It’s been interesting to re-write and re-post reviews in groupings that are more related to each other than when I first posted them as I read them. Young Man From The Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall by Alan Helms reveals the long-vanished and fascinating world of gay life in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. This is a tale told of an intriguing time and place that is well-written and in language that anyone can easily understand. It’s a bit after the times depicted in Intimate Companions, but I would bet that the author knew some of those men, too.
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Author Edmund White writes, “Alan Helms was the most famous piece of äss of my generation. We called him ‘Scandal Boy’ and constructed endless gossip around him. What Dehham Fouts was to Truman Capote and Christopher Isherwood, Allan Helms was to us.” Terrence McNally said, “ Alan Helms was the young man I wanted to be. This book was like reading the autobiography of the life I didn’t have. I read it with recognition of the long, painful journey so many of us have towards some kind of maturity.”
Alan Helms escaped from a painful Midwestern adolescence to the academic protection of Columbia University, where he threw himself headlong into New York’s gay world. He was denied a Rhodes scholarship because of his sexual orientation and eventually turned his back on higher education to become a successful model and stage actor. He moved in glamorous circles and attended glittering parties with the likes of Tony Perkins, Leonard Bersnstein, Stephen Sondheim, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Edward Albee. There’s a funny story in the book about Leonard Bernstein chasing him down the middle of Lexington Avenue, and another of a late night visit to Noel Coward on Beekman Place.
Although his friends and lovers were from a higher social realm than mine, I had the mistaken idea that because we had lived in the same town and were members of the same craft, that gave us something in common. For starters, we were both from the Mid-west; Alan was from Indiana, I was from Wisconsin. It seems that we had had both lived through some exciting times and had been to some of the same places. We both moved to New York in the 50s, we both lived in the Village.
Helms spent his summers at Fire Island Pines immersed in the company of young and beautiful men and the wealthy, older men who kept them. I went to Fire Island, too, but my first introduction to the place was Cherry Grove, quite a step down from The Pines. The guys at the Grove were just as young and just as cute. When I eventually made it to the Pines on a couple of occasions, I found that although it was way out of my league, these were some of the same guys who came to Cherry Grove to party down and have some fun in the bushes.
Alan traveled around the world with is lovers, he met and slept with many famous people. My only claim to fame is to have bedded Edward Albee one drunken night in the Village. It must not have been very auspicious because I don’t remember a thing; maybe it was one of my alcoholic blackouts. Alan’s an my mutual friend on Sutton Place remembers and reminds me of it at every chance he gets. He also managed to tell a few Allan Helms stories that weren’t included in his memoir.
In the early ‘70s when Alan realized that the gay social world was changing and that he was fast approaching middle age by himself, he battled depression and drug abuse. He joined Alanon to help himself cope with his father’s alcoholism and his biggest battle was for self-acceptance. In his attempt to build a better life, he has remained strong as he faced his mother’s death from cancer and the deaths of many friends and lovers from AIDS--more than 80 in number, and still climbing.
Gay life in the Big Apple for me during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was an entirely different world from what it is today. Living in the freer and more liberal atmosphere of Greenwich Village certainly allowed me to blossom socially and sexually. I had a high old time, but watched my step and basically kept my nose clean when I was uptown. I moved on to the West Coast in the late 60s, but back then it was secretive and seemed determined to stay that way.
All the action took place behind the unmarked doors of bars and in apartments where the shades seemed always to be drawn. This was a time when shock treatments and lobotomies were considered acceptable as “cures” for homosexuality. There was a sense of shame underlying the frenetic living of the lives led by gay men and lesbians of that time. All that changed in the years after the Stonewall uprising and I couldn’t be happier about it.
In 1996 I went back to New York for a friend’s 80th birthday bash and stayed with my friend on Sutton Place. Another houseguest was a former dancer from A Chorus Line who was now a successful painter. He knew Alan and had come to town to help celebrate the success of Young Man; he loaned me his copy of the book to read. When he told Alan that I found some similarities in our early lives, he sent back a signed copy for me inscribed, “The devil made me do it.” While I never got the chance to meet him and thank him personally, we have exchanged letters and e-mails over the past few years.
Alan Helms is a professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He writes his memoir with a sense of humor and candid frankness, but above all, he writes from the perspective of a survivor. This is an enjoyable book about a New York that is no more. (Farber & Farber, ISBN 0-571-19880-5).
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