Edmund White was there at the Stonewall riots, there again at the onset of Aids, and his intellectual friends ranged from Jasper Johns to Susan Sontag. Gaby Wood meets the celebrated author as he publishes his memoir of that time, City Boy
The Observer, Sunday 3 January 2010
Edmund White has a wonderful chuckle, full of active mischief and helpless glee. We are sitting in his apartment in Chelsea, New York, drinking tea and looking out on to the building where he helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the early 1980s – the moment, he remembers, that marked the end of sex without consequences, the tip of the long shadow cast by the 60s.
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s
by Edmund White
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
That variegated shadow is the subject of White’s new memoir, City Boy. It’s an account slanted, as White’s best books are, toward the intimate. With his autobiographical novels (notably the trilogy that began with A Boy’s Own Story and ended with The Farewell Symphony), his memoirs (My Lives), his biographies (Genet, Proust, Rimbaud) and his historical novels (Hotel de Dream, about Stephen Crane, and Fanny: A Fiction, about Fanny Wright and Fanny Trollope), White has become not only a stylist of eminence and influence but perhaps our most imaginative examiner
When I ask White how he has come to mine his own life in different forms, he says that fiction and non-fiction offer different contracts with the reader. “In a memoir, your main contract with the reader is to tell the truth, no matter how bizarre. In a novel, I think you have a contract with the reader to make the character representative – of a moment in history, a social class… for instance, I wanted to make the boy in A Boy’s Own Story more like other gay men of my generation in their youth and not like me. I was very precocious, both sexually and intellectually. I mean, I’d had sex with a couple of hundred people by the time I was 16. I was an obsessive-compulsive sex maniac. But I didn’t put that in because I thought: that’s so freaky. There would only be two other people in the world who would identify with me.”
In a memoir, no such difficulty. White is fearless in his relaying of carnal details and omnivorous in his reading habits. He tells you about the “trick towel” he used to put under his pillow for wiping up after his one-night stands (“one man or 10”), about how he dated his clap doctor, and almost as much about his platonic communions with Tolstoy and Donald Barthelme. His career, as Alan Hollinghurst put it, has been “dedicated to sexual truth-telling”.
Anyone who lived in New York in the 70s knows it was a shambolic, scary, exhilarating, bankrupt and permissive city – fractured, as some saw it, beyond reclaim. White’s book shows that but also the very particular New York of a gifted, promiscuous, scholarly, sociable young gay writer – apparently star-crossed yet significantly admired (at one point it seems as though nobody has heard of White except Vladimir Nabokov, who loves his work).
White says he’s been accused of name-dropping, but the book is more or less organised around the famous people he knew – it’s not nearly casual enough a position to be referred to as “dropping” (there are the poets Richard Howard, James Merrill and John Ashbery; Lillian Hellman, Peggy Guggenheim, Harold Brodkey, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jasper Johns). What he does drop are devastating one-liners about people: “Richard [Howard] was from Cleveland, just like Hart Crane, as he always mentioned”; “[Susan Sontag] should have been given the Nobel prize. That would have made her nicer.” Yet to accuse White of gossiping is pointless, since for him the social is the intellectual and there is no sliding scale; he’d just as soon tell you about the time he spotted Ezra Pound in Venice as tell you what his lovers like to do in bed.
There’s a beguiling tone, in the book, of accidental history: not bearing witness in a grandstanding way but saying, as if in passing: “I was there, just by chance.” Nowhere is this marginal stance more striking than in his account of the Stonewall riots. He happened to be walking past the now famous bar that night and at first he tried to stop the riots from happening (“Resistance to authority made me nervous”). Then, as he joined in a kicking chorus line of protesters who dubbed themselves the Pink Panthers, he thought: this could be the first funny revolution.
White writes about the height of identity politics, a time when to be committed was everything, from a point of view of frank ambivalence. “I tried to make the point that I wasn’t really an habitué of anything,” White suggests as he pours another cup of tea. “I never went to Studio 54. I wasn’t really a scene-maker.” What this leaves out, however, is White’s own effect, if not on any given scene, then on culture over the long haul. From his uncertainty about activism, you’d not necessarily guess that he became the pre-eminent voice in gay literature and that he remains a distinguished writer, full stop. At one point in the book, he recollects an argument with an academic and editor who objects to the label “gay literature”. White, at the time, saw nothing wrong with claiming new ground but adds that he came to see his friend’s point.
Might it be a self-made ghetto after all? He offers a benign smile and deadpans: “If you only read gay fiction you certainly would miss a lot of great stuff. I’ve written about an awful lot of different things and I get sometimes dismissed as a ‘gay’ writer. But better to be pigeonholed and read by a small group than to be totally ignored, like most writers. It’s frivolous to complain you’re ghettoised when at least you have people in the ghetto to read you.”
Among other things, though, he has noticed that the blue-chip closeted types have had the last laugh. “They got rich and stayed rich,” he says. “And when they die – in the case of somebody like Susan Sontag – they’re outed and that only makes them interesting all over again. So staying in the closet while you’re alive, and coming out posthumously, are two good career moves.”
In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon. It was a grungy, dangerous, bankrupt city without normal services most of the time. The garbage piled up and stank during long strikes by the sanitation workers. A major blackout led to days and days of looting. The city seemed either frightening or risible to the rest of the nation. To us, however, it represented the only free port on the entire continent. Only in New York could we walk hand in hand with a member of the same sex.
Back in the mid-60s New York had just one leather bar, and it was inconspicuous and customers would wear their normal clothes and carry a change of costume in a bag, then switch to their chaps and black leather vest in the taxi. They were terrified a friend, even a gay friend, might see them going out in this freaky rig. Sadomasochism
still sounded perverted and ever so slightly tacky – sort of New Jersey. And elderly. As if working-class, old gay men who couldn’t compete in the real bars could look appealing in leather, or at least threatening.
By the 70s all that was changing. In 1972 LA Plays Itself, a hardcore porn film starring the charismatic director Fred Halsted, opened on 56th Street and ran briefly before the cops closed it down. The Anvil, a bar with go-go boys, opened in 1974 just south of 14th Street. Boys danced on the bar on the ground floor while men had sex downstairs in the darkened bowels of the building.
In 1975 a hardcore S&M monthly magazine, Drummer, started publishing. It had fairly technical information about how to torture and submit to it – we read it with avidity. The whole look and smell of gay New York culture was changing toward beefier bodies, beards, and the odour of brew, harness, sweat, and Crisco. A boyfriend of mine said that New Yorkers were so pale and unhealthy looking that black leather was the only look that suited them.
The leather bars kept pushing farther and farther uptown until they reached 21st Street and 11th Avenue with the Eagle’s Nest. There all the men seemed older and bearded and muscular and over six feet tall. At 5ft 10in I’d never felt short before except in Amsterdam. Now I was a shorty in my own city. To get from the West Village up to the Eagle, gay men had to go past three blocks of projects on Ninth Avenue starting at 16th Street. Gangs who lived in the projects would attack single gay men. We started wearing whistles around our necks to summon other gay men to our defence – a fairly effective system. I thought back to the 50s when everyone was a sissy boy with straightened hair, cologne, and a baby-blue cashmere sweater and penny loafers. Back then we would have been terrified of gangs.
Not any more. Now many of us were taking judo classes.
And now the dress code was strict. The Eagle would allow “No hat other than leather cycle caps, western hats, construction hats or uniform hats. No jackets or coats other than leather or western style”.
At one time the Mineshaft was New York’s most notorious “members only” club. Membership was granted on the spot if one passed muster – no designer clothes, no sneakers, no cologne. Located on Washington Street at Little West 12th Street in the heart of the meatpacking district, it was open around the clock from Wednesday night through Monday morning, featuring a clothes check, dungeons, and other amenities. Yes, one was allowed to check all one’s clothes and stroll about naked or in a jockstrap – undress was encouraged. The Mineshaft opened in 1977 before the Aids era and was finally closed by the city’s Department of Health in 1985, four years after Aids was first diagnosed.
Within the nondescript street-level door of the Mineshaft were stairs leading straight up to the doorkeeper, sitting on a barstool, no longer the stogie-smoking Mafia guy of yore in a porkpie hat but rather a bearded and equally heavyset gay man in jeans and workboots. Inside was the big bar area with its low lights and pool tables. Behind a partition was the “action” part of the club on two floors. There was an entire wall of glory holes with people kneeling in front of crotch-high holes and servicing disembodied erections.
A whole rabbit warren of small rooms was downstairs, and in one was a bathtub where men would take turns being pissed on. In 1979 I wrote an essay in the left-wing New Times justifying gay S&M. I acknowledged: “As for gay S&M, it is as disturbing for heterosexuals to contemplate as was the thought of fair Celia on the potty for Jonathan Swift.” I was alert to the drama and romanticism of glimpsed scenes at the Mineshaft: “In the basement two stoned men are kissing under black light. Absurdly, touchingly, anachronistically romantic, they are unaware of everyone around them, their fluorescent white shirts gleaming eerily like Baudelaire’s swan bathing its wings in the dust.”
In the early 80s the Mineshaft scene turned sour. Not only was the spectre of Aids dogging everyone’s steps but there was also a ghastly ritualistic murder. Apparently a coke-snorting art dealer, Andrew Crispo, while sitting in his apartment, kept dialing the number of the public phone booth just outside the Mineshaft. A handsome Norwegian model answered and agreed to be picked up by Crispo’s passing car and to submit to a night of torture. The fun and games got out of hand, however, and the model, after hours of being tortured, was shot twice through the head by Crispo’s assistant and bodyguard, a renegade rich boy. The body was dumped in a smokehouse on the estate of the bodyguard’s parents’ estate on Long Island. When the victim was found much later, the leather mask had burned into his face but most of the body had become unrecognisable.
INTELLECTUAL LIFE’ IN 1970s NEW YORK
I don’t remember how I met Richard Sennett but dozens of roads led to the intellectual and social Rome he represented. Dick was a professor of sociology at New York University and had written several remarkable books, including The Hidden Injuries of Class and The Fall of Public Man. He was a well-known professor and sought-after lecturer and he entertained with charm and tirelessness in his little house on Washington Mews, a brick-paved lane just off Washington Square.
Dick mainly liked to entertain, but not just anyone. At his house on the mews you could meet Isaiah Berlin or Michel Foucault or Susan Sontag or Jürgen Habermas or Alfred Brendel. Some of the younger guests would look in before heading off to the disco of the moment, Studio 54. I’d never gone there but apparently the owner, Steve Rubell, let in both beautiful nobodies and celebrities of any sort.
Studio 54 had a giant, smiling man-in-the-moon up above the dancers, slowly shovelling a spoon of cocaine toward his nose, over and over. This was still when many acquaintances assured me that cocaine was harmless and not addictive.
People joked that it was the perfect yuppie drug since it made your head clearer and inspired you to want to work even more.
Dick Sennett’s salon was far from the Studio though no less exclusive in its way. No one paid much attention to the food or the liberal lashings of plonk. It was all a plush background for the startling mondaine reality in the frame: the good talk and the promise of even better talk. He was wonderfully encouraging as a friend. He hired me to be the executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities even though I was only marginally an academic and had never been an administrator, except briefly at Saturday Review. The part-time job paid me just $22,000 a year – and my main duty was getting everyone coffee.
In many ways, however, I was a good choice. I liked most people, I wanted to know all about their scholarly pursuits, I was even- tempered, and I had a small reputation as a writer. I was teaching a fiction workshop or two at Columbia and another one at New York University. I had a low rent and few expenses.
Dick did everything to encourage me. When I wrote a play, a fairly tedious one, he decided we should give it a reading at the institute. Val Kilmer, at that point a young, unknown actor, agreed to read the young lover. In real life Kilmer’s lover was then reputedly the much older Cher, who would wait for him outside the door in her limo every evening after rehearsals. No fool Cher – she wasn’t about to let this treasure (a drool-makingly young, masculine heterosexual beauty) escape from her. Maria Tucci, who was married to Bob Gottlieb, head of Knopf, the publishing house, played one of the other parts.
The institute gave glamorous parties and lunches where visitors from all over the world presented their latest thoughts and findings in an informal, collegial way, and the question-and-answer periods following the brief talks were as stimulating as any I ever attended.
We invited Jorge Luis Borges to come to New York. He and his wife, Maria Kodama, had to fly first-class, of course, from Buenos Aires, and we arranged for them to stay in a beautiful NYU apartment looking down over Washington Square. The only drawback was lack of room service. Maria Kodama called me on a Sunday afternoon and asked, “Who will wash out Borges’s underthings?” I thought to volunteer my own services but I was afraid of embarrassing everyone. Finally I had to hire a maid at $100 an hour to go over there on Sunday evening and wash out the distinguished panties.
Borges gave a talk, one of the two talks he gave everywhere all the time with no variation. This talk was his one on how the best metaphors are clichés because they’re true: Life Is a Dream and Time Is a River, and any effort to invent newer, fresher images is false and misleading. No one paid much attention to what he was saying. He was iconic because he’d written a half-dozen brain-twisting stories of an admirable lightness in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Now, all these years later, he was invited everywhere because of these few brilliant stories that few people in the audience would have read, much less understood. I suppose I’d never before witnessed up close such a huge career nor noticed how his was based on such a slim oeuvre written four decades previously.
ON HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH SUSAN SONTAG’
The biggest star at the New York Institute for the Humanities was Susan Sontag. I think I must have met her at Dick Sennett’s house. At least I imagine I fell into a conversation with her, she who had been my idol for many years.
It’s strange that I can’t remember our first meeting since I can remember in vivid detail reading her essay on pornography when it first came out and agreeing and disagreeing with it in such an intense way. I read it because it addressed thoughts I’d had for years but not known how to formulate. Reading the essay on camp was the same gripping
experience. To be sure, Isherwood in one of his novels, The World in the Evening, had mentioned camp (high and low), but Sontag thoroughly explored the subject and saw it as a way of rescuing failed glamour –”so bad it’s good”– and putting the world in quotation marks, of aestheticising all experience. Everyone, even Time magazine, grabbed on to “Notes on Camp” as a kind of parlour game, the exploitation of a vogue word, the pinpointing of a new sensibility.
What became clear in reading and talking to Sontag was that she wrote best about subjects she was most ambiguous about. Campiness both attracted and repelled her. Indeed her whole personality was based on this same push-pull dynamic. She was also just a bit anti-Semitic and homophobic. She once told the African-American novelist and essayist Darryl Pinckney that he was “reducing” his stature as a writer by calling himself a black writer. She asked me how I could bear to be considered a gay writer. Her questions were meant to guide the people she cared about, Darryl and me among others, away from our own “narrowing” labels. And it’s perfectly true that she maintained world-class status partly by staying in the closet.
Soon after I met Susan I started hanging out with her. Other people have described how going out in public with her was like being seen with royalty. By and large New Yorkers were too discreet to bother her but they did recognise her, especially at cultural events – at the ballet, at movies, at lectures. Phillip Lopate in his Notes on Sontag talks about how she’d stroll about in front of a movie audience before the lights went down, supposedly looking for
someone but – in his opinion –making sure that everyone was aware of her presence. On the other hand, Susan didn’t like people to refer to their friendship with her in print. I remember that the talented, if bitter, writer Gary Indiana, who wrote about heroin in a powerful novel of the period called Horse Crazy, remarked in the Village Voice that Sontag knew all the best Chinese restaurants in Manhattan – and for that one indiscretion he was banished from court.
Susan’s closest friend was her son, David Rieff. For two years he and I were virtually inseparable and I was very, very fond of him. He had grown up with “gay uncles” such as Richard Howard and Jasper Johns, and I seemed to be falling into the familiar mode of the queer avuncular, though in my mind we were something more like cousins. David could be as contemptuous of other people as his mother was, but for the most part he seemed admiring and vulnerable and just a bit of a puppy dog.
Jamaica Kincaid was a friend of ours in those exciting days – a tall black woman with a much smaller husband, the composer Allen Shawn, brother of the actor and playwright Wally Shawn, and they were of course the sons of the longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn. When I ran into Jamaica recently after two decades of not seeing her, I
asked timidly, “Do you remember me?” and she overwhelmed me by saying, “Of course I remember you – those were some of the happiest days of my life!”
They were happy days for me, too. David was attachant and dear. Susan could be impossibly vain and imperious, but she was also protective and generous. She wrote a blurb for my breakthrough novel, A Boy’s Own Story, which she did in her usual serious, thorough, time-consuming way. Just to write a few lines she felt she had to re-read all three of my novels as well as States of Desire. She put me up for a $7,000 prize at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which I won, and wrote a letter of recommendation for a $22,000 Guggenheim Fellowship, which I received.
After A Boy’s Own Story came out she said, “You’ll never be poor again in your life.” And though I’ve often had to scramble to pay the rent, what she said was true –I was never really desperate again.
Years later, after I’d broken with Susan, Marina Warner told me that during a visit to New York she’d met Susan and that I was wrong about her, she was a delight, no one could be warmer or kinder. I was quick to agree with Marina but I astonished her when I said, “But I’ll tell you exactly how you spent your time with her. She invited you to a good Chinese restaurant and ordered for you and paid for it. Then she accompanied you to several bookshops and expressed her scandalised amazement that you’d never read Trelawney’s Adventures of a Younger Son or Aksakov’s Family Chronicle. She bought those books for you and gave them to you in a nice little ceremonious moment. During the unrushed afternoon she talked to you about her struggle with cancer and her love affairs – five women and four men.” Marina’s jaw dropped and I said, “It’s perfectly sincere, but that’s the day with Susan. Always the same.”
Susan seemed to have no old friends. Like all famous people she constantly attracted new people, and she didn’t have to cultivate old friendships, resolve disputes, soothe ruffled feathers. She could just move on.
She was a terrible snob. Once I had her to dinner with a beautiful and charming young couple who each eventually went on to write successful novels but who were unknown at the time. Susan said in an embarrassingly loud stage
whisper, “Why did you invite them?” I was so vexed that I lied and said, “They’re terribly rich.” Susan nodded sagely, as if that answered all her doubts. In fact, they weren’t rich at all, but later split up and each of them married extremely “well”. Oddly enough, when I invited Susan to dinner in Paris in 1981 with Michel Foucault, he whispered, when she left the room for a moment, “Why did you invite her?” I didn’t realise that he didn’t like to socialise with women.
Susan could be sweet and melancholy but she was often “out of it” in social settings, never getting the joke and needing everything to be spelled out. Her laugh was mirthless and heavy. She lacked spontaneity. Elle n’était pas bien dans sa peau, as the French would say.
She could be little-girlish and tender at times, though normally she was brusque, lordly, dissatisfied. Someone who might have been trying too hard would walk out of the room and Susan would wrinkle her nose and shake her head dismissively.
She should have been given the Nobel Prize. That would have made her nicer. She was friendly with lots of Nobelists, including Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Czeslaw Milosz, all writers I met through her. Around all these people Susan was wonderfully natural, and they perceived her as their equal, even their superior.
After moving to Paris in the early 80s, I wrote a novel, Caracole, that came out in 1985. Although it read like a fable taking place in Venice in the 19th century, it could equally be read as an attack on the institute and on Susan. In all my years of therapy I never got to the bottom of my impulse toward treachery, especially toward people who’d helped me and befriended me. A Boy’s Own Story ends with the boy (me) betraying his teacher, a man with whom he had sex. Oddly enough, I felt Susan would appreciate the aptness of my portrait, that she would learn from my implied admonitions. Of course on another level I knew I was trashing her and that she’d be angry. Susan was so angry that she asked Roger Straus, her editor, to contact all my foreign publishers and request as a courtesy to her and to him that they remove her blurb from the next edition of A Boy’s Own Story in every language.
Sixteen years later I moved back to New York, and one day I ran into Susan in a restaurant. I’d rushed over to her table without recognising her because I’d spotted a Parisian friend, the Argentine film director Edgardo Cozarinsky.
Suddenly I thought, “Oh, dear, this woman with the short white hair must be Susan Sontag after her chemo.” I hurriedly slunk back to my table. But then, in a flash, there was Susan standing by my side. She said, “Ed, I hope you don’t think I was ignoring you because of our silly little feud.”
I stood and she embraced me. We agreed that we’d get together, that all was forgiven, that we’d patch it up. But the next day when I saw her at Cozarinsky’s screening, she was distant. I realised too much time had gone by. That our reconciliation hadn’t really “taken”. That was all right. We’d both become different people.
Aids first started to be mentioned in 1981. No one had ever heard of it before then. Larry Kramer, a screenwriter and producer (Women in Love) and novelist (Faggots), convened a meeting of gay men in his Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Washington Square. We were addressed by Dr Alvin Friedman-Kien, who’d studied several cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare skin cancer that usually appeared in old men of Jewish or Mediterranean origin. Suddenly it was showing up in young gay men, as was an unusual and virulent form of pneumonia. Soon this new cluster of diseases was being called gay-related immunodeficiency or Grid.
Larry invited five or six other men, including me, to discuss forming an offensive against Grid (which a year later was renamed Aids). We decided to call our group the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We wanted to emphasise that it was a “crisis” and not a permanent condition, since gays were not eager to be equated with yet another medical diagnosis.
We were naïve but there was no way to be sophisticated about an unprecedented plague. Nothing like this had ever happened to anyone before.
Dr Friedman-Kien said to us that he thought we should give up sex altogether until researchers understood a little more about how the disease was transmitted. We looked at him as if he were mad. Just as the Crash of 1929 ended the Roaring 20s, so the Aids epidemic of 1981 ended the sexy 70s. Susan Sontag once said to me that in all of human history in only one brief period were people free to have sex when and how they wanted – between 1960, with the introduction of the first birth-control pills, and 1981, with the advent of Aids. For those two decades all sexually transmitted diseases could be treated with antibiotics, unwanted pregnancies were eliminated through the Pill and legalised abortion, and Aids did not yet exist. Religion seemed to be on the wane and promiscuity appeared to be the wave of the future.
In 1981 all that came to an end. Gays of my generation were especially unprepared to accept the new reality since for us, as I’ve mentioned before, gay liberation had meant sexual liberation, and gay culture still meant sexual access and abundance. Now we were being told to limit the number of our partners, to know our partners’ names, or to abstain from sex altogether. Later we were told to suck not fuck, but even so the definition of safe sex was highly unstable, and to this day, almost four decades into Aids, no one seems certain exactly which practices are safe or unsafe. Sontag followed the developments carefully and soon began to see that the demonising of the gay population because of Aids was not unlike the previous blaming of patients with tuberculosis and syphilis in the 19th century or cancer in our own day. She thought that she might add an appendix about Aids to Illness as Metaphor, her 1978 study. Charles Silverstein and I thought that our influential The Joy of Gay Sex should be revised to include warnings about Aids, but with still so little information about it, no one knew how to frame that cautionary advice.
The revision did not come out until several years later.
I was the first president of GMHC, though I quickly retired in favour of Paul Popham, an attractive macho businessman who was far more competent. Almost from the beginning Larry Kramer was sharply critical of the other members, and by 1983 he had founded a much more militant group called ACT UP. Certainly we all made lots of mistakes. Instead of instantly enlisting the help of the federal government, we organised a disco fund raiser. We thought small. We thought ghetto. We didn’t understand that we were watching the beginnings of an epidemic that would soon enough infect 40 million people worldwide.
New York didn’t change right away but a feeling of dread was now in every embrace. What had seemed innocent revels now felt like the manoeuvres of a death squad. What had felt warm and sticky with life was now the cool syrup of mortality. Those gangs of tall men in leather jackets walking joyfully down the street, their engineer boots ringing sparks off the pavement, now broke up, dissipated into the night, melted into furtive individuals. Whereas in the late 1970s everyone wanted to be bisexual, the height of trendiness, now people were starting to deny they’d ever had experiences with members of the same sex. People who’d been fashionably skinny the year before now were beefing
up to prove they weren’t besieged by a wasting disease.
I didn’t want the party to stop, and I moved to Paris in the summer of 1983.David Rieff gave me some sartorial advice. He told me that every man in Paris wore a coat and tie and that I’d have to get rid of my dirty, torn jeans.
David assumed I was leaving New York because I’d become too famous. “You’d never be allowed to write another book if you stayed here, right?” he asked. My concerns were more sybaritic than professional; in any event he exaggerated my success. I wanted to go on having industrial quantities of sex – and I thought I could go on in Paris. New York was
turning into a morgue.
In the end, I didn’t really escape from Aids. Many of my French friends died, including Foucault, just as back in America so did my dearest friend, David Kalstone. Aids killed off most of my circle. Every time I would come back to New York, more and more of my friends would be dying or dead. Gradually I became more and more sombre and my
Parisian life became as dark as my New York life. I sat by many bedsides and held many emaciated hands. I didn’t feel the famous survivor guilt only because I was positive myself and expected throughout the 80s to die within a few months.
Every time I would come back to New York from Paris in the 80s and 90s, I was shocked by how sleek it had become, how expensive ice cream boutiques had replaced the corner shoe repair shops, how the city neighbourhoods were being gentrified as more and more rich young workers in finance moved into town and drove out the older, poorer ethnic minorities. And the bohemians. New York was no longer a dangerous, run-down ghetto; it had become a chromium, spotlit, palm-festooned singles bar.
I was lucky to live in New York when it was dangerous and edgy and cheap enough to play host to young, penniless artists. That was the era of “coffee shops” as they were defined in New York – cheap restaurants open round the clock where you could eat for less than it would cost to cook at home. That was the era of ripped jeans and dirty T-shirts, when the kind of people who were impressed by material signs of success were not the people you wanted to know. I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms – then clears out. Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening-night celebrations, stars’ names on the marquee), then it vanishes. With every new play the theatre itself is just a bit more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished.
Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely. The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages. Nothing lasts in New York. The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets