By Trudy Ring
Originally published on Advocate.com February 21 2014 2:00 PM ET
The current film The Monuments Men has given new recognition to the artists who joined a World War II effort to retrieve great works stolen by the Nazis. While the main characters in the movie bear fictional names, they are based, to some extent, on the real people who took part in the operation — and one of the real-life counterparts was among the most prominent gay cultural figures of the 20th century.
That’s Lincoln Kirstein, writer, art collector, and founder of the New York City Ballet. Preston Savitz, the aesthete played by Bob Balaban in the movie, was inspired by Kirstein. The film doesn’t delve into Savitz’s personal life, and about the only clue that he bears any relationship to Kirstein is that he’s overseeing a ballet rehearsal when George Clooney’s Frank Stokes asks him to join the Monuments Men — although Balaban has said that reading Kirstein’s poetry helped him prepare for the role. Also, Savitz is just one character in a large ensemble. But Kirstein was such a remarkable man that he easily merits a movie of his own.
Kirstein was born in 1907 into a wealthy family in Rochester, N.Y. While a student at Harvard University, he founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art as well as a literary magazine called Hound and Horn. He had a love of ballet, especially the innovative Ballets Russe company. In 1933 he brought Russian choreographer George Balanchine to the United States, and together they founded the School of American Ballet.
Kirstein was drafted in 1943, and he originally intended to gather and document art created by soldiers. The following year, though, he was assigned to the U.S. Arts and Monuments Commission, and his “vast store of knowledge was put to use tracking down works of art looted by the Nazis,” as biographer Martin Duberman writes in The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. He and architect Robert Posey (the basis for Bill Murray’s character, Richard Campbell) managed to find the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th-century multipanel painting by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, one of the greatest and most coveted pieces of religious art in the world. Kirstein wrote about the discovery in Town and Country magazine in 1945.
After the war, Kirstein returned to New York, where in 1946 he and Balanchine established the Ballet Society, later renamed the New York City Ballet. He was general director of the ballet company from 1946 to 1989. He commissioned and helped finance the group’s performance space, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, designed by gay architect Philip Johnson. In addition, Kirstein was a prolific writer, with poetry, criticism, diaries, and novels to his credit, and he knew most of the significant arts figures of his era — Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and more.
The tall, handsome, charismatic Kirstein was romantically and sexually involved with numerous men over his lifetime, in both casual encounters and long-term relationships, but he also had a long marriage to a woman, Fidelma Cadmus. She was the sister of artist Paul Cadmus, known for his erotically charged paintings and drawings of men. Kirstein was his brother-in-law’s “primary patron and footed the bill for his living expenses, as Cadmus’s extremely erotic art was often too vivid for the art-buying audience,” according to a Kirstein profile by Christopher Harrity on our sibling site Gay.net.
Kirstein died in 1996, leaving a rich cultural legacy. For more information about him, check out the Gay.net profile and the Monuments Men Foundation’s website — and for lengthier reading, Duberman’s 2007 biography; Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men, which inspired the film; and Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs, an anthology of Kirstein’s writings.