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, March 2, 2015

Edward Tanner, a.k.a. Patrick Dennis

Edward Everett Tanner III was born in 1921 in Illinois into a prominent family of staunch Republicans. Edward, nicknamed "Pat", was a popular high school student who excelled in writing and theater. In 1942, at the age of 21 he joined the American Field Service, working as an ambulance driver in North Africa and the Middle East. After WW II he married Louise Stickney, with whom he had two children, even though he had struggled with homosexual leanings his entire adult life.

Under an assumed name at the age of 36 he wrote a best-selling novel, which remained on the NYT Bestseller list for more than two years, selling more than 2 million copies in the first edition. A year later he became the first writer to have three books on the NYT Bestseller list at the same time. His books were mostly biting social satires which almost single-handedly introduced "camp" into mainstream American culture. He also wrote several books under the female pseudonym, Virginia Rowans.

Tanner made millions from his 16 books and became the toast of New York society. His novels were made into wildly popular films, plays, television series and musicals, but by the 1970s his writing style had fallen out of fashion. A week after he was profiled in Life magazine, he attempted suicide and was committed to a mental hospital for eight months. After years of leading a double life as a gay man, he had fallen in love with another man and decided he had to abandon his family. He had always been a profligate spender, and by the time he left his wealthy wife, he was broke and had to go to work as a butler, a job he actually enjoyed. Giving full vent to his homosexual orientation, he became a fixture in the Greenwich Village gay scene in New York.

His employers at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Croc (founder of McDonalds), had no idea that their butler, Edward Tanner, was in fact the writer Patrick Dennis, author of Auntie Mame, which in stage, movie and musical forms would provide Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury with major theatrical roles.

Mr. Dennis died from pancreatic cancer in 1976, at the age of 55, his days as a dilettante long behind him. In the year 2000 his ashes were interred with the body of his wife Louise in St. James’s Cemetery in Stony Brook, Long Island.

Note: I can especially recommend an obscure book by Mr. Dennis: Tony (1966). The narrator, whose name is never disclosed, meets Tony, a name-dropping scoundrel, when they become college roommates. Tony is a complete fraud and a pathological liar, yet the narrator chronicles their decades long love-hate friendship in hilarious style. Tony morphs into whatever form will get him ahead. An inveterate social climber, even Tony’s sexuality is “fluid” when a wealthy homosexual man falls in love with him (the man’s mother writes a very large check to have Tony fly the coop). Many aspects of  Tony’s character are autobiographical (the author had three real life identities as Edward Tanner, Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, not to mention the bisexuality), and the reader can easily lose track of the number of times Tony reinvents himself . This is perfect “beach” reading, and used copies are readily available from Amazon and Alibris.

A 2002 biography, Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis, written by Eric Myers, is available in a Kindle edition, and used copies of the print editions are likewise available from Amazon and Alibris.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Marquis de Sade

Let’s see. According to the Wikipedia page, he was born Count (not Marquis) Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade in 1740 in Paris and died in a French mental asylum in 1814. He was a rich, bisexual pint-sized (5'2") libertine and writer (novels, plays, poems) who spent a third of his life incarcerated for indecency – and that’s a charitable assessment of his life. The engraving at left (de Sade at age 19) is the only surviving image of the Marquis.

The word “sadism” (deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting pain) is derived from his name, and he is thought to have acted out in real life most of the debauchery and perversions he wrote about. A rabid atheist, de Sade also held enlightened views on homosexuality, which he described as no more or less normal than heterosexuality. Indeed, one of de Sade’s favorite sexual acts was to be impaled by his male valet while engaging in intercourse with a female.

Where to start? Although he had a wife and three children, there was nothing respectable about him. He used these words to describe himself: “Imperious, angry, furious, extreme in all things, with a disturbance in the moral imagination unlike any the world has ever known –  there you have me in a nutshell: and one more thing, kill me or take me as I am, for I will not change.” His aristocratic family’s reputation was ruined by his depravity; his son removed “Donatien” from his name so as not to be associated with his infamous father. His other son burned his father's manuscripts upon his death in 1814. De Sade's writings, which detailed acts of rape, incest and pedophilia (for starters), were banned until 1957, and his family took extensive measures to erase the memory of their disgraced ancestor. When, as newly-weds during the 1940s, the parents of Hughes de Sade (b. 1948) explored the attic of their chateau, they discovered that a wall had been bricked up generations ago. Stored inside were papers, letters and writings by the Marquis. The couple had never heard of him and knew nothing about his reputation.

There has been a huge turnabout in recent times. The de Sade family now celebrates its link to the so-called “Marquis.” Hughes de Sade, who boldly named his now 39-year-old son “Donatien”, has created a luxury brand that capitalizes on the Marquis de Sade legacy. Offerings from the Maison de Sade include wine (one red variety is labeled “Justine”), scented candles and gourmet items, and the family is in negotiations with Victoria’s Secret to develop a line of lingerie that will pay homage to the Marquis.

Exactly two months ago – December 2, 1814 – marked the two hundredth anniversary of the death of the Marquis, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris had an exhibition on de Sade’s influence on the visual arts titled “Sade – Attacking the Sun.” A big tourist draw at the Château de Vincennes, a short distance east of Paris, is the prison cell in which the Marquis was incarcerated. Also notable is an exhibit at the Paris Museum of Letters and Manuscripts titled “Sade: Marquis of the Shadows, Prince of the Enlightenment” that opened in late 2014.

While a prisoner at the Bastille, de Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom on a 6" tall, 39' long scroll, that was found hidden away in his cell when the Bastille was stormed during the Revolution of 1789. Somehow the scroll fell into the hands of a wealthy French family that sold it in 1904 to a German collector who published a limited edition of 180 copies. The scroll was returned to France in 1929, but in 1982 a descendant of the de Sade family lent it to a bookseller, who stole it and promptly sold it to a Swiss collector. In the spring of 2014, the French National Library brought the manuscript back to France for an astonishing settlement of $9.6 million dollars with the contentious French and Swiss owners. That makes The 120 Days of Sodom one of the most valuable literary works in existence, on a par with the Magna Carta and da Vinci’s Leicester Codex. All the more amazing is that the subject of this über-valuable scroll is the imprisonment, sexual torture and death of dozens of adolescent and teenaged men and women at the hands of four depraved male aristocrats.

Notes: Tony Perrottet wrote an extended article, “The Marquis de Sade – Crimes of Passion”, that appeared in the February 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:

A short English-language article about de Sade can be found at:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pianist Earl Wild

Earl Wild was one of the greatest virtouso pianists of the 20th century, often compared to Horowitz and Rachmaninov. Openly gay, Wild lived in Palm Springs, California, and Columbus, Ohio, with his domestic partner of 38 years, Michael Rolland Davis. Wild had an outsized talent and played flamboyantly. He specialized in piano transcriptions, performing the music of Lizst and Rachmaninov, but also arranged and composed extensively. In a nod to a fellow gay man, his Piano Sonata (2000) features a 4-minute toccata dedicated to Ricky Martin. Wild’s landmark piano fantasy on themes from Gershwin’s opera,  “Porgy and Bess,” was followed by his own solo piano settings of Rachmaninov and Gershwin songs. Wild lived to the ripe old age of 94. He died at home on January 23, 2010, of congestive heart disease.

Wild  was the first pianist to give a recital on television, in 1939. Nearly sixty years later, in 1997, he gave the first piano recital to be streamed live over the Internet. Over the course of his career, Wild played at the White House, gave annual recitals at Carnegie Hall (always sold out within minutes) and remained active until his final recitals and recordings in 2005.

Wild was also known as a formidable wit and saucy raconteur. When he was interviewed by David Dubal, Mr. Wild was asked about his years of playing flute in the United States Navy Band during World War II (Wild was stationed at a base outside Washington, DC). “Did you see any action?” Mr. Dubal asked. “Only in the cemetery,” Mr. Wild deadpanned.

Wild’s piano arrangement of “Mexican Hat Dance,” recorded at the age of 88! Guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Earl Wild: Etude on Embraceable You (Gershwin)
Performed by Yeol-Eum Son
Wild’s Etudes on Gershwin’s popular songs are becoming staples of concert repertoire, especially as encores. I never thought it possible, but I think this performance actually surpasses Wild’s own interpretation.