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 28, 2017

Poet Fitz-Greene Halleck


I just cracked open Adventures in Old New York* (Bowery Boys 2016), a birthday gift presented to me last month. There’s an entire chapter on Central Park, which I have visited too many times to count, but I didn’t know the quarter mile path bordered by huge American Elm trees that makes a straight shot north from the zoo to the Bethesda fountain and terrace is called The Mall**, and the southern part of it is known as Literary Walk. It’s here that our Bowery Boys make the gay connection. Literary honorees include Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Robert Burns, but there’s also a statue of Fitz-Greene Halleck. Who? Never heard of him.

Turns out Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) was a Connecticut-born writer of romantic and satirical poetry who was so popular that 10,000 rabid poetry fans joined President Rutherford Hayes and his entire cabinet for the dedication of his Literary Walk statue in 1877, marking the tenth anniversary of  the writer’s death. Imagine that today – 10,000 people attending the unveiling of a statue of a poet. Hard to believe, but at that time (pre-radio and TV) authors were the celebrities of American culture. Halleck enjoyed tremendous readership among the general public, even though his poems and essays were infused with homosexual themes. Considering late nineteenth-century mores, the celebrants likely played down the gay stuff.

Halleck was dubbed “the American Byron” during his lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck.” Charles Dickens spoke fondly of Halleck, and Abraham Lincoln read his poems out loud to friends at the White House. Newspapers published his newly-minted poems all across America and Great Britain. These were extraordinary endorsements, considering that Halleck’s writings had “gay” written all over them. Not all criticism was positive. Mark Twain ridiculed Halleck and referred to him as "girl."

Fitz-Greene, also an essayist and noted Byron scholar, moved to NYC when he was twenty-one and found a job as personal secretary to John Jacob Astor. Halleck became one of the original trustees for the Astor Library, which later formed the nucleus of the New York Public Library (Fifth Ave. at 41st Street).

Halleck was love sick for a certain fellow poet Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820), who partnered with Halleck in writing The Croaker Papers, a satirical send up of New York society. Published anonymously and serialized in leading newspapers, these poems seemed to delight even their targets of derision, the upper crust of New York City. Both writers were members of the “Ugly Club”***, a club specifically for handsome young men. Drake played the flute and had a fine singing voice, and joined by Halleck’s recitations, the two would entertain the membership of The Ugly Club. The two soon became inseparable.


Drake’s relationship with Halleck was fictionalized in what many call America’s first gay novel, Bayard Taylor’s “Joseph and His Friend” (1870, three years after Halleck’s death). The book is addressed to “those who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man.” Taylor had known both men and even delivered a speech at the dedication of a Halleck statue in Connecticut, in addition to the one in Central Park. See sidebar for separate post on Bayard Taylor.


But Drake (pictured above, on a vintage cigar box label), who had studied medicine, was unable to delay his early death from tuberculosis, and Halleck mourned the loss for the rest of his life. When Drake died, his coffin was followed by thirty carriages, a fitting tribute to his enormous fame at the time.

Drake had married a year before his death, and Halleck reluctantly served as best man.

“I officiated as groomsman, though much against my will...He is perhaps the handsomest man in New York – a face like and angel, a form like an Apollo...I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.” While Drake was on his honeymoon, Halleck could not eat, sleep or work, and fell into a serious depression. Such was the extent of Halleck’s life-long obsession with Drake that in his will the poet asked for Drake’s body to be exhumed and buried next to him.

Halleck’s biographer described the poet’s last major work, “Young America,” as both a jaded critique of marriage and a pederastic boy-worship reminiscent of classical homosexuality. Halleck rhapsodizes over his fourteen-year-old male subject in salacious detail.



All of this was news to me. So a recent warm spring day found me strolling Central Park’s Literary Walk, where I located Halleck’s granite statue. There he sits, with legs crossed, for all eternity. According to the Bowery Boys, his was Central Park’s first statue of an American.

*528 pages of fascinating details of NYC’s history told in a way that never fails to captivate. The Bowery Boys are the transplanted midwestern guys – Greg Young and Tom Myers – who produce award-winning podcasts about NYC, their adoptive home.   

**The mall is on the east side of the park, running roughly from 66th-72nd streets.    



***The Ugly Club was exclusive to the point of secrecy. Membership was by invitation, and open only to the handsomest and most foppish young men in NYC. They held seances and all male balls and recruited members from “what the ladies call rather pretty” and the men called “models of manly beauty.” Even so, there is no evidence that it was an exclusively homosexual body.


Halleck’s poetry is breezy, charming and witty. One can understand his popularity among readers of the day in this excerpt from “Fanny”. What many readers missed, however, was that his poem was the vengeful response to the fact that Drake withdrew from their writing partnership upon  marriage. This poem rails against matrimony, suggesting that marriage should be for money (Fanny’s father was rich!), not love.


FANNY (1819): excerpted verses; the entire poem numbers more than 1,500 lines

VIII
A decent kind of person; one whose head
   Was not of brains particularly full;
It was not known that he had ever said
   Anything worth repeating—’twas a dull,
Good, honest man—what Paulding’s muse would call
A “cabbage head”—but he excelled them all

IX
In that most noble of the sciences,
   The art of making money; and he found
The zeal for quizzing him grew less and less,
   As he grew richer; till upon the ground
Of Pearl-street, treading proudly in the might
And majesty of wealth, a sudden light

X
Flash’d like the midnight lightning on the eyes
   Of all who knew him; brilliant traits of mind,
And genius, clear and countless as the dies
   Upon the peacock’s plumage; taste refined,
Wisdom and wit, were his—perhaps much more.
’Twas strange they had not found it out before.

XXV
Dear to the exile is his native land,
   In memory’s twilight beauty seen afar:
Dear to the broker is a note of hand,
   Collaterally secured—the polar star
Is dear at midnight to the sailor’s eyes,
And dear are Bristed’s volumes at “half price;”

XXVI
But dearer far to me each fairy minute
   Spent in that fond forgetfulness of grief;
There is an airy web of magic in it,
   As in Othello’s pocket-handkerchief,
Veiling the wrinkles on the brow of sorrow,
The gathering gloom to-day, the thunder cloud to-morrow.




Sources:

The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck
(2000), by John Hallock.

That’s So Gay: Outing Early America –  The Library Company of Philadelphia
                                           
Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sir Ian McKellen



English born Sir Ian McKellen (b. 1939) is perhaps the most famous openly gay actor who has played more straight than gay characters. His work is known to generations of movie, TV and theater-goers. During the 1960s he began his career as a classical actor specializing in Shakespeare. Six decades later, he is playing King Lear during the 2017 season of the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Although he began a modest film career in 1969, it was not until he appeared in several Hollywood blockbusters that he was introduced to an entirely new generation of movie-goers. The X-Men (as Magneto) and Lord of the Rings (as Gandalf) franchises of the early 2000s and the more recent Hobbit films have brought world-wide fame and recognition. At present he can be seen in the live-action film version of Beauty and the Beast, in which he portrays Cogsworth. As well, his December 2016 London stage performance of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Patrick Stewart is being broadcast to movie theaters worldwide as part of the National Theatre Live Encore series.




Sir Ian came out publicly on BBC television in 1988, just shy of his fiftieth birthday. Since then, he has been involved as an activist for multiple LBGT rights issues. He freely uses his name recognition to advance international causes that could use a boost. 

McKellen was knighted twice. In 1991 he was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (which granted him the use of the title “Sir”) and again in 2008 for services to the performing arts, becoming a part of the Order of the Companions as Companion of Honor (CH).



Mckellen.com
Sir Ian’s official web page, launched in 1997, contains an in-depth look at his enduring career. There are hundreds of photographs, both personal and professional biographies, essays and links to his blog and the many causes he champions.

He has received a Tony award, a Golden Globe award, a SAG award, two Oscar nominations, five Emmy Award nominations and four BAFTA nominations – as well as every major theatrical award in the UK.

McKellen’s performance as Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award. He received his first Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor, for his portrayal of gay film director James Whale, in Gods and Monsters (1998). McKellen starred as Richard III (1995) in his own screen-adaptation of Shakespeare's play, which he also produced. Other film credits include Six Degrees of Separation, Cold Comfort Farm, Bent and The Da Vinci Code.

McKellen has also been honored for his extensive television work, from the miniseries The Prisoner to his monumental performance in King Lear, from his reincarnation of Tsar Nicholas II in the tele-film Rasputin, to his classic guesting as himself in HBO's Extras. He co-starred with Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour in two seasons of ITV's series Vicious, which aired on PBS in the US. On the first night of Channel 4 in the UK, McKellen played a mentally handicapped man in Stephen Frears' Walter. He delighted everyone with his 10 episodes in Britain’s longest running soap, Coronation Street.

Sir Ian is also a co-founder of Stonewall UK, which lobbies for legal and social equality for gay people.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Herbert May

Herbert A. May (1891-1968), an executive vice president of Westinghouse, was a socialite and avid fox hunter who liked to entertain at Rosewall, his 28-room mansion in Pittsburgh. When his wife died of pneumonia in 1937, he was left to raise three young sons and an adopted daughter. In the ensuing years he enjoyed a quietly successful career in the railroad and banking industries and became a patron of the arts. May was head of the Pittsburgh Civic Opera and enthusiastically pursued his interest in ballet. 

After a gap of 20 years, he married for a second time, and he rose to fame with this social upgrade. His bride was none other than Marjorie Merriweather Post (wedding photo, above), one of the richest women in the world. On June 18, 1958, the couple married at her daughter’s Maryland estate. In a reply to a congratulatory telegram from her granddaughter, Marjorie replied, “Walking on fluffy pink clouds.”

Herb was the last of her husbands – number four – and at age 67* on his wedding day, he was four years younger than Marjorie, who was vibrant, energetic, youthful looking and the undisputed queen of Washington DC society. Her philanthropy kept the capital city alive. But Mr. May kept a big secret from Marjorie. He was actively bisexual.

Although Marjorie had been warned, she brushed it off as mere gossip. After all, Herb had been married and fathered three sons. Although she had met him thirty years earlier, she was happy to become reacquainted in 1957, two years after an acrimonious divorce from diplomat Joseph Davies. There was much to like about Herb. He was handsome and silver haired, but fit. As well, he was soft-spoken, diplomatic, charming, well-liked and kind.  He loved parties and loved to dance, and he had mastered the art of blowing through money. Herb had told his children not to expect any inheritance.

Before the wedding Marjorie’s daughter had been told that Herb was homosexual, and some of Marjorie’s friends repeated tales about Herb’s attachment to a male dancer from the Washington National Ballet and a handsome male personal secretary. Incredibly, Herb brought this secretary along on their honeymoon. Still, none of this deterred Marjorie. She was at the peak of her power in Washington, and Herb shared so many of her interests, while providing a partner for entertaining and carrying out her various acts of charity.

Mr. May was the poorest of Marjorie’s four husbands (one was E. F. Hutton), so she set up a trust fund for him. She was attracted to his intelligence, patronage of the arts, success in business, etc., but she was won over by his warmth, enjoyment of people and his obvious pleasure in her company. They were both tall, thin, elegant and handsome people who looked for all the world like a king and queen. 

But Herb did not want to abandon his home and family in Pittsburgh, and Marjorie did not want to leave Washington, where she exerted major influence. They compromised by agreeing to commute between the two cities, and Marjorie retired from the board of General Foods, the source of her fortune. This gave her time for concentrating on ramping up the cultural scene in Washington, which she thought to be woefully inadequate for a capital city. She installed her husband as chairman of the board of the National Ballet, from which Herb was soon selecting individual male dancers for special interest and attention.


Marjorie's plane, named the "Merriweather":




However, Herb soon did Marjorie a huge favor by helping her overcome her fear of flying. She intended to commute to Pittsburgh by train, but for one trip he arranged for a company plane, a Lockheed Lodestar, to transport Marjorie to Pittsburgh. The flight was ultra smooth, and the weather was calm. A half hour into the trip she told her husband that she was enjoying the flight, then a few minutes later said to him, “Herb, I want one.” He explained that a plane like that cost several million dollars, plus a crew and maintenance. She replied, “I didn’t ask how much it costs. I want one.” Shortly thereafter she purchased a British-made Vickers Viscount turbo-jet (above) powered by four Rolls-Royce engines, capable of accommodating 44 passengers. Herb suggested the name "Merriweather", his wife’s middle name. She was best pleased. Of course, she ripped out all those seats and furnished the interior as a living room with sofas, chairs and tables. Instantly, this became her favorite mode of transportation. She began using “Merriweather” to transport all her friends to and from her estates in Palm Beach and the Adirondacks.


In a short time, however, cracks began to develop in their connubial bliss. Herb grew to resent Marjorie’s restrictions on alcohol. She was stingy with cocktails and wine at her parties, which were otherwise lavish beyond description. To the amazement of her guests, she subsequently extended the cocktail hour to a full thirty minutes and began stocking guest rooms at her retreats in Florida and New York with liquor. As a life-long Christian Scientist, her personal limitation of alcohol consumption remained a steadfast practice, but she was eager to please Herb. Marjorie also included Herb’s four children in stays at Mar-a-Lago (Palm Beach, Florida) and Top Ridge (the Adirondacks in New York). Mar-a-Lago, the spectacular winter social haven, had been shuttered since Marjorie’s divorce from Joseph Davies in 1955, but Herb talked her into reopening it in 1961. Marjorie was thrilled to once more be at the top of the heap of Palm Beach society. However, it was there at Mar-a-Lago (below) that Herb was to meet his downfall.




Mar-a-Lago is now owned by President Donald Trump, who runs it as a profitable membership club.

Herb was well aware that, by being married to Marjorie, he had become one of the most powerful men in Washington. But trouble was brewing. In spite of her age, Marjorie had a voracious sexual appetite. Herb was complaining to friends that he was astonished that a woman in her seventies desired daily sex. Also, by the 1960s Margaret Voigt, Marjorie’s social secretary who ran all of her social affairs, had become Marjorie’s most powerful staff member. Herb and Marjorie’s children voiced concerns that Margaret had become too influential as the social gatekeeper for access to the heiress. Margaret even ate at Marjorie’s table. When Herb made the mistake of criticizing Margaret’s inefficient office practices, a resentful standoff ensued. Shortly thereafter, a set of photographs arrived on Marjorie’s desk. They showed graphic evidence that Herb was a practicing homosexual.

The pictures showed Herb naked as he cavorted with much younger men and boys around the oceanfront pool of Mar-a-Lago. Next a blackmail attempt was made, with threats to publish the incriminating photographs unless hush money was paid. Marjorie was astonished and equally surprised that her daughter, actress Dina Merrill, knew about Herb’s proclivities before the marriage had taken place. Nevertheless, friends and family knew that until that moment, Herb and Marjorie had enjoyed a warm, romantic relationship.

With irrefutable evidence presented to her, Marjorie decided that divorce was the only option. By 1964, it was a done deal. Their marriage had lasted a scant six years, and Marjorie was pleased to have the embarrassing incident behind her.

She was not vengeful, however. When Herb suffered a stroke after the divorce, Marjorie paid the medical bills and provided an apartment in Fort Lauderdale where Herb lived until his death in 1968*. And she continued to be in contact with Herb’s children, particularly Peggy, who had formed an especially close relationship during the marriage. Marjorie’s loyalty to Herb’s children was mutual, and they knew they were fortunate to be allowed to maintain a relationship with a great lady. Marjorie died in 1973, at age eighty-six.




*Note: 
The New York Times obituary, published on March 13, 1966, offered facts that clash with those stated in Rubin’s book. According to the Times, Mr. May died at a hospital on St. Thomas at age 71. He had suffered a stroke while on a cruise. If he had been 71 years old in 1966 (the year of his death), he would have been born in 1895, making him eight years younger than Marjorie, who was born in 1887. Yet Rubin declares that May was four years younger than his wife – 67 years old to Marjorie’s 71 years on the day of their marriage. She also stated that he died in 1968, whereas the NYT obituary was published on March, 13, 1966.
 

Sources:
American Empress – Nancy Rubin (1995)
http://www.paulbowles.org/marjoriemerriweatherpost.html


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Prince Egon von Fürstenberg

Eduard Egon Peter Paul Giovanni Prinz zu Fürstenberg (Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, 1946-2004), was a bisexual fashion designer, socialite and interior designer. A member of a German aristocratic family, he was a businessman who managed to keep his name in the press, tabloids especially. Although his given name ended in “zu” Fürstenberg, not “von” Fürstenberg, he chose the latter, because it was better recognized and understood by the public.* In any event, his proper form of address was “His Serene Highness.”

In 1969 he married fashion designer Diane Halfin, a Jewish Belgian-American whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. The marriage was opposed by Egon’s father, mostly for anti-Semitic reasons. Diane’s marriage to Prince Egon brought her a noble title and helped her fashion design business rise to international prominence. 

 


Prince Egon and Diane von Fürstenberg
 
However, the couple became estranged and lived apart after 1972, just one year after their second child was born. In 1983 Prince Egon remarried, this time to an American, Lynn Marshall. That union was childless. But during and between those marriages Prince Egon had many male partners. He was frank about his bisexuality and the openness of his first marriage. He even professed his bisexuality and drug abuse to New York magazine and the Italian daily La Repubblica. Many of his friends remember that among his favorite hangouts were the NYC gay bars Flamingo (for drugs – they had no liquor license at that time) and The Barefoot Boy – not to mention his legendary gay partying on Fire Island.

Fürstenberg certainly didn’t need to work, but he was fascinated by the fashion world. He later published two books on fashion and interior design: The Power Look (1978) and The Power Look at Home: Decorating for Men (1980). After a lowly start as a buyer for Macy’s department store and a designer of plus-size women’s clothing, he launched a successful men’s clothing line. Eventually he opened an interior design firm in New York City, but his career was forever in the shadow of his first wife. It was Diane, not he, who made the name “von Fürstenberg” a famous brand. 


Nevertheless, Diane and Egon remained life-long friends, and she gave him a professional push or two, helping to assure his success. His signature logo reflected noble blood and love for high society – a crown with a star (upper right in photo below). 



In 2004 he died in Rome at the age of 57, survived by his two children and both wives. There was a delay in revealing a cause of death, leading many to confirm what was known by his intimate friends, that his death was from AIDS. Later it was reported “officially” by his second wife that he had died from liver cancer. 



Egon with Errol Wetson and his wife Margaux Hemingway,
and model Pat Amari (right).
Photographed by celebrity photographer Gary Bernstein.

Egon was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He was the son of Prince Tassilo zu Furstenberg and Clara Agnelli, the sister of Fiat mogul Gianni Agnelli. Egon was also a cousin of Princess Caroline of Monaco (b. 1957) and the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf (b. 1946). Although he was born in Switzerland, Egon grew up in a Venetian palazzo with a staff of 21 servants, one of the perks of having a mother with the last name Agnelli. 

In 1965, while studying economics at the University of Geneva, he met fellow student Diane Halfin, from a wealthy German family. After their marriage, they settled in New York City, where Diane started her dress business, and Egon abandoned a career in banking to attend classes in fashion design. The von Fürstenbergs were lionized for their trendy life-style and frank discussion of sexual escapades outside of marriage. They maintained a frantic social life and were among the revelers who participated in drug infused nights at Studio 54.

The Fürstenberg family first rose to prominence as a thirteenth-century noble house in southwestern Germany (Swabia), as part of the Holy Roman Empire. Their noble status was elevated to a princely house during the seventeenth century. Today there are two Fürstenberg  ancestral residences: a magnificent Baroque palace in Donaueschingen (first image below) and a Renaissance palace in Heiligenberg (second image). 




*Note: A German noble with “zu” before the surname meant that the family still owned the hereditary feudal land holdings and residence, while many un-landed commoners who were subsequently ennobled simply placed a “von” before the surname. Thus, “zu” carried far greater prestige. I know, I’m always telling you more than you want to know.
Sources:
Wikipedia, People Magazine profile (Dec. 21, 1981), NYT obituary, Village Voice