TODAY IN HISTORY:
45 YEARS AGO: 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 portions from the documentary have 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, Connor 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 choices for his column. The most damning phrase, according to news accounts of the day, was his use of “fruit-flavored.” Apparently 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 continued to deny for many years the numerous 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.”
The question of whether a white man could truly know the Black experience lies at the very heart of the controversy surrounding Van Vechten’s life. Some of Van Vechten’s affinity for African-Americans can be traced to his wealthy family while growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father endowed a school for African-Americna children, and he instructed his sons to always address the family’s employees with “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, regardless of their race. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he moved to New York to become the music and dance critic for The New York Times. In 1913, he took a year-long trip to Europe where he met Gertrude Stein and helped to get her work published.
In the 1920s, he began publishing novels himself, many of which containing sly and witty references to homosexuality. His 1923 novel, The Blind Bow-Boy includes a character he called “the Duke of Middlebottom,” whose stationery sported the slogan, “A thing of beauty is a boy forever.” It was about this time that Van Vechten emerged as a notable advocate for Black culture, writing articles in Vanity Fair celebrating the music of the Harleem Renaissance — the blues, jazz and spirituals which he said were the only authentic American musical forms. He also promoted writers of “the New Negro movement”: Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, among others. In the 1930, Van Vechten took up photography and became known for his portraits of some of the leading artists of the day, including Langston Hughes, Marian 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, nestled against newspaper cutouts of male wrestlers locked in combat.
Emily Bernard’s 2012 biography, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, explores the contentious racial and sexual intersections between the multiple worlds that Van Vechten inhabited and chronicled.
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