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January 22, 2010

 

  The column of lasting insignificance
     


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Manhattan Memories
Preface

 by Martin Gardner

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.

After ten years with the Voice, Wilcock broke with the paper to edit a rival publication, the East Village Other, and then to publish his own tabloid, Other Scenes. They were the city’s first underground papers, covering all the topics The New York Times would consider unfit to print. Later he worked with similar papers popping up in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

For three years Wilcock was a travel editor at the New York Times and his subsequent journeys here and there produced a raft of popular travel guides. Two of his other books are of special interest: The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol had a sparse print run but today a copy sells for more than a hundred dollars; Popes and Anti-Popes presents an unvarnished view of Roman Catholicism.

In 2001 Wilcock, by then divorced, retired to a cottage in Ojai, CA, where he started a curious, little magazine called the Ojai Orange. It publishes bits and pieces about anything of interest to him at the moment, which in 2006 included my letter complaining that New Yorker cartoons are not funny any more.

Now writing a whimsical weekly “column of lasting insignificance” on his website, Wilcock appeared briefly in the Huffington Post, quitting when he realized how much his factual column was at odds with the predominance of opinion essays there. A 1973 profile in the New York Times tagged him “an influential man nobody knows” and a similar profile in a London magazine pegged him as “a man with an ability to make no money”.

The book you are now about to read contains colorful interviews with such notables as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan. Other well-known personalities who appear in Wilcock’s memoirs include Leonard Bernstein, Rock Hudson, Timothy Leary, Jane Fonda, Larry Adler, Lenny Bruce, Jean Shepherd, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the Beatles.

Several chapters cover what the author calls “the golden Soho scene” with its funky art galleries and legendary parties. There is an account of what the Manhattan art world then called “Happenings”, and a hilarious quote from a top art critic struggling to justify the grandeur of such a great work of sculpture as blocks of wood in opposite corners of a room.

Two chapters are devoted to magic, not in the conjuring sense but magic based on the paranormal. It’s a topic on which Wilcock was enough involved to participate with a self-styled witch on several lurid books. The Amazing Randi turns up in this chapter. Bending Wilcock’s key and declining to reveal how he did it.

Manhattan Memories is a fast-paced, highly entertaining narrative about the life and adventures here and abroad of a remarkable journalist who has been everywhere, done almost everything. There isn’t a dull page in the book.


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