On the ‘Virge’

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle

by Anthony Tommasini
Norton, 605 pp., $30.00

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle provides important amplifications and sortings-out of fact and fiction in Thomson’s own and other versions of his life. His own remains the best-written life of an American musician, but Anthony Tommasini’s ranks not far below it in that regard and has the advantage of being more truthful. His fluent, easy-going style, free of fustian, thickets, ponderosities, is indebted to Thomson’s as well as to Thomson’s personal tutoring. Much of the material is familiar—the Missouri Baptist background, the discovery of intellectual and musical precocity, the Harvard years, life in l’entre deux guerres Paris—but a surprising amount is new and revelatory. It will subtract several cubits from Thomson’s stature as a man.

Thanks to “exclusive full access” to Virgil Thomson’s papers at Yale, and to some that he withheld, including intimate letters and a receipt from a Brooklyn bail bondsman, the book is “the first full-scale account of Thomson’s experiences as a composer, influential critic, and gay man.” Thomson himself was silent concerning the last of these categories, and the fact of it, though too obvious to be closetable, has not heretofore been brought into the open with both frankness and an index of sexual partners, which, though shorter than Leporello’s, seems to have been on the way to catching up. Increasingly, “Virgil attracted a coterie of young gay male friends,” Tommasini tells us, adding that “star-struck students, including quite a few handsome gay men, sat at his feet….” Not the least valuable aspect of the new biography is its contribution to sexual sociology and the understanding of changing mores during Thomson’s long life (1896-1989).

The story of his brief incarceration after a 1942 police raid on an all-male bordello operated by one Gustave Beekman near the Brooklyn Navy Yard is upsetting to read and must have been frightening to experience. How long and how frequently he had patronized the establishment is apparently not known, but the New York Herald Tribune, in the person of Geoffrey Parsons, Thomson’s employer as well as the paper’s chief editorial writer and “overseer of all things cultural,” managed to arrange for his release and to keep a lid on his involvement in the scandal. The truth circulated privately at the Tribune, and a bit beyond, but with the exception of a remark in the Daily Mirror by Walter Winchell to the effect that one of the big fish in the police net was an unnamed musician who has “many gunning for him” reached neither the tabloids nor the extortionists.

The success of the cover-up was due in part to Beekman’s identification of a more prominent client, the senior senator from Massachusetts, David Walsh, and a press campaign to expose him that deflected attention from the mystery musician. Alben Barkley, the Senate majority leader and future vice president, and J. Edgar Hoover, “who, we now know, understood what it meant to be homosexual,” quickly quashed …

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