SECTION ONE

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COLUMN SEVENTY-SIX, OCTOBER 1, 2002
(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)

THE EX-EL EXIGENTE OF POT:
A FAREWELL TO MIKE AND MAGGIE NICHOLS


MIKE AND MAGGIE NICHOLS

[?Do you mean to call Maggie a liar?? demanded the organizer of Margaret Nichols? memorial after rudely interrupting me almost as soon as I had begun my eulogy before the several dozen mourners.

The organizer, a woman who'd become Maggie's best friend long after Maggie became one of my best friends, had cut my eulogy short after I?d begun by telling how Maggie's husband had moved in with Maggie before their marriage. Maggie's husband was the late Mike Nichols, my first pot connection, a self proclaimed ex-pimp and a fascinating raconteur who had gained notoriety in his own special niche of the drug underground of his day. One of the great characters of my life, a legendary West Village figure, a quintessential New Yorker and a supplier of the illicit needs of many of the original bop immortals of the jazz community, he was a spellbinder and a charming and gracious host who commanded a small army of followers that included me and a number of others at the memorial. It was held last year on Saturday, September 22 in the West Village's Pro Piano Company auditorium on Jane Street. Two of Mike's old-time jazz friends, Bertha Hope and Walter Booker, the late Cannonball Adderly's bassist, were among those providing the music at the event.

"Maggie told me that she didn't allow Mike to move in with her until they were married," the memorial's organizer hissed at me after embarrassing me before those several dozen in the audience. As for me, I've lived long enough to've suffered many insults as unexpected and as undeserved as this one, but this woman organizer carried on like a schoolteacher chastising a third-grader.

'she told me her parents never would have stood for that!" she insisted. "Are you calling Maggie a liar??

I vaguely remember throwing rice at Mike and Maggie as they boarded a helicopter atop the PanAm Building in 1964 on their way to their wedding at her parents? home in Winetka, outside Chicago. The daughter of a high school principal whose wedding present was a $10,000 cash gift that the newlyweds promptly blew on their honeymoon in Las Vegas, Maggie at that time was listed as "M. Gethman, Managing Editor? in Field and Stream, which considered itself too macho a publication to let its readers know it was edited by a woman. It was Mike who finally got her to take her bosses into court so she could be listed in the masthead as "Margaret Gethman." She had begun working at the magazine in 1961, but I think it was a while before Field and Stream listed its managing editor as Margaret Nichols.

After Maggie's death on July 1, 2001, Field and Stream editor Slaton L. White paid homage to her with an editorial in the magazine's September 2001 issue, crediting her with teaching him much about "learning how to edit an article without ruining it." An author, a teacher, a photographer, an outdoors enthusiast, a student pilot and a world-traveler, the tall and lanky Maggie was an exceptionally brilliant woman but she shrank before the demanding and overbearing Mike, who treated her with much of the coarseness that'd characterized him as a pimp. Except he would abuse Maggie verbally, never physically. And in front of company, too. There were times when I---and others, too---felt obliged to tell him to cool it.

The sicker Mike got, the grouchier he got. First he had to have a colectomy and then he had to undergo a series of head surgeries. I never really learned the exact name of his ailment. Eventually, they had to put a shunt from his brain to his body, as I recall.  He was continually in and out of hospitals. But even during the several years it took him to die, he'd be clothed in his dressing gown, sitting in his easy chair and snorting coke while he held forth before the gang of buddies figuratively assembled at his feet. I always suspected that the cocaine might have been at the root of his ailments, but Mike would never say anything detrimental about cocaine. He believed in that evil shit till the very end.

 Every New Year's Eve, his inner circle---including me---would gather at the big round table in the kitchen of Mike's and Maggie's new apartment at 605 Hudson Street to greet the next 365 days by getting high on cocaine. It became a New Year's Eve tradition that endured even after Mike died at the age of 66 in 1993---and even after I refused to have anything more to do with coke. This is inside stuff that Maggie would never have wanted broadcast to her editor friends who attended the memorial. But the memorial organizer had no objections when one of the other eulogizers got up to tell the assembled mourners, "If that round table could only talk. . ." That round table tradition eventually ended when the rest of the gang came to agree with me that cocaine was nothing but harmful bullshit---nothing but a fucking lie.

Following Mike's death, Maggie missed him terribly but, after retiring as managing editor, she remained a Field and Stream consultant, began teaching editorial courses, started on wide and adventurous travels and accumulated a circle of loyal and loving friends that included Mike's army of buddies, such as me.

Still, Maggie obviously clung to her father's middle class pretensions. Don't most of us do the same? Still, I, for one, know Maggie had some secrets she never told the organizer of her memorial. As far as I'm concerned, they?ll stay secret. Who am I to cast stones? Like most everyone else I know, I live in a glass house. But as for living with her husband-to-be before their marriage? Hasn't that become more or less standard procedure? No, maybe Mike didn't move in with Maggie but he stayed there overnight a lot. As someone who had acquired a pimp mentality, Mike very rarely had a place of his own. His residences were usually those of whichever old lady he'd move in with.

At one point, Mike, constantly confused with the Mike Nichols who gained fame in show business, found himself living on the same Manhattan street, the dope dealer Mike on the West Side and the show business Mike on the East Side.

"Yeah," Mike once told me, "I even used to get his mail."

When I first found him in the late 1950s, he was living with Alene Lee, Jack Kerouac's old girlfriend, the prototype for the heroine of Jack's novel, The Subterraneans.  But Mike's thing with Alene, who by then was an old friend of mine, didn't last very long. I forget how many old ladies Mike moved in with before he found Maggie. Actually Mike and Maggie found each other, a rare occurrence as far as I can see. Very seldom do couples find themselves so perfectly matched. For those who believe there is such a place, this was one of those marriages made in heaven.

No, maybe Mike didn't move in with Maggie, but I remember many an evening long before they married when my wife and older son joined me as I carried my two younger kids up the five flights of stairs to Maggie's one-room apartment at 88 Horatio Street, where we partied and I also scored some grass for my wife and me. Mike and Maggie later moved to their newer, larger pad at 605 Hudson Street, where his army of followers still had to climb five flights of stairs. They always lived in a building without an elevator, with this flat high above La Ripaille, the best little French Restaurant in Manhattan. The building is owned by Alain Laurent, who became more Mike's and Maggie's friend than their landlord. Alain is the proprietor of the La Ripaille, where the mourners were treated to Alain's delicious cuisine magic following the memorial at which I 'd been so rudely interrupted.

Maggie apparently had named the organizer of the memorial as her inheritor and possibly that's why this woman so nastily cut off my eulogy. As Maggie's inheritor, she obviously felt she also had proprietorship of Maggie's pretensions. This woman lived with her husband before they were married, didn't she?

Born June 9, 1931, Maggie was first hospitalized with pneumonia and, while laughing at a funny story read to her by one of her multitude of visitors, she suddenly suffered a stroke. With my 41-year-old younger son, Joel Roi, I was fortunate enough to visit Maggie in the Village Nursing Home next door to 605 Hudson Street several days before she finally succumbed to the pneumonia.

Talk about pretensions. I wrote the following tribute to Mike before he died, but judge for yourself why Maggie insisted I shouldn't publish it while she was still affiliated with Field and Stream.]

It was the kind of nasty spring day when you have to light up a conversation the way you light up wood in the fireplace.  Mike didn't have a fireplace.  He lived in a fourth-floor walkup with a brick wall and a crowded front living room that had a couch with a coffee table in front of it that also doubled as a dinner table.  The living room overlooked Horatio Street and I got up from the couch to peer through the window at the rain beating down on top of the parked cars.  This was the kind of gloomy afternoon when kids huddle together and tell ghost stories but Mike was talking about women and he claimed to know what he was talking about.  Hadn't he been a pimp, after all?

"To be more precise, I was the president of a call girl operation," he said.  "We catered to the jet set.  Yeah, I had big plans.  This was when street grass was costing less than $20 an ounce.  I was clearing maybe $10,000 a week at the time and I called my hookers together.  I told them, 'Listen, you bitches, you gotta turn more tricks!  I wanna buy a yacht!'"

Mike claimed a shady but colorful past.  Even in Germany during World War II, he said he was part of a special Army unit that had the job of ripping off the local bank as soon as the Americans captured the town.  He also stuffed his pockets in the Army when he was put in charge of running a PX.  Now he was pushing forty-two like a peanut in front of his nose but that's not all he was pushing.  Mike was the first dope dealer I ever got to be buddies with and he knew how to keep me spellbound for hours with his stories about himself, his women and his dope.

"When I started dealing, nobody in New York ever thought of going direct to Mexico to get the grass," Mike said.  "They'd wait to get it from the smugglers who brought it up.  I was one of the new breed that went down looking to import it myself.  I established the trade routes between the Mexican marijuana growers and New York's jet set.  I used to rent fleets of U-drive trucks and run caravans up from the border.  In those days, I had the whole New York narco squad on my payroll.  I'd rent expensive penthouses to stash the stuff.  Who'd ever look for stash in a penthouse?  It was the slums they always raided.

"I was really the best-connected dealer in town.  I even got one of my hookers installed as the editor of Polo magazine.  I had the whole jet set for a clientele.  All the arbiters of our fads, our trends, or tastes.  Mannequins, movie stars, impresarios, socialites, authors, stunt men, photographer, princes, producers, TV personalities, the future Aga Khan, they were all my customers.  I knew so many media people that a couple of times I got hired as a press agent.  I became very tight with the Paris Review crowd."

Mike, in fact, once took a couple of hookers and me to a party at George Plimpton's apartment, where Mike was warmly welcomed. A friend of everybody on the jazz scene, Mike hung out with such jazz greats as Sonny Rollins, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and the Adderly brothers, Cannonball and Nat.  When the '50s turned into the '60s, Mike was famous in the counterculture as one of those Johnny Appleseeds of marijuana.  He always had a grin on his face and a joint in his hand and he would offer tokes to people in the same way that John D. Rockefeller used to hand out dimes to kids on the street.  Mike was dedicated to marijuana.  I used to watch him swallow his roaches while they were still lit.

"When pot gets legalized," he told me, "they're going to build a statue for me.  They're gonna recognize all I've accomplished.  They're gonna recognize me as a pioneer.  I opened up Mexico the way Perry opened up Japan.  I even learned how to talk Mexican Spanish and I got to know them pretty good down in Mexico, the farmers, the villagers and the local connection, who was usually the police chief.  When I'd come into town, they'd crowd around my car.  People would run in from the fields.  The storekeepers would come out of their stores.  They'd all watch while I took a walk with the police chief out on the veranda or up a side street or maybe into a bathroom.  Their faces would screw up when the police chief would offer me a sample of their marijuana crop.  They'd hold their breaths while I took a few tokes.  And then, if I smiled, they'd break into cheers.

"I was like the guy who buys the coffee beans in those coffee commercials.  The villagers wait breathlessly for him to take his first sip of coffee to see if the beans are any good, because if he smiles, he's going to buy the whole crop.  I was like that guy.  What'd they call him?  El Exigente?  I was the El Exigente of pot.  Now I'm the ex-El Exigente."

The G-men eventually caught up to Mike in Crystal City, Texas, the spinach capital of the world, with a statue of Popeye on the town green.  It was 1958.  Mike was 30 at the time.  He was asleep in his motel room and suddenly the feds were everywhere with tommyguns and walkie-talkies.

"They were even on the roof," Mike later remembered.  "I asked them if I could smoke one last joint before they put the cuffs on me."

In Manhattan's old Federal House of Detention on West Street, Mike read a half-dozen books each week and founded the prisoners' own newspaper.  He fancied himself a writer, too, but I


Mike always sounded like a gangster in a B movie but claimed he was as educated as an Ivy Leaguer


always found he could tell a story better than he could put it down on paper.  He was one of the best storytellers I ever met.  With me, he mostly would talk about the women he had known but he also would hold forth on such divergent topics as Martin Buber, St. Thomas Aquinas, the fish and game laws, photography and outer space.  Although he insisted he was an intellectual who had made it through Columbia without ever getting a degree, he always sounded like a gangster in a B-movie.

"As educated as you get in the Ivy League," Mike used to say, "there's nothing that teaches you more about life than the street.  That's where I really got my education."

Most specifically, Mike got his education on New York's streets.  He also spent a lot of time in Manhattan's Barrio and he was a fixture on the Village cultural scene.

"It was my mother who brought out my artistic nature," he said.  "She was a genius.  She was French-born but she came to America at an early age.  She graduated high school in Ipswich, Massachusetts, at the age of 15 and won a scholarship to the Boston Conservatory of Music.  And then she got a scholarship to Bates and she kept getting scholarships until she got a doctorate in English at the age of 22.  She split up with my father when I was three or four and she raised me.  I hardly ever saw my father.  He was an asshole.  He wanted me to get married and have an Italian Catholic wedding.  I told him that there were too many bitches I wanted to play with."

Mike didn't walk, he waddled.  With his toes turned out, he waddled like a penguin.  Although his father was Italian and Mike looked Italian, too, he also looked like he could have been an Arab.  He had a big nose with widening nostrils, wore eyeglasses and, with his dark hair combed straight back, his face was always twisted into his big, toothy grin, with his jaw hanging open.  Sometimes his jaw relaxed so much that his grin seemed to turn into a leer.  But although Mike hung out with a lot of creepy underworld characters, he never could manage to look really sinister.

"I'm too much of a klutz!" he once told me.  "I'm the kind of klutz who once nearly drowned while I was washing dishes in an Army sink!"

I met Mike in the late '50s after he got out of the House of Detention and started living with Alene Lee, the woman who, as Jack Kerouac's one-time girl friend, had been the prototype for Mardou Fox, the heroine of The Subterraneans, Jack's novel about interracial love.  Alene was a friend of mine and she introduced me to Mike.  He said she fascinated him more intellectually than sexually.

"I used to get off from the way she fucked my brains, not my body," he laughed.  "She played terrific mind games with me.  Then, after a while, she started getting mad when I started bringing home other wenches."

After they broke up, I stayed friends with both Mike and Alene.  By that time, Mike had become my regular pot connection.  Once, I bought a whole pound of pot from Mike but when I complained that the pound weighed only 13 ounces, he smiled and explained:

"That's the way it comes.  Don't you think I'd give you a 16-ounce pound if it came in 16-ounce pounds?  It comes in these bricks, that's the way it's packed.  Each brick is supposed to be a pound.  When they pack 'em, they're a pound, but by the time they get to me, they've shrunk.  They've dried out.  You're lucky you got 13 ounces.  I've had some pounds that were only 10 ounces."

Mike used to boast that he could talk his way in or out of anything.  Once, when he was at such a low point that he was broke and homeless, he even talked his way into living with me in my apartment in the Village.  That was when he hit on me and another friend for the twigs and seeds from our marijuana stashes so he could turn the few buds he had into a whole ounce for a customer.  He made something of a comeback in the marijuana trade after selling that ounce.  Mike was a great con man.  But what he boasted about the most was how he could talk his way into a woman's bed.  How could I help but envy him?

Mike claimed his womanizing ended after his marriage in 1966 to a charming and beautiful magazine editor but still the chicks kept flocking around him. When the '60s started turning into the '70s, the women started preferring cocaine to pot, and so did Mike.  He was always the life of the party.  You could depend on him to keep the party going until well into the next day.  He never ran out of energy.  Men much younger than Mike would collapse and nod out, but Mike would still be wide awake.  He always had a story to tell and the story usually was about women.

Now it was 1971 and in his apartment on Horatio Street, Mike dipped his coke spoon into his little brown jug, took a snort and got up to join me as I looked out the window.

"Look at that rain!" I said.  "This is the kind of day I'd rather be in bed with some beautiful young groupie than hanging out here with you watching the raindrops."

I was managing a rock and roll band as well as writing a column for the New York Post and when I started fantasizing about all the beautiful young groupies I wished I could get my hands on, Mike waved an arm in disapproval.

"Aww, these young-o rock and roll groupies are kid stuff compared to the groupies I used to know," Mike said.  "The groupies in the old jazz scene were dangerous bitches.  They would have been too heavy for a guy like you.  I don't even know if you could handle any one of these young-o rock and rollers today.  They're just giggly kids.  But for sure, you couldn't have handled a groupie like Maxine.  Maxine von Klemm.  She was the greatest groupie I ever knew.  Maxine was really a forerunner.  A sexual extremist.  She was one of the hippest groupies on the jazz scene.  She invented styles that they're still trying to cop.  You name any jazz musician and I'm sure he can tell you about a night with Maxine.  She was the greatest patroness of the arts I ever heard of, dispensing her favors only to the gifted and the worthy, sometimes two and three at a time.  Maxine covered a lot of territory.  Her men ranged from professors at Yale to Emperor Haile Selassie's grandson, with a royal insignia on his car.  She indoctrinated them all into the cult of hipness."

Mike sniffed to clear his nostrils and lit a cigarette.

"Maxine," he said, "was the greatest boon to mankind I ever knew and yet, underneath it all, she hated men.  She was the original women's liberationist.  She hated men but the only way she knew to get at them was through love.  She would literally love them to death.  At parties, when she'd come up to you and ask you if you'd care for something, she'd lower herself as a symbol of subservience.  She'd be on her knees if she had to, and she was a very tall girl.  She'd always make sure her head was lower than the man, even if he was sitting.  And then, when you told her what you wanted, she'd back away, bowing, into the kitchen and then come back practically on her belly, slithering along, holding a tray up with your drink on it.  Maxine was an American geisha.  It was out of character for her, an American girl, but that was her way of showing defiance.  That was the subtlety of it."

On the street below, a police car rode by in the rain and Mike's grin widened.  The enemy.

"Every day for Maxine was a new dramatic incident, a new chapter in her life, with a climax and an anti-climax," he said.  "It was like she was following some script for a pornographic soap opera.  Early in her life, she had lost her poppa and she grew up with a working mama.  I don't mean poppa died, I mean he ran away and so mama had a resentment which she passed along to the daughter.  But with Maxine, this resentment couldn't take an overt form because of the fact that she was exquisitely beautiful.  And therefore, her beauty was the best way for her to deal with men.  Her beauty would make men want to do things for her and she would upset their balance by insisting that she do things for them.  Being Maxine's lover was never to know peace and tranquility.

"Now, take Pam-Pam, who came from a prominent family in Baghdad, who arrived here to study and who subsequently became a professor and an activist in the leftist movement.  He was young, fairly naive, steeped in the romantic traditions of Paris, where he had obtained a graduate degree.  He met Maxine, fell in love with her and dreamt the dream of all men.  Just when he thought he had a classic love affair going with her, she started bringing other boy friends home.  She told him that if he was truly in love with love, he ought to want to share it."

Mike toyed with his watch chain, which was attached to his silver coke spoon.  He backed away from the window, dug into his brown jug with the spoon and took another snort.  His wife was away at work at the magazine editorial offices.

"Pam-Pam objected vehemently to Maxine bringing home other boy friends," Mike continued, "and so Maxine, under the guise of trying to be fair, began bringing home girl friends, too.  She was a ballet dancer and she had a lot of taste.  But Pam-Pam couldn't reconcile himself to this kind of scene and immediately started trying to kill himself by taking large quantities of junk.  I remember one party where I threw it all up to Maxine and she agreed she was rotten.  She got up and walked into the far room.  Everybody was too stoned to keep track of time and it was a while before Pam-Pam, who was also at the party, started to look for her.  Suddenly, from the far room, we heard him scream, 'Oh!  My God!  She's killed herself!  Me, too!'

"A few minutes later, the rest of us ambled into the far room and found Maxine stretched out like a cross on the bed with some scratches on her wrist.  Pam-Pam had cut his wrists, too, and thrown himself over her body, putting his bloody wrists on hers.  Everybody at the party was so stoned out that we all remained calm and somebody eventually called the hospital, which sent an ambulance to take them both to the psycho ward to bandage up their wrists."

Mike paused and stared out the window at the dark, rainy day.  He was wearing a black turtleneck shirt with pendants hanging from his neck and dangling on his chest.

"Pam-Pam still hasn't recovered from Maxine," Mike said.  "Nobody who ever made it with her has recovered from Maxine.  She was too much shock therapy.  To be with Maxine was the meaning of manhood in the hip generation, but she was always trying to kill herself.  Once I took her to dinner to the house of some friends she had never even met.  I went out to buy some booze and when I came back the place was surrounded by cops with nets.  When I tried to get back into the apartment, they stopped me.  'Some crazy broad is one the ledge,' a cop told me.  It was Maxine.  Can you imagine a chick you never met coming to dinner at your house and then trying to jump out the window?"

Mike walked to the refrigerator, took out a beer can, pulled the top off and sat down in an arm chair to drink it while looking out the window at the darkened overcast.

"Once," Mike said, "Maxine started swallowing a whole glass full of goof balls like a kid eating pop corn.  Another time, she put her foot through a window pane in a vestibule.  I was with her once when she ran out in front of a car on Lexington Avenue.  She also tried razor blades.  I never tried to stop her because if I ever saved her then she might have made me responsible for her for the rest of her life, like the Orientals say.  Finally, she ODed.  We all hated to see her go, but don't tell me about groupies.  I've never met one to compare with Maxine."  

"Yeah," I said, "she sure sounds like a rainy day woman."  ##

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