Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Joe Gould, one of the city's great eccentrics, as seen by Al Hirschfeld, one of the city's great caracturists

For forty years Joe Gould was a familiar figure on MacDougal Street, a short, and disheveled panhandler who professed a strong belief in democracy: "I believe everyone has the right to buy me dinner." Many of those dinners were bought at the Minetta Tavern (below), still a popular restaurant at 113 MacDougal Street.

Fifty-one years ago, Joe Gould a frail psychiatric patient, died age 68, in a hospital on Long Island. For three decades, Gould a Harvard graduate from a distinguished New England family, had spent his days and nights wandering the bars and taverns of Greenwich Village, staying in flophouses, living off the generosity of friends and strangers. He became unexpectedly famous as the subject of a celebrated profile by the much acclaimed writer Joseph Mitchell.

The profile, "Professor Sea Gull," published in the New Yorker on December 12, 1942, described a monumental work exceeding 9 million words that Gould was writing, "An Oral History of Our Time," containing snippets and excerpts of conversations Gould had heard, and his essays commenting on those conversations. Later, the New Yorker article was published as a book and titled "Joe Gould's Secret". (See below)

It was all a lie. Joe Gould always carried a scruffy red folder or two and over the years, his "Oral History of the World" grew to many thousand manuscript pages, many of which were dispersed to local landladies in lieu of rent. When his "History" was sold, he would assure them, he'd return to make good on his debt and redeem his pledge: then he would shuffle off to another furnished room to repeat the process. The Village must have seemed like a vast literary pawnshop to him. After his death, however, no literary masterwork emerged; in fact, not even a few scattered pages surfaced, leading some to consider Gould's "History" a hoax designed by him to provide rent-free living.

In 2000, a full length movie was made starring the distinguished academy-nominated British film and stage actor, Ian Holm, and named after the book "Joe Gould's Secret."

Accepting that 'Professor Sea Gull' was an erudite beggar, scrounger, deshabille, confidence trickster, and perhaps a monumental liar, remember that he was also a character of the stature and magnitude that has contributed greatly to establishing the myths and legends of the Greenwich Village reputation as a leading center for innovative arts, literature and associated characters.

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