Today in Gay History

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March 01

Frédéric François Chopin
1810 -

FREDERICK CHOPIN was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era born on this date and wrote primarily for solo piano (d: 1849). He has maintained worldwide renown as a leading musician of his era, one whose "poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation."

After a failed engagement to Maria Wodzinska from 1836 to 1837, he maintained an often troubled relationship with the French writer Amantine Dupin (known by her pen name, George Sand). A brief and unhappy visit to Mallorca with Sand in 1838–39 would prove one of his most productive periods of composition. In his final years, he was supported financially by his admirer Jane Stirling, who also arranged for him to visit Scotland in 1848. For most of his life, Chopin was in poor health. He died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39, probably of pericarditis aggravated by tuberculosis.

 As archivists and biographers are wont to do, Chopin’s have for centuries turned a deliberate blind eye to the composer’s homoerotic letters in order to make the Polish national icon conform to conservative norms.

The music journalist Moritz Weber, searching Chopin’s letters, said he discovered a “flood of declarations of love aimed at men”, sometimes direct in their erotic tone, sometimes full of playful allusions. In one, Chopin described rumors of his affairs with women as a “cloak for hidden feelings”.

“You don’t like being kissed,” Chopin wrote to his school friend Tytus Woyciechowski in one of 22 letters. “Please allow me to do so today. You have to pay for the dirty dream I had about you last night.” Letters to the friend, who was actively involved in Poland’s January uprising of 1863, often start with “My dearest life” and end with: “Give me a kiss, dearest lover.”

Some letters fall just short of being sexually explicit. In July 1837, Chopin wrote to his friend Julian Fontana in Paris from London, reporting with excitement about “great urinals” with “nowhere to have a good tinkle”.

In an 1829 letter to Tytus Woyciechowski cited on the programme, Chopin refers to “my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, […] about whom I dream”, and who inspired an adagio in his recent concerto. Weber argues that the context of the letter makes it clear that this “ideal” is the letter’s addressee himself.

Yet a translation of Chopin’s letters published in 2016 by Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute assigns the “ideal” in the letter a feminine pronoun (“not having spoken to her for half a year now”) even though the Polish noun is masculine.

As recently as 2018, a Chopin biography by English-Canadian musicologist Alan Walker described Woyciechowski as a mere “bosom friend”. The erotically charged letters addressed to a man, Walker writes in Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, were the product of a “psychological confusion”, a “mental twist”, which made Chopin divert thoughts of sexual desire to his friend “that should more properly have been addressed to Konstancja [Gładkowska]”, a Polish soprano with whom the composer has been described as having been infatuated. Sez who?

Weber says his research has found no concrete evidence of Chopin’s love for Gładkowska, or a supposed engagement to 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska. “These affairs were just rumors, based on flowery footnotes in biographies from the previous two centuries,” he told the Guardian in a phone interview. “Neither the Chopin Institute nor his biographers have been able to deliver any proof.”

One wonders why no one has offered any "proof" of heterosexuality, either, other than a presumptive leap of faith that, of course, everyone is heterosexual, aren't they?

Lytton Strachey
1880 -

LYTTON STRACHEY, author, was born on this date.  Lytton Strachey is not only the author of Eminent Victorians, one of the most popular books of its day, but also one of the liveliest rejoinders in Gay history.

As a conscientious objector is WWI, he was asked what he'd do if a Hun were to rape his sister. "I'd throw myself between them," he replied, with uncharacteristic generosity (His sister, Dorothy, incidentally, was a Lesbian.) Because he was such a wit, and because of his battles with John Maynard Keynes over Rupert Brooke, Duncan Grant, and other young men, Strachey is sometimes seen as a bit of an effete twit.

But he was experienced enough to tell E.M. Forster that the sexual relationship between the two main characters in Maurice was "rather diseased." All they ever did, he complained, was masturbate together (all that their creator knew to do, by the way). Strachey thought that there were more interesting things to do, and one of the people with whom he did them was Alan Searle, who eventually became the companion of W. Somerset Maugham. Strachey called young Searle his "little Bronzino," and passed him on to Maugham. Years later, when Searle was sent for to live with the elderly writer, Maugham took one look at what twenty years and pounds had done to Searle and said, "My dear, you used to be quite a dish; now you're quite a tureen."

Mercedes de Acosta
1893 -

On this date the American poet, playwright, costume designer, and socialite MERCEDES DE ACOSTA was born. (d. 1968). She is best remembered for her numerous love relationships with Hollywood personalities including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova, Tamara Karsavina, Eva Le Gallienne, Isadora Duncan, Katharine Cornell, Ona Munson, Adele Astaire and, allegedly, Tallulah Bankhead, amongst others, which she documented in her controversial autobiography Here Lies the Heart.

Although talented in her professional field, it is no doubt her personal life that has made her famous in Hollywood circles. She became involved in numerous Lesbian relationships with Hollywood's elite, claimed much manier, and did not attempt to hide her sexuality.

In 1916 she began an affair with actress Alla Nazimova, and shortly thereafter started an affair with young actress Tallulah Bankhead, and later dancer Isadora Duncan. Shortly after marrying Abram Poole in 1920, de Acosta became involved in a turbulent five-year relationship with actress Eva Le Gallienne. The two women vacationed and travelled together often, at times visiting the salon of famed writer and socialite Natalie Barney in Europe. De Acosta wrote two plays for Eva during that time, Sandro Botticelli and Jehanne de Arc. Neither were successful, and the combined financial failures of both plays and de Acosta's possessive and jealous nature brought the affair to an end.

Over the next decade she amassed an ensemble of female partners, all of whom were either rising stars, or aging stars. These included Rudolph Valentino's alleged fiancée, actress Pola Negri, the writer Edith Wharton, writer and stage actress Katharine Cornell, socialite Dorothy ("Dickie") Fellowes-Gordon, and the writer Amy Lowell.

De Acosta was involved with married Russian ballerina Tamara Platonovna Karsavina throughout her life, after their first meeting in 1920. The two were as much friends as they were lovers, and Karsavina was one of the few who continued to be friendly toward de Acosta following the controversial autobiography released by the latter, exposing many of her relationships to the public.

Her memoir, Here Lies the Heart, was published in 1960 because Mercedes was seriously ill with a brain tumor and in need of money.  Its revelations, though highly sanitized and supported as fact, resulted in the severing of numerous friendships of famous women who preferred their sexuality remain private, including that of the mercurial Garbo. Eva Le Gallienne in particular was furious, and completely did away with anything reminding her of de Acosta. Many denounced her as a liar, stating that she invented these stories for fame. This is unlikely, as most of the affairs have been confirmed through personal correspondence, and many of the affairs were known to Hollywood insiders, but were kept out of the headlines for the sake of the actresses' careers.

She found herself cut off from many of her friends and increasingly in financial straits. De Acosta died at age 75 in relative poverty and obscurity. She is buried with her mother and sister, Rita Lydig at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, New York City.

Alice B. Toklas, the lover of Gertrude Stein, wrote to her friend, Anita Loos, " can't dispose of Mercedes lightly — she has had the two most important women in the U.S. — Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich."

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