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.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

James Merrill

Gay Poet and Philanthropist (1926-1995)

Born on March 3, 1926, James Merrill lived a life of privilege as the son of the co-founder of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. Merrill learned German and French from his Prussian nanny, and his parent’s fabulous 50-room mansion in the Hamptons boasted interiors that resembled a European palace. He had the money to go where he wanted, study where he wanted, and meet the best people. He lived modestly, even though he had great income from trust funds. He became a philanthropist and created several private foundations.

One of the most admired of American poets, Mr. Merrill was known for the elegance of his writing, his moral sensibility and his ability to transform moments of autobiography into deeply meaningful poetry. He once described his poetry as "chronicles of love and loss." Many consider him the heir to W. H. Auden.

Merrill attended Lawrenceville School and later Amherst College (graduating summa cum laude), where his professor Kimon Friar became his lover. Friar published Merrill’s “The Black Swan” in 1946 in Athens, Greece, which was to become important to Merrill and his partner of more than four decades, David Jackson (on left in photo), also a writer. For 20 years Jackson and Merrill divided their time between Stonington, Connecticut and Greece. From 1979 they spent part of each year at Jackson's home in Key West, Florida.

Though Merrill was wealthy his entire life, he understood the plight of many artists and founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation in 1956, a permanent endowment created for writers and painters.

He won every major literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize. As Merrill matured, the polished and taut brilliance of his early work gave way to a more informal, relaxed style. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published in 1982 as “The Changing Light at Sandover”, documents two decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija board séances hosted by Merrill and his partner David Jackson.

Merrill served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death, and he contributed generously to literary causes, the arts, and public television. While vacationing in Arizona, Merrill died at the age of 68 on February 6, 1995, from a heart attack.

James Merrill's poem "Clearing the Title" is about this house at 702 Elizabeth Street in Key West, Florida, where he resided seasonally with partner David Jackson.

This modest Key West structure was a far cry from the house Merrill grew up in. The Orchard, still standing on Hill Street in South Hampton, was a 250-foot long house with a 70-foot-long music room with 18-foot ceilings and an Aeolian pipe organ with gilded pipes (visible at left in the photo is the bench and organ console, covered with a velvet cloth and bowl; click image to enlarge).

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