Great Escapes

04.10.14

When Downtown Was Cool: Mario Batali, Simon Doonan, Wynton Marsalis Remember the Good Old Days

Greenwich Village holds a mythical place in the history of NYC. Three legends in their own right remember the neighborhood that helped shape them into the artists they have become.

I opened Pó at 31 Cornelia Street on May 27, 1993, and my first and fondest memories emanate from that most excellent corner of Cornelia and Bleecker. On Sundays, intoxicated by both the bells of Our Lady of Pompeii and the fragrance of Zito’s Bakery, I would wander out the front door of Pó at 9 a.m., having done all the prep for lunch and dinner, and head over to Faicco’s to buy fixings for our Sunday staff supper. I’d chitchat with the boys behind the counter, sometimes trade recipes with the sweet Village ladies on the way to or from confession, but mostly guarantee a delicious meal for the crew and me after night service. One of my faves was a sugo with braciole, sausages, and spareribs that I would cook slowly on the back burner and serve around 11 p.m. with gnocchi or rigatoni. After Faicco’s I’d pick up some nice ripe taleggio at Murray’s Cheese directly across the street. Right next door I’d grab a couple of still hot loaves of Zito’s poetic, sesame-coated “Italian bread” and then maybe peek into the Aphrodisia herb store to smile at my favorite cats. If I still had time, I’d grab a box of sfogliatelle for the crew for breakfast and snag an espresso with a little anisette at Rocco’s, just because it was Sunday. A constitutional around Father Demo Square, a look into the kids’ park at Winston Churchill Square to make sure there were no sleepers bothering the kids, and a morning salutation to Joe at Joe’s Pizza, still the best slice in the Village if you get the fresh mozzarella for a seventy-five-cent upgrade. Up Bleecker past the steps of the church and back into my kitchen for a great day making lunch or dinner for my local family and theirs.
Mario Batali

Photos: The Good Old Greenwich Village Days

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In 1985 I scored a job working for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute. I was hired as “display designer” on a show titled Costumes of Royal India.

I was living in L.A. at the time. Lacking the funds to rent an apartment in New York, I slept on the floor—of the hallway—of a friend’s apartment on Second Avenue and 11th Street. This gentleman was named John Badum.

John was the quintessential Village eccentric. He was, in many ways, the downtown freaky version of Vreeland. He knew everyone from Dianne Brill to Marc Jacobs to Leigh Bowery to David LaChappelle to Iggy Pop and was more than happy to drop names and to introduce all and sundry.

In appearance John was a cross between Mama Cass and Orson Welles. He was fat and fabulous and regal, and enormously proud of the glossy mane of jetblack nipple-length hair that followed him down the street.

John worked in the Garment District selling a successful line of washed-silk sportswear called Go Silk. He was highly esteemed in the fashion world, but his real vocation was fulfilled in the evening hours. He’d founded a club for himself and his camp followers called the Disco Modeling School. Outings took place on a weekly basis and involved matching satin outfits, lots of booze, vintage platform shoes, and the occasional run-in with law enforcement.

One night I came home from a grueling day of szhooshing saris to find that John had invited forty people over and that we were all going to wear fluffy Patsy Cline wigs and go hang out at Area. “It’s performance art, girls! Now shut the fuck up and get your wigs on.”

When John entertained he would fill the bath with ice and sprinkle blue food dye all over it. He would then jam a dozen bottles of champagne into the melting blue iceberg and invite everybody in his phone book. He was Auntie Mame. He was a punk-rock Elsa Maxwell. He was Holly Golightly + Liberace + Courtney Love.

A self-invented super-funster, John epitomized everything that was great about the Village in the pre-hedge-fund era. Affectionate and welcoming, wildly unpredictable, kind and wicked, naughty and irreverent, he was an aristocrat of reckless fabulosity who made you think anything was possible. In other words, he was Greenwich Village.

When my Vreeland gig ended, John introduced me to Gene Pressman, the owner of Barneys: “You cannot go back to L.A. You need to get your shit together and go work for Barneys.” (Twenty-seven years later I’m still there.)

John’s apartment was always bursting with tarty girls and naughty boys, artists and models, and moochers and boy-toys. He had a soft spot for good-looking blokes. His reckless, open-hearted generosity eventually caught up with him. In 1999 he was murdered by one of his lovers.

Whenever I walk past his old building I always look up to pay homage and remember the fun and the madness of that period. In my mind’s eye I can see John and his glossy black hair sitting in the window, smoking a doobie, and trying to attract the attention of passing New Yorkers with a squeaky-toy crocodile he kept on the sill for that very purpose.
—Simon Doonan

In 1981 I lived in the Village with my brother Branford. We had an apartment on Bleecker Street near Broadway. We must have been eighteen and nineteen years old then. Art Blakey lived there, too, and he got us into the building. I remember we used to leave the apartment at twelve o’clock at night and go to all of the clubs in the Village. We would go to the Tin Palace, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, and Sweet Basil. I played a lot at a place called Seventh Avenue South, too. And then, we would go to get us some breakfast at Sandolino’s around 5 a.m. and come home about 6:30 in the morning. We called that “doing the circuit,” doing all the clubs like that in one night. I remember all the musicians and gigs down here in the Village. It was very colorful—it reminded me a lot of the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was much more integrated than the rest of New York City, with a lot of different people, no judgment, and a lot of freedom.
—Wynton Marsalis