“It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love.”
He was a singer-songwriter musician. He was also one of the bestselling poets of the 1960s.
McKuen was born at the Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California, and he was raised by an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather. He was sexually abused by relatives as a kid. McKuen:
“Physical injuries on the outside heal, but those scars have never healed and I expect they never will.“
He ran away from home when he was 11 years old and traveled around the West Coast, taking jobs as a ranch hand, railroad worker, and hustler. He had his own radio show when he was just 15, all the while, sending money home to his mother. He kept a journal which he mined for material for his poems and songs.
In the early 1950s he did readings at City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He tried acting in Hollywood, moved to Paris and New York City in the early 1960s, and then he found his was back to California, as so many of us Californians do.
When McKuen died in 2015 at 81 years old, the obituaries in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post failed to mention that McKuen was queer or about his LGBTQ activism. Of course.
Throughout his career, McKuen produced recordings of popular music, spoken word, film soundtracks and orchestral music. He received two Academy Award nominations and a Pulitzer Prize shortlist for his music. He translated and arranged the music of Jacques Brel, bringing the great Belgian songwriter to the attention of American fans of his fantastic songs. McKuen sold sold over 100 million records, and 60 million books.
His books of poetry were found both on middle American coffee tables and in the bedrooms of teenagers, with his reflections on dreamy romantic loneliness and uplifting platitudes.
One of McKuen’s biggest hits was the title song for the animated Peanuts film A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His other Oscar nomination was for the song Jean, which he sang over the closing credits of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Released as a single, it did not sell well, until it was recorded by singer Oliver, then it went to Number Two on the US charts. In 1974, McKuen’s version of Brel’s Le Moribond, became a huge worldwide hit.
His exquisite songs have been covered through the years by such disparate artists as Linda Ronstadt, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Chet Baker, Tom Jones, Petula Clark, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand. McKuen became the first songwriter to have an entire album of new material recorded by Sinatra.
McKuen was a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights. In the 1950s, he was part of the San Francisco chapter of the pioneering Mattachine Society. McKuen publicly spoke out against Anita Bryant, gifting her the moniker: “Ginny Orangeseed”. He did benefit concerts to raise money to fight her. The cover for his album Slide Easy In… (1977), used the arm of gay porn star Bruno, his fist filled with Crisco, hovering above a can with “Disco” on the label. My friends and I referred to it as the “Crisco Disco Album”, and it had a song Don’t Drink The Orange Juice in response to the Bryant campaign.
He wrote a song about his time in France, The Money Boys Of Cannes, and he and Glen Yarborough recorded it, in 1966. It was quite unusual for McKuen to address the subject of being gay at all, much less in a song about hustlers or fisting.
He was one of the first HIV/AIDS activists, giving fundraiser gigs for AIDS related charities in the mid-1980s. When asked by the press if he was gay, McKuen responded:
“I’ve been attracted to men and I’’ve been attracted to women. I have a 16-year-old son. You put a label on it.“
In 1976, The Advocate gave McKuen its seriously dubious “Something You Do In The Dark Award” for not fully coming out of the closet. A bit unfair, McKuen had always been candid about his complex sexual and romantic desires. In 2004, a reporter asked McKuen if he was gay, and just like two decades earlier, McKuen refused to label his sexuality:
“Am I gay? Let me put it this way, Collectively I spend more hours brushing my teeth than having sex so I refuse to define my life in sexual terms. I’ve been to bed with women and men and in most cases enjoyed the experience with either sex immensely. Does that make me bisexual? Nope. Heterosexual? Not exclusively. Homosexual? Certainly not by my definition.
I am sexual by nature and I continue to fall in love with people and with any luck human beings of both sexes will now and again be drawn to me. I can’t imagine choosing one sex over the other, that’s just too limiting. I can’t even honestly say I have a preference. I’m attracted to different people for different reasons.
I do identify with the Gay Rights struggle, to me that battle is about nothing more or less than human rights. I marched in the 1950s and 1960s to protest the treatment of Blacks in this country and I’m proud of the fact that I broke the color barrier in South Africa by successfully demanding integrated seating at my concerts. I am a die-hard feminist and will continue to speak out for Women’s Rights as long as they are threatened. These, of course, are all social issues and have nothing to do with my sex life (although admittedly I’ve met some pretty hot people of both sexes on the picket line).“
McKuen had an unconventional relationship with his half-brother Edward Habib, publicly calling Edward “my partner”. In 2005, a gay male fan wrote a fan letter saying of McKuen’s poem I Always Knew: “I plan on presenting it to my partner on his 54th. This will be our 8th year together. Thank you”. McKuen responded by comparing his relationship with his brother to his fan’s partnership.
“Relationships take hard work so you both must be doing something right for each other. In case you missed it here is a poem I wrote a few years ago that you might find interesting. The poem is titled PARTNER / For Edward.“
Yet, in another interview, McKuen said:
“As for Edward, he is my brother, father, mother, best friend and partner in almost every way. He’s a cute kid all right, but not my lover or my type. Besides, wouldn’t that be incest? “
When he passed away in 2015, most people, even his most fervent fans, knew nothing of McKuen’s queerness. I am not sure why it never made the gay radar. Even today, a Google search using the keywords “Rod McKuen Gay” offers very little information.
San Francisco’s LGBTQ paper, The Bay Area Reporter didn’t even write an obituary for him. Obituaries serve as commemoration, remembrance and celebration of those we have lost. Remembering the queerness of McKuen’s life would have honored his loves and politics.
McKuen toured 280 days a year, but still found time to write a memoir, Finding My Father (1976), about his search for the father who abandoned him and the painful upbringing that followed. The book brought a debate on the rights of adopted children to learn about their biological parents. Ironically, although McKuen fathered two sons when he lived in Paris, he left them, admitting that his career was more important.
When Brel died in 1978, McKuen locked himself in his bedroom and drank for two weeks. In 1981, suffering from clinical depression, he retired from touring. He lived in a massive Beverley Hills mansion with Edward, where they shared a collection of 500,000 albums. In his last years, he was a bit of a recluse. The 11,000-square-foot home, which McKuen purchased for in early 1970 for $290,000., sold in 2018 for $15 million.
For 50 years, McKuen proudly advocated for LGBTQ Rights while refusing sexual labels for himself.