It’s that time once again to trek to bliss! That’s what I call the desert. I usually head to Palm Springs, but this time my destination is Rancho Mirage and I’m parking my derrière at The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa. My girlfriend Kelly Marie, a New York City travel agent, raved about it, so why not give it a whirl?!
Smack dab in the middle of their lobby, in a fenced area, is the cutest little white mutt, named “Henry.” I was so involved in petting him, I nearly forget to check-in.
Henry is part of The Westin’s “Adopt A Dog” program. The resort is heavily committed to helping local charities, like the American Heart Association, FIND Food Bank, Desert Cancer Foundation, and the Desert AIDS Project (DAP). They have also refurnished several homeless shelters for Vets, and on Thanksgiving they serve dinner at the local Salvation Army. As one of the concierges smartly said, “The Resort is an equal opportunity giver.”
Henry is part of The Westin’s “Adopt A Dog” program. The resort is heavily committed to
helping local charities, like the American Heart Association, FIND Food Bank, Desert Cancer Foundation, and the Desert AIDS Project (DAP). They have also refurnished several homeless shelters for Vets, and on Thanksgiving they serve dinner at the local Salvation Army. As one of the concierges smartly said, “The Resort is an equal opportunity giver.”
Once settled in my cozy cabana suite that sports a balcony overlooking the golf course, I call my dear friend, John Alex Houlton. When I say his name, it’s like I wanna put “Sir” in front of it! His name sounds so officious. In fact, he was a diplomat. Let me tell you about this extraordinary man who has had an extraordinary life…of nine lives.
A Brit by birth, John served in the Royal Air Force and attended the University of Oxford, earning a BA in English language and literature. He then swept across the pond and earned an advanced degree in Theatre, Film, and Television at UCLA. He served as Consul General at L.A.’s British Consulate, where he produced several U.S. television series. His final position was as co-creator and director of the British Film Office in the U.S. For his services, he was awarded both an OBE (Office of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
This is where John’s life gets more fantastic. He was married to Christine Evenson Houlton for thirty-three years, until her death in 2001. They had two children and now at eighty-six, John Alex has five grandchildren. After Christine’s death, the English gentleman began exploring his “queerness,” though he never before had gay feelings.
Out of his exploration came his love for leather and other expressions of kink, and he began writing gay erotic fiction under the pen name of Alex Ironrod. Alex has published thirteen books and is currently pondering on his next, where the protagonist will be HIV-positive and other characters will be on PrEP.
John Alex, who lives with his partner of six years, Michael, pops over to the Resort and we have breakfast in Pinzimini’s, just off the lobby. Westin is not for the haughty or party crowd, but more for the fair-to-middlin’—like me. I order a cheese and spinach omelet, while John Alex has eggs Benedict and cranberry juice. The lively whistling waiter, Juan Manuel, introduces me to this fab drink called Gloria’s Renewal Juice, which consists of broccoli, spinach, cucumber, ginger, parsley, celery, orange juice, and honey. Yum.
Ruby Comer: [John Alex glances out the window at the inviting sun-reflected pool.] Say, when did you first encounter the epidemic?
John Alex Houlton: While employed in Los Angeles, I returned to Britain every couple of years for work and pleasure. Each time I visited with David, a former Oxford friend, and his American male partner. On one particular visit in the eighties, he was ill, tiring quickly. He had a hacking cough, and little appetite. There were some fresh sores on his face and hands. I stayed only a few hours as he didn’t want to discuss his health. I’d heard about a “gay cancer” that was proving fatal. Six months later, David was dead. I had encountered [the first person I would know to die of AIDS-related causes] and hadn’t really understood or helped.
How awful to have lost an old chum.
Gradually I came into contact with more [individuals who died of AIDS-related causes], even in my rather closeted straight world. I began to learn more about the disease from staying in contact with friends who were suffering.
Fortunately for you, when the AIDS crisis hit, you were in a monogamous marriage and a government job that kept you extremely busy.
I have been fortunate, Ruby. [He bites into some whole grain toast, spattered with marmalade.] By the time I came out as a gay leather man, I learned enough to practice safe sex. My losses were small, compared to so many other men, such as Cole Tucker.
Cole Tucker. Cole Tucker [I repeat, trying to recall the person]. Who is that, John Alex?
Cole was the first openly HIV-positive gay porn star at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He started doing porn at the age of forty-five. A mutual friend introduced Rick Karp [Cole’s birth name] to me. Rick was searching for someone to co-author his life story. Our collaboration turned out, Cole Tucker–15 Minutes of Fame & a Helluva Lot More. In 2015, Rick died from complications of AIDS. (He pauses, now pensive.] I am presently looking for a publisher. [He clears his throat and takes a sip of tea.] Rick certainly has a fascinating story to tell.
What is your sense of safer sex among the leather crowd?
Well, Ruby, within the leather crowd, my experience is that the senior members play safe, including those who live by the rules of Old Guard, New Guard—and similar organizations. We work to pass on the need for safe sex to the next generations by our example and teaching. Trust and obedience are major code words in that life, and perhaps, even more importantly, in that sex life.
I don’t know very much about that world, though I do like a little slap on the fanny every now and then from my financé Rudy! [John Alex grins.] I want to hear more about your “transition” from straight to gay.
After Christine’s death, and following my inability to connect sexually with other women, I got help from a psychiatrist friend. In the process of analysis, I realized that from my late teens I had had a fetish for boots and leather, which I had sublimated by riding and owning horses; an interest I shared with Christine over the years. [John Alex met Christine on a horseback ride in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in 1968.]
The psychiatrist explained that her death, coupled with my retirement from full-time employment in the same month, was a traumatic shock. This trauma opened new aspects of my personality, revealing my queer nature, and my willingness to embrace it.
How was this new road for you?
It was neither an easy decision nor a simple road to follow. It was something I needed to accomplish, but I enjoyed the learning process.
Therapeutic…to say the least. [The waiter bops by and I order another “Gloria” drink; John Alex gets a tea refill.]
It was during this same time that I started writing gay erotic fiction. I sometimes used my stories as a sounding board, or as an expression of my own new interests and desires.
[John Alex retrieves my white cloth napkin that fell to the floor.] Who do you consider a hero in the pandemic?
The heroes are those brave men and women who have found a way to go beyond the pandemic. They have coped with the numerous inhibitors, and continued to contribute to the community. While they may not see themselves as heroes, they are.
Who does John Alex Houlton look up to?
Mother Teresa…Martin Luther King, Jr….Winston Churchill [he takes a profound breath then continues]…and the men and women who defend their countries with their lives, and fight in defense of democracy around the world.
You’re svelte, vibrant, debonair, and full of zeal. What’s your secret to longevity?
Carpe diem—my lifetime motto.
Ah, hearing that reminds me of Robin Williams’ film, Dead Poet’s Society. What do you think happens after we die?
I believe that after death, we are blessed with another life, which includes those we have loved.
What a lovely thought. I hope so! [We leave the dining area and amble down the corridor to the lobby.] Supply a final thought, “Sir” Houlton.
So many men and women who were killed in the World Wars of the twentieth century believed they were giving their lives in service to their country. They were mourned and honored for their service. [Coming upon Henry, the dog, John Alex stoops down to pet him. John Alex looks up at me with his soft blue-grey eyes, and concludes his thought.] Sadly, those who died and who are dying of AIDS have not secured such sympathy from their fellow countrymen and women.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]