He’s the subject of a new biography (Farther and Wilder by Blake Bailey, Knopf, 2013) and a related article by the biography’s author in Vanity Fair (“Weekend in the Sun,” March 2013) both of which portray forgotten novelist Charles Jackson as a man bedazzled by Hollywood, seduced by the Bitch Goddess, and forever after relegated to the archives of American literary history as a One-Book Author. That book, of course, was The Lost Weekend, which legendary director Billy Wilder and his long-time screenwriter Charles Brackett took apart, bowdlerized, and reassembled to create the big hit of 1945.That still-great film won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1946 and also sent star Ray Milland, Wilder, and Brackett home with Oscars. It’s perhaps understandable that Wilder and Brackett leeched the gay context right out of Jackson’s novel: it was a less-enlightened era, and a notably pious and patriotic year in Hollywood, with The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Keys of the Kingdom, and Anchors Aweigh all contending for Oscars; Joan Crawford’s win for gay cult classic Mildred Pierce and Angela Lansbury’s nomination for The Picture of Dorian Gray (containing a wonderful crypto-queer performance by the eternally urbane George Sanders) was about as gay as things got.
But why in this era of same-sex marriage and Stars Coming Out must we continue to ignore the utter, blatant, in-your-face queerness of Jackson’s work? The Vanity Fair article has nary a word about the homosexuality of Jackson or of his hero, Don Birnam, and the New York Times review of Bailey’s biography (Donna Rifkind, “The Lost Novelist,” April 19, 2013) mentions only in passing Jackson’s “painfully suppressed homosexuality.”
Suppressed? Jackson may have suppressed his homoerotic urges in his life, but his work tells another story: Weekend is unthinkable without Don Birnam’s gay history, and Jackson’s long-neglected second novel, The Fall of Valor, is—yes, I’ll say it—openly gay.
In Wilder and Brackett’s treatment, The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam is a man bedeviled not only by alcohol, but also by writer’s block and that sense known to so many talented young men of having peaked too early, of never having lived up to his youthful potential. Out of whole cloth—it’s nowhere in the novel– Brackett spins a poetic soliloquy wherein Milland, downing shots of cheap rye in Nat’s Third Avenue bar, regales Nat with the imaginative genius with which getting pie-eyed provides him: drunk, he’s Shakespeare, he tells us; sober, he’s just a loser, living off his younger, sober brother. In the novel, Don suffers not only from writer’s block, but from quite a different problem: he’s a plain old closet case, haunted by a college episode that Jackson apparently drew from his undergraduate days at Syracuse. It seems there was a “passionate hero-worship of an upperclassman during his very first month at college, a worship that led, like a fatal infatuation, to scandal and public disgrace”; it ends with his being “ushered out of the Kappa U house for good and all.” The shame of this episode haunts him, and he lives in “perpetual fear of running into any of the thousand other students to whom he was guilty if they believed he was guilty…he had never been able to free himself of anxieties since his seventeenth year.” We’re never told precisely what has happened, but are left to infer that an advance was made and rejected, and when Don later meets up coincidentally with a man who pledged Kappa U after Don’s banishment, all the shame and self-loathing comes flooding back. No wonder he drinks.
Jane Wyman’s forgettable Helen, Don’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a major presence in Wilder’s film, as is a bar girl/call girl named Gloria, played with unforgettable tongue-clicking moxie by Doris Dowling. In the book, these heterosexual love interests are barely present. But very much present is the queer male nurse who ministers to Don when he ends up in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue. Frank Faylen’s bleach blond, eye-rolling performance in the film makes Bim’s orientation pretty clear to anyone who’s looking, but the book goes much further. Bim is clearly a projection of full-fledged, swivel-hipped Depression-era queerness, and Don’s reaction to him is complicated. Watching Bim swish out of the ward, Don thinks, “Here was the daydream turned inside-out, a projection, in reverse, of the wishful and yearning fancy…[Bim was] a lapse of nature as bizarre and undeniable as the figures of his imagined life were deniable, bizarre, beyond reach. All that he wanted to become, and, in his fanciful world, became, was here represented in throwback…” Bim is what Don fears and wants so very much to be, but in Don’s world of denial and self-hatred, Bim’s very existence propels Don to dark homophobic musings: “That was the trouble with homos, and he didn’t mean sapiens either. They were always so damned anxious to suspect every guy they couldn’t make of merely playing hard-to-get; so damned anxious to believe that their own taint was shared by everybody else.” Without knowing it, Don nails gay self-image in this era of the closet: “And why, if their glance was recognition, was it also a look of contempt? If they hailed you as a brother, they scorned you for the same reason. Nobody was quicker with the word ‘queen,’ used derisively at that, than the queen himself.” Sadly, this self-assessment seemed not to have changed much more than twenty years later, when Mart Crowley had his dipsomaniacal and plain old maniacal hero Michael say, at the end of The Boys in the Band, “If only we could stop hating ourselves so much.”
John Grandin, the hero of Jackson’s second novel, The Fall of Valor, is a man less tortured than Don Birnam, at least at the novel’s opening; he is, in fact, a fairly smug college professor who thinks all is right in his world, despite his having not slept with his wife, Ethel, for some time. The two take a second honeymoon trip to Cape Cod to patch things up—and apparently to make long-delayed whoopee—but the trip goes all wrong from the very first. The novel is set in wartime, and the Grandins fall in with a beautiful young Marine named Cliff Hauman and his rather dim wife, Billie, who, as it happens, has been an unremarkable student of Grandin’s at a school that is clearly Columbia. The book reveals Grandin’s little problem at a leisurely pace via alternating chapters from Grandin’s and Ethel’s points of view: there’s the professor’s habit of sleeping on the couch in his study while his wife sleeps alone in their bed; there’s the photo of a handsome slain soldier she finds under the blotter of his desk; and finally there is the growing seaside attraction to the uber-hunky and childlike Cliff Hauman, “the athlete, the American idol, uninteresting.”
This isn’t as good a novel as The Lost Weekend—nowhere near—but it’s a more “literary” one, all dolled up with references to Whitman and Houseman and their fascination with dead soldiers and athletes. Grandin condescends to the guileless Cliff, but is unable to ignore what he gradually and mistakenly comes to believe is Cliff’s attraction to him: Cliff has his little gay quirks, too, like referring to his father as “Daddy.” Billie confesses to Ethel that Cliff’s lovemaking is a little, er, absent: “he becomes such a stranger to me! He just plows ahead like I was—dirt…” The whole sad episode unfolds slowly and rather dully, and at one point Grandin accepts from Cliff the gift of a spare flight cap and places it tenderly in his suitcase (later to be discovered by Ethel, of course). Cliff continues to show off on the beach and to treat Grandin like a daddy; like that other great American closet case, Joe Pitt in Angels in America, Grandin takes long nocturnal walks; Grandin misreads Cliff’s signals, and, snob that he is, idealizes Cliff in a grandiose way: “Here…was the hero out of Homer—Hector or Achilles—or Lancelot…Siegfried, Jason of the Argonauts, who had been his boyhood companions.” At length, Grandin confesses to Ethel his love for Cliff—pretty ballsy stuff for 1946. The end is all embarrassment, shame, and self-mortification—straight out of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet.
As Richard Amory points out in a respectful essay from the ’70s (Vector, April 1972), The Fall of Valor preceded by a couple of years Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, often thought of as the first high-profile gay novel, and it’s more honest if more depressing than Robert Anderson’s 1953 play Tea and Sympathy, where our hero isn’t gay at all, just nelly. I might also add that it precedes Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel The Price of Salt by some six years, and unlike Highsmith, Jackson didn’t publish under a pseudonym. In some ways, Jackson is of a piece with heterosexual novelists Richard Yates and Hamilton Basso, earnest and conventional realists who were shoved out of literary history’s pantheon by the flashier Capote and Mailer and Salinger and Bellow. But attention must be paid to Jackson, even at this late date. He dared to out Men in Gray Flannel Suits and his serious if sometimes plodding artistry helped set the stage for our own happier time.