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Mason Hoffenberg and Candy: the Deia connectionSeptember 30, 2015

When I discovered that the writer Mason Hoffenberg lived in Deia for a time I was oddly delighted. Mason is one of those literary footnote characters who is much more fascinating to me than most writers who played the game and made it.

But frankly, having read about Mason and his toxic habits, I found it very hard to picture him strolling down to the Cala on a bright sunny morning to take a dip. Or hiking up into the Serra de Tramuntana.

Mason Hoffenberg
Mason with photographer friend Isabelle Armand, NY, 1984.© Eric Michelson.

When I discovered that the writer Mason Hoffenberg lived in Deia for a time I was oddly delighted. Mason is one of those literary footnote characters who is much more fascinating to me than most writers who played the game and made it.

But frankly, having read about Mason and his toxic habits, I found it very hard to picture him strolling down to the Cala on a bright sunny morning to take a dip. Or hiking up into the Serra de Tramuntana.

Who was Mason Hoffenberg?

Born in New York in 1922, the same year as Jack Kerouac, Mason managed to live longer than Jack but died from lung cancer in 1986. Like Jack, Mason always wrote. Unlike Jack, he was too hip – probably – to want to leave behind a monumental oeuvre or be the voice of anyone other than himself. He was the co-author with Terry Southern of the inventive, gleefully filthy Candy (1958), a satire on what was going to be the love generation to come, and the most pirated book of all times. Sin For Breakfast and Until She Screams, plus occasional poems comprise his published works. And that’s about it.

Even when it became a runaway bestseller, Candy didn’t immortalise Mason’s name although it was infamous in certain publishing circles. He and Terry weren’t initially keen to put their names to the book, which started life as one of Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias’s dirty books or DB’s so they called themselves Maxwell Kenton. A perfectly WASPish nom de smut.

 The ultimate subterranean

The facebook page dedicated to Mason describes him as “wielding a subterranean influence” and that’s exactly right. (If you’re interested, he’s Jack Steen in Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans.) He took WH Auden’s legendary classes at the New School and  effortlessly found his way into 1950s Greenwich Village, expat Beat Paris – where it was rumoured that Mason suggested the title Naked Lunch to Girodias when he was a commissioning editor at Olympia* – swinging London, hippy Woodstock and rock and roll LA. He knew everyone from Burroughs to the uber-cool Marianne Faithfull and Yoko Ono.

By all accounts, Mason was in his element as a coruscatingly funny raconteur, ripe with “Mason stories”. I guess it was this as much as anything else which put him at the centre of every groovy scene going.

Mason in Deia

I think it was Lanny, who knows a lot about Deia, literary and otherwise, who told me Mason lived here. Lanny also kindly put me in touch with Juliette, Mason’s daughter, who lives in Paris.

I started by asking what Mason was like. “He was extremely fatherly. Although he couldn’t be a regular family guy, he wanted me to be established, be a square, marry and get a house in the country. He adored nature. This was why he loved Deia so much.”

Mason was in and out of Deia between 1973 and ‘75. He’d been in Ibiza in the 60s, when it was the playground of  the countercultural cognoscenti. In the late 50s, he asked Mordecai Richler to rent a place for his family in Deia. They summered in Cadaques instead. “Mason knew Spain very well,” Juliette says, “He spoke very good Spanish, loved the laidback lifestyle and his espadrilles”.

In Deia, Mason lived in a house between the village and the Cala. He was off the dope and his only vice was gin and tonic, plenty of it. That winter, Mason managed to break his rib stepping out in the dark and was treated by Xavier, the much-loved unshockable village doctor.

While he was recovering in the hospital, Mason self-medicated with coffee, regular with a drop of “a fiendish local drink”. (This might perhaps have been the terrifying Ron Amazona, which always sounds to me like the name of a Mafioso or an all-in wrestler.)

Mason’s finishing block

Although Juliette told me Mason regarded himself as a poet and regularly worked on his notes and Tunnel to the Moon material, the impression I got from reading about him was that his, ahem, colourful lifestyle left no time for publishing and organising.

When I asked whether Mason had writer’s block Juliette said that, on the contrary, he was always scribbling lists of words and typing away in a kind of perpetual stream of consciousness. “Perhaps,” she said, “Mason had a finishing block. And, of course, he knew he could always ditch publishers and go home to his mother’s uptown apartment where the refrigerator was forever filled with luscious veal chops”. His typescripts, correspondence and papers totalling over 600 pages now belong to the Berg Collection at the NY Public Library.

Another factor was Mason’s distaste for literary self-promotion. (Can you imagine him being a blogger?) He despised the publicity-hogging antics of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the way Ginsberg popularised the underground jive talk that Mason loved precisely because it was impenetrable and owned by no-one.

In June 1986, right after Mason passed away, Juliette asked Allen Ginsberg if he could help her find a publisher for Mason’s notebooks. “They should be interesting,” Ginsberg said. “Coz they must have a lot of stuff about me.”

Home to a place that’s not home

Mason took Juliette’s younger brother Daniel to Deia in 1973 and ‘74. They lived with painter Fernando Maza and his son Geraldo in Yakov’s tower. He couldn’t invite her, partly because she was sweet little 16 and he was afraid she’d get into trouble but also because there was nowhere to stay. Juliette, who missed her father had to make do with a funny letter.

Juliette’s first visit to Deia was a comic disaster worth of Mason himself, she says. “It was 1977, I was 19, and I went with my boyfriend. Mason was in LA. by then. I had a homecoming to a place that wasn’t actually home. We camped above the Cala. The peasants threw stones at us. I drank water from the fountain at the top of the Clot and got worms.”

But Juliette didn’t give up. She went back in the early 90s and stayed at the Resi so conditions were very different.  In 2013 and 2014, she returned to Deia thanks to her friend Annie Arnold. On these more recent visits, she’s been able to “reconnect with Mason’s friends and enjoy the place. I don’t succumb to the myth of Deia but it remains a very artistic place with lots of beautiful people. I love going down to the Cala and walking in the mountains.”

Slithering in espadrilles

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to decide if Mason’s failure to leave a body of work is a heroic kiss-off to posterity  or a tragic waste. I’m simply happy to picture him as a ruined but still impressive man slithering down Deia high street in his espadrilles on his way to the bar to talk up a storm.

*Actually, Beat scholars agree that the title “Naked Lunch” was suggested by Kerouac.

Links

The Mason Hoffenberg facebook page with the inventory of unpublished material

A legendary interview with Mason

More about Candy

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