How I Became Hettie Jones

Reading about other people’s lives has the (unintended?) effect of making you put a magnifying glass to your own life, examining it, turning it over and comparing it with the swashbuckling tales you’re reading. I envy parts of Hettie Jones (née Cohen)’s life– living in the Village in the late 1950s, early 1960s, amidst the whirlwind of intellectual and artistic frenzy of the times. I don’t envy the bottling up of her own life to have kids and put her family first, nor having to deal with the tensions of raising an interracial family with LeRoi Jones who divorced her after being infected by the rage of black power in the late 1960s. It’s a complicated story, especially told through Hettie’s eyes, about LeRoi’s grappling with racism throughout his life and eventually hob-nobbing with Malcom X and being quoted by Martin Luther King.

Nearly every page has an echo of regret for wasting her own talents by giving up her own ambitions to have children and work to support LeRoi.  She develops necessary supportive friendships with other women writers and artists, among them Joyce Johnson and Helene Dorn (who lives in Idaho and who keeps up a lengthy correspondence with Hettie, parts of which are quoted in this and show that Hettie is flexing her writing muscle the whole time she thinks she’s “not writing”). “There’s an old kitchen way to say what we did: you bury your talent in a napkin.”

The Cohens live in Queens but disown Hettie when she marries LeRoi (although her mother sneaks by a few times a year to see her, her father discovers a letter to her mother and calls to warn her again never to write or call). Conversely, Hettie is welcomed into the Jones family of Newark, and even after the divorce is considered a welcome part of the family.

In the beginning, she meets LeRoi when he comes to interview for a job where she’s working… at Dick Hadlock’s Record Changer. They talk for hours that afternoon and the conversation doesn’t stop until twenty years later. She’s earning $1 an hour from Hadlock, which doesn’t cover enough even in late 1950s NYC, so discovers a listing for a subscription manager for the Partisan Review in the newspaper and gets the gig, working alongside William Phillips and Philip Rahv. LeRoi starts gaining recognition for writing liner notes on jazz albums. They’re pals with the bohemians of the times, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, and the rest of the crew, hosting people for weeks at a time at their house, scrimping and somehow making ends meet. She’s present at the rise of Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk.

I’ve often thought that one’s life could be considered a work of art which I suppose can seem self-indulgent, a sentiment echoed by Hettie as she mentions being tired, sleeping as little as she can in order to “have more time, and the self-indulgence of life-as-art sometimes wearied me.”

Aware of the several dalliances LeRoi engaged in, she was pushed to breaking when his girlfriend moved a few doors down with a newborn that looked suspiciously like LeRoi. “Actually I stayed angry a long time. And anger has its own kind of string. Unless you let is go, it ties you down.” Once the divorce went through (LeRoi had to go to Mexico because Hettie refused to divorce him in NY), she discovers that she is free. “Great joy in the morning! I was thirty-five years old and no longer needed what women were taught to live for!” Amen, sister.