‘Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero’
By F. Valentine Hooven III
Sometimes, you can’t worry about other people’s thoughts.
You can listen to them but you don’t have to hear them because there are days when making yourself happy supersedes any outside opinion, when you need to pay closer attention to you. As in the new biography “Tom of Finland” by F. Valentine Hooven III, sometimes what makes you joyful today can become a calling.
Born in the mid-spring of 1920 in Kaarina, Finland, young Touko Laaksonen was raised in a community of lumberjacks and farmers. He was fascinated by those “well-muscled laborers” but he didn’t quite know why until he was an adolescent.
By the time Touko understood that he was homosexual, he’d become talented at sketching the men he saw although, purely for his own enjoyment and sexual relief, he depicted those men naked and for that, he had to hide his work. He hid who he was, too: as a young man, he had a girlfriend, worked in a male-dominated world of advertising, and even served in the Finnish army during World War II, where he sketched his uniformed “buddies” as gifts for their wives and girlfriends.
Uniforms. Touko couldn’t resist a man wearing one, and they were featured in what he called “my dirty drawings.” Those drawings included uniformed Nazi officers, artwork that got Touko “into trouble,” but had he gotten caught in his habit of having illegal, exceedingly risky anonymous sex with random men during the war, it could have been far worse.
Post-war, art was enough for Touko the sexual being. Though he had a lover (a word he claimed to dislike), art was again his release, more than any other physical act. This desire for erotica grew his portfolio throughout the 1950s, and he carefully shared it with “anyone he thought would appreciate it” – including a publisher of a new kind of international magazine, who immediately accepted it for publication.
A year later, that magazine’s cover featured “a new, exciting, never-before-published artist” who now called himself Tom of Finland.
Let’s acknowledge this up front: “Tom of Finland” is absolutely filled with reproductions of Tom’s artwork from the 1940s through 1991, when he died. Nearly every bit of it’s explicit in nature, drawn in typical over-the-top, over-endowed Tom of Finland style.
That artwork is why readers should turn their eyes away, and toward the narrative.
Author F. Valentine Hooven III explains quite often in this biography – which was finished just before Tom’s death but never before published – how dangerous the mere creation of his art was for Tom of Finland: literally, many times, the drawings could have gotten him jailed or killed. This changes the meaning of the artwork, and it gives modern readers a sense of the amount of secret-keeping a gay man had to abide, pre-Stonewall.
Though Hooven’s voice can be annoyingly sunny at times, the courageous turn this story takes is irresistibly appealing, so find it. Savor it once, first, for the artwork; then, for a story that’ll fascinate you. Indeed, “Tom of Finland” will make you happy.
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