New York Observer
Nov. 2, 1999
Literati Ex-Cannibal on Film
By Dylan Foley
"Who is the cannibal?" boomed the announcer of a 1969 episode of the game show "To Tell the Truth." "Shy Tobias is the cannibal!"
Tobias Schneebaum, a painter, fixture on New York’s literary scene and probably New York’s only gay, Jewish ex-cannibal is about to re-emerge after three decades of obscurity in a new documentary film. Mr. Schneebaum first burst into the 1960s limelight with his memoir, Keep the River on Your Right, which detailed his experiences living and eating with a cannibal tribe in Peru in the mid-1950s.
Mr. Schneebaum went to Peru on a Fulbright to study painting. Instead of painting, he walked into the Amazon jungle and hooked up with a cannibal tribe. Several months into his stay, his hosts took him out on a raid on another village, killed some men and ate them, making Mr. Schneebaum eat some flesh as well.
In the 1970s, he would go to New Guinea, studying the sex lives of ex-cannibals and sleeping with them. He lived in uncharted and dangerous areas where a decade before Michael Rockefeller may have been killed and eaten.
During the same period he traveled to Peru and New Guinea, Mr. Schneebaum developed friendships with New York’s literary figures, socializing with Norman and Adele Mailer and Hortense Calisher in the 1950s, and the novelist Allan Gurganus and playwright Craig Lucas in the 1980s.
"I was supposed to be the rabbi," said Mr. Schneebaum, 76, with a rueful smile for his religious upbringing on the Lower East Side. He is a handsome, modest man with heavy-lidded eyes and thin white hair. His small West Village apartment is sunny and full of intricately carved shields from the Asmat tribesmen of New Guinea.
"It took me years to exorcise what happened in Peru," said Mr. Schneebaum. Even 45 years later, his answers are conflicted. "I felt coerced...I wasn’t, but I felt I was. They wanted me to take part and I did," he said, with an unblinking gaze. "I was kind of in a dream-like state. I wasn’t quite sure where I was or if it was real." The cannibal incident sent him into a deep depression and he returned to New York.
After 30 years of lecturing and writing about the cultural and sexual practices of "so -called primitive men," Mr. Schneebaum is about to be rediscovered. This fall, a brother-sister directing team are trying to put him back in the public eye by bringing him back to Peru and New Guinea to shoot a documentary of his life, with the working title, "I Was a Cannibal."
"Tobias went to the heart of darkness two or three times, going to places that no white men had gone before," said David Shapiro, a 34-year-old artist and video editor, who is directing the documentary with his sister Laurie, a 32-year-old novelist.
"The Schneebaum project started five years ago when David Shapiro found a bag of books in an East Village garbage can, among them being the Peru memoir. Mr. Shapiro read the book. "Where else would this guy be living but New York?" said Shapiro. He found Mr. Schneebaum’s phone number and called him. The Shapiros then bought the rights to his Peru memoir and life story. They start filming in the barely charted jungles of New Guinea in October.
Life Among the Cannibals
The book caused a storm when it came out in the late 1960s, but it was only one milestone in his career. Mr. Schneebaum went on to write about the sexual practices of tribesmen from Afghanistan to Malaysia, many times having sexual encounters himself. He finally focused on New Guinea, where he has visited and worked for 25 years.
In New Guinea, Mr. Schneebaum lived in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of the island, staying in the jungle with the Asmat tribesmen, recently Christianized ex-cannibals and headhunters. He catalogued their shields and other carvings, and helped set up a museum for Asmat culture. "He’s a maverick anthropologist and a respected expert on the Asmat," said Laurie Shapiro. "He knows as much, if not more about the Asmat than anyone."
Michael Rockefeller Not on Menu
"I always write about myself in relation to other people," said Mr. Schneebaum. His sexual experiences with the Asmat men are detailed in his 1988 memoir, Where the Spirits Dwell (Grove). He also wrote about the lifetime homoerotic bonds between Asmat men and now-banned practices like wife swapping.
"I wish I had a good answer about why I push myself to go so far, but I don’t," said Mr. Schneebaum. "Maybe I am trying to commit suicide," he said laughing.
When making the initial contact with the Asmat, Mr. Schneebaum would go into the jungle naked except for his sneakers to prove his peaceful intentions. "When I was with people who were naked, I would go naked." He admitted that he had to make culinary concessions. "I have to bring peanut butter into the jungle with me because I have trouble eating sago," which are pancakes made from palm trees.
Michael Rockefeller had disappeared in that area in 1961 while studying and collecting the intricate Asmat carvings. Mr. Schneebaum had lived with the same tribe, the Otsjenep, who had claimed to have eaten Rockefeller.
"The Otsjenep said they killed and ate him," said Mr. Schneebaum. "They were such good actors," he said with a chuckle. "It is a big deal to kill a white person." A local bishop had said the Asmat would not have eaten him -- they believe his flesh is too powerful and would kill anyone who ate it. Based on accounts he heard from other Asmat, Mr. Schneebaum believes that Rockefeller drowned when his boat flipped over.
Mr. Schneebaum gave a brief tour of his New Guinea skulls, which are on his bookshelf. Some were gifts and some he’d traded for axes and tobacco with the nicotine-addicted Asmat. "These are literally their ancestors," said Mr. Schneebaum, explaining that the Asmat men often used their own fathers’ skulls as pillows. "They may have eaten the brain out of this one," he said, noting the side of the skull had been chipped off.
Mr. Schneebaum’s writings on the Asmat have not made him a wealthy man. For the past 20 years, however, he has supported himself and his trips to the Asmat by giving lectures on luxury cruises that go to New Guinea. "The cruises are for very rich people," he said. "I had one of the astronauts and Mick Jagger. Jagger told me that he’d read my books.
"The Asmat way of life has been destroyed by outsiders, tourists going in," he said. "I am as guilty as the rest. Now they want canned sardines and sneakers. Who am I to say what is good for them?"
The cannibal tribes of Peru fared much worse. In the late 1950s, the Brazilian government gave planes and bombs to highways contractors. The cannibals were then blown off the face of the earth.
Mr. Schneebaum’s travels have slowed down a bit after three painful hip operations. He has just returned from the summer up at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in Saratoga, New York, where he worked on another New Guinea memoir.
Loving the Wildman of Borneo
The roots of Mr. Schneebaum’s sexual interest in primitive men extend to his New York childhood. "Toby went to Coney Island when he was a kid and fell in love with the Wildman of Borneo at the sideshow," said Edward Field, a respected West Village poet and friend of Mr. Schneebaum’s for 45 years. "I think he was looking to discover what felt natural in sex."
"He felt homely as a child," said Neil Derrick, the novelist and a neighbor of Mr. Schneebaum’s for two decades. "The tribesmen looked at him in a different way. But he had to draw the line at eating stuff."
The documentary will delve into his life in 1950s New York. "When I first met Tobias, he was so graceful...it was like he was moving through water," said Field, who met Mr. Schneebaum at Yaddo, the writing colony in Saratoga, New York. "Back then, you didn’t write about being gay or Jewish."
Field spoke of a whirling social scene, parties with older poets like John Ashbury and ascending ones like Frank O’Hara. Downtown, gays could be open about their sexuality, but uptown with the publishing crowd, gays were in the closet. "May Swenson had two parties -- one for her straight, uptown friends and another for her gay friends," said Field.
Mr. Schneebaum had studied painting at the Brooklyn Museum after he graduated from City College. He financed his trips to Latin America and other areas by silkscreening Christmas cards at the Tiber Press, which was owned by the painter Floriano Vecchi.
"This group loved success," said Mr. Vecchi, of the social scene, which included Norman and Adele Mailer, the poet James Schuyler and the painter Grace Hartigan. "People were having their paintings bought by museums, their stories bought by The New Yorker."
"Tobias was a bit of a loner because he was always away traveling," said Vecchi, "but he was the most honest, outspoken person I’d ever met. "Mr.Vecchi also employed a young Andy Warhol, who he said he taught how to make silk-screening prints.
At one point, Mr. Schneebaum was harassed by the FBI for being gay. "It wasn’t only the Communists they were after," said Mr. Field. "They would harass homosexuals and artists, too."
Through the 1950s, Mr. Schneebaum lived on East 2nd Street, next door to Norman Mailer and his second wife Adele. "I remember one night, Toby called us at 2 a.m. and woke us up," said Adele Mailer. " He wanted Norman to come over and tend to a dead mouse under the radiator. ‘I just can’t possibly deal with it,’ he said."
Mentoring the Next Generation
The Schneebaum documentary will also focus on his experiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mentoring the next generation of artists. "Tobias would have these dinner parties that would attract great thinkers, a combination of well-known older artists and promising, attractive people," said the novelist Allan Gurganus, the author of Plays Well With Others. Parties would mix novelists Hortense Calisher and Curtis Harnacker with the younger generation -- Craig Lucas, writer Mona Simpson and the artist Melissa Meyer.
As the AIDS epidemic ripped through New York, Mr. Schneebaum was at the hospital ministering to dying gay men. "He literally spent most of every day at St. Vincent’s looking after people -- bringing milkshakes or dealing with a family in the Philippines. He did not count the cost to himself. He saw it as a tribal responsibility."
Mr. Gurganus ascribed mystical qualities to Mr. Schneebaum. "If you would ever meet a genuine shaman, it would be Toby." He recounted when Mr. Schneebaum went into the hospital for a series of excruciatingly painful hip operations, he turned away the pain medication. "It hurt his powers of concentration and he couldn’t communicate with those who visited.
"Toby was once told by his father that he was one of the ugliest human beings ever born," said Gurganus. "To be told that can either make or break you. I think for Toby, this is why his heart goes out for those on the margins of society."
Malarial and Hollywood Infestations
Mr. Schneebaum has been criticized by other anthropologists for sleeping with his subjects, saying he lacked the scientific objectivity. "Critics of Toby say his work is not on a scholarly plain," said David Shapiro, "but here we have the experts in their Banana Republic clothes as distanced observers, versus Toby who is having first-hand experience naked with the natives."
The Shapiros and their small documentary film crew will travel to New Guinea with Mr. Schneebaum and film him while he lectures on a luxury cruise by Zeagrahm Expeditions out of Seattle. They will go ashore with him in the Asmat jungle, searching for the tribes Mr. Schneebaum has lived with before. This will be the first time Mr. Schneebaum will have been in the jungle since the early 1990s and he will be conducting research on Asmat shields and sexual practices.
The harsh conditions of Irian Jaya will present formidable obstacles to the Shapiros their film crew and their equipment. "In the area we are going in, there is a 50 percent infection rate for malaria," said Laurie Shapiro. "Our filming is dependant on the tides of the rivers," said David Shapiro. "It will be a logistical hell."
Besides the malaria they face, the Shapiros have experienced the serious barrier of Hollywood in getting Mr. Schneebaum on film. As first-time filmmakers, David and Laurie Shapiro wrote a screenplay of Mr. Schneebaum’s life. Milcho Manchevski, the director of the Balkan drama, "Before the Rain," expressed strong interest in the project. Funding for the film was set up, then quickly yanked. "To look at it in crass Hollywood terms, this might only be seen as a film about a gay cannibal."
"The reality of the market really hit us in the face," said Laurie Shapiro. "We’d really struggled hand-to-mouth to keep this project alive." Now, the documentary is being produced through Lifer Films, the Shapiros’ company. "It will be an independent production with money from private investors," she said.
"With everything that happened to Toby," said David Shapiro, "people in the 1950s were not ready for him. People still might not be ready for him."
Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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