Did a Cult Writer Grow Up in Bay Ridge and Then Lie About It?

Emmett Grogan
Emmett Grogan, via 1% Free

Thanks to Brian Berger for his research.

Emmett Grogan was the most likable figure of the 60s and 70s counterculture, the hippiest of the hippies, the streetwisest, badassest, most radical and most politically sincere. He had the posthumous honor of being the man to whom Bob Dylan’s underrated 1978 album Street Legal was dedicated. To many, he was a cult hero: those old enough to remember the group he founded, the Diggers, who doled out free food and free theater on both coasts, and those who read his book, Ringolevio, a memoir perhaps best described as either barely factual or mostly fictional. Still, one biographical detail from that quasinovel seems to have been taken at face value by those who cared: that Grogan grew up on Dean Street, the literary home of L.J. Davis, Paula Fox and, later, Jonathan Lethem. But did he? Or was that all some bullshit, too?

Grogan grew up in Bay Ridge. Here’s how we know, and why he may have lied.

Grogan mentions Bay Ridge a few times in Ringolevio, all in the first hundred pages: first, as the domain in which one of his robber-friends works, the one who’s driving the local cops and “several Bay Ridge merchants and their wives” crazy; fifty pages later, it’s the provenance of a group of “big, bulky, two-hundred-pounders” who invade a favorite bar of Grogan’s alter ego, Kenny Wisdom, on Second Avenue, in what feels like Last Exit to Brooklyn’s part of the borough. “They stomped into the back room,” he writes, “took off their jackets to show everyone the muscles that were clearly visible in their skin-tight T-shirts, and asked for trouble by demanding waiter service.” The satire here feels too on-the-nose to me to have been written by an outsider. But that’s just a hunch; you can file it under the circumstantial evidence.

The key mention of the neighborhood doesn’t even mention the neighborhood by name—as though Grogan were trying to hide it, so maybe the reader wouldn’t put two-and-two together. It’s after Wisdom returns from a long and eventful sojourn in Europe:

It was the last Sunday in November of 1965 and his twenty-first birthday when Kenny Wisdom landed at Idlewild airport, which had been renamed John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

A lot of things had changed. Kenny’s parents had moved to a different section of Brooklyn a few years back. He took the crumpled letter they had written him about their change of address from his pocket and dialed their new phone number from a booth at the airport. He didn’t yell “Surprise!” when his mother answered, he just asked her what was for dinner because he said he would be home in half an hour. He hung up before she could express her astonishment.

He caught a cab for Brooklyn which took him on the Belt Parkway past the fishing boats returning to Canarsie from their early morning trawl, the red-tiled roof of the Lundy Brothers’ huge seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, and the parachute jump in Coney Island and . . . “What’s that?”

“Whadda ya mean, ‘Wat’s dat?’ ” said the cabby. “Dat’s de bridge. De longest suspended bridge in de woild, de Verrazano, dat’s all! Where you been?”

When they arrived Kenny paid the fare and stood for a moment looking at the six-story, gray, sixty-unit building with the name “The Royal Poinciana” cut into the cement above the front entrance when the building was constructed prior to World War One.

He went inside and checked out the mailboxes for the right apartment number, took the elevator up to the proper floor and rang the doorbell. He heard the joyful commotion even before it explodedopen the door, and pulled him in and spilled all over him… Kenny sort of felt like a stranger but he knew he was home…

The Royal Poinciana apartment building
Photo by Hey Ridge

Knew he was home because he was literally back in his real childhood home, in his old neighborhood? He’s talking about Bay Ridge: if the reference to the bridge isn’t enough to tip you off, the Royal Poinciana is a real building, on the northeast corner of 79th Street and Fourth Avenue, still standing today and still using that name. In fact, it’s the building Grogan grew up in.

A Flickr account by Grogan’s son Max features numerous personal documents, photographs and news articles from Emmett’s life, including a Polaroid of a Brooklyn apartment building dated “Jun 60.” “brooklyn appartment [sic] building where eugene leo grogan grew up,” reads the caption. (Eugene was Emmet’s birth name.) Though you can’t see a name on the building, it’s surely the Royal Poinciana: the decorative stonework around the top- and bottom-floor windows, the placement of the fire escapes, the small courtyard behind it, the castle-like roof of the building across 79th street, just visible on the righthand side of the photo.

His parents were still living there as late as 1978, when a telegram from two of Emmett’s friends arrived to Apt. C1 expressing their condolences. (In April, Emmett had been found dead from a heroin dose on a Coney Island-bound F train, as the story goes—on Surf Ave. and Stillwell, according to his death certificate.) And his parents had been living there when Emmett was three, according to a 1945 white pages dug up at the Brooklyn Public Library by Brian Berger. It’s also the address listed for Grogan on his death certificate. (To support that, Grogan’s last zip code, according to his Social Security Death Index information, was 11209, the zip code for Bay Ridge.) And his wake was at Clavin’s, a block away on the corner of 78th Street and Fourth Avenue.

So if he lied about growing up in Bay Ridge, the question is why? Because a Dean Street origin would’ve gone well with the mystique he worked to create.

After Grogan, Dean Street would be home to Davis and Fox and Lethem, as well as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground (whose New York chapter rented an apartment on Amity Street, the three blocks of Dean west of Court Street). But before all that, Dean Street was most notoriously home to Willie Sutton, the Pretty Boy Floyd of Brooklyn, a bank robber who escaped from jail in 1947 and lived five years on the lam before he was fingered by a straphanging tailor and arrested at his apartment in No. 340, a Puerto Rican-dominated rooming house. He’d been living under the pseudonym John Mahoney—which Wisdom later adopts—and telling people he worked for Con Edison.

The adolescent Grogan in Ringolevio earns his keep by burgling his privileged pals’ homes; the adult Grogan published one other book, Final Score, an ode to safecracking masquerading as a thriller about a gang of thieves going after one last big haul, released in 1976 and full of minute details about dismantling locking mechanisms and evading alarm systems. (It’s mostly set in and around the vicinity of Grand Army Plaza, around what we now call northeastern Park Slope and Prospect Heights. In 1972, Grogan was living at 42 Montgomery Place, that block possibly a model for the book’s depiction of Sterling Place and Sixth Avenue, which to me doesn’t quite sync up with the real-life streetscape.)

Grogan lived with the Hell’s Angels, worshipped a jewel thief named Albie Baker, ran capers for dealers, and ripped people off for dope money. The subhed of an elegy by Al Aronowitz called him “the jailbird con-man novelist who masterminded the Summer of Love.” A High Times profile by Don Kennison from 1992 called him “the streetwise do-gooder with a hardened fist and a poet’s soul. A cat called Wisdom or Free, who stole from those who deserved it, fed the hungry, opened up if you needed to hear, split when you didn’t: rode bikes, read poetry, spoke Italian, cracked safes, climbed mountains, wrote books.”

Grogan likely wanted to create a lineage between himself and Sutton, to be the next in a line of Brooklyn-born crooks who doubled as heroes—outlaws reborn as populist icons. “You see,” he writes in Ringolevio, “Willie Sutton had been Kenny Wisdom’s Babe Ruth ever since he started understanding the stories which the people told about him, and the newspaper accounts of his life.” Given that Grogan spent his whole life being Willie Sutton, or his whole literary life pretending to be—it’s hard to tell the difference—this is one instance in which I’m willing to take him at his word.

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