My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.
Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.
Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.
I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.
Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt – punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.
Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.
As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.
Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.
Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.
Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.
Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.
He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.
The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists
Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.
Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.
Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.
After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.
I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.