Everybody Was Talking: The Making Of ‘Midnight Cowboy’
In 1947 Anaïs Nin arrived at Black Mountain College, Eden Lake, North Carolina – this was years before her notorious diaries – and met the handsome 20 year-old writer James Leo Herlihy. The college was experimental (and sounds rather wonderful). Herlihy would go on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’. He and Nin were instantly fascinated by one another, not sexually but intellectually. Herlihy’s circle of acquaintances expanded to include Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood.
Earlier, at the start of World War II, several flatmates got together to rent a peculiar-looking house in Brooklyn. They included WH Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. Salvador Dali sometimes called by. The house became a bohemian centre as well as a drop-in for local sailors.
Looking back, one has to ask why any of this was possible. I vaguely recall that Lorca, Dali and Bunūel went on a booze-run in Mexico. How did so many creative people find each other? Why were Yves Saint Laurent and Paloma Picasso hanging out in restaurants with Andy Warhol’s talentless needle-sharing entourage? And why, in a modern world where inter-connectivity is valued above everything else, doesn’t that sort of thing happen anymore?
Perhaps it does, but in a more businesslike way. The critic Brooks Atkinson once described the cocktail party as ‘the etiquette of whoring’, so maybe it was more about social networking than the attraction of like minds. Certainly, not all such coteries were welcome. The Bloomsbury set were a pretty threadbare bunch built around the genuine originality of Lytton Strachey, EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, and too many of the Americans in 1920s Paris still come across as deeply annoying arrivistes. Is it simply that celebrity attracts coattail-hangers, and that some of them turn out to be talented?
In modern Britain the dividing line of class ensures that Oxbridge graduates only meet writers and artists from their own background. Freedom of movement in the US ensures that everyone is from somewhere else, which must level the playing field and bring in new blood.
James Herlihy was a sometime actor/playwright who showed up with youth, looks, charm and an interestingly bleak worldview. His novel is superb, but in terms of networking, his youth counted most. John Schlesinger was clearly drawn to the book after making very British films because its Americana fascinated him.
Glenn Frankel’s excellent book ‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, sex, loneliness, liberation and the making of a dark classic’ takes a deep dive into the creative process and shows how so many talented artists came to work together on the film version of Herlihy’s book.
What shines through is how everyone, including the author, was dedicated to improving upon the source material. The project, like so many from that period, was a labour of love. Midnight Cowboy’s boundary-pushing subject matter was treated artistically; nobody on the creative side was remotely concerned about whether it would make money. The novel had already flopped, and although the film’s cost doubled it was still cheap to make with unknown talent, thus less of a risk. But risk was a barely considered element. Now it’s everything.
I’m rubbish at networking or even meeting readers (someone gave me a scarf at the signing above and I felt compelled to wear it). I’ve met plenty of British writers who are far better at networking than prose. Knowing they posses very little talent, they hustle at literary festivals and parties, campaign tirelessly to win awards, cosy up to editors and blank writers who aren’t useful to them.
American writers are more appreciated at home than we could ever be; in my experience they’re respected and rewarded, and treated with deference. They’re certainly more diligent and disciplined. I was disappointed never to be offered a US tour, and now that the algorithm is king the days of signing trips are over.
I remember being amazed when fans waited for me in Frankfurt for autographs – I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening in the UK, where it’s considered vulgar to even bother acknowledging that you read. One British lady getting her book signed told me; ‘I’ve been meaning to write something like this, but I’ve been far too busy.’
Creative people are treated dismissively in the UK, so it’s no wonder they seek the company of their peers. Few British writers know each other. I can count the authors I’m friendly with on one hand. We don’t get together and come up with new ideas. Instead of hothousing we try to appeal to Netflix, which hoovers up unsold shows and targets viewers who’ll watch anything involving supernatural powers.
The idea of being artistic is still frowned upon in a country that barely managed to produce any decent art or music for centuries after the Reformation. I count myself rich for knowing a number of women and men who have spent their lives challenging the doubters. The generous creative sharing involved in the production of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ shows how the process should work.
‘Shooting Midnight Cowboy’ is published by FSG Books, price $30. I buy all of the books I review.