Chavela Vargas

Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.

Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.

By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)

In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)

In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.

Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridos de la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.

The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.

On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.

In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.

She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”

That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.

The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”

In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”

But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.

The Fall of Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

…and now the thrilling conclusion

With his literary success following 1891’s publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde returned to writing for the theater. He penned the tragedy Salomé, but quickly turned to comedies. Lady Windermere’s Fan debuted at the St. James Theatre on February 20, 1892 and proceeded to tour England — despite the outrage of more conservative critics.  He followed this work up with the 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance. He was then commissioned for two more comedies. By now Wilde was earning approximately 100 pounds each week — by today’s standards that’s about 12,211 pounds or 15,756 US dollars a week. No longer tied to John Gray, Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas turned romantic, and Wilde used that ample income to spoil his new beau.

In many ways, Douglas quickly became the center of Wilde’s entire world. Douglas and several of his friends founded a magazine called The Chameleon, which was as pro-gay as any publication could be at the time without being shut down by law enforcement. Wilde was a regular contributor. Douglas also led Wilde into the seedy underground of London’s gay prostitution circles. Every time he rendezvoused with a prostitute, it followed the same pattern — Wilde was introduced to a young man by a fellow named Alfred Taylor, Wilde would take the young man to dinner, and then to a hotel room. Sometimes, Douglas would meet them there too.

Douglas’ father was John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (more commonly known just as Queensberry). He’s mostly known in history for being cruel to his family and for creating the Queensberry Rules which, apparently, are what modern boxing rules are based around. Oh, and all of the stuff we’re going to talk about. He’s known for that too. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Now, Queensberry and his son fought like all of the time even before Wilde entered the picture — and even though Queensberry was initially charmed by Wilde, it didn’t take him long to piece together what was actually going on with the two. He was not having any of it. He cornered Oscar in the Wilde family’s London house and threatened him — the initial description of this encounter ended with Wilde giving a clever retort (“I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”) but later accounts by both Wilde and Queensberry make Wilde sound much less assured and much more afraid — and with good reason.

On February 14 of 1895, Wilde’s greatest script premiered in London at the St. James Theatre — The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was led by popular actor Allan Aynesworth, who later stated that the first night of that show was his greatest triumph on stage. The show itself was hailed as a massive success, even by most critics. Queensberry had planned to attend the premier and publicly humiliate Wilde by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables onto the stage — but Wilde had made sure to ban him from the theater — which didn’t actually help calm things down at all.

somdomiteFour days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a club he was known to frequent. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” (Perhaps history’s most infamous spelling error.) Wilde’s friends, including Robbie Ross, begged him to let it go, but Douglas urged him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. The problem with that was, in order to avoid going to prison, Queensberry would have to publicly prove that Wilde was a sodomite. (Or a somdomite, I guess.) Wilde had been sleeping with men for years and basically wrote about it in a very popular novel (Dorian Gray), so like not really a bright idea to challenge this. But Douglas hated his father, and was also all too happy to disagree with Robbie Ross — who he often butted heads with. Wilde was all too eager to give Douglas anything he wanted, and so he sued for libel.

Queensberry went for Wilde’s jugular almost immediately. He hired Wilde’s former college friend Edward Carson to represent him in court, and hired a number of private detectives to investigate. They amassed a veritable mountain of evidence. Wilde’s lawyer opened the trial on April 3 by preemptively asking about letters Wilde had written to Douglas (letters which Carson had procured) — Wilde claimed the letters were innocent, “prose sonnets”. Carson, meanwhile, opened by stating that he’d located several male prostitutes who were willing to testify against Wilde. Carson’s cross examination was even more brutal — and although Wilde gave sassy answers that got a lot of laughs, they didn’t help the outcome of the trial.

In the end, Carson discredited Wilde by proving he had lied about his age under oath. He also, using text from The Picture of Dorian Gray, managed to successfully paint a picture of Wilde seducing Douglas (which was almost the opposite of what had actually happened.) Moving on from this, Carson started asking about facts — inquiring about his friendships with lower-class men that he had been seen with at dinner. Wilde insisted they were merely friends and that he did not believe in social barriers.

Then, Carson directly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a certain man — Wilde proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he had not because “he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.” Carson demanded to know why that was relevant, and for the first time Wilde didn’t really have any answer. Wilde dropped the charges, and Queensberry was found not guilty. This was disastrous for two reasons: the first being that Wilde was responsible for all of Queensberry’s astronomical legal fees, which was more than he could afford — and the second being that the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency almost as soon as Wilde had left the building.

Robbie Ross and another friend named Reginald Turner tried to get Wilde to flee the country, and arranged for a train and a boat to take him to France. Meanwhile, Wilde’s mother wanted him to fight. He was basically paralyzed — either with fear or indecision — until all he could say was “The train has gone. It’s too late.” He was arrested on April 6. Ross and Wilde’s butler, under strict instructions, went into the Wilde family house and packed up all of his letters, manuscripts, and some personal items.  While Wilde awaited trial in prison, Alfred Douglas visited him every day — which was nice since this was actually pretty much all Douglas’ fault, and he hadn’t done anything to help out during the criminal libel trial.

When the new trial opened on April 26, Wilde plead “not guilty”. Douglas left for Paris at the urging of Wilde. Several of Wilde’s other “somdomite” friends also left the country for their own safety — including Ross. This trial had captured the attention of the public around the world, even as far as the United States. While being cross examined, Oscar was asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name” — a phrase originating in a poem written by Douglas. (And that’s the most Douglas participated in this trial, I’m just saying.) Oscar responded with this speech that literally brings a tear to my eye every time, so I’m going to share it here verbatim even though it’s kind of long:

“‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

While this was, in my opinion, a beautiful speech….it really didn’t help out with the whole “not guilty” thing. Nevertheless, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Wilde’s friends were able to post bail, and Wilde was free. Sort of. He was shunned by nearly everyone; his wife wouldn’t let him back into the house. He was forced to stay with two of his few remaining friends, Ernest and Ada Leverson. At this point, even Carson attempted to intervene on Wilde’s behalf — asking the Solicitor General Frank Lockwood if they could “let up” on Wilde. Lockwood replied he would have liked to, but that the trial had been so publicized and so politicized that it was not going to be possible.

A third trial followed, taking place on May 25. This trial was against both Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who had also been arrested for procuring prostitutes for Wilde but who refused to turn state’s evidence against the writer. Sir Alfred Wills presided, and gave the harshest punishment the law allowed: two years of hard labor. He was also very clear that he would have given a harsher punishment if he’d been able to, claiming the sentence was “totally inadequate” for what he considered “the worst case [he had] ever tried.” After the sentence came down, Wilde asked, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” But his question was completely drowned out by the very large crowd that had come to see this beloved celebrity’s downfall.

Wilde was immediately sent off to Newgate Prison for processing, and then was sent to Pentonville Prison. His “hard labour” there was walking on a treadmill and separating rope fibers — so, y’know, really productive for society and all. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison. While there, he collapsed from hunger and ruptured his right ear drum.

On November 23 1895, Oscar was transferred to Reading Gaol by train. While he was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a crowd gathered to spit on him and ridicule him. At Reading Gaol, he was eventually allowed a pen and paper, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Alfred Douglas (which he was not allowed to send until he was released and which, later, Douglas would deny ever receiving.) Over the course of the self-reflective letter, Wilde does forgive Douglas for his involvement in getting Wilde into this position. The letter was partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.

Throughout the trials and his imprisonment, all eyes — even internationally — were on Oscar Wilde. LGBTQ+ people across the Western world, but especially in Europe, in particular were watching with a sort of horrified fascination.  Just before the end of Wilde’s sentence, inspired in large part by the writer’s legal troubles, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee in Germany — the first organization to work towards securing legal rights for queer people.

After his release on May 18, 1897, he immediately went to France and never went back to Britain or Ireland. He took the name Sebastian Melmoth, and began to advocate — through letters to English publications — for prison reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about a man who was hanged while Wilde was imprisoned there. Also, at this point, Wilde’s wife had gotten him to relinquish parental rights to their kids and had changed their last names to “Holland” (and, yet, poor Vyvyan was still named Vyvyan.) They never divorced but were completely estranged.

In August, he reunited with Douglas, but the two were only together for a few months. There’s differing explanations as to why they didn’t stay together — the truth is probably a combination of both. Some say that, after everything that had transpired in their lives, they weren’t able to get their relationship back to what it had been before the trials. Others say that Douglas’ family threatened to cut him off financially. Personally, I can’t imagine that their relationship wasn’t full of resentment, probably on both sides — and if you’re struggling with a relationship that seems like it’s failing and then your family says to break it off or spend the rest of your life completely broke? Yeah, it makes perfect sense to break it off.

Wilde was impoverished for the remainder of his life, and had only a small collection of friends left to him. With nothing left to lose, he was very much open about his sexuality for the years he had left. By the fall of 1900, Wilde was fighting with illness which physicians later stated was from an infection of his right ear drum — the illness left him weak and depressed and frequently unable to leave the bedroom of the hotel he was living in. He famously quipped, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” On October 12, he sent a telegram to Robbie Ross saying “Terribly weak. Please come.”

By November 25, 1900, Wilde’s illness had developed into meningitis (the same illness that struck down his little sister so many years earlier). Robbie Ross arrived on November 29, and immediately sent for a Catholic priest. The priest performed a conditional baptism, and Wilde died the next day. His friends Reginald Turner and Robbie Ross were with him when he died. Wilde’s tomb, which is in Paris, was commissioned by Ross, who also requested a compartment be built for his own ashes — which were dutifully placed there in 1950.

In the years since his death, Oscar Wilde has become arguably one of the world’s most celebrated queer figures. In 1967, Craig Rodwell named his LGBTQ bookstore the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in order to make sure it was recognized as a safe place by others in the community. In 2014, Wilde was one of the first honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. He was also one of 50,000 men posthumously pardoned in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, also known as the Alan Turing Law.