A Seppuku of Centerfolds
By Tom Cardamone
The striking, Borgesian death of Wren Cartwright is the forgotten story of East Village lore. Precisely because the neighborhood has experienced seismic tumult, from the crack epidemic to the AIDS crisis to rapid gentrification, it has left few witnesses to such an eccentric lifestyle and its improbable end. Thus separating reality from anecdote is that much more difficult.
While alive, Wren Cartwright was but one among a veritable platoon of tatterdemalion book scouts who threaded the New York City subway systems, slouching subterranean travelers who emerged into the light of day only to plunge into musty, outer-borough second-hand stores, or to canvas estate sales upstate for first editions or bundles of Civil War letters that had, until then, been rotting in attics. Chelsea flea-markets were frequent battle grounds as this horde of hustlers possessed sharp elbows and shrewd, encyclopedic knowledge of literary arcana. They were known to screech at one another if they happened to reach for a fine, embossed copy of Treasure Island at the same time. Auction houses, book collectors, and the less-esteemed bookstores of the Upper East Side all purchased their wares (some shopkeepers met these grubby shades at the back door where they were paid for their pickings off the books and in cash). They were always men, mostly middle-aged or wizened, be-speckled bachelors on the march, daily circling New York City, moving just enough books to survive at a subsistent level. Most wore a laminated copy of their independent retailer’s license on a thread around their neck to silently signal to timid clerks that they didn’t have to pay sales tax. All were on the hunt for that elusive white whale in book form to lift them from poverty. That paper Moby Dick would surface on the horizon during blazing sunsets of rent-fueled desperation at the end of every month—a first edition Fitzgerald that, at a glance looked to be signed by the infamous alcoholic, only it was the scribbled name of the book’s previous owner. With an exhausted sigh the volume was slung onto the counter for purchase as the fog of false hope swirled anew.
Except for Wren Cartwright. He miraculously scored.
As the story goes, told and retold among scouts, collectors, and retailers, one humid July afternoon he found himself at a Brooklyn Heights church rummage sale. There, within a box of old newspapers and coverless paperbacks secreted within a battered, stained and nearly unsalable copy of Leaves of Grass was a cache of yellowed letters from a young Bram Stoker to the master himself. They nearly slid out and onto the dirty gray sidewalk. Words unread for a century. Even better, drafts of Whitman’s appreciative replies were tucked in as well. Scribbles of his poetry reached for the margins. Wren clutched the parcel to his heaving chest with one hand while thrusting exact change at the salesperson, lest they, in breaking a dollar bill, had time to inspect the item, declare it a treasure and set it aside as no longer for sale. He stuffed the receipt into his greasy billfold and fled down into the subway. These feral booksellers were a shrewd bunch, and Wren knew that the letters were going to lift him out of poverty like bat wings. For at that moment, the revival of Dracula ruled Broadway. The black etchings of Edward Gorey’s poster for the play were plastered all over town. As his discovery was just a few years after the Stonewall riot, gay culture was on the rise and as such letters of this nature were quite collectable. Wren’s whale had surfaced in a perfect confluence of trend, popular culture, and exclusivity. The faded book plate declared the owner of this volume to have been the sexton of the very church where Cartwright had made the purchase. Whitman had famously lived in the area, so provenance was not a problem. He knew not to take the letters to the bookstores; they would preemptively dismiss his find, outright devalue it, begrudgingly offer a pittance and sell the letters in the window at a criminally high mark-up. No, treasure such as this was destined for an international seller, likely for auction to the highest bidder. Bypassing Manhattan’s big-name auction houses and their byzantine approval processes, he shakily made the rare long-distance call to a London firm that dealt only in books and manuscripts and they immediately set an appointment for their New York representative to inspect the letters. In short order, the sale was made to an anonymous collector with a standing order to pay top dollar for items relating to a short list of favored authors. The buyer went public after the sale with the intent of gifting some of the letters to Trinity College Dublin. Biographers for both writers cawed to the press that this was the literary discovery of the decade. Within a fortnight of his find, a large amount of money was wallowing in Wren Cartwright’s bank account. And with this, some of his habits began to change: not his dress, he still took the subway, he still ate miserly in out-of-the-way diners; though he continued to move books around town, for the first time in his mostly unrecorded life, Wren began to acquire for taste, not profit.
While little is known of Cartwright before his windfall, more is known about the years leading up to his dramatic demise. Public records offer up a birth in Delaware, an unfinished degree in English from Stetson University in Florida (it’s speculated that he left as a result of a campus-wide purge of homosexual students and staff. There’s no evidence for this except the explicit timing of his hasty move north). Tax returns show a variety of low-paying clerking jobs until his obsessive love of literature eventually translated into a peripatetic existence of selling books while living in a variety of SROs up and down the outskirts of Manhattan. It’s worth noting that the majority of his early residences were always within walking distance of major gay cruising spots on the city’s Westside, though any connection is purely conjecture. As far as we know, Cartwright left no journals, and lived a friendless life outside of his connections to the book trade. He disowned or was disowned by his family (they refused to collect his corpse, which was cremated and buried on Hart Island, a potter’s field off the Bronx so overfed with the bodies of New York’s forgotten that skulls roll ashore on Orchard Beach after strong storms). His drift into a hermitic existence is hard to trace, though money from the Stoker-Whitman sale fueled an unstated resolve. He immediately moved to a large, ground floor studio in the East Village at a time when it was a cheap and dangerous neighborhood. The Bowery was blighted, muggings common. Since he could have afforded safer, more luxurious housing, in hindsight it is tempting to surmise that he chose this apartment neither for thrift nor location, but the singular rarity that his front door both opened to the street and was equipped with a mail slot.
There are many different types of bibliomania. Beyond the typical affinity for genre, there are literary manias that, oddly, have gone unrecorded. At the time, Wren Cartwright’s death received little notice outside a curt, riddle-like headline in the August 5th, 1998 edition of The New York Post: Porn Addict Chokes To Death on Smut. His peculiar story has gained more attention in recent years as hoarding, the compulsive collecting of things, has moved from an obscure concern among social workers and into the public sphere via reality shows and social media. While the tapestry of New York City is stained with countless lonely deaths, none have ever been as articulate or as unusual as Wren Cartwright’s suicide.
With the Stoker-Whitman sale, his focus shifted entirely onto gay erotica and pornography. The mass of gay pulp produced during prior decades was, at that time, unwanted and unappreciated. These steamy sex romps from the fifties and sixties were discarded as more emboldened, celebratory gay pornography followed the sexual revolution. Cartwright not only purchased every available copy of gay pulp that he could get his hands on—he also acquired large quantities of Bob Mizer’s pictorial magazines and any and all lewd apocrypha. Bookseller and original member of New York City’s Gay Men’s Chorus Ben McFall reports that his reputation among the other booksellers was someone who paid well and in cash for any and all gay material. “I also saw him at the bars, drinking alone, always reading, never socializing. I never saw him at the baths. Most of the book scouts were straight, so I expected he’d have been pleased to see a familiar face but he never made small talk.” Similarly, Glenway Wescott biographer Jerry Rosco, a longtime resident of the East Village, knew Cartwright by sight. “He was just one of those characters you saw around town, always lugging a bag of books with him. I heard he got banned from The Oscar Wilde Bookshop for haranguing a customer who bought the last copy of some porno mag he lusted after.” Cartwright also subscribed to every gay publication of a sexual nature. Among his known magazine and chapbook subscriptions, from the popular to the obscure (this is far from an exhaustive list), were Black Inches, Blueboy, Bound and Gagged, Drum, Drummer, Freshmen, Guzzler Magazine, Honcho, International Barracks, Latin Inches, Mandate, Mister, Playguy, Samson, Stepson Quarterly, Straight To Hell, Urge and Vulcan.
He is known to have quarreled with Straight to Hell editor and fellow curmudgeon, Boyd McDonald. Cartwright accused McDonald of withholding several early issues of STH simply to spite him. While McDonald was known to play or trick or two, he was also famously cash-strapped and would have benefited from Cartwright’s largess, so it’s likely a minor dust-up in some Times Square porn store has transmogrified into legend. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: Cartwright, as the consummate consumer, frequented the same haunts as editor Boyd McDonald and science fiction and fantasy author Samuel R. Delaney, writers who explicitly recorded the erotic adventures Wren coveted, and was in turn consumed by; a sexual Ouroboros of gluttony. One can’t help but think that, though Delaney and McDonald were the risk-takers, desire triumphs obsession as at least desire can be spent. With obsession, accumulation occurs until somewhere a dam breaks, either psychically or otherwise.
From the limited information we can gain from the police report, there was no furniture in Wren’s apartment with the exception of a spent mattress on the floor. Every inch was given over to his burgeoning library. Even the refrigerator had been removed some years prior; his corpse was described as emaciated, so at some point his collecting trapped him/entombed him. His rent was paid far enough in advance to guarantee mummification before his body was discovered. So much is unknown, including whether the mailman who made the fateful delivery was aware that he or she had inadvertently caused the death of another human being. Nor was it possible to know which magazine delivered the fateful blow, enforcing a seppuku of centerfolds and tan lines down Cartwright’s open mouth, choking him to death. No photographs of the scene, quickly ruled a suicide, survive. (No photographs taken of the reclusive Cartwright while he was alive have to come to light, either). What was apparent, however, is that the abundance of books and magazines, and likely rare manuscripts and letters, were arranged in such a way as to act as gears: each conveyance of pornographic material in anonymous brown paper wrappers during those final days set a domino-process in motion. At some point, Cartwright could no longer rise from his bed. Enthroned on piles of pulp as mail was pushed through the slot, prior deliveries were propelled forward. Think of the dark architectural designs from the great eighteenth century illustrator Piranesi come to life. The meticulousness of this paper clockwork meant that, near starvation, Wren Cartwright was able to purse his lips and receive one final delivery, extreme unction, possibly in the form of a California surfer, nude, looking over his sun-kissed shoulder, a wave about to break that never will.
The complexity of this machination cannot be overstated. The singularity of the design is overwhelming: the entire apartment and all of its contents were arranged to act as a slow-moving guillotine, his obscene library serving double duty as a deadly apparatus, a contraption the creation of which required an outré imagination and nearly fiendish planning. It’s likely models were built and tested, attempts failed, plans revisited; the investment of time, the sheer determination, is unfathomable and augments Cartwright’s suicide to a new form of self-expression, surpassing the mere politics of immolated monks and all their ilk.
It is now considered culturally criminal that such a vast collection of pornography, one that likely represented the entire erotic output of gay America up until his death, was unceremoniously hauled to the dump. This loss was described by poet and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Merrick Community College Philip F. Clark as “The burning of our Library of Alexander. Or more likely our Library of Bagoas, Alexander’s boy-eunuch lover, for those magazines were in their own way love letters. The men pictured had the bodies we all coveted; the stories were ones we could only tell each other.” Likely somewhere within the now defunct Fresh Kills landfill, this buried museum quietly rots. Glossy buttocks, mimeographed cocks, page after page of torrid encounters and anatomical descriptions are blindly churned to soil by innumerable insects. Was Wren Cartwright’s collection a suicide note or a paean to beauty, an example of mental illness unchecked or a singular act of deviance: one of carnal images and lurid letters, a cut-up like no other, designed to make the ghost of William S. Burroughs stew in jealously within his bunker, just a few blocks away? On the tenth anniversary of his death, painter and performance artist Lorenzo De Los Angeles launched a one-night art installation at the East Village experimental theater, La MaMa, symbolically recreating Wren Cartwright’s moment of death. Inspired by the erotic artistry of Surrealist Hans Bellmer, works of gay pornography were connected by an intricate web of strings to a plastic skeleton being force-fed images via an elaborate series of funnels in a room created by cardboard boxes. Every time a viewer plucked at one of the strings, another image would slide into the skeleton’s unhinged jaws, filling the fishbowl ensconced within its ribcage, making the viewer complicit in Cartwright’s demise. Outside of De Los Angeles’s moving sculpture and a passing mention in Gary Indiana’s autobiography that he suspected Cartwright of swiping the original manuscript of his first novel, Horse Crazy, New York City’s culture commentary on Cartwright’s bizarre demise has been surprisingly minimal. Only singer Dean Johnson of the Velvet Mafia is known to have consistently memorialized the compulsive collector. After Wren’s passing, he frequently dedicated shows to him. (Johnson’s own 2007 death is shrouded in mystery.)
The methodical premeditation of such a suicide surpasses the typical diagnosis of hoarding, which is based on the fear of letting go. With Cartwright’s death, we have the creation of an Egyptian tomb, replete with homoerotic hieroglyphs. The mailman was merely a servant laying the last brick, sealing the sepulcher, as it were. Or is his death a mystery we will never solve? Should we avoid reflexively painting it as a tragedy? For if his actions were a thanatological embrace of the erotic life society had tried so hard to evict him from, then Wren Cartwright can be said to have built not a tomb, but a cathedral of desire, one whose collapse he himself orchestrated, as all religions eventually implode as sacrament begets sacrifice.