Rechy exploded into the nations awarenessand onto its
bestseller listsforty years ago when he published his first
novel, City of Night.
Through the veil of fiction Rechy told what was largely his own
story in the voice of a nameless young male hustler, recounting
his adventures in the homosexual underground of late 1950s Times
Square and the nightworld of Chicago, San Francisco,
Los Angeles and New Orleans.
wrote frankly and unapologetically about a world most people didnt
know existed. Behind the politeness and propriety of many-masked
America, Rechy showed that everyone is so lonesome.
Everyone in Rechys world-within-a-world of street hustlers
and transvestites is there to escape their past, hoping for a brighter
future, able only to believe in their youthful desirability until
even it isnt enough to keep them clothed and fed.
Rechy revealed that hustler and score are really the two sides of
the same mask worn to hide the loneliness inside. The youngman
offers his body for a price; the score offers money for a few pleasurable
moments; both of them desiring to live out of the darkness
and the shadowed loneliness . . . to find a substitute for Salvation.
own quest for a substitute began, as does City of Night and
several later novels, in the west Texas of his boyhood home in El
Paso. Born on March 10, 1931, Juan Francisco Rechy was the son of
Guadalupe Flores, a Mexican beauty from Chihuahua, and Roberto Rechy,
son of the most prominent physician in Mexico City. John Rechy was
named for his paternal grandfather, also named Juan Francisco Rechy.
revealed that hustler and score are really the two sides of
the same mask worn to hide the loneliness inside.
parents character defects powerfully shaped the young Rechy:
the mothers crushing tenderness, the fathers
rare displays of kindness that were mere islands . . . in
the ocean of his hatred. Roberto had grown up in privilege
and traveled the world as director of the Mexican Imperial Symphony.
But when the entire Rechy family fled Mexico for El Paso in the
1910 revolution, Roberto found himself unable to make his living
in music and forced to take increasingly menial jobs to support
his family. His disappointment in his own life erupted regularly
in verbal and even physical beatings of his sensitive young son,
as though he could deny his own crushed dreams by trying to crush
those of his offspring.
Islands in Robertos ocean of hatred were the times he would
have the young John sit on his lap, or on the laps of his male friends,
and say, Give me a thousand. The father and his gray-haired
mates would fondle the boy in exchange for pennies and nickels.
Toward the end of City of Night, the narrator says he remembers
the fondling game as simply his fathers way of reassuring
me, in that strange wayso briefly!that he did . . .
The young Rechy retreated from the emotional chaos around him into
the world of his imagination. A voracious reader and moviegoer,
a loner, and possessed of striking good looks that made both men
and women stop and stare at him on the street, Rechy would escape
El Paso as soon as he could. College and a stint in the army gave
him a taste of the outside world. Although as a teenager he had
been devoutly Catholic, the churchs explanations no longer
satisfied Rechys pilgrim soul, and he set out to find a suitable
substitute to fill the deep loneliness within him.
Rechys biographer Charles Casillo writes in Outlaw: The
Lives and Careers of John Rechy (Alyson, 2002), As the
young Rechy turned his face from God, he turned it toward the mirror.
It was there he found the one person he could trust, who would love
him, and who would never hurt or abandon him. Rechy resolved
only to rely on himself, to love himself above all others. He vowed
to allow others, particularly other men, only to desire himnever
to possess him. Like the screen actresses of Hollywoods glamorous
past he strongly admired, Rechy was determined to become others
fantasy. Also like these beauties, Rechys sexual desirability
would be his ticket to survival, as Charles Casillo
Returning from the army to El Paso and his beloved but enveloping
mother, Rechy knew he needed a bigger break from the past. So he
left his mother crying in the doorway as he set out for freedom:
New York!embarking on that journey through nightcities and
nightlivesï¿½looking for I dont know whatperhaps some
substitute for salvation, he said in City of Night.
a merchant marine made overtures to him at Manhattans Sloan
House YMCA, Rechy in his early twenties realized there were men
who would pay more than the pennies and nickels of his boyhood to
enjoy his physical charms.
He recalled in an interview at his home in Los Angeles that when
he went to Times Square after this realization it was like
I had awakened from a dream. All around him were the denizens
of the nightworld he would soon write about, living in full view
of heterosexualsyet all but invisible to those unattuned to
the dynamics of the body language, the exchanged gazes, the gestures
through which the hustler and score recognize each other.
a merchant marine made overtures to him at Manhattans
Sloan House YMCA, Rechy in his early twenties realized there
were men who would pay more than the pennies and nickels of
his boyhood to enjoy his physical charms.
was enthralled by the terrifying spectacle of this outcast
boiling world. His narrator in City of Night says,
I surrendered to the world of Times Square, and like a hype
who needs more and more junk to keep going, I haunted that world
not only at night now but in the mornings, the afternoons . . ..
Like his fictional young hustler, Rechy fled his own innocence and
shunned mutual desire in exchange for the knowledge, confirmed in
cash, that he was Desirable.
It is only at the books climax at Mardi Gras 1958 that the
narratorand, Casillo shows us, John Rechy himselfrealizes
he has become trapped by the hustling world. Until then he had reassured
himself that although he was participating fully in that world,
he could always get out of that chosen world any time
Like his character, Rechys escape was his education and ability
to get a legitimate job, and, increasingly, his writing.
In the late 1950s his short fiction was published in literary magazines
such as Evergreen Reviewalongside the likes of Samuel Beckett,
Jean-Paul Sartre and Jack Kerouac. City of Night started
out as a letter to a friend describing Rechys experience at
Mardi Gras. An editor at Grove Press, Rechys publisher to
this day, realized he had a major new talent on his hands.
Several times Rechy left the hustling world and took a job, only
to return to the streets when the compulsion to feel desired outweighed
all else. In fact, he occasionally hustled the streets of Hollywood
into his forties, even after he had become a successful writer and
university professorsimply to prove he could still turn heads
and be paid for it.
After and between stints in other cities and visits to El Paso,
the center of Rechys life in the late 1950s was Pershing Square
in downtown Los Angeles, a block-square sunny asylum among
the flowers and the palmtrees, the fountains gushing gaily.
As he had been in Times Square, Rechy was fascinated by the simultaneous
dimensions of experience playing out in Pershing Square, the sexual
majority oblivious to the choreography of the homosex
hunt happening all around them.
But in Los Angeles Rechy was still painfully aware of another dimension
of life in Pershing Square that was as unspoken as it was ubiquitous:
loneliness. He wrote of the world of Lonely-Outcast America
squeezed into Pershing Square. The sad young men masking their
hunger for love as they sell their youth to men who are no longer
youthful. The drag queens dreaming of white weddings and homes in
Hollywood. The scores whose self-hatred drives them to denigrate
the masculinity of the young man whose manhood they just paid to
enjoy. The square, seething with all the live lonesomeness.
debuted at number eight on the New York Times bestseller
list when it was published in 1963, and spent nearly seven months
on bestseller lists across the country. It was later published in
twenty other countries. I had no doubt that City of Night
would be an enormous success, wrote Rechy in his preface to
a 1984 edition. In a reversed way, I had thought it would
sell modestly and that the book would be greeted with critical raves.
The opposite occurred, dramatically.
was stung by the homophobic vitriol passed off as reviews
in some of the nations leading book reviews. A closeted
gay man writing in The New York Review of Books dismissed
Rechys masterpiece as a fruit salad.
was stung by the homophobic vitriol passed off as reviews
in some of the nations leading book reviews. A closeted gay
man writing in The New York Review of Books dismissed Rechys
masterpiece as a fruit salad. The reviewer, Alfred Chester,
went so far as to question whether John Rechy really existed or
was merely the nom de plume of another real writer.
Rechy biographer Casillo notes that the physically repugnant Chester
was bitterly envious that the sexy young man in the adorable
photo on the rear of the dust jacket, as Chester put it, could
actually be a talented writer too.
Rechy had often experienced this same putdown on the rare times
he let slip with a score the fact that he was quite the opposite
of the pretty-but-dumb loser they needed him (in their fantasies)
to be. He would experience it many more times by those who knew
him as an author yet wanted him to live down to their fantasies
of John Rechy. But then Rechy was adept at playing into
peoples fantasies to get what he wantedeven when he
had no intention of actually delivering the goods.
Fortunately City of Night also had outstanding reviews. The
New York Times called it remarkable. The Washington
Post said it was a first novel that must be considered one
of the major books published since World War II. The books
commercial success allowed Rechy to buy his mother a home in El
Paso, one of his most cherished memories. But his success also left
him feeling guilty because he was able to escape the nightworld
when it closed in on him while those he wrote about were trapped.
He wrote sadly of the beautiful young men whose only gift was their
beauty. Their limited, increasingly optionless futures too often
led to a bleak decline into alcoholism and skid row, the area that
literally and metaphorically hovered at the edge of the hustling
scene in downtown Los Angeles. Many of the people I wrote
about inevitably would have ended up there, says Rechy, adding,
Its a curious thing, the romanticizing of the hustler,
who exists mostly very briefly.
years I pulled away from any identification with [City of Night],
Rechy says, even while living the life. I felt enormously
guilty. Its a curious thing when you turn real people into
art, one of the great unfairnesses. Sure all those people existedbut
they never got out.
Rechy called this the compassion that only one outcast can
feel for another, and it is one of the main qualities of his
writing. His compassion frequently has eluded his critics who typically
focus on the sexual content of his earlier books in particular.
Little wonder that another of Rechys most autobiographical
protagonists, Johnny Rio, won little sympathy given the books
surfeit of (steamy and well-written) sex.
Rechy himself was featured, in his trademark tight-fitting shirt
and Levis and striking a come-hither pose, on the cover of his second
novel, Numbers (1967), which describes Johnnys return
visit to L.A. after several years back home in Laredo, Texas, away
from his former hustling life. Johnny has come back to prove to
himself that even in the world of the sexhunterthe
men who cruise streets and parks for sex based on attraction rather
than remunerationhe is a desirable number and
able to rack up any number of men he chooses. Johnnys goal
for the ten-day visit is thirty men who will want him enough to
kneel before his Manhood and offer oblations to his Desirability.
This one-sided (oral) sex was Rechys own stock-in-trade as
a hustler, feeding his voracious hunger to be desired. Johnny Rio
and his creator struck many as the dictionary definition of narcissist.
Yet Rechy says he argued about Johnny Rio with biographer Casillo.
Johnny Rio was very vulnerable, he told me. He
could be destroyed very easily. Thats something people forget
about narcissism, the enormity of the rejection.
Unlike Johnny Rio, the self-described narcissist Rechy is quite
aware of his own monstrous fear of rejection, the rejections
I still remember and it still hurts.
Death of Youth
has said that Numbers is as much about dying as it
is about sex. Casillo notes that the death he describes is
the death of youththe specter that haunted Rechy from a young
age. Even in City of Night, published when he was only 32,
Rechy writes, At 17, I dreaded growing old. Old age is something
that must never happen to me. The image of myself in the mirror
must never fade into someone I cant look at.
has said that Numbers is as much about dying as
it is about sex. Casillo notes that the death he describes
is the death of youththe specter that haunted Rechy from
a young age.
72, Rechy says his disparaging feelings about aging havent
changed as he himself has aged. But he obviously has adapted his
expectations to the inevitable changing reality of an aging body,
though he clearly remains youthful in his outlook. When I
look in the mirror today, he says, no, of course I dont
see Johnny Rio; I see John Rechyand that pleases
me. I see a man whose body is muscular and firm and in much better
shape than those of my students in their twenties. I see a good-looking
face that I admire and is admired.
False modesty is not one of Rechys traits, though graciousness,
even courtliness, and decorum are all apparent in his personality.
He recalls with disgust a time two students in the master class
for established authors he teaches in his home were groping each
other underneath the dining table. Im very nearsighted
and didnt realize there was a man and woman messing around
with each other under the table. I said, look, that is okay
in the bushesbut NOT in my workshop! I could not believe
By all accounts, Rechy is a loving and generous teacher at the University
of Southern California, though he considers himself a guide rather
than a teacher. He insists his students know what he has accomplished
as a writer before accepting them into a writing class. They
must know who I am, he explains. They must know that
I know what Im talking about. He talks with them frankly
about his lifeall his lifeand models for his class the
kindness he demands of them. No one ever comes out of my workshops
limping and saying Ill never write again,
he says. I tell them this: In life you have to be kind. In
your writing you can be cruel. I feel like Ive done that while
expressing a lot of compassion.
Rechy describe himself as a spiritual person? I wouldnt,
he says, because that gives people an unnecessary flutter
of misunderstanding. I dont like mysticism and dont
allow it in my classes. Im not a conventionally religious
person, but I do believe in some kind of spiritualism. I would describe
it more as a responsibility to humanity. As long as one is here
the only transgression I can see is cruelty.
He is appalled looking back on his own cruelties. He recalls the
times in his hustling days when I felt I had to be faithful
to the role I was in and then I did things that were cruel and that
I now deteststealing from people who picked me up. I still
marvel that I was capable of doing that.
spare yet voluptuous writing embodies deeply spiritual ideas.
He draws from the Bible and the Catholic Mass for his most powerful
Rechy had felt miserable about clipping a score even when he was
on the scene. In the voice of the motherly bar owner Sylvia, we
hear the younger Rechy telling his confreres in the world of outcasts
gathered in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and his readers beyond,
[E]ven in a world without lawsand mostly, hell, we all
know itmostly its lawless because its a scene
. . . a scene people shun, are . . . afraid of, dont even want to
know existseven in that kind of worldwell, Jesus, Holy,
Christyouve got to have some kind ofhell, yesdecencysome
kind of rules. . . . Theres got to be some kind of morality!
Rechys spare yet voluptuous writing embodies deeply spiritual
ideas. He draws from the Bible and the Catholic Mass for his most
powerful images. The worlds he creates are populated by angels,
as he calls them, usually fallen or dark. Dawn skies
are purgatorial purple and Ash Wednesday brings epiphany
to the hustler-narrator of City of Night. Both Bodies
and Souls (1983) and The Coming of the Night (1999) feature
a young man tattooed with a naked Christ. Orgasm itself becomes
an image of challenged death in The Sexual Outlaw
Rechy says this spiritual dimension is even more apparent
in some of my so-called non-gay books. The Miraculous Day of
Amalia Gomez (1991) deals with miracles. Our Lady of Babylon
(1996) deals with the creation of man. Bodies and Souls is
about Los Angeles and the act of redemption. He adds, There
is a phrase that appears in every book I write: There is no substitute
How is it this unreconstructed champion of promiscuity and
sexual abundance, as he described himself in our interview,
also turns out to be a deeplyif not admittedlyspiritual
Charles Casillo suggests the answer may lie within Rechys
now twenty-plus-year relationship with movie producer Michael Snyder.
Rechy fictionalized the difficult beginning of the relationship
in Rushes (1979) in a scene of tenderness set amidst the
hardness of a leather bar when Michael and the Rechyesque
Endore recall their agreement not to be possessive and the pain
keeping that agreement has caused.
life now is very involved with Michael, says Rechy, a quarter
century after writing that scene. We have what I consider
a perfect relationship. Neither of us has ever made demands of one
another. And yet the matter of choice was to me so enormous. I choose
to be with him, nothing makes me. He chooses to be with me. There
are no promises, no Oh, dont you dares, no violations
that If you do this, I will do that, no Where
have you beensnothing of the sort. And yet I am so entirely
The man who gave up counting his sex partners at 7,000 calls his
longtime partner (his preferred term) sweetheart when
Michael calls to confirm plans for dinner with friends that night
at The Orangerie to celebrate Rechys birthday. He makes clear
for an interviewer who didnt seem to grasp it the first time
he said there arent any outside activities. Its
monogamousbut not by imposition, by choice. Theres nobody
Id rather be with than Michael. And I know theres nobody
hed rather be with than me. He adds, I consider
it a miracle that out of my jumble I was not only able to meet Michael,
but to become this unit that we are and still remain individuals.
With a happy long-term relationship, a move soon to a new home in
the Hollywood Hills, a biography of him recently published, his
own next novel (an Eighteenth Century picaresque based on Tom Jones
called The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens) about
to be published, a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the
PEN Center USA-West, another lifetime achievement award from the
New York-based Publishing Triangle, and students who seek out his
classes, John Rechy no longer needs to make himself anyones
fantasy. Instead he has created a reality for himself that isnt
a substitute for the nightworld he once haunted and wrote of so
vividly, but it is indeed his salvation.
Andriote is senior editor in Family Health
Internationals Institute for HIV/AIDS and author of Victory
Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America (University of
Chicago Press) and Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco (harperentertainment).