Sunday, October 25, 2009

Out Biographer William J. Mann

This interview I conducted with William J. Mann [left] was originally assigned by The [now defunct] New York Blade and was to have appeared in their October 2008 issue. It was pushed out by "breaking news" and the like, but I decided Mann has interesting things to say so I'm running it here. His new book on Liz Taylor will be in bookstores any minute. It promises to be a great read!


Biographer William Schoell interviews biographer William Mann about writing about gay subjects and the importance of telling the truth.

William J. Mann is the out author of several gay-themed novels and biographies of famous queer celebrities, including Wisecracker (about gay silent star William Haines), Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger; and Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood. His controversial book Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn looked frankly at the complex sexuality of the actress and peeled away the layers of exaggeration and fabrication over the legendary Hepburn-Tracy “romance.” The New York Times chose Kate as one of the 100 notable books of 2006. Mann’s next book, out in fall 2009, will be about Elizabeth Taylor.

Blade: When you were writing Wisecracker and Behind the Screen, not to mention the Hepburn book, how difficult was it to get old-timers, especially gay ones, to open up about homosexual matters?

Mann: I had been told that most of that era’s survivors would be reluctant to talk about gay issues, and in the beginning there was reluctance. But it was about getting to know them and gaining their trust. When I look back on the experience it was the most wonderful part of doing these books. These people understood that their stories mattered, and that they had been an important part of history.

Blade: Did you find that some people you interviewed tried to cover up someone’s homosexuality even if the person, say Schlesinger, had been more or less out of the closet?

Mann: Not really. We’re finally in a time when sexuality is considered part of the entirety of human experience. With John Schlesinger it was easy because as [actor] Michael York put it, John and his partner [photographer] Michael Childers were the poster children for Out Gay People in Hollywood.

Blade: Interviewing people for your various books, do you still find that many people think of homosexuality in a pre-Stonewall way, like some “dirty little secret?”

Mann: Certainly there are people who still hold that view but they are increasingly becoming the minority. There are definitely these people who haven’t moved with the times, however. One gentleman told me that he wouldn’t discuss sexuality with me. Then in the next issue of Vanity Fair he’s talking all about the sex lives of famous heterosexuals. Obviously, the sexuality he didn’t want to discuss was gay

Blade: Your books are scrupulously researched and well-documented. How do you feel about books in which people are revealed to be gay or bisexual without any sources, interviews or substantiation? Do you think this ultimately hurts all biographers of closeted gay subjects?

Mann: In the seventies, a lot of books said this person or that person was gay but there were no sources or footnotes. I believe this caused a back lash. But now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Anyway, it’s really about seeing your subjects in context.

Blade: Do you find, especially with Hepburn, that even some of her gay and lesbian fans argue that she’s totally straight or that you were wrong to “out” her? If so, what’s up with that?

Mann: Hepburn’s legend was so strong, so heavily imprinted on our culture, some people feel that the way she laid it down shouldn’t even be challenged – if she didn’t want to talk about it, why should we? More than just an actress, she was a symbol of the American character. But it does her a disservice to cover up the truth. I was very scrupulous in not using labels which might have given the wrong impression.

Blade: During Gay Pride week Gay City News [New York] ran a piece on Hepburn’s niece in which she asserted that Kate and Tracy were “rampantly heterosexual,” that anyone who suggested otherwise was wrong, and left it at that. Were you flabbergasted?

Mann: I was surprised and yet I wasn’t. There are people who were close to Hepburn for whom the legend has personal value, who have vested interests in maintaining the Hepburn image. How is someone ‘rampantly heterosexual’ anyway? How could Katharine Houghton [Hepburn’s niece] really know about the sexuality of Hepburn or Tracy? Sometimes the people who are closest to us know us the least. There probably wasn’t space left in the article to present another point of view.

Blade: Do you agree that homosexuals who are publicly homophobic should be outed, but that others have to make that journey themselves? How do you feel about Perez Hilton outing various celebrities?

Mann: I’m a journalist and I believe in telling the truth. Every situation is individual and needs to be weighed on its own merit. There are times it’s absolutely relevant to talk about it. It’s an easier call to make if they’re hypocritical and hurt the community. Used respectfully, the truth is never inappropriate.

Blade: Your next book is on Elizabeth Taylor. What can you tell us about it? Some people were shocked when Richard Burton once told an interviewer that he’d had homosexual relations. I suppose you’ll delve into that.

Mann: The more I research Burton, the more I admire him. Although Burton was not gay, he was completely free in his sexuality. He may have once fooled around with a mentor, maybe Laurence Olivier; he had no shame about it. This is my first biography on a heterosexual subject, but there are quite a lot of gay men in Liz Taylor’s story, a lot of gay Hollywood.

Blade: With celebrities and icons being so influential these days, how harmful is it that the truth about people’s sexuality is not taught in schools and is kept from the public?

Mann: A person’s sexuality should never be so central that it obliterates everything else, but it’s very important to tell the full story of a person’s life. For instance, students who were studying Walt Whitman understood what they were reading more fully when they knew about all the facets of his life.

William Schoell is the author of biographies of The Rat Pack, Dean Martin, Joan Crawford, Giuseppe Verdi, Robert Redford, Edgar Allan Poe and many others.


Brad said...

Love his stuff, great interview!


Bill Samuels said...

Thanks, Brad!

I enjoyed your hot blog and the book sounds like a real sexy read!
Good luck with it!