The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 19, 2007
A Few Notes About the Village Square
In the beginning was a sign in the window of the Eleven Arts Bookshop in Sheridan Square. I had been in New York for one week, had been wandering around the Village and had asked Sam Kramer: “If Greenwich Village is so famous for its Bohemians, why doesn’t it have a proper newspaper?” (TheVillager, in my view, being exactly right for little old ladies). Said Sam: “Why don’t you start one?”
The bookstore sign aroused about a dozen enthusiasts, among them a pretty chick named Cindy Lee, none of whom had any money. It was about a year later in the back room of Julius’ that Ed and Dan (whom I’d met at one of Cindy’s parties) told me that they’d raised a few thousand bucks and were going to launch the then-unnamed Voice. (Mailer provided the name after we’d all mulled over endless lists of banal titles).
In the summer of 1955 we sat around in the office above Sutter’s bakeshop on Greenwich Avenue constructing and painting an office notice board, planning features, checking out the work potential of numerous volunteers (two out of every three wanted to write a column). The office, formerly an apartment, had a shower and bed in the back and an occasional homeless volunteer would sleep there overnight. A pity the bed couldn’t write its memoirs.
Jerry Tallmer, who’d been working for The Nation, and myself (who’d spent my first New York year at Pageant magazine) were the only ones with newspaper experience at this time, so much of the early writing fell to us and friends of Jerry’s. I bitterly resented some of Mailer’s ideas which seemed so impractical and unprofessional (in retrospect, of course, they seem so much less so) and we fought a good deal. Mostly over Mailer’s post-deadline arrivals with overlong columns that he wouldn’t allow to be changed by so much as a comma. In Mailer’s documentation of those early days, Advertisements for Myself (Putnam) my name is not mentioned.
The first office employee, Florence Ettenberg, was a small, brown-eyed, dark-haired refugee from the uptown scene: Park Avenue where she lived with her parents who displayed initial skepticism about this sudden involvement with “beatniks”. Her boy friend was even more disapproving. It was Florence in her role of secretary, salesman, receptionist, and Girl Friday who sold our first ad: one inch ($4.20), bought by the Willow, a ceramic shop on West 4th Street.
Issue number one, in October 1955, brought congratulations — including the gift of a potted plant — and rumors that we were communist. However the rumors began (and a story on the folksingers in the square might have helped), they were assiduously promoted by our rival’s advertising salesmen and this made the battle harder than it might have been.
In the early days this column (which I planned as a kind of naive investigation of things everybody takes for granted) carried no byline. Its pre-publication title, The Village Idiot, was badly received so The Village Square was chosen as a triple pun, and at least partly as an antidote to all the hipness coming from Mailer.
The first column was about Lower East Side artist Ray Johnson and the peculiar collages he called moticos. Number two was about Larry Maxwell, a Villager whose hobby was buying one share at a time of whatever generous companies gave quarterly stockholders’ luncheons. Around column number four I began to put my name on it. This is column number 499.
When the Voice started to attract a little attention uptown, I had the idea that Village politics was a detriment to circulation and so for several weeks the Voice experimented with split-run editions in which the uptown version carried more general stories, including a column called Oliver Johnson’s Village. One of Oliver’s early columns (my pseudonym) was written from the top of the Washington Square Arch where I found about a score of tennis balls.
In the nine and a half years since, this weekly column has dealt with a thousand different subjects. The columns I used to enjoy writing the most — the essay type — seemed to be less popular than a listing of some of the offbeat eccentricities I have come across, obscure publications I had read, esoteric organizations promoting unpopular causes, etc. This kind of column, through pressure of mail, eventually came to pop up about every month. The Village Square has been written from and about Sweden, France, Tangiers, London, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, India, Turkey, Greece, Canada, and many parts of the United States, usually while I was working on a travel book.
This column has been carried by two San Francisco papers, one Philadelphia weekly and a paper in Paris, all now defunct. It is also carried by Chicago’s Near North News, Australia’s OZ magazine and the Toronto Daily Star. It still appears weekly in Tokyo’s Mainichi Daily News and the Los Angeles Free Press in addition to the Voice. Only the Voice pays me for it. My relationship with the Voice, in which the column operates as an independent state, has varied from close involvement to armed warfare and is currently amicable.
Out of nearly 500 columns only four have been rejected outright: dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, bidets, a guest column by Paul Krassner, and a love letter I misguidedly addressed to some girl. Because The Village Square has appeared weekly since the Voice’s first issue there’s a tendency to associate its author too closely with the paper itself. I am not informed of Voice policy, have no influence with the paper’s management, and do not see mail sent to the paper unless it is addressed to me personally.
Six months later I left the paper to edit New York’s first ”underground,” the East Village Other.
the Village Square, #499 (July 8, 1965)
John Wilcock is currently visiting Alaska.