From a teenage yen for hot rumba that led him from Harlem in the late 1930s to a career on the high seas, Vincent Livelli brims with rich experience. And, at 88, he’s been delving into those passions for about seven decades, navigating cultural divides, intellectual realms, and the seven seas.
His best friend from his late teens was Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990 after almost two decades as the eloquent, opinionated literary critic for the New York Times. “We stood out,” Livelli recalls of their Brooklyn College days, “or we didn’t fit in, I should say.” So they both dropped out, with Broyard declaring “This doesn’t coincide with my frame of mind,” and Livelli tweaking Seneca’s maxim about life being the best school: Non scholae, sed vitae discimus. From a courtyard apartment at West 3rd and MacDougal Street, they then got busy on a crucial chapter in Village history.
Livelli introduced Broyard to an Italian social club at MacDougal and Bleeker: the San Remo bar. Upon their return from World War II, the San Remo became a primary stage for the Village literary scene, with the spotlight on Broyard’s booth by the MacDougal entrance, where arguments swirled among the likes of poet Delmore Schwartz, art critic Clement Greenberg, journalist Dwight Macdonald, Blake authority Milton Klonsky, and Richard Gilman, who’d become Yale’s theater maven. At the New School, Broyard taught Kafka and European writers after art historian Meyer Schapiro’s class, and he turned Livelli on to writer and painter Henri Michaux. In Paris, Livelli (whose freighter voyage there with his wife was courtesy of a Greek ship owner he’d taught to shoot dice) bought an oil painting from Michaux, with a dedication on its verso: “May he be a good companion to you.”
Livelli is quoted by Broyard’s daughter, Bliss, in One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life, the investigative memoir she published last year, and in a New Yorker piece that became a chapter in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. (Broyard’s posthumous memoir is titled Kafka Was the Rage; his rise to prominence in racist times was aided because he looked white, and his life inspired Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain.) Specialists on William Gaddis also cite Livelli: upon that aspiring novelist’s return to the Village after years abroad, he fell into competition with Broyard—whose irresistible style became legendary—for the attentions of artist Sheri Martinelli. She’d hung with Charlie Parker, appears in Anaïs Nin’s diary (see February 1947 entries for Broyard and “Vincent”), and would become Sibilla in Ezra Pound’s late cantos. Livelli observed that fray intimately but intermittently, having embarked on a career as a cruise director in 1948 (Gaddis’s allusive classic, The Recognitions, would feature Martinelli as Esme, and characters based on Broyard and Livelli).
On the phone from Buenos Aires, Bliss Broyard recently said of her book that “outside of my immediate family, Vince was my most important source.” During her childhood in Connecticut, she said, “my dad would come back from lunches in the city when Vince’s ship was in, and tell us of his friend’s adventures.” When she first visited Livelli’s fourth-floor walkup on Perry Street, it was like nothing she’d ever seen, decorated with fabrics, tiles and evocative lighting, a Moorish fantasy hit by an electrical fire in 2004 that destroyed antique Egyptian furniture. Among the surviving valuables is copy of Broyard’s essay collection, Aroused by Books, with its dedication in pen: “For Vincent, who, thirty years ago, taught me to taste language.”
When Livelli was a boy in the 1920s, his Italian grandmother would lift him to sip from the stone basin at Judson Church on Washington Square; he recalls the stench in summer from carriage stables, and the biting horseflies. Hard times brought process servers and “moving day” evictions. He wouldn’t learn about his damaged hearing (possibly due to lead poisoning) that had thwarted him in school until he was in his forties, and he’s written of adult attention deficit disorder as “an internal devil at home in your brain like a patient assassin.” (Nevertheless, language studies would lead him to the University of Rio de Janeiro on scholarship, and in the army he was assigned to Command and General Staff School.) As a teen, he’d bundle under blankets to hear shortwave broadcasts from Havana, and the Hotel Nacional’s famed Casino de La Playa Orchestra sparked his love for Cuban music. Tipped off by a record store owner in Borough Hall, Livelli made his way from Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, up to dance at the Park Plaza, the dance hall at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, where he learned his moves (and to display the sophisticated, expressionless intensity of cara fea) from the top rumberos: Rene and Estela, Electrico, and Midnight. It would be a decade before the Palladium ushered mambo mania into midtown, in 1949.
Livelli left college to sign on with the La Playa Dancers, touring to the Wonder Bar in Detroit—then the nation’s entertainment capital, thanks to the auto industry—and the Carrousel Club in Miami Beach. Tuition at the University of Miami was picked up by a wealthy benefactress, and, by the early 1940s Livelli was in Havana, making ends meet guiding tourists to hot clubs: the Kursal, the cabaret Eden Concert on the Prado, and the Teatro Shanghai burlesque (which appears in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana), where Superman performed the sex acts. Having met the great bandleader and composer Ernesto Lecuona, he sought out Juan Besson, a Santeria priest, who prophesied: “You will carry this music around the world.” Bliss Broyard credits Livelli with inducting her father into the Park Plaza scene uptown, experiences Broyard would relate to Robert Farris Thompson, who’s writing a much-anticipated mambo history.
From the late 1940s through the ’70s, Livelli helped pioneer cruise-ship directing, organizing Neptune ceremonies during eighteen equatorial crossings, teaching Latin dance to well-heeled passengers on dozens of liners, and jamming after-hours with Latino stewards and galley guys. In a letter to Bliss Broyard, Livelli encapsulated these years: “A seaman leads a staccato existence, remaining in one port for three days, one day in the next,” he wrote. “Like sampling wine, it produces a euphoric vision of a colorful world.” Another passage sets a bygone era of social dance afloat: “Finding yourself in your partner’s arms on a waxed dance floor during a storm at sea is a delightful mixture of fright and laughter, of tenderness and force, of sudden grip and release, mutability and extreme intimacy in unaccustomed and pardonable closeness.” One unpublished essay, chronicling successive hurricanes weathered aboard the SS Oslo Fjord, bears the proud survivor’s title “Rough Sex on the High Seas.”
In the lobby of the Hippodrome Center above Bryant Park, en route to lunch with this writer, Livelli mentioned that his parents brought him to the original Hippodrome, the storied theater where Houdini and diving horses once performed. Around the corner on the Algonquin Hotel sofas, he succinctly compared orgies in pre-Castro Havana to those in Brazil (Sloppy Joe’s in Havana won). Less randy tales sparkle online at salsalivelli.blogspot.com (set up last year by journalist Mark Schwartz). Entries such as “Mama Inès in Tokyo” recall a mambo dive Livelli ran after V-J Day, and other valuable material traces friendships with Julio Andino, bassist with the orchestras of Machito and Tito Rodriguez, and the powerful percussionist José “Buyu” Mangual. Livelli has lectured at the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C., and he was sourced by American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, the current exhibition at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Henry Medina, archivist of Latin culture and the living history of New York City, has videoed some 30 hours with Livelli. “When I met Vincent, he became one of the key figures,” Medina said of his research. “He is a school, an observer of movements in music and culture.” Medina noted what he called “the problem of who’s designing the history. There’s this big emphasis on [Jack] Kerouac, for instance—but Vince can be very critical of these people, and he’ll tell you why.”
Through Livelli’s efforts, a commemorative plaque may soon adorn the Pearl Oyster Bar, site of the postwar bookshop he helped Anatole Broyard finance. And he moves with leonine grace in the Village: at S.O.B.’s on Varick Street, Livelli scoped the bustling dance floor with a quality of attention that a non-dancer might liken to a cat “seeing” into a closed room. He seldom takes a turn these days (embarrassed, he says, that his hearing hinders conversation), but one dancer—arguably the most fluent salsera and the most in demand that evening—asked if she might leave her jacket with him as things heated up, then offered him a shoulder massage. Between sets, he chatted with master timbalero Manny Oquendo about Park Plaza stars including singers Doroteo Santiago and Miguelito Valdés. The ancestry of Latin music, understood as the bond between musicians, the culture transmitted in their songs, and dancers, their fiercest audience, is fundamental to New York City. Flourishing from ancient, transnational drives, that broad nature is alive and well in Vincent Livelli’s experience.
Salsalivelli.blogspot.com focuses on music and dance; Livelli's extensive writings on the Village and ship travel remain unpublished. Bliss Broyard's book One Drop was published in 2007 by Little, Brown.