The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's: A Gay Life in the 1940s by Ricardo J. Brown

Harry H. Long

Three men with little in common save their sexual preference for other men and, because of the times in which they came of age, the need to keep that a secret from most of society.

Keeping Secrets

Display Artist: Ricardo J. Brown, edited by William Reichard
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Author: edited by William Reichard

by Ricardo J. Brown, edited by William Reichard
University of Minnesota Press
May 2003, 136 pages, $15.95 (paperback)

by Alan Helms
University of Minnesota Press
May 2003, 211 pages, $14.95

by Richard Chamberlain
Regan Books/HarperCollins
June 2003, 247 pages, $25.95

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Three men with little in common save their sexual preference for other men and, because of the times in which they came of age, the need to keep that a secret from most of society: Ricardo J. Brown was born in 1923 in Minneapolis to which he returned after being dishonorably discharged from the Navy for homosexuality during the waning days of World War II. Eventually he moved away and worked for various newspapers but was again living in Minneapolis at the time of his death in 1998. The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's focuses on the only gay bar in that city during his youth, a tattered little place populated with unextraordinary people whose only shot at immortality is in the pages of this book.

Alan Helms was born in 1937 in Indianapolis and escaped a very troubled childhood thanks to a Columbia University scholarship. As Young Man from the Provinces details, his good looks got him into modeling and acting; he was a celebrity of sorts within the Manhattan gay community of the late 1950s and 60s. Tiring of that he moved into writing and the college teaching career which he still pursues.

Richard Chamberlain ... well is a further introduction needed for the man who first attained fame as TV's Dr. Kildare and now offers the curiously titled Shattered Love? Born in Los Angeles during the Great Depression –- he cagily avoids naming the date but IMDB lists the year as 1934 –- he moved on from TV to a number of intriguing international films before becoming king of a series of increasingly pulpy mini-series.

One other thing they have in common: they've written their memoirs.

Brown seems to have spent his life after Minneapolis as a journalist in places like Alabama and Alaska, hardly capitals of gay life then or now (It is difficult to imagine a less gay community than Fairbanks or a less gay occupation than sports editor.). Yet Brown and the men he writes about probably represent the vast majority of gays in the US: unremarkable, hard-working Joes, slogging away in nondescript jobs in small towns and mostly undetected by their fellow citizens. We learn something of Brown himself but, like a good reporter (or something like Christopher Isherwood who wrote "I am a camera" by way of introducing his Berlin Stories) his focus is more on the owners and regular patrons of Kirmser's an establishment which it seems became a gay bar by default. An otherwise "respectable," though struggling, eatery it seems to have undergone a metamorphosis when adopted by area homosexuals and the owners -- an old, married couple -- grateful for the commerce, did not discourage the transition.

Of the three books Brown's most clearly depicts the perils of less enlightened times (and perhaps not that much changed now). Both he and two others he writes of lost jobs on the flimsiest of reasons; one made customers at the store where he worked "uncomfortable," another was dismissed after his employer received an anonymous note. Brown himself was let go from his job with no explanation. All lived in fear of discovery and yet Brown's book is the least dramatic of the three. The matter-of- fact approach might stem partly from his reporter's sensibility or simply that he came from a more stable household but Evening Crowd emphasizes sturm und drang less than Helms' or Chamberlain's books.

Both Helms and Chamberlain came from environments where the father was alcoholic and abusive; in Chamberlain's case, the abuse was emotional rather than physical, though crushing the soul can be as damaging –- maybe more so –- as bruising the body. Helms and Chamberlain tell similar stories in ways; both relate a long and difficult psychological journey to self-worth which no amount of accomplishment seemed able to endow. Like Brown, both managed an escape from their families at an early age, something which seems to characterize most gay men of any era, though there may be reconciliation later.

Helms's father beat his wife (and possibly later his own mother), threatened his children with a gun and was an unreliable provider (in a day when that function was the male's role), often missing work and eventually being fired for drunkenness. Mother became a gleaner of other people's garbage, eventually filling her home with cast-offs for which she, too, had little use. Helms discovered the comparatively open gay life Manhattan offered in the late 1950s, his good looks gaining him social status and an entree into modeling and acting which in turn allowed him to pursue an aimless but fascinating existence there and in various European locales during the era of the Jet Set.

Helms was a Rhodes scholar candidate (losing out because his sexual orientation was suspected -- the only incidence of homophobia he seems to have encountered) and remained an inveterate reader, using his travels to soak up culture and history so in what was an unsurprising surprise move he turned his attention to academe as middle age approached though a more settled existence hardly quelled his demons. One would like to think Helms finally put them behind him with the 1995 writing of this book but in his "Afterward" to this new edition he depicts further psychic battles with romance and alcoholism and describes his life as "stumbling forward from one darkness to another" so that seems improbable.

It may be difficult for average mortals to conceive such deep insecurity in one who wrapped both beauty and brains into one package –- and was celebrated for both –- but that demon can be the toughest of all to exorcize. Helms's book is the best written of the three (one doesn't easily forget such delicious turns of phrase as "he looked like a giant friendly peach" when Helms describes his first lover) though one wishes he'd dropped the exclusive use of the ampersand even if it does help convey the intensity of his life and emotions. Mostly, however, it just comes off as an annoying affectation left over from the beat poets.

Chamberlain's life was more directed and more circumspect from an early age and his celebrity was of the household name variety but he too was wracked by insecurity and a bottomless need for approval, something he notes is generally the case with the children of alcoholics. The actor seems to continue seeking validation here for he is careful never to reveal anything too shocking even though this memoir (if it can truly be called that) is his official act of coming out. His sexuality was one of Hollywood's worst-kept secrets, though, even before a reporter outed him in print several years ago. So his revelation will only surprise those who were shocked ... shocked! to learn about Rock Hudson, Liberace and Raymond Burr.

One senses Chamberlain playing to the crowd because, even while so many particulars are shared with Helms, he digs less deeply, less thoughtfully, never revealing anything potentially disagreeable. He alludes to unsuccessful relationships before meeting his life partner but only in the vaguest way. Does he fear the appearance of promiscuity or is it just that he probes nothing very thoroughly be it his life or his film career? Much of the latter is also barely touched on. While he does devote some pages to Shogun and The Thorn Birds, his late 1960s European films -- arguably more interesting -- are only mentioned in passing (and it may be significant that The Music Lovers in which he played the closeted composer Tchaikovsky is reduced to the one word description, "bizarre"). Readers interested in backstage anecdotes will come away disappointed as will anyone hoping for more autobiography that is generally found in a press release. Chamberlain skims across the surface of his life leading one to the suspicion he is –- in the manner of so many celebrity memoirs –- drawing a veil across any aspects that may make him unsympathetic.

What readers do get are pages and pages of pop spirituality. Chamberlain's search for equanimity took that path while Helms pursued psychiatric answers. And while it must be noted that Chamberlain's explorations seem to have been more successful; he has been with his lover Martin for 26 years while Helms has never managed a long-term relationship -- if that is much of a gauge of much of anything -- and seems to have made peace with himself. Yet Helms's book is more honest and the author has lived his life more openly. Sexual preference never seems to have been much involved in Helms's insecurity while it was apparently at the core of Chamberlain's; perhaps this is why Helms can detail each failed affair and Chamberlain only alludes to their existence.

The problem of Chamberlain's guarded approach is that we can hardly be expected to buy the bliss he professes he's found if we never see the pain he claims to have escaped. He writes, for instance, of a very bad patch just after he was outed, received no job offers for a year and was temporarily estranged from Martin -- yet he glances over the trauma and offers two chapters on rediscovering his love of painting (with the telling comment, "I'm good at being on my own"). This gives the impression that, at best, Chamberlain is simply not willing to look (or share) very deeply or, at worst, is concerned only with his own happiness.

That his writing is heavy on clichés supports the first impression and undercuts the effectiveness of his spiritual message to any but the already converted; Chamberlain even states at one point that he has difficulty putting into words what he's trying to convey. Now to be fair even Thomas Merton was not wholly successful at this whenever he addressed it directly –- there is more love of God reflected in his landscape descriptions than in his heavy-handed sermonizing –- but at least half of Chamberlain's text is concerned with his Transcendental Lite meditations to the extent it resembles a self-help primer (though neither the cover nor the jacket flap convey that, making the book itself a closet case) and for 26 bucks it he damned well ought to have found the words.

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