Partner Carlos, Francisco ‘Panchito’ Urrutia
Teatro La Capilla, Calle Madrid 13, Del Carmen, 04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Calle Salvador Novo, Santa Catarina, 04010 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Panteón Jardín, Calz. Desierto de los Leones SN, San Ángel Inn, 01060 Álvaro Obregón, CDMX, Mexico
Salvador Novo López (30 July 1904 – 13 January 1974) was a Mexican writer, poet, playwright, translator, television presenter, entrepreneur, and the official chronicler of Mexico City. As a noted intellectual, he influenced popular perceptions of politics, media, the arts, and Mexican society in general. He was a member of Los Contemporáneos, a group of Mexican writers, as well as of the Mexican Academy of the Language. Novo was widely known as the Mexican Oscar Wilde.
Novo defied the machismo and conservative Catholicism prevalent in 20th century Mexican culture by making almost no efforts to conceal his sexuality. He was, however, accepted by the Mexican government. He held official posts related to culture, was elected to the Mexican Language Academy, and had a television program on Mexico City's history. Towards the end of his life, he dyed his hair a bright carrot color and wore many ostentatious rings and colored suits. He has been compared to Oscar Wilde, but unlike Wilde, Novo never suffered the setback of scandal or persecution and remained an accepted and respected member of society and governmental circles until his death. In fact, some sectors resented the fact that a gay writer would align himself so closely with the government and media after the repression of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
He was well known for his wit. When a party, where young soldiers had been invited by gay scholar friends of his, had degenerated into a fight and a scandal, Salvador Novo brushed off the whole matter with a factual: "This is what happens when members of the intellectual elite try to enter military circles".
In the 1930s in Mexico, physicians, teachers, accountants, journalists and other professionals stood to lose more than their clientele if exposed as homosexual in the press, as such exposure would result in banishment to the Islas Marıas Penal colony. Poet Salvador Novo and playwright Xavier Villaurrutia sought to join other Mexican sexiles in the United States or Europe, including artists José Mojica, Ramón Novarro, Roberto Montenegro, Agustın J. Fink and Enrique Asunsolo, or scientists studying abroad, like Elías Nandino and Raoul Fournier. Seeking ‘to avoid a fate as a cook, waiter, or dishwasher in New York’, Villaurrutia accepted a one-year fellowship at Yale in 1935–36, while a frantic Novo wrote to Federico García Lorca, asking him to procure him lodgings in Madrid.
Although openly homosexual intellectuals were driven from government posts in the 1930s, the Mexico City stage, newspapers and radio programmes nonetheless discussed homosexuality between the 1930s and 1960s with some regularity. Newspapers’ cultural supplements discussed popular sexology and psychoanalytic texts on homosexuality by Kinsey, Krafft-Ebing, Maranon, Freud and Adler, as well as homophile texts like Edward Sagarin’s The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (1951), which presented homosexuals as a persecuted minority and appeared in Spanish a year after its English release. Novo referenced the Kinsey report in a 6 May 1948 newspaper column – giving its title in English – one year before its publication in Spanish. Plays with homosexual themes, including Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947) and Sergio Magana’s ‘The Signs of the Zodiac’ (1950), appeared on Mexico City stages through the effort of closeted diplomats like Dorsey Fisher, the American embassy’s first secretary. In addition, the press regularly reviewed homosexual novels from the 1940s to the 1960s, such as Charles R. Jackson’s Fall from Valor (1946), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and John Rechy’s City of Night (1963). Novo promoted the aesthetic value of gay literature from his weekly column and celebrated the achievements of Gide, Proust, Waugh and others, establishing a homosexual literary genealogy that invoked Novo’s 1934 homophile manifesto, Le troisieme Faust. Novo proclaimed Rechy’s novel an important text, and observed that it flew off the shelves of Mexico City’s English-language bookstores.
In contrast to successful professionals such as Elías Nandino, who rented an apartment for himself, gay academics and mid-level bureaucrats from bourgeois families generally stayed alongside their families, negotiating a closeted home life where their fey mannerisms were overlooked; these men, however, remained eternal children denied the maturity of married householders. Men like Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia and Agustín Lazo Adalid led double lives thanks to their rented studios downtown, where they retreated to write, paint, sculpt or love. Even after setting up house for his mother and himself, Novo maintained a studio from the 1930s until the 1950s, making it his love nest and, while he directed the National Theatre, a convenient place to rest or dress for evening events without travelling to his suburban home in Coyoacan. Such studios – often called leoneros when they were exclusively kept for sexual rendezvous – were a long-standing heterosexual male practice euphemistically known as la casa chica. Termed ‘a quasi-marital household on the side’, this little house supplemented the main casa or casa grande, where a man’s legitimate spouse and children lived.
In October 1947, friends Rafael Partida and Alfonso Cava left Mexico City for a twoweek vacation in New York City. Their itinerary included shopping, theatre, gay parties and men. Upon arriving at the Roosevelt Hotel on the afternoon of 11 October, a gay friend whisked them off to a cocktail party. Later that night, they slummed in Harlem, met handsome men of all races and obtained theatre tickets; the next day, Partida called poet Salvador Novo – then en route to London – to brag about their exploits. Novo chronicled a tamer version of Partida and Cava’s adventures in his weekly gossip column contrasting their nightly partying with a quiet gathering they attended in the flat that fashion power couple John Frederics and Frederic Hirsch shared with Hirsch’s mother. Novo showed the quotidian normalcy of a cohabiting gay couple and mainstreamed homosexuality for his Mexican straight and gay readers, taking them into the couple’s bedroom, drawing attention to their cupid-crowned, queensized bed. Although homophobia was rife in Mexico, Novo’s readers – like much of Mexican officialdom – were tolerant of discreet gays. Novo’s chronicling of gay life abroad, along with his indirect contrasting of domestic and international narratives of gay domesticity, introduced his readers to different relationship models than discussed in novels and in the press.
The Mexico City home of Antonio Adalid Pradel and Antonio Dodero welcomed an extensive homophile network. Together since the early 1900s, and forced into exile by Adalid’s gambling, the couple had lived in Alameda, California, between 1907 and 1920. Welcomed back into the family on the condition that he marry a woman, Adalid claimed a small inheritance and taught English at the National Preparatory School. Posing as uncle and nephew, they set up house in a subdivided apartment on 123 Avenida Hidalgo, adjacent to San Fernando Square. The couple decorated and maintained the one-bedroom flat together. In the elegantly furnished living room they entertained guests and dined. The decor echoed their travels together and Adalid’s family wealth, portraits of the couple hung on the walls and a collection of antiques instructed visitors in colonial decorative arts. The home was the centre of an important intergenerational homophile social network that included cabinet ministers Luis Montes de Oca, Genaro Estrada and Jaime Torres Bodet, poets Xavier Villaurrutia and Salvador Novo, painters Agustín Lazo Adalid and Roberto Montenegro, retired police inspector Luis Amieva and a bevy of antique dealers. Older networked friends brought acquaintances, made introductions and established connections for younger men like Novo, Villaurrutia and Lazo, that led to sex, patronage, mentorship, gifts and companionship. They passed along sexual knowledge and the names of trusted physicians to treat their venereal diseases. The forms of care and kinship established in private residences such as Adalid and Dodero’s taught the younger gays who to trust and how to behave, building a sense of community and belonging. In the 1950s, Salvador Novo fondly evoked the moments he shared in their refined company, noting how Adalid and Dodero fixed trays of snacks, laid the table, washed dishes and served Chinese take-away. These evenings represented a model of domesticity and sociability that young gays reproduced as they became established.
Indicative of the relative freedom with which well-heeled homosexuals led their lives in Mexico City are the cases of the children of multimillionaire entrepreneurs and celebrities chronicled in society pages. Alberto Maus Santander, heir to a tobacco and real estate fortune, grew up in a progressive and cosmopolitan home. Born in 1925, he came of age in the 1940s, when prominent gays like Salvador Novo and Roberto Montenegro frequently visited his family. Alberto – known to everyone as Beto – dabbled in the arts and dreamed of studying abroad. In preparation, over the spring of 1960, he watched his figure and dieted, partaking only of steak and salad. Novo announced in his weekly column on 5 November 1960 that Beto planned to study interior decoration in Paris. Novo further noted ‘in fact, his family is to dine in the home of the young man who is to accompany Beto to Paris’. After his father’s death left him a substantial inheritance, Beto left the family home to install himself in a modern high-rise bachelor’s apartment on Insurgentes Avenue. Novo’s readers followed his move, his interest in interior design and learned of his talented cooking and entertaining.
Beto’s elegant eighth-floor apartment was two floors above that of his close friend and classmate Enrique Álvarez Félix, sole son of famed actress María Félix. ‘Quique’ to his friends, Álvarez Félix lived in a comfortable flat. It was ‘modern’, Novo noted, ‘but without the odd furniture that young people prefer’. Green velvet coverings on the sofas and chairs matched the green carpet and contrasted with the straw-coloured wallpaper. Many antiques, on loan from his mother’s Hacienda de Catipoato, softened the modern lines of the apartment’s finishings. Álvarez Félix frequently entertained at home with the help of his mother and her trusted confidante, the gay designer Armando Valdés Peza. Newspaper columns enumerated his guests, surreptitiously recording the unspoken intimacy of homosexual couples named among married heterosexual couples, as occurred in 1959, when Novo noted in his column that television producer Ernesto Alonso arrived with Angel Fernandez Vinas. Decades later, it was revealed that Alonso and Fernandez were lifelong companions, and had adopted two children whom they raised as their own, in an effort to construct an image of normalcy that would keep viewers of his television programmes from being scandalised by his homosexuality.
One of the best-documented gay bachelor homes was the luxurious residence of flamboyant poet and columnist Salvador Novo in suburban Coyoacan.With neighbours that included the deposed Romanian King Carol II and film diva Dolores del Río, Novo maintained a respectable bourgeois facade. Born in 1904 to Andres Novo, a Spanish immigrant grocer, and Amelia Lopez, a middle-class Mexican woman, Novo attended the National Prep School in the late 1910s and early 1920s. His instructors recognised his talents, and promoted his ascent into the bureaucracy. Throughout his youth, he lived with his widowed mother and family in various homes in middle-class neighbourhoods. By age twenty, Novo often shared studios with other gays, escaping from his family to write and to have anonymous sexual encounters with cadets, taxi drivers and bus drivers. In his Plaza de San Diego studio, the voracious Novo had sex with as many as eight men over the course of one afternoon and evening of September 1934. The studio demanded significant work from Novo, who prepared trays of sandwiches, arranged flowers and fluffed pillows before donning silken robes to await his beaus’ arrival. These relationships left him spiritually bereft, and so, when he fell in love in 1934, his attention turned towards domesticity.
In accordance with tradition, the street on which he lived was renamed after him when he assumed the role of Mexico City's official chronicler, a post held for life.
Salvador Novo’s domestic practices and design, acquisition and upkeep of residences in Mexico and the United States over the mid-1930s and 1940s, signalled an accommodation to the era’s increased homophobia and an effort to build more meaningful, intimate relationships. Following a spate of blackmail attempts, his dismissal from the federal bureaucracy and a new love, Novo sought to close down the disreputable bachelor pad. In the summer of 1934, he had met Carlos, an officer stationed in San Luis Potosı, and their relationship blossomed over the autumn, while Carlos was on leave in Mexico City. Novo became obsessed with Carlos. By October, Novo rented a home he intended to share with Carlos, with whom he wanted to be monogamous. Their correspondence expressed their mutual love.
For his part, Novo detailed plans for decorating and arranging the house, outlining how he would keep house for Carlos, and transform it into an intimate space. Novo divested himself of his old furnishings, and then acquired a new bed and mattress that he pledged to share only with Carlos. The letter read: Thinking about you, I went yesterday, and I, all woman, went to clean it, set to work preparing it for you. Shall I describe it? . . . To the right of the entry, a balconied room . . . with the blue furniture. Next . . . the bedroom, with the new bed in which we will fit well, and then, another interior room, a dining room, where I have placed the red furniture and the books. These rooms face an interior courtyard, from which one reaches the kitchen, the bathroom, and the laundry . . . and next to it, a metal staircase leads to the servants’ room. It is quiet, isolated, still, the perfect home for newlyweds, ideal for us two. Do you like it, my love? . . . It is . . . noble, there is no similarity between it and my previous abode, my old Studio, and no one will know of it until you, my King, my lord, takes possession of it.
For Novo, transitioning from promiscuity to a committed relationship required establishing a home where he and his partner would live, work, study, care for each other and entertain guests – notice Novo’s description of the living and dining rooms. This was no love nest, but a respectable, quiet, proper bourgeois home, complete with help to clean, cook, launder, run errands and take care of all the couple’s needs. For all of the effort Novo had made, their relationship ended by the spring of 1935, but not before the two exchanged a series of letters in which Novo outlined what their life together would be like. Novo additionally revealed the companionate ideal that he struggled to achieve for the rest of his life. He wrote: I wish I could have you here, living with me . . . studying by night, no longer worried about money, and us together at night in our home, speaking, and studying, until you fall asleep, my beloved child . . . hearing you breath next to my chest . . . I want to support you to achieve your dreams . . . I did not go to mass today, but I have taken communion [writing this] letter, with the sacred love I profess for you.
Importantly, Novo – despite being dismissed from the bureaucracy in 1934 – was often commissioned to represent Mexico at international conferences, given his impeccable English. This provided him with opportunities to observe domestic practices and spaces of the United States, Argentina and Britain. He returned home full of ideas about new household cleaning products, recipes and time-saving gadgets. In the United States, Novo liked how people shopped for groceries and enjoyed food from deli counters, and he was surprised to see mostly men at the supermarkets.
In 1940, while Salvador Novo explored his prospects as a Hollywood film scriptwriter, he resided in Pasadena, California, and established a household that replicated the domestic arrangements he had made for his boyfriend Carlos in 1934. Novo, now thirty-six, installed himself in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with his twenty-one-year old boyfriend – and driver – the wrestler Francisco ‘Panchito’ Urrutia. Over their first month together, Novo detailed in his letters how he kept house for Urrutia, seemingly enjoying the work of caring, cooking and cleaning. The intimacy between them had Novo giddy, but by the second month, the relationship soured. Unable to fend for himself in English, the illiterate Panchito hung around the flat and depended entirely on Novo, driving him crazy. Their class differences burdened their relationship. Urrutia pined for his family and Mexico, and soon tired of Novo’s steady diet of take-out meals and American packaged food. When their sex ceased one month after shacking up, Novo sent Panchito packing. What Novo needed, he confided in a letter, was for physical ideals to match the intellectual and emotional companionship he craved: ‘I need a congenial friend here, someone to make me feel young and enterprising’. Novo’s friend, anthropologist José Gómez Robleda, urged Novo to use the time alone to explore and become comfortable with himself. Gómez Robleda, the only Mexican scholar of homosexuality at that time, argued that the environment and companions conditioned whether individuals acted on their innate homosexuality or not, suggesting that Novo should make the best of being in the United States.
Salvador Novo plodded on, frequently writing of his boredom and melancholy: ‘I feel truly lonely for the first time, without hope, despaired, and cooking, washing and cleaning has lost its charm, without someone to do it for’. To Alberto Misrachi, he confessed: ‘I feel rotten. No friends and no congenial people . . . all by myself in this gloomy apartment . . . where I lay down endless nights of insomnia and bad dreams. Washing my percolator and going to the market is altogether too much for me’. Domesticity lost its attractiveness for Novo once he was alone. Roberto Montenegro observed ‘that total apathy that you feel, I also experience, as I am alone in my new apartment . . . emptiness . . . does little to help me with my art’.
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