Author Responds to a Book Review
To the Editor:
Reviewing my memoir, My Father’s Closet (July-August 2017 issue), Dale Boyer captured the essence of my lifelong dilemma as the child of a closeted father. During a recent book tour, a man approached me to say that my father and his gay partner frequented his antique shop. I hugged him and honestly said, “Oh, so I didn’t make them up!” Along with my mother and grandparents, father’s secrets led me to creative interpretations about hidden elements in my family narrative.
Boyer’s discomfort with not knowing what was true in the story and what wasn’t, accurately describes this uncomfortable experience. I only wish he had also mentioned that I have filled the gaps with acceptance and love.
Karen A. McClintock, Ashland, OR
Author, My Father’s Closet (Trillium, 2017)
Depiction of Marc Blitzstein Challenged
To the Editor:
In Martin Duberman’s third article on the new Lincoln Kirstein archival finds (“Kirstein’s Letters 3: Rivals and Idols,” July-August 2017), he spends four substantial paragraphs on Kirstein’s dislike for composer Marc Blitzstein. The production of Danton’s Death was controversial indeed. However, Kirstein’s word ”lousy” should not be left as the final one on that production. In my biography of Blitzstein I also speak critically of his machinations on behalf of the Communist Party to alter the representation of Danton and Robespierre, but Blitzstein’s musical contributions were recognized appreciatively. John Gutman in “Modern Music” actually called for “a more ample score” to help the play. These, of course, are subjective and debatable points.
However, I cannot imagine what happened to Duberman’s famously impeccable scholarship in the final paragraph on this subject. Blitzstein was called before HUAC surprisingly only very late: He gave testimony in a closed “executive session,” chaired by Rep. Morgan M. Moulder of Missouri, on May 8, 1958, seven years after Duberman claims Blitzstein was indicted. Blitzstein did indeed speak bravely and did not name names. But he was never called to testify in an open session; he was never indicted under the Smith Act or any other act; and he did not spend “four years (1954-1957) in prison.” Those were the years he was enjoying his greatest commercial success Off Broadway as the adaptor of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. He was working on his 1955 Broadway opera Reuben Reuben, and on the choral piece This Is the Garden. It’s true that he was beaten badly by sailors in Martinique in 1964 and died of internal injuries; “murdered” implies a very different motivation and is not accurate. A little over a year later his attackers were convicted of assault and theft. And just for the record, he was 58, not 59. As far as the Smith Act indictment and prison sentence are concerned, clearly Duberman is either grossly misremembering or confusing him with someone else.
Incidentally, that summer of 1958 Blitzstein wrote musical scores for two of the productions at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., directed by John Houseman, and served as overall musical director for the whole season. Lincoln Kirstein was a founder of the Festival and on its board. Anti-Communists picketed because of the recent HUAC testimony by another company member, but Houseman, Kirstein, and the rest of the board refused to dismiss anyone, because the rest of the company would have resigned in protest and there would have been no season. Apparently Kirstein had made sufficient peace with Blitzstein by then that whatever hatred for the composer he might once have felt no longer interfered with their working relationship.
Eric A. Gordon, Los Angeles
Martin Duberman Replies:
Eric’s account of Marc Blitzstein’s involvement with HUAC is the accurate one. I should have made it far more clear than I did that I was following Kirstein’s version of events, and then pointed out how it diverged from reality.
I don’t understand Eric’s objection to my use of “murdered” in describing Blitzstein’s death. Eric himself repeats my description of Blitzstein’s death: “badly beaten” by sailors in Martinique, he died of internal injuries.” They killed him. Isn’t that “murder”?
As for Kirstein continuing to work with Blitzstein despite his dislike of him, that should come as no surprise. As I made clear in Part I of my essay, Kirstein often said foul things about and to people—and then went right on collaborating with them as if nothing negative had ever happened. Perhaps Eric didn’t read Part I of the essay.
One More Time: How Did T. Williams Die?
To the Editor:
While I am a great admirer of the prolific and articulate writings of Andrew Holleran, I have to take issue with his claim in his “I’ll Go Forth Alone” essay in your July-August 2017 issue, which cites the 2014 John Lahr biography of Tennessee Williams to the effect that Williams’ death in February 1983 “was most likely suicide,” because “there were too many clues to ignore.”
While that conclusion may cohere with the main theme Holleran was trying to articulate in his otherwise excellent article, it cannot be claimed that it is a decisive verdict at all. Granted, Holleran concedes that “No one can know,” but I believe a more robust agnosticism is called for.
When I asked recently about this of perhaps the most qualified scholar of the late works of Williams, CUNY professor Annette J. Saddik (author of Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess: The Strange, the Crazed, The Queer, 2015), she offered this: “I don’t think we can ever know if Tennessee Williams actually took his own life, but it seems that it was an accident due to Seconal intolerance mixed with alcohol. It could have been intentional, perhaps subconsciously so, but I don’t think he can definitely say it was suicide. It seems more like an accidental overdose. He was writing regularly up until the end and even finished another one-act play in January 1983.”
The case for an accident and not suicide exists much more abundantly than the other way around, principally by virtue of his ongoing and unbroken dedication to his creative work. While no doubt in poor health (as always) and complaining about that (as always), Williams was scheduled to deliver remarks to a class of students the next day and had notes in his briefcase making the case that his playwriting was actually a form of poetry.
It is the misguided, poor opinion of critics to his later works that may lead one to conclude it was suicide, but it is Dr. Saddik, whose scholarship is now spearheading a reappraisal of his later work, who claimed: “He was not the ‘played out,’ self-obsessed, Southern relic that the press tried to suggest he was from the 1960s to the end of his life. … Nor could he be dismissed as a drunk and ‘sick’ old queen, a sad victim of his own personal excesses.”
According to Saddik, his later work “was rooted in a theoretical and theatrical tradition of excess, and he remained in touch with current styles of theatre and the work of young playwrights, taking risks to experiment with tone and style in his work. … He was aware, he was current, he was brave … he was a survivor. Never abandoning his lifelong habit of waking up at five every morning to write, he was as ‘in-yer-face’ and not going away. When he died at the age of 71, Tennessee Williams was young.”
Nicholas F. Benton, Falls Church, VA