In My Butch Career Newton tells the compelling, disarming, and at times sexy story of her struggle to write, teach, and find love, all while coming to terms with her identity during a particularly intense time of homophobic persecution in the twentieth century.
Newton recounts a series of traumas and conflicts, from being molested as a child to her failed attempts to live a “normal,” straight life in high school and college. She discusses being denied tenure at Queens College—despite having written the foundational Mother Camp—and nearly again so at SUNY Purchase. With humor and grace, she describes the influence her father Saul's strong masculinity had on her, her introduction to middle-class gay life, and her love affairs—including one with a well-known abstract painter and another with a French academic she met on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Mexico and with whom she traveled throughout France and Switzerland. By age forty, where Newton's narrative ends, she began to achieve personal and scholarly stability in the company of the first politicized generation of out lesbian and gay scholars with whom she helped create gender and sexuality studies.
Affecting and immediate, My Butch Career is a story of a gender outlaw in the making, an invaluable account of a beloved and influential figure in LGBT history, and a powerful reminder of just how recently it has been possible to be an openly queer academic.
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A HARD LEFT FIST
My "fathers": I had three of them, all Jewish, the men who turned my mother on. My mother's first husband was a photographer, a Jewish refugee named Laszlo Gluck, much older than she, who died of a heart attack several years before I was born. A year or two after his death she met another Jew in the Communist Party named William H. Miller, but when she became pregnant he refused to marry her because, he said, she wasn't Jewish. To escape the then severe stigma of bearing and having an "illegitimate" child, my mother named the dead Hungarian as my father on the birth certificate.
In my sixties I asked my mother why she had named me Esther-Mary (which I shortened as soon as I could insist; I was strange enough without a double name). She said these had been names of Laszlo Gluck's dead relatives; she had wanted to think of me as Gluck's child, and growing up, she made me believe that I was, despite his being only a ghostly absence.
My mother withheld information about Gluck — never showed me a photo, for instance — because she knew someday I would learn that Miller had been my biological father. As it turned out, I was nineteen before she told me, and like Gluck, my bio-dad, as a person, is part of my mother's story rather than mine.
My third father, Saul Newton, was the only one who directly shaped my sense of a masculine self. Saul was a Communist Party organizer, an antifascist warrior in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and, eventually, an unethical therapist who demanded sex from his female patients and told them who they should have children with. My mother was his third wife; eventually he married six times.
I've wondered why I always came back to New York City, a place my mother disliked, since for her it was just a devastating interlude. But I was drawn to the milieu of those Jewish fathers, fire-eating Communist dragons who belched smoke into the New York City air that I breathed growing up, so that I was never comfortable in my mother's chosen state, California, with its big blondes and bland Republican attitudes.
I consider myself a quintessential twentieth-century American, the offspring of a Mayflower WASP mother and three Jewish immigrant men. My existence is the biological and cultural proof, the flotsam, or achievement, take your pick, of the friction and attraction between the old Anglo-American stock and the immigrants who came toward the end of the nineteenth century. That is, I am the prototype of what whiteness became after the Irish and Jews and Italians and Poles elbowed and charmed and fucked their way in.
At the same time, of course, like every American, I am a "unique individual," so why not just start at my birth? Well, we invent ourselves, but not just as we please. My birth occurred inside the situations of my parents and even their parents; without this context, my story makes no sense to me. In this as in other ways, my historical mind-set rubs against the grain of popular thinking. The "primitive" peoples I studied in graduate school were right, it seems, in their ancestor worship if, by "worship," one means giving full due to the ways the ancestors set the parameters, though not the particulars, of our lives.
After Saul Newton's death I began to ask myself why I'd thought of him as my father. I did not have his "blood." My mother and I had lived with him as a nuclear family for only a couple of years; I was eight when he divorced her. How authentic was my mourning? How appropriate?
Saul had claimed me as his daughter, given me the legal recognition of his name. His brothers and sisters and their children had warmly welcomed me into their homes, never making me feel the outsider. His money paid for my first jalopies, for my higher education, for my college graduation trip to Europe. Even after my mother and I moved to California, I continued to see him at Christmas and every summer until I was in my twenties. Perhaps only now, writing this, have I fully accepted that although he could never be my only father, Saul Newton was the only man who inhabited, who lived, the role of father, however deficiently. The other two were the shadow fathers, the ones my mother wouldn't talk about, important figures who were never present, mysteries.
So let's say that my American history through my father Saul Newton starts back on Ellis Island in the nineteenth century, when somehow Saul's father's name was changed from Aronoff to Cohen. I don't claim this Aronoff/Cohen as my grandfather. This is not just because I am not Aronoff's "blood" descendant (I never knew either of my biological grandfathers). My disentangled paternal line is too twenty-first century to support any role so unambiguous as a "grandfather" without the quotes. Despite the fact that both Aronoff/Cohen and my mother's father, General Bash, were dominating, patriarchal figures, their links to me were compromised. In fact, I can hardly say I have a "family," especially on my mother's side. Rather, I have relatives, a postmodern kindred.
In my first memory of Saul, he is wearing a U.S. Army uniform. Suddenly World War II was over and he came into my life — around 1945 — with a captured German revolver and a battered helmet, telling scary war stories. Almost to the day of his death he was a compelling storyteller. He had a dark, sexy energy that had bowled my gentile mother over when they first hooked up, back in 1933 (he didn't bother to tell her he was married), when they were part of a network of young left-wing radicals around the University of Chicago.
Throughout his life Saul lusted after women, and many of them reciprocated. Even during his final illness, he was just as glad to see friends who accompanied me on visits, whom he had never met, as he was to see me, perhaps gladder. Simply because they were pretty, personable, and female, my friends brought him pleasure and made him forget for a few minutes that he was tied in a wheelchair and constantly anxious, because although he could not remember any of our names, or where he was, he knew he no longer had a home.
When Saul's fourth wife, Dr. Jane Pearce, whom I called my stepmother, was succumbing to cancer back in the summer of 1994, two years after Saul's death, she let me know that for her, too, years after their divorce, Saul was still magical, perhaps an evil warlock whose spell she could not break. She dreamed, she told me, that she was floating down the river Hades in a boat that went aground. When she climbed onto the shore she made her way toward an old barn that had been converted into a theater. Inside, Saul was bossing around the cast and crew, directing the rehearsal of a musical comedy. In the dream she said to herself, "If Saul is still in charge, even in hell, I don't want to die yet." Then she pressed on me a sheaf of badly written and abstractly tortured poems she had written when she and Saul were falling in love, back when he was still married to his wife number three, my mother. He had cheated on women all his life, which to him demonstrated his superiority to men who had settled for monogamy, and the older he got, the more he rationalized it with his Marxist-therapeutic theories. He once told me about attending an annual reunion for veterans of the Spanish Civil War, underlining his contempt for the broken-down old men who, he said, were dominated by their wives.
Along with his terrible temper and disregard of others' feelings, Saul had irresistible charm and, improbably, a quality of sly sweetness, which appeared suddenly at some of the most unexpected moments. During his final illness, many of the hospital workers remarked on the vitality and appeal of his personality even as they complained about his violent outbursts, when he would throw things at another patient or curse out a doctor. One nurse's aide was bemused rather than outraged when, after he leaned out of his wheelchair to pat her behind and she objected, he said sheepishly, "I just couldn't resist." She cut short my apology on his behalf saying, "I wish I had known him in his prime!"
One of the ways that Saul perpetuated the myth that he had invented himself was that he rarely talked about his past, and in the years after their divorce, my embittered mother didn't talk about him at all if she could help it. So when my half-brother Rob, who is Saul's son with Jane Pearce, mentioned that he had more than three hundred pages of interview material with Saul — "Yours if you want them" — I jumped at the chance while thinking about how Rob had offered me Saul's ashes ("Yours if you want them") and I refused, not knowing what I'd do with them. Nobody wanted his ashes. His only memorial was organized by my cousins, the daughters of those brothers Saul had picked fights with and kicked out of his life years before.
Before the dementia took him, though, nobody ever could or did ignore Saul. After he adopted me he had nine legal children (a couple of the youngest were rumored to have had different bio-dads). He had kicked fascist butt in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and he co-wrote a book that became gospel and verse for hundreds of people in a cult-like community that, as my partner Holly quipped, "combined the worst aspects of therapy, Marxism, and musical theater."
Reading the manuscript Rob had given me I was fascinated by the almost biblical bitterness of my father's childhood milieu. His early life had been as mysterious to me as if he'd emerged from some misty Paleolithic, but in those transcriptions of Saul's memories, I learned for the first time that he'd been born on June 22, 1906, in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. And both his parents were ferocious.
Saul's mother, Minnie, always boasted how she'd slaved to put her brothers through medical school. She herself had left school at eleven when their father, a Hassidic rabbi, apprenticed her to a seamstress. Although she hated her father all her life for this, she visited the same fate on her oldest children. Saul's older brother George was forced out of school at the end of eighth grade and put to work, though the family was prosperous by then. In Saul's view, his mother acted out of bitterness and envy.
Minnie bought books in lots at auctions "to put them on a bookshelf so that people would assume that she was educated and cultured" but also to hear them. Since she never learned to read or write English she would badger her children to read to her, and in this way Saul came to know the novels of Dickens, Turgenev, de Maupassant, Jane Austen, and Emily Brontë. As Saul put it, in his unaccented but Yiddish-influenced way of speaking English, "My mother was a particular kind of culture vulture who on the one hand refused to learn to read and write English and had learned to speak a rough-and-ready English which was spotted by big words that she didn't quite understand and therefore misused. ... A frequent phrase out of her mouth during my growing up was 'If I only knew how to read and write English, what I couldn't do!' "
Despite her handicaps as a woman and an immigrant, Minnie was a leader in the Jewish community of about a thousand souls in St. John. She was an officer of the Ladies Aid Society. Saul heard her interrupt a boring rabbi at the synagogue with a rousing speech regarding a Polish pogrom that "normally" (if a man gave it?) would have earned a standing ovation. By anyone's reckoning, this Minnie, whom I remember as a tiny, bent woman with a strong Yiddish accent, had been a powerful figure. My cousins Betty and Barbara remembered her as "intrusive." For example, when Saul's youngest sister, Dobie, had boyfriends over to the house, Minnie would sit down between them. But both cousins had a far less harsh view of Minnie than did Saul, saying she had had a tough life and had done her best. As for Saul, by the end of his life, when he dictated his memories, he was convinced that his mother had harbored vicious enmity for all of her five children but especially for him, her supposed favorite. When as a small child he snuck away from the house, hopped on a raft, and almost drowned, he blamed his mother, sure she wanted him dead. What an egotist he was! His mother was always, he imagined, thinking about him. "What kept me alive," he said. "I began studying the art of problem solving very young. ... She [Minnie] was good training for surviving two wars."
Saul believed that his mother was out to undermine his manhood. As a teenager he hated her for a remark he overheard her make to a female friend that, unlike some, Saul was a good boy and would not take advantage of girls. Years later, moving to New York with his second wife, he had a panic attack while looking at a two-bedroom apartment, thinking his mother would demand to move into the second bedroom, and "What could I say?" Later still, the three brothers — George, Saul, and Maishe — put Minnie into a nursing home. One night, Saul got a call from the doctors that Minnie was dying and calling for him, her favorite son. This seemed to provoke another panic, because he had to think about it overnight. By morning he had concluded that it was a scheme: Minnie was trying to lure him to the home so she could die in his arms. If he refused to go see her, he reasoned, her plot would be foiled and she'd recover — and she did! When she finally did die, he boasted (or so I assume, in light of the theories Saul developed about the evils of motherhood) that he didn't even go to the funeral (something that cousin Betty refutes). He got his comeuppance: Saul never even had a funeral. Perhaps his most lasting memorial, aside from his ten children, is the obituary I helped arrange in the New York Times. Until I decided to write this memoir, that is. Isn't it strange that I, the adopted child, have become his scribe?
Saul never mentioned his father's first or last name in his memoir, referring to him only as "my father" or "my old man." Now nobody in the family even remembers his first name. (Isn't it true that in Judaism the name of G_d must never be spoken or written?) My cousins recently told me that Saul's father was known in the family as S. K. He was born around 1873 in a village in "white Russia," probably Vitebsk. Orphaned in childhood, he had three older siblings whom he hated for cheating him out of his inheritance from a brewery. All but one of S. K.'s siblings came to North America, where S. K. outdid them all.
His oldest brother was a peddler named Yoshe who was reportedly so cheap he tried to train the horses that pulled his cart not to eat. Then the horses would die, and Yoshe would show up at S. K.'s house, hat in hand. "This father of mine," as Saul said, would continue reading the Yiddish paper The Forward and would ignore his brother for an hour or so. Then, without even looking at Yoshe, he'd say, "How much is it this time?" And he would hand the cash over without a word.
I was astonished by stories like this that came right out of the shtetl, especially because Saul had seemed to "stop being Jewish," as my brother Rob put it, when he changed his name from Cohen to Newton sometime in the 1930s. Yet these stories of my father's, and the way he told them, were not theoretical; they were a part of him, though a part he had rarely shared with me. Although his sperm did not make me, his character, his ideals, and his masculinity did, and reading his memoir made me feel how much of a Jew I partly am.
(I told my former lover Jane Rosett, who taught me to light a yahrzeit memorial candle for Saul, that I didn't feel like eating the pork chops someone had offered us, adding, ironically, "I'm Jewish, you know." Jane laughed. "If you were really Jewish, you would have wanted the pork chops.")
Saul despised all religion. Cousin Betty told me that he almost wrecked her wedding, by fighting with another guest who had asked Saul if he'd joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade because he was a Jew. Saul belligerently said no, he went strictly as a Communist, and being Jewish had nothing to do with it. They started yelling "Jew!" and "Communist!" at each other, almost came to blows, and had to be separated. Saul had been an old man at that point, but, as he liked to say, "I never back away from a belligerent situation."
Although my father never observed any aspect of Jewish religion, he never denied that he was Jewish, either, and his looks — he had a prominent hooked nose that had been broken in a fight and dark skin (he had been known in his family as the schvartze, the black one) — would scarcely have permitted him to pass for gentile even if he had wanted to. Probably being Jewish was such a given for him that he felt no need to state it. I recall only one time when he affirmed that he was Jewish. "Never forget that you are one of the chosen people," he said to me, although I don't recall what provoked this completely atypical admonition.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Butch Career"
Copyright © 2018 Esther Newton.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. A Hard Left Fist 18
2. A Writer's Inheritance 33
3. Manhattan Tomboy 56
4. California Trauma 72
5. Baby Butch 81
6. Anthropology of the Closet 102
7. Lesbian Feminist New York 119
8. The Island of Women 160
9. In-Between Dyke 183
10. Paris France 198
11. Butch Revisited 237
What People are Saying About This
“In My Butch Career Esther Newton takes her readers through her chaotic family history, the uncharted territory of coming to terms with an identity that is far outside the norms for her generation, and the transforming effects that new social movements had on her. Bringing personalities, scenes, conversations, and relationships to life, Newton has written a book that is powerful, gripping, and immensely readable.”
“Esther Newton's sharp insights into her developing consciousness are sometimes so precise and revealing that they take my breath away. Her wit gives her personal traumas in a hostile society universal meaning, making her pain and pleasure available to all, while her reflections on the interconnections of gender, sex, and feminism in love-making remain fresh. Capturing the multiple layers of identity and examining how social forces shape our lives, My Butch Career is absolutely unique in the way it explores women's desire as both personal and social. I know of no other memoir like it.”