James McCourt established himself as the insider-chronicler of New York City’s literary and gay culture with Queer Street:The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (2004). The book generated advance gossip when Sonny Mehta, at McCourt’s usual publisher, Knopf, rejected it and Norton took it. But, as McCourt recalls, "that was a good thing in the end, because Bob Weil [at Norton] said, ‘look, I have to have you in the book’, and so I had to go back through letters and diaries to make that happen." In the end, this mixture of autobiography and cultural history gave the book its much-lauded documentary flavor. McCourt seems to know everybody, from opera stars to Susan Sontag, and to have lived the history of NYC nightlife over the past 50 years.
The same sense of the past recaptured pervades McCourt’s new novel, Now Voyagers (Turtle Point), a tour of gay New York culture in 1957, taking up characters that first appeared in McCourt’s famously unpronounceable 1979 novel, Mawrdew Czgowchwz (Mardu Gorgeous), reissued in the New York Review of Books classics series. Czgowchwz is an opera singer, and reflects the inside knowledge McCourt has garnered from years of diva watching, as well as his intense friendship with Victoria de los Angeles, one of the great sopranos of the fifties.
Speaking by phone from his current domicile in Washington D.C., McCourt, a fierce New Yorker, is scathing about his new city of residence. "It is a torment for a New Yorker to walk about downtown D.C.", says McCourt, who has temporarily quartered there with his partner, Vincent Verga, an author and photo editor who is completing a project for the Library of Congress. In Now Voyagers, the action is divided between two locales: one is the New York City one sees from the peregrinations of a poet, S.D.J. Fitzjames O’Maurigan, and his visits to the famous Everard Baths — the to-go place for gay hookups in the fifties, at least for the Columbia University set. The other is Ireland, specifically Dublin, where Czgowchwz has gone to make a movie.
"I didn’t know Dublin in the fifties. I first saw it in the sixties. I came in on a boat from Liverpool with Vincent, and I had this overwhelming sensation, as the boat approached the harbor, of having been there before," he says. "I learned Dublin — raffish, crummy, Dublin — which has now disappeared, of course. It was poor back then. But not the language, the strange relentless punning, the rhetorical flights in the pubs."
The view we get of gossipy gay Gotham and all the circles (literary, religious, political and musical) that radiate out from it seem to continue the story where Queer Street stopped. The fifties were an era in which, of course, being a gay man could get you fired from a job, blackmailed, or even sent to jail. "The result was camp, which required a kind of closeting. My Everard bath sections really are the way people talked. Sex would sometimes be notional, first because you might be so drunk, and second, you’d go out and get a cup of coffee and you’d come back simply for the talk."
Of course, everything changed with Stonewall. McCourt was there on that June night in 1969 when the cops raided the bar, provoking a riot that sparked the modern gay liberation movement. While trying to recapture a closeted culture of marvelous talk and high camp style, McCourt readily admits that queer life has improved enormously. But he does lament the current lack of cultural literacy — or rather, of cultural passion. One of the subtexts in the novel as well as of the decade of the fifties itself was the constant amount of gossip concerning the sexual and cultural politics of the fifties New York intellectuals: its painters, poets, writers and filmmakers. In the novel, the circle around Auden, for instance, generates many bitchy remarks. "I didn’t know Auden. I saw him — the look of him was impressive and scary. I don’t think he is a great poet. He took amphetamines during the day and drank all night, which will blur your perceptions. I don’t think Auden understood the truth of a certain kind of literature." On the other hand, McCourt was friends with a number of New York poets, including Ashberry, James Schuyler, and — to a lesser extent, James Merrill ("Merrill didn’t like me at all in the beginning.") He also knew Edwin Denby. "I met him when I was 18. He would hold forth, or rather, things would escape from him that would take your breath away. The greatest writer on dance ever."
As a former film critic for Film Comment during the late seventies and early eighties, McCourt mingled with many European and American directors and actresses. He was also part of the revival of Douglas Sirk, the director of Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life. " I saw my first Sirk film, Magnificent Obsession, when I was 14. Then I saw the others. At the time, you didn’t think about directors, except in the case of Hitchcock. But I knew that there was something unique about these films."
McCourt is planning to turn Now Voyagers into a four-novel series. He is also committed to writing another book for Norton. Luckily, he says, "like Proust, I can spend my day lying in bed and writing. And the only other thing I center my day on is what to make Vinnie for dinner."
Author photo © Morgan McGivern