The powerful influence on American culture by prominent post-World War II gay authors, as documented in Christopher Bram’s new book, “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America” (2012), raises the question of just how they contributed to the explosion of the modern gay liberation movement, when countless people burst out of their closets more forcefully and openly than any of those authors had, at least up to that point in the late 1960s.
After all, for most of them – the likes of Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and others – references to gay issues were very muted, at best, in their popular works.
How, then, did they impact someone like myself, born near the end of World War II, growing up in the 1950s in a remote community, never knowingly encountering another gay person, entering graduate seminary in Berkeley, Calif., in the late 1960s and suddenly bursting out of my closet to co-found the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front?
Surely, I was influenced by Tennessee Williams’ famous plays. But I learned only later how much closer to their influence I actually was, and how one movie by two members of their inner circle actually changed my life.
My title, “Conceived in the Shadow of Tennessee Williams,” is more than metaphor. In Williams’ extensive diaries, his fascinating 828-page “Notebooks” published in 2006, he wrote lavishly about his gay experiences. Cavorting among young soldiers during nightly blackouts (precautionary measures throughout the West Coast against the prospect of a Japanese attack) on the palisades above Santa Monica brought him very close, geographically, to me.
On Sept. 12, 1943, he wrote, “The unprecedented sex activity continues. The night that I don’t desecrate the little god all over again is exceptional.” There were expressions of remorse: sex, he wrote, “is about like a dog pissing on a tree,” adding on Sept. 26, “I have accepted sex as a way of life and found it empty, empty knuckles on a hollow drum.” But on Nov. 15 he reported “a record for me of five times perfectly reciprocal pleasure.”
While he was doing all this on the palisades, often bringing men to his modest dwelling, I was busy being conceived in the Santa Monica below. Thus the title for this chapter. Could a rag from one of Tennessee’s trysts have floated down off the palisades and magically impregnated my mom such that Williams is my real father? Haha!
This happened at almost the same time that Williams and Isherwood met for the first time, the beginning of a very long friendship.
Isherwood’s diaries also revealed a surprisingly immediate brush with my world. He and his young partner Don Bachardy (now, at age 78, my friend) rented a house from my Aunt Ginny in Santa Monica, and he wrote about her.
Writing on May 28, 1955, he called her “Ms. Hoerner,” she being my dad’s older sister and a frequent visitor to our home in Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive away, where I’d just turned 11.
“Yesterday morning, I talked to Mrs. Hoerner,” Isherwood wrote. “She tells me she is looking for a Buddha. She wants to put it in a shrine and light incense sticks in front of it. The Buddha she has now is unsatisfactory, but she burns the incense, just the same; and if she’s out, her son Griff does it – although he squirms if ever she talks about religion.”
“We got to know her well,” Don Bachardy told me. “I can still remember the sound of her voice.” He noted that Isherwood “took an interest in her son,” my first cousin Griff.
In his diary, Isherwood wrote, “Griff is nearly seventeen, and the other day she found he’d started flying lessons without her permission. Eleven dollars a lesson – he makes the money by washing cars.”
Griff carried his passion for flying throughout his life, giving flight lessons for a living before dying in an accident doing that in 2010.
Aunt Ginny commented years later about the wild parties Isherwood and Bachardy threw. The diaries chronicled the many luminaries who attended.
(Ginny was extraordinary, clairvoyant, and my principal correspondent after I became a gay activist in San Francisco in 1970 and was banished, consequently, from my family by my father, her brother.)
In the early 1960s, I was the same age and traversing the same turf as Isherwood’s character, Kenny, in his novel, “A Single Man” (1964), played by Nicholas Hoult in the movie version (2009). A college student in Santa Barbara, I played baseball on the same Los Angeles campus and at the same time identified in that story.
Those days, I’d vowed to take my gay secret to the grave. But then I saw a life-changing film, written by William Inge and directed by Elia Kazan, both tight in the Isherwood-Williams circles, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).
To be continued.