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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)

A similar landsman-mutuality fueled the early friendship of Jerome Robbins and Bernstein when both discovered they were the same age and had fathers who objected to their artistic professions. Robbins’ sister Sonia had to fight Harry Rabinowitz to let his son schlep from Weehawken to Manhattan to follow her to Gluck Sandor’s Dance Center, while Bernstein’s father, who fled Ukraine in 1908, could barely credit a son as a musician since he had memories of itinerant klezmer players working at family weddings and bar mitzvahs for paltry sums or lodgings.

Robbins, however, was the only one of these five men who actually tasted the Old Country; his mother took him at age 6 back to Poland to meet his paternal grandfather. Years later, he would write, “They told me I spoke Yiddish there & that I played with the children of the shtetl all day long in the fields, in the yards. … I do not remember one unhappy moment there.” Deborah Jowitt, his biographer, notes with irony that “in a 1924 shtetl, surrounded by potentially hostile Christians, he felt no fear, while in America, he came to be afraid of being a Jew.” He was deeply conflicted in his youth: “I didn’t want to be a Jew. I didn’t want to be like my father, the Jew—or any of his friends … ” yet Robbins was also drawn back to it, struggling over many years to create a suitable ballet, with music by Bernstein, based on The Dybbuk, a project neither Balanchine nor Kirstein favored, largely because they didn’t like Bernstein, the man or his music. Ultimately, Robbins found his greatest “Jewish” triumph in his direction and choreography for Fiddler on the Roof, in which Gluck Sandor played the rabbi and Zero Mostel—who had suffered from the blacklist—played Tevye.

Marc Blitzstein was older, worldlier about sexuality and left-wing politics, and may have provided Bernstein with a more compelling model. The symphonic concert world was broadly conservative; some reasonably speculate that Bernstein eventually married, like Blitzstein, to secure his conducting career. Similarly, Lincoln Kirstein’s need to cajole WASP high-society donors, like his friend Nelson Rockefeller, to support Balanchine’s ballet companies and other artistic projects may have persuaded him of the social necessity of marriage.

Still, Aaron Copland, Bernstein’s other mentor, navigated this same world without resorting to the “beard” of matrimony. Unlike his young protégé, Copland managed his gay life with more reserve, while still entering into a number of charged, sometimes confounding relationships with younger men. But then, Copland never had Lenny’s movie-star punim and had not burst upon the conducting scene with Bernstein’s public-relations fanfare. Young women fans practically threw themselves at Bernstein’s feet. By contrast, within musical circles up at Tanglewood and beyond, Copland was sometimes assumed to show too much favor to young gay and/or Jewish musician-acolytes. He neither appeared to be nor ever promoted the appearance of being a ladies’ man.

Yet just as Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male informed an innocent American public in the late 1940s that same-sex experience was more widespread than openly professed, this could also mean that homosexuals sometimes strayed from their own turf. Arthur Laurents, a Cornell graduate who had written training films while in the armed services, afterward turned successfully to Broadway and Hollywood. He writes that he became “hooked” by ballet’s “exacting combination of art and craft” and found himself smitten by Ballet Theater’s dramatic ballerina Nora Kaye, known as the Duse of the Dance. A middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn, Arthur Levine was the son of a barely observant father who was a lawyer with an Orthodox background he left for Reform Judaism. Laurents got to know Kaye’s dance colleague, Jerome Robbins, “an imp with a high-pitched giggle” who referred to Laurents as a “dark prince” and, as their friendship grew, as “baby.” As it happens, Robbins, as conflicted about being gay as about being Jewish, also had sexual relations with Kaye.

The ballet world’s sexually mutable milieu, and Laurents’ emotional attachment to Kaye even after their affair ended, informed his script, decades later, of the ballet film The Turning Point, directed by Kaye’s last husband, Herbert Ross. One spicy similarity between screenwriter Laurents and Robbins was their having bedded two up-and-coming dreamboat actors of their generation: Laurents, Farley Granger; and Robbins, Montgomery Clift. But Laurents would look back upon his strained friendship with the impish dancer through the prism of Robbins having named names in testimony to HUAC in 1953—professionally dooming colleagues whom Robbins had briefly known in a “theatrical transient group” called the Communist Political Association. Robbins said he joined under the naïve impression that “the Russian Communists were against fascism and anti-Semitism and in favor of artistic freedom.” Under HUAC questioning, he was asked, with supreme lunacy, “if dialectical materialism had influenced Fancy Free.”

Anyone who has seen that delightfully fresh ballet, or the Broadway musical On the Town, which expanded its themes, could guess that the attractive young sailors who surged into Times Square in waves during the Second World War were what “influenced” its choreographer. But Robbins gave way under pressure, an act of moral betrayal that his former friend Arthur Laurents (who wrote the screenplay for The Way We Were with its Hollywood Red-scare background) refused to ascribe to his being afraid that he would be outed as a homosexual, as others rationalized. To Laurents, the ambitious Robbins was merely securing his future career, since at the time he was choreographing Broadway’s The King and I and anticipating its move to the movies. “He wasn’t threatened with exposure,” said Laurents, who was unable to get his passport renewed during this period because of his own former connections with leftist organizations. “Jerry said, ‘It won’t be for years until I know whether I did the right thing.’ I said, ‘Oh I can tell you now. You were a shit.’ But I wasn’t so pristine myself. I worked with him afterwards and I knew he’d been an informer.”


The major collaboration on which they worked after Robbins informed was one begun before the blacklist had taken its toll. It was an idea Robbins first brought to Bernstein and Laurents in 1949: The story of Romeo and Juliet was to play out as a feud between Jews and Catholics, an idea Robbins claimed came to him when an actor friend asked how he should play Romeo. Some presume this must have been Robbins’ lover in the mid-1940s, Montgomery Clift, and Robbins used religious hostility as a parallel to explain the family feud in Shakespeare’s Verona. Originally, in the update written by Laurents, news of “Tybalt’s” death—Juliet’s cousin—would arrive during Passover Seder.

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gwhepner says:


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.

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.


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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?