Mickey Ruskin interviewed by Danny Fields

The following excerpt is from an interview with Mickey Ruskin by Danny Fields which originally appeared in the April 1973 issue of Interview magazine:

Danny Fields: When did you start the Ninth Circle?

Mickey Ruskin: 1962.

Danny Fields: How long were you involved with it?

Mickey Ruskin: Two years. I had two coffee shops before that. You're aware of that, aren't you?

Danny Fields: No, tell me about it.

Mickey Ruskin: They were the first thing I ever had. You know, this is serious, I read an article in the Village Voice, I was practicing law and I was living with this girl who became my first wife, and we were living uptown and we read an ad in the Voice, and it said, 'Rent or own coffee shop,' and I made her answer the ad. To make a long story short, we rented this little coffee shop in E. 10th between Third and Fourth with all those little galleries that used to be there. And there was this little coffee shop and I rented it, and I was doing that at night and working during the day. After about three months I discovered that I was making enough to live on from the coffee shop. It was really small, maybe 10 by 20 feet, really tiny and I did everything. I waited on tables; I washed the dishes; I cooked. It was kind of pleasant and I was having a little fun. Then one day these poets walked in and said, 'Hey, before you owned this shop we were having poetry readings here and then when it was sold we didn't know if you'd be interested in doing it, so we've been doing it a Diane Wakoski's house, but it's not the same as the public thing in the coffeehouse.' And so they asked if they could have them there. This was 1960.

Danny Fields: What was the name of the coffeehouse?

Mickey Ruskin: The 10th Street Coffeehouse. So I said fine, because I think th whole reason I had this coffee shop thing really was because I had wanted to go to Greenwich Village. I had never been there. I guess I just really wanted to be involved with creative people... Anyway, so they started having poetry readings, and that clicked. It's really amazing, like the number of people who used to read in my coffeehouse, how many of them have become fairly major poets of the late sixties and early seventies. Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, Clayton Escham, Le Roi Jones - Now I don't know if LeRoi ever read there, but he used to come around - Bob Kelley, George Economou, Joel Oppenheimer, Jerry Rothenberg, Diane di Prima... within 3 months after I got the poetry thing going it was really too small, right, so Howard Ant brought me another guy who was interested in opening a coffee shop, so the two of us together opened a coffeeshop on East 7th Street called Les Deux Magots, where the Paradox is now. Well I started having partnership problems. I just wasn't getting along with my partner, and meanwhile this other guy whom I had known from my home town in New Jersey started popping up and we started talking, so I sold out my interest in the coffeeshop and my partner and I decided we'd open a bar, so we started shopping around and then we opened the Ninth Circle.

Danny Fields: At what point did you thing that you were in the business of running an establishment or being a restauranteur?

Mickey Ruskin: Well, when I had the 10th Street Coffeehouse, after about oh a month or two months of being there... I realized that I had enough money to live on, so I immediately gave up law... Actually, in those days, my heroes were the guys on MacDougal Street - Tom Ziegler and John Mitchell and Manny Roth were my three heroes... Mitchell was the Gaslight, Ziegler had the Figaro and Manny Roth owned the Cafe Wha?

Danny Fields: When did you make the transition from poets to painters?

Mickey Ruskin: That happened at the Ninth Circle. It just turned out that poets really aren't drinkers and artists are. When we opened the Circle I had no idea that we were opening an artist's bar or anything else. And the only bar I could think of in Greenwich Village to go to see what I was going to be doing really was Googies, (which was) what I would consider the first modern beatnik bar in New York. Until then you had places like the San Remo.

Danny Fields: The Cedar?

Mickey Ruskin: Well, the Cedar was the artists' bar. Googies was the beatnik bar. I had been in the Cedar once in my whole life and I had trouble getting in. Anyhow, at the Circle we took away Googie's business.

Danny Fields: Took away the beatniks?

Mickey Ruskin: Yeah, we really sort of wanted what I guess would be considered Village beatniks. I always described the Village like there were three classes of bars: I considered the White Horse and the Limelight what I called the upper-class beatniks, and then I considered us and Googie's the middle-class beatniks, and then I considered - oh, the one on Houston Street - the Kiwi and the Kettle of Fish were what I called the lower-class beatniks, but particularly the Kiwi. Well, my club really did take off, and I guess we were getting some artists hanging out there, but I wasn't really aware of it... I guess the first artist I became aware of was Neil Williams, and I have a feeling he'd been drinking there a long time before I even became aware of him, and Joel Oppenheimer - who had been one of the Cedar regulars - they're the first two artist types, even though Joel is a poet, there's a group of poets, the drinking poets, who've always hung around the artists...

Danny Fields: And in two years you became the artists' bar?

Mickey Ruskin: Well, we never really became an artists' bar, you know, there was a group of them that hung out there, right, and I really got to love them... Anyway, one day my partner came to me and said 'One of us has got to go, you can buy me out or I'll buy you out.' It was very friendly, so I let him buy me out and I went to Europe and North Africa, and it was fabulous because I had enough money to do what I wanted, I wish I could do that now. Then I came back and I started looking for another place, and this place where Max's is now was available. It was something called the Southern Restaurant... so I bought it and here I am.

Danny Fields: When was the opening of Max's?

Mickey Ruskin: December 6, 1965. I opened with a huge opening party. I just invited everybody I knew... Well, I actually opened before I had my opening party, and the first people that started coming around were the artists that I knew, Poons and Neil, John Chamberlain, you know the hard end school of artists, lets's see, Don Judd lived across the street, Larry Zox lived across the street, Frosty was there, and so for the first 6 or 7 months that was the basis of my crowd... I don't remember when Andy [Warhol] started coming, actually, but Andy added one element. He was still on 47th Street when he started coming, and that shaped the character of the back room, 'cause Andy would always sit at the big round table and everything kind of followed into the back room. The only group I can remember being in the back room before Andy was one time about 20 or 30 people were back there and started dancing around, and I said, 'Hey, you can't dance here,' and that was Joan Baez and her crowd. Then Jimmy Moore and a whole bunch of fairly young good photographers who all had studios around there started coming in...

Danny Fields: When did the music people start coming?

Mickey Ruskin: I have no idea. I was not aware of the music people at all. You were the first music person I was aware of, and you were bringing people in there, and I knew they were music people. Brian Jones was there once with a little black girl, and I had no idea who it was, and I gave them a little table on the side, and someone told me that was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, so I moved them to a bigger table, but I had no idea who he was. I remember you bringing the Doors in, and I kind of remember the Velvet Underground people because they were all part of Andy's scene. I remember Nico, God, I remember Nico.

Danny Fields: What about Janis [Joplin] and the San Francisco people?

Mickey Ruskin: That I remember very well, at that point I was becoming aware of it, and Albert Grossman I got to know fairly well, and he told me he was bringing this group in, and I remember Janis certainly...

Danny Fields: To what extent do you feel that you got what you wanted when you frirst started out?

Mickey Ruskin: I once set a goal for myself, that within ten years of the opening of Max's I wanted to be a millionaire. And I opened the place across the street, and then I had Max's Terre Haute, and everytime I've opened another place I've bombed, so I guess I've had to face the fact that whatever I do, I'm not really a restauranteur...

Danny Fields: What do you think Max's is now, as a place?

Mickey Ruskin: I don't know, I'd really like to ask you what you think Max's is.

Danny Fields: I don't know. I guess the back room is dominated by the new bands, Wayne [County] and the [New York] Dolls.

Mickey Ruskin: What do you think of Wayne?

Danny Fields: I think Wayne is the last great underground act. He's great... How's business these days?

Mickey Ruskin: It's OK. The way I look at it, I hit my peak in 1969, and then I had that big fire and from that point on it was all downhill. Then last year it levelled off, you know stopped going down, now it seems to be slowly climbing back...

Danny Fields: How many times have you raised the price of the Kansas City Steak? What did it start off costing?

Mickey Ruskin: $2.95

Danny Fields: What is it now?

Mickey Ruskin: $5.95.