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.
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.
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!