A Conversation with Edmond White By Gene Hayworth

Gene Hayworth: In the introduction to A Star-Bright Lie, you mentioned that you and Coleman Dowell became friends after your review of Island People. Do you remember the circumstances of your first meeting?

Edmund White: I had reviewed Dowell for the New York Times. I didn’t know him, where he lived or anything about him, and I got a call from him inviting me to dinner. He was a famous cook, who would take two or three days to prepare a dinner and would use food as a substitute for travel. For instance, he would prepare a Brazilian dinner instead of going to Brazil. It was so elaborate—there would be twelve different kinds of meat, and everything would be marinated in just the right way. I go on about it because he probably would have ranked it almost as highly as his writing.

GH: That sounds remarkable.

EW: There were really three domains of his artistic life: cooking, music, and writing; and they probably all had an equal status in his mind, I think, depending on the day. He was an extremely shy man who had a big, blustery way of talking. He was very tall and commanding, and you assumed that he was perfectly in control. But he had what I regard as a kind of English affectation, which is a sort of stutter that isn’t really a stutter. Isherwood had it—a lot of English people have it—and I think it was a kind of Oxford affectation, where he’d say . . . “Ah, ah, Edmund . . . what, what, what . . .” He had that. And he had a very deep voice. He had a strange way of talking. He would murmur a whole long phrase and then punch one word very loudly. It would startle you, but it wasn’t necessarily a word that meant anything, it could be a, the, or of.

GH: Do you think that was something he picked up in the military? Obviously it wasn’t from his southern heritage.

EW: I don’t think military is the right word. It was more some notion he had of Europe. America has produced so many writers who are obsessed with Europe, who either never went or only barely went. Wallace Stevens, for example. He corresponded his whole life with a lady who worked for him in Paris. She bought him the latest books and the latest paintings, but he never went to see her. Another one was Joseph Cornell, who was obsessed with Europe. All of his constructions have titles like “Medici Slot Box.” I think Coleman was like that, too. He did travel there three or four times, but considering how obsessed he was with Europe and his idea of Europe, it was amazing how little he actually went. But he didn’t travel well. His boyfriend loves travelling, and now that Coleman has been dead for quite a while . . . I think he is in Morocco right now as we speak. He’s always someplace. But Coleman didn’t want to leave home, and he didn’t like to come to one’s house for dinner. He liked to stay home. He would do anything, including three days’ preparation of food, to get you up there rather than submit to coming to your house.

GH: You mentioned that he called you.

EW: Yes, he called me out of the blue. I’ve always been listed in the phone book, and my name isn’t unusual, but sufficiently unusual that you could track me down. So he called and invited me to dinner. I felt my review had been three quarters positive but one quarter negative, because I thought there were preposterous things in his writing, but I basically liked it. The invitation seemed to me totally above board, because I’d written the review without knowing him, and then after it came out he decided he wanted to meet me. The first time I was there he treated the review as though it had been altogether positive, and I didn’t contradict him, and so everything went very smoothly. But then subsequently he would get drunk. There would always be a point in the evening when he would say, “Well, you don’t really like my work, do you?” And, “You said . . .” And so on. It made one very uncomfortable. But we became friends, and I read all of his other work after that. It feels like I was often championing his work. After his death I wrote the introduction for A Star Bright Lie. And it seems I was always sending his work to book-review editors, trying to get them to do something about it. Of course he was reviewing things in Louisville, wasn’t he?

GH: He was. For the Louisville Courier-Journal. I have the impression he was very kind to most of the people he reviewed.

EW: Yes. And very conscientious. He read everything by the author, and he worked very hard on those reviews. I think he had an ideal of being a kind of man of letters, who would keep a journal, who would have a literary correspondence with a few people, and write all of these complicated books. My main feeling was that he was somebody who was very disappointed by the reception of his work, and I think that was a contributing factor to his suicide. Part of it comes from the fact that he had been a television personality when he was younger and had known a kind of big, public fame. If he sold 2,000-3,000 copies of an avant-garde novel, that seems like very small potatoes. Although I always say that if you can imagine 2,000-3,000 people in the same room, that seems an awful lot of people to be reading such an obscure and difficult book.

GH: Definitely. Now let me ask, after your first meeting with Dowell, did your perceptions of Island People change?

EW: Whenever you meet someone and you become part of their process, you begin to value it a bit more. That’s probably why we can’t be really objective about our friends—at least in my case. Once I know how this poor writer is struggling so much, and hoping so much, and that everything, his very life, really, depends on the reception of his work, it’s awfully hard not to feel that it’s terrific. And so I think it was probably just human sympathy that made me value it slightly more highly after I met him.

GH: I can understand that.

EW: That would be true for almost anybody. But maybe especially in his case, because he seemed to be so vulnerable to the ups and downs of his reputation.

GH: You described Island People as a postmodern novel that plays tricks with point of view. This also seems true of White on Black on White, but less so of Dowell’s earlier novels. Do you think there are any unifying aspects underlying all the works?

EW: There is something that wouldn’t show up on a formal level, a kind of rawness. It’s an appreciation for the grotesque. It’s not just a Gothic convention, although there is that, too, in his work. He is a southern Gothic writer, among other things. He liked bigger than life characters who are slightly upsetting. Mrs. October was one of them, and I think that . . . what does he call Carl Van Vechten?

GH: Carlo.

EW: Yes, Carlo. That’s Carl Van Vechten. Did you know that?

GH: I was curious about that.

EW: I never met Van Vechten. But Coleman knew him and had been his protégé, and had written a musical based on The Tattooed Countess, a novel by Carl Van Vechten. And Coleman often talked about him. There is a good example of his love of the grotesque. He would talk about how Carl Van Vechten had long, pointed teeth and ate very badly, sloppily, without closing his mouth. The food dripped off these fangs, and Coleman really enjoyed the description of how repellant Van Vechten was, physically. He liked to talk about Van Vechten and his wife, going to the opera, shouting to each other. Things like, “how are your hemorrhoids?” Because Van Vechten was deaf they had to shout, I guess, but they knew they were bothering everybody at the opera. It gave everybody around them gooseflesh. Coleman loved all that. I’ve never read that or heard anybody say it independently about Carl Van Vechten, but Coleman relished it. And he loved to talk about the time he met Isak Dinesen at Carl Van Vechten’s house.

GH: I am curious about that. He doesn’t really go into depth about Isak Dinesen, but I understand that he was fascinated having met her.

EW: Like many shy, antisocial people, the few events that happened to him he blew up into these epic stories. If you could imagine Emily Dickinson meeting a man once on a street corner and then thinking a whole romance had gone past: he was like that.

GH: I can understand that.

EW: He had these obsessions about various famous people and Isak Dinesen was definitely one of them. But he had been Carl Van Vechten’s true protégé. He felt that after the failure of Tatooed Countess, Carl Van Vechten dropped him. I’m fully prepared to believe that Coleman imagined Van Vechten would drop him and then stopped going to his soirées. Then the whole thing came to an end. Another person who was very obsessed with Carl Van Vechten is . . . I never can think of his name . . .

GH: Was it Walter Abish?

EW: No, but I’ll talk to you about him in a minute if you want. This is a man who is important in Coleman’s mythology. He wrote a blurb on one of Coleman’s books. He wrote Malcolm and The Narrow Coffin—James Purdy. James Purdy wrote a novel that came out four or five years ago, that was also about Carl Van Vechten.

GH: I didn’t realize that.

EW: Van Vechten was a kind of larger than life character. He was gay, but he was married to a rich Russian woman who was very domineering. He had money and he had a fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West and he was very involved with the Harlem Renaissance. I think he fancied black people, in bed, and he took a real interest in Coleman. He was a mythic figure for Coleman, and Coleman was also in love with black men. They shared that. Being a southerner and meeting these black men must have been very exciting for him.

GH: I’ve read a letter Dowell wrote to the New York Times, in the late sixties, that had to do with the police harassing people. It was interesting because it talks about hanging out in Central Park.

EW: He did that. He was like an eagle up in his nest. He would swoop down on Central Park during the day while his partner was off working. Coleman claimed to have family money and to be from the Heaven Hill Bourbon family, all of which was nonsense. He didn’t have a penny. It was his partner who trudged along as a psychiatrist, making a pretty good living, who supported him. Coleman would while away his days, when he wasn’t writing, going down to the park, spending hours picking up men and bringing them back. People who were virtually bums. He loved that. He also corresponded with black men who were in prison, who wrote to him as though their correspondent were a white woman rather than a white man. They would say vulgar things. There’s a certain kind of gay man who finds that exciting. But the problem is that the day of reckoning comes, when they get their parole and are suddenly free. It’s like the character Calvin, in White on Black on White. The narrator has a man living with him. That’s all based on fact. Coleman’s partner put his foot down and couldn’t bear to have such an evil person around. So Coleman rented a house on Long Island and took the guy out there. Of course the fellow chased women, because he was basically heterosexual. He tried to steal things and got very menacing. There was always this undercurrent. You felt that there were different levels of life. That while his partner was at work, Coleman was having this whole life with black men that he met in the park or through personal ads when they got out of prison.

GH: Do you think it was that element of fear that he was attracted to?

EW: Who can explain sexuality? I never make an effort. I think there must be something about being a southern white man, especially of his generation, essentially mine but a little older. There’s something about having grown up when there’s still, in the south, separate seating in theaters and buses. And I think that has to play an element in making this “other” sexy.

GH: The idea of the taboo.

EW: Yes. He had no interest in middle-class, educated black men, except socially.

GH: Coleman Dowell started his career as a composer, but after two unsuccessful musicals he gave up music for fiction. Did he ever discuss how this transformation occurred?

EW: He played the piano late at night. After dinner he would play the piano, and he would sing his various songs, always his own music. He played competently but missing lots of notes. He sang well, and the songs always sounded to me like Noel Coward songs, I mean sentimental Noel Coward songs. Because Noel Coward has witty patter songs and then he has sentimental ballads. These are more like the sentimental ballads, I think.

GH: So he wasn’t really going for the Cole Porter style?

EW: No. Well, I suppose, but not so much. They weren’t so fiendishly witty as they were kind of romantic, and in a kind of old-fashioned way. But some were quite beautiful. He really had an ambition when he first came to New York to be a composer, and he would often talk about it. There was one summer when he was up in Vermont. Was it at Kenward Elmslie’s house? In any event it was in order to work with John LaTouche. Let me see, who, was that for?

GH: That was for Ah! Wilderness.

EW: Yes, that’s it. Exactly. And I think that he always felt that was his big missed chance, that it was going to put him on the map. He blamed John LaTouche, didn’t he, because he wouldn’t finish?

GH: I think they had a falling out. It seems that the production was finished by someone else, but I haven’t verified that yet.

EW: The main thing in working with Coleman is that he was what the French call a mythomane. Somebody who makes up myths, not necessarily to advance his career or to hoodwink others, but because he himself believes them.

GH: I see.

EW: He’s a very bad reporter on the facts of his own life, but if you can decipher them correctly, I suppose that you can figure out that this is his version of reality and therefore interesting, too. His partner would often times say then and still now that there was no reason that these songs couldn’t be repackaged in a new format. He’d ask, “Why can’t we get it going?” Basically there was a big tug of war going on between Coleman, who was the artistic one—but who was also a terrible fatalist and always assuming that everything was going from bad to worse and that he had been dealt out of life and that things weren’t going to work out—and then his partner on the other hand, who was incorrigibly optimistic and completely convinced that Coleman was a genius. I think that’s one reason Coleman’s partner has been an excellent literary executor. In fact he’ll say, often times, “God damn it Cole, see I’m showing you . . .” and, “Cole is up in heaven and he’s raging away that I’m having so much success with his career!” He is convinced that time will prove him right and that it is important to keep the books in print and to get them translated, and he’s done a very good job of it.

GH: You mentioned that you also championed Dowell’s work, and I have the sense that he had a few select friends that have really tried to keep the work in the public eye.

EW: Yes, but he would quarrel with everybody. That was the terrible thing. For instance, there was a guy, George Whitmore, whom I introduced to Cole, I think. George was a younger journalist who has since died of AIDS. He died in the late eighties. George, like Coleman, was a big drinker, but he was very beautiful and young and handsome. He was really a good-looking guy, and he was a member of the Violet Quill, a writer’s group that I belonged to. It was the first self-consciously gay writers group that emerged in the late seventies and early eighties. Most of the writers in that group had met Cole at one time or the other. Cole was very eager not to be considered a gay writer. I believe he thought that was terribly limiting. In a practical way, probably, in the sense that it would limit your market, but I think he also believed in universality in art and that his own work was . . . though there were almost always gay characters, they weren’t crucial to his work, which was more a question of perspective. He just saw himself as being a truly universal writer. He didn’t want to enter into a little ghetto like that, because I know he really didn’t like the idea of being referred to as a gay writer or even people mentioning his sexuality.

GH: I’m also curious about the fact that the later books share some of the same sensibilities that characterize Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples. Do you think Dowell was influenced at all by your own fiction?

EW: I bet he didn’t read it.

GH: No?

EW: He was such an egotist. I could go there for a whole long evening and he would talk about his work. He had a very scattershot way of talking. It was very impressionistic. I think that he was terrified of boring people, so he would skip from one thing to another so quickly that you couldn’t really follow, and you’d beg for him to just slow down and finish a sentence. It was a very weird experience talking to him, because he would just jump around. But it didn’t seem like we ever spent any time talking about my writing, and the one time I remember him saying something it seemed so resentful and mean-spirited that I didn’t want to pursue it. I’ve written both essays and fiction and he said, “Well essentially you’re an essayist and you should stop writing fiction.” I felt like that was his effort to clear the field for himself, as though he should be the only novelist.

GH: In an interview with John and Linda Keuhl, Dowell stated that Island People took the form of a symphony. Having recently written your own symphonic novel, do you think that this is an apt description of Island People?

EW: Yes, I do. Although I see it almost more as Chinese boxes. It’s more like the form of Wuthering Heights. Something symphonic I see as having movements that are sharply contrasted one from another, with themes that come back, and a sense of development. Basically, a sense of forward propulsion. In other words, there are big noble feelings and there are also light scherzo feelings and often times a kind of deliberately antiquated feeling, like in the minuet section. There is a sense of sections that are highly contrasted and a sense of forward propulsion and a sense of big drama and a sense of repetition. Those are all qualities that I would call symphonic, that you find in Proust, for instance. I think Proust is justified in calling his book symphonic in its structure, but I don’t really see those elements so much in Dowell’s work. There are certainly highly contrasted sections in that book but it seems to me that there’s this kind of nesting, Chinese box within Chinese box kind of structure, which is different from the more simple, straightforward progression of a symphony.

GH: Do you think that Dowell was aware that that made it very difficult for readers to find their place in the structure?

EW: I think he liked that. I don’t know who his models were, really, but I think he liked that kind of high modernism. Somebody like James Joyce, I would guess, was one of his favorite writers, certainly Faulkner; and neither Faulkner nor Joyce let the reader off lightly. Historically Dowell comes at a period when people, well, I have this whole theory that . . . do you really want to hear my theory?

GH: Yes, I would.

EW: My theory is that, because of postmodernism and the idea that everything is really a quotation of everything else and that plagiarism is fine, you can’t make a distinction between high art and low-brow art. It’s all inter-related and part of the same enterprise. Because of that, the whole ideal of the martyr to art has come to seem ridiculous—that somebody who sacrifices his life to write a few books that are read by a few hundred people who know that this is a masterpiece—I think there are very few people who would appreciate that anymore.

GH: Probably because it’s happened so often now.

EW: Yes, that’s right, but I also think that we’ve shifted from a kind of idea of art as religion to the idea of art as a superior form of entertainment. And that’s been a huge ground shift that’s happened in the last thirty years. I believe that part of Coleman’s suffering came from the fact that he subscribed to the earlier theory of art as religion, as the most noble human enterprise worthy of any kind of sacrifice including poverty, but that the whole society was shifting away from that and ultimately respecting only best-sellers or fame. And he wasn’t getting either.

GH: Do you think he saw himself as a martyr?

EW: Definitely.

GH: Dowell published many sections of his novels prior to completing them; often sections in one novel appear in slightly different form in another (for example, the ghost story that appears throughout Island People seems closely related to The Silver Swanne). Dowell also makes frequent reference to other writers, such as Oscar Wilde. Would you consider him a kind of bricoleur?

EW: Yes, that’s good. I think that is good. Although I don’t have any proof, because he wouldn’t talk much about the methods of his composition, I have the feeling that if one could examine his journals in depth what one would see is that he would start little different stories and then end up with a whole bunch of stories. Some of them would just materialize in his journal and then finally he would start putting them all together through some elaborate method of assembly. Did you ever hear of the French writer Raymond Roussel? He did that. He had mysterious theories of composition that would dictate the forms of his books, which were very shocking and unexpected. I would bet that’s something Coleman did. A lot of writers did that—many more than want to admit it. For instance there’s a young gay writer called Dale Peck who wrote a book called Martin and John. It was essentially a bunch of short stories until the editor said, “Well we’ve got to sew these together and sell it as a novel.” And so he found a way. He’d written lots of different stories about different pairs of boys, so he decided just to call all of them either Martin or John.

GH: Just to make them one pair.

EW: Yes. Even though there are so many inconsistencies from one story and another. I think that Coleman had a different notion. His idea was to examine reality, that this is really happening, but in any event, who’s telling this story about somebody else. For instance, in Too Much Flesh and Jabez, when you find out that the narrator of the whole thing is actually that old lady—well that seems so impossible. How would she know all of those sexual details? But that’s the kind of sudden reversal in perspective that fascinated him.

GH: Now you’ve already touched on this a bit, it has to do with the reliability of some of Dowell’s stories. Do you think we should accept as factual all of the experiences related in A Star-Bright Lie? I was thinking for example, of the incident with Tennessee Williams. In an earlier interview Dowell stated that he did not know the playwright.

EW: I know that they knew each other. Tennessee Williams wrote a blurb for him. Tennessee Williams, like me, was a big blurb slut. He would blurb anything. But still, it is awfully nice to do and he did do it, so they must have known each other to that degree.

GH: A Star-Bright Lie at least gives the impression that they had a one-night encounter when he first came to New York.

EW: That could be. I think Cole was nice looking. He was very tall and well built. I knew him when he was already in his fifties, but when he was younger he must have been quite a catch.

GH: Yes, I’ve seen some of Van Vechten’s photographs. You can tell he was very handsome.

EW: He was a big, well-built guy, and he had a southern accent and a kind of virile allure. He wasn’t a sissy, so I think that must have been quite appealing. Tennessee liked having sex with other writers. He had an affair with Isherwood, for instance.

GH: I didn’t know that.

EW: Isherwood told me that. They met out in LA, when they were both in their forties. There are a lot of gay men who only want to go to bed with people twenty years younger but Tennessee wasn’t like that. He liked people his own age; he liked everybody, basically.

GH: You mentioned in your introduction that Dowell knew two forms of gay life—the camp of the fifties and the machismo of the seventies. Dowell’s homosexual characters take on various guises: Do you think the either of these decades had more influence on the way Dowell depicted homosexuality?

EW: No, I don’t think so. The main gay novel is Too Much Flesh and Jabez and that seems to me to be a kind of rural fantasy, one that involves other tropes like the heterosexual. It’s actually a fairly ridiculous book. I’ve always been surprised that people take it as seriously as they do because, although there are a lot of Faulkner plots that are just as ridiculous, the idea of the straight man whose penis is so large that his wife can’t take it and he has to have this special machine to put it in to reduce its working length, and that then he finds a boy who can take it all, it’s so nutty. It is a kind of a fantasy from a porno magazine. But of course it is well written and written with tremendous vigor and power. But I actually found that book highly embarrassing to read.

GH: I’ve wondered too if he thought that it would fit into mainstream literature.

EW: I know. It seems to me, sometimes when people get too close to their own fetishes or their own personal sex fantasies, that they lose perspective. They think they can somehow pull this off and that everybody will be as equally hypnotized by this thing—this obsession with a huge penis—but I think it makes most people laugh. Gay readers I suppose would like it,would swallow it, but I think it really does seem ridiculous.

GH: You mentioned Walter Abish. In literary criticism there is a tendency to look for geographic or temporal groups of influence. Dowell’s circle included you, Walter Abish, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Bradford Morrow, among others. As a group of writers living or working in New York in the sixties and seventies, are there any coherent themes or similarities that link this group?

EW: Coleman, being a very private person, tended to see those people independently. He would work up a tremendous dinner that was meant to dazzle you, and you’d go over and you’d sit and have drinks for an hour and then you’d sit at that long refectory table and eat course after course after course. His partner would be the waiter, and then it would all be over and you’d sit around and have drinks until very late. He’d play the piano and so on. Coleman’s partner would eclipse himself around 11:30 because he had to get up to go to work about 6:30. He would leave and then the rest of the guests would go on until the dark hours of the day. But I don’t think that Coleman liked sharing people; I never met Gilbert Sorrentino, I don’t believe. I met Walter Abish, because Walter Abish was ubiquitous at a certain point. Maybe he still is. I don’t think he’s in good health, though. One thing that all of those guys have in common is that they are all heterosexual. Which is interesting, too. Walter is married to the famous artist, Cecile Abish. Walter is a very friendly, very curious person who would go to the opening of an envelope. He really wants to be everywhere. And he goes to every cocktail party, at least in those years he did. But you know he absolutely offended Coleman over the dog. Did you hear this story?

GH: No, I didn’t.

EW: It’s such a funny story. When Tammy died, you know the famous Tammy who was the dachshund. Coleman claimed that he had based most of his female characters on Tammy the dog. He absolutely idolized this dog, as Emily Brontë adored her dog—he would beat her, and then bring her back to life and he would have these terrible dramas where he would get angry at her and then beat her and then feel so repentant; it was this alcoholic drama, revolving around this poor weenie dog. When Tammy finally died, of old age, Walter apparently wrote Coleman a long letter all about various literary matters, and then he added, “P.S. Sorry to hear the dog died.” Well, Coleman said, “When I think of how often Tammy had played hostess and received Walter here, and how charming she had always been to him and his wife, and the idea that he would refer to her as the dog—I just hope that Cecile Abish will die very soon, and I can write Walter a letter about something else, and then put a P.S.: Sorry to hear the woman died.”

GH: That’s hilarious.

EW: He was always going on about this. I think that was the real falling out between them. I’m sure that to Walter, who’s never had a pet in his life and doesn’t think about animals, it was probably a real strain, a test to even remember that the dog died.

GH: He’d never even considered it.

EW: And then the Keuhls—I never met either. Brad Morrow I did meet quite a bit. Brad was younger than all those other people and Coleman was one of his heroes. I think Coleman represented to him . . . you know Brad’s quite important, he has that magazine Conjunctions, and at the time he had a charming girlfriend called Leslie, who designed the Silver Swanne for Coleman. You know that story, The Silver Swanne?

GH: I’ve seen the manuscript at the Library of Congress. It’s beautiful.

EW: She designed this incredible book. She was a tall, attractive, upper-class girl who was interested in doing fine editions, limited editions, a hundred copies or so, and she and Brad and Coleman were extremely close. They would go over there and they just doted on Coleman and I must say Coleman was always on his best behavior with them. And I think that Coleman was really Brad’s idea of what an artist should be: above compromise, serious, and difficult. There was a lot of real affection and human warmth there. It was a very nice relationship. I haven’t kept up with either of them, but I hear from them and every once in a while I’ll see Brad on the circuit. I don’t really know all of the details because I lived in Europe all of those years, but I think that Brad had also been driven away. I sound slightly contemptuous of him I guess, of Coleman. But I’m not really. I do admire his work, and at its best it’s very, very good stuff. And of course sometimes I think it’s silly, like Jabez. But there are people who take it all terribly seriously. And I know that the Keuhls always resented me because they thought I was going to drag Coleman off to be a gay writer. And they thought that would be a terrible limitation.

GH: In your 1987 interview on Fresh Air you talked about writing for a larger audience, and I think that definitely applies to Dowell’s work.

EW: That’s right. But I think that actually in that moment, in the late seventies, there was so much energy and excitement around gay life, and I think you see by the fact that he actually wrote Jabez that he was infected by that excitement. But I think it would have been not a bad time in terms of being cynical about one’s career to have been gay, to have been openly gay.

GH: I didn’t have any impression that he participated at all in the gay liberation movement of the sixties. There seems to have been a jump from the fifties to the seventies.

EW: Absolutely. And I think he wasn’t really interested in mainstream gay people, except possibly his friends and very marginal heterosexual black men.

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