Buy it now from TLAvideo.com or from our Amazon.com store – City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s
The days of wine and roses/laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land/toward a closing door
A door marked “nevermore”/that wasn’t there before
“Days of Wine and Roses,” Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer
“If poetry requires endless variations on a very few themes, then no existence could have been more poetic than ours.”
“The Farewell Symphony,” by Edmund White. Random House, 1997.
I have been intrigued with Edmund White—his life, his experiences as a gay writer—or more precisely, a writer who happens to be gay—since I first read his “breakthrough” novel A Boy’s Own Story, (Plume, 1982). The quote from The Farewell Symphony above reveals much about this man, Edmund White, who, in City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s, provides “…endless variations on a very few themes…” that have consumed much of his storytelling for so many decades.
City Boy… is essentially a recapitulation of White’s travails to become famous within the coterie of the cultured aristocracy in New York, Rome, and Paris during those heady years of the ’60s and ’70s. He examines the advent of “gay liberation” in New York, while, at the same time, admitting “…we routinely referred to ourselves as ‘sick,’ which was only half a joke.” He notes that prior to Stonewall, “There was no ‘gay pride’ back then—there was only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred.” (I believe most of us who approached majority during that era could and do surely disagree with White’s conclusions. Some of us, of course, do not. )
Ah, I could go on with a treatise of this book. But I am tasked with a review. I hear the admonition from the kindly gents who allow me to write these things: “Shorten it, George. Shorten it.”
Okay. For me part of the intrigue of this book is in the anecdotes, the exposition of the surely known icons with whom White had the inescapable good fortune to interact with during his youth in New York.
In a New York coffee shop, the “Hip Bagel,” White would “…sometimes drink espresso with an oversize girl who swore she was going to be a famous pop singer someday. …I nodded politely, though I was impressed to hear that she’d already appeared in The Music Man. A few years later she emerged as Mama Cass in the Mamas and the Papas…”
“In the late 1970s I became friends with Michel Foucalt, and he and I disagreed about gay identity as well. I never quite understood his position, which struck me as ambiguous.”
“That first evening over dinner Burroughs [William Burroughs—author of Naked Lunch and so much more] spoke little except to say that he was able to manipulate his mood as a writer through obvious techniques.’For instance,’ he said, ‘if I want write about sex, I don’t jerk off for several days, then I’m sure to be horny and ready to describe it in lots of detail and a state of excitation.’ We were all fascinated by every word the sphinx pronounced.”
Robert Mapplethorpe [photographer of black/white homoerotic images] who White befriended, and would later observed that he’d “…never understood Mapplethorpe’s sexuality. He would explain it to me and keep correcting with a little smile the wrong conclusion I’d jumped to.”
Truman Capote met White for an interview, “….at the elevator in bare feet and with a palmetto fan in hand. All through the interview Capote kept dashing out of the room to sniff more cocaine.”
White befriended Ted Morgan, Somerset Maugham’s biographer, who recounted that toward the end of his life, Maugham had “…lost his mind to Alzheimer’s though he was pumped full of youth-enhancing monkey glands. Virile and hyperactive but incapable of thinking, the once witty and ironic author would greet guests at the gates of his Riviera compound by presenting them with a welcoming handful of his own shit.”
Virgil Thompson, contemporary of Gertrude Stein who “…was part of history since he’d studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, had first befriended Aaron Copland in the 1920s, and had taught orchestration to Ned Rorem…” Thompson read White’s first chapter of A Boy’s Own Story, prior to publication, and concluded, “As we say back in Missouri, baby, ‘a lot of wash and not much hang-out’.” White would conclude that, “In Virgil’s case, I think his only idea of ‘gay literature’ was pornography, and he was disappointed that my book was low on the peter meter.”
Yes, there were others: Christopher Isherwood and his lover Don Bachardy; Vladimir Nabokov; Coleman Dowell; Fran Lebowitz; Larry Kramer; a brief encounter with Jorge Borges; Peggy Guggenheim; Jasper Johns, and on and on.
All right. I understand. I’ve got to tie this up.
City Boy…, as I’ve explained is, for me, a recapitulation of themes White has explored over and over again during his impressive career as a writer. He has a knack for providing scintillating insights into the bare bones personas of so many of his mentors, contemporaries, and benefactors. Additionally, City Boy delves into the social milieu of New York City during those dark and dangerous times when the bogey man—AIDS—first settled in with a vengeance that affected the lives of so many young, beautiful men…so many of whom White knew. (White, who has been HIV positive since the ’80s, was the first president of the Gay Mens Health Crisis, GMHC established in 1981.)
Finally, White is a particular enigma for me. Here is a kid from the Midwest, who received a degree in Chinese—of all things!—who trekked to New York instead of accepting matriculation at Harvard, and who managed to ingratiate himself to the literary and cultural icons of the period. In doing so, he was able to establish himself as the literary figure and academic he has become. This history surely begs, for me, the question: What did he know that I don’t? Or was it just luck? Or was it just circumstance? Or indeed, was it just simply that the literary scene in those bygone days was a little easier to crack, a little easier to nudge oneself into…with good looks, youth, and a scintilla of talent that evolved, grew, fed on the opportunities extant at the time.
A final thought. It was not all wine and roses for White. He struggled with his writing. “I had so little confidence or stamina,” he notes, “that a single paragraph could send me into a paroxysm of self-doubt.” Indeed, he notes that he “…finished and revised Forgetting Elena [his first published novel] after three years’ work; it was published in 1973—seven years from start to finish for a book of two hundred pages.” Sound familiar to my fellow writers? It should, for most of us. And in making that observation, let me end with a conclusion: This is a book for writers, something savored as an exposition of one gay writer’s journey through those long, long nights of reaching for that elusive goal, that meaning to our toil that we, as writers, so wish, so hope to achieve. We may not be able to achieve it in the manner White did. But in our own way, we will get there. We may even manage to crack open that door marked “nevermore” that was so accessible to White. Believe it!
City Boy…is good stuff, y’all, even for readers as well as writers.
Reviewed by George Seaton