Photo: Frankford Avenue and Orthodox Street, January 12, 1960
The writings of David Goodis are marked by intensity, cynicism and negativity. The pace is rapid. The characterization of women is nasty.
What kind of person wrote this way? What drove David Goodis? Did he hate women?
The David Goodis of internet fame was a shadowy figure. He is portrayed as depressed, eccentric and reclusive. He wrote by day holed up in his parents home. By night, he crised the underside of Philadlephia, frequenting Black bars and getting involved with obese Black women who verbally abused him. He cared for his mentally ill brother. He slept on a friend's couch in Hollywood, drove junk cars and wore rags. He drank himself to death, dying of liver disease. Such is the legend of David Goodis.
In search for the historical David Goodis, I interviewed family and friends. His cousin, Bernie Shapiro, is keeper of the family flame and defender of the Goodis reputation.
Louis Boxer and I visited Bernie Shapiro, about five years younger than David, at his home in Delaware County. I spoke to Paul Halpern, about 25 years younger than David, by telephone from his home in Florida. I interviewed his cousin, April Feld Sandor, who was encouraged by Goodis to be an actor. Sitting in the home where she grew up, she pointed to the area in the living room where David performed his pranks and told his jokes. I visited Goodis' grave and the site of Superior Billiards with Harold Silver, a Philadelphia political pro who taught David Goodis to shoot pool. I interviewed by telephone Julian P. Rackow, who as a young lawyer, represented Goodis in his suit over the Fugitive television series. I interviewed Leonard Cobrin at a friend's home on Rittenhouse Square, Herb Gross at GoodisCON and radio personality Frank Ford at his home in Society Hill in the company of Louis Boxer and film maker Larry Withers.
A different picture of David Goodis emerges from these interviews. Harold Silver and Julian P. Rackow remember David Goodis as pleasant and mild mannered. Everyone recalls David's outrageous sense of humor. Len Cobrin and Herb Gross note that he parried inquiries about his private life. He is always spoken about with warmth and affection.
The legend of David Goodis was the result of his outrageous stories and pranks. People believed things he said in jest as being true. His cheapness may have been part of his humor, but was taken seriously. He worte by day in his parents home. He was divorced. His secretiveness allowed stories of his life by night to take hold.
Bernie Shapiro recalled that David was part of a huge extended family. His mother, Mollie Halpern, was one of 11 children. The family gathered frequently for family celebrations, cousins clubs, Passover seders, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Bernie Shapiro said that the Halpern family came to Ameriaca from Romania. David's parents were American born. David's materal grandfather, Morris Halpern, was one of the founders of B'nai Jeshurun, the leading synagogue in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia. David's father, William Goodis, was a manufacturer. According to Len Cobrin, David's mother was active in Hadassah (a women's charity supporting hospitals in Israel) and Deborah Hospital. Bernie Shapiro said that David's parents, along with several relatives, moved to Logan, then a new, middle class neighborhood. Bernie Shapiro and Robert K. Greenfield, attorney for the Goodis Estate, lived in Logan at various times.
David's parents belonged to Beth Sholom Congregation, an upscale Conservative synagogue at Broad and Cortland Streets in Logan. April Feld Sandor said that David's brother Herb maintained a scrapbook of David's achievements. Included in the scraptbook is a clippping from the synagogue newsletter contradulation William and Mollie on David's visit to Philadelphia from Hollywood. The scrapbook also includes a letter from David from Rabbi Mortimer Cohen, commending David on his achievements. The synagogue does not have recrods which would state whether or not David had his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom.
Bernie Shapiro remembers David as going to the synagogue only on rare occasions. He does not recall as being religious or observant.
Frank Ford remembers Goodis as being highly Americanized and not particularly ethnic. Bernie Shapiro says that David was an unabashed liberal. He expressed his opinions freely. David had tremendous affinity for the underdog. He had great sympathy for people of color. Despite his views, David was not active in politics. He was not a committeeperson. He was not a big-name giver to political causes. David was not active in Jewish or secular charities. Whever he gave, he gave privately, Bernie Shapiro said.
David thought about joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). However, a physical disability from going to Spain. David did not serve in World War II. Len Cobrin said that David had been classified 4F (medically unfit to serve) by his draft board. Cobrin believed tghat David had a kidney ailment. In the book (but not the movie) Dark Passage, Vincent Parry had been 4F due to a kidney problem. Irene Janney also had kidney problems. Parry had been characterized as a draft dodger at the time of his murder trial.
The fondest memories of David Goodis are those from family gatherings. Both Bernie Shapiro and Paul Halpern remember him as a clown, a comedian and a prankster.
Paul Halpern rememberedd one family party, in which David and a couple of cousins marched ina room with a fife and drum as if they were in the Civil War. David had rolled up his pants leg and wrapped a bandage around it, as if he had been wounded.
Bernie Shaprio recalled how David and another cousin impersonated Laurel and Hardy.
Bernie said that David would attract a crowd by faking a fight. He put red cellophane on his face to simulate blood.
Though they did not remember David as playing a musical instrument, both Bernie Shapiro and Paul Halpern said that David played the comb. He would take toilet paper, wrap it around a comb and play it as a kazoo. Bernie Shapiro said that David liked jazz.
Paul Halpern said that David had a terrific sense of humor. Bernie Shapiro said that David had a vivid imagination. Talking to him one to one, he was personable and engaging. He would keep everyone laughing. David was so funny that Bernie Shapiro would beg him to stop clowning.
Asked if David hated women, Bernie Shapiro said no way. He said David was not a misogynist. He liked women. David tried marriage, but it did not work out.
Paul Halpern said that David was very avant garde. Paul Halpern related a hearsay account of a cousin, who has since died. The cousin was working as a bartender on a ship in New York which had been chartered for a private party. Except for the bartender, everyone at the party was Black. David Goodis appeared at the bar with a Black wife or girlfriend, that Paul Halpern did not know about. Another version of the story has David explaining that he was doing "research."
Paul Halpern related how David's humor got him in trouble. David was of slight build. A small man approached David and demanded his wallet and money. David looked at the little guy and the little guy looked back. David said that there was no way that this little guy was going to rob him. David refused to give over his wallet. Out of the shadows, appeared a big man, who beatup david. Paul Halpern saw the bruises. His cousing told Paul Halpern about the details.
Paul Halpern said that David was modest and would not want to hurt anyone's feelings. There is a story that David met a poor man at a bar. So as not to hurt the man's feelings. David said that his father was a janitor. In truth, David's father owned the factory.
Bernie Shapiro described himself as the senior cousin and defender of David's reputation. He said that David was warm, effusive, personable and popular. He ran with prominent people. He could move well in any social setting. He said there were no pretenses about David. David was not interested in expensive clothes or fancy cars. Bernie Shapiro said he saw David drink, but never saw him drunk. He said tht David smoked for a while but quit.
Bernie Shapiro denied accounts that David had a negative lifestyle.
Bernie Shapiro said that David was a very hard worker. He would sit at a typewriter and write magazine articles. He was paid by the page. He wrote under eight pseudonyms. He would go into dangerous neighborhods and bars to do research. However, David did not become drug obsessed.
Why did David write as he did? Bernie Shapiro said that David was not writing about his own class. David's family was very middle class. He was not writing about his own life. Bernie Shapiro said that David was tolerant. He was liberal in his politics. David felt for the downtrodden. Bernie Shapiro said that David soaked up the atmosphere of lower class settings.
Notwithstanding the internet legend, David Goodis did not drink himself to death. His death certificate showed he died of a stroke. His cousin April Feld Sandor explained, "The whole Halpern family had heart disease. It is a famimly of bad arteries. The Halperns who later could get bypasses and angioplasties are still around."
There are conflicting stories about how hard adrinker he was or was not," she said. "He could be the life of the party and not drinking. I never said him drunk."
Photo: Courtesy of Louis Boxer.
What made David Goodis write as he did? A peak into his mind is offered by his cousin, April Feld Sandor, who was 16 years old when David died. She was interviewed for this website on April 19, 2008. When young, April wanted to be an actor. She said that it was still a time when girls were pushed towards traditional careers such as being mothers, secretaries and nurses.
David, however, gave different advice. "David believed that anyone who wanted to rebel, should rebel. He told me, "Don't be scared." With David's encouragement, April pursued her dreams, going on to a career as actor disc jockey on WMMR and WCAU-FM in Philadelphia, voice over artist and director. She has performed in New York, London and Philadelphia.
April said that David tried to straddle two worlds---the world of obligation to family and hiw own world of career and personal desires. He was loyal to the traditional family of his parents and extended families. He took care of his mentally ill brother Herb. He attended all the family gatherings. After a stint in Hollywood, he returned to Philadelphia and lived with his parents until they died.
However, David was not traditional. "He did not have a traditional life plan such as getting married and settling down to a stable profession such as being a doctor, lawyer, teacher or merchant. There would have been someone in the family who could have pulled him into a field and helped him out. He didn't want that."
"Instead, David chose a profession that would be "iffy" as to what would happen." She referred to writing "pulp pieces" rather than "lofty stuff in the beginning."
At heart, I think David was an actor. Had he not become a writer, I think he would have become an actor. He had a desire to observe others. There was a chameleon aspect to him," she said.
"David used his observation skills very well and could become anyone -- taking on the role he needed in order to gain perspective and the information he sought. That's why I think he could have been an actor. Actors observe human nature and then present that to others," April said.
"David just showed how to do it in writing. Ultimately, however, I think so many of the stories that go around about him are because he went out there and 'played' a part in order to understand. Plus, I think he was just interested in exploring humanity. It wasn't false behavior -- it was very genuine," she said.
"Honestly, in reality, we are ALL so many 'roles' inside: students, teachers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, friends, lovers, haters, questioners. We are fearful, respectful, loyal, and disloyal, and the list will go on," she said.
"Ultimately, the biggest thing about David is that the readers of his books want to pigeon-hold him and make him 'ONE' thing or another. As humans, we are NOT one thing or another. I totally can understand the respect and curiosity about a writer -- the how and the why. I gues I just feel bottom line that the more you chase the nuances and try to 'define' someone, the more you will discover that you cannot 'define' a person. I don't think any one person KNOWS another completely. Nor should we," she said.
April said the key to David's personal mystery is his mentally ill brother Herb. "At the time, there was so little understanding of mental illness. There was a need to keep it secret," April said.
David's writing was a truth below an exterior. In a lot of ways, his writing was a way to write the truth he saw in life. He saw suffering in all classes and it was a time period where no one talked about suffering. Think abou thte time period. Among first generation Americans, there was an ethic of closing ranks to hide things they did not want people to know," she said.
"Today we are the opposite. Everyone wants to spill their guts on TV or compare suffering. We use it to make excuses. I don't think we can judge a time period -- it just was -- and it needs to be considered in understanding the human nature of the time," she said.
"As a little girl, I thought Herb was retarded because he seemed 'slow.' Now I understand it was his medications," she said.
"Later on when I was older, I was told that Herb could be dangerous to himself and others. He was kept super-sedated with heavy duty drugs. It must have been frightening with Herbie. David was a little guy and Herbie was big. Herbie could be great one day -- a sweet lovely man, a gentle giant. Herbie was very funny. He had a wicked sense of humor like David. And another day -- boom," she said.
April explained, "Long after Herb died, I found out what the deal was, but when I was young, no one explained it to me. No one was ashamed of Herbie. He was not kept hidden. He was great actually -- I remember how sweet he was. The family just would not talk about what was 'wrong' with him, at least to us kids," April said.
Herb died in 1971. April thought that today he would be diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. "In the 1950's, mental health issues were suppressed and also not much was known. Mental illness was thought to be the responsibility of the mother. I am sure that David and his mother did not really understand what was happening with Herbie," April said.
"It was David's responsibility to take care of the family and he straddled the world of obligation to his family and himself," she said.
"Think about the concept of brother -- the 'other' brother in David's writing. Maybe David was trying to understand Herbie's world," April said.
"David was interested in the truth," April said. "He was fascinated by possibilities. I wonder if David was ever concerned about mental illness striking him? Did David want to explore Herbie's world?"
"This had to have been a big issue in David's life," April said.
"David was such an observer of life. He was curious about all the facets -- and here, in his own life, there was this uncertainty, this man who for a certain amount of years was one person growing up with David, and then suddenly become another," she said.
"Some day someone is going to -- or at least it would be interesting to -- do critical analysis of all of David's books just from the viewpoint of Herbie. How accurate I am about all of this, who knows? It is just internalized supposition," April said.
"David's observation skills enabled him to seek the world outside the closed ranks of the family," April said.
"Herbie may have been the start of David's fascination with the unspoken world. He didn't write about the world he lived in. He tried to get to the root of what he did not understand," she said.
David's first novel was "Retreat from Oblivion." Asked if David's writing was not a retreat from oblivion but rather for lives lost in oblivion, April said, "Yes, I think that could be part of his search."
"The real sadness is if David could have lived a little longer he could have found answers. It was the next 20 years that things unveiled enough that you could understand your world and put things in perspective," April said.
"I think Herbie is the key. Imagine going through your own adolescence -- dark enough -- and there is now this drama around within you. You are a sensitive and observing person. It must have been frightening for Herbie and frightening in a different way for David and Aunt Mollie and everyone in the family," April said.
"And so, there's David, loving, writing, wanting to make a living from it, and living for his family, and now there is a 'stranger' so to speak in his life. The Herbie he knew has irrevocably changed. I image that the inner questions had to move from there and begin to reshape your own world. I think that some of the stark differences within -- seeing these sides of Herbie, wondering about his own human nature -- helped him look at the stark differences outside the world he know -- and explorations into a darker side of life held fascination," she said.
"David was a great guy. So was Herbie. And, my Aunt Mollie was lovely and lively. I remember David with happiness, with music, with jokes, with laughter, with honesty, with courage and with trust."
"I wish I could have known him longer and I'm glad the books are around because they show me other insights about him that I was too young, at the time, to appreciate. Those insights don't change what I new about David.
Sitting in the living room of the house she grew up in, April Feld Sandor pointed to area where David Goodis performed his pranks at family gatherings and told jokes.
"He was person I love, a cool person. It was a lot of fun to be with him," she said.
Photo: Courtesy Louis Boxer
By Louis Boxer
One name that has not been mentioned this weekend. That is Selma Burke.
Selma Hortense Burke was born in 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. She died in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania. What happened during these 95 years of life is absolutely fascinating to me because it involves David Goodis.
Selma Burke attended the Women's Medical college of Pennsylvania right here in Philadelphia and became a registered nurse in 1924. She because the private duty nurse of the heiress of the Otis Elevator Company and lived in the lap of luxury during the depression.
Selma desperately wanted to study art In 1935, she became a model at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She posed for world famous photographer Alfred Steiglitz.
In 1937, Selma won a scholarship to Columbia University to study art. But before starting Columbia she spent a year abroad where she took private art lessons with Henri Matisse. She returned to Columbia where she became life long friends with Margo Einstein, daughter of Albert Einstein. She graduated from Columbia University in 1941 with a Master's degree in Fine Aets.
In 1945, the chief engraver of the U.S Mint, John Sinnock used Selma Burke's portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dime. (Look at a dime and you will see the initials JS and the famous profiled designed by Selma Burke).
You are probably saying what the hell this have to do with David Goodis. Well I will tell you. (Thank you, Philippe Garnier.) The last chapter of Philippe Garnier's French biography of David Goodis entitled, "A Life in Black and White" is a phone conversation that Philippe Garnier had with Selma Burke about her "love affair" with David Goodis. Mind you the book was finished, the manuscript correcrted and was ready to be printed at this point.
"I have a collect call for Philippe Garnier from Selma Burke of New Hope, Pennsylvania, do you accept the charges?" Naturally, he accepted the charges. He had given up on talking to Selma Burke but now he was suddenly able to do just that. He was able to talk to the large, Black sculptress that had a love affair with David Goodis. As we have heard, large Black women were something David enjoyed.
She said, "You wanna talk about David Goodis?"
David was introduced to Selma at a party. It was love at first sight. Selman's second husband was on his death bed at the time. She said, "I needed to change my ideas (thoughts)."
David was "funny, adorable and very sensitive. He stayed at our house two or three days. Sometimes he would be gone for a month or two; He went to Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand. He traveled a lot. We continued to see each othe like this for five or six years. It was during the fifties."
Selma's brother lived five blocks from David's house in East Oak Lane.
He was always well dressed. He always had beautiful shoes. When he was going to see her, he was always dressed to kill. He cooked for her. "He made the best beef oyster stew that I ever tasted. He was always looking for live crabs, and oyster in a special spot he knew in South Philly."
Goodis kept their relationship separate from his social and private life. Selma and David always left parties in a crowd of their Black friends. He even tried to hide the nature of their relationship from Selma's brother for fear of tarnishing his [David's] reputation with her. Goodis greatly feared the thought that his parents would one day discover their liaison
Once Selma was very ill and she had telephoned David at his home and Mollie Goodis answered. Mind you he was in his mid 30's by this point. Goodis came to the hospital as soon as he could.
Burke describes Goodis has having a "sensitive nature, a tormented and creative spirit, which he always sought to hide from others in order to protect himself."
"With her, he let himself go a little bit more. He suffered enormously from the indifference of the American public towards his books.
Their relationship ended amicably in 1956.
Selma met a man who wanted to marry her, but Goodis did not want to marry and he told her rthat she should not marry either. "He said that I [Selma] must be married to my art."
David told her about his disasterous marriage with Elaine Astor. "That bitch" as he called her. He had suffered so much and he said that an artist must never marry.
"He was truly attractive, almost handome, [with] fine features, dark eyebrows and a beautiful mouth. He was always "charming, disarming and tender hearted."
Selma concluded the telephone call with Garnier saying that the David she knew, had abandoned his "shell" when he was with her.
He was this will of the wisp whom she loved and knew as the "true David Goodis."
So when you look at a dime again it is my hope that you will always remember David Goodis, Selma Burke and GoodisCON.
This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book.
Selma Burke discovered her love for sculpture as a young child and followed her passion to Harlem Renaissance New York, Parisian art studios, and even the White House. The artist behind President Franklin Roosevelt’s image on the dime, she was a dedicated art teacher and one of the most notable sculptors of the twentieth century.
Selma Hortense Burke was born on December 31, 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. She was the seventh of Mary Jackson and Neal Burke’s 10 children. Her father was a Methodist minister who also worked on the railroads and cruise ships.
Burke’s interest in art began at an early age, sculpting small objects and animals with white clay from a nearby riverbed. "One day, I was mixing the clay and I saw the imprint of my hands," she told the New York Post in 1945. "I found that I could make something... something that I alone had created."
Burke’s father encouraged her artistic pursuits. She often used the objects he brought back from his ocean travels as the models for her sculptures. Her interest in African art began with a collection of African artifacts the family inherited from Burke's uncles who had done missionary work abroad. Burke’s mother, on the other hand, encouraged her to follow the more practical career path of nursing. Burke graduated from the Slater Industrial and Slater Normal School (later Winston-Salem State University) in 1922.
She went on to Saint Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she graduated as a registered nurse in 1924. After that, she completed further nursing training in Philadelphia.
She married her childhood friend Durant Woodward, but she was widowed when he died not long after their wedding.
Burke moved to New York City in the late 1920s where she worked as the private nurse for Amelia Waring, an heiress to the Otis Elevator empire. Waring helped Burke gain exposure to the arts and culture scenes in New York. Burke began socializing with the artists and writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
She was romantically involved with poet and novelist Claude McKay (sources vary as to whether they ever legally married), but it was a tumultuous pairing and the two soon separated.
After Waring’s death, Burke left nursing and turned her focus to sculpture.
She studied art at Sarah Lawrence College, modeling to pay for her classes. Burke twice traveled to Europe to hone her technique, where she studied under artists such as Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol in Paris.
But with the threat of Nazism rising in Europe, Burke returned to the United States. She taught art to youth in New York City through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project and the Harlem Community Arts Center, where influential sculptor Augusta Savage was her mentor.
In 1940, Burke opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture. The next year, Burke earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University (where she had received a scholarship) and held her first solo exhibit in a New York gallery.
Selma Burke won a competition to create a relief sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943. JOHN W. MOSLEY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, CHARLES L. BLOCKSON AFRO-AMERICAN COLLECTION, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, PHILADELPHIA, PA
Following the entry of the United States into World War II, Burke enlisted in the Navy, becoming one of the first African-American women to sign up. Her assignment was to drive a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
She injured her back on the job and while recuperating, she won a nationwide contest for the commission of a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt. Burke felt that photographs of Roosevelt were inadequate for her needs and requested a sitting with the President so she could draw him. Roosevelt agreed and Burke sketched Roosevelt over two days in February 1944.
Roosevelt passed away in April 1945.
His successor, President Harry S. Truman, unveiled Burke’s relief portrait at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. on September 24, 1945. Though she endorsed it, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly did not like the portrait at first, as it depicted her husband as a younger man. Burke responded that she intended the image to represent Roosevelt as Americans had long known him, not as he appeared in his final years.
In addition to the bronze portrait, Burke’s profile of Roosevelt is widely acknowledged as the basis for his image on the U.S. dime. The dime’s image is officially attributed to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock, but many, including Burke, claim that Sinnock borrowed from Burke’s depiction.
Burke described herself as “a people’s sculptor” and intended for her art to speak to wide audiences, including those who lacked an arts education. Her work often focused on the human body and she used brass, bronze, alabaster, and limestone, among other materials.
Her sculptures included figures and busts of prominent African Americans such as John Brown, Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and A. Philip Randolph. Some of her well-known pieces include Torso (1937), Temptation (1938), (Untitled) Woman and Child (1950), and Together (1975).
Burke married architect Herman Kobbe in 1949 and the two moved to an artists’ colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Kobbe passed away in 1955, but Burke remained in Pennsylvania for the rest of her life.
Burke continued to emphasize arts education, running the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh from 1968-1981. She taught children about the vibrancy of sculpture and encouraged them to touch works of art in order to fully understand them.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded Burke with a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award. Burke received honorary doctorates from Livingstone College in 1970 and Spelman College in 1988.
Burke completed her final sculpture in 1980: a nine-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. that stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.
She passed away in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Her sculptures are still on display at institutions such as Winston-Salem State University, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Mooresville Public Library in her North Carolina hometown.