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

Aaron Copland

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.

But Copland, thrilled at finally having his attentions returned, had already accepted an invitation from a fellow composer to travel to Mexico City for two months, so he called ahead to inform his host that he’d be bringing along a 17-year-old pupil for the entire time, saying, “Im sure you’ll like him.” Copland had intended to compose the full duration of his stay, but young Victor (photo at left) had other ideas, and he was quite persuasive. Victor insisted that Aaron take a real holiday, and the two spent many days at the beach while Copland happily photographed Kraft in the nude.

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).

This piece was based on sheet music Copland obtained for four Mexican folk songs. “El Salón México” was a real place, an actual popular dance hall. Copland elaborated:

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.

Copland’s musical inspiration seemed to dry up as difficulties continued to plague his personal life. Nevertheless, he and Kraft continued to travel together and maintain sexual relations. After Kraft separated from his second wife, Copland traveled with him on trips to Israel and England (photograph at right, Yorkshire 1970). Six years later Kraft died of a heart attack while vacationing in Maine in 1976. He was sixty years old.

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.


  1. always interesting (and a bit disconcerting) to learn that a celebrated social icon is/was actually an insensitive scumbag in real life.

  2. Handel lived with his valet, a man named Smith, to whom he left his estate.

  3. Copland wasn't insensitive. He was too sensitive to reveal his true self. He was empathetic and loved deeply. Why would he go into a depression if he didn't love the man? Some relationships just need to be the way they are, secretive and full of passion and turmoil. He didn't need to make it public and spoil its aura.

    1. Allowing oneself to be compulsively unfaithful to a mate -- especially one as fine, unselfish, good looking, loyal and inspirational as Victor Kraft -- is the quintessence of cruel, pathological egoism. That a Jewish homosexual Communist from Brooklyn, who looked like a veritable portrait of bad breath, could write music so wonderfully evocative of the fresh, lively, courageous, fun-loving spirit that made -- and once defined -- America is frankly miraculous.

      If this tale, as told here, is true, Copland would very likely have remained a talented nobody had it not been for the improbable presence of Victor Kraft in his life. To treat a beautiful figure of such importance as Victor Kraft so shabbily speaks very poorly for Copland's character.

      Of course Victor, like ever so many homosexuals may have had a wide streak of Masochism in him. What else could account for his being attracted to and subsequently so devoted to a notably unattractive figure such as Copland? That, however, is no excuse for Copland's conduct. I love much of Copland's music, but I wouldn't have touched him physically with a ten-foot pole.

      - Orlando Woolf

    2. This fantastical account stands in virtually direct contradiction to any of the research and accounts I've read about the Copland's and Kraft's relationship. Before anyone else piles on Copland as a philandering "scumbag" or the "veritable portrait of bad breath", I suggest doing a little more reading.

    3. From your blogger: I suggest you contact American University Professor Rodger Streitmatter to question his research. He is the source of facts in much of the post, although I have also read two biographies of Copland (by the way, I am a professional classical musician). In 2010 Professor Streitmatter received the Roy F. Aarons Award for his “tremendous contribution to education and research in GLBT issues.”
      I just looked over my notes that I reviewed before writing this blog entry, and I see all the usuals: Howard Pollack, Carol Oja & Judith Tick, and Marc Vargo, as well as articles in Time and New Yorker magazines and several newspapers. You might think this post “fantastical,” but I stand by its accuracy. Do you think I make this stuff up?

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  7. While indeed true that most of us wouldn't think of Copland as a great or even minor beauty (I met him briefly after a concert when I was about 19), there's little I treasure as much as 'Ballet for Martha: Appalachian Spring', which was beautiful live, in the production I saw in 2004, and on the old movie in which Graham dances (along with 'Night Journey', also superb.) I recall in some TV interview that he thought it was a strange collaboration, that Martha was 'a rather prim person'. I never perceived her that way, and I loved the way she dressed some of her gorgeous dancers like Bertram Ross, so that much more of their asses could be seen.

    Generally, I was not, though, attracted to most of Copland's music.