Sunday, 2 June 2013

Henry Cowell

The composer Henry Cowell felt both blessed and a little harassed by a group of working-class teenagers who got into the habit of swimming in the pond behind his house in Menlo Park, California.  The boys exploited his homosexuality by taking various liberties over a period of three years, but they also granted him sexual favours which both enchanted and scared him.  Then one of them tried to blackmail him and he refused to pay up.  The boy went to his family, the family to the County Juvenile Officer, and he to the District Attorney’s office, whereupon a warrant was issued for Cowell’s arrest.  The charge was that, on 30 April 1936, he had engaged in ‘oral copulation’ with a seventeen-year-old, thereby violating Section 288a of the California Penal Code.  The fact that the boy had consented was irrelevant to the law’s blanket ban on oral sex.  Officials delivering the warrant to Cowell’s house at 11.00 p.m. on 21 May 1936 found three of the boys there, but not Cowell himself.  He came home a couple of hours later with six of the others, whom he had taken skating in San Francisco.  At first he denied the specific charge, but he soon volunteered information about the actual nature of his friendships with the boys, and he handed officials photographs he had taken of them.  As a friend of Cowell’s later said, ‘I believe Henry was glad to have it end, at almost any price’.
            Cowell co-operated fully with the authorities, with the intention of saving the boys from having to give evidence.  He admitted to having had sex with fourteen young men in his lifetime, seven of them in the recent period leading up to his arrest; the youngest partner had been sixteen, and all had consented.  However, the County Juvenile Officer consistently referred to Cowell’s boys as ‘young children’ and the San Francisco Examiner portrayed Cowell himself as a promiscuous child-molester.  Probation was denied, and the judge sentenced Cowell to the standard term of one to fifteen years, to be served in what had recently been rated the second worst prison in the USA, San Quentin.  Cowell arrived there on 8 July 1936.  The parole board subsequently, on 13 August 1937, fixed his sentence at the maximum term, fifteen years—a level of punishment more usually associated with serial rapists.[1]
            At no point in the process had Henry Cowell appealed to his homosexual friends for support.  He does appear to have thought of his homosexuality as a psychological flaw, and to have hoped he could somehow leave it behind him.  Presumably, also, he must have known how reluctant some friends would now have become to be associated with him.  Some figures were conspicuous in their failure to provide support or even otherwise to convey sympathy.  Charles Ives was one such.  When she heard of Cowell's imprisonment, Ives' wife Harmony wrote to a friend: ‘Have you heard this hideous thing about Henry Cowell—that he has been guilty of Oscar Wilde practices[?]’  (3 July 1936).  In a subsequent letter to the same friend she reported that, when she told her husband, he decided never to see Cowell again, adding: ‘I thought he was a man & he's really A g— d— sap’ (12 July 1936).[2]  The fact is that, as all his biographers agree, Ives reacted defensively to all references to sex or sensuality, rigorously policing his own behaviour and nervously watching out for any imputation, actual or imagined, that he himself was anything but sturdily normal in these respects.  His fears affected his approach not only to his own art but to that of others.  As one biographer puts it, ‘Ives felt threatened whenever the subject of sex was broached; he rationalized his attitude, however, by choosing to believe that any appearance of sex in art, literature, or public discussion was a form of commercial exploitation.  Sensuality was his bĂȘte noir’.[3]
            In his youth, Ives had not been averse to a bit of male bonding, but he was already clear about what he would permit himself by way of student friendships.  Another biographer says of this early period: ‘the specter of homosexuality carried with it the threat of the loss of potency, and ultimately fantasies of castration.  Certain forms of sentimentality, however, were permitted and even favored’.  Friendships were permitted only to the extent that they could be demonstrated to be unequivocally masculine.  The same went for his musical compositions, since he allowed himself to be terrorised by that philistine strain of American culture which regards artistic sensitivity as unmasculine.  As an adult, ‘Ives ended up virtually phobic of anything feminine, including the powerful emotions he himself experienced’.[4]  Yet another biographer concurs with this analysis of his fear of being thought a sissy: ‘Violence and panic exactly describe Ives’s response to the specter of homosexuality, which was part of a fear of feminization even more threatening to him than to most artists of his time’.[5]
The friend who was most supportive of Cowell was Percy Grainger, who regarded his case as an instance of the state oppressing the artist.  In October 1938, he offered Cowell work as his secretary, so as to persuade the parole board that, even if he would no longer be allowed to make a living by teaching, Cowell was not unemployable.  Cowell conspicuously qualified for the concessions due to ‘good behaviour’, having set up a successful music school in San Quentin and taught in it for twenty-two hours a week, as well as having founded a prison orchestra; and so, in due course, his sentence was reduced and he won parole.  On his release in June 1940, he went to live with, and work for, Percy Grainger at White Plains, New York.
            One of the more interesting consequences of Henry Cowell’s long campaign for parole had been a striving for respectability, not only in the demonstrable aspect of his own character, but even in his art.  The music he composed in jail, and then after his release, tended to be less experimental, less radical, than he had been attempting before; and the move to New York cut him off from the more daring musical subcultures of the west coast.  It may be, in other words, that his arrest and conviction led ultimately to a diminished achievement in his musical career.  But at least, on his release, he was still able to work in his chosen field.  Indeed, thanks to a federal ‘cultural defense’ programme which had been instituted as part of the American war effort, when his civil rights were restored on 3 July 1941 Cowell was able to become a government employee, editing Latin American music for publication to counter Nazi claims that Latino culture was not valued by the USA.  Fully pardoned by 1943, Cowell was appointed senior music editor in the overseas branch of the Office of War Information.[6]
            In the long run, Henry Cowell got some kind of revenge on Charles Ives.  In 1955, a year after Ives’ death, he published an aggressively sycophantic book, Charles Ives and His Music, in which, referring to himself in the third person, he reminded the world that he had been instrumental in first making Ives’ reputation in the late 1920s: ‘Cowell immediately began to include Ives’s name among the really important creative figures of the early twentieth century, and to write and lecture about him persistently both abroad and at home’.[7]

[1] The papers of a major symposium on Cowell are not forthcoming about this episode in his life, any more than they are about his sexuality.  San Quentin is mentioned several times, but the reason for imprisonment only once (pp.155-156), by William Lichtenwanger.  Although Cowell is never treated as homosexual or bisexual, the papers contain many references to his wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell—David Nicholls (ed.), The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997).
[2]Stuart Feder, Charles Ives, “My Father’s Song”: A Psychoanalytic Biography (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), p.343.
[3]Frank R. Rossiter, Charles Ives and His America (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976), p.169.
[4]Feder, p.336.
[5]Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: Norton, 1996), p.375.
[6] Michael Hicks, ‘The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 44 (1991), pp.92-119.
[7]Henry Cowell & Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music (New York: OUP, 1955), p.105.

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