2011-02-27 14:14:17 UTC
February 26, 2011
Jay Landesman, Beat Writer and Editor, Dies at 91
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Jay Landesman, a writer and editor whose journal Neurotica analyzed the
anxieties of postwar America and whose Broadway musical, "The Nervous
Set," has been called the first (and only) Beat musical, died on Feb. 20
at his home in London. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his son Cosmo.
Mr. Landesman aptly summed up his life in the title of his 1987 memoir,
"Rebel Without Applause." He was an animating figure in one
countercultural scene after another: as the editor of Neurotica; as the
founder of the Crystal Palace, a daring cabaret theater in his hometown,
St. Louis; as a mixer, mingler and promoter in the swinging London of
the early 1960s; and later as a bohemian at large.
None of this frenzied activity brought him acclaim. Among his
high-profile friends in the arts and entertainment, he achieved the rare
distinction of being famous for not being famous. If celebrity eluded
him, his enthusiasm never flagged. Throughout a long, eccentrically
creative life, he bubbled over with ideas, although they tended to run
along the lines of "Dearest Dracula," the musical he wrote and staged at
the Dublin Theater Festival in 1965, or his dream project, the Jay
Landesman Museum, a celebration of his life and career that, alas,
remained on the drawing board.
"Hell has no hustler like Jay with a new project," Cosmo Landesman, the
film critic for The Sunday Times of London, wrote in "Star Struck: Fame,
Failure, My Family and Me" (2008).
Irving Ned Landesman was born on July 15, 1919, in St. Louis, where his
family had an antiques business. He attended the University of Missouri
and Rice University in Houston.
Mr. Landesman founded Neurotica in 1948 after discovering, somewhat to
his surprise, that the psychoanalysts and writers whom he approached
were intrigued by his proposal for a quarterly that would explore the
connections between neurosis, sex, the arts and the plight of what he
called "the creative, anxious man" in postwar America.
Neurotica never attracted more than a few thousand readers, but it
earned a place of honor in the annals of hipdom for its provocative
analysis of American culture, with contributors like Marshall McLuhan,
Anatole Broyard, Chandler Brossard and Carl Solomon. Mr. Landesman
reissued it in book form in 1981 as "Neurotica: The Authentic Voice of
the Beat Generation."
In 1950 Mr. Landesman married his second wife, the former Frances
Deitsch, a lyricist he had met in Greenwich Village. She survives him,
as do his sons Cosmo and Miles, both of London, and three grandchildren.
Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is
After turning over publication of Neurotica to Gershon Legman, a
frequent contributor who went on to write the two-volume study "The
Rationale of the Dirty Joke," Mr. Landesman returned to St. Louis and
founded the Crystal Palace in what had been a gay bar called Dante's
Inferno. It became a cultural hot spot as he booked little-known
performers like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Elaine May,
and an 18-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand.
"The Nervous Set" - his unpublished, semiautobiographical first novel
about the editor of a magazine called Nerves adrift in Greenwich
Village - provided the basis for a musical.
Adapted by Mr. Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker, with music by Tommy
Wolf and lyrics by his wife, "The Nervous Set" opened on Broadway in
1959 (with Larry Hagman playing an outrageously offensive writer) to
mildly appreciative reviews at best. It closed after 23 performances,
leaving in its wake two songs (from the original production, at the
Crystal Palace) that remain popular, "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men"
and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."
Undeterred, he collaborated with Nelson Algren on a musical version of
"A Walk on the Wild Side," which was produced at the Crystal Palace in
In 1964 Mr. Landesman took his family to London, where he tried his luck
as a theatrical producer and set to work on a second novel, "Bad
Nipple," which, like the first, remained unpublished.
In the early 1970s he founded the short-lived Creative Arts Liberated,
an "anti-talent agency" with the motto "We take the sting out of success
and put the fun back in failure!" It did not thrive. He had better luck
as a publisher. His Polytantric Press, founded in 1977, reissued
Elizabeth Smart's neglected 1945 novel "By Grand Central Station I Sat
Down and Wept" and published quirky new books by even quirkier authors.
His second volume of memoirs, "Jaywalking," came out in 1993.
"Landesmania!," a biography he commissioned his friend Philip Trevena to
write, was published by Tiger of the Stripe in 2005.
Cosmo Landesman located his father's need for attention in a crippling
anxiety about social status. "This is a man who could walk into an empty
broom cupboard and still worry about being the biggest name there," he
wrote in his memoir. Yet this unappeased appetite for adulation made
him, if not a creative force, an instigator of creativity - like
Falstaff, the cause of wit in others.
A prime example came in the 1960s, when he stood before his good friend,
the satirist Peter Cook, and delivered a deadly comedy routine that
elicited profound silence.
"Peter, this is subliminal humor," he said. "I'm trying to take the
laughter out of comedy!" Mr. Cook replied, "Congratulations, Jay."