Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes, 1935-1940 is a book full of beautiful images, overly focussed on George Platt Lynes and his circle, with merely a nod to the other arts (except those practiced by that circle) and to European art production (much less the rest of the world): a Voinquel photo here ; a Duncan Grant painting there …the rest is American, mostly Platt Lynes. The pictures are gorgeous, and some of them are of very famous people (Tennesse Williams, Yul Brynner). And there’s a great central idea behind the book; to search for the subjects of the pictures, find out what they are doing, and juxtapose photographs of them in the present with those of them in their youth (and which some of them had forgotten they’d posed for as many of the photos were only circulated privately).
I used to read Quentin Crisp avidly when he was writing for the gay monthlies in the 80s; but his introduction here seems posy, mannered, thin (and he was that but also much more than that). He talks of his own past posing nude and makes a common distinction between naked and nude; how nude was in the service of art and naked would have frightened the horses and resulted in jail time. Okey Dokey.
The book would have been better titled as Pioneering Male Nudes in the USA or some such. It’s organisation is meant to exude comprehensiveness: The Depression Years, 1935-1940; The War-Years; The Post-War Years, 1945-1950 but there are major photographers missing (Carl Van Vechten) and there is not a single photograph of a black man in the whole book. The work exudes US cultural imperialism in its choices and racism in its absences, and it’s not just because all of these nudes depict a particular Aryan ideal (even in the rare instance when the subjects are Latino).
Don’t mess with a queen: ‘George Platt Lynes was the true pariah amongst (Lincoln Kirstein’s) classmates’, who seem uniformly to have regarded him as a foppish freak, a sneering little bitch who fancies he is too pretty to look at and saunters in like Fifi D’Orsay. The turning point came when Lynes, endlessly bullied, teased and in utter desperation, ‘whipped out his knife and melodramatically stabbed another student,’ who fortunately survived.
From Martin Duberman’s THE WORLD OF LINCOLN KIRSTEIN
My mind keeps drifting back to poor George Platt Lynes – a rare instance of poor being used in conjunction with his name – so bullied for being visibly femmy , and so powerless and enraged by it, he’s finally driven to stabbing the oppressor; a trauma and rage I’ve never seen in the glamorous, controlled and desirous images of male perfection he produced. Also, I was watching HEARTSTOPPER, the new gay teen romance on Netflix, and noting how things had changed and not changed; bullying and violence are still what the young teens in the drama face, even in a context where some of them are now out and at ease, and their potential to touch is animated by electricity, and their kiss by floaitng butterflies: continuities and breaks. I found it very sweet and touching though I did wonder if I’d have found it more twee had the protagonists been heterosexual.
Continuing with my reading of the Platt Lynes Circle, David Leddick’s INTIMATE COMPANIONS: A TRIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE PLATT LYNES, PAUL CADMUS, LINCOLN KIRSTEIN AND THEIR CIRCLE, is a comparatively lighter work, very readable, with a wider scope. I wish I’d read it first. I learned more about the painters in the circle — Paul Cadmus, Pavel Tchelitchev, Jared French, George Tooker — and their inter-personal, sexual and professional relationships. It well illustrates what Gregory Woods in his great book has conceptualised as the or at least a ‘hominterm’, an international network of lesbians and gays that could be seen as a creative force and/ or as a ‘sinister conspiracy against the moral and material interests of the state’.
This particular grouping can certainly be seen as both; all of them ‘discrete’ to greater or lesser degrees; all of them out to their immediate circle and beyond. Working in art, major institutions such as MOMA, or indeed, like with Kirstein, helping to create the American Ballet Theatre but also discretely working for representation and inclusion; Monroe Wheeler through his influence on what MOMA programmed or published; Glenway Westcott through his work with Kinsey; Kirstein through his financial and institutional patronage of painting and ballet; Platt Lynes through his private nudes, circulated underground; Cadmus needed only his painting, where homosexuality seems ever present.
The book is divided into chapters, covering mainly the trio at various stages of their life, but also others who were important to at least one of the trio: Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein (Cadmus’ sister; Kirstein’s wife), Katherine Anne Porter, Jared French etc. My only reservation is that the book is interspersed with first-hand observations, an eye-witness account, of either the people or events such as parties and funerals. In the end it’s revealed that it’s by a certain ‘Sandusky’. But who is this Sandusky? It’s never as clear as it should be whether this is fiction or an eyewitness who wishes to remain anonymous. If it’s a real person it adds insight; if it’s fiction….well it’s interesting but speculative and potentially undermines aspects of the book. I wish this element had been better handled. It brings to mind a niggle with the title: the tension between ‘a triography’ and ‘their circle’. Why not just eliminate triography? Any biographic work would have to deal with ‘their circle’: INTIMATE COMPANIONS: GEORGE PLATT LYNES, PAUL CADMUS, LINCOLN KIRSTEIN AND THEIR CIRCLE.
I’m grateful to Leddick for enhancing my appreciation of Cadmus’ very beautiful drawings more traditional than his paintings, in a ‘classic’ style that reminds one vaguely of Da Vinci; more lifelike. The paintings I also love. But along with the social commentary, they also remind me of more greatly textured 30s cartoons; the drawings are both representational and also idealised, and in a sexual way. Democratic too. How many people have pictured factory workers like this below:
With all the superb visual materials in circulation, someone could make a great documentary on this. It certainly skewers contemporary notions of the rigidity and fixity of sexual identities between Wilde and Stonewall. This particular circle dances all over the Kinsey scale.
Now well and truly down a rabbit hole prompted by Allen Ellenzweig’s GEORGE PLATT LYNES. I’ve just finished Jerry Rosco’s book on Glenway Wescott, the often odd-man-out in the Lynes-Wheeler-Wescott trio. It’s a rich book, benefitting from hours of reminiscences Westcott recorded towards the end of his life, almost a lifetime of diaries, and a well-documented life. Wescott, only vaguely known to me until now, was famous before Hemingway (and the cruel butt of his homophobia. He is ostensibly the model for Robert Prentiss in THE SUN ALSO RISES, of which, according to Wiki, after meeting Prentiss, Jack Barnes, the narrator, says, ‘I just thought perhaps I was going to throw up’); wrote two best-sellers (THE GRANDMOTHERS, 1927; APARTMENT IN ATHENS, 1945) and received quite extraordinary critical praise for THE PILGRIM HAWK, including a two-part appreciation from Susan Sontag in The New Yorker in 2001, where she deemed it, ‘among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature’.
His life is an illustration of a particularly American kind of re-invention. The son of Wisconsin farmers, himself farmed out to relatives when the family didn’t have enough to eat, who went on to become a celebrity, peer of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, then firmly entrench himself in the upper classes without himself having a penny to his name or indeed working on anything but his writing. He brings to mind Truman Capote but without the dizziness of that particular kind of success, the self-destructiveness, a better internalisation of Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People, and an innate niceness and cheer. In ‘The Loves of the Falcon’a lovely essay on his work in the New York Review of Books, Edmund White writes: ‘He was a confidant who also confided in others (intimacy is not always a two-way street, which egotistical friends don’t notice at first but come to resent in the long run)’
In many ways he is the ideal clubman. Had he not been queer and a writer, he might have made an excellent Elk or Rotary. As he dined with Pauline Rothchild, he also contributed greatly to the Kinsey Institute, not just by being a subject or through donations but by actually working towards the organisation of the archive. He directed many of the writers’ associations of the day; and amongst other ‘contributions to literature’ that don’t have to do strictly with writing, he and Christopher Isherwood arranged for the publication of E.M. Forster’s Maurice.
What interested me most in the book and in his life, what interests me most about biography, is the insight it offers to how people live, the choices they make, how they manage their life. Wescott’s circumstances were inherently difficult, though nothing in this book makes it seems so: people were queer and they dealt with it. On the edges of the book, however, one deduces other stories; handsome, gifted people who intersected with these lives and didn’t manage so well; drugs, alcohol, despair, oppression, suicide, all having an effect that Wescott’s cheery disposition and strong support network circumvented, though they do appear here. As well as being nice to others, Wescott was very honest with himself, particularly in relation to questions of sex…and of love. He was never confused as to which was which and when they coincided; and he was a very loving person, maybe a reason why he was able to maintain such a rich network of relationships right to the end.
The book, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, might have been improved by sharpening the narrative and eliminating ‘doings’ that don’t much enhance our understanding of the man – the post sixties chapters suffer from too much listing of events and activities . I woud have liked more on psychology. Perhaps what surprised me more in the book was that someone so clearly good looking though of himself as physically unattractive, and this despite being regularly in sexual demand through much of his life. I would have liked to have understood this better — Edmund’s White’s explanation that he thought he had a small penis and that a youthful illness resulted in the removal of a testicle are surely a contributing factor but don’t quite fully convince: it’s undoubtedly true Westcott felt this, but why, when, for how long, did this often intermingle with a knowledge of his own sexual pull; how did he he rationalise this with the constant stream of long relationships with much younger lovers as well as with Wheeler throughout and right to the end of his life? I would have liked a fuller account of this.
The book leaves one uncertain of Wescott’s place in 20th Century American Letters but convinced that he is a major figure in a history of twentieth century queer cultures in the West.
This is really a collection of facebook posts spurred on by reading Allen Ellenzweig’s George Platt Lynes, which I think might be of interest to others (and which I’d like to keep in one place)
Dan Callaghan’s excellent review reminded me I had the book in hand and I’ve been immersed in it ever since. A monumental work for those interested in 20th century American art and culture. The ménage à trois between Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Westcott and George Platt Lynes, which lasted for two decades and which ended partly because rumour threatened Wheeler’s job at MOMA, is an endless source of fascination. The honesty and clarity of feeling; the love, longing, and desire so freely expressed in the letters is very moving.
Last year’s obsession meets the current one: Burt Lancaster by George Platt Lynes:
I read David Leddick’s Intimate Companions alongside Ellezweig’s biography and found this on Platt Lynes declining years: ‘He continued to give great all-boy parties (liquor was frequently paid for by François Reichenbach, a rich rather fey Frenchman, nephew of Jaques Guérin, a quite talented documentary movie maker and heir to a French fragrance fortune; François was quite possibly the only unattractive person George tolerated’. Guérin had been the lover of Glenway Westcott, part of Platt Lynes’ ménage with Monroe Wheeler. Reichenbach is to me a most attractive and an important if still relatively under-appreciated figure in queer culture, whose work was recently highlighted by the Cinémathèque Française and the subject of several podcasts John Mercer and I did in the last year, of which a trailer below:
The above and this were filmed at this period in the early 50s, when he was ostensibly supplying the liquor for Platt Lynes’ parties:
The full film , discovered by Thomas Waugh at the Kinsey Institute, can be seen below:
Below, E.M Forster and his lover, Bob Buckingham, photographed by George Platt Lynes. Buckingham was a married policeman; and Foster lived out his last days in the Coventry home of the official couple. Another trio; another way people had to invent lives outside the mould and make the best of it:
I’ve now finished reading Allan Ellenzweig monumental work on George Platt Lynes, which I can’t recommend enough. The last connection to surprise me was that of Platt Lynes with Samuel Steward. I suppose it shouldn’t have. Steward had written novels and was also a friend of Gertrude Stein. But I hadn’t realised the extent of their correspondence, that both were close to Kinsey and contributed greatly to the archive, Steward even allowing himself to be filmed in an SM scenario getting beaten. Steward is at least as fascinating a figure as Platt Lynes, a novelist and professor of literature who left it all to become a tattoo artist in California and the writer of romantic porn under the name of Phil Andros (amongst other pseudonyms). Steward was himself the subject of a superb biography by Justin Spring (see below):
There’s a wonderful review of the Justin Spring biography by Geoff Nicholson that begins:
‘On July 24, 1926, Samuel Steward, one day past his seventeenth birthday, got word that Rudolph Valentino had just checked in to the best hotel in Columbus, Ohio. Grabbing his autograph book, he made his way to the hotel and knocked on Valentino’s door. The actor appeared, wearing only a towel, and after signing his autograph asked whether there was anything else the boy wanted. “Yes,” said Steward, “I’d like to have you.”
The Latin lover obliged. Steward performed oral sex on him and at some point procured a lock of Valentino’s pubic hair—a souvenir that Steward kept in a monstrance at his bedside for the rest of his life. He also entered the encounter in his “Stud File,” a card catalogue recording details of his sexual partners, eventually a few thousand over the course of his lifetime.’
Ken Monteith informs me that Steward wrote his own account of moving away from academia into tattoing and gay porn here:
So these links keep cropping up and revealing a whole now not so hidden culture.