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."