Talent Unleashed by Love

My old friend György (George) Konrád, the distinguished Hungarian novelist and essayist who was the literary godfather of the Hungarian dissident movement seeing liberation from Communist dictatorship, once remarked to me, “In order to write well, one must have at least the possibility of being happy.”

I think this is true of almost any creative endeavor, and for most of us that means the possibility of loving and being loved in return.

While the homosexuality of such prominent American cultural figures as Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Aaron Copland, and Tennessee Williams is well-known, little or no attention has been paid to the ways in which the presence in their lives of loving partners enabled, enriched, and made possible their best work, the work that brought them recognition and celebrity and contributed mightily to our country’s cultural fabric.

It is the great merit of “Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples,” a new book by Rodger Streitmatter published this week by Beacon Press, that the enormous contributions of the beloved companions of these and other celebrated figures –– invisible to the public during their lifetimes and even after their deaths in most cases –– are now brought into clear, sharp focus.

Coming just days after Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both unexpectedly endorsed same-sex marriage in the teeth of the Republican right’s election-year renewal of its malicious calumnies about such unions, the publication of these 15 same-sex love stories –– which span more than a century at a time when homosexual love was viewed as a crime and as a sickness –– could not be more timely.

Take James Baldwin, whose searing, eloquent 1963 essay on race, “The Fire Next Time,” turned the successful novelist into a nationally recognized spokesman for African Americans, became an overnight Number One bestseller, landed him on the cover of Time magazine, and made him a much-sought after guest on television at the height of the civil rights movement. Baldwin insisted, in terms that made white people squirm, on the centrality of racial repression to America’s history and identity.

“The price of the liberation of the white people,” he wrote, “is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”

But how many people, black or white, know that neither this book nor, indeed, any of the major works that made his reputation, might ever have seen the light of day without the nurturing support and happiness he received from the love of his life, a white Swiss painter named Lucien Happersberger?

Baldwin was 25 and living, oh so frugally, in Paris on a literary fellowship he’d wangled on the strength of one book review and one essay when, one night in 1947 in a cheap and seedy bar, he met the 17-year-old Happersberger, who’d fled his middle class Swiss family the year before to join the legions of aspiring but penniless young painters eking out a meager living by selling their works on the Paris streets. The short and painfully skinny Baldwin was immediately smitten by the tall, blonde, athletic young artist. Both young men enjoyed carousing and fun, and after pit stops at several more bars the pair spent the night in Baldwin’s bed. As Streitmatter writes, “Their connection clearly wasn’t intellectual, as neither of them knew enough of the other’s native language to converse in full sentences, [but] they immediately became a couple,” and forged a bond that would last until Baldwin’s premature death from stomach cancer in 1987, with Happersberger at his bedside.

“Shortly after the two men became a couple, Happersberger expressed concern that Baldwin’s jittery nervousness meant he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” so the younger man took Baldwin to the quiet, tiny Swiss village of Loeche-les-Bains, where his family had a chalet and where they stayed for the next three years, with Happersberger painting while Baldwin wrote. Emotionally fulfilled for the first time in his life, it was there that Baldwin was finally able to finish the first novel he’d been struggling to make publishable for a decade. “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” the semiautobiographical story of a young poor boy in 1930s Harlem struggling to gain the love of a distant stepfather, was published by Knopf to critical acclaim. (Streitmatter doesn’t mention it, but a young Gore Vidal had unsuccessfully championed an earlier version of the novel during Vidal’s brief stint as an editor at Dutton,)

Happersberger’s love for Baldwin was deep, but the two men wanted different things in their relationship. The bisexual Happersberger made it clear from the beginning that he wanted the freedom to have relationships with other men and women. But as Happersberger told an interviewer three years after Baldwin’s death, “Jimmy was very romantic, he dreamed of settling down” and wanted a monogamous fidelity that would last forever. When Happersberger began inviting a former girlfriend named Suzy to spend weekends at the chalet, Baldwin found himself sleeping alone while Happersberger and the woman slept in the bedroom next door. When Suzy became pregnant, “Baldwin’s initial reaction was anger, but that feeling was soon tempered by his memories of how unhappy his own early years had been because his biological father hadn’t been part of his life, and so he urged his lover to marry Suzy and help her raise the child, which Happersberger did.” The child was a boy they named Luc James, after Baldwin, who became the boy’s godfather.

Baldwin returned to New York alone, and despite the success of his first novel fell into a deep depression without the possibility of happiness with the young painter. He found himself unable to get going on a new novel until late in 1954, when Happersberger came to New York to rejoin him and the two established a life together in Greenwich Village. With happiness a renewed possibility, Baldwin threw himself into his writing and produced “Giovanni’s Room,” a gay love story that became a classic milestone in queer culture.

As one Baldwin biographer put it, “For four decades, Happersberger had played a role in each significant act in Baldwin’s life,” with the two frequently reuniting under the same roof, either in New York or in the little farmhouse Baldwin eventually bought in the south of France. With the help of Happersberger’s presence, he wrote “Another Country,” which became a Number One bestseller.

When “The Fire Next Time” propelled Baldwin into the front rank of civil rights activism, “Happersberger supported Baldwin’s activism in concrete ways. When the author was inundated with speaking invitations, the artist put his painting aside and served as Baldwin’s business manager,” deciding which requests to accept, making his travel arrangements, and accompanying him on many of his speaking trips. “Sometimes they lived together, but at others lived apart,” Streitmatter notes.

Baldwin blamed himself for the fact that his long relationship with Happersberger was successful only for limited lengths of time. “How could anyone feel contentment in the arms of a tornado?” he asked his brother David. Streitmatter writes, “In other words, Baldwin concluded that Happersberger had repeatedly been frightened by the intensity of the writer’s need for emotional security.”

Contrary to the stereotypes, it is not always the younger person whose infidelities cause a relationship to founder. Aaron Copland was an ephebeophile who, after falling in love with several very young men who did not return his affections, found the possibility of happiness with a handsome 17-year-old violin prodigy and Juilliard student named Victor Kraft, whom the composer met when he was 32.

“Copland’s friends and family members initially didn’t take his relationship with Kraft seriously, seeing the fifteen year age difference as too dramatic for the men to overcome,” the author writes. “The skepticism faded when Kraft became a central figure in Copland’s personal and professional life.”

Kraft was the one man in Copland’s life who returned his affections and found a small cottage in rural New Jersey far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, where they shared a small loft apartment.

“When we went there, I told very few people where I was going, with the idea of having more uninterrupted composing time,” Copland said.

It was only after embracing his relationship with Kraft, who taught him to have fun and take pleasure in the simple things in life, that Copland began creating the popular music that made him famous, from “Fanfare for the Common Man” to “Appalachian Spring” to the ballet “Billy the Kid” and the scores for films like “Our Town” and “The Red Pony” –– each of them staples of orchestral repertoire today that brought Copland celebrity and money. Their outlaw marriage, however, changed dramatically in the 1950s, when “Copland’s fame meant he had no trouble finding lovers who were twenty or thirty years his junior,” while Kraft “no longer fit the profile.”

Kraft initially responded to Copland’s serial infidelities by trying to make him jealous, first sleeping with Leonard Bernstein and then with a marriage to a woman that lasted only a couple of months.

By the 1960s, “Kraft was showing signs of emotional instability… The once handsome man let his hair grow long and scraggy and no longer paid attention to how he dressed. Kraft drifted into the counterculture, routinely smoking marijuana and occasionally using LSD” –– as well as throwing tantrums, fits, and crying jags while he was with Copland. Friends urged the composer, who continued his sexual relationship with Kraft, to cut him out of his life, but “Copland wouldn’t hear of it, saying, ‘Many years ago, he introduced me to a way of life that inspired my best music. How could I possibly abandon him now?’”

In 1976, Kraft died almost instantly of cardiac arrest. “Although his stature as an American icon meant that he could have continued having sexual relationships with much younger men, Copland ceased that indulgence after Kraft died,” Streitmatter writes. “He made this decision, biographers believe, because of his feelings of guilt that his earlier affairs had contributed to the emotional demons that had troubled Kraft during the final decades of his life.”

Streitmatter devotes half of “Outlaw Marriages” to lesbian couples. His account of Greta Garbo’s 30-year relationship with Mercedes Hernandez de Acosta, a cultured playwright and screenwriter from a wealthy Cuban family, shows us how de Acosta taught Garbo –– the daughter of a street-cleaner and a housemaid –– how to speak, walk, dress, choose the best film scripts, and shape how she played them. The relationship ultimately foundered when the secretive Garbo felt threatened by the strong-willed de Acosta’s refusal to live her lesbian life in the closet.

If Janet Flanner became one of America’s most admired journalists during her half-century as the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, it was because her unique voice and style that helped to define the magazine was created in partnership with her lover of 56 years, Solita Solano, drama editor for the New York Tribune.

The crucial role played by Alice B. Toklas in winning Gertrude Stein recognition and wide publication is portrayed here with more accuracy than in most accounts, which assign a completely subordinate relationship to Toklas.

And the story of Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, found enduring support for her groundbreaking social work and peace activism from her wealthy partner of four decades, Mary Rozet Smith, is especially inspiring

Streitmatter, a professor in the School of Communications at American University and the author of seven previous books, writes a clean and easily accessible prose, and the economical and bite-size chapters are perfect for those children of the Internet age with truncated attention spans, while remaining rich in piquant and often quite moving detail.

Most of the material in the book has already appeared elsewhere, with the exception of the account of the seminal role white psychology professor Frances Clayton played in enabling the iconic African-American poet, essayist, and activist Audre Lorde’s talents to be fully realized. Much of that detail, chronicling the sacrifices Clayton made on behalf of their relationship, comes from Streitmatter’s interviews with Lorde’s daughter.

Though Streitmatter draws on existing accounts of the relationships he writes about, “Outlaw Marriages” is carefully researched and documented, and his command of the material is impressive. Queers of any age looking for role models, but especially younger ones, would do well to add the book to their libraries. Someone should certainly make Barack Obama read it –– perhaps he’d then stop “evolving” and dithering and do the right thing by declaring, at long last, his support for marriage equality.

OUTLAW MARRIAGES: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples | By Rodger Streitmatter | Beacon Press | $26.95 | 224 pages