Editor’s Note: Today, Points continues a series of reflections on the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, from Luke Walden, JP Olsen, and Nancy Campbell. You can read the first post in the series here. Walden is a documentary filmmaker, Olsen a journalist (and documentarian), and Campbell a historian (and Contributing Editor to Points). Olsen brought Walden into the development of his film, The Narcotic Farm, and along the way the two began collaborating with Campbell as well–ultimately producing not only the film, but an accompanying book. We’re pleased to bring you the second post in this ongoing series:
Behind the Advertised Image of the American Dream
During the course of producing the film and book for “The Narcotic Farm” (with Luke Walden and Nancy Campbell), I interviewed nearly a dozen men who were involved in what could be described as a global teenage junkie epidemic. This was back in the early 1950s, when an estimated 5,000 teens in New York alone were hooked on heroin.
The men’s memories of that time were fascinating and instructive. One recalled with keen detail Lucky Luciano’s mafia takeover of the heroin trade; selling dope to Big Maybelle; and palling around with notorious addict Chet Baker while jailed at Rikers Island. Another described intricate scams he perpetrated around the country with his prostitute girlfriend in search of opiates. Still another recalled how, after being busted for needle possession, he discovered that Julius Rosenberg was in the same prison and often played chess between cell bars with another intellectual inmate (who later turned out to be an informant).
In their own ways, all the men I interviewed projected a sort of perverse pride in having been at the center of a criminal drug underworld and at The Narcotic Farm itself. These experiences gave them a front-row view of some of the major criminal and cultural stories of their day.
All the men with whom I spoke were frank about their involvement with heroin—no women addicts of this era agreed to participate in this project for reasons we’ll address in our next post. But most were less forthcoming about their earlier, pre-addiction childhoods. Why? One Narcotic Farm alumnus, David Deitch, who went on to co-found Daytop Village, put forward a reason: those who ended up junkies in the post-World War II era were all but locked out of the advertised image of the American dream. For them there was no shiny car, no new kitchen, no thick malts down at the town square. Those living outside this advertised image of America were, in fact, children coping with what psychologists today would call “psychic pain.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, to be a teen living on the dark side of the American Dream often meant you lived in the crap part of a city, negotiated violent street gangs on your way to school, dealt with alcoholism and violence in the home, and sometimes had to navigate corrupt and racist law enforcement. On this end, I’m reminded of a telephone interview with a former Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent—who I will not name but who worked for Harry Anslinger—who told me the reason for the explosion of drug use in post-World War II America had to do with the mixing of blacks and Jews. Remember, this is a federal agent in New York City we’re talking about, not some bailiff in a hamlet.
Stan Novick, featured prominently in our film and book, was the first former patient at The Narcotic Farm to speak to me about the psychic pain of being shut out of the American dream. We talked about his current life in Brighton Beach and his early life in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the late1930s and early 1940s, where he grew up in unhappy circumstances. To him, Brownsville was a center for basketball, socialism and Jewish culture. With that cultural identity came bitter doses of what it means to be ghettoized. While outsiderness and otherness affects different people in different ways, from Stan’s perspective, growing up in an era of crushing quotas might best be summed up in his mother’s feeble aspirations for him, once telling him: “If you’re lucky, maybe some day you can get a job working in the post office.”
Such were the stifled dreams in the Novick house. He was far from alone
Eddie Flowers, who became addicted to heroin before his 15th birthday, earned money for his family by shining shoes at age eight. By the time he was 12 he’d been sent to upstate New York to live in a foundling home run by nuns where he was sometimes beaten in an effort to control his behavioral problems. As punishment, he was sometimes forced to sleep outside. Flowers was eventually sent back to New York City to live in foster care after suffering from frostbite brought on by a particularly harsh punishment.
John Stallone, another interview subject in “The Narcotic Farm,” grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was the setting for the hit TV show “The Honeymooners,” starring a bellowing Jackie Gleason. Gleason grew up in Williamsburg and created biting comedy out of what was a harsh and dreary place. (In fact, my father, an Army man, recalled a World War II bunkmate of his from Williamsburg who often joked, “if you had both of your ears in Williamsburg, you were a sissy.”)
For Stallone, the disconnect between the idea of fair play and the American way and his first-generation experience in Williamsburg could not have been starker. The son of a Sicilian immigrant who spoke no English, Stallone’s late 1950s childhood memories are marked by repeated examples of law enforcement officials on the take. This assumption that the law could be bought even came from within his home as Stallone’s father urged his 16 year-old son to carry a $20 bill to use as a bribe in case he was caught breaking the law. “Not once can I remember any cop ever turning down money,” he told me.
To speak with Narcotic Farm alumni was to be handed the keys to unlock a lost world where criminality and drugs were a unifying secret to a wandering urban clan in search of the ultimate high. The members of this once youthful tribe recalled for me, again and again, their search for good times, for some kind of relief from their daily lives, and with that, the vague notion that they might be exacting some kind of revenge on the world they saw as pitted against them.
But, as we all well know, what’s past is present.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.