Was Danny Kaye gay?

  • by John F. Karr
  • Monday December 23, 2013
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The arrival of three Danny Kaye movies on Blu-ray brings us some pleasure, and prompts us to reassess an old rumor. Was he gay?

Kaye doesn't register much of a blip on the current cultural consciousness. But he was once an immensely popular star of comic film and musicals, with his name above the title in well over a dozen films. Attesting to his former popularity, they're all available on DVD. And now there are these Blu-ray discs, including one that's spiffy top-drawer.

On the Riviera was a French stage hit and then two film musicals before Kaye's 1951 remake. Kaye plays a music-hall star who's entangled in impersonating a French financier. It's a lively affair as Kaye romances his own girlfriend as well as the other guy's wife – a very French set-up. The five songs are hot; the movie's special gift is that four of them are splashy production numbers choreographed by tres gay Jack Cole, featuring a young and snappy-looking Gwen Verdon, uncredited but front-and-center right next to Kaye. The disc's bonus features are generous (bios of both Kaye and Cole), and its Blu-ray mastering jazzes up the vivid 1950s Technicolor.

The other two Blu-ray issues are no-frills in the bonus department, but they're decently remastered. I laughed through On the Double (1961), a wacky WWII comedy with Kaye in another dual role, as a timid private called to impersonate a famous British Colonel who's in the crosshairs of a Nazi assassination plot. There's an incidental couple of songs, and Margaret Rutherford's got a wacky cameo.

Knock on Wood (1953) didn't knock me out, despite the sure-fire comic routine in its finale of Kaye's getting caught in the middle of a Russian ballet troupe's performance. Danny whips through disguises in an overly complicated international-espionage caper that makes every effort to be entertaining, but is finally just effortful.

Kaye's career was launched when he played a flamboyant queen in the 1941 Broadway hit Lady in the Dark – a role that probably also launched those gay rumors. In the following discussion, I'm relying heavily on the comments of Michael Bronski, who spent considerable time on Kaye while researching the connections between gay and Jewish cultures in the 1950s (Google Bronski, "On the Double: The Hidden (Queer and Jewish) Career of Danny Kaye").

People looking for Kaye to be gay cite from a long list. He was a slightly effeminate blond man with fluttery hands and a silly grin. He was, as one writer has it, "pretty far from John Wayne on the masculinity spectrum." He sang some incredibly campy songs, like "Anatole of Paris," about a mad-queen hat designer who "shrieks with chic"; and "The Fairy Pipers," with Kaye extravagantly queening up a not-so-subtle subtext. He was coolly rote when playing heterosexual love scenes; he often camouflaged himself within drag, disguises, and dual roles.

And then along came Donald Spoto's bio, which claimed as fact a Kaye affair with Sir Lawrence Olivier. Spoto has Olivier's then-current wife, Dame Joan Plowright, blurting out the secret when she tired of being blamed for ending Olivier's marriage to Vivien Leigh. "'No, no,' she averred. 'Not guilty. Danny Kaye was on the scene long before I came along.'"

Dame Joan's quip is funny, but came without proof. A second Kaye biographer, Martin Gottfried, not only finds no evidence to back up any rumors, but provides definite verification of Kaye's affairs with Eve Arden and Shirley MacLaine. And the roles he played prove nothing to me. No one claims Peter Sellers or Robin Williams are gay, and they've both been fey, done drag, and donned disguises. These are simply the stock-in-trade of comedians.

Michael Bronski differs with me, writing, "I think that this doubling allows Kaye to be 'Kaye,' and by presenting alternate versions of his character, takes away some of the obvious queerness of what he is doing. It's a clever narrative device to make him more acceptable. I think it is also possible now to look at the films and see in Kaye's characters a split between gay and straight, or closeted and uncloseted."

Summing up, Bronski asks rhetorically, "Is Danny Kaye part of gay history? Of course he is, whether he slept with men or not. (And I think there is more than enough evidence to suggest that he did.) Kaye looks and sounds like a gay man. At a very critical and conservative time in U.S. history and culture, he gave us this very flamboyant style and performances that made it all right, to some degree, to be not-traditionally masculine."

But sociological effect is not a confirmation, and once again, Bronski's "evidence" is not cited. Sure, you can read gay coding in Kaye's tea leaves; one can find most anywhere the facts one wants to find. I can't be so sure that Kaye was gay. But I'm glad that in the old-fashioned terms of mirth and frivolity, Kaye's talent ensured his audiences felt gay.