Surrender Dorothy Podber

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During the 2006 Ray Johnson show “In Rapport” at New York’s Feigen Contemporary gallery, visitors could peek into a darkened room and see the Johnson biographical documentary “How to Draw a Bunny.”

And if they drew back the curtain at the 49-minute mark, they heard Millicent “Malka” Safro comment on Ray Johnson’s best friend. “Dorothy Podber was the wildest, most way-out, extraordinary creature who ever walked the earth.”

Never heard of her?

Well, get ready to meet one of the most revered and feared characters from the Village avant-garde scene of the early 1960s.

“Ray respected Dorothy as a terrorist,” says Johnson curator William “Bill” Wilson. “She was this marvelous, evil woman. You didn’t accept candy from Dorothy.”

“Dorothy was dangerous,” says Billy Name Linich, Andy Warhol’s collaborator. “She terrified Andy.”

Linich remembers the autumn day in 1964 when Podber showed up to be part of a Factory shoot. One she intended to direct, unbeknownst to onlookers.

Podber arrived wearing a black leather outfit and ladylike gloves, toting a little purse and her Great Dane, Ivan de Carlo. Warhol was busy working. Podber grew impatient; she wanted to shoot a picture.

“There was a stack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreens against the wall,” says Linich. “She pulled out a pistol and shot Marilyn right between the eyes. After she left, Andy came over to me and said, ‘Please make sure Dorothy doesn’t come over here anymore. She’s too scary.’”

Though now 74, unwell, and housebound in an East Village walk-up, Bronx-born Podber still intimidates.

**

On New Year’s Day 2007, she begins our interview wearing sunglasses, sipping cognac [a pale substitute for the 12-inch bowl of methamphetamine she used to keep on the coffee table] and laying plain her self-image, “I’ve been bad all my life. Playing dirty tricks on people is my specialty.”

After some perfunctory questions, she slowly lowers her shades and declares with a witchy warble, “Now I can peep at you.” She stares. “You’re a good person; you can’t understand me.”

Maybe not.

It was a life that almost didn’t start. “My mother threw herself down the subway stairs,” Podber says. Having a baby in 1932 when one’s husband was running a Bronx speakeasy for Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz may not have seemed like a good idea.

Podber grew up on Walton Avenue, watching her father, Joseph, slowly go blind and turn to a semi-straight life running a successful newsstand. His only child, however, retained his renegade impulses.

“She was very naughty,” says Isabelle Fisher, a former Martha Graham dancer who attended the all-girl Walton High School alongside Dorothy. Fisher remembers Dorothy as an instigator of a mass student strike there in March 1949. “We all wore black skirts to protest [new attendance policies.] It was really something for the time.”

The school’s Periwinkle yearbook is one of few documents to verify any of the Podber stories I heard. In her graduation photo, she does not smile. Looking like a young Barbara Stanwyk she states her ambition: psychiatrist.

Artist Dennis Selby finds that goal ironically apt. “She was a psychiatrist in a way,” he says. “People who would’ve been terribly neurotic if they’d been trapped on a farm somewhere, were freed by her. In her presence they could be expressive and take their melodrama to the point of death if they wanted.”

Billy Linich remembers Podber getting him his first apartment on Attorney Street for $27 a month in 1959. Mutual aid was necessary in their cross-fertilizing scene filled with “a mobile fringe of superintellectuals who could also see reality as ridiculous.”

Players such as LeRoi Jones, Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Diane DiPrima, Rufus Collins, LaMonte Young, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage swirled together, pulling the avant-garde forefront from Paris to the Village.

“The world’s culture just stopped in 1939 with the start of World War Two,” adds Selby. “When the war was over, people tried to pick up where we left off, trying to recreate the Noel Coward sophistication of the past. But it wasn’t valid; that’s why the 1950s were so fucking dull.”

The ache for the new sent seekers scouring phenomenological texts at the Orientalia bookstore, arguing Sartre at the San Remo bar, and a few, like Johnson and Podber, exploiting the mundane as transcendent. “We were Zen Communists into aesthetic communality, authentic earthiness,” says Linich. He crosses his fingers. “Dorothy and Ray were like that.”

Though Podber helped run the Nonagon Gallery during this period [showing broken airplane propellers, recording live Charles Mingus albums and introducing Yoko Ono’s work to New York], her legend stems from the happenings she and Ray Johnson would concoct.

According to now-deceased painter Dale Joe, Dorothy and Ray found a box of stutterer records and went from house to house playing them, giggling.

Another time Johnson invited a collector up to his Norfolk Street apartment for a viewing. Upon arrival, the space was completely bare, save for an armoire in the corner. Johnson reportedly said, “This is my work,” opened the cabinet and Podber jumped out, laughing weirdly.

Billy Linich recalls a diner on the Upper East Side called Geiger’s. “Dorothy came running over with Ray and Malka saying, ‘Let’s go sit at the Geiger Counter!’ So we did.”

“Dorothy was into money-Zen. She’d walk into Keller’s bar and order 100 beers, paying with $100 bill,” says author Robert Heide. “She had a banker boyfriend at the time. And she said she would only agree to have sex with him on the cash-coated floor of the bank’s vault.”

“One day we went into this fancy ladies’ hat shop on University Place,” Heide recalls. The two looked pretty scruffy and the clerks were none too pleased when Podber called for multiple hats to try, mugging grandiosely in the mirror. She bought three elaborately boxed hats, peeling hundreds off a wad stuck in her dungarees and they marched off to Washington Square Park. “She took all three boxes and threw them in the garbage can, laughing hysterically. She was so pleased with herself.”

During Dorothy and Ray’s ‘dead animal’ phase, they gave Heide a gift: a clock with no hands. “When you opened the face of the clock, out dropped a rat, spray-painted gold.”

Isabelle Fisher remembers Podber being held at the Women’s House of Detention on Sixth Avenue for running an illegal abortion referral service; according to Podber, an abortion was also performed in her apartment.

Flouting the advice of her famous feminist attorney, Florynce Kennedy, she pleaded guilty. She also declared herself a Buddhist, which upset the judge. As part of her punishment, she was ordered to start “acting like a lady.” So the next time Fisher saw her at Union Square, “She had on long gloves, a huge hat, frilly blouse and fancy hair-do. She played it to the hilt.”

“Dorothy was the crux of art–not on a canvas–but an encapsulation in action,” says Malka Safro. “She was PopArt.”

**

Ever her father’s daughter, Podber had one foot in the art world and one in the underworld.

“I never worked much,” she says. A gig dispatching maids to clean doctors’ offices provided keys to their dispensaries. She did paperwork for B’nai Brith long enough to pick their safe and use its contents on her own check-counterfeiting machine. And there were always men.

Never a great beauty, Dorothy’s abandon and wittiness made her irresistible to women, gay men and most importantly, men of means.

A greencard marriage to a Mexican called Garcia yielded $1000 and a trip south of the border. Her souvenir? A smuggled marguey [a smaller, fiercer ocelot] called Skooshy.

Former Bronx Congressman Charles A. Buckley set her up in an east side apartment complete with car and driver. While biding her time between mistress duties, she kept time with the mob-connected chauffeur.

Prior to that whole libidinal period, Podber had a brief first marriage to Sandy Edelstein, a jazz buff and academic. They lived for a time at Champaign-Urbana’s University of Illinois. “I drove Sandy crazy,” she says.

All those dalliances were mere preparation for her third husband. Her Schzerazade, her angel, her Lester.

“Lester Schwartz was the butchest man I ever met,” remembers Dennis Selby. “Domineering and extremely intelligent.” And adaptable, it seems. Lester was once the shared paramour of The Living Theater’s married power-couple, Judith Malina and Julian Beck.

“He was the beauty; I was the beast,” says Podber, her voice growing softer. “He was good; I was bad.”

Was it a conventional marriage? “Well, we both liked men and women,” she says.

A stevedore by trade, Schwartz captivated Podber with his imagination and unbridled passion. Details weren’t forthcoming in my interview with Podber.

However, in 1999, she mailed Selby a note. He didn’t open it, but gave it to me. Inside was a 3×5 card. On one side, a Podber collage of international stamps. On the other, this. “Dennis, I lied to you. When Lester married me I was covered in diamonds. Much love, Dorothy.”

Schwartz died in 1986. Since then, Podber has been looked after by her friend, artist Herndon Ely.

The two spend their days monitoring Podber’s fragile health and her tight budget.

Various art works and jewelry she had stored in her apartment have disappeared over the years; stolen, they say, by interlopers and junkies who’ve dropped in. It’s cold comfort that the four “Shot Marilyns” —commanding upwards of $17 million each for their owners—-may be her only verifiable legacy.

The Social Security-dependent Podber appears unconcerned. She takes another slug of Hennessey. “I’m unrepentant. I’m a sinner. And this interview is over now.”

© Joy Bergmann, all rights reserved

[Pictures forthcoming]

March 23, 2007 at 2:34 pm 28 comments

Selfishness: Priceless

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Yippee.

I, as one of You, am TIME’s Person of the Year.

This on the same weekend Peter Singer posits how I, yes,  relatively rich-person me, should join other Yous and collectively eliminate much suffering on this planet without incurring much personal pain.

Cognitive dissonance is no way to spend Saturday night.

December 16, 2006 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

Enter the subway yogi

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So, I’m fresh from my holiday hair-cut and this Canadian bastard, Luc, has to appear at Union Square station.

His offer is too juicy to pass up, no?

We chat.

We agree.

His flip-side sign, “Wanna Talk?” didn’t garner as much interest.

He loves me. He’s happy to dismiss my guilt. He says, quite rightly, “Everything you’re worried about is beyond your control.”

Is he Jesus-from-Montreal?

Can only say I was lighter for having stopped to speak with him.

December 13, 2006 at 8:48 pm Leave a comment

J-investor dilemma: mediabistro class or Botox?

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Yesterday at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, two established female reporters admitted they could not survive as freelance writers if they weren’t married. These are ladies with the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time in their heaping stacks of clips. Turn away from the screen, Ms. Steinem.

I’ve been married. Every great broad deserves a great first husband. But–silly us–we wed for convivial partnership, not financial security. When the party ended, we went home alone. Happily divorced is not oxymoronic.

But the evidence is in:  Single scribe-dom is moronic.

So now we can delight in choices, my favorite!

Mediabistro’s class in nonfiction book writing  for $610 or two hits of the needle to ensure that youthful freshness so appealing to gents seeking their second or third honey?

December 8, 2006 at 9:10 pm 15 comments

Travel trumps tourism

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Most Sundays, Petrilia, 22, brings her ragdolls to 138th Street hoping the crowd Brit or Italian, not German or Japanese.

For she sews black figures for sale to tourists lined up in front of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. And knows Italian newlyweds are partial to the “Love”-emblazoned torsos on the $25 dolls; Brits are likely to buy the lot of tot-sized $12 models proclaiming “Peace” and “Joy.”

Petrilia wants only to fund her collegiate studies in biology. Her customers want to observe her otherness.

Ms B adores Petrilia for her entrepreneurial zest, yet abhors tourism. Particularly tourism steeped in “racial difference.”

Let’s get all historical, shall we?

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African-born “pygmy” Ota Benga was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo alongside monkeys in the early 20th Century. Not much later, he acquired a pistol, shot himself and the coroner tagged his corpse “Otto Bingo.”

I hate tourism built on the allure of going elsewhere to be with others who are not us. Such travels are almost without exception in the narcissistic pursuit of understanding ourselves. Personal plural, for we are multitudes, right? We want the clever tale of exotic natives. To showcase our amazement, our naivete, our return from the wilds.

Tourism is terrible. Worse, the conceit of difference is delusional. Sorry to shock the sensitive EU, but we are one species.

To embrace and appreciate individual differences, one must come to the commons.

No queue. No tickets. No guidebook.

New York comrades, up your karma-bank this holiday season: Pack your tote with subway maps and give them to wide-eyed visitors.

Tell them about New York beauty found on the 6-train in mid-conga session. Players playing in our shared space. Nobody looking for difference, only commonality of place, experience, escape.

Send them to Brighton Beach at sunset to walk alongside the babushkas.

Get them to Union Square to witness the Wizard of Carrot Shredding madly making salad.

Because to love Gotham, one must live it, not leer at it.

November 17, 2006 at 11:41 pm 2 comments

Beautiful Brevity

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Miracle on 77th Street: Wired magazine warms the heart with six-word short stories inspired by what Papa Hemingway called his best work. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Click or check out the new issue for gems like these…

He read his obituary with confusion. – Steven Meretzky

Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved. – Margaret Atwood

“I couldn’t believe she’d shoot me.” – Howard Chaykin

Surely we want to try?

Post with abandon; use other name.

November 11, 2006 at 4:51 pm 3 comments

Journalists as accomplices to theft?

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Journalists who disclose information that their sources obtained illegally could be prosecuted as accomplices to theft, according to arguments heard last month in Boehner v. McDermott before the full U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington.

The case concerns free-speech rights on both sides: the right to expect private conversations to remain private vs. the right of public officials – and by implication, the media – to freely publish newsworthy matters of public concern.

“Courts are increasingly sensitive to these issues in a post-9/11 world,” said Thomas H. Dupree Jr., who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Boehner on behalf of 18 media organizations including Dow Jones, Tribune Company and the New York Times. “This case has the potential to be very significant to the future of newsgathering.”

The controversy began with the surreptitious taping of a Dec. 21, 1996, conference call. Using a cellular telephone, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) joined Newt Gingrich and other Republican strategists to prepare for the then-House Speaker Gingrich’s admission of ethics violations.

John and Alice Martin, a Florida couple unsympathetic to Gingrich, intercepted the call using a police scanner. They also taped the conversation in violation of Federal Statute 2511, commonly known as the wiretapping statute. It forbids unauthorized interception of “wire, oral or electronic communication.”

On Jan. 8, 1997, the couple gave the tape to U.S. Rep. James A. McDermott (D-Washington) who was the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee evaluating Gingrich. Later that evening McDermott listened to the tape and called several reporters including Adam Clymer, who wrote a story which published its contents on the front page of the New York Times on Jan. 10, 1997.

Boehner sued McDermott for essentially trafficking in stolen goods – his presumed private conversation. Boehner said that when McDermott disclosed the tape to the reporter he violated 2511 (1) (c), a subsection of the wiretapping law that makes intentional disclosure of an illegally intercepted communication a crime.

Possible ramifications of the politicos’ tussle extended far beyond Capitol Hill.

If Boehner prevailed, journalists could fear prosecution for “disclosing” by publishing information they suspect has been illegally obtained by a source, even if the source did not directly participate in the unlawful interception. This could lead to a chill in reporting and self-censorship.

If McDermott won, private citizens could fear their easily intercepted electronic communications could be passed along with impunity in perpetuity.

All sides would have to wait.

For nearly a decade, Boehner v. McDermott has ping-ponged its way through the system. The federal appeals court judges heard it twice and twice found for Boehner. In the most recent 2-1 decision, issued March 28, 2006, the court ordered McDermott to pay $10,000 in fines, $50,000 in punitive damages and Boehner’s legal fees – now totaling over $500,000.

However, a 2001 Supreme Court decision in a similar “mystery tape” case, Bartnicki v. Vopper, has kept Boehner in play.

In Bartnicki, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 that a radio commentator who broadcast an anonymously supplied, illegally intercepted tape was protected under the First Amendment. Wrote Justice Paul Stevens, “Privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance.”

McDermott petitioned for and won an en banc hearing – a rare procedure where all judges in an appellate court weigh in – saying that when the divided D.C. Circuit decided for Boehner, it erred by not following Bartnicki as Supreme Court precedent.

During oral arguments on Oct. 31, 2006, Christopher Landau, representing McDermott, said that even if information is illegally intercepted, there is no such thing as tainted information when it comes to truthful matters of public concern.

“Go after the thief to the hilt,” Landau told the nine judges, “but not after the First Amendment.”

Michael Carvin, representing Boehner, sought to distinguish the case from Bartnicki by focusing on the whether McDermott knew or had reason to know the tape was illegally obtained.

In Bartnicki, the Supreme Court found that the disclosers of the tape did not know its origins and lawfully obtained its contents.

“Here the information was not lawfully obtained,” Carvin said. McDermott knew the tape had been created illegally, he said, and therefore had served as a “fence” for a stolen conversation and had “aided and abetted” the Martins when he disclosed the tape to the reporter.

Judge David B. Sentelle asked, “Assuming [McDermott] told Adam Clymer it was illegally obtained, would you say the New York Times could be prosecuted [for disclosing it to its readers]?”

“The New York Times is in a position where it could be constitutionally liable,” Carvin said.

In his rebuttal, Landau said that since the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court has left open the issue of whether disclosing speech could be made criminal conduct. Bartnicki didn’t decide this. And here the Martins were charged, pleaded guilty and fined $1000 for their interception; their disclosure to McDermott was not prosecuted.

“We need a bright line to protect the First Amendment or this court will be haunted by Boehner cases for years to come,” Landau said, urging the judges to define how freely speech may or may not be distributed.

The court reserved decision and will rule at a later date.

Experts monitoring the case are anxious for guidance on which First Amendment rights shall rule – for now anyway.

“There are a million privacy statutes and lots of people who want to publish information,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Resource Center (EPIC) “It’s going to keep us [activists] all employed.”

EPIC supported the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s dissent in Bartnicki that argued that to avoid chilling the speech of millions who use technology to communicate, the law should deter disclosure of any intercepted information. Given the available gadgetry, Rehnquist said, interception is inevitable; disclosure is not.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said he takes issue with Rehnquist’s assumption and chides Boehner for not encrypting his phone in the first place. “You’re supposed to secure your own communications,” he said, likening such electronic sloppiness to building a house without doors. “If you do that, you’ll find things disappearing.”

If, as here, it’s information that disappears, Harper said he believes the capturer violating the statute should be punished. However, once the information is out and being exchanged, “You can’t stuff the genie back into the bottle, “ he said. “You can’t apply [the law] down the chain.”

Not according to a strict reading of the wiretapping statute, said Jack King, director of public affairs and communications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. If you disclose illegally intercepted communications, you’re breaking the law, he said.

King would like to see a federal reporter shield law with a good faith exception to protect the press from Justice Department contempt charges. But he would not shield the media from civil suits.

If a journalist obtains a spellbinding scoop of questionable origin, the choice is clear, King said. Dismiss it as illegal and thereby untouchable or publish and take the risk of a civil suit, fines or worse. “Some things are worth going to jail for.”

The prospect of bailing out journalists held on Boehner-related charges was not welcomed by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Her group is already busy fielding “not-so-veiled threats” from the Justice Department seeking to use the Espionage Act against journalists. A recent target is another New York Times reporter, James Risen, who broke the story about domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency.

“I thought Bartnicki would put an end to this one,“ Dalglish said. “But it’s the case that refuses to die.”

November 1, 2006 at 7:49 am Leave a comment

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