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.

Friday, January 31, 2020

James Deering's Vizcaya

Since I first published this post (January 5, 2012), several resources have become available that provide much more detail, while correcting certain inaccuracies found in earlier sources.

I’m just back from a winter break in south Florida, and I visited the Vizcaya mansion on the shores of Miami’s Biscayne Bay last Sunday. Vizcaya, a fantasy, over-the-top Italian Renaissance-style villa, was built over a span of two years, 1914-1916, by James Deering (1859-1925), co-founder and vice president of International Harvester. It was used by Chicago-based Deering as a 34-room winter home, set adjacent to ten acres of formal gardens, which were not completed until 1921, because of the outbreak of WWI. During the construction, a full ten percent of Miami’s population worked at the Vizcaya site. The original 180 acres included a working farm, machine shop, staff residences, garages, greenhouse, a boathouse with docking facilities, canals, and a paint and carpentry workshop.

Portrait at right inscribed: "to Mr. James Deering from his friend John S. Sargent*, Miami 1917".

Deering was discreet about his private life, and is referred to only as a “life-long bachelor” in the printed materials available at the site. He never married, and I could find no reports of his showing romantic or physical interest in women. Occasionally he did have unmarried female houseguests (such as actress Lillian Gish), but they were friends, not people he dated. However, he hosted many homosexual men -- some for extended periods.

Another hint is revealed by having a look at the floor plan of the bedroom level. The only guest bedroom adjacent to Mr. Deering's own suite is accessed (as are all the bedrooms) from a hallway that rings the central, open courtyard, What is not apparent from the hallway, however, is that this guest bedroom has direct access to Mr. Deering's bedroom by way of an exterior loggia that borders Mr. Deering's stunning bathroom (both bedrooms have doors that open onto this loggia). What was the reason to hide this access from other house guests? Hmmm. At the time Vizcaya was built, it was common for wealthy husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms, but that was clearly not the case here. The large sitting room adjacent to Mr. Deering's bedroom is situated away from the guest bedroom, which is not of a scale that would make it suitable as quarters for a future wife. Peculiar indeed. This is a home designed for a "bachelor" owner without any plans ever to marry.

More evidence? After the Vizcaya project, his openly-gay decorator Paul Chalfin returned to New York City to continue his interior design practice, and he wanted to have a home that he could furnish lavishly, in a way that would attract more business from members of the upper class. How was he able to accomplish this? Mr. Deering lent him the money to buy a 30-acre estate in Connecticut.

Also, rumors circulated from the large staff of servants that Deering held all-male parties at Vizcaya, although I have not been able to find hard evidence as corroboration. Even so, my educated guess is that Deering was a closeted homosexual, and I consider that these facts are enough evidence to include Mr. Deering on this blog. But read on.

In addition to making a fortune from agricultural machinery, Deering was a socialite and an antiquities collector. When he was phased out of daily company affairs by J.P. Morgan interests in 1909, Deering decided to go on a buying spree with his gay decorator, designer Paul Chalfin (see portrait c. 1915 a few paragraphs below), who made sure that Deering’s winter home did not resemble his brother’s plain-Jane estate a bit farther south. Deering served as Vice President of International Harvester until 1919 and remained a company director for the rest of his life. But after the 1909 reorganization, he essentially retired – with a very fat wallet. The Deering family had come into $800 million (in today’s money) from the sale of a part of their company's interests to J. P. Morgan bank.

Together, Chalfin and Deering sailed to Europe, snapping up fabulous antiquities (including doors, wall panels, mantels and ceilings) that would be incorporated into the creation of an opulent, over-the-top, decadent, and ostentatious fantasy villa in what is today north Coconut Grove.

Paul Chalfin was a New York-based painter turned decorator who had worked as an assistant to celebrated designer Elsie de Wolfe. Chalfin was openly homosexual and affected in mannerisms and speech. Not to mention the flamboyant way he dressed. He and Deering bonded immediately and made numerous trips to Europe to inspect villas and procure furnishings, including wrought iron gates, fountains and antique chimneypieces (one was 20-ft. tall). Chalfin and Deering spent two years formulating the Miami villa before handing the project over to a young, unknown architect, F. Burrall Hoffman, who was in the unenviable position of having to please two clients: Chalfin, who was on-site in Florida, and Deering, who was based in Chicago. About the only thing Hoffman and Chalfin had in common was that both had attended Harvard and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Chalfin (painting at left) and Deering had decided on a square Italian courtyard villa placed directly on the shoreline with gardens to the side. Hoffman soon found out that his job was to do as he was told. Since Chalfin was neither trained nor licensed as an architect, Deering’s choice of a younger, unknown architect – hungry for an important commission – meant that Chalfin could get his way, with Hoffman serving primarily as a brilliant draftsman charged with creating a livable home from the haphazard collection of architectural and decorative elements chosen by Chalfin. Hoffman even allowed Chalfin to take credit as his "associate" architect. Headed off to serve in WWI as the villa neared completion, Hoffman could hardly have contemplated that his good deed would be so rudely rewarded, as Chalfin steadily and gradually claimed more exclusive credit as the creator of Deering's widely publicized and critically acclaimed new estate. Chalfin's ego eventually led him to downplay Deering’s own influence on the project, which was considerable. It is revealing that Deering supplied a luxury houseboat, moored at the building site, for Chalfin's use during the construction of Vizcaya  – and that no such accommodation was made for Hoffman.

Althea Altemus, who served as a secretary to Mr. Deering at Vizcaya, was reviewing an article from a 1917 issue of American Weekly, which described the opening party at Vizcaya on Christmas Eve, 1916. She wrote next to a drawing of two seductive women looking down on Vizcaya (suggesting that Deering was a ladies’ man), “What’s this? No!” 

Althea described Paul Chalfin as a “very ladylike old dear” who lived with his boyfriend (Louis A. Koons) and chow dogs on “The Blue Dog,” the 74-foot houseboat provided by Deering. Blue Dog was described in detail in the July 1917 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Althea, however, described the boat as the scene for quite “unique” parties and recommended a certain actress as a source for details. Koons, who also served as Chalfin’s secretary and business partner, accompanied Deering and Chalfin on the many European art and furniture buying tours.

However, Diego Suarez, the garden designer, had less charitable words for Chalfin: “(He) was absolutely the worst pansy I have ever seen. He had a secretary (?), Koons, whom he used to kiss goodbye. He was always kissing his hand.” Suarez expressed disgust that Koons later resided in Chalfin’s house in NYC. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

As for James Deering, this description comes from one of his house guests, actress Lillian Gish:
"He was an astringent little man. I don’t think he was really comfortable with his guests. I remember very clearly the night we were there. It was an April night and the gardens were full of fireflies. I was probably very romantic, and I can remember that I wanted to get into a gondola and ride on the canals. It was such a lovely night. But we were taken right in after a look at the gardens to see a movie. It was a movie about microbes and germs. Can you imagine that? I suppose he thought it was entertaining. I had the impression that he was a man who wanted to have beauty around him in his house and gardens, but that he didn’t know what to do with it. He wasn’t able to live with it. It was simply there."

So the personalities of Deering and Chalfin must have been like oil and vinegar. At the very least Chalfin must have helped Deering come out of his shell, especially while in Europe, away from society's expectations of a certain decorum required of a man of his stature and social standing. Deering even requested that Chalfin provide a private place on Vizcaya's grounds where he could escape (alone) from staff and visitors. The man was truly not comfortable in his own skin.

All that off towards one side, Liberace would have felt completely at home at Vizcaya. Trust me. There’s a 3-manual pipe organ (a 3-ton Welte-Mignon behemoth with a player mechanism), tea house, garden theater, statuary walks, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains, maze, indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, mangrove swamps, grottos and a room whose entire function was for arranging flowers. Did I mention the carved stone breakwater "barge"?

The breakwater barge originally boasted a fountain, lattice structure
and a forest of palms.

*John Singer Sargent (discreetly gay), who painted clothed women and naked men, was an intimate friend. While staying at Vizcaya, Sargent painted a series of watercolors of male nudes, using the African-American workers on the premises as models (see watercolor below). A further clue to Deering’s sexual orientation is a statue in the gardens that depicts Ganymede, the mythological gay youth who was the lover of Zeus. A tapestry hung inside the villa depicts a male lion with a raging erection. I’m not making this up. James Deering, that life-long bachelor, is speculated by many to have had an intimate relationship with Sargent.

I’m just sayin’.

Although most of the original furnishings remain intact, the south Florida climate took its toll. During the 1980s the original open-air central courtyard was covered with a glass pyramid so that air conditioning could be installed, diminishing further deterioration of fabrics and furnishings. Innovations at the time of construction include a central vacuum system (in 1916!), an automatic electric telephone switchboard and a fire control system. Upon Deering’s death in 1925, while returning from France on an ocean liner, the house was maintained by minimal staff after it was inherited by two nieces. Following hurricane damage and escalating maintenance costs, the women sold Vizcaya much below value to Miami-Dade County in 1952 to operate as a museum. Today the house and gardens are designated a National Historic Landmark.

The boat house, where Deering’s yacht Nepenthe was docked, along with various lagoons and canals, were lost when some of the acreage was sold off piecemeal by the nieces. Today Mercy Hospital and a large Catholic church occupy the adjacent acreage where those features once stood.

Several movies (remember Pet Detective?) and documentaries have been shot here. Vizcaya is today a popular backdrop for quinceañera photos/celebrations by Miami’s huge Latina population and the scene of countless fashion photoshoots. During my visit several brides were being photographed in the tea house and gardens. The mansion and gardens may be rented for private functions.

Open daily at 3251 S. Miami Avenue. 305.250.9133.

Sources for this update:
Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America – Althea McDowell Althemus
The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Woman’s Picture –  Rachel Zolf
Style and Taste: Beauty for Breakfast – Michael Henry Adams
LGBTQ America – Megan E. Springate

As opulent as the following color photos seem, black and white photographs from the 1920s indicate that the rooms contained many more decorative items and details than what visitors view today (see example of reception room photos below). A rich man's clutter.

From top:
1. Staircase fountain leading up to garden folly/casino
2 & 2a. Reception room today vs. b/w photo from the early 1920s
3. Bayfront (east) loggia
4. Mr. Deering's bathroom with tented ceiling & water views
5. Teahouse lattice & garden folly/casino interior


  1. I've been to this villa twice. Fabulous.

  2. Francine SanscartierJanuary 19, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I've visited this villa through information on the web. I was so surprised and amazed to see how beautiful it is. I was there yesterday and my eyes and mind are still filled with all the wonderful sceneries, artifacts from all over the world. I thank Mr. Deering for having taken the time to built and furnish his villa. It is a masterpiece of a villa and makes people happy to visit it. I know I am.

  3. My wife and I guessed Deering was gay. But so what? Really not relevant other than as gossip.

    1. Reply from your blogger:
      The relevance is that this blog features gay and bisexual men who were/are successful in their fields. I started this blog as a response to the spate of suicides among young gay men who were bullied or otherwise made to feel worthless and/or stigmatized by their sexuality. It is my hope that gay/bisexual men might feel validated and encouraged by the stories of the men I feature on this blog. It gets better.

    2. Just to add to the author's response to your comment that Mr. Deering's being is "not relevant other than gossip..." I and my partner visited Vizcaya yesterday and took the guided walking tour. There was absolutely no mention whatsoever of the relationship between Mr. Deering and Mr. Chalfin beyond their professional relationship in building the estate. Can you imagine a world in which Mr. Deering's female life partner/wife/mistress was not acknowledged as such or that she would be considered "irrelevant"? Also, we tend to "gossip" about things we are ashamed of or otherwise wish to remain private. In Mr. Deering's day it would have been "gossip" to publicly discuss one's homosexiauty; today it is not and so it is perfectly appropriate to discuss this important element of this interesting man.

    3. Hello,
      One further comment. As an architectural and design historian, I firmly believe that Mr. Deering's orientation mattered a great deal in all he accomplished in his private world. It certainly informed his choice of designer and architect. The design and construction of this great house would have of constant interest to Deering, and undoubtedly he influenced the design at every turn.
      Greg Hubbard, Chatsworth, California.

    4. It is simply nice to know and understand the history of itscreation. No need to be a Debbie Downer

    5. A typical homophobic comment from a self-hate closeted gay guy. I assume you came across this article by "accident"?

  4. Thank you, Terry and "Imageandlikeness". OF COURSE I feel the same, in fact, the tour (in 2014!!!) should be edited to communicate the truth about Deering and his relationship. His time may have forbidden it, but ours does not. Kudos to them for building an amazing home. Can't wait to tour it again and check out some of the art and furnishing with a different and wonderful perspective!

  5. We visited Vizcaya today and while lunching in its café, discussed the absence of mention of any wife or woman in the exhibits. So while sipping an iced tea, I googled "James Deering wife" and found this blog, which should be an essential part of anyone's visit to Vizcaya. Thank you.

  6. I noted that on the second floor piazza, there is a window opening through
    the wall directly into Mr Deering's bath ! His tub is just below the opening

  7. I think BECAUSE he was gay it was done so tastefully. It's amzing, personally I was impressed more by it than by Versailles. Too sad that the cure to his vitamin deficiency was found just a year after his death....

  8. Well, here's a completely different comment! I used to live in Miami and always "knew" that Vizcaya was built for a young woman, a Spanish girl Deering met and brought back with him; he called her "the Princess." The girl missed her world in Spain and so he build this small palace to please her. She only lived there about a year. When Deering died, the nieces threw her out. All traces of her were removed at that time. My sister was involved in the hiring of workers to repair the house. She was told that she would lose her contract if she spoke of, or asked questions about, her. She had to caution the laborers not to speak openly of her. Speaking or asking questions about her is forbidden even today and the tour guides got angry on two occasions when we asked! But you can still see signs of her influence in what was her connecting bedroom. A reference to her exists in Marion Davies' autobiography. She speaks of having visited Vizcaya and having stayed in the Princess' room. Unbelievable as it sounds, there is a notation after this comment in the book itself! An asterisk explains at the bottom of the page that Dade County does not acknowledge the existence of any Princess having stayed at Vizcaya! I would love to know the truth since the house is so remarkable. BTW, your supposition and mine are not mutually inconsistent.

    1. After the Vizcaya project was completed, Chalfin returned to New York City, where he had been living and working prior to being hired by Deering. Soon thereafter Deering lent Chalfin $40,000 to buy a townhouse in Manhattan; I cannot determine if the loan was repaid. Chalfin was a real opportunist and not of the same social class as Deering, so living as a couple on equal footing was not possible. The "princess" story was a fabrication to throw people off the scent of Deering's involvement with men. The only women who spent any time at Vizcaya did so as guests, such as famous actresses who arrived for grand parties and stayed on for a few days. His frequent guest John Singer Sargent also led a double life, as did most gay and bisexual men of prominence during those times.

  9. How intriguing. Either love stories or both could work. If Chalfin was his long time Love it seems amiss he was not bequethed at least some treasures if not the house. I should expect James was not adverse to bucking tradition for such things. An unfortunate turn of events if Chalfin did actually play a cad with the unsung hero of Hoffman. And should I dare think that it rather unfortunate our hero JD did not insist on bequething the home to his Princess, should that part of thw story deem true. Nasty bit of buisness those neices and the Princesses eviction I should think.
    fabulous blog Terry.
    Thank you very much,

    1. For Deering to bequeath Vizcaya to Chalfin would have created a scandal of enormous proportions. Deering did what was "correct" for the times; he left the property to family. I have found no evidence that Chalfin was anything like "the love of Deering's life." It was likely an affair that ran its course. Deering indulged Chalfin far beyond what would have been appropriate for a professional relationship. Deering and Chalfin spent almost all of their time together either in Europe or on site at Vizcaya, providing socially acceptable "cover" for their spending so much time together. After that, too many eyebrows would have been raised and too many tongues would have wagged if the two were to socialize together; living together would have been impossible. Chalfin spent the rest of his life trading on his association with Deering and the Vizcaya Florida project.

  10. Normand DupasquierFebruary 6, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    We visited Vizcaya yesterday and discovered this terrific site (main house and gardens). It is a breath-taking museum and gardens and a delight to visit for all visitors to Florida. We will be back with guests whenever the opportunity arises. Governments and foundations should take interest in Vizcaya as a site to protect and restore.


  11. Wonderful article with a lot of information I was curious about during my recent visit to this amazing place in Miami. Thank you!

  12. Wonderful article with a lot of information I was curious about during my recent visit to this amazing place in Miami. Thank you!

  13. I first visited Vizcaya as a young child in 1963 and revisited it dozens and dozens of times in next 50 years. My only complaint is that in the article the word "ostentatious" is used. Opulent, grand, ornate, baroque, sumptuous - yes ... but "ostentatious" no. It is a work of art in the very best of taste and historically authentic for the periods each room represent. Of course Deering and Chalfin were gay. We Floridians knew that generations ago!!!

  14. A very special place. I'm glad you are writing this blog for people and hope we can see a 100% change in people's attitudes. I felt Deering was gay because I can't imagine a straight man creating anything like this one of a kind place. Wonderful day going back to a bygone era. A Florida treasure.

    1. "I felt Deering was gay because I can't imagine a straight man creating anything like this one of a kind place." Wow. Just wow. If I had written, "I felt Deering was straight because I can't imagine a gay man creating anything like this one of a kind place," folks would have been all over me about my so-called "homophobia." Just sayin'

  15. My husband and I visited Vizcaya yesterday. We were bowled over by the beauty of the house and gardens. But we both felt intuitively the "official" narrative was condescending and absent any genuine account of the man (and men) who created it. Deering's homosexuality is an important part of understanding the legacy that he and Chaffin left behind. The kind of historical "cleansing" done to the official narrative reminds me of all those southern plantations that used to make no mention of the slaves that built them and on whose enslaved backs they depended. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  16. My partner and I visited yesterday. Two comments:

    1. The main bedroom used by Deering had a direct connection around the inside balcony with the main guest room. Meaning, his "main guest" could easily gain access to his bedroom without the house staff being aware.

    2. When showing us Deering's personal library, the tour guide described it as "the room where Deering would have welcomed guests or gentleman callers to his home." I thought that was kind of cute.

  17. Terry,

    We went with my wife to Vizcaya and while both were profoundly impressed, felt something was missing. Thank you very much for maintaining the blog - the article and comments helped me understand the true Deering, Chalfin and Vizcaya story. Will go again to relive.

  18. Dear Terry,

    I was in Viscaya with my wife and while we both were profoundly impressed, felt something was missing.

    Thank you very much for the article, comments are fun and informative, now we have a true and complete picture of Deering, Chalfin and Vizcaya. Will go again to relive.

    I guess Florida's spanish Catholic influence affects the official narrative. Hard to strike the balance sometimes :)

  19. Thank you very much for this article and the blog!!! Visited today and also felt that sometimes was missing.I asked the lovely tourlady about Deering's wife and she said there was no wife. Period. My partner and I realized Mr.Dering must have been gay..... Shame for this historical cleansing! Thanks again for the blog!!!!! Kamil

  20. I live in south Florida, and have visited Vizcaya numerous time. It is one of America’s greatest treasures, beyond all expectations! When I post photos from my visits most people think I’m in Europe! It has always been obvious to me that Deering was gay.