Maxwell Bodenheim

Passage about Maxwell Bodenheim by Ben Hecht, from Hecht's memoir, Letters from Bohemia (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1964):

Bodenheim came to dinner in my house, having promised to forego sauce bottles and salt and pepper shakers. It was a party of welcome to a new writer for The Chicago Literary Times. Its staff to date had remained only Bodenheim and I. I thought it time to add another worker.

His name was John Armstrong. He had sent me the manuscript of a novel written while in detention at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station at Lake Forest. It was a fascinating manuscript, detailing the miseries and frustrations of life in the Navy. Sailor Armstrong was under detention in the lunacy ward of the U. S. Naval Hospital.

After some discussion, the Navy doctors admitted that Armstrong was not seriously insane, but only too oddly behaved to serve in the U. S. Navy. His chief oddity was that he was inclined to go off into fits of laughter that lasted for hours. He could be quieted only by powerful drugs.

The officer in charge of the Naval base agreed to release him into my custody with three provisos. I was to give him employment on my weekly paper; to provide sleeping quarters for him in my house; and to do all I could to keep his novel from being published.

At the dinner table welcoming the new literary find were Margaret Anderson, Sherwood Anderson, Burton Rascoe (the critic), and several opera singers whose names I have forgotten. And Bodenheim.

A discussion of music circled the table despite Bodenheim's insistence that the art of music had no relation to the art of conversation. His further efforts to swing the talk around to a discussion of himself, or at least, of poetry in general, were ignored. But literary find John Armstrong suddenly sided with the poet.

"Mr. Bodenheim is right," said Armstrong, "one doesn't talk about music. One listens to it."

Armstrong left the table and headed for the phonograph in the living room. The music he selected for listening was Chaliapin's record "The Song of the Flea" from Boito's opera Mefistofele

In the middle of the record Chaliapin unlooses a burst of Satanic laughter, for a half minute that seems like an hour. Sailor Armstrong kept putting the needle back and playing the passage over and over. Finally, rolling his pants up to his knees (why, I don't know) Armstrong joined Chaliapin in his laughter. Putting the needle back to replay the passage, Armstrong finally outlaughed the great baritone in range and volume.

We all listened and watched from the dining table.

"A fascinating sort of dementia," someone said.

"It is rarely you see an American writer," said Margaret Anderson, "who is not hopelessly sane."

There were other comments about the laughing genius with the rolled-up pants whom I had been clever enough to add to my paper's staff. Please, we were very young that night.

It was all too much for Bodenehim. At least our lonesome poet made a canny bid for our attention. Having emptied his tenth wineglass, he proceeded to eat it. He bit of chunks of his fragile goblet, chewed and swallowed the bits of glass as if they were the finest of desserts.

The diners turned one by one to watch the poet's amateur and gory performance as a glass eater.

"Good God," someone said, "you'll kill yourself swallowing that glass. You're a poet, not a circus freak." "Every poet is both," Bodenheim answered aloofly.

He continued to talk of poetry, and to recite some of his own latest work, holding the diners fascinated by the stream of blood and words from his mouth.

A half hour later, Bodenheim's triumph was completed. A doctor arrived to inject a powerful drug into John Armstrong, who had never stopped laughing.

Our literary find went back that night to the detention ward at the Naval base. Bodenheim, after some minor medical attention, remained as my sole colleague on the Literary Times.

Bodenheim wrote a few novels for Liveright, Georgia May, Replenishing Jessica, Nuked on Roller Skates. They were hack work with flashes of tenderness, wit, and truth in them, and some verbal fireworks in every chapter.

He spoke of his novels without enthusiasm.

"Millions of people are reading my prose effusions," he said - millions and thousands were `the same general number to Bogie - "but I'm not actually happy. I am returning shortly to writing poetry."

He did. His royalty checks dwindled. His brief fame as an odd, erotic novelist evaporated. And the Greenwich Village Bodenheim emerged. A homeless wino started reading his poems in saloons and picking up the pennies and nickels thrown to him. Occasionally an editor bought one of his poems and rewarded him with a twenty-five-dollar check.

He continued trying to strike it rich by entering all the poetry contests. Prizes ranging from a hundred to a thousand dollars were to be snatched by the winners.

Bodenheim had entered, since his youth, 223 such contests, and been defeated by other poets in all of them. He used to sign his letters to editors, "Maxwell Bodenheim, 224th ranking U.S.A. poet."

The Greenwich Village Bodenheim had no allure for me. I preferred to remember the Chicago version. One rainy day I ran into Bogie on Broadway. His face was gaunt, most of his teeth were gone. But there were some things unchanged about him. He was wearing the same army overcoat, carrying the same worn and bulging brief case; and his eyelids still fluttered disdainfully when he spoke.

In a saloon, Bogie showed me the poems he had written in the last ten years. They covered several hundred pages of typing. They were no longer poems full of fragile and unexpected metaphors, poems that used to seem written not by a human being but by some brilliant Jack-of-Diamonds.

The new Bodenheim output in his ten New York years was full of coherently phrased love for shop girls, laborers, and all underdogs and castaways. There was no hint in them of the poet's own travail, of his despairs, hungering days, attempted suicides. Written during hangovers, during illnesses that kept him out of saloons that still tolerated his presence, they were the poems of an observer, never a victim. They were also in sonnet form, and rhymed. But their unexpected imagery was unchanged.