Ethics and Evidence in Gay Biography:
American Composer Marc Blitzstein

As researchers in history, biography, and allied trades attempt to reconstruct our past, sexual identity issues can be problematic. What constitutes evidence and how should it be interpreted? Are those gushing letters of deep friendship framed in florid breathless prose simply 19th-century Romantic effusions not to be taken literally, or proof of bedtime intimacy? How about double entendres and innuendo? Are they merely teasing jokes or do they refer to actual bodily knowledge? What about word of mouth? Can we assume that every roommate or companion relationship between men or between women was actually an affair of the heart (and more)?

Much effort in current biography is being directed toward correcting and countering the "asexual" myth that surrounds so many heterosexually-written lives of gays and lesbians. One thinks of Franz Schubert, Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, Cole Porter, Danny Kaye. But too often, in our zeal to uncover the truth, we make assertions that go beyond the verifiable and into the speculative. And of course, we project into the past today's gender and sexuality definitions that would have been unheard of at the time.

We have compiled historical lists of accomplished gays and lesbians in every field, from ancient times to the present. Most of these people would be shocked to find themselves there, not so much because they are indelibly infected with self-hatred and denial, but because in their time, the very categories did not exist. Even in 20th-century lives, when we might suppose that typologies are close to our own, we have problematic and controversial cases like Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, Bessie Smith and Malcolm Forbes. And then, once we have concluded who's what, do we have the right to "out" these individuals at will? How public do their private lives have to be? Does a "statute of limitations" apply; i.e. can we feel safe with complete candour about people and events more than 50 years ago, or 100? What about living relatives and descendants?


In the course of my research on the life and work of the gay American composer Mark Blitzstein, I interviewed filmmaker Willard Van Dyke in October of 1980. He had worked with Blitzstein on two films. One of them, Native Land, featured the great black singer, actor, and political leader Paul Robeson. Van Dyke lived in a Greenwich Village apartment just below a theatrical stage manager and his wife. Every Saturday, van Dyke noticed that the wife left her apartment at a certain time and didn't return until late in the day. One time, as friendly neighbours, van Dyke and the woman got into conversation and she learned that she made scarce so that Paul Robeson could come over for his weekly assignation with her husband. Van Dyke told me that few people knew of this gay side of Robeson: on the contrary, he was widely known for having a series of affairs with women. Blitzstein knew it, as he and Robeson were good friends; Van Dyke knew it, more or less by accident; and now I knew it.

A year after this revealing interview, I wrote a review of a book of writings was Paul Robeson. Bursting with this secret knowledge about his life, I wrote that Robeson was an absorbing person who, among many other attributes, was bisexual. This mention caused a minor furore. A number of people asked how I could verify it. A peeved Paul Robeson, Jr. phoned me to deny it. But in answer to these questions, I did not feel free to reveal that source, does Van Dyke had requested confidentiality.

The issue died down until late 1988, when an article in The Advocate reporting the sites where famous gay people are buried included Paul Robeson, "recently revealed to have been gay." I had a hunch that my earlier book review had been the source of this misinformation. I say "mis" because I never said he was gay. In any case, Martin Bauml Duberman had, in the meantime, thoroughly researched Robeson for a biography; and while I am sure Duberman would have been greatly amused to find that Robeson had a gay side, he did not.

I wrote to the Advocate asking for the author's source and offering my Van Dyke story (van Dyke had died by then, so I felt I could reveal the source of my information). I explained that though I felt sure at the time that van Dyke was speaking the truth, it was, in the end, only a single, uncorroborated piece of hearsay. Perhaps I had been wrong to write about it, I noted in my letter, and I now felt I had to retract the statement.

The Advocate writer, I later learned, did not get his misinformation from me. Rather, he got it from veteran gay activist Jim Kepner, who, while making a delivery to Robeson's home in New York City in 1947, found him fresh from the shower in a lavender dressing down. Robeson invited the young delivery boy in for some exotic tea. Kepner later recalled: "All through the conversation I had the feeling, 'is something going on here?' No overt pass was made; it was nothing I could put my finger on. And I was so in awe of Robeson that I dismissed the thought. But it persisted."

Interesting choice of words - "nothing I could put my finger on." Forty years later, the Advocate writer argued that, "given that Kepner's impression was first hand, I felt secure in making use of it, though I would not presume to make a definitive statement based on it." Yet that is exactly what he had done! By the way, it's worth mentioning the name of the Advocate author chastised by this humbling foray into wannabe gay never-never-land. Stuart Timmons turned around and gave us THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY HAY, FOUNDER OF THE MODERN GAY MOVEMENT, a biography whose standards of research I find next to impeccable.

This little tale says something about evidence in biography. If Marty Duberman uncovered nothing about Robeson being bisexual, does that mean that van Dyke's story has no validity? I don't know. Perhaps van Dyke was utterly mistaken; maybe for reasons of his own (incidentally, so far as I know, he was not gay or bisexual) he wanted to think of Robeson as bisexual. Perhaps Robeson's bisexuality was known to Marc Blitzstein and Willard van Dyke in ways that were never documented.

What where the ethics of claiming Robeson's bisexuality on the basis of one uncorroborated report? Knowing what I know now, I should not have mentioned it. But when I discussed it at the time, with none other than Marty Duberman (who in the early 1980s never dreamed he would soon be writing Robeson's biography), his attitude was rather laissez faire. "Why not?," he said, speaking as a researcher of gay and lesbian life. "Our history has been so buried, we have been so consciously deprived of knowledge about ourselves and our past, that we have to float is things in order to excite any possible information to rise to the surface. It's a small sin to commit in the face of the much larger one that's been committed against us."


I leave Robeson, and come to Marc Blitzstein, whose life I have chronicled in MARK THE MUSIC: THE LIFE AND WORK OF MARK BLITZSTEIN. Blitzstein almost single handedly introduced onto the American stage a range of voices for all our social classes that earlier Broadway musicals, inspired by Viennese operetta, had rarely done. A child prodigy, he studied with America's best teachers in the 1926, and continued with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. The only American to have studied with both, he drew from Boulanger an enthusiasm for the Stravinskian lyrical line, and from Schoenberg an openness to technical experimentation and a passion for exactitude. In his early song settings of Walt Whitman poems from the Calamus series, Blitzstein consciously tried to shock his audience with open eroticism. In later operas and theatre works such as the cradle will Rock, no for an answer, the airborne Symphony, Regina, and Juno, he embraced controversial subjects such as Labour and immigrant rights, alcoholism, women's suppression, racism, sexism, colonialism, and spiritual alienation. In his last years he devoted his attentions to Sacco and Vanzetti for the Metropolitan Opera, which he could not complete. His life and career show the evolution of a socially conscious intellectual through the course of this century's most innovative and frightening decades.

The subject of Mark Blitzstein attracted me first and foremost because I love his music and his "alternative" stance toward culture in America. As composer and librettist or lyricist for most of his work, he stands as a kind of American Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, conveying the knowing, street wise, ironic sensitivities of the militant 1930s. (Not surprisingly, after Kurt Weill died in 1950, it was Blitzstein who translated Threepenny opera into the version that played off-Broadway for seven years: "Mack the Knife" owes its worldwide popularity largely to Blitzstein's efforts.)

I was also drawn to Blitzstein because I believed I could understand the life of a gay man and I was anxious not to allow this incredibly vital personality to fall in to the wrong, possibly homophobic, hands.

But there are different kinds of gay bias. Early in my research, I came across an edition of the gay engagement calendar. Opposite the date of Blitzstein's birthday appeared his photo, with a caption reading something like: "Marc Blitzstein, American composer, 1905 - 1964. Murdered in Martinique by hustlers." Here the entire case for Blitzstein's renown was summed up in an inaccurate précis of his tragic end: the death and gay martyr apotheosis more important in this morbid scheme of sensibility than his life and achievements. So I proceeded with my research in part to counter the fatalistic sensationalism surrounding his reputation.

Yet for long stretches, Blitzstein's life was not happy. Indeed, Blitzstein did hang out in some of the "wrong places," approach the "wrong kinds" of men for sex, and place himself in situations that more prudent people might have avoided. Thus, as a gay sensitive biographer, my challenge was to place his death in such a context that the reader understand how Blitzstein found himself, at age 58 and in ill health, in a Martinique waterfront bar, late, with large amounts of cash, drinking too much, and trying to pick up three sailors. And I had to accomplish this without "blaming the victim," which I knew homophobes would be only too ready to do.


At the time Blitzstein died, in 1964, the Cold War raged as the civil rights movement picked up steam. Homosexuality was barely spoken of in polite company, Stonewall was another five years off. Blitzstein's sister, Jo Davis, with whom he shared his most devoted personal relationship, was alive, as was his 81 year old mother. Neither welcomed the publicity surrounding his death. Such was the private character of Blitzstein's life that when he died, neither of Jo's two sons, then mature men in their late thirties, even knew their uncle was gay.

When I began my research in 1978, Jo told me that her bisexual brother was a man of such broad humanity that he felt equally comfortable with men and women. This was untrue, and I'm sure she knew it, though she may have tried to convince herself of it. For three years, in the Thirties, Blitzstein had in fact been married to a woman who died of anorexia. Their interest in one another was almost entirely Platonic, however. If there is no evidence of Blitzstein's sexual activities with women after his wife's death in 1936, there is ample witness to his homosexual life, beginning when he was still in his teens and extending until his death. This evidence came up often in interviews with his friends and family, and its occurs frequently in his letters.

From Washington, DC, where he had gone in 1942 for induction into the US army, Blitzstein sent a postcard to Leonard Bernstein, his brilliant 24 years old friend, who had conducted The Cradle Will Rock upon graduation from Harvard three years before. With reference to the card's depiction of the Washington monument, Blitzstein wrote, "here, and every inch a soldier." Clearly, from one gay man to another (13 years his junior), the suggestiveness is unmistakable. In a personal interview, Bernstein assured me that he and Blitzstein had been nothing more than close friends who shared musical ideas but never got involved in each other's personal lives.

I suspected this not to be true, but had no evidence with which to press Bernstein. I further suspected that since Joan Peyser's biography of Bernstein was about to appear, the rumours already thick that it would be a massive exposé of Bernstein's private life, Bernstein was playing his hand close to the vest. Such sensationalistic accounts often serve to poison the well for more serious scholars. Peyser, incidentally, has the composer (and current ASCAP President) Morton Gould recalling that he met Bernstein in the company of Mark Blitzstein, whom he assumed to be Bernstein's lover.

Evidence of Blitzstein's homosexuality also crops up in the sometimes homoerotic lyrics in his operas and musicals, and in songs which are particularly suggestive of the kind of rough sex he apparently liked. Passages in the Airborne Symphony are particularly telling. This is an hour long cantata for men's voices and orchestra, written as a US army commission, recounting the historic quest to fly, and the experience of World War Two - the build up, the terror of the Nazi blitz, and the heroism of the allied flyers. Thirty seven years old when he enlisted, Blitzstein found himself in the company of airmen and bombardiers half his age. In Airborne's "hurry up" chorus, he has his young crew dress up in meticulously detailed flight gear and then, article by article, take it all off when the mission is scrubbed, "and last but not least your long handled draws." It is virtually a musical striptease, obvious to any gay listener but closeted (in 1946) against a straight audience's perception.

Despite Jo Davis' polite fiction about her brother, she did not stand in the way of my research. She allowed me free access to all of Blitzstein's letters, diaries, and artistic works as well as those of his wife; she facilitated my interviewing anyone I chose. Jo died in 1987, an event I faced with a mix of feelings. I regret her never seeing the book that took me 10 years to research. Yet her death granted me a kind of freedom to write exactly the book I wanted to write, one which discusses Blitzstein's intimate life in the same natural, inclusive manner a conscientious contemporary biographer would employ in writing about anyone's life.

Jo's two sons, the heirs to Blitzstein's estate, both have a liberal sensibility. Indeed, one of them, a writer by profession, had already treated his uncles lives in a novel that dealt with his homosexuality (Christopher Davis, The Sun in Mid- Career). Neither of them objected to my research. Few biographies of subjects either living or recently dead have enjoyed such co-operation.


I encountered no controversy surrounding Mark Blitzstein's sexual orientation, nor any objection to my revealing or discussing it. With one exception, the ethical problems in my research involved primarily others. That exception involves the time Blitzstein consulted a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in New York, for chronic depression - an incident I would not have known about but for the unethical acquisition of Blitzstein's records by the FBI in a security investigation. Was it proper to use or cite the diagnosis. I opted to do so, feeling that the lack of ethical behaviour was the Government's, not mine; I hoped to show that the surveillance and "dirty tricks" to which Blitzstein was subjected were part of the atmosphere in the 1940s that made dissent and nonconformity of all kinds a dangerous habit.

About the dead I felt no such reservations what to say or reveal, nor about those still alive at the time of publication whose orientation was a matter of public knowledge. As for the living who had never come out publicly, I went both ways on this, not limiting myself to a hard and fast rule. For example, I indicated the sexual orientation of composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson because it was broadly hinted at in so many places that it would have seemed coy to pretend not to know. In the case of Virgil Thomson, however, I did not include in the book an incident he shared with me (and asked me not to use) when he visited New Yorks infamous Everard Baths, and spotted Blitzstein among the clientele. Rather than suffer possible embarrassment for both, he left the premises in haste. Finally, in cases of people not in the public eye, or who fitted into the book in tangential ways, I rarely considered their gayness to be relevant.

In a stroke of extreme fortune, Blitzstein's wartime buddy - with whom he maintained a relationship for four or five years, and whom I had unsuccessfully tried to locate - unexpectedly turned up as I was midway through writing the manuscript. Now living with his wife of some 40 years on Long Island, Bill Hewitt was the only man with whom Blitzstein ever sustained an ongoing relationship, troubled though it was. Basically heterosexual, though with some gay experience (which happened to include a friendship with Marc Blitzstein), Bill did not care to be limited by a definition as Blitzstein's homosexual lover. Given the overall arc of his life, I agreed to this, though I went as far as I could by calling him Marc's buddy or friend.

The point is, I did not feel restricted by Bill's wishes. Personally, I do not conclude that a few experiences, even over an extended time, necessarily define a person as gay. I tend to give people a lot more elbowroom in saying who and what they are than some others are known to do in the gay movement (and this all took place before a gay movement even existed in the United States). While I would have suspected Bill's desire for privacy anyway, my sense of this relationship is that it was only intermittently sexual, it never dominated in Bill's life (though it did in Marc's), and it never lead Bill away from his natural heterosexual preference.

Mark the Music goes far beyond Blitzstein's life in its portrait of American serious music in the twentieth century, and its many leading creators who were gay. In the book I related that during times in the late 1940s when Bill was missing heterosexual contact, so was Felicia Montealegre, the woman who courted Leonard Bernstein unhappily for years before their eventual marriage. So Bill and Felicia enjoyed a sexual escapade or two. What I did not report, because of the sensitivities of all involved, was that Bernstein and Bill Hewitt (both now dead) also had sex on occasion - likely the only person to have slept with both Lenny and Felicia. Bill told me how Bernstein's secretary would come in during the morning and take down Bill's current phone number, "in case the maestro would like to see you again." All of this I learnt after I'd interviewed Bernstein.


I have written here about what in the end are very far from the most important reasons I wrote Marc Blitzstein's biography. I did not write it to establish Blitzstein's place as a "gay culture hero," though naturally in our movement's desire to "claim" the famous as our own, this has happened to an extent. One homophobic reviewer of my book, addressing the theme of gay biographies of gay composers, goes so far as to claim that I "insist that their homosexuality is part of the reason for their greatness," which I do not do in any way. Plain honesty is just too much to hear for those who prefer their composer's straight.

Still, I call attention to a letter Marc Blitzstein wrote to his sister Jo in 1929, his coming out statement to her. At the age of 24 he has already developed a highly cerebral approach to his emotions; nevertheless, he shows an awareness and self- acceptance from which a young person coming out today might happily learn.

"I am nearing an adjustment which will be productive of many things. I think I have often given the impression (even to people who are close to me, like you) of a mental Organisation so in-control that the emotional aspect had gone sterile or wasn't born yet. That has been a very small part of the truth. What actually went on was a mechanism, built up of fear, which tried to douse the emotional urge; but which was much less powerful than that urge. I knew it was bad for me; I lacked courage to express the emotional - sexual aux Fond - thing. I think you guess - you know - what all this is about. It has become imperative at last that I cut out the "balance," the "control" (I am a pretty good actor, I project well, nearly everybody thought it was the real thing", and let out what has been secret and furtive in me for so long. Shame is the single largest enemy; the sense of being sick, of living a diseased life, is another. Now, I accept what I am; really, knowing all it involves. In this light, it is absurd to assert that there are no sins; there are definitely Cardinal sins - sins against oneself, against one's law. My sin is, has been ... the willingness to corrupt my nature."