James Beard was large. His obituaries told you so. “Portly” was how The Associated Press put it. The Los Angeles Times said that he was nearly 300 pounds at his apogee, though The New York Times clarified that a diet at one point “divested him of some of his heft.”
Nature divested him of his hair. He was bald, as all of those obituaries prominently noted.
He was also gay. Good luck finding a mention of that.
Oh, there were winks. “A lifelong bachelor.” “An Oregon-bred bachelor.” Oregon-bred? Makes him sound like a dairy cow. Or maybe a mushroom.
But there was nothing in those remembrances about his 30-year relationship – at first romantic, then less so – with Gino Cofacci, who was provided for in Beard’s will. Nothing about Beard’s expulsion from Reed College in the 1920s because of his involvements with other men. This newspaper’s obituary simply called him a “college dropout.”
It was published in 1985. The world has changed. And that progress is reflected in a new documentary, “James Beard: America’s First Foodie,” that PBS will air next month as part of its American Masters series.
Like Beard’s obituaries, it shows how he towered over the country’s culinary landscape, pioneering the kind of food television that Julia Child would later do and doling out advice in newspaper columns much like Craig Claiborne’s. He towers still. One of the great honors that a chef can receive is an invitation to cook at Beard House in Greenwich Village, previously his home and now a shrine. The annual Academy Awards of the restaurant world are called the Beards.
The documentary also goes where the obituaries didn’t, describing him as an exuberantly gay man. Anyone who knew him well knew him that way, but during his lifetime, there was typically a difference between what was privately understood and what was publicly said. A cloud hovered over gay people. And if we’re honest about much of America and about many Americans today, that cloud hasn’t entirely dispersed.
The discrepancy between accounts of Beard up until his death and posthumous assessments like “America’s First Foodie” remind me of how often oppression is an act of omission rather than commission: not letting people give voice and vent to much of what moves them and to all of what defines them; not recognizing and honoring that ourselves.
I’m struck, too, by the nature of lies. They’re not just statements. They’re silences that fail to confront bad as well as beautiful things, often with grievous consequences.
We once turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse and rape, so we believed they rarely happened and weren’t adequately on guard. We once didn’t acknowledge the loving, nurturing relationships between two men or two women, so we deemed them freakish and weren’t sufficiently accepting. Our denial and ignorance kept bigotry in business.
One of the many arguments – no, imperatives – for recognizing same-sex marriage is that it’s the only telling of the full truth. Otherwise we erase whole chunks of people’s existences, and that’s as cruel and mistaken “as it would be to leave out someone’s life work or what country they lived in,” said Nathaniel Frank, the author of “Awakening,” a history of the marriage-equality movement that will be published this month.
The erasing of Beard’s sexual orientation was first brought to my attention by Ted Allen, an alumnus of the TV show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the current host of “Chopped,” on the Food Network. In 2012, when he won two Beard Awards, he looked into Beard’s background, and was surprised and enraged that the gay part wasn’t accurately told in real time.
Allen thought about all the LGBT kids back then who were denied a role model. He thought about how the editing of Beard’s life shortchanged a minority group’s major contribution to U.S. gastronomy. Claiborne, too, was in this minority, as writer John Birdsall pointed out in a 2014 essay for the magazine Lucky Peach that was titled “America, Your Food Is So Gay.”
But Allen said that he thought in particular about all “the well-known people whose homosexuality was buried along with them,” and how that distorted and continues to distort our sense of the contributions that LGBT Americans have made.
Some obituaries of Claiborne in 2000 – though not The Times’ – left out his gayness. Some obituaries of writer Susan Sontag in 2004 failed to mention her romantic relationships with women, including photographer Annie Liebovitz. Some obituaries of trailblazing astronaut Sally Ride in 2012 made scant, ambiguous reference to the fact that she was lesbian.
The list goes on. The reasons vary. Maybe a person’s survivors gave signals to obituary writers that they didn’t want this subject broached. Maybe those writers were in the dark. Maybe they couldn’t ascertain by deadline what the deceased person would have wanted, and they erred on the side of saying nothing, a decision born of courtesy but steeped in prejudice.
All of this adds up to an incomplete picture of our society and who shaped it. It adds up to a lie.
When Beard died at the age of 81, he was working on a memoir in which he planned to make his sexual orientation abundantly clear to his fans. He tape-recorded reminiscences, used in 1990’s “The James Beard Celebration Cookbook,” that included the statement: “By the time I was 7, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.”
Why wasn’t it time when his obituary appeared on our front page? I went in search of its writer, Albin Krebs, and quickly stumbled across his own obituary in The Times in 2002.
I noticed that it said nothing about a marriage or children or any romantic life. I noticed that he died, at the age of 73, in Key West, Florida.
I tracked down a few journalists who remembered him, and then his nephew, a 68-year-old judge in Mississippi. My suspicions were confirmed: Krebs, a Mississippi native who served in the Air Force before his long and distinguished newspaper career, was himself gay.
And certainly by the last years of his life, as he bobbed in his pool with a glass of whiskey in his hand, “He didn’t give a damn what anybody thought,” the nephew, Robert Krebs, told me, adding that his uncle left much of his estate to an AIDS charity in Key West.
Beard wasn’t especially troubled by his sexual orientation, either, according to Birdsall, who is finishing a comprehensive new biography of him. But the mores of his day – the mores for so long – purged that part of many people’s lives from the official record.
He received tributes galore. They took ample stock of his dimensions. But they didn’t come close to rounding him out.