Memoirs: Chapter Seven
The Early Sixties in New York
Traveling by PanAm, that wonderful airline that exists no more, I stopped off in London for a week so as to become familiar with the illuminated manuscript in the British Museum that I had chosen as the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Then in late March it was on to New York, where I went immediately to my new home, a large apartment on Riverside Drive that I was to share with two other young men.
Perhaps Rome had spoiled me, but the city seemed less welcoming than before. In fact as I sought to reacquaint myself with familiar haunts, New York City came to seem downright grim. To be sure, I had been aware of the gritty side during my previous sojourn, but then it had simply added to the authenticity of the place. In short it wasn't so much that the city had declined, but that my personal situation had changed.
I was still working for McGraw-Hill; I continued with the Encyclopedia of World Art, where I became Translation Editor. The problems seemed endless, and I was often forced to work late without any extra pay, With little experience in such matters, I found office politics hard to navigate.
Outside the office I found that there was little interest in my recent stay. I became something of an Italy bore.
To be sure, challenging times were ahead for the city and the nation, but in 1960 these were not so evident. To be sure,the Civil Rights movement was becoming more salient, and other social problems began to loom. However, there was great optimism among the chattering classes because of the election of President John Kennedy in November. I did not share this enthusiasm, but ended up voting for Kennedy because I did not want Nixon to win.
At first I went frequently to my old haunt of the Institute of Fine Arts. Yet I found it hard to gin up my dissertation, for the work at McGraw-Hill was quite draining.
I developed a new interest in plays. This was the heyday of the Living Theater on Fourteenth Street run by Julian Beck and Judith Malina. I remember being particularly impressed by two productions: The Connection, about drug use, which was not yet very common; and The Brig, about the rigors of a Marine prison. At other theaters I was impressed by the work of Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. The latter's The Blacks was prophetic of the racial tensions that were beginning to gather force. In those days Off-Broadway seemed miles ahead of the tired and expensive Broadway extravaganzas.
As a guide to the more off-beat pleasures of the city I read The Village Voice religiously. In those days it stayed away from gay topics, and I was disappointed that the Counterculture, at least in its New York version, did not seem to interface with the gay scene.
Of course I could have recourse to the gay bars in the Village, an institution that I had missed in Rome. However, the police (who had been on the take previously) began to harass them, and ultimately they were all closed, ostensibly to "clean up" the city for the World's Fair, which opened in 1964.
On several occasions I went to meetings of the Mattachine Society of New York, which met on West 40th Street. This group was an offshoot of the gay-rights group that had appeared in Los Angeles in 1950. I also had a habit of picking up copies of ONE, a monthly magazine "from the homosexual viewpoint" that was published in Los Angeles. Little did I realize at this point that gay scholarship would ultimately change my life.
Oddly enough, I did not go back to Europe during my short summer vacations, preferring to visit California. I would go first to LA, to see my mother and old friends, and then generally swing back via the Bay Area. In Berkeley I enjoyed the hospitality of Chuck McC. and his wife Katherine, who were graduate students there. Chuck was studying philosophy, then in its high analytic phase. Once we went at the University to a special lecture by the visiting Oxford philosopher H. H. Price, who specialized in perception. Even Chuck conceded that the banalities espoused by this luminary could easily be replicated by almost any perceptive adolescent. After I returned to the Gotham, I got hold of some volumes on analytic philosophy, books by J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle. I found the trend simplistic and overrated, but at that time I couldn't get much farther in formulating my critique.
Many years later, after wandering in the seductive lotus land of Plato and the grimmer precincts of Aristotle - not to mention subjecting myself to the lengthy, only occasionally insightful disquisitions of Kant and Hegel, as well as the fairly predictable banalities of British empiricism - I concluded that the only book of philosophy any sane person needs is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. An astute student and commentator, the Roman ruler summed up the entire harvest of ancient philosophy, making modern thought pretty much superfluous as well.
I also confronted another current orthodoxy: Freudian psychoanalysis, which had then soared to the height of its prestige and influence. There was considerable pressure to start seeing a shrink regularly. One of my college friends, Bob G., went so far as actually to become a psychoanalyst. Towards the end of his training period Bob came to see me at my office on 42nd Street. In our conversation I proffered various theoretical objections. Bob acknowledged these, but countered that one must concede that in fact it works. In other words Freudian psychoanalysis was a kind of black box: the mechanism might be opaque, but the therapy was effective all the same. I glumly agreed.
Later, when I had settled in London, I learned that the British psychologist H. J. Eysenck had thoroughly discredited the black-box theory. In a massive empirical study he showed that mentally troubled individuals who sought the help of a psychiatrist did not get better more quickly than those who received no therapy at all. In fact there was some evidence that people in the benign-neglect group in fact recovered more quickly. Eysenck's study, which elicited great anger in the psychiatric community, disposed of the spurious claim that "we don't know how it works, but it works."
To return to my situation in New York, by my third year there, in 1963, I found my position at McGraw-Hill, the publisher, increasingly untenable. I didn't get along with my new boss, an airhead, and it became evident that I was on the fast track to being discharged. I determined to take protective measures. I would quit before they could fire me.
To this end, I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to England. I chose that country as my base, specifically London, because the illuminated manuscript I had chosen for my dissertation was housed in the British Museum. I had also been an Anglophile since my high school years, and two earlier trips to the British capital provided assurance that living there would prove congenial.
Once I learned that the application had been granted, I headed for Montreal where I took a boat for France. Still the preferred method for budget travelers across the Atlantic, the ocean voyage, which took a week, allowed one gradually to build up anticipation. It is an experience denied to most people nowadays, accustomed as they are to a quick jet flight.
Arriving at Cherbourg, I immediately went to Vienna, where I took a short summer course in illuminated manuscripts conducted by my New York adviser, Professor Harry Bober. Once this was done, I had a whole month left to travel about Europe. I went first to Corsica, where my Italian boyfriend of the Rome days was stationed in the French foreign legion. He had changed a good deal, and our reunion was not successful.
Then I traveled for the first time to Spain, still enveloped in the gloom of the Franco years. My high school Spanish came in handy - or would have if I could find someone to talk to for any extended period. Then it was off to London by way of France.