By Edward M. Cohen
In 1953, “Tea and Sympathy” opened on Broadway to raves and controversy, mainly because it tackled a taboo subject, homosexuality. But it did so in an acceptable way because the hero turned out to be straight, after all. So everybody could breathe a sigh of relief. In the end, he learns the truth about himself with the help of a beautiful older woman. That was the way the fifties handled gay life.
I was a 19 year old wannabe actor, suffering with what was then called “homosexual tendencies” so I desperately wanted to play the hero, on stage and in life.
The two elements of the play which became immediately famous were the title, which prepared theatre-goers for the compassionate and gentle nature of the script and reassured them that the evening was not going to be decadent and dirty – the usual take on the subject (see Brick’s “secret” love in 1955’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) – and the curtain line, which shocked the audience into an awed silence never before heard in the American theatre.
The beautiful housemother at a boys’ New England prep school, played by the exquisite and famous movie star, Deborah Kerr no less, prepares to go to bed with a sensitive young student (possibly me), the butt of many jokes by his butch fellows, to prove that he is indeed a real man and thereby save him from a life of perversity.
Brilliantly staged by Elia Kazan, fleeing Hollywood after naming names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the lights fade around her as she slowly undoes each pearl button on a shimmering pink blouse.
“Years from now…” she whispered and the entire house leaned forward so as not to miss a word. “…When you talk about this…and you will…” The lights have dwindled to a pin spot on her face. “…be kind…”
Kazan returned to Tinseltown in triumph to sign a huge new contract.
The production was followed by a movie version and a massive hit in Paris starring Ingrid Bergman, banned from America because of her affair with Roberto Rossellini and an illegitimate child.
In the uproar, we all missed the fact that the entire script, from first page to last, was a lie, as was everything in the fifties.
An agent said I was perfect for the lead. How did he know, I wondered but, what the hell, I wanted the part. The agent called Terry Faye, casting director for the producers and said Terry had to see me. Terry said I should come right over. I flew through the streets. An actor friend tried to stop me to say hello but I told him I didn’t have the time. I was up for the lead in “Tea and Sympathy.” The poor guy turned green.
Sure enough, Terry Faye took one look and said I was perfect. How did she know, I wondered. The only problem was that all the touring companies were cast. Tell you what, she said. She was currently casting a pre-Broadway tour of “Saint Joan” starring Jean Arthur. She would put me into “Saint Joan” as a page or something. That way, the producers would have me under contract so I couldn’t be snatched up by anybody else. Then, as soon as there was an opening, she would move me into “Tea and Sympathy.”
I said that would be okay and went home to pack.
I never heard from her again.
Weeks later, my heart in my hands, I sat in her waiting room for hours. When she finally emerged, I popped to my feet.
“Miss Faye, remember me? You were going to put me into “Saint Joan” as a page…?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, darling. That show is way over budget. I can’t use any more pages in “Saint Joan.” Slam. She ran back into her office.
John Kerr, the boring straight star of “Tea and Sympathy” left the show but he wasn’t replaced by me. The producers picked the supposedly straight Anthony Perkins, known as “Baby Peggy” in all the neighborhood gay bars.
Terry Faye had plunged me into depression. I went to therapy and, when the subject of my “tendencies” came up, my analyst said, ‘Don’t worry. The first time we get your head on a pillow next to a beautiful woman, everything will be o.k.”
Lies. Lies. Goddam lies
Edward M. Cohen’s story collection, “Before Stonewall.” was published by Awst Press; his novel, “$250,000,” by G.P. Putnam’s Sons; his novella, “A Visit to my Father with my Son,” by Running Wild Press. His chapbook, “Grim Gay Tales,” is forthcoming from Fjords Review. Find him at Edward M. Cohen on Instagram.