Sex on the Beach


Arts & Culture

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

On August 5, 1953, the film version of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity opened at the Capitol Theater in New York City. A heat wave suffocated Manhattan. The theater was not air-conditioned. Nobody cared. Lines formed around the block beginning on that torrid Wednesday night. Quickly, it was decided to add a one A.M. screening to accommodate the overflow crowds. It was a smash hit throughout the world, and the film’s beach scene became instantly iconic. 

Did the film version of From Here to Eternity so enthrall the masses merely because of that famous beach scene (in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, playing adulterous lovers, passionately kiss as the waves wash over them)? Or because it was tailored to the ex-G.I. generation, thriving amid America’s victorious postwar abundance? Winning eight Academy Awards didn’t hurt.

But there’s more to it than that. By the time the film debuted, James Jones’s debut novel had won for itself not just the 1952 National Book Award for Fiction, but also a vast international readership. It would sell a half million copies in hardcover and then three million in paperback. Timing was key. From Here to Eternity was published between the release of the controversial first Kinsey Report (“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” in 1948) and its scandalously received sequel, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” which induced a critical firestorm when it appeared in 1953. Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s methodologies and conclusions still inspire debate. But there’s no disputing the public’s reaction then to the two statistically top-heavy books that he and his colleagues issued. Shock, dismay, denial, and disgust were in the air, as the Kinsey Reports’ charts about extramarital sex, masturbation, homosexual and bisexual orientations, and other data contradicted American society’s self-image.

Jones’s novel became a febrile reading experience for millions of women and men in part because in From Here to Eternity he explicitly evoked these same sexual taboos. When Sergeant Milt Warden and Karen Holmes (the wife of Captain Holmes) plunge into their impassioned affair, they’re breaking the rules, both civilian and military. And their cinematic romp on the beach is modest compared to the written version. For starters, in the film, they’re wearing bathing suits. Jones wrote: “They had waded, nude, out into the water, hand in hand …”

Matters are almost as fraught for Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt. His devotion to a prostitute creates a parallel love story balancing both the novel and the film. In the movie, Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is seen pining away for Lorene (Donna Reed), who is presented as a “hostess” at the New Congress Club. She and the other “hostesses” are there to dance with the soldiers and share soft drinks. That was Hollywood sanitization, imposed by the censors in 1953. Readers who pick up the book after first seeing the film are often startled to discover that Prewitt’s love affair is not with a “hostess,” but with a smart young woman who fled Oregon and has mapped out her plan with precision: she’ll be a prostitute until she saves a certain amount, and will then move on.

The love between Prewitt and Lorene (whose nonbrothel name is Alma) is as doomed as the adulterous liaison between Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes. It’s a wonder that Jones’s bold, rough, grimly realistic narrative managed to get published when it did (by Scribner, no less). A saturation novel in the densely textured tradition of Theodore Dreiser, the book is still shocking for its evocation of relentless hazing and the stockade’s brutalities, as well as the profanity-laced lingo of the enlisted men in the Army. But the dueling tales of star-crossed lovers offer readers an abundance of human yearning and emotional sensitivity. It just happens that the men are in uniform.

From Here to Eternity was not the first such bestseller of the era. In 1947, four years before Jones’s book came out, an audacious debut novel called The Gallery was published. It was written by John Horne Burns, an ex-G.I. who had served in North Africa and Italy and in one way was the opposite of Jones: Burns was gay. He was also as ambitious, competitive, disciplined (at the typewriter) and, in his way, as trailblazing as Jones. In David Margolick’s new book Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, the author convincingly argues that The Gallery was as much a taboo-busting milestone as From Here to Eternity.

It’s not just that both authors presented intimate, intelligent portraits of characters whose quests for love bring them much suffering (as well as moments of joy and episodes of bliss). What really connects the two books is that both Burns and Jones managed, in the age of Eisenhower, to write about sexual taboos, and specifically gay characters and gay encounters, despite the society-wide homophobia and the military boundaries of their respective books.

In Jones’s Eternity (only the novel, of course), there are significant passages and multiple interludes in which the dialogues in a Honolulu bar or at Schofield Barracks evoke the gnawing sexual frustration of soldiers whose pent-up sexuality is raging within, finally unleashed in drunken weekend sprees. Jones clearly portrays furtive sexual exchanges between men—sometimes for money, often to assuage loneliness, and usually when soaked in alcohol—as well as blunt talk of such options. To avoid an obscenity trial, the lawyers at Scribner worked with Jones and his editor to revise, trim, and cut many scenes where Jones’s language made sexual issues too plain. Recently, 170 excisions have been restored an the unexpurgated edition of From Here to Eternity, published by the Dial Press.

As for The Gallery, a unique novel comprised of seventeen interlinked stories, only three of the chapters (“Momma,” “The Leaf,” and “Queen Penicillin”) dramatize gay male soldiers. Nonetheless, to have done so in 1947 was nearly impossible; it was also hazardous to the author’s fledgling career. But Burns enfolded his boldest lines deep within the book. At the very end of “Momma” (the eponymous character presides over a gay bar in Naples), a British sergeant remarks to a fellow officer that they’re all “expressing a desire disapproved of by society. But in relation to the world of 1944, this is just a bunch of gay people letting down their back hair …”

Almost as risky was the book’s brazen reminder to readers that during the war (the bulk of The Gallery is set in Allied-occupied Naples, with heavy emphasis on the month of August 1944) soldiers and Italian civilians sexually commingled, sometimes with tremendous emotional intensity and at other times with brusque indifference. Clearly, the frankness resonated: The Gallery was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

No movie has been made of The Gallery; no iconic images exist to rival the beach scene in From Here to Eternity. But in David Margolick’s new biography of John Horne Burns, ample quotations from Burns’s writing (both his letters and his novel) create prose portraits akin to those magic moments on the beach.

“She bent down and laid her mouth against his temple, passing down to his lips,” Burns wrote in “Moe,” the final chapter of The Gallery, as a G.I. and his Neapolitan lover say farewell. “There was no pressure in her kiss, but it sealed a wild peace he’d been feeling with her all evening. Her kiss made him hers …”

Burns never saw that iconic, sanitized dramatization of those taboo-breaking lovers in the surf; just a week after the film opened in America, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Italy. But he, too, was a part of it. It could have been either Jones or Burns that film critic Roger Ebert had in mind when he once praised a unique work for being a groundbreaking “tragedy about loss, grief and sudden sex between two strangers who find it a form of urgent communication.” Sixty years later, the idea has lost none of its power.

M. J. Moore is writing an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.