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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Between Who and What (on gay culture early in the 20th century and American gay artists in mid-century)

Samuel Barber

Aaron Copeland


Willy The Third Sex (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007)
Michael S. Sherry Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
Frances Stonor Saunders The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters
(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000)

Among the many books published under the name Willy—the pseudonym of Henry Gauthier-Villars—was Troisieme Sexe, published originally in 1927 and now translated for the first time into English as The Third Sex by Lawrence R. Schehr. It is unlikely that Willy himself penned the work; Gauthier-Villars, a man one might describe as a true rake and a virulent anti-Semite, hired ghostwriters to compose most of the over 50 titles published under his name, including books of the early Claudine novels, written by his wife, Colette.

Although this strange publication clearly reviles homosexuality—an interesting phenomenon given Colette’s later affairs with Nathalie Barney, the Marquise de Belbeuf, and other women—focusing on what the author and Willy clearly see as an “inversion” of human behavior and a threat to human morality, the book simultaneously is so utterly fascinated with its subject, with the perversities and titillating aberrations it describes, that what might have first seemed as a homophobic tract, by book’s end is perceived as an important document of homosexual behavior between the wars and a unintentional celebration of homosexuality, particularly given the sensationalist insistence of the extensiveness of the “vice” it documents.

An author with a clearly French bias, the Willy stand-in of this book can hardly resist proclaiming the entire German nation as “putting up with it,” embracing homosexuality not only in the clubs, “kabatretten,” and dance halls, but in bars such as the Adonis, “where, after two A.M., ephebes dance completely naked on the tables and show revealing tattoos; there is the Three Stars and especially the Como, a colossal bazaar of inversion, where you can see, at the back of pea-green velvet boxes, the honorable Business Counsel Siegfried Müller, the honorable Rechtsanwalt Siegmund Schmidt, the honorable bank director Kahn-Gugenheim arouse a pink ephebe, with curls like a little lamb, while the orchestra plays Isolde’s Liebestod or the mystical prelude to Parsifal.”

If those bacchanals, so temptingly laid out for a sympathetic reader, are not enough to titillate, the author of The Third Sex moves on to describe what he calls a “pederastophile movement” throughout the country, hidden behind organized clubs and societies such as the “Club of Noble Sociability,” the “Friendship League,” etc, seemingly upright organizations which gather on weekends for dramatic readings, theatrical performances, and “bad-boy” dances. Special gay casinos, trips for men only, and newspaper ads are catalogued as other German activities of the homosexual communities before the author moves on to briefly discuss such “perversions” in Italy, the US (Harvard and Yale and the American military are evidently particularly rich centers for the vice), and Asia.

After what he describes as “A Bit of Pyschology,” in which he uses Gide against himself and spends an inordinate amount of space on homosexuality in animals, the author moves boldly forward in outlining famous homosexuals of history (Alcibiades, Rousseau, Wilde, Lorrain, Proust, Rostand, Verlaine, Rimbaud) before moving on to a discussion of other locations common to “the third sex”: “Balls without Women Dancers,” “special” bars, art galleries, cocaine dens, and Turkish baths!

Before turning to the topic of homosexuality in literature, Willy briefly discusses “Varied Opinions,” including the theories of some doctors who claim to be able to “modify” the “disease” by grafting testicles and other strange non-scientific atrocities. But even here the author seems to satirize his book’s momentary “seriousness,” as he quips—after describing a possible cure of grafting a male with a monkey testicle—“It would seem, a priori, that a monkey graft should inspire us with the desires not for women, but for female monkeys.”

After brief and rather meaningless discussions of the “inverted theater” (which may remind us, once again, of the attacks against American gay playwrights of the 1960s described below) and the effects of the music hall, the author comes to rest with a brief, but fascinating discussion of whether the brazenness of the “inverted” being is a purposeful publicity of homosexuality, asking, in short, should the third sex remain “mum” or publicize itself. Thus Willy ends this strange and fascinating text with the old question: is it better to stay in the closet or openly celebrate one’s sexuality.

The questions of Willy’s book are those we seem to still be facing at the last quarter of the century as outlined in Michael S. Sherry’s intellectually engaged study of Gay Artists in American Culture, a book which centers on a perceived conspiracy of homosexuals in the early to mid-1960s: a conspiracy that resulted in questions of not only who is a gay or lesbian artist—what to make socially and morally of homosexual behavior—but what was he or she, what was the effect of sexuality upon one’s art?

Sherry explores US attitudes toward homosexuality through an extended and often brilliant discussion of gay musicians, dramatists, dancers, and writers from the late 1940s through the 1960s, determining that, although American culture was perhaps consistently homophobic, there was a significant change from the early post-war—a period in which, while there were occasional police raids and other publicized “outings” of gay figures, there was no “outright” denial of queer talent” nor an “outright assault”—to the mid-1960s, when, he argues, there was a near-unified belief that homosexuality was not only a corruption of American values but a real threat to American power.

Some of these changes had to do with the very success and openness of American gay figures: in music Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti and others were increasingly seen as icons representing in their work not only American values, but the very substance of what it meant to be an American; similarly, in drama, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Laurents and later, Edward Albee, seemed in their works to get to the very heart of the American experience; writers James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and John Cheever equally seemed to signify Americanness. Accordingly, as the Cold War coalesced, and American political and military leaders—employing a wide range of American institutions and covert funding sources (see Frances Stonor Saunders’ revelatory book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters)—sought out these same individuals and others to represent American cultural dominance to the world at large. The coming together of these two forces—the very popularity of these gay artists’ work and the felt need to represent their contributions as emblems for the American cause—brought them under heightened attention, often revealing the “open secret” of their sexuality to a wider range of critics and audiences alike.

Sherry’s insistence of these shifts in thought from 1960-1964 accord with my observations of what I described of the “conservativeness” of that period in “The Death of the Mother” in My Year 2004 and in essays in others of my volumes. Sherry, moreover, produces a plethora of commentary by figures from both the right and the left, from both positions of high and popular culture ranging from Jess Stearn’s popular best-seller The Sixth Man, to articles in Life (the one I mention also in “The Death of the Mother”), Time, and other popular magazines, and homophobic comments by feminist Betty Friedan to support his contentions. Some of these numerous citations seem to be caught up in the same “frenzy” that he describes as being at work against the queer artists. While the major figure of The Manchurian Candidate may certainly be a “mamma’s boy,” one might remind Sherry that he is most emphatically heterosexual in the movie—hardly what one might describe as a “Tea and Sympathy”-like figure the author makes him out to be [see My Year 2002]. While Susan Sontag certainly has mixed feelings about the notion of “camp,” associated with gay culture, one might have noted that Sontag has mixed feelings about most of the issues of which she writes, including the French noveau roman writers; and, in a book where Sherry decries his own study’s absence of lesbian artists (most of the issues raised in this period were directed exclusively at male gay artists), it seems strange that he does not even mention the “open secret” of Sontag’s own sexuality.

In general, however, Sherry’s copious research is revelatory and its examples of homophobic rage are quite terrifying. Yet his primary example of the effects of this American reaction to gays brings up as many questions as it attempts to explain the homophobic attacks of the period.

Clearly more at home in the world of music than in the other arts, Sherry delineates the career of Samuel Barber and its culmination in the disastrous opera premier of Antony and Cleopatra at the Met upon its move to Lincoln Center. Nearly all of the participants in this work—which was perceived as a grand failure by critics of the time—were gay artists: conductor Thomas Schippers, director Franco Zeffirelli, choreographer Alvin Ailey, and the work’s composer Samuel Barber. Sherry brilliantly outlines the critical climate of the time, when the more popular and musically lyrical writing of artists such as Copeland, Bernstein, Menotti and Barber where often set in opposition to the twelve-tone composers, most of whom were heterosexual. Accordingly, issues of melodiousness, prettiness, showiness, theatricality, preciosity, etc—all connected with the queer composers—were often pitted in homophobic discussions against the lean, spare, manly, difficult (and heterosexual) twelve-tone compositions. The lush, over-the-top dramatic endeavor of the Zeffirelli-Barber production, accordingly, was associated by many critics as failing precisely because it is was the product of gay men, men able only to express the surface of experience—a criticism often used as well against gay playwrights Williams, Inge, and Albee in their presentations of marriage and family life.

Sherry quite brilliantly untangles numerous other issues involved: the pretensions of cultural organizations such as the Met, the Cold-War boasting of cultural superiority, and Barber’s own misgivings with both subject and the time-frame in which he was to have composed a “masterpiece.” And the author traces various reactions to the opera over the years since its premiere, a period in which some critics have been much kinder to the work. But the fact remains that the attack on Barber—with all of its links to gay-bashing—along with Barber’s own decisions due to the break up of his relationship with Menotti and his own failing health meant an early end to the composer’s career. Along with Sherry’s sympathies with Barber’s fate, I have lamented a similar situation regarding Menotti’s career [see My Year 2007], and one can only wonder if Barber had lived as long a life as Albee, for example, (Albee is currently 80, having written two new plays in the past two years, Barber was age 71 at the time of his death) whether he might not have composed numerous other important works.

One must face the fact, however, that in the context of the early 1960s, before the embracement of a postmodern sensibility, Barber’s work was old-fashioned in its European-based melodiousness. And the focus on Barber’s musical career obscures the fact that in other forms of art the same homophobic forces were very much on different sides. Despite the attacks on gay playwrights in Stanley Kauffmann’s 1961 piece for the Times, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises” (an article I very much recall reading), the vast differences between the more expressionist Williams, the realist Inge, and the absurdist Albee did not really allow for one notion of what gay art looked like. In poetry, moreover—an area Sherry barely discusses—linguistic complexity and abstraction was more linked to the gay poets such as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery than the narrative-based and certainly more “old-fashioned” heterosexual favorites of the time, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Allen Ginsberg’s work, which linked him to the bardic traditions of Blake and Whitman, found support with numerous other heterosexual “Beat” authors; similarly many of the New York School writers who followed O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery were quite obviously heterosexual. In short, the kind of formal issues Sherry sites that created opposition in the musical world between gay and straight men, were very different in the other arts.

Accordingly, while Sherry’s ability to point to a perceived gay conspiracy results in fascinating reading, I am uncertain what effect that hysteria had. Clearly it did not change lives in the same way as the McCarthy hearings of the previous decade. One might almost see this period, one in which I myself felt as a period of ineffectual restraints, as a kind of final swelling of prejudicial resentment by those hating homosexuality before their way of thinking collapsed.* It reminds me very much of the virulent attacks of many supposedly loving church-goers upon gays today who demand the same marital rights as heterosexuals. Their venom may be painful, but the changes they oppose are inevitable, country after country (even mythically macho-Spain) recognizing that homosexuality does not necessarily represent a who or a what, but simply another kind of love.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2008
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XIII (Summer 2008).

*Obviously those kinds of hateful attacks have not entirely disappeared. Only the other day the media reported Oklahoma legislator Sally Kern’s remarks—echoing the statements by many 1960s homophobes—that homosexuality presages the fall of all cultures. Astonishingly, Stern proclaimed that she was without any prejudice against gays!

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