The Perfection of Frank Diaz
I believe it was the poet William Butler Yeats who first expressed the question: "Perfection of the Man? Or of the Work?" The implication being that one couldn't have both. Of course, every once in a while someone does come along who can have both: Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest artists and inventors of the ages, more or less openly gay, was supposed to be the most beautiful man in Italy of his time. Imagine competing with someone like that?
Few of his time dared. And even fewer in our time. But if anyone might be imagined to do so it would be Frank Diaz. When I first heard of Frank he was described as "the hottest Puerto Rican in New York." This being 1975, the phrase could be applied with a rather liberal brush, thought I. But in the very next sentence, I heard the words, "Frank's the Number Three person in The New York State Council on the Arts, just below Kitty Carlisle-Hart." And just as I was absorbing that gloss, my interlocutor added, "He's the hot number we see dancing at Flamingo every Saturday night, the one with the black panther tattooed upon his huge, right biceps."
Oh!? That Frank Diaz!
That very same Frank Diaz phoned me "out of the blue," one afternoon in the spring of 1989, wondering if he could ask me a few questions about the state of gay politics. I knew he was no longer working for La Carlisle-Hart and so assumed it was about some new position. He quickly assured me it was and named the position, which was, as might be expected, Mr. Number One in what was at the time the top political lesbigay group in the nation. Frank said he knew I sometimes wrote for gay magazines and newspapers and that I sometimes hobnobbed with the people involved. He, on the other hand, didn't know any of them, nor anything really about the scene itself. Could we meet for a cup of coffee so he could get a feel for the crowd, the place, the atmosphere and the people, he asked.
We'd never known each other very well, and we'd not spoken to each other in a long while, and my feelings about Frank certainly weren't anything special one way or the other, but I agreed to meet him for coffee the next day, mid-afternoon, at a shop near me in the West Village, a concession for him, since he lived much further east. However, I told him to not credit my reputation: I was far less connected than he assumed to any higher echelons of gay political power. Despite that, Frank wanted whatever knowledge and advice I did happen to possess.
He looked the same as he always had when he entered the diner and spotted me, except that this day he was dressed in casual, if pricey, work clothing, rather than in the black skin-tight Tee-shirt, black denims and engineers' boots I was used to seeing him in. When he arrived at the booth and took off his winter coat, Frank was only a little less solidly built and muscular than he'd been in his heyday, when men literally threw themselves at his feet wherever he went clubbing, and Robert Mapplethorpe photographed him shirtless, thrusting a large butcher knife, looking like a stalking panther. Frank's head and face were classically handsome, in the austere rather than carefree mode of Roman statuary, with features -- large brown eyes, strongly defined nose, nice mouth, good cheekbones -- that were not especially Spanish, yet unquestionably Mediterranean. In addition, his demeanor and deportment -- except in bed, about which later -- were as courtly and gallant as though he were a Sevillian Duque meeting a peer.
As we gazed through the window at anemic snowflakes failing to survive the filthy wet Manhattan sidewalk, we talked on the subject he'd asked about. I told him what I knew, which wasn't much, but it seemed enough to satisfy him. I answered Frank's specific and general questions about the gay group, and being as candid as I could about the internecine politicking -- i.e. betrayals and backstabbings -- I'd already heard about. I got the impression that Frank thought of the job as somewhat beneath him, but nevertheless a possible amusement, something to do. I had also heard, from whoever had gossiped the original news, that Frank had left Albany with a fiduciary "package", which while not quite a golden parachute, still would assuage almost any descent. I hinted that I felt some concern about his abrupt resignation, and Frank assured me that he was well off financially -- for a while, if not forever. As for the position, now that he was forearmed with what I'd told him, he would look into it and see what they had to offer. He seemed relatively indifferent to the outcome, which eliminated whatever anxieties I still may have possessed on his behalf.
Frank got up to use the bathroom. When he returned, he had our coffee refilled, and asked about Bob Lowe, with whom he had come into contact even less frequently than myself, allowing me to boast about Bob's new career as an attorney.
I thought our meeting was over when suddenly Frank began speaking in a far lower and less distinct voice than he'd used so far, forcing me to lean forward to hear. I couldn't help but notice that the diner had considerably emptied out: aside from ourselves, a waitress on the telephone and a middle-aged man at the far end of the counter, reading what looked like the Racing News, the place was empty. Despite this, Frank spoke so quietly I had to listen scrupulously, especially as all the time he spoke, I was being quietly astounded by what he was saying. At first, Frank talked about bureaucratic politics at the Council for the Arts, yet another Byzantine intrigue that had overtaken the halls of power at Albany, and why he had suddenly felt it was time to leave after almost twenty years.
Then he changed the subject. It took me a few minutes to see how very much of a change of subject it actually was: Frank began to intimate how he'd begun going to a really louche after-hours place in my neighborhood called The Hellfire Club. He went on to tell me he'd been surprised to find himself going there quite regularly after the first visit, and furthermore going not as a master, a sadist, but instead as a masochist. A slave. He said he now went there every weekend to be flogged, beaten and urinated on by strangers: men, women, anyone who wanted to.
I attempted, and I guess succeeded, in trying to appear utterly unshocked by what he was telling me. The truth is I was deeply stunned. Then again, it was ten years into the AIDS epidemic when this meeting occurred and the truth was -- after what I'd heard and witnessed, little could truly upset me any longer. Even so, I was dismayed a few minutes later when: having gotten that first news off his chest without eliciting apparent disgust from me, Frank now added that he was seeing a psychiatrist once a week.
He! Frank Diaz, whom I -- and everyone else I knew -- had always thought of as so sure of himself, so powerful and effective, so assured and self-reliant! At the time, I wondered and couldn't really know whether he was telling me the truth or not, or if he was once again -- as he'd done when we'd first met -- testing my reactions, seeing if I would flinch, be revolted. But I wouldn't be appalled; at least not openly appalled. Nor, thankfully, did I immediately do the opposite and begin to play Social Worker. As casually as I knew how, and quite unjudgmentally, I replied that therapy had helped some people I knew and that I hoped that after his sessions at The Hellfire Club he was treating open wounds against possible infection, and other dopily practical stuff like that.
He took my words for a friend's concerns. He explained the steps he took to assure no infection would take hold. He then asked in the most astonishingly unweaselly manner if I'd myself ever enjoyed anything like what he was talking about. For a minute I wasn't certain whether he was asking if I was a co-masochist (and if, say, I'd like to join him hanging by the thumbs at Hellfire the following night) or if he was propositioning me, i.e. he was in the market for a steady sadist. When I regained my momentarily lost balance, I confessed that I enjoyed fairly vanilla sex, and he didn't probe farther along that line of questioning. A few minutes later, we parted, Frank giving me his usual deathgrip handshake, with a promise that he'd call and let me know what happened.
Well, he didn't call. And for another six months I was left to wonder why he had really phoned me, and what, in particular, he felt he'd gotten out of our conversation. I also wondered what, if anything, he was doing now, since I found out he didn't take, or hadn't been offered, the cushy administrative position we'd discussed.
The night following the re-encounter, when Bob had asked about Frank, I'd I tried and failed to tell him everything that had been said at our meeting. This fell under the "Bob-is-innocent-I-must-protect-him-from-the-truth" mode that I often operated under. Even so, Bob sensed something odd had occurred, and a few months later, when we were driving upstate for the weekend, Bob mentioned having encountered someone at his gym who used to be out at the Pines when we were all there, who told him of yet another acquaintance coming upon Frank on his hands and knees licking someone's high heels. So, at last, I could reveal what Frank had said, and the two of us were free to wonder about him, as we often did wonder about people.
What made it all the more surprising, as both Bob and I knew, and had personally experienced, was that Frank Diaz had been one of the Pines-Flamingo set's most notorious top-men. At the time, I wondered and couldn't really know whether he was telling me the truth or not, or if he was once again -- as he'd done when we'd first met -- testing my reactions, seeing if I would flinch. Indeed, he'd been a virtual rapist. Years before, someone who saw me chatting with Frank at Flamingo told me that no one went home with Frank Diaz and got out again without having at least one undergarment ripped to pieces -- and being soundly screwed. When it was my turn, that was more or less what happened. But my own ravishment was somewhat mitigated by the fact that we'd been housemates for a few weeks, and by the fact that instead of being cold and uncaring after we'd had sex, which is what I'd been warned to expect, Frank had gotten up to fetch us both brandies, and we'd remained in bed together, sipping liqueur and chatting. So I guess I never felt victimized as others did.
It was at my close friend Dennis' 27th birthday party, in 1975, that his roommate John began talking about summer plans, and also how it came about that I once again spent time on Fire Island, after being away for years. I didn't know it at the time, but it would end up being one of best and most productive summers of my life, and the summer I would meet people who would be crucial to me for the next twenty years.
John pushed me into a corner of his and Dennis' oversized, cheap, located-in-the-depths-of-Brooklyn apartment and told me that he was sharing a house on the eastern, ocean side of the Pines with two men he'd met at the gym. The only problem was that John, who'd rented the second bedroom for the summer with these two paragons of male pulchritude, -- a week after he'd signed the lease and handed over the money -- had met Randy (he was at the birthday party, a dark, cute, curly-headed guy). Suddenly, John and Randy weren't all that interested in the Pines scene. Instead, Randy planned a vacation in the Pacific Ocean --Samoa, Fiji, Krakatoa, some such place -- for several summer weeks, and John preferred to be there with Randy. John wanted to sell the second half of his Pines share house: August first through mid September. Was I interested?
I was interested for several reasons. The first was meteorological: I intuited that this would be an intemperately warm summer in Manhattan and I really didn't want to remain in my Jane Street apartment with window fans barely cooling me the entire season. Second, I had work to do: I was in the middle of writing my third novel, and I thought I'd finish a first draft, then bring the work out to Fire Island, live out there a month and a half and finish a second, typed draft. Third, and best of all, I could actually afford to go to Fire Island. Thanks to my publisher's cash advance against royalties on the new book I, for the first time ever, had enough money to pay both my relatively low rent in town and rent on John's Pines' room.
Even so, I hesitated. Who were these guys I'd be living with? Would I get along with them? And if they were so cool, would they even talk to a stranger? John offered a possible solution to the problem: I could go out the very next weekend, stay at the other Pines house where Randy had taken a share (he slept in John's room anyway, barely using his own except to store clothing) and I could come visit John's house, meet the potential housemates, hang out, and see if we got along.
A free weekend at the Pines sounded fine to me, even if I ended up not liking the men or they me and even if it led nowhere. Randy, John and I arrived by Ferry at the Pines two days before the enormous Fourth of July holiday weekend. The oceanside house at Crown Walk and Ocean Boulevard, where Randy had a room, was already full when we arrived. We brought my weekender bag into Randy's room, where I'd be staying, and in the most casual way possible, John introduced me around.
Present were five other guys, one I'd met at a West Village bar called the Roadhouse and slept with a year before, another two I used to see at dance clubs. All of them were about half a step above what Dennis called "ribbon counter queens at Bloomingdales," a derogatory, if not totally inaccurate description of the shallowness of their interests and mentality, and like Randy before me, I wasn't nuts about them. Even so, I was forced to spend that first Friday night dinner with Randy's roommates, as John's house -- where I hoped to stay the rest of the summer-- planned, that evening, to discuss the future: meaning me becoming their housemate in John's place.
What might have been a totally superficial and wasted evening turned out to be quite otherwise. After dinner, when his housemates left for the Friday "Tea-Dance", the guy I'd previously slept with invaded my room and initiated a repeat performance of our sexual matinee. Shallow as they might have been, the others were socially acute enough upon their return to the house to recognize that due to our hour of dalliance I was no longer a stranger. Now I was part of the family, "one of them"; they claimed to be disappointed that I couldn't "stay and play with them" the rest of the weekend.
Latish the following Saturday morning, Randy took me to a house on Floral Walk between Fire Island and Bay Boulevards. The first thing I noticed even before I'd gotten inside was that although it was at the bottom of a hill, the place was surrounded by decks, even possessed a small rooftop deck -- what might have been called a Widow's Walk in earlier times -- overlooking the thick foliage and nearby houses, from which one could sun, watch sunsets over the Great South Bay, and look at the ocean. Upon a ground-level deck outside the two bedrooms I supposed to be occupied by Jack and Frank, I couldn't help but notice worn-looking leather mats upon which were strewn hand-weights, a barbell and about five hundred pounds of iron discs of weights and add-ons.
What would turn out to be my first home in Fire Island was as unextraordinary as it turned out to be beachily practical. Once indoors, it became immediately obvious that these guys did not earn their living in Design & Decoration, like so many of our neighbors, nor did they subscribe to Architectural Digest. Externally, the place consisted of two slanted-roof wings in ginger-colored cedar planking attached to a central living-dining area. The house's interiors used the same planking, though in a lighter (perhaps unweathered) shade. Above the large refectory table, a good-sized skylight opened to aid circulation from opposing floor-to-ceiling glass doors. The bedrooms were rectangles just large enough to hold a double bed -- with a closet. John's room had it's own bathroom with tall shower, backed to the kitchen, and was thus bit more private. Jack and Frank's rooms were in a wing across the spacious center and they shared a bathroom. The kitchen was in done up in dark greens and reds: functional. Two pieces of art decorated the barely furnished -- couch, two rattan chairs, a few lamp tables -- living area: a brightly colored Parrot-like papier-mache sculpture on one wall, and on another, a pop-art painting of a slice of American flag and the right half of someone's face. I later discovered these had been brought by their creator: bachelor number one: Jack Brusca. One outside deck held a wooden chairs and a table, and small hibachi.
The entire place looked simple and masculine and I said as much to Frank and Jack. They'd evidently been out late that Friday night and looked unawake when I arrived for my interview. Unhelpfully, they grunted in response.
It was the oddest meeting of future housemates. John and Randy vanished into John's room, ostensibly to look for something, although everyone knew it was to fuck, while Jack and Frank ate breakfast, made plans succinctly for the rest of the weekend, and occasionally asked me a question, although they barely heeded whatever answer I came up with. I found both men to be dauntingly handsome, although in distinctive and individual ways -- and ultra-butch. Jack, with his sculptured head, close-cut curling hair and prizefighter's face -- large soft eyes, broken nose and sensuous mouth -- gathered breakfast dishes and washed them. He wore tight fitting shorts and a loose a-shirt which couldn't help but show off his lithe compact body and catlike movements, his heavily muscled arms. Frank, meanwhile brooded over a third cup of coffee, brushing crumbs out of his luxuriant black beard. He was more muscular than Jack, with a "Draw Me and You Too Will Become an Artist" conventionally dark-eyed face. Both men were much photographed: Frank's head and torso would be photographed then later drawn by David Martin to represent Zeus, king of the Gods, in my retelling of the Ganymede legend, An Asian Minor.
For the moment, however, I was made to understand that Frank Diaz was the number three person in the tonily successful New York State Endowment for the Arts. While Jack Brusca's art had become so successful, that he'd been commissioned by a South American government to go to still-abuilding jungle capitol Brasilia and put up a forty foot high sculpture. Though they didn't say a word at the time, later on both privately told me that I fit their idea of a housemate better than my pal John had: not only being masculine in appearance and attitude, but also being connected to the arts, as they were, since I was a published novelist, and nominated for a prestigious literary award. Later, they also told me that despite being hung over that first meeting, they'd both found me attractive. Enough so after I'd gone to the beach with Randy and John, they had discussed me at length and agreed: "Okay! Neither of us gets to do him 'til after the summer share is over. Okay? Okay!"
In Jack's case that turned out to be the Autumn after our summer share; it took Frank several years longer. And in both cases, when they did come on to me, I was totally astonished by their interest. If I'd overheard their compact at the time it was made, I doubt I would have credited it. Although only a few years older than me, both men seemed so completely "arrived" -- not only in their careers, their looks and bodies, but in their attitude and bearing, their totally assumed manliness -- that I felt not only completely out of the sexual running with them, but like a child next to them, determined to carefully, I hoped not too obviously, watch and learn.
Jack Brusca laughed when I told him that some years afterward. He reminded me how much he and Frank had teased me that summer, recounting ever wilder tales of their sexual activities, sometimes going out specifically so they might indulge in crazy scenes with questionable partners the night before just to be able to return and relate those tales at the breakfast we three then shared upon the refectory table the following morning -- just to see my reactions. He mentioned how whenever I was alone with one of them in the house, Jack or Frank would go out of his way to cock-tease me, wearing the least amount of clothing: the shortest shorts, the smallest Speedos, the tiniest possible posing straps for their workouts, a face cloth barely covering their crotch whenever they'd step out of the shower and come looking for something they suddenly required, which was somehow always close to wherever I was typing or reading.
Jack reminded me how each of them had ended up in my bed at least once that summer, although neither had broken their agreement, neither had sex with me -- then. Frank had stumbled into my room naked, bedsheet trailing, early one morning when he knew Jack was sleeping out. Mumbling "Damn Bluejay is yelling into my window," he flopped into my bed, wrapping himself and his sheet around my astonished self. For his foray into my bed, Jack pretended to be too stoned to know he was in the wrong room when he fumbled his way in from being out all night, and once in bed next to me, he did his best to excite me as he undressed himself, until I'd half panicked, unsure what he was doing, and got up to go to the bathroom, at which point he'd left my room.
Yes, they'd had their fun with me.
And while we all got along pretty well that summer (beginning two weeks earlier than planned, since John had taken off with Randy for the South Pacific, letting me move into his room before the time I should have), Frank and Jack usually went out together, without me, at night, or infrequently to sunset "Tea". They seemed to prefer a bar, the newly opened Monster in Cherry Grove, rather than what they called "twinkie" spots such as the Sandpiper or the Boatel I usually frequented. They were the first men I knew who dressed in leather; leather vests over bare torsos or over a tight fitting black T-shirt, sometimes skin-tight black leather pants and crotch-and-buns-revealing chaps over tight denims. And while I had assumed they each scored a man anytime they wanted, they never brought any one home, or if they did, didn't let him sleep over: we were never more than three for breakfast.
It wasn't just the black leather, nor the ultra-restrained low-key approach to everything, it wasn't even their closeness to each other that kept me from feeling close to them. What really stopped me was that when we were just sitting around, listening to music, passing a joint, relaxed, and they began to open up, an all-pervading darkness seemed to rise and hover about the room. Negativism, a fascination with pain not as something aesthetic but something richly deserved, with humiliation and degradation and shame involved, not as an act, as theater -- which was the only way I'd even consider it -- but as something so familiar, so common, it must be embraced and accepted. They exuded attitudes I couldn't help but shudder at once I was alone again and which I secretly felt . . . beneath me.
I never knew how Frank had come to these ideas. Later, as a result of stoned conversations with a few of his ex-boyfriends and from Jack, I got the impression Frank had broken with his family when he'd come out; that like many Hispanics, they'd disowned him once he made the decision to live an openly gay life. This despite the fact that he'd gone further, faster, professionally and socially than any of them ever dreamed. I suppose the conflict of being accomplished and yet not being able to be honored for it by those he most wanted to honor him, caused the black moods Frank fell into and eventually led to the simmering rage, the desolate beliefs he came to embrace. Even so, I always thought if there were any punishing to be done, Frank -- and Jack -- would do it, not receive it.
At the Island, Jack and Frank had many, many acquaintances, but there was one group they seemed to enjoy most. The friends shared a big new house on Beach Hill Walk on the west-oceanside of the Pines, and while also handsome and muscular and masculine, they seemed to me even more attracted to iniquity and creepy shit than Frank and Jack. I recall visiting their house only one time, an evening, tagging along with my housemates where, after dinner, a coffee-table sized volume of the gruesome, oozing-cloaca paintings of Dutch artist R. Giger (who designed the movie Alien) and another book of sickly mordant sexually perverted "cartoons' of Tomi Ungerer were passed around, discussed in detail and highly praised. The rest of their conversation involved the suicide of acquaintances: two successful ones they spoke of in great, shivering detail, and an unsuccessful one that they elaborately mocked.
Some years later in a picture book on gay life, I came across a double-page photo-spread depicting a dozen men from that other house and friends of theirs I'd met there. They looked as beautiful as I recalled them, as they nakedly played at tug of war. But even before AIDS came along, eight of those twelve young men were already dead, either by their own hand, or through overdosing drugs, and one, as a result of homicide.
I was never able to ascertain how much Jack Brusca subscribed to these morbid, thanatological subjects: although he did go through periodic spasms of depression and uncertainty, his art seemed to carry him through the darker patches. As, later on, did a loving companion named Raoul, a stunning, sweet Brazilian man.
One time while we were waiting on the coat-check line of some club in town, Jack said, "I didn't know your father and mine were competitors." It turned out that his father and uncle owned a large wholesale produce company similar to my father's not that far away on Horace Harding Boulevard in Queens; they and my dad vied for new wholesale accounts. Like myself, Jack had to battle his family's wishes and plans to become an artist. That lack of parental support continued to breed insecurity; it galled him, remaining internalized for years, making every tiny defeat he encountered more bitter, and every step forward more gratifying. Even so, whenever Jack and I met he was always filled with future plans and recent successes-- he was doing murals for a ministry in Sao Paolo; he'd had a museum show in Mexico City; he'd just designed the costumes and sets of Roland Petit's ballet corps -- filled with optimism, and that is how I best remember him.
However all that flirting with dark forces ended up affecting Frank. But then he also had far darker life experiences than Jack Brusca, or indeed, than most of us at the time. In the decade of the Seventies, from even before I met him to about 1978, Frank had acquired an exceptional reputation: he'd had three lovers die on him, all in strange, when not overtly suspicious, circumstances. The first lover died in his sleep; Frank woke up to find a corpse in bed with him. The second choked on a chicken bone. The third, after they broke up, returned to Scotland and hanged himself. All of them died before the age of thirty five. No wonder whenever Frank appeared at Flamingo's Black Party, people who only knew of his past relationships drew back and repeated his nickname, "The Black Widow." George Whitmore, who visited my Fire Island house the summer the third death occurred, caught just enough of the gossip to write a short story using the nickname as title; the story was published in Christopher Street magazine, and it couldn't help but discomfort Frank -- and me, for his sake.
Some years after that incident, Frank and I met for dinner and returned to Frank's Manhattan apartment on Eleventh Street east of Fifth Avenue for a nightcap. When we arrived at his apartment door, something was wrapped around the doorknob, a nasty-looking concoction of hair, cloth and poultry bones, along with what seemed to be soot strewn across the apartment door threshold. Frank drew back, tried to hide his surprise behind a frown. "Santeria!" he murmured. "Voodoo! Someone put a curse on me." He didn't seem surprised. But when he remained frozen to the spot, I grabbed a magazine I was carrying, scattered the soot from the doorway and knocked the crap off the door handle, kicking it away, saying, "Well, I don't believe in that and anyway no one put a curse on me! So it's okay!" I could tell Frank didn't one hundred percent believe me, but we went inside for a brandy and a chat. And for weeks after, he mentioned the incident to people we both knew, perhaps trying to find out who'd done it.
Not too many months after his confession about becoming a masochist, Frank jumped out of his apartment window and killed himself. I was led to believe he was talking to his therapist on the phone at the time of the plunge. I was shocked of course; despite all the death around me at the time, every fresh death was still a shock. But given what I'd inadvertently come to know about Frank, that final detail somehow made a deep kind of sense to me. It didn't so much mean that Frank was asking for help, it meant he was telling the therapist, "You were incompetent. You screwed up bad. And now you pay!" That Frank too would pay a price was only to be assumed. After all, Frank had become less than perfect as a man, and as a work of art: how could anyone expect him to continue existing?
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