Karl, of course, was into blood sports. I learned a lot from him about that world of anonymous sex and violence.” “Karl” is Karl Keller, for 20 years a professor in San Diego State’s English Department and author of a critically acclaimed study of the poet Emily Dickinson — The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty. Speaking was one of Keller’s fellow professors.
Another person said, about Karl Keller, “He was seriously into S&M, so that would be one reason that he liked Emily Dickinson, because there’s an S&M quality to Dickinson. I would see Karl once in a while at parties. He could be very kind. He could also be verbally cruel when he got drunk.”
The person who told me this warned me that I was not to use his or her name. I said I wouldn’t, and then he or she asked, “I told you the story about Karl Keller and that dress, didn’t I?”
“Well, Karl gave a paper at a conference in Amherst for the Emily Dickinson Association. In the middle of delivering his paper, he said, ‘What I would really like to do is go up to her bedroom and put on her white dress and walk down the stairs, wearing that dress.’ Everyone in his audience was totally shocked. Karl has always been and remains to this day something of a legend in the Emily Dickinson world.”
When I began to ask about Karl Keller, I learned that versions of this white dress story exist. Someone who’d taught with Keller during the 20 or so years Keller was a professor in State’s English Department said, “This is one of those impossible stories that we at State all enjoy, all of us who knew Karl. It was, I believe, at a Modern Language Association conference; it could have been an American Association conference. But it was a big-ticket conference. So Karl had a paper to deliver and came in a white dress. I’m sure the dress was gorgeous, because he had wonderful taste. I’m sure it fit him perfectly. Probably the people who knew him thoroughly enjoyed all this. I suspect it was a surreal thing to anyone who didn’t know him. However, given that academics, for the most part, are such polite people, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just sat there and smiled.”
Less happy were stories about Karl’s long dying and eventual death. When Keller died in September 1985, the Union obituary was headlined: “Renowned literary scholar and activist Karl Keller, 52, dies.” The obituary noted that Keller, survived by a wife and five children, had “participated in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and, by the end of the decade, was organizing political rallies, sit-ins and meetings in opposition to the Vietnam War.” Several paragraphs later, a reader could learn that Keller at one time had been “a bishop in the Mormon Church, [but] broke with it because of the church’s stand on several social and political issues.”
The obituary noted, about Keller’s death, only that he died “after a long illness.” Another person who asked that I not use her name said, about that “long illness,” “Karl was one of the early deaths from AIDS. Before anyone knew how it was transmitted. People were dropping his courses left and right when they found out what he had, because in those days, it was thought you could get it through the air. It was sad. He was a brilliant scholar. He loved Emily Dickinson, and he had a real gift for reading her poetry and seeing things in it that other people didn’t see. And he saw Dickinson less as a recluse than as someone with a secret life.”
“Like his life was secret for many years,” I said.
“Yes, in some ways it was. Yes. It was.”
This person went on to say, “He loved this poem,” and then, in a small voice and uninflected tone, she recited, flawlessly:
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
Karl Keller was born into a Mormon family in Manti, Utah, in 1932. He was the third child of Thomas and Lily Keller. It was a five-child family — two girls, three boys.
Manti, the county seat of Sanpete County, sits at an elevation of 5500 feet in central Utah. Settled in 1849 by Scandinavian and German/Swiss immigrants and incorporated in 1851, Manti is the site of one of the state’s oldest Mormon temples.
If you want to learn something about Manti, find Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, a novel by Joyce Eliason. Ms. Eliason grew up in Manti at the same time as did Karl Keller and is distantly related to him. “His grandfather,” she said, on the afternoon that we talked, “was either my grandmother’s brother or cousin. Because little towns like Manti are so isolated, people intermarried a lot. They were all pretty much from the same background.”
Manti’s early settlers, Eliason writes in Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, “forged ahead to build a town in this high valley even though the church surveyor himself said it was an improbable site for a town. He claimed the soil wasn’t good and there wasn’t enough water and he was excommunicated from the church. There is a divine reason said Brother Brigham and added that he would reveal this reason at another time and that one should never question the mysterious workings of Our Lord. And then one day Brigham himself came to town and stood on the little promontory of oolite splintering off the granite of the Wasatch and said that there was to be a Temple of God built on that very hill.”
I talked by telephone one weekend afternoon with Helen Higbee, the older of Karl’s sisters. I asked how Manti got its name.
“It originates back from Alma in the Book of Mormon. Strange name, isn’t it? We always know when strangers are talking to us about Manti because we call it Man-tie and they call it Man-tee.”
When the Keller children were young, Manti had a population of some 2000 (the population now is about 3000). “It was really quite an artistic town,” Mrs. Higbee said. “We had great teachers. We also had very capable musicians that retreated to Utah in the summertime. One was a teacher in a boy’s private school in New York, and he taught piano students and did a masterful job at that. Then there was another gentleman that taught school in Santa Barbara and came back with his family and gave vocal lessons to a whole bunch of people. So we had a lot of good basics as far as the arts go.
“Manti’s economy,” Mrs. Higbee said, “was primarily based on farming and livestock — sheep and cattle. And our father was obviously in that line of work. But we didn’t grow up on a farm. In Utah it’s different from most places; the people were encouraged to live in organized communities and then go out to your farms. That’s what our family did. We had wonderful parents. They were very loving and caring, and they loved each other very much. I think that’s a great gift for children.”
Karl and their mother, Mrs. Higbee said, “identified very closely. Karl was quite sickly. He had measles, and my mother was afraid he was going to die. She had me sit beside his bed to be sure he kept breathing while she did housework and cooking. Karl got out of doing the heavy farmwork that the other boys were required to do. He was very frail physically but made up for it with mental capabilities. He was quite an independent young man. I think he read more than I realized, and he was always writing plays. Being the oldest, you know, as I was, you’re always caught up in your own life, and I can’t remember exactly.
“Karl was an achiever. He went to the University of Utah and was editor of the school yearbook in his junior year and editor of the school paper in his senior year. He was a counselor to a bishop while he was a university student. He was also involved in the musical aspect of services. He sang beautifully. He had a marvelous voice.
“He went on a Mormon mission to Germany. He was in many places, but among them was Dresden. He was probably 19 when he went, so that would have been early in the 1950s. There was a gentleman from Dresden that liked Karl so well. He went and bought a complete dinner set for Karl with Karl’s initials. His wife has the remainder of that.”
“Were you surprised when your brother declared himself homosexual?”
“Not really. I didn’t think much about it. Karl was just Karl. I felt bad that his gayness was difficult for his children, but they’ve all survived. Karl encouraged them all to go to the university, and they’re okay now, I think. I know with Ruth, his wife, there’s no bitterness. She was with him almost every day while he was deteriorating.”
“Were your parents alive when Karl died?”
“No, they were both gone. My sister and my two brothers and I came out for his funeral.”
I talked several days later, via telephone, with Karl’s brother Ray Keller, born in 1928. (Someone who knew the Kellers well said, “Ray was hard on Karl, I am sure, because he’s a real guy’s guy.” Another person said that Karl, angry with Ray over a family matter, mailed to Ray an envelope filled with his, Karl’s, excrement.)
Ray Keller sounded like a real guy’s guy, and he also sounded pleasant. He echoed his sister, Mrs. Higbee, saying, “Our father was in the farming business, and we were always actively engaged in helping on the farm. Karl didn’t particularly like to be engaged in that hard, hard work. He was more intellectual than the rest of us. He took violin lessons and saxophone lessons and piano lessons. And he was always reading.”
I had looked at photographs of the LDS temple in Manti, built, as I learned from Joyce Eliason’s novel, with oolite. I asked Ray Keller how many stories high the temple was. “Four,” he said, “plus a basement.” As to why the temple was white, he said, “To signify purity. Cleanliness. Isn’t white pure?”
Ray Keller was shocked when his brother declared himself a gay man. “Shocked to death. Our mother and father would have turned over in their graves. But, you know, it’s that culture. I call it ‘the culture of people that are involved in the intellectual idiot syndrome.’ You can quote me as saying that, if you’d like. ‘The intellectual idiot syndrome.’ ”
Would he have thought, when they were boys, that Karl was homosexual?
“No. No. I thought he was more intellectual and into books and music and stuff. But that wasn’t even in the thought process when we were kids.”
Ray Keller said his brother, as a Mormon churchman, “was real active. But once he got acquainted with so-called intellects, he kind of drifted off into space. That intellectual idiot syndrome took him over.” As to when this happened, Ray Keller said, “I think he went overboard when he got down to San Diego State, when he got into the liberal area and culture down there.”
Joyce Eliason, who for the past four decades has lived in Southern California, remembered Karl Keller from the earliest days, when they were toddlers. “He was a year older than I was. My earliest memory of Karl is a church event that took place at harvest time, the Green and Gold Ball. I was about four and he was five. He wore a satin outfit, like an usher’s outfit. I was one of the flower girls. Karl was supposed to play a trumpet. I remember that everybody was standing around on the floor of the events hall. The king of the Green and Gold Ball with his attendants was standing in the center of the hall. Karl walked out and went to the middle of the floor to blow his horn, and instead of blowing the horn, he throws it and has some kind of tantrum.”
Karl Keller and Ms. Eliason lived across the street from one another. About his family, she said, “They were all singers and performers. His mother’s family were very good comics, and they would do things on shows. His dad was a hardworking farmer. He was a bishop for a few years. It was a very respected family.”
Karl and Joyce walked to school together. They played. “When we played house he had to be Alice Faye and I had to be the guy. He was certainly different from everybody. Nobody dressed like Karl. He would wear the loudest plaid jacket you could ever imagine and bright colors, wild combinations. He was just out there, with everything. He had strong opinions. He could be quite overbearing about those opinions. In high school, we were friends, but I didn’t hang out with him.”
Ms. Eliason didn’t remember people teasing Karl. “I am sure they must have called him a sissy and stuff. But he had a lot of things going for him. He sang in church all the time. He was a devout Mormon. He stood out in school. I don’t remember his having any male friends. Girls were who he had as friends.”
Ray Keller had suggested I talk with Doris Gardner. “She was a good friend to Karl, a first cousin. Before they could talk too good they called each other ‘Caw Caw’ and ‘Do Do.’ They were friends all through their life.”
Mrs. Gardner and I chatted via telephone one weekend summer afternoon. Her husband answered the phone. I could hear in the background a baseball game that must have been playing on the television set. When I said I wanted to ask about Karl Keller, Mrs. Gardner almost purred. She clearly was happy to talk about Karl and their family. “His parents were wonderful parents, great people. His dad was my father’s brother. Karl was close to his mother, and she encouraged his creativity.
“He was so intelligent, so talented. There was nothing Karl couldn’t do. He wasn’t afraid to try things. He loved music. He loved to sing. He wrote poetry. He wrote plays for assemblies. He was an excellent dancer. Loved to jitterbug.”
“Did boys tease Karl, call him a sissy?”
“To a degree. But it didn’t bother Karl. I’ll bet his dad gave him the hardest time of all. Because he thought that he should be a worker like Ray was. Karl just wasn’t. He helped his mother more around the house and in the yard. He did burn the barn down. They had a barn behind their house. I forget how it happened, but Karl was responsible for that.”
“When they were children, did Karl have crushes on other boys?”
“No,” Mrs. Gardner said, “I don’t think so. I really don’t. If he did, he certainly did not display it.”
Manti, Mrs. Gardner said, was somewhat protected from the outer non-Mormon world. “I hate to say this, but I think I was in sixth or seventh grade before I realized that there were people of other faiths. That was my life. I was in the eighth grade before I ever went to Salt Lake. We lived in our little community. We didn’t have cars. Our fathers had the trucks that they used on the farms, and we didn’t venture far beyond our homes.”
Ray Keller had told me, about Ruth Anderson, the woman whom Karl Keller would marry, that she also grew up in Manti. Ray Keller had said, “Ruth and Karl knew each other all through school. Ruth was a year older than Karl. She was an excellent pianist. And Karl had an excellent baritone voice. I think they got acquainted through music and developed a relationship there. After high school, Ruth went to the Y — BYU — and Karl went to the University of Utah.”
Mrs. Gardner declared herself “rather surprised” when she found out that Karl was going to marry Ruth. “They were not high school sweethearts. They were on the school paper together and the yearbook. I think they knew each other that way, but I don’t believe that they dated in high school, not that I recall.”
Mrs. Gardner went off to college, where she majored in home economics. She married. Her husband joined the armed services. “After high school, I went my way and Karl went his way and we lost track.” The last time Mrs. Gardner saw her old friend Karl was at least 40 years ago in Manti. Her husband was on leave and they were visiting home. “Karl stopped by to see us. He made some comments that were disturbing to me, because he said something about, ‘Now, are you being a good little soldier and just doing everything that they tell you to do?’ meaning that he was going the opposite direction. He was not going to follow instructions anymore.”
Mrs. Gardner heard about Karl from friends and family. “I didn’t particularly care for the way he went in his life. I can’t remember when I first heard the rumors. Of course, not living in Manti because we were in the service, overseas, for many years, I wasn’t privy to all the information. But when we’d go home on leave and people would say these things, I said, ‘No, couldn’t be true.’ But I could tell that he was drifting away from the church. I was very sad when I found out that he had been excommunicated.”
(I did not mention to Mrs. Gardner that I’d heard that Karl Keller asked to be excommunicated. I’d also heard he’d never been excommunicated and that he had been excommunicated.) “If you’re excommunicated,” I asked, “what happens to your wedding vows?”
“It’s all null and void. I mean, just because you’re married in the temple doesn’t mean that you will have a celestial marriage because we make promises and take covenants. If we break our covenants, then we have broken the bond of the promise to Our Father in Heaven. Karl doing what he did, in the eyes of the church he had more or less sinned against the church and broken the promises.”
Mrs. Gardner’s mother died a year after Karl Keller’s mother died. “I always said, ‘Mom had to go to help Aunt Lily take care of Karl.’ I meant this jokingly. They postponed Aunt Lily’s funeral trying to locate Karl and they couldn’t find him. He had just gone out to find himself, and no one knew where he was. So he was not there at the funeral. I think the brothers and sisters felt very badly about this.”
Asked if she had a theory about Karl’s homosexuality, Mrs. Gardner said, “I don’t know. He has a cousin — his mother’s sister’s grandchild — who died of AIDS. So sometimes I wonder, ‘Is it hereditary?’ I could see now, looking back, that there were the tendencies. Because he was feminine in his gestures, in his actions. Yet he was such a lovable person.”
I said that I was told that had Karl, when he was young, mentioned his feelings for members of his own sex to his family in Manti, he would have been in trouble.
“I’m sure. I’m sure he would have. After all this came out, his family tried to keep things hush-hush. They truly did. It’s good that people are more accepting of the gays now. I can’t condone it. It just gives me the heebie-jeebies, but then that’s just me and my feelings.”
Karl Keller majored in English at the University of Utah. Professor William Mulder, now in his 80s, taught Keller there. Professor Mulder remembered young Keller fondly. “Karl seemed always so energetic, so bright. He was an excellent writer. An A student. He had great talent and intelligence. Whatever he touched he did with flair.
“He was born into the Mormon Church, like so many of us. He was immersed, as are the rest of us born into that faith, in the Mormon faith.”
Professor Mulder is one of the dedicatees of Keller’s book about Edward Taylor, The Example of Edward Taylor. “Taylor,” the professor noted, “was an interesting figure. Karl contributed to a growing appreciation of that colonial poet, discovered somewhat by accident by Thomas H. Johnson, who was the chief editor, of course, of Emily Dickinson.”
“Were you surprised that he left his wife and announced that he was homosexual?”
“I didn’t know his marriage at all, but, yes, it came as a surprise. He declared himself a homosexual, and then he paid a price for that.”
Karl Keller married Ruth Anderson in 1956, after his return from his mission in Germany. He earned a doctorate in early American literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964. His dissertation was titled “The Metaphysical Strain in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.” His first teaching job was at the State University of New York in Cortland. In Cortland he served his Mormon stake as a bishop (a bishop, Professor Mulder explained, “is not the eminence that a Catholic bishop is. He’s more like the pastor of a congregation”).
Utah native Gary Shirts for many years has been a San Diego resident. Mr. Shirts met Karl Keller when they were undergraduates at the University of Utah. “Karl was a good friend. We both went on missions. He went to Germany and I went to Hawaii. When I returned, we both married and he became my bishop. This was in Salt Lake City. When my wife and I decided to marry — her name is Cozette and they called her Cozy — Karl announced our engagement from the pulpit. There was another guy by the name of Gary Sheets in our ward. Karl said, when he made the announcement of our upcoming marriage, ‘I’m glad Cozy is marrying Gary Shirts instead of Gary Sheets because she wouldn’t want to have her name be ‘Cozy Sheets.’ ”
I asked Mr. Shirts, “When you knew Karl in college, would you have thought he was gay?”
“I had not the slightest idea. It was not part of my way of thinking at that time. Later, he told me he knew he was gay from the time he was a young boy. You can’t imagine the pressure that the Mormon Church puts on people who are gay not to be gay, not to admit it, to pretend that it’s not there. Otherwise, you’re really, really ostracized.”
In the early 1960s, Mr. Shirts arrived in San Diego. “I moved here to be with the San Diego County Department of Education. Later, I went to the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, a social science think tank. That was during the wild 1960s.”
Mr. Shirts encouraged the Kellers to join him and his family. “I thought it would be great for them, San Diego. He was still very religious for a while, active in the church and all, and then…”
Karl Keller accepted a teaching job at San Diego State in 1965. For the next two decades, he would teach, variously, freshman composition and literature introduction classes to underclassmen. To upperclassmen, he would offer Colonial American Literature, 19th-Century American Literature, and seminars in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. At least once, he directed a seminar on E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher.
The family settled in. One son was named after Puritan minister Cotton Mather, another after Henry James. They bought a house in La Mesa. They were busy in their local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with Karl, as he had all his life, employing his musical talents in the service of his church. At State, Professor Keller taught, wrote, attended faculty meetings, and published. He was popular with students and sought out by fellow faculty members. In 1973, he received a Fulbright grant and taught at the University of Nice in France and at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, near Lyon, France.
Larry McCaffery has been a member of San Diego State’s English Department since 1976. Professor McCaffery said, “Karl discovered that he was gay, or admitted it, when he was in France, in Nice, in 1973.” Professor McCaffery’s wife, Sinda Gregory, also a professor in State’s English Department, told me what she recalled about Karl Keller’s stay in France. “San Diego State had an exchange program with the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Karl was there for the year. One day he was at the beach, and he started swimming out and he was going to commit suicide. One of the lifeguards came and got him and brought him back. Somebody had said, ‘There’s someone in danger.’ It was Karl, of course.
“When he came back to California, he said that was when he decided that he was going to act on what he felt. I don’t know if he then had experiences there in Nice or if it was just a matter of coming back to the States. I don’t know when the actual physical stuff started happening, but I do know that that was an event that made him decide that he had lived one way long enough and that he couldn’t live that way again. So that when he began life again, he told his wife and at that point began having boyfriends.”
Joyce Eliason, author of Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, the novel that offers such wonderful descriptions of Manti, is a screenwriter and film producer. Her credits include The Last Don, Mulholland Drive, and the CBS-TV two-part series Blonde. Ms. Eliason still goes back to Manti to visit family. “I don’t go back to class reunions. With my people in my own class in school, some of them are very uptight with me. I don’t know many people anymore. I am very fond of Manti, though. It is not very pretty now, but it was pretty to us. It was a great place to grow up. It used to be so pretty. It’s very grim now. They tear everything good down and put up chain-link fences and aluminum siding. They have cut down the trees. It is hard to remember what it was like.”
Karl Keller and Ms. Eliason drifted apart after high school. She went to college, married, had children, divorced, settled in Los Angeles. “When I really got close to Karl was in the early 1970s, when he was out of the closet and would come to L.A. I didn’t know until then how unhappy he had been in Manti, because he seemed to be doing fine. If I had realized how lonely and what a misfit he felt like back then, I am sure we would have been closer. Later, we realized how much we had in common. He told me that there was a lot going on in Manti among boys, but I had never been aware of that. I was surprised. At that point I would not have known what two men would do with each other. I was that naïve.”
In those talks that Ms. Eliason and Karl Keller had in Los Angeles, Keller intimated to Ms. Eliason that as a child he had an affair with one of his music teachers. He told her that when he went on his mission to Germany that the church, seeing that he had homosexual tendencies, put him in a program to “reorient” him. “I don’t know,” Ms. Eliason said, “if he changed after the mission. I think we all deep down thought, ‘Karl is homosexual,’ and then, after the mission, when he married Ruth, who was a devout Mormon, we thought, ‘Well, I guess not.’ She and her sister Jane were not particularly popular with boys, but they were popular in school. Jane married the high school coach, who was the most popular person in school and still is. She was a fireball. Karl married Ruth. It would have been hard to find someone who would not like Ruth. She was just a nice, lovely, decent, sweet person. She wasn’t phony. Both Jane and Ruth were down-home and really smart.”
In 1975 the University of Massachusetts Press published The Example of Edward Taylor. In the acknowledgments, Keller wrote, “To my wife Ruth for kind encouragement and indulgence. And to all the kids.”
If you read Edward Taylor’s poems and Emily Dickinson and you think about Karl Keller, you can guess why these poets interested him. They are pent up. They led secret lives. In The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty Keller writes in a chapter that discusses both Dickinson and Taylor that the similarities between the two are “many, if merely obvious ones. The lives of both were in large measure private, obscure, isolated. The sensibilities of both were introspective, meditative, interior. They both wrote poetry in search of grace and through writing both felt they had found some measure of that grace. They wrestled with the same angel for some sign of their worth, were both examples of the furor poeticus. Their verse is deliberately rough, witty, self-conscious, sacramental.… Both wrote in private, resisted publication, and died without literary fame.”
Edward Taylor (1642–1729) was born in England. Still in his teens, he found work as a schoolteacher. In 1660, following Oliver Cromwell’s death, the English monarchy was restored, with Charles II back on the throne. Taylor’s Puritan beliefs put him in danger with the government. In 1662, when Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity that required that England’s teachers and clergy accept the newly published Book of Common Prayer, Taylor and fellow Nonconformists sailed to the Colonies. Taylor landed in Massachusetts Colony and enrolled at Harvard. After graduation he served as a minister, eventually settling in what then was the frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts.
Taylor’s poems were discovered in 1937 in a bound manuscript book in the Yale University Library (one of Taylor’s grandsons was Yale’s president in the late 1700s). Thomas H. Johnson was their discoverer. In 1939 the first book made up of Taylor’s poems was published. But not until 1960, some 300 years after Taylor arrived in Boston, was a full collection of Taylor’s poems published.
Emily Dickinson’s poems were not published, unexpurgated and as she wrote them, until the 1950s, when Johnson’s edition was published. The “real” Dickinson remained, until then, essentially undiscovered and unheard. Edward Taylor was also a product of Thomas S. Johnson’s scholarship. “In his poetry,” Keller writes, Taylor was “a suppliant before only God. Not having to worry about saving his name, he could concern himself with saving his soul.”
Taylor, Keller wrote, “is his angriest on the subject of aberrant sexuality.” Keller goes on, then, to quote Taylor, who cited Corinthians:
Neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the Kingdom of God.
In 1979, the Johns Hopkins University Press published Keller’s The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America. The title comes from a letter Dickinson wrote to Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862. “I am Myself,” Dickinson noted, “the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.”
Keller dedicated The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty to Kingsley Widmer. I asked someone who knew both men why Keller chose Widmer as his dedicatee. “I don’t know,” my informant said. “They were such different people. Karl, in the early 1970s, was getting more interested in theory, and King Widmer was in complete opposition to this. Karl had come out. Widmer was violently heterosexual. They seemed like odd fellows. I think they respected each other, because they were two people in that department who actually did publishing and research.”
Kingsley Widmer retired from the English Department at San Diego State in 1991. He had taught there, by then, for 30 years. Kingsley, a State faculty member said, “always was very political, almost kind of an anarchist.”
One chilly winter afternoon, I talked with Professor Widmer. “A general sense of obligation” is why he believes that Karl Keller dedicated his book to him. “I had read most of the things he’d written, criticized and made comments, made suggestions, made arguments, things of that sort. It was an intellectual obligation. It wasn’t personal. Karl was gay and I’m not. We were friends anyway, but it was primarily an intellectual friendship.
“He was basically a dispossessed Mormon farm boy. He was raised on a farm. His father was a farmer. He used to tell outrageous stories. I remember being in a bar somewhere, and someone said to Karl, ‘What led you to your homosexuality?’ or something like this. Karl said, with mock seriousness, ‘I tried sheep and cows — heifers, especially — and then I tried women, and finally I got to men.’ People around us were horrified. But as a matter of fact, there’s probably some truth to the story.
“He had a tremendous and, I suppose, polymorphous sexuality. After all, he fathered five children, as well as had a great number of gay relationships. Karl transferred as a graduate student to the University of Minnesota. I had done graduate work at Minnesota for several years, and so I recognized some of the places, the names, the situations, the theater scene. He told me that he got into trouble there with what turned out to be a cop, who made passes, I suppose one would say, at him. That was one of his early lovers. There was, as I recall, a sustained relationship with this detective.”
Mr. Widmer believed that during the early years of the Keller marriage that Karl Keller remained a “pious Mormon” and that the marriage remained a “pious Mormon marriage.” But Mr. Widmer was not sure for how long the marriage remained unsullied by Keller’s straying.
“I’ve had very little contact with Mormons,” Mr. Widmer confessed. “I did use to ask about his children, if any were Mormons. And the one who most identified with his mother was a Mormon. But Karl said somewhat victoriously, ‘I’ve convinced one of my sons to be gay.’ I said, ‘Karl, you shouldn’t go around saying this, because this is what homophobes charge against gay people, about indoctrinating other people.’ This led to a long argument and discussion on one night that I had Karl over for dinner. There was a rather funny episode that occurred about this time. Karl said, ‘I think, Kingsley, you go out of your way not to appear gay.’ I said, ‘Well, frankly, I’ve had some homosexual experiences when I was an adolescent, so I don’t.’ We had a somewhat satiric relationship in this sense, an ironic relationship. I said, ‘An old gay friend many years ago gave me something that I’m going to give to you.’ It was a black leather coat. A quite impressive coat. This guy had money. I’m not sure why he gave it to me, but he gave it to me. I wore it once, and several people said to me, ‘You look like a Nazi officer.’ I’m moved to look like a lot of things, but that is not one of them. So as a matter of fact, it had been hanging in the closet for quite some time. I got out the black leather coat, and Karl said, ‘This proves that you love me.’ I said, ‘Ah, but in a purely platonic way, Karl.’ ”
That Keller had been a Mormon, Mr. Widmer declared, worried him far more than that Keller was homosexual. “I am an atheist, and so I was sympathetic that he had gotten in trouble, turmoil, with the official church.”
Mr. Widmer believes that Mrs. Keller “strongly disapproved” of her husband’s homosexuality. “However,” he said, “they remained married. He moved out for some years and subleased a place at Mission Beach. He entertained friends there, had lovers there. She knew it. But he was devoted to his children. I once said to him, ‘Look, Karl, you’re really bisexual.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yes, I now love little boys as well as old men.’ ”
Once Karl Keller announced his homosexuality, he began to dress in leathers. Even in the hottest weather, he might be seen in a black leather jacket that was adorned with glittering chains. He also spent many nights in Los Angeles, dressed in his black leathers and scoring drugs and picking up men. I asked Professor Widmer, “Was it a big scandal at State when Keller began going around in leathers?”
“Yes. A member of the administration came to me because he knew I was Karl’s friend, and he very pretentiously asked me, ‘What are we going to do about Karl? He’s really acting out and causing all kinds of embarrassment.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to do a goddamn thing about him.’
“Karl went on the radio and denounced the Mormon Church and made a speech for gay rights, and I said, ‘Those are First Amendment–protected activities.’ And this administration member, whom I never got along with anyway, got embarrassed and said, ‘Well, I wasn’t really going to do anything, I was just checking into it.’ I said, ‘I guess I’ll have to look into why you’re looking into it, and maybe I should go to the president about it.’
“Another person, a professor, came to me with some complaint. He said, ‘You know, between you and Karl, I have a full-time job fending off upset and outraged students.’ I didn’t ask him how many complaints there were. Certainly there were some. But Karl was an excellent teacher. He also offended some teachers. He tended to use obscenity in classes. And rather direct physical sexual anecdotes. So there were complaints. But he was also admired by students. Towards the end, when he was ill and had not yet taken early retirement, I took over his classes for a while. A number of students were obviously very approving of Karl. He was known as a devoted, hardworking teacher. Next to me, he was probably the most published person in the department. He always met his obligations and even did a lot of committee work. Much more than I did.”
(About Karl Keller’s famous radio “announcement,” I heard various accounts. Keller’s old friend Gary Shirts told it this way, “One night, he was on a talk show, talking about literature, and said somebody — Whitman, it was — was a faggot. The boards lit up. Callers were very angry at his using that word. He said, ‘It’s okay for me to use that word because I are one.’ That’s how he came out. I don’t know when this was. I just know that it shocked and surprised everybody, because in those days, that you were gay was not something you were likely to announce to the public.”)
“What,” I asked Mr. Widmer, “do you think attracted Karl Keller to Emily Dickinson?”
“Though he had renounced religion quite emphatically, he nonetheless retained a fascination with religious poetry.”
The mention of Dickinson reminded Mr. Widmer of an argument he had some years back with a former State faculty member. “I haven’t seen this fellow in years, but I used to meet with him once in a while — I’d drink with him, he was a drunk. He knew Karl slightly and denounced Karl for writing on Dickinson when obviously Walt Whitman was the true religious poet of America. I’m not quite sure why Karl took up Dickinson. There was that religious theme. There was also an iconoclastic element; there always was, in Karl’s work. He was unhappy with the polytheistic treatments of Dickinson. He’s got an essay, a late one. I saw it in draft. The title was ‘Trying to Sleep with Emily Dickinson.’ But I really can’t say why he took up with Dickinson.”
“Did you meet Karl’s lovers?”
“Yes, a couple. I’m not homophobic, but I found that situation a little awkward for someone of my style. I went cruising with Karl several times. That is, he went cruising and I went along. To the gay bars and so on. He was very overt with these people and did a lot of sexual pawing and this sort of thing. There were some embarrassing situations. Some pair of guys came up, and one of them was apparently a lover of Karl’s, and the other was a close friend of his. The close friend asked me to dance. I said, ‘Two things: one is, I don’t dance, and two is, I’m not gay.’ Karl got upset at this. ‘You don’t have to be that square and straight.’ So I got up and walked around a little bit with this guy. He made a physical pass at me. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to get in a fight with you but, no.’ I felt embarrassed, I felt awkward. I went back to Karl and I said, ‘Let’s go someplace else.’ He said, ‘You really are terribly straight, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that may be my limitation, because in theory I believe in polysexuality, I suppose.’
“I was put out. He was constantly proving a point, I think, constantly making a point. He loved to take people to gay bars, loved to take straight people, that is. I was told an anecdote by my ex-wife about an evening when she went with him to a bar. And the way she tells the story — I assume it to be true — someone asked Karl, ‘How is age affecting you?’ He pulled down his zipper, took out his penis, and said, ‘Look how it’s swollen.’ This was in public. There were probably three or four people there. Then Karl zipped back up his pants and went on with his conversation.”
Professor Widmer recalled another Keller story. “Karl, in the late ’60s, edited a little journal along with the late Mike Carella, a professor of philosophy. This journal was a kind of exposé, a kind of polemical thing. I wrote a little piece for it. However, Karl and Mike really got rather scary. They tried to prove that Malcolm Love, then the president of San Diego State — and actually one of the better presidents, since he tended to leave things alone — they wanted to excoriate him as having a student mistress, an unlikely story, which I didn’t buy. I knew Malcolm Love slightly, and I didn’t find this at all plausible.”
(A friend told me that this notion of the university president involved with a student mistress was “just the sort of thing Karl would love to spread around. He loved to puncture the puritanical surface of the place. He once told me that when he arrived at State that Claude Straus, an elderly, highly conservative guy who was then chair of the English Department, told him to please not mention in his poetry classes the fact that Whitman was a homosexual.”)
Larry McCaffrey said about Karl Keller, “I remember very distinctly the first time I met him, in 1976. Karl must have been in his mid-40s. He was very much in his flamboyant, campy gay mode by that point. He was a delicate-looking man, I would say. He was about five feet nine inches. He was like a classic gay guy in that period — thin, wiry, worked out, looked good. He had a beard. He had thinning hair. There was something about him — not effeminate, exactly. It was an interesting combination of passion and intellect.
“I was 29 then. I was at San Diego State to do a presentation; this is when they were considering me to be hired. I was flown out from the University of Illinois, and one of the first people I met was Karl. I was introduced to Karl as a scholar. But he was telling me about the courses he was offering at State in gay literature. I think those must have been among the first courses taught in gay lit at State. I’m pretty sure that Karl was the pioneer in California. It turned out that several writers that he was interested in were writers that I was interested in too. One of my specialties was postmodernism. Genet was one of those writers about whom I recall we chatted that first time.
“I was happy to even be interviewed at State. I had a good impression of the English Department. It was one of the best English departments, certainly in California. They had eccentric, brilliant people that for one reason or another preferred to be in the state system rather than somewhere else. Karl was one of these guys. Kingsley Widmer was another, Kermit Vanderbilt was another, there was Jerry Bumpus. There was a lot of intellectual energy. But Karl was the person I remember the most distinctly.
“I started at State in the fall of 1976. Karl and I didn’t begin to hang out until my second or third year. We used to have a thing on Fridays. We would go over to a bar on El Cajon Boulevard, right near school. There were maybe six to eight people that every Friday afternoon would go there and drink. Karl and Jim Rohrer would be there and would engage in debates. It was a beautiful thing to see those two guys in the same room. Just talking. One thing with Karl was the Oscar Wilde tradition of the wit and the quick one-liners. But it was through those Friday-afternoon get-togethers that I got to know Karl.
“He wasn’t a heavy drinker. He did, of course, lots of drugs. He did everything imaginable in the way of drugs. I remember once his telling me he was going up to San Francisco, and they were going to inject something into his spine. He said that when you did this, the report was either you saw God or you died. I believe he saw God that time.
“During this time he was in the process of investigating that whole gay night world and the extreme outer limits of sexual expression in that world. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was such exhilaration there for the gay movement. Everything was very open. This was ideal, especially for gay men, the endless sex and [to be] completely promiscuous; you just could go out and screw somebody, screw 20 people every night. Then there were the baths and that darker world of blood sports that Karl was involved with. So you have this strange juxtaposition of this very sensitive, brilliant university professor and yet this same guy is going out at night and engaging in the most extreme forms of S&M that I, certainly, have ever heard of.
“I remember asking Karl, ‘What is the deal with anonymous sex?’ I remember him saying, ‘Well, of course, you know that’s the only way. It’s only when you’re with somebody that you don’t know that you can really be honest about your sexuality.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, if you’re with your wife or somebody that you’re involved with, you can’t ever really show them who you are, because no matter how much you want to do so, you’re afraid. You can’t show people who you are unless you’re with somebody that you don’t know.’
“The thing about Karl that I always admired was that on the weekends he was able to go out, and he would do crystal meth, and do amyl nitrate, and marijuana, just about anything you can imagine that would maybe make the whole sexual encounter more interesting, but then Monday morning he would be in his office, working away on his latest article or book. He always was that way, to the very end. In other words, in his personal life, the image involved doing these wild things and taking drugs, but he also made sure that whatever it took, he was at work.”
“Was there gossip about Keller and his activities?”
“Oh, yeah, there was gossip. Karl loved to shock people. He loved to announce that he was doing drugs or that he’d go out to the park at night, and he would say things like can we get this department meeting over with so he could get out there to that park. I think the faculty didn’t know what to do. It was a very dysfunctional English department, I would say; dysfunctional in a positive way, that people left each other alone. Karl, though, would never have been able to get away with this now. I remember in one of his courses that he even passed around a plate with drugs on it. I can’t remember what it was. If it was acid or what. But he told them what it was. I think they were studying a Hunter Thompson book at the time.”
Professor McCaffrey said that Karl Keller felt that “the obligation of the professor was to his classroom, was to be as honest with the students as he possibly could and to share with students some of his own experiences, if they were relevant to the works that they were creating.”
Once Karl Keller had announced his sexuality, he began to offer classes in gay literature. Professor McCaffrey recalled, about these classes, “They didn’t get a huge number of students that would enroll. Most of those who enrolled, I’d say, were gay. I know from talking about this at the time to gay students, it was extremely valuable for them to have a professor that they could talk with.
“Karl would talk to students about what he was doing in very intimate ways. He would tell them about what he was doing as far as his sexual behavior and the drugs and so forth. Karl really, really felt that that was part of the obligation of a professor. Now of course you would never say these things because of the whole sexual-harassment, politically correct atmosphere that we’ve got today. But I know that there were students on whom he made a huge, positive impact just because they could talk to him about anything.”
“Was Karl ever in love with a man?”
“Oh, yes, very definitely. He was in love with this one guy with whom he had a long relationship, Lorenzo. He was definitely in love with that guy.
“Karl had a nice period before he found out he had AIDS. I always had, I called them jokingly, ‘office hours’ every Thursday night for my graduate students, an evening that I set aside after evening classes. These ‘hours’ started at ten o’clock on into the evening. We would meet at a bar. Students would know that I would be at this bar, and if they wanted to come to the bar they could come, and we’d talk about literature and football or whatever. Karl came most of these evenings.”
Sinda Gregory followed her husband, Larry McCaffrey, to San Diego State in 1977. “Larry,” she told me, “had come to State the year before I finished graduate school. That year we were apart. I came out between semester breaks. There was a party at this professor’s, Jerry Santangelo, who has long since retired. Karl was there. He made a big impression on me. At that point, he had come out, although that’s not what made the impression. The impression on me that he made was that he was such a vibrant person. I saw him interact with his colleagues, not just in a superficial way, but he looked at people and noticed what they were all about. Then, the first year I came to San Diego, when Larry and I married, Karl was teaching a gay literature class at State. At this point, Karl was out of the closet with a vengeance.”
Perhaps 15 students enrolled in the gay literature class, most of them, Ms. Gregory recalled, gay and male. Three were women. “He was teaching this class for free because there wasn’t enough budget to pay for the class and he wanted to teach it. It began with the Roman writer Seneca and came all the way up. I sat in on the class. It was a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class. He began Monday’s class always the same way. He came in and talked about what he had done over the weekend. It was just to bring us up to speed with what was going on. It was always so fascinating to watch how that description of what he did in the park with those men would segue into whatever we were reading that week. Wednesday and Friday classes tended to be more straightforward and teacherlike, but the Monday class was always the class that he told us what he had been doing. And always found a way to go from there into what we were supposed to read that day.”
I asked Professor Gregory what she thought attracted Karl Keller to Edward Taylor and Emily Dickinson. “I think that theology was what attracted him to those writers. I think, to be honest, that he was attracted to Emily Dickinson because of her sexuality and the way that she was known to play off of Christian theology. I think he found her intriguing in that regard. I’m not sure when he made that transition in terms of his scholarship. I think that he was attracted to the fact that she was somebody who took religion seriously and took her relationship with God very, very seriously. And so did Karl. He was a very spiritual person and tried to see the world that was not just the world that could be seen and touched.”
I asked about the blood sports, mentioned by her husband.
“I think with Karl this tended to be, I would say, an extreme form of sadomasochism, and there would be cutting involved and penetration with pins and needles through the body, to draw blood. Karl always said that those experiences for him were some of the most tender sexual experiences that he ever had, because…this is the way he explained it to me…when you’re in a situation like that, you have to entrust so much to the other person that he won’t go any further, that he will respect something about a line past which you didn’t want to go, that Karl always talked about it being a very moving, very tender thing, which of course just goes so against what my logic of pleasure and sex and love is, but Karl saw it that way.”
I asked, “Did you worry about Karl going out to the park alone at night and doing this kind of thing?”
“Oh, yes. I thought somebody was going to hit him over the head and leave him in a ditch.”
“Was there gossip about his activities? Certainly not everyone could have approved?”
Some people, Ms. Gregory said, “didn’t approve. But he was a respected senior member of the faculty. I never heard any criticism against Karl. But then, most people knew that I was friends with Karl, so I suspect if they thought something ill of him they wouldn’t have said it to me.”
I said I found that amazing, that she heard no criticism.
Ms. Gregory said, “Well, you’re talking about San Diego State. We have, I would say, a very tolerant faculty. We have a peculiar mixture of people and always have. One of the things about Karl was that he always fulfilled his responsibility. He was a serious scholar. He was an absolutely inspiring teacher. He did his committee work. He did the whole thing. The faculty at State is not particularly close, socially. But I think we have in many ways a good situation for people who are interested in, let’s say, ‘alternative kinds of scholarship’ and I would say also, ‘alternative lifestyles.’ ”
Robert A. Rees, formerly an LDS Ward Bishop in Los Angeles, for many years was a professor in UCLA’s English Department. Mr. Rees now lives with his wife near Santa Cruz, where he is a professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz. Professor Rees said, “Karl Keller and I became acquainted because we were both involved in writing and editing for Dialogue: A Journal for Mormon Thought. We edited a joint issue on literature in the Mormon Church. And then we became friends and our families would get together. Since Karl and I were both in American literature we had a lot to talk about. He was an antiwar activist, and he invited me during the late 1960s to come down from Los Angeles to San Diego to participate in a lecture series on literature and war.”
“He was very serious about his church, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, he was. In San Diego he was involved in the church and music. Then, spurred by his homosexuality, he separated himself from the church.”
“Were you surprised when he came out?”
“I wasn’t that he was gay, no. I was surprised at what seemed to me the way in which he did it. I think it was very hard on Ruth.”
“Do you think it was a big loss for him to lose his association with the church?”
“I think it was, as I think it is for almost any Mormon. Mormons that came from Manti, which is one of the great pioneer towns in Utah, came from a culture that is deep in their bones. Even though Karl was openly critical of the church and even though he separated himself, his Mormon roots still would have been important to him and would have run rather deep and informed a lot of how he saw the world.
“He came to visit me when I was at UCLA and brought one of his boyfriends. Karl and I were working on an issue of Dialogue and were supposed to appear on the cover. He had come to L.A. during that time when we were supposed to do a photo shoot, and he got on a radio show and was just so outrageous, talking about the church, that I said, ‘Karl, I’m not going to have you on the cover.’ ”
I asked Professor Rees about Keller’s interest in Edward Taylor and Emily Dickinson.
“I think the thing that attracted Karl to Edward Taylor,” Professor Rees said, “was Taylor’s violent kind of imagery. Dickinson’s quirky, original verse for similar reasons would have been attractive to Karl. Karl in some sense may have felt like he was the ‘only kangaroo among the beauty.’ I think that’s probably how homosexuals often feel, whether it’s in the Mormon culture or another culture. They feel strange and odd and out; that is, ‘out’ in the sense of being out of favor.”
“What would have happened,” I asked, “if when Karl was a teenager he had told his mom and dad that he had feelings for other boys?”
“It would have been extremely difficult. I just yesterday spent several hours with a young Latter-Day Saint, a returned missionary, who has a pretty enlightened family. As the culture in general has changed, so the Mormon culture has changed with it. There’s much more openness. I think partly because there are now many, many more people who know someone who’s gay or lesbian, it’s not seen by many people in this kind of dark, draconian Old Testament way that it was. But I think it would have been extremely, extremely hard for anybody.”
I asked Professor Rees why he thought Karl Keller married.
“For several reasons. Ruth is the opposite of Karl. She’s safe, conservative, stable. She was the stable center for Karl. But also there was the feeling that still persists in Mormon culture and other cultures that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured, and one of the ways that you can cure it is by marriage. So while the church itself no longer encourages marriage as a way to deal with homosexuality, for a period of time it certainly did, and that would have certainly been when Karl was coming of age. But also I think it would have been extremely, extremely hard — because homosexuality was seen as a perversion. So you grow up in a small conservative town, which Manti is, and it’s a lovely little Mormon town. But it still has all of those 19th-century vestiges of cultural overlays, and so I think it would have been nearly impossible for someone like Karl. What might have happened is that he might have gone away to college without marrying and there might have slowly come out and then stayed in the East or someplace where he’d be far from his family and they wouldn’t know. That certainly happened to other people of Karl’s generation. But most married and then had failed marriages.
“In the Mormon Church, if you’re gay and you’re celibate and you don’t engage in sexual acts, then it’s fine. The church says that it has a single standard of sexual morality that applies to heterosexuals and homosexuals. So if you’re a celibate Latter-Day Saint, I wouldn’t say there are no problems, because I think if you’re out, there are always problems in this culture, but the church would at least officially feel you’re okay.”
“I would have thought,” I said, “that Karl Keller would have suffered under a terrible sense of sin.”
“I think he did at first. I think it would have been inevitable. It’s not uncommon for homosexual missionaries to have, if not a nervous breakdown, at least some kind of real emotional break when they’re on their missions, because they have companions who are male and they sometimes are attracted to the companions and yet they can’t say anything or do anything about it. And they sleep together in the same room and all of this. And so for some of them it’s just an enormously challenging thing, and like this young man that I was meeting with yesterday, he couldn’t tell anybody. So I think there is lots of feeling of guilt, and for many homosexuals it’s a tragic life.
“He was outrageous. He came to see me in my office at UCLA. He was with a male friend, somebody who was wearing the motorcycle kind of stuff. I saw Karl, said hi, shook his hand, and he introduced me to this person. And then I said, ‘I have to make one more call and then I’ll be through, we can visit.’ And then I turned and walked into my office, and in a very loud voice Karl said, ‘Bob, you have such a sweet ass.’ ”
Eleanor Widmer for many years was the Reader’s restaurant critic. Her former husband is Kingsley Widmer. Ms. Widmer was close to Keller. “I think,” she said, “that I was his closest woman friend. Karl dedicated his book to Kingsley. Kingsley the wild man. Really, I was his confidante. I knew more about him than Kingsley because he wasn’t going to tell these things to my ex-husband. Or to anybody. But he would tell me. It wasn’t to get a rise out of me, it was just to be able to share his life.”
Many people mentioned Karl’s lover, Lorenzo. Did Ms. Widmer know Lorenzo?
“Oh, yes. We went out to dinner together. What a fight. We went to Encinitas. I picked the restaurant for review. And Karl and Lorenzo got into some nonsense, and Karl took the ashtray that was on the table and knocked Lorenzo in the head. I thought, ‘Dear God, how will I get home?’ It was a nightmare. I thought, ‘What will I do? I’m with two madmen and they’re going to kill each other.’ ”
Lorenzo, Ms. Widmer recalled, “was a big clothes horse. Karl said to me, ‘Look, you have such an elaborate wardrobe, please dress up. So I did. I wore something totally inappropriate for a little cafe, but I did it for Lorenzo.”
Karl Keller talked Ms. Widmer into showing Lorenzo her clothing collection. “It was high camp all the way. He came to look at my clothes, my Givenchy shirts, my Christian Dior. Of course, all these things were on sale when I bought them. He loved my Calvin Klein boots. He was crazy about everything I had. Karl thanked me a thousand times because without this nonsense, Lorenzo couldn’t exist.”
Ms. Widmer enthused about socializing with Keller. “I remember the best night we ever had was when we went dancing. This place is no longer in existence. It was on the Pacific Coast Freeway. I think it was called Ball Dancing. Some great name like that. I said to Karl, ‘How shall I dress?’ He said, ‘As if you were going to the opera.’ So I wore a black velvet empire dress. In those days, we weren’t so politically correct, and the cuffs were mink or some kind of fur. I came in, I was the only woman there. There must have been 400 men. It was unbelievable. These men stood against the wall and waited to be picked up, and when Karl and I were dancing, they shut off all the lights and they played the score from 2001 and he and I danced until we almost dropped and then he brought me home because I had to write my column.”
About Keller’s preferences in men, Ms. Widmer said, “Rough trade, as they’d say, was what he liked. Look, I know all his secrets. He loved me very much because I was nonjudgmental. I don’t care what people do with their sex lives.”
What Ms. Widmer did care about was Karl Keller’s inappropriate behavior. “I know that he used to tell his class about his fist-fucking, which I thought was highly inappropriate. I mean, really, you know, it’s one thing to be gay. It’s another thing when you’re in class: you have to conduct yourself as if this is not a seminar in ‘50 Ways to Fuck a Duck.’ I mean, it just isn’t. He thought it was hilarious. I told him it was inappropriate to talk about fist-fucking in class. And he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were so bourgeois.’ Well, he had me all wrong, because I am, in that sense, bourgeois. He didn’t speak to me for three months after that.
“I took him out for dinner one night to a French restaurant, and I told him it was very elegant. He shows up in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. I said, ‘This is inappropriate.’ And I said, ‘Look, let me go to the closet and give you a jacket’ and cover it up. He said, ‘No, I won’t go with you.’ So he was always flaunting it, if you know what I mean, and of course they were very shocked when I came into the restaurant with him in that outfit. That’s how he was.”
“I’m the one,” Kingsley Widmer told me, “who said to Karl in the early 1980s, after he told me about some illness he had, ‘Karl, you’d better get checked out to see if you have AIDS.’ I had read an article on AIDS. So, I’m the one who set off the sequence by which he found out he had AIDS.
“A lot of people, in those early years —1983, 1984 — shunned people with AIDS. There was still the fear that it was contagious. Karl came to me and said that he wanted to make a trip east, that there was an American Studies convention in Pennsylvania, and did I want to go. I said, ‘I don’t have the money, Karl.’ And he said, ‘I already asked, and I know the chairman, and you just give a paper on something in American literature, and you can get travel funds.’
“So I did. We flew to Washington, rented a car, drove up to Penn State. We spent two or three days there, and we both took a paper. His paper was on Whitman. Then we went back to Washington, and Karl wasn’t feeling too well. So I changed the airplane reservations. We stayed a couple days in a hotel, outside Washington. Then when he was feeling better we went to the Hirshhorn. I’m a compulsive museumgoer. We also went to the east wing of the National Gallery. We spent several days in this way, and we were going to spend several more, since the trip, as it were, was paid for. But then he got ill again. So I said, ‘Karl, we’d better go back.’ And we flew back.”
I had asked Mr. Widmer how Keller’s illness manifested itself at that point. He answered, saying, “A whole series of ways. One was he couldn’t eat much. He lost weight and was terribly thin, emaciated, practically. Another was that he had Kaposi lesions on his skin, his flesh. Also, he had periods of complete exhaustion, total chronic fatigue, which during this time occurred intermittently. This was early spring of 1985, I think. When we came back, and I felt rather guilty about this, he wasn’t able to go back to teaching. He called me up and said, ‘Take over my American lit class.’ So I did. He went to the hospital. I went and got him a couple of times from the hospital, when he was feeling better, and took him out for lunch and then took him back to the hospital.
“I’m trying to reconstruct the chronology in my mind. That was in the late spring, early summer of 1985. I went off on a fellowship in Romantics to Stanford. Karl was in the hospital off and on. I would call him. The phone conversations got more and more painful. There were gaps. He was blanking out. I’d ask a question, there would be a long pause, by long I mean several minutes. And then he’d say, ‘What were you saying?’
“I, as a very verbal person, have great difficulty with people who can’t talk. I had, several years ago, a 90-year-old aunt who was dying of Alzheimer’s, and I went to see her to see what I could do for her. I finally had to leave. I went back to visit her again. I had to leave again. If people can’t respond verbally, I can’t stand it.
“So at the very end, I didn’t see much of Karl. I felt for him. I called a couple of times. I asked, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ I asked if there were anything he wanted taken care of, but I couldn’t spend time with him because there were these tremendous lapses in consciousness, or in verbal responsiveness, anyway.”
Eleanor Widmer recalled, “On Wednesday afternoon I always brought lunch to Karl’s office. And once I was desperate, I stopped off at Neiman Marcus and they used to sell ready-made lunches there and he was so impressed. But I would always bring lunch. We did this for several months before his death. He had a very, very special relationship with me. I wanted to take him some lunch, and he said I would have to carry him, which, of course, I couldn’t. So Kingsley went, and Kingsley said he half-dragged him half a block to some restaurant and the whole thing was a disaster. But he loved my lunches. Some were made by hand, some were purchased, but they were always of the highest quality. He wasn’t accustomed to that. But I was so sophisticated. My fancy clothes and my fancy everything.”
Ms. Widmer paused, then went on, her voice plaintive, “But it was the last night, I could never forget it, because as I say, we sat in the twilight, we ate ice cream cones, and I never saw him alive again.”
Gary Shirts said, “Karl was one of the first ones to contract AIDS in San Diego County. I visited him in the ward several times, and one time when he was still able to come out, he was outrageous. We went into a restaurant. He started talking in this loud voice about being in the AIDS ward. At that time almost nobody knew what AIDS was; we had just barely begun to hear about it. Karl’s loud talk cleaned the restaurant out. Just he and I were sitting there by the time he got through talking.”
Karl Keller was the first person Sinda Gregory knew who was diagnosed with AIDS. “I know at the time that he fit the profile of someone likely to get it, not just because of the kind of sex but because of the frequency of it. And also the fact that his immune system was sorely tried by lots and lots of bouts with various social diseases that he treated or that he went to the doctor for.
“At the time when Karl got sick, people were afraid; most people wouldn’t even shake his hand. It was this terrible prejudice there for Karl that people don’t face today. I remember that he did have some involvement with students, because there was concern over the ethics of letting him, with AIDS, be in the same room. That’s where we were back then. He had lots of prejudices at the end, when he was trying still to maintain a life.
“Karl was extraordinarily resilient, though, and had a stoic way about it. We had a New Year’s Eve party, a 1984 New Year’s Eve party, and Karl came and of course most of us knew that he wasn’t going to live to see the next New Year’s Eve party, and he had a good time. I know that he talked to a few people about what was happening to him, but mainly he came looking good, dressed up, and wanted to have fun. I remember thinking what remarkable resiliency to be able to do that.”
Larry McCaffery recalled, “I won’t mention names, but during the period when Karl was in the hospital dying, I returned. I was in France; I was there teaching during the spring. I knew that Karl was dying. When I got back he was in the hospital, and there was a note saying that Karl was dying and that if people wanted to see him they needed to get over to the hospital. I remember talking to several people in my department, one guy in particular, I won’t mention his name, who said, ‘Are you going to really go over there and be in the same room with him?’
“ ‘Would you shake his hand?’ I remember his saying. I said, ‘Of course I’d shake his hand, I’m going to go over there and hug him.’ This is the degree of ignorance there was back in those days.
“When he had found out that he had AIDS, one of the things he did was he went and sat with people in the hospital that were dying of AIDS. Karl would then go home, dress up in leather, and come over to the bar. He’d hang out at the bar for the next couple of hours. He did it partly to unwind but also to share with us and the students what he was doing with the AIDS people at the hospital.”
Robert Rees said, “I gathered from things that Karl said and things that I saw that he was being wildly promiscuous for a while. I do think that’s how he contacted AIDS before we knew what AIDS was. In some ways you might have considered that this promiscuity was Karl’s way of suicide, but again it’s hard to know.”
Larry McCaffery recalled, as did everyone with whom I talked, how generous Ruth Keller was in caring for her husband. “When he found out he was dying, his wife took him back.”
Ruth Keller took care of her husband in the end. “She was there at the hospital every time that we saw him. I know she loved him,” Mr. Shirts said, adding, “Ruth is an absolute wonder — absolute — she’s incredible, incredible. She was just unbelievable. He loved her. He really did. They had a lot in common. They were great together. They used to sing and play together, and she seemed to understand him at a very deep level. He put her through a lot. As you can imagine.”
About Karl Keller’s funeral, Kingsley Widmer said, “I don’t usually go to funerals, but I went to this one. I even went out and bought a new blazer and tie so that I would look proper. Because I assumed that there would be relatives of his there. And there were. There were the children. It was quite a low-keyed ceremony. His brother spoke rather feelingly about his sense of loss and the shortness of life, and things of this sort. That was the main tone at the gathering.
Larry McCaffery added, “They had a regular Christian service. Afterwards, we went to my place. Karl’s lover, Lorenzo, and Karl’s kids came by. I remember Lorenzo telling this terrible story. There was a big problem in those days about what to do with bodies of people with AIDS. The morticians wouldn’t lay a hand on the bodies. That was sad. They made you feel like this was garbage that they didn’t want to touch.”