I read YOUNG MAN FROM THE PROVINCES: A GAY LIFE BEFORE STONEWALL mainly because Alan Helms is one of the people photographed in David Leddick’s NAKED MEN TOO, and I thought he might have something to say about the George Platt Lynes circle. I was wrong about this. He only arrived in New York after Platt Lynes died in 55, and ,as we’ll see, the circles Helms moved in were even more moneyed and famous, if also a bit sleazier. The other reason is because I am interested in the lives gays and lesbians made for themselves between World War II and Stonewall. This is a very particular account. As he writes, ‘It would be wrong to think of this book as a chapter of social and cultural history; it’s more like a memoir containing some of the social and cultural history others might have written if they hadn’t died of AIDS’.
Helms arrived in New York from Indianapolis to go study at Columbia, thinking he was the only one of his kind, still doing things others grew out of. This was confirmed by his first lover, a pre-med student he lived with for a couple of years who left him to get married. Bereft and suicidal, his sexuality already under investigation, monitored and recorded by the authorities in ways that would later deprive him of scholarships, dropped by his closest friend, the only person he dared come out to … an acquaintance invites him to a party…and the whole world of queer Camelot New York opens up to him.
Everything takes place behind closed doors, in secret, at private parties or downstairs clubs that nonetheless get regularly raided. He’s of Anglo- German descent, fits the ideal of male beauty of the period, and he’s been swimming and doing weights since high school. He’s told that with a tiny operation on his nose, he could model. Luckily, a plastic surgeon is mad about him and Helms lets him blow him in exchange for the operation, setting a pattern. Soon Helms is a leading male model of the day, photographed by Scavullo, on the cover of GQ, even on Broadway with Elaine Stritch in Noel Coward’s SAIL AWAY.
He describes himself as the golden boyman of the period, a star of the gay world, the one everyone wanted to be with. And many of the rich and famous lookers of the day were: Larry Kert, Stephen Sondheim, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Nureyev, Tab Hunter. For a while he lived in an apartment under that of Coward, who offered tea and sympathy at the various disasters that were his love life; he became close friends with Luchino Visconti, one of the people the book is dedicated to.
Even for an autobiography, I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s as self-involved as this one. Helms is resolved to be desired and popular, it’s his main goal in life, so he recounts his routine before going out, the gym, running, the hair, the dressing. Who he was with, how he was looked at, this was of main importance to him. His excuse is that his self-worth was based entirely on his looks. He treated people very badly, making various overlapping dates, going to the best one and standing up all the rest, including his mother at an opening night on Broadway: she wasn’t chic enough to take to the party. He’s entirely self-critical of it all, which somehow doesn’t compensate
Helms speak of his beauty and the social and financial passports it afforded him in a way that seems matter-of-fact rather than conceited: ‘A typical week of my life in New York had included a conversation with Katharine Hepburn at Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue (about Elizabethan biography; she knew lots), an evening at the Blue Angel to hear a new young singer named Barbra Streisand, and a small party for King Hussein of Jordan’. In the meantime, Henry Wilson, the notorious agent of Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner and other stars of the period, is eyeing him up for a ‘screen test’; and Leonard Bernstein is gagging to get into his pants.
Part of the problem with the book is that the level of self-involvement makes Katharine Hepburn’s ME seem modest. So it’s all about his place, his feeling, his doings. There’s little attempt to explore other people’s desires or motives, or even to describe them in that period. Thus, all the celebrities in his life come across as a sketch; even the main people in his life seem distanced and shadowy. There are areas that remain under-explored: why do so many of his friends in that period and in that milieu commit suicide before 30? And perhaps not unrelated, there are seedier aspects that are mentioned but not explored: is there no downside to being a kept boy for fifteen years, however jet-setty the style; what drove him to accept money to sleep with trade for a voyeur, was it only the 100 dollars?; what drove him to steal 300 dollars from Luchino Visconti?
That this remains under-explored becomes surprising as the first chapters of the book, dealing with what it’s like to grow up in small town Indianapolis with two alcoholic parents is excellent. And the last part of the book, dealing with coping with the real social, sexual and financial effects of the loss of his looks is self-lacerating, if very American: all the self-help books, the discussion groups, the therapy.
But it’s all about the self or rather himself. Thus Stonewall happens but his mind is on whether he can still get the top guys at a Pines party, top here basically referring to whomever is the current GQ coverboy. The social changes from Eisenhower to Vietnam are traced mostly through the places he goes to, chic secret parties, then the Everhard Baths and Bette Midler, then exiled to Boston and an academic career.
It’s a very well-written book. Helms went on to become a professor of Literature. And it covers many areas I’m interested in, not least what a beauty feels like upon the loss of his/her looks. But this is a me, me, me book about exploiting one’s looks for 15 years and then mourning their loss for another forty that feels narrow in outlook, over-invested in nostalgia for a particular world, and lacking even the personalised account of social and cultural history circumscribed in the beginning. Thus, a well-written book but one devoid of context, insight, motive; and a bit dull for that, despite all the glittery names that dot its pages.