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, December 23, 2015

Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was an English-born South African who was a co-founder of the De Beers diamond company as well as the honored namesake of the southern African country of Rhodesia (today’s Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia). Notably, upon his death he bequeathed funding to establish the Rhodes Scholarship program, which to this day is endowed by his estate. During his short life he was active as a businessman, politician and philanthropist who lived and dreamed on a grand scale.

Rhodes moved from England to South Africa while still a teenager in hopes that a better climate would ease his asthma. He was frail and also suffered heart problems. His brother Herbert lived there, having made a failed attempt at farming cotton. Moving on, with outside partners they bought up southern African diamond and gold deposits and formed the De Beers company in 1888. Rhodes was named chairman of the new enterprise.

Cecil was a British Imperialist who thought the United States would eventually rejoin Britain. He believed that in the near future the United Kingdom (including Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Cape Colony), the USA, and Germany together would dominate the world and ensure peace. He wrote of the British, “I contend that we are the finest race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race...To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”

He was a friend of Jan Hofmeyr, leader of the Afrikaner Bond, and it was largely because of Afrikaner support that Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (1890-1896), a British controlled area of southern Africa. Rhodes was also president of the British South Africa Company. Politically, Rhodes advocated greater self-government for the Cape Colony, in line with his preference for the empire to be controlled by local settlers and politicians rather than by London. Rhodes was also a racist, an early architect of apartheid, the separation of blacks and whites.

As for his private life, Rhodes employed a number of robust young male companions, ostensibly as bodyguards and secretaries.  He did not have relationships with any member of the opposite sex, platonic or otherwise. Neville Pickering, the first secretary of the De Beers company, has been singled out as Rhodes's first significant male lover. When Pickering – young, fit and extraordinarily handsome – turned 25, Rhodes returned from serious business negotiations for Pickering's birthday in 1882. On that occasion, Rhodes drew up a new will leaving his estate to Pickering; the new will read simply: “I, C.J. Rhodes, being of sound mind, leave my worldly wealth to N.E. Pickering.”  When Pickering later suffered a riding accident, Rhodes nursed him faithfully for six weeks, refusing even to answer telegrams concerning his business interests. Pickering died in Rhodes's arms, and at his funeral, Rhodes was said to have wept “with fervor”. Rhodes had passed up a deal worth millions to be at his companion’s bedside during his final days.

Pickering was replaced by Henry Latham Currey, who had become Rhodes's private secretary in 1884. When Currey became engaged to be married in 1894, Rhodes was mortified, outraged and immediately ended their relationship. Over the years Rhodes accumulated a shifting entourage of fit young men, known as “Rhodes’s lambs,” almost always blonde haired and blue-eyed athletic types.

Rhodes later maintained a significant relationship with Scotsman Sir Leander Starr Jameson (a Baronet known as “Dr. Jim”), British administrator of the lands constituting present-day Zimbabwe, who ended up nursing Cecil Rhodes during his final illness. Jameson was a trustee of his estate and residuary beneficiary of his will, which allowed him to continue living in Rhodes's mansion after his death. Although Jameson died in England in 1917, after the conclusion if WW I his body was transferred to a mountaintop grave in 1920 beside that of Rhodes in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). Tellingly, Cecil Square is today one of the main gay cruising areas of Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe.

Rhodes had died from heart failure in Cape Town at age 48. Upon his death he was one of the wealthiest men in the world, and his will established the Rhodes Scholarship, the world’s first international study scholarship, enabling male students to study at Oxford University. Rhodes's aims were to promote leadership marked by public spirit and good character, and to "render war impossible" by promoting friendship between the great powers. According to Rhodes’s will, applicants were restricted to men only – it was not until 1976 that women were allowed to apply, which went against Rhodes’s wishes. According to Rhodes’s guidelines for scholarship selection, “candidates must display a fondness for success in manly outdoor sports, such as football and cricket.” Of course.

Dean McCleland – The Casual Observer (2015)
Keith Stern – Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals (2009)
Wayne Dynes – Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990)

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 26, 2015

Sal Mineo

Bisexual actor Sal Mineo (1939-1976) was defined by two things: his unforgettable Academy Award–nominated role opposite James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause (at age 15), and his murder in Hollywood at the age of 37.

Nevertheless, the Bronx-born actor of Italian heritage appeared in 22 films, directed stage plays and operas and made many television appearances. While still a youth he was mentored by Yul Brynner in the stage musical The King and I,  Mineo had taken over the role of the young Prince Chulalongkorn three months into the show's initial run.

Sal Mineo was so convincing as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause* that he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, leading to his being forever typecast as a troubled youth. It was difficult for him to sustain an acting career when he became too old for such parts. A welcome exception came with the role of a Jewish emigrant in Otto Preminger’s film Exodus (1960), for which he won a Golden Globe Award and received a second Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Another escape from typecasting was his star turn as drummer Gene Krupa in The Gene Krupa Story (1959).

*Rebel Without a Cause also starred Natalie Wood. All three of the leads – James Dean, Sal Mineo (photo still from the film at left) and Natalie Wood – met with tragic, untimely deaths.

His mother, a quintessential stage mother, acted as his manager and spent his fortune faster than he could make it, leading to a series of financial crises, especially as his career tapered off.

In 1976 Mineo was stabbed to death in an alley next to his apartment building in West Hollywood by an unknown assailant. A year later actress Christa Helm was killed in the same neighborhood and in a similar fashion, and a pizza deliveryman by the name of Lionel Ray Williams was charged and convicted of that crime. Police had overheard him admitting to the murder of Sal Mineo, stating that at the time of the stabbing he did not know that his victim was Sal Mineo.

In “Sal Mineo: A Biography” (2010) by author Michael Gregg Michaud*, several rumors and speculations about Mineo’s private life are cleared up. British actress Jill Haworth, to whom Mineo was once engaged to be married, was not just a “beard” to mask a homosexual orientation. Although Sal Mineo idolized his bisexual film star James Dean, the two did not engage in sexual relations. The same with actor Don Johnson, who co-starred with Mineo in a stage production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1969), a play with a homosexual theme; Johnson and Mineo had once been roommates. At the time Mineo was murdered, he had been in a six-year relationship with male actor Courtney Burr III.

*From a book review by Gerry Burnie:
This exhaustive biography is not only a tribute to Sal Mineo, a talented and misunderstood individual who lived life to the fullest – no matter what he did – it is also a tribute to the author’s unrelenting dedication. For example, the writing of “Sal Mineo: A Biography” took Michaud ten years and three years of research to complete. Moreover, numerous interviews were conducted, most particularly with Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr (both were Sal Mineo’s lovers), to give it a personal insight beyond the written record...Full of details and previously undisclosed anecdotes, the biography captures a career of ups and downs and a private life of sexual impulses.

It is a little-known fact that Sal Mineo was the model for The New Adam, a colossal 8-foot-tall by 39-foot-long male nude painting (1962), precisely and sensually rendered in full frontal anatomical detail over nine linen panels by artist Harold Stevenson (b. 1929). Since 2005 the painting has been  part of the permanent collection of the New York City Guggenheim Museum (image below).

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.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

William "Billy" Haines

Out & Gay in Hollywood

William “Billy” Haines was born the evening of January 1, 1900, in Staunton, a railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (my home state!). Although it is still possible to stand in awe before the house he was born in, the small city of Staunton doesn't make a fuss over its famous citizen, likely because so few people are still alive who remember his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom. 

He has my never-ending admiration, because he stood up to movie studio heads, refusing to "pretend" to be straight for the sake of the publicity machines. He chose dignity and respect for his lover over hypocrisy and ill-gotten fame. Haines, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and others were all told that their movie careers would be over if they came out of the closet. Out of those men, only Haines had the courage to defy the studios; the others chose to enter into sham, studio concocted relationships or marriages to cover up their sexual orientation.

While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and their like tried to put one over on the public, Haines chose an honest life and did one better for himself. He switched careers, becoming fabulously wealthy as an interior designer to the stars. While he never left the glamorous world of Hollywood, he never again stood before a camera. Surprisingly, he had not longed to be a movie star, nor did he dream about being a decorator. Haines, an exceptionally bright and talented young man, recognized opportunity when it was thrust in front of him, and he took advantage of it. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. Astonishingly, he reached the pinnacle of success in successive careers for which he had no training.

Haines was the grandson of one of Staunton's most prominent citizens, but at age 14 (!) he ran away from home with his boyfriend and opened a dance hall in Hopewell, VA, a city so known for wickedness and lawlessness that it was called "Sin City." His place of business, like everything else in the town, was burned to the ground in a great fire in 1915. Rather than go back to Staunton, he struck out for New York City, where he took a factory job at age 16. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Haines soon returned to Virginia to help support his family; his mother was pregnant, and his bankrupt father was in a mental institution following a breakdown. At 19 he returned to NYC, where an elderly gentleman arranged a job for Billy at a brokerage firm. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village for two years, becoming friends with Archie Leach (later known as Cary Grant), who was then in a gay relationship with costume designer Orry-Kelly. 

Restless and opportunistic, Haines found work as a model. He sent in his photograph to the "New Faces of 1922" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn – and won. A screen test followed, and he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the leading silent film stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Haines was named the leading male film star for 1930. His closest friend was Joan Crawford, much less well-known at the time. William Haines appeared in over fifty films, was the first MGM star to speak on film, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just a few feet from the entrance to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929. 

Haines with co-star Joan Crawford in West Point (1928): 

However, gossip about his openly gay life threatened his leading man image, and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: deny his homosexuality by engaging in a sham marriage or be shown the door. Haines refused to lie about his personal life, and Mayer did not renew his contract. He never worked in films after 1934, but pursued a stupendously successful career as an interior designer, which made him a multi-millionaire. Billy's life-long adage was, "One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste."

His Hollywood clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were frequent guests at his house. In 1969, most importantly, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Many of his original furniture designs are still produced for the high-end interior design trade.

Winfield House, the U. S. Ambassador's House in London, as decorated by William "Billy" Haines.

Haines also made a name for himself outside of the Hollywood social circle of clients. His celebrated oval "Desert Living Room" showcased at the 1930 World's Fair in San Francisco featured geometric shapes, much leather, custom designed furniture and walls clad in Joshua wood. Photo below:

As well, he completely transformed the home of Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale in Beverly Hills. When purchased, it was a Spanish revival structure with red tiles on the roof, arched openings everywhere and stucco-clad exterior walls. In the late 1950s Haines gave it a total makeover inside and out, in a style he had created -- Hollywood Regency. Betsy Bloomingdale retained the Haines interiors until her death on July 19, 2016. Trivia: in December of 2016 out and proud polymath Tom Ford purchased the Bloomingdale estate (as seen from the rear, below) for $39 million.

From the mid-1920s Haines lived openly with his lover Jimmy Shields (his former movie stand in) for nearly 50 years. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." Haines died from lung cancer at the age of 73. Two months afterward, a grief-stricken Shields put on Haine’s pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and died in his sleep. Their ashes are interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, CA.

The dashing Billy Haines with his great friend and actress Anita Page.

William Haines, dashingly handsome in a white suit, acting opposite his best friend Joan Crawford in a flirty, comic scene from Spring Fever (1927). Haines and Crawford remained devoted friends until Haines’ death in 1973. Every time she changed husbands, Haines redecorated her home. Kept him busy.

Principal source:
Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines
Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star
by William J. Mann (1999)
480 pages; Penguin Paperback edition

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 Missouri, 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:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jerome Zerbe & Lucius Beebe

Society photographer Jerome Zerbe (1904-1988) was born of privilege in Euclid, Ohio. He was an originator of a genre of photography that is now known as “celebrity paparazzi.” In the 1930s Zerbe was a pioneer of shooting photographs of famous people at play and on-the-town. However, he differed from his successors in a major way – Zerbe was of the same social class as his photographic subjects, and he arrived at high society parties with his own engraved invitation in hand. He often traveled and vacationed with the stage and film stars he photographed.

Some of his best known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves shaving, playwright Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch at “21” with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus legendary stars Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, writer Dorothy Parker, boxer Gene Tunney, author Thomas Wolfe and the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family.

Zerbe’s mother was Susan Eichelberger*, the child of a successful railroad lawyer in Urbana, Ohio, and his father was a prominent and prosperous businessman, owner of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Coal Company. Two of his uncles were lawyers in Urbana, another the Superintendent of West Point. Jerome’s mother was so beautiful and possessed of such a captivating voice that, while once visiting New York City,  she received a serious offer from a theatrical impresario to star in a play, and she accepted. When her parents found out, they dispatched an uncle to return her to the “safety” of Urbana. Her family’s social standing was such that they subscribed to the mandate that a woman’s name should appear in print only three times: at birth, upon marriage, and at death.

*There is a street named Eichelberger in Urbana, Ohio.

Young Jerry Zerbe was driven to public school in the family limousine, which got him beaten up by bullies. He survived well enough to make it through Yale. A supreme social networker, he gained important social prominence in New Haven, which later would serve him well in New York, London and Paris, where he studied art. Soon after graduation from university he went to Hollywood to try his hand at drawing portraits of famous film stars. He was befriended by Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Marion Davies and Paulette Goddard. Soon enough he picked up a camera, photographing stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as mere hopefuls, who, before they became famous, would pose for him with few, if any, clothes.

He was for years the official photographer of Manhattan’s famed Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and fabled nightspot El Morocco, the places to see and be seen at the time. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by a nightclub to photograph its visitors, before giving away the photos to the gossip pages of print media. For over 40 years, Jerome Zerbe traveled the world taking pictures of celebrities, amassing an archive of over 50,000 photographs.

Below: 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor (center) and first husband Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. (right) at El Morocco in 1950.

After taking up residence in New York City, he served as art director of Parade magazine and photographer and society editor for Town and Country. Zerbe also contributed photographs to Life and Look magazines and was a Navy photographer during World War II. He was the author of several books of photographs, including Happy Times (1973), which includes his photographs from the El Morocco years. A trip to Paris to photograph estates and country homes (and their occupants) led to a secondary career as an architectural photographer.

In 1988 Jerome Zerbe died at age 85 at his New York City apartment on Sutton Place. Oh, I forgot to mention that Jerome was credited with having invented the vodka martini.

Below: Lovers Cary Grant and Randolph Scott photographed "at home" by Zerbe (1933):

Romantically, Zerbe’s most significant relationship was with syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe (1902-1966), who made almost embarrassingly frequent and flattering references to Jerome in his newspaper column “This New York,” read by millions each morning. Beebe was so wealthy and possessed of such a confident personality that he became one of the first members of high society who lived as an openly gay man. When questioned about his sexual orientation, Beebe (photo below) could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.

Beebe also wrote 35 books, and I just now got around to reading one that's been on my Kindle for well over a year: The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966)

Written in florid, effusively dated language, this was Beebe’s last (35th) book, detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways. Part of the fun of reading this is being introduced to characters now long forgotten. We all know the peccadillos of the Astors and Vanderbilts, but Beebe introduced me to Mrs. Kate Moore (1846-1917), an heiress from Pittsburgh, who became one of the leading figures in Paris high society, especially among the expatiate Americans. She entertained lavishly, and she commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint her several times. Sargent wrote to Henry James about her in 1884, “I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman [Mrs Kate Moore]. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying.”

Beebe’s comment about this inveterate social climber, who bought her way into society, “(she) departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips to everyone.”

Then there’s Spencer “Spec” Penrose (1865-1939, owner of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Hotel), who  maintained active membership in the Pacific Union, San Francisco’s most exclusive and expensive gentlemen’s club on the top of Nob Hill, as long as he lived. When asked why he remained a member of a club he never used, he replied, “My God, man. I might want a drink out there.” The idea of drinking in a public premises never occurred to him, and the thought that he might not want a drink at any place, any time, was equally unthinkable.

After graduating last in his class at Harvard, he was enticed to Colorado in the 1890s by his Philadelphia neighbor Charles Tutt, and Spec was soon engaged working in Tutt’s real estate offices in Cripple Creek. He and Tutt went on to make unfathomable fortunes in gold, copper and mineral milling. So flush with cash, Penrose once left himself a note on his bedside table not to spend more than a million dollars the next day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Penrose made a personal assay of Cripple Creek, a howling wilderness and suburb of hell whose Myers Avenue was the widest-open red-light district anywhere outside Butte, Montana, and whose three booming railroads were daily rolling up the hill with palace cars filled with additional girls, madams, hard-rock miners, anarchists, three-card monte men, tippers of the keno goose, whiskey salesmen, confidence-game artists, eastern capitalists, newspaper reporters, and real estate speculators. Penrose liked what he saw.”

Once he had left Philadelphia and resettled to Colorado in 1892, “the only criticism anybody had was of Spec’s clothes. He wore beautifully tailored riding breeches and English boots that cost $100 a pair. Apprised that the community considered him a dude in some respects, Penrose at once sent East for a suit of evening tails and a half dozen opera hats and started dressing for dinner. There were a few catcalls at first, but most of the roughnecks who took exception to his attire were out of the hospital as good as new in two or three weeks.”

After being rebuked by the management of the fabled Antlers hotel in Colorado Springs for riding his saddle horse up the front steps and into the lobby bar, Penrose’s gesture of retaliation was to build the Broadmoor Hotel in 1918 (at the then cost of $3,000,000), all the while stealing from The Antlers the hotel manager and its chef de cuisine, paying them double the salary they had been making at their former employ.

“Once in the 1930s Spec stopped briefly in Philadelphia to see a friend and visit his birthplace at 1331 Spruce Street. It had not been occupied for years, and not a piece of furniture had been moved in over a half century. An ancient butler met the master at the door as though he had only left that morning. A venerable cook appeared to get her orders for dinner. Penrose had kept it that way as a sort of family shrine, a memorial to his youth impervious to the hostile winds of change.”

Upon his death in 1939, Penrose’s $125,000,000 fortune was the largest sum ever filed for probate in the Rocky Mountain region.

If you are fascinated by this sort of thing, this is your book. Available in e-reader formats.

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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bill Tilden, Tennis Champion

In 1920 Bill Tilden, who made no effort to hide his homosexuality, won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. He was the first American to compete at Wimbledon and went on to win two more Wimbledon titles, in addition to seven U.S. championships. As well, he led U.S. teams to seven Davis Cup victories. From 1920 to 1934, Tilden was generally considered the world's greatest tennis player. In 1925, Tilden won an astonishing 57 matches in a row. Although Tilden lost part of his finger in an accident in 1922, he simply modified his grip and continued to play at the same level as before the injury. He won the moniker “Big Bill Tilden,” since he was tall and had a vast reach. His extraordinary serve was so powerful it was often compared to a cannonball.

A 1950 survey of sportswriters named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century. Historically he is generally considered above the caliber of later champions such as Björn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

There was also an aura of scandal around Tilden, because of his sexual orientation. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita,’ Tilden is depicted as a has-been tennis champion with “a harem of ball boys,” whom Humbert Humbert hires to coach Lolita, knowing that the coach will not try to seduce her, due to his homosexuality. Nabokov told editor Alfred Appel that the novel’s anonymous tennis coach was actually a real person who had won three Wimbledon championships, was born in 1893, and died in 1953. Tilden is the only person who fits this description. The name of Nabokov's character is "Ned Litam", which is “Ma Tilden” spelled backwards.

Tilden incurred two scandalous arrests for sexual misbehavior with teenage boys in the late 1940s, and his career suffered because of it. He began traveling with hand-picked teenaged ball boys, and many clubs would not allow him on the courts. However, in 1945 Tilden and long-time doubles partner Vinnie Richards won the professional doubles championship; Tilden was 52 years old at the time.

Tilden was a devout believer in sportsmanship above all other aspects of the game, including the final score; he would readily (and dramatically) cede points to his opponent if he thought the umpire had miscalled a shot in Tilden's favor. He still remains the only known professional tennis player (perhaps the only professional at any sport) to have refunded money to a promoter when the gate was not as good as it should have been and it appeared the promoter was going to lose money.

He loved the glamour of movie stars. Tilden moved to Hollywood and coached Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Tallulah Bankhead. He also became a good friend of Charlie Chaplin. Tilden played at Chaplin’s tennis parties, where he coached Errol Flynn, Joseph Cotten, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, and Olivia deHavilland.

He fashioned himself a master of genres outside the world of sports, never to successful ends. He wrote short stories and novels about misunderstood but sportsman-like tennis players, and dreamed of being a star on Broadway and in Hollywood. He appeared on stage as well as off, as a producer. Much of his vast earnings were invested in these pursuits, with failure the invariable result. He was also a contract bridge champ, musicologist and playwright. He was once quoted as saying. "If I had to choose between music and tennis, I'd choose music."

In 1953 he was preparing to leave Los Angeles for the U.S. Professional Championship tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, when he died of a stroke at age 60. He was buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in his home town of Philadelphia, where he had been born into wealth and privilege. At the time of his death Tilden was living in a rented apartment in Hollywood with $288 in the bank, a tragic end to a great life. Tilden was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1959.

In 2004, a play titled “Big Bill,” based on the life of Bill Tilden, played at Lincoln Center in NYC. The playwright was acclaimed dramatist A. R. Gurney. Frank Deford's biography, "Big Bill Tilden: the Triumphs and the Tragedy" has been optioned for a film.

Fashion note: During the early part of the 20th century male tennis players dressed virtually indistinguishably from cricket players. Men wore cuffed white flannel trousers and white shirts, sometimes with v-neck or cable-knit sweaters to add an element of style. Bill Tilden is generally regarded as having been the first male tennis fashion icon, transforming the image of men’s tennis from a sport played by wealthy, leisured young men unable to handle the physical demands of team sports, into a man’s game played by the toughest athletes. Tilden’s enormous fame led many to emulate his style of dress, which included long shirts rolled up to the elbows, cuffed trousers and a selection of elegant sweaters.