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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Brian  Epstein

Brian Epstein 1934to –1967

English music entrepreneur, and manager of the Beatles. His Jewish family had been selling furniture in Liverpool for years, which later expanded to appliances, and then music under the name NEMS. Epstein at first wanted to become an actor, and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but he eventually returned to the family business. It was while managing NEMS that he first heard of the Beatles, who had been featured on the cover of a local music publication sold in his store. In November 1961, he arranged to see their performance at the local Cavern Club, and was immediately impressed by their music and charm. He became the Beatles’ manager shortly after, making what seemed like an outrageous claim that they were going to be “bigger than Elvis.” His first order of business was refining their image: he exchanged their leather jackets and jeans for clean-cut suits, and discouraged their habits of smoking, drinking, and swearing on stage. He then went searching for a record deal, but was repeatedly turned away, before finally convincing George Martin at EMI, who was swayed largely by Epstein’s enthusiasm. His final hurdle was the uncomfortable task of firing drummer Pete Best, later to be replaced with the more skilled Ringo Starr. With all the pieces in place, the Beatles quickly shot to worldwide fame. They remained the most important musical artists of the 60s, and throughout this time, the Beatles trusted Epstein unconditionally—sometimes to their detriment. They had a habit of signing contracts unread, and lost a lot of the rights to their merchandizing and songs as a result. But Epstein kept them united and focused, and he was treated like family. The Beatles didn’t care about Epstein’s homosexuality, which was a known secret, and John Lennon, in particular, teased him about it frequently. But they were also extremely protective, and if anyone outside the band tried making a joke about his sexuality, that person would find themselves apologizing and ostracized. Lennon and Epstein shared an intense relationship at times, though they claimed it never turned sexual, and Epstein was known to cruise London’s gay haunts, employ rent boys, and vacation where laws around homosexuality were more lax. (It wouldn’t be decriminalized in England until a month after his death.) Like the Beatles, Epstein participated in the drug culture of the 1960s, and defended the use of cannabis and LSD. But it was his abuse of pills—stimulants and barbiturates—which led to addiction. He died unexpectedly at the age of 32 of a barbiturate overdose, combined with alcohol. The Beatles were devastated by the news, and it’s often thought that Epstein’s death marked the beginning of the end of their career. Only in recent years has he been given more credit as the glue that held the Beatles together, or “the Fifth Beatle” according to Paul McCartney.

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