A novel association
He may brush off Beat assertions, but fiction master Herbert Gold went to school with Ginsberg, famously criticized Kerouac and has lived in a San Francisco ‘Beatnik pad’ for 56 years
TThe 93-year-old novelist is calmly arguing for the creative advantages of hate. For the last several years, Herbert Gold sought revenge the old-fashioned way: withering lampoon and literary slander. His most recent novel, “When a Psychopath Falls in Love,” slips a fictional tint on his autobiographical tale of getting ripped off by a low-rent Bernie Madoff.
“I had a crooked lawyer friend who stole a lot of money from me, which inspired some writing,” Gold says from the rent-controlled garrison atop Russian Hill that he has surveyed for the past 56 years.
“My eldest daughter, a psychologist, said, ‘Dad, it’s not good for you to hate.’ I said, ‘It’s very good for me to hate.’ I’ve drawn that hatred into the book.”
Whether employed by Voltaire or Ice Cube, acidic fury has been flipped into artistic retribution for centuries. Some make millions promising that a ceaseless dharma of positivity ensures longevity, but the San Francisco writer reminds you that no one really knows anything. Unbridled optimists can die at 34, or caustic skeptics can become Methuselah.
Gold would be the first to tell you that’s he’s not a Beat, but his legacy and historical context remain inextricable from his more well-branded peers. The author of 30-plus novels, nonfiction tomes and short-story collections jokes that this is his “Beatnik pad.”
Shortly after I arrive, Gold pulls out a reprint of an old Columbia Review, recently sent by Bill Morgan, archivist for Allen Ginsberg. Poems by the Lakewood, Ohio, native run alongside early salvos from the future author of “Howl,” then the 18-year-old associate editor of their college literary magazine.
“[Ginsberg] was a couple years younger than I was, and openly gay, although we didn’t use that word at the time,” Gold says, seven decades later, in this apartment that inadver- tently doubles as a literary tabernacle.
Framed photos of Gold’s five children are juxtaposed next to black-and-white poses with George Plimpton and William Saroyan. Degrees hang from Columbia (including a master’s in philosophy) and the Sorbonne, where he was a Fulbright Scholar. A psychedelic voodoo canvas adorns one wall, a gift from a Haitian weed grower — one of many friends made during myriad trips to the island that culminated in Gold’s brilliant 1991 travelogue and cultural history, “Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti.”
“We’d go to bars near Columbia and Allen lectured me on Saint Teresa, whom he loved. Jack Kerouac, whom he loved,” Gold continues. “He’d always ask why I didn’t try homosexuality. How would I know if I didn’t like it?”
Gold was the least tolerant toward Kerouac, which led to occasional acrimony between him and Ginsberg.
“I crossed the street to avoid [Kerouac],” Gold says. Underneath spectacles, his soft brown eyes temporarily become marble. “He was an arrogant, anti-Semitic bully.”
Upon the publication of “On the Road,” Gold famously sniped at his former classmates in the Nation. It caused a brief rift with Ginsberg and permanent rupture with Kerouac.
“Ginsberg and Kerouac are frantic. They care too much, and they care aloud. I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now,” the 34-year old Gold wrote in 1957. “That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it’s a beginning.”
The criticism aligned him with Truman Capote — who inveighed of Kerouac, “it’s not writing, it’s typing” — and John Updike, whose parody “On the Sidewalk” appeared in the New Yorker. Many Beat contemporaries attributed Gold’s dismissals to jealousy, but it stemmed more from fundamental divergences in style and thought. If most Beats slanted toward squinting mysticism, Gold was a sarcastic realist, quick to caricature the excess and occasionally juvenile philosophies.
“Kerouac destroyed himself with alcohol by 47. Like James Dean, he looks great stenciled on T-shirts,” Gold says. “Ginsberg inspired people to work. Kerouac inspired a speed-rap style that came out of taking speed. Although I have to admit now that the image he projected of camping out and cooking Jell-O over a fire could be appealing to a young person.”
There was also the matter of the company he
kept. During Gold’s Paris sojourn, Saul Bellow became an early mentor and lifelong ally. So was James Baldwin. Vladimir Nabokov considered Gold one of the finest American writers, selecting his short “Death in Miami Beach” as one of six “A-list” personal favorites (alongside J.D. Salinger, Updike and John Cheever). Following the success of “Lolita,” Nabokov hand-picked Gold as his teaching heir at Cornell.
“You must haff one martini but no more,” Gold recalls Nabokov coaching him through the interview process. A decade later, Gold conducted the famed Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview with the erudite Russian expatriate.
It underscores a question at the core of literary posterity. Would you rather live a doleful, abbreviated and tormented life like Kerouac in exchange for the immortality that only populist success can offer? Or would you rather live more than nine decades, celebrated by the greatest authors, raise five children whom you deeply love and leave behind an indelible but overlooked body of work?
As usual, the answer is more complicated than simple binaries allow. In the late ’60s, Gold’s novel-in-the-form-of-a-memoir, “Fathers,” afforded him the Luce magazine features and commercial rewards that had largely eluded him to that point. He sold more than 100,000 copies, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and became a literary celebrity at a time when the phrase wasn’t an oxymoron.
Nor has his life been bereft of tragedy. In 1991, his ex-wife, Melissa Gold, was killed in a helicopter crash alongside her boyfriend, the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. Much of Gold’s subsequent writing has been haunted by her memory, most notably his poignant meditation on memory and aging, “Still Alive! A Temporary Condition.”
But should you spend any significant amount of time with Gold in this citadel overlooking the sailboats of San Francisco Bay, or walking up and down the seven hills, there’s no question which option you’d select. Despite breaking a hip a few months prior, he asks if I want to get dinner at his favorite old-school San Francisco Cantonese restaurant, Sun Kwong. The steep grade of the concrete highlands could leave any man winded, but Gold shows little strain.
“My stamina isn’t all the way back,” he admits, pausing only to offer a tour of old habitués priced into oblivion: a neighborhood coffee shop so recently shuttered that its windows are covered with farewell letters from bereaved customers, a sculptor’s studio that now offers high colonics.
“If I moved, they could get $6,000 a month,” Gold muses, enumerating a figure roughly 10 times his current rent. “I told the landlord that they’ll have to carry me out in a stretcher.”
In the quarter-mile stroll to the Chinese restaurant, he jokes with practically every neighborhood character that passes — some known, some not. It strikes you with a Midwestern geniality, maybe carried over from his boyhood in suburban Cleveland. A few weeks earlier, the library in his home town feted him with a tribute night, complete with bookmarks and posters on the walls.
“As you get older, nostalgia becomes a problem,” he says as soon as we sit down at the restaurant, with its weak Oolong tea and heaping platters of fried food. It just got fresh menus, but the place feels permanently faded. “You start to think, ‘Oh, things were better back in my day. You should’ve been here in North Beach then.’ But it’s wonderful to be alive at 20 in any era.”
Gold accrued stories so singular that they defy modern analogue. Many are recollected in his 1993 memoir, “Bohemia,” which inadvertently plays out like an antecedent to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” There’s the time he mistakenly brought a woman to William S. Burroughs’s Latin Quarter apartment, which drove the junkie author to shock her by urinating in the sink as he prepped the dinner salad. He nearly fought Norman Mailer on a balcony at Plimpton’s house. Jean Genet failed to seduce him. Anais Nin maybe made a pass. It was Herb Gold who actually brought Tom Wolfe to what he wrote about as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a favor that went unreturned when Wolfe described him as having an “aftershave smile.”
It may have been intended as a mild pejorative, but that description captures the innate complexity of an artist worth remembering. When he needed his charm to open doors, it unlocked them. But there’s something invaluable in Gold’s refusal to buy into prevailing fads, trends or literary movements. Maybe the skepticism was occasionally unfounded, but he was a writer who kept other writers honest.
“The great thing about writing is that you master your experience and are able to control it in some way,” Gold says. His vision of the future is unusually even-keeled: neither summarily bleak nor sanguine or upbeat. He sees the novel ultimately becoming a niche interest. When I ask why, he points to my phone.
“Maybe it was better for writers in the ’60s and ’70s,” Gold adds. “But there’s excitement everywhere; you just have to look for it.”
If there is a secret, perhaps this is it — find the silver lining amid the scrap heap. But Gold foregoes such fortune-cookie profundities. He’s the type of author to offer meaning in minor gestures: one more meal at the Chinese restaurant, the ignored joy of another inhale, the ability to continue walking these hills.
TOP: Novelist Herbert Gold, a contemporary of the Beats, at his home office in 2008. Gold would be the first to tell you that’s he’s not a Beat, but his legacy and historical context remain inextricable from his more well-branded peers. ABOVE: A publicity portrait of Gold from around the time his 1959 novel “The Optimist” was published. He has written more than 30 of them.
Novelist Herbert Gold takes a stroll up Commercial Street toward San Francisco’s Chinatown in 2000. He lives in a rent-controlled garrison atop the city’s Russian Hill.
Gold, top center, with his children and grandchildren in 2011. Now 93, he still is at work.