May 7, 2017

Behind the Scenes at the New York Press, Part 2


Note: I was recently hired to write the introduction for a massive new anthology which gathered together all the film reviews Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz and Armond White had written for the New York Press from 1991 until the paper folded. I’d always had an inkling that one day I wanted to write a book about the paper, so considering this would likely be the closest I came, I went a little nuts. In the end my intro was chopped in half and extensively rewritten, so thought I’d run the original long version over a four-week stretch, if you don’t mind. JMK


Back in the early Nineties, the main offices of the New York Press were housed on the ninth floor of the stately and gorgeous Puck Building, which stands at the corner of Houston and Lafayette. It was a perfect location considering the nature of the paper, right smack dab in the heart of everything that was happening in the New York underground scene in those days. There were also half a dozen bars less than a block away, which helped.

            As the name implies, the building had originally been home to the satirical Puck magazine, and in the Eighties before the Press moved in, the ninth floor housed the offices of SPY mag, so it all made sense. Apart from the New York Press on the top floor, the rest of the building housed classroom space for NYU and Pratt, art and photography studios, a couple of early Internet startups and some small magazines. There were sprawling ballrooms on the ground and fifth floors, and just inside the main entrance you could find an honest to god rattling antique manual elevator, complete with a creepy and leering Polish elevator operator named Josef. Wandering into the building not knowing any better, it could feel like you’d just stepped through a portal into the 1930s. Then you got up to the ninth floor.

            When you first opened the heavy green door and entered the Press office, you found yourself in a small reception area with creaking hardwood floors, a couple of molded plastic chairs, three tall, narrow and filthy windows looking out toward Broadway, and a decidedly (by design) unpleasant receptionist. If you were able to talk your way past the receptionist—a post I held from 1995 to 1998—you discovered the heart of the operation was mostly open space. Although there were a couple of side offices and two rows of cubicles for the ad salespeople, for the most part the office simply flowed from the sales department to administration to distribution to art and production. Shortly before I came on board, the editorial staff packed up and moved down to a separate office in a dim and forgotten corner of the eighth floor. They claimed it was because things tended to be too damn loud on nine, but I always suspected they were hoping no one would ever be able to find them down there.

            Part of the real magic of the Press in those days was that the office environment was as anarchic and funny and wooly bully as the paper itself, mostly because the staffers (like the paper’s writers and artists) were a motley crew of eccentrics.

            Don Gilbert, the production manager, was a surfer, a veteran of New York’s early punk scene, knew everyone from Iggy to Rockets Redglare, and was one of the few civilians allowed free access to the Hell’s Angels clubhouse on East Third Street. Michael Gentile, the art director, had formerly been the art director at Hustler magazine. He was also an old friend of John Waters, and was rumored to be the inspiration for the foot stomper in Polyester. Ted, head of distribution, was an in-demand yoga instructor and spiritual guru. The ad rep who handled the adult classifieds was a musician who’d played with Elvis, but adamantly refused to talk about it. The office manager, Greta, was a tiny and perfectly round woman in her fifties who sounded like Ruth Gordon. She had long, flaming red hair, a deep love of fur coats, Elvis, and Batman, and was said to have held a side job as a famed mistress at New York’s notorious Hellfire Club. And Bax, well, no one was ever really sure what his job was, exactly, but he was always around, and began every day by perching himself on the copy machine and reading that morning’s Post aloud.

            Unlike any other publication I’ve been connected with before or since, the New York Press office was wholly without class distinctions. The editors hung out with the ad reps, who hung out with the production team, who hung out with the illustrators, who hung out with the freelancers, who hung out with the distribution guys. Along those same lines, ad reps ended up writing for the paper, admin assistants became illustrators, receptionists became listings editors, and columnists like myself became receptionists, though that latter was simply an act of pity on the editor’s part, as I couldn’t find real work otherwise.

            Then there was the ongoing parade of trannie hookers, paranoids, conspiracy nuts, pimps, junkies, musicians and other madcap Village denizens who just wandered into the office with something on their minds on a daily basis. That may be another reason the editors moved down to that secret corner of the eighth floor.

            Every night at five, Editor-in-Chief Russ Smith, Senior Editor John Strausbaugh, associate editor Sam “Skippy” Sifton and art director Michael Gentile would adjourn to their regular bar around the corner. It was there the real editorial decisions for the coming weeks were made as they got royally sloshed. Any staffers or freelancers who wanted to join them were free to do so, so long as they were prepared to deal with the free-flowing (if lighthearted) insults that marked the nightly cabal.

            I would be a liar and a fool to deny the office environment was fueled by a lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs, a lot of sex on the ratty office couch, on the desks and behind the elevator, as well as occasional brief explosions of violence, but somehow the paper still managed to come out every week.

            Two quick anecdotes here, just to offer a glimpse into the prevailing in-house atmosphere. When I was the paper’s receptionist, I used to eat lunch every day at Buffa’s Diner, about a block away. Lunch usually consisted of a sandwich, fries, and three or four beers. More if it was turning out to be a rough day. One afternoon shortly after I returned to my post at the front desk, Russ came through the door on his way to the back, but paused as he passed me. “Have you been drinking?” he asked with some incredulity. I responded, “Of course I have. Did you expect anything less?” He nodded and went about his business, never saying another word about it.

            And one December, the publisher at the time, a baby-faced ex-frat boy with a serious coke habit, decided it would be a nice thing for those advertisers who stopped by the office if we put up a little Christmas tree in the reception area. A real homey kind of thing, right? Hey, and since there were so many creative types on staff, why not have people make their own ornaments to decorate the tree? Well, he came into the office the next day to find the tree festooned with obscene, crass, patently offensive and blasphemous homemade ornaments. The tree quickly disappeared.

            Around 1995, the New York Press had finally earned a growing reputation as a viable, cranky, smart and cynical  alternative to that dusty and self-righteous Village Voice. You never knew what you were going to find in any given issue of the Press, but you could rest assured there would be something that made you laugh really hard or pissed you off no end. The paper began to grow considerably, with more ads, more pages, and more writers and artists to fill those pages. C.J. Sullivan, a court officer and former cop, came aboard to write Bronx-based crime and human interest stories. Jonathan Ames wrote about his assorted fetishes. Aspiring actress Amy Sohn chronicled her endless sexual misadventures. Alan Cabal channeled Hunter Thompson while writing about Satanism and conspiracies. Little Ned Vizzini, who started at the Press when he was about fifteen, documented life as a gifted, overachieving New York teenager. Mistress Ruby offered accounts of her day job at an upscale dungeon, George Tabb covered the punk scene, William Bryk wrote about political eccentrics throughout New York history, David Lindsay wrote about patents and inventors, and William Monahan wrote long, brilliant and wickedly funny essays about whatever the hell he wanted.

            Another side note here, just in terms of myth-busting. Despite all appearances, conservative Greek socialite Taki was never a Press contributor. Yes he had what appeared to be a weekly column, even seemed to head up his own section with a rotating group of wealthy conservative writers, but he was actually an advertiser. Every week he bought four full page ads, into which he dropped essays written by his friends. It was decidedly pay-for-play in that instance, with Taki shelling out several thousand dollars every week in order to have an outlet. It was deceptive, it was designed to look like a regular part of the paper, but was in reality nothing more than four pages of ads for rich people who really, really wanted to be there in the paper with me and George Tabb.

            Taki aside, the most important thing to keep in mind through all this is that at the New York Press, despite its Fuck You attitude  and drunken tomfoolery, the writing was always paramount. Regardless of what you had to say, if you didn’t say it extremely well and with a certain unblemished pizzazz, you’d never make it past Strausbaugh or Sam Sifton. We could have run semi-literate rants about city council or some local band, just piled up the obscenities and crude insults, but that’s too cheap, and too easy to ignore. The fact is that writers like Matt, Godfrey, Strausbaugh, Monahan and the rest were so damnably talented and intelligent, readers, whether agreeing or pulling out bloody clumps of hair, were forced to pay attention and respond.

            As the paper’s reputation grew, so did the annual Best Of party. Every September, the Press released its biggest and most anticipated issue of the year, the Best of Manhattan, in which every writer associated with the paper submitted paragraph-long assessments of the best things New York had to offer at that moment in history, from bars and restaurants to the arts, media, politics, fashion and the culture at large. That was the idea, anyway, “Best Movie Theater Popcorn,” right? Of course the Press being the Press, most of the “bests” were actually “worsts:” Best Asshole West Village Bartender, Best Poop on the Floor, Best Place to Contract TB, Best Obese Blowhard Local Sublebrity to Avoid, and the like.

            A few weeks after the issue came out every year, the paper hosted a massive party in one of the Puck’s ballrooms, and those parties soon garnered their own reputation as one of the wildest, most bacchanalian events of the social season, with CEOs, media types, and celebrities flooding the paper with demands they get an invite.

            Myself, I despise parties and avoid them whenever possible, but I dare you to show me a Wall Street Journal party where you could smoke up in a corner with a Hell’s Angels lieutenant, see a future New York Times editor belly flop into a beer slide, chat with John Waters about political assassins, get cornered at the open bar for an hour by a schizophrenic, mistake Genesis P-Orridge for Carol Channing, get even drunker with Alex Cockburn and Chris Caldwell, and witness Robin Byrd autographing the publisher’s wife’s left breast, all before the cops showed up.


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