West Village history can’t be said to live in any one person, but Otis Kidwell Burger has seen a great deal of it, and holds a great deal more in her family tree. She grew up with abolitionists and suffragists, and watched Jane Jacobs get arrested protesting the proposed Lower Manhattan expressway. She threw literary parties attended by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, and navigated actual meat in the streets of the Meatpacking District. For all this and more, we celebrate Otis’s long life, which began on November 9, 1923.
Like Otis herself, Otis’s oral history conducted with GVSHP is a treasure trove of anecdotes about the Village, observations about what’s changed (her favorite phrase is “It’s become the billionaires chasing out the millionaires”), and how the literary world has been a part of her life.
Otis Kidwell Burger comes from a long line of activists. Her great-grandfather was Sydney Howard Gay, a New Yorker who became a fierce abolitionist after taking a trip to the American South and seeing first-hand the horrors of slavery (but who is not, as is sometimes assumed, the namesake of Gay Street). As a result, Gay joined the staff of The Anti-Slavery Standard as an editor for fourteen years and became a conductor for the Underground Railroad. Otis’ grandmother, Mary Otis Gay Willcox, was a well-known activist and public orator in her time, who dedicated much of her activity to the suffragette movement. Otis was part of a GVSHP program in February of 2016 about the book “Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives,” along with author Don Papson, about her famous great-grandfather, his role in abolition, and the Greenwich Village connection (Photos and video of this program are online).
Otis has also published poems in the New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, Gourmet Magazine, and more. She wrote book reviews and articles for the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Villager, among others. She’s also published science fiction short stories on a variety of platforms including Galaxy magazine, and is the author of several books, including The String That Went Up, a children’s book, and An Interesting Condition: The Diary of a Pregnant Woman. This was written under the pseudonym Abigail Lewis in 1950 when Otis was pregnant with her first child. Otis recounts how one of her husband’s coworkers in the publishing industry commented that no book had ever been written about pregnancy by a pregnant woman, and so she decided to write the book herself. “And for a glorious week, my book was in the windows on Fifth Avenue,” she remembers.
Otis lives with her two cats in the 1836 building that she and her husband, Knox Burger, bought in 1959. Knox was a literary agent, who connected their family to the literary world. Otis’s most recent book, Cats, Love, and Other Surprises, is a book of poetry with illustrations by her daughter, Katherine Wilcox Burger. The book’s blurb describes how “Otis delights in the company of her cats in verse both whimsical and lyrical. Other poems reflect on a long life… these explore family memories, the vagaries of love, and the natural world, to which she is connected by both scientific curiosity (she was a zoology major at Cornell College) and philosophical questioning.”
When Knox and Otis first bought their house on Bethune Street, the house was a rooming house, which they continued for income. They rented the upper floors out to “all kinds of weird people,” including Norman Mailer’s sister, who would bring Norman to their parties.
Norman Mailer’s sister lived upstairs, so we saw Norman from time to time … I don’t remember anything specific about the parties. Who was there? All the staff of Collier’s, and John Brooks, and his wife, and Steve Becker, who was a novelist… They were full of interesting people. Norman Mailer always came late.
Norman Mailer when running for Mayor in 1969, from GVSHP’s Historic Image Archive, www.archive.gvshp.org/items/
Another daytime resident of the upstairs was Jane Jacobs, who paid $8 per week for a writing room in which she wrote her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Otis remembers:
…She came here for peace and quiet. I think she had teenagers. So, she would write the book, and because the heat was rarely on, she would go to bed, climb into bed to keep warm, and while she was thinking about the chapters… Then we later became good friends with Jane… and we went down to a meeting south of here, about the lower Manhattan expressway that somebody wanted to put through. And it was a lot of opposition to that. I was sitting next to Jane, and this was going on, it was obviously, they were just pushing it through, pushing it through. I said to Jane, “There must be some way to stop this,’ and she leaped up, and went on the stage and tore the transcript out of the machine [laughs] and was instantly arrested. But somehow, it never came through. So that was so amazing! And brave of her.
Jane Jacobs. Photo: Associated Press
Later, the house was renovated – while Otis and her family were still living there – by the New York architect Harold Edelman, who was a friend of Otis’s from Cornell. Edelman updated the house and the family ceased renting rooms, though once the children moved out they began to rent again, which Otis continues to do. Otis still hosts house parties and poetry salons, welcoming neighborhood poets and writers into her home to share space, especially after her neighborhood bookstore, Left Bank Books, closed its doors on 8th Avenue and West 12th Street.
Otis’s poetry has been described as traversing “territories from the quotidian to the metaphysical… solemn, yet also witty and accessible.” Otis explores the creaturely parts of life, writing…
I don’t know yet if it will be
A horse or a bison. Prey. Food. Perhaps a charm for the hunter.
Or perhaps a cave bear, immense, terrible.
Death itself, but made small and manageable. A protection.
In another poem, I Ran Away From Home When I was Nine, published online by Woodstock Poetry, Otis also mentions her cats, writing
I ran away from home when I was nine. I took my cat,
A doll carriage carrying a bottle of malted cod liver oil, of which the cat and I were fond,
The complete works of O’Henry
And a hat…
Some eight decades later, I am still
Camping out in the woods, alone,
Sharing odd fishy tidbits with my cats.
The homes I lived in have been long since torn down.
Otis is still writing, on her typewriter, even as she talks about losing her sight. She has an assistant who comes to her house and digitizes her typed poems.
You want to know what I’m writing about? About my bad eyes, being sick, people, things, observations. What’s the latest what I’m doing? Oh, about children who have horrors under their beds
Otis’s townhouse, which she bought for $30,000, is now appraised at $12 million. Reflecting on the changes to the Village, Otis said:
It’s become much more bland. Thank god there are still some interesting people around. I’m glad I have this house, but it seems that the whole world has changed outside, and I’m sure that every elderly person of every age has been saying that. So, but, no, I’m afraid of what will happen. Realtors keep asking me to sell the house to them. I know what would happen. It would be changed back into a single family house for a billionaire. Jane Jacobs helped save this neighborhood once from Zeckendorf. I’m not about to do it…
The good lord isn’t making any more Village townhouses.
Happy Birthday, Otis! We join many others in the Village and beyond in wishing Otis many happy returns, walks through the village, scintillating visitors, more poetry and creation, and, of course, cats.