The poet Charles Henri Ford was gay, he had a boyfriend, and he was open to other things. Say, for example, he saw a man passing by on the street. He might think of him later, assuming he had a particular flair or gravitas. Years later the individual might appear in one of Ford’s poems, for the only thing he enjoyed more than sex was immersing himself in his art.
In his diaries, Ford proves himself the best American journaler of his century. He makes Kafka’s cogent observational entries seem clunky and unaware of themselves in contrast, because he takes so much of what the world is in without flinching. In his primary relationship with the painter Pavlik Tchelitchew and the other affairs he consummated in full view of his partner, Henri Ford brings the sex life of his period into full and magnificent display in all its decadence, glory and shame.
The entries that follow are highly excerpted from the original manuscript, which you can purchase here.
The masculine type of simple boy who goes with girls and yet has something passive about him. The incredible looking gymnast who appeared in the weightroom yesterday at the Y: face of a soap-sculpture athlete (baby face), expressionless corn-blond hair contrasting with double-thick black eyelashes which gave the final artificial touch – what can you do with a big doll like that? Why, it’s too heavy to pick up.
We were sitting in the front row, someone pinched my ear from the back, I turned around and it was Carl Van Vechten. Carl is editing some works of Gertrude Stein, I sent him recently this quotation from Jung: “…only when we have found the sense in apparent nonsense, can we separate the valueless from the valuable.”
Gertrude Stein told me, in 1933, after she learned of my liaison with Pavlik: “Americans are strong but Russians are stronger. You’ll come out the little end.” And when she couldn’t “break it up” she stopped seeing me.
Pavlik, as he went to bed last night, “I don’t love anybody.” “Not even me?” “Not even myself.” His work is at the point where he can’t go back and cannot see his way forward.
Yesterday afternoon we went to New Haven to see the Sartre play. Jed Harris’ “restrained” direction is more strained than directed. The casting is abominable — Boyer no more than a voice. The play has been disastrously cut and mauled — it’s cheap with a cheapness even Edward, My Son doesn’t touch. If this is the theater, take me away from it.
Bert told me of the women he’d had in Milwaukee, Philadelphia – and in Newfoundland, where they wanted to go out and fuck in the snow… “And when you jerk off do you try to make it last a long time?” Bert: “No, I like to get it over with as soon as possible.” He told me of how they used to extract the alcohol from shellac, on board ship, by straining it through a loaf of white bread. And he said, “It’s been so long since I’ve had a woman that it’s pathetic.”
The human, being there – one is moved, that’s all.
Where does sleep go when we get enough?
We float on a cloud of sleep through a landscape of dream.
Is sleep, like the sun, always there even when we don’t see it?
And if I married a girl, I’d want to sleep with her — both of us naked, in a double bed, the light would go out and we’d begin to fuck. Sex would be no problem. The problem would be: would she bore me the next day?
On arrival in Weston Friday before tea, Bert jumped into his Levis, looking more sexy than ever, and we three took a walk. Vorisoff, our neighbor, came to dinner. Shortly after dinner Bert and I went upstairs, he wanted to look at the pornographic playcards and since there was nothing else to do he suggested we go to bed so I went back downstairs and said goodnight to Vorisoff and Pavlik. Bert was going to spend the night in my bed. “Fuck me between the legs,” he said — and hollered when I hit the piles which seem to be practically out — because the next afternoon even my tongue hurt them (I had taken him in his bathrobe downstairs and washed his ass for him.) So after we had both come (I sucked him after shooting between his legs — I can see him now in bed lifting one leg to wipe the come off his crotch with the towel I tossed him), he said he was hungry so we had scrambled eggs, then he said he felt “jumpy,” that he wanted to take a walk and wanted me to get dressed and go with him. We had had Scotch after we got back. I shall make a list of “What’s beautiful about Bert.” Not now — it’s too long.
Last evening before bedtime Pavlik had another of his crises, in which he unloaded his feelings about our relationship. The most terrible thing he said was that he had the feeling I was waiting for him to die and that when he did die I wouldn’t shed a tear: “Americans are the hardest people in the world…”
He said that when I was away from the apartment, then he “bloomed,” that there were other people who “calmed” him when he was nervous, but that I drained him — “I feel your pulling, pulling all the time, that’s why you look so young, you age me, if you were to stay away from me one year you wouldn’t look like you do now, like your portrait, just look in the mirror after one year, you’ll see!”
I told him, “If we are only staying together out of convenience and cowardice, then it’s pathetic, a break should be made…”
The voice of Leonor over phone – soft, and low pitched, very seductive.
I like the idea of liking girls and going to bed with them but I’m afraid I’m much too conditioned by boy-loving. On the boat, in the group Tanny-Bobby-Betty (latter a dark skinned ballerina traveling with Tanny), it was always Bobby who set off the sparks and whom I liked to look at, touch, listen to — I’m made that way, that’s all.
Concentration is like an animal or rare plant that must be hunted — I’m on the road. “My shitting is of a completely different kind now,” Pavlik announces, on the road to recovery.
Up at six and found a feather in my bed, as though, while I was sleeping, I’d been a bird.
There was a tremendous circle around the moon last night (“like the asshole of the universe,” I told Pavlik.) Even the sun can embrace but half the world at once.
In the marketplace: a little girl’s pushing a littler girl’s screaming face in the placid face of a munching sheep. A trembling white duck being weighted in hand-scales: part of the trembling world, part of me.
Mountains change, even the bare rock ones with their melting leaves of snow.
Pavlik is absolutely as wild as a domestic cat — always ready to be petted or frightened.
A gypsy woman asked me for 10 lire for bread for a child then proposed to read my hand and I let her – she said I had an amico who wished me well from his heart but that an end would soon come to our friendship.
Dear Jung is so sensible about sex: “A direct unconstrained expression of sexuality is a natural occurrence and as such neither unbeautiful nor repulsive. The ‘moral’ repression makes sexuality on one side dirty and hypocritical, on the other shameless and obtrusive.
Gino is here. He is unbelievably sweet and pure. We took a nap together after lunch and he was very affectionate and caressing but — “If you were a girl…”
He kissed me goodnight but wouldn’t let me sleep with him.
Gino’s asked me never to say again that I’d like to sleep with him. I’d kissed him on the lips and he’d responded with the information that men never kiss men on the lips.
Pavlik came and sat on my bed and asked me if I were “fallen in love.” I said, “No how can I fall in love with someone who refuses to go to bed with me?” and Pavlik said, “That’s exactly when one falls in love!”
Gino tells me: You’re different today than on other days. I tell him: I change like the lake, not only every day but every hour. He asks, Why? I say: I’m water.
The three C’s of (novel or) dramatic writing:
Create Character Continuously
He’s leaving this morning on the 10:20 bus.
He says he came here like a baby and that I took his hand and told him how to eat.
Gino has gone… gave me a goodbye kiss – on the mouth. “Very clever of him not to go to bed with you,” says Pavlik.
Dream: I fled, but with not enough speed (I felt) to put a safe distance between myself and three black horses wildly dashing in my direction. “There are two people in you,” Pavlik told me, “and the bad one is very strong.”
“La fatalite” is not, as Antonin Artaud implies, “the materialization of an intellectual force” – but the result of millions of things which happened independently of each other but whose combinations and conjunctions cause what seem to be single occurrences. One thing at a time is never one thing.
It’s the desire to go to new extremes: either down (like Sade) or up (like Rilke). Baudelaire embraced both extremes: crime and the sublime.
A big egg-truck came down the hill with a sex-beast of a truck driver at the wheel who smiled at me, saying, “Kind of slippery, ain’t it?” I smiled back and then knew he’d set the mechanism going which would end in my jerking off.
Why not have children instead of continuing in pursuit of the deformed image?
To get back to poetry: it’s leaving the world in order to find it. To write: grasp the magic wand (phallic symbol) and trace your words with it — after the trance is induced.
When Hart Crane perceived that he had exhausted the exhilaration derived from drink and sex and poetry, he drowned himself. He had lost contact with the thread that leads up, Poetry, and took hold of the Whirlpool and didn’t let go.
The moon was shining. The valley was full of mist. “Nice night for a murder,” said Bert.
Coral (my ten year old niece ) tonight. “You ought to get married.” I reply, “Why should I get married when I’m happy the way I am?” She said, “That’s just what I’m afraid of. You’re happy and may never get married!”
No travel to beautiful places, no children, no lovers — none of these can give me “consolation” — only my work — poetry — can give me the pride in existence that seems so important.
And so I wrote a prose poem. That feeling of being lost in creation — a forgetting of self — is one I haven’t felt in a long time.
The annoying, symmetrical flies.
What a lot of fun we’d miss if we were born wise. We wouldn’t run the risks.
Well, there are dreams we do not remember; but they exist, nevertheless.
Are not the winter trees nude? They are not skeletons — but “undressed”, says Pavlik.
The image I want to catch is harder to capture than a butterfly with bare hands.
I mean, “it’s the end of a year” becomes meaningless to me if I imagine it’s being said by everyone in the world.
To be what you are – infinitely.
I took a terrace walk and saw the most brilliant falling star — I always make the same wish: Love.
Why is everyone always foolish enough to think that a sexual partner will make life happy?
I went ahead and became a homosexual — no matter what. Not everybody does that — who should (or would like to). All the fucked up lives — just because they weren’t fucked.
A virtue of necessity? More usually a vice is made of it.
One of the most attractive “sections” of the bodies of young people: from the bottom row of ribs to the pubic hair. (Pav would include the pubic hair.) It’s so flat, and intact, so undisintegrated, unmarked with sags or superfluous fat. It’s beautiful. I think of that section of Rocco, of Benito, of Vito.
The shapes of the head of the soul. When bell-mouthed, what is the significance?
I enjoy life when, as Virginia Woolf puts it, “Quiet brings cool clear quick mornings, in which I dispose of a good deal of work and toss my brain into the air when I take a walk.” But Djuna and I didn’t thrill to Woolf’s Orlando. Did I not read some of it aloud to her, that winter on the rue St.-Romain, in that lovely apartment, the heart- shaped big mirrors framed in gold, the studio bed, piled high with pillows covered in a variety of “ecclesiastical” cloths, some gold-embroidered? Her big bed, in the bedroom, had lots of little lacey pillows on top of it in the daytime. She’d go once a week to get her hair curled and tinted, strawberry blonde.
I was infatuated by her (rather than with her). And she was attracted by me — all the way to Tangier — but there I lost my charm for her because of my — selfishness — I didn’t give her enough (my re-typing Nightwood was hardly enough, and a drunken lay now and then). I spent mornings at the beach, leaving her alone in the little Casbah house. And when she ceased being charmed, she quickly lost her charm for me. I didn’t like the kind of mirror she became.
“This ravaging sense of the shortness…” (V.W.) I don’t have that. I sense, rather, that life will be long — too long.
Gino would have spent the night in my double bed but I decided not to let him — he said he could feel friendship for a man — even imagine sacrificing his life for that friendship — but it’s the woman whom he feels made to make love to… if he makes it at all.
He’s a pleasant friend, nice to have around, handsome to look at, true-hearted, and I’m glad he came on this visit, though he is less a poet now and admits it.
Pavlik: “He just thinks you’re a selfish American bitch — he’s not very far from the truth — if you think you’re something else you’re mistaken.”
I could write a comedy (but would I want to) with three main characters as follows:
A young writer.
An older painter.
The young writer’s mother.
The “plot” — as made by the characters — would be the mother’s attempt to get her son away from the older man — and her failure.
The setting: a New York penthouse.
One of subsidiary characters: a balletomane (based on Lincoln Kirstein’s personality), who is a close friend of the painter’s, and would also like to see the “household” broken up.
I met Isak Dinesen. She was wearing a deep cloche of tobacco-colored straw. She talks rhythmically, and sounds as if she were reading one of her own stories. She said I am like what she expected me to be. I said, “You are beyond my expectations.” She wore a fur jacket with longish shiny fur.
Thornton Wilder just phoned, asked me to come into Rome and lunch with him tomorrow… It’s five to four, I’ll put the water on for tea. Will no one call on me today? I’ll peep through the peephole before opening door. The new breadboy is cross-eyed, curious as a cat.
I’ve told Pavlik that he should “paint flat.” (Upstart to Master.) Anyway, he told me some days later (a couple of days ago): “I would like to paint flat.” I nodded my head: “Then that would be being painting instad of painting something.”
“You want to know the truth?” (I to Pavlik.)
“Matisse couldn’t draw.”
“That’s what Gertrude Stein said.”
“As for Braque — he drew worse than Matisse.”
“I know that.”
We are taking off at this moment from La Guardia. It will be a nonstop flight to New Orleans, Washington fogged out so no landing there possible. The plane, therefore, is not full, and there is a free seat between me and the Spanish-speaking woman on my right. On that seat, in a woven basket from Mexico, is the box which contains the sealed jar of Mother’s ashes.
In New York I saw Djuna and took her a little bottle of perfume (Lancome). Djuna told me over phone that she couldn’t receive me for tea chez elle but perhaps they’d give us “a bun” at Luigi’s. She wasn’t at Luigi’s when I arrived but it wasn’t long before I saw an old and stooped woman walking with a stick pass by the window and I opened the door for her.
Djuna’s old-time snappishness wasn’t there, though she tried to bare a false tooth now and then… She did say, when she first saw me, “You’ve grown hardly any older – it’s disgusting!” She said various London literary lights had raved over her new play (Eliot, Muir, Read) and she’s mailing the revised version to Eliot on Monday.
We may value old friends, but we can’t go back to them.
To know when to leave alone those chance happenings.
If I’m going to love living in Paris I’ll have to get used to — even like — that pearl-gray sky which ones sees on opening the curtains in the morning.
I told him, Perhaps it’s only physical, maybe I don’t love you at all. He said, I think you love me.
Paintings by Amy Shackleton.
“Slow Breathing Circuit” – Inventions (mp3)