“Anyone can be gay – it’s no accomplishment – but only I can be me.”Ned Rorem
American composer and writer Ned Rorem took his final bow on Friday, November 18, at 99 years old, gone from natural causes. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he composed symphonies, concertos, and operas, but he was best known for composing more than 500 art songs, and his seven volumes of controversial diaries, beginning with his Paris Diary (1966). The diaries gave an explicit look at gay life at a time when such a thing just wasn’t done. In them, he writes with absolute candor about his and other men’s sex lives, including his affairs with Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Noël Coward, Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, and John Cheever, while outing dozens of his subjects.
“How many thousands have I spent on perfume and alcohol, cigarettes, and baths, disappointing trips, and third-class movies; how many months in silent bars or parks, expecting, in a chair with a book not reading, or waiting in line, waiting in line? Who will tell me it’s a loss when I know life must be for pleasure? The parks were balanced by museums, the baths by oceans, bars by composition, and the dreaming chair by books finished. Nothing is waste that makes a memory.”
The New York Diary: 1951-1961
Rorem wrote extensively about music also, including Music From Inside Out (1967), Music And People (1968), Pure Contraption (1974), Setting The Tone (1983), Settling The Score (1988), and Other Entertainment (1996).
In 1969, at 14 years old, I came across Rorem’s Paris Diary which I devoured. The book gave me the push I need for my own coming out.
Rorem composed symphonies, piano concertos and other orchestral works, Chamber pieces, 11 operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theatre, plus literally hundreds of songs. He is the author of 20 books, including the diaries, along with collections of lectures and criticism.
You might have considered that the insulated world of classical music, noted for stereotypes like “The Opera Queen”, would have plenty of open closet doors, but Rorem was one of the first to dare. Rorem was openly gay during an era when even writers like Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote were treating their gayness as a literary device disconnected from their personal lives.
Over the years Rorem has published very readable memoirs, diaries and collections of letters from a life well-led from over a span of eight decades, including a volume devoted to his correspondence with gay writer/composer Paul Bowles. His diaries include remembrances of the times he shared with a sublime mix of people including the great Black opera legend Leontyne Price, the late Angela Lansbury and gifted musician Judy Collins. In Wings Of Friendship (2005) Rorem’s letters to these friends are assembled in chronological order and they reveal the range of his interests and the depth of his passions.
Rorem lived an extraordinary life by any standards. As a beautiful and talented young flaneur he moved in the social spheres of major gay artists such as Paul Bowles, Jean Cocteau and John Cage. His diaries don’t hold back in name dropping, gossip, scandal and recalling bawdy exploits. But they also offer a remarkably frank insight into the creative process of a fledgling artist.
Rorem on getting older:
“In a way, I’ve said everything I had to say, in both music and prose. Also, I don’t get commissions anymore. But then, nobody I know does. At my age, it’s nice to be encouraged with money. But I think that if I died now, as I said before, I’m not ashamed of what I would leave.”
In 1999, Rorem’s partner of 32 years, James Holmes, died after a long battle with HIV-related illnesses. Rorem chronicled Holmes’s long decline and his own mortality, as well as his everyday ups and downs in Lies: A Diary 1986-1999. It is his most poignant book.
“I’m many things: I’m gay, I’m a pacifist, I am a recovered alcoholic, I’m an atheist, and I’m a composer. Of those five, being a composer is the most problematic. As a gay person, I never suffered like some. A good friend would say to me: ‘You shouldn’t go around saying that to people’. But my mother and father called the shots very early, and they were intelligent about it. So I never tried to hide it. But as I said in The Paris Diaries, I referred to an Italian lover of mine, Pinot, with just the letter P and arranged every sentence as P came to see me’. I didn’t write P came to see me and he said…’ So the pronoun was never used. But people knew what I was doing.”
On our own modern gay times:
“I don’t approve of gays in the military. I’m a pacifist and a Quaker. To spend all of that time to get into the military so you can kill people, rather than spending the time to get rid of the military, is not what gay men, or all men, should be doing. I don’t approve of gay marriage only. Well, I don’t approve of any marriage, except if it can help legally with adoptions, to legally inherit and that sort of thing. But to fight to be legally married, I don’t think it’s very important.”