Anne-christine d'Adesky has selected this excerpt from The Pox Lover: An Activist's Decade in New York and Paris, the new memoir drawn from the author's 1990s diaries, for TheBody.com.
In this chapter, she writes about Kiki Mason, her close friend and a POZ columnist battling for access to experimental cancer drugs for Kaposi's sarcoma for himself and others. As a part of the launch of the memoir, D'Adesky, other journalists and advocates -- including Linda Villarosa, Mark Schoofs, Mike Burdett, and TheBody.com's JD Davids -- will gather on June 23 for a memorial event for writers and journalists who died of AIDS.
Throughout her memoir, the author carries on an inner dialogue with Sel, a character with a sharp perspective on history and the battles afoot in New York and Paris -- from AIDS to the resurgence of fascism in France, with the National Front party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. This scene takes place in mid-1994, before the approval of effective drugs for Kaposi's sarcoma.
Kiki is a talented columnist with a wicked wit, who fantasizes about writing his gossipy memoir. The colorful life of a high southern sissy who fled to the Big Apple and managed to attend the most fabulous parties, meet the craziest, funniest people, and sleep with all the wrong people and some of the right ones. And who will die tragically, and too young, like so many great rock stars. We've talked about it. He can't write his own memoir, as much as he'd like to. Death has him in its sights. He's going to go, it's clear to him now, and he can't figure out how to make the most of the time ahead; how to stay productive. He's writing his POZ columns and he's organized a group: Lesion Liberation -- a true tart's corps.
You know what I'd write, don't you? he said to me back in New York. What he says to anyone who happens to be near him, to his readers: The goddamn truth. I'm not dying; I'm being murdered. I'm being sold down the river by people within this community who claim to be helping people with AIDS.
So write that, I told him. Do it. Start today. A little a day, it will add up before you know it. You should do it while you want to, while you feel the pull.
But he has a million things to do in the present -- in the life still to be lived -- that compete with documenting his own life, his past, especially since his future is not a given. He's dreaming about his memoir without a plan for the actual writing. Can't I dictate it to you? he whines. I'm lazy. Plus, he has his doubts. Who wants to read about another bitter, dying queen? I'm not famous enough. For now, he's busy doing his columns, or lining up celebrities to interview for Vanity Fair or The New York Times Magazine -- his paid gigs, when he still can get them. He can't travel far now. But he needs the cash and wants the fancy byline too; the brush with star power and the glam life; the parties, even if he feels too ugly and poxed to attend. He faux-complains: They're gonna have to pay me a goddamn lot of money to make me go to LA to talk to that bitch!
So ... we both know his memoir is unlikely. He doesn't have the emotional energy to confront the taunting beasts, doubt and time, an enemy duo always ready to waylay our creative efforts, even when we are in perfect health. With death stalking, his faith is also wavering. A holy trinity of writer's block.
I've been making the rounds of somewhat specialized museums and libraries, in between some reporting. Each offering morsels of Sel's story to me. I spent a good morning at the historical library, whose archives could keep me here for another decade. They're amazing. I began with the simple desire to see a picture of Barbette, a character famed in the Parisian demimonde: a cross-dressing Texan male named Vander Clyde who wore a blond wig and an ostrich feather costume weighing fifty pounds and who made a name for himself -- herself? -- doing a remarkably smooth high-wire trapeze act at the Cirque Medrano, among others.
Barbette reminds me of Kiki, reminds me I owe Kiki a call. Just to hear his bitchy, molasses-slow complaint. Kiki wants more media attention to KS in the prostrate. I've passed him a few names to follow up. Not sure what this can do, but anything that makes Kiki feel some forward action is helpful nowadays.
Barbette's name came up in a big picture book I have about the golden period for Americans in Paris because his act vied with the more famous Josephine Baker (who's identified as a naked cabaret dancer) in terms of artistry, coquetry, and scandal. As Jean Cocteau, who loved Barbette, once teased Baker: He conceals everything, you reveal everything.
Even more revealing is a tidbit about Barbette by the premier French gossip of French nightlife, Maurice Sachs. Sachs was a Jew; he was also a gay man, and later accused of being an informer when in the Nazi camps. He failed to make it out of Europe. He was shot in 1945 during a march by the SS as they retreated from an Allied attack. (Knowing nothing yet of the incident, I automatically presume that Sachs's open homosexuality also played a role in his arrest by the Nazis.) But, during the good years, Sachs made a surprise visit to the circus artist, only to find Barbette reclining backstage naked, de-wigged, his carefully shaved pale face covered in black pomade. Next to him, on a night table, was a book titled L'Onanisme, seul et à deux (Onanism: Alone and Together). Such details make a legend, at least for me, and I was eager to see a picture of the daring Texan drag queen.
I found very little in the few books on reserve about Paris circuses and nothing salacious or enlightening about high-wire masturbation. Nor was there any mention of Barbette in a signed autobiography by the founder of the Cirque Medrano. Was it because Barbette was a drag queen? I eventually found one journalist who wrote that the most impressive circus act of all time was Barbette with his genius of light movement. Elsewhere, this same author, who took pains to identify himself as heterosexual, describes Barbette using the feminine pronoun, and stresses, for a public who will regret never seeing them, Barbette's beautiful legs. Since I haven't found any pictures of Barbette yet, I've had to content myself with my vision of a coy diva with a pale, graceful, muscular body, whose legs and underarms are shaved, who applies black pomade carefully to avoiding staining his wig.
Why the black pomade? Some blackface minstrel holdover from his Texas past?
'Cuz he's a fuckin' racist fool. I smile, hearing Kiki's voice break into my mind. Kiki never minces words; I have to give him credit for that. If he ever wrote his memoir, he would call it the way he saw it. There are many fools in Kiki's life, including nearly everyone in the south. Right now the journalists at The New York Times and Daily News and New York Post are the biggest fools. They're missing an important story, he's told me. Every single man in America wants to know about what could hurt his balls.
Quickly now, I'm jotting down the flights of narrative fancy: perhaps Sel will use a tunnel leading to the Cirque Medrano, wanting to see a performance by the famed Barbette. She'll arrive in Barbette's dressing room, having used the basement entrance to the circus office that connects with the cavernous branches of the Catacombs. An entrance that served contraband traffickers and escaped criminals and Sachs's contemporaries -- the gay Jews of Paris -- who, fleeing for their lives toward the Spanish border and the anonymity of Morocco, met their escorts under the cover of the big tent. Sel brings Barbette a special gift -- the rich mud of the river -- to use as a facial (better than his pomade). And she listens, crouching, hidden, as Barbette and Jean Cocteau and their coterie of bitchy queens and fag hags gossip about the closeted Le Monde theater critic sitting in the front row who isn't fooling anyone with his female escort. They've pegged him as a tranny chaser.
As for me, I too like a man with shapely legs. I try to remember what Kiki's legs looked like before he became the Elephant Man. Now, like Johnny, he prefers to wear a robe over hospital scrubs that are suited for swollen thighs and ginormous cancer balls, as he's taken to calling his condition.
An addendum: not enough has been written about the disappearance of men's legs to the ravages of AIDS, in my opinion. Not enough about the pain felt by gay men who are more attuned to fashion and what's pretty than a lot of women. Such losses matter; they matter hugely. They hurt our vanity and sense of self and these are elements that make us feel human and comfortable in the company of others. No one likes ugliness, not really. Kiki's legs are monstrous and there's no getting around that fact. And that's killing him, as surely as the virus.
It's one of the ironies of the cultural war that Saint Joan, Catholic heroine of the National Front, is also the chosen patron saint of cross-dressing homosexuals here too. They bring flowers to Joan's statue every year and feast in her honor. La Fête de la Sainte-Jeanne. I want to call Kiki. He'd appreciate this. Fools, he'd say with a laugh. Fools! Now, how to use this juicy tidbit in my story? A fascists-queens standoff, fighting over the right to claim their icon. Or maybe they'll all show up at a party in period costume? That would be more fun. No one does royal better than a drag queen.
As I meander the streets of Paris, ducking into an Arab tea shop for a bit of overly sweet mint tea to sugar-shock my system and wake up, I make up a mental party guest list: Alessandra Mussolini? The Le Pens, of course. Maybe the rising wunderkind student leader of the Front's youth wing, who apparently wears leather; he's so modern and cool? Someone in ACT UP spotted him in the Marais, close to a bar with a spanking night. Spying or slumming, we wonder? I'm sure some of the homophobes in the Front are closet cases, just like in the church. Self-hatred, turned outward. Like the Christian Right evangelists who keep getting arrested for the very sins they preach so loudly against. The ones who keep trying to reprogram gay people to go straight, as if. Instead, they end up as tabloid fodder. I supposed it's a personal issue to them, their struggle to stay closeted.
I'm going off on a tangent. The party list -- who should come? Let me think ... if I really wanted to have fun, I could have Papou make an appearance, and his old lesbian friends from cabarets in Pigalle. Oh, and Barbette.
What about me? Where do I fit into my own narrative? Should I write myself in? Make an appearance, be a journalist covering the party? I could bring Johnny and Kiki and Oui. And Aldyn: he could show up as his little punk tartlet alter ego, Lolita.
It's coming to me, this scene. Very Hieronymus Baush.
I'll let this scene auger. If it lasts more than a day or so in my mind. Still, I can see Sel there, donning a special frock for the Saint Joan festival; something especially ugly or, conversely, something beautiful that emphasizes her ugliness. Dolling herself up for a personal encounter with the big man himself. Maybe a ladies first dance request just to throw Le Pen, the guest speaker, completely off balance. He wouldn't dare refuse, with an American journalist nearby taking notes? There I could be, maybe.
She does keep me entertained, this salty muse of mine. Or a little unbalanced. Take your pick.
From The Pox Lover: An Activist's Decade in New York and Paris by Anne-christine d'Adesky. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
Anne-christine d'Adesky is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, activist and documentary filmmaker. She reported on the global AIDS epidemic for New York Native, Out, The Nation_, and_ The Village Voice and received the first Award of Courage from amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. D'Adesky is currently a freelance journalist for PrideLife magazine and other periodicals, as well as for KQED's health blog, The Future of You, and continues to report on AIDS science.