February 17, 2014


The Patron and the Panhandler : Joe Gould's Secret, Joe Mitchell's classic portrait of an astute but deluded bohemian in postwar Greenwich Village, has been picked over for half a century by literary critics, fact-checkers, college professors, and ordinary readers. One abiding mystery has long been the identity of the anonymous heiress who kept the down-and-out Gould housed and fed throughout the late 1940s. That mystery has now been solved. (Joshua Prager, February 2014, Vanity Fair)

Eighty-two winters ago, on a frigid day in Greenwich Village, a very little man in a very big coat entered a Greek restaurant and asked for free food. His name was Joe Gould. The year was 1932, the height of the Great Depression, and the owner offered Gould soup and a sandwich. As Gould waited for it, a reporter drinking coffee in a nearby booth took him in: his dirty face and bald head and bushy beard and small fingers clasped for warmth. Gould made an impression. So did the mention by the owner of the restaurant that this same man was "writing the longest book in the history of the world."

A decade later, the reporter, a Carolinian named Joseph Mitchell, profiled Gould in the December 1942 issue of The New Yorker. Mitchell wrote that Gould, a self-described "runt" whose mother had pitied him and whose father had disparaged him, had left his suburban home southwest of Boston for the streets and flophouses of New York. There, wrote Mitchell, Gould was now busily assembling tracts of spoken language, of actual dialogue, into an opus titled An Oral History of Our Time. The book, said Gould, communicated truths that surpassed all he had learned at Harvard. Mitchell believed Gould. He believed in him too. Titled "Professor Sea Gull" (Gould claimed to understand the caws of the shorebirds), Mitchell's article changed Gould's life. People "are beginning to look at me in a different light," Gould wrote Mitchell soon after. "I'm not just that nut Joe Gould but that nut Joe Gould who may wind up being considered one of the great historians of all time."

Mitchell did not write again about Gould until two decades later. By then, Gould was dead and Mitchell was considered "the greatest living reporter" (at least by Lillian Ross of The New Yorker). Mitchell in the interim had also learned something remarkable: the Oral History did not exist. It was a complete figment. Gould had looked up at Mitchell with his conjunctival eyes, and flat-out lied. Gould had written nothing more, as Mitchell later noted, than a few repetitive thoughts about tomatoes, Indians, and the deaths of his parents. But no matter. Mitchell regarded Gould as a form of performance art. And looking back at him, Mitchell had seen something greater than a great book: a kindred spirit, a fellow outsider and peripatetic aspiring to catalogue life in the big city.

"Joe Gould's Secret" ran in consecutive issues of The New Yorker in September 1964. Published the next year as a book, it was, famously, Mitchell's final published piece (though he reported to the office most days until his death in 1996). It was also his finest--a "masterpiece," as New Yorker editor David Remnick later characterized it.

This September will mark the jubilee of that masterpiece, the fiftieth year since it appeared in print. It has aged well--preserved in a Mitchell collection published by Pantheon Books (Up in the Old Hotel, 1992), in a film by Stanley Tucci (Joe Gould's Secret, 2000), and in countless college courses. Joe Gould's Secret was built to last. "No bent nails," the editor William Maxwell once observed. "Every word driven, so to speak, all the way into the wood."

But if Joe Gould's Secret is well known, Joe Mitchell's secret is not.

In the spring of 1944--more than a year after Mitchell had profiled Gould--a woman stepped forward to provide the homeless writer with room and board. The woman insisted that she remain anonymous, and arranged for a go-between to give Gould a weekly stipend. It was a benefaction out of the blue, and would, in time, play a pivotal role in his life. Gould was desperate to learn who his patron was. "I'd almost rather know who she is," he once snapped at Mitchell, "than have the money!" But he never found out.

Mitchell himself learned her identity only in 1959, in conversation with one of the woman's few confidants. And he dropped a few breadcrumbs into his 1964 article, describing the patron as "a very reserved and very busy professional woman who was a member of a rich Middle Western family and had inherited a fortune and who sometimes anonymously helped needy artists and intellectuals." But Mitchell revealed nothing more, and took what he knew to his grave. And so, even as Mitchell's book joined the literary canon, no postscript was added to it--no name ever given to the "professional woman" who had supported its protagonist.
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Posted by at February 17, 2014 4:52 PM

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