"It's funny how heterosexuals
have lives and the rest of us have 'lifestyles'."
-- Sonia Johnson (1987)
Mind Caviar, Vol. 2 Fall-Winter Issue, 2001
Francisco, The Sexy Muse
by William Dean
As World War II concluded in the Pacific Theater, thousands of single sailors and marines, merchantmen and soldiers poured from their transit ships into San Francisco. Lt. Gore Vidal writes romantically about sailing into and cruising The Bay. After all, the first gay bar in The City had been open since 1908. Though never proven to be a bear, or even much of a dirty old gay man, Mark Twain probably lifted a cocktail or two in one of San Francisco's Market Street bars-- the kind that catered to man-to-man drinking and dancing-- maybe even a drag show. San Francisco inspires the observer, the author, the wit, and the poet even of such sage authors as Vidal. He recounts how the military men and women stayed on, no where else to go. No, they wouldn't go back to the sticks and hick towns where same-sex love was persecuted.
After the repeal of prohibition, several more gay and lesbian bars opened during the late 1920s and 1930s. The bath houses began around this time as well. Decades before that, however, lesbian sex performances livened up many of the dance halls of The Barbary Coast. Sexual freedom, intimately coupled with exploration of love and romance at the edge of a foggy sea, was a long-held tradition in the "City by the Bay" by the time Vidal and his thousands of horny veterans appeared in 1945 and 1946.
Robert Louis Stevenson had hung around here, that storyteller of pirates and sensitive sailors. Young Gore Vidal disembarked to write the classic, The City and the Pillar, America's first postwar gay literature since Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Whitman had been popular in San Francisco circles and was said to have been the cathartic poetic epiphany for Allen Ginsburg's arrival in 1954. That same year, at the Hotel Wentley on Polk Street, one of the most celebrated gay couples in American Beat Literature met for the first time. Artist Robert La Vigne took Allen Ginsburg upstairs to his apartment. On the wall hung an enormous painting of a naked man with his legs spread. Ginsburg stared. In a moment or two, the model himself, a former lover of La Vigne's, entered the room: Peter Orlovsky. The love affair between Ginsburg and Orlovsky lasted thirty years.
Whatever sensual atmosphere pervades San Francisco, the perfume of a restless, sometimes wild, ocean drifts in beneath the fabled fog-shrouded bridges. It is the western New York, scaled down to Gold Rush origins; the echo of old dance halls where sailors drank and paid to see women wearing no underwear; where the city first publically witnessed live lesbian sex acts on stage; where "O. Wilde and Servant" signed into the hotel register when he was twenty-seven years old.
Russian Hill and Market Street has been the fertile literary cauldron of human emotion and eloquent reporting from the erotic and sexual fronts. San Francisco grew from a boomtown for cultural patrons, enthusiastic small presses, and a sexually longing sense of rhythm and prose into becoming La Grand Dame, hostess to many of America's most literate, challenging, and frankly erotic authors. San Francisco was the inspiring home of many of America's renown poets, including George Sterling and Robert Frost.
Robert Duncan, an important poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, non-fiction writer, editor, and author of children's books made his home here. Today, he's best remembered for his role in establishing the San Francisco Bay area as a hub for American poets and living an openly gay lifestyle in San Francisco. He flourished with the Black Mountain School, San Francisco's Renaissance, and the Beat movement. His personal poetry reflects his wide knowledge of history, mythology, mysticism and literature. He believed that composing a poem is a spontaneous act, with no need for any revisions or formal structure. Duncan also served as editor of Experimental Review, Phoenix, and Berkeley Miscellany at the beginning of his career. He was the first recipient of the National Poetry Award. His early poems are collected in The First Decade: Selected Poems, 1940-1950 (1968), and Derivations: Selected Poems, 1950-1956.
One of Duncan's students at the poetry workshop at San Francisco State College, Michael McClure, later became notorious for his play The Beard, featuring characters who portrayed Marilyn Monroe and Billy the Kid in sexual role-playing soliloquies. The play was banned and the actors in the early productions were routinely arrested at the end of each performance. Later, it was McClure who arranged for Ginsberg to speak at the Six Gallery in November 1955.
Richard Brautigan gained prominence in the sixties as one of the most celebrated of the hippie writers. He had migrated to San Francisco from his hometown of Tacoma at the height of the Beat movement in the late fifties. Brautigan published several books of poetry in small presses, drawing his inspiration mainly from nineteenth century French poets. Brautigan's first published work, The Galilee Hitch-Hiker, depicts the French poet Baudelaire hitch-hiking through America's fleurs de mal.
The current litterateurs of San Francisco include several popular crime/erotica novels starring lesbian private eyes, policewomen, or vampires. Katherine V. Forrest's Curious Wine is the best-selling romantic lesbian novel of all time. Forrest's series of Kate Delafield mysteries competes with Mary Wings' mysteries. Nicola Griffith is novelist of The Blue Place.
San Francisco continually renews its tale of erotica, sometimes tender, often raw, by such fine contemporary writers as Patrick-Califia Rice, M. Christian, Thomas Roche, Carol Queen, Bill Brent, and many others, plus scores of wanna-be's doing standup poetry at the clubs. The sensate feast that is the literary and erotic soul of a great city --- San Francisco --- sparkles still with a kind of golden nuggets, still producing the raw yet tender stuff of dreams.
Francisco, The Sexy Muse" copyright © 2001 William Dean. All Rights
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