This is the first in a two part series on the life of director Nicholas Ray.
Too Masculine A Role
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Ever since I was four and she was nine I've wanted to make it with my sister Helen, because she was my sister.
Alcohol was the major feature of Nicholas Ray's young life. His father was an alcoholic; his mother was active in the abstinence movement. "I learned about Aqua Velva long before I started shaving," Ray later recalled. "No, I didn't drink it. I poured it over the sheets or into the bathtub to clear the smell of my puke." La Crosse, Wisconsin was about as American as it gets.
While his father went from bar to bar, Ray would wait in the car, sometimes using the time to masturbate. When he was especially drunk, Ray's father would beat his son. One night young Nicholas dragged his father home from a particularly severe bender; he had dragged the pathetic man up from where he lay in puddles of vomit. Later that afternoon, his mother called him to tell his father was dead.
His older sisters were all married by then, pleased as punch to be out of La Crosse. Ray and his mother did not get along so wonderfully, and part of the time she sent him to live with his sister Ruth on the north side of Chicago. A friend attended the University of Chicago, and Ray focused his efforts on transferring from a La Crosse junior college to a place where he might have Thornton Wilder as his instructor. Eventually through sheer force of will he was accepted.
He arrived in Hyde Park with two gallons of undiluted grain alcohol, a determination to have sex with as many women as possible and a passion for acting.
The director of Wilder's on-campus productions was a popular professor named O'Hara. He took a serious interest in Ray, working up to the point where he parked his car on Lake Michigan and attempted to give the boy a blowjob. "He caressed me," Ray explained whenever he recalled the story. "I wanted to please him. God knows I wanted to say thank you, somehow I wanted to say thank you. I said thank you. He unbuttoned my trousers. I wanted to come if he wanted me to come. I stroked his gray-white hair. I couldn't come. We drove back to campus."
Ray's sexuality was a deeply confusing subject, but he harbored no attraction to the older man. His own mixed-up ideas led him to notice similar confusion in others: "I always suspect the warmth or tenderness or color range of a person who publicly disports himself in either too strict a feminine or too strict a masculine role," he said.
Nicholas Ray only lasted one term in Hyde Park before returning to his junior college in La Crosse, unable to keep up with the academic work. There he started a theater group that become modestly successful, allowing him to open a school for drama that would teach teens in his mother's house, where he now lived.
1933. Ray's friendship with Thornton Wilder secured him a place with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. The compound had a variety of activities that suited Ray's talents in the theater, and it was hoped that division would bring in the money Wright's enterprises sorely lacked. Given Wright's financial position at the time, anyone who could pay six hundred dollars a year was accepted.
Ray didn't have the money, so he headed for New York in the meantime. He crashed on a couch in the West Village, sending Lloyd Wright postcards. He had no money by then: his father's death had left his estate to his wife alone, and Ray swiftly spent all he had made from community theater. "Struggle is grand," he wrote Wright unseriously. "It's what we young should live with a great deal more than we do; it is a little-undernourishing to the body sometimes, but what matter, it is as solid as pain."
Wright eventually travelled to New York, and while there he invited Ray to return to Taliesin with him to aid the prospects of the Hillside Playhouse, a new structure which boasted a 200 seat amphitheater. To draw crowds to see films which did not usually make it to Madison or Milwaukee, the playhouse began screening a variety of foreign films. It was Ray's initial exposure to Eisenstein and Carl Dreyer, even the first glimpse the future master of color had of animation.
In mere weeks Ray had himself appointed director of the playhouse. The highest of masters and lowest of apprentices all shared in communal work at Talesin. This mixed Ray in with apprentices in every field. On a sexual level, both men and women wanted him for themselves. But this prominence in the community also drew unwanted attention from its king. Wright had planned to construct sandstone over a few lovely oak panels, and Ray dared to question the architect, asking him, "Is that it, Mr. Wright? What looks organic is organic?" He was on a bus out of Taliesin the next day.
Wright argued that it was Ray's alcoholism which set off the feud. In a letter describing Ray's departure from the commune, Wright wrote, "I am letting him out today... He is intelligent and has many charming qualities, notwithstanding his defects. He should make the most of them." Others have suggested the reason for Ray's departure was due to Wright's secret desire to be with men.
In New York he joined a group of left-wing actors and writers calling themelves the Theatre of Action. There he re-met an acquaintance from his hometown, the director Joseph Losey, and a short Greek actor named Elia Kazan. Except for Kazan and a few others, most were communists; and under direction from political leaders in the party began advocating for certain changes in the New York theatrical world. Ray and his girlfriend Jean Evans lived in the theater's 27th Street home. When the theater broke up, the two relocated uptown.
Losey went on to better things, and hired the still-destitute Ray to be his stage manager. Recently returned from Russia, Losey was the darling of the left-wing theater, a Darmouth and Harvard grad who was engaged to ready-to-wear clothing designer Elizabeth Hawes. Losey quit the play they were working on due to interference from the party before opening night, but joined the movement later.
Ray made good money and with a baby on the way, looked for more. The couple moved to Washington, where the father took a job with the WPA and met Alan Lomax. "He was certainly one of the most splendid young men in the whole world," Lomax said of Ray. "He seemed to me to be the person I'd always dreamed of being. He was very powerful and gentle and wonderful to look at. He had a kind of grin and laughter that were the same thing."
Ray grew to hate his desk job at the WPA, as much as he enjoyed spending time with Lomax and producer John Houseman. Initially faithful to his new wife, he soon allowed himself to step out on her in Washington. He had a conflicted attitude towards these dalliances. "I'm afraid that sex destroys intimacy more often than it creates it," he admitted regretfully. They eventually went back to New York to try to claim a better life for themselves where they were once happy. Ray directed a CBS series entitled Back Home Where I Come From featuring performers from Lomax's project.
After the show was canceled, they lived on Evans' income alone. "I think we're going to get really straight on our own problems," Evans told her friend. "We've been very happy in many ways — and there's something we've got now which we never had before — a kind of cohesiveness that comes with trouble." She could not have been more wrong.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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