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When Poets Were Young and Gay

June 29, 2006 By:
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The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag. It''s a curious title even when you match it up with its subtitle: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era. A young Sontag is shown on the cover sitting at what looks like a European or Greenwich Village cafe. And in a separate picture, below her and to the left, is the author of these memoirs, the poet Edward Field, also shown at a young age. The juxtaposition might lead you to believe that he''s the man who wished to marry the late sultry and forbidding critic, but once you begin reading the book, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, you discover it''s not the case.

All of this indirection - planned, I imagine, to make the work more intriguing to prospective readers - does work in a significant way: It gives you a visual taste of the indirection that rules Field''s method in these pages. His memoirs are loose-limbed, moving in a discursive manner that seems true to the period that Field and his friends lived through - the post-World-War-II period in New York City and parts of Europe.

In addition to being a poet, Field is also a gay man, as are and were many of his friends, and his memories are as much sexual as literary, mapping out what it was like to be gay in those postwar years before the Stonewall riots announced the beginnings of the gay-pride movement.

So, in reality, no one was going to marry Sontag, who, after her brief marriage to academic Philip Rieff, went on to live a gay life herself. And yet, Field''s dear friend, the writer Alfred Chester, once a superstar on the literary scene, though now nearly forgotten (and also gay), did suggest a union with Sontag as a great way to solidify his power in the New York literary world. Hence the title.

Though Sontag figures in all this, it''s Chester who dominates the book. And though these may be Field''s memories, he has fashioned them as a tribute to Chester, who once was so filled with promise before everything unraveled.

The book begins during the war years because it was as a soldier that Field discovered poetry. Having finished basic training in Miami Beach - the year was 1943 - he was about to board a troop train when a Red Cross worker handed him and others "a bag of necessities for the trip, toothbrush, comb, candy bar - and a paperback." His was a Louis Untermeyer anthology of great poems in the English language. The author "devoured" it, and was convinced, even though he was just 18 and hadn''t written a word, that he wanted to be a poet.

One of his missions during the war was flying a B-17 across the North Atlantic to England. In another plane in that convoy was his best buddy, Dave, a Cornell graduate who was cynical about everything, and whom Field secretly loved. When the fledgling writer confessed that Rupert Brooke was his favorite poet, Dave laughed, and told him the greatest modern poet was T.S. Eliot. Field said he had never heard of him. Dave gave him copies of "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land," which left Field mystified.

The next step in his development came while he was in England, in the midlands, two hours north of London. From there, he and his fellow pilots ran bombing missions over Germany. After such exhausting runs, Field would retire to the Officers'' Club where he''d drink to unwind. There, he met his first real poet.

"Coman Leavenworth, a gnomelike young man with a crooked, one might say dirty, smile and a beak of a nose that seemed to reflect his aristocratic Anglo-Saxon origins, had already published poems in literary magazines like Poetry (Chicago). As a ground officer with a less demanding job than us fly-boys, Coman got down to London regularly, and over drinks in the Officers'' Club I would drink in his reports about the poets he met at the Gargoyle Club, a hangout for writers - among them, the English poets George Barker and Stephen Spender, and the Americans, now largely forgotten, Harry Brown and Dunstan Thompson - most of whom seemed to be gay, or if married, gay friendly."

Once the war was over and Field had returned to the states, he enrolled at New York University, which he''d attended before he entered the service, and soon gravitated to the cafeteria, where the literary types met. There, he found Chester.

"It seems strange to say about someone who would become such a rich presence in my life, but Alfred Chester was only this odd-looking guy in the NYU cafeteria where I hung out with the bohemian/literary crowd. I knew he wrote for the college literary magazines, but I arrogantly dismissed those as amateur publications, and had no idea that fledgling writers like Cynthia Ozick and Sol Yurick, who were also at NYU then, saw Alfred as their main competition. I had no reason to feel superior, since I was merely scratching away clumsily at my poetry and wasn''t getting published anywhere. But Alfred was a few years younger than me and had come straight to college from high school, whereas I had already been out in the world fighting a war, so I looked on him as not only a weirdo, but a kid. When he was teased, he wiggled all over like a dog, excited by the attention."

What made Alfred so odd looking, as Field notes, was that he wore a wig, and he did that because he was hairless (this aspect of Chester''s persona has been commented upon by many other writers, among them Ozick, in a major piece on the writer published in the 1970s). "It was the first thing anyone noticed about him," continues Field. "Without natural sideburns to blend into and no eyebrows on his Fu Manchu face, the wig had to be obvious, but what made it all the more so was its orangey color, electric against his pasty-white skin, as if he was determined to rub in our faces the one thing that wrecked his life, his hairlessness. Through the years I remember that the wig was in a terminally ratty state, and it just sat pasted on his humpty-dumpty head. But nobody who knew him ever dared mention it, no matter how close a friend you were, and even the word ''hair,'' if it happened to slip out, hung in the air uncomfortably."

Chester is the primary attraction here (you might say it is his book, and that the author takes a backseat, by design), but Field offers portraits of other writers he''s known. Among them are, of course, Sontag and Ozick, along with May Swenson, Jane and Paul Bowles, and Frank O''Hara (who was one of Field''s lovers). But, in the end, he always returns to Chester. It took a while for Field to understand Chester''s importance, in literature and in his life, but once he recognized it, he never gave up on his friend, even as others avoided or dismissed him once madness began ruling his life. As Field notes, the voices in Chester''s head got louder and louder, and it took more drugs and alcohol to quiet them.

But though Field does not skimp on the dreadful details, his book is really a testament to Chester, who had a profound effect on Ozick and Sontag. In fact, many say that Sontag stole the ideas for "Notes on Camp," the essay that made her name, from Chester, who by that time was fed up with the literary rat race and gladly bequeathed them to her. Still, it was a far more complex relationship than that.

"Alfred frequently suffered from a competitive spirit with such powerful women (see Ozick''s memoir), even when he was their creative model, as he was for Susan," writes Field. "Seeing her as competition, though she was only beginning to find her way as a writer, and sensing that her beauty and brains were a winning combination, he liked to cut her down to size by bad-mouthing her legs as heavy, and her mind as academic and conventional. With her photographic memory, he told me, she might know everything, but only superficially. She spouted other people''s ideas, he said, usually the fashionable kind derived from the French avant-garde, which she peddled in New York. But it was chiefly her beauty that he saw as giving her an unfair advantage over him, both in literary and personal matters."

The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag is filled with anecdotes - and lots of juicy literary gossip - and is rarely dull. But it ends up being a sad story indeed, and not just because of the fate of Alfred Chester.

This is yet another memoir that gives credence to Wordsworth''s famous line: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."

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