The Columnist: Joseph Alsop's Fabulous Gay Life As A 'House Faggot'
The Voice's Michael Feingold already reviewed The Columnist, in which John Lithgow brilliantly portrays columnist Joseph Alsop in David Auburn's new play on Broadway. But, we wanted to share a few thoughts about our experience watching it this weekend, in light of other things we've been writing about lately.
By chance and choice, we've been taking a bit of a wander through gay American history recently. After writing about How To Survive A Plague this week, David France's documentary about the heyday of ACT UP mostly made of home video footage, it was fascinating to watch The Columnist, a completely different, Broadway exploration of a very dissimilar kind of gay life. Both represent gay American history, though from extremely different points of view.
We also couldn't help but think of Dan Savage's recent label of the gay Republican group GOProud as a bunch of "house faggots" when we were watching The Columnist. You don't get much more closeted than Joseph Alsop, and you certainly don't get any closer to the Big House (and, in his case, the White House) than that homosexual did.
Alsop lived in an era of journalism, within a segment of elite society, largely foreign to us. He was related to the Roosevelts. His ability to survive his homosexuality required him to marry a beard (Susan Mary Jay Patten, played by Margaret Colin). He is deeply closeted, and you never (as far as we can recall) hear the words "gay," "faggot" or "homosexual."
But it's not like Alsop's homosexuality is not on full display through out the play. The opening scene starts with Alsop in bed in Moscow as a trick is dressing to leave his hotel room. There is a nice way in which the closeted Alsop attempts to find some human connection in this scene with Andrei, an Interpol tour guide, in a life that will, over the next couple of hours, be depressingly devoid of deep emotional contact. Alsop grows suspicious when it turns out Andrei hasn't been sent to him by the U.S. Embassy as he'd thought, and with good reason: Andrei is a Soviet spy, and the encounter will shade the rest of the play.
Alsop has major access in his privileged life : to the Kennedy White House, to the U.S. military when he visits Vietnam, and to the players at the heart of the beltway. For journalism geeks, the portrayal of David Halberstam is great fun to watch, as are the chats about other journalists of the day and the descriptions of Alsop's infamous dinner parties. The jealousy Alsop's colleagues have is understandable.
And, while we see a hair of the anger Vietnam protesters have about Alsop's life, we never see in The Columnist the anger or jealousy other homosexuals could well have for Alsop. He leads a materialistically and intellectually charmed life, even if devoid of a great deal of emotional contact. While Alsop, like many of his generation, hides his sexuality, there were, of course, plenty of homosexuals living openly in the 1960s, in a sexually charged America that was as removed from Alsop's Washington as was the rest of the nation's tumult.
Everything about Alsop world is kind of gay in a stereotypical way: his furniture, his fussiness, his natty attire, his asexual relationship with his wife (who he sees as an able hostess and, in the play, not even really as a friend once they are wed). "He uses a cigarette holder," one character hilariously points out, as a euphemism for Alsop's sexuality.
But the charade still works and keeps him in hiding. He pays a price for wearing this mask, seen most honestly in his interactions with his brother and one time writing partner Stewart (beautifully portrayed by Boyd Gaines). But he is rewarded very well, too: he is as close to power as any reporter could possibly be, and he enjoys all the trappings of heterosexual, WASP privilege while keeping his "situation" on the DL.
And yet, via Auburn's framing and Lithgow's portrayal, Alsop comes across in an utterly charming, forgivable fashion. Given how much we've been looking at and writing about down-in-the-trenches LGBT activists lately, who'd stand up at Stonewall and bear the brunt of the AIDS crisis during the years Alsop was living the high life, we expected we'd be turned off by him.
We weren't. At least through The Columnist, Alsop comes across as a thoroughly sympathetic portrayal of the psychologically complicated closeted man of his time. There is a seductiveness to the way the character seems able to pull off having it all (minus being out, of course, but the compartmentalized way he manages his sexuality adds to the thrill of what he gets away with). And, though the (completely fictional, as far as we know) penultimate scene sets him up as being a real enemy of gay people (who'd willingly use his position as a "house faggot" to destroy a "field faggot" that now has access to the Big House's kitchen, if not its main quarters), there is something of a redemption in the play's imagined, final, quiet moment.
Read Michael Feingold's review "The Columnist: Neocon Job."
For our take on a completely different media take on gay life, check out "How To Survive a Plague: Queer Activism Before 'Gay Inc.' Bought It Off"