Tuesday, December 09, 2003

If anyone still cares, here is a sidebar article to a great New York Times story by Charlie LeDuff called "Saturday Night Fever: The Life", a story about regulars at the disco in Bay Ridge that used to be called the Space Odyssey 2001, that served as Nik Cohn's muse. The article is from June 9, 1996. Reading it back now, it's more sad than anything else. Except that dude is impossibly rich.

"Magazine Writer Says He Made It All Up

The movie "Saturday Night Fever" was based on an article published in New York magazine on June 7, 1976, almost exactly 20 years ago. That article, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," chronicled the life and times of Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge -- the Ultimate Face." Hollywood appropriated the name, Tony Manero, from a real Brooklynite, but the character lives only on film. Vincent, however, was supposedly real-life flesh and blood.

So what happened to Vincent? He would be 38 this year, a full generation later. He would have grown into manhood; he may have married and had children. That is, if Vincent had ever existed. The places and the scenery were real but, the writer of the article now says Vincent was a figment of his imagination.

"He is completely made-up, a total fabrication," Nik Cohn said by telephone from his Long Island home.

In a follow-up article printed in The Guardian two years ago, Mr. Cohn said he based his piece on a young man he knew in England. "My story was a fraud," he wrote. "I'd only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story's hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd's Bush mod whom I'd known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road."

Mr. Cohn wrote in The Guardian that he began to feel guilty about the falsity. "Spurred in part by retroactive conscience, I began to put in hard time in Brooklyn, steeping myself in Bay Ridge lore. Gradually, my invention became real to me; my hero came to life. In my imagination, I kept a detailed log of his progress, tracking him as he changed jobs, moved away from home, grew out of disco, left the neighborhood and then returned. I noted his marriage, the birth of his two daughters; watched him pick up a gambling problem; saw him slither toward middle age."

The pressure to produce the original piece was great, he says. Mr. Cohn was brought over from England, where he was a renown pop-writer, to find a splashy dance story for New York magazine, known for it's interpretive, in-the-subject's-head style of the so-called "New Journalism."

A 1971 New York magazine article by Gail Sheehy rattled the planks of New Journalism when it was discovered that a prostitute named "Redpants" was a composite character. Clay Felker, editor of the magazine at the time, said he removed an explanatory paragraph from the piece because "it got in the way of the flow," a decision he later said was a mistake.

In the "Saturday Night" piece, which appeared five years later, drawings were used rather than photos, and the story carried the disclaimer: "Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed."

Mr. Felker last week declined to comment on Mr. Cohn's statements.
The artist James McMullan, who painted the drawings from photographs, said he was never allowed to meet Vincent. "Nik would shuttle people into another room to interview them," Mr. McMullan said. "People mistakenly believed that the picture of the handsome kid was Vinnie. It was not."

When the movie was released in 1977, a half-dozen people claimed that the Tony Manero character was based on their lives, Mr. Cohn said. Asked if the millions of dollars that someone might have been entitled to may have influenced his claim that his character was fictitious, Mr. Cohn said: "Absolutely not. Nobody got a dime."
Mr. Cohn continued to write for New York magazine. In 1983, he was indicted on drug trafficing and conspiracy counts for the importation of $4 million worth of Indian heroin. He later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony. He was fined $5,000 and given five years probation."

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