Conversation with Charles Kaiser

Charles Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996 (Houghton Mifflin), a comprehensive history of gay life in New York City and the world from World War II to the present. A resident of Manhattan since 1968, he began writing for The New York Times while still an undergraduate at Columbia University.

A journalist’s journalist, Kaiser was press critic for Newsweek, covered media and publishing at The Wall Street Journal and taught journalism at Columbia and Princeton. His first book, 1968 In America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation is, in my opinion, one of the best accounts of that awful year. Kaiser’s decision to include gay liberation among the events of 1968 was unusual for a “mainstream’ writer and told me that there was more to the author than meets the eye.

Kaiser, who is quite open about his sexual orientation, came out in 1970, the year after the Stonewall riot. As a result, Kaiser adds to his historical and journalistic skills years of experience that encompass all of the modern gay liberation movement. He is a member of the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a founder and former president of its New York chapter. As a gay man living in one of the world’s AIDS epicenters, Kaiser felt the need to write about the epidemic that decimated his community.

“I had considered writing something historical about New York for a long time,” Kaiser said in a recent interview. “About seven years ago, I reached a point as a gay writer when I felt I had to write something about AIDS – to bear witness to the catastrophe that we all experienced. I wanted to write a book that would include AIDS, but not be overwhelmed by it. . . . For so many years during the ’80s, it felt like gay life and AIDS were practically the same thing. So this was a way of trying to put the epidemic into perspective.”

Charles Kaiser was in Fort Lauderdale to take part in the Broward Public Library Foundation’s “Day of Literary Lectures” and “Night of Literary Feasts”. Along with other writers, Kaiser participated in a series of panel discussions, talks and book signings.

This was followed in the evening by a cocktail reception and dinner parties in private homes, all to benefit the Broward Library Foundation. Kaiser kindly took time out between his daytime and evening commitments to talk to me about his book, the gay community, and Charles Kaiser.

Since its publication last November, The Gay Metropolis has gotten good reviews and a lot of attention from both the gay and mainstream media. It is also a Lambda Book Report best seller and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Unlike most “gay books”, sales of The Gay Metropolis are doing well beyond the gay community. This Kaiser attributes to the fact that he “tried to make it accessible to everyone. While I was writing it I had two straight women friends look at it. They were my ‘straight radar’ to see if it would pass with the straight audience.” Though Kaiser is obviously on the side of the angels, he did not try to shove his agenda at the readers: “I tried to proselytize, but softly, by making you sympathize with the heroes of the movement.”

Many critics, myself included, have criticized the “New York-centric” view of too many gay histories, which exaggerate gay Gotham’s contributions and ignore those of other communities. Such an approach seems to work in a book named after the Big Apple.

“There were two reasons why I made The Gay Metropolis” New York-centered”, says Kaiser. “First, I framed the subject in such a way that I would be able to finish the book in my own lifetime and so I had put in limitations. Second, because New York City has the largest gay population in the world, and because a lot of the book is about how the media changed in how it treated gay people and because a lot of the media is in New York, it was logical for it to have that point of view.”

Needless to say, important figures and events in gay history were left out of The Gay Metropolis, as Kaiser himself admits: “I wish I had done more with Harvey Milk, especially since he was a New Yorker.” However, “I did not want to write an encyclopedia. I wanted to write an interesting, accessible book. When you write a 55-year history it’s all about omission. It’s about deciding what to leave out. My goal in each chapter was to give you just enough people to give you the flavor and texture of each decade.”

One of the few negative reviews of The Gay Metropolis was published in the New York Times and was written by George Chauncey, the author of Gay New York: 1890-1940. Kaiser considered Chauncey’s review to be unfairly negative, especially since Chauncey is a “competitor”.

Needless to say, the Kaiser and Chauncey books beg comparison with one another, which I asked Kaiser to make: “My book is more readable. And more comprehensive. George has done more research. He also came up with some rather odd theories, especially his idea that it must have been easy to be gay in the 20s, because he found a few people who didn’t seem to be actively self-hating.” Kaiser agrees that academic scholars like Chauncey tend to look down at writers who, like Kaiser, are journalists and popular historians. As a result, “when they review books, academics are much more dishonest than journalists can ever be.”

Kaiser began The Gay Metropolis with the year 1940, at the beginning of World War Two. He did that “because gay life and modern life both began with World War II. I originally intended to begin with the 1920s but my original editor talked me out of it partly because he didn’t think I would finish the book and partly because modern life began with the Second World War.” In assessing the War’s contributions to lesbian and gay life Kaiser followed gay historian Allan Berube, whose Coming Out Under Fire Kaiser considers to be the best work of contemporary gay history.

What most of us enjoyed about The Gay Metropolis were the people in it. Some of the people Kaiser interviewed for his book were never interviewed before, at least not as openly gay people. How did he get these people to “open up” and reveal themselves? “I reversed normal journalistic practices,” Kaiser tells me, and explains with a story:

“When I taught at Princeton five years ago I brought J. Anthony Lukas to speak at the class. And he said that for his latest book he made a contract with all the people he wrote about to share the book with them before it was published. If he made a factual mistake about them he would correct it before it was published.”

“I took this one step further. In the case of 98% of the people I interviewed I told them to tell me everything and not to worry about how it’s going to look because I am going to give you your part of the book. And you can read your part of the narrative and you can decide if you are comfortable with how I presented it. As a result I got unprecedented frankness and honesty. And I lost about five paragraphs.”

Some of the characters in The Gay Metropolis became personal friends of the author. This was especially true of Arthur Laurents and Paul Cadmus, Kaiser’s “new ‘gay father’ and ‘gay grandfather’. On the other hand, “Philip Johnson’s boyfriend refused to be interviewed. Stephen Sondheim I would have wanted to get a longer interview from but I got a lot from the brief interview I did with him. But he is not someone who was especially comfortable being interviewed as a gay person. But he has come a long way.” Though Kaiser is philosophically opposed to outing, he admits that “I may have outed Robert Gray, Reagan’s deputy campaign director.”

Kaiser began The Gay Metropolis with a profile of Sandy Kern, a lesbian who grew up in New York in the 1940s. Yet as the book progressed, the narrative became focused on gay men, which Kaiser wrote he did “because their story is also mine.” Still, “nothing in the world would have made me leave out Sandy Kern.” As for why there were only a few women in his book, Kaiser explains that he “had a lot of trouble finding older lesbians who would talk, because I am a man and because they were more reticent.”

Furthermore, “there was a lot of hostility on the part of the lesbian historical community. Joan Nestle wouldn’t return my calls. And I made an appointment to visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives. They let me in for five hours. Afterwards I asked if I could come back the next day but they told me not to come back in three weeks because there were women coming the next day who did not want to see a man.”

Kaiser adamantly denies George Chauncey’s criticism that he limited his narrative to the rich and famous and beautiful: “Almost every character I gave more than three pages to where people that hardly anyone has ever heard of before. This criticism is just not true!” On the other hand, “I did have a prejudice in favor of people who were good storytellers.”

Many of these talky characters are or were in the arts, which is to be expected since gay artists are more likely to be out than others. This led me to ask Kaiser whether he thought gay men have a greater aptitude for the arts than heterosexuals. “I wrote about that a little bit,” Kaiser replies. “In order to be an openly gay person and in order to be a great artist you have to have serious self-confidence and a will to create your own set of values and disregard the views of the majority. Also, to some extent all gay people, especially as teenagers, have to be good actors because they perceive the need to pretend to be straight.”

Much of The Gay Metropolis is devoted to the media’s coverage of gay people and gay issues. As a journalist and media expert, Kaiser obviously knows his profession well. He goes so far as to call television talk show host Phil Donahue “the person who played the largest role in ending the invisibility of gay life in America”. Was that an exaggeration? “Not at all. “Who would you nominate instead?,” says Kaiser, noting that Chauncey nominated a relatively unknown gay media group for that distinction. “Phil Donahue put gay issues in more homes than anyone else. He did it because he was fascinated with gay life and he was educating himself about it and by doing so he was educating America.”

As a gay activist who came out politically during the Dade County referendum of 1977, I was not surprised to read that discos were more important than demonstrations to most gay men of our generation during the seventies. In his book Kaiser calls gay baby boomers “a generation of mostly selfish men, consumed by sex”. Kaiser defends this remark, noting that “this was certainly true of the men I knew at the time. Only a tiny percentage of men were political activists. I think sex was the prime interest of most gay men in their 20s in the 1970s because there was so much more freedom and more opportunity than there was before.”

“Most gay men were not nearly as political as they should have been until AIDS came along. Like most Americans, it is very hard to get interested in politics unless it is a matter of life and death.”

The Gay Metropolis does a good job chronicling the gay social scene of the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. By the time the book reaches the eighties and nineties, the social takes a back seat to the political and the medical. That is because, says Kaiser, with AIDS “the story becomes more political and more medical. The story of gay people went from an entirely private story to a more public and political story.”

All in all, The Gay Metropolis is an optimistic book. Kaiser even managed to find a silver lining in the cloud that is AIDS. Things will continue to get better for gays, Kaiser says, “if we don’t become complacent. If we don’t fall back into our old bad habits. If we continue to organize and work for and contribute to political candidates who work for our own interests.”

One person who was missing from The Gay Metropolis was Charles Kaiser. He admits “it was a hard decision for me to leave myself out. When I started writing the book I was going to put myself in the book as a character, beginning at the time I came out as a gay man around 1970. But I was talked out of it by my editors. They thought that if I suddenly appeared as a character it would be distracting to the reader. I also realized that there was nothing so remarkable or unique about my life that I needed to be there.”

“In fact the second half of my book was a disguised autobiography. Because many of the people I chose to be in the book were chosen because their experiences were similar to mine and because their opinions were opinions I wished to express.”

Kaiser himself has been “happily married for 20 years, with someone I picked up the first time he went to a gay bar, Indeed, “part of the subtext [of The Gay Metropolis] for me is that I wanted to find older gay men who not only figured out how to make relationships work but how to grow up and grow old together happily.”

In that light, Kaiser’s “favorite discovery was a letter written by Christopher Isherwood on the value of gay partnerships. It was discovered by Kaiser’s niece, who found it at the University of Wisconsin among Gore Vidal’s papers. “As far as I know, I am the first person to make it public. It was a fan letter Isherwood wrote to Vidal after he published his gay novel, The City and the Pillar, in 1948.” It should be quoted in full:

“Homosexual relationships can be, and frequently are, happy. Men live together for years and make homes and share their lives and their work, just as heterosexuals do. The truth is peculiarly disturbing and shocking even to ‘liberal’ people, because it cuts across their romantic, tragic notion of the homosexual’s fate. Certainly, under the present social setup, a homosexual relationship is more difficult to maintain than a heterosexual one (by the same token, a free-love relationship is more difficult to maintain than a marriage), but doesn’t that merely make it more of a challenge and therefore, in a sense, more humanly worthwhile?”

That, in a nutshell, is Charles Kaiser, and the theme of The Gay Metropolis.

By Jesse Monteagudo


About Gay Today

Editor of Gay Today