On May 15, Beacon Press will release a new book that tells the stories—both personal and professional—of selected lesbian and gay couples who contributed in significant ways to the American culture. Outlaw Marriages ~ The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples was written by Rodger Streitmatter, a professor at American University who contributes an article to LGBT-Today each month.
Below is a series of questions posed by LGBT-Today and the answers provided by the author.
LGBT-Today: Why did you write this book?
Rodger Streitmatter: For the last dozen years or so, marriage equality has been in the national spotlight. Numerous books have been written about same-sex marriage as a political issue, and there also have been books about the religious aspect of the issue, as well as the legal questions involved. But there hasn’t been much at all written about what I would call the “personal” dimension of the issue.
I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for the last 29 years, and so I know how important that personal piece of the story is. I know that my partner—now my husband—has played a crucial role in my life, and I know he’s done the same for me. So I wanted that human dimension to be part of the conversation. I wanted to document that the partners in a same-sex relationship can contribute enormously to each other’s well being—as well as to the culture writ large.
LGBT-Today: What will people learn from reading your book?
Rodger Streitmatter: This is the first book that documents two realities. First, gay and lesbian couples have existed in this country for well over a century, and, second, some of these couples have enriched this nation in remarkable ways.
As one very specific example, many of us are familiar with the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was written by Tennessee Williams—or perhaps the film based on the play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. In one chapter of Outlaw Marriages, I tell the story of how, if it hadn’t been for Williams’s partner—a man named Frank Merlo—Williams very well may never have written Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Williams became addicted to alcohol and other drugs in the late 1940s, to the point that he said, in his personal journal, that he would never be able to write another play. But then he began his relationship with Frank Merlo. Merlo single handedly weaned Williams off those substances so he could return to his writing.
Also, once Williams tried to write, he no longer had confidence in his abilities. He would become frustrated during the writing process. But with Merlo there with him every day—encouraging him and reassuring him—Williams was able to create Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play was an important one not only because it won the Pulitzer Prize but also because it was one of the first important American dramas that contained a homosexuality theme.
LGBT-Today: How are these outlaw marriages different from traditional marriages?
Rodger Streitmatter: Frankly, they’re not very different at all, except that they we’re sanctioned by the church or the state. But, other than that, they’re very much like straight marriages. The couples generally went through the same stages as a wife and husband would go through—getting to know each other and then gradually blending their lives together until they sort of “morphed” into a couple. They loved each other and supported each other just as much as any husband and wife could have. Of course there were instances, as with straight marriages, where an issue threatened to destroy a marriage—and sometimes the marriage ended.
If I had to identify one factor that made these outlaw marriages different, in substance, from straight marriages, I’d say they were consistently threatened by the stigma of homosexuality. One example that comes to mind involves the actress Greta Garbo and her partner Mercedes de Acosta, who became a couple in 1931. Garbo was a very private person, and she was adamant that she didn’t want the public to know about her relationship with de Acosta—Garbo refused to allow any photos to be taken of the two women together. De Acosta, on the other hand, was very open about her sexuality. This difference of opinion was a recurring point of friction throughout their three-decade outlaw marriage, and it eventually caused their breakup.
LGBT-Today: The subtitle for your book is “The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples.” How did you find information about these couples? What sources did you use?
Rodger Streitmatter: I mostly depended on biographies that other scholars have written. But what I did differently from what previous biographers did is that I focused specifically on the relationship between the two people—and the impact that relationship had.
With Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, for example, several biographies have been written about Williams. And Williams also wrote a memoir. Plus much of his correspondence has been published, and so have his personal journals.
But no one has ever looked specifically at the relationship between the two men. So what I did was read every biography and Williams’s memoir and his correspondence and personal journals, looking specifically for references to Frank Merlo. Then I stitched all these individual pieces of information together to create what I guess you might call a “biography of the relationship.”
LGBT-Today: The cover of the book features a gay male couple. Who are they?
Rodger Streitmatter: The man on the left is Ned Warren, and the man on the right is John Marshall. Ned was born into a wealthy Boston family. After he graduated from Harvard, he moved to England to attend Oxford. It was there that he met John Marshall, who was from Liverpool, England.
After they became a couple—in 1884, at the age of 24—they began their life’s work of establishing the antiquities collections at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They remained a couple for the next four decades, until Marshall died in 1927.
One of the pieces of their history that I particularly like is how their individual strengths complemented each other. Ned had a very good eye for which specific antiquities would look good in a museum. John, by contrast, was a very good researcher—if Ned saw a piece that he liked, John would then study it closely to make sure it was the real deal and not a fake. Ned also tended to be arrogant and not willing to negotiate with people, while John was much more down-to-earth and willing to work with people at all levels of society—including the tradesmen the men sometimes had to deal with in acquiring antiquities.
Here’s the list of couples—in fields ranging from education to theater and from music to Hollywood filmmaking—whose lives and loves are illuminated in Outlaw Marriages ~
♥ Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle ~ 1865-1892
♥ Martha Carey Thomas & Mamie Gwinn ~ 1878-1904
♥ John Marshall & Ned Warren ~ 1884-1927
♥ Jane Addams & Mary Rozet Smith ~ 1891-1934
♥ Elsie de Wolfe & Bessie Marbury ~ 1892-1933
♥ J. C. Leyendecker & Charles Beach ~ 1901-1951
♥ Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas ~ 1907-1946
♥ Janet Flanner & Solita Solano ~ 1919-1975
♥ Greta Garbo & Mercedes de Acosta ~ 1931-1960
♥ Aaron Copland & Victor Kraft ~ 1932-1976
♥ Tennessee Williams & Frank Merlo ~ 1948-1963
♥ James Baldwin & Lucien Happersberger ~ 1949-1987
♥ Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns ~ 1954-1962
♥ Ismail Merchant & James Ivory ~ 1961-2005
♥ Audre Lorde & Frances Clayton ~ 1968-1988
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