By Anya Schiffrin
Priscilla Gilman is the daughter of New York literary agent Lynn Nesbit and powerhouse drama critic Richard Gilman. An author and former English literature professor, her most recent book is a loving tribute to her father, set against the backdrop of the Upper West Side in the 1970s.
Through a dizzying array of namechecks of famous writers, Gilman makes clear what literary giants her parents were. Her mother’s clients included Anne Rice, Felix Rohatyn, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Joan Didion, Jimmy Carter, Gay Talese and Robert Caro. Among the family’s neighbors in their rent-controlled apartment building at 333 Central Park West were New York Times film critic Pauline Kael, New Yorker writer Jane Kramer, left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn and publishing world giants Dick and Jeannette Seaver.
The idyllic literary life became more complicated after her parents’ split in 1980 in part because Gilman’s mother had tired of her father’s sexual proclivities (more on this in The Critic’s Daughter). Priscilla Gilman, 10 at the time, and her sister were caught in the middle, but Gilman’s book is the portrait of a devoted daughter, loyal to her father even as she struggled with the breakup of their family. Eventually, Richard Gilman found happiness with a Japanese literature scholar. He died at the age of 83 in Kusatsu, Japan.
While her father is the main character, Gilman has made the Upper West Side very much a part of the story. She describes the neighborhood as “gritty.” In the years she lived there, the 1970s, the streets were littered, drug deals operated openly on brownstone stoops, “muggings were frequent and we never took the subway (always the bus).” But rents were cheap for rambling apartments, which attracted book publishers and writers, as well as critics, academics and journalists.
Gilman, who now lives in Washington Heights, spoke with the Rag by phone and email about her Upper West Side memories. This is an edited version of those conversations.
WSR: What was it like to grow up on the Upper West Side? You are from the era I grew up in, of shabby streets and literary people.
Gilman: We initially lived on 93rd and Central Park West, 333 CPW. My parents moved there when I was about five months old and they found out that they were having another baby; they’d been renting on Charlton Street [in the Village].
333 Central Park West was a rent-controlled haven for artistic and intellectual people. It was a grand building that had fallen into disrepair, and none of us renovated the apartments, as it would have been money thrown away. My bedroom fronted Central Park! When I was eight, we moved to 44 W 77th Street. My father eventually settled at 329 West 108th Street.
In your book you mention seeing the kids’ theater company, the Paper Bag players, and weekend activities with your dad. I remember doing the same things with mine. Where did you like to go as a child?
Riverside and Central Parks, the American Museum of Natural History, the NY City Ballet at Lincoln Center, revival movie theaters like the Thalia and the Regency, the Little Orchestra Society concerts, Paper Bag Players, and Mummenschanz [a Swiss mime theatre troupe].
Do you remember and/or mourn any of the old bakeries or restaurants or shops?
Grossinger’s Grossinger’s Grossinger’s. That yellow awning. “Ice Cream Cakes Our Specialty.” The praline ice cream cake was the special birthday treat we and all our friends adored. But they also had incredible walnut brownies, black and white cookies, large cookies with frosting in the shape of dogs, dolls, etc.
Miss Grimble’s and their chocolate cheesecakes in flower pots! The Green Noodle and their quiche Lorraine with hard-boiled eggs baked into it, not to mention their homemade tortellini.
Anita’s Chili Parlor and their bowls of chili topped with sour cream, cheese, and scallions. Indian Oven’s chicken tandoori and naan. The Haagen Dazs on Columbus and 75th was an almost nightly destination. We also loved cookies from David’s Cookies or Mrs. Fields. Big Nick’s was where I’d get pizza during a rehearsal break at Collegiate School or if I had a break between teaching aerobics classes at Body Design by Gilda on West 70th.
Clothing stores: I bought party dresses and outfits at Alice Underground (fabulous vintage strapless dresses and overcoats), Betsy Johnson, and Liana, which I think is still there! I loved the women who ran it and beautiful Liana, the store’s namesake, was just a little older than I. I never shopped at Charivari myself but the Collegiate boys in my vocal jazz ensemble sure did. Morris Brothers for jeans and camp supplies – sleeping bags, tarps etc. I bought gifts at The Last Wound-Up and Mythology. Finally, supermarkets. We shopped at Food City when we lived on 93rd (I think it just went under a few years ago) and Pioneer when we lived on 77th – and it is hanging on in all its grungy glory!
My memory of being a teenager in NYC in the 70s was that we were pretty feral. Many parents went away for the weekend and we hung out in empty apartments and did more or less as we pleased. Schools were pretty hands off as well. Thoughts?
Absolutely. We were taking drinks from our parents’ liquor cabinets, partying in empty apartments, going to restaurants on Columbus Avenue and ordering daquiris and margaritas.
Now you are in Washington Heights. How does that compare to the UWS?
My new neighborhood feels like the old UWS in many ways – diverse, artsy, affordable, vibrant, homey. My building is full of writers and actors and therapists and professors. We don’t have the restaurants or the sheer number of stores that the UWS of my childhood had, though. Fort Tryon Park is glorious but it will never be Central Park or Riverside Park to me.
What were your favorite New York bookshops?
Eyore’s Books for Children, Shakespeare & Co, Endicott on Columbus, and, today, the Barnes & Noble on 82nd and Broadway. It killed Shakespeare but stayed and did a good job of being a bookstore for the neighborhood.