Ferro, Robert

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Robert Michael Ferro was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on October 21, 1941. The son of Michael and Gae Panzera Ferro, he was raised in nearby Cranford, New Jersey, with his siblings Michael Jr., Camille, and Beth. While his father was born in America, Ferro's mother had immigrated in 1914 from Italy, a country that would figure prominently in her son’s life and writings.

Ferro attended public school in Cranford and in 1963 received a BA in English from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. After graduation, determined to become a writer, he lived for a year in Florence, Italy, where he studied Italian and wrote fiction. Ferro enrolled at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1965; there he studied with the Chilean novelist Jose Donoso and earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 1967. During his final semester at Iowa, Ferro met Michael Grumley (1941-1988), also a student at the Writers' Workshop, and the two began a two-decade-long personal and professional partnership. Known to their friends as “the Ferro-Grumleys,” the couple lived primarily on New York’s Upper West Side, but also spent extended periods of time in Rome and London. The Ferro family owned an oceanfront home at Sea Girt, New Jersey, which was a place that held particular significance for Robert Ferro: he named the house with a double entendre, “Gaewyck,” and designed extensive improvement campaigns for the property. As recorded in Michael Grumley’s engagement calendars and daily journals, the pair regularly stayed at the shore house, where they gardened, cooked, read books, and entertained friends and family, while still carving out time to work on their writing projects.

Robert Ferro published five books during his lifetime, four novels and one work of non-fiction, Atlantis: the Autobiography of a Search (Doubleday, 1970), that he coauthored with Michael Grumley. His novels formed what he referred to as a “cycle” of semi-autobiographical writings about homosexuality, the family, and illness. He considered the first, The Others (Scribners, 1977) to be a prologue to the rest: The Family of Max Desir (Dutton, 1983), The Blue Star (Dutton, 1985), and The Second Son (Crown, 1988). Ferro thought the last, in which the lead characters are lovers who both have AIDS, to be his best work. Well received by critics, it was one of the earliest published novels in which the disease features prominently.

Michael Grumley and Robert Ferro were affiliated with a literary group known as the Violet Quill, whose seven members, as men writing for men, are regarded as one of the strongest collective voices of the gay male experience in the post-Stonewall era. Authors Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Edmund White, George Whitmore, Ferro, and Grumley met several times in 1979, 1980, and 1981 to read aloud from their works in progress. Also on the agenda were discussions of how they could work together to promote recognition, acceptance, and publication of gay literature beyond the boundaries of their own community. Of the VQ writers, Michael Grumley and Robert Ferro were the first to die from AIDS-related complications, both at age 46 in 1988, Grumley on April 28 and Ferro on July 11; they were followed by Whitmore in 1989 and Cox in 1990.

During the 1980s Ferro gave several interviews occasioned by specific book releases, but because his novels were conceived as a cycle, he generally touched upon them all. To his interviewers he spoke openly about the effect his writings had on his family, in particular his father, who was loving and accepting of his son in private life, but became upset when the family’s storyline was exposed to the public in print. The death of Gae Ferro from cancer in 1979 was also a pivotal point in the family dynamic, which was further stressed when her death precipitated discussions about selling the Sea Girt property. In interviews, Ferro also talked about the external forces that affected his work, including the state of literature, specifically gay literature, and the looming AIDS crisis then beginning to decimate his own and the larger cultural communities. By the end of his life, Ferro was aware of his place in all those worlds, and expressed his belief that one great value gay writers brought to fiction was truth; having already struggled their way out of the closet, there was little left to fear and much to celebrate in prose. As he observed in one of his final interviews, published in the San Francisco Sentinel a few months before his death, “I understand now that I’m a part of a very important movement in American literature. We are an army of people writing a way of life and writing a history.”

From the guide to the Robert Ferro papers, 1963-1988, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Robert Ferro papers, 1963-1988 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Michael Grumley papers, 1910-1988, 1963-1988 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Cleaver, Diane. person
associatedWith Cratsley, Bruce, 1944- person
associatedWith De Combray, Richard. person
associatedWith Elliott, Desmond, 1929-2003 person
associatedWith Grumley, Michael. person
associatedWith Holleran, Andrew. person
associatedWith Iowa Writers' Workshop. corporateBody
associatedWith Kramer, Larry. person
associatedWith Menegas, Peter. person
associatedWith Moses, Charles. person
associatedWith Rist, Darrell Yates. person
associatedWith Rivers, Ann. person
associatedWith White, Edmund, 1940- person
associatedWith Whitehead, William G. (William Grant), 1943-1987 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
AIDS (Disease)


Birth 1941-10-21

Death 1988-07-11


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