Closets

Two recent items focused on gay men in the closet, though in two quite different ways: Dominic Dunne (1925-2009), the subject of a recent biography (Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts by Robert Hofler); and James Beard (1903-1985), the subject of a recent documentary film (America’s First Foodie: The Incredible Life of James Beard). Dunne, who died 40 years after Stonewall, nevertheless spent a lifetime cringing in the closet. Beard, who died only 15 years after Stonewall, was an exuberantly gay man to everyone who knew him, but his acquaintances and employers and the media built a protective closet around him, one that he decided to break out of publicly only at the end of his life — so that the world was robbed of an example of a gay man of great talent, living a rich, full life. (Dunne was, to my mind, no kind of model of how to live a life.)

For what it’s worth, neither man was flagrantly flamboyant, but I pegged them both the first time I saw them talking about their lives and work.

The visuals:

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You can watch Dunne in an interview here. Beard you can watch in two versions of the documentary: the Kickstarter video about the documentary (which had its NYC premiere on 4/23/17) and the trailer for the tv version in the PBS American Masters series.

Dominic Dunne. Background from Wikipedia:

Dominick John Dunne (October 29, 1925 [to a wealthy Irish-Catholic family] – August 26, 2009) was an American producer, writer and investigative journalist.

He began his career as a producer in film and television, noted for involvement with the pioneering gay film The Boys in the Band (1970) and the award winning drug film Panic in Needle Park (1971). He turned to writing in the early 1970s. After the 1982 murder of his daughter Dominique, he came to focus on the ways in which wealth and high society interacts with the judicial system. A frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, Dunne also appeared regularly on television discussing crime from the 1980s to the end of his life.

… Dunne’s adventures in Hollywood were described in the documentary film Dominick Dunne: After the Party (2008), directed by Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley. This film documents his successes and tribulations in the entertainment industry. In the film, Dunne reflects on his past as a World War II veteran, falling in love and raising a family, his climb and fall as a Hollywood producer, and his comeback as a writer. In 2002, Director Barry Avrich released an unauthorized documentary on Dunne called Guilty Pleasure. The film was a more candid look at Dunne’s life including those that had issues with his journalistic style. Avrich’s film was released globally and featured Johnnie Cochrane, Griffin Dunne and producer David Brown.

… He was married to Ellen Beatriz Griffin from 1954 to 1969. He was the father of Alexander Dunne and the actors Griffin Dunne and Dominique Dunne, as well as two daughters who died in infancy.

… After his death, Dominick’s son, Griffin Dunne, confirmed his father’s bisexuality and 20-year celibacy, marveling that his father had kept this central part of his personality to himself almost until he died

Dominick and Ellen Beatriz Griffin (1932 – 1997) were married in 1954 and divorced in 1969, 40 years before Dunne died. I don’t know where the 20 years of celibacy came from. But it appears that throughout his life, his sexual life was mostly with men.

On Dunne’s television career, from Wikipedia:

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Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice is an American crime TV series that examined real-life cases of crime, passion, and greed involving privileged or famous people. The episodes were shown on truTV (formerly Court TV) and on Star TV in Canada as well as Zone Reality/CBS Reality in Europe and Bio. in Australia. The host of the show was Dominick Dunne. The series started in 2002 and ended in late 2009 with Dunne’s death.

On to the Hofler book, reviewed in the May-June issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review in the piece “Starstruck” by Andrew Holleran.  A note about Holleran, from Wikipedia:

Andrew Holleran is the pseudonym of Eric Garber (born 1944), a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. He is a prominent novelist of post-Stonewall gay literature. He was a member of The Violet Quill, a gay writer’s group that met briefly from 1980-81. The Violet Quill included other prolific gay writers like Edmund White and Felice Picano. Garber, who has historically been very protective of his privacy, uses “Andrew Holleran” as his pseudonym.

From the review:

It would be hard to imagine a gayer life than the one led by Dominick Dunne. Growing up in Hartford (across the street from Katherine Hepburn), he was not only called a “sissy” by his father but beaten with a riding crop, Dunne said, to get the “incipient fairyism” out of him. It was seeing Now, Voyager at sixteen that convinced him that, like Bette Davis, he could find a better life.

His idea of the latter was not confined to just the movie stars he idolized, however. He was a social climber as well, an admitted snob, and a tremendous gossip who, like Truman Capote, used stories about the rich and famous to be accepted. Although he won a Bronze Star during World War II for going back to retrieve a wounded soldier and, after the War, married and had children, he also hired hustlers, picked guys up off the street, did drugs, and used the services of Scotty Bowers (whose memoir Full Service (2012) [detailed] his years of supplying men to closeted movie stars…). He even produced the movie of his close friend Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking and still unsurpassed play about gay life, The Boys in the Band, fell in love with one of its stars, Frederick Coombs, and had sex with the star of The Boys in the Sand, Cal Culver (“one of the most extraordinary afternoons of my life”) for 65 dollars. He loved antiques, fine furniture, expensive clothes, and grand hotels. Inspired by the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, he gave a Black and White ball when he was living in L.A. that inspired Capote’s more famous version in New York two years later. He took part in The Advocate Experience, a program run by David Goodstein in the 1970s to help gay men feel more at ease with their identity. He produced the films The Panic In Needle Park, Play It As It Lays, and Ash Wednesday.

His longtime companion was a painter named Norman Mabry who was there for him during his final decline. [AZ: I haven’t been able to find out anything more about Mabry.] One of the honorary pallbearers at his funeral was his classmate at Williams College, Stephen Sondheim. And yet, Dunne was in the closet almost all his life, terrified that he would be outed as a homosexual, until he died of bladder cancer at 83 in 2009.

{Entertainment journalist] Robert Hofler, whose other books include The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson [also Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos and the Allan Carr bio Party Animals], has found in the subject of Dominick Dunne several strands that make up a fascinating portrait of American culture from the 1950s to the present. One of them is the closet. Another is Dunne’s (and our) obsession with celebrity. Another is simply the incredible violence in American life, the string of tabloid murders whose subsequent trials (the Menendez brothers, O. J. Simpson, Phil Spector, Michael Skakel) provided Dunne a second career as a reporter for Vanity Fair — after being told by his agent, following Dunne’s hitting bottom in Hollywood, “I can’t get you a picture. Nobody wants you.”

The latter makes Hofler’s book one of those redemption stories dear to American hearts — the man rejected by L.A. society as a drunken failure returns years later to cover the O. J. trial as Vanity Fair’s star columnist, the guest every A-List hostess who once ignored him must now have at her dinner party. Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne is a tale of resentment and revenge, of enemies who become friends who become enemies of a man with an extraordinary appetite for life and a character that mixed generosity and pettiness, fair-mindedness and bias, snobbery and sympathy for the underdog. It is a record of the four tumultuous decades stretching from the Manson murders (1969) to the second O. J. Simpson trial (2007), the one that finally put him in jail not for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman but for threatening a man selling Simpson memorabilia in a Las Vegas hotel room. And last but not least, it is the story of Dunne’s relationship with a couple known in L.A. as “the Didions” — Dominick Dunne’s younger brother, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and his famous wife Joan Didion, whose book Slouching Toward Bethlehem supplies the perfect epigraph to this saga of industrial-scale gossip: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

One never knows quite what it was that led the Didions to keep John Gregory Dunne’s older brother at arm’s length. They were not interviewed on that subject and there is no record of their private opinions. But besides a truly malicious sibling rivalry on John’s part, attested to in numerous incidents in this book, one gets the impression that they viewed Dominick as someone who threatened their own climb to the top…

No doubt the Didions felt that they would suffer from social contagion through any association with Dominick, with his embarrassing, drunken, public displays during his bottoming-out period; his gossipy, vulgar celebrity worship throughout his life; and his ornamental gayness, visible to almost everyone — how could you miss it? — but never publicly voiced, though acquaintances were apparently often savage in private. (From the US Queer as Folk character Brian Kinney: “There’s only two kinds of straight people in this world: The ones that hate you to your face… and the ones that hate you behind your back).” — a harsh judgment that, insofar as it’s on the mark, holds whether you’re out or in the closet.)

For obviously gay people like Dunne, the closet represents a social contract: you, the faggot or dyke, won’t acknowledge your sexuality in public, and we, your acquaintainces and colleagues and the media, won’t mention your stigma, so nobody will mention your disgusting secret in public and it will (almost) be as if it never was. You exchange acknowledging (even celebrating) a significant piece of your identity in public for the reward of a certain amount of social acceptance from those who know your secret– plus full social acceptance from those who don’t and would be offended, possibly aggressively so, on finding it out. (I ask, “How could you miss it?”, but a great many people do, despite the evidence.)

James Beard.  The briefest of backgrounds, from Wikipedia:

James Andrew Beard (May 5, 1903 – January 21, 1985) was an American cookbook author, teacher, and television personality. Beard was a champion of American cuisine who taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. His legacy lives on in twenty books, other writings and his foundation’s annual James Beard awards in a number of culinary genres.

Beard was a trailblazer, and a giant in his field. From IMDb:

I Love to Eat tv series (1946–1947): Cookbook author James Beard demonstrated recipes for the home audience in the first network cooking show.

(I was in the first grade then, and we didn’t even have a tv set.)

Beard in his kitchen in 1962:

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On to Frank Bruni’s passionate NYT piece “Food, Sex and Silence” of 4/23/17. As with Holleran, Bruni’s own background should be made clear. From Wikipedia:

Frank Anthony Bruni (born October 31, 1964) is an American journalist and long-time writer for the New York Times. In June 2011, he was named an op-ed columnist for the newspaper, its first openly gay one. [Charles M. Blow, who joined the op-ed register in 2008, came out publicly as bisexual in 2014.] One of his many previous posts for the newspaper was as its chief restaurant critic, from 2004-2009. He is the author of three bestselling books: Born Round, a memoir about his family’s love of food and his own struggles with overeating; Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, about the college admissions mania; and Ambling Into History, about George W. Bush.

From the Times piece, with some crucial bits boldfaced:

James Beard was large. His obituaries told you so. “Portly” was how The Associated Press put it. The Los Angeles Times said that he was nearly 300 pounds at his apogee, though The New York Times clarified that a diet at one point “divested him of some of his heft.”

Nature divested him of his hair. He was bald, as all of those obituaries prominently noted.

He was also gay. Good luck finding a mention of that.

Oh, there were winks. “A lifelong bachelor.” “An Oregon-bred bachelor.” Oregon-bred? Makes him sound like a dairy cow. Or maybe a mushroom.

But there was nothing in those remembrances about his 30-year relationship — at first romantic, then less so — with Gino Cofacci, who was provided for in Beard’s will. Nothing about Beard’s expulsion from Reed College in the 1920s because of his involvements with other men. This newspaper’s obituary simply called him a “college dropout.”

It was published in 1985. The world has changed. And that progress is reflected in a new documentary, “James Beard: America’s First Foodie,” that PBS will air next month as part of its American Masters series.

Like Beard’s obituaries, it shows how he towered over the country’s culinary landscape, pioneering the kind of food television that Julia Child would later do and doling out advice in newspaper columns much like Craig Claiborne’s. He towers still. One of the great honors that a chef can receive is an invitation to cook at Beard House in Greenwich Village, previously his home and now a shrine. The annual Academy Awards of the restaurant world are called the Beards.

The documentary also goes where the obituaries didn’t, describing him as an exuberantly gay man. Anyone who knew him well knew him that way, but during his lifetime, there was typically a difference between what was privately understood and what was publicly said. A cloud hovered over gay people. And if we’re honest about much of America and about many Americans today, that cloud hasn’t entirely dispersed.

The discrepancy between accounts of Beard up until his death and posthumous assessments like “America’s First Foodie” remind me of how often oppression is an act of omission rather than commission: not letting people give voice and vent to much of what moves them and to all of what defines them; not recognizing and honoring that ourselves.

I’m struck, too, by the nature of lies. They’re not just statements. They’re silences that fail to confront bad as well as beautiful things, often with grievous consequences.

We once turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse and rape, so we believed they rarely happened and weren’t adequately on guard. We once didn’t acknowledge the loving, nurturing relationships between two men or two women, so we deemed them freakish and weren’t sufficiently accepting. Our denial and ignorance kept bigotry in business.

One of the many arguments — no, imperatives — for recognizing same-sex marriage is that it’s the only telling of the full truth. Otherwise we erase whole chunks of people’s existences, and that’s as cruel and mistaken “as it would be to leave out someone’s life work or what country they lived in,” said Nathaniel Frank, the author of “Awakening,” a history of the marriage-equality movement that will be published this month.

… Some obituaries of [food writer Craig] Claiborne in 2000 — though not The Times’s — left out his gayness. Some obituaries of the writer Susan Sontag in 2004 failed to mention her romantic relationships with women, including the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Some obituaries of the trailblazing astronaut Sally Ride in 2012 made scant, ambiguous reference to the fact that she was lesbian.

The list goes on. The reasons vary. Maybe a person’s survivors gave signals to obituary writers not to broach this subject. Maybe those writers were in the dark. Maybe they couldn’t ascertain by deadline what the deceased person would have wanted, and they erred on the side of saying nothing, a decision born of courtesy but steeped in prejudice.

All of this adds up to an incomplete picture of our society and who shaped it. It adds up to a lie.

When Beard died at the age of 81, he was working on a memoir in which he planned to make his sexual orientation abundantly clear to his fans. He tape-recorded reminiscences, used in 1990’s “The James Beard Celebration Cookbook,” that included the statement: “By the time I was 7, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.”

Why wasn’t it time when his obituary appeared on our front page? I went in search of its writer, Albin Krebs, and quickly stumbled across his own obituary in The Times in 2002.

I noticed that it said nothing about a marriage or children or any romantic life. I noticed that he died, at the age of 73, in Key West, Fla.

I tracked down a few journalists who remembered him, and then his nephew, a 68-year-old judge in Mississippi. My suspicions were confirmed: Krebs, a Mississippi native who served in the Air Force before his long and distinguished newspaper career, was himself gay.

(#5)

And certainly by the last years of his life, as he bobbed in his pool with a glass of whiskey in his hand, “He didn’t give a damn what anybody thought,” the nephew, Robert Krebs, told me, adding that his uncle left much of his estate to an AIDS charity in Key West.

Bruni effectively quotes Queer Eye‘s food and wine guy Ted Allen on the damages of the closet.

Note: Dominic Dunne, Andrew Holleran, James Beard, Albin Krebs, Frank Bruni, Ted Allen, … and me. Seven gay men. Queers: to paraphrase Madge the Manicurist, “You’re soaking in them!” (Get used to it!)

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