Arts & icons

An audience with Felice Picano

Richard Burnett
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Felice Picano
Photo prise par © Felice Picano

The Godfather of Gay Lit, Felice Picano, returns to Montreal for a special reading at Montreal’s Violet Hour queer reading series, named for the legendary Violet Quill Club whose seven gay male writers revolutionized literature after Stonewall.

Felice and his two great friends Edmund White and Andrew Holleran are the only living survivors of the Violet Quill, and the still incredibly prolific Picano – now 75 – will also meet fans at a special book signing event at Montreal’s Argo Bookstore. 
 
Felice and I recently sat down for a candid Q&A.
 
FUGUES: You shot to fame in 1979 with the publication of your thriller The Lure about a serial killer stalking the gay nightclubs of New York City. It was inspired by real-life killings and while writing it you met with a mole in the New York City police department.
 
Felice Picano: That happened through the late Linda Grey, my editor at Delacorte. She bought the book before it was completed and at one point asked, “Where are you getting your information from?” I said from my upstairs neighbour of the Jane Street Block Association who had meetings with the police.
 
Grey said, “Do you need corroboration?” and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.”
 
Then maybe a month later she gave me a number to call at such-and-such a time: “This person has agreed to talk to you. He will not say who he is, he will not give you any information, he either says yes or no.” And I did that three times.
 
He was your own Deep Throat.
 
That’s how I felt. I had to use him carefully. 
 
What did you think of William Friedkin’s film Cruising when it came out a year later, starring Al Pacino?
 
Three years earlier I had shopped around the idea for The Lure at Paramount Pictures, and when I finally read Gerald Walker’s book Cruising, the movie seemed to be a conflation of my book and that book. People asked me to censor it but I said I will not censor any book. Period. I don’t care what it is.
 
Do you think Cruising was homophobic?
 
I thought the book was more problematic than it was homophobic.
 
You drop lots of names in your 2019 novel Justify My Sins. How closely is its main character Victor Regina modelled on yourself?
 
It is about my years in Hollywood. I’m Victor Regina. It began as a short story for an anthology called 90069 which is a West Hollywood zip code, and little by little over the years I wrote more whenever I had the chance. It was done extremely casually and offhandedly.
 
 
In the book, there are some blanks where names of celebrities should be. Like on page 65, you write, “I’m going to have to let _____ (naming a British singer known to be fey) do me.” Why the blanks?
 
Elton John! You are talking about the orgy in the hill? Elton John was at that party. I am putting blanks in there because I would like your imagination to think of who it is. Almost everybody comes up with the right names.
 
You first arrived in Hollywood in 1977 to work for Cary Grant’s Brut Productions. What was Cary Grant like?
 
I didn’t meet him until I was leaving, actually. I was working with producers and – stupid as I was – didn’t know that he and Dyan (Cannon) owned the company. He was absolutely lovely and charming and he said to me, “I understand you’re leaving. Why are you going to New York?”
 
I said, “I have a contract to do this big new novel and have to do a lot of research that I can’t do sitting here next to the pool.” 
 
He said, “What’s your book about?”
 
I said, “It’s a gay thriller set in the gay community.”
 
And he said, and I quote, “I used to be gay.”
 
I said, “Yeah, I heard about that!”
 
What I didn’t know until I was told three years ago was that at the time Grant was continuing to see Randolph Scott twice a month at a cottage at The Beverly Hills Hotel right until Randolph died.
 
 
You had a good time in Hollywood, Felice.
 
My first time out there was like Victor in Justify My Sins: I went out there for the sun, to go to the beach and to meet a lot of hot guys. My interest in making a movie was maybe 20 percent. I was out there because I was being paid to live in a suite in The Beverly Hills Hotel. I had a great time!
 
Can you tell us about the time you escorted Warren Beatty to a Saint party?

It’s a funny part of the book. People got to pick up the book for that story! But I will talk about others. When I was first there in the 70s, I was openly gay but I would get calls from somebody’s agent or personal secretary: “You’re being invited to dinner with Farley Granger.” Granger proceeded to tell me what it was like to be gay in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s and why he left the movies… Everybody (I knew and met in Hollywood) gave me little bits of information. I have a perfect memory, so I remember it all. When I moved back here in 1995, I met Carole Bruce who told me she belonged to this group called The Brassy Old Dames: “We’re all Academy members and we all need escorts for dinners and parties. Would you be willing to do that?” I said “Yes!” And that’s how I got a lot of information in the book, about themselves and others. They knew I was a writer, they knew it would be written about, and they opened up to me. 
 
You are a character in the Tennessee Williams play Out Cry in which Michael York portrayed you on Broadway in 1971. How did this come about?
 
Thursday evenings I would have sex with Tennessee’s male nurse! I met Tennessee some years after that, in Key West playing bridge. 
 
Last year you adapted your bestselling epic Like People in History into a script for a TV mini-series. Any news?
 
On my upcoming 21-day trip that brings me to Montreal and New York in October, I will meet the acting producer of that script, who has just renewed his option on it. I’ll find out more when I have lunch with him.
 
It was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this year. You were at Woodstock.
 
I went with my roommate Rachel. We took a subway to the end, then went out to the highway and hitched a ride! 
 
Elliot Tiber – the gay man who saved Woodstock – told me years ago he remembered queer kids at Woodstock. Do you?
 
There must have been plenty. The music was great, but it was the first time I think so many of us (in the counter-cultural movement) had seen each other, and how many people we were. If you look at the most recent documentary about it (Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation) people really looked good. There were many really attractive people there. 
 
This past summer was also the 40th anniversary of the Fire Island “Beach ’79” party for 5,000 gay men. Farrah Fawcett, Andy Warhol and Village People were also there. My friend, Montreal disco queen France Joli, became an “overnight success” at the age of 16 when she performed her classic song “Come To Me” after Donna Summer cancelled at the last minute. 
 
I was there! They put up all these tents on the beach, not far from where Halston and Calvin Klein had their houses. The party went on all night. 
 
Fire Island is also where you met Elizabeth Taylor on her yacht.
 
My partner Robert and I were actually walking past. We had just come from the Pines Pantry. Taylor said to us, “Do you have food there? I have liquor!” She had gone to take a nap and when she woke up everybody else on the boat had gone! She heard from one of the servants on the boat that they had gone to Cherry Grove to go dancing. So I looked at Bob and he said, “Let’s go! Let’s do it!” She was fabulous. She really was. Purple eyes. The lady had purple eyes. 
 
 
 
Felice Picano headlines the Violet Hour reading series at Stock Bar in the Gay Village on October 23 from 7 to 8:30 pm on October 23. There will also be short readings by LGBTQ writers Trebor Healey, Johanne Pelletier, Su J Sokol and David Tacium. Picano will headline a book signing event alongside writers Trebor Healey, Nicola Sibthorpe and Madelaine Caritas Longman, at Argo Bookshop in Shaughnessy Village on October 24 at 7 pm.