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How I Became Hettie Jones

HOW I BECAME HETTIE JONES by Hettie Jones, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1990, 239pp., $18.95

How did Hettie Cohen, nice-Jewish-girl from the Laurelton section of Queens, NY, end up at the center of late fifties’ and early sixties’ “Beat” literature, jazz innovation and interracial taboos?

“As an outsider Jew I could have tried for white, aspired to the liberal, intellectual, potentially conservative western tradition’,’ she writes. “But I was never drawn to that history.”

Instead, after finishing college and pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia, she found Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. There, a burst of new music filled the air. And poetry: Gregory Corso, Diane Di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsburg made her head swirl and her soul expand. Not surprisingly, this emotional euphoria found Hettie open to relationships, and men responded. One, LeRoi Jones, became her husband — Black to her White, a Christian and a Jew, of differing economic backgrounds (he middle class, she working class) — drawn together by a love of the arts and the frenzy that accompanies creativity and defiance.

But that was before politics came to dominate their lives, before civil rights, before Black power, before feminism. Like a Beat version of the feminine mystique, Hettie stopped writing poetry, for soon there were two baby girls to feed, clothe and tend. Her days were spent editing and proofreading at the Partisan Review while LeRoi wrote, lectured and held court. Early on, Hettie justified his womanizing: “Part of his charm is the way he treats them. He’s kind, polite, good-humored, gentle. So they just can’t help it, and neither can he, and they’re all over him like ants in honey.”

Eventually this line of reasoning wore thin. Unable to work out an acceptable arrangement, the pair split, reunited, then split again for the final time in 1964. But theirs was more than personal troubles run amok. Although the Beats prided themselves on defying cultural mores while remaining apolitical, by the early 1960s the civil rights movement was causing even the most aloof to question color codes and restrictions.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Birmingham, Alabama’s Bull Connor had a visceral impact on LeRoi. No longer simply a well-respected writer, poet and critic, he now donned the cap of activist — militant even. Soon he was Imanu Amiri Baraka, and he found it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to have a white mate.

Hurt, but not surprised, Hettie had to come to terms with a new phase in her married life. “In the seven years I’d been with Roi,” she writes, “I’d watched the loosening of what would one day be called ‘Black rage.’ I knew it would turn on me but that was part of the risk.”

The loss, she admits, was both devastating and liberating; the course of her life as a single mother both enriching and enraging. Finding her voice as a woman, writer, activist and history-maker took time, but Hettie eventually shed the trappings of helpmate to come into her own. “If I hadn’t been myself all along I might have been left next to nothing” she admits.

Now, standing firmly on her own two feet, her life under control, she rises to the occasion, telling her tale with candor, wit and the type of down-home sass that leaves the reader smiling at her courage, her chutzpah.

Told with great style, How I Became Hettie Jones is a fascinating look at a remarkable period in history. The Village comes alive as we envision its evolution; so does the literary circle of the Beats. But it is the ugly toll of racism, ultimately, on two people and the children they begot that is most poignant. Here, we are made privy to personal politics that tear the gut and wrench the heart. And that, in the end, is what makes the book so engrossing and compelling. It is essential, timely reading.

Eleanor Bader writes frequently for New Directions for Women.