Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 31

Modeste Mussorgsky, Russian Composer

Mussorgsky was a homosexual composer born in Russia. His father was a wealthy man, and his mother was an English woman who had relocated to Russia. His land-owning family, the noble Mussorgskys, was descended from the sovereign princes of Smolensk.

At six, Mussorgsky began taking piano lessons from his mother, herself a trained pianist. His progress was sufficiently rapid that three years later he was able to perform a John Field concerto and difficult solo piano works by Franz Liszt. At 10 years old, he and his brother were taken to Saint Petersburg to study at the elite St. Peter's School. At the age of 12 (1852) Mussorgsky wrote his first piano piece to be published (at his father's expense). As a mature composer Mussorgsky became one of "The Mighty Five" group of Russian nationalist composers, the others being Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, and Mily Balakirev.

His monumental opera Boris Gudnov (1869) was produced in St. Petersburg, and his popular Night on Bald Mountain was first performed in 1867 (known to millions from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia*).

During his life Mussorgsky formed many homosexual attachments, unfortunately some of them to heterosexual men. One of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874 – written for solo piano, later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) was based on an exhibit of watercolors by the handsome, young, and straight architect and painter Viktor Hartmann*, with whom Mussorgsky was hopelessly and painfully smitten. Hartmann was a Jew of Polish/Ukranian descent, so this serious infatuation is astonishing, given that the influential Mussorgsky family was both blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Polish.

Tragically, Mussorgsky was a helpless alcoholic (with a permanently red nose to prove it), addicted to spirits from his army days. At the age of 17 Mussorgsky had received a commission from the regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, where he served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg with fellow Russian composer Alexander Borodin. The two were soon on good terms.  Borodin later wrote of Mussorgsky:

“His uniform was spic and span, close-fitting, his feet turned outwards, his hair smoothed down and greased, his nails perfectly cut, his hands well groomed like a Lord's. His manners were elegant, aristocratic – his speech likewise, interspersed with French phrases, rather precious. There was a touch of foppishness, but his politeness and good manners were exceptional. The ladies made a fuss over him. He sat at the piano and, throwing up his hands coquettishly, played with extreme sweetness and grace, eliciting responses such as ‘charmant, délicieux!’ and the like.”

In 1858 Mussorgsky resigned his military commission to devote himself full time to composition. However, the 1861 emancipation of the serfs on private Russian estates caused his family to be deprived of half its land and income; in two year’s time the estate had been liquidated. His mother died soon thereafter, prompting Mussorgsky to lapse into an extended bout of alcoholism at the age of 26. His frustrated, repressed homosexuality further tethered him to the bottle.

At the age of 29 Mussorgsky started to write an opera based on the story of Boris Godunov, using text from Pushkin's play. He completed the large-scale score the following year while living with friends and working as a civil servant for the Forestry Department (such was the extent of his family’s waning fortunes).

In the end, however, he was a man caught in a painful spiral of self-destruction, often afflicted with delirium. For years Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg tavern of low repute. His frequent absences and “illnesses” led to his dismissal from his civil servant job, and one week after his 42nd birthday he died, essentially from drinking himself to death.

Phil Disley, acknowledged as one of Britain’s foremost illustrators, draws an all-too-accurate rendering of Mussorgsky.

*Viktor Hartmann, the artist who was the object of Mussorgsky's obsession, was straight (photo below). He was the inspiration for PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION.

*Night on Bald Mountain (from Disney's FANTASIA (1940)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 28

Edward Tanner, bisexual best-selling author

Edward Everett Tanner III was born in 1921 in Illinois into a prominent family of staunch Republicans. He was a popular high school student who excelled in writing and theater. In 1942, at the age of 21 he joined the American Field Service, working as an ambulance driver in North Africa and the Middle East. After WW II he married Louise Stickney, with whom he had two children, even though he had struggled with homosexual leanings his entire adult life.

Under an assumed name at the age of 36 he wrote a best-selling novel, which remained on the NYT Bestseller list for more than two years, selling more than 2 million copies in the first edition. A year later he became the first writer to have three books on the NYT Bestseller list at the same time. His books were mostly biting social satires which almost singlehandedly introduced "camp" into mainstream American culture. He also wrote several books under a female pseudonym, Virginia Rowans.

Tanner made millions from his 16 books and became the toast of New York society. His novels were made into wildly popular films, plays, television series and musicals, but by the 1970s his writing style had fallen out of fashion. A week after he was profiled in Life magazine, he attempted suicide and was committed to a mental hospital for eight months. After years of leading a double life as a gay man, he had fallen in love with another man and decided he had to leave his family. He had always been a profligate spender, and by the time he left his wealthy wife, he was broke and had to go to work as a butler, a job he actually enjoyed. Giving full vent to his homosexual orientation, he became a fixture in the Greenwich Village scene in New York.

His employers at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Croc (founder of McDonalds), had no idea that their butler, Edward Tanner, was in fact the writer Patrick Dennis, author of Auntie Mame, which in stage and musical forms would provide Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury with major theatrical roles.

Mr. Dennis died from pancreatic cancer in 1976, at the tender age of 55, his days as a dilettante long behind him. In the year 2000 his ashes were interred with the body of his wife Louise in St. James’s Cemetery in Stony Brook, Long Island.

Note: I can especially recommend an obscure book by Mr. Dennis: Tony (1966). The narrator, whose name is never disclosed, meets Tony, a name-dropping scoundrel, when they become college roommates. Tony is a complete fraud and a pathological liar, yet the narrator chronicles their decades long love-hate friendship in hilarious style. Tony morphs into whatever form will get him ahead. An inveterate social climber, even Tony’s sexuality is “fluid” when a wealthy homosexual man falls in love with him (the man’s mother writes a very large check to have Tony fly to coop). Many aspects of Tony’s character are autobiographical, and the reader can easily lose track of the number of times Tony reinvents himself (the author had three real life identities as Edward Tanner, Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, not to mention the bisexuality). This is perfect “beach” reading, and used copies are readily available from Amazon and Alibris.

A 2002 biography, Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis, written by Eric Myers, is available in a Kindle edition, and used copies of the print editions are available from Amazon and Alibris.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25

Gerald Murphy: Gay Jazz-Age Dilettante

Gerald and Sara Murphy were handsome and beautiful American expats. Charming, wealthy, and well-connected, they showed the world how to have a royal good time. Amanda Vaill's "Everybody Was So Young: A Lost Generation Love Story" (1998) provides all the details and ambiance.

Gerald, born into the wealthy family that owned Mark Cross luxury leather goods, and Sara Wiborg, his older wife from a "better" family of printing magnates, knew everyone: Cole Porter*, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who characterized them in "Tender Is the Night"), Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Dorothy Parker*, John O’Hara and Robert Benchley.

In 1921, primarily to escape their families’ dissatisfaction with their marriage, they moved to Paris, where Gerald took up painting. He started by painting sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, then went on to study painting formally. His paintings created a sensation at the 1924 Salon des Indépendants, in Paris. Gerald’s hard-edged still lifes were in a cubist, precisionist style, prefiguring the Pop Art style that produced imagery of mundane objects culled from American commercial products. Today Gerald’s works hang in prestigious museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney museums (NYC), and a major retrospective was mounted in 2007.

Gerald Murphy’s painting Boatdeck, installed at the Salon des Indépendants, Grand Palais, Paris, 1924. Unfortunately, the painting, which depicts giant smokestacks of an ocean liner, has since been lost.

Gerald Murphy was a repressed homosexual, which he called his "defect" in a 1931 letter to Archibald MacLeish, saying that his post-adolescent life had been a protracted “process of concealment of the personal realities” of his sexual orientation. Sara had known Gerald for eleven years before they married, and she seemed to take in stride his confessed attraction to men. Archibald MacLeish based the main characters in his play J.B. on Gerald and Sara Murphy. Hemingway characterized them in Garden of Eden.

In 1923, to celebrate the première of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces,” Gerald and Sara threw an all-night party on a barge on the Seine in Paris. The same year, Gerald and Cole Porter collaborated on a riotously successful jazz ballet, “Within the Quota,” a burlesque on American culture.

The Murphys convinced the Hotel du Cap (Antibes) to stay open for the summer of 1923 so that they might entertain their friends, helping to establish the Riviera as a fashionable summer haven. Prior to this time the wealthy flocked there only for the winter season. They also introduced sunbathing on the beach as a fashionable activity. Sara stunned her guests by wearing her pearls to the beach, and Gerald wore his trademark horizontally striped shirt, shorts and sandals.

The Murphys purchased a villa in Cap d'Antibes, midway between Nice and Cannes, and named it Villa America*, where they resided for many years. They impressed Picasso, who painted Sara in several of his 1923 works, and inspired Coco Chanel. More importantly, they introduced American style and taste to their European circle – breezy, informal, jazzy and insouciant. They made art out of their lives. Ultimately, they became myth.

Tragedy struck, in the form of the early deaths of their two young sons (a daughter survived to old age). After the Depression hit, Gerald returned home to take over the family business, Mark Cross leather goods, serving as president of the company from 1934-1956, bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy. He gave up painting completely, lived in Snedens Landing (on the Hudson north of NYC) and East Hampton, NY, and worked for decades in midtown Manhattan, living out a life of romantic disappointment. Gerald died in 1964 in East Hampton, and Sara died in 1975 in Arlington, Virginia.

A nude Gerald Murphy in 1925, standing against the sail of the Picaflor, photographed by Man Ray. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Wasp and Pear, 1929. Museum of Modern Art (NYC).

*Cole Porter had been Gerald’s classmate at Yale.

*Dorothy Parker was refused entrance to the Casino in Monte Carlo because she was not wearing stockings. “I went to retrieve my stockings and then came back to lose my shirt.”

*Villa America has since been torn down and replaced by another villa. The address is 112, Chemin des Mougins.