Jay Landesman, who founded the Crystal Palace nightclub, which became the linchpin of the Gaslight Square hipster/entertainment district, and wrote the novel The Nervous Set, which became the basis for the world's first (and only) beatnik musical, died Sunday in London. He was 91.
His son Cosmo, now a film critic for the London Sunday Times, wrote in his 2008 memoir, Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me:
My dad has had an interesting life. He's never had a job that bored him. He is an original man, a man who has opened minds and emptied a few rooms in his time ... He's taken tea with Bette Davis, cocktails with Bessie Smith and LSD with Timothy Leary. His is a life that many would envy; I know I do. And yet my dad has never thought of himself as a success, for one simple reason: he isn't a big name. His life has always lacked the imprimatur of celebrity.
If only he had stayed in St. Louis...
But to begin at the beginning:
Landesman was born Irving Ned Landesman in St. Louis in 1919. His parents, Benjamin and Beatrice, owned Landesman Galleries, an antique store on Olive Street, just east of Grand Boulevard. Jay took over the business in the late 1940s, after he finished college at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Rice University in Houston.
On buying trips to New York, Landesman became enamored of the emerging beatnik scene. He eventually moved there and founded a quarterly literary journal "by and for neurotics" called, naturally enough, Neurotica. It became an early outlet for work by Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Marshall McLuhan, who was then a young professor at Saint Louis University.
Also in New York, Landesman met and married Fran Deitsch, daughter of a Connecticut dress manufacturer and an aspiring songwriter. They moved back to St. Louis in 1952 with the idea of opening a nightclub. Landesman's older brother Fred joined in the venture, and the Crystal Palace made its debut in a former gay bar at 3516 Olive, furnished largely with antiques poached from Landesman Galleries.
KWMU-FM theater and film reviewer Joe Pollack was an early regular. As he recalled to Dennis Brown in Brown's wonderful 2004 Riverfront Times feature story, "Beat Regeneration",
Jay was a kind of overarching Rasputin. He enjoyed being a raconteur. To borrow a line from Noel Coward, he had a talent to amuse. I don't think [Fred] used as much dope as Jay did. He didn't have an open marriage like Jay and Fran did. He seemed to be a sane and sober guide to what was going on.
In 1957, the Crystal Palace moved west, to 4240 Olive, in the heart of what was becoming known as Gaslight Square, what St. Louisans boasted was their version of Greenwich Village. It's unlikely that anyone in the original Village felt threatened, but Landesman coaxed many of its denizens, including Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis and the very young, pre-diva Barbra Streisand to perform at the Palace.
At the urging of a young playwright named Tad Flicker, the Palace began staging highbrow avant-garde drama like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame and an adaptation of a comic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (Really.) Then, in 1959, Flicker began working on a musical adaptation of Landesman's novel The Nervous Set, a fictionalized rendition of the period in New York when he was editing Neurotica and courting Fran. Fran Landesman and the Crystal Palace's house pianist Tommy Wolf wrote the songs.
As Brown described in his feature, The Nervous Set was a rousing success in St. Louis, but a flop on Broadway, though one of its songs, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most", was a hit for the cabaret singer June Christy.
From then on, it was mostly downhill for the Crystal Palace and Gaslight Square. As Landesman recalled in his 1987 memoir Rebel Without Applause:
Once again I was needed to prop things up in the Twist Room, which was starting to fade. I tried a number of unique acts, including a young black Yoga disciple who meditated on a bed of nails while another stood on him, chanting. It was impressive, but not a crowd-pleaser.
"Can you eat glass?" I asked them in desperation.
A tribute to Weimar-era Berlin cabaret, An Evening with Brecht and Weil, was, sadly, ahead of its time.
"Unfortunately," Landesman wrote, "it was sponsored by the local B'nai Brith. Since the show was sung in the original German, the audience, predominantly Jewish, walked out en masse. They were shocked we would present such a bill of fare while the memory of six million Jews murdered by the Germans was still fresh in their minds."
Once the Crystal Palace resorted to booking strippers and clowns, Landesman knew it was all over:
"The Square was still jammed with traffic, but it was over for us. The place that had sparked the whole area into a multi-million-dollar industry was its first casualty....Without the Palace, I didn't see any future for us in St. Louis."
He and Fran and their sons Cosmo and Miles Davis decamped for swinging London in 1964, where they befriended the Beatles and continued to be cool, though never famous. Fran continued writing songs and Landesman wrote a couple of memoirs about the days when St. Louis was actually a hip place to be.
Landesman is survived by his wife, sons and a grandson.