The lost language of camp
Older gay men often used shared cultural references as a way of discretely identifying other gay men. With increasing sexual openness, will younger men need the cultural passwords of their predecessors?
By Christopher Harrity
An Advocate.com exclusive posted April 29, 2003
“Forty is the new 30,” my friend and coworker Nick snapped at me when I caught him chatting up the 20-year-old intern at our office.
“Well, then, that would make you only 15 years older than he is, rather than the actual 25 you are,” I replied.
I certainly have no place to comment, not that that would ever stop me. My partner of eight years is 13 years younger than I am. (The downside of that is that I will always be the older one, watching, with a fabulous head start, as my own body falls apart.) God knows, there are happy couples with greater age differences than 25 years. That’s not the point. It’s the yearning to be young, see young, do young that makes me nervous.
I’d like to just forget about age entirely, act as if it has no bearing on my bearings. But then there are the cultural gaps. The adorable and aforementioned intern, Tim, mispronounced Joan Baez’s name in a meeting the other day because he’d never heard it uttered in his two short decades of cultural recreation.
No biggie. I didn’t know who Jo Stafford or Ruth Draper were until some thoughtful older guys clued me in when I was in college. They were unfazed by my lack of knowledge and enjoyed opening up my world with theirs. I feel pretty much the same way when my partner needs some tutoring on MGM musicals from the ’50s or when I show him how to connect the dots from Christopher Isherwood to Liza Minnelli to Renée Zellweger in Chicago. Somebody has to do it.
Interestingly enough, the folks who balked and sneered the most in the meeting where Tim mispronounced Baez were the coworkers in their 30s. Perhaps because they are on the cusp of middle age they are touchier when their references haven’t been passed on yet. Mine have long since been swept into the dustbin of the arcane. Farewell, Mimi Fariña.
There’s no need to bash gay men who watch sports and work on their own cars. There are, my dears, committed homosexualists who have never heard of All About Eve. There are happily queer fellows who have never uttered the words “But ya are, Blanche!” Maybe the group of men to whom I cling are simply pop-culture archivists of the camp variety who happen to seek same-sex sex partners. But do note that there are camp-culture heterosexuals as well. I mean, explain Frank Rich.
The crowd I run with, and have been running with since the tender age of 13, has been building a massive library of references, secret codes, sparkling imitations, and gestures of mimicry dating back easily to 40 years before they were born. Does this have anything to do with same-sex attraction? Oh, Mary, don’t ask.
Once was a time that an avid interest in Busby Berkeley films was as good as a giant hairpin clanging on the ground. (Note to self: Tell intern about “hairpins.”) We needed those acquired tastes to help identify and flag each other outside of the trusty, rusty old gay bar. So while my school chums were buying the latest Moby Grape and Blue Cheer albums, I thrilled at finding a used Co-Star act-along record with Tallulah Bankhead. I had a 78 of Bea Lillie singing “There’s a Fairy in the Bottom of My Garden.”
I began my trek backward and found long-lasting friendships in the process. Sure, there were then-current recording artists who held my attention. I thought, That Bette Midler is really on to something. And what is it about Peter Allen? But even the sledgehammer camp of Mae West was fresh and new to me then, as I went to smoky art-movie houses to slake my unquenchable thirst for drollery and sexual innuendo.
One of the wonderful things about working in gay and lesbian media is that there are always new pupils coming along to educate. It’s nice to make the process a group event, compiling lists of must-see movies for recent college graduates. Trying to explain what the ineffable word camp means. (Susan Sontag wasn’t all that helpful for me—did you get it?) I remember once making flash cards for a new copy editor, each with a picture of one of the members of the cast of The Women on one side and their names on the other. Phyllis Povah always tripped him up.
But as the need for secret languages and “in” references dies out—who needs closety Franklin Pangborn when you have the fully activated Just Jack?—will camp be a lost language? Who will teach the young? Sure, they are lovely packages, but they have to be filled with something, don’t they?
And even though I can see 50 from my front porch, I am still a student in some circles. There’s a certain social group I attend whose roster includes a couple of septuagenarians. One was a close personal friend of George Cukor. Judy Garland always stayed at his house when she was in town. I sit at his knee and beg him to tell me stories about the good old gays. He’s a gold mine in that he knew simply everyone. Unfortunately he’s a true gentleman and will seldom say anything unkind. Hedda Hopper would have hated him. I’ll have to ask if he knew her.
Will there be camp in the future? It’s heartening to see the kids unearth the products of our past and enjoy them in a glib and ironic way. Grey Gardens was aired a few times in the mid ’70s, then forgotten until some style queens in New York pirated a copy from a PBS broadcast and began to circulate it among their friends. Soon enough it was a cult hit and used as a source for photo layouts in the international fashion magazines. This has a great deal to do with outré sensibility, the passage of time, and the discreet charm of the upper classes gone mad. But I don’t think it was straight boys passing around that video tape.
One of the great pleasures of getting older is being able to connect all these references with lightning speed. It gives a richness to my life to be able to contrast and compare the three versions of A Star Is Born (speaking of George and Judy). To rail on about the unfairness of Diana Vreeland being fired from Vogue. To find a short story by Ronald Firbank that I have never read before. And then there are the great moments when a young trainee makes his first cross-reference. Just the other day our young intern saw Mildred Pierce for the first time. All on his own he E-mailed me that the same woman who plays the role of Ida (Eve Arden) plays Principal McGee in one of his favorite old films: Grease.
A star is born, indeed.
So here’s your assignment. Call it Six Degrees of Francis Bacon: Connect the gay British artist with openly gay director-actor-game show contestant Charles Nelson Reilly in six easy steps—or fewer.
[Answer: Francis Bacon was great friends with Sir Stephen Spender, who was rumored to be lovers with Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the story I Am a Camera, on which the musical Cabaret was based and which was made into a play starring Julie Harris as the first Sally Bowles. Julie Harris was directed onstage in The Belle of Amherst by Charles Nelson Reilly.]