A Guy’s Guy: Edmund White in the 1950s

July 15, 2021   •   By Nicholas F. Radel

Featured image: An uncharacteristically conventional pose: Edmund White, Pam Hawkins, Lou O’Connor, and Barbara Page Lamm. (Courtesy B. Lamm.)

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I.

FOR THANKSGIVING DAY in 1958, “Eddie” White came home to Evanston, Illinois, from his first semester at the University of Michigan. It was a happy time, as such occasions go, and the pleasure the future novelist took in his old high school friends is palpable in a picture taken at the home of Barbara Page Lamm on Ridge Avenue. Ed stands with his hands on the hips of Pam Hawkins, who holds the hips of Ed’s friend from Cranbrook and fraternity brother at Michigan, Lou O’Connor, who in turn holds Barbara, whom he was dating. Ed encouraged their relationship, but neither Barbara nor her mother was convinced. Barbara thought Lou was too short — always code for vague dissatisfaction among teenagers. And her mother thought he did not meet her high social expectations, although Lou would go on to become a respected psychologist. “If only I’d been a Rockefeller,” he later joked, “who knows?” As for Ed himself? He was probably projecting his own desire for the heterosexual Lou onto Barbara. “I wept on his chest once in shame-faced love for him at the University of Michigan,” White recalled many years later. But Lou, laughing, thought that memory might be a bit too “theatrical.”

There is always much a photograph doesn’t say. In this case, the friends pose in a traditional gender arrangement — boy, girl, boy, girl — reflecting what was probably a double date. The fact that Ed would go on to become one of America’s most recognized gay writers, Edmund White, a man who elaborated the story of his coming out as gay so meticulously that it seems almost like the original white coming out tale, is only hinted at in the picture. If we glimpse it at all, it is in the slightly cocked head that slyly suggests he has made everyone laugh by saying something droll. Then as now, gay people used clowning to deflect attention from their sexuality, and by all accounts Ed was extraordinarily funny in his teenage years. Still, if we didn’t know, we might mistake the photo for a portrait of the artist as a young heterosexual.

And yet, as Ed’s confession to Lou suggests, he was already, in the conservative 1950s, opening up about his sexuality to his straight friends. The young Edmund White had been turning tricks with men around Evanston since his mid-teens, and by the time he was in junior high, at least one of his closest friends, Steve Turner, was in some sense aware of his homosexuality. By the time he got to high school and college, his sexuality was pretty much an open secret. But as I learned recently when I was talking to some of his old high school friends for a new biography, some of his teenage companions were surprisingly more aware and thoughtful about his homosexuality than we might have imagined.

Our vision of the 1950s as a period of soul-crushing social rejection for young gay people looks slightly different when we start with Ed’s life. We tend to recall headlines from the McCarthy era that link homosexuals to anti-American subversion: homosexual behavior was a criminal and political act. During the Eisenhower years, it also became increasingly recognized as an aberrant psychological condition. But things were changing as the ’50s transitioned into the ’60s (as we saw in the recent television series Masters of Sex, about the sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson). And some of those changes were played out, in a minor key, by Ed and his friends. Barbara Lamm’s photo is, in fact, a portrait of a young gay man struggling with his sexual identity — among friends who were troubled by his homosexuality but perhaps more empathetic than we might have imagined.

II.

If a major theme of White’s work is his narrators’ struggles to accept their homosexuality, one underappreciated aspect of his autobiographical fiction and memoirs is their brilliant anatomizing of his gay characters’ desperation to be or become heterosexual. Like many other young gay people in times far less open than ours, Ed longed for the comfort of conformity. His writing is peppered with moments of desperate longing for the not-so-inexorable approach of heterosexuality — none more cringe-worthy than the incident in A Boy’s Own Story (1982) concerning the unnamed narrator’s date with Helen Paper.

As a favor to her friends Tommy and Sally, the much-admired Helen agrees to a double date with the narrator. His subsequent response to the honor — expressed in that comic yet still tragic tone White effects so well — is a profession of love. In a desperate ploy for sexual respectability (and to disguise the palpable desire he feels for Tommy), our youthful knight manque writes to Helen of his “love and allegiance,” even while admitting “how unworthy of her” he is. Helen’s prim reply is priceless: “Our friendship has been a matter of mutual and rewarding liking, not loving. […] Try to understand why I have to be this way.”

Indeed, we don’t have to try too hard. If we rightly read in White’s novel a sense of the young narrator’s being pitted against society’s ruthless demand for sexual conformity, then Helen Paper carves out in her school-girl alphabet the space of his difference — albeit, all things considered, in a way that tries hard to be kind, even, perhaps, humane.

III.

But it is in the responses of real people White knew that our received knowledge of homosexuality in the 1950s gets complicated. One of White’s oldest friends, and the model for the character Tommy in A Boy’s Own Story, Steve Turner recalled the ill-defined animus that constrained Ed in his early years: “[T]here was a sense among our cohort that Ed wasn’t on the same page exactly. But […] there were a lot of guys not on the same page and it didn’t have anything to do with sexuality. It had to do with just being a different [kind of] kid.”

Steve is referring primarily to White’s junior high years, when there would probably not have existed among White’s and Turner’s friends a true sense of what homosexuality meant.

That rough beast became more visible, however, as the two young men grew into adolescence and their friendship necessarily became more complicated. Turner reports on these new times with a sangfroid that probably belongs to a later era, the time of his speaking and not the era referenced:

I got zero pushback from our grade school friends. Nobody ever suggested to me or anybody that it was unfavorable to be a friend of Ed White’s. I don’t think he came out when he was in [junior high school in] Evanston, I can’t remember. [But] later in high school [Ed’s sexuality] was an open secret. It was very apparent and [people] talked about him as gay and homosexual. There was a lot of scuttlebutt about it and there was some horror among a few people. But I got no pushback then either. […] I don’t remember any of my buddies ever saying, “You better cool it with that friendship.”

In actual fact, however, Steve did find himself embattled because of Ed, and as a friend he acquitted himself admirably. As he told White’s nephew Keith Fleming 25 years ago, he almost came to blows with a group of toughs who were spreading rumors that Ed was gay.

It is ironic, of course, that he wanted to defend Ed against the charge of homosexuality. He took action on behalf of his friend and not in defense of his sexual difference. But when confronted with direct evidence of White’s homosexuality, when (as he also reported to Fleming) he discovered Ed had made advances toward some ninth-grade boys, Steve made a principled decision. He was upset and angry, but he did not break off their friendship — despite having to suffer the inevitable scorn of his classmates that followed.

He was able to do so because he had effected a rather ambiguous settlement with respect to White’s sexuality. He drew a firm boundary between Ed’s homosexuality and his own heterosexual desires. And as long as that front-line defense was in place, he would remain an enthusiastic and supportive friend: “I just said to Ed, we’re friends and we’re gonna be friends, but this is not me and I’m not open to it, I’m not interested, and don’t do it again, otherwise were not going to be friends. And he always honored that.”

Clearly, Steve’s settlement didn’t produce the most satisfying outcome for the young White. What looks like support from a straight man can seem like social distancing to a gay one. In White’s published accounts of these years, he says he had to negotiate his attraction to Steve carefully. “Because I loved him, but couldn’t sleep with him,” White writes in My Lives (2005), “I ended up studying him. […] I was attentive and devoted and required nothing beyond the occasional handshake and lopsided smile.” And he recently told me that (contrary to what he has revealed in his published accounts), there came a time when he did test the boundaries Steve had set. At age 17 or 18, he propositioned Steve, with the result that Steve did not speak to him for nearly a year. That’s not the kind of support one might expect today.

Still, Steve’s friendship with and protectiveness toward his friend Ed is not the typical story about a straight high school boy’s encounter with homosexuality in 1950s America. And the two did go on to enjoy a life-long friendship.

IV.

Ed’s friend Barbara Page, now Barbara Lamm, knew Ed in high school and also at college. Her experience discovering Ed’s sexuality reminds us of the cognitive dissonance homosexuality could elicit in people during the Eisenhower years. When she heard Ed called “queer” in high school, she didn’t know what it meant. So she asked Steve, who told her, “It means he likes boys.” She was, she later said to Steve, “perplexed.”

I was so naïve and think most of my friends then were, too. Why shouldn’t he like boys, I thought. Don’t all boys like other boys? At some point, toward the end of high school, I became aware of what “queer” meant, but it never once made me wonder about your relationship with Ed. I always admired you for being his friend in spite of his being gay.

It seems hard now to imagine a time when someone entering high school could know so little about homosexuality. But the term “queer,” when it was used by young people in former generations (and even perhaps today), could be pejorative, homophobic, and yet still fail to impart a specific sexual meaning. Never underestimate the American reluctance to imagine gay sex. Still, Barbara’s empathy stands out. We assume history progresses in a direct line and that sympathy for gay people developed primarily in the here and now. That may not be entirely true.

When Ed and Barbara were both at the University of Michigan, Ed bowed to pressure from his father and pledged Sigma Nu. Sometimes, when he needed a date for a social event, he would ask Barbara, who recalls the awkwardness of these outings:

We never ever mentioned or alluded to the fact that he was anything other than just another guy, and I wonder if he knew that I knew. I remember him once dropping me off at the dorm, back in the days when girls had hours and lived only in dorms or sorority houses, and him peremptorily kissing me good night like all the other couples standing outside the dorm door at closing hour.

Although she admitted that “kissing him seemed […] a little weird,” she was worried, then and in subsequent years, about “what poor Ed was going through” in those days. Barbara understood that Ed’s joining a fraternity (as well as his seeking psychiatric help) were actions he felt obliged to take, and her intuition that these were not altogether healthy steps for a young gay man resisted the accepted wisdom in those years.

V.

Like Lamm, Turner’s admirable impulse was to do what he could to help his friend Ed. In hindsight, such help seems patronizing, a reflection of middle-class noblesse oblige. Still, with the naïveté of a boy scout, Steve imagined he could help Ed achieve a type of gender realignment. He imagined that, if he encouraged Ed to engage in more masculine pursuits, he might help him become one of the guys — which, after all, was something the young writer wanted for himself.

In the short story “Pyrography” (in his 1995 collection Skinned Alive), White writes about a camping trip to the Minnesota woods that he, Steve, and another of Steve’s friends took during their high school years. The story makes clear what later would become perspicuous to us all: the subtle and systemic interrelationships of sex and gender, homosexuality and masculinity.

Howard (the character based on White) develops an explicit sexual crush on Danny (whose real-life counterpart chooses not to be identified). Danny is a friend of Otis (the character based on Steve Turner), and he is a roughhouse of a boy, the kind who brings a gun along on a camping trip. He seems to delight in taking his clothes off in front of Howard, and, once Otis has fallen asleep, stretching out naked on top of his sleeping bag. Howard thinks he is tempting him to make a move, so that Danny can denounce him and drive a wedge between Howard and Otis.

Otis, however, remains oblivious to the sexual competition emerging around him, keeping his eye on the goal of helping Howard become heterosexual:

Otis kept hoping Howard would outgrow this twisted sex thing and settle down with some nice girl; that was probably one reason Otis had invited him along, to toughen him up, give him some confidence or at least a taste for the company of normal guys doing normal guy things close to nature.

The real Steve’s memories of these events are marginally different — and, interestingly enough, not as focused on sexuality as White’s story suggests:

I really thought that I could cure Ed, and when I say that, I don’t think it occurred to me ever that I could cure his homosexuality. I wasn’t concerned about that. What I wanted was for Ed to become more of a guy’s guy, so that he could be accepted among my friends.

That Steve responded to Ed’s homosexuality as a matter of gender performance may be another example of the 1950s naïveté that instinctively erased sex from the imagination. But even today, the notion that homosexuality is a gendered identity has not entirely been abandoned. And Steve, like Barbara, demonstrated a strong empathic identification with his friend, focusing on his great intelligence and charm. Remembering the camping trip described in “Pyrography,” Steve emphasized White’s “fun-loving nature”:

On that trip, we sang songs, we laughed and laughed and laughed. The songs we sang were made-up songs. Ed said the three of us need to do a musical. We lived in a little green tent and Ed called it “the lime.” “We were in the lime,” and he wrote and had us sing a parody:

Let’s fall in love,
why shouldn’t we fall in love?
Now is the time for it,
we’re in the lime for it,
let’s fall in love.

White’s readers know the tremendous value he places on friendship between men, and the ways he frequently evokes his sexuality in terms of camaraderie. His readers might well imagine Ed himself would have delighted in these games. But clearly, Steve and “Danny” enjoyed them, too. The erotic is not always genital.

VI. 

There is a great deal of 20/20 hindsight in these memories, which I am admittedly mining for golden nuggets of empathetic identification. Ed himself told me that he didn’t feel warm, fuzzy acceptance from his friends in school. “We revise our experiences in light of later values,” he said.

We see something of that truth in the comments of Jim Donohue, another friend of Steve’s from those early days. Donohue strikes just the right note of awareness and ambivalence about Ed’s homosexuality, balanced across the historical divide between then and now:

It’s embarrassing to mentally recreate the generic high school 1950s attitude toward homosexuality. […] It was primarily unthinking more than malignant, with stereotypical jokes and “one liners,” using thoughtless labels (fag, homo, etc.), which in retrospect were cruel […] not so much personally directed (at Ed and others), but generic comments to protect one’s own identity. Of course, they were hurtful, but in the thoughtlessness of male teens (then and perhaps forever), [they] didn’t seem to me (now) spitefully directed at Ed and others.

Donahue gives us pause to think about how hateful words are not always or only weapons to inflict harm. They are also shields to protect oneself. Perhaps straight male sexuality needed especial defense in those days. But certainly, Donohue recognizes that Ed’s words were defensive as well:

I felt that perhaps as a defensive measure, Ed somewhat gloried in his identity as a homosexual, both because it centered discussion on that specific issue, and not only could he feel morally superior, but intellectually too as the persuasive arguments he put forth were so clearly superior and highlighted (properly) the foolish but defensively held prejudices of his classmates and peers. Even then, I personally agreed with Ed’s arguments, but felt he was self-centered as he defined every issue and directed every discussion always in the light of gender identity. […] Finally, then, and in retrospect, I admired Ed’s choice to “come out” so forcefully and felt his championing choice and identity helped him avoid the depression of trying to deny who he was.

Donohue is sensitive to the defensiveness that sexual difference produced in those long-ago days. He also tells us that it was primarily with the passing of time that he grew to respect Ed’s position and his work. But again, despite any misgivings he may have had as a youngster, he too was a young American man who, in a period when we might have expected something different, seemed at least willing to take his gay friend somewhat seriously.

VII. 

In My Lives, White reports that Steve Turner felt some embarrassment about the portrait of him in A Boy’s Own Story. Reading some of its passages about Tommy, we might see why:

Here was this boy, laughing and blonded by the sun and smooth-skinned, his whole body straining up as he reached to cleat something so that his T-shirt parted company with his dirty, sagging jeans and we — the father and I — could see Tom’s muscles like forked lightning on his taut stomach; here was this boy so handsome and free and well liked and here were we flanking him, looking up at him, at the torso flowering out of the humble calyx of his jeans.

White reports that Steve complained, “Now I know what it’s like to feel like a sex object. Now I know what women are complaining about.”

Although his wife Anny does recall Steve being somewhat apprehensive about the representation, Steve says he was joking, and has since developed a more appreciative response: “As I once told Ed, with the exception of my children and a smattering of relatively inconspicuous encounters with the world at large, my chances at immortality rest with him.”

No doubt Steve, Barbara, James, and Lou learned to take a lot in stride over the years, owing to their association with a voluble sex radical like White. But despite their inability to provide Ed with the sense of security he craved during a miserable period in gay history, they all seem to have been bearers of goodwill. And certainly, in the present, they assent to the pride they take in their association with their friend. As Lamm writes, “I’ve admired him and felt proud to say I know/knew a famous author.”

In his own way, Edmund White helped change America. Along with those other writers at the forefront of creating a new gay literature in the 1970s and ’80s, he adapted the traditional American novel of minority struggle into a story of white middle-class homosexuality. In so doing, he helped domesticate gayness, bringing it to the attention of a larger public who, for the most part, saw it in terms of criminality and degeneracy. But maybe he had a little help from his friends, whose seemingly unlikely tolerance created space for his imagining a new homosexual self, an identity that made him famous. Perhaps they, too, deserve a place in the history of evolving attitudes toward gay, lesbian, and transgender people that, it now seems clear, didn’t originate in 1969 at Stonewall. That history, rather, began on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, and in thousands of other streets and towns across America, where people, in myriad small ways, were becoming more aware and perhaps more tolerant of the sexual and gender differences White would spend his life explaining and celebrating.

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Nicholas Radel is a professor of English at Furman University in South Carolina. He is currently writing a new biography of Edmund White.

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Banner image: “Edmund White 2 by David Shankbone” by David Shankbone is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.