The Daily Agenda for Sunday, June 17
June 17th, 2012
Today is Father’s Day. This picture is one of the very few that I have of Dad and me. Like many fathers of that generation, he was always the one behind the camera, not in front of it. And so while I have many wonderful memories of Dad (he died when I was in college), we actually have very few pictures of him. We have whole albums of vacation pictures where one would think he was never with us. But of course it’s impossible to think of those vacations without him. Here’s wishing a Happy Father’s Day to all of the Dads out there.
Pride Celebrations Today: Baltimore, MD; Bisbee, AZ; Bozeman, MT; Denver, CO; Edmunton, AB; Las Cruces, NM; Memphis, TN (Black Pride); Nashville, TN; Outer Banks, NC; Oxford, UK; Portland, OR; Providence, RI; Shanghai, China; Thunder Bay, ON; Vienna, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Premiere of Documentary of Drag Queen Competition: 1968. The documentary The Queen makes its premiere in a theater in New York City. The film, shot almost entirely with hand-held cameras, is a primitive pre-Stonewall prequel to Paris is Burning, and follows the behind-the-scenes preparations for the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant – a national drag queen competition in New York City. The conversations recorded in the dressing rooms about draft boards, sexual and gender identity, sex reassignment surgery, and being a drag queen captures a very specific time in LGBT history. If you are ever lucky enough to see it, keep a very sharp eye out whenever the camera pans to the audience. You might just get a quick glimpse of Andy Warhol in his trademark platinum wig. The VHS release has long been out of print, but a nine-minute clip from the documentary has been posted on YouTube.
Liberace Wins Libel Case: 1959. Liberace — his real name was Wladziu Valentino Liberace, but like Cher and Madonna he was known by a single name on stage — had become a piano-playing sensation in the U.S. in the 1950s. He started as a classical pianist, but he quickly added schmaltz and elements of Las-Vegas showmanship (extravagant costumes, massive diamond rings, and his signature candelabra) to his repertoire of classics, show tunes, film scores and popular songs, all of which took his performances in a decidedly unclassical direction. His curly black hair, long eyelashes and bright smile made him a sex symbol for an odd collection of somewhat nerdy teenage girls, their middle-aged mothers and even their grandmothers — and for not a few gay men who understood what they were seeing. His flamboyance attracted questions about his sexuality, but those questions didn’t do much to dent the popularity of his his hit television series and packed concert halls.
But in 1956, a Daily Mirror columnist who went by the pen name Cassandra (real name: William Connor) wrote a scathing article the day after Liberace’s arrival in London for a live BBC broadcast and a European tour. If everyone else was willing to go along with Liberace’s persona of being sweet, sensitive, sensational and straight, Connonr had no intention of playing along:
He is the summit of sex – the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want. I spoke to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity coming from America for the past 30 years. They say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921.
Liberace replied with at telegram: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” But he also decided to sue for libel. The case finally reached a London courtroom in 1959. On June 6, Liberace took the stand and denied that he was gay. He also denied that he was even a sex symbol. “I consider sex appeal as something possessed by Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. I certainly do not put myself in their class,” he said, prompting laughter in the court room. When Connor took the stand, he denied trying to imply that Liberace was gay, although he found it difficult to square that claim with his word choice in the column. The most damming phrase, according to news accounts of the day, was his use of “fruit-flavored.” That was not the phrase to be tossed around at just anyone.
With no proof of actual homosexual activity on Liberace’s part — there were no former lovers to testify, no police arrests to report — the Jury returned a verdict of guilty against Connor and the Daily Mirror, and awarded damages of $22,400. But today of course we know what was true all along: that he was actually gay even though he never came out of the closet during his lifetime. His estate and many of his remaining fans continue to deny reports that when he died in 1987, it was AIDS that killed him.
Carl Van Vechten: 1880. A writer and a photographer, Carl Van Vechten was fascinated with African-American culture and became a patron on the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, he published his controversial 1926 novel Nigger Heaven, which portrayed the intellectuals, political activists, workers, and others who inhabited the “great black walled city” of Harlem. The book by a white author split Harlem down the middle: Langston Hughes was among the book’s fans and defenders (Hughes even wrote new poems to replace the songs used in the book’s first printing), while W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke condemned it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks.”
In the 1930, he took up photography and became known for his portraits of some of the leading artists of the day, including Langston Hughes, Maroan Anderson, Pearl Baily, Josephine Baker, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson — the list is nearly endless.
Although Van Vechten had married the Russian-born actress Fania Marinoff in 1914, Van Vechten was gay. This was evident when his papers were unsealed twenty-five years after his death in 1964:
As the 25-year mark drew near, scholars assumed they were about to unveil Van Vechten’s diaries. “They said, ‘Of course, this is going to be exciting, and let’s open those journals and have a party,’ and the curator said, ‘Well, I don’t think so…’ It was a good instinct.” The few people who did attend the 1989 opening, including Willis, were shocked by what they found: 18 scrapbooks of graphic homoeroticism, full of mischief and devoid of explanation.
…Van Vechten collected newspaper clippings chronicling Harlem drag balls, early sex-change operations (“GI Who Turned Woman is a Happy Beauty”), court cases for “morals charges,” and abuse incidents. He assembled more restrained, if still theatrical, black and white photographs of male nudes, both Caucasian and African American, which most scholars think are mostly or entirely the work of Van Vechten. Nothing escaped him: Photos of ambiguously homoerotic Greek vases, labeled in childishly rounded handwriting, nestle against newspaper cutouts of male wrestlers locked in combat.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?