By Eileen Katz
You’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate Upper West Sider than John French. He’s the founding member of Twisted Sister, where’s he’s known as Jay Jay, and still performs and plays guitar with the band. In his “spare time”, he has run two marathons, is the founder of The Pinkburst Project (bringing awareness and research for a cure for Uveitis pinkburstproject.org), and is a contributing writer to Inc. Magazine. Luckily, he took time to sit down with us at his home on 91st and Amsterdam and tell some fantastic stories about living in the neighborhood.
Why the West Side, John?
When I first moved up here, I was a really young kid. There were no tall buildings. Just these tenements. I played stickball right out on the street over here. As kids we built milk-crate racers and raced right down this street. I was 6 years old. We had been down in Murray Hill when all my mother’s friends started moving up here. The rent at that time was $165 a month, which was really a stretch for us back then. One of her friends moved to an 18-room apartment at The Eldorado and her rent was $600 a month. Another friend had a 9 room apartment at The Belnord and her rent was $300 a month. So everywhere I went all my friends had these huge apartments that at the time, nobody even really thought about as such. And here I was on Amsterdam Avenue, which was considered the armpit of the West side. It’s still considered the armpit of the West side! Have you noticed there’s no Starbucks on Amsterdam Avenue? Have you ever thought about that?
I actually have wondered about that, believe it or not!
There are no Starbucks or banks on Amsterdam. Just Columbus and Broadway. Well, they finally opened one bank., but how lame do you have to be as an Avenue in New York City to have no Starbucks and just one bank?! There’s f*&king Starbucks and banks every 10 feet on every other street in this city! See, no one cared about Amsterdam Avenue. It was considered the worker’s avenue. Columbus serviced the families on Central Park West, Broadway serviced Riverside and West End. Have you ever noticed there are no supermarkets on the East side of Broadway? There are none! And that’s because the rich people who lived on West End and Riverside did not want to walk that extra block, really just crossing the width of Broadway, to do their shopping! That’s why the west side of Broadway is the most expensive side. That’s why so many of the older buildings on Amsterdam don’t have 10 foot ceilings too! You’ll see 9 feet, 8 feet, but you’ll never see 10’s. These were not considered luxury buildings. This is a hamish, Jewish place to live. This all mattered to me early on. Here’s another one: It occurred to me years ago that the cost of a slice of pizza and the cost of a subway ride was the same. It was parallel! First each was 10 cents, then 25 now each is $2.75. One of those strange things. One of the strange parts of the economy of New York. Who else do you think thinks about this stuff? I do, cause I’ve been living here my whole life!!
What an incredible history to have, living up here your whole life…
There’s been some celebrity moments too! A scene from “Deathwish” was filmed right in front of this building! It was 1974 and there was construction going on that they made part of the scene as a mugger is running across the scene. And the movie comes out, and there’s 91st Street! Law and Order filmed here.
In this actual apartment?
Here, in this actual apartment! I was married to my second wife at the time and we had one wall painted red cause this great gay decorator we worked with told us it makes the room stand out. And people would come in to the apartment and be like: “Hey, that’s kinda cool.” So one day, we see that there’s this sign that’s been put in the lobby saying Law and Order is looking to shoot in an apartment here. If you want to be considered sign up. So we did. They walk in, take a look around, take some photos, said “Thank you very much” and walked out. And I never heard back. Then, a year later, the bell rings from downstairs and it’s the doorman saying there’s a guy here from Law and Order who wants to ask me a question. He gets on the phone and he says: “So Mr. French, do you still have that red wall?” and I say yes, so he asks to come up, he walks in, takes one look at the wall and says: “Perfect. Let’s shoot.” And I’m like well what’s the storyline? Why all of a sudden is this working?” Turns out Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt have a scene where they’re interrogating a bi-sexual dance instructor and I was like: “Ahh!” So cliché! We got the job thanks to that decorator!
A lot’s happened to you while living up here!
91st and Amsterdam is the actual epicenter of my life. When people ask if I could ever live anywhere else I say yes, but I always have to come back to here at some point. Too much of my identity is wrapped up in this apartment, in this neighborhood.
Have you lived away from here in other places?
I’ve had to. With Twisted Sister we traveled to 40 countries. I’ve lived in England. One of my ex-wives was English. My daughter is English, as well as an American citizen. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of other places, great places.
What brings you back here?
This is gonna sound weird, but this is the only location that I don’t have to be this guy from Twisted Sister. I’m just this guy John living on the Upper West Side, where there are a lot of stars already anyway. Nobody cares! And since I grew up here, the guys in the projects, who are still alive here, they call me by my real last name which is Segall. And they’ll go “Yo Segall, what’s up?” Cause they’ve known me for forever. I’d come back from a tour and couldn’t wait to just grab a ball and a bat and go to Joan of Arc yard and hit a ball against a wall cause that’s what would bring me back to my reality. British rockers talk about the fact that what brings them back to reality is their little gardens. I don’t care if it’s Roger Waters from Pink Floyd or George Harrison. They all tend to their little gardens. The craziest, drunkest, drug-addicted, out of control guys – Keith Richards and Ozzy Osbourne, they have to come back to their houses or their mansions and tend to their little gardens because their parents brought them up to respect this little garden and this (the Upper West Side) is my little garden.
But the perspective of being a personality here and how little I think of myself as that personality is a story I will tell you about me and Joel Fabiani. He played Joan Collins’ lover on Dynasty and was also Susan Lucci’s lawyer/lover on “All My Children.” He lived in this building for many years and I had no idea he was an actor. I just thought he was Joel from 12G. And we were both on the Tenant’s Association so I’d see him at meetings. And I’m on tour in 1985 and my wife calls me and says: “Do you have any idea who lives in our building? Do you know we have Joel Fabiani?” And I answered, “Yeah – he’s in 12G” and she says: “Don’t you know who he is? He was Pam’s lover on Dallas and now he’s the King of Moldavia on “Dynasty”! Now I’d been away for a year and I knew it was big, but not exactly how big. So I get home finally and I’m sitting with my wife and we’re watching the last episode of that season where Joan gets married to him and all these terrorists come in and start shooting everyone and I’m sitting there and I say: “Jesus Christ that’s Joel from 12G!” So the next day, my wife says to me we need milk can you please go down to Key Food and pick some up? So I say of course, I’m finally home, this is what we do. So I go downstairs and I see Joel in the lobby carrying a basket of laundry and I say to him: “Joel! How can you not have told me what you did for a living? I saw you on TV last night along with 80 million other people getting shot at and I’m like “You’re Joel from 12G”! And he looks at me and says, “But John, look at you! You’re band Twisted Sister is one of the biggest in the world!” And I said: “But you knew I was in a band at least. I had no idea who you were!” and we look at each other at that point and we’re like “Yeah, and for all that, I’m taking a basket of dirty clothes to the laundromat and you’re running out to buy milk”. And I said “…you know, we’re just a bunch of schmucks on the West side.” And we crossed Amsterdam and got our stuff done. No groupies, no drugs, no fans…just us on the Upper West Side!
That is perfect!
You haven’t heard anything yet. Wait for this one. I’m telling you, talk about only on the Upper West Side…and only in my building. So I’ve lived in this apartment, in this building since October 1st, 1958. In 1989 I walk in the building one day, now I live in 10C (not actual apt), and my doorman pulls me over and tells me some guy with the same exact name as me, my real name, John Segall, just moved in to 9C (not actual apt). And I say to myself, well, now this could get confusing with mail and billing in some of the local stores and stuff. So I knock on the door and the door’s opened by a woman who tells me her name is Sharon and I introduce myself and she says they’d heard about me. And it turns out they started getting some of my phone calls because I wasn’t listed but they were and so through all this we got friendly as neighbors. Then, my then-wife and I have our daughter and Sharon very nicely offers to babysit so my wife and I can get a break every now and then and have dinner or just go out. And over time, I would see Sharon in the elevator and we would talk and that was it. Then one day, in 2003, the last week of May, she gets in the elevator and tells me that she and John had split a couple of months ago. And I tell her that me and my wife had also just split. And she suggested we hang out. That led to a relationship and that was 13 years ago and we just got married 4 days ago in Vegas!
Wait! Do you mean she has now been married to TWO John Segalls?!?
Exactly! This is such an Upper West Side story! Sharon is from here originally too! 100th & Riverside. She went to private school and I went to public.
Tell me about going to school up here.
I went to PS 93. Do you know the restaurant Kouzan? It crossed the housing project that was PS 93. And you know that graffiti wall you can see right across from there? That used to be the wall where they used to make you go if you talked too much in class and bang out the erasers. I spent a lot of time at that wall. And now I find myself at Kouzan eating a roll, looking out at that wall and I can’t believe I’m still here! Still on 91st Street!
Any other school memories you can share?
I remember getting kicked out of Brandeis High School. Twice. In 1968 I was involved in anti-war activities because I come from this very left wing family. I brought the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) from Columbia University down to Brandeis High School to put on a play, which was a very incendiary play. The upshot of it was that there was a riot and I was implicated. So I was suspended from the school and my mother* goes to the principle and convinces him to allow me back in to the school. It works. He does. Then, about a week or two later, some friends of mine from school broke in to the print shop and stole the heading from the official Brandeis paper and printed this even greater incendiary anti-teacher rant because there had been this public school teacher strike in 1968 and schools did not open until November of that year. So when the strike was settled they added 5 minutes on to each period so the teachers could make up some of their pay. So these friends of mine print out this nasty newsletter blasting the teachers for this. So there I am handing this thing out and the next thing I know, I’m back in the principle’s office where I’m told I violated the agreement my mother had made to allow my back after the play incident. There I was thrown out again. So I sued the Board of Education for violating my constitutional rights and was part of a class action suit that included the case against Stuyvesant High School not allowing girls in and the case about being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “Under God”.
That’s some pretty good company! What an experience to have had at 16. So when you’re not on the road, what are some the things you like to do in the neighborhood?
My wife and I have this game called Who Owns Who? As we walk to 86th St., which we like to do on weekends, we like to predict how many people we’re going to run into and whose friends are they, hers or mine? So we have point structures based on who owns who. See, we have both lived up here pretty much our whole lives so whoever I don’t know, she knows and whoever she doesn’t know I know. Pretty much, between the two of us, it sometimes feels like we know everybody in New York City
It sounds like between both you, you do have the city covered! How about any family up here?
My brother lives right up the street too. He used to live on Roosevelt Island. He was one of the pioneers there in 1974. But he came back ….now you know they bulldozed 10 blocks of Columbus Avenue? It was the biggest urban renewal project in the history of the United States at the time. That’s why you have all those tall buildings there now. It was all bulldozed in one shot. And they spent 2 years relocating everybody who lived on those blocks. I remember they had relocation centers and they were promising people that they could come back once they finished. They brought down all the tenements.
When was this?
1972, 1973. It was all part of the Mitchell-Lama initiative of which some were co-ops and some were low income housing. My mother was involved with the politics of getting those buildings built as well. It was all part of the new initiative. So my brother puts his name on a list for this building at 90th and Columbus, because he is one of the people displaced from this process. Now keep in mind, he’s been living on Roosevelt Island for 20 years and in 1992 he gets a phone call and the city says to him, his name has come up on this list. And he’s like, they still have a list?! And they want to know if he’s still interested in the apartment and he’s like “Hell yeah!” I can’t even tell you what he paid for this apartment. A beautiful 2 bedroom facing Central Park West on the top floor. He was stunned! We were stunned!
That is incredible! He’s living the American/Upper West Side real estate dream! Please don’t tell me he has a gym in the building too.
No. That’s the one thing he doesn’t have.
What else do you like to do in the neighborhood?
I also walk the park everyday. Every morning I do 6 miles. I actually ran two marathons and almost exclusively trained in Central Park. I remember one day while I was training, I ran 11 loops around the reservoir.
Were you going nuts making those loops over and over again?
Kind of, but I’ll never forget it because that day, WPLJ, the radio station, was doing Led Zeppelin A-Z which was a three hour show and I knew that’s how long it would take me to finish the 11 loops so I knew that by the time that show ended, I would be done. And believe me, I was done! By the end of that, I never wanted to see the reservoir again or listen to Led Zeppelin! I regard the park as my version of Yellowstone. It’s the single greatest resource. To live between these two parks is a goddamned luxury. In fact that’s what makes living on Amsterdam so great! Because it is so perfectly placed.
When “John French Day” is declared on the Upper West Side, how would you like people to celebrate?
I don’t know. Play Frank Sinatra records maybe?
* John’s Mom is an impressive Upper West Sider herself! Evaline French Segall was a political consultant for the Democratic Party in New York, worked for JFK’s presidential camgpaign and ran the successful election campaign for the first black woman senator in NY state, Constance Baker Motely, all while living on the Upper West Side!
To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.