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The Godfather

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Richard Burnett
I met literary legend Felice Picano at a Montreal brunch hosted some 15 years ago by my friend Louis Godbout. That day I interviewed Felice for the first time and we became fast friends. I interviewed him for my annual Felice Picano column in my syndicated column Three Dollar Bill for a decade, a tradition I am continuing here in my Fugues column.
 
It never matters if Felice has product to sell – the world-class name-dropper and memoirist always is a great interview and has met just about everybody. Rudolf Nureyev once grabbed his bum, Felice had lunch in Fire Island one afternoon with Elizabeth Taylor, his cock was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, and when he outed the late Anthony Perkins years after their affair, critics screamed, “Picano is a name-dropping slut!”
 
In other words, I adore Felice, the trailblazing writer whom I call the Godfather of Gay Lit.
 
“I really did know everybody, but it was all happenstance,” says Felice, currently promoting his latest memoirs, the highly entertaining Nights at Rizzoli (OR Books) about the famed original New York City Rizzoli bookshop located at 712 Fifth Avenue.
 
That bookstore was opened in 1964 by Italian media mogul Angelo Rizzoli to present Italian books and culture to New Yorkers who flocked to the store when Felice worked there as a young man: John Lennon, Bianca Jagger (while “Mick would perch on those back stairs, perusing art books as he waited for her”), Elton John, Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck. They all loved browsing at Rizzoli’s, not to mention Felice’s private customers Dali, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy.
 
“Everybody came to that bookstore because it was like being in a museum,” Felice says. “There was art everywhere, classical music was playing, it even had hanging chandeliers from Venice! The neighbourhood was no slouch either – Tiffany’s was across the street and Harry Winston Jewelers was next door. The bookstore was an artistic paradise.”
 
While independent and LGBT bookstores continue to close across North America, Picano says they are thriving in West Hollywood where he currently lives. However, during a November 2014 book tour of the American Northeast, Felice says, “I did many readings in libraries, senior centres, art galleries and a church. Books have diffused into our culture in way they weren’t 25 years ago when we only had readings in bookstores. It’s a good thing.”
 
Picano also writes in Nights at Rizzoli that he attended both the famed Monterey and Woodstock music festivals. “I had been to the Newport jazz festival but it was all brand new, nobody there knew what the hell a music festival was supposed to be. Woodstock, on the other hand, was very disorganized. I hitchhiked there! I used to live in an apartment in [Greenwich] Village, and a friend and I had no money, so we took the subway to the very last stop in the Bronx next to the Mosholu Parkway which connected to a road that went directly north. We got off – and we were very cute then, like 20- or 22-years-old and dressed like hippies  – and a truck stopped for us.”
 
Adds Felice, “I had heard there was a big gay scene at Woodstock, but I was hanging out with straight people and didn’t see any of it.”
 
Like most gay men, Felice enjoys his divas.
 
“I don’t know if it’s so much divas as we love people who stand out,” Felice explains. “Many people we call divas are stand-outs. Bette Midler will admit she was just a little girl from Hawaii, but when she came to New York and met two or three gay men, they sort of made her who she is today. They gave her the freedom to be her. Here was this little girl named Bette but deep inside her was the Divine Miss M. And I think gay men recognize that.”
 
Picano actually hung out with Midler one night after getting a midnight phone call from an old high school buddy, composer and lyricist Jerry Blatt, Midler’s long-time collaborator who would later succumb to AIDS-related lymphoma in 1989 at the age of 47.
 
They met at Reno Sweeney’s, the famed West 13th Street jazz club that was a hub of a cabaret revival in 1970s New York. “We sat around for an hour and I was about to leave. Bette was at the table and she said, ‘Oh, he’s here!’ And Bob Dylan comes in. He and Bette just got up and started singing! It was really interesting too, because she pulled all the sweetness out of him. He sang tenderly, sang beautifully with her.”
 
Another meeting with Midler was even more memorable, at New York City’s famed Continental Baths, where she performed with her pianist Barry Manilow in 1971, “There is some bootleg film footage going around which shows Bette pulling me out of the crowd and at some point – this was all set up beforehand by Jerry – she sort of sings to me, looks down at my crotch and says, ‘Oh, you’re disgusting!’ and pushes me back into the crowd because I had a hard-on at that point, but it wasn’t from her!”
 
Felice laughs.
 
“New York was so much fun back then, but it isn’t much fun today. It’s like London, it’s filled with too many people. Where do they all come from? I’m not used to jostling anymore,” says Picano, who turned 71 this past Feb. 22. 
 
“I don’t enjoy [reading] performance as much anymore either. I pretty much only do it now with other [?riters on the bill], usually a local person. I was recently at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and there was one panel called “Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” and I said, ‘It’s a good idea to inherit a lot of money or marry rich.’ That way you aren’t tied to the wheel of fortune of being a published writer. Like many of us who earn a living now, we really are tied to it. I try to be honest about it so young writers aren’t deluded.”
 
Felice admits as a young man he trained to become a visual artist but only began writing after “he was sidetracked and hoodwinked into writing over a period of six years. Diana Vreeland would introduce me to people as a writer, and I had never thought of myself as such. After I interviewed her for a magazine story I wrote about Harper’s Bazaar, she told Felice Picanome, ‘You’re a good writer. Get away from that magazine and go write.’”
 
Vreeland’s advice marked a turning point, and Felice would go on to 
found two pioneering gay presses, SeaHorse Press and The Gay Presses of New York, which launched such writers as Harvey Fierstein, Dennis Cooper and Brad Gooch. Moreover, with Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Edmund White, Christopher Cox and George Whitmore, he founded The Violet Quill, widely considered to be the groundbreaking gay-male literary nucleus of the 20th century.
 
“It was only when I started the Seahorse press in 1977 that I really started being openly gay,” Felice says today. “I would have had a very different career had I been a closeted writer – although I’m not sure how. When I met Truman Capote, one of the things he said to me was, ‘I admire you and Andrew Holleran for coming out right away and publishing gay material. Because the rest of us’ – he was talking about himself and other writers like Tennessee Williams – ‘it really destroyed us personally.’
 
“On the other hand, they had much bigger careers than we had because nobody knew they were gay and they weren’t pigeonholed. There are many, many awards I should have been nominated for and never was. There were many, many reviews that I should have gotten that I never got. It continues today. I’m resigned about it, but I feel good that my early books are still in print and still bestsellers. In the end, if the books last, that’s what’s important.”
 
Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano (OR Books) is available in bookstores now.
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at montrealgazette.com
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.