Joe Gould’s Secret Discovered in the Afterword of Hippos

“The usual assortment of stupid characters was assembled in Minetta’s. Joe Gould was sitting at a table.” And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, 2008, (102).
The Minetta is a Greenwich Village tavern that opened in 1937 and was patronized by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, Joe Gould, and Jack Kerouac, though oddly, the Minetta website omits Kerouac. The current Minetta Tavern Restaurant is now described as “Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York City tavern.” A Minetta Black Label burger is a tasty $26. The place is so old fashioned, it’s like stepping back in time. I asked the bartender and waiter if there was any Kerouac or Burroughs or Gould memorabilia in house, but none was to be had. There are plenty of photos on the walls of past owner Eddie Sieveri, a boxer. And don’t miss the famous and hilarious shot of Sophia Loren giving Jayne Mansfield the eye—right across from the bar. Who is the Minetta character Joe Gould that Will Dennison mentions in Chapter 9 and Mike Ryko mentions a few times in Chapter 12 of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks? If you read the afterword by James W. Grauerholz, he describes Joe Gould in two paragraphs (pages 209-210), and what a find it is.

Eccentric, Harvard-grad Joe Gould had been going around bohemian Greenwich Village, when it was bohemian, telling everyone about the great tome he was writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” the biggest unpublished book in the world. His (written) oral history was to contain all the stories he accumulated from all the people he met in New York living his outcast life. He’d been doing this for more than thirty-five years, everyone believed him, except it wasn’t true. He had no such book. He only carried around a portfolio stuffed with the same few short stories written over and over.
Gould broke with his family, one of the oldest in Massachusetts—the family had been in New England since 1635—and came to New York City in 1916. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence, not knowing where his next meal was coming from or his next quarter-a-night flophouse bed, if he was lucky enough to get one. He solicited money from people he knew and didn’t know. He called his panhandling the Joe Gould Fund and was both demanding and ungrateful about contributions received. Gould lived an anguished life filled with what he called “the three H’s”—homelessness, hunger, and hangovers.
Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, became interested in Gould and wrote a profile on him for the magazine in 1942. It was he who discovered Gould’s secret, there was no great book in the works. In 1964, some years after Gould’s death, Mitchell wrote another profile on him, and thus is the book Joe Gould’s Secret.
This book contains scraps of wisdom and has amusing things to say about radicals and bohemians and books and book publishing and writers, poets, and painters. Joe Gould was a big
enough “personality” to be mentioned by the unknown Kerouac in 1945, and big enough to be mentioned on the current Minetta website—where Kerouac is unmentioned.
Expect to be touched by Joe Gould’s Secret. As Kerouac writes in The Dharma Bums, “. . . I’d cried a little. After all a homeless man has reason to cry, everything in the world is pointed against him.”
Joe Gould’s Secret was made into a film by Stanley Tucci in 2000. The film was re-created in the same 1940s era as when And the Hippos was written.

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GK Stritch


GK Stritch is a contributor to Beatdom and the author of CBGB Was My High School. The book is available at the St. Mark's Bookshop, New York City, and and

One response to Joe Gould’s Secret Discovered in the Afterword of Hippos

  1. Once I finished reading your piece I watched “Joe Gould’s Secret” on Netflix. It was a name I always heard in passing but never had a context. As for the Minetta…I lived blocks away and was always too $cared to walk into that place…even when it was shut down for renos. Good read!

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