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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886)

Paul von Thurn und Taxis, a Bavarian prince, kept a diary, but like everything else concerning him in the Regensburg archives of the powerful and wealthy Thurn und Taxis family, it was destroyed. Aside from the fact that he pursued a career as a professional stage actor, a likely reason is that Paul was an intimate, devoted boyfriend to the Wittelsbach crown prince Ludwig (shown at right), who ascended to the throne at age eighteen. Paul and Ludwig engaged in behavior that would be unflattering to the Thurn and Taxis dynasty.

From a letter sent by Paul to Ludwig on May 5, 1866, when King Ludwig was 20 years old:

“Dear and Beloved Ludwig! I am just finishing my diary with the thought of the beautiful hours which we spent together that evening a week ago which made me the happiest man on earth… Oh, Ludwig, Ludwig, I am devoted to you! I couldn’t stand the people around me; I sat still and, in my thoughts I was still with you...How my heart beat when, as I passed the Residenz, I saw a light in your window.”

Paul and Ludwig also shared a passion for composer Richard Wagner and the theater. Paul was gifted with a beautiful voice and sang for the king many times. When Paul and Ludwig visited Wagner’s home, the lads shared a “cosy little room,” as described in one of Paul’s letters. Wagner rehearsed Paul in a portion of his opera Lohengrin, which was performed for the 20th birthday of the king on August 25, 1865, at the Alpsee in Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig’s family had a favorite castle. It was magnificently staged with Paul dressed as the hero Lohengrin, wearing silver armor, drawn over the lake by an artificial swan as the scenery was illuminated by electric lights. The King sat enraptured as his intimate friend sang his favorite music.

A year later, on New Year’s day, 1867, all Bavaria was delighted to hear the announcement of their dashing King Ludwig’s engagement to Princess Sophie, a native Duchess and sister to “Sisi,” the beloved Empress of Austria. The royal wedding was arranged to take place on Ludwig’s 22nd birthday, August 25, but an official announcement early in the summer postponed the nuptials until October 12. However, Ludwig broke off the engagement a week before the marriage was to take place. In a long letter to Princess Sophie, he stated that the engagement and wedding had been forced upon him; he loved the Princess “like a sister” and hoped to remain her friend.

Ludwig's Coronation Portrait






There was a reason for the postponement and ultimate cancellation. During the summer Ludwig had met Richard Hornig, a groom employed at one of his stables. A blond, blue-eyed Prussian, five years older than the king, he was to become one of the most important people in Ludwig’s life. Hornig was a superb horseman, and their mutual love of horses allowed a friendship to develop. In a short time Hornig was seeing the king constantly and intimately. Hornig soon occupied the office of Crown Equerry and Master of the Horse. He controlled all horse transport, coaches and carriages, stabling, purchase, breeding and training of the Royal horses, which numbered around 500. The king and Hornig often visited the king’s remote castles, chalets and mountain huts, mostly in a four-horse carriage, but sometimes in a romantic, illuminated sleigh in the moonlight. When the two dined at the king’s castles, they were waited on by footmen dressed in 18th-century livery.

Hornig was soon acting as go-between for the king and his ministers, much as Queen Victoria’s John Brown, which caused much tongue-wagging and criticism. Ludwig and Hornig also set out on a journey through Germany to France, with the King traveling incognito as Count von Berg. It was during this time that the king issued a postponement of his wedding. The appearance of Richard Hornig in his life led to the king’s full break with Sophie. Ludwig’s homosexual relationship with Hornig made him realize that a normal love for any woman was not possible.

In fact Ludwig II went on to have a succession of handsome male companions, two of whom were Hungarian theater star Josef Kainz and courtier Alfons Weber. They were both good-looking young men, and Ludwig treated them as other royal males treated their mistresses.  Ludwig showed Kainz special favor, giving him expensive gifts, inviting him for stays in the king’s castles and asking him along for a vacation in Switzerland. They even had their photo taken together at the end of the trip, although it is scandalous that in this portrait Kainz is seated, and the king is standing (photo at left).

King Ludwig was an obsessive, devoted patron of the composer Richard Wagner. The king wiped out Wagner’s enormous debts, built him a theater in Bayreuth custom designed for his operas as well as a private villa across town. Wagner lived on money supplied by the king. As the king aged, he became an eccentric recluse caught up in the building of fantasy castles decorated with murals depicting scenes from the legends upon which Wagner’s operas were based, all the while ignoring matters of state, which were left to his staff of ministers. It was during Ludwig’s reign that Prussia launched a successful campaign to unify all the disparate German kingdoms into one unified Germany Empire, with Prussian King Wilhelm I as kaiser.

When the king’s ministers caught wind that Ludwig was planning to dismiss his entire cabinet and replace them, they acted first. They plotted to depose him constitutionally, on grounds of mental illness, subsequently issuing a statement that he was unable to rule. However, this was accomplished without any medical examination, so the king’s diagnosis of insanity remains suspect. Among the list of bizarre behaviors described in this “medical report” was the fact that his young groomsmen were often ordered to strip naked and dance for the king’s entertainment. Poor taste, perhaps, but not insanity. Three of the four psychiatrists who signed the damning medical report had never met the king, and none had ever examined him.

Even so, the ministers made plans to place Ludwig’s younger brother on the throne. On June 12, 1886, a commission arrived at Neuschwanstein castle and served the king with an order of deposition, escorting him to Schloss Berg on the shores of Lake Starnberg. The next day the king’s body was discovered floating in the lake, alongside the corpse of Dr. Gudden, one of the psychiatrists who had declared the king insane. Gudden’s body showed evidence of a struggle and attempted strangulation, suggesting that the king tried to kill him (Ludwig was 6'4" tall and heavy-set, so there is validity to this theory). The exact cause of the king’s death remains open to speculation, since an autopsy found no water present in his lungs.

Ludwig is best known as an eccentric whose legacy is intertwined with the history of art and architecture. He commissioned the construction of several extravagant fantasy castles and palaces, the most famous being Neuschwanstein. Since his legacy of these grandiose castles lives on in the form of massive tourist revenue, King Ludwig is revered by many in Bavaria today. Here is a photo of the extravagant ceramic stove adorned with figures of Tristan and Isolde in the bedroom of Ludwig II at Neuschwanstein palace in southern Bavaria.


The three most-visited of Ludwig's castles:

top to bottom: Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee





Franz, Duke of Bavaria (b. 1933) is the present head of the Wittelsbach dynasty. He is a gay man who lives in a suite of apartments in Schloss Nymphenburg (Munich), the summer residence of the Wittelsbach kings of Bavaria where King Ludwig II was born. Here Franz is photographed in 1993 with his nieces Duchess Marie Caroline of Württemberg (b. 1969) on the left and Duchess Elizabeth in Bavaria (b. 1973).

The Wittelsbachs were opposed to the Nazi regime in Germany, and in 1939 Franz's father Albrecht took his family to Hungary. They lived in Budapest for four years before moving to Somlovar Castle in late 1943. In March 1944, Nazi Germany occupied Hungary, and on October 6, 1944, the entire family including Franz, then aged 11, was arrested. They were sent to a series of Nazi concentration camps including Dachau. At the end of April 1945 they were liberated by the United States Army.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

American Gothic: Grant Wood

There are certain paintings that are recognizable by most everyone, true icons of the art world: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's Scream, for instance. American Gothic is among this elite group, but few can recall the name of the artist.

In 1930, painter Grant Wood achieved unexpected fame with American Gothic, his painting of a pitchfork-wielding farmer and a stern, black-clad woman posed before a Victorian farmhouse. Trivia: the models for American Gothic were Grant’s sister and his dentist. It is one of the most reproduced and parodied artworks in history. Even those who know the name of the painter of American Gothic are unlikely to know that the soft-spoken artist who painted it was a deeply-closeted gay man.

Wood’s homosexuality was something of an open secret in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where an attitude of “don’t ask – don’t tell’’ allowed a small gay and lesbian subculture to exist in peace, so long as it remained practically invisible. Respected figures in the community, including prominent businesspeople and a local school principal, shielded Wood from scrutiny and encouraged his artistic aspirations. Thus Wood’s earliest vocational activities were not in farming, but in jewelry design, interior decorating and various theatrical pursuits. David Turner, owner of a funeral home in Cedar Rapids and a member of one of the county’s founding families, acted as Wood’s first patron. Wood and his widowed mother lived for years rent free in the mortuary’s vacant carriage house, formerly a storage facility for horse-drawn hearses.

For a man with a secret, sudden celebrity was a mixed blessing. Major national media outlets hinted all too broadly at the hidden subtext of his life, describing him as “a shy bachelor’’ who maintained “a discreet silence about marriage,’’ while making pointed reference to his high-pitched voice and affinity for the color pink – all too obvious allusions to his homosexuality.



Fear of exposure seems to have led Wood to adopt the down-to-earth public persona of America’s farmer-artist. Possessed of pudgy physical appearance, he routinely donned denim overalls for interviews and photographs (see above) and once ludicrously proclaimed, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,’’ even though he hadn’t lived on a farm since he was 10 years old. Although Wood had studied in Paris and Germany, he downplayed his worldliness and put the accent on his midwestern farmhand persona, albeit somewhat embellished and fabricated.

Several times exposure of Grant’s homosexuality seemed imminent. In the late 1920s, he was blackmailed by a young man over their relationship. MacKinlay Kantor, who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter, wrote a description of Wood in a gossip column for the Des Moines Tribune-Capital that played up Wood’s bachelorhood and feminine taste and appearance. Wood’s being outed would have threatened not only his reputation but his income, as well, so Wood was cautious and circumspect in public. As the bartender in a Cedar Rapids watering hole Wood favored put it, “Wood was only gay when he was drunk.”

In Grant Wood’s Arnold Comes of Age (1930), a painting of a slight young man staring into the distance against a fall landscape, the image might be understood as one of Wood’s signature depictions of traditional America, were it not for the nude boys bathing in the corner of the portrait (click image to enlarge). The bathers are so subtly incorporated into the picture and the title so nondescript that the work seems to simultaneously suggest and repress the possibility of same-sex desire. Arnold Pyle, Wood's assistant, had just turned 21 when this portrait was made.Wood had been Pyle's eighth grade art teacher and went on to become Pyle’s mentor and longtime friend. Tragically, in 1973, while returning from a Grant Wood Art Festival, Pyle was killed in an automobile accident. One should note here that the somewhat overweight Wood had a taste in men that seldom varied – his ideal types were dark-haired, slender young men, and Wood surrounded himself with same for the rest of his life.

His mother’s death in 1935 created a crisis. No longer able to justify bachelorhood with the excuse of filial obligation, Wood entered into a disastrous marriage with a woman much his senior, the former actress Sarah Moxon, to the surprise of his friends and family. It was a loveless, unconsummated, unhappy, and brief marriage – the result of a sort of gay panic. Worse, he fell in love with her handsome, 20-something son from a previous marriage, installing the young man in their home, lavishing money and attention on him. Wood also kept a secretary, Park Rinard, another slightly-built, dark-haired young man with whom he was also in love, again unrequited. All this was too much for Sara, and their brief marriage ended acrimoniously.

Wood left Cedar Rapids for Iowa City, where he taught art classes at the University of Iowa. Lacking the network of friends who had previously supported and protected him, he was denounced as a homosexual in a formal departmental complaint lodged by five colleagues. The matter was eventually hushed up, and Wood was allowed to keep his job, but the ordeal wreaked havoc on his health, and he developed a severe drinking problem. One of Wood’s accusers was H.W. Janson, whose “History of Art’’ later became a standard college-level textbook. Janson vindictively omitted Wood from this canonical guide to art history.

Wood died in 1942, at the tender age of 50, as a result of pancreatic and liver cancer.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Baron von Steuben

I’ve written about gay king Frederick the Great of Prussia. However, I just learned that a former aide of his had to flee Prussia amid allegations of taking familiarities with young boys. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, an experienced military officer, made his way to America with the aid of Benjamin Franklin, who was based in Paris at the time, trying to convince the French to come to our aid in fighting the British. George Washington asked for the Baron’s assistance in bringing order to the tattered Continental troops serving in the Revolutionary War. General Washington sent him to Valley Forge in February, 1778.

The soldiers were unaccustomed to the Baron’s – well, let’s call it "style". Von Steuben showed up in a grandiose sleigh (sporting 24 jingling bells) pulled by black Percheron draft horses. The Baron was wearing a robe of silk trimmed with fur, all the while petting his miniature greyhound, Azor, who was curled up on his lap. Behind him were his retinue of African servants, a French chef, his French aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière and the Baron’s 17-year-old lover/secretary Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau.

Impressive, if not entirely appropriate.

However, von Steuben proved his worth and soon shaped a hundred soldiers into a model company that, in turn, trained others in Prussian military tactics. He was a mere captain, but was so invaluable to Washington, that he was promoted to Major General.  In 1781, he served under the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia when the British General Charles Cornwallis invaded. He also served at the siege of Yorktown, where he commanded one of the three divisions of Washington's army.

Steuben spoke little English, and he often yelled to his translator, "Hey! Come over here and swear for me!" Steuben punctuated the screaming of his translator with fierce-sounding shouts in German and French. In an effort to codify training, Steuben wrote a Revolutionary War Drill Manual, which became the standard method for training army troops for over thirty years. It addresses the arms and accoutrements of officers and soldiers, formation and exercise of a company, instruction of recruits, formation and marching, inspection, etc., etc.

Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784. In 1790, Congress gave him a pension of $2,500 a year, which he received until his death, and an estate near Utica, NY, granted to him for his military service to our nation.

But wait, that’s not all. Steuben legally adopted two handsome soldiers (one of them, William North, became a U.S. Senator). A third young man, John Mulligan, considered himself a member of the stable of Steuben’s “sons.” Before moving in with Steuben, Mulligan had been living with Charles Adams*, the son of then-Vice President John Adams. Adams was concerned about the intense “closeness” between his son and Mulligan, insisting that they split up, so Mulligan wrote to Von Steuben with his tale of despair. Actually, Von Steuben offered to take both men into his arms home. Charles Adams, the handsomest son of one president and brother of another (John Quincy), resided with Von Steuben and Mulligan for a while. The 19-year-old Mulligan received – how shall we say – a very warm welcome. Von Steuben was a 62-year-old bachelor at the time. Hmmm.

Adams left the cozy love nest after a short while, but Mulligan stayed on for several years, serving as Von Steuben’s “secretary” until the Baron’s death. Mulligan inherited von Steuben’s library, maps and $2,500 cash, a considerable amount at the time, especially considering that the Baron was not a wealthy man.

Every year since 1958 the German-American Steuben Parade has been held in New York City. It is one of the city’s largest parades and is traditionally followed by an Oktoberfest celebration in Central Park. Similar events take place in Chicago and Philadelphia. Chicago’s Steuben Day Parade was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. To further honor von Steuben, the Steuben Society was founded in 1919 as an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of American citizens of German background. In the difficult post-WW I years the Society helped the German-American community reorganize.

Steubenville, Ohio, is named in the Baron’s honor. As well, numerous submarines, warships and ocean liners were named after him. A statue of the Baron stands in Lafayette Square opposite the White House in Washington, DC*. Even one of the cadet barracks buildings at Valley Forge Military Academy and College is named after Von Steuben. Really.

Steuben was cited by Randy Shilts in his book, Conduct Unbecoming, as an early example of a valuable homosexual in the military.

*I traipsed over to Lafayette Park yesterday afternoon to inspect the statue of Baron von Steuben. It’s a tall bronze life-size statue placed upon a high stone pedestal. The statue shows von Steuben in military dress uniform surveying the troops at Valley Forge. The monument, which stands opposite the White House, was erected in 1911 and sculpted by Albert Jaegers. At the rear of the pedestal is a medallion with the images of von Steuben's adopted aides-de-camp, William North and Benjamin Walker, facing one another.  It says:  "Colonel William North - Major Benjamin Walker - Aides and Friends of von Steuben". On each side of the pedestal are bronze Roman soldiers. Above the carved words “military instruction” on one side is a seated, helmeted Roman soldier “instructing” a naked youth (photo at left). Appropriate, no?

Check it out the next time you come to Washington DC.

*In 1796 Charles Adams was one of a group of men who frequented the theater in New York City and wrote critiques of what they saw for further distribution. Others in the group, called the Friendly Club, were John Wells, Elias Hicks, Samuel Jones, William Cutting and Peter Irving. This is noted in William Dunlap's "History of the American Theatre," published in 1832 (p. 193). Adams, whose father vowed never to see him again after Charles abandoned his wife and two daughters, drank himself to death in 1800, succumbing to alcoholism at the tender age of 30. Some scholars believe this was caused by his inability to deal with his homosexual leanings. Charles Adams, who streaked naked across the campus of Harvard during his student days, had a reputation as a rogue and renegade, and his family's wall of silence after his death may support that theory. Charles certainly spent much time in the company of men who engaged in homosexual activity. In researching this post, I enjoyed a cheap smile over the fact that the law office of young Adams was located on Little Queen Street (since renamed Cedar St. in the financial district).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Steel Magnate Friedrich Alfred Krupp

The multimillionaire German steel industrialist F. A. Krupp (1854-1902) loved the Italian island of Capri, off the coast of Naples, where he resided for several months each year at the Hotel Quisisana*. He kept two yachts there, Maya and Puritan, from which he entertained and pursued his hobby of oceanography. He could well afford to, since his father – Alfred, the Cannon King – had amassed the largest personal fortune in Germany. Alfred's power was so great that crowned heads negotiated directly with him.

While on the island, Krupp (known all his life as Fritz)  indulged his homosexual leanings in a big way. He set up a lavish private pleasure club in a grotto, where he entertained underage Italian boys, mostly the sons of local fishermen. Man on man sex was performed to the accompaniment of a live string quartet, and orgasms were celebrated with bursts of fireworks. Solid gold pins shaped like artillery shells or two crossed forks, both designed by Krupp, were given to the boys if they performed well. I'm not making this up.

When Krupp's wife, back home in Germany, heard rumors of what was going on, she went straight to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who promptly had her committed to an insane asylum in Jena. The thinking was that the Krupp industrialist empire (steel and arms manufacturing) was too vital to German national security to be compromised, even if such lurid stories were deemed true. Besides, Fritz was an important philanthropist who advanced the study of eugenics, which was later to become associated with the Nazis. The company lives on today as Thyssen-Krupp AG, the result of a controversial merger completed in 1999. The new company operates worldwide in steel manufacture, capital goods (elevators and industrial equipment) and services (specialty materials, environmental services, mechanical engineering, and scaffolding services).

But I digress. Krupp’s homosexual tastes predated his holidays on Capri. Conrad Uhl, proprietor of the Hotel Bristol in Berlin, related that he was charged with supplying Fritz with young boys when he stayed there. However, the German press eventually found out about Krupp's illicit private affairs, and printed the whole story, complete with damning photographs taken by Krupp himself inside the grotto on Capri. On  November 15, 1902, the Social Democratic magazine Vorwärts reported that Friedrich Alfred Krupp was homosexual, that he had a number of liaisons with local boys and men, and that his principal attachment was to Adolfo Schiano, an 18-year-old barber and amateur musician who lived on Capri. A week later, Krupp requested a meeting with his close friend, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose circle of friends included many prominent gay men. On the day he was to meet the emperor, November 22, 1902, Krupp was found dead in his home. Rather than face disgrace, Krupp had committed suicide; he was 48 years old at the time.

The suicide was covered up, and his body was concealed in a casket with no autopsy, even though law required it. No one, not even close relatives, was allowed to see the body. After three days, Germany had a great memorial ceremony involving the Kaiser, who was closely allied to the family. When Fritz was laid to rest in the Krupp family cemetery in Essen, his tomb was guarded day and night.

Ten years ago, when I first visited Capri**, I looked down in wonder from the Gardens of Augustus to the switchback paved footpath known as the Via Krupp, a scenic walkway constructed by Fritz in 1900. Ostensibly Via Krupp was a connection for Fritz between his rooms at the Hotel Quisisana and Marina Piccola, the small port where his marine biology research ship (ironically named the Puritan) lay at anchor. Secretly, however, this path conveyed him to Grotta di Fra’ Felice, the grotto where sex orgies with local boys took place. When the scandal surfaced, Krupp was asked to leave Italy in 1902, and a week  after his return to Germany his life was over.

*The Grand Hotel Quisisana is today a member of Leading Hotels of the World.
www.quisisana.com/en/index

**At the time I had no knowledge of this lurid tale. Today there is a small family-run three star hotel called Villa Krupp on Capri which many people mistakenly believe was built by Fritz Krupp. However, this structure was built as a private villa in 1900 by Eduardo Settanni. By the way, Capri was then known as the gay capital of Europe, hosting hordes of lesbians and gay men, who could pursue their interests openly. Tip: remember to pronounce Capri with the accent on the first syllable (KAH-pree).

The Via Krupp descends 300 feet from the Gardens of Augustus to Marina Piccola, where Fritz hosted all male sex orgies in the nearby Grotta di Fra’ Felice. The iron gate pictured below leads to the grotto. He referred to this grotto as the "holy place of a secret fraternity," and he gave out golden keys to the private gate to waiters and fisherman. He wasn’t even trying to be discrete. This stone path, which had been closed for thirty years because of the danger of falling rocks, was reopened to foot traffic in 2009.


Photo below: On Capri Fritz Krupp satisfies his "needs," which leads to disaster (Auf Capri geht Fritz Krupp den Bedürfnissen nach, die ihm schließlich zum Verhängnis werden) – a scene from the 2009 three-part German TV miniseries, Krupp – Eine Deutsche Familie. In this scene Krupp (center) brings one of the local boys back to his hotel to "satisfy his needs."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bayard Taylor

Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), was an American poet, novelist, travel writer, literary critic, diplomat, lecturer and translator. He was a frustrated poet who, even though he published twenty volumes of poetry, resented the mass appeal of his travel writings, because his desire was to be known as a poet. Even his travel writings have been relegated to the dustbin of literary history, and he is known today solely for his translation of both volumes of Goethe’s Faust.

He shared Walt Whitman’s penchant for homosexual relationships. Taylor confided to Whitman that he found in his own nature “a physical attraction and tender and noble love of man for man.” Taylor’s novel Joseph and His Friend (1870), which depicted men holding hands and kissing, is considered the first American gay novel. This novel is said to be based on the romantic relationship between poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake. As well, Taylor’s poem To a Persian Boy and short story Twin-Love explored homosexual attraction.

In Keith Stern’s Queers in History, it is revealed that the love of Taylor’s life was George Henry Boker, although both men had married. Mitch Gould relates that American banker, diplomat and poet George Boker wrote to Taylor in 1856 that he had “never loved anything human as I love you. It is a joy and a pride to my heart to know that this feeling is returned.”

Taylor wrote popular columns in important newspapers and magazines, and he served as a diplomat to both Russia and Germany. He was so well known at the time of his death in Germany that the New York Times printed his obituary on its front page.

To a Persian Boy in the Bazaar at Smyrna

Excerpt:

The gorgeous blossoms of that magic tree
Beneath whose shade I sat a thousand nights
Breathed from their opening petals all delights
Embalmed in spice of Orient Poesy,
When first, young Persian, I beheld thine eyes,
And felt the wonder of thy beauty grow
Within my brain, as some fair planet’s glow
Deepens, and fills the summer evening skies.
From under thy dark lashes shone on me
The rich, voluptuous soul of Eastern land,
Impassioned, tender, calm, serenely sad, –
Such as immortal Hafiz felt when he
Sang by the fountain-streams of Rocnabad,
Or in the bowers of blissful Samarcand.


The engraving at the top of this post is by John Chester Buttre after a photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brothers Enrique & Guillermo De Fazio

...man-on-man tango dancers



The next time you draw stares when dancing with your guy in public, reference the De Fazio brothers. Enrique and Guillermo De Fazio rightly call themselves traditional tango dancers, because when tango was in its infancy, men danced together. In the late 19th century, the rich landowners in Argentina needed thousands of workers to prepare their vast mineral and agricultural products for shipment from Buenos Aires to Europe. They advertised in Europe for workers, and great numbers of immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires, eager for the opportunity to work. When they arrived, they encountered a huge problem: there were very few women immigrants. To engage in sexual relations with a women, the heterosexual immigrants patronized bordellos, and while they waited in (inevitable) lines, they practiced dancing – with each other, for lack of female partners. In order to climb the social ladder, among the skills they needed was to be able to dance properly with respectable ladies. With so many men to choose from, ladies in Buenos Aires selected only the best male dancers as partners, so competition among the men was keen.


The brothels of Buenos Aires provided live music to entertain the men while they waited their turn, and by necessity the men practiced their dance steps with each other. Most of the immigrants were from Spain and Italy, and they lived in tenement blocks that formed huge ghettos. With their different tongues and cultures, music and dance became their common language. They possessed only portable musical instruments, and a version of an accordion, called a bandoneón, became the backbone of tango music (the bandoneón has buttons on both ends – no keyboard on the right end, as on an accordion; the player is seated, with the instrument resting on his knees -- see photo above). Thus the tango rose from the ghettos of European immigrants, who soon enough exported it to Europe, via France, where Argentine sailors danced with the local girls of Marseille. By 1909 the tango had reached the stages of Montmartre in Paris, but in 1912 the tango took Paris by storm. Although the tango was danced by the lower classes in Argentina, upper class men in Paris began dancing the tango, and it shed its lower class stigma almost overnight. By 1913 the tango had become a massive craze all over Europe.

Then the “European” version of the tango got exported back to Argentina. A book published in Buenos Aires in the early part of the 20th century stated in its introduction that the purpose of the book was to teach people the elegant Tango as it was danced in Paris, which was nothing like the tasteless, squalid little dance done by the lower classes in the outskirts of Buenos Aires (!). From about 1917 onwards, a new respectability led to Tango lyrics written by the finest poets that Argentina and Uruguay had ever produced. As the lyrics improved in quality, great tango singers began to emerge, particularly with the advent of radio, and later sound films.

The Golden Age of tango was from the mid 1930s until the 1955 coup in Argentina that ousted General Perón. Carlos Gardel* was by far the most popular tango singer, achieving cult status. In the 1940s and the 1950s practically everyone in Buenos Aires danced the tango. There were great tango orchestras, wildly popular tango singers and famous tango dancers. The average citizen of Buenos Aires would work from 6:00 am until 2:00 pm, go home to eat and sleep, then go out for a late night of tango dancing, arriving home only in time to shower and get dressed to head back to work.

Young men started to learn the tango at age 13. They started at men-only practice dances, just watching at first, then learning to dance the women’s part. After about nine months, the boys were allowed to lead, dancing with another younger, less experienced lad. The tango was so difficult a dance to learn, and the public so critical of poor performance, that this period of apprenticeship generally took about three years to master. Thus, a 16-year-old boy attended his first “milonga” by arrangement of an older practitioner. No woman would dance with a young man she had never seen dancing. There were too many good dancers for her to be interested in risking a dance with someone with poor skills, so unless he was exceptionally good looking (nothing changes!), one of his more experienced friends would have to ask a woman, as a personal favor, to dance with the boy. If it went badly, he would have to go back to the practice dances until he could hold his own.

The men did not go to the “práctica” just to learn to dance, or there would not have been any experienced men for the beginners to dance with. The men continued to go to the práctica for a couple of hours each night, four or five nights a week, before they went to the milonga. They did their real dancing at the práctica; they went to the milonga to meet women. Generally the men in the prácticas followed better than the women at the milongas. At the prácticas they could experiment more and take risks. Dancing with women, they had to stick to what they could do perfectly, to increase the woman’s enjoyment of the dance. In the prácticas there would be men who specialized in following..., and I think you can see where I’m headed with this.

From 1955 until the fall of the military junta in 1983 after the Falklands War, tango went underground, since the military suppressed anything having to do with ousted Perón, a populist who had endorsed the tango. The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular tango renaissance in Buenos Aires, leading to the “tango nuevo” movement, in which more freedoms and variations were incorporated into the traditional music and dance, leading to much higher artistic quality. The music of classically trained composer Astor Piazzolla epitomizes this new style. Purists resisted these developments, and many of them literally spit on the grave of Piazzolla to this day (he died in 1992). As for myself, I never tire of Piazzolla, and I frequently perform his music in public.


*Gardel (above left, wearing his trademark fedora) was a real mamma’s boy (some diehards deny that he was gay, citing his [sole] attachment to a member of the opposite sex, a 14-year-old girl, for a few months when he was 31, but come on!; he exhibited no sexual or romantic attraction to women, although they literally threw themselves at his feet). Gardel grew up on the streets of a poor part of Buenos Aires. His movie-star looks and highly emotional vocal interpretations made him the Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley of his day, all wrapped up into one. A skilled baritone, he also composed hundreds of tangos, sang on the radio and appeared in movies. In addition to Latin America, he performed to adoring crowds in Europe and New York. He died in 1935 in a tragic airplane crash in Medellin, Columbia, at the age of 44. Millions of his fans throughout Latin America went into mourning. Hordes came to pay their respects as his body was taken from Colombia through New York City and on to Rio de Janeiro. Thousands rendered homage during the two days he lay in state in Montevideo, where his mother lived at the time. Gardel's well-traveled body was finally laid to rest in Buenos Aires, and he attained a cult status that exists to this day.

El dia que me quieras,” composed during the last months of his life, is considered by many to be his greatest hit. This version, performed by my favorite classical tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, will make your hair stand on end.



El dia que me quieras (music composed by Carlos Gardel, 1935)

The day when you’ll love me, the roses will dress up in festive hues,
the wind chimes will be ringing to tell the world you’re mine now...

The night when you will love me, from the blue sky above us
the jealous stars will see us as we walk hand in hand...

...etc. – you get the idea! This is schmaltz of the highest order. The passion this singer from Peru brings to this lyric is nearly overwhelming.

Tip: If you are young and unattached, do yourself a favor and find yourself a Latin lover, even if for a brief affair. Do not delay -- just go for it. You can thank me later.

Monday, March 3, 2014

John Ireland

John Ireland (1879-1962) was an English composer, organist and teacher whose music is “easy on the ears,” in contrast to most of the arresting music written after the Edwardian era; Ireland’s feet remained firmly planted in the nineteenth century (with a few seconds and sixths thrown in for spice). Even so, he was a teacher of composition at the Royal College of Music in London, where his most famous pupil was Benjamin Britten. Ireland is known chiefly for his piano miniatures and songs influenced by nature, although his organ compositions, violin sonatas and piano concerto are a major part of his musical works still performed today. It was the premiere of his second violin sonata in 1918 that brought him overnight recognition as a composer. Portrait at left, circa 1922.

Even though he held important posts as a church organist and choirmaster, Ireland was troubled by his uneasy relationship with Anglo-Catholic beliefs and traditions. In 1936 he wrote, “I am a Pagan. A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall ever remain. That is the foundation of religion.”

Ireland was a severely closeted homosexual who was crippled by pressure to live a life of social normalcy. This strategy culminated in a brief, but disastrous and unconsummated marriage that led to his public humiliation. According to Byron Adams (Gay Histories and Cultures, Volume 2), Ireland’s personal life was one of “relentless gloom.” Although Ireland enjoyed passionate homoerotic attachments to male friends and his young choirboys, social pressures against such relationships led him deeper into depression and alcoholism. Because his sexual inclinations led to alienation, he did not mix in homosexual circles, and he never found a long-term or stable sexual partner.

Ireland virtually stopped composing after World War II and spent his last years suffering from illness, blindness and profound melancholy.

His music is uncomplicated and lands comfortably on the untrained ear. Give this a try:

Piano Concerto in E-flat (1930): First movement