Bodenheim pouring beer from his glass
Born in Hermanville, Mississippi on May 26th, 1982, Maxwell Bodenheim—whose original name was Bodenheimer—grew up in a family plagued by his father’s business failures. In 1900 the family moved from Mississippi to Chicago, and Bodenheim began writing poetry, rejecting most of his family’s value. He was expelled from high school, and joined the army, going AWOL in 1913, after hitting an anti-Semitic officer over the head with his rifle. He was sentenced to jail, and, when released, returned to his parents.
Soon after, Bodenheim began traveling, working part time as a day-laborer. He also worked in a number of part-time jobs in Chicago. In this period he sent poems to Poetry magazine, and began to be recognized as a writer. At the age of 22, he moved to New York, becoming an editor for Kreymborg’s magazine Others and making friendship with numerous authors such as William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, and Conrad Aiken.
In 1918 he married Minna Schien, with who he had a son. The same year he published his first book of poetry, Minna and Myself, following it with new collections in 1920, 1922, and 1923. Much of Bodenheim’s time was spent away from his family in Provincetown, working on scripts with Eugene O’Neill. He also became a close friend and collaborator with the noted journalist-writer Ben Hecht, and together they produced the Chicago Literary Times. But the two were incompatible, and they soon parted ways, giving way to a feud that lasted for several years.
In 1923, Bodenheim published his first novel, Blackguard. But it was his third fiction, Replenishing Jessica of 1925 that made him famous. The novel recounts a young woman’s sexual liberation, and Bodenheim was accused of pornography. That accusation brought more attention to the book, and it became a best seller.
During his marriage with Minna, Bodenheim was well-known as a womanizer, and had numerous affairs. He 1938 he divorced Minna, marrying Grace Fiann the following year. By that time, his odd habits, including begging for money on the streets of Greenwich village. His wife developed cancer, and died 1950.
Two years later, he married Ruth Fagan, but by that time Bodenheim had truly deteriorated, was badly dressed, unshaven and often slept on empty subway trains and park benches. His wife was mentally unstable, often picking up men for a place to sleep. One such encounter led to a fight between Bodenheim and Ruth’s sexual partner for the night, Harold Weinberg. Weinberg shot Maxwell twice in the chest, killing him, and stabbed Ruth to death.
At the height of his career, Bodenheim had been “the king” of avant-garde, Greenwich Village life. And others were captivated by his personality. Today, however, few readers have read him, and his work has nearly disappeared from memory.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Minna and Myself (1918); Advice (1920); Introducing Irony (1922); The Sardonic Arm (1923); Returning to Emotion (1927); The King of Spain (1928); Bringing Jazz! (1930); Lights in the Valley (1942); Selected Poems (1946)
When Fools Dispute
A trickle of dawn insinuated itself
Through the crevices of black satiation.
The elderly trees coughed, lightly, hurriedly,
In remonstrance against the invasion.
Lean with a virginal poison
The glass-blades shook, immune to light and time.
A bird lost in a tree
Shrilly flirted with its energy.
One fool, in the garden, spoke to another.
(from Advice, 1920)
East-Side: New York
An old Jew munches an apple
With conquering immersion.
All the thwarted longings of his life
Urge on his determined teeth.
His face is hard and pear-shaped;
His eyes are muddy capitulations;
But his mouth is incongruous.
softly, slightly distended,
Like that of a whistling girl,
It is ingenuously haunting
And makes the rest of him a soiled, grey background.
Hopes that lie within their graves
Of submissive sternness,
Have spilled their troubled ghosts upon his mouth,
And a tortured, stoical belief
Has dwindled into tenderness upon it….
He trudges off behind his push-cart
And the Ghetto walks away with him.
(from Advice, 1920)
Summer Evening: New York Subway Station
Perspiring violence derides
The pathetic collapse of dirt.
An effervescence of noises
Depends upon cement for its madness.
Electric light is taut and dull,
Like a nauseated suspense.
This kind of heat is the recollection
Of an orgy in a swamp.
Soiled caskets joined together
Slide to rasping stand-stills.
People savagely tamper
with each others bodies,
Scampering in and out of doorways.
Weighted with apathetic bales of people
The soiled caskets rattle on…
The scene is made of mosaics
Moulded and blown apart by unseen breath.
A symbol of billowing torment,
This sturdy girl leans again an iron post.
Weariness has loosened her face
with its shining cruelties:
Round and poverty-stricken
Her face renounces life.
Her white cotton waist is a wet skin on her breast:
Her black hat, crisp and delicate,
Does not understand her head.
An old man stoops beside her,
Sweat and wrinkles erupting
Upon the blunt remnants of his face.
A little black pot of a hat
Corrupts his grey-haired head,
He watches dead men and women
Spin their miracles of motion
Upon the greyness of a subway-platform.
Two figures leaning against an iron post,
Pieced together by an old complaint.
(from Introducing Irony, 1922)
Rabelais and Maeterlinck,
tired after many arguments,
Subside upon your rosy face.
You try the simper of a boy
Playing with a toy violin,
As your voice responds to women
Purchasing sugar and salt.
You long to escape, but cannot.
The pensive relish of tidbits
Has gradually mastered your life,
And you linger at the deserted table.
Curve upon your sweetheart’s shoulder:
Look up and admire the moon.
Even those who are bolder
Must often sing your tune.
(1921, from The Sardonic Arm, 1923)