Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Many 20th-century writers and artists found Virginia City a pleasant refuge. An August 1949 book signing in the Delta Saloon featured, left to right, Duncan Emrich, Walter Van Tilburg Clark (kneeling), Roger Butterfield, Irene Bruce, Charles Clegg, Marian Emrich, and Lucius Beebe.
by Michael L. Grace

Zip! Toscanini leads the greatest of bands.
Zip! Jergens Lotion does the trick for his hands.
Zip! Rip Van Winkle on the screen would be smart.
Zip! Tyrone Power will be cast in the part.
I adore the great Confucius,
And the lines of luscious Lucius.

“Zip” lyrics by Lorenz Hart
from Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey”

Lucius Beebe was a self-described hedonist.

From the 1930s until his death in 1966, he was the image of celebrity. An author, journalist, historian, raconteur, gourmet and bon vivant extraordinary – this extraordinary personality was one of the first gay men to have an publicly open relationship.

Columnist Walter Winchell called him "Luscious Lucius." Beebe is perhaps best known for having coined the term "Cafe Society," a group of which he was undoubtedly a member. A columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune in the '30s and '40s, he was elegantly turned out and very decadent for a journalist. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers read him every morning.

Beebe made the cover of Life magazine, owned a newspaper, private railway cars and is memorialized in the musical number by Rodgers and Hart.
Socialite Lucius Beebe (r.) drinking champagne in the Opera Club on opening night of the Metropolitan Opera in 1946.
Lucius Morris Beebe (Dec. 9, 1902 – Feb. 4, 1966) was born into a wealthy Boston mercantile and banking family and, flying in the face of a hopelessly proletarian 20th Century, he lived his life in the opulence and splendor of an earlier age.

As an undergraduate at both Harvard and Yale, he was both an outstanding student and a rake-hell of formidable accomplishment. It was his custom, classmates recalled, to appear for class Monday morning in full evening dress, wearing a monocle and carrying a gold-headed cane. He also had a roulette wheel and a fully equipped bar in his room.

At the same time, he earned distinction as an undergraduate poet and won his Master’s degree with a thesis on the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Two of the world's most famous gems, the Hope diamond and Star of East, worn by Evalyn Walsh McLean when she appeared at El Morocco on the arm of Lucius Beebe, writer and bon vivant. Lucius Beebe (c.) drinking champagne during intermission of opening night at the opera in 1946. Clegg's back is to Beebe's left.
But he did not burst into full bloom as a bona fide celebrity until he joined the staff of the New York Herald-Tribune in 1929, whose staff at the time was graced with Franklin P. Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfa Johnson, Walter Lippmann, Mark Sullivan and Joseph Alsop.

The “outrageous majesty of his appearance,” as Wollcott Gibbs recalled it, proved something of a disadvantage in interview with less resplendent subjects. Once, said Gibbs, the young Beebe covered a “negligible fire in a morning coat, and a tedious dinner of the New York Landscape Gardening society in top hat and tails.”

Beebe, the journalist, was first a presence, next the author of a column with almost staggering snobbishness and peculiar charm. His interests were people who did things, individuals with flash, not the leftover society types from the turn of the last century. He was much more attracted to an evening with Libby Holman (whom he adored) than being bored by people who just were rich with no talents or wit or personal accomplishments. When Holman was accused of murdering her husband Smith Reynolds -- heir to the R. J. Reynold’s Tobacco fortune -- Beebe was a major defender of her innocence.
Clockwise from top left: Society scribe Lucius Beebe and Maury Paul (Cholly Knickerbocker) clubbing; Beebe on the cover of Life Magazine in 1939. He was featured in major story called "Lucious Beebe Sets A Style"; Beebe with his lifelong partner Charles Clegg at opera. There was no doubting that Beebe didn't care what people thought regarding his very open relationship with Clegg. If anyone dared say anything, Beebe, with his big bucks, could tell them to "go to hell."
His column, “This New York,” first appeared in June of 1934. In it Beebe purported to relate the adventures of the denizens of what he coined as “café society.” There were, he estimated, only 500 persons in the entire world who qualified.

But the column, replete with such items as "Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt’s butler is reported to have been dismissed for saying, ‘O.K., Madam ...'" was read by thousands.

Beebe was indulgent to the point of setting records. He was a champion of the noontime martini. The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room (men only) was a perfect haunt for his lunch dates. For dinner, he would dine at The Colony, “21,” Quo Vadis, Sardi's, Le Pavillon, Baroque, or Luchow's. Sumptuous entrees accompanied by more martinis (Gin of course), bottles of Grands Echezeaux Burgundy from Romanee-Conti and Dom Perignon 1947 were the bill of fare.
Beebe in street clothes taking photos of trains. He was the ultimate railway fan. He took thousands of photos. His books on railroading in the United States are probably the cornerstone of scholarly texts regarding the history of America's passenger trains. Beebe became the "Dude" of Virginia City, Nevada in a major Holiday Magazine feature on the Wild West.
Clubbing at El Morocco or The Stork Club would follow an opening of the Metropolitan Opera. He’d wrap up this all night program by devouring a bowl of Texas Chili at some local Broadway coffee shop with the likes of Noel Coward and Miss Holman. Then he would be off to write his column.

Beebe was fond of custom suits from Savile Row’s Henry Poole, thick gold watch chains, and derby hats. His love of fine food, cigars, and liquor ultimately led to five kidney-stone operations, which he considered a small price to pay for the good life. For some reason, he favored Gibson’s over Martinis at Sardi's. And at Luchow's it was tall steins of dark Würzburger Hofbräu all the way. Twelve of them!

But it was not all fun for Beebe. He was a very disciplined writer and workaholic. His railway history books are encyclopedic and he wrote dozens. His books on Western history are detailed and he scribed everything from The Stork Club Bar Book to books chronicling the history of a social America. He was featured regularly in Holiday magazine where he profiled diverse topics such as the Pump Room in Chicago to the Santa Fe Super Chief to the great hotels of New York to the last narrow gauge passenger train in Colorado.
Beebe (l.) playing the match game at a bar frequented by the staff from the New York Herald-Tribune. Beebe was foremost a newspaper man. Though Beebe thought of formal clothes “quite literally as the livery of my profession,” he disingenuously complained that “Walter Winchell and other scoundrels” had so unfairly pegged him as “a dude among the legmen, a penny-a-liner of vast and effulgent sartorial resource” that it “became necessary for him to lay in a stock of tail-coats, Inverness cloaks, and collapsible top hats to live up to the legend.”
His column in the San Francisco Chronicle was unrelenting against the Vietnam War and he joined muckraker Jessica Mitford in lambasting the gouging funeral industry. He covered everyone and everything and nothing was out of bounds for his knife like pen.

The following is a quote from his column (on aging): "High blood pressure, cheeriness at breakfast, a mellowing political philosophy and an inability to drink more than half a bottle of proof spirits at cocktail time without falling over the fire irons all suggest dark wings hovering overhead and the impending midnight crank of the raven."

In 1940, Beebe came to Nevada to review the premier of the film, Virginia City, starring Errol Flynn. Beebe saw the movie at Piper's Opera House and despised it, but he fell in love with the historic mining town.

The same year, Beebe met Charles Clegg while both were houseguests at the Washington, D.C. home of Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the fabled Hope Diamond.
Clegg and Beebe in the dining salon of their private railway car VIRGINIA CITY.
Beebe and Clegg soon developed a personal and professional relationship that continued for the rest of Beebe's life. Clegg was an athletic young man with his own sense of style. He joined the Navy during World War II, but the two men maintained their relationship.

By the standards of the era, the homosexual relationship Beebe and Clegg shared was relatively open and well known. Beebe always called Clegg his “partner” and could be credited with coining the term now so prominently used when referring to gay relationships. Previously, Beebe had been involved with society photographer Jerome Zerbe. But it was Clegg who became his long-time companion, friend and business associate.

In 1949, Beebe tired of the social world he literally invented in New York, moved with Clegg into the old Piper mansion in far, far away Virginia City, Nevada. He bought the Territorial Enterprise, once made famous by Mark Twain, but then moribund. He traded his top hat for a Stetson.
Beebe is headed for the San Francisco Opera. He's seen looking very chic in the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel. The photo appeared in Holiday Magazine. Beebe was a major contributor to Holiday and appeared frequently in the popular magazine. Holiday, especially during the 1940s through 1950s, was a society combined travel magazine. Beebe ready board his first private railway car "The Gold Coast".
With Clegg, he revived the paper with a flourish that often left Nevadans in a state of bewilderment. The paper had over six thousand subscribers and became one of the more prestigious weeklies in the nation. Authors such as Bernard DeVoto and Walter Van Tilburg Clark contributed regularly.

The editorial policy, as one reader explained it, was “pro-prostitution, pro-alcohol, pro-private-railroad cars-for-the-few and fearlessly anti-poor folks, anti-progress, anti-religion, anti-union, anti-diet, anti-vivisection and anti-prepared breakfast food.” He fought efforts to move a brothel away from a school with the slogan, “Don’t move the girls; move the school.”

Although they lived in a small, rural, conservative community, Beebe and Clegg did nothing to conceal their homosexuality. Nevertheless, oral histories note that while most residents disapproved of a gay lifestyle, they chose to overlook it, in part because the men were improving the community. In addition, Comstockers were perhaps following a western tradition of minding one's own business. It also helped that Beebe bought the town a new fire engine.
Beebe pours Clegg a drink in the lounge area of THE GOLD COAST - their first private railway car. Beebe ready for a stroll from London's Ritz Hotel to luncheon with Noel Coward.
Beebe took time off from these exhausting encounters to travel the country by private railroad car with his 185-pound St. Bernard, T-Bone Towser. With Clegg, he owned two private Pullmans: The Gold Coast and the Virginia City.

Robert Hanley, a Hollywood set designer (“Auntie Mame”) and friend of Clegg’s, was hired to redecorate both car's interior into the style now referred to as "Venetian Renaissance Baroque."

Hanley purchased approximately over a half million dollars in antique furnishings. The first car, The Gold Coast, is now on permanent display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, and the second, Virginia City, is available for private charter. Both cars became the most lavish and expensively outfitted private railway cars in the United States – the equivalent of today’s private jet but far more opulent.
Charles Clegg standing at the working fireplace of THE VIRGINIA CITY. Clegg and Beebe were visiting Miami in the 1950s on one of their many cross-country train trips. They both made many trips by regular first class Pullman service. They traveled aboard every name train in America - from the 20th Century Ltd., Broadway Ltd., Merchant's Ltd., Panama Ltd., Super Chief, Chief, Overland Ltd., Prospector, City of Portland, Empire Builder and 100s more. The trains became the subject for dozens of railway history books. In his all-butane galley aboard THE VIRGINIA CITY, Chef Hazzie Wallace of the Southern Pacific dining car pool consults about the day's menu with Mr. T-Bone Tower, the 185-pound St. Bernard who called Beebe's private car his home. The porter and chef aboard Beebe's private cars were staffed from the best of Southern Pacific employees. The cost of traveling by the private Pullman cars was astronomical in 1950s. There were only a few still operating privately.
Between 1955 and the time of Beebe's death in 1966, Virginia City routinely made cross country trips to various destinations including Miami, New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Denver. With a railroad car of such gaudy splendor, Beebe admitted that his travels with Clegg often prompted locals to “think we’re with a circus. The freaks, probably. It happens everywhere we go.”

The Virginia City had a 23-foot observation-drawing room, a dining room where 8 guests could dine as if at the Waldorf, a 50-bottle wine cellar, 3 staterooms, that small Turkish bath, and quarters for two staff. When the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, a friend of Beebe’s, first saw the Virginia City’s baroque interior, he supposedly said, "Tell the Madame I'll have a drink, but I'm too old to go upstairs."

In 1960, Beebe and Clegg sold the Territorial Enterprise and moved to San Francisco. And that same year, Beebe began his column, “This Wild West,” for The San Francisco Chronicle.
The observation drawing room of Beebe's THE VIRGINIA CITY. Richly decorated furnishings imported from Venice, Italy, and other European cities, included two Murano glass chandeliers. Between them is a painted reproduction from the Sistine Chapel. A solid marble gas log fireplace worked en-route. Atop the fireplace are two cornices which were originally from a 14th Century altar in Spain, and above that hangs a mirror which dates back to the late 18th century.
Always prolific, Beebe found time to write some 35 books, many of them in collaboration with Clegg.

When Beebe died, his obituary was a front-page story in the Chronicle. It began:

“Lucius Beebe, who was larger than life, is dead. The famous author suffered a heart attack shortly after his ritual morning Turkish bath in his Hillsborough winter home yesterday.”

Herb Caen, in his column, quoted Beebe’s take on his life: “I admire most of all The Renaissance Man, and if it can be said without pretentiousness, I like to think of myself as one, at least in some small measure. Not a Michelangelo, mark you, but perhaps a poor man's Cellini or a road company Cosimo de' Medici ... the Renaissance Man did a number of things, many of them well, a few beautifully. He was no damned specialist.”

Clegg lived until 1979, but both men died at sixty-three.
Michael L. Grace is a writer living in Pasadena, California. His website cruisingthepast.com covers travel and social history.

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