What do Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, and Gore Vidal (allegedly) have in common? Denham Fouts.
Fouts (or "Denny," as the boys called him) was a professional bon vivant, a serious opium addict, and the companion to a veritable who's who of pre-1950 homosexuals. Isherwood succinctly called him "the most expensive male prostitute in the world," though that makes his relationships sound more transactional than they actually were. Fouts wasn't a "leave the cash on the nightstand" kind of trick, but rather a trophy boy that the boys kept around as long as they could afford to. Men (women too, but mostly men) desperately sought Fouts's attention, and gave him anything he desired just to be near him. Most of his pursuers were older—he once asked author Glenway Wescott how to get and keep the attention of sugar daddies—but some were nearly of an age with Fouts himself. His longtime lover Peter Watson was born just six years before Fouts, but that didn't prevent Watson from gifting him with Pablo Picasso's painting Girl Reading.
Fouts lived every Downton Abbey–esque Anglophile fantasy you've ever daintily jerked off to. He was the life of every party, right up until he snorted all the coke and left with the host's boyfriend, or son—Fouts had a well-deserved reputation as a chicken hawk. A few of his affairs with teen boys are chronicled in the biography The Best-Kept Boy in the World, by Arthur Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt assembles Fouts's life from a few facts and a lot of fiction. Born in 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida, Fouts became the model for several iconic characters created by his famous suitors: Paul in Isherwood's Down There on a Visit, Elliott Magren in Vidal's "Pages from an Abandoned Journal," and "Denham Fouts" in Capote's unfinished magnum opus, Answered Prayers.
Despite his outsized effect on American literature, Fouts left precious little record of himself. He died of a heart attack at 34, leaving behind a letter on animal cruelty—published in Time magazine when he was 12—an unfinished novel that he started during the time he lived with Isherwood, and a memoir whose sole copy was burned by his mother.
Reconstructing the life of someone we mostly know through his literary analogues is no easy task. In each chapter, Vanderbilt explores Fouts through a look at one of his more famous lovers, or by a close textual analysis of a story Fouts inspired. Thankfully, Vanderbilt is an experienced historian, having previously published several nonfiction books, and doesn't get too carried away by the mythology of his subject. Recently, I spoke to the author about Fouts, separating fact and fiction, and the differences between being a gay boytoy in the 20th and 21st centuries.
VICE: What made you want to write about Denny Fouts?
Arthur Vanderbilt: Right after World War II, the young authors who would become the famed literary lions found their way to Europe. And as I started reading about that period—memoirs, diaries, correspondence, biographies—the name Denham Fouts kept popping up in always the most intriguing, tantalizing bits and pieces. I started connecting the dots and found that Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote had all used Denny as a character in their novels and short stories. At that point, following Denny's story became an obsession for me.
He was beautiful, sure, but lots of guys are beautiful. Why did so many famous men become obsessed with Fouts?
Clearly Denny was projecting a considerable sexual magnetism which drew the attention of many to him, but I think his appeal was much more than that. Neither Isherwood, Vidal, nor Capote was sexually attracted to Denny, though they could understand how others would be. Isherwood, who lived with Denny for a number of years and considered him at the time to be his best friend, once said that he had never met someone who was so much fun to be with, that Denny had a genius for enjoying himself, that even going to a store and buying vegetables with Denny was an adventure. Denny was one of those rare individuals who truly sense the wonder of life.
But he seems to have passed rather lightly through the world—touching a lot of people but not leaving marks. How do you write the biography of someone we mostly know from fiction?
I tried to find out everything I could about Denny, following every lead, scouring archives, tracking down every scrap of evidence, even using the Freedom of Information Act to see if the FBI had a file on him. For anything presented as a fact in my book, I had to have at least two reliable sources. What I found so interesting is how accurate Isherwood, Vidal, and Capote were in portraying Denny.
Of course, Isherwood is known for his "I am a camera" style of writing, and I tried to show how his contemporaneous diaries about Denny matched—in many cases almost word-for-word—his portrayals of Denny in his prose. Vidal and Capote certainly captured the spirit of Denny and I think, with one exception, captured the facts about his life. The exception of course is the start of Denny's journey—how he made his way from Jacksonville, Florida, to the beginning of his life as a kept man. And here the problem is, I believe, that Denny himself was playing around with the story with different audiences. Certain elements of this story appear in different "gospels," and those are the only ones I relied on.
Are there men like Denny around today? It seems like the public face of gay life, combined with the paparazzi now surrounding the rich and famous, might make being a serial trophy boy more difficult.
I think Denny was a "type" which still very much exists today and always will. Imagine the young Brad Pitt, the young Ryan Phillipe—men who clearly projected a sexual energy felt by many. Now assume that they did not end up having successful film careers, but rather perhaps did a bit of modeling and then, as hard as they tried, they couldn't push their careers to the next level. They would have attracted wealthy admirers who promised them the world and all of a sudden they fall easily into the role of kept men. I always loved that interview Truman Capote had later in his life when he was asked what he would have been if he hadn't been an author. A lawyer, he immediately responded, and then thought for a moment and said he would have liked to have been a kept man, but that he had never found anyone who wanted to keep him for more than a week.