Gerd Stern’s day job as a purveyor of kosher food is rather mundane, but don’t let that fool you.-
Seventy-eight or so years into a fascinating and gypsy-like life that began with the death of his mom when he was 4 and fleeing the Nazis at 5, this resident of Cresskill and Poets Cove, Jamaica, has still got big plans.
He’s writing articles for www.living-kosher.com, a Website about Jewish food and the holidays, and he’s also working on an opera in New York City. He has an art show opening in Vienna in a month or so, and this Passover he’s slated to be the poet-in-residence at a hotel in Florida.
It sounds busy, but compared to his wild days in his checkered youth, it’s rather a staid and placid existence.
Stern attended the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina, on a scholarship arranged by the editor of the Partisan Review. Stern lasted there all of two weeks. Instead of attending school, Stern took a counselor’s job at Shalom Secunda’s Camp Kindervelt only to get tossed for girl trouble.
He landed in San Francisco, freeloaded for a bit, then hitchhiked to Virginia City to work in a precious metal mine. The Big Blizzard of ’48 drove him back to New York with a kidney infection, where his uncle, a doctor, sent him off to see a shrink for smoking pot. The doctor told the patient to gain ‘0 pounds and take a much-needed rest, suggesting that Gerd tell the medics in the emergency room at the New York Psychiatric Institute that he wanted to kill himself so he could get access to free meals and a clean bed.
No problem. The doctors liked neurotic artists and were doing a study.
Ten days later, Carl Solomon (the protagonist in "HOWL" by Allen Ginsburg) showed up at the hospital with a pile of books and blue suede shoes. He took one look at Gerd and asked his fellow patient to "define his terms."
Four weeks later, Allen Ginsburg checked into the hospital.
Gerd’s hospital stay ended with dismissal by a doctor who told him, "The problem with you is you are trying to live your father’s life and your own at the same time. Pick one, not both."
That assessment turned Gerd’s life around. He took a job as a galley boy on a tramp steamer to Argentina. When he got back, he hooked up with his lady, Jane, who he had met in San Francisco, and who now invited him to Berkeley. He went to meet her, and she ran off to New York with him.
Eventually they married (with all the hipsters in attendance) and settled down in New Paltz, where they rented a homestead to work on art projects, and Village Press published his "First Poems and Others."
Gerd became fascinated with Kaballah and spirituality.
But the New Paltz serenity ended when he and his friends managed to burn down their landlord’s chicken coop and were tossed off the property.
So they headed back to Berkeley, where someone gave him an old Navy barge equipped with a house. He and Jane experimented with communal living and created the Boobam Bamboo Drum Company.
He was involved with the first listener-supported radio station in the United States and became a success by putting up FM antennas, all the while hanging out with the beat poets and comedians at the hungry i and the Purple Onion. Mort Sahl, Phyllis Diller, Carl Solomon, and others were among his set.
But Jane ran off with their two children and a younger man, so Gerd and Maya Angelou hooked up. They lived together on the barge for 18 months. When they broke up, he married Ann London. The two formed a poetry group called "The Seven Stray Cats." One day, Ginsburg showed up at the barge with a stack of manuscripts by William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Neil Cassidy. By then Gerd was an editor at Ace Books.
That’s how Burroughs’ "Junky" was published.-
Around the time that book was published, Gerd was also writing "On The Town" columns for Playboy.
Ann ran off with a fellow from New Paltz and left their son with her parents, so Stern headed back to New York, where he worked as a sculptor and a carpenter, and where he went mute for a year.-
In the 1950s Gerd met Reb Zalman Schachter, who had taken his first LSD trip with Timothy Leary. Gerd brought Schachter to his studio in Garnerville, N.Y. The two have been fast friends since. It was Gerd who recorded Reb Zalman’s "Tales of Reb Nachman."
So, now life is a little on the mundane side for Gerd, but as he wrote in his poem for the recent Woodstock Poetry Festival:
"Allen’s dead. Jack’s dead.
Carl’s dead. Tim’s dead.
I’m ALIVE! Baruch Hashem!"