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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 10/25/1999
Column 24
October 25, 1999

In the Greenwich Village of the end of the thirties, the Great Depression was still hard at work, chewing up morale, destroying dreams of golden careers while the nation teetered on the edge of the war in Europe. But there was something different about the Village at that time. You felt it as soon as you crossed the line below Fourteenth Street and slowly moved down through strange narrow streets and wound up on that mysterious corner consisting of West Eleventh Street and West Fourth Street. How did they ever come to cross each other that way? What peculiar logic was operating that somehow made sense only in the Village?

It was a kind of dream logic that laid out the streets. And the whole environment was filled with dreams. Not the usual dreams of finding a job and raising a family and living a normal life like everyone else. Somehow that strip of real estate between Fourteenth Street and Bleecker Street was where dreams lost a certain normal uniformity. You might say, of course, that they had their own kind of uniformity in that the area attracted artists, writers, musicians- art people- in a uniform kind of way. Even comics writers. But lumping them together as artists did not create uniformity. Few of these artists iin any medium resembled one another. They were different enough to argue about it in a variety of impromptu forums such as bars, restaurants, night clubs and odd little social clubs, so they were different and they were part of the same mix-the arts in one form or another. But that's looking at it superficially. It leaves out the dreams of the Bleecker Street gangs with their own special predilection for the arts, mostly arts of organization and structure that would lift some of them high in the art of boxing. These guys, (and I knew some of them well, since they used to congregate in some of the same bars as the other artists) had ring dreams. Artists of the knockout punch, a highly formalized technique that needed to be well protected by those gang members whose art was in organizing. These would become the fight managers of tomorrow, if they managed to stay out of jail.

I'm starting at this usually uncelebrated lower rung because few realize how it represented the Village as much as its regular artists and writers and musicians. We were all gangsters for our art. We cheated, finagled and got ourselves on welfare (called home relief in those days) because no matter how well equipped we were to take regular jobs, we didn't want to. We didn't want to do something just for money even though we had no objections to it. A lot of the graphic artists, for example, had the skills that could have brought them posh duplex skylighted studios on Central Park West doing illustrations for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers and the like. But they were too captivated by their dreams of a reality embodying shapes and colors so subjective that no mass magazine could use them. They talked about the flat painting surface. They talked about getting rid of perspective (our logic since the Renaissance) and seeing the world as relational. The technique that often expressed this was construction. Things related to a base line instead of a vanishing point. The musicans had their own special thing, ignoring the kitsch of the big band and tearing the scale apart not just with sounds and dissonances but with new rhythms. They were taking their cue from the Beethoven of the late quartets, but Beethoven simply lived in the wrong time. Born a century or so later, he would have lived in the Village. And maybe played the piano at Cafe Society along with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. (More about Cafe Society below.)

And then there were the great pulp writers, and the comics writers, notably Bill Finger who was shaping his own strange vision of what a comic strip story had to have. In some future columns, I'll discuss that in detail because Bill and I often worked together, helping each other with our different stories. But today, I want to talk about Alex.

Alex was a cook. Not a great cook either. He was incidentally a minor artist on the mandolin. At odd times, he'd lock the front door and close down the food service of his scraggly restaurant, pull out his mandolin and regale the customers who were lucky enough to have gotten in with a couple of hours of great mandolin playing. It was always a treat when this happened.

But more particularly, Alex was kind of an artist at helping people. And he was the principle character in one of my best Superman stories of the forties. It was called The Chef of Bohemia. I wrote the story as a tribute to Alex who had first and above all a great nose for ferreting out every hungry villager and seeing to it that they got fed. Alex's place, known as The Borsht Bowl, was a hole-in-the-wall with a counter and a few tables and very little adornment except for the wild abstract murals donated by various starving artists as payment for their free meals. Next door to Alex's place, was the rather posh Cafe Society, and in that juxtaposition of unlikely neighbors, I shaped my story, The Chef of Bohemia. The details of the story, as I recall it in the absence of an actual copy, lay in the effort of a certain entrepreneurial mobster to acquire the lease on Alex's property. (How Alex ever managed to pay for that lease, I never knew, but I suspect the lessor, moved by Alex's philanthropies and his contribution to Village legend, worked a little philanthropy of his own to keep Alex going). The mobster was known as Biff Condor, a Bleecker Street gang graduate and boxer.

The other element in my story was Alex's accent. He didn't just have a Russian accent. It was so heavy, you might say Alex spoke Russian with an English accent. Add to that a complex vocabulary. Alex, you see, was an intellectual. When he'd catch his cat trying to steal a chunk of hamburger lying on the counter, he'd accuse her of having "klyeptomjaniacal tjendancies" (kleptomaniacal tendencies) and shout such accusations at her until she skedaddled under the counter. And, incidentally, even though he didn't love cooking, Alex's Beef Stroganoff (Biff Stroganyoff) was the greatest. It must have been nutritious too because it was noted that a lot of the kids born to the many unwed mothers Alex fed with his stroganoff grew up unusually strong and healthy. I never found out what Alex's secret was. But after he took it on himself to introduce me to Shelley Mayer (Myer Shjeldon in Alexese) and I started writing scripts for Shelley (when he was editing for Max Gaines) and gave my fledgling comics career a real boost, I thought, when I was finally in a position to do so a couple of years later, I'd reciprocate by introducing Alex to Superman. I don't quite remember how I did it. Maybe I got Clark Kent involved first. But in any case, pressure from Biff Condor to coerce Alex out of his lease finally built up to the point where he simply proceeded to kidnap Alex. The great chef's sudden absence brought Superman onto the scene following mournful demonstrations by all his customers, especially the freeloaders.

Now, did Superman use any special powers to confront the problem? Not exactly. I always felt that Superman's powers should be pictorial but in solving problems, I chose to have him use his noodle. (Beef Stroganoff is also made with noodles, as I'm sure you all know, and therein lies the connection) So when Supes was inside the Borsht Bowl looking for clues to Alex's disappearance, he observed something that everyone else somehow overlooked. He noticed that a large slab of beef had been left lying on the counter. Well, actually everyone else noticed it too. But they never asked themselves why the beef hadn't been put in the refrigerator . Had Alex just dropped it there when he was spirited away? Hardly. Not the way it was placed. It was set precisely in the middle of the counter, in front of the refrigerator. Very precisely. It hadn't just been dropped, Supes reasoned. It had been placed there, very carefully. Somehow, Alex was trying to leave a message.

Well, then followed lots of stuff about Supes wracking his brains (er-noodle) trying to figure out what the message was. Beef on the counter? What does that mean? Doesn't make any sense. And then-whammo!!-Supes suddenly remembers Alex's accent. If Alex were saying "Beef on the counter"-what would it sound like? Ah-h-hh! Biff on condor. Biff on condor? Wait! I've got it. BIFF CONDOR!!

The rest of the story was simple. Supes now proceeds to use his powers very colorfully to locate Condor's hideout and rescue Alex. End of story.

By 1944, The Borsht Bowl was gone, a victim of rising real estate prices as the Village became a haven for an upper middle class that made it too expensive for real artists to live there. They fled to the outer fringes, taking over chunks of Little Italy all the way down to Canal Street and eventually turning Lower Broadway into Soho in the process.

I also left in 1944 and moved to Northern Westchester County, which was to become the locale of my memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET. Occasionally, I'd get down to the Village and I'd try to make some inquiries about Alex.

But no one seemed to know what happened to him.. He'd simply disappeared. Maybe he was just one of those angels? What do you think?

Alvin Schwartz

<< 10/18/1999 | 10/25/1999 | 11/01/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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