As a young filmmaker and a new New Yorker, the legendary filmmaker Miloš Forman lived in an apartment on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village. Throughout his life, his memories of these years were playful and nostalgic. He remembered, in particular, the playwright John Guare saying about his home that “on entering the house he always felt he had left America and arrived in avant-garde Bohemia — the land, where only what you read and what you drink really mattered.” Although Forman eventually departed Leroy Street, his biography circles back to our neighborhoods in 1980, when he shot his Academy Award-nominated film Ragtime, itself a Village-related story, on the streets of the East Village. The extraordinary story of this artist and one of his most impressive films is one that moves from Greenwich Village to the East Village, and back again.
Miloš Forman was born in Caslav, Czechoslovakia on February 18, 1932. His father was part of a group that resisted the Nazi occupation, and was arrested by the Gestapo when Forman was a child. His mother was arrested shortly thereafter, and both of his parents passed away in death camps. Later in his life, Forman would tell interviewers that he was half-Jewish, although his parents had attended a Protestant Church. New information about Forman’s family surfaced in the early 1960s, when a woman reached out to Forman saying that she had known his mother in Auschwitz. She told Forman that his father was not his biological parent, and that his biological father, with whom his mother had had an affair, was a Jewish architect. Forman eventually had the opportunity to contact his estranged parent, who had survived the war and was living in South America.
During World War II, Forman lived with his aunt and uncle in Nachod, along with other foster families. Once the war was over, he attended a boarding school for orphans in Podebrady. The school was well-funded by political parties who wanted to express support for boys whose families had died during the war. It became one of the highest regarded schools in the country, and was attended by children of elite families. Here Forman befriended the filmmaker Ivan Passer and the eventual president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel.
Forman became interested in theater as a young person, and then enrolled in the Film Faculty of the Academy of Arts in the 1950s. Over the next few years, he began acting in and making films, and his career took off in 1965 with the debut of Lasky jedné plavovlasky (Loves of a Blonde). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In his 2018 obituary in the New York Times, Forman is described in these years as “a rebellious young filmmaker” with a “satirical bent.”
New York City and Greenwich Village
In 1967, Forman moved to the United States to make a film for Paramount Pictures. Some time after his arrival, he rented a house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village (the exact address is undetermined). As recorded in his biography held on the Miloš Forman Official Website, Forman “recall[ed] those times with pleasure,” saying:
“We never refused anyone who wanted to come in, so crowds of people were coming back and forth. Some friends from those days have stayed, some are gone, but still there might be some who left just for a minute and now they are looking for the way back. The playwright John Guare (responsible for the play The House of Blue Leaves) says that on entering the house he always felt he had left America and arrived in avant-garde Bohemia – the land, where only what you read and what you drink really mattered.”
Struggling to make a living off of his films, Forman moved to the Chelsea Hotel in the early 1970s. However, his fortunes shifted in 1974 when he was offered the opportunity to direct an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film was a smashing success, winning the Oscar for best picture and best director, among three additional Academy Awards. Launched into instant fame, Forman’s filmmaking opportunities expanded significantly, solidifying his reputation in the United States. In 1984, Forman prevailed at the Oscars yet again, with his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play Amadeus, which again won best picture and best director, with a total of eight Academy Awards.
Between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, Forman produced the 1981 drama Ragtime, which brought him back to our neighborhoods, this time to the East Village. Based on the historical-fiction novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime‘s story takes place in and around New York City, New Rochelle, and Atlantic City in the early 1900s. Following a young Black pianist who becomes embroiled in the lives of an upper-class white family, the movie engages with themes of racial tension, infidelity, violence, and the history of New York City. Cameos by true historic figures, including East Villager Emma Goldman, dot the movie’s plot, bridging fiction with nonfiction.
In the film, the East Village is used as a set for the early 20th century Lower East Side. Luckily for us, as the filming was taking place, East Village artist and photographer Carole Teller shot a number of striking photos, which are now held in Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive. While some of the images break the fourth wall and capture the crew operating amidst the artificially historic landscape, other images make it difficult to tell which era they depict. They are a strong reminder of how the preservation of buildings in the East Village is artistically and historically meaningful, allowing people to make contact with our city’s past in creative ways.
Ragtime actually bears a connection to our neighborhoods in more ways than one, catapulting us back to Greenwich Village. Among the city histories depicted in E.L. Doctorow’s novel and Milos Forman’s adaptation is the so-called “Trial of the Century.” The actual trial, which investigated the scandalous murder of architect Stanford White (East Villager and architect of a firm that designed some of our neighborhoods’ finest structures), took place at the Jefferson Market Courthouse, now the Jefferson Market Library, in Greenwich Village.
As with many of the histories we document, the history of the extraordinary filmmaker Milos Forman and his renowned film Ragtime is in fact a series of stories based on and told through the East Village, Greenwich Village, and south of Union Square neighborhoods. This is a fascinating and undeniable quality of these neighborhoods: not only have they been a hub of some of the most artistic minds, but they are places where people are strongly and perpetually connected to the past, re-engaging with it in new ways, and through new mediums, time and time again.