August 6, 2016 by John Wilcock
My lengthy relationship (platonic) with Betty Pepper, which began in Greenwich Village, continued until she died a few years ago. In the mid-Sixties she left the city to live upstate in the woods around Pine Bush. Amber and I used to rent a place nearby for a week or two every year, helping to assemble the next year’s Witches Almanac. But when she and Martin, her husband, moved to Newport, R.I. most of our communication was by mail and telephone. Barely a week or two went by when we weren’t in touch. “I found the piece about Eleusis you had done which I’d like to use. I’ll send it off to you for additions or corrections” and “You definitely improved the intros and I agreed with the changes—one exception, I used ‘tender’ as a verb. But if you misunderstood so will others. Clarity above all” were typical of her annotations. “Please tell me your reactions to the new almanac. Any thoughts, ideas, improvements” Do say something!"
My job as co-editor for 30 years was also to produce at least one 1,000-word piece for every issue (Lafcadio Hearn, the Venus de Milo mystery, Sasquatch legends, Chichen Itza) often from some foreign land that I had visited in connection with my travel writing chores. I also produced, under my pseudonym Oliver Johnson, the book’s opening column Today & Tomorrow—about a dozen items related to magic or paganism in one way or another.
Together Betty and I co-authored two books, Magical & Mystical Sites for which I visited the ‘magical’ places in nine European countries (see chapters 17 & 18) and Seasons of Being, a compendium of hundreds of quotations (boiled down from 200,000 we assessed) which were presented in the form of a complete life—with appropriate quotes for its spring, summer, autumn, and winter—or a year in one’s life. For both Betty assembled all the artwork.
As early as 1991 Betty wrote to reassure me about her health: “The cancer was caught in its early stage and although the fact that it happened, indicates I have a predisposition and it may well turn up again; at this moment I’m feeling altogether splendid, strong full of energy. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we knew how much time we had left—the only alternative is to just keep forging ahead. That’s what we’re both doing and you’ll admit the prospects are rosier now than before”.
At about this time, the almanac now about 20 years old, Betty offered me $2,500 a year for my services, requesting that the money be paid near the end of the year when the distributor paid up for the almanac which had appeared the previous spring. Many years, her hard-luck stories persuaded me to waive payment and one year I suggested she devote my remuneration to sending out a press release with the new almanac to 100 publications, optimistically expecting that at least a few would review it. Nobody did.
What happened next was the most depressing thing that has ever happened to me. Making no mention of me whatsoever, she willed the Almanac to a jewelry salesman named Michael Marra whose grandiloquently described himself as Theitic, “High Priest of the Coven of Minerva”. I was pleased some one was in command, and wrote a congratulatory letter: running the almanac was not a task I would have been willing or able to do. On Theitic’s website he listed “truth” as one of his “likes”, an ironic boast as it happened.
A week or two later, I wrote to remind him that the Almanac owed me two payments, the one now-due from this year’s almanac, and the work already in print for the next one. Theitic replied that if I wanted to continue writing for the almanac “it would require negotiation of (my) fee” and in any case his records showed that I had been paid for all my work to date. I had my lawyer send him a note asking for copies of the cancelled checks that would authenticate these mythical payments but, of course, he never replied.
To my amazement, Theitic’s lies were endorsed by two people who had known me for a long time—a risible poet named Barbara Stacy and Tom Chisholm, a global warming-denier weatherman—who presumably hoped to remain contributors to the new High Priest, which of course they did. Members of Marra’s coven also rallied around him, calling me a liar because if the holy Theitic said I’d been paid it must be true. I downsized the two payments, and life went on.
But what did all this mean? I don’t mean the Theitic part—there are many treacherous ‘friends’, as well as liars and cheats who pass themselves off as high priests—but why on earth did Betty erase me like this? I tossed the conundrum around in my mind for months trying to find an answer. Could my oldest friend, my spiritual adviser, my guiding star, have been trying to impart some final wisdom? Or was this just the logical finale to years of exploitation? I still muse on it today. I am still baffled. There had clearly been a predetermined power grab for the almanac. At any rate, I was toast.
Not all the almanac’s longtime readers were enamored of its new form. One wrote; ”I have subscribed to the Witches Almanac since 1980. It was established and edited by Elizabeth Pepper. There was something sweet and obscure about the information Elizabeth put together in each Almanac that made it priceless. It wasn't slick and commercialized. It didn't include popular culture's version of a "witch". It was a soft, all-paper almanac. Unfortunately, Elizabeth passed away and the new editors have changed the Almanac for the worse. It is covered in an icky, high-gloss book cover that takes away from the pen and ink drawings that used to cover the old version”.
Persuaded by my friend Rona, I spent a week or two in the alluring Mexican resort of Zihuatanejo which I’d last visited in 1962 to visit Tim Leary and his short-lived International Foundation for Internal Freedom. This time after settling in at a cheap hotel on expansive La Ropa beach, I quickly made the acquaintance of Catherine Krantz who, after coming here for a vacation, found herself starting a glossy magazine. Titled Another Day in Paradise, it had fared surprisingly well for a start-up, especially so as its young entrepreneur had no previous experience in publishing.
An interesting mix of practical advice about dealing with Mexican legal problems, buying property, and stories about local handicrafts with pictorials of social events, ADIP soon prompted a spin-off magazine about real estate which clearly indicated Zi’s future. And sadly, like every ‘undiscovered’ paradise, the little seaside town was not destined to remain unspoiled. The tiny resort in which—I had written 30 years before—the streets were traversed by more burros than cars, were now filling up with new hotels, condos and clubs.
Very few of the new places had the classic style of La Casa Que Canta (“the house that sings”), a longtime fixture above La Ropa. Built by Jacques Baldessari, a former cosmetics executive, who transferred from Paris to Mexico in 1974, it was an eccentric cascade of terracotta walled cubes, suggesting to people in passing yachts, that it might be an earth-red Himalayan Monastery or a pueblo. Adobe bricks, separated areas in the decorated open air lobby and gnarled posts of brazil wood held up porches.
Baldessari commissioned craftsmen in Oaxaca and Michoacan to produce beautiful and whimsical furniture, carved animals, folk art chests, and one-of-a-kind painted pieces with stark Frida Kahlo and Rousseau-like primitive motifs. Every day, maids spends 20 minutes with lovingly assembled arrangements of fresh leaves and flower petals—a stylized bird one day, a peacock or a fanciful butterfly another—put together petal by petal and leaf by leaf on the pristinely white bedspread. One visitor wrote that he was so disinclined to disturb the fragile floral display that he thought of sleeping in a hammock.
"The structure is more like sculpture really than architecture" said Enrique Muller, the man responsible for its sensuous design. “I had to create a style that would work on such steep slopes to figure a way to integrate them into the construction. We wanted to give the impression that the structure had just risen from the earth".
Novelist Clifford Irving was living in an apartment on the beach here at La Ropa, where he’d spent the past few winters. I dropped by with magazines for a chat, and asked him if I could put him on camera for a few minutes, promising that I would refrain from mentioning either Howard Hughes or the fake autobiography which had once earned him a jail sentence. Irving was polite but declined my invitation, was quite adamant about it, clearly viewing it as an intrusion on his beachside tranquility.
Understandable, I suppose, but I was a bit taken aback. After all, I had been one of his biggest fans when he wrote the imaginative book about the hermit-like Hughes. Of course, Irving couldn’t have known how much I admired his coup, but I felt that an obvious minnow like myself shouldn’t be treated as though I were a big fish from the intrusive network. (But if there’s ever a man who must have been sick of being questioned…)
When the news of his phony biography first broke it was one of the best stories of the Sixties and, outlaw that I am, I reveled in the day-to-day developments. All my sympathies were with Irving and if he had to go to jail surely the gullible publishers, too, were guilty.
Then, while I was still there, my old friend Bud Green moved to Zi, fleeing from a nerve-racking encounter with enforcers of the pointless drug war. Bud had come out of it rather luckily after getting the final word from New York’s District Attorney that they were not going to prosecute him for the bust at his Madison Avenue apartment a few months before. They would, however, be keeping the dozen kilos of fine Humboldt weed plus the $60,000 they’d confiscated. (I wonder what happened to that?)
They had spent the intervening weeks trying to persuade him to snitch and lead them to the mythical wholesaler who was distributing this weed, and had finally accepted his explanation that there was no Mr. Big. Stocking up with enough pot to sell to his New York customers, Bud explained, involved a lengthy train trip across country and back, buying from isolated mom ‘n pop dealers who were as smalltime and interchangeable as the disposable cell phones they used. Of course, in this case as doubtless so many others not prosecuting was a much more profitable deal for the DEA team. That’s why the war on drugs is corrupt from top to bottom.
As somebody who smoked marihuana on a pretty regular basis for 20 years (it becomes less rewarding as you get older) I have strong feelings about the cretins who still try to pretend that it’s a dangerous drug. And what really makes me mad are the inhuman, unfeeling jerks who waste time opposing medical marijuana.
Before the year was over, I was allowed to join the cliquey Society of American Travel Writers, sponsored by the late Art Harris, a travel writing colleague I had known for many years. During my brief membership, as an editor at Insight Guides I was able to hire half a dozen fellow-members to contribute to books I was assembling. Within a year, my membership crashed to a halt. At the Society’s annual dinner on a boat in San Francisco Bay, I got bored with the after-dinner speeches and invited a lady companion to join me in smoking a joint.
A few minutes and a few puffs after retiring to her cabin, there was a hammering on the door from a handful of crew members armed with crowbars and other heavy metal. We were informed that we were putting the captain’s license in jeopardy if the Harbormaster learned about this flagrant example of drug abuse. Failing to ask how the harbormaster could find out unless somebody went and told him, I meekly extinguished the joint and departed for my own cabin.
This incident, however, was too much for SATW’s stern arbiters who a week or two later informed me that the Ethics Committee had met. Familiar with the drunken antics that had sometimes enhanced earlier meetings, this Ethical cabal ruled that I would be suspended from membership. The committee had rarely been in session and when I took a look at its composition, I found that one guy headed his own Florida PR firm and the other was head of public affairs for the Canadian railroad. These apparently were the people who decided who was worthy of membership in the club.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updat,ed A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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
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
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
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.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
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.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
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,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
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.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
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,
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.
“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.”