Thursday, 30 May 2013

Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson

Leslie Hutchinson (‘Hutch’) was born in Grenada on 7 March 1900; he left for the United States when he was sixteen.  He only ever went back once, briefly.  In New York he studied medicine for a while, but he also started playing piano in Harlem clubs.  Carl Van Vechten may have been his first male lover.  But in 1923 or 1924 he married Ella Byrd; she bore him a daughter, Leslie, in August 1926, and a son, Gordon, in August 1928.  On 18 October 1924 he sailed for France.  His French, which he had learned from his mother, was good.  He spent six months in Madrid, teaching piano to King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena’s children.  He probably got this work through Edwina Mountbatten, who is likely to have first met him in Harlem.  In 1925 he went on a tour which included Constantinople, at the instigation of the bisexual Mustapha Kemal (later to be styled Ataturk), who had heard the band playing in Paris.  Back in Paris, Hutch teamed up with the singer/dancer Ada Smith, who was popularly known as 'Bricktop' because she was a redhead; he worked as her accompanist as she taught whites how to dance.  Her pupils included the Aga Khan and the Prince of Wales.  The latter patronised Bricktop’s new nightclub, the Music Box, and it took off as a result.  Cole Porter, too, was performing there.  The club was shortlived, however; but Bricktop then opened the legendary club Bricktop’s, on the rue Fontaine, in October 1926.
            In April, Hutch had met Tallulah Bankhead.  They were lovers for a while.  He and Cole Porter were lovers into the 1930s.  The three Porter songs most closely associated with Hutch would be among the best-known songs of the century: ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Night and Day’.  When Porter and his wife took Hutch’s band down to Venice, Diaghilev was furious.  An all-negro ensemble did not suit his idea of what was appropriate to the city.  Hutch had an intermittent affair with the bisexual Edwina Mountbatten for almost thirty years from 1926.  (She had married Louis Mountbatten in 1922.)  She arranged for Hutch to go to London and got C.B. Cochran to sign him up for one of his celebrated revues: One Dam’ Thing After Another opened at the London Pavillion on 20 May 1927, with Hutch playing in the otherwise white orchestra.  Finally, when the onstage pianist fell ill, he was allowed to play on stage—a daring advance for London.  Hutch socialised in the kinds of circles where his was the only black face in the room.  For the record, he was the first black man the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland ever spoke to.  Hutch gradually took to singing more, accompanying himself.  He played many of London’s smartest nightclubs, only rarely mixing with other black musicians.  In 1928 he was in Cochran’s The Year of Grace, a revue with book, music and lyrics by Noël Coward and design by Oliver Messel.  It ran for more than 300 performances.  Then in 1929 he took part in Cochran’s Wake Up and Dream, with words and music by Cole Porter and design by both Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler.  The perhaps unlikely figures of Lord Berners and Lytton Strachey were in the first night audience.  The following year, Hutch appeared in the unimaginatively titled Cochran’s 1930 Revue, designed again by Messel and Whistler, with a libretto by Beverly Nichols and two ballet numbers by Lord Berners, choreographed by Balanchine and danced by Serge Lifar and others.  Cecil Beaton was in the first night audience.  Ivor Novello made a nuisance of himself backstage by taking an ‘undue interest’ in Hutch.

Source: Charlotte Breese, Hutch (London: Bloomsbury, 2001)

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Australian Masculinity

Chris Barker, The Hearts of Men: Tales of Happiness and Despair (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007)

The Hearts of Men starts from a banal premise: not only do men have emotions, but they even sometimes talk about them.  (‘What a surprise!’—p.3.)  Barker knows this because he has conducted interviews with 107 of these strange creatures, the majority of them Anglo-Australians.  Only three of his interviewees were gay and only four non-white.  So his actual topic is not men, but white men; and not just white men, but straight white men.  Even this does not quite fit the bill, since Barker shows virtually no sign of any interest in non-Anglophone cultures, with the rather serious consequence that it does not occur to him that there are Catholic cultures as well as Protestant ones.
This omission has considerable ramifications when it comes to his arguments about the nature of the family.  It is not until p.101 that he even mentions a non-Anglophone country, and then only in passing; and not until p.171 does he mention an Italian-Australian.  Yet this latter individual, who seems to baffle Barker, is worth remarking on at greater length, since he proves radically different from any of the other interviewees: he takes paternity leave when his children are born, reduces his working week in order to share the burden of child-rearing, and allows his career to take second place to his family.  Moreover, the concentration on white men looks especially threadbare when it transpires that Barker’s solution to men’s ills is a form of faithless meditation filched from Buddhism.
            From the outset, Barker’s tone is one of wide-eyed, Candide-like innocence.  Characteristic insights include: ‘apparently “bad” men often turn out to be “sad” men’ (p.11); ‘fathers who participate in sport often encourage their sons to play games’ (p.31); ‘The seeds planted at childhood grow differently in varying social and cultural soils’ (p.97); ‘Human beings seem to like drugs’ (p.135); ‘Heterosexual men often rely on women for friendship and emotional support’ (p.158).  It is not clear what purpose, or what readership, this affected naivety serves, especially given the fact that the book has been issued by an academic press.  When we do get footnotes, they are sometimes inaccurate (Michel Foucault never wrote a book called Discipline and Punishment), as are many of the researchable details in the main text (Philip Larkin did not say, in one of the most famous lines of modern verse, ‘Your Mum and Dad they fuck you up’—p.67).
When Barker reports that, ‘sadly, divorce statistics suggest that marriage is not always a happy experience for men or women’ (p.158), one yearns for an author who, rather than scurrying to the shelves of the office of statistics, is actually emotionally literate, or even just literate.  Who in the world but he, until he consulted the divorce statistics, could have imagined that marriage is ‘always a happy experience’?  Has he never observed married people; or has he never read about a marriage?  To be fair, he does speak of his own experience throughout—he is himself thrice married and divorced—so, again, the question is why he is writing as if he knows nothing of the world.  Occasionally, this mode leads Barker into a sentence of monumental fatuity: ‘The stable family backgrounds of corporate executives are in striking contrast to the chaotic and emotionally painful childhoods of heroin users’ (p.14).  Here we are in the domain of stereotype, which tends never to allow for any crossover between hermetically distinct types.
But where I most emphatically depart company from Barker is in his unquestioned assumption that men need to emote more.  The truth is that the more moving stories come from the older, more emotionally controlled interviewees.  What is wrong with the suppression of emotion, anyway?  Do we seriously believe that if more fathers had said ‘I love you, mate’ to their sons, they and the world would be in less of a mess?  I, for one, was very fond of my own father’s diffidence and distance.  Do we seriously believe that, by contrast, emotionally loquacious relationships between mothers and daughters are, generally speaking, not a mess?
            Besides, there has never been any dearth of male emotion.  Given the structures of patriarchy for several millennia in ‘the West’, it has almost always been men’s emotions that mattered more than women’s, and, indeed, it has consistently been men who defined the emotions and mapped out their structures.  Male emotion generates the visual arts, music, poetry and the novel…  Not to mention wars and methods of torture.  For one fleeting moment, Barker seems to recognise the idiocy of his initial assumption, when he admits: ‘Shakespeare was a man.  Wordsworth was a man.  Freud was a man!’ (p.3)  Quite.  It is entirely apt that Barker should mention the arts here, but he hardly ever returns to them, except in a passing reference to listening to ‘beautiful music’ to calm oneself down.  I am especially interested in the exclamation mark he grants his recognition that Freud had a gender and a sex.
            What a surprise!  Men can suffer.  Welcome to the human condition, chum.

[This review first appeared in Journal of Gender Studies 17, 1 (March 2008), pp.90-91.]

Friday, 24 May 2013

Thom Gunn, Boss Cupid (2000)

Thom Gunn, Boss Cupid (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)

From its title onwards, this is a bizarre and rather lovely book.  To my mind, it is Gunn’s best collection since the dreadfully underrated Moly (1971), but I wonder how many readers will agree.  Certainly, there are individual poems here which rank with Gunn’s best.  Among them I would include ‘The Gas Poker’, ‘In the Post Office’ and two short sequences, ‘Troubadour’ (about the gay American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer) and ‘Dancing David’ (about the biblical myth of King David).
            But it is as a whole collection that Boss Cupid really triumphs.  To read it for the first time, even if already familiar with some of the poems it contains, is to be led through an unpredictable sequence of changes of direction in topic, technique and tone whose initial effect was, for me, one of thrilling bewilderment.  On subsequent reading, however, everything falls into place.  What might have seemed perverse, or even out of control, at first, is suddenly entirely logical, precisely in keeping with the whole of the rest of the poet’s career.
            We have seen such variety before.  It has opened Gunn to adverse criticism in the past, often from readers who were uncomfortable with the insufficient loftiness of syllabic and free-verse poems from the middle period—usually poems about sex or drugs or rock’n’roll.  Well, Boss Cupid contains poems from the loft and the cellar, as well as a playroom or two in between.  This is some edifice.
            Having reached the age of seventy, Gunn is availing himself of frequent opportunities for retrospection.  The collection opens with a poem about Robert Duncan, in the 1940s when he was starting out as a poet and in 1988, the year of his death.  Conveniently, while setting out a broad time-span, this piece immediately locates not only Duncan but, for the rest of his life, Gunn himself in San Francisco.  Other poems then revisit Gunn’s own childhood in England; the Second World War; a sexual encounter in Central Park in 1961; the height of the gay liberationist bathhouse subculture in 1975 (‘that time is gone’); a G.I. seen briefly from the top of a bus in Richmond in 1943; Jeffrey Dahmer’s serial killings in the 1980s; a visit to Rapallo in the 1950s.  In that order.  The latest date mentioned is New Year’s Day, 1997.
            Many of the poems, in one way or another, deal with the relationship between youth and old age.  Gunn’s consistent interest in and liking for many aspects of popular culture is one of the factors which maintain his link with the young.  So, of course, is sexual desire.  He is forever being startled by the affectionate gifts (in both senses) of young men.  We have seen boys like these before, ‘armored in hide that / adorns to hide / every fallibility, / cruelty or awkwardness / with the smooth look / of power’.  But these days Gunn's poems are much more likely than they once were to observe moments in which the armour of masculinity is transfigured into sensitive skin by acts of kindness.  When a homeless youth does him the unexpected honour of slipping his penis into Gunn's hand (‘a lovely gift to offer an old / stranger / without conditions’), Gunn is neither affronted nor particularly turned on.  But he falls for the cuteness of this young man's unwitting corruption of the phrase dog-eat-dog: he says this is ‘a doggy-dog world’.  All the cuter for the fact, as Gunn goes on to show us, that it is sometimes literally a man-eat-man world.
            I suppose this is the most sexual of all Gunn's books, more so even than Jack Straw’s Castle or The Passages of Joy.  Its epigraph is peculiar—‘Well, it’s a cool queer tale!’ from a Thomas Hardy story.  The adjectives ‘cool’ and ‘queer’ acquire a distinctly un-Hardyesque tone when heard in Thom Gunn’s voice.  Together they amount to a combination of chic, detachment, oddity and homosexuality.  This is a blend which has fuelled Gunn’s work since the beginning of his career, but there is a new openness in the use of the word ‘queer’ to denote something more complex than the mere ‘lifestyle’ of being gay.  It is an identification with marginality, but with margins (poverty, sexuality) which are—if anything is—universal.
            The last collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), mesmerised the critics with its explicit attention to AIDS, which they seemed to find both exotic and reassuring.  Virtually none of the reviewers showed any sign of knowing that anything else had ever been written about AIDS, or that gay culture had itself, for virtually a decade, become an enormous cultural festival of mourning.  AIDS is present here, too, but as a calamity survived.  For all that it has killed so many, it has left life intact.  Place Gunn’s version of the catastrophe next to (say) that of Larry Kramer and you could imagine you were looking at a different epidemic.  Gunn’s approach is wistfully temperate.  He brandishes his own equilibrium with a slightly startled modesty which serves as a representative tribute to the dignity and maturity of the communities and subcultures which responded to AIDS when others chose not to.
            In the poem ‘In the Post Office’ Gunn speaks of himself as a survivor.  Living where he does when he did, there must have been times when he imagined survival was not on the cards.  Gunn’s recent writing is pervaded with a discreet sense of relief that it is still possible for him to continue recording the lives and deaths of those who were less lucky than he.
            The collection is all the stronger for the vulnerable triviality of some of the free verse in the central section, ‘Gossip’ (much of which was published as a chapbook called Frontiers of Gossip in 1998).  These poems of bars, boys and the promise of uncomplicated pleasure (‘The democracy of it: / eventually everyone / can hope for a turn / at being wanted’) are sketchily efficient—not so much gossip in itself as the materials out of which gossip might be made.  This section saves Boss Cupid from a formalist tendency that might otherwise have threatened to ossify.  Gunn is always a very literary poet—not just in refinement of technique, but in his allusiveness--and he uses his apparently casual free verse to remind us that his main inspiration arises in what an earlier collection referred to as ‘the sniff of the real’.
            His characteristic designation of sex as ‘play’ sits uneasily—and deliberately so—alongside the later sequence of poems spoken from the point of view of the serial killer, which are both beautiful and bleak.  He no longer writes with the blustering virility of those early poems which hero-worshipped men like Alexander of Macedon and ridiculed Stephen Spender.  The identification with Jeffrey Dahmer, here, is much quieter and more fully realised.  Unlike the posturing nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, Gunn’s sympathy for Dahmer seems derived from a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sense that the essential ingredients of the murderer are not uncommon or extreme.  They can be counted among the raw materials of common humanity.
            The serious attention Gunn pays to the perverse idealism of the sexual assassin then reflects back on the nonchalant banality of erotic poems from earlier in the book, as when ‘Classics’ ends with the lines: ‘I could have killed / for a chance to chew / on those jumbo tits’; or when, in ‘Coffee Shop’, two lovers are kissing ‘mouth to mouth, / Where mutually they start to feed’.  Clichés like ‘good enough to eat’ are disturbingly transformed from dead metaphor into deadly intention.  Sex has become—as it always was, anyway, before the discovery of antibiotics—a game that is, for some of its players at least, definitively unsafe.  In its delineation of ‘The obsession in which we live’ and ‘The intellect as powerhouse of love’ (both phrases from a wonderful poem called ‘A Wood Near Athens’), Gunn’s imagination maps out a contingent universe in which the obsessiveness of intellect is reassuringly constant.  This is most evident in the rational balance of the more obviously personal poems.
            The dispassionate involvement of ‘The Gas Poker’, Gunn’s poem on his mother’s suicide, is achieved by the use of the third person to refer to himself and his brother and by a characteristically deft, informal, rhymed iambic trimeter.  There have always been moments when his sang froid threatened to teeter over into cold-bloodedness.  This is one of them.  The effect is one over which Gunn is the complete master.  It is not the control so much as the lightness of touch with which he exerts it that is so impressive.  It is not the intensity of emotion so much as the diffident quietness with which he expresses it that is so moving.  His obsessions, for all that they may not be the same as the reader’s, are delivered with that quiet authority we have come to expect from Thom Gunn, an authority to which it is hard not to submit.

[This review first appeared in PN Review 133 (May-June 2000), pp.67-68.]

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Byron's Life

Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (London: John Murray, 2003)

Lord Byron was an old-fashioned English libertine: already a precocious expert in the theory and practice of pederasty while at public school; rampant with servants, female and male, in the seclusion of private houses; married, but only for the sake of dynastic propriety; a seducer of other men’s wives.  His life was punctuated by frenetic bouts of pugilism, duelling, gambling and whoring.  Yet, although he was a fearless and promiscuous fighter and a heroic long-distance swimmer, he was also anxious and fussy, self-consciously crippled, an obsessive dieter and user of purgatives.
He was that rare creature, like Pushkin, a Romantic poet with a sense of humour.  Yet he was also deeply sentimental, a constant carver of initials on tree-trunks and etcher of window-panes.  The archives are full of locks of hair, his own and his lovers’.  When humans proved unreliable he gave his affections to large dogs; his residences were often stocked with absurd menageries.  Even his rages and griefs demonstrate a passionate love of life, yet all of his noblest exploits were riddled with farce.  Fiona MacCarthy rightly calls them ‘Heroic and mock-heroic’.
Annabella Milbanke married him with the intention of reforming him, so I suppose she got what she deserved.  The account of his wedding is, as ever, whoopingly funny.  His friend Hobhouse said of him, on the way to meet his fiancée, ‘Never was a lover in less haste’.  At the wedding ceremony, when he had to utter the words ‘With all my worldly goods I thee endow’, Byron grimaced.  The newlyweds had not a honeymoon but, in the words of the groom, a ‘treacle moon’.  The marriage soon settled into a pattern of abuse and neglect.  But when Annabella’s patience finally snapped and she demanded a separation, Byron was astonished and felt hard done-by.
As usual, Lady Caroline Lamb comes across as madder, badder and more dangerous to know than Byron ever was.  During their affair she had threatened to expose him as a sodomite.  By 1815 she was actively spreading rumours that were designed to ruin him.  With a growing reputation for both sodomy and incest, and increasingly subjected to press abuse, veiled threats and anonymous letters, he had little choice but to go abroad.
He left England with the bailiffs snapping at his heels.  Although he rather grandly associated his misfortunes with those of Napoleon, he approached exile with a certain lightness of heart.  From Ostend, he wrote a cheerful letter to Hobhouse, who was due to join him in Switzerland.  ‘Don’t forget the Cundums,’ he wrote.  But like Oscar Wilde after him, such was his notoriety that he was pursued across Europe by the tut-tutting of high-minded English tourists—they even trained their telescopes on his Swiss house from across the lake.
For me, the test of a biographer of Byron comes when she has to describe the complexities of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkish rule.  The subject cannot be glossed over, since Byron immersed himself in it.  Indeed, you might say he sacrificed his life to the cause.  MacCarthy manages the task reasonably well, constructing her version around sketches of the key personalities involved, and gives a vivid impression of the mephitic atmosphere of Missolonghi.  When he arrived there he was given a hero’s welcome; when he left, to be shipped in a box back to the country which had rejected him, he was mythologised as the hero his actions had never quite made him.
            England disposed of him with its customary pettiness.  He was refused a national burial on moral grounds.  His memoirs were destroyed unread; and several of his last poems, expressions of love for his last boyfriend, went the same way.  Yet from London to Hucknall Torkard, where he was buried, his funeral cortege was watched by silent crowds.  Thousands of ordinary people turned out to pay homage, remembering, among other things, his support for the rioting Nottingham stocking-weavers.  (It is as if Diana Windsor had supported the miners.)  There was also, of course, a widespread love of his poetry.
            Press reviews of MacCarthy’s book have typified the down-dumbed, barrel-scraping, craven populism of even our ‘quality’ media.  The Guardian headlined its piece ‘Mad about the boys’, thereby placing Byron on a par with Noël Coward.  One reviewer who should have known better loftily pronounced that Byron’s poetry is ‘hardly read now’—meaning, I guess, that she never reads it herself and should not have been reviewing this book in the first place.  Perhaps, though, MacCarthy unwittingly invites such trivial responses herself.  She starts her book with the silly question ‘Does Byron matter?’  (To those to whom culture is important, of course he does.  To the rest, of course he doesn’t.)  And there is hardly a word here about poetic technique, which is odd, considering he was one of the sharpest technicians in English literary history.  Come to think of it, there is very little about the poetry at all.  Which is odd, considering he was a poet.
Biographies of Byron cannot fail to entertain, but they are only of much use if they lead the reader back to the poetry.  Having read MacCarthy, I went straight back to that mad epic Don Juan.  Alternately tragic and hilarious, lofty and trashy, it is the perfect book for reading in chunks while commuting by train or tram.

[This review first appeared in County Lit 14 (Spring 2003), pp.4-5. The closing point about commuting seemed important at the time, but I can’t remember why.]

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

T.H. White

The life of T.H. White (1906-1964), if brutally reduced to a negative version of his homosexuality, can be narrated in no time. A sad life is easily boiled down to next to nothing, if that is what one wants to do with it.

He was, by his own admission, [not only a sadomasochist but] a homosexual as well. This perversion seems to have its roots both in the behaviour he observed at Cheltenham [College] and in his mother’s attempt to force all love within him towards herself. When she no longer required his constant attention, he had no place to go with the love he had to give, for ‘she managed to bitch up my loving women.’ But White also kept fantastic chains upon this homosexuality. He received psychiatric help in 1936, kept it in check for twenty years, but fell in love with a young boy, Zed, in the last seven years of his life. Because he would not pervert the boy, who never understood his feelings, White’s final years verged constantly on emotional explosion. During the intervening twenty years, however, he ‘solved’ his problem through drink and through a fantastically loving devotion to his setter bitch, Brownie.

[John K. Crane, T.H. White (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p.18.  Crane refers to Cheltenham College as ‘the Cheltenham military school’.]

Brownie died in 1944, and White endured twenty further years ‘of sheer misery’. This downbeat paragraph was worth quoting in full, since it is such a selective misreading of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1967 biography of White. Of course, there was sadness in his life, probably more than in most people’s, even most writers’—the middle of the twentieth century was hardly a paradise for the homosexual, paedophile sadomasochist—but, for a man who, in keeping with the opinion of his day, considered homosexuality an inherently tragic condition, he managed in his letters to provide an undercurrent of pretty cheerful irony even when claiming extreme depression. And it is clear that the company of boys, with whom he appears to have behaved with a punctilious sense of how they must view him, gave him great pleasure for much of his life. No less so did the company of the animals—not just Brownie—he wrote about with such vivid empathy. The other emotional dimension to his sexuality which the above account does not even begin to recognise is anger—anger at the mass abuse of boys by masters at Cheltenham in the name of discipline; anger at sexual law; sometimes anger at his own inadequacies. He could have been an early ‘homosexual novelist’; indeed, he almost was. In 1928 he wrote the first chapter of a book which Townsend Warner describes as ‘a novel of homosexual love; a long, serious novel; a declaration’. It was the year of The Well of Loneliness and Orlando. In T.H. White’s notebooks, for a short while, it was also the year of Of Whom the World. An autobiographical piece he was writing at much the same time shows how seriously he was thinking about the social context of his topic (much as Hall’s book would but, really, Woolf’s would not): was homosexuality inherent, assumed or imposed? Should the homosexual person have children? And, above all, ‘What makes the homosexual’s life inevitably more tragic than the great percentage of quite normal people’s’? In Warner’s account, he provided several thoughtful responses to the latter question, including: ‘loss of environment from choosing to fly in the face of the majority; social prejudice and a legal code compelling homosexuals either to go disguised into the world or to live as in a ghetto; the narrowed field of choice’ and so on. He was thinking along much the same lines as Radclyffe Hall.  Responding to the scandal about her book, he wrote: ‘Miss Radclyffe Hall’s book about sexual perversion has been called a stream of garbage by the Daily Express and banned by the Home Secretary, a combination of which should be proud’. However, perhaps because of the reception of The Well of Loneliness, he gave up his homosexual novel, but reused some of its elements in a novel he called First Lesson (1932). According to Warner, ‘A youthful reader said of it that it was a good story except for the heroine, who was more like a boy’.
At the end of 1931, a year after leaving Queen’s College, Cambridge, White was dismissed from his first job, teaching at a boys’ prep school, for failing to take seriously enough the case of two boys who had been caught in bed together. The school expelled them and made White travel with them to London. On the way, he asked about the incident: what had they been doing?  If he had been expecting sexual detail, he was surprised—but pleasantly so—by their innocence. They said they had just been talking, and when he asked them what about, they replied: ‘Buses and trains’. White’s rage at the way boys were treated in such schools boiled over into a satirical poem (if not much more) which he sent to L.J. Potts, a friend from university.  It begins as quite jolly, uranian fare:

                        This pretty boy, mischievous, chaste, and stupid,
                        With bouncing bum and eyes of teasing fire,
                        This budding atom, happy heart, young Cupid,
                        Will grow to know desire.

Actually, that ‘bouncing bum’ is rather more jolly than most uranian fare, which is generally coyer, even if coyer eyes still stray to the same parts. At this stage it is not clear whether the future delineated in the fourth line should be regarded as a good or bad thing. In the second stanza that begins to grow clear:

                        Anxious Mama, discern the signs of rapture,
                        Observe his sensuous wriggles in the bath.
                        His plump brown legs design their future capture,
                        Their virgin quelled, their tenderness and wrath.

The naked body of the boy is itself the mannequin, as it were, to which will be shaped the long trousers of his adolescence. Growth itself will demand confinement and limitation: the ‘future capture’ of what you might call socialisation into adulthood. The anxiety of the mother is undefined. Thus far, either ‘future capture’ or, on the contrary, future freedom may be causing her to worry. By the third stanza, we know which:

                        Happy, immoral imp, if this continues
                        He will, no doubt, grow up a shameless sensualist,
                        He won’t despise his genitals and sinews,
                        Won’t know that it is ‘beastly’ to be kissed.

The dangers of untrammelled growth are self-evident, and need to be ruled out; and if happiness and immorality are wiped out in the same process, so be it. The boy must be made, like any good Englishman, to distance himself form his own physicality- and that means suppressing desire. Paradoxically, it also means focusing on the body, but in a new way: the channelling of all energy into team sports. In short, the budding sensualist must be sent to school.

                        Stuff him in Etons quick, and send him packing
                        To Dr. Prisonface his breezy school.
                        That old rheumatic man with threats and whacking
                        Will justly bring this body to the rule.

(Etons are school uniforms.) By this advising the conscientious mother to send her son to the kind of place he had both studied and taught in, and where he received beatings which, in his view, accounted for his later sadomasochistic tastes, White offers her the conventional route by which the boy can sign up to mainstream English life. What such a school will do to ‘bring this body to the rule’ will also serve to rule his mind. The advice goes on:

                        Send your bright dreaming angel then to Dr Prisonface
                        So that he may be taught his ‘beastly’ loins to rule,
                        So that he may be learned what is and isn’t cricket,
                        So that he may be a product of the good old school.

Prisonface’s legacy will be a libido only imperfectly suppressed—‘for you can’t quite kill his angel, / He’ll fall at intervals and take a whore’—and a shame for sexual practices which he will carry with him to the marriage bed—‘Surreptitiously wrestling with his wife in the darkness, / Putting her with averted eyes through hasty shameful paces’. For the rest of his life, ‘Dark and remorseful and dirty will be his copulation’. But that will not matter because ‘he’ll be a credit to the nation’.  In this scathing mood, for all that he had been put through the same education, White knew he had had a lucky escape. He had failed to be moulded into acceptable conventionality. However, in his later flirtation with psychoanalysis, acceptable conventionality appears to have been precisely what he was seeking. His own homosexuality, like his sadomasochism, was just another aspect of Prisonface’s perverted legacy.
In October 1935, White reported to L.J. Potts that he was ‘doing exactly three full-time jobs’: writing, teaching and being psychoanalysed.  The analyst had come with exactly the recommendation White felt he needed: ‘the man who gave me his address was a sadistic homosexual, and is now married and has a baby’. White had fallen in love with a barmaid and was absurdly spending much of his time sitting in the pub and staring at her. By this evidence, he judged that the analyst—‘a very great man’—was working his magic. Thus began the period in which, as our abbreviated sexual biography of him put it, he kept his homosexuality ‘in check for twenty years’. This was, after all, what ‘psychiatric help’ amounted to. If nothing went amiss until he fell in love with the boy Zed, even so there was never any successful relationship with a woman, and certainly no baby. For all the superficial modernity of his profession, whether or not White noticed the resemblance, the great psychoanalyst was of the school of Dr Prisonface.
On 18 September 1957 T.H. White wrote in his journal that he had ‘fallen in love with Zed’. The rest of his journal entry for the day was anxiously self-justificatory, concerning both now he intended to behave and how he might have wished to. He will not tell the boy he loves him:

It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of the impractical, unsuitable love.  It would be against his human dignity.  Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved.  He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings- not that they are bad in themselves.  It is the public opinion which makes them so.

So, for the sake of the boy, even if the expression of love would do no harm, White is determined ‘to behave like a gentleman’. By the same token, of course, there is no question of sex, although, again, White does not believe it would harm him:

I do not believe that some sort of sexual relations with Zed would do him harm- he would probably think and call them t’rific.  I do not think I could hurt him spiritually or mentally.  I do not believe that perverts are made so by seduction.  I do not think that sex is evil, except when it is cruel or degrading, as in rape, sodomy, etc., or that I am evil or that he could be.  But the practical facts of life are an impenetrable barrier—the laws of God, the laws of Man.

(He is quoting from A.E. Housman here.) In other words, to put it crudely, he would do it if he thought he could get away with it. Imagining that the boy would ‘probably’ think sex with his fifty-one-year-old friend ‘t’rific’ is an especially myopic piece of vanity. White knows he could hurt the boy physically—hence the mention of only spiritual and mental well-being—but by distinguishing whatever he means by ‘some sort of sexual relations with Zed’ from sodomy and rape, he persuades himself that his desires are pure. Indeed, by finessing physicality out of the account, he adopts that common paedophile stance of assuming that his own lust is somehow more spiritual, more child-friendly, than that of other adults; indeed, that he, uniquely, would be able to relate to the child at his own level, with some kind of polymorphous play which the child would find no less ‘t’rific’ than he. Here, White is half-way to the child-lover’s fantasy of the insatiable, puerile appetite: the boy who asked for more.
All that said, there is no reason to suppose that White did not conduct the friendship with Zed in anything other than the gentlemanly manner he intended from the day of that journal entry. Like the declaration of love, the subsequent affair took place entirely in White’s mind. His head was full of it through 1958, while his Arthurian novel sequence The Once and Future King was selling well on both sides of the Atlantic, and into 1959, when he was having to cope with rumours that Lerner and Loewe were going to base their follow-up to My Fair Lady on his book. (At first he wrote ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’ but then crossed them out.) News of the musical, which would be called Camelot, prompted Disney to do something about the film rights to White’s The Sword in the Stone, the first volume in the Arthurian sequence, which they had owned for two decades.  A cartoon was born, and not much of one. But White never stopped obsessing about Zed. What ended it was an epistolary quarrel over White’s insistence that Zed spend both Christmas and Easter with him. (The boy did have a family, after all.) If he couldn’t promise both, White wrote, it would be better if he stayed away for good. To his surprise, Zed called his bluff—and stayed away for good.
Even in the absence of Zed and Brownie, White’s final years were not without their amusements. He certainly did not vanish into the cloud of despair which is sometimes attributed to him. In May 1963, less than a year before his death, he was able to report, in a letter home to his friend John Verney, some pleasant distractions in Naples:

I am having a comical, touching, rather impendent adventure here, as I have been adopted by a family of costermonger […]. There are Mamma and Pappa and five sons and one daughter, all as poor as church mice, to whom I am a godsend for purposes of exploitation. The two who have particularly adopted me are Gianpaulo [sic] and Alfredo. What can you do when a boy of 19 says, Please, I would rather not be buggered, but I would like a new pair of shoes?

Well, you can come to an arrangement. White re-clothed both boys, and later the whole family, and got an affectionate friendship- perhaps more- in return. In England he had been drinking heavily, but:

They have stopped me drinking too much- in fact, drinking at all- by the unusual expedient of bursting into tears! They dash into my room at all hours of the day, rummage in my clothes with crises of delight, polish my shoes, dress me (gentle and melancholic Gianpaulo pulls on my socks) and off we go for another day on sea or land, generally ending at a cinema or night restaurant high above this starry bay.

Their company gave him safe passage throughout the city, and earned their right undissemblingly to exploit him by preventing anyone else from doing so. They got him the services of a small band, a taxi driver, two secretaries and even a magician—‘I’ve never had one before’.[p.325] Their requests for outrageous gifts—an MG, half a million pounds—could be satisfied with more modest substitutes—if rather a lot of them. When he pleased them, they showered him with kisses.  He thought it fair exchange. As he wrote to Verney, ‘They rob me of a good deal, but not surreptitiously or out of proportion’. Sylvia Townsend Warner has the last word on the matter: ‘He could easily have spent less and had much less pleasure from it’.
There is nothing particularly extreme or out of the ordinary about White’s life. Many men of his class must have found similar routes through and around the opportunities afforded, and the limitations imposed, by their sexual interests. Having followed the trodden path from prep school to public school to Oxford or Cambridge, they might then go into teaching to immerse themselves in the atmosphere they were used to. They would form close friendships with boys but (most of them) avoid actual sexual contact for fear of the consequences. Physical encounters might occur by chance, and often in exchange for gifts or payment, with working-class youths at home or abroad. Most such men would follow with interest the public debates that sexology and psychoanalysis were generating around deviant sexualities. Some would contribute to the debate, privately or publicly, as best they could. A relative few, like White, would actually enter into analysis, with varying outcomes. Many tried to relate to women; some got married. But most lived, as White did, as bachelors, a condition like spinsterhood that married heterosexuals seem to associate with loneliness. Like many such men, White was often depressed; but he was not tragic. That he once loved a dog says nothing more about him than that he was like tens, or hundreds, of thousands of other English pet owners.

Main source:
Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967)

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Samuel Steward

In the same summer, 1937, that he acquired the sexual scalp of Alfred Douglas, the American teenager Samuel Steward visited André Gide in Paris.  Among the fragments he recalled of their conversation was Gide’s opinion of Ernest Hemingway: ‘One can see through the hairy chest.  He is a poseur.  He pretends to be a man but all the time struggles against what he really is—else why the overwhelming male friendships in all his works?’  Gide invited Steward back another day and showed him into a bedroom where he found the eighteen-year-old Ali, whom he had admired on his previous visit, lying naked on the bed.  This was probably a more pleasurable gift than the great man’s own body would have been.
            Next on the industrious youth’s list of literary celebrities, albeit not as prospective sexual conquests, were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.  He spent two weeks of the summer with them at Bilignin in the south of France.  She, too, spoke to him—perhaps as a fellow American—about Hemingway.  She said ‘She had denigrated male homosexuals to Hemingway to see if he would squirm because he was a secret one’.  (Hemingway reported her homophobic remarks in A Moveable Feast.  He said she said: ‘The main thing is that the act male homosexuals commit is ugly and repugnant and afterwards they Are disgusted with themselves.  They drink and take drugs to palliate this, but they are disgusted with the act and they are always changing partners and cannot be really happy’.)  Then, in September, Steward visited Thornton Wilder in Zurich.  They went to bed together and, according to Steward’s account, ‘Thornton went about sex almost as if he were looking the other way, doing something else, and nothing happened that could be prosecuted anywhere, unless frottage can be called a crime.  [It could, of course.]  There was never even any kissing.  On top of me, and after ninety seconds and a dozen strokes against my belly he ejaculated’.  But Steward, alas, did not.  Later, back in the States, ‘I became his Chicago piece, possibly his only physical contact in the city’.  But Wilder was incapable of ordinary intimacies: ‘He could never forthrightly discuss anything sexual; for him the act itself was quite literally unspeakable’.  His secretive approach to his love life ensured that all of the love and much of the life were left out of it.
            Steward became a tattoo artist under the pseudonym Phil Sparrow.  He kept a diary of his activities for the Kinsey Institute.  He met Kinsey in Chicago in 1949.  Other than handshakes, they never had any physical contact.  Kinsey gave him free access to the Institute archives.  Steward contributed to Der Kreis, the trilingual (French, German, English) homophile magazine published in Zurich from the 1930s to 1967.  Other American contributors included George Platt Lynes (under the pseudonym Roberto Rolf), Paul Cadmus and James Barr.  After its demise he contributed to Kim Kent’s two magazines eos and amigo, also trilingual (Danish, German, English), published from Copenhagen.  But Steward’s main claim to fame in his own right was as the pulp/porn novelist Phil Andros.

Samuel M. Steward, Chapters from an Autobiography (San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1981), pp.56, 58; 63, 75.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (London: Cape, 1964), pp.25-26.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Prince Eddy

Eddy was born Prince Albert Victor on 8 January 1864; he was the eldest son of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII); a second boy, George (later King George V) was born on 3 June 1865.  In 1871, a clergyman called Edward Carpenter was approached to tutor the boys, but he turned down the post; the Reverend John Neale Dalton was appointed in his place.  Carpenter and Dalton were close friends – they had been at Cambridge together – and were to remain so for life.  In September 1877, Dalton accompanied the two boys when they were sent to do time on the naval training vessel Britannia on the River Dart in Devon.  In the two years they spent there, George did well, but not Eddy.  In September 1879, they were sent to sea on the Bacchante; again, Dalton went with them.  (In Japan, both boys had dragons tattooed on their forearms.)  Their final voyage brought them back to England in August 1882; Eddy was eighteen years old, George seventeen.
In preparation for the next stage in his grooming as a future monarch, Cambridge University, Eddy was put in the care of a tutor-cum-companion called James Stephen, who was twenty-four.  (Stephen, who would die in an asylum in 1892 at the age of thirty-three, was a cousin of Virginia Woolf’s.)  The two certainly became intimate, at least to the extent that Eddy’s biographer feels he must say: ‘That the relationship between the two young men was ever overtly homosexual is open to question’.  Both John Dalton and James Stephen accompanied Eddy when he went up to Cambridge for eighteen months from October 1883.  While there he mixed in a circle mainly made up of ‘Apostles’.  One of his frequent visitors was A.C. Benson, who became ‘an object of adoration’ to Dalton; another was Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, almost two decades older than Eddy and a likely model for the character Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); and another friend was Oscar Browning (he and the prince were once locked in his bathroom together as a joke).  In his subsequent military training, poor Eddy showed no greater aptitude for soldiering than he had previously shown for sports at school, for seamanship in the Navy, or for the things of the mind at Cambridge.  In 1886, he lost Dalton to matrimony: he had proposed to the sister of a teenaged male friend only three days after meeting her.  (Their son, himself a lover – but a chaste one – of beautiful young men, was Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour of administration of Clement Attlee.)
When the Cleveland Street scandal erupted in the late 1880s, the prosecution was deliberately impeded to prevent charges being brought against Lord Arthur Somerset, who was allowed to flee the country. The fear of the establishment had been that, if Somerset were to be called on to give evidence in open court, compromising information might enter the public domain.  The point was to stifle what were then only rumours, that Prince Eddy had been a visitor to the Cleveland Street brothel.  As it happened, a fortuitous trip to India had long been planned for the prince, and off he went from October 1889 to May 1890.  But the scandal rumbled on with a libel trial and further rumours, plus more explicit allusions in the newspapers across the Atlantic.  In the House of Commons on 28 February 1890, Henry Labouchère – he of the Amendment – accused Lord Salisbury’s government of a cover-up, but his demand for an official enquiry was voted down.  (Lord Arthur Somerset, incidentally, spent the rest of his life with his friend James Neale at Hyeres in the South of France; he died in 1926.)
Queen Victoria promoted her heir’s heir on 24 May 1890: Eddy became Duke of Clarence and Avondale and, as if that were not enough, Earl of Athlone.  In the same year, he formed a close friendship with a twenty-four-year-old doctor, Alfred Fripp, who was John Dalton’s godson.  Meanwhile, the Queen was keeping a weather eye open for a suitable young woman for Eddy to marry.  This would be the next necessary step in his training for kingship.  The appropriate candidate was found and towards the end of 1891, prompted by the Queen and the other members of the royal household, Eddy proposed to Princess May of Teck and was accepted.  However, only a few weeks later fate intervened.  Eddy contracted influenza which gave way to pneumonia, and after a week’s illness, on 14 January 1892, he died at Sandringham.  (Queen Victoria knew that a suitable girl is not to be wasted, and in due course Princess May married Eddy’s younger brother George; she would eventually become the formidable Queen Mary.)  The monument to Eddy in the Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor was made by Sir Alfred Gilbert, the sculptor of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

Source: Theo Aronson, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld (London: John Murray, 1994)

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop decided in 1951 to go around the world.  But when her ship docked in Brazil she visited two friends she had met in New York, Mary Morse and rich Brazilian aristocrat, Maria Carlota (‘Lota’) Costallat de Macedo Soares.  Up in the mountains at Petrópolis, Lota was building a modernist house.  It was there that she asked Bishop to give up her world tour and stay on.  The relationship thrived in the splendid isolation of their home, but suffered when Lota became officially involved in work for the state government of Rio de Janeiro, designing a large waterfront park, the Aterro.  Lota’s consequent absences, both physical and mental, nurtured Bishop’s recidividist alcoholism.  At the end of 1965, Bishop flew to Seattle to take up a teaching appointment at the University of Washington.  While she was there she hated the teaching and wrote no poetry; but she began an affair with a younger woman.  Not long after Bishop’s return to Brazil, Lota found out about the affair.  Although they managed to patch up their relationship temporarily, it was irretrievably damaged.  When Bishop went to New York in 1967, against doctors’ orders Lota followed her there.  She killed herself on 25 September and Bishop sent her body home to Brazil for burial.
Bishop’s use of the first person plural in the poems about Brazil reads, at times, as if it were meant as a general statement of human response: we see or do such-and-such.  More often, though, the seeing and doing are more intimately readable as being engaged in by a couple, with whom the reader can sometimes identify as though she were herself the poet’s partner but at other times must be read only as the expression of a lived love of Bishop’s.  ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’ begins with the lines ‘Januaries, Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs’, linking not only the physical conditions of the present with those of history, but also a degree of the emotional experience of the Brazilian landscape.  Her gaze and her lover’s, hers and her reader’s, are identified with those of humanity’s past, in particular with those of the prelapsarian conditions Bishop is getting a taste of in the Brazilian forest, the glimpse of a time before industrialisation.  In ‘Questions of Travel’ she speaks of streams which go over cliffs, ‘turning to waterfalls under our very eyes’.  She questions both the motives for and pleasures of travel, expressing herself throughout in the same first person plural:

            What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
            in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
            The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
            To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
            inexplicable and impenetrable,
            at any view,
            instantly seen, and always, always delightful?
            Oh, must we dream our dreams
            and have them, too?

Here the ‘we’ is both general, relating to the curious habits of humanity, and particular to her own experience as half of a couple.  However, the latter aspect of her reflections is more distinctly stated in poems which invoke simple details of domestic life.  In ‘Electrical Storm’ she reports that ‘We got up to find the wiring fused, / no lights, the smell of saltpetre, / and the telephone dead’.  Her ‘Song for the Rainy Season’ is likewise located in ‘the house we live in’, on the roof of which, at night, the hooting of an owl ‘gives us proof / he can count’ (since he invariably hoots in fives).  With her usual light touch, Bishop suggests intimacy merely by evoking nature’s routine interruptions of nocturnal silence.  ‘The Armadillo’ is another poem of shared night-watching, in which Bishop’s easy ‘we’ suggests not only a mutual wakefulness and watchfulness—the descent of illegal but enchanting fire balloons has to be watched in case they set light to the house—but also, by implication, a shared moment of retirement to bed once the danger and its beauty have passed.  In all these poems aesthetic appreciation is expressed as a capability shared.
Frank O’Hara thought Bishop ‘the sweetest person in the world’.

Robin Maugham

When Robin Maugham was a teenager, his uncle’s lover, Gerald Haxton, invited him to Venice—Robin was not far away, in Vienna, at the time—with the intention of sleeping with him.  It turned out that the uncle was in on the plot.  Reflecting on the incident years later, in his memoirs, Robin Maugham wrote: ‘To this day I do not know whether Willie [Somerset Maugham] had planned that Gerald should seduce me—perhaps because he loathed my father...  Or perhaps it amused him to think of his own lover having his own nephew.  Or perhaps he hoped that once I had been seduced by Gerald I would be ready to accept his own proposals of love.  In either case I felt shocked and disgusted’.  On another occasion, over dinner, uncle Willie gave Robin the following advice: ‘You are quite an attractive boy.  Der-don’t waste your assets.  Your charm won’t ler-last for long’.  One thing was certain in the younger man’s mind: he was not going to waste his assets on the likes of his uncle or his uncle’s lover.  Another piece of avuncular guidance gives a sense of why the older Maugham became rather distant, not only from his own nephew, but from younger generations’ ways of approaching the things that matter.  Willie said to Robin: ‘Money ... is a sixth sense, without which you can't make the most of the other five’.  Not that younger people, the nephew included, did not regard money as offering short-cuts to many pleasures; but the equivalence of money and the senses was felt, pretty much, in earnest by Willie.  He knew he could buy people.  He could send out for them from the fastness of the Villa Mauresque.  The relationship with Haxton was central to this economics of flesh.  As Robin Maugham expressed it, ‘Gerald was Willie’s pander; Willie was rich enough to keep him’.  Not only did this eventually leave Somerset Maugham in a poor position to comment on human relationships; it also prompted him to think that he could falsify his own, and to believe he would be believed.  According to the nephew, late in life, after Gerald Haxton’s death, ‘Willie had somehow managed to persuade himself that he had never been queer’.
            After Cambridge, Robin Maugham was trained in tank warfare at Bovington Camp in Wiltshire.  By his later account, ‘A homosexual atmosphere seemed to hang as heavily over Bovington as the low rain-clouds in the sky’.  He met the man, or one of the men, who used to beat and bugger Lawrence of Arabia when he was living at Cloud’s Hill, nearby.  Like Lawrence, Maugham was in a position to mix military life with with socialising in a completely different social stratum: a weekend at Checkers with the Churchills, for instance, enlivened by the arrival of Noël Coward for Sunday lunch.  Maugham, who had recently been invalided back to England from the Middle East with head injuries, passed out and had to be driven back to London by Coward.  After the war, Maugham worked in intelligence, using journalism as his cover.  His friend and mentor Harold Nicolson—‘who had become a kind of godfather to me in my struggle to become a writer’—introduced him to Guy Burgess.  Burgess was four years older than Maugham, and had preceded him at both Eton and Cambridge.  Maugham could see that Burgess was unstable and unpredictable already; his heavy drinking contributed to an exhibitionistic tendency which could only mean trouble.  As just one example, Maugham recalled that ‘At a large dinner party in Tangier he startled all present by giving the names of the head of each department of the British Secret Service’.
            Burgess used to like quoting E.M. Forster’s remark about hoping, given the choice, he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend.  Nobody who knew Burgess, however, could be entirely sure that he would not betray either for the sake of some short-term gain.  Wondering—as so many wondered—why the intelligence services kept on Burges and Maclean when, not only in retrospect but at the time, they were such obviously unreliable characters—Robin Maugham came to the same conclusion as others: ‘Because in those days our intelligence service was run by an “Old Boy” network and backed up by an Establishment of crypto-queer ambassadors’.  On the day of his defection, Burgess rang W.H. Auden on Ischia to ask if he could go and stay.  Auden later said to Maugham, who had been introduced to him by Michael Davidson: ‘I know exactly why Guy Burgess went to Moscow.  It wasn't enough to be a queer and a drunk.  He had to revolt still more to break away from it all.  That’s just what I’ve done by becoming an American citizen’.
            Maugham had met Michael Davidson in Tangier in 1947.  Davidson later sailed with Maugham and his lover, on their yacht Clio, to Capri to pay homage to the venerable Norman Douglas.  The latter made no bones about his sexual ideal: ‘I’ve always loved a very large possession attached to a very small boy’.  Robin Maugham seemed intent on collecting the older queer cultural figures.  In Tangier on another occasion, he arranged to meet Gerald Hamilton—Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris—in Dean’s Bar.  Now approaching seventy, Hamilton was ‘one of the most unprepossessing people’ Maugham had ever met—if hardly more so than back in the Berlin days in the 1930s—but when he spoke he became the character who had fascinated so many, including the young Isherwood.  Needless to say, his performance began with the customary claim, ‘I seem to have left my wallet behind at the hotel’.
One of the nicer ironies of Hamilton’s life is that he sat for the body of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.

Source: Robin Maugham, Escape from the Shadows (London: Robin Clark, 1981), pp.88, 89, 104, 105, 190; 116, 179-80, 182; 182, 203; 198, 205.

Tallulah Bankhead

Bankhead’s scandalous career began at her seminary when, aged twelve, she fell in love with Sister Ignatius.  As she grew to adulthood she developed her romantic and sexual interests in a way which can really only be called trisexual: she would bed heterosexual men, preferably well hung, women and homosexual men, again preferably well-hung.  She stumbled across this life unprepared, but took to it with enthusiasm and a breathtaking lack of concern for the proprieties.  She once said: ‘My father always warned me about men, but he never said anything about women!  And I don’t give a fuck what people say about me so long as they say something!’  She managed to keep them talking for the rest of her life, but her most admirable trick was always to pre-empt the insidious leakage of malicious gossip with reflexive innuendos so frank as to seem hardly believable.  Personal eccentricities, such as the refusal ever to wash her hair in anything other than Energine dry-cleaning fluid, probably helped to create the conditions in which she then felt able to defy more serious conventions in riskier ways.
When she was eighteen Bankhead began her life’s most durable and important relationship: she fell in love with Napier George Henry Sturt, the third baron Alington, to who she had been introduced in New York by his lover, Geoffrey Amherst.  Notwithstanding his general preference for his own sex, Napier Alington proved to be a more than satisfactory lover, his vigour augmented by a very large cock; if his erection ever showed signs of infirmity it could always be invigorated with a judicious bout of pain- Tallulah used her fingernails.  He proposed to her—a standard way, in those days, of ensuring more sexual contact—but after a short while he went off to England without saying goodbye.  (Bankhead did not even realise he was going until he had gone.)  In 1923, Bankhead went to London, where C.B. Cochran got her a role in Gerald du Maurier’s play The Dancers.  While there, she got together with Alington again.  (He was now the lover of Lord Edward Latham, a theatre designer.)
For a while in this period, Bankhead took dancing lessons from Léonide Massine.  She was among a group who went to Venice to stay with Cole Porter and his wife; Porter was involved in an affair with the man Bankhead called ‘my old fuck-buddy’, the actor Monty Woolley.  She began reading Rupert Brooke’s poems and letters and avidly collected whatever information she could about his affairs with other men, such as Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.  According to her biographer, ‘One of the great Bankhead philosophies was that any man capable of getting it together with one of her own sex had to be admired and set upon a pedestal’.  And indeed, from the early 1920s onward, her career was positively bejewelled with queens.  It was not that, like so many women, she felt sexually safe from them: for, of course, they were never necessarily safe from her.  Of course, the world she moved in, that of the theatre and more generally of show business, had an abundance of homosexual men, and she was bound to come into contact with some of these as her career progressed: she appeared in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels in April 1925, and was turned down by Somerset Maugham for a role in Rain, a play adapted from one of his short stories.  (When Maugham later paid her a compliment about Fallen Angels, she replied: ‘Mr Maugham, I have only two words left to say to you, and the second one is “off”’.)
Bankhead claimed to have had an affair with Big Bill Tilden, the tennis ace; she certainly had one with his doubles partner Frank hunter, with whom he won Wimbledon in 1928.  In Paris in 1929, she met Jean Cocteau; he introduced her to the pleasures of opium.  She bought The Well of Loneliness while she was there and, unmoved by its wounded solemnity, pronounced it ‘ridiculous crap’.  When T.E. Lawrence called on her, she turned his down and sent him off on his motorbike to buy her a pack of cigarettes.  In March 1930, she co-starred in The Lady of the Camellias with Glen Byam Shaw, ex-lover of Siegfred Sassoon and now the husband of Angela Baddeley.  (He and Bankhead are said to have had sex together on a number of occasions.)  She laid siege to the promiscuously gay actor Rod la Rocque until he finally gave in and went to bed with her, confirming her hunch that ‘Big things really do come in big packages’ but disappointing her in the performance.  Cecil Beaton photographed her, of course.
She moved back to the United States, at the beginning of 1931 arriving in New York on 13 January.  At some time thereafter she had an affair with the torch singer Libby Holmen, whose other lovers included Josephine Baker and Montgomery Clift.  She worked with George Cukor.  She went on cocaine-fuelled jaunts into Harlem with Noel Coward.  She shared accommodation with the interior decorator and ex-movie star William Haines.  For a while she lived with, and had an affair with, the bisexual actor Anderson Lawlor.  Whether all of her claims of sexual conquests were true is doubtful, but their cumulative weight was impressive.  She claimed an affair with Barbara Stanwyck, and she famously said to Joan Crawford: ‘I’ve already fucked with your husband, darling.  Soon it’ll be your turn!’  given the sheer weight of evidence supporting Tallulah’s reputation, this must have come as a convincing threat.  (The husband in question was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
There was a heavy price to pay for the life she had been leading.  In 1933, she was found to be riddled with gonorrhoea, and on 4 November she was given a hysterectomy, at the age of only thirty.  It was around this time that the trajectory of her career began to flatten off.  There were various disappointments, chief among them her failure to land the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind in 1937.  At the same time, when George Cukor was replaced as the film’s director—when Clark Gable, to cover  up his own sexual involvement with William Haines, one of Cukor’s ex-lovers, reported Cukor’s indiscretions to David O. Selznick—Bankhead attempted to intercede with Selznick on Cukor’s behalf, but to no avail.  She believed that Gable’s duplicity extended even to having set Haines up for arrest in Los Angeles YMCA after seeing him pick up a marine.
On 31 August 1937, Bankhead married the actor John Emery.  Needless to say, she had previously made sure that he was well hung.  When a reporter asked her how she envisaged married life, she replied: ‘Long and hard, darling!  Very long and very hard!’  These lapses from discretion (or were her lapses from the constant indiscretion that people had come to expect of her) were carefully set up and, even when she was under the influence of drugs or drink, never accidental.  At the première of Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears, she behaved well while looking after the playwright’s mother, but on handing her back to him she said: ‘There we are, darling—and I didn’t say “fuck” once!’  On another occasion she gave an interview to a Christian woman reporter who was obviously looking for a good story on ‘the most shameful woman in America’.  To disappoint her, Bankhead behaved impeccably throughout—until saying goodbye in front of a small crowd, at which point she said loudly: ‘Thank you for the most marvellous interview darling.  You’re quite the politest lesbian I’ve ever met!’  When she was having and affair with the actress Patsy Kelly, veteran of Hal Roach comedies, late in 1952, Bankhead did not deny the nature to the relationship.  ‘Some of my best friends are lesbians,’ she said ‘What’s new?’
In April 1940, Bankhead and John Emery separated; their divorce came through on 13 June 1941.  She met Montgomery Clift in 1942 when they were cast together in The Skin of Our Teeth; they slept together several times—another homosexual man on her list of conquests.  On 5 January 1954 she had a date with James Dean and, in her words, ‘got to play with his bongos’.  In the early 1940s she failed to begin a professional relationship with Tennessee Williams.  On one occasion he cycled forty miles to ask her to be in his play Battle of Angels, but she declined because- for all reasons- she found it too filthy.  Later, when he offered her the incomparable role of Blanch Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire she turned him down, reportedly because the role would have required her to utter the word ‘nigger’.  But she did finally appear as Blanche in New York in February 1956.  Her biographer David Bret claims that the first night ‘was attended by the largest single gathering of homosexuals New York had ever seen’. Her delivery of the line ‘The girls are out tonight!’ stopped the show, and Bankhead, who had for years been followed from performance to performance by voluble gangs of lesbian fans, said: ‘Now I have Gallery Girls of both sexes, thank God!’  But Tennessee Williams was not amused.  He did not want the seriousness of his plays undermined by the camp appreciation of ‘so many goddamn faggots’.  However, he was enough of an admirer of Bankhead’s to invite her, in due course, to play Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More.  She accepted when she heard the production would be directed by Tony Richardson, even if in the event the two of them did not get on well together.  Other gay men involved in this 1963 production were Ned Rorem, who provided the music, and Tab Hunter.
The relationship between her success and her scandalous behaviour sometimes seems completely inexplicable for their time.  Yet there are explanatory factors, perhaps in the very heart of the inexplicable aspect: her relationship with powerful men.  Her father Will was elected to the House of Representatives in June 1936.  (He died in 1940.)  She was a friend of Lord Beaverbrook.  When Harry S. Truman gave his inaugural address at Madison Square Garden, he invited Tallulah Bankhead to be on the platform; she gave him a short congratulatory speech and received a standing ovation from an audience of 20,000, including the President.  She even had a special understanding of some kind with J. Edgar Hoover; on a number of occasions when Billie Holiday was arrested for narcotics offences, Bankhead got Hoover to intervene.  There is a chicken-and-egg issue here.  It is difficult to establish whether such men’s friendship preceded her impunity- indeed, her virtual immunity- through decades when it could be extremely dangerous in America not to conform; or whether it was her irreverence that attracted her to them in the first place.  She was certainly capable of behaving like a ‘lady’ in powerful company, but she could not be relied on to do so.  More often, she could be relied on not to.  It may be that she enjoyed the licence of the court jester; it is likely, too, that her role as a powerful opinionated and sexually active woman was accepted, in part, because she was sexually attractive and, as a woman, not all powerful in the world that mattered.

Source: David Bret, Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life (London: Robson, 1998)

Thursday, 16 May 2013


LIBERACE (a note)

Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were all early Liberace fans.  Others included Cary Grant, who would go to Liberace’s shows once or twice a year and visited him backstage without fail.  Clearly a man with a taste for a rich mixture, Lord Montagu had Liberace and Michael Jackson to dinner on the same occasion.  Friends who were allowed to visit Liberace at home soon learned not to expect him to play any of his many pianos—including one once owned by Chopin—for them: ‘he performed only for money, not for pleasure’.  The reason he gave for denying the nature of his final illness was: ‘I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS’.

Scott Thorson & Alex Thorleifson, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace (New York: Knightsbridge, 1990), pp.84, 2.

Stephen Reynolds

In the spring of 1913, Stephen Reynolds went to Havelock Ellis in search of therapy for his homosexuality.  Ellis read Reynolds’ book A Poor Man’s House (1911) and recommended it to Edward Carpenter.  Carpenter read it, and wrote Reynolds a letter of appreciation.  Reynolds, who had been an avid reader of Carpenter’s work for some time, wrote back, delightedly recognising what had caught Carpenter’s attention: ‘I daresay you detected the homogenic basis of it’.  (‘Homogenic’ was Carpenter’s word for ‘homosexual’.)  They soon arranged to meet in London, and corresponded with each other thereafter.  Reynolds went to Carpenter’s Millthorpe in September 1918, and met George Merrill.  Carpenter showed him his collection of photos of Taorminan boys.
            A Poor Man’s House is about Reynolds’ many friendships with West Country fishermen.  Its ‘homogenic basis’ is male affection.  If there is homo-eroticism, it is heavily cloaked.  The most ardent passages describe the youngest of the male members of the Widger family, with all of whom Reynolds was friendly: ‘John is the youngest, handsomest and most powerfully built of the Widgers; the most independent, most brutal-tongued and most logical, though not, I fancy, the most perceptive’.  There is more detail some paragraphs later: ‘Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his clean-shaven face deeply and clearly coloured; a combination of the Saxon bulldog type with the seafaring man’s alertness; his heavy yet lissome frame admirably half-revealed by the simplicity of navy-blue guernsey and trousers,—it is one of the sights of Seacombe to see him walk the length of the Front with his two small boys’.  This is the most overtly celebratory passage in the book, and one can understand how Carpenter may have been drawn to it; and, indeed, why Ellis recommended it to him in the first place.  The middle-class man’s eye for the working-class man is in evidence here, of course; and Reynolds is aware that when John looks back at him he sees opportunities: ‘The advantages possessed by him—health, strength, clear-headedness, and good looks—he knows how to use, and that without scruple’.  Reynolds did not scruple to allow himself to be so used; but it seems clear that he did not make the uses of the youth he must have yearned to.
            His therapeutic sessions with Havelock Ellis, two years after the publication of A Poor Man’s House, seem to have enabled him to begin to explore his sexual needs more openly.  Meeting Carpenter would further the beneficial effects of the treatment.  He wrote a couple of poems in his newly relaxed mood.  One of them, ‘Prisoners’, was published in the New Weekly in April 1914.  It describes a handcuffed man he had seen on Salisbury station, ‘Slim, upright, fresh-faced, no more than a full-grown boy’.  In an awkward expression of sympathy, Reynolds says tears came to his eyes when he caught sight of this youth, ‘just as they will for sick pity / On seeing a beautiful animal maimed or dying, / Or a horse fallen down in a greasy London street, / Helpless, mud-smeared, and dumb’.  This patronising expression of sentiment makes more assumptions about the youth than either the poem or the sympathy can bear (‘What was his crime?  What does it matter?’), and Reynolds ends the poem with an ostentatious display of his own shame, not only at going home in comfort as the prisoner is hauled off to jail, but also at having failed to make any gesture of solidarity with his plight:

            And I more than doubt whether the prison he's gone to
            Is any more shameful than that which barred me back
            From following the kindlier impulse of the moment,
            To grip his handcuffed hand and wish him luck.

(Scoble comments that much of the poem’s power ‘comes also from the evident overtones of Oscar Wilde on Reading station’ [p.565].  It was actually at Clapham Junction that Wilde, under restraint, was spat at by the great British public; but Scoble’s point may well be correct, that Reynolds’ encounter at Salisbury might well have called Wilde to mind.) The poem is a lesser version of Carpenter’s lesser versions of Whitman, but like A Poor Man’s House it has a ‘homogenic basis’ which puts it on a par with so many of those two men’s most intensely felt works.

Christopher Scoble, Fisherman’s Friend: A Life of Stephen Reynolds (Tiverton, Devon: Halsgrove, 2000), pp.564, 653-654, 566.
Stephen Reynolds, A Poor Man’s House (London: Macmillan, 1911), pp.51-52.