COLUMN 108, AUGUST 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
WOODSTOCK!--OR HOW A BENSONHURST YESHIVA BOY CLAIMS HE BECAME THE MESSIAH OF THE WOODSTOCK NATION
[Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A., Fat Man on the Left, and the forthcoming The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather.]
This is the story of how one particular young man, Elliot Tiber,
claims he became the Father of the Woodstock Nation
during three days in August that shook the world in 1969.
Back in 1958 the 23-year-old president of the White Lake Chamber of Commerce granted himself a permit to run a music and art festival on the three swampy acres of lawn of his motel El Monaco in the Catskills. He says the permits had the force of law.
Tiber's reasons were less grandiose than you might have expected from the Father of Woodstock. He was desperately trying to draw in a crowd so he could sell his family's bankrupt motel, with its summer barn theater that had no audience. He wanted to move back to civilization. To New York City.
Raised by the archetypical Jewish mama warped by an obscenely hard life in her native Russia, she had grown self-centered and excessively manipulative as a result, according to Elliot. He says she saw her husband and son as necessary extensions of her every want and desire and she kept both in line by always raging at them. A manic depressive who wore a string of garlic around her neck, she was probably a certifiable meshugeneh, Elliot claims.
Tiber's humble beginnings in Brooklyn in 1935, occurred in the pressure cooker of pre-Spike Lee Bensonhurst, then an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. At two years of age, with a desperation he admits he didn't understand, he ran naked to the roof of his parent's building. When he threatened to jump, firefighters came to the rescue---and thus was born his lifelong fetish for men in firefighter uniforms. Next, he was sent to a yeshiva by his meshugeneh mother who figured his becoming a rabbi would earn her a special place next to God.
But Tiber's quick mind told him he did not belong in a yeshiva or in Brooklyn. While making his valedictorian speech before hundreds of rabbi teachers, parents and students during graduation from the Yeshivah of Flatbush, the 13-year-old Tiber did the unthinkable---which was, of course, why he did it.
He crossed himself as if he were in Catholic School. Or so he says.
Elliot says the reaction was total intense silence, but his course was set loud and clear. He knew he had to get out of Brooklyn; he didn't belong there. He especially didn't belong working in his parent's hardware store or becoming a part of his dad's businesses tarring roofs.
Part of his later epiphany was his discovery he was more attracted to boys than girls.
His mama had told him to find and marry a nice Jewish girl, so he says he found himself quite capable of being fond of women. But, he adds, his only sexual attraction was to the boys in the hood.
In this and all other ways as well, the harder he tried to swim away, the more the undercurrents of the Brooklyn world sucked him back. Even---and especially after---his family sold its grimy
The odyssey of
'Elliot's Swinging Singles Not The Hamptons Hotel'
hardware store business and moved to the Catskills to build a motel,
promptly get rich and breathe fresh mountain air. Elliot
claims he was not a rebellious child. Instead of running off to Fire Island, the
teenager believed his parents needed him to run the motel.
It did not actually start life as the oddly named El Monaco Motel. It had a string of names---Mama Sonia's Tourist House, White Lake Motel, El Borracho Resort Motel, Elliot's Swinging Singles Not The Hamptons Hotel and finally El Monaco.
White Lake was a strange place 90 miles north of New York City, a mountainous countryside which time had passed by, leaving behind an odd assortment of denizens, of which Elliot was certainly one. The Catskills were the home of Jewish humor and culture in the early part of the 20th century. Some of White Lake's hotels had been fairly grand in the thirties and forties, headlining the likes of Eddie Cantor, Mae West, Jack Benny and inevitably there were always would-be comics looking for their big break at the famed Grossinger Hotel nearby. But after World War II, Jews abandoned the area in droves, preferring to spend their summers in Florida or Europe. Airline travel was the culprit and by the fifties, Elliot's family chose to move there when most folks were headed the other way.
There was also a skeleton in the closet---literally scores of skeletons in White Lake itself. During the twenties, White Lake was home base to Murder Incorporated and tourists sometimes snagged what was left of the victims of Murder Inc. when they went fishing in the lake. By the fifties, the discarded and nearly discarded hotels in the area were still owned by Jews. But the dwindling Jewish population was increasingly surrounded by the indigenous mountain folks, rednecks who were mostly German peasant types with pronounced Nazi sympathies.
It was an odd assortment of losers, illiterates, money-desperate Jewish immigrants who could not afford to leave, drifters, lost tourists, and most inappropriately, Tiber himself. All except Elliot in those parts seemed to love to hunt---Elliot called them "Bambi's Mom's Killers."
Which might explain the manic quality Elliot brought to El Monaco.
Up close---especially if you spent the night in one of its grandiosely named rooms---El Monaco displayed an impoverished shoddiness and desperation. But from a distance, it was a place so surreal and bizarre (as well as ever changing), you'd be excused for thinking of it as the subject for which black humor was created. There were phones that never connected because there wasn't money to pay any phone bills. The television sets rarely worked, but most had signs that advised, "Be Patient While We Install New Ones."
None of the room had keys that worked. The slanted linoleum-floored rooms were furnished Salvation Army style, and there was no air conditioning. But the rooms all had grand names---the Barbra Streisand Suite, the Milton Berle Suite, the President Roosevelt Suite, the Grace Kelly Suite.
There was no night lights outside, and on rainy nights the place was particularly spooky. Elliot said he fixed that with myriad of signs that promised everything from topless dancers to whispering pines and Russian cuisine. The most accurate was the promise that this was "The Last Motel From Hell." And Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho about the Bates Motel was on permanent exhibition.
Elliot had earned a degree in fine arts and made a living in Manhattan to support the motel. He worked as an interior designer at Fifth Avenue swell stores, did Christmas displays at Bloomingdales and Lord and Taylor, and taught dancing at Fred Astaire Studios.
Thus was everything at El Monaco painted in totally unacceptable bizarre color schemes. Still its Summer Barn Theater offered Chekhov, and, according to Elliot, El Monaco was the home of one of the world's first Underground Theaters.
Signs of all kinds that mostly added to the confusion and mayhem of the place were always in profusion. The motel was ever changing because of the frenetic pace at which Elliot kept coming up with new get-rich-quick schemes that never quite panned out until he hit the jackpot with the Woodstock Nation.
One day El Monaco was trying to cater to the Bach and Mozart crowd, the next day it was swinging singles, and two sewing circles---Lesbians Sewing Blankets for Horses and the Ladies Knitting Covers for Torahs added to the confusion.
Some of those festivals preceding the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair had Mozart and Bach but no rock 'n' roll. But then didn't someone later make a movie about Mozart in which the argument was made he was merely an early day rock star?
The festival activities rarely had an audience beyond the Grossingers, his milkman Max, and local law enforcement types who smelled something fishy was going on, according to Elliot. Some of the story of Brooklyn escapees has already been told by an old schoolboy chum of Tiber's from Flatbush, Woody Allen---at least, Elliot says Woody was a chum. The major difference is that Tiber was gay. And in that fact also rests the particular significance of this story.
From mystics to sociologists, all have offered explanations for Woodstock, which saw more than a million people come and join in free-form reveling the likes of which had not been seen in public since the days of Greek and Roman bacchanales on a farm in the Catskills.
Tiber's explanation sounds almost prosaic, at first, until we learn how much it's all little more than a part of a great cosmic joke. Promoters had been having a tough time finding a place to put on a great rock festival. They thought they had another location, some miles away, but at the last moment the locals---fearful of being invaded by hippies, drug addicts, blacks, homosexuals and other assorted rock 'n' roll types---objected. This was not Elvis country.
Tiber wasn't too afraid of being called a hippy. He was already called a Jew communist faggot by the indigenous rednecks.
To a lot of Americans in those days, hippies were anathema. They were hated, much in the way gypsies are hated in their native eastern European lands.
Into the breech stepped the president of the White Lake Chamber of Commerce. Tiber had been wrestling with his own sexuality ever since his days in Brooklyn. That was what the Underground meant to him---but that was also at the heart of what was going to happen at Woodstock. All those people who were in any sense independent, alternative, artistic or subversive, in any way, whether by being born black or gay or Jewish or whatever, could find a home in the new nation born during those three days in August at Max Yasgur's dairy farm.
Two weeks before performing a kind of impromptu press conference at El Monaco that announced the Woodstock Festival, Tiber had been involved in the famed Stonewall Riots. In which New York cops beat up gays and helped launch the gay power movement. There Elliot says he learned the joys of overturning cop cars while waiting for the mayor to show up to sanction Gay rights.
This was not coincidence. As desperate festival promoters tried to figure out what to do next, Tiber called them to say he had some acres he had been using for an arts festival for years in White Lake. At first he didn't tell them he had only three acres.
Wildly winging it when a helicopter brought the promoters to the site, he
says he convinced his friend
Yasgur, who owned a nearby dairy farm with a barn and some cows in its fields, to help.
Elliot says Yasgur had always endorsed his efforts. According to Elliot, Yasgur once had housed a summer stock theater project of Elliot's on his farm. Max so loved Chekhov that when the troupe got hungry, he donated cottage cheese, milk and yogurt. He also was often the only paying member of the audience.
So, Elliot claims, White Lake's El Monaco became the the new Woodstock nation's White House. And Woodstock became Tiber's ticket to freedom, as it was for so many of those who were there. According to Elliot, the event enabled him to transform himself in his post-Woodstock life from a dysfunctional Flatbush rabbinical student to a best-selling European novelist, playwright and filmmaker so exalted that Queen Fabiola of Belgium granted him a personal audience with her. Those three days that shook the world had changed perceptions forever.
For Elliot himself, the momentum was enough to give him a lot of what he wanted, including trysts with Robert Maplethorpe and Larry Kramer at the infamous Mineshaft S&M Sex Club, or so Elliot says. It was many years before he would tell his mother that he was not likely to ever get married---at least not to a woman. ##
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