The Art of Empathy
A noted historian and biographer reveals how his own life and loves helped him understand his most famous subject.
By Douglass Shand-Tucci
OCTOBER 12, 1998:
Many readers of my best-known book, The Art of Scandal, got more scandal than they bargained for when I responded honestly to a reporter interested in how I approached writing the biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the leading lady of America's Gilded Age. I had got to the bottom of Gardner's ardently heterosexual romantic adventures, I told the reporter, by bringing to bear on the book the experience of my own love life as a gay man.
Nor did it help, I suppose, when I added that I'd interpreted the coming out to Gardner of several of her protégés in the even more vivid light of my own "seduction" (the reporter's word, not mine) as a young man by an Episcopal priest.
Well, I remain unembarrassed. And prepared to argue -- with Henry Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson -- that that's the way to write the best history.
I came out twice. And both times I got lucky. The first time, at age 16 or 17, it was the idea of Father Jim, the fiftysomething pastor of my local Episcopal church.
Mine was a fairly dysfunctional youth, spent far from my parents' divorce struggle at various boarding schools where, to make a long story short, I found that in gym class I tended to lose my focus at close quarters. Father Jim forced me soon enough to acknowledge why.
He was like that. Short, but beautifully built -- he rowed for Yale and kept it up -- Father Jim was a confident enough patrician (there was no more famous New England family than his), both highly intellectual and very progressive in his attitudes. I had every reason to be flattered by his attention; nervous, too, but certain there was some test here that to run away from would be cowardly and -- worse -- ordinary and boring, which I was sure I wasn't.
My mother, knowing my need of a father figure, was pleased. Today I'm sure she'd be counseled to sue him -- all those swimming trips! But Father Jim actually saved my life. Nothing he ever did was "dirty," in or out of bed. Wrong, perhaps, if with the wrong person. But I was the right person. Discovering I was gay was a much better experience for me than for most, thanks to my pastor. I had, after all, a great role model.
In fact, I knew many gay priests, only one of whom was distinctly to be given a wide berth. And it came as no surprise to learn that the High Church wing of Episcopalianism had a gay tradition reaching back to the 16th century. Indeed, in my study of history at Harvard, I discovered (though I came to know well enough the dangers of projecting back into history our own modern experience) that it was by no means an anachronism to speak of 16th-century gays. Certainly modern American homosexuality is different from ancient Greek homosexuality; but so, too, is modern American democracy different from ancient Greek democracy. If Alexander the Great wasn't gay, neither was George Washington American (he regarded himself, above all, as a Virginian), nor the first pope Catholic (for St. Peter would always have called himself a Jew). Similarly, whatever he -- or Jesus -- would have called the Beloved Disciple, I'd call St. John gay.
My point -- is the Christian Right listening? -- is that while one didn't have to be gay to be a High Church Episcopalian in my youth (the fabled 1960s), it sure helped! Though as I grew into my 20s, it helped less and less; my hormones raged through more bars and one-night stands than, in my shame, I care to dwell on. Finally, fed up, I retreated to the closet.
The man who brought me out as an adult was a senior at Harvard, where in the 1980s I was an affiliate in the history of architecture at Eliot House. Will (the name he's asked I use here) sought me out, in fact, one Sunday at Father Jim's old church. An omen, surely.
How cool was Will? Let me count the ways! Which I will spare the reader, except to say that if one thinks of the three traditional categories of beauty -- body, mind, and soul -- Will laid claim to them all. It was in the second category, because of our common love of words and buildings (he is an architect), that we bonded most deeply. Aside from his eyes (or is it his voice? Oh, well), Will's most fascinating attribute is his mind, which is supple, even brilliant (when sparked; he is lazy).
As at once and forever my sternest muse (for in midlife "my chief want in life," as Margaret Fuller once put it, is "somebody who shall make me do what I can do"), his first gift to me was to force me to confront the question -- in architecture, where it had never really been dealt with -- of the so-called gay sensibility. Indeed, the more I thought about Will (which was a lot), the more he reminded me of a much older gay archetype than the drag queen or the hyper-macho biker of our own day -- one that derives largely from the legendary gay artist of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, and has since been strongly associated with a number of 19th-century composers of the romantic school, a stereotype one scholar has characterized as "moody, melancholy, and withdrawn, but not effeminate." (Not that my great love can't be charming; but that is not the essential Will!)
I'd heard, in fact, what seemed to me this gay sensibility in the works of Schubert and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven -- composers who were arguably gay. I had also experienced this sensibility in my reading. Now, on one delightful weekend trip after another to see this or that building with Will, I learned through him to see this sensibility in architecture. There was Beauport, for instance: a famous architectural landmark on Boston's North Shore, so maze-like a riddle of a house that I'd pronounce it "gay architecture" any day. (And did, in fact, in a widely praised but controversial book of 1994 called Boston Bohemia, where I also documented what I call "Gay Gothic.")
Like the proverbial tree that bears good fruit, ours was thus a good relationship. And for Will, too: part of what got him into architecture school and through his first (and worst) year there was how sustained he felt, he wrote me, by "the strength that you found in yourself [to write] through the agency of loving me." Our friendship, he added, was "the most continuous, high, and exalted pleasure I have known in my life."
How that lifted my heart can easily be imagined -- sparking me, in turn, to yet greater efforts. Whereas in the 1980s I'd written one big book, the promise of which remained unfulfilled for a decade, I will by 2000 have published four books in the '90s, including my first bestseller: The Art of Scandal.
I was drawn to the subject initially because of Isabella Gardner's genius as a pioneering American art collector and brilliantly original designer. But I saw as key to understanding Gardner's life and work her relationship with the love of her life, the novelist Frank Crawford, who estranged himself from Gardner for 10 years of their intense 30-year friendship. That was a life situation to the understanding and analysis of which, by 1996, I brought some experience -- for that year Will estranged himself from me and, shortly thereafter, finally hooked up with a life partner. I was not asked to be best man.
Few who knew us were surprised. I was in my 40s when I first met Will, who was then only 20. Illness and just plain middle age had by then calmed down my hormones (about time, said more than one!), so I came to accept pretty easily that a point spread of more than 25 years meant ours could hardly be an ardently physical relationship. But Will was more and more troubled by the implications of that fact: that he couldn't respond to me romantically in the way he saw me as loving him. What I thought more important, though, was that our friendship love (which was mutual) struck much deeper than romantic love ever had, in my experience.
Sure, not to have recourse to the meeting place of eros was a real loss (Will said sex with me felt like incest!); but Will's leaving me his diary to read, for example, when he went away to graduate school, was as intimate a human exchange as I've ever had in or out of bed. "Expressing our thoughts and feelings is . . . a basic drive, like sex," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thrashing through the thicket of Gardner's love life, I thus identified with her as easily as with her great love. By then, had I not been on both sides of the generational divide -- first with Father Jim, then with Will -- in what the psychologists call an "age-asymmetrical" relationship? I knew this terrain well enough to follow the historical evidence with the skill of an Indian scout.
As Will and I became closer, for example, it became clearer that however sincerely he promised enduring love and trust in one valentine card after another to me as his devoted friend and mentor, he also needed -- as had Frank Crawford, the married, middle-aged Gardner's much younger and less socially secure friend -- someone closer to his own age (a "mate," he used to say) whom he not only desired physically, but could "bring home" -- in Will's case, to his parents, to whom he was struggling to come out. Someone, too, with the maturity and social skills necessary to handle a relationship in which I would have what Will used to call "visiting privileges."
That last task, finding a mate sophisticated enough for a triangle, was one Crawford failed in, wounding everyone pretty badly. Gardner, furthermore, was, like me, very demanding. It was that quality on my part -- and my over-possessiveness (as more people than Will said) -- that did us in; that and Will's stubborn, tunnel-vision perfectionism, in turn very reminiscent of Frank Crawford.
But there was still The Art of Scandal! With uncanny timing, I'd been dumped just as I was at the point in the narrative where Gardner's friend dumped her.
Now, a number of red flags need to be hoisted at this point. Just as the historian cannot be an activist (perpetuating what the chair of Harvard's African-American Studies Department, Henry Louis Gates, calls "propaganda masquerading as scholarship"), the historian cannot either be a novelist. The great Harvard scholar Bernard Bailyn has rightly observed that the historian's task is "analysis and interpretation." History is too important to be written any other way. For it's when our own identity gets fuzzy, a French critic notes, that "we stir up the past. The more uncertain and precarious the present, the more we . . . go begging at memory's door."
But the historian who guards that door, if he or she can be neither activist nor novelist, cannot go to the other extreme and try to be a telephone. It was Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote of "the closeness, amounting almost to identity" a good biographer will feel for his or her subject.
Nor is this a new thing. In Elizabeth Stevenson's biography of Henry Adams -- one of the greatest of America's 19th-century historians -- she is quick to notice that, despite the formidable array of source notes in his life of Albert Gallatin (right-hand man to both Jefferson and Madison), Gallatin's story was "a sorely personal story to the author. . . . Adams buried his own emotions, his extreme hopes . . . his despairs . . . in that other time. Part of this identification was conscious," Stevenson adds, concluding that Adams shared across a century with his subject "a related kind of melancholy." She thought that partiality, furthermore, gave Adams's book "something of its flavor, yet interfered in no way with its truthfulness."
Adams, in fact, was identifying with the dictates of Emerson himself, who argued that "the fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible. . . . We must fasten these [historical] images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall see nothing."
It gave me quite a jolt, therefore, when I read Adams's description of Gallatin:
He was proud and shy. His behavior for may years was controlled by those feelings, which only experience and success at last softened and overcame. . . . Instead of embracing his opportunities, he repelled them . . . [He] refused to owe anything. . . . Not that even in this early stage of his career he ever assumed an exterior that was harsh . . . or manners that were repulsive; but he chose to take the world from the side that least touched his pride, and, after cutting loose so roughly from the ties of home and family, he could not with self-respect return.At once I understood how much it was to ask, how much courage it would take, for Will to reconcile with me. For the description of Gallatin at the end of the 18th century by Adams, who was writing at the end of the 19th century, could very well be my characterization of Will at the approach of the 21st century -- 200 years later. Emerson was right again: "all biography, then, is at last autobiography. Far from narrowing us, this perception opens the gates" -- in my case, to understanding the life and work of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
She knew well enough, after all, that "conflict situations between oneself and others" are, in the words of the great German theologian Martin Buber, "nothing but the effects of conflict situations in one's own soul." And while it is true that more people than even Oscar Wilde surmised seek to run away from the conflict and end up by killing the thing they love, Gardner was a creator, not a manipulator, and no killer. Nor, any more than Wilde, was she ever anybody's victim.
Nor am I, to end by turning history back toward those of us who write it. I hope I am more like Wilde, who, a friend told David Hare (he of The Judas Tree) recently, had such strength of character that he not only did not run away from jail, but had the dignity to say, of even his own very problematic love with Lord Alfred Douglas, that "it doesn't matter if I'm not loved back in the same degree. I'm going to love."
Why? Because like Wilde -- and Gardner, too -- I think that, as Hare said of Wilde, "you only see the true person when you love." It is in more than one way a lesson for a historian.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is a historian of American art and architecture and New England studies. The Art of Scandal has been featured on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and as an editor's choice on the Times' bestseller page. It rose to the top of the Boston bestseller list and is due out in paperback this fall.
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