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James Lord's gay Boston

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 8, 2010 12:03 PM

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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.)

sexissue.jpgGranta No. 110: "Sex"
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