A recent obit in the New York Times took me back many decades to my college days in St. Louis, when, with what seemed like an exotic group of friends, I spent many weekends in an area called Gaslight Square. The impresario of the Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of this long-gone bit of Bohemia, was Jay Landesman, who died last week in London at 91.
It was at the Crystal Palace that Landesman introduced St. Louisans to a young Barbra Steisand, Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. His nightclub was one of some twenty raffish bars, clubs and restaurants, intermingled among old art galleries and antiques' shops that became, for just a few bright years, our version of the Village.
And I, at 20, in the company of a friend who played jazz piano and an "older woman" of 28 named Joy--who wore too much makeup, smoked too much, and drank too much coffee and who lived in a louche apartment, like some Holly Golightly, above one of the galleries--devoured this atmosphere. Joy introduced me to Jay. I also saw my first transvestite at the Crystal Palace.
Joy worked, in all places, in the library of the Jesuit university where my friends and I were students, St. Louis U. We could practically walk to Gaslight Square from the campus.
My walk on the wild side was fairly innocent by today's standards but seemed tinged with danger and therefore with a heightened aura of sexuality as we sipped forbidden cocktails (under age), ate in a Japanese restaurant, listened to Muggsy Sprecker's Dixieland band or simply watched all the other young people parade down Olive Street, alive with lights and music, and felt we were at the center of the universe.
I remember trying to impress Jay Landesman, naively hoping he would hire me to perform in his club; that was before Streisand, et al. but around the time of his musical, produced at the Crystal Palace, "A Walk on the Wild Side." I remember him as polite and charming.
His creativity and energy as a producer, which led to minor achievements in New York and London, contributed something distinctive to my growing up. I felt sophisticated in the glittering area he helped create, part of what later became known as the counterculture.
Then suddenly, after a few years, crime increased in the central west end of St. Louis, the bars began to close, and the customers went elsewhere. By then (1964), I was in graduate school and Jay moved on. The Times said he "achieved the rare distinction of being famous for not being famous." He had an eccentrically creative life, producing the first and only Beat musical (not a commercial success) and always bubbling with ideas, most of which resulted in flops. His memoir was called, "Rebel Without Applause." But he kept writing and producing. He had two sons and was the uncle of Rocco Landesman.
Jay Landesman's life raises questions about the meaning and value of success and fame; the latter mostly eluded him, as it does most of us. Much more important than fame is what he succeeded in achieving: creativity throughout his long life and the determination never to give up in the face of commercial failure.
I salute Jay and his colorful life, and I'm glad he got the applause of a great obituary in the New York Times. I'm grateful for the memories of the world he brought to life in St. Louis long ago.