“Dad, when was ‘being cool’ invented?” I was 12.
“What do you mean?” He was sitting at the dining-room table balancing his checkbook.
“Like were your parents cool when they were teenagers? Or what did being cool mean at other times in history?” My dad cocked his head to the side and thought about it for a second, which signaled to me that I had asked a very good question.
“Well, when I was a teenager in England being cool was definitely important. For instance: the Beatles were not cool. The Stones were sort of cool. Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett were really, really cool.”
“What about your parents though?” I asked. “Were they cool? Did people care about being cool then?”
He paused. “I imagine they were somewhat cool, yes. Your granny Esther started an Anglo-Saxon Club, where they read books in Old English, like Beowulf and things. So that would have been a sort of cool, literary, snobbish thing to do back then.”
“An Anglo-Saxon club, like White Anglo-Saxon Protestant?” My Jewish mother had explained WASPs to me.
“Well, sort of but it would have meant something different then.”
I grimaced. That didn’t sound very cool to me.
In our house, books and writers and all things literary were very cool, very serious business. There were rules about reading books. Like: One never ever writes in books. This was sacrosanct. And you never ever fold the pages of a book; you use a bookmark. I was allowed to read my father’s books on the condition that I observe these rules. The spines of my father’s books lining the bookshelves — their fonts, colors, names — stick to my memory as if they were wallpaper: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse; The Tin Drum by Günter Grass; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut; EDIE; Why I am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell. There were also three copies of my father’s first novel: The Antarctica Cookbook, which he’d published in 1983 with St. Martin’s Press.
Eager to civilize me and expose me to genius, my dad began reading me his favorite poems and passages from books when I was very young. One poem he liked to read to me was The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the epic that Oscar Wilde wrote in exile after serving two years of hard labor for a charge of gross indecency with men. I remember the poem’s refrain: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves / By each let this be heard / Some do it with a bitter look / Some with a flattering word / The coward does it with a kiss / The brave man with a sword.”
It had been explained to me why Oscar Wilde went to prison, and as such, my young, titillated ears were on the hunt for some salacious homosexual detail in my father’s favorite poem. This “each man kills the thing he loves, the coward does it with a kiss” confused me thoroughly. But you can’t kill someone with a kiss, I thought. How is that the same as a sword? That doesn’t make any sense.
My father, as it happened, was also around seven or eight years old when he learned that Oscar Wilde was gay. He had been rapturously reading The Happy Prince, when his sister Belinda informed him, “You know, Oscar Wilde was a queer.” Shocked, my dad went and asked his Granny Margaret, full name Lady Margaret Grant, in a quiet, frightened voice, “Granny, is it true that Oscar Wilde was a queer?” After what felt like a very long pause — in my father’s words: “It felt like the world had stopped” — she replied, “Yes darling, but we never mention his name in this house.” This would have been 50 years after the publication of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
When a new biography of Wilde came out in the late ’80s, the story of my family’s relationship to Oscar Wilde grew fuller and more illustrious. It turned out my father’s grandfather, Sir Alfred Hamilton Grant, Granny Margaret’s husband, had not only known Oscar Wilde but had once saved him from an angry, homophobic mob.
The story goes like this: before Sir Alfred, my great-grandfather, was a thrice-knighted imperial officer, he was a young rugby student studying Classics at Oxford. It would have been around 1890 that him and Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, better known as Oscar Wilde’s lover, became friendly. When Bosie became the new editor of an Oxford literary magazine, he began publishing a roster of exclusively gay writers, who were also his friends and lovers: people like Wilde, John Addington Symonds, and Robbie Ross.
Scandalized, my great-grandfather published an article against Bosie’s editorship. The takedown was mostly a slam against Wilde, whom he dubbed “Ossian Savage” saying his “greatest misfortune was his face.” (A rather camp criticism in my estimation.) Bosie took great offense, he and Grant argued, but within a few months they were back to being friends.
At some point, Bosie suggested that Grant meet Wilde, and invited him to one of their famous dinner parties. My great-grandfather, a little out of his element, winced when his fellow dinner guests whipped out their gold-tipped cigarettes to smoke between courses. He reacted by bringing out a cigar, which he must have thought rather butch. One of the guests whispered to him to “Put that away, you’ll offend Oscar.” Hearing this, Oscar intervened: “How too terrible of you!” and turned affectionately to Grant: “But we shall call it a nut-brown cigarette — and you shall smoke it.”
Soon, Grant was attending Bosie’s almost nightly dinners in Oscar Wilde’s honor. One night after dinner, they all went out on to the terrace. A group of students walked by and when they saw Oscar, they started shouting insults and threatening him. Alarmed, Oscar and his friends went back inside. But Grant and his other rugby player friends stayed behind and fought down the homophobic hecklers, beating them off with their walking sticks. The crowd soon dispersed.
Witnessing what had happened, Oscar was overcome with emotion and he hugged his defenders ceremoniously. My great-grandfather remained friends with Bosie and Oscar for the rest of his Oxford days. My father likes to add that beyond his undying gratitude, Oscar also kept my great-grandfather around because he thought he was cute.
I’m sure my father told me this story many times in my childhood, but I don’t really remember hearing it until I was in my 20s. Of course, as a kid I was very busy with my own social calendar. Too distracted, I suspect, to care much about what my great-grandfather had been up to as a Victorian youth.
By the time my father had learned of this story I would have been in fourth grade, a time of deep entanglements with a series of best girlfriends who I was obsessed with and took up all of my time. I knew there were boys who liked me, but I couldn’t care less nor understand what it was that they wanted from me. Matthew, with his red, sweaty face, or Jon, who mortified me on Valentine’s Day with a ceramic bear holding a heart that said Be Mine.
No, I wouldn’t know anything about what it felt like to really like someone until I was 12 and met Natalie, the coolest girl I’d ever seen. Natalie was a famous sitcom actress’s daughter, and her father had started a rehab that I had seen commercials about on TV. Natalie had crinkly curly hair that was streaked with gold, brown and blond, blue eyes with very black pupils, and large breasts. Picture Aphrodite meets the Venus of Willendorf but as a mermaid. At her mansion in Brentwood, we jumped on a massive trampoline in the backyard and tried to get her broken elevator to work. I was sure that Natalie thought I was a total dud but by some miracle the next week she called me and asked me if I wanted to go see Carlito’s Way at the Beverly Center. I said yes and did she want to spend the night? She agreed. After the movie, we took the bus down San Vicente to my house on Orange Drive. We drank my dad’s cooking sherry and had sex in my backyard. I knew whatever was happening was too good to be true and I was right. After that night, Natalie didn’t return my calls. She told everyone I had tried to make her gay and never spoke to me again.
I think this was my first understanding of how a kiss could kill, and how a coward, specifically, could kill you with a kiss. A coward whose name was Natalie. I can be glad now that I never forgot those lines, even if it took me years to hear all the stories my father had told me.
Svetlana Kitto is a writer and oral historian in New York City. Her writing has been featured in The Cut, The New York Times, Guernica, Hyperallergic, and Interview, among other publications. Her recent book of interviews, Sara Penn’s Knobkerry, was published in fall 2021 by the SculpureCenter and CARA.