THE DAMNED DON'T CRY, THEY JUST DISAPPEAR: The Life and Works of Harry Hervey. By Harlan Greene. University of South Carolina Press. 184 pages. $29.99.
In "The Damned Don’t Cry, They Just Disappear," historian and Lambda Literary Award-winning author Harlan Greene reconstructs the life and times of Harry Hervey.
A Southern writer all but forgotten by history, Hervey had a career that spanned four decades from the 1920s to the 1950s, spawning 14 books and countless screenplays, including "Shanghai Express" starring Marlene Dietrich.
Hervey’s story feels oddly prescient in the age of social media where individuals are compelled to promote their lives and brands in pursuit of internet fame. Hervey was, after all, a natural-born storyteller (and not strictly in the literary sense). As Greene notes: “Just about every interview (Hervey) gave contradicted something else he had said.”
Whether erroneously claiming he was born in Mississippi instead of his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, or boasting that his first published story debuted in the prestigious Smart Set magazine, when actually it appeared in a cheap sister publication, he was curating an image of himself and embellishing the truth in a way that feels strikingly familiar to the Facebook generation.
In the same way many slap a filter on a photo to make it more Instagram-worthy, Hervey seemed to understand early on how media could be manipulated to cultivate a winning public persona; and long before it became de rigueur for writers interested in making a living as writers.
Indeed, in Greene’s account, as you read about stories the author planted about himself in gossip columns and society pages, you can’t help but wonder what today’s celebrity authors owe Hervey who, decades before readers would follow the exploits of writers like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, was talked about as much for his writing as for his bohemian lifestyle.
Born in 1900 in Boatwright, Texas, son of Henry Clay (a hotel manager) and Jane Louise Hervey, Hervey displayed from an early age a fascination with travel and far-off places. He would read about Southeast Asian countries and dream of the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. At only 22 years old, he published his first novel, "Caravans By Night: A Romance of India," before ever setting foot on the continent of Asia (if you can imagine).
On the heels of that novel's success, the author would embark on a life of travel that would take him all over the world, including Japan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Savannah (where he lived in the de Soto Hotel for a time) and Charleston’s Rainbow Row.
A part of what makes his story so unique is that, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and criminalized across the United States, Hervey was, for all intents and purposes, living openly as a gay man with his longtime lover, Carleton A. Hildreth.
Using primary resources and explicating the thinly veiled homoerotic references that fill the pages of his work, Greene methodically charts the ways in which Hervey’s sexuality, and his relative openness about it, shaped his career and may have contributed to the diminishment of his legacy.
Some of Hervey’s earliest novels, like "Ethan Quest," for instance, consistently center on male protagonists trying to escape romantic relations with women in favor of male companionship.
Leaving his wife "would not be a cowardly act,” Ethan reasons, in Greene's account. “To the world it might be wrong, but what so many called wrong was simply a violation of tradition and social code.”
Greene reminds us that “indeed, homosexuality violated social code and was against the law,” situating Hervey’s narrative squarely with the act of “claiming and naming one’s repressed sexuality.”
Not all of Hervey’s neighbors, over the course of his career, took kindly to his openness. In fact, while he was living in Charleston, shortly after the Broadway success of his play, "Congai" (based on his novel of the same name), he came to realize that “although he liked the city ... many did not particularly like him.”
It became increasingly apparent that his homosexual relationship with Hildreth and his flamboyance was off-putting in a conservative city where, Greene sardonically points out, even Harrison Randolph, the former president of the College of Charleston, complained about “how difficult it was to deviate from expectations and indulge in affairs with men.”
Even Hervey's progressiveness had its limits. A product of his time, he relied on racist and sexist narrative tropes throughout his career. In many of his stories, he adopted a long literary tradition in which white men traveled abroad where the culture of darker people could be used as a portal to transcend the limitations of their own circumstances, to discover themselves, much like Hervey himself did.
In another example from "Ethan Quest," the protagonist travels to Hawaii after escaping marriage and forms a bond with a handsome Polynesian man named Ilio, which translates to "dog" in Hawaiian. Greene explains that, in the literature of the time, “by pairing men of different races ... in an exotic setting,” homoerotic relationships could be disguised as the anodyne devotion of the colonized for the colonizer.
Similarly, Hervey’s body of work is filled with misogynistic characterizations of women as untrustworthy and wiley she-devils. Greene explains that it was born of a lifelong fascination with women, “what they wore, their emotional lives, their wiles and their power as seducers and love objects of men” that both “attracted and repelled” Hervey.
With a researcher’s eye for detail, and a storyteller’s ability to summon truth from fiction, Greene manages to untangle the weeds of Hervey’s life, and the many half-truths that defined it, and he paints a portrait of a man struggling to find his artistic voice and staying power in a rapidly-changing 20th century.
Neither attempting to make a psychoanalysis of the internalized homophobia at play in his expressions of misogyny nor firmly arguing it was solely, or even primarily, his sexual identity that led to his being disappeared from history, Greene instead assembles the facts for the reader to interpret.
The picture that comes into view is often unflattering. Like his stories, which were shamelessly recycled throughout the course of his career (short stories becoming novels, novels parlayed into stage plays, plays to screenplays), Hervey seemed in an unrelenting process of reinvention. And just like emerging writers and bloggers today, he was constantly repurposing content for different media platforms. In addition to the obvious prejudice his sexuality brought upon him, could it also be that his legacy was compromised, at least in part, by his own shape-shifting?
Perhaps Greene captures Hervey’s spirit best when he writes “new leases on life intrigued him.” Here, Hervey gets one. It is a story of which he would undoubtedly be proud. Perhaps he’d only wonder when it was going to be rewritten for the silver screen.
Reviewer Chase Quinn is a writer in Charleston.