Caricature by Paul Moyse
Film and stage director Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) was born into a family of traveling entertainers. Although his early years were spent on the road learning show business, he settled in Chicago at age sixteen, where he took a job as a window decorator for Marshall Field’s department store. His originality and sharp eye for design details soon led him to the Broadway stage, where he was a successful costume and set designer.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Arthur Freed discovered Minnelli on Broadway and brought him back to Hollywood to design dance numbers for movie musicals.
According to his biographer, Emanuel Levy (Hollywood's Dark Dreamer*), Minnelli lived as an openly gay man in New York prior to his arrival in Hollywood. He comported himself among the Dorothy Parker/Gershwin brothers crowd, and no one in those circles cared that he was gay. Unfortunately, Hollywood was another story, so he was pressured back into the closet when he moved to the west coast. He made the decision to repress his homosexuality by living as a bisexual.
Early on, sometime in the 1920s, Minelli became an effete, a dandy, a snob. He modeled himself after the flamboyant British painter James McNeill Whistler; he became sophisticated and self-consciously cultured, all of which came across when he met Judy Garland, who was the polar opposite. By the way, there was documented bisexual activity in Garland’s career, as well, but it was not a major part of her life.
During filming of "The Pirate", Garland accused Minnelli of being in love with Gene Kelly, her costar, and favoring him over her. She threatened her husband with suicide when she caught him in compromising positions with men (in particular their gardener). However, during her marriage to Minelli she slept with Frank Sinatra and other men, as well; fidelity was not a cornerstone of this union.
He worked on several films, including “Strike up the Band” (1940) and “Babes on Broadway” (1941) with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, before he was given the directorship of an all-Black musical called “Cabin in the Sky” (1943). The stylish and inventive “Cabin in the Sky” was a success, and the window dresser from Chicago was now a Hollywood director.
In young adulthood Lester (his given name) was pathologically shy and suffered from a stammer. He had a penchant for trying on his mother’s clothes, which likely came in handy when he worked as a window dresser.
In his 1956 film version of Robert Anderson’s exploration of masculinity and homophobia, “Tea and Sympathy,” Minnelli worked around the restrictions of the Motion Picture Association of America's production code to recreate the play’s ambiguities without ever using the word “homosexual.” The film is about a sensitive boy of 17 whose lack of interest in the manly pursuits of sports and girls labels him “sister-boy” at the college he is attending. The head-master’s wife sees the student’s suffering at the hands of his school mates (and her husband) and tries to help him find himself. Trivia: Actor John Kerr starred as the misfit student in both the stage production, for which he won a Tony Award, and film version of this play. Kerr went on to portray Lt. Cable in the 1958 film version of “South Pacific.” Really.
Minnelli received an Oscar nomination as Best Director for “An American in Paris” (1951) and later won the Best Director Oscar for “Gigi” (1958). The Minnelli family is unique in having father, mother and child who all won Academy Award Oscars, not to mention mother and daughter who both married gay men. Minnelli was awarded France’s highest civilian honor, the Commander Nationale of the Legion of Honor, only weeks before his death in 1986.
Photographed here with daughter Liza Minelli. Their resemblance is astonishing.
*Emanuel Levy's biography of Vincente Minelli was published in 2009:
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.