Birth of a Voice, Chapter 3: Wooing the Naked Buddha

Jerry Tallmer.

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  The first two paid employees of The Village Voice, back in the late summer of 1955, were Susan Ryan and Florence Ettenberg. Flo Ettenberg was a bright, cheerful, talky, left-leaning Brooklyn College-bred native New Yorker, while Sue Ryan, a good Republican — not a contradiction in those days — was not. Not from Brooklyn, I mean. She was from “A B C D E  F G H I got a gal in Kalamazoo.”

So, I think, was Michigan’s Gerald Ford, a nice enough man who had played a little too much football in his youth. Well, he wasn’t all that nice, but he had a nice and troubled wife — a onetime Martha Graham dancer who, once, in the 1970s, years after the founding of The Village Voice, as she plucked at the living-room curtains of Senator and Mrs. Ford’s suburban-Washington house, with a big Secret Service van parked for protection smack in the middle of the driveway of the brand-new U.S. president, spilled out to me and the New York Post some of her problems with loneliness as wife of a politician who was always on the road.

What Betty Ford never told me was that she had once been married before the senator came along.

Many, many years later yet, the night gutsy, gorgeous dancing girl Frances Monica and I got married by Judge Bobby at the Jockey Club of the then Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Ford were having a pre-theater bite in the next room. Fran ran over to invite them to our wedding, and nearly got shot by a Secret Service man in the process.

Susan Ryan and Florence Ettenberg were hired as secretaries, but secretary-ing was the least of what they did, would do, every day at the VV for the first hectic several years. They did everything, and more so, to get the paper up on its feet and breathing. For this, they each were paid a big $50 a week. Of course the rest of us, the founders — publisher Edwin C. Fancher, editor Daniel Wolf, associate editor Jerry Tallmer, “Village Square” columnist John Wilcock, designer Nell Blaine, contributor Dan Balaban, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, writers Bill Manville, Vance Bourjaily, Bill Murray (the writer, not the actor), Gilbert Seldes, Seymour Krim, Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris, Norman Mailer, Niccolo Tucci, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Deren and all others up and down the line — got absolutely nothing a week. Zero. Zilch.

Virtually all the above, less Mailer and Feiffer — Jules had walked into 22 Greenwich Avenue with his portfolio of rejects under his arm, and when I ran into the back room with these new, hip kind of comic strips, Dan took one look and went nuts — but beginning with critic Gilbert Seldes, nine-tenths of the contributors had been recruited by me.

It was actually John Wilcock who suggested Seldes, author of the seminal “Seven Lively Arts” that I had read years earlier. Now I took it on myself to find and invite the great man. I found him on the hottest day of summer in an apartment house on the corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue — it has since been ripped down and replaced by an atrocity — sitting all but stark naked by an electric fan by an open window. A short, stout, naked, overwhelmingly genial Buddha.

So I went into my spiel.

“Uh, uh, Mr. Seldes, some of us down in the Village are starting a weekly newspaper… . We would, uh, be more than honored if the author of ‘The Seven Lively Arts’ could occasionally write whatever you liked for us… . We can’t pay you hardly anything, but… .’

He cut me short.

“I’ll tell you what, young fellow. [I was 35, closing in on 36.] You don’t have to pay me one penny, ever, if you print every word of what I send you each and every week. Now, how many words to start out?”

And each and every week for a good many years, “The Lively Arts” by Gilbert Seldes, writing in defense of freedom for the arts and freedom of thought, anywhere and everywhere, was a key column in The Village Voice.

It was some years later, in a restaurant across from 42nd Street’s Theater Row, that a lovely, willowy woman at a table of actors and actresses, hearing my name, exclaimed: “Are you he?” She turned out to be Marian Seldes, actress daughter of Gilbert Seldes — she’d grown up in that very apartment — and she and I have been lifelong dear friends ever since.