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Memoirist James Wolcott Reflects On The '70s

Oct 5, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 5:23 pm



James Wolcott says he was lucky to arrive in New York in 1972 as everything was about to go to hell. Life in that hell and all the unusual opportunities it afforded is the subject of his memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down And Semi-Dirty In Seventies New York," which came out in paperback this week. It recounts his friendship with Pauline Kael, from whom he learned a lot about writing criticism, writing about Patti Smith and the punk scene at CBGB's, and getting introduced to pornography. Wolcott's written columns for Vanity Fair since 1997, covering media, politics and popular culture. Terry interviewed Wolcott last year. He told her about coming to New York with a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer, which led to a job at The Village Voice.


So what did The Village Voice mean to you when you first started working there?

JAMES WOLCOTT: The Village Voice was incredibly important then. It was not only a countercultural paper, it was a political paper. It had a rough texture to it. It had real reporters. Also it had a lot of critics. The Village Voice had one of the great cultural sections and, you know, the coverage was amazing they did, of theater and dance and movies. I mean Andrew Sarris was their movie critic and Jill Johnston and Deborah Jowitt were their dance critics. So it was an incredibly exciting place. It was also a place that took on nobodies. So you didn't have to be a by-liner. You didn't have to be a name to make its pages. It wasn't about that.

GROSS: So you start out at The Village Voice basically doing, you know, administrative kind of work. You're working at the circulation desk. You're looking through the slush pile.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then you get a chance to start writing and you start writing more and more for the Voice. And you're in an atmosphere there where people - the other writers and the editors are not only honest with each other...


GROSS: ...about whether something was good or bad; I mean it can be like so honest it's almost like brutal in its honesty.

WOLCOTT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like it was as if people had no choice. Like they had to tell you the truth and they couldn't possibly sugarcoat it in any way.


GROSS: So what was good and what was bad about that as a young writer?

WOLCOTT: What was good about it was it really toughen your hide. When you had people tell you, you don't know what you're talking about, you never should have done that piece, you know, you made a fool of yourself, you know, to your face, you either get really - you get your back up or you lash back or you think, OK, well, this is part of the hazing process, this is part of what's done. And I mean I remember someone coming up to me at the Christmas party and telling me I had just made a fool of myself in a piece I had turned in, that I was ridiculous, I didn't know anything about politics. This was a piece in which I had traveled with Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire and I said that I really thought he could be the Democratic nominee. But you know, that was not...

GROSS: Wow, that was stupid.


WOLCOTT: Yeah. That was really - I was really dumb. And, of course, I basked in, you know, when he won primaries later on, I basked in that. But now, I'm overstating a little bit because there was also a lot of, you know, consideration and kindness, in the sense of that when you were edited by an editor, you sat down with them and they went over the manuscript with you sentence by sentence. I mean it was very hands-on editing. On the other hand, you were nurtured.

GROSS: You write a lot about Pauline Kael in your memoir.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she was, of course, perhaps the best and the most influential film critic ever. What did she represent to you as a reader?

WOLCOTT: As a reader there was such courage and energy in her voice. She would make her stand and then, you know, through the magnetic force of her writing, her stand would become the thing that everyone else had to respond to. I ALSO I just love the voice in her writing. It was a very conversational voice but heightened. It didn't have slack to it.

GROSS: Did reading Pauline Kael make you think that writing criticism could really be important, it could have an impact on readers, it could have an impact on the individual or the industry that you're writing about?

WOLCOTT: It definitely gave me the sense that you could matter in people's lives. One of the things I remember was that The New Yorker came out on Wednesday and people would, you know, make a point of being there to get The New Yorker first thing on Wednesday to read Pauline. It was that important to them. They wanted to know immediately. Also, because it was pre-Internet, no one knew what she was going to be writing about from issue to issue. It wasn't the sort of - the way it is now where everything is sort of teased to readers online and all that so you just never knew. You never knew what she was going to do. And I could see how it really - it changed the dialogue.

People reacted to the way - to what she wrote about.

GROSS: So what do you feel like you learned from reading her and from knowing her about honesty in criticism and what that means?

WOLCOTT: The thing I most learned from Pauline is that even before writing, you can't fake your reactions. You have to be true to what your response was. If your response was unsettled, you have to honor that and write from that viewpoint. If your response was ambivalent, you have to do that. You can't, in the act of writing, turn it into simply a position paper. You know, you have to acknowledge that it hit you on some personal level that has to be analyzed and brought out.

GROSS: Pauline Kael had a circle of young critics whose work she respected and who greatly admired her and were very influenced by her and learned from her. Did you consider yourself to be part of that circle?

WOLCOTT: Oh, I was definitely part of that circle. I mean, there were overlapping circles but I was definitely part of the circle. I would - you know, we would go to screenings. She would invite people from "The New Yorker" and then we would repair to the Algonquin or Cafe Un Deux Trois and talk over the movie.

GROSS: One of the articles you wrote is referred to in Brian Kellow's biography of Pauline Kael and it's an article that you wrote in "Vanity Fair" shortly after you got there called "Waiting for Godard," and I'll quote Kellow here. It was a devastating piece about the Paulettes. And the Paulettes was the name given...

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the nickname given to the circle of critics who were close to her. So it was a devastating piece about the Paulettes, branding them as a band of hopeless imitators who had squandered their own talents by falling under Pauline's spell. Wolcott was reasonably careful not to place Pauline herself in his crosshairs, but he didn't really need to. The article heavily implied that she had encouraged sycophancy and slavish devotion.

Pauline was stunned that someone whose career she had worked so assiduously to advance could've written such a piece. And you acknowledge that it kind of ruined your relationship with her and...

WOLCOTT: Yeah. Well, there were other things going on and, I mean, I do regret the tone of it. I think, in some ways, Kellow overstates the matter, but I mean I don't think I was impaling people. I was talking more that so many of the people influenced by Pauline had never gotten beyond it and they were still using the same mannerisms, the same phrases, 20 years later.

I mean, I do regret - I think - I do think I was too rhetorically, you know, rolling down the track and I...

GROSS: Does that mean mean?

WOLCOTT: And I phoned her before...

GROSS: What does that mean?

WOLCOTT: Well, I mean, I think that I - I think I was like trying to make too - you know, trying - within the context of the piece I was trying to, like, you know, raise a little thunder and, you know - and I told Pauline, and I said, this isn't really you. You know, in retrospect, that was very dumb of me to think that she wouldn't take it that way. I mean, of course she would take it that way.

And I tried to repair things later and it was too late. And it is something that I feel very bad about. I still feel bad about it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Wolcott. He writes about popular culture for Vanity Fair. His new memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," is about his life in the '70s when he moved to New York and started writing for The Village Voice. And note to parents. We're going to be talking a little bit about pornography, not in a graphic way, but nevertheless, if that's going to be a problem, you should know.

So - OK. Moving on, one of the chapters in your memoir is about pornography and starting to get really deep into pornography. And these are the pre-video days when you actually had to go to movie theaters, so...


GROSS: Why did you want to include that in the book? My theory being that no one really wants to think of someone else reading or watching porn.

WOLCOTT: That is true and I did wonder about it, but then I thought, the fact is that porn was a huge cultural influence that came out of the '70s and Times Square, the scene in Times Square, the squalor of Times Square, people always think of the movie "Taxi Driver," that is an - you know, that is an integral part of the city in the '70s and the porn scene and pornography - it's had a huge influence.

You have to recall, this was a period in which New York Times editors would sneak off during their lunch hour to go see "Deep Throat." When "Deep Throat" became a sensation, the sort of people who went to Elaine's and, you know, worked for the slick magazines - they were going off there, you know, and then, when they actually went and saw these things, it was like, ay, yi-yi. You know, which way to - you know, where can I find - you know, I don't know if Purell was invented back then, but it'd be - now, they'd be, like, compulsively washing their hands and washing their face afterwards.

GROSS: But what was it was like? What was the experience like for you of being in a pretty squalid movie theater, you know, watching pornography in the '70s? And if you felt guilty, dirty, comfortable, uncomfortable - if you felt like a critic, like you were doing your job, in part, because pornography's part of the culture, if you were there just to be turned on?

WOLCOTT: Well, let me say, as a prelude to all this...

GROSS: Yeah.

WOLCOTT: ...that I was raised Catholic.


WOLCOTT: So guilt is part of the package. You know, so you go in there and it was sort of my way of being bad, as it were, even though, really, no one was going to judge me. I was, in a sense, you know, judging myself. The odd thing is a lot of the theaters were actually fairly well maintained. They were actually much better maintained than the double feature houses on 42nd Street that showed horror films and kung fu films. Those places were like almost free fire zones because people were just, you know, shouting at the screen.

One thing about pornography is that there was very little talking back to the screen and what there was was often really hilarious. You know, it was by people who almost considered themselves connoisseurs of the genre. And also, nobody actually ever came to the beginning of the movie and left at the end. Everybody arrived at different parts in the middle. No one was fooling themselves like, well, if I miss the first five minutes, I won't know what the story is. You know, there was none of that.

GROSS: Tell, James Wolcott, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WOLCOTT: Well, thank you.

DAVIES: James Wolcott is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," has just come out in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org.

Coming up, an a cappella showdown. David Edelstein reviews the new film, "Pitch Perfect." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.