So-called by novelist Christopher Isherwood, Denham Fouts was pursued by a Greek king, a German baron, a British viscount, and many, many more. Arthur Vanderbilt tells the tale in this exclusive excerpt.
Through his roommate who worked in a Manhattan bookstore, Denny met best-selling author Glenway Wescott who frequented the shop. Thirty-three-year-old Wescott, who had traveled widely and been part of the young generation of expatriates living in Europe after the First World War, knew just about every poet, writer, and artist of his day, and at that time, for winning the prestigious Harper Prize with the publication in 1927 of his novel The Grandmothers, was himself as famous as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He projected worldliness and the understanding of an older friend who could look deep into Denny’s soul and know just what he was thinking. Denny had snagged his first celebrity and found his first mentor.
It was the spring of 1934. Denny, Wescott remembered, “would call on me—I was living on Murray Hill—whenever he was hungry or felt like asking questions about how to get on in the world, which I would answer, all purely Socratic.”
Wescott warmed to the topic and this Socratic dialogue went on for a number of sessions.
“Now, Glenway,” Denny would say in his deep seductive Southern drawl, “you know everything. I want you to tell me: how does one manage to get kept?”
Wescott found his naiveté amusing. He laughed.
“To begin with,” he explained to his attentive student, “you must never use that word—‘kept.’ Think of something you want to do that takes money to learn. Then ask someone for help and guidance. You’ll get much more money that way than by coming at it straight on.”
Denny was a quick study. He was perfecting the art of opening doors with his looks, and, with his charm and intelligence, was mingling easily with the city’s upper crust. It wasn’t long before the handsome, suddenly sophisticated twenty-year-old from a middle-class background in Jacksonville was accompanying a German baron to Europe.
Denny still had much to learn. In Berlin, he and the baron fought, Denny packed and started hitchhiking to Venice. On his way, the chauffeured limousine of an old Greek shipping magnate pulled over, picked him up, and headed on to Venice where they boarded the tycoon’s yacht. Again, Denny hadn’t yet mastered all the rules of engagement and fell in love with one of the sailors on the yacht. After the two of them stole as much money as they could, several thousand dollars, they jumped ship and took a suite at the Quisisana Hotel on Capri. The sailor left when the money ran out, while Denny continued each evening to dress for dinner in his new formal wear, hoping to be seen. When at last it became apparent that he could not pay his bills at the Quisisana, the police were summoned and Denny was escorted through the lobby.
It was at that very moment that Evan Morgan, the last Lord Tredegar, walking through the lobby with his wife, trailed by a retinue of retainers, spotted Denny and commanded the authorities: “Unhand that handsome youth, he is mine.”
[Christopher] Isherwood [once] described Denny [in his diary] as looking like ‘Dorian Gray emerging from the tomb—death-pale and very slim in his dark elegant suit, with black hat and umbrella.'”
Was Evan’s wife concerned when her husband so suddenly made a new friend who was now part of their entourage as they continued the Grand Tour, or did she consider this just another manifestation of Evan’s charming eccentricities, another addition to his unusual collection of acquaintances? In China, they visited the opium dens where Denny sampled the wares and developed an addiction.
When Evan’s father died, Evan became Lord Tredegar, a viscount and baron, lord of 500-year-old Tredegar House. And then the fun began.
The glitterati, along with the beautiful and the handsome unknowns, made their way to his infamous weekend garden parties at Tredegar Park: H.G. Wells, Marchesa Casati, Aleister Crowley, Lord Alfred Douglas, Lady Nancy Cunard, the painter Augustus John, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley. Denny was right at home in this glamorous party world and became a part of it: from Jacksonville, Florida, to one of the grandest manors of the English-speaking world.
Drink and drugs fueled these circus-like gatherings. “He’s one of the very few people I know who can throw a party,” one of the guests, Aleister Crowley, recorded with admiration in his diary. Another guest, the socialite Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, MP, wrote in his diary that Tredegar House had “the feel and even smell of decay, of aristocracy in extremis, the sinister and the trivial, crucifixes and crocodiles.…”
Among the guests at Evan’s weekend parties was Crown Prince Paul of Greece, living in exile in England since 1924 when the Greek Assembly had abolished the monarchy and declared Greece a republic. From that time, members of the royal family were forbidden to live in Greece, and twenty-three-year-old Paul and his older brother, King George II, had sought refuge in London. Paul, an athletic man, tall, broad-shouldered, with a jovial laugh and ready smile, on a lark had assumed an alias and found a job in a London factory constructing airplanes, though most of his time was spent moving in the upper social circles. And one weekend, at a party at Tredegar House, the Prince met Denham Fouts.
As captivated by Denny as was Lord Tredegar, Prince Paul took Denny with him on a cruise around the Mediterranean. “We had some great times together on a yacht,” Denny always would remember as he took out photograph albums to show his friends. And there he was, looking “very glamorous in belted white swimming trunks, leaning with merited narcissism against a lifebelt, upon some swaying Aegean deck.”
Back in Jacksonville, Florida, Denny’s mother worried about her son. According to one of Denny’s cousins, “he sent continual postcards from all over the world. Sometimes he would send photos of him with a glamorous woman or a handsome man: ‘Traveling here with Lady So-and-So in Malay. She thinks she’s Marlene Dietrich and so do I.’ But he never would give anybody an address to write back.”
A baron. A shipping tycoon. A lord. A prince. Denny had mastered Glenway Wescott’s lessons very well indeed, and was prepared for his next conquest.
To be young, handsome, bright, and rich were the blessings bestowed upon Peter Watson, and he wore those blessings lightly, with grace and style. He was the youngest child of Sir George Watson, Lord of the Manor of Sulhamstead Abbotts, who had invented margarine and made a fortune when butter was rationed in Great Britain during the First World War. Peter was educated at Eton and Oxford and studied in Munich, where his interest in modern art was awakened and where he purchased his first Picasso drawing. When his father died in 1930, Peter, at twenty-two, was the beneficiary of trusts that gave him the wealth to be a gentleman of leisure and to pursue his passion for art. The world became his playground—letters written on stationery of the finest hotels, postcards from the best resorts, spewed forth to his friends, and if, for instance, it happened to be raining when he was in Salzburg, he simply packed up and headed off to Venice. Everyone who became his friend considered themselves fortunate. Alan Pryce-Jones, a classmate from his Eton days, described Peter as “slow-speaking, irresistibly beguiling…from fourteen or so onwards, one of the most sophisticated beings I ever knew: rich, funny, and wise…” Cecil Beaton found that Peter’s “wry sense of humor and mysterious qualities of charm made him unlike anyone I had known,” that he was “an independent, courageous person, on terms of absolute honesty with himself, with the world and with everybody he talks to.”
When Prince Paul was given the telephone, Denny asked that he immediately send over “one of those royal guards in ballet skirts with something for us to smoke.”
Peter was tall, imperially slim, debonair, with a smile that “was so disarming that people could not but like him,” as Cecil Beaton described it.Beaton called him “the best person at the art of living I know.” He was, in Beaton’s judgment, “a completely fulfilled, integrated person; someone who has been through many vicissitudes and has now discovered himself.” Beaton also described Peter’s thick brown hair as being “sexily lotioned” with brilliantine, a choice of words that pretty much summed up the problem: Peter was so perfect that woman, and men, kept weaving their fantasies around him and falling in love with him. And Beaton, who would become the famed society photographer, fell very hard indeed.
Beaton knew exactly the moment it happened. It was late summer, 1930. Cecil was twenty-six, four years older than Peter. They were in Vienna, each with his own friends, when they met. Peter went with Cecil to antique shops to help him select furnishings for Ashcombe, his new country estate. Cecil could not understand why his friends were making such a fuss about this young man until several days later, as they went down on the same elevator from their hotel rooms, “he shot me a glance of sympathy, of amusement—it may have been a wink—but it did its work—it went straight to my heart—and from that moment I was hypnotized by him: watching every gesture of his heavy hands, the casual languid way he walked.” As they got out of the elevator, “we burst into laughter, and arm-in-arm walked off into the Vienna side-streets to become the greatest of friends.”
Truman Capote knew both Watson and Beaton. He and Cecil were lifelong friends, but Capote was one of the very few who had no use for Peter. Capote felt Watson had a sadistic streak, and brutally portrayed this voyage [sharing a cabin with Beaton] aboard the Aquitania in “Unspoiled Monsters,” a chapter of his never-completed, long-anticipated novel, Answered Prayers. “Once,” Capote wrote in a parenthetical remark in this chapter, “Watson deliberately set forth on a sea voyage halfway round the world with an aristocratic, love-besotted young man whom he punished by never permitting a kiss or caress, though night after night they slept in the same narrow bed—that is, Mr. Watson slept while his perfectly decent but disintegrating friend twitched with insomnia and an aching scrotum.”
In May of 1935, Peter and Cecil both happened to be in Paris and made plans to meet for dinner, but Peter did not appear at the agreed upon time. Cecil later learned that Peter that night had met in a nightclub a young American named Denham Fouts.
As Peter recalled the moment: “He took me back to his hotel where he gave himself cocaine injections.” And there, in Denny’s hotel room, Peter stayed.
Cecil was devastated when he learned of Peter’s feelings for Denny, “again conscious of my failure,” as he wrote in his diary, “that my beloved will never be in love with me and will always fall for strumpets, and that continuously I am going to be miserable through each intrigue.” He no longer could deal with this unrequited love, and drafted a letter to Peter:
My dearest Darling, this is so much the saddest thing that happened in my life. It is so serious for me to make the painful wrench but I cannot continue being made miserably unhappy constantly by your peculiar vagaries… I cannot weep any more, my eyes are swollen and my face unrecognizable from so many tears and so much hysteria.
Cecil never mailed his letter, but read it to Peter, who tried to heal their friendship and urged that they remain “sane and friends again.”
Just as Cecil Beaton’s life changed forever when he met Peter Watson—and, to the end of his life, even after many other affairs, including one with Greta Garbo, considered Peter “the love of his life” and still was “sad and sore that it was never a mutual love affair, a friendship only for him”—so Peter Watson’s life was to change forever that evening he met Denham Fouts. A friend of both Peter and Denny would call Denny “the great, destructive, love” of Peter’s life.
Beaton, of course, hated Denny with “an unconsumed passion,” and when [years later] he heard through his friends of “the appalling dogfights that Denham had with Peter,” he noted with delight in his diary, “they were just what Peter needed.”
The dogfights typically began with Peter’s concern about Denny’s opium habit. Peter always had been frightened of drugs and was distressed at what he saw them doing to Denny. He tried every stratagem to get him to quit—love, reasoning, nagging, threats—nothing, of course, worked against the power of Denny’s addiction. Every once in a while, Peter was able to get Denny into a rehabilitation clinic but those “cures” proved temporary, very temporary, at best. And so their fighting continued.
“We had some great times together on a yacht,” Denny always would remember as he took out photograph albums to show his friends. And there he was, looking “very glamorous in belted white swimming trunks, leaning with merited narcissism against a lifebelt, upon some swaying Aegean deck.”
Other times after Peter and Denny fought, Denny would go back to Prince Paul, but now, with the national plebiscite in Greece in 1935 that had called for a return of the monarchy, Crown Prince Paul was no longer in London; he had joined his brother’s triumphant return to Greece, and there, in Athens, obtained for Denny a suite of rooms in the Grande Bretagne Hotel.
Denny was well aware of the power he held there, even after Prince Paul on January 8, 1938 married Princess Frederica of Hanover, a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and the granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In the bar in the Grande Bretagne Hotel, Denny in 1938 had met twenty-two-year-old surrealist artist Brion Gysin, whose acquaintances, including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, all agreed he looked like a young Greek god, perhaps Apollo, maybe Dionysus or Narcissus. Denny spotted this classically handsome young man sitting at the bar and took him up to his rooms. There, he picked up the telephone, called the front desk and asked to be put through to the Royal Palace. When Prince Paul was given the telephone, Denny asked that he immediately send over “one of those royal guards in ballet skirts with something for us to smoke.” The Prince did, Denny and Brion did, and as Brion recalled, “we got royally stoned.”
Brion Gysin was fascinated by everything about Denny, from the suitcases that Salvador Dali had decorated for him with labels like “Hotel Sordide” and “Midnight Motel,” to the expensive sports jackets Peter had brought for him, which appeared to be “itchy tweed but felt like cat’s fur woven into cashmere.” For a while they enjoyed each other’s company and together migrated back to Paris. The two were like brothers in their desire to live well, and in their ability, through the largesse of admirers, to live well without working.
[Christopher] Isherwood [once] described Denny [in his diary] as looking like “Dorian Gray emerging from the tomb—death-pale and very slim in his dark elegant suit, with black hat and umbrella. He looks like the Necropolitan ambassador.” [One night as they sat down to dinner with some friends,] Denny asked Bill Caskey to take some money and get a package of opium from a “connection” who was waiting outside the restaurant. Isherwood thought this request outrageous and refused to let Caskey go, afraid the police could be watching the pusher and that Caskey would be arrested. He felt that Denny’s suggestion “was an entirely characteristic act of aggression.” (After Christopher left Paris at the end of April, Denny sent him a letter: “I hope you and Billy will go on being as happy as you seem to be.” Isherwood noted, “Denny obviously didn’t hope it.”)
Isherwood found that Denny seemed to be quite himself, not in the least “depressed or debauched or down-at-hell” (sic). But his stomach cramps may have been acting up that evening for he merely picked at the caviar and watched the others eat “with an air of controlled distaste, as though our addiction to solid food were a far more squalid vice than his. Now and then, his manner became a trifle vague, but his wit was as sharp as ever.”
“Sometimes he would send photos of him with a glamorous woman or a handsome man…But he never would give anybody an address to write back.”
(This dinner found its way into “Paul,” Isherwood’s chapter about Denny in Down There on a Visit. In “Paul,” Christopher, the narrator, goes to visit Paul in Paris at his apartment on the Rue du Bac. Propped up in bed, “he was corpse-white, and his face looked as though it had the firmness of hard wax and was semitransparent. There was an air about him of being somehow preserved and, at the same time, purified: his skin seemed to be absolutely without blemish. Indeed, he was marvelously, uncannily beautiful. He wore a heavy skiing sweater over pajamas. Gigi lay on the bed at his feet.” Paul tells Christopher that he uses opium and says, “I hear you’ve been working in the movies a lot lately, so perhaps you can give me some money?” Paul proposes that they go for dinner at The Ritz. “The Paul who appeared that evening had a sinister, sepulchral elegance; Dorian Gray arisen from the tomb. He wore a perfectly tailored black suit with a black hat and a neatly rolled umbrella. Gigi was at his heels.” He eats only caviar. Again, he asks Christopher for money to buy opium, and Christopher gives him thirty thousand francs.)
Gore [Vidal] had read in that day’s paper that King Paul of Greece had pneumonia, and as the evening wore down, he mentioned this to Denny.
“I must send him a telegram,” Denny said, and together, Gore and Denny located on St. Germain a Western Union office still open and Denny sent the telegram.
The day after the telegram was sent, Denny showed Gore the reply telegram he received from King Paul:
Darling Denham, so wonderful to hear from you. Why haven’t I heard from you before? Much exaggerated about my illness…Love, Paul.
By then, Vidal was visiting Denny regularly. (Isherwood wrote in his memoirs, “Denny treats Gore with the slightly sarcastic tolerance of an elder uncle.”) “At sundown,” Vidal recalled, “like Dracula, Denham would appear in the streets leading his dog down Saint-Germain-des-Prés.” Here, certainly, was a character in search of an author, and Vidal, consciously or not, filed in his memory-bank his encounters with Denny. It was not long, just two years, before Denny appeared in his fiction.
This excerpt from Arthur Vanderbilt’s The Best Kept Boy in the World first appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.