Saturday, 26 May 2018

515 Years, and More

Today is the 140th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. That might not sound like much of a special celebration to you, but when you consider that he died on 39 years ago you’ll appreciate my celebration. I won’t embarrass family members by reproducing the family photos that were taken during my grandfather’s 100th or 101st birthdays. Instead I’ll look at some centenarians from our lgbt community.

Ruth Ellis (1899-2000) – Ruth’s father was born a slave. Ruth grew up in Illinois and became one of the few African-Americans to graduate from high school. Even though she was never a campaigner on a national scale Ruth worked hard to ensure that her local lgbt community in Detroit, and the black lgbt community in particular, had somewhere to escape from the racism and homophobia of 1930s America. This she did by opening her home, which she shared with her partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, to gatherings and parties.

Ruth was also a successful businesswoman. She opened a printing business which produced posters, leaflets, stationery and fliers.

For Ruth’s 100th birthday a documentary of her life was produced by Yvonne Welbon. Following Ruth’s death in 2000 at the age of 101 a centre for lgbt homeless youth was named after her.

Peggy Gilbert (1905-2007) lived to the age of 102 years and 26 days. Entertainment was in her blood. Her father was a violinist and her mother was a singer. Peggy became a professional performer herself at the age of 7. Even as a child she saw there was a limited amount of opportunities for female performers in the 1920s and 1930s. There was even less for a female band leader, yet Peggy was determined to break gender stereotypes by forming an all-female jazz band. As well as leading the band she sang, played piano, vibraphone, clarinet and her signature instrument the saxophone. Although not the first and only all-female band Peggy’s jazz group became well-known in Hollywood and appeared in film and later on national radio.

Peggy met Kay Boley (1917-2007), a vaudeville/Music Hall entertainer, in 1944. After Peggy’s divorce from her husband Kay became her life-long partner. On Peggy’s 100th birthday she attended a celebration at Local 47, the home of the Los Angeles branch of the American Federation of Musicians. Peggy had worked there for many years up to her official retirement. She died just over two years after her 100th birthday, and Kay died three months later.

Eleanor Raymond (1887-1989) reached the age of 102 years and 102 days. She was an architect whose use of innovative styles makers her stand out among the other female architects of her time.

In 1928 Eleanor founded her own architecture office after being the business partner of architect Henry Atherton Frost for several years. Her work was influenced by the traditional domestic rural architecture of her native New England. In 1948 Eleanor designed one of the first solar-heated houses, the Sun House in Dover, Massachusetts, which was referred to as “the house of the day after tomorrow”. In 1949 Eleanor was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Eleanor’s life partner, Ethel B. Power (1881-1969), was also a trained architect though she became more known as the editor of “House Beautiful” magazine for many years. She died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1989.

Eyre de Lanux (1894-1996) died at the age of 102 years and 172 days. Eyre de Lanux was the professional name of Elizabeth Eyre, an American Art Deco furniture designer, artist and illustrator who married French diplomat Pierre Combret de Lanux (1887-1955). In Paris they moved in artistic circles and counted Ernest Hemingway among their friends. Another friend was Natalie Barney, and she and Eyre were lovers for a while.

Following her husband’s death Eyre moved back to the US. By this time she had begun to write short stories and went on to write and illustrate children’s stories and write for “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine. By the 1980s her work as a furniture designer was virtually forgotten. When examples of her work began to appear in auctions she was “rediscovered”.


Before we move onto the oldest known member of the lgbt community I’d like to give a quick mention of several others who may, or may not, be considered lgbt centenarians.

Pacifico Massimi (d.1506). A letter dated 1548 claims Pacifico died at the age of 100. There’s no definitive record of his year of birth, but he was certainly married by 1426. He was an aristocrat who lost his family estates during the political conflicts of the 1400s. He abandoned his wife and became a lawyer and private tutor, and wrote very frank poems about his passion for gay sex.

Julian Phelps Allan (1892-1996) was a British sculptor whose real name was Eva Allan. According to an exhibition catalogue from the Tate she adopted the male name Julian to express her lesbianism. They gave no supporting evidence. However, it was common for women who were not lesbian to adopt male names to succeed in the male-dominated art world.

Anonymous Burmese transsexual (b.1906?) was a speaker at a public rally held in Rangoon to mark Burma’s first celebration of IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) in 2012. The woman claimed to be 106 and decided to remain anonymous, making it impossible to verify her age.


So, who holds the distinction of being the oldest known verifiable member of the lgbt community?

Hugues Cuénod was a classical and concert singer who died on 6th December 2010 at the age of 108 years and 163 days. He may even be the oldest person to register a same-sex union, which he did with his partner Alfred Augustin in 2007 at the age of 105.

Hugues began his singing career in 1928 in Paris. That career spanned over 60 years (his last stage performance was at the age of 90) and he sang in all the grand concert and opera halls in the world, including La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He performed everything from Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” to Sir Noël Coward’s “Bitter Sweet”. In 1976 the French government invested him as a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Hugues Cuénod’s place in lgbt longevity may never be overtaken (at least not in my lifetime). Who knows? Not all lgbt centenarians achieve international notice or have public careers and remain unknown outside their own families and friends.

One person who will hopefully join the ranks of lgbt centenarians later this year is Paul Mart (b.1918). Paul was a founding member of the Gay Games and has competed in several games, winning medals in Physique. At times throughout his life Paul has been a World War II soldier, an actor, a stuntman and rodeo rider. Paul will celebrate his 100th birthday in September, a month after the 10th Gay Games in Paris.

As I celebrate the lives of lgbt centenarians I send my best wishes to Paul Mart and everyone else who is celebrating their 100th birthdays.

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