When John Rechy published his first novel, City of Night, in 1963, he was still earning his living as a prostitute on the streets of Los Angeles. It made sense: he didn't expect a book that dealt with underground gay life in America to make him much money, and it's a foolish writer who gives up the day job (or in Rechy's case, the night job) with the first flush of publication.
To Rechy's astonishment, and despite the best efforts of homophobic critics, the book was a smash and money started rolling in. But Rechy still couldn't leave the streets. "It caught me out completely," says Rechy, now 74, and still living in Los Angeles. "I was bewildered. I did nothing at all to promote the book, even to the extent of denying that I wrote it. I felt that if I left the streets as soon as I had some success, I'd be betraying the world that I wrote about. And the truth is that I couldn't give it up. I'd been hustling for so long that it was a habit."
And so began a bizarre double life, which Rechy recalls in hilarious, toe-curling detail in a new autobiography, About My Life and the Kept Woman. By day, he was a writer, mixing with fellow authors, even teaching at UCLA. By night, he was back on the streets, selling sex to men. "I wanted demarcation between the different areas of my life, and I fooled myself that I could keep them separate. I wanted to be treated one way as 'the writer', another way as 'the hustler', and if they crossed over I got very confused." But cross over they did – as, for instance, when the expat British novelist Christopher Isherwood invited Rechy home to talk about writing, and then pounced. Liberace and George Cukor did the same.
"It got ridiculous," says Rechy. "People hit on me all the time, far more than I say in the book. Looking back, I can see it was my own fault – I projected a very sexual image, and I shouldn't have been surprised when people responded." Ridiculous it may have been, but the masquerade continued well into Rechy's thirties. "In the 1970s, when I was teaching at UCLA, I'd finish my evening classes, then change my clothes somewhat and go down to hustle on Santa Monica Boulevard. One night, a student saw me down there and said 'Good evening, Professor Rechy. Are you out for an evening stroll?'."
Rechy kept writing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, detailing the ups and (mostly) downs of his compulsive sex life in Numbers, Rushes and the non-fiction polemic The Sexual Outlaw. But it was City of Night that made his name, and on which his reputation rests. It's an American classic, with its loner hero, its juke joints and neon signs, its restless shifting from city to city, bed to bed; a hybrid of On the Road and Catcher in the Rye. It might be as famous as those books, too, were it not for Rechy's unapologetic portrayal of the drag queens, hustlers and clients who populated his world: Chuck the cowboy "stud", Chi-Chi and Darling Dolly Dane the street queens, Mr King the surly client ("I'll give you 10, and I don't give a damn for you") – and, towering above them all, the regal LA drag diva Miss Destiny. Readers were hooked. Despite hideous reviews, City of Night sold in massive quantities to a sensation-hungry public.
"Every character in City of Night has a strong antecedent," says Rechy. "Miss Destiny was very real. That was the name she used, and all those stories were based on my recollections of her. We kept in touch for a few years after the book came out; she'd ring me in the middle of the night, saying she was with one of her 'husbands' who didn't believe she could be a character in a famous novel. Then some boozy voice would come on, and I'd have to say 'Yes, that really is the fabulous Miss Destiny'. After a few years the calls stopped, so I guess Miss Destiny is now rattling her beads in God's face, like she always said she would."
Unlike his would-be seducer Christopher Isherwood, Rechy positioned himself right at the heart of the homosexual world he was writing about. The nameless narrator of City of Night is not entirely likeable – a cold, restless young man, incapable of love, terrified of compromising his masculinity with any show of affection, taking money from men in order to prove that he's not queer. It's a persona Rechy confirms in About My Life and the Kept Woman. "That's how I was. I was very passive. When I was growing up in Texas, I'd been seduced by women; when I moved to the streets, I was bought by men. I never approached anyone, ever. It was about keeping an attitude of non-participation and distance, of being desired but never desiring. It was all subterfuge, a denial of my sexuality."
It seems strange to think that America's foremost chronicler of the queer subculture ever had doubts about his sexuality. "You have to understand what the world was like back then. Being queer was very dangerous, and there was a lot of stigma about it. Even when I was hustling, it took me a long time to realise myself as a gay man. It's hard to accept that some of us, at one time or another, had heterosexual feelings. I certainly did. I emerged very slowly into homosexuality, despite the way I was living.". In About My Life... he recounts the constant raids on gay bars, the swoops on cruising grounds, the hysterical harassment by press and courts. "I was arrested three times in Griffith Park [a popular Los Angeles cruising area] for prostitution. You could be sentenced to five years for that. People literally just disappeared. Young people now have no idea what it was like."
Rechy's life changed one evening in 1981, when, still hustling in his forties, he was approached by a young man of 23. "This very good looking person drove up and looked at me – and I thought 'Oh boy, no hustling tonight! This one's for free'. So I sacrificed something like 20 bucks, and got myself a future. I really liked him, and for the first time ever I gave someone my phone number, but I was still stuck in the hustler role. I took him back to my elegant apartment, and I had to lie and tell him I was looking after it for a friend, because I didn't want to be associated with all those pretty things. We met up a couple more times, and I finally let the façade drop when he made some comment about Luis Buñuel, and I responded. It all came out that I wasn't just some dumb hustler, I showed him my books, and he stood there with his mouth hanging open. We've been together ever since, 27 years."
Rechy survived the streets, survived drug problems in the 1970s, survived the Aids epidemic that killed many of his friends in the 1980s and 1990s, wrote 15 books and was hailed by Gore Vidal as "one of the few original American writers of the last century". The fact that his books are little known in Britain bears witness to the fact that he's still, after 45 years of writing and heaps of awards, categorised as a "gay writer". "I'm still marginalised, almost as much now as I was in 1963. I think all gay writers are. The book business is still very frightened of queer writing. We like to think the world has changed completely, but it hasn't. OK, there are billboards advertising all-male holiday cruises, but there's still a lot of homophobia, even in publishing, and a lot of self-hatred and self-destruction among gay men – that's the biggest taboo."
Rechy in 2008 is a calmer character than his angry, sex-addicted literary persona. He and his partner are living happily ever after in the Hollywood Hills. "I never believed that this could happen to me. Back in the 1970s, when I was having a bad time with drugs and cruising, my friends all thought I'd end up committing suicide, and I thought they were right. But things changed – and that's all due to Michael."
Rechy didn't mend his ways overnight, however. "The last time I hustled was when I was 55 years old. It was more of a symbolic act than anything – just to prove to myself that I could still do it. I actually gave the guy his money back, much to his astonishment. I didn't put that story in the book. There's a limit to how far you can stretch people's belief."
About My Life and the Kept Woman, By John Rechy (Grove Atlantic £14.99)
"...It had to be her. No one else would look like that, not in El Paso, not in the world that I knew... The kept woman challenged the drabness of the room, splashed it with a grandeur it had never possessed, not even when new... never again would I glimpse a creation as spectacular as the one my eyes, dry from staring, remained fixed on"