Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hartford Gunn, Public Radio & Television Pioneer

Hartford Gunn was the founding president of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), but he was most proud of his success in putting into place the system that connected the PBS network by domestic satellite.

A pioneer in educational television, Gunn (1927-1986) was responsible for getting WGBH radio on the air in Boston in 1951, followed by WGBH-TV in 1955. The station flourished during the 1960s, and Gunn was chosen to head the new Public Broadcasting Service in 1970. Gunn had come to WGBH fresh out of Harvard Business School, at the age of 25, following military service. It was his first civilian full-time job.

Gunn (photo at right) as a new hire at WGBH Boston.

In the dozen years he led the Boston station, Gunn moved it into the front ranks of public broadcasting, positioning it to be one of the nation’s top two public stations. In the course of those years, Gunn created the first interconnected regional network (Eastern Educational Television Network, 1960) while working to assist communities in activating their public broadcasting licenses. He goaded National Educational Television (1954-1970) into adopting higher technical standards, including a major shift into color television.

While at PBS he led the planning for the satellite distribution system that is in place today. While others concentrated on programming, Gunn pushed for more sophisticated technical expertise to bring public television into the living rooms of every American.

Gunn  laboriously testified before state legislatures and the U.S. congress to get a public television network off the ground. During his presidency of PBS, he survived some acrimonious confrontations with the Nixon administration. The hiring of Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil* as principal correspondents for NPACT (National Public Affairs Center for Television) greatly disturbed President Nixon, who saw it as "the last straw" and demanded that all funds for public television be cut immediately. It was Gunn and the folks at PBS who prevailed. Note: The influential “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” aired until MacNeil retired in 1995; it lives on as the PBS NewsHour, and MacNeil is still one of the primary producers.

Gunn was a true “techie” and a serious audiophile, indulging his lifelong interest in classical music. While serving as senior vice-president and general manager of KCET in Los Angeles, he kept a 42-ft. Westsail (the twin of a sail boat owned by his colleague Walter Cronkite) at Marina Del Ray, CA. It was my great fortune to spend extended time on this boat, listening to Gunn as he regaled me with stories of the early days of public broadcasting. Note: the sound system on that boat could have filled a movie palace! A lifelong bachelor, Hartford lived a quiet, discrete homosexual private life.

Gunn went on to serve as vice-president of program development for COMSAT, based in Washington, DC. During that time he moved to nearby Annapolis, MD, where he built a waterfront home with a dock for his sailboat. The equipment to supply the media for his home in Annapolis occupied an entire room, an extravagant indulgence in the early 1980s. At COMSAT, he was largely responsible for setting up the first national satellite-to-home television network in the United States.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that he suffered from a rare form of thyroid cancer, which was treated by radiation, chemotherapy and unsuccessful surgery. He died in Boston at the age of 59, on January 2, 1986. His legacy was carried on by the Hartford Gunn Institute, first based in Illinois, which assisted in developing fundamental plans for building the second generation of public telecommunications.
   
The 21" Classroom goes on the air at WGBH-TV:

From left – Hartford Gunn, Michael Ambrosino, Bill Kiernan (the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education), Gene Gray (everybody's favorite science teacher on TV), and Norman Harris (Science Director, Boston Museum of  Science). The 21-inch Classroom (the name referenced the measurement of a TV screen) first aired in 1958, with programs on the French language, music, literature, social studies and science.

*Robert MacNeil, who has a gay son, famously took part in a panel discussion of news anchors for the 1993 convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. MacNeil, who was once an aspiring actor and playwright, enjoys following the career of his son Ian (born 1960), a set designer who recently won a 2009 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for Billy Elliot: The Musical. In a 1994 episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, father and son openly discussed their relationship.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns: 1835-1921

When his father died when he was only three months old, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was raised by his mother in Paris and continued to live with her until her death. He became one of the world’s most famous composers in his day, and he was a homosexual possessed of a complicated private life, which often revealed his dark side.

Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy (on the level of Mozart), and made his debut as a concert pianist in 1846, before his eleventh birthday. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible experience spread across Europe and as far as the United States, where it was mentioned in an article in a Boston newspaper. Having all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas in ones fingers, ready for concert performance, was an unheard-of feat (then as now), all the more astonishing when offered by a ten year old.

By the age of 13, Saint-Saëns was attending the Paris Conservatory. He soon gained recognition among his peers as an organ virtuoso, eventually attaining the highly coveted position of chief organist at the Madeleine Church in Paris, a post he held from 1858, at the age of 23, until he was 42 years old. His weekly organ improvisations captured the attention of all Paris. As a composer, he was highly versatile, writing operas, symphonies, concertos, much chamber music, masses and other choral works, songs and solo literature for organ and piano. His opera Samson et Dalila still ranks among the standard repertoire of opera houses all over the world. His music was wildly popular during his lifetime, and he was well-connected with other composers, particularly Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. Gabriel Fauré, who was Saint-Saëns's favorite pupil, soon became his closest friend.

His now popular Le Carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals, 1886), for two pianos and orchestra, was intended as a private entertainment for friends, and Saint-Saëns forbade its public performance during his lifetime. The part of the narrator, now frequently included during performance, was added by others after his death. It is a little-known fact that Saint-Saëns had the distinction of being the first noted composer to write a musical score for a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908), featuring actors of the Comédie Française in Paris.

Once called a second Mozart, Saint-Saëns soon made many enemies, who were envious of his stellar success and disdainful of his biting sarcasm. Later in life he was declared to be a “composer of bad music well written.” In old age he came to be mocked for his rabid conservatism, his dislike of modern music, the campaigns he mounted against French composers Claude Debussy and Cesar Franck, his shocked disapproval of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (allegedly infuriated over what he considered the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars) and his insistence, during World War I, that all German music be suppressed. He was never shy with opinion.

Saint-Saëns was a true polymath. In addition to conquering the world of music as composer, conductor, critic, teacher and concert organist and pianist, he excelled in the fields of geology, archaeology, botany, mathematics and lepidoptery. He held discussions with Europe's finest scientists and wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, ancient theatre decoration, and early musical instruments.  Saint-Saëns wrote a philosophical work that spoke of science and art replacing religion, and his pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included poetry and a successful farcical play. He was also a member of the Astronomical Society of France, giving lectures on mirages; he had a telescope made to his own specifications and planned concerts to correspond to astronomical events, such as solar eclipses.

The private life of Camille Saint-Saëns was filled with turmoil. He was homosexual but realized how much marrying would bolster his reputation. Understandably, he showed little outward sign of wanting to marry. However in 1875, at the age of almost 40, he began an affair with nineteen year old Marie-Laure Truffot, which led to marriage. Immediately after their wedding, Saint-Saëns declared that he was too busy for a honeymoon and took Marie straight home to live with his mother. Thereafter the composer treated his wife with deep disdain, until the arrival of children brought out a more sympathetic side. But tragedy intervened when both children died within six weeks of each other in 1878. André, aged two, fell from a fourth floor window, and soon afterward his baby brother Jean became ill and died. Saint-Saëns blamed Marie for the children's deaths, and a short time later he walked out on her in the middle of a holiday trip. Though there was no divorce, Marie never saw him again.

Saint-Saëns was solitary and secretive, prone to disappearing for weeks at a time. He could also be a remarkable host, often entertaining friends lavishly at his Paris home, where his performances in drag were well-known among his circle, particularly his impersonation of Marguerite, the female soprano lead in Charles Gounod's opera Faust. He is reputed to have danced in ballerina tutus for the entertainment of fellow gay composer, Tchaikovsky.

After abandoning his wife, Saint-Saëns traveled extensively. He began spending winters in French-speaking Algeria, which became a favored holiday spot for European homosexuals who enjoyed the adolescent male companionship easily available there. He was quoted as saying, "I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast." Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia in Algiers, at the age of 86, on December 16, 1921.

Have a listen to his hugely popular orchestral work, Danse Macabre. I’m sure you’ll recognize it.
Trivia: Pianist Franz Liszt made an astonishing piano solo transcription of this piece.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stephen Hough

Openly gay poet and pianist

Paderewski: Nocturne (encore at Carnegie Hall recital)



Openly gay classical pianist Stephen Hough was born in England in 1961, although he has held dual citizenship with Australia since 2005 (his father was born in Australia). Hough holds a particular interest in unusual works by pianist-composers of the late nineteenth century, of which this video clip is an example. He plays with wit, charm, sophistication, humor, lyricism and generous doses of style.

Hough also composes and arranges transcriptions for piano solo, and often features his own works in recitals. Of late he has branched out into chamber and choral music. As well, he is a noted writer and researcher, publishing essays and writing album liner notes. He is something of a renaissance man, fully indulging his interests in painting, photography and blogging.

Hough has recorded over fifty CDs, and in 2008 he won the sixth International Poetry Competition*. Hough has spoken, written and blogged about his homosexuality and its relationship to his music-making.

Instead of limiting what we know about him, as is the custom of most classical musicians, Hough is quite open about his weaknesses, about moments when he’s deeply questioned his career choice as a touring musician, about battling ego issues, fighting nerves, and overcoming moments when he says he fails to reach his own high standards. Hearing him talk so openly and honestly about his vulnerabilities opens many to his art. I am a pianist myself, and I regard Hough as one of the top pianists of our time.

*Excerpt from "Early Rose", a prize-winning poem by Stephen Hough

...To the garden, awake,
Tiptoe, quick, go
Slick-stairs down the
Steps to the pre-dew
Night morn before the
Dawn's birth is born.
Follow to the foliage where,
Hidden as the future's
Fall or rise, the rose –
Petals closed – will bud-burst
A billion atoms of beauty...