The news of the sudden death of Baird Jones the other night at the age of 53 brings to a sad, premature conclusion the life of one of the strangest pioneers of the New York culture scene, someone who did much to create the world of Page Six, Gawker and other venues of Proustian fluffiness.
Jones' father, Cranston Jones, was a longtime culture writer for Time magazine and the guy who came up with the idea for People magazine. During the 1960s Cranston spent a few years working for the CIA in cultural affairs in South America. When he returned, Cranston attended an opening at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Leo, an old friend, greeted Cran thusly, "Didn't I see you at a party last Thursday?" Baird liked to tell this anecdote as an illustration of the clueless insularity of the New York art world, in which outside reality did not exist.
After graduating from the Buckley School in 1969, Baird attended FDR's alma mater Groton, where he alienated the faculty by reading the complete works of Sigmund Freud. Baird always blamed his rejection by Harvard on this eccentric fact. Instead, he attended Columbia, where he began copious research on a book about the psychology of jokes, which he ultimately published. At the same time, in 1974, Baird began to throw singles parties at the Waldorf-Astoria. During the ‘70s, his most famous promotion was a concert by the Clash at Bond's on Broadway. He lived off this event with jokes and anecdotes for many years.
Baird's father had assembled a collection of celebrity art by people like Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Nina Simone and many others in the Fifth Avenue home where Baird lived his whole life, while his mother smoked Chesterfields in the bedroom in a tableau out of Tennessee Williams. Mock exhibitions of this collection formed the basis for the weekly parties at clubs all over New York with which Baird established his reputation during the ‘80s. At the same time, Baird curated art shows of East Village artists, such as Liz and Val, Ed Brezinski, Sophie VDT, and Rhonda Zwillinger at the Paterson Museum, Fashion Moda and, ultimately, Webster Hall, where Beatrice Wood and Marcel Duchamp had hosted the Blindman's Ball in 1913.Baird's favorite artist was the New Jersey installation artist Stephen Hooper, aka Hoop, who added a Zacherle-like edge of horror to Baird's parties at the Tunnel, MK, Quick, the Roxy, the Red Zone and all the other legendary clubs of the ‘80s. Once, at Club Paradise on Waverly Place, Hoop stuck his head through a tablecloth while Phil Spector and other celebs dined and drank around him.
The invitations to Baird's parties during this era are now prized collectibles. Anthony Haden-Guest has long boasted of owning a complete set. Impressions of Baird's events fly through the mind: performance artist Joey Arias dressed as Salvador Dalí in a wheelchair at the Tunnel's Chandelier Room, where all the revelers thought he really was Dalí. Baird exhibiting the penis of actor David West in a hotdog bun. George Wayne, later of Vanity Fair fame, and dwarf actor Little Mike Anderson of Twin Peaks holding court on a sofa at the Red Zone.
Through all this Baird ensured copious press for his parties, which always featured a two-hour open bar and free food, by sending in items to all the gossip columnists in town, including the Dean of Dish, Richard Johnson, plus Cindy Adams, Liz Smith, Rush & Molloy, Ben Widdicombe and Lloyd Grove. When Grove arrived in New York, from the Washington Post, to start an ill-fated job at the Daily News, it was Baird Jones who gave him his initial tour of galleries and clubs. But this was not the only avenue of Baird's press obsession. He assembled the largest collection of videos of hockey fights in the world, an almost erotic mania for him, which he loaned out to ESPN and every other sports channel for free.
Baird even ventured into art writing, after a fashion, compiling an occasional column of gossipy tidbits called Celebrity Art for Artnet Magazine, and also penning a book (featuring his own snapshots) titled Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene 1983-1987 (2002).
In a the eternal New York of Sherman Billingsley, Toots Shor, Suzy, Sidney Falco, Cholly Knickerbocker and Page Six, Baird Jones will forever be remembered as its bizarro maitre d'. Expect St. Peter to appear in Cindy Adams' column tomorrow.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).