Out There

How Gossip Became History: Eminent Outlaws by Christopher Bram

From Gore Vidal to Tony Kushner, a new book traces the history of American gay writers as they emerged from the literary closet. Brad Gooch on how gossip became history.

Photos clockwise from top left: AP, Bettmann-Corbis;Betmann-Corbis; Bettmann-Corbis

Once a month or so during the 1970s I had dinner at Joe LeSueur’s teeny apartment down where Second Avenue meets Houston. Dinner was all guys, gay guys, crammed into a little box of a living room, around a table. On the walls I remember a big, blue Joan Mitchell abstract oil painting that she had given to Joe; on another wall a Joe Brainard found-object work, “Cigarette Smoked by Willem De Kooning,” with the Dutch master’s actual scrunched cigarette butt, as relic, or homage, and another beautiful enamel painting by Brainard of a 7-Up logo; some medium-size canvases with swathes of abstract paint unruly enough to have been made by the sweep of a broom by maybe Mike Goldberg or Norman Bluhm. For nearly a decade LeSueur had been the roommate of poet and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara, and the room reflected the smash-cut of poetry and painting of the slightly earlier era.

Inevitably, after dinner, out would come a bottle of cognac and a bottle of grappa and real cigarettes, Tareytons, and fancy cigarettes, joints. The poet Allen Ginsberg (living still a few blocks north of LeSueur) had nailed the issue in an elegy for Frank O’Hara when he wrote of the poet’s gift for “deep gossip.” Certainly “deep gossip” was the lingua franca of these after-dinner dish sessions at LeSueur’s apartment, bleary data dumps that were actually history lessons, full of information only passed by word- of mouth, either because the subjects were too marginal or the material too outré. I learned, for instance, the crucial cultural plot point that Joan Mitchell and Samuel Beckett had been lovers in Paris, and that either he climbed over her garden wall for assignations or she over his. Or that the bitchy nickname for Ruth Kligman, surviving girlfriend of Jackson Pollock’s crash, was “death-car girl.”

Yet most of the gossip concerned literary history, or, less grandly, the messy lives and under-the-radar goings-on of gay male poets, novelists, and playwrights. My ears tingled and my gossip I.Q. shot way up as I learned that: W.H. Auden’s lover Chester Kallman would step out many nights to walk to the piers on the West Side to have shady sex with sailors or whomever, hence the aching line, “If equal affection cannot be/let the more loving one be me,” or about Auden’s notorious “A Day for a Lay” poem that he wished to remain unpublished but was apparently stolen from his desk during a party; that Edward Albee had a fraught relationship with a boyfriend, Will Flanagan, prior to writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and they were known as “the Grimm Sisters” at the gay bar Old Colony; that Chris Isherwood was a “chicken hawk” and portraitist Don Bachardy a California teen when they met. On cue, LeSueur would then bring out a Bachardy line drawing of O’Hara’s last boyfriend J.J. Mitchell.

Referring to life, Omar Khayyam was accurate enough about the moving finger writing, and having writ, moving on. But then sometimes there’s the afterlife, when someone snaps open their laptop and writes down a facsimile of what the finger wrote. This reaction time between the life and gossip and its codification as history with a capital “H” has been attenuated for gay writers by the hush, scandal, and practical dangers of being openly homosexual, a wall of silence that proved both imprisoning and protective. Proof that this speakeasy is now officially closed for business and open for museum gazing is Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. As Bram’s high-sounding subtitle promises—and these lives from Vidal through Baldwin and O’Hara to White and Kushner deliver—gay lib began as a literary movement; the aesthetic was always political, too.

Published 20 years before Stonewall, Gore Vidal’s still-edgy novel The City and the Pillar counted as politics-by-other-means simply by being about the life of a gay man. And just two weeks later, in the same month as The Kinsey Report (January 1948), appeared Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, with its notorious author’s photo of Capote spread out like a boy odalisque on its back cover. The timeline is Bram’s friend in this group-shot of a biography, and he’s able to schematize much frenzy of activity. Following critical sniping at their first novels, Vidal and Capote retreated, and gay lit with them, to more discreet, coded work. Next up, by the mid-60s was the logically ensuing debate—critics contending, playwrights denying—whether commercially successful plays, such as Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire or Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were truly about gay characters camouflaged in straight bodies. Stanley Kauffman in the Times complained of “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises.”

Bram dates the popularization of gay fiction to Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, sold to America, in 1982, in a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review, by feminist scholar Catherine Stimpson: “… the subject of A Boy’s Own Story is less a particular boy than the bodies and souls of American men: the teachers and masters, the lovers, brothers, hustlers and friends.” Until then gay lit was the provenance of gay small presses, like Felice Picano’s SeaHorse Press, and gay book stores, like A Different Light. Calculatedly come-lately, mainstream publishing houses soon signed their own midlist gay authors. The upshot: openly gay poetry, literature, and theatre began garnering the same bling as straight. Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for a film starring Nicole Kidman; Tony Kushner’s Angels in America also won the Pulitzer Prize.

The irony is that the march of progressivism that has allowed for Bram to publicly archive this frisson of literary gossip means that some of its darker luster is already an intangible of the past. “One might claim that gay people have won their rights but lost their literature,” writes Bram. “It has a nice dramatic sound, but I don’t see things so harshly.” Arguing its current relevance—if not its liveliness—he goes on to trace kinky sex acts in Sex in the City to Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge; Lady Gaga to Charles Ludlum; the mix of gay and straight characters in Ugly Betty to James Baldwin. Of course gossip works both ways, and all the writers discussed were fueled by broadcasting down-low material to a wider audience. Stoned-around-the-edge nostalgia aside, Eminent Outlaws is the next (last?) step in reporting on literary lives that traces back to the gay dinner parties of yore. Few would have it any other way.