In December 2012, a friend invited me to Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, opening at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Drawing on a thirty-year correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Ruhl based her play completely on the letters themselves, in which the poets and great friends shared details of their writing, illnesses, paranoias, romantic entanglements, and other queer intimacies. Sitting in the darkened theatre, I was transfixed. Clearly, Ruhl knew what it was like to become lost in her research, to fall in love with people long dead, to imagine herself in a different time and place. She had translated more than letters to the stage. She had written her own archival love story.
As it happened, I was in the midst of understanding an archival love story of my own. I was studying the queer history of models, and ostensibly I had come to New Haven to consult the papers of George Platt Lynes. A fashion photographer, Lynes headed up Condé Nast’s Los Angeles studio in the early 1940s. He is best known for his gorgeous mid-century black and white gay male nudes, which later influenced the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar.
Working before the liberalization of censorship laws in the late 1960s, Lynes risked prosecution if he sent his photographs through the mail. Instead, he shared them with a close circle of friends — his queer family of sorts — including the artist Paul Cadmus and the sexologist Alfred Kinsey. For sixteen years, from 1934 to 1946, Lynes lived in a ménage à trois with the writer Glenway Wescott and the curator Monroe Wheeler, on New York’s Upper East Side.
Yale’s Beinecke Library houses more than Lynes’s papers; it also has Wheeler’s and Wescott’s. Combined, their diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, and manuscript drafts reveal an intimate world of mid-twentieth-century gay male culture. I sat at a maple and steel table as library staff solemnly delivered fonds after fonds. Donning my white cotton gloves, I immersed myself in a different era.
The correspondence, in particular, opened up a world of complex and ever-shifting sexual liaisons, sustained by lifelong partnerships and friendships. I knew I was overresearching, but I could not help myself as I read the love letters between Lynes and Wheeler, the main sexual partners in this threesome. (Wescott and Wheeler were the life partners, living together for over fifty years.) On March 31, 1934, for example, Lynes wrote Wheeler, “You made me so happy all winter. Some things I’ll never forget. Never. . . . When I went to bed your pillow smelled so sweet, I kissed every inch of the place you lay: the hardest moment of a long and lonely day.” The photographer’s writing promised archival evidence for a full, queer life devoid of heartbreak, jealousy, and — not incidentally — monogamy.
If they were able to pull this off, I thought, why can’t I? At the time, my relationship of thirteen years was radically transforming, as between us we moved through each letter of LGBTQ. We split hairs over what it meant to be “gay” and “queer” and “ourselves.” Sitting in the car outside our therapist’s office, we would fight over language, trying to make room for our changing identities within the confines of our relationship. Sitting alone in New Haven, I desperately needed to find a queer usable past.
Maybe that’s why I read Lynes’s diaries so closely. When he’d had sex with someone, he’d place their initials in his daybook. I dutifully noted the near-daily relations Lynes enjoyed with Wheeler, his studio assistant Jonathan Tichenor, and others. Triumphantly, I discovered that he also slept with women, such as Laurie Douglas, the model. Obstinately downplaying overwhelming evidence that Lynes preferred sex with men, I assiduously detailed his liaisons with Douglas. Let the record show, I declared in my notes: queer desire is complicated, crossing boundaries of sex and gender when you least expect it. Lynes’s network seemed to balance queer kinship, enduring commitment, and casual sex — with both men and (one or two) women. His days were a utopian blend of work, cocktails, opera, trips to the country, modern dance, art making, and queerness.
Alas, it was not to last.
Lynes fell in love with Tichenor, his assistant, and became intolerable at home. He moved out, breaking up his queer household, and took a room at the Plaza. Wheeler and Wescott couldn’t understand why he’d leave their family for what seemed to them a mere fling. As Wescott complained in his careful blue script, “Your real trouble is not sexual; it is not that you are incorrigible, sexually, erotically, spoiled, greedy, vain. It is that you don’t take the rest of your life seriously enough.” Lynes’s laconic diary notes “drama all day,” and later “the lowpoint, the worst day.” He sold his car, packed his things, and signed a lease. It was over.
I looked around the Beinecke’s quiet modernist reading room, heartbroken. I needed a queer love story — any love story — to fortify my own denial. And this was not it.
I admit to a sense of petty revenge when Tichenor soon left Lynes — for a woman. I’d never enjoyed much of a positive relationship with my gender — at least according to how mainstream culture understands “female” — but in this moment, I became an unlikely cheerleader for cis femininity.
Tichenor and Douglas left the stage, to be replaced by Alfred Kinsey and Samuel Steward, the tattoo artist, English professor, and pornographer. Lynes never did replicate the queer domesticity he had created with Wescott and Wheeler, despite having a ridiculous amount of sex, the details of which he shared with Steward in a lively correspondence.
Eventually, my Lynes research found its way into Work! A Queer History of Modeling, the book I finally published last month. But alongside the archival material, a shadow narrative persists: one that traces the changes in my own love life. Like all historical research, my project was ultimately autobiographical. Through it, I sought desperately to script an uncertain future, one that could leave my relationship intact. But no amount of detective work could prevent my reality from imploding.
When I first met my partner in 1997, I was reading a new biography of the poet Elizabeth Bishop. As I was recovering from a recent breakup, Bishop became my bittersweet solace (my ex’s new love fancied herself a poet). Without quite realizing the lesbian cliché I was becoming (“I read Elizabeth Bishop!”), I read and reread her poetry, especially “One Art.” Twenty years later, lost in the Lynes-Wescott-Wheeler triad, I returned to Bishop’s last lines: “ — Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
The shifts in my relationship certainly felt like the disaster and loss that Bishop tries, in vain, to diminish in her poem. Sitting in the audience at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I listened to Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays perform lines from the Bishop-Lowell correspondence and began to rethink my situation. Lowell wrote, sadly, “I seem to spend my life missing you.” Their closeness, platonic while often romantic, sustained them through thirty years, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Maybe intimacy without sex can be its own queer love story. After all, if Bishop and Lowell could pull this off, why couldn’t I?