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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.

 


It's unlikely James Joyce was aware of the existence of A Scarlet Pansy. It seems not to have been mentioned in any of the countless books about expatriate Paris, nor in the correspondence of those lampooned in it now held in institutional libraries around the world.

It was published in 1932 by the infamous booklegger and smut-peddler, Samuel Roth. Over the course of a long and marvellously disreputable life Roth was arrested nine times, convicted six, and spent a total of nine years in jail, mostly for obscenity and literary piracy. Roth used many different publishing imprints over the years to cover his tracks: Pansy appeared under that of 'William Faro', a pseudonym Roth also used for such classics as The Intimate Journal of Rudolph Valentino, Loose Shoulder Straps, and A Young Man About to Commit Suicide. Roth's books were sold under the counter to a select clientele. He would keep initial print runs very small to minimise his financial risk in the event of police action, and then rush out a second edition if sales demanded it and the coast was clear. Such was the case with A Scarlet Pansy: the second edition appeared very shortly after the first, as word of both its quality and its subversive nature spread.

The evidence that Robert McAlmon wrote A Scarlet Pansy is overwhelming:

-- The style of Pansy is of a piece with the known, published writing of McAlmon to which he put his name. Of particular interest is his short story Miss Knight, originally published by McAlmon's own Contact Editions in 1925 in the collection A Distinguished Air. The title character, a drag queen, shares both character traits and verbal tics with Fay Etrange, and reads almost as a prototype for the later character.

-- Pansy is written by a writer of considerable skill, one fluent in the Modernist style, and by someone who was intimately acquainted with everyone McAlmon knew.

-- The wedding party scene shares many details with the party thrown for McAlmon and Bryher on the announcement of their wedding.

-- Roth and McAlmon knew each other. Both were working as poets in Greenwich VIllage during the war years; both had poems published by Harriet Monroe's magazine Poetry in 1920; both shared the same enemies, Joyce and Hemingway chief among them. Further, McAlmon was in New York in 1931, the year before Pansy was published. It seems likely the manuscript was delivered during this trip.

-- By 1932, McAlmon had form as a writer of waspish romans à clef. William Carlos Williams, Marsden Hartley and Marianne Moore had all found themselves featuring, barely disguised, as characters in McAlmon's Post-Adolescence (a book in which Edna St. Vincent Millay makes an appearance 'Vera St. Vitus').

-- Most compelling is the evidence provided by John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, one of the best of all the expatriate memoirs. Glassco and his friend Graeme Taylor had arrived in Paris in 1928, when Glassco was eighteen years old. He and Taylor soon found themselves befriended by McAlmon, and in the summer of 1929 the three went on a writing holiday to Nice:

'We were all working, each on his book. Bob, wearing his hairnet almost constantly, was pouring out reams of a book which he would tell us only the title, Promiscuous Boy...'

In a letter to Sylvia Beach, McAlmon had described the book he was writing:

'....the life of any one of several of the boys about Paris, composite, with other characterizations and episodes therein.'

The book never appeared under the title Promiscuous Boy -- or My Susceptible Friend, Adrian, as it was also known for a while. It seems overwhelmingly likely that this manuscript surfaced three years later as A Scarlet Pansy.

A very early, very rare, and very funny pioneer of literary high-camp: 'The first honest and really complete story of "one of those men"', screams the dustjacket blurb to the second edition (written by the book's publisher, Samuel Roth). This, the true first, is so scarce that the second edition is often mistaken for it -- even Jay Gertzman makes the mistake in his excellent essay on the publication history of this book (see below). There are no copies in any institutional library in the UK, and our copy is the only copy we've seen.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY (to read Jay Gertzman's essay, click on its title):

 

Hagius, Hugh. The Mystery of A Scarlet Pansy: An Underground Gay Novel of the Lost Generation. Unpublished Typescript, 1982.

 

Gertzman, Jay. A Scarlet Pansy Goes to War: Subversion, Schlock, and An Early Gay Classic. Published in The Journal of American Culture, Sept. 2010.

 

Glassco, John. Memoirs of Montparnasse. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970


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