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

Stephen  Tennant

Stephen Tennant 1906to –1987

British socialite, notorious idler, and prominent member of the “Bright Young People.” He was born into nobility, and his mother was in fact a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover. At the age of four, Tennant became entranced with a blooming pansy in the garden, and later told his father he wanted to grow up to become “a great beauty.” By the 1920s, he was considered the brightest of the “Bright Young Things,” the name given to a group of young London socialites whose elaborate parties and decadent lifestyles were heavily reported in the tabloid press, a precursor to modern celebrity culture. He was known for his effeminacy, his good looks, his charm, and his eccentric, androgynous fashion, captured in the photographs of his friend Cecil Beaton. Tennant’s outfits ranged from tailored suits to elegant gowns. He wore jewelry and ribbons, put gold powder in his hair, and applied heavy makeup with bright red lipstick. In his early 20s, he fleetingly proposed to a female friend, who reportedly bolted when he discussed bringing his nanny along on their honeymoon. Shortly after, in 1926, Tennant met the antiwar poet Siegried Sassoon who was 20 years his senior. They shared a passionate relationship that lasted until Tennant suddenly broke it off in 1932. Even though he made a career of idleness, Tennant had exhibited some drawings and published some poetry, and was well respected by literary friends that included E. M. Forster and Willa Cather. He inspired characters in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. A large part of his life was spent working on his own novel, Lascar, but it was never completed. He had always suffered poor health, and as he grew older he became more reclusive, staying at home while the likes of Truman Capote, David Hockney, Kenneth Anger, and Cristopher Isherwood made the pilgrimage to his bedside. Although the myth that he spent 17 years in bed is untrue, he did spend much of his later life recumbent, surrounded by bric-a-brac, wearing designer pajamas or bright pink shorts, and urging visitors such as Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia to admire his legs.

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