Jonas Mekas reveals the private world of ’60s legends

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He recorded John Lennon’s honeymoon and helped give Andy Warhol his start in filmmaking. So it makes sense, then, that the filmmaker and photographer Jonas Mekas — often regarded as the godfather of American avant-garde cinema — has a lot of stories.

Since 2000, Mekas has been organizing his pre-digital ephemera into binders, boxes and bookshelves to make sense of them all.

“My apartment is a huge junkyard,” he said over the phone from Brooklyn. “I can go back 70 years of footage or letters in 15 minutes. I’ve learned to keep a very careful index.”

Now, the 94-year-old has compiled his most cherished memories in “A Dance with Fred Astaire.” Part diary, part scrapbook, the book is an analogue romp through the artist’s career from the 1950s to the 1990s, and includes mementos like typewritten letters from Norman Mailer and candid photos of Jackie Kennedy.

“It’s like an autobiography in anecdotes,” Mekas said. “The book shows the history of indie cinema, the New York art world and everything that was happening during the 1960s and 1970s.”

At the cinema: Jonas Mekas (left) with Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

‘Part of the period’

Mekas first arrived in New York City as a refugee in 1949. Originally from Lithuania, he was detained in a labor camp in Hamburg in 1944 while trying to escape the war before making it overseas.

In 1954, he and his brother Adolfas started Film Culture magazine, where he befriended the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Through his work with the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which he co-founded in 1962, he was introduced to the likes of Lennon, Warhol and the Velvet Underground’s Nico. And in his pioneering 1969 film “Walden,” Mekas stormed an anti-war protest with Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Misfits” in 1961. Credit: Courtesy Eve Arnold/Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

Indeed, it would seem Mekas crossed paths with every creative luminary to pass through New York, from playwright Arthur Miller and novelist Aldous Huxley to Fluxus art group founder George Maciunas and comedian Lenny Bruce. But how did he get around so many A-listers? Mekas has a simple answer.

“The people in the book were part of the period,” he said. “John Lennon, Jack Smith, Jackie Kennedy and Andy Warhol are important people, but it just happened that our lives touched each other and we worked together.”

Before they were famous

Andy Warhol at work at his studio in New York, c.1985. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

Mekas recalls meeting Warhol in 1961, when he was still deciding what to do as an artist.

“Andy was sitting on the floor of my loft watching movies with me,” Mekas said. “We started talking about art and filmmaking and very soon after, he started making films. He had a big exhibition in 1965. The recognition came later.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Syracuse, 1971. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

Similarly, Mekas met Ono in 1960, when she was an emerging artist in the New York art scene: He says he gave her a job at Film Culture and acted as her sponsor so that she could stay in America. Later, in 1969, Mekas filmed Ono and Lennon on their honeymoon at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, where they staged a peace protest in bed.

“They were very close and very much in love when I knew them,” he said. “John was very relaxed and friendly, you could be open and direct with him. We became a family.”

Miles Davis with John Lennon in 1972. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

The book’s title, “A Dance with Fred Astaire,” ties back to Mekas’ relationship with Ono. In 1972, Ono hired Fred Astaire, to dance across a room for a scene in her film “Imagine.” She then asked Mekas to follow Astaire, making similar dance moves, without any rehearsal. “It was a memorable moment,” said Mekas.

“A Dance with Fred Astaire” also shares anecdotes from filming with Spanish artist Salvador Dali, who wanted to tap into the New York art scene’s buzz and a younger audience. Mekas struck up a friendship with the surrealist and they shot a series of shorts called “Happenings” in 1964. Mekas helped shoot the films, and acted in them too. (In one, he plays a Mona Lisa cut-out; in another, he ties model Veruschka to a lamp post.)

Jackie Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy at their Fifth Avenue home in 1970. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

“New York and society was a theater to (Dali),” he said. “He was an actor playing a role and having fun. He really invented a different persona in public. He created a character for his art.”

The book ends, however, in 1995, when Mekas made the switch to digital photographer. His pre-digital memories are an ode to what New York City once was. Despite his huge archive of memories, Mekas doesn’t worry about the legacy he wants to leave behind. He says it isn’t up to him.

Poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in Central park, c.1980. Credit: Courtesy Jonas Mekas/Anthology Editions

“Things come and go, everything will fall to dust anyway,” he said. “We should not work for ourselves, we should help each other.”

“A Dance with Fred Astaire” by Jonas Mekas, published by Anthology Editions, is out now.

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