The music was loud, insistent, driving. It was a Saturday night, mid-June, steaming hot, the club, the Jazz Gallery on Manhattan’s lower east side, packed. I had the largest group, four tables pushed together in the center of the place, a dozen or so people, musicians, writers, artists, all drinking, laughing, arguing. I was balancing a half dozen drinks at a time. Mingus was there, downing a mountain of chicken and ribs, discussing heatedly with Dave Garroway, an icon of early morning television, the first host of NBC’s “Today” show and a passionate lover of jazz, the pros and cons of Thelonious Monk.
Monk’s music, improvisational, harshly dissonant, took some getting used to. Garroway, a drummer of sorts, was in the club two or three times a week and he was railing against Monk and Mingus would have none of it: he considered Monk a genius. We waiters used to battle not to wait on Garroway who was pathologically cheap: a two dollar tip on a hundred dollar check was big money for him. Years later he put a bullet in his head and I remember thinking that his suicide and extraordinary frugality were somehow related.
Also at the table were the great Nelson Algren—his novel, “Man with the Golden Arm”, won the National Book Award in the late fifties; Seymour Krim, editor, critic, champion of the Beat Generation (like Garroway, also a suicide later in life, though I don’t remember him being a particularly chintzy tipper.); the rollicking Terry Southern—the novels “The Magic Christian” and “Candy”, wrote the screenplay for “Dr. Strangelove”. Years later when I was no longer a waiter, but a pro writer, he and I worked together for United Artists on a screenplay that never made it to the screen. Our collaboration provided me with insights and adventures which I’ll blog about one of these days…
Also at the table were the artists Larry Rivers—himself a fine jazz saxophonist; Alfred Leslie, a bodybuilder before he took up art—got his start posing at the Art Students League; Willem de Kooning with his mistress Ruth Kligman: she had been Jackson Pollack’s mistress and was with him in the car accident that killed him. Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Doc Hume—And at the center of the group, Norman Mailer and his wife, Adele.
They had been drinking heavily this night, but seemed alright with each other. On the table was a card announcing a cover charge and Adele had penned a sketch of Norman on the back of it. (When the evening was over I picked it up as I was clearing the tables; I still have it stuffed away in a suitcase filled with the pack-rat gleanings of those old times.) She was hugging him and crooning over and over, “Norman, you have the most beautiful Aryan nose I’ve ever seen!”
On the bandstand were the Turrentine brothers, Tommy on trumpet, Stanley on tenor sax, Doug Watkins, bass, Philly Joe Jones, drums, while Dizzy Gillespie, the main attraction, waited at a rear table. Gillespie and I had something of a friendship—he was a chess player, as was I, both of us patzers, earnest, but relatively ineffective and therefore competitive with each other: whenever he was at the Gallery, which was often, we would play—before sets, between sets, and at closing time. With his bent trumpet, colorful attire, eccentric behavior, Dizzy, as his name implies, was thought to be a clown, a jokester, accidentally a spectacular talent. His on stage persona was considered to be him. It was anything but. Off stage, in our chess games, he was serious, low key, not a glimmer of the prankster. I was a waiter. He treated me like a colleague.
The Turrentine brothers finished their set and Dizzy and his group took the stage. They launched into “Night in Tunisia”, with Art Blakey sitting in on drums, slamming out a hard-driving, brutal beat which seemed to inflame the room.
It started innocently enough: Mailer’s wife Adele dipping her fingers into a water glass and flicking water on Mailer. He flicked back. Laughing, back and forth they flicked water on each other. The music pounded on. Norman, looking pissed now, picked up the water glass and poured it over Adele. She lifted the water pitcher and emptied it on Norman. Boom, boom, boom, Blakey on drums thundered on.
And now Nelson Algren and Krim got into it. They had been discussing the relative values of their literary abilities. Algren screamed, “I’ll write your ass off!” Over and over: “I’ll write your ass off!” — which certainly was true. Krim was nowhere in Algren’s league. Gesticulating wildly, on his feet now, Algren continued screaming, while Krim, sputtering an attempt at rebuttal, assumed a boxer’s crouch. They both threw ineffectual drunken punches. Joe Termini, one of the owners, and I stepped in to separate them. A cop on the beat who always came in just before closing, to have a drink as well as discourage some late night stickup man from robbing place, joined us in pulling Algren and Krim apart.
Dizzy and his group cut short their set. The night was over. Algren and Krim, both still grumbling drunkenly, went their separate ways. Rivers, Leslie, de Kooning with Ruth Kligman, and all the rest paid their bills and exited the club.
The cop was at the bar having a drink. Mailer and Adele were the last of the literary and art group to leave. Mailer approached the cop and thrust his face at the cop’s chest. “Who are you?” the cop said.
“I’m Caryl Chessman,” Mailer said belligerently. The cop blinked. “I’m Caryl Chessman!”
Caryl Chessman had been dominating the news. Known as “The Red Light Bandit”, he had had a penchant for sticking up cars stopped at red lights. He had gone from that to more brutal stuff: he robbed a girl and her boyfriend, took the girl in his car, drove a distance away, and raped her.
He was convicted under what was then known as the Little Lindbergh Law, kidnapping someone and committing bodily harm. He was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution he wrote four books, which brought him massive attention. There were worldwide demonstrations. He was the first person in this country to be executed for a kidnapping in which no one was killed. The execution had taken place days before Mailer and his crowd had come to the Jazz Gallery.
Mailer was now poking the cop in his chest with his finger. The cop tried to ignore Mailer, but Mailer would not be ignored. “I’m Caryl Chessman!” he barked. “I’m Caryl Chessman…”
Adele pulled him away. They stumbled drunkenly to the door. “Norman,” Adele cooed, “you have the most beautiful Aryan nose I’ve ever seen!”
And then they were out into the night. Six months later Mailer almost stabbed her to death.