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Checkout Time at the Asylum

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William Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, Charles Mingus, and Burrough's wife, Joan Vollmer, whom he sprung from the place. Illustration by Gluekit  

To the healthy and/or wealthy, Bellevue was still considered a hellhole. But that didn’t prevent it from becoming a pit stop for a roiling, turbulently unhappy segment of cultural and literary New York, a chapter in the biographies of countless writers and artists. A very young Eugene O’Neill was taken there after attempting suicide, and in 1935, Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano) spent two weeks being treated for acute alcoholism. In 1946, the story goes, Joan Vollmer, the wife of William Burroughs, was found on the street, incoherent and neglecting her infant daughter. She was committed for psychosis brought on by the amphetamines she and Burroughs had been injecting. Vollmer may or may not have been psychotic, but Burroughs was certain he didn’t want her in Bellevue. Seven years earlier, he had gone to his analyst’s office and presented him with the tip of his own finger, which he had severed in order to impress a young man. The analyst had called Bellevue. Burroughs knew what was on the other side of those gates, and he got Vollmer out.

The Lost Weekend crystallized the idea of Bellevue as a snake pit in the public mind; it scarcely mattered that what moviegoers were seeing onscreen was, to some degree, the result of reforms. The open, privacy-free wards had been created after a major scandal in which three nurses were accused of strangling an alcoholic patient to death; their actions were unseen because of the partitions that separated one bed from another.

But such improvements did little to change the fact that in the popular consciousness, Bellevue had become “Bellevue”—the last resort, the fatal prognosis, the finish line. In reality, it wasn’t: For those in the alcoholic ward, the hospital was a place to return over and over. And for those committed to the psychiatric ward, it might be the first stop on the way to prison, or to a state institution for the criminally insane, or to a private sanatorium if they had the requisite means.

The lucky ones went home, with war stories, battle scars, fodder for their art. In his larger- and possibly more-interesting-than-life autobiography Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus, known as “The Angry Man of Jazz,” wrote of his time at Bellevue in the late fifties, claiming to have encountered the young Bobby Fischer in one of the dayrooms, “very tall and gangly, sandy haired, only about 18 years old … He checkmated me three times.” It’s not clear if Fischer (whom Mingus never calls by name) was actually there, though he certainly would have fit right in. But Mingus definitely was and commemorated it in music. As his instrumental “Lock ’Em Up (Hellview of Bellevue)” begins, the drums, piano, and horn runs take off at a frantic clip, sounding like something you might hear in the jazz club in Sweet Smell of Success. But as the piece continues, it takes on a nerve-jangling, argumentative quality. Musically, it seems to lose its train of thought. The instruments fall out of communication with one another. Then they all shout at once. Suddenly, the music stops. The piece is punctuated by what sounds like one man’s hoarse yelp of agony. And then it starts again, and fades away, in a distracted tangle of horns making sounds like approaching sirens and human cries.

At times, it’s been hard to tell where fact ends and mythmaking begins. In her biographical novel Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates places Marilyn Monroe in Bellevue, “streaming blood from two slashed arms, carried inside on a stretcher stark naked and raving. This had been in Winchell’s column.” It sounds true, although in reality, Monroe was treated for depression in 1961 at the much more upscale Columbia Presbyterian.

For the Beat Generation, the hospital was a virtual clubhouse. Allen Ginsberg was committed briefly in 1949, when he pleaded insanity after a police chase (he had been letting the junkie Herbert Huncke store stolen goods in his apartment). While inside, he met another patient/inmate, Carl Solomon, to whom he dedicated “Howl” in 1956. The hospital makes a cameo in the poem, as “the best minds of my generation … talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge.”

The line seems a lucid reflection of a moment in which Bellevue always seemed to be part of the conversation, the rough end to so many wild nights. Norman Mailer landed there in 1960, after he stabbed his wife Adele Morales. The Mailers had thrown a big party in their Upper West Side apartment, and at 3:30 a.m., after the guests (among them Ginsberg) had gone home, Mailer approached Adele, who was getting ready for bed. She later told detectives he had “a funny look in his eye. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me. Then he stabbed me.” Twice, with a penknife, in the abdomen and back.


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