Sudhulter's Ominous Note

by Cliff Preiss

Albert's review of "Finding Bix" is typically thorough, and I agree that Wolfe's use of cliffhangers is a cheap device. But Albert is judging the book with standards that don't really apply to it. Wolfe wrote a combination of memoir, cultural history, and light historical sleuthing, not a straightforward biography. He meshes fact and fiction because fact and fiction have long been intertwined in the "Bix Beiderbecke Legend." Its a very personal book, and it has more than its share of flaws; he would have done well to have hired a knowledgeable fact checker to read his manuscript before submitting it for publication.

The main reason I'm writing, though, is to follow up on what was written about Richard Sudhalter's ominous footnote in "Lost Chords." I had bought a copy of Sudhalter's book immediately upon its release (he later signed it for me), and when I got to the footnote, I was stupefied both by its melodrama and how he acknowledged his awareness of details regarding a deep dark secret that had to me been just been the wispiest of rumors. I thought it probably had something to do with sex, but that was all.

At the time, I felt that Sudhalter either should have revealed all in his Bix chapter or that he should not have written a single word about the rumor. This weird middle ground of acknowleging some sort of shoe ready to drop, but also saying that it would remain undropped seemed ridiculous to me, and I decided to let Sudhalter know that I felt that way.

I had his telephone number, although Sudhalter knew me only vaguely as an associate of Phil Schaap's at WKCR. So I called him and first congratulated him on the book, which of course was a fine achievement. Then I mentioned my feelings about the footnote, saying that I assumed it had something to do with the gay rumor about Bix started with Berton's book. I told Sudhalter that I was gay and that this was no longer the 1970s, and that any real facts--not rumors--that might have to do with Bix's sexual orientation shouldn't be erased from the historical record.

Sudhalter replied that he was very glad that I told him that I was gay, because he wanted to have a gay person's opinion of what had happened all those years ago. He then told me about Bix's incident with an underaged girl (he didn't tell me she was five, though!) and then asked me if I believed that this incident might have meant that Bix was gay. I was shocked by the question, and then explained to him that homosexuality and pedophilia were two very different and entirely unrelated things. He thanked me for my opinion and asked that I not spread the story around; I thanked him for his candor and I didn't say a word about the story to anyone until after Geoffrey Ward's book was released.

I took Sudhalter's misunderstanding about sexuality to be a generational thing. Imagine my renewed shock upon reading Wolfe's book and seeing that someone born in 1971 could be similarly confused about whether this incident might have any bearing on whether Bix was gay or not. (Spoiler: it doesn't.)

In any case, back when Ward's book was released, I had a conversation with Phil Schaap in which I said that the nature of the the incident narrowed the source of the gay rumor about Bix back to only being Ralph Berton's book, to which he replied, "what did Ralph Berton say?" That question threw me for a loop, because I knew that Phil had interviewed Berton on WKCR some years before. (This was before I had read Berton's book myself, so all I knew about Berton at the time of that interview was that he was considered by many to be an unreliable witness.)

So after a split-second recovery, I told Phil that Berton wrote that Bix had a fling with his brother. Phil knew none of this; he had never read the book because Sudhalter had impugned its veracity. Then Phil said incredulously "Vic Berton was gay?" So I explained to him that Ralph Berton had another brother. And then I said to him--just as incredulously--"You interviewed Ralph Berton without knowing that he claimed that Bix had a fling with his brother?" And then we laughed about it.

Posted on Jun 30, 2017, 9:05 PM

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