(Peter Conrad’s article appeared in the Observer, 2/27.)
Tricia Romano’s entertaining oral history of the radical New York newspaper is an elegy to a rough and ready era of punch-ups and passion
Midway between the glitz of Times Square and the grind of Wall Street, Greenwich Village used to be New York’s ulterior zone, a refuge for artists and agitators, dropouts and sexual dissidents. With the New York Times established as the city’s greyly official almanac, in 1955 this bohemian enclave acquired its own parochial weekly, the Village Voice. The rowdy, raucous Voice deserved its name, and now, following its closure in 2018 (it has since been revived as a quarterly), it has an appropriately oral history. The collage of interviews in The Freaks Came Out to Write extends from the paper’s idealistic beginnings to its tawdry decline, when it scavenged for funds by running sleazy ads for massage parlours.
The Voice’s origins were proudly amateurish. One early contributor was a homeless man recruited from a local street; equipment consisted of two battered typewriters, an ink-splattering mimeograph machine and a waste paper basket for rejected submissions. Morale spiked when a staff member discovered that dried pods used in fancy flower arrangements contained opium, which was boiled up in the office when the time came for a coffee break. Editorial standards hardly matched the pedantic correctness of the New Yorker. Norman Mailer, a columnist for a while, loudly berated a Voice copytaker who mistook “nuance” for “nuisance” and ordered the cowering menial to “take your thumb out of your asshole!”
The Village’s voices were journalists of a new kind, flashy and often crazily quirky
Behaviour like this was the rule at the ungenteel Voice. An investigative reporter joined forces with teenage gangs on looting expeditions, and during a riot at Tompkins Square in the East Village another journalist relished the wet but effective weaponry used by squatters, who bagged their own urine, added donations from stray cats, and dropped the plastic sacks from rooftops on to the police below. “Cops will run away from cat urine,” we’re assured. “It’s a lot better than a gun.”
At the New York Times, someone else reflects, people stabbed you in the back, whereas the more upfront writers at the Voice aimed for the chest. Notoriously competitive, contributors denounced one another in abusive slogans scrawled on the walls of the office toilet. Occasionally there were punch-ups in the newsroom. “You may kick my ass,” the music critic Stanley Crouch warned a colleague, “but I’m going to hurt you.” If pinioned to prevent him from using his fists, Crouch savaged his opponents with his teeth instead. A battle of the sexes was fought more peaceably in an exchange of epithets. Mailer snarled that the Voice’s feminist contributors wrote “like very tough faggots”; one of the women snapped back by denouncing Mailer and the jazz critic Nat Hentoff as “old-school male fuckheads” or “absolute oppositional pieces of shit”.