Reading Material, Part II

Bachelor, August 1937

Bachelor August 1937. Cover: Portrait of William Whitehead by Luigi Luccioni. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Whether or not Adams got around to reading Against the Grain or Lewisohn's emphatic statement in Expression in America is unclear from his letters. His tastes seemed, especially after moving to New York, to have run toward popular literature and magazines.

Early in 1937, Adams discovered the magazine that would be seen on the coffee tables of middle-class gay men in bachelor apartments across the city for the coming year. He wrote to his friend Macbain about the find:

 

Dear Merle,

There's a new magazine for men out, named Bachelor. It's swell. I've always maintained that Esquire was just a Jewish edition of Vogue. Well – Bachelor isn't. [13]

 

Bachelor, July 1937

Bachelor July 1937. Cover: Paul Cadmus, Francisco. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The editors of Bachelor, in its inaugural issue, announced that it would be "A visual expression of contemporary thought––mirroring the varied interests of the discerning cosmopolite." The magazine featured covers by artists like Paul Cadmus, Luigi Luccioni, and Charles Baskerville; photos of male celebrities including Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, and a swimsuit-clad Larry Crabbe; and articles by such arbiters of taste as Lucius Beebe.

For gay men who were "aware and out," the designer Neel Bate recalled in a 1982 interview in The Advocate, "Here at last was what looked like 'our' publication, with an editorial staff and contributors who, if not actually gay and out themselves, expressed our interests."[14] As these illustrations suggest, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century modes of dandyism, aestheticism, elitism, athletic masculinity, bachelorhood, and misogyny converged in this early attempt to appeal to an emerging urban gay subculture.

"Paris & London"

"Paris & London" (May 1937, p.4)

After the war, Adams's letters and those of his friends reflect the increased availability of gay-themed literature by relatively main-stream authors such as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and John Horne Burns. Instead of relying on imported publications and semi-coded references like those in Bachelor, gay men began to have access to quality literature by gay men, about gay men, and they eagerly shared their reading material.

Larry Crabbe

Larry Crabbe (June 1937, p.65)

Dear Leo:

Have met one very pleasant chap here in town – a new salesman at the Music Shop, who works with radio and television. He's a member of an odd sort of "ménage a trois" – would be fun to break it up, but the healthy influence of Lois is being felt and my urges are well under control.

Another member of this same ménage, and ex-student here at the Choir College has lent me a book you would be most interested in, I'm sure – "Lucifer with a Book," by John Horne Burns.[15] It's a finely written piece of work, tearing apart a boys school – the sort of thing that has been done before, but I doubt if any author has used such finesse with characterization and so forth. I have been reassured that the school discussed really does exist, and that most of the characters are thinly veiled copies of their proto-types; must be some school! In many respects it reminds me of Princeton, or of what I see of Princeton – many of the same types are evident. Practically the whole student group in the music dept are fruity – most of them very unpleasantly so. But I do recommend the book – and will be eager to hear your reaction!

I never did find a copy of the book you mentioned to me – "The Pillar and The City," I think – would appreciate you're picking up a copy, if you see one – I shall reimburse you, naturally.[16]

 

Dear Bill,

"Lucifer With a Book" by Burns was published about two years ago, it seems to me. And I think it refers to the Kent school in the foothills of the Berkshires, but I am not positive. It has an awful bitch in it hasn't it? I mean a male one. I have a Pocketbook copy of "The Pillar and The City" awaiting any visit to New York you may make. No charge for the service.

Do you think that only flairies read Flair?[17]

"Don't turn around now but I think we've come up in the wrong magazine"

"Don't turn around now but I think we've come up in the wrong magazine" (June 1937, p.12)

Adams's correspondence with his friend Bill Giles, a student at Westminster Choir College, also demonstrate the rapidity with which gay men found and read gay-themed reading material and the frequency with which they shared it with each other. The main subject of this exchange, James Barr's Quatrefoil, was, in the assessment of the literary critic Roger Austin, "one of the earliest novels that could have produced a glow of gay pride."[18]

HH the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar

H.H. the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar by Charles Baskerville (June 1937, cover)

Dear Leo:

The books are going to be worn out very shortly, and Quatrefoil[19] especially is a major sensation. I liked it by far the best of the three – The Sling and the Arrow, frankly, bored me stiff. If you think of any other titles I ought to read, please pass them on –– you know how I enjoy broadening (?) my mind.[20]

 

Dear Bill,

I have your note on the educational influence you are wielding at school with my books. Don't let Quatrefoil disappear as I want it back. Have you looked up the dictionary definition of the word? A four leaved flower. Could it be pansy?[21]


Notes

13. Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, April 19, 1937

14. Quoted in William Norwich, "Fine Print: Broadway Brummells," New York Times, 18 March 2001.

15. John Horne Burns, Lucifer With a Book, (New York: Harper, 1949). Gore Vidal recalled that, in Burns's opinion, "to be a good writer, one must be homosexual, perhaps because his or her marginalized status provides the gay or lesbian author with an objectivity not attainable within mainstream culture." (Gore Vidal, "John Horne Burns," In Homage to Daniel Shays, Collected Essays 1952-1972. [New York: Random House, 1972], 181-185.)

16. William Giles to Leo Adams, September 26, 1950.

17. Leo Adams to William Giles, September 28, 1950.

18. Roger Austen, Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

19. James Barr [James Fugaté], Quatrefoil, (New York: Greenberg, 1959).

20. William Giles to Leo Adams, February 11, 1951.

21. Leo Adams to William Giles, February 14, 1951.