by Emma Staffaroni
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have. The life I get to live is the life imagined by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. It’s like Gloria Steinem said: ‘We have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it.’ I am so grateful for these women who imagined this Manhattan life.” – Robert Leleux
Anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End, will know that a reference to a notable woman like Gloria Steinem is a commonplace part of a conversation. And he writes with the same style; to quote from The Living End, in a chapter called “Indomitable Ladies”: “I suspect the real reason Mother decided to make beauty her vocation was to protect her heart. She’s always reminded me of that old joke about Marlene Dietrich. ‘Come now, Marlene,’ somebody said. ‘You’re wearing rouge, powder, a wig, false eyelashes, and a girdle.’ ‘Yes darling,’ Dietrich replied, with a glance down at her famous figure. ‘But all the rest of it is me.’”
Leleux’s memoirs tell of his youth in small-town Texas. His Mother-capital-M, Jessica, is a larger-than-life character in these hilarious and one-of-a-kind stories. Jessica is pure Texas: big blond hair, melodic drawl, and Texas sass–a “dame,” as Leleux calls her. In public, he tells us, she was often mistaken for a starlet; her glamour and eccentricity permeated all aspects of Robert’s childhood. Indeed, while he revels in the often bizarre lengths to which his mother went for beauty and style, Leleux cherishes their unique bond, forged through hardship and humor. When he came out to his mother at 17, telling her he was in love with his now-husband, Michael, Jessica’s response was nonchalance and total acceptance. “How could you be my child and not be gay?” she replied.
He is also as funny in conversation as he is in his two memoirs. But as Robert told me during a phone chat about matriarchs, “I am only the feint photocopy of my grandmother and mother.” His late grandmother Joann, the subject of his second book, was what one his family members called “mascara-streaming-down-your-cheeks funny.” Joann passed this “gallows humor” to her daughter Jessica, who “spoke in quotable phrases, as though she intended her words to be embroidered.” This line from Memoirs perfectly captures the gift Leleux’s matriarchs seem to have bequeathed to him; the man is a guru of quips of quotes.
Partly in earnest and partly in jest, Leleux explained what his unusual young life instilled: a sense of beauty. “Professionally, I am an editor of an interior design magazine. I’ve had no training, and yet…I know what I’m talking about. Now this is sounding arrogant but let me finish,” he said, with a big, Robert Leleux laugh. “I was raised by people with a sense of beauty. Not only could they make anything beautiful, but there was an atmosphere of beauty they created. And that is really a talent and a gift–the gift of atmosphere.”
There are yet other benefits of being the gay grand/son of such “artists” of language and living. “Often there’s that mother-daughter thing, but as a gay guy there’s not this ‘I’ve come to this planet to replace you’ thing going on.”
Despite some of their absurd content, Leleux’s books are written with true devotion and respect for his subjects. The outlandishness of the stories—like the time he Krazy-glued fake hair to his mother’s head–are paired with a profound humanizing of the characters. For people who often acted like caricatures, they appear on every page to be deeply complex and profoundly human. In the same passage in which he cites Marlene Dietrich, he tells us, “Mother may have indulged in artifice, from the top of her wig to the heel of her platform shoes. But all the rest of her was real—her humor and devotion, her fierce stubbornness and Texas temper.”
Robert Leleux is like a gay feminist Kurt Vonnegut, with a dash of David Sedaris and maybe even a soupçon of Kathy Lee Gifford. His smart irreverence has the register of comedy while revealing profound and intimate truths. “I think everyone should be a feminist simply as a result of having a mother,” he told me candidly. “I really–this is so cheesy–I would want my life to have been in service to the matriarchy.” So far, so good.