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How I Became Hettie Jones

de Hettie Jones

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Greenwich Village in the 1950s was a haven to which young poets, painters, and jazz musicians flocked. Among them was Hettie Cohen, who'd been born into a middle-class Jewish family in Queens and who'd chosen to cross racial barriers to marry the controversial black poet LeRoi Jones. Theirs was a bohemian life in the awakening East Village of underground publishing and jazz lofts, through which drifted such icons of the generation as Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Franz Kline.… (més)
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I started leaving home when I was six and weighed thirty-eight pounds. Lying on a mountainside, where my sister and I were at summer camp, I had my hands in the air pretending to weave the clouds, as I had that morning begun weaving a basket.

Hettie Cohen (1934-) grew up in a middle class home in the largely Jewish neighborhood of Laurelton in Queens, New York. Her parents were distant and formal, but they unconditionally loved their youngest daughter. As she approached adulthood they encouraged her to pursue her desire to be her own person, free of the stifling restraints that trapped most women in early 1950s America:

Men had little use for an outspoken woman, I'd been warned. What I wanted, I was told, was security and upward mobility, which might be mine if I learned to shut my mouth. Myself I simply expected, by force of will, to assume a new shape in the future. Unlike any woman in my family or anyone I'd ever actually known, I was going to become—something, anything, whatever that meant.

After attending Mary Washington College in conservative segregated Virginia and graduate school at Columbia, she settled down in New York. She made friends, had several lovers of various backgrounds, and reveled in the life of a single woman in a city that allowed its youth a degree of space to shed cultural expectations and live freely. She found work as a subscription manager for an magazine about jazz records, and one day at work she was asked to interview a candidate for the job of shipping manager:

The applicant, arrived on a gust of sweet afternoon, turned out to be a young black man, no surprise. It was he who was surprised. "You're reading Kafka!" he said happily.

I sat him down and we started to talk. He was smart, and very direct, and for emphasis stabbed the air with his third—not index—finger, an affectation to notice, of course. But his movements were easy, those of a man at home not only in skin but in muscle and bone. And he led with his head. What had started with Kafka just kept on going.


The man was LeRoi Jones, a former college student and aspiring writer, who had recently received a dishonorable discharge from the US Air Force on suspicion of harboring Communist beliefs. Roi was hired, and he and Hattie began a friendship that grew ever closer, until they became lovers and inseparable companions several months later.

The two moved in together, living a bohemian lifestyle initially in the East Village. As Jones began to gain recognition for his writing, with Hettie's support, the couple was exposed to Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They frequently attended jazz performances at the Five Spot, a now defunct club that hosted several top modern jazz musicians for prolonged gigs, most notably Thelonious Monk's quintet that featured John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. After the two founded Totem Press, which published the work of several Black Mountain poets, and created the literary magazine Yugen, their apartment was frequently filled with writers and avant-garde artists, which provided endless hours of entertainment but left them at the edge of poverty.

After Hettie became pregnant for a second time with Roi the two decided to marry, with the support of their friends and his family, but against the wishes of her parents and the conventions of 1950s America, including many residents of the city of New York. Hettie gave birth to a daughter, Kellie, who was soon followed by another daughter, Lisa. She and Roi shielded them from overt racial prejudice for the most part, but the loss of Hettie's income combined with Roi's inadequate earnings, unwillingness to help Hattie with family responsibilities, and increasing time away from home to spend time with fellow writers and lovers, including the poet Diane di Prima, began to erode the deep love the two once shared. As Jones became more active in the Black nationalist movement and in supporting its leaders, writers and artists, he began to distance himself from his white friends, and from Hettie, who still loved and supported him despite his changing beliefs and numerous infidelities. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 was the final straw, as Roi left Hettie and his girls and moved to Harlem to participate more fully in the Black Power and the associated Black Arts Movement, which he founded and participated in for the remainder of his working days. He later changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and he continued to have a very successful career until his death earlier this week.

Hettie, to her credit, dusted herself off and became an award winning poet and author of nearly two dozen children's books, chaired the PEN Prison Writers Committee, and supported feminist and minority artists and their causes. She continues to teach Creative Writing at The New School in NYC, and she raised two successful daughters: Dr. Kellie Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia, and her sister Lisa Jones is a poet, playwright, former columnist for the Village Voice and collaborator with noted filmmaker Spike Lee. (I was very familiar with and loved Lisa Jones' articles in the Village Voice in the 1980s and 1990s and her work with Spike Lee, but I didn't know until this week that she was LeRoi Jones' daughter.)

How I Became Hettie Jones is one of the most moving and unforgettable memoirs I've ever read. The fierce love that Hettie and Roi shared was richly portrayed, their life together in the East Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s deeply resonated within my Bohemian soul, and the slow dissolution of their relationship nearly brought tears to my eyes. I cannot say enough good things about this book, and I cannot recommend it any more highly. ( )
15 vota kidzdoc | Jan 12, 2014 |
put down jack kerouac and pick this up instead
  chaseand32nd | Dec 16, 2005 |
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Greenwich Village in the 1950s was a haven to which young poets, painters, and jazz musicians flocked. Among them was Hettie Cohen, who'd been born into a middle-class Jewish family in Queens and who'd chosen to cross racial barriers to marry the controversial black poet LeRoi Jones. Theirs was a bohemian life in the awakening East Village of underground publishing and jazz lofts, through which drifted such icons of the generation as Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Franz Kline.

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