Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Gay way before it was cool

Out There

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Sometimes reading a book review is better for the general reader than actually reading the book. In Out There's considered opinion, that's the case with "So Famous and So Gay – The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein" by Jeff Solomon (Univ. of Minnesota Press). Nonfiction books from university presses can be entirely worthy endeavors for their authors' dedicated scholarship and academic credentials. But often they fail the general readership for being dense of detail and full of niggling minutiae.

Solomon is an assistant professor of English and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University, and his interest and expertise in his subjects are clearly present. But this overdetermined study of how Capote and Stein expressed their outlaw sexuality and defeated homophobia is better summarized than read start-to-finish. If you really want to get into the weeds, a full 67 pages of the 276-page volume are devoted to explanatory endnotes.

The central question of the book is, "How and why, in a time of homophobia and closeted homosexuality, did two openly gay writers become mass-market celebrities?" And these two were not just "openly gay." Capote was openly effeminate, "queeny," he spoke with a lisp; and Stein was openly butch and could be a contender for the non-pejorative use of the term "bull dyke." That is to say, neither powerhouse hid their queer light in the shadows. Solomon shows how they constructed their own images, and he makes extensive use of archival materials such as author photos, media accounts, and gossip items in the popular press. In large part, he answers his question of, "How did these two get away with it?" by implying, "By daring to."

Capote's famous author photo, for his pioneering gay novel "Other Voices, Other Rooms" (1948), finds him stretched out on a sofa like a regal feline. His youth, his come-on expression, his full lips, and his boyish bangs: all signaled sexual availability and desirability. Solomon asserts that Capote's photographic portraits "allow their subject both to be recognized as gay and to be seen and discussed not as gay but as nonspecifically queer, as effeminate, childish, and strange. These deviations were less threatening than the bald assertion of sexual difference." But these impressions were misleading. "Though Capote was understood as effeminate, he was not soft, delicate, or weak. Nor can a man who fashioned one of the most successful literary careers of his day be called 'childish.'"

For Capote was highly skilled at publicity and self-promotion, even if this was usually portrayed as charm or the ability to seduce the camera. He certainly seduced his publisher at Random House Bennett Cerf as well, who said, "I am always happy to see him, although he sometimes annoys me by throwing his arms around me and calling me 'Great White Father' and 'Big Daddy.' But I don't mind it somehow when Truman does it."

Unsurprisingly, Gore Vidal, whose gay novel "The City and the Pillar" also came out in 1948 and was savaged or ignored by the press, resented Capote's success as well as his means to achieve it. He said, "The only thing [about gay artists that straight critics] respect is a freak like Capote, who has the mind of a Texas housewife, likes gossip, and gets all shuddery when she thinks about boys murdering people."

Solomon is good at showing how notices of the time called Capote queer in elaborate coded language. The Time review of "Other Voices" began, "The author of this novel is only 23, but his literary promise has already caused a flutter in Manhattan publishing circles." "Flutter" – as in flapping, weak wrists? Do tell, Mary .


Lesbian connection

Stein's great celebrity was even more improbable. Solomon calls her breakout hit "Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas " "a blatant manifestation of lesbian erotics and love" and notes that the book "links Stein and Toklas in its title, offers photographs of the women at home, relates decades of their domestic life, and clarifies the women's sexual connection."

The book follows the construction of Stein's celebrity persona through a New York Press profile (1910), a Saturday Evening Post parody (1913) and on through her Time magazine cover (Sept. 11, 1933). For the cover pic, Time editors cropped a 1931 photo of Stein at home taken by her friend the gay fashion photographer George Platt Lynes. For the time and the medium, "the most notable aspects of the photo are Stein's hair and clothes, which are extraordinarily masculine. In profile, her hair resembles Caesar's on a Roman coin, as noted by Ernest Hemingway : Stein "got to look like a Roman emperor, and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors."

The Press puff-piece noted, "The homely axiom 'laugh and grow fat' certainly applies to Miss Stein. Her avoirdupois is of the 'spreading kind.' The corset is an unknown article in the simple wardrobe of Miss Stein." All of this habit of haircut and dress was, of course, highly unconventional, non-heteronormative for the time, and as Solomon notes, was extensively described in the press "well before Stein's look became a standard visual shorthand of lesbian identity."

As for the Time piece, it's difficult to imagine "a more explicit mention of female homosexuality in a noncriminal context" in a mass-market cover story in the early 20th century. Stein's charisma "testifies to the power of her broadly queer attributes to fascinate the public," even in the face of "the historic invisibility of lesbians to allow 'The Autobiography' to avoid homophobic censure despite its extended depiction of lesbians in a sustained and loving domestic embrace." In other words: "Gertrude, you go, girl!"

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