Mad Max
By Alan Bisbort

First posted: 7-09-01

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 benches—no matter how swaddled with alcohol and newspapers the two might have been—was 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 wife—who did little to discourage his interest—and 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 married—possessed 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 sheets—just as they’re 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 "Left Bank."

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. Bodenheim—known as "Bogie" or Max to friends—variously 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 and—so again he claimed—for 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 Max’s abhorrent personal habits—he 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 impulses—and 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."

Hecht goes 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, sex—all the while, he was legally married to Minna (until their divorce in 1938).

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 of him."

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 slush."

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 crash.

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 genius.

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 gifted poet").

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 frequented.

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 writing."

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 the orchards."

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 Generation—Jack 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 location."

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 buy drinks."

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 typist.

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 situation differently:

"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 quickly forgotten."

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