Not So Good a Gay Man: Frank M Robinson's Astounding journey from sci-fi to Playboy to Harvey Milk
by Drew Rowsome-
Frank M Robinson's Not So Good a Gay Man begins
This is going to be a very long letter. I wanted to write it so you would know what it was really like to be a gay man before and after Stonewall and today . . .
Framing Not So Good a Gay Man as a personal letter instead of a memoir is a clever idea, it gives Robinson a framework and a lot of leeway. Like many letters, it is charming, maddening, delightful, frustrating and irresistible as it bounces from informative to enigmatic and back again. The main theme is the damage that the closet does to a gay man and to those around him, so the coy nature of Robinson's revelations are in character. Spending most of his life in the closet has irreparably damaged his ability to write frankly or even joyfully about sex. And by inference, his life suffered from the same flaw.
The main narrative of Not So Good a Gay Man details Robinson's remarkable writing career. He began with ambitions to write science fiction for the pulps, a goal he achieved as well as an editing job. From there he segued into soft core and stroke books of the straight variety, before writing and editing Playboy's Advisor column. He also wrote several thrillers of which The Glass Inferno - Hollywood-ized as The Towering Inferno - is the most famous. His collection of vintage pulps covers were turned into bestselling coffee table books and he wrote screenplays for Francis Ford Coppola that were never produced.
And he was a speech writer for Harvey Milk.
It is all fascinating, if a little superficially and self-effacingly told, but when the cover promises a memoir by "and a gay rights activist" there is, much like the teasingly salacious cover art of the pulps, an assumption that there will be some titillating if not flat-out sexual content. Horrifyingly, the constraints of the closet, which Robinson writes about quite eloquently and with contagious anguish, have lingered and Robinson is prudishly circumspect.
The dichotomy of a man who wrote for Playboy and produced Chicago's first gay publication being stuck firmly in the closet is not lost on Robinson and though he bemoans the lost time and opportunities, he can't quite grasp or explain it. Or bring himself to be in any way explicit. Fortunately the inferences and asides are meaty enough to keep the pages turning.
Robinson fell in with a pimp who ran Chicago's largest and most prestigious hustler ring. Though the timeline is not clear, there are other possible sexual encounters and two detailed disasters, Robinson seems to have had a considerable number of hustlers between the sheets, and even briefly describes the loss of his virginity in what seems to be his late twenties, the timeline is, either deliberately or coyly, unclear. And the loss of his virginity was not even at his initiation. The madam and his chauffeur decided it was high time, delivered a gift rent boy, and then stayed to supervise, using flashlights to illuminate the proceedings.
Oddly Robinson doesn't express how it made him feel or affected his mysterious sex life.
His celebrity encounters - the other staple of bestselling biographies - are similarly either blasé or obscure. A single sentence on meeting Bob Dylan is followed by a half page history of the fate of a hustler he encountered. It is all somewhat detached which can be off-putting, except when it dovetails into perfection liked this tossed-off bon mot about his first visit to the Playboy Mansion:
I helped myself to some of the finger food, and Shea and I played a game of identifying the various celebrities who were in attendance. At one point I spotted a youngish man, probably in this thirties, wearing a few thousand dollars' worth of Italian suit. Handsome for his age, maybe a little too handsome. With experience with Herb and his tribe I considered myself something of an expert on rent boys. I knew what he was immediately.
"Who let the hustler in?" I asked Shea.
She looked at me, surprised,
"Jesus, Frank, that's Rudolf Nureyev."
Everything changes in the latter third of Not So Good a Gay Man following an intriguing but suspect analysis of the rise and fall of the hippy movement. Gay liberation discovers Robinson and he is pressed into service. And suddenly his writing becomes more intense, personal and immediate. Emotions and passions boil to the surface and the chapters on Harvey Milk, AIDS, and the Milk movie are powerful in the same way that the rest of the book has not been.
And then the afterword by Bob Angell, the "Bob" of the first sentence, explains: Robinson died before the manuscript was completed. The immediacy, the feel of a personal letter, is also the feel of a first, possibly second draft. In Not So Good a Gay Man, Robinson details his writing process. He was a journalist and a wrote for the pulps. When he was writing a book he would sketch it out and then fill in the blanks, it was his work. Not So Good a Gay Man reads like a sketch, like it needed another edit or two.
Robinson is a very smooth writer and even despairs about a bad copy-edit of one of his books, his reaction was so severe that he refuses to acknowledge it as his part of his oeuvre. So it is highly unlikely that he would have accepted the repetition - there are three instances where descriptions appear to have been cut and pasted, perhaps to be altered in the next rewrite - or bizarre gaps (the first section goes into detail about his Dickensian childhood and his fraught relationship with his mother, three quarters of the way through the book he lets it slip that his mother has died several years ago).
While that polished product would have been an even more enjoyable read, we should be grateful for what we do have. Even at its most frustratingly opaque, I was compelled to read on. As Robinson makes clear, most of his generation died and their stories will never be told. I for one am very grateful to have at least one of those stories, or fragments of a story, accessible, even if incomplete. It is like reading a letter from the guncle that I always dreamed of having, one who wants us to learn from his mistakes, and to resist attempts to turn back the clock to a poisonous time. After all he was a science fiction writer and it is all about the future.