This passage from The Slide Area , a series of loosely connected short stories, was Gavin Lambert’s first work of fiction. Written in 1959, I didn’t get around to reading it until 1963 — just after I’d been “gobsmacked” by Inside Daisy Clover, his most famous work (and one of the very best Holywood novels ever written), which he adapted for the screen in 1966. Sickened by the enthusiasm my fellow classmates at New York’s “High School of Music and Art” (Class of ’64) showed toward J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (aka. “The Celebrity Stalker’s Manual”), I countered with Gavin’s Daisy — an a clef that obviously dealt with Judy Garland, yet more subtly Natalie Wood as well, who luckily came to play her in the movie.
It was at the Donnell Library (right across the street from my favorite Manhattan stomping grounds, the Museum of Modern Art) that I found a copy of The Slide Area and devoured it enthusiastically. Quickly it became clear to me that there was a lot more to Gavin than a a keen understanding of adolescent angst. He knew Hollywood. Not just the place, but the state of mind. Moreover he knew the bottom line about how the place really worked:
In other words Hollywood is a phantom city within a phantom city — a place that never quite “pulls itself together,” and wouldn’t be the Alexandrian library of our dreams if it did. This not-so-simple fact became instantaneously clear when I moved to the non-city in 1976. And not all that long afterwards I came to know Gavin Lambert.
“One should never meet one’s heroes,” as cliche would have it. But meeting Gavin Lambert didn’t bring any “disillusional” baggage along with it. This spry, witty, perfectly composed gentleman was clearly the author of the books I’d read, which in addition to the above-mentioned works included an incredibly important q&a book On Cukor , a wonderful roman a clef about celebrated sybarite Denham Fouts called Norman’s Letter, marvelous biographical studies of Norma Shearer, Nazimova and Natalie Wood, an insightful volume of essays on suspense fiction, The Dangerous Edge , and Mostly About Lindsay Anderson, a biography of the great British director that also served as an autobiography in that it revealed that the character of “Cliff” from The Slide Area was quite plainly Nicholas Ray, the wildly talented and even more wildly self-destructive director with whom Gavin had a both a professional and sexual relationship. Unlike “Cliff” Gavin was quite happy to be in Hollywood — settling into its casual sunny warmth, and seemingly culture-free social life like his celebrated British emigre brethern Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and David Hockney.
As his filmography shows, Holywood took advantage of what he had to offer somewhat intermittently. He also spoke fondly of producer Jerry Wald, who gave him the opportunity to adapt D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers to the screen. Yet he was most amused when the TV biopic Liberace: Behind the Music (starring the fabulous Victor Garber) came his way. In fact he seemed to be able to find amusement in just about everything that Hollywood, in it’s delightfully louche way had to offer. Surely he had his regrets, but British to the core (despite a life-long estrangement from his homeland) I never heard him voice it.
So what was he “really like”? His books of course. Gavin was the most transparent of authors — and the most generous. A font of detailed information about Hollywood’s “Golden Age” he proved invaluable to me in writing my book Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 And in the many times our paths crossed over the years — sometimes at screeneings, but more often at Book Soup on Sunset — he was never at a loss for something to say about the arts, yesterday and today. He loved the past but he didn’t live in it.
Yet now for me, and countless others lucky enough to have met him, he’s part of the past — brought to life the moment one recalls something he said or wrote. Like all true artists he’ll always “be around.”