On a rainy fall day in New York’s West Village, sheets of precipitation fell at angles that made an umbrella entirely ineffective. I fought through the deluge on my way to 29 Cornelia Street (getting completely soaked in the process) to talk with Robin Hirsch, a man who has created unique haven for the arts. Hirsch, a writer and director, co-founded the Cornelia Street Cafe in 1977 with Charles McKenna, an actor, and Raphaela Pivetta, a visual artist. The spot, from its inception, was an artist’s cafe. From poetry readings and performances of plays to a flourishing songwriters collective, the cafe catered toward creative types and over time, attracted a wide range of people looking to express themselves. Senator Eugene McCarthy did a poetry reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe and William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, would often moonlight at the cafe, playing piano, with The New Yorker cartoonist Arnold Roth on saxophone.
Cornelia Street Cafe is frequently included on lists of the top jazz venues in New York City, and the jazz magazine Downbeat has included the cafe on their “100 Great Jazz Clubs of the World” list. Hirsch invited me to the cafe’s bar to sample an array of new wines — the Cafe is also known for their “by the glass” wine selection — and to hear the tales of the place. Hirsch speaks in long-winded sentences, telling stories in a free-association manner. He, like his cafe, cannot avoid linking the intellectual and the artistic, and our conversation turned out to be — as I sat drying in the cafe, sipping wine, hearing stories — one of the more poignant experiences I’ve had in the city.
GP What do you attribute to the cafe’s success?
RH I don’t give too much thought to what it is exactly that we’re doing, mostly because there’s so much going on, that it develops a life of its own. I feel that we have not stood still, and that just as there are people of considerable eminence who have performed or do perform here, there are still really young turks who are starting out and are carving careers for themselves.
GP You also have an incredibly broad scope.
RH We do poetry in 12 languages and every conceivable genre of music, in addition to jazz. The thing that perhaps characterized us in our earliest years was songwriting. Songwriters would gather on Monday nights and were allowed by their own rules to sing only what they had written that week. And out of that, thousands of new songs were born and the careers of some quite well-known people.
What I think is unusual is we have legendary jazz figures who are so delighted to play in a space as intimate as this, and we have up-and-coming people whose careers are just beginning, so it’s sort of everybody.
GP Tell me about how the cafe started to feature readings from some of the world’s top scientists.
RH The science program that we do began 14 or 15 years ago. A friend of mine, who lives in L.A., who was the science writer for the L.A. Times, K.C. Cole, called me up and said, “I’m coming to New York because my new book is coming out and it’s called The Hole in the Universe.”
Just as there are people of considerable eminence who have performed or do perform here, there are still really young turks who are starting out.
So I said, “Do you want to do a reading at the cafe?”
And she said, “I’d love to.”
I said, “Well, we now have this space downstairs, and while you’re a star in L.A., nobody reads the L.A. Times here, so we need to find somebody else. Is there anybody you’d like to read with?”
So she says, “Well how about Roald Hoffmann?”
I said, “Who’s he?”
“Well he’s a poet, he’s just written a play with Carl Djerassi (the father of “the pill”), but more famously he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.”
And I go, “Well that’s not going to ring too many bells either.”
She goes, “Okay. How about me, Roald, and Oliver Sacks?”
And I go, “Ahh. Absolutely!”
Now, the film of Awakenings had come out, so when word gets out — there was a little thing in The New Yorker — there are hundreds of people on the street, science groupies, screaming to get in. And it was actually very funny, we were completely jammed downstairs, we got it, we did what we had to do, and then we had dinner upstairs. And out of that Roald says, “Would you be interested in a series that climbs one mountain by two different paths (science and the humanities)?” And out of this, Entertaining Science was born. So now, we’ve done that every first Sunday of the month for 14 years.
Some of the great scientific minds on the planet, if they were in New York on those Sundays, would be in my little basement because it was “nerds at play.” The fact that I could sit on this banquet next to Benoit Mandelbrot and he was — in academia he was not regarded as the friendliest of people — he was absolutely lovely up here, I mean, utterly avuncular with an incredible story.
I remember he and I did science in the theater for kids, and I didn’t make the connection until right this minute that what we’re doing downstairs, in some weird way, is a continuation of that.
My story is that my parents were refugees from Hitler and they escaped to London, and what struck me very forcibly, particularly with the science guys, is how many of them had a journey not dissimilar to mine. Roald was a hidden child in the Ukraine during the war. His father was shot by the Nazis in a labor camp. He and his mother were hidden by a school teacher for two years. Oliver’s story was not Holocaust related, but Benoit’s was. Benoit had come to Paris just before the war and managed to survive the war as a schoolboy in France, then came to Caltech.
The thing that was so lovely about Roald is: Roald has a foot in different camps, being a chemist but also being a poet and having written a number of plays, the first one called Oxygen, with Carl Djerassi. The guy who is now co-curating with Roald is David Sulzer, who is a neuroscientist at Columbia, but has a complete separate life, and a different name — Dave Soldier — as a composer and violinist (avant-garde — conducted the Thai Elephant Orchestra, for example). So these are all people with — it’s what I think of as having more than one string into your bow. And I find that quite a lot, with people at the acme of those kinds of careers and roles.
GP Did the integration of science and arts start for you at Cornelia Street Cafe? Or did it start earlier?
RH I taught for a year and a half at a German University when I was very young, which was partly to come to terms with my very complex background. It was a very scary undertaking, actually, and when I came back to England, I became an actor at the Sheffield Playhouse, which is in the north of England, and I was hired partly to be a junior actor on the mainstage, but also to help what was a pilot program in theater and education. It was called Theater Vanguard — we went into the community to do stuff and we would bring the community to us. And, weirdly, I haven’t even made this connection, we would do Saturday morning stuff for young people on the main stage and I would bring people in — and it’s not as though I was running this theater, or anything like it, but I was this part of this little pilot project — and I got hooked up with a scientist at Sheffield University whose name I remember to this day, Norman Chigier. He was from South Africa. So I remember he and I did science in the theater for kids, and I didn’t make the connection until right this minute that what we’re doing downstairs, in some weird way, is a continuation of that.
GP Any final remembrances?
RH There was a famous book in the ’50s by C.P. Snow (Sir Charles Snow) called The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, and it was about the arts and the sciences being diverged. I remember one of the times when Oliver was on, there was this online journalist doing an article about this and alluding to these two different cultures, and Oliver saying, “It’s really just the one culture.” And that is, I think, the most important thing. It’s just the one culture. It’s not as though there’s a division or a separation of church and state. I think that if you’re alert and interested, that it’s all grist to the mill.