First time I encountered anything about Joe Gould was in a 1983 book Alice Neel, a bio and collection of her paintings. There he is, presented with three penises and two side portraits of the same organ. Striking, even among striking portraits. But at the time I had no clear clue what Neel’s message might be.
Nine years later, Gould reappeared, or appeared in full, when I read Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and “Professor Seagull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret.” It was a satisfying enough portrait of an eccentric who was more of a hyper-ambitious sham than literary imagination would want him to be.
Then recently, this biography of Mitchell appeared and his very selective way of painting portraits and telling life stories came under fresh scrutiny. The Gould story became a bit unhinged from Mitchell’s moorings.
Now there’s this penetrating essay by Jill Lepore. Worth reading before you finish this post.
Some 32 years of bumping into Joe Gould in various guises. The increasing connections to New England and Harvard. That counts as haunting. But I think this is the finale. Because the circle is closed and I now immediately see what Alice Neel implied about Gould. Lepore fills in the bio parts that male writers of a more casually sexist and racist era might be inclined to skip or gloss over. Neel had no trouble with bad boys. Couple of her boyfriends were hard cases. But for a woman, Neel says, Joe Gould is creepy — a penis on the hunt, a stalker with psychopath touches (look at those eyes). That’s what made the portrait stand out. Neel had reservations about this guy as severe as anyone she ever painted.