A life is made of many parts, but even the wildest stretch of the imagination could not fully account for the improbable grab-bag of roles inhabited by Dolores De Luce. Abused woman. Single mom. Underground performance artist. Housewife and all-round kitchen whiz. Best friend, sometimes lover and mother confessor to an entire generation of beautiful gay men. Witness and scribe of their untimely deaths. (more…)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was fully prepared to strongly dislike Filip Noterdaeme’s new book, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart (Outpost19). The premise—the establishment-thwarting artist recounts the life story of his cabaret-performer lover and partner that employs “unique syntax punctuation and capitalization… in meticulous homage” of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—sounds simultaneously attention-seeking and self-congratulatory. The more I read, however, the more I succumbed to this impressive work’s many charms, chief among them being a peek behind the curtain at the life of a pair of full-time provocateurs and the understated portrait of a one-of-a-kind and enduring romance. (more…)
Jack O’Brien’s memoir captures a backstage portrait of a pivotal period in theater history. In the early 1960’s, the Association of Producing Artists (APA) Repertory Company launched a theater program at the University of Michigan that used nationally recognized actors to develop innovative productions that would transfer to Broadway. (more…)
It’s a sadly familiar story in American literature: an alcoholic gay writer of great talent comes to a tragic end. Think Hart Crane. Think Charles Jackson. And now think John Horne Burns, the subject of David Margolick’s enlightening biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press). Much of what you need to know about Burns is in that title. He did indeed live a short life, dying two months shy of his thirty-seventh birthday. He was a gay man during times that were particularly oppressive. And while a dreadful was what Burns campily called a homosexual, the word–unsurprisingly–takes on other meanings in the context of his life. Many who knew him would agree that dreadful was an apt description of Burns himself. As Thomas Brush, one of Burns’ former students who later became the Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, once said, “He was an interesting, even fascinating man, but although he was usually very amusing, he was all but impossible to like…His cruelty always offended me.”
John Horne Burns was born in 1916 to lawyer Joseph Burns and Catherine Horne, a wealthy heiress from one of Boston’s FIF’s–First Irish Families. (Rose Kennedy, mother of the future president, attended a tea to mark the wedding announcement of Burns’ parents.) Like his father, John Burns attended Philips Academy and Harvard University, albeit more predictably. Joseph, born into an Irish Catholic family of limited means, had won a scholarship to Philips Academy, but by the time John was born, members of the Burns family–between Catherine’s fortune and Joseph’s lucrative law practice–led privileged lives. Anti-Catholic prejudice, however, nearly prevented John from getting a teaching job in a private school after Harvard. When Burns wrote to the headmaster of Andover for guidance in securing a teaching position, he was told that the public schools “particularly in Boston and the vicinity, should be open to you if you care to move in that direction.” As Margolick points out, Burns was essentially told to “stick to his own kind.”
Burns finally did get a teaching position, at the Loomis School (now Loomis-Chaffee). By all accounts he was a challenging, engaging, and startlingly frank teacher. He was a lifeline to some gay students, but could also be cruel, reducing boys to tears. When his sister Cathleen described Burns as “one of the most accomplished and beguiling, complex and contradictory persons it was ever a close observer’s delight and dismay to know,” one only had to look at his tenure at Loomis to understand what she meant.
Perhaps the most moving part of the biography is the section dedicated to Burns’ service during World War II, especially his time in Italy as an intelligence officer. He fell in love with Naples and its people, and we get a glimpse of honest emotion–even empathy–so seemingly scarce in Burns’ life before the war. Burns’ experiences in Italy inspired his most famous and acclaimed work, The Gallery, a series of stories based on portraits in the Galleria Umberto Primo in Naples. Critics, who tended to ignore the gay themes of the book, were enthusiastic about The Gallery and the future of a fresh American voice in literature. Among its supporters was Edmund Wilson, arguably the foremost critic of the time.
These critics would soon be disappointed. Lucifer with a Book, Burns’ scathing roman à clef based on his experiences at Loomis, was called “wretchedly bad” by Orville Prescott of The New York Times. “The delicate pen-point with which Mr. Burns wrote The Gallery has turned into a scratchy stub,” said Lewis Gannett of the Herald Tribune. The reviews for Burns’ last published book, A Cry of Children, were no less brutal.
The general assumption was that Burns’ alcoholism contributed not only to his early death, but also to his failure to live up to the promise of The Gallery. Yet Gore Vidal would later say that the critics had “obliterated” Burns not because of the quality of his work, but for being gay. John Mitzel, still an essential figure in Boston’s gay literary scene, concurred. “That Burns was known to the Literary Mobsters as an aggressive faggot guaranteed that his books would never be well received,” he wrote. “They’d trapped him, demanding that he submerge his own sexuality, only to fault him for being ‘unconvincing.’ America had done its work well, wiped out the most interesting writer of his time and turned John Horne Burns into a forgotten commodity.” David Margolick’s elegantly written biography should bring Burns and The Gallery (recently reissued by New York Review Books) out of the shadows.
Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns
By David Margolick
Hardcover, 9781590515716,343 pp.
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton & Company) by Alysia Abbott manages to pick up the nearly moribund genre of the AIDS memoir, give it a good dusting off, and then send it back out into the world with something like a fighting chance. She does this in part by bringing a fresh perspective: Abbott is not a gay man writing about a dying lover, as in Paul Monnett’s Borrowed Time or Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. Abbott is instead a straight woman writing about her father, the West Coast poet, novelist, essayist, and editor Steve Abbott. But to whatever extent one can strictly call Fairyland an AIDS memoir–it’s a lot more–the book has more in common with Borrowed Time and Heaven’s Coast than you might think. Here are some of the reasons. (more…)
How does one write a biography about someone who has been dead for 40 years, was a bit of a recluse his whole life, and whom few people really knew? If you are Mary Blume, and the subject is Cristobal Balenciaga—one of fashion’s most unique and forward-thinking designers in his day—you focus on the fashion itself, the time when the subject was most creative, and on the impact he had on fashion. (more…)
‘Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side’ by Rayya Elias
Millions of Syrian refugees have fled their homeland due to decades of civil war. While most settle in Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, those with a little more money can travel farther from the chaos. As of May 2013, approximately 150,000 Americans identify as Syrian—a small minority, even among other Arab Americans living in the United States. Syrian immigrants have historically settled in tight-knit communities in New York, Boston, and Detroit, but wherever they’ve landed, “home” has been with family. (more…)
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s long awaited memoir The End of San Francisco (City Lights) will rip you open; crack your rib-cage and pour glitter into your heart. It’s hard and captivating, a book that truly pulls you in and won’t let you go. Brutal and brilliant, the memoir weaves in and out of time, bringing readers into the intimate details of Sycamore’s adolescence and early activist days. Never defaulting to tidy recounts, cleaned with the passage of time, Sycamore invites readers to share in the complexities of growing up and finding yourself. Sycamore doesn’t shy away from pain, terror, or disappointment of young queer adulthood. (more…)
Clive Davis made headlines when his doorstop of a biography, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon and Schuster), recently filled bookstore shelves. The pop impresario revealed that he’s bisexual. He arrived at this great “relief,” as he calls it, during the heady days of Studio 54. (more…)
Based solely on its title, I Await the Devil’s Coming (Melville House Publishing) sounds like a canonical text for Satanists. In reality, it’s the fiercely feminist, wickedly witty, and decidedly deranged glimpse into the life and thoughts of a transgressive young woman growing up unhappily in the Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century. (more…)