August 12, 2008
Herb Gold, elder statesman of the Beat Generation, writes on
“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
“I didn’t really want to write my history.” Gold said recently. “What impelled this book
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!”
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