Wednesday, February 27, 2013

NYT Obit Notes Pianist Van Cliburn's 'Live-In Friend' (UPDATED)


Noted pianist Van Cliburn died this morning in Fort Worth, Texas, and my friend Jim has already performed an autopsy on his NYT obit:
The New York Times doesn't seem to know what to do with pianist Van Cliburn's live-in friend, Thomas Smith. Van Cliburn died today at 78, and the NYT's obituary says in the second paragraph: "His publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, confirmed the death, saying that Mr. Cliburn had been treated for bone cancer and that he died at his home, which he shared with Thomas L. Smith, who survives him." 
Smith is never mentioned again in the entire obit. A Google search finds other obituaries describing Smith as Van Cliburn's long-time "companion" or "friend." Was the pianist gay? In Wikipedia, his personal life section says only: "In 1998, Cliburn was named in a lawsuit by his alleged domestic partner of seventeen years, mortician Thomas Zaremba."
The obit does later mention the palimony suit and references his homosexuality -- from discreet to less so. But it NEVER mentions Smith again. I'd have thought after the whole Susan Sontag incident -- and in the midst of the marriage equality revolution -- the New York Times would have gotten this right. Were we expecting too much? I'm pretty sure the Gray Lady generally doesn't list "friends" as survivors.

UPDATE: Not sure why I have gotten flak about why I -- or Jim, really -- questioned this at all. (It was always about the paper, not about Cliburn.) Equality is equality, so we just thought it was odd how the Times seemed to be struggling with how to identify Cliburn's partner. Perhaps Smith DID want to be called a "home sharer"(!), but somehow I doubt it. Whatever the case, the Times HAS rewritten the obituary to make it more in line with how other survivors of the deceased are noted -- moving Smith to the end of the obituary instead of at the top -- which leads me to believe we were on to something. The third-to-last graf now reads:
 He is survived by Thomas L. Smith, with whom he shared his home for many years.
The part about "sharing his home" still strikes me as odd -- don't all couples tend to "share homes"? -- and Smith is still only mentioned the once. But I do think it's an improvement.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know what was wrong about the way the obit was written. The obit doesn't shy away from mentioning his orientation. But given that Mr. Cliburn seems to have been intentionally discreet about his relationships (unlike Susan Sontag), anything beyond what was written would have been supposition on the part of the NYT regarding the relationship with Mr. Smith. Did they considered themselves husbands, lovers, partners? It is likely at least one of those fits, but they apparently have never said publicly.

swine said...

Seems like a respectful obit, Kenny. What's ur beef? The right terms to use? We don't know the answer to that either, do we? Maybe his partner requested to be referred to as his friend. I think it's kinda sweet.

They focused more on his professional life than his personal life. So what? At least they didn't avoid it.

Total Cunt said...

Seriously? Van Cliburn came from a different generation, with an entirely different take on homosexuality. Besides that, he was an icon, which is more than I can say for you. Let the man rest in peace.

Jim Hopkins said...

Since I kicked this off, let me add:

The NYT may have been guided by Van Cliburn's publicist in how to characterize his relationship with Smith; we don't know.

Still, I've read a lot of NYT obits, and I've never seen phrasing quite like this. My original observation was directed at the newspaper -- not as criticism of how Van Cliburn wanted to be remembered.

MC said...

Not beat an actual dead horse, but I live in Fort Worth and have been involved with the arts community which has always been supported by van cliburn. From my understanding of those close to him, he was always "gay" but chose to stay closeted. Kinda like Liberace, he lived in a fabulously sumptuous closet. He was a devoted mama's boy who wouldn't do anything to make her upset. So, I'm not surprised he never "came out." My sister spoke to him just last week at TCU. Always a very nice man.
Just thought I'd pass my thoughts along. Always love the blog.

Steve Reed said...

I think the issue with Sontag, if my memory serves, is that the Times COMPLETELY failed to mention her partnership with Annie Leibovitz. At least in this case Cliburn's partner is mentioned. I think calling him a "live-in friend" is just a generational thing -- my guess is that's how he wanted to be referenced. It was clear to me what that meant.

Mike in Asheville said...

Sorry Kenneth and Jim, but neither Cliburn nor Smith made any kind public ado about themselves and their relationship.

Fun aside -- now almost a half-century ago (fuck I'm getting old), when Cliburn came to our town for a performance, my parents hosted a pre-performance cocktail party and he played 2 short numbers on our piano. I remember how tall and skinny he was, and the music was magic.

Anonymous said...

People are allowed to present themselves to the world how they want. Maybe this is how Cliburn wanted the world to know about "home sharing" with another man. Just because someone is gay it is their business and not anyone elses. I really hate how gay people feel that everyone who is gay should come out and be proud of who they are and throw it in everyones face. I am gay and I feel it is my business and mine alone, and I dont owe anyone anything or any explanations. The people I care about the most know who I love and about my lifestyle, and thats all that needs to know, period. Maybe thats how Cliburn wanted it as well.

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