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Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

John Horne Burns: Dissolute Genius

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, History, LGBT History, Writers on December 10, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Originally published in October/November issue of Boston Spirit Magazine.

At the height of his fame. John Horne Burns

At the height of his fame. John Horne Burns

John Horne Burns was on top of the world.  It was 1947 and his book on World War II, The Gallery, was a smash hit. Gore Vidal told friends that Burns had beaten him to the punch in producing the first great book about the war.  No less than Earnest Hemingway praised the book and its first-time author. At 31, Burns was the toast of literary America.

Just seven years later, Burns was found dead in Italy.  He was broke, friendless, dissipated from drink, and artistically dried up.  Today, he is forgotten.

A recent New York Times story suggested that Burns was the “the great (gay) novelist you’ve never heard of.”  This is why readers of David Margolick’s new biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press, 2013), come away respecting his account of this troubled man for its own sake, but also grateful that an important, if brief, literary life is now saved from oblivion.

Burns came from an upper-middle class Irish Catholic family in Andover, a Boston suburb.  His mother Catherine, was a Smith graduate who suspected she had married beneath her “lace-curtain Irish” status to his father, although he was a Harvard-trained lawyer. Catherine doted on her oldest son from the start. Indeed, it seemed John and his mother stood apart from the rest of the family, poking fun at them while winking to each other.  Perhaps it was this example, set early in life, which caused John to take the outsider’s role of critic, never able to fully join any group. The brittle protection of the sarcastic barb made from the sidelines was a well-known technique of some gay men of the time (and even today).

After graduating from Harvard in 1937, Burns knew he wanted to write but work was a necessity and he found a teaching post at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. Though some students admired his passionate love of music and literature, Burns was not popular with everyone.  He ignored students who bored him and stood aloof from his fellow teachers whom he saw as minnows in a small fish bowl. Burns comments could be brutal. Gore Vidal would later call him “a monster.”

Burns was drafted in 1941 and although he and his family were pacifists, he was happy to leave Loomis.  At first, he was stationed in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Young men and his sex life improved considerably now surrounded burns.  Burns wrote letters to a gay student he had become close to at Loomis, David MacMackin, regaling him with stories of life in the service including his sexual liaisons with gay men, whom Burns referred to in jocular code as “dreadfuls.”

Burns was soon shipped overseas and after a couple of stops, landed in Naples.  Fluent in Italian, Burns’s job was to read the outgoing mail of Italian prisoners of war to detect intelligence or coded messages.  As the war was winding down, Burns  fell in love with Naples. His hit book, The Gallery, came from this experience.

The Gallery consisted of nine portraits of men and women whose common thread is a connection to the Galleria Umbreto Primo in Naples, a majestic shopping arcade with a glass roof that was mostly shot out from bombs.  GI’s passed through the Galleria everyday as many Neapolitans do – to shop, meet for espresso, or for intimate assignations in its darkened corners.  The portraits included frank yet mater-of-fact descriptions of gay men and lesbians.  The most notable portrait was of “Momma,” who ran a gay bar for GI’s in one of the storefronts of the Galleria.

After The Gallery was published to rave reviews, Burns suddenly found himself the writer of the moment at a time when novelists enjoyed the acclaim that movie directors have today.  But with the accolades came the pressure to produce another hit book. Burns moved to Boston’s West End to write and to frequent nearby gay bars in Scollay Square.  His second novel, Lucifer With a Book was a searing satire of prep school life with characters closely based on his former Loomis colleagues.  The book bombed with the critics. Despite the book’s good sales, Burns was devastated by the critical reaction and he decided to return to Italy, this time to Florence.

Day after day Burns could be seen drinking at the bar in the Excelsior Hotel in Florence, looking straight ahead and rarely spoke to anyone.  He had always been a heavy drinker but now it turned into a daily drunk.  Despite this, Burns managed to publish a third book A Cry of Children. This time, the critics savaged the book. Charles Lee in The Saturday Review called it an “omnibus of depravity.”  According to David Margolick, “Burns had made himself a target, by being bitchy both in Lucifer With A Book and in his general behavior.”

After spending the day on a boat with his lover and friends, Burns suffered a severe form of sun poisoning which landed him in the hospital. He died several days later.  Did he want to die? Margolick does not think so: “Though Burns was slowly killing himself with drink, I don’t think he wanted to die…he wanted desperately to write something great again. …Even the tone of his last letter, describing the relish with which he was cooking and eating at his seaside resort, suggests he still very much enjoyed life.”

When Earnest Hemingway heard about Burns’s death, he wrote to a friend, “There was a fellow who wrote a fine book and then a stinking book about a prep school and then just blew himself up.”

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Rudy Kikel: Boston Poet Who Influenced How A Generation Saw Itself

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, History, Reading, Writers on March 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm

DSC_0192Published in Boston Spirit Magazine January/February 2013

Before gay rights, there was gay writing.  Author Christopher Bram wrote recently that “the gay revolution began as a literary revolution.”

In Boston, no gay male writer has had more influence or staying power than poet, Rudy Kikel. Publishers Weekly called his work “in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, stylish, elegant, and clever.”  In 1992, Kikel won a Cultural Achievement Award from the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance. In 1997, he won the Grolier Award for poetry.  He has published five books of poetry and edited two collections.

Kikel’s work is autobiographical and strikingly personal.  While gay men recognize themselves in the details (cruising, coming out) Kikel also addresses universal themes: school, dates, parental relations and finding one’s own path.  His poems are so accessible, it is easy to miss the double meanings and careful structure.  For example, in “Show Dancing,” Kikel reveals how he and an ostensibly straight member of his college fraternity, often ditched their dates early in the evening for quiet encounters together.

…(dates) had been deposited

at their homes, talks in the blue

sedan would ensue, during which

Bob’s hands would be innocently

called into play upon your

person — or your nerves — as on

a musical instrument…

Kikel’s poems consist of alternating lines of seven and eight syllables.  The lines roll along with ease of sound and meaning but the small variation in syllables prod the reader to look deeper.  Critic George Klawitter has dubbed these metered lines, “kikels,” in Rudy’s honor.

Although not overtly political, Kikel’s poems fostered an emerging gay identity. Scholar Michael Bronski met Kikel in the late 1970s.  Bronski stands by a statement he made in a 2004 interview, “…while other people who saw themselves as artists were adamant in always distancing themselves from any political movement, Rudy saw his art as part of – I don’t know whether he’d use this word – part of the enormous upsurge of gay literature.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1942 of immigrant parents, Kikel came from a family of outsiders.  His parents came from Gottschee, a tiny province in what is now Slovenia.  Gottscheers are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group whose dialect resembles medieval German.  Over the centuries Gottschee was invaded by Turks, occupied by Napoleon, and swallowed up by Yugoslavia.  This outsider perspective served Kikel as a gay poet.

After attending Catholic schools, Kikel entered St. John’s University in Queens, NY in 1960. On the outside, he was a conventional student majoring in English.  He joined a fraternity and had a girl friend.  But on weekend nights, he frequented gay bars in nearby Jackson Heights and on Long Island.  It was around this time that he brought his sister (his only sibling) to a gay bar called the Hayloft.  He wanted to introduce her to his other life.  When she saw Rudy kiss another boy, she cried and ran out of the bar.  Later, she called him a “faggot” in front of their parents who had no idea what the word meant.

After college, Kikel earned a master’s degree from Penn State and in 1975, he completed a PhD in English from Harvard. He taught at Suffolk University for a short time but disliked it and soon quit.  He moved to an apartment on Charles Street on Beacon Hill where he became the building’s superintendent, while he wrote poetry.

For Kikel, the 1970s were filled with bars, sex, and dinner parties.  He was still writing and hanging out with other writers.  Kikel still recalls the night he attended a party on Beacon Hill at which the late writer Paul Monette, famously met his future partner Roger Horowitz.  (Monette wrote about the meeting in Becoming A Man: Half A Life Story). As they left the party, Monette turned to Horowitz and said, “Welcome to the rest of your life.”

By 1983, Kikel was ready for a change.  He wanted to move to New York City to be closer to family and to ramp up his sex life at the clubs along the Hudson, including a favorite, the Mineshaft, which even by the standards of the time, was notorious.

But as Kikel prepared to leave, local entrepreneur, Sasha Alyson asked him to stay.  Allyson was starting a gay weekly newspaper focusing on local news from a mainstream progressive perspective.  The other gay paper in town, Gay Community News, founded in 1973, had a national focus with a militant tilt. Alyson’s newspaper became Bay Windows, New England’s weekly GLBT newspaper, which will turn 30 years old this year.  Allyson ultimately convinced Kikel to remain in Boston, a decision Kikel says may have kept him from succumbing to the AIDS epidemic that took many lives, including his lover Craig Rowland who died in 1991.

Alyson, who now lives in Southeast Asia, recently recalled a brain storming session with Kikel about the naming of the new paper. “(Rudy and I) looked through a list of words and phrases associated with Boston and came upon “bay windows.”  Kikel argued that in addition to being a familiar Boston architectural element, “bay windows” suggested multiple views on Boston’s GLBT community.  The name stuck.  Kikel served as the paper’s arts and entertainment editor for many years.

Slowed by illness in recent years, Kikel’s sense of humor is undiminished.  When asked where he met his husband, Sterling Giles (they married in February 2012), Kikel eyes brighten and he laughs quietly, “We met on the Esplanade about 25 years ago – during the day!” Long seen as a night time gay cruising area, the Esplanade runs along the Charles River.  Life in the shadows was never for him.

John Mitzel Isn’t Going Anywhere

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, Reading, Writers on September 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm

By Mark Krone

(Article originally published in September/October issue of Boston Spirit Magazine)

Owner of One of the Last Gay Book Stores in America Presides Over Small Intellectual Kingdom on South Street

For gay bookstores, these are the last days of disco.  Legendary outlets such as Lambda Rising in Washington DC, A Different Light in San Francisco, and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York have all closed. But in downtown Boston, on South Street, Calamus Book Store stubbornly remains open. “As long as I am here, this will be here,” says owner John Mitzel.

When it comes to post-Stonewall gay activism in Boston, John Mitzel was there. He was there at the first organizing meeting of Gay Pride in 1971.  He was there at the beginning of gay publications such as Fag Rag and Gay Community News.  And there, too, when gay people turned to the courts in 1978, establishing the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). He was also an early author of books primarily for the gay market. His new collection of short stories, Last Gleamings, on friends he lost to AIDS, will come out this fall. Considering his impact on gay Boston, Mitzel should be better known.

On a recent afternoon, Mitzel, 64 is sprawled on a burgundy futon sofa just below the store’s window.  He is wearing his signature police officer’s uniform, shirt with shoulder epaulets, black tie with tie clasp, dark blue pants, and black oxford shoes. His white hair is combed back, parted on the left side.  As customers descend the few steps into the store, the first thing they hear is Mitzel’s voice, deep and precise. He sits facing the main book display that features selections for the serious reader, an Edmund White novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend stands next to Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws, a look at post World War II gay writers.Scattered throughout the store are large photography books with iconic male beauties looking at distant horizons or longingly at each other.  In a small corner at the back of the store, where coal was once stored, the porn section is shelved. Mitzel is holding forth on subjects from the recent legal fight over the late philanthropist Brooke Astor’s estate to Boston’s wrenching busing wars of the 1970s. One of the few rules at the store is, don’t interrupt Mitzel.

Raised outside Cincinnati, “a beautiful city but very right-wing”, Mitzel’s parents divorced before he reached his teens.  Both parents went on to marry two more times. In high school, Mitzel was popular and his grades were good.  He had every reason to expect a bright future. There was however, just one problem.  He began disappearing on nights and weekends, often returning in the early morning hours. At first, his mother was puzzled.  She soon decided to hire a private investigator, who informed her that John was going to gay bars and bus stations and picking up men. Determined to halt his nocturnal activities she decided to forcibly admit him to a mental hospital.  A distraught and confused Mitzel sought out the hospital psychiatrist assigned to him. “I asked him, why am I here? He said, ‘Well, obviously your mother does not like you being homosexual.’  If you were queer back then, psychiatry and institutionalization was very standard.”  Mitzel was institutionalized twice more that year until finally, he ran away from home, moving to Boston in 1965.

In 1968, Mitzel was drafted and had to return to Cincinnati.  As he stood in his underwear with several dozen other men, he was handed a questionnaire that included the famous line asking about homosexual tendencies — not asking if you were a homosexual — but if you had homosexual tendencies. “I thought, clever writing — someone had read Kinsey.”  Mitzel checked the box “yes” and was promptly sent to the psychiatrist.  “So I sat down in his office, and crossed my legs. I tried to do my best Natalie Wood impression.  And he said, ‘You have homosexual tendencies.  Are you actively homosexual?’  And I looked at him and flirted with my eyelids, and said, ‘Not as active as I’d like to be.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’re 4-F Freddy.” Deemed unfit for service, Mitzel was free to go. It was one year before the Stonewall uprisings. “It was good timing because Judy Garland died six months later and the gay revolution started.  I didn’t want to be off in Danang shooting Vietnamese.”

Mitzel enrolled at BU, where he studied with Howard Zinn, among other professors. He attended a Student Homophile League meeting there in 1971, where he met gay scholar Charley Shively. Mitzel and Shively both believed that the Boston gay community needed newspapers. They co-founded the radical newspaper, Fag Rag in 1971.  “We published political essays, manifestos, movie and book reviews, and lots of poetry.”

Mitzel, Shively and David Peterson (co-founder of Gay Community News) and several others organized the first Gay Pride March in 1971. “The first (Pride) meeting occurred in one of our apartments in the Fenway.  After Stonewall happened in New York, the idea of doing a march in Boston was in the air, but we were the only radical gays in town; no one else was going to do it. The route began at Jacques because the lesbians demanded clean toilets in gay bars. Then it moved to the State House for obvious reasons and over to Police Headquarters (then on Berkeley Street) and finally to St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

In 1973, Mitzel, along with two other Fag Rag writers, Steven Abbott and Tom Reeves, snagged an interview with Gore Vidal.  Mitzel sent a Fag Rag up to Vidal at the Ritz where he was staying. “He gave us an hour and we interviewed him in the (Ritz) Café; it was fun. I’ve communicated with him over the years.”

The Vidal interview came in handy several years later when in 1978, Mitzel helped arrange an appearance by the famous author at a fundraiser for the Boston-Boise Committee.  The committee was created to defend a group of gay men arrested at the Boston Public Library bathroom for illegal sex acts they did not commit. The Boston-Boise Committee spawned two organizations with very different reputations, according to Mitzel: the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), a group that lends legal support to members of the LGBT community and the National Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  “It was a little yin and a little yang,” says Mitzel, flashing a covert smile.

In the 1980s, Mitzel was a projectionist at the South Station Cinema, the first gay porn movie house in Boston. “Some people slept there, others played. It was both recreational and residential.” One night, a man came in wearing a mink coat.  He had a heart attack and somehow his coat was left in the theater. The next day, his wife stormed into the theater demanding the coat.  She was more interested in the coat than what her husband was doing in the theater. Time in the projection booth allowed Mitzel to write.  He’s written 10 books, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and short stories.

Still on the sofa, Mitzel and a customer talk about Sarah Schulman’s latest book, Gentrification of the Mind, as customers, mostly men with graying or white hair, trickle in to the store to browse.  Most are not buyers.  “In the first few years, sales increased steadily but not anymore,” says longtime Calamus employee, Brian Gale.  According to Mitzel, the decline is not all due to the Internet. “I lost a whole group (of customers) to AIDS. They’d come in and were curious about everything – and they’d buy books on everything. That reading culture may be gone.”

But the Internet’s effect on retail sales generally is undeniable. For young people, the convenience of the electronic market place has rendered going to a bookstore to buy a book akin to churning their own butter. But when a book store closes, gone too, are the book signings by authors you admire, community meetings, chance encounters, or exposure to the distinct personality of the store’s owner, who rules over an intellectual kingdom, where customers take refuge from life’s boredom and brutality. If Calamus Book Store closes, there will be no app for what’s been lost.

Noël Coward Nights

In Writers on July 10, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Ticket Stubs for "Noël Coward in Two Keys" March 8, 1974

My late mother was a fan of Noël Coward.  She took me to several of his plays on Broadway in my early teenage years.  Circumstances were somewhat threadbare in those days but these evenings were exciting and glamorous.  We usually ended up at Sardi’s afterward straining to overhear conversations at the next table. Oh Coward was the first one we saw; it was 1971, my freshman year of high school.

We saw Noël Coward in Two Keys in March 1974 (see ticket stubs) starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  The play was actually two short plays, Come Into the Garden Maud and A Song at Twightlight.

Later, in Boston, I saw one of Coward’s early and more serious plays, The Vortex, about a young man struggling with drug addiction.  Written in 1928, it was well ahead of its time.

Summer of Love

In Book Review, Writers on June 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Hour Between by Sebastian Stuart (Alyson Books 2009)

In the academic year preceding the Summer of Love, a young man named Arthur who struggles with his sexuality, is thrown out of Collegiate, a private school in Manhattan. His distant parents deport him to a boarding school in Connecticut in the hope that he will make friends and do some work.

He is a skinny, thoughtful kid who’d just as soon leave the frantic pace of the city, if only to take a breath.

In 1973, I too, was all but ousted from a private school in Manhattan and sent off to a boarding school in Connecticut by a distant parent.  I  also was a skinny, overly sensitive kid who worried about being gay, the state of the world, and many other things that got in the way of a good time.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I needed to take a breath from the city, too.

Once at the boarding school, Arthur meets Katrina, a fascinating but troubled daughter of a movie star who seems to know him better than he knows himself.

Katrina is a kind of 16 year-old Judy Garland — small, fragile, but also larger than life. Her eyes are huge and almost too expressive.  Her hair is short, jet-black and she pushes it back whenever she is nervous.  She is spookily intuitive and broadly knowledgable but she rarely reads and never studies.

All in all, Katrina is the kind of miraculous person you can meet when you’re a teenager because you still believe such a person exists.

In keeping with the ever-present upheaval of the time, the boarding school itself is undergoing turmoil as the faculty has split into two camps: the lenient, pro-creativity side vs. the traditional, bed-check side.

Was it David Olgilvy, the late, loquacious adman, who laid down the challenge that he could devise an ad that anyone in the world would stop and read? (If you find it was someone else, please write.)  When asked how he could do this, Olgilvy said something like, “If I put your name in the ad, you’ll stop to look at it.”

Well, yes, but you’d have to make almost 7 billion ads, one for every person on earth. But of course, that’s too literal.  I assume Olilvy’s point was to create an ad that could speak to you in such a personal way that you’d have to stop and read it.

For me, The Hour Between  is that kind of book.  It had my name on it.  Is its appeal universal enough for a larger audience?  I think so.  It is a coming of age book, full of interesting characters who illuminate a time when everything was changing.

Even when Sebastian Stuart’s characters are at their snottiest, elitist worst, their vulnerability saves them.  You care about what will happen to them and you mourn the ones you suspect won’t survive the cynicism and drugs that formed the dark side of the Age of Aquarius.

Friendships Lost; Windham’s Legacy

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm

In 1939, a Greyhound bus pulled into New York City, dusty from its trip north from Atlanta.  On board was Donald Windham, a young man of 19, full of literary ambition and gifted with the ability to befriend important people with astonishing speed.

Within two years of his arrival in New York, Windham was hired as an assistant by the brilliant Lincoln Kirstein for his magazine, The Dance Index,  and was collaborating with Tennessee Williams on a play, You Touched Me.

Windham seemed to know “everyone” in literary circles from Gore Vidal to Truman Capote, E.M. Forster, and Alice B. Toklas, among many others.

As a writer, he worked hard during his first 15 years in New York, yet got little published.

In 1962, Windham’s short story collection, The Warm Country, was published.  Three years later, a novel, Two People, was published to poor reviews, perhaps due to its gay theme.  It was not until he began publishing his memoirs, mining adventures with famous friends, that he received warm notices.  But not all of his friends were happy.  When Windham published Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965 in 1977, the great playwright cut all ties.  (Information mostly from Windham’s New York Times obituary by William Grimes.)

Windham died in 2010.  He and his partner, Sandy Campbell, who died in 1988,  left a substantial gift to Yale University to fund literature prizes.  Campbell and Windham were together since 1943.

The Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes will be funded by the estate of American writer and memoirist Donald Windham, who died in May of 2010 at the age of 89. Seven to nine grants will be awarded each year starting in late 2012 or early 2013, and each grant will be worth $150,000, making the prizes some of the largest in English literature.

The program will award seven to nine $150,000 prizes annually to recognize both established and promising writers in fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Poetry may be added as a fourth category at a later time. Windham did not attend college, and therefore his will stated a particular interest in ensuring that writers who are not connected to an academic institution are included for consideration.

According to his will, Windham also wished to ensure that the prizes would be substantial enough to enable each recipient to spend a full year writing, unencumbered by financial concerns. —Yale Daily News

Where He Learned To Read

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

The End by Salvatore Scibona

If like me, you had a series of mind-numbing jobs in your teens and twenties, you might like Salvatore Scibona’s piece in the current New Yorker (June 13 & 20 2011).

Before I was 22, I had been a bus boy, waiter, bartender, doorman, janitor, Christmas tree salesman, delivery boy, movie theatre usher, bellman, messenger, dishwasher, elevator man, and cashier.  Like Scibona, I had no clear career path but I daydreamed about a lot of careers:  actor, politician, radio personality, writer, singer, baseball player.  I’d fantasize about hitting a grand slam out of Yankee Stadium, as Mickey Mantle, near retirement,  stood at home plate waiting to congratulate me.  Other times, I pictured myself striding toward the podium at the Americana Hotel in midtown Manhattan to declare victory in my race for mayor.  I’d graciously thank my opponent who I said, had fought a “spirited campaign.”  Leaving the ballroom, I’d wave, enjoying the grudging respect of hardened street reporters and the adoration of volunteers.  Finally, I’d turn and kiss my….that’s where the daydream ended.  I didn’t have a wife and the chances were not good that I’d ever have one.    All of this danced in my mind as I scraped crust off dishes or wrapped prickly Douglas Firs for delivery on Christmas Eve.

Scibona writes of his journey from KFC worker to student of the Great Books at St. John’s University, but his story is not so much that he was saved from menial jobs.  Education, especially a classical one,  offered him a chance at a romantic life, lived for ideas, not for a wage.   Intellectual curiosity and menial jobs are more compatible than some people think.  While you are allowing muscle memory to pay the rent, your thoughts are as free as summer mustangs.

Salvatore Scibona’s New Yorker story


Lord Byron, Anorexic

In Writers on June 9, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Well…maybe.  According to Andrew Crisp, an emiritus professor of psychiatry at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London, the poet Lord Byron suffered from severe anorexia nervosa.  In an article in The Independent, Crisp says Byron’s weight varied wildly, from a high of 204 pounds to a low of 136.

“Don’t you think I get thinner?” Byron said to one correspondent. “I am as thin as a skeleton – thinner than you saw me at my first arrival in Venice and thinner than yourself.”

Byron asked for just “hard biscuits and soda water” when dining out. When these were not available he ate potatoes drenched in vinegar. By 1821 he said he could not eat more than once a day, took quantities of vinegar to lessen his appetite and dosed himself with Epsom salts, magnesia and strong laxatives.

The Weirdest Moments of the Vidal-Mailer Feud

In Literary Feuds, New York Individualists, Writers on June 8, 2011 at 12:44 am

Reconciled: Mailer, Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut photographed in May 2003 for Vanity Fair

Before the 1971 Cavett show taping, Vidal and Mailer met in the green room as they waited to go on. According to Mailer’s memoir The Time of Our Time (Random House, 1998), he admits to head-butting Vidal. Mailer had read somewhere that a head butt robbed one of the ability to form clear thoughts for 20 minutes. As the footage posted yesterday shows, it did not work.

In 1977, Mailer threw a drink at Vidal and punched him.  On the ground, Vidal famously remarked, “As usual, words fail him.”

Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show

In New York Individualists, Writers on June 6, 2011 at 1:45 am


Dick Cavett Show, 1971

I am not a believer in the “good the old days” but there are things I miss. One is TV talk shows with interesting guests who are given the time to speak. Charlie Rose is the only one now but his show is more classroom than saloon.  This clip will show you what I mean. The third participant, the very stately New Yorker columnist (“A Letter From Paris”) Janet Flanner, is the perfect foil for the egos around her (including her own). Read Dick Cavett’s take on this memorable night.

Book Review: Book Shrinks Large Personality

In New York Individualists, Writers on June 5, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Capote With His Swans. Open Source Image.

Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers
(Book review by Mark Krone published in The Gay & Lesbian ReviewMay/June 2008.)
For a time, Truman Capote was fading from collective memory.
When discussed at all, he was quickly and safely caricatured into a long scarf and a spoiled child’s voice much in the way that Elvis became little more than his peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. True originals confound easy categorization and cannot be miniaturized to fit the needs of our media culture, itself sustained by that unsettling combination of adoration and jealous contempt of the star class. Occasionally, even genuine fans unwittingly contribute to their hero’s obliteration by flattening them with sentimentalism and stereotype.
Unfortunately, just such a disservice has been rendered to Truman Capote and his life-long friend, Harper Lee by Kim Powers in his recent book Capote in Kansas, a fictionalized account of their relationship including the time they spent together in Kansas investigating the Clutter murders, the subject of Capote’s most famous book, In Cold Blood.Born in New Orleans in 1924, Truman Capote inherited his father’s hard drinking and his mother’s social ambitions, traits that would later prove lethal to Capote’s career and health. His mother’s departure from the small southern town where they lived for Park Avenue and a second husband might have worked out for young Truman whose theatrical demeanor was more suited for New York where even children are socially ambitious, but she left him behind, a rejection that was not lost on the child who responded by escaping deeper into literary fantasy and a fragile grandiosity that never left him.

Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms made him famous at 24. His literary talent was all the more unusual for his relative lack of a formal education. An indifferent student, he completed high school but never attended college and was never known to read much (Gore Vidal remarked in his memoir Palimpsest that Capote was intellectually incurious.) At around this time, Capote formed a close relationship with literary scholar Newton Arvin. Their friendship was an intellectual revelation to Capote. Arvin introduced him to a wide range of ideas and filled in large gaps in knowledge through the best means for the loquacious Capote – conversations — that often lasted well into the dark Westchester nights at Yaddo, where they were both on writing fellowships.

A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a collection of short stories was published to warm reviews in 1949 securing Capote’s position as a major new stylist who evoked the rich night world of hard rains and Spanish moss where the yawning gulf between children and adults produced a solitary silence that rang throughout all of his later work.

Indeed this gulf of silence and longing, first hollowed out by the wake his mother left that stretched from Monroeville, Alabama, where he sat in trees promising his friend Harper Lee that his mother was coming for him (and never did) to New York society, proved so deafening that all the money, fame and booze he could muster against it later in life, were never enough until it presaged the silence of the afterlife itself.

Despite its tragic overtones, Capote’s life was also triumphant and this should not be forgotten. He was brave and candid if not always truthful. He probed the darkest hearts behind the phony Pepsodent smiles of the 1950s and early 1960s. His era was not a time for candor, to put it mildly, yet Capote’s very existence was a rebuke to the suffocating sexual mores which smothered the nation yet had astonishingly little effect on him.

Tightlipped and archly polite during the work week, how many gay gentlemen and ladies returned home to root for Capote as he slugged it out on Johnny Carson’s sofa with the over-heated, macho stars of the era, defiantly lisping insults in any direction he chose. Gossip columnists thought Capote’s targets were important but they were just straw men standing in for the repressive expectations of society; it was the defiance that mattered. Capote was effeminate all right, but so were all the bravest men who could not take cover behind a Marlboro’s man persona and decided to live with the consequences rather than in the shadows. This must be why Norman Mailer once called Capote “a ballsy little guy,” no small compliment from the late literary prizefighter, who like Hemingway, valued physical courage above good writing but preferred to possess both.

Eras and most of the writers they produce come and go, especially now that most of what is written (and presumably read) never makes it onto paper but stays afloat in the wispy warehouse of words and images called cyberspace. By the 1990s, Capote’s reputation was fading. Then came the movies: Capote in 2005 followed by Infamousin 2006. With them, Capote had finally achieved in death what had eluded him during the last 20 years of his life, a comeback.

Directed by Bennett Miller and based on a portion of Gerald Clarke’s authoritative biography of the same name, Capote, was somewhat overshadowed by the dead-on Oscar-winning portrayal of the author by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Infamous was then released by Warner Independent Films, directed by Douglas McGrath and based on George Plympton’s Conversations with Capote. Although it suffered by opening after CapoteInfamous provided a fascinating psychological examination of what lead to Capote’s inability to produce another novel after In Cold Blood. It also includes much of the background of Capote’s unsuccessful struggle to complete Answered Prayers, his thinly disguised account of New York society that lost him friends and dinner invitations from Fifth Avenue to River House.

It is difficult to imagine that even a successful TV writer like Kim Powers could have sold a fictionalized account of Capote and Harper Lee researching In Cold Blood without the increased interest in Capote the movies generated.

A writer for Good Morning America, Powers first book, The History of Swimming, was a memoir centering on the trials of twin brothers growing up gay in a dysfunctional family. In Capote In Kansas, Powers’ turns his attention to two writers who influenced and fascinated him and one suspects that this is a book he had to write but unfortunately, it not one that must be read.

The danger in fictionalizing people who have led outsized lives more strange than fiction is that they will be diminished in the hands of all but the most skillful writers. Powers is not able to harness Capote’s manic conversational brilliance. There is no evidence of the well-timed remark or the intriguing anecdotal story involving other famous people (Capote knew them all). Why not take advantage of this singularly captivating storyteller to dress up the book and keep the reader’s attention? Powers’ Capote is a frightened, weepy bore.

If Capote lacks sparkle, the rest of the characters are even less engaging. Myrtle, Capote’s long-suffering salt-of-the-earth housekeeper has all the complexity of a 1930s MGM maid as she repeats to herself constantly “only God knows what’s in the minds of white people.” She refers to Capote as “Mr. Truman” and when they are both outside crouching next to a car (don’t ask why), Powers describes them thusly, “There they were Ebony and Ivory, propped up against the metal backrest of a rusted-out car, the dark sky and palm trees high around them.” Ebony and Ivory?

At one point, Capote and Lee are leaving a bar in Kansas, Powers writes of Capote’s exuberant bar hopping, “Oh, this night was young, and cold; and there were places to see and miles to go before they slept.” This limp allusion to Frost begs for the saving deletion of an editor’s pen.

Harper Lee referred to as Nelle, the name her friends called her, is portrayed as a southern spinster who lives with her prickly, suspicious sister, also a spinster. She has written To Kill a Mockingbird, which wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. but nothing since. Unfortunately, Powers raises the issue that at the time of the release of the book, rumors circulated that Capote and not Lee, had written it. This runs counter to everything we know (good and bad) about Capote. Sharing credit was not his thing. If something of his had won the Pulitzer, he would have claimed it. It seems odd to raise this long forgotten rumor about an author (Lee) that Powers professes to admire.

Capote in Kansas centers on ghostly visitations to Capote from the Clutter family whose murder by two men who broke into their home ostensibly to steal cash but after finding none, murdered Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their children on a wind swept Kansas prairie formed the basis for In Cold Blood. The ghostly daughter Nancy, who angrily demands an apology from him for exploiting their tragic murders for his book, especially unnerves Capote. Even this seems to hit a wrong note. Capote’s essential conflict had more to do with his relationship to the killers then with the family. He befriended them to win their trust for the sake of the book but was also appalled by their crime and portrayed it in all its gruesomeness in the book. The deeper he probed into the minds of the killers, the more he saw that they were not as unlike him and the rest of humanity as he wanted to believe.

There are few writers who are also public personalities these days mostly because there is no longer a public forum for them. Talk show hosts will not book them for fear that they will use a large word or say something complex. It is difficult to imagine feuds between writers mattering as when Vidal battled with Mailer or Capote or all three battled each other. It was a rather long time ago now. From photos, Capote’s apartment looks like Oscar Wilde could have lived there. The Pottery Barn generation of gay men would have seemed foreign to him and would have amused him (“why do they all want to live like Donna Reed?” he might have asked). And he would not have crossed the threshold of a gym for all the vodka in the Russian Tea Room.

For all the book’s faults, Powers must be thanked. It’s been a long time since we last heard from Truman Capote. Like the recent movies, it brought him back to us. We had not realized how much we missed him.

Dick Wimmer, Author Whose Book Was Rejected 162 Times

In Writers on May 29, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Who cannot relate to Dick Wimmer, the writer whose obituary (he was 74) was splashed across many major news outlets this past week?  The itinerant English college instructor’s first book, Irish Wine, was rejected 162 times.

Horatio Alger fans come closer: Wimmer’s book was accepted the 163rd time and to good reviews.

It was followed by two other books forming the Irish Wine trilogy, which itself was followed by anthologies edited by Wimmer on baseball and basketball.

May he now rest in peace, next to the wary editors who rejected him.

Mr. Wimmer, who after 25 years of submissions and more than 150 rejections finally got that book published — to very positive reviews — died on May 18 at his home in Agoura Hills, Calif., his son said. He was 74.

Saying that agents and publishers had spurned him 162 times, Mr. Wimmer laid claim to being the most-rejected published novelist in history. Finally, in 1989, “Irish Wine” was published by Mercury House.  –New York Times, May 24, 2011