As a 15-year-old gay Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the early ’60s, Steven Gaines thought that he would have to be transformed into a woman to live out his life as a gay man.
“I didn’t know the difference,” said Gaines, who will discuss his newly published book, “One of These Things First: A Memoir,” at 12 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the 65th Annual Jewish Book Fair at the Janice Charach Gallery at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
“As I say in the book to my psychiatrist, ‘I don’t want to become a woman.’ I wasn’t transgender,” he said. “I didn’t think I was born into the wrong body, but the only person I had ever heard of that was similar to me was Christine Jorgensen who was just huge international news at the time.”
Jorgensen was an American transgender woman who was the first person to become widely known in the U.S. for having sex reassignment surgery.
“I didn’t want that to happen to me and I didn’t feel that way, but I didn’t know if there were any other choices,” said Gaines, the best-selling author of 12 books, including “Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons.” His journalism has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Observer, and New York magazine, where he was a contributing editor for 12 years. Gaines is a co-founder and past vice-chairman of the Hamptons International Film Festival. He lives in a small hamlet on the East End of Long Island.
In the memoir, Gaines details his life from behind a rack of dresses in his grandmother’s bra and girdle store to his attempted suicide to the halls of Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital among a captivating group of wealthy neurotics and Ivy League alcoholics who subtly begin to change him in unexpected ways. This rich cast of characters includes a famous Broadway producer who becomes his unlikely mentor; an elegant woman who claimed to be the ex-mistress of newly elected president John F. Kennedy; a snooty, suicidal Harvard architect; and a seductive young contessa. At the center of the story is a brilliant young psychiatrist who
promises to cure a young boy of his homosexuality and give him the normalcy he so longs for.
Gaines said: “Some people think I was too forgiving to Dr. Wayne Myers who I saw for so many years. It wasn’t his fault really. If in 1962, you took an unsophisticated boy who had not been exposed to anything and said, ‘You can have a “normal life,”‘ of course anybody would do that. If you were presented with that as if it was a real choice, if it was something that you could do, of course you would say, ‘Sure I’d rather be heterosexual.’ Nobody pushed me into it. Nobody said I had to do it. I think he was kind and he was loving, and I think he suffered greatly throughout his adult life for having tried to change me.”
Nowadays, Gaines said he doesn’t think twice about being Jewish or gay.
“I love everything about it. I think being Jewish gave me an extra sensibility, awareness and intelligence in this world. A little bit like being gay did,” he said. “People don’t question it. I’ve been out for so long. It hasn’t stopped me from doing anything in my present life. I’ll be 70 in November. I’m glad I was able to write this book. I’ve wanted to my whole life. I’m in a nice relationship with somebody and I’m happy with where I’m at.”
While he said it’s “wonderful” to get letters and emails from his readers, one of the great satisfactions is to talk with them.
Gaines said: “When you can actually hug somebody or shake their hand and you realize your book meant something to them, it’s really, really important,” he said. “I love going to book fairs and making personal appearances. The more people I can meet and talk to, the more fun this is.”
Attendees will have the opportunity to engage more than 30 authors and participate in a variety of events for readers of all ages. Plus, avid readers have an entire book store to peruse with hundreds of titles ranging from cookbooks to history to fiction in the main lobby.
The book fair is at the JCC or The Berman Center for the Performing Arts, both of which are located at 6600 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield. For a complete list of book fair events and times, please visit their website.