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Jewish Journal

Herb Gold, elder statesman of the Beat Generation, writes on

by Tom Teicholz

August 13, 2008 | 3:34 am

"Still Alive! (A Temporary Condition)" by Herbert Gold (Arcade, $25).

Herbert Gold, who at 84 is among the elder statesmen of the Beat Generation, has a new book out, his 28th, a memoir titled "Still Alive! (A Temporary Condition)."

It is not an autobiography so much as a series of recollections of encounters with people who have been part of his life -- neighbors, friends, family, lovers.

"I didn't really want to write my history." Gold said recently. "What impelled this book -- what I wanted to do -- was a meditation on age and the changes that happen and memories that happened."

What I found striking about "Still Alive" is that Gold often writes about people whom it is clear he didn't like much.

"People who have an impact on your life are often people you don't like," Gold told me when I mentioned this.

Fair enough. So we proceeded to talk about Gold's life and some of the people he has known along the way, as well as the books he has written.

Gold was born in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio, a city he often calls, "The Paris of Northeastern Ohio," and he was raised in Lakewood, a suburb where his next-door neighbor gave him his first taste of anti-Semitism. Not that the observance of Judaism interested him. Although Gold went to synagogue, he didn't like the rabbi and never became a bar mitzvah. After graduating high school, he spent a year hitchhiking around the country, taking odd jobs, writing poems. His parents wanted him to stay in Cleveland and attend college there and then go on to medical school. Instead, he was accepted at Columbia College in New York, where he went with the ambition of being a writer.

It was at college that he first met Allen Ginsberg.

"He was 17. He was a bit crazy, and he was more eccentric than I was," Gold said.

They became friends, and Ginsberg soon surrounded himself with what would become known as The Beat Generation. Gold disagreed with Ginsberg about two things: one was Ginsberg's conviction that Gold should become a homosexual ("Ginsberg was a proselytizer," Gold said), and the other was Jack Kerouac, who was a football player then -- not a writer. Gold did not like him.

"I crossed the street to avoid him," Gold said.

He also said that he knew even then that Kerouac was an anti-Semite (as Kerouac revealed himself to be in his last days), and he cites Ginsberg's affection for Kerouac as an example of Ginsberg's ability "to forgive people's sins."

A Fulbright Fellowship sent Gold to Paris, where he finished his first novel, launched his literary career and became friends with Saul Bellow.

In "Still Alive!" Gold draws an amusing and insightful portrait of the pleasures and difficulty of friendship with Bellow, young and old.

When Gold's first marriage, to Edith Zubrin, ended in divorce, he found himself in tough economic straits, he recalled. In our conversation, Gold said that although his first wife "was not a good person," he still felt terribly bereft when he recently learned that she had died.

To pay child support (they had two daughters, Ann and Judith), he became "the writing factory."

Gold wrote for Playboy and its imitators, publications with names such as Dude, Gent, Nugget and Coronet -- not always using his real name. As he recalled, Playboy paid well -- "with a feature inside the magazine, you could buy a VW, and with a lead feature you could buy a VW convertible."

He moved around the country, spending the winter in Florida -- "you could rent an apartment in South Beach on Collins for $2 a week; $2.50 with air conditioning." He spent time in South Carolina, in New York, even back in Cleveland, where he edited a listings publication titled "What, Where, When." He took odd jobs; he taught at colleges and universities. Eventually, he said, "I was able to dig myself out of that hole."

Gold settled in San Francisco just in time for a front-porch view of the '60s.

"I had a wonderful time," Gold recalled of the era. "There was a loosening of the barrier between the sexes, which has endured. Popular music became more interesting. There was a lot of fun being had. And fun is not to be derogated."

Gold explained that part of why hippie culture flourished "was economic. People could really make out without much."

But in "Still Alive!" Gold casts a jaundiced eye at some of what he calls "the nutty" aspects of the times, such as "the idiot radicals, those who thought the Cultural Revolution in China was a great thing."

In the book, Gold speaks of one friend explaining that it couldn't be bad, given that "it's Culture and it's a Revolution."

One of the reasons that Gold has tremendous affection for the '60s is because that was when he met his second wife, Melissa Dilworth, just around the time "Fathers," his most successful novel, was published ("Fathers" finally afforded Gold some measure of financial security).

Gold writes very movingly of Melissa, the mother of his children Nina, Ari and Ethan. She is very present in "Still Alive" and his love for her still feels keen.

In the book, however, Gold describes how one couple kept encouraging Melissa to leave him to forge her own identity. Gold describes how all the marriages around them came apart, with the women running off, until their own marriage, like the last in a series of dominoes, fell.

"The idea that friends of ours could propagandize for our divorce" still rankles Gold.

Yet in our conversation, Gold also spoke of his wife's "restlessness" as being the chief cause of their marriage's dissolution.

Whatever the reason, he remained close with her and had made plans for them to have lunch for her birthday in 1991, when he learned that she had died in a helicopter crash with the man she was going to marry, concert promoter Bill Graham, whose foundation she had run.

The other great love of Gold's life has been Haiti, which he has traveled to on and off over the last five decades -- a heartbreaking story that Gold told me "just gets worse and worse."

Strangely enough it was in Haiti that an Israeli, Shimon Tal, made it a Jewish place for him.

Gold's Jewish adventures in Haiti are described in his book "My Last Two Thousand Years," which I also read in preparation for meeting Gold. It is a wonderful, moving book that describes the journey by which he embraced his Jewish identity, a book he told me he wanted to call "Being and Becoming." Gold speaks movingly about the anti-Semitism he encountered as a child in Lakewood and in his early professional life; about the way people danced on the streets of the Upper West Side the night Israel became a State (although he and his first wife, being "internationalists," didn't see the point of creating new countries), and how he changed his mind and embraced the Jewish state in visits to Israel in 1958, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, and shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Gold has been a prolific writer of novels, short stories and nonfiction. In addition to "Fathers," his novels include "Salt," "She Took My Arm As If She Loved Me," "The Man Who Was Not With It" and, one of my favorites, "A Girl of Forty," which I recently re-read.

"A Girl of Forty" holds up, but like many a novel one returns to, I found reading it now a different experience. Originally I was entranced by the portrait of Suki, the free-spirited woman at the center of the novel. Today, I read the novel more as a cautionary tale of the checks that became due after the '60s, and about coming to peace with the casualties caused.

Gold's reportage has included books on Biafra ("Biafra Goodbye"); his book on Haiti ("Best Nightmare on Earth"); and that republic of the soul, Bohemia and its earthly manifestations as chronicled by Gold ("Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet").

Over the years, as "writer in residue," as Gold calls it, at several colleges he has known or befriended many other writers of note. At Cornell he taught and knew Richard Farina and Thomas Pynchon. At SUNY Binghamton he was a teaching colleague of a young Richard Price. Although he is no name-dropper, the list of writers Gold has known is as wide as it is varied. During our conversation, there were few names that came up that Gold did not have an anecdote about (and usually a good one).

Gold is fit, spry and looks younger than his 84 years; he spoke with me at his son Ari's apartment. Gold may be an "old guy" (his term) but he remains as much a bohemian and a beatnik as he was when those terms were batted around more regularly.

As our time together ran out, I reminded Gold that "Fathers" told the story of an 80-year-old father visiting his son, a father who declares that he's "still alive" -- and here was Gold, at 84, at the home of one of his sons, having written a memoir by the same name. What perspective did he now enjoy that he didn't then?

He said that back then, he regarded his father as old, in a way that his children didn't with him, in part because of his good health, but also because he had stuck to a bohemian way of dress and life. Also his father wasn't so supportive of Gold's artistic ambitions, while he fully supports the aspirations of his children, mentioning that his sons, Ari and Ethan, are both artists. (Ari and Ethan are in a band, The Honey Brothers, which also features Entourage star Adrian Grenier on drums; and Ari is the producer, director and star of the independent feature, "The Adventures of Power," which, based on its trailer, appears to be a "Napoleon Dynamite"-ish tale of an air-drumming competition).

In the afterword to "Still Alive!" Gold writes, "these pages are about love and memory, about why both are blessings and sorrows and a form of immortality."

At the start of our conversation, Gold had said to me that the concept of an afterlife "is very weak among Jews. We must make our heaven on our earth."

Immortality, Gold said, comes in the form of our children and our children's children. And for writers, in wanting their books to last. By all those standards, Herbert Gold is not only "Still Alive!" -- he's immortal.


Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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