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Don’t Ask, Don’t Ask

Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?

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Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein being photographed during rehearsal for West Side Story, 1957. (Friedman-Abeles/©The New York Public Library)

Yet it would be difficult to claim that the “Jewish Homintern” of the 1950s constituted an aesthetic school. Lincoln Kirstein distinguished himself as a backstage figure producing the talents of others: Notably, he brought Russian-born, and thoroughly heterosexual, George Balanchine to America in the early 1930s to form a ballet school and, eventually, to establish what became in 1948 the New York City Ballet. Kirstein poured substantial family money—from his father’s position and investments in Boston’s Filene’s Department Store—into keeping these enterprises going. This allowed “Mister B” to create a modern classical dance rooted in the Russian aristocratic milieu anathema to Bolshevism—and impossible to peg as left-wing. On the other hand, ballet was easily framed as “queer” given its audience and the assumption that only men of “Greek” tastes would wear tights that revealed the crack in their ass and the bulge at their crotch.

Kirstein also had a hand in literature; he and fellow Harvard student Varian Fry founded the noteworthy avant-garde literary magazine Hound and Horn. Throughout his life, Kirstein wrote on cultural issues and was deeply committed to the visual arts. He initiated, along with Eddie Warburg, his one Jewish friend at Cambridge, the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, a seedbed for New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Kirstein joined MoMA’S Junior Advisory Board in 1930. When he was young, his friends were often from the non-Jewish Boston elite; his father once worried that he would forget he was a “Jew boy”—odd, since his parents sent him to a YMCA-run school when he didn’t get into prestigious Boston Latin. All the same, his parents, according to Kirstein, “maintained a shy superstition that no Gentile could ever be a ‘real’ friend to a Jew.” For himself, Kirstein flirted with becoming a Roman Catholic with perhaps more conviction than he ever had in the 1930s for becoming a Communist. He stood apart from either formal affiliation; culture was his religion.

The other men on this list created work in different genres, allowing for projects produced in cooperation. Robbins was a superb dancer who would become a Broadway and ballet choreographer—eventually with the Balanchine/Kirstein company. Among his first triumphs, the World War II-era romp Fancy Free, produced for Lucia Chase’s Ballet Theater, was about three randy sailors seeking female companionship while on shore leave in New York City, a subject as far from the elitist European model as could be imagined. The young Leonard Bernstein supplied the ballet’s music with motifs for current social dances like boogie-woogie and the lindy hop. Just a year before in 1943, Bernstein had taken the podium to fill in for the ailing maestro Bruno Walter on a nationally broadcast concert from Carnegie Hall. He conducted such high-toned musical fare as Schumann’s Manfred overture and—cut for broadcast time—Wagner’s Meistersinger prelude. It was a sensational debut for the 25-year-old, not least because of his youth and, atypical for concert hall conductors of that time, the fact that he was American-born—and incidentally Jewish. The press, alerted beforehand (shades of All About Eve), went wild with praise.

Bernstein had early on established a father-son relationship with the émigré Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony, a Jew who had been baptized in order to further his studies in Moscow. But Bernstein was also mentored by two members of the mythical Homintern. He was first introduced to the older, established composer Aaron Copland on a trip to New York City in 1937 while still a Harvard undergraduate. Copland, a Brooklyn Jew from the Irish section of what is now Crown Heights, “rendered musically vivid an America of prairie cowboys and pioneer newlyweds” and became another father-figure to the brash Harvard boy who played Copland’s Piano Variations at the soignée party in his apartment to which he invited the youth.

One Bernstein biographer, Humphrey Burton, sees fit to remark of their amity: “Nobody can say for certain whether they were lovers”—putting into our heads an idea that we might not have otherwise assumed. With greater persuasion, he adds: “Copland certainly recognized a kindred spirit in Bernstein from the tremendous conviction with which he performed the Piano Variations at their first meeting. For the next six years they would see each other frequently and write to each other regularly.” Copland’s desire to “speak directly to the American public” in his music produced work some sneer at for being popular and/or provincial. For example, he scored films. An early piano trio, Vitebsk (Study on a Jewish Theme), was inspired by a melody heard in a 1925 production of S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. But who would label as “un-American” the author of such an iconic American piece of music as Fanfare for the Common Man?

Even so, Copland’s name was published in Red Channels, whose list of 151 artists with alleged Communist affiliations became a right-wing bible; he was also targeted by McCarthy to submit in-person testimony about his past political affiliations. Ultimately Copland’s reputation remained intact, and he was never formally blacklisted, yet a performance of his Lincoln Portrait at Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration was canceled, as was at least one university lecture, and he had difficulty securing a passport into 1954.

***

The young composer Marc Blitzstein was another of Bernstein’s early mentors. Married but gay, and from well-to-do Philadelphia Jews, Blitzstein heard Bernstein conduct on piano a performance of Blitzstein’s own The Cradle Will Rock, the legendary Depression-era musical, directed by Orson Welles, about a fight over workers forming a union. Shortly after seeing the landmark show in 1938, the Cambridge student had the chutzpah to invite Blitzstein to his Harvard version, which was to be the last musical event of his undergraduate life; he even met Blitzstein’s plane at the airport. During the visit, they “compared notes about their education and upbringings, and realized just how many parallels there were. Both came from well-to-do backgrounds. Blitzstein’s father—also named Sam and also Russian-Jewish—had been a Philadelphia banker before the crash of 1929.” For public consumption, Bernstein would downplay his comfortable upbringing; Samuel Bernstein was a more successful businessman than his son admitted. The musical wunderkind preferred to appear to have escaped a background of modest means.

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gwhepner says:

THE TRUE WEST SIDE STORY

Conceivedby men both Jewish and left-wing,

West Side Story disguises love that could not say

its name, for when you hears the lovers sing

you aren’t supposed to know its writers were all gay.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

The same year that Gentleman’s Agreement was released (1947), there was also Crossfire, another film that dealt with antisemitism. Interestingly, it was based on the novel The Brick Foxhole, by Richard Brooks, and originally dealt also with homophobia. The movie dropped this plotline, though, and kept the focus on antisemitism.

2000

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Ask

Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?