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, 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.

Friday, August 21, 2015

George Forrest & Robert Wright

Robert Wright (1914-2005) and George Forrest (1915-1999, b. George Forrest Chichester, Jr.) were professional and life partners for over seventy years. They worked as a team writing music and lyrics for film, stage and club acts. While both men were credited equally as composer-lyricists, it was George who worked chiefly with the music. Although their specialty was providing lyrics for melodies from classical compositions, their output also included much original musical material, such as their score for Grand Hotel (1989). They worked exclusively with each other throughout their careers, and the peak of their creative output was during the late 1930s while under contract with M-G-M.

However, Wright and Forrest were best known for the 1953 Broadway musical and 1955 musical film Kismet, for which they had adapted musical themes by Alexander Borodin. Enduring songs from that show include Baubles, Bangles and Beads, Stranger In Paradise and And This Is My Beloved. The pair won a Tony award for their work on Kismet, and in 1995 they were awarded the ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers Award. They also received three Academy Award nominations for Best Song.

Wright and Forrest provided scores for dozens of films, chief among them After the Thin Man (1936), Boystown (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), Our Gang Follies (1938), The Women (1939), I Married an Angel (1941) and Song of Norway (1970, adapting the music of Edvard Grieg). They wrote the hit song The Donkey Serenade (based on a musical theme by Rudolf Friml) along with composer Herbert Stothart. In total they worked together on over 50 films, 18 stage productions, and 13 TV specials, writing 2,000 songs during the course of their careers.

The two men met as Miami High School classmates in 1929. While still a teenager Wright was working as a pianist accompanying silent films, and he conducted his own high school orchestra. He met fourteen-year-old Forrest when George auditioned for the school’s glee club, and the two soon became lovers. They later auditioned as a pair for M-G-M in the mid-1930s and moved to Hollywood for the duration of their contract, which lasted until 1942.

The Wright and Forrest relationship represents the longest-running songwriting collaboration in the history of American show business.

Alfie Boe, who starred in a 2007 revival of Kismet, sings Stranger in Paradise. For those impatient types, the music starts at the 0:45 timing mark:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jerome Zerbe & Lucius Beebe

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.


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.

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





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 (photo below) could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.






Beebe also wrote 35 books, and I just now got around to reading one that's been on my Kindle for well over a year: The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966)

Written in florid, effusively dated language, this was Beebe’s last (35th) book, detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways. Part of the fun of reading this is being introduced to characters now long forgotten. We all know the peccadillos of the Astors and Vanderbilts, but Beebe introduced me to Mrs. Kate Moore (1846-1917), an heiress from Pittsburgh, who became one of the leading figures in Paris high society, especially among the expatiate Americans. She entertained lavishly, and she commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint her several times. Sargent wrote to Henry James about her in 1884, “I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman [Mrs Kate Moore]. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying.”

Beebe’s comment about this inveterate social climber, who bought her way into society, “(she) departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips to everyone.”

Then there’s Spencer “Spec” Penrose (1865-1939, owner of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Hotel), who  maintained active membership in the Pacific Union, San Francisco’s most exclusive and expensive gentlemen’s club on the top of Nob Hill, as long as he lived. When asked why he remained a member of a club he never used, he replied, “My God, man. I might want a drink out there.” The idea of drinking in a public premises never occurred to him, and the thought that he might not want a drink at any place, any time, was equally unthinkable.

After graduating last in his class at Harvard, he was enticed to Colorado in the 1890s by his Philadelphia neighbor Charles Tutt, and Spec was soon engaged working in Tutt’s real estate offices in Cripple Creek. He and Tutt went on to make unfathomable fortunes in gold, copper and mineral milling. So flush with cash, Penrose once left himself a note on his bedside table not to spend more than a million dollars the next day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Penrose made a personal assay of Cripple Creek, a howling wilderness and suburb of hell whose Myers Avenue was the widest-open red-light district anywhere outside Butte, Montana, and whose three booming railroads were daily rolling up the hill with palace cars filled with additional girls, madams, hard-rock miners, anarchists, three-card monte men, tippers of the keno goose, whiskey salesmen, confidence-game artists, eastern capitalists, newspaper reporters, and real estate speculators. Penrose liked what he saw.”

Once he had left Philadelphia and resettled to Colorado in 1892, “the only criticism anybody had was of Spec’s clothes. He wore beautifully tailored riding breeches and English boots that cost $100 a pair. Apprised that the community considered him a dude in some respects, Penrose at once sent East for a suit of evening tails and a half dozen opera hats and started dressing for dinner. There were a few catcalls at first, but most of the roughnecks who took exception to his attire were out of the hospital as good as new in two or three weeks.”

After being rebuked by the management of the fabled Antlers hotel in Colorado Springs for riding his saddle horse up the front steps and into the lobby bar, Penrose’s gesture of retaliation was to build the Broadmoor Hotel in 1918 (at the then cost of $3,000,000), all the while stealing from The Antlers the hotel manager and its chef de cuisine, paying them double the salary they had been making at their former employ.

“Once in the 1930s Spec stopped briefly in Philadelphia to see a friend and visit his birthplace at 1331 Spruce Street. It had not been occupied for years, and not a piece of furniture had been moved in over a half century. An ancient butler met the master at the door as though he had only left that morning. A venerable cook appeared to get her orders for dinner. Penrose had kept it that way as a sort of family shrine, a memorial to his youth impervious to the hostile winds of change.”

Upon his death in 1939, Penrose’s $125,000,000 fortune was the largest sum ever filed for probate in the Rocky Mountain region.

If you are fascinated by this sort of thing, this is your book. Available in e-reader formats.