Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945

Ina Russell, Editor
Faber & Faber
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


It occurred to me today with something of a shock how horrible it would be for this diary of mine to be pawed over and read unsympathetically after I am dead, by those incapable of understanding... And then the thought of the one thing even more dreadful and terrible than that - for my diary never to be read by the one person who would or could understand. For I do want it to be read - there is no use concealing the fact - by somebody who is like me, who would understand. Jeb Alexander was a gay man who lived in Washington, D.C., during the first half of the twentieth century. From 1918, when he was nineteen years old, until the late 1950s, he chronicled his daily life engagingly and unsparingly, leaving behind a unique record of ordinary gay life before Stonewall, a history that has remained largely hidden until now. Jeb came of age as the century did, witnessing and recording political and social change from the position of insider as an editor for the U.S. Government and outsider as a gay man. Painfully shy, and frustrated in his ambition to be a novelist by writer's block, Jeb turned to his diary as a way of expressing himself as well as recording events, creating a full emotional self-portrait and unforgettable sketches of the men who made up his lively circle of friends. Jeb and Dash also details the joy and anguish of an extraordinary on-and-off love affair between Jeb and C. C. Dasham (Dash), whom he met in college and with whom he remained friends throughout his life. A rare and important historical document, a beautifully written memoir, a love story, an ode to old Washington, D.C., Jeb and Dash is a remarkable find and an enduring literary achievement.

My Review

Finally finished!

This book took me months to read and even though I was tempted to set it aside more than once, I’m glad I was patient enough to see it through to the end.

This is a condensed version of Jeb’s diary edited by his niece, Ina Russell, starting from when Jeb was 12 years old and ending a year before his death in 1965. This diary covers the years between 1918 and 1959. I loved the glimpse of history between two world wars, politics, famous personalities, plays, literature, music, observations on life and the world, and the details about gay life in a time when the word “gay” had a different meaning and homosexuality was a crime. I presume Ina Russell left out many details of Jeb’s cruising in Lafayette Square to spare the sensibilities of mainstream readers, but I think these details would have added some spice and richness and shown how dangerous and difficult gay life was for many people.

Jeb meets Dash while in college and throughout his story relays his deep affection for him. Even though his feelings are not returned, the two men remain friends for many years.

August 25, 1920
“I have at last found a friend, a lovable, handsome fellow, a realization of the friend I have dreamed of during all those lonely nights while I walked alone through the streets.”

February 11, 1921
“I want love and affection. Damn it! All that Stevenson said about journals is true. This diary of mine is a tissue of posturing. My real thoughts on such matters as sex are not admitted even to myself. I will be frank. I am madly in love with C. C. Dasham.”

July 16, 1927
“Returned home tired and nervous. Dinner with Dash. His entrancing personality so enthralls me! So beautiful, so beautiful. I would do anything for him.”

August 1, 1936
“Dash got his ticket, checked his bag, and gave me a strong handclasp. The goodness, sweetness, and steadfastness of his loyal, generous nature shone from his wide, serious, green eyes. That may sound like a rhapsody, but it’s God’s truth.”

The love pouring from Jeb’s words made me sad, knowing that he and Dash were not meant to be. I wish Jeb had moved on and found someone else to love. I also wish he would have fulfilled his aspirations of becoming a writer instead of spending many lonely nights drinking and journaling about his sad life.

The center of the book contains photos of Jeb, Jeb and Dash, Jeb’s family, a copy of a handwritten page in his diary, and places he’s lived in and visited. I would have liked to see some photos of the friends who meant so much to him.

There was some lovely, evocative writing here and a sense of immediacy, particularly in the last section during the World War Two years. There were also a lot of mundane details and too much repetition, some of which became tedious to read.

I would recommend this to those interested in gay history, the history of Washington, D.C., and the impact significant historical events have on individual lives.

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