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, October 6, 2015

Gowns by Adrian

Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard famously said, “We had faces then.” That’s true. But even more importantly, the female stars of Hollywood’s golden age had clothes.

Adrian Greenburg (1903-1959, shown at left with Greta Garbo in the pajamas he designed for her in The Single Standard (1929), generally known by the name Adrian alone, was a Connecticut born Hollywood costume designer famous for The Wizard of Oz and other MGM films of the 1930s and 1940s. During his 25-year career, “Gowns by Adrian” was a credit attached to more than 230 films. He created the padded shoulder look that Joan Crawford made famous. He dressed Greta Garbo* for virtually her entire movie career.

The December 1932 issue of Fortune magazine wrote an in-depth piece about MGM’s success. Focusing on Irving Thalberg, the studio executive in charge of production at the time, he said that the praise for MGM’s success should really go to two others – art director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Gilbert Adrian, as he was known for a while (Gilbert Adrian was a combination of his and his father's first names).

Born Adrian Adolph Greenburg (his last name is often misspelled with three “e”s) on March 3, 1903, he graduated from Naugatuck High School (Connecticut) in 1920. His parents, Gilbert and Helena Greenburg, were Jewish immigrants who owned a millinery shop on Church Street.

Adrian studied art at the New York School for Fine Arts and Design (now the Parsons School of Design), then transferred to the school’s Paris campus, where American composer Irving Berlin admired one of Adrian’s costumes on a model. Seeking fresh material for his next project, Berlin asked Adrian to join him in New York to work on costume designs for the show Music Box Revue.

Although openly gay, in 1939 Adrian entered into a lavender marriage with actress Janet Gaynor, the lover of Mary Martin, in response to the anti-gay attitudes of movie studio heads, particularly Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM studios.

In 1925 Adrian (at left) became head costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille's independent film studio. When DeMille moved to MGM, Adrian became chief costume designer at the studio, where he went on to design costumes for over 200 films. Among them were George Cukor's 1939 film, The Women, filmed in black and white; it originally included a 10-minute fashion parade in Technicolor, which featured Adrian's most outré designs. Often cut in TV screenings, the segment was restored to the film by Turner Classic Movies.

During this time, Adrian worked with some of the biggest female stars of the day like Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After leaving MGM, he established his own fashion house, which produced designs sold through Macy's department store. He also produced fragrances, notably"Saint" and "Sinner" perfumes and "Gilbert" cologne.

After suffering a heart attack in 1952, Adrian closed his business and retired to a ranch in Brazil, where he spent his time painting landscapes. He returned to California in 1958 to design costumes for two stage musicals. Before competing Camelot, he suffered a second, fatal heart attack in 1959 at the age of 56. However, there was rumor and speculation at the time that his death was actually a suicide.

*Garbo's film Camille (1936) is considered to be an entirely gay film, because every actor (notably Robert Taylor) and actress involved, as well as the director (Cukor) and all the designers, were either gay or bisexual.

Adrian's famous costume design for Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story (1940):

...and for Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933):

...not to mention Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel (1932):

...and Miss Crawford again in Letty Lynton (1932):

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tennessee Williams

Of Streetcars, Menageries, Cats & Iguanas
America's Greatest Playwright

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright whose works included classics such as A Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all made into films. A native of Missouri, his given name was Thomas Lanier Williams, later legally changed to “Tennessee,” because he spent summers there with his mother’s parents, who lived in Memphis. They had paid his college tuition.

Because his real interest while growing up was reading, rather than sports, his alcoholic father taunted him by calling him “Miss Nancy.”  Tennessee’s sister Rose was mentally ill, and her parents had a lobotomy performed on her, for which Tennessee never forgave them.

This unpleasant family situation, however, inspired strong characters in his plays. His mother was the model for Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and his father was the inspiration for Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After two years of college Tennessee left school because of his family’s financial setbacks and poor grades. He took a job as a shoe salesman for his father, but he hated the job and lapsed into severe depression, leading to a nervous breakdown.

At age twenty eight Williams moved to New Orleans, a city that inspired his subsequent writing, notably A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1945, The Glass Menagerie, a play he'd been working for some years, opened on Broadway to great acclaim; the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the best new play of the year. A Streetcar Named Desire opened two years later, and his life was forever changed. This play earned Williams his first Pulitzer Prize and another Drama Critics’ Award, establishing him as one of America’s great playwrights. These plays also introduced a signature character type, that of the faded Southern belle.

Shortly after A Streetcar Named Desire opened, Tennessee sailed for Europe to recover from the physical and emotional strain of writing and producing the play, leading to his belief that he would never write again. A long, unproductive period followed, during which the playwright took to excessive drinking, consuming huge quantities of pills and engaging in promiscuous gay sex. When he failed to show up for a gala in his honor at the London premiere of The Glass Menagerie, his mother later received a telegram from Tennessee stating that he had fallen unconscious after taking sedatives. This event served as a wake-up call, and he returned to the States a short time later.

Before Williams had left for Europe, a one-night stand in Provincetown, Massachusetts, served as an introduction to the man who would become the love of his life. Upon Tennessee’s return to NYC in 1948, while eating at a deli on Lexington Avenue he recognized Frank Merlo, a truck driver, from their tryst a year earlier. A few weeks later Merlo moved in with Williams, and the pair fell hopelessly in love. Frank cleaned the apartment, cooked all the meals, acted as chauffeur and managed correspondence. More importantly, Merlo gradually weaned Williams off dependence on alcohol, casual sex and pills. This newly stable home life allowed Tennessee Williams once again to  concentrate on writing. Frank, of Sicilian heritage, was the inspiration for the lead character in the playwright’s next creation, a play called The Rose Tattoo, which was honored at the Tony Awards as the best new play of 1951.

When Williams was writing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he was filled with anxiety and doubt, fearful that he could not match the excellence and acclaim of A Streetcar Named Desire. Merlo (seated in photo) encouraged and coddled Williams through this difficult process during 1954. The play opened to rave reviews, earning Williams his third Drama Critics’ Award and a second Pulitzer. Tennessee was so grateful for Frank’s support during the writing of that play that he gave him ten percent of the profits. While writing his next major success, The Night of the Iguana, this situation was repeated. Merlo smoothed over Tennessee’s next crisis of confidence leading up to the play’s opening in 1961. Time Magazine honored the play’s great success by placing Tennessee Williams on its cover, and the inside text dubbed Williams “America’s greatest playwright.”

The public knew nothing of Tennessee’s sexual orientation or his relationship with Frank Merlo. Although Williams never denied being gay, such things were not written about at the time. Unfortunately, cracks began to develop in their relationship. Merlo had insisted that Williams be sexually faithful to him, a near impossibility for the playwright. Also, Frank had no career outside providing domestic and professional support for Tennessee. When both men were in California during the filming of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee forgot to introduce Frank to Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers. Warner walked up to Merlo and asked, “And what do you do, young man?” Frank replied, “My job is to sleep with Mr. Williams.” Even worse, Williams had begun to return to alcohol and drugs on the sly. When Merlo found out about it, he felt betrayed.

Merlo had been a four-pack-a-day smoker, and by the early 1960s he had developed a hacking cough. In 1962 he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died the following year, at age forty one. Devastated, Williams relapsed into a seven-year period of depression, promiscuous sex, alcohol abuse and drug use. None of his subsequent plays matched the quality of his earlier works, and many were received with poor reviews. The downward spiral became so pronounced that in 1969 Tennessee’s brother checked him into rehab; within the first two days of treatment Williams suffered two heart attacks and three seizures. 

A bright spot occurred in 1979 when he received recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors. The following year President Carter bestowed upon him the Medal of Freedom. But Williams was never able to cast aside his demons. While surrounded by bottles of wine and pills, Williams died in his suite at the Elysée Hotel in New York City on February 25, 1983, the result of choking to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops. Some researches dispute that account of his death, suggesting that a combination drug/alcohol overdose was a more likely cause. In any event, that ninth floor mid-town Manhattan hotel suite had been his home for the last fifteen years of his life. Williams was seventy one years old at the time of his death, and an obituary in the Los Angeles Times stated, “His longtime companion of 15 years, Frank Merlo, died of cancer in 1963. After that, the playwright said, 'Everything sort of fell apart'.”

Note: Astonishingly, most Internet sources for information on Tennessee Williams make no mention of Frank Merlo.

Sources for this blog post:

Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples
(2012) by Rodger Streitmatter

Thursday, August 27, 2015

James Costos, Ambassador to Spain

Same-sex Partners Occupy
U. S. Ambassador's Residence

When former HBO executive James Costos (b. 1963) was named the United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra in 2013, his partner of 15 years, interior designer Michael Smith (Ambassador Consort?), moved in with him to occupy the ambassador’s residence in Madrid. Although they became one of the first same-sex couples to make their home in an embassy, Ambassador Costos says he and Smith were welcomed as any other ambassador would be, even though Spain is overwhelmingly Catholic (93%). In spite of religious cultural influence, same sex marriage was legal in Spain (since 2005) many years before it became law in the United States.

Costos was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate on August 1, 2013. When the Obama family spent a 3-day Father's Day weekend with Costos and Smith at their Palm Springs home last year, the press was mute. This is an indication of how much progress has been made regarding same sex couples. Imagine the hoopla that would have ensued if either the Bush or Clinton families had resided under the roof of a same sex couple.

In addition to the ambassador's residence in Madrid, Costos and Smith maintain a penthouse in New York City, a residence in Holmby Hills, CA, and a third abode in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs). The well-heeled pair met by striking up a conversation on a commercial flight 15 years ago. They have since become an international power couple, and an invitation to their official residence in Spain is much coveted by anybody who is anybody. When they are together in Madrid, Smith refers to his partner as "the Ambassador," as in "Where is the Ambassador at the moment?"

Michael Smith (seated) and Ambassador Costos at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Madrid, with Glenn Ligon's neon art sign, "Double America." (Photo: James Rajotte)

High-profile designer Smith, whose business is based in Los Angeles, has been the White House decorator since 2008 and is responsible for the 2010 refurbishment of the Oval Office and the Obama’s private quarters (2009). At that time Smith was also appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. He spends one week a month in Madrid with Costos and works the rest of the time at his office in California, where he oversees a staff of 40. Smith has tweaked the embassy interiors, especially with artwork and decorative accessories, which the couple plans to leave behind for subsequent ambassadors to enjoy. Much of the refurbishment and entertainment expenses have come out of their own pockets.

Costos is concentrating his efforts on Spain’s economic recovery, stressing youth entrepreneurship as a path to tackle Spain's high unemployment rates.