Denham Fouts, “best-kept boy in the world”, would be 100 years old today had he not checked out in 1948. In his highly recommended biography of countercultural eminence Brion Gysin, Nothing Is True – Everything is Permitted, John Geiger records two of Gysin’s pre-war encounters with Fouts. There are brushes with art stars, literary luminaries, fashion royalty and just plain royalty, and it ends with a spectacular scenario which has me wondering anew why no-one has made a movie of Fouts’ brief yet compelling life. And wouldn’t Hotel Sordide be a great title?
It was while drinking at the bar of Athens’ Grande Bretagne hotel that Gysin met a young American who was basking in “internationally distinguished older company,” and who would eventually be immortalized in the writings of Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, and Gore Vidal. Denham Fouts was an opium-smoking, cocaine-sniffing denizen of what was then known as café society, his circle including Prince Paul, later King Paul of Greece. He also had a reputation as “the most expensive male prostitute in the world,” and had succeeded in generating, as Capote wrote in Answered Prayers, “the successful adventurer’s sine qua non: mystery and a popular desire to examine the source of it.” Fouts invited Gysin up to his suite of rooms, where he rather petulantly phone down to the desk and demanded to be put through to the royal palace. Fouts got Prince Paul on the line, and had him send over “one of those royal guards in ballet skirts with something for us to smoke…We got royally stoned.”
In the summer of 1938 Gysin encountered the young American writer Jane Bowles in a Left Bank café. Bowles arranged to meet Gysin again, to introduce him to her husband Paul, whom she had married a few months earlier. He was a student of Aaron Copland, and at age twenty-eight already an accomplished composer. Like Jane, Paul Bowles was immediately charmed by Gysin, who was in the company of Denham Fouts. By this time Fouts was living grandly in a palatial apartment decorated with huge Picassos, with a rich young Englishman. Fouts had given his parchment-bound traveling cases to Salvador Dali to decorate, and the artist drew luggage labels reading “Hotel Sordide” and “Midnight Motel”. Gysin was impressed with even the small details of Fouts’ lifestyle, marveling that he wore sports jackets that looked like “itchy tweed” but felt like cat’s fur woven into cashmere.” They spent a lot of time together: “Denham, however, played the untouchable, claiming he liked only preadolescent working-class boys.”
After dining together, Paul and Jane Bowles joined Gysin and Fouts at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. A telling incident occurred during the performance when Paul tried to silence a woman next to him who was chattering loudly and playing with her emeralds, which he suspected were what interested her most. He was indignant at the disturbance, attributing it to the fact that “most people never listen to anything, naturally.” Only Gysin recognized the woman who was the source of the irritation as Coco Chanel. Later, back at the hotel where Gysin was staying, Fouts sought to impress the Bowleses and Gysin by using a Tibetan bow to shoot flaming arrows out the window into the Champs-Elysées. Paul and Jane were horrified at the “very dangerous procedure” and feared the gendarmes would be called. As for Brion, “he was in favor of it,” Paul Bowles remembered, “but it wasn’t his bow.”