Detail from a portrait of Ginsberg by Elsa Dorfman, 1980.
In the early sixties, Don Wilen had just one tax client—Mrs. Sheftel, who ran the candy store on his corner. When Paul Krassner, radical prankster and editor of the satirical journal The Realist, printed an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party founder, Wilen wrote in to complain.
“I said,” Wilen recently recalled, “ ‘I’m a Jewish accountant, and respect your right to free speech, but hate—’ ”
Krassner rang him up. “An accountant! I need an accountant.” Now Wilen had two clients.
One day Wilen’s mother, babysitting, picked up the phone. “Some friend of yours, making believe he’s the famous poet Allen Ginsberg.” Wilen now had three.
Wilen showed up at Ginsberg’s East Twelfth Street apartment. The buzzer was broken. Ginsberg opened the window and threw down an old sock with the key. Inside, Ginsberg was completely nude but for his heavy black glasses and a stars-and-stripes-banded stovepipe hat. Ginsberg’s partner, Peter Orlovsky, lay spread-eagled on the couch. Gregory Corso read poems aloud from his upcoming book. Bobby, Ginsberg’s Brazilian houseboy, in a tutu, waved a feather duster nearish the toppling towers of books and street-rescued decor. All were various degrees of stoned. “It was so fascinating I just couldn’t—bear it!” But Ginsberg put on clothes and he remained.
The mild-eyed, equable Wilen, now remarkably youthful at seventy-nine, was recruited to the field by a “charismatic” Brooklyn College accounting professor. He wasn’t artsy, by his own admission, but his first wife, Linda, was. Ginsberg and Linda took long walks, talking philosophy, at Ginsberg’s rustic upstate farm. Wilen and their toddler daughter, Rachel, trailed behind. Ginsberg played his pipe organ for Rachel to dance. Once Wilen found the two passed out asleep. Wilen and Ginsberg became close friends. “He liked me as his view to the outside world.”
Ginsberg, Wilen said, was a “sophisticated businessperson. His buddies, not so much.” Wilen helped Ginsberg set up the Committee on Poetry—a nonprofit backing impecunious artists while escaping taxes funding the Vietnam War—and stood guard, at benefits, against IRS agents showing up primed to seize an evening’s take. Wilen also advised William Burroughs, Corso, and Orlovsky on fiscal matters. Rarely accepting pay, he received books, gratefully inscribed, in return.
Orlovsky’s inscription to Wilen in his 1978 Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs includes holistic health advice in his distinctive idiom: “Doc. said he saved his sons Life w/ raw Persimmons,” “1 tea spoon of bee pollen, a day, chewed well has all 22 ellements in the Human Body.” Late one night, Wilen’s second wife, Laurie, recounts, Orlovsky rang their doorbell saying he wanted to plant raspberry bushes, fertilized with bone marrow, behind their house. As with all such impromptu demands, “Don asked no questions. All he said was, ‘I’ll get a flashlight.’ ”
At the time, Wilen was too busy to contemplate his role in history. He taught business at a university, fell into a chairship, left that, got a law degree. His niche clientele expanded: unions, an activist attorneys’ guild, Pete Seeger. “No one had met a leftist accountant before.” Wilen tried to keep his workaday and Beat-related lives separate. But his cover was blown when a colleague spotted him on a public TV show in which Ginsberg and friends, seated on floor cushions, rapped about politics and culture. “I’ve always been a wanderer,” Wilen shrugged, “just stepping into things.”
In the nineties, Ginsberg fell ill. Wilen worked on the sale of his papers to Stanford to finance a move to a loft with an elevator. A Times op-ed mocked the Buddhist Ginsberg as a sellout, embracing the “real American mantra, the dollar sign,” over “the ‘Om.’ ” Wilen wrote back in his defense: “Who am I to be outraged? A humorless bean counter. An accountant. Not just any accountant. Allen Ginsberg’s accountant. ‘Om’ yourself.”
Throughout their friendship, Ginsberg insisted Wilen attend his legendary parties. Like any sensible accountant, Wilen keeps regular hours. “One time I said, look, I’m tired. Ginsberg said, just come, you won’t be sorry. And Bob Dylan was there. They played till three A.M. I was a wreck!”
Shelley Salamensky is a scholar and writer. Her work has appeared in print and online in The New York Review of Books, The Believer, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.
Elsa Dorfman photographed Ginsberg throughout her career. See more of her photos here
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