Interview: James Wolcott's semi-dirty years

Cleaning up
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 23, 2011

The brilliant cultural critic James Wolcott has written for the vast majority of respectable periodicals, lately and most often for Vanity Fair. Last month he released a memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, in which he reveals his unlikely start as a journalist (involving Norman Mailer), his friendship with Pauline Kael (she really liked The Warriors), and his great fortune at catching onto the CBGB's scene good and early (Television? Yes, please). I called him at home in New York.

IT SEEMS STRANGE THAT YOUR TWO BIGGEST INFLUENCES WERE PAULINE KAEL AND NORMAN MAILER. THEY’RE SO DIFFERENT. They were different, but they were both tough cookies. They were both two people who attracted a huge amount of attention and controversy. They didn’t have the same sensibilities, but their sensibilities were more similar than, say, Pauline’s and John Updike’s, or some of the other people at the New Yorker. Both of them had very individual voices on the page, which people could love or hate. But someone like Mailer was more likely to get trapped by his voice. I think at a certain point, his voice became a sort of mask, which became constricting. But the voice was very powerful on the page.

I realized there was no way I could have written with Mailer’s machismo; wasn’t going happen. I wasn’t going walk into a room thinking, Is there any guy I need to punch out or any girl I need to take away from her boyfriend and say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ That impulse fell away the longer I was in New York.

I LAUGHED AT HOW FREQUENTLY YOU ADMITTED TO BEING SQUEAMISH ABOUT THINGS. All those things people associate with the ’70s — the swinging, the Plato’s Retreat scene — I was never into that. But that was acceptable. Today, that would be totally unacceptable — Jezebel would be all over you.
It wasn’t just Mailer. People revere Hunter Thompson, and if Hunter Thompson tried to pull that stuff today, forget it. It would not go over. The attitude towards drugs is not such a buccaneer mentality. The AA prism changes so much of it. Now days, people would say, “Well that person needs to get into a program. Showing up drunk at a reading and picking a fight. . . they need help.

YOU SAID PAULINE KAEL TAUGHT YOU THAT “ONCE SOMETHING HITS YOU THAT HIGH AND HARD, YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO TRAVEL WHEREVER THE POINT OF IMPACT TAKES YOU.” YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT SEEING PATTI SMITH AT CBGB. HAS ANYTHING MORE RECENT HAD THAT SORT OF IMPACT ON YOU? There aren’t a lot of things I would go to bat for because I don’t experience them the same way. I do remember when I saw the ballerina Veronica Park, and I just knew she was great, and great in a way that I had not seen a dancer in New York for a long time, maybe ever. And she got horrible treatment from other critics, and I decided I was going to go to wall for her. I didn’t care what the rest of them did — they were sneering, niggling, little weasely people and I thought, I’m not going to back off this.

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