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.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
A brilliant concert pianist and composer, Charles Griffes (1884-1920), pronounced GRIFF-ess, was one of the first American composers to adapt avant-guard influences that were championed by Debussy and other Europeans. Called an "American Impressionist" by critics who didn't know how else to categorize him, he wrote highly listenable and sophisticated classical music that received praise from critics and composers, most notably by Stokowski, Busoni, Pierre Monteux and Prokofiev. His symphonic works received performances by the prestigious New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony orchestras.
His home-town music teacher financially supported his flight from Elmira to study piano and composition in Berlin, Germany, while he was still in his late teens. During his time in Europe he had affairs with several men, most notably Emil Joel, an older fellow student. Over a period of four years Joel guided Griffes’ artistic development, procured concert tickets and introduced him to such prominent musical figures as Richard Strauss, Enrico Caruso, Ferrucio Busoni, and Engelbert Humperdinck, with whom Griffes studied music. Joel even supported Griffes financially, enabling him to extend his time in Europe by a year.
As comfortable as he became among his peers in gay circles, Griffes never divulged his orientation to straight friends or associates. There was too much at stake for a man who had to support himself, especially when the job he held until his untimely death was at a boys’ school. Griffes was in a precarious position when he became infatuated by one of his male students. No man of his time and position could have been openly gay without public disgrace. Nevertheless, he was constantly frustrated that gay men could not meet openly in public.
*The Hackley School (shown at right) is a private, exclusive all male prep school in Tarrytown, NY. Internationally renowned gay architect Philip Johnson was a 1923 graduate just three years after Griffes's death. Most of the students go on to attend Harvard University.
However, Griffes was able to sneak away from Tarrytown to sample the gay life of NYC. He was known to patronize the Lafayette Place and Produce Exchange bath houses, for reasons that were obvious. He even entered into an intimate relationship with Officer John Meyer, a married New York policeman (remember that fetish for men in uniform).
Griffes composed song cycles, piano pieces, orchestral works and chamber music, much of the latter written as incidental music for stage plays. It is astonishing that he was able to do this while holding down a full-time job on the faculty of the Hackley School*. He composed, performed, arranged, revised and orchestrated everything, acted as his own agent and overcame difficulties with his publisher (G. Schirmer), all without outside assistance. Unable to afford editors or copyists, he had to correct proofs and prepare copies of his own large orchestral scores against the mounting deadlines that came with his enhanced reputation.
His most enduring compositions are "The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan" (1917), "The White Peacock" (1915), "Poem for Flute and Orchestra" (1918), and "Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes" (1916-1920). He also wrote a bold, passionate and difficult "Sonata for Piano" (1918).
Warning: this performance of The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan starts very softly and slowly:
Tragically, at the height of his fame, Griffes contracted influenza in 1919. Shortly after a Carnegie Hall performance of his music, he collapsed at the Hackley School for Boys in early December and was subsequently hospitalized. He died on April 20, 1920, only 35 years old, and his funeral was held in New York City. Musicologist B. Collins relates a poignant tale about the funeral service, held at the Church of the Messiah at Park Avenue and 34th Street. Unexpectedly, the strains of a Bach chorale wafted from across the street, where a music festival was being held in the 71st Regiment armory. Standing on the parapets of the armory building, a choir of trombonists played a sort of “accidental” requiem. Both the sight and sound of the performance would have pleased Griffes, as all of the trombonists were in uniform. The building that replaced that church is a structure that now hosts rehearsals of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus.
Griffes had kept a diary in German in which he reported on his various forays to bathhouses and other favorite gay-friendly haunts. Unfortunately, several of the diaries were destroyed by his sister after his death to prevent widespread knowledge of Griffes's gay recreational New York City life, his attraction to men in uniform, and his long-term relationship with a married policeman. At the time of his death he was working on a festival drama based on the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Note: Most of the information for this post comes from biographical studies by Howard Pollack, B. Collins and Thomas Riis.
Friday, May 25, 2012
Shortly after Dunne died at age 83, his son Griffin outed him as a bisexual during an interview on Good Morning America, as he was promoting his father’s last book, Too Much Money. In the semi-autobiographical book Dunne wrote, “I’m nervous about the kids, even though they are middle aged men now, not that they don’t already know. I just don’t talk about it. It’s been a life-long problem.” In Frank Langella’s just published tell-all, Dropped Names – Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, Langella devotes a chapter to Dunne, who commiserates with the author about the agonies of being a closeted gay man.
Griffin said it was just like his dad to “finally come out and then leave. It was hardly a big deal either way.” His son said that when Dunne was getting stem cell treatments in Germany to fight his fatal cancer, a man named Norman was “looking after him,” and that they obviously had a “long loving relationship.”
Dunne was married for 11 years and was the father of five children, only three of whom lived to adulthood. Born into a wealthy family in Hartford, Connecticut, at age 19 Dunne was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in World War II, for saving the life of a wounded comrade. His family, however, was outside full acceptance by the New England old money society. A Catholic family surrounded by wealthy Protestants, the Dunnes were also considered nouveau riche – two major strikes against them. Dunne’s grandfather, who ultimately became a tycoon, had worked as a butcher. Of his grandfather, Dominick wrote: “He was simply a remarkable man, my grandfather. He was knighted by the Pope for his philanthropic work, but he never forgot he had been born poor. Never!”
Dominick’s father, dismayed by his son’s artistic leanings, called him a sissy and beat him for it, once so viciously that his left ear swelled to three times its size and turned purple. Throughout adulthood, Dominick remained partially deaf in his left ear.
In 1965 his marriage to socialite Ellen Beatriz Griffin ended in divorce. He began his career in New York as stage manager of The Howdy Doody Show but moved his family to Hollywood in 1957, where he worked as a television executive producer. He subsequently produced feature films, including the gay-themed classic, The Boys in the Band (1970). Dunne threw grand parties attended by celebrities such as Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol became an unmanageable part of his life, and in 1974 he escaped to a cabin in Oregon (without a phone or television), where after six months he regained sobriety and began a career as a writer, at the age of 50. When he learned of his brother’s suicide, he moved back to New York City.
On Halloween of 1982, Dunne was informed that his actress daughter, Dominique (best known for her portrayal of the teenage daughter in Poltergeist) had been found strangled. Her assailant was her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, a chef in Los Angeles. Dunne wrote about the murder trial in the newly relaunched magazine Vanity Fair. He was a regular contributor to VF for 25 years. On the basis of dollars per word, Dunne became the highest-paid magazine writer in America.
In August of 2009, Dunne lost a long battle with bladder cancer while in residence at his East Side apartment in NYC. He was survived by two sons, Alexander and Griffin, who has acted in films such as An American Werewolf in London and After Hours.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
They became a high profile, openly gay couple during the age of McCarthyism, when homosexuals were being driven out of the government and Hollywood. Young Don often felt disregarded by Chris's famous friends, who thought of him as a “child prostitute” (Bachardy’s own words).
From 1930 to 1933 Isherwood had lived in Berlin, where he felt released from the social and sexual inhibitions that stifled his development in England. Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) was subsequently adapted as the musical Cabaret, which was produced in both Broadway (1966) and film (1972) versions. This movie, starring Liza Minelli, put Isherwood on the map, expanding his celebrity beyond literary circles.
Isherwood took Bachardy under wing and educated him personally. “Chris was completely responsible for my becoming an artist,” says Don. In addition to supporting him through art school, “financially and emotionally,” Isherwood also introduced Bachardy to great literature. “He gave me Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises,' Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby,' and Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' to start, and I just went from there.” Don has said that Isherwood “never gave me bad advice.” The influence on Don by Chris cannot be overstated. Don even affected Isherwood’s English accent to the point that friends could not tell them apart on the telephone.
Chris & Don – A Love Story (2007): This documentary film (available on DVD and on-line streaming) depicts the remarkable life of Don Bachardy and his relationship with Isherwood. They call each other Dobbin and Kitty, and the movie includes footage shot by Chris and Don in the 1950s as well as interviews with Leslie Caron, John Boorman and Liza Minnelli.
In the opinion of important literary critics, Isherwood's finest achievement was his 1964 novel, A Single Man, which depicted a day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university, mourning the loss of his lover, Jim, who had died in a car crash. This book was made into a film of the same name in 2009; Colin Firth, its star, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and the movie was the directorial debut of Tom Ford.. Don Bachardy had a cameo in the film and is credited as a creative consultant; he portrayed a professor in the teacher’s lounge, to whom Firth says "Hello, Don". A Single Man was Isherwood’s personal favorite of his nine novels. The book is a meditation on the temporality of life, but is also filled with humor, compassion and intelligence. Chris also enjoyed praise from his peers. Gore Vidal called Isherwood “the best English prose writer of the 20th century.”
After Chris’s death, Don engaged in painting a series of portraits of Angelina Jolie. Bachardy's career has continued to flourish, and a number of books about Bachardy's art have been published, the latest of which is Stars in My Eyes. Bachardy's work resides in important permanent collections around the world, including the National Portrait Gallery (London), the Smithsonian Institution, and The Norton Simon Museum.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
UPDATE: Gore Vidal died on July 31, 2012, at the age of 86, at his Hollywood Hills home of complications from pneumonia.
One of America’s great overachievers, Gore Vidal (b. 1925) is hard to categorize. He’s a novelist, social critic, playwright, essayist, mystery writer (as Edgar Box), pulp romance writer (as Katherine Everard), adventure writer (as Cameron Kay), screenwriter, ex-pat jet setter, literary critic, congressional candidate, political activist, and actor – for starters. He is cantankerous, opinionated, gruff and completely inflexible.
Now in his late eighties, he still makes the news. A couple of months ago his affirmation of the salacious details revealed in Scotty Bowers’ recent Hollywood memoir (Full Service) had Vidal’s name cropping up all over the Internet.
The grandson of a U.S. Senator, Vidal entered the army during World War II while in his teens. Although he rose to the rank of sergeant, he has had no subsequent formal higher education. Because Vidal felt uncomfortable living in the U.S. with its homophobic attitudes and extreme conservatism, he lived mostly in Italy from the mid 1960s, from where he wrote many stinging rebukes about American hypocrisies. Vidal shared his life with his companion Howard Austen, who died of brain cancer in 2003. For 30 years they lived in a villa perched on a cliff in Ravello, Italy, high above the Amalfi coast (see photos below). Austen and Vidal met in 1950 at New York City's Everard Baths. The pseudonym Vidal used as a romance writer, Katherine Everard, sprang from that encounter.
The City and the Pillar (1948), written when Vidal was just twenty-three years old, is the story of professional tennis player Jim Willard, a man who never outgrew his boyhood crush on his best friend Bob Ford. That men who enjoyed sex with other men could go undetected in straight circles was an idea that shocked and outraged many of the novel’s readers and critics. The New York Times was so put off by the forthright writing about homosexuals that it refused to review Vidal’s next five books. Although Vidal vehemently (and frequently) declared that there is no such thing as a homosexual identity because everyone is bisexual to some degree, The City and the Pillar was the first mainstream coming-out novel. Twenty years after its initial publication, Vidal published The City and the Pillar with a different ending. Most of Vidal's subsequent literary works had prominent gay characters and gay themes, opening up the path for other writers to expanded gay visibility in mainstream fiction.
In Myra Breckinridge (1968), Vidal created further controversy by writing the first book in which the main character undergoes a clinical sex-change, resulting in a sharp satire of contemporary mores. It was made into a dreadful mess of a film (1970) that starred Raquel Welch in the title role. It was released with an “X” rating, not surprising for its time. It contained a lesbian scene and archival footage of Hollywood classic film stars, many of whom sued to have themselves removed from the film. Because Shirley Temple was a U.S. ambassador upon the film’s release, the White House demanded that footage from her movie Heidi be excised. It seemed everyone wanted to distance himself from this film, including Gore Vidal, who disowned it, calling the movie “an awful joke.” While the film version was an uncontested disaster, many critics consider Myra Breckinridge to be Vidal’s best novel.
Two Sisters (1970) was a successful effort both in experimental point of view and in realistic representation of homosexual identity. Vidal wrote himself into the book as one of the two main narrators. Many of Vidal’s later writings contained autobiographical elements.
He is a distant cousin of Al Gore, Jr., Vice President of the U.S. (1992-2000), a fact known by few people. Gore Vidal grew up in Washington, DC., so he has had an inside track on politics for his entire life. His father was a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet and his grandfather a senator from Oklahoma. Gore Vidal shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy. In his book Point to Point Navigation (2006), he criticizes George W. Bush’s America as it sank deeper into war, debt and autocratic rule. The title refers to the dangerous feat of steering a ship without benefit of a compass, a nod to Vidal’s WW II military service.
Vidal’s career has been marked by many acrimonious elements. His feuds with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote made the tabloid gossip columns. Nonetheless, his 75+ year career has yielded 25 novels, five plays, several screenplays for television and film, over 200 essays, and two memoirs – across all genres. An ultimately unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Congress in 1960 (“You’ll Get More with Gore”), earned support from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He also lost a 1982 bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and the same result came from a run for the office of the Governorship of California. He achieved celebrity status and counted among his friends many of the world’s richest and most powerful people. He also acted in two films (Bob Roberts in 1992, Gattaca in 1997) and appeared in many television interviews and documentaries. It is easy to forget, among all this career clutter, that Vidal was one of the first mainstream men of influence to embrace homosexuality and celebrate bisexuality. And for that, we are all of us in debt to this man.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Many of his drawings, paintings and sculptures are of a homoerotic nature, and he had relationships with many of his young models: Gherardo Perini, the nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri, Cecchino dei Bracci and a young male prostitute by the name of Febo di Poggio. He referred to Febo as a “little blackmailer,” because Febo demanded money, clothes, and assorted gifts in return for his love. Perini lived with Michelangelo for more than ten years. Bracci was only thirteen when the sixty-six year old Michelangelo fell in love with him. Two years later, when Bracci died, Michelangelo was so devastated that he wrote epitaphs for the youth’s tomb for an entire year, such as this example:
The earthy flesh, and here my bones,
Deprived of handsome eyes, and charming air,
Do yet attest how gracious I was in bed,
When he embraced, in whom my soul now lives.
Well, there you have it. Michelangelo’s correspondence, poetry and diaries that refer to his passion for young men were suppressed for centuries, and his love poems written to Cavalieri were censored by his publisher, who changed the gender from male to female in order to avoid scandal. Michelangelo was himself quite secretive, burning all of his personal drawings and papers before he died. In one sonnet Michelangelo wrote that the highest form of love cannot be for a woman, because “a woman is not worthy of a wise and virile heart.”
Michelangelo painted and sculpted a lot of beefcake. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is awash in paired male nudes. There are 48 naked boys depicting cherubs alongside 24 mostly naked youths, 16 adult male nudes supporting the Medallions, 16 bronze male nudes flanking the Ancestors, plus the famous 20 Ignudi (seated males) depicted as young, completely naked men. None of these figures has any relevance to a Christian narrative. They are on the ceiling because Michelangelo was besotted with masculinity. Pure and simple. Even his female figures had rather masculine bodies, differentiated from the men only by their longer hair.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Doug (Eric Dean at top) is dating two very different men – 50-year-old Jacob (Michael Nicklin, middle) and 30-year-old Colton (Benjamin Lutz, bottom). What Doug doesn’t know at first is that the two men are father and son.
Writer/director Rob Williams and his partner, writer/producer Rodney Johnson, are making this movie, to be called The Men Next Door.
Have a look at Role/Play (above), a Guest House Films 2010 release (1 hr. 24 minutes):
Plot summary: An outed soap opera actor (played by Steve Callahan, on his back above) hides out at a queer Palm Springs resort, where he finds himself staying next door to a gay marriage activist (Matthew Montgomery, on top), whose very public male/male marriage has recently failed. Written and directed by Rob Williams and shot on location at the Alexander Inn in Palm Springs. Williams and Johnson self-distributed Role/Play through Guest House Films.
Click this link to see the entire film (free of charge):
Sunday, May 6, 2012
For years there has been speculation about Frank Langella’s likely bisexuality, and his recent memoir does little to dispel the rumors. The entire thing reads like a worldly, mannered gay man dishing the dirt – albeit a guilty pleasure of a book that is extraordinarily well written. All but one of his subjects is deceased, and the one still alive is 102 years old – Bunny Mellon, a fabulously wealthy, cultured and well-connected woman whose acquaintance changed his life (she lives about 30 miles from me on a 4,000 acre Virginia estate with a private jet strip). Frank was working at the bottom of the totem pole alongside Bunny’s 19-year-old daughter Liza in 1961 painting scenery at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Mrs. Mellon met Frank when she came by to pick up her daughter for a picnic, and she immediately took him into her privileged circle, acting as his private tutor into the world of the rich and famous.
Not only did Langella meet Noel Coward, JFK and Jackie – even the Queen of England and the Queen Mother – through Mrs. Mellon, she taught him how to be comfortable among such luminaries. Her advice on how to handle himself at cocktail parties with people he didn’t know: “It’s very simple. Just repeat the last few words of whatever has just been said to you in the form of a question, and you’ll have no trouble. For instance, if someone has just said to you, ‘I just went to an art show and saw the most fascinating painting’, you then say, ‘Oh really, the most fascinating painting?’, and you’ll be off and running.”
When Frank once mispronounced the last name of French philosopher Descartes as “Dess-cart-tees”, Mrs. Mellon said, “Frank, would you read that passage again? It was so interesting, particularly the part that refers to Descartes” (correctly pronouncing the name as Day-KAHRT). Of that incident, Frank writes: “She had found a way to correct my ignorance and preserve my dignity as casually as if she were opening a packet of sugar. What she had done, of course, was open my mind. And into it, she began to pour generous granules of knowledge in all the arenas I needed it most.”
Langella relates that when Bunny Mellon was at the White House redesigning the rose garden for JFK and Jackie (Mellon was and still is an authority on gardening), Bunny and Jackie were waiting for a White House elevator. When the door opened, Bunny stepped back to let Jackie enter first.
“What are you doing?” Jackie asked.
“Well, you’re the First Lady.”
“Oh stop that nonsense and get in,” replied Mrs. Kennedy.
Several years ago, a theater writer was granted an interview with Langella. His publicist laid down the rule that "You will not ask Mr. Langella ANYTHING about his personal life!" Langella is known for being pathologically secretive about his private life, and I interpret that as meaning he has a lot to hide. He may guard his own privacy, but he certainly spills the beans on dozens of actors and actresses, both gay and straight, in this juicy memoir. A review by Michael Ladenson stated, "As several of the memoir's gay characters circle around his charismatic young self, Mr. Langella flirtatiously leaves open the possibility that he played both sides of the street. As he basks in Noel Coward's attentions, feeds shrimp to Roddy McDowall, and commiserates with Dominick Dunne about the agonies of being a closeted gay man, Langella hides coquettishly behind his fan in a way that seems rather archaic in 2012."
“I want us to be friends,” said Raul.
“Me too,” replied Frank.
Raul got drunk, Frank stayed sober. When it became late and Frank walked to the door to leave, Frank recalls Raul’s send off:
“Good night, Frank. I love you – you are my boyfriend.”
Well, there you have it.
During the run of Design for Living, as Raul was changing his shirt, Clayburgh rushed over and started clawing at his chest, and soon they were involved in passionate embraces. Feeling somewhat left out, Langella insinuated himself into the mix: "We became a pulsating Oreo cookie with nothing remotely chaste about where our hands and mouths wandered. It was fast, hot and dirty."
Let me pause right now to state that I read every page of this book.
This memoir lays bare the outsized egos, eccentricities, crushing insecurities and unflattering habits of household name stars, as only an insider can do. Now 74 years old, Langella also counterbalances these stinging reminiscences with charming, poignant tales of affection and love for those worthy of it. When JFK jumped onto Bunny Mellon’s coffee table in Cape Cod to dance as Noel Coward played his songs on the piano, Jackie sang along, knowing all the lyrics by heart. Before boarding his helicopter, President Kennedy turned to Langella and asked, “What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”
For younger readers, this memoir will be a great introduction to all the famous stage and screen icons every gay man should know about. Among the things I like about this book is the fact that Langella is not reticent in telling unflattering tales about himself, and it is surprisingly bereft of the author’s own ego. He can also be charmingly coy at times. Writing about Roddy McDowall: "This was a man who, no matter what the occasion, clearly always wanted a return invitation." McDowall once came over to Frank's table at a restaurant and said, "Hello, darling Frank. Look at that face! I've just got to photograph it." In wrapping up that story, Langella writes, "He never did. I'd had my picture taken enough times by then to satisfy my curiosity about what might develop."
Dropped Names is so well written, that I wonder if Langella employed a ghost writer. Whichever – you will not be bored.
Dropped Names – Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, by Frank Langella, was published last month. Available in hard cover and e-reader formats.
Frank Langella in Dracula (1979 film version)
Friday, May 4, 2012
Ismail Merchant (below), born and educated in Bombay, went to the U.S. to earn an MBA from New York University. He met James Ivory in 1961 at a New York City screening of Ivory’s film about Indian art miniatures, and the two became instant friends. Merchant recalled, “Some people meet and part ways, others bond together on a lifelong stream. I guess you could call our relationship destiny.”
Ivory was born in California and educated at the University of Oregon before attending the University of Southern California Film School. He wrote, photographed, and produced “Venice: Theme and Variations”, as a thesis film for his degree in cinema. This film was named by The New York Times as one of the ten best documentaries of 1957.
There is no arguing with success. While their first film premiered in 1963, their first real commercial winner was The Europeans, adapted from the Henry James novel. A Room with a View (1985), based on the book by E. M. Forster, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three; it won many other awards at home and in the U.K. and Italy.
Maurice (1987) – pronounced Morris – received a Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, Best Film Score for Richard Robbins and Best Actor Awards for co-stars James Wilby and Hugh Grant (seen in photo above).
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) was adapted from novels by Evan S. Connell; it received an Oscar nomination and awards from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Ivory directed another Forster-adapted film, Howards End (1992), and it was nominated for nine Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three; the film also won Best Picture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards, as well as awards for Best Picture, Best Actress for Emma Thompson and Best Director for Ivory from the National Board of Review; the Directors Guild of America gave its D.W. Griffith award, its highest honor, to Ivory for this film.
The Remains of the Day (1993), was in turn was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, who co-starred in Howard’s End, were reunited in working in this film.
Taking a break from filming historical novels, Merchant Ivory Productions had a success with Le Divorce (2003), which Jhabvala adapted from the 1997 novel by Diane Hohnson; despite tepid reviews, the film grossed $13 million on a budget of $3 million. The final Merchant-Ivory film was The White Countess (2005).
MAURICE (1987) deals with the subject of coming of age as a homosexual in a restrictive society; the novel by E. M. Forster was so scandalous that it was not published until after Forster’s death. This clip features scenes of Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder, a gameskeeper, who climbs a ladder into the bedroom (and bed) of Maurice, portrayed by James Wilby. Their sex scene begins at the 7:15 timing mark. Both actors are straight men, so don’t get your hopes up.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Born in Portland, Oregon, his family moved to the San Francisco area when he was a child, and he lived most of his life on the west coast. Harrison attended San Francisco State University, where he studied with gay composer Henry Cowell, who gave him an 1871 nine-foot Steinway grand which had been the favorite piano of Percy Grainger. Among Harrison’s compositions from that time is a large body of percussion music that showcases Western, Asian, African, and Latin American rhythmic traditions. Later works embraced ethnic musical folk cultures of Mexico, American Indians and the Far East.
He also developed friendships and professional relations with important gay composers and musicologists. Harrison studied the works of American composer Charles Ives, some of whose musical manuscripts he later edited. Harrison conducted the premiere of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, and when that composition won the Pulitzer Prize, Ives gave half the prize money to Harrison. He also worked with gay composer John Cage, with whom he wrote Double Music (1941) for four percussionists. During World War II, Harrison moved to New York and wrote music criticism for the Herald Tribune. Although Harrison was welcomed into the NYC musical circle of gay composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who promoted his works, he decided that he did not enjoy living in a crowded and stressful big city.
A few years later he moved to North Carolina, where he taught at Black Mountain College, the experimental arts college where John Cage and gay choreographer Merce Cunningham also worked. In 1947 Harrison suffered a nervous breakdown and moved back to California. Harrison found it hard to support himself with his music, and took a number of other jobs to earn a living, including stints as a record salesman, florist, animal nurse, and forestry firefighter.
Lou Harrison House (below) in Joshua Tree, California:
The straw-bale house, not fully completed until 2002, was designed and built by American composer Lou Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig. Today it is used by composers and other artists in residence to work on projects:
Harrison wrote Young Caesar (1971), an opera that deals with homosexuality and the clashes between the East and West. He accepted commissions from both the Portland and Seattle Gay Men’s Choruses. In 1995 Harrison wrote "Parade for MTT" for the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration of the inauguration of openly gay music director Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT holds that position to this day. Harrison wrote symphonies, works for chamber orchestra, many concerti and dozens of compositions for gamelan. He taught in California at Stanford, Cabrillo College, Mills College, USC and San Jose State, where he was composer-in-residence.
Harrison died in 2003 from a heart attack in Indiana, at the age of 85, while traveling to a festival of his own music at Ohio State University. Celebrated as one of America's most venerated composers, and sometimes dubbed the "Santa Claus" of new music for his white beard, portly physique and ready laugh, he was mourned by music lovers the world over. Fortunately, his 300+ musical compositions continue to delight, challenge and inspire listeners of serious music.
First Concerto for Flute & Percussion (1939):