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, December 21, 2015

Sir Stephen Spender

London-born poet, essayist and novelist Stephen Spender (1909-1995) delayed publication of his first novel, The Temple, for fifty-nine years – until 1988, when he was seventy-nine years old. The male protagonist has same-sex encounters in pre-War Germany. In Spender’s real life experience, which included living in Germany, he had a series of affairs with men, after which he married twice* and took about renouncing his gay past.

During the course of his life he morphed from homosexual (fell in love with Tony Hyndman in 1933, the two living as a same-sex couple 1935–36) to bisexual (married Inez Maria Pearn 1936-1939) to homophobic straight man (married to Jewish concert pianist Natasha Litvin from 1941 until his death).

Above: Spender photographed with his German pal Franz Büchner in 1929.

*Spender had two children; his daughter Lizzie married Australian drag icon Dame Edna (Barrie Humphries) in 1990, and his son Matthew wrote a memoir about his family.

While many had written that his marriage to Natasha ended his same-sex relations, six years into their second marriage Spender was photographed semi-naked while reveling with gay icons WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood on Fire Island, an über-gay venue if ever there were one. From left: Auden, Spender, Isherwood on Fire Island, 1947.

October 2015 saw the publication of Matthew Spender’s memoir titled, “A House in St John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents”, in which Matthew described a party of intellectuals in post-WW II Paris where  Natasha, still newly married to Stephen, inquired as to the identity of an elegant young man talking to her husband. 

"Don't you know?” the worldly Parisian replied. “That's Stephen's new lover.” Natasha promptly fainted, and a few days later she tried to throw herself off a train.

In 1955, Matthew overheard his father telling his mother he wanted to leave her and live with a new boyfriend in Japan.

In fact, Stephen Spender, who was known to cruise for young male flesh, took several male lovers,  including Tony Hyndman, Lucian Freud, WH Auden and Bryan Obst. While cruising around the Piccadilly area in London, Spender met Tony Hyndman, a former Welsh guardsman and oft-time male prostitute; their relationship lasted six years. Bryan Obst, Spender’s last-known male lover, was an American ornithologist who died from AIDS-related illness in 1991.

So keen was he to erase his gay past, however, that Sir Stephen (knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1983) rewrote selected lines from his eighteen books of poetry. For example, he replaced “I shall always have a boy” with “I shall always have an affair” in the following poem:

Original: Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.

Altered version: Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution.

Spender was so sensitive to being portrayed as gay that he sued David Leavitt for his novel, While England Sleeps. Spender claimed that Leavitt’s book was based on his life and charged that the gay scenes were over-the-top pornographic. They settled out of court in 1994, the year before Spender’s death.

Spender secured his place among the Oxford poets with the publication of Twenty Poems (1930). He later co-edited Horizon (1939-1941) and Encounter (1953-1967) magazines. He left his post at Encounter magazine when he learned that is was being secretly financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1965 he became the first non-American citizen to serve as Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress – his successor was James Dickey. Spender was Professor of English at University College, London, from 1970 through 1977.

At a 1984 ceremony commemorating the 40th Anniversary of D-day, President Ronald Reagan quoted from Spender's poem "The Truly Great":

Gentlemen, I look at you and think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life... and left the vivid air signed with your honor."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

John Cheever

Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist and short story author John Cheever (1912-1982) suffered from many demons, chiefly a debilitating alcoholism. Two years after his death his daughter Susan wrote a memoir, Home Before Dark, in which she mentioned her father’s guilt-inducing bisexuality, revealing that at the end of his life, when he had dried out, he found love with “Rip,” a former student whose real name is Max Zimmer. Rip moved in with Cheever and his wife Mary, driving the esteemed author to medical treatments and chopping wood for the fireplace. Max even served as a pall bearer at Cheever’s funeral and sat with the family during the service. While Rip was living in Cheever’s household, however, Cheever was so determined to give the appearance of a 100% heterosexual male that he took Rip out to the woods in order to have sex. Before Mary’s death she nevertheless said that she knew what was going on all along.

Susan’s brother Benjamin later edited a volume of Cheever’s letters, writing in his introduction how difficult it had been learning the extent of his father’s homosexual activity, even though Cheever had come out to Benjamin two weeks before his death. With the 2009 publication of Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey, Susan Cheever said that she was astonished to learn how much gay activity there had been in her father’s life. Among his dalliances were relations with photographer Walker Evans, writer Calvin Kentfield, Tom Smallwood, Allan Gurganus and various male prostitutes – all of it leading to a toxic form of self hatred, for which Cheever was nearly unmatched.

After Cheever’s death from cancer, his widow Mary continued to live in their Westchester County, NY, home for more than thirty years. After Mary’s death last year at the age of 95, the five acre property once occupied by the “Chekhov of the suburbs” was put up for sale. The resulting media blitz in newspapers and magazines brought Cheever's name back from the dust bin, warts and all, including  knowledge of Cheever’s bisexuality and near death from alcoholism. If any good came from this, the publicity introduced his writing to a younger generation which had not read any of his novels or short stories.

Cheever wrote five novels and many dozens of short stories (many first published in the New Yorker), for which he won Pulitzer prizes, National Book Critics Circle awards, and the National Medal for Literature. As well, his work has been included in the Library of America.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gilbert Roland

In order to be accepted in Hollywood, bisexual Mexican-born actor Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso (1905-1994) not only had to anglicize his name to Gilbert Roland, he also married a woman in order to maintain his commercial appeal as a "Latin Lover." Roland was one of the most handsome icons of the silent screen and one of the lucky ones whose career flourished in the subsequent sound era.  Not only that, he was able to retain his looks and youthful physique well into old age.

His father owned a bull fighting ring in Juarez, where five-year-old Luis helped out by selling seat cushions, handing out programs and attending the matadors. However, his family fled to El Paso, Texas, to escape the violence of Pancho Villa, and Luis’s fascination with bull fighting was soon replaced by an obsessive interest in Hollywood films.  Inspired by Rudolph Valentino, at the age of fourteen Luis hopped a freight train with just three dollars in his pocket and headed to Hollywood, sure he could become the next big movie star. Instead, he had to work unloading boats on Catalina Island in order to support himself. He found other menial jobs in Los Angeles, and his family followed him to make their home in California. 

By 1925 Luis had become a stunningly handsome six-foot tall 20-year-old who began to be noticed around town. He played a small part in the silent film The Lady Who Lied (1925) with Nita Naldi and next appeared in producer B. P. Schulberg’s The Plastic Age (1925), starring Clara Bow. Schulberg wanted Luis to change his name to John Adams. Instead, Luis chose a combination of the last names of his two favorite screen stars, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland.

It was not long before Gilbert Roland realized that, in order to get ahead in Hollywood, he needed to do more than anglicize his name. His heavily accented English and homosexual proclivities were standing in his way, so he began a short affair with the promiscuous Clara Bow, followed by a fling with Norma Talmadge, eleven years his senior and very much married to produced Joseph Schenck, who cast Roland with Talmadge in the important role of Armand in Camille (1927), and two other silent films with Talmadge – The Dove (1927)  and The Woman Disputed (1928) . When Talmadge and Roland premiered as co-stars in their first talking picture, New York Nights (1929) , Roland's voice captivated the audience, while the glamorous Talmadge was laughed at and ridiculed for her Brooklyn accent, effectively destroying her career. Keeping his eye on the prize, Gilbert moved on and ended his relationship with Norma.

During the 1930s Gilbert Roland distinguished himself in films starring Hollywood A-list actors such as Mae West, Constance Bennett, Don Ameche, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. In 1940 Roland married his co-star Constance Bennett (sister of Joan), who had already been married three times, but their stormy union ended five years later. Gilbert’s good looks, on-screen charisma and youthful physique helped him maintain a solid career into his forties and well beyond, highlighted by starringas The Cisco Kid in six films. 

His role in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) led him to be invited to Fatima, Portugal, to participate in the annual religious services commemorating the miracle that occurred in 1917. In 1954 he wed Mexican-born Guillermina Cantu to form a childless union that nevertheless lasted the rest of his life. Roland expanded his career with many successful television appearances and maintained his film career until 1982 (Barbarosa, a western), twelve years before his death in Hollywood at age eighty-nine. 


No Sound, No Tell. Gay Cinema in the Silent Era (2009) – Eric Brightwell

The Gossip Columnist (2010) – Bill Dakota

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ambassador Rufus Gifford

U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford  (right) married his partner, veterinarian Dr. Stephen DeVincent, in a ceremony in Copenhagen on Saturday, October 10.

In an Instagram post, 41-year-old Gifford wrote, “Just married in Copenhagen where the first legal gay partnerships took place 26 years ago. Now heading back to celebrate with our friends and family from all over the world at our residence under the American flag. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such a perfect day. Life is good.”

Before President Obama nominated Gifford to be the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark in 2013, he was a former official for the Democratic National Committee, Obama for America, and the finance chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

The U.S. Embassy in Denmark also congratulated the newlyweds with an official photo and a post on the Embassy’s Facebook page. Diplomatic relations between in the United States and Denmark began in 1783 when Denmark negotiated a commercial treaty with our new country.

The son of a banker, Gifford is a Boston native who graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island in 1996. A classmate was the daughter of John Kerry, for whom Gifford worked as deputy finance director for the western region, where he supervised the raising of more than $30 million in 2004. Gifford later raised $80 million from California for Obama’s presidential campaign, the largest amount from any state.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Gowns by Adrian

Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard famously said, “We had faces then.” That’s true. But even more importantly, the female stars of Hollywood’s golden age had clothes.

Adrian Greenburg (1903-1959, shown at left with Greta Garbo in the pajamas he designed for her in The Single Standard (1929), generally known by the name Adrian alone, was a Connecticut born Hollywood costume designer famous for The Wizard of Oz and other MGM films of the 1930s and 1940s. During his 25-year career, “Gowns by Adrian” was a credit attached to more than 230 films. He created the padded shoulder look that Joan Crawford made famous. He dressed Greta Garbo* for virtually her entire movie career.

The December 1932 issue of Fortune magazine wrote an in-depth piece about MGM’s success. Focusing on Irving Thalberg, the studio executive in charge of production at the time, he said that the praise for MGM’s success should really go to two others – art director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Gilbert Adrian, as he was known for a while (Gilbert Adrian was a combination of his and his father's first names).

Born Adrian Adolph Greenburg (his last name is often misspelled with three “e”s) on March 3, 1903, he graduated from Naugatuck High School (Connecticut) in 1920. His parents, Gilbert and Helena Greenburg, owned a millinery shop on Church Street.

Adrian studied art at the New York School for Fine Arts and Design (now the Parsons School of Design), then transferred to the school’s Paris campus, where American composer Irving Berlin admired one of Adrian’s costumes on a model. Seeking fresh material for his next project, Berlin asked Adrian to join him in New York to work on costume designs for the show Music Box Revue.

Although openly gay, in 1939 Adrian entered into a lavender marriage with actress Janet Gaynor, the lover of Mary Martin, in response to the anti-gay attitudes of movie studio heads, particularly Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM studios.

In 1925 Adrian (at left) became head costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille's independent film studio. When DeMille moved to MGM, Adrian became chief costume designer at the studio, where he went on to design costumes for over 200 films. Among them were George Cukor's 1939 film, The Women, filmed in black and white; it originally included a 10-minute fashion parade in Technicolor, which featured Adrian's most outré designs. Often cut in TV screenings, the segment was restored to the film by Turner Classic Movies.

During this time, Adrian worked with some of the biggest female stars of the day like Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After leaving MGM, he established his own fashion house, which produced designs sold through Macy's department store. He also produced fragrances, notably"Saint" and "Sinner" perfumes and "Gilbert" cologne.

After suffering a heart attack in 1952, Adrian closed his business and retired to a ranch in Brazil, where he spent his time painting landscapes. He returned to California in 1958 to design costumes for two stage musicals. Before competing Camelot, he suffered a second, fatal heart attack in 1959 at the age of 56. However, there was rumor and speculation at the time that his death was actually a suicide.

*Garbo's film Camille (1936) is considered to be an entirely gay film, because every actor (notably Robert Taylor) and actress involved, as well as the director (Cukor) and all the designers, were either gay or bisexual.

Adrian's famous costume design for Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story (1940):

...and for Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933):

...not to mention Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel (1932):

...and Miss Crawford again in Letty Lynton (1932):

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tennessee Williams

Of Streetcars, Menageries, Cats & Iguanas
America's Greatest Playwright

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright whose works included classics such as A Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all made into films. A native of Mississippi, his given name was Thomas Lanier Williams, later legally changed to “Tennessee,” because he spent summers there with his mother’s parents, who lived in Memphis. They had paid his college tuition.

Because his real interest while growing up was reading, rather than sports, his alcoholic father taunted him by calling him “Miss Nancy.”  Tennessee’s sister Rose was mentally ill, and her parents had a lobotomy performed on her, for which Tennessee never forgave them.

This unpleasant family situation, however, inspired strong characters in his plays. His mother was the model for Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and his father was the inspiration for Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After two years of college Tennessee left school because of his family’s financial setbacks and poor grades. He took a job as a shoe salesman for his father, but he hated the job and lapsed into severe depression, leading to a nervous breakdown.

At age twenty eight Williams moved to New Orleans, a city that inspired his subsequent writing, notably A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1945, The Glass Menagerie, a play he'd been working for some years, opened on Broadway to great acclaim; the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the best new play of the year. A Streetcar Named Desire opened two years later, and his life was forever changed. This play earned Williams his first Pulitzer Prize and another Drama Critics’ Award, establishing him as one of America’s great playwrights. These plays also introduced a signature character type, that of the faded Southern belle.

Shortly after A Streetcar Named Desire opened, Tennessee sailed for Europe to recover from the physical and emotional strain of writing and producing the play, leading to his belief that he would never write again. A long, unproductive period followed, during which the playwright took to excessive drinking, consuming huge quantities of pills and engaging in promiscuous gay sex. When he failed to show up for a gala in his honor at the London premiere of The Glass Menagerie, his mother later received a telegram from Tennessee stating that he had fallen unconscious after taking sedatives. This event served as a wake-up call, and he returned to the States a short time later.

Before Williams had left for Europe, a one-night stand in Provincetown, Massachusetts, served as an introduction to the man who would become the love of his life. Upon Tennessee’s return to NYC in 1948, while eating at a deli on Lexington Avenue he recognized Frank Merlo, a truck driver, from their tryst a year earlier. A few weeks later Merlo moved in with Williams, and the pair fell hopelessly in love. Frank cleaned the apartment, cooked all the meals, acted as chauffeur and managed correspondence. More importantly, Merlo gradually weaned Williams off dependence on alcohol, casual sex and pills. This newly stable home life allowed Tennessee Williams once again to  concentrate on writing. Frank, of Sicilian heritage, was the inspiration for the lead character in the playwright’s next creation, a play called The Rose Tattoo, which was honored at the Tony Awards as the best new play of 1951.

When Williams was writing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he was filled with anxiety and doubt, fearful that he could not match the excellence and acclaim of A Streetcar Named Desire. Merlo (seated in photo) encouraged and coddled Williams through this difficult process during 1954. The play opened to rave reviews, earning Williams his third Drama Critics’ Award and a second Pulitzer. Tennessee was so grateful for Frank’s support during the writing of that play that he gave him ten percent of the profits. While writing his next major success, The Night of the Iguana, this situation was repeated. Merlo smoothed over Tennessee’s next crisis of confidence leading up to the play’s opening in 1961. Time Magazine honored the play’s great success by placing Tennessee Williams on its cover, and the inside text dubbed Williams “America’s greatest playwright.”

The public knew nothing of Tennessee’s sexual orientation or his relationship with Frank Merlo. Although Williams never denied being gay, such things were not written about at the time. Unfortunately, cracks began to develop in their relationship. Merlo had insisted that Williams be sexually faithful to him, a near impossibility for the playwright. Also, Frank had no career outside providing domestic and professional support for Tennessee. When both men were in California during the filming of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee forgot to introduce Frank to Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers. Warner walked up to Merlo and asked, “And what do you do, young man?” Frank replied, “My job is to sleep with Mr. Williams.” Even worse, Williams had begun to return to alcohol and drugs on the sly. When Merlo found out about it, he felt betrayed.

Merlo had been a four-pack-a-day smoker, and by the early 1960s he had developed a hacking cough. In 1962 he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died the following year, at age forty one. Devastated, Williams relapsed into a seven-year period of depression, promiscuous sex, alcohol abuse and drug use. None of his subsequent plays matched the quality of his earlier works, and many were received with poor reviews. The downward spiral became so pronounced that in 1969 Tennessee’s brother checked him into rehab; within the first two days of treatment Williams suffered two heart attacks and three seizures. 

A bright spot occurred in 1979 when he received recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors. The following year President Carter bestowed upon him the Medal of Freedom. But Williams was never able to cast aside his demons. While surrounded by bottles of wine and pills, Williams died in his suite at the Elysée Hotel in New York City on February 25, 1983, the result of choking to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops. Some researches dispute that account of his death, suggesting that a combination drug/alcohol overdose was a more likely cause. In any event, that ninth floor mid-town Manhattan hotel suite had been his home for the last fifteen years of his life. Williams was seventy one years old at the time of his death, and an obituary in the Los Angeles Times stated, “His longtime companion of 15 years, Frank Merlo, died of cancer in 1963. After that, the playwright said, 'Everything sort of fell apart'.”

Note: Astonishingly, most Internet sources for information on Tennessee Williams make no mention of Frank Merlo.

Sources for this blog post:

Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples
(2012) by Rodger Streitmatter

Thursday, August 27, 2015

James Costos, Ambassador to Spain

Same-sex Partners Occupy
U. S. Ambassador's Residence

When former HBO executive James Costos (b. 1963) was named the United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra in 2013, his partner of 15 years, interior designer Michael Smith (Ambassador Consort?), moved in with him to occupy the ambassador’s residence in Madrid. Although they became one of the first same-sex couples to make their home in an embassy, Ambassador Costos says he and Smith were welcomed as any other ambassador would be, even though Spain is overwhelmingly Catholic (93%). In spite of religious cultural influence, same sex marriage was legal in Spain (since 2005) many years before it became law in the United States.

Costos was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate on August 1, 2013. When the Obama family spent a 3-day Father's Day weekend with Costos and Smith at their Palm Springs home last year, the press was mute. This is an indication of how much progress has been made regarding same sex couples. Imagine the hoopla that would have ensued if either the Bush or Clinton families had resided under the roof of a same sex couple.

In addition to the ambassador's residence in Madrid, Costos and Smith maintain a penthouse in New York City, a residence in Holmby Hills, CA, and a third abode in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs). The well-heeled pair met by striking up a conversation on a commercial flight 15 years ago. They have since become an international power couple, and an invitation to their official residence in Spain is much coveted by anybody who is anybody. When they are together in Madrid, Smith refers to his partner as "the Ambassador," as in "Where is the Ambassador at the moment?"

Michael Smith (seated) and Ambassador Costos at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Madrid, with Glenn Ligon's neon art sign, "Double America." (Photo: James Rajotte)

High-profile designer Smith, whose business is based in Los Angeles, has been the White House decorator since 2008 and is responsible for the 2010 refurbishment of the Oval Office and the Obama’s private quarters (2009). At that time Smith was also appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. He spends one week a month in Madrid with Costos and works the rest of the time at his office in California, where he oversees a staff of 40. Smith has tweaked the embassy interiors, especially with artwork and decorative accessories, which the couple plans to leave behind for subsequent ambassadors to enjoy. Much of the refurbishment and entertainment expenses have come out of their own pockets.

Costos is concentrating his efforts on Spain’s economic recovery, stressing youth entrepreneurship as a path to tackle Spain's high unemployment rates.

Friday, August 21, 2015

George Forrest & Robert Wright

Robert Wright (1914-2005) and George Forrest (1915-1999, b. George Forrest Chichester, Jr.) were professional and life partners for over seventy years. They worked as a team writing music and lyrics for film, stage and club acts. While both men were credited equally as composer-lyricists, it was George who worked chiefly with the music. Although their specialty was providing lyrics for melodies from classical compositions, their output also included much original musical material, such as their score for Grand Hotel (1989). They worked exclusively with each other throughout their careers, and the peak of their creative output was during the late 1930s while under contract with M-G-M.

However, Wright and Forrest were best known for the 1953 Broadway musical and 1955 musical film Kismet, for which they had adapted musical themes by Alexander Borodin. Enduring songs from that show include Baubles, Bangles and Beads, Stranger In Paradise and And This Is My Beloved. The pair won a Tony award for their work on Kismet, and in 1995 they were awarded the ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers Award. They also received three Academy Award nominations for Best Song.

Wright and Forrest provided scores for dozens of films, chief among them After the Thin Man (1936), Boystown (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), Our Gang Follies (1938), The Women (1939), I Married an Angel (1941) and Song of Norway (1970, adapting the music of Edvard Grieg). They wrote the hit song The Donkey Serenade (based on a musical theme by Rudolf Friml) along with composer Herbert Stothart. In total they worked together on over 50 films, 18 stage productions, and 13 TV specials, writing 2,000 songs during the course of their careers.

The two men met as Miami High School classmates in 1929. While still a teenager Wright was working as a pianist accompanying silent films, and he conducted his own high school orchestra. He met fourteen-year-old Forrest when George auditioned for the school’s glee club, and the two soon became lovers. They later auditioned as a pair for M-G-M in the mid-1930s and moved to Hollywood for the duration of their contract, which lasted until 1942.

The Wright and Forrest relationship represents the longest-running songwriting collaboration in the history of American show business.

Alfie Boe, who starred in a 2007 revival of Kismet, sings Stranger in Paradise. For those impatient types, the music starts at the 0:45 timing mark:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Maurice Ravel

Best remembered today for Bolero, Ravel (1875-1937) was a popular classical composer during his lifetime. Born in the Basque village of Ciboure, practically on the border with Spain, he grew up in Paris, where he gave his first public piano recital at age 14. Many speculate that he carried on affairs with Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes and Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, although he did not flaunt his homosexuality in public. Viñes, known as the teacher of gay composer Francis Poulenc, championed the piano compositions of Ravel, performing the premieres of many of them.

Ravel collected books about bizarre sexual practices and hid a secret stash of pornography. He would sometimes entertain the members of the all-male “Les Apaches”(hooligans) society by dressing as a ballerina, complete with tutu and falsies, while dancing on pointe. Still, there is no evidence that he had a lasting personal relationship with anyone of either sex. Several biographers claim that his sole emotional relationship was with his mother.

Extremely closeted, Ravel was somewhat shy, dignified and retiring in public, always carefully observing the men dancing together at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a Parisian cabaret-bar, but never joining in himself. Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc were regulars there. Friends say that Ravel had a prized collection of gay pornography, which he amassed after his service in the French Army during WW I.

Although handsome, Ravel was sensitive about his short physical stature (5'2" tall on a good day), and was often teased for dressing like a dandy. He shared a sharp and keen wit with his close companions, although he had the reputation of a somewhat snobbish intellectual. Ravel studied composition with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory, abandoning a career as a concert pianist, but he was a poor student and was subsequently dismissed. One of his major musical talents was as an orchestrator, and he became known for compositions depicting Spanish landscapes and folk melodies. Igor Stravinsky called Ravel’s ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé "one of the most beautiful products of all French music", and other critics claimed it was Ravel's “most impressive single achievement, as it is his most opulent and confident orchestral score". The work is notable for its rhythmic diversity, lyricism, and evocations of nature.

With Claude Debussy’s death, Ravel became the foremost composer of French classical music. As Fauré stated in a letter to Ravel in October 1922, “I am happier than you can imagine about the solid position which you occupy and which you have acquired so brilliantly and so rapidly. It is a source of joy and pride for your old professor.” Around that time Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.

Jeux d’eau (Fountains), a landmark piano composition. Its influence on Poulenc is obvious, even to an untrained ear. Martha Argerich is the pianist.

In 1928 Ravel made a wildly successful four-month conducting tour of 25 U.S. cities, where he was greeted with standing ovations and much adulation, in pointed contrast to his rather tepid reception at his premieres in Paris. The solid success of this American tour cemented Ravel’s international reputation as a serious composer. While in NYC he met American composer George Gershwin. There is a story that when Gershwin met Ravel, he mentioned that he would like to study with the French composer. According to Gershwin, the Frenchman retorted, "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?" Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. In the jazz clubs of Harlem and New Orleans Ravel soaked up the sounds of jazz, which he incorporated into later compositions, particularly the pianos concertos.

Upon his return to France, Ravel was bemused by the change in his reception by the French public and critics (all for the better). He began recording or supervising the recording of his major works, so today we have a direct link to the composer’s intentions. He wrote Bolero, his most famous composition, in 1928, immediately after his American tour. He intended it as ballet music, and intentionally meant for there to be no musical development, just a protracted crescendo of a single theme repeated to great effect. It was a tour de force of orchestration, distinctive in its incorporation of saxophones in a symphony orchestra.

Four years later Ravel received a blow to the head in a taxi accident, which he brushed off as not serious at the time. However, symptoms of absentmindedness and difficulty with speaking and communicating soon became evident. Five years after the 1932 accident he consented to experimental brain surgery, because he was no longer able to write down his musical ideas. Tragically, he died from complications from the surgery.

In this excerpt from his Piano Concerto in G (Movement 1), Leonard Bernstein conducts from the keyboard. By the 1:35 mark, the influence of Gershwin is undeniable, both rhythmically and harmonically.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Henri III of France

The twenty-three-year-old dandy Henryk Walezy (1551-1589) had served only two years as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania when he received news that forever changed his life. His brother Charles IX (Henryk’s bitter enemy), who happened to be king of France, had just died, leaving Henryk with a much better prospect. King of France trumped King of Poland any day of the week. Born Alexandre-Édouard de Valois-Angoulèm in the Royal Château de Fontainebleau (built by his grandfather, François I of France), the outrageously vain and effeminate Henryk took a leave of absence from Poland* to hie himself to Reims, where he was crowned Henri III, King of France, on February 13, 1575.

*The Polish population soon realized that the leave of absence was permanent, and the Polish throne was declared vacant.

The day after his coronation as the king of France, Henri participated in an arranged marriage to Louise of Lorraine, and it was expected that they would conceive a child. Never happened. Though Louise fell deeply in love with Henri, the sexual feelings were not reciprocated. Henri treated his wife as a doll, dressing her up, applying makeup to her face, teaching her how to flirt. Her mild and gentle virtues contrasted her husband’s vice, vulgarity and coarseness. Louise soon learned that her husband was a flamboyant omni-sexual given to wild sadomasochistic orgies while dressed in drag. Among the passions he was unable to restrain was an obsession for outrageous jewelry. He surrounded himself with legions of twenty-something boyfriends, favorites known as “mignons de cœur” (darlings of the heart), and they scandalized the public with their effeminate mannerisms. They also copied their king’s fashion innovations, protecting their hands by carrying small muffs, wearing outsized earrings and keeping pet parrots and monkeys. Even the king’s fondness for lapdogs – especially small spaniels – was copied by his mignons. When Henri changed the style of his beard or moustache, his mignons followed suit. I kid you not.

A real fashionista, Henri changed his garments, jewelry and perfumes several times a day. He showed little interest in typically masculine pursuits such as hunting, preferring masked balls, parlor games and the intrigues of court life and etiquette (he introduced the use of a fork to the tables of France, an item of cutlery that had been in use while he was king of Poland).

In fact, the contemporary reports of Henri’s untempered homosexual activity and effeminate mannerisms were so numerous and blatant that some historians dismiss many of them as politically motivated exaggerations. However, seldom in history had the homosexual activity of a monarch been so public and undisguised. His harem of young male mignons was not confined to the royal palaces; when the king attended public fairs and carnivals, his fawning favorites accompanied him in full force. Not only did Henri dress in women’s clothes, he did so in public.

Henri III (seated) amongst his mignons:

Throughout his life Henri had been controlled by his power-mad mother, Catherine of Medici, whose pet name for her son was “chers yeux” (precious eyes). She was responsible for setting him up on the throne of Poland. She had been the one to embroil her children in the hideous crimes of the St. Bartholomew Massacre of Protestants. Catherine was content to watch her son Henri occupy himself with frivolous fashion and childish games, allowing herself to control many affairs of state, marked by religious animosity between Catholics and Protestants. However, Henri’s inability to produce an heir resulted in a succession crisis.

For King Henri III, it all came to an early and ignominious end. Just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday he was assassinated by a young fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, who was carrying false papers. Clément was granted access to deliver important documents to the King. The monk gave Henri a bundle of papers and stated that he had a secret message to deliver. The King signaled for his attendants to step back for privacy, and Clément whispered in his ear while plunging a knife into his abdomen. Clément was killed on the spot by the guards, but Henri did not die until the following day. Thus Henry of Navarre, the legitimate heir to the French throne because Henri III remained childless, became his successor as Henri IV, one of the great kings of France.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Marquis de Sade

Let’s see. According to the Wikipedia page, he was born Count (not Marquis) Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade in 1740 in Paris and died in a French mental asylum in 1814. He was a rich, bisexual pint-sized (5'2") libertine and writer (novels, plays, poems) who spent a third of his life incarcerated for indecency – and that’s a charitable assessment of his life. The engraving at left (de Sade at age 19) is the only surviving image of the Marquis.

The word “sadism” (deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting pain) is derived from his name, and he is thought to have acted out in real life most of the debauchery and perversions he wrote about. A rabid atheist, de Sade also held enlightened views on homosexuality, which he described as no more or less normal than heterosexuality. Indeed, one of de Sade’s favorite sexual acts was to be impaled by his male valet while engaging in intercourse with a female.

Where to start? Although he had a wife and three children, there was nothing respectable about him. He used these words to describe himself: “Imperious, angry, furious, extreme in all things, with a disturbance in the moral imagination unlike any the world has ever known –  there you have me in a nutshell: and one more thing, kill me or take me as I am, for I will not change.” His aristocratic family’s reputation was ruined by his depravity; his son removed “Donatien” from his name so as not to be associated with his infamous father. His other son burned his father's manuscripts upon his death in 1814. De Sade's writings, which detailed acts of rape, incest and pedophilia (for starters), were banned until 1957, and his family took extensive measures to erase the memory of their disgraced ancestor. When, as newly-weds during the 1940s, the parents of Hughes de Sade (b. 1948) explored the attic of their chateau, they discovered that a wall had been bricked up generations ago. Stored inside were papers, letters and writings by the Marquis. The couple had never heard of him and knew nothing about his reputation.

There has been a huge turnabout in recent times. The de Sade family now celebrates its link to the so-called “Marquis.” Hughes de Sade, who boldly named his now 39-year-old son “Donatien”, has created a luxury brand that capitalizes on the Marquis de Sade legacy. Offerings from the Maison de Sade include wine (one red variety is labeled “Justine”), scented candles and gourmet items, and the family is in negotiations with Victoria’s Secret to develop a line of lingerie that will pay homage to the Marquis.

Exactly two months ago – December 2, 1814 – marked the two hundredth anniversary of the death of the Marquis, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris had an exhibition on de Sade’s influence on the visual arts titled “Sade – Attacking the Sun.” A big tourist draw at the Château de Vincennes, a short distance east of Paris, is the prison cell in which the Marquis was incarcerated. Also notable is an exhibit at the Paris Museum of Letters and Manuscripts titled “Sade: Marquis of the Shadows, Prince of the Enlightenment” that opened in late 2014.

While a prisoner at the Bastille, de Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom on a 6" tall, 39' long scroll, that was found hidden away in his cell when the Bastille was stormed during the Revolution of 1789. Somehow the scroll fell into the hands of a wealthy French family that sold it in 1904 to a German collector who published a limited edition of 180 copies. The scroll was returned to France in 1929, but in 1982 a descendant of the de Sade family lent it to a bookseller, who stole it and promptly sold it to a Swiss collector. In the spring of 2014, the French National Library brought the manuscript back to France for an astonishing settlement of $9.6 million dollars with the contentious French and Swiss owners. That makes The 120 Days of Sodom one of the most valuable literary works in existence, on a par with the Magna Carta and da Vinci’s Leicester Codex. All the more amazing is that the subject of this über-valuable scroll is the imprisonment, sexual torture and death of dozens of adolescent and teenaged men and women at the hands of four depraved male aristocrats.

Notes: Tony Perrottet wrote an extended article, “The Marquis de Sade – Crimes of Passion”, that appeared in the February 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:

A short English-language article about de Sade can be found at:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pianist Earl Wild

Earl Wild was one of the greatest virtouso pianists of the 20th century, often compared to Horowitz and Rachmaninov. Openly gay, Wild lived in Palm Springs, California, and Columbus, Ohio, with his domestic partner of 38 years, Michael Rolland Davis. Wild had an outsized talent and played flamboyantly. He specialized in piano transcriptions, performing the music of Lizst and Rachmaninov, but also arranged and composed extensively. In a nod to a fellow gay man, his Piano Sonata (2000) features a 4-minute toccata dedicated to Ricky Martin. Wild’s landmark piano fantasy on themes from Gershwin’s opera,  “Porgy and Bess,” was followed by his own solo piano settings of Rachmaninov and Gershwin songs. Wild lived to the ripe old age of 94. He died at home on January 23, 2010, of congestive heart disease.

Wild  was the first pianist to give a recital on television, in 1939. Nearly sixty years later, in 1997, he gave the first piano recital to be streamed live over the Internet. Over the course of his career, Wild played at the White House, gave annual recitals at Carnegie Hall (always sold out within minutes) and remained active until his final recitals and recordings in 2005.

Wild was also known as a formidable wit and saucy raconteur. When he was interviewed by David Dubal, Mr. Wild was asked about his years of playing flute in the United States Navy Band during World War II (Wild was stationed at a base outside Washington, DC). “Did you see any action?” Mr. Dubal asked. “Only in the cemetery,” Mr. Wild deadpanned.

Wild’s piano arrangement of “Mexican Hat Dance,” recorded at the age of 88! Guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Earl Wild: Etude on Embraceable You (Gershwin)
Performed by Yeol-Eum Son
Wild’s Etudes on Gershwin’s popular songs are becoming staples of concert repertoire, especially as encores. I never thought it possible, but I think this performance actually surpasses Wild’s own interpretation.