JUNE 29, 2021
LOVE, LIQUOR, AND BETRAYAL: prime ingredients for any Hollywood love story. Author Liz Brown wasn’t looking for Harrison Post, but “[t]here he was in a framed studio portrait, glowering, arms crossed, dark hair slicked back, shades of Rudolph Valentino. I assumed he was a forgotten movie star,” she writes in her luminous new biography, Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire.
A photo is worth a thousand words, but Post was mum — his eyes taunted the viewer with secrets never to be told for all the money in the world:
He wasn’t sneering, but he wasn’t smiling either. He wore a dark jacket, white collared shirt, open at the throat. His handwriting, with swoops and flourishes, came from another time. The P in Post billowed like a flag. His hair was dark and glossy, his gaze defiant, like he might challenge you to a duel — or to bed. I wanted him as soon as I saw him.
The photo was dated 1922 with Post’s good wishes inscribed on the back. “In all the time my grandmother and I spent together, I never heard her mention Harrison Post.” And Brown could understand why. She had been estranged from her family because of her lesbianism, and no one in her family seemed willing to offer any information on the mystery man. So the portrait of Harrison Post had been obscured until Brown learned a key detail about him: he had been the lover of her grandmother’s uncle, William Andrew Clark Jr., an heir to one of the nation’s largest copper fortunes.
Through interviews and strenuous research, reviewing diaries, articles, and photographs, Brown portrays the duo in unparalleled fashion. Twilight Man is biography, romance, and nonfiction mystery, carrying with it the bite of fiction. Brown sweeps her reader from the post–Civil War era to the days of the Spanish Flu and through World War I and II. Post tangles with blackmailers, crooks, murders, and Nazis. “I think I thrive on excitement,” he liked to say. “It is life.”
The couple met in 1919 when Post was a clerk in a men’s fashion store. They became fast friends, and Post soon started acting like a customer himself, not standing behind a counter “but instead at Will’s side while the two ambled through the shop, discussing history and craftsmanship. Perhaps the conversation broke into other topics.”
Exact details surrounding the courtship are unknown — other than that they became inseparable. On the lack of specifics, Brown laments:
It’s a bitter realization that in excavating queer lives we so often excavate the loathing for those lives. In combing through crime reports and editorials for traces of marginalized existences, we enter a world shot through with scorn and prurience. In trial transcripts, we don’t find people but “degenerates” and “perverts” […] We know tragedy rather than joy.
Post thrived by Clark’s side. They partied, traveled, and conversed with movie stars and tycoons like Ann Getty and Henry Huntington, with whom Clark shared a love for antique books. He amassed an impressive collection, including works of Oscar Wilde. Clark purchased letters exchanged between the famed author and playwright and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which Post aided in transcribing.
His taste in literature was dropping dangerous clues in that era. Clark played the role of dilettante philanthropist but understood he must keep scandal away from his name. If his sexuality were exposed, he’d be shunned from society, even though he had enough money to buy the moon. His father, William Andrew Clark Sr., had been one of Montana’s “copper kings,” a corrupt and hard-driving empire builder of the 1880s who got himself elected to the United States Senate to expand his reach. His children inherited fame, fortune, and expectation alike.
Yet their close friends knew the score, as did a few enemies. Brown’s title comes from a gossipy takedown published in 1939 by a disgruntled employee, William Daniel Mangam. In The Clarks: An American Phenomenon, Mangam uses the term “twilight men” to describe the couple, period slang for men who love men. “The Clark family may have tried to destroy all the copies of the notorious book,” Brown writes, “but they didn’t succeed.” She located a copy, though she treats it with caution.
There was little Clark and Post didn’t do together. They shared a Pacific Palisades mansion called Villa dei Sogni — the House of Dreams, suitable for the men who seemed to be living the dream life in the 1920s. Clark financed the Los Angeles Philharmonic and attended season openings with his “personal secretary” at his side. This was a necessary fiction. “In the years to come, traveling with an entourage would be customary — not only so there was someone to manage luggage, bookings, and other matters, but also to obscure the nature of the relationship between the two men.” Payoffs were made to the right people, and false stories about Clark’s flirtations with starlets were fed to the papers to keep reporters satiated.
Post had many talents: an eye for art, a skill for conversation, and above all, a knack for practical engineering. He created an identity that suited his spirit, a luxury Clark could not afford with his vast millions. Twilight Man speaks to the difficulties of bearing a family name shrouded in dishonor by labor interests and progressives. Post’s father, by contrast, was a drunk and a con man who expressed little love for his son. But he grew up with a flair for fiction like his father. In the summer of 1929, everything was possible:
The Dow had climbed more than three hundred points and could go higher. A bootlegger could become a man of class, the way James Gatz became Jay Gatsby. Like Harrison Post, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age creation was known for his beautiful clothes, ritzy parties, and whispered crimes. Of course, Gatsby was a character in a book and Harrison a man in real life, but they were both part fiction, author and invention alike.
Twilight Man is told mainly in chronological order, save for the wild tale or tease to prevent a lull in the narrative. As Brown travels through the years, she reminds the reader of the sociological context:
Though the word homosexual, like heterosexual, did exist by 1918, it was never uttered during [a] trial. Gay had been used in the nineteenth century to refer to prostitutes (“gay ladies”) and brothels (“gay houses”) as well as to male prostitutes, but it wouldn’t emerge in its current sense until the 1930s and ’40s.
The Clark family objected to Will’s association with a “temperamental man,” a code word for homosexual. His older brother Charlie wrote to him pointedly: “[A] man may have as acquaintances, murderers, second-story men, bunco steerers, etc., without anyone except the long-haired and narrow-minded caring,” but “there is one type of man that one cannot afford to know, and that is the man who is, or even bears the reputation of being, a degenerate.” As Brown explains,
Consorting with Harrison Post was a straight path not only to the quicksand of blackmail, endless payoffs, and paranoia but also lasting public humiliation. Charlie knew men — powerful men with public lives — who’d been destroyed by these kinds of associations.
If their relationship were discovered, both could be imprisoned. Beyond that, “[f]amilies are universes unto themselves. A child doesn’t question their laws, atmosphere, and mechanics, just as he doesn’t question the existence of gravity.” Yet “Will’s bond with the younger man proved stronger than duty to family” and allowed the couple to risk discovery. Post and Clark’s defiance offers a reprieve from the heartbreak that runs throughout their lifetime. Twilight Man is rich with joy and wonder amid the drama.
Neither man left behind any discernible evidence that either was gay. A close friend of Clark “destroyed any material that might’ve been considered exposing or incriminating.” Brown takes on the role of investigator as she unravels an epic of loss, heartbreak, and survival. “Like so much that remains of Harrison Post, it’s tantalizing, confounding, and riddled with gaps,” but enough remains to tell his story.
While Brown clearly feels for her subjects, it does not prevent her from illuminating their darker sides. Later in his life, Clark “suffered from lumbago. He was going deaf. He appeared depressed,” and he “often arrived at the breakfast table undressed and still drunk, or just getting started.” Though Post and Clark were brave, they were flawed and grew distant later in life. Mangam’s vendetta took its toll. “The splendid drunken twenties” were gone, and so was secrecy.
When Clark died in 1934, Post was 1,000 miles away in a sanitarium in Los Angeles suffering from a mental break. He “couldn’t hear the wistful chords, much less perceive the tremors rippling through the church as the musicians’ bows rose and fell while throngs gathered to mourn his companion of fifteen years.” He wrote: “I feel that Will is always with me.”
Being a “twilight man” in the 1920s meant living in a state of fear, a dimmed version of oneself. The author herself enjoyed more freedom in the next century but still worried about the judgment of her family. She recalls an incident with an uncle after her grandmother’s passing:
[H]e asked about life in New York. I was cautious. I said I lived with a woman and that things were hard with my parents. I didn’t say much more because back then even the smallest glimmer of light exposed more pain than I could manage. My uncle put his hand on my knee or maybe he took my hand and squeezed it. And then he told me about a friend of his whose son was gay.
The uncle proceeded to tell Brown about Mangam’s book. “To others, my uncle’s segue might’ve seemed strange, but within my family it wasn’t unusual to swerve from a moment of tenderness to whispered scandal about strangers from the past. I understood Uncle Rich to be telling me that I wasn’t alone.” With Twilight Man, Brown passes on the same message to her reader.
Twilight Man is a layered account. Brown writes: “No inheritance is pure — not in this tangled saga. It’s easy to find villains and victims. Heroes are harder to come by. Yet they exist.” She avoids forced pity or rendering Post and Clark as tragic heroes. She leaves them pure and simple.