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The column of lasting insignificance…
April 30, 2016 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Twenty:
Catastrophe & Recovery

Cruising and crashing
(continued from last week)
Influences on my life: Miller, Lessing,
Leary, Warhol, Bruce

Being told that “you'll never walk again” has come to be something of a cliché seeing, as in my own case, it often turns out not to be true. Maybe in these situations doctors use the formula to prepare their patients for the worst, so that any lesser result will seem like a miraculous recovery. At any rate, there I was helpless—broken arms, legs, ribs, hips—unable to move, or even read. What I could do was think, and if ever there was a time to try to figure out what my life was all about this was it.

The helpless state of physical incapacity is more than anything about the definition of “getting down to basics” and thus the first thing I started to ponder was who and what had influenced me to instill in me the beliefs and philosophy that had become my guidelines? Obviously I had been shaped to some extent by the ideas of people such as Tim Leary, Andy Warhol, Lenny Bruce, Henry Miller and even Doris Lessing through whose autobiographical novel, The Golden Notebook I had first come to realize the similarities of men and women. But after those first few names it got harder: Stan and Jan would be high on my list; my patient ex-wife Amber, obviously; Richard Condon, probably, and... and... I determined to try and extend the list as far as possible.

It surprised me to realize how much that relatively brief acquaintance with Condon had influenced my writing, especially the way it had made me appreciate just how much one could convey in a single sentence or two sentences without ever succumbing to tautology or ungrammatical structure.


The more I got into writing travel books with their chronic need for brevity to get all the facts in, the more valuable Condon’s kind of punctuated shorthand became. One successful example concerned Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue of which, I wrote, “is a mix of the irredeemably tacky and the incongruously intellectual. Oriented to youthful exuberance, the five blocks between here and Haste Street teem with life: blues music bars, a legendary hang-out café (the Mediterraneum), four first-rate bookshops (Cody’s, which stages regular poetry readings, is the biggest; incense and Schubert-filled Shambhala, the most esoteric; and inumerable sidewalk stalls selling tie-dye dresses, buttons (Question Reality and T-shirts (Subvert the Dominant Paradigm). Using the formula by which I came to measure the information quotient of my travel reporting, I would count (the words in italics) which I felt offered actual information, in this case 30 out of 70.

The task of deciding who has been an influence on you, especially suitable to the bedridden, is also very rewarding because it makes you realize that some people don't have to have spent much time in your life for their presence to have had a lasting effect. A casual remark made by some acquaintance during an elevator ride might stick in your mind, and somebody you might have run into a dozen times over the years without ever having had a long conversation (a familiar scenario around the Soho art scene) might always have been—in retrospect—a credible witness.

The next obvious line of thinking was what, if anything, did all these people have in common? And did that, in itself, offer a clue to one's own personality? The best I could come up with on this day was that at least the first few names on the list had been pushing the limits of what society would accept and although I was no adventurer myself perhaps my destiny was to be around and report the activities of these people who were walking on the edge. Then, exhausted with all this reasoning, I fell asleep.

Dear reader,

Although I have no evidence that anybody beyond one reader actually reads this column (he sends a weekly assurance), I'm making a wild guess that there are a few fans. At I am republishing what I consider the most interesting of the hundreds of columns I've run since 2006.

All the columns, which I have published for at least the last 10 years, have been free. You will see some of them again whether you pay or not. Why am I doing this? Because I haven't received a penny since my stroke two years ago, and frankly the $150,000 I've spent has cleaned me out. If you donate (pay whatever you like) consider it my birthday present (I'll be 90 on August 4, 2016)

Chapters from my autobiography, Manhattan Memories will continue to run here on


John Wilcock
Ojai, CA 93023

Long ago in my Voice days I had reviewed one of Henry Miller’s books in a Village Square column on April 6, 1961:

He is not a man who can be dismissed briefly and it is doubtful if anyone who has ever read any of his banned works (Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn, World of Sex, Nexus, Plexus, Black Spring) has not been affected dramatically one way or another. Better than anyone else alive he has been able to inject his writings with a sense of pure freedom—a freedom that is regarded by the prurient as sexual license.  Miller’s complete inability to compromise will not allow him to accept the hypocrisies that so often pass for censorship, i.e. Protection of the “innocent” (where are they?) in America.

His Air Conditioned Nightmare (New Directions, $3.50) written after a cross-country trek early in WWII was surely one of the earliest pointers to the way we are all heading:

“We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people”, he wrote. “We say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred... Actually we are a vulgar pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious cranks, agitators.  To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot, which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”

With all the checks, counterbalances, restrictions and diversions that society currently offers to distract us, it is difficult to appreciate how much the writings of one man can affect us but I have rarely met a fan of Miller who was not fanatical about him. His good friend and onetime backer Frances Steloff of New York’s Gotham Book Mart told me: “I have had people tell me that Henry Miller has changed the course of their lives”, and I do not find this hard to believe.

Back in 1939 it was Miss Steloff who advanced Miller the money to go to Greece from which emerged the Colossus of Maroussi, and it is her store that has remained one of the few advance outposts against the Philistines and the book burners. Another is the Henry Miller Literary Society whose secretary, Tom Moore has tried for years to persuade Miller to allow an American publisher to challenge the ban and who, at last, is within reach of that goal.

Miler writes occasionally to the society’s newsletter reporting on his whereabouts. He much prefers Europe to America; possibly because—like Lawrence—his affection for his home is obscured by the attitude towards his writing. Occasionally he finds it an obligation to defend himself as with his recent letter to Norway’s Supreme Court commenting on its decision to ban Sexus. Miller wrote:

“To put it as succinctly and simply as possible, here is my basic attitude towards life, my prayer in other words: ‘Let us stop thwarting one another, stop judging and condemning, stop slaughtering one another’. I do not implore you to withhold judgment of my work or me. Neither my work nor I is that important. What concerns me is the harm you are doing to yourselves, I mean by perpetuating this talk of guilt and punishment, of banning and proscribing, of white-washing and blackballing, of closing your eyes when convenient, of making scapegoats when there is no other way out. I ask you point blank: does the pursuance of your limited role enable you to get the most out of life? When you write me off the books, so to speak, will you find your food and wine more palatable, will you sleep better, will you be a better man, a better husband, a better father than before? These are the things that matter—what happens to you, not what you do to me”.

Some of Miller is available here in the U.S.. The rest must be brought in through an unsympathetic Customs at present, but the time is not far off when you will not have to go outside this country’s borders to obtain them. (The U.S. Supreme Court finally lifted censorship in 1964)



Issue #28 of the Ojai Orange included
a replica of a Little Blue Book retelling the E. Haldeman-Julius story.

One of my literary idols and mentors (although we never met) is the almost-forgotten freethinker and publisher E. Haldeman-Julius who died in 1951 after introducing more people to literature than anybody before him. As America’s first mass publisher he was the first to print cheap editions of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and scores of other authors, both famous and unknown. During his lifetime he put three hundred million 5c Little Blue Books into print although today it’s hard to find any of them.

He worked as a $15-a-week reporter for the New York Call before joining a former colleague in Girard, Kansas to edit—and eventually buy—the nationally-circulated Appeal to Reason, founded 20 years before by the leader of an utopian colony. Tom Paine, Eugene Debs, Stephen Crane had been earlier contributors as well as Upton Sinclair whose best-seller The Jungle (immigrant workers exploited by Chicago packing houses) the magazine had serialized.

At its peak the magazine was selling half a million copies, but J.Edgar Hoover’s Red Scare during which thousands of radical and left wingers were jailed or deported, killed off circulation and when Haldeman-Julius arrived the idle presses were the only asset. He had always loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol so he set them in 8pt type on newsprint in a 3 1/2 by 5-inch format with a blue cover. His first mailing—offering 50 titles for $5, to be mailed five at a time—brought in $25,000 from the Appeal’s mailing list and within a few years the delighted publisher had a thousand titles on his list and his presses were printing 10,000 copies an hour.

For a while, Girard, Kansas became the unlikely “literary capital of the United States” and its publisher listed in Who’s Who In America. (Today he’s not even among the 17,500 entries in Chambers Biographical Dictionary). The “Henry Ford of literature” was how the St. Louis Dispatch tagged him and Little Blue Books were the early reading of many later-to-be famous authors. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy began life as a Little Blue Book series. And Admiral Richard Byrd is said to have taken a complete set with him to the North Pole.

“Books were his life” said his widow Marcel, whose family fortune had financed the start-up. “He once said he had a soft spot for Louis XVI because when he spent 159 days in prison before his head was cut off, he read 159 books. (My husband) thought a house without books was like a room without windows”.

For complete list of Little Blue Books click here.

Although DORIS LESSING’s The Golden Notebook had been published in the early Sixties and had made an instant impression upon me, it wasn’t until 30 years later I realized how predictably I had reacted. 1993 was the year that the book was republished and its author said that—published three decades earlier, it had been considered “quite an advanced book”. But recently it had been given to 15-year-old girls in a North London school and they had taken it in their stride. The book was also being assigned in history and political classes at schools and universities.

Ms. Lessing said she was still receiving letters—from men and women alike—who claimed that it opened their eyes to the feelings and experiences of women. What had interested them equally, they wrote, was the politics or the ‘style’ of the main American character who now seemed to them to be quite ridiculously macho”.

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

She had met women she recalled, who had read the book and given it to their daughters (or mothers) but she had also met a grandmother who gave it to her son who passed it on to his daughter.

In this age of more-or-less equality, it’s hard to recall how incredibly chauvinistic men were in that long-gone era. In the early days of the underground press, the women were still making the coffee and running the errands although that was a situation that quickly changed after fierce internal debates that eventually resulted in more than one paper being taken over by its female staff.

When The Golden Notebook had been reprinted in 1971, Ms. Lessing was writing about Women’s Liberation.

“All kinds of people previously hostile or indifferent say: ‘I support their aims but I don’t like their shrill voices and their nasty, ill-mannered ways’

“This is an inevitable and easily recognizable stage in every revolutionary movement: reformers must expect to be disowned by those who are only too happy to enjoy what has been won for them…

“But this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print. Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise”

After several weeks, still unable to walk, I was transferred from the hospital in Athens to an orthopedic hospital north of London where a stream of visitors, including a longtime Other Scenes subscriber, the writer Murray Sayle, brought me masses of books which, for the first and probably last time in my life, I had ample time to read.  At the same time I became a fascinated observer of hospital ritual and the intricate manner in which it moved patients through the system, always pushing them to rehabilitate themselves faster than they believed possible.

My specialist, designated in that reverse snobbism characteristic of Harley Street, as Mr. (rather than Dr.) Trickey would turn up every Wednesday with an awed group of acolytes—themselves skilled medical professionals—and after a few brief words and an inspection of my latest charts and x-rays would say: “Get him up and moving”, or (two weeks later): “Get him out of that chair and onto crutches”. By this means, plus constant painful physiotherapy designed to bend legs that the post-operative casts had left rigid, I was eventually hobbling around on sticks.

My first task in the gym was to shuffle along on crutches between parallel, waist high bars. It’s harder than it sounds because my knees would bend only about 30% locked into an unnatural stiffness from ten weeks of immobility after the operations. Back at the ward would be an excellent lunch of steak and kidney pie which, like most British pub food (shepherds pie, sausage and mash, fish and chips, welsh rarebit) was a staple of the hospital menu.

My friend John Walker came visiting. He’d quit his job as the Trib’s London drama critic to become Arts Editor of the glossy newsweekly NOW! whose publisher Sir James Goldsmith had previously been known for little more than owning L’Express in Paris where he lived openly with a mistress despite having a London wife, everyone knew as ‘Bubbles’.

“It’s nice working for somebody with real money”, John said, recounting how NOW’s editor sought to do a picture story about the auction of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s jewels and was told that even to look at them before the auction required a deposit (returnable) of $12m. “When the editor told the publisher about this” John reported. “Sir James was totally unfazed. Okay then” he said, “put up the 12 million…”

Before leaving the hospital I watched with admiration the way the staff dealt with disruptive personalities. An obstreperous little man who’d previously chosen to keep people awake by banging his bedpan, shouting for attention, and being a general nuisance, took his obnoxious behavior a stage further by grabbing the nurse’s ass as she remade his bed. He’d been there a few days and managed to establish a certain amount of dominance over his closest neighbors acting, in fact, like a little dictator. But his latest performance sealed his fate. He was summarily transferred to another ward where he’d have to start all over to establish himself.

Back in the real world, I didn’t like my surroundings any better.

Today, provincial Britain is one of the most depressing places on earth”, wrote Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times. He cited “towns with their pedestrian precincts and endless parade or charity shops and estate agents”. He said that Councils seemed to have lost sight of the fact that towns were for shopping, chatting and being a pack animal. “And that's before we get to the people. Who are they, with their faces like pastry and their legs like sides of beef? In the Third World you will see hopelessness etched onto people's faces but in provincial Britain it's gormlessness.”

Columnist Craig Brown railed against arrogant pop stars persuading stores to open after hours so they won't have to mix with the common herd were described as arock-stocrats. “Who would have imagined”, he asked” that the class system would receive its greatest boost from the very same people that...seemed most likely to destroy it?

Stating that Britain had the worst railways in Europe, Spectator editor Boris Johnson grumped that most journeys could be made more reliably on horseback. And the weather wasn’t very good, either….

Nevertheless, stuck here for at least I while, I shouldered my video camera and set off to produce some new shows.


Chapter Twenty—Catastrophe & Recovery (continued)

Portmeirion & The Prisoner
Spiffs and sex in Jamaica


Manhattan Memories is available at

An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at


comments? send an email to John Wilcock

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John Wilcock: New York Years, Book One

A comic book history of the rise of the 1960s underground media.
by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!

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Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World

National Weed (1974, issue #3)

A Guide to Occult Britain

Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on

Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my books, and thank you. —JW

Now on Boing-Boing!

An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock, 
art by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
art by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.

(read more)

January 2, 2011

John WIlcock at home in Ojai
Photo Credit: Carmen Smyth/News Press

A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
Marilyn McMahon, Staff Writer
Santa Barbara News Press

During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.

Today, the 83-year-old writer, who has been described by others in his field as "a libertarian-anarchist" and "a talented Bohemian counter-culture journalist," lives a tranquil life in a rustic cottage he rents on the outskirts of Ojai.

(click here to access the Santa Barbara News Press online where the full text of the article is available by subscription)

January, 2011

The Return of the World's Worst Businessman

Sneak Peak “The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
Tyler Malone
PMc Magazine

John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
Margarita Korol

This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.

Said John Wilcock in explaining the book, “A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper.” Especially interesting is the timing of Warhol’s booming popularity as it comes half a century after pop rushed the 60s, a period similar to our own with fluxes in economic, political, and civil rights climates.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
RN—Sydney, Australia

Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,

indifferent to self promotion and the hoarding of gold, it is great to see John get a dash of recognition.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money Frugal Traveler

by Seth Kugel
John Wilcock at the New York Times

It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.

By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.

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available in print...

Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner
order from
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