By Kim Clarke
We go around the world like a lot of sorry ghosts, being forever ashamed of a thing we’ve no reason to be ashamed of.– Kurt Gray, from “Better Angel”
Chapter 1 Re-issue
When he was 86 years old, Forman Brown walked into a gay bookstore in Los Angeles and asked a manager if the shop carried Better Angel.
It was 1987 and the novel had just been re-issued after being written 54 years earlier by first-time author Richard Meeker. It was creating a bit of a buzz because of its subject matter: a young man named Kurt Gray heads off to the University of Michigan, where he comes to terms with being gay, graduates, finds success as a musical composer, and discovers the love of his life in the form of one David Perrier. Better Angel was a story of gay life with a happy ending, and its reappearance came at a time when AIDS was front-page news and gay men coming out of the closet faced discrimination and stigma.
In introducing the book to a new generation of readers, the gay author Hubert Kennedy wrote that Better Angel “is possibly the first novel published in America to show male homosexuality in a positive light.” The story was so compelling, Kennedy said, that readers from the ’30s had hoped for more. “Alas, there was no sequel, and over a half-century after the novel’s original publication we are unlikely to discover what became of Richard Meeker.”
The manager handed Brown a copy of the novel. The book was well done, he told Brown, and quite popular. “I think you’ll like it.”
“I’m sure I shall,” Brown replied. “You see, I wrote it.”
Chapter 2 “Pretty Much Me”
Forman Brown came out in two ways in 1987: He announced that Richard Meeker was the pseudonym he had taken as the author of Better Angel and he declared that he was gay – “there’s nothing like coming out of the closet at age 86.” The novel was a thinly veiled account of Brown’s youth, including his time as a U-M undergraduate who wrote for the Michigan Daily, performed with the Michigan Union Opera, and had sex with a man for the first time.
Brown’s protagonist, Kurt Gray, falls in love at Michigan, but is forbidden to share his happiness because his companion is male. Homosexuality in the early 20th century was illegal, viewed as a mental illness and, to many, a religious sin.
“Nothing so rich, so filling, so troubling, so goading, could be evil,” counters Brown in writing of Kurt Gray’s experience. “He knew that he felt it to be beautiful and worthy of praise, but he knew too that he must endure always the martyrdom of silence. No boasting of his love – his first love – no word of it dared he breathe.”
When Better Angel was published, gay novels often portrayed homosexual men as tortured by heavy drinking and drug use, cruising the streets in search of anonymous liaisons. Promiscuity reigned, and suicide was not uncommon by a story’s end. Better Angel was different. Characters were well-adjusted and successful, albeit living in the closet (Brown on Gray: “Always, always, it seemed to him, life demanded secrecy and silence.”)
“[I]t is a first-rate, firsthand account that can stand against any contemporary novel dealing with the maturation of any small-town American boy, gay or straight,” writes Anthony Slide in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century.
While Better Angel has its limitations – its closeted gay characters are confined to careers in the arts, homosexuality is a disease feared by some men – it was welcomed by gay readers for its full-on acceptance of being gay. “… [W]as he, really, incapable of loving a girl? Was he really different, really one of the beings he read about so zealously? He was, of course. It had all been decided and the ground fought over a thousand times.”
The novel takes its title from Shakespeare:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
When the novel was re-issued in the 1950s, under the racier title of Torment, its lead character Kurt Gray was christened “perhaps the healthiest homosexual in print,” by the gay magazine, Mattachine Review.
Wrote Brown: “Kurt had never had a girl … Nor had he wanted to go with a girl like so many of the other fellows he knew.”
“Kurt,” Forman Brown told an interviewer in 1988, “is pretty much me.”
Chapter 3 “Something of an Outsider”
Forman Brown came to U-M in the fall of 1918 from his hometown of Otsego (“Barton” in the novel) in southwestern Michigan, where he was valedictorian of his high school class. He knew he was unlike other young men on campus. Like Better Angel’s Kurt Gray, who led a life of “unusual loneliness, unusual seriousness, and unusual innocence,” Brown was a “spoiled loner” as a child, coddled by his mother and an aunt. He enjoyed paper dolls, theater and acting out stories. He liked to slip on his mother’s clothes, and described himself “a sissy.”
“And sex? I was a complete innocent. I never saw my father naked and he was abnormally shy in such matters, and I only recall one time, when I was bathing, that he came in and warned me about ‘playing with myself,’” Brown wrote in a diary that can be found today at the Bentley Historical Library.
“When did I know I was homosexual? It was a word I never heard, but I knew I was different and I was worried,” he wrote.
As a student, Brown threw himself into the arts scene. He performed with the University Choral Union and composed music and lyrics for the Mimes of the Michigan Union. He wrote poems and essays for Whimsies, a student literary magazine, where he came to know the poet Robert Frost, who had joined the U-M faculty in 1921. Brown was an excellent student who was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
As a U-M student, Better Angel’s Kurt Gray feels “something of an outsider.” He is a quiet, shy young man, committed to writing songs for other students to perform and newspaper articles for others to peruse. “His music reviews for the Daily were written clearly, and showed a sharp appreciation of the right things. But he never mingled much with the crowd that stayed around the editorial offices, so many of whom had less right to than he. He was an interesting fellow, it was agreed in the office, but not very social.”
Of all of Brown’s undergraduate activities, the most lasting was his discovery of puppetry. One evening in 1919, Brown and his roommate Harry Burnett made their way to the Natural Science Building (today’s Edward Henry Kraus Building) to watch a traveling marionette show. Brown was awestruck.
“The company appeared in the amphitheater of the Natural Science Building – as unlikely a theater as could well have been found, for the seats veered up from the stage so sharply that the small proscenium seemed at the bottom of a chasm. The play, however, was charming. It still stands out in my mind as one of the most completely satisfying marionette performances I have ever seen,” he wrote later.
Burnett immediately began to make puppets – the night after the Kraus show he cobbled together what Brown described as “a gangling marionette, with thin legs, a lumpish head stuck full of stiff dun-colored hair” – and before long the two were putting on shows and, with a third student, touring the state as a group known only as The Puppeteers. Burnett made the marionettes and Brown wrote words and music for the performances. Brown was consumed by the work.
“Thereafter I seem to remember a lull in which life somehow managed to proceed about as usual, with classes to attend and papers to write, and the dim but certain glow within that meant, ‘At any rate I’ve done something different from most of these people!’ And we had,” Brown wrote. “For puppetry is, I am convinced, a virulent disease, or perhaps an insinuating and narcotic habit, that will not be denied.”
There were other feelings Brown could not deny.
Chapter 4 “A New and Unholy Joy”
Brown and Burnett were distant cousins, born two days apart, but had never met before sharing a room in the Burnett family home on Monroe Street. They were strangers who developed a relationship that Brown would describe as “attraction, physical release, but not love, not really love.” Still, it was his first sexual experience – in real life and on the pages of Better Angel. It was a “frightening experience, yet one mixed with a new and unholy joy.”
College offers young people countless opportunities to discover and explore, and that includes one’s sexuality. When Better Angel’s Kurt Gray loses his virginity to Derry Grayling while at U-M, the encounter leaves him both thrilled and terrified. All through high school he had fought the feelings that now overcome him with Derry on a spring night in Ann Arbor.
“After it happened, the joy of it turned to fear … It was enormous, his guilt, and its enormity grew upon him through the walk home and through the endless sleepless hours of the night. Unprecedented, this act, and unmentionable. No one, he was sure, had ever been guilty of so heinous a sin.”
(In reality, Forman Brown knew of other gay students while at U-M. He did not record it at the time, but some 70 years after graduating, he wrote, “I was aware of two or three students who I am sure were of our persuasion, and at least one faculty member, but there was certainly [no] acknowledgment on campus, or any awareness that any such condition existed.”)
Kurt’s college readings expose him to new concepts and people – the psychoanalysis of Jung and Freud; Greek authors and their allusions to homosexuality; the German playwright Frank Wedekind and his writings about sex. “It was as if he had been initiated into some secret fraternity, and, at every discovery of some new communicant in ages past, he felt a thrill of pleasure. There was Plato, beyond a doubt. There were Cellini, and Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. There was, he felt most certain, Shelley.”
Kurt’s feelings for Derry intensify but are not reciprocated; the relationship is “a thing physically delightful, nothing more” for Derry. “Rebuffed, he felt all the shame a woman feels when her lover is unyielding; yet the idea that he was in love with Derry never occurred to him. It was so utterly beyond the range of all his experience, real or vicarious. A fellow fell in love with a girl. That was love, and all of love. His situation was, he never doubted, absolutely unique.”
Better Angel proved otherwise.
Chapter 5 “That Nameless Longing”
After Better Angel was issued by Greenberg Press in 1933, dozens of gay men wrote to the publisher with letters addressed to the novel’s author, Richard Meeker. Books about gay men – called, in the most charitable terms, homosexuals or inverts – were hardly mainstream. Better Angel had a tiny mention in Variety magazine as “a careful and not unsuccessful endeavor to depict the mental phases of the invert … Not the lurid word painting, but a delicate and sometimes moving depiction of the class.”
This is what struck a chord with gay men. They wanted to thank Meeker, to share their own stories, to commiserate with him, and to ask for his help in bearing their burden of leading clandestine lives.
“Society, in its stupidity, believes that if it declares long enough and loud enough that homosexuality should not exist, the ‘abnormality’ will eventually vanish from the face of the earth!” wrote a man from Memphis, Tenn. His friends and colleagues in the cotton industry all viewed him as “a regular guy”; they would be shocked to learn he was, at his core, unhappy and lonely.
“I have thought for a number of years that I would like to write a book and give to the world a true picture of the thoughts and experiences of an invert who had education, culture and a genuine depth of character. You have done that for me …”
A young man from Long Island wrote to “Mr. Meeker” because he believed the author would sympathize with his situation. “… I am not sure of what I am. I am 18 years old and at the age in which I can’t be positive. If I had someone to talk to who really knows about this, I would really like to speak with him. And this is my forwardness. Would you please allow me to have a few minutes to talk with you. I am sure that I can be helped by you and I truly need help.”
Another reader, from Burbank, Calif., told Meeker how much he appreciated Better Angel and its encouraging portrayal of what many viewed as a “forbidden subject.” The story of Kurt Gray reminded the man of his own youth, and he admired the sympathetic depiction of an existence he yearned for as an adult. His typed letter conveyed an urgency to share common ground with the author.
“I have known that nameless longing – I have thrilled at the touch of a man’s hand – yet I have strictly conformed in the main in the same way that most men do – have forced myself to be like other men with repugnance crying out in every fibre of my being – am a married man – a highly respected citizen of the community in which I have lived for a number of years – yet I feel that by so strenuously denying my natural, inborn and so little comprehended instincts I have thwarted something in myself that would have made my life much happier – a something which I have always looked upon as thoroughly right and fine, yet which convention insists is vulgar and as hideous as leprosy.”
A letter that no doubt meant the most to Brown was addressed, simply, “Dearest.” It came from Richard “Roddy” Brandon, who Better Angel readers knew as David Perrier.
Chapter 6 “Fellows Like Us”
Better Angel’s Kurt Gray meets David Perrier when he returns to Ann Arbor the summer after graduating and his first lover, Derry Grayling, introduces them. “He’s seen you on the campus, and he’s begged your picture from me,” Derry tells Kurt. “He’s crazy to meet you.”
David confesses to Kurt that he had watched him from afar and, having fallen in love with him, used Derry as a way to connect.
“I’ve wanted to know you so long, so awfully long. I used to meet you on the Diagonal sometimes. Derry seemed the only way – and now you know, and – oh, what’s the difference! It’s such a damnable constraint that’s put on fellows like us, Kurt … They think we are scum, some sort of decadent perverts. And I know, and you know too, Kurt, that nothing so beautiful, so filling, deserves such hate. It’s unreasoning. It’s beastly and hellish.”
The same sentiment came through in Brandon’s 1933 letter to Forman Brown after Better Angel’s release. The novel, he wrote, would accomplish just what the letters to “Richard Meeker” showed: “assurance of the beauty and worthiness” of the kind of love he felt for Brown.
“The thing I hate most is that a book so beautiful and so worthy must be treated with such secrecy – and yet you are helping the day when we need no longer fear or flinch from those who do not want to understand – who have never felt loneliness and longing as I had until I met you, MY BETTER ANGEL.”
Chapter 7 The Yale Puppeteers
Forman Brown and Roddy Brandon first met in the mid-1920s through Harry Burnett and puppetry. After graduating from U-M in 1923, Burnett went on to Yale for graduate work in drama and met Brandon, a fellow grad student who loved marionettes.
Brown, in the meantime, remained in Ann Arbor to work on a master’s degree and teach for the English Department. He then joined the faculty of North Carolina College for Women, where a dean cautioned him to always keep his door open when meeting with a young lady. (“I couldn’t have cared less.”)
By 1927 Brown joined Burnett and Brandon, and the Yale Puppeteers were born. After touring New England, the troupe landed in Los Angeles and set up a small theater. Fans of the puppet shows included Hollywood elite: Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore and Marlene Dietrich. Albert Einstein, then a visiting professor at nearby Cal Tech, also stopped by. When Burnett crafted a marionette of Einstein, the scientist assessed it: “Gut, gut! Aber zu schmächtig, zu schlank!” (“Good, but not fat enough.”)
In 1941, the trio established the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, presenting both marionette shows and revues. Audiences sat in streetcar seats, reversing them to watch puppets at one end and live performances at the other. The shows were quirky, clever and popular. “We seemed to have found the answers to our dreams: Harry created hundreds of marionettes, I wrote all the songs and sketches, and Roddy kept the whole thing running,” Brown later wrote. Over the next 15 years, the threesome presented more than 4,500 shows at the 180-seat venue.
The three puppeteers eventually worked – and lived – together for more than 50 years. They were gay but did not say so publicly until their twilight years (“Gays in Their Nineties” was the tagline for a documentary about their careers).
“Forman and Roddy had one another, but Harry was consumed with his puppets. Lovers appeared then vanished, but there was never a long-term companion. Harry was simply too busy,” wrote Burnett’s nephew, Dan Bessie, in a family memoir.
Chapter 8 Postscript
In his diary, in 1985, Brown wrote: “After so many years of ignoring ‘Better Angel’ I am re-reading it – and I’m both pleased at the quality of the writing and a bit surprised. Could it, I wonder, have any interest today – 50 years after I wrote it. I really think it might, provided it were issued by a reputable publisher in paperback.”
That publisher was Alyson Publications, a Boston publishing house specializing in gay and lesbian books that re-issued Better Angel – still by the pseudonymous “Richard Meeker” – in 1987. It was then that Brown came forward as the author. Both gay and straight publications reviewed the book, calling it “groundbreaking” and “honest” (“he told the world it was okay to be Gay”). Brown – then in his late 80s – received standing ovations at events and appeared at numerous book signings. A Harvard professor of English placed Better Angel on his required reading list of 20th-century novels, alongside Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and others.
“Immediately after Forman stepped out as Richard Meeker, he began to be lionized, mainly in the gay community, where Better Angel is recognized as a classic,” Bessie wrote. “He stepped into this new spotlight with the same steady ease and lack of concern for stuffy opinion that characterized his long, satisfying, and very accomplished life. He had come a distance since the day his parents drove him halfway across Michigan to the Burnetts’ big rambling house on Monroe Street. A far greater journey than the one from Otsego to Ann Arbor.”
Roddy Brandon, Brown’s partner and “the one great love of my life,” died in 1985. Harry Burnett died in 1993.
In January 1995, Brown wrote an epilogue that would appear later that year with a new printing of Better Angel. The book first appeared in a cultural vacuum of sorts – “there were no gay bookshops, no gay press, and no acknowledged gay community.” He questioned, but did not regret, using the pseudonym of Richard Meeker. Doing so, he said, would have killed his career as a composer, adding “my parents, whom I loved, would have been devastated by such a revelation.” Staying in the closet was “the prudent and sensible solution” in 1933.
“But today I turned 94 years old, the door has been flung open, and I find being out of that closet very good indeed. That my book is being so much more widely understood and accepted than it was 60 years ago, I find especially gratifying,” he wrote. “And so it is that, better late than never, I have asked to have my name firmly attached to Better Angel, once and for all.”
Brown died in 1996, two days after 95th birthday.
Sources include: Better Angel, by Forman Brown; Forman G. Brown scrapbook, Forman Brown and Harry Burnett alumni files, and the Dan Bessie Collection, all held by Bentley Historical Library; Rare Birds: An American Family, by Dan Bessie; Fore- and Afterwords, by Hubert Kennedy; Punch’s Progress, by Forman Brown; Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century, by Anthony Slide; The Gay Novel in America, by James Levin.