Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

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Photo by Ann Charters, courtesy of Terri Thal
Terri Thal and Dave Van Ronk, 190 Waverly Place, Manhattan. August, 1963
[Spoiler alert: This feature contains many details about the film Inside Llewyn Davis.]

I was married to and managed Dave Van Ronk, the folksinger whose memoir spurred the Coen brothers' new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. David and I were together from fall 1957 to fall 1968 and had been married for seven of those years when we separated amicably and regretfully. We remained good friends until he died. No one ever contacted me about the movie; Oscar Isaacs tried to, but I didn't get his message. We met once while it was being filmed. So I don't know much more about its creation than anyone else.

See also: Dave Van Ronk: The Mayor of MacDougal Street

I knew the movie portrayed someone who eluded success -- or whom success eluded. I knew it wasn't supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn't expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s.

The mockup of MacDougal Street isn't exactly what it was in 1961, but it's more or less correct. The flights of stairs to top-floor apartments remind me of our first place, a fifth-floor walkup, and of those of friends, although the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments with roaches, pipes, and ceilings decorated by patterns created by fallen plaster. The Gaslight looks wider than it was, but the movie shows a shiny bar, which wasn't in the club -- there was no bar and nothing in the coffeehouse was shiny -- and the wonderful Tiffany (or Tiffany-style) lamps have been replaced with clear glass light fixtures. The back alley didn't exist, but the Coens need it for their story.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that the movie doesn't show those days, those people, that world.

In the movie, Llewyn Davis is a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living. It's not a calling, as it was for David and for some others. No one in the film seems to love music. The character who represents Tom Paxton has a pasted-on smile and is a smug person who doesn't at all resemble the smart, funny, witty Tom Paxton who was our best man when we married.

In the film, the Jim and Jean characters, Llewyn Davis's close friends, are at least as well-known as Davis. Davis sometimes sleeps on their couch and has impregnated Jean, who is a bitchy woman. In real life, David and I considered Jim and Jean's music "white bread," one of the terms we used about folk singers who bounced up and down and smiled and sang "sweet" songs. We didn't socialize. However, Jean certainly was not a bitchy person.

The owner of the Gaslight tells Davis he has "fucked" Jean. He says that's a standard part of how a woman gets hired. That's crap. No matter how much of a creep a club owner might have been, that was not part of the process anywhere.

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The sequence that bothers me the most is when Llewyn Davis arranges an abortion for the Jean character. He goes to the office of a doctor he'd paid $200 two years before for an abortion for another woman. He learns she never had the abortion and that apparently he has a two-year-old kid. OK, the Coens can create all the babies they want. But Davis and this respectable doctor sit and talk pleasantly about two women's abortions. In 1961 abortion still was illegal. It was difficult to find a doctor to do one. No one walked into a doctor's office and said, "Abortion, please." Mostly, abortions were arranged by telephone with practitioners whose names were hard to get. One good friend of ours had to go way uptown late at night for a procedure done in a place that barely resembled a medical office, and she paid $400 in 1960. This was the era of using coat hangers to try to abort. In fact, a few years before David and I met, the only woman he ever knew that he impregnated (she was about 16 at the time and David was 19) rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus. Nor did men arrange abortions for women. The treatment of abortion in the movie as a casual, easily accessible procedure is cavalier, and I think it's insulting to all the women who had one before Roe v. Wade.

See also: Inside NYC's Burgeoning Folk Scene


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