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The Best-Kept Boy In the World

The Best-Kept Boy In the World


Denny Fouts, the most famous male prostitute of the 20th century, had Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and many others


Truman Capote's jacket photo by Harold Halma for 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' via Wikipedia

An excerpt from Best-Kept Boy in the World, by Arthur Vanderbilt. The first book ever written about Denham (Denny) Fouts (1914-1948), the 20th century's most famous male prostitute; Fouts was a socialite and muse whose extraordinary life started off humbly in Jacksonville, Florida. But in short order he befriended (and bedded) the rich and celebrated and in the process conquered the world. The book is available now from Magnus Books.

That photograph! That photograph of 24-year-old Truman Capote that appeared on the dust jacket of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in January of 1948, a few days after the publication of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar; that photograph which Denny had seen in Life magazine and cut out and kept next to his bed under his opium pipe; that photograph that showed the young author reclining on a Victorian sofa, looking ten years younger than his actual age, drilling the camera with smoldering eyes, his right hand touching himself suggestively; that photograph that Capote had carefully staged, which became perhaps the most famous, infamous, photograph ever to grace a book jacket and drew endless attention to the novel and its ambitious author: that photograph had captured the imagination of Denham Fouts.

Word of the new literary sensation already had spread to London and Paris even before Other Voices, Other Rooms was published anywhere in Europe. "Truman Capote is all the rage here," Peter Watson's lover, Waldemar Hansen, wrote from London on May 6, 1948, to a friend in the United States, noting he had heard that Denny had sent the beguiling young author a blank check with but one word written on it: "Come." "So now," Hansen added, "Capote will be turning up in Paris soon."

Waldemar, who had met Truman in New York City, knew his friend well. Capote set sail on the Queen Elizabeth on May 14, joining the throng of Americans flocking to Europe after the War. Waldemar met him in London and introduced him to the luminaries he had come to know through Peter Watson. "Truman wasn't interested in seeing things like the Tower of London," Waldemar remembered; rather, he wanted to meet everyone who was anybody, and, together, they made the rounds, visiting Cecil Beaton, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and Noel Coward.

Waldemar had warned Truman about Denny, about how much of a burden he could become. "Even when he was perfectly well," Christopher Isherwood's friend Bill Harris recalled from their Santa Monica days, "Denny would often be propped up in bed, like a little boy who's sick and waiting for friends to come and visit him. He wanted to be taken care of forever." Keep your distance, Waldemar had cautioned his visitor, words that of course made Truman all the more eager to make the pilgrimage to 44 Rue du Bac.

Denny_mechThe two Southerners hit it off instantly. Both liked to exaggerate their deep South accents (Capote said Denny talked "as though his mouth were busy with a pound of Alabama corn mush"),4 both were a curious mixture of innocence and experience, both were more than happy to have others dote on them. Decades later Capote was asked in an interview what he would have been if he hadn't become a writer. An attorney, he answered, and then added, "also, I wouldn't have minded being kept, but no one has ever wanted to keep me--not more than a week or so." Truman was fascinated to be with the world's most famous kept man, while Denny was fascinated to be with an author who had achieved the exact sort of lionization he dreamed about when he had started writing a novel while living with Christopher Isherwood. And that photograph on the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms had not been misleading.

Isherwood described Truman as looking like "a sort of cuddly little Koala bear." The author could easily pass for a teenager--blue puppy dog eyes, silken blond bangs, pouty-lipped, an instantly infectious smile and laugh, a natural ebullience: at last Denny had found his own fantasy. As Gore Vidal had remarked, Denny "was at his best with pubescent boys; but then he was one himself, I should think, a southern Penrod who still spoke with a North Florida accent." Truman looked the part to perfection.

Truman found that Denny "was more conversationalist than sensualist; . . . though he wanted us to share the same bed, his interest in me was romantic but not sexual." Denny's libido had been damaged by his addiction, but he was content just to have Truman worship him as he entranced Truman.

Truman spent hours lying with Denny on the massive bed beneath Tchelitchev's Adonis, gossiping and listening to his stories. Like everyone else, Truman was smitten: "Denny radiated a quality that was the exact opposite of what he was, extraordinary health, youth, and unspoiled innocence. Whatever he had done the night before, or the day before, or the week before, he always looked as if he had just awakened on the freshest and most beautiful morning in the world. 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."

Those first days of June, Truman stayed with Denny in the "high-ceilinged dusk of those shuttered, meandering rooms." Often in the afternoon, they would go to Champs-Elysees movies, "and at some juncture [Denny] always, having begun slightly to sweat, hurried to the men's room and dosed himself with drugs; in the evening he inhaled opium or sipped opium tea, a concoction he brewed by boiling in water the crust of opium that had accumulated inside his pipe. But he was not a nodder; I never saw him drug-dazed or enfeebled." The two became friends.

"Denny had real magic and I adored him. But I was frightened of him and the drug scene. I was young, and I didn't plan to get involved in any of that. I wanted to get him off drugs, and he also wanted to get out of the life he had been living all those years. He loved the West and he had a fantasy about buying a gasoline station in Arizona, the sort of place that has a sign saying, 'Last Chance for Gas for Fifty Miles.' I was going to write, and he was going to run it and be cured of all the things that were wrong with him." This fantasy they spun together was a variation of one of the plans Peter and Denny had contemplated before the War, of moving to Arizona and growing oranges.
Truman had enough influence over Denny to persuade him to enter a Swiss drug rehabilitation clinic; as always, whenever Denny found a new friend, his interest in living revived. The two "said good-bye at the Gare de Lyon; he was somewhat high on something and looked, with his fresh-colored face--the face of a severe, avengeful angel--twenty years old. His rattling conversation ranged from filling stations to the fact that he had once visited Tibet. At last Denny said, "if it goes wrong, please do this: destroy everything that's mine. Burn all my clothes. My letters. I wouldn't want Peter having the pleasure.'" They agreed that when Denny's treatment was complete, they would meet in Italy to celebrate.

But Truman had no intention of meeting Denny there, or anywhere. As with Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and all his visitors, Denny had handed his opium pipe to Capote: "Denny offered me drugs, but I refused, and he never insisted, though once he said: 'Scared?' Yes, but not of drugs; it was Denny's derelict life that frightened me, and I wanted to emulate him not at all." Capote had caught a glimpse of what his own future might hold--Denny as the ghost of Christmas Future--and its reality horrified him.

As usual, Denny's commitment to change his habits didn't last long. By mid-June, Truman was writing to Waldemar: "Our disturbing friend just called. The Switzerland deal seems to be off. It makes me feel like a miserable heel, but what can I do now but wash my hands of the whole affair?" Just as Waldemar had warned him, he came to see that "Denny was . . . an ominous presence, a heavy passenger--I felt if I didn't free myself that, like Sinbad and the burdensome Old Man, I'd have to cart Denny piggyback the rest of his life."

Truman left Paris and on July 4 arrived in Venice, his repertoire now enhanced as he spoke of his "dear acquaintance" Denny Fouts, the legend already growing so that Denny had "slept with just everyone--Jean Marais, King Farouk, the Maharaja so-and-so . . ." Denny's story kept percolating in his thoughts, assuming a central role in his ideas about a book he had begun to believe would be his magnum opus; but it would be years before his new friend's strange story would find its way into Answered Prayers.

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