telegraph.co.uk | Feb 28th 2011
One of four children, Landesman was born Irving Ned Landesman in St Louis on July 15 1919 and changed his name to Jay after reading The Great Gatsby as a child. His father was a Jewish immigrant artist from Berlin who came to St Louis to paint the murals for the German pavilion at the 1904 World's Fair. His mother ran an antique business in the city's Central West End.
By Cosmo Landesman's account, Jay had a troubled relationship with his mother and his desire to win her attention often became acute at the dinner table. At the age of 14 he had a nervous breakdown that was triggered by a plate of prunes (he felt he wasn't getting his fair share). In later life, the slightest sense that he was being ignored when food was an issue – in a restaurant say – was wont to provoke a mortifyingly embarrassing cry for attention. On one occasion he said to a waitress in an Angus Steak House: "Madame, do you realise your aggressive delay in bringing my Black Forest gateau has undone 32 years of psychoanalysis? If I relapse into a pre-oedipal stage, it will be your fault!"
He began his trendsetting career in earnest in 1948 as the founder publisher of Neurotica, a quarterly magazine which brought members of the "Beat" movement, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, to public attention. Early issues applied a tone of high intellectual seriousness to such issues as prostitution as a force for good or the habits of fetishists. The magazine moved to New York in 1949 and Landesman edited eight issues in total before handing it over to others. It folded in 1952 after a "castration" issue fell foul of the censors.
Returning to his native St Louis, in the late 1950s Landesman started a theatre-nightclub called the Crystal Palace, where Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand first appeared in cabaret. In 1959 he wrote and produced The Nervous Set, a satire on the Beat generation based on an unpublished autobiographical novel about his own life that featured music by Tony Wolf and lyrics by Landesman's wife Fran, whom he had married in 1950. First staged at St Louis, it played to packed houses before transferring to Broadway, where it bombed – although the song Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most became a standard covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Bette Midler.
While Landesman was effective as a midwife to fame (Norman Mailer described him as "the man who started it all"), he was, as his son Cosmo recalled in his own memoir Starstruck (2008), constantly frustrated by his failure to become famous in his own right.
This was a problem which he sought to remedy with an outlandish lifestyle. In Greenwich Village in the early 1950s Jay and Fran had been known for their "open house" parties where friends and strangers – "the most beautiful and neurotic people in the world" according to a friend – mingled to the sounds of bop and jazz. Determined always to be on the frontiers of whatever new experiences were fashionable at any given time, he took LSD with Dr Timothy Leary, indulged in sexual experimentation and embraced all manner of radical social views.
In 1964, finding that such behaviour was becoming regarded as old hat in America, the Landesmans, two sons in tow (Cosmo and his brother Miles), moved to what they thought of as "the land of the stiff upper lip" and settled in Islington, London.
They knew only one Londoner, Peter Cook, whom they had met in New York after his Broadway version of Beyond The Fringe. Cook quickly introduced them to many of his friends and the Landesmans plunged headlong into the Swinging Sixties.
In a diary entry for July 20 1964, Jay described a typical afternoon's activities with the Labour MP Tom Driberg and his Filipino "houseboy": "We pub-crawled with Tom D. Ended up in a pub that could well be called the Spare Nobody Bar. Lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors powdered from head to toe, whores, ageing pederasts and young couples all in good humour. Tom D said it helped him to keep in touch with his constituency."
It seemed that Landesman would soon get all the attention he craved. In September 1964 The Sunday Times carried a profile of "a very way-out Salinger family just arrived in London".
Needless to say, his parents' seamless transition to the hairstyles and dress codes of Flower Power was hugely embarrassing to Cosmo; as they canoodled with their respective lovers in front of his schoolfriends, he complained that they looked "like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical Hair".
It was in 1979 that they first went public about their unorthodox marital arrangements, confessing all to a journalist from The Observer. They appeared on radio, in print, and in 1984 Fran even appeared in a BBC documentary about open marriages called The Infernal Triangle. When, aged 75, Fran was asked by an interviewer about her "ménage à trois", she was affronted by the implication that only one other person had been involved. "A 'ménage à trois' implies some kind of fidelity," she corrected. "It wasn't just one other person. It was a lot of people."
While Fran continued her career as a lyricist and later as a singer ("As a performer she moves like the Bride of Frankenstein; as a singer she sounds like Shirley Temple being strangled" observed Cosmo), Jay opened a talent company, then promoted macrobiotic foods. He then founded the Polytantric Press, which published works such as a reprint of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, the first punk novel by Gideon Sams (with a safety pin in the cover), and Heathcote Williams's Hancock's Last Half Hour.
He also published three volumes of autobiography, Rebel Without Applause, Jaywalking and Tales of a Cultural Conduit. Frustrated that none of these works yielded the celebrity he craved, he even paid a friend, Philip Trevena, to write his biography and published the result, Landesmania, himself in 2004. Its opening line read: "Who is Jay Landesman and why does the 20th century owe him a favour?" By 2008 it had sold 200 copies.
Towards the end of his life Jay Landesman's dreams of fame got more and more out of hand. He paid another friend to turn Landesmania into a screen play and predicted that "Hollywood will eat it up, it's sensational!" (They didn't; it wasn't). In 2005 he announced plans to open a Jay Landesman museum at his home. Exhibits would have included his collection of 1960s "destruction art", a photo gallery featuring himself when young and the complete correspondence, plays, biographies and press clippings of Jay Landesman. The project collapsed when the council's health and safety inspector gave it the thumbs down.
In his second autobiography, Jaywalking, Landesman described who to invite to make a party a success. These included: "a minimum of three potential celebrities (any field); somebody who moves well (male or female); one beautiful Fascist (to confuse people)... no fat people, unless Robert Morley or Peter Ustinov; a swinging accountant; two attractive lesbians; one international drug trafficker; a gay [politician]; one colored TV personality; a pop singer no one recognises, a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe."
While he may never have achieved anything very startling, Jay Landesman undoubtedly added fun to life. He was characteristically delighted with the publicity his son's book brought, seeing it as a new springboard to fame.
Jay Landesman, who died on February 20, is survived by his second wife, the former Frances Deitsch, and by their two sons.
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