Jamie Brickhouse - photo by George Anttila
"Dangerous When Wet" cover
Jamie Brickhouse, born in Beaumont, Texas and living in Manhattan and Cherry Grove, is a riveting storyteller. His memoir, “Dangerous When Wet,” recently published by St. Martin’s Press, focuses on the très gay milestones of his early life and the ups and downs of his painful later battle with alcoholism—and of his relationship with his mother.
Jamie’s Mama Jean—a star in a featured role—is larger-than-life a self-made woman, who gave up homemaking for real estate and real estate for the stock market, a broker who broke into that “Southern good-ole-boys club” with flair. When she hears colleagues boast about poaching clients, she tells them off with, “If y’all ever do that to me, I’ll cut your balls off.” To Jamie, glamorous Mama Jean is no less than Auntie Mame, Mama Rose, and Elizabeth Taylor rolled into one, with a side of Joan Crawford and Joan Collins.
You’ll cherish and identify with the gems of Jamie’s self-discovery and rush to share them with your loved ones. You’ll wring your hands as pages become more and more gin and vodka martini-soaked, even knowing that he’ll triumph in the end. It’s quite a journey he takes us on.
One of the first of the vivid milestones that grabbed me was Jamie’s “playing ‘Bewitched’” with his “first boyfriend” Eric, at age six. Jamie was Samantha, Elizabeth Montgomery, “because Eric was so homosexually advanced he wanted to play Endora, Samantha’s wicked, flaming redhead of a mother played by Agnes Moorehead … [with] drag-queen mannerisms as he cast spells with a tornado of sweeping arms, arched eyebrows, and sucked-in cheeks.” But there’s a downside. Their teacher tells Jamie, “Eric might be a sissy … Maybe it would be a good idea if you took a break from him for a while.” Oh. But Eric was long out of the picture when Jamie chose “Mommie Dearest” for his “A-earning book report … in the sixth grade.”
New York and Broadway beckon. On Jamie’s first trip, at 14, his family takes him to “Cats,” “Woman of the Year” with Raquel Welch, “Dreamgirls,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” He also glimpses an alluring billboard of “a bronzed Adonis, three stories high, wearing nothing but Calvin Klein briefs” and “the marquis of the Gaiety” with “its promise of ‘an all-male, all-nude gay revue.’” Ominously, he develops a taste for champagne and gets drunk for the first time.
Back in Beaumont, there’s drama in store. Jamie rejects Mama for the first time, to go to the movies with Nicole, his girlfriend from drama club, to see “Tootsie,” instead of staying home with Mama to watch “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” Mama soon shares an observation and cautionary tale: “I can’t help but think that being … gay … is still a sad, lonely life for most people” and one of “the directors … brought in from New York to produce the annual ‘Luv Forum Follies’” had to be taken “to the emergency room [where] they removed the Coke bottle lodged up his ass … ‘That son of a bitch!’” Jamie has already had a good cry “because I was gay … What would Mama Jean think?” This and “What would Mama Jean do?” become his mantras, his “baggage.”
We learn that Jeffrey, Jamie’s half-brother, is also gay and is moving to Houston with his boyfriend. Mama is devastated. “I remember Mama Jean … crying. She explained to me that Jeffrey was gay and it was breaking her heart … she asked, ‘Do you know what gay means? … Do you have feelings like that? Because if you do, tell me now. I’ll take you to see a psychiatrist.’” “If you have to ask,” he thinks, as “the original-Broadway-cast album of ‘Mame’ was still playing” in his room.
Jamie has sex for the first time, a threesome with a gay couple from Kansas, at the hotel, during a family visit to Acapulco—the same city where his mother presumably lost her own virginity. In quick succession, our hero meets his first hustler, drag seamstress, and proctologist. He has anal warts—his visit to the doctor, with his parents, recounted graphically, is every bit the nightmare you can imagine. He gets drunk for the first time that his parents know about and officially comes out to them during his freshman year away at college. Mama burns with disapproval, when she finds that Jamie has written of himself as “Fashion Fag & Drama Queen.”
A peaceful, gratifying interlude: we meet Jamie’s longtime partner Michael Hayes. This is Jamie’s first real relationship with someone solid and reliable—Michael is “reserved and soft-spoken … an architect”—but human—they drink together and fight in public. Mama has, fortunately, come a long way, letting Michael know that she faced down a homophobe with, “‘You better watch it, Dan. I’m the mother of two gays.’ He didn’t dare say a word after that.” Mama tells Jamie, “Well, I’m impressed … Michael is really fine.” Then the clincher: “It’s better that you’re gay. I could never share you with another woman.”
Then a dramatic interlude, when Jamie compares two tantrums: Divine’s in “Female Trouble,” when her parents fail to buy her the desired cha-cha heels and give her other shoes for Christmas, and Mama’s, when Jamie buys her, not the china frog in a pattern she likes, which she wanted for Christmas, but which was sold out, but a cute bunny rabbit in the same pattern. “‘This wasn’t what I wanted! … Why can’t anyone ever get me what I want?” This is a side of the paragon that we haven’t seen before. But haven’t most of us had family holidays from hell like this?
Jamie’s job as a publicist finds him working with celebrities who’ve written second memoirs. The second person to call him an alcoholic is Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, Carrie Fisher’s father. The first was Mama, when Jamie was shepherding Joan Collins through public appearances. Mama Jean confronts Jamie with “Drunk! You’re drunk … Jamie, I’m worried about you … I think you’re an alcoholic … I’m serious. I really do.” Jack, Jamie’s mentor at work, checks into rehab and Jamie asks himself, “Am I next?”
Misadventures continue: Jamie buys a Persian-lamb coat at a flea market, because it reminds of him of “the aging divas who used to pose for the Blackglama fur ads with the headline ‘What Becomes a Legend Most?,’” and “Let’s face it: it was delightfully queenie”—it gets stolen from him at the Rawhide. His wallet gets lifted at a bar in the Village and he has “to cancel … credit cards and get a new driver’s license. Again.”
Jack takes Jamie to his “first sober meeting,” as he puts it, never calling it AA. He prematurely announces his sobriety to Mama, whose reaction is, “Well, thank God! Oh, I’m so proud of you.” He backslides on vacations, crack is next, and he resumes drinking regularly.
A major showdown follows: Jamie and Michael are not returning to Beaumont for Thanksgiving and decorating Mama’s Christmas tree, as they have for 13 years, an announcement for which Jamie fortifies himself with three drinks. Mama’s reaction? “Well, you have really shit in the nest this time. I have nothing more to say to you.” Oy!
Jamie learns that he’s HIV-positive. It takes him a while to share the news with Michael. He never does tell Mama.
The tone of the narrative changes to its darkest. Jamie’s new job is going down the tubes. “I spent every day of those last few months of drinking obsessed with suicide,” he writes. His suicide attempt lands him in detox, and then rehab in Palm Springs, with Mama footing the bill. “‘Your drinking days are over,’ Mama Jean said. She was back in command with a fully charged battery.” All booze is cleared out of Jamie and Michael’s apartment.
At rehab, Jamie finds that he’s the only gay man, other than his case manager. Resolutely, he insists on not participating in sports. Michael joins him for a group therapy session there and shares his reaction to Jamie’s suicide attempt—“It was the scariest day of my life … But now he’s here and I’m thankful that he’s going to be okay”—and impression of Mama—“From a thousand miles away Jean still has a vise grip on Jamie. Emotionally … She continues to have this idealized view of Jamie, and I think he nearly kills himself to live up to that.” Haven’t Jamie and Mama both put each other on pedestals?
At Jamie’s final therapy session at rehab, members of the group offer written farewell comments. A particularly pointed one reads, “One concern: That the flashing lights of Fire Island discos, shiny green of Tanqueray bottles and sparkly white mountains of cocaine don’t make you forget how painful a life of using can be.”
Jamie’s crises continue—and Mama’s begin in earnest. Jamie observes that “her hair looked like a home perm left out to dry,” rather than done to beauty parlor perfection. She persists in repeating the tale of Jamie’s suicide attempt. “I winced and thought, Stop telling that story! It’s my story. God damn it,” he writes. Jamie goes to therapy, has relapses, and returns to AA. The Alzheimer’s-like symptoms of Mama's Lewy body dementia accumulate and Jamie flies to Beaumont: “I’m not even sure if Mama Jean knew me.” “A drink was starting to feel necessary,” he adds.
On Fire Island, where Jamie wrote most of “Dangerous When Wet,” he compares relentless addiction to the ocean: “The sea is hungry and it wants you … My alcoholism was that encroaching sea.” He goes to an AA meeting and then directly to a bar to drink.
Jamie reaches the milestone of “nine months sober.” Mama moves to hospice. After Mama’s breathed her last, Jamie recalls a last conversation he had with her when she was lucid. Jean: “You’ve been drinking.” Jamie: “No, I haven’t.” Jean: “Don’t lie to me.” Jamie: “I’m not.” Jean: “You’d better not be.” Jamie: “You don’t have to worry anymore.” Jean: “Okay … But promise me. Promise.” Jamie: “I promise.”
The last pages are positive, peaceful. Attending auctions of Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor’s effects, Jamie emerges with Crawford’s fur scarf. He flashes on the Persian-lamb coat and when he goes to Beaumont to help his father sort through “the warehouse of clothes in [Mama Jean’s] closet … a Sisyphean task,” he asks for and gets Mama’s full-length lynx fur. “Three years sober,” he concludes, “I was finally becoming a writer, something Mama Jean always wanted me to be. I had decided to tell our story” and he has. “Did she ever know that she would always be a bigger star to me than Joan Crawford or Elizabeth Taylor?” he queries. Mama has the last word: “You should be writing! That’s what you should be doing! … But don’t write about me … until after I’m gone.”