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, March 26, 2014

American Gothic: Grant Wood

There are certain paintings that are recognizable by most everyone, true icons of the art world: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's Scream, for instance. American Gothic is among this elite group, but few can recall the name of the artist.

In 1930, painter Grant Wood achieved unexpected fame with American Gothic, his painting of a pitchfork-wielding farmer and a stern, black-clad woman posed before a Victorian farmhouse. Trivia: the models for American Gothic were Grant’s sister and his dentist. It is one of the most reproduced and parodied artworks in history. Even those who know the name of the painter of American Gothic are unlikely to know that the soft-spoken artist who painted it was a deeply-closeted gay man.

Wood’s homosexuality was something of an open secret in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where an attitude of “don’t ask – don’t tell’’ allowed a small gay and lesbian subculture to exist in peace, so long as it remained practically invisible. Respected figures in the community, including prominent businesspeople and a local school principal, shielded Wood from scrutiny and encouraged his artistic aspirations. Thus Wood’s earliest vocational activities were not in farming, but in jewelry design, interior decorating and various theatrical pursuits. David Turner, owner of a funeral home in Cedar Rapids and a member of one of the county’s founding families, acted as Wood’s first patron. Wood and his widowed mother lived for years rent free in the mortuary’s vacant carriage house, formerly a storage facility for horse-drawn hearses.

For a man with a secret, sudden celebrity was a mixed blessing. Major national media outlets hinted all too broadly at the hidden subtext of his life, describing him as “a shy bachelor’’ who maintained “a discreet silence about marriage,’’ while making pointed reference to his high-pitched voice and affinity for the color pink – all too obvious allusions to his homosexuality.

Fear of exposure seems to have led Wood to adopt the down-to-earth public persona of America’s farmer-artist. Possessed of pudgy physical appearance, he routinely donned denim overalls for interviews and photographs (see above) and once ludicrously proclaimed, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,’’ even though he hadn’t lived on a farm since he was 10 years old. Although Wood had studied in Paris and Germany, he downplayed his worldliness and put the accent on his midwestern farmhand persona, albeit somewhat embellished and fabricated.

Several times exposure of Grant’s homosexuality seemed imminent. In the late 1920s, he was blackmailed by a young man over their relationship. MacKinlay Kantor, who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter, wrote a description of Wood in a gossip column for the Des Moines Tribune-Capital that played up Wood’s bachelorhood and feminine taste and appearance. Wood’s being outed would have threatened not only his reputation but his income, as well, so Wood was cautious and circumspect in public. As the bartender in a Cedar Rapids watering hole Wood favored put it, “Wood was only gay when he was drunk.”

In Grant Wood’s Arnold Comes of Age (1930), a painting of a slight young man staring into the distance against a fall landscape, the image might be understood as one of Wood’s signature depictions of traditional America, were it not for the nude boys bathing in the corner of the portrait (click image to enlarge). The bathers are so subtly incorporated into the picture and the title so nondescript that the work seems to simultaneously suggest and repress the possibility of same-sex desire. Arnold Pyle, Wood's assistant, had just turned 21 when this portrait was made.Wood had been Pyle's eighth grade art teacher and went on to become Pyle’s mentor and longtime friend. Tragically, in 1973, while returning from a Grant Wood Art Festival, Pyle was killed in an automobile accident. One should note here that the somewhat overweight Wood had a taste in men that seldom varied – his ideal types were dark-haired, slender young men, and Wood surrounded himself with same for the rest of his life.

His mother’s death in 1935 created a crisis. No longer able to justify bachelorhood with the excuse of filial obligation, Wood entered into a disastrous marriage with a woman much his senior, the former actress Sarah Moxon, to the surprise of his friends and family. It was a loveless, unconsummated, unhappy, and brief marriage – the result of a sort of gay panic. Worse, he fell in love with her handsome, 20-something son from a previous marriage, installing the young man in their home, lavishing money and attention on him. Wood also kept a secretary, Park Rinard, another slightly-built, dark-haired young man with whom he was also in love, again unrequited. All this was too much for Sara, and their brief marriage ended acrimoniously.

Wood left Cedar Rapids for Iowa City, where he taught art classes at the University of Iowa. Lacking the network of friends who had previously supported and protected him, he was denounced as a homosexual in a formal departmental complaint lodged by five colleagues. The matter was eventually hushed up, and Wood was allowed to keep his job, but the ordeal wreaked havoc on his health, and he developed a severe drinking problem. One of Wood’s accusers was H.W. Janson, whose “History of Art’’ later became a standard college-level textbook. Janson vindictively omitted Wood from this canonical guide to art history.

Wood died in 1942, at the tender age of 50, as a result of pancreatic and liver cancer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bayard Taylor

Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), was an American poet, novelist, travel writer, literary critic, diplomat, lecturer and translator. He was a frustrated poet who, even though he published twenty volumes of poetry, resented the mass appeal of his travel writings, because his desire was to be known as a poet. Even his travel writings have been relegated to the dustbin of literary history, and he is known today solely for his translation of both volumes of Goethe’s Faust.

He shared Walt Whitman’s penchant for homosexual relationships. Taylor confided to Whitman that he found in his own nature “a physical attraction and tender and noble love of man for man.” Taylor’s novel Joseph and His Friend (1870), which depicted men holding hands and kissing, is considered the first American gay novel. This novel is said to be based on the romantic relationship between poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake. As well, Taylor’s poem To a Persian Boy and short story Twin-Love explored homosexual attraction.

In Keith Stern’s Queers in History, it is revealed that the love of Taylor’s life was George Henry Boker, although both men had married. Mitch Gould relates that American banker, diplomat and poet George Boker wrote to Taylor in 1856 that he had “never loved anything human as I love you. It is a joy and a pride to my heart to know that this feeling is returned.”

Taylor wrote popular columns in important newspapers and magazines, and he served as a diplomat to both Russia and Germany. He was so well known at the time of his death in Germany that the New York Times printed his obituary on its front page.

To a Persian Boy in the Bazaar at Smyrna


The gorgeous blossoms of that magic tree
Beneath whose shade I sat a thousand nights
Breathed from their opening petals all delights
Embalmed in spice of Orient Poesy,
When first, young Persian, I beheld thine eyes,
And felt the wonder of thy beauty grow
Within my brain, as some fair planet’s glow
Deepens, and fills the summer evening skies.
From under thy dark lashes shone on me
The rich, voluptuous soul of Eastern land,
Impassioned, tender, calm, serenely sad, –
Such as immortal Hafiz felt when he
Sang by the fountain-streams of Rocnabad,
Or in the bowers of blissful Samarcand.

The engraving at the top of this post is by John Chester Buttre after a photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brothers Enrique & Guillermo De Fazio tango dancers

The next time you draw stares when dancing with your guy in public, reference the De Fazio brothers. Enrique and Guillermo De Fazio rightly call themselves traditional tango dancers, because when tango was in its infancy, men danced together. In the late 19th century, the rich landowners in Argentina needed thousands of workers to prepare their vast mineral and agricultural products for shipment from Buenos Aires to Europe. They advertised in Europe for workers, and great numbers of immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires, eager for the opportunity to work. When they arrived, they encountered a huge problem: there were very few women immigrants. To engage in sexual relations with a women, the heterosexual immigrants patronized bordellos, and while they waited in (inevitable) lines, they practiced dancing – with each other, for lack of female partners. In order to climb the social ladder, among the skills they needed was to be able to dance properly with respectable ladies. With so many men to choose from, ladies in Buenos Aires selected only the best male dancers as partners, so competition among the men was keen.

The brothels of Buenos Aires provided live music to entertain the men while they waited their turn, and by necessity the men practiced their dance steps with each other. Most of the immigrants were from Spain and Italy, and they lived in tenement blocks that formed huge ghettos. With their different tongues and cultures, music and dance became their common language. They possessed only portable musical instruments, and a version of an accordion, called a bandoneón, became the backbone of tango music (the bandoneón has buttons on both ends – no keyboard on the right end, as on an accordion; the player is seated, with the instrument resting on his knees -- see photo above). Thus the tango rose from the ghettos of European immigrants, who soon enough exported it to Europe, via France, where Argentine sailors danced with the local girls of Marseille. By 1909 the tango had reached the stages of Montmartre in Paris, but in 1912 the tango took Paris by storm. Although the tango was danced by the lower classes in Argentina, upper class men in Paris began dancing the tango, and it shed its lower class stigma almost overnight. By 1913 the tango had become a massive craze all over Europe.

Then the “European” version of the tango got exported back to Argentina. A book published in Buenos Aires in the early part of the 20th century stated in its introduction that the purpose of the book was to teach people the elegant Tango as it was danced in Paris, which was nothing like the tasteless, squalid little dance done by the lower classes in the outskirts of Buenos Aires (!). From about 1917 onwards, a new respectability led to Tango lyrics written by the finest poets that Argentina and Uruguay had ever produced. As the lyrics improved in quality, great tango singers began to emerge, particularly with the advent of radio, and later sound films.

The Golden Age of tango was from the mid 1930s until the 1955 coup in Argentina that ousted General Perón. Carlos Gardel* was by far the most popular tango singer, achieving cult status. In the 1940s and the 1950s practically everyone in Buenos Aires danced the tango. There were great tango orchestras, wildly popular tango singers and famous tango dancers. The average citizen of Buenos Aires would work from 6:00 am until 2:00 pm, go home to eat and sleep, then go out for a late night of tango dancing, arriving home only in time to shower and get dressed to head back to work.

Young men started to learn the tango at age 13. They started at men-only practice dances, just watching at first, then learning to dance the women’s part. After about nine months, the boys were allowed to lead, dancing with another younger, less experienced lad. The tango was so difficult a dance to learn, and the public so critical of poor performance, that this period of apprenticeship generally took about three years to master. Thus, a 16-year-old boy attended his first “milonga” by arrangement of an older practitioner. No woman would dance with a young man she had never seen dancing. There were too many good dancers for her to be interested in risking a dance with someone with poor skills, so unless he was exceptionally good looking (nothing changes!), one of his more experienced friends would have to ask a woman, as a personal favor, to dance with the boy. If it went badly, he would have to go back to the practice dances until he could hold his own.

The men did not go to the “práctica” just to learn to dance, or there would not have been any experienced men for the beginners to dance with. The men continued to go to the práctica for a couple of hours each night, four or five nights a week, before they went to the milonga. They did their real dancing at the práctica; they went to the milonga to meet women. Generally the men in the prácticas followed better than the women at the milongas. At the prácticas they could experiment more and take risks. Dancing with women, they had to stick to what they could do perfectly, to increase the woman’s enjoyment of the dance. In the prácticas there would be men who specialized in following..., and I think you can see where I’m headed with this.

From 1955 until the fall of the military junta in 1983 after the Falklands War, tango went underground, since the military suppressed anything having to do with ousted Perón, a populist who had endorsed the tango. The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular tango renaissance in Buenos Aires, leading to the “tango nuevo” movement, in which more freedoms and variations were incorporated into the traditional music and dance, leading to much higher artistic quality. The music of classically trained composer Astor Piazzolla epitomizes this new style. Purists resisted these developments, and many of them literally spit on the grave of Piazzolla to this day (he died in 1992). As for myself, I never tire of Piazzolla, and I frequently perform his music in public.

*Gardel (above left, wearing his trademark fedora) was a real mamma’s boy (some diehards deny that he was gay, citing his [sole] attachment to a member of the opposite sex, a 14-year-old girl, for a few months when he was 31, but come on!; he exhibited no sexual or romantic attraction to women, although they literally threw themselves at his feet). Gardel grew up on the streets of a poor part of Buenos Aires. His movie-star looks and highly emotional vocal interpretations made him the Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley of his day, all wrapped up into one. A skilled baritone, he also composed hundreds of tangos, sang on the radio and appeared in movies. In addition to Latin America, he performed to adoring crowds in Europe and New York. He died in 1935 in a tragic airplane crash in Medellin, Columbia, at the age of 44. Millions of his fans throughout Latin America went into mourning. Hordes came to pay their respects as his body was taken from Colombia through New York City and on to Rio de Janeiro. Thousands rendered homage during the two days he lay in state in Montevideo, where his mother lived at the time. Gardel's well-traveled body was finally laid to rest in Buenos Aires, and he attained a cult status that exists to this day.

El dia que me quieras,” composed during the last months of his life, is considered by many to be his greatest hit. This version, performed by my favorite classical tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, will make your hair stand on end.

El dia que me quieras (music composed by Carlos Gardel, 1935)

The day when you’ll love me, the roses will dress up in festive hues,
the wind chimes will be ringing to tell the world you’re mine now...

The night when you will love me, from the blue sky above us
the jealous stars will see us as we walk hand in hand...

...etc. – you get the idea! This is schmaltz of the highest order. The passion this singer from Peru brings to this lyric is nearly overwhelming.

Tip: If you are young and unattached, do yourself a favor and find yourself a Latin lover, even if for a brief affair. Do not delay -- just go for it. You can thank me later.

Monday, March 3, 2014

John Ireland

John Ireland (1879-1962) was an English composer, organist and teacher whose music is “easy on the ears,” in contrast to most of the arresting music written after the Edwardian era; Ireland’s feet remained firmly planted in the nineteenth century (with a few seconds and sixths thrown in for spice). Even so, he was a teacher of composition at the Royal College of Music in London, where his most famous pupil was Benjamin Britten. Ireland is known chiefly for his piano miniatures and songs influenced by nature, although his organ compositions, violin sonatas and piano concerto are a major part of his musical works still performed today. It was the premiere of his second violin sonata in 1918 that brought him overnight recognition as a composer. Portrait at left, circa 1922.

Even though he held important posts as a church organist and choirmaster, Ireland was troubled by his uneasy relationship with Anglo-Catholic beliefs and traditions. In 1936 he wrote, “I am a Pagan. A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall ever remain. That is the foundation of religion.”

Ireland was a severely closeted homosexual who was crippled by pressure to live a life of social normalcy. This strategy culminated in a brief, but disastrous and unconsummated marriage that led to his public humiliation. According to Byron Adams (Gay Histories and Cultures, Volume 2), Ireland’s personal life was one of “relentless gloom.” Although Ireland enjoyed passionate homoerotic attachments to male friends and his young choirboys, social pressures against such relationships led him deeper into depression and alcoholism. Because his sexual inclinations led to alienation, he did not mix in homosexual circles, and he never found a long-term or stable sexual partner.

Ireland virtually stopped composing after World War II and spent his last years suffering from illness, blindness and profound melancholy.

His music is uncomplicated and lands comfortably on the untrained ear. Give this a try:

Piano Concerto in E-flat (1930): First movement