About a Boy
On the not-so-secret life of a "Mississippi sissy."
If the name Kevin Sessums rings a bell, perhaps it's because his byline these days appears in the pages of Allure magazine. Or perhaps it's because for 14 years he wrote celebrity profiles for Vanity Fair. And before Vanity Fair, he was executive editor for Andy Warhol's Interview.
Way before Sessums made a name for himself on the printed page, however, he made a spectacle of himself as a white, middle-class, unapologetically girly boy growing up in small-town Mississippi. The evidence was everywhere:
Sessums once picked cotton wearing a clip-on tie (carefully chosen to match the beige "pickin' sack" his grandmother had made for him). He once talked his sixth-grade teacher into letting him base a book report on that year's best-seller, Valley of the Dolls. He once hosted an election-year "Little Miss Goldwater" beauty contest for his playground classmates. And he once insisted that his family call him "Arlene" (in honor of the What's My Line? game-show panelist Arlene Francis). Needless to say, then: Sessums' boyhood took place in the 1960s. More needless to say: Sessums was a grade-A sissy. He says so himself in the title of his memoir, Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin's Press).
His father, Howard, a former draft pick for the New York Knicks and a high school basketball coach in the town of Pelahatchie (east of Jackson), knew his son was a sissy too. How could he not with young Kevin, courtside, mimicking the moves of the all-girl cheerleading squad? Sessums remembers his father as a combustible mixture of bewilderment, rage, affection, sadness, and fear — "remembers him" because Howard Sessums, age 32, was killed in an automobile accident when Kevin was only 7 years old.
His mother, Nancy, knew her son had a major girlish streak as well. How could she not? She once made him, to his delight, a skirt and introduced him to Broadway show tunes until she herself, age 33, died of cancer. Sessums was only 8. But before she died in 1964 she taught him to care for the written word and to relish the spoken word. So she taught him to listen close, to hear the "sissy" in "Mississippi."
Sessums did listen, and he was in a good position to. As a kid, he already thought of himself as an outsider, a "spy," even inside his tight circle of family folk, but he loved his maternal grandparents, Mom and Pop, who kindly cared for Kevin, his younger brother Kim, and his sister Karole after the deaths of their parents. He heard some bad-mouthing, though, when the topic turned to JFK, RFK, and LBJ, and he heard worse talk when the subject was Medgar Evers and Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, the civil rights workers killed in the neighboring county. The N-word? Sessums grew up hearing it, used it, and hated himself for using it once Matty May, his grandparents' African-American maid, called him on it that day in the cotton field — Sessums looking damn foolish in a tie and next to useless as a cotton picker: "the latest world," he writes, "in which I didn't belong."
Where he did belong as a teenager was the city of Jackson and its New Stage theater, where Sessums acted in plays and where he won the friendship of the openly gay arts editor for the Jackson Daily News, Frank Hains. It was in Hains' house that Sessums listened as the adults argued art and progressive politics. It's also where he witnessed Eudora Welty sipping bourbon and breaking into a rendition of "There's a Fairy at the Bottom of My Garden." But the good times came to an end in 1975, when Hains was found on his blood-soaked bed — bound, gagged, and his skull crushed by a crowbar. Sessums, who was a student at Millsaps and living in Hains' house, was the one who discovered the body. He was 19 and weeks away from starting at the Juilliard School of Drama in New York City. Police questioned him, and police caught the killer: a drifter, who was charged, convicted, and himself murdered inside Parchman Penitentiary.
Hains' murder, however, wasn't the first traumatic event to hit Sessums after the death of his parents. It wasn't even the worst, and you have the senior churchman who befriended him, prayed alongside him, and sexually exploited him, when Sessums was 13, to blame. But that minister isn't the only one ready for blame in Mississippi Sissy. You can add another pedophile, one who accosted Sessums in the bathroom of a movie theater in Forest, Mississippi — a scene that makes for explicit, rough reading even by today's standards. No blaming Mississippi State football all-star Frank Dowsing, however. The two met in a Jackson gay bar, Sessums writes, which led to a loving if short-term relationship — we'll leave it at that. But in a recent phone interview Sessums didn't leave it at that. The subjects were pedophilia and the personal cost of writing such a revealing memoir:
"I figured if I'm going to write this kind of book I have to be brutally honest. I hope it's brutally honest but not vulgar. There's in fact only one real sex scene. The rest is molestation, which is not sex.
"Is my book a case of woe-is-me-I'm-a-victim? No. What molestation leaves you with is not victimhood but complicity. That's the curse, because molesters are very talented at making their victims complicit. You're afraid to tell on them, because you're afraid to tell on yourself. It's about power. It's about people warping you the rest of your life. You never outlive it. You can't get past it. But the book is about a lot of different things. It's about otherness, survival, race.
"And now I have a lot of low-grade stress about it. My back's gone out. You have no idea . . . the anticipation . . . now that the book is here and I realize what I've written. It's like, Oh God, what have I put out in the world? I realize what I've done. It's the Cliffs Notes of my 'shrinkdom.' And I realize why I'm a lonely old homo with a Chihuahua sitting in my lap."
Asked about a possible sequel to Mississippi Sissy, Sessums gave it a thought:
"I don't know," he said, some wariness (or was it weariness?) in his voice. "If I wrote about my life since the age of 19, you'd probab-ly find me at the bottom of the Hudson."
The Not-So-Secret Life of Another Son of Mississippi: Celebrity Secrets (Paraview Pocket Books) is subtitled "Government Files on the Rich and Famous," and you'd think that the file on Elvis Presley would amount to one of the book's juicier chapters — right up there with the file on Sonny Bono (chapter 17) and the file on John Denver (chapter 19). You would be wrong, because, as the author, Nick Redfern, states, the FBI's more than 600 pages on Presley are of "a truly mind-numbingly tedious nature." But for the record, let it be known:
Item #1: In a letter to the FBI dated May 16, 1955, a purported former member of the Army Intelligence Service states that Presley is a "definite danger to the security of the United States." Why? Because he drives girls mad.
Item #2: When Presley was in the Army and stationed in Germany, a South African homosexual named Laurenz Johannes Griessel-Landau treated the star serviceman for acne, then he blackmailed the singer into giving him a plane ticket (plus spending money) to London. What was the blackmail scheme? The skin specialist, after Presley fired him, claimed to have photos of Presley in "compromising situations." Presley counter-ed by contending that Griessel-Landau suffered from "fits." After Griessel-Landau unsuccessfully hit on Presley's Army buddies, the singer gave him the money anyway to get the guy off his back. Conclusion, according to Redfern: "If there is anything more to this admittedly curious episode, it has yet to surface from the files of any government agency."
And finally, Item #3: Presley in 1970 advised FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that the source for the disaffected youth of the day owed to the existence of the Beatles, Jane Fonda, and the Smothers Brothers. But Hoover refused to meet with Presley, because Hoover (a known cross-dresser) thought Presley indulged "in the wearing of all sorts of exotic dress."
And there you have the best bits from the 600-page government file on Elvis Presley.
For the dirt on Abbott and Costello, see Celebrity Secrets, Chapter 1.