A granddaughter’s memoir of almost prolific Gay novelist, Thomas Savage
Yesterday morning, my cousin Lizard cracked a beer and turned on the television to Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. “In the movie, THE POWER OF THE DOG, Benedict Cumberbatch is a cowboy in 1920’s Montana, who can rope, ride, and roll a smoke with the best of ‘em,” said Pauley, in her smooth, made for TV voice that confirmed her as my first female anchor crush years ago. There is no mention of the author, Thomas Savage, in the review: his work has been done here.
“Gampy’s on CBS.”, Lizard texted me, from Washington, I in San Diego.
I tried her cell phone immediately, but my call went directly to voice mail. Elizabeth (or Lizard, as my sister and I affectionately refer to her), like many of the Savages in my family, is relatively unflappable when presented with news that might be remarkable to some. I pictured her sipping on her morning cocktail, feeding her serval cats, microwaving a popcorn breakfast to “serve Stephen”, her husband. Maybe running from an errant bear in her rose garden. Something strange, predictably.
Seeing our grandfather’s greatest dream unfold in front of her very eyes seemed as natural to her as opening them. She saw that one coming a mile away, didn’t we all?
The mainstream media attention to The of Power of the Dog was a process that took 54 years from publication to big screen. The novel is a psychotrope of my grandfather’s life as a young man, and a significant measure of who he was. His story is having some on the traditional concept of the American West. We’ve all seen the gay cowboy movie before, what’s different? THE POWER OF THE DOG is not salacious, or sexy. It’s about the loneliness of personal oppression.
My grandfather lived a secret life to protect his family from public judgement of his orientation. His wife knew, some of his friends knew. We all know now. He always wanted out of the closet, wanting what all writers want: for his voice to be heard. THE POWER OF THE DOG’s unusual slant that has effectively raised my grandfather from the dead: even in death, Thomas Savage is larger than life, as he was when he walked among us, for those of us who knew him.
Somebody pinch me.
Lizard, nee Mary Elizabeth Savage, is one of the only authorities on Thomas Savage left. She and her older brothers grew up in the custody of our grandparents, whom we called Gammy and Gampy, after a horrific family tragedy found the young children in foster care. Lizard was two at the time. Our grandparents intervened without reservation on their behalf: Tom and Betty, as they were known by their friends, did not want their grandchildren in “the system”, holding strongly to the belief that families take care of their own.
My own memories of my writer- grandparents are those of an enchanted child, conjured up from the hazy past of my time at their house in the woods on the ocean, where they lived in their most singular and unconventional way. My little sister Isabel was by my side most of the time, but not always: our grandparents had one on one sessions with each of us. They would check in on each other’s teaching of us, the way a principal would at a public school, our classroom their living room. Gammy was the less eccentric teacher.
My cousin Lizard saved every letter Thomas Savage ever wrote her, and occasionally recycles some of his philosophies in casual conversation. To Lizard, our grandfather was more like a father, which diminished for her some of the powerful mystique he held with me, my sister, and my other cousins. To her, Gampy was the breadwinner, the disciplinarian, the caretaker. To my sister and me, he was storyteller extraordinaire, the gatekeeper of a past both mesmerizing and terrifying. The main actors in his life’s narrative were real cowboys, gritty and resourceful, just as they were in his books.
My memories of my visits with my grandparents are those of an enchanted child, revisiting the hazy past of my time at a house in the woods on the ocean, where my two writer grandparents lived in their most singular and unconventional fashion. My sister Isabel was always by my side, constantly verifying that our fantasy-like visits were not a figment of my imagination. Although they were by no means hippies, their life practices would have been sustainable on many levels for a flower child, although their high regard for opulence and excess would not.
They were a compatible couple, my grandparents, comfortable in their own skins when they were in each other’s company. My grandfather wound up on the East Coast after being introduced to my grandmother by a professor, and finding they had like interests and loved being together, they married shortly after. My grandmother was from Boston; my grandfather relocated. The power of their personal bond remains a mystique to me. My mother told me he was always honest with his wife, Elizabeth Savage, about having other desires: specifically for men. Cringeworthy as it sounds, my mother told me that my grandmother said he was an excellent lover. Such was the nature of the birds and the bees when I was growing up.
The Power of the Dog is an old book, and my copy is worn, although not an original. Lately I have been staring at the cover of this book, opening it to random pages and searching for a message from beyond the grave. I feel the spine stretch, the glue makes a sound like knuckles cracking as the cover opens, and the smell of old paper is comforting. I find myself becoming lost in thought, examining the angles of every word he chose to structure his sentences. Reading his pages is hypnotic to me: these words were once his literal thoughts, roaming back to Montana while he wrote in Maine. When I read any of his work, his writing is simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar.
He wrote about his life in Montana as a ranch hand with powerful narrative; yearning descriptions of the wild, vast badlands, and the lawless but effectively self-governed people who eked out their lives there. I find it difficult to read my grandfather’s novels, I get a guilty itch, akin to reading someone else’s diary.
There were two women in my grandfather’s life he placed on a polished pedestal: his mother, Elizabeth Yearian Brenner, and my own mother, Elizabeth Savage Main. He adored them exclusively and unconditionally. It may be no small coincidence that my grandfather married a woman named Elizabeth, and he loved her very much, too, but his darlings were his mother and my mother. The Beautiful woman in the Netflix movie, The Power of the Dog, played by Kirsten Dunst, was a tribute to my grandfather’s mother, Elizabeth Yearian Savage. She is thinly veiled as “Rose” in the movie.
I inherited Elizabeth Yearian’s engagement ring, which had once boasted a large sapphire surrounded by diamonds, set in platinum. It is assumed that the character Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst in Power of the Dog, was loosely based on Savage’s mother. On my twentieth birthday, I swelled with pride when my mother gave it to me, saying it belonged on a young hand. Such a beautiful ring! It sparkled, all the flash and glitter of sunlight meets ocean, captured in stone on my undeserving hand.
I took the ring to a jeweler for cleaning and was told the sapphire had been replaced with glass at some stage during its generations- long ownership; the edges of the stone had become smooth with wear. The appraiser admired the antique setting, and he told me theft was not uncommon in his profession back in the day. Perhaps the sapphire had been sacrificed by its wearer during less fortunate times, he also suggested.
At any rate, the ring is a lovely piece of glass surrounded by authentic diamonds. I have kept this secret until now; during his lifetime, knowledge of the depreciation of the ring’s material value would have been too much for my grandfather to process: his adored mother had either been tricked by an opportunist or forced to exchange the sapphire either to eat or to pay the rent. The ring’s lack of total integrity does not cheapen it for me, the changeling sapphire only adds to the mysteries it holds. One never knows what one will do when faced with tough times, or when one will come across a villain with the intent to defraud.
Mr. and Mrs. Tom and Elizabeth Savage were partners and friends, working together in their remote cottage on the coast of Maine, in a hamlet called Georgetown. The location, a staple subject of the famous American painter Homer Winslow, had little to boast in terms of modern conveniences. My grandmother, before they had electricity and running water, would wash her dishes in the waves below her kitchen window. They had to personally haul their household trash to the dump; no sanitation services were available at the time. Phones were for less hardy souls, and the drive into town for sustenance was over an hour. Still, one can see how an artist or writer would be drawn to the raw beauty and solitude of Indian Point. Their little house was situated on an enormous boulder over the ocean that once relocated itself, moving forty feet or so, swept in a storm surge during the 1985 hurricane Gloria.
Back then, the native population of this southeastern spot in Maine was lobster fishermen, Bath Iron Works shipyard workers, and the commercial industries that supported them. There was a Shaw’s grocery store, the Chocolate Church (quaintly named for its color), a library not much bigger than my grandparents’ house. Social entertainment consisted of going downtown to lunch or hosting and attending cocktail parties with other artists and a handful of very wealthy vacationers.
My grandparents’ cabin was dwarfed by the huge summer mansions whose monstrous glass walls faced the Maine sea cliffs like castles, and the waves roared and crashed on the granite boulders below. The occupants of these imposing estates were my grandparents’ friends, the “summer people’ as they called them.
The summer people liked to come over for a visit sometimes, and my sister and I would eavesdrop on their often scandalous conversations with my grandparents. We loved being privy to their stories with remarkably unfiltered details, mixed with gin and tonics, about real adults getting into fist fights and knocking out other peoples’ teeth. At one time, we listened in with great delight about the saga of a deplorable male gold digger who was ruining a marriage. Both outrageous and contemptible, this gem of a drama was the main attraction during happy hour until someone died. The gigolo was then replaced by a hotly contested will, which was having the very desirable effect of ruining a generation of sinners.
The adults would say anything in front of us because we were children, in their minds as incapable of repeating them as the two beagles who roamed the living room. We’d happily refresh their drinks, swirling around the marble coffee table set with cucumber sandwiches, brie and crackers, a crystal bowl full of grapes. The summer people did not know that we reenacted their stories out with our dolls, and that these dolls were fond of ripping each other’s clothes off for fun and fight alike. Sadly, I later came to the inevitable conclusion that my grandparents contributed fairly the gossip mill dues; their own affairs discussed irreverently even by their own friends. The movie-star handsome Western writer, whose hopelessly out of touch and love-struck wife didn’t know what everybody else did (or so they thought).
During their lifetimes, the Savages were able to sketch out a modest living writing novels. A visionary, my grandfather one day decided to quit his ill-fitting career as a claims adjuster to move “back East” to marry my grandmother, and to pursue his passion: telling his story of growing up in the Wild West. Insurance wasn’t the best fit for him- he said the business made him feel as if he were ripping people off. And then there was the obvious: insurance was a dull career for a man who had been a rodeo clown and a ranch hand in Montana. He thirsted to write in austere wilderness amidst self-inflicted poverty, selecting Maine as his destination. Declaring himself a writer was a brave move, and never made him rich, but he loved being a wordsmith.
I wonder often how they endured the pressure of putting food on the table by writing as their mainstay. The despair of correcting pages of work, with only white out and correction tape, red ink, and pencils! Gampy claimed never to get writer’s block, dismissed the phenomenon entirely, claiming there was no such thing for a writer. Not for him, anyway. He wasn’t being conceited, there was always something to write about, he said. He was obsessed with his work, starting his job at two o’clock in the morning, always with coffee and sometimes with a hangover, finishing before lunch. He loved his cocktails, but never drank when he wrote, and he did both daily.
After I received the text from Lizard, I quickly googled the CBS article; I’d missed it by the blink of an eye. Frustrated, I texted both my sister Isabel and my double cousin, Princess, who were appropriately interested, but also busy running their own affairs at the moment. Neither one of them had heard anything about the mainstream review of Gampy’s novel yet. Weeks later, Princess (a nickname with its origins in the hilarity of online dating), texted me a screenshot on Twitter: Barrack Obama listed Power of the Dog as one of his favorite movies of 2021. Princess and I are both hardcore ancestor worshippers, and this was the food of the gods for us. Unlike Lizard, we are very flappable. To say we are star struck by Obama’s list is an understatement. My grandfather would have been over the moon.
The Power of the Dog’s possibilities of becoming a movie had long been a pervasive myth in my family. When an influential western writer named Annie Proulx became interested in Savage’s writing, the1973 novel stoked a flurry of attention retrospectively. Gampy’s stories of Montana, Utah and Idaho enjoyed some newfound success in Europe, of all places. The office of Blanche Gregory, a sophisticated New York agent, sent my mom surpluses of his books printed in French, making his books even more impossible for me to understand.
Thomas Savage was a professor as well as a writer; sometimes he resorted to teaching as his side hustle. He liked to tell me often during my summer visits to Maine that he could legally assume the responsibility of educating me, if he felt so inclined.
“How would you like that?” he’d ask, as I lay next to him on pull out hide-a-bed in the living room, keeping him company while he told me cruel fairy tales. Little Red Shoes, the story of an urchin girl compelled to dance herself to death after donning a pair of scarlet slippers, always made me feel slightly nauseous. It was one of his favorites. My lullaby was a song called, “Go tell aunt Rhodie,” about a goose who died for want of bread while waiting to be executed for its feathers. Gampy had a cold-blooded fascination with villains, as evidenced by the character Phil in Power of the Dog. Perhaps he wanted to teach me to beware of such evil. My anxieties would grow exponential as I grew up knowing that things are not always as they seem. In fact, in my experience, they never are. You get used to it.
Mesmerized, I’d lie and tell him I’d like that very much, thinking how dreadful it would be, to find myself in the position of being his only student. The kids at school already thought I was weird enough. In daily conversation, my childish thoughts were peppered with words my teachers weren’t accustomed to hearing kids use. I spoke like a bookish old lady, baffling them with the sentences I’d string together in classwork exercises.
“I’m grieving my posthumous goldfish,” I’d say to my classmates and teacher, with the appropriate amount of respect for the dead. It never occurred to me to just say, “we flushed Spot down the toilet today.” I was awkward, and quite aware that my speech patterns were antiquated and unusual already, without Gampy going and making things worse by officially becoming my mentor.
Sensing my hesitance, Gampy would double down, and remind me that he’d home schooled my mother and uncles right there at Indian Point when they were kids. The only public school in Georgetown back then had just one room, housing grades k-12, he said, and the education offered there was less than cutting edge. Gampy’s teaching credentials, used on his personal student body of his own already gifted children, was like hitting a thumbtack with a hammer. The list of institutions that absorbed his own offspring are a testament to Gampy’s home schooling: Harvard, Princeton, and Parson’s School of Design (where my freakishly talented mother went) from oldest to youngest.
“If you are bad during your lessons, I will exercise corporal punishment, and instead of detention, I will throw you to the wolves,” he’d say with relish, regarding his homeschool discipline, gleefully anticipating bad behavior on my behalf. Of course, I knew he was teasing, not to mention I was always well-behaved in his presence. Still, a thrill of terror would pass over me, imagining him grabbing me and hurling me into the forest of tall, shadowy pines that were his front yard, where hungry dogs waited for me.
My grandfather wanted me to cultivate a cosmopolitan vocabulary and never dumbed down his conversation for my or my sister’s sake, and we continued to be privy to gossip of exponential shamelessness. I had a colorful assortment of swear words for an eight-year-old, as well as volumes of scandalous behavior and come uppances to recount. In addition to acting out the scenes with our dolls, I began to record the oral histories of my grandparents’ friends, who were thrilled when my sister and I formed our own gossip column rag starring them and their acquaintances.
They were good sports about our recounts of their antics, those people whose faces I no longer remember. We’d read The Georgetown Tattletale aloud, securing our positions as the stars of many a cocktail party. What with our newsletters and our creative dance we performed during interludes, they found us to be great entertainment. They’d sip martinis, my grandfather grinning, delighting in their scandal and, recording them in his mind for later as well, changing names. My grandfather even had us do stage reenactments of our gossip column with our dolls for him, but he never shared that with his summer people. That was for us only. We had a hilarious act, and Gammy applauded us while Gampy cheered, “BRAVO!”
I owe it to my grandparents for encouraging me to read and to write. I agree with everything Gampy said about being well read: that you do not need a formal education if you read extensively. No self-respecting Ivy League school would have anything to do with the likes of me. To this day, the most valuable thing I ever learned was keyboard typing, taught to me first by Thomas Savage on my grandmother’s Smith Corona, later by a patient woman named Mrs. Stenzhorn in high school. I never used the Gampy’s typewriter: that tool was for his handling only.
I think Gampy loved to entertain the idea of being my professor not because I was a particularly promising protégé, but because he was in love with his own lesson plan. Independent reading, lessons on the electric typewriter, and freestyle “ballet” to be danced to the symphonies of Mozart would be the only courses required. He loved to watch his grandchildren dance, encouraging us to pretend to be ballerinas, as we swirled around his living room on old Persian rugs, unabashed. Although it would have been embarrassing to be his student in the real world, here, higher standards applied to everything and everyone.
Although his curriculum would have been highly unconventional, having Thomas Savage as your personal professor would have its own rewards. Physical education might be a dance interpretation interlude of romantic guitar riff “the Tarantula”, blasting on his prized stereo system, high tech for 1977. He had a vast collection of music, mostly classical, and he’d encourage my sister and me to pretend to be flamenco dancers, and he, a thunderous, highly approving audience of one. He handled his records, black shiny discs decorated with artful covers of prestigious symphony orchestras, with white cotton gloves. He would not allow fingerprints to touch them, and he was the only one allowed to handle his collection, period.
If you were lucky, you might get lobster legs for lunch. If you were not so lucky, a peanut butter and raw onion sandwich was considered child friendly. Dessert would be served by Gammy, café au lait, heavy on the cream and sugar, with a chilled piece of Pepperidge Farm cake from the icebox. Golden, with chocolate icing was my favorite. Gammy might join you briefly for a chat, or a game of dominoes made with real ivory. After your lunch break, you might scour the boulders that led to the beach, searching for beach peas, or take a walk down a mysterious winding dirt path lined with wild blueberries and blackberries.
My grandfather was a naturist. We had trips to the beach during which he’d sun on the rocks. He would bring nothing but a thin white towel to sit on, and his radio. He was the epitome of benign neglect on those days, oblivious to us as we’d comb the rocks like mountain goats, stopping to stare at tide pools active with tiny fish and interesting shells nestled in clouds of red seaweed.
He’d enhance his tan while we explored, listening to classical music or commentary on PBS, the only broadcast he’d listen to. Sometimes he’d join us on our scavenging hunts, for he adored the outdoors, and any booty he could find in the wild. When we were on the rocks, he would collect periwinkles, those little snail shells that cling to any underwater surface like barnacles. They were everywhere, these delicate little sea snails with their spiral emblems and slow-moving bodies that were fast to disappear into their transient shelters. It’s a little-known fact that periwinkles are every bit as delicious as escargots when sauteed in garlic butter, and much easier to find.
We’d dig for clams and try catch the silver herring that darted in huge, swirling schools in Little River, a fleeting estuary that appeared at low tide. Lizard almost drowned once in Little River, finding herself in quicksand when the tide started to rise. She paddled toward the shore the way a puppy might. Nobody at the lively early evening party being held on the grass yard of one of those mansions saw her struggle as the stream got absorbed by the ocean. We were all strong swimmers at an early age, geography ensured that. This story chilled me to the bone when she recalled it to me many years later.
It was a public beach that may as well have been private; back then Maine was not trendy real estate. We had freedom to roam the wild, vast rocky cliffs unsupervised while he sunbathed naked, becoming golden as a god, gleaming with the olive oil he applied to himself to moisturize his skin.
He was figure conscious and liked to keep in shape. His favorite exercise was walking, and he always had with him a fine cane he’d bought for the purpose of traveling the winding, trodden paths he’d made himself through the woods. When his grandchildren joined him, he’d supply us with our own walking sticks he selected himself during his walks in the forest. In later years, my cousin Drum brought him a cane from Africa he found while on a military deployment. This gift was such a wonderful selection that I seethed with jealousy for not having been the giver of it.
My grandfather by then had “come out”. The exquisite ebony cane had a smooth, carved head where the knob would normally be, and Tom had added a tiny gold ring to the ear of the bust, real 14 carat, of course. It was magnificent. It matched the small hoop Gampy now proudly wore in his right ear. Feeling like a bad boy he’d say, “Left is right, and right is wrong.” Then wink.
I came of age in the 1980s, a particularly homophobic time era. HIV and AIDs had hit the ground running as not only a pandemic, but a moral disease, a killer that struck the deplorables: sexual deviants, prostitutes, drug users, and gays. Fear of catching the virus dominated every aspect of life. Sad stories of people being abandoned by their loved ones amidst their own death sentence were commonplace. One time I fainted at a Planned Parenthood, after getting blood drawn with an inclusive HIV test, my own contribution to the hysteria.
It was during this time of panic that I learned that my grandfather was gay. At my age, old people and sexuality, let alone gay sexuality, was not even remotely viable. How was it possible for a man to be gay and have children, let alone be masculine? For I did see my grandfather as masculine. He did not fit the gay stereotype that was in circulation back then and to some extent still is, regardless of a more sweeping acceptance of people’s most personal rights.
I wish I could say that my grandfather’s sexual orientation had been explained to me with sensitivity and patience, but the revelation was the direct result of a bitter feud between my parents over politics. It is hard for me to grasp exactly why the election of 1984 had been the trigger to drive my mother to enlighten me in terms of my grandfather’s sexuality. Her wrath grew with unstoppable force and became terrifying as a volcano about to blow, as Mondale and Ferraro got steadily whooped. My dad shouted with delight as Reagan won by a landslide.
I liked Reagan, so I was cheering along with my dad. My mother had never been interested in politics before, but when my grandfather came out publicly, she was suddenly registered to vote and very outspoken. I just thought it was a case of them choosing sides, like people do football games.
Tom had told Betty before he married her that he was bisexual; the marriage was consummated and three children later, they were a family. My mother and brothers discovered my grandfather’s sexuality accidentally, in spite of all efforts to shield it from them. The Savage family lived in private shame and fear of being outed. My mother sourly called my grandmother a “beard”once, a term I’d never heard before: a “beard” is a woman who participates, with or without her own knowledge, in masking a man’s homosexuality. My grandparents’ relationship was puzzling to most of us.
To my mother, my grandfather’s gayness came with it an aversion to the Republican party, and those who vote for them. She loved the color red, but hated the moral majority, a mysterious group of self-appointed judges of character. My cheering for Reagan alongside my dad transformed me in her eyes into someone who would scorn her beloved father, and herself. She remedied this by barging into my room to teach me a little self-respect. He was my grandfather, too, and I needed to know exactly how to respond to even the faintest whiff of homophobia.
She let herself into my bedroom, placed her hands on her hips for a minute for effect. Then she ferociously and unexpectedly told me that Gampy was gay, while my Dad kept watching the election on the downstairs TV.
I felt I had walked into the sunlight from a dark room, waiting for my eyes to adjust, at first painfully seeing nothing, then everything becoming clear. It was like being sucker punched. I was expected to react, but how could I know how? It was such unusual timing. She was livid, waiting for me to respond.
“Are you still a republican? Now?” she asked, heaving, her dark eyes flashing.
“I never said I was one.” Just a little too smart-ass, not making the connection, her connection, I answered.
She came over to me, grabbed me by the hair, and shoved me into my bedroom closet. She left the room, slamming the door, as I wept, not understanding why this had happened. I did not leave my room for the rest of the evening, shocked when she did not come back to apologize.
I wish so much that my mother could have responded to my mother more appropriately. All her life, she had been put in the position of feeling ashamed of the person she loved most in the world. It was essential for that nuclear family to remain discrete about my grandfather’s homosexuality.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my grandfather felt the same pressures he felt as a child, the protectiveness he felt for my great grandmother shifted to his wife and children. The cruel attitudes of society do not just save irreparable damages to the singular victim, the person perceived as different, but everyone who loves them. That did register. I cannot imagine how many times she wanted to lash out at others the way she had me. I, in turn, had been hurt by her, for the useless hate that she had been forced to protect herself from. It was never mentioned afterword. She wanted me to learn that lesson. That she used a closet to punish me had to have been intentional. This memory must be taken into context that corporal punishment was still an acceptable way to discipline your kids. I was fourteen.
In recollection, I understand now what her feelings were, after having analyzed it over and over through the years. The election of 1984 had been a powerful trigger to drive my mother to rise up against the republican party with a wrath that built like a volcano as Mondale and Ferraro were duking it out over the American presidency. My dad seemed to have heard nothing, he continued to watch his TV the living room downstairs, whooping with delight as Reagan won by a landslide. She wasn’t fighting with my dad, though. It was I she’d gone after.
My mother had never been interested in politics before, but when my grandfather came out publicly, she was suddenly registered to vote and very outspoken. Before that night, I’d just thought it was a case of them choosing sides, as people do at football games. Unbeknownst to me, my grandfather’s coming out had unleashed a terrifying, and justified, fear of republicans and those who vote for them. The moral majority was not pro-gay. The moral majority was neither.
I live in California now myself. I wonder what he would think of me right now, writing an article about him, even as I hesitate to watch the movie influenced by his book. My hands flick across the keyboard, now pausing in the F and J position, when the blankness of writer’s block comes, like sleep, like death, inevitable.
Ellie Murphy lives in San Diego with two dogs, a cat, her daughter, and a man. She is exploring writing with the end goal of publishing.