Nugent, Richard Bruce 1906–1987
Richard Bruce Nugent 1906–1987
Writer, artist, performer
Richard Bruce Nugent was a writer, artist, and sometime actor and dancer who, despite a modest artistic output, was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Noted for his bohemian lifestyle and flamboyant personal style, Nugent was a member of Harlem’s inner circle in the 1920s, friends with Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston and many other of the era’s leading black writers and intellectuals. His avant-garde story “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade,” which appeared in 1926 in the provocative literary magazine FIRE!!, was the first openly gay story published by a black writer.
Born on July 2, 1906, in Washington, D.C., Nugent was the older son of Pauline Minerva Bruce Nugent, whose family was dismayed when she decided to marry Richard Henry Nugent, Jr, a Pullman porter who later worked as an elevator operator at the Capitol building in Washington. The Nugents were keen supporters of the arts, taking their sons to see the Lafayette Players, a black theater group and entertaining artists in their home; Nugent’s father was a member of the Clef Club Quartet, and an avid reader. “My father had a very esoteric library,” Nugent is quoted as saying in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. “From the time I was five, I was reading everything,” including case studies on homosexuality—which, according to his literary executor, Tom Wirth, “left him in no doubt as to the nature of his own budding sexuality.”
Nugent studied with Angelina Grimké at the prestigious Dunbar High School, but his schooling ended at thirteen, when his father died from tuberculosis and his mother left segregated Washington for New York, where she could earn more money. Although she was an accomplished piano player and trained teacher, Pauline Nugent sought work as a domestic worker and a waitress. Nugent helped support the family with various low-paying jobs, including errand boy and bellhop. He reveled in the excitement of working in Manhattan, especially enjoying his brushes with the rich and famous, including Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino.
Nugent’s younger brother, Gary Lambert (Pete) Nugent, became a dancer, moving from black vaudeville onto Broadway and eventually into his own troupe. Nugent decided to become an artist, taking art classes at the New York Evening School of Industrial Arts and the Traphagen School of Fashion. In 1926, he told his mother that he no longer wished to work for a living: refusing to support him, she dispatched him back to his grandmother in Washington.
Back in his home town, the light-skinned Nugent decide to experiment with ’passing’ for white. He got off the train from New York and brazenly went straight to the whites-only Wardman Hotel. The black bellboys took “one look at me, and one look at my rope-wrapped” suitcase, Nugent recalled in Gay Rebel of
At a Glance…
Born on July 2, 1906, in Washington, DC; died on May 27, 1987, in Hoboken, NJ; married Grace Marr, 1952 (died 1969).
Career: Poet and writer, 1925-89; Fire!! magazine, editor and contributor, 1926; dancer, 1927-50; Federal Writers Project, writer, 1930s; FWP Union, shop steward, 1930s; freelance artist and portraitist, 1940s-1950s; historical and biographical consultant, 1980s.
Memberships: Harlem Artist Guild, founder, 1935; Harlem Cultural Council, founder, 1960s.
the Harlem Renaissance. Before they could bar his entrance, he ran into a New York acquaintance. “The bellhops saw Princess Matchabelli greeting me,” said Nugent. “They hastened up the stairs with my bag.” Nugent’s experiment with passing for white, under the pseudonym Ricardo Nugenti di Dosceta, lasted only a few days: short of money, he was forced to move to his grandmother’s and get a job at a gentleman’s club.
Nugent began attending the Saturday night salons given by poet Georgia Douglas Johnson where he met Langston Hughes and a number of the other rising black artists and writers. Nugent was very taken with the charismatic young Hughes. In a letter written in June of 1925, reprinted in Remember Me to Harlem, Hughes told Carl Van Vechten about his growing friendship with ’Ricardo’, “We have been amusing ourselves going downtown to the white theatres ’passing’ for South Americans, and walking up Fourteenth Street barefooted on warm evenings for the express purpose of shocking the natives.” Nugent, whom Hughes called “the artist boy,” had “some amusing ideas for a Negro ballet and some clever ideas for short stories if he weren’t too lazy to write them.” Hughes’ example and encouragement gave Nugent a new resolve. He returned to New York with Hughes, eager to join the “Niggerati,” Wallace Thurman’s irreverent name for the new generation of Harlem-based intellectuals, vanguard of a black creative renaissance.
Jazz Age Harlem was also home to a seductive demimonde of speakeasies and nightclubs. Charming and witty, Nugent soon became well-known both in its artistic circles and gay subculture. He modeled himself on Oscar Wilde and literary characters like the sophisticated Peter Whiffle, eponymous hero of Carl Van Vechten’s 1922 novel. In a letter published in Remember Me to Harlem, Van Vechten noted Nugent’s personal appearance at a 1927 party, remarking on “his usual open chest and uncovered ankles. I suppose soon he will be going without his trousers.” Wallace Thurman’s 1932 novel Infants of the Spring portrayed Nugent as Paul Arbian, a rebellious, talented and self-centered artist, who insists that he doesn’t “give a good goddam about any nigger except myself.”
Nugent assisted artist Aaron Douglas in executing murals on the walls of Harlem nightclubs, learning to incorporate African motifs in his own art. Producing mainly erotic drawings and poems, he called himself Richard Bruce in order to save his mother embarrassment. He frequented nightclubs and parties, attended dinners given by the NAACP and Opportunity magazine and relied on his friends for a bed and a meal. He was “the bizarre and eccentric young vagabond poet of High Harlem,” according to poet Albert Rice, quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography; John P. Davis remembered him as “a true bohemian in every sense of the word.” Like Alex, the narrator in his story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” Nugent “was content to lay and smoke and meet friends at night to argue and read Wilde Freud Boccaccio and Schnitzler.”
Langston Hughes rescued the poem, “Shadows,” from Nugent’s trash can: it was published in Opportunity, and reprinted in the 1927 anthology Caroling Dusk. “Sadhji,” a melodramatic tale of heterosexual and homosexual passion, was published in Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology, The New Negro and, rewritten as a drama, in Locke and Montgomery Gregory’s 1927 anthology, Plays of Negro Life. It was later produced at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York in 1932.
In 1926 Nugent joined Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, and other artists on the editorial board of a “Negro quarterly of the arts” called FIRE!!. Their intention, Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, was “to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past, épater le bourgeois into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication.”
Nugent was in charge of distributing the ambitious but under-funded magazine. He “took it around New York on foot and some of the Greenwich Village bookshops put it on display and sold it for us,” said Hughes. “But then Bruce, who had no job, would collect the money and, on account of salary, eat it up before he got back to Harlem.” FIRE!! was a short-lived experiment, too expensive to produce and too controversial to garner outside support; it lasted only one issue.
Nugent contributed two illustrations to FIRE!!, along with his homoerotic story, “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade,” submitted on a roll of toilet paper. The new magazine met with widespread derision. “The Negro press called it all sorts of bad names,” Hughes wrote in The Big Sea, “largely because of a green and purple story by Bruce Nugent, in the Oscar Wilde tradition.” Nugent’s story was a landmark, the first explicitly homosexual story by a black writer ever published. Written in a stream of consciousness, punctuated with ellipses, “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade” tells the story of a young artist, Alex, discovering homosexual love with Beauty, a handsome stranger.
Many of the major figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance were gay, including Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman and Alain Locke, but Nugent was the only openly homosexual member of the group. The sophisticated Harlem elite supported sexual freedom of all kinds, but saw its literary exploration as at best a distraction, at worst a potential cause of alienation. “Homosexuality was seen as an unspeakable, private identity that could do nothing but threaten a collective African American identity,” suggested critic Ellen McBreen in an Art Journal article on Nugent’s “Salome” series. Even Nugent’s mentor Locke criticized the “effete echoes of contemporary decadence” in a review of FIRE!!, quoted in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. Nugent was to remain the only explicitly gay black writer in America until James Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room in 1956.
After the failure of FIRE!!, Nugent and Thurman moved to 267 West 136th Street, an artist’s colony owned by Iolanthe Sydney known as “Nigeratti Manor.” Here Thurman wrote Infants of the Spring, satirizing the escapades of the other residents, and Nugent wrote a parallel novel, never published, called Gentleman Jigger. Other work was published in Opportunity and the anthology Ebony and Topaz, and in 1928 he contributed an essay to Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life, another one-issue periodical edited by Thurman.
In 1927 Nugent followed his theatrical impulses onto the stage, hired with Thurman and Dorothy West as non-speaking cast members in Dubose and Dorothy Heyward’s play, Porgy. Nugent spent over two years in the production, touring the United States and traveling to England in 1929, where he spent a weekend at the country home of writer E. M. Forster. Dance had long been a favored motif in Nugent’s art and, on his return to New York, he became involved with several black dance companies, appearing on Broadway as a dancer in the play Run, Little Chillun in 1933. Later, during World War II, Nugent became a member of Wilson Williams’ Negro Ballet Company.
As the free-spirited Jazz Age faded, taking with it many of the aspirations of the Harlem Renaissance, Nugent “drifted from place to place and from man to man,” according to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. He lived at times with his mother in the Bronx and, in the late 1930s, found work writing black history for the Federal Writers Project. Increasingly left-wing in his politics, Nugent became shop steward in the union representing FWP employees in the mid-1930s. He was also a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild, an organization set up in 1935 to free artists from the control of white patrons like the Harmon Foundation—the organization that included four of Nugent’s works in a 1931 exhibition. In 1937 “Pope Pius the Only,” one of Nugent’s more important short pieces, appeared in Dorothy West’s influential magazine, Challenge.
In the 1940s Nugent worked as a freelance artist and portraitist. His art, characterized by meticulous draftsmanship, continued to be influenced by the sinuous, stylized illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley and Erte. Both his writing and his art became more explicit: erotically charged portraits of young men and semi-pornographic novels, none of which were published.
He became close friends with actor and director Bernard Kay, an important supporter of his work, and moved into the Greenwich Village apartment of dance company publicist Warren Marr. There he formed a strong, platonic attachment to Marr’s sister, Grace. A brilliant and beautiful woman, Grace Marr married Nugent in 1952, although he kept a separate studio and continued to have liaisons with men. A driven idealist, frustrated by the failure of her efforts for social reform, and by her unconsummated marriage with Nugent, Marr committed suicide in 1969.
In the late 1960s, Nugent was a founding member of the Harlem Cultural Council, serving for many years on the board of directors. He also began collaborating with poet Abba Elethea on a cultural history of Harlem. During the 1970s, Nugent traveled to Italy several times, in pursuit of a younger man. After years of living in his studio at 150 Nassau Street, in downtown Manhattan, he found a permanent home across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey.
As one of the last survivors of the Harlem Renaissance, Nugent was a sought-after interview subject in his old age, consulted by numerous biographers and writers on both black and gay history. He was interviewed in the 1984 gay documentary, “Before Stonewall,” and his work was featured in Isaac Julien’s 1989 film, Looking for Langston. Richard Bruce Nugent died from congestive heart failure on May 27, 1987.
“Sadhji,” The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke Boni, 1925.
“Shadows,” Opportunity, October 1925.
“Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” FIRE!!, November 1926.
“Pope Pius the Only,” Challenge, 1937.
“Gentleman Jigger” excerpts, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Duke University Press, 2002
Bernard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1926-64, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, pp. xxxvii, 22, 23, 46, 52.
Harris, Trudier, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, The Gale Group, 1987, pp. 213-221.
Haskins, Jim. The Harlem Renaissance, Millbrook Press, 1996, pp. 162, 165.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Hill and Wang, 1993, pp.224, 235-237.
Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Viking, 1994, pp. 569, 753.
Nugent, Richard Bruce, ed. Wirth, Thomas H. Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Duke University Press, 2002 pp. 1-61.
Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition, Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 209, 216, 407.
Art Journal, Fall 1998, p. 22.
“Richard Bruce Nugent,” The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., www.dclibrary.org/blkren/bios/nugentrb.html (February 1, 2003).
“Richard Bruce Nugent,” Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (February 1, 2003).
“Richard Bruce Nugent,” The Fire!! Press http://firepress.com/fire/bio5.html (February 1, 2003).
—Paula J.K. Morris
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