Monday, May 26, 2014

Judged by its cover: A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White

Here at Front Free Endpaper we do love a book with a good story behind it, and in this instance, a cover with a story behind it. This is Edmund White's classic and seminal story about growing up gay in America. It's a classic book for sure and catapulted White into the literary fast lane, rightly so, and if you haven't ever got round to reading it I can heartily recommend it. You might even catch White in the UK over the next few days as he is visiting the country at the weekend and next week.

This edition above is the first British publication by Picador in paperback but the cover image had already been used in the US. As well as being a very beautiful photograph, it is also a very evocative one, largely through its association with this book. There was a time when this book sat on the bedside table of every young gay man in the country. It came as no surprise to me to hear that the photograph was taken at Cape Canaveral which in my mind is always associated with big open skies and that sense of optimism that suffused America in the 50 and into the 60s with the space program and the advancement of science. The photograph was taken as the result of a chance meeting between the photographer Dan Weaks (sometimes Weeks) and Robert L. Rosen, the young man in the picture in 1982. The book came out the same year to wide and huge acclaim.

Things don't start to go pear shaped until two years later when finally a copy of the book makes its way somehow into the hands of one of Robert's schoolmates. As you might imagine, Robert wasn't made to feel too comfortable at Coral Gables High School in Miami when it transpired that his face as all over the cover of a bestselling gay novel. Inevitably legal action followed. Rosen had signed a model release form but, despite appearances, when the photograph was taken he was only 14 years old and so the 'contract' that a model release form sets up would have been null and void. A $30m law suit followed from the boy's father.

Sadly, because all this happened in pre-Internet days, details are scarce. It would be great to find out how the whole episode was resolved. I have tried to contact Weaks, still working very successfully as a photographer, but to no avail. Equally, it would be good to know now, at this distance of time and in this changed climate how the older Rosen, in his forties now presumably, might feel about the photograph, the book and its cover. Most likely these things will remain a mystery though. A Boy's Own Story in more than one sense.

(Thank you to the lovely Jack Cullen for the heads up about the story)


Matt Lyon said...

Thanks for the background info. I love this book and cherish my copy, now slightly tattered over time. The novel meant so much to me in my late teens, and I was fortunate to get it signed by White when he visited London in the early 90s:

Jack Cullen said...

Hi Callum, I asked Edmund about this today. According to him Picador ended up paying $1m to the family. He said the same result would never occur today because the issues around gay identity and gay association would be seen as harmless and inconsequential by a judge.

My interview with Edmund White will be in Gay Times in a either a month or a couple of months and then I'll hopefully post a full transcript on my personal blog Jack of Hearts at a later date. J xx

Joe B. in CT said...

Fascinating story. Thank you.

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