In 1987, an elderly gentleman named Forman Brown stepped inside the indie bookstore, A Different Light Books, at 4014 Santa Monica Blvd in search of a novel. The book Brown was looking for was originally published in 1933, then reprinted in the 1950s as a pulp paperback novel under an entirely different name before it faded into obscurity. By the 1980s, the book had lapsed into the public domain which allowed Alyson Publications to reprint the book in 1987. Known for publishing books with LGBTQIA themes, Alyson Publications owner, Sasha Alyson attempted to locate the book’s author, Richard Meeker, but he had simply vanished off the face of the earth. Alyson moved forward with reprinting the book under the assumption that Meeker probably passed away. One year later, Forman Brown made his way through the door of the Silverlake bookshop looking for a copy of this particular book. Brown made his way to the counter and asked the store manager if he had any copies of the novel, Better Angel by Richard Meeker. The manager confirmed that they did have the book in stock and began to talk about the virtues of this rather obscure novel, “It’s a very good book, very well written. I think you’d like it.” Brown smiled and responded, “I hope so…I wrote it.” Richard Meeker was, in fact, the nom de plume of the elderly man standing in front of the bookstore owner, and this admission was, quite likely, the first time Forman Brown had publicly claimed authorship of Better Angel. On its face, Brown was merely asserting that he had written a book but, at age 86, Forman Brown was unknowingly re-writing the final chapter of his life. The story of Forman Brown and his “lost” novel are inexorably intertwined and the book seemed to re-appear in Forman’s life just when he needed it the most. After decades of living within the confines of “the closet,” Better Angel allowed Forman to “come out,” validating his identity as a gay man and helping him to find his place within the larger LGBTQIA community.
By 1988, Brown had settled into a quiet life of relative anonymity. Few would have guessed that this grandfatherly gentleman living in a modest Hollywood home had been a radio personality at CBS in the 1930s and had a hand in programs like Club Columbia and The March of Rhyme as on-air talent. A gifted composer and lyricist, Forman had written a hit song, “Two Hearts that Pass in the Night” that was featured on the leading radio program of the time, Your Hit Parade. As a lyricist, Forman had served as a “lyric doctor” for a handful of Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s productions like The Great Waltz and The Red Mill. But Forman Brown’s status as one of the most sought-after entertainers in Los Angeles wasn’t built on his radio career or his ability to help an ailing stage production. The likes of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Bette Davis, Theodore Dreiser, Marlene Dietrich, Sinclair Lewis, Liberace, Mary Pickford, and Ray Bradbury (to name a few) had all sought out Brown’s talents as part of the performance troupe that turned L.A. on its side, The Yale Puppeteers.
Formed in 1928 by college friends Forman Brown, Harry Burnett, and Richard “Roddy” Brandon, the Yale Puppeteers toured the country with their marionette show before arriving in Los Angeles the following year. After a successful run at the Club Guignol in Hollywood, the men were then invited by “the Mother of Olvera Street,” Christine Sterling for a run at the 80 seat Teatro Torito on Olvera Street. It was a tenure that was not only a resounding success, it helped to bring attention to the much-needed revitalization of this forgotten corner of Los Angeles. The trio left L.A. in 1931 for a limited run on Broadway but returned and eventually settled into a permanent venue, The Turnabout Theater in Hollywood where Forman Brown’s musical artistry would be on full display for the world to see.
Given his musical gifts, Forman was a natural choice to write the music and lyrics for Turnabout’s productions. Performers like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) actress Elsa Lanchester became great friends with the puppeteers and loved to perform songs that Forman had written. Lanchester, a peerless performer, became quite adept at breathing life into Forman’s work and would perform his songs in her cabaret act for decades to come. Forman Brown’s gifts for writing, however, weren't limited to music and, on occasion, he found the time to write books. With the exception of Olvera Street and the Avila Adobe written in 1930, the books Brown wrote were connected to the Turnabout Theater except for one book that never actually had his name on it, Better Angel. Ironically, Better Angel was the most personal work Forman Brown would ever produce.
Better Angelwas published at the tail end of what scholars like George Chauncey have termed the “Pansy Craze.” Prohibition had driven nightlife underground which increased the visibility of subaltern groups sparking, if not a legitimately compassionate interest in the gay community, it was an interest nonetheless. Gay men and women were integral to this ‘craze’ and queer sexuality became highly visible in cosmopolitan venues until, that is, the Great Depression in 1929 and the end of prohibition in 1933. These two events effectively gave rise to a conservatism that frowned upon the decadence of the roaring twenties and, consequently, queer life returned to the shadows. In the years that followed, arrests, violence, blacklisting, harassment, loss of employment and, a host of other indignities were realities for gay men, and “the closet” was an ugly necessity. Better Angel was published the same year Prohibition was repealed and, seeing the writing on the wall, Forman likely made the tough, but necessary, decision to assign a pseudonym to the most personal work he would create. “I was not willing to come out of the closet, so to speak. It just wasn’t done then so nobody knew about it. I figured, what would it do to my early career? Maybe I would lose my job with the advertising agency. Maybe I would lose my job at CBS.” If there was a backlash to be had, Richard Meeker, not Forman Brown would absorb it and so Brown’s name never appeared anywhere on the book that was essentially his autobiography.
Better Angel is a coming-of-age story centered on a boy named Kurt Gray. Through Kurt, Forman was able to essentially “come out” and defend his humanity at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and viewed as a mental disorder. Kurt is described as “sensitive,” a euphemism at this time used to describe boys who preferred reading books to playing sports and had limited interest in the opposite sex. Like most young protagonists within novels, Kurt stumbles through adolescence in a dizzying tangle of conflicting messages from society. Kurt Gray endures the “otherness” thrust upon him through bullying, discovers his body in conflict with religious doctrine, and aches with feelings he can’t fully articulate. What sets this book apart from other coming-of-age novels is how it views the character’s sexuality. Kurt absolutely rejects the idea that his feelings are anything but normal and perfectly valid. Homophobia is there, to be sure, and we witness self-loathing and apathy in others but none of that is innate to Kurt. Kurt must deal with negativity surrounding him but the optimism he expresses for himself and his future is revolutionary for a book about a gay man published in 1933. Kurt’s “nature” doesn’t require a clinical explanation, he isn’t tortured by his attraction to other young men and he doesn’t feel the need for penance because of it. Kurt is forced to do some soul searching about his sexual identity but it becomes clear that the heterosexism and heteronormativity prevalent in society are what impugn Kurt’s identity and create self-doubt. Along the way, a young woman is caught in the crossfire of this internal struggle, and her brother, Derry, becomes the object of Kurt’s unrequited affection. Perhaps the most astonishing element of the book is that after a numbing personal odyssey, Kurt reluctantly meets David who upends his world. In the end, Kurt envisions a love that is both requited and enduring:
...a calmness flooded over him that he had never, he thought, known before. Kurt and David. You and I. It's got to be. Tonight David would be here with him, in this room, and the plan he had for the future, the house, the books, the music, the quiet, the whole precious dream, he would share with David. The certainty of his love for David, of David's love for him, was as absolute and as right and as restful as this pale and now fading light of the March afternoon.
The book effectively ends with Kurt contemplating the future. His future...with David.
In its initial publication, Better Angel wasn’t widely circulated but it received respectable reviews. Direct references to homosexuality are never mentioned in any write-up but reviewers utilized coded words and phrases (i.e. sensitive, invert, different, etc.) that a gay audience was likely to pick up on. Variety’s review read as follows: “Richard Meeker is the latest to seek to produce “well of loneliness” for the other sex. His “Better Angel” is a careful and no unsuccessful endeavor to depict the mental phases of the invert told without a visible effort to be sensational. Not the lurid word-painting but a delicate and sometimes moving depiction of the class.” The New York Herald Tribune wrote “the moving story of a sensitive young invert who discovers early in life that he is “different. The story of a long struggle against a world that neither understands nor sympathizes—a struggle to maintain the integrity of what to him is a beautiful ideal...he is revolted by the sensuality he encounters among his own kind and never compromises with his ideal. In the end, that ideal is triumphant, and in his own way he finds happiness in its fulfillment.”
More important than critical approval was the fact that the book did manage to reach a fragment of the audience who would find it most meaningful. Forman explained that “the book had a modest sale and to my surprise, it did reach some guys I hoped it would reach. And I think I had over thirty letters from men around the country. Some, older men who said, ‘gee, I wish I’d had this book when I was sixteen years old’ and then some others who said they were sixteen and seventeen and they said ‘this gives me hope that I can make something of myself’ cause the book has a happy ending...There had been, I think, only two books about male homosexuality; novels, I think, before this appeared and they both ended in suicide…”
Like Kurt, both Derry and David were pseudonyms and, as you may have surmised, were thinly veiled representations of his Yale Puppeteer cohorts. Harry Burnett took the guise of Derry, the object of Kurt’s unrequited love while Richard “Roddy” Brandon was David. Just as Forman Brown had anticipated in Better Angel, he and Brandon became life partners and remained together until Brandon’s death in 1985. In a 1993 interview with Chip Butterman, Forman relayed that their connection was immediate, “somehow we knew right away that we were...that it was made for us. And so for the rest of my life, [he] was my love—this great guy. He died about 7, 8 years ago and I miss him. Miss him terribly.” Roddy read the manuscript of Better Angel in the 1930s and loved it but he saw the potential that the book could have on a community that, at that point, was still very much in the shadows. In a letter to Forman, Roddy wrote “But what really matters, dearest, is that you are being given this chance to tell the story of the sort which makes our love worthy and right…it is really going to mean to some fellows like ourselves—less fortunate than I am, who need assurance of the beauty and worthiness your book will bring to them...The thing I hate most is that a book so beautiful and so worthy must be treated with such secrecy—and yet you are helping the day when we need no longer fear of flinch from those who do not want to understand—who have never felt loneliness and longing as I had until I met you, my better angel. Yours Roddy.”
As the success of the Yale Puppeteers grew, Better Angel faded into obscurity and, outside a circle of friends, few would ever know that Forman had even written a novel. In the 1950s, Better Angel was miraculously resuscitated but, like something out of the film The Seven Year Itch (1955), the publisher printed the book on pulpy paper, changed the title to something slightly more lurid, and slapped on a cover image that hinted at something more salacious than the story laid out in its pages. Better Angel was now known as “Torment.” The new cover showed a flame-haired femme fatale seated on a divan, dressed in an evening gown and opera gloves. Looking more like a Rita-Hayworth-in-Gilda-knockoff than the dewey-eyed young woman Forman wrote about, she desperately reaches out to a man we can only see from behind. The man hangs his head and shoulders in what we can only assume is shame or guilt. The tagline reads “Kurt loved this woman...Did he love her brother more?” Needless to say, this campy art gives the audience a wrong impression of Forman Brown’s work. Interestingly enough, the Mattachine Review managed to get a hold of this edition and noted that Kurt was “the healthiest homosexual in print.” There is no word if Forman was ever aware of this incarnation of his book.
After years of success and packed houses, the Yale Puppeteers finally closed the Turnabout Theater in 1956. The trio of puppeteers later moved into a house in Hollywood at 1141 N. El Centro Ave which they named The Turnabout House and lived comfortably for the rest of their lives. Forman stayed active in his “retirement” and took on projects at his leisure. He managed to write lyrics for a handful of Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s productions, notably Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, a production that was revived twice. The puppeteers supported local youth by teaching kids the art of puppeteering and would periodically perform around the country. In the early 1980s, Forman penned a rather humorous story about a bank error that reported him dead and his efforts to prove he was very much alive despite what the computer said. The story was picked up by press outlets and ended up circulating around the country. Around the same time, the puppeteers received a commendation from the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times wrote a corresponding feature on the trio. The Times story shows the three men had evolved into what writer Armistead Maupin termed a “logical family” (as opposed to a biological family) but there was no mention of their personal lives. The story did mention that all three puppeteers had suffered heart attacks at this point and were in less than ideal health.
Roddy Brandon had always been the least gregarious member of the puppeteers. He seemed to shy away from the spotlight and was infinitely more comfortable with the business end of things. He usually let Forman do the talking (The 1981 L.A. Times story noted that Roddy had to interrupt Forman to remind him to take his heart medication) and was usually the one taking the picture, rather than the one in the picture. As the years passed, Forman often wrote letters to Roddy where he was able to profess a deep and abiding love for the man who had become his life partner. We can surmise that Roddy was probably a sentimental man as he kept Forman’s love letters to him throughout their decades together. One letter dated October 1969, a matter of months after the Stonewall Riots became a turning point in LGBTQIA History, Forman Brown put pen to paper and wrote the following to the man he had shared a life with, at that point for close to forty years:
I just want you to know which I’m sure you already do - that every year you are more precious to me. I think maybe Browning was right when he wrote “the best is yet to be—that last of life for which the first was made.” No, my darling, “grow old along with me”—and may our years together be many. I know they’ll be happy!
Forman and Roddy were happily together for more than 50 years but fate is often cruel. Sometime between 1984 and 1985, Roddy became seriously ill. He developed an ailment that required kidney dialysis but, given his advanced age and poor health, Roddy declined treatment and passed away on May 4, 1985.
Roddy’s death seemed to spark something in Forman, some kind of desire to find his place within the larger LGBT community. Forman wasn’t living in the closet in the sense that he was trying to conceal his sexual identity, he just wasn’t visible as a member of the community. For a certain generation of gay men and women, queer identity was relegated exclusively for “safe” spaces and rarely shared with others save for a few close companions. Add to this the fact that Roddy died in the AIDS era where public vitriol against gay men had reached a crescendo, Forman had little motivation to be out and proud. But the need to belong to a community is very real and the network of support found within these communities is necessary to our experience as human beings. Forman had found both community and validation through his relationship with Roddy, so finding a place within the larger community seemed irrelevant. Forman recalled that “...I was not concerned with any gay community things or clubs or whatever there might be. I didn’t know about ‘em...As long as I had Roddy, I was happy. I did love him very much and that was it.” Forman confessed that his relationship with Roddy was regarded as a private matter, “We never made it public. Most of our friends we met at the theater were straight people and, yet, our intimate friends never said anything about it.” Forman recalled the relationship was kept even from close relatives like Forman’s parents and Roddy’s sister. “You felt like you were hiding something. All the time practically. But it became second habit. You never thought too much about it.” Sadly, the obituary Forman wrote for Roddy also fails to directly acknowledge their 50+ years as a couple. In some sense, archaic social taboos had not only put restraints on how Forman was able to live his life, they deprived him of the right to publicly mourn his life partner; in the midst of this loss, however, something remarkable happened. Forman received a phone call from a friend who let him know that the book he had written so long ago was sitting on the shelf of the local bookstore, in a brand new edition.
As Better Angel languished in publishing purgatory, few people had knowledge of or even access to the book with the exception of academics. In the 1970s, academics began to explore the social history of minority groups throughout the United States including the LGBTQIA community. Mentions of Better Angel would make appearances in academic dissertations and analyses of gay literature like Roger Austen’s Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1977) and James Levin’s The Gay Novel: The Male Homosexual Image in America (1983). LGBT Scholars had latched onto the book largely based on its positive portrayal of homosexuality but also the fact that it was so well-written. The book had come to the attention of Sasha Alyson in 1986 through Hubert Kennedy, a mathematician who had shifted his interests to early LGBTQIA history. Alyson had asked Kennedy for recommendations as to older gay novels that deserved new editions and Better Angel was his pick. Kennedy went on to write the introduction to the new printing that Forman eventually bought at A Different Light.
In an extensive review published in the Los Angeles Times, author John Rechy (then lecturing at USC) approached Better Angel expecting no more than a “loveable artifact” only to find himself enamored with the novel. Foregoing the ludicrous “coded” language reviews of yesteryear, Rechy was able to speak openly and honestly about the book:
“Reappearing today when general indifference is growing even as deaths from AIDS mount among gay men and gay bigotry is expressed freely, Better Angel reminds of a time when hope was possible—the “promise of a future joy”—simply because the reality of prejudice had not been entirely exposed, not yet bitterly tested. Thoroughly modern in its voice—despite words such as invert which are nonetheless true to its time—Brown’s book is not only a very good novel about coming out, as it has been called; it is a very good novel, without qualifier, a book that contains excellent writing, sophisticated humor, universal insights. “The whole problem of life is to get enough moments crowded into it so the places between won’t be so deadly.” That is a sentence any writer would be proud of.”
Rechy went on to lament that, despite its fine writing, any book about homosexuality was (and still is, for that matter) likely to be relegated to a “literary ghetto,” and “available only in gay bookstores and on a few “Alternative Lifestyle” shelves in others. Separate but not quite equal.” Rechy hoped that this book would be an exception, “...what a success story this would be if Forman Brown’s Better Angel which cut across old barriers would slice away new ones to be read simply as the fine novel that it is.”
Forman’s trip to A Different Light Bookstore to see this new incarnation of Better Angel would be the start of a remarkable final chapter in the puppeteer’s life. Recalling the bookstore owner’s reaction, Forman stated that “He didn’t quite drop dead, but he called Sasha Alyson in Boston right away and I talked to him.” Forman and Alyson became acquainted and by the end of 1989, Alyson began the process of reprinting the book with a new foreword written by Forman. In 1990, for the first time in nearly sixty years, Better Angel would have both Forman’s name and photograph on the cover. In reclaiming Better Angel, Forman took a brave step forward and would later say that “I’m delighted to have it out in the open at long last. There’s nothing like coming out of the closet at the age of 86, is there?”
Forman Brown, at 90 years old, was enjoying a personal renaissance because of Better Angel. He began making appearances at bookstores to sign copies of his novel and he saw how the community embraced it. It also gave him some idea of how the gay community had grown since his time as a young, gay man. In a 1993 interview with Chip Butterman for Spunk Magazine, Forman summarized how the book had opened his eyes to the gay community: “I don’t know if I was aware of how general it was over the whole country until [Better Angel] came out, actually. And I began getting swamped with, you know, magazines I had never heard of and requests for pictures and all that kind of business and I realized, you know, what had happened since the book was [originally] published. And I think I was delighted with it...that [Better Angel] had done what it had done, had aroused interest as long ago as that.” Through these signings and personal appearances, Forman was also beginning to recognize his place within the larger LGBT community and, consequently, he was beginning to blossom.
During this period, Forman and Harry took part in a documentary about the Turnabout Theater that was directed by Harry’s nephew, Dan Bessie, and filmed prior to Harry’s death in 1993. In the film,Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers (1993), the contrast between Harry and Forman’s comfort levels when discussing being gay shows a marked contrast. Harry appears noticeably uncomfortable and appears reluctant to discuss the topic of his homosexuality in general. Forman, appearing much more relaxed, explained that “I think he is reticent about it and I think we all are, as a matter of fact. But, perhaps Harry a little more because he’s surprised by the whole thing at this late date in life. It comes as a surprise that it can openly be talked about. It certainly wasn’t in our heyday.” Forman, by comparison, is able to smile and laugh when talking about being gay. He easily recounts meeting the man who would become his life partner, “I went to New Haven where Harry was studying and there’s where I met Roddy for the first time. We hit it off immediately and we sort of both felt that this was going to amount to something. Roddy Brandon was my great love. We were together over fifty years.” In less than ten years, Forman shifted from having an inability to discuss his relationship with Roddy in print to recounting his love for Roddy on film.
Call it serendipity, call it fate, the fact is that Better Angel seemed to come back into Forman Brown’s life just when he needed it the most. In the aftermath of profound grief, the book not only reminded Forman of who he had been, but it also gave him the courage to live his final years out loud. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, homophobia was ubiquitous, stirred on by a virus that had decimated an entire generation and left little to be hopeful for. Yet in the thick of it, a 90-year-old gay man appeared with a testimonial that proved it was possible to have a long life that was rich, fulfilling, and imbued with love. Recognizing what his story had meant to not only himself but his community, Forman confessed that “the most rewarding thing that has happened to me has been the rediscovery of Better Angel, and the realization that its message of hope, or the possibility of hope is still pertinent and as warming as it proved sixty years ago.”
Forman Brown, the last of the Yale Puppeteers, passed away in 1996. Following his death, the personal effects of Forman, Roddy, and Harry, including materials relating to their career as the Yale Puppeteers were donated to the Los Angeles Public Library.
For the first time, materials from this collection are on display in the Getty Gallery at Central Library through March 6, 2022. As part of the Los Angeles Public Library’s exhibit, “Life on a String: The Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theater,” Better Angel has been reprinted by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library and is for sale through the Library Store and is always available to borrow from the library. It features a new foreword by Los Angeles City Librarian, John Szabo.