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James Wolcott: 'Lucking Out' In 1970s New York

The Vanity Fair critic was an aspiring writer when he arrived in a turbulen Manhattan in 1972. In his memoir, Lucking Out, he writes about the crime and culture (and pornography) he discovered there.

27:10

Other segments from the episode on November 8, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 8, 2011: Interview with Mark Derr; Interview with James Wolcott.

Transcript

November 8, 2011

Guests: Mark Derr and James Wolcott

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Mark Derr, is a naturalist and writer who's been thinking about how dogs evolved from their prehistoric ancestors and how they came to have such a close relationship with humans. Derr believes new genetic and archeological research suggests our friendship with dogs and wolves goes back thousands of years farther than previously believed.

In his new book, Derr explores how the relationship developed and how it influenced the physical evolution of dogs from wolves, into the friendly creatures that are so much a part of our lives. Mark Derr's book is called "How the Dog Became The Dog - From Wolves To Our Best Friends." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host: Mark Derr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, in your book, you tell us that there's new research from genetics and from the archeological record that's changed our views, or at least challenged the view that we've traditionally had, about how dogs or their dog ancestors became acquainted thousands of years ago. What was the traditional view of how dogs and people got together?

MARK DERR: Well, by traditional view, I use the one that's most current today and appears almost everywhere in print and on television programs. And that is that the dog somehow is a self-domesticated animal who fed on garbage dumps as people began to give up their hunting and gathering ways at the end of the last ice age and move into semi-permanent villages. That these wolves were scavenging their dumps, and they more they scavenged, the tamer they became, and ultimately they became these self-tamed dump-divers, I call them, who people then took into their homes or began to use in ways that more resembled their wolfish past.

If you think about it, it's a bit convoluted, really. Many animals feed on garbage dumps. None of them really get taken with welcoming arms into our homes and lives.

DAVIES: So we now believe that - or you believe that wolves became socialized and ran with humans before they began settling down to villages, when they were still hunters and gatherers, right?

DERR: I take the view that the dog is an evolutionary inevitability, that as soon as wolves and humans met on the trail of big game, they started traveling together, and they've been at it ever since. I say that because there are wolves who are highly sociable, just as there are humans who are highly sociable, and those two highly sociable individual animals, in many cases, could get together. And from that, could rise all kinds of relationships.

What I'm saying is that the dog is a creation of wolves and humans, of two equal beings who have come - who came together at a certain point in history and have been together ever since.

DAVIES: Now, I notice that when you're discussing this early relationship between dogs or dogs' ancestors and our ancestors from prehistory - early humans - you prefer the term dog-wolves or dog-like wolves to wolf-dogs. What's the distinction you're making?

DERR: The distinction I'm making is that there were some wolves, I believe, who were indeed dog-like, that is they were highly sociable to humans, they liked to hang around humans, and they ultimately settled down in a way in that they might have a litter of pups near the human society.

Some of those pups, being highly sociable, would take up with the humans and on down the line, so that what's being selected for is not tameness toward people, but sociability, the sociability of certain types of wolves and humans.

Now, that said, we're talking about a wide spectrum of behavior on the part of both species. There certainly are humans who are not very sociable, either to other humans or to other animals, just as there are animals who could care less about humans. There even are some dogs who really basically don't care very much about humans, it seems.

And so what I'm suggesting is that the dog emerged from a group of wolves who were basically dog-like - who were sociable to humans, who would interact with them, hunt with them, travel with them and ultimately began to reproduce in their presence.

That's not to say that all those dog-wolves, mind you, went on to become dogs, because many of them could die out. They may not have found mates. The lines may have vanished or been replaced by other lines. So we're talking about two things, really.

One is the way in which wolves and humans got together and lived together. And the other is how these wolves, these sociable wolves living among humans, ultimately became dogs. And that's the challenge.

DAVIES: When humans began associating with wolves, you know, back many thousands of years ago, and then of course physical changes occurred that made these creatures the dogs that we know today, what were some of the changes that came with living with humans?

DERR: Traditionally what archeologists have found and used to designate an animal as a dog versus a wolf, is an overall reduction in size, a shortening of the jaw, crowding of the teeth and other features that would indicate that it was a small kind of wolf.

This fed into the argument that the dog was basically this juvenilized, self-taming wolf, a kind of wolf-light, as it were. Research that's coming out now would tend to indicate that a small number of genetic mutations can have a large effect on an animal, so that researchers have found a gene for - that seems to regulate smallness in dogs.

And one of the first divides, I think, in the world of dog is between large and small.

DAVIES: So how could this association of wolves with humans lead to these physical changes?

DERR: Well, what happened was that you had populations of dog-wolves that became isolated from the greater wolf population, and in doing so, they began to breed more closely, to inbreed as it were.

And when you inbreed, you get genetic peculiarities that arise, and those peculiarities then begin to become part of the population. If they work, if they're popular, if they have some function of beauty or utility, then they are kept by the humans, and that population then spreads those through other populations, through breeding.

DAVIES: But if you look at these changes that kind of typify a dog from a wolf, the shorter snout, the smaller size, were these changes that were adaptations to living with people? I mean, less powerful jaws I believe was another one you mentioned. Or were they simply - yeah, why would living with human beings reinforce those changes?

DERR: Well, there are several things, one at the end of the last ice age. There seems to have been a pretty across-the-board reduction in size of many animals, including humans. It also was the case that the change in diet would have an effect on the way that the jaw is shaped because an animal that's not crunching bones all the time or is feeding on grain wouldn't have the need for as strong and powerful jaws as one that's living by hunting.

This, by the way, is a phenomenon that occurs among captive wolves, also. You must bear in mind that some dogs have a more powerful bite than wolves do. So we've been able to create animals that are both weaker and stronger, and that's purely a matter of selection by people for traits they want.

In other words, a mutation will appear in a small population. If I don't want it, what I do is kill the animals so that they don't reproduce. If I do want it, I try to get them to reproduce.

DAVIES: So just going back to kind of the earlier years of this, so when dogs got smaller, after their association with humans, why was that? I mean, wouldn't big dogs have been more effective, just as effective or even more effective hunters?

DERR: Well, not for getting rats. So small dogs are useful in terms of killing rats, really, and they also - there have been people who have suggested that the small dog was, in itself, because of its size, a curiosity, an easier dog to have as a companion.

In much of history, even in the American South through the 19th century, even today, you'll find people who have two dogs, or several dogs, but the divide they have is between a large dog, who is in the yard, and a small dog. And the small dog is usually as a feist or a little terrier or some sort whose job is to kill rats, make a noise if somebody comes near, be a companion or playmate for the children and a guardian.

There's one story that I ran into many years ago and used in a previous book of a woman who was out picking beans, and her little terrier was out there and started making an unholy racket, and she looked up and finally saw that it was barking at a big panther who was staring at her child.

She scooped the child up and ran in the house while the little dog stayed outside to hold at bay this big cat. Well, unfortunately the cat ate the dog, but the husband, when he came home, took his big dog and went out and hunted the panther and killed it and found the remains of their little dog, who had been very courageous.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Derr. His new book is "How the Dog Became The Dog." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Mark Derr. He's written several books about dogs. His latest is called "How the Dog Became The Dog - From Wolves To Our Best Friends."

How did the association with wolves begin, do you think?

DERR: Well, there are two ways I think that this could happen. One is people taking in puppies who were orphaned, perhaps, or they stole them. There are any number of ways to obtain wolf pups, and people have been doing it for a long time. And it is fairly easy, if you get them at a young age, to socialize them to humans - those who are so inclined.

But I think beyond that, there were adult animals involved. This is a bit of heresy, but if you think about it, it makes sense. There were researchers in the United States during the 1960s, who were able to socialize adult wolves. And they did it in a very interesting fashion, that is they would go into the pen and let the animal decide to come to them. They would not force themselves on the animal.

Now, those among our listeners who have actually interacted with adult animals and had them become friendly toward them, will understand what I'm talking about. I did it with a heron, for example. You can do it with all kinds of animals. But you have to allow the animal to come to you and not pose a threat to it or a perceived threat. And after a while, it will accommodate itself to you if it's so inclined.

I think this happened with wolves also. Beyond that, the issue is this, and we always have to bear this in mind. Biological time is infinitely short compared to geological time. And so you can fracture the structure of a wolf pack or a dingo pack in no time at all, simply by taking out the breeding pair. Take them out of the equation, and suddenly you've lost wolf culture for those younger animals, and they have to learn how to behave.

If it happens in a way where they're with humans, they can learn from humans how to behave.

DAVIES: Now going back to, you know, the early association of humans and wolves, to what extent was it that they learned to hunt together? I mean, either the way modern hunters do or perhaps humans following wolves who had a better scent and could track some of their - you know, the game that they mutually sought. How much of it was a utilitarian alliance?

DERR: There have been people who have suggested that wolves taught humans how to hunt. I'm not sure that's true, but I think it is true that humans, if you - humans could follow wolves, for example, as they pursued their game and then move in at the last minute to make the kill rather than allowing the wolf to do it and cart off the meat.

They might throw game to the wolf, or they might not. In that case, it's simply a case of following the leader, and the leader is the wolf. The wolf, on the other hand, could look at the human and say: These people are far more profligate hunters than we are. When they go out, they always leave a surplus. And it's easier for us to take the scraps that they have than is it to hunt. Hunting is a highly energetic activity.

And so they could learn from each other, just by observing each other, and we have to remember that people living in close proximity to the natural world and dependent on it for everything certainly would be close observers of it and what happens.

Beyond that, I think once wolves became more acclimated to humans, more sociable toward them and reproducing, let us call them dog-wolves, those animals would actually, I believe, go out and hunt with humans. And in that case, the wolf certainly expands the senses of the human hunters, both in terms of sight and hearing, whereas the human, with his weapons and fire, increases the power of the wolf enormously.

DAVIES: You know, nothing is cuter than a puppy. Everybody loves dogs, or almost everybody, but I picture our prehistoric ancestors as, you know, kind of living on the edge between starvation and subsistence. And it's maybe a little harder for me to think of them sharing food with any creature they don't have to. To what extent, do you think, was - and I'm asking you to speculate here - but to what extent was affection, as well as just utility, a part of this early association?

DERR: Well, certainly affection is part. To say something about the hunting and food, it's not clear that early humans were always on the edge of starvation. I doubt, seriously, if they were, except in times of the extreme brutality of the height of the last ice age and other places where conditions were bad or herds collapsed.

But they were pursuing herds of large animals, remember, and they probably had a fairly steady supply, unless the migrations broke off. There also have been studies that show that small bands of people, of hunters who hunt with dogs, bring home much more meat than those who don't have dogs. So that's the utilitarian side.

The other side is you're right, puppies, dogs, there's something about them that makes them - we're friends with them. I mean, there are people who dislike dogs, for sure. But dogs also have an uncanny ability - often if you think about dogs you might know who have walked into a room of visitors to your house, and they have an ability to pick out the one or two who seem to dislike dogs the most and make friends with them.

DAVIES: To what extent does the archeological record give us evidence that humans and wolves, or dogs, hunted together?

DERR: There have been some finds in recent year - these are basically fossils that have been re-examined, in many cases. They were dug up years ago and not sorted through. They now have been re-examined and re-dated. And they are animals, big animals, big dogs is what they are, dog-wolves, that are found in hunting camps.

And so there is a supposition that they probably were used in hunting or in at least in packing animals and material around, which would greatly extend the reach of the humans.

There are some studies, too, from China, about 7,000 years ago, indicating that people were actually raising millet to feed to their hunting dogs and that this kept the dogs alive during times of thin meat, as it were, times when they weren't - when the game wasn't around, and they weren't getting as much meat as they wanted, they would feed them millet.

So that would indicate, not only that the early dog was being used as a hunter, but that it was highly valued as a hunter.

DAVIES: So dogs evolved, physically, after they began associating with humans, but they're not simply defined biologically. They're really a cultural creation, too, aren't they?

DERR: They are definitely a cultural creation. This is one of the reasons why people like to speak of the dog as a separate species from the wolf, even though they're so closely related. But the dog lives with us in a way that wolves don't. And it is created by us in different ways so that purebred dogs, for example someone might have an ideal that they're trying to breed for. In other animals, someone might want a companion or a herding dog or a catch dog, which is a dog that will grab livestock or game and hold onto it.

I knew a rancher, once, in Central Florida, who had dogs. He had a line of dogs that were famous in ranch country in Florida, and they had been catch dogs. They would go and grab bulls by the nose and hold them while they were branded or whatever. This...

DAVIES: They would hold bulls by the nose?

DERR: Yeah.

DAVIES: Wow.

DERR: They would grab them on the fleshy part of the face, and it tends to immobilize them. Dogs are nuts, you know. They do crazy things.

DAVIES: But breeding has also given us some pretty odd animals, like the pug. I mean, do you think this is - that some of this breeding has just taken dogs in directions that aren't healthy, aren't good for them?

DERR: You're going to get me in trouble here, but I've been trouble on this score before. Look, I think that some - and I'll say it bluntly, and it has to be said: some of these breeds are incapable, really, of giving birth without caesarian section.

You may have seen an article in the Times not too long ago about how some of the brachycephalic dogs - the dogs with the punched-in noses like the pug or the French bulldog - aren't - airlines will no longer fly them because the animals get up at altitude, and they can't breathe. They die.

Or in hot weather they can't breathe, and they die. I think that it certainly is wrong to produce animals that aren't healthy. It's bad for the animal. It's bad for the people who love them and take them into their homes and find out that this dog they love is going to die at a very young age because of some inheritable disease.

Often these diseases come along with the traits that people are breeding for in terms of beauty, let's a say a nice blue merle coat and clear blue eyes that they want on a dog, those may bring conditions like deafness and epilepsy with them. And we really should ask ourselves whether it is fair to the animal to do that. I am of the opinion that it is not.

DAVIES: Well, Mark Derr, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

DERR: Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Derr spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Derr's new book is called "How the Dog Became The Dog - From Wolves To Our Best Friends." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. James Wolcott says he was lucky to arrive in New York in 1972 as everything was about to go to hell. Life in that hell and all the unusual opportunities it afforded is the subject of his new memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." He describes arriving in New York with a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer, getting a job at The Village Voice, becoming a friend of Pauline Kael, from whom he learned a lot about writing criticism, writing about Patti Smith and the punk scene at CBGB's, and getting introduced to pornography. Wolcott became the TV critic for The Village Voice. He's been a columnist for Vanity Fair since 1997, where he writes about media, politics and popular culture.

Let's start with a reading from "Lucking Out" about the neighborhood Wolcott lived in when he moved to Manhattan.

JAMES WOLCOTT: The IRT stop closest to my 92nd Street apartment was a convenient four blocks north. But those four blocks often required nimble footwork and ninja awareness of impending action. So much of New York did. Most of the parks were safer walking around than through. I was warned about venturing into Riverside Park, where I got the impression dead bodies were always being discovered after having rolled downhill the night before. Entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes. And even sections of town that didn't resemble standing rubble had stretches that you avoided had you been properly briefed. Otherwise you'd be walking down some leafy block, moderately carefree, turn the wrong corner and find yourself staring down the barrel of a hostile street, forced to either retrace your steps or run for your freaky life like Cornell Wilde in "The Naked Prey."

It wasn't just the criminality that kept you radar alert, the muggings and subway car shakedowns; it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuate the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break. That strip of upper Broadway was the open air stage for acting out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully-loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms. Then, as now, the 96th Street crosstown nexus was a irredeemable eyesore that served as a magnet for unmanned shopping carts abandoned on their sides or commandeered as homeless moving vans.

It was at the newsstand on the southwest corner of 96th that I picked up the copy of the Daily News would be arresting headline "Ford to City, Drop Dead." And it was the perfect spot to receive notice of impending collapse.

GROSS: James Wolcott, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how did you feel about living in Manhattan after growing up in the suburbs and suddenly dealing with like danger and squalor, the kinds of things you really weren't used to? You can make that sort of thing seem very romantic in retrospect. In real time, in reality, it kind of isn't.

WOLCOTT: No, but it's one of those follies of youth where you don't really anticipate anything bad will happen to you personally, even though you know it can. But you think somehow you have this magic, you know, force field of protection that you're, you know, looking through it but you can't really be injured. So, so much of it I was sort of just taking in, but at the same time there were things that just completely threw me. I mean they were beyond what I would have expected. And I had been sort of fairly innocent growing up. I did not know about drag queens, for example. I knew about prostitutes from movies but I didn't actually ever see them, you know, working the street. You know, when you see a prostitute pull a knife on another prostitute, that's something that, you know, being in suburban Maryland didn't prepare me for.

GROSS: So let's talk about how you got to New York. You wanted to be a writer, you loved Norman Mailer.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Wrote an article for your school paper about Mailer being a guest on - was it Cavett's show?

WOLCOTT: Yes. He was on "The Dick Cavett Show."

GROSS: And Mailer actually - you sent the article to Mailer...

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: ...he read it and liked it. What made you think that this article was worthy of sending to Mailer? I made that really takes courage and confidence.

WOLCOTT: Well, I don't know if it's courage. There is a little confidence, but I think part of it is simply the blessing of not knowing any better. I didn't - I was so naive that I didn't know that this was kind of a nervy move. But also I didn't really anticipate any real reaction. I wasn't sure it would get to Mailer. You know, I took an address that I had gotten from the college library's Who's Who, and so I didn't know if I would actually hear back. And then when Mailer wrote back and said when you leave college, you know, I'd be willing to write a letter for you to Dan Wolf of The Village Voice, that's where the nerviness came in, because I knew I had to act then. If I waited - because by then I was in my sophomore year of college. If I had waited until graduation, it would be two years later, I probably would have lost my nerve by then, because by then I would have thought, oh, it's - time has passed and maybe he won't write the letter now and now what do I do? So the bold thing I did, and I'm not a person for bold moves, the bold thing I did was to write back to Mailer and say, could you write it now? And it is to Mailer's credit that he did it, you know, that he actually wrote it. And that's how everything got started.

GROSS: So what did The Village Voice mean to you when you first started working there?

WOLCOTT: I had been reading The Village Voice as a high school student, a college student. The Village Voice was incredibly important then. It was not only a countercultural paper, it was a political paper. It had a rough texture to it. It wasn't like the psychedelic papers that were also popular in the late '60s. It had real reporters. Also it had a lot of critics. The Village Voice had one of the great cultural sections and, you know, the coverage was amazing they did, of theater and dance and movies. I mean Andrew Sarris was their movie critic and Jill Johnston and Deborah Jowitt were their dance critics. So it was an incredibly exciting place. It was also a place that took on nobodies. So you didn't have to be a by-liner. You didn't have to be a name to make its pages. It wasn't about that.

GROSS: So you start out at The Village Voice basically doing, you know, administrative kind of work. You're working at the circulation desk. You're looking through the slush pile.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then you get a chance to start writing and you start writing more and more for the Voice. And you're in an atmosphere there where people - the other writers and the editors are not only honest with each other...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...about whether something was good or bad; I mean it can be like so honest it's almost like brutal in its honesty.

WOLCOTT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like it was as if people had no choice. Like they had to tell you the truth and they couldn't possibly sugarcoat it in any way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what was good and what was bad about that as a young writer?

WOLCOTT: What was good about it was it really toughen your hide. When you had people tell you, you don't know what you're talking about, you never should have done that piece, you know, you made a fool of yourself, you know, to your face, you either get really - you get your back up or you lash back or you think, okay, well, this is part of the hazing process, this is part of what's done. And I mean I remember someone coming up to me at the Christmas party and telling me I had just made a fool of myself in a piece I had turned in, that I was ridiculous, I didn't know anything about politics. This was a piece in which I had traveled with Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire and I said that I really thought he could be the Democratic nominee. But you know, that was not...

GROSS: Wow, that was stupid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: Yeah. That was really - that was really dumb. And, of course, I basked in, you know, when he won in primaries later on, I basked in that. But now, I'm overstating a little bit because there was also a lot of, you know, consideration and kindness, in the sense of that when you were edited by an editor, you sat down with them and they went over the manuscript with you sentence by sentence. I mean it was very hands-on editing. This is pre-computer, so it's not like I'll send you the piece in an attachment with my changes in the margin and you can okay them or not. It was like very much going over it. Like just pouring over like, you know, with, you know, a biblical manuscript or something. Not that it was on that level, but you know, each comma mattered, each phrase mattered, and writers don't get that. Now, on the one hand, you were knocked around a bit. On the other hand, you were nurtured.

GROSS: My guest is Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott. His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Wolcott, who writes about popular culture for Vanity Fair. He has a new memoir about the '70s called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York."

You became a critic and for years you wrote about television for The Village Voice, but you've also written a lot about books and movies and Broadway. I mean any popular culture that's interesting to you, you can write about. Did you aspire to be a critic? I mean you point out in your memoir that few children think, oh, some day, some day I'm going to be a critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what did you aspire to be and how did you become a critic?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think I just aspired to be a writer. But when I started out, being a critic was easier because those departments were open to you at The Village Voice. They accepted things, you know, unsolicited from staff members. Whereas, for example, one of the, things about being a reporter is unless you're going to play the voice of innocence, you really have to know something. And when I got to New York, I really didn't know very much. There was no way that I could be, say, a City Hall reporter or even trainee because I didn't know the basics of it. Then being a critic just sort of became the thing. I was always someone who was very critical. I was always someone who was analyzing things. And I think that that did appeal to me. Also I was someone who - I tended to stay more aloof. Even though Norman Mailer was my hero, I wasn't somebody who really felt comfortable throwing myself into the fray. You know, I wasn't somebody who walked into a room and looked around as if to say is there anybody here I need to punch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: You know, that was really not my style. You know, I didn't have that kind of, you know, belligerence, you know, that kind of duck waddle to do it. And so the great thing about the Voice was they didn't pigeonhole you. They would let you write about theater if you saw something you wanted to write about and no one else was doing it, or if you wanted to write about a record. They didn't slot you.

GROSS: You write a lot about Pauline Kael in your memoir. And she was, of course, perhaps the best and the most influential film critic ever. What did she represent to you as a reader?

WOLCOTT: As a reader there was such courage and energy in her voice. When you read her, you knew she wasn't worried about, oh, you know, I'm going against the consensus, I'll be out here on my lonesome. You know, she would make her stand and then, you know, through the magnetic force of her writing, her stand would become the thing that everyone else had to respond to. And you know, also I just love the voice in her writing. It was a very conversational voice but heightened. It didn't have slack to it.

GROSS: How did Pauline Kael first contact you?

WOLCOTT: I had done a piece for The Village Voice that she had liked. I'm not sure which piece it was. It may have been a piece on a comedy club called The Improv that was very popular at the time and may still be around, on a very dangerous part of Times Square. And I went and saw the comedians and I simply wrote about the culture of comedians. And she loved comics. She loved standup comics, she loved comics of all type, and she really enjoyed that piece. And I was in that little apartment on 92nd Street and I got a phone call and it was this voice saying, hi, it's Pauline Kael, you're a hard person to reach. And I, you know, and I'm like holding the phone like, whoa...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: As if she were, you know, in the room. Because again, the idea that a writer as well-known as Pauline Kael would take the time to call a complete unknown, which is what I was, I mean that's part of the lucking out, that that would happen to me. It wouldn't happen now and not only because, you know, Pauline Kael isn't around, but the whole culture of journalism has changed. So from that I was invited to a movie screening and eventually another screening and then I became part of the gang.

GROSS: Did reading Pauline Kael make you think that writing criticism could really be important, it could have an impact on readers, it could have an impact on the individual or the industry that you're writing about?

WOLCOTT: It definitely gave me the sense that you could matter in people's lives. One of the things I remember was that The New Yorker came out on Wednesday and people would, you know, make a point of being there to get The New Yorker first thing on Wednesday to read Pauline. It was that important to them. They wanted to know immediately. Also, because it was pre-Internet, no one knew what she was going to be writing about from issue to issue. It wasn't the sort of - the way it is now where everything is sort of teased to readers online and all that so you just never knew. You never knew what she was going to do. And I could see how it really - it changed the dialogue.

People reacted to the way – to what she wrote about.

GROSS: So what do you feel like you learned from reading her and from knowing her about honesty in criticism and what that means?

WOLCOTT: The thing I most learned from Pauline is that even before writing, you can't fake your reactions. You have to be true to what your response was. If your response was unsettled, you have to honor that and write from that viewpoint. If your response was ambivalent, you have to do that. You can't, in the act of writing, turn it into simply a position paper. You know, you have to acknowledge that it hit you on some personal level that has to be analyzed and brought out.

GROSS: Pauline Kael had a circle of young critics whose work she respected and who greatly admired her and were very influenced by her and learned from her. Did you consider yourself to be part of that circle?

WOLCOTT: Oh, I was definitely part of that circle. I mean, there were overlapping circles but I was definitely part of the circle. I would - you know, we would go to screenings. She would invite people from "The New Yorker" and then we would repair to the Algonquin or Cafe Un Deux Trois and talk over the movie.

GROSS: One of the articles you wrote is referred to in Brian Kellow's new biography of Pauline Kael and it's an article that you wrote in "Vanity Fair" shortly after you got there called "Waiting for Godard," and I'll quote Kellow here. It was a devastating piece about the Paulettes. And the Paulettes was the name given...

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the nickname given to the circle of critics who were close to her, the young critics who are close to them. So it was a devastating piece about the Paulettes, branding them as a band of hopeless imitators who had squandered their own talents by falling under Pauline's spell. Wolcott was reasonably careful not to place Pauline herself in his crosshairs, but he didn't really need to. The article heavily implied that she had encouraged sycophancy and slavish devotion.

Pauline was stunned that someone whose career she had worked so assiduously to advance could've written such a piece. And you acknowledge that it kind of ruined your relationship with her and...

WOLCOTT: Yeah. It - well, there were other things going on. And I mean I do regret the tone of it. I think in some ways Kellow overstates the matter, but I mean I don't think I was impaling people. I was talking more that so many of the people influenced by Pauline had never gotten beyond it and they were still using the same mannerisms, the same phrases, 20 years later.

I mean, I do regret, I think - I do think I was too rhetorically, you know, rolling down the track, and I...

GROSS: Does that mean mean?

WOLCOTT: And I phoned her before...

GROSS: What's that mean?

WOLCOTT: Well, I mean I think that I – I think I was like trying to make too, you know, trying - within the context of the piece I was trying to, like, you know, raise a little thunder. And you know, and I told Pauline, and I - I said this is really not about you, and – but I, you know, in retrospect that was very dumb of me to think that she wouldn't take it that way. I mean, of course she would take it that way.

And I tried to repair things later and it was too late. And it is something that I feel very bad about. I still feel bad about it.

GROSS: My guest is "Vanity Fair" columnist James Wolcott. His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Wolcott. He writes about popular culture for "Vanity Fair." His new memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," is about his life in the '70s when he moved to New York and started writing for The Village Voice. And note to parents: We're going to be talking a little bit about pornography. Not in a graphic way, but nevertheless if that's going to be a problem, you should know.

So okay. Moving on. One of the chapters in your memoir is about pornography and starting to get really deep into pornography.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And these are the pre-video days when you actually had to go to movie theaters. So...

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: Why did you want to include that in the book? My theory being that no one really wants to think of someone else reading or watching porn.

WOLCOTT: That is true, and I did wonder about it, but then I thought the fact is that porn was a huge cultural influence that came out of the '70s and Times Square, the scene in Times Square, the squalor of Times Square, people always think of the movie "Taxi Driver," that is an, you know, that is an integral part of the city in the '70s and the porn scene and pornography, it's had a huge influence.

You have to recall, this was a period in which New York Times editors would sneak off during their lunch hour to go see "Deep Throat." When "Deep Throat" became a sensation, the sort of people who went to Elaine's and, you know, worked for the slick magazines, they were going off there, you know, some of them hoping not to be spotted by other people they knew.

GROSS: But that film was a sensation and you had to have an opinion about it.

WOLCOTT: You had to have an opinion and usually the opinion was yuck, because it's like, you know, it was a truly horrible movie. You know, it's like – and you know, just terrible, awful, corny humor. But, you know, people felt like, oh, I feel this is important. And there were, you know, there were a lot of pieces at the time on – people thought that pornography was going to emerge as its own kind of art form, a kind of outlaw art form which needless to say did not happen.

But people felt like – and then you have to recall, too, there were great intellectual defenses of pornography. Not the Time Square type, but of literary pornography. You know, so people felt very like, oh, well, nothing – I'm, you know, nothing is really going to phase me. You know, I've read Susan Sontag about blah, blah, blah.

And then when they actually went and saw these things, it was like, aye-yay-yay...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLCOTT: You know, which way to – you know, where can I find – you know, I don't know if Purell was invented back then, but now they'd be, like, compulsively washing their hands and washing their face afterwards.

GROSS: But what was it like? What was the experience like for you of being in a pretty squalid movie theater, you know, watching pornography in the '70s? And if you felt guilty, dirty, comfortable, uncomfortable, if you felt like a critic - like you were doing your job, in part, because pornography's part of the culture, if you were there just to be turned on...

WOLCOTT: Well, let me say as a prelude to all this...

GROSS: Yeah.

WOLCOTT: ...that I was raised Catholic.

GROSS: Okay.

WOLCOTT: So guilt is part of the package. You know, so you go in there and it was sort of my way of being bad, as it were, even though really no one was going to judge me. I was in a sense, you know, judging myself. The odd thing is a lot of the theaters were actually fairly well maintained. They were actually much better maintained than the double feature houses on 42nd Street that showed horror films and kung fu films.

Those places were like almost free-fire zones, I mean because people were just, you know, shouting at the screen. One thing about pornography is that there was very little talking back to the screen and what there was was often really hilarious. You know, it was by people who almost considered themselves connoisseurs of the genre. And also, another thing about the porn theaters was nobody actually ever came to the beginning of the movie and left at the end.

Everybody arrived at different parts in the middle because there was no - no one was fooling themselves, like, well, if I miss the first five minutes I won't know what the story is. You know, there was none of that. So it was a kind of transient experience.

GROSS: You have two quotes at the beginning of your memoir.

WOLCOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One is from the film "All About Eve" by the really – really nasty, corrupt critic Addison DeWitt, and the quote is: We come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. If we don't blow them, who else will? And then the other quote is from J.J. Hunsacker played by Burt Lancaster, in "Sweet Smell of Success," and he's this, like, really corrupt, like, mean gossip columnist. And that quote is: I love this dirty town.

WOLCOTT: Yes.

GROSS: So of all the quotes in the world, why did you choose those two?

WOLCOTT: I chose the first because New York City in the '70s truly was a dirty town. It was a dirty town in a dirty time and at the same time I did love it. I mean, as much as I recoiled from a lot of it, I did love it. I mean, there was a true excitement in the air and it was a great time for dance and movies.

And I now think that a certain type of grime and grit is what you need for the friction to make other things happen. The second one has to do with the fact that, you know, to be a writer – you know, there's so many writers who practice a kind of false modesty as if, like, they're just, you know, they've just sort of at their desk and they're just sending these little things out into the world and, you know, on little angel wings.

But the fact is people write for recognition. I mean, it's one of the main reasons people write. Not necessarily for power, but for recognition. People want to be known. And so you have to occasionally toot your own horn. And I also was sort of anticipating that people would say, well, who are you to write a memoir? I mean, you know, why do you think you should do it?

And in a sense, writing a memoir like this is, you know, tooting your horn. And, you know, you hope that you do it in a way that's entertaining. But I was sort of acknowledging that, you know, ego and the need for recognition are what drive us.

GROSS: Well, James Wolcott, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WOLCOTT: Well, thank you.

GROSS: James Wolcott is a columnist for "Vanity Fair." His new memoir is called "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org or you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and join us on Facebook.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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