Young Man from the Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall

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Gay life in New York City in the 1950s and '60s was an entirely different world from today. Intensely secretive and desperately determined to stay that way, its action took place behind the unmarked doors of bars and in apartments where the shades were always drawn. Underlying the frenetic living and high hilarity was a sense of shame that was inevitable during a time when shock treatment and lobotomies were considered acceptable "cures" for homosexuality. In Young Man from the Provinces, Alan Helms tells his ...
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Overview

Gay life in New York City in the 1950s and '60s was an entirely different world from today. Intensely secretive and desperately determined to stay that way, its action took place behind the unmarked doors of bars and in apartments where the shades were always drawn. Underlying the frenetic living and high hilarity was a sense of shame that was inevitable during a time when shock treatment and lobotomies were considered acceptable "cures" for homosexuality. In Young Man from the Provinces, Alan Helms tells his story of those times. Escaping from a painful midwestern adolescence to the scholarly refuge of Columbia University, Alan threw himself headlong into New York's gay world. Denied a Rhodes scholarship because of his sexual orientation, he turned his back on academia and became a successful model and stage actor, moving in glamorous circles whose members included Anthony Perkins, Stephen Sondheim, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, and Edward Albee. Alan attended glittering parties, traveled around the world with his lover, and spent summers on Fire Island immersed in the company of young, beautiful men. After starting a new life in Boston in the early 1970s, Alan realized that the gay social world was changing drastically and that he was facing middle age by himself. He subsequently battled drug abuse and severe depression, but his biggest battle was his struggle for self-acceptance and his attempt to build a better life. His success helped him remain strong as he faced his mother's death from cancer in the 1980s and the deaths of many of his friends and former lovers from AIDS - more than eighty and still climbing.

Helms vividly brings to life the time just before Stonewall and the Gay Liberations Movement in this poignant, insightful, often humorous remembrance of his journey from a midwestern adolescence to a self-absorbed life as a male model in New York and Europe in the 1960s, ending with his self-acceptance as a gay man in a homophobic society.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his 20s and early 30s, Helms was at once the most privileged and self-destructive of men, at the giddy peak of his career as ``the most celebrated young man in all of gay New York.'' The Manhattan of the 1950s and '60s embraced the Columbia student as a ``U.T.''-a ``universal type,'' or ``someone everybody wants,'' photographed by Avedon, directed by Edward Albee and pursued by any number of men. Repudiating the drab miseries of his Indiana boyhood, Helms pursued those who pursued him: his more celebrated lovers included Anthony Perkins, Larry Kert and Luchino Visconti. Leonard Bernstein wooed him ardently, and chum Nol Coward helped Helms reconcile with a lover. But the relationships were doomed to fall apart, as Helms (held aloft by adoration, alcohol and drugs; brought thuddingly to earth by excess-bulimia; alcoholism; joyless, frenetic promiscuity) began to self-destruct. Self-acceptance came with the more temperate joys of work as a college professor and with counseling from the Harvard psychologist Robert Coles. As he grew older, Helms was better able to distance himself from the past. Because Helms is neither an elegant nor a modest writer, the reader is less willing to repudiate his glittering excesses; Helms's vigorous name-dropping has more charm than the somber self-reproaches that accompany his sobriety. This self-described ``D student in the school of life'' depicts a New York that, after the Stonewall riots, would never be as closeted-or as cozily familiar-again. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Even if you don't recognize Helms as the epitome of New York's and Europe's golden "boymen" during the late 1950s and 1960s, you will appreciate his poignant, picaresque memoir, which vividly captures with humor and insight the chronicle of his journey: from the unhappiness of his abusive, alcoholic family life in Indianapolis and an overwhelming need for acceptance, seemingly fulfilled by becoming a cynosure in the world of the beautiful people, to his aborted careers as a model, actor, and writer. Among the many names dropped are friendships with Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, and Luchino Visconti and affairs with Larry Kert, Tony Perkins, and scores of other famous and/or handsome young men. But after years of addiction to the gym, cigarettes, adulation, booze, sex, dope, and later drugs and bulimia, Helms finally faces his fears and creates a new life as professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. For gay studies collections.-James E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L.
Dwight Garner
Alan Helms' frank and engaging new memoir, about his life among the Silent Generation of gay men in the 1950s and early 1960s, comes garnished with three of the best jacket blurbs you're likely to see this year. Novelist Edmund White coos that the author was "the best piece of ass of my generation;" playwright Terrence McNally confesses that "Alan Helms was the young man I wanted to be;" and Gore Vidal calls Helms a "homme fatale" who "wittily and sharply reports what it is like to have so many Humberts and Aschenbachs on his case."

What this dream team is referring to is Helms' legendary fifteen-year reign as a "golden boyman" -- a beautiful and naive young midwesterner who quickly ascended to the highest social levels of New York's gay scene. Helms' "corn-fed good looks" (he was born in Indiana) and sculpted physique opened doors, and his book is largely a warm and dishy account of "glamour parties & opening nights & famous people & fabulous fucks." He recounts friendships -- and, often, affairs -- with Nureyev, Noel Coward, Anthony Perkins and Leonard Bernstein, and his writing often picks up a friendly, funny, funky glow. The copious sex, he writes, "came with the role of being a golden boyman. It was as if I'd auditioned for Hamlet and gotten the part, only to find that I had to fence."

Fencing and dishing aside, an alternative narrative percolates under the surface here. Helms relates his difficult childhood as "the worst thing an American boy can be -- a sissy," and details the insecurities (and conversely, the narcissism) that attended a life spent marinating in the reflected glow of the wealthy and famous. Helms, who now teaches literature at the University of Massachusetts, also rages at the pervasive homophobia of the era: among other things, he lost a possible Rhodes Scholarship because it was known he was gay.

Young Man From the Provinces isn't perfect. When Helms climbs into confessional mode he can sound awfully pop-psych, and his use of ampersands instead of the word "and" quickly cloys. But his book is ruthlessly honest and never less than captivating, and that's something. --Salon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571198801
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 11/9/1995
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If in childhood I'd been only praised and told I was the best thing since zippers, I'd have grown up, encountered reality, be come disappointed, and eventually recovered. If I'd been only abused and humiliated, I'd have grown up, been scarred for life, and probably killed myself. Since I got both, I got confused.

But that understanding is thanks to hindsight, and anyway confusion was endemic in my family, so let me begin with Mom, an illegitimate child born in Indianapolis in 1913. Her father visited her once in the hospital, sent Bernita, the mother, a check for five hundred dollars (a small fortune in those days), and moved to San Francisco where he was never heard from again, though he continued to live vividly in Mom's imagination. &quotHe became a lawyer," she often told me. &quotI meant to have you look him up when you were out there, but I forgot, darn it. George Krebs-is that Jewish? They said he was Jewish and that was why him and Bernita didn't marry, but I don't know. I would've given anything to meet him. I always wanted to ask Bernita about him, but I was afraid she'd have killed me."

She well might have, for Bernita Gakstetter had a temper that could turn homicidal in an instant-like the morning her own mother walked in on her as she was climbing into her corset and saw that Bernita was seven months pregnant. &quotShe laced herself real tight so no one would know, see, but that morning Grandma walked in before she got dressed. Well, Bernita got so mad she threw an iron at Grandma's head. She'd have killed her if she'd hit her."

Mom relishes these fragments of family mythology, but she tells them as if she's talking of someone else, and forgood reason. &quotGrandpa wouldn't even look at me at first, but then he got so he was crazy about me." Not so Bernita, who a few months later sold Mom for ten dollars to a black couple she knew from work. Mom's grandmother found out her whereabouts and bought her back, cash and carry.

Mom was installed in the Gakstetters' apartment one flight up from their shoe repair shop, and Bernita's brothers and sisters took care of her so Bernita could continue at her printing company job. Bernita was a &quotgatherer," which meant that she sat at a revolving table assembling the pages of books as the table whirled past. Mindlessly absorbing work, and just right for a woman who, still young, already had a lot she didn't want to think about, none of which her parents would let her forget.

When Mom was three, Bernita married Earl Hunt, a man with a thick head of hair whom we called &quotBaldy," though I never knew why. Baldy was a pattern-maker who drank a lot and played the horses. I liked him for his risqui ways and mischievous humor, so I could never understand why he'd married the dour Bernita. People said she'd been a great beauty in her youth, in the wasp-waisted, pigeon-breasted fashion of the day, but by the time I got to know her she looked like a Mack truck upholstered in doilies.

&quotThey fought something terrible, Bernita and Daddy did, sometimes with knives even. Boyohboy, that used to terrify me. One time they had an awful fight, Daddy locked Bernita out, and do you know she ran her hand through the glass to get back in- and then went after him with a butcher knife!" By the time Mom was ready for school, she must have been in a state of chronic shock, permanently scatterbrained-an especially annoying form of confusion.

Since Bernita found every house she ever lived in too &quotgrand" (meaning too expensive), she moved Mom and Baldy in and out of eight increasingly modest homes before Mom started high school-the only case I've ever known of planned downward mobility. By the time I was born in 1937, Bernita and Baldy were living in a converted garage just beyond the city limits-a dismal place without plumbing or indoor toilet or telephone or most other amenities of life. They got their water from a pump in the yard, their heat from a coke-burning stove, and their meals from cans. Bernita kept the garage obsessively tidy, even to the piles of romance and crime magazines that were her only reading. Her only satisfactions were money and work, for they were sure things. It was feeling that frustrated Bernita, for feeling had led her to a man who'd sweet-talked her, made her pregnant, then abandoned her and her bastard. The first time in her adult life that Bernita had ventured into the world of feeling, she'd botched it, so she was careful never to venture there again. She was always one for the sure bet, the money in the bank- five hundred bucks here, ten bucks there, it all added up to some thing she could count, and count on.

Bernita was in fact such a miser that if stinginess were a religion, she would have been a saint. Her favorite boast was that she'd never spent a penny on a doctor or a dentist, and for years she locked Mom in a closet to save money on a babysitter. She bought Mom one new dress a year (always on sale and often regardless of size), and put her to work at summer jobs beginning at age seven.

&quotDid I ever tell you about my pet dog Babe?" Mom asked not long ago. &quotOh, how I loved that dog. She was a stray and a little bitty thing, but she got out one night and mated with another dog, a big one I guess. When it came time to give birth, she couldn't pass her pups. I heard her that night whimpering out in the barn, and I begged them to take her to the vet. Daddy was willing but Mom wouldn't hear of it. She hated spending money on things like that. Next morning Babe was dead, and all the pups too. It just tore my heart out. But you can't dwell on the past."

A good thing too, considering Mom's lacklove childhood, but Mom also ended up adopting a variation of Bernita's favorite remark. &quotWell, now that's over," Bernita would observe with a sigh at the end of no matter what occasion-movie or spring cleaning, funeral or family picnic, Christmas dinner or World War II: &quotWell, now that's over." It was Bernita's motto, and it conveyed her sense that she'd maneuvered another step forward in the progress of a hazardous life. Or maybe she meant that nothing in itself was ever as remarkable to her as the fact that it always ended. Bernita wasn't saying, except for &quotThanks and goodbye" so she could get home and go to bed in time to get up and go to work. Nothing but work and more work and scrimp and save and stingy pleasures until that June morning shortly after Baldy died when they found her in her front yard, flat on her back in the uncut grass. &quotWell, now that's over."

It wasn't though, for a week later Mom called me in my dorm at Columbia with the news that Bernita had left her almost a quarter of a million dollars-a tidy sum in 1958, but not nearly enough to repair the damage Bernita had done to Mom, and anyway it was the wrong currency. Mom needed love, not money. While Mom was talking on the phone, I could hear Bernita addressing her from the grave: &quotYou always thought I didn't love you? Well, there's a quarter of a million bucks: I guess that'll show you!" She stands there in my memory, feet planted wide, hands on hips and arms akimbo, while something mean and determined has its hand in the small of her back and is pushing her forward against her will and better judgment, smack dab into life-a bitter business.

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