Surrender Dorothy Podber

March 23, 2007 at 2:34 pm 29 comments

dorothy5.jpg

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]

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Selfishness: Priceless

29 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael miner  |  March 30, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Joy Bergmann, of Australia and CHicago, right? Would you mind getting in touch?
    Mike

    Reply
  • 2. ANGELA  |  May 29, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    I am a film director and am very interested in learning more about Dorothy Podber for a possible documentary or film based on her life. Do you have any info on how I may contact her?

    Reply
    • 3. Janene  |  January 23, 2010 at 8:16 pm

      Angela, could you please contact me if you are still interested in persuing the Dorothy docoumentary project.

      Reply
  • 4. Adam Podber  |  June 1, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    I dont know who can help me but I have been trying to get in touch with Dorothy for a while. She is a great cousin of mine and I wanted to speak to her before its too late to do so. Please write back who ever knows anything. This is no joke I sware.

    Reply
  • 5. Thad  |  August 18, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Wondered where you’ve been, JB. I’m up for some Bergmannia. Drop me a line to catch up!

    Reply
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  • 7. hobces  |  November 26, 2007 at 12:37 am

    Angela and Adam. Please contact me. I am in daily contact with Dorothy and will give her any message. Thanks,

    hobces (at) yahoo.com

    Reply
  • 8. Kevin Concannon  |  March 3, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Your interview with Podber is widely quoted in her obituaries. As an art historian working on Yoko Ono, I was fascinated to read about Yoko’s putative show at the Nonagon. As best I can tell, that never happened. But I’m curious if Dorothy told you that it did. Or if that information came from elsewhere. Yoko doesn’t remember any such show. Nor do any of the people who would likely have seen it if it happened.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • 9. marcia from the remo  |  July 3, 2009 at 11:05 pm

      ask malka about the yoko connection.

      Reply
  • 10. Deb  |  April 4, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I had never heard of Dorothy Podber until I read her obituary. I read to obit while I was at work and laughed so hard I had to close my office door (I work in a Mental Health Clinic). I sent copies of it to several of my friends and they called me as soon as they read the article, barely able to speak – spitting out words in between laughing – a psychiatric nurse, a psychologist, a librarian – they all though this was one of the best characters they had ever “met”. Dorothy should be a movie – but not over played, as Dorothy overplays it on her own. The picture of her with her boots is beyond words…the face alone speaks volumes…if you look closely in the full length picture of her, there is a Christmas tree as well as Holloween decorations and a trick-or-treat bag in the picture. Dorothy was definately a treat with lots of tricks.

    Reply
  • 11. marcia rogers  |  June 6, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    On a recent trip to Asheville, driving past Black Mountain, I thought about Dorothy, and our friendship in the sixties. I couldn’t wait to get back home and on the computer, to see whether I could get in touch again. I hadn’t seen her since 1974. To see that she had died in February was a blow. To see all the entries on the web was no surprise. Hello to Malka and Isabelle.

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  • 12. Rita Gail Podber Griener  |  July 8, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Having not seen or had any interaction with Dorothy, I am her first cousin. Her father and my father are brothers.

    Reply
  • 13. Rita Gail Podber Griener  |  July 10, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    To Adam Podber, I think you are mistaken as far as being a great cousin. Dorothy Podber only had three first cousins, two great cousins and one Great Great Cousin. You might be a Podber, but you are not one or Dorothy’s cousins. She only had one uncle and one aunt. There were only four grandchildren (her being one) and one adopted cousin. The adopted cousin is not a blood relative. Her grandfather was one of thirteen therefore you might be related to her father as a great cousin, but not Dorothy.

    Reply
  • 14. Neighbors of Dorothy Podbers  |  July 27, 2008 at 12:08 am

    We would like Joy Bergmann and the woman named Angela who wrote in the comments in this section to contact us. We have important information about Dorothy that would certainly be of interest to you both.

    Reply
  • 15. gerald rosen  |  August 20, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    My grandmother was dorothy’s mothers sister. I remember as a child visiting Dorothy’s mother and father in their Bronx apartment. I remember calling them Aunt Betty and Uncle Joe. I do remember Uncle Joe as being blind and having a newsstand. The last time I saw Dorothy was at a family bar mitzvah. I was approximately 20 years old and she was about 30. She was not an unattractive woman at that time , and I remember we had a pleasant conversation. I believe my parents mentioned she was trouble to her parents, but I was totally unaware of her notoriety or exploits as mentioned on the internet. If you want to contact me please e-mail me at the above e-mail address.

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