In the fall of 1941, John Horne Burns, Andover ’33, Harvard summa cum laude ’37, was teaching English at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. Burns was an isolationist (“I am a pacifist. I don’t want to get shot,” he had said), a linguist (fluent in French, Italian, and German), and musician, an accomplished pianist and vocalist. He was also a dazzling intellect and a would-be novelist (he’d written many unpublished ones already). He was also a gay man, as closeted as the era required but nonetheless sufficiently out to inspire his gay students, both those who knew they were and those yet to learn. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was drafted. He was twenty-five years old.
Despite an ostensible ban, hundreds of thousands of gay men – at a minimum -- served in the American military in World War II. Theoretically, any of them could have stayed home simply by declaring his sexual orientation — “All you have to do is to tell them you’re queer, and you’re out,” a gay character explains in Christopher Isherwood’s "The World in the Evening" — but few did, either because they felt as patriotic, and as menaced, as everyone else, or because they craved adventure, and community, or because they wanted to prove they were “real men,” or because they feared being stigmatized or blackballed (even among other gays) for staying behind. The screening was perfunctory and easily foiled; as the gay scholar Donald Webster Cory later wrote, “men who had been successfully practicing concealment from families, employers, friends, and others for many years did not find it difficult to continue the deception even before the eyes of a more discerning psychiatrist for a period of five or ten minutes.” Many examiners didn’t care. And besides, manpower was in short supply.
Restless and unfulfilled teaching what he saw as a bunch of pampered rich kids, looking to see the world, less of a coward than he proclaimed, in search of literary material – and, maybe, more gay companionship than provincial Hartford could afford -- off Burns went, first to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, then to Camp Croft, near Spartanburg, South Carolina. An aesthete and a snob who hated anything too strenuous, army life was utterly alien to Burns. He knew it, and vowed to make the most of its novelty. “This was to be the test of me,” he later wrote. “I saw myself posturing, for I’ve always been a little Byronic, wondering if I could, in a crisis.” He later claimed to have felt “brave and audacious” when he began. In fact, he confessed to David MacMackin, a gay Loomis student who became his most devoted disciple and correspondent, that when he’d gotten to Fort Devens, he cried.
To comprehend and describe the experience, Burns turned to a different literary form than the novels he dashed off every summer: letters. They were pithy and playful, revealing an eye for the telling detail. And, at least as far as Burns was concerned, they were written for keeps. “I quite agree in my modest way with mother, that my letters merit publication,” he told his father. “Hope she’s saving them. She can get $50 for each a few years from now — just like a Shakspere [sic] autograph.” But any collection would necessarily be published in stages; for instance, years, or decades, would have to pass — a whole culture would have to change — before his remarkable letters to MacMackin, who was nine years Burns’s junior, could appear. They offer unparalleled insight into the life of a gay soldier at a time when, officially at least, gay soldiers did not exist and, to subsequent generations of traditionalists, never had. With few if any GI’s or Marines writing home about their homosexual experiences, Burns’s letters to MacMackin (miraculously spared the Dumpster by a Burns scholar named Mark Bassett thirty years ago) constitute perhaps the most important gay correspondence from any American soldier during the Second World War.
Of all the letters he received, Burns seemed to savor MacMackin’s most — “As soon as we got our hands dry and the 300 plates done, we wiped off our anticipatory saliva and bit in,” he wrote him of one — and he answered them with gusto. The well-established patois they developed, filled with the clues -- or “hairpins” – through which gay men of that era winked at one another, was newly enhanced by an extended clerical metaphor from a Gothic horror story, set in a monastery, that MacMackin had just written (probably with Burns’s encouragement) for the Loomis literary magazine. This obscure new language, filled with abbesses and priests, habits and soutanes, surplices and veils, appealed both to Burns’s piety and his impiousness: Croft camp from Camp Croft.
One particular neologism -- a nun’s horrified cry upon seeing one of her sisters collapse at the altar -- became Burns’s all-purpose exclamation, connoting excitement, revulsion, pleasure, resignation, or surprise: Brwaugh! It doubled as a noun, meaning assorted gay activities -- or just about anything else. But the most crucial word in their private vocabulary wasn’t new at all, but simply repurposed. It was “dreadful” -- in this instance a noun, or more often an adjective, meaning “homosexual.” Its exact origins are obscure. It could have come from Burns’s vast storehouse of literary learning, or been one of Burns’s playful coinages, or a favorite expression of MacMackin’s aunt, the actress Olive Templeton; we’ll never know. But using it wasn’t all play: “dreadful” was a common-enough word to get by priggish but unimaginative military censors.
The level of intimacy between Burns and MacMackin in this correspondence – only Burns’s half survives -- is striking, sometimes discomfitingly so. “We rejoice that your letters don’t pass through censorship as ours must; otherwise your v-mail of 1 December had certainly been in ribbons,” Burns wrote him of one. The two exchanged photographs, with Burns sending along a Kodachrome of himself in a field jacket with stripes, and a “voluminous picture of me with ‘tapestry finish’” that was, he warned, “subject to the rapine of sunlight, moths, and dreadfuls.” Burns urged MacMackin to hook up with a “dreadful(ly) amusing corporal” at the induction center in Hartford. And to hop a train and visit him at Camp Croft. And then invited him again, urging him to bring his “jools and minks” -- and to watch out for dreadful brakemen en route.
Officially, MacMackin envisioned a musical career for himself; he studied briefly with the noted conductor Pierre Monteux. But Burns had another role for him in mind: biographer. So he lavished upon him details of his life, and his gay military life. Despite the threat of immediate and dishonorable discharge, homosexual activity was considerably more common in the wartime military than one might have expected. And even allowing for Burns’s tendency to exaggerate or fabricate, gay life around Camp Croft appears to have been open and notorious, omnipresent and incessant. By May 1942 Burns had been promoted to corporal and obtained a cushy sinecure, one for which his musical skills equipped him and which, incidentally, was to become a redoubt for gay soldiers everywhere: chaplain’s assistant. Having been spared combat, he happily reported that his army career there had entered a new phase: “Dionysiac.” Every letter brought new details.
There was a “raft of dreadful people” at the camp, Burns told MacMackin, mostly higher-ranking than he. The action for him had begun even before he’d gotten his new position, when he was “propositioned by an elegant slender Catholic sergeant” in the chaplain’s office. The “great gathering place” for dreadfuls, he noted, was by the Hammond organ in Chapel No. 3. “Around the barracks a great deal of joke is made about ourself as ‘corporal of the organ,’” he quipped. He described being awakened one night by “dreadful noises”: truck drivers screaming “dreadfully” and making “dreadful insinuations” about other soldiers. A sergeant assisting Burns with the choir “has a beautiful voice, but shows rather dreadful feelings for incense, tapestries, & Romish liturgy,” while a special services officer who’d once dressed windows in Macy’s surpassed even MacMackin in “refined dreadfulness a la Victorian.” The Seventh Regimental Medical Corps was “riotous & dreadful”; “twenty New York dreadfuls,” calling themselves the “Mad Queens” and wearing their field jackets like “mink boleros,” had just entered the Thirty-second Battalion; “all the chaplain’s groups from corporals up wriggle their bums when they walk and use high-heeled talk”: small wonder that in Burns’s circle, Camp Croft became known as “Camp Crotch.” “For pure and ecstatic dreadfulness,” he told MacMackin, “civilian life is a hollow mockery beside it.” (Needless to say, Burns told none of this to his parents back in Boston, though he wrote them nearly every day.)
His new job induced in Burns what he called “a very strong Catholic revival,” though never had his Catholicism – he’d gone to parochial school in Andover through eighth grade, and was steeped in Church teaching -- lurked very far beneath the surface. To MacMackin (whom he was trying to convert) Burns broke Camp Croft’s Catholics into three groups: “the slackers,” usually boxers and conscientious objectors; “the duller Irish sort”; and the “elite,” who were “either as dreadful as they know how when out of the priests’ hearing or are just plain brilliant.” Burns clearly placed himself in that category, and conceded that the Church posed problems for his kind. “I know so many dreadful people who are ardent Catholics ritually; but they are, of course, in a state of scarlet mortal sin because they refuse to give up their peculiar pleasures,” he noted. “Some are quite honest about it and don’t go to Confession and Communion because they know they’d be committing a sacrilege. Others (and there are some here) keep up all the show of the most fervent Catholicism, but put their mouths which have received the Body and Blood in unlawful places. These, to use understatement, are in a very bad way.”
To find action, Burns discovered, one needn’t go into Spartanburg, where, in any case, hard liquor was unavailable. “Beer & wine only -- this is Methodism,” he explained. (This did not spare Burns from suffering a concussion after falling on his face following a beer-fueled spree in town. To the unsuspecting MacMackin he concocted a romantic alibi of being “conked with brass knuckles by an assailant incognito.”) “Last night at the Dugout I met a soldier who used to be a prizefighter; he wanted at 10 o’clock to knock my block off, but at 11 he was suggesting that we go off somewhere to a little cave in the hills and find out each other’s overtures,” Burns wrote to some Loomis faculty friends. Only the man’s departure three months later broke up their relationship. “He wants me to come along,” Burns told MacMackin in July 1942. “I have his cap now, which is too small for me. Talk about double rings! He used to be welterweight champeen of New Guernsey, but he’s a heavyweight with me, ha-ha.”
But it could not last forever: always, the war was hovering in the background. In two days, he complained in August 1942, four WACs — “the real girls,” he called them -- were due to arrive at headquarters, threatening everyone. “What will happen is that we’ll all be in the trenches by Xmas and the gals will have our juicy jobs,” he griped. “Brwaugh.” Soldiers kept coming to Camp Croft, only to be quickly dispatched overseas, barracks bags and gas masks in hand as they marched to the troop trains. In September trained chaplains were summoned for immediate combat duty. Preparations for a European invasion were already under way; meantime, Allied troops had landed in North Africa.
“The showplace of the South grows daily more lovely, what with landscaping and verdant grass on the red Carolina clay,” Burns wrote another Loomis student named Sebastian DiMauro. “But the new cycles of men grow drearier apace. It seems there are no more young, attractive, fit, intelligent guys left to draft. We are getting now elderly tired men with triple hernias & eight children — or else ga-ga parachutists who’ve not passed puberty intellectually, if physically. Of course there are always Mississippians & Alabamans a la Faulkner, but they have six noses or become pregnant while at camp. The only congenial folk left are the permanent (?) personnel of the camp, like myself. And they are being shipped to combat come il vento d’autunno solleva le foglie [“like the autumn wind blows the leaves”]. The troop ships must be groaning at the rate battalions fly out of Croft into combat.”
But Burns had picked his foreign languages well: in a war against Germany and Italy, he spoke fluent German and Italian. That he’d honed them the better to appreciate arias and lieder didn’t really matter; they made him more valuable in intelligence than in the infantry, and he knew it. “We are doomed to a career of alcoholism and dreadfulness till we can screw our courage up to applying for the censorship classes of the adjutant general’s office, after twelve weeks of which we shall emerge in the dreadful splendor of a 2d Lt.,” he wrote MacMackin in January 1943. This he soon did. So, instead of being sent to the slaughter at Salerno and the other charnel houses Allied soldiers encountered on their way up Italy, in May 1943 Burns reported to Fort Washington, Maryland, where he learned the fine art of censoring the letters of Italian prisoners of war.
Burns’s turn came soon enough: in mid-July 1943 he got orders to proceed overseas “by the first available water transportation.” In late August, as a band played and a Red Cross girl served iced tea, Burns, carrying equipment weighing more than he did, made his way up the gangplank, then headed toward North Africa. En route he read dozens of books, including one by Somerset Maugham he found so bad he threw it overboard in disgust. He also wrote thirty-five sonnets. “With only a faint blush and smirk I think they’re the equal of anything in American poetry since Anne Hutchinson,” he wrote. He accompanied his intelligence unit to Fedhala, a beachfront resort twenty-seven kilometers northeast of Casablanca. “The mercies of military intelligence saved me for a happier fate -- perhaps to expire on a piano bench during a Schumann Lied,” he wrote his friends Holger and Beulah Hagen. (He was the brother of the actress Uta Hagen; she, the sister of the writer Glenway Wescott.) “Hope so, hope so.”
The biggest problems in what he called his “chair-borne outfit,” in which he and sixty other men spent their days hunched beneath nitrogen lamps reading letters, were boredom and, as time passed, depression. Burns dealt with them by chain smoking, drinking, writing, and making music. He had turned into “a Diaghileff,” he told a friend; his letters are filled with details of the concerts, recitals, musicales, and jam sessions he organized, conducted, accompanied, or participated in — productions of unimaginable refinement and sophistication given the time and circumstances. Under his supervision, the sound of Fauré, Respighi, Duparc, Handel, Palestrina, Bach, and Gilbert and Sullivan (and “some Victor Herbert for the rabble”) filled the remote North African air. According to the mimeographed program for the evening of December 2, 1943, the selections included Lieutenant John Horne Burns, baritone, singing ardent and extremely difficult songs by Schubert and Schumann, along with an Irish air. Then, at the piano following intermission, he played Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.
And, as Burns explained to his mother in January 1944, not all the performances were public. He described an evening in which, “over rappings of protest on the walls from adjoining rooms,” he and three fellow officers sight-read their way through the two volumes of the Harvard University Glee Club Collection, covering everything from the choral music of Heinrich Schutz to the present. Officially, it was a scene that simply couldn’t have been – three gay lieutenants, joined by a recent German immigrant turned American officer, performing classical music on the outskirts of Casablanca — and clearly, in the American military, would never be again. “What a war!” he wrote his mother. “If General Patton ever got wind of some of our evenings here...” When he wasn’t performing, he was composing, setting poems by Villon, Whitman, and Edward Arlington Robinson (“Richard Cory”) to music, along with “Ann Rutledge” from Spoon River Anthology. Some he’d send back to the States, daring the censors to decipher them, or to determine whether they contained plans for the invasion of Normandy.
The incongruity and unfairness of it all became increasingly striking: around the same time, thousands of Allied troops were fighting, and dying, at Anzio, thirty-three miles south of Rome. Still, getting transferred to Italy was Burns’s fondest dream. His love for the place, and the culture and language, was nurtured at Harvard, where he’d read, and translated, Dante. Over restless months in Morocco and Algeria he’d dreamed of things Italian: of hearing the Verdi Requiem at the Teatro Reale in Rome on a Sunday afternoon; of melon flowers; of “a quickie on the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” His heart was especially set on Naples. And in late July 1944, his fondest wish came true: he left North Africa -- where “pianos and nerves are forever out of tune” -- and arrived there.
He did so as a new man: as he described it, the army had opened his eyes, and heart; warmth and compassion had washed over and eaten away at his formerly too-clever and cynical soul. “I have lived more, seen more, and cried more inside (tears being verboten to all Aryans) than in all the other 26 years put together,” he wrote his mother on his first anniversary abroad. Or, as he told Holger Hagen: “I’m used now to being overseas, and so much calmer than I was. The sorrow and the loneliness that I thought would eat my life away did a beautiful job of erosion on me: I guess I came face to face with myself and life and death. Now the chemistry is being extroverted; I see so much that I didn’t see and love before. I was living in a beautiful world, but it was selfish; there was no one to share it with. I was a beautiful and finished gentleman, but my manners were only a shell to hide something that wasn’t there.” He seemed delighted, even surprised, by his evolution from snobbery and despair to open-mindedness and decency, though these two facets of himself would always co-exist uneasily, with his newborn better angels forever struggling with the devil so many people spotted in him.
Bombing, first by the attacking Allies, then by the retreating Germans, had reduced much of Naples to rubble; hulks of ships sat like rotting teeth in the famous harbor. Chaotic and teeming even when intact and peaceful, the occupied city was a swarm of hunger, theft, debauchery, and desperation, its inhabitants doing whatever it took to survive. “A flytrap of bustle and efficiency and robbery in the midst of ruin and panic,” was Burns’s take on it.
But none of it bothered him. “It’s no use: that ole black magic is upon me,” he wrote his mother. “I keep telling myself that the country is dirty, and the people superstitious and mercurial. Yet I love Italy the way nothing has hit me since crossing the Atlantic. I keep telling myself that it’s a purely historical and snobbish inebriation — but ’tis there just the same, just as the drunkard’s pink elephants are real to him.” Of three places he grew especially fond: the officers club, located in a former Fascist bank on Via Roma; the San Carlo Opera House (he saw Tosca there over twenty times); and the Galleria Umberto I, the bustling Victorian arcade in central Naples which for him symbolized the beleaguered city’s still-vital heart. In June 1945, he began building the wartime novel he knew he had somewhere in him around it.
In their eloquence and insight, Burns’s brilliant letters from Naples create a portrait of the city rivaling Norman Lewis’s classic Naples ’44. Exquisitely tailored to the four corners of a single page of V-mail, with just enough space to tuck a cursive “Jack” into its lower right-hand corner, they resemble his beloved lieder: compact and lyrical. In them are thoughts and observations on the half-destroyed city streetscapes (“You can see skeleton rooms where people once lived and loved and fought and died”); the clothing of assorted Italian panjandrums (“The streets are glutted with various Italian petty officials in their ridiculous uniforms, Mussolini’s compromise between grand opera and the grandeur that was Rome”); and the very different ways occupants and occupiers struggled to survive. “The city goes about its tasks like a million sleepwalkers in the heat,” he wrote. “Palsied old women in black” pick up cigarette butts or beg for handouts, little boys make “various offers for the bodily needs and hungers.” Then, after dark, with all the Italians under curfew, out came the desperation, and loneliness, and madness, of the Army of Occupation, later to be known as the “Greatest Generation.”
Lost in the giant rooms of their ornate clubs, the din of competing pianos and hot orchestras behind them, hordes of officers knock themselves out with gin or cognac at fifty lire a pop. By nine-thirty or so the tension grew unbearable — and the bars had closed anyway — and everyone drunkenly heads outside “in a last minute search for someone to sleep with — sex, color, or nationality being irrelevant.” By eleven o’clock “they have either found someone or go wherever they are going and sleep it off, to repeat the process the next night,” he wrote. “Much of the lurid tempo of the city is from the stark raw sex hungers that stalk it as a natural ghost of the roughness of war.”
Those same hungers, and his own ventures into Neapolitan dreadfulness, soon brought Burns down with syphilis, and landed him in the Dantesque venereal disease ward of the local military hospital outside town, housed in what only a few years earlier had been Mussolini’s grand exposition commemorating the Italian empire. There Burns endured dozens of injections of a magic new yellow viscous solution – penicillin -- from blunt needles in primitive syringes every three hours around the clock for a week. To MacMackin (though not to his family) and, later, to readers of his great wartime novel, Burns described this experience vividly. Such writing is unique: not many GIs wrote home about their bouts with V.D.
As the European war wound down and eventually wrapped up, Burns’s love for the Italians, whom he found dignified and courageous even when they filched his money, his watch, his cigarettes and cans of meat, only grew. But he soured on America and Americans, whom he found provincial, coarse, insensitive, exploitative. “Since I love the language, the people, and the music, my pleasures are more varied and subtle than the idea that every Italian woman is to be had and that every gentle and dignified Italian is to be called Paesano, preferably in a shout,” he wrote one of his students. Or, as he told his father, “Italians who have nothing somehow or other touch me more than an American officer bitching away because he has had to take Raleighs instead of Chesterfields.” American boorishness even extended to “Frankie” Sinatra, who gave a concert to American soldiers outside Naples in early July 1945. Burns was looking on when the singer and his entourage arrived for lunch. “He looks like a corpse in an ill-fitting suit of the most sumptuous tweeds,” he wrote his father. “He had with him three American actresses who looked more whorish than anything I have ever seen on Via Roma of starving Italian girls who have to make a living. What pissed off the whole mess hall is that the Voice’s party got coffee while we were drinking GI lemonade.”
Worse even than American loutishness was American bigotry and stupidity. Yes, Burns could be snobbish, and wrote from time to time about “Wops” and “pickaninnies,” but that was the carelessness of the time; as a Roman Catholic “mick” and a “queer” to boot, he had an instinctive sympathy for anyone similarly oppressed. That was why he’d objected when his father talked of “kikes” at the dinner table. Now, in his letters home, Burns detailed the flak he’d gotten from fellow officers for bringing, on one occasion, a black colleague, and, on another, his Italian lover (formerly a soldier in the Italian army) to dinner at the officers mess, even though he paid the twenty-five-lire tab. “I was made the object lesson because our major objected to my sitting there with Lino and jabbering in Italian all the time,” he told his father. “Ho hum. I think there’s enough sadness in the world that I at least may go all out to make some one happy when I like him as much as I do Lino.” Just to stick it to his narrow-minded colleagues, he made plans to bring a Japanese-American soldier friend who, for all his bravery in battle, was, as Burns put it, “still suspected of spying for Tojo,” and “plant him right under the major’s nose.”
Writing to his mother, he described another episode involving the soprano Caterina Jarboro (said to have been the first black woman ever to have performed on a major American opera stage), who was in Naples with a troupe of black performers for the USO. After Jarboro had taken what the man thought to be his place at the bar and ordered herself a drink, Burns wrote, “a drunken parachute officer was feeling ugly and looking for someone on whom to vent his hate.”
“Since you do not lynch negro women, no matter how much you loathe the black race, he stormed around to find a colored man to pick on,” Burns wrote. “He found a little negro, since now the hotel is full of colored USO units. He thrust his face into the poor little guy’s, and out came a flood of choice vulgarity and abuse. He told the little colored man to tell that nigger bitch to go home and learn her place. He said this in various degrees of shouting and obscenity for fully five minutes and charged off like a spent bull, leaving the little colored man in tears. There is a frightful commentary on modern life to see a small black man in a smart US officer’s uniform standing beside a Tom Collins and bawling. Even those at the bar who don’t care for negroes were embarrassed and silent. I was so angry that without any pretense at being little Joe Jesus I had to go up and tell the little negro how sorry I was that any American officer would behave so. The expressions on the faces of the Italian waiters showed that they saw little difference between this and an SS trooper clubbing a Jew. We have glass windows in our own house, I fear.”
The atomic bomb disturbed Burns more profoundly than any other aspect of the war; he returned to it repeatedly in his letters. (In one, sent to his mother a few days afterward, he envisioned a post-nuclear remnant retreating to caves with pianos and cooking utensils, procreating a new and more humane human race. “The first of the progeny who invents so much as a slingshot will be pushed off a cliff,” he told her.) “Even more fiendish than the invention itself is the callous joy with which it was greeted in the press, surely an indication of how far humanity has dropped in six years of war,” he wrote. It only intensified his belief that America’s essential impulses were dark, leaving it in no position to lecture anyone.
“I see no further point in Americans babbling about atrocities, since it depends on who commits them, doesn’t it?” he asked. The bomb also strengthened Burns’s vow to make things better through his writing, or at least to explain what he had seen. That was where his new novel, which would be so different from his sophomoric older ones, would come in. It came out of him in torrents: he showed people pages of it as soon as they came out of his macchina da scrivere. “I am kept going by an antipathy to almost everything I see, by your letters, by music, and by my novel The Gallery, which has ’em in the aisles here, even in typescript,” he wrote Holger Hagen two days after Hiroshima. “No second of my life must be wasted in non-essentials, sez I.”
Burns returned to the United States in the spring of 1946. A year later his wartime novel, "The Gallery," was published to enormous critical acclaim. Chroniclers of the first Great War, like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, pronounced him one of the prime writers of the second; critics spoke of his potential as much as his achievement. Far more quietly, gay readers immediately recognized the book -- particularly with its striking depiction of a gay bar patronized by Allied soldiers -- for the literary landmark it remains to this day. The hypercompetitive Gore Vidal confessed in his journals that Burns might be an even greater writer than he; his only consolation, Vidal wrote, was that he would surely outlast him.
And he did. With breathtaking speed -- thanks partly to his drinking, partly to a corrosive cynicism he could not seem to contain, and partly to the limited freedom of gay writers of that era to describe honestly what they really felt and understood, Burns went into precipitous decline. Within only a few years, he was an embittered drunk in Italian exile, his talent eroded or blocked, his work ridiculed or rejected. Nights, he could be found downing rounds of cheap cognac and soda in the bar of a fancy Florentine hotel until, in August 1953, under murky circumstances in an Italian seaside town, he died. He was thirty-six years old.
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Adapted from "Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns" by David Margolick. Now available from Other Press. Copyright 2013 by David Margolick. Printed with the permission of the author and publisher.