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Nov. 14, 2022

Gordon Merrick

In 1970, writer Gordon Merrick published The Lord Won’t Mind, advertised as “the first homosexual novel with a happy ending,” his fifth novel but first to focus on a gay romance story. The novel was a hit and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks. Critics dismissed the work as fantastical, but Merrick, who had been a Broadway actor, newspaper reporter, and American spy before turning novelist, was writing what he knew. Despite his commercial success and enduring fan base, Merrick’s contributions have been ignored and forgotten.

Joining me now to help us understand Gordon Merrick and his writing is Dr. Joseph Ortiz, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of the 2022 book, Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is the original cover from the 1970 publication of The Lord Won’t Mind.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. Today we're discussing writer Gordon Merrick. William Gordon Merrick was born in a suburb of Philadelphia on August 3, 1916, the younger son of Rodney King Merrick and Mary Cartwright Gordon Merrick. The Merricks were comfortably upper middle class. Gordon's great grandfather, Samuel Vaughn Merrick, had been the founder of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and a philanthropist and member of the American Philosophical Society. Gordon attended the Episcopal Academy for high school, where he excelled in the dramatics club, and became editor-in-chief of the school's weekly newspaper. It was also there that Gordon had his first same sex experiences. For over a century, Merrick men had attended the University of Pennsylvania, some of them even serving on the University's Board of Trustees. But Gordon decided instead to go to Princeton. Based solely on his academic performance in high school, Gordon would not have been admitted; but his influential maternal grandmother, Clarice Marston Billups, with whom Gordon was close, pulled strings to ensure he was let in. At Princeton, Gordon again, immersed himself in theater, quickly becoming one of Princeton's leading men of the stage. He spent a lot of time as well in New York City, and at the end of his junior year, he decided to drop out of Princeton to pursue a Broadway career. Gordon's big break came in 1939, when he was cast as Richard Stanley in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which debuted at the Music Box Theater in New York City. It was everything Gordon had dreamed of; but after a year, he quit the play, several months before the show closed. He never fully explained his reasons for quitting, but he did later say that the monotony of playing the same role night after night was part of it. Whatever the reasons, Gordon never returned to Broadway. After Broadway, Gordon worked as a reporter, writing for the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun, and finally the New York Post. By this point, the United States had entered World War II, and Gordon longed to be useful in the war. He was rejected by both the Army and the American Field Service. But in the fall of 1943, he learned about a new government agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) run by William "Wild Bill" Donovan, which was the precursor to the CIA. Gordon's acting abilities and his command of the French language were attractive to the OSS, and they brought him aboard in spring, 1944, first sending him to spy camp, and then in July, 1944, shipping him overseas. In southern France, Gordon was disguised as an Army officer and assigned a mission to turn double agents. It was intense and demanding work, and Gordon's skills were put to good use. At the same time, he was gathering excellent background information for his future novels. After the war ended, Gordon resigned from the OSS and moved to Mexico, where he lived with an Air Force Lieutenant named Bob Richardson. It was there that Gordon began seriously writing. He wrote his first novel, "The Strumpet Wind" in less than five months, basing the story on his experiences in intelligence work during the war. The novel was published by William Morrow and was a critical success. In 1946, Gordon and Richardson moved to France, where they lived openly as a couple. Gordon continued to write novels critical of the US. When he couldn't find a US publisher for his second novel, he published in France instead. By his third novel, he once again found a US publisher. Things had begun to sour in his relationship with Richardson, and in 1956, Gordon met an American dancer named Charles Hulse, and they fell in love. After a time living in New York, and San Francisco, Gordon and Hulse returned to France. And then, in 1959, they bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island, where they ended up spending most of their time and where they became a part of the elite set of the island. When Jacqueline Kennedy visited the island in 1961, Gordon was her guide. Throughout the 1960s, Gordon continued to write, but he had trouble finding anyone to publish his work. Perhaps because of that rejection, Gordon decided finally, to put a gay character at the center of his novel. He had written many gay characters in his past work, but they had been supporting characters. In 1970, Gordon published what would become his best known work, "The Lord Won't Mind," a gay autobiographical novel, which includes a happy ending for the main couple, Charlie and Peter. Publishing an openly gay novel was not an easy task, but Gordon's literary agent, Monica McCall convinced Bernard Geist to publish it, and "The Lord Won't Mind" was on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks in 1970. Despite the commercial success, however, the critics were less impressed. That would remain a theme for the rest of Gordon's career. Eventually, he wasn't able to find hardcover publishers for his works at all, but Avon Publications published paperbacks of his books to continued commercial success. In 1976, Gordon and Hulse bought a house in Sri Lanka, spending much of Gordon's remaining time there, in addition to France and England. Gordon died of lung cancer in March, 1988, leaving behind a devastated Hulse. In 1991, Hulse donated a collection of Gordon's materials to Princeton University, an essential step in our ability to know the details of Gordon's life. Joining me now to help us understand Gordon Merrick and his writing is Dr. Joseph Ortiz, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso, and author of the 2022 book, "Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel." Hi, Joe, welcome. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  9:19  
Thank you for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:21  
Yes. So I am delighted that you have introduced me to Gordon Merrick, who I sadly had not heard of before, but I'm glad that I have now. So I wanted to ask a little bit about, I love the story you write in the book about how you first came to know Gordon Merrick's novels. So I'd love if you could talk about that, but then also how that led to you actually writing a biography of him?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  9:43  
Sure, sure. I'd love to talk about that. So I discovered Gordon Merrick when I was 14 years old, when I was living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which which is a medium sized town about 40 minutes from El Paso, Texas. So at the time, this was, you know, this was 1987. So it was about a town of 60,000 people, so relatively small. And I was pretty certain that I was gay. But I didn't know any other gay people. And I didn't really know where I could find any information or books about gay people. And that I was also honestly pretty introverted and bookish. And one of the things I would do during the summer was hang out by myself at the local shopping mall. And I spend most of my time there in the Waldenbooks, the the bookstore chain that I believe went out of business some some years ago. It just so happened that one day when I was browsing the general fiction section that I came across a paperback edition of "The Lord Won't Mind," which is Gordon Merrick's breakthrough gay novel that was published in 1970. And it completely blew my mind. I had looked, I'd already looked for gay books at the local library, and at the university library, with no success. And suddenly, here was this book, proudly and explicitly advertising itself as a gay novel. The cover of the book was was also pretty pretty astounding. It had two good looking men on it, very handsome and very preppily dressed, with a Princeton University building in the background. The cover alone, fulfilled every fantasy I had as a gay 14 year old, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Eventually, I worked up the courage to buy the book, along with the one other Gordon Merrick novel that was in the store. And I read them voraciously. These were both novels in which a young gay man, after much trial and tribulation and a lot of sex, it has to be said, because Gordon Merrick's novels, explicit sex scenes, these young gay men ultimately end up in a committed long term relationship with another man. So that was a very powerful message for me in 1987. And it confirmed what I what I thought or what I intuited, you know, could be possible. But I had not until that point, you found any any evidence of it. So the novels, which were the first gay novels I've ever read, um, had a profound influence on you know, my, my, my notion of, of being a gay man and many years laters is that that experience a lot of testimonials, a lot of anecdotes, you know, where someone you know, describes discovering, by chance a Gordon Merrick novel in a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton in shopping malls all over the country. But the idea for a biography of Gordon Merrick, of writing a biography, didn't come until many many years later, when I was a graduate student at Princeton University in the early 2000s. By by complete chance, I met a gay man named Rick Garcia, who was a writer in LA at the time, but who had done his undergraduate work at Princeton. So in the course of our conversation, we discovered that we had both read Gordon Merrick as teenagers, and we were both fans. And he mentioned to me that Princeton owned some of Gordon's manuscripts, because Gordon himself had gone to Princeton, and when he died, his papers were donated to the university. Now, I was not a student of gay literature, or of queer history. I was a PhD student in the English department, writing a dissertation on Shakespeare. At one point, though, I needed a break from my work on Shakespeare. So I decided to look up this collection that Rick Garcia had told me about. So I went through the process of going to the Rare Book Library at Princeton and requesting the materials, looking them up. Well, it turned out that the Gordon Merrick papers at Princeton was a huge archive: boxes and boxes, that not only included his working manuscripts for the novels, but also his correspondence, his letters, his business records, his unpublished works, and most most wonderfully, photographs of Gordon and his friends and family. Now, the novels that Gordon had published in the 1970s and 80s, never included a photo of him. In fact, they included almost no information about Gordon at all. So I had I had read his novels, um, but I had never, never seen a picture of him. And I still remember the first time I used a Merrick archive, and I found this 1954 passport with his photograph in it. And here was this handsome, debonair man with piercing piercing eyes, who looked at as though he had stepped right out of the novels. It was really, it was just really captivating. Well, the more I researched the archives, the more I looked at those boxes, the more I realized that, in fact, Gordon had based much of his novels on himself and his experiences as a gay man, including his experience his early experiences in New York, where he was, you know, living for a few years after college, you know, first, you know, trying to be a Broadway actor, and then as a journalist, but then in France and Greece were he was an expatriate writer, after World War II. And so once I started to realize just how interesting and how unique Gordon's life had been, I thought, "Well, this, this could make a decent biography, or at least at least a couple articles." And the other so and I started the project you know, by writing a couple articles and publishing them. But the other the other reason why I decided I really wanted to write about Gordon, was that the archive at Princeton, in addition to containing Gordon's papers, also contained a huge box of fan mail that Gordon had received throughout the 70s and 80s. These letters were a revelation for me. They attested to the huge impact that Gordon's novels had had on gay men, all over the country, and in many other countries where where people had managed to get copies of the novels. And in some of these cases, these were these were readers who are not even gay men. There was a surprising number of women readers who had found Gordon's novels, and had admired them so much that they were saying just how much they loved and learned about about gay, gay life from from reading his books. Yeah, this was an aspect of gay literary history, essentially of gay history that simply had not been documented, certainly not part of the standard histories of gay literature and culture that were available at the time. It was not it was not mentioned in the the anthologies of gay literature. You know Merrick was was not included in the anthologies of gay literature, and still still isn't. So I thought that someone needed to, to at least write about this history, at least document it. And it was, it was pretty clear to me that no one else was, was doing this, no one else seemed to be interested in this, and I was pretty sure and I'm still pretty sure that I was the only person who had been using this this archive at Princeton. So this this for many years, this became a labor of love because I stayed a Shakespeare scholar, and I am still nominally a Renaissance scholar. That's my, that's my, that's my day job. So this, this was something I worked on for years. And I contacted, you know, other people in the process, you know, people who, who knew Gordon or who might have known, you know, someone who knew, who knew Gordon. So this, this was something that I that I just worked on on the side, when I had time to do it. It wasn't really till the pandemic happened, and I had a lot more writing time at home, that I thought this this is, this is the time to finally finish finish the book. But I also I also decided to finish it when I did, because I got some some very good advice from from a mentor of mine, who was very familiar with the project, who told me, the Renaissance isn't is not going away. But the people who read Gordon Merrick and remember his novels, they, they won't be around forever. So it's probably it's probably a good idea to finish the book now. So that that gentle nudge was was was kind of the the impetus that I that I needed to finally finish the book. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:52  
So can you talk a little bit about the difference between researching the Renaissance and, you know, documents that are so so old and looking at that literature and that language versus something that is in living memory. You could actually talk to people who knew Gordon Merrick and you know, what that sort of like, as a researcher, as a scholar, looking at that very different kind of work, different kinds of history and archives.

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  19:18  
It was a huge difference. A huge and in large part, for exactly the reason you said I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people, which meant I had to talk to a lot of people. So one of the one of the reasons I always say, I became an academic in Rennaisance literature, so that I wouldn't have to talk to a lot of people. I'm still that bookish person who likes to you know, go to the bookstore, you know, for fun during during the summer. But for it for this kind of project. I had to I had to find, you know, people who, who could tell me more information about Gordon because he was as much as he put himself into his novels, he did not write almost any biography autobiographical material. He was just not, he was not interested in writing an autobiography. He was, you know, strangely a very private person, you know, when it when it came to, to interviews or published works. So I had to I had to find other other other sources were for details and facts about his life. And fortunately, there were, there were still people who were alive who had memories of him. His his longtime partner, Charles Hulse, was still was still alive and living in Galle, Sri Lanka. So I just I tracked down as well as I could, if I could find an email address, if I could find a phone number, or whatever it was, if I knew someone who might have known them, I got in touch with them to see if they could, you know, give me contact information. At times, it felt like detective work. And I became a real a real expert on Google, you know, just trying to find little little bits of information. But that was also it was also the most exciting part of the project. And that that was, honestly the part of the project that I could have, I could have done forever. The book might never have gotten finished, because I loved those moments when when I found someone who's just really just willing to tell me everything they knew. They were they were wonderful conversations.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:27  
Yeah, so Gordon Merrick's life is just so fascinating. This Princeton time, this being on Broadway, being a reporter, being a spy, like it's just this fascinating life. But it leads to this interesting tension that so many of the reviewers say, "Oh, this stuff he's writing is so fantastical." And yet he's writing what he knows. He's writing his life. Can you talk a little bit about that, that tension and sort of what that meant in his writing?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  21:54  
It is a real tension in his novels, because on the one hand, there's a lot of really rich autobiographical information, especially especially when when he writes about what it's like to be a gay man in the 30s, in the 40s, and 50s. But he had very, he had very little experience with with gay culture after, after that period, in large part because he was he was he was living in either Greece, you know, in a small island, in Hydra, for much of the 60s and 70s, or he was he was living in Sri Lanka, you know, for the last for the last decade of his life. So he had, by that point, you know, very, very little contact with with the kind of gay culture that the writers for for for Gay Magazine, or Vector Magazine, were writing about in the 70s and 80s, you know. So the, the gay critics and the gay writers who were very, very active in, in America in the 70s, and 80s, they were very much focused on what was what was going on, usually in the big cities, in New York, and San Francisco and Los Angeles. And that was a, that was a culture that, that Gordon really knew very, very little about. But it's also it's also what makes his novels so interesting. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book. And what I try to emphasize in the book is that there is history here, but you have to get at it at a slightly different way. You have to sort of kind of decode, you know, some of the things that Gordon is doing in novels. At times, it's very thinly disguised autobiography. And other times it's autobiography that's mixed with, with other other things.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:45  
Yes, so he had a really kind of an antipathy toward American culture, it seems at times, you know. He was not just unfamiliar with gay culture in the US, but but kind of didn't want to be there, you know, sort of fled, as you mentioned, lived in Greece and Sri Lanka. He's not, of course, the only person who does this. They're in, you write about a lot of other writers and artists who are an expatriate community. And certainly, we know after World War II, there's a lot of African Americans who sort of go and live in Paris because the the culture in the US is so uncomfortable for them. Can you talk a little bit about sort of what it was he was escaping in the US in American culture, what it was he found in these other places abroad?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  24:34  
Well, I think one of the things he was escaping was his family, which again is not is not that unusual for some people. But, his his family, particularly made him feel, you know, the pressures of you know, what it what it meant to have certain social expectations of you, not not simply as a you know, as a as a man, you know, for him like, you know, a gay man, you know, the kinds of pressures that were very much felt, you know, particularly in America in the 1950s; but also the social expectations that came from, you know, being part of this, you know, upper class family, you know, that had, you know, very, very deep roots on both sides of his family know, both his his father's side, which was just very, you know, long established, you know, Philadelphia family, and his mother's side, you know, which was this, you know, very established, you know, Southern Southern family. And he was, it was pretty clear that, you know, throughout his life, you know, he had, he had felt, you know, the pressure of those expectations, and particularly his his family who were very, very socially conscious, so that he kind of used that, or he kind of saw that as a, as a reflection of American culture, and American capitalism, more more generally. That's, that's a big reason why his early novels, so the novels that he wrote before "The Lord Won't Mind," the postwar novels, you know, pretty, pretty much can be described as anti-capitalist novels, you know, somehow American capitalism is always the big villain in these novels. And he saw, he saw Europe, you know, particularly France, as, as this new possibility, you know, as this place where  society operated by different rules, you know, were the things that that made you important in America didn't didn't so much apply. And part of a big part of the reason was that he was able to find your these other literary and other artistic communities, you know, both in both in France and definitely in Hydra, you know, which became a destination for expatriate writers who are also you know, by America or England or Australia, um, you know, he found that as, as a place for, for a new kind of a new kind of life. And, and practically speaking, he was able to live fairly openly as a gay man in these places. You know, he found, you know, pockets, he found, you know, groups of people who knew, who knew he was gay, who very much knew the nature of his relationships with the two men, you know, who is together for much of his life, and they, they, for the most part, fine with it. And the people, the few people that weren't fine with it, really couldn't do very much, you know, other than maybe make a snide comment here and there. So it was, it was a very, you know, for him that really emphasized, even exaggerated, you know, the difference between American culture and European culture, because because of the communities that he found, and the particular places where he found himself.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:47  
You mentioned earlier, he's still not really sort of listed in the canon of, you know, great gay authors. And it seems like during his life, he was often disregarded by not just sort of the mainstream press, not just the New York Times critics or whatever, but by the gay press as well. Can you talk a little about kind of the reasons for that? Why, although if you read him can see that he's a great author why he was dismissed?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  28:16  
Well, I wouldn't say he was a great author. I would say he's, he's a pretty good author. So that's, that's one of the one of the things when I know what I'm asked about, you know, reading reading Merrick, or when someone asks me to recommend Merrick say it's, it's, it's pretty good, but it's not, it's not at the, at the level of say, you know, Andrew Holleran, or Edmund White or Alan Hollinghurst, you know, who are just these really just beautiful writers who are just really developed, you know, these these very unique voices. Gordon always, you know, saw himself more as this this kind of Fitzgeraldesque writer with what's very, you know, fairly stark prose, and he never really never really moved, moved on from that, um, but he did a pretty good job of, of developing a very, you know, elegant, you know, very sparse, direct style, that style of writing. But what I think made and still makes Gordon Merrick, the kind of figure who doesn't, you know, doesn't get included or certainly not emphasized in histories of gay literature, is that he was very immediately pigeon holed as a certain kind of writer by a by a by gay critics, after "The Lord Won't Mind" came out in 1970. And a lot of that had to do with the fact was that they didn't recognize, you know, their own experiences in his novels. And so they they they immediately wrote him off as this melodramatic romance writer, you know, who was just writing about stuff that really, really didn't apply to gay to gay men. And that became entrenched so, so quickly that when he did when he did try to write a novel that was connected to contemporary gay culture, so his novel "An Idol for Others," which he wrote, he published in 1978, you know, was was actually based on on one of his friends, but was actually a large part of the novel is set in 1970s, New York City and San Francisco. Even when he even when he did that, the gay critics ignored it. They didn't even read it because he was they already had assumed that he was he was that that sappy romance writer that they remembered from "The Lord Won't Mind." And it didn't help that by that time, his books were only being published in paperback by Avon, which really, really liked to use these, these wonderful, sumptuous sexy covers that were designed by an artist named Victor Gadino, who designed these really who's who's who's still alive and who's still designing covers for romance novels. They're just really they're they're, they're really exquisite, but they really also solidified this notion of Gordon Merrick as as kind of a a gay Harlequin romance writer.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:19  
Yeah, and in being pigeon holed, though, like that, it seems like he did very well commercially, being published by Avon with the paperback that they did a great job of getting his novel out there, and he was able to live pretty comfortably with that, despite the lack of critical acclaim.

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  31:36  
Absolutely, and this was a big tension for Gordon himself because he really, you know, to the, to the end of his life, he really craved the prestige of hardback publication. You know, he really wanted to be that kind of Norman Maileresque novel writer. And so it was always trying to find a hardback publisher, a respectable hardback publisher for his novels. At the same time, he enjoyed the checks that were coming in, through through Avon, because they knew very well how to how to market and distribute his novels. That was one of the really fascinating things I found, when I was doing my research for the book was that Avon, very early on in the 70s, had, had developed a very, very shrewd strategy, not only just for marketing, the novels, but for distributing them. They actually had a very strategic plan for getting these books, you know, into into chain bookstores, throughout the country, you know, including, you know, places in the south, where it would have, you know, seemed to be really difficult to sell gay novels, but also in in rural places, you know, like, like Las Cruces, you know, where I grew up. They were, they were actually very deliberate in the way that they they marketed these novels, knowing that they would be able to sell 1000s of them, they wouldn't be able to get them to to a lot of people, and that these these readers were, were very, very ready to buy them.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:08  
So one of the things that it seems like seemed, the gay critics and stuff didn't think necessarily reflected their lives, is this idea that two men would live happily ever after. And yeah, that is what Gordon himself experienced. So can we talk a little bit about his, his two long term relationships, which, had he been legally able to, presumably would have been marriages, especially the second one? Can you talk a little bit about that, that the kinds of relationships that that he had, and you know, the importance of those in, in his life and his writing?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  33:45  
They were crucially important for, for a lot of reasons. So he, he was with, you know, his first, his first partner, Bob Richardson for 12 years. And this became absolutely fundamental to the way he not only thought about himself, but also he, the way he presented himself, you know, so when he was living in, in France, you know, he, they were known as a as a couple, and they were accepted in their social circles as a couple. So I think it meant a tremendous deal for him, because it, it gave him this, this, it was okay. And I think it was it was also the case with his, you know, his next partner who became his lifelong partnership and Charles Hulse, they were known and accepted as, as a couple, in their social circles and in their business circles. And it was it was it was clear that Gordon was by nature, someone who was disposed to be in a monogamous, committed relationship. This isn't actually an issue that that he, he represents him some of his novels. You know, the idea that you know, that some some gay men don't need to be monogamous and you know, are more comfortable with that, he was clearly not. You know, he, you know, he clearly, you know, was jealous by nature. And he found, you know, he found at least in Hulse, you know, you know, you know, someone who seemed to seem to have, you know, the same, the same attitude. And so, they, they, they, they got along very, very well together, and they did, you know, try to at least secure, you know, some of the some of the, some of the things that come along with marriage, you know. So they legalized their relationship, you know, as much as they could, you know. You know, one of the things they did was create a, a kind of corporate arrangement, they created a business, you know, by which all of their assets and all, including their intellectual assets, were all contained within this, this business, so that when one of them died, you know, all all the, all the assets, all the rights, you know, will just naturally go to the other, which is exactly what, what, what happened. Both their families were still living when, when Gordon died in 1988, but everything, everything went to went to Hulse, you know. So they, they were, they were very smart in terms of what they could do, legally, you know, even though as you said, it would, it would be still so many years  before, you know, they could be they could be married in the legal sense. But there are a lot of ways in which their, their relationship very, very much was was was like a marriage, although, perhaps not so typical in that it lasted as long as it like it did.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:30  
Yeah, and then Hulse also wrote, became a writer, and Gordon was actually able to mentor him. Could you talk a little bit about that, because that is so fascinating?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  36:40  
It's very, it's very fascinating, very, very unlikely, because Hulse, you know, for pretty much all his his adult life, or his younger adult life, he was an actor and a dancer, and that those are really, his, his only aspirations, and he was very, he was very good at them. And he got a lot of work in his 20s and his 30s, you know, doing those and, and the idea to write a novel, from what I can tell, you know, really didn't enter the picture, until he was much older, and after, after he had been with with Gordon for many years. Then I can, I can only surmise that, you know, after after reading, and being around a writer like Gordon for that many years, he thought to himself, "Hey, I have something to write about, too. And, Gordon, they're writing about their own their own lives and their own experiences." And he thought, "Well, I'll, you know, I'll try my hand at this." And he actually, he's actually not a bad writer at all. One book that he wrote, "In Tall Cotton," is actually very, it's very well written, which I assume part of which, you know, came from the feedback that he got from Gordon, but it's also it's also a good story. So he was also good at remembering things that had happened in his life, and remembering particularly, you know, those those poignant moments, and was able to, to put them into a novel, which again, and he was very, he was very open with this when I, when I got the chance to meet with him in Sri Lanka, back in 2012. And he was he was very explicit, you know, that the novel was was basically just a version of what he remembered in his childhood.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:19  
So you, at the beginning of the book, say that you're going to refer to Gordon Merrick as Gordon. And of course, as we've been talking, you've done that as well. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. Because I know that's a decision that people need to make as they're writing biographies, sort of how you refer to the this main person you're writing about. So why why did you choose to go with Gordon?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  38:40  
That's a good question. At times I don't realize I'm doing it. But it's very, it's very natural for me by now. When I was writing the book, at first, it was a, it was a practical matter of because there's so many, there's so many Merricks, you know, particularly in the first part of the book, you know, where I, where I trace, you know, Gordon's childhood and then then his years in college, and they, they keep reusing the same names over and over in his family. So there's a lot of Samuel Vaughn Gordon William Barretts, they, the men in his family pretty much use only four, draw from a set of four names. So there was a it was easier just to refer to Gordon when I was referring to him, and then kind of use the full names of other people in his family. But it also it also felt a little more natural to refer him as Gordon when I was talking about the person. I did look around for for examples, too. And so one of my examples, when I was writing, his biography was in my periods, you know, great biography of Lorraine Hansberry, which was really, you know, one of the, one of the biographies that I really admired and tried to emulate and in some ways when I was writing this, and she refers to Hansberry using her first name Lorraine. So I thought, well, if if she is she, she does it in this brilliant biography, you know, I can I can try it myself. But it's become, it's become very natural. I don't know why I'm doing that. It's just Gordon to me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:05  
Yeah, I struggle with it a lot when I'm writing introductions to episodes, in part because I write about so many women and they often have multiple marriages. And so  their name is changing over time. And so, you know, I struggle with that sort of, do I do I go with her first name? Which last name do I go with? So I appreciated that you were thoughtful about it. One thing I've mentioned many times on this podcast is how many of these would make great films. And not only is there no film about Gordon Merrick, but as far as I can tell, there is not yet a film of any of his books, either. But I know that's something he tried for. Cou talk a little bit about that process and why we still have yet to see a film of his books?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  40:49  
Absolutely. And Ryan Murphy, if you're listening, you can reach me at the University of Texas at El Paso. I'll send you a free copy of the book. No, I quite quite a few people have after I've talked about Gordon Merrick in the book have said this, this would make a great, a great topic a great subject for a film. And I agree and Gordon agreed also at least, you know, with with "The Lord Won't Mind" you know. Quite a few times, he tried to, he tried to get a film version, or at times, even just a theatrical version produced. And a couple of times he got to you got he got he got close, but it never materialized. There were a couple of projects that looked like they were going to happen, but ended up falling through. But I think, I think now would be an especially good time, in part because there there seems to be a an interest in revisiting, you know, some of these earlier works. And I'm thinking, you know, particularly of the film version of "The Boys in the Band," you know, which was, you know, this this 1969 play that was then made into a film. And for the longest time, you know, the, you know, "The Boys in the Band," you know, it was, was it was kind of it was treated like this embarrassment by a by a lot of gay critics and historians, you know, because of the, the ways in which it represents gay men. But there's, there's, there seems to have been a change in the way that, that that people, you know, look at these works. And there's, there seems to be a real interest in now going back to them. Now with that, that distance of time, and seeing the kinds of history that they that they contained, and that they reveal, um, you know, history that a lot of ways has not been not been really covered, or has been forgotten, to a large degree. And I think I think, you know, Gordon's work, you know, particularly "The Lord Won't Mind," as well as his, his his own life offers a really, really fascinating way of, you know, recovering, you know, some of the history, you know, that tends to get, you know, overlooked or flattened out by these larger Stonewall narratives, you know, about, you know, what life was like, you know, before Stonewall and before 1970.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:06  
Yeah, well, I think it would be great if some film producers just started listening to this podcast and got lots of story ideas, which I'm sure, I'm sure they say if you're listening. Absolutely. Well, for everybody else, how can they get a copy of your book?

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  43:22  
So the book is currently being sold by Rowman so if you go to, I will say that currently, only the hardcover edition is available. So I would, I would strongly, you know, encourage anyone listening to to get your local library or university library to buy it. But I can, I can say that in a few months, the paperback edition will be published and so so that and that will also be through through Rowman. So is the is the publisher so that's, that's, that's where it's, it's, it's available right now.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:59  
Excellent. It seems a little ironic that currently, you can only get a hardcover of a book about Gordon Merrick, but...

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  44:05  
Yeah, I've I've, I've had to have my own publisher experiences and have learned a lot about publishing, you know, in my in my own right, and it still doesn't quite make sense to me.

Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

I, I am just fascinated by how, how much of a of a sea change there's been in in the way that gay romance is treated. You know, it's going to be November soon, and so I'm already getting excited about all the Lifetime and Hallmark movies that feature gay gay romance. You know, there was a time when, you know, a lot of gay writers, you know, kind of kind of really, you know, turn their nose down on on gay romance as a genre. But now, it seems it seems to be quite the you know, quite quite the fashion and I think that's fantastic. And I know it's 50 years after, more than 50 years after "The Lord Won't Mind."

Kelly Therese Pollock  45:01  
Yeah, well,this was really fun. Thanks so much for speaking with me and for introducing me to this fantastic figure and writer, Gordon Merrick.

Dr. Joseph Ortiz  45:13  
Well, thank you for having me. It's been a real real pleasure.

Teddy  45:15  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Joseph OrtizProfile Photo

Joseph Ortiz

I am an Associate Professor in the English Department where I teach courses on Renaissance and comparative literature. I received a BA in English and mathematics from Yale, and a PhD in English Literature from Princeton. After graduate school I spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities, and after that I was a member of the English Department at the State University of New York, College at Brockport. I came to UTEP as a tenured associate professor in 2012. I am the author of Broken Harmony and the Politics of Music (Cornell, 2011) and Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel (Lexington, 2022), as well as the editor of Shakespeare and the Culture of Romanticism (Ashgate, 2013) and On the Origin and Progress of the Art of Music by John Taverner (Routledge, 2019). My research focuses on the reception of classical literature in English, Spanish, and Italian Renaissance literature, the relationship between music and literature in early modern Europe, and more recently the history of gay literature in America in the 20th century. I was recently awarded an American Council of Learned Societies Burkhardt Fellowship, which allowed me to spend a year at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where I began work on my current book project, on the figuration of translation in classical and Renaissance epic.