There, with the now legendary writer Ben Hecht, Bodenheim founded a periodical, where several individuals that would become major icons of American literature have collaborated, like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg, amongst others. Nevertheless, it was in New York City that Bodenheim would become a more renowned man of letters.
Sadly, fortunes drastically changed after Bodenheim found fame in New York City. Only in the twenties and in the beginning of the thirties he remained regularly productive, after that he wrote and published only sporadically. Since there is absolutely no reliable biographies or documentaries about Bodenheim, everything that concerns his life, in overall, is largely obscure, and only a few facts about the writer are positively known with veracity.
What can be said of Bodenheim for sure is that he was married three times. First, to Minna Schein, then to Grace Finan – to whom he became a widower – and last, to Ruth Fagin, a woman twenty-eight years younger than him. A little after the mid-thirties – for reasons that are largely unclear – Bodenheim’s condition and personal circumstances severely deteriorated. He even became a miserable beggar, asking for money in the streets. Despite the fact that by this time he was a published and moderately successful writer, he resorted to mendicancy for a living, and he was generally unrecognized by the people who gave him change. He was arrested by authorities several times for vagrancy, and even arbitrarily committed to mental institutions. By this time, Bodenheim had also become a chronic alcoholic.
The death of Maxwell Bodenheim – which took place on February, 1954 –, was a particularly tragic one, and the main reason why his fame somewhat expanded; the incident supplanted his notoriety as a writer. In 1952, Bodenheim had married a woman – his third wife – named Ruth Fagin, that shared her husband’s degenerated, miserable and completely destitute lifestyle. Bodenheim did everything he could to survive, including marginal activities, treacherous, though innocent scams, mendicancy and he also wrote poems for changes. Most of the scarce money he made, though, were spent with alcoholic beverages, that Bodenheim somewhat used extensively to alleviate and anesthetize his suffering. His wife Ruth sometimes prostituted herself, to have an income, a degraded activity that frequently enraged Bodenheim. They were homeless people, used to sleep and live outdoors.
Six months after Bodenheim’s murder, his biography, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, was published. Bodenheim himself, though, was barely involved in the project, whose work was commissioned by a publisher named Samuel Roth, and was ghostwritten by a professional writer named George Plotkin. Apparently, Roth had requested and paid in advance for Bodenheim’s account of his life as a Greenwich Village bohemian and respected literary icon, an assignment that Bodenheim – in this period of his life, mostly depressed and despondent – was barely willing to commit.
Unfortunately, by the time of his death, Bodenheim was already a largely forgotten writer, and since then, his work has never been properly revived, analyzed, studied, republished or appreciated. Bodenheim remains scarcely read and debated in literary circles today. His poetry, in particular, has a peculiar charm, a picaresque and sometimes quasi-surrealist beauty, that explored in the density of ephemeral and frugal moments the most obscure and fatalist resentments of life. Never really compromised or preoccupied with form or metric, his poetry was prominently modernist, and celebrated the arbitrary agonies of existence, in a constantly candid and moderately vibrant melancholy, that, it is suspected, were typical of his behavior.
If you want to know better the work of this marvelous – though unconventional and undisciplined, but mordacious and genuine – literary icon, the website Black Cat Poems is the perfect place to start. There, you can read more than one hundred poems by Bodenheim, for free. I hope you enjoy, as much as I do.