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A Scarlet Pansy: Robert McAlmon's Secret Book

Hemingway's first publisher revealed as the author of a lost gay classic.

 

Robert McAlmon was born in South Dakota in 1895 and left as soon as he could. Bookish, brilliant and homosexual, he spent three years at the University of Southern California before moving to New York in 1920, where he met William Carlos Williams working on a small poetry magazine, and worked as a nude artists' model when money was scarce. In 1921 he married the lesbian heiress Winifred Ellerman, better known as the writer Bryher. Their marriage liberated both of them, she from her family, and McAlmon from worries about money. The same year he moved to Paris, and by 1922 was working as an assistant to James Joyce, editing and typing up drafts of Ulysses. He used the marital money to found his own imprint, Contact Editions. Its first book was A Hasty Bunch (1922), McAlmon's own collection of short stories, which was quickly followed by Ernest Hemingway's debut, Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923). Contact ran for nine years and became one of the most significant expatriate literary presses of the period, publishing work by, among others, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Nathaniel West.

But McAlmon's own reputation did not endure: resentful of the success of others and increasingly depressed by his own continuing obscurity, he wrote less and less, drank more and more, and eventually disappeared from the literary scene altogether. He died in 1956 in Desert Springs, California, embittered and forgotten.

In 1938 McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, his waspish memoir of literary life in 1920s Paris, was published. James Joyce, who did not come out of the book well, was withering: 'the office boy's revenge', he called it. But Joyce was wrong: McAlmon's real revenge on the Montparnasse literati had already appeared, six years earlier, in New York. It had been published by a tiny publishing house, and under an assumed name.

A Scarlet Pansy, by 'Robert Scully', is the story of Fay Etrange. Born in Kuntsville, Pennysylvania, Fay decamps to New York as soon as she's able, and supports herself by working as a nude model. She attends medical school with Mason Linberg, her close friend and cruising companion, and when Linberg astounds the entire cast by announcing his forthcoming marriage to one Marjorie Bull-Dike, Fay throws a lavish party for the odd couple, who then decamp to Paris. Left alone, Fay embarks on a series of lubricious encounters with, among many, many others, an Irish cop, some soldiers on leave, and an entire polo team (not the horses). At the last she finds true love with a handsome lieutenant, who in the novel's closing pages is destined to die in Fay's arms on the battlefields of France.

Obvious to all but the dimmest reader is the fact that Fay Etrange is a man, a man with a knowingly homonymous name. The device of referring to the character as 'her' throughout the book fooled no-one but the authorities who, staggeringly, failed to prosecute. Fay, then, is the eponymous hero of A Scarlet Pansy, and the book itself is a scurrilous roman à clef, a broadside aimed at just about everyone McAlmon had ever known in Paris. 'Mason Linberg' is McAlmon himself; the medically-trained, poetry-loving Fay is based on McAlmon's close friend, the medically-trained, poetry-loving William Carlos Williams; and Mason's bride 'Marjorie Bull-Dike' is McAlmon's real-life bride-of-convenience, Bryher. The gay poet and artist Marsden Hartley appears as 'Miss Painter', while poor Elisabeth Marbury, socialite and sometime literary agent to Oscar Wilde, saw herself reincarnated as 'Elizabeth 'Clittie' Thorndike'. Lastly, McAlmon's embittered portraits of Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are not hard to spot among the large cast of lesbian characters he adorns with names like Fuchs, Pickup, Butsch, Godown and Kuntz.

 


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