Turbulence: A Life
By Brenda Cullerton
It's a full moon on a sweltering, hot August night in Greenwich Village. A young man turns the corner on Broadway, saunters along East 11th St., and suddenly stops and stares. He squints. He rubs his eyes. Half way down the block, a magnificent 17th century refectory table sits in the middle of the sidewalk. Spluttering candles in a pair of Elizabethan pricket sticks shed a mysterious, magical light on a scene that is as surreal as anything in a Fellini film. At one end of the table, a beautiful blonde plucks at the strings of a harp while at the other end, Mo (aka Maurice Margules) holds court in a throne-like Rhenish chair. Sipping from a bottle of beer, he chews on the stump of a dead cigar and flips steaks on his hibachi grill. They're a tradition, these summer banquets at Metro.
Mo, as he is affectionately known both in and out of the neighborhood, hasn't washed the windows at Metro in over fifteen years. Like the windows at Turbulence, his somewhat grander, more spacious gallery nearby, they're so thick with soot and grime, seeing what lies behind them is a bit like peering into Aladdin's cave. Inside, there's a bizarre mix of trash and treasure: half-chewed dog bones, a red rubber ball, a fantastic tapestry-covered wing chair. When he ushers you through the door and into the gloom, gold glitters. Gold on more pricket sticks and on ornately carved Venetian mirrors, their glass wavy and pocked with age. The furniture: prie dieus, armoires, Italian cassa pancas, and caskets gleams with that dull, polished patina that comes only from centuries worth of hands gently rubbing the surface. There are statues of saints and the Madonna, and angels. Polychrome angels, wings-wide open, suspended in mid-air.
"I'm in heaven," you say.
"You're in hell," Maurice chuckles. "I haven't sold a thing in months."
This is one of the many mysteries about Mo. How he manages to be perpetually broke while accumulating more and more priceless furniture. "I'd rather buy another great piece than pay the Con Ed bill," he announces. Tugging open a desk drawer, he proudly pulls out a stack of termination notices to prove it. This is a man so possessed, so devoted to collecting, he chooses to live like a pauper in a single room with a one-eyed cat, a decrepit black Labrador, and a stunningly chic Swiss wife. (A wife one can only hope or assume must share his obsession.)
"So, ya' wanna talk?" he says. Closing your eyes for a moment in the gloom, you hear the muted shriek of a distant siren and a raspy, Bronx-born voice that sounds exactly like Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson.
"Ya ever seen that picture with Humphry Bogart? It was black and white, the one when he runs an antique store. Well, it's during the war, see? And the store's a front. There's Nazi spies all around. It's the usual story. A beautiful troubled broad with a gun and a lot of dead bodies. That's when I figured it might be fun to get into this business." When asked to be a little more specific about why he first entered the business, he grins. "I betcha' ya never heard of Johhny Nightime, right? Well, he was this guy couldn't be clocked. He'd show up every Friday at a crap game with three hundred bucks in his pocket. And he'd lose. Next week, he'd show up and lose again. Nobody ever knew where he got his money. He couldn't be clocked, see? And I didn't want to be, either. I didn't want to be a doctor, making fifty grand a year or a taxi driver, making eight. I just wanted an adventure."
Wildly improbable, mesmerizing, and largely true, Mo's adventures seem to have sprung straight from some pulp fiction novel into flesh. "I was born down the block from Yankee Stadium but never seen a ball game," he laughs. Educated at what he calls a "school for Hebrews," he claims that his mother, a Sephardic Jew, was neurotically tidy and covered the family furniture in plastic wrap. "That's why I came to love a great patina." (It might also explain his aversion for overly restored furniture not to mention his refusal to wash windows.) At 16, he ran away from home with his best friend, Lacey, and lived in L.A. "Muscle beach, you ever heard of it?" After a short stint in the army and a job working the Alaskan oil fields, Margules returned home to the Bronx in the late 1950's. "I was the best Damon Runyonish long shore bookmaker you ever saw," he says with a wink. There was also a period he attended Hunter College. But it was some kind of "trouble with the boys" in the 60's that forced him to leave the Bronx and move downtown. "I opened a cafe on the lower east side," he explains. "And what a joint that was. It drove my wife nuts. But that's when I started collectin' stuff. I'd go into these stores and I'd touch, like a Queen Anne chair, and I'd say to myself, "How do these guys know this chair belonged to Queen Anne?" I didn't know it was a style. I didn't know what it all meant. I just knew it was somethin' I wanted to get into."
Occasionally, it seemed it was something his customers wanted to get into, too. "there was this one night, a gorgeous Polish girl leapt right out of a cassone. She was playing Dracula. I tried to explain to her that the cassone was a work of art, not a coffin."
Difficult as it is to envision Mo as some sort of day-glo barista, serving up 25 cent cups of expresso to everyone from Ukrainian and Polish locals to hippies, poets, and Merry Pranksters, the proof is still here at Metro. Lurking off in a remote corner and shrouded in dust, Mo points to one of those fabulously elaborate, albeit ancient, Italian coffee machines. "I'm tellin' ya," he adds, almost wistfully, "Every day in that cafe was like Tombstone. It was the cafe too tough to die. In the midst of a poetry reading, when a trouble maker, 'Big Brown' was making 'trouble' and we stepped outside to square off, I knew I could be an antique dealer!'
After forty years in the trade, the same might be said for Mo himself. Strutting and bouncing around on the balls of his feet like a bow-legged boxer in the ring, he dodges the stacks and stacks of art books and the thousands of auction catalogues that teeter everywhere: on the floor, on benches, stools, and tables. Then he talks about "the game," the hunt. "I been all over the world. In suites at the Beverly Wilshire in L.A., in Rome and Belgium and Paris and remote little towns in the Alps. I used to hang with the oak boys in England, too." But like many dealers who reach a point of near critical mass in their careers (rumor has it, Margules still keeps "stuff" in storage everywhere from Denmark to the UK), it's the memories of the roads less travelled; of his own precarious beginnings that bring an imp-like grin to his face.
"This was way back. At the start of things. We drove for 400 miles or something to a farm in Ohio. I got my helper with me, an ex-prize fighter from the old neighborhood. We get there and there's mud everywhere. The place is a mess. I walk to the barn and the farmer's standin' in the door. I see enough behind him to know there's real stuff in there. Then I hear growlin. It's a big, I mean, big, big dog."
"What about your dog?" I say to the guy.
"What about him?" he says to me, all innocent lookin.
"The dog's hunched up, ready to leap, right? He comes runnin' at me and I slap it in the rump. Next thing I know, my helper's headin' to the barn."
"Look out!" I shout. "The dog!."
"The dog grabs a hold of him, bites these chunks out of his arm. He's screamin' and bleedin'. So we drive to the vet, see if maybe he needs rabies shots. And the whole night in the motel, he's swearin' and howlin'. But there's no way I'm leavin' town without the stuff. I'm gonna wait for the sale no matter what. I told him I saw the vet, while he was looking at the guns and he said "dog's clean", as I almost fainted seeing the yellow and black tones in his wounds. Anyway-we bought almost everything and of course, he never forgave me."
"Too tough to die!" That's Mo. But it is precisely this streak of reckless obstinacy, an explosive mixture of fearlessness, curiosity and arrogance, that has made Margules one of New York's most legendary dealers. In fact, the only time he ever actually displays humility is when he touches or talks about a piece. The respect, the love, is almost palpable. "Somebody asks me to pick out the best piece here," he says, rubbing the top of a chest the same way you might rub a child's stomach when it hurts. "Well, that's like asking the mother of eight children to pick her favorite. There's somethin good even in a bad piece, you know? It's like a human bein'..."
Maurice's feelings for these objects is so intensely personal, so defiantly alive, the act of parting with them, that is, selling them, is synonymous with a form of abandonment; of desertion. It may be the intimacy of this particular relationship that also explains his somewhat unorthodox attitude towards clients. "Sure, I need clients. I like clients. But what I'm really looking for is a lunatic like me. Somebody who feels and sees the character of a piece. That's where the value is. It's got nothin' to do with the price, or even who owned it, or when it was made. What I hope for with clients is what I call the depth charge feeling...It's that feeling you get at a certain point. You get down to 800 feet and BANG! you don't know when it will happen. But you live with a piece long enough and you get up one night because you can't sleep and it hits you. You see it. You feel it."
Despite (or perhaps, becasue of) these feelings, Mo is a man who has never fit in. "I'm not the kind of guy uptown invites to dinner, ya know? But even when I was a kid, I was an outsider." Of course, all artists are outsiders. And Mo with his brilliantly idiosyncratic, unerring eye is most definitely an artist. "People think I'm deep, dark, maybe dank," he says. "But I'm not from central casting. For me, all this stuff in here is part of a symphony. People say, "Hey! Why you gonna kill yourself now to get this little stumpwork toilet box?"
"Well, honey, the guy who writes a great symphony," he says, "I need a cymbal here."
And somebody says to him, "What for? Whaddya' need a guy stands up, makes noise, and sits down to read the newspaper?"
"But the cymbal is part of the symphony, right? It's gotta be there or it's not complete...."
Every one of the two hundred pieces in this Christie's sale has played a pivotal role in creating Mo's symphony. No matter how large or small, no matter what the provenance, they are also part of a collection so singular, so extraordinary, New York may never see its likes again. After all, how many dealers continue to insist on putting passion over profits and prefer to sit in the dark, surrounded by the things they love, rather than pay something as mundane as an electric bill. "What ya gotta understand," Mo adds, as he wends way through his labyrinth of "stuff" and out the door to the street, "is this. You don't find a piece. It finds you, see?" And with these final words of hard-earned wisdom, Mo tugs at his beard and sits down to eat a perfectly grilled steak.
Brenda Cullerton is a writer who lives in New York City.