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Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge (1968) is my favorite novel, LGBT or otherwise. And Myra is my favorite literary character, LGBT or otherwise. As I typed (already past tense) that first sentence I hesitated for a few reasons. I think Myra would detest being labeled LGBT, and I fear her wrath. And who am I to attempt this playlist portrait of the entity that is Myra Breckenridge (“…whom no man may posses except on [her] terms!”)? If she were to judge me, would I be found wanting? Must I also be destroyed for her to fulfill her mission? And also, for Myra Breckenridge to be your favorite book, you have to be, in some way, at least a little bit, evil.
Myra on Myra: “Myra Breckenridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.”
The novel opens to Myra recently arrived in Hollywood from New York. She and her late husband, Myron, shared an intense admiration for the film critic Parker Tyler, whom Myron was in the process of writing a book about (Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties; or, the Transcendental Pantheon). Myra intends to finish it.
She supports Myron’s thesis that “…the films of 1935 to 1945 inclusive were the high point of Western culture, completing what began that day in the theatre of Dionysos when Aeschylus first spoke to the Athenians…” And agrees with him in that “…the films of the 1940’s are superior to all the works of the so-called Renaissance, including Shakespeare and Michelangelo…” Myra believes that Tyler’s vision (films are the unconscious expressions of age-old human myths.) “is perhaps the only important critical insight this century has produced.” And that Tyler is:
…our age’s central thinker, if only because in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.
Myron’s uncle Buck Loner runs the Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses in Hollywood where she gets a job teaching classes on Empathy and Posture. There she meets two young students in love, Mary-Ann Pringle and Rusty Godowsky. They have no clue, and nor does anyone else, of Myra’s secret mission: “…to re-create the sexes and thus save the human race from certain extinction.”
One the one hand, I am intellectually devoted to the idea of the old America. I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life—if such a thing exists—accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestiges of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.
Below is a cinematic musical playlist I’ve compiled in an attempt to create a portrait of Myra, her likes and dislikes, her passions, based on quotes from the book, and limited to Hollywood films from 1935–1945.
If you have already read the novel I hope this rekindles your love for her. If you have not I hope it inspires you to (and out of respect to the woman—spoiler alert—skip the entry titled LOSS).
MUSIC: It’s no surprise that Myra prefers the popular sounds of her chosen Golden Age.
“…I noticed the other night that your [posture] problem seems to go away when you dance. So, just as an exercise, I want you to do one of those stationary dances—I don’t know what they’re called. You know, like the one you were doing at the party.”
“Dance? Here? Now?” [Rusty] looked puzzled. “But there’s no music.”
“To be precise there never is music with those dances, just electronic noise. Nothing compared to the big sound of Glenn Miller.”
The Glenn Miller Orchestra perform “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (with Tex Beneke, The Modernaires, Dorothy Dandridge, and The Nicholas Brothers) in Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
The Glenn Miller Orchestra perform “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo” (with Tex Beneke, The Modernaires, and The Nicholas Brothers) in Orchestra Wives (1942)
“Although [Mary-Ann’s] voice has a classic tone like Jeanette MacDonald (and so of no use in the current market),…”
Jeanette MacDonald in Naughty Marietta (1935)
…she also has a second more jazzy voice not unlike that of the late La Verne, the most talented of the Andrew Sisters…. Last night I played several Andrew Sisters records for her and though she had never before heard of the Andrew Sisters (!), she conceded that their tone was unusual—which is understating the matter! Their tone is unique and genuinely mythic, a part of the folklore of the best years of the American past. They really did roll out that barrel, and no one has yet rolled it back.
The Andrew Sisters sing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in Buck Privates (1941)
The Andrew Sisters sing “Straighten Up And Fly Right” in Her Lucky Night (1945)
LIBIDO: Myra has a healthy sexual appetite.
“As a small girl I used to yearn for Lana Turner to crush me against her heavy breasts, murmuring, ‘I love you, Myra, you perfect darling!’”
Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941, produced by Pandro S. Berman*)
Fortunately this Lesbian phase passed** and my desires were soon centered upon James Craig. I saw every film he ever made. I even have recordings of his voice. In Parker Tyler’s masterpiece Magic and Myth of the Movies, he refers to James Craig’s voice as “some kind of Middle Southwest drawl, a genuine lulu.” I can certify that James Craig was in every way a lulu and for years I practiced self-abuse thinking of that voice, those shoulders, those powerful thighs thrust between my own and, if I may be candid, no matter what condition James Craig is in today, married or not, decrepit or not, Myra Breckenridge is ready to give him a good time for old time’s sake.
James Craig sings to Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body (1944)
WORDS: Myra hates the slang of 1968 (“Like. Like. Like! The babble of this subculture is drowning me!” “They all use ‘like’ in a way that sets my teeth on edge.”) but adores slang c. 1935–c. 1945.
(upon hearing the word “jalopie”): “…a marvelous Forties word that I heard for the first time in Best Foot Forward—oh to have been an adult in those years!”
Best Foot Forward, 1943 (June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, and Nancy Walker sing “The Three B’s”)
LOVE: Beneath that hard exterior lies a softness.
I do not exaggerate when I declare that I would give ten years of my life if I could step back in time for just one hour and visit the Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood, exactly the way that Dane Clarke did in the movie of the same name, and like him, meet all the great stars at their peak and perhaps even, like Dane’s buddy Bob Hutton, have a romance with Joan Leslie, a star I fell hopelessly in love with…
Joan Leslie in Hollywood Canteen (1944)
LOSS: Spoiler Alert! I advise skipping this one if you haven’t read the book.
(remembering her sex-change operation):
…[my body] is, if I may say so, unusually lovely, the result of the most dedicated surgeons who allowed me, at my request, to remain conscious during all stages of my transformation, even though I was warned that I might be seriously traumatized in the process…. But I was not. Quite the contrary. I was enthralled, delighted, fascinated (of course the anesthetic had a somewhat intoxicating effect). And when, with one swift movement of the scalpel, the surgeon freed me from the detested penis, I amazed everyone by beginning to sing, I don’t know why, “I’ll be seeing you”…hardly a fitting song since the point to the exercise is that I would not be seeing it…ever again…
“I’ll Be Seeing You” (Bing Crosby, 1944)
For those of you who’ve read Myra Breckenridge and, craving more, are considering watching the film of the same name (Michael Sarne, 1970) or reading Vidal’s sequel, Myron (1974), be warned: the film is mildly entertaining Pop art and it may follow the same basic storyline but without the striking tone of the novel (like comparing Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book with the Disney version), and Myron, also entertaining enough, is like silly science fiction rather than sadistic satire. Not genius, like Myra.
Why do I love Myra so much?
Maybe because in some ways I relate to her: she feels out of step with the world of today but also above it, and she follows a very strict aesthetic code and wishes to enforce it on everyone around her.
I hope I’ve done the lady some justice in this fragmented portrait. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. How many words are moving pictures worth? In the end this all comes down to words, and there is a limitation in language.
“Is it possible to describe anything accurately? That is the problem set to us by the French New Novelists. The answer is, like so many answers to important questions, neither yes nor no. The treachery of words is notorious.” — Myra Breckenridge
The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs “In The Mood” in Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
Ann Sheridan sings “Love Isn’t Born (It’s Made)” in Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
* “…I have a marvelous idea for a piece on Pandro S. Berman which Cashiers du Cinema ought to eat up. After all, with the exception of Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller, Berman is the most important film-maker of the Forties.”
Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Girl (1941, produced by Pandro S. Berman)
** Like Oscar Wilde said: “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.” Lana Turner may have been the first but not the last of Myra’s Lesbian urges: “…I poured [Mary-Ann] a glass of gin which she drank neat…. She sat on the daybed…. Her legs are every bit as beautiful as Eleanor Powell’s in Rosalie, on those drums.”
Eleanor Powell in Rosalie (1937)