Birth of a Voice: John Wilcock, writer, mailman

The cover image of “John Wilcock: New York Years, 1954-1971,” an online biography in graphic novel style. Page four, about Wilcock’s dream of starting a new paper, has a dig at The Villager, whose contents back then he describes as “mostly bridge club party reports.”

The cover image of “John Wilcock: New York Years, 1954-1971,” an ongoing online biography by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall in graphic novel / comic book style. Page four, about Wilcock’s dream of starting a new paper, has a dig at The Villager, whose contents back then he describes as “mostly bridge club party reports.”  The comic book can be read at http://www.ep.tc/john-wilcock . Image © Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

BY JERRY TALLMER   |  The birthplace of The Village Voice, and its cradle for the next couple of years — until we moved to larger quarters (two floors) next door to the Lion’s Head, a journalistic hangout on Christopher Street at Sheridan Square — was that little old floor-through one flight up at 22 Greenwich Avenue, not much larger than my beloved apartment on Perry Street.

There was a main space, looking out on Greenwich Avenue and not much else; a tiny rear room containing a desk — Dan Wolf’s desk — and an ancient daybed; a bathroom of sorts; two or three desks upfront, a couple of battered Royal typewriters, an ink-splattering mimeograph machine, a broom, a wastebasket, and — not an odor exactly but a mustiness. A newspaper mustiness, even though there’d never before been a newspaper on the premises. I knew at once, as I stepped through the door, that this was it, for me.

Even before I got there, there was somebody — a human presence — ensconced at a desk by the windows. This was John Wilcock, a chirpy little 28-year-old British refugee from Fleet Street and its Daily Mail, who’d made his Great Circle route to Greenwich Village by way of Toronto, Canada, and — quite separately from Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf or Norman Mailer — had wanted to start a newspaper more reflective of the onrushing Beatnik counterculture than was the neighborhood’s long-established doddery weekly The Villager.

John Wilcock, the first News Editor of The Village Voice — until Dan took back that job for himself — had seized the desk by the windows with a double purpose. One was to look out at what was going on in life all up and down Greenwich Avenue, the other was — these were windows you could open — to use the window as a mailbox. He dashed off typewritten letters of varying length to this one and that one all day long, folded them, stuck them in envelopes, sealed and addressed those envelopes, and then blithely tossed them — stamp-less — out through the open window onto the sidewalk below.

In the firm belief — I kid you not — that some good Samaritan would sooner or later come along, pick up the envelope, see that it wasn’t stamped, put a stamp on it, stick it in a mailbox.

And it worked. It must have worked. I never heard John complain that one of his missives hadn’t reached its addressee.

Wilcock lived only a short distance from the newspaper. He was always dashing out of the office and running home to see the latest event or program on that still relatively new phenomenon called Television. In fact John was the only person I can remember — Greenwich Village person — who in those days watched television. I certainly never did until I married Louise and we had our twins. Then I discovered baseball on television. …

So: John Wilcock was, at the start, News Editor of The Village Voice, and his idea of news was little 3-inch human-interest (or human curiosity) stories, each of which began, Fleet Street style, “A man who…” or “A woman who…”  (“A woman who went roller skating with a Polar Bear in Central Park is a sadder and wiser woman today…”), even though John hated Fleet Street — O.K., hated England — well before anyone this side of the water (any water) had ever heard of Rupert Murdoch.

He must have had something, though. He and Flo Ettenberg, one of The Voice’s two do-it-all secretaries, became an item, giggling and dashing here and there night and day.

“You don’t understand him,” Florence ruefully said to me, and I guess I didn’t. When the News Editor job was taken away from him, John came back with a weekly column of chitchat and profiles, “The Village Square,” which was copyedited every week by yours truly through gritted teeth and — I have to say it — drew a wide and appreciative readership week after week.

There is always room in this world for anomaly. Imagine my shock, one icy wintry morning in a car returning from the printer’s in Washington, Pennsylvania, when John Wilcock suddenly begins reciting his way through the poetry of T.S. Eliot, beginning with the one poem that has spoken most to me all my life: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table…”

That may have been the same day on which, earlier, en route the printer, I went into a skid on an icy overpass and was drifting uphill into the left lane when a car coming headlong at us was occupying the same lane at full speed. Luckily, I had practiced skids one icy morning back in college 15 years and a whole World War before, and now, turning into the skid, I wrestled us slowly back onto the proper side of the road, and thus saved the entire Village Voice staff — Ed, Dan, John, Flo, Laura, Sue Ryan, myself — from being wiped out at one fell swoop.

John Wilcock also believed in reading a lot of letters. Our letters. Letters or memos or whatever to or from Ed, Dan, me. Anyone’s letters. Everyone’s letters, in the pre-electronic era. If you were foolish enough to leave your mail lying around on desktops — in or out of envelopes — why, then, it was his to read. It was part of his moral code.

It drove Ed, Dan and me crazy — especially Ed. By then he and Dan were established in the tiny rear room — the one with the daybed — and they made sure to stuff any mail, etc. in drawers and to lock that room whenever everybody went home for the night.

John got in anyway. He came in through the transom over the door. Ed nailed the transom shut. John got in anyway. The Voice was immediately adjacent to the low one-story building of Sutter’s bakery. John somehow got onto the roof of Sutter’s and climbed through a small window into the tiny back room of The Village Voice.

Oh well. Ho hum. I used to bump into John at wide intervals through the years, and he always bitterly felt he never got proper credit as one of the founders of The Village Voice. He was right. He didn’t. He was a pain in the ass, but an integral piece in this long-ago jigsaw puzzle. I Googled him just now. The most recent entry has him out in Ojai, California, publishing a weekly political and chitchat column “of lasting insignificance.” I wish him well. Florence has been married forever to somebody else, and I certainly wish her well too.

P.S. anent that battered daybed. Years earlier, as a kid, I had read Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.” In it, the hero was constantly throwing himself down on the deck for 10 minutes of flat-out restorative sleep. During the whole first six or eight months of The Voice, when I (and sometimes Dan) had to go straight through 16 or 18 or 24 hours of work on it without sleep, I took Jack London’s suggestion to heart, and would hurl myself down on that daybed for what my father would have called “40 winks” of rebirth. It amazed everybody who saw me do it.

One other memory of that back room. It was the day Norman brought his ex-wife No. 1, Beatrice Silverman, and their then-8-or-9-year-old daughter Susan — the first of Norman’s nine children — to the office. He planted the child on top of Dan’s desk. Sitting there, she looked around, searchingly, at Dan, at Ed, at me, at Norman, and then in loud, clear tones demanded: “What I want to know is, who is the boss here?”

Tallmer, who died in November at 93, was a founding editor of The Village Voice. He was the paper’s associate editor and its first film and drama critic. For the past two decades, he was a prolific contributor to The Villager.

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