Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy

Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy

by Michael S. Sherry


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ISBN-13: 9781469628417
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 08/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael S. Sherry is professor of history at Northwestern University and author of three books, including the Bancroft Prize-winning The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon.

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Gay Artists in Modern American Culture

an imagined conspiracy
By Michael S. Sherry


Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3121-2

Chapter One


In a flurry of comment after World War II, intellectuals, journalists, psychiatrists, and others announced their discovery of a queer presence in American culture and their dismay at what they discovered. In doing so, they helped to initiate the Lavender Scare in the arts and to make queer artists one face of the "Cold War homosexual menace." William Barrett's 1950 statement of discovery was typical in its shrill, breathless quality (a quality often assigned to gay men). Reflecting in Partisan Review on his travels in Europe, Barrett, a leading philosopher, tugged at the sleeves of his presumptively heterosexual readers for sympathy-"by now many travelers must know the embarrassment of the isolated heterosexual in the midst of homosexual chatter"-and explained how "Italy was like a bracing air, reviving one's faith in the beautiful possibility of heterosexuality." His kind was under siege: "Apparently, the fraternity of the gay is a network as carefully organized as the American Express, and, like the latter, now takes in the whole of Europe as its territory."

Just as America's cultural Cold War against the Soviet Union was gearing up-Partisan Review would soon receive covert funding for its role-Barrett worried that "the Americanization of the globe, it seems, is proceeding even on this front," that of homosexuality. (Visiting Venice at this time, playwright Arthur Laurents saw homosexuality, but not as an American import: "The cruising was everywhere: it seemed indigenous to the city.") Barrett linked this latest of the "great waves of homosexuality" to an American "culture where woman has been accorded unprecedented status of equality," portending a "transition to a matriarchy" and "a society of neuters." He announced "a new chapter in the history of that traditionally corrupt image that Europe has always represented for the American." According to Barrett, "The American mother who fears that her son, drifting about Europe on the G.I. Bill, may be seduced by some European hussy, is no longer up-to-date. Mother, that boy of yours ... has his eye peeled, not for the poor drab who winks vainly at him from the quay, but for the pretty young sailor boy of his dreams." Barrett upended that "image" in two ways: Europeans were now "seduced" by corrupt Americans, and the field of corruption was now queer. Barrett was a principal figure at Partisan Review, one of whose founders, William Phillips, was hailed on his death as an "editor who never let ideology triumph over common sense." But ideology did spill out on its pages. As their leftist credentials indicated, alarm about homosexuals' role in American culture was sounding across the political spectrum.

Barrett sounded the main themes of that alarm. Alarmists emphasized the numbers, cohesiveness, and power of homosexuals-that "fraternity" organized like "American Express"-and their capacity to corrupt American culture and American influence abroad. Like Barrett, most focused on male homosexuality but often linked its spread to changes in women's place in American society, and they saw themselves as discovering something new in this latest "great" wave of homosexuality. And Barrett hinted at one tension shaping their alarm: the role of gay men in the cultural work of America was growing just when that work seemed to involve America's survival in a global struggle against totalitarian foes. Those boys "drifting about Europe on the G.I. Bill" were, after all, products and agents of American power. In that tension lies one answer to a question addressed by this chapter. Why did discovery of gay people's role in American culture occur in the 1940s and 1950s? Two developments, surging ambitions for American culture and swelling contributions to it by homosexuals, were on a collision course. Many observers saw danger in those contributions.

Before the "Homintern"

Postwar observers' claims to have discovered something new was more a pose designed to shock than a statement of fact, for gay people and themes in culture had long drawn comment. That comment, however, was limited as it emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. It focused on a few fields rather than the broad run of the arts, on scandalous moments more than continuing patterns, on women as much as men, and on representations of deviant sexuality as much as queer authorship. In theater, it was sharp, explicit, episodic. In fields like music, it was murky and indirect, entwined with wrangling over what constituted legitimate American art. It set the stage for postwar agitation but did not lead directly to it.

Associations of the "sodomite" or other deviant figures with the arts and entertainment were centuries old in Western life. One figure singled out by a New York City paper in 1842 "was said," Jonathan Katz reports, "to perform nightly in one of the city's 'Concert Rooms'-an early American reference to the sodomite as entertainer." Poet Walt Whitman faced puzzlement and hostility for his celebration of same-sex "adhesiveness." As John Bayley argues, "Art, aestheticism, and homosexuality made a rich trio in the nineteenth century" in Europe, as in the United States.

By the early twentieth century, gossip, newspapers, and court cases frequently linked the arts and entertainment with sodomites or homosexuals, as they were coming to be called. Especially sensational was what Americans learned about Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde, who had toured in the United States and then was convicted in England in 1895 on sodomy charges after suing for libel the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. That case, and Wilde's very name and writing, circulated widely thereafter in the Anglo-American world as emblems of homosexuality, degenerate artistry, and-for many gay men-victimhood. A related case, also well chronicled in the American press, involved the American Maud Allen, who made a sensation in England dancing her version of Salome, derived from Wilde's 1893 work. Her performances became associated with "sodomites" who flocked to them and women who took an unseemly interest in her work, joining a "Cult of the Clitoris." Salome was also touchy stuff in Richard Strauss's version: New York's Metropolitan Opera ended its first production after one performance, reportedly at the insistence of financier J. P. Morgan's daughter, and in Chicago, evangelist Billy Sunday denounced it as "very sinful" and the police chief found it "disgusting." In 1918, amid wartime fears of spies and decadent artists undermining the British cause, Allen, like Wilde, made the mistake of suing for libel, taking on an editor who accused her of belonging to "a cult of high-ranking 'moral perverts'" and speaking "a foreign 'language generally used by homosexualists.'" Like Wilde, she lost her case and her career but continued to defend herself.

Against the background of queer decadence abroad, American journalism, fiction, and scandal mapped homosexuality in the arts by geography and by genre in the 1920s and 1930s. Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Hollywood were among the recognized geographic locales. Theater, the movie industry, and the nightclub scene with its "pansy craze" of female impersonators and campy entertainers were identified as institutional sites. That actors Randolph Scott and Cary Grant lived together occasioned winks and nods in the gossip press. That lyrics for Cole Porter's musicals hinted at homosexuality was hardly unsuspected. That Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was the object of a sensational obscenity trial was standard news. "Nor did Ma Rainey's arrest in 1925 on the charge of staging a lesbian orgy in her Harlem apartment," John Loughery writes of the black singer, "alienate many of her fans, of either race or proclivity." Among followers of serious music, speculation about Tchaikovsky's sexuality was common. As a young composer, Lou Harrison later recalled, he "'early learned' that Tchaikovsky and 'the divine Mr. Handel' were gay," and Tchaikovsky was on "The List" that one young man learned-"Michelangelo, da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Wilde"-a list with many iterations that circulated beyond gay men (in Sigmund Freud's famous 1935 letter to an American mother, for example) as well as among them. New events updated the list: the navy removed Paul Cadmus's painting The Fleet's In! from a 1934 exhibit at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, not pleased with its "hectic record of shore-leave debauchery" by and between sailors.

Yet by later standards, agitation about homosexuality in the arts was circumscribed. It focused mainly on theater and the popular arts, where notions of queer danger shaded off into perceptions of other evils like Prohibition speakeasies and Jewish moguls in Hollywood. Nor were authorship and product tightly linked: most controversy had little to do with recognizable homosexuals. Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour (1934) triggered alarm about her lesbian theme, not her identity. Few authors of fiction about homosexuality-most characters coming to a bad end-were gay, or at least known to be. Indeed, one strain of bluenose indignation was that authors, playwrights, and producers exploited the subject, not that homosexuals created the product. Homosexuals were mostly phantasms who haunted plays, movies, and novels, not real-life figures. Queer people, especially celebrity pansies, got notice in gossip-"Sissies Permeate Sublime Social Strata as Film Stars and Broadwayites Go Gay," announced Broadway Brevities-and in complaints about the "impudent sissies that clutter Times Square." But they surfaced less as makers of culture than as objects of representation. The menace, for those who saw it, lay more in the texts and the people who peddled them than in homosexuals, and queerness seemed a rude intrusion into culture, not a pervasive presence in it. Notable too was how often women as creators (Hellman and Mae West, for example), performers, or audience and lesbianism as subject sparked controversy, reflecting women's major place in the arts, in contrast to male dominance after World War II.

Queer characters, especially the stock figures of the pansy and the mannish woman, appeared often on screen. Indignation among cultural watchdogs at their appearance helped force Hollywood to devise its own censorship system in the 1930s, the Production Code, which banned the representation of homosexuality (among other things), in theory if not in practice. With movies featuring so many outcasts and liminal types, it is plausible to see-or not see-a plethora of queer figures, as in director James Whale's Frankenstein films. Notable was the low-budget Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932), soon withdrawn because of the outcry it unleashed, with its half-man/half-woman, bearded lady, cross-dresser, pinheads, midgets, and other "monstrosities" of "nature" who live by a secret "code" in a secret world until they take revenge against the "normal" people who torment them. They appeared in a decade when "freak could be used as a synonym for homosexuality or other forms of sexual nonconformity." In their world, "a proliferation of erotic proclivities coexist, partners are exchanged, and heterosexuality is one among many options." But if the "freaks" evoked a secret queer world, they also seemed pitied and exploited by the film's makers.

Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance illustrated the reach and limits of contemporary awareness and agitation. Male impersonator Gladys Bentley was well known as a "bulldagger," Harlem had a reputation as a sexual playground for queer people, including white visitors, and key literary figures-among them, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and the white novelist and promoter Carl van Vechten-were gay. "You did what you wanted to," writer Richard Bruce Nugent later recalled. "Nobody was in the closet. There wasn't any closet." Indeed, the metaphor of the closet as expressive of gay experience was not yet coined. But homosexuality hovered at the periphery of the Harlem Renaissance. It "retained an outlaw status that few blacks embraced at the time," three scholars note, and "that fewer still would have championed alongside matters of race and class." Most creative figures kept their sexuality under wraps in their output and their public lives. The waning of the Renaissance amid the devastations of the Great Depression and the tighter official control of public space ushered in by repeal of Prohibition further muffled Harlem's lived and literary queerness.

Contemporary conceptions of homosexuality also shaped cultural controversy. Although the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were used by the 1920s, a sharp line between them was not yet drawn. And although hardly tidy or uniform, ideas about homosexuality, George Chauncey has explained, associated it with gender role-effeminacy among men and masculinity among women-rather than with sexual object choice. The pansy who performed queerness faced scrutiny that the male-identified "gay" man largely escaped when homosexuality was seen as gender inversion, not erotic attraction. Often associated with working-class culture, "the effeminate 'fairy,'" Chauncey notes, "came to represent all homosexuals in the public mind," and the "pansy" was the most visible deviant in vaudeville, theater, and the movies. Communist writer Mike Gold's "denunciation of [playwright] Thornton Wilder as an 'art pansy' writer of unmanly literature" captured that emphasis. Men who did not fit the "pansy" image had less to worry about. Although queer women were suspect regardless of their perceived gender role, those who embodied role inversion-the bull dyke-were more suspect, though also more titillating to some audiences.

Generalized notions of homosexuals in the arts were sketchy. To be sure, many gay men sensed a link between homosexuality and the arts, and their "subcultural strategies" included lineages of creative achievement. "Claiming that respected historical figures-ranging from Julius Caesar, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare to Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde-were homosexuals helped enhance the usually maligned character of gay men," explains Chauncey. The "possible significance of homosexuality in Plato, Whitman, or Shakespeare" was noted "in almost every gay novel published in the early 1930s." "The List" of queer artists and the euphemism "artistic"-slang for queer or gay-emphasized a connection between homosexuality and the arts, especially music. Pre-1960s "code words and phrases for a homosexual man," Philip Brett argues, included ones like "is he 'musical' do you think?" Moreover, music "represented that part of our culture which is constructed as feminine and therefore dangerous," and in that light, "all musicians ... are faggots in the parlance of the male locker room." In turn, some gay men were proudly defiant, asking, as one historian summarizes their stance, "What do you think would be left of theater and dance, fashion and interior decoration, without us, just as we are?" Yet the affinity of gay men for the arts was more casually assumed than carefully explained, and there was no widespread perception of gay domination of the arts, only the notion of a suspicious-or welcome-queer presence in some fields.

Scrutiny of theater and concert music suggests the extent and limits 18 of pre-World War II agitation about homosexuality in the arts. It also demonstrates how little homosexuality was a freestanding concern but instead one that overlapped other charged contexts-of gender, race, and nation, for example.

A spike in agitation about theater came in the 1920s and focused on the New York stage, especially on two among many plays with discernible gay characters. Adapted from a French version, Edouard Bournet's The Captive, about "a married woman pursued by a persistent lesbian admirer," created a sensation in 1926. Even more did the pending arrival of Mae West's "farcical representation of pansy life," The Drag, accompanied by her plea against "the criminalization of homosexuality" (West preferred to let doctors "treat it like a disease"). Moreover, West planned to use a chorus of boys publicly identified as queer-one instance of real gay people at issue. None saw the New York stage, however, for when police arrested her for another of her productions, she scratched plans to bring The Drag to New York. Pushed by the Catholic Church, publisher William Randolph Hearst, and others, the state legislature banned plays "depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion," a ban later extended to nightclubs and echoed in Hollywood's Production Code. A similar federal law was introduced in Congress, though not passed.


Excerpted from Gay Artists in Modern American Culture by Michael S. Sherry Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: Nixon, Myself, and Others     1
Discovery     13
Explanation     51
Frenzy     105
Barber at the Met     155
Aftermath     204
Notes     239
Index     271

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[An] insightful new book. . . . In five thoroughly researched chapters, [Sherry] shows how homophobia . . . is not a monolithic repressive force, but a complex web of power relations that have shifted from Truman's time to Nixon's to our own. Sherry is one of the few scholars to read anti-gay rants as a strain of American conspiracy thinking. . . . This book challenges the idea that history is made by individuals and tells a history of power relations and movements.—San Francisco Chronicle

An important book, deserving of a central place not only in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies, but also in academia and at the American table.—Multicultural Review

As an in-depth look at the critical reaction to major American artists, Sherry's study compares favorably to other academic studies. . . . Recommended.—CHOICE

An extended and often brilliant discussion of gay musicians, dramatists, dancers, and writers from the late 1940s through the 1960s.—Rain Taxi

Sherry excavates the forgotten battlefields of 1950s and '60s arts discourse and its very public accusations of homosexual conspiracy, takeover, and charlatanism—beside which recent identity politics may seem genteel. With astute analysis and exemplary clarity, this book reveals how U.S. artists provided the face of the Cold War 'homosexual menace' at home even as their work was deployed to represent all-American anticommunist muscle abroad.—Nadine Hubbs, author of The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity

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