Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rebel With A Clause

JAMES DEAN: An American Icon in Novels
by Brooks Peters

Driving home from my September sojourn in Maine, I stopped in at one of the many book barns on the roadside along the coast. I used to make my living by scouring such places for rare first editions, esoteric ephemera and the odd volume. But since closing the shop, as well as my internet business a year ago, I've been less inclined to spend time in places that bring back a swarm of memories. But on this journey, I had time to spare and entered the barn's portals without a clue as to what I might find inside. Floor after floor, I searched the shelves and came up with nothing. I was almost grateful as I slipped out the front door and left empty-handed.

But wait! What's that? I asked myself, spying a tome with an intriguing title: Farewell, My Slightly Tarnished Hero. The book was tucked in the corner of a shelf in the outside bin. If it had been any cheaper, it would have been free. I glanced at its dust jacket, on which a face peered out that looked remarkably like James Dean. Picking it up and reading the blurb on the flap, I soon realized that this novel was a fictionalized account of the famous dead icon's life:
"When film star Johnny Lewis died in a highway crash in the early fifties he was only 24. Although only two of the three movies he made had been released, his death shocked the world. If Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield would always recall the world of the 1940s, it was Johnny Lewis more than any other star who became the rebel hero of the 1950s."
I flipped the owner the coin it cost to buy it, and took it home with me.
Very few actors can lay claim to the distinction of having a novel written based on their lives. But icons are different. In James Dean's case, there have been several books. It is an odd phenomenon. One would think that a biography would be sufficient, but for some reason, authors look upon James Dean as a kind of tabula rasa on which they can dissect the tenor of the times he lived in, or even bring him back to life. Perhaps it is because he died so young. And so tragically, although the word tragic applied to someone whose car crashed into an oncoming vehicle seems a bit of a stretch. Tragedy implies a heroic struggle. Ill-fated might be a better way of putting it. It was almost a death wish on his part. No doubt that is part of the appeal. To understand why on earth this talented young man with his whole future ahead of him, the world at his feet, could die so young.
The myth-making began almost the moment he expired in that fiery crash. He hadn't died at all, some claimed. He merely pretended to die in order to escape his unwanted fame. He was that kind of guy, nervous and awkward and painfully shy. He loathed the Hollywood machine. He wanted out. I never bought those fantasies. But I did want to know what made him tick.
There was a side to James Dean that called to me, even as a young teen struggling with my own identity and sexual issues. I don't know how old I was when I first saw Rebel Without a Cause. But I suspect I was fourteen or so. I watched it alone upstairs in my father's room where the color TV was. Dad was probably away on one of his business trips. I often spent hours each day parked in front of the tube, inches from the screen. It was not uncommon for me to watch TV from 4:30 in the afternoon when I got home from school, until midnight each day. I had a little routine that amused me. I'd sit with my head perched on my right hand, the forearm at a 45 degree angle. I refused to move until my arm became completely numb. My hand would feel like it was dead. It would cease to exist. I could pinch it, jab it with a pen, slam it on a table. Nothing. No feeling whatsoever. Then I'd get up, shake it until the blood flowed back into it, and start the process all over again.

On one of these lonely nights, I just happened to turn on the TV and landed on an old movie. A bright flash of red caught my eye. It was James Dean's jacket. I didn't know who he was. I'd never heard of him. And at that moment, I had no quick way of finding out. I just watched the film unfold. I guess I'd been lucky and caught it early on. Dean was running around a sunny campus, then went on a school trip to a planetarium (although even at my young age, I thought he looked too old and pretty ridiculous as a high school student). But I didn't care about casting mistakes. I was entranced by his "look." The jeans, the pompadour, the angst in his face. And that gorgeous red jacket, which flashed across the screen like a matador's red cape in the bull ring. I lunged into the story, trying to figure out what this film was about. Who were these odd characters? The father wearing an apron? The tough kids who called each other "chicken"?
It was unlike any Hollywood film I'd ever seen. The love interest was all wrong. He wasn't after the girl. She was after him. And that friend, the school nerd who kept following him around. That was really peculiar. His name was Plato, which I found fascinating, because even at fourteen I knew that Plato was a Greek philosopher and that he was supposed to be homosexual. He had written the Symposium, which advocated both straight and gay love. I knew about such things because they were important to me. They were the only glimmers of that life available to me, tiny shards of a distant past that seemed more real to me than the phony present. I saw in this kid, the nerd named Plato, myself. And I knew that his bizarre obsession with this outcast, the James Dean character, the "Rebel without a Cause," was sexual in nature. He lusted after Dean. And stalked him. And wanted to make love to him. And did so with his eyes, if not his swollen lips.

But what really floored me was that James Dean didn't seem to mind. He didn't do what was expected, hauling off and belting the poor kid, or getting others to laugh with him. He was tender and kind and loving, and even though he got the girl in the end, it was as if he had loved them both equally. I didn't see their menage a trois as a metaphor for the family, as some critics have suggested. I didn't need to extrapolate from what was on the screen. It was there in living color. When the film was over, and Plato was dead (draped in Dean's coat, I seem to recall), I lay in my Dad's room in a state of ecstasy and devastation. Watching this picture had been like living through a strange, erotic dream.
Later, I figured out the name of the motion picture from the day's paper. And then researched the film. Like countless other Americans exposed to this movie over the years since its release, I became obsessed with both Sal Mineo and James Dean. Natalie Wood had seemed like a sister to me, from her star turns in Gypsy and West Side Story. I didn't need to fixate on her. But I saw in Mineo and Dean dual sides of my own nature and I felt that by figuring them out, I might solve the riddle of myself.
Part of the incredible aura of James Dean is the fact that he died in a horrible car accident before the film Rebel Without a Cause was released. Coming across this slice of information, after having just watched this film in a state of heightened awareness of its unique power, was too much. It was like learning the story of Christmas only to find out that Jesus's life ends in a gruesome crucifixion. What are we celebrating? The same with Oscar Wilde. I read his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in junior high school. Then learning about his tragic life, I found out that he was persecuted, spat at, had his plays removed from the stage and died nearly forgotten after serving hard labor in prison. A similar unhappy fate befell Sal Mineo. He was stabbed to death by a pizza delivery boy turned petty thief in Los Angeles under mysterious circumstances. (Sal with Don Johnson, below, in Fortune and Men's Eyes.)

Such are our icons. They are martyrs, symbols of revelation and inspiration, but also the grim truth of life and death. And man's inhumanity to man, his endless battle with his own demons. James Dean seemed to fit into that mold. We project our innermost turmoils into his tortured soul, or what was left of it. This effect is chillingly realized in the famous erotically-charged photograph from Giant in which Elizabeth Taylor kneels like the Virgin Mary in front of Dean, posed Christ-like with a rifle for a crucifix (below).

The two other films that Dean did never had the same kind of power over me, although I certainly was moved by his performances in them. Watching them, it made no difference to me whether one had been written by John Steinbeck, and the other by Edna Ferber. Their stories were irrelevant. I was only interested in James Dean's screen time. And he did not disappoint. He tore up the screen. Later, as I grew older and wiser (as in jaded and over-educated by film teachers and historians), I saw how he was miscast in Giant. And how over-the-top his performance in East of Eden really is. Method acting is a ruse, an excuse to spill one's guts out on celluloid in a bath of tears and maudlin sentimentality. But it works, the same way that Mahler works, wrenching your heart out.

So it should not come as a surprise that authors have attempted to bring James Dean to life on the printed page. The first attempt that I know of was a book, above, by Walter Ross, a former PR rep at BMI, called The Immortal. It came out in 1958, three years after Dean's death, sporting a cover by a young Andy Warhol (whose pre-pop career began with book jackets and store illustrations.) The novel is a riot to read today. It's pulpy and pop, and cheesy. But it's as satisfying as a double cheeseburger with ketchup-drenched fries. Johnny Preston bears a startling resemblance to Jimmy Dean. The copy on the dj sums it up:
"As an actor Johnny Preston was a combination of James Dean, Marlon Brando and the Devil. As a human being, he was a mixture of child, man -- and time bomb. Other actors envied him. Producers hated him. Teen-agers copied him. Audiences idolized him. Women loved him. And so did a certain kind of man. Johnny didn't care. He'd try anything. Fast cars... books... bongo drums... marijuana... people. For him, an experience was neither good nor bad, but something to be bitten into like bread, tasted like wine and spat out like garbage."
The story is told through a series of contrived interviews, with the people who knew him best: a young starlet he was in love with; a psychoanalyst whose male patient, an actor named Hairston Sklar, was his keeper; his agent; a studio detective. Each presents his own take on the "movie star in dungarees."

The character based on Dean is a scoundrel, a social vampire, who uses sex as a means of absorbing the souls of the people around him. He is a giant sponge, sucking others dry. Early on one of his conquests finds him holed up in a bar. "I've been trying to reach you," she says to him. "I haven't been home much," he answers. I've been hiding out from the fag patrol." I suppose this type of banter was racy and daring when The Immortal was printed. To even talk about bisexuality was risqué, and risky. But since Ross was writing about an icon, a "mutant king," he got away with it. Its pre-Stonewall take on homosexuality is fascinating from a sociological standpoint. The actor Hairston Sklar seduces Preston and indoctrinates him into a "secret society" of inverts:
"A group of like-minded men who share a common attitude toward life quite far above the usual bourgeois conception of existence. Some of us are actors, some playwrights, some painters... some designers, some are in TV. We're a group that is, well, more sensitive than the herd, and so we stick together. We help one another. If you are one of us, we will help you."
Young Preston, who is only looking out for number one, sees a chance and seizes it. He moves in with Sklar, then dumps him when a richer sugar daddy comes along (a yacht-sailing queen who takes Preston to Capri.) It's rather ludicrous in hindsight, but it had a strong impact in the 50s, and was a bestseller. The book went on to become a cult classic.

There's a famous photograph of David Bowie, shot by Terry O'Neill, with a copy of the book on the floor beside him, above. The connection is made. Bowie and Dean. Immortal gods. Bowie's copy is the 1959 British edition from Shakespeare Head with a different cover illustration. (My own copy, below.)

But David Bowie, for all of his wanton past with drugs and sex, was never a tortured soul who longed for death. If anything, he seemed to be a reaction against that cliché, constantly playing the chameleon, ever evolving, never letting life or his fame overwhelm him. (Dean, below, on set of Giant, courtesy Life.)

The Edwin Corley book, Farewell, My Slightly Tarnished Hero, published in 1971 by Dodd, Mead, is surprisingly similar to the Ross novel. And I would be amazed if he did not know about The Immortal when he wrote it. Corley was a former publicist in the film business. As far as 70s novels go, which were known for pushing the envelope of good taste, this one is pretty wild, even a bit haywire. The novel is set in the present (1971) when Corley is asked by his producers to write a screenplay based on the life of Johnny Lewis, a character so similar to James Dean that it makes you scratch your head why the author bothered to change the name. You can't libel the dead.
While he is struggling to write the screenplay, Corley, who uses his own name in the book, decides to use the material he's dug up to pen a novel. (Why then begin with the conceit he is writing a screenplay? It makes little sense and adds nothing to the story.) Then in a weird bit of sleight of hand, Corley goes back in time to interview Johnny. He is part ghost, part time traveler. (Since Corley knew James Dean in real life, I find it odd that he'd use this tired Sci-Fi device to tell his story.) In one scene, he meets the Dean-inspired character in a beer joint on the West Side. Johnny takes out a knife and rubs it against the skin of the author's hand, then he twists the blade, cuts the skin, drawing blood. Since this is all happening in a bizarre ersatz flashback, it's hard to get swept up in it.
Later the book changes tone and tense, and the second half is written in the first person from Johnny Lewis's point of view. Here it becomes far more interesting and persuasive. After achieving fame in a film eerily similar to East of Eden, called Paradise Gate, the James Dean clone has numerous affairs with women, including a photographer for Life magazine; a co-star (similar to Natalie Wood) and one character vaguely reminiscent of Pier Angeli. The sex scenes are vivid and lurid. Case in point, a grim but potent bit of foreplay in the shower:
"A savage longing swept through me, and as we uncoupled, I caught her head in both dripping hands and, wordlessly, pushed her down to her knees. She looked at what I was offering with an empty expression, turned her eyes up toward me in despair, then leaned forward woodenly and began to do what I wanted. I remember calling out obscenities as the orgasm came and pulling her face against me until it was all over and she collapsed against the tiled wall, retching."
But Corley also wants to drive home the icon's downward spiral. In one bizarre scene, Johnny is watching two chicks have sex with each other. One of their companions, an aging actor named Richard Devine, wearing a dress, wig and makeup, approaches Johnny while he's staring at the girls, and seduces him.
"And, as I sank back onto a pillow and inched my way out of my khaki pants, Devine pulled off the blonde wig and I saw that he was completely shaven bald, and now his face had become very old under the garish makeup and behind the red lipstick. 'I'll do you,' he said, stroking my trembling legs, 'and then you do me.'
'Yes... yes,' I said thickly, 'I'll do you...'"
The way Corley writes it, one is shocked by the ugliness of it, but also disappointed by the lack of detail (especially since we've been subjected to several very graphic hetero sex scenes). The implication is that this unpleasant episode, which reminded me a bit of Death in Venice, the pansy as the grim reaper with a vile smile, has touched off a long dormant spark inside Johnny which causes him to self-destruct in a miasma of self-loathing. In the next chapter, his ex-girlfriend, who was involved in the lesbian lovemaking, now calls him a "fag." Another calls him a "miserable, sickening queer." Soon he's seen picking up boys outside a high school. The leap from a minor male seduction to such wanton depravity is not only loony but laughable. It's a sick 70s moral lesson.
After that it is only a few pages before Johnny tears off on his motorcycle (rather than a sports car, as in real life) and drives off into immortality. The vague insinuation is that he died because he was ashamed of or too frightened by his dark, homosexual urges. Considering that The Immortal had already tread this tenuous territory, it's odd that Corley could not see beyond it. Corley went on to have greater success in both fiction and film. He wrote the thrillers Grizzly and Air Force One, which were made into hit movies. Corley, below, died at 50 in 1981.
A quick Google search led me to a new book that is also a fictionalization of the life of James Dean. The Rebel by Jack Dann. Originally to be called Second Chance, The Rebel is a conjecture type of novel. What if James Dean had not had a fatal accident on that road in California? What if he had survived the crash? It's an interesting premise (similar to those novels asking what if the Nazis hadn't lost the Second World War). Dann brings Marilyn Monroe into it as well, spouting some very salty dialogue. I guess two dead icons are better than one.
What ultimately is gained by reading these less-than-stellar novels about a famous film icon? For me the allure is in the context. Especially the Ross and Corley books, which expose more about the temperament and sensibility of their time than they shed light on any mysteries revolving around James Dean. The Ross book shines a light on the Beat generation and its fascination with bisexuality that was intrinsic to the appeal of figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and would later evolve into the androgynous idolatry so omnipresent in punk and glam rock. No wonder David Bowie was posed reading The Immortal. The connection with the cult of celebrity is apt, since he is an artist who has mined this terrain so masterfully.
Likewise the Corley book is a classic of its time, coming on the heels of the early gay lib movement and the free-wheeling, drug crazy, disco 70s. The James Dean in his book is a rebel of the sexual revolution, seeking release from pent-up erotic hangups rather than rage against society or weak fathers who sport aprons (as in Rebel Without a Cause). In the Corley book, the men in drag are the seducers, the devils, not symbols of weak parenthood, or the decline of masculinity.

But in The Rebel, Dean is given another chance. He's the Fitzgeraldian hero finding that elusive second act. He is the American hero reborn. What better metaphor for the 21st century male? We're trying to get it right this time. That's the key to James Dean and his immortality. He is an icon who is constantly evolving, reflecting back our ever changing desires -- a malleable fashion plate who suits our mercurial dreams.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Page Boys

Camp Art of Gay Pulps
by Brooks Peters

"Twisted!" "Warped!" "Evil!" "Shockng!" "Perverted!" "Tormented!" Early 1960s gay pulp publishers rarely minced words when enticing readers to snap up their racy, erotic tomes exposing the "shadow world" of the "twilight sex." The risque cover art, with provocative images of buff physique models and limpwristed fairies, captured the manic, repressed spirit of the era before pornography was legalized and the Sexual Revolution exploded. It's that camp pop art look -- sort of Roy Lichtenstein meets George Quaintance -- that makes them immensely popular and increasingly valuable collector's items today.
Literary worth was beside the point. These throw away tomes were "one-handers" -- books to be read in bed or on the john. The style was a lavender shade of purple, overstuffed with throbbing euphemisms and penetrating double-entendres. And the plots were as predictable and tawdry as the graffiti one finds scrawled on the walls in a high school boys room. And yet today some of these trashy reads, including those by Phil Andros (the alias of Samuel Steward) and James Colton (the pseudonym of noted mystery writer Joseph Hansen) are considered underground masterpieces and have found new homes in America's rare book archives and university collections.

The first time I laid eyes on a gay pulp was at an Army/Navy surplus store in Spanish Harlem in New York City. I was 15 and my mother had taken me there to buy a pair of sailor's button-down pants which were every teen's fantasy back then. As we were leaving, I spied a paperback novel nearly hidden under a pile of vintage postcards and old comic books in a box by the door. The title caught my eye: Pretty Boy by Jay Greene. And the photo on the cover of a husky Polynesian lad in a loincloth made my heart race. When my mother stepped outside to hail a cab, I grabbed the book and asked the man at the counter how much it cost. One dollar, he said. I quickly forked over a buck, stashed Pretty Boy in my pocket and didn't mention it to Mom.
When I got home, I hid the paperback behind some others on my shelf. That night, I read it by flashlight in bed. Pretty Boy was pretty tame by most pulp standards. But I didn't know that then. To me it was the Rosetta Stone; a whole lost civilization of exotic sensuality was deciphered and unlocked for me, albeit a distorted and neurotic one. The story concerned an idyllic island in the Pacific where nubile boys were indoctrinated in the joys of man-to-man love before they settled down in marriage. One day a ship loaded with sex-starved American sailors washes up, and the innocent lovemaking erupts into an orgy of violence and homophobic savagery. Jay Greene had a perverse genius for contrasting fantasies of gay utopia with the hypocrisy of civilized society. He wrote dozens of other pulps, each one more sensational than the last.
I bought them all, and branched out to other authors probing equally sensational themes. I became the keeper of the flame, combing junk shops, used bookstores, flea markets and antique malls. A homeless guy on Broadway sold them out of a suitcase with a snicker and a smile. And I stumbled upon a whole cache of them once at a YMCA tag sale. Eventually, in the '80s, I graduated to serious catalog dealers Elysian Fields and Paths Untrodden, which sold them through the mail. With the advent of the internet, in particular eBay, my part-time passion has become an all-consuming obsession. I now touch base with collectors around the globe, trading pulps as if they were baseball cards or Hummel figurines. I have thousands, filling my bookshelves from floor to ceiling, spilling over into my closets and cupboards, a fruit salad of camp classics.

While collectors toss around the phrase "gay pulps" or "vintage sleaze" to describe the genre, there are different kinds of gay paperbacks. Back in the 40s and 50s, a few ground-breaking literary novels with homosexual themes appeared. Strange Brother by Blair Niles. The Heart in Exile by Rodney Garland. Finistere by Fritz Peters. Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar. Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, penned several books which dealt with "sensitive" themes. His The Fall of Valor has a memorable cover of two hunks at the beach lighting each other's cigarettes. McCaffery, by Charles Gorham, recounted the salacious tale of a cocky young fag-basher who becomes the kept boy of a queer millionaire.
As their popularity increased, these novels were reissued in paperback from mainstream pulp publishers like Avon, Dell and Ace, often with tantalizing covers that were far racier than their contents. Bud Clifton's Muscle Boy, about the relationship between a humpy physique model and his photographer, is a highly sought after remnant of this pre-Stonewall era, with its beefcake cover and hints of sado-masochism. In 1960, Regency put out Ronn Marvin's flamboyant expose of the dance world: Mr. Ballerina. Two years later, Wisdom House published All The Sad Young Men, whose tone of desperation and despair did little for the burgeoning gay liberation movement. Some early publishers, fearful of censorship, disguised their gay-themed books with bizarre female nude covers, such as So Sweet, So Soft, So Queer which dealt with a lusty stud who "soared into the ecstacy of love" with a drag queen.

By the mid '60s, savvy publishers began to cater more openly to the out subculture, hiring struggling gay writers to churn out a flurry of campy titles. The most successful was The Song of The Loon, which Greenleaf brought out in 1966. It spawned countless imitations and led its author Richard Amory to concoct a trilogy, adding Song of Aaron and Listen While the Loon Sings. It was eventually made into a popular porn film.
For the next decade, gay pulps flourished. The titles often were more memorable than the stories themselves: His Sex, His Problem; The Killer Queens; Romeo & Romeo; Like Father, Like Son; Gay Like Me; Senator Swish; and Fruit Punch. A favorite of mine is The Man Inside Me, by who else -- Jay Greene. The Man From C.A.M.P. series by Don Holliday combined clever titles with winning plot lines, spoofing James Bond flicks and sexy spy thrillers. Thirty years later, Austin Powers can't hold a candle to this hilarious flamer.
Gay pulps carried on for the first half of the '70s, with ever more explicit sex both inside and out, but lost out to the rise of uncensored smut, and the advent of video in the '80s. Camp became a quaint vestige of a more closeted time. The off-color jokes of yesteryear seemed embarrassingly homophobic in a period when gays sought respect rather than tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. Like the screaming bitches in The Boys in the Band, they had become hopelessly passe. But for those of us who love a cheap laugh, gay pulps will never go out of style.
Note: This article originally appeared in Australia's (Not Only) BLUE Magazine

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Blood, Sex & Tears

The Tortured Souls of Jay Greene's Behind These Walls
by Brooks Peters

"The Seneca County Reformatory for Boys is, of course, a product of my imagination," Jay Greene wrote in an author's note at the opening of Behind These Walls, one of his earliest and best-known gay pulps. "It bears no resemblance to any such institution to my knowledge, and should not be thought of as anything more than a metaphor for the prison in which we all live -- are all inmates confined for crimes against each other -- whether we admit to these offenses or not."
This was Jay Greene's sacred creed. The quest for love and acceptance, and respect, is man's raison d'etre, but it fought against primal urges so vile that there was no possible resolution of life's conflicts other than death and despair. It is a dark, vicious world out there, according to Jay Greene (a pseudonym for a still-unknown author). And one risked utter ruin and rejection by surrendering to one's secret yearnings.
To live in Jay Greene's world was to be a victim of a cruel joke. Men who lusted after men were despicable, beneath contempt -- and yet, they were seductive creatures, brimming with life, compassion, and addicted to indescribably intense physical pleasure. Most of the boys in Jay Greene's novels are humpy society outcasts, misfits, and miscreants, quick with a knife, or the barbed put-down. At the start of Behind These Walls we meet the quintessential Greene protagonist: Skip Harding. Manly, well-hung, devastatingly handsome, "the boy was a paradox between youth and manhood." He has the "lean, muscled grace of a fully developed man," but the troubled, confused sensibility of an unformed adolescent.
Leaving his "jerkwater" hometown in South Dakota, Skip "skips town" by hitchhiking to a big Eastern city. Along the way he meets some rather disreputable characters. They're stock characters for sure, but in Greene's hands, they turn into almost allegorical figures, like obstacles in a quest straight out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or perhaps The Magic Flute. It's a rite of manhood, this journey across the American landscape. Homeless, with only his guitar and one suitcase, Skip finds the city a cold place. He camps out in a park. But moments later he meets Allan, a young man not unlike himself who invites him up to his place for a drink. Before he knows it, Skip is being seduced by Allan, who leans over him and sucks the very life out of him. The book was written in 1968 before complete freedom of language was allowed. Greene was a master at intimation. Skip feels "a flood of sensations lapping at his very soul." Before surrendering to an orgasm, Skip pulls away, pushing "away the inquisitive fingers." Disgusted and ashamed, Skip runs out of the apartment, leaving his guitar and luggage.
One feels sorry for Skip Harding, but just when one is getting a handle, so to speak, on his personality, Greene throws a left curve. "Why get crazy?" Skip asks, finding himself once again alone and dejected, and cold. "You'd think it was the first time a guy did that to you. It wasn't, of course." And then Greene reveals that Skip is a seasoned hustler, using his body for material gain, allowing several men to sample his wares, in exchange for a ride or some pocket change."He couldn't say in all honesty, that he hadn't enjoyed what happened. He felt "only a minimal amount of revulsion," especially since "the man did all the work." Then with the next man, "the revulsion was almost non-existent." From then on, his soul is completely corrupted. "He was actually disappointed when given a lift, if the guy didn't try anything."

This is a typical Greene literary device, almost as if he's teasing the reader by implying, "You agree with Skip. What happened between him and Allan was disgusting"… but then he twists the knife, adds another turn of the screw, to use Henry James's pet phrase. For Skip is the manipulator, not Allan. And it is his existential crisis to hate himself for using his good looks and sexuality for his own gain. But what choice does he have? Society has written him off. These are the only tools in his bag. He must succumb to his fate.
It is only a question of time before he gives in again. And in a Jay Greene novel, that is usually just the next page. Jay Greene's novels were meant to be read with one hand, as the old saying goes. And no gay pulp author of the 60s did a better job of compelling the reader to turn the next page in a headlong quest for total release. Skip's next encounter is with a married businessman he meets in a train station. The pick-up is quick and efficient, although Skip, who is by nature contrary, is reluctant. In swift, deft brushstrokes, Greene paints the scene. The man's "eyes boldly took in the tight fit of Skip's pants," "his clearly outlined bulge, his clinging knit shirt." The man seduces him by flattering him. "You don't look like a hustler." He describes the terminal "as a place for creeps, the kind of animals who can't get anything." He licks his lips. "There's ten bucks in it for you."
But Greene ups the ante, literally. The man, clearly relishing his own depravity (he jokes about getting "bad lip cuts from zippers), suggests they up the stakes, offering "ten bucks for the first six inches, and five an inch for everything over that." Skip jumps at the bait, putting on a big show for the older man, proud of what nature has given him. Quickly, the man dives down and is "deeply anchored" on him (the genitalia are never specifically named), and Skip feels "a hot, slick, sliding sensation that made the boy cry, thrust up his hips." The john, Skip laughs, "believes in getting what he paid for. All of it." Greene dances around censorship problems by cleverly using language to suit his needs. There's no doubt in the reader's mind what "all of it" really means. It becomes an existential moment for the boy. His soul leaves his body and he looks down on the sordid scene: He could see "only this face, these lips, and yet he knew he was still there, too."
Suddenly just as the action is about to reach a fevered pitch, a bright light is shone inside the car, and the two are arrested. All of this, we now see, was just foreplay. A preface of sorts to the core of the novel, the scenes in the reformatory. There we meet the rest of the players in this sleazy tragic drama, call it a "don't-drop-the-soap" opera. For we've entered a new world, a dark underworld in the best sense of Greek mythology. The reform school is basically a holding pen, a purgatory between the prison of childhood and the penitentiary of hapless old age. 

Here we meet Skip's compatriots in this seamy realm of the senses. First up is Rick Mazzio, an olive-complexioned street kid, with a hairy, well-maintained physique, the ninth child of a dockworker. Home to him, he says, "is a place you went back to with dread." He is a "lone wolf" who believes "the best way to protect yourself is to stay away from people." He's hard, he's mean, and -- as is mandatory in Jay Greene's universe, he's incredibly well-hung.
None of this is lost on his bunk mate, Paul O'Brien, the "All-American boy" next door, from the suburbs, whose life took a turn for the worse when he met an Italian stud at school named Steve Olivetti (Greene couldn't resist poking fun at his own writing here; no doubt he wrote the book on an Olivetti typewriter). Paul became obsessed with Steve and lost his way. Now he's falling for Rick Mazzio bigtime. But Rick is a sadist who delights in taunting Paul. "You want your breakfast in bed?" he asks, playing with himself as Paul ogles him, his mouth agape. "For God's sake, why do you have to make everything so disgusting?" Paul cries out. "Maybe because it is, fella," Rick shoots back. "It isn't," Paul says defiantly. "Not when the people who do it really feel for each other. It can be wonderful." Rick answers this entreaty (and its hint of a burgeoning gay liberation sensibility) by shouting, "Can the crap!"
One has to wonder if Jay Greene was just poking fun at the zeitgeist of the era. Behind These Walls was written a year before the Stonewall riots. Its hard-edged gritty realism is a far cry from the sensitive queer romances to come. Was he giving gay liberation the finger? Or did he side with the Rick Mazzios of this world? Did he really believe that true love was impossible for homosexuals? Or, perhaps, more probably, did he surmise that his readers at that time were equally conflicted, equally tortured, equally self-loathing. It's hard to know in hindsight. But I think Greene's game plan went beyond mere political incorrectness.  He was grasping at something deeper, something at the core of all human relationships, something particularly prevalent in American society: a double standard that has shaped the dynamic of our culture, one part Puritan prudishness, and self-denial, with an equal share of licentiousness and louche decadence. What's remarkable about Jay Greene is that he was able to tackle these thorny issues, and to expose them, without the benefit of full literary freedom, or the right to free speech. He had to censor nearly every sentence in his books, but they are stronger because of it. He used metaphors, allegory, nuances, and very often, black humor, to dance around the topics, while all the time titillating, teasing and taunting the reader into questioning his own desires, his own motives and his own hypocrisy.
Behind These Walls continues at a swift pace to paint similarly tortured human portraits. Next up is Charles Connell, the bottle-dyed blond who at 13 lost his parents in a car crash, a lonely, friendless boy who was raised on his uncle's milk farm where he lived among 20 men in a bunkhouse. Meeting one of them in the shower for a late night tryst, "Charles felt as though a tightly drawn rope inside him had suddenly snapped." During their coupling, Charles "felt a strangeness in his mouth," which is Greene's way of depicting the end result of fellatio. But Charles is caught by his uncle. Frank is fired. And Charles descends into a world where love doesn't exist, only brutal animal desire. He becomes the village "faggot; he'd do it for anybody." He is smuggled aboard football buses, servicing the entire team. "Frail and willowy" he "affected a lisp." As one of the prison guards says, "if he wore a wig, and a pair of tits, he could easily pass for a woman." And in Jay Greene's estimation, nothing was less appealing than a member of the fair sex.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Behind These Walls is Leroy Thompson, a proud, openly rebellious black youth, who lashes out at his tormentors and his peers. "My name's not Boy," he tells one guard, fighting for his dignity. He only softens up when he meets Skip Harding, who is put in his room, by a savage guard who felt rejected by him. One day the two wrestle, and a strange feeling of love takes them both by surprise. Leroy fights it. He's no stranger to man-on-man encounters. He'd profited from them in his past. But he feels, perhaps, even more shame about them than his white brothers. "The horror of what he'd done crept over him like the decaying hide of some dead animal." For Jay Greene, the slightest hint of abnormality was a death sentence. But the passion Leroy feels for Skip is inescapable. He lets Skip make love to him, submitting to his dominance, bringing on a fit of tears from years of pent-up frustration, anger and resentment. It's as if the mere act of penetration can unlock floodgates of shame.

As the novel speeds along to its inevitable conclusion -- a veritable clash of titans as the guards and a sicko kitchen aide named Grizzy beat and torture and rape the boys in their care -- there's a thin ray of hope at the end that things might work out for Skip and Leroy, the two lovers.  Leroy kills Mac, the meanest of the guards, "a steady puddle of darkish ooze" leaking from his head wound. (Even in describing death, Jay Greene uses the language of sex). He turns to Skip. "He killed because he loved," Skip rationalizes. Leroy answers him by stating perhaps the clearest rendition of Greene's strange system of beliefs: "Your hurt would hurt me more than any hurt they'd give to me. That's love, ain't it?" They kiss (an act that is rare in a Greene novel.) But there is not to be a happy ending. Charles, who lusted after Leroy, shoots him dead. Skip is devastated. "He hated me and he loved me and either way he had to die because of it."
Behind Jay Greene's walls, the impenetrable fences civilization raises, preventing real love, and any genuine connection between men, there are faint glimmers of hope, but these are routinely shot down, broken, destroyed. One can not win either way in a corrupt world. It's a post-Eden nightmare, where one's nakedness is suddenly shameful, innocence reviled, and freedom forever lost. Those of us who hide behind our fears lose out because we never live, are never taken to the heights of passion. And those who do venture out to explore, to seek their freedom, to prove themselves worthy, are set upon and devoured like Sebastian Venable in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer. Jay Greene's world view is not a nice one. And it may be excessively skewed. But even now, after years of liberation and profound societal transformations, it's still got the ring of truth.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Butterfly Effect

A few months back in a blog entry here entitled "A Panoply of Penelopes," I described how I always knew I was going to enjoy a book if it were written by someone whose first name was Penelope. That same quirky concept also pertains to titles. If a novel has the word "butterfly" in its name, it's a given that I am sure to find something to like in it. As if by some bizarre literary alchemy, most books with the word butterfly in their titles have a tendency to touch upon gay themes. And since I collect books that fit this narrow niche, I am always thrilled when I stumble upon another tome on the shelf waiting to take wing. [Photograph, below, by Cora Büttenbender]

I first noticed this phenomenon when I began to collect gay fiction back in college. I would roam the dusty racks in used bookstores (there were many more of them back then) and my eye would inevitably land on a dingy, old volume with a cover sporting a butterfly. I'd pick it up and start to thumb through it. And lo and behold, I was immediately caught up in the story and would end up taking it home. Pretty soon I had a little collection of them. Of course, it was the subject matter of these books that really intrigued me. The title was just a teaser, a sign post. In some ways, a secret code. I can only think of a few other words that suggest this implicit compact between the reader and the author -- evocative terms such as "shadows" and "twilight" and, of course, any tome that teases its readers with exposés of "twisted" desires.

But "the butterfly effect" has become a surprisingly predictable indicator, especially when it comes to books with subtle, and often, latent gay themes. This shouldn't necessarily be a stretch since butterflies have traditionally been linked to homosexuals. Indeed, the word "mariposa" in Spanish, which means "butterfly," is slang for an effeminate homosexual. I remember in college, during one of my intensely fascinating seminars with Shoshana Feldman (a brilliant scholar in the deconstructionist vein), we were reading "La Fille Aux Yeux D'Or," a short story by Honoré de Balzac [shot, below, from the 1961 Albicocco film.]

It's one of his most notoriously bizarre "contes drolatiques," centering on a young man obsessed with a beautiful girl with golden eyes. It turns out at the end that this beguiling creature is being kept by a maniacal lesbian who is in fact the protagonist's twin sister. At the moment of climax, the girl calls the boy, "Mariquita," which, like its cousin "maricon," is Spanish slang for queer or faggot. Balzac delighted in such lurid twists in his tales. The youth is humiliated, his manhood destroyed. I won't begin to try and chart the Freudian (if not Lacanian) layers hidden in this conte here (you'll have to read my term paper), but I will tell you that it set my mind abuzz, thinking about the meaning of "butterflies" in the realms of sexually ambivalent fiction.

It's not unexpected that an insect known for flitting about and being frivolous should come to be equated with so-called fairies and men who are a bit "light in the loafers." And, of course, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation. Plus the spectacular colors and array of designs that butterflies naturally exude offer a tantalizing parallel to the wild costumes and flamboyant personalities of certain fey creatures. This is by no means limited entirely to gay men. Butterflies are symbols of merriment in straight fiction as well as theater. "The Butterfly of Broadway," Dorothy King, became fodder for the tabloids after her brutal murder in the Roaring 20s, precisely because she represented an ethereal laissez-faire loucheness when it came to flirting with stage door johnnies. There has always been something demimondaine about butterflies, something racy and wicked. Louise Brooks portrayed Dot King, in the S. S. Van Dine mystery based on her killing, The Canary Murder Case, (publicity still, below.) Even with her plumage, she looks more like a butterfly than a songbird.

And perhaps, too, there is an aspect of nerves in the equation. We still say "I've got butterflies in my stomach," to express heightened nervousness or anxiety. A constant state of agitation was common for men who were considered over-strained or neurasthenic, effete members of what used to be derided as "the third sex." Of course, none of this is a science (although the Monarch butterfly is one of the best known examples of animal life that exhibits homosexual tendencies) and there are obvious exceptions. The artist James McNeill Whistler, aka "The Butterfly," was as straight as they come. And James M. Cain's notorious novel The Butterfly is a tale of incest, not homosexuality.

But knowing the rest of Cain's strange oeuvre, which includes his gay-themed novel Serenade about an opera singer kept by a sophisticated, but jealous queen, I think he may have subconsciously chosen this title because of its widely-perceived decadent resonances. It was made into a 1982 camp classic film starring Pia Zadora and Orson Welles.

The first and most obvious gem in my collection is Butterfly Man by Lew Levenson. This ground-breaking novel about the homosexual underworld first appeared in 1934. Published by Macaulay Press, it is an incredibly provocative portrait of a subterranean set (at the height of the "pansy craze.") The male lead, Ken Gracey, is a former basketball player-turned-dancer who falls under the influence of a ruthless older man with interests in his family's farm. The boy travels across America trying to pay off this ogre and encounters all sorts of evil characters. He is raped, becomes an alcoholic, and suffers venereal disease. Not a pretty picture by any means, but one that does give us a glimpse into the mindset of that era. Lew Levenson was a playwright and drama critic who knew his terrain well. It was reprinted in 1967 in a new edition, causing many to think of it as a post-war novel when in fact it was written during the Depression. Despite its lack of finesse, it is an important relic of a lost chapter in gay history.

Another of these early finds was Butterfly Days (1957) by Aubrey Fowkes, the nom de plume of British airman Esmond Quinterley. Published by Fortune Press in England, this peculiar book follows in the footsteps of his infamous "Boy" series, detailing corporeal punishment (mostly by caning and whipping) and romances between "chums" in school and in prison. He followed it up with More Butterfly Days in 1958, which I recently revisited. Fowkes's style is fascinating. He writes in long, breathless sentences, in an almost incantatory trance. The sexuality is not so much in the situations (which are pretty obvious, although somewhat obscured for censorship reasons) but in the language. His use of double-entendres and suggestive plays-on-words is ingenious and at times shocking. He writes of "lads of spunk" named Dick and Romeo who sigh often and seem to climb into each others beds at night with abandon.

A typical sentence reads: "I was already pining for Dick next morning as I cleaned out a water-closet, fearing that I would be as lonely as in the first days." The narrator then meets a boy named Tom White. "Tom was up to a few tricks with me during the day, giving me a few friendly kicks on the quarter that has, when you are young, a seemingly irresistible attraction for your friends and enemies alike... I found that he was as cute as Dick at whispering without appearing to be moving his lips." Tom, he discovers, is a bit of an exhibitionist. "He, I may add, had a habit of stripping himself stark naked before settling himself under the prison rug -- most never took their clothes off at all at night during these cold months -- and he would stand about unabashed in this state for a minute or two to the merriment of the lads around... standing rigid the while..." And on and on, page after page, so it goes.

The next book I stumbled upon, this time at the Strand in New York, was a little-known novel called The Butterfly Tree by Robert Bell. Published in 1959 by Lippincott, this lyrical tale revolves around an area Bell calls "Moss Bayou" in Alabama. Bell was from Fairhope, a small resort town on Mobile Bay with a Southern Gothic allure. The novel tells of the narrator's "strange search," at the end of which "he was to find fulfillment and an end to innocence." One doesn't have to be a mind-reader to figure out where such quests end up. Its pages, like works by Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, are full of colorful eccentrics: Edward Bloodgood, the undertaker; Miss Claverly, student of lepidoptera; and Karl Heppler, an "oddly beautiful young man."

It's a neurotically atmospheric story of loss and yearning set amid the magnificent moss-covered trees that dappled the landscape, the mystical butterfly trees of the title. While visiting Bloodgood, Peter, the book's protagonist, notices a photograph of a beautiful young man: "Here was a remarkable enlarged picture of a man standing on a beach. He was naked, but there was no detail, for the pictures had seemingly been made either late in the afternoon or with the sun at the wrong angle. Even the face was blurred, almost silhouetted... man naked and alone against the background of a cold and impersonal universe." Bloodgood says that Peter reminds him of this heroic youth. "There was beauty and death about him," he says. "I suppose that is why he fascinated me more than anyone I ever knew." It turns out that this strange beauty has died at a young age, and become a symbol of all that is eternal. "He used to mention frequently the oriental symbol of immortality," Bloodgood adds, "the butterfly. Something must die in one place before it can be resurrected in another. Beauty -- human beauty -- comes from the dark and twisted wetness and sliminess of uterus or cocoon..." It's a metamorphosis. "He was a butterfly?" Peter asks, mesmerized by the image of the beautiful young man. "Yes, my friend," the undertaker sighs. "Can you think of anything more exquisitely beautiful, so eternal, yet so brief?" Despite its often effete self-consciousness, this novel deserves to be better known.

The Butterfly Revolution is a well-known saga of youth run amok and not one that usually is included in lists of gay novels. Ian Young's definitive bibliography of "the male homosexual in literature" does not mention it. And perhaps it shouldn't. But there are some stories that have a gay aesthetic without meaning to. Written in 1961, by William Butler, The Butterfly Revolution is a seething tale of boys gone wild at a summer camp. The stern director, who hunts butterflies, is overthrown and the young men take over, wreaking havoc and misery as they express their most savage desires. Whatever homosexual intrigue is present is couched between the lines and in the male bonding that lies at its heart. The novel, reissued many times in paperback, has become a staple of lit classes, often read along with William Golding's Lord of the Flies. And it evinces a similar moral, that lack of authority breeds chaos. But one can also read in its warnings that too much repression can lead to rage and disorder.

Butler's tale was made into a low-budget thriller, Summer Camp Nightmare, in 1987, starring Chuck Connors in one of his last screen appearances. The story line was drastically altered and the resulting movie bears little resemblance to the skillful effects of the novel. But the kernel of perversion remains. Connor's character is accused of being a "fruit" and a pedophile, which gives the campers justification in staging their ill-fated coup d'etat. The film, which has become something of a cult classic among aficionados of bad 80s flicks, is now available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube.

Chester Anderson's The Butterfly Kid, published by Pyramid in 1967, is an award-winning Sci-Fi novel that epitomizes the psilocybin-popping and peyote-smoking counter culture of the Sixties. Set in Greenwich Village, it recounts the psychedelic adventures of two hippie detectives battling drug-induced monsters (the "blue lobsters") and nefarious alien invasions. Reality pills -- LSD -- cause users to experience bizarre butterfly hallucinations. Vivid in its depiction of the zany characters, gay and straight, at loose in the Village in those days, it holds nothing back. Anderson was a rock critic and erstwhile editor at Crawdaddy. The work was the first part of a trilogy, and ended up winning the Hugo Prize. Anderson, below, later wrote the popular gay novel Puppies under his pseudonym, John Valentine.

Another example of the hippie-era, flower-power appeal of butterflies is the long-running play, Butterflies Are Free. What? I can hear you say. What does that have to do with gay novels or queer studies! Well, this 1969 play by Leonard Gershe is one of the gayest things I've ever seen, even if the entire premise is based on the idea of a kooky chick seducing an innocent mama's boy who just happens to be blind. Urban legend has it that Gershe (who also wrote the screenplay for the camp classic Funny Face) was listening to the radio one night when he learned about a young blind lawyer, Harold Krents, who had trouble breaking free of the strangling hold his smothering, Scarsdale mother had on him.

So Gershe sat down and knocked-out a play, expanding Krents's situation into a kind of Oedipal triangle, involving Jill, who befriends the blind boy, Don, over his prudish mother's objections. The boy finally learns that "butterflies are free" (which is taken from a line in Bleak House by Charles Dickens) when the liberated babe next door seduces him and he falls in love for the first time.. It ran for over 1100 performances on Broadway, starring Eileen Heckart as the Mom and gorgeous Keir Dullea as the troubled son.

But the truth of its creation is a bit more revealing. Gershe, who was a "close personal friend" of Roger Edens' in Hollywood, based the character of the wacky next-door neighbor on Mia Farrow, who had once been his own neighbor in New York. Given her famously androgynous charms, it is easy to see how Gershe would have been captivated by her. She's basically a clinically-correct portrayal of a "fag hag," a gypsy spirit who helps Don open up and experience life in all its erotic glory.

The play is shamelessly full of gay humor, including a hilarious riff on how boring homosexuals had become. Jill is telling Don about an audition she just had for a play about a girl who gets "all hung up because she's married a homosexual." Originally, she says, "he was an alcoholic, but homosexuals are very 'in' now, so they changed it. Are you homosexual?" He says, "No, just blind." Big laugh. But Jill goes on. "They are in everything now... books, plays, movies. It's really too bad. I always thought of them as kind of magical and mysterious -- the greatest secret society in the world. Now they're telling all the secrets and you find out they're just sad and mixed up like everybody else. Do you know any homosexuals?" He says, "I doubt it. I've been in Scarsdale all my life."

Gershe was playing to the house, of course, but you don't have to be a pocket-rocket scientist to see what he's getting at here. She's trying to find out if he's gay, and Gershe is also defusing the issue in audience's minds by making a joke out of it. There's oodles of subtext throughout the play which indicates to me that he was aware of how the tale of a handicapped boy who is imprisoned by a dominating mother could be read by some in the theatre community as a metaphor for stereotypes of closeted gay men. One can't read or watch this play without feeling that there is a gay play at its heart. This was made even more apparent when the ever-glamorous Gloria Swanson took over the lead.

And the 1972 film, starring Goldie Hawn as Jill and pretty-boy Edward Albert Jr. as Don, underscored this duality by relocating the play to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Some of the scenes, especially when they go shopping for clothes, is like something straight out of Can't Stop The Music. It's a marvelous film, with a powerhouse performance by Eileen Heckart reprising her Tony-winning turn. But in my book, despite all its attempts at being hip and with-it, it's basically just a groovy twist on Tea and Sympathy and will always be as queer as a three-dollar bill.

1969 was a good year for butterfly epics. That same year saw the release of the memoir Papillon (which is French for butterfly) about a tattooed convict who escapes from remote Devil's Island. The book features a gay character named Maturette who is expressed in a relatively positive light. You can't have a prison novel without a gay character. Think of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, to which Papillon owes a great deal. While published as an autobiography, Papillon was later revealed to be a semi-hoax. Its author Charrière, a noted exaggerator, had first submitted the tale as a novel. The publisher convinced him it would do better as a memoir. And he was right. It sold millions of copies around the globe. I read it when I was twelve years old and never forgot it. Papillon is a breathtaking roller coaster ride.

The 1973 movie, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, was marketed as a kind of exotic buddy film. But Maturette, played beautifully by Robert Deman (above) remained and was even given some tender moments with McQueen. One wonders if such a film were made today whether those butterfly moments would be shown at all.

Darwin Porter, who recently wrote a scandalous bio of Steve McQueen, alleging all sorts of sexual indiscretions in the actor's past, burst out in 1976 with his own very gay novel, Butterflies in Heat, published by Manor Books as a paperback original. An immediate bestseller, this racy tale of sex and drugs and male prostitution in Key West, Florida seemed to sum up the "anything goes" attitude of the era, although, ironically, it was set in 1959.

Porter wrote it at the ripe age of 22, although it's not clear if the indiscriminate stud at its core, Numie Chase, was based on him or not. Numie has four lovers: a black transvestite, an aging fashion diva, a lonely and confused gay man and a girl who should know better than to get mixed up with a male hustler. Often compared with Midnight Cowboy or Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, this novel has more in common with Henry Fielding's picaresque novel Tom Jones.

For months After Dark magazine chronicled its evolution from page to screen, giving updates on whether or not Matt Collins, the sexy male super model of the moment, was going to star in it. Eventually he did. It was made into the film The Last Resort in 1977, starring Eartha Kitt, in one of her least-memorable roles as a blond-wig-sporting cabaret artiste. Her part was based on the black drag queen in the novel. Ironically, Gloria Swanson had placed an ad in Variety declaring that despite endless rumors, she was not starring in the film.

But after the producer died, the rights to The Last Resort got mixed up in legal wranglings and the film was never released in theaters. Eventually, it hit the video stores with a thud. The title was changed to Tropic of Desire and is still only available on VHS. It's now considered one of the great bombs of the 70s, and like Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, has a certain cachet among film buffs. In 1997, a Florida publisher reissued the novel in a "silver edition" featuring a very well-endowed model on the cover. From what I'm told, it flew off the shelves.

There was another lepidopterian story published in 1976 in Canada that went on to lasting fame. Margaret Gilbrood's poignant short story collection, The Butterfly Ward, featured a story called "Making It" that chronicled her experiences as a mixed-up young girl with mental problems who befriends a female impersonator in Toronto. The story, based on her own experiences living with Craig Russell, captured the essence of the burgeoning gay scene and was soon made into the hit indie film, Outrageous.

For many gay men in the late 70s, who were just discovering their sexuality, Outrageous hit a nerve. It was the most outspoken, flamboyant, and, in my opinion, hilarious gay film of the decade. But it was more than just a film about coming out, or freedom of self-expression. Using the themes Gilbrood (later known by her married name, Gibson) explored in her stories, Outrageous showed how camp humor, drag and gay sensibility could help the heterosexual world cope with its own hang-ups. This may seem naive and too politically-inclined today when so much of the gay world is seeking acceptance by and assimilation into the so-called normal world. But that 70s spirit celebrating anarchy, and revolution against the norm was a key aspect of what made gay liberation so exciting.

It is no coincidence then that David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly (1988), starring John Lithgow and B. D. Wong, should deal with a clandestine love affair between a French diplomat and an opera singer who is in reality a cross-dresser. The attaché is in the dark about his lover's gender. Or is he? The play makes us think about sexual role-playing and gender identification. And while the title certainly comes from Madame Butterfly, the play Belasco staged that inspired Puccini to write his famous opera, M. Butterfly also mines the many meanings of this most beautiful of insects in a way the opera never did. It was made into a memorable film starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone in 1993. (Shot from the film, below.)

Today there are gay-themed butterfly books everywhere you look. Rigoberto Gonzalez had a big success with Butterfly Boy, a memoir of his being a mariposa in Hispanic society. Pop novels such as The Butterfly's Wing by Martin Foreman and Butterfly Tattoo by Deidre Knight explore gay romance. As does the mystery Black Butterfly by Mark Gatiss. There was even a lesbian take on Thelma and Louise called Butterfly Kiss.


It seems that all it takes nowadays to "flitter and be gay" is a lepidopterist title and a certain in-your-face daring. Perhaps we think of "butterflies as free" because they don't give a hoot about fitting in. They are, as we learned in La Cage Aux Folles, their own "special creations." bookend