Return to The Gay Place

Forty years ago a little-known writer named Billy Lee Brammer published one of the great political novels of all time. The Gay Place depicts an Austin that no longer exists in a state whose politics have changed completely.

The country is most barbarously large and final.” It is one of those rare first lines that readers remember all their lives. Published forty years ago, a novel called The Gay Place captured a period in Texas that today may seem as archaic as the book’s title, but its power bridges the years and generations gone by. The novel built for its author, Billy Lee Brammer—also known as Bill or Billie Lee or William—a legend of tantalizing and unfulfilled promise. How could he write a book so ambitious when he was only 31, and then never publish another? The most famous opening in Texas literature begins with a towering overview of the Balcones Escarpment as it divides the nation’s cotton-farming South from the ranch-land West. But Billy Lee was after neither of those rich literary traditions. With nary a sharecropper or a horseman, The Gay Place was Texas’ first successful urban novel. It does not, however, explore gay and lesbian sexuality (though today it often winds up misplaced in that section of bookstores.) For centuries “gay” has suggested joy, brilliance, and mirth; the author found his gaiety in the boozy, incestuous lives of politicians, journalists, and camp followers in Austin in the fifties. The opening passage narrows on a pickup full of farmworkers rattling toward a rendezvous with a state legislator named Roy Sherwood who is sleeping off a drunk in his car:

It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol’s granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.

If that sounds like a Texas take on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the resemblance was desired. Billy Lee lifted his title from a line in a wistful Fitzgerald poem (“I know a gay place / Nobody knows”) and used it as an epitaph for the Austin he had known, and for love itself. Comprising three novellas, called “The Flea Circus,” “Room Enough to Caper,” and “Country Pleasures,” The Gay Place has two connective sinews: the theme of marital alienation and infidelity and an outrageous Texas governor called Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker. The author knew his material well. Billy Lee would be twice married and divorced in his short life—he died of a drug overdose in 1978, when he was 48—and to the end he remained a fervent womanizer. But his book is best known for what is still regarded as one of the most vivid and penetrating portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson. Like most fictional characters, The Gay Place’s Arthur Fenstemaker was a montage of persons real and imagined, but Billy Lee worked for LBJ for several years when Johnson was in the U.S. Senate; from the hokey yet endearing nickname of the governor’s wife, Sweet Mama, to his hapless fetchit of a brother, Hoot Gibson, there is no doubt that Bill took much of his material from Johnson.

Michael Janeway, a former executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly who now directs a program for journalists at Columbia University, was a summer intern on LBJ’s staff when Billy Lee became his friend. “He would write me about various civil rights maneuvers that Johnson carried on under the table, pushing back the old Southern power structure,” Janeway says. “That kind of story would come up in every after-hours conversation; there was a lot of hilarity in that office. And Billy Lee got to go home to the ranch with him. That was where Johnson was the most outrageous—and irresistible.”

My friend Al Reinert wrote in this magazine in 1979 that Johnson’s eventual rejection of Billy Lee was the crushing blow that caused him never to finish another book. That has become the conventional wisdom, but conversations with Billy Lee’s friends, children, and former wives—the last of whom is now my wife—and a fresh look at the author’s voluminous correspondence have convinced me that the LBJ theory is just not true. Billy Lee’s tragedy did not lie in what Lyndon Johnson or anyone else did to him. The shame was what he chose to do to himself.

At the time of its publication, The Gay Place was heralded as a literary triumph, not a political tattletale. Interest in John F. Kennedy’s gawky, oddly diminished vice president was not that great in 1961, but the New York Times Book Review raved about LBJ’s former speechwriter: “William Brammer has an authentic, even lyrical, writing talent. He has as intimate a knowledge of operational politics as any serious American novelist … . Brammer’s great gift is his ability to communicate the poignancy of the passing moment, the sweet sadness of love and time.” At year’s end, Times critic Orville Prescott wrote that five “brilliantly promising” first novels had been published in 1961. Only two are still in print and much remembered: The Gay Place and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Authors as distinguished as Gore Vidal, Ronnie Dugger, and the late Willie Morris have praised The Gay Place as one of the best novels ever written about American politics. David Halberstam, the author of The Best and the Brightest and other splendid books about the nation’s life, says of his friend’s novel, “ The Gay Place still stands as one of those really rare brilliant achievements. Of the political novels in our literature, only two rank with The Gay Place: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and now Joe Klein’s Primary Colors—though it remains to be seen if Klein’s book will endure as a work of art.” Years before Klein anonymously published his roman à clef about the Clintons, he wrote about The Gay Place: “Brammer’s unwitting triumph was to discover the perfect structure for communicating the exasperating unreality of the master politician.”

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