The World’s Most Expensive Male Prostitute

Denham Fouts was late, very late, to the welcome home party thrown for him at his Paris apartment. His sugardaddy Peter Watson, English heir to the oleomargarine fortune, was first amused, then furious. The champagne toasts to “Denny,” who was returning after waiting out World War II as a conscientious objector in California, became progressively drunker. The French actor Jean Marais, one of Fouts’ lovers, grew tired of waiting and left, as did all the other wealthy men and their expensive-looking toy friends. The only person still there was the young English painter Michael Wishart.

Suddenly the door swung open, revealing a young man who looked like the most handsome boy at a West Coast college. “He wore nothing but cream-coloured flannel trousers and had the torso of an athlete,” wrote Wishart, who recorded his affair with Fouts in his 1978 autobiography “High Diver.” “Along his beautiful shoulders and golden forearms ran snow-white mice with startled pink eyes, which he stroked gently with the backs of his hands. He had the air of a sleepwalker and for some time stood silently in the doorway, as if accustoming himself to the light. He seemed unaware of my presence.”

Within an hour of first taking in this surreal vision, Wishart was in love — and smoking opium — with Fouts, “attracted by his total disinterest in me.” It changed Wishart’s life forever: “I loved him so much that I only wanted to die in his shadow.”

These things tended to happen to Denny Fouts, who grew up in Jacksonville.

Denny Fouts (1914-1948) was handsome, charming, witty, entertaining and moody. He didn’t have money himself, but lived luxuriously off the wealth and infatuation of others. He played a starring role in the pre-war aristocratic bohemian scene in Europe, where the fun was extravagant and being gay was just fine. Denny amazed and inspired such literary greats as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, Somerset Maugham and Gavin Lambert, and his personality sparks the fiction, memoirs, diaries and letters of the most noted authors and artists of his day.

Sixty-four years after his death, Denny Fouts is a cult figure in gay culture, best known by the sensational titles pinned on him. Capote dubbed him “The Best-Kept Boy in the World” (also the title of an upcoming book about Denny by Arthur Vanderbilt II). Isherwood and others repeated Denny’s reputation as “the most expensive male prostitute in the world.”

But this black sheep from Riverside was more than a switch-hitting gigolo, who parlayed his Southern charm and sexual prowess into a succession of glamorous free-rides.

A more complex Fouts can be found in the literature, and in the insights of his living relatives, which have never before been published. Alice Denham, Denny’s 79-year-old cousin who lives in New York City and is working on a book about her family and Denny, insists: “He wasn’t a male prostitute. Denny had arrangements. You couldn’t say I’ll give you this much money and he’d go with you.” He wasn’t just a hustler; he was an icon of and an influence on the acceptance of gay culture.

“Fouts was not walking the street. He had longtime lovers whose attraction for him went far beyond the sexual,” says Nick Harvill, an expert on literary references to Fouts who also assembles content-based libraries for private individuals, many in Hollywood. “Denham Fouts was a male version of the courtesan. He is one of the greatest enigmas of the 20th Century.”

Man vs. Myth

Separating fact from fiction regarding Denham Fouts is all but impossible. A good deal of misinformation has been written about Fouts and repeated in various forms. Fouts himself liked to make up stories about his life and exploits, and to say things to shock people. But an intriguing sketch (abbreviated here) can be drawn from the literary record.

Christopher Isherwood first met Fouts in 1940 in Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, and included this account of that encounter in his “Diaries, Volume I:”

“[His clothes were] sinister because they were intended for laughing, harmless boys, not as a disguise for this tormented addict, this wolflike inverted monk, this martyr to pleasure. His good-looking profile was bitterly sharp, like a knife edge; his Floridian drawl seemed a sinister affectation. Goodness, was he sour! For a while, his sourness was stimulating; then you began to feel as if you were suffering from quinine poisoning.”

Isherwood once told Fouts, “You’re a rather vulgar little not-so-young boy from the most unpleasant state in the Union, whose chief claim to sophistication is having been thrown out of a few European hotels.” Yet he also said the months he spent living with Fouts in California, “were some of the happiest of my whole life.” Isherwood, whose relationship with Fouts was nonsexual, nonetheless appreciated his roommate’s geisha-like quality. “He really understood how to give pleasure,” he wrote, “to make daily life more decorative and to create enjoyment of small occasions.”

The novelist Glenway Wescott described Denham Fouts as “absolutely enchanting and ridiculously good-looking,” who drew attention wherever he went. Evan Morgan, the British Lord Tredegar, took him to China, where Fouts discovered opium, ushering in an addiction that would dog him until his early death at age 34. He was also once pictured in Time Magazine, according to his cousin, with an aristocratic lover hunting lions in Africa (ironic, since as a 12-year-old in Jacksonville, Fouts had a letter published in that same magazine, condemning cruelty to animals).

He went sailing on the Aegean with lover Daisy Fellows, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and traveled on the yacht of Greek’s Prince Paul. (The lovers eventually got matching tattoos over their hearts.) After a dust-up about Fouts allegedly snorting cocaine in a Swiss hotel, they parted ways, but Paul (then King) still sent Fouts birthday telegrams, which Fouts showed off as proof of his storied past.

Denny Fouts was potently sexy. Watson, his longtime lover and font of money, said he got an erection every time the man walked into the room. Fouts preferred his sex in public places, in danger of getting caught — with man or woman. He was arrested in Portugal once for a public sex act, but immediately released at the request of a cabinet minister. He was more discreet with teenaged boys, a preference several writers recorded. When Isherwood tried to teach him how to meditate, Fouts demurred. “I’d end up by jacking myself off.” More than once, he claimed to have had such strenuous sex, “I broke a blood vessel and bled.”

Fouts also liked to court scandal. Once, when a Paris waiter reacted disdainfully to the mascara Fouts’ boyfriend was wearing, Fouts ordered a glass of sperm just irk him. In his later opium/heroin/cocaine era, he often wore an American sailor’s uniform or white tie and tails to chic Paris clubs. He frequently went out in Sulka silk pajamas, and fell asleep in them so many times at clubs that he earned the nickname “The Beautiful Sleeping Beauty.” Morning generally began for Denny Fouts at 6 or 7 in the evening.

His connections were as extravagant as his habits. During World War II, Fouts socialized with Isherwood’s crowd of Hollywood moviemakers, actors, and such writers as Berthold Brecht, Tennessee Williams and Aldous Huxley. (Huxley thought enough of Fouts to dream of him 11 years after his death: Denny was riding a white horse next to a cliff and fell into a cave, hurt and in pain.) Fouts once shot flaming arrows from the Paris apartment of writers Paul and Jane Bowles onto the Champs-Elysées, scaring the daylights out of their guests. And the gifts bestowed upon Fouts ranged from Picasso’s “Girl Reading,” which hung over his sofa in California, to suitcases decorated by Salvador Dali.

Fouts’ intimacy with the rich and famous is perhaps best summed up by one anecdote. At noon one day, Fouts and Isherwood popped in on Denny’s lover Lena Horne, before she was even out of bed. “Lena darling,” Denny announced, “I’ve brought a friend to take a shower.” Horne thought it a perfectly natural request.

Sophisticated and spoiled by the finer things in life, Fouts was also scrappy and compassionate. In Los Angeles, he got drunk with Mexican gang members, slicing his arm to become their blood brother, and taking a DUI rap to cover for their accident while joy-riding. He saved the lives of three men fighting a wildfire in California while interred in conscientious objector camp, and accompanied Isherwood on charitable trips to Okie camps. He brought a black friend to Los Angeles restaurants where blacks weren’t allowed. He also got in several fights with soldiers, because, as he said, “If you start taking shit from a Marine, or any kind of serviceman, it’s the end.”

The Invisible Ic

Denny Fouts built his reputation in pre-war Europe, right after he left Jacksonville at age 16 or 17. “Europe in those days was full of gay people, Berlin and Paris especially,” says Fouts’ cousin Alice Denham, who was born in Jacksonville in 1933 and lived on Herschel Street until she was six. “All the gay guys went to Berlin and all the gay women went to Paris. Then, once things got bad in Germany, everybody went to Paris. People weren’t as narrow as they are now. They weren’t so oriented to sexual judgments — they just accepted it.”

Fouts’ fame got the attention of gay literary greats, and ultimately made him part of the gay culture’s great coming-out in the U.S.

“World War II was a big turning point,” says Christopher Bram, the gay author of the novel “Gods and Monsters,” made into an Academy Award-winning movie, as well as the recent book on gay literature, “Eminent Outlaws.” “Gay people from all over the U.S. were thrown into the army and discovered they were not alone. Straight people noticed: ‘Who are these strange creatures among us?’ At the same time, lots of books and plays came out about gays. And the Kinsey Reports came out, showing how much sex was out there, and what kind of sex. People were talking about gay life like never before.”

Bram says, and others agree, that books like those featuring Denny Fouts made it easier for existing gays to come out. “They thought, ‘Oh, I am not alone.’ These books made gay culture more visible.”

Fouts was more than a plot point for gay novelists. His influence ran deeper. It wasn’t obvious because it was so private, says Nick Harvill. ”He didn’t publish; he didn’t paint. He had no need for publicity to fan the flames. He remained a private figure, known by those on whose beneficence he depended but anonymous to the masses, which seemed to suit him just fine.”

Fouts did live life on his own terms. “Which, in a sense, is the most important work of art there is.” At the same time, he was a character so outsized, many appropriated his likeness.

“That’s why all of these great authors took notice,” Harvill notes. “It was an added bonus that they could copy from him freely without concerns of plagiarism.”

On the Home F

Denham Fouts’ relationship to Jacksonville and his family is usually reduced to a couple of pithy, inaccurate lines. According to Truman Capote in his mean-spirited, unfinished novel “Answered Prayers,” Denny was 16, “living in a Florida crossroads cracker town and working in a bakery owned by his father.” Capote characterized him as an unpolished beauty, “who talked as though his mouth was busy with a pound of Alabama corn mush.”

According to that story, Denny Fouts was picked up at the bakery by a cosmetics tycoon in a “built-to-order 1936 Duesenberg convertible,” and whisked 100 miles away to Miami. Of course, Miami isn’t nearly that close, and Denny was 16 in 1930, making the tycoon’s ’36 Duesenberg an incredible time machine.

“That’s stupid Truman Capote,” says Alice Denham, who knew the writer. “Denny’s father wasn’t a baker or an ice cream worker, as some people have written. His father had an asbestos awning business [Fouts Manufacturing, at 555 Stockton St.]. We were in Jacksonville upper society and Denny was in it himself. He was well-reared and well-spoken.”

Fouts was born May 9, 1914, in Boca Grande, Fla., where his father, Edwin Louis Fouts, a 1910 Yale graduate, worked in his father-in-law’s bank. The family moved to Jacksonville soon afterward, and in 1920, Edwin was employed by the Florida Broom Company.

Diane Cunningham, Denny’s niece, says in 1943 or ’44 her mother (Denny’s sister) took her to spend a day on the beach with Denny in Santa Barbara, where he had an apartment. She was about five at the time, and doesn’t remember much about it. But she says Denny was no bumpkin: His paternal grandfather was a railroad vice president, and his maternal grandfather was a powerful Jacksonvillian — Thomas P. Denham, who started Atlantic National Bank and founded Timuquana Country Club.

For several years, Fouts’ family lived with his uncle’s family in the Thomas P. Denham home on Lomax Street in Riverside. “It was a big house, with five chimneys,” says Cunningham, but it’s no longer there. “In 1992, that three-story house was moved down to the river and floated to a beach lot in Ponte Vedra.”

As a girl, Cunningham spent summers with her grandparents, Denny’s parents, when they lived at 4165 McGirts Blvd., in Ortega. She would ride in a small boat with her Grandfather Louie, up and down the St. Johns, as he told stories about the family. “I get the feeling that Denny’s father wasn’t all that successful. … I don’t think he ever measured up to my grandmother’s expectations.” She added that Denny’s father later killed himself, possibly because of painful stomach operations that may have been caused by cancer from the asbestos in his factory.

Both Cunningham and Alice Denham say no one ever talked about Denny being gay. “I didn’t even know that he was gay until I was sitting in the dentist’s office reading [an Esquire excerpt of] Truman Capote’s ‘Answered Prayers’, ” says Cunningham, “and I about dropped the damn magazine right on the floor.”

“I asked Denny’s brother Freddie if he knew Denny was gay, and he said, ‘Everyone knew Denny was gay.’ They just didn’t talk about it,” says Alice Denham. “My cousin Middy Warren said that Louie [Denny’s father] was cruel to him and beat Denny. He probably found out that Denny was gay and that may have been the impetus for him to run away from home. Many in the family speculated that’s what it was.”

I can’t prove it,” she adds, “but nobody can prove anything about Denny.”

Over (and Out)

The young Denham Fouts left Jacksonville without telling anyone, but made a splash as soon as he arrived in New York. His German cosmetics tycoon showed him the city, and later took Fouts to Paris and Europe. “He got in with a lot of rich people fast, and those were the German’s connections,” says Alice Denham. “Then Denny dumped him.”

So began the legend of Denham Fouts. Back home in Jacksonville, his mother was worried. The family only knew that he was running around Europe. “He sent continual postcards home from all over the world,” says Denham. “Sometimes he would send photos of him with a glamorous woman or a handsome man: ‘Traveling here with Lady So-and-So in Malaga. She thinks she’s Marlene Dietrich, and so do I!’ But he never would give anybody an address to write back.”

Fouts did come home at least once, during the war in Europe, possibly in 1940 before going to California, or in 1941 when he came back East to work on a Quaker farm in Pennsylvania, an occupation he hated. It also could have been after the war, in late 1946 or ’47, when he lived briefly in the East before returning to Europe.

“Relatives in Monticello, Florida, said he dropped by on the way to Jacksonville to see the family,” says Denham. “They thought he was a Nazi spy. Denny was photographed in Time Magazine once with Lord Somebody-or-Other. And this Lord was head of the British pro-German league that wanted to resist Britain going into the war.” (This may have something to do with Capote’s claim that if Denny had given in to Adolph Hitler’s advances, World War II might have been averted. The claim is dismissed by experts as fantasy, though Denny’s lover Lord Tredegar did run with some well-known Nazis in the ’30s, before he worked for British intelligence in WWII.)

Fouts‘ family was undoubtedly split over his lifestyle, whether or not they knew he was gay. Even today, they’re split on their opinions of the famous Fouts. Denny’s great-nephew Jay Cunningham, a school principal in San Francisco, said he didn’t learn about Fouts until he was coming out himself in his 20s. He’s not exactly a fan.

“That’s where Alice [Denham] and I disagree,” says Jay Cunningham. “She sees the value of what he did for the gay community, like using his influence to get Horizon Magazine published.” (Horizon was a highly regarded literary journal founded by Fouts’ lover Peter Watson.) “When I talked to Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s boyfriend, he had nothing but positive things to say about Denham — that he was intelligent and funny, and everyone in Isherwood’s circle loved him. [But] my experience of Denham is as the ‘best-kept boy in the world,’ and that’s not how I would want to be remembered. Just to say straight out, I’m not sure how I feel about him.”

Redemption and D

The far-flung Fouts spent the war years in California, a meditating, reforming sexaholic who abstained from sex for quite some time. He lived with and became close friends with Christopher Isherwood, who was doing some screenwriting in Hollywood. Isherwood wrote fiction and nonfiction about these years and this side of Fouts in the most detailed, accurate accounts of the boy legend.

At first, Fouts was called the “drunken yogi” by some of his Hollywood friends. But he later excelled at his disciplined attempt at a spiritualized life. He told Isherwood he was seeking a better understanding of himself and of life. He even said he loathed sex. He quit drugs, drinking and smoking and became a vegetarian. He also got up in the actual morning — not the afternoon — to meditate.

Fouts earned conscientious objector status through recommendations from Isherwood’s pacifist friends, whom he’d impressed. He spent 1941 through ’43 in the conscientious objector camp administered by Quakers in San Dimas, where he helped run the kitchen (Isherwood loved Denny’s cooking). But his old ways evidently started to reappear, and he was accused of smuggling liquor and marijuana into the camp, and having sex with some of the men. He was released after it was discovered that he had a malformed heart.

Fouts lost interest in mysticism. He told Isherwood, “I’ve decided to hold onto the things I can see.” He stayed in Southern California and threw himself into school, earning his GED and taking medical school classes at UCLA with the hope of becoming a psychoanalyst. His partying friends couldn’t pull him away from his books. But only for a while.

He sold his Picasso for $9,500 to finance his comeback in Europe. Vidal, Capote, Isherwood and the young Michael Wishart all visited Fouts at his Rue du Bac apartment in Paris — and all witnessed his return to drugs. Wishart the painter wrote a grim account of those times: Denny doing opium, heroin and cocaine. Fouts, with curtains drawn, sharing opium with his dog, Trotsky. Fouts passed out on the bathroom floor, hypodermic needle stuck in his arm. Fouts, with eyes blackened after the electric shock treatment he took to try to cure his addiction.

Wishart learned to avoid Fouts until he’d had his evening breakfast of cereal and apple brandy, which made Denny’s touch-down to a very transient reality endurable. “As tombs go, ours was not bad,” Wishart wrote of Fouts’ “synthetic Eden” apartment. He thought Fouts was committing suicide in slow motion, mocking the threat of maturity.

Fouts became fearful and paranoid. He stopped smoking his beloved opium because it left a smell in the air, and made do with cocaine and heroin. Fouts’ paranoia pushed him to Rome, where he had heard that heroin was plentiful and cheap, according to Wishart (other writers’ accounts vary). Not long after, Fouts’ heart failed when he was on the toilet in his apartment, during a party.

“He died pretty much like Elvis,” says his niece Diane Cunningham.

Some in the family started wondering about Fouts’ wealth, she says, but, “Of course, he didn’t have any money.” “I heard the tail end of an argument that he’d left all his money to a newspaper boy he met in Rome.”

Denny Fouts’ cousin Alice Denham disagrees with accounts that he was on drugs when he died. She says he wasn’t involved in drugs at the end, having taken another cure. A friend saw him right before his death and wrote to Isherwood that Fouts was clean, having shown “extraordinary willpower” in sticking to the treatment.

“The terrible things said about him are not true — that he was totally dissolute at the end and things like that,” says Denham. “After Denny’s last cure worked, he was supposedly going to come home to write. He sent a bunch of manuscript pages to his mother, and then he died of a heart attack. She read it, discovered he was gay, and burnt every page. I know that happened.”

Visiting Denny Fouts’ grave in Rome years later, Michael Wishart wondered, “What had become of the scorpion tattooed on his groin that I had kissed so many times?” He fretted that “the plain grave looked so cold and just as so often when Denham had passed out, I used to pull the covers over him, so I longed to spread across his grave a blanket of his favorite primroses.

“But,” Wishart continued, “I left his grave as I found it: bleak, forsaken, separated from the rest. And a long, long way from Jacksonville, Florida.”

Richard W


Kissing C

“Sex was my great adventure.”

— Alice Denham, cousin of Denham Fouts, in her 2006 memoir “Sleeping With Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties.”

Written by Richard Wall

Published June 12, 2012

Denny Fouts’ cousin Alice Denham was desirable, photogenic and famous in her own right.

Raised in Jacksonville until 1939 when she was six, Alice Denham later attended the University of North Carolina and later the University of Rochester before moving to New York City and immersing herself in the writing life.

Her New York friends included luminaries like James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac and James Dean — her occasional lover whom she says liked to nuzzle. She zeroed in on writers at parties thrown by her friend Norman Mailer, and took good mental notes: Joseph Heller, hot kisser; Philip Roth, “on fire”; James Jones, small penis but compensated in other ways; William Gaddis, “a fine centerpiece.” Kiss-and-tell aside, most of “Sleeping With Bad Boys” is about literary criticism and life in the era of the big novel.

Denham was working as a model and pinup girl because, “I had a master’s degree and couldn’t even get a [job] interview. Women were supposed to be secretaries.”

When she noticed that Playboy magazine reprinted fiction, “I told them that if they would reprint my published short story, ‘The Deal,’ I would consent to be their naked lady.” To this day, Denham is the only Playmate to have her fiction printed in the same issue as her centerfold (July 1956).

An early feminist, Denham says she both loved and hated her Playboy centerfold appearance, but at least it attracted publishers. Her first novel, “My Darling from the Lions,” is a story of obsessive love, and her second, “AMO: The Feminist Centerfold from Outer Space,” is a cult classic. Denham was also a founding member of the National Organization for Women, a frequent abortion rights demonstrator, and a participant in the 1970 feminist takeover of Ladies Home Journal.

Alice Denham is in Mexico this summer, writing a memoir about her family. Denny Fouts has a whole chapter dedicated to him and will be rippling throughout the book, which she hopes to sell soon to a publisher.

“I was finding out about Denny all through my life. I thought we were kindred spirits,” says Denham. “I admire Denny because he lived his life very much on his own terms. He was a sexual adventurer, and so was I. It never occurred to me to be sexually inhibited.”