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.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga

I first learned of Balenciaga (1895-1972) from a pamphlet at the San Sebastian (Spain) tourist office. In a list of famous people who had made San Sebastian their home, he was in the second position, right behind the Queen of Spain. My female traveling companion, speaking in reverent tones, informing me that he is regarded as one of the greatest couturiers of the twentieth century.

Counted among his clients were the de Rothschilds, Bunny Mellon, Helena Rubinstein, the Duchess of Windsor, Countess Mona Bismark, Doris Duke, Marella Agnelli and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie upset John F. Kennedy for buying Balenciaga's ultra expensive creations while he was President, because he feared that the American public might think the purchases too lavish; her haute couture bills were discreetly paid by her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy. While Dior dressed the rich, Balenciaga dressed the very rich. During the 1950s, it was said that a woman “graduated” from Dior to Balenciaga.

Balenciaga, who had quit school to go to work for a local tailor at age 13, opened his first shop in San Sebastián, Spain, at age 19, and by the age of 24 he had his own couture house, which later expanded to branches in Madrid and Barcelona. All three were called Eisa, after his seamstress mother. He learned every aspect of the couture business. While apprenticed to the San Sebastián tailor, he learned the skill of cutting, an art few dress designers possess.

At seventeen he went to Biarritz, across the border, to learn the French language and their clothes-making techniques. By the age of eighteen, he was learning the women’s wear trade back in San Sebastián, in a luxury shop, Louvre, where he became adept at fitting ladies and finding gowns for their personal requirements. His clients loved him and followed him when he opened his own fashion house in the Basque capital at age 24. Among his clients was the Spanish Queen Mother, Maria Cristina, for whom San Sebastián’s great luxury hotel is named. His business was run with the help of his sister, brother and other relatives, and was very much a family firm, though on a substantial scale; 250 people worked in the Madrid house alone, plus an additional 100 or so in Barcelona.

The Spanish royal family and the aristocracy wore his designs, but when the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores in 1931, he fled first to London, then to Paris in 1936, eventually opening a couture house on Avenue George V in 1937. His success was immediate. Customers risked their safety to travel to Europe during World War II to see Balenciaga's designs.

Below: A Balenciaga design from 1951.


It was in Paris that he met the lover of his life, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, who was also his business associate. At the time he partnered with Cristóbal, Vladzio was a Franco-Russian milliner. Balenciaga was devastated when he died in 1948, to the point that he considered closing down his business. While Balenciaga had affairs with other men after Vladzio's death, he remained an intensely private man, rarely socializing.

Several designers who worked for Balenciaga would go on to open their own successful couture houses, notably Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy. Balenciaga’s influence on these men cannot be overstated.

His greatest period of innovation and influence was from just after WW II until he closed his couture house in 1968. His “sack dress” created a sensation in 1957 and was even parodied on an episode of “I Love Lucy”. Unlike other couture houses, Balenciaga never produced a ready-to-wear line: "I will not prostitute my talent." Tapping the deep roots of his Spanish heritage, Balenciaga found inspiration in flamenco and Velázquez paintings, clerical vestments and bullfighters’ boleros. Later, in designs that re-envisioned the female silhouette with gestures that flouted the traditional waistline, he created his unfitted middy blouse and tunic dress, the barrel-line jacket and balloon dress. In 1960 Balenciaga received the Légion d’honneur for services to the French fashion industry.



When Balenciaga died in his native Spain in 1972, Women’s Wear Daily declared, “The King is Dead”. He died a very rich man, with houses and apartments in Paris, at La Reynerie near Orléans, in Madrid, in Barcelona, and in Iguelda in his native Basque country. Although his couture house remained dormant from 1968 until 1986, in 1992, for the summer Olympic Games, the House of Balenciaga designed the French team's clothes to give them a more sophisticated look.




The Balenciaga name is best known to young people today as the label in a sought-after handbag with punkish hardware. Balenciaga is now owned by the Gucci Group.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Rex



When the artist known as Rex began working in New York City in the mid 1960s, his erotic pointillist style drawings gained immediate notoriety. At the time, photographic erotica was still illegal, but drawings and stories were protected by U.S. Supreme Court Free Speech rulings. His art was showcased in various gay magazines, such as Drummer, Straight to Hell, Honcho and The Advocate, and for a brief time his work illustrated S&M and leather-themed paperback erotic novels.

In addition to his hardcore illustrations, Rex produced poster art for gay venues in NYC and San Francisco. A famous series of iconic posters, calendars and T-shirt designs were commissioned by the legendary New York sex club, The Mineshaft. However, it was his depraved, hardcore fetish drawings in a series of self-published portfolios circulated underground that cemented his reputation as a leading artist of homoerotica. Rex was to illustration what Mapplethorpe was to photography.

A numbered limited edition hard cover portfolio of his drawings was published in Paris in 1986, and Rex Verboten, a retrospective hardcover volume on his work, was distributed by the German publishing house Bruno Gmünder.

As a creator of sexually perverse and psychologically disturbing imagery, his subject matter fell victim to the political correctness and self-censorship that intimidated gay media during the Reagan era. For this reason, Rex relocated to Europe, where he continues to live and work (Amsterdam).
 
Among his contemporaries, Rex’s work stands out for its challenging content. His art continues to be confrontational and controversial as he dares to produce images of marginal and perverse sexual urges that many of his viewers may not ever want to admit to but nevertheless find savagely erotic.

Because this blog does not contain hardcore adult content, it was difficult to find examples to illustrate this post. Enter "Rexwerk" into a search engine, however, and mind-blowing examples of his art will sear into your mind. Amazing, singular stuff.


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

J.C. Leyendecker

Note: Original post updated October, 2021

At the turn of the twentieth century Joseph Christian Leyendecker was the most in vogue American illustrator of his day. J.C. Leyendecker (pronounced LION-decker) was born in 1874 in Montabour, Germany, a town NW of Frankfurt, not far from Koblenz. His family moved to America in 1882, seeking a better life in Chicago, where Joe studied at the famed Art Institute. Both Joe and his younger brother Frank were gay, and when Joe won a contest to design a cover for Century magazine, he earned a good deal of money when his prize-winning entry was issued as an art print. He was soon able to quit working at an engraving firm and took Frank with him to Paris, where they both enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian art school.

After their return to the U.S., Joe and Frank relocated to NYC in 1900 to better their chances at winning commissions. Working as a team, they produced oil paintings as illustrations for magazines and books. Although Joe was clearly the more talented of the two, it was Frank who was responsible for hiring the model Charles Beach, an act that forged a union between Joe and Charles that lasted fifty years.

Beach, twelve years Joe’s junior, left his native Canada for NYC at age 16 to pursue a theatrical career, for which he soon discovered he had no talent. His greatest asset was his appearance, as he was extraordinarily handsome, tall and possessed of an exceptional physique. He was also confident and charming. Charles wisely decided to abandon the stage to seek jobs as a model. He was 17 years old when Frank Leyendecker hired him in 1901.

Joe, who was painfully shy and given to stuttering when asked to speak, was a real contrast to Charles. Joe was short, nondescript and socially reticent, but at first glance he was head over heels for Charles Beach. Charles soon rented an apartment just a few blocks from the Leyendecker’s studio, and most nights Joe stayed at Beach’s dwelling. The tantalizing illustrations Joe produced using Charles as a model jump started Joe’s career. Before long Charles started managing business details for the Leyendecker brothers, negotiating ever higher prices for their magazine illustration commissions. Beach prodded Joe into approaching the Saturday Evening Post magazine about creating themed covers for national holidays, resulting in a contract that kept Joe busy for decades.

Many of these covers featured men fashioned after Beach’s Adonis-like face and physique. Each time one of these covers appeared, the magazine’s circulation increased, and by 1913 the Saturday Evening Post became the most popular magazine in the world. These covers, wildly popular with the public, also made Joe Leyendecker rich and famous. He was soon earning $50,000 a year – over a million dollars when adjusted for inflation. The magazine’s  May 30, 1914, Mother's Day cover single-handedly birthed the flower delivery industry, thus creating an American tradition.

Leyendecker also introduced what is perhaps our most enduring New Year’s symbol, that of the New Year’s Baby. For almost forty years, the Saturday Evening Post featured a Leyendecker Baby on its New Year’s covers.




Against his brother Frank’s opposition, Joe had been persuaded by Charles to provide illustrations for advertisements. His work for men’s clothing companies was blatantly homoerotic, but it made Leyendecker’s name a household word. The success of Joe and Charles as a team culminated in 25 years of illustrations for Arrow shirt collars, for which Charles was invariably the model. The “Arrow Collar Man” was soon the symbol of fashionable American manhood – the male equivalent of the Gibson girl. These Arrow shirt collar ads created a sensation. In the early 1920s the Arrow Collar Man drew 17,000 fan letters a month, along with gifts and marriage proposals. By 1918 Arrow collar sales topped $32 million.

The image of Charles Beach was so universally known that strangers stopped him on the street. Both Charles and Joe took pains, however, to keep their personal union out of the public eye, since exposure as homosexuals would have ruined both their careers. In 1914 Joe designed and had built a 14 room house in suburban New Rochelle, where Joe (J.C. as intimate friends called him), brother Frank and sister Augusta all co-habitated. Frank and Joe maintained studios in separate wings of the house. Upon the death of Joe’s father in 1916 Charles moved in, as well. The household entertained extravagantly, hosting high-profile A-list guests such as Walter Chrysler and Reggie Vanderbilt. Joe and Charles inaugurated a networking strategy of mixing business with pleasure, using social contacts to procure business. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell reported on these parties, but never mentioned the private relationship between the two men. Journalists refrained for fear that they would no longer be invited to those most-coveted social events. 

 

Trivia: the Leyendecker home in New Rochelle still exists as the Mount Tom Day School. Photo below.



In 1923 brothers Frank and Joe had a falling out, and Frank’s life lapsed into a downward spiral. Unable to secure commissions on his own and unable to find a male partner, he succumbed to abuses of drugs and alcohol. Frank died of a drug overdose in 1924, reported by many as a suicide.

Joe’s popularity and productivity reached its peak in the 1930s. Although Norman Rockwell blatantly copied Leyendecker's style and subject matter, Joe was undaunted. By that time his work had appeared on more than 300 covers of the Saturday Evening Post. However, commercial photography was rapidly becoming the go-to medium for print advertising, and Joe's commissions began to dry up. About the same time, during the 1940s, Joe began to feel the ill-effects of  heart disease. While sitting in his garden in New Rochelle in 1951, he suffered a heart attack in the presence of Charles and died in his lover’s arms. Soon thereafter Charles destroyed all correspondence between them, as requested by Joe, in order to conceal their private relationship from future scrutiny. Charles had inherited half of Joe's estate but had to sell many of Leyendecker's original canvases in order to support himself. Tragically, Charles died in 1954, just three years after Joe’s demise.

Today an original Leyendecker oil painting will cost a collector dearly. In 2018, against a pre-auction estimate of $70,000, Leyendecker's oil The Oarsman was sold for $275,000. The model, of course, was Charles Beach. Photo below:


Other significant Leyendecker paintings:














There is a wonderful collection of J.C. Leyendecker’s works in Newport, Rhode Island. The National Museum of American Illustration, housed in a gilded-era mansion on Bellevue Avenue known as Vernon Court, holds the largest collection of Leyendecker paintings in one place. The museum can be visited on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Details at:

http://americanillustration.org/

Friday, October 1, 2021

Xavier Dolan

Openly-gay Montreal film maker Xavier Dolan (b. 1989), who somehow managed to write and direct five well-received movies in as many years, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes* Film Festival for Mommy back in May, 2014. Mommy tells the story of a single mother raising a violent and troubled teenage son. They receive unexpected help and friendship from their shy neighbor, a female schoolteacher on sabbatical who suffers from a crippling stutter. This was Dolan's first film to achieve significant success at the box office, and it won the Cesar Award for best foreign film in 2015.

The Québécois director, writer and actor Dolan said in his acceptance speech:

“The emotion that I feel in contemplating this mythic room is overwhelming. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, standing before this jury. I’ve received so much love over the last week. We do this work to love and be loved, as revenge for our imaginary loves...People are entitled to their own tastes, and some will dislike what you do; some will dislike who you are. But together we can change the world. By touching people, making they laugh and cry, we can change minds and lives. Not only politicians but artists can change it. There are no limits to our ambition. Everything is possible for those who dream, dare, work and never give up.”

Canadian Xavier, who speaks flawless, unaccented English, has nevertheless worked exclusively within the genre of French-language cinema. He has been compared to Woody Allen (only younger, cuter and gay!), because both make character-driven films about relationships, and both act in their own movies. At age nineteen (!), Dolan electrified the film world with I Killed My Mother (J'ai tué ma mère – 2009), a semi-autobiographical movie that he wrote, directed and starred in. The winner of dozens of awards, that film was about a young homosexual at odds with his mother.


Dolan’s Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme – 2013) dealt with a young gay man’s encounter with the family of his recently deceased lover; the parents were not aware that their son was gay, nor were they aware of Tom’s relationship with their son. Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires – 2010) explored a love triangle in which a man and a woman have a relationship with the same man. Laurence Anyways (2012) chronicles a ten year span of a male-to-female transsexual's relationship with her female lover. His eighth film, Matthias and Maxime, released in 2019, features two men who act in a film with a script that requires them to kiss each other, awakening long-dormant feelings for each other; Dolan himself plays the role of Maxime. For this film Dolan served as director, producer, costume designer, writer and editor.

Xavier Dolan, who tops out at 5' 6½", celebrated his thirty-second birthday in March. Trivia: the Quebec-specific French-language dubbed version of the animated series South Park features Dolan as the voice of Stan. Not to mention that he directed the video for Adele's hit single "Hello" in 2015.