Clifford Wright, painting Yaddo red.
Delivered by a taxi to the back door of the impressive Yaddo mansion with my shabby cardboard suitcase and portable type-writer, I was met by a large, fair-haired, apple-cheeked but naughty-eyed Scandinavian-American man with a ski-jump nose, who served as the host, greeting new guests and getting them settled--in return for which he got room and board plus a tiny stipend for his painting supplies. He showed me to my room in the faux-baronial edifice, built in the 1860's by the Spencer Trasks, who, loaded with loot from railroads and the stock market, filled its 55 rooms with "authentic" imitation furnishings brought back from their travels abroad, and set themselves up as patrons of the arts.
I would soon learn that this versatile fellow named Clifford Wright, with whom I instantly became friends, saw his job not only as making guests comfortable and listening to their problems, as he did mine, but making love to everyone who seemed to need it, both men and women. He also claimed to masturbate four times a day, often on his paintings, which lay scattered over the floor of his studio and which he would pick up from time to time and daub at, paint mixing in with semen, something of which Clifford, a rather juicy-looking fellow, had plenty!
That evening I joined the formidable Yaddo director Elizabeth Ames at the main table, where she presided over the formal dining room. (In Clifford's diary of the time he said of his own first meeting with Mrs. Ames, "She frightens me witless.") Ramrod-erect, Elizabeth, as we called her, ruled Yaddo like our queen. She left little imperious notes, written in her refined, spidery hand, on the mail table to chide loud drinkers on the lawn at night who sometimes cavorted bare-assed in the moonlight in the decorative pool, or other abuses of the genteel, artistic atmosphere. Writer Truman Capote and Vogue columnist and culture czar Leo Lerman, who had been there the season before, found the formality stultifying and tried to lighten it up by screaming and camping it up together at meals, which resulted in Elizabeth's most famous little note: "Less homosexual laughter at the breakfast table." Clifford was always nervous that Mrs. Ames would be horrified by his paintings--with good reason. "Their object," he wrote in his diary," is to incite lubricity.... They reveal ... a furious desire ... to drain to their last dregs the most violent of carnal vices."
When I arrived I found the male guests divided into Rocks and Flits, categories that came, I believe, from private schools, where Flits were the sensitive boys who hung around the library and Rocks were the athletes. The Rocks at Yaddo were mostly macho writers who wore lumberjack shirts and boots and stomped around scowling, especially at us flitty types. But that made them all the more titillating for the women, who socialized with the amusing and literate Flits but crossed the line and screwed with the Rocks.
After dinner, in the gothic wood-paneled music room, one of Clifford's great friends, tubby composer Ben Weber, a handkerchief in a pale, expressive hand, gave campy recitals, hilariously impersonating divas and lieder singers, with poet Hubert Creekmore accompanying on the grand piano. Later, in the privacy of their rooms, Ben and Hubert held drag parties where Clifford joined them. He loved the theatrical fantasy of drag, and indeed his paintings were filled with gothic ladies and musclemen photos cut out of magazines set in operatic landscapes like stage sets.
After a morality-driven city administration had closed down the casino, Saratoga Springs started to go downhill (but remained fashionable during the horseracing season), resulting in the closing and demolition of the famous Saratoga Hotel, which was central to the movie Saratoga Trunk starring Ingrid Bergman. Part of Mrs. Ames's job was to maintain good relations with the politically conservative Saratoga Springs community. But the free-spirited Yaddo-ites sometimes made it difficult for her. Occasionally, a horny but closeted guest, preferring anonymous sex, was caught by police in flagrante with a pickup in the bushes of the downtown park, or in the public men's room in the basement of the police station. Elizabeth, desperate to avoid a scandal, would quietly arrange things with the town authorities. But she couldn't pacify townie vandals, who resented the multi-racial artists and "queers" living in the lap of luxury, and they kept overturning and daubing paint on the nude marble statues under the vine-covered pagodas of the rose garden. Clifford was continually scrubbing them off.
At the time of my arrival, things had hardly settled down from a scandal that had erupted two years before. This was at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which targeted with little distinction liberals, communists, and homosexuals. Poet Robert Lowell, who was subject to mental breakdowns, had telephoned the FBI that Yaddo was a nest of communist subversives, and federal agents swooped down on Yaddo in a raid that terrified everyone. Clifford was completely non-political but he was carted off to jail. What terrified him the most was that they had confiscated his address book, which was full of his gay friends, most of them in the closet in those risky days when being a homosexual was a crime. Clifford's background check revealed that he had deserted the army--he explained to me later that once the war was over he didn't see any reason to stay in the army, and just took off. It demanded all of Elizabeth Ames's considerable powers to get him out of jail.
Lowell's eruption has never been properly explained in any of the biographies, which have been afraid to explore Lowell's sexual conflicts. But in his diary, Clifford reports that the supposedly heterosexual poet had been seduced by Charles Sebree, a black composer-artist, and it had tipped him over the edge. Clifford's diary entry for December 27, 1948, reads: "Charles Sebree made a point of sleeping with him a couple of times and each time Cal [Lowell] said the next morning he wasn't that sort of person." Morning-after regrets are weak excuses. But after having thrown Yaddo into an uproar, Lowell conveniently checked himself into a mental hospital.
Our daily ritual at Yaddo was much like that on an ocean liner. We came from our rooms to a buffet breakfast in the dining room to sit at the half dozen tables, which were lively with the chatter of "voyagers" thrown in together. And as on a sea voyage, there were sudden love affairs that ended in broken hearts, as it were, before the arrival in port. Clifford, resident counselor and stud, helped to console those unfortunates by listening to their miseries and, if possible, servicing them with his fat, willing prick.
In my woodsy studio I would light the stove with chunks of firewood and kindling and struggle with my poems. Afternoons, I sometimes bicycled or even walked the five miles into Saratoga Springs. Horny and closeted. I tried cruising the park but never saw anyone lurking in the bushes. When I was older and more experienced about male sexuality, I realized that I should have tried the racetrack bars where the stable hands and touts hung out. But I could always talk to Clifford, who listened to my problems with bemused understanding. At the slightest opportunity he would break out in chuckles, and indeed that was his most characteristic expression. He even said he woke up from his dreams chuckling. He seemed full of the joy of life, and always lifted me out of the depths of my miseries.
"HAPPY Valentine's Day ... The F.B.I. is investigating this place like crazy ... And Mrs. Ames has the fantastic idea that I am partially responsible." After this entry of February 14, 1949, Clifford was arrested. His diary suffers a mysterious lacuna and only resumes in the spring of 1955, at the time of my second visit to Yaddo, when Clifford was having a love affair with the blond, boyish poet and painter Ralph Pomeroy, whom I had met in the cafes of St. Germain-des-Pres in Paris in the late 1940's. In an early entry in the resumed diary he does mention having the hots for Dudley Huppler, a short sexy painter with a big dick. But he doesn't write a word about his affair with Ralph Pomeroy, perhaps feeling the need to be more cautious due to his arrest. Apparently, when Dudley Huppler didn't come across, Clifford easily transferred his lustful appetites to the famous beauty Pomeroy.
When Ralph had returned to New York after several years in Paris and went to the Museum of Modern Art looking for a job, Monroe Wheeler, who was both a wheeler and a dealer at MOMA, invited him to dinner at the Park Avenue apartment that he shared with his lifetime partner, the novelist Glenway Wescott, beginning a love affair and later a friendship that lasted until Wheeler's death. It was through them that Ralph met such figures as the photographer George Platt Lynes, who snapped him at the height of his youthful glory; Andy Warhol, who painted his portrait; and writers like Katherine Anne Porter and Thornton Wilder.
With the recommendation of several of these high-powered literary figures, Ralph was accepted by Yaddo in 1955, coinciding with my second visit. Our group of Yaddo-ites turned out to be much gayer than before--this time the Flits outnumbered the Rocks. Ralph, never one to waste time, quickly threw himself into a steamy affair with Clifford, who appeared to be completely besotted with him.
For all his good cheer, Clifford had a mournful streak that he didn't display very often. He was an orphan, raised in the state of Washington by foster parents, and he never knew his origins. He was content at Yaddo until some friends encouraged him to write to the Red Cross and ask if they could locate his real parents. Several years later, out of the blue, he got a call from California--it was from his father, an old Finnish carpenter, who explained that he had had to put the children into foster care when their mother died and, through a bureaucratic mix-up, had lost contact with little Clifford. Leaving the safety of Yaddo, Clifford flew out for a reunion visit with his newly discovered family, whereupon his father gave him the money to go to Finland to meet his Finnish relatives.
So, in 1956, he set off on the trip of self-discovery with a muscle-bound boyfriend (he had a weakness for showy muscles in both men and women, especially lady lifeguards). When the hunk deserted him in Denmark and absconded with their funds, the stranded Clifford got in touch with a Danish writer, Elsa Gress, whom he had known "intimately" at Yaddo, having ended up in her bed after a boozy party (liquor was the agent that switched Clifford temporarily from homo to hetero). A decidedly odd couple, Clifford and Elsa would get married and have two children. Clifford lived in Denmark for the rest of his life, going on with his painting, as Elsa became a prominent and eccentric celebrity, her munchkin face much caricatured in the Danish papers.
From then on, Clifford's gay life became more a matter of fantasy than ever. Perhaps his submersion of his gay interests was prudent, for Elsa turned out to be intolerant of homosexuality, simply wouldn't hear of it--decidedly odd for a woman married to a gay man! But in his correspondence and especially in his paintings, gayness was in full flower and he could indulge in his campy fantasies. Indeed, it was after Clifford had settled in Denmark that he and I became devoted correspondents, camping it up to the max in our letters. His favorite naughty-boy signoff was "with interfemoral kisses." I particularly enjoyed getting chapters of his hilarious, luridly over-the-top camp novel Fangs of Death, which he produced to entertain his friends.
Clifford seemed perfectly content with his life despite the fact that he never learned to speak Danish. Helpless in practical matters, he depended on Elsa for everything, including earning a living. But beyond that, he was proud of her achievements as a writer and as a celebrity, for he himself was decidedly retiring. Yet, modest as he was about his career in life, in his letters he delightedly announced his exhibitions, commissions, and awards. My friend Neil and I once visited them at the rambling schoolhouse in the Danish countryside where he and Elsa had set up a miniature Yaddo of their own and welcomed artists from all over the world.
Ralph Pomeroy also made the pilgrimage and, schnorrer that he was, stayed on for months, though Elsa never approved of him, sensing too well the old sexual relationship between him and her husband. Ralph was not above being a bit of a home wrecker. Another frequent guest, Tom O'Horgan, the director of Hair, brought his theater group to stay for months and worked with Elsa on theatrical projects. But every so often, he told me, she would erupt in fury against his homosexuality, and O'Horgan would have to be very stern with her, freezing her out until she came off it.
Eventually, with their rising fame, the Count von Moltke gave Clifford and Elsa lifetime quarters on the grounds of his Marienborg Castle on the island of Mons, with a large painting studio for Clifford. It was there, Clifford wrote me, that the democratic, culture-minded Danish Queen Margarethe arrived to visit this celebrated pair of bohemians, but Clifford was so intimidated that he hid in the kitchen with the grooms and attendants, while Elsa, with perfect aplomb, entertained the Queen for hours.
In the spring of 1988, when Neil and I were in Paris. Clifford had a triumphal show at the Maison du Danemark on the Champs Elysees, and we saw them for the last time. Elsa, in remission from a bout with cancer, so completely herself that glorious spring day, was dead in a few months. Clifford never recovered from the loss and deteriorated after that, even losing interest in painting, though luckily the marvelous Danish health system supplied him with care and attendants to the end.
Clifford Wright was such a retiring person, and living on such a remote island as he did, that writing letters was his chief means of connecting with people, especially his gay friends. And since he had known everyone in the arts, his correspondence in the Danish Archives of Arts and Letters Modern Collection is staggering--12,500 items. In my archive at the University of Delaware, too, are a treasure trove of 85 fat letters from Clifford, a testament to his indomitable gay spirit.
Further information about Clifford Wright can be found at www.Yaddodiary.com.
Edward Field's forthcoming book is called The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag and Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era (Univ. of Wisconsin Press), from which this piece is adapted.
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|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
|Previous Article:||First Time.|
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