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The Best-Kept Boy in the World: The Life and Loves of Denny Fouts

by Kyle Thomas Smith
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Tuesday Apr 16, 2013
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Craigslist once ran an ad in its Men Seeking Men section titled "Wanted: Underachiever." The advertiser described himself as a not-bad-looking, slightly-above-average Joe from the Midwest who had been living in Manhattan and was sick to death of meeting guys who stand on their top-shelf educations, their hot jobs, their towering achievements (pulled off with the greatest of ease, naturellement) and, not least of all, their many, many travels. The advertiser said he was looking for somebody slightly dumb, provincial and salt-of-the-earth with whom he could be real.

It’s a safe bet that, for all its exquisite research and dulcet prose, Arthur Vanderbilt’s "Best-Kept Boy in the World: The Life and Loves of Dennis Fouts," a study of the life of pre-mid-20th Century muse and hustler Denham Fouts, would not be that down-selling Romeo’s book of choice. Take, for example, this tidbit that Fouts shared with Gore Vidal in 1948. Fouts was lounging in an opium haze, beneath the original Picasso and Tchelichew drawings that hung above Fouts’ Proustian bed in his keeper’s residence on Rue de Bac in Paris. Fouts mentioned to Vidal, who sat in rapt attention at his feet:

"I’ve just had a telegram from Prince Paul--only he’s King Paul now. We lived together--well, traveled a lot together before the war, but then he had to get married to Frederika and so we stopped seeing each other because I was living in Santa Monica by then anyway..."

Turns out, every word of it was true.

Unlike the overachievers the Craigslist advertiser complained about, however, Denham Fouts was a high school dropout who never held down a job for long. Yet after seventeen-year-old Fouts left his native Jacksonville and came north to Manhattan by way of Washington, his pretty face would be his ticket to the world, to the most far-flung countries, into Europe’s most sought-after drawing rooms, and onto the pages of some of the greatest Twentieth Century authors’ diaries, short stories, novels and memoirs. Names of the enamored included W. Somerset Maugham, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote, who once said "to watch [Denham] walk into a room was an experience...he was the single most charming-looking person I’ve ever seen."

Denham Fouts was a male Liz Taylor well before Taylor would ever become Queen of Hollywood. He was Edie Sedgwick decades before she would ever set foot in Warhol’s Factory.

Vanderbilt set himself quite a task in constructing a full biography around something as ineffable as the allure of a muse--even one as high-profile as Fouts whom Christopher Isherwood, his longtime companion, described as "the most expensive male prostitute in the world." Fouts has drawn comparisons to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Thomas Mann’s Tadzio. By all accounts, although there is not much Google-able photographic evidence of Fouts’ beauty, he was a male Liz Taylor well before Taylor would ever become Queen of Hollywood. He was Edie Sedgwick decades before she would ever set foot in Warhol’s Factory. Vanderbilt does a masterful job of mining and synthesizing every available letter, journal entry and publication of any master that was ever moved by this muse named Denny. All the while, Vanderbilt’s writing is as ingratiating as his subject knowledge is encyclopedic.

At the same time, however, Vanderbilt paints Denham Fouts’ life as far more fabulous and far less desperate than it most likely was beneath the surface. We read about how Denny could be down on his luck one minute in London but, even in the tightest pinch, could find a VIP--even one of Hitler’s chief mignons, Wolfram Freiherr von Richtofen--to stow off with to Berlin or Greece or Tibet, where he could readily resume a new life of luxury and exoticism. We learn that he was an intravenous heroin addict, but we also learn that one more hit could make him good-as-new for yet another enchanted evening on the tiles and that hard living never once registered on his face or physique, even though he died at 34 because of nonstop debauchery and a congenitally malformed heart.

People engage in self-destructive behavior for deeper reasons than just getting hooked on something. Did Fouts abuse drugs because he was disgusted with himself? And, if so, why was he disgusted? "Best-Kept Boy" doesn’t delve deeply into these critical questions. It’s almost exclusively about Fouts being spellbinding to his A-List cohort.

Often Vanderbilt will digress into exhaustive discussions of Isherwood, Vidal and especially Capote’s career, even when the discussions are not germane to Fouts. This makes one wonder if Vanderbilt is simply padding his biography by leaning on a literary pantheon, at times more heavily than he does on his actual subject, Denham Fouts, the elusive muse who never left behind a memoir.

"The Best Kept-Boy in the World"
Arthur Vanderbilt
Magnus Books
Release Date: April 16, 2013
$24.00

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and two cats.

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