Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31

Jack Wrangler a.k.a. John Stillman

When the big-band era singer Margaret Whiting died at the age of 86 last January, I remember reading a few salacious details in her obituary. Whiting certainly raised eyebrows in 1994 when she married John Stillman, better known as gay porn star Jack Wrangler. At the time of their nuptials he was 47 years old and Whiting 69, yet they forged an unconventional 15-year marriage that lasted until Stillman’s death from emphysema in 2009.

Stillman (1946-2009) was a complex character, an out homosexual who starred in both straight and gay porn, inspiring a feature length documentary film, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008). His career was about more than porn, however. He was also a TV, stage and movie actor, writer, and theatrical producer and director.

Stillman’s father was a Hollywood TV and film producer, and his mother was a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals. Growing up in Beverly Hills, his acting career began at age nine on a syndicated television religious family show, The Faith of Our Children. Stillman later wrote that he knew he was gay by the age of ten.

After earning a degree in theater from Northwestern University, he found work in LA and NYC as a stage actor, model and dancer. He easily accommodated the on-stage nudity required by some of his early stage roles and eventually settled in NYC, where he also worked as a go-go dancer and bartender. When Stillman made an appearance in a 1970 male strip show, he used the name "Jack Wrangler," a pseudonym inspired by the label on his Wrangler-brand work shirt. He was approached by a gay pornographic film studio and starred in Eyes of a Stranger (1970), one of the first hard-core gay porn films released commercially in the U.S. Stillman never looked back. He appeared in 47 porn films over a sixteen year period, before retiring from the industry at age 40.

Amazingly he maintained a legitimate acting career while making porn films, appearing in stage roles from 1979 through the mid 1980s. He published his autobiography, The Jack Wrangler Story, or What's a Nice Boy Like You Doing?, in 1984. The next year Stillman wrote the book for the musical, I Love You, Jimmy Valentine, starring Margaret Whiting, whom he had met in a nightclub in 1976. Wrangler later recalled: “I was with my manager when I looked over at Margaret, who was surrounded by five guys in a booth. There she was with the hair, the furs and the big gestures. I thought, 'Boy, now that's New York! That's glamour!' I had to meet her.” Within in weeks of first meeting, they began a romance and became the very definition of The Odd Couple.

Urged by Whiting to give up his porn career and live erotic shows, Stillman eventually turned his attention to her cabaret career, plunging headlong into a dizzying number of projects. He became a board member of the Johnny Mercer Foundation and worked to promote Mercer's music, writing and producing a 1985 cabaret show for Whiting which featured Mercer's music. In 1996 Stillman co-wrote and produced Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: The Jazz Concert, inspired by the Mercer music used in the film. He helped conceive the 1997 Broadway revue Dream, which starred Whiting singing Mercer songs. He developed a ballet based on Mercer's 1946 musical, St. Louis Woman, which was performed by the Dance Theater of Harlem in 2003. Stillman also wrote and produced cabaret shows for singer Carol Woods from 1984 to 2001. He wrote, directed, or produced a number of other plays, musicals and revues, including The Valentine Touch, The First Lady and Other Stories of Our Times, and Irina Abroad! In his spare time he penned a column on health and fitness, "Wrangler's Weights and Measures", for the gay-lifestyle magazine Au Contraire.

Many years ago I remember being bored by a cabaret performance by Whiting at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington DC, in which she seemed to be just going through the motions to earn a paycheck. Now I know that all the spark in her life was at home, not on the cabaret stage.

Monday, January 30, 2012

January 30

David Geffen

I try to avoid posting snarky stuff, but I am possessed of demons this morning.

Billionaires love their flashy toys, and David Geffen (born 1943) is no exception. He has a weakness for heart-stoppingly expensive yachts. He owns Pelorus, a 377-ft. $300 million trinket with two helicopter pads. At 453 feet, the mega-yacht Rising Sun is 76 feet longer, making it the eight largest yacht in the world. It has a basketball court. I’m not making this up. Why settle for one yacht, when you really need two?

I think exactly the same way.

He also collects art, especially paintings by American artists. In 2006 he sold Jackson Pollock's 1948 painting No. 5, 1948 from his collection for $140 million. The sale made No. 5, 1948 the most expensive painting ever sold, outstripping the $134 million paid a month earlier by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I**. No. 5, 1948 was originally owned by Samuel Irving Newhouse, Jr. and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (above).

Geffen’s super hot 28-year old partner Jeremy Lingvall (born 1983), who graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2006 (!), attended the Obama’s first White House state dinner* (in honor of Indian prime minister Singh) on Geffen’s arm – well, not literally. And Lingvall didn’t have to lie about having a college degree. I should point out that Geffen is 68 years old, and if my math is correct, that makes him 40 years older than Lingvall (below, aboard one of Geffen's yachts). Hello? The silence is deafening.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In spite of Geffen’s over-the-top acquisitions of both metal and flesh varieties, we can’t lose sight of his equally over-the-top philanthropy. He is a major supporter of medical research, AIDS organizations and the arts. In 2002 he gave a staggering $200 million unrestricted endowment to the UCLA School of Medicine. In 1995 he donated $5 million to UCLA's Westwood Playhouse.

Geffen is a self-made billionaire in the music and entertainment industry – by most accounts worth just under $5 billion (that's 5,000 million dollars - think about it). Geffen dropped out of several colleges and started working in the mailroom at the William Morris Talent Agency, where he forged a document in order to prove he had a college degree, a requirement for a promotion he was offered. He went on to found record and movie production companies and sign major talent (Dreamworks SKG, Geffen Records, Asylum Records, etc.). Geffen is an openly gay man named by Out Magazine as one of the 50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America, and he is listed by Forbes as one of the top 100 billionaires. And, if we dig down really deep and admit the truth, those of us who smirk and poke fun at Mr. Geffen do so because we’re really envious.

*Also in attendance at the 2009 state dinner were Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and partner Sean Eldridge, chair of the U.S. Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg and partner Thomas Healy, as well as activist Urvashi Vaid and her partner Kate Clinton. It is noteworthy that Geffen, a generous and dedicated Democrat, was seated at the Obama table, immediately to Michelle’s left. The times, they are a changin’.

**Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is on permanent display at the Neue Galerie in NYC, on the corner of Fifth Ave. at 86th St. Don’t miss the street level restaurant to the right of the entrance, the Viennese Cafe Sabarsky; it’s my favorite spot in NYC for breakfast (opening at a civilized 9:00 a.m.).

Talking about breakfast makes us all hungry for some male tan lines, so here we go.

Friday, January 27, 2012

January 27

Torchwood: Miracle Day
Actors John Barrowman and Dillon Casey as Captain Jack and Brad, a bartender with whom Jack has a steamy one-night stand on the British sci-fi series, Torchwood: Miracle Day. The BBC edited their sex scene, but an alert reader provided a link to the uncut version:

Torchwood - The Full Uncut Gay Scene by scottish1977

Read more about John Barrowman on my other blog (click link):
Gay Influence: John Barrowman

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January 25

Pianist Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn, born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in 1934, is an American pianist who at the age of 23 won the first ever International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.

He was a child prodigy, of course, racking up an impressive list of accomplishments, including a debut with the Houston Symphony at age 13 and a Carnegie Hall debut at age 20. But it was his achievement three years later that made him a household name all over the world. The Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was a bit of staged propaganda designed to confirm Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, following on the heels of Russia’s technological coup with the Sputnik space launch in 1957. However, things did not go as planned. Cliburn's performances of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff piano concertos resulted in an 8-minute standing ovation, establishing him as the clear audience favorite. His electrifying technique, focus, brilliant octave playing, liberal applications of rubato and youthful charm made for an historic performance. The Soviet puppet judges were compelled to ask Premier Khrushchev for permission to award first prize to an American. Cliburn was handed the gold medal by none other than famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch.

After his unanimous win, the American media went nuts. “Van” Cliburn (even to this day, few know his given name is Harvey) was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time in history that such an honor was bestowed on a classical musician. He appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with the headline: "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." His subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to sell a million copies and became the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade. Cliburn made the rounds of talk shows and demonstrated his patriotism in every concert performance by leading off with “The Star Spangled Banner.” He traveled extensively, playing frequently for heads of state. Tall, with dashing good looks, huge hands and talent to spare, he became the first classical artist to receive a $10,000 fee for a concert.

However, just twenty years later, at the age of 43, when most pianists are at the peak of their careers, he withdrew from concertizing and recording. Most critics agree that he never realized his potential. Although he became the artistic advisor for the eponymous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962, thus providing an enduring legacy, his recitals lost their freshness as his overwrought style of playing fell out of fashion. His performances became inconsistent, his tone took on a strident edge, he let his repertoire stagnate and his interpretations became trivialized by affectations. He also became a difficult prima donna, often showing up late or cancelling at the last minute. Worse, he became adversely affected by stage fright and was intimidated by his audience’s high expectations.

For decades thereafter he mostly stayed at home in Fort Worth with his mother until her death at age 97, playing and composing on the 15 pianos throughout the mansion. He labored over a piano sonata he never performed, and he made increasingly rare returns to the concert hall. He became obsessed with collecting antique silver. But things got even weirder. In 1996 Thomas Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Cliburn, claiming that because of "an oral and/or implied partnership agreement," he was entitled to a share in Cliburn's assets. Zaremba said that he had assisted in the management of Cliburn's career and finances and performed domestic duties, including helping Cliburn care for his aged mother. Zaremba further alleged a dangerous sexual element to their relationship, claiming that Cliburn may have exposed him to AIDS during their 17-year affair, which ended in 1994 when Zaremba moved to Michigan to work as a mortician. I’m not making this up.

Cliburn had little comment on the charges, remaining closed mouthed during interviews. Although cultural insiders had long been aware of his homosexuality, the press had never linked him romantically to any man, even though he and Zaremba appeared together at public functions in Fort Worth. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed because of lack of a written agreement, which Texas law required.

Nevertheless, Cliburn went on to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and in 2004 was given the Russian Order of Friendship, the highest civilian awards of the two countries.

Now in his late 70s, he participates in a limited number of concerts. Cliburn still resides in Fort Worth, is a staunch Baptist and regular church goer who does not drink or smoke. For much of the American public, their image of Cliburn is frozen in time, conjuring up an exuberant youth stunning the world with his 1958 victory in Moscow.

On a personal note, I think Cliburn’s recording of the Samuel Barber piano sonata is an unsung landmark performance, especially given the fact that Cliburn was not celebrated for this sort of repertoire. As an aside, it should not be lost on us that both Tchaikovsky and Barber were gay men. Also, silver medallist Yeol eum Son (South Korea) from the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has become a favorite; her engaging performances are much to my taste.

Fortunately the historic medal-winning live performance of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto #1 from 1958 (Moscow) is available in its entirety on YouTube: