Jay Landesman: Writer, editor and publisher who championed the Beats and graced London’s bohemian set
Wednesday 16 March 2011
Jay Landesman, who described himself as "a cultural pioneer", was one of the key literary figures of the Beat era which blossomed in the late 1940s, and for several years he published and edited a magazine he founded Neurotica, a quarterly journal that flourished between 1948 and 1952. His experiences dealing with writers and poets of the era inspired an unpublished novel, The Nervous Set, which became the first (and only) Broadway musical about beatniks.
He remained a lifelong supporter of the Beats and a champion of original literature, and after settling in London he founded Polytantric Press in 1977, having success with his reprinting of the 1945 novel by Elizabeth Smarts, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and his publication of Heathcote Williams' Hancock's Last Half Hour. He gained a reputation, too, as something of a hell-raiser and self-publicist. "I want recognition", he would say, but he was to remain relatively unknown to the general public.
In 1992, having read my obituary of the cabaret singer Sylvia Syms, who was a friend of his, he contacted me via The Independent to state that my piece had started him thinking about what obituaries might say about him and his poet wife, Fran. He asked me if I would write his, should the time come, and suggested that we meet for a drink at his favourite haunt, the Groucho Club. (I should add that Landesman is the only person ever to to ask me to write their obituary.)
One of four children, he was born Irving Ned Landesman in St Louis in 1919, and changed his first name to Jay after he read The Great Gatsby in his teens. His German Jewish father was an artist who had settled in St Louis after being hired to paint murals for the 1904 World's Fair, and his mother ran an antique shop, a business Jay would himself pursue until he started publishing Neurotica, which he claimed would deal with the neuroses of "the creative, anxious man".
In 1949 he moved with the journal to New York, and though it sold only a few thousand copies its contributors included such influential writers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Marshall McLuhan. Norman Mailer was later to describe Landesman as "the man who started it all". Landesman later relinquished his control of the magazine (which ceased publication in 1952 after censors objected to an article on castration) in order to open a cabaret room in St Louis, converting a former gay bar, Dante's Inferno, into a night-spot called The Crystal Palace. Among the little-known performers he booked were Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand.
In 1950 Landesman married the poet and lyricist Frances Deitsch, and for the next decade they were famous for their "open house" shindigs at their Greenwich Village apartment, where experimentation with sex and drugs, including LSD, is reputed to have been freely indulged in, to a background of bebop and other jazz music. Fran wrote lyrics for several melodies of Tommy Wolf, including Jackie and Roy's minor hit, "You Smell So Good", and in 1959 they wrote the songs for the musical The Nervous Set, which satirised both the hippie lifestyle of the Beat Generation and the conservative behaviour of the bourgeois dwellers in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Written by Landesman with Theodore J Flicker (who also directed the show), its cast included Larry Hagman in his first Broadway musical.
Despite its huge initial success in St Louis, its transfer to Broadway proved problematic. The show had no dancing, the music was played by a jazz quartet positioned on a platform on the stage, and its score evoked cabaret rather than Broadway. Though the New York Times called it "funny and knowing", reviews were generally poor, with Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune bemoaning dialogue such as, "I'm getting bugged by this creep bit", and lyrics that compared "youthful rejection" to "an acne infection". The show ran for only 23 performances, but the score did produce one outstanding number, the touchingly melancholic "Ballad of the Sad Young Men", in which the heroine (Tani Seitz) mused on the wasteful existence of her male friends, "trying to forget they are growing old" (Stephen Sondheim was to use a similar approach to his dissection of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Company).
In 1964, attracted to its reputation as the centre of the Swinging Sixties, the Landesmans moved to London with their two sons, Cosmo and Miles, settling in Islington, where they soon became noted for their highly publicised "open marriage" and for their hospitality, giving legendary parties for such friends as Tom Driberg, Peter Cook and Fenella Fielding, and for visiting Americans such as the entertainers Steve Ross and Sylvia Syms. A diary entry of 1964 relates of Driberg, "We pub-crawled with Tom D. Ended up in a pub that could well be called the Spare Nobody Bar. Lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors powdered from head to toe, whores, ageing pederasts and young couples all in good humour. Tom D. said it helped him to keep in touch with his constituency."
In 1967 Landesman was artistic director of the short-lived psychedelic nightclub The Electric Garden. Cosmo was to recall in his memoirs that his parents' sexual freedom and determination to keep up with every trend and fashion was embarrassing to him, and he complained that they looked "like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical, Hair."
Later, when asked by a reporter about their "ménage à trois", Fran bristled at the implication that only one extra person was involved. "A ménage à trois implies some sort of fidelity," she said. "It wasn't just one other person, it was a lot of people."
In the 1980s Cosmo married the columnist Julie Burchill, and the couple moved in temporarily with Jay and Fran. Ten years later Landesman recalled the impact: "With two professional critics on the premises, Fran and I felt like the homosexual couple in La Cage Aux Folles who try to clean up their act when their son brings his girlfriend home for a visit ... The first sour note was her introducing white bread into the house. Cosmo, who hadn't seen white bread since puberty, thought it was exotic."
Before Polytantric Press, Jay briefly ran a talent agency, then promoted macrobiotic foods and worked as a waiter at Seed, a macrobiotic restaurant. He wrote three volumes of autobiography in the vain hope of at last achieving celebrity, and paid the writer Philip Trevena to write a biography, Landesmania, which he published himself and which he later had converted into an unproduced screenplay.
Meanwhile, he had become a regular at the Groucho Club, where I met him on a Thursday evening in May 1992. He told me his favourite films were The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and it was not hard to believe that he empathised with Bogart, particularly the star's acknowledged fondness for liquor. Though he was jovial company, it became quickly apparent to me that I could not keep up with Landesman's intake. Other members of his "group", both male and female, joined us throughout the evening, and one told me as we prepared to leave the Groucho at around 11 o'clock that the drinking would extend via various pubs and clubs until around four in the morning – a regular procedure –so I bade Jay farewell with the excuse that I had a train to catch. I can't help feeling that he was expecting a journalist of the order of Jeffrey Bernard who would be a carousing partner, and that I was a disappointment.
Six years ago, his plan to turn his house into a Jay Landesman Museum collapsed when the council's health and safety executives objected, but though he called one of his books Rebel Without Applause (a title suggested by Burchill), he would probably smile at the thought that he will doubtless be recalled as "famous for not being famous". He is survived by his wife and by his two sons, journalist Cosmo and musician Miles Davis Cosmo, who was named after the jazz musician, a friend of Landesman.
Irving Ned (Jay) Landesman, writer, editor and publisher: born St Louis, Missouri 15 July 1919; married firstly, 1950 Frances Deitsch (two sons); died London 20 February 2011.
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