Edmund White: Sex, Success, and Survival
Sex, mortality, and the importance of pleasure—Edmund White tells Tim Teeman about his art of survival in his latest memoir.
Edmund White opened the door, took one look at my blood-covered face and hands, and called softly for his husband Michael Carroll. “Oh my goodness, what happened?” White asked. Moments before, I had opened the door to White’s Manhattan apartment block’s inner stairwell (healthy me, taking the stairs), slipped and bashed my head square against the concrete wall (not so healthy me, I’ll take the elevator next time). A deep gash immediately started seeping blood. Carroll, the gentle hero of the hour, cleaned me up and took me to the hospital.
The line of the day, of course, was White’s. As I stood bleeding on his living room carpet, he said, “Is there anything I can do?” I was in the dazed act of bleeding and didn’t answer. White, 74, thought for a moment. “Would you like a root beer?” he suddenly said, then went off to the fridge, purloined a bottle, opened it and passed it to my bloody right hand and so as I bled I sipped root beer, White gently smiling. Well, if I have a serious head injury, this must count as the best last moment of clarity, I thought.
You would know how good White is with words, how precise, clever and mischievous, if you’ve ever read his many books, from A Boy’s Own Story, the 1980s coming out classic, to his masterful biography of Jean Genet, to his many memoirs, including now Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. In the 1970s he wrote States of Desire, a kind of road-trip around gay America, and co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex, which he was, and remains, eminently well-qualified to write about. If you’ve read White, you’ll have read about the hustlers young and old, the public sex, the sex everywhere, and his time as an SM slave to a much-younger master. Alongside Armistead Maupin, he is one of America’s best-known gay writers. He is a professor of creative writing at Princeton and, among his many awards, is an Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Inside a Pearl isn’t the first time White has taken readers to Paris, where he lived from 1983 to 1998: he has published one book on the delights of being a flaneur there, and another with Hubert Sorin, a much-loved former partner, who supplied sketches of the most treasured elements of their life there.
As well as a portrait of a city and the odd state of being an émigré, Inside a Pearl features White being his usual gossipy and indiscreet self. He reveals Lauren Bacall to be a bad lunch date, revels in the literary gossip of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, uncovers Michel Foucault’s warm side, and analyses what makes the Americans and French different—and what, he says, made him the writer he is today. There are walk-ons from Yves Saint Laurent (“Once you got to know him, you got to know everyone, his circle was so small”).
White also writes about a masked ball he attended, held by France’s then two most prominent women, Bernadette Chirac (wife of then-French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac) and Danielle Mitterand (wife of then-French President François Mitterand). It was a ridiculously glamorous evening, he recalls: Pavarotti singing opera, TV cameras wheeling around, the very glamorous tête-à-tête-ing. The book is shaped by his close friendship with Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, wife of Laurent, who continued to write his father Jean’s Babar The Elephant book series after Jean’s death.
Two days after my accident, White and I speak by phone. “I had a unique experience there,” he says of Parisian living. “I didn’t reach the summit of it, but I really did meet all those people thanks to Marie-Claude.” The book is about sex of course, but also about the culture clash of an American—even an erudite, inquiring, social one like White—set against the sometimes-impenetrable mores of the French.
Whereas Americans call anyone a friend, says White, the French will only admit to having three or four “friends,” for example. Fortunately for White, he was also a writer, “and they have the highest prestige” in France. Marie-Claude was phenomenally well-connected, too. White was so urbane and well-behaved the French didn’t believe he was American, and he was often asked if he was English, and which part of England he was from.
De Brunhoff, who died sixteen years ago, had a “special gift for friendship,” White says. “She also knew how to be intimate friends with a gay man without ever confusing that, as some straight women do—which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable—for a sexual intimacy. What we can learn most from the French, White says, is about experiencing something simply for pleasure, taking pleasure from life, “enjoying pleasure for pleasure’s sake, including in sex.”
Inside a Pearl sees White first with a boyfriend—who loves watching American daytime soaps with college girlfriends—then later cruising in parks, meeting sexual partners who become friends, having sex with a dangerous young hustler, and also falling in love with Sorin. “I’ve never been an exclusive lover, although when I’ve been head over heels in love with someone I’ve usually been faithful,” says White. “I thought Paris was really good on both fronts—for sex and also for a really sentimental love affair.”
French gay men, he found, “really love kinky sex. One of their favorite words in the small ads (this in the pre-internet era) was ‘vicelard’ meaning a pervert, or vice-ridden. This was a compliment. So you’d have ads that said, ‘Vicelard cherche même’—‘Kinky man looking for same.’”
Sorin, who died twenty years ago of AIDS aged 32, remains “very fresh” in White’s mind. “Today I wonder if we would have had such a long, intense affair had he not been ill. Once he became sick, I was determined to stick by him. American friends said I was brave to do so, which shocked me—wouldn’t anybody do the same? But it was a time when a lot of lovers abandoned their partners when they got sick. I worried I had infected him (White was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985 and is fortunately a “slow progressor”). I discovered after he died he had been infected before I met him. He always refused to talk about his past. A lot of French people don’t talk about their histories.”
White himself grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, his father an entrepreneur of varied fortunes. His parents divorced when he was seven; White lived with his mother and sister Margaret (who he remains very close to) in Chicago and returned to Cincinnati and his father for the summers. “I never liked my father,” White says. “He really was a dullard and misanthrope. My mother and he were married for 22 years and it was an ill-match. She encouraged me to be a writer. She opened her home to black friends, and this was the 1950s. She didn’t care later when I write about her. ‘Well, I came off better than you did,’ she’d say to my sister.”
The early books about homosexuality White alighted on—Death in Venice and a biography of Nijinsky by his wife—suggested being gay led to death and madness. He majored in Chinese at the University of Michigan and moved to New York in the early 1960s, working for Time-Life Books. At night, he supped deep from the cup of sexual and other adventures the city offered, which he wrote about—as well knowing and meeting the likes of Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, Jasper Johns and Robert Mapplethorpe—in City Boy.
In the 1970s, he and a collection of gay writers, including Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano formed a club called The Violet Quill; White published his first novel, Forgetting Elena, in 1973, with A Boy’s Own Story —the first of an autobiographical tetralogy—being published in 1982. The other books in the sequence were The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000).
In Inside a Pearl, he writes that in France in the 1980s there was little public health information around HIV and AIDS; in America too was the same, but whereas the latter’s was informed by the homophobia of Reagan’s administration in France, says White, the government was concerned that talking about it openly would leave gay men open to attack. White himself, he says, was criticized by the author and activist Larry Kramer for not writing about AIDS at the time.
White had lost many friends like the writer and critic David Kalstone, “but I never had a messianic, serious view of being a writer like Larry Kramer, to be a national writer for my country. Larry attacked me as viciously as anyone has. When The Farewell Symphony came out, he wrote that my asshole was as busy as a toilet. I was very angry, but I’m a nice forgiving guy, so I forgave him. I was nice to him at parties.”
The most moving part of Inside a Pearl evokes Sorin’s decline and eventual death in Marrakesh. “I’ve accompanied several dying people on their travels, and the desert seems to be a favored destination. It is very hot and dry and lyrical in its own way. It was so cold in Paris. Our doctor in Paris said, ‘Would you rather he died in a hospital bed looking out into the rain, or sharing an adventure with you?”
But it was a horrible, messy death, made more complicated by Sorin’s desire to be cremated. In order to get his body released, White had to sign forged papers saying Sorin’s body would be buried in France. Sorin wished to be cremated, but the Moroccan authorities, says White, would not have released his body had they known that. Sorin had to be sealed in a lead coffin as bodies were not embalmed there.
White’s own health has been recently imperiled. A serious stroke in 2012, followed by a series of smaller strokes (caused by a heart catheterisation procedure), left him unable to walk and talk. The ability to speak, aided by speech lessons, returned “with some difficulty,” and he can now walk, but “very slowly," which he hates. In Paris last September White couldn’t go for the long perambulations he enjoyed so much he wrote about in his 2001 book, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through The Paradoxes of Paris. “That bought home to be a sadness, and I am a cheerful person,” he says.
In the hospital the state of his handwriting was terrible, he says, but he “scribbled” much of Inside a Pearl while in hospital. Carroll took amazing care of him. White gets tired easily, “and sometimes I sound fairly intelligent and sometimes muddled. The nice thing is I can continue to read and write. If I liked playing basketball, I’d be crushed, but I never liked sports.”
Did it make him consider his mortality? “I’m an atheist, I always thought, ‘This is it.’ If there is going to be a heaven, it should be on earth. I feel much happier than most people. I’m fairly stoic about death, but I’m not keen on dying if it’s going to be long and protracted. I don’t have dark nights of the soul, except occasionally. I’m such a little busy bee. I’m keen to finish the new book. That keeps me going.”
White is “150 pages into” a novel about “a Dorian Grey-ish figure, a male model in Paris in about 1980.” It is based on Alphonse Daudet’s 1884 novel Sapho, which White is “modernizing, Americanizing, and homosexualizing.” He is also working on a novel about Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote with the composer his three best operas, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte became the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University. Carroll recently led White to a eureka moment in that novel’s structure, suggesting he break it down into four crystallizing geographical locations, a day of action set in each: Venice, Vienna, London and New York.
In November, White and Carroll married. It started out, White says, as a “practical necessity,” with White keen to ensure Carroll received proper health coverage and other benefits. “But also it’s turned out to be very nice. we’ve been together for eighteen years and we both feel more committed to each other. Being married makes our relationship more recognized, especially for heterosexuals who make a big fuss out of it.”
White had been opposed gay marriage initially, “because I saw it as another movement towards assimilation.” But when he saw how much it enraged the Christian Right, and how much it meant to gay people, as well as the protections and equality it afforded, he changed his mind. “On a purely subjective level, given my health problems, it’s sort of nice someone is committed to me in that way. Michael has been an astonishing help. He’s not very gushy, just very steady.” He notes, mordantly, that the Christian Right has turned its attention “to stirring up trouble for gays in Africa, where they are already being persecuted. And then of course there’s Russia.” Marriage is a crucial issue, says White, because it shows gay people as parts of, and having, families.
White and Carroll have “never made a point out of monogamy," says White. “He never expected fidelity and neither did I. We’re old-fart bohemians in that way,” White laughs. He loves having sex. “Yes, I’m an old goat, still at it. I go online. You only ever meet gerontophiles online. You need a huge population of people into all kinds of things, as New York provides, to find younger gay men who like older gay men.” Carroll has a German guy he’s been seeing for ten years, and White has two regular sexual partners, one in his 50s, who he has been seeing for sex for a decade: “We’re both married to men.” Another partner is a graduate student in his twenties and “very hot.”
After the two novels he is working on, White would like to adapt and modernize Racine’s Phèdre. He laughs that he is always asking Carroll if a character he is working on is “too bland,” and Carroll reminds him that many lead characters in novels are quite bland. Where Carroll is “steady,” White tends to be “the worry-wort.” But he considers his novels proudly, especially when he receives a letter from a 16-year-old in Africa, saying “your life is just like mine.” That reminds White how “subjective” the act of reading is.
“I’m grateful to be published at all,” White says. “It’s a miracle. So many middle-aged, mid-list novelists have been dropped. But I guess every writer feels they deserve more recognition than they have. I always feel I’m better known in England than I am here in the US. Americans don’t read that much, and the French are very good at knowing the names of everybody.” Today, White is happy to live in New York, though misses in “the heavy, dutiful conversations with Americans, the frivolity of Paris.” It would be foolish to cavil about living in any city, with its many pleasures and diversions, he says. He is, he says, “happy with fate,” even if—on occasion—it brings a bloodied interviewer to his door. But even for those moments there is a root beer waiting in the fridge.