Denham Fouts died almost 65 years ago, but it is only now that his story is treated to the book-length study it richly deserves. The title and sub-title of Arthur Vanderbilt’s Best-Kept Boy in the World: The Life and Loves of Denny Fouts, Muse to Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood already reveal the core enticements, the USPs – if you will – of Fouts’ story. It’s a story that until now has been told in rumour, hearsay and the fleeting, fictionalised encounters recorded by his literary friends. It was a story its subject never got round to, as Vanderbilt’s preface informs us:
It was a pity, Gore Vidal once remarked, that Denham Fouts never wrote a memoir. Vidal described Denny as “un homme fatal”.
Truman Capote found that “to watch him walk into a room was an experience. He was beyond being good-looking; he was the single most charming-looking person I’ve ever seen.” Capote loved to conjecture that “had Denham Fouts yielded to Hitler’s advances there would have been no World War Two”.
Jimmie Daniels, the nightclub singer who performed at his own Harlem club that bore his name, thought Denny “was about the most beautiful boy anybody had ever seen. His skin always looked as if it had just been scrubbed; it seemed to have no pores at all, it was so smooth.”
To King Paul of Greece he was “my dear Denham” or “Darling Denham”, and the King’s telegrams to Denny from the Royal Palace always were signed “love Paul”.
Peter Watson, the wealthy financial backer of the popular British literary magazine Horizon, had an erection whenever he was in the same room with Denny.
The artist Michael Wishart met Denny for the first time at a party in Paris and realized instantly he was in love and that “the only place in the world I wanted to be was in Denham’s bedroom”.
Best-selling author Glenway Wescott thought Denny “absolutely enchanting and ridiculously good-looking. . . . He had the most delicious body odor; I once swiped one of his handkerchiefs.”
Lord Tredegar, one of the largest landowners in Great Britain, saw Denny being led by the police through the lobby of an expensive hotel on Capri, convinced the police to let him pay the bills Denny owed, and then took Denny to accompany him and his wife as they continued on their tour of the world.
Christopher Isherwood, who Denny considered his best friend, called him “the most expensive male prostitute in the world”.
Today, someone who projects such an instant and potent power of attraction could forge a successful career, perhaps as a male model, as a character in a daytime soap opera, as a tabloid celebrity, as a television or movie star, maybe even as an acclaimed actor. But Denny was born in 1914 when such options were not yet available to those rare individuals endowed with this sort of sexual magnetism. He never did write a memoir that would have told his strange story, that may have explained how it felt to possess those magical powers, to occupy the thoughts of another, to become the obsession of their lives. How would it feel to be Aschenbach’s Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice? To be Humbert’s Lolita in Nabokov’s masterpiece? Jay Gatsby’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby?
Best-Kept Boy in the World is published today.