Mae West is reputed to have said, “Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.” While Leo Lerman never published his journals and diaries in his lifetime, it has enough naughty gossip, hidden history and sheer human insight to find itself on the bestseller list for a while.
Mae West herself doesn’t show up in the book, though several drag versions of both Mae and Marlene Dietrich to name a few do turn up in passages about gay speakeasies in the 1930s. And of course, the real Marlene Dietrich is everywhere in The Grand Surprise, along with Maria Callas, Truman Capote, Cary Grant, Philip Johnson, Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker, Henry Kissinger, Jackie Onassis… well just about every major figure in art, music, film, theater, fashion, politics and literature in the 20th Century.
The press has already started to feed on the revelations about the bisexual affairs of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. And while the book is chock full of the guilty pleasure of this kind of gossip, the book is a revelation deeper and more moving for those who are willing to read it from start to finish instead of browsing the index for celebrity names.
Stephen Pascal, who worked for Lerman for 12 years as his assistant, has edited the 50 years worth of journals into a coherent story. And he knows that many people will be tempted to simply browse, or compulsively browse. Over dinner and a bottle of fine Bordeaux last week we talked about Leo’s story, and the story of his editing the journals.
AQJB: I have to admit, I haven’t been able to avoid browsing the index looking for names. There are just so many, and so many juicy tidbits. And it’s a long book, over 600 pages. What will people miss if they just browse for these stories?
SP: They’ll miss some of the most important stories as they develop over time — starting with the Leo’s life story, and the story of his 47-year relationship with his lover Gray Foy. As well as his relationships with those “sacred monsters” Dietrich, Callas, Capote and others he knew intimately from the start of their careers all the way to the end.
His journals tell their stories with the immediacy of one who was there, the insight of someone who could see what was really happening, with all the bitchiness and compassion of a true friend. So you feel all their, and Leo’s, full humanity.
And Leo’s story itself is a particularly American story — the child of immigrants who worked hard, he moved to the very center of American society, and helped shape taste and culture for four decades.
AQJB: Let’s talk for a bit about his relationship with Gray Foy. This is a journal that tells the story of a loving relationship between two men that lasted almost 50 years. That lasted through major changes in the lives of gay men in America. First, how have people, readers and reviewers, responded to this story? Have you noticed a difference in the way the gay press or gay readers have responded from the mainstream media?
SP: Well, one thing gay men have been responding to has been the depiction of this relationship. — Gay readers have told me how moved they are to see such an intimate relationship develop over time. There are so few examples of this in fiction or in other journals. One reviewer in the mainstream media (whose gender preference I certainly don’t know) referred to the writing about this relationship as the “mushy" and uninteresting parts, but for gay men, who rarely have their relationships reflected back this way, well, it stirs up a lot of emotions.
The mainstream reviewers, so far, remember the book has been out about a week, but for the most part they’ve not really made a big deal about the gay relationships It’s just been acknowledged without smirks or insinuations.
But let’s face it, the mainstream reviewers, given a choice between writing about Marlene Dietrich’s affairs, or Maria Callas — or writing about Leo’s relationship with his lover, they’re going to focus on the gossip because it’s what interests people and what will get the reviews read. Really, Leo’s relationship with Gray was like any conventional marriage, except for the gender of the parties involved.
AQJB: Early in the book, Leo tells of his coming out experiences, going to speakeasies, back rooms and drag bars. I was stunned to read of a back room bar on West 72nd Street in the early 1930’s — and then of course I remembered the old chestnut that every generation believes it invented sex, and I guess I’m just as guilty of that as anyone. But I have to say that Leo didn’t seem to suffer the oppression that we associate with being gay, or for that matter, Jewish, in the early 20th Century. How did he manage to succeed and rise to the rarefied circles he did?
SP: As someone who must have been excluded from many places for being gay or Jewish, he very rarely writes about it. Really the circles he chose to move in, publishing, theater, art, were some of the more open places to be. And while his background made him an outsider, he lived his life pretending to be the consummate insider that in fact he became.
AQJB: Wasn’t there an incident in the 40's at the writer’s colony at Yaddo where he came up against homophobia?
SP: Well, he was certainly hurt an anti-gay comment made by the director of Yaddo, Elizabeth Ames, and it shook him up. Despite his membership in this elite young artistic circle (Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Marguerite Young were also there at the time), it reminded him of his precarious position in society and made him so uncomfortable he considered leaving early.
AQJB So everyone knew he was gay, he was out, whatever that means for the time.
SP: Well he chose not to hide, even though it wasn’t something he talked about unless you were a close friend. I mean, he was such a dandy that if someone thought him gay it would hardly have been a leap. And he lived openly with his lover, inviting everyone to their home. Yet few spoke with him about his relationship; it was a simple fact that was unmentioned.
AQJB: Sort of the way some reviewers in the mainstream media have dealt with it.
SP: Except for the fact that some gossip columnists have been running with some of the information about “stars.” That’s what sells papers you know.
AQJB: I loved that Yul Brynner had an affair with Hurd Hatfield and Marlene Dietrich. I guess that when she sang “See what the boys in the back room will have, and tell them I’m having the same,” she was not unaware of the double meaning we’ve always laughed about...(continued)
SP: This goes back to the question about being out. Categories weren’t always as hard-fixed then, and certainly not in theater circles. Sex is a spectrum, which is why Kinsey’s scale goes from 1 to 6.
Leo writes about many men who had gay relationships, but where they really fall on the spectrum — who knows? Today, we may be more locked into roles or identities than people were then. But also people hid by marrying, so it’s hard to say. It is certainly true that Leo observed and wrote about men across the full spectrum. And Leo lived to see the gay rights movement and the controversy over outing.
I remember when he was reading Arthur Bell’s “Dancing the Gay Lib Blues,” and he was feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t done anything to advance the cause. At the same time, he felt that living his life openly in full view of all was in fact his way of advancing gay liberation.
AQJB: But in full view of who?
SP: Certainly everyone who was in his world, and that was everyone who was anyone.
AQJB: At the same time, I was struck by how Leo seemed to be hiding in plain sight. I don’t mean about being gay necessarily — there was one passage in particular where he was talked about his attempt to write a novel, and about his fear of being known or seen, that moved me:
“This is a first-person-singular book. Yet I have always distrusted “I” as a beginning, preferring this “I” to be tucked away, to be slipped in unobtrusively. Feeling about it much the way I do about exposing the title side of any book I carry. To do that seems to me to be advertising oneself, to be showing off, to be revealing one’s secret name, as with those “savages” about whom I read long ago, those South American savages who don’t tell their true names, I feel superstitiously….”
I was thinking about this in terms of gay men, internalized homophobia (not to mention internalized anti-Semitism) and the fear of revealing oneself, or showing one’s emotions. Yet clearly in his journals and his letters to Gray, he held nothing back.
SP: Well, what eluded Leo in fiction was taking on another voice and feeling it was authentic, that he could trust it. His most authentic voice was his own, as an observer of himself and others. And in his journal, readers have the pleasure of this voice guiding them through a world that is almost entirely vanished.
AQJB: Speaking of holding nothing back, you worked closely with Leo’s companion, Gray Foy, relying on him to fill in background information in situations that were unclear. He read the journals, and the manuscript, and there were certainly times that Leo did not write kindly about Gray. Nevertheless, Gray didn’t censor any of this. Why do you think that is?
SP: It is simply an act of amazing generosity on the part of Gray. The memoir shows their relationship with all its warts, with all Leo’s complaints. Of course we only hear his side. And yet what we are left with is the story of a 47-year relationship between two people who accepted each other’s imperfections, sometimes stormily, sometimes with grace, always with love.
In allowing imperfections to be shown, Gray shares their great love with us. And shows us the hard work of relationship. Though certainly besides the many things that kept them together, their shared interest in ballet or Czarist Russia for example, a major part of it was their shared sense of humor. They knew how to laugh at themselves, their friends and each other.
AQJB: He was one of the first people to read E.M. Forster’s Maurice, in galleyform. And although it was written before he was born, he felt very connected to it.
SP: Well one of the things about Leo was his deep feeling for the world of the 19th Century. It was one of the things he shared with Gray. Reading Maurice was a kind of an experience of vertigo for him — he could look around at the new world of gay liberation, and ask how any of these young men would understand the level of intensity of the feelings in the book because of the level of repression. He wasn’t sure that anyone could comprehend it.
AQJB: At the same time, I was moved by something he wrote about gay relationships as portrayed in fiction:
“Why doesn’t anyone write about [our] kind of relationship — the good, sound, long-lived relations. What’s written about are the one-night stands, the broken homes after two years playing the field, the unattractive sex arrangements.”
So clearly he longed for this kind of representation.
SP: And actually he gave it to us with his journals. He portrays it all, actually, since we see not only his long-lived relationship, but also the relationships of many others around him— all their one-night stands, wild passions and long term relationships.
AQJB: James Wolcott said that The Grand Surprise is the book Truman Capote really wanted to write — it is what Answered Prayers was supposed to be. With all the money, power and sex of a Jacqueline Susann novel, only it’s all true.
SP: Well, I hope it finds as large an audience as Valley of the Dolls did.