Gadfly Online. Feature. Maxwell Bodenheim.

Death of a Bohemian King
By Alan Bisbort


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."

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