John Rechy’s City of Night remains, almost 50 years later, the essential novel of the neon-drowned world of rough-trade hustlers, 24-7 drag queens, and the gentlemen who crave them.
Dec 1 2010, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY STEVE LAFRENIERE
PORTRAITS BY TERRY RICHARDSON
n 1963 Barney Rosset’s Grove Press hit the publishing world with yet another groundbreaker. John Rechy’s City of Night remains, almost 50 years later, the essential novel of the neon-drowned world of rough-trade hustlers, 24-7 drag queens, and the gentlemen who crave them. As Naked Lunch is to lit hipsters, City of Night is to successive generations of young fags and dykes bored with Andrew Holleran. In the book, an unnamed narrator—based on Rechy, himself a male prostitute—wanders deliriously from El Paso to Manhattan to Hollywood, tricking with a page-turning succession of kinky customers, before a final harrowing meltdown in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. More than the sum of its people and scenes, City of Night is one of the most powerful books ever written on the themes of narcissism and loneliness. Gus Van Sant pretty much based My Own Private Idaho on it, and it’s what that closet queen Jim Morrison is referencing when he repeatedly snarls the book’s title in “LA Woman.”
Rechy went on to author more than a dozen more books, while for some years continuing his other career as a street hustler. From that era, Numbers and The Sexual Outlaw are equally fearless takes on lust and obsession. More recently, his novels have begun to examine some of these same subjects through a hetero lens. One of them, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, is an excellent picaresque based loosely on Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones. Its sex scenes rival those of City of Night, but its heart is somewhere altogether further along the road.
Rechy insisted on being interviewed in person. I generally prefer a taped phone conversation, but I wanted to meet him. Thus I found myself ringing his doorbell somewhere above the Hollywood sign on a hot, dry November afternoon.
Vice: Let’s start with, of course, City of Night. I never quite understood what your background as a writer was before this book. You worked for a newspaper, right?
John Rechy: As a kid. I mean, as a teenager.
And this was in Texas?
Yes. I got a $50 journalism scholarship to go to Texas Western College, and part of it was that I could get a job as a copy boy for the local paper, so I did. I was a copy boy. I think I got $15 a week or something like that, and that was the extent of it. But I did learn a lot.
When you’re a copy boy, you’re really working with everybody else’s writing. When did you start to write yourself? Did you take any classes, or are you self-taught?
I took classes much later, but I was writing when I was a little kid. I mean, very, very, very young. At eight years old I was doing stories, and I also drew. I loved drawing. With the writing, believe it or not, my first novel was about Marie Antoinette. [laughs]
How old were you when you wrote that?
I started it about age 11. I was living in the poor section of El Paso, and yet I was writing about Marie Antoinette. I did research, I mean pages and pages of it, and then I wrote something like 500 pages of Time on Wings, which was the Marie Antoinette novel.
That was the title of it?
Yeah. Unfortunately, I destroyed that along with my other early stuff. When I came back from the army, I just wanted to start over and I destroyed all those things. It’s just terrible.
It would be nice to see your juvenilia. City of Night started out as a—
A letter, and then it expanded into a short story and it was published in a magazine. Can you talk about that development?
I’d fled to El Paso, where my mother lived, and I couldn’t sleep, and that was where I wrote the letter that ended up beginning City of Night. It was my salvation, really.
And did you hear back from the person you sent this letter to?
No. I hadn’t sent it. I thought I had, but I hadn’t.
And you read it later.
I read it later and thought, “It sounds like a story.”
Wow, and you hadn’t actually written anything at that level yet.
No, I hadn’t. And so I sent it to Evergreen Review, and I sent it to New Directions, and both of them wanted it, and Don Allen at Grove asked me if it was perhaps part of a novel. I said, “Yes.”
So you were just getting letters back in El Paso from all these big New York people?
That’s amazing, isn’t it? What section was it?
It’s a section called “Mardi Gras.”
The ending of the book.
Yeah, but it was rewritten for the novel. It actually still seems to be the letter, and you can tell that it’s addressed to someone. The fact that Don, who was the editor at Grove Press, suggested it was part of a book was the catalyst. That’s how I got an advance.
So when he asked you that, had it never occurred to you that it might be part of a novel that you could write?
No, it hadn’t.
What bravado it took for you to say that.
I had never, never intended to write about that world. Never.
Well, you did, and it was not written quite like anything else at that time, obviously. It is a highly original book, especially within the nascent world of gay literature of that era. I mean, it does not read like The City and the Pillar at all. What kind of larger literary zeitgeist was going on that made you want to write in that almost generational way of speaking? Were you into Kerouac at all?
I don’t want to be ungrateful, but no. Kerouac I didn’t read until much, much later. But I admire him a great deal.
But you can see why I ask that. City of Night, in much of its language, is very “Beat.”
Oh sure, absolutely. I’m often grouped with the so-called Beat writers. But I wasn’t around them, no. I met Allen Ginsberg later, but that’s something else.
So did you just invent this way of writing and speaking?
No. [laughs] One of the main stylistic influences on me is Winnie-the-Pooh.
[laughs] That’s a pull-quote.
That’s the truth. It really is.
Is it the absurdity of it that inspired you?
Not exactly. There’s a stylistic thing in Winnie- the-Pooh of using capital letters very oddly to emphasize a word, and I thought, “Geez, that’s really great,” and so I used that. And then also John Dos Passos influenced me very much. I read a whole lot when I was a young teenager.
Were you writing against anybody? Were you rebelling against anything? I mean, the character is a hustler, but he’s also sort of a JD. Were you a writer-rebel?
I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t, and the reason I say that is because it would be so terrific to say, “Yes, I was.” But without Don Allen’s encouragement, I don’t think I could’ve gone on to write the book. After the Mardi Gras chapter, I wrote a chapter about the drag queen, Miss Destiny, which became pretty famous. I didn’t realize it, but it really became quite famous. I thought I’d never go anywhere with it. Like Evergreen Review—Barney Rosset turned it down for that.
Really? Was it that the subject matter was too out there?
No, because Grove Press was doing all kinds of things. But anyhow, Don Allen was annoyed that Barney had done that, so he said, “Rewrite it and do this and that.” So I rewrote it and then I sent it out and Barney rejected it again.
One thing that I find fascinating about this book—and a lot of other people do, too—is the depiction of sex in it. Back when it came out in 1963, the only gay sex in books was in those little paperbacks at porn stores. But the writing in those was so perfumed and silly. City of Night came along, and it set the template, even to this day, of writing about sex between men. There’s this quality to it that describes exactly, especially, that kind of interchange, what that kind of dirty hustler sex is like. And, I mean, you were hustling in real life. Were you just writing what it seemed like to you?
I was writing what I was remembering. When the Miss Destiny chapter didn’t get accepted, I was in Los Angeles, and I got romantically moved and sad and went up on the roof of this four-story building on Hope Street and I started smoking some grass, and then the bells of a nearby church started to [imitates a bell tolling], and damn it, I went downstairs, and I broke away from what I remembered happened and started imagining, instead, what should have happened. What the story had needed was a kind of poetry, and that was what those bells suggested.
That’s when you were pulled from memoir into fiction, maybe.
I rewrote that story, and it appeared in Big Table and aroused Norman Mailer, James Baldwin—who wrote me—Ken Kesey, all of them. So that was really good.
It’s sort of like it had to become a little more cinematic and romantic to encapsulate what was really happening. And I’ll tell you: When I first read City of Night, that was the quality that grabbed me in 1971. I was 18, and this almost punk feeling of in-your-face that novel has, and how real it feels, really grabbed me. It was set within this perfectly romantic, but not overly romantic, world. Like a really good 50s JD romance.
But it is romantic. It is.
One of the things that stunned me was that it became such a shocker. First of all, there is not one sex scene. I mean, there is the end of one at the end of the book, but there are no graphic sex scenes. And then when that book finally developed and came out, I thought I would be praised as a writer, but I didn’t think it would sell. The opposite happened.
It was one of the best sellers at Grove. And it still is a pleasurable item. I know 20-year-old guys who love it.
I still get letters about it, and there are a lot from young people.
You’ve got to read it if you’re a young, hip gay guy in the city, especially.
Some young people write and say it opened the world for them again, so I think it’s still contemporary.
Well, I’m going to tell you something that I wasn’t sure I would, but now that we’re sitting here and I’ve had half a glass of wine… A year after I read City of Night, I became a hustler in Denver, Colorado.
All right. [laughs]
For ten months I was a street hustler, in Denver in 1972, in the Capitol Loop, around the Capitol Building. They called it Fruit Loop or Sodomy Circle.
Oh my God.
They’d drive around, pick you up, and it was amazing. Drag queens on the street… the downtown section of Denver was seedy but really fun. I had a wonderful time. I don’t regret it at all. Another book that comes to mind when I think of that time is Last Exit to Brooklyn, which came out a year later. What did you think of Hubert Selby’s book?
It’s great. It’s a great novel and he’s a great writer, but he had a problem with me: nasty, nasty, nasty. I was sent galleys to blurb, and I was bowled over by that book. It was so brilliant, and I gave a blurb and they were going to use it, and fucking Selby said no. He didn’t want a blurb from me. It turned out that he had been very angry because City of Night had come out first. He didn’t want my endorsement, so fuck it. But then, years later, he was having a really bad time of it, and I was teaching at USC and I got the director to hire him there. So he taught at USC, and the students loved him. He didn’t believe in grading and all that, and I don’t either. I give everybody A’s. They have too much to cope with in life without having to cope with a fucking bad grade. But apparently he gave all his students C’s, which of course is failing in graduate school.
[laughs] Then he was told he had to reconsider.
He only wrote a few other things, and they weren’t known.
But they were wonderful.
Anyway, I was just curious if there was some kind of connection. I only have a couple more questions about City of Night. Miss Destiny’s the best-known drag queen in postwar literature, I think. Whatever happened to her? She was a real queen that you knew, right?
Yeah. Look, she was Miss Destiny. She had the name Miss Destiny.
And that’s what attracted me to her. She was not, however, glamorous, the way I had to paint her. I wanted her to assume a grandeur within the milieu so that she merged with the ragged grandeur, as it was. There’s the story that I did put in City of Night, when we were sitting there with other hustlers and queens in this draggy bar on Main Street, and Miss Destiny was getting very nervous because the other queens were being solicited and she was getting left behind. She turned angry at all of us who were sitting there. And I sat next to her, and she said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with these people. I’m out of place.” She had gone to college and had read Shakespeare. I was drunk and, apparently, so was she. And we’d been smoking. I said to her, “Don’t tell anybody, but me too.” I told her the story of Desdemona in drag terms. Desdemona was a way-out queen, and then there was her stud black husband. Miss Destiny was stunned, and then that’s when she poured out to me that she longed for a wedding. I embellished that a bit in the book, but the bare story was wonderful, I mean, the sadness of it...
It’s very authentic.
Subsequently, she gave an interview—the real Miss Destiny gave an interview to a magazine. I just loved this. They put her on the cover. She said, “Oh, yes, I remember. He was kind of cute, and I did him for trade.” [laughs] I didn’t mind it. She contacted me years later. She would call me. I don’t know how she got my phone number—it wasn’t listed.
Oh, drag queens have their way of getting phone numbers at 3 AM. What would she do, call up and say, “Remember me?”
No. It was so sad. She would call up and she’d say, “Oh, John? My new husband is here, and he doesn’t believe that I am Miss Destiny. Can I put him on the phone?” And then I would say, “Oh, yes, yes. That is Miss Destiny.” And I even attributed to her some of the things that I had put in. She absorbed them. She became the character. She became the Miss Destiny that I wrote about.
I wondered about that. There was a queen I knew in Chicago 20 years ago, this young, really funny drag queen who named herself Miss Destiny after that character.
Yeah. But she wasn’t like Miss Destiny. She just liked the character. So, Gus Van Sant has mentioned over the years how much he likes City of Night.
He’s a wonderful director, wonderful.
My Own Private Idaho of course owes a heavy debt to City of Night.
He even plucked out one of the best lines: “Once you stop going for money, you start growing wings.” It was fun. [laughs]
Are you interested in porn as a subject?
Not overwhelmingly. I’m very interested in porn as far as how mysterious it is, how brutal it is, and how exciting it is. I see it very much in terms of the kind of hustling that I did on the street. It’s very similar to it, except now it’s on the internet.
I empathize so much with some of these kids who think they’re going to be big stars, and they’re not. I was thinking of writing a collection of these stories about hurt.
Like about people who’ve been tossed away once they’ve been used?
Exactly. There’s one I saw, with this one kid who performs and this disembodied voice of a director. It’s in a tacky room. It just got to me. This kid—slender kid, young, butch haircut, baby-face marine—after he was through, oh, God, it just broke my heart. He asked the director, “Well, do you think that I’ll make it in porn?” and then this voice, with no emotion or anything, says to him, “Oh, I don’t know. There are a lot of models out there. You’ve got to be really outstanding to get into it.” And, oh God, oh God, what horror! But the kid persists and says, “But do you think I could make it? I’d like to do that again, and I hope people like me.” And this man says, “We’ll find out.” So you see this kid, who for a moment was exalted and being loved—you see him shrinking. This kid was trying so hard to be sexual, to be desired, and boy, could I relate to it. Then he puts on his clothes—and this, to me, was the awful epiphany of the whole thing. He puts on his clothes, and now he is an ordinary kid. Loose, baggy pants and shirt. He’s an ordinary kid, going to school or the beach or whatever.
I know exactly what you mean, and it’s probably why I got out of hustling after ten months. I never made porno movies, but it’s the same kind of thing. But just switching gears here: You speak out pretty vociferously about the whole subject of the ghettoization of minority writers in bookstores, where there’s black lit, women’s lit, gay lit, and so on. But what about at the other end, in the 50s and 60s, when there weren’t any gay books in the bookstores at all? How hard was it to get City of Night or Numbers into a store in the beginning?
There were problems. I seem to remember it was in New Orleans that bookstores returned their copies, because they didn’t want to sell them. City of Night was seized at the border of Australia. It could not be brought in, and then Canada could not bring it in. And Numbers, in England, when it was known that a company was going to publish it, a group called the Festival of Light got up a lot of money and threatened the publishers. This was ready to go to court.
Oh, they were Christians?
Of course. The publication was held up, and then they redid the book so that it looked like a textbook.
Now, this was about ’67 when Numbers came out?
I think so.
Yeah, right around there. The Summer of Love.
And it’s only now that I’m getting published, for example, in Spain. Spain withdrew from an international competition when City of Night was being considered for the Prix Formentor. They wouldn’t participate. And now my books are getting published in Spain.
Spain is pretty much the cutting edge of gay culture right now. It’s like, if you push something down that much, it’s going to pop up so much more eventually. Once you were a writer, you didn’t stop hustling. This is one of the most interesting things about your career.
Yes, I continued hustling. I was fond of calling myself the oldest hustler in the world.
You were only 23 or so.
And I withheld my identity. I wouldn’t tell people who I was and if anybody said, “You’re that writer,” I’d say, “Hmm.”
It becomes a hall of mirrors at some point.
Once I got asked for an interview from an international magazine, and it was arranged that I would go to the journalist’s house. And he opens the door, and he’s a guy that I had just been with, had made it with. He said, “Well, I don’t have to ask you if your work is autobiographical.” [laughs]
“I can dispense with that question.” But you kept hustling for many years because this really was you. You weren’t just trying to be authentic. Did you always take money? Because the whole money thing was so interesting in the hustling world, I recall.
At first, it was always hustling, being gay. Then it branched off, wonderfully, because I became two people—multiplying the performances. And I was a good actor. I was very, very good. So the earlier part of the night I would go to hustling turfs and have money. Then the second part of the night I’d go to cruising turfs, and then it wasn’t money—it was attraction.
Hustling and cruising are two separate things, but I can say from my own experience that they became confused in a way.
Well, fortunately there were turfs.
Right, specific places for each activity.
There was an actual demarcation, and in the middle, at Santa Monica Boulevard, was a limbo area, which I loved because if a customer came by, fine, but if somebody who was attractive came by, that was good too.
And if you went to hustle early, you’d have your money in your pocket when you needed it.
Yeah, but I didn’t need the money. I needed the affirmation.
Let’s talk about that. Homosexual men, I think, are able to get affirmation more quickly than straight men. And all men need affirmation from other men. Now, being paid is also a very different sort of affirming, because then it’s concrete. Straight men don’t really have a version of this.
That’s one of the difficult parts about heterosexual relationships as I see them. I don’t want to generalize, but I think that women want the admiration and don’t provide it for the male.
You’ve called Numbers a “sexual horror story,” which is extremely apt, I think. Nothing I’ve ever read has come as close to the monstrosity that’s found at the edges of existence in that book. I mean, not even Heart of Darkness. Did you set out to write it that way, or do you even agree with what I’m saying?
I began with the title, and I wrote it in three months exactly, whereas City of Night took years. I wrote Numbers in the kind of frenzy that I wanted to put into the book. And, my God, just weeks ago I wrote a letter of protest to The Observer in England because they called Numbers a pornographic, mean-spirited book or some fucking thing like that. It is a very serious book—very, very serious, and it was really about being haunted by death. The man who’s cruising Johnny Rio all throughout the book, he becomes more and more attractive, and I wanted him to be Death. I don’t think anybody saw that.
Just for those who haven’t read Numbers, it’s a book where a young man decides—for no stated reason necessarily—that he’s going to have sex with 30 men in, what? A weekend? Or a week?
I forget. I did it in a day, but that was after Numbers.
And you thought, “Let’s see if I can do this”?
I wanted to compete with Johnny Rio, truly. Compete with my own character.
God’s truth. He does it in ten days, and it actually ended up being 37 men.
But that’s not really the theme of the book. That’s just the setup of the book.
But, see, look at the title. Numbers. Numbing, n-u-m-b. And then of course it’s also from the Bible, the collection, and then, in gay parlance, “He’s a number.” So, all those things come to play in that book. It could’ve been a better book. It’s very good, but it could’ve been better. Sometimes City of Night irritates me, too.
You mean it irritates you when you try to read it?
No, no. It irritates me because it seems to have taken up a life of its own, beyond me, and I feel competitive with it. City of Night is beloved—much more than I. [laughs]
Oh, my God. I think you’re a bit insatiable.
I mean, yeah. I competed with Johnny Rio, my own character.
Is it true that you wrote Numbers while driving across country in a Mustang and your mother was holding the writing pad?
Yes. That’s one of the memories that I cherish of my mother.
You were thinking up this book with your mom sitting there? Did she read English?
No. But she was told what I wrote.
But she didn’t know what you were writing right then.
Not at all. It was quite dramatic, quite dramatic. As we were leaving, in the rearview mirror I saw Los Angeles, and it was covered with smog, all dirty, and it was almost a biblical city, and I felt almost a biblical experience, and so, yes, I started it right there. With my dear mom with her pretty hat. It was wonderful. She held the pad, one of those lawyer pads, and I was steering. I was a very good driver. By the time we reached El Paso, the first few pages were written.
And they were the actual—the beginning of the book as it is? I mean, obviously—
Yes. I put it as “leaving Phoenix” while I was actually leaving Los Angeles.
A writer named Jonathan Kirsch wrote a piece about you in the Los Angeles Times, and he brought up something I think is essential to what you do—this almost otherworldly passion that your characters possess. You’re known for all this expression of raw sexuality, but it’s almost like that’s emanating through a need for the ecstatic. So many of your characters are fighting against the fact that their lives aren’t something more.
Most of my characters are looking for hope, which I think is an end within itself. I believe that the ability to hope is the mightiest goal. It keeps one going.
How long have you been with your boyfriend?
Michael and I have been together for 30 years. I was never looking for someone. I didn’t want anyone.
I believe you.
I told you about the section on Santa Monica Boulevard, where it was either hustling or cruising—that limbo. Michael came into that area, and I looked across the street and saw him. He was 22. He looked like an angel. He parked, and then there was a man who was about to pick me up for hustling. For the first time in my life, I walked across the street and left the man who would be paying me.
Seriously? It really worked like that? [laughs] I’ve believed everything you’ve said until now. It’s so romantic—too perfect!
Yeah, it was really that way, and he didn’t even know about sex, and he did look like an angel. I thought, “No hustling tonight,” and the man drove off angrily.
And then you went and talked to Michael?
Yes, and I was still performing street—though not hustling. I didn’t want him to just dash away. But I was still performing tough street, to the point where I told him that he could come over because I was watching a friend’s apartment. It was really my apartment, but it was very elegant, too elegant for the street.
I did that once when I was hustling. Oh, man.
And then he came over. It was wonderful from the beginning.
Thirty years ago. That’s fantastic.
I gave him my telephone number, which was also very rare, and the son of a bitch didn’t call for about ten days. And when he did call, I wanted to put him down: “Now, who are you?” It was nonsense, but I was still playing dumb, because I thought that that had been the attraction. Later on, we were in bed and I was still playing Dumbo, and then he said that he and his sister had gone to a terrible movie. I said, “Oh, what movie was it?” and he says, “Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.” Buñuel happens to be one of my favorite artists. I thought, “This little son of a bitch is saying that about Buñuel?” And then I dropped the pose and said, “You’re saying that about one of the great directors!” Michael is fond of saying, “I saw a different person then.” And I was. I marched him into my study, and I said, “I wrote all those books.” He said, “You wrote Numbers?”
Oh, my God. Let’s talk about The Fourth Angel. I think that’s one of the most interesting books you’ve written, but it isn’t very well known.
I’ll tell you, that book is about as autobiographical as anything I’ve ever done.
The Fourth Angel? Wow. Talk to me about it. It’s a book about kids.
I am the character Jerry in it. My mother had just died, and I was despondent, and then I fell in with some friends: a girl, Marcy, and her husband, Steve, and another guy, who had loads of cocaine. Marcy was very, very rich, and had cocaine and acid and everything. So each one of those people becomes a child in the book. Marcy became Shell. Steve became… I forget the kid’s name, but he was the very mysterious one, and there was also Manny—
So you took these adults and you wrote them as teenagers. The book is kind of a Lord of the Flies of the S&M era. I mean, it’s pretty rotten. It’s a frightening book.
I intended it to be frightening. Those children, led by Shell, the young girl, are out to make what I think is the most terrifying decision you can make—that you’re not going to feel. They can do anything they want if they don’t feel. That’s where the horror of the book comes from, that once you decide that you’re not going to feel, everything is possible.
And this book was made into a theater piece.
Michael had been in New York at the American Academy. He was studying with all these big people. He became involved with a play, but then they got somebody else to replace him, a movie actor, and Michael was utterly despondent. I said, “What if I write you a play?”
And you chose that particular book—the darkest book you’d done. [laughs]
No, I said, “Which one?” And he said, “Oh, The Fourth Angel would make a great play.” So I wrote it for him, and what’s her name played Shell… Joan Allen.
Wow. Where was it produced?
It was an experimental production in New York for all these people. I forget. They were all well known.
Like a showcase type of thing?
Yes, exactly. Then we brought it here to LA, and we did an experimental run at a small theater. And you won’t believe who played Shell, the evil young girl.
Karen Black? [laughs] No. Too old.
Too old. It was Sarah Jessica Parker.
And she was wonderful. I’ll show you pictures.
Your book Rushes ends in what might be called an S&M sacrifice. That book came out in ’79, which was the same year that William Friedkin was making Cruising, in which Al Pacino plays a cop who goes undercover in the leather, S&M world in New York. What is your stand on S&M?
That it’s entirely negative, but it is there. I don’t fault it. I just say that it is very clearly an ode, a ceremony, to our oppression, and that S&M reenacts the oppression that the gay world receives from the so-called straight world. But Rushes was actually a Mass, and was very closely constructed. It has 15 chapters, which are the Stations of the Cross.
I was raised Catholic, too.
So you know. If you read very, very carefully the references to some drawings on the walls [of the bar] in Rushes, every one of them is the Stations of the Cross.
How did I miss that? I’m obviously lapsed, but…
And even the bar is constructed like a church, and the cradle is voiced by the character of Chas in terms of S&M: “I believe in God. I believe in the Holy Ghost,” becomes, “I believe in S&M. I believe in the leather.” I was trying to make the connection that the origin of S&M is in religion—especially Catholic people looking at that beautiful figure of Christ naked. I mean, to me, that’s eroticism. One time I got into trouble in some lecture I was doing when I said, “Jesus—that guy’s beautiful, and not only that, but with his abs he must have to do 100 sit-ups a day.” In my book Our Lady of Babylon, there is the most beautiful love scene between Jesus and Judas. I retell the story of the betrayal. The sex scene is told by Mary Magdalene, who’s looking down on it from a hill. Talk about artistic decision! I know that it would be very difficult to say, “And then Jesus went down on Judas, and Judas went down…” because it would be an outrage. But I wanted a full sex scene. So it’s Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. She’s in the middle, and they begin to kiss her, and then she moves slowly away, knowing that this is what it’s all about, and then they come together and then they kiss, and then Magdalene moves away to a hill. And then from the point of view of Magdalene, so that I don’t have to get vulgar, I describe their movements. So there it is. I’ve done that one.
I’m not into S&M. Fetishes are far stranger than just dressing up in leather. You have to have your own. But I do know that there are people who would say, “But to me it’s release in the end.” What do you think of that argument?
Do you know who Fred Halsted was?
Sure, one of the original, iconic gay porn stars. He committed suicide after he lost his looks, is what I hear.
He became an alcoholic, and he had to take medication to stop himself from drinking. He and I became friends, which was so incredible. He was interested in doing the play of Rushes, which I had written. Fred heard about it and contacted me, and he had terrific ideas on how to do it. I liked him, which was strange, because he was the iconic figure of S&M.
He did really odd porn stuff, too. Strange fetishes, like fucking a motorcycle. [laughs]
And also there was a very sad story with his boyfriend, Joey Yale. They were involved for years. The kid turned against him. He found this kid on the street and put him in a movie, and then when Joey got AIDS, he turned against Fred and accused him of having done that to him. Oh, it was very tragic, very sad. Also, Fred agreed with me entirely about S&M.
He probably agreed but said, “And? What’s the problem?”
That’s it exactly. That’s how he put it.
You have morals in your writing, but your morals are more about, “Look at this right now. Look at beauty. Look at death.” You don’t have a big ending, generally.
Have you read The Coming of the Night?
No, I haven’t gotten to it yet.
That one is from the beginning of the 80s. I was in a park in West Hollywood at night, a place that became the site of orgies after 2 AM. I was there one night, a hot night during the Santa Ana winds, and there were fires all over the city. This kid, a young kid, a really beautiful young man, plastered himself naked against the wall of that place in the park, and people lined up to fuck him. I saw that, and I thought, “What is this? Why has God brought this kid to do this sacrificial act?”
Was this before AIDS or post-AIDS?
Right at the time of AIDS, right at the time.
Well, people, would they know what it was yet?
Not yet, not yet.
Did you join in?
I did not. It seemed there was some kind of brutality involved, though the kid was still smart enough to reject people that he didn’t like. People that were too old. I took a friend of mine, from El Paso, for God’s sake, there that night and we talked there away from the scene, and he said, “Have you heard about that illness? Do you think it’s true?” I said, “I don’t know, but if it is true, something terrible is happening back there.” That’s the origin of The Coming of the Night, and it takes place in one night that gathers all the people who will line up in the park.
I’ve been that guy, when I was a hustler hired for a party. I still to this day don’t know why I liked it, and I don’t know why they liked it and everybody else wanted to join in. I was also hired to beat guys with belts and all that stuff, and more. It was very interesting to explore, and I wouldn’t do anything horribly violent, but you do understand why people maybe want this stuff.
Now these activities are usually done by older men. I don’t mean old old, but in their 40s. There’s a place here in Los Angeles. I haven’t been, but I know of it.
Do you think it’s dying out? Is it a generational thing like leather? I don’t really see much leather anymore.
No, you don’t, and I think that it moves into other rituals of hating.
One of my favorite things in your work is your refusal to attack the idea of narcissism. There’s a lot of that in the worlds you’ve written about, but there’s a kind of narcissism that is aware of itself. My good friend is very much that way. He’s one of the kindest people in the world, and then he makes homemade self-porn movies to sort of worship himself. You would love this guy.
That’s great. I think that narcissism makes great human beings.
Do you still teach writing at the college level?
Nope. No more. But when I did I would say to the students, “I’m not a teacher; I’m a guide. I’ve been through it and I’ll try to guide you from my experience.” I don’t like anything arbitrary, like sitting there and saying, “That’s wrong.” I honor the writers. I present a very good view of what may be going wrong or what is going really right, and then they can pursue it. But I stopped teaching just a month ago after suing USC for exploitation, and winning.
Very briefly, I was an adjunct, and that’s exploitation enough. An adjunct professorship is when the universities hire well-known people in order to pay them very little and not give them tenure or benefits. Hubert Selby was one with me. Richard Yates was one, Jerome Lawrence, Shirley Thomas, William Goyen—big people getting paid a pittance and no benefits. And writers always need money. At a certain point I realized that I was not getting any retirement, nothing. I don’t want to go into it too much, but there was a big brouhaha.
I was just thinking about an earlier brouhaha of yours. You once said that you were the first man to walk down Santa Monica Boulevard without a shirt on.
This was in the 50s when everybody was wearing gray flannel suits. It’s like you were almost naked, right?
It was in the 50s, repressive times, and this was so bold, so stunning.
Did you have a t-shirt in your back pocket?
Yes, of course I did. And I was tanned and oiled to a sheen. And I had faded Levi’s—but not Cloroxed.
Faded hadn’t really come in so much then. It was still Lee dungarees.
This was sensational. It was sensational, because the pale blue against the brown body and boots…
Engineer boots or collar boots.
I still have those. [laughs] I had to order engineer boots for years just because of you. So was Santa Monica Boulevard a hustler place at this time?
What made you take your shirt off? It’s like me taking my pants off and walking down Fifth Avenue.
It wasn’t even like, “I’m going to do this.” It never was. I just was walking along the boulevard. It was very hot, and I always had my body oiled and everything, and that was making more heat…
And you were wearing like a tight, white t-shirt?
Yeah, and I just took it off.
Did anybody call you out? Maybe they couldn’t really think beyond, here comes a vision down the street.
Yeah, none of that. Nobody even drove by like, “Faggot!”
Well, they wouldn’t really connect that anyway. Not then.
No. But listen, if you look good, people are going to call you a faggot.