Saturday, May 9, 2020

King of Queens: Karyl Norman

The Creole Fashion Plate:

In the annals of vaudeville, one name stands alone: Karyl Norman. He, along with Francis Renault, and Julian Eltinge, were the reigning kings, or queens, if you will, of female impersonation. But while much has been written about Eltinge and other interpreters of drag, such as Bert Savoy, Tom Martelle, Gene Malin, Earl Lind and Ray Bourbon, little is known about Karyl Norman, who by all accounts was one of the most fascinating and glamorous of vaudeville's gender-bending vamps, the original voguin' vixen and one of the premier princesses of the so-called "Pansy Craze." Karyl Norman paved the way for countless female impersonators who came after him. He also wrote many of his own songs, which puts him in a different league than Eltinge and his peers who always used songs written by others. Karyl's legacy endures primarily due to his sheet music which shows up constantly on eBay, although many dealers are not aware that this stylish siren was in reality a man.
Most accounts of Karyl Norman, I've found, are just plain wrong. His name is often misspelled, both his stage name and his birth name. I've seen mentions of him as "Norman Carroll," "Carl Newman," "Norman Thomas," and "Carole Norman." Writers have claimed his real name was George Paduzzi. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre says it was "Poduzzi." One account I read said that he was born in Australia; another that he was African-American and lived in Harlem. Yet another stated that he ran away from home at the age of 16 to join a minstrel show. The truth is less exotic but just as fascinating. Here is what I've managed to find out so far.
Karyl Norman was born George Francis Peduzzi on June 13, 1897 to a middle class family in Baltimore, Maryland. John Waters would be proud. George came from a long line of Peduzzis. According to census records, his family had been in Baltimore for generations, as far back as the 1790s. His grandfather Francis Peduzzi, born in Maryland around 1823, was a blacksmith and coach maker. Francis's father had come from Italy and settled in Maryland. (A Peter Peduzi married Sally Shaw in 1797 in Baltimore; this might be Francis's father.) By 1880 Francis had retired as a "grocer." He had married his wife, Amelia Chanceaulme, back in June, 1845. She must be the source of Karyl's fascination with Creole culture. The Chanceaulmes go back to the 1790s in Philadelphia. Martin Chanceaulme, born in the West Indies, around 1788, was a master craftsman and cabinet maker who did work for Winterthur. He moved to Baltimore by 1840 and is listed as white, with no "colored persons" in the household. Back in the 1700s, the word "creole" merely meant that someone was born in the colonies of French or Spanish descent. It did not imply necessarily that one was of mixed race.

Young George took the name Karyl Norman from his father, a carpenter, who was born Norman Augusta Peduzzi. It's not clear when Norman died, but he's listed on a passport application Karyl filled out in 1917, so he may have been alive at that point. I've not been able to find out any source for the name Karyl except that his mother, nee Mary Drusilla Hoffman, was born in Carroll County, Maryland. She was the devoted stage mother type, handy with a needle, who helped design Karyl's outlandish and sumptuous gowns. She traveled with him whenever he performed and eventually moved with him to New York City in the 20s when he lived above the nightclub where he worked. They were inseparable. When Karyl went to Europe in 1921 to perform in England and France, he took his mother along with him. When he returned on the Olympic and was met by the press at the disembarkation, she was standing by his side. Mama Rose had nothing on her.
But why did young Karyl style himself as the Creole Fashion Plate? Well, it turns out that the term "creole fashion plate" was not a new notion. Other minstrel performers had used the phrase around the same time. A "fashion plate" was a Victorian expression referring to sewing patterns that were sent out in template form and then cut along the patterns to recreate the design. Magazines like Godey's in the 1850s and 60's often printed color plates showcasing the latest Parisian styles. It was the height of chic to be called a "fashion plate," since it meant that one's own handsewn creations were the latest vogue.
When Karyl first took his act on the road, he was dubbed simply -- The Creole Fashion Plate. Flaunting his Creole roots was only natural. But there was also a long-standing tradition in minstrel shows of female impersonation. It goes back to before the Civil War, when traveling troupes donned blackface and imitated the high-spirited music of slaves. By the 1910s, touring "tabloid" shows were common. Parodying beautiful young black belles was part of the act. Black minstrel stars also put on blackface to accentuate the farce. Bert Williams, for example, was one of the biggest stars in show business. Karyl found his own peculiar niche and used it to his advantage, although he does not seem to have ever used cork to make himself appear darker. Perhaps his swarthy Italian coloring was sufficient, although his 1917 passport application describes his complexion as "fair." Whatever the shade of his skin tone, it seems apparent that Karyl needed to play up the minstrel aspects of his stage act in order to find work. First because it fit into the minstrel tradition but also because it was less threatening to society for an exotic Creole to be prancing around in women's clothes than some effeminate white guy from Baltimore.

But parade he did. In April 1916, Karyl performed in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland as George F. Peduzzi in Ned O'Brien's minstrel show at the City Opera House. He was listed simply as "singer." O'Brien, one of the top blackface comedians of the era, staged a number called "Darktown's Bravest Fighting the Flames." But it was "Geo F. Peduzzi" who won raves the next day as "an unrivalled female impersonator." Karyl's act was an immediate sensation. His costumes were over the top, yet never trashy. He had an innate sense of chic no matter how outré his routines. Thanks to his mother's handiwork, his creations dazzled theatregoers, male and female alike. He twirled about the stage in satins and silks and marabou feathers. He also had a gift for singing, his voice traipsing along two octaves, chasing notes from the top of his lady-like trill down to the depths of his ringing baritone. Variety noted that he could switch from a "male voice to a female falsetto "with the agility of a Flatbush commuter changing trains." Judging by his passport photo, he looked like what I imagine a Flatbush commuter would look like. But he's described on the form as being "5 Foot 6 inches tall. Dark Brown eyes. Dark Brown Hair. Straight Nose. Small Mouth. Round chin. High Forehead. Oval Face."

Despite his lack of looks out of drag, audiences clamored for more. Karyl was signed to the prestigious B. Keith syndicate and toured the country in Orpheum theatres alongside the Mellette Sisters, popular dancers of the day. First billed just as "The Creole Fashion Plate" without a name, it was left to audiences to decide if he was male or female. He was marketed as "Puzzling and Delightful!" "The Master Illusionist!" In Winnipeg, Canada, he won rave reviews: "He or she... possesses equally good soprano and bass voices. Seldom does a woman show more grace than the Fashion Plate, and seldom is a man more muscular." As his fame grew, Karyl's name was added to the marquee. Demand was strong. The new kid on the block, Karyl Norman, who had once worshiped at the heels of Francis Renault when he played Baltimore, was now giving even Julian Eltinge a run for his money. Karyl did find time amid his busy schedule to fill out a World War One draft registration card. But it would appear his services as a "theatrical performer" were not needed in the army.
In 1917, Karyl sailed to Australia to bring his novelty act to another continent. One can only imagine what the populace thought of his amusing Creole turns. Returning in February 1918 to Vancouver, Karyl continued to refine his act. He went back on tour. As silent pictures began to dominate the market, he introduced silver screen sirens into his routine, impersonating bombshells like Theda Bara, the original Vamp, and later Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham's Rain. Karyl billed his art as "character impression," rather than female impersonation. But the audiences lapped it up no matter what it was called. Throughout the next ten years, he traveled the country, performing from Brooklyn to Oakland. He became one of the top headliners, as famous as Fanny Brice and Will Rogers. He did not always dress in drag. One of his most popular routines was dressing as a country bumpkin, a la Huckleberry Finn, which he performed in a play entitled That's My Boy.

Whatever Karyl Norman may have been in his private life, he was a master showman on the stage and a whiz at publicity. In 1921 he announced that he was engaged to the dazzling acrobatic star of vaudeville, Ruth Budd. This seemed to press agents a match made in hype heaven. For Ruth Budd was as masculine as Karyl was feminine. They were the Eagle and the Dove cooed gossip columnists, but it wasn't quite clear which was the Eagle and which the Dove.
Ruth Budd had made a name for herself as "The Girl with the Smile." Dangling from ropes in a tight-fitting white union suit, she dazzled audiences with her "dainty" and "winsome" charm, but also her "muscles of steel." She made her film debut as Darwa, a female Tarzan, in the 1919 flick A Scream in the Night. So when his engagement to this tomboy beauty was called off in 1922, few Broadway wags were surprised. As one newspaper put it, "He is the epitome of fastidious femininity -- coy, shrinking, super-refined. He is the violet, the cut glass, the rare china, the dove." And she, by inference, was the eagle.
What went wrong? Some blamed Rudd's domineering stage mother who didn't care for Karyl. Others said it was Mrs. Peduzzi who interfered, unwilling to share her son with another woman. Others claimed that Karyl had made the fatal mistake of offering to his bride-to-be suggestions on how to improve her act. She shot back that she'd been in vaudeville before he knew what a stage door looked like. Her accompanist Leo Minton took Karyl's side. She fired him on the spot and performed the next four days without an accompanist. Karyl called her from a drug store and rescinded his engagement vows. Ruth Budd was no softie. She sued Karyl for a whopping $50,000 for "breach of promise."
What those in-the-know knew, of course, was that Karyl was not the marrying kind. Unlike Eltinge who fiercely protested that he was not that way, Karyl was less inclined to mince words. Earlier in 1921, Karyl had been made an honorary member of the Ohio State University's dramatic club. The boys who dolled up as girls in the annual "Scarlet Mask" put on an all-male show called "Oh, My Omar," sporting Karyl's seductive wardrobe. He had donated his costumes, worth over $3000, the papers said, because of his devotion to the cast. In 1924, he was slated to appear in the fabled Greenwich Village Follies, which catered to the Bohemian set. Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics that year. But according to various reports I've read, Karyl seems to have been dropped in favor of Fifi D'Orsay when the show went on tour.
Once when the Marx Brothers were appearing with Karyl in some dingy dive on the road somewhere, Groucho was asked to introduce the vaudeville star. But Groucho got tongue-tied and called Karyl, "The Queer Old Fashion Plate," and lost his job. So says Harpo in his memoirs. Others have claimed that quip as their own, including author Kenneth Rexroth who first saw Karyl in 1923 at The Green Mask, a "tea room" in San Francisco. He bitchily dubbed Karyl, a "queer ole chafing dish."

Whatever his critics might have called him, Karyl had the last laugh. He continued to wow audiences from coast to coast. In 1925 Wood Soanes, writing in the Oakland Tribune, lauded him as "a top-notch entertainer," the "premier female impersonator on the stage." Norman, he went on, "brings youth and a feminine voice that Eltinge in his prime did not possess." He "scored a tremendous hit with the Orpheumites who called him back for two encores and treated him to so many curtain calls that a speech was necessary to allow the show to proceed." The following year, in July, Soanes added that Karyl Norman was set to appear in a new play called "The Half-Caste" by Jack McClellan. It's not clear if that show ever made it to the stage.
In April 1927, however, Karyl Norman made the leap from "vo-de-ville" to the legitimate stage when he was given his own Broadway show: Lady Do, at the Liberty Theatre. A full-fledged musical, choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley who would go onto fame in Hollywood, the show also starred lovely Nancy Welford. Karyl played several characters, including Rose Walthal who lived on a large estate in Roslyn, Long Island. Despite ho-hum notices -- the Times said it ran to "two exceedingly long acts" -- the spectacle, set in Paris and New York, ran for 50 performances and was a triumph for Karyl who had come a long way from little ol' Baltimo'. The show also marked the Broadway debut of a handsome young Latin lover named Cesar Romero who waltzed about the stage with his partner Elizabeth Higgins, a young heiress.
Soon Hollywood beckoned. Karyl was signed by Vitaphone Pictures at Warner Bros to appear in a couple of shorts: Types in which he sang "Georgianna," "Daisy Days" and "5 Foot 2"; and Silks and Satins, in which he crooned "Daddy Come Home" while gussied up in his Creole finery. In 1929 he was appearing beside Jimmy Durante at the Palace.

In 1930 Karyl, after returning from another triumphant tour of Australia and New Zealand, achieved fame of a different sort when he appeared as the headline attraction at a new nightspot called The Pansy Club at 204 W. 48th Street, on the corner of Broadway in New York. Part of the so-called Pansy Craze of the late 20s and 30s, this club catered to a different clientele than those of his old vaudeville days. The queerness of drag was coming out of the closet. No one who dropped by the Pansy Club could claim ignorance as to the sexual persuasion of the "queens" who vogued along its runways. Like the drag balls up in Harlem, the Pansy Club was a hideaway for a burgeoning underground gay subculture, but also a haven for aging flappers and party-goers who liked "slumming." That these establishments were run by gangsters proved their undoing however.
In January 1931, the Pansy Club was raided by the police and shut down, as was Cleo's Ninth Avenue Saloon at 46th Street. Just a few nights before Dutch Schultz, the notorious mobster, had been gunned down and stabbed, and very nearly killed, at Club Abbey, a notorious late-night hang-out where drag queen extraordinaire Gene Malin ruled the roost. Malin had previously starred at Club Rubiyat in Greenwich Village. While Schultz survived, others were killed and the police cracked down on all late-night clubs which violated blue laws. Some gay historians see the crackdown as motivated more by homophobia than concern for safety, but at the time it was defended as a direct response to organized crime's involvement in Manhattan's cabaret scene.

The raid seems to have impacted Karyl's career. While he continued to perform at vaudeville venues -- he was at the Orpheum in Oakland in October 1931, and at the Palace again with Jimmy Durante -- he worked more often at nightclubs. Vaudeville was dying. Most acts now were used simply as filler between movies. Talkies were the new fad. Karyl did a few RKO gigs at movie palaces. But it was less thrilling than his glory days as a B. Keith headliner. In 1932, Karyl found work as hostess at La Boheme, a now legendary nightclub in Los Angeles. Outfitted with 350 seats, La Boheme was everything its name implied, and catered to Hollywood celebs and their entourage, but it closed shortly after opening due to liquor violations. By 1933 he had opened his own place: the Karyl Norman Supper Club where he co-starred with soubrette: Colette Convoy.
Come 1934, Karyl's career showed no signs of winding down. He played the Parthenon in a show called "Harlem Scandals," alongside "12 sepia beauties" in a huge "colored revue" with stage, screen and radio stars. In July that same year, he was performing opposite Morton Downey at the Mayfair Gardens in Baltimore. In 1937 he moved across the continent where he was a fixture at San Francisco's Finocchio's, perhaps the most famous club featuring female impersonators. Then his career petered out. I can't find any trace of him for the next few years. Perhaps he got bored with the endless routine. But in 1943, columnist Leonard Lyons wrote that "Karyl Norman, the Creole Fashion Plate, is preparing a comeback with an impersonation of Lena Horne." No doubt his career was experiencing its own "Stormy Weather."

Most accounts state that George Francis Peduzzi died in 1947 in Hollywood, Florida. I haven't been able to find an obit for him. But a "George Peduzzi" is listed in Florida's death records for that year in Broward County. Most likely it is him. I like to think that he was enjoying the sun and fun of Florida's white sandy beaches when he died, a mere 50 years old, an aging beauty with perhaps too much makeup on, sort of a Creole version of Aschenbach from Death in Venice. His death may have gone unnoticed by many, but for those in the know, Karyl Norman will always reign as the unrivaled diva of vaudeville.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Through a Glass Noir

James Baldwin's "Peculiar" Tale 

[My essay, below, first appeared last month in Arts Coast Journal, at Link in previous post]

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is one of those rare novels that literally changes lives. Numerous authors over the years have singled it out as a favorite, one that inspired them in fact to become writers. Recently, BBC News listed it as “one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.” The Advocate placed it first on a list of the 25 best LGBT novels of all time. And yet when Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room back in the mid-‘50s it was a failure. His publisher, Alfred Knopf, who had launched him as one of the most prominent new writers of his generation just a few years before with Go Tell It On the Mountain, rejected it, calling it “repugnant.” One of his editors actually suggested Baldwin burn the manuscript or risk ruining his career.

The “problem” with Giovanni’s Room, a tale of a tortured love affair between two men in Paris, was that it dealt candidly with homosexuality, a subject that was taboo in mainstream culture and that was still illegal in the United States. But even more so, James Baldwin was African-American, and there were no black characters in the novel. Some of his supporters felt he had abandoned the cause. Others felt he had sold-out, or was over-reaching. One friend called it “a book in drag.” Baldwin argued that he had been treated poorly because the powers-that-be thought he was being “uppity,” attempting a novel that clearly was the turf of better known figures, i.e., the establishment, such as Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.

Yet Baldwin was undaunted. He sent it to another publisher, Michael Joseph in England, who didn’t have the squeamishness of his American counterparts. The book was then published in the States by Dial Press in 1956, and in subsequent paperback versions that sold very well. Over time, the novel has taken on its own iconic status, becoming one of Baldwin’s most admired books. In a telling twist of fate, it was recently reissued by Everyman’s Library, a division of Knopf.

Recently I picked up Giovanni’s Room again. I was looking for inspiration for my own novel, parts of which take place in Paris. I was struck by how wonderfully lyrical, and completely modern his book is, even now. The imagery is startling; the psychological intrigues intense. The language may seem tame by today’s standards, the sex perhaps too couched, some of the dialogue stilted, the female characters at times borderline caricatures, but the themes Baldwin explored — the dangers of lying to oneself, of self-hatred, and of homophobia — are as relevant today as they were back in the repressed 50s.

Baldwin knew the devastating impact these deceptions can have first hand. At 24 he moved to Paris, an exile by default who went abroad in order to write, but also to explore his sexuality with less restrictions and opprobrium. He mingled with other literary expats at les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore, notably Richard Wright, Terry Southern, Herbert Gold, Chester Himes, and Alfred Kazin. He hobnobbed with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Genet, a friend, as well as a tetchy Truman Capote when he sailed into town for a visit.

But Baldwin, for all the glamour of his surroundings, was hardly enjoying the high life of expats as glorified by Hemingway. This was not Midnight in Paris. He was living hand to mouth, barely able to afford food, often crashing with friends, or finding cheap digs in the Latin Quarter, sporting rags and hand-me-downs, becoming as he put it, one of “les miserables,” a “lamentable.” At one point he even had to sell his clothes and his typewriter just to survive. At another, he was thrown in jail, allegedly for stealing bed sheets. The seedy confines of Giovanni’s room, from which the novel takes its name, resembles a jail cell, a prison of the mind in which the couple live out their doomed affair. It was a hard, often unhealthy lifestyle, but one that offered Baldwin something he rarely felt back in the States: freedom. Not just as a black man, but as a gay man. While in Paris, Baldwin fell in love with a young Swiss artist, Lucien, whom he met at a bar not unlike the one depicted in the novel. Giovanni’s Room is dedicated to him.

The first time I read Giovanni’s Room, I too had escaped to Paris, as a high school exchange student, living with a French family. A friend had given me a paperback copy of the book, suggesting it might “open my mind.” The cover drew me in, a pulpy sketch showing a handsome dark-haired young man posing seductively, his sensual eyes challenging the reader to take him on. There was nothing immediately evident to indicate to me that Baldwin was black, and none of the characters in the book were either. At first glance it seemed to be the type of novel Gore Vidal might have written. Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, which had been published earlier, in 1948, had explored similar themes. But Baldwin’s writing, I discovered, had heart and soul, something noticeably lacking in Vidal’s. And Baldwin was determined to avoid clichés, to write a gay-themed book that did not end, as Vidal’s original version had, and as so many other homosexual novels had before it, in suicide.

Giovanni’s Room did open my mind, but it acted too as a mirror. I recognized myself in its pages. Even though I was still sexually naive, and inexperienced, I had witnessed many of the characters Baldwin chronicles in his book: the pretty boys, drag queens and hustlers who make up the demimonde of late night Paris. I loved reading about their drunken cat-fights, louche liaisons, the rough-and-tumble sex. I even knew someone like the character Jacques, a generous old queen who is a mentor to the protagonist David. I’d met an older man, also named Jacques, who owned a chateau in France. He took me to a gay bar with a rowdy drag show that was straight out of La Cage Aux Folles. Our friendship was all very chaste, above board. Nothing untoward, as they say, happened. He was a gentleman. But I remember the thrill when he gave me 100 francs, no small sum to an 18-year-old then, and told me to treat myself to a night on the town.

I’d already been exploring Paris’s demimonde on my own. One evening, even though I had to be at school early the next morning, I snuck out at midnight and went to Le Drugstore, a brightly-lit American-style cafe on the Champs Élysées notorious for attracting prostitutes and their clients of both sexes. I had stumbled across it by accident one evening with school friends and promised myself I would go back on my own. That night I found myself sitting next to a table of a handful of young men, rail thin and too cocky for their own good, reminding me of the “knife-blade, tight trousered boys” described in Giovanni’s Room. Some had bleached blond or hennaed hair, and wore leather jackets and boots. They chain-smoked Gitanes and drank Pernod. One of them whispered hoarsely in guttural French to his mates. I could barely make out what he was saying, but the gist of it was clear. He had just come back from “rolling” a john, a trick. The group of boys laughed raucously and joked about finding another.

I felt a powerful sexual tension while observing them, especially since one of the hustlers kept staring at me, but also because I felt I was reliving what James Baldwin had so hauntingly evoked. Despite my youth, I was desperate to be part of their world, and his world. Perhaps it was loneliness or a desire for what the French call la nostalgie de la boue. In school we had read Verlaine and Rimbaud, and were taught that to create great poetry and to understand life one had to push one’s senses to the absolute limit. In my own small way, I was charting that path, hoping to become a writer. I thought of the quote by Walt Whitman which appears at the very start of Baldwin’s novel: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It cut very close to home.

Perhaps that is why Baldwin chose to write Giovanni’s Room in the first person. Baldwin said he was initially reluctant to do so, citing Henry James, whom he considered “the master,” as a critic of the practice. But ultimately I think Baldwin knew that readers would respond more viscerally to the story if it were told directly, not from a remove, to see the novel, as Stendhal wrote, as a mirror, reflecting reality, both high and low. One can’t help but recognize shades of Baldwin in his chosen narrator, David, the handsome jock who shacks up with Giovanni in his fatefully dingy room. (David, it should be noted, was also Baldwin's stepfather’s name.) In fact, the novel opens as David sees his own reflection in a window, a twist on the Narcissus legend, but also revealing of his character, since he only sees himself, rather than the world that lies beyond. Baldwin was writing his own memoir in disguise, almost as if he were channeling himself in David, for in fact it was in many ways his own story, his own experience, his own tragedy.

At first glance, David seems to be the polar opposite of Baldwin. He’s white, blond, well-built. He stems from a long line of Caucasian ancestors, a point he underscores almost guiltily. Born in San Francisco, David was raised in Seattle, then moved to New York and eventually Connecticut. By his late 20s, bored and feeling frustrated, he leaves his family for Paris to “find himself.” He’s also hyper masculine, almost a parody of the macho man of his day. He played football in high school, is called “Butch” by his dad, and exudes an All-American stoic reserve that seems light years away from Baldwin’s own raw emotional nakedness. But David, like Baldwin, is rootless, a changeling. Baldwin was a bastard child, and David seems to bear a similar chip on his shoulder. He lost his mother when he was five. His father, who remarried, is aloof and unfeeling. He’s a loner, with few friends. Baldwin likewise never knew his father. His mother, a domestic, married another man who became Baldwin’s stepfather. They were not close. Like Baldwin, David is a heavy drinker prone to destructive binges. He admits that in one of them he exposed his true nature by making a pass at a sailor in a gay bar, shocking his friends, who believed he was straight. He’s also full of self-contempt, a deep-seated anger at the world that he hides beneath his steely armor. Such existential despair was a common theme in film noir and the tough Black Mask magazine mystery stories that led to them. Baldwin seems to be toying with the genre, structuring his novel around a scandalous murder case in which David is intimately involved.

David, for all his reserve, is a man of secrets. He hides a painful truth, one he’s succeeded in burying, claiming to others that he’d never slept with a man before. But then, he reveals to the reader, right at the outset of the book, an encounter he had with a young friend, Joey, near Coney Island in Brooklyn, when they were both boys. In a beautiful passage, Baldwin describes a brief encounter in which the two friends fall into each other’s arms and have exhilarating sex. Joey is described as “dark” or “brown” with “dark eyes” and “curly hair” — he is the other, and one can’t help but feel that on some level he is also a stand-in for a young James Baldwin. The happiness that the two boys share that night is quickly extinguished the next morning when David shuts it down. Joey’s body “suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood.” Even the bed in which they’d lain “testified to vileness.” He cuts Joey off. And when he next sees him, David “picked up with a rougher, older crowd, and was very nasty to Joey. And the sadder this made him, the nastier… [he] became.”

It is this painful memory that sets the tone for the revelations to come, and one assumes the narrator will move beyond it, learn from it. That’s what novels are supposed to do. They’re journeys, lessons in life. But instead what we discover as we get further into Baldwin’s novel is that David is fated to relive this soul-killing over and over again. It’s the myth of Sisyphus; he is the homme fatal, fated to repeat this experience. But as with any type of sexual repression, or addiction, the result is much worse the next time around, a chain reaction of bad karma. And the next victim in his sights, Giovanni, will not, can not survive. He is to be sacrificed, destroyed. 

Shades of homophobia and self-hatred are deeply ingrained in David’s persona, and that’s the essence of the novel — that denying one’s true self will lead to destruction not only to one’s soul, but those around one. It’s easy to read David’s attraction to Giovanni, whom he meets in a bar where the boy works, as a romance. But Baldwin has something much trickier up his sleeve. This novel is actually an anti-romance, a Liebestod, or love/death song, told as a noir.

David describes his initial encounter with Giovanni as a seduction. Giovanni woos David, forces him to open up, to relax. He sees behind David’s mask. He takes him to bed that first night and David moves in with him. It all seems preordained. But that’s just how David is remembering it. How he has convinced himself it happened. And how he is relating it. In fact when David first sees Giovanni he describes him as a magnificent creature of the jungle, a lion. He’s irresistible and all-powerful. It’s easy to overlook, however, the line in which David compares Giovanni to a figure on “an auction block,” in short, a slave. Slowly one realizes that it is David who is the lion and that Giovanni’s room will become the arena, and Giovanni the martyr.

Paris room, by Brassai

Baldwin offers other hints to David’s dark side. It’s easy to see him as the affable jock, the All-American, a saint. But earlier in a scene at the bar, when an older gay man walks by, David feels disgust and derides this figure as “a zombie,” one of the undead. It’s a strikingly creepy moment. Time seems to stand still. The haunting image is eerily reminiscent of the overly made-up pestilent fop who appears as a harbinger of the plague in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a book Baldwin admired. One also senses the influence of Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, which is a story told in the first person, of a man who lives with a man, and then murders him. You hear Poe in the cadences of the narrator’s anguished, guilty revelations, in the oppressive Grand Guignol atmosphere, and the sense of impending doom, the death knell countdown to the inevitable fall of the guillotine and Giovanni’s death.

In a telling scene, David meets up with his flamboyant mentor Jacques, his reliable sugar daddy who always pays for his meals and drinks. It’s never really clear what their relationship is. Or was. Jacques is mystified by the way David treats Giovanni. He accuses him of being a sadist. And a hypocrite. David in turn is repulsed by him and dismisses the old queens who prey on young men, asking: “Is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?” But Jacques parries deftly: “Think of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.” The comment unnerves David. It acts as a Freudian slip might, exposing something David, who is relating the incident, has buried in his subconscious. Clearly David is not the innocent he claims to be and we as the reader have to wonder, how much else of his tale is a cover-up, a lie?

From there the narrative begins deliberately to unravel, fragment. Giovanni loses his job at the bar and comes unhinged. His emotional needs suffocate David, who takes out his frustrations on Giovanni, finding fault in his every move, in the filthy cluttered room he lives in, even mocking Giovanni’s appearance. One afternoon, out of spite, he picks up an American girl named Sue and takes her to bed, using her almost violently, humiliating her. Afterward, he walks along the Seine, thinking of suicide. Then his fiancée, who bears the curious name Hella, finally returns to Paris. When she meets Giovanni she teases David about his “peculiar friends.” Feeling trapped, David decides to stay with her, turning his back on Giovanni and his homosexual past. The two decide to leave Paris and relocate to the south of France.

But it’s no good. In the end David loses both Giovanni and Hella. Despite opting for marriage in the future, with dreams of raising children, David can’t escape his other self. He goes on a bender, leaving Hella alone while he shacks up with some randy sailors he picks up in Nice. By the time Hella tracks down David to a seedy gay bar, with his arm around a drunken sailor, it’s too late for a revelation or a reunion. She leaves David just as he had left Giovanni.  

And what of Giovanni? Once betrayed by David, Giovanni descends into a spiral of despair, drinking heavily and using drugs, resorting to theft to make ends meet. He becomes Jacques’s kept boy, degrading himself further. Finally he kills his former employer, the bar owner Guillaume. He steals some cash and strangles him with the sash of his robe. Giovanni hides out on a barge until he is discovered. The state exacts its ultimate revenge. He is to be beheaded for his crime, executed by guillotine, a fate clearly echoing that of another outsider, Julien Sorel, in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

The plot twists of Giovanni’s Room may seem a bit melodramatic to our modern sensibilities. But Baldwin wasn’t just going for Grand Guignol effects or playing the noir card. His story was grounded in fact. He was inspired by a figure he’d met in a bar in Paris, a handsome grifter with a dark, criminal past, who ended up committing murder and being executed for it. The guillotine was still prevalent in Paris when Baldwin wrote his novel and unbeknownst to me was still in use when I was living there in the mid-70s. It was finally banned in 1977.

Giovanni’s Room ends as it began. David is in the south of France, packing up to leave. He stands now in front of a mirror, naked, examining himself. In a strange moment of self-awareness, he blames his body for his unhappiness. “And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery.” And while he imagines Giovanni far off in Paris being led to the guillotine, facing a door, beyond which “the knife is waiting,” David looks at his own body in a similar macabre light. “I look at my sex, my troubling sex,” he states, “and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife.” But at the very moment he imagines Giovanni is being slain, David steps away from the mirror, packs up his belongings and exits his house, tearing up a letter Jacques has written him about Giovanni. He throws the pieces into the air, but a gust of wind causes some of them to fall back on him. He can’t escape the memory of Giovanni, nor what he did to him. We are left to assume David will return to America, to his former life, no doubt to start the dark cycle all over again.  


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Through A Glass Noir

James Baldwin's Ground-Breaking Novel Giovanni's Room.

As part of a celebration of Black History Month, my guest editor friend, actor and director Bob Devin Jones, asked me to contribute a piece about James Baldwin. I chose as my subject his controversial novel Giovanni's Room. Readers of this blog can find the full article at Creative Pinellas' Arts Journal at the following link:

I will post the article here as well at the beginning of March. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Man Behind "Maybe Tomorrow"

[Author's Note: In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, I am reprising an article (with some minor cuts) that I wrote about Jay Little, the author of the ground-breaking gay novel Maybe-Tomorrow. The profile first appeared in Ganymede, an online literary journal, in 2010. It has only recently come to my attention that the website for Ganymede is no longer active, so any links to the article are not viable. I thought it best to repost it here in case anyone is searching for it, or is researching the writer. At the time I wrote this piece, the man behind the pseudonym Jay Little was virtually unknown. I took pride in having rediscovered him, thanks to the assistance of his nephew Ray Yoder, and recounting his fascinating story. I hope that people will continue to read his remarkable novels and celebrate him as the true pioneer in gay literature that he was.]
Introduction from Ganymede Journal, 2010:
At our request, Brooks, the Hercule Poirot of gay lit detection, rescued from complete obscurity JAY LITTLE, a pulp fiction author who published gay-positive romances of men loving and living without self-hatred. His two novels were widely read and reprinted during the fifties and sixties. His real name was Clarence Lewis Miller (1911-2001), nicknamed Tex, a singer and actor who bounced around the lower reaches of show business before settling down with a male partner, opening a restaurant in Texas, and writing his novels. (Photos courtesy of Ray Yoder.)
"Jay Little" as a young man.

Resurrecting Jay Little
In the annals of vintage gay fiction, one author stands out as truly an enigma: Jay Little. Most people today have never heard of him. In fact, the two books he wrote are almost completely forgotten, except by collectors who cherish classic camp. Many current “queer studies” scholars don’t pay much attention to Jay Little today, which is not surprising, since his books are amateurishly written and verge on what one critic labeled “soft-core pornography.” His singular oeuvre is often dismissed as irrelevant, a footnote in homosexual literary history.
And yet, Jay Little was one of the most influential gay writers of the 20th century. His two novels, Maybe-Tomorrow and Somewhere Between the Two, both self-published in the 50s under a pseudonym by a vanity press, were surprising bestsellers. One figure I found estimates he sold over 200,000 copies—and this at a time when “deviant”-themed books were widely censored, if not banned. Even Gore Vidal claims that he was blacklisted for years by the New York Times after he wrote the now celebrated gay novel The City and the Pillar in 1948. Ironically, Jay Little’s books were advertised in the Times right next to books about God and religion by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. Later they were promoted vigorously in various magazines of the period.
Despite his marginalization, Jay Little had a profound impact on many of the liberated authors who came after him. Sometimes this influence was palpable, deliberate; other times more subtle, in fact, unconscious. For Jay Little was one of the first gay novelists to openly explore what was then labeled “the Twilight World of the Third Sex” —the homosexual demimonde. He didn’t couch his story in highfalutin’ psychobabble or mystical double-talk or twisted gender-reversals, masking latent queer content. Jay Little told it like it was, using the salty, often bitchy language of the subterranean set and holding nothing back in terms of storyline or plot. And what is perhaps most remarkable about him is that he did this at the height of the McCarthy era when others were scampering back into their closets to escape the heat of homophobic witch hunts.
I first encountered the name Jay Little as a student in college, taking a course on “Ambivalence in the Novel” (which showed up on my report card in shorthand as “Homos in Lit,” much to my father’s consternation). Compared to Melville’s Billy Budd, and Isherwood’s A Single Man, Jay Little’s novels seemed like tawdry melodramas, early examples of one-handers, high camp homoerotica. They were not taken seriously as literature.
Nevertheless I went out of my way to find copies, and located both novels, in hardcover, at the Strand in New York. Even then, in school, I was aware of the double standard in academia of judging literature by whether or not it fit into the canon of so-called quality fiction. A book like Maybe-Tomorrow may not have had the literary gloss or depth of Vidal’s work or James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, but from the standpoint of culture, it is as relevant, and certainly deserves renewed consideration.

As a document reflecting the spirit of the times, Maybe-Tomorrow, first published in 1952, has few rivals. Re-reading it now, I am struck by how “out” it really was for its era. Jay Little revels in telling the story of Gaylord Le Claire, a curly-haired effeminate youth from Cotton, Texas who powders his face, decorates his room with satin curtains, wears silk underwear and dreams about seducing the star of the local high school football team. It’s the stuff of dreams, all right, a gay romance at a time when such things simply didn’t exist. And yet, it still strikes a chord of yearning and insouciance that is remarkable in its forthrightness.
In the first feverish pages, we find “Gay,” as he is called throughout, struggling with his mixed-up gender identity. “[He] loved the space around him, the furniture, the rug, the etching, all of it. But as he looked around, he longed for something else. Longed for some demonstration to equal the bitter violence he felt within himself... Why, why, he cried within himself, can’t I be like fellows my age.” 
His desire for normalcy is not that unusual for an adolescent, grappling with mystifying growing pains. But Gay’s dismay is deeper than mere glandular changes. “For many months he had felt his uneasiness grow. No one he knew was beset with the melancholia, emotional frigidity, or feminine symbolisms he found in himself.... He wanted to fight them, but how? He could not fight what he did not understand. Why couldn’t he understand them. Why couldn’t he be at ease among boys his age instead of drawing meekly away.” Little pushes the angst to a level that is almost comical, and one wonders if he isn’t having a little fun at Gay’s expense. The language is so over the top that it is almost satire: “He did not sob, or weep like ordinary boys. He cried with a despairing stridency, like an animal, bound and helpless, which is being flayed alive with stones and cannot bear its agony.”
The story barely gets underway before Gay finds himself getting hit on at a dance by a drunken redneck who thinks he’s a girl. “You’re too damn pretty to be a boy, sonny...ya cute little fag!” The next day he is undressing at the gym, afraid to show off his naked flesh to the other boys, when he is ribbed by bullies who try to lure him into the shower. One of them admires Gay’s ample penis, questioning how a boy as pretty as a girl could be so well-endowed. The language is highly charged. “Look at the tool this sissy’s got,” the leader shouts. “Shit, I thought you had the biggest one in school, Stud, but Pretty Boy here’s got you bested by a couple of inches.” The bully dubs Gay, “Venus with a Penis,” adding, “You ought to be proud of that honker.” Things quickly devolve from horseplay to male rape. “I ain’t ever corn-holed anybody before, but I’ll try anything once,” the horny lad says. “I’m hotter than a bitch dog... Ain’t never been up the back door.”
Before that happens, happily, Gay is rescued by his idol, Bob Blake, the football stud, who shoos off the attackers, then takes a long, steamy shower with a sobbing Gay, holding him in his arms, apparently uninterrupted by other students, coaches or nosy janitors. The scene ends with a passionate kiss. The muscle boy assures the feminine waif: “There’s nothing wrong with you, Gay.” In Jay Little’s world, anything is possible and it is one of the rare instances before the liberation movement took off after the Stonewall riots when such positive sentiments surfaced in books with gay themes.
Of course it’s fantasy. Jay Little is just spinning a fanciful yarn, tantalizing his readers with masturbatory material that until then had been out of reach. No different really than the type of material one might find in a cheap Harlequin romance, except in those novels, the one in distress is a busty female, not a boy with a sizable “honker.” And the language in those bodice-rippers is not quite as in-your-face. What’s interesting from a cultural standpoint is that Little is not afraid of using vulgar street slang, of eroticizing the sexual activity, even if it is violent. Even now it is shocking to read words such as “fairy,” “pansy,” “fag,” “glory hole,” “basket,” “drag queen,” “corn-hole,” and “cunt,” in a fifties novel. Small wonder the book was published by a vanity press. No other house would have touched it. It’s surprising that it was not censored, or banned, and that the “Old Gray Lady,” the Times, took ads for it. But the book was reprinted in several editions.
In Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Roger Austen writes, “The Bob Blakes were never that available to the little Gaylord LeClaires who adored them.” He rolls his eyes at Jay Little’s plot. “Once a reader detached himself from vicarious emotional involvement, however, he would have to admit that reality had been suspended to permit the acting-out of adolescent fantasies.” Author Richard Dyer, in his 1993 book The Matters of Image, writes poignantly that he was both attracted and repelled by Jay Little’s protagonist: “ was more longing I felt towards Gaylord Le Claire in Maybe-Tomorrow, a wish that I could both be him and have him with his ‘earnest face and handsome physique.’ And I took on board the two main messages of the type — that to be homosexual was both irremediably sad and overwhelmingly desirable.”
Perhaps if those of us who studied these books had known a bit more about who Jay Little actually was, we would have seen it differently, and with more humor. For what I’ve learned about Jay Little indicates that he based much of this book on his own experience, including a love affair with the local Big Man on Campus that was entirely real. But back when Playing the Game was written in 1977, Jay Little’s identity was a secret. The first edition of Ian Young’s Bibliography of the Male Homosexual in Literature in 1975 simply gives the author’s name as Jay Little. But the revised and expanded volume from 1981 identifies him as Clarence Lewis Miller. I asked Ian Young how he came to know Little’s true name but he couldn’t recall. Nor did he know anything else about him. All subsequent mentions of Little’s work rely on Young’s guide as the only source for that information.
So when I began my quest to find out who Jay Little/Clarence Lewis Miller really was, I faced several hurdles. First off, I had to find out if he was still alive and where he lived. I asked around but no one I knew in gay literary circles had a clue. A well-known writer, who is regarded as the eminence grise on all lavender literary matters, had never even heard of him. Searches on Google revealed nothing other than a few listings of his books on eBay and a citation from Michael Bronski’s book Pulp Friction, which had little biographical information in it other than what was available from the book’s dust-jacket. On it, Jay Little divulges that he was born in Texas in 1917, that his “interest in writing is rivaled only by his preoccupation with the theatre,” that he “entered the entertainment world after his graduation from high school,” and sang over the radio at station KTLC in Houston and had a “fifteen minute program once a week for over two years.” He then moved to California where he performed in the Pasadena Playhouse and toured as an actor across the country, before returning to Texas. “In his spare time,” he adds, “he enjoys oil painting, designing his own furniture and fishing.” Was any of this true?
I started with the birth year, combing the 1920 census records from Texas for a Clarence Miller who would have been two to three years old. Who knew there were so many Clarence Millers! And in Texas, to boot. Then I tried the Social Security Death Index, always a reliable source. But none matched up with 1917 as a birth year. I called the Pasadena Playhouse and asked if they had any records of a Clarence Miller who performed there in the ’30s or ’40s. They responded immediately with a list of programs he had appeared in, but it turned out to be a different Clarence Miller, a doctor from Pasadena with a family.
A chance reference to a Clarence Miller in a 1982 Texas Monthly article about the eccentric gay artist Forrest Bess, however, proved more fruitful. In the article, a Clarence Miller said he had known Forrest when they were both 5 years old and living in Clemville, Texas, a rough-and-tumble oil town. Well, Forrest Bess was born in 1912, so if they were the same age, then this was probably not the same guy. But as I read Miller’s chatty quotes about Bess, I was struck by the similarity of his voice to the tone of Jay Little’s prose. So I wrote to the author of the article, Michael Ennis, and asked if he knew more about this particular Clarence Miller. Turns out he knew very little, other than the fact that Miller ran a fabric and design business in Houston for the decorating trade. That certainly sounded promising, considering that Jay Little had claimed to enjoy painting and designing furniture in his spare time. So I went back to genealogical records and found a WWI registration card for a Theodore J. Miller, living in Clemville in 1917. I then checked the 1920 census again and found him living in El Campo, Texas with a son named Clarence. Eureka! Or so I hoped. All I really knew was that I had found the Clarence Miller from the Texas Monthly article. That didn’t prove it was the same man who wrote Maybe-Tomorrow.
I decided to try a different tack. On the back of Maybe-Tomorrow is a pencil sketch portrait of the author signed by a “Jon Pinchback.” A little digging around revealed that an artist named Jon Joseph Pinchback (1916-1989) had served as an airman during the war, then moved to Houston, where he became a window decorator, interior designer, and painter. He worked as a commercial artist for several Houston department stores, finally retiring from Sears. That seemed to dovetail nicely with the description of Clarence Miller in Ennis’ article. But while I managed to find relatives of Pinchback in Texas, none had any clue of his ties to a friend named Miller or Little.
In the end, I managed to tie up the loose ends by a stroke of luck. While researching Pageant Press, the vanity outfit which had published Jay Little’s two books, I came across a reference to the papers of one of its editors, Edgar H. Leoni, which are archived at the One Institute in Los Angeles. Leoni, who later ran Vantage Press, had written the classic gay study Jonathan to Gide, using the anagram pseudonym Noel I. Garde. So I called the One Institute to see if there was any correspondence between Leoni and Jay Little. Turns out that there wasn’t, but they did have a copy of Jay Little’s book, Maybe-Tomorrow, signed and inscribed with his address “235 Hathaway.” Oddly, they also had a subscription record to One Magazine by a “Jay Little” at that same address. I began to wonder if Jay Little had used a pseudonym at all and if seeking out Clarence Miller was not in fact a dead end.
But when I researched that street number, I discovered that Hathaway Avenue had been renamed Westheimer Road, one of the best-known addresses in Houston in the gay-friendly Montrose area. I googled the address and found pictures of the house and a listing for its current resident. But no mention of a Clarence Miller. Using the zip code, however, I was able to then find a listing for a Clarence L. Miller who died in 2001 in Houston. He was born in 1911, which would make him just about the same age as the boy who played with Forrest Bess in Clemville in 1917.
But was he in fact Jay Little? There was only one way to find out. I had to locate a relative. I scoured the cemetery records of El Campo, Texas, where this Clarence Miller had grown up. I found graves for Theodore, his wife Elsa, and other members of the family, but no Clarence. A call to the funeral parlor in hopes of getting a phone number for the surviving and only child, Clarence, led nowhere. But it did lead me to think about calling the Probate Office in Houston since that is where he would have died and his will, if he had one, would have been filed. Lo and behold, the Harris County Clerk’s office has one of the most sophisticated websites I’ve ever seen, and I was able to search online and immediately came up with a Clarence Lewis Miller in Houston. Bingo! A quick phone call to a secretary there and I had the name of the executor, Harold Ray Yoder. No doubt there must have been easier ways to arrive at this information. But I had to make sure I had the right Clarence Miller before I started making calls and this time I knew I had the right man.
What Ray Yoder revealed about Jay Little, however, made the crazy-quilt quest I’d been on completely worth the time spent. “You mean, Tex?” he said, when I finally reached him. “Tex,” it turned out was Clarence Lewis Miller’s nickname. No one called him Clarence, not since he’d appeared in a nightclub in Baltimore and one of the drag queens he met there said, “Honey, you don’t look like a Clarence. I’m gonna call you Tex.” Ray, I soon learned, is the nephew of Charles Lester Yoder, who was Clarence Miller’s lover for many years. After Chuck’s death in 1973, Ray remained friends with “uncle-in-law” Miller, moving to Houston at his request where he eventually settled down with his partner Marc Sullivan.
Getting to know the hilarious figure Clarence Lewis Miller that Ray describes, one is not surprised to find he could have written Maybe-Tomorrow. He was a true character, with a scorching wit. “He always told me,” Ray recalls, “‘Mary, it takes a fairy.’ That was a favorite expression of his.” That sentiment was more a reflection of his sense of humor since Tex was not particularly effeminate. “Uncle Chuck was more that way,” Ray says. “Tex was the masculine one,” although, he adds, “he did sometimes like to wear powder.”
According to Ray, Tex first met Ray’s uncle when he was in California. He’d gone there around 1937, after his initial brush with show business as a radio announcer, hoping to make his name in Hollywood. He studied acting and fencing at the Pasadena Playhouse and became good friends with fellow student Robert Preston and his wife. “Tex was always starstruck,” Ray recalls. During the next decade, he met a lot of movie people, including Ramon Novarro, Franklin Pangborn, and Richard Ney, then a young beauty who would later marry Greer Garson.
But men were not his only pals. Tex, as he once told Ray, “was a queer queer. He liked to sleep with girls now and then.” He related a story to Ray that I found particularly fascinating. One night he picked up a woman at a nightclub, went back to her hotel room, where they made love. On her night table was a picture of Paulette Goddard. Tex wondered why it was there. “That’s my daughter,” the lady told him. She was Alta Goddard, the notorious stage mother of Paulette. Or so Tex claimed. Ray says there’s no reason to doubt the story since Tex didn’t lie about such things. (Except his age. That was the only detail from his “About the Author” bio on the dust-jacket of his books that turned out not to be true.)
Clarence Miller’s bisexuality may come as a surprise after reading his books (although Gaylord LeClaire does sleep with Joy, Bob Blake’s girlfriend, in Maybe-Tomorrow.) But Ray tells me that Tex would brag sometimes that “he had had to pay for a lot of abortions.” In fact, I was stunned when Ray told me that Tex had been married. He met his wife Evelyn, a local beauty, in El Campo. They were married in Texas, then he took her with him to California. The marriage was strained, and eventually dissolved when he met and fell in love with Chuck. “They met at a drug store where Chuck was the soda jerk,” Ray says. Uncle Chuck, who like Ray was born in Indiana, had hoped to make it in show business as well. He was an actor and had written plays. Tex fell for the tall, rakishly thin waiter, despite a 12-year difference in age, and they stayed together from then on.
When the acting career didn’t pan out, Tex worked at a high-end florist in Beverly Hills. “They often were hired to do the flowers for big Hollywood parties and sets,” Ray recalls. “Tex got to meet many stars that way.” Later Tex would keep up correspondence with some of them, in particular Joan Crawford, whom he’d met during a radio show back in his early Houston days. They corresponded, Ray says, up until her death.
Likewise Marlene Dietrich. When she came to town for a premiere of Golden Earrings, Tex sent flowers up to her hotel suite to welcome her. A few hours later he got a phone call. “‘This is Marlene Dietrich,’” the husky voice said. And “Tex shot back,” Ray says, “‘Yeah, and this is Shirley Temple.’” But it was Marlene and they became friends. Tex wrote letters to everyone from Harry Truman and his wife Bess to George Wallace. “He kept a shoebox full of these letters,” Ray says. “There were letters from Jean Harlow, Mary Martin and Jackie Kennedy,” as well as a letter from Beatrice Lillie’s secretary ordering a copy of Maybe-Tomorrow. Among his papers is a handwritten note from the famous transsexual Christine Jorgensen, thanking Jay Little for the copy of his book which he’d sent to her. Tex, it is interesting to note, while eager to share his accomplishments, always used his pseudonym when promoting his work.
What Ray remembers most about Tex was his charm and flair. “He always did things with style. When he came back from California in the ’50s, he and Chuck arrived in a ’49 Roadmaster convertible. It was a prime Buick.” Later he would get a Cadillac which he would drive proudly when visiting Chuck’s parents in Indiana each fall for the foliage season. It was on those visits that Ray first met him. “I always just thought of him as my uncle,” Ray says. “It wasn’t until I was twelve that I realized that, technically speaking, he wasn’t.”
At the start of the ’50s, Tex returned home to take care of his ailing father, Theodore Julius Miller, who still lived in El Campo with his wife Elsie. Theodore had come to Texas from Louisiana where his family had a long lineage among the bayous. Elsie, who was born in Nebraska, was from German stock. Tex returned with Chuck, having divorced Evelyn. He didn’t hide his new relationship from his parents, and in fact they seemed to embrace it. “Tex’s father told him that the best thing that ever happened to him was meeting Chuck,” Ray recalls. The couple opened a restaurant in El Campo called The Log Cabin. “Tex was not one to really enjoy a lot of work,” Ray says with a laugh. He didn’t care for physical labor.” But Tex enjoyed the interplay with the rough trade that sauntered in. “He often joked about the big-ass truck drivers who just loved his demitasse coffee.”
It must have been just after they returned to El Campo that Tex decided to write his two books. What inspired him to do it? We may never know. Perhaps he was bored with life in a sleepy, small town, and felt nostalgic for his wilder days during the Depression when he had toured New Orleans, Miami, Baltimore, New York and San Francisco as a young actor in the nightclub circuit. At some point he had hooked up with a band of female impersonators, and traveled the country, including Cleo Gordon Stafford, who remained a lifelong friend, and the legendary Rae Bourbon, also from Texas. This aspect of Miller’s life had only been gleaned through his writings. So it was a terrific surprise when Ray told me he had several rare period photographs of his friend Cleo, as well as ephemera stemming from Tex’s tours of the various drag joints of the era.
"Jay" during his drag days.
The biggest surprise of all was to find evidence that Tex had performed in the shows himself, donning feminine attire under the name “Jay Little.” Originally, I imagine, the name Jay was intended to be feminine, but proved a useful brand for gender-bending, since it literally could “go both ways.” Glancing at the material, one is transported back to a lost world, the notorious enclaves of the “Pansy Craze,” when female impersonators were all the rage from coast to coast. He writes about that strange demimonde in Somewhere Between the Two, his daring backstage novel about the world of female impersonators: “Through this world of intrigue and subterfuge he had moved, learning innumerable experimental obscenities. Apparently he had a fatal talent for picking out ways of life that ran like lonely waters. Nothing that had happened to him had seemed evil at the time. Indeed, he had felt like an ordinary young American.” Here we see Jay Little at his bizarre best. He exposes the loneliness and degradation of the world in which he traveled, but he demands that it be taken seriously and treated with respect.
What is also fascinating about these priceless souvenirs is that it is clear he adopted his stage name in the ’30s. A signed photo from 1936 is inscribed by Cleo to “Jay Little.” Where or how he came up with this nom de plume is a total mystery. There are no Jays or Littles in his family tree. And from what Ray tells me “Little” would have been an ironic moniker for him since he often bragged about being big where it counts.
But he was deeply moved by the nomadic lifestyle of the boys he hung out with, and promised himself, despite never having studied beyond high school, to write about it. He actually started Somewhere Between the Two first. In it, he writes about a dozen or so nightclubs, including the Sunset Cottage and the Edgewater in New Orleans, the Hi-Fi in Baltimore, Club Ramon in New York, the Silver Crest in St. Louis, the K902 in Chicago. The main character, Terry Wallace, is a troubled soul, wandering from sensation to sensation, from trick to trick, until he falls for a boy named Nick. “He examined his life and wondered if he had done right in bringing Nick into this twilight life. This stranded life with its fits of frustrations, its chaos and unidentified a furtive creature pulled out of a river, half-drowned, mysterious, mute, seedless.”
While Somewhere is not as viscerally erotic as Maybe-Tomorrow, it succeeds in being more realistic. It’s equally campy and shocking, but the language is more guarded. He describes a sex encounter with metaphors instead of four-letter words: “A warmness put itself across his flesh like melted wax. A burning flame was ebbing out by receding waters, a surge of exquisite pain, a deep sigh, then limpness.” It is also a bit darker in tone, with fag-bashing episodes that are not meant to be erotic, and an emphasis on the harms of promiscuity. Ray says Tex jokingly called it, “Somewhere Between the Sheets.”

At some point, Tex put the manuscript aside and began Maybe-Tomorrow, which was based almost entirely on his own experience growing up in El Campo, and took the sex talk to a whole new level. His erotic infatuations with locals are set against recognizable back-drops: the railway depot, the drug store, the school hall. Even Gaylord’s home life bore a striking resemblance to Tex’s own: a single child; a handsome, masculine father; a devoted mother; the close-knit friendships with neighbors. What Roger Austen had read as fantasy was actually not that far from the truth. Ray tells me that Tex did indeed have an affair with the local jock. “They were madly in love,” Ray says. “His parents had a big ranch. But he had to get married. He and Tex kept in touch for the rest of their lives.” Tex even kept a picture of him on his dresser, long after settling down with Chuck. “His mother told me they were inseparable,” Ray adds. Had this fellow read the book? “I would not be surprised.”
It’s possible that Tex submitted Maybe-Tomorrow to traditional publishers, and was rejected. That part of his history is still unclear. He sent it to Pageant Press and probably paid for its printing costs. It was barely edited and sometimes the print is laid out oddly on the page. And I wonder if a standard publisher would have left in that peculiar hyphen in the title. Despite being on the fringe of publishing, Pageant did a good job marketing the book. It was a hot ticket, selling out almost immediately, although such self-promoted books would not register on any official bestseller lists. “Tex told me,” Ray says, “that he made his first $100,000 from that book.” The copy I have is a fourth printing, which is highly unusual for a first-time novelist. Whatever its circulation, the book created a sensation. Gay men across the country warmed to its positive slant and its campy lingo. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. In fact, it contained one of the first vivid descriptions of masturbation (long before Portnoy’s Complaint scandalized a new generation): “Oh, Bob... Bob, he thought, and the blood in his veins hardened and grew warm. He tightened his palm, and out of the pounding motions, came; I shouldn’t do this... I’ll feel tired afterwards... I’ll... he closed his eyes and wished he had never begun this evil vice...”
Perhaps for this reason, The Standard Times of San Angelo, Texas wrote: “Maybe-Tomorrow is more than most people will be able to take. It gets down to too many brass tacks...” Which I suppose is a polite way of saying it is smut. But the mere fact that they reviewed it is remarkable. Same with The Navy News Review in San Diego, which maintained an unusually open mind, considering the times: “We can understand why many persons could find the book shocking, but we feel it is the subject that is shocking—definitely not Jay Little’s frank, uncompromising description of it. To mince words and hint at the subject would have weakened the force of his message. It is a book adults should read if they truly want to know more about one of the little-known segments of the human race.” Clearly the Navy then, at least in print, didn’t see homosexuality as a threat to military readiness.
But not everyone was as comfortable with the subject matter. Donald Webster Cory (the pseudonym of Edward Sagarin), a criminologist who joined the Mattachine Society and wrote the ground-breaking books The Homosexual in America and Homosexuality: A Cross Cultural Approach, felt that Jay Little’s book was too hot to handle. He refused to carry it in his influential Cory Book Service, which carried homophile books. In a 1953 letter to “Jay Little” he writes that he considers it “a very fine piece of work,” and that he is going to review it, which he hopes will “help to sell it.” But he adds, he can not carry it. “We have not only been advised, but ordered by our lawyers, not to use your book.” Perhaps the lack of guilt in Little’s book scared Cory. A deeply conflicted man, he later became one of the most outspoken detractors of the more blatant aspects of the gay liberation movement.

Little’s books were republished in the ’60s by Paperback Library and were marketed as gay pulps. Many readers wrote him fan letters, which he saved, including a clerk at United Artists who said that “at times I feel that life is cruel, and then again I feel it is wonderful, more so since I read your book.” One of those fans was Lance Horner, co-author, with Kyle Onstott, of the best-selling Falconhurst slave novels that began with Mandingo. Horner also wrote Child of the Sun, a lurid look at the gay emperor Elagabalus. He wrote “Jay” sporadically and seemed to rely on him for support during times of “extreme depression and nervousness.” Lance Horner died in 1973. Clarence Miller also remained good friends with Jon Pinchback, the illustrator who had done his book jacket portrait. The original now hangs in Ray’s house.
Apparently Clarence Miller had finished a third manuscript, title unknown. Seth Richards, Pageant’s editor in the ’60s, was eager to publish it. In a 1964 letter to Clarence L. Miller, he says he has asked “innumerable times to see it,” but for some reason Tex didn’t send it. Perhaps he hoped to land a contract with a more established house, or wanted a real advance. Ray says the book was sent out to editors later in Tex’s life, but was rejected by publishers who found, Ray says, “that it wasn’t racy enough.”
Tex at his writing desk at home.
Very few people, aside from his close circle of friends, knew that Clarence Miller had written any books at all. His parents, Ray is sure, did not. Tex’s father died in 1960. By then, he and Chuck had already moved back to Houston where he ended up buying the house at 235 Hathaway. His mother moved in with them. Chuck died in 1973 from a heart attack. Elsie died in 1977, in her late 80s. Tex remained in the house until his death, being ably served by a sassy African-American maid named Valda who became one of his closest friends. He left her a good deal of money in his will.
When Tex died in 2001, his two books were mentioned in his obituary, as well as several telling accolades. “Tex may have been slight in stature,” the notice said, “but he was a giant when it came to humanity and compassion. He made friends easily, and people of all ages were attracted to his inimitable brand of wit and the fact that Tex himself remained ageless.” He was honored with a lavish wake. “They broke the mold when Tex was born,” Ray’s partner Marc says. “You should have seen his funeral. It was amazing the number of people who showed up.” But outside Houston circles, his legacy was essentially unknown.
Perhaps now, with greater acceptance of popular literature in academic circles, with the rise of smaller presses thanks to the internet, and more interest in celebrating milestones of gay history, Jay Little’s work will be reprinted, and will continue to enthrall, titillate, scandalize and amuse a new generation.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Mystery of George Baxt

Pioneering Pen: George Baxt
In lofty discussions of pioneering gay writers in fancy literary journals the name George Baxt rarely comes up. But Baxt, a former agent turned writer, was far more influential than he is given credit for. His work ranges from theater and film (he wrote the screenplay for the cult fright flick Circus of Horrors) to a series of popular mystery novels, including the ground-breaking pre-Stonewall classic: A Queer Kind of Death.

George Baxt was a true character, the kind of guy you'd love to have at a party, but would hate to have on your bad side. He had a wicked tongue, spitting out barbs like watermelon seeds. I never met the man. But I'd heard over the years about his enormous wealth of knowledge about the theater, old talkies and movie stars. He knew where all the bodies were buried and was never shy about spilling the dirt.  Reading through his hilarious books, of which I have a small collection, I got to thinking. Why isn't George Baxt better known? It's a riddle I tried to solve the only way I know how, by reading everything I could find about him.
I first encountered the name George Baxt when I stumbled upon a copy of A Queer Kind of Death. Published in 1966, it featured a campy gay detective, and a black one to boot: Pharoah Love. (The spelling mistake in his first name was deliberate). Pharoah Love was an audacious "cool cat" who loved jazz, his swanky Jaguar and sexy white boys. Campy, outrageous, arch and far-fetched, the novel created a sensation. This was before gay liberation and very few "legitimate" books were published with openly homosexual heroes. (For the record, there had been gay detectives in previous works, most notably, Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile (1953) and The Gay Detective by Lou Rand in 1960.) Baxt was shocked by the response. He hadn't thought it was that unusual. He was basically writing about people and the life he knew in Greenwich Village and the rest of Manhattan. But the book struck a Pre-Stonewall nerve. It was hip, irreverent and sexy. Anthony Boucher of the New York Times gave it a rave review, noting that the salty tale "deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality. Staid readers may well find it shocking, but it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit." Rarely has a first book found such a devoted audience. The love affair with Pharoah Love continued. Baxt followed Queer up with two Love sequels: Swing Low, Sweet Harriet; and Topsy and Evil.
Later, I re-encountered Baxt's work when I dove into The Dorothy Parker Murder Case, the debut title in a series of mysteries he concocted in the 80s, using celebrity sleuths. He commandeered Noel Coward, George Raft, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and even Alfred Hitchcock into his series, penning riotous, madcap capers with each of them that are wickedly clever and entertaining.

For my money, none is funnier than the first one. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case is a marvel to read. The writing is fluid. Self-assured. Totally committed. And absolutely hilarious. It's as if Baxt were channeling Dorothy Parker herself which is no small accomplishment. It opens with a harrowing bit of black comedy. Dorothy Parker is attempting suicide in the john of her hotel room after ordering lunch. "After slitting her wrists, Dorothy Parker sat in the bathroom waiting patiently to be rescued." That's all he needed to say. It sets the wry, but touching tone for the entire tale. I don't think anyone has written a better celebrity sleuth mystery before or after. But Baxt had the inside scoop. He was always writing about people he knew personally. He was a familiar figure in the worlds he wrote about. The more I delved into his lively, but checkered past, the more I realized where he got the raw material for his scandalous books.

Pulp Sensation: Pharoah Love

Like his most popular character Pharoah Love, Baxt was a fabulous creature of many talents and a cat of nine lives. But he also shied away from revealing interviews. Armed with very little to go on, I set out to see if I could fit together a few shreds of his life story.  His name appears on Wikipedia, and on IMDB as the screenwriter of such horror hits as the aforementioned Circus of Horrors and Horror Hotel. But there is only scant biographical information given.

Cult fave: "Circus of Horrors"
Luckily I found an obituary for him written in England. (Except for a few isolated notices, the American media failed to mention his passing in 2003.) The obit focuses primarily on his film work in that country. Baxt had moved to England in the 50s and wrote most of his scripts there. Variety had posted a rather perfunctory obituary, again primarily because of the screen credits. But there was scant material for a researcher to rely on to find out where he came from and who his family was.
His book jackets provided a few more intriguing details. On the back of A Queer Kind of Death he wrote: "George Baxt was a dropout. He left Brooklyn College to pursue a writing career." In another, he said he was born on a kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York. So taking that as a starting point, I did a little census-scouring and found that he was born in Brooklyn on June 11, 1923, the son of Samuel Baxt, an operator at a clothing manufacturer who came over from Minsk, Russia around 1906. George's mother was Lena Steinhouse whom Samuel had married in 1910. George had several siblings, a brother Morris, a sister Esther and a sister Juliette. They lived on Dumont Avenue. Nearby is an Isidore Baxt whom I presume is his uncle. He also came over from Minsk in 1906. By 1930, George's father had opened his own grocery store on Avenue L.
Baxt joked later that he had an active sex life as a boy in Brooklyn. He was not shy. One commentator quoted him as saying he "regarded gay sex among the Irish, Italians, and Jews as normal." Baxt settled down "with a boyfriend in high school, although he claimed to also have sex with teachers, particularly those in Physical Education." He was probably just being his old provocative self. But it does indicate that Baxt was a rebel with a cause early on. He claimed in yet another wry author's note that his first published piece appeared in the Brooklyn Times-Union when he was nine. He was paid a couple of dollars for it and got bit by the freelance writer's bug. He scribbled articles in high school and won the Columbia Scholastic Press Award. He sold his first radio script at 18.
Baxt went to City College and Brooklyn College before dropping out to pursue his passion for the theatre. His first venture was a musical play called Pity the Kiddies which was performed in 1942 for one night only at the Barbizon Plaza's concert hall. In March that year he performed as an actor in Theatre of the Soul by Nicolai Evreinov, staged by his friend William Boyman.

Baxt claimed to have been in the armed services which might explain the gap in his career credits from 1942 to 1945. But I have not found any records of such service. He also claimed to have been a "propagandist for Voice of America." In 1946, he wrote a one-act play Laughter of Ladies that was produced at a theatre showcase on 47th Street. A year later he penned a comedy, Alex in Wonderland, about a Jewish family in Canarsie. Boyman announced that Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, was set to star in it, but it never seems to have gotten off the ground. Later he changed the title to Make Momma Happy and it made the rounds. At one point Sidney Lumet (son of the famous Yiddish actor Baruch Lumet, and later film director) was slated to appear in it. 

Laughing Lady: Grayson Hall

In 1948 Blanche Yurka announced she was to star in Laughter of Ladies. Then Estelle Winwood was added to the cast. (In his Tallulah Bankhead book, which features Winwood, Baxt makes it clear that Yurka was fired because the producers and directors found her wanting. He also makes the outlandish claim she was a murderess, but that's another story.) The play failed to get picked up. It was eventually staged with Grayson Hall (of Dark Shadows fame) in a New Jersey summer theater in 1953, and went on tour to Hartford and Philadelphia in the fall. It never appears to have made it to Broadway. 
Obviously George Baxt was having a hard time gate-crashing the Great White Way. He often got pocket change by pitching stories to Walter Winchell. "Always on the hunt for new clients," his UK obit says, "he would ride in the elevator in the Algonquin Hotel to find out who was staying there." This experience would serve him well later in his Dorothy Parker novel. As an actor's agent, he was not always a good judge of up-and-coming talent. He admitted to throwing a young James Dean out of his office because the kid needed a shower!

Missed Opportunity: James Dean
Later Baxt found side work as a disc jockey to make ends meet. An announcement in the Times in 1953 says he had signed a rental lease at 449 E. 58th Street. (Apparently there was nothing odd in those days about publishing one's address in the paper). Judging by the tony East Side address, he couldn't have been doing too poorly.
In the mid-50s he segued from radio into television. He scouted talent for The Big Show, helping Tallulah Bankhead land a lucrative gig on there. By 1955 he penned a comedy for NBC called The Way Things Happen starring Peter Lind Hayes. He made a bigger splash with a David Susskind production of Mrs. Miniver for TV, starring Maureen O'Hara in the Greer Garson role. Keir Dullea and Juliette Mills co-starred.
In 1956 he returned to the theater, writing a sketch for Ben Bagley's show The Littlest Revue at the Phoenix. But nothing came from that. His dream of making his name on the stage came to a crashing halt.
Faced with the distressing fact that he couldn't catch a break on Broadway, and that several of his clients were blacklisted as Red sympathizers, Baxt escaped to England, and accepted an offer from producer Hannah Weinstein to work on the British TV series Sword of Freedom. "I went to England on a three-month contract and stayed five years," he later said. The show starred Edmund Purdom, of The Student Prince fame, as an artist and freedom fighter in Florence during the Renaissance. "A lot of later famous people starred," Baxt quipped.  "Joan Plowright played Mona Lisa. I wrote 10 of the 39 episodes. I used to call it 'The Sword of Boredom.'"
Eager for a change, Baxt began writing horror films for British producers, and struck gold. Circus of Horrors was cited by the New York Times as "the crispest, handsomest and most stylish movie shocker in a long time." The eerie 60s camp classic Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead) from Amicus Films, featured a suave Christopher Lee in a bookend cameo as a devilish professor.

But horror was not all Baxt was up to. One of his niftiest flicks was Payroll, a taut gangster film, featuring Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw.

Gangster Noir: "Payroll"
Horror Classic: "Shadow of the Cat"
In 1961, Baxt wrote the eerie thriller Shadow of the Cat, about a fierce feline seeking revenge on those who murdered its mistress. Creating an aura of suspense, director John Gilling filmed it entirely from a cat's-eye view. Other credits include Burn, Witch, Burn. Not surprisingly, Baxt also had a hand in the camp classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring Vincent Price. Although uncredited, Baxt is said to have come up with the now-famous device of having Phibes rise out of the floor playing his ghoulish pipe organ.
Perhaps longing for his show biz roots, or the gay life of Manhattan, Baxt returned to Amerca in the early 60s. He landed a plum assignment, writing a new adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel for CBS. Starring Maureen O'Hara, Zachary Scott and Michael Rennie, it was another David Susskind hit. The Times called it "exciting and richly mounted."
He collaborated on a new suspense series My Son, the Detective that was probably too camp for its own good. He also wrote episodes of The Defenders. In 1963 Broadway beckoned anew. Judy Holliday was set to play in Baxt's latest play, Not in Her Stars, with Martin Gabel. But nothing materialized. Gabel went on to act in Marnie instead. Then in 1964 the play was revived. Nancy Walker the comedian was slated to direct. Jane Wyman hoped to bring it to Broadway with co-star Anita Louise. Alas, it too, like Phibes's organ, was a mere pipe dream.
No doubt these repeated failures broke Baxt's spirit. He abandoned the stage completely. For two years he seems to have done nothing, or so reports in the Times indicate. Two years of silence. But Baxt broke that silence with his outspoken first novel, A Queer Kind of Death and his career took a whole new turn. He wrote the two Love sequels, then launched a new series of "wild, wacky, and weird" mysteries featuring detective Max Van Larsen in such farcical fare as A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures. Among Baxt's other books are The Affair at Royalties (1971) and Burning Sappho (1972).

"Horror on Snape Island" Poster
In 1972 he returned to the silver screen to write Tower of Evil (aka Horror on Snape Island), based on his novel of the same name. He did not always have the Midas Touch when it came to books. His 1979 novel, The Neon Graveyard, a scathing send-up of Hollywood, was panned by Newgate Callendar in the Crime Books review section at the Times. That proved to be one of the few bad notices he ever got. Even the great doyenne of mysteries, Ruth Rendell, who was not known for dispensing superlatives with ease, described Baxt as "brilliant and hilarious," adding, "I love reading George Baxt."
Baxt caught his breath and dreamed up the celebrity sleuth series which put him back at the top of his game. He even wrote himself into a few, depicting a character named George Baxt. It was his own Hitchcock moment. He continued to write until the 1990s. According to Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold, who wrote about Baxt and interviewed him when the latter was living in Los Angeles, Baxt was very proud that the clever epigrams in the Dorothy Parker volume were all his own creation. "He told me that the people who made Mrs Parker & The Vicious Circle," Feingold recalls, "had tried to get him to share the historical basis for the lines he wrote so they could use them in the script.  He said, 'I invented them and if you want to use them, you'll have to pay me!'"

Witty Muse: Dorothy Parker
Towards the end of his career, he was wooed back into writing again about Pharoah Love, his most popular creation, whom he'd killed off in Topsy & Evil. He penned two "sequels," A Queer Kind of Love and A Queer Kind of Umbrella, set in Chinatown and using a second Pharoah Love character. But they did little to revive interest in him or his earlier work. By then his accomplishment in writing successful gay mysteries was overshadowed by the impact of Joseph Hansen and his Brandstetter mysteries which were more in the traditional hard-boiled vein and much more accessible to a wider audience. Most people I've talked to who are interested in vintage gay literature (and believe me, it's a vanishing breed) have never even heard of George Baxt. He died at the age of 80 in 2003. Typically the New York Times didn't even bother to write him an obituary even though he had been one of their favorite authors.
I wish I had met George Baxt. Maybe somewhere along the line I did, but didn't know it. Although from what I've read that sounds hard to do. Journalist Tom Vallance once described meeting Baxt: "I had lunch with Baxt just once, several years ago in New York, and found him wonderful company with great zest and a rich fund of anecdotes. He could also be caustic, and he had been known over the years to have alienated some of his friends. His family described him as 'outrageous and curmudgeonly, a complaining, perpetual naysayer', but added that he always remembered to phone on birthdays and give presents to the children."
I can see Baxt as a doting crotchety uncle. But one also gets the sense reading about George Baxt that he was pretty much a loner. On one book jacket he described himself as "a collector of film and theatre books [who] sits up till all hours for old movies on television." He said his best friend was his VCR. Clive Hirschhorn, author of The Warner Brothers Story, recalled to Vallance that Baxt's "knowledge of movies was truly vast -- he could name all the girls who dance on the aeroplane wings in Flying Down to Rio!"
While there is not much else about George Baxt online or elsewhere, he is mentioned in a fun book of recollections by Wendy Werris called An Alphabetical Life. In it she describes a luncheon at Pete's Tavern in Manhattan in 1986 when she first met him. "Baxt was a rather small man in his mid-sixties, plump yet graceful and with thinning gray hair. Although I was friends with several gay men at that time, I had never met such a flamboyant queen as he. If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you'll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt."
Werris goes on to share some of his sizzling anecdotes involving Sal Mineo and what randy things Baxt wishes Gidget had done in her movies besides just going to Rome and Hawaii. In just a few snippets of conversation, Werris captures the ribald spirit of the man. It's the same priceless humor you can enjoy simply by reading any of George Baxt's campy books or seeing one of his thrilling movies.