A Life Well Lived by Heidi Hirsch
Victor Jerome Banis was born May 25th, 1937. He passed away in February 2019. Wikipedia remembers him as a daring, pioneer of gay literature.
I will remember him as a great influence that set me on a path of rampant indulgence: Sunday Brunches at the Carriage Trade in West Hollywood, Italian Opera, irresponsible sex, lines of coke, rolled joints, and an unabashed celebration of the gay lifestyle in the late 1970’s early 80’s. More important, it was my first sense of being accepted and celebrated as a gay woman.
My friend Russell was introduced to Victor as a possible companion by his friend Johnny Beard. Johnny and Victor knew each other from their days in Ohio. In turn, Russell introduced me to Victor. While Russell and Victor were never lovers, they were friends and traveling companions for many years.
When we meet Victor, he lived in North Hollywood. His first of three novels, released by St. Martin’s Press, was weeks away from hitting the book stores. The contract with St. Martin’s Press was for a staggering 1,000,000.00!! Okay, remember that was in the early ’80s. Boy, did we have fun! Cruising around in a 1980 Lincoln Town Car, which drove like a boat, could pack in a gaggle of gays, and include Jennie and Prima, Victor’s two large dogs.
We referred to Victor’s house as the Disneyland for young gay kids. It was mostly young men, but I was lucky and included in the devil-was-there-weekends at Victor’s. He was an amazing chef. We were spoiled on lavishly laid out meals that always started with a little wine, a little coke, a few hits off of a joint, and Marie Callas blaring in the foreground. Victor, as any diva, would enter the dining room in a blaze of frenzy and giggles, as he presented the main course. It was a grand entrance signaling the start of a grander show.
Sunday brunches at the Carriage Trade were a religious experience. The atmosphere was beyond gay! For a couple of young kids from the San Fernando Valley, walking through a restaurant that was clearly full of gay boys and girls was heavenly. We were bewildered, slightly hungover, and unabashedly gay! It was glorious. Victor and his friend, Sam Dodson, were known by many and there was a steady stream of pretties that passed by our table, nodding, and winking. We were all at our cattiest best.
After brunch, we usually collapsed in his living room lounging on a chocolate brown 10-piece sectional sofa, listening to Victor read out loud; Tennessee Williams, Summerset Maugham, Dorothy Parker, and Victor’s own work.
His novel This Splendid Earth (1978), tells the story of Baron Jean de Brussac and his bride, Anne de Grenville leaving Paris in 1830 to forge a wine-growing empire in the lush, rolling hills of distant California. If this sounds like an old TV show, Falcon’s Crest, Victor would tell you that he pitched This Splendid Earth to a TV Producer. Shortly after, Falcon Crest (1981) became a hit show on CBS. Having worked in Hollywood, I believe him.
Another passion of Victor’s was old movies. We would watch endless hours of Bette Davis in All About Eve, Norma Shearer in The Women, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (and that yummy William Holden, Victor’s words not mine). Marilyn, Joan, Gary, Henry, Katherine, Bogart, and Bacall – we knew them all by their first names.
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? caused such an uproar, we would stop the movie halfway through and head towards the kitchen. I don’t think we ever saw the entire movie. Victor had a grand way of looking at life. His idea of a survival kit was a bottle of Dom Perignon and a tin of Russian caviar. Upon learning that Russell and I had never savored the taste of caviar, Sam and Victor decided that was high time we learn a thing or two about fancy livin’… As only Victor and Sam could do, the fanfare over caviar and champagne almost made you forget you were eating fish eggs!
Sam had a three-story apartment in Studio City. I guess you could say three and a half if you counted the sunken living room. It was like something you had never seen before! I remember walking into his home for the first time and swearing that one day I would have one just like his. I’m still waiting!
Like all fairy tales, pun intended, time, money, and general tolerance for each other ran thin.
Tempers flared, boyfriends cheated, lies and secrets got the best of us. Behind closed doors, AIDS was the nightmare and all the drinking and snorting wasn’t going to wish it away. Johnny Beard was the first gay boy I knew who died of AIDS. I didn’t even know what it was. I learned fast when the plague took my childhood friend Daniel. A loss of many to come.
As things started to unravel, Russell and Victor got a cabin in Big Bear, and from Big Bear, a place in Palm Springs, then back to Big Bear. Eventually, the boys ended up in San Francisco and from there parted ways.
Several years ago, I found him on Facebook. He still had an audience and enjoyed writing daily posts. On January 2nd, 2019, Victor posted what seems like a simple cooking tip: “If you’re fond of grilled cheese sandwiches, here’s a tip – instead of waiting for the butter to soften so you can spread it on the sides that meet the skillet, spread them instead with mayonnaise – you’ll get a lovely golden toast.”
For me, it was the essence of who he was. Take something simple, change the story, and jazz it up. And, no, the finished sandwich does not taste of mayo but don’t ask me to explain that.
Victor lived his life and traveled the world. I reaped the benefits from the stories he told and the words he wrote. I’m a better person for having had him in my life. So, to my old friend, I say, “May you always have good books, good wine, and good friends.”
Cheers! and Proud
In the early part of April my companion Eli, passed on his own, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge. Before he made his transition, I told him how much I loved him, and I would be fine. I lied. The hole in my heart and in my life is deep. But more than that, I know his spirit is free, that he is soaring and frolicking with those who greeted him.
Maintaining the belief that life is best enjoyed with humor and a seven-second delay, Heidi relies on Mother Nature for the morning news, her animals to keep her responsible, and good friends to check her socks to make sure they match. She is currently with Reveal Studio in Glendale, California as a Project Manager.