Advice to the Young Fry

Intoxication, Television

Notes from the Jane Weir commencement speech, 2019.

Don’t be like Mister Hornblower, kids. Mister Hornblower had one little precious talent, which would have made him rich and famous if he had bothered to exploit it properly. So famous, in fact, that I couldn’t even write about him here, because you’d recognize him right away, the same way you’d recognize a thinly fictionalized version of Andy Warhol or Donald Trump.

But you see, Andy and The Donald early on learned to accept themselves, warts-and-all. And that was the secret of their success. Mister Hornblower by contrast is just as weird, or weirder, but he never owned up to his weird, unique talent or parlayed it into a career. His big special talent is pederasty: picking up teenage boys on the street: luring them to his lair with drugs and alcohol, and then ravishing them like the old-school pederast that he is. A secondary talent is sponging off friends, which enabled him to survive into old age with nary a nod to gainful employment.

He’s 75 now, so he’s got a half-century of juicy degeneracy behind him, and at least a dozen madly brilliant, but unwritten, novels or plays inside him. He fancies himself a writer, but has never written, let alone published, anything you’d ever care to read. Instead of writing pulpy, scathing dialogue with dirty old men and boy hustlers—the world he knows—he keeps cranking out talky, artificial plays about gentlefolk from the world of A. P. Gurney and John Cheever (a world he has never known). Or else he tries to write fluffy, whimsical essays in the style of a New Yorker magazine casual from many decades past. In college had an elderly, bowtied writing teacher, Mr. E. J. Gordon, who liked that jejeune style; so here we are, 65 years later, with Mr. E. J. Gordon long under the topsoil but Mister Hornblower is still writing to please him.

I’ve put the question to him, gently and tactfully: “Why don’t you write what you know, Hornblower? Why not write a stage comedy where an old guy is continually bringing little twinks into his tiny studio apartment, and everyone gets into a whole lot of mischief? Think of the possibilities!”

He makes a face and winces. Hornblower can’t see it; it’s just too perverse.

So Hornblower doesn’t put his genius into his writing; he puts it into his life. He has structured his whole life around his need to pick up boys on the street. He’s practically never had any sort of regular job. Fifty years ago, not long after college, he had his one and only fling with substantive employment. He went to Rockefeller Center every day and wrote questions and answers for a daytime TV game show.

This may sound like a dream job to you, because you don’t know anything. I mean, they paid him like $150 a week and he had to deal with dreadful people. Ron Greenberg Productions, my God. Or maybe it would be a dream job for you. Maybe for most people. It does sound sort of fun.

Anyway, Hornblower quit this after about a year, in which time he saved up a princely thousand dollars or two, and made contact with a couple of outlets for his proposed “freelance writing.” One of these was his college alumni magazine. He wasn’t looking very far and wide. He wrote an article in twinkling prose about a visit to the new “gay” club on campus, but it got killed. It was hardly lurid, but the Secretary and chief development officer of the university found the subject just too scandalous to lay before the alumni.

That’s pretty much where his “freelance” ambitions died. He was smoking too much dope to get off the ball anyway. When money ran out he inveigled a young friend of his to help him apply for Unemployment by claiming that he, the young friend, had employed Hornblower for a couple of months. This project likewise went nowhere.

Finally, out of desperation, he went back to the game show on a short-term basis, then lucked into another position writing for a television program, this time a kiddy show on Boston educational TV. He sublet his New York pigeonhole, took an overpriced studio on Beacon Hill, and moved to Boston. He lasted four weeks.

Hornblower didn’t understand children, or television, since he owned neither and the sum total of his kiddy-show knowledge in the area lay in memories of Andy’s Gang and Spin and Marty, circa 1955. Which weren’t much of an aid in writing educational kiddy fare in the 1970s.

Cowboy Duke’s Science Show was the name of the program. Actually it wasn’t; I’m hiding the real name from the search engines. But regardless of the actual name, Hornblower freaked them all out with offbeat ideas. They wanted to do a segment about sound, the physics of sound. Hornblower proposed showing a dog’s head slugged by a hand in a boxing glove; this would be played in slow-motion with a slow bum-bum-bum soundtrack. That’s how sound works, kids!

On another occasion the “science” angle was that people used to  believe in witches. The idea was that everyone should pooh-pooh the idea of witches, but Hornblower excitedly announced that he knew a real witch, a witch who was General Patton’s daughter and lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts, not too far away. She could come on the program and tell the kids what real witches were all about!

The rest of the writing and production staff were aghast. Hornblower was given his walking papers. Cowboy Duke, the host, told him nicely that with his great imagination he should go off and write a novel.

No novel was in the offing. This four weeks’ experience instead led him down a delusional path of imagining himself a kiddy-show producer-writer. For the next three years he lived by borrowing money from “investor” friends. Most of his days he still spent recruiting teenage boys, this time telling them they could become television stars. Because you see, he may have lived in a 100-square-foot flat (by now he’d moved back to Manhattan) but he was a genius and big TV show producer.

Hornblower’s kiddy-show project took a long time to die. He dreamt it up as he left Cowboy Duke’s show in mid-1972, and three years later he was still promoting it to anyone who wanted to hear. By this point he was so hard up his electricity had been turned off. He persuaded an upstairs neighbor to run an electrical cord through the windows, so he could still keep a couple of lights on, in the bathroom and at his writing desk. Friends at a brokerage firm gave him a little work rewriting sales materials, and one philanthropist ponied up the money to send him off to rehab. Poverty notwithstanding, Hornblower had acquired a daily habit of cocaine and vodka. A few years later he got into a drunken argument with some Jew in a gay bar (as Hornblower tells the story), and the Jew smashed a bottle into Hornblower’s cranium, so hard that Hornblower was rushed to Emergency, and ever after had a shallow crater in the crown of his head. But it was a lucky turn; he sued his assailant, a lawyer of some kind, and they settled for enough money for Hornblower to retire from his life of ease and move to coastal Maine.

There, as always, he managed to keep a string of boys around. Now the drugs of choice were heroin and freebase cocaine. (“I can make in three seconds in the microwave,” he boasted.) One of his boys got arrested for holding or selling, and Hornblower too had some minor legal strike against him.

He never had any interest in men his own age—not even when he was in his twenties—which made him sort of Odd Man Out back in the late 60s when he was first announcing himself as “Gay.” He would frequent rather tweedy, grown-up gay bars—Julius’ in Greenwich Village, Sporter’s on Beacon Hill—but never accosted the other patrons unless they happened to have a cute young trick in tow.

What a fascinating oeuvre Hornblower could have parlayed his cockeyed experiences into! Instead of pissing away his energies trying to pretend to be precisely what he was not: a polite writer writing polite plays about the upper bourgeoisie in the leafy exurbs of New England.

Other men with double lives will double-insulate the secret one: build an upright career beyond reproach, surround themselves with wife and kids; and then be free to go to town in the half-world. They might even preserve a measure of imaginative honesty, should they be creative sorts.

But not Mister Hornblower. Don’t be like him, kids.

Revised 4 December 2021