William Gordon Merrick (August 3, 1916 – March 27, 1988) was a Broadway actor, best-selling author of gay-themed novels and one of the first authors to write about homosexual themes for a mass audience.
During most of Merrick's life, homosexuality was still viewed in the American culture as a moral outrage. Editors and film censors demanded that gay men be depicted objectionably, and that gay relationships end tragically in literature and on film. Merrick, however, wrote stories which depicted well-adjusted gay men engaged in romantic relationships. And each of his books had a happy ending.
William Gordon Merrick was born in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, Rodney King Merrick, was a manager of a truck company who eventually became a bank manager. His mother was the former Mary Cartwright Gordon (born Natchez, Mississippi, 26 July 1893). He had one sibling, Samuel Vaughan Merrick 3rd (1914-2000; married 1947, Eleanor Perry; three children, John Rodney, Melvin Gregory, and Thaddeus Merrick). Merrick was a great-grandson of Philadelphia philanthropist Samuel Vaughn Merrick (1801-1870).
He enrolled at Princeton University in 1936, studied French literature and was active in campus theater. He quit in the middle of his junior year and moved to New York City, where he became an actor. He landed the role of Richard Stanley in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. Although he became Hart's lover for a time, Merrick tired of the theater, with its endless nights playing the same role.
In 1941, Merrick quit Broadway to become a reporter. Exempt from the draft because of problems with his hearing, Merrick moved to Washington, D.C. where he got a job with the Washington Star. He later worked for the Baltimore Sun, then returned to New York to write for the New York Post. His years as a reporter helped him develop a love of writing as well as a writing style.
Still eager to participate in World War II, Merrick sought and won a job with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S., the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency). He was sent to Algeria as a counter-espionage officer, rising to the civilian rank of captain. He was diverted to France and took up residence in Cannes. Because he spoke excellent French, the O.S.S. gave him papers listing him as a French citizen. He was case officer for the double agent codenamed "Forest".
In August 1945, Merrick returned to the United States. He again tried to find work as a reporter, but failed. So he went to Mexico and began writing.
Merrick's first novel, The Strumpet Wind (1947), was a huge success in the United States for a gay novel. The somewhat autobiographical novel is about a gay American spy in France during World War II. Homosexual themes are minimized in the novel, which explores concepts of individual liberty and freedom. The spy's director is a dazzlingly handsome but sadistic bisexual. It would be easy to dismiss the novel as homophobic, but Merrick does not let the reader off so easily. Nearly every character in the novel has major character faults, including the protagonist. Merrick neatly turns the "evil homosexual" character on his head by presenting every human being as flawed. The pressures of war only exacerbate these problems, bringing out each person's inability to handle his own problems.
With the money he earned, Merrick returned to France. Merrick continued to write in France, but success eluded him. He left France to avoid the unrest which accompanied the Algerian War of Independence. Merrick moved to Greece and took up residence on the island of Hydra.
During his Greek tenure, Merrick's best-known book, The Lord Won't Mind, became his second major American success. Charlie Mills and Peter Martin are both young, handsome and well-endowed. They meet and fall madly in love. The book has been criticized for its insistence on beauty in the gay male world. Although the novel and Merrick are often criticized for an insistent emphasis on handsome virile men, some critics defend Merrick:
- Beauty is a part of gay life, an important part—those men aren't spending all those hours at the gym just for the cardiovascular benefits. This "obsession" has its roots in our core definition; we are gay because we find men beautiful. Beauty has its dangers, of course. That's part of our complex response to it, and it is in fact this complexity that makes beauty a valid and vital subject for our literature.
The book follows Charlie's path from a closeted gay man to a person who accepts himself. Charlie is terrified of rejection, especially that of his rigid, moralistic grandmother whom he loves but who expects him to marry and have children. Charlie at first attempts to live a double-life, expressing his homosexuality through acting and painting. But his life is incomplete without Peter.
- It is through Charlie's anguish that the reader catches a glimpse of Merrick's interest in the problems the gay male experiences establishing an identity. Charlie's socially imposed resistance is in contrast to Peter's childlike innocence. When Charlie eventually throws Peter out and marries a woman to protect his reputation, every reader, straight or gay, can detest his duplicity and weakness, but must also empathize with the situation that Charlie has had forced upon him by an intolerant society.
Charlie's wife later suspects his homosexuality, and perpetrates an horrific act of violence on her husband. As Charlie works through the aftermath of the attack, he slowly comes to realize that honesty and self-acceptance are the only way out. Merrick presents this self-isolation as a necessary first step on the road to self-realization.' At book's end, Charlie finally confesses his love for Peter, and they move in together.
The book appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list for sixteen weeks in 1970. The first in a trilogy, Merrick followed it up with One for the Gods in 1971 and Forth into Light in 1974. In 2004, German screenwriter Renatus Töpke wrote several drafts of a screenplay. Currently, Munich production company and Paradigma Entertainment is attempting to raise money to finance a motion picture based on the books.
Merrick left Greece in 1980, when the local tourism industry made Hydra too crowded for his taste. In that year he moved to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), having bought property there in 1974. But he returned to France occasionally, eventually purchasing a home in Tricqueville. For the rest of his life, he divided his time between the two countries.
Gordon Merrick died in Colombo, Sri Lanka, of lung cancer on March 27, 1988. He was survived by his companion, Charles Gerald Hulse (born 1929), a dancer turned actor turned novelist (In Tall Cotton, 1987).
In all, Merrick wrote thirteen books. He contributed book reviews and articles to The New Republic, Ikonos and other periodicals, but only his later works were successful. Merrick's works are rarely included in anthologies, and few discussions of American gay authors mention him. Some dismiss Merrick because of his obvious romanticism; others do so because he sprinkles explicit scenes of gay sexual intercourse throughout each novel.
But underneath the handsome blonde studs with too much wealth falling in love on the Côte d'Azur, are fairly progressive and even radical conceptualizations of what it means to be gay, the likelihood of self-actualization, identity politics and the role that power plays in relationships. In his later works, Merrick rejected socially imposed roles and labels, insisting that each gay person question the assumptions underlying his life. Gordon Merrick broke new ground that has only recently become fertile. Deeper probing into Merrick's works will undoubtedly yield richer understandings of the complex social dynamics that construct networks of control over human sexuality.'
Gordon Merrick bibliography
- The Strumpet Wind. New York: W. Morrow, New York, 1947.
- The Demon at Noon. New York: Meissner, 1954.
- The Vallency Tradition. New York: Meissner, 1955. Reprinted as Between Darkness and Day. London: R. Hale, 1957.
- The Hot Season. New York: W. Morrow, 1958. Reprinted as The Eye of One. London: R. Hale, 1959.
- The Lord Won't Mind. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1970. ISBN 1-55583-290-3
- One for the Gods. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1971. ISBN 0-380-00133-0
- Forth Into Light. New York: Avon Books, 1974. ISBN 0-380-01195-6
- An Idol for Others. New York: Avon Books, 1977. ISBN 0-380-00971-4
- The Quirk. New York: Avon Books, 1978. ISBN 0-380-38992-4
- Now Let's Talk About Music. New York: Avon Books, 1981. ISBN 0-380-77867-X
- Perfect Freedom. New York: Avon Books, 1982. ISBN 0-380-80127-2
- The Great Urge Downward. New York: Avon Books, 1984. ISBN 1-55583-296-2
- A Measure of Madness. New York: Warner Books, 1986. ISBN 0-446-30240-6
- The Good Life. Alyson Publications, 1997. ISBN 1-55583-298-9 (Published posthumously, this manuscript was discovered in the papers of Charles G. Hulse who co-authored the final work.)
- Bach, Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart, 2001.
- McCauley, "Gordon Merrick," in Gay and Lesbian Literature, Volume 2, 1997.
- Geiger, "Authority and Power," Manas, October 11, 1972.
- Schwartz, "David Leavitt's Inner Child," The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, 1995, pp. 40-44.
- Bach, Steven. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. Paperback ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001. ISBN 0-306-81135-9
- Geiger, Henry. "Authority and Power." Manas. 25:41 (October 11, 1972).
- Gordon Merrick, 71, reporter and novelist.' New York Times. April 23, 1988.
- McCauley, Bill. 'Gordon Merrick.' In Gay and Lesbian Literature, Volume 2. New York: Gale Group, 1997. ISBN 1-55862-174-1
- Schwartz, Michael. "David Leavitt's Inner Child". The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review. 2:1 (1995): 40-44.