American comedian, character actor, and Hollywood center square. He began his career doing stand-up before moving into theater, where he got his biggest break playing the father in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. He reprised the role in the film adaptation to great success. From there, he was sought after to make appearances on television and variety shows including The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, and most notably in the role of Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. In 1966, Lynde made his first appearance on the new gameshow Hollywood Squares. His snarky one-liners were so popular, he became the regular center square for most of the show’s run. Throughout his career, Lynde’s humor was built on camp and a flamboyant persona; during Hollywood Squares, his jokes were often thinly veiled references to his own homosexuality. But although he made subversive gay humor palatable for American homes, he never actually came out, except to close friends. He sometimes blamed his sexuality for keeping him from better roles, but it also may have been his reputation as a mean and occasionally violent alcoholic. He managed to quit drinking at the age of 53, but died of a heart attack two years later.
Real People: The “Openly Closeted” Paul Lynde
Despite the entertainment industry being hindered for years in portraying explicitly homosexual characters, those “in the know” were well aware of how this restriction was subverted by the very presence of certain actors and celebrities whose outrageous, decidedly “unmanly” personas could be interpreted as covertly gay. The movies had such jittery, effete ninnies like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, while television offered the likes of glittery, flamboyantly attired Liberace, who rocked the boat in the staid ‘50s by pushing his camp mannerisms to the limit; the mincingly nervous Charles Nelson Riley; and perhaps the most hilariously “sissified” of the bunch, the exasperated, acid-tongued Paul Lynde.
Despite his initial efforts to be taken seriously as an actor, Lynde realized early on that his exaggerated vocal inflections and stinging way of delivering a line got him easy laughs, so he accepted comedy as his future. He first gained attention on the Broadway stage as one of the comedic highlights of the revue New Faces of 1952, doing a version of his “African Hunter” monologue that had gained him a New York nightclub following. From this more specialized universe he leaped into the big time with his performance as the uptight dad in the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie (introducing the hit song “Kids”), a role he was asked to repeat on the big screen in 1963. Lynde was soon being hired both for film and television to deliver his patented acerbic remarks, often done with a shake of the head, a nasally snarl, and a drip of prissy sarcasm, certain words emphasized with campy relish for added impact. Fellow gays cherished Lynde for honing to perfection what could only be described as “the bitchy queen,” lobbing a withering retort at straight-laced America, who laughed as well at what they perceived to be nothing more than a “quirky” comedian, since there was no thought of casting Lynde in roles that were deliberately gay.
While fans fondly remembered him for playing prankster warlock Uncle Arthur on Bewitched or as the host of one of the kitschiest of all ‘70s variety offerings, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, it was being added to the cast of the daytime game show The Hollywood Squares that brought him his greatest fame. Positioned in the “center square,” he became the go-to favorite among the celebrity guests, being fed questions that ensured a tart, often surprisingly risqué reply, some of his answers clearly suggesting a coded, campy gay sensibility: i.e., the question “Why do Hells Angels wear leather?” received the reply, “Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.” During his eleven-year run as a series regular (1968–79), Lynde became revered as one of show business’s great “put down” comics. To most of America he was just a “smart ass” who talked kind of funny, but to the gay community his unapologetic, scalding manner was something to which they responded, perhaps interpreting the Lynde wit as a defense mechanism against an intolerant world.
For years, Rosemary Kennedy’s story was kept secret after her lobotomy was botched, leaving her unable to walk or talk.
Though John F. Kennedy and Jackie might be the most recognizable members of the family, the Kennedys were famous long before John became president.
Their father, Joe Kennedy Sr., was a prominent businessman in Boston and his wife, Rose, was a noted philanthropist and socialite. Together they had nine children, three of whom went into politics. For the most part they lived their lives in the open, almost like America’s version of a royal family.
But, like every family, they had their secrets.
Born in 1918, Rosemary Kennedy was the third child of Joe and Rose and the first girl. During her birth, the obstetrician who was supposed to be delivering her was running late. Not wanting to deliver the baby without a doctor present, the nurse reached up into Rose’s birth canal and held the baby in place.
The actions of the nurse would have lasting consequences for Rosemary Kennedy. The lack of oxygen delivered to her brain during her birth caused lasting damage to her brain, resulting in a mental deficiency.
Though she looked like the rest of the Kennedys, with bright eyes and dark hair, her parents knew she was different right away.
As a child, Rosemary was unable to keep up with her siblings, who would often play ball in the yard, or run around the neighborhood. Her lack of inclusion often caused “fits,” which were later discovered to be seizures or episodes relating to her mental illness.
However, in the 1920s mental illness was highly stigmatized. Fearing repercussions if her daughter couldn’t keep up, Rose pulled Rosemary out of school and instead hired a tutor to teach the girl from home. Eventually, she sent her to a boarding school, in lieu of institutionalizing her.
In 1928, Joe was named an ambassador to the Court of St. James in England. The entire family moved across the Atlantic and was presented at court to the public. Despite her disabilities, Rosemary joined the family for the presentation.
Of course, no one knew the extent of her disability, as the Kennedys had worked hard to keep it quiet.
In England, Rosemary gained a sense of normalcy, as she had been placed in a Catholic school run by nuns. With the time and patience to teach her, they were training her to be a teacher’s aide and she was flourishing under their guidance.
However, in 1940, when Germany marched on Paris, the Kennedys were forced back to the states, and Rosemary’s education was abandoned. Once back stateside, Rose placed Rosemary in a convent, though it didn’t last long. According to the nuns, Rosemary would sneak out at night and go to bars, meet strange men and go home with them.
At the same time, Joe was grooming his two oldest boys for a career in politics. Rose and Joe worried that Rosemary’s behavior could create a bad reputation not just for herself but for the whole family, and eagerly searched for something that would help her.
Dr. Walter Freeman was the answer.
Freeman, along with his associate Dr. James Watts had been researching a neurological procedure that was said to cure the physically and mentally disabled. The procedure? The lobotomy.
When it was first introduced, the lobotomy was hailed as a cure-all and was widely recommended by physicians. Despite the excitement, however, there were many warnings that the lobotomy, though occasionally effective, was also destructive. One woman described her daughter, a recipient, as being the same person on the outside, but like a new human on the inside.
Despite the warnings, Joe needed no convincing, as it seemed like this was the Kennedy family’s last hope. Years later, Rose would claim that she had no knowledge of the procedure until it had already happened. No one thought to ask if Rosemary had any thoughts of her own.
In 1941, when she was 23 years old, Rosemary Kennedy received a lobotomy. Two holes were drilled in her skull, through which small metal spatulas were inserted. The spatulas were used to sever the link between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain. Though it is not known whether he did so on Rosemary, Dr. Freeman would often insert an icepick through the patient’s eye to sever the link as well as the spatula.
Throughout the entire procedure, Rosemary was awake, speaking with doctors and reciting poems to nurses. They knew the procedure was over when she stopped speaking.
Immediately after the procedure, the Kennedys realized that something was wrong.
Rosemary could no longer speak or walk. She was moved to an institution and spent months in physical therapy before she regained movement, and even then it was only partially in one arm.
Rosemary Kennedy spent 20 years in the institution, unable to speak, walk, or see her family. It wasn’t until after Joe suffered a massive stroke that Rose went to go see her daughter again. In a panicked rage, Rosemary attacked her mother, unable to express herself any other way.
At that point, the Kennedys realized what they had done and began to champion rights for the mentally disabled.
John F. Kennedy would use his presidency to sign the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act, the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which his brother Ted pushed for during his time as a senator. Eunice Kennedy, JFK and Rosemary’s sister also founded the Special Olympics in 1962, to champion the achievements and abilities of the physically and mentally disabled.
After being reunited with her family, Rosemary Kennedy lived out the rest of her life in Saint Coletta’s, a residential care facility in Jefferson, Wisconsin, until her death in 2005.
QUESTIONABLE gay history! There is nothing in any of the accounts of Beau Brummell’s life to indicate he was gay. But there is also no indication that he was straight…in fact, no romantic trysts at all, with men, or women. There are suggestions that he may have been bisexual, but however you look at it – boy…he sure comes across as gay!
The name Beau Brummell is synonymous with Regency England, but what do you know about him? Researching this article I found that people associate him with silks, satins, and snuff, while one thought he was a fictional detective. It seemed the French writer Barbey d’Aurevilly was right: once the most famous man in the kingdom was “nothing but a name mysteriously sparkling in all the memoirs of his time.” So, what happened to Beau Brummell?
George Bryan Brummell was born in 10 Downing Street on 7th June 1778. He was the youngest son of William Brummell – an enterprising man who had risen to the position of Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, with all the influence and trappings that came with the role – a grace and favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace, a country house in Berkshire, and friendship with Charles James Fox, Richard Sheridan, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted the two curly-haired Brummell boys in 1781. The Brummell family had risen a long way in two generations and young George was to take the family name to even greater heights, and depths. He became a legend in his own lifetime and worked as hard at this as his father had done as a junior clerk.
In 1783, William Brummell retired with an income of about £2,500 a year – enough to send his two sons to Eton. There, George was well liked. He was good natured and clever but lazy and already developing his fastidious nature, avoiding the streets in wet weather and careful of his dignity. George went on to Oriel College at Oxford but left in 1794 when his father died, and instead joined the Prince of Wales’ own regiment, the Tenth Dragoons – or ‘The Elegant Extracts’ as they were known. The Dragoons were based in Brighton until civil unrest called them to the north and Brummell resigned immediately, saying that Manchester would be too disagreeable for him. His £40,000 inheritance meant he could afford to concentrate on being a gentleman. Quickly given the soubriquet ‘Beau’, he proved to be a witty and observant figure who made many friends. Charles Stanhope said
“I could understand a good deal of the secret of Brummell’s extraordinary success and influence in the highest society. He was a vast deal more than a mere dandy; he had wit as well as humour and drollery, and the most perfect coolness and self-possession.”
To be part of Brummell’s set was Society’s top cachet, and to be cut by him was social death. In the novel Granby there is a poorly disguised portrait.
“In the art of cutting he shone unrivalled. He could assume that calm but wandering gaze which veers, as if unconsciously, round the proscribed individual, neither fixing not to be fixed, not looking on vacancy nor on any one object, neither occupied nor abstracted, a look which perhaps excuses you to the person cut and, at any rate, prevents him from accosting you.”
Brummell was careful to remain free from obligations or attachments (he is said to have cut his own brother) and there were no signs of any relationships – either with women or men. His first biographer, Captain Jesse, thought that Brummell “had too much self love ever to be really in love.” Beau himself told Lady Hester Stanhope that he had adopted the only course possible to distance himself from ordinary men. As Oscar Wilde said more than a century later “to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
His friendship with the Prince of Wales did not last. As Brummell ceased to need the Prince’s patronage, so the Prince became jealous of Brummell’s position, but Brummell did not care. “I made him what he is and I can unmake him.” he quipped in an unguarded moment. By 1813 the end of the friendship was scandalously public when the Prince arrived at a party with Lord Alvanley and coldly ignored Brummell.
“Ah, Alvanley,” Brummell’s voice rang out clearly over the shocked silence, “Who is your fat friend?”
Brummell maintained his image so well that everyone was shocked when debts forced him to Calais in May 1816. In London, his effects were sold at auction, including his fine cellar “10 dozen Capital Old Port, 16 dozen of Burgundy, Claret, and Still Champagne. . .” They were, the publicity assured potential buyers, “the genuine property of a man of fashion, gone to the continent.” The auction raised £1000, but this was not enough to enable Brummell to return.
However, life in Calais was bearable. “No one can lead a more pleasant life than Brummell, for he passes his time between London and Paris” the British ambassador quipped, and Brummell’s friends visited him there, bring presents of money or gifts such as his favourite Façon de Paris snuff. In 1818 rumours abounded that he had been offered £5 thousand to write his memoirs, and that the Prince of Wales had offered £6 thousand for him not to do it.
Brummell became very popular in Calais “We used to call him Le Roi de Calais. He was a truly fine man, very elegant, and really well off – he always paid his bills and was very good to the poor; everyone was very sorry when he left.” said a Calais shopkeeper. Brummell was always careful to settle his debts with tradesmen – instead he owed increasingly vast amounts of money to bankers and his friends but his good nature and wit charmed them all.
When asked to make a contribution towards a Church of England chapel in Calais, he replied “I am very sorry you did not call last week, for it was only yesterday that I became a catholic.”
In 1827 Brummell’s patron the Duke of York died, and Brummell’s creditors began to close in. That summer, Brummell’s letters contained a note of panic. “I am sadly alarmed lest some overwhelming disaster should befall me” he wrote. While George IV was king, there was little hope of rapprochement, but good fortune did come along in June 1830 when Brummell was appointed His Majesty’s Consul for the departments of Calvados, La Manche, and Ille et Vilaine. The post was paid £400 a year and was based in Caen. However, there was a problem; with more than £1000 of debts, Brummell’s creditors were very reluctant to see him leave Calais. It was not until he signed a crippling agreement to assign his salary to his attorneys to deal with his debts that he was allowed to leave.
In Caen, he soon became a popular figure, noted for the way he would tiptoe across the cobbles to avoid getting dirt on his boots. He struck up a friendship with the grocer and wine merchant Charles Armstrong, who also cashed bills and money orders. Money remained a problem and he continued to press for a superior job; he wrote to Lord Palmerston that the post at Caen was not needed and he (Brummell) could do something better. On the 21st March 1832 he received a reply: HM Govt had “come to the conclusion that the post of British Consul at Caen may be abolished without prejudice to the public service . . . your salary will cease on the 31st May.” The news did not stay secret for long and he only escaped from the bailiffs when his landlady hid him in a wardrobe.
Armstrong went to England to collect money from Brummell’s friends and arranged £120 a year for his keep. Although generous, this was a pittance which at one time he would have spent in less than a month – when asked how much it would cost to launch a young man into London society, he once replied “with strict economy, it might be done for eight hundred pounds a year.”
His situation began to tell upon his mind, “I am incompetent to do anything but to ruminate over the broken toys of my past days” he mourned to his landlady’s daughter. That summer, the stress and worry probably contributed to his first stroke, and he moved to smaller lodgings at L’ Hotel d’Angleterre where, in April 1834, he had his second stroke whilst dining. Recovery was slow this time and he became dogged with a sense of his own mortality: “they are weaving a shroud about me; still I trust I shall yet escape” he wrote. A third stroke ended that year and the following May he was arrested for debt and taken to gaol where he shared a stone cell with three others. He had not been allowed to dress properly before his arrest and the degradation bewildered him.
“Image a position more wretched than mine! They have put me with all the common people! I am surrounded by the greatest villains and have nothing but prison fare!”
Once again, his remarkable friends rallied round and although they could not raise enough to secure his release, they paid for him to share the private room of political prisoner, Charles Godefroy. Armstrong arranged food, laundry, and sent in his washing basin so that he could perform his famous toilette – to Godefroy’s amazement. Armstrong also looked after his property and went to Calais and London to raise a fund for him. This time, Lord Palmerston agreed to £200 in recognition of the severance of the Caen contract, and once again his friends contributed, including £100 from King William IV.
Brummell was released on the 21st July 1835, and Armstrong made it clear that he would not honour any debts run up without his knowledge. The fastidious Beau was reduced to wearing cast-off clothes and a black silk cravat instead of white linen to save on the washing. When his trousers needed mending, he stayed in bed because they were his only pair. Brummell’s tragedy was that he outlived his time. His fairy-tale had ended twenty years before and now the new young Queen was ushering in the Victorian era while his friends were themselves passing into shadows.
As his illness grew, the former dandy neglected his cleanliness and threw fantasy parties for friends who were long dead. In 1839, he was taken to the asylum of the Bon Saveur – shrieking they were putting him into prison but where his last months were peaceful and he died in his bed on 30th March 1840. The legendary Beau Brummell lies in a plain grave in Calais, unnoticed and forgotten, the name more glittering and the man more elusive with each passing year.
A brutal murder that took place over 40 years ago in San Francisco shocked and catalyzed that city’s gay community and resulted in exposing the mostly hidden to the public- eye violence against gay people.
On the night of June 21, 1977, Robert Hillsborough, and his roommate, Jerry Taylor, went out to a disco for a night of dancing. They left sometime after midnight and stopped for a bite to eat at the Whiz Burger a few blocks from their apartment in the Mission District. When they left the burger joint, they were accosted by a gang of young men shouting anti-gay slurs at them. Hillsborough and Taylor ran into Hillsborough’s car as several of the attackers climbed onto the car’s roof and hood. Hillsborough drove off, and thought that he left his troubles behind him. What he didn’t know was that they were following him in another car. Hillsborough parked just four blocks away from their apartment. When they got out of the car four men jumped out the other car and attacked them again. Jerry Taylor was beaten, but he managed to escape. Robert Hillsborough wasn’t so lucky.
Robert was brutally beaten and stabbed 15 times by 19-year-old John Cordova who was yelling, “Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!” Witnesses also reported that Cordoba yelled, “This one’s for Anita!” Neighbors were awakened by the commotion, and one woman screamed that she was calling the police, which prompted the four attackers to flee. Neighbors rushed to Hillsborough’s aid, but it was too late. Hillsborough died 45 minutes later at Mission Emergency Hospital. Cordoba and the three other assailants were arrested later that morning.
Because Hillsborough was employed as a city gardener, Mayor George Moscone followed longstanding practice and ordered flags at City Hall and other city properties to be lowered to half-mast. He also directed his anger to Anita Bryant and California State Sen. John Briggs, who was running for governor and an anti-gay platform. Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign in Miami which resulted in the defeat of a gay rights ordinance three weeks earlier had inspired Briggs to hold a new conference in front of city hall the week before Hillsborough’s death to announce a campaign to remove gays and lesbians from teaching. Moscone called Briggs an anti-homosexual “demagogue” and held him responsible for “inciting trouble by walking right into San Francisco, knowing the emotional state of his community. He stirred people into action. He will have to live with his conscience.”
Hillsborough’s death also struck a deep nerve in the gay community. ”We live in a paranoid state,” said Harvey Milk, who was preparing his run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, “and the death of Robert is only the culmination of a lot of violence that’s been directed at us.” San Francisco’s Pride celebration, which took place just a few days later, attracted a record-breaking 300,000 people, and it became an impromptu memorial march as participants erected a makeshift shrine at City Hall.
Cordova was charged with a single count of murder, along with Thomas J. Spooner, 21. The other two passengers in the car were not charged.
Cordova was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to only 10 years in prison. Charges were later dropped against Spooner.
The parents of Robert Hillsborough filed a $5 million lawsuit accusing Anita Bryant of conducting a hate campaign against homosexuals. Hillsborough’s parents claimed and rightfully so that Miss Bryant’s public comments constituted “a campaign of hate, bigotry, ignorance, fear, intimidation and prejudice” against their son and other homosexuals. This, they said, amounted to a conspiracy to deprive Hillsborough of his civil rights.
U.S. District Judge Stanley A. Weigel dismissed the case saying that he lacked jurisdiction because Miss Bryant lives in Florida.
And still 40 years later the violence continues to this day. We must never forget those who lost their lives to hatred and bigotry.
Robert L. Hillsborough Born: March 10, 1944 Died: June 22, 1977
The 6th Dalai Lama’s life story is a curiosity to us today. He received ordination as the most powerful lama in Tibet only to turn his back on monastic life. As a young adult he spent evenings in taverns with his friends and enjoyed sexual relations with women. He is sometimes called the “playboy” Dalai Lama.
However, a closer look at His Holiness Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, shows us a young man who was sensitive and intelligent, even if undisciplined. After a childhood locked away in a country monastery with hand-picked tutors, his assertion of independence is understandable. The violent end of his life makes his story a tragedy, not a joke.
The story of the 6th Dalai Lama starts with his predecessor, His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. The “Great Fifth” lived in a time of volatile political upheaval. He persevered through adversity and unified Tibet under his rule as the first of the Dalai Lamas to be political and spiritual leaders of Tibet.
Near the end of his life, the 5th Dalai Lama appointed a young man named Sangye Gyatso as his new Desi, an official who managed most of the Dalai Lama’s political and governing duties. With this appointment the Dalai Lama also announced that he was withdrawing from public life to focus on meditation and writing. Three years later, he died.
Sangye Gyatso and a few co-conspirators kept the 5th Dalai Lama’s death a secret for 15 years. Accounts differ as to whether this deception was at the 5th Dalai Lama’s request or was Sangye Gyatso’s idea. In any event, the deception averted possible power struggles and allowed for a peaceful transition to the rule of the 6th Dalai Lama.
The boy identified as the Great Fifth’s rebirth was Sanje Tenzin, born in 1683 to noble family that lived in the border lands near Bhutan. The search for him had been carried out in secret. When his identity was confirmed, the boy and his parents were taken to Nankartse, a scenic area about 100 kilometers from Lhasa. The family spent the next 12 years in seclusion while the boy was tutored by lamas appointed by Sangye Gyatso.
In 1697 the death of the Great Fifth finally was announced, and 14-year-old Sanje Tenzin was brought in great fanfare to Lhasa to be enthroned as His Holiness the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, meaning “Ocean of Divine Song.” He moved into the just-completed Potala Palace to begin his new life.
The teenager’s studies continued, but as time passed he showed less and less interest in them. As the day approached for his full monk’s ordination he balked, then renounced his novice ordination. He began to visit taverns at night and was seen staggering drunkenly through the streets of Lhasa with his friends. He dressed in the silk clothes of a nobleman. He kept a tent outside Potala Palace where he would bring young women.
Enemies Near and Far
At this time China was ruled by the Kangxi Emperor, one of the most formidable rulers of China’s long history. Tibet, through its alliance with fierce Mongol warriors, posed a potential military threat to China. To soften this alliance, the Emperor sent word to Tibet’s Mongol allies that Sangye Gyatso’s concealment of the Great Fifth’s death was an act of betrayal. The Desi was trying to rule Tibet himself, the Emperor said.
Indeed, Sangye Gyatso had become accustomed to managing Tibet’s affairs on his own, and he was having a hard time letting go, especially when the Dalai Lama was mostly interested in wine, women and song.
The Great Fifth’s chief military ally had been a Mongol tribal chief named Gushi Khan. Now a grandson of Gushi Khan decided it was time to take affairs in Lhasa in hand and claim his grandfather’s title, king of Tibet. The grandson, Lhasang Khan, eventually gathered an army and took Lhasa by force. Sangye Gyatso went into exile, but Lhasang Khan arranged his assassination, in 1701. Monks sent to warn the former Desi found his decapitated body.
Now Lhasang Khan turned his attention to the dissolute Dalai Lama. In spite of his outrageous behavior he was a charming young man, popular with Tibetans. The would-be king of Tibet began to see the Dalai Lama as a threat to his authority.
Lhasang Khan sent a letter to the Kangxi Emperor asking if the Emperor would support deposing the Dalai Lama. The Emperor instructed the Mongol to bring the young lama to Beijing; then a decision would be made what to do about him.
Then the warlord found Gelugpa lamas willing to sign an agreement that the Dalai Lama was not fulfilling his spiritual responsibilities. Having covered his legal bases, Lhasang Khan had the Dalai Lama seized and taken to an encampment outside Lhasa. Remarkably, monks were able to overwhelm the guards and take the Dalai Lama back to Lhasa, to Drepung Monastery.
Then Lhasang fired cannon at the monastery, and Mongol horsemen broke through defenses and rode into the monastery grounds. The Dalai Lama decided to surrender to Lhasang to avoid further violence. He left the monastery with some devoted friends who insisted on coming with him. Lhasang Khan accepted the Dalai Lama’s surrender and then had his friends slaughtered.
There is no record of exactly what caused the 6th Dalai Lama’s death, only that he died in November 1706 as the traveling party approached China’s central plain. He was 24 years old.
Yama, mirror of my karma,
Ruler of the underworld:
Nothing went right in this life;
Please let it go right in the next.
Roger Casement’s notorious Black Diaries are genuine, claims writer
Since his execution at Pentonville prison, London, 83 years ago next week**, Sir Roger Casement has been at the centre of a historical controversy involving spies, treason and homosexuality.
Now fresh evidence has been unearthed suggesting that Casement’s so-called Black Diaries, detailing the Irish nationalist leader’s promiscuous homosexual affairs, were in fact genuine.
A Belfast-based writer has discovered a new letter, written only days before Casement died on the gallows, which he claims confirms the existence of a mysterious homosexual lover, alluded to in the Black Diaries as Millar.
The revelation is bound to provoke outrage among nationalist historians, who regard the allegations as slurs conjured up by British intelligence during the Irish war of independence.
The Casement controversy remains so powerful that Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, ordered an investigation earlier this year into the authenticity of the diaries.
The Millar letter was written by an MI5 agent to the Home Office four days before Casement was hanged for treason. It was uncovered in the Public Record Office at Kew in London earlier this year by Jeff Dudgeon, an Ulster gay activist who sued the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights 20 years ago over discrimination against gays in Northern Ireland.
Dudgeon points out that in the Black Diaries of 1910-11, Casement allegedly makes a number of references to having sex with Millar. On 8 August, for instance, Casement is supposed to have written: ‘Leaving for Belfast. To sleep with Millar. In at once.’ Three days earlier Casement supposedly wrote: ‘Letter from Millar. Good on for Tuesday. Hurrah! Expecting!’ The diary entries also include references to the two men spending the night together on the day the Titanic sunk.
The agent who wrote the Millar memo, Frank Hall, discovered that Millar was Joseph Millar Gordon, a 26-year-old employee of the Belfast Bank in Donegall Square.
Hall tells his boss, Sir Ernley Blackwell, the chief legal adviser to the Home Office, that he was able to track Casement’s lover down via a motorbike which he bought for Millar for £25.
Hall noted that Millar Gordon lived alone with his mother at Carnstroan, a large Victorian house in Myrtlefield Park in south Belfast.
Four days after the memo’s postmark, Casement was hanged for his part in enlisting German military support for the 1916 Easter Rising.
At least five members of the British war Cabinet, including Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, had known Casement personally when he worked for the Foreign Office. Casement had investigated allegations of slavery and human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru on behalf of the British Government.
Dudgeon points out that the memo, which was only made available to the public at the end of 1998, was secret and would not have been used at the time in the propaganda campaign against the Irish republican icon.
‘Why would the British forge an internal MI5 memo? This letter puts flesh on the bones of the Millar referred to in the diaries. Nobody could have invented him, because he is so well documented. He was a living person from Belfast whom I believe definitely had a relationship with Casement,’ he said.
Dudgeon denied that being a gay unionist has coloured his year-long research programme into the Casement diaries. ‘I came to this subject with an open mind. It has to be said that the diaries, as well as being an important part of Irish history, are also a vital part of gay history in the twentieth century. They are the only body of written evidence of intense gay sexual detail from this time.’
However, Angus Mitchell, author of the most recent book on Casement, insists the Black Diaries are forgeries. Mitchell, who published The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement in 1997, said: ‘You should remember that the diaries came out of the Home Office, too. The diaries are forgeries, of that I have no doubt. So what if there really was a Millar? There are hundreds of others referred to in the diaries who Casement describes and who can be traced as well. It proves nothing.’
Eoin Neeson, the author of a recent book on 300 years of republicanism, Birth of a Republic, claims: ‘No one who knew him believed the allegations and [they] are unanimous about his extremely high sense of moral integrity… The virtual impossibility of his practising the gross degeneracies at all, let alone with the frequency alleged, is demonstrable.’
Dudgeon, who is writing a book based on his research, promises to reveal more material which he claims will prove that subsequent Irish governments covered up evidence to support the authenticity of the diaries.
Millar Gordon, the alleged lover, died in Dublin in 1956, three years before the diaries were first published.
Irish Legal Heritage: Hanged by a comma
Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, the ‘father of 20th-century human rights investigations’, was knighted in 1911 for his investigations into human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru while he worked a British Consul.
An Irish Republican, Casement went to Germany in 1914 in an effort to secure German military support for Irish independence. However, suspicious of the Germans toying with him when they provided significantly fewer arms than they promised, Casement left for Ireland in April 1916 with the hope that he could convince Eoin McNeill to call off the Easter Rising.
Casement travelled to Kerry in a German submarine, but had been suffering from malaria that he had contracted while working in the Congo and was too weak to travel further than a few miles from the coast. Three days before the beginning of the Easter Rising, Casement was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary at a site now known as Casement’s Fort near Tralee.
Casement was brought to London where he was tried in the High Court for high treason, contrary to the Treason Act 1351. Since the crimes he was accused of had occurred in Germany, much of Casement’s case hinged on statutory interpretation of the Treason Act 1351, which had been translated from Norman French to state: ‘if a do man levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his Realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the Realm, or elsewhere, and thereof be probably attainted of open deed’.
It was argued that this meant that the offence of treason included levying war against the king in his realm, or supporting the king’s enemies (located in the Realm, or elsewhere) by giving them ‘aid and comfort’ in the realm.
However, the Court omitted the comma after ‘Realm, or elsewhere’, and interpreted the statute to include a third offence of giving aid and comfort to the King’s enemies outside Britain.
As such, Casement was sentenced to death by hanging after being found guilty of ‘High treason by adhering to the King’s enemies elsewhere than in the King’s realm to wit, in the Empire of Germany, contrary to the Treason Act, 1351’.
A century since he was executed, the story of Irish rebel Sir Roger Casement remains controversial due to the Black Diaries – either a genuine chronicle of his sexual history or a forgery by British officials to discredit him. Two biographers have set out to settle Casement’s case once and for all
hanged man was never more popular. One hundred years ago, the British government executed Roger Casement for his participation in a rebellion in Ireland, the Easter Rising of 1916. This year, schoolchildren and tourists by the thousands have visited Casement’s gravesite in Dublin. It is part of a centennial pilgrimage in honour of the Rising, the pivotal event in modern Irish history, marked by headstones, prisons, and rebel redoubts now hard to imagine in jostling traffic. As the First World War raged across Europe, Irish men and women joined the Rising in an attempt to break from a United Kingdom that had bound Ireland for 115 years. In fighting to establish an Irish republic, they battled not just the British government; they also faced the prospect of a civil war against Irish Protestant unionists in the northern province of Ulster who had already spent three years arming themselves against the prospect of political domination by Ireland’s Catholic majority. In the aftermath of the Rising, the British government executed 16 rebel leaders, including Casement. He was hanged and buried on August 3 in the yard of Pentonville Prison in London, England, a land and sea away from his current resting place.
Casement, the last man to be executed, was the first among traitors in the eyes of British officials. Many knew of Casement, an Irish Protestant born outside of Dublin, for his years of work as a Foreign Office official in Africa and South America. This was the Casement who had held a memorial service in a mission church in the Congo Free State in 1901 to commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria; the Casement who was knighted by Victoria’s grandson King George V in 1911 for his humanitarian campaigns on behalf of indigenous peoples on two continents; the Casement who retired from the Foreign Office in 1913 on a comfortable pension that financed his turn to rebellion.
Just over half a century ago, in 1965, Casement’s remains were reinterred, following a state funeral, in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. This traitor to the British crown and martyr for the Republic of Ireland remains a memory in motion, stirred by an unforeseen combination of circumstances. The achievement of legal equality for gays in Ireland in 2015, together with the United Kingdom’s recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union, may occasion a new life after death for Casement — as the symbol of a united Ireland. It is the role he had hoped to play even as the trapdoor opened beneath his feet.
Since his adolescence, Casement had been an Irish nationalist of the poetic variety. But his politics hardened after his experiences in the Congo Free State persuaded him that the Congolese and Irish peoples had suffered similar injustices, both having lost their lands to imperial conquest. Like many Irish nationalists, Casement turned to militancy in the years before the First World War, angered both by unionists arming themselves and London’s failure to act upon parliamentary legislation for “home rule,” which would have granted the Irish a measure of sovereign autonomy. In 1914, Casement crossed enemy lines into Germany. There, he attempted to recruit Irish prisoners of war to fight against their former British commanders and sought to secure arms from the Kaiser for a revolution in Ireland itself. Two years later — less than a week before the Rising began — Casement was arrested after coming ashore on the southwest coast of Ireland from a submarine bearing German weapons and ammunition. He was sent to London to be interrogated and tried for treason.
As the government reasoned, how could any right-thinking person defend a sodomist?
These days, Casement is chiefly known as the alleged author of the so-called Black Diaries, which are at the center of a long-standing controversy over his sexuality. As Casement awaited execution in London, supporters in the United Kingdom and the United States lobbied the British government to commute his sentence. In response, British officials began to circulate pages from diaries, purportedly written by Casement in 1903, 1910 and 1911, which chronicled in explicit terms his sexual relations with men. Among mundane daily entries are breathless, raunchy notes on Casement’s trysts and, often, the dimensions of his sexual partners. An excerpt from February 28, 1910, Brazil: “Deep screw to hilt … Rua do Hospicio, 3$ only fine room. Shut window. Lovely, young — 18 & glorious. Biggest since Lisbon July 1904 … Perfectly huge.” UK law forbade any sexual relations between men, so, the government reasoned, how could any right-thinking person defend a sodomist? The diaries served to weaken support for clemency for Casement. In the aftermath of his execution a decades-long debate over the authenticity of the diaries ensued.
The leading participants in the debate are two biographers: Jeffrey Dudgeon, who believes that the diaries are genuine and that Casement was a homosexual, and Angus Mitchell, who thinks that the diaries were forged and that Casement’s sexual orientation remains an open question. The stakes of this debate were once greater than they are today. As the debate over the Black Diaries gathered momentum in the 1950s and reached a crisis point in the run-up to the repatriation of Casement’s remains to Ireland in the 1960s, Ireland was both more Catholic in its culture and less assured of its sovereign authority than it is today. The southern 26 counties of Ireland declared themselves the Republic of Ireland in 1949, but the British government continued to treat the Republic as a subordinate member of the Commonwealth, rather than a full-fledged European state, until 1968. In that year, responsibility for British relations with the Republic was assigned to the Western European Department of the newly amalgamated Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Office. Six of the counties of the province of Ulster have remained in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland, riven by sectarian tension that the Republic and Britain have only ever brought to a stalemate. It is telling that the Irish government has been content to leave the diaries in the British National Archives rather than demand ownership and become accountable for their authenticity.
Casement’s path to political redemption was laid by the Gay Liberation movement. Dudgeon is not just a biographer but a protagonist in one of the movement’s crucial battles. In 1981, he challenged Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adult men in a case against the United Kingdom brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that the law at issue violated the European Convention of Human Rights, and this decision prompted the British government in 1982 to issue an Order in Council that decriminalised homosexual acts between adult men in Northern Ireland; England, Wales, and Scotland had already passed similar laws. In 1993 the Irish parliament to the south also decriminalised male homosexuality in order to bring the Republic’s law into compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights. And in 2015, the Republic became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. The broader campaign for LGBT rights in Ireland has kept Casement much in the news and proudly represented him as a national son and father.
In their biographies, Dudgeon and Mitchell present two Casements, each with strengths and weaknesses. Dudgeon offers meticulous, well-documented detail, but his book, Roger Casement: The Black Diaries, is for insiders, reading at many points like the notes for a doctoral dissertation, without consistent chronological structure or contextual explanation for those unfamiliar with Irish history in general and Casement in particular. Mitchell likewise offers meticulous documentary evidence in Roger Casement, but within a comparatively fluid and clear narrative history that depends problematically upon his assertion that the British government, from the Cabinet to the National Archive, has pursued an insidious, sweeping policy of individual defamation over the past century.
Were the Black Diaries forged? And if so, was it the work of the British government, seeking to destroy Casement for his betrayal and to deny Ireland a heroic martyr? It must be said that Dudgeon and Mitchell both magnify Casement out of proportion to his significance as a threat to the United Kingdom, a state that was attempting to survive a war on multiple fronts, with flagging morale at home, in 1916. The government had larger fish to fry than this man who never founded or led a political party, never engaged in assassination or led men into combat, and never wrote a popular manifesto or treatise. Moreover, as Dudgeon argues, it would have been a monumental, virtually impossible task in 1916 for officials and civil servants to forge diaries so comprehensive in their account of long-past events — when Casement was not under suspicion — that they could convince even Casement’s associates, who found themselves and their own interactions with Casement mentioned in the text. In a fascinating turn, Dudgeon offers the most successful refutation of forgery to date by systematically verifying the diaries’ contents, relentlessly revealing and cross-referencing new sources to pull together loose ends and flesh out identities from cryptic references and last names, such as that of Casement’s alleged boyfriend: “Millar.” Against the historical backdrop of a government marshalling limited resources in wartime, Dudgeon effectively charges that a forgery so verifiably true to life could not have been a forgery. He is probably correct.
Yet to travel further down this historical rabbit hole risks missing what is most significant about Casement at present: his potential reinvention as a symbol of Irish unity in the future. Casement has been resuscitated by an extraordinary combination of developments in the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, not just the relative toleration of homosexuality, but the lurch toward Brexit in a popular referendum that found 52% of UK voters in favour and 48% opposed. The decisive support for Brexit was located in England and Wales, while both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, the latter by 55.8% to 44.2%. The Republic of Ireland and the UK have long agreed that the political division of Ireland will continue until the majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens vote to sanction secession. Even as Northern Ireland has moved steadily toward a Catholic majority (most of whom support secession), there is still a sizeable minority of Catholics who prefer continued union with Britain in the name of economic and political stability. After the Brexit vote, the disparate communities of Northern Ireland — Protestants and Catholics of all political stripes — may find new common ground in, of all places, Europe. Northern Ireland, like the Republic, benefits substantially from its relationship with the EU, and nationalists and unionists alike are worried about the loss of EU subsidies and markets.
In the days preceding his execution, Casement asked his family to bury his body near the home of relatives in County Antrim, in what is now Northern Ireland. This was the family that had taken young Roger in after an itinerant childhood and the deaths of his parents. “Take my body back with you and let it lie in the old churchyard in Murlough Bay,” he reportedly stated. Casement’s reinternment at Glasnevin Cemetery was, in fact, a compromise. In 1965 neither the Irish nor the UK governments wished to antagonise Ulster unionists with the burial of a republican martyr in their midst. Among the many tributes laid at Casement’s grave following his burial in Glasnevin was a sod of turf from the high headland over Murlough Bay.
The transfer of Casement’s remains from Pentonville to Glasnevin was conceived by the Irish and UK governments as a symbolic gesture of goodwill that would set the political stage for the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965. The governments turned to each other for economic support because France had frustrated their attempts to gain entrance into the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor organisation of the EU. When both countries joined the EEC in 1973, this trade agreement lapsed. Once more, then, with Brexit, Casement’s bones have been stirred by Anglo-Irish relations with Europe. In Ireland, the effects are likely to be much different this time around. In representing Casement as a man of contradictions, biographers have assessed him in the terms of conflicts in Irish society that persisted long after his death: the sectarian divide between Protestants and Catholics, the troubles between Ireland and Britain, and the discrimination against male homosexuals enforced by religion and law. As these conflicts dissipate, Casement will be recast in a new light. The portrait of a man of contradictions will give way to a composite picture in which the majority of the people of Ireland may see themselves. Should Ireland reunite, whether in the aftermath of Brexit or in a more distant time, the moment of reconciliation, of acceptance and forgiveness, may well occur over a grave at Murlough Bay.
On November 18, 1977, Harvey Milk distributed a secret tape recording to a select network of close friends: “To be played only in the event of my death by assassination,” the audio began: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” the statement concluded.
Milk made the recordings shortly after becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public-political office anywhere; when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Just one year later he was murdered by Dan White.
White, a fellow supervisor on San Francisco’s governing body, killed Milk because he claimed the city was being turned into Sodom by men who insisted on flaunting their homosexuality in public.
As historian and scholar of the LGBT movement, Lillian Faderman, explains in the concluding chapter of this concise, yet enormously insightful biography, Milk’s murder immortalised him forever: igniting a nationwide call to action from the LGBT community to demand equality, free from prejudice.
At the last Gay Freedom Day rally he attended before his death, Milk proposed that gay people across America gather in the US capital. On October 14, 1979, the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had 100,000 people in attendance.
As Faderman notes, support for the LGBT movement grew in numbers over time: the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 drew 600,000 people; while the third in 1993 attracted close to a million. As of 2016, 43 states across the US have elected at least one LGBT person to their state legislature. And this historic progressive change spread further afield.
Indeed, it’s possible to draw a line from Milk’s death, to Ireland’s progressive move in 2015 to enshrine marriage equality into law for same sex couples; and the subsequent appointment, two years later, of the country’s first openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
A hopeful, moving, and uplifting read, Faderman’s book tells the story of a man that didn’t fit the typical criteria for a progressive political martyr. Primarily because Milk lacked consistency in his political allegiances: he could play the liberal-pot smoking hippie, just as he could champion right wing conservatism when it suited him.
Faderman subtly hints that the circumstances of Milk’s personal life meant he never felt entirely comfortable in one firmly-rooted set of political ideals.
Essentially because he was living a double life. Born in 1930, into a conservative Jewish family in Long Island, New York, Milk never came out to either of his parents. Both died knowing nothing of his sexual identity.
As a Jew and homosexual, Milk always saw himself as an outsider who had to fight for social acceptance. He often used analogies of Jews being slaughtered in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust remained a pertinent metaphor in Milk’s speeches and editorials. Drawing lessons from European history, Milk claimed that calling any minority group pariahs, criminals, and demons would naturally only end in catastrophe.
Milk lived much of his life in a peripatetic manner: oscillating between New York, Dallas, and California. He took jobs in teaching, acting, on Wall Street and in the navy too, where he briefly served in Korea. But it was in the Castro area of San Francisco where Milk finally laid down roots and began to interact with a burgeoning gay community.
Then in his forties, Milk, along with his partner Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera: a gay camera photo development shop, which also served as a political constituency office, as well as a popular neighbourhood gay hangout spot too.
Faderman continually stresses that Milk was often shunned by certain sections of the gay community in his own lifetime.
Since the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969, a large proportion of the gay community across America had become synonymous with radical politics: seeking to overthrow existing social institutions.
Milk, however, was no committed leftist. He simply sought for gay people to be accepted into mainstream society as it presently stood.
Faderman points out that even martyrs have their flaws too: shortly before his death, the US Attorney General authorised that the FBI look into allegations that Milk had tried to divert funds from the Pride Foundation into his own pocket. We also read how Milk’s love life was mired in anguish, abandonment, heartache, and tragedy. One of his long-time partners, Jack Lira, hanged himself in 1977, leaving Milk a rather nasty suicide note.
Faderman’s narrative mixes the personal and the political with great skill; subtly displaying how at a fundamental level, fighting for collective political rights is really just a human yearning for personal happiness, which usually has its roots in compassion. The book is an exemplary testament to how ordinary citizens – with hope in their hearts and relentless ambition – can swing the pendulum of history towards progress and freedom.
What do you do to a homosexual mathematician whose code-breaking genius saved the world during World War II? Not figuratively, but actually saved the world from Nazi domination? You put him on trial, of course! You convict him of gross indecency. You force him to choose prison or chemical castration. You strip him of all dignity and hound him until in shame and despair he swallows a cyanide pill and dies.
The story of Alan Turing is one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern civilization. A man who should have been a hero of the free world and idolized next to Einstein and Newton in the history books was instead hounded to death because of religion-inspired homophobia.
In World War II, Alan Turing’s genius at breaking Nazi secret codes was so successful that the Allies could have sunk almost every single U-boat and convoy that left Germany. Turing’s work was so good it was like cheating at cards: if you win every hand, the other players will quickly figure out that the game is rigged. The Allies had to employ all sorts of tricks to hide their success; if you want a fascinating account, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson’s semi-fictional Cryptonomicon, the story of the rise of modern cryptography.
Alan Turing literally saved the world from Nazi domination. Without his work, WWII would have ended very differently. The Nazi regime might have remained undefeated, still in control of Northern Europe and western Asia. The Japanese might have retained control of East Asia. Our world maps would look vastly different today. And even if we’d won the war, without Turing’s work it’s likely that millions more soldiers and civilians would have died in the fight.
And Turing’s work didn’t end with cryptography. Today he’s best known as the inventor of the modern digital computer, the one who laid down the mathematical foundation for all computer science. His name is even enshrined in two of the most important computer-science concepts, the Turing machine and the Turing test.
If Alan Turing hadn’t been homosexual, his name might be a household word like Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What home doesn’t have a computer? If you count the laptops, cell phones, digital TVs, iPods, digital cameras and microwave ovens in your home, I’ll bet you own more than a dozen computing devices. Every one of them works on the principles laid down by Alan Turing during WWII when he was trying to develop a computing machine to break the enemy’s codes even faster.
Turing’s fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America’s McCarthyism. In 1952 a gay lover helped an accomplice rob Turing’s house. During the police investigation, it came out that Turing was a homosexual. He was arrested and convicted of gross indecency, and given a choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing choose castration.
On June 7, 1954, at just forty two years of age, Alan Mathison Turing killed himself by swallowing cyanide. One of the greatest minds in the history of humankind was lost forever, and one of the greatest heroes of World War II died in shame and disgrace.
But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing. In spite of his sexual orientation and consequent hardships he must have experienced, he remained a true patriot and mathematician. He put his mind to work to save the very society that persecuted him. It is possible that he changed history and saved more lives than any other single person in the twentieth century.
On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology to Turing’s memory:
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
It is stories like Turing’s that keep me writing. It’s easy to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the immoral “morality” of the Bible. It sounds nice to advocate tolerance and respect. But Alan Turing is dead, and the Bible is where it all started.
“I will always remember the moment when a pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy turned up at the door of The Cha Cha Club wearing a rather hideous blue velvet cape. He told me his name was Leigh Bowery, followed by, “Graham sent me to you.” It was late October 1981.
My friend Graham Parnham had met Leigh at Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World earlier that month. Leigh didn’t know anybody on the club scene in London so Graham had sent him along to my club telling him that I would look after him. “You’ll like him.” Graham had told me, “. . . he’s Australian and a bit bonkers.” Graham was right. I liked him immediately.
Leigh had a generous spirit and sharp wit, was extremely polite and charming. I told him I’d be glad to let him in to the club so long as he promised me that he would never wear that velvet cape again. We laughed, the first of many laughs that we were to have.
It would be two or three years before Leigh started creating looks and dressing in his extraordinary and very outrageous style. Back in 1982 and 83 he wanted to be a fashion designer and would create 1940s inspired pyjama suits for me, Trojan and himself.
He’d make me dresses to wear to the club, shrewdly knowing that they would be photographed aplenty. He’d hand write labels with indelible laundry marker and stitch them into his creations. I would look forward to the Tuesday afternoons when Leigh would arrive with something new to wear out that night.
The world quite rightly remembers Leigh Bowery as the brilliant and unique performance artist that he became. Though we remained friends throughout his life, for me there is a sweetness to remembering our close friendship of those early years and the extraordinary evolution of the pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy in the hideous blue velvet cape.
We lost Graham to AIDS in the spring of 1994.
We lost Leigh the same year, on New Year’s Eve.”
— by Scarlett Cannon
Sex, sin and sausages: the debauched brilliance of Leigh Bowery
His shocking shows – featuring births, enemas and vomiting – thrilled and appalled. Two decades after his death, why is the influence of this 80s nightclub legend still so pervasive?
e was painted naked and sprawling by Lucian Freud. He “gave birth” to his own wife on stage, using sausages as an umbilical cord. And he was the star turn in Taboo, perhaps the most debauched nightclub Britain has ever seen, hosting the revelry with his face painted blue, his nose and nipples pierced and his outfit as intimidatingly outlandish as possible. But there was much more to Leigh Bowery than sheer outrageousness – and his range, daring and influence are now starting to be appreciated by a new generation.
Perhaps the most prominent sign of this reappraisal comes from Australian choreographer Andy Howitt, who is bringing Sunshine Boy, a new show about the nightlife legend, to the Edinburgh fringe this summer. “I was at the National Gallery in Melbourne and there was a big sculpture that said, ‘By Leigh Bowery from Sunshine’,” he says. “I was like, ‘That can’t be the Leigh Bowery from the 80s dance scene.’ It sparked me on a journey to find out about the man.”
Bowery did indeed hail from Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne with around 10,000 inhabitants. Howitt visited it and spoke to his family, as well as to those in London who had known him. “You have to remember his backstory,” says Howitt. “He only lived in London for 14 years. He sold up shop at 19 or 20 and went straight there and became the icon.” Howitt fed his findings into Sunshine Boy, telling the story of Bowery’s life through dance, spoken word passages, music and, naturally, those showstopping costumes. Howitt’s performance ranges from his childhood to the Taboo years and then to his death from Aids in 1994 at the age of 33.
.Umbilical sausages … Leigh Bowery ‘giving birth’ to his wife. Photograph: James Hill/Rex
As Sunshine Boy suggests, Bowery remains a larger-than-life persona in underground culture, even 24 years after his death. What made him so different from the other 80s club kids? Partly his looks, which still seem strikingly original. As the impresario of Taboo, he wore a different, jaw-dropping outfit every week. There was the shiny PVC mask and matching catsuit, with one larger leg as if in plaster. There was the polka dot suit worn with polka dot face. There were the lightbulbs he’d wear on either side of his face, the coloured drips that would cover his bald head, the merkin he’d place over his genitals. And then there was his wife, Nicola Bateman, worn naked and strapped upside-down to his chest. (Although Bowery described himself as gay, he married his longtime companion and sometime lover Bateman seven months before his death.)
But Bowery’s creativity was not confined to clubs. He worked with the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, creating costumes and co-starring in his performances. He appeared in the windows of the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, wearing a different outfit each day of the week. He fronted a band, Minty, and – perhaps most famously – modelled nude several times for Freud. On the back of the Freud connection, Bowery hit the mainstream from various directions. He appeared in a commercial for Pepe Jeans and guested on The Clothes Show on BBC One, taking tea in Harrods dressed in a succession of astonishing get-ups to the soundtrack of his hero, drag star Divine.
Bowery also engaged in more conventional creative work. He was an art director on the 1991 video for Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, a stylist for Rifat Özbek, a costume designer for Culture Club (Boy George would co-write and star in a successful musical about Bowery). His career resists categorisation. Asked what he most deplored in others by the Guardian in 1993, Bowery replied: “The urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.” Perhaps Boy George came up with the most accurate description when he described Bowery as “modern art on legs”. He turned himself, his body and his image into an art object, one that walked among us as well as appeared on stages and in the windows of galleries.
“People are always telling me about the time they saw him,” says Sue Tilley, Bowery’s friend and the author of Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon. “It was probably only once, but he made such an impact they have never forgotten it.” DJ Princess Julia met Bowery in the early 80s, both part of a crowd that included the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, Boy George, Clark, and Bowery’s friend and frequent co-star Trojan. Julia says Bowery, who started off working at Burger King to make ends meet, quickly became a fixture on the scene: “He was very influential because he was very inventive. He was always coming up with ideas.”
His looks, she says, were often inspired by what was happening in wider society. “The dot face, for example, was a comment on Kaposi’s sarcoma” – the cancer which caused the facial lesions that struck many Aids sufferers in the 80s. “His work was about things like body image or illnesses – and those things haven’t gone away. It confronts you and frightens you and makes you think. It’s very disruptive, to use a word of the moment.”
There is a clear line from Bowery to the performers and punters exploring extreme looks today. Glyn Fussell is the founder of Sink the Pink, a playground for the artistic side of drag culture. He says that while the twentysomethings who come to the London club probably haven’t heard of Bowery, his influence is present. “You see it fashion, you see it in the underground, you see it in mainstream culture, in RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
It is in fashion that Bowery’s influence is most explicit. Rick Owens’ “human backpack” collection in 2015 was a tribute to Bowery carrying Bateman like a papoose. Menswear designer Charles Jeffrey runs a club called Loverboy that stage shows verging on performance art, much like Bowery. And, with his floral gowns and matching face masks, Richard Quinn, the young London designer who had the Queen in attendance at his February show, has clearly been inspired by Bowery.
For Gareth Pugh, Bowery is a consistent reference. The designer first learned about him in Fergus Greer’s 2002 book Leigh Bowery Looks: “If you go into any suburban art college you’ll always find that book in the fashion section.” Bowery is inspirational, he believes, becausehe “ created his own language. That’s the golden fleece for any fashion designer: to find something they can be known for 30 years down the line – and for it to be so iconic.”
Of course, some elements of Bowery’s work haven’t aged so well, driven by his relentless desire to shock. One of his most infamous looks was called “Pakis from Outer Space”, inspired by the Asian communities near where Bowery lived in the East End and involving blue faces, bindis and nose rings. He made blouses out of material bearing swastikas, used rags stolen from Jewish artist Freud’s studio to make an image of Hitler and appeared, naked, in makeup similar to blackface, for a Minty publicity photo.
This preoccupation with the extreme offended plenty of people. Clark stopped working with Bowery when he insisted on wearing a costume with “a cunt” written on it. Minty saw their residency at the Soho club Freedom cut short because of a show that involved Bowery “vomiting” vegetable soup into Bateman’s mouth.
Perhaps Bowery’s work was radical satire, all part of a life lived without taboos. Shocking people – and perhaps waking them up – was the ultimate aim. Speaking about a show at an Aids benefit, in which he had an enema on stage that sprayed the front row, he said: “I was quite pleased with the hostile reaction. If I have to ask, ‘Is this idea too sick?’ I know I am on the right track.”
“The idea,” says Pugh, “of wilfully doing things that get a rise out of people. He had this idea of something that is bereft of control, for good or for bad.”
“I don’t think he was setting out with a racist heart,” says Fussell. “He was challenging the status quo. It was about challenging what he was seeing on the streets and making it hyper-realised.”
Howitt’s 40-minute show will cover Bowery’s triumphs, disasters and premature death. Bowery found out he was HIV positive in 1988 and died six years later, not long before combination therapies greatly prolonged the lives of those with the disease. “A lot of people say that if he had survived another month, he would have been OK,” says Howitt.
Tilley often finds herself wondering what Bowery might have achieved had he lived longer. “He had a lot of irons in the fire, but he died before anything properly happened,” she says. Bowery may, she muses, have gone “down the path of reality television”. After all, she concludes: “He would have been brilliant on Big Brother.”
‘Nothing Was Ever Out of Bounds’: Leigh Bowery’s Friends Remember the Legendary Performance Art Provocateur 25 Years After His Death
Cerith Wyn Evans, Baillie Walsh, and Lou Stoppard reminisce about their late friend.
Artist Cerith Wyn Evans and director Baillie Walsh met Leigh Bowery on the London club scene. To both, he became a collaborator and a close friend—a subject to film, a designer to call on for incredible garments, an artist to admire, a conspirator to talk with for endless hours on the phone. Sometimes he helped them, sometimes they helped him. Always, they recall, he pushed them—not necessarily forward, that would be too expected, but in a new, uncertain direction that was wide, warped, strange, sweeping, and beyond anything they’d planned. Walsh’s collaborations with Bowery include the music video to accompany Boy George’s 1991 song “Generations of Love,” Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Symphony” video from 1991, as well as “Unstitched” from 1990, which shows Bowery having his cheeks pierced and was regularly screened as a backdrop to Bowery’s performances. Wyn Evans’s works with Bowery include the early filmsEpiphany, from 1984, andDegrees of Blindness, from 1988. Here, they reflect on their late friend with Lou Stoppard.
Cerith Wyn Evans: Baillie, do you remember he had a tattoo on his inner lip that read “mum?” It was facing inwards so that only his teeth or throat would read “mum.” I told him, If he pulled his lip down, to everyone else it read “wuw.” He said, “Yer – wooo!”
Baillie Walsh: I’ve never talked about Leigh before. It was all too close at the time.
CWE: For a while, it felt like there was a load of people who wanted a bit of it all. When someone died and there was too much attention or discussion, Leigh used to say, “Oh, they just want another slice of death pie, so they can look like they have been a part of something.” And knowing what we do know, that he was living and dealing with HIV, those comments mean more.
BW: My relationship with Leigh was private, special, and personal. I didn’t want it to be public property. But now, 20 years have passed—longer, 23 years—I don’t get the same feeling. It’s nice to see how much I remember, together with Cerith, we can see if we can wheedle out some memories—and some laughs hopefully as Leigh was a-laugh-a-minute. I would like to remember more. What I loved about him was how he’d just turned everything on its head. He made you think in a different way. The idea of “fitting in” was abhorrent to him. I want to remember that. I often try to think in the way that Leigh pushed me to, and it’s nice to have a refresher course.
Lou Stoppard: One thing written a lot about Leigh Bowery is that his whole life was a performance, a work of art. Would you agree with that, having known him more intimately?
CWE: Well, it’s yes and no. I always thought he was much more extreme in mufti, or daywear, than he was in the outfits that he wore at night.
BW: That was much more disturbing, I agree. He looked like a child molester.
CWE: There was a vulnerable side to him, which you saw if you were a close friend. He tended to keep his friends apart; he didn’t like the idea of us talking about him. We had to be kept compartmentalized.
BW: He did love to cause trouble. He loved making stories up. He loved to lie. He would tell you someone had died. He once told me that Brad Branson was dead—he is now dead, so I can tell this story. He told me he was dead because Brad had slept with my boyfriend, John Maybury, so he thought I’d like to hear that. He told it to everybody.
CWE: He absolutely adored lying. I remember him telling me a story about Les Child, who was a dancer with the Michael Clark Company, how he was going through hard times—the company had got dissolved, or was on a break, or something like that. He said, “Oh poor Les. He’s making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho.” And I said, “Oh you bitch.” I was laughing. It was obviously a total lie. But then two months later, I ran into Les in the street who said, “I’ve taken to making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho. I’ll spring back.” It was true! So you never knew.
BW: Leigh loved to muddy the waters. You never knew what was true and what wasn’t.
LS: Can you both recall when you first met him?
BW: I can remember my first vision of Leigh. It was him and Trojan in Heaven nightclub in the “Pakis from Outer Space” blue look. Apart from the look, they seemed very shy and almost demure. It wasn’t an immediate friendship. It took time. Really, I got to know Leigh properly because I started working with him. I took him to Italy to be in a fashion show—and it was that thing of going away with people and becoming friends, him, Big Sue. He made papier-mâché head masks of himself with the drip look he used to do. So, he had 30 models come out as him. It was for a company called Calugi e Giannelli—really tacky, but we’d do anything for a fee in those days, and it meant going away with a crowd. It was over times like that that I got to know him as him.
CWE: I met him around the same time at The Bell, a gay club in King’s Cross. We used to go on a Sunday night. I nearly fell over because Leigh and Trojan walked in, and Trojan was dressed as Sheba with really intense turquoise hands and face. That look—”Pakis from Outer Space”—was like Leigh’s collection at the time. I was a student at the Royal College, it would have been around 1983. I thought: “I’ve got to do something with these people, I wonder if they’ll be in a film.” I went up to them: “Oh hello, I’m a film student at the Royal College, would you ever consider making a film?” They said, “Yes all right then. We’re going to be in a film!” Leigh really took it seriously. Suitcases would arrive with makeup. Consummate professionals, from the word “go.” And they would do anything. The film was Epiphany. We shot the whole thing on tape on huge machines that had been given by the BBC to the Royal College. You had reels of two-inch video tape—the quality was insane. But these cameras were huge and so heavy, big pneumatic things with enormous cables that would almost move around on their own. We had three cameras on Leigh at all times. He said, “Which camera should I look at? The one with the red light?” And I said, “The red light is going to be on all of them; we’re recording everything, no takes.” He just loved that atmosphere—constantly being watched, reinventing himself, and rethinking his position. You know when you see the cliché of a model or David Hemmings pretending to be David Bailey—Give me this! Give me that!Leigh was like that. Going from look to look, posing and moving. It was just heavenly to witness. It was raw. There was a levity to it. But also, there was a sense of stagecraft and something studied—it was deeply sincere, however much of a laugh it was. The pain he went through and the discomfort to get the looks. It was an exuberant celebration on so many levels.
BW: He never thought he had a look unless it was painful. If it was painful, it meant he was taking it further than anyone else would. One night, we went to Heaven when he was doing the “Mexican mask” look and wanted his profile to be as flat as possible so you didn’t get any nose. I had to take him out because he had a complete panic attack, which you rarely saw with Leigh. He was in proper, incredible pain. You couldn’t unzip the mask because it was so tight. His voice was muffled, and his face was squashed: “Get me out of this!” I took him and Nicola Bateman back to my flat, and I got pliers and scissors to try to undo the zip. I couldn’t get them into it because it was so tight against the skin. Somehow in the end, he got out of it.
CWE: There would be bruises. He would be cut to shreds after a night out.
BW: Each time he went out, he wanted to push it further, getting more and more ambitious. There were some looks he would test out and never do again. He would always gauge the response. If he was just laughed at then that was a disaster. There had to be something more thought-provoking than that. It had to be challenging.
LS: What did he want people to feel? Disgusted? Scared?
BW: Both of those things. He liked laughter too—but not just laughter.
CWE: He was physically so very strong, and often he’d be on insanely high shoes. He was so massive. One of the things he liked doing at Taboo was kicking the ceiling lights out—bang! Glass in everyone’s drinks.
BW: His behavior at times was so extreme. He would pogo around the dance floor—he was such a large being, so it was really intimidating, especially as he was dressed in such a way, with the merkin on and something covering his face. But it was never aggression in a typical sense.
BW: No, I don’t think I ever saw Leigh angry.
LS: Was he a private person in some ways? Is that part of the reason he performed so much with his own identity, in order to keep certain things hidden?
BW: Well he kept his HIV status from me.
CWE: Me too.
BW: That was obviously very private. But I never felt that Leigh kept secrets much from me, which was why I was so surprised when I did find out that he was HIV positive. That was such a massive thing, especially at that time, because there was nothing you could do.
CWE: Fear and paranoia was everywhere.
BW: We were all watching hundreds of people die around us. When you watched someone die, you were not only very sad you were also terrified—Is that going to be me next? I think Leigh felt that very strongly. I think Leigh didn’t want to be labelled as someone with AIDS. Leigh was much more important, much more than that. And I think that if he had announced that, and if it had gone out into the world, he wouldn’t have been given the freedom to be other than that.
CWE: You look back and think: “Why didn’t I see it?” It was so obvious. We formed a band for a while, me, Leigh and Angus Cook, who was my boyfriend at the time. We didn’t play any music. We were called Magpie Shmagpie. Sue Tilley took the press photographs, which we did on the stairs of the sexual health clinic on Dean Street: all of us coming out of the door, posing with jackets on our shoulders—Leigh’s idea, obviously.
BW: He would talk about it hypothetically: “What if? What am I going to do if I’ve got AIDS?” But everyone was saying the same thing. We lived in fear.
CWE: I remember him on his deathbed saying: “I didn’t even bloody lose any weight.”
LS: I’ve heard he started rumors when he knew he was dying that he was going off to live in a different country.
CWE: He’d say he was going to Papua New Guinea to research anthropological tribe masks. After he died, we went to Patisserie Valerie and spent about 200 quid on cream cakes and had champagne. Sue Tilley said no one was allowed to cry.
LS: I wonder what he would do if he was alive now. Because to play with your identity is easier now than ever, with all these different platforms.
CWE: So many years have passed—it’s a different world. The implications of what Leigh started off doing, and his ways of communicating about things, have become so mainstream, in a way.
BW: Leigh would have morphed into something else. There were so many different stages he went through during my friendship with him: he started in the clubs with no idea of entering the art world; he wasn’t creating art; he was creating attention for himself. Then that ambition changed when he got the gig with Anthony d’Offay gallery, and then later he met Lucian Freud through you, Cerith.
CWE: We sort of thought, “Oh it’ll be fun to mess things up for Lucian—we’ll introduce you to Leigh and then you’ll have to paint sequins!”
BW: I feel that Lucian’s work did change after he met Leigh. Part of Leigh’s thrill was always challenging his friends, and of course he did that to Lucian. I think you can see Leigh’s influence in those pictures.
CWE: Absolutely you can. Lucian was hugely affected by Leigh’s death. He was so so close to him, he really looked up to him.
BW: I love the fact that Lucian still looked up to him even after they found a stolen picture of his in Leigh’s flat. Leigh was stealing 50 pound notes every day when he went in there.
CWE: Lucian would think that that was just wonderful. He would think it was the most noble thing to do!
BW: They deserved each other. These two really strange characters coming together—it was a match made in heaven.
LS: Baillie, talk to me about working with Leigh on your films.
BW: My favorite project was the “Generations of Love” video with everyone in the street. Leigh just loved being a hooker on the street.
CWE: With the blonde wig and the “Come to Bed” t-shirt.
BW: Leigh was the one who got me thinking: “Oh, it’s a pop video, but I can make a porn video.” It was Leigh’s influence on me that kind of pushed me the whole time. He was a great doer, always with massive enthusiasm. It was a great collaboration. We just did it. He loved getting everyone in character and in dress. He’d be pushing Sue: “Get your tits out!” He got everyone—Rachel Auburn, Les Child, Michael Costiff, Talulah—in their costumes and their appropriate looks. Les Child fought every step of the way because Leigh was trying to cover his face in Vaseline. I would say that that was our most successful collaboration. His influence pushed me to a place that I thought was really interesting for a pop video.
CWE: That video is sort of sad also in a funny way. It’s mournful. There’s a melancholy at the heart of it, this idea of generations of love.
BW: I think the last project we did together was the Massive Attack video. That shoot was the first and only argument I ever had with him, and I don’t think he ever really forgave me. He’d made a dress for Shara Nelson, and we needed to find some way to cover up the earpiece that we needed her to wear. The collar wasn’t high enough, so he suggested a wig. She looked ghastly in, but of course Leigh loved it because it was so wrong. It got very awkward in front of the band. Leigh was determined, and I had to finally put my foot down. Leigh never really wanted to be told what to do. We were never quite the same after that trip to LA. Before that, we’d been two hours on the phone to each other everyday for seven years. But then also our lives were changing. Leigh was working with Lucian—his interests were changing. Our common interests were drifting.
CWE: He’d never do what he was asked to. At that time, I did some pop videos for The Fall. And we also did a play together at Riverside Studios where he played a Chicago mafia boss. Leigh would improvise lines, and every night he would stretch his lines by quite a few minutes by writing some “new material.” I can remember him coming on doing dances or singing songs, and then going into his lines. Mark E Smith would be grumbling and laughing. One thing that has always stuck with me and has been a barometer for me ever since: Leigh would look at something and say, “Yer, it was all right. But where’s the poison?”
Almost like a kind of homeopathic thing; you would need this poisonous kernel, so that it could be transformative, something in it that was deeply subversive and could dissolve hierarchies.
BW: Exactly. As much as he did work for me, I also did a lot of work for him. He would engage you as the magician’s helper. One of my strongest memories of him is when he did the AIDS benefit at the Fridge. It was his first ‘douche’ show. He comes out dancing with a corset and a merkin. I think it was to ‘Nothing Compares to You’. He’d rehearsed it so he’d lie back on a plinth, open his legs, and squirt a fountain of water from his arse. But he hadn’t rehearsed it with a corset. So, when the time came, he couldn’t lean back. So he goes to the front of the stage and bends over to squirt over the white table cloths. Of course, he was very nervous so the water wasn’t completely clean. He’s squirting shit all over the front row of an AIDS benefit. For the second part of the piece, he put a great big skirt on that I had to get under (as I was the back of the horse, if you will). I’m meant to get him onto my shoulders so he could be ten feet tall waving in this giant skirt. I get under and it’s covered in shit, slipping around everywhere. But it’s show business—not a choice! He was properly freaked out after that show; he knew that he had pushed the poison to the limit as people were horrified. And it did cause a scandal. He’d shat on the front tables at an AIDS benefit! That was Leigh when he really did think for a minute that he’d pushed it too far. There was fear—and it was rare that you saw Leigh with fear.
CWE: If you did that now, you’d probably go to prison. Anything that was inappropriate—Leigh was like a magnet. Everything inappropriate was good. Everything appropriate was bad. It was pretty clear cut. He was really an anarchist.
BW: That’s why John Waters’s films so influenced Leigh. Divine in Female Trouble was a benchmark for Leigh in so many ways.
LS: Was it ever tiring being friends with someone who was that unrelenting in their commitment to subversion?
CWE: No. Because he was also so sweet and gentle. Like Baillie described—I was one of the people on the other end of the phone for an hour or two a day. We’d sit there watching television and he’d be like—What is Lorraine Kelly wearing?
LS: Did you ever feel embarrassed by him?
CWE: I can remember being on holiday in Cornwall with Leigh. Sue Tilley drove Leigh down; she couldn’t get into the car because Leigh had made a frock to wear in pink dayglo. It was like a Molly Goddard dress but the size of a flat—with all this tulle bunched into the car, the entire car was full. As soon as he arrived, he ran into the sea, and it soaked up so much seawater he nearly drowned. It was completely hysterical. I can remember this one dreadful situation: Leigh would do anything to embarrass Sue in public—it was one of his absolutely favorite things to do. So, we were alone in this grand Catholic church. And this lone nun was walking towards us in her habit. Sue was going, “Leigh, no. No. No.” Sue—she’s a big girl—and she’s trying to hide behind the column in the church. And Leigh is going at this 90-year-old woman in her habit, “Oi! My friend wants to eat you out!” The nun just shuffled away. “Bless you my child.” The strange thing is it never wore you out. He was like quicksilver, also. In the next moment, it would be a completely different thing—he’d be helping you make a pea soup. He thought it was hilarious that you had to buy a huge sack of peas to make a small bowl of pea soup.
BW: I was never embarrassed by Leigh because Leigh was never embarrassed. The joke was never on Leigh; he was making the joke, so there was never painful embarrassment.
CWE: But there would be times when he would be vulnerable. He’d open up on the phone and say, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He wasn’t always high octane.
BW: Leigh really led a life on the telephone. Cerith was part of that. I was part of that. Sue was part of that. A lot of our lives were spent on the phone—hours and hours a day. That’s not high octane or a performance. That’s a proper relationship.
CWE: You’d talk about things in the news…
BW: …or sometimes there was just silence. And you’d hear a sewing machine going.
LS: The construction of his garments was incredible. People often talk about how great he was at making looks, but perhaps not enough focus is put on just how skilled he was at making clothes.
CWE: He was very fastidious about the idea of learning techniques. He really looked up to Mr. Pearl, who had this career in Paris making amazing corsets. Berwick Street market was an Aladdin’s cave, where you could get the sequin fabrics and needles and threads—he would refer to that as the Stitch Bitch Trail.
LS: He’s often remembered in terms of the Club Kids. What do you make of that?
CWE: I don’t think he actually liked the whole New York Club Kids thing. He went there, he was adored there. But the people that he really liked were the ones from Jackie 60 and Mother and Blacklips Performance Cult. He liked the drag queens who were politicized.
BW: He liked the ones who were incredibly smart. He loved intelligence.
CWE: He liked revolutionary people. Political people.
BW: The Club Kids thing was an early part of his history, but his ambitions moved way beyond that. Leigh, above everything else, was incredibly intelligent, a thing that shines through for me. He had many stages. He created this persona from nowhere. And he trod unknown ground and was still reinventing every day.
CWE: And he was constantly looking for ways to undermine his reputation for what he’d become known as.
LS: Are there any particular days with him that stand out?
BW: It was his birthday, and I really wanted to fuck him over. So I thought: “I’m going to get him a cat. It’s a wicked present to give someone.” I called all the pet shops, and there was a kitten in Camden Town. So I went to the pet shop, and it had sold! I thought: “Fuck it, I’ve failed.” And as I was walking down to St Martin’s Lane through Cecil Court, there was a homeless person with a cat, saying: “Do you want a cat?” I was so shocked I said, “No,” and walked up the street. But then I thought: “Of course you fucking do.” So, I went back and bought the cat, a fully-grown black cat. It was so extraordinary and immediately friendly and affectionate. I went home and put it in a stereo box, wrapped it up and went over to Leigh’s flat. Leigh unwrapped it, saw the box and thought that I had bought him a stereo. He was saying, “Oh that’s great.” Then he opened it, and the cat jumped out. He was completely horrified at first. But then he was a great father to the cat. Leigh adored Angus.
CWE: He named him Angus, which was the name of my boyfriend at the time. He did it to punish him.
BW: The cat was always sleeping in amongst fabric.
CWE: The flat was pretty amazing. Before Trojan died, it had Star Trek wallpaper. And after he died, Leigh decided that he wanted to change it. And as he was peeling off the wallpaper, he found one of Trojan’s hairs, from when Trojan and Leigh had put up the wallpaper. Leigh said he freaked out and didn’t know what to do. “I just ate it,” he said. He just had to ingest it.
LS: Tell me about his wedding; he married Nicola Bateman.
CWE:That was quite late on. I was his best man.
BW: The wedding was one of the secrets that I didn’t know about. Cerith was privy to that. But that was another of those “What else didn’t I know?” moments.
CWE: Leigh was in Minty [his band] at that time. He was also very scared at that point, and I imagine was probably showing symptoms of HIV/AIDS. He got married so that if the worst happened, at least Nicola would have a roof over her head. He was in a furious mood all day. He had this blond wig on and a coat that he’d bought on Brick Lane that was very nice, black, heavy, silk satin—an Orthodox Jewish man’s coat. Nicola just kept saying things like, “Oh darling, this is the happiest day of any woman’s life.” She was dressed in blue and had a blue garter—everything was her “something blue.” She’d really gone for things as if it was the Royal Wedding. Her sister was the bridesmaid and was dressed in a bizarre 1960s pop-art Paco Rabanne dress; her hair was big and bouffant and had black and white make up, mod shoes and big Perspex earrings. After the wedding, Leigh said he had to go to a Minty rehearsal: “Nicola you have the money, make sure that you spend it all on a wedding breakfast.” We went to the Angus Steak House on Leicester Square, the three of us there looking like complete freaks. We had steak and chips and a salad. After, Nicola’s sister and I went to a party at the Architectural Association, where I was teaching at the time—I actually got Leigh in to teach there too—and she won a prize for best fancy dress.
BW: How long before he died did they have the wedding?
CWE: A couple of months. It was the summer, I think, and he died in winter.
BW: On New Year’s. So very Leigh to ruin New Year’s. So sick, because every New Year’s you think of Leigh.
LS: Tell me about getting him in to teach at the Architectural Association.
CWE: I was teaching a foundation course, which I’d got into because someone had asked me to come show my films and give a talk to some students. I’d asked to see the students’ work and ended up doing these tutorials and got on well with the students. Someone was having a baby and went on maternity leave—so all of sudden I was running the foundation department at the Architectural Association, despite having never studied architecture and actually being rather suspicious of architects. I ended up teaching there for seven years. I’d try and get them to look at things around buildings: dance, fashion, the body, do plans for zoning in department stores, or map Selfridges on top of the British museum so the Assyrian department would be in the same place as the shoe department—stuff like that. It was about opening people’s minds up, to stop them just thinking about making fabulous houses on golf courses in the Mediterranean. I thought Leigh would be perfect to come in, do it for a term and see how it went. I had a bit of a budget, so we hired ten sewing machines. He suggested we have to make a pair of gloves, as that was really, really difficult. So, we did a glove making workshop—every student had to make a pair to fit their own hand, and Leigh was there to help. The students were just over the moon—they loved him. On his first day, he had been so nervous. I remember he had on this pair of trousers that Jean Paul Gaultier had given him. They were green stretch satin, the weirdest thing. They had obviously worn out so many on the bottom that they had the overlocked stitching to hold them together, over and over and over again to keep the whole thing together. I can remember looking at him; he was covered in makeup—very, very heavy foundation.
BW: It would be orange.
CWE: And lots of rouging on the cheeks. Sometimes he’d wear one of his chemotherapy wigs, which he would have gotten from a charity shop and then cut so you could see all the netting on the scalp. But he was so tall. I thought: ‘You’re huge today, four inches taller than normal.’ I couldn’t work it out. He lifted the trousers up. And inside his trainers was a pair of trannie stilettos.
BW: He loved height. He wanted to be the biggest man in the room.
CWE: He was so nervous though.
BW: But the nervousness was endearing, wasn’t it?
CWE: Absolutely. By the end of the day he knew the names of their brothers and sisters, where they came from, all of that. He’d see them two months later and be like, “So, is Mathilda still doing the veterinary college thing?”
BW: There was always a boy he really fancied.
CWE: One time, Pearl came in, and we showed them a VHS cassette of a Christian Lacroix couture show. The students had never seen a fashion show. Pearl was there whispering away about couture and handcraft with his 16-inch waist. Leigh thought the show was genius and flawless. All the students were really getting into it. So, the project developed so that at the end of Leigh’s term we were going to do a fashion show, where the models were going to be the students and they were going to make outfits, couture outfits, based on a building. A very bright boy from Bulgaria chose a Bruce Goff strange kind of desert range house from the early 1960s. There was a very privileged Iranian woman who didn’t have a portfolio and would use a brand-new giant Chanel shopping bag to carry her work. Leigh was of course like, ‘She’s a genius; she’s incredible.’ She decided that for the fashion show, she wanted to come as the Taj Mahal. So Leigh helped her make a papier-mâché dome helmet, which she decided she was going to cover in fusilli pasta, glued on and sprayed silver. Now, the Taj Mahal has a lake down the front of it, so she got some Perspex manufacturer to make these two narrow strips which went down the front with blue colored water inside and model trees glued down the side. The fashion show was very well attended—Vivienne Westwood, Rifat Özbek, Jasper Conran, and people fromVoguecame. Leigh was the compere. And for that role, he decided to sport his head coming out of a toilet bowl with brown latex filled with rice krispies all down his front—like a brown shitty head coming out of a toilet—with a see-through corset, a huge skirt and black eye makeup. He had a clipboard with notes about each student and spoke in a voice as if it was a couture show: “And the next model that we have is…” I remember in one bit he said, “Dana has come at the Taj Ma Hole, oh sorry Mahal.” People were roaring with laughter. It was off-the-charts mental what people were wearing, but the students were genuinely moved.
LS: The breadth of the things you both worked with him on is quite something: films, teaching, performances.
CWE: Well, he was a very creative person, so nothing was ever out of bounds.
BW: It’s been lovely reminiscing and remembering. The tragedy is that he’s not here, because he would be pushing boundaries like no one else I’ve ever known and making me, certainly, and probably everyone else question everything.
Four things you never knew about Leigh Bowery
The club scene icon’s best friend Sue Tilley shares some little-told stories from her life with the founderof Taboo
Dressed in looks dripping in colour, with overdrawn lips and exaggerated silhouettes distorting his form beyond recognition,Leigh Bowery is the Christian boy who became an icon of club-kid history, inspiring everyone fromAlexander McQueen (who once went to see his band Minty before their Soho residency was shut down for obscenity) toGareth Pugh. More than 20 years after his death, Bowery’s long-term best friend, biographer and party companion Sue Tilley, was joined by a group of enthusiasts at the Café Royal this week for a talk as part of A Curious Invitation’sIcons of Fashionseries, to tell his story from a more intimate perspectiv, from exploits in London to checking into the hospital under the name John Waters and watching his bands Minty and Raw Sewage (once named the Quality Street Rappers). Here are four things we learned about the icon.
HIS DIY DESIGNS HAVE ENDED UP IN THE LOUIS VUITTON ARCHIVES
“His goal was to be afashion designer,” explained Tilley. “But he wouldn’t really fit in. He wrote in his diary in 1981: ‘Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure, and all the men have clear skin, moustaches, short waved blonde hair and masculine physical appearance, STINKS.” For the most part, Bowery decided to use his own body as a canvas for self-expression, but he did make clothes for a few friends and Boy George (who was a big fan). According to Tilley, “Boy George was terrified of him and was thrilled that Leigh Bowery was making clothes for him – he was obsessed to the point of writing musicals about him and everything!” Now many of the creations Sue received are in the hands of Louis Vuitton menswear designer Kim Jones, also a big Bowery fan. “He buys his clothes off me or I swap them for Louis Vuitton bags,” chuckled Tilley, “because to be honest, he’ll look after them a hundred times better than me, put it in the vaults at Louis Vuitton, and I’d rather that than having them in a box getting tatty.”
“Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure… STINKS” – Leigh Bowery
HE FELT THE TIME WAS RIGHT FOR TABOO TO END
Taboo, Bowery’s iconic club night founded in January 1985, served as a meeting point for all types of people inspired by freedom of expression and absolute disregard for the traditional. The club staged its last hurrah in 1986, after asserting itself as the pinnacle of London nightlife. Tilley explained the story behind its closure. “Someone sold a big story to the papers about it being a den of vice and drugs. I never saw drugs or people on heroin or whatever, but perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right place. So this was the story, and the club had no choice but to shut it down.” But Bowery believed the time was right. “He then realised it was actually a good thing – it’s much better when something is shut down at its pinnacle when it’s still really good than when it’s died down and there’s three people from the suburbs in there. And then they asked him if he wanted to open it again and he went, “No. It’s best that it stopped when it did.”
HIS BODY PERFORMANCE ART HAD ACCIDENTAL BEGINNINGS
Although Bowery is perhaps best known for birthing his friend and wife Nicola Bateman, who came out of the performer’s ‘vagina’ with sausages for an umbilical cord, his first venture into the performing arts didn’t quite go as planned. “His first performance was at a crypt in a church that was run by the neo-naturists, a bunch of people who just walked around half-naked, the most famous one probably beingGrayson Perry,” Tilley remembered. “Everyone was standing round. He went round and stripped off naked, and in the process he caught his nipple that he’d just had pierced. It started bleeding and there was blood pouring down his chest… So he put on a doctor’s coat and pretended to inject (co-performer) Trojan with various syringes, Trojan then threw lighter fuel to the floor and set fire to it, while Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety – but everything went then. Things got a little more professional after this, but bodily fluids still played a big part in Leigh’s repertoire.”
“Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety” – Sue Tilley
Many unfamiliar with the 80s club kids will know Bowery as one of artistLucian Freud’s sitters. The 1990 portrait Freud painted of him, “Leigh Bowery (seated)”, was hailed by many as a masterpiece. Tilley, who also sat for the artist, explained how the two met during one of Bowery’s performances in a room with a two-way mirror. “Leigh dressed in a different outfit everyday, and he’d walk around this space like a sort of caged animal – he was very gymnastic as well, so he did a lot of high kicks and spinning on the floor. And there were musical traffic sounds and different smells coming. People used to come to the gallery for two hours – some of them were there every day to watch him. That was proper validation, because it was ‘proper art’ and it was accepted. One member of the crowd that came to see him was an old artist called Lucian Freud – because some of our friends worked for Lucian Freud they had mentioned Leigh, and he was curious and wanted to see what he was like, since he had a lot of interest in the world. He came along and was absolutely thrilled by him – especially by his calves. He said “It’s amazing! His calves go straight into his feet!” so he decided he wanted to paint him. This was a real turning point for Leigh.”