There is no getting rid of him. He’s the enigma who came to stay.
– Louis Menand, Mystery Man, The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2005.
Enigma my aunt Sally! I am no enigma, I am a man. And since Mr. Menand conveniently forgot to mention a key fact in his little piffle, I must tell you myself: I am still alive.
Of course, I’m not quite as active as I was in the old days: you try donning your top hat and starched collar when you’re nearly 100. These days, my monocle is bifocal and instead of examining butterflies up close, I squint intently at my own dark, brown liver spots.
It wasn’t always so. Back in the old days, I was quite the playboy! In the ’30s, high on all that early New Yorker acclaim (what the limey dame editor of the magazine in its bloated late life would’ve termed “buzz”), I was everywhere, celebrating the glorious literary life with Joey Mitchell, Bunny Wilson, Dotty Parker, and James “Jiminy Cricket” Thurber.
Oh, the gay times we had! And by ‘gay,’ I mean it in the old sense of the word: we drank gin distilled in our bathtubs, danced with negro chorus girls, and on occasion, performed oral sex on each other. (We called it ‘rhinebecking,’ after the quaint little town where Bunny rented a cottage during the summer of ’36.)
The forties were slightly less fun, what with magazine getting serious and conceited. I think I broke from The New Yorker once and for all when I had wanted to tag along with Johnny Hersey for his trip to Hiroshima (since I’d heard there were women in Japan especially trained in the art of pleasing men), but that prick Harold Ross said I’d just distract him. (We called him Hersey ‘Johnny 40,000-words’ on account of the fact that that was the minimum he could write on any topic. You should’ve seen the cards he gave out to the gals in the typing pool on Saint Valentine’s Day!) I read the resulting article quite closely and was dismayed that there was not a single reference to the ancient art of the Geisha. Truly, The New Yorker I’d known and loved had died forever along with those hundreds of thousands of Japanese chinamen. It was no longer my home.
I drifted about for a bit, finding that invitations to swell parties were no longer forthcoming for an unemployed fop of a certain age. In the late ’40s, I managed to hitch a ride across the country with a young lad named Neal Cassidy, and a stout former football player from Columbia College with the improbably delicate French Canadian name Jean Louis. Every rest stop, I’d call “shotgun,” and Jean Louis (whom Neal affectionally called ‘Jack’) would sit in the back, furiously scribbling on scraps of paper and, every so often, vomiting on the road.
I remember this time as also very gay. And by ‘gay’ I mean quite pleasurable: we drank copious amounts of cheap spirits out of the bottle, smoked sweet hand-rolled cigarettes that made my head swim, and on occasion, greco-roman wrestled.
I spent the fifties in Hollywood, mostly doing screen tests and trying to complete a screenplay for a picture about a planet inhabited by highly-functioning apes who enslave humans. Looking back, I can understand why the film was never made: who on earth would spend their hard earned seventy-five cents (ninety-five if you threw in a large tub of popped corn, a bottle of Coca-Cola, and some chocolate bonbons for your lady) on a picture about talking monkeys? What can I say? One of 1951’s biggest films had starred Ronnie Reagan and an adorable chimpanzee: I was sure audiences would take to it like a fishes to water. Absurd, I know, but I spent most of the decade crafting this yarn about a planet of apes and, alas, it came to nothing at all.
I had some close calls in the sixties, which, as you may know, was a time of great upheaval and confusion. I was nearly garroted by drug mad hippies who went on a killing spree in the Hollywood Hills in 1969. Earlier that night, I had been at a wonderful gathering at Trader Vic’s where I met a Polish fellow named Frykowski who invited me up to his friend and fellow Pollack Roman Polanski’s place on Cielo Drive for some grass and skinny dipping.
At the time this appealing invitation was proffered, I was trying to coax Capucine and a go-go girl I’d met on Sunset into a threesome using a Scorpion Bowl slightly smaller than the Sargasso Sea and I transposed the numbers in Polanski’s address. Good thing I did, or I might’ve been mutilated like all those poor, beautiful people. I also might not have bedded Capucine and the dancer—I think her name was Aurora—on the big circular bed in Omar Sharif’s guest house.
The seventies are a blur. I returned to New York, hoping to find work at the old magazine. I was briefly employed as an amanuensis for a blind Indian writer named Ved. He was quite snappish with me, complaining of my “lock-jaw accent,” and I was eventually fired when he caught me stealing sips from his coffee one morning. How was I to know a blind man could tell how much was in a cup just by its weight? And besides: he never once offered me coffee and I was exhausted.
At the time, I was living in a tiny cold water flat in the West 80s, spending many nights at a discotheque on West 54th Street where I was known as ‘The Thin White Duke.’ It’s true that I was quite thin at the time, and my complexion has always been of the ivory variety, but looking back, I feel as though the appellation was some sort of veiled insult.
No bother! I was the toast of a new generation of young people, enjoying gay times the likes of which I hadn’t had since the old days in Rhinebeck. And by ‘gay,’ I mean we were snorting cocaine, breaking poppers under our noses and having homosexual sex. Oh, was it ever gay!
I spent much of the ’80’s locked in a legal dispute with my landlord, a parsimonious Hebrew fellow who wanted to raise my rent from a just affordable $60-a-month to an astronomical $95.
I eventually won in open court, acting as my own attorney, but when I looked up from all the legal briefs, motions, and counter-motions, it was already the turn of the century and I hadn’t had fun in decades. Also, I had gotten old.
I looked around for my old friends, but they were all dead. Looking in the mirror, I see a man hovering somewhere near 100. And what do I have to show for it? Sure, I’ve had some gay times—okay, a lot or gay times—but I have no family, no legacy.
The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that once every year, my face appears on the cover of The New Yorker in whatever convoluted, bizarre form the magazine’s editors see fit. (There were two years during the ill-fated tenure of that aforementioned British buzz-monger when I was absent: I presume there was some very good reason that a fat sitcom actress was on the cover instead.)
When I am on the cover, heads turn once again, children point at me during my daily constitutional in Central Park. But that jolt of attention is fleeting: next week, the cover will be a watercolor of an ice skating zebra again, and Eustace Tilley will be consigned to the trash heap until next year.
But I am not sad. I was raised to have a stiff upper lip, and I know that I’ve had a wonderful turn in this mad, mad world. I’ve met some of the century’s most celebrated wits, men and women of letters, actors, and go-go dancers. I’ve vomited in the potted plants of more mansions than most people have ever been in. I’ve made love to hundreds of beautiful women, knocked them up and promised to marry them before paying for discreet medical procedures and never ringing them again. I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all. In short: nothing was too gay for me.
So, shed not a single tear for Eustace Tilley. While my heart still beats and my one good eye can still focus, I search the world for butterflies and keep my head proudly aloft. One day, I will shed this mortal coil, and when that day arrives, I even devised my own epitaph, which I have written into my will. A simple marble headstone will be etched with a single butterfly and four simple words separated by a tasteful colon: