Homophobia Case Against Ives Closed

In response to my writing on the subject, my attention has been drawn to an article, “The Cowell-Ives Relationship: A New Look at Cowell’s Prison Years,” by Leta Miller and Rob Collins, in an issue of the excellent journal American Music (Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 473-492) – don’t know how I missed it, since I receive the journal. The story has always been that, once Cowell was imprisoned in San Quentin from 1936 to 1940 on a homosexual morals charge, Ives was disgusted to learn about Cowell’s homosexuality, and cut off all contact with him. But at the 1997 Cowell Centennial conference in New York, a letter was exhibited, from Ives to Cowell in jail (in Ives’s own hand, which was exceptional for the time), expressing his warmest wishes and sympathy. Miller and Collins provide strong evidence to support what some of us suspected at the time: that it was Ives’s wife Harmony who was unsympathetic, not Ives. Since Ives’s health was so poor that Harmony handled all of his correspondence, coming and going, the story always got filtered through her statements to friends. In fact, however, on May 29, 1937, Cowell received a letter from Ives saying,

I’ve started to write you a few times or more, but didn’t because I didn’t know what to write or say or what to think or do – and I don’t now – so I’ll shut up! At least I can do all I can & I will to help New M[usic] Editions keep going as well as possible and as you would want…
I do hope you can keep well & that things will go well in the future.

In addition, Ives, not being able to satisfactorily communicate through Harmony, sent Cowell other supportive messages through mutual friends. Miller and Collins also quote a statement by Lou Harrison, who was openly gay during the years (1936-1950) he did musical work for Ives:

The problem of whether you were gay or not didn’t arise among the people that I was with. Ives was repressed but nonetheless he was a married man. [Yet] there was no problem. In fact that was the point I think that Ives made at the one luncheon I attended [with him]. Harmony was there and he, sitting off from the table, told me that when he was growing up, if you had anything to do with musicians it meant you were a sissy. Then he looked thoughtful and a little worried and said, “But all that seems to have changed now.”

I’m glad to know that Ives’s letter and messages are finally in the scholarly literature (thanks to Joe Barron for alerting me), and I hope we can now consider the story that Ives abandoned Cowell out of homophobia thoroughly debunked.


  1. says

    Peter Gay had a bit of related fun at Chuck’s expense in his book Modernism: the lure of heresy:
    “However varied [Ives’] targets, his criticism of fellow composers had only a single dimension: they all lacked manliness. We have entered the domain of speculation here, but it seems undeniable that Ives, all his protests to the contrary, had private reasons for buying into the ideology of the small-town provincial America in which he grew up…His own unresolved dissonances, phrases quoted from patriotic and religious tunes, and simultaneous employment of different keys, were all efforts on his part to keep music manly, which, he was only too sure, desperately needed it–as most probably did he.” (407-8)
    The whole passage is accessible on the Google books page.
    Gay also hits Ives pretty hard for not contacting Cowell in prison. I thought the whole thing was a bit petty and unnecessary when I first read it, especially in the context of an awfully short section about Ives, but I figured my reaction had a lot to do with my personal feelings about Ives’ music. Glad to hear there’s some contrary evidence at least; thanks for passing it along.
    KG replies: Miller and Collins also speculate that Ives’s macho talk about sissies may have been his attempt to appropriate the language that was used against him as a teenager, to turn it back against his tormentors and assert the manliness of his music. It makes a lot of sense to me, and adds a touch of pathos to the poor guy’s life that even increases my sympathy for him. Ironic that he’s taken so much crap for what may well have been a defense mechanism against the bullies who made fun of him for his love of music.

  2. says

    I too heard the story of Ives’s homophobia many times and just accepted it, assuming he was a product of his times and, as you say, that it was part of the macho anti-sissy ears baseball playing aesthetic. I never faulted Ives for it, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to read your post. Thanks for giving this story a push.