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.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Jerry Herman

Jerry Herman (1931-2019) is the only Broadway composer/lyricist in history to have three musicals run more than 1500 performances each: Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles.

Raised in NYC, he spent summers in the Berkshires directing plays and musicals at his parents' camp. After college Herman produced the off-Broadway 1954 revue I Feel Wonderful, forged from material he had written at the University of Miami (the university’s theater, the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, is now named after him). It was his only show his mother was able to see, since she died of cancer at the age of 44, shortly after the revue opened. Her death caused a crippling depression for Herman.

In an attempt to dispel his grief, Herman put together a revue called Nightcap in 1958. It ran for two years. His Broadway debut came in 1960 with From A to Z, a revue that featured contributions from newcomer Fred Ebb. Producer Gerard Oestreicher approached him after seeing his work and asked Herman to compose the score for a show about the founding of the state of Israel. The result was 1961's Milk and Honey, his first full-fledged Broadway musical.

In 1964, famed producer David Merrick hired Herman for a project that was to become his most successful endeavor, Hello, Dolly!, starring Carol Channing. The original production ran 2,844 performances, the longest running musical of its time, and the show fostered three revivals. It won 10 Tony Awards, a record that remained unbroken for 37 years, until The Producers won 12 in 2001.

Herman wrote in his memoir that David Merrick was "a very tough man who loved to intimidate people." After Merrick saw Milk and Honey, he asked to meet with Herman. Merrick was looking for a composer-lyricist to write the songs for Hello Dolly! Herman requested a copy of the script and asked if he could have the weekend to come up with some songs. "Those three days were the turning point of my career. I produced those four songs in two days of the wildest, most intensive writing binge of my life. I was like a crazed person, pacing up and down in the middle of the night, scribbling down lyrics and popping candy in my mouth. But I was young, I was full of energy, and I wanted this happy, brightly colored American musical more than anything in the world. I was determined to get this job. There was a new aggressiveness in me, this desperate need to prove something to myself. I killed myself for this job." On Monday morning, after hearing the songs, Merrick said, "Kid, the show is yours."

The production was an enormous hit and Herman developed a close friendship with its star, Carol Channing. Working on the show, however, was emotionally traumatic because of the difficult personality of Merrick.

In 1966, Herman delivered another smash hit, Mame, starring Angela Lansbury. Both shows introduced a string of Broadway standard tunes. A 1969 movie version of Hello Dolly! starred Barbra Streisand (ouch!), and Lucille Ball (double ouch!) starred in the film version of Mame (1974). For years both Streisand and Ball suffered invidious comparisons to Channing and Lansbury.

Hello Dolly! star Carol Channing (Dolly Levi) and Lee Roy Reams (Cornelius Hackl) flank composer/lyricist Herman in a photo at the time of the show’s 1978 Broadway revival.

Three disappointments followed: Dear World (1969, starring Angela Lansbury), Mack & Mabel (1974, starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters), and The Grand Tour (1979, starring Joel Grey). Interestingly enough, Herman considers the score of Mack & Mabel his personal favorite. The show had a successful revival in London’s West End in 2006.

After the initial failure of Mack & Mabel, Herman became depressed and did not want to write musicals anymore. The financial success of Dolly had allowed Herman to buy a rowhouse from playwright Edward Albee at 50 W. 10th St. (Greenwich Village), NYC, and refurbish it. The structure dated from 1868, when it served as stables. Prior to Albee, it had belonged to renowned Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans. House Beautiful ran an article on Herman's renovation, and a second career was born. During the 1970s, he turned to renovating and decorating houses and reselling them, finding decorating projects therapeutic.

In 1983, Herman struck gold again with La Cage aux Folles, breaking box-office records at the Palace Theatre, and winning another Tony Award for Best Musical. After the phenomenal success of La Cage aux Folles, Herman left the world of Broadway and moved to Bel Air, California, where he mourned the death of his long-term partner and dealt quietly with his own HIV-positive status, which was ungracefully made public in 1992 by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams.

His 1996 memoir, Showtune, relates stories “about that fabulous era when there were 20 musicals a season. Mary Martin in one and Gwen Verdon in another. It was a very heady, exciting time, and I had a little part in it," he says. "I also wanted to tell the story honestly of a gay man in America who was comfortable with that persuasion. But almost more than the stories about Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey, I wanted to tell people in my situation that there are medications now that can normalize your system.”

Though his shows have raised the spirits of millions, Herman believes his participation in the mid-1990s experimental study of protease inhibitors was more important: "My medical records were sent to the FDA along with hundreds of others to help get the drug approved. I think that's the best thing I've done for this world." Update: Mr. Herman lived for 34 years after his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1985.

Herman had settled down with partner Marty Finkelstein, whom he met at a Christmas party.  They started their own business renovating Victorian houses in Key West, winning numerous architecture and restoration awards. But after five years together, Finkelstein came down with a bronchial infection that wouldn't go away. Two and a half years together, Finkelstein died of AIDS at the age of 36. "When I saw the grief of his mother, that hit me more than my own grief," Herman said.

At the Palm Springs, CA, home he shared with recently retired real estate broker Terry Marler, his partner of a dozen years, there is a 61-foot swimming pool. "That's my exercise," Herman said. "I'm there a great deal of the time; I swim and swim and swim as often as I can. It gets harder every year. You don't like to think of age as being a problem, so swimming keeps me fit. Terry keeps my life going. He's responsible for laughter and companionship. He's just a great, great partner."

The best Jerry Herman song you've never heard of:
Sung by Bernadette Peters, who created the role on Broadway.

Herman was awarded a 2009 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, at age 77. "It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me, it really is," Herman said. "It doesn't get any better than this. That's an award from the people that I've worked with all my life. It's beautiful." The award was presented to him by Angela Lansbury, the inimitable star of Mame.

In 2010 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, at age 80. The next year three of his works were staged in Australia: Milk and Honey, Dear World and Hello, Dolly! The PBS 90-minute documentary, Words and Music by Jerry Herman (2007), is available on DVD.

Update to original post: Mr. Herman died in a Miami hospital on December 26, 2019, at the age of 88. His partner, Terry Marler, survives him.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Clark Gable

When Clark Gable (at left, circa 1927) first arrived in Hollywood in 1925, he would do anything or use anyone to advance his career. His first two wives were decidedly unglamorous older women; he was a kept man living the lifestyle of a star. As soon as Gable touched the limelight, he abandoned his second wife and followed wherever his penis led. He tore through Hollywood’s women with the appetite of a starving teenager, with one notable exception.

Gable had one homosexual encounter that is well documented. The great silent film star Billy Haines, who was the most popular male film star of 1930, was the hub of gay Hollywood. He told all his friends about his sexual hookup with Clark Gable in the late 1920s, which was unusual, since Haines never bragged about such things. Haines knew first hand the damage that could be caused by a public knowledge of homosexuality. Joan Crawford confirmed the story, and her testament holds up under scrutiny because she was the lifelong best friend of both men. She had no reason to lie about either star, and she cherished the friendship of both. Billy Haines, who is today just a footnote in the annals of early Hollywood lore, could open doors to up and coming actors, so it is understandable the Gable might drop trou in exchange for the contacts and introductions Haines could provide. Haines absolutely transformed Joan Crawford, who was a rather slutty dance whore before her total makeover by Billy Haines. For details, look for my post on William Haines in the sidebar to the right.

More than ten years later Gable avenged his gay encounter. Hollywood was awash with both homosexuals and Jews, and Gable let it be known that he held both in disdain. By 1939 Gable had come to personify the image of a super macho male star. During filming of Gone with the Wind, Gable was uncomfortable by the presence of Billy Haines, who visited the set as a guest of director George Cukor (who was both homosexual and Jewish). When Gable overheard the comment, “George Cukor is directing one of Billy’s old tricks,” Gable walked off the set and vowed not to return until Cukor was replaced. A little too sensitive, perhaps?

MGM decided it needed Gable more than Cukor for this project, and Victor Fleming was ushered in as replacement director, even though Cukor had already worked for two years on preproduction and early filming. Although Gone with the Wind became one of the great films of all time, the incident didn’t harm the career of George Cukor, who immediately began working on The Women and continued to make top grossing films.

Gable, below, circa 1931, without a moustache (or cigar). Gable died at the age of 59 in 1960, before his last film The Misfits (with costar Marilyn Monroe) was released.

From a 1939 press report:

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard met first in 1932, while making a picture called No Man of Her Own. Gable was then a novice leading man, only four years removed from the career of bumming, lumberjacking and cheap stock company acting. Carole Lombard was an ex-Mack Sennett comedienne trying hard to make a reputation as a serious actress. Both were married to others. Gable's wife was a well-to-do Texas widow ten years his senior. Lombard's husband was Actor William Powell. At this first meeting, neither Gable nor Lombard showed any interest in the other.

Their next meeting of importance occurred at a party given by Hollywood's famed Countess di Frasso in 1935. By this time, Carole Lombard had divorced William Powell and Gable was no longer living with his wife. Countess di Frasso's guests had been asked to come in something white. Carole Lombard arrived in a white ambulance, wearing a white nightgown, lying on a white cot which was carried in by three white-clad interns. She and Gable danced together all evening. Later, Lombard had the ambulance decorated with a red heart and sent it to Gable. He had the motor supercharged and drove about in it for two years.

Later on, to show her affection for Gable, Carole Lombard sent him hams with his picture painted on them. He reciprocated with a gift of a fire engine. Soon Gable and Lombard called each other "Ma" and "Pa."

The progress of the Gable-Lombard romance was apparently impeded by Mrs. Gable until January, 1939, when she announced that she would sue for a divorce. When the divorce was granted, March 7, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard at last admitted they would marry, without saying when.

In March (1939) Clark Gable got into his cream-colored roadster, picked up Carole Lombard and drove 350 miles east to Kingman, Ariz. There they bought a license from an awestruck clerk named Viola Olsen, and proceeded to the home of a Methodist Episcopal minister named Kenneth M. Engle. In the presence of his wife and a high-school principal named Cate, who later defined their behavior as "lovey-dovey," Mr. Engle made Clark Gable and Carole Lombard man & wife. Gable wore blue, Lombard grey.

Immediately after the ceremony, Mr. & Mrs. Gable started back to Hollywood. They told reporters they would not take a honeymoon until Gable was through making Gone With the Wind, and Lombard her next picture, Memory of Love, for RKO. They expected, within two weeks, to move into Gable's ranch house in San Fernando Valley. They did not expect to call it "the House of the Seven Gables." Asked whether she would retire and have children, Carole Lombard blushed.

Next day, Gable was back at work and the Gable-Lombard romance took its place among Hollywood classics of its kind – Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (divorced), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Crawford (divorced), John Barrymore and Dolores Costello (divorced), Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (undefined).

Trivia: After Gable was crowned "The King of Hollywood", Carole Lombard joked, “If his c*ck was one inch shorter, they’d be calling him the Queen of Hollywood. God knows I love Clark, but he’s the worst lay in the town.”

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Michael Tilson Thomas, American Conductor

UPDATE to the original post (9/7/2011):

MTT will be one of five recipients of a Kennedy Center Honors Award to be broadcast December 15, 2019 at 8pm on CBS.

Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944) is an American conductor, composer, and pianist – and a gay man. A California native, he has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra since 1995, and beginning this evening he will lead the orchestra in the opening performances of the orchestra's 100th anniversary season.

Tilson Thomas is the first conductor to achieve prominence without concealing his homosexuality. For more than thirty years he has been partnered with Joshua Robison, who shares Tilson Thomas's  Edwardian house in San Francisco and a 1925 pink stucco palace in Miami. He has pushed audiences to rethink the relationship between classical music and homosexuality by celebrating gay composers and commissioning works that explore the experiences of gay men and lesbians.

After winning the 1968 Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Tilson Thomas became the youngest assistant conductor in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when he garnered great critical praise by conducting the second half of the symphony’s 1969 New York concert after its musical director became ill.

From that point on, Tilson Thomas steadily rose in the world of classical music, serving as conductor of a number of prestigious orchestras. In 1987 he founded the New World Symphony, an orchestra academy in Miami Beach, which moved into its permanent new home designed by Frank Gehry for an inaugural concert on January 26, 2011. The academy prepares gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership positions in orchestras and ensembles around the world ( Notably, four of them have been hired by the San Francisco Symphony. 

In 1988, Tilson Thomas became principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and in 1995 the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In June, 2000, he organized the American Mavericks music festival in San Francisco, highlighting the works of such gay composers as Lou Harrison, David Del Tredici and Meredith Monk.

In May 2001, Tilson Thomas conducted the premiere of Del Tredici’s “Gay Life,” a series of pieces he commissioned that explore the experiences of gay men in America, including the challenges that gay men have faced in their struggle to survive the AIDS epidemic. In addition, two of Tilson Thomas’ own compositions have added to the small but growing classical music repertoire focused on gay subjects. “Three Poems by Walt Whitman,” for baritone and orchestra, and “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” for baritone and piano, which use Whitman’s poetry to explore intimacy between men.

In February 25, 2010, President Obama presented Tilson Thomas with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award for artistic achievement.

Maestro Tilson Thomas narrates a history of the San Francisco Symphony. His commentary begins at the 1:36 mark in this video. Until I viewed this fascinating chronicle, I was unaware that the San Francisco Symphony was our nation's first professional orchestra to hire women to play instruments other than the harp.

Tilson Thomas embraced the YouTube genre in 2009 to help create the “YouTube Symphony Orchestra,” whose 96 members were selected from 30 countries based on more than 3,000 video auditions on YouTube. Here Tilson Thomas conducts gay composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Finale from Symphony No. 4, leading the YouTube Symphony Orchestra on April 15, 2009 at Carnegie Hall.