Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Gay Relatives: Albert Hietanen

Albert Fridiof Hietanen (1911-1985).
As I said here in the first entry to this series of posts on gay relatives, it’s difficult to tell whether long-deceased relatives were gay or not when little information is left from their lives. But what about deceased relatives that I knew when they were alive? What if a relative was gay, but never talked about that with family? What if I didn’t suspect a relative was gay until after that relative was gone?

Albert Fridiof “Al” Hietanen (1911-1985) was my great-uncle, the brother of my maternal grandfather Everett John Hietanen (1915-1998). He was born in Fairport Harbor, Lake County, Ohio, and lived his whole life in the house where he was brought up. His father, Matti Hietanen (1883-1921), died when Al was a child. (You can read about Matti’s death in a previous blog post here.) His mother Edla “Edna” Salo Hietanen (1884-1961) spent her adult life in the same house. Al’s brother, Edwin “Et” Hietanen (1909-1983) lived there his whole life, too.

When I was a child and visited relatives in Fairport, Ohio, with my parents and sister, we’d always stop to visit “the boys,” Al and Et. I was often bored by the conversations among the adults, so I usually took a book along. But I did have a few conversations with Uncle Al over the years. He, also, was interested in books. There were lots of books in Et and Al’s house. Everyone knew they were Al’s books, not Et’s. (Probably a few of them actually were Et’s.)

Often Uncle Al gave books as gifts. His taste was generally refined. On one visit there were several paper shopping bags full of new paperbacks sitting on the floor of the study. Uncle Al told me to go through them to pick out what I wanted. Among my choices I remember The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and the previous year’s edition of The Guiness Book of World Records. Uncle Al gave my mother books when she was a child, too, including Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers and Stuart Little by E. B. White. My sister and I both were fascinated by the copy he gave her of The Charles Addams Mother Goose.

E. B. White and Charles Addams had in common another of Uncle Al’s interests, The New Yorker magazine. If anyone in the small working-class town of Fairport Harbor subscribed to The New Yorker, it would have been Uncle Al. And he did. It fit his style of sophistication. I don’t recall him ever being an overt snob, but he was clearly aware of and drawn to a level of society that was found beyond Fairport’s borders, and he encouraged others to expose themselves to that world.

He knew I was interested in cartooning, so he tried to interest me in the cartoons published in The New Yorker. I didn’t think New Yorker cartoons were funny (except for Charles Addams’s work). When I was a kid my favorite comics were things like Richie Rich, Shazam!, The Justice League of America, and The Uncanny X-Men. The New Yorker didn’t do it for me.

The Annotated Wizard of Oz by Michael Patrick Hearn, first published in 1972, fit in with the type of book Uncle Al owned. Knowing I liked L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Uncle Al pointed out his copy of Annotated Wizard to me during a visit and asked me whether I knew where the word Oz came from. As a fifth-grader I’d read The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was by Martin Gardner and Russell B. Nye. I was familiar with an Oz origin theory from Gardner’s essay in that book: Baum enjoyed stories that cause the reader to exclaim with “Ohs” and “Ahs” of wonder, and the word Oz can be pronounced either way. When I offered this theory to Uncle Al, he dismissed it and explained the story of Baum noticing a filing cabinet labeled O-Z and taking the name of his magical land from that.*

Uncle Al told me several times that he had an Oz book (other than Annotated Wizard) somewhere in the house and that if I could find it, I could keep it. I never found it. After he died no such Oz book turned up among his possessions. So I don’t know whether he was mis-remembering, whether he was teasing me, or whether there really was an Oz book that ended up elsewhere.

Uncle Al liked to travel, although I don’t remember him ever visiting my family in any of the various places we lived. He went to more urban or exotic destinations, often New York City. He traveled to Finland, the country his parents had emigrated from, and made friends there, including Liisa, the woman who became a longtime girlfriend of Al’s widowed brother Everett, my grandfather.

Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana, Cuba. Albert Hietenan is on the left. I think that's his brother Carl Hietanen on the right. I don't know who the women are, but is this evidence that Uncle Al was not gay? The clothing looks late 1930s.

He liked to visit Havana before the Cuban Revolution. When my family stopped to visit Uncle Et and Uncle Al on our move to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Uncle Al told us about a woman he’d known in a Havana night club who could balance a cocktail on each of her large, shelf-like breasts. The details of that story—Havana, a night club, cocktails, and the woman’s remarkable breasts—epitomize to me who Uncle Al was.

He claimed to remember being a babe in arms. He remembered looking up at a lapel pin his mother was wearing when she held him, a pin she lost before he grew older. My mother joked that of course he remembered the pin since it was probably pressing into his forehead.

He could be high-handed. His brother Et was older, but I remember Et deferring to Al’s opinion whenever there was a disagreement. Al knew his mind and didn’t have much time for views that didn’t fall into line with his. When it came to the public perception of the family, Al interfered even when he wasn’t wanted. He never married, but he decreed at least one marriage for a family member and tried to decree another.

I visited Ohio during the November 1981 Thanksgiving break from my first year in art school. I stopped in at Uncle Et and Uncle Al's to show them examples of the work I was doing in school.

Because Uncle Al had always seemed somewhat interested in my development, I expected him to be interested in hearing about my progress in art school and seeing what I’d accomplished. But Uncle Et ended up being the one to sit through my long-winded explanation of each assignment I’d brought. Uncle Et was amused by the long eyebrow hairs I’d given one character—he mentioned how he had his barber trim long eyebrow hairs during haircuts.

I don’t think Uncle Al was particularly interested in what I was showing. I'm sure the naturalistic, genre-leaning direction of my work didn't fit his tastes. I still didn’t draw enough like New Yorker cartoons to suit him. I was more puzzled than troubled by Uncle Al’s lack of response, but not puzzled enough to discuss it with him. That was the last time I saw him.

What makes me conclude that Uncle Al was gay? There's no hard evidence.

His tastes for night life, travel, reading, and a sophisticated urban outlook exemplified by The New Yorker, while not uniquely gay, fall into line with gay stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is usually distasteful, but stereotypes often have an underpinning of truth.

It’s quite a stretch to consider the following any sort of indication, but Uncle Al wanted to call my sister Elizabeth by the nickname Liz. She wouldn’t have it. Her reason, unstated at the time, was that Liz sounds too much like Lez. Thin stuff, even for speculation, but does it hint of something in the air?

Albert Hietanen in Switzerland at the Matterhorn, 1980.
The only substantial clue is that there’s no evident reason he never married. He was an intelligent, active man of reasonable looks. He could have found a woman to marry if that’s what he’d wanted. It’s possible he had sexual relationships with women on his travels. But his high-handed management of marriage plans for relatives back home in Ohio make me suspect he didn’t, although double-standards about women wouldn’t have been unique to Al Hietanen. In the face of no reasonable answer to the question of why Al didn’t marry, the obvious conclusion seems to be that he didn’t because he was gay.

But it’s relatively common to wonder whether unmarried adults in good health are gay. And nothing I've mentioned is at all conclusive. I even have evidence that could indicate he wasn’t gay. I once saw, tacked up just outside Et and Al’s basement sauna one of the two times I used it, a full-page photo of a nude woman obviously clipped from a girly magazine. Why was that there? I doubt it was for aesthetic reasons. Was it Et’s? Did it belong to one of their brothers, Everett or Carl, who’d drop by to use the sauna? Was it misdirection? I don’t know.

In the end my belief that Uncle Al was gay, despite any indications to the contrary, comes down to one incident. When I was fourteen he gave me a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—the copy that I still own—and told me to read it. My mother, doing her job as parent, raised the question of whether Catcher in the Rye was appropriate for me at that age. Uncle Al characteristically dismissed her reservations.

So I read the book. Catcher in the Rye was exactly Uncle Al’s type of high-brow, twentieth century literature, well written, thought-provoking, worthwhile. But, more than that, I think one reason he wanted me to read it was for the gay content. Many of the story’s details are hazy to me all these years later, but I remember how creepy and sad and confusing the scene was when Holden Caulfield wakes up to a man stroking his forehead.

I don’t think I’d ever read a story with identifiably gay characters in it before. The portrayals of “flits” in Catcher in the Rye aren’t what I’d call empowering. But the book acknowledges that gay people exist in real life. It shows that they’re real people. They’re not some amorphous, hidden, predatory “other” set apart from everyday society—which was pretty much my idea of homosexuals when I was young. The book didn’t revolutionize my views of gay people, but it let some light in. If that impact is part of what Uncle Al hoped the book would give me—and I like to think it was—then it worked.

I was still years away from considering that I might be gay, but I think Uncle Al understood what was in store for me. He recognized that being gay was a part of me, and his ability to recognize that and to offer his style of coping tool, Catcher in the Rye, is why I believe it was also a part of him.

Three brothers, left to right, my grandfather Everett J. Hietanen, Edwin "Et" Hietanen, and Albert "Al" Hietanen. This photo was taken in September 1981, just two months before I saw Uncle Al for the final time. Photos courtesy Robert M. Hietanen.

* I have never been convinced by the filing cabinet story, despite the fact that in a newspaper interview L. Frank Baum himself claimed it as the origin of the word Oz. Baum was known for making up convenient and amusing stories off the cuff, and the filing cabinet story reeks of this to me.

1 comment:

  1. Eric,
    I'm curious about the high handed management of marriage plans of family, wondering who that might have been. Kim and I both agree that we don't think Al was gay.