‘A Rare and Worthy Life’

Michael Denneny looks back on a life dedicated to important books

The night in 1978 that Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco, Michael Denneny was with Chuck Ortlib, the publisher of the landmark gay magazine, Christopher Street, named for the street where the two sat in a restaurant. Denneny, then an editor at St. Martin’s Press, convinced Ortlib to commit $5,000 to a full-length feature on the life of Milk, one of the modern gay movement’s most prominent leaders. Denneny’s next instinct proved even more fortuitous. He called Randy Shilts, then a relatively unknown San Francisco journalist, and enlisted him to write the feature.

Denneny’s recounting of how Shilts undertook what would become the definitive biography of one of the nation’s most important gay leaders, illustrates the seminal role he has played in bringing to life the writing of some of the community’s most influential thinkers.

Denneny had arrived in New York several years earlier from the University of Chicago, where he had completed graduate work with Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, and Harold Rosenberg, another noted intellectual, at the prestigious Committee on Social Thought. Denneny, a twenty-something firebrand, yearned for battle, his mind bursting with radical political thought and his heart eager for belonging.

New York City in the 1970s, with its newly awakened gay community, would provide Denneny with plenty of opportunities for combat. St. Martin’s Press would be his army of choice and the acquisition and publication of socially critical books his chosen tactic.

Denneny possessed the ego and the drive. His ambitions were national. “There were so few gay activists in the 1970s that there were only so many in each city,” said Denneny. “And I knew them all,” this delivered not hubristically as much as sanguinely, because over the course of several months during hours of conversation, it has become clear that many of these very same leaders are now dead, mostly from AIDS.

If the martial allusion to Denneny’s approach seems too heavy handed, gauche even, consider his own Fenian lore.

“I grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in a marginally working class community. It was totally Irish and life revolved around the church, the convent, the Catholic school. My father was a postman, because he couldn’t work in the factories that had already gone South. My uncle was in the numbers rackets.” That same uncle took the Fifth Amendment 88 times in front of an investigative committee empanelled by Senator Estes Kefauver. Later on, during Denneny’s rise to literary power, his brother ran afoul of Boston mobsters in a “bad deal,” and the New York editor called up the head of Murder, Incorporated and bought his brother some insurance.

“The only time I was attacked was on 83rd Street,” Denneny recalled about a 1970s incident with some thugs on the same block where he still lives. “After they took the money and ordered me down some steps into an alley, basically to kill me, I knew there was no advantage and I fought back.”

Denneny walked out of the alley intact, his fighting instinct the trait that would lend itself to his saunter through the gauntlet of an industry that was driven by the same impulse as those muggers—money, not the heady political idealism of graduate school. It was in publishing, though, where Denneny would be bashed, bashed hard, perhaps to the benefit of the scores of emerging gay writers the ribs of the Stonewall Nation would birth.

After his 1971 arrival in the city, Denneny decided to apply the editing talents he had begun to sharpen at the University of Chicago Press. He landed a job at McMillan Publishing, starting a fractious five-year stint he described thusly: “I spent my time putting up a façade that I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I took the job at McMillan as a day job. I aspired to the theater, but I had no talent,” he said with a chuckle. “Tony Kushner has it made.”

Meanwhile, Denneny had already become a founding editor at a new publication, Christopher Street, a gay literary monthly. Word spread in the close-knit publishing world that not only was he gay, but Denneny was out. “Months before, top editors, closeted men, took me out for lunch and subtly threatened to end my career if my name appeared in the magazine. Older gay men cajoled me to be careful.” Denneny’s response was characteristically tribal. “I said it would be disloyal if I quit. I mean, there were all these people working on the magazine.” After all, this was the man who, at an out-of-state trade show for “The Homosexuals: Who and What We Are,” delivered a certain rebuttal to a colleague. “A sales guy stands up and says, ‘I have a problem with something I read in the book. I know it is anatomically impossible to fist someone.’ I replied, ‘Chuck, there is a place far west on 14 St. in Manhattan, called the Anvil, where I occasionally frequent and I have seen men get fisted.’ My credibility was on the line.”

Two weeks after the publication of Christopher Street, MacMillan’s CEO fired Denneny, all for a venture Denneny described as “held together by Scotch tape and paper clips. There was no money coming in because there were no appropriate ads for a gay magazine that aspired to be the New Yorker.”

Denneny noted that one of his accomplishments at MacMillan was the publication of “Creating Defensible Space,” a groundbreaking book that has become a standard architectural text. Written by architect Oscar Newman, the book sought to provide alternative physical design strategies to prevent crime and provide more humane living spaces to poor, inner city families. The theories espoused by the book dragged MacMillan squarely into a very public battle with the nation’s largest construction outfit for housing projects, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal government had committed billions of dollars to the construction of hundreds of soaring multi-story tenements, to which Denneny was philosophically and morally opposed. “The feds threatened NYU, where Newman was a professor. I said, ‘Oscar, you have to prepare yourself. You’re about to be a hero.’” Pres. Nixon’s HUD secretary, George Romney, insisted that the book’s manuscript be revised or the federal government would sue. “I wrote a letter to Romney. I basically said that they were going to lose any lawsuit and we would still sell a lot of books. ‘But if you hail the revelations in this book, you will look enlightened,’ I said. Three days later I got a very nice letter from Secretary Romney.”

Despite that victory, in 1977 Denneny was without a job. “Looking back at it, I was actually a hot commodity, because now I was the first out gay editor in publishing.” The publication of Newman’s book had proved that Denneny could apply his idealism and intellectual fervor to creating a profitable book. His stewardship of the emerging genre of gay publishing had not yet begun, but the course seemed clear.

After all, books, and more precisely, words and images, especially homoerotic ones, had been Denneny’s lifelong passion. As a boy, he stole Physique Pictorial, the 1950s soft-core beefcake magazine, from newsstands. His first boyhood memory of a physique ad— “ It was like a revelation. I almost fell over.” –would later meld with his intellectual discipline and help reshape the course of American publishing. The working class rebel, once allowed inside academia’s gates, was now at large.

“He came for his interview in a suit, with a fucking vest on. I don’t know if I knew he was gay. At the end of our talk, and I knew I wanted him by the end, I said, ‘Look, the one thing about working here is that you can be an introvert, an extrovert, gay or straight, but you have to stop wearing that get up,’” said Tom McCormack, the former chairman of St. Martin’s Press who hired Denneny in 1977 for what Denneny termed nearly two decades of sleep deprivation mitigated by “cigarettes, caffeine and for a time, cocaine.” Denneny’s tenure is also known as well for the publication of some of the most seminal books in gay history and Denney’s emergence as a national gay leader.

“I was always interested in cultural politics. Right after Stonewall various people thought various things. I was an intellectual. Our problem being gay was that we saw ourselves through straight eyes. I was never worried about educating straight people. All of us were self-hating. We needed to reformulate gay imaginations, re-imagine sex, and relationships. The way you do that is with books,” said Denneny.

The closet was closed and Denneny had “gotten out,” out much farther than simply leaving Pawtucket. He was now poised to lend his talents to a corporate giant that would demand his intellectual and business talents to not only acquit themselves but to excel.

The pressure would eventually become enormous. “I never thought I would be in corporate America. I was never a Maoist, but I was pretty radical.” Denneny’s political and social philosophies would often mesh with St. Martin’s corporate approach, due mostly to the relationship he forged with McCormack, another New England Irishman of considerable intellectual prowess. Often enough though, Denneny’s editorial pitches would run amok of his colleagues, especially during the grueling weekly editorial meetings, over which McCormack presided like a benevolent dictator, exercising both politesse and bare-knuckled realpolitik. Denneny brought keen political skills into those meetings, from his student activist days in Chicago during the Vietnam War (He described one student strike activity as “the worst three months of my life. I had the shit kicked out of me politically.”), from the already potent leadership skills gained as a gay man bearing the torch lit by Stonewall, and from his editorial skills honed at MacMillan and Christopher Street.

The job responsibilities were demanding. “An editor has three basic roles,” Denneny explained. “Acquisitions, project management and line editing.” By 1980, as well as editing Christopher Street, Denneny, after lobbying Ortlib to finance a trial edition, was also editing The Native, a gay newspaper. “The jobs fused. I would go to bars for readings and I’d be editing. I’d be editing on the subway.”

Shortly after his arrival at St. Martin’s, Denneny began to acquire and publish books by out gay writers, the publication of which marked an extraordinary breakthrough in not only the struggle for equality, but within corporate America.

Denneny recounted that after one editorial meeting, when an editor cracked a homophobic joke, McCormack fired him. “One of my specialties as a minority, which I never understood, is I deal very well with butch, straight men,” said Denneny.

Denneny was not overly concerned with profitability. He handled upwards of fifty titles a year and acknowledged he sought to find best-sellers in order to guarantee his leverage to publish books he knew would not be as commercially successful, but to which he was intellectually committed. “If you publish thirty books a year, twenty-five are going to fail and you know that,” said Denneny After a moment’s reflection he added, “My subjective perception is that I failed, but that I failed for thirty years—that I failed my way into success.”

Denneny shared an unspoken agreement with McCormack to protect the bottom line.

Besides, making money was never his personal ambition. “I never wanted to be middle class,” he said, during an interview in his home. “Look at this apartment. I never decorated. My one prejudice in life is against rich people. Mostly every editor in America is middle class. And I know there are some great, wonderful, rich, white editors.” He referred again to his years at the University of Chicago, “an extremely intellectual place, where the only thing that counted was your intellect. I have always had trouble sympathizing with The Great Gatsby. I don’t give a fuck if society in Great Neck doesn’t accept him. I have been to Great Neck—I could not care less if Great Neck does not accept me.”

“I did not acquire Michael’s big books,” said McCormack. “I published them. I okayed them. Don’t take that away from Michael.”

McCormack, who described himself as “being good with numbers and letters,” said that financial losses are an intrinsic pitfall of publishing. “But one of the things you do if you’re a good publisher and you want to keep good editors is you have to eat losses,” he said.

The list of Denneny’s books is encyclopedic and now legendary. In 1978, he edited the book that launched Edmund White’s literary success, “Nocturnes for the King of Naples,” a book Denneny still regards highly. By 1986, Denneny had published Ethan Mordden’s “Buddies” and two years later “Everybody Loves You.”

Then, of course, there was Randy Shilts. Following publication of “The Mayor of Castro Street,” the once free-lancing San Francisco journalist was cultivated by Denneny to author the definitive account of AIDS, “And The Band Played On.”

In retrospect, the gay community had such a narrow period of time in which to celebrate and explore what Denneny described as the “violent arguments that erupted about whether or not there was even such a thing as gay fiction” before thousands of gay men succumbed to the epidemic that swept through the community.

The crisis would pit Denneny against his colleagues and test his professional skills like he never expected. Publishing “And The Band Played On,” was an initial skirmish. “I brought a 78-page proposal into the editorial meeting and there was a universal no—18 votes against it. They said, ‘The book has no ending,’ and ‘What if there is a cure tomorrow?’ Then, McCormack said, ‘Everyone voted against it and you better reconsider your votes because if we don’t do this Michael will kill every one of you.’”

“We did the biggest book on AIDS,” said McCormack. “Here you have this Canadian flight attendant,” he added, about Shilts’ investigation to trace the HIV virus’ genesis, “and there is some evidence that he banged some 1,250 guys and the fucker had AIDS and left his calling card.”

Denneny recounts the multi-year effort that Shilts committed to completing the book, even as the gay community struggled to stem the disease’s spread while many elected officials ignored the urgency. At one point, according to Denneny, as Shilts neared bankruptcy as he worked continuously to finish the book, Denneny had to find the grace to keep encouraging him after Shilts recounted how he carried a jug of coins to his local bank to make a partial payment on his rent.

Eventually, the publication of the book would redeem Shilts’ years of sacrifice and also turn a significant profit for St. Martin’s.

During the interviews at his Upper West Side apartment, he interrupts the conversation now and again to retrieve the objects that still fascinate him and occupy his days—books. For Denneny, the hundreds of neatly shelved volumes around his apartment are what the glass paperweight trophy is to investment bankers who close a big deal. According to him, the decision to acquire, edit and publish, a tedious process that, like with David Carter’s recent “Stonewall” which took the better part of ten years to complete, was based on what a historian or, more simply, a reader, would say fifty years from now about the book’s integrity. Sure, there were the glossy coffee table beefcake products, but Denneny is sure that posterity is going to recognize most of his titles in high regard.

Many of Denneny’s mainstream titles were hugely successful. McCormack recalled the publication of “Will,” G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography, a book whose publication was threatened by a lawsuit from John Sirica, the federal Watergate-era judge. “I thought, ‘Who knows how long this will be tied up in court?’ and I didn’t even want to get into that goddamned pit so we had eight days from acquisition to publication. Michael was brilliant.”

Interviewing Denneny is an education in the scrappy, often cutthroat, world of publishing, a cold-blooded industry that often pushes altruism aside. Success is determined by the art of acquisitions, knowing where and when to find talented authors. “I don’t have the instinct for what will sell down the middle of the road. My skill is to find the book coming out of left field. For example, Mister T.,” said Denneny about the actor popularized by the 1980s TV program “The A Team.” “His manuscript was my most intense editing experience. I was locked in the apartment for seven days, not even reading The New York Times.”

“Mathematics, I believe Michael would confess, was not his passion. But he developed breadth at St. Martin’s. If Michael brought it to the table I was willing to believe,” said McCormack about Denneny’s ability to turn profits.

There were intellectual triumphs, however, such as the biography of Isak Dinesen by Karen Blixen.

By 1995, however, the nadir of gay publishing had passed. By then, Denneny had edited Shilts’ last book, “Conduct Unbecoming,” which examined the military’s historic hostility to out gay and lesbian troops and the impact that had on the nation. However, the year before, Shilts had died from AIDS. Paul Monette, the novelist whose poetry Denneny had edited and gotten published, had also died. In fact, many of the successful writers Denneny had worked with for years, starting with their fledging attempts at getting published, were dead.

“My year was 1995,” recalled Denneny. Every month they died. “I suffered a total collapse, a nervous breakdown. Other people go to rest homes. I had to keep a salary going. A college friend who was a therapist told me that she thought I was on the brink of big trouble. ‘You’re getting into really deep water,’ she told me.”

Denneny never made more than five figures at St. Martin’s Press. Finally, his brother convinced him to move to a more lucrative position at another publishing house.

He lasted two years at Crown Publishing, but admitted that he became bored and disillusioned with an editorial approach that emphasized profit over content.

McCormack did not want to elaborate on why Denneny left St. Martin’s, only saying that it was a “tearful departure.” Denneny would eventually return to St. Martin’s, but his stay would be brief. He retired in 2002 and now edits on his own. As witnessed by the frequent telephone calls from writers, his skills remain in demand.

“That guy has made an impact on the American publishing industry,” said McCormack. “This is a rare and worthy life.”

“I take credit for what I did,” said Denneny. “I stood there for fifteen years, not getting struck by lightning. The world had to see someone out there who was doing gay books who would not be shunted aside.”

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