LIFE, LOVE AND LAUGHS
Cris Alexander and Shaun O’Brien.
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.