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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?

Allen Ellenzweig
November 06, 2012
Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein being photographed during rehearsal for West Side Story, 1957. (Friedman-Abeles/©The New York Public Library)
Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein being photographed during rehearsal for West Side Story, 1957. (Friedman-Abeles/©The New York Public Library)

At the beginning of the long presidential campaign now finally closed, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran a TV campaign ad in his quest for the Republican nomination that complained about gays who can “openly” serve in the military while “our kids” can’t “openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” The Internet and blogosphere quickly lit up as discerning viewers noted that the music underscoring Perry’s words sounded awfully close to the opening strains of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Copland, the author of some of the most recognizable and inspiring American music of the 20th century, was—as one blogger crowed with delight—a “gay Commie Jewish composer.” Perry had hit the minority trifecta.

These days, East and West Coast sophisticates can laugh about right-wing rubes who associate Commies with Jews, but when and how did gays get into the mix? There is a long and complicated history here. To be Jewish and gay and left-wing when Copland was working in midcentury America meant having three minority identities, each subject to social shaming. Being Jewish, it turned out, was the least of it, but hiding any one of these often encouraged suppressing all three, at different times or for different audiences. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” preceded the law fashioned for the military; for some, it was a daily life ritual.


After World War II, it seemed as if American culture high and low had been taken over by the Jews: Danny Kaye in the movies, George Burns and Milton Berle on television, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow in literature, Arthur Miller in theater, Jerome Robbins in ballet and on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein on Broadway and in the concert hall. In the context of the Cold War, the American product—jazz, symphonic music, drama, modern dance, and ballet—became the currency of cultural exchange in proving the superiority of the Free World. We were the champions. As historian Michael Sherry writes, “Out of national pride, aspirations for cultural empire, and fears of enemy advances, Americans showcased artists as emblems of the nation’s freedom and muscular culture.”

The rise of the Jews might have encouraged a backlash against undue Jewish influence on American culture and mores. Laura Z. Hobson’s novel Gentleman’s Agreement, for example, and the Academy-award winning film adaptation released in 1947, revealed the unspoken snobberies of the American suburbs that allowed for “restricted” hotels, country clubs, and golf courses and signaled that Jewishness remained a problematic social marker.

But another group seeding the soil of American art was ripe for more direct scapegoating: homosexuals. Unlike Jews, no public decorum need be extended to them, a “group” that had neither the communal institutions Jews had built up over decades nor official solidarity based on tradition and a shared history of Diaspora. So, what was to be thought of the growing crop of “effete” Cold Warriors in the arts, who were to be ambassadors of the new American “muscular culture”? Figures like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Lincoln Kirstein provide a window into a period when Jewish homosexuals developed mixed communal and professional networks to reach cultural prominence despite social limitations as Jews, discrimination as gays, and career jeopardy as men on the political left.

While all five of these men were Jewish, Robbins and Laurents—Rabinowitz and Levine—carried names that might blur that distinction, and Kirstein claimed that his German-Jewish family was “remote from real piety.” All descended from Ashkenazim and, excepting Kirstein, were first-generation Americans, many with at least a smattering of Yiddish coloring the family patter. Within cosmopolitan circles, all were discreetly known as transgressing the heterosexual norms of the postwar period. Of the five, only Bernstein and Kirstein married, and Bernstein alone had children. All had to navigate their sexual lives in an America vastly different from the one we now inhabit.


To some extent, the status that five Jewish American gay men enjoyed within the arts provided them a kind of cover that rank-and-file gay men and lesbians could barely hope to find. The so-called Lavender Scare of the 1950s was as lethal as the Red Scare, with thousands of civil servants, uniformed service members, and teachers across the country fired from their jobs on the presumption that “perverts”—to use a period term—were national security risks or engaged in moral turpitude. In 1950, the head of the Republican National Committee warned his party that “as dangerous as the actual Communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years.” According to Sherry, “[A]gitation about queers in the arts … intensified in the late 1940s and 1950s amid the Lavender Scare.”

And just as the Red Scare had its bogeymen—the defunct “Comintern,” the Soviet-sponsored Communist International with national representations from around the globe—the Lavender Scare had an equivalent coinage: the “Homintern.” This waggish pun is variously attributed to poet W.H. Auden or other English literati who originally used it in the 1930s to evoke a clandestine link among artist-homosexuals, even if the intention was to mock claims of conspiratorial power. The term could cut both ways—an epithet for those who believed in a gay cabal undermining the Free World or a “camp” jeu de mots that queers might use with irony.

Meanwhile, if the McCarthy-era witch hunts targeted a large number of Jews—who in previous decades made the mistake of being “prematurely” anti-fascist, or signed petitions organized by so-called Communist front or “subversive” organizations, or been too enthusiastic in union organizing—it was not for nothing that Hollywood found itself in the crosshairs. In Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, one commentator claims that the source of “animus against Hollywood” by one of the House Committee’s influential early members, Congressman John Rankin from Mississippi, was “the large number of Jews eminent in the film industry. … In Rankin’s mind, to call a Jew a Communist was a tautology. … He took glee in baiting his Jewish colleagues.” A lawyer for the Anti-Defamation League remembered that “Jews in that period were automatically suspect. … People felt if you scratch a Jew, you can find a Communist.”

The suspicion that gays exerted a similarly malign influence on America produced paranoia in the tabloid press and mass-market magazines, and even in respected political journals, belying today’s popular notion that nobody spoke about homosexuality in the 1950s. Human Events, a newsletter read in power circles in Washington, D.C., declared in 1952: “[B]y the very nature of their vice,” homosexuals “belong to a sinister, mysterious, and efficient international.” This sounds like nothing so much as the conspiratorial obsessions of committed anti-Semites who see every public personality with a Jewish surname as part of a faction running the International Monetary Fund and pulling strings of the mass media—or alternately, plotting the overthrow of capitalism with revolutionary zeal. In a fun-house reflection of the stereotype of Jews manipulating the levers of mass communication, a 1951 article in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury intimated that all of publishing was under homosexual control, producing a literary culture that was “chic, artificial, and possibly effeminate,” thereby abetting a “gradual corruption of all aspects of American culture.”


If there was a conspiracy among the gay Jewish culturati I’ve listed, its aim was to produce art with a distinctly American tone and idiom—incorporating, for example, traditional Shaker or hymnal melodies or indigenous African-American jazz or Latin-American rhythms into symphonic and popular music, and lyrics or libretti colored by lively street vernacular, and ballets on current or established American literary themes. Over time, overlapping personal and professional connections linked these men—especially Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents, who along with Stephen Sondheim comprised the team responsible for Broadway’s epochal West Side Story.

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.

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. Itwas 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.

Robbins had introduced Bernstein to Arthur Laurents, whose short-lived 1945 Broadway play Home of the Brave, dealt with anti-Semitism in an Army unit during World War II and had brought Bernstein to tears. Ultimately, Laurents and Bernstein bowed out of the project, originally called East Side Story, when its familiarity to the sentimental hit of the 1920s, Abie’s Irish Rose, became clear.

By 1955, the project was re-imagined when Bernstein and Laurents, coincidentally out in Hollywood at the same time, were struck by news about gang violence in L.A. between Chicanos and Anglos. Robbins had already urged Bernstein to reconsider the project and now joined them in reworking the story so that ethnic gangs replaced Jewish and Italian families. Stephen Sondheim, who had been nurtured at the right hand of Oscar Hammerstein, was brought in to help write lyrics. Thus was born a landmark in popular musical theater in which tragedy held final sway, operatic elements balanced with a symphonic take on jazz and Latin music, and dance became a way of defining character and underlining themes.

That the Jewish/Catholic motif was dropped so easily by its Jewish creators may seem to us a supreme irony. But then, this was still show business. When Home of the Brave was adapted for a 1949 film produced by Stanley Kramer, the Jewish character was changed to a Negro. “When I asked why,” writes Laurents, “Stanley replied: ‘Jews have been done.’ ”

Some attribute the success of West Side Story to a shared gay sensibility among its creators; certainly the sexy male dancing of the two gangs would have been a draw to a gay audience. But Laurents himself explained, “We’re Jews. … West Side can be said to be informed by our political and sociological viewpoint; our Jewishness as the source of passion against prejudice; our theatrical vision, our aspiration, but not, I think, by our sexual orientation.” Yet this statement tends to deny that a shared minority sexual orientation could also produce a “passion against prejudice.”

Here, perhaps, was the conspiracy that infected gay Jews in the postwar era: the making of common cause against prejudice of all kinds. But as Charles Kaiser writes of Laurents’ assertion: “[T]his debate simply highlights the similarities between the experiences of Jews and homosexuals in New York City: Two oppressed minority groups who have struggled mightily, and very successfully, to travel out of invisibility and assimilation to proud self-declaration.”


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Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic. His book, The Homoerotic Photograph, was reissued in paperback by Columbia University Press in 2012.

Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic. His book George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye was just published by Oxford University Press.