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."