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Musing Over a Memoir by a Chronicler of the Downtown New York Art Scene

Tama Janowitz has emerged from seclusion to debut her first memoir, Scream.

Tama Janowitz (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Tama Janowitz (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As I looked out into the street for Tama Janowitz while waiting at a Moroccan-French bistro in Greenwich Village, I wondered how many times she’d traipsed down the exact same sidewalk in the ’80s with Andy Warhol or Lou Reed at her side. A one-time member of the New York glitterati, frequent Page Six fodder, and best-selling author whose prose chronicled the social mores and idiosyncrasies of the downtown art scene, Janowitz has risen (or, in this case, descended) from seclusion in upstate New York to debut her first memoir, Scream, appropriately subtitled with the nouns “glamour” and “dysfunction.”

“What happened to the Lower East Side? It’s all middle-class white people — it’s not my city anymore,” she laments, after ordering a curry chicken sandwich and shoving her bleached, mushroom-shaped mane out of her face — think Sia, but without the eye-obscuring bangs. Of course she only moved upstate a few years ago, long after the Lower East Side had been gentrified, but a marriage to Tim Hunt — now an art dealer, formerly of the Warhol Foundation — and the rearing of a daughter forced her out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn before it, too, became homogenized. An ailing mother eventually called for her retreat to miles north of Gotham. But she’d grown tired of the city even before that.

“I couldn’t stand going to art openings anymore, to be just an audience to other people’s sneers. Art got more conceptual, less visual, which is one reason I lost interest in it; your idea as a product is not as interesting as a painting.” Indeed, it was the art scene of New York 20 years ago that acted as the catalyst for her fame. Call it serendipity: after a stint at Barnard College and moves away from, then back to, New York, she took the wrong bus and ended up in Soho. Still a working-class neighborhood on the brink of a colorful (and expensive) explosion, she stumbled into an art opening where the gallery’s janitor was displaying his work. That artist turned out to be Keith Haring. Soon she began writing romans à clef about the city’s eccentric subculture, and they were getting published in The New Yorker. Cut to her collection of short stories entitled Slaves of New York (1986), which became an overnight sensation, and her with it.

Private parties at the Museum of Modern Art, modeling for ads promoting liquor and Apple computers, regular stints on Letterman: Janowitz became a bon vivant and an It Girl hobnobbing with some of the biggest artists, writers, and musicians of the time. She flitted through passages of Andy Warhol’s diaries, appearing in Polaroids he took of her signature mane of wild, unkempt hair. She was the subject of a piece from his sewn photograph series; the dissociated composition shows the top half of her face covered by a photorealistic mask.

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The cover of Tama Janowitz’s new memoir, ‘Scream’

Those expecting Scream (which is published by Dey Street Books) to be filled with details and gossip about an electrifying period in American art history, however, will be disappointed. The memoir does not gush or wax poetic about her time spent surrounded by great artistic minds. Her stories of Warhol amount to her feeling a little short-changed because he never bought her anything; she recounts sitting in Lou Reed’s house in Blairstown, New Jersey, discussing electroshock therapy; and tells of how she just happened to be at one of the first gigs the Sex Pistols played — and thought they were terrible.

What the book does offer is insight into the transgressive mind of a true literary talent. This isn’t fellow literary Brat Pack member Bret Easton Ellis’s gruesome satire of American consumerist culture; it’s more of an ingrained preternaturalism. Reading the words she lays upon the page, it seems as though Janowitz has never quite understood the way human society works. So she approaches her writing like an alien anthropologist, curious about the fact that New Yorkers do things like spend $350 a month to get their hair colored or destroy rhododendrons because they’re blocking pedestrian pathways. The satire is incidental.

This unconventional point of view exposes itself especially in passages describing a lecherous father who hasn’t spent a day sober from weed for nearly 50 years, as well as the process of caring for an ailing mother, while battling her brother over the paltry estate left behind. A bizarrely organized grocery store becomes a recurring motif, though what it represents is beyond the reader.

As strange as Janowitz views the wacky hijinks and characters surrounding her, so too is the reader entertained and left aghast by the trials and tribulations of a person New York magazine once aptly described as a “magnet for calamity.”

Now living in Schuyler County, one of the poorest regions of New York State, whose signature dish contains only “overcooked macaroni, Miracle Whip, and an entire shaker of salt,” Janowitz has found the antidote to Manhattan: anti-culture.

Plopping coffee ice cream into an already heavily caffeinated drink, she remembers why that anti-culture is so appealing, and why she was through with New York City in the first place. “There was a Page Six article that made such a fuss that I showed up to not one, but two parties with dirty fingernails! At the time I was so ashamed. New York tries to cut you down at the knees. In retrospect, I should’ve just made stuff up to have a little fun with it. Why was I so sincere?”

She rolls her eyes and half smirks, resembling one of Boucher’s coquettes. It’s an expression that’s half self-amused, half self-effacing — the perfect embodiment of Janowitz’s reaction to the strange world surrounding her.

Tama Janowitz’s Scream is published by Dey Street Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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