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Tales of a Cultural Conduit
and The Nervous Set
The best portrait of Jay Landesman as a cultural conduit was written by Beat historian John Clellon Holmes, ‘Most of the time, Landesman was that unique phenomenon in a status-drunk society: a man who knew that the only really hip style is the next one, the one that hasn’t been established yet. In the late forties he shifted his attention to the popular arts without sacrificing his sense of the culture as a whole.’ Landesman’s significant contribution might be his originally conceived lifestyle which, set against the conformity of the Eisenhower years, places him at the heart of that group of ‘movers and shakers’ who permanently changed America’s personal and artistic values. Tales of a Cultural Conduit takes us from Landesman’s life as an antique dealer in St. Louis, to New York and his magazine Neurotica: the Authentic Voice of the Beat Generation and on to the Crystal Palace Cabaret Theater in St. Louis. where he invited then unknown artists to break in their act including Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Lenny Bruce. ‘The cocktail hour was orchestrated like an opéra bouffe – music, booze and just the right mix of jarring people… Landesman produced Waiting for Godot instead of South Pacific and thus heralded the cultural renaissance,’ wrote Holmes. After a party that lasted ten years, the Landesmans headed for London, just as the place exploded into the kind of popular culture Landesman thrived on. While putting down permanent roots in England, he sent a manuscript , The Nervous Set, an exploration of life in New York in the 1950s, to Gershon Legman who urged him to publish it: ‘It’s a perfect portrait of the period which I do not believe has ever been portrayed at all, let alone so well.’ And so it has to be included here, along with Landesman’s reminiscences from birth to his very latest London tales, bringing his rare style full circle, proving that he continues to be a cultural conduit of an extraordinary kind.
1 By the standards of any day, my mother, Cutie, was a remarkable woman. Youngest and plainest of six children born to poor New York immigrant parents, she was a petite, beaky, crosseyed Jewish Cinderella who stayed home to do the housework while her mother looked for husbands for her two older sisters. It never seemed possible to Grandma that she could find a husband for Cutie until a handsome young artist from Berlin knocked on the door of their Hester Street flat. ‘My name is Benjamin Landesman. In the directory I see your name is Landsman without the “e”. Are we related?’ ‘Are you married?’ Grandma asked. When he said no, she grabbed him by the lapels of his tight-fitting suit and sat him down in the kitchen with a nice cup of hot coffee. His first sight of Cutie was of her on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Benjamin was impressed; he knew a worker when he saw one. He was on his way to St Louis, commissioned by the German government to decorate their pavilion at the 1904 World’s Fair. Over the next three years he established something of a reputation in St Louis as a muralist, specializing in Teutonic cherubs and playful nymphs. But he didn’t forget Cutie. He returned to New York to collect her and the gold watch Grandma had promised he could have when they got married. He never got the gold watch, but he won a 24-carat bargain with a heart of steel – my mother. I was the youngest child, and determined not to be ignored. I was also the noisiest, making demands upon Cutie’s busy life out of all proportion to my size and status. At an early age I had to invent new techniques to get attention and I continued to do so for the rest of my life. It was a necessity during childhood, a mission through adolescence and, in later life, my only hobby.