Honoring GLBT Notables Who Died in 2012

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Cris Alexander (né Allen Smith), actor, dancer, and photographer, died on March 7 at age 92 in Saratoga Springs, New York. He fled his birthplace, Tulsa, Oklahoma, at age eighteen, with his high school friend Tony Randall, and landed the role of Chip in On the Town on Broadway in 1944. Other Broadway appearances included Wonderful Town, Present Laughter, and Auntie Mame. But Alexander made his livelihood and his name as a portrait photographer for the glamorous and famous. He also worked for Interview magazine and the New York City Ballet, and he provided the photographs for Patrick Dennis’ satire, Little Me (1961). His partner of 61 years was Shaun O’Brien. They married when same-sex marriage became legal in New York in 2011.

Barton Lidice Benes, controversial sculptor, died of acute kidney failure on May 30, age 69, in New York. He had been HIV+ for many years, and his provocative artworks often incorporated the encumbrances of AIDS—pills, IV tubes, blood, and human ashes. In the words of David Groff, in a 1999 article in POZ magazine, much of his art involved the gluing of “ghoulish or bizarrely precious items into the small compartments of his reliquaries.” Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, and a graduate of Pratt Institute, he became interested in artifacts as a child, thanks to visits to the American Museum of Natural History. He came out in 1957, identified as a Beatnik, and was given his first show—in a bar—when he was in his teens. He was predeceased in 1999 by his partner of thirty years, weaver Howard Meyer.

Bob Bergeron, writer, motivational speaker, and therapist, was found dead by his own hand, at age 49, on January 5, in New York. Originally from Chicago, he attended the University of Nevada and received a master’s in social work from Hunter College. Having built a successful private practice in psychotherapy for a largely gay clientele, Bergeron went on to become a popular motivational speaker for GLBT audiences. He had spent the last few years working on a book that was scheduled for release last spring under the title The Right Side of Forty but canceled publication for fear that it would be panned as outdated. A clue to his suicide may be found in a quotation that appeared in his Times obit: “I peaked when I was 30 or 35. I was super-successful, everyone looked at me, and I felt extremely cool in my sexuality.”

Damien Bona, writer, died of cardiac arrest on January 29, at age 56, in New York. A book he co-authored (with his college friend Mason Wiley), Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, was first published in 1986 and was updated in many subsequent editions. In a review in the Times, Vincent Canby called it a “giddy social history of our place and time, full of … the kind of utterly trivial details that … somehow assume significance, like centuries-old graffiti scratched onto the base of the Sphinx.” Author of several other books about Hollywood stars, he was often called upon to give his expert opinions about the Oscars. Born and raised in Connecticut, he attended Columbia, where he was film critic for the college newspaper, and went on to receive a law degree from NYU. He is survived by his partner Ralph Peña, a writer and theater director.

Peter Burton, called the “Godfather of Gay Journalism” in the UK, died of a heart attack on November 7, 2011, at age 66. Born in London, he began to work as a clerk for publisher Hamish Hamilton while still a teenager, and later ran several nightclubs. He began to write for Spartacus in the late 1960’s, and started writing for Gay News in 1973. After it went under, he moved on to Gay Times in 1983. He was also the last publisher of the merged Millivres Books / Gay Men’s Press imprint and wrote or contributed to thirty books and a half-dozen anthologies. His memoirs were Parallel Lives (1985) and Amongst the Aliens: Some Aspects of a Gay Life (1995).

Remy (né Abraham) Charlip, dancer, artist, writer and choreographer, recipient of many awards for his work, died of complications from a stroke on August 14 in San Francisco, at age 83. A founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he began his career as a painter and in 1958 co-founded the longest-running children’s theater company in the U.S., the Paper Bag Players, for which he received an Obie Award. A second-generation American born in Brooklyn, he graduated from Cooper Union School of Fine Arts. Over the years he wrote or illustrated close to forty children’s books. The Bay Area Reporter’s obituary noted that one of the last dances that he choreographed included explicitly gay content. “In it, Remy … enters a terrifying world where his loneliness is interrupted by a naked man, who embraces him then abandons him, to be succeeded by another, who also leaves him,” until finally he is carried off in a “Bacchanalia of naked men.”

Dudley Clendinen, journalist and editor, died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on May 30 in Baltimore, at age 67. He had announced his intention to commit suicide in a New York Times op-ed piece a year earlier, but at the time of his death he was writing his memoir. The son of journalists, he received his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt and worked at The St. Petersburg Times after graduation, followed by stints at major American newspapers, including The New York Times. Author of several books, he was best known for Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (1999, co-authored with Adam Nagourney).

Adrienne Cooper, mezzo-soprano, composer, and klezmer musician, died on December 23, 2012, in Manhattan, at age 65, of cancer. Born in Oakland, California, she was a pioneer in the Yiddish revival of the 1970’s and 80’s. Taking degrees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Universitiy of Chicago, she taught Yiddish songs, both obscure and well-known. In 1985 she co-founded KlezKamp, drawing musicians to the Catskills. She is survived by her partner, pianist Marilyn Lerner, with whom she collaborated.

Peter Fisher, writer and activist, died last summer by his own hand at age 68, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He had apparently felt suicidal much of his life. Born in Richmond, Virginia, he had to deal with a homophobic father and was forced to undergo what might be called “reparative therapy.” Fisher enlisted in the Air Force and graduated from Columbia. He was an early leader in New York’s Gay Activist Alliance and author of The Gay Mystique: The Myth and Reality of Male Homosexuality (1972), which went on to win the Gay Book Award that year from the American Library Association. He also played a leadership role at the National Gay Movement Committee in New York. He was predeceased in 2007 by his longtime partner Marc Rubin.

Paul Harris, freelance journalist, playwright, actor, and photojournalist, died at age 53 in January 2012. He had been HIV+ for many years. Born and raised in England, he graduated from the London School of Economics and attended London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He moved to the U.S. 23 years ago and divided his time between Florida and New York. Writing for more than 100 publications over the years, he was the editor of the world’s largest guide to gay publications, the Queer Press Guide (2000)—later The Harris Guide—which listed all known GLBT publications worldwide. He also owned the publishing company Upstart Press. An appreciation in South Florida Gay News stated, “You can’t underestimate Paul Harris’s contribution to our community. He was out before it was cool.”

Charles Higham, best-selling and prolific biographer, died of a heart attack on April 21 in Los Angeles, at age 81. From Errol Flynn to Howard Hughes, Audrey Hepburn to Bette Davis, and dozens more, he chronicled the lives of the famous, though he was prone to making unsubstantiated assertions about their private lives. Most of his books were popular, not critical, successes. He told his life story in In and Out of Hollywood (2009). Higham was born in London and his earliest years were lived in luxury. Following family upheavals, he was reduced to Dickensian circumstances, later moving to Australia, where he began his career as a journalist, poet, and critic. He was predeceased by his partner, Richard Palafox.

Daryl Hine, poet, translator, and editor of Poetry magazine from 1968 to 1978, died of complications from a blood disorder on August 20 at age 76, in Evanston, Illinois. Born in Burnaby, British Columbia, he studied at McGill and earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago. He received Guggenheim and MacArthur foundation fellowships, among many other accolades. Two books of poetry were autobiographical, In & Out (1975) and Academic Festival Overtures (1985), and addressed the emergence of his homosexuality. His last book was titled &: A Serial Poem (2010). He preferred to write in a formal style, using rhyming patterns to explore themes of sexuality, history, and philosophy. He was predeceased in 1994 by his partner of over thirty years, philosophy professor Samuel Todes.

Richard Isay, psychiatrist and activist, died of cancer on June 28 at age 77, in Manhattan. Born in Pittsburgh, he graduated from Haverford College and the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and trained in psychiatry at the Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute. He was a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Isay had not come out to himself until he was forty and already married with two children. After coming out to his colleagues, he was ostracized by some, who stopped referring patients to him. He threatened a lawsuit (with ACLU backing) in 1992 to force the APA to promise not to discriminate against gay people in training, hiring, or promoting. By 1997 the APA had endorsed marriage equality. Isay’s last book was Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love (2006). He is survived by his partner, artist Gordon Harrell; they were married in New York in 2011.

John G. Lawrence, plaintiff in the landmark 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, which struck down all anti-sodomy laws in the U.S., died of complications of a heart ailment on November 20, 2011, at age 68, in Houston. In 1998, police stormed the home of Lawrence and his then partner Tyron Garner while they were having sex. The police had been responding to a fake distress call by a neighbor with a grudge against the men. Lawrence and Garner were jailed for violation of the state sodomy statute. Neither out nor active in the gay community, Lawrence was born in Texas, served in the Navy, and worked as a medical technician until retiring a few years before his death. Tyron Garner died in 2006. Lawrence is survived by his partner Jose Garcia.

Robin MacCormack, Boston’s first liaison to the gay community, died at age 63 by his own hand in his Boston apartment, where he was discovered by police on April 6. In January 1979, Boston’s Mayor Kevin White named him a “special liaison to Boston’s homosexual community,” tasked to work in areas of health care and public safety. The Boston-born MacCormack attended Northeastern University. He worked as a columnist for a Catholic newspaper until coming out cost him his job. He had previously managed a gay club in Boston. He was well known for his work in the late 1970’s and early 80’s with the Boston Police Department at a time when few perpetrators of violence against GLBT people were arrested.

Lou Maletta, founder of the Gay Cable Network, died of cancer on November 2 at age 74, in Kingston, New York. His weekly show Men & Film originally aired on Manhattan Cable Television, but in 1982, spurred on by the AIDS crisis, it grew from mostly edited porn content to a fully developed channel, encompassing a range of issues facing the gay and lesbian community. The show was distributed to public access channels in twenty cities. Maletta also provided coverage of Democratic and Republican National Conventions from 1984 to 2000. Born in Brooklyn, he served in the Army and later worked as a freelance photographer and a travel agent booking gay cruises. He is survived by his partner of 37 years, Luke Valenti.

Shaun O’Brien (né John Peter O’Brien), dancer for forty years with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), died at age 86 in Saratoga Springs, New York, on February 23. He joined the NYCB in 1949, one year after it was founded, and as a character dancer was able to perform until he was 65. Born in Brooklyn, he decided as a teen to dance professionally, and studied at the School of American Ballet. He began his career in Broadway musicals and was most famous for his portrayal of Herr Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker. His lifelong partner was Cris Alexander (noted above), who survived him by two weeks.

Mark O’Donnell, Tony-award-winning writer, died in Manhattan at age 58, on August 6, after collapsing at home. Best known for writing the scripts for the hit Broadway shows Hairspray and Cry Baby (with Tom Meehan), he wrote in a wide variety of genres: plays, novels (1997’s Getting over Homer and 1998’s Let Nothing You Dismay), translations, comic works, and poetry, some of which was published in these pages in the mid-1990’s. Born in Cleveland, the youngest of ten children, he graduated from Harvard, where the Harvard Lampoon provided his first national exposure. John Waters called him “an old-fashioned wit. He looked like central casting had sent him.”

Dale Olson, a member of the Hollywood publicity corps who represented Rock Hudson, died of cancer on August 9 at age 78 in Burbank, California. He began his Hollywood career in 1956 with Boxoffice magazine, then became a reporter and reviewer for Daily Variety. After working in the industry for years representing major stars, he began his own publicity firm in 1985. Although some sources state that Olson initially denied Hudson’s diagnosis, he visited Hudson every day throughout his illness (according to the Hollywood Reporter), and then worked to increase AIDS awareness. Olson was born in Fargo, North Dakota. While still in his teens, working at a newspaper in Portland, Oregon, he was able to get an interview with Mae West. He is survived by his partner of thirty years, Eugene Harbin.

Robert Miles Parker, artist, died on April 17 in Manhattan at the age of 72, having been HIV+ for over twenty years. An oil painter of portraits, still lifes, and cityscapes, his most popular works were pen-and-ink drawings of Manhattan architecture, including Broadway theaters. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, he graduated from William & Mary in Virginia and received his master’s degree from San Diego State, where he went on to found that city’s modern preservation movement in 1969. He later taught at Parsons in Manhattan. His books include Images of American Architecture (1981) and The Upper West Side: New York (1988). He is survived by his partner David Van Leer, a retired literature professor.

David Peterson, Boston-area activist, died of cancer at age 68 on November 3, 2011, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born on a farm in Indiana, he received undergraduate (Purdue) and graduate (MIT) degrees in engineering. In 1972, he helped found what is now known as SpeakOUT, a GLBT speakers’ bureau, in Boston, and the next year helped found Boston’s Gay Community News (GCN), where he later became circulation and promotions manager. He designed GLBT greeting cards and helped found Stonewall Distribution to market both books and cards. He co-authored The Gay Person’s Guide to New England (1974) with his partner at that time, the late Raymond Hopkins. Infuriated by the lack of mainstream press coverage of the GLBT March on Washington in 1979, he co-founded the Lesbian and Gay Media Advocates.

David Rakoff, award-winning humorist, died on August 9 at age 47, in Manhattan, after a long battle with cancer. He was a contributor to The New York Times, Newsweek, and PBS’s This American Life. A first-generation Canadian, he was born in Montreal and raised in Toronto. He received an undergraduate degree from Columbia in East Asian studies and worked in Japan as a translator until forced to return to North America by his first bout with cancer. In New York, he was an editor, publicist, and actor, and received a Thurber Prize for American Humor along with Lambda Literary Awards in 2001 and 2006. His book Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel will be published posthumously by Doubleday.

Adrienne Rich, poet, died on March 27 at age 82, in Santa Cruz, of complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She was remembered in an article in the September-October issue.

Sally Ride, the first American woman and youngest American in space, died of cancer at age 61. She made two trips into space aboard the Challenger, in 1983 and 1984, and was later a member of the panels investigating the Challenger explosion of 1986 and the Columbia crash in 2003. Ride received multiple degrees from Stanford and after her career as an astronaut became a physics professor and director of the California Space Institute. She was outed by obituaries that disclosed her 27-year relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a scientist and Ride’s co-author of several books. Lifelong friends, they had become romantically involved when Ride was married to her husband, whom she later divorced.

Lewis Todd, a New York restauranteur who helped found the National Gay Task Force and the Stonewall Democrats, died on September 3 at age 82, in New York, after a lengthy illness. A Korean War veteran, he was energized by the Stonewall riots, and sold his business, a Mr. Softee ice cream route, to help pay for his activist pursuits. In 1973 he became the co-investor in a restaurant and nightclub in Soho named The Ballroom that was New York’s first club operated by and for gay people. In other entrepreneurial ventures, he continued to provide space for gay community fundraising. Near the end of his working life, he was an administrator at the Fire Department of New York.

Beatrice Terry (née Beatrice Terry Lopez), theater director, died of cancer at age 52, on May 15, in Jackson Heights, Queens. Assistant director for many Broadway shows, she also wrote plays and musicals for children and adults and directed productions at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, HERE Arts Center, and Pearl Theatre Company. She co-wrote and directed the Lesbian-Pulp-O-Rama company’s 2003 Very Pulpy Christmas, which was based on lesbian pulp fiction novels of the 1950’s and 60’s. Born in Texas, she moved around the country with her family, returning to Texas for college (Trinity University in San Antonio), followed by an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Before working in New York theater, she lived in California, where she taught at a Montessori school. She is survived by her partner, playwright Gretchen M. Michelfeld, to whom she was married, and a young son.

Tereska Torrès (née Tereska Szwarc), died on September 20 at age 92, in Paris. While not a lesbian herself, her 1950 novel Women’s Barracks is considered the first lesbian pulp novel. Published by Fawcett and reprinted thirteen times by 1964, it’s a fictionalized account of her wartime service in London with the Free French. (Her parents, well-known artists, had converted from Judaism to Catholicism to avoid persecution but still had to flee the Continent.) Written in French and translated by her second husband, writer Meyer Levin, the book sold four million copies in the U.S. It was condemned in 1952 by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. Torrès wrote several other novels that had lesbian content: By Cecile (1963), The Only Reason (1961), and The Golden Cage (1959). Of Women’s Barracks, she said: “I thought I had written a very innocent book. These Americans, they are easily shocked.”

Rudi van Dantzig, choreographer at the Dutch National Ballet from 1971 to 1991, died of cancer on January 19, at age 78, in Amsterdam. With his 1965 ballet, Monument for a Dead Boy, he became one of the first choreographers to portray the struggle against straight intolerance. It was the first modern ballet role offered to Rudolf Nureyev. Born in Amsterdam, he survived World War II in a town outside the city. He related some of his experiences in the autobiographical novel For a Lost Soldier (1986; adapted as a Dutch film in 1992). He is survived by his partner, dancer–choreographer Toer van Schayk.

Henry Van Dyke (né Henry L. Van Dyke, Jr.), novelist and musician, died of heart failure on December 22, 2011, at age 83. He was remembered in the July-August 2012 issue.

Chavela Vargas, Mexican singer, died of heart and respiratory problems on August 5, at age 93, in Cuernavaca. Born in Costa Rica, she found fame in Mexico, having fled there as a teen to escape her family. She sang in the streets of Mexico City and later in bars, becoming one of Frida Kahlo’s lovers and a close friend of Federico García Lorca. She cut more than eighty records, of which the best known is perhaps the classic “Chavela Vargas Le Canta a México.” A self-proclaimed dyke, she was famous for boozing and brawling. Largely unknown outside of Latin America, her music was featured in several of Pedro Almodóvar’s movies. Her memoir Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (2002) was published in Madrid.

Gore Vidal, novelist and essayist, died on July 31, at age 86, in Los Angeles. He was remembered in the November-December issue in pieces by Dennis Altman and Matthew Hays.

 

On-line Sources Consulted: Advocate.com; Baltimoresun.com; BayWindows.com; Boston.com; cbc.ca; ebar.com; gaycenter.org; gaycitynews.com; jezebel.com; legacy.com; nytimes.com; newyorker.com; playbill.com; poetryfoundaton.org, poz.com; publishersweekly.com; smh.com.au; southfloridagaynews.com; utsandiego.com.

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