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George Platt Lynes
There's not an unpretentious bone in my body.
—George Platt Lynes
When you are beautiful, life is a different experience from what it is for others who are plain. George Platt Lynes was to find this out, and he never voiced any regret about it. He used the power of his beauty to achieve his goals, and he delighted in doing so. It was his good fortune to be endowed with talent as well as looks.
George Platt Lynes was the first child of two good-looking parents. His father, Joseph Russell Lynes, had been a handsome blond child and grew up to be a handsome blond man. His mother, Adelaide Sparkman, had less regular features, but she was also considered a beauty—perhaps more for her "ship under full sail" style of high Gibson Girl coiffure and prominent profile. A New Yorker with a Southern family background, she graduated from Hunter College in New York and was married to Joe Lynes in 1904. George Platt Lynes's father was a young lawyer when he married, and was still practicing when George was born on April 15, 1907.
Good looks went back on both sides of the family, as well as autocratic behavior and a sense of entitlement that did not match family income. Among the family's memorabilia is a photograph of a young man with a hat tipped over one eye and a fancy tie who has exactly the same handsome face George was to have later. The clothes suggest the mid-nineteenth century; the face suggests George's father's side of the family, as his father had much the same features. It is identified by the family as George Platt, the photographer's great-grandfather. George Platt Lynes's physical beauty was not a fluke, and his family should have been used to it. But they never became so. His niece, Elizabeth Lynes Kaestle, when asked about her uncle, whom she knew as a man in his thirties and forties, said, "The first thing you must know, he was breathtakingly handsome." So the family, as well as the rest of the world, was always a bit overwhelmed by his physical presence.
George was named for his handsome ancestor, his grandmother Lynes's father, George Platt. George Platt had been born in London in 1812, and if not the most illustrious ancestor of the Lynes family (a Russell ancestor on the same side of the family had been a judge of probate and a treasurer of the province in Connecticut in the seventeenth century), he was certainly the most colorful. He came to New York in his midtwenties and set up as a "blinds" maker, but quickly began to call himself an "interior decorator." This was some eighty years before the term came into general use to describe someone who decorated other people's houses—which was what he did. The first George Platt had a furniture factory, some of whose wares were to accompany George Platt Lynes throughout his life in a series of homes. Much of the neo-Victorian style he often used in decoration was the result of integrating a small inlaid, oval table, a black Empire bookcase with brass beading around its glass doors, a Gothic side chair, and several other small pieces into a personal and modern decor. Some of this furniture would later turn up as props in his photographs, notably in his portrait of Dr. Alfred Kinsey in George Platt's Gothic chair.
The original George Platt died in 1873 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery under a large and impressive tombstone, which reads "George Platt of London"—chic to the end. This man's taste, tenacity, and ability to deal with difficult clients seems to have been inherited by George Platt Lynes.
Shortly after George Platt Lynes's birth, his father decided he wanted to join the ministry. Joe Lynes enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary in the Chelsea section of New York City. The family was living in East Orange, New Jersey, and included both the young couple's mothers and his mother's divorced sister, with her six-year-old child. Where the money came from to support both this very extended household and Joe's studies is unknown. George's father worked evenings in the box office at the Metropolitan Opera to augment his income, a somewhat unusual part-time job for an aspiring clergyman. It was a long commute home every night to East Orange, but the additional income must have been welcome to the struggling, good-looking young student of religion, with a lot of relatives at home to support and a sickly baby.
In 1910, Joseph Lynes finished his schooling and became the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And in December of that year George's brother, Russell, was born.
George had not been a healthy baby, almost dying of convulsions when he was tiny. From that time on, he was greatly coddled, and little effort was made to discipline him. Russell was a very healthy baby, and was to grow up to prove to his parents that they were capable of having a trouble-free child who could accomplish goals and live life in a way they could understand.
From the start, George was quite the opposite. Leaving the child in a Great Barrington barbershop, his father returned to find his son with his hair cut and claiming that he was not in fact the reverend's son, but a Russian prince who had somehow gone astray. If he had been a Russian prince gone astray, his behavior would have been a lot more comprehensible.
As a small child he returned from a walk with his nursemaid to find his mother entertaining a church sewing group. Straightaway, George entered the room and declared to one lady, "I certainly don't like you." Crossing the room to address another lady, he said, "But I do like you." The congregation never ignored him after that, and this was very much a hallmark of his later manner. He knew exactly what he liked and what he didn't like, and was not loath to say so.
In his memoir about his brother, Russell Lynes recalls the idyllic childhood world of Great Barrington before World War I, with its band shell, soda fountains, and innocence. He remembers going with his brother to take cookies down to the local jail to hand through the bars to the few inmates who had been locked away after imbibing too much on a Saturday night. This has the ring of reality to it, echoing George's later lack of concern for the proprieties and what other people might think.
George was never a good student. His preschool teacher, who long outlived him, remembered him in her later years as "a handful who knew his own mind ... quick but dreamy." His quick but dreamy mind led his parents to send him to a private school, Fessenden, in West Newton, a Boston suburb. This must have been an extraordinary expense for the parson, but the family obviously believed it was necessary. The only Fessenden records left indicate that George was then in the eighth grade and that he did not graduate with his class. One can imagine him returning to Great Barrington quite unabashed after having screwed up at Fessenden.
A letter to his mother from the school's summer camp reads "the misquoties are tabiliril [sic]," which would suggest that the school was not making much headway in teaching him to spell. And his slow start makes it all the more surprising that in later years he would type all his letters with impeccable spelling, not to mention witty and charming self-expression.
Another letter from the school in 1919 asks his father to take him to the postwar victory parade in Boston. Airplanes were to fly overhead, which would have been an unusual sight in those days.
When his father accepted a new parish in Jersey City, New Jersey, George left Fessenden and was sent to the Newark Country Day School. This evidently was a no-go, and in 1920 he was packed off to the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, which was not much of a success either. The school, based on its English boarding-school counterparts, had a lot of sports, a lot of Christianity, and a focus on English literature that did not include any modern writers. One wonders to whom this school appealed—probably to parents desperate to send their children somewhere.
George was the best in his class in literary appreciation and could even do well in mathematics and physics when he chose. One of his teachers wrote in a report, "He will do well what he likes and will make little attempt to do at all what he does not like." Another wrote, "Works in streaks and only when the spirit moves him ... plenty of ability to do as well as he wants at any given time."
George was more overtly effeminate then than in later years, and his life was made difficult by what the head of the school referred to as the "red-blooded elements." Yet the boys who were teasing and roughhousing with him for being girlish were also sleeping with him. His nickname Tess, which friends used for years afterward, came from Titless Tessie, as he was known at Berkshire.
George reminisced to his friend the artist Bernard Perlin in a letter in the 1950s, "`They' almost always hated themselves in the morning; but almost always they came back for more. I wasn't `older' in those days, though; if anything younger. Still I know the tone, the expression; the greediness—bless their horrid hearts."
The positive side of his being so unaccepted at the school was that he was drawn into fantasizing about the arts and his relationship to them. He wrote for the literary magazine, The Dome, and his English master cannot be called wrong for describing his work as having an "utterly weird element." Certainly, reading T. S. Eliot and the exotic French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans must only have made him feel more out of place than ever in his rowdy, windy Massachusetts school.
George Lynes was in the Camera Club at the Berkshire School, as a yearbook picture shows, but only when he first arrived. He is the only boy in the picture holding a Brownie camera; all the other boys have more expensive equipment. In subsequent yearbooks he is no longer in the club, probably because he couldn't afford a competitive camera.
The school offered no art classes, which was not uncommon in schools of the period. All that George could have learned of painting and sculpture would have been through conversations with fellow students, of whom a few were interested in the arts. Among them must have been Lincoln Kirstein, who was also at the Berkshire School at the time.
Upon George's graduation from the Berkshire School in 1925 at the age of eighteen, he lacked the required credits in Latin and history to enter Yale, the college he had chosen. His parents were torn between his cramming to fulfill these requirements or his accepting an invitation to visit his mother's cousin in Paris. George made the decision for them and departed to visit Aunt Kate in France as soon as he had graduated.
As he was setting sail for France, George wrote his parents: "My darlings—Adlai has just left me. In a few minutes we sail. There is not very much I can say. My ears are burning; the pen shakes in my hand. I am hoping with all my heart for many things—a double reward. Someday there will be satisfaction for us all—but now, this is the last frightening moment and the iron-ore water is of the same stuff as my mind, I am drugged, I cannot think. I wish I knew so many things. Tomorrow I will write again.
"Always, always your true, devoted George."
This is amazingly affected writing for an eighteen-year-old in the United States in the 1920s communicating with his parents. George's self-image seems based on flappers such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Caresse Crosby—dashing, "wild" young women abroad.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at that same time, "Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living." What better role model for a young male homosexual in 1925?
In Paris, George Lynes (the Platt was to be formalized later) came into his own. Instead of hearty schoolmates making him feel inferior and unworthy, he had Gertrude Stein and her circle idolizing him. During this first trip abroad he sprang full-blown into the adult persona he was to maintain all his life.
He lived near his older cousins Mr. and Mrs. Hardy in Paris and studied physics and history at the Auteuil Day School and French at the Institut du Panthéon. But his major coup occurred when he was taken by his cousins to visit Gertrude Stein and he captured the attention of Miss Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude named him Baby George, which is how he signed his letters to her.
While still at the Berkshire School, George and a friend, Adlai Harbeck, had published a pamphlet with a story by a classmate, Paxton Howard. They planned a series of these pamphlets, and in Paris, George decided that the second one should be the essay "Descriptions of Literature" by Gertrude Stein, from whom they had lifted a phrase for the name of their series: The As Stable Publications.
The cover was to be decorated with a drawing by the young Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchev, whose work Gertrude espoused. She said of him, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, referring to the young artists of her circle, that he was "the most vigorous of the group, the most mature and the most interesting." Thus we know that George Lynes and Pavel Tchelitchev were acquaintances at this early date.
Of George himself, Miss Stein says in the Toklas autobiography, "During the next two or three years all the men were twenty-six years old. It was the right age for the time and place. There were one or two under twenty, for example George Lynes, but they did not count as Gertrude Stein explained to them."
What did count was that George Lynes was beautiful and amusing, and when he set out to please, few could resist him. It was probably his fantasizing about what it would be like to mingle with the famous in exotic locales that had prepared him for this sudden ascent into the literary and artistic world of Paris in the 1920s. He had already imagined it and knew how to behave when he got there.
Although the critic Edmund Wilson described Gertrude Stein as a "great iceberg of megalomania ... on which ... conversations and personal relations might easily crash and wreck," she must have been a warm iceberg, as Russell Lynes points out in his unpublished biography of his brother. She was genuinely interested in helping George develop a career in the arts, critiqued his sporadic efforts at poetry, and was enthusiastic about his publication of her work. His early photographs of her, in which she cooperated willingly, also gave him prestige and seriousness when he began his career as a photographer.
Although busy with his studies and his socializing with the Stein circle, George Lynes also found time to have an affair with the French writer and enfant terrible René Crevel. At eighteen George must already have been something of a practiced heartbreaker. Crevel wrote him many love notes and continued to do so into 1929.
Much later George wrote to a friend about a Crevel biographer who had contacted him, "How can he write a biography of René, who did write a half a dozen unreadable Surrealist-sort-novels but whose life was all charm charm charm and LOVE LOVE LOVE and T.B. and drugs and calamity in general, ending in suicide? Not material to be handled with `tact'; mealy-mouthed would be so dull ... he suggested for example that Alice B. Toklas was `in love' with René; first I heard of it and I saw plenty of them together. Do I disabuse the dear man, set him straight?"
Even at eighteen, George seemed quite capable of seeing through the romantic stratagems of a René Crevel. George slept with him and went his own way. Quite unusual for someone who was in fact still very young.
George returned to the United States at the end of 1925. He had only been in Paris about eight months, but he had used his time well. He had qualified to enter Yale and had been accepted for the term beginning in the autumn of 1926; he had salvaged his self-esteem by being accepted and even admired and pursued in the major-league world of Paris expatriates, and he had made valuable contacts that would serve him well for years to come. Little wonder that he was bored and unhappy living with his parents in Englewood, New Jersey, where his father was now rector of the Episcopal church. Affluent Englewood, not far from New York, was a definite step up for his father, but it was nevertheless a dull, conventional suburban town.
He devoted his time to producing the Gertrude Stein essay and soliciting subscriptions to it. He also planned and produced subsequent pamphlets on René Crevel (that connection proved to be useful) and Ernest Hemingway, with a cover design by Jean Cocteau, the French poet/artist. He was to come to know Cocteau well in a few years. Only after publication did he discover that Hemingway heartily disliked Cocteau.
George annoyed his parents by changing his mind repeatedly as to whether he would go to Yale or not. He worked briefly at Brentano's Bookstore in Manhattan. The amazing degree to which he felt at ease communicating with the famous is evident in a letter to Gertrude Stein about this job: "I am working at Brentano's as the personal whatduck (I have been there a week and really have not yet discovered what I am supposed to do) of Mr. Brentano Sr.; I BROWSE all day among ancient tomes of Petronius, Voltaire, etc. and peruse many volumes on Magic, Witchcraft, cooking, sporting, costuming. I am in the OLD and RARE Dept. Of course I do all the dusting but that does not really matter...."
His personal and literary style was very much of the "bright young things" led by Cecil Beaton in London, though he could only have read about them. There were certainly many androgynous American "bright young things" about, but one has to remember that George Lynes had not yet even attended college.
George also spent time at the summer house his father had rented in Norfolk, Connecticut, not far from Great Barrington, where George had friends. His father had bought him a secondhand black Dodge, on whose hood he painted "Whatduck" in large white letters. When asked what that meant, he said, "Nothing." Whizzing about the dusty roads of rural Connecticut and Massachusetts, he must have made quite an impression. He often visited the wealthy Mrs. Blanc and referred to her in a letter to Gertrude Stein as "one grand person." That she had bought $25 worth of his As Stable pamphlets probably had some effect on his opinion of the lady.
Writing to Gertrude Stein in the summer of 1926, he gave this description of himself: "Picture me being oh-so-pastoral this summer in the meadows of Connecticut. Here I am completely rural. Sunshine is giving me that well-reputed tan. Surrounded by extraordinarily shaped near-mountains, coveted EARLY AMERICAN furniture, red and white mooley cows, and every known variety of stupidity, I am becoming muscular and disgustingly healthy." Perhaps the masculine Stein enjoyed this kind of society-girl letter. Somehow one doubts it.
Excerpted from Intimate Companions by DAVID LEDDICK. Copyright © 2000 by David Leddick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|In the Beginning|
|George Platt Lynes||12|
|The Thirties, 1935-40: Glittering Prizes||77|
|George Platt Lynes||83|
|Everett "Chick" Austin||143|
|The War Years, 1940-45: "Don't You Know There's a War On!"||151|
|The War Years||157|
|George Platt Lynes||159|
|Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein||193|
|The Postwar Years, 1945-50: Going Hollywood||197|
|George Platt Lynes||201|
|Katherine Anne Porter||213|
|The Fifties, 1950-55: Is This Hell's Kitchen?||233|
|George Platt Lynes||250|
|Aferword: The Funeral Party||273|
|George Platt Lynes||275|