John Wilcock: The Puppet Master of '60s Underground Newspapers

A conversation with the man who co-founded The Village Voice and wrote the first biography of Andy Warhol


John Wilcock is the Zelig of '60s counter-culture publishing and a missing link in the narrative of those socially, politically, and culturally critical times. He was co-founder of The Village Voice, East Village Other (EVO), Other Scenes, and the Underground Press Syndicate, which codified the term "underground" for alternative publications. He contributed to a dozen other periodicals, was a pioneer of original programming on public access TV, a prolific travel writer, and a member of Andy Warhol's Factory. His life and work in New York, from 1954 through 1971 is being made into a serialized bio comic, a collaboration between Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall, whose second installment, "Co-Founding the Village Voice" with Norman Mailer, Marlene Dietrich, Ammon Hennacy, Moondog, and Steve Allen, and the women of the NYC Women's House of Detention is now online.

A recent exhibition and panel discussion on the history of The East Village Other, "Blowing Minds: 1965-1972" at the NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has brought the unretiring octagenarian Wilcock—who now resides in California and still publishes his "Column of Lasting Insignificance" online in The Ojai Orange: Being the Ongoing Journal of John Wilcock, That Peripatetic Patriarch of the Free Press—back onto my radar. I knew him slightly back in the late '60s and took this opportunity to delve further into his byzantine history.

Born in Sheffield, England in 1927,Wilcock had read a lot about Greenwich Village and its famous artists, writers, Bohemians, so when he landed in New York, he told me in a recent interview, "I fully expected to find some fabulous local paper that would tell me where all the action was and parties were." Without knowing a soul, after finding a cheap apartment on Waverly Place, he wandered over to Sheridan Square, where he put up a handwritten note in the Seven Arts bookstore asking if anybody was interested in helping him start a paper. "We had a few meetings attended by [future Voice editors] Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and others, but nobody had any money so nothing came of it." A year later, the money was found and Wilcock was asked to join.


The Village Voice marked a major shift from the old-school neighborhood journalism of The Villager to a more aggressively partisan approach. It took a certain amount of temerity to start a paper back then, but Wilcock had worked for the Daily Mail while still in his teens and the Daily Mirror right afterwards. Initially he emigrated to Canada, where he worked for the BUP wire service (later UPI) and the magazines Saturday Night and Liberty, so starting a paper didn't faze him. Wilcock does not, however, take credit for the path the Voice then took, although of course he brought an international dimension to it from the start. "I was the first news editor but soon came to spend most of my time on a weekly column which was always rather widespread in its subject, the result I suppose of having by now worked as a journalist in three countries." Wilcock was not the stereotypical underground gadfly.

He worked three years on the New York Times travel desk and graduated to writing Frommer's early $5-a-day books after meeting Mr. Frommer at a party. Yet after ten years of writing his column he resigned from the old-left Voice for the culturally new-left East Village Other. "My move came about not from any initiative on my part," he explained. "No, what happened was that I met this enticing lady, Sherry Needham, wooed her a few times, and made her promise to star in The Singing Tit-o-Gram (four pix in one of those 25c machines) for my column when I got back from a trip to Japan. On my return, I found she'd shacked up with Walter Bowart [the publisher of EVO] but she agreed to do the photo thing as long as Walter came along. After our stoned trio had pulled this off, Walter asked me if I'd write for his new paper and I agreed."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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