Martin Gable’s Tongue

Published in: July-August 2010 issue.

Redeeming Features: A Memoir  by Nicholas HaslamRedeeming Features: A Memoir
by Nicholas Haslam
Knopf. 352 pages, $30.


WHOEVER put together the index of the English decorator Nicholas Haslam’s memoir evidently had a low opinion of the reasons people read a book like his. When I had to look up George Dyer (the lover of the painter Francis Bacon), I discovered that the index consists entirely of names. The portion of the page in which “Dyer, George” is embedded, for instance, runs from “Dior, Christian” to “Disney, Walt,” to the Dolly sisters, to Luis Miguel Dominguin to Jimmy Donahue, Diana Dors, Kirk Douglas, Lord Alfred Douglas, Norman Douglas, Lord and Lady Drogheda, Marcel Duchamp, and, finally, Bob and Sara Dylan.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book because it is a monument of name-dropping; it’s also an addictive gay history. Even the random swatch above reveals the span of Haslam’s celebrity-besotted life: from the Edwardian Age (Lord Alfred Douglas) to the present (Bob Dylan), from the very English (Diana Dors) to the very American (Walt Disney), from the aristocratic (the Droghedas) to the cinematic (Kirk Douglas), from the hetero- (Marcel Duchamp) to the homosexual (Jimmy Donahue, “the idle, rich, charming, and totally gay son of Jessie Woolworth”). When Haslam met him, Jimmy Donahue was rumored to be having an affair with the Duchess of Windsor. I don’t know if socially ambitious queens are more bisexual than other groups. (It’s a good thing Princess Margaret is not alive to read this book.) But among social moths there is apparently only one other force greater than sexual orientation: glamour. (How else could Cecil Beaton sleep with Greta Garbo?) Social climbing at this level is not for the squeamish, the lazy, or the faint of heart; it requires a great deal of energy, flexibility, and toughness.

The latter is what may have been lacking in George Dyer, the handsome piece of rough trade who met Francis Bacon when Dyer broke into the painter’s apartment to burgle it. Dyer was not happy as Bacon’s boyfriend (who could have been?) and attempted suicide more than once before finally succeeding in a Paris hotel room the night before his lover’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. Haslam mentions Dyer because he lived above one of the apartments Haslam had in London. (Redeeming Features is a record of rooms and houses, fabrics and upholstery, as much as it is of work and love.) His studio in Kensington Haslam considers “humdrum” until… “There was a moment of excitement when the volatile tenant above me, Francis Bacon’s erstwhile boyfriend George Dyer, was lugged down our staircase after one of his frequent attempts to look as bloodlessly flayed as his portraits by Francis; I went through a curious, and never-to-be-repeated, chiaroscuro period, deciding to redo the studio in ultracontemporary style, all black and steel and mirrors.”

It’s rare that a semicolon is asked to join two phrases as schizoid as these. But for some people, gayness is about sex; for others, it’s décor. And George Dyer is but a walk-on in a play where far more important people, not to mention tented dining rooms, are the focus.

That’s why it seems too perfect that the book Haslam is given by his first boyfriend to read on his way back to England is Auntie Mame. “Life’s a banquet,” that venerable guide famously said, “and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Not the man who narrates these memoirs. Having been confined to his room for three long years as a child with polio, Haslam recovers and learns to walk, and the rest of his life seems to be driven by a determination never to be confined again. As a child he longs to run off with the Gypsies encamped near his family’s house in the country; as an adult, it is the beau monde, with its beauty, sex, and titles, that he pursues with an indefatigable gusto.

Redeeming Features is such a gay story there’s no need to have a topic like “homosexuality” in the index (there are no topics in the index). The entire book is drenched in it, though Haslam clearly belongs to a sub-species: the Englishman (or Anglophile) who loves parties, furniture, and the royal family. When the teenaged Haslam befriends the daughter of the doctor in charge of the eye, ear, nose, and throat problems of the Windsors, they treasure the “paper handkerchiefs smudged with the queen’s or Princess Margaret’s lipstick” that her father brings home from palace calls. From royal Kleenex to an invitation to a party the Queen is giving for the nuptials of Diana and Charles—the best of all, he says, in a life of parties—is a blissful blur of passing years in which names are not so much dropped as carpet-bombed, culminating in a visit to the Castle of Mey to photograph the Queen Mother’s digs for a book.

In A Handful of Dust (1934), one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels about the Bright Young Things, the serpent that enters the Garden of Eden and destroys the hero’s marriage is an interior decorator and her son. (Think Syrie, the wife of Somerset Maugham, whose shtick was to make everything white.) But it’s a field in which gay men in particular seem to have thrived. While deemed not to have had the academic qualifications necessary for university after leaving Eton, Haslam never let that hold him back and went on to become a successful art director, photo editor, party planner, journalist, and decorator whose work he assembled in a book he called Sheer Opulence. “I maintain that houses and rooms quietly tell you how to decorate them. One must listen to those whispers, not fight them, or sooner or later, sure as eggshell’s eggshell, the room’s soul will kick against the pricks.”

Haslam responds to décor all his life with intense sensitivity. “Raine had lit the whole house entirely with tall ecclesiastical candles,” Haslam writes, “a heretofore unencountered extravagance, and the contrast of the flickering golden light inside to the still, white snowspace outside was magically memorable.” Beauty—in fashion, fêtes, or faces—was the thing. Even when he’s running a successful design firm later in life, Haslam confesses that he only hires good-looking people. Haslam himself was a fresh and handsome version of a long line of English æsthetes like Bunny Rogers, Cecil Beaton, and the choreographer Frederick Ashton. Taste was not the only thing these men had in common, of course. Alice Astor—whose father drowned on the Titanic—wanted to marry Ashton, for example, but could not, because, as the choreographer told Haslam, “I can’t ever believe women don’t have cocks.”

Despite plenty of lines like this, reading Haslam’s book is slow going at first. The obligatory childhood memories (total recall of fabrics, upholstery, wallpaper, and rooms) and family history (father a diplomat, mother an earl’s granddaughter) may be interesting to die-hard readers of Country Life, but it’s not till our hero lands in New York and is promptly taken to Tallulah Bankhead that the book gets rolling. Then he gets a job at Vogue magazine (where Count Ginzburg is the “fur editor”). Haslam has always found America glamorous—he decorated his room at Eton with a huge photo of James Dean and was immediately attracted to the chinos and crew cuts of the young Americans who came over for his half-sister’s wedding. Later, after working for Diana Vreeland, Richard Avedon, and Huntington Hartford (Show magazine), he even settled in the Arizona desert with his patrician American lover and became, of all things, a Hell’s Angel.

The further west Haslam goes, in fact, the funnier the book, and the better the writing; the description of the land he and his lover bought in Arizona is his most heartfelt passage. By the time he reaches Los Angeles, his viewpoint as both an insider (connected, via Jean Howard, to movie royalty) and outsider (as a cute English visitor to whose charms only George Cukor seems immune) makes for some wonderful scenes—including his first visit to a leather bar, where it takes Haslam hours to work up the nerve to approach “an icon of that particular sexuality” who turns out to be Peggy Lee’s hairdresser.

Redeeming Features lies somewhere between Proust and Patrick Dennis’ Little Me. The spirit is blithe, the tone insouciant, the chatter constant. Haslam’s a rebel: the first to wear jeans to dinner in the “smart restaurant” on the SS United States (the book’s a record of past artifacts like that ship, the Twist, and the ad campaign that asked “Which twin has the Toni?”), and the first to wear a black velvet dinner jacket (which inspires “a pretty dark-haired young man” at a party in Venice to say: “Ravissante. May I copy?” Of course, it’s Valentino). It’s to his credit that one aspect of his rebellion seems never to have bothered him in the least: his sexual orientation.

“It’s very hard,” Haslam writes in one of the few passages that supply any context,

from this long distance, to describe the attitude to homosexuality as it was in my youth. I don’t think my parents or many of their friends thought it was actually wrong or immoral—after all, so many of their circle were queer, and they tacitly accepted it—but certainly there were those who were appalled at the thought. … The enormous shock waves of “the Montague Case,” in which Edward, Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood were sent to prison on the skewed evidence of two Boy Scouts, and the prosecution of John Gielgud for soliciting, cannot be overestimated. Homosexuals were not then the cozy queens they became later or the ubiquitous figures lauded by the public as they are now.

The long-term romances that Haslam has with four or five men tend to end—even after many years—with strange abruptness, not to mention sadistic cruelty, alcoholism, and schizophrenia. Suicides accumulate as the book goes on—from the beloved tutor who initiates him into sex, to the Englishman in Venice whose gondoliers turn him in to the authorities, upon which he flees to Paris, takes a room in the Hotel France et Choiseul, and ends “his strange exotic life by swallowing the poison contents of a ring he prudently wore for just such an emergency.” Then there’s Margaret Case, the editor who introduces Haslam to the Duchess of Windsor but is “peremptorily sacked from her supposedly unassailable lifetime position at Vogue some years later,” and goes back to her apartment on Park Avenue, changes into her best clothes, and, after “buttoning her fur-lined raincoat,” jumps. There’s also the common meanness of humanity, such as the trick from hell that Haslam’s lover brings home, who ends up driving Haslam from their house in Arizona and burning his papers, including his letters from Cole Porter, or the Countess of Pembroke, who, after Simon Fleet, Haslam’s first mentor, remarks that the gorse and rhododendrons along the highway look just like Sandringham (the royal retreat), says: “Don’t be silly, Simon. How could you possibly know?”

So it’s surprising, given his residence in milieus not known for their milk of human kindness (fashion, interior decoration, café society), that Haslam has hardly a bad word to say about anyone—including the chic and powerful women whose sponsorship are so vital to gay men of his sort. There are a few exceptions: Leonard Bernstein “I found unbearably false and conceited.” Proust fares no better: when Haslam asks a New York society woman with “no tolerance for bores” what it was like to meet the great novelist, she answers: “Ghastly, darling.”

Tallulah Bankhead, Cole Porter, Peggy Guggenheim, Cecil Beaton, Jennifer Jones, David Selznick, Noël Coward, the Duchess of Windsor, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Radziwill, Barbra Streisand, Diana Vreeland, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Dorothy Kilgallen, Princess Margaret, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Stephen Tennant, Andy Warhol, Rupert Everett—is there a relationship between homosexuality and name-dropping? Surely not. But after a while one wonders, Was there anyone Haslam did not meet? Then I thought: Maria Callas and Tennessee Williams! But I checked the index, and there they were. I just forgot.

Yet for all this—the choice anecdotes, the deadly zingers (Noël Coward’s are the best), the parties and houses, landscapes and lovers—there is in this entire monologue, save for that brief passage on homosexuality quoted above, hardly any reflection at all. Perhaps that would have been a bore—too heavy, too intellectual—which may be an aspect of the philistinism of style, or simply a laudable refusal to write an Age of Oprah memoir that “shares.” But couldn’t Haslam have given us a few ideas? The book is starving for interiority; a little would have gone a long way. Refusing to ruminate, Haslam remains a recording surface.

The explanation for this may be simple: visual people, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from the rest of us. They see more. And sometimes, that’s all they do. “[O]f all professions,” Haslam writes, “interior design is the most enjoyable. Each and every day one’s eye receives information.” Even when his Italian lover announces that he’s leaving him, news that causes Haslam to cry “as I have never cried before or since,” he follows Paolo’s bombshell with a visual impression of the moment: “Paolo lay on his bed, a light somewhere throwing a golden edge onto the outline of his head and shoulders. He looked so young and beautiful and desirable, dark against the white sheet.”

Hence the slightly exhausting nature of Haslam’s very gay—in both senses—memoir. “Looking back now,” he writes, after Paolo leaves, “I can see that my naturally outgoing persona may have been overwhelming, and conversely my withdrawn feelings about physical sex, my tenet that its very intimacy can degrade a relationship, must be extremely disheartening. … But one can’t change one’s animus any more than one’s personality.”

Nor can one alter the fact that we grow old—which may be the reason that Time is oddly absent from this autobiography. “In 1946 I was seven years old,” Haslam writes on page 12, but after that the reader frequently has no idea what year or decade it is. When nearing the final page Haslam mentions that his hair has been bleached white by the Arizona sun, one has to wonder: wouldn’t age do that? He tells us about his facelift—“The past had been wonderful, sad, difficult, memorable. Now it was time to fashion myself to a future and what I could make of it”—and, finally, that he has reached the age of seventy. The pictures in the book of course tell the story even better: the young man who, as a teenager, looked like a cross between James Dean and Troy Donahue, ends up resembling, with dyed hair and a thin moustache, the fashion designer John Galliano.

What, then, does the title mean? What are the redeeming features of Haslam’s story? The acceptance of reality in the above self-assessments is certainly one, plus a great sense of humor, love of life, and total absence of self pity. But the book might just as well have been called “Martin Gable’s Tongue” (the punch line of an anecdote involving Truman Capote’s mania for imagining that straight men wanted to get into his pants).

In the end, Redeeming Features remains a fascinating social history (or piece of gossip)—the saga of one gay man’s star-struck progress through the world—which may have to be filed under guilty pleasures. The book threatened to take over my life; while reading it, all I wanted to do, no matter what I was supposed to be doing, was get back to it. And yet, when it was over, I had to wonder: what was that? A witty portrait of Anglo-American social climbing from the end of World War II to the present, or the most shallow, meretricious barrage of name-dropping I’ve ever read, designed to make the reader feel like someone outside the ropes at Studio 54? On reflection, Haslam is far closer to Warhol (that deadpan recorder of data) than to Proust (who did nothing but reflect); but, like both of those demented social climbers, he packed an awful lot into his time on earth.

“After all, one’s only middle-aged once,” a friend advises Haslam; but for those who love the next new thing, it must be hard to get pushed to the corner of the dance floor by new people with new styles. The poignancy of this memoir is felt only after reading it, when one reflects that the author has gone from the last faint echoes of Edwardian England (embodied in a mistress of the Prince of Wales who, when Haslam meets her, still lives in a house in the south of France given to her by the king) to the present, when Haslam is reduced to attending the Oscar party given every year by Vanity Fair, and—o tempora, o mores—Paris Hilton.


Andrew Holleran’s latest book is Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited (Da Capo Press, 2008).