Marlon Brando 1943: “It was ecstasy sleeping on the sidewalk of Washington Square”

washington square park at time Marlon Brando slept here
washington square park at time Marlon Brando slept here

Marlon Brandon came to Greenwich Village in the 1940s and stayed with his sister who lived near Patchin Place. In his autobiography, the actor wrote about his experience and singled out the “ecstasy of sleeping on the sidewalk of Washington Square.” He had arrived downtown after being expelled from a Minnesota military school so the fact that nobody bothered him, and the realization that he could do what he wanted to do, was obviously quite freeing. And, it was the Village!

As I have written, current day Washington Square, even if you wanted to sleep on the sidewalk, it would be hard to find a smooth, unbroken surface.* But for Marlon Brando in the 1940s, the sidewalks were likely in good condition, and it was a moment and time he remembered vividly.

In the 1994 publication “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”, the esteemed actor wrote about this experience in the Village and Washington Square:

As I got out of the cab delivering me from Pennsylvania Station to my sister’s apartment in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1943, I was sporting a bright red fedora that I thought was going to knock everyone dead.

I cherish my memories of those first few days of freedom in New York, especially my sense of liberation from not having to submit to any authority, and knowing that I could go anyplace and do anything at any time.

One night I went to Washington Square and got drunk for the first time. I fell asleep on the sidewalk and nobody bothered me.

It was ecstasy sleeping on the sidewalk of Washington Square, realizing I had no commitment to anything or anyone. If I didn’t feel like going to bed, I didn’t. I formed the sleeping patterns of a lifetime; stay up past midnight, sleep til ten or eleven the next morning.

Once I stayed up all night at a party in Brooklyn and looked out the window at a gray dawn at about six A.M. and watched the streets glow with the headlights of buses, cars and taxis. Then the sidewalks began to fill up with people carrying briefcases and scurrying to their offices. I thought, God, wouldn’t it be awful if I had to get up and go to work like that every day?

Frannie, who lived in an apartment near Patchin Place in the Village, invited me to move in with her. I got a job as an elevator operator at Best & Company department store, then worked as a waiter, a short-order cook, a sandwich man, and at other jobs I don’t remember now.

This photo – amazing, isn’t it to look at the difference in the layout of the park? – captures an aerial view of what Washington Square looked like circa 1940-1949.

Photo credit: The Washington Square Park (New York, N.Y.) and Washington Square Area Image Collection; New York University Archives, New York University.

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*In case you were wondering, per last night’s meeting, the sidewalk renovation at present day Washington Square Park is scheduled to begin, after many years of delays, late August or around Labor Day.


This is a reworked version of a post originally published March 28, 2011.

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