It was the night of the Tony Awards. Actor, singer, writer, and activist Alan Cumming had just received a Tony for his performance as the emcee in the 1998 revival of “Cabaret.” He was in the press room, giving soundbites to the media.
In the middle of one interview, “A hand appeared on my left shoulder, a tall body joined it to my right,” Cumming, who was born and grew up in rural Scotland, writes in his new memoir “Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.”
For a second, Cumming thought he was being mugged. But, the stranger hugging him was Sean Connery, a fellow Scot, known for playing James Bond. Connery had won a Tony as a producer of the play “Art.” Connery, looking into the cameras, said of Cumming, “This is my new son.”
He took Ecstasy that night at the Tonys, Cumming reveals in “Baggage.” The drug for him was, ”my self-prescribed anti-anxiety medication,” Cumming writes, “And it worked.”
For most of us, winning a Tony for an acclaimed revival of “Cabaret” would be merely a fantasy. For Cumming, winning the prestigious award is just one of many accomplishments.
Walt Whitman said he contained multitudes. Cumming, 56, who is bisexual and married to the illustrator Grant Shaffer, is Whitman on octane.
Cumming is a polymath. He has appeared in numerous films, plays and TV shows. He’s written two children’s books; a novel; a book of photographs and stories; and the memoir “Not My Father’s Son.”
His film roles range from the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” to “Eyes Wide Shut” to the “Spy Kids” trilogy. Cumming has won the Olivier, BAFTA and Emmy for his stage and screen work. On the London stage, Cumming has performed in “Hamlet,” “Bent” and other plays.
He has appeared in the “Threepenny Opera” and “Design for Living” on Broadway. Cumming created and appeared in his one-man adaptation of “Macbeth.”
On TV, he is known for playing Eli Gold on “The Good Wife” and Dylan Reinhart on “Instinct,” the first broadcast television drama to have a lead gay character. Recently, Cumming played Mayor Aloysius Menlove on the Apple TV+ show “Schmigadoon!”
All of this would exhaust most of us. But Cumming has energy to spare. He hosts the podcast “Alan Cumming’s Shelves” and is the amateur barman at Club Cumming in New York City.
Cumming is known for his LGBTQ rights advocacy. He has worked for marriage equality in Scotland and with the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBTQ organizations.
In 2009, Cumming was appointed an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List. In “Baggage,” Cumming writes that he received this honor because of his work for LGBT rights.Cumming’s first memoir “Not My Father’s Son” is the story of his harrowing childhood. Growing up, Cumming endured physical and psychological abuse and violence from his father. In the memoir, Cumming grapples with secrecy and shame and with the post traumatic stress brought on by his father’s sadistic treatment of him. “There is never shame in being open and honest,” he writes.
“Baggage” tells many entertaining showbiz stories. Who wouldn’t want to hear the tales of a writer whose friends include Liza (as in Liza with a Z)?
Yet, “Baggage” isn’t a vapid, Tinsel Town celeb concoction. In “Baggage,” Cumming examines his relationships to his family, significant others and himself. It begins with his divorce from the actress Hilary Lyon and ends with his marriage to Shaffer.
Cumming, who has dual United Kingdom/United States citizenship, talked with the Blade by phone about a range of topics from “Baggage” to politics to getting Helen Mirren on board with crocs.
Cumming was pleased by the positive response to “Not My Father’s Son.” He was happy that readers felt his words helped them to confront people who had abused them and to “reckon” with their shame.
But, Cumming worried that people might think he’d “triumphed” over the despair caused by his father’s abuse. That he’d never encounter this trauma again.
“I wrote ‘Baggage,’” Cumming said, “to overcome this idea of triumph.”
“You don’t actually recover,” he added, “you manage it. You always have to manage it.”
Cumming is witty and exudes hopefulness. But, he’s worried about what the future might bring for LGBTQ and women’s rights. The election of Joe Biden as president “was a real reprieve,” Cumming said, “but the way we’re headed, things could go the other way any second.”
We need to be vigilant, Cumming said. “Women’s rights – with what’s happening with abortion in Texas – are in real danger,” he said.
But life isn’t all worries for Cumming.
There is his work. In 2022, he’ll continue performing “Och and Oy! A Considered Cabaret” with NPR’s Ari Shapiro. He’s making the film “Rare Objects” with Katie Holmes.
And there are his friends. “Liza is lovely,” Cumming said of his friend Liza Minnelli. One day, Cumming was rehearsing with Minnelli. Along with Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera and other celebs, they were going to put on a salute to the songwriting team Kander and Ebb.
They were going to perform Minnelli’s signature song “New York, New York.” “It looked so easy,” Cumming said, “But I couldn’t get Liza’s dance moves. First, Liza tried to help me.”
But, without success. “Then Chita came over to help me,” Cumming said, “it was overwhelming having two legends trying to teach me.”
After these attempts failed, Minnelli said to him, “Oh, darling, just make it your own!”
There was the time when Cumming made Helen Mirren see the light on Crocs. He was in Hawaii filming “The Tempest” with Mirren. “We were in the desert. I’d wear my Crocs,” he said, “she said my Crocs were ugly.”
“I said, ‘Helen, that’s fair enough. But when I say things are ugly, I use my inside voice,’” Cumming added.
A few weeks later, Cumming saw Mirren. She was wearing Crocs. “She said she’d been wearing flip-flops and they made her feet sore. Now she loved Crocs.”
“I told her ‘you were a hater, now you’re a lover,” Cumming added, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Cumming is currently on a book tour in the U.K. The tour stops in Miami on Nov. 20; Chicago on Nov. 21 and several other U.S. cities through spring 2022. For more info on Cumming’s new book, visit alancumming.com.
‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans
Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages
Her lips are locked tight.
Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?
For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.
Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”
His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.
Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.
Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?
Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.
Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.
Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”
Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.
Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.
And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.
Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.
Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.
“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.
James Ivory on movies, beauty — and a love of penises
If you enjoy film and wit you’ll love ‘Solid Ivory’
‘Solid Ivory: Memoirs’
By James Ivory
C.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Few things have been more pleasurable to me during the pandemic than Merchant/Ivory films. COVID becomes a dim memory as I ogle the costumes, beautiful vistas from Italy to India, music and spot-on dialogue of “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Remains of the Day” and other Merchant/Ivory movies.
For decades, fans from gay men to grandmas have enjoyed these films, directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant in partnership with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
In “Solid Ivory,” Ivory, 93, gives us his memories of movie making, growing up gay, his decades-long romantic and professional partnership with Merchant and (you’re reading this correctly) the penises he has known.
If you believe that elders don’t enjoy sex, Ivory’s memoir will blow your ageism to smithereens.
From watching the movies he’s directed and knowing his age, you might think (as I did) that Ivory would be shy about talking of his sexuality. Wow, was I wrong!
Ivory appreciates penises as a sommelier savors fine wine.
Ivory knew that he liked boys early on. Ivory recalls playing at age seven with a boy named Eddy. He and Eddy were “putting our penises into each other’s mouths,” Ivory writes, “…I made it clear that Eddy’s dick must not touch my lips or tongue, nor the inside of my mouth. I had learned all about germs at school by then.”
Though Ivory and Merchant were devoted partners, they each had other lovers. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer who died from AIDS, was Ivory’s friend, and sometimes, lover.
Chatwin’s penis was “Uncut, rosy, schoolboy-looking,” Ivory writes.
Ivory’s memoir isn’t prurient. His sexuality doesn’t overpower the narrative. It runs through “Solid Ivory” like a flavorful spice.
The book is more an impressionistic mosaic than a chronological memoir. Ivory, often, tells the stories of his life through letters he’s written and received (from lovers, friends and professional contacts) as well as from diary entries.
Many of the chapters in the memoir were previously published in other publications such as The New Yorker.
“Solid Ivory” was originally published in a limited edition by Shrinking Violet Press. The Press is a small press run by Peter Cameron, a novelist, and editor of “Solid Ivory.” Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. He was originally named Richard Jerome Hazen. His parents changed his name when they adopted him. Some of the most engaging moments of the memoir are when Ivory writes about what life was like for a child during the Depression.
Ivory’s father lost his savings when the stock market crashed, and his mother frequently gave food to “tramps” who came to the door.
His “eating tastes were definitely formed during the Depression,” Ivory writes.
Since that time, Ivory has lived everywhere from England to Italy. “But although I consider myself an advanced expert in the more sophisticated forms of cuisine,” Ivory writes, “My gastronomical roots remain dug deep in the impoverished soil of the American Depression.”Ivory became smitten with movies when he saw his first picture when he was five.
He and Merchant, a Muslim from India who died in 2005, fell in love when they met on the steps of the Indian consulate in New York in 1961. I wish Ivory had written more about the 30+ movies that he made (mostly with Merchant and Jhabvala, who died in 2013).
Yet, he provides tantalizing recollections of filmmaking, actors and celebs.
The chapters on “Difficult Women like Raquel Welch and Vanessa Redgrave” are fun to read.
Welch, a bombshell brat, doesn’t want to play a love scene in “The Wild Party.” During the filming of “The Bostonians,” Boston is captivated by the drama of Redgrave’s off-screen politics.
Ivory isn’t that impressed when in 2018, at age 89, he becomes the oldest Academy Award winner when he receives the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Call Me By Your Name.” “Its fame eclipses even Michelangelo’s David and the Statue of Liberty,” Ivory says, with irony, of the Oscar statue.
If you enjoy the movies, beauty and wit, you’ll love “Solid Ivory.”
Bisexual journey ‘Greedy’ is a book to share
A tale of universal experiences – rejection, love, vulnerability
‘Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much’
By Jen Winston
c.2021, Atria $18/336 pages
Share, and share alike.
That may, in retrospect, be the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. You’re not asking for the stars and the moon; you just want what you want and why pass it around? As in the new book “Greedy” by Jen Winston, who’d ever think that getting what you deserved to have was wrong?
Back in the “aughts,” when Jen Winston was rocking her AIM handle and pretending to be boy-crazy, she had no word for liking boys and girls – though she knew she did. Had she questioned anyone, she would have been told that it was a phase, an experiment, or a matter of confusion but she never asked. She instinctively knew that doing the “gay stuff” was hard.
As she grew up and learned the word for what she felt, the idea of being with a woman became more appealing but not quite comfortable. Yes, Winston quietly told herself she was bisexual, but bisexuality “never felt queer enough.” Besides, dating straight men was like the equivalent of “comfort food,” though it never worked and was really not much fun.
Various roommates through the years indulged in her search for love, though, by crowdsourcing answers to questions posed by online dates. They also looked the other way as Winston learned that self-pleasure could be ugly, and she didn’t want to be “U-G-L-Y.” She tried threesomes but they were loaded with potential rejection; she tried chatrooms but they were scary. She learned that “we” is a painful word when you’re not part of it.
Bisexuality comes with a lot of frustrating myths and bisexual people, says Winston, are sometimes not included in the LGBTQ community. Bi people aren’t especially promiscuous – they’re not trying to steal your partner from you – and they’re not all just white or female. They are well aware that dating sucks, fairy tales are hard to believe in, and that there are lots of different ways to be gay.
You want it all: You want hearts and romance but you also want down and dirty. You want to be heard, but you don’t want to talk about it. You want to be enough but not so much that it’s weird. And you want it with laughs, though that’s not the main thing about this book.
While its cover indicates lightheartedness and author Jen Winston seems perfectly happy to tell funny, tongue-in-cheek tales about herself, “Greedy” sports a serious vein that almost feels like a shout. Winston writes of universal experiences – rejection, falling in love, vulnerability, and wanting so much to be adored – and she makes light of them in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be all that humorous. We can chuckle, yes, but she also lets us pretend that we don’t care about those hurts – even though, like Winston, we all know that we do.
Be aware that there are chapters here that are very graphic and are not appropriate for just anyone. If Winston’s journey is your journey, too, though, “Greedy” is something to share.
Canadian Senate approves bill to ban conversion therapy
Chile marriage equality bill receives final approval
Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?
In plea deal, D.C. trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years
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