April 21, 1906– Stephen Tennant & his Bedtime Story:
Between the 2 great wars, there existed a movement that we now know as The Bright Young Things. They were a smart set of flappers & socialites looking for fun & frolic, mad & gay, chasing their dreams in fast cars during an age of Anything Goes. Their story is captured rather well in a film by Stephen Fry, titled, of course, Bright Young Things (2003), based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (1930).
Stephen Tennant was very much a part of this famous circle. He born into a life of profound privilege. When asked by his father what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied: “A great beauty”, & he indeed perverted his special station in life by becoming the most beautiful person, male or female, of his generation. He outraged staid society by appearing in public with gold dust in his pretty blond hair & Vaseline on his eyelids, & wearing a chinchilla coat while on the arm of his lover, the celebrated poet & pacifist, super-butch, much older Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon brought his considerable artistic talent & his celebrity to their relationship, but Tennant’s only activities were dressing-up & reading gossip columns where he was the main subject. Tennant was too-thin, too-rich, & he possessed an extreme elegance that flabbergasted the public on both sides of the Atlantic for half a century.
Tennant lived in an Arts & Crafts style country manor built for his mother. It was his retreat from the vulgar world around him. He brought in 22 tons of silver sand to spread on the lush lawns & planted palm trees. Tropical birds & reptiles were let loose on the grounds. In the winter, he gave them refuge indoors, joining Tennant in his heated bath, surrounded by his seashell collection, always kept wet because they looked prettier that way. His many famous visitors included: Cecil Beaton, David Hockney, Truman Capote, Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman, Greta Garbo, T.E.Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead, Christopher Isherwood, Jean Cocteau, & his BFF Willa Cather. Tennant lived in this home for homos, in delicious, decorative detachment.
He left Britain when things became unseemly with that war business. When his acquaintances met his ship at the dock in NYC, they had to have been startled to see a rail-thin man walking down the gangway with Marcelle waves in his hair, wearing makeup, & holding a bouquet of orchids. When a tough US customs official yelled out in disgust: “Pin ’em on!”, Tennant countered:
“Oh… have you got a pin? You kind, kind creature.”
Tennant & Cather must have made quite the interesting couple traveling around NYC. She was the sturdy notoriously no nonsense author of O’ Pioneers!, & he was a slip of a man wearing eyeliner & scarves. Tennant had advised:
“ I insist on an absolute ban on facial grimacing or harsh, wrinkle-forming laughter.”
Cather encouraged him to write, but the novel that obsessed him for the last 50 years of his life, remained unfinished when he died. Tennant finally did publish several slim volumes of poetry.
At the end of WW2, Tennant returned to England & went to bed. For the next 17 years he lulled about on pillows. Perfumed & prettified, with ribbons attached to his dyed comb-over, Tennant was not concerned about his newly plump figure:
“I’m beautiful, & the more of me there is the better I like it!”
He simply stayed in bed surrounded by the things he loved: jewelry, drawings, an Elvis Presley postcard, fishnets & seashells, bolts of pink satin, gold statues, & the pet birds & lizards. Those famous friends may have snickered, but Tennant was in on the joke from the start.
A telling anecdote has him regretting giving a present to a friend because:
“I’m not sure if she loves it as intensely as I do”.
As he got older, Tennant would travel to nearby villages to go shopping wearing tight pink shorts & tablecloth as a skirt. His family had all but given up on him long before. His circle showed only bemused resignation, a trait my husband uses today while dealing with me. Writer V. S. Naipaul says of Tennant:
“His shyness wasn’t so much a wish not to be seen as a wish to be applauded on sight.”
Tennant passed away peacefully, in bed, of course. He was 81 years old when he plumped that last pillow. Cecil Beaton had predicted: “He will be the last of us to go…”, & he was, leaving this wretched world in 1987.
Tennant’s lasting contribution to Gay History is his transcendent disregard for the rules of polite society.