Poetry News

Fran Landesman, "Poet Laureate Of Lovers And Losers," Passes Away

By Harriet Staff

According to an article from the Riverfront Times blog, Fran Landesman, "the jazz world's answer to Dorothy Parker," has passed away at 83. Her long list of literary and musical endeavors is quite impressive, running the gamut from writing the world's first and only Beatnik musical (The Nervous Set) to having Ella Fitzgerald do a version of her song "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." This, as the article states, is "a hepcat jazz translation of "April is the cruelest month," the opening line of The Waste Land by another St. Louisan-turned-Londoner, T.S. Eliot." Fran, her husband Jay, and their sons Cosmo and Miles lived quite the life, as the article attests:

Frances Dietch was born in New York City in 1927, grew up on the Upper West Side and, as she grew older, started spending a lot of time hanging around Greenwich Village where she fell in with the writers and poets who became the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac was allegedly so enamored with Fran that he serenaded her with the immortal words "Be my girlfriend, I'm so lonely" while his buddy Allen Ginsburg played bongos in the background.

Amazingly, Fran resisted that heartfelt plea and married Jay Landesman, editor of the literary journal Neurotica, reasoning, "He'll make a good first husband." The marriage lasted 61 years, until Jay's death in February. It survived the Beat and hippie generations, epic amounts of drugs (counteracted by equally epic amounts of macrobiotics), two children and bad fashion (chronicled by their humiliated son Cosmo, who "thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed"), and was the rare instance of a successful open marriage: In the mornings, Jay and Fran and their extramarital partners, plus their two sons Cosmo and Miles, would all have breakfast together.

They later relocated to St. Louis and opened the Crystal Palace nightclub, which saw its fair share of famous guests:

The Landesmans coaxed many of their New York friends out to St. Louis to perform at the Crystal Palace, including Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce. (Bruce tried to persuade Fran to leave Jay on grounds that he was inbred: "Let's you and me go on the road and send him a little money every month.")

But, this, too had to end:

But after The Nervous Set flopped in New York and the Crystal Palace started booking yogis and strippers, the Landesmans decided it was time to leave St. Louis. Jay wanted to move to a Greek island, Fran wanted to move somewhere where people spoke English, and so they compromised on London, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Jay ran a publishing company and, according to the New York Times, "managed the career of a kung-fu stripper," and Fran continued to write poems and songs.

And things didn't really slow down once they got to London, according to Cosmo, from his memoir Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me:

Getting married, having children was their one attempt to live conventionally...it didn't last. They soon abandoned the straight and narrow for the crooked and the carefree. By the time Flower Power came around, they were in the twilight world of middle-age. Their hair became longer, their dress became wilder, the drugs got stronger and marriage became more experimental. I tried to get them to stay at home more instead of rushing round to pop festivals....and I warned them about the friends they ran around with.

Still, amidst the chaos, they managed a life by their own rules:

Fran somehow found time to produce five books of poetry, published by Jay. In 1994 she teamed up with the composer and pianist Simon Wallace; together they would write more than 300 songs and performed them together in theaters, nightclubs and music festivals all over England. "It was a good life," she would say later, "but it wasn't commercial."

What better way to end than with a snippet from Fran's own "Life's a Bitch"?

Life's full of shit Even when you're in your prime Though your show's a hit Reason never seems to rhyme Every joke has a switch Every joker a twitch Every high has a hitch Baby, life is a bitch.

Originally Published: August 3rd, 2011