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Monday, February 22, 2016



   Strap yourself into a 1970s Time Machine. We’re headed to Upper Darby near the Tower Theater where David Bowie (The Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) is giving a concert. The streets are jammed packed. Young men in day glow eye makeup, long shag hair, and platform shoes look indistinguishable from their girlfriends. Then again, a lot of the young men do not have girlfriends, and some have both a boyfriend and a girlfriend. The streets of Center City duplicate the Upper Darby scene. At 15th and Market near City Hall near the old Pop Edwards Bar (with its 1,000 beers from around the world), more kids in platform shoes make their way to the Greyhound bus station or Suburban Station. Among them are more discreet looking Bowie imitators: tough looking Italian and Irish “kids” from the neighborhoods in ordinary dress (they come from conservative families) but who are nevertheless “with Bowie” in spirit.   
   Consider an acquaintance of mine, Anthony, a real tough guy with shoulder length hair who makes no bones about using the word “faggot.” Poor Anthony is having a rock n’ roll breakdown: there are just too many androgynous shag haircuts, glitter and platform shoes. He feels outnumbered. He describes what he saw on stage at the Tower. “Did you see what Bowie did to Mick Ronson’s guitar?!” Shortly after this he begins to tone down his use of the ‘f’ word.  

   Bowie caused a kind of schism in the rock ‘n roll world. A certain breed of hard rockers called his music fag rock. Rebel, Rebel, don’t know whether you’re a boy or girl. They disliked Lou Reed as well, especially his ‘Transformer’ album and the lyrics about a he becoming a she while walking on the wild side. The hard rockers wanted everything straight up like a John Wayne movie. After all, wasn’t it John Wayne who said, “If you can’t f-ck it, shoot it?” But how do you stop a world sensation like Bowie?   
   Bowie mania accelerated the sexual revolution. Heretofore forbidden fantasies and sexual identities were now out in the open. The word ‘pansexual’ became popular.  
    David Bowie was born David Jones in east London. At 15 he was punched in the face by a friend, causing one of his eyes to stay permanently dilated. It gave him the look of a Grey Alien, The Man Who Fell to Earth.  Bowie would later thank his old chum for punching him because “the eye” complimented his love for outsiders and outsider art. The technical school dropout who could also play the sax went on to become a commercial artist before starting to make music (3 singles) in 1966 for Pye Records. The success of Davy Jones of the Monkees caused him to change his last name to Bowie.  
    In 1967, the future folksinger, alien and all-round decadent spent some weeks in a Buddhist monastery. Good music comes from a deep inner wellspring. Aspiring musicians who loathe spirituality are unlikely to write meaningful lyrics that touch the heart. Imagine atheists like Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins sitting down to write a love song. One can almost hear them say, “I can’t write this crap. It’s about love. We can’t see or prove the existence of love!”
     Spirituality in rock in the 1970s was generalized and rarely specific. In those days we heard about mountain gurus in flowered robes or about visions of obscure godheads that might appear after several tokes on a hashish pipe. There were many references to Hare Krishna (George Harrison) and about expanding consciousness with LSD, even though what LSD usually did was make people jump out of windows because they thought they could fly.  Fly like an angel but land like a man!  Serious spiritual transformations among rockers were not the norm but they did happen over time. One thinks of Cat Stevens’ conversion to Islam.

    Some other religious affiliations and/or conversions include:

     Chris Hillman of The Byrds converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
     Bob Dylan for a brief time was a born-again Christian.
     Eminem (of all people) converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
     Bob Marley converted to Eastern Orthodoxy after spending time as a Rastafarian.
     Bruce Springsteen has always been a Catholic.
     The Sex Pistols also identified as Catholic.
      The Bee Gees, namely Robin Gibb, identified as Vegan, although when did ‘Vegan’ become a religion?  

     Bowie was a kind of Buddhist until the day he died, although after his death many people came forward with videos and statements attesting to his occult interests, namely his love for the occultism of Aliester Crowley. Others maintained that Bowie had to be a Satanist because of his use of satanic imagery in his music videos.
     Angela Barnett met Bowie in a London speakeasy and they were married in 1970. In interviews after their acrimonious 1980 divorce, Angela said that they had a “bizarre and unconventional marriage,” and that “David was randy…there was every possibility that he wouldn’t be faithful.” Angela herself was expelled from a college in Connecticut in 1966 for having an affair with a woman. True to the 1970s mantra, they each did their own thing during their marriage. As writer Clemmie Moodie wrote, “It was a tempestuous, sex-fuelled relationship - both were late to their own wedding after having a menage a trois with an unnamed third party….”

  Moodie also writes, “In her book, Bowie, author Wendy Leigh claims the star kept a four-foot-deep, fur-covered bed – nicknamed ‘the pit’ – in his sitting room, used for orgies with his famous friends and wife at the time, Angie.”

        Angela credits herself with creating Bowie’s look during his Ziggy Stardust phase. David showed some resistance to wearing makeup at first but he later complied. Ziggy, of course, was an unheralded success. After the spectacular album, ‘Space Oddity,’ Bowie’s name was enshrined forever. The story of a fictional astronaut named Tom blended well with the world’s fascination with space flight.  
   Next, Diamond Dogs and The Young Americans, the latter recorded in Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios. Fame would be another blockbuster (co-written by John Lennon).
   Bowie was in Philly many times in the 70s. During one of his many visits he met a woman friend of mine after a concert. Cheryl, who could capture the eyes of any man (or woman) with her good looks, intrigued Bowie, so they arranged to meet for drinks in a downtown hotel. Cheryl told me that she and Bowie sat at the hotel bar for some time but that their peaceful rendezvous was interrupted when a jealous Iggy Pop appeared out of nowhere. Iggy Pop and Bowie were partners (they shared an apartment together in Berlin), so the furious Iggy made sure that this would be Cheryl’s only round of drinks with Ziggy. 

   Metallic hard rockers snarled when Bowie appeared on SNL in a dress. The skit was hilarious because Bowie looked like the Church Lady.
      In Christopher Andersen’s biography, Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jaggar” we read how Angela Bowie walked into the bedroom of their home and saw David and Mick Jaggar in bed together. Angela knew immediately what was up. She reportedly said, “Do you want some coffee?”  
   Bowie’s affair with Jaggar lasted a long time. When they met in the 1970s, Andresen says that they “became fascinated with one another.”
    In 1972 Bowie told Melody Maker magazine that he was gay. But an astute friend of mine who studies American pop music thinks otherwise. He says that Bowie carefully manipulated his image as an outsider to include a gay outsider status. Bowie would later claim that he was bisexual and then later change that to “I have always been a closet heterosexual.”
   The fact is, he slept with everybody, male, female, old and young.
    Bowie was a mercurial businessman who planned every stage of his career like the plodding/plotting Capricorn he was. His career manipulation even extended beyond death so that in the coming years we will see the release of additional albums. He even incorporated a lot of death imagery into his last album.
        In his later years, Bowie seemed to have settled into an exclusive relationship with the beautiful model, Iman. The orgies and intense sexual promiscuity of his earlier years seemed to have vanished, although who knows what may be waiting to be revealed in the future.  I do know this: His wife’s name, I-man, suggests that Ziggy Stardust had found a way to always keep a man in his life, even if it was only by way of language.      


Andy Warhol's First Boyfriend

I first heard the name Carlton Willers while interviewing author Victor Bockris, when Bockris was in Philadelphia to introduce an early (and bad) Andy Warhol film entitled Kitchen. Willers, Bockris told me, was Andy’s first boyfriend and lover, and not only that, he lived in Philadelphia. A few days later I found Willers’ name in the white pages and called him to introduce myself. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d be calling Willers more than a year later when I signed a contract to write and complete Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (published in 2002). Since I have always been a fan of Warhol’s, I wanted a photograph and some comments from Willers for my book.
Willers, who has given many interviews to writers and authors over the years, told me that he had just turned down a request for an interview “from yet another Warhol biographer.” Everything that can be said has already been said, he told me (Willers wouldn’t tell me who the New York writer was, but I wonder if perhaps it wasn’t Warhol biographer, Wayne Kostenbaum). Willers liked the fact that I was a Philadelphian, and the fact that my book would contain lots of photographs intrigued him. Willers, an avid collector of photographs himself who used to run a small New York art gallery, owns a first class collection of photographs the University of Iowa published as a special book in 1996.
Talking with the lean and elegant Willers, I tried to imagine what Andy saw so many years ago when the two met in the New York Public Library when Willers, just 20 years old, was working as the secretary for the curator in the picture collection. Andy used to come to the library all the time to borrow photographs for his work. “Lots of artists came in there. Andy was one of them and that’s how I met him,” Willers told me. “One day he came up to me and said, ‘You wanna go on a picnic with some people in Central Park?’”
The year was 1953. After the picnic Willers says that he went to Andy’s apartment almost every evening.
“I often stayed there because Andy would work all night. He was doing ad work in those days and making lots of money doing it. There weren’t that many galleries then. It was a lot of fun for me and I helped him with a lot of that, as did a lot of people. He loved to go out to the theater. He would never go alone and I would always go with him. He liked the wonderful musicals of the 1950s. It was a lot of fun for me, a kid from Iowa, who entered the Air Force, then went straight to New York. Andy was a lot of fun in those days. He was playful.”
In those days Andy was living in a top floor apartment with his mother, Julia. Willers remembers Julia as being extremely funny and kind. He says that everybody loved her because she was even more playful than Andy. “She was innocent and spoke this broken English and was always taking care of Andy. She was this old Czech lady. She was as funny as Andy and she loved to laugh at funny things. Andy had many cats then, eighteen of them. They were all named Sam. Some of them were inbred and many of them were getting a little queer; they were cross-eyed, some of them. In those days Andy had a mess of stuff around him. There was always paper and art work because he was busy doing advertising, and the cats would come along and knock over whole bottles of India ink, but Andy never got upset. Then his mother would come in with this big bucket and mop—she just looked like a Czech chore woman. She had her bedroom in the back and she’d go to her Catholic church every Sunday.”
Willers says that Julia would cook, though she’d never eat with him and Andy. “She was always very nice to me but the only time Andy and me had any time together was late at night after she had gone to bed and fallen asleep in the bedroom in the back. She also called me Andy’s boyfriend. To her a boyfriend was just a chum. To her I was just staying over because I was helping him with his work. She was special because I don’t think she understood much about Andy’s world. I don’t think she understood the gay thing at all.”
Julia, of course, had just come to New York one day on a visit and never left. She also kept trying to get Andy interested in girls. “Andy thought this was hilarious. Sometimes people would come to the studio and she’d see them and point out a girl and say, ‘Andy, why don’t you get married to her?’”
“Andy’s ad drawings were very elegant and beautiful in those days and everyone knew it. Here’s this little boy – he really was a boy in those days with his cap on…literally, his shoe laces would always be broken and his tie would be askew but he’d walk into the Bonwit and Teller Ad Department and everybody loved him. He already had an image of himself, a persona. He always had a persona.”
Willers believes that he was Andy’s only authentic boyfriend. “He was kind of asexual but gay. He didn’t have a gay life so to speak though he had a thing about beautiful people and he loved beautiful boys. I think he might have intimidated people—I wasn’t intimidated. I saw there was no line there. I just went right across it and I think he was very touched by it in a way. He was certainly not passionate. He was more passionate about food and eating. He loved going to certain restaurants where he liked the people. The reason that I had no trouble was that he was so self-conscious and with a lot of people he would sort of stand off and not cross that line. I think he loved having me there every night because otherwise he was alone with his mother.”
Willers says that once in a while, while cuddling, Andy would cry. “This would usually come unexpectedly or spontaneously about something in his past that was sad. And he did have a somewhat sad past. They were very poor. His mother was always kind to him though. He was her favorite.”
Sometimes when Willers was with Andy there would be mild arguments but these happened when friends of Andy’s would say, ‘Let’s go to this party,’ and Andy would say no because he would not like somebody who was going to be there. “I knew a lot of people thought, ‘Well, we all want to go to this aprty so why can’t we go?’” Willers says.
Andy was obsessed with becoming famous and he’d often say, “Gee, I wish I could be famous,” though Willers doesn’t think that Andy ever thought he’d become as famous as he did.
He was also insecure about his looks. “I thought he was much too self-conscious. He hated being bald and his tendency to put on weight. He liked sweets a lot. Often after he was out running around the town he’d buy all these voluptuous cakes and pastries and he liked ice cream, and that got him through the night sometimes.” To hide his baldness, Andy wore caps in the 1950s. “He wouldn’t take the cap off,” Willers says. “We’d go to rather nice dinner parties with rather nice prestigious people and he wouldn’t take his hat off. He wouldn’t even take his cap off in the theater. One day I said, ‘Andy, why don’t you get a hairpiece or something?’ He actually did. He went to some place and got a very nice, well-matched hairpiece. He looked great in it. It looked like his real hair. Later, as his hair got completely white, he started going for white hairpieces.”
Willers says that when he started Columbia he didn’t see Andy on a regular basis, that he was too busy studying and working. When he finished Columbia he was offered a teaching job at Carnegie Tech, Andy’s old alma mater. “Andy was intrigued by this. When I went out there I’d get cards from him and I’d visit him when I visited New York.”
But something had changed. Andy was no longer the little blond boy with the untied shoe laces walking around with his ad drawings, but had taken up with a film crowd and was now dressing in leather. “He remade himself. He didn’t really look good in leather. He was a totally different person. People like myself or people who had known him before didn’t know how to treat him because he wasn’t the old Andy. They realized they were part of Andy’s old world and not a part of the new world. It didn’t bother me. He was starting to get famous for his pop art work and then started to make these films. The film people changed him. He almost didn’t want to recognize you in the street when he ran into you. That happened to me several times but it truly didn’t bother me because I didn’t want to be in that world anyway. I knew he had to be in that world. But I still ran into him from time to time when he wasn’t with those people and he was still the same old Andy.”
After this, Willers says, the wigs got crazier and crazier.
When Willers moved back to New York and opened a small art gallery, Andy came to visit from time to time. Willers would also run into him a lot at auctions. “He would often be alone, buying art. That’s when I would run into him and we would talk and he was very much the same.”
When Andy died, Willers was invited to the private memorial mass at Saint Patrick’s cathedral but opted not to go. He wasn’t ready for all the hoopla. “Once you get to a certain point,” he says, talking about Andy’s fame, “it feeds on itself and it gets bigger and bigger. Andy didn’t deal well with this towards the end of his life. He tried to keep up this persona. Had he lived to be old, where would that have gone? How could he take off these masks and be himself again? This would have been very difficult…everybody wabted him to be Andy Warhol. I think this happens to people who become famous and some people deal with it well and some don’t.” (Thom Nickels, Out in History, 2005)


Writer Victor Bockris is standing at the podium at Moore College in Philadelphia. He’s in Philly as part of a ‘Silent Cinema’ series at Moore and has just introduced Andy Warhol’s 1964 film, Kitchen, starring Edie Sedgwick.
The crowd is hip/artsy. Straight couples predominate: skinny blond girls with 1920s flapper hairstyles. Their lean, pale boyfriends with conspicuous sideburns. I’m crammed beside a fidgety Asian student, about 20, who looks like an engineering whiz.
Kitchen is a disaster. Of course. Norman Mailer once called it a “descent into the hell of boredom.” The story takes place in the kitchen of a New York apartment and is reflective, one is to preseume, of Warhol’s perception that life is pretty much a compendium of mundane chores, ennui, and pointless chatter.
After the film has ended, Bockris asks the crowd “So, what did you think?” For a second there’s absolute silence. Then Bockris blurts out what is on everyone’s mind: “Terrible, right?” He then goes on to explain that Kitchen must be seen in order to understand Warhol’s genesis as a film maker, how he eventually came to make such films as Heat, Trash and Lonesome Cowboys.
Twenty-four hours later I’m sitting with Bockris on the patio of a house in West Philly. I tell him I’m finally able to put a face to the name. Years ago we both wrote for The Distant Drummer, Philly’s only underground newspaper. Bockris was already in New York, working at Warhol’s Factory. (His book, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol was published in 1989. He has also written biographies of William Burroughs, Patti Smith and John Kale of the Velvet Underground.)
Talking with Bockris is like watching a film of New York in the Seventies. He mentions dinner parties with William Burroughs, Mick Jagger and Andy. Or how he introduced writer Christopher Isherwood to Burroughs when he brought Isherwood to Burroughs’ bunker. Or how he saw Andy at the Factory sitting alone in the dark in a depressed slump because his friend, Lou Reed, did not invite him to his wedding. Or how Andy used to come to Philadelphia on weekends to visit Henry McIlhenny at his mansion on Rittenhouse Square, or shoot film footage on the roof deck of another wealthy Philadelphian’s house near 15th and Spruce. Or how Andy’s Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit in Philadelphia marked the beginning of his career as a pop star, with hundreds of groupies waiting to see the King in his white wig, solar sunglasses and necklace of safety pins. Or how Andy, albeit fame and success, felt that he was a failure because he never had a sustaining love relationship.
Bockris mentions the time that Muhammad Ali gave Andy the cold shoulder during a picture-taking session in Ali’s Pennsylvania training cabin, the fighter brandishing his religious self righteous attitude and finally letting Andy have it with a forty-five minute diatribe about the decline of western morals as evidenced by pictures of two men fucking on newsstand magazine covers.
“’That’s so funny; I think he’s a male chauvinist pig, right? He’s a male chauvinist pig? Because, I mean, how can he preach like that? It’s so crazy,” Bockris quotes Andy as saying to him at the conclusion of Ali’s tirade.
Bockris, who is straight, corrects me when I imply that Andy wasn’t much of a gay activist. “Warhol was a militant homosexual. Absolutely. If you said anything negative about homosexuality, you were physically thrown out of the Factory—like, in a minute—taken by the arm, and pushed out the door. Oh, he was militant!”
Bockris says that as early as 1962 or ’63 Warhol was pushing his sexuality on people at a time when it was dangerous to be gay. “I mean, it could destroy your career.” He mentions artist Jasper Johns who once denied that he was gay and who even went out of his way to “act macho.”
Charades like that pissed Warhol off, he said.
“Warhol affected his gayness with his voice, with the way he behaved—all to upset people.”
According to Bockris, what gave Warhol the courage to be open were the changes brought about by WWII. Men fighting together in foxholes and saving each other’s lives knew everything about their fellow soldiers. If a gay man saved your life, his gayness became irrelevant. “There were a lot of gay people in the Army in those days. So after the war, in ’45 or ’50, before the Cold War and the McCarthy era, there was a real openness in the culture. Andy, who went to college from ’45-’49, interfaced with a lot of guys who had been to Europe and who were gay. They were like…macho guys strutting around campus, only they were gay and people knew that they were gay, but nobody cared. That’s how Andy became encouraged to open up to his gayness. By the time he came to New York in ’49 the gay underground was fantastic. I met a lot of those guys involved in that…they had a wonderful time because they knew they were a new breed, a new group of people.”
Unfortunately, that freedom of expression did not last and life for gays in the ‘50s and ‘60s, at least ‘above ground’ was no Walt Disney frolic.
“It was a time when being gay was like death - you were totally dismissed,” Bockris confirms. “I mean, you couldn’t even invite people to dinner who were gay. People just didn’t want to be with them. It wasn’t until ’74 or ’75 that things changed.”
The eighties saw another change. With the advent of AIDS, Bockris says that the gay people of New York closed off. “Things became separated because people were fighting for their lives. And everyone was suspect in some way. And I suddenly found myself not quite as welcome inside small social groups, which was upsetting.”
Does Bockris think that Andy would fit in with today’s culture?
“Today, everyone has returned back into their groups. ‘I’m this. You’re that. We’re separate’ and I think that’s a great pity. The religious right has really taken over the culture. it’s a very different kind of culture now…”
One that, Bockris insists, Andy, with his love of cross-referencing different types of people, would not like at all.
Out in History, by Thom Nickels 2005, (Interview w/Bockris 2002)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Monk Thomas Merton's Great Love Affair

Recently I reread the journals of Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, author of the best selling book, The Seven Story Mountain, written shortly after Merton entered the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 26. Merton, who was born in France and educated in England, originally wanted to be a novelist when he migrated to New York City to resume his studies at Columbia. Merton's life on Perry Street in Greenwich Village was typical of the life of many young bohemians of the era: bar hopping, cafes, women, bookstores, films and other intellectual pursuits. This life soon paled for the budding mystic. The Seven Story Mountain chronicles his conversion to Catholicism and then his decision to become a monk. Merton first applied to the Franciscan Order but the vocation director there rejected him because he admitted that he'd once gotten a girl pregnant. The Trappists, however, were willing to look the other way. Until the day he died--December 10, 1968--Merton (Father Louis) was never a sanctimonious holy roller but a man subject to all sorts of temptations. As a seasoned monk he drank beer, read Lenny Bruce, Nietzsche, and defended the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
Merton became a monk in the years before Vatican II, when Catholicism had a more traditional cast. Vatican II changed many things in Catholic life, especially the rubrics of the Mass. Merton was ambivalent about some of these changes. In his journal he notes: "Catholic Aggiornamento: A priest is amazed that some of his people continue to say the Rosary at Mass. He announces a special service. Sunday evening all are to bring Rosaries and candles...walk in procession to a spot outside the Church where they will find a hole has been dug. They are to throw their rosaries in the hole. Spirit of liberty of Vatican II." Merton, in this instance, sounds like Archbishop Lefebvre of the SSPX.
In the mid-Sixties, Merton had a major crisis involving monastic celibacy.

This life changing experience occurred when he underwent an operation in a Louisville hospital and befriended a young nurse. ("I remember being fed by a nurse at my first meal...then trying to eat one myself and picking a small piece of veal off a plate with my fingers and sticking it in my mouth."). His relationship with the nurse, known in the journals as 'M' (Margie), evolved into a romantic obsession. The world famous monk-author suddenly found himself sneaking around the monastery late at night in order to make hushed phone calls to his beloved. In May, 1966, he wrote: "The trouble is that with M. and me it is not a game....Humanly speaking the situation is impossible. We are terribly in love, and it goes very deep, perhaps more even with her than with me..." Other journal entries make him sound like a love sick adolescent: "She is the sweetest person I have ever known." At other times he comes off like a hippie at Woodstock, "We [M.] ate herring and ham (not very much eating!) and drank our wine and read poems and talked of ourselves and mostly made love and love and love for five hours."

Merton was able to spend time with M. because the Abbott, Dom James, with whom he did not get along, gave him permission to live as a hermit in a small house on monastery grounds. Flocks of visitors found their way to his door. The Berrigan brothers, poet Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry and Joan Baez came knocking while random tourists would show up uninvited. Religious fanatics sought him out to tell him their dreams or that his life was in danger. On more than one occasion Merton found himself hiding behind a tree to avoid the religious paparazzi. He was in many ways the Catholic version of the Dalai Lama. Living in the hermitage gave him freedoms denied the other monks: he could ditch his habit for work clothes and escape to downtown Louisville with friends to grab lunch (and beer) at a favorite eatery, then come back and change back into his habit again.

In June 1966, he wrote: "I realize that what is most wrong in my relationship with M. now is that I no longer trust her fully." In fact, a close friend of Merton's at this point tells him to forget M. because she is "narcissistic, selfish, and not capable of loving another human being." Their relationship continues, however.
Merton continues to think about Catholic renewal: "There is too much spite, envy, pettiness, savagery, and again too much of a brutal and arrogant spirit in this so called Catholic renewal: too much conceit and hubris, and in the end the same old authoritan and intolerant ways in a new form..." He also writes about the "incredible number" of men leaving the monastery, especially the Trappist monastery in California. All over the world, it seems, there is an exodus of monks and nuns from convents and seminaries.
Merton's eclectic reading habits at this time include writers like Faulkner, Sartre and Camus. He also becomes more interested in Zen. Intense pangs of conscience continue to torment him when it comes to M. and his battles with Dom James plunge to a new low. Merton describes the Abbot as "the very incarnation of New England middle class, efficiency loving, thrifty, crafty, operating, sanctimonious religiosity." Naturally, when Dom James eventually discovers Merton's affair with M. -this happens when a (younger) monk who drove Merton to Louisville to meet M. spills the beans--there's hell to pay.

When Joan Baez visits, she and Merton picnic on the hermitage lawn. "We talked of my love for M. and I read some of the poems and Joan was ready to drive ninety miles an hour through the rain to Cincinnati so I could see M. when she got off at the hospital. " After another struggle with his conscience, Merton breaks ties with M. then changes his mind again. "Yesterday I had to go to Louisville for a bursitis shot in the elbow. M. and I had arranged with Jim Wygal that we would borrow his office and get together there, which we did with a bottle of champagne." M. and Merton talk about marriage but their plans never materialize. Merton realizes he is a monk "through and through" and that he must end the affair. When Dom James finds out about M., the boom is lowered.
Merton complains: "Meanwhile, I have to accept the punishment the Abbott is giving me. Nothing great in itself, really, only his scorn and his narrow-mindedness bearing down on me more directly, cutting off liberties and what were really privileges - so I cannot truly complain..."
M. was not Merton's first sexual temptation. John Cooney writes that in 1963, three years before Merton met M., his dormant sexuality was shaken by a beatnik tourist claiming to be a distant relative but who was really a nymphomaniac. Merton said that the woman "gave me a wild time - a real battle, at times physical, and finally when I got away alive and with most of my virtue intact (I hope) I felt shaken, sick and scared"
When the relationship was finally over, Merton burned all of M's letters although he was haunted by her memory for some time. He continued to dream about her and he was even tempted to call her while in Louisville on doctor's visits. Occasionally he found solace in Schlitz beer: "So I go and get another beer. The supply is already running out. I only had five cans. It is a hot night. Where will I be when the dark falls and the dragons come and there is no more beer?"
Cooney says that at this time of his life Merton resembled a well-fed Friar Tuck, rather than the pale, ascetic he was on ordination day. Cooney adds: "Now bald-headed, he looked like Pablo Picasso."

Merton begins to question everything. He writes about transferring to a Trappist monastery in Chile or New Mexico. His interest in Zen and Buddhism intensifies so that he begins to quote Chinese masters and non Christian scripture as often as he quotes Christian saints. He also comes down hard on his brother monks: "...The fact is that this community is full of half-sick people, immensely vulnerable, wasting their lives in petty, neurotic machinations--and one simply does not needle such people. It does no good, and it encourages their sickness."
Although he's invited to religious conferences all over the world, Dom James, says no to virtually every request.
Merton prays for strength under pressure. "I kneel down by the bed and look up at the icon of the nativity. The soft shaded light plays over the shelves of the Buddhist books in the silent bedroom." In another entry, he goes completely bawdy: "The other day I was in town. It embarrasses me. Of course, I had to see the proctologist and that is always embarrassing--with your head down and your asshole up in the air, trying to talk about Mexican Indians."
When Dom James announces his retirement and when a new Abbot is elected, Merton experiences a sense of elation. He's given a green light to travel to conferences in San Francisco and then to a series of conferences in the Far East where he will meet with the Dalai Lama, tour Buddhist monasteries and meet other Catholic clergy. It is in the Far East where his life will end suddenly.

His unexpected death was reported on page one of The New York Times.
According to Cooney, "The end, in fact, came at a conference cottage in Samutprakarn, some 20 miles from the Thai capital, on December 10th after he addressed fellow monks at 10.45am on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Looking stressed, he retired for a shower. That afternoon he was found lying on his back with a five-foot fan which had landed diagonally across his body."
Merton wrote more than 70 books, most of them on spirituality and social issues.

ICON City Beat February 2016

City Beat February 2016

This year’s Mummers controversy had to do with the comics’ parody of Caitlyn Jenner and the so-called stereotyping of Mexicans with brown face and dancing tacos. The protests did not come from diehard Mummers fans lining Broad Street but from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties and the Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. The Sammar Strutters who adopted the Mexican theme with brown face probably assumed they were safe because they weren’t doing black face. And why shouldn’t they have assumed that? Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, former presidents, Lithuanian dancers and cops, so why not put on the Mexican?  A street comic’s usual role is to dress up and get noticed, not deliver nuanced comedy. Mummers comics, after all, are really the raw belly laughter of a working class city. Those City Hall Nannies want to sanitize next year’s parade by creating a reform school for the hooligan performers, most of whom are not Union League members or Harvard grads but raw Philly types who guzzle beer and (yes) cuss.  This will ensure a 2017 parade as coma-inducing as the Rose Bowl Parade.   

   Mayor Kenney’s emergence as the #1 Poo Bear pawn for Philly’s Left Wing community has received national attention.  One of the mayor’s first Executive Orders was to reinstate the city’s ‘sanctuary city’ status, which shields illegal immigrants from deportation. It also bars cops and prison officials from ratting to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about an illegal alien’s release from prison. This news was ecstasy to new City Council member Helen Gym, who raised her fist in a ‘Power to the People’ salute as Kenney signed the Order. Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, said, "We are thrilled…!” Are we really?  Kenney’s Executive Order means that Philadelphia is breaking federal law, as are a number of other scofflaw cities like San Francisco (where a woman was killed by an illegal immigrant deported 5 times), Detroit, Portland, Miami, Baltimore and Seattle. But hey: what about the thrilling, lawless role model the city is offering to its residents? If Philly can ignore federal laws, why should ordinary Philadelphians pay attention to laws against insurance fraud, mail fraud, counterfeiting, child support, arson, embezzlement and motor vehicle crimes? Will Kenney go as far as the Republican governor of Nevada, who approved the issuing of drivers licenses to illegals? How did we forget that immigration laws are there to protect the public safety? Unfortunately, politicians like Mayor Kenney are the reason why a candidate like Trump has a fighting chance to win the White House.   



 Philly’s artistic communities—theater, visual arts, poetry and literature—are separate worlds where the members of each group rarely interact with one another. Actors hang with actors; artists cultivate other artists; poets form their own social circles and journalists hide out at the Pen and Pencil Club. Actors probably have it best because almost everyone loves a good play, but Philly actors rarely show up at poetry readings or author talks, A Pulitzer Prize winning city writer could walk into any actor-filled Wilma theater reception and not be noticed at all. Fish bowls of isolation like this tend to keep Philly in a parochial orbit. What’s to be done? Look to New York, says Philly poet Jim Cory, “Where this kind of thing does not exist.” Cory says that New York artists of all types mingle at parties and other gatherings, so it’s not just painters with painters or actors with actors. Intent on bringing a little New York to Philly, Cory threw a holiday party and invited a wide range of artists: painter Bill Scott, poet Janet Mason, a TV writer, some poets and a playwright. New York, New York had finally come to a cozy apartment on S. 21st Street.

What’s not to admire about playwright Tom Stoppard? The author of Arcadia, Travesties, Jumpers and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was in town at the Wilma to celebrate the opening of “The Hard Problem,” his latest play of ideas. The play received sketchy reviews in England but at the Wilma Stoppard received a standing ovation. Wilma audiences are generous to a fault, but The Hard Problem was a problematic mishmash of vignettes dealing with questions about consciousness and God. It was almost as Stoppard had written the play stoned and then never got around to serious editing when he “sobered” up. .