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About William Eugene McCown



William Eugene McCown

Better known as Eugene MacCown among his friends, William was a multi-talented artist and world traveler. He was also gay and spent many years “out” in Paris, France during the 1920s where he was “notoriously narcissistic and promiscuous”. 

Eugene was born July 27, 1898 in Eldorado Springs, Missouri to William McCown and Inez Boyer. He attended the University of Missouri (Sigma Chi) for three years (1917-1919) where he studied journalism and was the president of the mandolin club.

Why he left college is unknown but he moved in New York in 1919 and passport applications show he began traveling abroad a few months later; first to the West Indies in 1919 and South America (with his possible lover, John Blomshield) in 1920. In July of 1921 he moved to Paris, France where he resided for the next 12 years.

I remember my grandma mentioning Eugene (her half-brother) lived in Paris for a time but when pressed for more information about him she claimed she knew nothing else. Luckily, I was able to find some information about him in various books, most written by those who knew him:

Eugene worked as a painter during his years in Paris and was a well known Jazz pianist at Le Boeuf:

“He plays jazz on the piano nights (10 till 2) at Le Boeuf, which is the rendezvous of Jean Cocteau, Les Six, and les snobs intellectuals--a not unassuming place frequented by English upper-class, bohemians, wealthy Americans, French aristocrats...He plays remarkably well and is the talk as well as the toast of Paris. He paints afternoons and has recently had a sudden access of financial success.... I take my social life vicariously now…Thru Eugene. I almost never go out. I practice the organ, do counterpoint and write music. I mostly eat alone and seldom see Gene except mornings.”

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle by Anthony Tommasini, pg. 100


"Rene Crevel's many friends included Gertrude Stein, the composer Virgil Thompson, and the painter Eugene McCown. With the latter, Crevel is known to have had a stormy homosexual relationship from 1924 to 1927; it inspired one of his best and most moving novels, La Mort difficile... published in America, translated by David Rattray, published as Difficult Death by North Point Press, 1985."

Putting My Foot in It by Rene Crevel and Thomas Buckley, pg. xix


"Two years before his mother's death, Crevel published Detours, his first novel, while he was already living openly with the notoriously narcissistic and promiscuous American painter Eugene McCown, a former satellite of Jean Cocteau's circle of young men and a minor disciple of the same so-called neo-romantic school of painters."

Putting My Foot in It by Rene Crevel and Thomas Buckley, pg. xx


"Only in La Mort difficile, a fictional account of his painfully disastrous relationship with McCown, did Crevel develop somewhat more insistently the homosexual element of the novel's plot."

Putting My Foot in It by Rene Crevel and Thomas Buckley, pg. xxi


"Eugene McCown was more a soulmate, an aspiring painter, a charming, breezy fellow, and a fairly fancy jazz club pianist. Eugene would attend the University of Missouri in Columbia, then hang out with Virgil in Paris, stay there until the war broke out, and move to London, where he was launched as a painter by Nancy Cunard. He would also write two published books, "smart novels like the English write," Virgil called them. Eugene McCown at that time must also have been dealing with his homosexuality, though Virgil maintained that, for everyone in his circle, homosexual sex did not begin until they got to Paris in the 1920s."

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle by Anthony Tommasini, pg 42


"He [Virgil] had some American friends there, including his old Kansas City companion Eugene McCown, who had been bumming around the French countryside. During the early months of 1922, Gene lived with Virgil. Like authentic Paris bohemians, they spent each other's money, wore each other's clothes, shared meals and--it would appear since the room was so small--a bed. Virgil lived meagerly off his quarterly fellowship payments. But Eugene was quite prosperous."

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle by Anthony Tommasini, pg. 100


Eugene returned to New York for good in 1933. It appears he spent the next few years painting, with exhibits of his work showing up here and there in New York: an 1937 Exhibition of work by artists of the WPA; an 1938 exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and writing: in 1950 he wrote the book The Siege of Innocence (possibly based, in part, on his life).

The last reference of Eugene I have found to date is an interview by Robert Byington and Glen Morgan in NY conducted in the fall of 1964. Based on the interview Eugene appears sickly, possibly on heroin or sick from testicular cancer.

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