PAUL SWAN was an American painter, sculptor, dancer, poet and actor born on this date (d: 1972). Once billed as “the most beautiful man in the world,” Swan has come to be looked on as a “gay camp icon.
As a teenager, Swan moved around various cities in the Midwestern United States. He tended to be rejected for his unconventional behavior and gender nonconformity, so he cultivated friendships with artists and LGBT figures in the area, including Willa Cather. In 1906 he was able to move to New York where he got a job with Dilineator magazine drawing ladies hats.
In 1910 Swan saw Russian actress Alla Nazimova perform in Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf in Albany, New York. He was inspired to paint her life-sized portrait and send it to her as a gift. She was so pleased that she commissioned Swan to paint four additional portraits. He used the money from the commission to travel to Egypt and Greece. In Greece he began his career as a dancer.
Swan married Helen Palmer Gavit, granddaughter of sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, in 1911 or 1912. They had two daughters. Though Swan had a number of other lovers in his life, both men and women, he stayed close with his wife until her death in 1951.
The aesthetic, Greek-inspired art and dance styles that Swan learned during this time would remain little changed throughout his life. Swan would reject what he called “all the weird -isms” of “cubism, futurism, post-impressionism.” This classical style was falling out of fashion even at the time that Swan was learning it. His decades of persistence with the outdated style would lead to his eventual perception as camp.
“What he was doing would make him liable to be in prison,” observed Swan biographer Richard Londraville. “He was able to walk through the world much more freely than most homosexuals would at the time. He was very lucky to have a wife that he could fall back on.”
Swan become a friend and possibly lover to Isadora Duncan, pioneer of modern dance. He painted Duncan’s portrait in 1922.
His training as a dancer translated to a career as a silent film actor. He appeared in the 1923 film The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille, and in other films of the silent era.
Swan moved to Paris in the early 1930s. Much of his artwork from this period was lost as a consequence of the Nazi occupation of Paris. His fame in the US had faded during his time overseas, but the war forced him to return. Swan took up residence at a studio in Carnegie Hall. There he performed weekly dance recitals almost every Sunday evening from 1939 to 1969.
As fashions changed and Swan aged, his weekly dance performances came to be seen as campy. Andy Warhol included Swan’s dance in Camp, a 1965 underground film about the camp style. Swan died in 1972 at age 88 in Bedford Hills, NY.