Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Two

Hapless in Junior High and High School

Junior high school (now termed middle school) and high school formed a kind of triptych, each three years long. In both, instead of having a single teacher, as in elementary school, the day was divided into periods, each with its own teacher tackling a single subject. While there were a good many required courses - including gym, which I hated - there were also electives.

I turn now to the first of this pair of experiences.  From 1946 to 1949 I attended a coeducational public institution called Mount Vernon Junior High on West 17th Street not far from my home in Los Angeles.

Mount Vernon is now known as Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School In 2006 the school board voted to change the name to honor the lawyer Cochrane, who had represented O.J. Simpson in his murder trial.  Some questioned the name change because of this connection.  At all events, in 2002 KCET, then the local PBS television station, produced a 17-minute documentary on the school and its "severe problems."  The documentary asserted that "the school is overcrowded and poorly maintained; teachers are not following state curriculum and have low expectations of students; and a lack of school-wide policies and communication has translated into poor morale."

In my day Mount Vernon was relatively well run, strict without being tyrannical.  The country had just emerged from the huge effort of World War II, and there was a sense that we all had to act in a methodical, disciplined way.  The Korean War had not yet begun.

By later standards the student body at Mount Vernon was relatively egalitarian.  One of my classmates was the son of Rufus B. von KleinSmid, the president of the University of Southern California.  Others were the children of successful Jewish business men.  Quite a few students were of Armenian extraction, together with some recent arrivals from India and South Korea.  There were also Latinos and African Americans - not very many of the latter, but those who were at the school seemed to do well. Whatever their origin, most of the students professed a religion.  I did not, which caused some tensions.

In those days I became close friends with a boy named Edward Satchell.  We were fascinated by radio and often went to Hollywood to join the live audiences for favorite programs.  We experimented with writing scripts of our own.  Television was just coming in, a huge change that we did not see coming.

Ed had some tricky ways.  We both worked side by side in the cafeteria, selling ice-cream and putting the change away in a little box.  Unbeknownst to me, Ed had been skimming the money.  Our supervisor found out about it and berated my friend.  Offended - he ought to have considered himself lucky not to have been slapped with some penalty - he insisted that we both resign.  The bonds of friendship were strong, so I foolishly went along with his demand.

One afternoon when Ed's parents were away he invited another boy and me over to his house.  We then adjourned to the garage for some sex play, which he somewhar deviously orchestrated.  I was both repelled and excited, but it never happened again with those two.  Later Ed seemed to have completely heterosexualized himself, and we lost touch.  Actually, he had turned gay.  Almost unbelievably he had lived happily for some fifty years in a close relationship with another man in the Bay Area.  I only learned these facts after he died three years ago.  They had married just before he died.

I was to learn, without fully internalizing the matter, that there was sex play - and there was romance. In the ninth grade, I experienced a Roger Peyrefitte-like episode of attraction to a cherub two years younger. This dalliance amounted to no more than puppy love, and it didn’t touble me very much at the time.  (In the 1940s Peyrefitte had published a novel on "particular friendships" that concerned an older prep-school boy's infatuation with a younger schoolmate in France.  Of course I read this book only later.)

After graduating from Mount Vernon I went to Los Angeles High School, which then occupied a stately building in the Elizabethan style on Olympic Boulevard. My situation there, another three-year stint, was similar to junior high, but also different.  There was the same coeducational student body, but we were all of course older.  There was considerable pressure among the boys to date.  For their part, the girls wanted to be "popular," to be sought out by the boys.  With some difficulty I avoided this ritual.  Not entirely, though, as I had a kind of sham girlfriend named Nancy.  We used to go around with five or six other people, and she never pressured me to "do it."

Some classes left a good deal to be desired.  My geometry class was taught by one of the gym instructors, while algebra was attempted by a woman from the registrar.  At the urging of my parent I took Spanish.  I learned enough to make my way later in trips to Spain and Latin America, but I could not be said to have acquired any real feeling for Spanish-language literature.  I preferred to study French and Italian on my own.  I cultivated an international outlook, heading the World Friendship Club.  

Even before the high school years I gravitated to books on history, which I followed up with the appropriate courses.  In my senior year the Hearst Newspapers announced a contest on American history.  I boned up for several weeks, and then joined a bunch of other high school students from various parts of the city to write an essay.  The subject was Andrew Jackson. I remember emphasizing that president's introduction of the spoils system.  I wrote nothing about the abomination of the Trail of Tears in which Jackson's soldiers forced the Cherokee to migrate to what is now Oklahoma.  My essay won a prize.  One thing I learned from my high school years was how to take tests.

I also had a go at acting, impersonating Emily's father in the high school production of  Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."  This experiment was enough, and I realized that this career path was not for me.


There was a lot of distraction in high school.  The place simply teemed with healthy, energetic, even radiant boys. In those days, such paragons of young virility were untouched by drugs or alcohol, vices that were only to intrude in the following generation. As one could freely ascertain in gym classes, the boys had naturally splendid physiques, in no way resembling the shaved, pumped-up icons of today’s popular erotic photos and videos. 

High standards of hygiene were enforced. Showers were required after every gym period, which was every day while school was in session. The length of boys' hair was an aspect of grooming that was strictly controlled. "Long-hairs" or "musicians" would be sternly instructed to get to the barber as soon as possible. A few of the more adventurous boys tested this restriction by allowing a small tuft to grow down at the very back of the head onto the neck, known as a "duck's ass," or D.A. That was as far as one dared go.

Throughout the building, it seemed, the boys' hyperactive pheromones diffused an aroma of subtle intoxication. Anyone who had the slightest bit of gayness in him would have to be really dull not to be drawn to this all-environing pulchritude. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to get through the day without suffering a continuous hard-on. Of course the situation called for restraint, and substantial penalties awaited those who could not or would not manage a proper display of indifference. So at least it seemed in that age of conformity.

Of course it was not all sweetness and light. Occasionally, one of the tough boys would threaten to beat me up after school. I was, after all, a four-eyes and fair game. Oddly enough, though, they never actually did assault me, but the threats were unsettling. I longed to be an adult, for my parents I was sure never got threatened in this way.

When they found themselves in the all-male settings of gym and shop classes, many of the boys were given to cacolalia, the compulsive repetition of dirty words. Actually, it was only one such word: "shit." Perhaps this departure from taboo reflected a revolt against the imposition of order and cleanliness--imperatives later to be defied by the hippies. This four-letter word never crossed my lips. In fact, my parents never used such words, nor did they tolerate ethnic slurs.

Oddly enough, one taboo word was never heard in those days; that was "fuck." For that monosyllable, it was usual to substitute "sexual intercourse." This could even be used as a verb: "to sexual intercourse." Once I was hanging out with two jocks I vaguely knew. One said, playfully I suppose: "Lets go over to Dynes' house and rough him up." No, said the other: "His dad might be a big mother." For quite a while I puzzled over this expression; how could a man be a mother? Eventually, I caught on. They were using a current euphemism that suppressed the second half of the compound, "-fucker."


The sexually charged environment of high school fostered a general seductiveness in which the male form was generically imprinted on my being. Yet there was a more specific agency. In the tenth grade I fell head-over-heels in love with one Larry Smith, a boy I scarcely knew well enough to speak to. What vagabond Merlin could have snared me with this enchantment?

Later, examining the matter soberly from a photograph taken at the time, I noted that Larry had fairly conventional Waspish good looks, with a clear complexion and a square jaw. His grades were, I reckon, little better than average. He could do sports, but did not excel in any of them. These things didn’t matter to me, though, for above all Larry was comfortable in his skin - as I, fretful and anxious, was not. He was not striving to be something, he just was. In his tranquil form, being triumphed over becoming.

In several of his short stories Thomas Mann has analyzed the lure happy youths like Larry pose to lonely outsiders, Even though I did not know it at the time, there was a certain typicality in my fascination. It had been heard of before.

Larry was in several of my classes, and getting through the academic year was torture. Finally, the spring term was over. I would not see Larry for a full three months! Surely, I thought, the grip of the enslaving passion would loosen, and I could at last be free. But it did not, for Larry’s remembered visage continued to torture me all through the summer. At home I would lie and writhe on the grass, in a vague Whitmanian hope that this would help to cure me. No such luck. In the fall I saw Larry again, and the passion flamed up even higher, prompted by the immediate visual stimulus of his revered form. I was doomed

Ultimately the enchantment began to fade, though I still had feelings for Larry. In fact I was not alone in my response, for my homophile buddy Richard W. noted Larry’s good looks in a remark to me. I was too embarrassed to respond.

My inability to shake this passion made clear to me, once and for all, that my nature was homosexual. (I did not know the word “gay” at the time.) The connection sealed my fate in another way: for some time henceforth I would be attracted mainly to straight men like Larry. Obviously, this was a recipe for unhappiness. Up to a point, the arrangement could work, as it later did with Neal M. and Charles Smith, if there was an element of gayness in the other person’s otherwise primarily heterosexual nature. Neal was probably two thirds straight (quite intensely so) and one third gay. Charles (a much more recent involvement starting in the nineties) never really quite found himself - not surprisingly, I suppose, considering his seemingly inevitable downward glide path littered with drug paraphernalia and beer bottles.

I was spared one possible consequence of the Larry entanglement. That is that I was not destined to be caught up in a perpetual fixation on 15- or 16-year old boys (his age at the time). I was not to be a boy lover, thank goodness. In due course, I could move on in a measured way to older types.


Another set of high school episodes highlights the difficulty that an incipient gay boy would, almost inevitably, experience in those Dark Ages of conformity and ignorance. In the quasi-military exercises of ROTC (the Reserve Officers' Training Corps), a sullen boy, trading comments with a confederate, insulted me with a sexual epithet. (He called me a penis; a compliment, I suppose--at least in different circumstances.) In this embarrassing situation--there were others present--I didn’t know how to respond.

Some weeks later I was sitting in the Assembly balcony. I had gone early to attend some event, and the vast hall was practically empty. What should happen, though, but that Mr. Sullen (I can’t now recall his name) should come up and sit right next to me. Almost fawningly, he made it clear that he had no hostility but wanted to be friendly. He did not apologize for the previous incident and, still repulsed, I did my best to shun him.

Some years later Chuck McC., who had belonged to a surreptitious circle of gay boys at LA High, told me that this sullen youth was in fact homosexual. No doubt the boy was struggling with conflicting feelings. His initial verbal attack may have reflected internalized homophobia. And then maybe he was trying to get my attention, and didn’t know how to do it otherwise. Clearly, he craved some kind of relationship; hence his approach to me in the Assembly. Clumsy though that strange boy may have been, he had figured me out better than I had figured out myself.

Had I been able to suspend my aversion to the kid (who was OK looking, but nothing special), our prospects would have been inauspicious. For I too was struggling with conflicted feelings. In contrast with heterosexual adolescent courtship, our milieu provided no models for two men to link up as “more than just friends.” Any relationship of that kind was perilous, because gossip would ensue, followed by ostracism. To the best of my knowledge, McC.’s circle of five or six youths did not include any couples--they were all just friends together, it seemed. A male couple, on the other hand, would elicit hostile attention. So it is just as well that I didn’t go any farther with Mr. Sullen.


I also did things that set me apart - provocations as it were. I opposed the dominant pop trends by seeking to promote high culture, especially classical music. Several years earlier I had heard an abridged version of "Aida" on the radio, and was fascinated.  Yet opera - or so I was told by one of my classmates- was “stuffy.” (The expression “it sucks” was unknown then.)

Mozart was my god. Later I became almost physically ill when I read a mediocre British novelist’s dismissive comment about “filthy old Mozart.”  I still like Mozart, but nowadays I am this side of idolatry.  This allegiance was long before the purported discovery of the “Mozart effect.”  During the 1990s a series of research studies suggest that listening to the composer’s music may induce a short-term improvement in the performance of certain mental tasks known  collectively as “spatio-temporal reasoning.”  This led to a popularized version, suggesting that “listening to Mozart makes you smarter.”  I would encourage people to listen to classical music, but there seems to be no conclusive data indicating that early childhood exposure to it has a beneficial effect on mental development.

In those days I looked down on the Tin Pan Alley hits favored by my schoolmates. Some of these, such as "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake" (1950) and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" (1952), were in fact pretty bad.  Some leant themselves to parody, maybe by design.  Frank Sinatra's 1949 song "The Old Master Painter from the Far Away Hills" was "misheard as "The Old Masturbater from the Far Away Hills."  A perennial classic was a rendering of "Jalousie," which went "Leprosy, It's Crawling All Over Me."

At LA High School I took an excellent music class taught by an Englishwoman named Beatrice Fall. She had been trained as a concert pianist, but was not quite good enough, so she became a teacher. Her course was organized around Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. She carefully illustrated each of the many leitmotifs that the composer had so artfully embedded in the work. Through this analysis I gained an overall sense of the structure of this vast tetralogy. Later I took up the avant-garde fascination with the Second Viennese School, especially the works of Arnold Schoenberg. Here too there was an underlying structure made up of the serial sequences (or "rows" as they were sometimes termed). It seemed to me that this twelve-tone stuff was the only proper music of our time. Today, though, I can scarcely bring myself to listen to it.

I did not care much for the typical Hollywood movie, which it seemed to me was devoted to celebrating a bland, conformist vision of American life that corresponded poorly to reality. I preferred the British Ealing comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and the Lavender Hill Mob. When they were available, I savored the classics of the silent-film era. Later I was to gravitate to the European films of the "art houses."  When the actors Marlon Brando and James Dean came along I recognized something new and subversive.

I was big on modern poetry and modern art, especially Picasso. Their hermetic qualities made them opaque to most people, which was just fine with me. On my own, I consulted works of explication at the public library, and with these cribs I was able to hold forth on the symbolism and formal values that distinguished these highbrow productions.

My parents couldn’t afford a TV, or so they claimed. A critic might say that in pushing high culture I  was making a virtue of necessity. I didn’t have access to the fare on the idiot box, harmless rubbish that provided common themes for chatting in the cafeteria and during recess klatsches. By way of compensation, I became the apostle of something so very, very much superior!

This sense gained reinforcement by my reading of The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset.  Stimulated by the Spanish thinker's elitism, I evolved a simple typology based on the high school students I knew. On the one hand, there were the "aristics," a select body of self-disciplined devotees of culture and philosophy.  There were not too many of these, perhaps only myself and my sidekick Paul H.  Over against us, who constituted the happy few, stood the vast unwashed, the demotics, who were vulgarians only interested in the latest tin-pan alley tunes, popular movies, sports, and the like.  Reading Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra reinforced this snobism.

More conventional was my enthusiasm for T.S. Eliot.  My English teacher invited me to give an hour-long presentation on the poet. I loved this experience, my first taste of teaching.

In the late ‘forties an enterprising small publisher secured the rights to a formerly lost manuscript by Ezra Pound, Patria Mia.  In the ad, above a fierce photo of the bearded poet ran the caption “the most antisocial writer of our time.” Whee! That guy was for me. Almost feverishly, I started reading Pound, who quickly replaced Ortega and Nietzsche in my affections. My interest in Pound was partly sparked by my ambition to become an avant-garde poet. In fact I was a kind of proto-beatnik, but fortunately I pulled back, because I couldn’t face the life of poverty such a career path would entail. I wonder what became of the poems, mostly pastiches, that I produced during my high school years.  Not a great loss, I fear.

When I showed my copy of  The Cantos to one of my teachers, she remarked: “well, er, isn’t he prejudiced?” As I noted, that was an age of verbal circumspection.

I did not share Pound’s anti-Semitism or his admiration of Benito Mussolini. Later on, when I lived in Italy, I came across old-timers who still revered the Duce, but I was never able to make much of this enthusiasm.

Our high school was about 30% Jewish and these students were my natural allies, because, as a rule, they respected culture and learning. By definition the rednecks did not. Still, the Jewish students strove to fit in - to do OK at sports and to avoid the role of missionary culture-vulture, which was my thing.

With a few exceptions, I did not find the Jewish boys sexually compelling. As a sociologist might say, there was “not enough distance.” That is, being similar, we were not complementary enough. With the hunky redneck guys it was different. They might not have much upstairs, but we could always live downstairs - or so I fancied. If only I would shut up about Mozart and Picasso. But I just couldn’t.


Still, as long as I wasn’t too aggressive about it, being a culture vulture was fairly innocuous; not so, sexual unorthodoxy. In high school there were definite limits, and coming out as a proud homosexual would have been way out of bounds. In fact it was inconceivable. I suppose a Freudian would say that my culture-vulture engagements were a form of sublimation in response to my sexual frustration.

Of course, in those pre-pill days most het boys and girls felt sexually frustrated too. For the most part they were obliged to restrict their encounters to petting, with no penetration. Because of their deprivation, the boys were reputed to suffer from time to from attacks of the dreaded “blue balls.” During an attack of this malady almost any mouth would do that might offer the necessary relief. I never got a chance to test this hypothesis, though.

Sublimated or not, I found nonconformity welcome, even alluring.

All the same, from my parents' far-left orientation I also learned that concealment and guile (being in the closet, if you will) were sometimes well-advised. As a postal worker, my stepfather could have lost his job, given the anti-Communist atmosphere of the era.  Guided by my reading of Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, and other works), I came to reject my parents' political beliefs, but the lesson of caution remained.  For some years I remained an atheist.  A couple of attempts to assert this identity met with derision, even the threat of violence.  So i kept a notebook of my atheist views in code.

Perhaps it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that subsequently my life has unfolded between two poles.  In my academic career as an art historian, I largely adhered to the cooperative mode.  That was prudent.  However, when it came to the turbulent gay movement of the 1970s I reverted to being a contrarian, my high school stance. As a result I was subjected to repeated efforts to marginalize me. Of that there will be more later.

As I bade good-bye in the summer of 1952 to the halls of “Rome” (as we grandly called our high school), I was but dimly aware of the daunting challenges that awaited me. Somehow I must make contact with established homosexuals, a little older than me, who could offer counsel. In so doing I would need to defend myself, as best I could, from the cynicism and negativity that so pervaded the gay world at that time. Up to this point I had had hardly any sex. I would have to learn how to find partners, and also to learn which modes suited me. How did one perform gay sex? Mutual masturbation was about as far as my imagination extended in those days. Put a cock in my mouth? How very unsanitary. Apart from this prudishness, I had somehow to avoid the danger of public labeling--what we now term outing--for as a person with very little in the way of personal or family resources, the ensuing pariah status would have been very hard to sustain.

And yet, I did manage.

In retrospect, I have concluded that what I learned from LA High was that I could survive (after a fashion), even as a contrarian.  How was I a contrarian? First, just being a “four eyes” (I wore thick glasses) barred me from any hope of joining the “in” crowd. They didn’t have contact lenses in those days.



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