John Wilcock Recalls The Founding of the Voice

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

July 8, 1965, Vol. X, No. 38

A Few Notes About The Village Square

By John Wilcock

In the beginning was a sign in the window of the Eleven Arts Bookshop on Sheridan Square. I had been in New York one week, had been nosing around the Village and asked Sam Kramer: "If Greenwich Village is so famous for its bohemianism why doesn't it have a proper newspaper?" (the Villager, in my view, being exactly right for little old ladies). Said Sam: "Why don't you start one?"

The bookstore sign aroused about a dozen enthusiasts -- among them a pretty chick named Cindy Lee -- none of whom had any money. It was almost a year later in the back room of Julius' that Ed and Dan (whom I'd met at one of Cindy's parties) told me they'd raised a few thousand bucks and were going to launch the then-unnamed Voice. (Mailer provided the name after we'd all mulled over endless lists of banal titles).

In the summer of 1955 we sat around in the office above Sutters' bakeshop on Greenwich Avenue constructing and painting an office notice board, planning features, checking out the work potential of numerous volunteers (two out of every three wanted to write a column). The office, formerly an apartment, had a shower and bed in the back and an occasional homeless volunteer would sleep there overnight. A pity that the bed couldn't write its memoirs.

Jerry Tallmer, who'd been working for the Nation, and myself (who'd spent my first New York year at Pageant) were the only ones with newspaper experience at this time so much of the early writing fell to us and friends of Jerry's. I bitterly resented some of Mailer's ideas which seemed so impractical and unprofessional (in retrospect, of course, they seem much less so) and we fought a good deal. Mostly over Norman's invariable past-deadline arrival with overlong columns that he wouldn't allow to be changed by so much as a comma. In Mailer's documentation of those early days ("Advertisements for Myself," Putnam) my name is not mentioned.

The first office employee, Florence Ettenberg, was a small, brown-eyed, dark-haired refugee from the uptown scene: Park Avenue, where she lived with her parents who displayed some initial scepticism about this sudden involvement with "beatniks". (Her boy friend was even more disapproving.) It was Florence in her role of secretary, salesman, receptionist, and girl Friday who sold our first ad: one inch ($4.20) bought by the Willow, a ceramic shop on West 4th Street.

Issue Number 1, in October 1955, brought congratulations -- including the gift of a potted plant -- and rumors that we were communist. However the rumors began (and a story on the folk singers in the square may have helped) they were assiduously promoted by one of our rival's advertising salesmen and this made the battle even harder than it might have been.

In its early days this column (which I planned as a kind of naive investigation of some of the things everybody takes for granted) carried no byline. Its pre-publication title, The Village Idiot, was badly received so The Village Square was chosen as a kind of triple pun, and at least partly as an antidote to all the "hipness" that Mailer was projecting. The first column was about Lower East Side artist Ray Johnson and his peculiar collages he called moticos. Number 2 was about Larry Maxwell, a Villager whose hobby was buying one share at a time of whatever generous companies gave quarterly stockholders' luncheons. Round about column number 4, I began to put my name on it. This is column number 499.

When The Voice started to attract a little attention uptown I had the idea that Village politics was a circulation detriment and for several weeks the Voice experimented with split-run editions in which the uptown version carried more general stories, including a column called "Oliver Johnson's Village." One of Oliver Johnson's early columns (my middle name is Oliver) was written from atop the Washington Square arch where I found at least a score of lost tennis balls.

In the nine and a half years since, this column has dealt with a thousand different subjects. The columns I used to enjoy writing the most -- the essay type -- seemed to be less popular than a listing of some of the offbeat eccentricities I had come across, obscure publications I had read, esoteric organizations to promote unpopular causes, etc. This kind of column, through pressure of mail, eventually came to pop up about once in every four or five columns. The Village Square has been written from and about Sweden, France, Tangiers, London, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, India, Turkey, Greece, Canada, and many parts of the United States, usually while I was working somewhere on a travel book.

The column has been carried by two San Francisco papers, one Philadelphia weekly, and a paper in Paris; all these are now defunct. It is also carried occasionally by Chicago's Near North News. Australia's "Oz" magazine, and the Toronto Daily Star. It still appears weekly in Tokyo's Mainichi Daily News and the Los Angeles Free Press in addition to The Voice. Only The Voice pays me for it. My relationship with The Voice, in which the column operates as an independent state, has varied from close involvement to armed warfare and is now amicable.

Out of nearly 500 columns only three have been rejected outright: dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses, bidets, and a love letter I wrote to some girl. Because The Village Square has appeared weekly since The Voice's first issue there's a tendency to associate its author too closely with the paper itself. I am not informed of Voice policy, have no influence in the paper's management, and do not see mail sent to the paper unless it is addressed to me personally.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print. John Wilcock is still going strong at his website, Ojaiorange.com. And at Amazon, you can order his new autobiography, Manhattan Memories]

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