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.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Langston Hughes

Born February 1, 1902, Langston Hughes, a deeply closeted gay man, was an African-American poet, novelist, lecturer, columnist and playwright who became one of the foremost interpreters of racial relationships in the United States. Born in the south, he dropped out of Columbia University to experience the world of jazz and nightclubs and went on to become a major component of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was one of the innovators of the new literary art form called jazz poetry. He worked menial jobs, and was “discovered” as a poet while working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC. The story goes that Hughes dropped his poems beside the poet Vachel Lindsay's dinner plate, and Lindsey included several of them in his next poetry reading. Lindsay’s interest and support launched a major career for Hughes.

This event spawned a local chain of restaurants in the Washington, DC area called “Busboys and Poets” (your blogger has enjoyed many evenings there drinking, dining, playing cards, watching films and taking in live shows and poetry readings). Hughes, who went on to become one of the first black authors who could support himself by writing, became a friend of Ernest Hemingway, with whom he attended bullfights. He wrote lyrics for “Street Scene,” an opera by Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice, as well as screenplays for Hollywood films. His original works portrayed people whose lives were impacted by racism and sexual conflicts; he often wrote about southern violence. However, he felt he had to remain sexually closeted in order to maintain the financial support and respect of various black churches and other cultural institutions.

Hughes had more life experience to draw upon than most, and his world view was vast. Having been born in the segregated deep south of Joplin, Missouri, he later lived in Mexico, Paris and Italy. He worked as a seaman on jaunts to Africa and Europe, spent a year in the Soviet Union, and served as a Madrid correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American.

His career successes helped break the chains of poverty into which he had felt trapped. For the last twenty years of his life he owned his own home in Harlem, a brownstone at 20 E. 127th Street. 

In 1967, Hughes died at the age of 65 from complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer. He left an enduring legacy.

A poem written when Hughes was 18 years old:

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

– from "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," 1920

Sources: Wikipedia, Charles H. Hughes, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997), Out Magazine

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was of half Jewish and half Catholic heritage. He was also a homosexual. One of eight children sired by an Austrian millionaire steel industrialist, Ludwig sought simplicity and solitude, rejecting the privileged and highly cultured lifestyle of his father and sister. Margaret, his sister, helped arrange Freud’s escape to England in 1938, and his father took a violin with him on business trips.

House guests at the Viennese home of the Wittgensteins included Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Clara Schumann, Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walter, and private musical performances in the Wittgenstein's city palace in Vienna (staircase shown in photo) were coveted invitations. Ludwig was himself an accomplished musician and had perfect pitch. There were seven grand pianos in this house, just one of thirteen mansions they owned in downtown Vienna. The palace interior's Red Salon (below) affords a glimpse into the level of opulence Wittgenstein experienced while growing up. Unfortunately, the city palace was demolished by developers in the early 1950s. There was also a summer palace, of course, called the Hochreith, located in the countryside outside Vienna. At the time, the Wittgensteins were second in wealth only to the Rothschilds.


Ludwig’s brother Paul became a famous concert pianist, but three other brothers committed suicide. His brother Rudolph (Rudi), took his own life in a very public way. He mixed a packet of potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and drank it while having dinner in a Berlin restaurant. Two minutes later he was dead. Rudi killed himself because he was petrified that he would be identified in a case report by famous sexologist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (himself a homosexual), describing in detail the problems of a homosexual student in Berlin. Rudi, a homosexual student in Berlin, was not at all comfortable with his sexuality. Their brother Johannes, also homosexual, took his own life, as well. Their father, Karl Wittgenstein, was humiliated by these acts and thereafter forbade family members to mention the name of either Johannes or Rudolph. A third brother, a military officer, shot himself when his troops deserted him. Paul, who lost an arm during the war, later settled in New York to teach music. Paul commissioned a piano concerto for the left hand only from composer Maurice Ravel. This photo shows Ludwig (on the left) with his brother Paul, the pianist (wearing glasses), before the tragic loss of Paul's right arm.

After serving in the Austrian Army during WW I, Ludwig Wittgenstein gave away his considerable fortune, always refused to wear a tie, furnished his rooms with simple deck chairs, played the clarinet, and wolfed down plates of cream doughnuts while watching his favorite John Wayne films. Wittgenstein gave up philosophy and taught in elementary schools in Lower Austria from 1920 to 1926. For a time he even took up a job as a gardener's assistant at a monastery. From 1926 to 1928 he became involved in the design of a modernist mansion for his sister, a testament to the aesthetic austerity that he championed (no baseboards, bare light bulbs for illumination). The house still stands in Vienna and serves as the Bulgarian Cultural Institute. I forgot to mention that Ludwig also took up sculpture – a true polymath.

Extraordinarily handsome as a youth, he counted Adolph Hitler among his classmates. They were the same age, but Wittgenstein was two grades apart from Hitler (Ludwig had been advanced a grade and Hitler held back one); there has been much speculation as to whether or not they were friends. At the age of nineteen Ludwig took up aeronautical studies in Manchester, England, where he designed a jet engine; the complex mathematics needed for such an endeavor led him to explore the foundations of mathematics. While at Cambridge he studied with an influential teacher, Bertrand Russell, and it is difficult to discern which had the greater impact on the other. Wittgenstein’s work was primarily in the philosophy of mathematics, the foundations of logic, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. His two great published philosophical works are densely crafted and thus difficult to read and comprehend. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein is generally regarded as one of the twentieth century's most important philosophers.

In November 1912, on the recommendation of fellow student John Maynard Keynes (with whom Wittgenstein shared a male lover), Ludwig was elected to the elite Cambridge society known as the Apostles, which at that time maintained an aura of homoeroticism. An atmosphere that teetered on the brink of male/boy worship made Wittgenstein so uncomfortable that he stopped attending meetings. Ludwig was unsettled by his homosexuality and quite secretive about his sexual interests and activities. He wrote his diary in code, identifying the males with whom he had relations by a letter (Ben Richards was code named “Y”). This was perhaps to be expected, given the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Austria and Britain at the time. Historian Julie Anne Taddeo wrote, "The Cambridge Apostles transformed the definition of sodomy from an illegal and sinful act to an alternative creed of manliness and transcendental love and hoped to spread the gospel of the Higher Sodomy among their enlightened contemporaries."

During his student days in Vienna, Wittgenstein was known to cruise the Prater, a large public park where he hooked up with rough trade youths. He also frequented a café that was a chess club during the day, but a raucous gay bar by night. However, Wittgenstein went on to have several serious affairs with Englishmen of his own class – mathematics student David Pinsent, philosopher Frank Ramsey, the much-younger medical student Ben Richards, and architect Francis Skinner (at left in photo, shown walking with Wittgenstein). In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he became a professor in 1939. He resigned that post in 1947 to move to Ireland, where he hoped he’d find the solitude to complete his second great work, Philosophical Investigations. This plan didn’t come to fruition, unfortunately. It was published in its incomplete form in 1953, two years after his death from prostate cancer at the age of sixty two.

Ludwig died in Cambridge, housed in his doctor's home, since he did not wish to die in a hospital. He celebrated his 62nd birthday by taking a walk. Three days later, he was dead. His last words were, "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."