Gregory Gibson Hubert's Freaks Q & AHow did you come up with the idea of writing HUBERT'S FREAKS? Were you and Bob Langmuir friends for a long time before writing this book?
Bob and I had been colleagues in the antiquarian book business for about twenty years, but he'd dropped out of sight toward the end of that time. I bumped into him unexpectedly at an ephemera show in January 2004 and went to dinner with him. Always a wonderful raconteur, he was on fire that night, narrating a strange, marvelous tale of a Times Square freak show, a tattooed man, a Nigerian Prince, a gorgeous snake dancer, and Diane Arbus. His story began over drinks at the hotel bar, and continued all the way through dinner at the restaurant around the corner, and well into dessert. I was smitten with his account, and knew immediately it would make a terrific book. Bob graciously agreed to let me try writing it. I had some other writing business to finish up, and when I got back to him later that spring he was deep in recovery from his stay at the psychiatric ward. I realized then that the story was still in progress, and that I'd be writing it as it unfolded.
Bob was undergoing a tremendously dynamic but stressful time just then. I think he realized that I'd "been to the mountain" in the course of my inquiry into the murder of my son, and that what I'd learned might be useful to him. I'd written a book about my investigations - "Gone Boy" - which Bob had read and liked, and he decided to trust me. This was a big step for him and it led to a wonderful experience for us both. We became collaborators in Bob's recovery, and, in a sense, in the creation of the book. At some point a few years into the process, Bob asked me what was going to happen next? I told him I had no idea - he was writing the book with his life, and I was just copying it down. We always kidded a lot, and he knew I was kidding, but he knew I was serious, too.
There is a strong theme of shining light on American subcultures in HUBERT'S FREAKS. What draws you to the "seedy underbelly" of the country? How does this fit in with being an antiquarian book dealer?
It's a truism that the people in power get to write the histories, and it's equally true that those are not the only histories to be written. The "seedy underbelly" isn't necessarily seedy and the people who live there are not "under" anything except the economics and class structures that keep them there. These people are often very creative in dealing with the circumstances in which they find themselves, and they lead fascinating lives. They represent the many untold aspects of American life, and their stories continue to be sought out by scholars and artists interested in a deeper understanding of our history. Antiquarian dealers like Bob discover and preserve these important materials, and ultimately deliver them to institutions where they can be made available to researchers.
What's your reaction to news that the art world of New York City finds HUBERT'S FREAKS so controversial?
It would be great press if the art world of New York City found HUBERT'S FREAKS controversial. But I suspect that, if they're aware of the book at all, they simply wish it would go away. It asks too many uncomfortable questions about the forces that control the art market. - not in a malicious way, but as Bob Langmuir asked them when he was bringing his newly discovered archive to their attention - in an innocent open way that sheds light on certain unusual aspects of the high art business.
We've heard you plan to be in attendance at the auction in April of the Hubert's archives. Will you be bidding on any of the lots? What do you hope will happen to the Hubert's memorabilia as it (hopefully) finds a new home(s)?
Each of the Arbus photographs will be estimated in the ten of thousands of dollars, I'm sure. As fond as I've grown of the images over the years, I won't be bidding on any of them unless Harcourt decides to give me a lot more money for writing HUBERT'S FREAKS. Seriously, it would be ideal if single buyer or institution could purchase the archive en bloc - all at once. If this doesn't happen, at least the documentary records of Hubert's Flea Circus will be sold as a single lot, enabling it to be kept together for researchers. In an ideal world the Arbus Estate would allow for reproduction of those marvelous images so that scholars and researchers can access them.
What is going on with tattooed man Jack Dracula and the other surviving "freaks" who performed at Hubert's?
I've heard there's a documentary movie being assembled. If that's true, they'd better hurry up. Jack is in a nursing home and has lost both legs to diabetes. Woogie died last fall, and wonderful characters like Ward Hall, Presto the Magician, and Bobby Reynolds won't be around for ever. HUBERT'S FREAKS, and the archive that Bob Langmuir discovered brings this strange, lost world back to us in part, but nothing can replace the stories and recollections of the performers who actually inhabited it.