It is with great pleasure that The Generalist presents this reprint of a fascinating article - ‘John Minton and Montgomery Clift: A Parallel’ by T.H.G. Ward - which first appeared in the April/May 1980 issue of London Magazine. Thanks to Sophie Bradford, Assistant Editor of what is now called The London Magazine for permission.
For readers who are interested in a more detailed study of Clift’s life, see this Previous Post ARCHIVE/MONTGOMERY CLIFT It’s a reprint of profile piece I wrote that first appeared in The Face magazine [January 1981]
Photos of John Minton, Lucian Freud and Keith Vaughan by the brilliant photographer John Deakin, who chronicled the twilight world of 1950s Soho and the original Brit Art stars who inhabited it. Now a rare glimpse of his archive recalls that extraordinary generation. See full portfolio on The Independent website.
‘Late in the 1940s, as the first wave of post-war American films began to appear in London, the young English painter John Minton - contemporary of Lucian Freud, Keith Vaughan among others - came across the work of an actor named Montgomery Clift; and from that moment on he followed his rise to fame with a fascination that bordered on obsession. He was not, of course, alone in his adulation. Thousands of film addicts were being held spellbound by this new type of folk hero who, unlike his predecessors, was both sensitive and vulnerable. Here was a figure with whom they could identify themselves with frightening ease. To a generation of young men he was a symbol of their frustration and despair; to a generation of young women he was the masculine ideal.
An interest in the cinema had developed early on in Minton's life. Sometimes, as he sat in the smoky darkness watching the images of the Hollywood 'greats' flashing onto the English screen, he found himself worshipping from afar; but it was always from afar. In those days infinite distance separated the glamorous lands inhabited by the gods and goddesses of the American dream from his own personal everyday world. Now the gap was suddenly closed. Montgomery Clift was not only a hero. He also lived in his world, shared his anxieties and endured his sufferings.
A single visit to the cinema was no longer enough. Over and over again he would watch the film performances and on every occasion he experienced strange and disturbing emotions. Admittedly Clift was an actor who could portray inner conflict with extraordinary force, but was it normal for a grown man to be affected in this way? Minton was intelligent enough to realize that the fascination lay deeper. Even in Clift's masculine roles he could perceive bi-sexual undertones.
Could Minton possibly have known that Clift was facing emotional problems that were near to his own? Minton may have heard just a little of Clift’s private life, but not very much. At the time Minton was producing posters for Ealing Studios so he was in contact with the fringe of the film community. Undoubtedly Clift was discussed and in all probability he was told stories of neurotic behaviour and an unconventional life style, but it is unlikely that it amounted to anything more than anecdote and gossip.
Minton's reaction sprang primarily from what he sensed, perhaps unconsciously, in the film performances; beyond the characters that Clift portrayed, behind the script, the set and the make-up, he recognized in some inexplicable way a character that was near to his own. The effect was traumatic. For weeks on end the image of Clift's troubled aristocratic features lingered before his eyes and at one point the obsession became so strong that he was planning to go to Paris in an endeavour to meet him. Whether they ever met is not known. It is doubtful; but not impossible. Like many of the episodes in Minton's life the details remain obscure.
By 1950 Clift was an international figure; Minton was only beginning to achieve recognition in London. Externally they appeared as very different people, but a closer examination reveals remarkable similarities in their lives and characters. Each of them experienced an unorthodox childhood. In the case of Clift it was his mother who was determined to educate her children in a manner that would fit them for a place in society which she had reason to believe was their natural right In Minton's case it was a wealthy grandmother who was set on doing much the same thing.
In their young days both Clift and Minton received hard knocks. Minton was 12 in 1930 when his father, a comparatively well-to-do solicitor, died leaving the family in greatly reduced circumstances. Clift was 11 when his father went broke towards the end of 1931. Clift and his elder brother were suddenly removed from expensive schools, private tutors and European travel to a frighteningly low standard of living. Minton and his younger brother did their best to reconcile school holidays at the country home of their wealthy grandmother with the rented suburban accommodation in which their mother now lived with her taxi-driver lover.
For children confined within family situations of this kind the normal friendships of adolescence are difficult to establish. Minton spent most of his school holidays with his grandmother where he mixed only with boys of his own social class, led a very conventional life by day and changed for dinner at night. She took him abroad with her, helped to make him socially at ease in sophisticated backgrounds, and arranged for her chauffeur to teach him to drive the Rolls Royce. It was natural enough that when he visited his mother in her suburban flat he felt awkward and out of place with the boys who lived in the flat above; and in turn these boys, sensing their different circumstances, made no attempt to establish a friendship. It was much the same with the young Clifts. With their background of private tutors and international education they had nothing in common with their neighbours in the furnished apartment in Greenwich Village which they were forced to occupy during the years of the depression.
The reaction of both Clift and Minton to these experiences was identical; they erected screens that would protect them from prying eyes; mental barriers which would shield them from painful enquiries about their family backgrounds. At home, with their own brothers for example, the rapport was immediate; beyond that it was another matter. Close personal friends recall the reluctance of these two men to talk about their families, although there is every reason to believe that this was something with which they had always been very much concerned. Clift would state quite simply that he 'couldn't remember', which may or may not have been true; while Minton would say that his father had gone off to Australia when he was still a boy and had never been heard of again; and this he must undoubtedly have known to be false.
So these two young men, unknown to each other and living on different continents, began their adult lives with deeply suppressed memories and unresolved conflicts. They had failed to accept the fact, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that they were incapable of facing the fact, that a human being's past can never be wholly suppressed.
On the threshold of manhood they found themselves beset by similar problems. They would have to come to terms with the seemingly unpalatable fact that by nature they were bi-sexual. 'I could only live with a man', Minton wrote to a friend, 'for though I can desire a woman physically very much and even fall for a girl and all the rest, it is only someone of my own sex that can really affect and shake that part of me that is a painter'; and to a friend Clift said, 'I don't understand it. I love men in bed, but I really love women.' They were both capable of close and intimate friendships with women, but the desire for physical relationships with men was always present and neither Clift nor Minton was ever able to resolve the conflicts that were so much a part of their natures.
Source: Film Posters Archive
It is unnecessary to describe in any detail the patterns of domestic life that resulted from these ambivalent tastes in love. In both establishments a series of close male companions came and went in a manner that is all too familiar. Some of these friends and lovers were capable of real affection, others exploited the position in which they found themselves to the full. To the more balanced and mature onlooker it was often an ugly scene.
As might be expected, Clift and Minton treated their companions in a similar fashion. Usually these young men received affection, generosity and consideration; but there were times when they found themselves subjected to astonishing cruelty. Minton has been described as 'the kindest man I ever met' and also as 'the cruellest man I ever met'. No doubt Clift was described in much the same way.
Two factors aggravated the situation considerably. The first was financial. Clift and Minton both became well-off. Clift's rise to stardom brought him wealth while Minton, although not making real money from the sale of his pictures, inherited a fairly large sum. Both were inherently generous, particularly towards the people to whom they were attracted sexually. For any young man who was poor, ambitious and handsome, a friendship with a person like Clift or Minton had much to offer.
Alcohol was the second aggravating factor. In their young days neither Clift nor Minton drank. Their tolerance was low and their friends of those days have only memories of glasses of milk and endless cups of coffee. Somehow it got a hold and eventually became a major problem.
The director Herb Machiz is reported to have said, 'The real tragedy in most homosexual lives and for a person as sensitive as Monty was having to accept the tremendous disappointment of never finding a mate worthy of him'. This was Minton's problem too; the nightmare that led him first to drink and eventually to suicide.
What they both wanted desperately was to be part of a family and each found in the home environment of a young married couple something they were searching for. Exactly what they were searching for is not so clear. On the surface it appeared that the wife was the object of affection, the element that was lacking in their own lives, but shrewder observers believed it to be the husband who was the real attraction. Certainly the need to belong was an important factor and both of them would have liked to have had children of their own.
A relationship of this kind was doomed to failure. It was more or less acceptable by day, but at night both Clift and Minton perceived the truth of their isolation - that they were not really a part of the family at all. There were times when Clift could stand his loneliness no longer and then he would creep into the bedroom of the young couple, climb quietly into their bed and go to sleep. Minton did the same thing. There was one occasion when Minton's frustration became so great that after his friends had gone to bed he pulled off his clothes, ran out of the house into the winter night and threw himself naked into the snow. With all the sympathy and understanding in the world it was not easy to integrate men like Clift and Minton into a normal home life.
As time passed the search for an ideal companion became more desperate; and with this insoluble problem the need for drink became greater. There were nights in prison and brushes with the police. Both Clift and Minton suffered broken noses in drunken quarrels. They were robbed left and right. Their health deteriorated and they seemed increasingly incapable of taking an objective view of the predicament they were in.
Source: Vukutu blog
It is perhaps ironical that in spite of all this neither Clift nor Minton was able to conceal his background. They did their best. They wore the correct dress - jeans and T-shirts. They acquired the right vocabulary. Words like shit and fuck punctuated their sentences; and they associated with the right people — out of work actors, deserters from the armed forces and rough trade. Yet it never quite worked. Both sprang from old and respected families. Both were educated, well-read and widely travelled. However much Clift tried to portray, either on the stage or on film, a working-class character, one could not help sensing that there was something extra there somewhere; a certain breeding and integrity - a touch of class. It was the same with Minton. Twenty years after his death the coroner recalled him as being 'a man of slight build' and then added, 'I should think he came from a good family'; yet the coroner had never seen him alive.
So far no mention has been made of the most important similarity of all. They were both in their different ways dedicated artists who valued integrity more than money or public acclaim. Set-backs or lack of recognition never altered an unfaltering belief in the best and it is for this reason that in the characters of both Clift and Minton something always remained that was pure and true.
At the height of his career Clift received public acclaim of a magnitude that is now difficult to comprehend; and although the hysteria of those days has long subsided the major performances have weathered the passage of time. At a distance of 25 years it is still easy to be moved by films like 'A Place in the Sun' and 'From Here to Eternity'. However much the conventions of film production may have changed, Clift's acting seems as fresh and relevant as it was at the time when the films were released.
In the case of Minton the situation is reversed. After a brief and heady period of success in his own lifetime his work became forgotten. Now there is a noticeable revival of interest and it would be difficult to think of post-war British painting without the name of Minton springing to mind. His last big picture 'The Death of James Dean' is an enduring proof of his involvement in the predicament of the youth of his day.
It is worth considering for a moment the ambience in which this painting was conceived. Dean had modelled his early acting career on Clift. He had discovered his ex-directory number and repeatedly phoned him; but basically they were quite different people and Clift had made no effort to become acquainted with young Jimmy Dean. Yet for some reason Dean's death shocked him. He was in bed when he heard the news and he vomited over the sheets.
Minton was also affected by Dean's death and there is a strange intensity to his portrayal of the scene. It is not one of his best works, but it has relevance to the time at which it was painted and it was considerable enough to be bought by the Tate. Within a year Minton would also be dead and Clift would have suffered the terrible motor accident from which he emerged a different man. By the end of 1957 the whole character of the decade was beginning to change.
When Minton took his life in January 1957, an English newspaper described him as being the James Dean of painting. This was incorrect. Only at a superficial level was there any resemblance; and it would have been equally incorrect to suggest that he was the Montgomery Clift of painting. In their personal lives, however, Clift and Minton showed extraordinary similarities and of all the people who came under Clift's spell few could have felt the impact more acutely than John Minton. Both were incapable of preventing private anguish from intruding into their work. The fusion of personal conflict and artistic compulsion enabled each, in his own way, to reveal a symptom and create a symbol of the culture of the 'fifties.