LIFE, LOVE AND LAUGHS

Cris Alexan­der and Shaun O’Brien.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

Shaun O’Brien was a famed dancer with the New York City Bal­let. Cris Alexan­der was a por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher. But their great­est ac­com­plish­ment was the fairy tale they lived to­gether – and their hi­lar­i­ous photo projects and crazy dress-up par­ties!

Epic love sto­ries have been around since the dawn of civ­i­liza­tion. Epic gay love sto­ries are harder to find, but they have been hid­ing in plain sight for just as long and some­times they end with hap­pily ever af­ter. Cris Alexan­der and Shaun O’Brien are one such story.

Born in Tulsa, Okalhoma, in 1920, Allen Smith changed his name to Cris Alexan­der and fled the heart­land for the big city at 18-years-old. He had al­ways taken pho­tos and shortly af­ter ar­rival opened a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio on 57th Street while pur­su­ing his dreams upon the stage. In 1944, Alexan­der landed a lead in the musical On The Town as Chip, a naïve sailor with 24-hour shore leave in New York City. On The Town was also the Broad­way de­but of its now leg­endary com­poser, Leonard Bern­stein; writ­ers Betty Com­den and Adolph Green; and chore­og­ra­pher Jerome Robbins.

Years later, he joined the same team with a role in Won­der­ful Town, where he be­came life-long friends with its star, Ros­alind Rus­sell, and later with Carol Chan­ning. Alexan­der would go on to share the stage with Rus­sell in the en­dur­ing clas­sic, Aun­tie Mame. In the gay-favourite 1958 film, he has a walk-on role as Mr Loomis, a man­ager at Macy’s who fires Mame when she doesn’t know how to per­form a cash trans­ac­tion.

How­ever, “I would have got­ten very hun­gry if I had just been an ac­tor,” Alexan­der said in 1980. Pho­tog­ra­phy paid the bills and his more fa­mous por­trait sub­jects in­clude Vivien Leigh, Mother Teresa, Ethel Mer­man, Martha Gra­ham and even an ado­les­cent An­der­son Cooper. He put on gallery shows and worked for Andy Warhol’s In­ter­view magazine from 1980 to 1986. Alexan­der was also the New York City Bal­let Com­pany’s of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, for he was the life part­ner of one of its cel­e­brated crown jewels: Shaun O’Brien.

Shaun had also changed his name, hav­ing been born John O’Brien in Bay Ridge, Brook­lyn, in 1925. His par­ents wanted him to pur­sue a more suit­able pro­fes­sion, but as a teenager he had re­solved to pur­sue dance. He stud­ied at the School Of Amer­i­can Bal­let and in the 1940s danced on Broad­way in sev­eral musicals be­fore join­ing Ge­orge Balan­chine’s newly cre­ated New York City Bal­let in 1949. He would dance with the best in the busi­ness and stay with the com­pany for an as­tound­ing 42 years. Re­tir­ing only in 1991 at the age of 65, O’Brien owed his un­heard-of longevity to the fact he started very early on as a char­ac­ter dancer. In­stead of pur­su­ing ro­man­tic leads and princes, he took on sor­cer­ers and ec­centrics, im­bu­ing these roles with emo­tional in­sight and de­tail to be­come one of the most ac­claimed act­ing dancers upon the stage. O’Brien spent more than 30 sea­sons as Herr Drosselmey­er, the kindly old man who sets The Nutcracker in ac­tion, and orig­i­nated both Le­an­dre in the com­me­dia dell’arte-in­spired Har­lequinade and the twisted toy­maker Dr Cop­pelius in Cop­pelia.

By 1950, O’Brien had met and fallen in love with Cris Alexan­der. The two lived openly to­gether in a top floor apart­ment on 61st Street and gave elab­o­rate mas­quer­ade par­ties, with Alexan­der tak­ing out­landish pic­tures of their friends. Upon see­ing these im­ages, Pa­trick Den­nis, the cel­e­brated au­thor of Aun­tie Mame (him­self gay but mar­ried with chil­dren), told Alexan­der “these are your real work,” and sug­gested they col­lab­o­rate on a satir­i­cal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of some­one who never was. The re­sult was the 1961 best­seller, Lit­tle Me: The In­ti­mate Mem­oirs Of That Great Star Of Stage, Screen And Tele­vi­sion, Belle Poitrine, which fea­tured more than 150 droll pho­to­graphs by Alexan­der. Belle Poitrine (which means Beau­ti­ful Bo­som in French) was in­vented as a Z-grade ac­tress with delu­sions of grandeur (her films in­clude Pa­paya Par­adise, Sodom and its se­quel Go­mor­rah) and her tell-all “con­fes­sional” mocked the pop­u­lar movie star au­to­bi­ogra­phies of the era and paved the way for the mock­u­men­taries of to­day. Alexan­der’s elab­o­rately set-up pho­to­graphs (in­clud­ing Shaun O’Brien pos­ing as Mr Mus­grove – one of Belle’s eight lovers as she claws her way to the bot­tom) com­ple­ment the story per­fectly, and with Lit­tle Me he helped usher the very gay sen­si­bil­ity known as “camp” to the main­stream.

Sara­sota Springs, in up­state New York, is the City Bal­let’s sum­mer home and in 1966, O’Brien danced the open­ing sea­son. The cou­ple fell in love with the area and, in 1973, bought a Vic­to­rian home there. Af­ter O’Brien re­tired from bal­let, Alexan­der sold his pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio and the two moved per­ma­nently to Sara­sota Springs in 1993 where they were ac­tive mem­bers of the artis­tic com­mu­nity and hosted ice cream so­cials at their home ev­ery Fri­day af­ter­noon at 4:30.

In a 1995 in­ter­view about his life and times, Alexan­der is quoted as say­ing, “I have been very close to some of the most won­der­ful peo­ple who ever have lived in our time. Our life is just the great­est life imag­in­able.” In 2011, when same-sex mar­riage be­came le­gal in New York, the cou­ple were fi­nally mar­ried af­ter hav­ing spent 61 years of a life­time to­gether.

On Fe­bru­ary 23, 2012, 86-year-old Shaun O’Brien died of nat­u­ral causes with his hus­band by his side. Less than two weeks later, 92-year-old Cris Alexan­der fol­lowed him. “If there is a cause of death, it’s a bro­ken heart,” his friend Jane Klain told the New York Times. “It’s as sim­ple as that.”

Shaun and Cris (far right) in drag in one of their home­made Christ­mas cards.

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