Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

What have We Done?

The Gay Love Letters of F. Holland Day to Nardo

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Photograph of Fred Holland Day


Fred Holland Day (1864–1933) was the first American photographer to promote the idea of photography as an art form. A wealthy and eccentric aesthete, he retrieved many boys from the Boston slums, his most famous protégé and discovery being the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran, the thirteen-year-old immigrant whom he took under his wings. Many of Day's photographs illustrate Christian homoeroticism: he was his own model for "The Seven Last Words of Christ" (1898), a shocking series of portraits of himself as Christ with the crown of thorns, and a notorious series of full frontal nude portraits of himself hanging on the cross, with Athletic Model Guild type "Roman soldiers" standing guard in loin cloths. Many other photographs were in the pagan idyllic mode – grainy prints of naked boys playing flutes. A young Italian lad from Chelsea (called "Nardo") posed nude with lyre for a series of Apollonian photographs by Day during the summer of 1907. The photographs were republished in 1981 and bear ample testimony to the model's beauty. Day supported him in art school, and introduced him to employers, and tried to find another patron for him in the world of commercial art. Nardo wrote many letters to Day implying that he wanted more money, and he even asked him for a "loan" of $500 when he decided to pursue a rich girl in New York. This provoked an exasperated reply from Day, but he continued to support the potential blackmailer for several more years. As late as 1912 the vain model asked Day to send him another set of the famous photos, especially "the figure with the lyrer standing beside the big rock and the last cord that was striking and then no more do you know which one I mean the last breath." His mind was not quite so ideal as his body, though an improvement in the style of his letters at least demonstrates that the money Day paid for his English lessons was not altogether wasted. The selections end with two letters from Day's former publishing partner Herbert Copeland (they joined with Arthur Lane to publish the notorious Yellow Book) concerning a young man who became his personal masseur. Copeland was probably one-time boyfriend of Day, but had the same problem as Day in finding working class youths who could also refresh the mind.

Photograph of Nardo by Day



January 7, 1907

My dearest Mr Day –
          You are making me Happy every single Day of the week. I feel as if I had a lot of powre when you mak me feel Happy do not thing for one moment becouse I do not say anything to you you might thing I forget you. . . . Often time I thing that you are to kind to me My dearest Mr Day –l; But I am sure that the day will come when you shall fell so happy for what you have done for me . . . for I thing there is nothing like F. H. Day in this while while [wide wide] world for wherever you go I shall for wherever you step I shall step I will fowlow you through Hell if it is nessissery I mean it so Help me god this is the trut and nothing but the trut.


February 17, 1909

I am enclosing the loan you ask, but I want you to know that I do so out of no sort of sympathy with your distress, brought on as it is by certain disregard of the good advice you have long had and your stubborn determination to do as you please without hindrance.


August 8, 1909

Many a time I think of you during the day the joyfull and happy times we had together. My life then was one joy of happness, and allways cheerful full of love life and ambition. I will never forget the day we were out to Brockton, how happy I was, I thought the world was mine. When both of us walking in through the woods together ame in ame [arm in arm] and the beautiful birds that were singing sweet melodies . . . What paradise it was! Tell me dear Mr Day, do you not remember the happy time we had there? . . . I will leave you in piece I will go far away where know body will know where I am. That is just as soon as I get enough money of my own.


January 24, 1910

What have we done? Again I'm wondering . . . if it is right to adopt those of another class than our own. Your experiments have not apparently been successful, and I'll never get over my former barber and his buying a Buddha and candlesticks and incense . . . he is a very apt disciple. In other words, he has, in the course of our very intimate relationship, become completely embued with my taste in theater, opera, food, clothes, house furnishings, and all that. Now this is very flattering to me, and there's no harm in his acquiring good taste. But his wife will never sympathize with him in all this. . . . I was desperately taken with him at first sight, and deliberately laid myself out to catch him (you know I've always wanted a disciple) before I knew he was married. . . . This was some months, and then it was too late. I tried to quit then but well, I just didn't, and our intimacy has steadily increased. And now, because I have got what I wanted, I am, as you see, "leaving 'em." . . . Why can't we find the right one in all ways? What'll I do? Nothing, I suppose . . . He really "has" me hard and I wish I might stay for a day or two [at Day's Boston studio, or one of his country retreats, often put at Copeland's disposal for erotic adventures], for I'd like you to know him though I dare say he's not very interesting save to me.


February 4, 1909

I'm "scared!" I'm afraid you won't like his looks . . . I'm afraid you will think he's commonplace looking. Maybe he is – only he has me! And if you could see him in the "altogether" I believe you would care – but he's "afraid" so don't speak of it.

SOURCE: Estelle Jussim, Slave to Beauty: The Eccentric Life and Controversial Career of F. Holland Day (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981).

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