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, February 13, 2013

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás

The tale of Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933, also known as Baron von Nopsca) is a fantastic account of privilege and fortune lost to the vagaries of war and politics, an unsuccessful bid to become the King of Albania, and a great scientific mind that came to a tragic end with the murder of his male lover and subsequent suicide.

Nopsca (shown at right in traditional Albanian costume c. 1916) was born into a wealthy Hungarian noble family in Transylvania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A gifted student, he was promoted and supported by his uncle, who was head master of the court of Austro-Hungarian Empress Elizabeth. His family lived the lifestyle of royalty.

While still a teenager, Franz and his sister found some dinosaur fossils on their family estate, a discovery that sparked Franz’s life-long interest in paleontology. He became famous for these hundred million year old fossilized remains, and his subsequent research and scholarly publications led him to be considered the father of modern paleobiology.

At the time those dinosaurs roamed the earth (Cretaceous Periord), Transylvania was an island, and the defining characteristic of the “Hateg Island” dinosaurs was their size. They appeared to be miniature, juvenile versions of better known dinosaurs. However, Nopsca’s research led him to promote the theory of Island Dwarfism – that animals that evolved on islands grew to smaller size because of fewer resources being available. His scientific peers scoffed at this notion, but his theory is widely accepted today. Nopcsa was the first scientist to suggest that these reptiles cared for their young and exhibited complex social behavior. Another of Nopcsa’s hypotheses that was ahead of its time was that birds evolved from ground-dwelling, feathered dinosaurs, an idea that found favor in the 1960s and later gained wide acceptance.  Additionally, Nopcsa’s conclusion that at least some Mesozoic era reptiles were warm-blooded is now shared by much of the international scientific community.

Nopsca subsequently traveled south to Albania, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to conduct some digs for more dinosaur fossils. While there he became enchanted by the countryside and culture of the Albanians, and he soon dedicated himself to liberating Albania from the Ottomans in an effort to establish Albania as an independent country. Using his personal fortune to acquire weapons, he organized rebellious forces and led the Albanians in fighting against the Turks. At the end of the First Balkan War, Albania became an independent state in 1913 under the Treaty of London.

This new Albania was to be a kingdom, but there was no native dynasty. In order to secure the recognition of the nation by other European countries, the Albanian Congress of Trieste was convened in 1913 to choose a nobleman to become king. Nopsca put forth the proposition that he would be an ideal choice as king, because he was of noble birth and had strong ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the fact that he was homosexual and made no effort to hide it thwarted his dream from becoming reality.He flounced around in a black velvet cape and made his attention and interest in men obvious.

The Albanians quite naturally expected their king to marry and produce heirs, but Nopsca tried to use his sexual orientation to advantage. He suggested that Albania sell the title of “Queen of Albania” to the highest bidder, since he did not care which woman he would marry and sleep with. He agreed to produce an heir with whomever paid the highest price and use the money for badly needed infrastructure, such as building roads and hospitals. Although the Albanians were grateful for his role in liberating the people from the grip of the Turks, he was passed over as their king*. Realizing he had no chance for success, the Baron withdrew his bid to become Albania's new king, and from that moment his life took a nosedive.

*Instead, the European powers installed a minor German prince, Wilhelm von Weid, who was deposed and expelled from Albania six months later.

Transylvania, which had been part of Hungary for nearly a thousand years, was annexed by Romania after World War I under the Treaty of Trianon, and Baron Franz lost his family estate (shown at right) and fortune in the transfer. For the first time in his life he needed to support himself, so he and his Albanian lover/secretary, Bayazid Doda, moved to Vienna, where the Baron taught paleontology at the university.

The lifestyle of a working man did not suit him, and he lapsed into severe fits of depression. His financial humiliation was so extreme that by the end of his life his household servant had not been paid for four months. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London, which caused his depression to worsen. Finally, after selling many of his prized books in 1933, he drugged Doda’s tea and fatally shot first his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. His letter stated: “The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.”

Baron Franz von Nopcsa left his detailed observations of the Albanian people and landscape to fellow scholar Norbert Jokl, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. The documents, which give a valuable account of the Albanian culture before modernization, were then transferred to the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and Nopsca's paleontological manuscripts went to the British Museum, where they languished in storage.

However, the Baron’s work has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, and the “dinosaur hunter” has been recognized for his scientific contributions. His studies in tectonic geology, evolutionary biology, paleobiology and sexual dimorphism illustrate his ability to discover and solve scientific problems in creative, intelligent ways. Nopcsa was one of the first great theorists in vertebrate paleontology and made many noteworthy theoretical contributions to geology and evolutionary biology.