On the cover of Granta's "Sex" issue is a pink purse, photographed from above, whose pockets and silky involutions give it a decidedly risqué look. But as it happens, one of the most affecting pieces in the issue has a femininity quotient approximating zero. It's an excerpt from the late writer James Lord's memoir of coming of age during World War II, "My Queer War," in which Boston plays a supporting role.
Lord, who would go on to befriend Picasso, Giacometti, and other major 20th-century artists, was sent by the Army to Boston College, in preparation for service in Europe as an intelligence officer. In Chestnut Hill, he is sexually approached, for the first time, by a fellow serviceman, who then introduces him to gay Boston (and also to the word "gay"). One of their first stops is the Hotel Statler, now the Park Plaza:
The lobby was long and high, expensive, gold-plated, busy with wartime visitors....The crescent-shaped bar was packed with servicemen, several rows deep, too many to count, a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty, most of them drinking beer from the bottle, loud with flighty talk and piercing laughter. Crowded tight together, jostling back and forth, not one lady or girl among them, only a handful of civilians.
"Yes, said Jerry, "they're all gay."
"But this is a public place. People who don't know could come in, couldn't they?"
"Oh, yeah. Straights stray in. It happens. But usually they notice something and stray right out again. I mean, we have a right to Lebenstraum, haven't we? Anyway, there's a straight seating area right up there to keep things looking honest."
Back a polite distance from the bar, up three or four steps behind a metal grille, were a lot of small tables, clients seated there, a proviso of women among them, waiters in snappy jackets dancing ardoung to serve them.
"But don't they know?" I wondered. "Can't they tell?"
"Hell, no. Decent people don't want to know. And anyway, they couldn't tell if their grandmothers sold snuggle on the side."
Later, it's off to the Napoleon Club.
(See also, in the issue, Roberto Bolaño's translator, Natasha Zimmer, on rendering the Chilean novelist's earthier passages.)
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.