| length: 6 min. |
|Talking With Our Predecessors: Some Memories of a Gay Journalist|
by Hans Hafkamp in History & Politics , 22 October 2018
Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 6 minuten
In the nearly forty years I have worked for gay magazines, either as an contributor or editor, I have interviewed a large number of people who are no longer with us. In 1990, for instance, I visited fashion designer Frank Govers in his dark furnished apartment on one of the Amsterdam canals in connection with an article for “Clique.”
I had known Govers and his partner Uwe by sight for years. Not just, as most Dutch, from the tabloid press. They were regular customers at the Bruna bookshop on Leidsestraat, where I had worked for several years. I was amazed they also seemed to remember me, although this actually is a strange observation. The famous Dutch are also just people, not exclusively busy with their own image, but also with genuine interests in others. Frank Govers was not just the man of the detergent adds, but also a man who had worked hard to get to where he was at that point in time. He told stories about his exploits as a flamboyant gay man in the grey period following the Second World War.
Fortunately, I have not just interviewed people who have now passed away. On the day I had extensively interviewed Tom of Finland I walked into author Andrew Holleran at an Amsterdam gay bookstore. He was in conversation with one of the owners, who introduced him to me.
As I’ve always been a great admirer of his first novel “Dancer from The Dance” (1978) - in which he presents a realistic, exciting, but also somewhat disconcerting picture of the hedonistic disco-world in New York at a time when aids was not rampant yet - I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by. Although I hadn’t at all prepared for an interview, we decided to do it on the spot. It turned out to be a very animated conversation.
While I was holidaying in New York a few years later, Holleran held a lecture at gay bookstore A Different Light, from his then new novel “The Beauty of Men” (1996), after which he would sign his work. Although I had brought this book along as holiday reading, I did have him put his signature in the book. As I reminded him of our conversation a few years earlier in Amsterdam, to my surprise he remembered little details even I had forgotten.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as anyone reading Holleran’s novels knows that he has an excellent memory. Perhaps it is a prerequisite for authors of semi-autobiographical novels, as it is these details that give the story realism.
That year, my husband and I stayed at a tiny apartment on Charles Street. Usually, we stayed at the Chelsea Pines Inn in West 14th Street. I never realized that the building that houses this gay hotel played a modest role in American literature. Not in the erotic memoirs of a gay writer, although that would have been equally possible, as the hotel sits close to the gay heart of Chelsea, and I have observed quite a lot of flirting near the hotel during the Gay Pride weekend, although that usually did not pan out.
No, for some time in the 1920s the building was the residence of George Kirk, a good friend of H.P. Lovecraft, the writer of horror stories who during his lifetime could barely live off his work. Now, he is seen as one of the Masters of the macabre story. Lovecraft appears to have used this building as a location for his story “Cool Air.” As do the heroes in Holleran’s books, Lovecraft went on many nocturnal walks through New York. However, he was looking for the remains of the colonial past that had not been affected by modernity, not the “Bright Lights” of the “Big City’s” night-life. New York surely is a city of many faces. The people I interviewed at home often showed a different face to the one in the public domain as well.
Over the years, I have not only interviewed men who have conquered their place in mainstream culture, but also artists who’re renowned mainly in the gay world. Around 2005 I was able to shake hands with Bill Schmeling, better known as The Hun, in Amsterdam for an opening of an exhibition at Mr. B. The last time I had spoken to him was in 1997, when he visited Amsterdam to judge a Mr. Leather election.
I interviewed him for this magazine, something I still remember with some feeling of panic. Not because of Bill, who turned out to be a very amiable man despite the scenes he depicts, but because my tape recorder suddenly broke down. I therefore had to write things down the old-fashioned way.
This has the advantage that you can immediately get rid of the white noise that is always present in a conversation, but has the disadvantage of having trouble keeping your focus on the interview itself. In addition to this, it becomes more difficult, although not impossible, to accurately quote.
Over the years I have interviewed a lot of men who are no longer among us, as I am of the opinion that the older generation often has more to say and can richly contribute to my knowledge of gay culture. I certainly got an interesting perspective on gay history when interviewing Tom of Finland, together with Ruud Hollenkamp, for “G.A. Magazine.”
I have mixed memories of the circumstances of this interview also, since it took place in the lobby of the former Hotel New York on the Herengracht. There, an employee was frantically busy with a wide range of utensils, making Tom’s soft voice sometimes difficult to understand. However, he had a lot of interesting things to say. About his becoming aware of his erotic preferences in the not exactly progressive Finland from around the Second World War, about the somewhat shady publishers with whom his work initially appeared, and the international fame he eventually acquired.
Shortly following this, I interviewed Rob Meijer, the founder of the well-known leather shop. Rob was a man who knew what he wanted. I think that he felt the urge to talk about his life shortly before his death. Of course, I was only happy to oblige, as Rob was an exceptional man with a remarkable career, from clothing designer for the larger woman to designing clothing that emphasised the male physique. He also played an important role in the Netherlands in making us aware of various gay erotic artists.
Although I was not the first to interview Rob, it is a far cry from claiming he had already been interviewed on all possible subjects by an endless range of people.
This certainly holds true for Quentin Crisp, whom I spoke to when in his late eighties. I had the privilege of ordering him lunch in his regular restaurant in New York in exchange for all kinds of witty remarks for my tape recorder.
These witticisms did not come out spontaneously, as I was aware of most of them from previous interviews as well as his books. But one did not interview Quentin Crisp to find a solution to global problems. Crisp always said that it was his profession to be “famous,” and it was indeed a pleasure to contribute to this.
At the time, Crisp was a slightly dilapidated monument himself, yet a monument in his own right. He was a monument for gay emancipation, as he was gay in the harsh climate of the 1950s and 1960s when he pursued his own path and ignored the so-called “decency” standard of the times.
Each in their own way, these men have presented us with the building blocks to the way we now can experience our homosexuality. I am glad I was able to bear witness to it all.
N E W