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Gay Mister Rogers actor no longer bound by oath to children’s TV titan

François S. Clemmons shares abusive childhood, closeted career in new memoir

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François Clemmons, gay news, Washington Blade
François Clemmons (Photo by Vincent Jones; courtesy Clemmons)

‘Officer Clemmons: A Memoir’

By François S. Clemmons

Catapult

May 5

$26

288 pages

In our polarized era, few people are loved by everyone from millennials to boomers. Yet, it’s a safe bet that even Darth Vader has a soft spot for Fred Rogers, creator and host of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran on PBS from 1968-2001. (Rogers died in 2003.)

François S. Clemmons, the black, gay opera singer and actor, played Officer Clemmons, one of the “neighbors” on the show. He was the first African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s TV show.

The moment in 1969 when Mister Rogers, a white man, invited Officer Clemmons, a black man, to dunk his feet in a wading pool with him is etched in our DNA. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was a quiet, but radical, stand against racism.

Officer Clemmons: A Memoir,” released in early May, is Clemmons’ honest, engaging account of his life. In it, Clemmons reflects on his experience as an abused child, encounters with racism, struggle with his sexuality, professional success and friendship with Rogers. The book is filled with warmth and love — for Rogers, music, his friends, colleagues, family and children. Yet, Clemmons doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties he’s endured or the hard truths he’s learned.

The memoir begins with a letter that Clemmons writes to Rogers years after his death. Over the decades, Clemmons writes, fans have asked him questions ranging from “How’d you meet him? to “How did you get out of the television?”

These questions were one reason Clemmons wrote the memoir. Yet, there was another compelling reason. He’d read bios of Rogers, but after reading these accounts, he writes, “I concluded that … none of the other publications were authored by a black, gay, ordained person of the theater who had worked intimately with you (Rogers) for over 30 years.”

His friendship with Roger and his work with the “Neighborhood” were vitally important to him. Yet Clemmons’ life has encompassed far more than being a “neighbor.” Born in 1945 in Blackwater, Miss., he earned a degree in music from Oberlin College and a master’s from Carnegie Mellon University. Clemmons won a Grammy Award for his recording of “Porgy and Bess” and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. From 1997-2013, he was the Alexander Twilight artist in residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College.

As a child in a racist Southern town, Clemmons watched as his father abused his mother.

“My dreams conjured up the dangerous kitchen knife that my mother used in her fight against my daddy,” Clemmons writes.

To get away from her abusive husband, Clemmons’ mother moved the family to Youngstown, Ohio. Because he was black, his high school guidance counselors discouraged him from applying to Oberlin.

“I learned about racial segregation well above the Mason-Dixon Line,” he writes.

In Youngstown, his mother remarried. His stepfather abused Clemmons. Clemmons realized he was gay.

“My family was a traditional Baptist, God-fearing one,” Clemmons writes, “And even before I understood what homosexuality meant, it was drilled into my brain that these (gay) men were wrong in the eyes of God.” 

At Oberlin, Clemmons embraced his sexuality forming friendships and relationships with queer men both out and closeted. With his school choir, he sang in the Soviet Union. He was inspired when he met Martin Luther King Jr. when King spoke at Oberlin.

Rogers met Clemmons when he heard him sing at a church. Clemmons began appearing on Rogers’ show when he was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon. Rogers loved Clemmons as a friend and respected his talent. Yet, he was a product of his time. “If you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all,” Rogers told Clemmons, “but if you’re going to be on the show … you can’t be out as gay.” 

Clemmons stayed in the closet so he could continue to work with Rogers. He tried hetero marriage (it didn’t work out). Despite having to hide his sexuality, Clemmons treasured his friendship with Rogers, his spiritual father and mentor.

If you’re looking for hope, inspiration and grit, “Officer Clemmons: A Memoir” is the book for you. 

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Laundry is his love language

New book explores author’s fascination with clean clothes

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‘Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore’
By Patric Richardson with Karin B. Miller
c.2021, Flatiron Books $25.99/185 pages

Tomorrow’s outfit is on a chair over there.

That’s where it’s been since you last washed it. What you wore today came from a basket and off a hanger, the shirt needed ironing, there was a tiny stain on the pants but who noticed? and you just bought new socks, so there’s that. Time to do the wash? Yeah, but get a load of this: “Laundry Love” by Patric Richardson (with Karin B. Miller).

In one of his earliest memories, Patric Richardson’s uncle holds him aloft so that Richardson could watch laundry swimming in the washer. He was almost a baby then, but the fascination was set: at age three, Richardson was “over the moon” when he received a toy washing machine as a birthday gift. He remembers that it was Harvest Gold.

Growing up, Richardson absorbed washday secrets from an extended family of women and he learned the appeal of laundry hung on a line outside. While at the University of Kentucky, he met three professors who taught him about textiles, and employers educated him further. Love of fabric eventually became Richardson’s career and laundry is his love-language: “caring for your loved ones’ clothes shows them love.”

The first thing to know, Richardson states, is that “our clothes are bossy.” If something you enjoy wearing says “Dry Clean Only” on the label, lay it on the kitchen counter, grab a pair of scissors, and cut that label off because, “anything can be washed at home.”

Here, you’ll learn how to save time on wash day. Find out why big-brand-name detergents are unsafe, and see what you need to care for your clothes properly. Learn to iron, eliminate horrible stains, wash woolens and other awkward-to-clean items, and see how to rescue yellowed linens and special-event clothing like a pro.

Remember, says Richardson: “You don’t have to do laundry – you get to do laundry.”

These days, though, author Patric Richardson doesn’t “get to” very often. His husband, he says, does their wash while Richardson runs a clothing store and offers “Laundry Camp” at the Mall of America. But since not everyone can be a happy camper, there’s “Laundry Love.”

If you’re thinking that a book about joyfully washing clothes would be a mighty skinny book, you’re right but laundry is only a part of this story here. The rest is biography, and a love-letter to Appalachain and southern women. In giving props to the women who raised him, Richardson shows how his interest in fabric grew, too; the subject of textiles, which may be perceived as mundane by many, is treated in this light as something precious and accessible.

If you come for the biography, you’ll be glad you stayed for the hints as Richardson shows how even the most delicate items can be safely home-cleaned. That fur you love? Done. That stinky-perfumed vintage item you found? Clean. Ahhhhhhh, so pick up the undies in the corner, use grandma’s linens, shop thrift stores with impunity. Go ahead, fear-free. Having “Laundry Love” should take a load off your mind.

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Books

Did Doris Duke get away with murder?

New book explores death of heiress’s gay designer

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Doris Duke, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Homicide at Rough Point’
By Peter Lance
c.2021, Tenacity Media Books
$28.79/438 pages

I don’t know if there is an afterlife. But if there is, I hope I don’t meet up with Doris Duke.

Why wouldn’t I want to hang out with Duke, the art collector and tobacco heiress, known as the richest woman in America, who lived from 1912 to 1993?

Because in the fascinating book “Homicide at Rough Point,” investigative journalist Peter Lance illustrates how Duke, believed to have had affairs with many men and women, including Errol Flynn, was likely the meanest woman in America.

On top of that, Lance convincingly argues, Duke got away with murder.

For starters, she’d hire ex-FBI agents to go after her ex-lovers and former employees to make sure they wouldn’t ruin her rep in the media. One night, Duke got angry at Joseph Armand Castro, one of her ex-husbands. He reportedly made a wisecrack while Duke was playing jazz on a piano. Ticked off, she slashed Castro’s arm with a butcher’s knife.

This was child’s play for Duke. Lance, who won five Emmys for his work as a correspondent for WNET and ABC News, makes a compelling case that Duke not only killed a trusted confidant, but used her money and influence to cover up her crime.

Duke had several estates – including “Falcon Lair” in Beverly Hills, the estate Rudolf Valentino purchased in 1925.

One of Duke’s estates, Rough Point, was in Newport, Rhode Island. The estate was on Bellevue Avenue, known as Millionaire’s Row. On Oct. 6, 1966, Eduardo Tirella, 42, flew to Newport from the West Coast. For a decade, he’d been the artistic curator and designer for Duke’s estates. The billionaire hadn’t purchased any art without consulting Tirella. She’d wanted to keep Tirella, who was gay, by her side.

Tirella no longer wanted to work for Duke. Against the warnings of his partner, the sculptor Edmund Kara, and his friends, he decided to tell Duke in person that he was quitting.

Tirella, a New Jersey native, grew up, one of nine children, in a working class family. He earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts fighting in World War II.

After the war, Tirella designed hats for Saks Fifth Avenue and the gossip doyennes Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

He moved to the West Coast, where he and Kara lived fairly openly as a gay couple. Tirella designed Elizabeth Taylor’s shack for the movie “The Sandpiper.” Kara designed the bust of Taylor that’s seen in the same movie. The couple partied with friends from Kim Novak to Bobby Short.

As Tirella prepared to leave Duke, his work on the West Coast was amping up. He was the set designer for the Tony Curtis movie “Don’t’ Make Waves.” He’d earned $43,000 (about $351,000 in today’s money) the year of his death, Lance reports.

Duke, who Lance calls “the possessive, often violent heiress” wasn’t at all pleased that Tirella was leaving. People who were around Duke and Tirella then, told Lance that on Oct. 7, 1966, after Tirella said he was leaving, the two had a “wicked fight.”

Minutes later, Duke ran Tirella over with her car outside the gates of Rough Point, Lance reports. “Because Doris Duke had the money and the power,” he writes, “she succeeded in effectively erasing his death from the narrative of her controversial life.”

The Newport police said Tirella’s death was an “unfortunate accident.” Soon after Tirella died, Lance reports, Duke, who hadn’t contributed to Newport before, became philanthropic. She created the Newport Restoration Foundation to revive the city’s tourism.

For Lance, a Newport native, something about the case, “sat unsolved, like a stone in my shoe,” he writes.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich “are different from you and me,” he was so on point! “Homicide at Rough Point” is a captivating memoir of gumshoe journalism and an entertaining travelogue of Newport, where the rich and eccentric have lived since the American Revolutionary War.

Above all, it is an arresting reminder: If you’re rich and powerful enough, you can cover-up anything – even murder.

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Books

Hemingway: Brilliant writer or avatar of toxic masculinity?

New documentary breaks through the ‘Papa’ mystique

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Ernest Hemingway, gay news, Washington Blade

Ernest Hemingway’s work is widely available in print, e-book and audio formats.

“I went to the garage and cried when your Mom died,” my Dad told me a half century ago, “I didn’t want anyone to see me crying.”

“Men aren’t supposed to cry,” he added

“Why?” I asked.

“Read Hemingway,” he said, “ then you’ll know why.”

Decades later, we still avidly read Hemingway, who lived from 1899 to 1961.

We heatedly debate: Was Hemingway one of America’s greatest writers (a 20th century Mark Twain or Walt Whitman)? Or an avatar of toxic masculinity?

Gertrude Stein taught him about writing. Yet, in his work, he made homophobic references to “fairies.” He wrote with empathy of women dying in childbirth, while penning paragraph after paragraph about bullfights.

But, “Hemingway,” a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick streaming on PBS, makes Hemingway, with all his contradictions, come alive. Actors from Jeff Daniels to Patricia Clarkson to Meryl Streep bring Hemingway, his parents and wives (he was married four times) to life.

“Hemingway” reveals that Hemingway, the ultimate man’s man, was into androgyny – what we’d today call gender fluidity.

Hemingway’s story is well known. Born in Oak Park, Ill., he was a reporter with the Kansas City Star, before he enlisted as an ambulance driver in World War I. During the War, Hemingway was wounded and fell in love with a nurse, who rejected him.

He and his first wife Hadley Richardson moved to Paris in the early 1920s. There, Hemingway worked for a while as a reporter, then quit to become a “starving” writer. His hunger pangs enhanced his writing. “Hunger is good discipline,” he wrote in “A Moveable Feast,” his memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s.

Actually, Hemingway wasn’t poor in Paris. Hadley had a trust fund. In Paris, Gertrude Stein and other writers mentored him. “The Sun Also Rises,” his first novel, published in 1926 was a critical and commercial success.

After that, Hemingway lived in Key West, Fla., and Cuba; and was a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954. Everyone from Marlene Dietrich to GIs in World War II called him “Papa.”

At 61, he killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho, where he and his fourth wife Mary Welsh lived.

“Hemingway,” breaks through the “Papa” mystique. Hemingway’s father, suffering from depression, killed himself. (Hemingway would suffer from depression, traumatic brain injuries and alcoholism.) His mother Grace dressed Hemingway and his sister identically when they were young. She gave them toy rifles and dolls to play with.

Later, Hemingway and Welsh liked to switch roles in bed, says Mary V. Dearborn, author of a terrific bio of Hemingway.

Hemingway would be the girl and Welsh would be the boy. They cut their hair to the same length. “In a way, he wanted to be a woman in love with another woman,” Dearborn says.

Not surprisingly for his time, Hemingway was enraged when his son Greg (who was trans and later known as Gloria) was arrested in 1951 for wearing women’s clothing in a women’s restroom. The two later reconciled.

The documentary helped me understand why I love some of Hemingway’s work (“The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “A Moveable Feast”).

For despite his he-man image, Hemingway writes movingly of love and death. Through his deceptively simple, repetitive sentences, he makes you feel life as you read. Hot off the page.

What we remember most from his books isn’t the wars or the bullfights. It’s Catherine dying in child birth in “A Farewell to Arms.”

It’s the woman in the short story “Hills Like Elephants.” Her boyfriend keeps trying to pressure her into having an abortion. “Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, would you just stop talking?” she says to him when he won’t stop mansplaining.

It’s David and Catherine, the couple in the posthumously published “The Garden of Eden,” who, defying convention, switch gender and sexual roles.

Hemingway is a writer for our moment, when we’re struggling with toxic masculinity and viewing gender in new ways. Check out “Hemingway,” on PBS online. Better yet, read one of Hemingway’s books.

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