On the night of February 6, 1954, in the lower intestines
of Manhattan, two homeless people, an aging, booze-addled
poet and his young, unstable wife, sought shelter from
an impending late winter storm. The idea of yet another
night spent sleeping on park benchesno matter how
swaddled with alcohol and newspapers the two might have
beenwas too painful to bear.
Then the pair crossed paths
with an off-duty dishwasher, with whom they were acquainted
from the bars of the Village. The dishwasher had the hots
for the old poet's wifewho did little to discourage
his interestand offered to share his room on the
fifth floor at 97 Third Avenue with them. Numb from cold
and booze, the trio managed, with their suitcases, bottles
of wine and other potables, to make it to the dingy walk-up
flat. The old poet was offered the bed, a glorified cot,
where he flopped, pulled out a book and commenced reading.
He seemed as at home here on this strange, fetid mattress
as anywhere else in the world.
The young wife and dishwasher
continued drinking. Soon enough, they began groping on
the floor, then rutting like demented goats not more than
an arm's length from the cot on which the old poet was
thought to be sleeping. But the old poet had noticed their
state of arousal and challenged the dishwasher. Much younger
and stronger, he overpowered the old man and shot him
twice in the chest (appropriately, right in the heart).
The old poet died instantly. With his young wife screaming
bloody murder, the dishwasher plunged a hunting knife
into her back four times. After a struggle she also died,
her body grotesquely twisted in her final agonized moments
on the floor. As the killer left the blood-drenched, completely
ransacked room, he locked the door from the outside.
The cops didn't come until
the next afternoon, when the rooming house proprietor
asked them to break the padlock because he was owed back
rent (apparently the sound of a struggle and a gun going
off twice didn't attract curiosity from the other tenants).
On a table near the bed, the cops found some scribbled
poems, a pad of paper and pen and an empty liquor bottle.
Propped up against the table was a hand-lettered sign
that said "I Am Blind," which Bodenheim was
said to use to beg for money on the streets. When the
identity of the poet was discovered and released to the
press, the details of the crime dominated New York newspapers
for days. The killer was easily apprehended soon thereafter;
he confessed to the crime but was deemed mentally incompetent
to stand trial.
The murder was the final,
seemingly inevitable chapter in the life of one of New
York's literary legends, the author of 10 books of verse
and 13 novels, as well as a partly ghost-written memoir
called My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village.
The old poet's name was Maxwell Bodenheim, age 62; he
had once been king of the Greenwich Village bohemians.
Bodenheim's 35-year-old "wife"it was never
clear whether they were legally marriedpossessed
the Dickensian name Ruth Fagin (alternately spelled in
the papers as "Fagan" or "Fagen").
The 25-year-old killer
was officially named Harold Weinberg, although he was
known around the Village as "Charlie." Described
by Life magazine as "a wild-talking, scar-faced
vagabond," the truth was that he may have been mildly
retarded, even schizophrenic and that he was tolerated
by the legendarily non-judgmental Villagers who saw him
around the neighborhood. The murders gave him a sudden,
perverse fame, and he basked in it, describing the grisly
events of February 6 to the police and scandal sheetsjust
as theyre recounted here. In lieu of facing the
two murder charges, Weinberg, aka "Charlie,"
was sent to a mental institution.
In the 1920s, when Greenwich
Village was in full flower, Maxwell Bodenheim was known,
even to unhip middle Americans, as the living embodiment
of bohemian existence. He'd inherited the mantle from the
late John Reed who, before he became the playboy-revolutionary
depicted in the film Reds, was the "golden boy"
of Greenwich Village. Indeed, Reed's poem The Day in
Bohemia, or Life Among the Artists (1912) was perhaps
the first open declaration that America had its own thriving
Reed, a Harvard graduate
so prodigiously gifted that his renowned mentor, Lincoln
Steffens, told him "you can do anything," chose
the carefree life of the artist and applied his writing
talents to documenting it. His verse, a mirror image of
his own jeu d'esprit, echoed Joycean wordplay and presaged
early Beat poetry, with everything from guttersnipes to
high society names, faces, bars, bistros, people, streets,
bookshops, stray chat, shouting matches, howls, moans,
shouts of glee: "Inglorious Miltons by the score,/
Mute Wagners, Rembrandts, ten or more/ And Rodins, one
to every floor./ In short, those unknown men of genius
who dwell in third-floor rears gangrenous,/ Reft of their
rightful heritage/ By a commercial soulless age./ Unwept,
I might add, and unsung,/ Insolvent, but entirely young."
The poem went on in this manner for thirty-five pages.
When Reed died in Moscow
in 1920, Max Bodenheim, who had just moved to New York,
willingly picked up Reed's banner. A prolific poet, novelist,
provocateur and performer, as well as an inveterate womanizer,
the handsome and self-promoting Bodenheim was known to
millions for his willful embrace of all things unconventional.
"He personified the avant-garde," wrote Life.
"He was young and slim with sandy red hair and pale,
baleful blue eyes, and women jammed tiny candlelit rooms
in the Village when he gave readings of his poems."
His personal history was
shrouded by sometimes-artful mystery. Bodenheimknown
as "Bogie" or Max to friendsvariously
identified his birthplace as Mississippi, Missouri or
Illinois and his birthdate as 1893 and 1895. (The truth
is that he was born in Hermanville, Mississippi on May
26, 1892.) His family moved to Chicago in 1900, and when
he told his shopkeeper father that he wanted to be a poet,
the idea did not sit well. They quarreled, and the enmity
increased when Max was expelled from high school. The
prodigal son left home to hop freight trains in the Southwest
(or so he claimed), but soon joined the U.S. Army. He
was in the Army from 1910 to 1913 but was dishonorably
discharged after a stint in the Fort Leavenworth brig
for going AWOL andso again he claimedfor bashing
an anti-Semitic officer over the head with a musket.
Upon his release from prison,
Max drifted back to Chicago with a suitcase full of poems,
rejection slips and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. While his
self-created myth was that he was an outcast living totally
on his wits, Max actually moved back in with his mother
and father. This aspect of his life, hidden from his Chicago
literary comrades, was later revealed in his 1923 novel
Blackguard. This was a thinly veiled autobiographical
account of the prodigal son's inauspicious return to face
his mother, embittered for having fallen from her social
station, and his father, embittered over failed business
ventures. Even with a roof over his head and free board,
Max still found much to alienate him in the city, describing
his family's apartment as "standing like a factory
box awaiting shipment, but never called for."
Max lucked into a friendship
with a tolerant circle of writers that included Harriett
Monroe (founder of Poetry, a driving force for
the American "poetry renaissance"), Margaret
Anderson (editor of the highly influential Little Review)
and Ben Hecht, a newspaperman and playwright with a penchant
for bohemianism. Hecht was particularly impressed with
Bodenheim's literary talents. He ignored Maxs abhorrent
personal habitshe seldom bathed, cadged food and
drink like every meal was his last, stole small items
to pawn, made passes at any woman and tongue-lashed anyone
who tried to thwart his impulsesand the two spent
many evenings collaborating on plays and poetry.
Hecht and Bodenheim performed
their work at the Dill Pickle Club, a renovated barn on
Chicago's Near North Side that was open to any and all
political, artistic and intellectual persuasions. The
pair pulled off one particularly memorable prank, declaring
a debate on the topic "Resolved: People Who Attend
Literary Debates Are Imbeciles." A full (paid) house
attended this "debate," which consisted of Hecht,
who was arguing the affirmative position, announcing:
"the affirmative rests." Bodenheim strode on
stage. His rebuttal consisted of: "You win."
End of debate, to much angry shouting from the audience.
In his memoir Letters
from Bohemia, Ben Hecht reports a typical tempestuous
exchange with Bodenheim:
Max: "Nobody seems
to like me. Do you think it is because I am too aware
of people's tiny hearts and massive stupidities?"
Hecht: "They are too
aware of your big mouth. Why don't you try ignoring their
imperfections, after sundown?"
Max: "I was born without
your talent for boot-licking."
on to describe how Bodenheim "crowed with delight
and whacked his thigh... it is this strut I remember as
Bogie's signature. Ignored, slapped around, reduced to
beggary, Bodenheim's mocking grin remained flying in his
private global war like a tattered flag. God knows what
he was mocking. Possibly, mankind."
* * *
In 1918, Bodenheim
married Minna Schein. She inspired his first, and some
would argue best, book of poems, Minna and Myself,
published that same year. They moved to Greenwich Village
in 1920, at which point Bodenheim picked up the mantel
from the late John Reed.
It was at this time that
Bodenheim established a pattern, which would remain until
his violent death in 1954. That is, he had an odd sort
of charisma that attracted women upon whom he could rely
for free food, board, clothing, sexall the while,
he was legally married to Minna (until their divorce in
As Emily Hahn, author of
an "informal history of bohemianism in America,"
put it in 1967, "Many a reporter is still living
who can look back to Bogie's banner year, 1928, when it
seemed for a while as if no week could pass without some
distracted female trying to kill herself for the love
She cites the case of 18-year-old
Gladys Loeb, who briefly lived with Bodenheim. When he
rejected her, she went back to her room, turned on the
gas and, with a photograph of Bodenheim clutched in her
arms, lay down to die. But the landlord saved her in time.
Her father, a Bronx doctor, came to fetch her from the
bohemian purgatory into which she'd fallen and swore vengeance
against Max (who left town until the whole thing blew
over). Next was Virginia Drew, an artistically inclined
22-year-old. When he rejected her, Drew threw herself
in the East River and drowned. He had dismissed her poetry,
which she had asked him to critique, as "sentimental
Soon after, a woman named
Aimee Cortez, a mentally imbalanced Village "character"
known for her nude dancing at parties, decided to emulate
Gladys Loeb. She turned on the gas, clutched a photograph
of Bodenheim to her heart and died. A fourth jilted woman,
carrying several of his letters, was killed in a subway
From photographs of him
taken at this time and even into the 1930s, it's obvious
that Bodenheim had a certain dissipated sexiness. Most
images of him in the papers were of a hollow-cheeked,
slick-haired cock of the walk. In some photographs, Max
Bodenheim is almost a double for Pat Riley or young Michael
(or Kirk) Douglas.
Though his antics and excesses
were legendary, Max was amazingly prolific for one whose
personal habits leaned toward dissipation. He followed
Minna and Myself (praised by the likes of Carl
Sandburg, Conrad Aiken and William Carlos Williams) with
several more well-received volumes of poetry, including
Advice (1920), Introducing Irony (1922),
The Sardonic Arm (1923), Against This Age
(1925) and Returning to Emotion (1926). His was
the perfect poetic backdrop for the profligate Jazz Age,
especially in America's largest and culturally most important
city. Still, Bodenheim was unknown outside bohemian or
avant-garde circles. This lack of popularity did constant
battle with his buoyant sense of himself as a suffering
Williams, never one to
suffer posers, was frank but admiring of Max in a 1920
essay: "Bodenheim pretends to hate most people...
but that he really goes to this trouble I cannot imagine....
I know of no one who lives so completely in his pretenses
as Bogie does.... Because of this he remains for me a
heroic figure, which, after all, is quite apart from the
stuff he writes and which only concerns him. He is an
Isaiah of the butterflies."
Bodenheim's limited profile
changed with the 1925 publication of his third novel,
Replenishing Jessica, which made him an overnight
sensation. The novel, a candid exploration of a young
woman's sexual liberation among seedy bohemians, shocked
polite society but also hit the bestseller list. The reason
for its popularity, according to Hahn, was that it "had
the good luck to be condemned as obscene." In fact,
the protracted (and ultimately unsuccessful) obscenity
trial inspired New York Mayor Jimmy Walker to quip, "No
girl has ever been seduced by a book."
According to historian
Allen Churchill in The Improper Bohemians, a classic
study of Greenwich Village in its heyday, Bodenheim, after
this, "seemed to face few obstacles on his path to
literary triumph." He was lavishly, even over-extravagantly,
praised by the likes of Louis Untermeyer ("words
under his hands... bear fantastic fruit") and Burton
Rascoe ("the Rimbaud of the arts, a remarkable and
Among his other notorious
novels were Naked on Roller Skates (1930) and New
York Madness (1933). The former featured a woman who
wanted to live with "an A number one, guaranteed
bastard [who will] beat my heart and beat my brain...
and lug me to... the lowest dives." The latter traces
the quest of "two bright, vivacious New York girls"
and their "fierce craving for excitement" that
takes them to the East Side, the waterfront dives, Union
Square and "the racketeer hells on the Broadway sidestreets,"
not coincidentally the places that the author regularly
Once the scandals cleared,
Stanley Kunitz defended the novels: "Bodenheim is
not a pornographer; he is deadly earnest, and there is
an evangelistic tone to all his novels, in spite of their
wild humor. The keynote of all his work is hatred, hatred
for meanness and dirt and cruelty, and sometimes, it seems,
hatred for humanity itself... he was one of the pioneers
in bringing naturalism of the French school into American
Despite all this notoriety
and sudden influx of cash, Bodenheim possessed what he
called "a malady of the soul." After a legendary,
gossip-column falling out with Bodenheim, Hecht described
his erstwhile friend's "mystic sense of himself as
an unwanted one." Their falling out was over Hecht's
novel Count Bruga, about an eccentric poet said
to be based on Bodenheim.
Indeed, after the Jazz
Age sobered up to the Great Depression, Bodenheim's literary
popularity waned, but he did not stop writing. The combined
effect of the Depression, his dependence on booze, the
official break-up of his first marriage and the increasing
queasiness of former friends to have anything to do with
him was the inevitable decline. Max Bodenheim was like
a fading comet on a precipitous plunge across the night
sky. By the 1940s, his vision of bohemianism was found
mostly in the bottoms of bottles. His resentful, alcohol-fueled
literary output was hard to read and of no particular
interest to an America now freed of the Depression's yoke.
He briefly broke his fall
with a second marriage in 1939 to Grace Finan, the widow
of a painter. He spent part of the year with her in the
Catskills, and she told Kunitz in 1942, "It's fun
to watch him in the country. He enjoys every leaf and
twig. We plan to make our permanent home in Catskill,
one of these days. He likes to roam the hills and raid
Soon after this, Bodenheim
broke with Finan (she died in 1950) and returned to the
considerably meaner streets of New York. He became a regular
habitue of the San Remo, a raucous bar at 93 MacDougal
Street, at the corner of Bleecker, that stayed open nightly
until 4 a.m. By then, he was a full-blown alcoholic and
a neighborhood "character" in the same league,
though not nearly as tolerated, as Joe Gould, the subject
of Joseph Mitchell's classic, Joe Gould's Secret.
Gould and Bodenheim, in fact, frequented the same Raven
Poetry Circle meetings, and they even began to physically
resemble one another.
Oddly enough, at the same
time that Bodenheim was hanging out in the San Remo, the
bar was the favorite watering hole of writers who would
become known as the Beat GenerationJack Kerouac
and Allen Ginsberg, as well as painters Larry Rivers,
Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and unaffiliateds
like W. H. Auden, John Cage, Paul Goodman and Merce Cunningham.
Bodenheim appears in few accounts of these people's lives.
He was a pariah.
By then, according to one
old-time Villager, Bodenheim was "a pest.... If you
saw him coming, you crossed the street."
His favorite shtick was
to sell his poems in bars and restaurants (the ones he'd
not been banished from). Because he was no longer capable
of writing, he reportedly bought poems from other Village
poets, a hundred at a time, and peddled them as his own.
When he had nothing to sell, he panhandled. When he got
enough money together, he drank himself into a stupor.
After each protracted bender, he ended up in Bellevue
Hospital. After one arrest in early 1952, for sleeping
in an empty subway train, he told Time magazine,
"The Village used to have a spirit of Bohemia, gaiety,
sadness, beauty, poetry.... Now it's just a geographical
Leo Connellan, an aspiring
writer who later became Connecticut's poet laureate, met
Bodenheim in these latter stages of his life. Despite
Max's horrific habits, the then young Connellan viewed
him as a sort of mentor.
"At one time, he was
as good as anybody. He and St. Vincent Millay. I lived
in the Village then, in a $4 week room right off Charles
Street," said Connellan, who died in Connecticut
in February 2001. "Everyone knew Ruth. She'd gone
over to Dorothy Day Catholic Work Home on Staten Island
Many times I went over there, too, to do farm work for
food and a place to sleep. We all thought Ruth was playing
at being bohemian. The original conception of the liberated
woman was of a Long Island housewife who came into the
city to screw 15 guys between Friday and Sunday and then
went back to the clothesline on Monday morning to be a
mom. That was freedom. Ruth came to the Village in that
wave and met Max. Max used to be at the Kettle of Fish
or Rienze, on the corner of Bleecker Street, and he was
always crocked out of his skull. He'd scribble something
on a piece of paper and sell it for 25 cents and he'd
Hahn described him at this
time as, "A grotesque figure who had long since lost
his good looks, with cheeks fallen above toothless gums,
unshaven face and unspeakable clothes, he yet, at the
age of sixty, found a woman to marry him."
This would be Ruth Fagin,
whom he met in 1950. Fagin was presumed to be mentally
unstable, though she was a not unattractive honor graduate
of the University of Michigan who'd come to New York to
pursue a job in journalism. Before she found life on the
streets with Bodenheim in New York, she had worked at
the Washington Daily News, Newsweek and
(back in Michigan, where she was from) the East Lansing
News. Her job in New York was as a freelance manuscript
As Hahn describes it, "After
their marriage, Bodenheim and Ruth lived in the manner
to which he had become accustomed, cadging money or drinks.
Occasionally Ruth picked up men to sleep with, or Bogie
found them for her. The two stuck together. They fought
each other, cursed each other, but helped each other too,
sharing whatever dingy shelter they could find at night."
Connellan remembers the
"One day, I was working
for a guy named Johnny Romero as a frycook... and I was
walking up towards MacDougal Street. And my God there
was Max, he has pressed pants, a shirt and a tie on, and
it turns out Ruth had gone up to the 4th Avenue publishers,
gotten them to reprint Naked on Roller Skates,
Replenishing Jessica and Minna and Myself.
Max was always out of it. I also had a job then driving
cars across the country. The agency would give me $125
to use on the car, $100 of which was for me. And what
I'd do is sell seats in the car, go to the Riviera on
West 4th Street and announce, 'Hey, you want to go to
Texas? For $25, I'll take you and we'll share driving.'
Anyway, I was walking down
Sixth Avenue past where they used to have a Hayes Pickford
Cafeteria, where the unwritten rule was that if you were
broke and someone saw you, without saying a word, they
would buy you a bowl of thick pea soup and a couple pieces
of rye bread and that was your ticket. You could stay
there all day. The next time I'd see you in dire straits,
I'd go get you a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup and
some rye bread. It was an unwritten rule. Ruth came out
of the Hayes Pickford, and I said, Well, Ruth, I'm
going to split town... it'll be about a week before I
see you and Max again.' She looked at me, 'Well at least
you could go and say goodbye to Max.' So I went in and
he was drunk. I sat down opposite him and I said, 'Max,
I'll see you next week.' He didn't hear me."
That, of course, was the
last time Connellan saw Max. But his remembrance of the
man accused of killing Max and Ruth was also different
than that portrayed in accounts that have been written.
"There was a guy on
MacDougal Street we called Charlie and Charlie was sort
of dimwitted, like the Lenny character in Of Mice and
Men. Everybody told Ruth, 'You want to cocktease guys,
go ahead, but leave Charlie alone, Charlie won't understand
you.' Anyway, I got to Galveston and picked up a newspaper
and the headline said, Maxwell Bodenheim Murdered
in New York. When I got back, I went to see Will
Brady, a gay friend of mine, and he said, Well Leo,
you know we all told Ruth if she wanted to trip that's
fine but not with Charlie because Charlie wouldn't understand
that she didn't mean it. And that's exactly what
she did. Ruth went into the Kettle of Fish, she cockteased
Charlie that night and got him to go with her and Max.
They went to a hero shop and got grinders and booze and
they went around the corner to the apartment."
"When they found Maxwell
Bodenheim," said Connellan, "he was sitting
on the bed with two bullet holes right through the copy
of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us that he had
been reading. Is that not a perfect image? Ruth, of course,
was decimated on the floor. Even the cops knew what really
happened that night. I think Charlie didn't serve but
five or six years."
The few historians who've
written about the rise and fall of Maxwell Bodenheim have
the last word, for now.
Emily Hahn succinctly put
his life in perspective this way: "Bodenheim's novels
were not immortal. It is for his life and death he is
remembered. These were lurid in exactly the fashion Philistines
felt they had a right to expect of Bohemians."
Jack B. Moore, the only
writer to attempt a biography of Max, wrote: "I believe
it true of Bodenheim's life and art that rarely has an
American writer of any historic significance committed
more obvious and sometimes disastrous mistakes: but it
is also true that rarely have the virtues and accomplishments
of such a writer been so clearly misrepresented and so
More Best of
of the Apes
an Apathetic Audience
Cannes Film Festival
Ebert's 3rd Overlooked Film Festival/David Urrutia Interview
Is on My Side
Artist Not at All Known as Prince
Up on Ochs
From the Book of Job
in Terre Haute