The Way Back: Sutton Place, 1970 

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The Way Back: Sutton Place, 1970 

Daniel Halpern
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In August 1970, I arrived in New York City with five dollars, a broken hand in an Italian cast, and a phone number, given to me by a friend in Tangier, of a woman who loved to cook Moroccan food. I called the number, and Paula Wolfert, who would become one of the most beloved cookbook writers in America, answered. I told her I’d just come from Tangier, where I’d been living and working on Antaeus, a new literary magazine, with Paul Bowles. She said to come meet her and maybe she could help me. She lived in a nice building on East Seventy-Second Street.

We talked about Tangerine friends and, of course, the local food there. She was working on her iconic Moroccan cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. She said I was welcome to stay in her apartment for the next month, as she would be vacationing out of town. I’m not sure what I would have done at that point, being penniless and knowing no one in the city.

When Paula returned in September, she introduced me to her friend Loretta Foye, a tough Irish computer expert, brought up in Red Hook, who had a huge heart and a large apartment in Chelsea with an extra bedroom. Her friends were bartenders, taxi drivers, cops, and chefs. She agreed to let me stay there rent-free if I cleaned the apartment once a week, fed her five cats (I wasn’t allergic yet), and shared a room with her pet green snake, which lived in a modest terrarium that seemed secure. I hate snakes, green or otherwise. I think it ate lettuce and insects, but I’m not sure. I was tempted to let it play with the cats. Anyway, it was a silent roommate.

Loretta had a boyfriend, a large Italian chef who worked at a decent restaurant on Lexington. She and I never had any kind of romantic relationship, but she was incredibly kind to me. She volunteered to have dinners for my new friends to help me get established in New York City. She fought against my natural reticence, and told me that if I was going to remain in New York and be any kind of success, I needed to find a way to be a little more demonstrative, by which she meant that my level of ambition was below her expectations. Actually, I had plenty of ambition; it just remained slightly indirect. Loretta was sweetly sentimental. Some nights I’d come home and she’d be sitting in her living room with a glass of Irish whiskey, neat, listening to Frank Sinatra and weeping gently. My Black Irish landlord.

Every Friday, Loretta held forth at a dinner at a bar-restaurant on Third Avenue called Caliban. Always a varied group. My favorite guest from Loretta’s weekly table was a woman named Gretchen, a professional contortionist. I’m not sure how the professional part worked; there might have been a circus involved in her past. We hung out for a few months.

Years later I tracked down Loretta, who was living in Brooklyn. This is where writing about the past gets interesting—what you remember, what another remembers, and what really happened, which doesn’t matter. I had in mind to ask her if I’d made up the green snake. It seemed so odd that she’d have had one, but as odd that I’d have made it up. I got my answer, and instead of revising and correcting what I wrote earlier, I’m leaving it in, in the spirit of Rashomon. And adding in Loretta’s memory, for two reasons. It’s definitely more accurate, and also it’s a better story.

Loretta said, “I never had a green snake! With five cats? And who would want to live with a snake? But there was a green snake who stayed with us for a while. It belonged to a woman you met at one of my dinners. She was a contortionist and you liked her. She was pretty and clearly agile. For some reason, I remember your conversation. You asked her what she did and she told you she was a contortionist. You asked—rudely, I thought—if she worked in a circus. ‘No,’ she said. And so you, again rudely, asked, ‘What does a contortionist do, then?’ She said, ‘Do you want to find out?’ And I remember exactly how you responded: ‘Yes, I do.’ But to answer your question about the green snake, it was the contortionist’s snake, and she took it everywhere with her, in some sort of reptile carrier.” A better story.

My goal was to continue Antaeus, and I needed to find funding. Every morning I walked from the apartment on Twenty-Second Street to my box at the General Post Office, across from Penn Station, stopping at a Puerto Rican bodega to get a twenty-five-cent cone of fried chicken gizzards with plenty of salt, for the walk. Getting mail was the most exciting part of the day. In fact, I might have started the magazine in order to get mail. I felt true excitement going through the letters—submissions to a magazine that had no funding for its second issue, which would include W. S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Lawrence Durrell, William S. Burroughs, Muriel Rukeyser, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams, all of whom I wrote to for material, using Bowles’s name. And always there was the growing volume of unsolicited manuscripts. The first issue had arrived in New York, if not exactly “hitting the stands.”

One day as I fanned the mail, a letter appeared with a green pickle in the top left corner. I did recognize the H. J. Heinz logo and immediately read the brief note. Drue Heinz wanted to subscribe to the magazine and enclosed an eight-dollar check, made out to Antaeus. I took the check, and a few others that had floated in, to a local Chemical Bank, and spoke with one of the younger officers. He explained that I needed to open an account to cash the check, but whatever was required, I didn’t have. Mr. Brady was a kind banker, but was unable to help me without some financial history, of which I had none. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, and realized that if I was found dead in the street, I would end up in a place I didn’t know about then, New York City’s potter’s field. Unidentified and unclaimed.

More checks started coming in, even though the magazine was being sold in only one bookstore, Andreas Brown’s Gotham Book Mart. He had agreed to store the nine-hundred-copy first edition, as a friend of Paul’s. I was able to get a handful of copies from time to time, but he would never give me a tally of the sales. Eventually it worked out. I opened up an account at the store and charged books several times a week that I never paid for. I believe I got the better end of the deal. I spent hours in that store, in the heart of the Diamond District, talking with the elegant and mysterious Miss Steloff, the original owner, who stayed mostly in the occult books section. She was the archetypal independent bookseller, who fought to stock the controversial books of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller.

I returned to Mr. Brady at Chemical Bank with a handful of eight-dollar subscription checks. “Look, Dan, you need some kind of financial paperwork—don’t you even have a savings account?” I did not. Mr. Brady seemed sad, but said there was nothing he could do. There were rules, even then.

More checks arrived, although I knew I was taking a chance if I cashed them when there was no guarantee of Antaeus 2, let alone Antaeus 3 or 4. But for some reason, I always had a powerful, if unfounded, belief that things would be OK.

I wrote to Mr. Heinz, before I learned the writer was Mrs. Heinz, and thanked her for the subscription but said I was not sure there would be another issue, since Paul Bowles had subsidized only the first issue. She wrote back, “Let’s meet and discuss. I’ve been looking for a literary magazine to back, and my friends have mentioned Antaeus, and that Paul Bowles is involved. The first issue is very good. I’m having a few people over on Saturday. Why don’t you come and we can discuss this further. 8 p.m., 452 East 52nd St.”

So I arrived in my Tangier uniform, jeans and a dark blue T-shirt. It was a formal type of building with various doormen, who looked askance at my outfit when I mentioned I was there for Mrs. Heinz’s party. They directed me to an attended elevator, where there was another man in uniform. Before we could start up, an elderly woman rushed into the elevator. Maybe she didn’t rush. She got off at her floor and we continued up. The elevator man gave me a questioning look. “What?” I asked him. He had a kindly face. “Do you know who that was?” No. I imagined he was checking out my jeans. “That was Greta Garbo.” I thought, I need to remember that.

I walked out of the elevator and a woman, again in uniform, looked at my uniform and asked if I was there for the party. I was. She said it was up the staircase and pointed, although there was only one staircase. I started up and immediately saw at the top Nelson Rockefeller talking with then mayor John Lindsay. In black tie. Clearly I was in the wrong place, and I turned to retreat, but a server was coming up behind me with a salver of drinks and I had no choice but to top the stairs. I slipped past the mayor and soon-to-be vice president into a very large, elaborately decorated loftlike room. It was a formal party, and given my state of dress, I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you find yourself onstage without clothes or notes.

As luck would have it, I ran into one person I knew, Renata Adler, with whom I’d had dinner a few times when I first arrived in the city. She was wearing black hot pants and had Warren Beatty in tow—she was dating him. We three penetrated the room. On a couch was Truman Capote, asleep on Lillian Hellman’s breast. Keith Richards was in a corner talking with someone who looked like Norman Mailer. Warren brought us over to see Dudley Moore, who was seeing, maybe secretly, Tuesday Weld, who had arrived and sent up word to Dudley that she was downstairs in a cab and needed him to come down and pay for it.

All in all, a breathtaking evening, an evening that might have been merely imagined. And, true to my dilemma with closure, I never did meet Drue Heinz that night.

She called me in the morning and asked if I’d been at the party. She must have seen me, but probably thought I was someone else. She asked me the status of Antaeus 2. It was at the printer, waiting for payment before going to press. Three thousand dollars. “My driver will bring over a check to cover the cost. Then you and I must have lunch tomorrow to sort out the details of my involvement. Let’s meet at the Isle of Capri on Third Avenue, 1 p.m.”

I brought the three-thousand-dollar check, along with the collection of eight-dollar subscription checks, back to Mr. Brady. He looked at me hard, clearly befuddled and suspicious. “Just a minute, Dan.” And he disappeared into one of the back offices. He returned with some papers. “I vouched for you. Don’t do anything strange.” And I had my first checking account, age twenty-five. And that was the end of the beginning.

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