Sep 26, 2014

How Do We Know that Paul Robeson was Gay?

When I was in college in the late 1970s, Paul Robeson (1898-1977) was one of my heroes.  I loved his booming, soul-rending "Old Man River" in Showboat:

I get weary, and sick of trying
Tired of living, and scared of dying
But ol' man river, he just keeps rolling along.

And his hysterical megalomaniac in Emperor Jones.

He was one of the few African-Americans who managed to break into mainstream theater and film, but during the Cold War his radical political views caused him to be blacklisted -- he called America a "fascist state," and spoke favorably about the Soviet Union.  He had to live in exile in London, and his movies and songs were censored for many years.

How cool is that?

His physique was almost as impressive as his voice, so directors had him rip off his shirt whenever possible.  In the 1920s he became the first African-American to pose nude, for photographer Nickolas Muray.

When sculptor Antonio Salemme saw a performance of The Emperor Jones, he asked Robeson to model for him, and produced several busts, as well as the nude, arms-raised "Negro Spiritual."

I always assumed that he was gay because...well, I assumed that everybody was gay.  Besides, he was friends with many of the gay figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and Paris between the Wars, and many of his film and theatrical roles involved gay subtexts.

I got my proof in 1987, when an article the Advocate mentioned that he was "recently discovered to have been gay."

In August 2014, a new biography of Paul Robeson came out, written by none other than distinguished gay scholar Martin Duberman.

Great!  I thought.  Now I'm going to hear all about Robeson's male lovers, maybe a long-term romance with Antonio Salemme or director Sergei Eisenstein, maybe cruising for hunky sailors in Paris with Jean Genet or visiting Paul Bowles in Morocco to troll for rent boys.

But Duberman found no evidence of Robeson's male lovers, not a hint of cruising for hunky sailors or trolling for rent boys. Not that Robeson had a problem with gay people; he was "wholly accepting," according to his gay friends.  But he never expressed any same-sex desire.  As a young man in Harlem, he was often approached, even offered money, but he wasn't interested.

 Instead, Duberman found a long list of women.  A very, very long list.  Robeson had a robust sexual appetite. Robust, but exclusively heterosexual.

So where did the "Robeson is gay" come from?

Author Marc Blitzstein tracked it down to a story told by gay liberation pioneer Jim Kepner.  One day in 1947, the young Kepner made a delivery to Robeson's apartment in Manhattan.  Robeson answered the door in a "lavender dressing gown," invited him in for tea, and made some cruisy eye contact as they chatted.

In 1987, he was interviewed by Stuart Timmons, who then wrote "he was recently discovered to have been gay" for his Advocate article.

That's it.  One anecdote, 40 years old, where nothing actually happened.

Robeson still might have been gay or bisexual, with super-secret liaisons, or desires that were never fulfilled.  But his very busy heterosexual sex life and his openness to friendships with gay people lead me to doubt it.

Well, at least he was an ally.