The International Writers Magazine: On Biography and Venom
Hemlock for Everyone - The Drinks are on Me
One of the hardest things in life is to face up to your own deficiencies. In this I have been lucky to know so many people willing to point them out to me. In New York particularly, where, if people see you enjoying yourself too much, they will rack their brains until they find a way to ruin your day.
In a lot of cases, they enjoy pretending to help you engage in self-help, a kind of mini-intervention intentioned to get you on the right track. The ask you, “Do you know what your problem is?”, and then let you know how they really feel about you, which is rarely helpful. This guy was really irked: “You don’t wear underwear”. Well, thanks, pal. I’ll go out and buy some if it makes you feel better. Geez, this idiot must have been watching me like a hawk!
Women have told me, “Your mother didn’t bring you up to respect women”. Well, you got that right. I don’t jump out of my skin every time some old girl decides to scream at me or tell me off. I learned a long time ago that some women are 99% hot air, and better off to think for myself.
Mostly, though, people are just content to tell me, “You’re crazy!” or “You’re NUTZ!” That simplifies life for them and does not tax their analytical powers too much. About the closest criticism of me from a pedagogical approach was when attorney Ron Kuby, who was defending me on an assault charge, screwed up his red face and unleashed a spray of vitriol, “With your background, I can’t believe you’ve never been arrested before!”
Quite right, and I wouldn’t have been arrested that time either if my own girlfriend, hoping to receive a Gold Star of Good Citizenship from the cops, had not waited at the scene of the assault, the Wall Street subway station at rush hour, to identify me as the criminal mastermind who punched the guy in his face for calling me an asshole. As my uncle, Saul Bellow, once advised me in a letter, "these genes you seem so proud of may have to be lived down or subdued. They have given me a hard time”.
Prior to reading Zachary Leader’s comprehensive biography of my uncle and his brother, Maury, my father, I assumed that my behavior had been shaped entirely by external forces, and giving scant consideration to the influence of heredity, having no measure to judge it by. How do you know how long a foot is if you’ve never seen a ruler? How do you know which of your traits are inherited if you’ve never had a family? Not to discount my mother’s family. All her male relations were attorneys or engineers, but it was a plodding family of middle-class New Jerseyans, and no interest to me. As far as I was concerned for almost all my life, I had sort of just sprung up, like Topsy.
It turns out that in matters of temperament, I share many characteristics with my father, my uncle and my grandfather, most notably a predisposition to press my luck. National borders don’t hold much significance to me, like my grandfather, who first got chased out of Russia and then Canada before finally finding equilibrium in the Jungle (Upton Sinclair’s description) setting of Chicago’s coal yards. I inherited my father’s bombastic, explosive nature and my uncle’s compulsion to produce art. (To be sure I inherited my mother’s physical beauty and love of glamour, which have made me more enemies than friends, as though that has ever stood in my way!)
What’s uncanny is how close my nature and reactions are to theirs when presented with the same external stimuli, and I’m not talking about rats in a maze, but a combination of incredibly complicated factors producing exactly the same reaction from both my uncle and me, even though we had never spent any time together whatsoever. It’s like a scientific study of inherited characteristics conducted entirely out in the field, and with no behavioral controls, that end up yielding exactly the same result. Incredibly, impossibly, the empirical proof of the case is 100% supported by the public record.
How do you feel about being vandalized just for the sake of cheap thrills, as though somebody had used a key to damage the paint job of your brand new Cadillac? Lesser people are very ingenious when it comes to vandalizing the lives of artists. The 19th century Parisian sculptor Auguste Rodin was forced to fight back for years against self-appointed “experts” and critics of his time who asserted that he was using unethical, cheating methods in achieving his extraordinary representations of human muscularity and physiognomy in his depictions of the human form. They accused him of building plaster casts around live models and passing them off as true sculpture, which was a mean, cruel way of torturing the man, putting him in the position of having to prove he was not cheating. All of this long term calumny took a piece out of Rodin, and he never fully recovered from the impact of so many shocks to his sensibilities extended over so many years.
This same kind of destructive villainy was inflicted on my uncle in the aftermath of the publication of his groundbreaking novel, 'Augie March', in 1953. He received outstanding reviews for the novel, which provoked consternation and envy among some of his erstwhile “friends” at the literary review Commentary, who decided that it would be amusing to damn his effort with faint praise and rain on his parade a little bit.
Commentary’s editor, Clement Greenberg, appointed a newly hired 23 year-old whiz kid named Norman Podhoritz to review “Augie March” and pronounce it a failed effort. Greenberg himself admitted much later that “we told [Podhoretz] not to like it”, while Podhoretz recalled, “I was the designated hitman”.
The excerpts from that review published by Zachary Leader are elegantly written and very mildly stated, but Podhoretz declared the descriptive prose to be a little forced, the characters two-dimensional, and the effort to have fallen short of its inferred goal of breaking through to a new, more florid style of American literature, as I am given to understand it.
This review, combined with a very brutal slam given to the book by New Yorker reviewer Anthony West, sent Bellow into an apocalyptic hate fury of snail mail literary correspondence to everybody involved. He was livid and boiling over with rage at the parties whom he felt were blocking his artistic progress, and very possibly killing book sales and royalty checks.
I don’t blame him. Those who don’t know, teach and those who can’t create, review. A good reviewer, like Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about Renaissance art from the standpoint of being a noted artist himself, is hard to find. Usually the job is left up to no-talent, overeducated social climbers, of the type Bellow socialized with and knew so well. No wonder Bellow felt like a god in the company of these dorks! Who today remembers hyperbloviated numbnuts critics who were extant at the time of these events, who were pulling each other out of the way, trying to crush through the door to material success and having nothing to recommend them, like a Three Stooges movie. I sincerely believe that if you do good art it will out in the end, and you can totally dispense with networking, social connections and the like. The direct route is the positive route although, like Rodin or Van Gogh, it will make a mess out of you in the end.
All the hate mail that Bellow sent never advanced him as well as the achievement of Herzog, which steamrolled over the most ardent efforts of his detractors and elevated him to the Pantheon of American letters. But that is not to say they were wasted effort. You could consider Bellow’s hate mail campaign against the New Yorker and Commentary to be a literary extension of his Reichean primal scream philosophy. Why suffer in silence when you can employ your literary talent to induce your detractors to suffer in silence! Who knows, maybe this episode served to prime Bellow to write Herzog, which was all about sending out useless correspondence.
The impact of hate mail has been diluted by modern technology. Back in those days, it was a much bigger deal than it is today because of the envelopes, postal stamps etc. And a lot fewer people were inclined to take the trouble. Today, all you have to do is make fun of one of Michelle Obama’s dresses and you get instant retaliation from a million Twitter jerks who send you to fucking hell while they are driving their cars on the freeway. Basically, it means nothing.
O Carry Me Back To The Days when a love letter signified true devotion, and not a freakin Smiley Face, and pure loathing was expressed in dripping venom from the sharpened tip of a quill pen! The first rule of sending hate mail is: stay out of jail. Stick to insults and avoid threats that can get you arrested. I know whereof I speak. Anybody who still doubts that I have inherited Saul Bellow’s literary characteristics will be struck dumb by this recounting of the industrial-scale hate mail production initiated by me as a result of a vicious, low-class attack by the Montreal Gazette on a Halloween fashion show of leather garments designed by me at Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret.
By 1980 I had been operating my leather boutique, Deans Boutique de Cuir, on Montreal’s “boulevard du crime”, Ste. Catherine Street, for ten wild years. I was getting away with murder, with fashion, sex, drugs, rock n’ roll (I had a jukebox in the place) and anything else. By this time the Montreal economy was seriously slowing down. Nevertheless, I had built up a customer base for leather suits in the winter and sandals and accessories in the summer, so I was still in the game, but just barely.
My clientele was hardcore: strippers, rock bands, disco people, bikers, etc. I used to produce a lot of bondage toys for the sex shops, as well as repairing leather hockey equipment for the Canadiens hockey team, since I was right across the street from the Montreal Forum hockey arena. The bright spot was all the cool press coverage that I was getting as a result of my comedy act, which was off-the-wall, even by the relatively liberal social values of the seventies.
I decided that, as a last gasp of effort in the sinking ship of the Montreal economy, I would combine the two elements of leather fashion and comedy by throwing a Halloween fashion show narrated by me, which maybe would bring more traffic to my boutique, or at least provide me with an up-to-date portfolio to take to New York for use in landing a job in the fashion business.
Yuk-Yuk’s owner, Mark Breslin, accepted the idea, and I had no difficulty lining up beautiful mannequins in the disco boogie world of Ste. Catherine Street. I sent an invitation to Iona Monahan of the Montreal Gazette, promising a fun evening with cool leather fashions. Then I set about cutting and sewing some striking fashions for the show. I enlisted the talents of a choreographer, Michael Ross, who did a fine job for me in exchange for a pair of black leather Jodhpur pants. Michael brought with him one of the best artists I ever met, a French guy named Jacques-Lee Pelletier, a tremendous make-up artist whose futuristic, fanciful designs so improved the presentation of the models that it really brought the show into the future realm of performance art. These are the kind of inspirational effects that give French culture its leading role in world design. Creating this show taught me so many ideas that I never would have had exposure to if I had just remained a schlub citizen of the States, like all my cousins and half-brothers turned out to be, tree sloughs creeping from meal to meal! Reader, do you have any idea how I had to decompress my mind, returning from all this hot stuff to the America of Ronald Reagan? But I had finally played out my string up there in Montreal, and, anyway, New York City is not too shabby either.
The show went swimmingly well, and we all hugged and kissed in the dressing room. The radio news gave us a very positive review. But, unfortunately, The Gazette’s fashion editor, instead of reviewing the show herself, sent an obese, pushy pachyderm named Beverly Mitchell to cover the event. Now, by ten years of working on Ste. Catherine Street, I had met a lot of weirdos, and Beverly Mitchell was at the top of the list. She was like the nagging fat lady in the W.C. Fields comedy movies, exactly like her, and she estimated herself a fashion maven as well. Even as we were putting on the show, instead of sitting at a table like a normal person, she insisted on standing and taking notes in full view of the whole room. Typical freakin whack job. I didn’t pay it no mind, until the next morning, when I saw her review in the paper.
Saul Bellow was entirely correct to be enraged at what he knew to be a calculated insult by Commentary magazine. He was intimately acquainted with the magazine and its staff, and he knew what their motive was: to louse up his triumph. They all themselves as much as openly admitted it later. Assigning a 23 year-old kid to execute a hit job on a novel that a grown man had devoted years of his life to crafting – it gives you a small idea of the injustice inflicted on Rodin by the French Academy over the course of several decades, which did not make his life a happy one.
Unlike Rodin, who worked as an illiterate itinerant sculptor of building facades for most of his life, Bellow was a master of the craft of literature, and he was able to mount a literary counterattack, which eventually succeeded in at least inhibiting his detractors from indulging their more destructive tendencies. Bellow actually got off easy. Norman Podhoritz’ review of Augie March, even though it was corrosive, was closely reasoned and had a lot of defensible points, especially about the book’s forced, artificial exuberance and the two-dimensional caricature nature of its characterizations.
But at least it was a civilized review, in contrast with Beverly Mitchell’s vindictive butchery of my Halloween fashion show. This was not a case of me lining up a few looks to show - I had sewn all those costumes by hand, but there was no way that I was pretending to the level of haute couture (curiously, a few months later I read an item about a comedy fashion show held in a Paris warehouse that seemed to follow a format similar to mine. Whether the Paris designers had heard about my show through the Paris-Montreal grapevine, or whether they just came up with the same idea simultaneously to me, I can’t say, but it is comforting for me to know that in at least one instance I was more-or-less on a level with Paris).
Mitchell’s review, entitled “Leather Show Combines Comedy With Designing”, is written in a snarky, officious tone that makes full use of low-end nasal-type sarcasm that you might expect to hear in a high school cafeteria. Referring to my boutique and my comedy act, she writes, sarcastically, “Borok seems to think that he can do more than one thing at a time”. She calls my comedy act, “a tedious recounting of how Borok came to Montreal to evade the American draft and opened his boutique”. Yo, Lady, check the history books! Who was right? Nixon and his government went down in flames, and I was left standing to do my act. Nixon lost and I won, you imbecile!
Not content to satisfy herself with insults, Beverly Mitchell goes on to outright lies. She describes my line as “horse-inspired fashion with a lot of horse collars and leather harnesses” This intimation of horses appears several times in the article and is meant to imply, to anybody in the know, that I was copying a format used by a French Montreal designer named Georges Lévésque only a few weeks earlier. Under an accompanying photo of one of my more pedestrian designs (girl wearing a leather vest and leather shorts), she placed the caption, “Horse-Inspired Fashion”.
Look, fortunately she was inhibited from slamming the styles or the models. She didn’t have the nerve for that. But I was fair game, and it wasn’t no kind of polite treatment like Saul Bellow received from Commentary. The article was laced with venom, the worst aspect being that I had plagiarized Georges Lévéque’s horse format. None of my ideas have ever been derivative of anybody else. You can Google anything I have ever done or wrote, and the only reference you will ever see is a reference to me personally.
I felt insane rage over this dig, the same as Rodin will have felt upon being insulted as a phony. Unlike Rodin, however, I had inherited a touch of my uncle’s facility with regard to written language. The Montreal Gazette, being a small-circulation English daily serving a tiny Anglophone minority engulfed in a sea of French Quebeckers, is a much overlooked resource, and deservedly so. Reflecting attitudes of the fossilized remnants of a stale, crusty hierarchy of ancient family fortunes and social climbing hangers-on like Beverly Mitchell, it was never interesting to me until it started giving my comedy act good reviews, or I never would have invited it to my show in the first place.
My problem is that, having been separated from ever meeting a decent class of civilized persons because of the inhuman treatment accorded to me by my own family, for reasons that they themselves should be compelled to confront, I have been forced to develop a high tolerance for fools and idiots, who have been my constant companions through the course of my life. I don’t mind if people are not so clever, if they would at least sometimes be good-natured or charming, which they almost never are.
The Gazette is a case in point. Who cares if they are fourth-rate minds and the rag is only suitable as a substitute for bathroom tissue? As long as they would be content to publish innocuous items that did no harm, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s when these mental defectives decided to show me their teeth, for the purpose of putting me in my place in Montreal’s social pecking order, a place that some drunken, grafting social climbing fools had designated for me over cocktails at the Montreal Press Club, that I resolved to try to spread the pain around.
Now that I am remembering this story, the whole pattern of the nasty hate mail is coming into clearer focus. If it took place today, via Internet, there would be no story, with hundreds of millions of people transmitting stoopid shit from their seat on the Subway. The pirated emails stolen from Sony Pictures by the North Koreans tell a far worse story. No, sending hand-written garbage over the postal system is more artisanal, closer to the heart of ancient world culture. All I can say is that if there had been an Internet back in 1980, I would have shredded Beverly Mitchell and Iona Monahan on a daily basis to an audience of hundreds of thousands of people who knew me from my boutique and my comedy act.
I started out nice enough. While I was sewing and fitting all the leather suits, I figured that it was totally appropriate to promote my show to Saul Bellow. He was my uncle, and everybody wants to have a nice family that they can brag to. Why should I be deprived of that kind of pleasure? Every kind of idiot and dork in the world has some kind of people to talk to, so I was bloody well going to inflict myself on Saul Bellow, and let him handle it anyway he wants.
My notes to Saul Bellow consisted of, “I am really working hard for my show”, and, “I hope my show is a big success so I can make a few bucks” etc. Absolutely nothing, but as Shakespeare wrote, “Pardon me, but when no friends are around I must praise myself”. Nobody, but nobody, is going to shut me up from self-promotion. It’s the world’s punishment, and the Bellow family’s punishment, for attempting to consign me to a freakin garbage can of oblivion. Now that Zachery Leader has been so kind a s to provide a kind of backlighting to my stage by unravelling the Gordian Knot of my family history, I have got the ball in my court, and I don’t need to throw you no curves, people, because I have got a very good fastball!
All my life I have had dumb idiots brag to me things like “My father was the mayor of Moncton, New Brunswick”, or, “My grandfather invented the Zoot Suit”, and I had to clam up because my family history was so insane and bizarre that if I had ever tried to explain it to anybody, they would have called 911 to get me locked up. Now that Zachary Leader has engraved it in stone and made it indisputable cultural history, I get to inflict it onto the public and let them freakin deal with it!
Naturally, I never heard a word back from Saul Bellow. Freakin weirdo! If I had a cool nephew like me, I wouldn’t give him the silent treatment! Anyway, I was too busy putting together leather suits for my show and I didn’t care anything about him. The show went on, and it took place on the creepiest night of the year.
Whatever there is about Halloween, there must be a reality basis to it somewhere. It can’t be a mistake that the huge Mexican Day of the Dead, which is based on a totally different calendar, is simultaneous to it. The spirits of the dead rise up, and we celebrate in unison them. I know that this is an impossible coincidence, but it’s true: my boutique was situated right next door to the First Spiritualist Church of Montreal, where they called to the spirits of the dead using crystal balls, Ouija boards, I don’t know. I made a lot of jokes about it, about how the spirits, starved for entertainment from hanging around that crew of stiffs, used to come next door to my boutique for a few laffs. And that’s entirely believable, considering the floating crap game of leather, freaky sex, reefer, free-flowing booze and petty larceny I had been running for a decade already, and the whole thing originally capitalized by a branch of the U.S. government, even though I had been a fugitive from the American criminal justice system. But that is a subject that we will take up farther on down the line of this narrative.
Tis intervention of the spirit world in my activities is intensely real to me now, with Leader’s history of my family revealing to me an element of which I was at that time unaware – how many dead relation I had in the city that I didn’t know about, the spirits of my grandfather’s sisters who died there and all of their dead descendants. That would go a long way toward explaining the continuing run of good luck I enjoyed in Montreal during the 1970’s.
So my comedy fashion show went on, with strippers in leather suits whipping a guy who wore a studded body harness, choreography, freaky makeup and all accompanied by a freaky triple X-rated comedy act narrated by me. Man, they never even had a show like that in Hollywood or Las Vegas. It blew everybody’s mind, including mine and my friends’. Even as it was happening, though I could tell from Beverly Mitchell’s nasty face and that of her photographer how they were getting all bent out of shape by what they were witnessing.
When the Gazette review came out, my first reaction was denial. This article of lies and slander had to be the result of a dysfunction of editorial oversight. How could Mitchell’s editor, Iona Monahan, permit her to use the newspaper to publish a hysterical, vindictive, destructive hissy fit of a deranged female temperament and blatant envy like that? I shot off a letter of protest to Monahan.
The response I received was peremptory, like a steel door slamming in my face. Monahan informed me that implicit in my invitation for the Gazette to cover my show was my acceptance of whatever they chose to write. End of Story. Deal with it!
I gave a lot of thought to this, and I had plenty of time for reflection. Traffic into my store slowed considerably. A lot of people believe what they read in the papers, and it was obvious that I was out of favor. Instead of increasing my business, the Gazette review had rendered me radioactive.
My strategy, developing quite independently of Saul Bellow’s response to the Commentary review of “Augie March” 27 years earlier, reached the same conclusion: attack, using language as a weapon. Bombard the Gazette with ugly protest letters, and what were they going to do about it? Strike back in their paper? Have me arrested? Sue me? All of the above would have required the paper to revisit and magnify the whole affair to the extent that it would inevitably become national news across Canada, exposing the Gazette to coast-to-coast ridicule. It was the typical judo trick of using technique to turn an opponent’s size and strength to defeat him.
This took nerve, let me tell you! But what is the Montreal Gazette? An insignificant mouth organ serving a rump sector of English-speakers engulfed by a larger, isolated minority of francophones tucked away in an uneventful corner of the continent. Fuck ‘em! Saul Bellow at least protested the Commentary review like a gentleman, using logic and reasoning couched in polite language because the review, contrived as it was through envy, was at least polite and elegant. I was under no such constraint. The Gazette article was the literary equivalent of going to the zoo and having the apes in the monkey house throw feces at you, and in a contest of insults and abuse, I can’t be beat. I had nothing else to do anyway. No work.
I guarantee you, those letters don’t survive today. The Gazette will have destroyed all the evidence, that’s for sure, because that’s the kind of people they are, bottom-feeders who are willing to destroy their own archives to hide the facts. Some news organ! I sent letters to all the principals of that rag, from the publisher, the managing editor on down. I used the same language from my comedy act and, believe me, it looks worse on paper!
I wasn’t inhibited from getting onstage and cursing out Beverly Mitchell and Iona Monahan in my live shows, either, including their physical characteristics, because those old girls were no bathing beauties, and nobody enjoys having their bodies discussed in a stand-up comedy setting.
The Sphinxlike silence and lack of response from the Gazette only stimulated me to go further. I already knew that I was washed up in Montreal, but, fortunately, I had the photos of my show to use as a portfolio to get my foot in the door in the New York fashion market (I hoped).
But I still had a couple of gasps of life in me. I filed a formal complaint with the Quebec Press Commission, which, while it didn’t force the Gazette to print a retraction of the review, did oblige it to respond that it never meant to slander me or my performance, and that it never intended to insult me. As a result, Beverly Mitchell was taken off covering live news events for a long time.
But that’s not the end of the story. Somehow, High Society, a New York porn mag, heard about the story and sent a big-tittie pornstar named Annie Ample to Montreal to shoot a 3-page pictorial feature of herself and me wearing leather g-strings and whipping each other, using costumes and sex toys created by me. The feature came out in July, 1981, and I got High Society to issue me a press card, which I used to get accredited as a press correspondent to the Montreal Festival des Films du Monde. Now, I was equivalent to the Gazette as a journalist, and I showed up at press conferences and cocktail parties surrounded by a group of beautiful girls and showed off my bare butt in the current issue of High Society.
There’s more! While at the film festival, I put about the untrue rumor that the next issue of High Society would feature Beverly Mitchell and Iona Monahan performing a lesbian sex act in a private room in a local Italian restaurant, which provoked a series of alarmist telephone calls from the Gazette to High Society in New York. That shook up a lot of people, boy! High Society never had anything to do with me again after that, but, as far as I was concerned, I had used my native talent as a writer to establish dominance over that gang of retards at the Gazette and repay them in their own currency.
Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, I was contemplating the idea that all of the pressure and unnecessary insulting behavior to which I was being subjected to was the result of really being cast into the gutter by the piggish arrogance of my father, my uncle and their family of overfed Chicago hicks. The Gazette, which was slavish and hierarchical in the most extreme sense, would never have had the nerve to assault me so viciously if I would have had the support and influence of my Nobel Prize-winning uncle and my multimillionaire father. My own family, who knew full well where I was and what I was confronting, because I was keeping Saul Bellow fully informed of all of the above, just chose to feed me to the wolves like a sacrificial lamb, hanging me out to dry in the hope that I would perish. I really felt this, and to this day none of those cheapass Chicago pricks has ever made the least effort to comfort me in even the smallest sense. Try to imagine what it has been like for me, cut off from any kind of emotional or material support by a gang of miserly bastards right out of Charles Dickens. Anything could have happened to me, and did happen to me, and if I survive, as far as I am concerned, whatever satisfactions I can derive at their expense would be a well-deserved triumph for me. In this I am helped by the fact that I am the only Bellow progeny possessing any kind of talent at all, and the only one laying claim to being the artistic heir to my uncle’s talent. Who will have the nerve to dispute me on this?
I figured, why should I declare war on the Montreal Gazette and let Saul Bellow off the hook? I might as well extend to him the same consideration I was giving to the Gazette! I started writing him mail that told him what a mean, cheap prick he was to leave me so exposed to the teeth of vicious, low-class jackals like the Gazette, and that is the underlying origin of those letters, which that moron was kind enough to preserve for posterity. Fuck him..
Prior to the release of Zachary Leader’s history of my family, I thought that all I was doing was being swept along by the logic of events, but now it is evident that I am following a genetic trail of behaviorism that was exactly established before I was ever born. My detractors, who are numerous, have called me crazy, delusional, vicious, insane, dangerous, but all I am doing is responding to external stimuli according to a well-path of synaptic impulses established by a set of inherited characteristics that were passed along to me. Let’s face it; the hemlock doesn’t fall far from the tree!
Dean Borok July 2015
Saul Bellow - The Biography
I am sunk into Zachary Leader’s biography of my uncle, Saul Bellow, and all my relations like a man whose whole life flashes back to him in the instant before his death ...
I don’t know how it is today, but when I was a kid in Chicago, a place like France wasn't on the map at all. If France ever entered the conversation at all, it was on a level of perfumed lace panties.