Tag Archives: Biography

People in History: Harry Hay

Born to an upper middle class American family living in England in 1912, Hay was raised in Chile, the son of a wealthy mining engineer and his Catholic wife. While an infant, Hay contracted bronchial pneumonia which left him with permanent scarring on his lungs. Shortly afterwards, his father lost a leg in an industrial accident, which resulted in his resignation and relocation of the family back to California. In 1919 Hay’s father purchased a farm just outside LA. While Hay Snr. secured the family’s income by trading on the stock market, he refused to spoil his children, and Hay Jnr. grew up working on the farm like any other labourer.

Hay resented his father, calling him “tyrannical” for the regular beatings he meted out — beating Hay believed stemmed from an attempt to “cure” him of his effeminate behaviour. Continue reading →

People in History: Noël Coward

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.13.05 People in History: Noël Coward

Wikimedia Commons

Born on the outskirts of London in 1899, Coward was the second son of Arthur, a piano salesman, and Violet, daughter of a naval captain. His older brother died the year before he was born. Despite the fact the family often struggled for money, Coward’s interest in performing was indulged from an early age: by seven he was regularly appearing in amateur productions, and attended the Chapel Royal Choir School, although otherwise his education was sparse and largely informal.

His mother was his biggest supporter, enrolling him in a dance academy after Choir School. By twelve, Coward had his first professional engagement in the children’s play, The Goldfish. From there, Coward secured influential contacts in the theatrical world who ensured he was never without work, and he joined the circuit with a number of notably child actors of the day. Continue reading →

People in History: Kenneth Williams

Screenshot-2017-07-14-21.35.04 People in History: Kenneth Williams

Wikimedia Commons

Born in London in 1926, Kenneth Williams was the son of Louisa (“Louie”) Morgan and Charles Williams, a barber and strict Methodist. He had an older half-sister, an illegitimate child of his mother’s born before she met his father. Although interested in acting from an early age, his father absolutely forbade it and refused to encourage him. After school, Williams apprenticed as a draughtsman for a mapmaker instead of pursuing his dream.

In 1944, aged eighteen, Williams was drafted in the army, where he became a Sapper in the Engineers Survey, putting his artistic mapmaking skills to good use. At the end of the war he was stationed in Singapore, and opted to enlist in the Combined Service Entertainment Unit to see out his service putting on revue shows to entertain the troops. Continue reading →

People in History: John Inman

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John Inman as Mr. Humphries. Wikimedia Commons

Born in Preston, NW England, in 1935, from an early age John Inman exhibited a tendency towards camp which would become a hallmark of his later success. His mother ran a boarding house and his father was a hairdresser, but Inman was always determined to become an actor, no doubt influenced by his parents’ move to Blackpool when he was twelve. His parents supported his ambition, paying for him to take elocution lessons at their local church hall. As a child, Inman was also noted for his love of dressmaking.

Within a year of moving to Blackpool, Inman secured small roles at the Pavilion on Blackpool’s South Pier. At fifteen he took a menial job at the pier, occasionally playing parts in some of the plays.

After leaving school, Inman gave up the theatre to work as a window dresser in a gentleman’s outfitters, and moved to London to work in Regent Street two years later. He remained in retail for another four years before leaving to work as a scenic artist with a touring company in order to earn his Equity Card, a licence which was required for all professional actors. Continue reading →

People in History: Robin Hood

Yes, I know. I’m including Robin Hood as biography when we have no idea if he actually existed or not. In my defence, I offer Jesus 😛

Actually, the legends surrounding Robin Hood almost certainly have their origins in the life of a real figure. A number of men have been suggested to have been the source of the legend. Robert, the Earl of Huntingdon is a favourite, for this inscription on his grave at Kirklees Priory: Continue reading →

People in History: David Maxwell Fyfe

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.40.09 People in History: David Maxwell Fyfe

Wikimedia Commons

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, first Earl of Kilmuir, might seem an odd subject for today’s blog.Not only wasn’t he queer, but he worked tirelessly against any attempt to decriminalise homosexuality, and may well have been behind the “pogrom” of the 1950s that deliberately targeted gay men for persecution. It’s easy to look back with a sense of superiority, but his opposition to homosexuals was but a footnote in a life which was generally lived well.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a grammar school headmaster and his second wife, Maxwell Fyfe studied at a Scottish independent school before going on to read the Greats (Literae Humaniores, a Classics course based on the history of human learning) at Oxford. He wasn’t a remarkable scholar, more interested in contemporary politics than the ancients, and achieved only a third-class degree. His education was briefly interrupted in 1918 when he took time out to spend a year with the Scots Guards at the end of the First World War. Continue reading →

People in History: Peter Wildeblood

LMG-Wildeblood-0978-A-web People in History: Peter Wildeblood

Peter Wildeblood. Photo curtesy The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive

Peter Wildeblood was born in Italy in 1923, the only child of Henry Wildeblood, a retired engineer from the Indian Public Works Department, and his second wife Winifred, daughter of an Argentinian sheep rancher. (He had older brothers from his father’s first marriage, but as they were already grown with families of their own when Peter was born, he was raised as an only child.) His father was sixty at the time of Peter’s birth, a circumstance which in later life he wondered was responsible for his sexuality.

Wildeblood was raised and educated in England from the age of three. He attended boarding school from seven, and at thirteen won a scholarship to Radley College, a public school near Oxford. From Radley he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, although he was forced to drop out after ten days because of ill health. It being then 1941, shortly thereafter he enlisted with the RAF and trained as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (a British colony at the time; now Zimbabwe), but after a succession of crashes he was grounded and retrained as a meteorologist. He remained in Rhodesia for the duration of the war, where he had a number of sexual experiences with women, which only served to confirm his suspicion that he was homosexual. When he returned to Oxford after the war, he spent many of his weekends in London, where he moved in almost exclusively queer circles. Continue reading →

People in History: Alan Turing

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Alan Turing at 16. Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing was born in 1912, second child of Julius and Ethel. His father held a position with the India Civil Service, but his parents returned to England before Alan’s birth, keen for their sons to be raised in England. When his parents needed to return to India, they left the boys in the care of a retired army couple during their absences.

Turing’s extraordinary intelligence showed itself early, as did his enthusiasm for learning. When, at thirteen, a general strike was called on the day he was to start at a new school, he cycled sixty miles unaccompanied in order to attend on time. The school, however, placed greater emphasis on Classical learning than the sciences, and the headmaster wrote to his parents, warning: ” If he is to stay at public [private] school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.” Continue reading →

People in History: WWI Poets

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_%281915%29 People in History: WWI Poets

Siegfried Sassoon. Wikimedia Commons

Poet’s Corner is the name given to the section of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey where some of England’s most famous writers are interred or memorialised. In 1985, a slate was added, commemorating sixteen poets of the Great War. They were Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.

What is immediately noticeable from looking at their biographies is how similar they were. All but three attended public or independent schools, followed by Oxbridge or prestigious discipline-specific universities. Most attained the rank of Lieutenant or higher: only two were privates. (Those two facts are linked: most public schools held Officers’ Training Corps as a standard class, preparing the sons of the wealthy and titled to command other men. After war was declared, men with OTC experience were drafted as officers, even without prior military experience.) Most moved in literary circles or were published prior to the outbreak of war. They all knew most of the other fifteen men with whom they’re now remembered. Continue reading →