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Coming Out

Beneath its veneer of success and accomplishment, Philip Cummings's life was marked by turmoil and frustration. He was shocked and saddened by Federico García Lorca's death at the hands of Nationalist partisans in August 1936, privately fearing that Lorca had been targeted because he, like Cummings himself, was homosexual.

Lorca remained single all his life, but Cummings, like most gay men of his era, chose the safer path of marriage and children. Caught in a devil’s bargain between social acceptance and personal authenticity,
he played the role of a typical family man within his community and professional circles, while secretly maintaining decades-long sexual relationships with other men.

Though he carefully hid his own homosexuality, Cummings longed to reveal the sexual component of his youthful friendship with Lorca to other Lorca scholars. He came close to telling researchers Kessel Schwartz in 1955, Daniel Eisenberg in 1975, and Ian Gibson in 1985, but never allowed himself to go beyond veiled innuendo. In 1984, when Leslie Stainton asked Cummings if he had ever known Lorca to have a girlfriend, he paused, then casually replied, "Of course, some people have said that Lorca was homosexual, but I wouldn't know anything about that."

In the end, he told only one person, the Spanish poet Dionisio Cañas, about the true extent of his relationship with Lorca. Cañas first visited Cummings in November 1985 and returned for a longer stay in February 1986. At that point the 79-year-old Cummings had been widowed for two years and was in poor health, so he had little to lose by telling the truth. Of course it helped that Cañas was young, handsome, and openly gay, and strongly reminded Cummings of the other Spanish poet he had known so well.

The two men spent hours conversing in Spanish about Lorca, poetry, Spain, and sex. Cummings told Cañas that his sexual relationship with Lorca began in the summer of 1928 in his room at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, resumed in June 1929 in the sleeping car they shared on an overnight train to Paris, and continued in August during their ten days together at Lake Eden. When Cañas asked for more information, Cummings provided it. Most importantly, he gave Cañas permission to publish his revelations so that others might better understand Lorca the man, as well as his work.

Cañas wrote his first article about Lorca's relationship with Cummings for the Spanish newspaper El Pais in late 1985. He later published more extensive pieces in several Hispanic literary journals, including an insightful 1992 epitaph for Cummings in Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos. His most recent article about Lorca and Cummings appeared in El Mundo in August 2011. (For full citations, see Resources.)

Cummings may have felt great relief at finally coming out to Cañas, but a lifetime of concealing his true sexual identity had already taken a heavy toll on him and his family. Long accustomed to deception and evasion, Cummings became increasingly bitter and unhappy during his adult years. When at home between lecture tours, he drank heavily and was harshly critical of his wife and children. He resented the constraints and expectations of family life and returned to the relative freedom of life on the road whenever he could, but never found the courage to leave the security and social standing provided by his marriage.

After Cummings retired in 1971, his already weak sense of boundaries continued to erode. He embarrassed his family by making sexual advances toward young men in his town, who soon learned to avoid him. Far worse, he molested at least one younger child, seemingly oblivious to the harm he inflicted.

In his final years, Cummings began exhibiting signs of severe dementia and was placed in a nursing home. He died at the Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Vermont, on June 17, 1991, from pneumonia and complications of Alzheimer's disease.

[On a Boy Scout camping trip]
I tried to assume the part most desired by the others, but when I had become as one of them, I was less than ever really one of them and I felt the futility even if I could not label it, while they felt me a joke. The older boys one night dumped me in my pajamas into the creek and I was mad and perplexed, for I had done nothing. I did not know then as I do now, that it was a tiny gesture of the mob trying to level an individual who did not or could not conform.

—Philip Cummings, unpublished essay, circa 1935

There was only one musician in town, Everett Hosmer Bridgman. I had never known anything of him, but was taught by my fellows to call him "Sissy Bridgman" and mock at his music and painting, yet I was more akin to him than to them, had I but known it. Now, many years later, he is one of the few I care to visit.

—Philip Cummings, unpublished essay, circa 1935

I cannot know your own laws for yourself or as regards your contact with others. But I do know and have long ago learned the abysmal sorrow of rejection and incomprehension...not daring to comprehend.

—Philip Cummings, letter to a young male friend, 1984

Copyright © 2017 Patricia A. Billingsley