Arch Madness

A rough guide to St. Louis

"St. Louis is special," says Lorin Cuoco of the city's role in American letters. "Outside of New York and other New England towns like Boston, I don't know where there's been a greater concentration of important writers. At a certain point at the Academy of Arts and Letters, the greatest number of members from any locale were from St. Louis."

Stanley Elkin's "The Guest," on Leland Avenue.

Dan Zettwoch
Dan Zettwoch

If you don't know the work of Stanley Elkin, arguably St. Louis' greatest twentieth-century novelist, make a beeline for The Franchiser, his tale of a man who travels America buying and selling franchises. Or grab Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers and read Elkin's much-anthologized story, "The Guest," in which a freeloading traveling salesman named Bertie talks his way into house-sitting in a University City apartment while a married couple is away. It was originally published in a 1965 issue of the Paris Review.

The author describes the third-floor apartment in great detail. Bertie roams around listening to Charlie Parker at full volume, masturbating and eating pizza. He quickly breaks his vow to stay off drugs. All hell breaks loose when he takes mescaline. Soon enough, Bertie's hallucinating. "Camel shit," he says after searching for the source of a stench. "My god, how did that get in here?" He cleans up the hallucinated dung.

Elkin taught literature and creative writing at Washington University for 30 years. He penned ten novels, including The Dick Gibson Show, The Magic Kingdom and Van Gogh's Room at Arles. His 1982 book George Mills won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

"We moved into the apartment in 1960," says Joan Elkin, the writer's widow, of the apartment the story was modeled after at 469 Leland -- just north of the University City Loop. "When we lived there, it was still a lot of the Jewish population that lived in University City, before they left and moved to west county."

The odor of camel shit has vanished, according to David Rothschild, who now lives in the apartment. Touring his digs, Rothschild identifies the spot in the bedroom where the dung must have been, then moves to a cluttered sun room which housed paintings in "The Guest." Rothchild identifies the hallway where Bertie drags a record player across the floor. "I was like, 'Wait, he's scratching up my hardwood!'"

But, adds Rothschild, "I have not done any hallucinogenics here. I've never seen a Chinaman with his tongue coming out with encrusted jewels here."

History's first celebrity-sex video, Berry Park in Wentzville, Missouri.

Berry Park has been Chuck Berry's country compound since he bought the land in 1957, at the height of his fame. Today, the original rock & roller, born and bred in St. Louis, still owns the property -- though it's in a state of disrepair these days, more country farm than celebrity estate.

Chuck Berry filmed some home movies here that somehow made their way into underground trading circles, resulting in perhaps the first unauthorized celebrity-sex video. 1989 was a bad year for Berry. He was busted for videotaping customers in the bathroom of his Wentzville club. His home was raided. Pot was found, and so was, apparently, a home movie.

In the video, Berry aims his camera at a naked woman in a bathtub while he zooms in on her private parts. Berry sets the camera down and soon we see him in front of the camera, naked. She starts fiddling with his ding-a-ling and proceeds to place it in her mouth. Then, he steps back, grabs his penis and starts urinating on her. She's caressing his thigh. He tells her to open her mouth. He pees into it.

Berry leans over her, as if to kiss her, but hesitates. "I can't kiss you," he confesses, "You smell like piss."

Phyllis Diller's home in Webster Groves, 30 Mason Avenue.

Webster Groves, a tree-strewn suburb southwest of downtown, is the home of Webster University. Just north of the campus lies the former home of groundbreaking comedienne Phyllis Diller. She lived in the house in the early and mid-'60s, when her career was at full-tilt. She now lives outside of Los Angeles. By phone recently, we spent a little time catching up.

Thanks for taking time, Miss Diller.

Let's get this over with. I'm not that well.

Your home in Webster Groves. Apparently you painted it pink?

No. I'd love to let you know the truth. If anyone reads my book [the just-published memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse], they'll know I had great difficulties with my first husband. He was out of his mind. He painted it pink. But of course I would be the one who everyone would think would have a pink house. I was so embarrassed. If it were up to me, it would have been gray with green shutters.

Can you describe the house?

Yes, it's colonial. Lovely house, eleven rooms, nice big rooms. He built the pool, and he did a good job on that. Anything he could do without leaving the house. He had agoraphobia. He was a very sick man.

This would be Fang?

No. Fang was part of the act. Sherwood Diller was reality.

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