Semaphored gay history

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday April 18, 2018
Share this Post:

Two ghosts loom over Martin Duberman's new memoir, "The Rest of It: Hustlers, Cocaine, Depression, and Then Some 1976-1988" (Duke University Press), neither of them named in the lengthy subtitle. One is the towering presence of Paul Robeson, whose biography Duberman wrote. The other is the alternatively shrinking and clutching presence of Chris, the Duberman "bad penny" boyfriend from hell. They are ghosts because they neither fully appear nor disappear.

Duberman's 800-page 1989 biography of Robeson is likely to remain his crowning achievement as a historian. Considering the dates of this slice of Duberman's memoirs, it warrants the three substantial chapters it gets. Granting the difficulty of making short work of the life of a man whose biography he has written definitively and at length, the question remains why Duberman might not have eked out, say, a sentence, a few connected words, to identify Robeson as the African-American bass-baritone, actor, star athlete and political activist whose influence on all those areas of 20th-century life was gigantic then and still is. Sort of like that.

Readers younger than Duberman and me might not be prepared for the scope and importance of either Robeson or his biographer. This clarified the question I had by the new book's midpoint: Whom is Duberman writing this memoir for?

The author's account of the many intrigues of writing of the biography is fascinating enough, and the constellation of details surrounding the research, including meetings with remarkable men and women for interviews, ultimately coheres. But it resembles the way the characters of Dorothy's world spin by in the containing if wild tornado that lifts her out of Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz."

From the first mention of the biography, the reader is, however, prepared - in that waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop kind of way - for the surprise revelation about a previously unknown aspect of Robeson's sexuality. The so-teased reader is not disappointed, although Robeson - whose involvements with women famous and not were legion, including the stars opposite whose Desdemona he played the two Othellos that alone would have secured his place in the history books - turns out to have been less bumptiously bisexual than was his understanding wife.

We learn that Robeson did not have the rumored affair with the known homosexual film director Sergei Eisenstein when Robeson was in Russia more for lefty political reasons. But Robeson did have an affair with also married but, like Leonard Bernstein, gay American composer Marc Blitzstein.

Duberman was in most of the right places, albeit mostly on the American East Coast and New York in particular, during the period of modern gay history pre-Stonewall to post-AIDS crisis. Although he was in direct contact, and often conflict, with some of the major figures of our history, the issues sometimes seem semaphored and ultimately lost in the cascade of names. The problem is not exactly some sort of unctuous name-dropping. Indeed, much of it could be regarded as setting the record straight, so to speak; individuals barely remembered now take their place alongside the leaders and heroes of the gay-rights movement.

Seldom in my reading experience has American gay history felt so bi-coastal, and so heavily weighted toward the East. Even granting that Duberman was where he was, saw what he saw and knew the people he did, a whiff of East Coast condescension to the more laid-back West did less to right my sense of the balance than just irk me. Duberman wrote political and cultural pieces for some of the major gay publications of the pre-AIDS era, a matter of no little interest to me, yet it was hard not to take offense at his half-sentence nod to the B.A.R.

More refreshing is the fact that in the author's writing about himself - the proper subject of a memoir, after all - is that there is nothing resembling (or that I read as) a whitewashing of his own character. In the same way that "The Rest of It" consigns the history, politics and culture to that outpost, the hustlers, cocaine and depression do take their rightful prominence as a kind of through-line of Duberman's personal story.

The major events in this memoir are the hospitalizations, for hepatitis (masked by a history of depression), a heart attack, and finally, depression itself, at New York's Paine Whitney, a now-closed if still legendary nuthouse for the rich, famous and downtrodden, about whom Duberman, Auden-like, becomes the most sympathetic.

Perhaps it's in the ways I am most like Duberman - the undertow of depression, the pull of addictions, the particular sexual history, the tension of the desire for strong relationships waging a losing battle with the hermit's life - that made reading this memoir such a trial. Ruefully, it has left me with a sense less of a man revealing himself than of an author heading off future biographers at the pass.