One should never measure great institutions merely by how well they put on a party. When it comes to the American literary scene of the twentieth century, however, one could be forgiven for correlating success in the book trade and success by the open bar. In this, the Gotham Book Mart – the NYC bookstore typically considered the leading booster of literary modernism in the United States – is no exception. As one of the archivists tasked with organizing Penn’s collection of papers from the Book Mart, it was my pleasure to experience a vast treasure trove of documents related to such leading literary lights as James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Marianne Moore – and, perhaps more importantly, to get my hands on photographic documentation of just how rollicking these literary figures could be, given copious amounts of liquor and a suitable forum to impress the crowd. (In the beginning I was surprised at how much literary correspondence consists of simply setting the alcohol budgets for these sorts of events – but no longer.)
Perhaps I’m overstressing the social aspect a little, but as someone who grew up with the written works of these writers, it was difficult not to become slightly awed (and deeply delighted) to discover them here, thriving in what must have felt like their natural habitat. As an informal meeting place for so many avant garde writers in NYC, Gotham was clearly something of a second home for many of the authors celebrated in these party photographs – and it shows, not only in their clear joy at being there, but also how open they seem before the camera: how easily they move from mugging to peevishness to straight-out argument.
In this, they were led by Frances Steloff, founder of the Book Mart and party planner extraordinaire. Seen here at the Gotham’s famous 1939 “wake” for the titular Finnegan from Joyce’s famous late masterpiece, her face is a wonder of mock-seriousness, a glass of Guinness in her hand. Steloff was a famous micromanager (and a shrewd businesswoman), but in these photos – having planned an entire fake funeral, down to her widow’s veil and black basket – she looks loose and lively. The early history of these Book Mart parties is, at least in part, the story of Steloff showing people the precise way to have a good time.
When Steloff sold the business to Andreas Brown, he brought new interests to the Book Mart, like vintage Christmas ornaments and rare postcards – but he maintained the Gotham’s status as a purveyor of high-quality literary parties. Indeed, Steloff, who continued her relationships with the writers who made the Gotham their second home (and who continued to live in an apartment above the Book Mart) maintained her status as a centerpiece at these soirees. Here she is, beaming at a (admittedly radiant) Anais Nin during a celebration of Nin’s work.
Of course, the familiarity of the authors with the Book Mart’s environs also led to some amazingly candid shots of authors and owners, locked in revealing moments. Not sure what Brown and Nin were arguing about here, but Nin certainly looks as if she’s about to give him what for. Perhaps a dispute over money? Nin is reaching for her wallet, after all – perhaps she’s trying to pick up the tab for something, and Brown is demanding his rights as a host. Either way, Nin will have none of it.
Even the most exciting literary parties are prone to these occasional moments of discord – or, at the very least, occasional awkward conversations. This was especially the case as the Book Mart grew more established, and the older Modernist avant garde began to rub elbows with their 1960s successors. Certain forms of generational disconnect cannot be overcome, no matter what form of social lubrication one employs. Witness, for example, this tableau of Marianne Moore – near the end of her life, wearing her distinctive tri-corner hat – forced to fraternize with a band of hooligans who look as if they only recently graduated from the land of short pants. She appears unamused. (The man seated to her right wears a nametag that reads “Bob Snoddy”.)
Steloff, however, maintained her relationship with luminaries from the emerging counterculture, including Allen Ginsberg, who even served as a clerk at the Book Mart for a time. As a confirmed believer in spiritualism and Eastern philosophy, in many ways she fit in well with the emerging radical scene, as she does here, sitting behind Ginsberg as he pounds out some unidentified tune on a toy piano.
And in this picture, one can easily see how Steloff’s commitment to her cherished writers and their literary experiments served as a bridge between generations. One can also see just how shockingly wide ties were during the 1970’s, and how “power clashing” is not a new phenomenon.
But what’s most remarkable about surveying all these parties that took place at Gotham is the sense of ease in the faces of the writers who came there. The vagaries of fame fall hard, sometimes, and it’s clear that no matter how the world might have treated them, the unceasing faith that the Book Mart (and especially Steloff) placed in their work gave them a certain sense of comfort. Consider Tennessee Williams, for example; after a string of epoch-defining plays in the 40s and 50s, he endured a sudden reversal of critical and popular opinion in the 60s and 70s, as well as difficulty with depression and substance abuse. But in the pictures from a later-life celebration at the Book Mart, he seems at ease with himself in the company of Steloff – older, but by no means less energetic – who leans close to whisper little confidences in his ear.
The Gotham was a remarkable place, not only for the literature it sold but for the social space it provided for American writing. Paging through these pictures provides a candid, personal perspective on so many of the century’s most important writers: joyful, combative, deep in their cups and – perhaps most importantly – fully in their element.