So Famous and So Gay – Jeff Solomon (University of Minnesota Press)

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The subtitle is the theory Jeff Solomon expounds in this book: “The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein.” Solomon differs from the many tiresome Queer Theorists who seem to dominate (and enervate) literary studies today. He teaches English, women’s gender studies, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University, and he is a close-reader who uses fact, philology, and other old fashioned scholarly techniques to understand how it is that these two very different and very odd writers attained 20th Century fame. Especially since most lesbian and gay artists either remained closeted or “played the game” of pretending to be straight. Fabulous is of course a gay-ish term. While potency is a virile and masculine word. How can an undersized femmie Southern man with a high-pitched voice and a zaftig, mannish, Jewish art-maven who spent most of her adult life in Europe possibly be either, never mind both?

Solomon spends two hundred pages doing exactly that, in a readable and often entertaining manner. If he spends more time with Stein, it’s partly because these days we know her less well than Capote. Reading everything that Truman wrote is not uncommon. Random House published his Early Stories posthumously in 2015, and before that, put out his “withheld” first novel, Summer’s Crossing. Few authors would have been embarrassed by the latter. But there was a reason that book was withheld and Other Voices, Other Rooms became Capote’s official first novel. Summers’ Crossing, about an upper-class girl who is headed to Europe by Atlantic liner is a fine, if expected first book. But Other Voices, Other Rooms is sensational in its Southern-ness, it Gothic-ness, and its Gayness. Big, manly looking Gore Vidal writing gay themed novels in the 1950’s was seen as, well, a little declasse. But this fey little squeaky voiced, short story writer doing so was newsworthy; rich publicity fodder and somehow completely apt. He’d been pictorially featured in the Life magazine spread on the Yaddo Writer’s Retreat, and his carefully posed author’s photo on the novel was both scandalous, and yet somehow exactly right. Everyone thought so. By the time he got to his masterpieces, In Cold Blood and Music For Chameleons, Capote had burnt more personal and societal bridges than most people ever get to cross. But he was nightly television famous too and he’d “acted” in a mainstream movie along with Hollywood stars. The rare public readings he gave were standing room only and everyone wanted to be at his infamous Black and White Party. Capote had a genius for publicity almost as great as his literary talent and almost as strongly vectored as his bent towards self-destruction.

No greater contrast could be drawn than to Gertrude Stein who took over a half century to attain the notoriety Capote achieved in his early 20’s. As a writer she was for years the personification of the modern experimentalist. Even her friends made fun of her writing and its purposeful obscurantism. Those friends included famous—and popular–authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as ground breaking artists like Picasso and Matisse. By comparison with the Biggies, what Stein was doing with words in her earlier books seemed jejune, when it wasn’t deemed completely weird. Even so, by the late 1920’s and 1930’s other friends like Virgil Thomson composed operas out of Stein’s seemingly nonsense verse: Four Saints in Three Acts was a hit and is still regularly revived, and The Mother of Us All is also worth hearing. Also, and little by little, people in the know decided that at least one of her early books, Three Lives, was something quite special, although it barely sold its initial tiny print run. By 1933, when Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—Toklas being Stein’s equally unprepossessing lover — they were both middle-aged women and out of fashion. Yet the book became a best seller, and Stein’s photo by gay George Platt Lynes graced the cover of populist Time magazine and became almost as iconic as Picasso’s earlier portrait of her. If Capote seemingly courted fame from his days in the cradle, Stein had played the opposite game. At times, what people knew about her could be actually perilous to her person. She was a Jew in Nazi dominated France. She was a lesbian in a well-known relationship in an era of Pink Triangles. And she’d become known for driving ambulance supplies trucks in World War One– for the Allies. Yet she and Alice remained untouched by Hitler’s henchmen and while often in straightened circumstances, they supposedly had a protector in the Vichy Regime which, after all, deported 10,000 French citizens to German concentration camps.

Solomon’s in-depth analysis of Stein’s 1913 Three Lives, overweighs the book in Stein’s favor and it is so well-wrought, thoughtful, and worth reading that you may go searching for that college copy of the book you have somewhere to read it again. Solomon details each of the stories, the ironically titled, “The Good Anna,” the more accurately titled, “The Gentle Lena,” and the most famous one, “Melanctha,” about an African-American, to show how complex and layered Stein’s unique use of language was to illuminate each portrait. As well as confirming his finding that the three represent very different varieties of American lesbian women of the first half of the 20th Century.

Will any gay or lesbian writer ever again attain such unique claims to fame as Capote and Stein did? It’s unlikely for several reasons: first because authors are no longer the demi-gods of culture that they were in that time. Secondly because there are so many “out” LGBT writers today who lay claim the public’s attention that it must be divided, and lastly because figures in other, more visually arresting media—like Ru Paul– seem to have captured the American imagination.  So, in a way, So Famous and So Gay is a critique of a piece of cultural history that is unlikely to be repeated.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

© 2017 Felice Picano

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