Today in Gay History

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April 17

Thornton Wilder
1897 -

THORNTON WILDER, American dramatist (d. 1975); Nowadays, you’re supposed to be decidedly middle-brow if you get wet-eyed at the concluding scenes of Our Town. Well, hell, who wants to be high-brow anyway?! So admit it, the end of that play really gets you every time doesn’t it? (Well, almost every time. When June Allyson attempted to play the lead many years ago, the perverse among us cheered when Emily died in childbirth.)

When you think of that famous closing scene, with its umbrellas and the folding chairs on which the dead of "Grovers Corners" sit, think of Samuel M Steward (see July 23) who, when Wilder was having difficulties finishing his play, accompanied the playwright on a long, long walk in the rain. The next day, Wilder completed his play. Steward later quipped, "Wilder was a superb craftsman, but now that his homosexuality has been officially recognized, his reputation is almost certain to slip. As we all know, queers don’t know how to write plays."

This will no doubt come as a tremendous shock to Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Noel Coward, Harvey Fierstein, Tony Kushner, Stephen Fry, Lorenz Hart, Charles Ludlam, Terrence McNally, Manuel Puig, and Emlyn Williams...just to name one or two.

Wilder’s Our Town, set in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire was inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans, and many elements of Stein's deconstructive style can be found throughout the work. Our Town employs a choric narrator called the “Stage Manager” and a minimalist set to underscore the universality of human experience. (Wilder himself played the Stage Manager on Broadway for two weeks and later in summer stock productions.)

Following the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families as well as the other inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, Wilder illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. The play won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. That same year Max Reinhardt directed a Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder had adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). It was a failure, closing after just 39 performances.

Another of his failures, his Broadway effort in 1938, The Merchant of Yonkers, was, well there's no other way to put it, a bomb.  But wait, there's more.  Wilder re-worked it in 1954 with a new title - The Matchmaker.  That time it worked and a decade later was adapted as a little musical called Hello, Dolly!  

Chavela Vargas
1919 -

ISABEL VARGAS LIZANO (d: 2012), better known as CHAVELA VARGAS, was a Costa Rican-born Mexican singer. She was especially known for her rendition of Mexican rancheras, but she is also recognized for her contribution to other genres of popular Latin American music. She has been an influential interpreter in the Americas and Europe, muse to figures such as Pedro Almodovar, hailed for her haunting performances, and called "la voz áspera de la ternura", the rough voice of tenderness.

She is featured in many Almodóvar's films, including La Flor de mi Secreto in both song and video. She has said, however, that acting is not her ambition, although she had previously participated in films such as 1967's La Soldadera. Vargas recently appeared in the 2002 Julie Taymor film Frida, singing "La Llorona" (The Weeping Woman). Her classic "Paloma Negra" (Black Dove) was also included in the soundtrack of the film.

Vargas herself, as a young woman, was alleged to have had an affair with Frida Kahlo, during Kahlo's marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. She also appeared in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel, singing "Tú me acostumbraste" (You Got Me Used To), a bolero of Frank Dominguez. Joaquin Sabina’s song "Por el Boulevar de los Sueños Rotos" ("Down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams") is dedicated to Vargas.

Her heavy drinking and raucous life took their toll, and she vanished from public life in the 1970s. Submerged in an alcoholic haze, she said, she was taken in by an Indian family who nursed her back to health without knowing who she was. In 2003, she told The New York Times that she had not had a drink in twenty-five years.

In the early 1990s she began singing again at El Habito, the bohemian Mexico City nightclub. From there her career took off again, with performances in Latin America, Europe and the United States. At 81, she announced that she was a lesbian.

“Nobody taught me to be like this,” she told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2000. “I was born this way. Since I opened my eyes to the world, I have never slept with a man. Never. Just imagine what purity. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

On the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut in 2003, she looked back on how her singing had changed over her career. “The years take you to a different feeling than when you were 30,” she said in an interview with The Times. “I feel differently, I interpret differently, more toward the mystical.”

On the evening of her death in 2012, instead of holding a traditional Mexican wake, friends, fans and musicians gathered in the evening for a musical tribute at Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, where Ms. Vargas had spent many a night drinking with Mr. Jiménez. She would have loved it.

Tailor and haberdasher Tommy Nutter
1943 -

TOMMY NUTTER was a British tailor, famous for reinventing the Savile Row suit in the 1960s, born on this date (d: 1992).

Born in Barmouth, Meirionnydd and was raised in Edgware, Middlesex, where his father owned a local High Street Cafe. After the family moved to Kilburn, Nutter and his brother David attended Willesden Technical College. Nutter initially studied plumbing, and then architecture, but he abandoned both aged 19 to study tailoring at the Tailor and Cutter Academy.

In the early 1960s, he joined traditional tailors Donaldson, Williamson & Ward. After seven years, in 1969, he joined up with Edward Sexton, to open Nutters of Savile Row at No 35a Savile Row. They were financially backed by Cilla Black and her husband Bobby Willis, Managing Director of the Beatles' Apple Corps Peter Brown, and lawyer James Vallance-White.

The business was an immediate success, as Nutter combined traditional tailoring skills with innovative design. He designed for the Hardy Amies range, and then for the man himself. His clients included his investors, plus Sir Roy Strong, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger and Elton John. Nutter himself was most proud of the fact that, for the cover of The Beatles' album Abbey Road in 1969, he dressed three out of the four: George Harrison elected to be photographed on the road-crossing in denims.

In the 1970s his bespoke business became less successful, but he branched out into ready to wear clothing, marketed through Austin Reed. He also successfully expanded into East Asia, establishing the Savile Row brand in Japan. In 1976 Sexton bought Nutter out of the Business. Nutter went to work for Kilgour French and Stanbury, managing his own workroom. Sexton continued to run Nutters of Savile Row until 1983, when Nutter returned to the row with a ready to wear shop: "Tommy Nutter, Savile Row". (This new venture, which traded at No 19 Savile Row until Tommy's death, was backed by J&J Crombie Limited, who continue to own the "Tommy Nutter" trademark.) At this time, Sexton set up a business in his own name.

In the 1980s, he described his suits as a "cross between the big-shouldered Miami Vice look and the authentic Savile Row." He created the clothing of The Joker worn by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film Batman.

Nutter died in 1992 at the Cromwell Hospital in London of complications from AIDS.

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