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