Parting Glances: When Arts’ Gay Fleet Scuttlebutted!

Charles Alexander
By | 2019-01-30T14:21:24-04:00 January 30th, 2019|Opinions, Parting Glances|

Back in the “good old days” of Great Depression No. 1, following Stock Market Crash ’29 years and years – well, at least a galloping few – before my time, the arts with a capital “A” took a real financial broadsiding.
Money for spending on painting, sculpture, plays and Broadway musicals wasn’t available as it had been during The Roaring ’20s, when my sainted mother was just a kid and I not a twinkling (or a Twink) in anybody’s eye.
“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” became a second national anthem, and many a poor soul eked out an existence selling carefully polished apples on street corners.
The only ‘art’ that thrived were movies. (Two hours of once-a-month escapism with cartoons. Twelve cents. Popcorn, a nickel. Salted. Rarely, if ever, buttered.)
Shortly after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in ’33 – defeating the Trump of his day, dour, but, in contrast to Blond Bombshell Donald, highly articulate Herbert Hoover – the WAP or Works Art Project was formed.
WAP provided federal funding to keep artists, musicians, composers and playwrights afloat.
This was a wise move for FDR’s administration, for a nation cannot be truly healthy without visionaries to show the way. One of those WAP recipients, Paul Cadmus, was gay. There were others, too, but Cadmus – remembered today by a recent DVD biographical title of “Enfant Terrible” – is special.
Cadmus, who died 20 years ago at 95, made it big at 30, not only as a supremely gifted artist, but as a cause celebre of big-time art censorship.
He was partnered with artist Jared French (1937 – 1945) and his beloved artist model Jon Anderson (1945 – 1999).
The resulting national notoriety and newspaper publicity got his career going ship-ahoy! with a thundering five-gun salute and a long-lasting, highly memorable finish. Here’s the background:
Way back in America’s ’20s and ’30s, homosexual men frequently identified themselves as “gay” – for straights the word meant happy – by wearing a red tie. (In Oscar Wilde’s Victorian England they signaled by wearing a green carnation. Wilde said he ‘invented’ the ID.)
In 1934, “The Fleet’s In!” painted by Cadmus, was chosen by the WAP for inclusion in a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Within a day or two of the opening, a testy letter to the editor appeared in The Evening Star, denouncing “Fleet” as anything but “in port”, as far as the Navy might be concerned. “Unpatriotic!” “Damnably Neurotic!” “Red Tie Tut Tut!”
Others voices shrilly joined in. Editorials clamored. Prompted by shocked outcries about showing sailors as rowdy party types (and who’s that fey-looking guy in the background with the signal red tie – and you know what that means – elbow, elbow – don’t you?).
Secretary of Navy Claude A. Swanson pulled the plug on the fleet. He ordered Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, a cousin to the President, to scuttlebutt the painting.
“Fleet’s In” wound up sunk out of sight in D.C.’s Alibi Club until 1981, when 47 years later – still under guard in the naval brig, if you will — it was restored at Navy expense, under threat of public lawsuit, in time for a Cadmus retrospective.
The painting was put on permanent exhibit in 1985 at The Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard. Six years later, on two separate occasions, feminist visitors objected that the painting depicted sexual harassment. (One presumes of the docksider doxies, not the guy in the red tie.)
Moral: If you want to make a name for yourself in the art world – talent or no talent – start with a loud-mouthed censorship. (By the way: Cadmus, one hell of a painter, had talent to burn!)
If you want to signal gay color-coding try handkerchiefs, worn right for top, left for bottom. (Log Cabin Republicans who support Trump wear rainbow flags right. Pence, flags left. Or is it vice versa?)

About the Author:

Charles Alexander