Monday, April 25, 2011

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Lance Loud

Picture of Lance Loud courtesy

I was blithely watching “Royal Wedding” the Saturday night before Easter on Channel 13, PBS—one of those vintage movies where the cast (Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, and the ever-tasty Peter Lawford) make the drivelly content worthwhile, when, at the end of it, Neal Shapiro, president of 13 made an amazing announcement: It was going to air the entire run of “An American Family,” all 12 episodes of it, that night. This had not been done in 20 years, and I somehow vaguely remembered that happening: just watching it with my jaw dropping in sheer astonishment. I’m not sure if they did it as a one-gulp marathon back then, but here it was: an entire night of the Pat and Bill Loud Show, with of course their five children in tow, the most unforgettable one being their eldest Lance.

So, although my eyelids were getting very heavy, I watched until the screen went blank, or I did, and had to go to sleep. It was like Proust’s dipping the madeleine into the lime-flower tea, a total recall of a time that is so far back as to seem fictional, and yet so utterly delectable in its youthful perfection (as well as imperfections) that all I could think of was: God, now a whole new generation of kids will want to dive headfirst into an Early Seventies revival: the wonderful, body-fitting clothes, the music, the attitudes, the flowery smell and feeling of it. And at the center of it, glowed Lance and his mother Pat, with a relationship that was so Oedipal, so Hamlet-and-Gertrude, that it shocked the living crap out of mainstream America (and even blasé New York) when it was first aired on PBS in 1973.

“An American Family” was shot in 1971, but aired full blast 2 years later. Nothing like it had happened before, and the series became a phenomenon, an obsession before the public. TV Guide listed it as Number 32 in the “50 Greatest TV shows Ever Aired Before the Public.” It was financed by the Ford Foundation and PBS, which had the interesting idea that a full film crew should follow a—well, sort of—“typical American family,” for a year.

The Louds were not “typical.” They were definitely upper middle class Californians, though their roots were in the Mid and Northwest. They had five bright, personable, and attractive kids, and they themselves were both incredibly agreeable to look at, and definitely liked being looked at. So, this was Reality TV itself, thirty years before its time, being shot up the butt of the entire country and then flowering, full force, out of its unbelieving mouth.

The producers realized that for this series to work, they had to pick a family who were definitely worth looking at for 10 + hours (each episode lasted about 40 minutes), as well as willing to expose themselves (in many different definitions of the term), and unblinking in their willingness to be exposed. What no one had predicted was that within the year of this filming, the Louds’ marriage would fall apart, and Lance would come out not only as the first openly gay kid on TV, but the first openly gay person ever to stay on television for more than a walk-on shot—and all of this only two years after Stonewall.

Of course, it was quite a two years: the Viet Nam War was raging; Women’s Liberation was moving at full speed velocity, not to slow down until Reagan & Company put the brakes on it; the Underground was popping up via Andy Warhol (who embraced Lance Loud like John the Baptist: here was the kid who embodied all the sexy American self-adoration that Warhol coldly adored—and they mirrored each other back and forth forever); drugs and rock music were part of the street ethos of NY and soon every nook and village in the US; and gays were not simply coming out of the closet but learning to smile like anybody in a Crest commercial. So, Lance Loud became truly the Gay Boy Next Door, that is if you happened to live next door to the Chelsea Hotel or the Adonis Theater.

And he did: he lived at the Chelsea for a while, after he’d decided to leave beautiful “normal” Santa Barbara, California, which was always summery with the Beach Boys on the sound track, the kids looking deliciously wholesome and approachable, and move to gritty, urban-jungle New York to become a “Somebody.” The problem was that Lance could never find that particular “Somebody” to be. He was always an artist in search of a genre, or a genius in search of that thing for which geniuses are recognized: something beyond just talent, that “certain something extra,” as Norman Main told Esther Blodget in “A Star Is Born.”

Poor Lance never became that star. He went to art school in NY, dropped out, tried becoming an actor and rock personality, played CBGB’s with a band called the Mumps, became part of the queer Punk underground, hung around Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, later became a journalist writing for Vanity Fair and the Advocate, but is still known today mainly as (with his mother Pat) the center of “An American Family.” Sadly, in December of 2001, he died at the age of 50 of complications from hepatitis C and HIV.

To me, Lance and Pat were people I knew and very much liked. That came about later, in 1979, after I had returned to New York from a year and a half of living in Germany as an Air Force wife and an entertainment journalist; I arrived with a novel to sell. The novel, called “Jimmy,” was based (somewhat) on the people I’d met near Frankfurt who either worked in the service or were attached to it. It was a comic novel, and at its heart was the remarkable relationship between a redneck queer Army private, Jimmy Calhoun, and his wealthy, respectable, uptight American civilian friend James Poindexter who is working as a designer/architect abroad for the Army. Jimmy’s unpolished, uneducated and queer and almost shockingly proud of it, but he manages to survive in the Army because with all the strikes against him (no money, no future) that’s all he’s got. For Poindexter, whom Jimmy refers to as “Handsome,” this sojourn in Europe is a lark; he lives in a stylish but closeted world that so many queer men lived in then, and even now, and he and Jimmy meet and are glued together by one simple fact: they are both gay outsiders in every kind of sense, living in the American fighting-man’s world in Europe, during the Cold War, post Viet Nam, and pre-DADT, when the Army was always sneaking about, investigating “purple” people left and right.

I’d heard through the grapevine that Pat Loud was acting as a literary agent. She had been instrumental in bringing “Dancer from the Dance” out as a gay bestseller, and decided to run with what she did. She had an interest in gay writers through Lance, and I was at wit's end: the few leads I had in book publishing had gone nowhere. So, very nervously, I called her, and she asked me to send her the manuscript. I did, and a few days later she called me back. She loved “Jimmy.” Thought it was hilarious and heart-warming. She thought the main characters were “spot on,” and that I had invented some totally original material, especially in two ancillary characters, an Army colonel who’s a straight sexual exhibitionist, and a gorgeous brainy post-op transgendered hooker who decides to marry the colonel because only through such a marriage could she continue her education with some economic freedom.

Pat invited me to come see her, and we could talk about the book. This began a series of regular meetings with her, usually at her apartment on East 69th Street, where she would emerge barefoot from a bedroom looking gorgeous, and we’d down glasses of ice-cold straight vodka with a little lime in it, and talk. By my second glass, I could barely say anything, but it didn’t matter. She was really interested in my book, and gave me ideas how to re-write it, keeping out some of the sex (which bothered her and she was sure editors), and putting in more local color from Germany, including more “freuleins” since we’d probably have to sell it to a woman editor instead of a man. After meeting Pat, I became friends with Lance too, and the three of us went out together a lot, sometimes to clubs or restaurants, or just for coffee downtown. Pat knew how to make an impact in a full-length fur coat, with her wonderful glossy hair and big Audrey-Hepburn dark glasses; she looked fantastic, like the full person she had become. I used to see Lance at the old McBurney Y on West Twenty-Third Street where he worked out and that fey young man from the PBS film disappeared into a lusciously handsome guy in his late twenties. But still he didn’t have it together as far as the thing that would bring him the authentic fame he wanted and felt he deserved, post “An American Family.”

It was a strange conundrum: both Lance and Pat continued to have “street recognition,” but without any reason for having it except for being themselves. In other words, decades before the current cult of celebrity, reminted daily by a media desperate for new faces to exploit and explode, they were celebrities: in other words, genuine “personalities” famous for being famous.

Pat stuck with me with an amazing loyalty. She was delightfully genuine, and for New York, almost poignantly, non-bullshit. Big ticket publishing at this point was looking for queer material, but it had to fit into their format to a T: Sex was a no-no, otherwise it would be stamped “porn”; and gay editors to please their straight sales staff had to show that a book was “balanced,” in other words, there had to be enough acerbic self-hatred in the book to show that queers indeed were deserving of the suspicions they aroused in society. Whereas in the old days, the gay character had to kill himself in the end, in the new ones of the late 70s and early 80s, he had to be self-effacing enough to make straights feel comfortable. 

“Jimmy” didn’t do this. He was in your face, in your big hair, and then he got into your heart. Pat sent the book out to one advance-reader at a large house, who, it turned out, had been reading mostly Christian religious books (one of the problems with big publishing: you never can tell who’ll report on your book). She wrote: “This is the dirtiest book I’ve ever read.”

Pat smiled, but realized this was not going to help “Jimmy,” which was being trounced, stomped on, and eviscerated by editors and their minions left and right. One powerful gay editor at Warner Books wrote us: “I’m not sure what gay literature is, but this isn’t it. I don’t think gay readers are at all interested in the military.”
As a next resort, Pat had an idea that I should write women’s romance novels. If these sailed, we could get “Jimmy” back into circulation later. “Just get a couple and read them yourself. They all follow the same format.” I did; she was right. The formula was so hide-bound it was scary. I tried writing two of them: they failed miserably, because my characters kept developing as real characters and not as formula figures.

By this time, I was ready to leave her, and she was ready to leave New York. We parted in a wonderfully friendly way. She kissed me good-bye. I felt truly sad about it. Occasionally I’d see Lance around, and we’d chat about her. His mother had gone back to California to live, then Florida. She was not suited to be a literary agent; that world was too cutthroat for anyone. I left New York for three years in 1982, moving to New Orleans with my partner. I never heard from Pat again, until I saw on PBS a documentary about the whole Loud family coming back together for Lance’s funeral. It was terribly moving seeing footage of him again. He always came off as handsome, as bright and sweet but directionless: this genius from a lost period of time, looking for the right place to land.

You can learn more about 3-time IPPY Award winner and gay activist Perry Brass at his website, . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction  from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle. You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords, the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. The Manly Art of Seduction was named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. You can reach him at if you have questions or comments you want to personally direct to him.


  1. thanks so much for writing about the louds and what they represented at the time. lance was my hero when 'american family' came out-to see someone like myself on TV was startling and thrilling. it meant there really was room in the world for him-and me.

  2. Best wishes to the talented Perry Brass for bringing this bittersweet and appealingly nostalgic ode about Lance and the Loud family to this blog posting. It's important stuff. Many thanks, Perry.
    xx Danforth Prince

  3. I watched the Chelsea Hotel episode too. It was kind of startling to see the Manhattan of my early twenties all these years later. Even the sight of those old accordion style security gates on store fronts almost made me cry. I used to sit in the steam room at the McBurney with Lance in the early eighties. He was a sweet guy, alternately sad and then suddenly enthused about something. It was a very touching article, Perry.