George Platt Lynes, Charles “Tex” Smutney and Charles “Buddy” Stanley, 1941

Photographer George Platt Lynes was part of a closely connected circle of gay men who dominated the New York cultural scene in the interwar and early post-war years. For 16 years, he lived with writer Glenway Wescott and curator Monroe Wheeler, who were a couple; they had a variety of other sexual partners throughout, including George. All three of them as well as friends and colleagues like Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, Pavel Tchelitchew, and other artistic figures participated in numerous sex parties in the 1940s and 50s. Such sexual subcultures of the 1930s and 40s were driven further underground by the time of the midcentury Red Scares.

In The World of Lincoln Kirstein, Martin Duberman provides a look at the homophobic American atmosphere Lynes grew up in, which drove him to stab a relenteless bully: “George Platt Lynes was the true pariah amongst his classmates, who seem uniformly to have regarded him as a foppish freak, a sneering little bitch who fancies he is too pretty to look at ... The turning point came when Lynes, endlessly bullied, teased and in utter desperation, whipped out his knife and melodramatically stabbed another student, who fortunately survived.”

George Platt Lynes, portraits and self-portraits

Although George had a prolific and well-known commercial career, he extensively photographed male nudes without any possibility of exhibiting or publishing them. He identified this body of work as his favorite. “I’ve done my best work when I’ve worked only for pleasure, when I’ve not been paid, when I have a completely free hand, when I’ve had a model who has excited me in one way or another,” he wrote in 1948.

George and other members of his circle became friends with the sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who in the late 1940s had just published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and was building a collection of materials related to human sexuality. They provided him with photographs and other pieces of artwork. Dr. Kinsey was also able to see things firsthand at specially arranged sex parties. After one, he remarked on George’s skills: “He made love better than anyone I have ever witnessed.”

Dr. Kinsey was also invited to some of George’s photo shoots, including to the ones of the young gymnasts Charles “Tex” Smutney and Chalrles “Buddy” Stanley, circa 1941–43. In A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956–1948, Glenway Wescott writes:

“George once told me that Alfred Kinsey expressed some surprise at the fact that Tex Smutney and Buddy Stanley never got erections while posing for him, despite the warmth of the lights, and the proximities, and the voluptuous atmosphere.

But here—about half a dozen photographs with sand pile in a studio, intended for some assignment of bathing suits and beach fashion—Buddy has an erection. The erotic effect is very poignant and odd.”

Lynes’ photographs are an archive of a forbidden gay desire that Cold War America wished to annihilate. The Red Scare, the hysterically repressive era which formally sought to stamp out a growing “threat” of communism, was also a Pink Scare, often even harsher on homosexuality. Among the thousands of people who were penalized or fired from virtually all industries, possibly more were under suspicion of being "queers" or "perverts" than communists, though the two allegations were difficult to separate.

The paranoically anti-communist senator Joseph McCarthy, and the American government in general, explictly linked "communists and queers." Both types were thought to be psychologically disturbed, godless, and dangerous, secretly hiding in all spheres of society. Homosexuals were also thought to be particularly likely to become communists because of their weak moral fiber, loneliness, and capacity to be blackmailed.

In this context, when Lynes was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1955, Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who recognized the value of what is now considered George’s greatest work, offered the Institute for Sex Research as a possible repository for his male nudes, where they could be kept safe. Lynes was adamant about keeping his models’ identities confidential so they wouldn’t suffer any repercussions. Today, the Kinsey Institute holds the largest collection of Lynes’ work outside of the Lynes estate.

Homocommunist, April 15, 2023