Rituals of Defiance: On Seeking the complete Edmund White
by Leo Racicot
I’d set myself the task of gathering together every book, book review, essay, stage play, print interview, everything gay writer Edmund White had made. An extensive bibliography. Most items, thanks in part to the marvelous collection The Beinecke Library at Yale owns, were easily come by. An archivist relies heavily also on serendipity and word-of-mouth and a Florida man who had collected every, single issue of After Dark Magazine emailed me to “Come on down!” His private store was a thrill to behold. What a day was had down there!
One item though of White-iana remained stubbornly elusive, a near-mythic film Ed appeared in sometime in the 1980s. Gay friends swore they’d watched it and that it was well -worth finding, for the biblio and for sheer pleasure viewing. I was given the title A Lovely Day in the Life of Edmund White. I could not find this movie anywhere. Years went by as every crumb of a clue led to one dead end after another. “This film, Leo, simply does not exist.” The beast became an amour fou, a Holy Grail. Librarians, good ones anyway, can’t give up, never give up when we are hell-bent to find something. One night, I dreamed about The Beinecke Library, a building that is completely windowless. In my dream, it had windows and brilliant light was emanating from them all. I woke up with the thought that I should call Timothy Young, curator there, and make another stab at finding this frustratingly slippery film. I don’t know what I said or what Timothy heard but he suddenly stopped me and said, “Wait a minute. Could this be The Day the Shit Happened ?” “The day the what happened?? There’s such a film ??” He went on to describe it a bit and it sounded like the one I was after. “We have two copies of that. Let’s send you the links.” Eureka! Score another one for Sir Gawain, Library Knight! I had found my Holy Grail.
The movie presents us with what we are told is a typical day in the Paris life of Edmund, sun-up to sundown. In silent-film style, captions move the action forward. There is dialogue throughout, some of it improvised, some of it scripted. After a dedication to Ed’s lover, John Purcell, a quote from Shakespeare and the floating romance of Debussy, setting us up for poetry and poetic musings, we are stopped short by the title The Day the Shit Happened. Here we are paused to have a laugh. The movie cuts to a sleeping Ed who is wakened by an offstage voice calling, “Charlotte! Charlotte!”. Comic is the sight of Ed waking to the morning, wiping the sleepy from his eyes and immediately taking up pad and pen to begin his work for the day when – mon Dieu! – we are surprised to see the delicious head of a young blond honey pop up from under the covers. Ed gives him a big kiss and orders him to bring coffee, mouthing, “I love you so much, darling.”
Fun, tongue-in-cheek highlights follow:
Ed gets on le réseau, the French party line, to ring up possible tricks for the day. He is always and ever interested in finding out, “Are you blond?” “What color is your hair?”
Having no luck, he ventures out for a fitness session with his personal trainer, Douglas, who works Ed to the bone. Not even JLo’s personal trainer works her this hard. Ed looks at Douglas, then into the camera, noting, “A vegetarian who smokes, can you believe it?” We watch Ed shave, shower, then head home to receive a female caller. “Madam is here; I do hope I’ve put away my sex toys!” His live-in blond, William, rolls his eyes smoking furiously a la Bette Davis and says, “Ed hates me. He used to smoke four packs a day.”
A package arrives from Germany and Ed gets all excited. “He said he was going to send me some hash or some bauble.” Scott Joplin plays us into the next scene called:
Ed, fashionably dressed, walks the streets and alleyways of Paris, stops inside a bookstore, makes a purchase, then tells us he is off to have pate with The Countess. Before that, he rushes into a travel agent to book a Paris-to-Boston flight, then a business meet with his editor who barks, “Sign and we’ll have $15,000 to you in the mail by Friday.” Ed also autographs copies of his new book. “Gotta fly, darling; still late for lunch with The Countess.”
Honeysuckle Rose plays over a scene of Ed scurrying to the restaurant where The Countess is already waiting. They order Evian water and The Countess shows him her new perfume. It’s to be called Perfume for the Left Bank Woman or Honeysuckle, she’s not sure which. She asks Ed’s opinion. The Countess looks around at the now-crowded eatery and comments, “As we came to the restaurant, everyone has come to the restaurant.” “When is she going to put out that awful cigarette!”, Ed thinks to himself. Talk turns to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Countess knows him and Ed is curious that Fitzgerald would not talk about his affairs. “Verrry discreet.”. The Countess notices Ed’s package and notes, “It smells bizarrely.” Ed says, “It’s perfume from an admirer in Germany.” “Well, it certainly doesn’t smell like my perfume.”
Back at the apartment, William tells us how “incredibly forgetful Ed is. He forgot tonight’s dinner party. What a space!”
We see Ed rejected by a rent boy who says, “You told me you were about 30.” Ed says, “Anyway, you told me you were a blond. Why don’t you make me a cup of coffee and then we can discuss things?” The kid agrees and Ed slinks in. A caption quote from Shakespeare’s Ariel appears: Where the bee sucks, there I suck, in a cowslip’s bell I lie.
We next see Ed at a Lambda Literary Awards show where he is being presented with a writing prize, this counterbalanced with a montage of scenes of France, statues, fountains, etc. The award presenter states, “This plaque and several envelopes of cash to Edmund White, You. You. You possess a genius for friendship.” Ed jokes that he’s not as deserving as David Leavitt “who’s taken gay sex to the suburbs.” This gets a big laugh.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Ed runs into an old friend in a square. They sit at table and chat but Ed deems the fellow “hopelessly straight. Such a flirt!” The man asks, “How many for dinner?”
“Sex and cocaine,” says Ed.
He drops in on the butcher and chooses un grand gigot, arrives back home only to find William not in. “Where are you, honey bear?” He proceeds to make dinner. “Les haricots verts!”, he sings out. And Tea for Two as he chops veggies.
A trans woman arrives. “I told you never get involved with Claude! Did he beat you? That’s what I want to know.” She begs an invite to the party but Ed says he has eight coming and “I don’t have enough food.” He shows her the mail package and twinkles with delight, “It’s from one of my fans. What do you suppose he sent?!! Is it diamonds?? A Faberge egg?”
“The trans says, “It smells like the farm.”
Ed rips it open like a kid at Christmas.
“Oh, my God! It’s shit! He sent me a piece of shit!”
“How hateful!” squeals the trans.
THE DINNER PARTY
Ed greets his male and female guests. Ed serves. No William in sight who we see is alarmed; he’s forgotten to get dessert at the patisserie for the party. “I’m an even worse space cadet than Ed!” Ed and his guests exchange witty dinner chitchat. William climbs the stairs two-at-a-time with pastries. Ed is just happy to see him. Big hugs!
A handsome male stands up, bows and plays the piano. His music is accompanied by a voiceover of a poem by Rimbaud. Ed is seen in leather bombardier jacket walking the sad streets, a sad look on his face. He appears to be cruising for cock. A caption reads:
Full fathom five thy father lies
And these the pearls
That were his eyes
Thyself art King of Naples
And you a prince
With this strange prize.
Flashback to the party. The pièce de la résistance (pun fully intended) -- Ed and his guests get the idea to smoke the shit. They roll the feces in with weed and light up and toke and laugh and laugh some more, enjoying their devilment and each other’s company.
I am trying to unlock the metaphor for this, if there is one, which symbol Ed and his friends meant their ritual to imply. One of the people who was at the party thinks maybe it had to do with “doing jenkem,” the practice of huffing caca to get high. See it with me, please, as a thumbing of the nose at prejudice, an insouciant flip of the bird to blind hatred. Push my face down into the dirt, I’ll eat it, all of it, ‘til my stomach sprouts flowers. Call me a queer, I’ll stake my claim on the word, own it, embolden it. I AM A QUEER!! Shit on me, I’ll smoke it, spark it up with bravado. Blow the smoke of it in your fucking face inhaling/exhaling a ritual of defiance!!
Leo Racicot is an award-winning essay-memoirist and poet. His poems Vermont and Richard, 1998 are in the Exquisite Pandemic Archive.