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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Leo Lerman

Leo Lerman (1914-1994) was a magazine writer/editor, critic and legendary bon vivant who worked in New York City for more than 60 years. He is remembered foremost for being friends with famous and influential people in the arts, acting as their confidant – often effecting introductions of famous and influential people to one another. Both Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas had expressed interest in meeting each other to Leo (their mutual friend), so he invited them both to his apartment for a face-to-face. Leo’s account of that incident is alone worth the price of the book I just finished reading, The Grand Surprise (2007, 688 pages; available in digital formats).

From the dust jacket: “His personal accounts and correspondence reveal him also as having an unusually rich and complex private life, mourning the cultivated émigré world of 1930s and 1940s New York City, reflecting on being Jewish and a homosexual man, and intimately evoking his two most important lifelong relationships.”

Leo was openly gay his entire life and exhibited a buoyant personal style. He also nurtured generations of young editors, who examined and often imitated his work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar and Playbill magazines as well as the New York Herald Tribune newspaper.  He wrote on theater, dance, music, art, books and movies. Leo launched careers and trends, thus exposing the American public to new talents, fashions and ideas.

Leo achieved great success during his career, which made him well off enough to purchase a nine room apartment in 1967 at the fabled Osborne apartment house on West 57th Street, diagonally across from Carnegie Hall. He didn’t have to leave the building to be able to name drop. Among his neighbors were Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, Lynn Redgrave, Gary Graffman, Charles Osgood, Fran Lebowitz, Shirley Booth, Andre Watts, Vera Miles, Imogene Coca, Clifton Webb, Virgil Thompson, Ethel Barrymore and Bobby Short, along with assorted judges, senators and even a Baroness. Leo’s partner of 47 years, artist Gray Foy, still lives there at age 90 (seated next to the fireplace in the lavender salon, photo above), much at home amid the tasteful clutter of art objects, books and furniture placed in rooms resplendent with inlaid parquet floors, staggeringly high ceilings, carved moldings, paneled pocket doors and wood-burning fireplaces. At today’s market value, the apartment is worth over $4 million.

Residing at the legendary Osborne was a huge step up from his humble roots as the son of a Jewish house painter in East Harlem. As a boy, Leo would often accompany his father to work, delighting in the surreptitious peeks inside the homes of the upper class. Leo recalls that he tagged along with his father when he was painting the penthouse of playwright Clare Brokaw (who was soon to marry Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines). His father introduced Leo as his son, and Leo was awestruck. She was the first woman Leo had ever seen wearing a Chanel suit. This fascination with high society later manifested itself into a career that enabled Leo not only to break into that social strata, but actually to direct much of it. Decades later, true to form, Clare Boothe Luce and Leo became fast friends. His great wit and charm enabled him to collect high-profile friends the way those around him collected wealth or accolades.

Interior: Leo Lerman (1953) by realist society painter John Koch (1909-1978)
National Academy Museum (Museum Mile: Fifth Ave. at 89th Street; closed Mon/Tue)

A true confession: until I read The Grand Surprise, a compendium of his journal entries and letters to friends (and lovers), I had never heard of Leo Lerman, most likely because he was only famous for being the friend of celebrities. The journal entries found in The Grand Surprise were to serve as notes for a long-planned memoir that never came to fruition, even though Lerman lived to the age of 80.

Leo and Truman Capote were both students at a writing seminar at the onset of their careers, and from an early age Leo was drawn to celebrities, who knew Lerman’s name from his high-profile magazine writing. Lack of money didn’t prevent Leo from entertaining New York City’s glitterati, and soon he was fielding calls from the likes of Cary Grant (quite the flirt, according to Leo), Ruth Gordon, Philip Johnson and Jackie Onassis. For decades he hosted Sunday afternoon salons in his ramshackle Lexington Avenue walk-up apartment, offering his guests only what he could afford – rock-gut wine, cheddar cheese and crackers. Marlene Dietrich would help her pal Leo by emptying ashtrays. When Leo was a bit more flush, he would set out a buffet of Chinese take-out, much to the delight of his guests, who stood in line and helped themselves. Often the crush to enter Leo’s apartment resulted in a line that went out the door, into the hallways and down the steps to the street. Those Sunday afternoons became legendary among NYC’s social circles. This book contains guest lists for several of his parties, along with many pages of photographs.

Even his death was extraordinary. As he had instructed, Leo’s body was returned to his apartment at the Osborne House (lobby above), where he lay on his bed for two days dressed in lavender socks, a night shirt and one of his trademark Turkish skull caps. A stream of friends visited him, surrounded by his collections of antique pill boxes, Tiffany lamps and pictures of erupting volcanoes. A memorial service was subsequently held in an auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a capacity crowd of 1,000 mourners.

Among the hundreds of anecdotes and observations contained in The Grand Surprise, Leo wrote of regularly allowing Maria Callas, one of his closest companions, to polish off his dessert.  "Maria was a prodigious eater who believed she never really ate anything." Of Marlene Dietrich, another cohort-muse, on whose behalf he once delivered doughnuts to a married Yul Brynner, he wrote, "Adoration nourished her the way health food sustains others."

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