Fleet Too Out, Get Outed

By Charles Alexander

Parting Glances

Back in the "good old days" of Great Depression #1, following Stock Market Crash '29 - years and years - well, at least a galloping few - before my time, the seven arts took a real financial broadsiding.

Money for spending on painting, sculpture, plays, Broadway musicals wasn't available as it had been during The Roaring Twenties, when my sainted mother was just a kid, and I not a twinkling (or a twink) in anybody's eye.

Shortly after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in '33 - defeating the Republican George W of his day, dour, doggedly conservative Herbert Hoover - the Works Art Project was formed. WAP provided federal funding to keep artists, musicians, composers, playwrights afloat.

It was a bright move for FDR's administration, for a nation cannot be truly healthy without visionaries to show the way. One of those WAP recipients, Paul Cadmus, was gay. There were others, too, but Cadmus - remembered today by a tribute DVD biographical title of "Enfant Terrible" - is special.

Cadmus, who died 14 years ago at 95, made it big at 30, not only as a supremely gifted artist, but as a cause celebre of big-time art censorship. The resulting national notoriety and newspaper publicity got his career ship-ahoy! with a thundering five-gun salute - AND - a long-lasting, highly memorable finish. Here's background ...

Way back in America's Twenties and Thirties homosexual men frequently identified themselves as "gay" - for straights the word meant happy - by wearing a red tie. (In my teenage days, a yellow shirt worn on Thursday was cueing. That and penny loafers.)

In 1934, "The Fleet's In!" painted by Cadmus, was chosen by the WPA for inclusion in a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Within a day or two of the opening a testy letter to the editor appeared in The Evening Star, denouncing "Fleet" as anything but "in port", as far as the Navy might be concerned. "Unpatriotic!" "Damnably Neurotic!"

Others voices shrilly joined in. Editorials clamored. Prompted by shocked outcries about showing sailors as rowdy, party types (and who's that fey looking guy in the background with the red tie - and you know what that means - elbow, elbow - don't you?), Secretary of Navy Claude A. Swanson pulled the plug on the fleet.

Swanson ordered Ass't. Secretary of the Navy Henry Latrobe Roosevelt (a cousin to the President), to scuttlebutt the painting. It wound up sunk out of sight in D.C.'s Alibi Club until 1981, when - still under guard in the naval brig, if you will - it was restored at Navy expense - under threat of public lawsuit - in time for a Cadmus retrospective.

"Fleet's In" was put on permanent exhibit in 1985 at The Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard. Jon Anderson, his model/partner of 35 years attended. In 1991, on two separate occasions, feminist visitors objected that the painting depicted sexual harassment. (One presumes of the docksider doxies, not the fag in the red tie.)

Moral: If you want to make a name for yourself in the art world - talent or no talent - start with a loud mouthed censorship. (This time around, being gay's a plus artwise. Go figure.)

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