Schulenberg’s Page: Life in The Belly of the Beast

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MARCH, 1974:  I had a neighbor, Jerry Young, who was a working actor and lived just a few doors away from me in an old building that in its previous existence had been a tenement. He lived on the top floor of the walk-up and had turned his apartment into a place worthy of a magazine article dealing with limited urban apartment living. He had also turned the rooftop into a picturesque garden area populated with larger plants where he frequently entertained. He had a green thumb and inside his apartment also had large potted plants in beautiful baskets.

Jerry Young in his apartment.

He’d invited me and a few friends for drinks on the rooftop patio area as I marveled again at what inventive Manhattan residents were able to do to transform the dreary older tenements into enviable living spaces. As the sun was setting, looking out over the rooftops I kept imagining what this neighborhood had been like a century earlier with the elevated train a block to the west on Third Avenue and heaven knows what on Second.

It was somewhat comically ironic as even my own street was included into an area called “the Silk Stocking District” implying luxurious lifestyles!

It wasn’t mentioned that these apartment buildings had been until more or less recent times the residences of German working class newcomers and Hungarians having emigrated after political problems with the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet Union’s restrictive policies.

The Hungarians had lived through a chaotic history having been allied with the forces of Nazi Germany during World War II until 1944 when the Soviet Army invaded and occupied Hungary. Ultimately the Hungarian Workers People’s Party proclaimed The People’s Republic of Hungary in an authoritarian Soviet Socialist model which led to student protests ultimately escalating into the Revolution of 1956 and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians!

My neighborhood, the area around East 86th Street (Yorkville) which had previously been a German enclave (including Nazi sympathizers during WWII), became largely Hungarian with an exciting parade of specialty shops selling Hungarian delicacies.  Except for the New York architecture the ambiance felt very Mittel Europäischen!  I was frequently surprised when merchants would see my name on a printed check and regale me with some Schulenberg-related incident since von der Schulenbergs had been a politically prominent family before WWII. One had even been a principal designer of the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler!

Yorkville’s Hungarian past.

I wondered what my Hungarian neighbors were thinking about the student uprisings that had apparently followed them to the United States. Could they possibly understand the rage of the American students or did they misread the motives for the bombings and political student occupations and riots at the American universities or did they think of the American student protesters as merely spoiled rich kids?

Possibly emigrant publications (if there were any) dealt with it and had opinions but they’d have been localized within that community!  And what in the world was their perception of the swiftly heightening Watergate Scandal and for that matter, of President Nixon himself?

There was no way I could know.  That community kept pretty closely to themselves!

And now the Hungarian immigrants were experiencing another kind of invasion: yuppie gentrification!  Bit by bit the neighborhood was beginning to change.

Making my rounds on a bus and drawing a passenger.

I introduced Richard Amsel to Ruskay’s restaurant, but the night before I had drinks at the St. Moritz Hotel with John Alonso and his wife, Janet. John was a movie cinematographer and had just completed shooting a movie with my old friend, Roman Polanski. Chinatown.

It hadn’t yet been released so hadn’t seen it but my brother had gone to a pre-release screening and told me that I had to see it and that it looked like our old home movies! I wished that I had been able to see it as I could have asked John questions about the film. As it was, we just shared stories about Polanski.

At Ruskay’s with Amsel.

I was invited to come to the East Village where Francis Coppola was shooting The Godfather Part II on East Sixth Street. I was amazed at what had been done to transform the street. Whole early 20th-century period storefronts had been added to existing buildings and a fortune in antique cars and props had been rented for the sequence. It was like traveling back in time.

Francis Coppola is standing with the camera at the extreme left.

While downtown I took advantage of the chance to visit a Chinese restaurant on Sixth Street and Avenue B. Muzak was playing musical themes from movies and I wondered if it was a coincidence or to honor the movie-making a short distance away.

On April 1, I decided to join a gym. The Sheridan Square Health Club was highly recommended. I liked going downtown to the Village a lot and felt that going to a gym there would make me feel more like a part of the community. I’d been going to a gym in midtown but it seemed sterile and cold. Greenwich Village always had the feeling of being a small town with a feeling of neighborliness. After joining I met friends for pizza on Bleecker Street!

Around this time I saw these two obituaries.

I never knew or even met Candy Darling but it was a shock to everyone in the arts or downtown world to hear about the death of Candy Darling.

Before the Age of Transsexuals there’d been only the term drag queen or transvestite but Candy Darling, née James Slattery, by her beauty and grace among the Warhol crowd of self destructive narcissistic exhibitionists transcended any terminology or critique and by her death personified the tragic innocent aspect of that golden age of creativity.

“Candy Darling on her Deathbed” by Peter Hujar.

And then my mother sent me this clipping from a tabloid.

I was a close friend of Edward G. Robinson Jr. while I was a graduate student at UCLA.  He was a genuinely tragic figure cursed with an addictive personality regarding alcohol.  I would notice that with his first sip he would be tipsy but he’d be drunk with the second.  He had many run-ins with the law and even spent time in a correctional institution.  He had an attractive mistress who was actually old enough to be his mother and she told me that I was the only one who could influence him a little.

Evidently not enough to keep him out of trouble!  She was responsible for me getting my first job with Western Costume as a freelance designer of movie costumes for period movies.

Then, immediately upon graduating from UCLA I was drafted into the army and sent to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama where I was surrounded by Werner von Braun and the German scientists who were busy inventing rockets!  Shortly after I was drafted, Eddie G. had a car crash while drunk and his passenger was severely injured and Eddie was sent to a prison farm.  While still in school I had spent an evening with his mother but her cruel bequest in her will speaks volumes about their relationship and her personality!

After joining the gym and celebrating with pizza, the next day I went to a children’s play at Town Hall to see Sharon Powers perform.

She had a double role — playing a mother and a fairy godmother.

It was a job.

The next day, having watched The Academy Awards with Richard Amsel the night before, we went to the Acapulco Restaurant for an LA-style Mexican dinner!

After, we both went back to our drawing boards and our deadlines.

More life in The Belly of the Beast as the city was beginning to be called.

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