Being There (and hanging out) 1978–2000
The following is excerpted from the introduction to “Being There:Journalism 1978–2000” By Tom Teicholz (Rare Bird Books, a Vireo Book).
Here’s how my journalism career began: I was in my first year at Columbia Law School and was working as a Democratic Party volunteer, election night November 1977. There was a special election and, for some reason that I can no longer remember, the final votes were being tabulated in a building on 15th Street off Union Square that was the infamous Tammany Hall of the Teapot Dome scandal.
I was hanging out in the balcony and struck up a conversation with the only other person my age hanging out there, David Noonan, a young novelist-journalist-newspaper-editor who seemed to be a character out of “The Front Page” — fast-talking, wisecracking, intelligent. He was working as an editor at The Eastside Express, a community weekly newspaper for the Upper East Side of Manhattan that was given away for free.
At the evening’s end, he asked me if I wanted to write for him. I told him that I had done a lot of book reviews for my college paper, and that I was just reading Jerzy Kosinski’s new novel “Blind Date.” “Don’t do a review,” Noonan told me, “Call up his publisher and get an interview. We’d print that.” So I had my first assignment.
That was a Tuesday night. Friday morning, around 9:30 AM I got up the nerve to call Kosinski’s publisher Houghton Miffllin. I asked for publicity and explained that I wanted to interview Jerzy Kosinski about his new novel. They informed me that Kosinski handled his own publicity and that I should call his representative, a company called Scientia-Factum. I thanked her, hung up and then dialed the new number she had given me for Scientia-Factum.
A woman answered. I launched into my spiel that I wanted to interview Jerzy Kosinski for the Eastside Express. The woman, a bit distracted, said: “Can you please hold?” My thinking was that if I set the interview for the week after next, I would have time to prepare.
A man came on the line. He spoke with an accent that I recognized. That man was Jerzy Kosinski. Before I could repeat my interview request, he said:
“Can you be here at 11:30? My office is in the Hemisphere House at 60 West 57th Street.”
“Today?” I said not trying to betray my panic.
“Yes. Why not?”
I said I would and hung up. I remembered sitting in my sparsely furnished loft studio. Feeling the imperative to get organized, I grabbed a legal pad and wrote out a dozen questions. I then realized I didn’t have a tape recorder. Or rather that the one I owned was at my parent’s apartment across town. I got in a cab, went over to my parents’, got the tape recorder, put new batteries in it, grabbed an extra cassette, grabbed another cab and went over to Kosinski’s office, which turned out also to be his home.
That interview, which I didn’t know enough to think I couldn’t do well, became, with Noonan’s editing, a cover story for the Eastside Express for which I was paid $45. I still remember having to go to the office on 24th street just east of 6th Avenue in what was then the flower district to pick up my check. My career was launched and I went back to Law School. I was 22 and a published journalist. That seemed amazing.
I spent the following year taking courses at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism learning just how much I didn’t know about journalism (I’d been accepted in a joint degree program with the Law School). The next year, back at Law School, fellow student Ted Schachter and I revived The Columbia Law School News, winning awards for the publication.
One night that fall, at a cocktail party my great friend Julio Santo Domingo held in his penthouse apartment at One Fifth Avenue, I met Bob Colacello who wrote a nightlife gossip column in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, ‘Bob Colacello’s Out.’ I was such a fan that I ghosted a similar column in The Law School News. It turned out that Colacello had also gone to Columbia and he, generously, invited me to come down one afternoon to Interview’s offices which were in the Factory, which was then located at 860 Broadway at 17th Street and Union Square.
On the day I visited, a Friday afternoon after classes, I went up the elevator to the third floor where I stood in a bare area with a security camera bearing down, waiting to be buzzed in. Although such security was not common at the time, It did not dawn on me that given that Warhol had been shot at the prior Factory location, security was a necessity. Colacello greeted me and toured me around the offices which were L-Shaped and looked out over Union Square and Broadway.
I met Robert Hayes, Interview’s editor, who looked no older than me. I’m not sure if I met Gael Love, who would become my editor and the editor of Interview that afternoon, but it’s possible since she was a Barnard grad.
At the end of my walkabout, I was talking to Bob when Andy Warhol appeared. Bob introduced me to Warhol, saying I was up at Columbia — which for some reason seemed to impress him. Warhol couldn’t have been nicer. They were discussing the cover for the Christmas issue and Warhol turned to me and asked what I thought, which flattered me terribly. I don’t recall what I said. But it must have been ok because Bob then asked me if there was anyone I wanted to interview for Interview. “Norman Mailer,” I said. I had been reading a lot of Mailer, had even met him, and felt I could engage him about his work.
“No, not Mailer,” Warhol said definitively. I explained that I had suggested Mailer because I had done an interview with Jerzy Kosinski for the Eastside Express.
“Kosinski? We need to do Kosinski.” Warhol said. Bob added, “Can you call him?”
Kosinski had a new novel out since I’d last interviewed him called “Passion Play.” It was about an itinerant Polo player and so we decided to meet up at the annual horse show at Madison Square Garden. I think I was paid $180 and when the issue appeared on the newsstand, I can’t remember if I went with my law school roommates to The Russian Tea Room or Elaine’s (I think the latter) to celebrate. I also acquired a literary agent, Michael Carlisle at William Morris, who became my great champion and who was himself, a Columbia Law School grad. We began a tradition of lunches at The Russian Tea Room, which added to the luster of being a writer in New York.
So began a long and fruitful relationship with Interview Magazine. Robert Hayes, who was the nicest guy, and a great editor, soon disappeared: He was the first person I knew who had this un-diagnosable sickness, a flu-like pneumonia that wouldn’t go away. He was dead before any of us understood that it was AIDS.
He was succeeded by Gael Love, who became my editor, my friend, and co-conspirator. Interview in those days was a small family-like enterprise where you got to know everyone and where, thanks to all the restaurants Interview had trade deals with, there were a lot of dinners and parties. Risa Dickstein, Interview’s attorney became a close friend. I got to meet many of the regulars (some of whom I actually got to know), including Fred Hughes, Paige Powell, Doria Reagan, Pat Hackett, Brigid Berlin, Jane Sarkin, Betsy Borns, Marc Balet, Matthew Ralston, Kate Harrington, Tama Janowitz, Glenn O’Brien and of course, Warhol himself who, on occasion, I got to have dinner with or observe him being Andy Warhol.
It is hard to describe the delirium that accompanied each of those first publications. Each was some great victory and validation. Each felt like, in the words of the poet Charlie Sheen, “winning.” It was as if I was climbing some imaginary mountain face and each published story was a new ledge. I had the surreal and incredible experiences of watching someone read my work on the subway and laugh and enjoy it; of meeting someone and them saying, “Are you the Tom Teicholz who writes for Interview?”
I recall that, at one point in my early 20s as I was freelancing, a woman I was dating who didn’t seem to see much of a financial future for me, asked: “But don’t you have ambitions?” To which I replied, “I’ve fulfilled my ambitions: I’m a published Journalist.” The relationship did not survive that conversation.
During this period, I was a speechwriter for the Comptroller of the City of New York, and an attorney, working briefly for myself and then with a small midtown firm. Occasionally I would do legal work for some of the Interview staff (I drafted a few wills and did some coop closings for some of the Interview staff and other writers).
The late 1970’s and early 1980s in New York City were a time of great enthusiasm and creativity. The city itself had been in dire financial straits (i.e.in the words of the infamous Daily News headline ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’). Parts of Manhattan were not just neglected and in disrepair — they were dangerous. At the same time, this meant there were cheap rents available for writers, artists and club owners all over the city.
There was a lot of great music and a lot of great clubs to see bands in: There were still Greenwich Village folk clubs such as Gerde’s Folk City or The Bitter End where I saw Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and David Bromberg; and The Bottom Line, where I saw Patti Smith, Miles Davis, and Carly Simon; the first dance clubs such as Le Jardin (the first disco I recall); concert venues such as the Academy of Music, where The Clash, Talking Heads and Television performed; and Irving Plaza where I saw early New York performances by the B-52s and Los Lobos; the rock clubs Max’s Kansas City (Upstairs), the Mudd Club, Hurrah’s where I regularly saw bands like Blondie, The Runaways, James White and the Blacks, the Lounge Lizards, Johnny Thunders, Nona Hendryx, (and, on more than one occasion, found myself standing next to Debby Harry), CBGB, Danceteria, Traxx (where one night I got into a long conversation with the intelligent, erudite and charming David Johannsen); The Lone Star, with its iconic iguana up top; the short-lived Rock Lounge, Mickey’s Chinese Chance (One University) and then by the mid 80s, the dance clubs The Palladium, Xenon and Studio 54.
There was graffiti all over the subways, trash in the streets, — Mick Jagger singing “Shattered” is my soundtrack to that era. The East Village was filled with homeless, runaways, hustlers, junkies — as well as poets and new art galleries. Keith Haring’s work was moving from the sidewalk and the subways (his chalk work) to the galleries and Soho was becoming home to the art world establishment, with Castelli and Mary Boone the galleries one had to visit on Saturday afternoons. Schnabel was showing his broken plate series, Metro Pictures was showing Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray were at Paula Cooper. I went to dinners for Annie Leibowitz and parties for Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michael Basquiat and an Interview Magazine Valentine’s Day dinner at Area where Calvin could not keep his hands off the future Mrs. Kelly Klein.
On the literary front, I did a piece on young book editors for Interview (Gary Fisketjon, Jonathan Galassi, Craig Nelson, Nessa Rapoport, Ilene Smith) and several became friends. I spent a night of serious drinking with Gary Fisketjon and Jay McInerney in Cambridge, Mass, and was at the publishing party for “Bright Lights Big City” at Area (I remember Jay’s father was there) after which I went with Daphne Merkin and Nessa Rapoport to –where else? Odeon.
Book publishers such as Morgan Entrekin threw parties on a regular basis as did the magazines which were experiencing a golden age, thick with advertising. There were memorable Esquire parties in the Phillip Moffat/Chris Whittle era where I had great conversations with Gay Talese, Richard Ford, Rust Hills, Joy Williams, and James Kaplan among others.
At the white hot center of it all were the Paris Review parties held at George Plimpton’s apartment on East 72nd Street facing the East River. On staff at the time were Jeanne McCulloch, Mona Simpson (who was working on her first novel) and the Jonathan(s) (Jonathan Linville and Jonathan Dee). The parties were a delirium unto themselves where the old guard (Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron) and the new (Susan Minot, Jonathan Gallassi, Judith Reagan) mingled and the currency was conversation and literature. I once got into a heated argument with Harold Brodkey over the difference between erotica and pornography, but remember just as strongly the conviviality of conversation with Plimpton himself — who I would get to know more (if not better) over the years and whose presence is missed.
Being there was a case of right place, right time. You couldn’t help but take in the excitement and the cultural ferment. Journalism was a way in — to people, places, experiences, as much reason as excuse to always be learning. The pieces themselves were performances, as much duel as blind date; and although researched, prepared, and choreographed, were always open to improvisation and to the magic that can occur when words are spoken and put to paper.
Looking back, it seems remarkable that before turning 30 I had pieces in the April, July, August, and September issues of Interview and had already conducted a Paris Review Interview. Doing these assignments gave me the excuse to meet Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (or as I called him “The Yiddish Yoda,”) in his apartment on West 86th Street; to stay with Tom McGuane at his ranch in Montana; to have Russ Meyer give me a tour of his offices/studio in Hollywood (there was a bed in every room!); and to visit with legendary Rock Impresario Bill Graham, at whose Fillmore East I had spent much of my wasted teenage youth, at his New York townhouse. “Pretty, pretty good,” as Larry David (who I met in 1979) might say.
I had also become involved with a group of children of Holocaust survivors who travelled to Germany in May 1985 to protest President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German cemetery in Bitburg. Afterwards I wrote an op-ed essay with Eva Fogelman that appeared on the English language page of the Yiddish newspaper Forverts.
Getting published in magazines was extremely competitive and not always easy. During this time, I wrote many, many articles that were assigned but never ran or were killed. There is one that I wish I could find that I wrote for Vanity Fair, about Charlie Peters & the young journalists he trained at the Washington Monthly such as Jonathan Alter and James Fallows (it was killed). Others that appeared but that I can no longer find featured New York Times rock critic John Rockwell and painter Jennifer Bartlett. Three that never ran but which I’ve included in my “Being There” anthology are: a feature on Roz Chast early in her career, an interview with Ian Frazier just back in New York after living in Montana, and an article I wrote with Ian Brown for Rolling Stone in 1986, about the party practices of Southern women college students in Reagan Youth America, called “Road Chicks.”
After having enough magazine pieces killed, I decided to turn my attention to writing books. One day while I was still working as a lawyer, I read an article in the New York Times about a Cleveland auto worker, John Demjanjuk, who Israel wanted to extradite to stand trial for Nazi War Crimes. I had never heard of him before.
I did a Lexis search on Demjanjuk and pulled up all the cases on him (Because this was 1985, I printed it out on tractor-feed paper). As I read through the cases, I found myself compelled — there was an amazing story here, one with the depth and substance to sustain a book, as well as a compelling engine and structure to tell it: A trial — the first Nazi War Crimes trial in Israel since Eichmann. Whether Demjanjuk was acquitted or convicted I had the sense that his trial would tell us a great deal about what we’ve come to learn about the Holocaust since the Eichmann trial and how attitudes in Israel and the United States have changed since then.
As I was waiting to find out whether Demjanjuk would actually be extradited to Israel (and while I continued to work as a lawyer and do the occasional free-lance article), I began work on the book proposal. I would say the proposal took six months (which means it took nine). A young editor at St. Martin’s Press, Michael Sagalyn had encouraged me in writing the proposal — and he, pretty much, was the first to bid on it, which I immediately accepted (although it would many more months to get a contract and a check). I took a six month leave of absence from my law firm to cover the trial — which turned into three years and I never went back.
When the book, “The Trial of Ivan the Terrible, State of Israel vs. John Demjanjuk” was published in November 1990, first serial was sold to The Forward, a new English language weekly spin-off of the original Yiddish language daily Forverts, launched by Seth Lipsky. Mine was their first book excerpt — Front page over the banner. David Margolick, a reporter for the New York Times, who wrote the “At The Bar” column found a stack in his apartment lobby, read one and called me. He profiled me in The Times (and we’ve been friends ever since), and I appeared on Charlie Rose, CBS, and even The Mort Downey Show (with Alan Dershowitz on my side). Good times. Good times.
After the Demjanjuk book which had been critically well received but sold to a small audience (10,000 copies which would be huge by today’s standards), I wanted to write something more commercial. I had a bunch of meetings with editors, one of whom, the eminent Peter Osnos at Times Books/Random House, said, “Timing is everything, and I have a book that needs a writer.” The book was retail impresario Marvin Traub’s memoir, “Like No Other Store: The Bloomingdale’s Legend and the Revolution in American Marketing.” Trying to keep up with Marvin was no easy task but always fun: I found myself in Paris at a cocktail party where the little old lady I was chatting up turned out to be Yves St. Laurent’s mother; I served as chauffeur to Sonia Rykiel and spent an afternoon with Christian Petrossian learning about beluga. First serial, about Bloomingdale’s bankruptcy went to New York Magazine; a second serial, about Ralph Lauren, appeared in The New York Post.
During this period, my interview with Cynthia Ozick appeared in book form as part of the collection, “Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Volume 8)” as well as in “Women Writers at Work.” Around the same time The University Press of Mississippi contacted me because they wanted to include my interview with I. B. Singer in their book “Conversations with Singer.” It dawned upon me that my some of my interviews could have a second life in print as part of the U Miss interview collections, and so I edited “Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski,” to give my Kosinski interviews a more permanent home.
Beginning in 1993, just as the Traub book was being published, my wife and I began to spend more time in LA (mostly due to her work). We became bi-coastal, which is to say that we had not yet decided to sell our New York apartment and rented an apartment (the bottom floor of a duplex) in the flats of Beverly Hills, near Beverly Hills High School.
In LA I continued to do journalism, selling three pieces to The New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’, one of which was published, “More than Friends.” I also broke the story of Michael Milken’s battle with prostate cancer for The New York Times Magazine. During this time I continued to write for the Forward, including a very early piece on The internet, as well as for the LA-based publication Buzz magazine. Finally, as much out of love for his work as his being a symbol of writing both in LA and New York, I collected, edited and wrote an introduction to “Conversations with S. J. Perelman.”
By 1995, I had become disillusioned with journalism in LA which, at that moment in time, had morphed into a transaction between editor and publicist that I no longer recognized as journalism; and I had no great book ideas to explore. A producer who had tried to option my Demjanjuk book (I chose instead producers who offered actual money) asked what job I would seek if I were in New York. “A magazine editor,” I replied. “You can do that job in LA,” she said, “It’s called being a movie development executive.”
She offered me a job working with her; and I would spend the next decade bouncing from gig to gig in the movie and TV industry.
But that’s another story.
Santa Monica, November 2016