Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back – Michael Musto (Vantage Point)

Emory University





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I’d just made it to the studio for
the late night TV panel and found myself saddled with a not very knowledgeable
(or interested) emcee and a tall young man with black rimmed glasses, a black
outfit, and tons of shiny black “Hollywood” hair. He was introduced as Michael
Musto, writer for New York City’s Village
and I’d never heard of him.

Even so, between the two of us,
Musto and I took over the show and pretty much left the emcee in the dust. But
afterward, Michael confided in me—“I was nervous. You looked so butch, that at
first I thought you were a set-up. You know, one of those antagonists they
sometimes get whenever Gay Anything is mentioned.”

For me that kind of sums up Musto:
He’s wary but alert, eager to dish yet ready to defend his position. It’s only
one of his secrets to a long success at that downtown rag I otherwise long gave
up reading, and the only breath of fresh air about “Gay Anything” amidst that
coterie of unshaven (women) and unbathed (both genders) so-called reporters and

Since the early 1980’s Musto carved
out a shining little demesne for himself, and Fork On the Left, Knife in the Back, is his second collection of
published columns from there. If you are already a New Yorker or a fan of the
columns, don’t bother reading the rest of this review: go get the book and

If you are neither and want to know
more about him, listen to Musto characterize himself in his own words in one of
the few longer pieces here “The 10 Ickiest People in New York.”  As “a tired, insecure, empty monster who
terrorizes New York at night.” And in another essay as “a sad, little,
semi-failure who kevetches for a living.” It’s all so Nueva Jorck I may not
have to go to Canter’s Deli for a few weeks, now that I’ve gotten my cynical
Manhattan hit.

Of course Musto’s more than that.
He’s the best gossip columnist since Hedda Hopper, and he’s not only the best
party attender since “Drella” Warhol –“she’d go to the opening of an
envelope”—but he’s also able to view what was for years a hugely messy,
uncontrollable, ever-changing party scene with an reckless sense of purpose and
a magisterial purview equal to Arthur C. Scheslinger writing about the American
Presidency. Musto writes about it so well that, for a moment or two, you’re
almost persuaded that what he’s writing about is not utter piffle.

Musto’s also brilliantly aphoristic—which is
something you simply cannot learn. Referring to someone to be avoided: “She’s a
walking ad for Caller-I.D.” Writing about neighborhoods, “Ever wake up in
Midtown? You want to kill yourself.” Of the Real Estate Mogul takeover of
Manhattan he sums up, “The few bohemians left are being battered to death by

An onlooker is as “quiet as a Mormon at the Gay Games,” while another
party-person is “a recovering TV sound bite whore.” His attack on Dionne
Warwick’s Psychic Network TV program (remember that?) is filled with zingers.
It’s as though Musto got hold of a verbal Uzi and wasn’t afraid to use it.

At the same time, most of these
pieces are very short, and while he can shine in that length, most of their
content was pretty momentary. It’s really the few longer pieces where Musto
really shines. I mentioned the piece about The Psychic Network, but another one
in 1987 “The Death of Downtown” really is a classic in its scope and surprising
depth. Musto ended it on an upbeat note, “Downtown will come back!” But to my
knowledge, it never really did. So here’s wishing Musto writes at greater length
about what he’s seen, overheard, known and wished he hadn’t drunk or downed.

That’s one “I wish.” The second “I
wish” is that Musto had been around a decade earlier. When he got on the scene,
Manhattan still had the punk-fashionista-NoHo-SoHo-East Village crowd of
loonies and wannabes that he glamorized and skewered so well. And they were
great, I admit it. I loved Area and Danceteria and Palladium: questionable
coke, paisley kilts, and all.

But…. had Musto been around the gay
scene in NYC earlier, he could have really cleaned up. In retrospect, the
private-club, baths, bars, and Fire Island scene appears to be equal to nothing
else but the Roaring Twenties. Because there were so many celebrities mixed in,
the amount of gossip obtainable was enormous and unceasing. Just walking down
the street, me and my date came upon and disarmed Janis Joplin of a broken
whiskey bottle she was attacking someone with, and then frog marched her into
Max’s Kansas City where she gratefully offered to do us at the same time under
the table. Or the final Flamingo Black Party where the “symbolically dirty”
3000 lb hog in a cage at the front door eventually expired from being given too
many drugs, while one guy was auto-sodomized by his pet python “Destiny” on one
platform as a 60 year old floozie stripped on an opposite platform. All for the
delectation of discerning club members, including myself and winsome Farrah
Fawcett who wondered aloud if the stripper “was ever pretty.”

But why go on? No one believes it.
I don’t believe it and I was there. 

Until someone publishes my
unexpurgated journals of those years, Michael Musto’s books are simply the best
in gossip and dish.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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