Is There Life After Meth? On Tracy Daugherty’s “Leaving the Gay Place”
Aug 05 ● BY Rob Madole
Few people have read Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel The Gay Place. For those who have, however, it often holds a special place in the heart. Certainly this has something to do with the character Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker, a thinly veiled portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Coarse and earthy, ruthlessly intelligent, Brammer’s Fenstemaker is a product of intimate acquaintance. For nearly four years in the 1950s, Billy Lee Brammer served on the Washington staff of then-Senator Johnson. One could argue that Arthur Fenstemaker is the best portrayal of LBJ available this side of Robert Caro’s famed multi-volume presidential biographies.
But The Gay Place is also just a beautifully written book. Consider its opening lines, a kind of panoramic shot of the Texas landscape: “The country is most barbarously large and final. It is too much country—boondock country—alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote.” There’s a nimble, improvisational rhythm to this opener; you can almost hear Brammer’s typewriter clacking out the words. As Texas Monthly critic Jan Reid wrote in 2001, this is “one of those rare first lines that readers remember all their lives.”
I can vouch. When I first found a copy of The Gay Place at a Half-Price Books in my early twenties, I was immediately enamored. I’d discovered an unknown genius, I decided. I promptly started collecting used copies of the book; for some reason, I was convinced it was out of print, and I’d reap a fortune one day when the world got hip. It wasn’t out of print, as it turned out. UT Press had reissued it in 1995. While this was an unfortunate blow for my not-so-rare collection of Gay Place copies, my mistaken conviction speaks to an experience many readers have shared when encountering Brammer’s novel for the first time: it reads somehow like a private revelation. No one else seems to know Billy Lee Brammer exists.
There’s a reason for this. Brammer would never write another book after publishing The Gay Place at the age of thirty-one, fresh off his job on LBJ’s staff. The Gay Place’s enduring mystique derives from the unanswered questions it leaves behind: What happened to Brammer? How did he squander all that talent? Where did he go for the rest of his life?
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A captivating new biography, Leaving the Gay Place by Tracy Daugherty, seeks answers. The first thing Daugherty establishes is that, unlike what I’d imagined in my rare-book-collecting days, Brammer was no Salinger-style recluse or tragically overlooked genius. “The Billy Lee Myth begins with a fact,” Daugherty writes in his introduction. “He was once one of the most engaging young novelists in the country, greeted by some critics as the second coming of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Brammer, in other words, was not always an unknown legend. Indeed, as Daugherty points out, the year Brammer’s debut novel was published, 1961, also saw the debuts of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—and yet, for many critics, The Gay Place was the most promising of the bunch. Nevertheless, when he died in the late 1970s, Brammer had scarcely published a word of fiction since his celebrated first novel, and was mostly renowned in Austin’s bohemian scene not as an author, but for his gregarious good nature and prodigious drug use.
Brammer was born in 1921 in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. His father, H. L. Brammer, was a supervisor for the Texas Power and Light Company, which electrified large swathes of rural Texas. The job required frequent trips around the state, and he’d sometimes bring Billy Lee along. Daugherty, a novelist himself, evokes the experience in stirring fashion:
The crew would set up camp, usually near a railroad spur on the edge of town, pitch tents and unfold army cots . . . They would hang pulleys and clamps on steel hooks in the walls beside heavy leather belts. . . . As [Billy Lee] watched them from the ground, he envied the dizzy tension he imagined they experienced between lightness and gravity, floating and falling. From up there, they could see the horizon in every direction. . . . Between the poles, in a chill breeze, you could almost see the sagging copper lines draw up like fiddle strings.
These journeys, Daugherty suggests, influenced Brammer’s desire to become a writer: “He told [a childhood friend] that someday he would write about all this.” Brammer’s project would be to capture life in a modernizing and urbanizing Texas. The messy process of Texas getting “electrified,” in the myriad senses of the word, becomes the unifying thread of Daugherty’s biography.
After graduating from Oak Cliff’s Sunset High School in 1947, Brammer matriculated at North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, known today as UNT. Though he’d been awarded a swimming scholarship, he quickly dropped his athletic ambitions and began writing for the school newspaper, Campus Chat. Brammer had never been a good student (at Sunset High, he graduated ninety-fourth in a class of ninety-six), but he discovered he had a surprising knack for journalism. His pieces were so precociously good, in fact, that the editors of Denton’s local newspaper hired him to cover sports on a part-time basis while still enrolled as a college student.
Brammer had three encounters in Denton that would prove pivotal to his future life and career. The first occurred in 1948, when Campus Chat assigned him to cover a campaign appearance at North Texas by Lyndon Johnson, who was running for US Senate at the time. According to Brammer’s friend, Al Reinert, “All his life Billy would remember with perfect clarity the first time he saw [LBJ].” It’s worth reproducing in full how Reinert describes the moment, as quoted by Daugherty:
[Johnson’s helicopter] came churning in just above the rally, noisy and fascinating, circling many more times than was necessary, Johnson leaning from the window and whooping, gesticulating, waving a big white Stetson, which he sailed out into the crowd as the helicopter abruptly sank to a jarring landing. Johnson emerged almost instantly, grinning broadly, tall and lanky, looking for all the world like Jimmy Stewart, and he strode toward the podium followed by a University of Texas all-American football star whom he curtly instructed to fetch his hat. Then, grasping the microphone with both hands, his legs quivering with nervous energy, he loosed an incredible torrent of promises and platitudes that somewhere included (as Billy recalled it) a brave defense of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
In microcosm, the scene contains all the contradictory elements that make The Gay Place’s portrayal of Arthur Fenstemaker so memorable: the shock-and-awe hokeyness of Johnson’s helicopter arrival, the tin pot dictatorial hubris of his command to have his cowboy hat retrieved, and, finally, the surprising eloquence with which he defends his liberal politics before an audience not particularly receptive to them.
Brammer would also meet his first wife, Nadine, another thinly veiled protagonist of The Gay Place, in Denton. The daughter of a travelling Wurlitzer player who toured silent movie palaces across the southwest, Nadine grew up in the South Texas border town of McAllen. Fierce and independent, she styled herself as the Zelda to Brammer’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. Only months after meeting, the couple eloped to Lewisville, where they were wed by a one-legged judge whose game of dominoes they’d interrupted. After returning to Denton, Daugherty writes, “[Brammer] gave [Nadine] all of Fitzgerald’s books to read. She absorbed them with intense concentration. She believed her young husband could become a famous author and support them with his talent.”
This would lead to Brammer’s third pivotal Denton encounter. To help Billy Lee with his writing, Nadine introduced him to Benzedrine, a drug originally developed for asthma and weight loss that could also be used as a study aid. Billy Lee found that taking a few “bennies” or “beauties”—over-the-counter amphetamine tablets with the same active ingredient as modern Adderall—helped him with his schoolwork. After popping a pill, he could write for hours without stopping. This was an exciting discovery for Brammer. As Nadine said many years later in something of an understatement, “Bill liked [them]. I mean, he really liked [them].”
The couple finished college and moved to Austin, where Billy Lee began covering sports for the Austin-American Statesman. His big break came when he joined a fledgling left-wing newspaper called The Texas Observer, founded in 1954 by wealthy liberals looking for “panzer troops” in Texas to help inculcate a “social conscience” in the conservative stronghold. Although the Observer was primarily known for its hard-hitting political investigations, the paper gave Brammer room to experiment and grow as a writer. Beyond political exposes, editorials, and cultural reviews, the Observer also published Brammer’s fiction and longform pieces. In 1954, for example, Brammer traveled to Marfa to cover the lavish film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel Giant, starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. A few years later, Brammer would transform his on-set experiences into one of the central set pieces of The Gay Place.
Most importantly, the Observer brought Brammer to the attention of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the United States Senator from Texas. At the time, Johnson was contemplating a run for the 1956 presidential race. He was an avid reader of the Observer, mostly because its founder and editor-in-chief, Ronnie Dugger, was one of his fiercest critics on the left. Dugger hated how LBJ toed the line on issues like desegregation, civil rights, and oil-and-gas regulation. According to Bill Moyers (Johnson’s press secretary), for LBJ reading the Observer was “like reading the Old Testament prophets . . . Johnson loathed what [Dugger] wrote about him because it was so on target.” Characteristically, instead of simply tuning out his critics at the Observer, Johnson decided to win them over. If he could secure their support, he’d be able to extract a major thorn from his leftmost flank as he geared up for the presidential race. According to Daugherty, there was no chance of converting Dugger. However, if LBJ could somehow manage to “steal Brammer, it might leave Dugger adrift without a rudder.”
In the fall of 1955, LBJ suffered a heart attack that temporarily halted his presidential ambitions. Nevertheless, the recuperating senator invited Brammer to visit him at his Hill Country ranch (a setting that would serve as another set piece in The Gay Place). Charmed by the vulnerable Johnson, Brammer wrote a sympathetic profile for the Observer. A few months later, Johnson made Brammer a job offer. To Dugger’s and everyone else’s surprise, Brammer said yes. In December 1955, Brammer flew to Washington. D.C. For the next four years, he would serve as a press aide and speechwriter for Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson.
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It was in Washington that Billy Lee Brammer began writing The Gay Place. As he helped Lyndon Johnson pass America’s first civil rights bill by day, Brammer would sneak into Johnson’s office by night and bang out pages of his novel on Johnson’s typewriter. Between drafts, Brammer would also write long, tortured letters to Nadine, who’d originally joined him in Washington—and was even briefly employed on LBJ’s staff—but had eventually returned to Austin, disgusted with the lecherous and bullying culture of LBJ’s office. Daugherty quotes a letter from Nadine giving vent to her feelings: “I’m sick of [Johnson] . . . and his weak little people and all the mangled personalities surrounding him.”
Even so, as Daugherty tells it, Brammer remained enchanted with Johnson and couldn’t bring himself to leave; an alternative explanation might be that Brammer needed Johnson’s proximity to continue accruing material for his book. Whatever the case, Brammer kept to his manic schedule over the next few years, ignoring his failing marriage even as his novel began to take shape. The secret to his all-night writing sessions was Dexamyl, a newer formulation of Benzedrine that leavened the latter’s amphetamine salts with a barbiturate. “Sitting in Senator Johnson’s office at night,” Daugherty writes, Brammer would “put on a Paul Desmond record, pop a ‘Christmas tree’ (a green-and-red Dexamyl), and hear the words of his novel . . . brighten with electric clarity.”
By 1959, Brammer had written enough of his book to obtain a contract from Houghton Mifflin. In 1960, feeling “spiritually castrated” by his work and facing a divorce suit from Nadine, Brammer quit LBJ’s office and took a job in New York. In 1961, The Gay Place was published to widespread acclaim.
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The Gay Place is actually three separate novellas that share characters and are all set in the same unnamed Texas town, which is clearly a stand-in for Austin. Its protagonists are bit players in the Austin political scene—state legislators, governor’s aides and the like—trapped in fraught, decaying relationships very reminiscent of Billy Lee and Nadine’s. These couples have betrayed and cheated on each other so many times, they’ve stopped being able to keep score.
Stylistically, it’s hard to locate The Gay Place. The most direct comparison might be to William Gaddis’s 1955 postmodern landmark The Recognitions; like Gaddis, Brammer writes with an Altmanesque ear for the pitter-patter of cocktail party dialogue. His narrator roves omnisciently among a series of drunken revels, ducking between snatches of conversation like a Steadicam operator navigating a long tracking shot. Yet unlike the grand experimental concerns of The Recognitions, which circles around an art forger on a quest for authenticity in an avant-garde milieu in downtown Manhattan, the interests of The Gay Place are human and quotidian. This might explain why it has never been embraced by an academy that delights in the postmodern “structuralism” of a Gaddis or Pynchon. In The Gay Place, characters are concerned about their collapsing marriages, about their families being torn apart. They agonize over how to remain true to their liberal values in the corrupted world of Texas politics. They drink, fight, flirt, and wake up hungover.
Hovering over everything is Arthur Fenstemaker, who plays a central role in all three stories. In the universe of The Gay Place, Fenstemaker is Texas’s governor rather than its senator, but otherwise his resemblance to Johnson is absolute. Robert Caro, in the introduction to his Years of Lyndon Johnson, describes Johnson in the following terms: “He seemed at times to brood—big-eared, big-nosed, huge—over the entire American political landscape.” Caro might just as well have been describing Fenstemaker’s role in The Gay Place. Crass and bombastic, crude and wheedling, nearly omniscient in his political savvy, Fenstemaker is depicted as a cunning puppetmaster, manipulating the characters of The Gay Place for his own selfish political ends.
In the book’s second story, “Room Enough to Caper,” the protagonist, Neil, is an interim U.S. senator representing the state of Texas in Washington. He has been appointed by Governor Fenstemaker to serve until the next election, but he’s uninterested in campaigning for a full term—Neil’s family has fallen apart while he’s been gone, and he loathes the gladhanding required to be a successful politician. Yet Fenstemaker sees promise in Neil, and refuses to let him drop out of the race. In one passage, Fenstemaker makes a surprise appearance at Neil’s house on Easter Sunday while Neil is visiting Austin. Reading the scene, it’s hard not to think of Brammer’s first encounter with Johnson as a cub reporter for Campus Chat:
Arthur Fenstemaker came through the door, grinning hugely at everyone and looking as if he might at any moment circle the room in a compulsion of handclasps and vault up the stairs to kiss the children. He did kiss Andrea on the side of the face and squeezed her mother’s arm until the older woman began to turn red at the neck and laugh, nervously and for no reason, at everything the Governor said.
As depicted by Brammer, Fenstemaker’s hand-clasping vitality is almost physically overpowering. His modus operandi is to transgress your physical boundaries until your resistance is worn down. By the end of the visit, Neil has more or less committed to run for Senate, sounding the death knell on his marriage.
Yet as monstrous and manipulative as Fenstemaker is, there’s something still awe-inspiring, even redemptive, about his influence. In this sense, The Gay Place reads like Brammer’s attempt to unpack his conflicted feelings about Lyndon Johnson, vacillating always between disgust, comic mockery, and dumbstruck admiration. At one point in the first novella, Roy, a principled but shiftless state representative being browbeaten by Fenstemaker into floor-managing a mediocre appropriations bill for public school education, takes stock of his tormentor:
[Roy] wondered about the Governor. Had he somehow managed to transcend into some blessed state, passed them all, perilously close to the abyss until reaching a point of holy ground from which he could view the whole speckled landscape, viewing it without a tyrannizing emotion? At least he remained operative—old Fenstemaker—he knew what absolutely had to be done. . . . The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis.
For the characters of The Gay Place, Fenstemaker is something like an avatar of Nietzsche’s will to power. Unencumbered by self-doubt or decision paralysis, Fenstemaker acts while everyone else merely watches.
Later in the story, hoping to secure Roy’s support of his bill, Fenstemaker arrives at Roy’s house unannounced and launches into an impassioned defense of political compromise: “You want to overturn the existin’ institution, that’s fine. But you got to be sure you know how to build a better one. The thing to do is work through the institution—figure a way to do that—to make a change and build a city and save the goddamn world from collapse.”
Fenstemaker’s argument here—that you’re more likely to enact meaningful change by working through the institution, rather than opposing it—reads a lot like LBJ’s defense of the watered-down Civil Rights Act of 1957, which Brammer helped pass while working in Johnson’s senate office. Although the 1957 legislation was ultimately toothless and ineffective (and would remain so until Johnson’s passage of a more toothsome Civil Rights Act in 1964, after he was elected president), it at least “broke [Congress’s] virginity,” as Daugherty writes, when it came to civil rights legislation. Brammer’s depiction of Fenstemaker seems haunted by the suspicion that, in the final calculus, Johnson’s morally compromised pragmatism might be more impactful than the idealism of a thousand Roys, Neils, Duggers, or Brammers.
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Daugherty’s biography doesn’t end with the publication of The Gay Place. Some of its most interesting material is dedicated to the final two decades of Brammer’s life. For a short while after publishing his first novel, Brammer was able to capitalize on its success. Right off the bat, he landed a gig at Time magazine as a beat reporter covering the early years of the John F. Kennedy presidency. This brought Brammer back to Washington, where he began dating a socialite named Diana de Vegh—who, at the same time, happened to be the preferred mistress of JFK. Brammer was unruffled, even fascinated by this circumstance, and he began keeping a journal of her experiences with the president which he proposed they publish under the title Ballin’ Jack. (The sex wasn’t great, in case you’re wondering.)
As with all the jobs Brammer would hold from this point forward, however, he didn’t last long as a Washington reporter. In 1962, Brammer ditched Time without notice and took an offer from Gloria Steinem to work for a CIA front spreading anticommunist propaganda at youth festivals across Europe. Brammer had no intention of following through on the assignment, but he did use the money to blaze a trail across the Old World and type a few pages of his new novel, Fustian Days. Soon, however, he ran out of Dexamyl and drifted back to Austin.
Although Brammer had become Austin’s foremost literary celebrity, “something in him was letting go,” according to Ronnie Dugger, his old friend from the Observer. He was making no progress on his second novel. A movie adaptation of The Gay Place, set to star Paul Newman, fell through. (For the rest of his life, Brammer would be convinced that LBJ scuppered the project via his aide, Jack Valenti, who later became head of the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA].) Instead of starring in the adaptation of Brammer’s book, Newman starred in the 1963 film Hud, an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By. Adding salt to the wound, McMurtry was Brammer’s roommate at the time.
Soon Brammer’s life was a nonstop bacchanal. Daugherty quotes McMurtry recollecting how he ultimately decided to seal off his section of the house, leaving “Bill to cope with the crowds as best he could.” At McMurtry’s suggestion, Billy Lee skipped town for a while and visited Northern California, where he cavorted with Ken Kesey’s Merry Band of Pranksters. When he returned to Austin, he brought back what many consider to be Texas’s first vial of acid, which he shared with a young Janis Joplin (whom he’d also recently introduced to the music of Bob Dylan). It seems like Brammer had determined to become the “Ken Kesey of Texas”—embarking on a solo mission to help Austin turn on, tune in, and drop out. According to Daugherty, “Every one of his surviving friends still remembers him walking up to them, at one time or another, saying, ‘Close your eyes and stick out your tongue.’”
Brammer briefly took a job to write copy for the World’s Fair in San Antonio, HemisFair ’68, where the Pranksters paid him a visit on their immortal psychedelic school bus, Further, before passing eastward. But Brammer lasted only a few months in San Antonio. By the late 1970s, he was living in a speed den in East Austin. His roommates, two deadbeats known only as Jerry and Jeff, were cooking meth in the backyard. Brammer had lost his teeth at age 42, and his eyes had mostly stopped working. He still wrote through the night, jacked up on speed, but what emerged no longer had the improvisational magic of his early writing. Worse, he had no idea how to finish it.
Near the end, Brammer began writing a short story called “Is There Life After Meth?” In the passage Daugherty quotes, you can still hear the rhythmic typewriter clack of Brammer’s prose, the nimble electricity of words being conjured from thin air:
Now then golly goddamn (hunkering closeby the electric typing machine before realizing, with imperfectly concealed melancholy, that one cannot simultaneously compose one’s memoirs and clutch gleaming genitals—but I digress already . . .
Now, however, when Brammer gets himself caught in a syntactical thicket, he can’t seem to write his way out. The prose sputters and goes nowhere, lost in endless parentheticals. In 1978, at the age of fourty-eight, Brammer died of a drug overdose. Official cause of death: “Acute methamphetamine intoxication.”
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After The Gay Place was published, Brammer was effectively exiled from Johnson’s circle. Although for years Brammer told friends he was working on an extensive biography of LBJ, it never materialized, and no drafts appear among his surviving papers. (His archive is housed in the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University). Daugherty, however, is able to pinpoint the final meeting between Brammer and Johnson, which took place in 1961 at a press conference to which Brammer was assigned during his brief stint at Time magazine. Over the crowd of reporters, Daugherty writes, Johnson called out to Brammer. “I picked up your book the other day,” Johnson said, “but I couldn’t read it. You had too many dirty words in it. . . When’d you write that book?” Informed that Brammer wrote it in Johnson’s office, LBJ responded in a casually demeaning fashion reminiscent of Fenstemaker: “You should have been answering my mail.” The two men would never speak again.