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Far From Flatbush

The Last Mercedes

 

Many years ago, in another life, I was editorial director of the Motor World car-buyer's guides. The gig involved long hours and endless deadlines. But it was the closest thing I've ever had to a dream job. Every week, a car company gave me a new car to test, and I got to drive everything, except for exotics. I met my wife while I was testing a Volkswagen Passat. Our first date was in a Toyota MR2. Our second date was in a Porsche 944 Cabriolet (the 911 would come later). She couldn't help but be a little impressed!

 

At the same time, for the same company, I was editing men's magazines, and wrote about cars in those, too—to give the mags "socially redeeming value." For those articles, I had near-total creative freedom and wrote some crazy satirical stuff—which nobody read except for one PR guy at Mazda.

 

One week, Mercedes-Benz gave me a fully loaded, $86,000, SL convertible to test for Motor World. I took all my friends joy-riding, let my father drive it, and for one of the men's magazines (whose name I prefer not to mention) wrote the "review" as an over-the-top Hunter Thompson parody titled "Mein Kar" (trigger warning!). Here's an excerpt, originally published in 1990:

 

My father, having spent most of his adult life confined to Chrysler K-cars and automobiles of that ilk, was anxious to test the parameters of the Mercedes. The war was a long time ago, and though he'd always taken personally the fact that the Third Reich had spent four years trying to kill him, he was also appreciative of the opportunity they'd created for him to tour France at a tender age and learn the art of oral sex from experienced French women.

 

"Let me drive," he said when I pulled up to his house and lowered the convertible top.

 

I gave him the wheel and he glided stylishly onto the street, waving to the awestruck neighbors as he drove by.

 

"They'll think I'm wealthy as a king," he said. "How fast does this thing go?"

 

"Zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds… not bad for a car that weighs as much as an elephant... and it has a top speed limited electronically to 155 miles per hour, which means it could go faster, maybe 200. It's got a 5.0-liter 322-horsepower DOHC 32-valve V-8 engine. But you know the Germans... a green people. They don't want maniac drivers breaking the sound barrier on the autobahn. But it will still outrun the F-15 Eagle till takeoff."

 

"Takeoff?" my father said. "Can we handle that much torque?"

 

"Only in the desert but we can't go that far today."

 

"Why not?"

 

"The time factor… I need to make a high-speed run to the Canadian border with my Hawaiian pharmacologist, but first I must see my Nazi pimp."

 

"Your Nazi pimp?" he said, heading north on the Palisades Interstate Parkway at a smooth 95. "Those people should be tried for crimes against humanity."

 

"Maybe so, but you have to give them credit for technological expertise."

 

"Yes… indeed," he said thoughtfully. "This is the way to travel."

 

I couldn't believe that someone from Mercedes happened to see the story. Consequently, it was the last car they ever gave me. It was also the only Mercedes my father ever drove. Unfortunately, I can't find the 29-year-old magazine with the article, which has my father's picture in it, taken outside Mercedes headquarters in Montvale, New Jersey. All I have is what you see above—a lo-res scan I made years ago.

 

I should send the Boys from Benz a copy of Bobby in Naziland. Because it should come standard in every Mercedes, tucked in the glove compartment along with the owner's manual.

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Meet me in St. Louis, Wednesday, October 16, 7 PM, at Subterranean Books. I'll be reading and signing copies of Bobby in Naziland.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

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Time Stands Still

 

I was standing in the Dutch Reformed Church cemetery, in early August, talking to Liena Zagare, publisher and editor of the Bklyner newspaper. We were in the midst of a walking tour of some of the Flatbush sites I wrote about in Bobby in Naziland, and the cemetery was high on the list.

 

"I was a gloomy kid," I told her, as I stared at one of those weathered and now almost unreadable tombstones, barely able to make out the inscribed dates. The person whose bones now lay beneath my feet appeared to have been born in the final years of the 18th century and to have died in the opening years of the 19th—a child.

 

It was, I'm sure, one of the many tombstones I brooded over when I was a kid and I'd come to the cemetery on one of my solitary Flatbush walking tours, looking for something interesting to fill my day. I was attracted to cemeteries because I was obsessed with death. In my own family, as I explain in the book, death was more taboo than sex, something only to be spoken of in the abstract and never to be spoken of when it was real and personal.

 

I also found the cemetery serene, like my own private park. Nobody else was ever there—probably because the cemetery entrance is hidden, on a nearby dead-end street. And despite my obsessive thoughts about dying, I liked the sense of being in a place where time had stood still for more than 200 years.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

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Moe and the Stooges: Bigger Than Babs?

 

Erasmus Hall High School has always made a point of publicizing its famous alumni, of which there are plenty. The list, which includes actors, writers, athletes, and a certain chess champion, is well known. (You can read it here and here.) Barbra Streisand, of course, was the local girl that everybody in Flatbush knew about, even if they didn't go to Erasmus.

 

Babs could not only sing; she was an honor student—a role model for the entire neighborhood. Yet it was almost a secret that somebody whose fame arguably rivals or eclipses that of the great Ms. Streisand also attended Erasmus.

 

The school, presumably, preferred that the student body remain ignorant of the fact that a high school dropout could become rich and famous by performing violent acts of slapstick stupidity.

 

Yes, Moe Howard was, however briefly, an Erasmian. And he makes a cameo appearance in Bobby in Naziland—because, in 1962, to promote the film The Three Stooges in Orbit, the Stooges made a live appearance at the Lowe's Kings, on Flatbush Avenue, sending the packed house of Stooge-crazy kids into paroxysms of ecstasy. (That's Larry, Moe, and Curly in the photo.)

 

And yes, I was there. My takeaway from that memorable afternoon: Larry's hair was real.

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Homage to My Great-Uncle Robert, Who Died in Catalonia

 

No, not "supposedly," not anymore. I was named after my mother's uncle Robert Weber, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. And he's no longer "presumed dead." He's been dead for 81 years.

 

As I was writing Bobby in Naziland, I still classified the above facts about my great-uncle as rumors, part of the multitude of vague and incomplete family stories that had been swirling around for as long as I could remember, but that I could never pin down—because like so many things having to do with my family's history, especially death, nobody wanted to talk about them.

 

I'd never even seen a picture of the person I was named after, because, my mother told me when I asked her about it the other week, there weren't any. She barely remembers her uncle Robert. He disappeared when she was 11. Though she does remember that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman.

 

But my mother liked the name Robert, and in the Jewish tradition babies are named after a dead person. Her uncle was, in short, a convenient and presumably dead person whose name was available when I was born.

 

I also didn't know that my grandfather had changed the family name to "Webber," adding an additional "b" because he thought "Weber" sounded too German. Because I was spelling my mother's maiden name with two "b"s, I couldn't find anything on the Internet about her uncle, who hadn't changed his name.

 

It was only recently that I found a site called Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, or ¡ALBA! A posting on the site confirmed that my great-uncle was, indeed, killed in action—KIA—in the Spanish Civil War.

 

Here's everything that's posted on ¡ALBA! about Robert R. Weber:

 

b. September 12, 1903, Russia, Russian American, Jewish, received passport# 491405 on January 5, 1938 which listed his address as 442 West 23rd Street, NYC. Sailed January 12, 1938 aboard the Aquitania. Served with the XV BDE, Lincoln-Washington BN, rank Soldado, reported MIA March 1938 near Gandesa; later determined KIA between March 30 and April 3, 1938 during the Retreats.

 

A few months ago, in New York, not long after I'd found the information on ¡ALBA!, my wife and I were having dinner with Susana Aikin, a historical novelist whom we'd met in Madrid last year. She told us that she was in the midst of researching a book about the Spanish Civil War.

 

"I was named after somebody who was killed in the Spanish Civil War," I said. "He'd joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade."

 

"What's his name?"

 

I told her.

 

She said she recognized it. "Very few New Yorkers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Do you know where he was killed?"

 

"I don't remember. I think it starts with a 'G.'"

 

"Gandesa?"

 

"Yeah, I think that's it."

 

"Have you been there?"

 

"No, it's never occurred to me to go there."

 

"You should go there."

 

It is an intriguing idea, and maybe I will. In the meantime, I did go to 442 West 23rd Street, my great-uncle Robert R. Weber's last known address. That's where the above picture was taken. The building, 119 years old, is now an attractive five-story row house with apartments selling for an average of $1,754,000. In 1938, it was probably a rooming house. I'd have liked to see Robert's room, too, but that just wasn't possible.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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The Gin Mills of Church Avenue

 

I never heard anybody call it the "Maple Court Cafe," but that's its official name, at least according to the above postcard. Everybody called it the "Maple Court Tavern," because that's what it was—a tavern, a bar, or as my father called every low-rent dive on Church Avenue, a "gin mill."

 

And though the postcard makes it look like a classy joint—it was once the conveniently located bar of choice for the wealthy denizens of Prospect Park South—by the time I came to know it, it was a dim, dank, dingy place. There were no potted plants or souvenir postcards or palm trees painted on the walls. According to my parents, it was where the "goyim" did their drinking. In my mind's eye, the bar was horseshoe shaped. But it was, in fact, a rectangle with curved corners. Because I sat at the far end, I can see how I misremembered that.

 

The Stingo I refer to in the quote under the postcard is the narrator of William Styron's Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice. It's one of the many places in Flatbush that appear in his book as well as mine, and in Bobby in Naziland, I spend a couple of pages contrasting my own impressions of the neighborhood with Stingo's.

 

Every store, bar, and restaurant on Church Avenue's commercial strip has since been replaced by some other kind of store or restaurant (though no bars). A laundry has become a health food store. Two candy stores, including my father's, have become part of a subway station.

 

And the Maple Court Tavern (or cafe) is a pharmacy. Choose your poison, though now you need a prescription.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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King of the Jews

 

When the Dodgers played their last game in Brooklyn, on September 24, 1957, I was five years old and had just begun kindergarten. As I explain in Bobby in Naziland, I am among the last generation to have a living memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Had I been born just a few months later, I would not have been old enough to remember them.

 

So yes, I remember seeing them play on the tiny screen of our black-and-white TV, while my mother, a true-blue Dodgers fan, and her friends sat around the living room cheering "them Bums" on. Even more clearly, I remember people talking about the Dodgers because people talked about them for years after they left Brooklyn. And they never stopped talking about Bobby Thomson's soul-destroying "shot heard 'round the world" in the 1951 playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants.

 

Yet long after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the spirit of Brooklyn-born Jew and strikeout artist Sandy Koufax—the rare local boy who'd played for his hometown team—continued to hover over the baseball diamonds of the Parade Grounds, where he'd learned his craft. Koufax—his rookie card from 1955 is shown above—was an inspiration to any Jewish kid who'd ever picked up a baseball and harbored, even for a minute, the slightest inklings of a major league dream.

 

Yet Koufax had his greatest moment as a Jew in Baseball nearly a decade after the Dodgers (like so many other Brooklynites) had split for the Coast. Game one of the 1965 World Series, between the Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, was scheduled for October 6—which was also Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish Year. Koufax, the Dodger ace, was supposed to pitch that day. But in his entire career he'd never pitched on Yom Kipper, and he declined to pitch even this crucial game.

 

That was the day he was crowned King of the Jews—because he demonstrated to the world at large and every goyim boss who'd ever demanded otherwise that no Jew, no matter how important his or her job, had to work on Yom Kipper.

 

The other Dodger ace, Don Drysdale, pitched on Yom Kipper, and LA lost. Koufax then pitched game two, but the Dodgers lost again—before going on to take four out of the next five games, with Koufax winning games five and seven, thereby giving LA (and the Jews) the world championship.

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The Pink Palace

 

In Bobby in Naziland, I describe the experience of reading William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, in 1979, and my astonishment at discovering that its main setting was a ramshackle rooming house on the corner of Caton Avenue and Marlborough Road, two blocks from where I once lived. I used to pass that house every day, walking to and from my grade school, which was across the street.

 

Styron called the house the "Pink Palace." His alter ego, Stingo, and Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor, both lived there. As I was reading the book, I thought that Sophie could have been the fictional incarnation of any number of my neighbors—like the woman who worked in a nearby bakery on whose arm I first saw, in 1956, the blue Auschwitz number tattooed. I later found out that Styron and the woman upon whom he had based Sophie really did live in that house.

 

In Bobby in Naziland I wrote: "That a novel dealing with the Holocaust would one day be set in Flatbush was probably inevitable. But who could have predicted that it would be written not by a Jew or even a native Flatbushian, but by a goy from Newport News, Virginia, who had lived in the neighborhood for only a few months"?

 

Sophie's Choice allowed me to see Flatbush, a place I knew better than any patch of real estate on the planet, with fresh eyes. Styron, I wrote, expressed in his book "a simple truth that I'd never before heard anyone say: Flatbush was more Jewish than Tel Aviv."

 

The Pink Palace was torn down many years ago, replaced by a tan brick building housing a doctor's office. New York's tax photo archive, shot in 1940, supposedly includes every building in the city. But the Pink Palace, either overlooked or misfiled, is not there, and I can't find any pictures of it.

 

The house in the above photo is the house that played the Pink Palace in the 1982 film Sophie's Choice, starring Meryl Streep as Sophie, and Peter MacNicol (shown approaching the house) as Stingo. That house is located in Prospect Park South, on Rugby Road, a few blocks from where the real house once stood.

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10/15/64

 

My father's candy store was torn down in the 1980s. The spot where it once stood is now part of the Church Avenue subway station. For myriad reasons that I examine in Bobby in Naziland, there are no candy store pictures in our family photo album. I am, however, aware of two pictures of the store. One can be found here, among the collection of Brooklyn tax photos shot in 1940.

 

The other one is above, taken on the afternoon of October 15, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson was campaigning in Brooklyn along with Robert Kennedy, who was running for the senate.

 

To me, the most remarkable thing about this photo is not that the president and a Kennedy are riding in an open limousine less than a year after Dallas. It's that it's the best picture I have of the candy store. You can see it on the left, in the middle of the block, next to the entrance to the BMT subway station, and the photo is clear enough to make out individual magazines and newspapers hanging above the store's windows.

 

I found the photo on Reddit some time ago but have been unable to track down the photographer. I'd like to see what else he (or she) shot that day.

 

I was standing outside the frame, a half-block away, on the corner of East 17th Street. Another photo, taken there moments later, ran in Look magazine. I can't find it online—Look, apparently, has yet to be digitized. It shows LBJ lifting into the limo a woman holding a sign that says, "We Love You. We Need You."

 

Flatbush was indeed a Democratic stronghold, and even my law-and-order Republican father was so caught up in the Johnson-Kennedy mania unfolding outside his store that he felt it was his patriotic duty to offer the president one of his famous egg creams.

 

There's one more thing about the photo I should point out: There's not one black or brown face in the crowd. Flatbush, in 1964, remained segregated; racism ran rampant; and in certain quarters the "N-word" was tossed around with impunity.

 

This, too, is a tragedy that Bobby in Naziland explores viscerally and in depth.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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A Faded Relic

 

Each apartment in Brighton Hall had a sealed-off fireplace in the living room, and I felt a pang of regret every time I looked at the outline on the wall in my apartment where the fireplace used to be. It would have been so cool to have a working fireplace, and so warm to sit by the hearth on the frequent frigid winter days when the boiler was broken and there was no heat or hot water. Having earned a camping merit badge in the Boy Scouts, I was good at building fires.

 

The fireplace in the above photo was the only one in the building that was not completely hidden. It was located in a common room off to the side of the first-floor entrance hall. When I lived there, the room served no purpose (as is still the case); sometimes people chained up their bikes there. But the architectural detail that went into that room is indicative of the building's luxurious origins. Note the heads carved into the pseudo-Ionic columns above the mantle, framing a frieze; the combination Ionic-Corinthian marble column in the foreground (a counterpoint to the Doric columns outside); the marble panel next to the column; and the elaborate moldings on the ceiling and walls.

 

Because Brighton Hall would be located close to the Parade Grounds and Prospect Park, and around the corner from a subway that would put you in Manhattan in 20 minutes, the builders thought East 17th Street was a perfect spot for a luxury apartment house. But their timing was off. The Great Depression hit as the building was being completed, and neglect set in immediately. By the time my parents signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment, in 1953, Brighton Hall was a faded relic. But the rent was a reasonable $36 per month and my father could walk to work. His candy store on Church Avenue was 174 steps from the front door.

 

Even today, as Brooklyn becomes as gentrified as Manhattan, somehow the odd-numbered side of East 17th Street between Church and Caton Avenues remains the block that gentrification forgot.

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The Columns of Brighton Hall

 

Columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. You learn about them in school, especially if you studied architecture (which I did for a year at City College). They were a common sight in my neighborhood, found on all kinds of buildings, from shabby to sumptuous. (See "Tara of Flatbush.")

 

The columns in the above photo, taken in 2019, are the ones in front of Brighton Hall, the building on East 17th Street where I lived from 1953–65. The building itself and the street in front of it are two of the main settings for Bobby in Naziland.

 

As I've noted in previous posts, much about the building and street have changed in the ensuing decades. For example, it's a different front door, the concrete bannisters are gone, the lights are new, and there were no fences. The columns, too, have been modified. Though still clearly Doric, the fluting that I recall so well is no longer visible; the columns have been covered in some sort of spackle-like material and painted black. (Click here to see how the building looked in 1940.)

 

Yet there they stand, as solid as ever. And when I look upon them now, I remember that once upon a time I was small enough to fit, with room to spare, between the columns and the walls. And that's where I stood so many years ago when I pressed my cheek against the fluted gray stone.

 

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Tara of Flatbush

 

It's one of the most striking homes in serene and stately Prospect Park South, and I began to think of it as Tara of Flatbush after seeing Gone With the Wind. Modeled after a classical Greek temple, this glorious colonnaded abode looked like the kind of place Scarlett O'Hara would have wanted to live… had she ever come north to Brooklyn.

 

Flatbush Tara also had an attached greenhouse in the back (not visible in this photo), which appears to have been converted to a sunroom. It's smaller than I remember from bygone days, and I now doubt my entire apartment on East 17th Street, two blocks away, would have fit inside, as the caption, excerpted from Bobby in Naziland, says. But that's the way it looked to me as a kid—which is indicative of how the passage of time distorts memory. The more time that passes, the more the line blurs between what you remember and the reality of the way it was. That, too, is a theme I explore in the book.

 

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The Boulevards of Prospect Park South

 

The "mini-neighborhood" mentioned above, in another excerpt from chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews," of Bobby in Naziland, is Prospect Park South, an affluent district within working-class Flatbush.

 

Though Prospect Park South is in most ways the same as when I moved away, in 1965, two differences struck me when I returned in 2019: The houses are in much better shape than they were a half-century ago, and day trippers posing for selfies in front of the "eccentric mansions" now populate the "depopulated boulevards." The old hood has become a tourist destination.

 

You can see the graceful curve and some of the eccentric mansions in the photo, taken on Buckingham Road.

 

Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1. It's now available for pre-order on Amazon.

 

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Chvrch Avenve

 

The above caption is from chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews," of Bobby in Naziland, which Headpress will publish September 1. It describes the gateway to an opulent mini-neighborhood, within Flatbush, that stood in mind-boggling contrast to the shabbiness of East 17th Street, where I lived. The photo was taken recently, on the corner of Church Avenue and Marlboro Road. Though many things about the neighborhood have changed since 1965, when I moved away, some, like the red brick monoliths, are exactly the same.

 

"You don't have to be Jewish—or a Brooklynite—to be enchanted by this book."

 

As Bobby in Naziland's publication date inches closer, in addition to brief excerpts from the book and accompanying photos, I'll be posting links to reviews. In the first one, which ran in The Jewish Voice, a Brooklyn newspaper, the critic said, "You don't have to be Jewish—or a Brooklynite—to be enchanted by this book."

 

And I'll post information about media mentions, like the one you'll find in the coming attractions in the summer issue of Vanity Fair, on newsstands now. (Look for the Star Wars covers.)

 

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I Didn't Go Home Again

 

A few weeks ago, I went back to Flatbush with my personal paparazzo, Mary Lyn Maiscott, to photograph some of the locations I wrote about in Bobby in Naziland, which Headpress will publish September 1. One of the places I visited was Brighton Hall, the apartment building on East 17th Street, between Church and Caton Avenues, where I lived from 1953–65.

 

Much of the book is set in the building or on the street in front of it. Though parts of East 17th Street have become almost unrecognizable in the decades since I moved away, the interior of my old building—the banisters, the stairs, the tiles on the hallway floor—are unchanged. They are the original fixtures from when Brighton Hall was built, almost 90 years ago.

 

The stairs I'm sitting on, in the above photo, are right outside my old apartment, on the third floor. When I lived there, on days I didn't feel like going home, and it was too cold or wet to be outside, I sat on those steps biding my time, wondering if my mother was wondering where I was.

 

As I was sitting there, in 2019, a young man speaking Spanish on his cell phone came up the stairs and opened the door to my old apartment. I was tempted to ask him, in my fractured Spanish, if I could look inside. I hadn't seen the apartment in 54 years. But to ask such a question seemed rude and intrusive, to say the least. I couldn't bring myself to do it, and the door closed behind him.

 

So I didn't go home again. Maybe because you can't.

 

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The Past Came Calling

My father, Irwin Rosen, circa 1942.

Soon after the Brooklyn-based news site BK Reader published an article titled "New Book 'Bobby in Naziland' Tells a Different Tale of Flatbush," the past came calling—in the form of a tweet.

 

Somebody whose name I didn't recognize said he saw the article and thought we might be related. In the tweet, he asked about my father, Irwin Rosen, his candy store on Church Avenue, and two of my uncles, all of which I wrote about in the book.

 

My new Twitter follower is my father's first cousin—my first cousin once removed. And the likely reason I'd never heard of him is because of an ancient family feud of obscure origins that rendered a significant portion of my father's relatives persona non grata, at least as far as my parents were concerned. There are numerous people in my family whom my parents never told me about and whom I first learned about as an adult. Some of them are still alive; others share my last name and lived nearby when I was a kid.

 

In Bobby in Naziland, to be published in August, I write about the shock of these discoveries.

 

My cousin then sent me some family photos, including the one of my father, above.

 

As William Faulkner so aptly put it, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

 

Imagine if he had social media.

 

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Adventures in Fact Checking

 

I've been proofreading the galleys for Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, which Headpress will publish in the coming months. Part of the proofreading process involves fact checking—veryifying every name and date that it's possible to verify.

 

Mostly it's straightforward; a Google search provides the answer. But Bobby in Naziland, set in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, often defies Google. Checking the weather for a particular day in 1952, for example, involves digging through newspaper archives. And many of the Brooklyn places I wrote about are long gone—like N.E. Tell's bakery on Church Avenue. Was I spelling it correctly? Were there periods after the "N" and "E"? Was there a space between the two letters? Was there an apostrophe before the "s"?

 

The New York City Municipal Archives recently digitized their tax-photo collection, which they describe as follows:

 

Between 1939 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Taxation, organized teams of photographers to shoot pictures of every building in the five boroughs of New York City.

 

I found the answers to my spelling questions there—and it was a eureka moment of genuine excitement. Then I enlarged the photo, which you can do on the site, and saw the apostrophe "s" on the side of the truck. I felt as if I'd discovered a time machine.

 

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Naziland in 3-D

This computer-generated image of my forthcoming book, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, creates the illusion that the book exists, in three dimensions. It does not... yet. But this is what it will look like when it's published later this year, publication date soon to be announced.

 

 

A recent tweet from Headpress notes that Bobby in Naziland "touches on topics as wide ranging as the trial of Adolf Eichnmann, goyim, Jews, money, sex, class, racism, the Rosenbergs, the space race, UFOs, Eva Perón, President Kennedy, the Three Stooges, the New York Yankees, literature, language, and memory itself."

 

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Remembering Francine

Francine du Plessix Gray, shot by Irving Penn, on the cover of Vanity Fair, November 1983.

It was a long time ago, and the memories are starting to fade, but when I heard last week that Francine du Plessix Gray had died, at the age of 88, it reminded me, once again, of the best piece of writing advice I ever got. It's advice that I've adhered to since that autumn afternoon in 1975, in her office in the English department, at the City College of New York, when she showed me a spiral-bound notebook, the latest volume of the journal she'd been keeping since the summer of 1951, and said, "Keep a journal; write in it every day."

 

It was, she explained, how a writer finds his (or her) voice—by making writing as natural as breathing.

 

There were other bits of useful advice that Francine—we called her "Francine," not "Professor Gray"—shared with her students, advice of the sort you wouldn't normally get in a CCNY writing workshop. Like (and I forget her exact words, but the message was clear): Edit your own work when you're stoned on marijuana. You'll have no tolerance for bullshit and unnecessary verbiage.

 

Francine arrived at CCNY for the Spring 1975 semester, slated to teach one graduate and one undergraduate nonfiction writing workshop (what would now be called "creative nonfiction"). I met her my first day back at school—I'd gotten my BA in creative writing and then taken off a few months to travel. Now I was about to embark on a course of study in the graduate literature program after having been rejected from the creative writing program, which, at the time, I saw as the key to my future. I was 21 years old and crushed. The writing program at City College, in those magical days of free tuition, was a promised land where, for little more than the cost of books, one could study under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and Joseph Heller, the department chairman, who had personally rejected me.

 

I thought studying literature might be a constructive way to kill time while I figured out what to do with my life.

 

I was wandering through the English department—a quonset hut on South Campus—attempting to put together a not-too-demanding schedule of classes, when a woman, fashion-model tall with blonde hair and wearing a Viva magazine T-shirt, asked me, with the slightest hint of what I took for an indeterminate European accent, if I knew where the administration building was.

 

"New here?" I inquired after giving her directions. I thought she might be a night-school student.

 

Yes, she replied, she'd just been hired to teach a creative writing workshop.

 

She asked me other questions about the college, and in the course of our conversation, I told her that I used to edit one of the student newspapers and that I'd been rejected from the creative writing program.

 

What happened next still seems miraculous. Francine asked me to bring her some of my stories that had been published in the newspaper. I brought her a half-dozen samples of my work, and when I returned to her office later that afternoon, she looked up from my articles, spread out on her desk, and declared, "This is gonzo!"

 

She invited me to take her graduate writing workshop and asked if I'd be her graduate assistant.

 

I was in!

 

Because Francine never talked about it in any detail, all I knew about her history was what I read in the short excerpts about her European childhood—governesses, a Russian mother, Paris—that she showed the class from the autobiographical novel she was writing at the time, Lovers and Tyrants. Had I heard that her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was the editorial director of Condé Nast, it would have meant nothing to me. I'm not sure I knew that Condé Nast was a magazine-publishing company.

 

But what was really important to me about Francine was that she taught creative writing in a way that none of my other teachers had. Where Heller, for example, said that there was only one way to write a story—well-plotted with a beginning, middle, climax, and end… no deviations and no sci-fi, supernatural, or detective stories—Francine believed the best way to write was in fragments. Don't think about plot or form. Just get something good down on paper. Trust your unconscious and eventually the fragments will congeal into a coherent whole.

 

Rather than stories, she assigned fragments. Start from the inside and work your way out: first describe an emotional experience, then a small space, then a person, then a larger space, and keep going until you finally work your way up to describing a historical event.

 

This made sense to me and I flourished.

 

Once a week, after she taught her undergraduate class, we'd sit together in her little office in the English Hut, as it was called, critiquing stories, with me, on occasion, alerting her to an unexpected gem.

 

It went on like this for two terms, during which she guided me though my first attempt to get a full-length book off the ground, reading and editing my rough drafts. After I'd badly missed the mark on one of her assignments, she made a prediction: "You're going to write darkly humorous books and travel around the world."

 

And our bond became stronger because we were both plagued by a stutter that came and went depending on how stressed we were. Writing was a way to express ourselves fluently.

 

Francine left City College in 1976, returning to Connecticut and a life of writing books (At Home with the Marquis de Sade, World Without End, October Blood, and Them, among others) and magazine articles, including covering the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbi for Vanity Fair, which won a National Magazine Award for best reporting.

 

I somehow muddled through my final term of grad school without her.

 

Over the years, we'd exchange an occasional postcard, but by the mid-1980s we'd fallen out of touch. I now wonder if she was aware that her prediction had come to pass.

 

Yes, Francine, there have been a handful of "darkly humorous" books and there has been much travel to distant lands to talk about them. And I often think of you when I write in my notebook—which I still do every day.

 

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Coverboy

The cover photo on my new book, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, to be published in the coming months by Headpress, was taken by my mother, in my grandmother's house, in 1956, with a Brownie Hawkeye camera.

 

"Smile naturally!" my mother demanded as she snapped the picture. Her direction made me so nervous, I couldn't smile at all. I could only stare into the camera in a state of deer-in-the-headlights shock.

 

The photo sits atop the piano in my house. And though I've been living with it for more than 60 years, it never occurred to me it could be a book cover. In fact, I couldn't think of any single image that would capture the essence of Bobby in Naziland.

 

"What about this?" my wife asked, showing me the photo.

 

It was perfect, I realized: the expression, the position of my hands, the saddle shoes, high-waisted pants, and 50s-style shirt.

 

Headpress thought so, too, and added the frame, wallpaper, and map of Flatbush.

 

"Good work," I told my mother. "Did you know you were shooting a book cover that day?"

 

She thought that was funny. I thought it was funny that my unsmiling four-year-old self had become a coverboy.

 

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Mundo Babel: El Día que murió John Lennon/Babel World: The Day John Lennon Died

En mi entrevista con Juan Pablo Silvestre, presentador de Mundo Babel, transmitido por Radio 3 de España, el 8 de diciembre de 2018, en el 38 aniversario del asesinato de John Lennon, yo comento la última edición en español de mi libro Nowhere Man: Los últimos días de John Lennon. Entre los tópicos, que exploré con detalle en el curso de nuestra conversación, están: el proceso de edición y transcripción de los diarios de flujo de conciencia, que Lennon mantuvo desde enero de 1975 hasta el día que murió; mi relación con el asistente personal de Lennon, Fred Seaman, quien me dio los diarios; y el estado mental del asesino de Lennon, Mark David Chapman.

 

Silvestre empieza el programa con un corte extendido de "Walking on Thin Ice", la canción de Yoko Ono que Lennon estaba grabando con ella la noche del 8 de diciembre, e ilustra nuestro diálogo con canciones de Lennon con los Beatles y de su carrera como solista, incluyendo "Imagine", "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", "A Day in the Life" y "(Just Like) Starting Over".

 

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Babel World: The Day John Lennon Died

 

In my interview with Juan Pablo Silvestre, host of Mundo Babel, broadcast on Radio 3 Spain, on December 8, 2018, the 38th anniversary of John Lennon's murder, I discussed the latest Spanish edition of my book Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. Among the topics I explored in detail in the course of our conversation are: the process of editing and transcribing the stream-of-consciousness diaries Lennon kept from January 1975 until the day he died; my relationship with Lennon's personal assistant Fred Seaman, who gave me the diaries; and the state of mind of Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.

 

Silvestre begins the show with an extended cut of "Walking on Thin Ice," Yoko Ono's song that Lennon was recording with her on the night of December 8, and he illustrates our dialogue with songs from Lennon's Beatles and solo career, including "Imagine," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "A Day in the Life," and "(Just Like) Starting Over."

 

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Gracias Madrid/Thank You, Madrid

El grupo en el restaurante Strawberry Fields después de mi presentación en el Café Comercial, en Madrid. El traductor Diego Harris está en el extremo izquierdo; Mary Lyn Maiscott, Robert Rosen y María Martín son el quinto, el sexto y el séptimo desde la izquierda. (Si a alguien más le gustara ser identificado, por favor déjemelo saber)./The crowd at Strawberry Fields restaurant after my presentation at Café Comercial, in Madrid. Translator Diego Harris is at the far left; Mary Lyn Maiscott, Robert Rosen, and María Martín are fifth, sixth, and seventh from left. (If anybody else would like to be identified, please let me know.)

 

"Esta es una de las noches más memorables de mi carrera", le dije al grupo reunido en Strawberry Fields, un local de hamburguesas cuadra abajo desde el Café Comercial, en Madrid. Era el 3 de noviembre y recién habíamos venido del café, donde por las últimas dos horas yo había estado respondiendo preguntas, sobre la nueva edición en español de mi libro Nowhere Man. Y ese céntrico restaurante beatle era el lugar ideal, para celebrar mi primera presentación en España. El video "Hey Jude" de los Beatles estaba rodando en la pantalla detrás de nosotros, y mi esposa, Mary Lyn Maiscott, señaló que su viejo amigo Joel Soroka estaba tocando la pandereta, en esa cápsula de tiempo de 50 años. María Martín, quien colabora con Jordi Melgosa en la revista beatle El Submarí Groc y quien organizó el evento, pareció encantada con esta pequeña noticia.

La energía había sido eléctrica durante toda la noche. Me sorprendía y apocaba que tantas personas hubieran venido de toda España, para asistir al evento. Su amor por los Beatles era incondicional; estaban ansiosos de cualquier información nueva, y deseosos de oír lo que yo tuviera que decir sobre mis experiencias, de muchos años atrás, mientras editaba los diarios de John Lennon. Sus preguntas fueron desafiantes, fue como una conferencia de prensa. Yo lamento que no pude ofrecer mejores respuestas, a la ráfaga de preguntas sobre la ama de llaves española de John Lennon, Rosaura López Lorenzo, sobre quien conocí mucho después que Nowhere Man fuera publicado. Cuando se trataba de los empleados, Lennon sólo escribía sobre esos que lo enojaban y, al parecer, Rosaura se las agenció para quedarse en su lado bueno.

La audiencia llenó el café con una clase de emoción, que no se parece a ninguna cosa que yo haya visto en Estados Unidos en décadas. Estos fanáticos de los Beatles españoles eran personas no cínicas, que no pudieron obtener suficiente de los Cuatro Fabulosos cuando ellos existían como grupo, o que habían nacido demasiado tarde y los habían extrañado por completo.

Como mi traductor, Diego Harris, quien nació en 1977, me había dicho antes: “Yo estoy feliz de haber estado vivo al mismo tiempo que John Lennon.”

Hacia el final de la presentación, yo expliqué cómo mi experiencia me había habilitado para escribir Nowhere Man, y leí un extracto de mi nuevo libro, Bobby en Nazilandia (que será publicado el próximo año, por Headpress), describiendo cómo compré mi primer álbum grabado, Meet the Beatles, por tres dólares, en una tienda de cinco y diez centavos el 10 de febrero de 1964, el día después que la banda apareció por primera vez en el programa de Ed Sullivan. Fue, dije, “la primera vez en mi vida, que yo poseyera una música que pudiera llamar mía propia”. Y por el medio siglo siguiente, he continuado prestando una atención cercana.

Esa noche mágica en Madrid, marcó asimismo el 18 aniversario de la publicación de un libro, que por 18 años nadie había publicado. Yo dudo que pudiera haber habido una mejor manera de celebrarlo, que con mis nuevos amigos en el Café Comercial y en la fiesta posterior en Strawberry Fields. Me sentí como un embajador de Nutopia, un representante terrenal del señor Lennon, haciendo lo que pudiera para comunicar su vibra, en un tiempo cuando parece que nosotros podemos necesitarla más que nunca.

Así que yo quiero expresar mi más profunda gratitud, a todos quienes hicieron posible el evento y vinieron al Café Comercial, especialmente a María; a Diego, por sus extraordinarias traducciones al vuelo; a Arturo Gonzalez, editor de 10, Mathew Street, por su cobertura a lo largo de los años, y por el gran tour por Madrid que él y su esposa Almudena nos dieron a Mary Lyn y a mí; y a René Portas, quien tradujo no sólo Nowhere Man, sino asimismo la declaración de apertura que yo leí en el café, así como éste y muchos otros posts del blog.

¡Gracias a todos!

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Thank You, Madrid


“This is one of the most memorable nights of my career,” I told the crowd gathered at Strawberry Fields, a hamburger joint down the block from Café Comercial, in Madrid. It was November 3, and we’d just come from the café, where for the past two hours I’d been answering questions about the new Spanish edition of my book Nowhere Man. And this Beatles-centric restaurant was the ideal place to celebrate my first presentation in Spain. The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” video was playing on the screen behind us, and my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, pointed out that her old friend Joel Soroka was playing the tambourine in this 50-year-old time capsule. María Martín, who collaborates with Jordi Melgosa on the Beatles magazine El Submarí Groc and who organized the event, seemed delighted with this unexpected bit of news.

The energy had been electric throughout the night. I was amazed and humbled that so many people had come from all over Spain to attend the event. Their love of the Beatles was unconditional; they were hungry for any new information and eager to hear what I had to say about my experiences, so many years ago, editing John Lennon’s diaries. Their questions were challenging—it was like a press conference. I’m sorry that I couldn’t provide better answers to the flurry of questions about John Lennon’s Spanish housekeeper, Rosaura López Lorenzo, whom I learned about long after Nowhere Man was published. When it came to employees, Lennon only wrote about the ones who pissed him off and, apparently, Rosaura managed to stay on his good side.

The audience filled the café with the kind of emotion that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in America in decades. These Spanish Beatle fanáticos were uncynical people who couldn’t get enough of the Fab Four when they existed as a group, or were born too late and had missed them entirely.

As my translator, Diego Harris, who was born in 1977, had told me earlier, “I’m happy to have been alive at the same time as John Lennon.”

Toward the end of the presentation, I explained how my background had enabled me to write Nowhere Man, and I read an excerpt from my new book, Bobby in Naziland (to be published next year, by Headpress), describing how I bought my first record album, Meet the Beatles, for three dollars, in a five-and-dime store on February 10, 1964, the day after the band first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was, I said, “the first time in my life I possessed music I could call my own.” And for the next half century, I’ve continued to pay close attention.

This magical night in Madrid also marked the 18th anniversary of the publication of a book that, for 18 years, nobody would publish. I doubt there could have been a better way to celebrate than with my new friends in Café Comercial and at the after-party in Strawberry Fields. I felt like the Nutopian ambassador, an earthly representative of Señor Lennon, doing what I could to communicate his vibe at a time when it seems as if we need it more than ever.

So I want to express my deepest gratitude to everybody who made the event possible and who came to Café Comercial—especially María; Diego, for his extraordinary on-the-fly translations; Arturo Gonzalez, editor of 10, Mathew Street, for his coverage over the years and for the grand tour of Madrid he and his wife Almudena gave Mary Lyn and me; and René Portas, who translated not only Nowhere Man, but also the opening statement I read at the café as well as this and many other blog posts.

¡Gracias a todos!

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Vote, Just Vote...

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Una tarde con Robert Rosen en Madrid

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Encuentro Con El Autor

Sábado 3 de noviembre, a las 18.00 pm en el Café Comercial de Madrid—1a planta (Glorieta de Bilbao 7)

Apertura 17:30 pm

Entrada Gratuita

Robert Rosen, autor del best-seller Nowhere Man sobre los diarios secretos de John Lennon, ofrecerá una charla acerca de su libro el Sábado 3 noviembre, a las 18.00 pm en el Café Comercial de Madrid, en lo que será la primera visita del autor neoyorkino a nuestro país.

En mayo de 1981, los diarios de John Lennon, que cubrían los años 1975-1980, llegaron de forma inesperada a manos de Rosen con la misión de ser transcritos para una biografía.

Más información: eventorobertrosen@gmail.com.

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Finally...

Church Avenue near East 17th Street in Flatbush, in the early 1960s: the main drag of Bobby in Naziland.

 

I received word recently that Headpress, the publisher of my previous book, Beaver Street, will publish Bobby in Naziland sometime next year--as nonfiction.

There will be a lot more news to come. For now, here’s a synopsis:

From the final days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the mid-1950s, to the arrival of the Beatles, in 1964, Bobby in Naziland takes you on an unsentimental journey through one Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood. Though only a 20-minute and 15-cent subway ride from the gleaming towers of Manhattan across the East River, Flatbush—or Flapbush, as native Flatbushians called it—was a provincial, working-class place, frozen in time, where concentration camp survivors and army vets who’d fought the Nazis lived side by side and World War II lingered like a mass hallucination (along with the ghost of the Dodgers). It was a place hell-bent on vengeance, seething with hatred, and suffering from an epidemic of what was not yet called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Voice-driven and darkly comic, this slice of autobiography focuses on the interplay of the personal and historical, and is narrated by “Bobby,” an adult who channels thoughts and emotions from his childhood: “I was 97 days old when a one-footed Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Edward Teller, the real Dr. Strangelove, more commonly known as ‘the father of the H-bomb,’ introduced Planet Earth to this brand-new way to exterminate the human race.”

Grappling to understand and come to terms with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation and the historical weight of the Holocaust, the young Bobby obsessively draws mushroom clouds and broods about Nazi atrocities as he watches his family and neighbors celebrate the capture, trial, and execution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Along the way, he provides a child’s-eye view of the mid-20th-century American experience, often as it plays out in his father’s candy store. Among the subjects he explores are goyim, Jews, money, sex, class, racism, the Rosenbergs, the space race, UFOs, Eva Perón, President Kennedy, the Three Stooges, the New York Yankees, literature, language, and memory itself.

The story moves towards a climactic moment of self-discovery through self-mutilation, a misguided act brought about by emotional abuse, the physical violence so prevalent in the neighborhood, and the latent yet inescapable pain of the Holocaust survivors and World War II vets who surround Bobby.

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Shelter, Drugs, and Blowjobs

“Don’t publish it,” my editor, who also happens to be my wife, said to me after reading the previous draft of this review. “It sounds mean-spirited. It makes you look bad.”

I told her that I’d written the review in the same spirit—mean—as Gene Gregorits showed in Bigger Than Life at the Edge of the City. “It’s a vile book,” I said. “Totally fucked up. But it’s somehow compelling in its nauseating way. I read every word.”

“Why do you want to make some guy in prison mad at you?”

“He’s not going to get mad. He’s going to love the review. He’s always bitching about how critics never read his books. He’ll be thrilled to get a reaction. That’s the whole point of the book... to get a reaction.”

“But nobody knows who Gregorits is. They’re going to think you’re the one who’s fucked up.”

If you don’t know who Gene Gregorits is, a bit of background is in order. Gregorits is an anti-commercial, quasi-avant-garde writer who, despite holding mainstream publishing in contempt, longs for commercial success. In a scene in Bigger, which Gregorits calls a novel but is actually nonfiction (or close to it), he tells one of his patrons, “I don’t have the backing of a major publisher and the fucking audience I want.”

Due to his inability to find a publisher, Gregorits formed a company, Monastrell, to bring out his own books, and he has gone to extreme lengths to draw attention to those books. Once, he had somebody videotape him as he cut off part of his ear and ate it. In the course of this self-destructive crusade, Gregorits has made himself a martyr to bland commercialism.

A few years ago, after he had sex with an underage girl, the state of Florida sentenced him to 15 years in what amounts to a slave-labor camp. He’s lucky they didn’t lobotomize him.

Bigger was written in that slave-labor camp.

I’ve never met Gregorits. I know him through social media and his books. We have a few mutual acquaintances.

In the interest of salvaging what I can from the previous mean-spirited draft, I present below, as objectively as I can, a number of critical points about Bigger:

· In his typical self-defeating manner, Gregorits insults his readers, calling them “power-tripped, pussy-whipped pretty boys.”

· He describes Bigger as “post cultural” and “meta cultural.” These are meaningless terms, presumably intended to obscure the fact that he’s writing about real people and using their real names.

· I contacted one of the main “characters,” the patron who bankrolled his previous book, to see if she’d care to comment on her portrayal in this one. Gregorits describes her by name as “fat, homely, and talentless,” and “disheveled, obese, bucktoothed.” “No comment,” is what she had to say, and who can blame her? These descriptions, chosen at random among a multitude of similar phrases, should serve as a warning to anybody else who might consider giving Gregorits money, shelter, food, drugs, and/or blowjobs.

· Gregorits makes it clear just how treacherous he is. One character tells him, “Half of New York is still screaming for your blood.” Another says, “You screwed over everybody south of 14th Street.”

· Bigger is an often well-written and at times poetic catalogue of Gregorits’s hatreds. It’s almost as if he can’t write about something unless he hates it, and he hates everything, with the exceptions of good wine and beer, cats, a couple of punk bands, and the rare human being—like a sharply dressed “gentleman” who’s dying of cancer and “a super-hip mid-30s Jewess.” (Gregorits is obviously aware that Jewess is a loaded word—a Nazi word—that says nothing about the character and everything about his need for gratuitous provocation.)

· Bigger is a meandering, Henry Miller–Hunter Thompson-esque account of the life of Gene Gregorits, a homeless, filthy, foul-smelling crack junkie with rotting toenails—who might be HIV-positive but doesn’t seem to care—surviving on the Florida Gulf Coast. After a hurricane and an episode of sloshing around in raw sewage, he moves to the New York–New Jersey area at Christmastime 2012, and, staying with his patron, “equal parts Tammy Faye Bakker, Holly Woodlawn, and Gena Rowlands,” he switches to booze and coke, is interviewed by Vice.com—the interview reproduced word-for-word as a chapter, just in case anybody mistakes the book for fiction—and then gives a reading at a bar on the Lower East Side.

· Prison can be a good thing for a serious writer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gregorits is already working on a book about his life of slave labor in Florida’s Apalachee Correctional Institute. He might remind himself, as he sits in his cell, scribbling with a ballpoint, what death row and a last-second reprieve while standing before a firing squad did for Dostoevsky—and his career.

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John, el último día de Lennon


Este es el musical chileno inspirado por Nowhere Man. Puede leer sobre ello aquí.

This is the Chilean musical inspired by Nowhere Man. You can read about it here.

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Cold Case II: Police Seek Information on Gay Man's 1991 Murder

In Beaver Street and on this blog, I've written about the 1991 murder of Bill Bottiggi, a former co-worker at Swank Publications. Three years ago I said that the suspect was in custody and "his DNA matched the DNA found on clothing he'd left at the scene of the murder." This proved not to be true and the suspect was released.

But the cold case squad continued to do their work, and the other day the headline, “Police Seek Information on Gay Man’s 1991 Murder,” appeared in Gay City News. The story is about the life and death of Bottiggi. You can read it here.

The police are asking anybody with information about the crime to call 800-577-TIPS. There’s a $2,500 reward if that information leads to the suspect’s arrest and conviction.

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It Takes a President

In 1998, at the height of Clinton impeachment mania, I, as editor of Sex Acts magazine, commissioned a cartoonist to illustrate “choice” parts of the Starr Report, independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s record of his run-amok investigation of a White House enmeshed in scandal—financial, political, and sexual. The report, now best remembered for its explicit descriptions of the multiple erotic encounters between a 49-year-old sitting president and his 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky, was published unexpurgated in The New York Times, marking the first time the Gray Lady had allowed “fuck” and “blowjob” to stain her pages.

One Sex Acts cartoon illustrates a tryst that, according to the Starr Report, took place in the White House study on December 31, 1995. It shows Bill Clinton, pants around his knees, displaying a curving erection of porn-star proportions that appears to be Viagra-enhanced—though Viagra wouldn’t be available to the general public for three more years. It’s an image that encapsulates much of what The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido (Twelve), by Vanity Fair editor David Friend, is about.

That’s presumably why the words “Naughty Nineties,” as they appear on the cover of this 632-page epic, are shaped like a curving, fully engorged, seven-and-three-eighths-inch phallus—though the effect is subliminal. I’d been reading the book for a month before I noticed it. I now assume that phallus is meant to represent Clinton’s penis, which is really a stand-in for every Boomer phallus that ever grew erect in the nineties.

If Bill Clinton and his penis are the star of this leave-no-stone-unturned analysis of the decade in which libidinous Baby Boomers took over America, Viagra is the co-star, and the complex, dramatic, and at times touching tale of how it was discovered, tested, named, and marketed, and then became one of the best-selling prescription pharmaceuticals ever—thus bringing erections and their dysfunction into our living rooms—may be the most fascinating part of The Naughty Nineties. (See “The Hardener’s Tale” and “Homo Erectus.”)

Hillary Clinton, weaponized gossip, and the Internet are among the major supporting players, with the latter two bearing responsibility for the “tabloidification” of an era in which “we learn not only that Prince Charles is having an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, but are treated to a recording of Charles stating that he wants to be her tampon.”

It’s also a decade in which expansive silicone breasts and the $10-to-14-billion-a-year pornography industry emerged from the shadows to penetrate every segment of mainstream media and society.

My book Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography is among the multitude of texts that Friend, whom I work with at Vanity Fair, consulted in the course of his research, and The Naughty Nineties elaborates on some of the material I touched on. In discussing Lyndon Johnson’s porn-investigation commission, for example, I describe the president as “a corrupt Texas Democrat with a big dong,” before moving on to Richard Nixon’s war on porn. But how is it known that Johnson had a big dick? Friend explains: “He was known to flabbergast acquaintances by whipping out his Texas longhorn of a pecker.”

This kind of breezy, vernacular-laced prose makes The Naughty Nineties an entertaining alternative to the slew of turgidly written textbooks dominating undergraduate reading lists for any number of history, sociology, political science, gender studies, and communications courses, such as U.C.L.A.’s “Pornography and Evolution.”

The scene in “Chez Fleiss” of Friend’s journey through the Mojave Desert to visit “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss contains another good example: “To get here, I have driven an hour along the parched perimeter of Death Valley without spying a human soul. And then, like some portent out of Castaneda, I see a vision. A titty bar.”

Yet Friend’s intent is never less than serious, and his research sets a scholarly standard for comprehensiveness, no matter how raw the subject matter. In “Botox, Booties, and Bods,” he explores rap culture’s fetishization of the female buttocks, cataloguing, in three jam-packed paragraphs, Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliot’s “crooning about the merits of a fuller moon”; Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” a.k.a. “(Doin’) the Butt”; 2 Live Crew’s “Face Down, Ass Up”; Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Appelbum”; Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre’s coining the word “bootylicious”; Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker”; DJ Jubilee’s inventing the term “twerk”; Juvenile’s “Back That Azz/Thang Up”; Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty”; and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Ubiquitous and fulsome footnotes, which could comprise a volume unto themselves, enrich this meticulous detail. (The mother of all footnotes, on pages 467–68—perhaps the longest annotation I’ve personally encountered—analyzes why the institution of marriage is “on the rocks.”)

Friend is at home, as well, with the erotic. In “The Glory of O” he brings to life a masturbation workshop: “Ken, ever stroking, tells the audience, ‘Her clit just grabbed on to my finger.’ Her legs shake and flutter. ‘The clitoris is a spinning top,’ he says, ‘now spinning by itself.’”

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the nineties set the stage for the ascent of Donald Trump and a presidency in which politics, pornography, gossip, and reality TV are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. And Friend, rising to the occasion, ends with “The Trumpen Show.” But is Trump the terrible tyrant of a passing moment—the Tawdry, Tempestuous Teens, when the Times turns to titan of adult cinema Ron Jeremy for insight on POTUS paramour Stormy Daniels, the biggest XXX superstar since Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace? (It takes a president.) Or has he brought us to the edge of an Enervating Endtimes, leaving us longing for the days when the most horrific thing you’d read in your daily newspaper was Ken Starr’s depiction of Oval Office anilingus?

We’ll just have to wait for the return of the Roaring Twenties for an answer. They’ll be upon us soon enough.

—Robert Rosen

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Mi entrevista con El Submarí Groc/My Interview With The Yellow Submarine

En mayo de 1981 el asistente personal de John Lennon, Fred Seaman, me dio los diarios que Lennon había estado escribiendo, entre enero de 1975 y el 8 de diciembre de 1980, el día en que fue asesinado. Esos diarios, explicó Seaman, eran la clave del proyecto, que Lennon le había pedido llevara a cabo en evento de su muerte. Seaman iba a escribir la historia verdadera de los últimos años de Lennon, y quería que yo lo ayudara a hacerlo.

Yo acepté ese encargo sabiendo, que podría ejecutarlo en un espíritu que fuera verdadero para John. La historia de los diarios es la historia que cuento en Nowhere Man: Los últimos días de John Lennon.

Desde ese día de 37 años atrás en que Seaman me dio los diarios, mucho se ha escrito sobre lo que hice con éstos. Pero una simple verdad se ha perdido en las resmas de la cobertura de los medios: yo traté esos diarios con amor y respeto, y los usé para crear un retrato de John Lennon como un ser humano tri-dimensional.

En la entrevista de María Martín a mí, en el último número de la revista beatleriana española El Submarí Groc, y en el video de abajo, en inglés con subtítulos en español, ella pone en claro esa simple verdad, diciendo en el titular que “Robert Rosen… nos acerca la belleza de un John Lennon humano.”

Ha sido como un arribo tras largo tiempo.

Para pedir una copia de El Submarí Groc, escribe a elsubmarigroc@hotmail.com.

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My Interview With The Yellow Submarine


In May 1981, John Lennon's personal assistant Fred Seaman gave me the diaries that Lennon had been writing in between January 1975 and December 8, 1980, the day he was murdered. These journals, Seaman explained, were the key to the project Lennon had asked him to carry out in the event of his death. Seaman was to write the true story of Lennon's final years and he wanted me to help him do it.

I accepted this assignment knowing that I could execute it in a spirit that was true to John. The story of the diaries is the story I tell in Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon.

Since the day 37 years ago that Seaman gave me the diaries, much has been written about what I did with them. But a simple truth has gotten lost in the reams of media coverage: I treated those diaries with love and respect, and used them to create a portrait of John Lennon as a three-dimensional human being.

In María Martín’s interview with me in the latest issue of the Spanish Beatles magazine El Submarí Groc (The Yellow Submarine)—and in the above video, in English with Spanish subtitles—she makes that simple truth clear, saying in the headline that “Robert Rosen… brings us the beauty of a human John Lennon” (“nos acerca la belleza de un John Lennon humano”).

It’s been a long time coming.

To order a copy of El Submarí Groc, write to elsubmarigroc@hotmail.com.

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