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Born in New York in 1939, the American poet and art critic Bill Berkson became a friend of Morton Feldman in the early 1960s. In February 2001 he kindly agreed to an interview by email with Chris Villars, editor of the "Morton Feldman Page". The following is an edited version of those email exchanges. [November 2015: Text slightly revised/corrected by Bill Berkson.]
CV: Do you have any recollections or other writings about Feldman which you would be willing to have reproduced on my Feldman website. I'm always on the lookout for new material.
BB: Funny, as I said to Clark Coolidge yesterday, I'd love to write something about Morty Feldman but every time I think about it I get no further than the image of him leaning forward over a small lunchroom table on Lexington Avenue in the mid-'60s, huge baffling eyeglass lenses in black frame, checked sports jacket, tie, delicate fingers wrapped around a cheeseburger, no pause in the talk.
CV: Your description reminds me of one of the well-known photos of Feldman in a very loud checked jacket.
BB: Yes, tasteless. Manufacturing end of the garment trade was his turf. He stayed there, in character, I suppose. But with impeccable manners. As for the dress code, remember this is the time when artists, unless they were playing at being working class or artisans, appeared in public in jacket and tie. For most, that was the size of it, no fashion consciousness included. Something serviceable, the most "uptown" being from, say, Brooks Brothers (Harrods to you). Cage, for one, always seemed to dress like a college boy, with that silly flattop hairdo and all.
CV: Do you know what Feldman actually did in his father's business? B. H. Friedman tells us it was a business manufacturing children's clothing, but not what Feldman's job was. Did he ever talk about that?
BB: He never mentioned it at all.
CV: Did Feldman talk about anything and everything, or was it always art-talk or music-talk?
BB: No, about everything. Very curious about people, but not much gossip. Along that score, I always felt he had a secret life. He was interested in writing. But when he asked me to put together a poets evening at the New York Studio School around 1968, I could tell the poetry my friends and I were making was not for him; the students were enjoying it, but midway through the reading, Morty slipped out of the room. I didn't see him for a long time after that. I left New York. When I saw him 12 years later at the Guston memorial at St. Marks Church -- he entered with Francesco Pellizzi -- he kept calling me "Bergson."
By the way, have you ever contacted Feldman's first wife, Cynthia? We always liked each other. She was an editor, I think. God, I'm vague! I remember their place on, was it? Lexington Avenue, above a tailor's or dry cleaners (or both). Somehow I got the impression the ground floor was Cynthia's family's business. A steep, dark, narrow flight of stairs, as I recall. Second floor, turn right into simple flat, beautifully "old-world" furnished, except for the paintings -- Guston's "Attar" on the far wall. A composer's place, one quadrant of the room taken corner-outward by the piano, the corner by the windows.
CV: Do you recall when and how it came about that you met Feldman for the first time?
BB: I don't. I think it must have been at a gallery or concert. Probably either Guston or O'Hara introduced us. I was interested in Feldman's music long before I met him, and the fact in those days of anyone's being so attentive to one's work was enough to start a friendship. I don't recall Feldman at artist bars or even parties. One place I would see him was at David and Ellen Oppenheim's, their parties. Do you know about them? He was a clarinetist and, as I recall, an A&R man or some such under Goddard Lieberson at Columbia. Anyway he was involved in record production. Ellen is the actress Stella Adler's daughter, a painter, a beauty, and was very close with Morty.
CV: I'm trying to picture that apartment you describe, with "Attar" on the wall facing you as you enter. I believe that's a 4-foot square painting! What an effect that must have been! Do you recall what other paintings were there? Did he have his famous Rauschenberg on the wall too?
BB: I'm trying to picture it, too. As I spoke with Coolidge this morning, the image of the second floor began to include a shop at the rear of a corridor, with the door to the Feldmans' flat at the top of the stairs to the right. Yes, "Attar" on the facing wall, a painting Feldman later sold, much to my amazement, although we all can be forced to give up such treasures from time to time. I don't recall any other work. I know Morty had that early Rauschenberg. And wasn't there a Pollock, a drawing perhaps? I can think of very delicate Pollock drawings that absolutely "go with" Feldman's music.
CV: Were your visits purely social or did you go there to study with him at all?
BB: I am not a musician but a poet. Odd, but I also have no recollection about how this friendship -- for such it was, for a while anyway -- was struck. There's a common etiquette in New York that in such relations the younger of the two people calls on the elder. We always met in Morty's neighborhood, sometimes just at that lunch room -- like one of a million such places -- call them delis or sandwich shops or hamburger "joints" -- in New York. I think I went to the apartment all of four or five times. I seem to recall Morty drinking Celray Tonic, a celery soda common to Jewish delicatessens but also favored by dancers, probably low-calorie. That, with the cheeseburger. I would have had the same. Feldman and I both smoked cigarettes constantly, pausing only to eat.
Feldman, who was large and tended to be overweight, slimmed down radically at a certain point in the late 60s; he explained that it had been his custom to drink a half gallon or more a day of orange juice and that on a doctor's advice he had given up this orange juice and with it had gone a lot of his weight. The orange juice was that high in calories, or so Morty's theory had it.
CV: Am I right in thinking that Feldman was living with Cynthia throughout that period that you knew him in the sixties, that their separation only came about later on?
BB: Yes, or anyway I knew nothing of the separation until after Morty was gone.
CV: You say you always liked her, what was she like?
BB: I was a kid writer. She was an editor, probably at least 10 years my senior. She treated me with respect and a sort of big-sister tenderness. She never stayed in the room while Morty and I talked, nor did she ever join us for lunch.
CV: Did she accompany Feldman to events or in his socialising?
BB: Off and on, yes; but mostly not.
CV: You've hinted at Feldman's involvement with other women. Is that what you were alluding to when you said you always felt he had a secret life, or was it something else?
BB: Secret to me. Yes, I always thought that he had another life with a particular woman. The thing is, Morty was very very charming. I can imagine him working his charm on women, and I can imagine that he was somewhat woman (not "girl") crazy. That he saw and experienced women in a romantic Russian-novel manner.
CV: I was going to ask about Feldman and Frank O'Hara, how they got on together, whether you recalled any particular exchanges?
BB: Did I ever send you or did you find "A New York Beginner" in Modern Painters magazine? There's a story in there about O'Hara and Feldman playing four-hands at a Living Theater benefit, for Leroi Jones, I think. Well, "Lost Times and Future Hopes" is Morty's statement as regards Frank. And in my "Beginner" article you have a little view of O'Hara and Feldman playing together. Frank told me that he sweated out trying to lay his finger as softly as Feldman could on the keyboard. Morty's hands were big, so it was remarkable that he could make such quiet sounds with them. O'Hara and Feldman amused one another no end; they were contemporaries, and of course O'Hara had begun as a pianist/composer -- he "switched" to poetry while at Harvard in 1946 but never lost his love of the repertoire.
CV: Apart from that event you describe at the New York Studio School around 1968, did you ever get any feedback or encouragement from Feldman on your own work?
BB: I never showed him any poems. He didn't read the literary magazines. It was all conjecture, speculative: I, you, he, it work/works this way or that, or neither.
CV: Apart from the poets and writers in the immediate milieu there in New York, do you recall any other literary figures Feldman particularly referred to?
BB: I think we talked about John Ashbery but nothing conclusive. Kierkegaard, Sartre, Kafka, Beckett -- those were in Feldman's and Guston's canon. Nope, offhand, that's all. Jasper Johns was another topic; the philosophical and melancholic implications of Johns's work were fascinating to us both.
CV: Did you write anything when Feldman died?
BB: No, and I think you can see why. Morty's music has come more and more into focus for me. There are so many recordings now, mainly, I guess, because of how he's appreciated in Europe. I pay attention every time a new one apears. I think of him -- especially, his voice, his grammar -- fondly. I hear him saying "Schoynboyg." I admire him no end, and I am also amused by the figure he cut, how he shaped that. But the particulars of the man have gotten fuzzy in my mind. That may have to do with how we lost touch when I moved to California, how he rejected the change in Guston's work -- although he changed his mind later -- and the remoteness of his greeting, or so it seemed, when we did meet again at the Guston memorial.
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