Hints of What’s Hidden

Novelist Edward Harris Heth and 1950s bromance in the Welsh Hills of Wisconsin.

From an early age, Edward Harris Heth was on track for literary success. Destined for fame and a larger stage, Heth was a Wisconsin boy who returned to his roots to write, entertain, and live the lifestyle of a country gentleman. As a gay man who lived with his partner of many years before Stonewall, his writings give just hints of same-sex love—though necessarily camouflaged.

While still a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Heth was published as a young writer in the book Wisconsin Writings 1931: An Anthology. The editors sought to publish “future great writers of America” and felt drawing on students from the university scene would uncover some. They chose the University of Wisconsin because it “is one of the most progressive” with a “yeast of radicalism” at work “with resultant original thinking and freshness of point of view.” The editors noted that among the “literary minded undergraduates at Wisconsin,” that “Edward Harris Heth, it should be said in passing, has already been published in The American Mercury.” Dr. S. I. Hayakawa of the Department of English assisted the editors in collecting Wisconsin manuscripts. In an introductory essay, Professor Paul Fulcher notes the college writer often tends to a fault to write in the fashion of the literary gods of day and lists Oscar Wilde as one such god from the past.

Heth’s 1931 contribution was a story titled “A Party for Ginevra.” It was set in the post-World War I expatriate scene in Paris. The narrator, a young man, is taken in hand upon arrival by a friend of another good friend. The first night they are in the city they go to a night club where another man, Steve, “put his arm around me” and his “drunken fingers were toying with my ear.” The narrator notes he “looked angry when I moved away, so I laughed and tried to look friendly.” Among the many persons he meets at the club is Ginevra, 30, from Syracuse who is a plain looking woman who does needlepoint. He also meets Bennie who, though 21 or 22, looked “like a little boy.”

Later in the evening our narrator, after learning they were both from Chicago, says about Bennie, “Then I wanted to put my arms around him because I suddenly understood that he was lonely. Let me put my arms around you, Bennie, I thought, because I know.” A little later in the evening, “Bennie went on, and then he put his face close to mine. It was so close that I could hazily see my reflection in his soft dull blue eyes. His eyelids were thin, delicate, and his lashes were very long, of a rich dark color.”  He invites Bennie to tea the next day—to which he has also previously invited Ginevra.

The dinner “party” centerpiece of the story was supposed to be for Bennie and Ginevra because, after a whirlwind courtship following the tea, they were to be married. It gets late in the evening but Bennie does not show and Ginevra is left at the party, almost a metaphor for her being left at the altar. Finally the narrator takes a cab to Bennie’s room and finds him asleep, looking “like a deserted baby left on an orphanage step.” The narrator, not wanting to wake Bennie, returns to the party. So the young writer from Wisconsin has set his story in a decadent Paris where he describes intimacies between men that would seem out of place in America. Despite the women around, he turns down offers of hetero sex, and the party for a planned marriage is a fizzle. Here are glints of a young homosexual who reveals a little loneliness and seeks/finds male companionship in a guarded way.

After graduating from Wisconsin, Heth used his writing skills in an advertising career in New York. He continued to write fiction with several novels published in the later 1930s. A 1945 novel about his gambling father and Heth’s own upbringing in Milwaukee, Any Number Can Play, was a critical success. It later proved a financial success too. It was made into a 1949 movie starring Clark Gable and Alexis Smith. In the prudish times, the movie poster advertising “MGM’s Virile Romantic Drama” also bore a notice reading, “Not Suitable for Children.”

In a semi-autobiographical 1953 book My Life on Earth, Heth talks of his love for the time he spent in New York as “full breathless New York years.” He describes parties “though they were only that hurried apartment variety, with the host rushing out for a bottle of whiskey and a bag of pretzels.” His remembrances of New York included Bleeker Street in the bohemian (and gay) Greenwich Village. Recalling the city and walking down Madison Avenue after his decision to return to Wisconsin, he recalls a bar: “It was only when the men inside kept looking at me that I knew I had tears in my eyes. But this was a mist of happiness.”

But New York had taken its toll. The diagnosis was nerves, blood pressure, and hypertension. Heth chose not to seek the solace of the Connecticut countryside like many New Yorkers but went instead back to rural Waukesha County where his grandparents had once farmed. After some time in the country, his option was to go back to New York in advertising but only at half salary.

Originally, Heth did think the sojourn away from the city would be temporary. His moroseness was reflected in the line, “I had begun to think I would never find adventure again.”

Then he records, “For a year I had tried to keep neighbors from bothering me. Until, in the second spring, Bud Devere dropped by. He was young and burly, and grinned when I opened the door.”

“Bud Devere, that second spring, persisted in being a friend.” The text of My Life on Earth describes the fictional Bud’s determination. “He came up for evening sessions of talk—uninvited, mostly, which did not bother him, and often unwelcome, which also did not seem to trouble him.” The attractiveness of his personality was that he was not one of the static, rural types. Bud knew “the last corners of the earth, and not only because the Army took him there but because when he was there he took the time to absorb what he saw—a trick he seemed to have appointed himself to teach me. Even at home again, he didn’t have to go far to enjoy the full prickly excitement of travel.”

Among the rural joys of discovery was an incident while out on a drive: “Bud raced the car along a few hundred feet. Then stopped, jumped out, leaped down a bank to a creek and came back with a dripping handful of watercress, like a merman dragging wet seaweed.” The romantic image of a “merman” switches the gender of the usual trope of the sexy mermaid. The episode ends with Bud shoving a “fistful in my mouth. It was cool and damp and spicy and tasted fresh as spring itself.”

This rural bromance continues with an impromptu swim in a nearby lake. After Bud urges the narrator into the water with him, he finds redemption from the old fear that had gripped him.

“And once we were splashing in the water the frightening lapse of life filled in—you could feel the heart start to beat again. The cold water, too, made the nerves stop throbbing. Afterwards we stretched out on the lake’s gravelly edge.” The lyrical moment continues: “Bud was stretched out flat on his back, his arms flung apart. I knew he was thinking the same thing, feeling the same way.”

That narrator’s solace was significant for “you knew up ahead was all you ever wanted or needed—home, safety, comfort, someone who loved you more than anything else in the world. All your life you keep looking for this road again.”

Over the years, the narrator’s single status drew comments. The contractor who built his house asked, “Why did I need a kitchen the size of an old farmhouse kitchen, with a fireplace in it? Good humouredly, but with an admixture of wonder, he kept asking what a wife (I didn’t have one, I reminded him. ‘Ought to,’ he answered) would say to a kitchen where you had to walk a mile each day, traveling from the cupboards to the stove and back again.” Other neighbors “said I must be going to get married or why’d I have a sink and stove and so many cupboards and everything put it.”

The neighbors actually had another example of this lifestyle, and one also with culinary expectations. Quite nearby in the Welsh Hills was Ten Chimneys, the rural retreat of theater greats Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Alfred, who was also from Wisconsin, had polished his culinary skills at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. In fact, Heth, in his later published 1956 cookbook The Wonderful World of Cooking, admits to trading recipes with his neighbor. Ten Chimneys had many theater visitors including gay playwright Noel Coward. And some have never been too sure about Alfred himself.

My Life on Earth is most often referred to as semi-autobiographical about Heth. And while he did build a house in the Welsh Hills, he lived in it with his male partner, a well-known ceramist named William Chancey. Since this was the 1950s, a time of witch-hunts against radicals and gays, he could not write openly of a domesticated gay couple in the country. In the last part of the book he brings in a late appearing fiancee for the narrator to marry. Shades of the early story revisited.

One wonders whether Heth, as a literary person, was giving clues in applying the name Bud Devere to the country friend. Certainly Heth knew Melville, as he mentions Captain Ahab of Moby Dick. Was he using Melville’s Billy Budd character from another story as the naming source for his own supposedly “fictional” character? The bachelor Captain Vere who felt strongly attached to the young sailor condemns Melville’s Budd to death. Are the two literary relationships linked? Especially as sailor Budd’s first name was Billy, the diminutive form of the William of Heth’s own partner Bill.

In his later years Heth, though still doing literary work, was known more for his folksy country cooking. Naturalist Euell Gibbons wrote an introduction for the second edition of the cookbook. Ed had a show on Wisconsin Public Radio telling tales of the Wisconsin countryside. The home known as The House on the Hill burned down while Ed and Bill were out of town. Though the house was rebuilt, after his partner committed suicide, it was sold. Heth moved into an apartment in Milwaukee and died April 26, 1963. In a period when his own gay life could not be openly chronicled, Edward Harris Heth provided glimpses of how gay men searched for love and intimacy and guardedly expressed that search in his writings.