I reviewed Winston Wilde's fascinating nonfiction book about the rich historical tapestry of LGBT relationships for the Lambda Literary Review back in 2008. Lambda has recently launched its own website, where my past and future reviews of my favorite LGBT authors are finding a new life. Hope you check out that site, as well as this great book ... and I promise to write something new for you soon!
Reviewed by Brent Calderwood
It has often been stated that the blessing and curse of queer relationships is that we must create our own rules and models. Since most of us come from heterosexual families and heteronormative cultures, we often feel that we are reinventing the wheel—or, more accurately, inventing the wheel—when we attempt our own queer romances. This can feel like freedom or chaos, and sometimes a little of both at the same time.
Several seminal books about LGBT relationships have come down the pike over the years since the late 1970s, notably The Male Couple by David P. McWhirter and The Intimacy Dance by Betty Berzon. John DeCecco’s Gay Relationships offered a more scholarly approach, full of fascinating statistics and charts regarding monogamy, age disparity, and much more. However, like many LGBT self-help, social science and academic works, these tomes have become dated to varying degrees. As LGBT relationships become more mainstream, and as marriage for gays, lesbians, and trans people becomes legal and acceptable in more and more parts of the world (including the United States), a book is needed that bridges historical and cultural limitations.
As if on cue, Winston Wilde’s Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding has been released from Haworth Press to fulfill this timely but timeless need. The author, a sexologist and psychotherapist, devoted fourteen years to this labor of love, and the time and research shows. Wilde’s attention to historical documentation, coupled with generous illustrations and juicy, little-known details about the romances of many queer legends, makes this a book worth returning to again and again. It turns out that we do have models after all, and Wilde elucidates this heritage with taxonomic specificity, but also with the light touch of a neighbor relating news over the backyard fence.
Divided into seven chapters, Wilde enumerates various patterns. These patterns are fascinating because of what they reveal about history, and about the changing values in the dominant culture as well as within queer culture. Predictably, most well-known examples of Intergerational Love, for example, are from previous decades and centuries, dating back to Socrates and his young pupil and lover Alcibiades in the 5th century B.C.E. The author fascinates with lesser known couplings, like 13th-Century Persian mystic poet Rumi and his older, married lover Shams al-Din, who was murdered by one of Rumi’s jealous pupils. Other relationships went more smoothly, thankfully, including the thirty-three year romance of author Christopher Isherwood and the artist Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior.
Revelations, at least to this reviewer, were the intergenerational relationships between 20th-Century writers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Conklin, as well as the passionate but short-lived romance between Martina Navratilova and Rita Mae Brown. Bringing the Pattern of Intergenerational Love to the present time, Wilde profiles the partnership of authors Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson. As Boyd writes to the younger Thompson, “I realize how thankful I am for your life, how precious our time together is, and what an extraordinary adventure we have embarked upon.”
Legacies of Love is chock-full of touching and revealing quotes and declarations of love, culled from love letters, poems, and historical documents. Many of these are timeless and prescient. Margaret Mead, who had a brief relationship with her professor Ruth Benedict, said, in the middle of the last century, “What is new is not bisexuality but rather the widening of our awareness and acceptance of human capacities for sexual love.” In addition to what queer readers can learn from these relationships, the book reminds the reader again and again what queer relationships have taught their participants; in the case of Margaret Mead and others, those personal lessons have been translated into intellectual, political, philosophical, spiritual, and artistic contributions. And of course, relationships teach us much about ourselves as well. In chapter 7, Pattern of Peer Love, Wilde quotes Paul Monette, who wrote of his late partner Roger Horwitz in 1988: “When we came together as lovers we knew precisely how happy we were. I only realized then that I’d never had someone to play with before.”
In addition to its more thoughtful and poignant moments, Legacies of Love dishes the dirt on several Hollywood affairs and romances, including those of actors Cary Grant and Randolph Scott (pictured in the book washing dishes in the kitchen they shared while donning matching aprons), Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert, and Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye.
Finally, Wilde explores several relationships of the Victorian and Modern eras to remind us, lest we forget, just how queer heterosexual relationships can be. In Pattern of Heterogender Love, Wilde gives equal time to the open and ahead-of-their time pairings of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill, Jane and Paul Bowles, and even the three-way relationship of Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova and Alla Nazimova. Much can be gleaned from the courage and queerness these lovers exhibited in their own time and place. As Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West wrote to her gay husband Harold Nicolson, “We are sure of each other, in this odd, strange, detached, intimate, mystical relationship which we could never explain to any outside person.” Luckily for us, Wilde has taken it upon himself to explain their relationship, and scores of others, in ways that inform our understanding not only of our queer past, but also of the loves, partnerships, and marriages we embark upon in our present lives.