Gadfly Online. Feature. Maxwell Bodenheim.

MAD MAX Continued

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 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.

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