We are on our way to Mark’s house right now, regrettably driving away from the Outer Banks after a week with Patrick’s family. We spent mornings at the beach, afternoons at the pool, evenings sharing dinner (a chaotic, delicious feast prepared each night—for all 28 of us—by a different family) and managed to dodge the hurricane. We laughed a lot and caught up on each others lives.
I was able to sneak in some summer reading, and finished up a book I had started this spring called Double Life: A Love Story, by Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine. It is, in essence, a long-running conversation between these two men who fell in love in the 1940s while living in NYC and have been together ever since.
Alan was an actor who later became a stage manager and casting director, and then went on to produce TV shows and movies after the couple moved to Los Angeles. Norman worked in advertising and as a graphic artist and designer. Over time, he became an accomplished painter. The book is full of anecdotes recounting their relationships with celebrities from the last half of the 20th century (Lena Horne! Gore Vidal! Linda Carter!). But it was how their relationship played out against the backdrop of LGBT history from the same time period that I found most interesting.
While moving up the career ladder first on Broadway then in Hollywood, Alan writes about having to hide his relationship with Norman, attending parties, work functions, and awards ceremonies with women friends instead of his partner. Norman mentions an expectation in the 1970s and 80s that gay men should have multiple partners and promiscuous sex. Both men discuss early relationships with men that were fraught with shame and even violence, and how lucky they felt to find comfort and a sense of belonging with one another.
I couldn’t help comparing my life to theirs. I empathized with the feeling of shame, the hiding, and being a member of a community obsessed with physical beauty. AIDS became a huge concern for any gay man who lived through the 1980s. However, there are definitely many differences. For my generation, although we certainly knew people who were HIV positive, and many who died, I never felt like I was losing a whole generation of friends like Norman describes. Also, coming of age in a post-Stonewall world meant that we had had less hiding, more openness, a growing number of out and proud celebrities, and a media culture that—albeit slowly—embraced them.
The love story at the book’s core is its most compelling aspect. Our culture is saturated with love stories of straight people. Tales of love between men and women dominate novels, fairy tales, movies and television shows. Alan and Norman never had the benefit of hearing stories about other men who fell in love, made a commitment, and lived happily ever after. They had no gay role models to look to for inspiration or to inspire a possible course for their future. They were busy hiding, pretending, and trying to figure it all out on their own.
As we were coming of age, Patrick and I never had the benefit of hearing a story like Alan and Norman’s. There were a handful of gay characters on TV and in the movies, but there were no TV shows, movies, or novels that told stories exploring the ups and downs of loving relationships between men. Most of the messages we received were confused and conflicting—on the one hand, the assumption that gay men were designed to screw around remained, but on the other hand messages that sex could kill were coming through loud and clear. There wasn’t much about love, commitment or family.
Alan and Norman loved one another, and they created a family of two. They never discussed children; precious few did in their generation. They spent a great deal of their time together traveling the world, buying multiple homes and vacation property, and switching gears at the drop of a hat to do something completely different with their lives. We have friends—both gay and straight—who do the same thing. There are certainly times when I’m filled with envy, thinking to myself “Might we have been happy with that path?”
But, most times I am filled with gratitude that I have the opportunity to live the life I choose instead. Small moments when I am putting a band aid on a scrapped knee, or big moments like this week, watching Jordan score two holes-in-one at mini-golf, and jumping in the surf with Isabella and loving every moment of the huge smile on her face not unlike I remember enjoying myself at her age.
We’re on our way to you later this week. On our way to chaos, laughter, shared meals and sharing each others lives. If you get a chance at some point, I do recommend reading Double Life. Enjoy it for the behind-the-scenes peak at the lives of celebrities from yesteryear, but don’t overlook the inspirational love story at its core.