Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire
By Liz Brown
Ah, family secrets. My specialty.
I’m not going to divulge (all of) mine, at least not here, but I will say this much: I grew up in Montana at a time when it was most definitely not OK to be gay, much less have a gay father. I know how secrets can corrode your insides, resulting in a toxic, bubbling shame. And I know how healing it can be to expose secrets to daylight. The opposite of what you worry is going to happen happens. The people you care about run toward your vulnerability and respond with theirs.
These truths course through “Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire,” Liz Brown’s painstaking debut. She set out to learn more about a mysterious photograph, one that her grandmother had tucked away in a bedroom drawer. The bonkers saga she uncovered involves Prohibition-era Hollywood, the Copper Kings of Montana, a treacherous sister, a Nazi prison, a crook named Charles Crooks, Mexico City nightclubs and a gallant whippet named Gynt. At its center is a gay love story that, as Brown writes in the introduction, had been “wrongfully erased.”
The man in the photograph called himself Harrison Post. He arrived on the fringes of Hollywood society in the early 1920s as the companion of Brown’s great-granduncle, William Andrews Clark Jr., an heir to a Montana mining fortune and founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Being gay in that era could get you arrested for sex crimes, so the couple used euphemism and subterfuge to conceal their romance. Uncle Will repeatedly resorted to hush money, paying vast sums to avoid being outed, which, at the very least, would have resulted in social ruin.
Clark died in 1934. (His reclusive half sister, Huguette Clark, died in 2011, having lived for decades in Manhattan hospitals, apparently by choice.) Now an heir himself, Post suddenly attracted the attention of his sister — who held him captive while scheming to steal the fortune Clark left him (about $4 million in today’s dollars), ultimately succeeding and fleeing with it to Mexico. Post wound up in Europe, where he spent time in a Nazi prison camp. In the end, he enlisted an alcoholic lawyer in an attempt to bring his sister to justice and reclaim his money, or what was left of it. Suffice it to say, the plan went awry.
It must be said: For a tale as colorful as this one — sex! corruption! greed! betrayal! — the storytelling can be a little drab. I yearned (in spots, particularly in the first half) for a little more yarn spinning, particularly involving the clandestine love between Clark and Post. The facts are there, sometimes to the point of overload. It’s the feelings that are occasionally missing.
Brown’s research is jaw-dropping in its meticulousness. For the better part of two decades, she went wherever the next secret took her, tracking down diaries, scrapbooks, letters, passenger lists, prison records and other archival material. When she can’t get to the bottom of something, she scratches to come as close as she can. (“An 85-year-old defamation lawsuit archived in the basement of the Los Angeles County Hall of Records offers some clues.”) Brown may have rightly worried that any loose end might invite broader skepticism — this tale seems way too tall to be true.
Some of what she found bummed her out. “It’s a bitter realization that in excavating queer lives we so often excavate the loathing for those lives,” she writes, before dutifully relaying the ways in which trial transcripts and crime reports of the day referred to gay men: “dissolute person,” “degenerate,” “social vagrant,” “pervert.”
“Twilight man” was slang for a person who could only be himself in the dimly lit edge of everyday life, compelled to live in fear and love in secret.
But not anymore.
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