Pouring rain is pummeling Manhattan when I meet David Margolick at a West Village café. I arrive drenched and needing caffeine. Margolick is dry, sipping coffee and has the calm, collected air you’d expect from a seasoned journalist with a prep school pedigree. He has reported for esteemed publications like The New York Times and Vanity Fair and his books cover topics like segregation, the boxer Joe Louis and American law—subjects with which the general public is familiar. His latest book is titled Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns. John who?
I admit my embarrassment at having never heard of Burns. “You have no reason to be embarrassed about that,” Margolick assures me. “I think this is a very dramatic story about how obscure someone once famous can be. It’s one thing always to be obscure, and it’s one thing always to be famous. But this is an unusual story of somebody who was famous and then just disappeared.” This isn’t an exaggeration: Burns went from being unknown, to a household name to all but written out of history.
In 1916 John Horne Burns was born in Andover, Massachusetts, the eldest child of a Boston heiress and a lawyer. After a Catholic school education he attended Harvard before being hired as a teacher at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. It would be decades later that, as a student at Loomis, Margolick’s interest in Burns would be piqued. “Burns was kind of a hobby for me for many years,” Margolick says. “I’d heard about him at Loomis, I’d always been curious about him and I’d return to him every five or ten years and dip into him a little bit.”
Burns left Loomis to serve in Africa and Italy during World War II. While abroad he maintained detailed correspondence with his family and friends (in particular his mother, eldest sister, Cathleen, and a gay former student, David MacMackin). The letters recounted “his revulsion at the misconduct and abusiveness and boorishness of American soldiers” as well as his empathy for the people of Naples, a city of which he grew quite fond.
Eventually Burns turned his talents to penning what would become his chef d’oeuvre, The Gallery. Though he had previously written a number of unpublished manuscripts, Burns knew he had something special with his account of the war and sought to sell it. Publication of The Gallery was timed perfectly, expressing a post-war sentiment with which many Americans identified. And in a time when homosexuals (or, as Burns playfully coined them, ‘dreadfuls’) were barred from military service and the subject of homosexuality was taboo, The Gallery remarkably contained a chapter about a Naples gay bar.
Burns often claimed to be engaged to a woman and, as his era dictated, did not openly discuss his own homosexuality, so the book proved to be an outlet. He wrote about his homosexuality in a veiled way in The Gallery, but Margolick says “it’s both veiled and in your face” in the novel. “Each time I read it I realized how thoroughly gay-infused it is.” Though gay literary circles certainly picked up on the homosexuality, critics didn’t touch it. “Either they didn’t see it or they didn’t want to see it.” It was praised simply as post-war literature. Regardless, The Gallery elevated Burns to an enviable level of commercial success.
Gore Vidal is a now a household name, but with the enthusiastic reception of The Gallery, he saw Burns as a threat. “Vidal was terrified at the thought that John Horne Burns was actually a better writer than he,” Margolick says. The envy Vidal felt reinforces the reality that, with The Gallery, Burns had a powerful impact as a writer. However, in a reversal of fortune, six years and three failed follow-up books later (only two of which were published), Burns had become an embittered drunk. He spent his days sipping cognac at the Excelsior Hotel in Florence, Italy, before his untimely death at the age of 36.
Before Dreadful there were a few attempts at biographies of Burns. But Cathleen, keeper of Burns’ wartime correspondence, would not relinquish control of the letters for would-be biographers. There was still a familial effort to keep Burns’ sexuality private. However, the letters were eventually passed on to brother Tom, who wanted to see a good biography of his brother written and proved instrumental in Margolick’s research. “Tom wasn’t concerned that I had a gay agenda because I’m not gay,” Margolick says. “So I wasn’t approaching him from that perspective and they weren’t afraid that I was going to turn him into some kind of gay hobby horse, which also made things easier for me.”
Securing a publisher proved easier, too. Margolick considers meeting Judith Gurewich of Other Press “serendipitous.” So intrigued by his pitch, she bought the book without seeing even so much as a sample chapter. “It’s risky to publish a book like this but it’s properly timed and it fills a hole in a rapidly emerging history and a culture that’s being rapidly accepted,” Margolick says. “All of the sudden there’s this great curiosity about gay culture yet there’s this great ignorance about gay history.”
Today, 12 states allow same-sex marriage but Burns lived in a time when “you couldn’t come out and proclaim your sexual orientation—so he did it in another way,” Margolick says. “He did it through his writing, he did it through a book. And the book is incredibly courageous.” Dreadful can be considered courageous as well. It is, after all, a biography and legit biographies aren’t sugarcoated to make subjects more tender or less acidic. “People want to like the people that they’re reading about,” Margolick says. “And yet you have to take them the way that you find them.” In short, Burns wasn’t the most likable fellow and Dreadful makes no attempt to hide that.
So what would the “very difficult, prickly, at times cruel and obnoxious” Burns think of finally having a biography? “I think I’ve rescued him and I think he’d feel good about that because I think he felt that he was good enough for one,” Margolick says. “And I think he would have been horrified to think that he was as obscure as he became.”
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and sometimes photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.