“It seems incredibly odd,” wrote Margaret Mead in 1940, “to be working on details of the ritual behavior of the Balinese with all the world cracking about our heads … “
She was writing to an influential gay German painter, Walter Spies, who was living in Bali when the Second World War broke out. Arrested by the Dutch as an enemy alien (Bali was part of the Dutch East Indies), he was unlucky enough to find himself on a merchant ship that was quickly torpedoed by the Japanese.
Only 46 when he drowned, Spies had escaped from the increasingly homophobic Europe in hopes of finding a more tolerant homeland in Southeast Asia. There were historical reasons for his optimism including, most famously, a Siamese king and father of dozens of children (Yul Brynner played him in “The King and I”) whose heirs included a gay monarch who may have been familiar with Oscar Wilde.
But, as Gary L. Atkins demonstrates in his carefully researched new book, “Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore,” there were other forces at work that would deny pro-gay sympathies until relatively recently.
A Seattle University professor who wrote “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging” nearly a decade ago, Atkins covers more than a century of progress and defeat in the way homosexuals have been treated, skillfully connecting the stories of artists, anthropologists, businessmen and computer experts.
Some were imprisoned and tortured, some achieved great power and some had a major influence on the expansion of the Internet. One chapter is devoted to “Men of the Net.”
Spies’ paintings suggest color versions of the apparitions that inspired such German silent horror classics as “Nosferatu” (Spies was an assistant to its doomed gay director, F.W. Murnau) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (whose star, Conrad Veidt, appeared in the 1918 German gay film “Different From the Others”).
Several illustrations of Spies’ expressionist images
This article originally appeared on: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/books/2018493347_br22gayparadise.html