Life and Times with Poet Donald Britton

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IN THE EARLY 1980s, I was diving into bed with young New York poets, one after another. For me, an émigré from a wide place in the road in north Louisiana, the idea of a handsome writer in the sack made for a highly arousing destination, calling to mind George Peppard’s Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like Peppard, poet Donald Britton had sparkly blue-topaz eyes and, like Peppard, he died in 1994. Blessedly, the small measure of poetry Donald left behind lives on. Four of his poems won re-exposure in 2010’s Persistent Voices, a compilation of poetry by writers lost to AIDS, and now all of his work is collected in In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton (Nightboat Books).

Donald Britton in Monte Carlo, 1989
Donald Britton in Monte Carlo, 1989

Born and brought up in San Angelo, Texas, Donald moved to Manhattan in May 1979—the ink was barely dry on his PhD from American University—and right away held his own in the colony of poets that included John Ashbery, Kenward Elmslie, Joe Brainard, Brad Gooch, and Tim Dlugos. Tim and I met at Uncle Charlie’s, New York’s premier pickup bar, in 1983, and he was soon introducing me to everyone in his circle, among them Donald. A hot preppie nerd, Tim wore his Clark Kent glasses through sex, and usually white socks that set off his savagely furry legs. Knowing that that turned me on, he packed my birthday card with confetti he laboriously cut from white typing paper in the shape of socks. He also presented me with a poem that can be found on page 351 of A Fast Life: The Collected Works of Tim Dlugos. Though “Tonight” originally had a dedication (to me), there is no record of it in the book, and there is a reason.

Cut to Tim’s birthday three months later and a celebration in early August at Dennis Cooper’s apartment in the East Village. Among the guests were Edmund White and his pretty and much younger boyfriend John Purcell, who the next day were relocating to Paris for at least a year. Very grandly I advised them (I recall with a shudder) what to expect, me the expert who had lived there six months only recently. Tipsy, I announced my departure, and up piped Donald: “Do you want to share a taxi?” Heading uptown, I to the Upper East Side and Donald to the Upper West, we lit into kissing in the backseat of the last Checker Marathon cab I remember riding in, capacious as some Manhattan studios. We didn’t even get all our clothes off before we were doing it standing in front of a cheval mirror in my borrowed-for-the-summer bedroom at Park and 82nd. With the torment of a hangover, I managed to get to work, self-flagellating the whole day over my trespass against Tim—and with his putative best friend, no less. Eventually, I heard from Donald, who said he didn’t care if it cost him Tim (which it did); he wanted to see me again.

Before long I was falling in love. That Labor Day, Donald invited me to join him in Sagaponack at the home of painter Robert Dash, our host, whose storied garden, Madoo, is now open to the public. After he caught Donald and me lustily making out on the roof deck, Robert fussed at us to stop lest we scar the squeamish retinas of his next-door neighbors, Kurt Vonnegut and Jill Krementz. (Just down the road was the dacha of Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy.) Then, for New Year’s Eve, came an invitation from poet Douglas Crase and his partner, Frank Polach, to join them at James Merrill’s home in Stonington, Connecticut. Merrill was away, but that evening we feasted on lobster at the dining table where he took down so many Ouija board readings. Doug, who won a MacArthur Fellowship three years later, provides an affectionate reminiscence of Donald in Empire.

As a cub reporter for Life magazine, I invited Donald to more than a few press events. One of them was at Private Eyes, a music video club in Chelsea with three dozen TV sets for the debut of Godley & Creme’s hit single “Cry.” Standing with a blue margarita, Donald was suddenly fanbushed. “Oh my god, you’re Donald Britton!” blurted Victoria Kohn, a photo editor who had heard him read at Hamilton College (on the same occasion as Peter Cameron, who for a while was mailing Donald mash notes). A Dynasty devotee, Donald got a mega-rush out of a luncheon at the Carlyle Hotel for the launch of Linda Evans’ perfume, Forever Krystle. (Reader, it was foul stuff.) Donald claimed Evans’ costar John Forsythe gave him the eye, and I can state for sure that Pee-wee Herman did. Hugely enamored with Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Donald came to the set every day during an elaborate shoot for a Life cover story on Pee-wee.

In 1988, Donald decided to move to Los Angeles for year-round warm weather and a more lucrative job writing direct-mail advertising, the arena in which he made a living. (Tim, who died in 1990, did the same sort of work and helped get Donald started well before I entered the picture.) I never witnessed Donald write any poetry, so his process remains unknown to me. I know he detested the scene in Woody Allen’s Interiors where Diane Keaton attempts to write a poem, with lots of fitful scribbles and scratching out. I am grateful that time has not yet scratched out Donald’s poetry. He was my beau and best friend for eleven years, and I miss him every damn day.

 

Valentine

for David Cobb Craig
At first, we had ways of talking
That filled up the evening
Until some things could be said. It was
a made-up
Situation in which lives could be lost.
Whatever that was now grows inside
Our bodies—a spongy, pulpy cell—
Causing pieces of paper we hold
In our hands to appear

And disappear. All I ask
Is to take me away from this place,
To another place, very much like
This place, where we can meet
And six months later
Be married. You laughed and went
with me.

 

David Cobb Craig leads a walking tour, Gay and Lesbian History in Central Park, and recently completed an illustrated book, First Class: The Artistry of Midcentury Design on U.S. Stamps.

 

 

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