To the end of his days, Baldwin believed that his book had been turned down because of its content, and the fact that he had gotten “uppity” in taking on the white bohemian world. Of course, there’s some truth in that, just as there’s some truth in most things. But I think the publisher’s response was complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that Baldwin doesn’t own up to using Hella the way David uses her: as a kind of beard to advance the real love story. Back then, Baldwin couldn’t do without Hella, because how do you tell a love story between two men? (The author would grow into this in novels like 1962’s “Another Country” and 1979’s “Just Above My Head.”) Toward the end of his life, he was still struggling with ideas he didn’t know how to address in the novel. In 1985, he published “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” one of the last pieces he would live to see in print. (Baldwin died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1987.) Here, he lives in his sexuality without metaphor:
My father kept me in short pants longer than he should have, and I had been told, and I believed, that I was ugly. This meant that the idea of myself as a sexual possibility, or target, as a creature capable of inciting desire or capable of desire, had never entered my mind. And it entered my mind, finally, by means of the rent made in my short boy-scout pants by a man who had lured me into a hallway, saying that he wanted to send me to the store. … Shortly after I turned 16, a Harlem racketeer, a man of about 38, fell in love with me, and I will be grateful to that man until the day I die. I showed him all my poetry, because I had no one else in Harlem to show it to, and even now, I sometimes wonder what on earth his friends could have been thinking, confronted with stingy-brimmed, mustachioed, razor-toting Poppa and skinny, popeyed Me when he walked me (rarely) into various shady joints … I knew he was showing me off and wanted his friends to be happy for him.
In a flash, Baldwin was the victim of molestation, and in another flash, there was love and protection. There was David Baldwin, and there was the poetry the young artist couldn’t help but share with a Harlem racketeer who couldn’t help but love the poet. You’ll find all of that in “Giovanni’s Room,” but transmogrified through layers of Baldwin’s deepest longings as a gay man, to be cherished and held, and to be seen and not seen, all at the same time. Still, what draws lovers of the book to its story of betrayal and the possibility of redemption through truth and, ultimately, to the question of the body as home, is the vision of Baldwin stumbling through it, sure-footed and alone, walking toward the idea that love may come attached with different ideas of what it should look like, feel like, but in the end, it’s what you do with its responsibilities that renders you genderless — and human.
Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker.
Behind the Story
The images in this story had existed, in some form, in the minds of its creators for over a decade. Shot by the New York City-based artist John Edmonds and styled by Carlos Nazario, the pictures are a visual reimagining of “Giovanni’s Room.” The book was personally significant to nearly all the main collaborators, all of whom (including the critic and New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, who wrote the accompanying piece) are queer men. “This story had permeated my mind,” says Edmonds, who first encountered “Giovanni’s Room” a decade ago, at age 20. “It was the first novel I read about a relationship between two men.” Likewise, the New York-based actor James Cusati-Moyer, who portrays the novel’s namesake character in the images (and appears in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” on Broadway this month), remains captivated by the book some 10 years after he first read it. “I always fell in love with the character of Giovanni,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of one day playing that role.”
As the team arrived in Paris for the shoot this past July, the city was in the grip of a heat wave. There was a “Parisian fatigue in the air,” says Cusati-Moyer, which helped conjure the feverish mood of the book. Edmonds, whose work was featured in the most recent Whitney Biennial, had found a crumbling apartment near Place de la République to replicate the novel’s main setting and procured a catalog of objects that appear in the book: a crucifix, a cut-glass whisky tumbler. Nazario, who also lives in New York City, kept the clothing timeless (“It’s an age-old tale,” he says). But in one aspect, the story deliberately veered from its source material: “Baldwin came to prominence in a very different time in America, where a black artist had to write a white narrative about white characters to be avant-garde,” says Edmonds. “In retelling the story through a set of images, I wanted one of the characters to be black.” In this version, the book’s white protagonist, David, is played by the British-Nigerian dancer and model Temi Bolorunduro, who lives in London. “While we were remaining true to the essence of the novel,” says Cusati-Moyer, “we were also staying true to the potential of what this love story could have been.” — ALICE NEWELL-HANSON
Models: James Cusati-Moyer and Temi Bolorunduro. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner. Grooming by Adrien Pinault using MAC Cosmetics. Set design by Nara Lee. Casting by Calvin Wilson for Establishment Casting. Production: Kitten Production. Photo assistant: Christian Bragg. Lighting assistants: Laurent Chouard and Alfa Arouna. Grooming assistant: Pal Berdahl. Tailoring: Laetitia Raiteux. Stylist’s assistants: Raymond Gee and Joel Traptow