Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1998

Warren Allen Smith

Gossip from Across the Pond

by Warren Allen Smith

Virgil Thomson, whose Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and The Mother of Us All (1947) had operatic librettos by Gertrude Stein, was gay and a non-believer. This is documented in Anthony Tommasin’s biography, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997), which includes how the famous composer and influential music critic was once arrested in a male bordello in Brooklyn and how, at the age of ninety, he was wooed by a young admirer. Film buffs know that Thomson’s 1949 film score for Louisiana Story received the only Pulitzer Prize given for a film. In addition to describing Thomson’s distaste for organized religion, the biographer relates how, when in college, Thomson was introduced to and supplied with drugs by a Mormon who had rationalized in a 1918 doctoral dissertation that peyote was not technically a drug, that it allowed one to reach up to the “higher power” and “exalted state” that Jesus Christ had attained. Who was the Mormon? None other than the church founder’s grandson, Dr Frederick Madison Smith, who himself became the President of the religious group.

In his nineties, Thomson helped pre-plan the final “show” – his own funeral service. He chose it to be held in St John’s (Episcopal) Cathedral, which Gothic structure he called “St John the Too-Too Divine”. He also chose to die in his sleep, appropriately “in time to make all editions of the Sunday New York Times”. Although no speeches or spoken tributes were to be allowed, the cathedral’s dean, the Very Reverend James P Morton, gave a lengthy, pompous, and inaccurate tribute to Thomson, whom he barely knew, including basic facts of Virgil’s life which were incorrect. Later, in the little Missouri cemetery where Thomson’s ashes were buried, the local Baptist minister overlooked Virgil’s distaste for organized religion, saying that “Virgil’s parents were Baptists through and through. Virgil was read to from the Bible. Virgil was raised a Baptist, and that was important.” He then read two Psalms of David, a chapter from Revelation, and a passage from John. Just as plans in life go awry, so in death.

Lou Harrison, sometimes dubbed the senior gay composer in the United States, has been honored by issuance of a new compact disc, Lou Harrison: A Portrait (Argo, 1997), performed by the California Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Barry Jekowsky. The eighty-year-old’s work is contained in an eighty-minute anthology that illustrates why his avant-garde 1940s music brought him success and a seat in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A “cardbearing humanist” and devotee of Lucretius and Epicurus, Harrison has lived in Aptos, California, since 1967 with William Colvig, a contractor and member of an electricians’ union.

Ned Rorem, sometimes described as music’s elder statesman as well as its enfant terrible, is another musician who is an atheist and does not believe in an afterlife. He remains a nominal member of his parents’ church, the Society of Friends, because “For better or worse I believe that all war is wrong at all times. But I never go to meeting . . . any more than to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the tenets of which I nonetheless observe.” Rorem believes that gay-rights groups should seek to abolish the military, not achieve fuller representation in it.

To a Times reporter (28 Jan 1998), Rorem said, “I don’t think life has a purpose. We invent purposes to get through life. I feel basically good, but I am surrounded by death, the deaths of friends, and friends’ mates, and every time it is unbearable. I don’t believe in God, and I know there is no afterlife. Yet I do believe in belief. I’m not moved by the belief of the Moonies, but I am by the belief of Michelangelo, King David, and [social critic and pacifist] Paul Goodman.”

Rorem’s Paris Diary (1966) shocked many with its revelations about his and others’ sexual escapades as, for example, “I can’t sleep with famous people. Or for that matter with rich people, or people in power, used to being the centre of attention. I have been in bed with four Time covers – Lenny Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, and John Cheever (included among 3,000 proportionately anonymous souls, including one woman) – and I performed out of a combination of duress and politeness.” For twenty-seven years, Rorem has lived monogamously with James Holmes, an organist and choir director in New York.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-02-28 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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