‘True Stories: Portraits from My Past’ by Felice Picano

It’s easy to forget that there once was a time when there was no gay literature, and when the act of writing a serious gay story was considered a useless endeavor because there was nobody around to publish it. In the 1970s, even avant garde trade paperback publishers rejected manuscripts with (non-pornographic) homosexual themes. The situation was so dire that writers of gay fiction formed writing collectives to lend one another support.

Felice Picano, the prolific author of The Lure, Like People in History and twenty-three other books, was also a founding member of the Violet Quill Club, whose members went on to become famous after helping to give birth to modern gay literature.  The Violet Quill helped launch the careers of writers like Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, George Whitmore, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley.

Aware of the lack of opportunities for gay writers, Picano also founded Sea Horse Press in 1977, and in 1981 co-founded the Gay Presses of New York with Terry Helbing and Larry Mitchell.

The naturalness and easy universality of Picano’s writing challenges the art of pretense. Examples abound, but in True Stories: Portraits from My Past, he shares references that other writers might choose to suppress. While intellectualizing about the merits of surrealist Charles Henri Ford, for instance, he can then candidly admit, in another essay, that he’s studied astrology, imply that he’s open to the possibility of past lives, or to a belief in ghosts.  If some might consider it an intellectual sin to mention such things, Picano isn’t aware of it.

And that’s what makes these essays so readable. They can be as staid as a memoir by James Lord but then seem to talk about topics that wind up getting discussed around the kitchen table.

A New Yorker before later moving to Los Angeles, Picano seems to have befriended or at least met “everybody,” and his stories about some of these encounters comprise a good portion of this book, a book The New York Times calls “a tremendously entertaining collection of anecdotes and portraits.”

True Stories is filled with literary gossip about many of gay lit’s forebears. About Charles Henri Ford, a one time friend of Gertrude Stein’s and Djuna Barnes of Nightwood fame, Picano says he took Gore Vidal’s advice and reprinted Ford’s (and Parker Tyler’s) 1933 book, The Young and Evil for Sea Horse Press. That task necessitated a visit to New York’s Dakota, where Picano says he “walked past the spot where John Lennon had been gunned down,” and then finally met Ford with his younger partner in a large apartment “littered with prints, paintings, and wall hangings.”

“Although I knew from what others had said that at times Charles could be mean, arrogant, and, above all, demanding, he’d never once been anything but kind to me.” Literary fame notwithstanding, iconic legends still go broke, and so Ford wound up having to sell many of his belongings to afford living in New York. The reprint by Sea Horse was an important literary event because a modern, small press had set its sights “to the earliest decades of the twentieth century and Modernism.”

Picano writes about meeting Bette Midler at New York’s Continental Baths while friends with Midler’s producer, Jerry Blatt. “Jerry must have pointed me out to Bette because in the middle of one number, she came over to me, pulled me to my feet, leaned me against the piano and used me as a prop for a love-song.” Being “manhandled” on stage by Bette proved to be great bathhouse PR for Picano, because as soon as her act ended, he writes that he tricked with an Adonis whose lust was no doubt aided in part by a wish to “suck in” authentic Midler aura.

The author’s first encounter with poet W.H. Auden is an entertaining piece that begins with the old bard knocking over a flower pot on his New York window sill and almost killing Picano and a friend on the street below. The boys, unaware that the “Auntie” who knocked over the pot was Auden, agree to have tea with him as a form of apology, and then find that they are on the receiving end of a lot of questions. Do they ingest large amounts of hallucinogenics? Do they mind being called beatniks? Much later, of course, it comes to our hero’s attention that the funny but endearing old queen who almost killed him and his friend is none other than the legendary bard. Later, after meeting Auden as “Auden” at a New York party, a friendship develops between the poet and Picano that concentrated mostly on “silly, superficial matters.”

“We thoroughly entertained each other,” Picano writes.  Auden, for instance, wanted to know about the leather scene, and even sent his new friend to New York’s Eagle’s Nest to report back on the happenings. Picano writes that he even fantasized dressing Auden up “in full harness and chaps and entering him into the Mr. Leather contest.”

Writer friends Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley, both of whom would die of AIDS, are profiled. Both Ferro and Grumley combined forces as Ferro-Grumley and produced Atlantis: Autobiography of a Search, a first person account of a trip the two made in search of the lost continent of Atlantis. Inspired by the predictions of a male witch (made to them years earlier in Rome) that they would take journey that would lead them to fulfill Edgar Cayce’s prediction of a 1968-1969 Atlantean discovery, the two set out like 19th century ocean explorers. Their find led to additional discoveries (by scientists) in the same underwater spot of “non-randomly spaced columnar fragments, all deemed to be composed of material found only in the Andes Mountains and dating back over twelve thousands years.” Ironically, this same male witch, as Picano notes, also predicted their deaths, “‘together,’ around the age of forty-seven, from some kind of new cancer,” a prediction made some ten years before HIV-AIDS.

In True Stories, Picano moves easily among literary and writer friends to memories of childhood relatives.

In “The Taystee Bread Man,” we hear how the local bread man—“He had what in memory I’d have to call an ugly-pretty face not immediately handsome, not model-perfect, but once you really looked at it, devastatingly sexy”—used to prop him on his lap and “casually put his arm around me as we read through a comic together.”  While this sort of open platonic affection between man and boy is not something that would happen today, it was viewed by Picano’s father then as a very natural thing.

Yet, as the seemingly (always truthful) Picano notes:

“I’m certain that had he done anything in the least bit sexual I would have gone along without any hesitation, and not for those reasons the so-called child-abuse experts give—out of innocent trust and caring. No! I would have done it because TBM excited me; whenever I was with him I was in a constant state of mental and probably physical arousal.

True  Stories:  Portraits from My Past
by Felice Picano
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9780984470778, 220pp.
March 2011