Ginsberg, Streisand, and The Village: Beyond The Holocaust

“We just knew him as Ginsberg with the thick glasses. His glasses were so thick, I don’t know how he could see what he was typing.”

                                                                – Martin Spett

Growing up, I always figured my father for a square. Having been born in 1928 to parents who were of the 19th Century, he, himself, seemed very Victorian in attitude. He came from an Orthodox Jewish household, and for many years he inculcated those values in us quite strictly.

Martin Spett is well known today for his artwork, his writings, and his lectures on his experiences during The Holocaust. Many people are familiar with his book, REFLECTIONS OF THE SOUL, and his paintings are part of university and museum collections all over the world.

But his formation didn’t end in April of 1945. You can say that he didn’t start LIVING until the early 1950s, as a young man in New York City.

My father’s dream was to be an artist, an illustrator.

In 1951, my grandfather, Arthur Spett, opened a delicatessen at 483 Brook Avenue in the Bronx. My father and his family lived in the notorious Hunt’s Point neighborhood. My grandfather had my father and grandmother slaving away in the Deli all day long, for no pay. Although my father made Romanian Steaks that people came and specifically stood in line for, that was not what my father saw in his future.

He took private lessons with the famous graphic artist, Carmen Bonanno, at his small studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. You can still see the influence of Bonanno’s style in my father’s work. Martin Spett also studied at the Cartoonists And Illustrators School, which would later be known as the School of Visual Arts (SVA). But, dues for the Illustrators’ Guild were farm more than he could afford. So, he went to work as a leather craftsman and pocketbook designer, a trade that he had learned in Brussels, Belgium, after The War.

FAST FORWARD TO THE PRESENT

One afternoon, I was watching one of my favorite POETRY SPOT episodes on Youtube. My father walked in, and he said, “Oh, Ginsberg”, to which I replied, “Yes, that’s Allen Ginsburg, he’s probably my favorite poet.”

Much to my astonishment, my father responded, “We just knew him as Ginsberg with the thick glasses. His glasses were so thick, I don’t know how he could see what he was typing.”

Then, my father revealed a piece of his history that none of us had ever heard:

In the 1950s, my father belonged to a number of different groups. After work, he used to spend his evenings on the town. It turns out that my father spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village with his friends, hanging out in coffee shops and going to private poetry and music gatherings that were by invitation only, and only if they knew you.

And so he told me that Allen Ginsberg was a friend of a friend. He said they all hung out at a coffee shop at 17 Barrow Street, in The Village. But, there were these closed-door events, where Allen Ginsberg would read his poetry.

“You would go up these steep, narrow, stairs, and there would be a large room. Marijuana was everywhere. The people who weren’t smoking marijuana were smoking their own hand-rolled cigarettes. People were sitting on chairs, or on the floor, drinking either wine or espresso.”

He said that he also saw Barbara Streisand on the scene. He remembered her name forever, not only for the obvious reasons but also because he was quite attracted to her. At that time, Babs was a singing waitress. My father fondly remembered her as wearing Gipsy/Peasant clothing, going from table to table, singing. He still loves her voice.

One of my absolute favorite Ginsberg poems is “America.” I recited it for my father, trying to come as close to Allen Ginsberg’s original phrasing and inflection as I could. It seemed to take my father back.

Now, my father mentioned that Ginsberg always hung out with one particular guy, but he couldn’t remember his name. So today, I showed him several pictures:

First, I showed him a picture of Peter Orlovsky, a notable poet in his own right, but he was also Ginsberg’s long-time boyfriend. No, that wasn’t him. My father said that he looked familiar, but that a lot of people in that group looked similar.

Next, I showed him a picture of William Boroughs. My father didn’t recognize him at all.

Finally, I showed him a picture of Jack Kerouac. DING! DING! DING! That was him.

I am still astonished that my father, this man who I always knew as being particularly rigid, with Victorian values, was a legit part of the Beat New York Scene of the 1950s.

So, take this to heart: While you can, try, my father is 89 years old, at least once, to have a meaningful conversation with your parent(s) about their private lives. You may be amazed at what you’d find.

 

©2017, A. A. Spett.

 

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