Denny Fouts – From Escort and Literary Muse to Gay Idol
On the 16th of December 1948, Louis Denham Fouts died in Rome of a heart attack at the young age of 35 after years of excess – drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and a wild and promiscuous lifestyle. In the 1930s and ‘40s, he became notorious as America’s luxury gigolo, socialite and muse to literary greats such as Capote, Vidal, Isherwood, Lambert, Brecht, Huxley, T. Williams and the painter Michael Wishart. He was also linked to numerous actors (Jean Marais), international millionaires and even royalty (Paul, the future king of Greece). To highlight the fascination which his seductive character, Truman Capote overstressed that, “had Denham Fouts yielded to Hitler’s advances, there would have been no World War Two.”
In an excerpt from Capote: A Biography (2005), Gerald Clarke wrote that, “Unlike many in his profession, Denny chose his career. When he was growing up, Jacksonville still considered itself part of the reconstructed South. His family thought of itself as part of the Southern aristocracy; it was upright, conservative and intolerant of all those who did not accept its ossified codes (…) One of those people whose only ambition was to attract other people, Denny was superb at his job, affording it no more thought or effort than a flower gives to enticing the bees that buzz before its fragrant blossoms, or than a tropical fish gives to those who admire its peacock fins from other sides of the aquarium glass: he was a male whore from Jacksonville, Florida. (…) His extraordinary good looks brought stares wherever he went . . . thin as a hieroglyph, he had dark hair, light brown eyes and a cleft chin and ‘was about the most beautiful boy anybody had ever seen,’ said Jimmy Daniels, who sang at a Harlem nightclub Denny frequented.” John B. L. Goodwin said that, “He invented himself. If people didn’t know his background he would make it up.”
Bits of his life can be recovered from biographies, novels, stories and hearsay with lots of pieces of the puzzle still missing. So, his legend goes that Nazi loving Lord Tredegar took him to China, where he discovered opium; he was pictured in Time Magazine with an aristocratic lover hunting lions in Africa; in 1938, Fouts notoriously shocked the Bowles by “shooting flaming arrows from his hotel window onto the busy Champs Élysées below”, having spent some time in Tibet, learning archery. (Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles, 1999). He was known as a volatile drunk, a moody eccentric, a cocaine and sex addict, who even got arrested in Portugal for practising his favourite vice – sex in the outdoors; he claimed that he liked such forceful sex that he actually popped blood vessels while in the act. His dangerous side was offset by his charm and he lived off his wealthy lovers, both men and women, receiving gifts such as a Picasso painting and a Dali decorated suitcase. (A very well-informed story of his life can be read in Richard Wall’s Folio Weekly article).
The way he picked his clients was something of a legend; after becoming besotted with Harold Halma’s photograph of Truman Capote on the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Fouts is meant to have sent a blank check to the writer with one word only: “Come”. Capote, of course, obliged. He famously considered him the “Best-Kept Boy in the World” in his book Answered Prayers, a seedy tale of the various social classes mixing, inspired by Fouts stories of his rich female lovers and their husbands, especially the first chapter Unspoiled Monsters. The life of Fouts provided a rich creative source for his illustrious suitors. American writer Gore Vidal built A Thirsty Evil on Fouts, a subtle yet shocking series about social behaviours and intricacies of gay subculture at the time. A further connection was made with British novelist Christopher Isherwood. (see Michael Dirda, Bound To Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books). Denny moved in with him in the summer of 1941 to unwind from his hard lifestyle and lead a life of meditation. The character Paul in Down There on a Visit is written about Fouts. The English painter Michael Wishart was introduced to Fouts, “an opium addict (described by Cocteau, no less, “as a bad influence”) who in turn introduced a besotted Wishart to the habit. Wishart memorably described Fouts in his memoirs, High Diver (1977), as looking like “the best-looking boy at a West Coast college. He wore nothing but cream-coloured flannel trousers and had the torso of an athlete. Along his beautiful shoulders and golden forearms ran snow-white mice with startled pink eyes, which he stroked gently with the backs of his hands.” (Philip Hoare, ‘Obituary : Michael Wishart’, The Independent, 2 July 1996).
The male prostitute has since become a recurrent literary and cinematic stereotype a sexually irresistible, but tragic figure, perhaps due to childhood abuse (Denny is said to have been beaten by his father when he discovered his gayness), an unattainable object of love or desire, or an idealized misunderstood rebel living outside the law and free of bourgeois norms. The image of the moral and sexual outlaw in Nietzsche’s theories has been dwelled upon in the work of Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and John Rechy. Whilst Capote twisted the truth about Fouts’ life, he was clearly infatuated with the man, seeing him as an impossible love object causing hurt and frustration in the long run; “I told Denny I would meet him in Rome, for how could I say I never meant to see him again, because he scared me? It wasn’t the drugs and chaos, but the funereal halo of waste and failure that hovered above him: the shadow of such failure seemed somehow to threaten my own impending triumph. So I went to Italy, but to Venice, not Rome, and it wasn’t until early winter, when I was alone one night in Harry’s Bar, that I learned that Denny had died in Rome a few days after I was supposed to have joined him.” (Answered Prayers). In his defence, Nick Harvill claims that Fouts was beyond being a hopeless prostitute; he had long-time lovers who adored him; he represented in fact the male version of the timeless courtesan, “one of the greatest enigmas of the 20th Century.” In Eminent Outlaws, Christopher Bram claimed that all the literature inspired by Denny Fouts helped young gays feel accepted and gay culture, more visible.” Denham’s upcoming biography The Best-Kept Boy in the World: The Life and Loves of Denny Fouts, by Arthur Vanderbilt promises to shed more light on his intriguing, allusive persona.