Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When The Gay Place appeared, most of its readers thought that it was a roman à clef about the activities of the then-majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson. The author, William Brammer, had worked as a press aide for Johnson in a capacity resembling that of the fictional Jay McGown, and the context of the novel arose from his experiences in that job. Other figures in the book, such as Willie England (modeled on a nationally known journalist), were clearly based on real people. Some of the places in the novel corresponded to rural locales in the city of Austin and the nearby Hill Country. This interpretation was given further authority because Lyndon Johnson reportedly did not like the novel.

Actually, the people in The Gay Place were “suggested” by actual persons, and none of the plot is based on fact. For example, the movie location that Fenstemaker and his party visit corresponds to that of the 1956 film Giant, which was being filmed in West Texas while Brammer was writing The Gay Place, but the book’s movie director, Edward Shavers, bears no relation to George Stevens, the director of Giant, nor is Vicki McGown, actress in the novel’s movie, anything like Elizabeth Taylor, star of the real film. In The Gay Place, Brammer follows the tradition of Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men (1946), who used the events of Governor and Senator Huey Long’s life loosely to organize an investigation of human character and psychology under pressure.