A Greenwich Village Tale

Robert Otter, 1962

In excerpts from the new book "Greenwich Village Stories: A Collection of Memories," two New Yorkers share their earliest experiences with the beloved neighborhood.

Simon Doonan

In 1985 I scored a job working for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute. I was hired as “display designer” on a show titled Costumes of Royal India.

I was living in L.A. at the time. Lacking the funds to rent an apartment in New York, I slept on the floor—of the hallway—of a friend’s apartment on Second Avenue and 11th Street. This gentleman was named John Badum.

John was the quintessential Village eccentric. He was, in many ways, the downtown freaky version of Vreeland. He knew everyone from Dianne Brill to Marc Jacobs to Leigh Bowery to David LaChappelle to Iggy Pop and was more than happy to drop names and to introduce all and sundry.

In appearance John was a cross between Mama Cass and Orson Welles. He was fat and fabulous and regal, and enormously proud of the glossy mane of jet-black nipple-length hair that followed him down the street.

John worked in the Garment District selling a successful line of washed-silk sportswear called Go Silk. He was highly esteemed in the fashion world, but his real vocation was fulfilled in the evening hours. He’d founded a club for himself and his camp followers called the Disco Modeling School. Outings took place on a weekly basis and involved matching satin outfits, lots of booze, vintage platform shoes, and the occasional run-in with law enforcement.

One night I came home from a grueling day of szhooshing saris to find that John had invited forty people over and that we were all going to wear fluffy Patsy Cline wigs and go hang out at Area. “It’s performance art, girls! Now shut the fuck up and get your wigs on.”

When John entertained he would fill the bath with ice and sprinkle blue food dye all over it. He would then jam a dozen bottles of champagne into the melting blue iceberg and invite everybody in his phone book. He was Auntie Mame. He was a punk-rock Elsa Maxwell. He was Holly Golightly + Liberace + Courtney Love.

A self-invented super-funster, John epitomized everything that was great about the Village in the pre-hedge-fund era. Affectionate and welcoming, wildly unpredictable, kind and wicked, naughty and irreverent, he was an aristocrat of reckless fabulosity who made you think anything was possible. In other words, he was Greenwich Village.

Columnist, author, and fashion authority Simon Doonan is creative ambassador for Barneys New York. His latest book is The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences.

Nat Hentoff

In 1953 I became the New York editor of Down Beat—then the world’s leading jazz magazine. I lived in Greenwich Village and found so much swinging there. I soon learned, for instance, when tourists asked where to find the best jazz clubs, to tell them not to miss the Village Vanguard, where they’d never be disappointed.

At a small club nearby, a large, round, unknown alto saxophonist asked to sit in one night and brought joy to me and all the other listeners. In a couple of weeks “Cannonball” Adderley had a record contract and the start of his international career. And on another night, I’ll never forget John Coltrane at the Village Gate surprising himself and us for two hours, deepening the same composition with such passionate invention that it felt like a religious experience, and I’m an atheist.

Along with my Down Beat gig, I suddenly had a jazz fan’s dream fulfilled. I was asked to direct and produce sessions for a new record label, Candid Records. Writing about jazz is always a kick, but sending the music out into the world was so gratifying, especially after I heard what Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Coleman Hawkins were doing at the Village Gate as the civil rights movement was cresting around the nation.

In Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, the raw roots of our Jim Crow history and the rising, driving liberation rhythms breaking it down made me ask Max if any established record label had asked to record it. To my surprise, none had, and we all went into the studio. Soon after its release in 1960, as an album called We Insist!, we were pleased to learn that it was banned in South Africa.

Both on and off the stand, there is much to learn from these players. As Charlie Parker used to say: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

Once, as Thelonious Monk and I were talking, a young saxophonist-composer I’d known in Boston, Gigi Gryce, came by. Excitedly, he shouted to Monk, “I just got into Juilliard!” In response, Monk defined jazz without saying the word: “I hope,” he said to Gigi, “you don’t lose it there.”

Nat Hentoff is a columnist, historian, novelist, and music critic, who received a National Press Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Journalism.

Excerpts reprinted from Greenwich Village Stories: A Collection of Memories (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation). Learn more about the book here.