EDMUND WHITE lived in Rome for most of 1970. It was his first time living abroad—Paris would come much later—and while his “Roman holiday” lasted less than a year, he included various episodes from his Italian stay in a number of his writings, including in memoirs, essays, and novels. Clearly his time in Rome left an impression, but it must be said that his recollections often have a negative edge when touching on Roman life in general and the gay scene in particular.
In this interview, White reminisces about his Italian experience, shares his perspective on what it was like to live in Rome as an openly gay American in 1970, and sheds light on what drew him and a few other writers associated with the Violet Quill to the land of La Dolce Vita (1960). Fully four members of the latter group, which met for the first time in 1980—Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Felice Picano, and White himself—had lived in Italy for some length of time during the previous decade, raising the question: what was Italy’s appeal for literary gay men in the ’70s? Doubtless each young man found his own Rome to write about; what follows are White’s reflections on the Eternal City. (For the record, the other members of the Violet Quill, an informal reading group, were Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, and George Whitmore.)
I had the pleasure to interview Edmund White at his home in New York City.*
— Luca Lanzilotta
Luca Lanzilotta: My first question is about the Violet Quill and what it meant to you. I am asking particularly because I noticed that you did not mention the Violet Quill in your autobiography My Lives.
Edmund White: I might have mentioned the Violet Quill in another autobiographical work I wrote, City Boy. My Lives was organized according to themes, like my blondes, my women, etc., so I didn’t have a title for that. The Violet Quill was important to me and to all the members. It was the beginning of publishing gay fiction, and even though we only met about seven times, we divided up the field, without ever talking about it explicitly. For example, Robert Ferro got the family as he and his partner Michael Grumley were trying to establish themselves as a gay couple in Ferro’s Italian-American family, Andrew Holleran got Fire Island, I got childhood, and so on. In those meetings we sort of figured out how to divide up the turf.
LL: Let’s talk about your time in Italy. What are the first things that come to mind when you reminisce about your six-month stay in Rome in 1970? What were the highlights?
EW: I was drunk most of the time with white wine and I didn’t get as much work done as I’d hoped. However, I met some interesting people. For example, I had a female friend called Diana Artom, who was from an old, important Jewish family. One of her uncles had won the Nobel Prize in physics and another uncle was a politician.
LL: In My Lives you write: “[I] moved to Rome for half a year. I’d intended all along to settle in Paris, but my two brief visits there had so thoroughly intimidated me that I veered off toward Italy.” Can you explain more in detail what made you decide to move to Italy, since it wasn’t even your dream destination?
EW: In the middle of the 1960s, I had gone to Rome, Venice, and Florence on a holiday, and I had had a good time. When I had been in France in the same years for vacation, Paris was very anti-American because of our war in Vietnam and because it was a very leftist country, and there was a hostility to capitalism and to America. So I decided to go to Rome instead. I had gone to school in Michigan with Vittorio Ginzburg, the cousin of Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. He had always said to me that he could have introduced me to his family, and that included Diana Artom, if I had gone to Italy. If you go to a foreign city and you know two or three people, it makes a big difference.
LL: In My Lives you write that you were in Rome during “the last spasms of La Dolce Vita.” Considering that Italy has been in an economic recession for a few decades, how do you remember Italy at that time?
EW: It really was the end of the Dolce Vita. You would go to a nightclub where there would only be ten people and huge spaces, beautiful lighting, lots of champagne. It was better than America!
LL: In Rome you wrote a screenplay that you said “no one liked,” and you mentioned that in 1970 you gave it to film producer Carlo Ponti, who was married to Sophia Loren, and he pushed it aside. What ever happened to that script? Did you ever try to have it read again?
EW: The screenplay must be somewhere in my archives, and no, I never had it read again. Let me tell you the story behind that script. One of the students of my Italian teacher was Farley Granger, an actor who had been the star in the movie Senso. After that, in America, he had become an alcoholic and his career was ruined, but then he had a nice lover who sobered him up and brought him back to Italy, thinking that maybe he could launch his career again. I was excited to meet him because he was a childhood hero of mine—he had been in the Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train—so I thought that I would write the script for him. My movie was about an American man who falls in love with an Italian girl, but they don’t speak to each other very well, because they don’t know each other’s language. They have lots of sex, but not too much conversation. Then the man goes back to America on business, and he dies there. When he dies, there is a postal strike, a “sciopero,” in Italy. When the sciopero is finally finished and the woman is almost over him, she starts receiving letters that he had written to her from America before he died, and they are all very romantic. So she goes to America trying to understand this strange man.
My 100-page script was very detailed and precise, with all the camera movements. Somebody I knew knew Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, so I thought that it would be a package deal, but nothing worked. An American writer, better known than me (I was not known at all at that point), whose name was Leonard Melfi, was living in Rome at the time. He wrote a three-page script for Carlo Ponti called La Mortadella, about an Italian woman who wants to get into America carrying a huge mortadella, and Sophia Loren made it into a movie. Carlo Ponti said to me: why can’t you do something like the great Leonard Melfi? Just write a three-page script! Who wants a 100-page script?!
LL: Do you think that your stay in Rome would have lasted longer had your screenplay been produced?
EW: Yes, if I had had some money! I went to Rome with $7,000, and I spent it all in six months. I would invite twenty people out to dinner, we would eat on Piazza Navona, and I would pay for everyone, because it seemed like everybody I knew was poor! Those were the days when Italian boys would walk through Piazza Navona swinging Maserati keys, but they had no car, only the keys.
LL: In City Boy you mention that you took Italian lessons in New York for a month before moving to Italy. Did you learn enough Italian to get by?
EW: It was pretty good, because one of my best friends in Italy, Diana, didn’t speak very good English. Her mother had spoken English to her when she was a child, but she died when Diana was six years old, so she knew a lot of nursery words, like “don’t dawdle” and things like that, but not grown-up words.
LL: Did your efforts to learn the language have a positive impact on your time in Rome?
EW: Yes, because I would pick boys up—usually they were soldiers, “bersaglieri,” all these cute boys—and I could talk to them!
LL: Your description of gay life in Italy in 1970 is very negative and you report that you were even reduced to cruising women! What was so bad about gay life in Italy compared, say, to New York?
EW: It was very strange. We would all go to the Coliseum, which was open at night in those days. We would go in there and meet people, but usually they would be foreigners. For example, I had a boyfriend whom I met there who was from Romania. There was one movie theater, on the Corso, where you would go and there would be married men sitting with their raincoats. That was the other big sex scene. Unfortunately, there was no sauna. There were two gay bars: one was called the Pipistrello, while the other one was called the St. James and was located near the old walls. That was a bar where you would go wearing a velvet jacket and a tie. You would order one drink and it would cost ten dollars. And then you would just sit there with that one drink all evening, because it was so expensive. What else did people do? I remember once, the night that Italy beat Germany in the World Cup semifinals, my roommate, who was Austrian but spoke perfect Italian, said to me: this is a good time to pick up boys! So we went wandering around and we picked up this boy who had never been with a man before, but he was so excited about Italy’s win that he came with us.
LL: I find it fascinating that you went to Italy more or less at the same time as Ferro and Picano, and yet the image of gay life in Italy that they portray is very different from yours. In Ferro’s semi-autobiographical novel The Family of Max Desir, the main character Max has his first sexual experiences in Italy, and lots of them, before falling in love with a fellow American. And in Picano’s autobiographical novel Men Who Loved Me he falls in love in Rome for the first time. What do you make of this difference in experience?
EW: Maybe they were just better looking than me, especially Ferro, who had long hair and was very glamorous. I had one friend who was a composer. He was beautiful: blond, with blue eyes, and he had enormous success in Italy, because he was what everybody wanted. Even men who were married and thought that they were straight were excited about him, because he was beautiful and very exotic. I was just average looking and older, so I didn’t have so much luck.
LL: When you returned to New York, the city had changed profoundly as a consequence of the Stonewall Riots and gay liberation. In The Farewell Symphony, you write that “where before there had been a few gay boys hanging out on a stoop along Christopher Street, now there were armies of men marching in every direction off Sheridan Square.” Could gay liberation be the reason for your dismissal of gay life in Rome?
EW: Partly, because I think that people in Rome were mostly ashamed of being homosexual and you never met a couple who were together. Men would live with their mothers until they got married. There was a lot of “vergogna” (shame), and not too much activity that was visible. Maybe there were cousins having sex with each other, but you didn’t see it. And then I came back to New York and it was all a big festival!
Americans have a myth about Italians. They think that they are very free, very liberated, and sort of pagan. There are many movies that show Italians being abandoned and sexually free, whereas I think they are not that way. In fact, they are almost the opposite! I remember once I went to a male bordello in Barce-lona and I said to the guy, who are your customers? And he said mainly Italians, because we look like Italians, but they are too neurotic to have sex with each other, so they come here and they meet us.
LL: Indeed in The Farewell Symphony you call Rome “repressed” and “provincial.” Why didn’t you leave sooner?
EW: I don’t know. I kept thinking that there was something I didn’t understand. But it was also kind of fascinating to be there, because it was a different language, a different culture, everything was different. For instance, I would go with my roommate to a restaurant and we would celebrate his birthday. And then we would get the bill and it was correct, they had added everything up, but my roommate, who was very Italian, very assimilated (even though he was from Austria), would say to the restaurant owner: we are your regular customers, we always come here, how can you charge us so much? And then the guy would cut the bill in half. To an American that seemed so crazy! Oh, and here’s another funny story: One time they turned off the electricity in our apartment, because my roommate had not paid the bills. And so I was going to pay, but my roommate said: no, no, we will go there and tell them that our father is sick. And so he made up this whole story about how we lived with our father and he was very sick. And it worked! That’s the way Italy used to be. It’s rationalized now, like the rest of Europe, but you used to tell your story, and everything would come out all right.
LL: In My Lives and in The Farewell Symphony you also write about your first summer in Venice in the early 1970s, when you visited a friend who spent the summer there. You seemed to have a much better time in Venice than in Rome. What did Venice have that Rome did not?
EW: The friend I would go visit, David Kalstone, was my best friend. He knew hundreds of people, like Peggy Guggenheim, and so we had a real social life. It was fun to be in Venice. I also love the city itself, because once you leave San Marco, the tourists are all behind you and it’s really Venetian.
LL: Do you think that you made a mistake moving to Rome in 1970 instead of Venice?
EW: No, because Venice in the winter is very sinister. And even though I complained about Rome being a village, I met a lot of people I liked there, and it is a beautiful city.
LL: Traveling abroad played an important role for most members of the Violet Quill. Was it a common topic of conversation during the Violet Quill gatherings?
EW: We all pretended to be very sophisticated. We were only thirty or forty years old, and we were all quite poor. Like a lot of artists, we made believe that we were really an elite, intellectually and culturally, to make up for the fact that we were so poor. It was sort of understood that we were sophisticated and had traveled at a time when not so many Americans traveled. And we had a myth that Europeans would be more tolerant of homosexuality.
LL: It seems Italy was by far the most popular travel destination—but why?
EW: Maybe they knew a little Italian, and even though I say bad things about Rome, really it was very glamorous. For example, I had a friend who lived in a “palazzo” [apartment building] that was carved out of an ancient Roman anfiteatro. In the Renaissance these people had taken the walls of the amphitheater to build their palace; it was incredible!
Also, one of the nice things about being a foreigner is that sometimes people think that you’re more important than you really are. In your own country you are a “Pinco Pallino,” an average Joe, but when you go to Rome suddenly they think that you are an intellectual or a famous writer. And so you go up the ladder a little bit.
LL: Do you feel like you, Ferro, Picano, and Grumley shared a special camaraderie based upon your ties to Italy and Rome?
EW: There were other ties among us. Ferro, Holleran, and Grumley had gone to the University of Iowa, so that was a real bond. And I had been lovers with George Whitmore and Chris Cox. We all liked each other, but those were the strongest ties.
LL: Over 45 years have passed since your time in Rome. In My Lives you mention that over the years you have traveled to Italy several other times. How have you seen Rome change? Do you still enjoy it?
EW: It’s changed quite a bit, and I do still enjoy it. About six years ago, [my lover] Michael [Carroll] and I swapped apartments with a Roman couple, a man and a woman. They came to New York and we went there for a month. It was in June, and a lot of gay bars had taken over the area near the pyramid where Keats is buried, and they had a gay summer festival. There were hundreds of gay people there and they seemed extremely friendly to us. That was very different!
LL: Clearly your life has been affected by your many years in Paris. Still, Rome was your first experience living abroad, albeit for only a year. Looking back, do you feel like your “Roman holiday” left any mark on your life?
EW: Yes, I do. I think that it’s always good to get outside of your language and to meet people with different customs. And the customs were so much more different in those days than they are now. Now everybody is globalized. It was such a different world! For example, gay men lived with their mothers until they got married, and straight people couldn’t get divorced, so many of my friends who were writers lived with their mistresses like husband and wife, because they had left the old wife behind but couldn’t get married to the new one. All that was interesting—not to mention the beautiful architecture and art that you remembered learning about in school, and then you could visit them in person.
* The full interview can be found in Voices in Italian Americana, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2017).
Luca Lanzilotta is a senior lecturer in Italian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.