I belong to the last generation of Americans obsessed with Europe and intimidated by it. When I was a small boy in Ohio in the 1940s, America was simultaneously isolationist and truly isolated. There were no foreign films. There were almost no foreigners. No one drank wine or used garlic or even ate in courses. We were served just one heaping plate of overcooked meat and fried potatoes and boiled beans, then chocolate pudding. Those who drank stuck to whisky and water.
Travel to Europe was expensive and few people could afford it. For us ‘Europe’ was the symphony (all our conductors were foreign-born) and opera. We listened to the Texaco radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday afternoon. During the intermissions Europeans with heavy accents and Hungarian or Russian names were asked in a quiz to list all the scenes in opera in which (A) the tenor falls in love with his aunt, (B) the heroine is buried alive and (C) a witch switches two babies at birth. The jokey knowingness of the foreign participants, the unusual deliberation and circumflexion and secret mirth in their voices, seemed exotic and superior to us.
We longed to visit Europe, even live abroad for a whole year. Europe was where we would raise our general level of culture. Europe was where we might at last have experiences, even sexual ones. We deplored but were privately intrigued by ‘European snobbishness’, since in Texas and the Midwest where I’d grown up the word class was never mentioned and if pressed we’d all have declared ourselves middle class. The idea that we might be excluded from a club or a party because of our low birth seemed maddening and exciting to us.
In the 1950s, Americans took extraordinary pride in the Marshall Plan. We were convinced we’d not only saved England and France, we also believed we’d single-handedly rebuilt the entire continent. We expected Europeans to be grateful ever after. Most Americans didn’t realize how quickly and triumphantly Europe had emerged out of the war. As late as the 1970s, ignorant friends and relatives of mine would say, ‘I feel sorry for those folks, still living in bombed-out ruins.’ Like some ninety per cent of Americans they didn’t have passports.
My first trip to Europe, for some reason, was to the Costa Brava in the mid-1960s when I was in my twenties. I guess I thought that sounded affordable and not as scary as Paris or London. My first lover, Stanley Redfern, and I flew to Paris, where our luggage was lost, and then we sprinted on to a waiting plane for Malaga. We hadn’t made hotel reservations and in January the town was packed. A nice man who worked behind the desk at one of the hotels that turned us away offered us his mother’s guest-room. It smelled of backed-up sewage and was next door to an outdoor movie theatre where people sat on folding wooden chairs half the night and listened to booming voices; from our window we could look down on the entranced, upraised faces strafed and submerged by alternating lights and shadows. Our luggage took a week to arrive. I made Stanley go with me to a bullfight even though we had to sit in the sun wearing our wool winter-suits. We were too poor to buy new clothes or to afford tickets in the shade.
We visited the Alhambra on a guided tour conducted in English. Two young gay Swiss guys came up to us (they’d taken our tour to improve their English) and told us that they just wanted us to know that they approved of our war in Vietnam. We were appalled and realized for the first time that we were being taken as Americans, as representatives of our national policy, and not just as Stan and Ed.
The luggage arrived on Stan’s next-to-last day. We celebrated by taking a bus over to Torremolinos and going to a gay bar full of effeminate Germans in bits of jewellery and finery they could remove and hide when they walked home through the dark streets. I stayed on another week with Brookie, a pretty girl from my office, who insisted on wearing miniskirts everywhere in Malaga in Franco’s Spain. We had big wolf-packs of young men howling behind us wherever we went.
At night the restaurants were thronged. Twenty-two members of the same family would sit around adjoined tables in a cafe and eat ice cream. ‘Europe’ (at least the bit of it we’d seen) appeared eternal, poor but well-dressed, fiercely macho, Catholic and so little subject to change that all four generations of a family could laugh heartily at the same jokes.
Even fairly sophisticated Americans back home repeated over and over again, year after year, the same few clichés about Europeans. The English were ‘terribly British’, wore bowlers, hunted foxes and had stiff upper lips. The French were blasé about sex, didn’t bathe, studied existentialism and ate rotting cheese. They were all unpleasant. The Italians were merry souls who sped around on Vespas, picked up girls, read photo romances instead of proper books, had innate artistic taste and liked everyone. The Irish were dour, downtrodden, Catholics and problem drinkers.
After I moved to Paris in 1983 and stayed on for the next fifteen years I came to resent these ill-informed, primitive views. I noticed that American friends, especially New Yorkers, were irritated that the quality of life was so high in Paris and owed almost nothing to America. Americans would point out a McDonald’s in Paris with glee, but they couldn’t be persuaded that American eating habits had made few inroads in France.
And my American friends were puzzled when they discovered what the French admire about America: everything to do with cowboys; the delicious vulgarity of Las Vegas; the novels of Paul Auster and John Fante and the poetry of Charles Bukowski; jazz; anything ‘alternative’ from the Lower East Side; anything Zuni. The French knew next to nothing about American composers, including those who’d lived and studied in France such as Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem and Virgil Thomson. They knew nothing of our minor writers who’d celebrated Paris such as Kay Boyle, Djuna Barnes and James Jones. In front of Jones’s apartment on the Ile St Louis there was no historic plaque nor would there ever be, though in the 1970s Gertrude Stein’s Rue de Fleurus address was finally commemorated. The French knew much more about American B-movie directors than we did and lamented our lack of ‘film culture’. We weren’t sure we thought ‘film’ and ‘culture’ belonged in the same sentence.
So strong was the American myth about disagreeable Parisians that it could not be modified through experience. My American friends would spend ten days with me and go out every night to a companionable dinner with French friends, often at their homes, but I’d catch them telling someone back in the States that no one ever invites you to his or her house in Paris, that all Parisians are nasty whereas the people in the provinces are adorable. The opposite is the truth, since Parisians travel, like foreigners, speak languages, crave novelty and live by their wits, whereas no city could be more closed and self-sufficient than Lyon or Bordeaux, no bourgeoisie more smug than that of Lille.
Because I learned French after the age of forty I could never eliminate my accent, though eventually I became enough at ease in the language to be able to give five half-hour radio broadcasts in a row. Because of my accent, however, I’ve always elicited a smile; if we English-speakers find a French accent supercilious or sexy, the French think an American accent is either charmingly or irritatingly childish – bon enfant, as they say. As someone who stammered as a child, still gropes for words and has always been guilty of malapropisms in English, I welcomed a built-in excuse for similar flaws in speaking French. My accent always provided new acquaintances with a ready-made subject (‘I think I detect a little accent when you speak,’ the super-polite French would say. They would then always add, ‘If only I spoke English as well as you speak French.’) This scrim of foreignness through which I lived during my years in France made me more interesting than I was and as vulnerable as I felt. I didn’t mind being bon enfant, even if the expression is lightly condescending.
As a homosexual growing up in Cincinnati and Chicago and Texas and Michigan in the 1950s, ‘Europe’ represented a benign and mysterious alternative to the beastly oppression we knew at home, a time in the States when we were persecuted by shrinks on one side and priests on the other and deliberately entrapped by the police, the three institutions that corresponded to the three prevailing interpretations of homosexuality: as mental illness, as sin and as crime.
Although we ourselves had no other available model, we still could dimly hold out for ‘tolerance’ or even ‘decadence’, and these qualities, piquant and somehow aristocratic, we located in ‘Europe’. I remember when I was fifteen discussing Julius Caesar with Fred Mitchell, an abstract expressionist painter who taught at the art academy next door to my boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Mr Mitchell, a southerner in his thirties who thrived on ambiguity and the unspoken, told me with a little smile that Caesar had ‘married’ several of his soldiers and that ‘people in Rome are still talking about it’. Imagine all that said in a nearly inaudible Tidewater drawl.
I found his comment electrifying because a respected artist and teacher was referring to my most shameful vice lightly, and as if it were the most recent gossip. Even more extraordinary, he was suggesting that Caesar (the boring author of The Gallic Wars which I’d had to translate in class) had an off-colour reputation that was being kept alive by the Romans of today. Europe, it seemed, was a place where homosexuality was joked about and rumours were passed down from one millennium to the next.
When I was sixteen I met a New Yorker in his thirties who was visiting Chicago. I understood that the man was married and therefore wouldn’t be attracted to me, but a local queen I knew said, ‘My dear, in New York they’re very European.’
‘In what way?’
‘They’re more bisexual. He might prefer women but on a cold night in a strange city he might bed a boy.’
I added bisexuality to my profile of ‘the Europeans’. The same queen told me that Europeans insisted on anal intercourse. ‘Oh yes, my pet, we’re all suck queens but they don’t think that’s even real sex. They go all the way – they’re brownie queens.’ Of course I knew that American gays could be versatile sexually, but this information suggested that Europeans had hierarchized sex acts. They thought we were childish with our oral fixations, which my shrink had warned me about. Anal sex wasn’t designed for five dirty minutes in the dark, which was usually all we had to work with; rather, it required a bed, careful positioning, hygienic foresight, a lubricant – above all it required privacy and time. It was more committed, more grown-up, and it represented a more total surrender for the passive partner.
The dream of Europe for an American gay in the Fifties was not only about our continental counterparts; it was also about the entire bric-a-brac of society. Most of us were anglophiles, read everything about the Queen’s coronation, admired Auden and Britten; one of my friends bought his hat at Lock’s and had his initials stamped in gold on the sweatband. Cologne from Penhaligon’s, tea from Fortnum and Mason, shirts from Turnbull and Asser…
In the late 1960s, I would stay in London with a friend of mine, just a few years older, who came to represent for me gay London – and more profoundly the English middle class. John acted in musicals and plays but mostly earned his living by giving acting lessons. He was thoroughly imbued with the pantomime/musical hall tradition and took me to see two elderly drag artists who impersonated two elderly sharp-tongued cockney women. John knew and revered Noel Coward with a deference unfamiliar to Americans of my generation.
He was a socialist and a republican; the depth of his hatred for the lazy, ugly, bloodsucking royals shocked me out of my anglophile fantasies. The mere mention of the Queen or Princess Margaret would elicit from him an angry snarl and a murderous mutter. He longed for a redistribution of wealth and took pride in the National Health Service. Once when we visited a friend of his who’d just inherited a fortune and bought a grand house in Mayfair, John said, as soon as we were back on the street, ‘It’s criminal for people to live like that.’ He thoroughly approved of another friend who became a successful movie star but didn’t change friends, pub or basement flat. Whereas we Americans admired success and smiled over a rags to riches story, John had more nuanced reactions. He followed politics carefully and read several papers a day.
He lived in a spacious flat for which he paid a curiously low rent on Marylebone High Street (he had to teach me how to say it, ‘Marl-bun,’ with the correct accent). Like Nancy Mitford he insisted on ‘curtains’ not ‘drapes’, ‘rugs’ not ‘carpets’, ‘writing paper’ not ‘stationery’. The flat itself was unheated. Astonishingly, he provided me with a hot-water bottle for my bed at night and we’d hurl ourselves into the kitchen as soon as we arose; it was the only warm room. At teatime he insisted we drink our tea before the ineffective fire in the vast, arctic sitting room. It was a necessary ritual. In America we had no such rituals.
He was resourceful in making his minuscule earnings go far though he had not an iota of ambition to earn more, if more work meant losing one hour of his precious free time. He introduced me to Bovril and Marmite. He’d prepare cauliflower cheese for lunch, bangers and beans for supper, though as often as not I’d invite him to a fancy new restaurant (I remember one run by a glamorous sex change who’d married a lord, another owned by John Schlesinger). In an expensive Italian restaurant I became so drunk I got up and danced a Highland fling all alone and knocked over the dessert trolley. I no longer drink.
If John was expert at paring cheese, he spared himself no pleasure. He was always finding cheap flights to the Greek islands or to New York, where he’d stay with me or a theatrical agent he knew. Sometimes the agent would ask all of John’s New York friends to chip in to buy him an airplane ticket. In London he attended almost every play and musical, buying cheap balcony seats or getting complimentary tickets through his acting school or from friends in the production. He knew every bus and tube route and would never let me hail a taxi.
He had a mentality born of deprivation and rationing. If I bought him a tea or brought home groceries or just offered him a cigarette, he was punctilious about thanking me for the lovely treat. Whereas in America we thought nothing of raiding a friend’s fridge, in England I quickly learned to respect John’s calibrated meal planning. He made an orange drink from powder, he washed out tomato tins and used the tinted water for cooking something else. Even though I could vaguely remember wartime rationing in the States, for the first time I realized how wasteful we were back home, how thoughtless. Whereas we always left the light blazing and the central heat roaring when we went out in America, John would have resented even the extravagance of a pilot light if his Aga had had one. He was stoic about heat or cold, damp or discomfort, and never ever mentioned them.
In those years we saw Margaret Leighton in an ephemeral comedy about an English family who installed central heating, which caused their house plants to grow rampant with tropical exuberance and finally choke off every room. The only good moment came when the son’s beloved, whose gender is indeterminate, asks Margaret Leighton if she has ‘a little man’ to make her lovely clothes. ‘Yes, tiny…’ Leighton said with icy nastiness. I found the whole play bewildering.
Whereas New York in the Sixties had almost no gay bars, since Mayor Wagner had closed them all in an effort to clean up the city for the World’s Fair, London had dozens and dozens – everything from old-fashioned East End pubs full of working men and smoke to candlelit gay restaurants and bars on the King’s Road, from leather bars (which seemed genuinely menacing back then) in Earl’s Court to a suit-and-tie afterwork bar upstairs off Leicester Square. Everything in London – the licensing laws, the variable bus fares, the freeholds and the ninety-nine-year leases, the guineas and half-crowns and florins and shillings – seemed unnecessarily complicated, the silt of centuries, but with John at my side I could steer my way through these traps.
John didn’t read much beyond newspapers and he didn’t own a television. He lived for activities, a disposition that seemed unusual and exhilarating to me, sedentary and bookish as I was. He would make me tour Chiswick House and Hogarth’s House, race through the National Portrait Gallery or the Tower of London, take tea on the roof of Biba’s, complete with ponds and swans – and cruise Hampstead Heath at night. In warm weather we’d take the last tube out to Hampstead, walk up the long hill to the Heath and work our way down through forests and clearings, our prey on a cloudy night visible only by the pulsing of a cigarette or the glint off glasses or the shockingly near clearing of a throat. I remember picking up an Oxford boy and bringing him back to John’s flat. We had to walk miles and miles to get home. In the morning, when I asked him if he wanted a ‘scohn’ (to rhyme with ‘own’), he said in a languid drawl, ‘I can’t bear the thought I might know someone who’d fail to say “scon”.’ When I told another English friend that my mother always stayed in New York at the ‘War-wick’ Hotel, he whispered, ‘You say that? I feel we’re living in different worlds.’
In those days the image of Americans held by the English resembled the ones white Americans held about blacks – good in bed, good dancers, violent, lazy. We did seem to be less inhibited, to feel more at ease in our bodies. American gays, at least New Yorkers, were already beginning to work out. John, who was an adept of the Alexander Technique, thought that bodybuilding led to a grotesque distortion of the muscles, a way of creating top-heavy Michelin men. Each time he saw me I was a bit bigger and more muscled. ‘All that’s going to run to fat,’ he’d hiss – correctly, as it turned out.
John had been in the air force and studied Russian in the services. He hadn’t been to university but he’d studied every aspect of Russian language and culture to prepare him for a job in intelligence. I suspect he hadn’t gone on because his officers had discovered he was ‘queer’. (He didn’t like the word ‘gay’, which for the English spoiled a perfectly good word, though Americans couldn’t make a similar objection, since we never used ‘gay’ to mean ‘merry’.)
He spoke a very posh English which, as a socialist, he refused to associate with the middle class. ‘It’s standard English, my dear,’ he’d say, closing his eyes as if to indicate the discussion was over. ‘I feel sorry for you people from the colonies with your bizarre mispronunciations – why, you pronounce Mary, merry and marry all the same way. No wonder you’re so confused.’
He would fly into a rage at the very thought of American naturalistic acting of the Actors Studio variety and even wrote a book-length polemic against it, never published. ‘Why, those slovenly fools can’t walk or talk, they don’t know how to fence or manage a train or even sit simply and gracefully. The Alexander Technique teaches us to say no to our bad habits – what you’d wrongly call instincts – and to rethink vocal production and the entire head-neck-spine relationship.’
He tried to ‘sort out’ my neck which over the years, as he predicted, has become arthritic and nearly paralysed. But the Alexander Technique, which requires months and months of one-on-one sessions and works only through tiny gradations, seemed quite alien to American rhythms. We believe in sudden conversions, weekend marathons, instant enlightenment. The notion of a technique that is built on small negations rather than one great affirmation made no sense to me as an American.
From his military background John retained a neat moustache, a dignified bearing, a lonely, slightly bleak independence. He was tidy, energetic, red-haired. If he was almost hypermasculine in repose, he’d wilfully added an overlay of high camp. He and I constantly spoke of every man in the feminine – in fact we never used a male pronoun or possessive from one day to the next. Everyone was titled ‘Miss’ (as in ‘Miss Thing’ or ‘Miss Postman’) – at the seaside we even once referred to ‘Miss Wave’. We systematically suspected every man, no matter how podgy or uxorious, of being a flaming homosexual. We invented a fantasy in which I was a wayward young American heiress who’d been sent to London for John’s instructions in deportment and elocution. He was always promising to turn me into a real lady. We exchanged dozens of letters in which we encoded all of our real experiences into this extravagant and fairly tiresome form of camp. Since it required constant translation of one thing into another even such a mechanical exercise kept us permanently self-amused.
In the Sixties gender substitution and archness were passé in gay America except in small towns and among older queens. I’d known a dim, provincial version of camp in Cincinnati in the 1950s. But for John who knew Noel Coward and had lived in a theatre milieu for most of his life, it was a living tradition. I suppose his ultimate point of reference was Lady Bracknell. Like her he pronounced ‘girls’ as ‘gells’; I was one of his ‘gells’.
With me he couldn’t stop camping. It was sometimes a relief to run into one of his students or a literary friend of mine. Then he’d revert to his clipped military politeness, though when the others weren’t looking he’d arch an eyebrow or purse his lips or bug his eyes for my benefit. I wasn’t sure which tone was his real one and which the put-on.
American gays with their muscles, facial hair and lumberjack masculinity repelled and alienated John, who for me represented the last link to a gay past that always had one foot (a very light, well turned foot) in fantasy, that remained closeted out of necessity but took its revenge on dull normals by transforming all the men into women and all the women into enemies. His disapproval of the American butch style didn’t keep him from being attracted to individual clones. But he was always quick to say, ‘The minute I got that big man in bed he started whimpering like a little girl.’
He was also very romantic in a melodramatic way which struck me as vaguely ‘period’. He told me that in the early Sixties he’d had a lover named Nigel for several years. They’d been on tour in Scotland in a big musical. On their day off John was driving them along the coast in a hired car. Nigel said, ‘I’m leaving you, John. I’ve found someone else.’
John, in true staccato Coward fashion, said, ‘Very well,’ rolling the r, turned the wheel and drove them both over the cliff. They survived but were in hospital for months.
As John and I grew older I retired from the bar scene but John, still slim and handsome, went out cruising four nights a week, always looking for love. I imagine he was a very good lover – faithful, generous, devoted – if always slightly disapproving and nannyish.
American gays came to self-acceptance later than the English, and when it arrived we were already committed to the butch clone style, which excluded any excess of affection. John, however, had grown up on sentimental English wartime movies, on Shakespearean heroics and blockbuster musicals – three totally disparate forms that nonetheless shared a belief in exalted passion.
In London and especially in the theatre world, gay couples had lived out their loves discreetly and romantically since before the First World War. All the Bloomsbury biographies and memoirs, for instance, attest to how well-integrated gay men were in straight literary circles: Forster, Keynes, Strachey – the whole buggery crowd in Virginia Woolf’s generation. There was nothing comparable in New York. That some English gays had a niche and a style made them less susceptible, at least at first, to American machismo. In the same way the sceptical, combative style of English intellectuals (‘What utter rubbish!’) and the enduring English fear of sounding pretentious made them suspicious of American and French academic fads – or of all but feminism.
When I was nine in 1949 I accompanied my father to New York for the first time. He liked Asti’s, a Greenwich Village restaurant where the waiters sang opera arias and where famous singers dined. I introduced myself to the bass Jerome Hines, and we ended sitting in his box the next night to hear him sing the role of the High Priest in The Magic Flute. We also befriended an English soldier who was eating alone at the next table.
I’d read Oscar Wilde and I assumed that because the soldier was English (my first!) he too must speak in constant quips and deliver polished epigrams. With my dull father and stepmother he sounded as tepid as they, but I felt that if I could recall one of Wilde’s remarks he’d light up with recognition and deliver his own cascade of witticisms.
At last I got up my courage, interrupted my father, and said to the soldier, ‘I know a widow who just buried her husband and her hair has gone quite gold with grief.’ My father looked embarrassed at his sissy son’s outburst. My stepmother knew perfectly well I’d never met a widow in my life.
The soldier looked genuinely repulsed. He winced with disgust and turned his attention to his chop.
I blushed bright red. I’d made an effort to communicate with my first European in a language – sophisticated and paradoxical – that I felt sure he would understand and appreciate, but he didn’t get it. He’d been sickened by my effeminacy and crazy interjection. Here was this other continent – wise and humane and devoted to virtuoso conversation – to which I was beaming a signal, but the message hadn’t been picked up.
Now I realize that ‘Europe’ isn’t a thing at all except in the eyes of Americans and certain Japanese, that it has no unified culture or shared interests except for the optimistic architects of the European Union, and that nothing at all will ever join Swedish technocrats to Muslim farmers in former Yugoslavia. Now I know that there are as many racists and dunderheads and violent criminals in Hungary or Germany, in Spain or in Greece as there are in the United States. Now when I contemplate the boy I once was mouthing an Oscar Wilde phrase to a crop-haired English major from Liverpool and counting on a sympathetic vibration bouncing back my way, I can only smile at my illusions. Perhaps Europe is nothing but an outdated American fantasy, a place that is tolerant but not lacklustre, scintillating but never cruel.
Photograph © Tim@SW2008