Out East End: Steven Gaines, 'Simply Halston' Author
Steven Gaines says he has retired—but that’s hard to believe.
Gaines, The New York Times bestselling author, journalist, radio host and co-founder of the Hamptons International Film Festival, seems to be hotter than ever. His 1991 biography of fashion icon Halston, titled Simply Halston: The Untold Story is finally being told as a five-hour series on Netflix starring Ewan McGregor.
Gaines’ Hamptons classic, Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons (1998), in which he meticulously and hilariously chronicles the powerful and pretentious characters on the East End, is also being made into a series. His moving memoir One of These Things First (2016), about his struggles as a 15-year old gay teen, received critical acclaim, and he is currently writing part two.
I caught up with Gaines, a longtime East End resident, via phone from his infamous house in Wainscott, which he purchased from the former owner of the The Swamp, the legendary gay club in the Hamptons that closed 20 years ago.
Retiring or not, Gaines never met a story he couldn’t tell.
What made you want to write about Halston, and what was the reaction to the book?
It was originally an assignment from Vanity Fair. Tina Brown asked me to write about him and it was never published, but that’s when I first gathered the material; a year or two later there was interest from (publisher) Putnam that I write his biography, and I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
It was exciting. I got to meet a lot of people in the fashion world. But a lot of people were also very mad—because the truth is sometimes hard. I don’t blame them in a way.
What made people mad about Simply Halston?
Halston was, in fact, a cocaine addict—a lot of people were on drugs then but they cleaned up their acts. The cocaine affected him in a really, really bad way—he was totally unhinged and nasty—and this guy was a genius, with absolute incredible taste. He had a remarkable way of looking at things, a different expression of fashion. He was really quite something, and marvelous and fun and glamorous and dramatic. He was the epitome of 1970s glamour—and he blamed the businessmen for destroying it—but it was really Halston who destroyed it.
Did you spend time with Halston?
I didn’t, really. I had one conversation my whole life with Halston in which he told me to ‘steal’ from myself—to find your strength, and then steal from yourself. I thought about that a lot, and I think I eventually understood what he meant.
I looked at my work and I said, “The best part of my work was that I was a good storyteller”—not that I wrote beautiful sentences or had wonderful metaphors. So I went back and I saw that, and I said, “I’m going to take that and tell stories.”
What took so long to adapt Simply Halston into a series?
The rights to produce the book were bought 20 years ago. First, it was going to be a movie, then they didn’t see it as a movie. Alec Baldwin wanted to be Halston—he took the option for five years—that fell through. These things happen.
Saying I’m the author of a book is like a whore who wants to be asked to stay for breakfast. They bought my book and I really have not been in touch with them, but I love how the series turned out.
You’ve written a lot of bestsellers, but Philistines at the Hedgerow is the one you are most identified with. How do you see the book?
The book is a social and cultural history of the Hamptons in a moment of dramatic change. I wrote it as a love letter to the Hamptons. It’s lighthearted and a good story.
Fox Searchlight TV is involved in the series. I read the first two hours (of the script); it’s wonderful, they really capture what the Hamptons are and not in a mean way—it’s perfect.
Did Philistines change your life?
It did. When it came out and was very successful, especially out here, a friend said, “Now you have a place at the table.” Invitations were coming in, I was expected to be a “witty” guest, and guess what—I didn’t want a place at the table. I’m a down home Brooklyn boy, and I passed by that meal…
Your memoir made me cry and laugh. What made you write about your life after writing so many books about other people’s lives—Halston, Calvin Klein, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Marjoe?
I think everyone wants to tell their story and be remembered. Many people now want to write memoirs and are videotaping their lives so their grandchildren can see them—you know, leaving a mark—I think that’s very important.
Did you feel that, in your own family, you couldn’t say anything about your sexuality?
Oh my God, I was so ashamed. How could I ever look my grandfather in the eyes again, or anybody, or walk down the street? I didn’t want to be that person. I felt very isolated.
There’s nothing worse than a self-hating gay Jew. It’s a very bad combination [laughs].
I knew of no other gay people. There wasn’t a word “gay” that I knew about. You were a “f—–.” It was just terrible. I would rather die than anybody find out. And that’s the decision I made when I was 15 years old. (An attempted suicide, which lead to Gaines “happily” signing himself into the fabled Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic “because Marilyn Monroe had been there the year before.” There he met “writers, architects, Broadway producers” and “learned about another world.”) It turned out to be the beginning of a wonderful adventure…and is one of the reasons why I’m a writer today.
When did you come out?
I didn’t come out for years because I went to see a brilliant, young, psychiatrist who said that if I wanted to be straight that he could help me do that. So I spent the next 10 years in therapy trying to become straight and having sex with women—the cure was called “copious coitus” and that meant I was a cad. Looking back on it now, I think I duped a lot young women into thinking there was some sort of future with me. So it took years after that for me to come out.
But people of my age bracket—I guess you call them “seniors” now—they really suffered through a time of tremendous prejudice… The interesting thing was, towards the end of the ’70s, gay people had become, for five minutes, kind of “chic.” Everyone wanted gay friends, and “gay influence” was way way out of the closet. Then, of course, AIDS happened and it took away that blossom on the vine.
Are you really retiring?
Yes, I’ve become a gentleman farmer. [we laugh] Okay, not really, but I am trying to find out if it is legal to plant marijuana in my backyard. I’m actually kind of kicking back.
Writers are expected to die over their keyboard. I’m going to be 75 in November, and I don’t want to go chasing waterfalls. I just want to write what pleases me and enjoy. I just want to be remembered.
Halston premieres on Netflix on May 14. Produced by Ryan Murphy, it stars Ewan McGregor (Halston), Rory Culkn (Joel Schumacher) and Krysta Rodriguez (Liza Minnelli).