In 1969, as the Stonewall riots erupted just blocks from the Greenwich Village brownstone he shared with his longtime partner, James Beard kept quiet. There was an uprising in the streets, but the Dean of American Cookery, whose sexuality was an open secret in the New York publishing world, did not join them.
“At 66, with his neighborhood, and the world, changed literally overnight, James was terrified of coming out, of shaking off the fiction of perpetual bachelorhood,” John Birdsall writes in his new biography “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard” (W.W. Norton & Company), out Oct. 6. “Queer men and women of James’ generation in the village had everything to lose and weren’t convinced they had anything to gain.”
The famed gourmand lived a double life of sorts, posing as a sort of sexless uncle to educate Americans about food and pleasure in his dozens of cookbooks, all the while concealing his own desires, Birdsall writes.
With his fourth book, 1949’s “The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert,” Beard jettisoned his flamboyance and honed his signature persona of an eccentric epicurean professor, which appealed to post-war Americans and their strict gender norms. “It was no time to be anything but a sexless bachelor with a crisp, professional voice,” Birdsall writes.
Beard was born in Portland, Ore., in 1903. His mother, Elizabeth, was 42 at the time, a fiercely independent boardinghouse owner who had married Beard’s father, John, for the sole purpose of having a child. Beard’s upbringing was short on love and connection, but rich in food.
When he was 3 and a half, he was stricken with malaria in the middle of a summer heat wave. Every afternoon for nearly two weeks, the Beard family’s Chinese-born cook Jue Let patiently spoon-fed him a soothing, cool chicken broth while cradling his head. It was “the first act of tenderness James would remember, and the one that would stay with him for the rest of his life,” Birdsall writes.
Beard started Reed College in 1920 and initially thrived at the iconoclastic school, studying theater and opera. But before the end of his freshman year, he was promptly and quietly expelled after being caught in a sexual act with a male professor.
The incident was scarring and “dictated the way he expressed his queerness for the next 60-plus years, until his death in 1985,” Birdsall writes. Beard returned to live in his mother’s house, depressed and aimless, for nearly two years. Elizabeth was somewhat sympathetic to her son’s indiscretion; she herself was queer and had fallen in love with a female friend in her youth, Birdsall writes.
At age 20, Beard sailed to London, where he could stay with an uncle while he tried to pursue a career in theater. But his big audition for the Royal Academy of Music went horribly and he was rejected from the program. Dejected, he headed to the Ritz for a drink. A writer by the name of Helen Dircks noticed the lost American boy at the bar and invited him to join her. She soon brought him into her bohemian social circle in Soho, which included many queer men. She also taught him to order a proper martini and took him to chic restaurants where they ate souffles flambeed tableside and topped with brandied cherries. “Under Helen’s wing, James came to adore London,” Birdsall writes. “In James’s eye, Soho was nothing short of magical.”
After six months in London, Beard spent a few weeks in Paris, where he tasted caviar with blinis for the first time, enjoyed beautiful eclairs and had a short-lived affair with a prizefighter he met on the street. His time abroad “unlocked for him a whole world of sensuality,” Birdsall says.
Arriving at New York’s Chelsea Piers in September 1923, Beard was eager to find his place in the city, but it took more than a decade to truly happen. In 1938, he met and moved in with James Barlow Cullum Jr., a gay divorcé who came from iron and steel money and had a large apartment on Washington Place.
By then, Beard had gained a reputation as being “fabulous” at organizing get-togethers — “friends would ask him to manage the cocktails and edible tidbits at their dos” — and Cullum was looking to have parties — lots of them.
“For affluent gay men in New York City” at the time, “private cocktail gatherings — apartment parties — were their primary points of contact. Some men hosted nearly every evening at 5: drop-in gatherings with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, where consequential men like Cullum could mingle with handsome young newcomers,” Birdsall writes.
In 1939, Beard launched a catering business called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. with Bill Rhode, a handsome cookbook author from an aristocratic Berlin family. Rhode wasn’t gay, but he knew how to use his charms to get business. At that point “the food at most cocktail parties relied on cheap, starchy fillers and bland spreads,” Birdsall writes. “Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. would bring an epicurean sensibility to parties, a worldly inventiveness equal to the cooking at New York’s finest hotels.”
The following year, Beard met Hub Olsen, an editor at Barrows and Company, looking to publish service-y books on the cheap. “Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapes, with a Key to the Cocktail Party,” was published in October 1940, the first of dozens of Beard cookbooks.
In 1946, James made his TV debut with a regular cooking segment on NBC’s “Radio City Matinee.” With it, Birdsall says, he “really picked up an identity.” While the gourmet food movement had been happening in the US for more than a decade, thanks, in part, to food writer MFK Fisher, Beard democratized it. He didn’t just tell well-off people to buy good food and wine, but rather, he had a message that “however much money you have, you really can eat better, if you look at food in a different way,” Birdsall says.
James was terrified of coming out, of shaking off the fiction of perpetual bachelorhood.
– biographer John Birdsall
In 1959, “The James Beard Cookbook,” a comprehensive tome that took four years to write, was released. In an unconventional move for the time, it featured Beard’s picture on the cover. By then, Beard was 55 years old, rotund, with a double chin and eyes that “nearly disappear[ed] into skin folds and smile creases,” Birdsall writes. “Seen by a nation that scrambled to buy the latest fad diet book, James’ obvious love of eating was an argument for pleasure. It was an irresistible cover.”
One of the main tenets of the book was “buy good food, and buy often,” which challenged Americans’ obsession with convenience. The book was a huge success, selling more than 150,000 paperback copies in its first year.
Beard was generous with his fame. In 1961, he met Julia Child and he went on to help promote her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” introducing Child to people in his orbit. “They were both in their way oddballs,” Birdsall writes. But while they became good friends, Beard was also envious of Child’s success. She went on to have a lucrative television career, something that eluded Beard, who would always struggle with financing his lavish lifestyle. And Child never had to hide a part of herself the way he did.
Though Beard’s personality never translated that well on TV, he was a natural in the classroom, launching a cooking school in 1955 that would go on for decades. In 1972, he published another seminal work, “James Beard’s American Cookery.” At a time when good food meant European fare, Beard “argued that a distinct American cuisine existed.” The book contained regional recipes, like one for a Texas lemon cake from a gay friend of Beard’s who had moved from the country to New York City.
As such, it was also “a kind of secret record of 20th century gay migration to cities from across the country” that was both celebratory and had an underlying sadness, Birdsall writes. Throughout his life, Beard struggled with depression and loneliness, even after he found a longtime partner in Italian architect Gino Cofacci in 1956. The two lived together in Greenwich Village for decades, but they had a complex, open relationship, often jetsetting about for extended stretches on their own.
In 1985, after decades of health issues and hospitalizations, Beard passed away at 81 from cardiac arrest. As he was taken away in the ambulance, he turned to his longtime house steward, Clay, and said, “I know I’m not ever coming back, nobody would believe it if they knew.” (He left his money to Reed College, which had made amends in 1976 by giving Beard an honorary degree.)
The year after his death, a former student launched a foundation in his honor, purchasing his West 12th Street residence and turning it into the James Beard House, a center for culinary programming and education. Since 1990, the foundation has also given out the annual James Beard Award to chefs and restaurants.
While Beard had quite an ego, it’s not clear what he would have made of being enshrined in such a way, Birdsall argues.
“At the end of his life,” he says, “he really just wanted to disappear.”
But nothing could suppress Beard’s lasting legacy on how we eat now.
“If you live in the United States and believe in local food, rely on farmers’ markets and produce stands to supply flavor and seasonal delight to your cooking; if you take for granted access to milk, butter and cheese produced in human-scale lots, bakers who employ patience and their hands, and American wines expressive of soil and tradition, you owe a debt to James Beard,” Birdsall concludes.