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
February 11, 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.
When Mitchell died, he left behind the copious remains of both a career and a collection—a few hundred thousand sheets of paper and a few thousand found objects from the city he had chronicled: buttons, nails, doorknobs, spoons. The papers were given into the care of Sheila McGrath, a former assistant at The New Yorker, whom Mitchell had named as his literary executor. When McGrath died, in September 2012, Mitchell’s elder daughter, Nora Sanborn, then 72, became his literary executor and took possession of his papers, which, she says, were packed into more than 100 cartons.
The next month, Sanborn, a retired probation officer in New Jersey with blue eyes and graying honey hair, took part in a commemoration of Joe Mitchell along the piers of lower Manhattan. I met her on that occasion and asked if she knew who the anonymous patron was. Sanborn said she did not. But she agreed to search the files to see if they might yield a name.
Sanborn was back in New York seven months later, this past spring, for another celebration of her late father. Dressed in a black blouse and black slacks, she sat with some 40 others in a windowed gallery abutting the East River, and looked up at a wiry old man seated on a high wooden chair. He had a white beard and blue eyes and a face that was either tan or sallow. His name was Jack Putnam. He had known Mitchell, and on this misty May day, he began to read aloud a story written by him in 1944, “The Black Clams.” Like almost everything Mitchell wrote, it was true and funny and straight and sacred, devoid of judgment and alight with lists.
As the audience listened to what her father had written, Sanborn held on her lap a folder filled with more of his words: an account of two dinners Mitchell had had in 1959 with a man named John Rothschild, and a letter Rothschild had written years earlier to that woman from a “rich Middle Western family.” The papers were neatly typed and dated. In the upper-right corner of a few of the sheets, Mitchell had scrawled the name “Joe Gould.”
Joseph Ferdinand Gould was born in the fall of 1889 in an apartment above a meat market in Norwood, Massachusetts. His father and grandfather were doctors. But Gould hated the sight of blood—he once fainted when he saw the family cook kill a chicken—and on top of that was “ambisinistrous,” as he later put it to Mitchell: as clumsy as a person with two left hands. And so, when Gould told his father, at roughly age 13, that he too wished to be a doctor, his father answered, “That’ll be the day.” The words still pained Gould when he recalled them to Mitchell four decades later.
Gould left home for Harvard and graduated in 1911. He loved literature, but turned now to Balkan politics and then to eugenics. He spent months measuring the heads of Mandan Indians on a reservation in North Dakota. When he returned home, in 1916, he rejected a job his father had found for him collecting rent and decided instead that he wished to become a drama critic in New York. Gould took a train to Manhattan, settling for a job as a messenger boy and as an assistant police reporter for the Evening Mail.
Gould was 27 when, the next summer, he read a sentence by William Butler Yeats that changed his life: “The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair days and high days, and in how they farm and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage.” As Gould explained to Mitchell:
All at once, the idea for the Oral History occurred to me: I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people—eavesdropping, if necessary—and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind—long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumors, cries from the heart. I decided right then and there that I couldn’t possibly continue to hold my job, because it would take up time that I should devote to the Oral History, and I resolved that I would never again accept regular employment unless I absolutely had to or starve but would cut my wants down to the bare bones and depend on friends and well-wishers to see me through.
Gould quit his job. And over the decades that followed, he did as he had pledged in the thrill of that Yeatsian epiphany—he shunned regular work, lived close to the bone, subsisted on the charity of others, listened to what was spoken all around him. The only thing he did not do was write down what he heard.
Gould, though, told people that he did. He told them that his “quote oral history unquote,” as E. E. Cummings, an acquaintance of his, put it in a 1935 sonnet, would be on a par with the achievement of Edward Gibbon. And he told them that the Oral History was growing and growing—nine million words and counting when Mitchell first wrote about Gould in The New Yorker, in 1942. Those who gave Gould their pocket change believed they were supporting a great work. And in a sense they were, bankrolling not a big book but a compelling little man who, the fiction of his Oral Historynotwithstanding, could dance an Indian stomp and speak to birds and write poems and inspire poetry, too. Cummings, Donald Freeman, Alice Neel, Ezra Pound, William Saroyan, and Joseph Stella were among the bohemian elite who knew Gould and painted him and wrote of him.
Still, his famous circle aside, Gould remained a man of the street. He was often dirty, dizzy, and drunk, cold, loused, and hungry. He had no teeth and cadged his meals, eating free ketchup by the spoonful in diners. And when, in the spring of 1944, a painter Gould knew, Sarah Ostrowsky Berman, happened upon him seated on the steps of a tenement on Bleecker Street, with a bad cold and a hangover and sores on his legs, she was heartbroken. Only a few years earlier, the two had had long talks at parties.
Berman took Gould to her home. She cleaned him, fed him, gave him money. After he left, she sent out letters to many people he knew. “Joe Gould is in bad shape,” she wrote, as Mitchell later recounted. “Something must be done about him at once. If it isn’t, some morning soon he and a part of us will be found dead on the Bowery.”
A week later, Berman got a phone call from one of the people she had written to, a painter named Erika Feist. Feist told her that both she and her former husband, John Rothschild, a businessman and fund-raiser, had turned to a friend of his—the heiress Mitchell would later allude to in his book. The woman, said Feist, had agreed to give Gould $60 a month (about $800 today) for room and board, with the strict proviso that she remain anonymous. As Mitchell wrote, “Gould must never be told who the woman was or anything about her that might enable him to find out who she was.”
Muriel Morris Gardiner Buttinger knew well the importance of discretion. She was born in Chicago in 1901, the offspring of two families, the Swifts and the Morrises, made very rich by meatpacking. According to her 1983 memoir, Code Name “Mary,” she and her three older siblings grew up in an enormous Tudor house with gardens and stables and many servants. One of those servants, a housekeeper named Nellie, first made her young charge aware that her life of privilege stood in stark contrast to the conditions endured by many others. There were the rich. And there were the poor.
The young Muriel sought to correct for the fact of her privilege. She disciplined herself, taking cold showers in winter and sleeping on the bedroom floor. She educated herself, reading Marcus Aurelius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Upton Sinclair. And after inheriting a huge sum when her father died, in 1913—some $3 million (the equivalent of about $70 million today), according to Muriel’s War, a biography of Gardiner by Sheila Isenberg—Gardiner began to consider how she might help others. She was a student at Wellesley College when, together with a Harvard undergraduate named John Rothschild (the same man who years later would help connect her to Gould), she organized a group of left-leaning students intent on understanding the problems of the world.
Gardiner graduated from Wellesley in 1922 with majors in history and literature. She went on to study literature at Oxford, writing her thesis on Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. And after moving to Vienna in the hope of being psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud—she settled for his patient and protégé Dr. Ruth Brunswick—she decided to become a psychoanalyst herself and began medical school in 1932 at the University of Vienna.
A homegrown fascism overtook Vienna in 1934, and Gardiner joined the Austrian underground. Over the next five years, as Austria was pulled into the orbit of Hitler’s Germany, Gardiner harbored in her Vienna apartment “Jews and politically endangered comrades,” as she wrote in her memoir, and helped others to flee, securing their passage with false passports, contrived affidavits, and her own money. All the while, Gardiner pursued her studies and tended to a young daughter—Connie, born in 1931 during a short-lived marriage to an Englishman named Julian Gardiner.
After her divorce, Gardiner began a passionate relationship with the poet Stephen Spender. She then took up with the Austrian socialist leader Joseph Buttinger, one of the dozens of dissidents she had safeguarded. After Buttinger and Connie left Vienna for the security of life abroad, Gardiner did too, fleeing in June of 1938 to Paris, where she and Buttinger later wed. In November 1939, the couple boarded a ship to New York and eventually settled with Connie in New Jersey. There, Gardiner continued her medical career while helping to resettle refugees from the war.
The war was nearly over when, in 1944, Gardiner’s old friend John Rothschild and his former wife, Erika Feist, received those letters from Berman requesting help for a panhandling poet named Gould. A possible patron came immediately to mind.
“Erika thought of a very rich friend,” Rothschild recalled to Mitchell years later, over dinner at the Harvard Club in New York, on June 4, 1959. Rothschild then confided the name of that friend. Mitchell preserved the conversation with obvious excitement, typing the name in capital letters onto a line all its own:
He slipped the paper into his files.
It is not hard to understand why Joe Gould might have captured Muriel Gardiner’s imagination. Like her, he loved literature. He had pursued meaning at the expense of comfort. And he had found that meaning in Greenwich Village, just as she had when, in the summers of 1926 and 1927, she had called the Village home and gloried in its egalitarianism and camaraderie, its literary vitality, its freedom—sleeping, as she later wrote, atop its roofs.
But operating underground in Vienna, it was discipline and discretion that had guided Gardiner. And she approached patronage with similar rigor, insisting not only on her anonymity but also, as Mitchell wrote in Joe Gould’s Secret, that an intermediary disburse her money to Gould and see to it that the funds be used to buy room and board, not alcohol. Gardiner further stipulated that this person be “discreet and responsible.… someone Gould respected and would heed.”
Erika Feist asked a Manhattan art gallerist named Vivian Marquié to be that person, to mediate between Gardiner and Gould. Marquié agreed. She had, as Mitchell wrote, long cared for Gould and given him clothing. According to another document in Mitchell’s files, Rothschild later told Mitchell that it was Marquié who then “had the plan … to get together some money for his bed and board, and pay it directly, he wouldn’t handle the money at all.”
Thus it was done—money passed from Gardiner to Marquié to Henri Gerard, a friend who owned a rooming house in a Chelsea brownstone where, Mitchell wrote, “Gould was installed.” But the installation left Gould unhappy. Yes, at age 55, he suddenly had what he had gone without since he was half as old: a clean room and three meals a day. He had a bed, a chair, a table, a dresser, a skylight. All was free and nothing was asked. Like a Mozart or Michelangelo, he now had a patron. But Gould did not know who his patron was. And he grew desperate to find out. “The mystery of the identity of his patron tormented him,” Mitchell wrote. “It was all he could think about.”
And so, daily, in the spring of 1944, Gould began to hound Marquié for information. When she let slip Gardiner’s gender, he scanned newspapers for mentions of benefactresses and sought out wealthy women who had somehow intersected with his life. No luck. He then demanded that Mitchell identify his patron. When Mitchell told him that he did not know who she was, Gould nonetheless handed him a letter to pass along. Mitchell quoted from its beginning:
A RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATION FROM JOE GOULD TO HIS UNKNOWN PATRON (WHO WILL BE CHERISHED BY POSTERITY FOR HER GENEROSITY TO THE AUTHOR OF THE ORAL HISTORY WHETHER SHE CHOOSES TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS OR NOT).
Mitchell told Gould to tear up the letter and stop looking. But Gould did not, and instead gave the letter to Marquié, who reprimanded him as well. Gould eventually gave up the search—but not the speculation. He wondered, for instance, if the patron might be his biological mother. “How would you feel,” he asked Mitchell, “if you knew that somewhere out in the world there was a woman who cared enough about you not to want you to starve to death but at the same time for some reason of her own didn’t want to have anything to do with you and didn’t even want you to know who she was?”
But Gould moved forward. When Mitchell next chanced upon him, at the Jefferson Diner, in December of 1944, Gould was vibrant. He claimed that he was now unbothered by the anonymity of his patron, saying that whoever she was, she had, he now understood, bestowed upon him a gift far greater than mere room and board: a stamp of approval. For as word had spread that he had a patron—a woman Gould referred to as “Madame X” and said he knew—the handouts given him had grown bigger, and his standing among his fellow bohemians had increased, too.
What’s more, having a patron was helping Gould to write. Not the Oral History, of course. Rather, a diary. True, it was “first and foremost a record of baths taken, meals consumed, and dollars bummed,” as the Village Voice would report in 2000, when the diary surfaced in an archival collection at New York University. But at least it existed. And that it did was no doubt owing in part to Gardiner. Gould had written the bulk of its 1,100 pages while living on her $60 a month.
And then, suddenly, the money stopped.
“Dear Muriel,” Rothschild began in a typed letter to Gardiner on October 20, 1947. “I am very sad about your decision concerning Joe Gould.” That decision, as Mitchell noted in Joe Gould’s Secret, was to stop bankrolling Gould at the end of the year. In the book, Mitchell did not mention Rothschild’s letter. But Rothschild gave a copy to Mitchell, who stored it in his files.
Rothschild told Mitchell over a second dinner in 1959, according to Mitchell’s typed account, that Gardiner had “helped G simply because people she liked told her it was a good thing to do.” Rothschild had been among those people. And now, in his letter, he beseeched Gardiner to continue her support, likening Gould to a European refugee “who also, through no fault of his own, can’t feed himself”—a reference to the many people Gardiner had saved during the wartime years.
“It isn’t possible to let him go back to the bowery,” continued Rothschild. “He is growing old and would not survive long. And his misery would be unbearable to behold. So, I am telling Erika that she and Mrs. Marquie must get to work and construct a collective God which will not let this sparrow fall.” But the year ended, and neither a collective God nor Gardiner came forward. And so, the sparrow did fall—first into debt to his landlord, and then, the five stories from his apartment to a flophouse on the Bowery.
In the months and years that followed, Gould deteriorated. “From that time on almost every step he took was a step going down,” Mitchell wrote. Drinking and dizzy spells gave way to “confusion and disorientation” and then, in 1952, to a collapse on the street. Gould was hospitalized in the psychiatric division of Bellevue Hospital. He was transferred to Pilgrim State Hospital, in Brentwood, New York, where he died on August 18, 1957, of arteriosclerosis and senility.
Gould had lived 68 years, most of them difficult. But learning that his patron was cutting him off unmoored him like nothing else. It was, he told Mitchell, “the worst news I’ve ever had in my life.” Like Job questioning his God, Gould wondered why the woman who had lifted him from the streets now returned him to the streets.
There were several possible explanations. E. E. Cummings speculated in a 1948 letter to Ezra Pound that the patron had “decided she’d put her dollars on the foreign poor … or maybe Gould got fresh?” But Gardiner had enough money for all manner of poor people, and had had no contact with Gould. Mitchell himself had once warned Gould that “the woman might hear that he was already complaining and get annoyed and cut the money off.” But it had been years since Gould had tried to identify and contact Gardiner, and he had not complained since. And while the fact that theOral History didn’t actually exist would have been sufficient grounds to stop her support, Gardiner did not know the truth. For Mitchell did not alert her intermediary even after learning the truth in 1943.
“I’m sure she had a reason that made sense to her,” said Gardiner’s daughter, Connie Harvey, 82, who spoke from her Colorado home this past summer. “She had her rules. She was very consistent.” That Gardiner had left Gould peremptorily was consistent with how she generally ended relationships: “swiftly, absolutely, and with no discussion,” according to Sheila Isenberg, in Muriel’s War.
Harvey said that her mother had never mentioned Gould. But this, she added, was no surprise; In all her years, Harvey had learned of her mother’s good deeds only when “someone would come out of the blue and say, ‘Your mother paid for my education,’ or this or that.” Nor was her mother’s request for anonymity a surprise. “That was another principle she had,” said Harvey. “She wasn’t doing it to make friends. She had plenty of friends. She was not looking for gratitude.”
Still, she received it. For much of Gardiner’s life and deeds were recorded. There was her memoir. There was her biography. And there were the characters she inspired in other books: “Elizabeth” in Stephen Spender’s memoir World Within World and “Julia” in Lillian Hellman’s memoirPentimento (although Hellman denied this). But among all the words written about Gardiner, there was no mention of Gould. And when Gardiner died at age 83 in 1985, there was no indication that she had spoken of Gould to any but Feist and Rothschild and Marquié and Mitchell. They too said nothing publicly and now are gone.
Had the Oral History been real, and been received with acclaim, it may be that Gardiner would have come forward herself. It may be that she would have been “CHERISHED BY POSTERITY,” as Gould, in his letter to his unknown patron, had asserted she would be. But giving food and lodging to a dispossessed man is no less heroic than assisting a great book into the world. And almost 70 years ago, Joe Gould got both from a woman named Muriel Gardiner.