by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
Felice Picano is one of the legendary movers and shakers of the modern LGBT literary movement. Felice has been writing since the 1970's, while living in New York, and became a founding member (along with Edmund White and Andrew Holleran) of the famous Violet Quill group, as well as a founding member of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Between 1988 and 1990, AIDS claimed the lives of four of these men. He's published over 40 books, including the great gay epic saga, Like People in History, as well as short stories and plays, and has chronicled his extensive, colorful life in several memoirs. His latest memoir Nights at Rizzoli, recalls the latter half of the 1970's in New York City when Felice worked at the prestigious bookstore while exploring the city's exploding, pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, gay lifestyle.
Eric Andrews-Katz: You were one of the original members of The Violet Quill. [NOTE: The seven writers of the Violet Quill group were: Edmund White (b. 1940), Andrew Holleran (b. 1944), Robert Ferro (1941-88), Felice Picano (b. 1944), George Whitmore (1946-89), Michael Grumley (1942-88), and Christopher Cox (1949-90). Source: Wikepedia]. In hindsight, how would you describe the influence these seven men had on GLBT literature?
Felice Picano: Surprisingly large. Especially given that our only real intention in forming the group was to gather others around to read our gay literature to. We didn't know anyone else but the other six who would sit and listen. Very literary pals of Edmund White said that all gay literature was pornography. None of those men were out in the late 70's and it took many years for them to acknowledge being gay. Yes, there were gay writers before us, some good ones, but after us there was a genre called gay literature. I'm not 100 percent sure how that happened.
Andrews-Katz: You've written several memoirs about the people you've met (True Stories), the places you've visited (True Stories, Too), and about the authors you've encountered (Work in Progress - True Stories, Three). What is it about the memoir that attracts you?
Picano: What attracts me about that particular kind of memoir is that it is not primarily about myself, but about others outside myself. I find myself to be boring beyond words. On the other hand, the people I've met, the places I've been to or lived in, and the authors I read and re-read are extraordinary. They make for what editors call 'easy copy.' Some are famous, most not, and readers seem to prefer the latter group.
Andrews-Katz: What made you decide to co-write The New Joy of Gay Sex with Dr. Charles Silverstein?
Picano: He asked me to do it in 1991. And when I asked Edmund if he wanted to do the new edition, he said no. That 1992 edition worked out so well, that when Charles said we ought to update it for the computer/Internet age a decade later, it was easy to do and interesting to write. The vice president of William Morris Agency handled the book, and it was turned down by many gay editors, The book was finally published by a married couple at the venerable HarperCollins (they published Mark Twain et al.). It has been translated into 17 languages since then, including Polish, Taiwanese and Slovenian.
Andrews-Katz: You're working on a mystery about an ancestor of yours titled, 'Rococo.' How would you describe the storyline?
Picano: Not a mystery but the autobiography of a boy from a farm in the hills of Italy many miles from a city, who likes to draw - and what it leads him to: fame, wealth, royal and aristocratic friends, and the creation of a new school of art and sculpture - the Rococo. My ancestor is now considered an Old Master and shown in major museums. What I found most interesting is that he and his two close childhood friends have ambitions and all three manage to fulfill those ambitions beyond their childhood dreams. Yet at what kind of price to themselves and to others? Many books write up to the moment of fulfillment but few step beyond. To me, already living in that beyond, that is the interesting part.
Andrews-Katz: In the early 1970's you worked at the prestigious and (now) famous bookstore, Rizzoli. How would you describe the store and the kind of clientele it catered to?
Picano: It had staircases and balconies, hand-made cabinetry, Venetian chandeliers, fine art on the walls, classical music playing and was often full of beautiful and famous people. I described it to a friend at the time as 'the last act in any Italian Grand Opera.' It was the most elegant shop on a stretch of 5th Avenue that included Tiffany's and Harry Winston's. When people phoned and asked where we were located on 5th, we'd say between the Plaza and the St. Regis hotels. If they asked again, we hung up. New York in the mid 70's was the cultural center of the world and that's who came into Rizzoli: the cream of the cream from rock stars to movie stars to men who ran for President and cultural icons of the 20th Century.
Andrews-Katz: Some of the people you met and worked with at Rizzoli were The Kennedy Women, Bianca Jagger, Greta Garbo, Salvador Dali and many other personalities. Was there anyone that you were intimidated to approach or ask to help?
Picano: No, our floor manager was very clear that we should be able to meet and greet anyone. It was after all a business. To sell you must be able to engage. Above all we learned to develop the kind of 'poise' that allowed me to introduce Rose Kennedy to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, and suggest they go up to the art gallery for coffee, as well as to fend off lewd advances by architect Paul Johnson and legendary artist Salvador Dali.
Andrews-Katz: Throughout your life you have met the eccentric, colorful, unique, famous, infamous, common, and controversial people.
Who was the one that was the kindest to you without any attitude?
Picano: Many were. But the most surprising was fashion creator and arbiter Diana Vreeland who took me to lunch at Le Grenouille, introduced me to her high society friends as 'a talented writer,' and then helped me research an article about Harper's Bazaar for the magazine I worked at, including getting me free photos of the art. She then commended me when the article came out and told me to leave the magazine because I was a 'real writer.' She was known as the original Devil in Prada, and she couldn't have been sweeter or more effective. She even had her people make up a tie for me to wear.
Andrews-Katz: Was the rudest/snobbiest to you without cause?
Picano: Paul Monette. I reviewed his first book Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll with a rave in the New York Times - a review his editor later told me made Monette's career. I didn't know the man but met him at a party in Beverly Hills several years later. He was standing at an unlit fireplace mantel, and when the host introduced me, Monette didn't move but extended a limp hand in my general direction as though it was to be kissed, and simultaneously turned to say something to another person. The host dragged me away and tried to make amends but I left the party.
Andrews-Katz: Became a good friend?
Picano: Again, a surprise, Charles Henri Ford, poet, filmmaker, novelist and all around 20th Century 'bad boy.' A man in his mid-90's when I met him. He somehow decided that I represented the culmination of all of his efforts in being an out gay man. I published the novel that he and Parker Tyler wrote in 1933 titled The Young And Evil, for the first time in the U.S. and did so in a deluxe edition, with a gallery opening and lots of promotion. We hung out together after that and he brought me to his studio, had me meet his sister Ruth the actress (she'd premiered Tennessee Williams plays), and in general was friendly toward me. When I casually told my partner Bob Lowe one day that I was seeing Charles Henri for lunch he was amazed, sputtering 'He's the last of the Surrealists.'
Andrews-Katz: Was the most influential in your life?
Picano: None. Many, many people were the opposite, actively discouraging, jealous, envious, whatever. I paid them little mind. But some were very funny about it. When I met the great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and said I planned to be a writer, he declared 'Worst job in the world. You're surrounded by gonifs (thieves) and no-good-niks.
Andrews-Katz: You have written over 41 novels, memoirs, plays/screenplays, and anthologies. If you had to pick one of your works to represent you in a Time Capsule, what would it be and why?
Picano: Well, it changes every few years. Probably the most pivotal in my career was Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children. It was my most controversial book when it was published, because it was so very honest: children used drugs, children had sex, children were bad, parents were screwed up, but mostly children really lived in their own world and social groups and kind of ignored adults. Every publisher it went to rejected it, some with obvious disgust and this was at a time when I'd had two best sellers! When it was published by a small publisher a shipment made to the UK was confiscated and all copies burned on the docks at Liverpool. For me Ambidextrous was the book where I abandoned the perfect third person voice that Flaubert and James had mastered, and found my own voice and my own style to tell my own story. I couldn't understand why it was so disliked. Because the little boy was a real boy and not an overintellectual femme? Because he rode bikes and ice-skated and had dumb, dirty boy pals he played softball with, and still grew up gay? I'll never figure it out. But Wikipedia.com has an entry on it and says it is now considered a classic. So ....
Felice Picano is the author of more than 40 books, short stories, plays and memoirs including the thrillers The Lure, Eyes, and the epic Like People in History. His memoirs include stories recounting the fascinating life he's led so far including the people he's met (True Stories) and the places he's been (True Stories, Too).
Picano will be reading from his latest memoir at the University Book Store on Friday, September 8 at 7pm, at Little Sister's Books and Emporium in Vancouver, B.C. on Sunday, September 10, at 7pm, and at Auntie's Books in Spokane on Wednesday, September 13 at 7pm.
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