astonishingly beautiful as a youth and remained astonishing his
entire life, but beauty was the least of his assets. He was a
pioneering gay poet, novelist, editor, photographer, artist,
filmmaker, and one of the great cultural catalysts and
provocateurs of the 20th century. He was openly homosexual
decades before Stonewall, having burst out of the closet in the
early 1930s, when he and Parker Tyler cowrote The Young and
Evil, first published in 1933 and widely considered the first
In Paris, barely
out of his teens, Charles Henri Ford became a protege of
Gertrude Stein, and when Djuna Barnes was convalescing in
Tangier, Morocco, he helped her by typing her novel, which
became the lesbian classic Nightwood. In the 1940s he founded
and edited View, the premier American arts magazine of its era
and the first to publish Jean Genet and Albert Camus in English
translation. Later, he introduced Andy Warhol to underground
He knew everybody
and went everywhere, and when Charles died in September at 94,
it was time for all gay and lesbian people to reflect on those
like him who paved the way for everything we do and are in the
world and who showed us that being gay is no impediment to
I was lucky
because I knew Charles, and he gave me what I consider the
single most important piece of advice I have ever received as a
gay person. I was 20, he was in his 60s, and one day I began
harping on the subject of homosexuality and how terrible it was
(this was only a few years after Stonewall) that so many doors
were closed to openly gay people--that there was so much
prejudice and there were so few prospects for those who dared to
"Oh, don't be
morbid. You're much too young," he said. "I have a simple rule.
When I need something, I just ask for it. And when I want to do
something, I just do it. Gay has nothing to do with it. You can
do the same, gay or not. Anybody can."
Yeah, right, I
thought. Easy for you to say. Charles, after all, had made an
international name for himself by age 20, and his friendships
with many artists--Man Ray, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Paul
Cadmus, to name just a few--hardly made him a charity case.
Sure, Charles, people give stuff to you.
But as time
passed, I watched Charles make several new names for himself in
fields he didn't even enter until an age when most people are
retired--collages, haiku, whatever--and I began to think that
maybe he had something there.
Years later he
told me exactly what his secret was. Discussing what life had
been like in the 1920s and 1930s, before a gay world as we now
know it existed, he explained that to be out back then was to be
bohemian and fiercely antibourgeois. He and his friends were
obsessed with art and music and literature and the big questions
of life, not about consumption or pumping up or fitting in. That
attitude created a freedom that was more than just sexually
liberating. It also created some of the great cultural movements
of the last century, of which gays often were prominent members,
if not the undisputed leaders.
It's been said
that gay people today, especially gay men, have little sense of
their own history. We're obsessed with youth, and we write off
the old. Probably true. But Charles didn't seem to care one
whit. He remained blithely unconcerned about what anybody
thought, including younger gay people.
lessons of his youth to the process of growing old, he lived
each day as a work of art. When he needed something, he asked
for it. When he wanted to do something, he did it.
In October a New
York gallery was planning a show of his recent art called "Alive
and Kicking: The Collages of Charles Henri Ford." When he died,
the gallery owners announced that they had no plans to change
the show's name. That's as fitting as any epitaph.
So if you're young
and gay and worried about getting older, or old and gay and
worried that the parade is passing you by, consider the life of
Charles Henri Ford. And if you want to do something, do it.