Liza Fesses Up
BY Michael Joseph Gross
October 11 2010 3:00 AM ET
Leaving aside gay Hollywood and her mother’s gay following, there were at least two central facts about her family that might have given the young Liza a clue that some men loved men. I ask, “In your family, was there ever any discussion of your grandfather [Frank Gumm, Judy Garland’s father] being gay?”
“No, it was none of my business.”
“So you didn’t discuss it?”
“It was none of my business.”
“How about your father?”
Her eyebrows scrunch: “But he wasn’t…” Her voice trails off into a silence that stretches until it’s clear she’s not going to break it.
I say, “Your dad wasn’t gay?”
Breezily, she answers, “Well, honey, he was married four times. And you should have seen the pictures he painted of naked women!”
Minnelli’s first marriage, from 1967 to 1974, was to a gay man: Peter Allen, a former protégé of her mother’s, whose pop hits included “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and “I Honestly Love You” and whose life inspired the musical The Boy From Oz.
When I ask Minnelli if she knew Allen was gay when she married him, she says, “No, no, of course I didn’t.” How did she find out? “Oh, well, you know, people say things, and somebody said, ‘I think he’s…’ And I asked him about it, and he said that yes, there was that, but that he loved me. And I loved him, and we decided to try it, and we got married, and we tried so hard, but then it didn’t work. But we stayed close, always, always, and of course I was with him at the end.” Allen died of AIDS complications in 1992.
Minnelli says she first became aware of AIDS when she invited Rock Hudson to be her date for a charity dinner. “When he showed up he looked so ill, something was wrong, but of course you can’t say, ‘You look bad.’ But then I began to hear more about the disease, and I called Elizabeth Taylor, and I said, ‘Elizabeth, something is wrong. Something is happening, and people are not talking about it enough, and we have to do something.’ And so we did, and that helped lead to amfAR [the American Foundation for AIDS Research]. And then it became a movement.”
This was not, of course, the first time that a member of her family was associated with a great leap forward in the gay movement. The Stonewall riots took place in the early morning hours of the day after Judy Garland’s funeral, and though most historians deny any causal relationship between the events, the idea of a connection remains part of the Stonewall legend. When I ask Minnelli what she thinks of that story, she says, “You know, I never even heard about it until years later,” and her friend speaks up for the first time since we all sat down. She asks, “What’s Stonewall?”
To me, Minnelli says, “Tell her what Stonewall is.”
I say, “You tell her.”
This is Liza Minnelli’s version of the birth of the gay rights movement: “Well, Stonewall was a bar for gay people, downtown, and I think it might even still be there. And just after my mother died all these people had gathered there, including some drag queens, and I think they were listening to her songs on the jukebox, and they were sad. And then the police came and told them to get out, and they said, ‘No, we are listening to our music,’ and it meant a lot to them, my mother’s music. But the police said, ‘Get out,’ and they said, ‘No!’ And this was the first time, ever, that they said, ‘No!’ And there was a fight, and it was in the newspapers, so people finally knew about this struggle. And that”—here, Minnelli pauses for effect, raises her right hand from her lap, and traces an arc—a rainbow?—in the air—“was how the movement began.”
After a beat she adds, “Or so the story goes. Nobody knows if it’s true. But it’s what I heard. I was in the middle of all the preparations for the funeral, and somebody said, ‘This has happened, and it’s so exciting,’ and I was so proud, and I thought, well, something good can come of this too.”
The careful reader will have noticed at least two problems in the preceding section. Problem number 1 is that Minnelli first said that she did not know Allen was gay when she married him, and then she said she did. Problem number 2 is that Minnelli first said that she didn’t hear about Stonewall until years later, and then she said she heard about it as it happened.
In neither case did I ask her to square the statements. And though it would be easy to speculate, it’s hard to know what to make of the discrepancies, except to say that each contradiction gives a glimpse of how even the most intimate aspects of a star’s life can become infused with legend.