Magpie Tales: Getting Around with the Cluetts

George and Martha at the Guggenheim

We catch up with the Cluetts in this episode of the Magpie Tales.

From the 1940s onward, George and Martha Cluett had been a permanent part of the uptown and downtown art scenes.  Liz Smith regularly ended her columns about art galas with “and of course the ubiquitous Cluetts were on hand”.  Rarely spending time at their one-bedroom fourth floor walk up on Perry Street, they would attend multiple openings each evening, reportedly living on a diet of champagne, peanuts, and their ever lit cigarettes.

George and Martha at BW Ball

It was Truman who started the rumor that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was based on them, and then Princess Lee spread that story all over Montauk that summer, and by Labor Day it was accepted as fact all over Manhattan.  The Cluetts and Albee had to take out an ad in The Voice to set the record straight.  It was easy to see how such a story got started.  The Cluetts did love to drink and argue loudly, and once at Max’s Kansas City, Lou Reed complained that the Velvet Underground couldn’t be heard because of George and Martha drowning them out.

Party at Andy Warhol's Factory, NYC, 1965.

To call the Cluetts artists would be extremely generous.  George’s paintings were really quite terrible.  Usually smudges of green and umber that were supposed to represent other galaxies or the interior of his psyche.  He also wrote plays that he self produced at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City and were typically about a misunderstood artist trying to put on a play about the expanding of the universe and trying to get money with the actor playing the lead going out into the audience with his hat in his hand.

Martha described herself as an “impromptu poet” who never wrote down her poems but recited them as they came into her head at parties. “I use air as my writing tablet,” she would say.  Usually late in the evening, Martha would go to the mike or the front of the room and begin one of her poems — limericks, actually, with language so coarse and vulgar, that it shocked even the most seasoned of the crowd.  “There was a young man from Manhasset”  or “Lusty Lola who will blow and mow ya” were typical examples.   Martha could create such poems non-stop for easily 90 minutes or until someone pulled her away.

Today in 2012, the Cluetts are still on the scene, though usually going to just one or two events a night not the six to eight that was the norm in their heyday.  They seem to have found a way to go to those with more substantial appetizers and pricier champaign.  If you see them, be sure to ask them about how they introduced Andy to Brigid and Edie or what Frank Sinatra whispered in Martha’s ear at 1 a.m. at the Black and White Ball.


9 responses to “Magpie Tales: Getting Around with the Cluetts

  1. Dear Basura Goniff: A staggeringly successful re-creation of the Manhattan I knew well back in the old days. Remarkably well done.

  2. Remind me to introduce them to Cad and Ada sometime… Hehe!

  3. Wonderful through and through.

  4. fantastic piece..oh to be there and hear the limericks!! x,,,

  5. Once I spotted the couple at Willow’s Ball ~~ a night to remember. George asked me for a dance … Martha almost decked me. I thought they were swingers, who knew?

  6. I had a feeling this photo was about my dear great aunt! You win for best ever story of this delightful and sparky pair, I just had the best time ever reading along, (because I also wanted to do something off the wall and wacky or super-duper funny- and you did it all- a masterpiece all the way through, thank you!

  7. Oh excellent – I would have loved to hear Martha’s impromptu limericks – made me giggle just reading of them.

    Anna :o]

  8. This is fantastic and charming and the photos just crack me up

  9. This was fun…you…clever you…

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