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.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

John Cheever

Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist and short story author John Cheever (1912-1982) suffered from many demons, chiefly a debilitating alcoholism. Two years after his death his daughter Susan wrote a memoir, Home Before Dark, in which she mentioned her father’s guilt-inducing bisexuality, revealing that at the end of his life, when he had dried out, he found love with “Rip,” a former student whose real name is Max Zimmer. Rip moved in with Cheever and his wife Mary, driving the esteemed author to medical treatments and chopping wood for the fireplace. Max even served as a pall bearer at Cheever’s funeral and sat with the family during the service. While Rip was living in Cheever’s household, however, Cheever was so determined to give the appearance of a 100% heterosexual male that he took Rip out to the woods in order to have sex. Before Mary’s death she nevertheless said that she knew what was going on all along.

Susan’s brother Benjamin later edited a volume of Cheever’s letters, writing in his introduction how difficult it had been learning the extent of his father’s homosexual activity, even though Cheever had come out to Benjamin two weeks before his death. With the 2009 publication of Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey, Susan Cheever said that she was astonished to learn how much gay activity there had been in her father’s life. Among his dalliances were relations with photographer Walker Evans, writer Calvin Kentfield, Tom Smallwood, Allan Gurganus and various male prostitutes – all of it leading to a toxic form of self hatred, for which Cheever was nearly unmatched.

After Cheever’s death from cancer, his widow Mary continued to live in their Westchester County, NY, home for more than thirty years. After Mary’s death last year at the age of 95, the five acre property once occupied by the “Chekhov of the suburbs” was put up for sale. The resulting media blitz in newspapers and magazines brought Cheever's name back from the dust bin, warts and all, including  knowledge of Cheever’s bisexuality and near death from alcoholism. If any good came from this, the publicity introduced his writing to a younger generation which had not read any of his novels or short stories.

Cheever wrote five novels and many dozens of short stories (many first published in the New Yorker), for which he won Pulitzer prizes, National Book Critics Circle awards, and the National Medal for Literature. As well, his work has been included in the Library of America.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Gus Kenworthy

Olympic Skier Reveals that He Is Gay 

Olympic champion freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy (b. 1991) revealed earlier this week that he is gay. He became the first action sports figure to come out as gay. The British-born American, who now lives in Colorado and competes in slopestyle and halfpipe, won the silver medal in Men's freestyle skiing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“I feel just amazing to have it out there,” Kenworthy said in an interview. “It feels like a huge weight’s been taken off of my shoulders. I’ve been completely floored by the response that I’ve gotten. Everyone’s been so supportive and so kind with what they’ve said.” Gus, who says he has known he was gay since he was five years old, appeared on the cover of this week's ESPN magazine, the venue he chose for his coming out story.

 Peter Hapak for ESPN

Kenworthy gained international media attention as a result of his efforts to rescue five stray dogs that hung around the media center of the Olympic village. He stayed behind for more than a month to save the family of dogs. Kenworthy arranged for their eventual adoption, calling further attention to the problematic rise of the stray dog population in Sochi, which grew significantly during the Olympics.

William "Billy" Haines

Out & Gay in Hollywood

William “Billy” Haines was born the evening of January 1, 1900, at the start of a new century, in Staunton, a railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (my home state!). Although it is still possible to to stand in awe before the house he was born in, the small city of Staunton doesn't make a fuss over its famous citizen, likely because so few people are still alive who remember his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom. 

He has my never-ending admiration, because he stood up to movie studio heads, refusing to "pretend" to be straight for the sake of the publicity machines. He chose dignity and respect for his lover over hypocrisy and ill-gotten fame. Haines, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and others were all told that their movie careers would be over if they came out of the closet. Out of those men, only Haines had the courage to defy the studios; the others chose to enter into sham relationships or marriages to cover up their sexual orientation.

While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and their like tried to put one over on the public, Haines chose an honest life, and did one better for himself. He switched careers, becoming fabulously wealthy as an interior designer to the stars. While he never left the glamorous world of Hollywood, he never again stood before a camera. Surprisingly, he had not longed to be a movie star, nor did he dream about being a decorator. Haines, an exceptionally bright and talented young man, recognized opportunity when it was thrust in front of him, and he took advantage of it. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. Astonishingly, he reached the pinnacle of success in successive careers for which he had no training.

Haines was the grandson of one of Staunton's most prominent citizens, but at age 14 (!) he ran away from home with his boyfriend and opened a dance hall in Hopewell, VA, a city so known for wickedness and lawlessness that it was called "Sin City." His place of business, like everything else in the town, was burned to the ground in a great fire in 1915. Rather than go back to Staunton, he struck out for New York City, where he took a factory job at age 16. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Haines soon returned to Virginia to help support his family; his mother was pregnant, and his bankrupt father was in a mental institution following a breakdown. At 19 he returned to NYC, where an elderly gentleman arranged a job for Billy at a brokerage firm. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village for two years, becoming friends with Archie Leach (later known as Cary Grant), who was then in a gay relationship with costume designer Orry-Kelly. 

Restless and opportunistic, Haines found work as a model. He sent in his photograph to the "New Faces of 1922" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn – and won. A screen test followed, and he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the leading silent film stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Haines was named the leading male film star for 1930. His closest friend was Joan Crawford, much less well-known at the time. William Haines appeared in over fifty films, was the first MGM star to speak on film, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just a few feet from the entrance to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929. 

Haines with co-star Joan Crawford in West Point (1928): 

However, gossip about his openly gay life threatened his leading man image, and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: deny his homosexuality by engaging in a sham marriage or be shown the door. Haines refused to lie about his personal life, and Mayer did not renew his contract. He never worked in films after 1934, but pursued a stupendously successful career as an interior designer, which made him a multi-millionaire. Billy's life-long adage was, "One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste."

His Hollywood clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were frequent guests at his house. In 1969, most importantly, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Many of his original furniture designs are still produced for the high end interior design trade.

Winfield House, the U. S. Ambassador's House in London, as decorated by William "Billy" Haines.

From the mid 1920s Haines lived openly with his lover Jimmy Shields (his former movie stand in) for nearly 50 years. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." Haines died from lung cancer at the age of 73. Two months afterward, a grief-stricken Shields put on Haine’s pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and died in his sleep. Their ashes are interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, CA.

The dashing Billy Haines with actress Anita Page.

William Haines, dashingly handsome in a white suit, acting opposite his best friend Joan Crawford in a flirty, comic scene from Spring Fever (1927). Haines and Crawford remained devoted friends until Haines’ death in 1973. Every time she changed husbands, Haines redecorated her home. Kept him busy.