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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Chapter 37


CELIA GOT ABSOLUTELY SMASHED DURING the wedding. She was having a hard time not being jealous, even though she knew the whole thing was fake. Her own husband was standing next to Harry, for crying out loud. And we all knew what we were.

Two men sleeping together. Married to two women sleeping together. We were four beards.

And what I thought as I said “I do” was It’s all beginning now. Real life, our life. We’re finally going to be a family.

Harry and John were in love. Celia and I were sky-high.

When we got back from Italy, I sold my mansion in Beverly Hills. Harry sold his. We bought this place in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, just down the street from Celia and John.

Before I agreed to move, I had Harry look into whether my father was still alive. I wasn’t sure I could live in the same city he lived in, wasn’t sure I could handle the idea of running into him.

But when Harry’s assistant searched for him, I learned that my father had died in 1959 of a heart attack. What little he owned was absorbed by the state when no one came forward to claim it.

My first thought when I heard he was gone was So that’s why he never tried to come after me for money. And my second was How sad that I’m certain that’s all he’d ever want.

I put it out of my head, signed the paperwork on the apartment, and celebrated the purchase with Harry. I was free to go wherever I wanted. And what I wanted was to move to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I persuaded Luisa to join us.

This apartment might be within a long walk’s distance, but I was a million miles away from Hell’s Kitchen. And I was world-famous, married, in love, and so rich it sometimes made me sick.

A month after we moved to town, Celia and I took a taxi to Hell’s Kitchen and walked around the neighborhood. It looked so different from when I left. I brought her to the sidewalk just below my old building and pointed at the window that used to be mine.

“Right there,” I said. “On the fifth floor.”

Celia looked at me, with compassion for all I had been through when I lived there, for all I had done for myself since then. And then she calmly, confidently took my hand.

I bristled, unsure if we should be touching in public, scared of what people would do. But the rest of the people on the street just kept on walking, kept on living their lives, almost entirely unaware of or uninterested in the two famous women holding hands on the sidewalk.

Celia and I spent our nights together in this apartment. Harry spent his nights with John at their place. We went out to dinner in public, the four of us looking like two pairs of heterosexuals, without a heterosexual in the bunch.

The tabloids called us “America’s Favorite Double-Daters.” I even heard rumors that the four of us were swingers, which wasn’t that crazy for that period of time. It really makes you think, doesn’t it? That people were so eager to believe we were swapping spouses but would have been scandalized to know we were monogamous and queer?

I’ll never forget the morning after the Stonewall riots. Harry was at rapt attention, watching the news. John was on the phone all day with friends of his who lived downtown.

Celia was pacing the living room floor, her heart racing. She believed everything was going to change after that night. She believed that because gay people had announced themselves, had been proud enough to admit who they were and strong enough to stand up, attitudes were going to change.

I remember sitting out on our rooftop patio, looking southward, and realizing that Celia, Harry, John, and I weren’t alone. It seems silly to say now, but I was so . . . self-involved, so singularly focused, that I rarely took time to think of the people out there like myself.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t aware of the way the country was changing. Harry and I campaigned for Bobby Kennedy. Celia posed with Vietnam protesters on the cover of Effect. John was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, and I had been a very public supporter of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But this was different.

This was our people.

And here they were, revolting against the police, in the name of their right to be themselves. While I was sitting in a golden prison of my own making.

I was out on my terrace, directly in the sun, on the afternoon after the initial riots, wearing high-waisted jeans and a black sleeveless top, drinking a gibson. And I started crying when I realized those men were willing to fight for a dream I had never even allowed myself to envision. A world where we could be ourselves, without fear and without shame. Those men were braver and more hopeful than I was. There were simply no other words for it.

“There’s a plan to riot again tonight,” John said as he joined me on the patio. He had such an intimidating physical presence. More than six feet tall, two hundred and twenty-five pounds, with a tight crew cut. He looked like a guy you didn’t want to mess with. But anyone who knew him, and especially those of us who loved him, knew he was the first guy you could mess with.

He may have been a warrior on the football field, but he was the sweetheart of our foursome. He was the guy who asked how you slept the night before, the guy who always remembered the smallest thing you said three weeks ago. And he took it on as his job to protect Celia and Harry and, by extension, me. John and I loved the same people, and so we loved each other. And we also loved playing gin rummy. I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up late finishing a hand of cards with John, the two of us deadly competitive, trading off who was the gloating winner and who was the sore loser.

“We should go down there,” Celia said, joining us. John took a seat in a chair in the corner. Celia sat on the arm of the chair I was in. “We should support them. We should be a part of this.”

I could hear Harry calling John’s name from the kitchen. “We’re out here!” I yelled to him, at the same moment as John said, “I’m on the patio.”

Soon Harry appeared in the doorway.

“Harry, don’t you think we should go down there?” Celia said. She lit a cigarette, took a drag, and handed it to me.

I was already shaking my head. John outright told her no.

“What do you mean, no?” Celia said.

“You’re not going down there,” John said. “You can’t. None of us can.”

“Of course I can,” she said, looking to me to back her up.

“Sorry,” I said, giving her the cigarette back. “I’m with John on this.”

“Harry?” she said, hoping to make one final successful plea.

Harry shook his head. “We go down there, all we do is attract attention away from the cause and toward us. The story becomes about whether we’re homosexuals and not about the rights of homosexuals.”

Celia put the cigarette to her lips and inhaled. She had a sour look on her face as she blew the smoke into the air. “So what do we do, then? We can’t sit here and do nothing. We can’t let them fight our fight for us.”

“We give them what we have and they don’t,” Harry said.

“Money,” I said, following his train of thought.

John nodded. “I’ll call Peter. He’ll know how we can fund them. He’ll know who needs resources.”

“We should have been doing that all along,” Harry said. “So let’s just do it from now on. No matter what happens tonight. No matter what course this fight takes. Let’s just decide here and now that our job is to fund.”

“I’m in,” I said.

“Yeah.” John nodded. “Of course.”

“OK,” Celia said. “If you’re sure that’s the way we can do the most good.”

“It is,” Harry said. “I’m sure of it.”

We started filtering money privately that day, and I’ve continued to do so the rest of my life.

In the pursuit of a great cause, I think people can be of service in a number of different ways. I always felt that my way was to make a lot of money and then channel it to the groups that needed it. It’s a bit self-serving, that logic. I know that. But because of who I was, because of the sacrifices I made to hide parts of myself, I was able to give more money than most people ever see in their entire lifetime. I am proud of that.

But it does not mean I wasn’t conflicted. And of course, a lot of the time, that ambivalence was even more personal than it was political.

I knew it was imperative that I hide, and yet I did not believe I should have to. But accepting that something is true isn’t the same as thinking that it is just.

Celia won her second Oscar in 1970, for her role as a woman who cross-dresses to serve as a World War I soldier in the film Our Men.

I could not be in Los Angeles with her that night, because I was shooting Jade Diamond in Miami. I was playing a prostitute living in the same apartment as a drunk. But Celia and I both knew that even if I had been free as a bird, I could not go to the Academy Awards on her arm.

That evening, Celia called me after she was home from the ceremony and all the parties.

I screamed into the phone. I was so happy for her. “You’ve done it,” I said. “Twice now you’ve done it!”

“Can you believe it?” she said. “Two of them.”

“You deserve them. The whole world should be giving you an Oscar every day, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I wish you were here,” she said petulantly. I could tell she’d been drinking. I would have been drinking, too, if I’d been in her position. But I was irritated that she had to make things so difficult. I wanted to be there. Didn’t she know that? Didn’t she know that I couldn’t be there? And that it killed me? Why did it always have to be about what all of this felt like for her?

“I wish I was, too,” I told her. “But it’s better this way. You know that.”

“Ah, yes. So that people won’t know you’re a lesbian.”

I hated being called a lesbian. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with loving a woman, mind you. No, I’d come to terms with that a long time ago. But Celia only saw things in black and white. She liked women and only women. And I liked her. And so she often denied the rest of me.

She liked to ignore the fact that I had truly loved Don Adler once. She liked to ignore the fact that I had made love to men and enjoyed it. She liked to ignore it until the very moment she decided to be threatened by it. That seemed to be her pattern. I was a lesbian when she loved me and a straight woman when she hated me.

People were just starting to talk about the idea of bisexuality, but I’m not sure I even understood that the word referred to me then. I wasn’t interested in finding a label for what I already knew. I loved men. I loved Celia. I was OK with that.

“Celia, stop it. I’m sick of this conversation. You’re being a brat.”

She laughed coldly. “Exactly the same Evelyn I’ve been dealing with for years. Nothing’s changed. You’re afraid of who you are, and you still don’t have an Oscar. You are what you have always been: a nice pair of tits.”

I let the silence hang in the air for a moment. The buzz of the phone was the only sound either of us could hear.

And then Celia started crying. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should never have said that. I don’t even mean it. I’m so sorry. I’ve had too much to drink, and I miss you, and I’m sorry that I said something so terrible.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I should be going. It’s late here, you understand. Congratulations again, sweetheart.”

I hung up before she could reply.

That was how it was with Celia. When you denied her what she wanted, when you hurt her, she made sure you hurt, too.


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