elisa_rolle (elisa_rolle) wrote,

Gay New York, Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the GayMale World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey

I was intrigued by this essay since recently some of my preconceptions are starting to fall down and I wanted a book that helped me to rebuild my basis. If I think to a hypothetic “modern” past (more or less pre II World War) I had the idea the gay culture was more or less “underground”, or better, completely hidden. My idea was that, if you were gay (and yes, I know at the time the word gay had a different meaning, but bear with me), you were also probably fated to be unhappily married, or completely alone; some exception were allowed to the very wealthy men that sheltered themselves in some isolated paradise, far from the society eyes and judgement. Then I started to read about John Gray (March 2, 1866 – June 14, 1934), the man who apparently inspired Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and who, more or less, lived happily together with his lover Marc-André Raffalovich (September 11, 1864 – February 14, 1934): when John Gray, a catholic priest, went to Edinburgh Marc-André Raffalovich settled nearby; he then helped finance St Peter's Church in Morningside where Gray would serve as priest for the rest of his life. And is it a coincidence that John died barely 4 months after Marc-André?

Or about Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844 – June 28, 1929), the man who most used the term “intermediate sex”, referring to those men who were not exactly men, not exactly women, men who were attracted by other men, but usually stronger and masculine men. Edward Carpenter was a strong advocate of sexual freedom, living in a gay community near Sheffield, and had a profound influence on both D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, so much that they said Forster took inspiration from Carpenter for Maurice and D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Edward Carpenter had a long-lasting relationship with George Merrill (1866–1928), a working class man also from Sheffield. Again, when Merrill suddenly died in January 1928, Carpenter was devastated and 13 months after, he himself died, on Friday 28 June 1929.

And what about F.O. Matthiessen (February 19, 1902 - April 1, 1950), the noted Harward literary historian and critic, who wrote to his lover, the painter Russell Cheney (1881–1945), “we are complex – both of us – in that we are neither wholly man, woman, or child”. In another letter he noted, “just as there are energetic active women and sensitive delicate men, so also there are… men, like us, who appear to be masculine but have a female sex element”. Both Yale graduate and members of the Skull & Bones, Matthiessen was 20 years younger than Cheney, but they died at only 5 years of distance.

And then there is the story of Glenway Wescott (April 11, 1901 - February 22, 1987) and his lover Monroe Wheeler (February 13, 1899 - August 14, 1988); despite apparently having an open relationship, and an on-off ménages a trois with fashion photographer and male nude artist George Platt Lynes (April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955), they lived together until old age, hosting one of the most important intellectual saloon in their Greenwich Village apartment. Again, when Wescott dies in 1987, Monroe followed soon after 1 year and half later (on a sad note, it seems that to Monroe Wheeler was prohibited to live in the country house he had always shared with Glenway; truth be told, the house was not of Glenway, but of his brother who had married a wealthy heiress who apparently maintained for all her life both her husband than Glenway and Monroe).

But other than tidbits about these men, you will read also about the Harlem’s drag balls with the quintessentia of Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent, but also with, among the attendants, Broadway gay celebrities like Beatrice Lillie, Clifton Webb, Jay Brennan and Tallulah Bankhead (it’s a coincidence that most of these names are almost forgotten? I loved black and white movies by Clifton Webb, but those other names were completely new to me). It was the chance for me to google about Beatrice Lillie and Tallulah Bankhead, and rediscover these fascinating women.

On a closing note, even if today there seems to be more “freedom”, popular culture still likes to erase the memory, like in the case of Charles Henri Ford (February 10, 1913 - September 27, 2002) whose lover Indra Tamang is still today identified as “the butler”; upon her death, Charles Henri Ford’s sister, actress Ruth Ford (July 7, 1911 - August 12, 2009), according to the newspapers left 2 multimillionaire apartments in New York City plus an art collection (n.d.r. Charles Henri Ford was the partner of painter Pavel Tchelitchew, until his death in 1957) to her “butler”… who is no one else than Indra Tamang that already in the ’70 and ’80 was well known as to be Charles Henri Ford devoted partner. It’s so hard to imagine that she was not leaving an unthinkable generous legacy to a simple butler, but was probably honouring the memory of her late brother?

Gay New York is maybe a little more academic than my review is letting you believe, and that is a worth for the essay I suppose. But to me, romantic reader, it allowed to have a more solid basis to read about the above men and women, and their sometime hidden lives. It’s a pity they are hidden, since apparently, these men and women were not afraid, at their time, to openly live their love.

Amazon: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Amazon Kindle: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (May 19, 1995)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465026214
ISBN-13: 978-0465026210

Reading List:

http://www.librarything.com/catalog_bottom.php?tag=reading list&view=elisa.rolle
Tags: author: george chauncey, genre: historical, length: novel, review

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