The Singing of God Bless America By A Woman Condemned To Death

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02/14/2011

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

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Throughout the 1950s Stan Novick was locked up at least four times in “The Tombs,” Manhattan’s now-closed city jail and holding cell on White Street. Pictures from that time show “The Tombs,” now torn down, as a Dickensian sort of place with looming towers and small windows. Photos of Stan Novick at that time show a tall, dark and handsome man. But already by this time, barely into his 20s, Stan was full-blown heroin addict who would spend the next 20 years in and out of state and federal prisons on drug charges.

In many ways Stan was an archetypal post-World War II junkie: Male, urban, working class, first generation American, and Jewish. Like a lot of the estimated 5,000 addicts in New York City at that time - most Jewish or Italian-American - he was a habitué of the drug-heavy jazz scene. For the Stans of the world the 1950s were not a sunny tableau of letterman jackets and chocolate malts, but a time when the status quo enthusiastically supported racial, cultural and religious discrimination and used the police to enforce that status quo. For the outsiders, the American dream was an unattainable fantasy, a ruse from which drugs offered some relief.

I met Stan in the winter of 2006. He was retired and living alone in a Brighton Beach apartment that he’d bought with his modest salary as a drug counselor. At his suggestion we met at a Starbucks during which he expressed sentiments like "why do you care about these kinds of stories?" and, to himself in particular, “why am I talking to you?”

I had first gotten in touch with Stan by phone as part of my research for a film and book on an experimental prison for drug addicts called The Narcotic Farm, which, among other things, housed drug-using jazz greats such as Chet Baker, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Heath and most of Charlie Parker’s band, as well as Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, and writer William Burroughs, who wrote about The Narcotic Farm in his roman a clef, "Junky." Stan (rightly) saw himself as at the center of this American junkie culture and eventually agreed to sit down for what became a lengthy, riveting on-camera interview about life as a heroin addict on the streets of New York in the late 1940s through the mid 1960s. Before wrapping it up for the day’s shoot, Stan asked if he could tell us a story that wasn’t related to The Narcotic Farm but one he'd like us to hear anyway. We turned off the camera and listened.

Arrested for possession of a needle by an undercover detective in Manhattan, Stan recalled being sent to The Tombs for what would have been his second or third time in April of 1953. Before being assigned his jail cell Stan was already in acute opiate withdrawal. If you don’t already know this from the movies, withdrawal from heroin includes all variety of feeling shitty – you sweat, you experience both anxiety and deep depression, you get the chills, you vomit repeatedly and often, and your nose won’t stop running. This lasts about a week. On top of all this you have diarrhea, fever and, most memorable to Stan this particular time around, a pulverizing headache.»

The Singing of God Bless America By A Woman Condemned To Death
Photo by egenerica

In the mire of this dope sickness Stan was lying face down on his cot with a pillow over his head, sweating like mad and trying his best to make it through yet another wave of thumping headaches when a woman somewhere within earshot began to sing a rousing, a cappella version of “God Bless America.” The voice, he remembers, was pretty good. But this, along with the steady din of the institution, its bootsteps, its clanging doors, and all the other sounds of a large prison, was too much too absorb in this fragile state.

He yelled for the woman to shut up. But her voice kept on going, unfazed and unstoppable. She kept singing and he kept yelling. When “God Bless America” was finally over, her voice started up again. Stan began screaming so loud a guard came his cell to see what was wrong. The guard listened passively as Stan pleaded with him to make this woman stop singing. He took out his ring of keys and opened the jail cell door and gestured to Stan that he was free to walk outside and confront the woman.

"Go right ahead," said the guard, "Just walk down there and tell her to shut up. But before you do that, you should know that that is Ethel Rosenberg who is singing. She’s just been sentenced to death."

JP Olsen is a filmmaker, journalist and musician living in Brooklyn. His film and book "The Narcotic Farm" received praise from Errol Morris and Luc Sante, among others. He also fronts the musical collective The Malefactors of Great Wealth, whose debut EP "Today is the Best Day of My Life," is released March 2011 on Old 3C records (old3c.com).

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§ 2 Responses to “The Singing of God Bless America By A Woman Condemned To Death”

  • Thomas says:

    Terrific story, both for the unexpected punchline and for the sharply written evocation of a darker, nastier 1950s.

  • Crazy Sweeney says:

    Sweet, in addition to being a recovering heroin addict (The only other option is DEATH, Jail is just a respite.) I get an excellent story of more broken people, a little redemption, and a good lead on some new books and music. Not a bad start for today.

§ Leave a Reply

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