by Aimee Levitt
Fran Landesman, a poet and songwriter who, along with her husband Jay and brother-in-law Fred, ran the Crystal Palace nightclub in Gaslight Square in the late 1950s, died last Saturday, July 23, in London. She was 83.
Her website proclaims her "the poet laureate of lovers and losers" and "the jazz world's answer to Dorothy Parker," but Landesman will probably always be best remembered by St. Louisans as the lyricist of The Nervous Set, the world's first (and only) beatnik musical, which had its premiere in St. Louis in 1959. Two songs from The Nervous Set, "All the Sad Young Men" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" became jazz standards.
(Here's a fun fact: "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" was a hepcat jazz translation of "April is the cruelest month," the opening line of The Waste Land by another St. Louisan-turned-Londoner, T.S. Eliot.)
Frances Dietch was born in New York City in 1927, grew up on the Upper West Side and, as she grew older, started spending a lot of time hanging around Greenwich Village where she fell in with the writers and poets who became the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac was allegedly so enamored with Fran that he serenaded her with the immortal words "Be my girlfriend, I'm so lonely" while his buddy Allen Ginsburg played bongos in the background.
Amazingly, Fran resisted that heartfelt plea and married Jay Landesman, editor of the literary journal Neurotica, reasoning, "He'll make a good first husband." The marriage lasted 61 years, until Jay's death in February. It survived the Beat and hippie generations, epic amounts of drugs (counteracted by equally epic amounts of macrobiotics), two children and bad fashion (chronicled by their humiliated son Cosmo, who "thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed"), and was the rare instance of a successful open marriage: In the mornings, Jay and Fran and their extramarital partners, plus their two sons Cosmo and Miles, would all have breakfast together.
Soon after they got married in 1950, the Landesmans moved back to Jay's hometown, St. Louis, where they opened up the Crystal Palace nightclub. Fran began collaborating with the house pianist Tommy Wolf on a series of songs, which eventually became the centerpiece of The Nervous Set. (For more, check out RFT theater critic Dennis Brown's 2004 feature story "Beat Regeneration.")
The late 50s were the glory days of Gaslight Square. The Landesmans coaxed many of their New York friends out to St. Louis to perform at the Crystal Palace, including Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce. (Bruce tried to persuade Fran to leave Jay on grounds that he was inbred: "Let's you and me go on the road and send him a little money every month.")
But after The Nervous Set flopped in New York and the Crystal Palace started booking yogis and strippers, the Landesmans decided it was time to leave St. Louis. Jay wanted to move to a Greek island, Fran wanted to move somewhere where people spoke English, and so they compromised on London, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Jay ran a publishing company and, according to the New York Times, "managed the career of a kung-fu stripper," and Fran continued to write poems and songs. In his memoir Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, Cosmo described their life thus:
Getting married, having children was their one attempt to live conventionally...it didn't last. They soon abandoned the straight and narrow for the crooked and the carefree. By the time Flower Power came around, they were in the twilight world of middle-age. Their hair became longer, their dress became wilder, the drugs got stronger and marriage became more experimental. I tried to get them to stay at home more instead of rushing round to pop festivals....and I warned them about the friends they ran around with.
Still, Fran somehow found time to produce five books of poetry, published by Jay. In 1994 she teamed up with the composer and pianist Simon Wallace; together they would write more than 300 songs and performed them together in theaters, nightclubs and music festivals all over England. "It was a good life," she would say later, "but it wasn't commercial." (She did, however, attain one of the greatest pinnacles of British celebrity, a segment on the BBC's Desert Island Discs.)
And her cynical vision never waned. As she wrote in her 1979 poem, "Life is a Bitch":
Life's full of shit Even when you're in your prime Though your show's a hit Reason never seems to rhyme Every joke has a switch Every joker a twitch Every high has a hitch Baby, life is a bitch.
She's survived by her sons and a grandson, to whom she was "Granny Franny."