03 March 2010

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Just good friends? Cary Grant and Randolph Scott

Answering the question “Where did I come from” is fundamental to answering the question “Who am I,” and the impulse to trace one’s roots is as natural and as ancient as all those innumerable myths in which the young boy seeks and finds the lost sword of his dead father. (Usually under or in a rock.) Once he’s got it, he becomes a man, and he can rise to his heroic destiny. No wonder Freud found these stories so exciting.

Among minority groups, the impulse is especially strong: we have been denied so much of our heritage, we hunger to take it up. Yet we can’t, as others can, simply refer to a single chart in a library to identify our ancestors. We have to engage in the kind of passionate detective work exemplified by Alex Haley’s search for Kunta Kinte, before we can answer the question of our origins.

For homosexuals, the quest is complicated by the limited role of biology in our ancestry: for our people are not necessarily our families. Indeed, one reason gays of my generation and older seek out this alternative genealogy is that so many of us have been excluded, one way or another, by our families. We create our own communities, families of affinity and not of blood, and the forebears we seek are seldom our relatives.

From Berlin’s Schwules Museum

We can’t be guided by family resemblance: James Baldwin looked nothing like me, yet we’re both Frenchified American gay writers. We can’t refer to records, because the documents were coded, hidden or destroyed, or bequeathed to straight people who didn’t understand their worth. Much of our genealogical study therefore takes the form of gossip and guesswork, reading between lines.

These thoughts come to mind because a Charles Trenet appreciation society on Facebook posted a video clip of Trenet in old age, singing a nostalgic number in tribute to Johnny Hess.

When both men were in their teens, they made their debut as a duo, singing close harmony to piano accompaniment. This was the dominant style in France in 1936, though in only a few years, and largely as a result of Trenet’s and Hess’ solo acts, swing would overtake the popular imagination. The team of “Charles et Johnny” met with success, however, and the act broke up only because Trenet was called up for national service.

Such nice boys! Charles and Johnny

Both because of their photos (Johnny’s lips alone are incitement to debauchery) and their harmonizing duets (sweet, almost unbearably fey), there is a widespread tendency to believe that Charles and Johnny were lovers. We know that they lived together; we know, too, that Trenet was gay. During the Occupation, fear of reprisals for his sexuality led Trenet not to collaborate but to cooperate in ways to which more heroic or more hetero performers would not have submitted; in the 1960s, he was jailed on morals charges.

But Trenet was never a standard-bearer for gay rights. His solo career as a young man is marked by an exuberant baritone voice, and the objects of his love songs are always women. (Including his mother, to whom he was especially devoted.) While there was an element of androgyny in his presentation, it was naïve, youthful, and poetic, but not deviant. As a contemporary observed of him, he was like the classroom cut-up in Sunday school, a basically good boy with a sometimes-naughty sense of fun.

France’s favorite funny uncle:
Trenet in late career

By the time he wrote “Tu me manques, Johnny” (I miss you, Johnny), Trenet was fully invested in the public persona of a kindly old uncle, quirkily out of step with the times but still pretty good company. Most of his late-period songs are nostalgic catalogues of the world of his youth (and that of the majority of his audience). Though homosexuality was increasingly accepted, and no longer illegal in France, there was no question of Trenet’s coming out publicly.

He rarely performed “Tu me manques, Johnny” in public, and I can understand why: it’s not very good, and he must have known that. On the one hand, he felt compelled to write about his friend, who died in 1983; on the other, he was too repressed to speak honestly. How, in front of an audience of blue-haired ladies, could he expect simultaneously to expose and to conceal his feelings? Could he take the gamble that alienating a segment of his straight audience might bring him an even larger audience of gay admirers? He chokes, saying only that which anybody might say about anybody else.

The lyric that stuck out for me, as Trenet addressed Johnny, was, “You got married.” It’s the only truly biographical detail in the song. Why did he feel the need to include it? Did it change something? Trenet doesn’t elaborate.

This CD cover takes Johnny’s picture from the double portrait with Charles, seen above, whereas Trenet’s picture is a publicity shot from his movie career — as a solo artist.

Was he protecting himself or his audience — or Hess’ family — from embarrassment? “I’m going to sing a tender song about a boy I knew,” Trenet seems to say, “but it’s okay, don’t worry, because he was straight: he got married, just like you. And as for my own feelings, I’m really not going to say much at all.”

The whole thing, musically as well as textually, is guarded, cramped, generic and bland. The younger, bolder Trenet — “The Singing Madman,” as he was known — would have found some way to insinuate the truth into the song.

Unless, of course, that was the truth: bland and straight. Maybe the boys lived together because they were young and poor, and that arrangement would have been convenient for professional reasons, too — for rehearsals and making sure they weren’t late for a gig. Maybe Johnny married because — you know — he was in love with the woman. And wanted to sleep with her, not with Trenet.

Is it possible that Trenet holds back not because he fears the (gay) truth, but on the contrary, because he fears we’ll read into his words a kind of partnership that didn’t exist with Johnny?

Biographers have puzzled over this relationship for a long time, just as they torture these publicity photos of Cary Grant and his roommate, Randolph Scott; and the extravagantly affectionate correspondence between Abraham Lincoln and his roommate, Joshua Fry Speed. And so on.

It would be flattering in the extreme to draw a connection between myself and these guys: I’d like to point to them as my ancestors. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know definitively what went on between them. Maybe we shouldn’t know; it’s none of our business, really. Yet we keep trying — I keep trying — turning over those rocks and looking for that magic sword, firmly believing that it points the way to my own identity, and my destiny.

Swiss-born, Johnny Hess was a leader of the Zazous, a counter-cultural, nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. The Zazous (a term Hess coined) used jazz music and flamboyant dress to signal their opposition to the regime. Some Zazous, though Gentile, went so far as to wear Star of David patches on their clothing. (You can imagine that this didn’t go over well with Vichy or Berlin.) Hess’ solo career never came anywhere near the success that Trenet enjoyed.


(av)Uncle(ular) Peter said...

Beautiful, evocative writing, esp. with the Trenet link.....


Anne said...

You are such a talented, cultured writer, M. Madison...thank you!

Unknown said...

I remember very clearly - I'm 68 now - that Charles Trenet wasn't sentenced to jail on moral charges as you put it, but for interfering with little boys, which is another piece of cake. Nothing to do with his talent, which was great.

William V. Madison said...

Thank you, but you would have a great deal of explaining to do before I could understand how a charge of "interfering with little boys" isn't a morals charge.

The facts of the case, as I understand them, are that Trenet was accused by a disgruntled former employee (his driver) of sexual relations with 20-year-old males, at a time when the legal age was 21. (They weren't little boys!)

The case was dismissed (non-lieu) and Trenet's record was cleared. As you say, none of this would diminish Trenet's talent, though it may have informed his work -- and in the aftermath of the case, he nearly gave up performing altogether.