Our Love is Here To Stay V
Musical Closets: Gay Songwriters - (Cont'd)
by John Kenrick
Noel Coward (Continued)
Noel Coward used gay characters and references in many of his works, including several musicals. Bittersweet (1929) featured a quartet of overdressed 1890 s London fops who sang:
Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation . . .
And as we are the reason
For the "Nineties" being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.
(Note: Sources suggest that only those "in the life" used the word "gay" as a synonym for homosexual. It would be decades before the general public used it to mean anything other than happy.)
In 1955, Coward appeared with Mary Martin in Together with Music, a two person TV special on CBS-TV. He treated Joe McCarthy s America to a gay version of "Loch Lomond" ("For there with my honey, my bonny hi'land laddie . . . he's my new love, my true love, my little sugar daddy"). When Mary commented on the air (as per the script) on Noel's 'decadent' childhood, he cracked her up by ad-libbing, "Nonsense, I didn't become 'decadent' until years later!"
One of the most eloquent tributes to Coward was written by fellow composer Richard Rodgers --
Perhaps his outstanding quality was style. He wrote with style, sang with style, painted with style, and even smoked a cigarette with a style that belonged exclusively to him. Despite his ability to do so many things so superbly, he always had to endure the put-down that anyone so versatile could not possibly be a first-rate talent. What nonsense! Versatility on so high a level needs no excuse. Even one of his lesser known operettas, Conversation Piece, contains more charm, skill and originality than fifty plays put together by men specializing in particular fields.
- Musical Stages (Random House, New York. 1975), p. 77.
Cole Porter and Coward became friends, maintaining a mutual admiration society to the end of their lives. Coward even wrote and performed a loving parody of Porter's classic "Let's Do It." When pressed by friends to "come out" in the aftermath of Stonewall, Coward refused, saying, "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know." An Edwardian at heart, Coward expressed his attitude about homophobia and personal discretion privately in his diary
Any sexual activities when over-advertised are tasteless, and for as long as these barbarous laws exist it should be remembered that homosexuality is a penal offense and should be considered as such socially, although not morally. This places on the natural homo a burden of responsibility to himself, his friends and society which he is too prone to forget.
- Graham Payne and Sheridan Morley, eds. The Noel Coward Diaries (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1982), p. 291.
By the time of Coward's death in 1973, plays and songs had found renewed popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. To the end, he maintained his inimitable sense of style, and his privacy. Only close friends knew that longtime companion Graham Payne was his principal mourner an oversight the Queen Mother (a friend of Coward's) countered years later when she insisted Payne stand by her as a memorial to Noel was unveiled in Westminster Abbey.
For more on Coward's life and career, see our Coward101 feature, which includes a detailed bio, career statistics, bibliography and links.
Coming from an upper middle-class Jewish American background, lyricist Lorenz Hart known to friends and colleagues as "Larry") was tortured by his diminutive stature and a homosexual orientation he could neither deny nor accept. His brilliant collaboration with heterosexual composer Richard Rodgers brought Hart to the top of his profession. Once there, Hart was too guilt ridden and too frightened to handle the combination of private daring and public tact mastered by Coward and Porter. Hart opted for a self-destructive path, and the more he tried to suppress his desires, the more they consumed him.
Too insecure to pursue social equals, Hart limited his sexual attentions to chorus boys and male prostitutes many procured for him by Milton "Doc" Bender, a stage-struck dentist who had been his friend since their college days. Apparently, the opportunistic Bender set aside whatever career he himself had to serve as Hart's hanger-on and procurer. Hart's friends and biographers often suggest that the disreputable Bender was responsible for leading Hart to ruin, but that doesn't make sense. As an intelligent adult who had money, connections and tremendous professional influence, Hart could live life as he chose to. If he slept with men throughout his adult life, common sense suggests that he did so because he was gay, not because a nefarious companion talked him into it. So future historians interested in reality would do well to stop using Bender as an excuse for Hart's homosexual activities. Sexuality does not require an external motivator, and to suggest otherwise is to buy into bigotry masquerading as painfully outdated pop-psychology.
Some of Hart's contemporaries have also suggested that he turned to homosexuality because women rejected him -- which is patent nonsense! Throughout history ambitious women have been all too willing to succumb to homely men who happen to have money and power, and few of those men had Hart's generous spirit or brilliant sense of humor. Plenty of Broadway and Hollywood chorines would have leapt into Hart's bed in hopes of getting a break, and as far as we can tell none of them ever got the chance. Hart peopled his bed with men. Beyond this, it is idiotic to infer Hart somehow chose to be gay. Sexuality is not a matter of choice -- unless of course the people who suggest it is can testify from their own experience that the opposite is true. Who would possibly have chosen to be a homosexual in the repressive atmosphere of the early 20th Century?
Evidence suggests that Hart found little enjoyment in his homosexual liasons. Terrified of intimacy, he would wait for sex partners to fall asleep, then creep out of bed and curl up on the floor of his bedroom closet to get some sleep. In Rodgers & Hart: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. G.P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1976), several of Hart's acquaintances confirm that he went to private all-male orgies, but strictly as a voyeur. He found watching from the sidelines less stressful than participating.
Hart s lyrics avoided references to homosexuality. Instead, they abound with expressions of frustrated romance ("Take Him"), isolated courtship ("Quiet Night") and unconventional affection ("My Funny Valentine"). No one expressed the painful side of love like Hart did for obvious reasons. Beginning in his teens, Hart tried to drown his inner demons in alcohol. By the late 1930s, he was disappearing on drinking binges for days at a time. Composing with him became impossible. When an exasperated Rodgers threatened to begin collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein II, Hart endorsed the idea before heading off to Mexico on yet another spree. (Rodgers had his own serious drinking problems, but they did not effect his work habits until his later years.)
On hand for the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, Hart was sober and stunned by its unprecedented triumph. He agreed to help Rodgers prepare a revival of A Connecticut Yankee (1943 - 135), giving longtime friend Vivienne Segal the new comic showstopper "To Keep My Love Alive." But by the time the show was in rehearsal, Hart was drinking heavily. He showed up falling-down drunk for the Broadway opening. There are several published versions of what happened next, but at some point Hart started singing along from the rear of the theatre until he was dragged out by bodyguards. After spending the night on his brother's sofa, he disappeared. Days later, he was found sitting on a street curb drunk, coatless, and soaked to the skin by an icy November downpour. Pneumonia led to his death a few days later. According to a nurse, Hart's last words were, "What have I lived for?" Would it have comforted him to know people would still be singing and celebrating his songs for generations to come?
(For more on this tormented artist, read Frederick Nolan's Lorenz Hart: A Poet On Broadway (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1996) a readable bio that wimps out by playing the tired "blame Doc Bender" game.)
Feeling Superior? Think Again!
Before the 1980s, there was no such thing as "coming out." Public revelation of one's homosexuality meant professional and social extinction. Despite the danger, Porter and Coward (and countless others) enjoyed active public careers while leading satisfying gay private lives. Even Hart did not let unhappiness prevent him from achieving international success. Some contemporaries in show business viewed these three songwriters and their gay friends as the most exclusive inner-circles in show business, but no one envied their tightrope existence.
The sad fact is that many still walk the same tightrope. In the early 1980s, I was visiting my then-boyfriend and his family in San Antonio. On a Saturday evening, we went to a multiplex gay bar near the Alamo where he introduced me to a number of his friends, many of whom were with their lovers. The next morning, we joined my boyfriend's family for church services where I was introduced to many of the same men, now playing it ever so straight with their wives and children. Later, my boyfriend explained, "This is not New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. This is America, and we have different rules. If you want the right job and the nice things that go with it, you'd better have a wife and kids to show to the boss. These things are not optional. So long as you provide a good living and keep your secrets, many women are willing to look the other way. It is a fact of life here."
I would love to tell you that things have changed since then, but they haven't -- at least not everywhere. How many terrified homosexual men and women -- in show business or damn near any business -- still wrap themselves in public respectability while acting out desires in secret? Backrooms and porno shop booths might have disappeared years ago without married men and priests keeping them in business. Yes, some things have changed, but considering what happened in America in the years following World War II, one would have hoped for more.