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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hart Crane

The 32-year-old poet was a passenger on the SS Orizaba, sailing to the U.S. from Mexico, where he had been serving a Guggenheim fellowship post. His father, who had invented Life Savers and was a successful candy manufacturer, had died the year before. The poet had been waiting for an inheritance from his millionaire father, but just learned that the family fortune had been sucked away by debt and losses at the onset of the Great Depression. The poet too often dealt with this and other complications in his tumultuous life by taking solace in alcohol. He was leaving behind Peggy Baird, the former wife of a close friend, with whom he had the only heterosexual affair of his life. They had even talked of possible marriage and a new beginning.

But alcohol regained the upper hand. His grand design of writing an epic poem abut the Aztecs had resulted in a mere handful of verses, so he was coming home nearly empty-handed in late April, 1932. Although he was revered by the likes of Tennessee Williams and other prominent writers, he felt his career and personal life were failures. Worse, the poet’s homosexual demons could not be tamed, and he ventured down to the crew quarters and made a drunken sexual advance on a male worker, who reacted by beating him up. Somewhere north of Havana the next morning, April 27, a passenger watched in horror as the poet, dressed only in pajamas and an overcoat, walked purposefully to the ship's stern, mounted the railing, slipped the coat from his shoulders and then jumped overboard to his death.

The son of a successful Ohio businessman who made a fortune in candy manufacturing, Hart Crane (1899-1932) dropped out of high school in 1917 and fled to New York City. Hart had suffered a difficult home life under the roof of his parents, who were always fighting. They divorced a year after Crane moved to NYC. For seven years he moved back and forth between New York and Cleveland, all the while writing poems that gained publication in literary journals. His menial jobs as a copywriter in NYC were interspersed with periods of working in his father's candy factories in Cleveland.

He lived a peripatetic life, moving in and out of apartments and rooms with friends in New York City; for a time he shared farmhouses with friends in southern Connecticut. His family owned a vacation home on the Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba, where he wrote most of The Bridge, a collection of poems depicting New York City with a vibrancy that was rare in poetry. Unable to complete the book, he sought inspiration by traveling to Europe, and when he was awarded a Guggenheim in 1931, he settled in Mexico temporarily.

Although tormented by his attraction to men, his affair with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant marine, is reflected in  Crane was tortured by his love for men far worse than Walt Whitman decades before him. He did have one felicitous affair with a Danish merchant marine named Emil Opffer, who inspired his epic poem titled Voyages*, a highlight of his first book, White Buildings (1926). Opffer, whom he had met in 1924, lived in Brooklyn, but Crane also had an affair with the internationally famous Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior, who was then singing at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan.

While Crane struggled to complete The Bridge (1930), in which the Brooklyn Bridge was the central object of the poem, he suffered tortured affairs and increasing alcoholism. The photo at left was taken when he was barely 30 years old, but alcohol had prematurely aged him. He did not cope well as a gay male in a culture that was largely homophobic. He realized that he was homosexual after an affair in Akron, Ohio, where he was employed at age 20 as a clerk in one of his father’s candy stores. His homosexual affairs were mostly anonymous, temporary, often violent, flings. Crane’s writing after 1926 was stymied by the conflict between his identity as a gay male and his identity as a poet. Numerous unpublished verses written between 1927 and 1931 reveal the struggle Crane undertook to invent a discourse that would honestly translate aspects of his homosexual experience into poetry.

Publication of The Bridge in 1930 brought Crane notoriety and fame, but he seemed unable to live up to his own standard after that. At the time of his death in 1932, much of his verse was dismissed as incoherent. It was not until 50 years later that his works were reassessed and became part of a contemporary curriculum taught in colleges and universities. The Bridge now appears in its entirety in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.

Thomas E. Yingling wrote Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text (1992), which saw that Crane’s authority rested on his position as an outsider, whose writings were not only expressions of his personal psychological division, but also eloquent records of cultural and social divisions.

*Voyages (1924) is a poetic sequence in praise of the transforming power of love. The work's metaphor is the sea, and its movement is from the lover's dedication to a human and changeable lover to a beloved beyond time and change. The sea represents love in all its shifting complexity from calm to storm, and love, in turn, serves as the salvation of us all:

Bind us in time, O Season clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

With its dazzling poeticism and mysteriously inspiring perspective, Voyages is often hailed as Crane's greatest achievement. R. W. B. Lewis called it Crane's lyrical masterpiece.

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