You don’t see walkers at many art events in Bushwick, but on the evening of June 6th, three of them clumped down Jefferson Street to Bizarre, the bar where anything can happen and usually does.
It was Open Studios weekend, and the launch of Meryl Meisler’s new book, Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City was underway. Meisler is known for her wonderful photographs, but she has other talents, not the least of which is figuring out what friends do well, and bringing them into her projects. This makes for a lively, unpredictable mix, and the evening of June 6th was no exception. Sassy ’70s features writing by Emanuel Xavier and Vanessa Mártir, and they gave dynamic readings, followed by a vajazzling slide show of 70′s-era porn by Judi Jupiter. Last was Amy Leffler’s reading on The Mystery Club, with three of its eminent members present.
Since this is a story of outer appearances and inner truths, a quick picture must be painted. The Mystery Club began long ago in the far off galaxy of Massapequa, New York, where Meisler’s parents bought a home in the early 60s. North Massapequa (known as “Matzoh Pizza” because of its many Jewish and Italian families) seemed a typical suburb, with lovely trees shading blocks and blocks of houses that looked very much the same. Most of the couples were young: starting families, buying homes for the first time. A lot of the men were veterans who’d left the city in search of safer, more affordable neighborhoods. They went to work each day, while the women stayed home to raise children. Life was pleasant, if a little predictable. But some people had needs that were not being met. Taking matters into their own hands, they formed The Mystery Club–a group for couples only.
If it sounds racy, it was–sometimes. Each month one couple planned a night out, the more outrageous the better (though not to exceed $25), with details kept secret till the day arrived. Some were silly (a haunted house), others were educational (a tour of Grumman Aircraft to see the lunar landing module before it went to the moon), and some were truly risqué like the trip to the Continental Baths where they sweated alongside beefy, near-naked men. There was also the visit (fully clothed) to a Jersey nudist colony, and to a recording studio where they cut an off-key cover of Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In the Night. Then they went home and checked on the kids.
Three great Mystery Club ladies were present at Bizarre for Meisler’s book launch: Bess Bloomfield, Helen Roth, and Lilyan Gitnik. Still beautiful, dressed sharp, they held court at the center table, greeting fans and friends.
After the reading, as pictures of the Club scrolled on screen and Sinatra sang, his spell and theirs fell over the room. Years vanished, and Helen, Bess, and Lil were as they had been in the 60s and 70s: their children young, their lives stretching forward, untouched by infirmity and loss.
Strangers in the Night is a three act drama in less than three minutes that tells an old story that never really gets old, just told new ways. It’s a sensual encounter of real people at a real place in a real, not virtual, moment. There is no undo/redo, and the consequence of missing their chance is a lifetime of loneliness. It is about the fleeting nature of time and the eternal power of love and human connection.
The song is rooted in physical presence. There are “glances” as the lovers size each other up, a dance that is “warm and embracing,” that leads to a lifelong, soul-deep connection. It is not the virtual “liking” and “friending” of Facebook, or a casual hookup. It’s about chemistry and intuition, longing and love–yes, that kind, but something deeper too: souls coming together against improbable odds to create something special in an uncaring world.
Which applied to a lot of people that night at Bizarre. Writers had been published because they became friends with photographers. Photographers had begun new projects because they became friends with writers. Meisler’s own work came out of the basement because urban historian Adam Schwartz needed images and happened to come across her name. Life throws many curves, some bad, some good. You have to live and look and love. You have to take joy when it comes, endure when it doesn’t.
As Sinatra sang, labels and boundaries fell away, and Hipsters, Baby Boomers and nonagenarians became just people sitting together in a room. Generations mingled, and for the first time ever, there was a family-friendly vibe at Bizarre. The event wasn’t post-modern, ironic or deconstructed, just honest and deeply human.
Edgy? The girls passed through it long ago, enduring cancer, loss of spouses, and relocation from their homes as time marched on and the flesh slowly gave way. But the hearts of Lilyan Gitnik, Bess Bloomfield and Helen Roth never did, and on that night, moved us with their enduring humanity. They showed us the power of love and joy, and what was possible.
At Bizarre, the hour grew late, wraps and walkers were gathered for the trip home. Goodbyes were said, and the golden girls were chauffeured off into the night.
If the moment had passed, the magic endured. Strangers had become friends, old friendships had been renewed, lives changed and enriched by the golden girls of the Mystery Club and the book that brought them all together.
[Meryl Meisler will have an exhibition of her vintage black-and-white prints from the 1970s at the Steven Kasher Gallery, 515 West 26th Street, February 25th – April 9th.]
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
It’s been a really, really busy spring. Bushwick Open Studios is coming up, so there’s that to get ready for. I also write for Arts in Bushwick, and there’s been stuff for that (see “Chasing History: The 2015 AiB Benefit Exhibition“), then there’s Meryl Meisler. This photo-based artist is at it again, with a new book Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City scheduled to arrive in time for BOS (Bushwick Open Studios for those on other planets).
In it are her first pictures ever, which are very good. She seems to have sprung forth fully formed, immediately creating cohesive and visually compelling bodies of work. It began when she was on break from the University of Wisconsin, and started documenting family and friends in the suburban enclave of Massapequa, Long Island. At the same time, she also began photo forays into New York City, the Big Apple, which at the time was rotting, ridden with crime and decay. She loved it, and the pictures show her love and compassion for the people of its streets as well the people in the sheltered neighborhood where she grew up.
Meryl is a wonderful person, so when she asked me to contribute the introduction (I wrote the one for her first book), I jumped. This year there was that frenemy of all writers–time! I could actually prepare instead of scribbling off the cuff! I read books on the 70′s, looked up icons of its culture, even went back to the 60′s, reading the magnificent, lofty speeches of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I had so much research going that when it came time to actually write, I was overwhelmed. There was enough material for a thesis, but way too much for a 1,100 word intro. Oops.
Less can be more, but less is hard, like packing a small suitcase. You can’t take the whole closet, but need clothes for day and evening, rain and shine, cultural events as well as sports. If this sounds like something a 1920′s lady of leisure would say, you know what I mean.
There were numerous drafts, how many I can’t even say. Too embarrassed. They spilled from my iPad to my iPhone to my laptop. Finally had to use that glorious app, Mellel, the docent of long documents, to sort it all out.
Meanwhile, Meryl and Patty (uber-designer Patricia O’Brien) were frantically editing images with the help of publisher Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. Amy Leffler was composing her reflections on the famed “Mystery Club” (outings to seances and a nudist colony), and I was hacking away at these ginormous text documents I had going. Let’s just say everyone had something to do and was very, very busy.
The book went through several drafts, the feel shifting with each version. When I first saw the pictures, the thing that stood out was the eclectic, outlandish interior design of the suburban homes, that ranged from French Empire to Mid-century Modern, with comic book touches thrown in. Yet in the next iteration (with my draft well underway), other things seemed more prominent. Was I mad? Losing my mind? How could I have gotten things so horribly wrong?
I shifted certain paragraphs of the draft to reflect the new tone, yet had tremendous doubt whether I was still touching too heavily on the wrong things. With deadlines looming, everyone brought their work to an end. The final cut brought even more sass to the project, and restored many pictures featuring the ornate decor that had caught my eye in the first place.
Lesson: I thought I was the only one with sprawling, messy work habits, but I am not. It is a part of everyone’s creative process, no matter how refined and “inevitable” the final product is. Stay tuned for this book–it’s going to be a good one.