by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
Editor's note: Last week, SGN took a look back at the novel City of Night, which turns 50 this year. Continuing our celebration of this seminal event, we present here an exclusive interview with the author.
John Rechy is part of Gay literary history, whether he chose to be or not. Growing up poor in Depression-era Texas, John left for New York City and Columbia University only to find a completely different life waiting for him. His experiences as a street hustler are well documented in his 1963 debut published novel, City of Night. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in September of this year with a new edition from publisher Grove Press, City of Night is hailed the world over as an American classic documenting a darker, seedier side of Gay life in the pre-Stonewall era. John Rechy gave me an interview in honor of Pride and City of Night's five decades.
Eric Andrews-Katz: You were born in El Paso, Texas, in 1931, as Juan Francisco Rechy. Please describe your family life growing up.
John Rechy: I was born during the height of the Depression. Everyone was poor - we were no exception. I was the youngest in a family of two brothers and two sisters, a Mexican mother, and a Scottish father. My father had once been prominent in Mexican theater and political circles. During the Mexican revolution my family fled to El Paso. It was very difficult to get along there for my father, going from prosperity to being poor. I went to school there. Eventually I attended the University of Texas at El Paso on a newspaper scholarship. I got a [bachelor's] degree and then volunteered to be drafted into the Army for two years. I was in the first airborne infantry division, stationed in Germany.
Andrews-Katz: Who were your first inspirations as a child?
Rechy: The Catholic Church profoundly influenced me. I'm fond of saying, 'A lapsed Catholic lapses every day.' The influence was unavoidable, especially with a Mexican background - that's pretty profound. That accounts for the religious imagery in some of my books. I like to say that sometimes I 'write in Catholic.'
Andrews-Katz: At what point were you aware of your sexuality?
Rechy: I was a late bloomer as a result of the Catholicism. Sex was not mentioned, didn't exist. I learned about sex from bestselling novels like Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber. When I was about 15, sexual urges started coming but without direction - men or women? My first male sexual contact was in the Army when I was about 20 in Paris, on leave. A lot of sexual conflicts came into play, a lot of ambiguity. Finally, I identified entirely as a Gay man.
Andrews-Katz: Describe what existed of the homosexual world in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Rechy: It was about that time that I became quite active. Those were repressive times. This concerns me about new generations: our history is long, but their - our - knowledge of it is short. In West Hollywood today, I see young [Gay] people holding hands, kissing. I wonder whether they know what we had to go through so there would be a time when that was possible. Even Gay marriage has become possible. The changes that have occurred in the past few decades are cataclysmic, and were hard-won by pioneers who are now too often cast aside. Our history is either not being recorded or it's not being understood, not respected. Not too long ago, we had to deal with 'vice raids' on bars. It's difficult for young Gay folks to grasp that as far back as the '70s, and even later, here in America, cops could legally break into a private home to arrest men having Gay sex.
Some young people seem not to want to know what it was like, and yet some things remain. In New York, there are suddenly waves of Gay bashing. Any stupid politician can denounce us publicly in vile terms - and there's the fucking pope aiming at us in his first talk! - creating a dangerous, violent atmosphere for us. For me it's sacred to remember our background and resistance, long before Stonewall. People who say, 'Everything - everything! - changed after Stonewall' - that's nonsense. There were a lot of writers in New York then and [they] happened to report that major event. But before that and in other places there were riots, defiance. I really resent the contention that everything prior to Stonewall was repressive. That's nonsense. That's an insult to a lot of people whose defiance led to other acts of protest. Look at the courage it took someone to go out in drag - they would be arrested. Just being Gay was defiant.
Andrews-Katz: You've discussed your life as a hustler before, but how were you first approached and how did you initially react to the proposition?
Rechy: There are so many things in life that are mysterious, and never get solved. As I described in City of Night, I went to New York not knowing what I was going to do. I thought of going to Columbia but instead went to Times Square. It's so strange, like knowing something and not wanting to know it, at the same time looking for it. I found myself that first day in New York at the YMCA. Incidentally, I get great pleasure out of the fact that the Village People's 'YMCA' has become a kind of straight-wedding anthem, whereas the first words deliberately evoke an opening passage in City of Night: 'Youngman ... YMCA.'
A man there propositioned me. I was broke and he mentioned money and Times Square ... That very night I was out in Times Square standing around. I saw other guys like me there. It was some kind of instinct that drew me there in the first place. That very same night, a Mr. Klein (called Mr. King in the book) said these memorable words to me: 'I'll give you 10 bucks and I don't give a damn about you!' He was a kind, loving man but I knew it was not for me to stay with one person. On the streets, I experienced terrific highs like no other, and equally as many fearsome horrors.
There's a group recently that contacted me, a group of Gay escorts - 'rent boys.' I was asked to write something for the new generation of hustlers, since I apparently influenced so many, the letter-writer said. It was funny and kind of wonderful to be asked to do that. I didn't take it up, but what I would say [to them] would be to be very honest about the experiences of hustling. So much of it is glamorized, and so much is demonized. It's partly both, and that's what I experienced and what I wrote about.
Andrews-Katz: You've said that City of Night started out as a letter about your experiences hustling in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. How did the idea manifest to write the epistolary novel?
Rechy: I never intended to do it. I never wrote about hustling while I was still hustling. I had started a couple of other novels that had nothing to do with hustling, but what happened is that I went to Mardi Gras, and that turned into a nightmarish experience with the drugs and liquor, and all the people in costumes. I was surfing on sex, drugs, and hustling, and finally I just couldn't cope with it. That's when I went back home to El Paso, and wrote a letter to a guy I knew. I wrote about what happened to me. I thought I had thrown the letter away but I found it later and impulsively I sent it to two literary quarterlies - I called it 'Mardi Gras.' Both quarterlies accepted it and asked whether it was part of a novel. I said yes, because I thought it would help my chances of getting it published. I said half of it was written. I hadn't written a single word. They asked me to send it. Then I started to think that this really wasn't written about, and it should be written about. I always wanted to be a writer, and so all of it eventually became City of Night. I often think about the people I knew who were hustling at the same time I was, and wonder whether they are still alive. That's what I would say to the next generation of rent boys: 'It can't last.'
Andrews-Katz: City of Night deals honestly with the world of homosexuality, drag queens, and male hustling. What challenges did you face trying to get it published in 1963?
Rechy: I had no difficulty! I already had a contract for it by 1960. It wasn't written at that point but the contract was there, based on the excerpts I sent out. I resisted writing it and didn't do it for two, maybe three years. A friend of mine helped me go back to El Paso so I could write it. I eventually wrote it in about a year. So, it wasn't difficult to publish at all. At first it got vile reviews but it sold, and sold. It was prohibited in Canada, Australia, and Spain. Now, 50 years later, people refer to it as a classic.
Andrews-Katz: For a while you led a juxtaposed life, being a writer/professor at UCLA during the day and a hustler at night. How did you handle it when those lives crossed paths?
Rechy: I didn't think about it then. Now, in retrospect, I look back and I want to laugh and I want to quiver with fear at those times. But then, it was just my life. I don't think anyone thinks about their life as this or that, it's just his or her life, and nothing exceptional because it is your life. I would go to UCLA and teach, and after a night class I'd change into something 'more appropriate' and then I'd be out on the street. It never occurred to me that people would recognize me. People did. Sometimes it was hilarious. Once, about 1:30 a.m. on Santa Monica Boulevard, a car slowed and stopped. The window rolled down and I heard, 'Good evening Professor Rechy. Are you out for an evening stroll?' It didn't faze me. It was amusing.
There had been some awful threatening things that I'd get into, but I try to focus on the funny ones. On a corner late one night, a very cute queen with just a little lipstick (not in full drag - that was illegal) was flirting with me and chasing away anyone looking for a hustler. Well, I wasn't into sex - I was out to make money. I walked away from her. Enraged, she called out to me, 'Listen, honey, your muscles are as Gay as my drag.' I love that kind of profound street attitude.
Andrews-Katz: In one section of City of Night, a character plays Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta every encounter with the (nameless) main character. Was there a particular reason for such a specific piece of haunting music?
Rechy: It was a piece of music that a friend of mine (whom I didn't know was Gay at the time) introduced me to. There was something that haunted me about it - something that still haunts me today. I have several recordings of it. I used to play it very often and it found its way into the book. I love music of all kinds, and play it with my mate frequently. I don't like the word 'spouse' (it sounds like 'mouse'), and I don't like the husband/husband thing. Michael, my mate, and I go to concerts all the time.
I did last longer on the streets than anyone else - I wonder if I'm in the Guinness Book - but eventually I gave it up. I met Michael. That has been the best part of my life. I don't regret any of my life. I'm not ashamed - that's not a word I like. My life is my life and I'm living it now. I live in a beautiful Hollywood Hills home with my mate, Michael, and it's great!
Andrews-Katz: As City of Night approaches its 50th anniversary in September 2013, what does the milestone mean to you on a personal level?
Rechy: It's so difficult to say. My experience has been that I accept whatever happens. And now this anniversary happens with this book. Of course, I'm glad but it doesn't feel like a milestone. It makes me very happy, but it also makes me very sad. The more City of Night goes on, the more distant the people I wrote about become. And that doesn't only include hustlers, because I also met a lot of men who were customers and wonderful people. At times, it was sad to me that I had to play a role for them that obviated any form of closeness, playing 'tough' and all that bullshit. I think about and wonder about what happened to the actual people that I wrote about.
John Rechy's first novel, City of Night stirred great controversy when it was first published. Christopher Isherwood praised it as 'the seething, brilliant novel of America after dark - comic ... tragic ... exciting.' Rechy's writing career would continue with more than a dozen books including The Sexual Outlaw (listed among the 100 best nonfiction books of the century by the San Francisco Chronicle), Marilyn's Daughter, and About My Life and the Kept Woman, a memoir. Mr. Rechy has been the recipient of the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bill Whitehead award for Lifetime Achievement, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Outstanding Alumnus 2007 University of Texas at El Paso Award, and the ONE Foundation's Culture Hero Award, of which he is the first recipient. He currently lives in Hollywood, California, with Michael, his mate of more than 20 years.
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