James McCourt: On Divas And Drag Queens

Patsy Southgate | January 22, 1998

James McCourt, one of the discriminating band of writers who winter in the Hamptons, is back again after a hellish two-year stint in Washington, D.C., where his partner, Vincent Virga, co-authored the acclaimed "Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States" with curators from the Library of Congress.

Like any Irish-American storyteller worth his salt, Mr. McCourt came home with a new book in his computer. Called "Delancey's Way," it will be brought out by Knopf, probably in the fall.

Parts of Mr. McCourt's earlier novels and stories were either written or edited on the East End - he first came here in 1957 - and most abound in local references.

End Of An Era

There's "Mawrdew Czgowchwz," about a definitively fabulous Czech diva, "Kaye Wayfaring in 'Avenged': Four Stories," set partly in East Hampton, and "Time Remaining," remembrances of eight members of a legendary '50s New York performance group who have died of AIDS, shared at a Sagaponack kitchen table and on the old Cannonball.

In their doting celebration of "all things counter, original, spare, strange," as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, these novels immortalize the unbridled glamour of an era stopped in its tracks by its mounting death toll.

Homesick and lonely amid the Beltway bureaucrats, Mr. McCourt dreamed up plot lines for his new book that would spirit some of his beloved "Time Remaining" gang to Washington, to keep him company, he said, at least in spirit.

It seems that Delancey, the reform school graduate and theatrical artiste with the Sagaponack kitchen, was also a piping plover advocate. In the new book, his creator has The East Hampton Star assign him to the nation's capital to do an investigative report on the 104th Congress's environmental policy.

In Washington, Delancey attends environmental breakfasts given by Al Gore, getting a lot of inside info for The Star while making a bit of a fool of himself over the attractive Vice President.

Odette O'Doyle, the semi-retired transvestite ballerina and World War II veteran who reminisces on the Cannonball, turns up in a subplot based on Henry Adams's novel "Democracy" (which feminists be lieve was actually written by his wife, Clover).

Vana And The King

"I liked the idea of replacing Clover with this drag queen posing as an extremely buttoned-up Republican matron who calls herself a New Whig," remarked the writer.

Then there's Vana Sprezza, a formerly lushed-out Venetian diva married to the Italian condom king, who makes a stunning comeback spearheading an AIDS awareness drive that features Christo wrapping the Washington Monument to look like a giant condom.

With these three soulmates back in starring roles in his imagination, Mr. McCourt was able to make hay of his difficult cocktail-party conversations with the actual natives.

"The D.C. way of putting things only occurs within the Beltway," he said. "It's not pretty, but I hope I achieved a working verisimilitude with what I think of as these big comic-book balloons of dialogue."

"I've never done anything like it before, stitching together quotes gleaned from newspapers and remarks overheard at parties, but in Washington you have to be subversive."

"I call the book a debriefing, and I'm just happy my characters got out alive."

The Far Skyline

Settled with Mr. Virga in a cottage hidden behind privet hedges, Mr. McCourt talked about the childhood and adolescence that led him to write these books, as well as the many similarly far-out stories he has published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grand Street, Yale Review, and other literary magazines.

He was born in Flushing Hospital on July 4, 1941, and grew up in Jackson Heights, a place he came to view as a mistake.

As a boy, he remembers, he would look longingly at the city skyline from the platform of the 90th Street station of the elevated Flushing line, always riding in the front car to watch it come closer, knowing that Manhattan was where it was at.

A '50s Growing-Up

In the '50s, he attended parochial schools and Catholic churches, dated girls, acted in school plays, devoured the columns of seven daily newspapers, went to Broadway shows, the ballet, concerts, art museums, Birdland and Village jazz dives, and was a permanent fixture on the standing-room line at the Metropolitan Opera.

Summers, he worked at menial jobs, spent weekends in Fire Island and East Hampton, and resolved his sexual identity. "Not a very happy life," he said, "except that it was led in New York in a time which was even then recognized as epochal."

As a senior at Manhattan College in 1962, Mr. McCourt experienced a moment of instant celebrity on the CBS quiz show "The G. E. College Bowl," winning money for his alma mater as captain of a whiz-kid team of "New York chin-up micks and wops who flashed a lot of attitude."

Information Please

Even early on, he was dauntingly erudite - a walking encyclopedia who was recognized and cheered on the streets of New York for a few heady days.

"Darling, when you die . . . it really will be as if a library has been burned down," says one of his characters, a remark that might well be addressed to its polymath author.

"I'm a sort of garbage can of information," Mr. McCourt acknowledged. "My mother was like that, too, a repository of little details."

"I think it's an Irish thing, an aural thing. It's like being a tape recorder. You hear things and remember them; who can say why?"

Alternate Universes

The future writer learned to be far-out as a kid, too. When he wanted to imagine an alternative universe, he'd go into a certain closet, close the door, and sit for a short while.

"When I opened the door, everything would look the same, but whatever I'd decided to have happen would happen. All my stuff had to be there, the family furniture all in place, but the story could go anywhere. A Martian could sit down at the table, or a movie star."

"I didn't discard the autobiographical details, just transmogrified them."

"When I'd talk to the late writer Harold Brodkey, he'd say, 'My mother really had cancer, but I made all the rest up.' And I'd say back, 'We all make the rest up, Harold, but what do you make it up out of? You make it up out of the furniture. You transform it. ' "

From The Outside In

After taking his M.A. at New York University, Mr. McCourt studied acting at the Yale School of Drama. There he developed a lasting admiration for the methods of Stella Adler, who, unwittingly reinforcing his theory, stressed the importance of being "in your circumstances."

"What do you think about the candlesticks? Those chairs?" she'd ask her students, admonishing them to start with the furniture - to, as she put it, reach the inside from the outside.

Like many '50s writers, Mr. McCourt approached his early work with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a Dexamyl (a form of speed) coursing through his bloodstream.

"A perfect combination," he said, "except that people were getting very paranoid and dropping like flies."

That Drag-Queen Look

"'Mawrdew Czgowchwz' had a longing in it for an idealized past in which time stands absolutely still. When you write like that, you're desperately afraid of getting old and dying."

After the novelist kicked his triple habit, time began to move forward in his fiction: people grew up, had babies, and died.

Mr. McCourt's infatuation with drag queens dates back, he said, to his childhood, when he would see his mother dressed up in her party clothes to go out dancing.

"I was fascinated by her '40s makeup and high heels, and, in the late '50s, delighted by the imitation, or caricature, of this look as camp."

Ineffable Opera

His passion for opera singers was rather more serious. "I grew up listening to the radio, and would suddenly hear a voice so beautiful I couldn't sleep. In the beginning it could be Ethel Merman or Helen Traubel - I made no distinction between show biz and classical music."

The first opera singer who made him "absolutely nuts," he said, in terms of an ineffable "other" quality was Victoria de los Angeles.

"That had to do with the ecstatic," said Mr. McCourt.

"Normally the human voice is an instrument of self-seeking, but the singing voice is not asking for anything, not even for applause. It is entirely giving, which, for me, is the initial attraction of the lullaby."

Joining The Party

Mr. McCourt, who has taught creative writing at Princeton and Yale, has given some thought to what impels people to write.

"For me, it's like this kid wakes up in the dark and there's this party going on in his house. He's really unsure whether he can get away with joining it, but he feels he has to try."

"The grown-ups are all smoking and drinking and laughing and having a wonderful time, and he's about 4, standing there in his pajamas. It occurs to him that he can't just stand there - not that he's not loved, but that he has to have a routine of some kind. He has to say or do something, so he won't be sent back to bed."

"That's what my writing starts to be about," Mr. McCourt concluded. "Being allowed to join the party. What it becomes, of course, is an extended postmortem. Remember how important they used to be? Often more important than the parties themselves."