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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The famous denizens of Patchin Place: “Are ya still alive, Djuna?”

Patchin Place with Jefferson M... Digital ID: 1219158. New York Public Library
Patchin Place with Jefferson Market
in background. Photo by
Berenice Abbott (November 24, 1937).
Yesterday, author Emma Straub wrote for the Paris Review blog about her former method of aparment-hunting: searching for locations where influential authors had lived or found inspiration. One of her old homes was the storied Patchin Place in Manhattan, near 10th Street at Sixth Avenue and across from the Jefferson Market Library.
Of the ten row houses, only #4 is still intact as a single-family house, and was e. e. cummings’s home for forty years. . . . My neighbors were an elderly couple who argued on the front steps (one memorable fight centered on the fact that the husband had taken the subway all the way to the airport before realizing he’d left his wife behind) and a woman who watched daytime TV at the loudest volume possible. Slightly more glamorous former residents of Patchin Place included Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, and Marlon Brando.
Straub’s affectionate and humorous reminiscences call to mind the remarkable chapter on Djuna Barnes in Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village, the American Bohemia, 1910–1960, by the late Ross Wetzsteon. Barnes (most famous for her classic modernist novel, Nightwood) lived as an ornery recluse on Patchin Place for over four decades, until her death in 1982 at the age of 90. Her intimidating reputation was the same with famous visitors and random strangers alike; one often-told story features Carson McCullers bursting into tears when Barnes screamed at her to “go the hell away!” She terrified local business owners; once an unwary store clerk, asking for identification for her check payment, received the shouted response, “Identification? I was a friend of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce!” Weeks would go by, however, when hardly anyone would see her, and her neighbors reported hearing Estlin Cummings (more popularly known as e.e.) yell across the courtyard from the window of his own apartment, “Are ya still alive, Djuna?

As for Emma Straub, although her best friend moved into the other apartment on the floor of her Patchin Place abode, neither camaraderie nor literary “osmosis” could outweigh “finding a cockroach on your neck in the middle of the night” (not to mention the promising adventure of sharing a place with her new boyfriend). Now she lives in Brooklyn, far away from “streets not already codified in someone else’s language, at least in no publication I’ve found.”

Familial Postscript: This past weekend, Emma’s father, best-selling author Peter Straub, garnered two World Fantasy Awards: a Lifetime Achievement Award and the honors for Best Anthology, for editing the two-volume Library of America collection, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny: From Poe to Now.

Related LOA Volumes: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Djuna Barnes’s “Come Into the Roof Garden, Maud”)

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