Monday, 25 November 2013

Friday, 22 November 2013

I fly with your wings, having none of my own

From an article by tenor Ian Bostridge, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in March 2013:
Though Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were tacitly received as a couple in the highest of high society, they had every reason, at the same time, to be nervous of the repressive apparatus of the state which still struck out at gay men in the early 1950s. At the end of 1954, as many as 1,069 men were in prison for homosexual offences.

Britten could be almost provocative in the public presentation of his sexuality, performing his settings of same-sex love poems by Michelangelo with Pears at the Wigmore Hall in 1942 (“it was rather like parading naked in public”); those verses were written, though, in a high Renaissance style whose arcana would have been difficult for an Italian, let alone an English audience to follow. To the end of his life, as homophobic prejudice eased with the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act a decade later, legalizing homosexual acts, Britten remained steadfast in his relationship with Pears – many letters in the latest volume of Letters from a Life, covering the period 1966 to 1976, attest to their abiding love for each other – but at the same time discreet, reserved and unengaged with contemporary issues of liberation. Tolerance was what he expected and, by and large got, and it was sexual tolerance – “civilised attitudes to homosexuality”, as one Britten trustee, Donald Mitchell, put it – pacifism and music which were the inevitable beneficiaries of the provisions he made for his estate after his death.

Peter Pears was 26 when he met Benjamin Britten who was then 23. They first met in 1934, when Pears was a member of the BBC Singers, but did not become lovers until they were brought together after the death of a friend. Britten's opera Peter Grimes (in which Pears sang the lead) was already a huge success, and the two men struck up a lifelong professional as well as personal relationship.

Britten's liaisons, of course, did not start there. He was the lover of composer Lennox Berkeley (with young Benjamin, above - about whom he wrote "He is a dear and I am very, very fond of him; nevertheless, it is a comfort that we can arrange sexual matters at least to my satisfaction") and went to notorious gay bathhouses with Christopher Isherwood.

But the greatest love of all was between Benjamin and Peter. They lived together for 40 years, established the Aldeburgh Festival of the Arts, and Britten was made a life peer - "Lord Britten of Aldeburgh" (the first British composer to be made a peer of the realm) in 1976 (he died the same year). When he himself died ten years later of a heart attack, Peter Pears (by then "Sir Peter") was buried next to Benjamin Britten in their grave in Aldeburgh.

Here is Britten's adaptation of the third of Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (op. 22) - Veggio co' bei vostri occhi un dolce lume - with its dedication "To Peter":

I see through your lovely eyes a sweet light
Which through my blind ones I yet cannot see;
I carry with your feet a burden
Which with my lame ones I cannot;
I fly with your wings, having none of my own;
With your spirit toward heaven I am always moving;
By your will I turn pale or blush,
Cold in the sun, warm in the coldest weather.
Within your will alone is my will,
My thoughts within your bosom are born,
In your breath are my words.
I am like the moon, alone,
Which our eyes cannot see in the heavens
Except that it is illumined by the sun.
Benjamin Britten's perspective on sexuality made him one of the foremost gay composers of all time - his operas, including Albert Herring, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice all have gay themes. However, regardless of his being a gay man, he is rightly lauded - not least in the multitude of centenary tributes at Aldeburgh, on the BBC, Classic FM, and across the globe - as one of the finest composers this country has ever produced.

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM, CH (22nd November 1913 – 4th December 1976)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself

[Marc Allegret and André Gide by Lady Ottoline Morrell]

Often considered one of the most intellectual and influential writers in the French language, Nobel Prize winner André Gide was also author of a ground-breaking work on homosexuality, Corydon, published in 1920.

Written as a series of arguments between "interrogator" and "interviewee", the eponymous character lays out convincing evidence from naturalists, historians, poets, and philosophers in order to back up his argument that homosexuality is natural and that it pervaded the most culturally and artistically advanced civilizations such as Periclean Greece, Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England. Gide argues this is reflected by writers and artists from Homer and Virgil to Titian and Shakespeare in their depictions of male-male relationships, such as Achilles and Patroclus, as homosexual rather than as platonic as other critics insist. Gide uses this evidence to insist that homosexuality is more fundamental and natural than heterosexuality, which he believes is merely a union constructed by society.

"My friends insist that this little book is of the kind which will do me the greatest harm," Gide wrote of the book. Nevertheless, it sealed his place in gay history.

Further facts about André Gide:
  • He had an on-off fascination with Oscar Wilde; on occasion travelling to North Africa with him and Bosie, where, Oscar claimed, he introduced Gide to homosexuality (which Gide himself denied, stating he chose to keep his sexuality a secret from Wilde). André was one of the few notable authors of the age who agreed to add his name to the petition to reduce Wilde's jail sentence, and wrote an article in tribute after his death.
  • Marc Allégret - screenwriter and director among whose "discoveries" were Jean-Paul Belmondo, Louis Jourdan and Roger Vadim - became André Gide's lover when he was fifteen and Gide was forty-seven.
  • Much of Gide's work was of a campaigning nature, arguing for prisoner’s rights (he even petitioned Hitler during WW2), and highly critical of the Soviet style of Communism, of the church, and of colonialism (particularly in French sub-Saharan Africa).
  • In 1952, the Roman Catholic Church listed the work of André Gide in the Index of Forbidden Books.
"What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another would have said as well as you, do not say it; what another would have written as well, do not write it. Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself - and thus make yourself indispensable."

"Only those things are beautiful which are inspired by madness and written by reason."

"It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not."

"Dare to be yourself."

André Gide (22nd November 1869 – 19th February 1951)

Monday, 18 November 2013

More than just a Carry On

"I turned down the chance to work with Frederico Fellini in the late-1960s. He had a big thing about me. He saw me on stage in the Sardou comedy, 'Let's Get a Divorce'. He wanted me to do this film in which I'd play the incarnation of six different men's desires. Not a bad role.

"You see, Fellini had never heard of 'Carry on...' He just saw what he saw and thought: I like that. It was thrilling. I had to meet him at a hotel. It was a fascinating time; full of secret telegrams and so on. He was gorgeous. But I'd already said yes to a play at Chichester. I thought it would be dishonourable to let them down. I would say that's the thing that I really regret."
Fenella Fielding.

There is no other.

Here she performs The Cosmetically Correct Song by Graham Roos from the book Apocalypse Calypso:

Fenella Fielding (born Fenella Feldman, 17th November 1927)

More Fenella

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A genuine muse in a world of phonies

From an article by Andrew O'Hagan in the New York Times' "T" magazine:
The outlandish, deeply unusual former assistant at Vogue who became mentor to a generation of fashion designers, editors and photographers, Isabella Blow is the subject of a new exhibition set amid the Neo-Classical splendour of London’s Somerset House.

The surroundings are appropriate, for this is not just a show but an acknowledgement of how her sense of style opened the minds of her peers. She is hereby raised into the pantheon, lauded for the very personal vision that once disgusted the establishment.

Blow was eccentric from her top feathers to the paint that adorned her toes. I used to see her at parties sometimes, and she was a fantastically alarming person; when she smiled, throwing her head back, you saw a sneering mouth so red with lipstick that it was like an open wound. She never seemed like just another one of the fashion crowd: she was a visionary who ripened with new ideas every morning, not every season, and was a genuine muse in a world of phonies.

True eccentrics - the Isabella Blows, the Vivienne Westwoods, the Anna Piaggis and the Stephen Tennants, as if there could ever be more than one of each - are the kind of people whose entire existence is devoted to individuality and innovation. That’s what makes a real eccentric: they really mean it, and they’re willing to suffer for it. Their social function is to explode our preconceptions about what beauty is and what good taste means. Eccentrics raise the bar on the impossible.

Yet, unfortunately, there are a few too many fake ones out there now. These are the imitators, the publicity scavengers, the ones who think it’s merely about fame or attention. They seem to be working not from a brilliant fund of ideas or from a conviction that their outer selves must be used to express a fascinating inner landscape. On the contrary, they’re just show-offs who dress up for the cameras. For people interested in our contemporary times, this is an important distinction: the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty, while the faux-eccentric gives us less of everything.
Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on at Somerset house from 20th November to 2nd March 2014.

Friday, 15 November 2013

This weekend, I shall mostly be dressing casual... dancer, choreographer, actress and painter Miss Tilly Losch!

This magnificent creature - who created these looks for herself back in the 1930s (we know where you stole the ideas, Stefani Germanotta!) - worked with such diverse talents as Noel Coward, Richard Strauss, the Astaires, Lotte Lenya and Anita Loos and married Lord Caernarvon.

Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine "Tilly" Losch, Countess of Carnarvon (15th November 1903 - 24th December 1975)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Bijou basket, anyone?

Cocktails with Polari names are now available in London...
"A Bijou Basket is Sipsmith sloe gin, ginger wine and rhubarb bitter.

Ria Shusher (a hairdresser in Polari) is a rhubarb and vanilla Tapiato Blanco Tequila mule.

Bona Hoofer (good dancer) is Sipsmith gin, toasted spiced syrup and espresso.

And Naff Clobber (rubbish clothes)? It's Buffalo Trace, Benedictine and maple syrup."
The possibilities are fantabulosa, indeed!

So much of a fan is eternal social butterfly, former "Blitz Kid" and DJ Princess Julia that she has written a review in their menu entirely in Polari ergot - download a copy

The "Hoi Polloi" bar at which these delights are served is part of a "boutique hotel" in uber-trendy Shoreditch, unfortunately, so I can't imagine we'll ever go there...

Ace Hotel

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Any girl can be glamorous

Another day, another centenary.

From an excellent article on The Hairpin blog:
The first time audiences saw Hedy Lamarr, she was running naked through a field. The second time they saw her, she was in the throes of a very animated orgasm. The next time she appeared on screen - more than five years later - she’d have a new name, a new language, and a new image, but the effect was the same: just the sight of her was enough to stop Hollywood, and audiences across America, in their tracks.

But a new name wasn’t enough to distance Hedy Lamarr from her past as the “Ecstasy Girl,” the star of the so-called “art film” that scandalized all of Europe, and received special denunciation by the Pope. When one exhibitor tried to import it to the States, it was declared “dangerously indecent” and uniformly banned. The real scandal wasn’t the nudity, but the pleasure: a young girl abandons her husband, runs naked, finds a new hot guy, and then has a really intense orgasm for all to see. Who knew what young women the world over would do with that knowledge?

With the help of her new studio, Lamarr was able to denounce her part in Ecstasy, but the stigma of the desiring female would stay with her. Over her Hollywood career, she would be cast as one “high class whore” after another - women whose beauty, and sexuality, make them natural victims of the world around them.
"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

"If you use your imagination, you can look at any actress and see her nude. I hope to make you use your imagination."

"To be a star is to own the world and all the people in it. After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty."

"Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That's the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me... and still is."

Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, 9th November 1914 – 19th January 2000)

More Hedy Lamarr over at Give 'em the Old Razzle Dazzle

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Don’t turn your back on The Queen

"London was and still is such an exciting and exhilarating city. After working for Otto Lucas initially and then, for three years at Mitzi Lorenz, I was offered the position as designer at Langée in Brook Street. Madame Langée was Czech, escaping here with her family just before the war.

"One of her clients was ‘Miss Betty’ the vendeuse at Hardy Amies who was, at that time, dressmaker to The Queen. Hats were therefore ordered from our workroom for certain outfits, and a number of times I heard Miss Betty compliment my work. An opportunity arose a few years later when Madame Langée decided to retire ... and so I was able to take over and start making under my very own label."

From Elizabeth: Reigning in Style by Jane Eastoe:
"Hardy Amies always told me: "Don’t touch the Queen, don’t ask questions and don’t turn your back".

"The Queen was standing at the end of a long room. I advanced, did my chat and my thing. When it was time to depart I was rooted to the spot. I thought that if I walked backwards I would fall over the furniture or one of the corgis.

"Her Majesty spotted my dilemma and turned her back on me to ask Bobo [the Queen’s dresser] to fetch some specific shoes - giving me the opportunity to withdraw."
Milliner By Appointment, Frederick Fox

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The perfect English rose

“Only England could have produced her. She was the perfect English rose. When the door opened and she was there, she was so terribly good-looking. She had such an exquisite unreality about her.” - Diana Vreeland

"[Her] ravishing beauty often tended to obscure her staggering achievements as an actress. Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don’t need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.” - Garson Kanin

“As a beauty, she was at the top of the tree. She never went through an unbeautiful phase.” - David Niven

[While married to Lawrence Oliver, who became a Lord:] “Her Ladyship is fucking bored with formalities, and would like to be known as Miss Vivien Leigh!”

Today is the centenary of the birth of the divine Miss Leigh.

The V&A recently acquired her archives, which went on display to the public this autumn.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Good music and a hand job at the same time

From his short essay about New York's Gay scene (on the website of the Chelsea Pines gay guest house):
When I came to New York City in 1956, I was 17 and being gay was as fun and sexy as it is now but it was also scary and probably more dangerous than we cared to admit. My bar of choice was Lenny’s Hideaway, long gone on W. 10th St. It was a firetrap and down a very steep flight of stairs but we felt safe from the stares and taunts of the enemy.

We took the police raids in stride. It was the price you paid for being gay. I never would have predicted that the drag queens at the Stonewall some 13 years later would start a revolution that won’t stop until marriage is legal in every single state and maybe not then.As a playwright, I have always enjoyed the relative security of working in a field where gay men and women are sometimes the norm and seldom the exception. But I do remember the critics reviling my first piece, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, for its candid depiction of sexually active gay men. It made them very nervous and they resorted to calling me names like decadent, depraved, and immoral - the kind of mud-slinging that is no longer allowed in the august pages of the Grey Lady, aka the New York Times.

I tried to write about what it was like in those pre-Stonewall days in my play Some Men. This could have been a lot of men speaking about the 60′s, including me!

I loved standing room at the Old Metropolitan Opera. You got good music and a hand job at the same time. Of course, you had to know when it was appropriate. I remember once during the second act of Tosca hearing this really loud voice somewhere behind me: “I told you, mister, not during ‘Vissi d’arte.’" The whole audience heard it. Even Maria Callas stopped singing.

There’s still no telling how deeply the catastrophe of AIDS shaped us but we came together as a community in response to it in a way that was unforeseen and has left a lasting impression on us.

I remember Lenny’s and the Old Met with an older man’s affection, I still shudder at the spectre of AIDS and I look forward to full marriage equality in my lifetime.

I sometimes daydream about which period of history I wish I had lived in. But when I think about the changes in our community, I’m very glad I was born in 1938.
Terrence McNally has been quite rightly lauded for the sheer range and depth of his theatrical work over the years. From farce (our favourite The Ritz) to controversial Christian-baiting drama (Corpus Christie), from thought-provoking themes such as AIDS (Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Andre's Mother) and race (Ragtime) to the complexities of stardom (Master Class) and relationships, gay (Love, Valour, Compassion!) and straight (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune), and of course fabulous glittering musicals (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, The Full Monty), he has tackled them all.

He has received four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Hull-Warriner Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In bringing out-gay themes to the Broadway stage, Mr McNally has always challenged the mainstream.

From the LA Stage Times:
He has an idea of what the “next big hurdle” will be: “audiences accepting a gay actor playing the lead in an action movie or playing a very romantic gay Romeo.” He says that “homophobia still exists, but in my lifetime, it’s gone from furtively darting down dark alleys to go to a gay bar and being very much in the closet to something very different. “

He is married to Thomas Kirdahy, and he says half of their friends have kids. “I’ll be 75 this year. There’s been quite a change within my lifetime. The old days hopefully are behind us, but homophobia is still going to be in our society. We probably need a gay president or two.” He says, “If my plays have been part of helping the movement, that’s great.”
To mark his 75th birthday, the Starlight Theatre Company in Los Angeles held a four-day celebration of his life and work in September 2013.

Terrence McNally (born 3rd November 1938)