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Interview with Paul Wilkes,  November 17, 2005 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Paul Wilkes,  November 17, 2005
November 17, 2005
Paul Wilkes, author/journalist and professor of creative writing, discusses his childhood, college years, and early adulthood and military service. Wilkes is the author of nineteen books and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He has been a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Columbia University, and the University of Notre Dame, among others.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Wilkes, Paul Interviewer: Riggins, Adina Date of Interview: 11/17/2005 Series: SENC Notables Length: 57 minutes

Riggins: Good morning. My name is Adina Riggins. I'm the UNCW Archivist, here to interview Paul Wilkes, as part of our visual Oral History Series. Its been very nice to do so and we are looking forward to hearing more from Paul. So please go ahead. Uh.. did I say that the date is November 17, 2005? We're in the home of Paul Wilkes.

Paul Wilkes: Right. Yeah, this is my office where I do my writing. This is my computer where I write, on these days. So, we're now back in 1964, Boulder, Colorado. And, uh.. I had applied to different newspapers, across America and.. and.. one of them I actually had an offer from. I think it.. what would become Silicon Valley.. but I didn't take it to go to California. I wanted some place kinda exotic.. uh.. or interesting or pretty and Boulder, Colorado, seemed to meet all those qualifications and it seemed like a good newspaper. So I joined the "Boulder Daily Camera" and uh.. and then began to write more feature type articles. I'm not really a great "hard news" reporter. I don't think that quickly. I like to kinda chew things around and uh.. uh.. work that way. So that's why I did that kind of a .. that kind of a uh .. that's .. that's the kind of writing I was doing. But I was getting these stupid assignments. Really, I mean like you know .. I don't think there was a woman like this but this is the example I always use .. it'd become apocryphal after a while. You know the lady who knitted uh.. you know .. pot holders with the faces of all the presidents or something? Let's do a story on her. You know, I mean "Oh .. gimme a break!" So I really began, although I was a very kinda conservative .. just ..

Riggins: What year was this?

Paul Wilkes: This is 1964. I was really kinda conservative, mainline .. come out of the "Silent Fifties" type of American. Uh .. I began to see that there was something else. And, again, I'm not that smart, I'm not that prescient, I'm not a .. trend guy. I don't know what's going to future. But, I began to feel something was happening in the country and that it should be writ .. written about! So I began to write stories about .. for instance .. a couple in Boulder that .. he was black and she was white. "He "black," she "white," they married. I mean what a kinda coarse headline for that .. but that's what the story was .. and I took pictures of all my things, too. So I have this picture of a black hand and a white hand. I mean .. it's kinda..

Riggins: Were you assigned stories?

Paul Wilkes: No, no, no, no! I .. it was .. it was all .. these were all my ideas, now. And, and .. they .. they .. you know its kinda col .. you know, kinda .. blunt instrument thing .. he white .. she black .. he black .. she white .. they married. I mean it's kinda blunt. But, anyhow, I began to think up ideas like this. I did a piece on .. uh .. um .. a Native American kid that came back from Vietnam having lost an eye and what that meant. I know I did a funeral of one of the Vietnam uh .. casualties and so I was .. although I was very much of uh .. you know .. we should be in the War and we should be doing this .. kind of a guy .. I began to write these more kinda .. edgy articles. Edgy for Boulder, Colorado. And I can still remember my .. my editor .. you know, I would approach his desk and .. he would .. you know .. kinda go into a cold sweat thinking, "Oh, God, what has Wilkes thought of now?" because these were kinda controversial at that time in this little town of Boulder, Colorado. So .. I did that and I began to think that I really wanted to be .. I was getting firmer in my mind .. I wanted to be a freelance writer. I didn't want to work for a newspaper for the rest of my life. So, I thought I better get a graduate degree so that I could teach, eventually. So, I uh .. if I needed to .. you know .. part-time or whatever it is .. as it proved that I needed to and would do for many years. So I applied to .. I called Marquette University, where I went to journalism school and they said please don't apply here because we'll have to reject you. You had a 2.24 average out of 4 and you're not going to be accepted to our Graduate School. So I didn't. I applied to six schools and I was accep .. I was rejected out-of-hand by the University of Wisconsin, but I was accepted by Northwestern, which is a very good journalism school, and also by Columbia, where I really wanted to go, in New York City.

Not only was I accepted at Columbia but I got a fellowship there and I was under the GI Bill, so I was .. for the first time, in my life, since I was 10 years old, I was going to be able to go to school without having to work. This was like .. a miracle to me. So I got on my .. we got in our car and drove from Boulder, Colorado, to New York City. And, I did actually stop on the George Washington Bridge, in the middle, get out of my car and scream at the skyline, "New York, you're going to know about me, some day! New York, you're going to know about me, some day!" I mean really, the theatrics of it really amaze me .. but nonetheless, I was really all hopped up .. going to New York City .. going to Columbia! And, all that.

So I arrive at Columbia and find out that all the kids are virtually, all the kids in my class, either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Their fathers were presidents or vice-presidents of CBS, NBC, and ABC! They knew .. they knew.. who Greek mythology, they knew all the illusions that you could talk about in polite conversation and here was this "Honky" from Cleveland, Ohio, who had worked in Boulder, Colorado, who didn't know from nothing. But anyhow, I figured hard work always kinda pays out in the end, so I set to work at Columbia .. and .. I don't think I had a very distinguished .. uh .. year there. Uh, we .. I do remember we took the LSATs just as uh .. as a group for some reason .. and I came out decidedly in the lower half of the class. So I was not the "best and the brightest" and I was .. you know .. just an average kinda guy but I did take .. instead of taking the News and Editorials sequence I took Television because I had done news. I had been .. I had been a reporter for two years, which was the thing that got me into Columbia because they knew this guy had been to the Navy, he worked for the newspaper for two years .. He was just not some kid saying, "I want to go to school for another year."

Riggins: Was there a push to television, at this time?

Paul Wilkes: It was just beginning and interestingly, enough, Fred Friendly came to Columbia that year. Fred Friendly was Edward R. Murrow's producer at CBS and the current film that .. as we're recording this is, "Good Night and Good Luck," which is the Edward R. Murrow story, and Fred Friendly .. played by George Clooney, is in that .. is in that film. So, he was at Columbia and so it was a very exciting time, really! I mean uh .. newspapers were just kind of .. um .. were actually probably were re .. were beginning their decline and television was beginning its rise. And this was 19.. and 66. I went .. I went there in September of '66 and graduated in May of '67. My father who had never been to New York City, who .. when I went to college did not appear on the campus until my Graduation Day .. same was true for Columbia. God Bless him! He came .. he was then 67 years old. He's as old as the century. Uh, he came to my graduation at Colulmbia University. And so I was graduated .. I was graduated from the school. Um .. what am I going to do now? I thought I'd better go to another newspaper before I start trying my freelance thing so I applied and got a job at the "Baltimore Sun." And again .. there again I would be a feature writer for their "Sun Magazine," a Sunday magazine. Same thing happened in Baltimore that had happened in .. let me go back one thing. My politics changed at Columbia. The first demonstration that I participated in .. alright, so .. the first demonstration .. now don't forget, I had just come out of the Navy, I was uh .. Vietnam was uh .. just heating up. We were .. my Navy days were um in the Mediterranean .. and .. and .. in the Far East and in the Middle East but so I didn't go to Vietnam but I was a red-blooded American boy. So I ..

There was this demonstration, staged by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There were guys who were anti-war at that time. I approach .. I was in a counter-demonstration against the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and as a matter of fact threw eggs at them from the hillsides someplace .. Columbia .. down in the square. I mean, I was really a bad guy because it was like, "What are you doing protesting the war .. uh .. we're .. you know, we got you know kill those terrible Vietnamese. "Zap the Gooks!" was the great phrase at the time. But I began to see as was at Columbia that, indeed, um .. life wasn't as simple as I once thought it was and that indeed this was a very, very, very bad war that was going nowhere at all! So by the end of the year, a guy who was very pro-war was very anti-war, by the end of my year at Columbia.

Um .. so I applied for this job .. got a job in Baltimore .. began to uh.. went to uh .. lived in Baltimore .. and .. and was there uh .. as a feature writer. Again, I had an editor who wanted me to do the pot hold .. the little old .. little old ladies with the pot holders stories because those were the safe stories. You were never going to get into any trouble. And I just .. I was past that now. So I began to innovate there, too. I know I hung out with these.. these kids kinda hung at the uh .. at one of the squares .. kinda the disaffective generation hung out, smoked dope. I don't think I did that but um .. at the time .. we would do that later. Uh, but you know I kinda did those stories with .. with "the young and the restless" and the .. you know, the .. you know the rebels and all that .. so I .. I wrote, you know, reasonably controversial stories for the .. for the "Baltimore Sun" My editor, when I would walk up to his office, he also got nervous, "Oh, God, what is Wilkes coming up with now?" So, but .. but .. he let me do most of the things I wanted to.

I remember one story I did was on Linda Harrison, who was married to Darryl Zanuck, eventually .. Junior... and she was kind of starlet .. gorgeous .. she was from Ocean City, Maryland. And uh.. I didn't do the "puff piece" on her .. "Oh, she's so wonderful." 'Cause she was .. you know .. she was a gorgeous woman but she was a ditz. And so we had her as a gorgeous woman who was a ditz! And, uh, Ocean City, Maryland, boycotted the "Baltimore Sun" It wouldn't buy it for a while. I mean, it was .. because she was their .. their pearl. But anyhow .. so my editor .. although he was .. he was a good guy .. really Hal Williams. And he did stand by me when .. when things like that happened. So, its .. I'm two years at the "Baltimore Sun" and I'm really getting itchy. I want to get to New York and I want to begin my freelance career.

Two stories came up at that time that really were the hinge. One was .. there was a talk show host by the name of Gary Moore who had a big talk show, at one time, and it kinda had gone into decline .. drinking and stuff like that. Well, he lived near Baltimore. So I did a piece on him for the "Baltimore Sun" but then was able to sell it to "TV Guide." You know, kinda the "Lion in Winter" kind of a story about Gary Moore. The second piece was even more .. it was more interesting. Dustin Hoffman had just done "The Graduate" and was doing a road show of a play called "Jimmy Shine." In "Jimmy Shine" he's this tortured artist and he has a palette knife and he takes it and slashes this canvas. You know, his life is going to Hell. Well, anyhow, I'm there. I'm doing the story on Dustin Hoffman. I'm watching the thing and he slashes the canvas and then the play goes on. But, he has his hand in his pocket for the entire second act. This happened right at the beginning of the second act. This does not seem right to me. So, anyhow, I go backstage and Dustin .. they've .. Dustin Hoffman pulls his hand out of his pocket. It is dripping with blood! He has the palette knife .. the palette knife should have been dulled. It was not. He slashed his hand.

So obviously, I wanted .. I wanted to follow this story. I'm with him backstage. His manager said, "No, no, no .. get out of here. You gotta get out of here!" Uh ..'cause they're hustling him into the limousine. And uh .. I said to myself, [he whispers] "I gotta be with them! This is where the story is .. this is very interesting! Dustin Hoffman! Big star in Baltimore slashes hand .. uh whatever happens .. " I'm being pushed out of the way. I said three words that changed my life in the course of my writing history. I said, "Johns Hopkins Hospital." Johns Hopkins Hospital was in Baltimore. I did not know where Johns Hopkins Hospital was but I didn't let that bother me. I knew they wanted to get to a hospital and they wanted to get to a good hospital. Johns Hopkins .. whoops, the manager pulls me by the shirt and says get into the limo. So, I'm in the limo and I say, "Geez, I better find Johns Hopkins!" So we pulled up to the first red light. I say, "Let me make sure I'm going the quickest way." I get out of the car .. cab next to me .. [whispering] "Where's Johns Hopkins Hospital?" He tells me "Two, three, four .. " . I knew it wasn't far from there. Bingo!

So there was .. there was I and Dustin Hoffman in the emergency room of Johns Hopkins Hospital and the story would begin, that I would eventually write for "New York Magazine," "Last name Hoffman, first name Dustin." You know, like he's being interviewed at a hospital. So, I knew I had a good story here because he was a very hot star at that time. I called a new magazine in New York called "New York Magazine," which is now into uh .. you know.."The best spa for you and lip .. lipo suction .. yes or no." But it was really a very good publication, at that time. I would eventually be on the masthead of this magazine between two people that have not really done as well as I have or not quite as famous as I am, Gloria Steinem and Tom Wolfe. Paul Wilkes was right in the middle of them. I don't know what ever happened to them but I hope they did well, in their lives. So, anyhow ..

Here was I .. in New York .. in .. in.. Baltimore .. having done this story. They liked the idea. They said, we .. they wanted it within a day. I did it within a day. It appeared in a magazine so I had "TV Guide," "New York Magazine" .. let's get to New York! What am I going to do? I saw an editor and publisher .. an ad at Harper and Row for a guy to write the annual report in a newsletter. Now, when you go to journalism school at Columbia, that is not what you're supposed to do. That is PR .. flack .. bad stuff! You do not want to do that, but I needed to get to New York and I know I needed a job because I wasn't going to hang out my sign "Paul Wilkes, freelance writer" and the whole world would come knocking. So I took this job at Harper and Row and wrote their newsletter and wrote their annual reports and was a corporate guy for like a year and I wore a suit and tie and all that stuff.

Riggins: In New York, on Madison Avenue?

Paul Wilkes: It was on .. off.. actually 33rd and Park. It was their offices. Venerable .. you know .. Harper and Brothers.. Great Oak .. Cass Canfield .. Cass .. very big!

Riggins: Were their lots of publishing houses?

Paul Wilkes: There were not .. they were further down uptown but .. but .. Harper and Row was very well .. was very prestigious house, at the time. It was before all the conglomerates and all. It was a real .. like real, real company. And, uh.. but I was doing all this kind of corporate stuff for them but, I hired a very smart girl out of Radcliffe or something like that and she was my secretary .. For one time in my life I had a secretary and I taught her to do all the writing. So, I was kinda .. I closed the door and I would be hustling ideas for the "New York Times" and all that stuff. So, anyhow, I was .. I did a good job for them and I .. you know .. I did whatever they needed but I .. my heart was not there. So anyhow, they had a little read .. they had a little thing up at Columbia and I ran into a woman who was writing for the "Times," at the time, Judy Klemusrud K-l-e-m .. Klem .. u-r .. Klemusrud .. K-l-e-m-u-s-r-u-d, Klemusrud, who was a reporter for their Style section. And I said, "Boy, man I really would lust in my heart to write for the magazine!" "Well, I can introduce you to my editor." She did. I got my first assignment to follow some cops that were .. and why they don't solve more crimes. They were .. these were detectives on the East Side of New York. The best part of this story was we went to investigate this suicide and the blood was still there and the guy .. the body had been taken out but it was East Side uh .. very nice carriage house kind of thing and all these paintings were all over the place .. stacked around.. white, black, gray, gray, white, white, black, orange, red. So, I'm looking at these two Irishmen, Paddy Lapin was the name of .. I said, "What the hell .. what the hell is this stuff? This is painting .. this is painting?" Looked like something that, you know .. that you'd made a mistake. It was Mark Rothko's studio. Mark Rothko, of course, would be one of the great .. is one of the great uh.. I don't know .. Post-Impressionist .. whatever ... modern artists, I guess he is. But, anyhow, those paintings are now worth probably fifteen million dollar a piece. But, anyhow we were in the studio with a hundred of them and .. and .. uh ... it was a small part of the story but it was kinda a funny one 'cause I didn't know from art or anything .. still don't know from art.

But, anyhow, I began to write these various stories. So I wrote for "New York Magazine," I wrote for the "New York Times Magazine." I got more assignments and then I began to um .. get uh.. uh.. other you know .. assignments for "Look Magazine," "Life Magazine," which were very big at he time. Meanwhile, my marriage was probably beginning to go South. My first marriage. I was .. at that time .. uh .. very interested in being a writer. I was then attending either a Methodist church or an Episcopal church. My Catholic life I had left behind because I had married in the Episcopal church and then attended these Methodist churches with my first wife, Joy Carol Haupt H-a-u-p-t. Again, it's very important to remember these names because she will .. something will happen with that name. So anyhow, I'm in New York. I'm being a writer and I .. I.. I find this guy .. we .. Joy and I eventually bought a brownstone in Brooklyn .. a brownstone in Brooklyn .. and I .. one of my ..

Riggins: Don't you wish you owned that now?

Paul Wilkes: ..which she .. yeah, well .. there's a story on that one, too. And so there we bought this brownstone with Lou and Jane Gropp G-r-o-p-p .. who were they had the top two floors, we had the bottom two floors and we .. we renovated this house. And I wrote a book called "You Don't Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone," which, of course, is now hilarious because they're worth millions of dollars. But anyhow, it was like .. that was like pioneer country. People in Manhattan living in Brooklyn. My God, they never heard of such a thing.

Riggins: Did it have a backyard?

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, a little backyard you know, the kinda .. they were all you know .. small .. a little grape arbor and stuff like that, but it was cute. Park Slope was the area.

Riggins: Oh, yes, I know Park Slope.

Paul Wilkes: Okay, so you know from Park Slope. And, but .. it was very .. it was like ..again it was like pioneer country at that time. We bought the house, together, for thirty-two thousand dollars and of course, its worth thirty-two million now. Um .. so anyhow, I .. I.. I.. in the area was a Catholic church and I happened to meet this priest, Father Ron Petroski P-e-t-r-o-s-k-i .. Petroski.

Riggins: Thank you for spelling that for our transcriptionist.

Paul Wilkes: Uh so .. I began to follow him around. I thought it would be interesting to kinda do a story on an urban priest .. see what they do and how they.. And this guy, I remember him going up into this old woman's apartment where she was incontinent and an alcoholic and when you walked on the floor your feet stuck to it because that was her feces. I mean, it was just disgusting .. flies .. smell .. rats .. filth. I mean.. but he lovingly took care of her, brought her food, helped her to get cleaned up, to dry out. This went on a couple times. I had just gotten back from doing a story on Ali McGraw, who had just done "Good-bye, Columbus." And uh .. who was a very sweet girl .. was very nice and .. but I thought to myself, "What the hell do those stories matter at all?" I mean, who cares about this? I'd been doing kinda "celebrity profiles" and here was this guy that was really making a difference in somebody's life. So I began a story on him for "Look Magazine" which never got published. But as I got back into and seen what this priest had done, my Catholic self kinda came back into focus. This is the best of the Catholic Church. This is the best of a Catholic priest. This is the best of what a Catholic does. And so we began to organize a little home uh .. worship uh .. with him and some people in the neighborhood and I began to start attending the Catholic church. They had a folk Mass where they would sing um .. "We Need the Sunshine," "Godspell," "Day by Day," the songs of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" .. which were big plays at the time. And really it was really a transforming experience because I'm seeing the Catholic Church that I'd never known before. I knew the Latin Mass. Everybody sat there like statues and you just kinda watched the Mass. Now after Vatican II, which happened from 1962 to 1965, the Church had gone into the vernacular, liturgy came alive, but I had missed all that because I was an Episcopalian or a Methodist, at the time. So, I saw this new Church being born and I saw it .. it being lived out in the life of this priest. And I said, "This is interesting."

So I.. We begin this little group of praying in our home and he would come and have Mass. And sometimes when he wasn't there at Mass, we would offer the bread and wine. Now, this is sacrilegious to some Catholics, but we said, "We're a faith community. Why can't we say the words and if it's trans-substantiation, it's transubstantiation, or it's whatever it is, but we want to be joined in .. with God. So, at this time my religious life is going up, my married life is going down. Our sex life had dried up and was .. you know .. just .. virtually non-existent .. it was kinda formulaic when it did happen. And I was um ..really a man on a mission. This .. I really wanted to work in the neighborhood and something was coming up inside me, too, about really living and working with the poor. I mean, this is really the calling of a .. of a Catholic guy. This is what's at the face of it.

Riggins: Were you always .. would you call yourself an extrovert?

Paul Wilkes: You know, I think I am an extrovert but in college I was not an extrovert. I didn't date .. hardly. I mean, I was not .. I mean, I was always a little .. outrageous, I guess, or fallible, I guess would be the right word to use really. But um ..

Riggins: You like working with people?

Paul Wilkes: I did. I always like that. I like getting the job done. I don't .. you know .. I don't know how deeply spiritual I am .. to tell you the truth. I mean, I really .. I would never be one to assess that but when I see a need I wanna .. I wanna make it work. I want to help people out. I .. I get the biggest kick out of helping people .. out of making something happen that they couldn't do themselves. I mean .. that's the great satisfaction in my life ..

Riggins: With writing, you like to.. write. Some writers .. and I know, I've been there. Its just hard to get the writing out.

Paul Wilkes: I hate to write. This is .. this is the most painful experience .. this is like putting, you know.. bamboo sch .. sticks under your fingernails, right?

Riggins: [inaudible] finish ..

Paul Wilkes: Well, yeah, yeah .. well .. kinda. I'd like to research, actually. I'd like to do what you're doing right now. I like to talk to people and then you got to sit down and do something about it, see? All you have to do is send it to the transcribers, right?

Riggins: Well, I have the fun job ..

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Riggins: [inaudible]

Paul Wilkes: No, no, that's fine .. that's fine. Please do [inaudible]..

Riggins: You're talking about all these things that you did, in your career, and I just .. insight into who you are ..

Paul Wilkes: I think .. I think I always have been, and it probably has something to do with my family background .. big family .. uh .. scrambling all the time trying to make things work .. uh .. my .. you know, I really owe a lot to my mother and father who are very .. you know, really hard-working people. And they were not whiners, you know, like, "Oh gee, I can't do that." They never said that. They said, "We have to do this." So there I am and .. and.. I'm in Brooklyn. We have this home Mass group and we're praying together and you know, it's coming clearer and clearer that this is very nice that these twelve or fifteen middle-class people are praying in a brownstone, which is renovated and has just appeared in "House and Garden Magazine," excuse me, dear. Uh, I mean, this was a .. very middle-class life, yeah. And I said, "Wait a minute! What's going on here? This is not .. this is not right!" And uh .. so I said, "I think we gotta now take to .. we gotta not take to the streets .. but we have to do something about the poor people in our neighborhood!" So eventually we got ourselves together and said, "Well, let's .." This one doctor and I, Ed Mohler M-o-h-l-e-r Edwin Mohler and I were really the kind of .. the guys behind it .. rented a small storefront on 219 Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn and we called it CHIPS C-H-I-P-S, Christian Help in Park Slope. And by the way, it goes on to this day. Yeah, it's now a shelter for homeless mothers and families and it's really .. it's .. it's blossomed into a beautiful thing. But right then, what we were doing was .. we were going to open our doors and whatever came through those doors we were going to try to solve that problem or help that person.

So we had um .. so we rented the storefront for 125 bucks for the first month, cooked our first pot of soup on a hot plate in the rectory, which was just a couple blocks .. couple doors down at St. Francis Xavier X-a-v-i-e-r .. St. Francis Xavier, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and President Street. And we began to .. we were open for business one afternoon, two afternoons. It was kinda interesting that .. the .. that the storefront had been a Puerto Rican drinking club before and the guys were very angry that .. the landlord had rented it to these .. you know .. "goody two shoes" 'cause they used to like to drink and play cards in there. They said like, "[growls] We're going to slit your throat!" You know .. and you know, they never did slit our throat and we went on ..

So I was getting more and more and more and more involved in this. This was really what I thought my life should be and it came to me, that, look, I think this is really what I have to do with my life. The writing life is okay and everything like that, but I really want to give life to the poor. My wife at the time said, "Well, you know .. that's fine with you but .. you know, I don't know .." And our marriage was really going South. I mean, it was just .. it was just .. a very, very bad time and so I said, "Well, look .. I've gotta kinda sort this out. I took a knapsack on my back. I was then thirty- .. seven years old. Had been married about eleven years. Took a knapsack on my back. Went to Port Authority bus station and got on the first bus, out of town. I'm going on a pilgrimage to find my soul.

Riggins: Did you know where the bus was going?

Paul Wilkes: I did the first .. I did the .. no .. not, not .. kinda did. I kinda did. It was kinda going upstate and I know there is a monastery up there some place. And I was going to go from monastery to monastery to kinda find myself .. to pray and to ask God to help me .. to guide me. So I ended .. the first one was a Carmelilte Monastery up in upstate .. up .. up above New York City.

Riggins: [inaudible] .. year..

Paul Wilkes: This was 19 .. 19 .. let me think .. 1970 .. wait, let's see. I graduated Columbia .. '67. I go '68, '69 .. back. It's probably about 1972, 1972, the fall ..

Riggins: Were there a number of young people exploring ..

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, the young isn't 37. See, young is 18. Young is 20. Woodstock, you know, and all that had happened. But, but .. I mean, you know, hippies .. all that stuff with Haight-Ashbury .. Summer of Love in '68. Drugs. I didn't know anything about that then. I would .. believe me .. I would get a good education later. But I didn't know any of that stuff. I just knew that my marriage was so bad. I had this great yearning in my heart to work with the poor, and I just had to figure this thing out. So I went on the road and I spent about two or three months on the road. Monastery to monastery to monastery praying .. thinking .. trying to figure this out. I met a guy up in Canada who had started a place like CHIPS and he said go talk to this Trappist Monk down in Spencer, Massachusetts. And I ended up down in Spencer, Massachusetts. Father Mark Delary D-e-l-a-r-y .. and I talked and talked and talked and he said, "You know this writing life isn't a bad thing either, Paul. You know, you really influence a lot of people that way. And you really can do a lot of good. You don't have to just give your life to the poor." I said, "Well, yeah, but its not enough. I really want to make .. I want to do more than that. I want to .. I don't know if I want to make a greater sacrifice. I wanna really be a good person. I wanna do something that really matters in the world."

So anyhow, I get back to New York, to Brooklyn, to my wife and I say, "Obviously, this marriage is .. you know .. it's over and let's .. I don't think we can bring it back. It's and this is my doing. I mean there's no drugs involved, there's no other woman involved, there's no other man involved. There's no money problems. It's just that this is not working." And this is at a time when marriages were imploding all over the place. I mean, the Women's Movement .. Betty Freidan, who I had done a story on for the "New York Times Magazine," "Feminine Mystique," had really started a lot of this. So I was really in the midst of a lot of this, and I didn't really understand it at the time but I did a piece on Betty Freidan. Um .. but the Women's Movement was up and running and women were saying, "Hey, look, I'm not just going to be just a housewife anymore with my little .. you know, with my little gingham dress on and I want more out of my life, too."

So I said, "Look, this is not your fault. I want you to have the papers drawn up and I'm going to give you everything. I'm going to give you the house, the car, everything because I'm going to work with the poor and I .. you know .. I .. that's just the way it is." Two days later, she had that thing drawn up. I never talked to a lawyer. I never talked to another friend. I didn't talk to anybody at all.

Riggins: You wanted it over ..

Paul Wilkes: In two days, she had the paper .. she knew what she was doing. I didn't know what I was doing [laughs]. In two days, the paper was drawn up. I went to the notary.. the local guy who sold us the house, who was a notary public ..

Riggins: Did you have a car?

Paul Wilkes: No. Five bucks .. three bucks .. whatever the notary was. He says, "What is this?" I says, "Separation agreement .. uh .. don't worry about it, just .. I'm going to sign it. Notarize it." [slaps table] I signed my entire .. everything .. I owned .. away. Everything. Everything! So, at .. you know, at a later .. a year later, after I'd gone through my first year of formal therapy, I said, "You know, I was nuts! Can't we renegotiate that?" She said, "I could have gotten more!" I said, "What!?" [laughs] You know, I mean, all I walked out with was the clothes on my back and a couple pairs of clean underwear and my boots, you know! So anyhow, my marriage was over. I owned nothing.

Riggins: You didn't have children?

Paul Wilkes: No children .. no children. We always thought about having children and when we wrote, when I was in the Navy, I would write these soaring letters .. you know.. how many children .. how many sands of .. grains in the sea shore .. how many stars in the sky you know, let's have a big family.. because I came from a big family. But we kept on putting it off .. kept on putting them off and probably something in the back of both of our minds .. although we had a good marriage, I think. Eight of the eleven years, I think, were pretty good. We traveled a lot. We .. you know .. seemed to do okay. We were a great team, actually. We're both goal .. goal-driven people. But we didn't have children and the marriage was over. So here I am. The first night, I spend with two guys that were seminarians that helped out at CHIPS on their rather stinky sofa 'cause I had no place to live. I had no place to live! I was a homeless man. Paul Wilkes, Writer, "New York Times," Columbia University .. had no place to live.

Riggins: Were you starting to feel that .. that .. despondency that you felt in college?

Paul Wilkes: I didn't feel it right away. But, but .. but uh .. you know, there was a little .. it was .. I was so exhilarated by it .. but then I would be ..

Riggins: [inaudible] free.

Paul Wilkes: But like .. yeah. Supposedly .. by the freedom. But then I, every once in a while, I'd say, "What the hell have I done? My God!" But anyhow, so .. I had CHIPS, I was working at CHIPS. And, I went down to the Catholic Worker. The Catholic Worker is really the .. the .. kinda the uh .. clearing house for a lot of this kind of work with the poor. Okay. And the woman who started the Catholic Worker is .. is .. her name is Dorothy Day. She's a very famous .. she'll be maybe canonized as a saint someday. Well, anyhow, I knew Dorothy Day, a little bit and I went down to the Catholic Worker to see what was up. Places to live .. because people were doing this .. you'd go down there and say, "Hey, we've got a little community .. we're working here with the poor." I was .. there was one up in the Bronx. I didn't want to go to the Bronx because that's so far from Brooklyn. So I found .. and I don't even know if it's Dorothy Day or somebody pointed me in the direction of a little man. [To Interviewer Riggins: You can get his picture, after a while, if you want to. That's Jacques Travers, right there. This man right there.] Jacques Travers was a very, very interesting fellow. He was a .. he had been kinda .. had lived kinda a dissolute life in France and had read Dorothy Day and he said, "I want to follow her and what she's doing with the poor." So Jacques had a small .. not so small .. apartment across the Park on Winthrop, 80 Winthrop Street, where he had three men that lived with him and I would go there, too. The three men were Donald, who was .. had post-traumatic stress guy from Vietnam who barely talked .. marched up and down the hallway, all the time, really out of his tree .. Freddy, who was a retired guy, who had been a sea captain or a sea .. mate or something like that who was now .. you know, burned-out and stuff like that.. And The Professor, who was a guy that lived in a Barco lounger. He wouldn't go to bed because he thought he would die. He couldn't get up because he was paralyzed. And The Professor would just sit in his .. he would do whatever he did all day long .. but whenever we fed him he'd always take little pieces of .. of his toast or English muffin and put it in the Barco lounger 'cause he was always worried that there wouldn't be another meal. The rats .. the cockroaches .. they were .. did a field day on The Professor. I mean, we had .. we had more rats and mice than the laboratories. They were always squealing around because there was so much food in this place. Stunk! Cockroach feces is the worst .. If you ever live with the poor, you know that smell.

So all the sudden, here was Paul Wilkes, "New York Times" .. all that stuff .. living with three homeless men and Jacques Travers. I'd a small room, by myself, that had a bedspread that had been knitted actually by Dorothy Day. If that thing were still around today it would be like a .. relic. I mean, it would be very precious. So I worked with the poor. I worked with the poor. I worked with the poor. I was doing it on a daily basis. I was .. uh .. people who were being evicted .. I got them new .. places to stay .. Somebody needed surgery, I got them an operation. Somebody was a .. blind guy .. was being evicted because he couldn't the stuff from DSS. Whatever it was .. I mean, I was like .. the man on the street. Meanwhile, I probably lost about thirty pounds. It was killing me. I only know this when I saw the pictures, later. But I was so driven. I really .. "the poor, the poor, let me work with the poor." Day, night, it didn't matter.

I get a phone call. It is a woman on the other end of the line. I can't quite hear what she's saying but she says yeah, something about "Newsweek." I don't know what that is. So I uh.. she comes out .. very fashionable woman, very nicely turned out. She smelled terrific, too, because the smells where I was were always garbage and musty clothes and hand-me-down clothes and cockroaches and rats and stuff like that .. she smelled terrific, this girl. Gets out of the Yellow Cab with bags. She's there to take my picture for "Newsweek Magazine."

It appears that I have .. the year before this I had .. um .. been researching and then writing a book on the average American family. This was a family with two and a half children with one and a half refrigerators, one and a half cars, suburban New York, Protestant. So, it was a book that would eventually be called "Trying Out the Dream: A Year in the Life of an American Family." This is very common now, that kinda lived-in .. experience .. you are there with them. I mean, we have reality television .. we have so much of that now. It was very new then. It was called the New Journalism. Tom Wolfe was doing it. Gay Talese was doing it. Norman Mailer was doing it. And it was really kind of a new way where you really kinda just immersed yourself in the subject and wrote about it. Well, that's .. again .. I didn't have an idea that I was doing anything that was on the cutting edge or the growing edge but I was! So I did this on this American family .. uh who lived on Long Island. Anyhow, the book was coming out. "Newsweek" was reviewing it very favorably .. big lead review and they wanted an author picture. So Jill Kremetz K-r-e-m-e-t-z comes out to take my picture.

Riggins: I know who she is from her photo books ..

Paul Wilkes: Yeah ..

Riggins: "A Very Young Dancer" ..

Paul Wilkes: A very young anybody ..else .. yeah.

Riggins: I read those [inaudible]..

Paul Wilkes: Okay, you did. Oh good, okay .. okay .. well, so Jill Kremetz comes out to take my picture. These .. I still have the prints of those and they'll go into the Archives at UNCW, probably, the proof sheet, the guy looks like a cadaver. I mean, I just looked awful .. hollowed eyes, skinny, lank, dirty hair. I mean, I was just .. I was just a mess. But anyhow, I kinda all the sudden you know, I was separated from my wife and all the sudden this smell of this perfume got me a little interested. I .. hey, wait, I'm a heterosexual, here. So I kinda asked her out, kinda like, "Do you want to have a cup of coffee, sometime or something like that?" She says, "Well .." She was very .. she knows how to let a guy down .. you know .. I look like a mess, anyhow but .. she said, "Well, I really would like that but .. I'm .. I'm very much in love." And she was then living with and would eventually marry and divorce, Kurt Vonnegut.

Riggins: Really!?

Paul Wilkes: Yeah. Yeah. And, these people would all eventually be part of my circle. I didn't know that, at the time. I knew Vonnegut and Warhol and Truman Capote .. yeah, yeah, yeah ..

Riggins: I had no idea.

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, yeah, yeah .. well..

Riggins: Probably Sherman knows. Have you discussed it?

Paul Wilkes: Well, whatever. No, I don't think so .. but anyhow .. So .. um .. so she takes this picture of this guy. I'm sure she had a very hard time finding a good one, but anyhow the "Newsweek" review appears .. very favorable, seminal book .. you know .. et cetera, et cetera .. Moi? Phone rings again. Usually when my phone rang at CHIPS people had a very hard time getting ahold of me because I was basically homeless but I was at CHIPS. Usually it rang .. you know, it was somebody needing something .. "My daughter's in the hospital .. she's in jail." You know, something's happening. It was Westinghouse Broadcasting saying, "Would you please come to 90 Park Avenue to talk with us, we really liked that book." The long and short of it was that they wanted a television series on the American family and what the American family is going through .. not the family I filmed but the family itself. So the idea that I eventually came up with was called "Six American Families," which we have copies of at UNCW .. different families in different parts of the country. Black cop in New York, divorcing Jewish family out in Mill Valley, California, rural family in Iowa, nuclear engineer with a retarded child in New Mexico, and a rural, poor white family in Dalton, Georgia. Six American families and Paul Wilkes would be the co-producer and the host and the writer. "Hello, I'm Paul Wilkes. It's really nice to have you with us tonight. In Mill Valley, California, we have a fascinating evening for you .." You know .. kind of thing, so .. I would be that person. I'd never done television. I'd never done any of this kind of stuff. So, but anyhow, they liked the idea behind the book, the reporting of it, so .. I would be in charge of this production. Well, by this time the work with the poor was killing me and I knew it and I knew that I had to get out of this, if I was going to live ..

Also I was in therapy, at the time, although I don't know how much .. I must have been talking about it. I chose a woman, Jungian analyst .. Jewish .. because I knew that Jung .. you know .. Jung treats God as if, as if God exists. Freud .. that was so much voodoo. And I thought a woman would be good. I thought .. man, woman, you know .. you got to work out some of those issues. Maybe I didn't work them out in my marriage. And, Jewish didn't matter but .. I wanted something with a religious context to it. So, I began four years of analysis with Barbara Koltuv K-o-l-t-u-v in New York City, at 2 Fifth Avenue .. very nice apartment .. and Barbara Koltuv .. I probably put her kids through college ..

Riggins: [laughter]

Paul Wilkes: But, anyhow .. which is all paid for because I had medical insurance through the Navy. Ah .. yeah, yeah .. in those days you could do that. In these days, you can't.

Riggins: In the 1970's that was when analysis was .. [inaudible]

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, you could do it. Now, your husband is not .. that's not happening for ..

Riggins: He has never done analysis.

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, well, it's .. he didn't do it himself, either?

Riggins: He didn't do it himself, either. It used to be required.

Paul Wilkes: Well, he should have done it himself, but anyhow ..

Riggins: Not to talk about myself, but my aunt is an analyst.

Paul Wilkes: Oh, okay.

Riggins: She's in her 80s now, but ..

Paul Wilkes: But, then it was really .. you had to go through the process, yourself .. so .. I'm in analysis .. I'm really .. I know that I'm going to die if I keep on doing this but I kid myself saying, "I'm still going to work with the poor but I'm going to do this television series." Well, you can't .. I couldn't have a foot in both camps, but I did rent a small apartment on President's Street in Brooklyn .. trying to kinda resolve both of these .. doing both of these things. It was not going to happen ..

Riggins: To go back to analysis what .. because contemporary viewers don't really know what that is .. now we might counseling or supportive therapy or something like that. How is analysis different? I know a lot of writers write about it .. Sylvia Plath, you know, and all those people went through it ..

Paul Wilkes: Well, what um .. you know .. maybe I wasn't going three days a week or five days a week like real, hardcore psychoanalysis is, so maybe I was just in therapy. I was going once or twice a week but I went for four years. So, call it whatever we want to .. ah .. but, you know.. what it would be is would be a conversation with this therapist about what is happening in my life and about my dream life. And, I have some of the records of those dreams. And, uh.. of course the dreams were not real pictures of what's going on. They always would be symptomatic of what was going on in your life. So, we would talk through the dreams and we would talk through what was going on in my life. At that time, I .. don't know if I really resolved it in there but I resolved it in here that I could not go on with this thing. I mean I really was .. I knew I was a mess. So, I began the tv series and I began to travel. And, also, I began to realize that I wasn't the worst-looking guy in the world and that women actually liked me. A lot. And, this was a very .. this was not .. something that I ever realized. That I .. I always felt like kinda the Slovak kid from Cleveland. I didn't have the guys with the white bucks and everything like that. In college, they knew what they were doing.. I was working in a factory. You know, I was always kinda of an outsider.

But all the sudden .. here in my mid-thirties to late-thirties, I was coming into New York, in the mid-1970's as a heterosexual with all my teeth and hair who wasn't living at home with his mother, didn't wet his bed at night, had an incumbent tv series, it was .. it was like .. it was a free fire zone. I mean I would walk into a party eventually and say "Let's see, I'm going to take you home tonight, I'm going to put you on hold, I'll get your telephone number and maybe I'll take you out sometime. Just wait a minute, girls, just line up for a minute here please. Don't pressure me." And, I was just really. I had did everything that I ever thought I wanted to do .. plus .. during those years .. of being single. I mean, I was really a bad boy.

Riggins: Were you still working with the Christian .. ?

Paul Wilkes: I kinda was out of it but still I kept my connection with Jacques because Tracy, who I would need, in the process of this thing, actually went to Jacques' house for dinner. We went to Thanksgiving dinner there, which is a very interesting story. I tell you about..

Riggins: And, again. CHIPS stood for Christian ..

Paul Wilkes: Christian Help in Park Slope.

Riggins: Okay.

Paul Wilkes: Okay. So, anyhow, I'm on the road doing this tv series .. I'm I'm .. you know, interviewing single women, out in California and going to bed with a number of them. Uh .. you know I'm on the .. picking up women in bars .. being fixed-up by other people. I mean .. I eventually my .. my notebook, eventually .. I realized I better keep in pencil because there were so many .. I mean, I was .. there usually three women on my calendar each week phasing-in and phasing-out .. you know.

Riggins: Would you say that you were experiencing the Sexual Revolution?

Paul Wilkes: I was the Sexual Revolution! [laughs] I was. I was the embodiment of the Sexual Revolution and this was .. this was .. of course before AIDS and there was a thing in New York then called Plato's Retreat. I don't know if you ever heard of this but .. I never went to it. Plato's Retreat, you walked in, put a towel on, it was kinda dimly lit, and just screwed anybody you wanted to and as many times as you wanted to .. You like walk up to somebody and say "Hi, wanna do it?" And, you'd do it. I mean, it was just .. it was just .. it was like Rome come to New York City.

Riggins: Did you know Marge Piercy?

Paul Wilkes: I know her name, yeah. I met her at parties .. yeah, yeah, yeah.

Riggins: You met her [inaudible] ..

Paul Wilkes: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, see the party scene was .. now, don't forget I'd done this television series. Gregory Peck introduced me. He was the spokesman for Traveler's Life Insurance for this uh .. Traveler's was an underwriter of this series, "Six American Families." Gregory Peck .. "I have with me, Paul Wilkes, a fabulous young man whose done a fabulous tv series." I mean, here's Gregory, "To Kill A Mocking Bird" Gregory Peck, you know, introducing me! I have pictures with me and Gregory Peck, you know. So, I mean, I was doing okay! I was on talk shows. I was on "Good Morning, America," Terry Gross "Fresh Air," I was interviewed all over America. I had my own talk show in Baltimore, one summer. I would and .. some of my guests that were more interesting I'd screw them after the .. after we'd do the thing. Oh yeah, it was ..

Riggins: How was it from the women .. I mean women's point of view. They were as much a part of it sometimes ..

Paul Wilkes: I never thought .. I didn't think about it, from their point of view. I only thought of it from my point of view .. of .. of .. of .. you know .. and I didn't think about it as being a bad guy .. "Hey, man .. you know, this is what's going on .. let's do it." But, they were using me as much as I was using them. You know, I was .. I was the good-time guy and they were good-time girl, sometime. So, it was a two-way street that I only saw later, only saw .. I had women that would .. I remember this one .. I had a beautiful apartment on .. on West 10th Street in the Village, in Greenwich Village, and she'd drop her daughter off for ballet lessons and come over for an hour. I mean, I was like a male prostitute.

Riggins: She was married?

Paul Wilkes: Uh .. I think separated at the time. Her husband turned out to be gay, actually. And, died of AIDS but .. um .. it was .. it was like .. I mean, it was like a blur of all these people and all these .. bodies. I mean, I would wake up in the morning, sometime, not knowing who the person was .. I'd been drinking a lot the night before. I did .. I was doing uh .. I did a lot of marijuana. I did some cocaine. I had a couple of the pills. I never went further than that. Nothing that I ever injected but .. I was a good .. a very heavy drinker.

Riggins: You were a good partier.

Paul Wilkes: Oh man, I was the best. And, I could dance. And, I could dan .. I'm a fairly good dancer. And, I was .. yeah, I was great fun.

Riggins: So these .. I mentioned Marge Piercy because I love her writing, but you would see this ..

Paul Wilkes: In this circle, you know .. oh .. well .. you know, you'd go to a book signing or you'd go to a party that somebody would have .. you know or opening or Andy Warhol would be standing over there .. looking weird with that white wig and some of the people from the Velvet Underground. Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan ..

Riggins: Was she a partier?

Paul Wilkes: Yeah, well, yeah. That whole East Hamp .. I was out in that .. see I would rent a house out in the Hamptons during the summer. They were at my birthday party .. at my 38th birthday party that this is .. really a wonderful and horrible story. One of my ..

Riggins: My age ..

Paul Wilkes: .. is it your 30th? .. one of my .. one of the girls that I had .. you know .. seen .. uh .. got me a shirt for my 38th birthday party. It had number 38 on the back and instead of a name it had "Scumbag." You know what scumbag means? That is a .. that is a used condom. That is .. that is like .. and I just laughed and said, "Oh my God! Oh, yeah, I really am a scumbag .. I really am and Oh, let's go on with the show!" I mean .. I mean .. think about this. Here's this guy that had lived this life with the poor and given everything away and now .. I mean it's like whiplash ..

Riggins: It's the writing life and the traveling and the career and the ..

Paul Wilkes: And sex! ..and sex! .. it was like all over the place. I was just .. I just couldn't .. you know and it was really .. it was obviously trying to fill up a hole inside of me that .. that .. is not going to be filled by something like that. But that's what was going on. And, it really was .. I .. I .. hate to use the word "predatory" but I don't know if I wasn't. You know .. I .. I ..

Riggins: Do you think back to those days ..

Paul Wilkes: To the CHIPS days and all that stuff?

Riggins: It was really [inaudible] ..

Paul Wilkes: Every once in a while and I'd go by a church and I'd feel a little .. I always make the sign of the cross .. It's an old ethnic tradition, and I might do that even because I remembered what churches were about but I was very far away from God. I was very far away from God in anything, at that time. So, I'm going through the .. okay, so here's Andy ..

Riggins: You did use protection?

Paul Wilkes: Oh yeah, no, I didn't use .. no .. I didn't .. no, no, no .. I was called a scumbag .. I .. women .. everybody was on the Pill. Everybody was on the Pill! Everybody .. everybody was on the Pill. I didn't even ask .. I didn't even think about it .. I figured ..

Riggins: .. the Pill.

Paul Wilkes: "You're gonna ..

Riggins: [inaudible]

Paul Wilkes: I figured you're taking care of that." I mean, this is male chauvinist talk, you know .. behavior. So, anyhow, so here's Andy Warhol and there's Kurt Vonnegut and uh .. um .. there's Betty Friedan. I don't know if we saw Joan Didion and John Gregory .. I don't think I saw them at parties, but uh .. it was always the .. you know, Norman Mailer would be there and uh .. you know .. just, just Lily Morris from "Harper's," Jim James Jones from "Here To Eternity," Truman Capote, uh.. you know .. Truman Capote .. and not that I was part of that crowd, really. I mean I was decidedly .. if they were in the Pantheon, I was on the steps of the Pantheon. I was not .. you know, I was not on that .. you know, I wasn't famous like that .. I was .. I was ..not but that was the crowd! And um .. so I was doing that .. doing that .. doing that .. so, I was on the road for one of my .. for the series, I think, for the series of interviews and I was in Boston. This girl said, "I got a terrific girl for you to meet in New York. I mean, you're looking .." "Oh, yeah, sure, sure .. yeah.." So she introduced me to a girl by the name of Kathy George, who was half Japanese and half Jewish. Gorgeous! Fabulous, gorgeous .. but this girl .. we dated a few times .. went out and stuff like that but we both knew this was not going to happen. She .. she eventually married a very wealthy, much older .. venture capitalist .. and is worth a billion .. billion dollars, today. She was not interested in Paul Wilkes.

She was having a Halloween party and she said, "I got a girl you should meet." I go to the Halloween party, you know, with my shirt .. I had .. my shirts were tailor made, French cut jacket, Jean-Paul Germaine, I mean I was .. you know, I was "the man." I didn't have chains .. I wasn't .. I wasn't quite that coarse but I was .. you know .. I didn't have the plunging neckline or anything like that but .. so, anyhow, here's this girl and she's dancing and she's twirling around. She had a great butt I just remember her great butt. So, she's twirling around .. twirling around and I said, "Hmmm, well .. kinda interesting. I think I'll like to meet her." So, I was introduced to Tracy Gochberg G-o-c-h-b-e-r-g whose mother is .. was nice Episcopalian whose father was Jewish. They married across lines and were divorced two years after, and Tracy was basically raised as an Episcopalian although she's half and half. Okay, so anyhow, the next morning I said, "Hmmm, I'm going to move in on this a little bit."

Um, why don't we stop there and we won't have to worry about the time? And we'll stop right at Tracy Gochberg and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Uh-huh. Now, you'll find out about cinnamon on this next one.

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