“They Make Their Exit, Arm in Arm”: Vernon Duke and LA’s LGBTQ History

Malibu Pier area in the 1950s

It was a multifarious delight to see My Hollywood praised in The New York Review of Books, in a wonderful piece by Anahid Nersessian, a professor of English at UCLA, that paired the collection with Adam Kirsch’s own loose (in all but the metrical sense) LA memoir-in-verse, The Discarded Life. Nersessian’s reading is generous and her phrasing is lapidary; she doesn’t groan at my rhymes and detects in my poems an “air of upbeat sorrow,” as well as “an émigré mood, defined by the conviction that things could always be worse.” How true, that last bit. And it gave me special pleasure to see the critic connect this mood to the work of the composer Vernon Duke, né Dukelsky, whose Russophone Angeleno poems I’ve been translating for some time. Not only does Nersessian mention the two I included in the book, “Farmers Market” and “Sunset Strip,” but she also (I could hardly believe my eyes!) quotes from this very blog:

Duke is best known as a songwriter and lyricist who collaborated with Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, but he also wrote poetry, including the archly titled The Sorrows of Elderly Werther, published in 1962. As Dralyuk explains elsewhere, “The Sorrows includes an entire sequence of poems dedicated to Los Angeles: portraits of a faded movie star on Sunset Blvd., a toothless beatnik in Venice Beach, an old heiress in Beverly Hills, etc.”

This unexpected appearance inspired me to translate another of Duke’s portraits, which is perhaps the most daring of all. Set in a Malibu bar, the poem depicts a conversation between two men — one older, the other younger — who, by night’s end, leave together. Is what we witness a prelude to an exchange of sexual favors for money? Part of a longstanding arrangement? Is the younger man a part-time “hustler” or a kept man? The questions are left open. I find the poem to be daring not only because it depicts a homosexual liaison, but because the speaker passes little to no judgment on what he sees. If anything, it’s the disparity in age and economic resources between the men that comes in for implicit critique; yet even this disparity is treated as a fact of life. On a humid, fragrant night in Malibu, one man gets what he needs, the other what he desires. Things could be worse.


The fireflies of countless cars
sparkle and die out in a flash;
exhausted fishermen have cleared
the ocean of its final fish.
Now Malibu is humid, fragrant —
a plated slice of cantaloupe.
The night encloses in its coffin
the living corpse of daytime hope.
There’s precious little left for mortals:
white snow over a mug of beer,
a curious, peculiar torpor,
and waves, monotonous and drear.
Two at the bar — amid the hubbub,
they chat as if alone tonight;
Their trousers are as tight as rubber;
their shirts are neat and gleaming white.
One’s past his prime — passed it by plenty.
He’s rich, if looks do not deceive.
The other’s huge, and maybe twenty.
Wrestler, perhaps? Soldier on leave?
The younger one is downing whiskey;
the older sips Crème de Banane.
The Californian fog, all frisky,
tickles the eyes as it creeps in.
“How’s tricks, my boy?” “Oh, I’ve been better.
There isn’t any work these days.
“Yes, so I’ve read. Good luck, dear fellow.”
A second round. “Oh, by the way…
You got a fiver you can spare?
Landlady’s after me for rent…
I’m waiting on a package there…”
The old man’s eyes turn sharp, like flint:
“Five dollars isn’t nothing, friend.”
He pays the bill. “Let’s get some air.
It’s awful stuffy in this bar.”
Then, slowly and without a care,
they make their exit, arm in arm.

And now consider the fact that Duke’s book appeared in 1962, two years before Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, which also works up to a scene of flirtation between two men — one older, the other younger — on a beach in Los Angeles, though it is far more moving than this. Duke’s collection also appeared a year before John Rechy rocked the Anglophone literary establishment with his stream-of-consciousness novel of the hustling lifestyle, City of Night. That novel incorporates the 1959 LGBT uprising at Cooper Do-nuts in Downtown LA, which took place a full decade before Stonewall. Along with the 1967 uprising at The Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Blvd., which is still standing, and the 1968 protest at The Patch on PCH in Wilmington, the Cooper Do-nuts “riot” paved the way for the Pride movement on the West Coast. The people who frequented these establishments were fed up with constant police harassment, which targeted the patrons of other bars as well. Among those bars was Johnny Frenchman’s at 18756 Malibu Road, and I wonder whether that might not be the setting for Duke’s poem. Regardless of the exact location, the poem also reminds me of Charles Gullans’s sequence of SoCal bar poems, collected in Letter from Los Angeles (1990). Gullans, who was a professor of English at UCLA decades before Nersessian joined the department, wrote with disarming candor about the experience of being an older gay man in the land of eternal youth. In one such poem, he considers speaking to some handsome young people but reconsiders:

Because it is my past; and they are locked
Within a future I can never reach.
What would I say to them or they to me?
I have no wisdom that they need as yet.
Though I am out of place by twenty years,
There is some pleasure in my sitting here,
Watching the young and beautiful at play.
Golden children, all the long afternoon,
Till diamond chips sift down the evening sky.


Бесчисленных автомобилей
Сверкают, гаснут светляки;
Всю рыбу в море изловили
Измученные рыбаки.
Как ломтик спелой канталупы,
Пахуч и влажен Малибу
Дневных надежд живые трупы
В ночном покоятся гробу.
Немного смертному осталось:
Над кружкой пива белый снег,
Усталость, странная усталость
И монотонных волн разбег.
У бара двое — и в толкучке
Они толкуют про своё;
На них преузенькие брючки
И безупречное бельё.
Один поношенный изрядно,
По всяким признакам богат;
Другой — лет двадцати, громадный,
Борец иль в отпуску солдат.
Двадцатилетний хлещет виски,
Старик сосет Crème de Banane
Ползет в окно калифорнийский,
Глаза щекочущий туман.
«Ну, как дела?» — «Бывает лучше —
Работы нет, опять застой».
«Да, я читал. Good luck, голубчик!»
Они хватили по второй.
«Ах, кстати… Мне нужна пятёрка:
Хозяйке комнаты платёж…
Я жду посылки из Нью Иорка…»
Старик в юнца вгляделся зорко:
«Пятёрка — всё же деньги… что ж…»
Он расплатился . «Зря сидеть нам,
Кабацким воздухом дышать».
И под руку с двадцатилетним
Из бара вышел не спеша.


8 thoughts on ““They Make Their Exit, Arm in Arm”: Vernon Duke and LA’s LGBTQ History

  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Interesting and atmospheric. Loving your collection-My Hollywood. Struck by the word “drear” here and its connotations in early poetry. “Johnny Frenchman” too was intriguing as the title of a film from around 1947 about Cornwall and Brittany.


  2. Wonderful, wonderful. I hate to admit it, but I was never very appreciative of gay lit. The world sneaks up behind and wraps around you so you have to rethink and readjust. All to the good.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Heartbreaking poem – beautifully translated, as ever. I wonder whether the young man is a manipulator and a sponger, or whether he’s truly desperate (that would make the poem even more heartbreaking). In any case, the older character remains predatory and sinister. From what I can gather, Vernon Duke isn’t sympathetic to either of them.

    Liked by 2 people

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