Sexually deviant, avant-garde Australian composer/pianist
Recently I was privileged to perform on the Steinway concert grand (model D) which now rests in the formal parlor of the Woodrow Wilson House on S Street in Washington, DC. A property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the home was the retirement residence for Wilson and his second wife after Wilson left the presidency. The mansion is often used these days for gay weddings and receptions, since Washington, DC, legalized same-sex marriage.
The piano was built in 1891 and was fully restored in 2007. Wilson had bought the piano in 1906 to replace the one that was housed in his on-campus residence when he served as president of Princeton University (according to Wilson, that piano was “entirely useless”).
When Wilson moved into the White House in 1912, his piano came with him. It remained there until he retired to the mansion he purchased on S Street in 1921. Again, his piano followed him. Today the instrument sits before a valuable Gobelin tapestry given to Wilson by the French Ambassador during the time Wilson was in Paris negotiating the peace settlements of WW I.
Perhaps you are a pianist who has played “Country Gardens,” Grainger’s most famous piano composition, which broke all sales records for publisher G. Schirmer. This sunny, lilting folk-like tune gives away nothing of Grainger’s darker side, a world of compulsive, obsessive S&M sex.
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was born in Australia. His musicianship was irrefutable, projecting him to the very top of his field. While acutely intelligent, his psyche was complex and perplexing to the maximum degree. If the term “mad genius” ever applied to anyone, it was Grainger.
He was not shy about his enormous sexual appetite for perverted proclivities. He loved to be whipped for sexual gratification, and he loved to inflict punishment, as well. He stated that it was a good thing he never had children, because he would have wanted to have carnal knowledge of them. He wrote, “I long to flog children. It must be wonderful to hurt their soft, unspoiled skin.”
Growing up near Melbourne, Grainger was completely dominated by his often ill mother, Rose, who had contracted syphilis from her husband. They divorced when Percy was just eight years old. For the first thirteen years of the twentieth century mother and son based themselves in London, having left Australia in 1895. During this time Grainger developed his interest in sado-masochism. He wrote that his engagement in S&M sex was as important and fulfilling to him as his career in music. He possessed unflagging physical energy, participating in all manner of sports activities, and he admonished others who did not maintain their bodies in peak form. He also dabbled in homosexual activity. Quite a lot of it, in fact.
Grainger traveled in wealthy, fashionable circles and became known as a talented, prodigious composer and concert pianist of world renown. After his New York City debut in 1915, Percy and his ever-present mother decided to remain in the U.S., where he made a best-selling series of player piano rolls for the Duo-Art Company (example at end of post). In the spring of 1922 Grainger’s mother, going mad from the vagaries of syphilis, killed herself by jumping from the Aeolian Building, on 42nd Street just off Times Square, while Grainger was on tour. Later a note was found on her person in which she was accused of incest with her son, which was a false charge, but likely added further cause to her decision to end it all.
In 1928, Grainger married Ella Viola Ström after one of his concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 15,000 people. He adored her, because she willingly yielded to his almost uncontrollable deviant S&M sexual desires. He continued to perform and compose until his death from cancer in 1961 at his home in White Plains, NY.
Grainger was known as "the jogging pianist" for his habit of racing through streets of London to a concert, where he would bound onto the stage at the last minute, because he preferred to be exhausted when playing. After a concert in South Africa, he walked 70 miles to the next venue, arriving just in time. When traveling by ship, he spent his free time shoveling coal in the boiler room – for fun.
He designed and made his own clothing (jackets, shorts, togas, muumuus, leggings and beaded skirts), which he wore in public without a trace of embarrassment.
Grainger was not a meat eater, but he didn’t like most vegetables, so he ate nuts, boiled rice, wheatcakes, bread and jam, ice cream, cakes and oranges – to the exclusion of almost everything else.
He gave most of his earnings from 1934–1935 to the University of Melbourne* (Australia) to create and maintain a museum dedicated to himself. Along with his manuscripts and musical instruments, he donated documentary sex photos (mostly graphic S&M activity), 73 whips, and several blood-soaked shirts.
*From the Grainger Museum – University of Melbourne
Lust Branch Collection: The collection referred to by Grainger as his Lust Branch comprises pornography, whips, clothing and protective devices used by Grainger and his lovers during sexual activities. Grainger also included news clippings, photographic documentation and essays investigating and discussing his sexual expression.
Grainger approached documenting his sexual expression with a methodology approximating forensic photography: he gave little consideration to aesthetics and introduced reference numbers and handwritten inscriptions into the scenes to indicate times and dates. Lesions and bruising were carefully recorded.
Grainger felt that summers were meant to be hot and winters cold. Therefore, in winter he slept naked with the windows open and spent summer evenings under heavy wool.
Grainger never ironed his shirts and wore the same clothes for days. While in America, he was twice arrested for vagrancy due to his unsavory appearance.
Grainger once branded his own nipple with a super heated metal key.
So there you have it.
Nothing about Grainger fit into the established norms of the day. He championed the compositions of J.S. Bach, but had disdain for most other “historical” composers whose works dominated concerts in his day. On his scores, he abandoned the conventional Italian markings for plain English instructions like “Louden lots” or “Quicken lots, bit by bit”. From his early years as a student in Germany, he became entangled in three-way relationships with other couples. He was generally perceived as either a breath of fresh air or a degenerate mad man.
Grainger did nothing by halves, and this seems to point to a large element of exhibitionism and calls for attention, flattering or otherwise. He believed that men should comport themselves with an aggressive Aryan dominance. Regarding sexual activity, Grainger was to say on many occasions that gender mattered less to him than race; homosexuality and incest conspire in his writings with a dogged anti-Semitism. His mentors were older men, but his sexual fascination was with extremely youthful boys and girls.
His down-to-earth nature often manifested itself in acts of unusual modesty for one so famous. When invited to dinner in a private home, Grainger would often assist the hostess or the kitchen help in serving the meal. He also said that he played his best when he received the smallest fees and performed in the least celebrated venues.
Grainger played with sparkling zest and always appeared to be having a good time playing for audiences, in contrast to the austere and distant demeanor of mainstream concert pianists. He strode onto the stage with enthusiasm. Sometimes he sat at the piano and improvised a bit before the opening number, which was unheard of at the time. One night at Carnegie Hall, he actually talked to the audience before playing, walking back and forth as he spoke. These quirky mannerisms set established concert practice on its ear!
Despite these myriad personal oddities, Grainger's professional life was strictly on the up and up. He was generous to a fault, supporting many worthy causes, and he often promoted or rescued the underdog. A noteworthy example was his taking in the disgraced avant-garde composer Henry Cowell (sent to prison for homosexual activity), providing employment and encouragement to assist in getting Cowell back on his feet (see October 4 post on Cowell). Grainger championed the music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who was completely captivated by Grainger. Grieg dedicated his famous piano concerto (A minor) to Grainger; the two went on to have an affair.
Thanks to the Duo-Art recordings Grainger made during his lifetime, we can hear him play many of his own compositions. Here we have Grainger performing his most famous ditty, "Country Gardens."
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.