Archive for the ‘novelists’ Category


Monroeville, Ala.

Old Courthouse Museum
31 North Alabama Ave.

I’m currently reading Mockingbird, a portrait of writer Harper Lee, and enjoying the bits and pieces of her life that match up with her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. That novel is a favorite of mine, as is the movie of the same name – I even have much of the dialogue committed to memory. (“Miss Jean Louise – Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing!”)

Scout Finch is, of course, the quintessential queer kid, along with her friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor Truman Capote). I dissected the queerness of Lee’s story and the film a few years back – on the occasion of Gregory Peck’s death – in an article called “To Queer a Mockingbird.”

The town of Monroeville – where Lee still lives part of the time – boasts Lee as its claim to fame. The town hosts an amateur performance of a play based on Lee’s novel every May (billed as “Alabama‘s hottest theater ticket”). The play is staged in the Old Courthouse, which was the inspiration for the Maycomb County Courthouse of Lee’s story – the place where Atticus Finch makes his impassioned defense of Tom Robinson (see photo above). The courthouse is also a year-round museum with three permament exhibits, including one on Lee and another on Capote. In town, there is also a guided tour, pointing out local spots of note to fans of Lee and Capote.

Read Full Post »


Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Union Avenue (between racetrack and Interstate 87)

Originally the home of wealthy stockbroker Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, Yaddo was named by one of the Trask children – her mispronunciation of “shadow.” The Trasks had four offspring, all of whom died young, and Katrina’s grief made her try to envision a brighter future for the estate as an artists’ colony, after she and her husband had died. In 1926, following the Trasks’ wishes, Yaddo welcomed its first colonists and continues to sponsor writers who must apply for residence.

Yaddo is a gloomy, gothic estate, and on an overcast day, it’s easy to believe the rumors that it is haunted by the ghosts of the Trask children. It is also easy to imagine Patricia Highsmith creating her great psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in this “shadowy” setting. Yaddo was also a favorite writing retreat for other queer writers, including John Cheever, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes (fifth from the right, second row, in this 1942 photo), and Carson McCullers (three to the left of Hughes), who finished The Member of the Wedding while in residence. McCullers was a frequent visitor to the colony; on her very first visit, she was placed in the coveted “tower room” that had belonged to Katrina Trask. A few years later, Truman Capote worked on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in the very same room.

Read Full Post »

New York, N.Y.

James Baldwin home
131st Street and Fifth Avenue (private)

A housing project has been on this site in Harlem for almost 50 years, but the first home of writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) was once located here. Baldwin wrote vividly and movingly of the deteriorating neighborhood in his essay, “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” calling the avenue “wide, filthy, hostile.” “Walk through the streets of Harlem,” he admonished his readers, “and see what we, this nation, have become.”


Baldwin remembered a bleak, poverty-stricken childhood, where his playgrounds were the roof of his building and a nearby garbage dump. He escaped a brutal stepfather and a troubled home life through books and writing. One of his junior-high teachers, Countee Cullen, spent much time working with him on his fiction and poetry. Baldwin also found solace in the church, becoming an evangelical minister at the age of fourteen. Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), his first novel, is an autobiographical work focused on his early life in Harlem.

Baldwin worked a number of after-school jobs to help his family, and at one such job in downtown Manhattan in 1940, he met the painter Beauford Delaney, who became his mentor and possibly his lover. Delaney introduced Baldwin to jazz, art, and to a circle of African-American artists. “The reality of his seeing,” Baldwin later wrote, “caused me to begin to see.” As a young man Baldwin left his family and Harlem for Greenwich Village, where he worked odd jobs to support his writing. In 1948, he took off for Paris, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life. Though he returned to live in New York for periods of time, he didn’t like to stay long, saying that the racism of the city made him too sad.

Baldwin addressed homosexuality and bisexuality in many of his works, most notably Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). His own life included affairs with both men and women, but the love of his life seems to have been a Frenchman named Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in 1949. “I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something,” Baldwin later wrote. “For one thing I fell in love.” Happersberger became Baldwin‘s lover for a while but didn’t share the dream of two men building a life together; he eventually married a woman and named his son after Baldwin.

In addition to fiction writing, Baldwin authored numerous important nonfiction works exploring race and racism. He was himself active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continued to speak out about racism until his death from cancer in 1987.

Read Full Post »


Baltimore, Md.

Gertrude Stein residence
2408 Linden Avenue (private)

Gertrude Stein’s (1874-1946) first ambition was not to be a writer, but a psychologist. After studying psychology with William James at Harvard, Stein was accepted at the John Hopkins Medical School, where her brother, Leo (with whom she was very close), was also enrolled. She lived with relatives at this address (on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985) for about a year, then moved in with Leo at 215 East Biddle Street.

Stein was unhappy and unfulfilled in medical school. She was also on the brink of discovering her lesbianism. While living in Baltimore, Stein ran with a lesbian crowd, a group of Bryn Mawr College graduates led by a young woman named Mabel Haynes. Sadly for her, Stein fell unrequitedly in love with Haynes’ “romantic friend,” May Bookstaver. The experience made a deep impression on Stein, whose first novel, Q.E.D., completed in Baltimore in 1903, was an autobiographical account of this lesbian love triangle.

Unlike most of Stein’s work, Q.E.D. was openly lesbian in content and language. Stein put the finished manuscript away for 30 years, and then, in 1932, unearthed it and showed it to her agent, who advised against trying to publish it because of its “controversial” theme. Q.E.D. was finally published in 1950, four years after Stein’s death.

Stein left Baltimore in 1903 to visit Leo, who had moved to Paris, and to try to forget May Bookstaver. Paris agreed with her, and she lived there the rest of her life, meeting Alice B. Toklas, her life companion, in 1907. And May Bookstaver and Mabel Haynes? They both pursued much more traditional lives, ending their affair and marrying men.

Read Full Post »


San Francisco, Calif.

Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street

Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”

At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.

The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.

Read Full Post »


Harlem, N.Y.

267 House
267 West 136th Street

Zora Neale Hurston once wryly dubbed the rooming house that queer writers Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes all called home “Niggerati Manor.” The tenement building (also known as “267 House”) was owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a black philanthropist who offered rooms rent-free to artists in order to support their work. Nugent – a painter as well as a writer – reportedly painted brightly colored phalluses on the interior walls.

It was at this address that Thurman, Nugent, Hurston, Hughes, and others started the experimental literary journal Fire!! in the summer of 1926. Each of its seven founders pledged 50 dollars to the effort, but, according to Hughes’s memoirs, only three ever paid up. Since Thurman was the only one with a steady job, his checks paid for the printing bill for the first and only issue.

The journal had a high price tag for the day – one dollar. Hughes later remembered that Fire!! never seemed to make money because Bruce Nugent – who was unemployed at the time – distributed it to booksellers on foot, using the little bit of cash he got from its sale to buy food. (Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” the first published piece with a homosexual theme by an African-American, was one of the notable pieces included in Fire!!) Ironically, several hundred copies of the journal, which were being stored in the printer’s basement, were burned in an actual fire. It took Thurman four years to pay off the printing bills.

Within two years, the inhabitants of 267 House had all moved elsewhere; but Thurman’s 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring, still provides a glimpse into life at artists’ residence.

“… they walked in silence … Alex turned in his doorway … no need for words … they had always known each other . . .”

–from Richard Bruce Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” 1926

Read Full Post »


Columbus, Ga.

Smith-McCullers House Museum
1519 Stark Avenue

This modest white frame house was the childhood home of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), who was born Lula Carson Smith. (Her actual birthplace was at 423 Thirteenth Street in downtown Columbus.) Carson‘s first fantasy was to be a concert pianist, but a childhood spent reading books and writing and performing skits eventually led to her true vocation. In a 1948 article, “How I Began to Write,” she remembered writing and producing plays in the Stark Avenue house, using the front sitting room as an auditorium and the back sitting room for the stage. The two rooms were separated by walnut pocket doors that functioned as a stage curtain. Carson enlisted her brother and sister as performers, and their proud and supportive mother invited people from the neighborhood to the performances. Carson described their theatrical repertory as “eclectic, running from hashed-over movies to Shakespeare and shows I made up and sometimes wrote down in my nickel Big Chief notebooks.”

Carson was not popular in school – she was withdrawn and cared little about her clothes or appearance – and she was taunted by other girls as being “freakish” or “queer.” She never dated boys until she met Reeves McCullers, a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, in the summer of 1935. Reeves courted Carson at the Starke Avenue house, bringing her mother flowers and candy – and beer and cigarettes for Carson – and they married here two years later. Carson and Reeves had a stormy relationship, rife with drama, that ended finally with Reeves’ suicide. Both were bisexual and at one time were in love with the same man, composer David Diamond.

Carson‘s mother lived in this house until her husband’s death in 1944. Plagued by illness throughout her life, Carson frequently returned to Columbus to recuperate under her mother’s care. Eventually, mother and daughter lived together in Nyack, N.Y., in a house bought with the money from the sale of the Stark Avenue house. The house is now open to the public by appointment (706-327-1911); it also operates as an artists’ retreat, offering residencies to writers and musicians.

Read Full Post »

McClung house

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Willa Cather residence
1180 Murray Hill Avenue (private)

Although we generally associate her with Nebraska, where she grew up, novelist Willa Cather (1873-1947) lived in Pittsburgh from 1896 to 1906, during which time she worked as managing editor of the women’s magazine, Home Monthly, and then as drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader; she also did a stint as a high school English teacher. In 1899, she met and fell in love with Isabelle McClung, a young socialite and patron of the arts, whose father was a prominent judge. McClung invited Cather to move from her South Craig Street boarding house and live with her and her wealthy family in their mansion in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The two young women shared a bedroom at the back of the 13-room house, and took an extended tour of Europe together in 1902.

At a social occasion at the McClungs’ house, Cather met the publisher of McClure’s Magazine, who offered her an editor’s job in New York. She moved to Manhattan and found a life partner in Edith Lewis, but stayed in close contact with McClung throughout her life; the pair even took vacations together until McClung married a man in 1915. There are no surviving letters between them, as Cather destroyed all her correspondence.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts