To the Editor:
I do not know where Edmund White in his review of Jean-Yves Tadie's life of Proust (Book Review, Aug. 6) conceived his notion that Francis Steegmuller, my late husband, in his biography of Jean Cocteau, "pretends that the great love of Cocteau's life was the Princess Natalie Paley." Certainly not from my husband's book, where that transitory, drug-ridden infatuation occupies, in a work of over 500 pages, less than five; and "could be," in Steegmuller's words, "dismissed as gossip not worth the recounting" were it not for some relevance to Cocteau's art in the 1930s. As Steegmuller relates, Natalie Paley acknowledged, in the 1960s, that "For [Cocteau] the affair with me was purely physical. He wanted a son, but he was only as potent with me as one can be who is completely homosexual and full of opium. It was all shameful and disgraceful. There was no love." Throughout, Cocteau maintained his homosexual relations with Jean Desbordes and others. His claim to have impregnated Natalie Paley was ridiculed.
Steegmuller comments that Cocteau's involvement with Paley "can be thought of as a kind of opium dream; its mythomania was outside the realm of art; in it he displayed indifference to his artistic qualities and flouted his innermost nature; his moral gaucherie was pronounced."
In Steegmuller's biography, White will find the Princess "indexed" in the multiple entry under "Cocteau"--Natalie Paley having declined, at that time, to be identified by name. I read Edmund White on Tadie with interest--hoping, however, that the weird distortion corrected above is not an indication of his accuracy.
New York City
Edmund White replies:
I stand corrected about the details of Steegmuller's account of the relationship between Princess Paley and Cocteau, but I still stick by my point that earlier biographies of key literary figures (including Proust, Gide and Cocteau) underreported their homosexuality. For instance, on page 480 Steegmuller tells us in a footnote to a discussion of the film "Orphee": "In connection with the film, it has been pointed out that the vogue for the younger poet Cegeste (played by Edouard Dermit) and the decline of 'Orphee' (Jean Marais) is analogous to the roles of the two men in Cocteau's intimate life: since the 'adoption' of Dermit, Marais had been gradually withdrawing. (A third young man, Paul Morihien, who had also been one of the household and who had acted as Cocteau's secretary, withdrew at this same time)."
I doubt whether a biography of a heterosexual writer or artist (Hemingway or Picasso, say) would have consigned so much important information about the subject's emotional life to a hasty footnote. When I interviewed Morihien for my Genet biography, I learned the interesting things mentioned in this paragraph in my book: "Morihien was a water-polo player during the war in Paris, and in 1940 or 1941 he had become Jean Marais's lover. Cocteau, who was in his mid-fifties, 'took the couple,' that is, he incorporated Morihien, who normally would have been considered his rival, into his household. Morihien lived in Jean Marais's room in the Palais-Royal apartment. Since Marais was often out of Paris, touring in a play or shooting a film, Morihien kept Cocteau company and, as Cocteau's diary shows, frequently went to social events with him. At first he knew nothing about paintings or books but, since he was avid to be educated, little by little he began to pick up an extensive knowledge about art from his daily contact with Cocteau." Among other things, Cocteau helped Morihien start a bookstore under the arcades of the Palais-Royal where Morihien published the first book by Cocteau's protege, Jean Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers."
Of course I realize that Morihien might not have been so open in an interview in the 1960s as he was in the 1980s, nor would Steegmuller have escaped criticism if he'd "dwelled unnecessarily" on his subject's "neurosis." I'm merely remarking on the salutary change in the cultural climate.
To the Editor:
John Rechy's otherwise engaging and incisive review of Darden Asbury Pyron's biography of Liberace (Book Review, Aug. 6) seriously misstates the status of gay rights in the United States. In a pithy paragraph, Rechy says, "Police followed cruising gay men home, waited then broke in and arrested them having sex. Such consensual acts between adults, in private, were punishable with five or more years in prison. . . . (Vice arrests in private are legal even today; a 1986 Supreme Court decision let stand the conviction of two consenting Georgia adults arrested at home; imprisonment is still possible)."
Bowers vs. Hardwick, the referenced case, though never directly overruled, remains today a shaky basis for police and prosecutorial invasions of homosexual privacy. Hardwick was arrested for homosexual sex in his bedroom but was never charged, let alone convicted under a Georgia anti-sodomy statute. About half the states at that time had laws against sodomy but never enforced them against heterosexuals and rarely against homosexuals. Bowers was decided by a 5 to 4 vote of the Supreme Court; in his separate concurring opinion making the majority, Justice Lewis F. Powell suggested that if Hardwick had claimed an 8th Amendment violation (that is, that the statute threatened "cruel and unusual punishment"), he might have voted the other way; he later said his vote in Bowers was the one in his entire tenure on the Court that he regretted. But most important, Justice Byron White's opinion for the Court was emphatically based on the states' police power to legislate such matters rather than the inherent immorality or criminality of homosexuality, per se.
Fewer than a dozen states have retained anti-sodomy laws since Bowers. By statute and court decisions, California has decisively rejected the Bowers doctrine on state constitutional privacy and equality grounds. In 1980, the state supreme courts of New York and Pennsylvania invalidated their own state laws criminalizing consensual sodomy of any kind. The AIDS crisis of the early 1990s slowed such repeals, but by 1998, the supreme courts of Kentucky, Tennessee and Montana had struck down sodomy laws on similar state constitutional grounds. Even the Georgia Supreme Court voided the very same statute upheld in Bowers twelve years earlier (Powell vs. State, Ga.). Lower state court rulings have followed suit in Texas (1992) and Michigan (1990). The District of Colombia repealed its own sodomy law in 1993.
The federal courts have also turned away from accepting anti-homosexual discrimination, with the possible exception of gays in the military. The Supreme Court's 1996 (6 to 3) voiding of Colorado's popular initiative excluding homosexuals from state civil rights protection in Romer vs. Evans, albeit based on minimal "rational basis" application of the Equal Protection Clause, makes the selective enforcement of Bowers-type laws against homosexual conduct highly problematical, especially when that conduct occurs in private places.
Carl E. Schwarz