Death of John Lennon’s and Elvis Presley’s Biographer

[pullquote align=”left”]Dead in my breast
Is every vain desire,
Absolutely dead is also
The hate of the bad, even the
Sense of my own as for a
Stranger’s need –
And in me lives only death
The curtain is fallen, the
piece is finished –
– “The Leave-Taker,” by Heinrich Heine, translated by Albert Goldman, March 28, 1993[/pullquote]

 

On March 28, 1994, Albert Goldman, age 66, died of a heart attack, exactly six and a half months after he told me that he had six months to live. The pop critic and former Columbia University teacher was flying to London to take part in a BBC seminar on biography.

A lot of people hated Albert, who was famous for his three demystifying biographies, Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce; Elvis; and The Lives of John Lennon. Critics vilified his last two mega-best-selling books—relentlessly researched, negative and written in his superhyped prose. But Newsweek called him “half scholarly intellectual and half funky pop rock schlock freak.”

Albert explained, “My books burst a lot of bubbles. I’m telling people the most intimately embraced part of their fantasy life is a complete and total delusion, and if you really knew this guy that you think you know so well, you wouldn’t be able to stand him for five minutes.”

Besides the biographies, Albert wrote essays on Wagner, disco, cocaine smuggling and seven controversial books—including a Ph.D. thesis that indicted Thomas DeQuincey as a plagiarist.

I knew Albert for 25 years, and loved him—despite fights, criticism and worse. He’s even responsible for where I live. It was he who told me years ago that the view of the park from Central Park South was one of the “best” in the world. I—the eager pupil—moved into our building even before he did.

In the short time since he died, two of his colleagues in music criticism have written how much they hated him because of his work.

But, more amazingly, people still invariably reach for his books on my shelves. Before his death, I lent his last anthology of music criticism Sound Bites four times. When I told him, he said, “Very interesting, given the way those books are attacked.”

More than a journalist, Albert was a biographer with an acute sensibility, a passionate advocate whose likes and dislikes came through loud and clear. Albert was even better at talking than writing—and, in an earlier time, I was one of his best audiences—laughing, admiring, or even hurting to the quick from his relentless intolerance of inconsistent thinking, the second-rate, and cutting corners. His “spritz” mixed highbrow critical judgments, Yiddish, a self-knowing wit, profanity, a near-perfect ear for classical music and a hipster attitude characterized by his profound response to jazz and Lenny Bruce.


I met Albert after hearing about him at a Columbia faculty party. A faculty wife and journalist, I was newly arrived in the greatest city in the world. Albert was living in the lovely old parlor of a brick mansion on East 82nd street in the magnificent light of the Metropolitan Museum. The professor’s walls were covered with jazzy, multicolored fabric. The lush carpet was a contrasting pattern—the whole place was what he called “my meshuggenah womb.” The Beatles had opened an escape route to him from the confines of the university, and he was passionately embracing pop culture. Still, his glee at living across the street from Joe Namath was cushioned in self-mockery. In his parlor, Albert’s 19th century marble mantel was cluttered with beautiful hand-painted instruments made by natives—who’d played them at the Rio Carnival, where he’d gone to experience the orgiastic samba firsthand.

These were the Philip Roth years, and the shtick the two men did was the funniest I’ve seen. Carrying on about the Rio Carnival, Albert played a samba record, swinging his hips and shaking a funky tambourine in imitation of one naked woman whose photograph he waved in the air. He was also trying to make words out of the wild freedom that he’d felt dancing in the streets with thousands of great-looking naked Brazilians.

Reprimanding Albert for his wild ways while imitating Albert’s mother, Philip Roth picked up Albert’s long black umbrella, stroked it admiringly, and began masturbating it. I had to leave the room, clutching my stomach, to try to stop laughing long enough to inhale.

Albert struggled to get his remarkable “voice” on the page for the Lenny Bruce biography, which would be lauded in 1974 by critics. I remember when he was congratulated by New Yorker editor William Shawn, for making a major contribution to modern biography. Mr. Shawn regretted that he couldn’t print a word of Mr. Goldman’s book in The New Yorker, because neither Mr. Goldman’s nor Bruce’s language fit New Yorker style.

If Albert Goldman had a personality flaw, it was an excess of enthusiasm. The original disappointed fan, he’d hoped that his biography of John Lennon would be different from that of Elvis Presley. But Lennon, whose work had hit Albert in the gut and changed his life, turned out to be, after years of scholarly inspection by Albert, a public relations pastiche.

For me, learning from Albert that Elvis had recorded songs while listening on earphones to a black singer made me less starstruck.

When I bumped into Albert during his Elvis publicity tour, I exclaimed at how famous he was becoming due to his amazing revelations about Elvis’ drug-induced death. He confided that he was wearing a bulletproof vest, then explained that a bodyguard was waiting for him at a secret basement exit to our building. “I get so many letters from women saying I stole their last fantasy,” he said.

More recently, Albert discovered a passage in one of Marianne Williamson’s books in which the California guru claimed Albert as her guru and mentor. Scholar that he was, Albert went back to his meticulous diaries of some 6 million words and annotated the association hilariously, describing his efforts (circa 1975) to help young Marianne, then his assistant, to become a lounge singer. He’d worried about the young woman who was always crying because she thought she did everything wrong.

Neighbor watching was great sport. Albert got right down to birthplace, legal problems, addictions, traumas, alarming sexual practices, and his data was right on the nose. He chortled when the new police commissioner moved into our building, which was inhabited by “cockamamie semi-cons.” I told him that Antoine de St. Exupery had lived here, and he mused that the aviator would have loved living in the clouds over Central Park.

Although Albert seemed incapable of telling anything but the rock-bottom truth about himself and other people, I was startled to hear, on the drive from the cemetery with several women he’d gone out with, that he had a daughter whom he refused to acknowledge. It didn’t add up, since he took on so very many protégés and really changed their lives.

When I was away from Manhattan, I liked to think of Albert on the fifth floor; it gave me balance. Now I do not know exactly where Albert is. Part of him is in a small box in a fancy Jewish cemetery in Westchester County not far from part of George Gershwin. Recently, I saw a reporter leaving the New York Times Building with Elvis under his arm; a paper marked his spot halfway through the huge book. I made a thumbs-up sign. .Albert was there, I think.

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