Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook
Cole Porter: A Biography by William McBrien; Knopf; 459 pages; $30.
Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest; Knopf; 461 pages; $30.
Scandal sheet authors of the 1950s often complained about a "homintern"; a cabal of homosexual men who controlled the arts. Though the "homintern" was never more than a myth, the fact remains that gay and bisexual influenced modern American music and drama in numbers far beyond Kinsey's infamous 10%.
Even a cursory roster of 20th Century American composers and lyricists proves my point: Samuel Barber, Michael Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitztein, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, Lorenz Hart, Ned Rorem, Billy Strayhorn, Virgil Thompson. . .
Any list of great gay composers must include Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. Both men, in their own way and in their own time, shaped and revolutionized the American musical theater.
Having a wife didn't hurt matters either, and Porter was for much of his life happily married to Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy widow whom he adored in spite of his contrary sexual orientation.
The Porters smiled indulgently as Hollywood bowdlerized Cole's life in the "biopic" Night and Day, starring none other than Cary Grant as the composer. Still, Porter repeatedly pushed the envelope with such popular but controversial songs as "Anything Goes," I'd Rather Be Spanish (Than Mannish)," "I'm a Gigolo," "Let's Misbehave" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."
In 1932, Porter used the old meaning of the word in the title of his hit show, Gay Divorce. Nine years later, in his often-quoted song "Farming," Porter reflected the changing times when he referred to movie star George Raft's bull as "beautiful, but...gay!" Who says Cole Porter was not au courant!
Cole Porter: A Biography is the most comprehensive life of the composer ever written, and a vast improvement over Charles Schwartz's shoddy study of some years back. McBrien portrays Porter as the sophisticated bon vivant that he was without ignoring his subject's low points, especially the painful and tragic years that followed Cole's 1937 riding accident.
Like Porter, McBrien sees no contradiction between his subject's thirty-five year marriage and his endless pursuit of other men. Though McBrien names a few of Cole's lovers, he wisely refrains from repeating some of the more outrageous rumors about Porter's sex life, such as his allegedly masochistic relationship with actor Jack Cassidy. If Cole Porter makes dull reading at times, blame not the author but Porter's largely charmed--hence undramatic-- life.
To some degree, the life of gay composers have not improved much from the Age of Cole Porter to the Age of Stephen Sondheim. Though Sondheim (born 1930) never married, his obvious discomfort with his sexuality made him seek a psychiatrist, which Porter never did.
And Stephen never wrote anything near the campy, double-entendre songs that made Cole made (in)famous. Unlike Michael Bennett or Jerry Herman, Sondheim has never dealt directly with the topic of homosexuality in his work, though songs like "Somewhere" (from West Side Story) have since become gay anthems.
And although Sondheim's homosexuality was well-known throughout the gay and theater worlds - I first heard about it over twenty years ago-- he only became comfortable enough to talk about just the other day, so to speak.
Meryle Secrest's first biography, Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks (1974), was one of the first books to fully deal with its subject's lesbianism. Secrest has since written successful biographies of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark and a less-successful biography of Leonard Bernstein.
For Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Secrest got the complete cooperation of her subject, who opened up as he's never opened up before. As a result, Stephen Sondheim is to a large degree the autobiography Stephen Sondheim will probably never write.
Sondheim's involvement in his biography allows Secrest to reveal personal details of the man's life that were once out of bounds to Sondheim scholars. On the other hand, by depending so much on its subject, Secrest's book lacks the objectivity that every great biography needs and prevents it from revealing details that Sondheim would still consider to be too embarrassing.
The whole world knows about Stephen Sondheim's theatrical triumphs, from West Side Story to Into the Woods, and Stephen Sondheim adds very little to this knowledge.
On the other hand, Secrest's book fascinates us with details of the reserved composer and lyricist's private life, from his troubled relationship with his mother to his sexual orientation. Unlike his friend and sometime collaborator, writer Arthur Laurents, Sondheim only came to accept his homosexuality in recent years.
And it wasn't till 1991 that Sondheim was able to fall in love --with Peter Jones, a much younger composer. How all of this will affect his music still remains to be seen. By happy necessity, Stephen Sondheim: A Life remains an unfinished book.