Given the glut of autobiographies, a provocative subject alone isn't enough to snag a reader's attention, although, admittedly, the title of Charles Rowan Beye's new memoir, My Husband and My Wives, is certainly arresting. It's Beye's charming raconteur's voice, however, and his refusal to bend anecdotes into the expected "lessons" that really make this memoir such a knockout.
Beye won me over in his "Introduction" when he admitted that, looking back at the long span of his life — he's now over 80 — the big question he still asks himself is, "What was that all about?"
"That" is a saga that begins in 1930 in Iowa, where Beye was born into a Midwestern WASP family. He and his five siblings were schooled in the upper-class art of making conversation — or, as he deems it, "hid[ing] behind brilliance." Awkward realities were politely ignored. Beye tells a nightmare Downton Abbey-type tale about sitting down to breakfast as a child, when the family's "aged-serving woman was suddenly struck with a seizure of some sort while passing toast on a silver salver." Rather than leaping to this poor retainer's aid, the children took their cue from their mother, who held them all in her gaze and kept making "insistent[ly] pleasant conversation" until the poor woman staggered back to the kitchen, out of sight.
Eventually, however, even Beye's mother couldn't blink away his budding homosexuality. Beye was in junior high and enjoying a limited menu of sexual adventures with mostly straight boys, when the local Episcopal priest informed Beye's mother that her son's name was scrawled, along with a sexual slur, on a men's room wall. Mother promptly dispatched her wayward son to a psychiatrist who — counter to almost every other psychiatrist in every work of gay literature ever written — turns out to be a compassionate man. The shrink simply counsels the 15-year-old Beye to be more discreet.
Charles Rowan Beye earned his Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard in 1960. He is a distinguished professor emeritus at Lehman College.
FotosbyMike/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Things take an even more unexpected turn when Beye meets an intellectually sparkling woman named Mary in college and, at the end of their first hour of conversation in a drugstore booth, Beye looks at her and declares: "This has been great ... I think we should get married." At 21, he had never slept with a woman. Nevertheless they do marry, happily, and when Mary suddenly dies of a freak heart condition a few years later, Beye remarries and fathers four children — all along maintaining his core identity as a gay man and enjoying an abundant sex life, described in great fleshy detail here, with gay and straight men.
Beye's story is a complex, poignant addition to the sexual canon. While he seems to have been blessedly free of the standard sexual guilt growing up, he was also acutely aware of the cost of being different. Here, for instance, is how Beye recalls a Christmas dance his mother made him host at their house during high school:
The dance was a great success ... It was a moment in my life that I would never visit again ... Within a short time I would come to know affection ... blended with amusement, or condescension, or acceptance, or forgiveness — take all the vocabulary for the attitudes with which one views a freak, an anomaly. In every other gathering in later years I had to hold the crowd at bay; whether dancing, dining, toasting, laughing, telling stories, flirting, charming, I was always cornered.
As emotionally charged as Beye's moments of sexual self-scrutiny can be, he's downright sarcastic when talking about his public career in academia. Now retired, Beye was a professor of ancient Greek, and he came of academic age in the era when an old boys' network of hail-fellow-well-met senior professors arranged jobs for their acolytes over martini-soaked dinners. Sloshing into one of those positions at Stanford, Beye confronts a lineup of eccentrically hostile colleagues. When he dares to pipe up at a faculty meeting, one of those colleagues, a rare elderly lady, turns to him and shouts, "Shut up, you mutt, you're new here." For Beye, the life of the mind affords nearly as many baffling encounters as does the life of the body.
Beye's memoir ends on a joyous note. He and his husband of the title have been married for some four years; together for 20. Bowing to his background in ancient Greek, Beye subtitled his memoir "A Gay Man's Odyssey," but he might just as well have availed himself of the affirmative LGBTQ slogan "It Gets Better."