Snapshots from an Editor: Working with Edmund White
Author: Donald Weise
August 24, 2016
“There are certainly people who call themselves ‘gay novelists,’ like Edmund White,” Gore Vidal once said to me during an interview. “I think he’s out of his mind. Why limit yourself any more than literature has limited you? In a world where people don’t read, what are you going to make of a man who calls himself a gay novelist? What’s that supposed to mean, that he’s only going to write about cock?” I suppose everyone has his or her own definition of what constitutes a gay novelist, Vidal’s being the most literal, but for me, Edmund White was the first gay novelist I read after coming out in college. Since I didn’t know anyone who could show me a world of gay people I knew existed out there, I turned instead to literature for guidance. (Yes, I know, how very twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century.) I started with Ed’s A Boy’s Own Story—and I hated it. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a passage from the book report I wrote to myself twenty-five years ago, the pages still tucked inside the novel: “White’s little fairy is a poseur; a tiresome white kid whose ordeal over being gay is romanticized and dramatized all out of proportion…His character is exactly the kind of person I can’t stand in real life, so why would I want to read about his so-called ‘moral dilemma’?” Back then I went around holding forth like that. I was young, newly out, AIDS was everywhere, and I was angry at people, including Ed, apparently. The idea that years later I’d edit two of his essay collections and become one of his biggest fans was unimaginable at the time.
Happily for me, my feelings about Ed and his writing “matured” as I got older. Partly because I liked his other fiction but also because I’d read and admired essays he’d written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books among a handful of other publications. These were insightful and gossipy pieces on artists as varied as Jasper Johns, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean Genet, and Ned Rorem. Ed, I discovered, is a cultural critic who can go deep with the best of them, yet at the same time be playful, racy, and drop the perfect nugget of gossip (more often than not sexual) into a serious discussion of French literature or modern photography. Much like the essays of Vidal, but without Vidal’s self-conscious wit, condescension, and derision, Ed can take almost any topic, however grand, and discuss it as if it were no more complicated to navigate than the TV Guide crossword puzzle. In the hands of most writers, critical examinations of such heady authors as Foucault, Proust, or Nabokov turn into a literary death-march through the past. Not in Ed’s case. To say this is my kind of writer is an understatement of the first order.
I first reached out to Ed about the possibility of working together on a new essay collection after publishing Vidal’s book of essays, Sexually Speaking. It says something that I went from Vidal to Ed, my thinking being that Ed was outranked as a gay writer only by the Master. Or as Vidal once said of Ed the writer, “Edmund White can’t wait for me to die so he can be King Fag.” I approached the dauphin with a book proposal under the title Arts in Letters, as the common theme was artists and writers. I sent the table of contents to Ed at Princeton, dropped Vidal’s name right and left in the cover letter since Ed wouldn’t have ever heard of me, and without so much as checking my credentials, he said yes. If I’d come to appreciate Ed’s work since reading A Boy’s Own Story, I was now appreciating its author even more. Only I didn’t see Arts and Letter to publication as it happened; I quit my job at the San Francisco press that was publishing it, deciding impulsively that I had to live in New York.
I was living in Manhattan only a few weeks when I emailed Ed to let him know that I was no longer in San Francisco but was now editing for a new publisher near his home in Chelsea. I asked if he was available for lunch so that we could finally meet in person. Although my email to him was out of the blue—for all he knew I was still in California, for all I knew he’d forgotten about me—Ed was immediately warm and welcoming. “Sure,” he cooed. “How about you come by my place and ring my bell?” This not so subtle come on made me smile back then but never more so than right now, because, unknown to me at the time, I would become well acquainted with Ed’s manner: shamelessly flirtatious and endlessly charming.
At lunch we talked a lot about me, something I wasn’t used to with writers. Vidal, for one, never spoke a word to me that wasn’t an answer or a directive handed to me as his editor. I was touched and flattered by Ed’s attention. As one of his ex-boyfriends said to me, “When you meet Ed for the first time, and he turns that laser focus on you, where you feel like the most important person in the world because this important man thinks you’re important, too, there’s nothing like it.” And there wasn’t. Ed asked, “So, who all do you know in New York?” I said, “Just a friend from college.” While I had known New Yorkers in publishing for years, I didn’t know anyone well enough, say, to ask to a movie or spend the holidays with. That would come later, thanks largely to Ed. He named a handful of famous gay writers and editors whose names I recognized but had never met. When I said as much, he replied, “Well then, I’ll throw a cocktail party and invite them over so you can meet everyone.” Were this gesture alone all Ed had ever done for me, he would have my devotion for a lifetime. That this offer was only the beginning of a long list of generosities toward me must mean that he has my devotion for all eternity, because no one has ever been so consistently kind to me on such a large scale and never expected anything in return.
That kindness extended beyond just books and writers. Not long after I’d met him, Ed asked me to a talk he was giving at the prestigious Alliance Francaise, a midtown arts center devoted to French culture. He was to speak on Jean Genet, something he hadn’t been called to do for some time and confessed to having to reread his own biography in order to recall the details from Genet’s life. As you might expect, the finely-attired audience was full of French and French-speaking people. Sitting there alone, I felt underdressed, poor, and conspicuously out of place—not the first, or last, time that’s happened. Ed’s talk mercifully was in English, and he seemed to enjoy himself and the opulence of the evening. Once the talk was over and well-wishers ascended the stage to greet him, Ed spotted me in the crowd milling below the foot of the stage. He raised his hand as if to catch my attention and shouted above all the chatter, “Don’t leave. We’ll have dinner together.” With that, everyone turned at once to regard me, a stranger—almost a kid, really—who’d been asked out by the guest speaker. His invitation was a real surprise, and I was flush with excitement over being singled out when clearly he knew some of these elegant people but chose to dine with me. I’d moved to New York in the hope of experiencing this kind of glamour, and here it was actually happening—dinner alone with one of my favorite authors. I felt like Cinderella being asked to the ball, and the cab to the restaurant downtown might as well have been the Prince’s coach.
That first year in New York, when I was alone and single and still hadn’t met all the people who would become my closest friends here, Ed and his partner, Michael Carroll, asked me over for dinner sometimes, the most memorable night being New Year’s Eve, when Ed made lobster (until then I didn’t know anyone who made lobster at home, but then I’d never met anyone like Ed). Someone had brought along a bootleg recording of Judy Garland dictating her memoirs, drunk (“I’m the mother of three beautiful children, goddammit! Liza, Lorna…and Joey.”), that captivated everyone so much that we missed ringing in the new year; only the celebratory shouts from across the street at midnight snapped us out of Garland’s spell. Another evening Ed invited a group of us guys to come watch the HBO premiere of Angels in America on TV in the bedroom. We all climbed onto the bed or sat on the floor around it, at first anticipating an emotional night of viewing, but we began wisecracking and mocking the production once we realized the movie had little in common with our own firsthand experiences with HIV/AIDS. The show felt so safe, as if they’d filmed an AIDS movie for straight people. (I’ve since been told the actual play is nothing like that, and I don’t imagine it is.) Ed didn’t laugh or critique the movie along with the rest of us but made one memorable observation: “The problem with Tony’s writing is his characters say exactly what they think.” People pay for writing programs to glean that kind of insight into craft, but there it was, free, for anyone who listened.
In time, Ed proposed a second book of essays, Sacred Monsters, which would also showcase his articles on artists and writers. I felt more “at home” with this new book than I had with the first since not only was I now friends with Ed, and therefore relaxed in his presence and not out to impress, but I had personal involvement with some of these writings. His review of John Rechy’s memoirs that appeared in the New York Review of Books, for example, was something I asked Ed to do as a favor because years back they’d published a homophobic review of City of Night titled “Fruit Salad,” and anything Ed had to say would not only promote the book but help quell the lingering resentments anyone might still feel. Ed’s piece on Edith Wharton, also published in the New York Review of Books, but not at my behest, is one of my favorites in the second collection, and I remember him working on it. I stopped by his place one afternoon while he was writing this lengthy review of Hermione Lee’s new Wharton biography. Spread out all over the dining room table were over-sized photo books containing sepia-toned images of New York City during Wharton’s day; Fifth Avenue still dotted with mansions where Rockefeller Center now stands, the Plaza Hotel and Central Park across the street the only landmarks looking at all familiar to me. Ed didn’t say so but I gathered that for him seeing pictures from the world Wharton lived in resulted in writing a more vivid review. I knew Vidal prepared for book reviews in this elaborate manner, sometimes reading a person’s entire body of work before reviewing the author’s new novel, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Ed did that sort of preparation, too.
If Vidal is a frequent thread in this essay about Ed, it’s because he once had played a part in both my life and Ed’s but for different reasons. For me, Vidal was the first author I published, and I’m forever indebted to him for that. Ed wasn’t as lucky. He wrote a play, Terra Haute, based loosely on Vidal’s ongoing correspondence/friendship with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, of whom Vidal was fond. I dropped in on Ed one evening only to find him on the phone with Vidal, discussing the play. Once the call ended, Ed came into the room and said, excitedly, “Gore read and likes my play.” He didn’t need Vidal’s approval to stage the show (in part because the “Vidal” character is as much Ed himself as it is Vidal), but having his cooperation was helpful. However, that cooperation ended with the play’s premiere, when Terra Haute was well received. Suddenly Vidal objected, throwing accusations of character assassination at Ed, in public and on record, and finally declaring a lawsuit. When I read that, I told Ed, “But I was there the night you had him on the phone, when you said he liked the play.” Vidal later withdrew the lawsuit, but his protests nonetheless marred an otherwise successful engagement. Or maybe he actually helped promote the show, since no one knew how to make headlines better than Vidal.
By now my friendship with Ed had reached a point where there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him. In fact, I welcomed any opportunity to help should the occasion arise. When he was hospitalized with a stroke a couple of years ago, his partner, Michael, who was there when the stroke happened and had been with Ed continuously since, phoned to ask if I’d come sit with him while he, Michael, ran errands. There was only one answer for me, and shortly thereafter I was at Ed’s bedside keeping him company. Despite the stroke, he was in surprisingly good spirits, though this may have been put on for my benefit since he doesn’t like being a downer, ever. Or it may have been to mask his understandable worry that he couldn’t, at that time, move his legs or speak ordinarily. He asked apprehensively whether his speech had been affected by the stroke, knowing that it had been but needing assurance. His speech wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d anticipated when I received news of the stroke, however, and I was grateful that such a dignified person had been spared that. I quickly changed topics as a way of taking his mind off things, and so started talking about subjects he enjoyed most with me: men I was involved with and gossip about other writers. As I spoke he dozed off for short whiles only to wake up, turn to me suddenly, and almost look apologetic, as if by falling asleep he was being a bad host. In some way it felt like my life had come full circle: Years ago I’d sat next to my grandfather’s hospital bed, reading Ed’s then-new book Our Paris while my grandfather slept. Now here I was sitting next to Ed’s hospital bed, reading Andrew Holleran, as Ed slept. (Andrew, if you’re reading this, beware the pattern taking shape.)
A social worker suddenly appeared and took down Ed’s personal information for the move to another facility where months of physical therapy were to follow. She dutifully went down the list of questions, having no idea who he was, asking name, age, and address. When she came to occupation, Ed answered, without a moment’s hesitation, “Freelance writer.” I was astounded by his humility. To think of all his extraordinary accomplishments and yet, when you got down to it, Ed saw himself as no more than a freelance writer. I had to restrain myself from correcting him by telling the social worker, in a burst of pride, “He’s the fucking most brilliant gay writer of all time!” Then again, maybe under the circumstances, “freelance writer” flew better with the largely straight healthcare professionals assisting Ed.
Recently, Ed and Michael hosted a party in their home for a young professor friend of theirs visiting from out of state. There were about twenty guests, comprised in part of the men who form the core of my innermost circle of friends. They ranged from people I’d met in New York as long as ten years ago and who have since become as close to me as family to more recent but no less cherished people, including boyfriends of friends who “married” into our circle. One such boyfriend took a seat next to me in the living room and asked how I’d met Ed and Michael. I shared an abbreviated version of this essay: how the first book of essays led to my friendship with Ed, which in turn led to friendships with friends of Ed’s, which in turn opened the door to my new life in New York. After all these years I often take everything for granted, but I sometimes need to remind myself that there was a time when I’d arrived in town and knew just that one college friend I’d mentioned to Ed over lunch. Looking around the room the night of the party, I marveled at how one book—and, more importantly, one man—had changed the course of my life. You don’t publish books to make friends, but friendships develop if you’re fortunate. On that count I’ve been fortunate in spades.
This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White edited by Tom Cardamone