Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

Warren Allen Smith

Gossip from Across the Pond

by Warren Allen Smith

George Gershwin was gay. That’s what Irving Caesar told Lyle Stuart long ago. You read it here first. According to Stuart, it’s one of Hollywood’s and New York’s best-kept secrets.

While Gershwin was alive, no-one publicly discussed the subject. Outing is a recent development. For example, even when Charles Laughton married Elsa Lanchester in 1929, no-one talked about its being a contractual marriage. When Gershwin (1898-1937) died of a tumor, the subject of his love life did not come up in print, although, in private, individuals such as Caesar (who died at the age of 101 in 1996) talked about it with Stuart. The two had Manhattan offices in Tin Pan Alley’s Brill Building at 1619 Broadway.

Stuart worked for Variety (1945-6), edited Music Business (1946-8), founded Exposé (1951), and since 1990 has been president of Barricade Books. Caesar is the lyricist who put words to “Tea for Two”, “Swanee” and “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”.

Stuart, who has just published my Celebrities in Hell (Barricade Books, 288 pages, paperback, $14.95), asked after the book came out why I hadn’t included Gershwin. I told him that I could document brother Ira’s atheism, for Ira Gershwin had told Michael Feinstein after George’s death at such a young age that he would gladly have died in George’s place if he could have. And, added Feinstein, “for the rest of his life [Ira] never believed in God”. Meanwhile, one can only speculate about George’s views concerning monotheism.

“You knew George was gay?” Stuart casually asked. I was nonplussed. One of my all-time favorite composers was gay, the person who wrote “The Man I Love” and Rhapsody in Blue?

What Caesar had told Stuart is that showbiz cognoscenti knew about Gershwin’s homosexuality, but the subject was not written about, in order to protect important people’s reputations. George was only one of many whose sexual orientation was not mentioned and, in fact, still remains secret.

However, according to Caesar, George’s “beard” was Esther Sillabee, at one time a publicist for the bandleader Vincent Lopez and also for the Plaza Hotel. It is difficult to find anything in print about her, but she has been credited with having discovered Gregory Peck. Esther dated George, Caesar told Stuart, in order that he could be seen with a female companion. But once, when he was half an hour late to an appointment at the Brill Building, in anger she blurted out something like “you dirty Jew-bastard”, whereupon George ended it. Cut his beard, a wag could say.

Skeptics about all this, of course, will retort by singing George’s own “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. A pity that Oscar Levant died in 1972 without revealing what he knew, which could have confirmed all this – and could even have been self-incriminating.

“And what do you do?” Sir Ian McKellen asked. “I’m an author,” I replied.

We were at the annual ceremonial of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 250-member honorary group of notable American artists, writers and composers, which also includes 74 foreign members (e.g., Margaret Drabble, Thom Gunn, David Hockney). Presumably, Sir Ian thought I might be a member or a recipient of one of the Academy’s awards. The ceremonial, which I attend as a journalist, is not open to the general public. When I explained that I have written two books about people who have not been attracted to organized religion, he said with a smile, “Is anyone any more?”

When I mentioned writing for the present journal, Sir Ian expressed deep interest, asked how to subscribe and exchanged e-mail addresses. Not wanting to monopolize him, I started to leave but he eyed my 36-year-old black companion, Peter Ross, and brought him into the conversation, too. How much longer can the Catholic Church continue? Sir Ian wondered aloud, commenting upon all the reports about priests sexually abusing children. He then turned to the subject of computers, and my companion and I talked about OS X, gigabytes and digital imaging. It was only when I returned home that I realized I’d listed this incredibly handsome man in my Who’s Who in Hell (Barricade Books) as well as in my just-published Celebrities in Hell (Barricade Books), documenting that he is an atheist who considers Hell simply a theological invention.

Tortola is anything but a Caribbean paradise, according to Purnell Christian, a young man living with HIV/AIDS. To Dr Richard Stern, director of the Central American Agua Buena Human Rights Association (, Christian said that when he was found to have AIDS he was fired from a civil service job he had held for eight years. Then he was asked to return accrued pension funds. According to UN AIDS statistics, more than 400,000 people are HIV+ in the Caribbean region. Purnell, who is a graduate of Cornell University, cannot find a job and cannot afford the anti-retroviral medications. “You lose all your dignity when you are not allowed to work,” Purnell told Dr Stern. Attempts to reach a spokesperson for the territory, of which Queen Elizabeth II has been the official head of state since 1952, have been unsuccessful.

“Locals tell you that birds fly over the city using only one wing, the other covering their posterior,” Tim Reid of the London Times has written, according to the New York Post. In Afghanistan, Kandahar’s Pashtuns for centuries are said to have practiced homosexuality, and now that America’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell Army has taken over they see heavily bearded men walking the streets with clean-shaven fresh-faced (and usually poverty-stricken) boys. Craig S Smith in The New York Times confirmed that the puritanical Taliban tried hard but were unsuccessful in fighting paedophilia. The present government has issued a directive barring “beardless boys” – a euphemism for underage sex partners – from police stations, military bases and commanders’ compounds. Chocolate is a major lure, the reporter found. A Manhattan wag wonders where the reporter got the chocolate.

Ex-President Richard Nixon’s private views about Jews were shockingly anti-Semitic, but his views on gays are also raising eyebrows. Recently released tapes reveal his having said, “You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Now that’s what happened to Britain.” As for Californians, he told aides, “I won’t shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.”

American politicians are not known for their profundity. Anne Robinson, the acerbic British quiz-show gal, has been quoted as observing that at a benefit concert she saw President George W Bush wave to Stevie Wonder, so we can only guess what views about gays are held by the person who majored in history at Yale and earned Cs. In 1982 the AIDS activist and non-theist Larry Kramer called New York’s ex-Mayor Ed Koch “a closeted gay man”, according to Boze Hadleigh’s titillating and must-read In Or Out, Stars on Sexuality (London: Fusion Press, 2001).

So are we to blame for what goes on in our governing circles? Yes, as illustrated in 1899 by Charles C Moore’s being the last known American to have been imprisoned for blasphemy – imprisoned for having sent atheistic materials through the mails, he received a hero’s welcome when he returned home. It became a time when the American public no longer would put up with the irrational idea of “treason against God”. As the American journalist James Reston astutely has observed, “All politics are based on the indifference of the majority.”

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Created : Sunday, 2002-07-21 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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