Twenty Who Made Their Mark under Thirty: A Historical Look at the Great Gay and Lesbian Prodigies in the Arts

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A historical look back at the great gay and lesbian prodigies in the arts

Gertrude Stein may have been the first artist to pinpoint 30 as the age at which true creativity initially can be expressed. Or, rather, 29. "A person either reaches his 29th birthday, or he does not," she said, meaning that sooner or later an artist sets aside influences and inhibitions and creates something new, a work of art distinctly his or her own. Here are 20 gay and lesbian writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, dancers, and choreographers who met Stein's deadline: They achieved their first success before turning 30.

The original British bad boy

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

The original bad boy of English literature, Marlowe was a brilliant, snide rebel who ran drunk through London pubs claiming that Jesus had sex with his disciple John. "Christ did love him with an extraordinary love," Marlowe insisted. He wrote his first play, Tamburlaine the Great, when he was 23 and created a string of successful tragedies for the Elizabethan stage, including Edward II, which is about the 14th-century British king who was killed in part because he lavished so many royal favors on his boyfriend.

Like Edward II, Marlowe met a bad end as well. He "died swearing," stabbed in a bar brawl, possibly in a fight over the drink tab. But there were rumors of foul play. After all, he'd been a government spy, an atheist, and an accused heretic. Perhaps he was being silenced for remarks like "All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools."

She lit up the City of Light

Colette (1873-1954)

Twenty-four when she wrote her first novel, Claudine at School, Colette originally published under her husband's name, Willy. Claudine sold 40,000 copies in two months. Later she said her marriage was "a morbid thing, akin to the neuroses of puberty, the habit of eating chalk and coal, of drinking mouthwash, of reading dirty books, and sticking pins into the palm of your hand."

After splitting from Willy, Colette became a music-hall performer, hung out with Paris lesbians, and fell in love with a woman named Missy. They were together until Colette married an editor, had a daughter at 40, and wrote her popular novel Cheri. By the time she died, she'd been a wife, lover, mother, actress, writer, and grand officer in the Legion of Honour. She even discovered Audrey Hepburn, whom she picked to star in the stage version of her most famous novel, Gigi. Yet she never forgot that "she had been one of those half-naked dancing girls whose naughty photographs are still preserved in certain albums."

Harlem's renaissance man

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 when he was 24. Suddenly he was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, which was at its height in the late 1920s. The child of a white father and a black mother, Hughes was a mix of French, Indian, and African blood. As a young man he was vague enough about his sexuality to make everyone fall in love with him. He carried on a long (perhaps unconsummated) flirtation with fellow Harlem poet Countee Cullen, who sent Hughes a number of poems, including one titled "To a Brown Boy" with the dedication "For L.H." Still, Hughes was coy about his sexuality throughout his life, though African-American filmmaker Isaac Julien controversially claimed him as a fellow homo, in his 1989 documentary, Looking for Langston.

High society's child

Truman Capote (1924-1984)

"I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm a homosexual. I'm a genius," Capote wrote not long before his death. He died a self-parody, more famous as a celebrity than as the author of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's and the classic nonfiction crime suspense novel In Cold Blood. But Capote was a literary sensation at age 24 with the 1948 publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. …