Bernard F. Stehle

[Spring 8 (1999): 6-14]



One afternoon in Manhattan in the fall of 1982, Frances Steloff, a young 95 at the time (she lived to be 101), excused herself from the living room of her apartment to prepare tea, leaving me alone for a few moments. For the previous several hours, I had been making slides of the Cummings’ art that still remained in the care of the Gotham Book Mart, the legendary literary establishment she had founded 62 years earlier. Marion Cummings had died in 1969, fourteen months after GBM’s exhibition of Cummings’ early watercolors and sketches, the first-ever show in its improvised gallery on the second floor.

Ms. Steloff lived on the third floor. The walls of her living room were crowded with decades of memorabilia, including many photographic portraits in frames of all sizes and conditions—a tilting assemblage of literary luminaries whom I instinctively sought to identify. A 16" x 20’ picture of Henry Miller was easy at any distance, but obstructing my scrutiny of many smaller photos were the unsteady stacks of books and other things—potted plants, objets d’art, table lamps—occupying every surface of every piece of furniture abutting the walls. By carefully moving—a la Cummings—a perhaps fraction of lampshade here, an inch of book there, I managed to inspect up close (and without breaking anything) a number of these other photos, including several memorable snapshots, before a raspy whistle blooming in the kitchen broke the spell, reminding me it was tea-time at the Gotham and not, after all, the store’s 1941 beer-and-pretzels party for Kenneth Patchen, pictured with his new book, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.

As I turned toward the center of the living room, where a small table had been set, a previously unnoticed portrait now grabbed my attention—seized it, rather. The wickedly placid face emanating from a silver-gelatin print pulled me toward the cluttered [end page 6] desk where, matted and unframed, the image lay propped against some books. I picked it up with the greatest care, almost convinced that the smoldering visage might further transmogrify itself if disturbed.

To whom does this ghostly face belong? The scar from that deep gutter, carved below the right eye, must surely be (no?) the rim of his glasses—or, if rimless, then simply a macabre metaphor, generated by spectral reflection off the perimeter of the glass itself. And his left eye!—the socket empty, the eyeball itself nothing but a blurred wad of tissue bulging away from the cheek....

Several, less malignant clues in this sea of shadows—the domed, nearly bald head; the stubby goatee and oddly broad mustache; the rumpled shirt collar and drab, loosely knotted tie—bedeviled me with their familiarity until, finally, I thought to lift the soiled mat. As if I had just raised a flap of cardboard box to reveal the identity of a long forgotten soul asleep on a steam vent, a flutter of pained laughter escaped my throat upon seeing the inscription underneath. It confirmed that the darkly dignified figure was indeed none other than Joseph Ferdinand Gould (1889-1957), a.k.a. Professor Sea Gull, author of the world’s longest unwritten book, "The Oral History of Our Time," and the elusive subject of Joseph Mitchell’s superb biographical profile, Joe Gould’s Secret. [1]

Yes, Joe Gould, he of the innumerable marble copybooks; the eccentric beggar and denizen of Greenwich Village eateries and flophouses; the same little guy who, encouraged by enough free beers, would perch upon a barroom table and recite stanzas of Longfellow’s "Hiawatha" in "seagullese" (his own translation, of course); and who wryly admitted to having at least one psychiatric symptom: "I have a delusion of grandeur—I believe myself to be Joe Gould." [2]

A graduate of Harvard College (Class of ‘11), Gould, who dubbed himself "the last Bohemian" (perhaps not a delusion of grandeur), counted among his best friends both E. E. Cummings and Slater Brown. The two of them, in turn, appear to have counted Gould among the "delectable mountains" each continued to discover, from time to time, in their lives outside the walls of The [end page 7] Enormous Room. He is, of course, also a figure in Cummings’ poetry, [3] referred to by name in three poems: ‘little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where" (CP 410), "as joe gould says in" (CP 700), and "April" "(CP 1019, line 6). Most memorably, though, Joe Gould is the unnamed [4] apparition in "no time ago" (CP 648), the poem I found myself uttering—photo of Gould still in my hand—to a bemused Frances Steloff as she reappeared in the living room that afternoon in 1982, holding a steaming pot of tea:

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus)my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed(as

close as i'm to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness



For sixteen years, I never printed the negative I made that afternoon of the photograph of Joe Gould. When finally I did—one winter night last year, in my darkroom (preparing prints to convert to slides for my ALA presentation in May)—an alternative explanation for the photograph’s disturbing ambiguities still hadn’t registered. In fact, only a month ago (eight weeks after the Conference) did the epiphany finally occur.

Ironically enough, it was not the image but the inscription below it—"Joe Gould to Tyler Parker"—that provided the "smoking clue," as it were. I learned, prior to ALA, that Parker Tyler (1904-1974) had lived in the Village and written film criticism, as well as [end page 8] some fiction and poetry, but I hadn’t sought out any details, figuring it was enough (which it was, given the focus of my talk) to know that he had been one of Gould’s many acquaintances if not a best friend.

When I showed a slide of the photo during our panel’s presentation in Baltimore, members of the audience expressed, as I expected, eerie pleasure in its bizarre, surreal qualities; afterwards, some inquired about the photo’s social and material history, wanting to account for its haunting visual effects. Had the original been processed or fixed improperly? Had Gould been especially demented at the time? What were the circumstances surrounding its composition?

Having lost access to the original print [5] after Frances Steloff’s death in 1989, I was unable to determine, objectively, the actual extent to which time and chemistry might have corrupted its physical integrity, thereby producing some if not all of the portrait’s psychologically disturbing features. During my first encounter with the image, I had assumed that these features were, indeed, mostly the accidental product of such influences operating independently on the print and rendering, uncannily, an image that conjures up a dark, alienated self—the totally alone Gould of "no time ago." But how to confirm or disconfirm this, now, without the physical evidence of the original print?

Five words—Joe Gould to Parker Tyler—might indeed begin to offer another kind of alchemy as explanation, without the physical evidence. The Baltimore experience had already provoked me to want to know more about Tyler, who by now had become a mysterious character in his own right. I began where we so often begin.

Reading Tyler’s New York Times obituary (July 26, 1974) elucidated what I realize now should have been obvious to me all along—if only I had seen it (which of course is the problem: what is "obvious all along" cannot be unseen in retrospect). "Mr. Tyler’s books," we are informed, "included ‘The Hollywood Hallucination’ and ‘The Magic and Myth of the Movies,’ [in which he] applied Freudian theory to motion picture criticism." We learn, further, that [end page 9] Tyler came to New York City in the mid-1920s and "described the life of the artists and writers living in Greenwich Village at that time in a novel, ‘The Young and Evil,’ which . . . ."

By now I was laughing aloud at myself. Gould had taken me in completely! The joke was, and would forever be, on us. But I read further, discovering that "in the early forties, Mr. Tyler edited View, a surrealist literary and art magazine." And, finally, that he wrote a biography titled Chaplin—Last of the Clowns. (It would have been absurdly ironic, for sure, but I continued beyond the obituary, quoting out of my own head what I had fully expected to read next on the page: "At the time of his death, Tyler had been working on another biography, over 9 million words long, titled Gould—Last of the Bohemians.")

Given Tyler’s artistic leanings, we can easily imagine his delight in the gift, but who took the photo of Gould in the first place? His name ("Boris Haytin") appears in small printed letters just below the right-hand corner of the image (followed by "N. Y."). Biographical data about him has eluded me so far, [6] especially regarding—for stylistic comparison—his other photographic work. But one coincidence may reveal enough. The portrait of Joe Gould that appears in Charles Norman’s E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker (1972) was also taken by Boris Haytin, [7] but is completely different in style.

In its realism, composition, sharpness and tonal range, the photo of Gould in Norman’s book is thoroughly conventional. And while we can hardly imagine a happier, more ebullient Gould than in Haytin’s wonderfully candid shot of him in the sun—copybook jutting out from under his left arm; an inch of ashes about to drop from a cigarette in Gould’s trademark ivory holder, planted in the left side of his smile—we can hardly imagine, as well, that it’s the work of the same Haytin who produced its doppelganger—the Mephistopheles of our cover portrait.

But there’s nothing more Gouldean about Gould than his contradictions, alone or in collaboration. Which is why, finally, we have to laugh at being taken in by the demonic persona constructed so cleverly by Haytin and Gould sixty years ago in Haytin’s studio. [8] [end page 10]

Neither the cigarette nor either of Gould’s hands is visible. He’s holding still during the time-exposure, which lasts perhaps two or three seconds; the resulting lack of sharpness adds to, rather than detracts from, the desired effect. Even before Haytin releases the shutter, Gould has discharged puffs of smoke into the empty studio space, which envelop him now in a swirling gloom. (Unseen opposite Gould, Tyler may also be present in this inferno, blowing additional smoke to help the hallucination along.)

As Haytin releases the shutter, exposing the film, Gould releases the smoke he’s held from his last drag on the cigarette, letting it stream from each corner of his mouth, parting his lips—ever so slightly—in the process. Two blurred patches of horizontal mist are produced; the one on the right of the picture is especially visible and elongated, rubbing out the boundaries of the right side of his face.

Side-lighting from below gives a menacing aspect to Gould’s intensity; the lighting creates tufts of spectral confusion—random configurations of smoke and shadow—that monstrously distort features of the neck and left eye. The droll clumps of remaining hair above and about Gould’s right ear are going up in smoldering pirouettes. Gould himself seems to be dissolving like a lozenge in the very throat of Satan.

He’s laughing to himself throughout the charade, this little Joe gould who’s lost his teeth but doesn’t care. He’s having a hell of a gould time....

so many selves(so many fiends and gods
each greedier than every)is a man
(so easily one in another hides;
yet man can,being all,escape from none) (CP 609)



Joseph Ferdinand Gould died on Sunday, August 18, 1957. The respectably long obituary that appeared in the New York Times two days later ended with these remarks: "About five years ago, he disappeared from the Village. Some said he had died; others heard that [end page 11]

he had inherited money and gone back to live in Massachusetts. Actually, he had been found ill and taken to Columbus Hospital. Columbus transferred him to Bellevue, and Bellevue to the Pilgrim State Hospital for the mentally ill. Informed of his death, surprised acquaintances in the Village said they had no idea what had happened to the ‘Oral History.’

What had happened, of course, is the subject of Mitchell’s book, and of the movie based on that book. Yes, the movie. Forty-two years after his death, Joe Gould is about to be reincarnated in the person of actor Ian Holm, who will be starring as Gould in the film version of Joe Gould’s Secret. Directed by Stanley Tucci, the movie is expected to be released this winter—under the same title— by USA Films, coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the first edition of the book.

Given the international character of the present issue of Spring, it is especially fitting to be able, in these pages, to inform readers that Mitchell’s book has been published in an Italian edition [9] and is soon to come out in foreign language editions in Spain, Germany, France, and Holland, as well. [10]


1. Professor Sea Gull" is the title of Joseph Mitchell’s first (1942) of two profiles of Joe Gould that appeared in The New Yorker. The piece was included a year later in Mitchell’s first collection of stories, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce).

"Joe Gould’s Secret," the second profile, appeared only years later (1964), followed in 1965 by the book of the same title, published by Viking. The earlier essay, "Professor Sea Gull," was used as the first part of Joe Gould’s Secret.

The publishing history of this pair of related portraits, born twenty-two years apart, turns out to be as surprisingly convoluted as Gould himself. In 1992, long after Joe Gould’s Secret had gone out of print, both essays appeared again, this time in Up in the Old Hotel (Pantheon), which brought together all four of Mitchell’s previous books under one cover. In the prevailing interest of chronology, however, "Professor Sea Gull" was removed from Joe Gould’s Secret and returned to its original spot in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, leaving Joe Gould’s Secret—in its then compromised form—as the volume’s final "book" (pp. 623-716). [end page 12]

The two profiles were reunited in 1996 (the year Joseph Mitchell died, at age 88) with the publication of the Modern Library edition of Joe Gould’s Secret. A paperback edition (Vintage) is expected to be in bookstores before the end of the year.

2. See Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret in Up in the Old Hotel, p. 660.

3. Cummings also did at least one oil painting of Gould, reproduced in black and white (no date given, nor dimensions) on the third page of illustrations following p. 114 in Charles Norman’s 1972 work, Poets & People (NY: Bobbs-Merrill).

Gould also posed for Alice Neel (in 1933). Two oil paintings of him are reproduced in Pamela Allara’s Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery (Hanover, NH: Brandeis U. Press, 1998), pp. 80-81. The author provides some useful background discussion (pp. 79-82) of these provocative portraits. It is worth comparing Allara’s account with that of Mitchell, who quotes from discussions that he had with both Gould and Neel (separately) about the two paintings (pp. 628-30).

Allara also mentions (p. 79) that the modernist painter Joseph Stella (1877-1946), most famous for his portrayal of labor and industrial themes, once made "a beautiful profile drawing of Gould."

4. We know from Charles Norman’s account in E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972) that it was Joe Gould who inspired "no time ago," which was first published as poem No. 50 in XAIPE (1950). "Cummings wrote this poem after a walk one night," Norman writes. "He told me he started up West Tenth Street, and as he neared Greenwich Avenue he saw ‘a little person who now is dead and who lived by begging.’ He had known this man well; but now he suddenly saw him as ‘someone else.’ It was Joe Gould" (p. 175).

I have not done a search to find out which other poets may also have written about Joe Gould. But glancing through Philip Levine’s latest volume of poetry the other day, I discovered what must be the longest poem (150 lines) ever written about Gould: "Joe Gould’s Pen." See The Mercy (Knopf, 1999), pp. 27-31. A lucid compassion informs this tribute to "Pee Wee Joe, who loved to dance," as Levine writes.

5. The original print may well be part of the NYPL’s Berg Collection, if not at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY. (Ms. Steloff was born on Dec. 31,1887, in Saratoga Springs. She never completed high school, but after [end page 13] decades of profound influence on literature and life in America, she received an honorary doctorate from Skidmore.)

I don’t know how the photo came into Ms. Steloff’s possession, nor whether other copies of it exist. Also, the dimensions of the image as they appear in the negative that I made of the original—and the dimensions of the cover print made from that negative—are proportionately almost equivalent to 5" x 7". Though I did not measure and record its dimensions at the time, I do remember the original print being about that size. (This also suggests that Haytin used a 35mm camera, rather than a 4x5 view camera, to compose the shot.)

6. No obituary in the New York Times, for example. Haytin could conceivably still be alive, of course, but I conclude otherwise from the fact that in the 1972 edition of The Magic-Maker, the photo credit for the Gould photo reads: "photograph by Boris Haytin, courtesy of Ethel Haytin Koff." Also, I could find no "Haytin" listed in several area codes of New York City, so my limited search for possible relatives has not yet proved successful. (Haytin may not have remained in the New York area all of his life.)

7. The photo does not appear in Norman’s 1958 first edition of the book. For another lively image of Gould, see the cover photo, by Bernard Hoffman, of Mitchell’s first edition of Joe Gould’s Secret (Viking, 1965).

8. From the evidence of other images of Gould that I have seen—photographs, paintings, sketches—my guess is that the photo was made in the mid-1930s, perhaps 1940 at the latest, when Gould would have been 45-50 years old.

9. Il segreto di Joe Gould (Adelphi, 1994).

10. 1 am grateful to owner Andreas Brown and his ever-helpful staff at the Gotham Book Mart, especially Phillip Ahrens, for helping me obtain the information contained in this and the previous paragraph.


Community College of Philadelphia

August 1999

[end page 14]

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