The Washington Post
Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed Americaby Christopher Bram
In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation's imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to… See more details below
In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation's imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture.
But the change was only beginning. A new generation of gay writers followed, taking more risks and writing about their sexuality more openly. Edward Albee brought his prickly iconoclasm to the American theater. Edmund White laid bare his own life in stylized, autobiographical works. Armistead Maupin wove a rich tapestry of the counterculture, queer and straight. Mart Crowley brought gay men's lives out of the closet and onto the stage. And Tony Kushner took them beyond the stage, to the center of American ideas.
With authority and humor, Christopher Bram weaves these men's ambitions, affairs, feuds, loves, and appetites into a single sweeping narrative. Chronicling over fifty years of momentous change-from civil rights to Stonewall to AIDS and beyond-EMINENT OUTLAWS is an inspiring, illuminating tale: one that reveals how the lives of these men are crucial to understanding the social and cultural history of the American twentieth century.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Bram does a terrific job in cataloguing the lives of these important figures, from Vidal to James Baldwin to Michael Cunningham. He reveals their often tortured interior lives. His examinations of the works themselves are original and thoughtful. Eminent Outlaws is entertaining and informative, packed with interesting gossip and opinions."—Columbia Journalism Review"
As Bram's high-sounding subtitle promises-and these lives from Vidal through Baldwin and O'Hara to White and Kushner deliver-gay lib began as a literary movement; the aesthetic was always political, too....EMINENT OUTLAWS is the next (last?) step in reporting on literary lives that traces back to the gay dinner parties of yore. Few would have it any other way."—Newsweek"
Argumentative and often resonant, and lit from below by a gossipy wit. But its power is less sentence by sentence than cumulative. You don't realize how much the details of these writers' books and difficult lives have touched you until the book's final chapters.... With 'Eminent Outlaws' he has filled a gap in our critical literature."—The New York Times"
Bram's portraits of an often-reluctant gay literary vanguard is fascinating enough, but alongside a 50-year narrative of unexplored gay aesthetic, he also provides a parallel history of the gay-rights movement....Bram's bio-history is fun to read and will be the standard text of the defining era of gay literati glitterati."—Philadelphia Inquirer "
Bram uses a series of complex portraits of America's most influential gay literary lions to argue for their position in the pantheon of American culture.... Eminent Outlaws offers a crucial and fascinating overview of decades of American literary history."—Salon.com"
With keen insight into the essential relationship between storytelling and gay identity-as well as careful research into the journals, letters and books of America's great gay writers-Outlaws traces the cultural influence of gay literature throughout the second half of the 20th century.... Perhaps we have Bram's early sense of service as a boy scout to thank for the work he's done to preserve history in Outlaws. That Bram pulls it off with such style seems appropriate: it's a gay history, after all."—Next Magazine
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Meet the Author
Christopher Bram is the author of nine novels, including Gods and Monsters (originally titled Father of Frankenstein), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Bram was a 2001 Guggenheim Fellow and received the 2003 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York City.
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Eminent OutlawsThe Gay Writers Who Changed America
By Bram, Christopher
TwelveCopyright © 2012 Bram, Christopher
All right reserved.
Into the Fifties
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
The second atom bomb fell on Nagasaki, the war ended, and nineteen-year-old Eugene Gore Vidal came home to New York. The boyish prep school graduate had served as a warrant officer on an army ship in the Aleutians, a sort of seagoing sergeant. He was now stationed out on Long Island before being discharged. He brought with him a manuscript he had begun writing in training camp, a Hemingway-like novel titled Williwaw about shipboard life.
He spent his weekends in the city, staying in the back bedroom of his father and stepmother’s huge apartment on Fifth Avenue, working on the novel during the day and visiting Times Square at night. There he met other men in uniform in the male-only half of the busy bar at the Astor Hotel or in the movie theaters crowded along Forty-second Street. He would take his new acquaintances to a nearby bathhouse or hotel for sex. Young Vidal assumed he would eventually marry, but now he only wanted to make up for all the fun he had missed in boarding school and the army. He was not interested in love. He would later insist that the only man he ever loved was a classmate at St. Albans, Jimmie Trimble, who died on Iwo Jima.
His blind grandfather, Senator T. P. Gore of Oklahoma, spoke of setting him up in New Mexico after college in a political career. The grandson wasn’t particularly interested in college, however, and thought there’d be plenty of time for politics later. His father, Eugene Vidal Sr., an airline pioneer who had been on the cover of Time, did not push him in any particular direction. The son soon dropped his first name to avoid being confused with his father.
He sold his novel to Dutton before the end of 1945. The editorial staff liked the personable, confident fellow and made him a part-time editor. He started work on a new novel and began ballet lessons to remedy the rheumatoid arthritis developed after frostbite in the Aleutians. He prowled the city for literary events as well as for sex. Meeting the scholar/translator Kimon Friar at the Astor Hotel Bar, he decided Friar wasn’t his type but went to hear him lecture at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. There he met an exotic woman with a foreign accent, an Elizabethan hat, and an opera cape: Anaïs Nin. She was already famous for the diaries that she showed friends and hoped to publish one day. She had left Paris with her husband, Hugo, at the start of the war and had recently broken with her lover, Henry Miller, deciding he was too old. Nin herself was forty-two.
Vidal visited her regularly at her fifth-floor walk-up on West Thirteenth Street in Greenwich Village, across the street from the Food Trades Vocational High School, a building that forty years later housed the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. The apartment was an old-fashioned studio with a skylight an artist friend painted with the signs of the zodiac. Nin surrounded herself with young male artists, including poet Robert Duncan, already author of “The Homosexual in Society” published in 1944 in Politics magazine, and a poetry-writing undergraduate from Amherst, James Merrill (who was briefly Kimon Friar’s boyfriend). She loved their attention, but her real love was for her career. She coaxed Vidal into getting her a two-book contract at Dutton. When her next book, Ladders to Fire, received a bad review in the New York Times, Vidal and Merrill wrote letters to the editor protesting its unfairness. (Both letters appear to have been written on the same typewriter—Nin’s.) Nin was a little in love with Vidal, or rather, she loved the idea of Vidal being in love with her. They seem to have gone to bed together, but it’s unclear if they actually had sex.
It was at a Nin party that Vidal first met a petite, effeminate Southerner with the voice of a strangled child. “How does it feel to be an infant terrible?” asked Truman Capote, badly mangling the French phrase. He looked as if he were twelve, but he was actually a year older than Vidal. He had spent part of his childhood in Alabama before joining his mother in Westchester and attending high school there. He was briefly a copy boy at the New Yorker. He had begun to publish short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle, starting with an elegantly written ghost story, “Miriam.” He had just signed a book contract with Random House. (Nin in her diary describes Capote at this time as “painfully timid… he seemed fragile and easily wounded.” It’s hardly the image of him we have now, but perhaps Nin saw something invisible to others.) Vidal and Capote had much in common: Southern roots, no college, and impossible mothers both named Nina. But Capote made Vidal uneasy. Despite ballet class, Vidal was a stiff, somewhat patrician fellow who could drop an occasional camp phrase only among friends. He found Capote much too flamboyant, too bent on using homosexuality to draw attention to himself. And he recognized a rival. Nevertheless, the two young men were friendly enough during the first year they knew each other, Vidal going so far as to take Capote with him to the Everard Baths. It’s amusing to picture the pair wandering the mildewed corridors with towels around their waists, Capote talking incessantly. He loved to tell stories about himself and others, and he didn’t care if the stories were true or not. He was never very interested in sex with strangers. He was delighted that night to meet a Southern friend who’d seen the out-of-town tryouts of Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead. Vidal happily ditched the two and went off to get laid.
The following summer, while at Yaddo, Capote met his first real love, Newton Arvin, a short, bald English professor from Smith College. Arvin wasn’t anyone’s physical ideal, but he adored Capote, read his prose, recommended books to him, and encouraged his writing. The two men were devoted to each other—for a while.
One afternoon in the oak-paneled Gramercy Park Tavern near the Dutton offices, Vidal began to tell a fellow editor about the homosexual men he had been “noticing” in New York. The editor, who knew nothing about Vidal’s private life, suggested he write about this strange new world in his next book.
Vidal worked quickly in his early years, even though he wrote in longhand in pencil. He felt distracted in New York, however, and moved down to Guatemala for a few months in 1947. He finished his new novel, The City and the Pillar, before his second book, In a Yellow Wood, had come out. He showed the manuscript to Nin when she visited Guatemala. She hated it. She said she disapproved of its flat style but she could not have been happy with the character named Maria Verlaine, an exotic woman with a foreign accent who surrounds herself with homosexual men and seduces the gay hero. “I think you are everything, man, woman, and child,” says Maria. “ ‘I could kiss you,’ he said, and he did. He kissed the Death Goddess.”
Vidal dedicated the book to “J.T.”—Jimmie Trimble.
In June, Life magazine ran a photo spread, “Young U.S. Writers.” A smallish photo of Vidal accompanied smallish photos of Jean Stafford and others, but the front photo, four times as big as the rest, was of a debonair Capote, who had not yet published his first book.
Dutton was both nervous and excited about Vidal’s new novel. They didn’t want to publish it too close to his second book, for fear they’d glut the market with Vidal. The author was nervous, too, but his chief worry was that other writers would scoop him on this subject. Sure enough, that fall 1947, The Gallery by John Horne Burns was published with its strong chapter about a gay bar in Naples, followed by End as a Man by Calder Willingham, about sadosexual doings in a Southern military academy like the Citadel. The topic was in the postwar air.
In the first week of January 1948, a curious medical book appeared in stores, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, Clyde Martin, and Wardell Pomeroy. Soon known as simply “the Kinsey Report,” the volume was mostly charts and tables representing a ten-year-long survey. Yet the book instantly attracted attention with its evidence of how much sex and how many different kinds were actually taking place in the United States. It sold 225,000 copies by the end of the year, almost as many as Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A few days after the Kinsey Report appeared, The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal came out. One week after that saw the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.
A new age seemed to have begun.
The two novels could not have been more different. The City and the Pillar is written in a direct, sometimes pulpy prose that Vidal later claimed was modeled on James T. Farrell but is actually closer to the drugstore paperbacks of the era. Seventeen years later Vidal revised the book, changing the language a little and the ending a lot and making the overall meaning clearer. City tells the tale of Jim Willard, a teenager who has sex with his best friend, Bob Ford, on a campout after graduation from high school. Jim journeys through life, meeting other men and having sex with them but remaining in love with Bob. He meets a heartless writer like an early version of Vidal and a woman like Nin and goes with them to Guatemala. Then the war comes and Jim joins the merchant marine. After the war Jim meets Bob again, but Bob angrily rejects him. “ ‘You’re a queer,’ he said, ‘you’re nothing but a damned queer!’ ” In a fit of rage Jim murders Bob. The ending is as purple as the Biblical title (which refers to Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt when she looks back at the city of Sodom). Yet the rest of the novel is often tartly matter-of-fact, offering sharp snapshots of American gay life in Hollywood and New York in the 1940s.
The prose of Other Voices is very different, colorful yet precise, a high Southern rhetoric that’s been trimmed and tamed. It can be florid in patches, especially in the last chapters where it turns hallucinogenic, yet it’s always fresh and readable. For example, here’s the boy protagonist, Joel, riding in a mule-drawn wagon late at night, the driver fast asleep:
He listened content and untroubled to the remote, singing-saw noise of night insects.
Then presently the music of a childish duet came carrying over the sounds of the lonesome countryside: “What then does the robin do, poor thing…” Like specters he saw them hurrying in the moonshine along the road’s weedy edge. Two girls. One walked with easy grace, but the other moved as jerky and quick as a boy…
Soon the girls are walking alongside the wagon, a pair of twins named Idabel and Florabel. The three children sing together: “their voices pealed clear and sweet, for all three were sopranos…. Then a cloud crossed over the moon and in the black the singing ended.”
This is the story of Joel Knox, a precocious child of thirteen who, after the death of his mother, is sent to live with the father he’s never met in Skully’s Landing, a small hamlet in Alabama. Not much happens there, but the mood and sense of place and lovely prose are enough to carry the reader. The book suggests a children’s story at first, a fairy tale set in a realistic 1930s South. But this rural life is hardly pastoral or wholesome. The father is crippled and silent. Joel’s only companions are the black servants, Jesus Fever and his daughter Zoo, the twins Idabel and Florabel, a spooky stepmother, Miss Amy, and the effete yet genial Cousin Randolph. The fairy tale grows darker and more sinister as it progresses—as do the longer tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Randolph tells Joel the story of Joel’s mother and father and Randolph’s love for a Mexican boxer. When relatives from New Orleans come to fetch Joel, Miss Amy sends them away without letting Joel know they’ve been there. The boy is left exiled in the dream world of Skully’s Landing.
The book was dedicated to Newton Arvin.
Readers nowadays find Other Voices elusive and mysterious, but when it was published people projected one particular meaning onto the mystery, chiefly because of the jacket photo of the author. This is the famous Harold Halma shot of young Capote supine on a sofa, facing the camera with his baby bangs and seductive gaze. “Honey… you stay away from him,” a young wife was overheard telling her husband in a coffee shop in Cambridge. The photo made some readers think this novel could only be about one subject: its author’s homosexuality. A magazine editor told friends the book was “the faggots’ Huckleberry Finn.”
Reviewers who ignored the sexual implications tended to give the book good reviews. “A short novel which is as dazzling a phenomenon as has burst on the literary scene in the last ten years,” said the Chicago Tribune. The sexual critics almost all leaped to negative conclusions. “The book is immature and its theme is calculated to make the flesh crawl,” said Time magazine. “The distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.” Carlos Baker, future biographer of Hemingway, said in the New York Times Book Review, “The story of Joel Knox did not need to be told except to get it out of the author’s system.” Diana Trilling in the Nation began by praising the book but claimed it was an apology for homosexuality, that it argued that men became gay only because of their early experiences. In a loony leap of logic, she indignantly asked, “Is no member of society, then, to be held accountable for himself, not even Hitler?” (Trilling was fascinated with the subject at this time, reviewing almost every gay novel that came along, in contrast to her husband, Lionel, who rarely mentioned homosexuality. Even in his review of the Kinsey Report, he had much to say about premature ejaculation but little about Topic H.)
The reviews of City and the Pillar were equally blunt and dismissive, and without the sugar of Capote’s many good notices. The Times Book Review said, “Presented as the case history of a standard homosexual, his novel adds little that is new to a groaning shelf.” As early as 1948, the mainstream nervously dismissed the subject as old hat. Other reviewers called the book “disgusting,” “sterile,” and “gauche.” The two or three good reviews were couched in sociological terms. “Essentially it’s an attempt to clarify the inner stresses of our time, of which the increase in homosexuality and divorce are symptoms,” wrote Charles Rolo in the Atlantic. “It should be added that Mr. Vidal has not neglected to provide an entertaining story.”
One of the unkindest pieces was in the first issue of the Hudson Review, which was managed by a close female friend. Vidal hoped to publish there himself. Someone writing under the pseudonym J. S. Shrike (the cynical editor in Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West), discussed City and Other Voices and Sexual Behavior in the Human Male together under the heading “Recent Phenomena.” (Novels were reviewed under “Recent Fiction.”) “Aside from its sociological demonstrations, Mr. Vidal’s book is undistinguished. It is humorless, and most of its scenes are faked, as are the house interiors, the natural landscapes, and all the characters.” (How can a writer do anything but “fake” a house interior?) It’s a shrilly moralistic review, dressing its disgust in social-worker jargon, reading old clichés into Kinsey and the two novelists. Shrike says that, “Mr. Vidal’s hero is irrevocably corrupted by his initial adolescent experience; Mr. Capote creates suspense by threatening the seduction of a thirteen year old boy.” (It’s bizarre how many of these reviewers assume that Randolph, the lover of a Mexican boxer, is plotting to seduce an androgynous little boy.) Shrike prefers Capote’s prose to Vidal’s yet does not like him much, either. “It is obvious that Mr. Capote has talent, but it is not a promising talent; it is a ruined one.”
Vidal later said that the review that hurt most was one that wasn’t written: Orville Prescott, critic for the daily Times, had praised Williwaw, but reportedly told friends that Vidal’s new book disgusted him so much he would never read or review Vidal again. For the rest of his life, Vidal used this unwritten review as evidence of how antigay critics had blocked his career. Yet Prescott reviewed Capote in the Times, a mixed review but one that closed with “Many a first novel is sounder, better balanced, more reasonable than Other Voices. But few are more artistically exciting, more positive proof of the arrival of a new writer of substantial talent.” Whatever put Prescott off City and the Pillar, it was not just its subject.
City ended up selling 30,000 copies in hardcover. Other Voices sold 26,000. (One needed to sell fewer books to be a best seller in the 1940s, and both books spent several weeks on best-seller lists.) These were not the only novels with gay content to appear that year. There was also The Welcome by Hubert Creekmore, about two men in love in a small Southern town. (It’s striking how much gay fiction of this period is set in Dixie, as if the rest of the country could think about perversion only when it spoke with a funny accent.) The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer came out that summer, with a homosexual villain, General Cummings, the army commander. The June issue of Partisan Review contained “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck, Honey” by Leslie Fiedler, the notorious essay where Fiedler first argued that homosexual race-mixing was a major theme in American literature, with white heroes fleeing to the wilderness “in the arms of their dusky lovers”: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. The essay included brief discussions of Vidal and Capote. Fiedler argued that this emphasis on homosexuality was a failing in American books, yet he discussed it with mischievous calm and no hysterical righteousness.
Years later Vidal would talk as if City had destroyed his career. It didn’t. His next four novels sold 10,000 copies each, not bad for the hardcover book slump of the early Fifties—a temporary side effect of the flood of new, twenty-five-cent paperbacks. He said he wasn’t reviewed again in the daily New York Times for the next fifteen years—and he wasn’t, but his work was regularly covered in the Times Book Review, and he was the subject of feature stories in the daily Times. He turned to writing for TV and then to theater and the movies not because publishing was closed to him, but because the other fields paid so much better. Also his fiction now required more time and effort. He came to dislike the quick, gray style of the first books and took more pains with his language. I believe he was emulating Capote. He could never admit it, of course, but Capote wrote better prose and Vidal resented him for it. The closest he came to admitting as much was in a letter to his British editor, John Lehman: “Most people seem to be born knowing their way through literature, the young lions at least, like Truman,” said Vidal, adding that he had spent the last four years working on his own style.
But the reception of City and the Pillar left him badly shaken. In an earlier letter to Lehman, a year after the book appeared, he said, “I am back amongst my people ready to lead them to the new Sodom, out of this pillar-marked wilderness,” but he was only joking. He was more careful in the future, more cagey. He would not write at length about gay life again for another twenty years, when he returned to it in Myra Breckinridge, his wonderfully mad fantasy about camp, gender, and the movies.
There is no denying that City and the Pillar changed his career. Yet the older Vidal often contradicts himself in how he talks about the experience. The mature man of letters, the unflappable Mr. Know-it-all of interviews and essays, speaks as if he were born wise. In his autobiography, Palimpsest, he insists that he knew exactly what was at stake when he published City: he was saying good-bye to politics and probably hurting his future as a novelist. But how many twenty-two-year-olds have that kind of foresight? Fiction writers, even those who work autobiographically, often assume readers will think they are making things up. For legal reasons, reviewers could not accuse Vidal of being homosexual yet they certainly implied it. The reaction to City caught the young novelist completely off guard. He hadn’t guessed he would out himself so nakedly. His journal for this period is the one piece of writing he refused to show his biographer, Fred Kaplan. His blind grandfather, the Senator, didn’t read the novel, of course. Vidal says neither of his parents finished it. One suspects his father’s reaction must have stung as much as the reviews. (Vidal was already at war with his mother, and his sexuality gave her new ammunition.) Whatever the exact cause of his hurt, the experience stamped Vidal for the rest of his life, affecting him more personally than he could admit. He protected himself by insisting the book was better than it was, then going back and revising it in 1965. He was a much better writer in 1965 than he’d been in 1948, yet he revised the book in the voice of his younger, more callow, pulpier self.
Capote, too, was disappointed with the reception of his book, but he’d been hoping for success along the lines of Gone with the Wind. No matter what an author gets, he or she wants more. Capote moved on and did not look back, but he did not write directly about homosexuality again for almost thirty years. He was silent about it in print, neither professing nor denying his own sexuality when he used himself as a character. He let his very public persona fill in the blank for readers.
Vidal and Capote do not appear to have ever compared notes or commiserated with each other over their early treatment by critics. It’s a weakness to confess an injury, and one can never admit hurt to a competitor, even when he has suffered something similar.
Of course there were gay men and women in the United States before the Second World War. There was even some fiction with gay characters before 1947. But none of the great gay American writers—Henry James, Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Thornton Wilder—ever wrote directly about gay life. Walt Whitman celebrated the love of comrades, but later denied he meant anything sexual. Gertrude Stein touched on same-sex love in Tender Buttons, but in obscure, experimental prose. A few young writers published books with avant-garde presses, such as Better Angel by Forman Brown (1933), but the rest was silence. The truth of the matter is such books were often banned and seized. It was hard enough to print the truth about heterosexual love.
But the war changed things. First of all, national mobilization threw together millions of Americans from different parts of the country. Men who liked men and women who liked women learned that they were far from alone. When they returned home, if they returned (many moved to cities), they no longer thought of themselves as solitary freaks. Straight people too discovered there were more homosexuals in the world than they’d ever guessed. It was probably most surprising to middle-class and college-educated straight men whose lives were more sheltered than the poor and working class. We have no figures, of course, on how many straight readers purchased the new novels by Vidal and Capote compared to the number of gay readers. I presume the readership was predominantly gay. But the publishing world and the critical establishment were still straight and they were curious about this sexual underworld.
The war also began the slow change of what could be printed. The very literary, very hetero Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson was banned in New York State after it became a best seller in 1946. The case made its way through the court system until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, producing a 4–4 tie sustaining the ban. (Justice Felix Frankfurter abstained because he knew Wilson personally.) The book would be out of print for the next thirteen years. Complicating matters was the fact that standards changed from state to state, city to city. “Banned in Boston” was not just a catchphrase. Philadelphia in 1946 briefly blocked the sales of older novels by William Faulkner and James T. Farrell. But military service had accustomed middle-class men to words and names more expressive than what they’d grown up with. When the publisher of The Naked and the Dead insisted Mailer change fuck to fug to get past the censors—“What the fug you mean?”—everyone knew how silly it sounded.
But for a few years after the war, people were suddenly talking about homosexuality. They talked about it enough that it became demonized all over again and silence returned. Nevertheless, once you spill mercury from a bottle, you can never brush it all back in.
Vidal sailed for Naples in the middle of February 1948, happy to escape his notoriety and spend his hard-earned money in Europe, now open to travel and wonderfully cheap after the war. Capote left New York on May 14, on his own trip, going first to Paris. There the two writers met up with each other, wary yet amiable. Both struck up friendships with a third gay American writer also visiting Europe, a highly successful older playwright, thirty-seven-year-old Tennessee Williams. Williams would remain the admired friend of both men in the years ahead, even after they stopped talking to each other and communicated only through their lawyers.
2. The Kindness of Strangers
He was born Thomas Lanier Williams in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of a woman who was the pampered only child of an Episcopal minister, and a businessman who then worked for the telephone company. He didn’t become Tennessee until he was twenty-seven, a name he chose for himself when he applied for a grant from the famous Group Theatre. The grant was for young playwrights, which meant twenty-five and under. He knocked three years off his age and took a new first name so the judges wouldn’t connect him to the Thomas Lanier whose poems and stories were sometimes mentioned in St. Louis newspapers.
Williams was a compulsive writer from an early age. He needed to write in much the same way smokers need to smoke or alcoholics need to drink. (He would pursue sex in a similar fashion.) His friend Donald Windham initially admired his singlemindedness, saying, “He did something I longed to do but I didn’t have the courage to. He put writing before knowing where he was going to sleep or where his next meal was coming from.” Gore Vidal suggests something less admirable in his account of watching Williams take up a short story he had just published in a magazine and rewrite it into his typewriter, simply because he had nothing else to work on. He rewrote plays into stories and stories into plays. He also wrote poems and reams of letters, many of which were never sent if he didn’t have a stamp or address handy. Expressing himself mattered more to him than actual communication.
He changed more than just his name and age in 1938. “Tom” had been a shy, outwardly conventional fellow, a frat man in college, a regular guy at the shoe factory where he briefly worked. The stories and plays he produced were fairly conventional, too, a tale of ancient Egypt (“The Vengeance of Nitocris” published in Weird Tales), a screwball comedy about high society marriage (The Fat Man’s Wife) and a social drama about prison (Not about Nightingales). And he pretended to be conventional sexually, claiming to love women, yet he was a virgin with both genders. But around the time he applied to the Group Theatre, he moved to New Orleans hoping to write for the WPA. The minister’s grandson found himself living contentedly among prostitutes, gamblers, drug addicts, and homosexuals; he went to bed with his first man, fell in love with a friend, discovered alcohol (it began with brandy alexanders), went to bed with another man, and another, and soon learned he was happiest when he had sex every night. He later described himself as “a rebellious Puritan,” but the rebellion was never complete. The conforming, conventional “Tom” remained hidden inside “Tennessee” to the end of his life.
He continued to write every day in New Orleans, but his stories, plays, and poems were no longer stiff and secondhand; they were more alive, more emotional. He didn’t write autobiographically—not directly, anyway. He wrote about what he felt rather than what he knew or understood. He had very strong emotions about the people he imagined. As his friend Windham puts it, “The richness of words in Tennessee’s stories and plays of the 1940s isn’t a richness of vocabulary. It is a richness of verbal texture…. There are a good many metaphors and similes; but they are always, even when physically descriptive, used to reveal an inner state. They are used to draw the reader or listener into the author’s emotions.”
He won the Group Theatre grant and used his new name when he spoke to a literary agent, Audrey Wood, who wanted to see more of his work. She represented him for the next thirty-two years.
The 1940s was a rollercoaster decade for Williams. Plays were rejected or almost produced or produced only to flop. Between productions, he took a variety of jobs, including elevator operator, movie usher, and poetry-reciting waiter at the Beggar’s Bar in Greenwich Village. Using New York as his base, he traveled constantly, going to Mexico and Los Angeles and returning to New Orleans. He spent six months in Hollywood working under contract at MGM. He briefly lived with Windham and Windham’s lover, but he was the world’s worst roommate, filling his room with dirty clothes and empty cigarette packs, playing his old-fashioned wind-up Victrola while he hammered away at his typewriter and another coffeepot melted on the stove. He collaborated with Windham on a play, You Touched Me, based on a short story by D. H. Lawrence. Williams loved and drew inspiration from a handful of authors: Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, and, most important, Hart Crane. He carried a volume of Crane’s word-drunk poems wherever he went.
Then, in 1944, he revised one more time a play inspired by his family, The Gentleman Caller, and sent it to Audrey Wood. After a few conferences and a change of title, The Glass Menagerie found a producer and a leading lady, Laurette Taylor. It opened in wartime Chicago in December and suffered a shaky first week before two local critics discovered and praised it. The play moved to Broadway three months later and was a huge success. (It isn’t really a memory play, as Williams claimed. Among other changes, he wishfully imagined his disapproving father falling “in love with long distances” and abandoning the family.) Meanwhile another work-in-progress, The Moth, became Blanche’s Chair in the Moon, then The Poker Night, and finally A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Jessica Tandy and a young new actor, Marlon Brando, it opened on Broadway at the end of 1947. It was an even bigger artistic and commercial triumph than Menagerie.
In three short years, this man who’d worked alone in a private fever dream of words found himself flung into the world of money, fame, and public admiration—what Williams later called “the catastrophe of success.” People did not discuss his sexuality yet—that would come later—but as Wilfrid Sheed wrote, “Clearly, he wasn’t the Elks Club Father of the Year.” Homosexuality is present in his first two hits for anyone who cares to look—hinted at in Tom’s offstage life in Menagerie, confessed in Blanche’s sad story about her husband’s suicide in Streetcar—but it was not yet the problem it became for the playwright and his public.
Success made Williams as restless as failure had. He continued to travel, visiting New Mexico, Nantucket, and Provincetown, returning to New Orleans and St. Louis. Soon after the opening of Streetcar, he left for his first adult visit to Europe—he had gone as a teenager with his grandfather on a six-week church tour.
He arrived in Rome in February 1948, where he took an apartment and bought a used army jeep. He met Gore Vidal at a party at the American Academy. The two men immediately hit it off. They took a trip down the coast to Naples and Amalfi in the jeep, passing Ravello, Vidal’s future home. Williams drove on that twisty road high above the Mediterranean, a reckless yet lucky driver. The two new friends next took the dangerous step of reading each other’s prose. Vidal read a new story by Williams and told him it didn’t work. “So fix it,” said Williams. Vidal actually wrote a new draft, but Williams hated his changes. “What you have done is removed my style, which is all I have.” Meanwhile Williams read The City and the Pillar. “You know, you spoiled it with that ending. You didn’t know what a good book you had.”
These are very intimate, difficult moments for any writer, yet the two remained friends. It’s hard to say what drew them together. It wasn’t sexual attraction. Once when they went out cruising together, they returned empty-handed. “That leaves only us,” said Williams. “Don’t be macabre,” Vidal replied. Williams was far more famous, yet the competitive novelist did not resent his older peer. Vidal recognized early that he was smarter than Williams, more logical and literate. Yet he never denied Williams’s poetic gifts and power. Usually so proud and guarded, Vidal later wrote about Williams in essays with genuine affection, showing a tenderness that rarely appears in his work. But the respect was not entirely mutual. The playwright described his first meetings with Vidal in a letter to Windham: “I liked him but only through the strenuous effort it took to overlook his conceit. He has studied ballet and is constantly doing pirouettes and flexing his legs, and the rest of the time he is comparing himself and Truman Capote (his professional rival and Nemesis) to such figures as Dostoyevsky and Balzac.”
Williams went off to London for the rehearsal of John Gielgud’s production of Menagerie starring Helen Hayes, then came to Paris where he met up again with Vidal. He brought Vidal along as translator when he met with Jean Cocteau to discuss a French production of Streetcar to star Cocteau’s boyfriend, Jean Marais. Vidal gives a witty account of the meeting: “Between Tennessee’s solemn analyses of the play and Cocteau’s rhetoric about the theater (the long arms flailed like semaphores denoting some dangerous last junction) nobody made any sense at all until Marais broke his long silence to ask, apropos his character Stanley Kowalski, ‘Will I have to use a Polish accent?’ ”
Then Truman Capote arrived in Paris. Vidal’s distrust had been building since Capote upstaged everyone in the photo pages of Life, but he introduced his rival to Williams. Always anxious to entertain, Capote worked harder than ever to impress the famous playwright. He told Williams and Vidal tales of Hollywood movie deals, meetings with starlets, and his own romantic encounters with André Gide, Errol Flynn, and Albert Camus—encounters that have never been verified. Williams was wary and uncertain. Later, when he grew fond of Capote, he would say he was “full of fantasies and mischief.” Vidal would call him an outright liar. The three went to a Paris nightclub one night, and Capote attempted to get Vidal out on the dance floor for the latest song from America, “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.” Vidal refused.
October found all three men back in New York, photographed together at a party with drinks and grins, looking like good buddies at a college mixer. Yet Vidal’s dislike of Capote was already so strong he found it difficult to be in the same room or even the same city with him. Colleagues began to make jokes about his rivalry, one man telling the tale of a cross-country trip where they stopped at every public library so Vidal could see if his books were checked out as often as Capote’s. Vidal later wrote, “It’s not enough to succeed, our friends must fail.” One assumes he had a particular “friend” in mind.
Williams had returned to New York for the rehearsals of Summer and Smoke. This is a surprisingly quiet play for him, a period piece mixing comedy and melancholy set in the golden age before the First World War, the tale of two friends, a man and a woman, who almost become lovers. It received bad reviews and closed early. Williams was devastated. Summer and Smoke didn’t find success until its revival in 1952.
He published a novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, in 1950, and won a Tony for his next play, The Rose Tattoo, in 1951. And he met Frank Merlo, a short, dark, handsome young man with Sicilian roots and lots of practicality. Williams nicknamed him “Little Horse.” Merlo provided an anchor for the playwright in the coming years, an anchor Williams didn’t always want. They took a house in Key West, where Williams’s grandfather frequently stayed with them. Williams spent his mornings writing, his afternoons swimming, and his evenings drinking, but he couldn’t meet new men at night while he lived with Frank. He grew restless again.
He followed Rose Tattoo with a curious experiment, Camino Real, a dream play in ten scenes that explores the conflict of romance and realism using a cast of characters that range from Don Quixote to Casanova to the American Everyman, Kilroy (as in the G.I. graffiti, “Kilroy was here”). One scene features the Baron de Charlus, Marcel Proust’s remarkable creation, the first great gay character in literature. The play was a complete failure, rejected by both critics and the public, but not because of Charlus. Some have speculated it was perceived as anti-American, but it’s too elusive to be perceived as anything. It’s loose, scattered, and cerebral, Williams’s least emotional work. As Windham and others have said, his writing is emotional or it is nothing.
A writer’s unconscious is difficult to read, but the imagination is rooted in the unconscious. Williams had run out of imaginative energy. I believe he was now trying, consciously or not, to find a way to use his sexuality in his work. Eroticism is an important part of most artists’ creativity. A gay writer can produce a book or two while ignoring his or her sexuality and still do good work. Innocence helps for a spell. Yet it’s difficult to keep one’s real sexuality buried for too long without the work suffering. Windham called Mrs. Stone the first of his friend’s “fictional self-portraits after his success,” but giving your promiscuity to a fifty-something widow doesn’t let you express your full body and soul. Rose Tattoo was a heterosexual love story about yet another widow, Serafina, and an Italian fisherman, Alvaro, using pieces of Williams and Merlo, but the disguise smothered any self-expression. With Charlus in Camino Real, Williams let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, but it wasn’t enough. The need was still there, stronger than ever, and it fed his next play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Gay sexuality was in a tricky position in American theater after the war, even more vulnerable than it was in the book trade. Then as now, the theater was full of gay people and more accepting of homosexuality than the rest of the country. Yet producers not only worried about how audiences would respond to gay matter, they worried about the police. Still on the books was a 1927 law—Section 1140-A of New York City’s Criminal Code, known as the Wales Padlock Law. A theater found guilty of showing “an immoral play”—which included any presentation of homosexuality, good or bad—could be shut down for a year. The law was rarely used but had been invoked to close Dorothy Baker’s Trio in 1945. Producers cited it whenever they wanted to cut a gay character or adjust a story line. Nevertheless, Danny Kaye was free to play a flamboyant fashion photographer in the musical Lady in the Dark in 1944 and John Huston was able to stage Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit in 1946 despite its predatory lesbian. There was even a play version of Calder Willingham’s End as a Man in 1952, with the homosexual sadist identified as only a sadist.
So homosexuality was not completely forbidden, but it was in a tight spot. One solution was to tell stories that weren’t about real homosexuality but about false accusations of it. In the Fifties we get a string of plays with this device: Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson (1953), The View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller (1955), and the 1952 revival of The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman (where the accusation turns out to be true, but not until the last scene). The theater strived to have it both ways, which had a strong effect on the writing and rewriting of Cat.
It began as a short story, “Three Players of a Summer Game,” about a game of croquet in the 1920s played by a former athlete, Brick Pollitt, a local widow, and the widow’s little girl. The story is told by a small boy who doesn’t fully understand what he sees. We hear about Brick’s wife, Margaret, whose coldness has driven Brick to drink and into the arms of the widow. In the end the widow is defeated and Margaret recaptures Brick—we’re not sure exactly how. The story is all summer mood and grown-up mystery.
Williams turned it into a play and it became an entirely new animal. We see how radically he rethought and reinvented old material when he rewrote. He shifts the story from the past to the present. A game of croquet is still taking place outside, but we’re in the house now, alone with Brick and Margaret. Brick is still a former athlete and he still drinks. But cold, bossy Margaret has become Maggie the Cat, a spirited, immensely likable woman who loves her husband and wants to save their marriage. The widow, daughter, and child narrator are gone, replaced with Brick’s brother and sister-in-law and their five “no-neck monsters.” And dominating all is Brick’s boisterous, cancer-haunted father, Big Daddy.
It is a mad, brilliant mess of a play, half soap opera, half comedy, with some of the funniest dialogue Williams ever wrote. The airy vagueness of Camino Real is gone. Big Daddy was based on Williams’s own father, yet any autobiographical elements are split and distorted and reconfigured in the funhouse mirror of the author’s imagination. Williams liked to say that he was all his characters; here different pieces of Williams argue and woo and bond with each other. Maggie burns to win Brick back, like an ex-spouse in a screwball comedy, the genre philosopher Stanley Cavell called “the comedy of remarriage.” Why doesn’t Brick love her anymore? Williams’s imagination drew upon the subject he itched to use: homosexuality. But then the artist—or his unconscious—changed his/its mind about how far to go. Brick had been close to a fellow athlete, Skipper, now dead. Had the two men loved each other? Or had Skipper loved Brick without being loved back? Or did Brick only imagine their friendship was impure because other people thought so? Williams kept shifting back and forth and the subject became messier and messier. When Brick and Big Daddy throw the word mendacity at each other, one can’t help hearing Williams cast a similar charge of lying against himself.
He wanted Elia Kazan to direct the play, thinking only Kazan could give him another commercial success like Streetcar. He badly needed a hit, not so much for the money as for his own mental well-being. Kazan asked for more rewrites before he finally agreed to direct. Then he asked for a new third act, which Williams gave him. Then Kazan barred Williams from rehearsals.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened in March 1955, starring Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Burl Ives. It was a huge success, praised by the critics and loved by audiences, and it eventually won the Pulitzer. But Williams wasn’t sure what it meant anymore. When he published the play in book form, he included both third acts, even though they’re not very different: each ends with Maggie winning Brick. The new version includes a thunderstorm and Big Daddy returns for the finale, as Kazan requested, but Williams never satisfied Kazan’s other request, which was that Brick respond to Big Daddy’s second-act charge that he drank because he had been in love with Skipper. Despite this silence, several reviewers wondered about Brick’s sexuality. Walter Kerr compared the accusation in Cat to the one in The Children’s Hour, implying it was true. (Reviewers were often very polite in the 1950s.) Williams went into a panic. He wanted his play to be understood, but he didn’t want it understood too well. He wrote a response to Kerr, but didn’t send it. He added a long stage direction to the book edition trying to explain Brick’s sexuality but only confused things further.
The experience left him completely exhausted. He achieved his success, but it did not make him feel better. He now suffered a major case of writer’s block. And writer’s block for a man who writes every day can be as frightening as an inability to breathe. All he could do was drink, like Brick, which only made the problem worse.
Alcohol will be a recurring subject in this book, as important as sex and love and success for these artists. Gay men are hardly alone here. Booze affected the lives of many twentieth-century American authors. Tom Dardis in The Thirsty Muse identifies two traditions of writers, those who drank—Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner—and those who didn’t—Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens. Alcohol and drugs deeply stamped the careers of more than one figure in our story.
Drinking only deepened problems that were already present, in much the same way that Williams’s mixed feelings about his sexuality only fed his paralysis. It’s hard to distinguish between cause and effect here. Williams eventually took up an old play, Battle of Angels, and rewrote it into Orpheus Descending. It opened to the worst reviews he had yet received. He became so unhappy that he did what friends had been suggesting for years: he began to see a psychiatrist. And the man he chose was Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie.
Kubie was a famous figure with a lot of experience treating writers with sexual issues, including William Inge, Charles Jackson (author of The Lost Weekend), and Moss Hart. He insisted patients see him three to four times a week. One would love to know what the Williams sessions were like, but Kubie ordered his records destroyed after his death. Williams told his mother, “He said I wrote cheap melodramas and nothing else.” In his Memoirs he says Kubie wanted him to give up not only sex with men but writing, too. What he wrote to Kazan shortly after ending treatment is probably closer to the truth: “He said I was overworked and must quit and ‘lie fallow,’ as he put it, for a year or so, and then resume work in what he declared would be a great new tide of creative power, which he apparently thought would come out of my analysis with him.” Williams stopped seeing Kubie after eight months.
Analysis does not seem to have done him much good. He continued to drink and soon added barbiturates and amphetamines to his routine. But the psychiatric experience strongly influenced his next play, Suddenly Last Summer, an extended one-act written while he was still seeing Kubie. Some people love it; I don’t. A mad, gothic-fever dream of a play, it succeeds best as the tale of a young woman hospitalized after being exploited by her rich gay cousin and the cousin’s mother. But it’s also an attack on Williams’s own sexual appetite. The author ends the play by giving his gay predator a cannibal death that might seem racist and offensive if it weren’t so preposterous. (It is so absurd that I want to think Williams was laughing off his own fantasy.) Nevertheless, Kubie admired the work, singling out for special praise the sensitive portrait of the doctor.
Psychiatry in later decades might have helped Williams, but the profession in the 1950s could do little for him.
Meanwhile Capote and Vidal had crossed into playwriting themselves, Capote adapting his novel The Grass Harp for the stage in 1952, and Vidal coming to theater by way of television, expanding a TV drama into a satirical play, Visit to a Small Planet, in 1957. His friend, novelist Dawn Powell, ran into Vidal in the lobby on opening night and teased him. “How could you give up The Novel? Give up the security! The security of knowing that every two years there will be—like clockwork—that five-hundred-dollar advance!”
Williams never felt threatened or competitive over his friends’ entry into his realm, partly because their success never came close to his, but also because other people were never as important to Tennessee as he sometimes was to them.
Plays are more public than novels, and novels more public than short stories. Tennessee Williams wrote and published several gay short stories at this time, including “One Arm” and “Desire and the Black Masseur,” without attracting too much attention. (Nor was he able to express this side of himself fully enough that he could let go of it.) But the least public genre of all, the most private, is poetry. The privacy consists in how few people read it, and how discreet and even obscure a poem can be and still succeed.
Nevertheless, the next important work in our story is a long poem by Allen Ginsberg, which was anything but discreet. The poem and its publisher ended up in court in San Francisco, and in newspapers across the country.
American poetry before World War II was dominated by straight men: Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. The only major woman was Marianne Moore. The late Hart Crane was known to have been gay, but he was read only by avant-garde readers like Tennessee Williams. Walt Whitman radiated homosexuality, but the New Critics didn’t trust Whitman: he was too sloppy, too vulgar. (The critics were silent about his love of men, but Whitman himself was evasive about it in his last years. It didn’t stop the next generations of gay readers from using him as a hero and an example.)
After the war, a handful of gay poets began to use their sexuality in their work in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner that didn’t proclaim their difference but didn’t hide it, either. Their gayness was an open secret, which meant gay readers could see themselves in the work while straight readers could still play dumb.
W. H. Auden came to America just before the war. He was very sociable and soon known in the gay literary circles of New York. His sexuality did not appear directly in his work, but by deft use of the second person (“Lay your sleeping head my love/Human on my faithless arm”) and double meanings (an exclamation like “O God!” could be both religion and camp), he showed how gay experience could be incorporated into poetry without lying. Within a few years, a young art lover, Frank O’Hara, who worked in the bookstore of the Museum of Modern Art, was writing free and easy poems to his friends. (But the poems he printed only hinted at the life he led. His carefree evocation of a pack of pals going out dancing, “At the Old Place”—“Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide./(It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s/heaven!)”—was written in 1955, but not published until 1969, the year of Stonewall.) Other young gay poets—James Schuyler, James Merrill, Richard Howard, and John Ashbery—were also appearing in print, but the gay takeover of New York poetry took place in secret, between the lines. The public eruption happened elsewhere, with a poem that some considered too raw to be called poetry from a poet many still believe to be more a genius of publicity than one of verse.
Yet Allen Ginsberg grew up in poetry. Born in 1926, he was the son of a poet, Louis Ginsberg, a high school and college teacher whose work appeared in several major anthologies. Young Ginsberg grew up on the site of a poem, Paterson, New Jersey, the factory town that’s the subject of the sprawling Whitmanesque epic by William Carlos Williams. Allen’s older brother, Eugene, also wrote poetry. Their mother, Naomi, however, had a more fragile, cracked imagination. She suffered a psychotic break when Allen was ten and spent the next years in and out of sanitariums as her paranoid delusions worsened.
In 1943, Allen crossed the Hudson River to attend Columbia University as a scholarship student. He was only seventeen, but his knowledge of poetry, especially William Blake and Percy Shelley, immediately caught the attention of professors there, including Lionel Trilling. During his freshman year he met many of the people who’d be important to him for the rest of his life: Jack Kerouac, a craggily handsome football player with whom he fell in love; William Burroughs, a boyish would-be writer of thirty with an independent income (he already dressed like a middle-aged gentleman, a look he soon grew into); and Lucian Carr, a precocious blond beauty from St. Louis who loved art and music. The summer after freshman year, Carr confronted an obsessed older man who’d followed him from St. Louis; he stabbed the man to death with a Boy Scout knife. Ginsberg’s only connection with the murder was that he and other friends convinced Carr to turn himself over to the police, but the university began to watch Ginsberg more closely. Two months into his sophomore year, the cleaning lady reported obscene graffiti written in the dirt on his dorm window, and he was expelled.
He used his new freedom to experiment with his writing, and with drugs (mostly Benzedrine at first), and with sex. He was a skinny Jewish kid with horn-rimmed glasses, big ears, and full lips. Photos of him in this period suggest a young Sal Mineo with a wider mouth. He tended to fall in love with men who were straight-identified if not entirely straight. They might go to bed with him, but the emphasis was on their pleasure, not his. He blew them or they fucked him, and afterward he listened to their girlfriend problems. This began with Kerouac, who was reluctant to have sex with men. He was more successful with Neal Cassady, who was happy to have sex with anyone, male or female. Ginsberg fell into an intense two-month affair with Cassady. This was before Kerouac joined Cassady for the cross-country trips he would immortalize in On the Road.
Ginsberg reenrolled at Columbia, then dropped out again. He would continue this pattern until he finally graduated. He spent one summer at the National Maritime Academy and another sailing to Africa on a merchant ship. He added new drugs to his repertory, including marijuana and heroin. He hung out with a thief and addict, Herbert Huncke, and Huncke’s friends Jack Melody and Vicki Russell. He told himself he was getting closer to real life by knowing criminals. One night in the spring of 1949, he was riding in a stolen car with Melody and Russell in Queens when they turned the wrong way on a one-way street. A police car began to pursue them. Melody tried to escape, crashing the car and flipping it over. Nobody was hurt but all were arrested for car theft, drug possession, and possession of stolen goods. Trilling and two other professors, Mark Van Doren and Jacques Barzun, testified in support of Ginsberg—they feared jail would destroy their former student’s mental health. Ginsberg was advised to plead insanity, which he did. Proving his insanity were the facts that his mother was in a mental hospital and he was having sex with men. He was sent to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute on West 168th Street.
Ginsberg never spoke or wrote in full detail about his eight long months in a mental hospital. This was in the age before drugs like Thorazine rendered inmates numb and docile, the era of The Snake Pit. He was not given electroshock, but he did see psychiatrists three times a week and was asked endless questions about his family, his beliefs, and his sexuality.
Early on he met another inmate, Carl Solomon, a younger but tougher, self-educated man. At their first meeting Ginsberg said, “I’m Myshkin”—the saintly hero of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Solomon replied, “I’m Kirilov”—the brutal nihilist in The Possessed. Solomon had been to Paris and knew the work of Artaud and the surrealists. His mind fizzed with too many thoughts; he didn’t want to live, but he wanted a lobotomy rather than suicide. He called Ginsberg “the dopey daffodil.” Yet his friendship sustained the college boy during his time at Columbia Presbyterian. They saw each other daily, talked books, spoke French, and played Monopoly. Ginsberg wrote regularly to friends and even finished a book of poems, which he submitted to a young editor, Robert Giroux (who rejected it). The doctors decided Ginsberg was only “a standard neurotic,” but convinced him he wouldn’t be able to function unless he lived a more normal life, which meant giving up his homosexuality.
When he was released in February 1950, he decided to put his old life behind him. He lived at home with his father and new stepmother, Edith. (His father divorced the institutionalized Naomi yet remained close to her.) Allen took a job at a ribbon factory. He had a prolonged affair with one woman, then another. He stayed in touch with his old friends, however, and continued to write poems. One month after his release, he attended a reading by William Carlos Williams, then sent a fan letter and nine poems to the former physican. Williams was unimpressed by the poems, but he met with his admirer. Ginsberg continued to send him work, disappointing the good doctor until one week, as an experiment, he sent a batch of isolated lines from his journals. Williams encouraged him to go further in that direction.
In 1952 Ginsberg wrote a short autobiographical sketch titled “A Novel,” that closes with:
At 26, I am shy, go out with girls, I write poetry, I am a freelance literary agent and a registered democrat; I want to find a job. Who cares?
While Ginsberg grew more practical and even conventional, his friends grew stranger. After Kerouac published his first novel, The Town and the City, he wrote a wild, new, exciting book, On the Road, that no publisher wanted. Ginsberg took over as his agent, but he couldn’t find a home for it, either. Kerouac grew irritable, resenting Ginsberg, resenting other novelists, even resenting their friend William Burroughs when Ginsberg helped sell his book.
Burroughs had married a woman, Joan Vollmer, and left New York, going first to Louisiana, then to Mexico. He had become a heroin addict, but he kicked his addiction and wrote a memoir, Junky. Ginsberg sold the book for him to Ace Books, a small paperback house owned by Carl Solomon’s uncle. Solomon now worked there as an editor. Life was looking good for Burroughs, but at a party one night in Mexico City in 1951, playing a drunken game of William Tell with a pistol, he accidentally shot and killed Joan. He was devastated. The Mexican court didn’t charge him with homicide, but he fled the country, afraid the court would change its mind. He returned to New York and stayed with Ginsberg.
Ginsberg had his own life now with a girlfriend and a nine-to-five job. Nevertheless, he often joined his friends at the San Remo, a dark, smoky bar at the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker. Joe LeSueur, in his wonderful book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, describes the San Remo as “a semi-gay place” with an espresso machine, a loud jukebox, and fifteen-cent beer. O’Hara and his friends hung out there, as did Auden’s boyfriend, Chester Kallman. Kallman horrified O’Hara and LeSueur one night with an elaborate account of fellating a pick-up in one room while talking between strokes to a half-awake Auden in the next room. Afterward LeSueur told O’Hara, “If you ever catch me talking the way Chester did tonight, get a gun and shoot me.”
Ginsberg wasn’t at the San Remo on the hot August night in 1953 when Burroughs and Kerouac met Gore Vidal.
The author of The City and the Pillar now lived outside the city in an old villa, Edgewater, on the Hudson River that he purchased cheap and was renovating with his partner, Howard Austen. Vidal had found a solution to his very contradictory feelings about sex and intimacy: he and Austen went to bed with other men but never each other. They were never physical lovers, not even when they first met—at the baths in 1950. But they enjoyed each other’s company and shared support and advice, and apparently that was enough.
Burroughs admired Vidal. Kerouac hated him, partly for his prose style but chiefly for his success. He didn’t know how much trouble Vidal was having with his own career at the time. Vidal had met Kerouac briefly, at the Metropolitan Opera of all places, and he recognized him at the San Remo and came over to the table. Before Burroughs could tell Vidal how much he liked his work, Kerouac jumped in and began to compliment Vidal, extravagantly, mockingly. He began to flirt. Vidal flirted back. Eventually the three men left to go barhopping. Burroughs soon dropped out, understanding there was no place for him here. Kerouac proposed to Vidal they get a room. When they checked in at the Chelsea Hotel on West Twenty-third Street, Vidal laughingly insisted they register under their real names, saying the guest book would be famous one day. Upstairs, the two men undressed and took showers—it was a hot night. Vidal has written or talked about this encounter several times and says Kerouac couldn’t get an erection. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t primarily about sex.
When Kerouac saw Ginsberg the next day, he proudly told him how he had blown Gore Vidal. Ginsberg never mentioned his own reaction when telling this story, but he must have recognized the malice here. Kerouac was angrily striking out at the gay men around him: at Vidal for being famous, at Burroughs for selling a book, and at Ginsberg for failing to help him enough—he gave a more successful writer what he had refused to give his best friend years ago. Somewhere in there, of course, is Kerouac’s own confused sexuality, which he couldn’t release except in drunkenness or anger. (Later Norman Mailer would claim Vidal had fucked Kerouac in the ass that night and destroyed his masculinity and made him an alcoholic. But anal sex was the heterosexual Mailer’s obsession and fear.)
Life in New York was becoming too close and familiar for Ginsberg. He and Burroughs briefly became lovers, even though Ginsberg was still seeing a woman, the men weren’t sexually compatible, and Ginsberg found Burroughs too emotionally demanding. Ginsberg finally said, “I don’t want your ugly old cock.”
He left for Mexico at the beginning of 1954. But Mexico was too alien and lonely, and a little scary with the new drugs he was trying. So he went up to San Jose, California, to visit his old friend, Neal Cassady. Cassady was married but had given up sex, claiming his turn to Buddhism required celibacy. It was already an uncomfortable visit when Carolyn Cassady opened a bedroom door one afternoon and found their guest making love to her husband with his mouth. Cassady promptly left for work, leaving his wife and his friend to confront each other. A few days later Carolyn drove Ginsberg up to San Francisco, three hours away, the two still apologizing for what had happened and what had been said. She dropped him off and returned to San Jose.
This is the first appearance of a city that will play a major role in this history. San Francisco in 1954 was a small but busy seaport in one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. The neighborhood of North Beach was home to a bohemian community dating back to the First World War. The city hosted a lively art scene, with poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Robert Duncan (Anaïs Nin’s old friend), and cultural institutions like the Purple Onion, a folk club, and City Lights Bookshop, owned by a tall, married, clean-shaven poet with a receding hairline, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
One night soon after he arrived, Ginsberg took the last of the peyote from Mexico, looked out his window, and saw the Sir Francis Drake Hotel across the park turn into Moloch, the huge machine god who devours workers in Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis.
Nevertheless, he decided to stay. He took a full-time job as a market researcher and moved in with yet another woman, a copywriter and sometime jazz singer with a four-year-old son. Their relationship was good until he told her about his history with Neal Cassady; she asked him to move out. A few days later, a painter, Robert LaVigne, showed Ginsberg nude portraits of a tall, beautiful, yellow-haired man. Then the man himself walked into the room, Peter Orlovsky, and Ginsberg fell in love. Orlovsky was basically straight, but he responded to Ginsberg both sexually and emotionally. The men saw each other steadily for several months, then Ginsberg drew back, afraid there was no future here. He was in therapy again, seeing a dollar-a-session analyst, Dr. Philip Hicks, at the Langley Porter Clinic in Berkeley. He told Hicks that he felt he should live as a heterosexual. When Hicks asked what he really wanted, he admitted he wanted to live with Orlovsky. “So why don’t you do that?” Ginsberg said he didn’t think it would last and he was afraid of growing old. “Oh, you’re a nice person,” replied Hicks. “There’s always people who will like you.” (One can’t help wondering what would have happened if a doctor had given Tennessee Williams such practical advice.)
Ginsberg and Orlovsky moved in together in February 1955, swearing to “an exchange of souls & bodies.” Orlovsky was free to have sex with women so long as he also had sex with Ginsberg.
That summer Orlovsky left to hitchhike cross-country to visit his family in New York. Alone again, Ginsberg resumed work on his poetry. He had been away from it for a while, although he continued to scribble ideas and phrases in his journal. One afternoon in August, he sat down at his typewriter to expand a promising line he’d written about his friend Carl Solomon, who he’d heard was back in a mental hospital. In one furious, inspired sitting, he typed out what became the long first section of “Howl.”
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked…
It was and still is an amazing piece of writing, a sermonlike march of words that carries a remarkable load of raw emotion. It’s the kind of poem that often only pretends to have been written all at once, yet here a lifetime of experience and craft actually poured forth in a sustained explosion of images. There are good accounts elsewhere of the writing of the rest of the poem, clear biographical readings of individual lines, and smart analyses showing the influence of William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, even The Waste Land. What I want to emphasize here is what Ginsberg and others have said: this was a coming-out poem. There is nothing coy about the homosexual imagery. It is so coolly matter-of-fact that it can disappear for many readers when they now read about men:
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean
who balled in the mornings in the evenings in rose-
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may…
Yet it was highly visible to early readers. It can still be startling for a young gay person first encountering the poem. The sexuality is both shocking and liberating. It was certainly liberating for Ginsberg. He had never addressed his sex life so openly in his poetry, and it freed him to talk about everything else.
The poem quickly works through the initial shock and makes homosexuality the emblem of all sexuality, which in turn evokes the bodies and minds crushed by society. The second section of the poem uses Moloch as the killer god of modern society. The third section mourns the victims of Moloch as represented by Carl Solomon, now held in Rockland Psychiatric Center in upstate New York:
I’m with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under
our bedsheets the United States that coughs all
night and won’t let us sleep…
“Howl” works more from sound and energy than it does from sense or logic. Most of the energy is sexual. After years of hiding, sexual honesty was now very important to Ginsberg. His favorite expression of honesty was nakedness. “The poet stands naked before the world,” he said, and it was not just a metaphor. He once faced down a heckler at a reading in Los Angeles by stripping naked and demanding the man do the same.
Writing the first section of “Howl” unlocked Ginsberg. He wrote the rest of the poem in the next few weeks, then quickly followed it with other great works: “Sunflower Sutra,” “A Supermarket in California,” and “America,” with its grand closing line:
America I am putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
The first public reading of “Howl” took place at the Six Gallery, a converted garage, on Friday night, October 7, 1955, when Ginsberg read with five other poets. Ginsberg read only the first section, but the poem immediately attracted attention. Ferlinghetti wanted to publish it in his new City Lights Pocket Poets series. Ginsberg sent a mimeograph of the completed poem to his father. Louis Ginsberg’s response was both perceptive and prescient:
My expression, at first blush, is that it is a weird, volcanic, troubled, extravagant, turbulent, boisterous, unbridled outpouring, intermingling genius and flashes of picturesque insight with slag and debris of scoriac matter. It has violence; it has life; it has vitality. In my opinion it is a one-sided, neurotic view of life; it has not enough glad Whitmanian affirmations. (The fact that you write in such an energetic glow of poetry is one affirmation.) The poem should attract attention and perhaps be a sensation; one will hear defenders and detractors. But it should give you a name.
Ginsberg even sent a copy to his mother in her sanitarium. She wrote back that she found the wording “hard” and wondered what his father thought. She closed by saying she hoped he wasn’t using drugs, as implied by his poems. “Don’t go in for ridiculous things.” There is no date on the letter, but it’s postmarked two days after her death from a cerebral hemorrhage. Someone must have found it by her bed and mailed it. Ginsberg could not return east for the funeral. He was saddened to hear that kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was not read for his mother. He resolved that he would one day write his own kaddish for her.
Howl and Other Poems appeared in September 1956 from City Lights Books with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. It was dedicated to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Lucian Carr. The first printing was a thousand copies. The booklet was fifty-seven pages and cost seventy-five cents.
Richard Eberhart almost immediately discussed the title poem in the New York Times Book Review in an article about the new California poets. “Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love.” After that, however, reviews trickled in slowly. John Hollander in Partisan Review found the book “a dreadful little volume.” James Dickey, who later made anal rape the sin of sins in his novel Deliverance, dismissed the poem in the Sewanee Review as a meaningless diatribe “really not worth examining.” Ginsberg heard that his old teacher, Trilling, found it dull and that Ezra Pound disliked it. (Williams had sent Pound a copy, and Pound wrote back that he shouldn’t waste people’s time by making them read “wot they dont know”—his gnarled way of saying that he didn’t want to read about homosexuals. He wrote from his cell at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he had been incarcerated since being declared insane for his fascist radio broadcasts during the war. More than one poet went to the madhouse in the 1950s.) Norman Podhoretz in the New Republic used the poem to attack the Beat Generation for using “homosexuality, jazz, dope-addiction and vagrancy” to rebel for no purpose except to rebel. But the gay material did not elicit the overt disgust it had nine years earlier in novels by Vidal and Capote. Perhaps readers of poetry were more sophisticated, or maybe they were simply less honest: many critics called the poem boring.
Yet the little book continued to sell and gather attention during its first year after publication. It attracted interest not only for itself, but also as a part of a wider social phenomena: the arrival of the Beats. On the Road was finally published in September 1957, with a glowing review in the New York Times. A few weeks earlier, making the poem more visible than ever, Howl and Other Poems went on trial in San Francisco for obscenity.
The first signs of legal trouble appeared back in March, when U.S. Customs seized 520 copies of the second printing. Ferlinghetti was having the book produced in Britain. The customs agents found objectionable not just the use of words like cock and balls but the phrase “who let themselves be…… in the… by saintly motorcyclists.” At the insistence of their British printer, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg put the poem’s most provocative line into what looked like Morse code—and it still offended people.
Ferlinghetti outmaneuvered customs by having the next printing of 2,500 copies done in the United States. The San Francisco newspapers supported Ferlinghetti and found the authorities absurd. At the end of May, the seized books were released when the U.S. attorney general decided not to press charges. But a few days later, two San Francisco detectives from the Juvenile Bureau walked into City Lights Bookshop, bought a copy of Howl, departed, read it, then returned and arrested the store clerk, Shigeyoshi Murao, for selling lewd and obscene material. Ferlinghetti was out of town, but surrendered to the police when he returned.
The author himself was not charged. Besides, he was on the other side of the Atlantic. Like every other American writer of the twentieth century, Ginsberg had gone abroad. He and Orlovsky left in April, never dreaming that events would take such a wild turn. He stayed in touch with Ferlinghetti as well as he could, first from Morocco, then from Italy.
The trial began August 16, presided over by Judge Clayton Horn. The defense attorney, Jake Erlich, supported by two lawyers from the ACLU, decided to waive trial by jury and present the case solely to a judge, even though this judge taught Sunday school and had recently sentenced five shoplifters to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s new Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.
From the start, the trial was followed closely by the press and attended by a capacity crowd. The San Francisco Chronicle reported an audience wearing a “fantastic collection of beards, turtlenecked shirts and Italian hairdos.” Judge Horn laid down strict ground rules: the defense and prosecution could discuss the value of the book but not if it were obscene or not. That would be his determination. He also said no witnesses would be allowed to speculate on what the author meant to put in the sets of Morse code dots.
The charge against Murao, the salesclerk, was quickly dropped. Only Ferlinghetti was on trial, but he was not called to testify. Instead the defense brought forward experts. Critic and teacher Mark Schorer testified that the poem, “like any work of literature, attempts and intends to make a significant comment on or interpretation of human experience” and that “the language of the street” was “essential to the aesthetic purpose of the work.” (He also claimed that the poet uses homosexuality as evidence of how corrupt the world had become.) Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident, called “Howl” “the work of a thoroughly honest poet,” and Kenneth Rexroth said it “is probably the most remarkable single poem, published by a young man since the second war.” The only experts the prosecution offered were David Kirk, a professor who said the poem was worthless because it imitated Whitman, and Gail Potter, a teacher who had rewritten Faust and found reading Ginsberg’s figures of speech was like “going through the gutter.” The prosecutor, deputy district attorney Ralph McIntosh, focused his effort on his closing statements where he argued that literary merit was irrelevant if a book were obscene. He compared the poem to modern painting, which he found ridiculous, and said it must be judged by how it was perceived by “the average man,” not “the modern man.” This might have worked with a jury, but there was no jury.
Excerpted from Eminent Outlaws by Bram, Christopher Copyright © 2012 by Bram, Christopher. Excerpted by permission.
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