F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote,” if you are strong there are no precedents.”
Manfred Gogol lived “off the grid” and was a person of many small mysteries, like Gatsby. Gogol’s wealth wasn’t money, though he somehow had acquired plenty of it from a mysterious trust fund that was established very early in his life. It was, in fact, his enviable ability to be completely mobile, free, unattached and without any marked responsibility whatsoever that was most singular.
Manfred Gogol’s lifestyle was, as he liked to say on many occasions, “unprecedented.”
Ostensibly an artist, a mimic, a raconteur, a cynic and an expert on countless topics, Gogol’s antics in the art world were legend. Everyone had a Manfred Gogol story but like the blind men in the dark room with an elephant–very few could ever glean the true nature of the man, nor could any of them foretell his future actions or the bizarre events that would lead to this particular recollection.
He travelled light and slept late. He followed few rules of polite society that I knew of. His curator, who spoke through clenched teeth, knew where to find the best chicken salad sandwich in Manhattan but ended up sounding like a small-time, used car salesman, well out of his depth, whenever he showed Gogol’s work to the major galleries.
Though built like a boulder possessed with the self-assured smile of a king, Gogol played tennis quite well and he claimed to have regularly beaten a handful of ranked players. One time, I will confirm, I myself witnessed Gogol sink 20 three point shots- in a row -on the floor of a practice facility for a professional NBA basketball team, while he made up a “rap” song:
“I take the big shot…(SWISH) ‘cause I make the big money…(SWISH) I make the big money…(SWISH) cause I take the big shot…(SWISH)…”
Nothing but net– every time.
His uncanny hand-eye coordination is probably what made him such a lethal photographer, according to those in the art world that admired his work. That, and the seemingly endless amount of free time he had to lounge about, observe people, take still photographs and drink large iced coffees while performing long-winded rants about the news of the day to anyone who would sit around with him and listen.
You could always count on Gogol to have plenty of amusing things to say and, oh yes, one other salient detail should probably also be mentioned, the guy loved to drive. He would drive anybody anywhere. All around NYC at any hour. He was like a ship captain navigating the oceans. With unbelievable dexterity and rhythm–the man knew how to drive–New York City and all the outer boroughs were like a giant video game to him the way he sped past taxis and buses and shifted gears to smoothly find open streets and avenues. He even took photos while he drove. While his photography subjects tended to be of everyday scenes–they were often rife with irony–almost as if he was seeing something that other people just plain missed. The humor in everyday life. The problem from an “art career” perspective was that Gogol had rather little use for the “art game.” Sure, he knew plenty of players and patrons, gallery owners and artists (everybody knew Gogol) –he just didn’t care to grovel or even make the slightest attempt to commoditize his art properly, despite its many merits.
Frankly, he didn’t have to. He lived quite comfortably though not ostentatiously. He never had to work. He never had a job. He never wanted a job. He didn’t need to work to feel fulfilled. He didn’t crave the companionship of co-workers or other “team members.” He liked to “do his thing. ” Gogol’s thing was just living life by his rules–without any seeming boundaries or parameters.
One day, years ago, he was over at my small apartment and he was playing Nerf basketball with my roommate at the time, a filmmaker named Oggy and he challenged him thusly:
“Make the next field goal– and I will fly you to Italy with me next week to film and meet the Pope for a friend’s video project on the history of the Vatican.”
Postscript on this Manfred Gogol anecdote, neither Manfred or Oggy were dressed properly–as both were wearing cargo shorts– to personally meet with the Pontiff— but they were still both there inside the Vatican photographing and filming him. True story. Gogol enjoyed being an inscrutable dream-weaver almost as much he loved being on the road.
For Manfred Gogol– It was more enjoyable to simply create “the work” as a fine artist–which he did, day after day, year after year without ever seriously pursuing commercial remuneration–it almost seemed as though it was more than enough reward –for him– to harbor the inner knowledge that he was surely one of the greatest living photographers and artists– in the world. He also loved to perform.
“I do vividly remember the time we were all at that Waldorf party, at least 3OO guests, and the hostess , his friend, art patron Donna Von Heusen, was trying to make an announcement about the silent auction, or some such trivial matter, Gogol took it into his own hands to stand up on a velvet chair, in his red and black Air Jordan sneakers and scream at the top of his voice,” hey everybody shuuuuuut the hell uuuuuup”, I mean you could hear a pin drop and I thought half the people in the room had frankly gone to the bathroom prematurely in their tuxedos and evening gowns. The man absolutely had no fear of reprisal or sense of social etiquette. He was the proverbial Tasmanian Beelzebub in a China Shoppe,” recalled one longtime Gogol acolyte.
Gogol’s parties were always fun affairs with plenty of wannabe artists looking for a free meal…plenty of laughs and plenty of beautiful women. The art world, it seems, was full of beautiful women. Gogol seemed ambivalent to some degree regarding the fairer sex. He was friendly with a slew of gorgeous women–but the ones he was rumored to have been involved with all seemed slightly “off”–one particular woman was nicknamed “Hester Prynne” because she seemed to be an anachronism that had emerged straight from a dust-covered Victorian novel. Hester never had any money but she was extremely polite. She would correct the grammar of all those around her while she sustained herself on the food she found on bar counters like peanuts and pretzels. Gogol took her in almost like a pet pigeon. When he wanted to get rid of her years later due to her many extremely annoying corrective and cleaning habits, she repeatedly rebuked him to the displeasure of many longtime Gogol friends. Hester was a female Bartelby who preferred never to leave her free apartment/crash-pad– but the worst offense, by far, was the countless times she subjected Gogol to her obnoxiously repugnant circle of art snob friends and design world tag-a-longs. For some reason Gogol abided her. Like I said, he was a man of mystery and maybe Hester knew or had seen something or had something on Gogol that none of us knew about. That said, Hester’s presence didn’t prevent Gogol from dating or sleeping with whomever he damn well pleased. That was the arrangement, I guess, in this rather queer little domestic set-up.
Rumors flew all-around of an insane German artist who Gogol had impregnated. No one in his inner circle could imagine Gogol could ever actually be a responsible parent. First, he would have to assume the facade of being an adult. Having a job. Following rules. Cooperating with others. Playing nice. That just wasn’t Gogol. He did his thing in his own time, where he wanted, when he wanted, with whom he wanted. You could bet that while you were sleeping that Manfred Gogol was up and driving around with a full car– and doing something much more interesting than you had done in years.
He lived that kind of spontaneous and uncontrolled lifestyle every day until the break of day. But you wondered a bit. Could there have been something missing? No structure. No rules. At some point when do the temptations within a man overcome his better angels.
Along with the thrill that came with venturing forth into the unknown with Gogol on various misadventures, was the worry that something perhaps a little too interesting was sure to happen–and not always something good– like that time we got pulled over and thrown into jail in a small town–after speeding back from a college speech I had delivered on my successful “career.” I sure didn’t feel successful or free, as my wrist was manacled to the wall while a police officer joked with Manfred in his cell about how bad the Mets looked that year.
Manfred and I went on a couple of memorable road trips over the years to Las Vegas and Arizona, California and Mexico to name a few–all with memorable Gogol stories that I’ll save for another time. I’ll just mention briefly about that time we drove from New York to Cleveland to see the World Series when his grey Mercedes broke down on the side of the road. He looked at it for about 1 minute and immediately knew the engine was dead as a doornail. He simply ditched that beautiful luxury car on the side of the road- never to be seen again- and we hitchhiked to the game. The driver who picked us up was a former soldier and Manfred bought him a scalped ticket to the game. I thought that was kind of cool. Just a typical Gogol story.
Gogol believed that life was a lattice of coincidences. concentric circles intersecting and creating unusual occurrences. He called it Paranormia. It didn’t bother him at all but it spooked the heck out of me on plenty of occasions. He drew connections between tragedies and words and images and news events and pointed out the links that existed between them. Sometimes he referred to himself as a warlock. When he wasn’t talking crazy, he could be a lot of fun playing video games or holding court at a Starbucks or random diners for hours on end. This fellow could imitate anyone due to his photographic memory.
But all this really has little to do with the incident in question that caused all the trouble. Or maybe it has everything to do with it. Who knows. I’m no shrink. As for Paranormia, when asked by Gogol my thoughts on his life philosophy, I stuck to my pat answer, “It’s a theory, Manfred.”
Edie was a diminutive but rather pretty young woman when Gogol started being seen with her at the art spots. Soon enough, she had become one of the “gang” and was taking part in our regular gabfests and late night hangout sessions. Edie was clearly on some sort of heavy medication and was prone to falling asleep early on in the proceedings. Her dark black hair was styled in a pixie cut that highlighted her delicate features. But the most peculiar feature that distinguished Edie, above all others, was her very unusual relationship with a stuffed pussycat named Professor Bartholomew. Very much like the Peanuts character Linus’ blue blanket, the felt and cotton stuffed feline was always ever-present whenever you saw Edie. Unlike Linus, Edie would actually carry on long discussions with Professor Bartholomew to the shock and discomfort of anyone who didn’t know Edie. Gogol was entranced by the deranged ingénue and enjoyed carrying on Punch and Judy shows with Professor Bartholomew and Edie. The shows would take on a Sado-Masochistic tint and often ended with the audience begging Gogol to give Professor Bartholomew back to little Edie before she became unglued. Often after these shows Gogol and Edie would retreat back to his 5th Avenue apartment for wild, uncontrolled love-making sessions that teetered on the edge of ecstasy and insanity.
As abnormal as Edie’s toy animal fixation seemed to all in the know, the rest of the Gogol and Edie relationship seemed quite respectable and normal. Well, as normal as a relationship with a girl who talks to her stuffed pussycat can be. Gogol seemed happier than I had ever seen him. Hester had packed her bags and headed back home to wherever the heck she came from, Missouri, I think-which was a great relief to all concerned. It was all about Edie now–and that was just fine with the folks in Gogol’s inner circle– especially after he showed us all the incredible nude shots Edie had staged for Gogol’s upcoming photography show. It was clear that Gogol had finally found his muse. But then, as all Manfred Gogol stories go–something went wrong and this time, things went as wrong as they could go. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming.
He asked me on more than one occasion, “Bugowski, what’s the deal with the stuffed cat? do you think her Uncle Orville touched her in inappropriate places?”
“Heck if I know, Gogol, I’m no shrink,” I reminded him, ” but that’s a pretty fair guess.”
” What do you think would happen if I threw Professor Bartholomew out of the window?”
“Uh, I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t want to find out, Gogol.–do your new girlfriend and yourself a big favor–find out exactly what type of drugs her psychiatrist has her on, so if something ever does go screwy–or should I say, more screwy than usual–you’ll know a little bit about what you need to do in an emergency.”
“Don’t worry about it” Gogol replied tersely, “Who’s pitching for the Yankees tonight.”
I really haven’t seen or spoken with Gogol since that last conversation, actually.
I had a scheduled West Coast work assignment that lasted for almost a month and then when I had made it back into Manhattan, early in November, on a cramped red-eye flight, I made myself a well-deserved cappuccino and flipped on the TV to catch the tail end of a local news report. Right there on my Sony flat screen was a small photo of Edie and a police sketch of Gogol. I turned on the sound. The news anchor’s detached, monotone voice-over said something like,” The stuffed cat went splat and so did the victim… did her boyfriend murder her?… that’s what police are investigating…”
After the initial horror and shock wore off, I made some calls and ascertained from one reliable eye-witness that at a particularly pretentious art party, a bored Gogol had decided that the perfect “performance piece” would be a staged kidnapping of Professor Bartholomew replete with thick German, Russian and Arabic accents. While the crowd in attendance was at turns confused, amused, delighted and appalled–Edie was beside herself.
When Gogol dramatically threw the stuffed animal over the penthouse patio ledge–he was too late to stop the inevitable horror show that followed. After rushing down to the sidewalk–Gogol, in tears, vanished, covered in Edie’s blood–where he undoubtedly found his car and started to drive.
I don’t know if they will ever find my friend-part of me hopes not. Deepest condolences to Edie’s family notwithstanding.
The prosecutor in the case was an old friend of mine, as fate, or if you like, Paranormia, would have it, an old prep school pal named Harlan Strundley. We had spent summers in Nantucket and he was not that different from Gogol himself. Ol’ Harlan- he used to get us into all the best nightclubs in NYC and put bottle after bottle of champagne on his parent’s credit cards at Trader Vic’s. We just had to take care of procuring the women. It was more than a fair trade. Harlan had definitely come up in the world. The case was front page news and I told him all I knew about my old friend and acquaintance. I had to. Harlan saw it as a clear cut case of reckless manslaughter–but if he ever caught Gogol he was going to press for a murder rap. Harlan didn’t mess around– he was a stone cold killer in the courtroom and at the poker table. Gogol had rolled snake-eyes when he landed old Harlan.
Still, I imagined that with Gogol’s unique ability to navigate “off the grid” and embrace the unknown, that, somehow, the police would probably never find Gogol. He would make his way to some third world country and I would one day get a postcard, in a few years, from a strange town that would be a clue to his whereabouts–I also realized at that very moment, that that idea was actually a scene taken straight out of the movie Shawshank Redemption, and I laughed to myself, because Gogol always told me that I look just like the lead character Andy Dusfrene.
Gogol said a lot of funny things. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will never forget him.
Banner Image: Author’s own work