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, July 14, 2023

Yul Brynner

This is an update of a controversial post from 2012. Be sure to read the shit storm of four dozen reader comments at the end.

Bisexual Russian-born actor Yul Brynner (1920-1985) began his career playing guitar and singing gypsy songs among Russian immigrants in Parisian nightclubs. His fluency in Russian and French enabled him to build up a following with the Czarist expatriates in Paris. After a brief stint as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque D'Hiver company in France, he started acting with a touring company in the early 1940s. He was soon on his way to becoming the first ever bald stage and movie idol.

In 1941 Yul Brynner traveled to the U.S., where he began an affair with American actor Hurd Hatfield (1918-1998), best known for playing the title role in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both men were enrolled at the Michael Chekhov Theatre Studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and many of their classmates have since confirmed the affair. Michael Chekhov (1891-1955, nephew of Anton), mentored performers such as Marilyn Monroe, Jack Palance, Patricia Neal, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leslie Caron, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn and many others.

A year later, twenty-two year old Brynner (before he shaved his head) posed in full-frontal nude positions (photo at right) for noted gay photographer George Platt Lynes. Those who would like to view those uncropped photographs should avail themselves of Google search (you know you want to). You'll have a better understanding of what all the excitement was about.

Two decades later, at age 43, Brynner appeared wearing only slightly more in the campy film Kings of the Sun (1963, below), his youthful body betraying not a single passing year.

After several years of regional acting, Brynner was hired by the Office of War Information as announcer for their French radio service. He made his Broadway debut with Mary Martin in Lute Song in 1946, but he began playing his most famous role, the King of Siam, in The King and I in the Broadway production of the Oscar and Hammerstein musical in 1951 (photo at top of post). Mary Martin had recommended him for this role. At his first meeting with Irene Sharaff, The King and I’s costume designer, Brynner asked what he was to do about his mere “fringe” of hair. When told he was to shave it, he was horror-struck and refused, convinced he would look terrible. He finally gave in during tryouts and put dark makeup on his shaved head. The effect was so well-received that it became Brynner's trademark.

After more than three years and 1,246 performances, he starred in the screen version in 1956, winning an Oscar for Best Actor. He then returned to the stage for an additional 3,379 stage performances that stretched all the way to 1985. Brynner, 35 years old and married, was virtually unknown when he was cast in The King and I, and 52- year-old Gertrude Lawrence’s name appeared above his. Yul and Gertrude were having an affair at the time. Rodgers and Hammerstein often told the story that when Lawrence died during the run of the show, Brynner finally got top billing, and he burst into tears at the news (of his getting top billing – not the news of Lawrence’s death).

Cecil B. DeMille, impressed by Brynner's performance in The King and I, cast the actor as the Pharoah Rameses in the multi-million dollar blockbuster The Ten Commandments (1956, dressing room photo above). Along the way, Brynner also starred in such classic films as Anastasia (1956), The Brothers Karamazov (1958), and The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Brynner was also a talented published photographer and author of two books, Bring Forth the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East and The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You. I’m not making this up.

Brynner's romantic life included throngs of women, as well as men. He had four wives – actress Viriginia Gilmor, Chilean model Doris Kleiner, Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume, ballerina Kathy Lee – in addition to numerous affairs with such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Ingrid Bergman.

Brynner was possessed of a massive, nearly uncontrollable ego. In the mid-1960s, while filming Morituri aboard a freighter with co-star Marlon Brando, Brynner demanded in his contract that a landing pad be built on the ship so he could get a private helicopter to take him ashore after each day's shoot. He got his way, as usual.

According to Frank Langella’s recent memoir, no actor ever talked about himself so much as Brynner, whom Langella described as “never far from a full-length mirror.” Brynner explained how he’d had a special lift – big enough to fit a car – installed in the Broadway theater where he was starring in The King And I. His chauffeur could thus drive straight in and spare the star from having to “deal with the public.”

Brynner's last major film role was in the sci-fi thriller Westworld (1973) as a murderously malfunctioning robot, dressed in Western garb reminiscent of Brynner's wardrobe in The Magnificent Seven. What could have been campy or ludicrous became a chilling characterization in Brynner's hands; his steady, steely-eyed automaton glare as he approached his human victims was one of the more enjoyably frightening film-going experiences of the 1970s.

Yul Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985, in New York City at age sixty-five – on the same day as Orson Welles. When he developed lung cancer in the mid-1980s, he left a powerful public service announcement denouncing smoking as the cause, for broadcast after his death. The Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation was established in his memory.

Update July 14, 2023: His final performance (his 4,625th) of "The King and I" came on June 30, 1985, less than four months before he died of cancer. His lungs were so damaged that he had to use an oxygen tank to soldier through his last performances.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Richard Halliburton

Renowned thrill-seeker and global adventure writer Richard Halliburton (1900-1939) went rogue in his private, as well as professional life. Richard’s partner was his ghostwriter, Paul Mooney (1903-1939), but neither of them gave even a fleeting thought to fidelity. Mooney had another lover, William Alexander Levy (1909-1997), a twenty-something architect and interior designer. Movie-star handsome Halliburton commissioned a house from William to be built high on a cliff above Laguna Beach, CA, with three master bedrooms, one for each of the men – a cozy, if somewhat offbeat arrangement. The result was a stunning cantilevered Modernist structure of concrete, glass and steel dubbed Hangover House, built for $36,000 – a huge sum for 1937.

Halliburton, while forgotten today, was a household name during the 1920s and 1930s, as famous as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. He was the idol of every schoolboy, and his popular radio broadcasts supplemented his adventure books, such as the Book of Marvels, which fueled the imaginations of countless youths. The Book of Marvels was published in two volumes (The Occident 1937, the Orient 1938), each filled with photographs and text that hooked armchair travelers who grew up in the days before Indiana Jones.

Raised in Tennessee as a small, sickly boy, Halliburton over-compensated as an adult with an action packed life of extreme adventures. In 1931 the whole world followed with interest his circumnavigation of the globe in an open cockpit single engine plane dubbed the Flying Carpet, the title of his fourth book. In it he described his outsized feats during that adventure, such as flying upside down over the Taj Mahal, photographing Mt. Everest and encountering head hunters in Borneo.

Always lusting after fame and fortune, Halliburton was aware that his high public profile required a heterosexual emphasis, so he embellished his writings with entirely fabricated female love interests. Nevertheless, his travel narratives included lingering accounts of male beauty, and his private letters were explicitly gay.

Halliburton was not above breaking the law or stretching the truth to achieve his goals. Just months after his graduation from Princeton in 1921, Richard climbed the Matterhorn. His wanderlust took him to Paris and on to the Rock of Gibraltar, where taking photographs of defense weapon emplacements landed him in jail; nevertheless, he published a dozen of his forbidden photos along with a breathless account of the escapade.

Richard continued to Egypt, sleeping on top of a pyramid and swimming the Nile. He hid himself on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, so that he could swim in its pools by moonlight. Traveling through the Malay peninsula, he steamed to Singapore as a stowaway, survived an attack by pirates, and trekked through Manchuria. When he reached Japan, he climbed Mt. Fuji in winter. Halliburton's books achieved enormous popularity, and he became one of the highest paid celebrity authors to appear on the lecture circuit between the two world wars.

A master of publicity and self-promotion, Halliburton shrewdly exploited his escapades in order to increase interest in his books and lectures. In one such stunt, he registered himself as a ship, paid a toll of 36 cents, based on his weight of 140 pounds, and swam the Panama Canal. He remains the only person to have swum all 48 miles of the waterway.

In March 1939, the famous Halliburton-Mooney duo and their experienced crew left Hong Kong in a commissioned Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, to sail eastward for the San Francisco Golden Gate International Expo. Three weeks into the journey they encountered a typhoon and perished; their bodies were never recovered.

In a letter written to his father, Halliburton expressed his carpe diem philosophy:

“And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed...”