a true pioneer
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The Advocate, Nov 26, 2002  by Gabriel Rotello

 He was 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 gay novel.

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 film.

 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 anything.

 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 be honest.

 "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.

Applying the 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.

     

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