Inventors of Gay: Gordon Merrick
August 3, 1916 – March 27, 1988
If Barbara Cartland and Jacqueline Susann had a gay love child, it would be Gordon Merrick. His life — privileged upbringing, Princeton, Broadway actor, journalist, counter espionage officer, and finally world-renowned author of the first gay romances — was like that of one of his characters.
As a young, wealthy and an unbelievably gorgeous young man, Merrick dropped out of Princeton from boredom and hit Broadway to become an actor. After getting roles in top Broadway hits (The Man Who Came to Dinner) he quit… from boredom. It was too repetitive.
He wrote his first best seller, Strumpet Wind, which contained some references to homosexuality, and this gave him the seed money to start writing his more directly gay romance novels. It also allowed him to live all over the world: Mexico, the Island of Hydra in Greece, and finally, Sri Lanka.
The book he is most well known for, The Lord Won’t Mind, sat on the New York Times best-seller list for 16 weeks — in 1970! The first in a trilogy, Merrick followed it up with One for the Gods in 1971 and Forth into Light in 1974. His style is over-blown and dramatically romantic. His continuing characters — Charlie and Peter — are both exquisitely good looking, perfectly muscular, and enormously well endowed. And blond. And rich.
Merrick broke new ground with these books. These were not the tortured, gay-man-dies-for-his-sins books of the 1950s. These men had rampant sex and these books had happy endings—but not without operatic turmoil first. Another groundbreaking aspect was the gloriously beautiful covers painted by the king of the romance novel covers, Victor Gadino. There was nothing coy or shady about these covers — they matched the current vogue in paperback covers for other romance novels, pout for pout, but they featured a male couple.
His writing was criticized as shallow and looks-obsessed. Merrick defended his writing saying that the desire for male beauty was a core value in being a gay man. But looking critically at his work is missing the point. They are deliriously fun and deeply campy — the way only things that take themselves too seriously can be. If you scour the used bookstalls you may find some of the reissues Alyson books came out with in the 1990s.
Charles Hulse—His partner of 32 years.
Moss Hart— his playwright lover during his Broadway years
Why we care:
The books may be way over the top but they put fairly positive gay characters with human flaws on the New York Times bestseller lists. He lived his life openly, without shame, and with a high degree of glamour.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.