Thursday, October 27, 2005


Back in the mid ‘80s whilst walking through Earl’s Court in London one day, curiosity compelled me to wander into a derelict house which was about to be gutted and developed into luxury apartments. The building was beautiful and felt steeped in history, empty, aside from peeling walls, broken floorboards and one very dusty book lying face down on the floor. I took the book with me. It stayed unread on the shelf back at home until maybe a couple of years later, when, confined to bed with ‘flu’, I was searching for something to read.

The book was ‘Flying’ by Kate Millett, (set in London and New York.) I read the book straight through, then started again at the beginning and read it through a second time, and a third. It was the most moving, powerfully honest and (for that reason) extraordinarily brave autobiographical writing I had ever read. I was totally hooked, and subsequently sought out and read everything else this amazing woman had written.

Cut to 1998 and this article appeared in the Guardian. Here was one of the seminal writers and spokeswomen of the ‘70s feminist movement, who had written the groundbreaking ‘Sexual Politics’, and thirty years later she was all but forgotten. Many of her books were out of print, she was no longer called upon to lecture on the University circuit, and by all accounts she was barely earning a living..

Shortly after this, Kate was in the news again - the loft she had lived in for decades at 295 the Bowery was threatened with demolition due to the Cooper Square Urban renewal project. She, and other artists who lived and worked in the building, began the ‘save 295 Bowery’ campaign, not solely because they were about to lose their homes, but also as a fight to preserve a building with a wealth of history (see below) attached to it:-

‘The building had been a hotel during the Civil War, catering to returning soldiers. By the 1890’s it was a brothel and a dive where it is said a half-dozen destitute courtesans drank carbolic acid and died. John H McGurk, the owner of the saloon on the ground floor, then capitalized on the notoriety of the place by renaming it ‘McGurk’s Suicide Hall’.
Later, beginning in World War 1 and continuing into the ‘50s and early ‘60s, it was a flophouse for Skid Row veterans. In the mid-80s it was converted into artists’ studios.
Despite this colorful past, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark status to the building, finding that it did not have sufficient historical, cultural or architectural merit’

In 2004, after a 5-year battle, the tenants, including Kate were moved out and re-housed and I went to take a last look at the building, hoping somehow that I’d be able to wander into (yet another) derelict house at the mercy of developers, whilst it still stood. Only this time it would be the building where ‘Flying’ was probably written, once Kate’s home. And the story which led to my discovery of her would strangely come full circle.
But the building was boarded up all around.

I’m fairly sure that if a building such as this were under threat in the UK, then all manner of preservation orders would have been slapped onto it and it would have survived. But weirdly, in a country with far fewer historical buildings to preserve in the first place, it fails to make the grade. (Or maybe it’s only acceptable to preserve the upstanding and moral examples of the past here, and this building had too seedy a history to warrant a reprieve?)
Earlier this year, 295 Bowery was demolished.

So today, I was in the area and went to take a look at the transient Bowery landscape. Kate has been re-housed around the corner in East 4th Street, and it’s a rather beautiful block. I am glad she is still in this bohemian and interesting, albeit rapidly changing neighbourhood

Hung around outside for a few minutes wondering if I’d dare speak to her if I saw her on the street. Part of me would love to meet her one day and have a chat over coffee. But maybe best not. That’s the thing about autobiographical writers – you somehow feel you know them a little, but you almost certainly don’t at all. And in truth I’m content just to cherish the love affair I’ve had with her writing all these years.

If you don’t know her work go check her out, read her books, and keep another bit of history alive.


Blogger purplemafling said...

Fascinating but sad that someone so fabulous could be forgotten. Must go and search for that copy of 'Flying' I have somewhere and lend it to a few locals to read. X

3:27 AM, October 27, 2005  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

Lovely story. I like that you didn't talk to her - more mysterious that way. Got to read her book(s).

7:06 AM, October 27, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should find a polite way to see her. I know an english bloke who wanted to drop in on quentin crisp while visiting new york from the UK. He just rang his doorbell on spec, and invited him to tea of all things. Said he had never seen such a filthy apartment - very dusty. But a facinating meeting or so I was told.

11:21 AM, October 27, 2005  

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