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#BornThisDay: Writer, John Rechy

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2003, photo by Tim Courtney, Grove Press

March 10, 1931– John Rechy:

“Gay men should not adopt the sophomoric model of heterosexual dating; gay men should always have sex first.”

In those crazy 1980s, even after I had achieved a degree of success on some of Seattle’s stages, with a great role in a long-running play, and collecting residuals for a national commercial, an international commercial and a national voice-over, I still would not give up my “day job” working in a restaurant. When John Rechy published his first novel, City Of Night, in 1963, he was still earning his living as a hustler on the mean streets of Los Angeles. I suppose he didn’t expect a book that dealt with underground gay life in America to make much money, and it would be foolish to give up the day job, or in Rechy’s case, the night job, just because you got published. I completely understand.

Nervously purchased at a used bookstore in 1968, City Of Night (1963) was my first gay book and I hid my worn paperback edition for years. In 2009, I read his very funny and crazy memoir, About My Life And The Kept Woman, where Rechy writes how, by day he was a successful bestselling writer and a college professor, but by night, he was back on the streets, selling sex to men. Rechy:

“I wanted demarcation between the different areas of my life and I fooled myself that I could keep them separate. I wanted to be treated one way as “the writer”, another way as ‘the hustler’, and if they crossed over I got very confused.”

Rechy was raised in El Paso, the son of Mexican immigrants, the youngest of five children born during the Depression. As a gay boy in Texas, he mostly felt like an outsider:

“There was so much poverty and hunger in El Paso and Juarez that we didn’t consider ourselves poor, because we ate and had a home.”

City Of Night tells of the journey of a young Mexican-American guy from Texas into the gay underworld of Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard and the French Quarter of New Orleans during the 1950s. As the book’s jacket boldly announces: “This is a novel about America”. It put Rechy on the literary culture map. Jim Morrison references it in his song L.A. WomanNorman MailerGore Vidal, and James Baldwin were all big fans. Novelist Larry McMurtry and gay poet Frank O’Hara praised Rechy as a new and authentic voice. Artist David Hockney and filmmaker Gus Van Sant have proclaimed Rechy as a major influence.

City Of Night sold 65,000 copies in its first run in hardcover and remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for 25 weeks, alongside works by James Michener and J. D. Salinger one month, and Ian Fleming and Pearl S. Buck the next.

Rechy submitted a story to be considered for Buck’’ creative writing class at Columbia University. Buck turned him down. Instead of going to Columbia, he went to Times Square, where he hustled on 42nd Street. Decades later, her was invited by Columbia to teach the same class.

Photograph courtesy of Grove Press

In an era with rampant homophobia, his books met with frequent denunciations. The New York Review Of Books panned City Of Night using the headline: “Fruit Salad”.

Rechy kept writing though, publishing books in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the aughts, detailing the ups and mostly downs of his compulsive sex life: Numbers (1967), Rushes (1979), and The Sexual Outlaw (1977). I have read them all. He taught Creative Writing at UCLA and Occidental College, plus he conducted regular writing workshops, with alumni that included Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours (1998). Rechy:

“It’s a strange thing that happens when one book comes and takes over. I’ve written 16 books, and the one that continues to be known is the first one.”

Rechy survived his years on the streets, survived his drug problems in the 1970s, survived the plague that killed most of his friends in the 1980s and 1990s, plus he managed to write 16 books. Gore Vidal:

“Rechy is one of the few original American writers of the last century.”

Rechy didn’t change his hustling business right away after his success as a writer:

“The last time I hustled was when I was 55-years old. It was more of a symbolic act than anything, just to prove to myself that I could still do it. I actually gave the guy his money back, much to his astonishment. I didn’t put that story in the book. There’s a limit to how far you can stretch people’s belief.”

Famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood once invited him home to talk about writing, and then had his way with Rechy. So did Liberace and George Cukor.

Rechy and film producer Michael Ewing, his partner of 40+ years, now his Husband, are busy living happily ever after in their stylish house in the Hollywood Hills. Rechy:

“I never believed that this could happen to me. Back in the 1970s, when I was having a bad time with drugs and cruising, my friends all thought I’d end up committing suicide, and I thought they were right. But things changed, and that’s all due to Michael.”

Rechy celebrates his 86th birthday today, and he still looks very rent-able. His decay from ageing is modest. He wears glasses now, but he has a full head of hair and his pecs and guns are still impressive after daily workouts in his home gym. His still speaks out on his own website. His latest, After The Blue Hour, was published last year. I bet it’s good and I bet it’s kind of dirty.

“The autobiographer is the biggest liar for claiming: This is exactly how it happened. The biographer is the next level down for arguing: I am capable of knowing another’s life. The most honest writer is the novelist, who says: This is a lie, a fiction, but I’m going to try like hell to make you believe it’s true.”


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