Just because it’s National Coming Out Day doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about our week-long celebration of queer literature. In this installment of Words on Homo Words, freelance writer Matt Sussman details the mystery behind one of the first gay books, The Scarlet Pansy.
While on the surface the tale seems like an erotic coming out tale of sorts, Sussman finds there’s an even bigger story lurking between the covers. Full of lies, criminals, and intrigue, this story’s so big we had to break it into two parts.
Enjoy part one, after the jump…
“My Strange Affair with Fay Etrange”
By Matt Sussman
The first thing to throw me off about the The Scarlet Pansy was the cover (pictured). The photo – a black and white head shot of a shirtless blond hunk as anonymous as the book’s author – seems at odds with the title: a fey makeover of The Scarlet Pimpernel, perhaps? But I figured that the cover art was probably a second thought to an erotica imprint like Badboy.
My boyfriend had borrowed the novel from a friend, who said that it was rumored to be from the 1930s. The writing certainly seemed of the period–unnecessary exposition and florid verbiage hung off sentences like so much rococo ornament, at times dragging down the pace to an insufferably protracted crawl. The content however was far more reckless and explicit than one might expect from something of the time. At the drop of a character’s pants or the loosening of a belt, the reveries of description shifted from reporting the catty repartee of two bar queens to lasciviously recounting protagonist Randall Etrange’s next priapic conquest in graphic detail.
Essentially a tarted-up bildungsroman, Pansy chronicles the sexual evolution of Randall, a man who “had always been beautiful” and whose alarmingly feminine voice (a topic worthy of a thousand dissertations in and of itself) continually tips off others to the open secret of his homosexual desires. We follow Randall from his rural upbringing in Kuntsville, Pennsylvania to medical school in Philadelphia to Berlin, where the tale comes to a suitably melodramatic end.
In the process, Randall metamorphoses from awkward corn-fed jail-bait into a self-possessed seducer and practiced cock lover, unabashed in his pursuit of carnal pleasure. From Lower East Side bars to uptown drag balls to firehouse orgies, across state-lines and continents, Randall’s access to the gay sexual undergrounds of the thirties is as expansive as his appetites are rapacious. The combination of camp stylistics, period detail and explicit raunchiness seemed almost schizophrenic. Something was off, and I intended to find out what.
A few Google searches turned up a 1932 novel called The Scarlet Pansy attributed it to the pseudonymous Robert Scully and publisher William Faro, Inc. William Faro, Inc. it turns out was one of the many imprints of “smut czar” Samuel Roth, posthumously hailed as the father of mail order pornography. Roth, who was arrested nine times and convicted six times on various obscenity charges over his lifetime, made a name for himself publishing obscene and banned works–everything from spurious “anthropological” accounts of African sex practices to esoteric erotic classics to pirated editions of Joyce’s Ulysses – and in the process became public enemy number one in the war on obscenity. Things got so ugly, in fact, that Vanity Fair included him alongside a rookie Adolf Hitler in its 1932 photo essay titled “We Nominate for Oblivion.” While I found plenty of information on Roth, there was virtually nothing on Scully, other than the passing assertions of several gay literature scholars that it was probably the one time nom-de-plume of gay lost generation literary figure Robert McAlmon.
In my quest to find the truth, I made an appointment with a San Francisco dealer who held one of the Faro specimens, to compare it with the Badboy edition. When I opened the musty hardcover volume to the first page, its plain dust jacket suggesting nothing of the lurid content within, my eyes scanned and rescanned the opening line: “Fay Etrange lay dying on a battlefield in France, dying in the arms of the man she loved.” Randall is a she? As becomes clear over the course of the novel, Fay’s gender–along with the genders of other female characters–is only nominally female; no doubt a safeguard against moral watchdogs not carefully attuned to the signifying practices of “fairies” who commonly addressed each other with female pronouns. The novel would have run into much more censorship trouble had things been spelled out too clearly.
Another major difference was the lack of explicit sex. The original’s coy ellipses and narrative fade-to-black moments were turned into segues to the hardcore action in the Badboy edition. An exchange of emails with former Badboy publisher Richard Kasak confirmed my suspicions and made it was clear what had happened–somewhere along the line, Badboy had gotten a hold of the original manuscript, changed the protagonist’s gender, cut-n-pasted in a bunch of ghost written sex scenes, and switched a rumored pen name for anonymity to sell the book as a long lost “gay camp classic.” (Hot-rodding older source material has been a favored practice of the erotica industry–check out the Heretic Books edition of the Oscar Wilde-associated Teleny–perhaps a nod to Roth’s own liberal approach to his role as editor?) What remained hazy was what had happened between 1932 and 1992, and whether or not a stronger connection existed between Scully and McAlmon.
My bibliographic paper chase would soon be cut-short, and my many unanswered questions cleared up, by someone who I thought was another red herring. Initially I figured “Hugh Hagius” was another pseudonym; the name had a whiff of affected old world grandeur about it, much like Fay Etrange. Hagius’ name came up on a gay bibliophile site which listed him as the author of a privately printed and tantalizingly unavailable essay on “the true authorship of Robert Scully’s The Scarlet Pansy”– which only two major university libraries in America possess in their holdings. Hagius’ name was also listed as the proprietor of another online mail order shop for rare gay manuscripts, but the website no longer existed. Luckily, their phone number still worked. I was one step closer to solving the literary mystery of The Scarlet Pansyâ€¦