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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Manuel María de Falla y Matheu was born into a prosperous family in Cádiz, Spain. His father was Valencian, his mother from Catalonia. Falla studied piano and composition with private tutors before entering the Real Conservatorio de Música in Madrid. His early compositions, written for small ensembles, were heavily influenced by Spanish folk music. He even wrote six zarzuelas (Spanish folk operettas).


In 1907 Falla moved to France, where he was influenced by the impressionists, especially Debussy and Ravel. During this time, he composed the well-received Trois mélodies, based on texts by the homosexual poet Théophile Gautier. His first work of importance, the one-act opera La vida breve (The Brief Life, first  performed in 1913) was followed by the gypsy gitanería (ballet) El amor brujo (Love, the Magician, 1915) and the folk ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat, 1919). The latter was written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and premiered in London with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Diaghilev’s gay lover at the time, Léonid Massine. Falla’s most ambitious symphonic concert work, Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), a nocturne for piano and orchestra, dates from 1916. This work, which became enormously popular, celebrates the bygone sensual and erotic atmosphere of Islamic Spain.

Manuel de Falla was homosexual, and it was widely rumored that he was involved in a menage à trois with French composer Maurice Ravel and Spanish pianist Ricardo Vines. Falla and Ravel were both closely guarded, private and extremely closeted homosexuals, leaving behind no written trace of their liaisons. Only their contemporaries related the relationship to future generations. However, the elegance, sensuality, and erotic suggestiveness of Falla’s music are interpreted by many as overt expressions of de Falla’s homosexuality, better than any written word.

The cultural center of Cádiz, the port city where Falla was born, is today called Gran Teatro Falla, in his honor. It is a magnificent Moorish-revival concert hall (1910) facing Plaza Manuel de Falla.


Significantly, the start of World War I forced his return to Spain. Soon after settling in Madrid, Falla met Federico García Lorca, the gay poet and a future collaborator, who was to become a close friend (see sidebar). In 1919 Falla moved to Granada for more peace and quiet to compose. During this time his home was a celebrated meeting place for Spanish gay intellectuals and artists. He and García Lorca worked on several collaborations, although only a few minor works resulted from their efforts.

Falla’s deep ascetic religiosity led him to be courted by Franco’s Nationalists, whom he saw as a check to the anti-religious sentiment of the Left. Falla was living with his sister when he was appointed President of the Institute of Spain by Franco in 1935. However, despite the high esteem he enjoyed in the eyes of Franco’s Nationalists, the composer was unable to prevent the 1936 execution of his friend and collaborator García Lorca, by then a successful homosexual poet with an international reputation. Falla, disillusioned by the homophobia of the Franco regime, dove even deeper into the closet and resigned his post in 1938. A year later he emigrated to Argentina, where he had been invited to conduct concerts at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Falla remained in Argentina, settling in Alta Gracia in the Sierra Córdoba region, where he was looked after by his sister until his death there in 1946. Franco's government offered him a large pension if he would return to Spain, but he refused. However, his image appeared on Spanish currency notes for many years.


By far the most recognizable Falla composition is Ritual Fire Dance, from El amor brujo (1915). First composed as a chamber piece, it is here played as a piano solo by Sebastien Koch.



By contrast Jota (from Siete Canciones Populares Españolas), written the same year as Ritual Fire Dance, is based on a popular Andalucian song to which Falla added an original harmonic accompaniment, to great effect. Acclaimed Israeli mandolinist Alon Sariel performs this piece with young pianist Nadav Herzka.




An excerpt from Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for piano and orchestra, here performed by legendary pianist Alicia de Larrocha (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal with Charles Dutoit, conductor). Filmed at the Alhambra in the late 1980s (Larrocha died in 2009). En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (3rd movement): Click this link (embedding disabled).
http://youtu.be/TY8o6_7G_Uk

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci

Because Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock in 1452, he was denied both an education and a lucrative profession. Despite the stigma of being a bastard son of a notary and peasant girl, Leonardo went on to master anatomy, astronomy, architecture, botany, cartography, engineering, mathematics, music, poetry, science, optics, sculpture, sketching, geology and, last but not least, painting. The polymath of all polymaths, he also designed machines and drew plans for hundreds of inventions.

When he was 15, Leonardo moved from the village of Vinci to the city of Florence, known both as a great center of art and as a flourishing community of homosexual men (in those days the German word “Florenzer” [Florentine] was the term for a homosexual). When he was 24, Leonardo and three other youths were arrested in Florence on a sodomy charge. An anonymous tip alerted the magistrate of the city that a 17-year-old male was a gay prostitute, and Leonardo was listed as one of four patrons. No witnesses appeared against them, and eventually the charges were dropped. However, two months later Leonardo was again accused and this time jailed for two months, until an uncle arranged for his release. Leonardo never married, had any children or showed any interest in women, and he wrote in his notebooks that male-female intercourse disgusted him. Leonardo dealt with this controversy by leaving Florence to settle in Milan.

Thereafter Leonardo took pains to keep his homosexual life private, but he nevertheless always surrounded himself with attractive men. Although he started writing his journals in code, his art reflected his love of male beauty, and the models he used were sexually desirable young men. His relationship with the beautiful curly-haired Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno (note Leonardo's painting of Caprotti at beginning of post), a former pupil, lasted twenty five years. For the last ten years of his life, Leonardo’s companion was a much younger nobleman, who would later serve as the executor of Leonardo’s estate.

When Leonardo died in 1519, Caprotti (better known as Salaì, meaning “little Devil”) inherited half a vineyard and several works of art, among them the Mona Lisa painting, now regarded as the world’s most famous portrait. Although Leonardo described Salaì as "a liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton," Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 20 years, eventually training him as an artist. If Salaì had merely been a servant or pupil, he would have been dismissed.  Although Salaì stole from him on numerous occasions, Leonardo spent lavishly on clothing for his “kept” boy, even purchasing the 24 pairs of shoes the lad desired. What we do for love.

Many art historians believe that Salaì was the model for Leonardo’s homoerotic painting of John the Baptist. Salaì, a painter of modest talent, even created a nude version of the Mona Lisa, known as the Monna Vanna (shown at right). A page of drawings by Leonardo includes a sketch depicting Salaì from behind, pursued by a horde of penises on legs. I’m not making this up. We might have more of these had a pious priest not destroyed the bulk of Leonardo’s erotic gay sketches.

Leonardo eventually sent Salaì on his way, replacing him with a very young nobleman, Franceso Melzi, who described Leonardo’s affections as “a passionate and most fiery love.” Public knowledge of Leonardo’s homosexuality extended beyond his lifetime. In 1563, a book by Gian Paolo Lamazzo included a fictional dialogue between an interviewer and Leonardo. When being queried about the nature of Leonardo’s relationship with Salaì, Leonardo was asked, “Did you play the game from behind which the Florentines love so much?” Leonardo replied, “And how! Keep in mind that he was a beautiful young man, especially when about the age of fifteen.”

Undisputedly, Leonardo possessed the greatest mind of the Italian Renaissance. He wanted to know the workings of what he saw in nature. His inventions and scientific studies were centuries ahead of their time. He was the standard of ingenuity, and his intellectual inquisitiveness was the epitome of the Renaissance spirit. Six centuries later, the world is still in awe.

The following is from Serge Bramly's 1991 great biography of Leonardo:

No other personality was so intimidating, no other career so difficult to encompass, so biographers often resort to the assumption that Leonardo embodied some superhuman quality: "il divino". Vasari (a contemporary biographer of Leonardo) wrotes "there is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might. With his right hand he could twist an iron horseshoe as if it were made of lead. In his liberality, he welcomed and gave food to any friend, rich or poor." His kindness, his sweet nature, his eloquence (his speech could bend in any direction the most obdurate of wills) his regal magnanimity, his sense of humor, his love of wild creatures, his terrible strength in argument, sustained by intelligence and memory, the subtlety of his mind which never ceased to devise inventions, his aptitude for mathematics, science, music, poetry. What's more, Leonardo was himself a man of physical beauty beyond compare.

Leonardo trivia:
He slept a paltry two hours a day.
A left-handed dyslexic, he tried to paint with both hands.
He was a stern self critic, destroying most of his work.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Jerome Zerbe

Society photographer Jerome Zerbe (1904-1988) was born of privilege in Euclid, Ohio. He was an originator of a genre of photography that is now known as “celebrity paparazzi.” In the 1930s Zerbe was a pioneer of shooting photographs of famous people at play and on-the-town. However, he differed from his successors in a major way – Zerbe was of the same social class as his photographic subjects, and he arrived at high society parties with his own engraved invitation in hand. He often traveled and vacationed with the stage and film stars he photographed.

Some of his best known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves shaving, playwright Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch at “21” with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus legendary stars Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, writer Dorothy Parker, boxer Gene Tunney, author Thomas Wolfe and the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family.

Zerbe’s mother was Susan Eichelberger*, the child of a successful railroad lawyer in Urbana, Ohio, and his father was a prominent and prosperous businessman, owner of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Coal Company. Two of his uncles were lawyers in Urbana, another the Superintendent of West Point. Jerome’s mother was so beautiful and possessed of such a captivating voice that, while once visiting New York City,  she received a serious offer from a theatrical impresario to star in a play, and she accepted. When her parents found out, they dispatched an uncle to return her to the “safety” of Urbana. Her family’s social standing was such that they subscribed to the mandate that a woman’s name should appear in print only three times: at birth, upon marriage, and at death.

*There is a street named Eichelberger in Urbana, Ohio.

Young Jerry Zerbe was driven to public school in the family limousine, which got him beaten up by bullies. He survived well enough to make it through Yale. A supreme social networker, he gained important social prominence in New Haven, which later would serve him well in New York, London and Paris, where he studied art. Soon after graduation from university he went to Hollywood to try his hand at drawing portraits of famous film stars. He was befriended by Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Marion Davies and Paulette Goddard. Soon enough he picked up a camera, photographing stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as mere hopefuls, who, before they became famous, would pose for him with few, if any, clothes.

He was for years the official photographer of Manhattan’s famed Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and fabled nightspot El Morocco, the places to see and be seen at the time. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by a nightclub to photograph its visitors, before giving away the photos to the gossip pages of print media. For over 40 years, Jerome Zerbe traveled the world taking pictures of celebrities, amassing an archive of over 50,000 photographs.

Below: 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor (center) and first husband Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. (right) at El Morocco in 1950.



After taking up residence in New York City, he served as art director of Parade magazine and photographer and society editor for Town and Country. Zerbe also contributed photographs to Life and Look magazines and was a Navy photographer during World War II. He was the author of several books of photographs, including Happy Times (1973), which includes his photographs from the El Morocco years. A trip to Paris to photograph estates and country homes (and their occupants) led to a secondary career as an architectural photographer.

Romantically, Zerbe’s most significant relationship was with syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe (1902-1966), who made almost embarrassingly frequent and flattering references to Jerome in his newspaper column “This New York,” read by millions each morning. Beebe was so wealthy and possessed of such a confident personality that he became one of the first members of high society who lived as an openly gay man. When questioned about his sexual orientation, Beebe could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.

In 1988 Jerome Zerbe died at age 85 at his New York City apartment on Sutton Place. Oh, I forgot to mention that Jerome was credited with having invented the vodka martini.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times

Below: Lovers Cary Grant and Randolph Scott photographed "at home" by Zerbe (1933):