Edmund White, this is your life!

  • by Kevin Davis
  • Tuesday April 11, 2006
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My Lives: An Autobiography by Edmund White; Ecco, $25.95

It is difficult to get the news from Edmund White. For one thing, it arrives a decade or two late on average, and it runs to sublimely ornate tangents and rarefied corners of the world — Peggy Guggenheim's gondola, the Ile Saint-Louis, subway station restrooms.

But in My Lives: An Autobiography, his first nonfiction memoir, White pares his life down to something like a concordance to his work, the key to his fictional characters, candidly and affectionately describing his friends, lovers and family with the focus on visual and emotional detail he is known for.

Except for more expansively recounting than he did in his tetralogy the servicing of $10 Cincinnati hillbilly hustlers every two weeks at age 17 (he liked them "primitive, angry, not too intelligent — loud, brash, bullying, dirty, demanding boys") and the first mention of little fuckbuddy Stam, the French street urchin, his precisely rendered casual-sex scenes and the attraction to rough trade that characterized his early novels have given way to saner role-playing.

Recently, White chose a healthier S&M relationship (at $12,000 per year) with an openly gay actor-writer-director of 33. When his master broke up with him, White imparted the sad news to his Princeton office staff and thesis students, who responded with bewilderment. The chapter "My Friends" sums up his motives, stressing (if he had not before, in his rich portraits of editors, patrons and the old Mineshaft) that he thrives on companionship.

"I never led them toward uncomfortable revelations," he writes of serving as a sidekick to the handsome straight classmates he lusted after. "Praised whatever decision they'd made and sympathized over any indignity they'd suffered. I never offered unwelcome advice."

But long gone is his hunt for straight bait, as in his college tearoom hours in The Beautiful Room is Empty, the giant "Dufus" and the World Cup soccer-day Italian Boy in The Farewell Symphony, or the fat ex-con met in the Rhode Island park in The Married Man. A "dirty old man squatting beside a glory hole," he labels those pursuits from the vantage point of age 65. "A plucked and creamed effeminate monster."

In the chapter "My Blondes," he sneaks through his first crush's dorm-room window, and later flies to New York with $200 to find this same man who "responded to adoration, he wanted to be courted like a princess who makes a knight go through a hundred arduous trials."

White ascribes his artistic confidence and entitlement to his adoring, coquettish child-psychologist mother. "It's hard to believe you're just a little boy, you're so wise and feeling and sensitive," she says, lavishing extravagant praise on the boy genius. In return, White later pays for her "absurdly fashionable" Neiman-Marcus dresses and her rent for 20 years, even for her vanity press-published memoir.

But the portrait of his father is a crushing downer. Dad chain-smoked cigars, never read a book or expressed loneliness, had daily angry outbursts, opposed integrating the military, and vowed vengeance against "Jewboys." White describes him as a dull bore, a baby, a cold-hearted egotist with bad character, and "a recluse, who wanted to be above reproach in some way."

This "public library intellectual" wrote a family biography in his hometown newspaper at age nine, gathered material for the novel of his life at 16, and wrote two unpublished novels in boarding school.

"I'd been addicted to the city as to a hard drug that doesn't kill you if you can get enough of it," he writes of New York, where in 1981 he helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis. "I never did too much of any one thing, except drink and smoke and have sex."

He cleaned up before leaving for France at age 40 to spend 15 years in Paris as a Vogue and HG correspondent, and writing his definitive Genet biography.

"All I have is an alert face, a quick tongue and a few journalistic tricks," he writes of his reporting skills, glossing over the nerve and savvy needed to interview a famous French film director with just enough fluency to ask questions but not understand the answers, taping them for a friend's translation later. Or cunningly pay a friend to take French lessons from a stubborn old Genet friend White wants to interview, until intimacy allows the friend to vouch for White.

Today, with an arthritic neck, a "small but faithful readership," and 10 years' marriage to writer Michael Carroll, at the dentist he still narcotizes himself "on memories of being sodomized at both ends."

Crane bow

Interviewing Edmund White by phone went smoothly until he turned the tables and inquired after the reporter's well-being, at which point this White worshiper crumbled in a puddle of flustered genuflection.

He is currently taking a year off from chairing Princeton's Creative Writing Department to write a historical novel about author Stephen Crane, receiving a year's salary as a fellow at New York's Cullmann Center on the condition he produce some work based on one of the library's collections. White chose the library's collection of Crane's papers.

In a scene repeated in Crane biographies, a male prostitute solicited Crane, a reporter of Bowery lowlife. Crane interviewed him and wrote a story, but his agent convinced him to destroy every word of the piece, saying publishing it would destroy his career.

White's story, titled "Hotel de Dreme" after the Florida brothel Crane's wife owned, has Crane on his deathbed in an English tuberculosis clinic, dictating a novel to his wife, "a novel within a novel," said White. "An act of ventriloquism."

White explained how the pursuit of indifferent straight guys lost its appeal. "Stonewall was unbelievably significant for me personally, a moment when we decided we were not a sickness anymore, but a minority," he said. "In the 1950s, gay people were so full of self-hatred. Gaining self-acceptance in the 1960s was much slower than what people think. All that leads away from rough trade and toward being more kind to other gay men."

White does not keep a journal or have a disciplined writing routine, and feels no compulsion to write. "I don't know how I do it. I go days or weeks without writing. My favorite thing is to have written something. I feel really good then, but worry about how it's going to be received. At the beginning of an assignment, I sometimes work half-an-hour per day. Toward the end of a deadline, I do work very hard.

"What's keeping me going is poverty. I'm always broke. I write for money. I write exactly what I want to write. I'm goaded on to do my arty writing for little pay."

Fortunately for readers who appreciate his gift for exploring melancholy, a failed Wellbutrin experiment a few years ago made him feel "like I was inside a Popemobile, with things coming toward me and bouncing off. Nothing reached me." Paxil made him feel "innately more optimistic."

"Today I went through a terrible depression," he said. "I prefer going through down periods."

Bath lore

One precious moment in the memoir has White fuming down the stairs at the Astoria Hotel's Continental Baths like a factory boss, shocked to see all the workers had left their orgy-room posts to watch Bette Midler perform. He recounts the awkwardness of society types invading this gay space.

"Terribly chic," he describes the scene. "Straight people came down in evening clothes. We were in towels." He adds, "I'm totally unsusceptible to pop music. I never liked it in any form. It means nothing to me."

He recalled the mandatory familiarity with high art that certain gay circles required in the 1950s and 60s. "In order to be gay, you had to be cultured," he said. "You had to know all abut Maria Callas, Rilke, a lot of things.

"I read what I considered to be classics, preparing for God's trivia-quiz show in heaven — 'Who is Lautreamont?'"

What replaced that cultural preoccupation? "The gym."