A Young Man from the Provinces - Alan Helms
This autobiography isn’t written by an ordinary man, so don’t expect profound insight into the experience of being gay at a time when most men who loved men hid deep in the closet. I’d never heard of Alan Helms before a friend sent me his book. But he was a ‘Famous International Faggot’ back in the late 50s and 60s, a glamorous world tarnished by all-pervasive homophobia.
Helms’ friends & lovers include famous names from America and Europe. With an ideal type of beauty (think Brad Pitt) he was a ‘golden manboy’, desired and envied by all who came into his orbit. Helms doesn’t exaggerate. If the cover picture is any indication, he was gorgeous.
Helms was celebrated and sought after, but for much of his life he was so rippled by self-doubt and self-loathing that his life was a misery. Comfortable, yes, but sad and lonely. A kind of gay Marilyn Monroe. Pampered existence made Helms’ life easier than most gay men of his generation, so it’s hard to feel too sorry for someone whose problems were largely of his own making.
Helms had no self-image except what he saw reflected back at him from his admirers. A product of a dysfunctional family, eccentric and alcoholic, he learned young to cut off his emotions to survive the turmoil at home. As a sissy, he struggled with rejection (violent and abusive father and neglectful mother) and developed a compulsive need to be accepted. He was ashamed of his humble origins in Indiana when later he escaped to Princeton and then New York’s highest society. Infrequent visits home were penance for his wonderful new life.
Maybe Helms would’ve overcome the family hang-up if not for an unhappy affair at university. Ditched by a lover who decided it was time to get straightened out, Helms took double rejection (of him and his sexuality) hard. It reinforced deep-seated fear that he was unlovable
Helms’ story is resolutely personal, despite living through tumultuous times when gay rights became a hotly contested issue. He’s entirely self-absorbed, addicted to adulation. You’d think it’d get tiresome, but Helms is his own harshest critic. What raises the book above whining self-pity is sharp writing (he’s a professor of literature) and relentless honesty.
Helms had lots of sex, but doesn’t go into detail, or enjoy it much. Sex was another way to affirm his desirability as much as for pleasure, or as he gets older just to prove he’s still wanted. He never opened up enough to allow anyone to get to know the real man inside or enjoyed the shared intimacies of companionable partnership. Eventually his addictions and neuroses took over and he withdrew, lost in a haze of drugs.
It is down to the lingering influence of Helms’ indomitable (if crazy) mother Lillian, and sheer good luck avoiding AIDS, that, unlike many, he survived. His miserable life turned to contentment, finally comfortable in his skin only once that fabled beauty faded with age. Helms is a survivor and his memoir an interesting, if narrow, account of one man’s struggle to make peace with his demons. It’s not perfect- use of ampersands is really annoying for starters. But I enjoyed the journey and the company. Though saddened that Helms seems not to have found love alongside self-acceptance. Recommended.