Susan Sontag Was A Lesbian

Edward Field’s memoir reveals just about everyone was gay

My subject, Dear Muse, is Fidel Castro

Rebelissimo and darling of the Spanish-American lower classes

A general who adopted for his uniform

The work clothes of the buck private and the beard of the saints

A man fit for ruling a great nation

But who only has an island.

Irene, the beautiful Cuban, has his picture over her bed

Between Rudolph Valentino and the Blessed Virgin––

He stands large and flabby between the perfect body

and the purest soul

Doves on his shoulders, on his open hands

And one dove for crown standing on his head –

He is not afraid of birdshit, his face is radiant.

— from “Stand up, Friend, with Me,” poems by Edward Field, Grove Press, 1963

Edward Field first heard of Irene through his gay friend Alfred Chester, the mad stone-bald ludicrously bewigged 1950s-’60s storyteller, essayist, and near genius who is one of the central figures of Field’s unputdownable new book, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag.” Chester, who died of drugs, drink, and/or suicide in Jerusalem in 1971, was “The Man” who wanted to marry Sontag—as a career step.

“The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag” is a rich compilation of sketches or full portraits of people like Sontag, Alan Ginsberg, Truman Capote, Jean Garrigue, poet Arthur Gregor, poet May Swenson, and poet Frank O’Hara, whom Field deeply admired and—for all O’Hara’s goyischer detachment—had a love affair with for a time.

Salted in with all this are hundreds of tiny, invaluable nuggets—casual asides—along the lines of, “[Among] the aging Masters [of poetry], each with the distinctive voice and unassailable technique, if nothing new to say—it was only Robert Frost who spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunt.”

“Irene Fornes,” said Field the other morning, as he surveyed four walls of photographs of still living “old Bohemians” in or out of his book. “Alfred Chester knew Harriet Sohmers and Irene and Susan. They [the ladies] switched off in every possible combination. After Susan kicked Harriet out, she installed Irene as her lover. Harriet then went straight and stayed straight to the end of her life.”

The present writer said he’d interviewed Susan Sontag once or twice, and found her to be friendly but cool.

“She could turn it on and off,” said Field. “A lot of successful people give you one minute of intense attention, so you get a glow.”

What was undeniable—and Field forcefully agreed—was that Susan Sontag had been one of this city’s great beauties. Had he liked her? “No, never. But I do a tribute to her in the book because of how she spoke out for what she believed.”

Then, laughing, he bespoke a folk tale of musical beds—one bed actually—involving not Irene and Susan and Harriet but Irene and a certain outspoken novelist and the novelist’s then wife, who came home, took in the scene, said—“Move over,” and expanded the duet into a trio. There have, in fact, always been as many men who were wild about Irene Fornes as women, if not more so.

Well, Irene and all the other people on those walls—Judith Malina, Barbara Garson, Rosetta Reitz, George Bartenieff, and more—are still living except one, Tobias Schneebaum, the slim, willowy gay-caballero painter and author who walked alone into the Amazon jungles of Peru one fine day, only to discover purity and joy in the arms of naked so-called “savages” who would rather screw him than put him in a pot and cook him.

The photographs—by Michael Sofronski, with accompanying texts by Dylan Foley—are in an adjunct room of the street-level Westbeth Art Gallery, 55 Bethune Street. They’ve been held over through the end of this month. Toby Schneebaum, who died last September, lived upstairs.

Edward Field has lived upstairs at Westbeth since 1972. He and Neil Derrick, his companion, mate, other half since 1959—“with a two-year hiatus when we broke up, and then we straightened out our heads”—are a familiar sight in Greenwich Village, walking together, Neil’s hand on Edward’s shoulder. Derrick has been blind since a brain-tumor operation, also in 1972.

What is not in the book, except in the briefest of references, is the combat experience of Second Lieutenant Edward Field as navigator on an Eighth Air Force B-17 during World War II. He long ago wrote a long poem about it—you can find it in his “Variety Photoplays” (Grove Press, 1967)—and now, sitting there at Westbeth, he dispassionately recounted the basic details.

“We were returning from a bombing run over Berlin in the winter of 1945. It was my fifth mission. We’d got shot up, lost two engines, the gas tank was shot out, we were limping back to England over the North Sea on one and a half engines. Then the last engine gave out, and we hit the water [“… just like hitting a brick wall,” the poem says. “Who would ever think water could be so hard?”]

“I was in the water about half an hour. There was no room on the rubber raft. Then one of the enlisted men, a gunner, got off the raft to let me on. First he took his clothes off – a mistake. The water was freezing. I’d tried to go swimming in the North Sea in summer, and the water was too cold then. The gunner died. [From the poem: “It was like those who survived the death camps by letting others go into the ovens in their place.”]

“In all we lost two men. Another gunner––the tail gunner––was gay. He and I discovered it after the crash when we were on rest cure in Liverpool, but we didn’t come on to each other. I gradually learned what the system was in the military. The chaplain’s assistant was always gay, and Special Services––the ones who put on the camp shows––were gay. When I finally to Paris, it was full of gay soldiers.”

Edward Field, born June 7, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Lithuania (his father) and Poland (mother), went into the service at 18 “to get away from NYU.”

He had always known what he was—Jewish and homosexual—even before the word “gay” came into general usage.

“But I didn’t know of the whole gay world—the world of restaurants and bars and cruising and the underground—the world that was all around me. I thought you had to be an underground criminal to be gay. So Greenwich Village, when I reached it, was a tremendous revelation. You know, in that recent documentary film about Greenwich Village, where Norman Mailer says that as a teenager he used to come to the Village to get laid? That was the only true thing in that whole movie.”

Edward Field grew up in Lynbrook, on the south shore of Long Island. “The German-American Bund was big in that town. They used to meet in the schools. Nassau County would have voted in Hitler. We were practically the only Democrats around.”

He was never religious. “All that phony-baloney.” But he was nevertheless a Jew, and he soon found out that “the poetry world was very hostile to Jews back then—was full of Anglo-Saxon contempt for Jews.” As for the rest of it—“When I tried to get a job before the war, I couldn’t get seen. Auschwitz and Israel changed everything.”

But nothing changed regarding homosexuality––Field’s fundamental subject matter. But… “Nowadays I write about everything. It’s like journalism. I’ve just done a new poem, ‘Better Keep Your Parachute Harness On, George.’ ”

Few if any Old Bohemians, gay, straight, or otherwise, would quarrel with that proposition.

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