Hang on to your surroundings when James Hart is at the helm of a story. The author provides details with an elephant's memory over afternoon coffees on the Upper West Side of New York City in early February, quickly getting to the part of how he met his ex-wife, Carly Simon.
It starts on a train ride, him unaware of her fame from his time in the Franciscan seminary. He says he kept talking about himself out of nervousness, a tic seemingly yielding to his current calm demeanor. Their relationship barreled forward, the wedding a few short months after meeting. The marriage spanned two decades until his relapsed relationship to substances sent him off the rails, splintering the closet door as he passed through.
His new memoir Lucky Jim, which picks up where Simon's 2015 memoir Boys In The Trees left off, is not easily categorizable as a tell-all addiction memoir. It's also not a treatise on fame, though there are anecdotes about Hart's celebrity confidantes Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mike Nichols. Hart writes unflinchingly about his father's abuse and his late son's disability, about the hole in the ice of grief.
OUTspoke with Hart about Lucky Jim, a frustrating and heartbreaking fully rendered portrait of a life that, in many ways, is just getting started. Now living openly gay and sober, he's looking back on all the dark alleys he followed Bacchus down, not shedding light so much as letting it shine through him.
OUT: You edited a chapter of Carly Simon's book Boys In The Trees, and you remain friends. Has she given you feedback on Lucky Jim?
James Hart: Her involvement was crucial to the writing of Lucky Jim. Most important was the experience of living together for 20 years. Her memory was important because of where it agreed or differed from mine.
I spoke with her about my greatest fear. I was afraid I might do her harm in revealing myself and, in forming her flesh and blood as a character, damage her in some unintended way. It is challenging to write truthfully about anyone without revealing the flaws that make them understandable as human beings. She responded to my fears by saying, "Just tell the truth--that is all I ever wanted." I have tried to do both.
Lucky Jim is about my struggle to understand my own truths. There is much in the book that is painful for everyone in it. Those who have loved me wished I could have done some of it better, and yet I don't think any of them doubt that I was mostly trying to make a complicated life work for all of us.
You were close friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and friendly with the Clinton family, described in the book as having "carried with them the secular notion that politics was the answer to most of our problems." Any advice for not mincing words when calling out power?
I don't know if I've ever been very good at speaking truth to power.Lucky Jim may be my first real attempt at doing so. The difficulty is that so many people haven't spoken truth to their own power. Many people I know, famous or otherwise, just haven't examined themselves in a way that gives them real insight into their own inner workings.
My observation about the Clintons is just an observation of the difference in our perspective. I had lived in worlds that were suspicious of politics, not because they didn't like them, but rather didn't believe that politics possessed enough power for the necessary solution. The Franciscan seminary was infused by a much greater power. The powerlessness of my son's problems, my addictions, my sexual confusion, my struggles with becoming myself within the world of fame and locating my own creative life assisted me in discovering my "truth to power."
These self-absorbed searches can become wildly solipsistic, or can sometimes engage the authentic self with others. I guess my main point is that people love to speak to power, but I think the truth part is so often self-delusion.
When all the elements are present in that statement--it is quite remarkable, but I believe it is quite rare. I think we often underestimate how art can speak truth to power through the difficult creative work of the artist. It arises out of the organic stuff of lived lives and not out of theories, opinions or politics.
The amount of queer culture you witnessed during your youth was not lacking, whether it was seeing an emerging Bette Midler sing at the Continental Baths or being cruised by Allen Ginsberg. How have things changed for you since coming out?
Everything and nothing changes with coming out. There is a great expectation in being finally liberated from one's own defenses, but often the presumed happiness that one expects in lighting the shadows is accompanied by disappointment. Becoming a gay man doesn't occur through announcement, but through the same kind of hard work that any kind of life demands.
So much of this new gay life was found for me in the world of New York gay recovery. These are people who have struggled with these issues openly for so long. They have witnessed and helped many men and women in need of repair and reconciliation. They have a direct, intelligent and often unvarnished way of telling the truth. As the old rune goes, "The truth will set you free, but first it's going to piss you off."
In many ways, I have better relations with people in my past because they now get the whole reality to relate to. What was wrong with Jim now becomes, in certain ways, what's right with Jim. Also, becoming more whole and honest gives people who have loved me part of their own life back. It allows them not to have to live in the shadows they were forced to live unknowingly.
What are some ways the iconography of your loved ones overlap with your actual memories of them?
My life with Carly was filled with the overlap of her iconography. Like the strange feeling I experienced on the train during our first chance meeting. After about forty-five minutes of conversation, I asked her for her name. When I heard the words Carly Simon, I experienced an almost electrical shock. I didn't quite know the details of who she was, but I knew she was someone very famous. As I tried to process the information, I was sure I didn't want to talk about her. I flooded the conversation with information about myself, because I was terrified that her iconography would destroy what had already happened. It was clear that before this moment a powerful attraction had already formed. I was terrified that knowing anymore about her might sink me. The first forty-five minutes feels sacred to me even yet: the only time we would be equals in the world of fame.
During my first long conversation with Jackie Onassis, I couldn't turn off the images of the motorcade in Dallas, which I had seen a million times like everyone else. I was with her for a couple of hours alone, and as I stared at her, I kept seeing her in her blood-stained dress and pink pillbox hat. Jackie was the most difficult of all, because her iconography was so powerful...[but] as I got to know her better, we could joke a bit about it, and her self-deprecating humor was a way she had of leveling the playing field.
The overlap of iconography was everywhere during those twenty years. The iconographic became commonplace, but the memory of all those moments are still within me and I marvel that it all happened to me--Lucky Jim I guess.