1954, offshore from Bikini atoll: Never mind radiation, naval crew, bored by days of waiting for a hydrogen bomb test, were taken ashore afterward to swim and drink so much beer that many couldn’t jump from the dingy to the hatch of the ship on their return, and their drunken bodies had to be piled en mass into netting and raised by a crane to the deck. So reports self-aware, precocious young naval officer Bill, a college graduate from Illinois. “We were a military attachment aboard a naval supply ship that had civilian officers…I chatted my head off with the second mate, who sometimes took his duty on hot days wearing only shorts. Not bad at all. But he ran a poor second to the third mate, who was really sexy. That is, his body was sexy. He wasn’t sexy at all. In fact, he was incredibly boring. But I was young. I couldn’t tell the difference in those days.”
David Leddick’s narrator in The Handsomest Man in the World gives a fascinating account of life as a closeted gay man in the navy and afterward at a time when gay marriage wasn’t imaginable, in fact sex between two men was a punishable crime. But Bill was upbeat. “I had spent my school days and military career as a low-profile homosexual and had never been criticized for it. So I had no reason not to be self-confident.” “I wanted love. I wanted to be endlessly locked in someone’s arms. Curiously for someone who had been sleeping with boys for many a year, I was not lost to nasty erotic activity. I just wanted a clean-limbed, fresh-faced boyfriend.”…”[H]ere I was on a ship with a lot of guys…Plenty of material to think about and masturbate over…I was leading a rich and exciting, albeit hidden life.”
In the navy Bill meets his dream love, Fred, and after discharge they drive with Fred’s brother, Frank, and Frank’s girlfriend from San Francisco to Bozeman, Montana. “In those years…if two couples rented a motel suite with two double beds…[a]nd if one of the couples were both men, no one thought anything of their sharing a bed. It was probably a decade later, in the decadent 1960s, that the public woke up to the fact that if two men were in bed together there might be hanky-panky.”
He meets Fred’s mother, “very Southern,” “who seemed to be always upstairs resting. She was almost like ectoplasm, appearing at the foot of the stairs smiling wearily and then disappearing upward…[Had] all these lovely women found the act of sexual intercourse so different from romance that they just had to go find some other world to inhabit?” Bill’s own mother was savvy, making “it clear that Fred was to occupy his own bedroom. She had once said to me when I was a teenager, ‘You are so friendly and cooperative it’s a good thing you’re not a girl or you’d be pregnant all the time.’”
“What is it about the nature of love?” Bill asks. “There’s always something sordid about it. Some dark little secret; being in love with someone you shouldn’t be. Hankering after your father or a hired man.”
He and Fred settled awhile in New York. “What dear innocent years those were, in the 1950s. The fact that Fred and I lived together and were always together and never dated women piqued no one’s interest or curiosity. There must have been tons of guys like us around New York…Some gay and getting it on. Some just old school or military pals…Hardly anyone…live[d] alone.”
They hung around with Bill’s friend from his pre-navy college years, Marion Padwee, who the college boys had called “Panic-Button Padwee” because “she wasn’t eager to have her underwear explored in the backseat…I, of course, would have been delighted to have my underwear torn off and thrown out the window…”
In New York, “I assumed that heterosexuals knew something I didn’t…about finding [someone] with whom they could stay forever. I assumed their feelings must be something like what I felt for Fred, but with that extra touch of church and legitimacy thrown in.”
In The Handsomest Man in the World David Leddick provides a glance at a period in history I also remember well, a time when I never imagined I’d be married to a man in my lifetime. I don’t know about the “extra touch of church,” but “legitimacy”—and social acceptance—are a great thing.
David Leddick (pictured above from his Amazon page) has published five other novels but perhaps is most known for his books about photography of the male nude, including the historical The Male Nude and Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle.