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

Categories: Folk Scene

terrivanronk560.jpg
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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27 comments
howdydante
howdydante

Why Coen fanboys can't seem to understand grievance with historical inaccuracies is befuddling. If a WWII movie had Hitler portrayed as a benevolent lover of humankind it would be wrong, misleading, inaccurate, and quite frankly immoral. 


If you want to make a fictional movie, make a fictional movie. But the moment you put real places (the Gaslight, or Grenwich 1960 in total) and real people (the owner of the Gaslight, among many others) and unequivocally mis-portray them, you've done a terrible thing. 


I'm only 40 years old, so obviously I wasn't around then. But there's volumes and volumes of literature on the subject. So ignorance is no excuse. Where we're left is with this: The Coens decided to intentionally take a real (not fictional!) place and time and very intentionally decided to ignore facts, people, histories, meanings, and intentionally mis-represent every detail. 


It is a mystery to me why, when a phony "news" source like FOX does this terrible disservice to real people and places it is viewed as heinous and despicable, but when an artist does this, the same audiences sees it is artistic creative license is a mystery. It's bull crap either way. If you have an imagination, create some fiction. Don't intentionally mislead (and flat-out lie about) real people and places. Regrettably, technology is so that this fiction portrayed as history has a much stronger presence than the written pages of that era, so this fiction has largely supplanted the true history. 


P.S. Some commenters talking about the unbridled joy of the era also have me confused. A large portion of the era was a pissed off bunch of folks who hated their government, hated their institutions, hated their traditions, and wanted desperately to be anything but what they were. I'm not saying they were wrong. I'm just saying it's not surprising to see people portrayed as a little discontented, in the '60s folk scene, 

jwjbwhelan
jwjbwhelan

Ms Thal knew Dave and she knew the 1960s.  But I'm afraid many of her criticisms here miss the point, because she does not understand the film she watched.


The manager of the Gaslight was lying about having sex with Jean.  We know this based on what he said earlier in the film, and also based on what he said 2 seconds earlier; and 2 seconds later.  He made some gay jokes, became embarrassed by his gay jokes, and then decided to boast of his exploits to prove his manhood.  


There is nothing smug about the Troy Nelson character.  He is simply a decent good-natured person who tries not to respond to Llewyn's own smugness, arrogance and contempt.  That Ms Thal takes Llewyn's side, in regarding this innocent person with contempt, is disturbing.  The extent that he does or does not resemble Tom Paxton is neither here nor there.   The portrait is not meant to be negative in any event.


Nor does Ms Thal understand what is taking place in the film with the abortion.  Abortion is clearly illegal in the film.  Abortion doctors exist, but they obviously do not advertise.  To find one, you have to know one, and have some level of mutual trust.  Llewyn happened to know an abortion doctor socially (the doctor alludes to this in their conversation).  This allowed Llewyn to arrange an abortion for Diane 2 years earlier.  Jean is aware of this, because she lent Llewyn the money to pay for the procedure.   So when Jean also gets into trouble , she asks Llewyn to make similar arrangements for her; because she cannot make such arrangements for herself.   The reason the abortion doctor talks pleasantly with Llewyn is because he is an old friend and a paying customer, and they have complete privacy (still, they never use the word "abortion").  Naturally, the payment is in cash.  Naturally, the doctor also has a legitimate practice.     


It is not true that no-one is nice in the film.  Almost everyone is nice - very nice:  Joy, Jean, Jim, Troy, the Gorfeins.  Mel gives him charity payouts, and Grossman offers him a gig and good advice.  The only truly not-nice characters are Llewyn and Roland (John Goodman's character).  (Roland, by the way, represents an older version of Llewyn, and is his mirror image).  Even Jean continues to do nice things for Llewyn (who keeps asking for more).  Jean, by the way, is not portrayed as a "bitch"; she is simply portrayed as someone who is (for specific understandable reasons) very upset, and very angry at Llewyn.  (And if he does not like her attitude he can leave her alone).   And everyone in the film (except Llewyn) loves singing.  Llewyn is the one who darkens everyone's door and wipes the smile off of everyone's face.


dmkfhq
dmkfhq

I somehow missed the "Shachtmanite"reference. I would have laughed, too.

mitchellfreedman
mitchellfreedman

Sorry, ex-Mrs. VR.  Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan were not likable and were very harsh with the women in their lives during that early to mid-1960s era and they became standard bearer leaders in the folk world.  Also, it was not unheard of for "respectable" doctors in major cities in the 1950s and early 1960s to arrange for abortions.  Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, was house counsel for the Mayo Clinic and personally attested to the abortions performed there.


So what's left of the ex-Mrs. VR's review?  Well, she admits the film did include scenes that are consistent with Dave Van Ronk's life.  She admits the film gets the scenery and feel of the time.  


Despite her protests, she reveals herself as bitter that it was not a bio pic of her and Dave.

jeff1326
jeff1326

Like Sean Wilentz (see his excellent background piece on the official Llewyn Davis website) I was a "pisher" at the time, and shared a moment with Terri Thal that she probably doesn't remember. My dad happened to know Tom Paxton's brother-in-law, and that's how my parents and (10-year-old) I got to see Paxton's Town Hall debut in 1965. Afterward we were swept up and taken to Harold Leventhal's apartment for a party, where (thinking I was in some kind of Folk Music Eden) looked around in hopes I could get a glimpse, or an autograph, of Dylan (yeah, right), or maybe Peter, Paul...or Mary. Alas, none of them showed up, but I was introduced to Terri, who politely explained that Dave was performing in the Village that evening, and then, turning back to the adults, related a story about Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs making a bet as to who would attract the "dirtiest" audience to their gig. Years later I read how Terri had been Dylan's first manager and was responsible for recording (thus preserving for the ages) several of his early Gaslight sets. Terri's legacy, along with Midge Cummings' (Paxton's wife) and other folk-era women, is complicated, their achievements largely unsung. In a male dominated, pre-feminist age they worked or studied, while keeping hot soup on the stove and cleaning up after Dylan and countless other house-guests passing through town. Many brought home paychecks to cover the rent while their husbands were scuffling. Hopefully, their stories will be told as well.

jmilleratp
jmilleratp

It's striking how much I agree with the author here. I found the characters unlikable. And, for a film that's hoping to revive folk music, it oddly portrays the characters as mostly wishing they could be doing anything else but performing.


The Village music scene does sound like a great subject for a film. But, one with some joy in it! Hey, if anyone wants to take a crack at it, I write and shoot. With a few classic cars and some creative art direction, I am sure it could be done at a reasonable cost! Especially when it comes to the cinematography, there are a lot of creative shooting techniques that could make the most of the lesser resources.

deweil
deweil

Thank you for the insight - I walked away from the movie quite disappointed and you summed up a lot of the problems I had with it. It's true the Coens have creative license, but that doesn't absolve them of all responsibility, especially when attempting to represent a time and place they personally know nothing about. The Gaslight was a real place, the owner was a real person, and he's being represented pretty harshly in it, toeing the line of libel. Dylan, in a rather hammy 'cameo,' is playing a song that he wrote 2 years after the movie took place. That's like having the movie 'Singles,' with all of the grunge-era bands, take place in Milwaukee, with a Cobain lookalike singing a Rape Me...it's off, it's sloppy, and most importantly, it doesn't help the movie. It hurts to movie to have Jean sleep with the owner - why? Because she didn't have to, as evidenced by Jim's ability to get studio time at Columbia Records. They already have their foot in their door, she doesn't have to use the rest of her body.

I think the Coens have everv right to tell this story, they just could've done it with more care and detail. Why not add drone strikes to True Grit? It's their creative license, after all...if you put a story in a particular time and particular place, with real people being represented, then you should consider how your story would play out in that world. Plot points like abortion have to be thought out. A guy without a winter coat hitches a ride to Chicago...without even picking up the phone to make sure he gets an audition or a couch to crash on...if that's not stupid, nothing is. W

Davis tells his nephew he's a bad man. I'm telling you this is a bad movie, not because they got all the details wrong, but because they didn't get very much right. John Goodman was at the Q&A I was at, and there was nothing to talk about - everybody's a cameo except the lead and almost every character, even in their brief time onscreen, is more interesting and likable than he is. 

catherinetodd
catherinetodd

I worked at the Gaslight and the owner NEVER f****d me or anyone I knew of as part of the "hiring process" or the "job description." To the contrary, sexual harassment was a real problem in so many places, and there were plenty of hound-dogs at the Gaslight, but it wasn't part of the "job description." To the contrary, it was one of the few places I felt safe in all of NYC. I can't believe they put this in the film. How rude and untrue! Why try to sully a wonderful time so many of us had? There were plenty of things that weren't right that went on back then, but this wasn't one of them. Sincerely, Katie (Catherine Todd, 1968-1971)

pizzmoe
pizzmoe

Here are all the things you got wrong in a fictional movie...

mah3md
mah3md

This article reminds me of an old quip. "It's a pity that the people who know how to run this country are either driving cabs or cutting hair." Yes, there were English-speaking Americans driving taxis at the time the quip made its rounds. Anyway, if you want to make a movie about Van Ronk, please, go ahead. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is about... Llewyn Davis, a fictional character that the Coen Brothers developed to set forth their (their!) vision of music in the Village circa 1963. Period. I found the movie witty, funny and hopeful, and Llewyn Davis individual that oscillates between irony and cynicism and while naïve and seemingly at a loss, he is creative and must confront deceitful individuals in the recording industry and those that run the public venues where the musicians needed to appear so as to make a living. I tremendously enjoyed this movie that treats the musicians with respect and shows that they pioneered the downtown appearance of Dylan and the like.

Howard Davidson
Howard Davidson

I haven't had a chance to see the film. It's not yet out here in the UK. I'm a huge DVR fan, as well as a fan of the Coen bros. I'm glad and sad to have read this piece. Glad to get an angle on the film from someone who know's what she's talking about, to get a real look at the 'scene' where the film takes place. I'm sad that the 'discrepancies' with reality seem unnecessary. The story she relates of abortion in those days was very powerful. The seeming lack of 'love' by the musicians for their music is disheartening, but I'll wait to see how I feel after I see the film.

clairerob82
clairerob82

@1michaelgray1 hmm was really looking forward to this film. Reading this has lowered my expectations somewhat.

AndyPolon
AndyPolon

Terri explains the scene correctly. 

I was a young student of Van Ronk at his Waverly Place apartment. The LP collection was not to believed! Dave used to lend intense students like myself an LP or so to study at home between lessons. This was quite a risk for him because I was only 15 at the time. But that was Dave; a great guru for us want-to-be players. Dave was really into jazz (and so was my family) so the chemistry was intense.

After Dave I studied with other great guitar players (such as Barry Galbraith, and Rev. Gary Davis). Dave was the perfect mentor for me.

I went on to have a long and successful career as a guitar player and sideman in the society music scene in Manhattan. 

It was almost like being in the club Cafe Society at Dave's and Terri's flat.

lkyman
lkyman

Dave was a people person, at a very deep level. Believe he enjoyed that much more than the ephemeral nature of the status game. He was a man of the age gone by, where REAL personal relationships were richer than all the symbolic things battered about and posing as a) reality b) progress.

I love ya big guy, wherever you are, and my life is richer, at a very deep level, for the few times we got to share. Thanks big guy, and,from what i can gather, on brief investigation, is the Bro's chose a good fellow to make a movie of, but were not tuned in to who Dave really was, as, not everyone is a feeling person.This is my explanation, for the movie review, which alludes to a somewhat aloof portrayal of the friendliest guy i ever met. The big guy could remember the name of someone he met 10 years previous, and the one thing that made them laugh the hardest.

keneisner
keneisner

Thanks for sharing those memories, Terri. They answered a lot of questions about the movie. And you are in the best position to answer one more: did people really swear that much back then? I'm a bit younger, and from San Francisco, but I only remember people using that level of profanity when they were truly angry. In the movie, everyone says "fucking this and that" casually, in all public situations, and that doesn't feel right—although it does go with the level of cynicism you found in its portrayal of the scene.

ashleymarie279
ashleymarie279

 This is a great read, Terri. Thank you for sharing. And I sure hope this brings more people to Dave's music - they're missing out if they haven't been brought to it yet.

Binkconn
Binkconn

She got all his art and records in the divorce? At least the bitch stood up for him years after he croaked. Women.

HCJR
HCJR

@jwjbwhelan Great rebuttal to Terri Thal's column.  It needs to be stated again that "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a movie about a fictional person, not a documentary about a real person.  Thal is also looking at this period 50-plus years later, so maybe her memories are slanted toward rose-colored.


I'm glad you mentioned that nearly everyone in the film is decent and friendly, and I do believe that they enjoy the music, including Llewyn (hence his fears about failure and his desire to be successful on his own terms). Jean is only "bitchy" because she's tired of Llewyn being so "woe is me" and taking advantage of her and Jim's generosity. Couch surfers can be friendly and fun people to hang around with, until you realize they're not going to pay their debts anytime soon.


I also think the deserved alley beating and "au revoir" indicated that Llewyn finally woke out of his funk and is ready to move on.

John
John

@deweil"The Gaslight was a real place, the owner was a real person, and he's being represented pretty harshly in it, toeing the line of libel."


As I recall, the character in this film was "Pappy Corsicato" of whom, as far as I know, doesn't exist. There is a "Pappi Corsicato," but he's an Italian film director and I very much doubt that he worked at The Gaslight Cafe. You can't libel someone who doesn't exist.

"Dylan, in a rather hammy 'cameo,' is playing a song that he wrote 2 years after the movie took place."

 It was not hammy. "Young Bob" was simply on stage playing a song. As for playing a song that he wrote "2 years after the movie took place," that - along with the movie poster of The Incredible Journey (a film that didn't come out until 1963, two years after this film is set) that Llewyn sees - is known as "artistic license." Get over it.

"It hurts to movie to have Jean sleep with the owner - why? Because she didn't have to, as evidenced by Jim's ability to get studio time at Columbia Records. They already have their foot in their door, she doesn't have to use the rest of her body."


Who says that she actually slept with him, as opposed to him just saying she did? Gee, that's never happened before, bragging about sleeping with a hot chick.


"I think the Coens have everv right to tell this story"

And yet everything you say in your post belies that. 

"Why not add drone strikes to True Grit? It's their creative license, after all"

I won't bother responding to such juvenile dickishness.

"if you put a story in a particular time and particular place, with real people being represented, then you should consider how your story would play out in that world. Plot points like abortion have to be thought out."

Yes, by all means, the Coen Bros. should bog down their story with details that are unneccessary to actual plot. Like showing how ridiculously difficult it was for a woman to get an abortion pre-Roe v. Wade.  Maybe you should just write your own script instead of bitching about others'. Then it can be as historically realistic as you please. Of course it'll never get made because it's a snoozefest...

"A guy without a winter coat hitches a ride to Chicago...without even picking up the phone to make sure he gets an audition or a couch to crash on...if that's not stupid, nothing is."

Yes, because no one in the history of the world has done something impulsive like that, especially someone young like Llewyn. At what point did you and the author of this crap article forget that you were watching a fictional film - one where F. Murray Abraham is NOT portraying Albert Grossman. Nor is Justin Timberlake supposed to be Tom Paxton. They are CHARACTERS in a thing called a FILM.


"Davis tells his nephew he's a bad man. I'm telling you this is a bad movie, not because they got all the details wrong, but because they didn't get very much right. John Goodman was at the Q&A I was at, and there was nothing to talk about - everybody's a cameo except the lead and almost every character, even in their brief time onscreen, is more interesting and likable than he is."

Here, I almost agree with you. I can't believe I'm actually defending ILD because I thought almost ALL the characters were dislikeable - with the exception of Justin Timberlake's Jim, Troy Nelson the soldier/singer, and the Gorfeins. What's more, Llewyn will probably continue to be the selfish prick that he is... John Goodman's small role, as well as the trip to Chicago, was pointless, in my opinion. And I was disappointed by the anti-climatic ending. If you want to complain about a film, those are the things you should complain about, not that "oh, that wasn't how that person really was or the scene wasn't really like that" horse shit that Ms. Thal indulges in. 

By the way, reading more about the film online (like on the IMDB) and its deeper meanings has at least given me some deeper appreciation of it. And the soundtrack is terrific, especially The Death of Queen Jane, which Llewyn plays to Bud "don't call me Al" Grossman.

paul.malin
paul.malin

Don't, it is a wonderful movie about a maligned musician, and quite frankly an era often treated to a mightier wind, so to speak.

khoragos
khoragos

@Binkconn Your prejudice against exes (I suspect) has hindered your reading.  The writer mentions claiming "other" art, and records, & the context suggests she mentions this specifically to avoid seeming bitter that her former husband claimed the Oceanic art she has just praised.

thal.terri
thal.terri

@khoragos @Binkconn You're correct. And, David and I postponed doing anything about the books and records for months--finally he said the collection was too good to break up and he suggested the arrangement by which I owned and housed them and he had full borrowing rights. It worked out. As I wrote in the article, we remained good friends.

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