Monday, June 24, 2019

Take Pride: Charles Tomlinson Griffes

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

June is national LGBTQ Pride Month. For those who aren’t familiar with the acronym, the L stands for lesbian (women attracted to women), the G for gay (men attracted to men), the B for bisexual (people attracted to both sexes), and the T for transsexual (people who are a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth). The Q stands for queer, a blanket term which helps keep the acronym from becoming too unwieldy. Some of the identities covered under the Q include, but are not limited to, asexual (people who don’t experience sexual attraction), pansexual (those attracted to people regardless of their gender), intersex (people with the physical characteristics of both sexes), and non-binary (people who don’t identify as either gender).

Although a lot of the terms used today are relatively new, LGBTQ people have always existed. One of Chemung County’s most famous queer icons is pianist and composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). Born in Elmira, Griffes studied piano and organ from a young age under the tutelage of Elmira College professor Mary Selena Broughton. In 1903, he traveled to Berlin where he studied composition. Returning to the United States in 1907, he took a teaching position at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York, where he worked until he died of the Spanish Flu in 1920.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes, ca. 1900
At the time of his death, Griffes was considered an up-and-coming composer with a unique voice which blended German Romanticism, French Impressionism, and Russian and Oriental styles. He composed over 100 songs for orchestra, piano, organ, chamber ensemble, and voice. He also wrote several pieces for stage productions, ballets, and pantomimes. His most famous pieces include White Peacock (1915), Piano Sonata (1917–18, revised 1919), The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912, revised in 1916), and Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918).

Griffes was gay. During his time in Germany, he became romantically involved with Emil Joèl, an older fellow student. During their years together, Joèl introduced Griffes to some of the famous European composures of the day and even supported him financially for a time. Due to the prejudices and laws of the day, Griffes kept his homosexuality a secret from his family and straight friends. Whenever possible, he would leave his lodgings in Tarrytown and head for the gay bathhouses of New York City. From 1907 to 1919, he kept detailed diaries, often in German, describing his experiences in New York City’s gay community. His favorite haunts were the Produce Exchange Baths, the Lafayette Baths, and the YMCA. Although he had two pianos at his home, he preferred to practice at the Y so he could meet other men. At the bath houses, he not only found lovers, but also like-minded friends who helped encourage his music career and find him lodgings. In his later years, he carried on a secret affair with John Meyer, a married New York City policeman.

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After his death, his sister Marguerite destroyed a number of Griffes papers which dealt with his sexuality in order to protect his professional reputation. Despite her best efforts, his surviving diaries have proved invaluable to historians looking to study New York’s gay scene in the early 1900s.

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