Dancer Freddie Herko was part of the Judson Dance Theater and was a friend of Diane di Prima before committing suicide by pirouetting from a four-story window on Cornelia Street, a few doors down from Caffe Cino.
The Living Theatre’s Monday Night Series, held during the acting company’s night off, hosted many kinds of artists: musicians John Herbert McDowell and Bob Dylan, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, poets Diane di Prima and Frank O’Hara, dancers James Waring and Freddie Herko. In his memoir Fug You, Ed Sanders recalled that the Living Theatre “was an important place in my personal world. I had heard historic poetry readings there; I had first seen Bob Dylan perform as part of the General Strike for Peace in February ’62 . . . [and] I had typed the stencils for the recent issue of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.” It was this latter endeavor—his infamous mimeographed poetry zine, Fuck You—that established Sanders as a ubiquitous downtown presence. When the Living Theatre staged Paul Goodman’s The Cave, the group was fully prepared to go to jail. One scene contained three uses of the word fuck—something that was unheard-of—but these ahead-of-their-time punks staged it anyway.
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Bibbe Hansen found a home at the Factory, along with two of her favorite Lower East Side neighbors. “There was nobody in the world who was ever handsomer to my way of thinking than Freddie Herko,” she said. “Billy Name did lights at Judson Church, but he was also this guy who lived a block and a half away, and Freddie was sometimes there. And at the same time, my mother’s an amphetamine addict, and she’s running with the whole A-Head scene on the Lower East Side, which is a particularly demented group of folks.” The Factory began as a private world occupied mostly by Name, Gerard Malanga, and Andy Warhol—a place to get work done, an artistic factory with a seemingly passive Warhol at the center. “I think Andy was very into a kind of dumb Marilyn Monroe thing,” Robert Heide observed. “He wore the wig, and it was almost like the wig is holding in his brain somehow. Sometimes you’d see the little black wire—he didn’t bother to cover it up too much.”
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Through these social scenes, Playwright Robert Heide got to know some Andy Warhol associates, like Billy Name (born William Linich). “I immediately was attracted to Billy,” Heide said. “He had a terrific aura, and was very good-looking, wearing tight black dungarees and a white shirt. So we carried on.” Billy ended up living at Warhol’s Factory studio, working as its unofficial custodian when it opened in 1964 until the end of the decade. Before meeting Warhol, he was already embedded in a variety of downtown scenes: experimental dance, Off-Off-Broadway, and the subterranean world of the Mole People, a group of gay speed fiends also known as A-heads (A as in amphetamine). Name learned lighting design in underground theater and apprenticed under Nick Cernovich, who was part of the Black Mountain College group that also included John Cage (dozens of experimental artists passed through that influential North Carolina school). Billy lit shows at Judson Church and the Living Theatre, as well as the New York Poets Theatre, and his Lower East Side apartment was filled with shiny aluminum foil and other metallic surfaces that he carefully lit to create a degenerate space-age look. The interior of his apartment can be seen in Warhol’s 1963 silent film series, Haircut, which features Billy giving poet John Daley a haircut as James Waring and Freddie Herko watched. “Andy didn’t just see a guy’s place and think, ‘That’s really cool—he’s got foil all over the place,’ ” Name recalled. “He saw that I had done an installation.” Warhol asked his new employee to decorate the studio, and during the first three months of 1964 Name transformed a rather dour workspace into the embodiment of a “living art form” by covering its walls and ceiling in foil, bits of broken glass, and silver Krylon spray paint.
Around the time Edie Sedgwick was splitting from Andy Warhol and sinking deeper into drug addiction, the artist asked Robert Heide to bring him to the spot where Freddie Herko killed himself on Cornelia Street. Andy was affectless as he asked Heide to point out exactly where he landed, then looked up at the window and thought aloud, “I wonder when Edie will commit suicide. I hope she lets us know so we could film it.” Bibbe Hansen acknowledged that Warhol’s comment sounds dreadful, if taken out of its context. “But that was Andy’s way of processing it,” she said. “Because to show emotion, none of that was acceptable for men in that age. I mean, cool was the number one thing. The whole post–World War II guy thing—it was emotionally kind of stalwart. It was a thing that was very prominent in the Village, a kind of game that the bohemians would play.” Playwright Robert Heide felt the specter of death surrounding Warhol, and there was always a feeling that something terrible could happen. “At a certain point, I didn’t hang out so much with Andy at the Factory,” Heide said. “I did feel a kind of danger. I couldn’t keep up with everybody else because I knew I would go out the window, so I was more careful about it. And at a certain point, I had gone as far as I could go.”
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Freddie Herko was a premier dancer at the Judson Dance Theater—a wild, beautiful man whose performances were charged with his eccentric persona—until he got sucked into the drug scene. Beat poet and Off-Off-Broadway playwright Diane di Prima was a good friend of Herko; he told her that he “needed speed to push his body so he could dance the way he wanted to. He felt otherwise he didn’t have a chance; he had come to dance too late in life to make it work for him.” Over time, Herko mixed amphetamines with LSD and other drugs, all of which shattered his physical and mental health. “He had seen his dancer’s body with acid eyes,” di Prima recalled, “and seen how he had ravaged it with speed and neglect. Or, as he put it, he had ‘destroyed his house.’ ” Michael Smith shared an apartment with Johnny Dodd at 5 Cornelia Street, where Herko spent the final moments of his life. “It was only a matter of time, and nobody could do anything about it,” Smith said. “You can’t stop people from taking drugs. He was just kind of fading away.” On October 27, 1964, Herko stopped by the apartment when Smith was away and asked Dodd if he could take a bath—after which he rose from the water, put Mozart’s Great Mass in C on the turntable, and began dancing around the room. Dodd just sat there, feeling like something was amiss, then Herko danced out the open window and leapt five stories to his death.
“There was a lot of amphetamine around,” Michael Smith said of Caffe Cino soon before it closed. “It created a desperate atmosphere, and played into Joe Cino’s sense of burnout.” After Freddie Herko leapt to his death a few doors down on Cornelia Street, the scene at the Cino grew increasingly grim. “That colored everything,” playwright William Hoffman said. “That was a big change, and I think Joe Cino never really quite got over it.” Then, in early 1967, Joe’s personal life went off the rails after the death of his boyfriend. “We talk about the great old days, and they really were great old days, but there was an undercurrent that wasn’t so great—namely the violence between Joe Cino and his lover Jon Torrey,” said Hoffman. “He wasn’t always violent, but enough to be a menace. I noticed the great tension between the two, and on occasion I would see Joe was beat up.” Others remember Jon Torrey as a charismatic, beautiful man who looked like a Minoan statue: tall, broad shoulders, and huge eyes, ears, and nose. He could work wonders with wiring, including finding a way to tap into the city’s electrical system to power the storefront theater’s shows for free. Torrey, who would throw himself into everything with wild enthusiasm, died in a work-related accident outside the city on January 5, 1967. Those who knew Torrey could imagine him being careless to the point that the electricity spat back at him, but Cino was convinced it was suicide and descended into a spiral of depression that led to his own suicide.
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Judson Church hosted Joe Cino’s memorial service, just as it had Freddie Herko’s, and friends staged several tributes (such as Dames at Sea’s “Raining in My Heart,” a low-rent Busby Berkeley number that surely would have made Joe smile). “Caffe Cino was very romantic,” Michael Smith said. “We might as well let it be romanticized. But I just don’t like to see Joe’s death romanticized, or Freddie Herko, or Jon Torrey. These people died because they were in despair, and there’s nothing romantic about that. It’s terribly sad and it was a terrible blow.” Joe Cino was the model of freedom and artistic exuberance, and for him to kill himself was like a denunciation of everything he stood for. Oh, that doesn’t work, some couldn’t help but think. This was a wonderful way to live, but it just doesn’t work. “It was a shock, but I had had several shocks like that already,” said F. Story Talbot, who had lost four good friends in a short period of time. “It was like one-two-three-four—people I was close to in the theater—and it was part of what shook me out of the theater.”