This all hit me in Buenos Aires a year or so ago when I turned the corner in a museum and saw a famous painting, described in the nameplate as:
“Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954.”
I know it seems the height of philistinism, but I always read nameplates first. And, in this case, maybe because I’d seen the image on a million totebags, it was the nameplate, rather than the painting, that affected me most. And mostly because it told me I was alive at the same time as a nigh-mythical figure from impossibly remote history.
Now I’m sure it’s not a good and honorable way to respond to art (can you say “narcissistic personality disorder”?). But it did get me to wondering, who else? What other surprising historical figures from what seems like way, way back were alive — and maybe alive nearby — same time as me?
Doing the exercise, it turns out a lot of them were musicians, which is how I justify putting them here:
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Bird. Founder of be-bop. Still playing when I was born (the day they elected Ike). Finishing off founding be-bop, in fact (whether he knew it or not), with a few good and bad years to go. Lost his cabaret license when I was already born. Actually had a cabaret license! An official government document required to play in bars in New York. Bird and I breathed the same. The same, come to think of it, he blew through his horn. “Bird lives!” So did I — and at the same time.
Buddy Holly. Down in the Village, with Maria Elena, three or four subway stops south — 10–15 minutes away from just-moved-to-NY me — plotting how to transcend pop.
Thelonius Monk. Three or four subway stops north, near school. I remember walking by the funeral home when his mortal remains were, briefly, in residence there.
Louis Armstrong. Three or four subway stops east of yours truly, and for much of the same time. The extraordinary man in ultraordinary Queens.
Albert Einstein. An hour away in Princeton when I was a kid in New York. Einstein!
Humphrey Bogart. Just the other side of Central Park, with Bacall, smoking unfiltereds, probably by a window. I should’ve looked up.
Billie Holiday. Lady Day. Waiting for her man. In Manhattan. And I’m there, too — well, a little young to be waiting for my man, but in Manhattan.
Lester Young. Prez. Billie’s mentor. Hanging in the Apple. Same time.
Jackson Pollock, out on the Island. Same time.
Herbert Hoover. Another Prez. The one who kickstarted the original Depression. Died in NY, but — check this — lived long enough (90) to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Just like you know who.
Jack Kerouac. Trick question: he didn’t even die till ’67. Roni’s would-be boyfriend was his pal and gave her one of Jack’s manuscripts, possibly purloined, in order to seal the deal. Then, alas, took it back, having failed to seal it (or so she claims).
Winston Churchill. Well, he didn’t live in New York. But that’s where I received the National Geographic that included a Flexi-Disc recording of his funeral. Now there’s some good listening!
Stalin! Joe Stalin! Not a New Yorker, but we overlapped in time. Just seems such vastly more ancient history. But, no.
Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, of course. Well, they weren’t New Yorkers, but I did see them all in NY, on multiple occasions. So not as left-field as Stalin. But at the same time, to me, not anywhere near as way-back. I’m sure you feel otherwise, which is why I count them. Also because I get to mention that Joplin said “Excuse me” to me in the Different Drummer, a hippie clothing boutique on Lex.
Astor Piazzolla. Frida’s fellow Latino, on my mind when I saw her painting in his native B.A. He turned tango into wonderful Nuevo Tango, with aspirations (like Buddy) way beyond pop. Dipped in and out of NY in the seventies and eighties. In fact, we practically lived my whole life together, chronologically. He didn’t pass until 1992.
Frida and Bogie and Bird and Einstein and Buddy and Stalin and Billie and Astor and Monk. And me.