“The Great Cover-Up” Observed
To the Editor:
I found Steven Spencer’s “The Great Cover-Up” (Nov.-Dec. 2019 issue) highly informative and enjoyable. It is widely known that northern Europeans headed for Italy to let their hair down. In The Seduction of the Mediterranean (1993), Robert Aldrich admirably explored the region’s homoerotic allure in past centuries. Concerning the custom of swimming in the nude in rivers and along the coast: in England it was permitted, but laws differed from town to town. In some, only children could enjoy skinny-dipping. Yet by 1860, the practice was banned, so those seeking more freedom went south.
To add to Spencer’s examples before 1800, including Joseph Vernet’s port scene at Marseille (1754), we might mention what Dr. John Moore, a Scottish physician, wrote in “A View of Society and Manners in Italy” while on the Grand Tour in the 1770s. On the Bay of Naples he noted young men “who strip themselves and bathe in the sea without the smallest ceremony. Their stout, athletic figures, during the heat of the day, are to be seen walking and sporting on the shore perfectly naked; and with no more idea of shame than Adam felt in his state of innocence.”
Michael Worley, Lexington, KY
To the Editor:
My thanks to you and to Steven Spencer for his piece “The Great Cover-Up” in the latest issue. May I contribute some personal documentation on the subject?
I am 86, and when I was young, all males always swam nude in men’s indoor public pools. Was that because swimming trunks were too expensive for everyone in the ’30s to afford one, so decent democracy declared no one should wear one? Right up at least to the early 1950’s, men swam nude at the YMCA in Flushing, Queens. Only the lifeguards wore trunks.
I started Bayside High in 1947—a big New York City high school—and during both boy’s gym class and team practice, swimming was in the nude. No one except the divers wore trunks. When I went to boys’ prep school from 1949 to 1951, the swimming team practiced nude. When I went to Yale in 1952 (long before it went co-ed), no one wore trunks when swimming laps to meet the athletic requirement.
But during my fifties and sixties, I did masters swimming in various public pools in the East Bay area of San Francisco, and I noticed that when our laps were over and the grammar school boys came into the locker rooms, no matter how young they were, they covered themselves up with towels when changing into and out of their trunks. They were very careful about it, too. It was so awkward: the boys had to be virtuosi in the management of a towel. I wondered why they took so much trouble. One sensed it was a matter of privacy combined with fear. Therefore I never asked these boys about it. My hunch was that they did it, either by peer or parental warning, to avoid being attractive to pederasts. But it also served to preserve each boy’s genitals from the observation of other boys—a barrier to any fascination or interest in male genitalia not one’s own.
The mystery and power of male genitals, their worshipfulness, so distracting and attracting, may account for human bashfulness about them. For the male gaze, the testicles themselves are eyes.
Bruce Moody, Berkeley, CA
More Tidbits on “Gentleman Jack”
To the Editor:
The current issue [Nov.-Dec. 2019] has a review of Gentleman Jack, both the published bio and the TV show, about lesbian diarist Anne Lister. The article briefly mentions her long-term relationship to heiress Ann Walker. The reviewer could have noted the very interesting fact that the two women entered into a union “as good as a marriage”—their own words—during a religious Easter service in 1834. (See Alan Bray’s The Friend, page 241.)
Incidentally, Lister’s voluminous records were properly edited by Helena Whitbread only in 1992 and by Jill Liddington in 1998. The manuscripts themselves were catalogued by Rosalind Westward and others in 1997 (cf. Bray, page 319).
Fr. Paul K. Thomas, Baltimore, MD
Not the Quentin Crisp I Knew
To the Editor:
I write in response to Tyler St. Mark’s “Here’s My Story” item on The G&LR website titled “Quentin Crisp: The Loneliest Man I Ever Knew.” While the following observations will no doubt register as harsh, I mean to cast no aspersions generally on Mr. St. Mark as a writer. It’s how he’s handled this piece that seems to verge on the unconscionable.
I knew and worked with Quentin Crisp from March 1982 until his death in 1999, very nearly the complete tenure of his living in New York. I was one of his agents at Connie Clausen Associates, I did a book with him, The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp, published by Harper & Row and later Alyson Publications (which at one memorable point involved rooming with him in a B&B in the French Quarter of New Orleans), appeared in the movie about his life in New York “Resident Alien,” wrote the foreword to Nigel Kelly’s biography of him, and have written and been interviewed about him profusely in various magazines and online venues.
Very little in Mr. St. Mark’s account of him here rings even remotely true. His alleged quotes would have choked the Quentin Crisp I knew, notably: “You must accept the inevitable, my dear; this worldly life is but a dismal and pointless enterprise of pithy lessons and earthly disappointments which are wrought by cruel and false hopes, grudgingly appointed with temporary and fleeting delusions of grandeur and triumph.” It reads like a bad parody of an old Greta Garbo movie! He never spoke in this terribly artificial way, which sounds like someone’s idea of what an over-articulate Royal drag queen would sound like. Quentin was remarkably concise, while this is incredibly repetitive, right down to the redundant “temporary and fleeting.” And I don’t recall his ever addressing anyone as “my dear.”
Quentin is further quoted as saying: “We are not friends or comrades so much as forlorn strangers passing in the night, futilely searching for that gentle, romantic courtier who will lift us from our dark despair onto his noble steed and off to paradise.” From a bad Garbo movie to a very bad bodice-ripper novel. “No, no, my young adventurer, you must directly awaken and heed my warning,” he mourned emphatically, “There is no great white knight!” Rest assured, Quentin never addressed anyone with Victorian words like these: “my young adventurer” indeed! And he is certainly unlikely to have mouthed the words “great white knight.” Quentin’s phrase for the sought-after paragon who did not exist was in fact a “great dark man.”
It gets personal when the “Here’s My Story” turns to Mr. St. Mark’s ill-remembered evening with Quentin, when he makes this summary pronouncement: “Fueled by alcohol, it was alarming how quickly Quentin could go from satirical and amusing to morose and bitter. My dinner guest was suddenly unleashing a lifetime of pain, abuse, humiliation, regret, and acrimony.” We’ve now moved on to bad pulp fiction. Quentin has been outspoken about his regrets, pains, and humiliations in his writing, always striking the note that ultimately he has accepted his fate and moved on. I had many lengthy conversations about his life with him. His observations were always starkly honest, unsentimental, and funny—but he was never bathetic.
What Mr. St. Mark mostly misses is one of the most salient facts about Quentin: how happy he actually was. Not “happy” in a manner that would have erased his unsentimental, existential take on life, but in more quotidian ways: he liked people and had friends; he liked where he lived; and he enjoyed the attention he got. He was happy to be in New York, which he preferred over all places he’d lived before. (“The moment I saw Manhattan, I wanted it!”) Indeed this was part of the message he proclaimed in his books and onstage: that happiness is achievable, after all, in spite of everything—and Quentin amply demonstrated this in his own life.
Guy Kettelhack, New York City
Call Me By What Name?
To the Editor:
I have been compelled by Andrew Holleran (“Stonewall Comes to the 100’ Screen” in the Sept.-Oct. 2019 issue) to make a life-defining decision: do I call myself gay, queer, or homosexual? A child of the 1950s, I knew from pretty early on what my sexuality was. But in the cultural, “moral,” religious, and legal climate of England at the time, it was something I scarcely dared admit to myself, let alone to anyone else. At my Catholic boarding school, good classicists that we were, I learned that “homo” was Greek, not Latin, in origin. But either way, to be homosexual meant hellfire as a certain destiny. “Queer,” of course, was always an insult.
So, when I eventually came out, decades later, I latched onto “gay” with relief. After all, had it not been intended, at least in part, to make homosexuals less scary to heterosexuals and to make ourselves feel better about the “queer” people we were caricatured as being?
But, even before Andrew Holleran’s article, I had been having second thoughts. Wasn’t “gay” a bit of a euphemistic cop-out? And then, two weeks ago, I and my husband found ourselves at Le Struthof in Alsace, the only World War II Nazi concentration camp set up on French soil. Over 20,000 men and women died there, among them those clearly listed in the camp’s grizzly documents as “homosexuals.” They were men who had sex with other men, and that is what defined them when decisions were made as to whether they should live or die. And I thought to myself: “I too am defined by the fact that I am married to, and have sex with, another man. That’s not all there is to know about me, but it is a very important part of me, and in describing myself as ‘gay,’ it’s as if I am trying to gloss over it.” So, from now on, while I am happy to be called “gay” or “queer,” I shall describe myself as a homosexual. And if anyone challenges me, I’ll reply with the irrefutable argument that what’s good enough for Andrew Holleran is good enough for me.
Stephen Wall, London, UK
Good Old “Gay” Still Serves
To the Editor:
I was so happy to read Tom Steele’s letter in the September-October issue. I have been screaming to my friends about the misuse of the word “queer” to describe me and my brothers, sisters, and trans friends for decades. Thanks, Tom! I would never use this ill-fitting word to describe anyone, and I chastise anyone who does!
Thanks also to David Kundtz for his letter about Tom Steele’s letter, though I can’t buy “globatiq” either. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think “gay” is a perfectly serviceable and useful word.
Lewis Bosworth, Madison, WI
Overlooked at the Newseum
To the Editor:
In Andrew Holleran’s account of his visit to the Newseum in D.C. [to see the Stone-wall 50 exhibition Into the Streets], he describes their review of the gay press over the years and the national news magazines’ coverage of gay issues, including Time magazine’s 1969 “The Homosexual in America” and continuing as late as 2015.
Curious to me is that they do not include (or he does not cite) the December 1991 Fortune cover article “Gay in Corporate America: What it’s like and how business attitudes are changing.” The rarely discussed story of how corporations began to value the talents of gay and lesbian employees and offer them benefits such as health coverage for partners (Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge, MA, was the first) is an overlooked element in the history of the struggle for recognition and equality.
Dean Waller, Cambridge, MA
The First Gay NYT Bestseller Was…
To the Editor:
I especially enjoyed your recent obit on Patricia Nell Warren [July–August 2019], whose The Front Runner was hugely influential on me when I was growing up in the 1980s. I would make only one correction: The Front Runner was not the first gay novel to make the New York Times bestseller list. That would be Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind, which was on the list for sixteen weeks in 1970. I say this not to be pedantic, but as a pretext to telling you that I am currently writing a biography of Merrick, which I have been researching now for some years. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Lord Won’t Mind, which (despite its mixed critical reception) represents a watershed moment for many gay readers.
Joseph M. Ortiz, El Paso, TX
In an Art Memo titled “Rod McKuen: Poet, Songwriter, Gay Activist” in the Sept.-Oct. 2019 issue, it was stated that anti-gay activist Anita Bryant was a former Miss America. She was in fact a Miss Oklahoma and the first runner-up for Miss America.