It's been nearly five decades since Gerard Malanga danced with a whip in front of the Velvet Underground. During that time, he's starred in underground films by Andy Warhol and Piero Heliczer, directed his own films, and shot iconic portraits of William S. Burroughs, a nude Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, John Ashbery, and young Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, among others. He's published more than 20 books, co-founded Interview magazine, and had photo exhibits all over the world. Lately he's been translating César Vallejo, running a "rare and used" book business with partner Asako Kitaori, reading Proust, and writing his memoirs in Venice.
So how does this polymath answer the cocktail-party question, "What do you do?"
Malanga doesn't hesitate: "I'm a poet." Everything he does comes under that heading, he says. "When I was a teenager, just starting to write, one of my big heroes was Jean Cocteau. He did a lot of different things—sets for ballets, film—but all with the touch of a poet. I kind of saw myself in that mold."
Rain streaks the windows of Hudson's Ca' Mea as Malanga orders rigatoni al ragu on linguine instead ("They do that for me," he explains). He's lived in Hudson since 2008, when his library and Kitaori's used-book inventory overtook their Brooklyn apartment. With his leonine head, ice-blue eyes, and checkered suit jacket, Malanga cuts a striking figure. A trace of Bronx gravel remains in his voice; he often peppers his phrases with an upward "OK?"
The only son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on Fordham Road. His father, Gerardo, was a dry goods salesman who took his son on business trips to the Lower East Side. "He was the only Italian in the Jewish rag trade," Malanga recalls.
Both parents encouraged his early talent for drawing. "They said, 'Maybe you'll be an art teacher'—they didn't know about artists," Malenga says wryly. But they enrolled him in an afterschool art class—"my parents' way of keeping me off the streets"—where he fell in love with a book called Metropolis. "It was a 1930s portrait of New York City," he says. "I was obsessed with it. I'd sit in a corner of the classroom and flip through the photos. At the end of the class, I charmed the teacher into giving it to me." He still has it.
Inspired by this and a newspaper series called "New York's Changing Scene," a 12-year-old Malanga decided to photograph the Third Avenue El train before it was demolished. He and his father got to the 125th Street platform just as the train pulled in on its last uptown run. "I've always believed in luck, that I had a guardian angel," Malanga says. The rush-hour train was filled with commuters. "I was wiggling my way through the crowd—a bunch of reporters with Graflexes made room, like the parting of the waves." The 12-year-old stood at the front window with his Brownie camera. "I wasn't thinking about photography," Malanga says. "I was thinking about documenting something."
Years later, that would be the guiding principle of the 472 "Screen Tests" he and Warhol shot at the Factory. But the next art form to seduce him was poetry.
On the strength of his drawing portfolio, Malanga was accepted as a sophomore at the High School of Industrial Art (now Art and Design). He flunked English that year, but his senior English teacher, poet Daisy Aldan, changed everything.
"Here's where the guardian angel comes in," says Malanga. "Within a month of being in her class, I wanted to be a poet. We were reading Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Anaïs Nin. She brought guest poets in to give readings. I used to write love poems to her, slightly disguised, of course—my apple for the teacher."
Next came the University of Cincinnati, where "I was such a bohemian, it was ridiculous." Malanga flunked out and returned to the Bronx. Willard Maas, a professor at Wagner College, found the young poet a fellowship that would become a four-year scholarship if he got straight As his first year. He did.
He also entered a remarkable writing community. At Wagner's Summer Writers conference, Robert Lowell headed the poetry program, Saul Bellow fiction, and Edward Albee playwriting. Malanga studied with Lowell, and remembers Bellow "crashing into my room, saying, 'Get up, get up, we've gotta play softball!'" and Albee sitting on the floor at faculty cocktail parties, taking notes for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"