Volume 17 • Issue 17 | SEPTEMBER 17 - 23, 2004

Books


Risk-taking and the writing life

Long-time downtown resident with a new book on Bohemian women

By Aileen Torres

Photo by Aileen Torres
Andrea Barnet outside the Sosa Borella café on Greenwich St. which is a few blocks from her studio.
On a typical workday, Andrea Barnet can be found at her studio on Greenwich St. in Tribeca plodding away on the computer. A long-time Seaport resident, Barnet, a writer, walks to the studio nearly every day. She recently completed a two-year project, a book entitled, “All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930.” Published this past spring it is garnering considerable attention.

The book explores the turbulent lives of such iconoclastic figures as Mina Loy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Anderson, and Bessie Smith.

“I’ve always been drawn to stories with extreme characters and people who take risks, especially women who take large risks.”

Like the women she chose to write about, Barnet is a risk-taker. She came of age during the sixties and after graduating from college, she traveled across Asia for five months by herself, visiting such countries as Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

After settling in New York, Barnet made it a point to live a bohemian lifestyle, focusing on creative pursuits. She arrived in 1976 and moved into an apartment in the Village, on Charles St. It was long before the gentrified Village.

“The neighborhood was really tatty and seedy,” said Barnet, 51. “The gentrification that exists now didn’t then, and I was really drawn to that. I loved the intimacy of it, of the buildings. I was drawn to the fact that there weren’t straight and narrow avenues. All the streets were irregular.”

Since those early days in the Village, Barnet has progressively become a fully-entrenched member of the downtown artistic community particularly in the neighborhoods of the Seaport and Tribeca. She resides in a four-story former warehouse on Front St. with her husband, the painter Kit White, and their 17-year-old daughter.

She moved to the Seaport with White in 1978, and they bought a loft in Tribeca in 1979, which now serves as her studio. Both places were essentially abandoned warehouses, so the rent was relatively inexpensive.

Barnet and White lived a “hand-to-mouth” existence at the time, and White put his carpentry skills to good use by renovating both lofts and building furniture from scratch.
In addition to financial hardships, what made life even harder was the lack of basic community services and staple stores. For instance, there was no garbage collection, nor were there any grocery stores, said Barnet. The closest grocery was in the Village, where Barnet and her husband would have to trek for food.

Barnet remembered when there was once a clam bar at the Seaport housed in a little trailer. All sorts of people would eat there, from stockbrokers to fish market workers. And on the weekends, a neighborhood barbecue would be held there.

Downtown turned out to be a wonderful place to raise her daughter, said Barnet. There may have been no Central Park to accommodate young children, but there were neighborhood traditions that continue to make downtown a welcoming place for kids.

“Every Halloween, the entire neighborhood goes with kids and dresses up, and when the kids arrive at a house, the people come to the door dressed like Commedia dell’Arte figures, or like Dracula,” said Barnet. “And people make caskets and spider webs and cobwebs, and decorate the outside of the street with pumpkins. And so, it has the feeling of a small town.”

“Those of us who moved in 25 years ago, we were lucky enough to secure loft spaces for very little and carve out our living spaces,” said Barnet.

As for where the book idea came from, in addition to risk takers, Barnet also had an interest in the decade of the twenties and in literary gatherings.

“I read everything about Bloomsbury that was ever written, and this [Bohemian Greenwich Village] is kind of an American equivalent.”

In writing the book, she came to live vicariously through these women.

“Each of the characters interested me because they were so spirited, so fierce about pursuing their vision of what their lives would be, and there was something about the chance to be able to get inside those women and live things I’ve never lived and take risks that I’m not sure I would dare to take.”

Barnet came to the writing life unexpectedly. While she has always had a passion for the nuance and possibilities of language, it was the trip to Asia that provoked her writing career.

When she first got home she didn’t have a plan, she said. But then, one morning a few days after arriving, she woke up utterly fatigued, feeling as if she was “being crushed by boulders.” She managed to crawl to the bathroom, where she discovered that the whites of her eyes had turned the color of egg yokes. She had hepatitis.

The illness forced Barnet to remain sedentary for three months. She stayed in her apartment almost the entire time, going out only occasionally to get food. Often, her friends would visit and cook for her.

During this period, she had several epiphanies.

“I decided, first of all, at any time, you could die, so you might as well take the chance and do what you really want to try to do. And second of all, I was so focused that I reread everything I had read. And that three months turned me into a writer.”

The bohemian women that Barnet wrote about also persevered, albeit under more difficult circumstances.

“It wasn’t always an all-night party. There were whole periods of time when they lost a lot of time because of breakdowns or heartbreak. But they always got back up, got back on their horse. And that’s kind of amazing, too. The sense of re-inventing themselves, the sense of being indomitable.”

She said she’s particularly impressed with the work they did, because of the kind of lives they lead.

“In my twenties, I couldn’t have mustered the discipline to have written this book because I was too busy out and about. And that’s actually something interesting, that these women managed to get their work done. Even though they were living this high wire act, full throttle lives, they were still able to get their work done. And I think that’s really hard.”

Barnet’s book reveals the character of these historic figures by exploring their internal and external struggles, sketching these bold personalities as the storyteller she chose to become.



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