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The talent contributing to and discussed in the anthology My Diva is enormous. Among the 65 contributors to this collection of mini-essays by gay men on the women who have inspired them are Rigoberto González, Reginald Shepherd, Timothy Liu, Wayne Kostenbaum, Edward Field, Alfred Corn, David Bergman, and D.A. Powell. Among the women being worshipped are Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Bessie Smith, Eva Perón, Virginia Woolf, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Jessye Norman, Patti LuPone, Jamie Lee Curtis, Parker Posey, and Margaret Cho.
Editor Michael Montlack has organized the anthology chronically by diva’s birth date, and though there is a variety to the women being adored — they come from movies, music, politics, literature, and television — structurally, there is an inevitable sameness to the territory being covered in these essays — a young boy sees a movie star or hears a singer for their first time, becomes obsessed and inspired, and then learns something of himself in the context of a larger experience.
Nonetheless, there are some stirring and differentiated anecdotes in this collection, particularly by those writers who have had a personal involvement with their “diva,” such as Scott Hightower reminiscing on the flamboyant Spanish literary figure Aurora de Albornoz, his partner’s aunt, Jim Van Buskirk recalling his encounters with Betty Berzon while she was publicizing her work, and Mark Doty writing about crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with fellow writer Grace Paley. Other standouts in this volume include Peter Dubé on artist Claude Cahun, in part, because of her obscurity to most readers, and Lawrence Applebaum on Lucille Ball, because he writes poignantly about the day she died.
Montlack should be applauded for the original concept for the anthology and the sheer depth of the pop cultural experience collected in what could have been a precious undertaking — roughly assembling the personal touchstones of gay men from the second half of the twentieth century to the present day. Some of these essays will offer the reader fond recollections, particularly to those of the Baby Boomer generation such as myself: Michael Schiavi gleefully writes of Karen Black piloting the plane in Airport ‘75, Richard Blanco casts his own spell pretending to be Endora from Bewitched, and writer Jeff Oaks tries to make sense of himself dressing up as “Wonder Man,” his homage to the fantasy character of Wonder Woman. Other fictional heroines cherished within these pages include Princess Leia and Mame, and among the most thoughtful essays in the anthology is one by Jason Schneiderman, where he describes his love/hate relationship with Liza Minnelli because of her stirring portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
For the most part, My Diva is a shallow read, and by that, I mean that the essays contained in this anthology are so short they rarely allow a reader to become involved with either the writer or his muse or their collective history and relationships in a satisfying manner. Imagine being only offered a taste of a chocolate torte or a single potato chip. The enjoyment is swift and one is left craving for more. I often found myself finishing an essay and then Googling or watching YouTube for more background references and examples of several performers or to revisit a memory. But perhaps that is also one of the sly purposes behind this collection — sharing our passions with others so they will discover them too.
65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them
Edited by Michael Montlack
Terrace Books / University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, $24.95, 320p
Jameson Currier is the author of a novel and three collections of short fiction, most recently Still Dancing: New and Selected Stories.