four locks, and then came back to me, saying, "Fucking Chet, he really knows how to add sand to the sandwich, doesn't he?"
I never liked heroin. Or junkies. Tom knew that. In fact, the reason I had moved with him into the Boho Club was because I'd found a set of works in the linen closet of Lori's apartment. She was the girl I was living with on 72nd Street, right next to the Dakota. I knew it was over the minute I saw the needle, because there's no arguing with heroin. Since I knew I was in for some really bad times ahead with Lori, I decided to skip that portion of the program and get on with my life.
It seemed, though, as if heroin was always following right behind me.
So when Tom suggested we go visit "Joe the Junkie," his dealer on Clinton Street, after he received some birthday money from his parents, I said, "Fuck that shit, you don't need it, let's go out and get drunk instead..."
"You're no fun, Legs," Tom bitched, but he could tell I was serious, so we went to the Lion's Head, a writers' bar in the West Village that was decorated with the book jacket covers of its famous clientele. The Lion's Head was right next to the famous Stonewall Inn, where Gay Liberation erupted in 1969 when the police hassled a bunch of drag queens and they went ballistic and kicked the cops' asses. In that historic corner of the West Village, Tom and I toasted one another, congratulated ourselves for surviving this long, and poured out our literary hopes and dreams. I thought that was the end of the heroin discussion, but a day later, Bob Brady called me with the news.
"Legs, Tom's dead," Bob told me over the phone. "I came home and found him lying on the floor of the stage..."
My world crashed and burned. I cracked like an egg.
The night after I saw him, the Tom had gone to see "Joe the Junkie" on Clinton Street and shot up a speedball—a mixture of cocaine and heroin—which caused his heart to fail. Tom had such a big heart I thought it would never stop beating. He was sprawled out on the stage at the Boho Club where he collapsed—his body now cold and lifeless. I sat sobbing over him for five hours until the paramedics finally came to bag him up and take him away.
Tom's funeral service was held at One-Uni. I went with Carol and all the usual suspects were there: the girls Baker had affairs with towards the end; Mickey Ruskin, the owner of One-Uni; a sober Jim Fourrat, who went off on a tirade about how Tom had really died of drug overdose, not a heart attack as we had told his parents. I said something at the microphone, after which Mickey Ruskin told me that he'd always thought that I was nothing but a giant fuck-up, but that I was really good.
A month later we would have a repeat funeral performance when Mickey Ruskin died of his own heroin overdose.
Bob Brady gave me a black eye a few nights before or after Tom's funeral, when he said he overheard some gossip about me saying that he was responsible for killing Baker, but I forget the hows and whys.
I think he just wanted to hit me.
Life suddenly wasn't as much fun, and even worse was that Norman Mailer had summoned me to his home in Brooklyn Heights to get the facts on what had happened to Baker.
Tom had been writing a memoir of his life that was tentatively titled Oxymoron, before the term was in vogue, and I was reading it and giving him feedback as he was making the transition from actor to writer. Tom was a smart guy and adept writer, and I had high hopes for the book. I brought a copy of the manuscript when I went to see Norman, who seemed dispassionate about Baker's death, or even angry with Tom for killing himself with drugs. I couldn't figure out why Norman seemed so oddly removed. Then I panicked, and thought maybe he found out about Tom fucking Beverly?
I was glad that I didn't get together with Beverly after all, I don't think I could have suffered Norman's wrath. But I was the only one who had witnessed Tom and Beverly's tryst, and I had already forgotten it. No, it couldn't have been that, it had to be something else...
When I met with Norman I laid out the facts. I told him how I stopped Tom from going to see "Joe the Junkie" the night before his birthday, but wasn't with him the next night. I told Norman I wished I had been there—but he remained curiously indifferent. Annoyed even.
"Legs, you're not fooling around with that shit, are you?" Norman asked before I left.
"No, Norman, just beer," I answered, "I'm just your pedestrian Irish drunk..."
Norman stared at me hard, one of the most intense stares I'd ever seen; I don't think he believed me. No one ever believes me when I'm telling the truth.
I left Baker's manuscript with Norman and told him I thought it was good. Norman got the book back to me about a month later, without any comment.
It was a queer ending to Tom Baker's life, which led me to believe that Norman had indeed found out about Beverly and Baker's tryst. In hindsight, Norman's reaction to Tom's death seemed like pure jealousy, an emotion I thought he was far too superior to indulge in. I was young and naïve.
I guess some women have that hold on you, no matter how hard you try to forget them. I guess some women are so sexually adventurous and thrilling that you can never forget those choice snapshots of elegant, loving carnal abandon....
Some women you just can't forget. Ever.
As Norman Mailer wrote about Beverly, under the name of Cherry, in his novel The American Dream:
Her ass was indeed a prize—with my hands on her, life came back to me again across all the glaciers of my fatigue... not 30 seconds had gone by before I slipped quietly into her... I felt like I could go on forever... I was alive in some deep water below sex, some tunnel of the dream where effort is divorced at last from price. She was exquisite. She was exquisitely sensitive... I had never moved so well. It was impossible to make a mistake...
Impossible to make a mistake?
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk magazine, which is part of the reason you even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, PleaseKillMe.com. You should also follow him on Twitter.