Robert Plunket, One of America’s Funniest, Gayest Writers, Is Finally Becoming Famous

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Robert Plunket has some theories. Among them: why there are so many roundabouts in his adopted city of Sarasota, why lesbians don’t wear more jewelry, what’s really going on with Princess Charlene of Monaco, how the local neighborhood of Pinecraft became the Las Vegas of Amish and Mennonite Midwesterners, why Joan Didion’s posthumous fame has eclipsed Susan Sontag’s, and how Republicans could use grower-board appointments to profit when marijuana is legalized in Florida. Many of these theories are convincing, including the one Plunket has about his own status. “I always knew I’d be famous,” he told me. “I just always assumed I’d be dead when it happened.”

For a long time, that seemed like a reasonable prediction. Plunket last published a novel more than three decades ago, and for years he’s been living very far from the limelight, in various trailer parks around the west coast of Florida—most recently in Palmetto, with the man he considers his adopted son, Tom Cate, and their pug, Meatball, whom they rescued from what Plunket describes as a lesser trailer park in Orlando. It’s not that Plunket didn’t have fans. In fact, his admirers include not only literary rock stars such as Frank Rich and Gordon Lish but literal rock stars such as Madonna and star-stars such as Larry David and Amy Sedaris. Yet, for almost his entire career, the writer remained a cult favorite without much of a cult.

Now, though, at seventy-eight and very much alive, Plunket seems poised to find the audience he’s long sensed he deserves. This month, New Directions reissued his hilarious début novel, “My Search for Warren Harding,” forty years after its initial appearance, and the publisher has already committed to reprinting his even more audacious second book, “Love Junkie.” Plunket is calling all this hoopla his “resurrection,” because, like Norma Desmond, he dislikes the term “comeback.” But it might also be described as a belated coming-out party: the introduction to broader society of one of America’s funniest, gayest writers.

Plunket settled into his current trailer park, a fifty-five-plus community, after losing his previous trailer during Hurricane Ian. Imperial Lakes Estates is just off I-75, but its three hundred or so mobile homes look like they are trying very hard to ignore the interstate and stay put: front porches adorn some of them, huge carports and garages are attached to most of them, fat palm trees and shapely boxwoods line almost all of the sidewalks and driveways. Plunket’s own trailer isn’t the vintage toaster-shaped style he loves, but he has made his manufactured home into something wonderful—a sort of double-wide ocean liner, with paintings of ships and port scenes on the walls and a carefully curated selection of cruise furniture throughout the house, including a prized table from the S.S. United States. “There’s an element of shame for many people, living in a trailer park,” Plunket said, resting his feet carefully on the tiniest slice of an oversized mint-green leather ottoman, the rest of which was taken up by Meatball. Plunket looked past his collection of Plasticville railroad houses, watching a neighbor tidy an already tidy yard across the street. “My mother would have been horrified if I wasn’t in a house, but I just love it.”

There’s little Plunket doesn’t love about his life or this part of the world. He moved to Florida in 1985, leaving behind New York and Los Angeles for the art scene in Sarasota. He had some family here but was drawn to the city by John D. MacDonald, the mystery novelist who specialized in what has been called Sun Belt Baroque. Plunket eventually befriended MacDonald, along with other notable residents like the hoaxster Clifford Irving and the painter Ben Stahl; socializing got easier when he was hired to be the gossip columnist for Sarasota Magazine. Under an alias borrowed from Evelyn Waugh, Mr. Chatterbox, he covered everything from high-school proms and Humane Society fashion shows to Amish tool sales. He was also a regular at the adult theatre where Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, got in trouble; Plunket covered the arrest, then covered his own coverage, writing an essay about how, despite being friends with the disgraced actor’s mother, he couldn’t land an interview with her famous son—regrettably, since Plunket remembers having already sold said interview to Tina Brown for ten thousand dollars. Plunket is nicer than his nom de plume suggests, but he has skewered the occasional politician or socialite. Still mischievous and still handsome, the novelist semi-apologized: “I’m only mean when it’s absolutely necessary.”

Plunket’s byline appears more often now above feature stories. Driving me around some of his old haunts, he pointed out a high-school building designed by the architect Paul Rudolph, and explained that, although real estate and retirement are some of the main industries in Sarasota today, there used to be another: the circus. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was based out of the Florida town, drawing tourists from around the world to see Modoc and the other animals in their winter quarters. One season, Plunket told me, the elephants could be found rehearsing a polka routine with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine.

“That’s true, I swear,” he said, a common reassurance from him since his life has been a little Zelig-like: he once befriended a young Richard Gere, when they co-starred in a student film that was never released, then appeared alongside him in “Autumn in New York,” in a role credited as “Grubby Little Man”; he landed another small role in Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” with his friend Griffin Dunne; he recruited the citrus heiress Katherine Harris to do the chicken dance in his night-club revue “Mr. Chatterbox’s Sentimental Journey,” and was still friends with her nearly two decades later when, as Florida’s Secretary of State, she certified George W. Bush’s narrow victory; the next year, he was in Sarasota’s Emma E. Booker Elementary School when President Bush learned that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center.

Plunket swears he’s telling me the truth again, over dinner at Michael’s On East, when he recounts how his parents met. His mother, the daughter of Slovenian immigrants, grew up in Chicago; his father was from an old Southern family. “They were both living in Costa Rica,” Plunket told me. “My father was working for the F.B.I.—although this was before there was a C.I.A., so he was a spy, of course. And my mother, who had a degree in journalism, was working at the embassy there. Someone at the embassy set them up, and their first date was to see ‘Casablanca.’ Isn’t that just the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?” Plunket was conceived in Puntarenas, but born in East Texas, in a town best known for a welcome sign on its main street with the slogan “The Blackest Land, the Whitest People.”

The Plunkets soon took their four children back abroad, raising them mostly in Mexico and Cuba as Plunket’s father served as an executive for a power company in Mexico City and then for the largest electric company in Havana during the Cuban Revolution. Once a spook, Plunket told me, always a spook, and he recalls that more than a few times the family helped with his father’s reconnaissance. “We drove out into the country once for a picnic,” he said. “We were supposed to see what was going on with the tobacco crop that year, so we packed this picnic, but we get out there, and then we realized none of us knew what tobacco looked like.” As animosity toward Americans increased, the Plunkets finally fled the country. A fifteen-year-old Bob hid his mother’s silver service for twelve in his suitcase, along with a disassembled candelabra that his father’s family was said to have hidden from the Yankees during the Civil War.

Back in the United States, Plunket graduated from Williams College, then got an M.F.A. in theatre and film from Sarah Lawrence and an M.B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. “I loved school,” he said. “I went to a zillion of them. I never wanted to get a job. I just wanted to stay in school forever.” Only when he tried to formally study writing did he give up on graduate school, working as an actor, taxi-driver, librarian, and grant administrator before finally returning to writing, this time on his own. When Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance” was published, in 1978, Plunket had a revelation: “It was a really, really gay novel, and then suddenly it was clear to me there could be such a thing. I wanted to write one right away.”

What fuelled the novel Plunket eventually wrote was another one of his theories, this one about Henry James. “I love early James,” he told me. “ ‘Washington Square,’ which is so perfect, and ‘The Aspern Papers,’ which I loved without really knowing why, and then one day I figured out why. I figured it all out, why I loved it so much: the narrator is gay!”

Plunket doesn’t mean that the story’s unnamed narrator, who is tracking down the correspondence of a famous dead poet named Jeffrey Aspern, knows this about himself, or that James was trying to write a homosexual antihero. Rather, it’s that the narrator’s relationships with Juliana Bordereau and Miss Tita—a former lover of Aspern and her niece, respectively—reflect those of a gay man, desireless and unconsciously fraught. This insight, as well as Plunket’s long-standing obsession with one of America’s least popular Presidents, produced one of the most original comic novels of the past half century: “My Search for Warren Harding.” In it, a young, ambitious, and deeply closeted historian named Elliot Weiner leaves New York for Los Angeles in pursuit of one of President Harding’s mistresses, Rebekah Kinney, hoping the octogenarian will share her love letters and thereby advance his academic career. When the frail Kinney fails to hand over any Hardingiana at all, Elliot resorts to seducing her obese granddaughter Jonica, the soon-to-be-ex-wife-slash-almost-certainly-beard of a hunky Appalachian expat named Vernon and the single mother of a tyke named little Warren.

“The problem was: nobody realized Elliot Weiner was gay,” Plunket told me, when I asked about the book’s original reception in 1983. “No one really got how it’s a gay novel. I kept hearing from these straight men who obviously hate women about how much they loved it. It found this unfortunate audience with men who hate women, who delighted in Elliot’s cruelty without really understanding it. But it’s a gay novel—that’s really what’s going on. All the people who tried to adapt it failed terribly because they didn’t understand he’s closeted.”

A new foreword by the novelist Danzy Senna makes clear that at least one reader understood everything. “Sensitivity readers, be warned,” she writes, “the protagonist of this novel, Elliot Weiner, is cruel, racist, fat-phobic, homophobic, and deeply, deeply petty.” No stranger to literary controversy, Senna, the author of “Caucasia” and “New People,” among other books, makes a strong case for the novel’s psychological sophistication and ongoing relevance. “What’s wonderful about Plunket’s first-person narrator is how far beneath the surface his dishonesty lies,” she explains. “His attraction to men is hinted at beautifully, hilariously, but always cagily, never consummated. He has lied so much—so profoundly—and for so long that his attraction leaks out in twisted bromances.” Senna first read “My Search for Warren Harding” during the pandemic, when a friend delivered a copy, shouting through her N95 mask that it was “really fucking funny,” but she positions the novel as a vaccine for a different cultural ailment: “In our contemporary humble-bragging world of filtered selfies, virtue signaling and good optics, we find increasing release, and comic relief, in fictional characters we are not asked to admire or envy—in characters so awful or amoral or vapid that the joke is on them.”

Senna points to one of the novel’s most hysterical set pieces for proof that the joke’s on Elliot Weiner. He and Jonica, whose day job is decoupaging ice buckets, are going on a date to an avant-garde play starring her best friend, Barrie Shostack, who is just back from a European tour with her feminist theatre troupe, Live Nude Girls. During the show, Elliot sweats through not only his silk shirt but the newborn Pampers he’s taped under his arms to try to fortify his Manhattan wardrobe against the Hollywood Hills heat. Soon, he is more of a mess than any of the actresses leaving the stage to describe their most recent sexual experiences directly to the audience.

But Elliot isn’t the sole target of Plunket’s arch, perfectly observed comic tone. He takes down everyone: feminists and misogynists, trailer trash and trust-fund scoundrels, mistresses and Presidents. Part of the book’s inherent humor is that it takes for its main subject matter a sex scandal from so long ago that it has ceased to be either sexy or scandalous. It’s rare these days to read a novel that feels like it is about something, but Plunket’s has a pleasing combination of utter obscurity and the heft of history. Warren Gamaliel Harding really did have mistresses, and Plunket’s Rebekah Kinney is based on Nan Britton, the most famous of them, who wrote a tell-all book, “The President’s Daughter,” about their affair after the Ohio Republican died and his family refused to acknowledge or provide support for his illegitimate child, Elizabeth Ann.

Plunket bought a copy of the book years ago at a garage sale for a quarter, and Britton became the first of many female muses who has inspired his work. “I had to change her name because she was still alive, and I didn’t want to be sued,” he said. “But she was truly a genius, and I loved her book.”

“I honestly couldn’t believe it,” Frank Rich said, of reading “My Search for Warren Harding” for the first time. “I remember thinking it was this fresh, comic, absurdist take.” The former Times critic and columnist turned television producer was given the novel by one of his best friends, the American political historian Alan Brinkley, with whom he’d shared an interest in Presidents and scandals since childhood. “Alan was this serious academic, and I was supposed to be this serious journalist, and here was a novelist turning one of our favorite historical scandals on its head,” Rich told me. The book was funny and scathing, but also extremely informed and informative. “Alan and I both kept giving the book away to friends who unfailingly loved it, but somehow it remained obscure.”

As it happened, Rich, who went on to produce “Veep” and “Succession,” also had a connection to Plunket’s next muse, Dorothy Rodgers. Rodgers was married to one-half of the Broadway duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, and her daughter Mary was one of Rich’s friends. “Mary was this hilarious, witty, wonderful person, and she hated her mother with a passion,” Rich told me. Dorothy, he said, “lived in this grand home and was married to one of the wealthiest songwriters in New York, but she was a nightmare. Total nightmare.” One day, Rich was reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And here was this long article about Dorothy Rodgers by a writer claiming she was the great muse of his life and that he had made her into the protagonist of a novel, and it was Bob Plunket!”

Rich read that novel, “Love Junkie,” and passed it on to Mary Rodgers, who said that its main character was a dead ringer for her mother. She was impressed by how well Plunket understood her mother’s inner life, and what he’d done with it. The novelist found Rodgers the same way he’d found Britton: by buying her book “My Favorite Things” at a garage sale. That book is an entertainment how-to, a sort of guide to gracious living. “I didn’t like anything about her designs,” Plunket remembered. “It was so cold. Literally, she dreamed of getting a new freezer—that was her dream. But I kept reading between the lines. Between the lines, there was this character.”

“Love Junkie” was published in 1992. In it, Plunket transforms Dorothy Rodgers into a clueless and cloying Bronxville housewife, Mimi Smithers. Married to a Union Carbide executive who escaped the Shah’s regime, Mimi wants to impress Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III and the other society ladies. But after her first failed attempt she settles for an unpaid job in the city with an arts organization, where she first falls for her gay boss, Tom Potts. Then she falls for all of his friends, including Joel, a gay-porn star who turns out not to be gay. She takes over Joel’s mail-order business, sending eager customers his soiled Jockey shorts and cassette tapes from his “Verbal Abuse” series, with titles such as “On Your Knees, Cocksucker, Part Two.” This kind of thing may not be for everyone, but the people who go for it really love it: Madonna reportedly bought the film rights, and, when her option lapsed, Amy Sedaris stepped in.

If the influence of James is obvious in Plunket’s first book, other influences become clearer in his second, which includes a Fish and Game Building as a nod to Charles Portis. Plunket learned how to write unreliable narrators from Vladimir Nabokov and considers Barbara Pym and E. F. Benson to be two of the funniest writers ever—their novels are still stacked on his bedside table like Bibles. Books are an enormous part of Plunket’s life, yet they’re probably only the fifth-largest collection to be found in his home, dwarfed by Cate’s collection of sneakers and his own collections of costume jewelry, china, and Juicy Couture. “You’d have to talk to a psychiatrist to understand why I have all these,” Plunket said, pulling handbag after handbag from inside cloth bags and cardboard boxes. “I actually bought this trailer for the storage. We needed room for all our collections.”

Meatball doesn’t collect anything except pills—he’s on two medications for seizures—but the trio form a domestic arrangement so sweet that Grant Wood might’ve painted their picture. “We try very hard to make each other happy every day,” Plunket said. None of them cook, but they go for iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning, a rotating series of lunches around town, and then dinner most nights from the hot bar at a Publix grocery store. One day while I was in town, we got grilled cheeses at Popi’s Place, among the last of Sarasota’s remaining family restaurants, and Plunket made sure to order bacon to take home to Meatball. “The highlight of our day is ‘Crossword,’ ” he told me. “Oh, we call it ‘Crossword,’ but what it’s actually called?” Plunket looked at Tom. Tom looked at Plunket. No one spoke until finally Plunket exclaimed, “ ‘Wheel of Fortune’! Tommy is really good at it.”

“Not as good as New Baby Buggy,” Tom demurred, referencing a winning phrase so storied that I was embarrassed by having to ask what it means.

“I’m really bad at relationships,” Plunket said later, while watching catfish swarm and mullet fish leap from the water in Little Sarasota Bay, at the dock of two of his friends, Pam Daniel and her longtime partner, George Augustin. Daniel edited Plunket’s magazine writing for more than thirty years—not only the gossip column but everything else he wrote for Sarasota. She’s lovingly skeptical of his self-deprecation, asking editor-like questions about his fling with a neighbor in his previous trailer park and about a more serious relationship from years ago. “That must be one of those alternative facts,” she said finally—referencing an earlier debate they’d had about Ron DeSantis’s Presidential prospects—before moving on to discussing Plunket’s next feature.

Daniel is retired from Sarasota and now edits Forum, the magazine of Florida Humanities. Plunket covers architecture for her, writing about topics that range from trailer parks to the thirteen structures Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Florida Southern College, in Lakeland. Daniel was trying to persuade him to tackle what is likely the state’s most photographed architectural wonder: Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World. “I’ve been reading a lot about it, but I’ll only write something if I can stay in the suite,” Plunket said, referring to the single hotel room in the castle, allegedly built for Walt Disney himself. “It’s Pam’s job to get me in that suite!”

These days, however, Plunket isn’t writing exclusively about architecture. His current muse is Varina Howell Davis, the second wife of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Plunket is working on a novel about her circle of friends, including Judah P. Benjamin, who was the Secretary of State for the Confederacy. Earlier that day, Plunket had taken me to the Gamble Mansion, in nearby Ellenton, where Benjamin hid from the Union Army at the end of the war. “This is one of the only places Benjamin is really memorialized,” Plunket explained. “He escaped to the Bahamas, and then he went to England, where he became a very famous lawyer. They still teach his book on contracts there.” In the United States, in contrast—even in those parts of it that still make heroes of Confederate leaders—he is largely forgotten. “Some say it’s antisemitism—he was one of the highest-ranking Jews in American history, very high in the cabinet,” Plunket said. “But I have a theory it’s because he was gay.”

Just when the country is getting all the Confederates out of the attic, Plunket is looking for them in the closet. Still, he acknowledges that this theory is controversial, not least because Benjamin had a wife. “But he didn’t live with her!” Plunket pointed out. “He was best friends with Varina Davis, and they would sit around, talking about parties. She and her little group sat, drinking tea, while the Confederacy was falling apart.” Like Britton and Rodgers, Davis wrote some books, so there’s plenty of material for Plunket, who is spinning his plot around a long-standing but little-known rumor: when Jefferson Davis was captured, he was said to be wearing his wife’s dress. (It’s more likely that he was wearing his wife’s cloak and shawl.) The present-day narrator of the new novel is not a Davis or a Benjamin but a descendant of another member of that circle of friends: the tailor who let out the dress in question. That tailor’s heir is currently experiencing his own gender confusion and considering becoming a woman because of how badly his life has gone as a man.

It’s appropriate that Plunket is interested in architecture, given that his own novels are so elaborately designed. Indeed, at least one of them was so elaborate that no publisher would touch it. “The Intimate Memoirs of John E. Jones” was the fictional memoir of an imaginary interior decorator who helped Wallis Simpson ensnare King Edward VIII. It was told in the form of a lavish coffee-table book with photographs and renderings and architectural drawings, including those the decorator intended for Buckingham Palace, which the Duchess of Windsor had promised he could redo, only the King abdicated before she made good on the promise. Even Plunket’s more conventional books have lists and recipes and party-hosting tips—clever, campy little flourishes he knows have annoyed some critics. But he can’t help it; he loves formal experimentation. “I think if I were twenty-two and starting all over again, I’d become a YouTuber,” he said. “I love watching the streamers who share their gay lives. I’d be telling stories visually like that.”

As it is, though, Plunket lives pretty happily in prose. “If you come up with a subject matter and you find your characters, you feel everything in the novel deeply, and writing becomes a pleasure,” he told me. “Like what Nabokov said about aesthetic bliss. That’s why I’ve only worked on a few books. If that pleasure and importance aren’t there, I don’t even want to try.” Despite the lack of fame—and the hurricanes, deadlines, strokes, heart attacks, bypass surgery, prostate cancer, and diabetes—Plunket has kept writing. He doesn’t look his age, but he hasn’t forgotten it. He writes e-mails and nonfiction every morning, but works on the Confederate novel every night in bed. “I just stay awake writing, like Scheherazade,” he said. “I feel like if I stop, I’ll die.” In the meantime, to everyone’s good fortune, whether or not you call it a resurrection, his books really are being brought back to life. ♦


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