City Boy Edmund White

Bloomsbury, pp.297, 18.99

Edmund White is among the most admired of living authors, his oeuvre consisting of 20-odd books of various forms — novels, stories, essays and biographies — though each one is imbued with his preferred subject, homosexuality.

Edmund White is among the most admired of living authors, his oeuvre consisting of 20-odd books of various forms — novels, stories, essays and biographies — though each one is imbued with his preferred subject, homosexuality. Now he is most famous for what could be termed his boy-ographies, a regular series of volumes about his passions, practices, predilections and peccadildos, beginning, in 1975, with The Joy of Gay Sex. Next came States of Desire: Travels in Gay America — which might more appropriately have been titled ‘Straights I Desire’. The Burning Library was another book on his favourite theme.

Rather like a male version of Sybille Bedford’s labyrinthine autobiographical technique, one of White’s early, and critically acclaimed, novels, A Boy’s Own Story, was a roman à clef of his growing-up-queer life; later this fiction became fact in My Life: A Memoir. But now, complete with dust-jacket photograph of the presently elderly and balding author as a slim, doe-eyed version of Tony Perkins, White gives us the fucks-and-all City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s.

The brainy, beautiful, but, he says, sexually confused mid-Westerner had majored at the University of Michigan, somewhat exotically in Chinese. In 1962 he flew to ‘mandarin New York’ — whatever that may mean — dreaming of joining the court of that forbidding city’s literary Great Empress, Su-san S’on-tag, though more prosaically, in pursuit of Stan, a wannabe actor with whom he was in love.

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I must say he makes the city’s next two decades sound like hell: dirty, dangerous, bankrupt, and worse, homophobic. Which is odd, as I was there at exactly the same time, and to me, in the early 1960s, the place seemed a very heaven, full of delightful intellectual patrician hosts, exciting bars, thrilling new painters, musicians and poets, glamorous Broadway and movie stars, dancers, architects, and the clever, beautiful young. And most of them queer. White seems to have been a bit of a slouch on the uptake. ‘I knew just three gay couples’, he writes a page or so after ‘we had to admit the Sixties hadn’t really begun until the Beatles came over to the States in 1964.’ An astonishing claim. I mean, I knew and loved The Boys, but their troglodyte sexuality was leagues below the raven gyrations of Presley, the white Corvette coolth of Troy Donohue, the slick cowslick of Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes, the early Supremes, the Ronettes, Lesley Gore, or the sublime camp of Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips. The sense of liberation that the Kennedy presidency brought seems to have been lost on the serious writer White wished to become.

It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that almost any autobiography, even one so frequently recycled by such an illustrious homosexual author, will inevitably and perhaps frequently contain the words ‘I’ and ‘gay’, but cripes does White lay them on thick. The pronoun appears in almost every sentence, while a count of four random pages produces ‘gay’ 16 times. It’s as if he’s discovered not just the word, but the sensation, the attitude, the act, despite the fact that more than a decade earlier Charles Kaiser had written illuminatingly about New York’s teeming homosexual populace, from the 1940s on, in his informative book The Gay Metropolis.

White also states that when he arrived in the city, no two men openly lived together. Well, what about the playwright Arthur Laurents and Tom Hatcher, or balletomanes Trumbull Barton and his partner of 32 years, John McHugh? Or Gore Vidal and his lifetime companion, Howard Austin, or the pianists Arthur Fizdale — whose social ambition, White recounts, was to meet Helen Hull, the first Mrs Vincent Astor — and Robert Gold, or Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy, Auden and Chester Kallman, choreographer John Taras and Frank Rizzo, besides many lesser known couples?

After a time White ‘discovers’ cruising — though I recall many well-known cruising grounds a couple of years earlier — and goes for it hammer and tongs — seven, eight, ten guys a night. Next, it’s the S and M bars, a far cry from the almost dainty all-black-leathery Copper Kettle where we would take Jane Ormsby-Gore dressed en garçon. Then our White knight prowls the rubbery, chainy, Krisco-lubricated Anvil, or the Mineshaft, where guys lay in baths of urine. One gets the feeling White had already nabbed every single one.

I’m telling you all this night soil because it does somehow distract the eye from White’s clear, ever-growing intellectual brilliance. His meetings, sexual or otherwise, with admired elder authors, or contemporaries exactly on his wavelength, honed his craft, and soon his prose dazzled in the style of Nabokov, his ‘favourite living writer’. A first novel did the usual rejection rounds, but a critic friend had faith and insisted that White persevere. He gets taken up by more established figures; James Merrill (who was barracked for his elitist opinions by a group of students when speaking in Minnesota. As he stepped down, Merrill murmured, ‘See what happens when the Great Plains meets the Great Fancies?’) and then a poet, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss (the poetry editor of the New Yorker). One or other of them — confusingly there is no index — manages to get the novel, now titled Forgetting Elena, published. White’s phenomenal talent is recognised and his reputation, if not his fortune, is made.

To earn money, White takes the editorship of a magazine in San Francisco, but it’s not long before he is lured back to Manhattan. Despite feeling ‘for the longest time being gay was sort of a scandal’, White co-authors ‘The Joy of … (I can’t bear to write the words again), and field research finds White pumping-up at the newly fashionable gay (sorry!) gyms, and any scandal worries go down the toilet.

How, one wonders, with all this sex, did White ever have time to write so many masterpieces? How, especially as there are sidebar sojourns in, say, Paris, with James Merrill, where the Jim-toned Edmund learns how to kiss the hand of grand ladies? -— a knack he should have passed on to Arthur Fizdale. How, during several summers with his ‘best friend’ David Kalstone in Venice, hob-knobbing around Peggy Guggenheim’s white marble bungalow, and a year in Rome with a lover, about which he writes typically lyrically? How?

The answer is that Edmund White’s mind sees everything, absorbs everything, learns everything, retains everything. Despite the ‘I’s and the ‘gay’s and the sex, he writes fascinatingly, movingly and amusingly. His erudition is paramount, his references exquisite. But even homo nods; it’s not Quaint Alice in E. F. Benson’s Lucia books, Ed, but Irene.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: America, Non-fiction, Novelists, Sex