For more than a century before gay marriage became a hot-button political issue, same-sex unions flourished in America. Pairs of men and pairs of women joined together in committed unions, standing by each other "for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health" for periods of 30 or 40—sometimes as many as 50—years. In short, they loved and supported each other every bit as much as any husband and wife. In Outlaw Marriages, cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter reveals how some of these unions didn't merely improve the quality of life for the two people involved but also enriched the American culture.
Among the high-profile couples whose lives and loves are illuminated in the following pages are Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, literary icon Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, author James Baldwin and Lucien Happersberger, and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
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From the Prologue
The couples who come to life in the following chapters were social insurgents.
That is, each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.
Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, for example, began their outlaw marriage in 1948—spending every day and night together, while loving and supporting each other to a degree fully comparable to that of any husband and wife. Their partnership continued until Merlo died of cancer in 1963.
Outlaw Marriages tells Williams and Merlo’s story, along with those of fourteen other same-sex couples who combined their lives either as husband and husband or wife and wife during eras when no legal institution and no church approved of such a union.
The other trait that these renegade couples have in common is that they all fully qualify as, in a word, extraordinary.
In many instances, that powerful adjective fits because of the remarkable contributions a particular couple made to the culture—the fields ranging from literature to modern art to filmmaking. The achievements of other couples include opening graduate education to American women and pioneering a new form of journalism in the pages of the New Yorker magazine.
With Williams and Merlo, their gift was creating some of the most memorable plays in the history of American theater. Williams was addicted to drugs and promiscuity when he met the rock-solid Merlo. The World War
II vet then saw to it that the playwright regained his emotional and physical equilibrium, allowing him to write such theatrical masterpieces as the
Pulitzer Prize–winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A few of the other extraordinary contributions that unfold in this book are
• Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle reinventing American poetry
• Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith revolutionizing the field of social work
• Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta taking the lead in transforming
Hollywood into the celebrity capital of the world
When reading the statements above, you probably recognized only one of the two names in the pairings. That’s because the achievements of one partner often became widely known, while those of the other partner stayed hidden—until the publication of this book.
Outlaw Marriages is an apt title on two levels.
First, all fifteen couples created unions that defied the laws and mores of their day. Many of these de facto partnerships survived and thrived, despite their lack of support by church or state, for thirty or forty years—in some cases, fifty.
Second, these couples flouted convention. Aaron Copland was thirtytwo years old when he met and instantly fell in love with a drop-dead gorgeous violinist named Victor Kraft, who was only seventeen. The composer’s friends and family didn’t take the relationship seriously, convinced the couple wouldn’t survive the dramatic age difference. Copland and Kraft proved them wrong. The men not only stayed together but also jointly created a distinctly
American style of music that critics today, eighty years later, are still praising.
That the couples were willing to bend the marital rules doesn’t mean they all succeeded in creating relationships that were made in heaven—far from it. A regrettable scenario that plays out in several chapters begins with the lesser-known partner being absolutely essential to the better-known partner’s rise to success, but then . . . the high-achieving partner getting what might be called the “twenty-year itch.” Martha Carey Thomas set the standard back in the 1890s, summarily dumping her partner of two decades, Mamie Gwinn,
for another woman. Janet Flanner went a similar route in the 1930s, as did
Audre Lorde in the 1980s.
In the instances listed above as well as in others where the outlaw marriage eventually falls apart, readers hear the whole story—which typically includes infidelity, deceit, and betrayal. These unfortunate factors are revealed in full detail, as they’re the realities that often confront any long-term relationship,
gay or straight.
To help the various outlaw marriages come alive in the reader’s mind,
I’ve included photos of all fifteen couples. Tracking down these images was often a challenge, especially in the instances when one or both members of a couple—as with Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta—didn’t publicly acknowledge their relationship. And so, in some cases, I’ve had to use two separate photos of the partners, since a single photo of them together either didn’t exist or wasn’t available. There are also instances—as with Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith—when I’ve used a photo of poor quality because it shows the partners together, even though higher-quality photos of the two individuals separately could have been used.
Whether a chapter begins with a single image or a pair of them, each story that follows is a page-turner. Sometimes the most compelling element in it is the contribution the couple made; other times, it’s the internal dynamics of their relationship. But one theme runs through them all:
Two people joining together to create an outlaw marriage plays a central role not only in the couple’s extraordinary achievements, but also in each individual partner’s very being.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle 1865-1892
Revolutionizing American Poetry 1
Chapter 2 Martha Carey Thomas & Mamie Gwinn 1878-1904
Opening Graduate Education to American Women 11
Chapter 3 Ned Warren & John Marshall 1884-1927
Building the Collections of America's Art Museums 23
Chapter 4 Mary Rozet Smith & Jane Addams 1891-1934
Breaking New Ground in Social Reform and Global Peace 33
Chapter 5 Bessie Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe 1892-1933
Founding the Field of Interior Design 43
Chapter 6 J.C. Leyendecker & Charles Beach 1901-1951
Taking the Art of Illustration to a New Level 55
Chapter 7 Alice B. Toklas & Gertrude Stein 1907-1946
Expanding the Dimensions of American Literature 67
Chapter 8 Janet Planner & Solita Solano 1919-1975
Pioneering a New Style of Journalism 77
Chapter 9 Greta Garbo & Mercedes de Acosta 1931-1960
Making Hollywood the Celebrity Capital of the World
Chapter 10 Aaron Copland & Victor Kraft 1932-1976
Inventing a Distinctly American Style of Music 99
Chapter 11 Frank Merlo & Tennessee Williams 1948-1963
Lifting American Theater to New Heights 109
Chapter 12 James Baldwin & Lucien Happersberger 1949-1987
Attacking Racism through Literature 121
Chapter 13 Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns 1954-1962
Expanding the Definition of Art 133
Chapter 14 Ismail Merchant & James Ivory 1961-2005
Turning Literary Works into Sumptuous Films 145
Chapter 15 Frances Clayton & Audre Lorde 1968-1988
Raising a Voice for Women of Color 157
Photography/Illustration Credits 211