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.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Leonard Bernstein

*UPDATED January 7, 2024 to include mention of the 2023 bio-film MAESTRO.

 

a gay man who dabbled in the straight world


Bernstein photographed in 1988 at home in Connecticut.


Leonard Bernstein* (1918-1990) was a celebrity American conductor and composer. As principal conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was without peer, so much so that the orchestra had a difficult time recovering when he departed the podium. He composed music for the concert hall, cinema and the theater, making him the most celebrated American composer since George Gershwin.

*He pronounced his surname BURN-stine, not BURN-steen.

Photo:
In the green room at Carnegie Hall 1951, with sister Shirley.

His personal life, however, was one of deception. Bernstein’s homosexual proclivities were undisputed and well documented. Because he married and had children, many people assume he was bisexual. But Arthur Laurents, who collaborated with Bernstein on West Side Story, related that Bernstein was simply "a gay man who got married. He wasn't conflicted about his sexual orientation at all. He was just gay." Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were the four gay Jewish men, all working at the very top of their craft, who created West Side Story, one of the most enduring musicals of the 20th century. Like many gay men of his generation, Bernstein appeared to be a devoted husband and father in public while carrying on a promiscuous homosexual life behind the scenes.

While still a student at Harvard, Bernstein had an affair with his mentor, famed conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, and after a sexual dalliance he became close to gay composer Aaron Copland. Many say that Bernstein chose to marry to dispel rumors about his homosexual activity, which would have made it difficult to secure a major conducting appointment, given the conservative nature of orchestra boards. Bernstein had an on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife Felicia, a Chilean actress, but Bernstein broke off their engagement, telling Felicia that he was homosexual. In spite of this, she continued to pursue him. Their arrangement was such that, so long as he did not embarrass her publicly, he was free to pursue his homosexual affairs.

Photo:
With wife Felicia and children 1956.

A major event in Bernstein's personal life was his decision that he could no longer repress his homosexuality; he left his wife in 1976 to live with  Tom Cothran, his male lover at the time. Bernstein was going to Paris to spend half a year with Cothran, whom Felicia detested. At the Carnegie Hall holiday concert of Peter and the Wolf that year, Lenny conducted and Felicia narrated. The two had been booked long in advance of their personal turmoil, but there was no question of the Bernsteins not fulfilling their obligation. When Bernstein took the podium, the audience went wild. At the end of the concert, an assistant brought a hundred red roses to him. Lenny walked across the stage to hand the roses to Felicia,  but as he did so, she pivoted on her heel and stormed offstage. The giant bouquet fell to the floor with a thwump, and the audience gasped. Afterward, Bernstein was disconsolate, but went through with his plan to join Cothran in Paris. The next year Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Bernstein moved back in to care for her until she died in 1978 (Bernstein himself was to die of progressive lung failure). Most biographies of Bernstein relate that his lifestyle became more excessive and his homosexual activities cruder and less discrete after her death. Cothran died of AIDS in 1981.

Just three years before his marriage, Bernstein visited Israel (1948) and had an affair with Azariah Rapoport, a stunning young Israeli soldier who was his guide. Bernstein was madly in love: "I can't quite believe that I should have found all the things I've wanted rolled into one. It's a hell of an experience – nerve-racking and guts-tearing and wonderful. It's changed everything."

*In late 2023 Netflix released MAESTRO, a biographical film starring Bradley Cooper (with a prosthetic nose) as Bernstein. The screenplay focused on Bernstein's relationship with his wife Felicia and the impact his dalliances with men (often his younger students), alcohol and drug abuse had on their marriage. Cooper directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay.

Professionally, however, Bernstein felt that his homosexuality was a curse. He underwent psycho-analysis with Hungarian-born Dr. Sandor Rado, whose specialty was "curing" homosexual men of their "inversion". Bernstein felt marriage could “save” him from a homosexual life style. (A personal comment here: homosexuality is not a life style. “Preppy” is a life style; homosexuality is a sexual orientation)

A friend of the Bernsteins who was visiting their home recalled finding Bernstein in a hallway making out with a beautiful twenty-year old boy while his wife was sitting by herself in the living room. His wife also suffered the humiliation of receiving phone calls and discovering love letters from her husband's many boyfriends. Shortly after 1973, when Bernstein met the young Tom Cothran (musical director of Radio KKHI-FM in Denver), he became so infatuated with the boy that he allowed his wife to catch them in bed together.

Photo:
With young gay conductor 
Michael Tilson Thomas 1974

After his wife died Bernstein abandoned all caution. By this time addicted to alcohol and drugs, he became open and crude about his homosexual activity. Pianist William Huckaby, after performing at a White House recital, was talking with President Carter when he "felt these hands clamped on my shoulders.” He was whirled around and forced into a deep French kiss right in front of the President, who walked away in astonishment and embarrassment. During his sixties and seventies, Bernstein surrounded himself with an entourage of beautiful boys, each one as intoxicated and obnoxious as his patron.

Many who knew him suggest that Bernstein became frustrated and cantankerous in his later years because he had never able to match the brilliance and popularity of West Side Story (1957), composed when he was in his late thirties. He was forever chasing and trying (unsuccessfully) to live up to his own fame. He also became increasingly intolerant of being called "Lenny" by those outside his inner circle and forever corrected those who pronounced his last name Burn-steen; he pronounced his name closer to the German way, BURN-stine. Bernstein means "amber" in German. In truth, Bernstein had changed his first name to Leonard when he was fifteen years old; he had been born Louis Bernstein.

After Felicia's death, Bernstein dealt with much guilt over how his homosexual activity adversely affected her. Some of this guilt and conflict was expressed in his 1983 opera, A Quiet Place, which tackled issues close to Bernstein’s life. Its story is one of suffering the loss of a loved one and a father’s acceptance of a gay son.

Bernstein's obituary in the New York Times (1990) made clear mention of his homosexuality. Since then many fans still visit his grave at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo: Bernstein at the piano in 1944 at age 26.


Most of the information in this post comes from Meryle Secrest’s “Leonard Bernstein: A Life” and Charles Kaiser's “The Gay Metropolis.”

Note: Bisexuality is a thorny label. Do we call Bernstein bisexual because he married and fathered three children? The recently deceased Arthur Laurents did not think we should. He said Bernstein was a "gay man who married." I go about it this way. If a person has sexual relations regularly with both men and women, then I call that person bisexual. Bernstein's sexual relations before, during and after his marriage were overwhelmingly homosexual, so I agree with Laurents' assessment. The same with actor Anthony Perkins, who did not have a sexual experience with a female until he was 39 years old (he was so closeted and paranoid prior to that time that he insisted on parking blocks away from the homes of his male lovers and arrived at events and restaurants well before or after his boyfriends). Those who knew Perkins said that he'd let nothing stand in the way of his career, and getting married served his career goals. Once he sampled married life, he was so relieved that the gay rumors and suspicions no longer haunted him that he at last settled into a zone comfortable for him. If the gay rumors about George Gershwin proved true, I'd label him bisexual, because he was known to have regular sexual relations with women. Pete Townshend? I call him bisexual, too. Bernstein? Not so much.

And to those many responses in the comments section (below) who tell me that it is not my business to mention Bernstein's sexuality, I draw your attention to the first paragraph at the top of this blog, which I created to give encouragement to young men who were bullied, discriminated against, and/or shunned by their teachers or parents. You can succeed in realizing your life goals -- and it really does get better with age. May you be inspired by the life stories of the men feature here.


Friday, October 27, 2023

Alexander Hamilton

Updated to include reference to Hamilton in the book and movie "Red, White and Royal Blue" (see end of post).

Alexander Hamilton was a United States Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton was the primary author of the economic policies of George Washington’s administration – specifically the funding of state debts by the Federal government, the establishment of a national bank, a system of tariffs and friendly trade relations with England. He became the leader of the Federalist Party, created largely in support of his views.

On March 3, 1777, forty-five year old George Washington hired twenty-two year old Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) to be his personal secretary and aide-de-camp, subsequently promoting him to lieutenant colonel. Of illegitimate birth and raised in the West Indies, Hamilton was educated in New York, where he lived with a 32-year old bachelor male haberdasher, Hercules Mulligan. After his studies, Hamilton was elected to the Continental Congress from that state. He resigned to practice law and subsequently founded the Bank of New York. In 1789, after Hamilton returned from further military service, Washington appointed Hamilton as the first ever Treasury Secretary of the United States. Many researchers suggest that Washington, who was in a life-long childless marriage, and Hamilton likely had an intimate relationship, as well (Hamilton was known to have intimate relations with both men and women). Washington’s otherwise warm relations with Hamilton turned somewhat frosty after Hamilton married a woman following the death of the object of Hamilton’s devotion, John Laurens (1754-1782).

Hamilton and Laurens had an intense, intimate relationship and often compared each other to Damon and Pythias* (!), a euphemism used to denote a devoted gay couple. In 1779, chiding Laurens for not corresponding as often as he would have liked, Hamilton wrote, "like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued." In 1781 Hamilton requested a transfer from Washington’s staff to be able to serve in combat with Laurens, and the request was granted. Hamilton and Laurens engaged in several military campaigns together, but Laurens was tragically killed in a skirmish in 1782. Hamilton was completely devastated.


*In Greek mythology, Pythias, who had been condemned to death by Dionysius, wanted to return home first to put his affairs in order. Damon agreed to be put to death in his friend’s stead, should Pythias not return to face his execution. Pythias returned as promised, sparing Damon’s life. Dionysius was so impressed by the friends’ devotion to each other that he pardoned Pythias and asked to be friends with the two lovers.

Four months prior to John Laurens’s death on the battlefield, Hamilton wrote to Laurens playfully suggesting that Laurens find a wife for him, offering an exaggerated and amusing description of the ideal candidate’s appearance, personality and financial standing ("as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better"). Hamilton then withdrew the suggestion, writing, "Do I want a wife? No – I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all."


Bronze statue of Alexander Hamilton outside Hamilton Hall, overlooking Hamilton Lawn at his alma mater, Columbia University in New York City.

Yet Hamilton did marry late the following year, entering into a union with the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in New York City, where Hamilton resumed his law practice. After the war he  participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When he became president, Washington appointed Hamilton the nation’s first ever Secretary of the Treasury in 1789. However, Hamilton left the poorly-paid Treasury position in 1795 to resume his more lucrative law practice, but he remained a valued adviser to the president and a leader of the Federalist Party.

When the contentious presidential race of 1800 ended in an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives was charged with resolving the impasse. Hamilton famously put the good of his young nation above party loyalty. Because he believed the Federalist candidate, Aaron Burr, would be a disastrous president, Hamilton went on a campaign to urge his fellow party members to vote instead for his longtime political adversary, Thomas Jefferson. Aaron Burr, who received the second highest number of votes, became Vice President, but he  never forgave Hamilton for his defeat. When Burr ran for governor in New York State in 1804, Hamilton's influence in his home state was strong enough to prevent a Burr victory. Taking offense at some of Hamilton's comments, Burr challenged him to a duel in July, 1804, and wounded Hamilton, who died of his injuries shortly thereafter.

Although Hamilton had a fruitful marriage (and eight children), researchers and biographers deem that Hamilton’s relationship with Laurens was the most important romantic and emotional bond of his life. Earlier biographers edited out the most embarrassing and damning paragraphs from Hamilton’s effusive letters to Laurens, but a 1902 biography relates that Laurens "took Hamilton by storm, capturing judgement as well as heart, and loving him as ardently in return." In describing Hamilton's reaction to the death of Laurens, "Hamilton mourned him passionately, and never ceased to regret him. Betsey [Schuyler Hamilton, his wife] consoled, diverted, and bewitched him, but there were times when he would have exchanged her for Laurens." She added, with some regret, "The perfect friendship of two men is the deepest and highest sentiment of which the finite mind is capable; women miss the best in life." Hamilton's grandson, Allen McLane Hamilton, wrote that many of his grandfather's male friends were attracted to his "almost feminine traits." So there you have it.


The memory of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens lives on in San Francisco at the Alexander Hamilton Post 448 of the American Legion, the organization’s only branch comprised primarily of GLBTQ veterans.


Hamilton and Laurens are depicted standing together on the "Surrender of Cornwallis" commemorative U.S. postage stamp released in October of 1981. The stamp was based on a  painting (at right) of the same name commissioned by the U.S. Government in 1817 from painter John Trumbull. In the extreme right of the painting, Hamilton, with hands clasped in front of him, stands in the front row immediately to the right of the ash colored horse with the prominent neck; the similarly dressed John Laurens stands next to him (click to enlarge). This painting hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building.

Hamilton (the musical) is a biographical Broadway musical with music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on a 2004 biography by Ron Chernow. Premiered in 2015, the show's music draws heavily from hip-hop, R&B, pop, soul and traditional-style show tunes. It casts non-white actors as Founding Fathers and historical figures. From its opening, the show received near-universal acclaim and extraordinary box office sales. It won 11 Tony awards, including Best Musical. It also received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A filmed version of the Broadway production was released in 2020. As of this posting, it is still running on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater eight years later. There have also been three successful touring productions, and a separate Chicago production ran for more than three years (September 2016 through January 2020) at the PrivateBank Theater.


 

In May of 2019 a less-than subtle reference to Hamilton's sexuality was included in the publishing of "Red, White and Royal Blue" by American novelist Casey McQuiston. There is a set-up  in the book in which the two male romantic protagonists engage in a steamy kissing scene under a portrait of Hamilton in the White House Red Room. One of the gentlemen is the son of the U.S. President, the other a British prince. A bit of fact checking discloses that, indeed, Hamilton's portrait by John Trumbull hangs to this day in the Red Room, exactly as depicted in the novel. That scene was brought to life in the August 2023 release of the gay rom-com film version, also titled "Red, White and Royal Blue". The movie was spectacularly popular and received high praise from critics. Click on the link below:

Red Room kissing scene

 

And of course, Hamilton’s image graces the U.S. ten-dollar bill in commemoration of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Edgars Rinkēvičs, President of Latvia

 Rinkēvičs Sworn In as President of Latvia

This July (2023) 49-year-old Edgars Rinkēvičs took office as President of Latvia, becoming the first openly gay head of state in a European Union country. He won the national election in May. Your blogger is more than weary of bad news, so this lifts his spirits all the more, because East European countries are generally more conservative and less accepting of gays (Hungary and Turkey, for example). Rinkēvičs was already involved in Latvian politics when he announced he was gay on Twitter in 2014. He speaks fluent English and earned a masters degree from the U.S. National Defense University in Washington DC in the year 2000.

Latvia, located on the Baltic Sea, is a member of both NATO and the EU and supports Ukraine's efforts to stave off Russian aggression. As well, Latvia is a member of the IMF and United Nations. Latvia, once forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, regained its independence in 1991. It is noteworthy that Latvia borders both Russia and Belarus.