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, July 11, 2012
Copland by Candlelight
by Victor Kraft
The talented boy from Brooklyn started piano lessons at age seven and began composing music by age eight. When he turned twenty-one his musical gifts were deemed so extraordinary that he moved to Paris to study with legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger. She was so impressed that she arranged for his works to be performed by symphony orchestras in Boston and New York. Audiences and critics hated what they heard. When they weren’t booing and hissing, they were spreading the word that his music was dull, derivative, unimaginative and ineffective.
Although Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is now considered a major figure in American classical music, he had to develop a thick skin for the first eight years of his professional career. Obviously Boulanger heard something in his music that was not shared by others. His personal life was a major disappointment, as well. He was not a social butterfly, nor was he handsome. To be honest, he wasn’t even attractive. He was tall, rail thin, careless about his clothes, had protruding teeth and an enormous nose. He wore glasses and his hair had thinned prematurely.
Although most other American expats lived a wild, Bohemian lifestyle while in Europe, Copland was geeky, reserved and a model of propriety. During the three years he lived and studied in Paris he was not sexually involved with anyone. It didn’t help that he liked his men handsome and very young. His first major man crush was with 16-year-old musician Israel Citkowitz; Copland was 26, and his feelings were not reciprocated. Next up was 19-year-old Paul Bowles, another musician; Copland was 29, and the result was the same. Then along came the stunningly handsome, muscular 17-year-old violinist Victor Kraft. Copland was 32, and it turns out the third time was the charm.
Copland had to keep up with Kraft’s youthful enthusiasm, and the pair frequently went clubbing until dawn. This was a 180-degree turn-around in Copland’s life, and he was so happy that he willingly agreed to Kraft’s desire to extend the stay to a full five months. The two acted like honeymooners, trekking off to Acapulco, Cuernavaca and Xochimilco.
A fortuitous side effect of this young love was Copland’s rebirth as a composer. He dropped his complicated, dense European style of writing and began filling scores with a fresh, simple kind of music, a reflection of the lifestyle he and Kraft had shared in Mexico. The first of these, El Salón México, resulted in something that Copland had never heard before – rave reviews and enthusiastic audience reception. In gratitude for his young lover’s inspiration and influence, Copland dedicated El Salón México to Victor Kraft (see top of title page below).
A sign on the wall of the dance hall read: “Please don’t throw lighted cigarette butts on the floor so the ladies won’t burn their feet.” A guard, stationed at the bottom of the steps leading to the three halls, would nonchalantly frisk you as you started up the stairs to be sure you had checked all your “artillery” at the door and to collect the 1 peso charged for admittance. When the dance hall closed at 5:00 a.m., it hardly seemed worthwhile to some of the patrons to travel all the way home, so they curled themselves up on chairs around the walls for a quick two hour snooze before going to their seven o’clock job in the morning.
Copland then set about writing a string of hits, such as music for the ballet Billy the Kid and numerous film scores. Before he knew it, he found his soundtrack for the movie Of Mice and Men nominated for an Academy Award. Kraft had moved into Copland’s Manhattan apartment and took over the household, playing the role of charming host by planning and cooking for casual dinner parties. Kraft gave up his own career as a violinist to work in the field of photojournalism, going on to achieve great success in this endeavor. Kraft also insisted that Copland clear his schedule several times a year so that they could enjoy felicitous getaways as a couple.
At this time Fanfare for the Common Man, perhaps now the most recognizable 2-minute composition in history, came about as a commission from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1942. It has since been used in advertising, films, rock anthems, and even as the wake-up call for astronauts. President Obama chose it to kick-off his inaugural celebrations in 2009. Success built upon success, and the cup that held Copland’s musical inspiration was suddenly filled to overflowing.
As Copland’s fame grew, Kraft saw to it that the composer had a stress-free home life. Victor planned vacations – local getaways as well as major treks to Cuba, South America and a return visit to Mexico. Kraft even found a cottage retreat for the pair when they needed a break from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Copland bought it, and they enjoyed their first stay in rural New Jersey in 1944. That summer Copland’s Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize. Two more film scores were nominated for an Academy Award, and his soundtrack for the film adaption of the Henry James novel The Heiress (1940) won the Academy Award for best musical score.
This photo of Copland at work in his studio was taken by Victor Kraft.
Film work meant that Copland was spending more and more time in California, while Victor had to stay behind in NYC, where he was working full time as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. Copland’s penchant for young male flesh began to breed trouble into their relationship, as his fame meant he had no difficulty attracting men 20-30 years his junior into the bedroom. In an attempt at making Copland jealous, Victor Kraft entered into an affair with Leonard Bernstein. When that ploy failed, Kraft delivered a bolt of lightning by marrying a female writer, Pearl Kazin, in 1951. The marriage went up in flames, however, lasting only a few months, and Kraft went back to Copland.
Victor had to accept that Copland would forever pursue young flesh, but took comfort that he remained the focus of Copland’s life. They continued to enjoy sexual relations, and Victor took on secretarial and managerial duties for the composer. While they lived a surprisingly open life as a couple, Copland never provided details of their relationship to the public. His stock comment was, “I’m married to my music.”
Hardly. Copland blazed a trail through relationships with many younger, talented young men – artist Alvin Ross, pianist Paul Moor, dancer Erik Johns (librettist for Copland's opera The Tender Land) and composer John Brodbin Kennedy, for starters. By the late 1950s, however, the strain of Copland’s philandering took its toll on Victor. He quit his job, got into fights with Copland’s younger lovers and suffered crying fits. Unable to deal with the emotional strain, Kraft married once more, settling into a house only a few miles from Copland’s residence. They had a son named Jeremy Aaron, who was born with brain damage. At this, Victor’s mind snapped. His handsome appearance lapsed into that of a sloppily dressed long-haired hippie. He sank into a ruinous drug culture. He begged Copland to reenter into a relationship with him, and upon his refusal kidnapped his own 7-year-old son and took him out of the country. Although Copland was alarmed by Kraft’s behavior, he did not break off all communication. Although Copland made sure Kraft was kept from high profile events, such as Copland’s presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and various Grammy Award ceremonies, Copland remembered Victor’s positive influence on his music and life in their early years together. Most biographers agree that Copland’s feelings of guilt over his constant humiliations and betrayals of Kraft prohibited a clean break from each other.
Upon Victor’s death Copland was devastated and entered into a period of clinical depression. He looked after Victor’s son and even paid for the boy’s tuition at a private school. As for Copland, major recognition continued to come his way – the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979 and a Medal of the Arts from Ronald Reagan in 1986 – but Copland had written his last great music well before Kraft’s death. Copland also ceased his pursuit of young men, likely because of guilt over the humiliating affairs that lead to Victor’s tragic demise.
When Copland died fourteen years after Kraft, there were great tributes and accolades that flooded the press. No public mention, however, was made of Victor Kraft. Every news source referred to Copland as a lifelong bachelor, when in fact he had been one of the first prominent homosexual composers to live openly with a male partner.
Note: Most of the source material for this post comes from Rodger Streitmatter’s book Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples, published in May of this year. Highly recommended. Streitmatter is a professor at the School of Communication of American University in Washington, DC.