Allen Ellenzweig’s biography George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye is a monumental feat of research. It runs 600 pages, and 100 pages of those are notes, and the notes are just as sexy, insightful, and thorough as the rest of the book. You know a biography is going to remain a favorite when it includes authoritative and sassy lines in the notes like, “There are conflicting accounts as to whether George Platt Lynes or Lincoln Kirstein was the more desired source of sexual gratification for Berkshire’s athletes.”
Lynes was a male beauty of the 1920s who hustled himself into Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris and entered the relationship between novelist Glenway Wescott and his lover Monroe Wheeler without ever quite breaking them up. Their very unusual Lost Generation ménage à trois was tantalizingly covered in the 1998 book When We Were Three, which is now a collector’s item and includes all kinds of alluring photos of this trio, some or most taken by Lynes, who became a notable photographer in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Lynes took fashion photographs and he also took shots of major literary figures like Thomas Mann and André Gide and movie stars like Katharine Hepburn and Lillian Gish, and these photos are sensitive and intuitive and worthy of attention. But his secret photos of male nudes comprise a body of work that has gotten Lynes intermittent attention for the last 30 years or so. The bodies on display in his nude photos are often discreetly molded by shadows, which gives them an air of secrecy, but Lynes also knew how to flood his frame with heavenly light when observing great beauties like Bill Harris or the ballet dancer Erik Bruhn.
A Lynes photo of Harris’s lover Jack Fontan, who was the so-called “naked sailor” in ultra-tight shorts on stage in South Pacific, plays on Fontan’s image by having him pose in white jockey shorts and shirt in front of a bank of clouds, like something from a dream. A 1938 Lynes photo of the writer Frederic Prokosch sprawled on the floor with his thick legs bent is erotic because it is seemingly very direct yet stylized due to the lighting and the dramatic seesaw-like composition. In an era when men and women take often-dazzling nude selfies and blast them out all over the place in an instant, the carefully enclosed world of Lynes and his group of friends and colleagues does seem very old-fashioned, but this is partly what makes it still so potent, for their palpable breaking of rules is erotic; if there are no rules to break then so much of eroticism evaporates.
There are photos of Wescott’s blond and magnetically taciturn brother Lloyd in When We Were Three that look very intimate, and in Ellenzweig’s book we find out that Lynes seduced Lloyd once and actually lived with him in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in the early 1930s, and Wescott put up with even this transgression, for he was attracted to Lynes and he also had the patience of a saint. Lloyd was heterosexual, and he eventually married the heiress Barbara Harrison, who helped Wescott and Lynes out with money when they were in need. But after Lynes’s father died, Lloyd slept with him again just to be kind and consolatory and was “passionate and tender,” according to Lynes. Lynes himself had an affair with a female model, so sexual boundaries in this milieu could be appealingly open and flexible.
Lynes’s hair started to turn prematurely white while he was still in his twenties, and though this was visually striking it also seemed to mark him as someone who wasn’t going to live a long time. Ellenzweig patiently details Lynes’s difficult relationship with his brother Russell, who was too often called upon to bail his sibling out of financial difficulties, and he never makes the classic biographer’s mistake of being judgmental of Lynes, who had a fairly bad character in general. Lynes comes across as brittle and calculating and selfish throughout, yet it is very difficult to dislike him, even when Ellenzweig explores his anti-Semitism and the way it marred many people in his circle, including his beloved Monroe Wheeler. By contrast, Wescott is described in this book reacting very strongly against a younger lover who makes an anti-Semitic remark. Wescott is always the most appealing and lovable of the trio in any iteration of this story, yet he was often the one who was the odd man out in their triangular love affair.
Ellenzweig shows how prejudice finally destroyed the ménage à trois that had begun in the late 1920s when Lynes leaves their shared apartment in 1943 partly because Wheeler was threatened with dismissal from his job at the Museum of Modern Art. After that Lynes made a misguided attempt to set himself up in Hollywood and an even more misguided attempt to woo the young Don Bachardy away from Christopher Isherwood via anguished love letters in the mid-1950s. Bachardy was intrigued, but he was savvy enough to know that what he had with Isherwood was the real thing whereas his single sexual encounter with the feckless Lynes was transitory. Ellenzweig spent many years researching his Lynes book, and his energy and enthusiasm for his subject never flag. He is a tireless scholar, but he is also an insightful critic who can do a close read of any of the Lynes photos printed in the book and make you understand them more intimately. I read George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye slowly because I didn’t want it to end. This is a significant and painstaking and immersive book, shining a light on all aspects of a very flawed man who himself was one of the first artists to shine a light on the beauty of the male form in photographs.
Reviewed by Dan Callahan