James Broughton

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James Broughton
Born(1913-11-10)November 10, 1913
Modesto, California
DiedMay 17, 1999(1999-05-17) (aged 85)
Port Townsend, Washington
OccupationPoet, memoirist, playwright, film-maker

James Broughton (November 10, 1913 – May 17, 1999) was an American poet and poetic filmmaker. He was part of the San Francisco Renaissance, a precursor to the Beat poets. He was an early bard of the Radical Faeries,[1] as well as a member of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,[2] serving the community as Sister Sermonetta.

Life and career[edit]

Broughton was born to wealthy parents in Modesto, California. His father died when he was five years old in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and he spent his childhood in San Francisco. Before he was three, "Sunny Jim" experienced a transformational visit from his muse, Hermy, which he describes in his autobiography, Coming Unbuttoned (1993):[3]

I remember waking in the dark and hearing my parents arguing in the next room. But a more persistent sound, a kind of whirring whistle, spun a light across the ceiling. I stood up in my crib and looked into the backyard. Over a neighbor’s palm tree a pulsing headlamp came whistling directly toward me. When it had whirled right up to my window, out of its radiance stepped a naked boy. He was at least three years older than I but he looked all ages at once. He had no wings, but I knew he was angel-sent: his laughing beauty illuminated the night and his melodious voice enraptured my ears…. He insisted I would always be a poet even if I tried not to be….Despite what I might hear to the contrary the world was not a miserable prison, it was a playground for a nonstop tournament between stupidity and imagination. If I followed the game sharply enough, I could be a useful spokesman for Big Joy.

Broughton was kicked out of military school for having an affair with a classmate, and attended Stanford University before dropping out just before his class graduated in 1935. In 1945, he won the Alden Award given by the Stanford Dramatists' Alliance for his original screenplay Summer Fury.[4] He spent time in Europe during the 1950s, where he received an award in Cannes from Jean Cocteau for the "poetic fantasy" of his film The Pleasure Garden, made in England with partner Kermit Sheets.

Through his career, Broughton produced 25 books and 23 films. In 1967's "summer of love", Broughton made a film, The Bed, which broke taboos against frontal nudity and won prizes at many film festivals. The film rekindled Broughton's filmmaking and led to more films including The Golden Positions, This Is It, The Water Circle, High Kukus, and Dreamwood. Broughton's films developed a following, especially among students at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught film (and wrote Seeing the Light, a book about filmmaking) and artistic ritual. In 1965, Broughton collaborated with harpist Joel Andrews to produce The Bard & the Harper, an album of recited poetry and music, on Gleeman Records.[5]

With Joel Singer[edit]

As poet Jack Foley writes in All: A James Broughton Reader, "In Broughton's moment of need, Hermy appeared again in the person of a twenty-five-year-old Canadian film student named Joel Singer... Broughton's meeting with Singer was a life-changing, life-determining moment,[6] that animated his consciousness with a power that lasted until his death." In 2004, Singer wrote of their long relationship and collaboration in White Crane.[7]

With Singer, Broughton traveled and made more films – Hermes Bird (1979), a slow-motion look at an erection shot with the camera developed to photograph atomic bomb explosions, The Gardener of Eden (1981), filmed when they lived in Sri Lanka, Devotions (1983), a study of male relationships, and Scattered Remains (1988), a tribute to Broughton's poetry and filmmaking.

Broughton explored death deeply throughout his life.[8] He died in May 1999 with champagne on his lips, in the house in Port Townsend, Washington, where he and Singer had lived for 10 years.[9] His last words were: "My creeping decrepitude has crept me all the way to the crypt." His gravestone in a Port Townsend cemetery reads, "Adventure – not predicament."[10]

Personal life[edit]

In Coming Unbuttoned, Broughton remarks on his love affairs with both men and women. Among his male lovers was gay activist Harry Hay.[11]

Broughton had many creative love affairs during the San Francisco Beat Scene. He briefly lived with the film critic Pauline Kael and they had a daughter, Gina, who was born in 1948.[12] Broughton put off marriage until the age of 49, when he married Suzanna Hart in a three-day ceremony on the Pacific coast, documented by his friend, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Hart and Broughton had two children, and built a counter-culture community along with friends including Alan Watts, Michael McClure, Anna Halprin, and Imogen Cunningham.

Broughton is the subject of the 2012 documentary Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton[13] from Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, Dawn Logson and cinematographer Ian Hinkle.[14]





The Films of James Broughton, a DVD compilation of seventeen films on three discs, was released in 2006 by Facets Multimedia.[15]

A selected collection of his work, All: A James Broughton Reader, edited by Jack Foley, was released in 2007 by White Crane Books.


  1. ^ Hernandez, Vic (Summer 2009), "Time After Time and Again", RFD, archived from the original on February 1, 2010, retrieved March 26, 2010
  2. ^ "Obituary: James Broughton", The Independent, June 3, 1999, retrieved December 21, 2023
  3. ^ Broughton, James (1993). Coming Unbuttoned. City Lights Publishers. ISBN 978-0872862807.
  4. ^ The Stanford Daily "Playwright Sees Own Play Performed", August 3, 1945
  5. ^ James Broughton & Joel Andrews - The Bard & The Harper, 1965, retrieved 2023-11-13
  6. ^ "James' Journals". Big Joy. 2015-05-22. Retrieved 2016-06-13.
  7. ^ "Ripe Fruit" by Joel Singer, White Crane – Spring 2004
  8. ^ "3 James Broughton poems on death, old age, and life". Big Joy. 2016-04-04. Retrieved 2016-06-13.
  9. ^ "The Poetic Death of the Visionary James Broughton". YouTube. Retrieved 2016-06-13.
  10. ^ "The Poetic Death of the Visionary James Broughton". YouTube. Retrieved 2016-06-13.
  11. ^ glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture Archived 2008-12-30 at the Wayback Machine, Gary Morris, January 9, 2005.
  12. ^ "James' Story". Big Joy. 2015-02-27. Retrieved 2016-06-13.
  13. ^ "the Adventures of James Broughton |Simplify, Clarify, Vivify|". Big Joy. Archived from the original on 2014-07-02. Retrieved 2014-06-29.
  14. ^ IMDB
  15. ^ Todd Konrad. "The Films of James Broughton". Independent Film Quarterly. Archived from the original on January 5, 2014. Retrieved January 4, 2014.

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