The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano

“The paper was called The Voice, and that’s what it was.” Harry Allen

Most of us growing up in New York turned to the Voice as a bastion of  independent (not leftist) thinking, creative criticism about and commentary on new arts, and a guide to what was going on – not to mention the real estate classifieds, a good part of its income for some time. People lined up outside offices the night before to get a jump on listings.

When Dan Wolf (an editor who “hired and inspired amateurs”), Ed Fancher (publisher), and Norman Mailer (who invested and briefly wrote a column), established the paper in 1955, it was a downtown alt-weekly. Likely none of its founders anticipated influence extending not only throughout the city but nationally. The Voice circulation serendipitously shot up and stuck when the seven New York daily newspapers struck in ‘62/63. The East Village Other and The Realist made The Voice seem centrist.

“Our philosophy was you don’t hire an expert, you hire someone who’s living through the phenomenon worth covering.” (Richard Goldstein) Don McNeil, who was homeless at the time, moved into the top floor of the office and covered hippies. He was thrown through a plate glass window during the Yip-In at Grand Central Station – the first employment of tactical police with Billy Clubs.

Almost immediately, Jerry Talmer launched the Obie Awards celebrating Off Broadway. In 1956, Shelly Winters, starring uptown in Hatful of Rain, drove her own car to host the first ceremony at The Village Gate. Anne Bancroft Arthur Laurents, and Lorraine Hansberry were among the 50 who attended. Kenneth Tynan was a guest judge. Al Pacino, who won for The Indian Wants the Bronx said, “Until I got that award, I didn’t know if I was any good.”

That same year artist Jules Feiffer came onboard. When polled, it was discovered his cartoons were the first thing readers turned to. (Feiffer would earn the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning.) Richard Goldstein was perhaps the first pop/rock reporter. He would later move on to politics covering the Columbia student strike and Chicago Convention election debacle: “Watching those kids gather sticks and stones, I realized how far we’ve come from that mythical summer everyone dropped acid, sat under a tree, and communed.” The Voice investigated Robert Moses’ plan to run a speedway through downtown and The Central Park Five.

“Political clout was enormous. It punched outside its weight class.” (Martin Gottlieb) Like Father, Like Son: Anatomy of a Young Power Broker (Wayne Barrett 1979) arrived one of the first in depth pieces about Donald Trump. “Real estate entrepreneurs do their own advertising and Trump has a way of doubling or shaving away every number that suits him.” Ron Rosenbaum and muckraker Jack Newfield were practitioners of what was later deemed “New Journalism,” characterized by a subjective perspective. The paper often teetered on the edge of libel.

Garry Giddens, Nat Hentoff (who stuck up for Lenny Bruce, but came out pro-life alienating his peers), James Wolcott and Stanley Crouch covered music, including neglected jazz. “Of all the American arts, jazz is the only one that took a fierce public stand against racism and segregation.” (Stanley Crouch, whose fist often took the place of a typewriter.) Crossovers were noted and explored. Lithuanian refugee Jonas Mekas – a burgeoning filmmaker – authored pieces on cinema. Later Molly Haskell would apply a feminist point of view; then came Andrew Sarris and his legendary feud with Molly Haskell at The New Yorker.

Dancer Jill Johnson learned to write about her art on the job. Alexander Cockburn was “a certified upper class British Communist” with opinions. Lucian K. Truscott IV raged on “the forces of faggotry spurred by a Friday night raid..continuing to assert presence and pride until early Monday morning.”  (The Stonewall uprising.) Before Ms. Magazine came on the scene, Vivian Gornick , Karen Durbin and Susan Brownmiller ( Everywoman’s Abortion: The Oppressor is Man) railed about women’s issues.

The paper wrote about graffiti which would be legitimized by galleries. Articles like Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts: The Taboo Art of Karen Finley (C. Carr) and one on Jean Michel Basquiat brought the artists to public notice. Richard Goldstein was teaching at The School of Visual Arts where Keith Haring  was a student. Curious, he visited the young man’s studio and was offered as many drawings as he wanted (on blueprint paper) for $25. He bought two and absently tacked them up on a wall. “He was very minimally verbal and intensely observant…” (Richard Goldstein)

Novelist Colson Whitehead penned television reviews, Ismael Reed wrote about sports, restaurant reviews were not driven by advertising revenue. Future Vogue writer,  Lynn Yaeger, who worked her way up from classifieds, originated the contemporary Elements of Style dressed almost entirely in 1920s clothing.  

The author interviewed over 200 people, an incredible number of whom went on to exemplary careers. Most of the entertaining volume comes from horses’ mouths. History takes us through editors and owners with observations by those who were there. It’s a broad fisheye look at decades. Around 1990, The New York Times and New York Magazine started covering some of the issues and arts formerly spot-lit by The Voice. Craig’s List gutted the classifieds. Greenwich Village was gentrifying.

Author Tricia Romano worked at The Voice for eight years. “Without The Voice, there’s one less outlet for…rights…The paper took things seriously- developing things, emerging things…” The Voice still exists. (Mostly in online form.) “It’s still Village Voice-y if you don’t look too closely…but it’s missing the revolutionary feeling that everything is being done for the first time, or that it’s the only place where one can write in first person, take sides, be experimental…” (Tricia Romano)

The big book is fun for anyone who lived the era, informative for anyone who wants the scuttlebutt. It’s a pick-up-and-put-down volume rife with empathetic nostalgia.

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano
A BBS Public Affairs publication

About Alix Cohen (1726 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.