Doug Ireland, Review of James Lord's "My Queer War," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
In his groundbreaking 1990 book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two” (later turned into a 1994 documentary film), the late gay historian Allan Bérubé gave us, for the first time, a stunning portrait not only of how homosexuals were omnipresent in the “Greatest Generation,” but also of the way in which that conflict led many of those in uniform to adopt a defined sexual and personal gay identity. In fact, the war, Bérubé showed, was a major catalyst for the sexual liberation of queers that followed in the subsequent decades.
Bérubé wrote, “Ironically World War II helped to loosen the constraints that locked so many gay people in silence, isolation, and self-contempt. Selective Service acknowledged the importance of gay men when it drafted hundreds of thousands to serve their country and broke the silence when it asked millions of selectees about their homosexual tendencies. The draft, together with lax recruitment policies that allowed lesbians to enter the military, placed a whole generation of gay men and women in gender-segregated bases where they could find each other, form cliques, and discover the gay life in the cities.”
James Lord, a biographer, art connoisseur, and memoirist who died last year at the age of 86, was one of what unthinking romantics would call that Theban band of brothers who confirmed their sexual orientation in this way. Farrar Straus Giroux has just posthumously published “My Queer War,” Lord’s lush autobiographical account of his years in uniform during World War II.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious,” and this new book will not please the flagwavers, for the title of Lord’s memoir refers not just to the author’s sexuality but to the odd ambiguities, bureaucratic stupidities, and moral contradictions of war itself.
Lord, the cultivated son of privilege (his father was a wealthy stockbroker), had displayed an early talent for writing, having completed a biography of Beethoven before his early teens. He joined the army in 1942 at the age of 19, after coming to recognize during his prep school years his homosexual desire, something that tormented him.
As he writes of that adolescent prise de conscience: “I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature I’d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison.”
Joining up was, for Lord, no act of patriotism. He writes that, in fleeing to the Army, “I had miserably run away from the inconvenience of being queer.” After confessing he was gay to his father, young Lord was sent straightaway to a therapist who recommended that he stop wearing Old Spice immediately.
While still in basic training in Nevada, he fell in love with a young soldier named Johannes Friedrich Kessler, who went by the name of Hanno, just like “the last of the Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann’s novel.” Lord becomes romantically fixated on the handsome, mysterious, but apparently sexually unobtainable Hanno, with whom he nurtures what his love-object eventually describes as their Burschenherrlichkeit, or (as Hanno translated it) their “glorious fellowship.”
The missed cues of their near-coupling on one of their many excursions together to the ghost towns and mining camps within driving distance of their base are ultimately revealed as the unfortunate product of the virgin Lord’s malfunctioning gaydar, when several years later (and no longer bereft of sexual experience), he is shocked when he runs into Hanno and Hanno’s then-boyfriend in a bar crowded with same-sexers in uniform.
Hanno, with whom Lord shared literary tastes, was the author’s masculine ideal and also appealed to his pronounced Germanophilia. Lord writes: “It is odd, surely, that while my homeland was at war to destroy the Third Reich, do away with its criminal rulers, and shame the German people for their slavish adulation of the führer, at the same time I was deeply in love with things profoundly German, the music of Beethoven, the imagination of Thomas Mann.” For Lord, Hanno was not only a totem of masculinity but “the superior shiver of high culture,” the embodiment of “another Germany.”
The threnody of Lord’s unrequited love for Hanno runs throughout this memoir. Separated from Hanno, Lord eventually loses his virginity the following year to a fellow soldier while stationed at a military intelligence training center at Boston College, where soldiers were being prepared for undercover duty in France (Lord had vacationed with his family in Paris as a lad, and already spoke passable French). His deflowering on the grass of a secluded campus spot at the hands of a bubbly, insouciantly queer PFC named Jerry Weintraub ushers in the period of Lord’s sexual education: “‘This is your first time, isn’t it?’ he said in my ear. ‘I can tell. I’ll show you what it’s like. You’ll like it. Just let yourself go, baby.’ So I did, and he did, and I did.”
Thanks to Weintraub, Lord is introduced to the delights of the bar at Boston’s Statler Hotel, wall-to-wall with gay men in uniform unabashedly cruising each other, to which the author returns again and again (the portrait of this bar is one of the best sections in the book). Weintraub also takes Lord to his first exclusively gay bar, The Napoleon, located on “a darkling side street”. Lord describes this Boston queer rendezvous, to which he and his buddy Weintraub are admitted after scrutiny through a peephole by a queeny black man: “In the high, long room upstairs a comfortable crowd of men eddied along the bar; there was a huge painting of Napoleon astride a charger and a baby white upright piano against the other wall, a bald gent in a tuxedo tickling the ivories and singing ‘Mad About the Boy’ in a whispering falsetto.”
Lord is picked up there by a charming young architect exempted from war-time service because of a slight limp (from childhood polio), the first of many casual sexual encounters this memoir recounts, although somewhat prudishly. Lord gives us portraits of an aging Harvard don and his harem of available young men, and of the private sexual parties which made gay civilian life livable in those pre-Stonewall days, with the added spice of uniformed men from all the armed services.
Lord, by then a sergeant, is eventually sent to France and to the Rhineland, where he continues his chronicle of his reticently described sexual escapades but never fires a shot in anger — the war is nearly over. Lord’s military career is marked by more or less constant insubordination to his superiors (including those who propositioned him) and to the often-idiotic bureaucracy of the armed services. This is particularly true of Lord’s period as an interrogator in the horrific American camps for prisoners of war and displaced persons, where Lord revolts against the dehumanizing treatment America’s soldiers meted out to the human detritus housed there in appalling conditions. Despite this, his unfruitful intelligence work unaccountably wins him a Bronze Star.
Lord spends his leaves in Paris, and on a three-day pass in December 1944 he makes a beeline to Picasso’s studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, where he thrusts himself upon Picasso and his longtime muse, Dora Maar — a talented photographer, painter, and poet in her own right who inspired Picasso masterpieces like “The Weeping Woman” — and also finagles his way into the entourage of Gertrude Stein (whom Lord describes in one of his three earlier memoirs, “Picasso and Dora,” as “a burlap bag filled with cement and left to harden”).
“My Queer War” ends before Lord returned to Paris in 1947, resuming his friendship with Picasso and Dora and becoming a kind of Boswell to the artistic and social elite in France and, to a lesser extent, Britain. In Europe, as his New York Times obituary put it last year, “he spent most of his time and energy socializing, buying art, traveling and living a giddy expatriate life surrounded by artists and aristocrats who may or may not have noticed that he was taking careful notes.”
In addition to the three volumes of memoirs, he also wrote two novels, “No Traveler Returns” (1956), about a rich American traveling in Europe in search of love and happiness, and “The Joys of Success” (1958), set in Hollywood, but neither were well-received critically. Lord’s literary reputation rests largely on two things — his finely etched, candid, and frequently unflattering portraits of the cultural acquaintances he avidly pursued, including Jean Cocteau, Balthus, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Peggy Guggenheim; and his written accounts of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, whom he first met in Paris in 1952.
“A Giacometti Portrait,” a slim volume published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 in connection with a retrospective showing of the artist’s work, recounted the 18 sessions in which Lord posed for a portrait by Giacometti, and was instantly acknowledged in the art world as an unparalleled and perceptive description of the master’s working style. In 1985, Lord published a universally hailed full-length biography of Giacometti, which the New York Times described as “the definitive work” on the artist.
Lord also single-handedly saved Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence from destruction when local authorities wanted to tear it down and build a high-rise, raising money from other wealthy Americans to preserve this pilgrimage site for future art-lovers.
“My Queer War,” which Lord did not live to see published, can be viewed as a fascinating micro-addition to the sociology of gay life in World War II, but it is of uneven quality. After reading the first chapter, I said to myself, “Well, this is certainly over-ripe.” But the book improves somewhat as one gets deeper into it and gets accustomed to the irascible author’s stylistic quirks, and even to his sometimes hysterical outbursts of purple prose.
In an afterward, Lord recounts that his first novel, based on his war years and written shortly after the conflict’s close, was rejected by publishers, and that he finally abandoned it. The stylistic excesses of “My Queer War” often smack of the over-written efforts of a neurotic debutant writer, anxious to show off his erudition; the book is laden with obscure Latin phrases, quotations, and literary references, and may owe something to that discarded first novel.
Still, there’s enough perfume of that earlier time Lord recounts to hold the reader’s interest right through to the book’s somewhat unsatisfying end.
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