John Rechy was 12 years old, in 1945, when for the first and only time he laid eyes on Marisa Guzman, though he already knew of her. She was the infamous "kept woman" of one of the richest, most powerful politicos in Mexico, and her father in El Paso despised her for it — despised her for bringing such shame on the family; despised her because she was not ashamed.
But there she was on the day of Rechy's sister's wedding: a woman sitting alone on a threadbare couch in an empty room, elegantly dressed and inhaling on a cigarette. Rechy was transfixed by her beauty, her poise, her "sublime" aloofness, and her challenge to the conservative attitudes of Mexican-American culture.
Rechy knew that culture, because he was born into it. He was Juan Rechy, son of a pious Mexican mother, who took pride in what she called her "pure" Spanish blood, and a violent father of Scottish descent, who went from successful orchestra conductor in Mexico to occasional musical tutor after he moved the family to Texas, where they barely made ends meet — a fact Juan Rechy hid from the outside, Anglo world.
This much we know from the opening chapters of About My Life and the Kept Woman (Grove Press), Rechy's new memoir.
This much we learn later — and it isn't the fictionalized account in the novel that made Rechy famous in 1963 (City of Night) or the nonfictional account that made Rechy a notorious literary figure in 1977 (The Sexual Outlaw):
He was a fair-skinned child who was able to "pass" for Anglo, but, like Marisa Guzman, he was aloof — a "ghost boy," in the words of a neighborhood boy. He was bright too and fond of literature and writing, which brought him to the attention of a high school English teacher. One afternoon, she invited Rechy to her apartment; the same afternoon, she seduced him into losing his virginity. Then she threw him out, and Rechy soon threw himself into college studies. Then he met the demands of army life, but he wasn't shipped to fight in Korea. He was assigned in Germany, and on leave in Paris he discovered one night where the easy money was: hustling.
Rechy moved to New York — a guy who played it straight but earned his way cruising Times Square. He moved to Los Angeles — a guy who played it straight but earned his way cruising Pershing Square. In San Francisco, he got a taste of S&M. And in New Orleans, he had his fill of sex, drag queens, and drugs. But he lived to write about it in a piece that Rechy titled "Mardi Gras," and he mailed it to Evergreen Review. That "letter," expanded to book form, became City of Night, and it threw him into the company of Christopher Isherwood and Allen Ginsberg. But Rechy's hustling days weren't over.
He headed for the "field of sexual anarchy" known in Los Angeles as Griffith Park, where he recalls 27 (yes, 27) sexual encounters in a single day and where, one day, he and another man were arrested. The charge: "oral copulation," a felony. The judge's verdict: guilty as charged. The sentence: probation and a fine, not the usual jail time, because, in the words of Rechy's lawyer outside the courtroom, "of who you are."
Free to go, Rechy went back to work, but it wasn't at his typewriter. It was inside Griffith Park, and for the first time, Rechy writes, he wasn't there for the pay. He was there because of who he was: an object of desire acting, unashamed, on his own desire.
This, finally, put him in the same company as Marisa Guzman, and Rechy doubles back, during scenes of crisis, to that sight of her throughout this memoir. He'd already been in the company of Isabel Franklin, an object of his fascination in high school — the "American" high school in El Paso where the lighter your skin color, the better for you. Isabel had spied on Guzman too that wedding day. She was, in fact, Guzman's niece; her real name, Rechy learns, was Alicia Gonzales; and she went on to further falsify her background and marry a prominent San Francisco newspaper columnist. She'd lied her way into that marriage, and it failed. Rechy had lied his way through an underworld, and he survived. But as he writes in About My Life and the Kept Woman, he "escaped the final dangers of that world only through the accident of talent." The man's lucky to be alive.