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Oral History: Calvin Trillin’s ‘West Village’

Calvin Trillin, photo by Richard Drew/AP
Calvin Trillin, photo by Richard Drew/AP

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

“My name is Calvin Trillin and I’ve lived in the Village off and on for more than 50 years, I guess. What I do for a living is I’m a writer, mostly The New Yorker and some The Nation, and books and a variety of things.” Thus starts Village Preservation’s latest entry in our collection of oral history, which explores the journey this humble award-winning journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist and novelist took from his Midwest origins to his being a regular presence in the West Village for decades.

Trillin was born on December 5, 1935, in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was instrumental in ensuring he attended Yale University, deciding before his son was born that he would be educated there. After graduating, he spent a year in the South, from 1960 to 1961, working as a writer for Time covering the Freedom Rides, university desegregation, and other aspects of the civil rights movement in the South. In 1963, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker, which has since published more than 400 of Trillin’s pieces, including comic casuals, a wide variety of nonfiction, and other reportage on America. He started writing columns for The Nation in 1978, and to this day continues with his popular biweekly “Deadline Poet” entries. Trillin has published 31 books, including collections of his writings about food, which began as comic relief from his more serious reporting.

In this oral history, Trillin recalls how in 1961 he first came to live in Greenwich Village. “I didn’t think I had any romantic feelings about the Village,” but was attracted by the human scale: “There weren’t all these huge buildings and it was more informal.” In his search for a place to live,

I talked to a man about an apartment that was gone or something, and then he called me a couple weeks later because, I assume he thought I was a nice young man, polite, wouldn’t trash his apartment. He said there was a rent-controlled apartment — rent control was the Holy Grail in those days — there was a rent-controlled apartment on 16th Street or 17th Street. But it was free and he was offering it to me.said, “No, I really want to live in the Village.” I didn’t want to live three blocks from the Village. … Now practically everybody who is in any kind of publishing or journalism lives in Brooklyn. But I wanted to live in the Village.

Longtime friends New Yorker author Calvin Trillin and Mark Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters, from our post My Favorite Things: Calvin Trillin/Photograph © by Jill Krementz; All Rights Reserved.

Eventually, he located an apartment at 70 Jane Street, next to the Éclair Bakery factory, “so there was a wonderful aroma coming from the building.” Since then, he has lived almost exclusively in the West Village, even though

In those days, I don’t think the West Village existed as something that people distinguished. That was true when we bought the house too [on Grove Street]. I think it was just the Village. And then I always think of it as getting a free upgrade with no miles needed. It just got to be a totally new neighborhood by not doing anything. So I used to live in the Village but now I live in the West Village. The house hasn’t moved. It’s been there for 150 years or so. 

Trillin married his wife Alice in 1965, and they lived for a time at 12th Street and University Place. Soon after, they had a daughter and in 1969 bought their house on Grove Street. They closed the mortgage on the manse in 1975, as Trillin notes right around the time President Ford told New York City — or at least a Daily News headline writer — to “Drop Dead.” “Only a writer would have everything he owned in the house in a city that was going down the tubes. Who would be dumb enough about money to do that?” 

But he stayed in the house ever since and has seen his writing career grow, which he also discusses in this oral history. One of his most popular works has been the “Deadline Poet” pieces he has written in The Nation, which have been collected in several volumes over the years. His interest in the brief rhymes, he notes, originates with his father.

My father used to put a poem … a little couplet, on the menu at lunch [at his diner], mostly about pie. “Don’t sigh, eat pie,” was his shortest one. In the American spirit of each son trying to outdo his father, I wrote a shorter poem, which was called—and the title doesn’t count in length, The Philosophical, Societal, and Political Implications of the O.J. Simpson Trial. And the poem was, “O.J. Oy vey.”

An assortment of books by Calvin Trillin

As for reporting, Trillin is doing less of that these days. “Somebody told me, after several decades of sitting on that hard bench in front of the deputy police commissioner’s office to see if he’s going to talk to you loses its charm. I think that’s true but if you’re going to do it, you have to sit on the hard bench. So I’m less interested in that now.”

Trillin’s observations on the writing life, his years in the Village West Village, and more are well worth reading here.

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