Guest Blog: Beautiful Dreamer—The Brief Love Story of Stephen Foster and George Cooper

This is a guest blog post by Christopher Hawthorne Moss.

Excerpt from WHERE MY LOVE LIES DREAMING:

Johnny froze. “You never expected… to fall in love?” He felt Frankie chuckle, more than heard him do so. “So does that mean you think differently now?”

Frankie stiffened. He nodded against Johnny’s warm cheek. “I do. Because, mon ange, I love you.”

Johnny stepped back, breaking out of Frankie’s arms. “You what?” He felt a jolt of fear.

Pain filled Frankie’s face. “Is that not wonderful?”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “Men can’t be in love with other men.”

“Have you never heard of Hadrian and Antinous? Alexander and Hephaestion? Achilles and Patroclus? All the others throughout history?”

“They were heathens.” Johnny’s voice had grown cold.

“And you think it was their being heathens that made them love each other?” Frankie turned to face the railing.

“I-I don’t know. I guess I always thought so. Or they just liked to make love with men. Or a man. But it wasn’t real. The only true love is between a man and a woman. The rest is… just sex. Just sinning.” He heard Frankie’s low laugh. “You don’t believe that?” Johnny challenged.

Frankie lifted his head, looking out across the river. “I don’t know. That’s what the priests say. All I know is that when I think of you, my heart sings. It’s a thing of such beauty. It doesn’t feel dirty or sinful. It feels… sublime. I cannot imagine not wanting to be with you, to grow old together, never parted. How can that be sin? That song you sing to me, the one by Stephen Foster, ‘Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming’? Did you think it was about a woman? No. He wrote the music for lyrics written about him by his lover, the poet, George Cooper. I know them both. If a song like that is not about love, then I….” His voice faltered. He slowly turned to look at Johnny. “I had hoped that someday you would feel the same about me.”

Johnny, Johnny, whose feelings had started to soften, felt anger flash through him. “Well, you hoped in vain.” He spun on his heel and started away. He realized abruptly that he had nowhere to go. He was on a riverboat, stranded in the middle of the Mighty Mississippi.

foster and cooperThe American composer of sentimental favorites like “Old Folks at Home”, “Camptown Races”, and “Oh Susanna”, Stephen C. Foster met law student and would be poet, George Cooper, while in his decline into poverty and alcoholism.

The two met in the back room of a Bowery grocery store at which Foster liked to do his drinking.  The twenty year old Cooper came to Foster with a poem he had written he thought would make good lyrics to a Foster song.  The composer read over the poem, then sat down at the piano and created first a melody and then a composition.  The song is one of the most beloved of Fosters works, “Beautiful Dreamer”.

After a life of writing mostly his own lyrics to his melodies, Foster, one of the first professional songwriters in history, proceeded to form a team with Cooper, who later had a long career as a lyricist for many composers.  Foster came called Cooper “the left wing of the song factory”, and the two wrote 21 songs together over the few remaining years of Foster’s life.  His fortunes falling rapidly the composer moved from boarding house to flop house, but on a January day in 1864 he had a little more money than usual and took a room in a hotel.  While there he fell from the bed and cut his neck and head on a broken washbowl.  It was Cooper who was called by the chambermaid who found him, got him to the hospital, wrote to his brother about the accident, and then just a few days later, informed him of Foster’s death.

Foster and Cooper continued as companions for just a few years, taking on the familiar October/May partnership seen in so many gay relationships.  Foster was the mentor, his contribution to Cooper’s successful career as a professional lyricist (whose most enduring hit is “Sweet Genevieve”, a barbershop quartet favorite), while Cooper acted as a caretaker to the older man.  Foster’s alcoholism was too advanced at that point to be reversed, but he experienced a resurgence of productivity and hope.

But were they really a couple?  Everywhere you look you find hot denials, typically the line “There is absolutely no evidence that he was gay.”  One wants to ask, “And exactly what evidence would there be?  Photographs of the two men making love?  Sworn statements?  Court room evidence?”  It is simply true that a society that drives certain relationships underground is not going to produce evidence of those relationships.  Consider Pres. James Buchanan [i] and long time companion William Rufus King, publicly referred to by no lesser a persona as Andrew Jackson as “Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan”.  Whatever the suggestive evidence, it will be denied.  The evidence we might have had was rigorously destroyed.  The two men’s nieces burned every last one of their letters to each other.  Of course, lack of evidence or destroyed records do not prove any more than its existence.  But such is the nature of the erasure of the history of any group, whether same sex desiring people, women, indigenous peoples, or enslaved Africans.  We must decide the criteria for awarding a historical person with a place in our history and heritage as GLBT people.

But does it do a disservice to our brothers and sisters of the past to stretch so many points, such as when Foster’s biography in “The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy” [ii] ponders whether the back room in that Bowery grocery store was a sort of proto gay bar?

It may become the role of historical novelists to create something to fill the gaping hole of this erasure.  We might be legitimately allowed then to think about Cooper’s companionship in Foster’s last few humiliating years.  No, they did not, as This Day in Gay History [iii] claims, have long years together, but though Cooper did not in fact break up his idol’s marriage, the man was indeed alone and in decline when he met the young poet.  Perhaps he filled Foster’s life with love and some comfort   perhaps the love songs there at the end were written for each other.  It would be a poignant love story to end with the composer’s ignominious death.  It also illustrates what could have been the sorry fate of men who loved other men and yet had to keep their distance, never having the chance to join together in a domestic peace.  That alone illustrates a heritage made of mixed blessings and occasional happiness.

WHERE MY LOVE LIES DREAMING by Christopher Hawthorne Moss is available in paperback and ebook formats from Dreamspinner Press and other fine online booksellers.  Learn more at http://www.sshield-wall.com .

Christopher Hawthorne Moss

Christopher Hawthorne Moss wrote his first short story when he was seven and has spent some of the happiest hours of his life fully involved with his colorful, passionate and often humorous characters. Moss spent some time away from fiction, writing content for websites before his first book came out under the name Nan Hawthorne in 1991. He has since become a novelist and is a prolific and popular blogger, the historical fiction editor for the GLBT Bookshelf, where you can find his short stories and thoughtful and expert book reviews. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his husband of over thirty years and four doted upon cats. He owns Shield-wall Productions at http://www.shield-wall.com. He welcomes comment from readers sent to christopherhmoss@gmail.com and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.  


[i] The First Gay President? A Look into the Life and Sexuality of James Buchanan, Jr. [Kindle Edition]

Jim Nikel, http://www.amazon.com/First-President-Sexuality-Buchanan-ebook/dp/B004TMLOCI

[ii] “The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy:

A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era

Edited by Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, Robert A. Schanke

http://books.google.com/books?id=f0fbSlGN8uUC&dq=was+stephen+foster+gay&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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1 Comment

Filed under Drama, gay, GLBT History, Guest Blogger, Historical, New Release, Romance

One response to “Guest Blog: Beautiful Dreamer—The Brief Love Story of Stephen Foster and George Cooper

  1. Skylar

    Nice story on Foster and Cooper. Thanks for sharing it!

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