Helms, Alan. “Young Man From The Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall, University of Minnesota Press Reprint, 2003.
A Sex Object
In 1955, Alan Helms left his childhood home in the Midwest for New York. He was young, intelligent, and handsome. He was not granted a Rhodes scholarship because he was gay but he soon became an object of desire in a gay underground scene frequented by, Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein and Marlene Dietrich, among others. Here he shares with is what it was like being a sex object and its psychological and physical toll. He was a privileged guy but he was also self-destructive and the height of his career he was “the most celebrated young man in all of gay New York.” The Manhattan of the 1950s and ’60s embraced him as a “universal type,” or “someone everybody wants.” He was photographed by Avedon, directed by Edward Albee and pursued by any number of men. Repudiating the drab miseries of his Indiana boyhood, Helms pursued those who pursued him: his more celebrated lovers included Anthony Perkins, Larry Kert and Luchino Visconti. Leonard Bernstein wooed him ardently, and chum Noel Coward helped Helms reconcile with a lover. But the relationships were doomed to fall apart. Helms had been held high by adoration, alcohol and drugs but he soon crashed because of his excessive lifestyle that resulted in bulimia; alcoholism; joylessness and promiscuity. He became a college professor and did counseling with from the Harvard psychologist Robert Coles. As he grew older, Helms was better able to distance himself from the past. His name-dropping has more charm than the somber self-reproaches that accompany his sobriety. And he saw himself as a “D” student ion the school of life.
His memoir is poignant and picaresque and it vividly captures with humor and insight the chronicle of his journey: unhappiness of his abusive, alcoholic family life in Indianapolis and an overwhelming need for acceptance that seemingly was fulfilled by his becoming a regular in the world of the beautiful people. His careers as a model, actor, and writer were aborted.
The names he drops here should interest all of us—at least all of us in Helms’ age group. He tells us about his friends and lovers but not in a gossipy way; in fact, I would say that he is restrained in what he tells us. His prose is lyrical and his stories are fascinating—he is the kind of guy we want to meet but rarely do. Perhaps now that I am in Boston and so is he this could happen. I remember reading this when it first came out and I would dream of a life like the one Helms led.
Helms tells us what it was like to live as a young, attractive gay man living in New York in the 1950s and ’60s. For Alan Helms, it was glamorous, sexy and intriguing but that is only part of his story. He experienced some extraordinary things, but his search for self-awareness and ordinary happiness is one many gay men will recognize. find familiar and insightful. In the first third of the book we get a powerful story of abuse and a lonely childhood. This is followed by his telling us of his glamorous period and he does so with discretion. but even there, the author is discreet about details–disappointingly discreet, perhaps, to some readers. The only names he drops are those that are necessary to establish the author’s credentials. He did not write this book to record social highlights or sexual high jinks, but to share his evolving thoughts and feelings. In the final third of the book we get the story of his crash and hitting bottom and his efforts to come to terms with who he was/could be, and to build a new adult life.
I found that the memoir seesawed between Helms’s agonies and ecstasies. He was a man with deep wounds who was totally unprepared for life in New York City. Even with the drugs and the alcohol, sex and travel, he felt empty and suffered, from insomnia, bulimia, and suicidal thoughts. The ecstasy was the thrill of that same lifestyle. The temptations surrounding him were thrilling and irresistible but they cost him. He was lucky to survive all his excesses; many of his contemporaries did not. Some of his recovery was due to that nascent part of him; he wanted to be whole and sought out therapy, a twelve-step program, and a teaching career outside New York. A lot of this was simply to do with the result of the diminishing opportunities that come with middle age. We see that so many of the forces that compel us through life are not those that we choose: family background, sexual orientation, our physical and intellectual capabilities, the era in which we come of age all greatly influence how we live. We see that in Helms’ case, we never get enough what we really do not need. Helms had the courage, grace and luck, and learned to live a life that is more authentic and he came to respect himself afterwards. He brings together the emotions that go together with homosexuality, alcoholism, substance abuse and even aging. The memoir is written with elegance, something you would not think to find in the biography of a man like Helms.
This is a book that dares to discuss what being an object is like. We put people on high pedestals and that means that whatever they do, they are liable to be judged. In this in-depth look at what a man of intelligence went through as a object is frank, sweet, unusual and hopeful. We can also learn something here.
Helms had been the most attractive and sexiest gay man in New York but he was also an emotional wreck but few people know that about him. The abusive childhood is only a part of it. He was considered a sinner, a criminal, and mentally (usually at the same time). We just have to consider how we would react if others thought us to be dirt. It was Helms’ beauty that led him into the roller-coaster life that he lived in New York; yet we must remember that beauty fades and he had to deal with his lost looks and to try to find a way to lead a normal life. He was lucky enough to have been able to do so.
This is an autobiography that shows us what happens in almost every gay male (to some degree). So many of us have suffered with feelings of isolation and the understanding that there may be the love of another that will last forever. While gay life is good but, as we see here, it can also be hell on earth.