How Gertrude Stein And Truman Capote Became “So Famous And So Gay”

Author Jeff Solomon's new book follows the rise to fame of two queer literary giants.

“We spend so much time thinking about broad queerness [that we] lose sight of an old school gay and lesbian identity,” author Jeff Solomon tells NewNowNext. Solomon’s latest work, So Famous and So Gay, explores how legendary writers Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein managed to gain exceptional success during a time of war, economic depression, and rampant homophobia.

so famous so gay capote stein
University of Minnesota Press

“There were always gay writers, and many were famous,” says Solomon, “but a lot of the people that we think of now as famous queer writers from pre-Stonewall days weren’t publically seen as that during the ‘40s or ‘50s.”

Stein and Capote were contemporaries: Stein published her first book in 1933, the same year that Truman Capote moved from Louisiana to New York City. In Paris, Stein was subjected to a collaborationist France. Although it’s rumored that she helped political figures further their anti-Semitic agenda, Stein—who was Jewish herself—hid in the countryside with her life partner Alice B. Tolkas until the climate quieted. Meanwhile, Capote, remained in the U.S., immersed in the Great Depression.

These repressive political and social environments pushed the authors to provide relevant reflection within their works. In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote examines a boy’s troubled childhood in the South, while Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas offers a meticulously crafted exploration of an intimate relationship post WWI. “[Capote and Stein use] the generic conventions of romance to portray an idealized love without sexual expression,” explains Solomon, “to avoid both internal and external homophobia.”

Author, screenwriter and playwright Truman Capote photographed in his United Nations Plaza residence in 1980. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)
Jack Mitchell/Getty

At a time when art was closely monitored, Stein and Capote challenged the system. “Capote [co-opted] traditionally female standards of seduction and representation, and Stein [did] the opposite,” says Solomon. “[Capote] embodied a ‘50s homophobic stereotype that repulsed a generation of scholars. He was a writer who successfully turned his sexuality into a marketable good at a time when assertions of homosexuality outside of private contexts were met with censorship, derision, and oppression.” Stein went the opposite route: “She was an occasional political poet whose queerness was textual rather than sexual, and not extreme.”

American writer and patron of arts Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty

The authors’ public personas also differed. “Stein’ [was] a woman already outside of ’normal’ categories,” Solomon explains, “so much so that she was not judged by the usual sartorial rules.” Solomon notes that Stein’s rejection of traditional femininity established her as an asexual cultural pioneer, central to explosive literary experimentations. However, Capote’s hypersexual persona drew in the bold and curious, and most significantly, lured in the media. It allowed readers to live vicariously through a flamboyance often considered taboo.

By analyzing Stein and Capote’s careers, Solomon unpacks the ways in which media can shape perceptions. While So Famous and So Gay doesn’t spend too much time dissecting the minute personal and romantic details of its subjects, it does consider how interpersonal relationships can grow to be limitless within literature, and in turn, pave the way for social change.

So Famous and So Gay is published by University of Minnesota Press and available for purchase here.

Michael Valinsky is a writer based in New York and Paris. His work has been published in i-D, Out, Bomb, Lambda Literary, and other outlets. He is the author of ".TXT," and an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.
@michaelvalinsky