Was there a Cult of Callas on Swann Street?
With the weather dipping into arctic freezing terrority this winter, it also seems that information about the Robert Wone case is moving at a glacial pace. While we wait for movement, we thought we would turn to an issue that probably doesn’t have much bearing on the case, but would give us something to chew on until things heat up again.
When the three housemates where living on Swann Street, they didn’t seem to exhibit much appreciation for high art. It was never remarked that they were going to the theater, or the Corcoran Art Gallery to catch the latest show. Yes, they were heard to be social, hosting Sunday brunches, and birthday parties, most notably Robert’s 30th birthday at their Constitution Avenue home. But being patrons of arts just didn’t seem to be part of their repertoire.
So when looking through the listing photos from when Price and Zaborsky sold 1509 Swann Street in 2008, one piece of art caught our eye.
Overlooking the dining room table on the first floor is a gold-framed pop art rendering of the iconic Cecil Beaton photograph of opera’s greatest star, La Davina herself, Maria Callas.
Taken in London at the height of Callas’s career in 1957, the photo is of her face, her jet black hair parted down the middle, her porcelain hands cupping her chin while her sultry eyes stare straight at the viewer.
We imagine that the Swann Street housemates put very little thought into selecting this piece, except to demonstrate that they were well traveled in the world of culture. But, what if they did follow Maria Callas, could it mean anything beyond that?
To begin with the fateful night on August 2nd, we can’t help but feel Callas’s gaze watching the unfolding events, from a miffed Dylan Ward escorting Robert to the kitchen for a glass of water, to be later joined by a tardy Joe Price, to Victor Zaborsky’s frantic 911 call that ended with crying sobs of terror and loss, to EMTs Jeff Baker and Tracy Weaver carrying Robert’s lifeless body out on a stretcher to the awaiting ambulance in hopes of trying to revive him, and finally to Joe Price escorting MPD detectives Diane Durham and Charles Patrick in a desperate attempt to explain how an unknown intruder could enter through the unlocked back door.
We even think back to the events before that night when at dinner parties literally beneath Callas’s knowing eyes where the inner dynamics of the Swann Street housemates relationship were quietly erupting — the unrequited love, the unrestrained fury and unbridled lust — and know that Callas portrayed each of those emotions better than any other artist of the 20th century. Indeed, Leonard Bernstein remarked that she was on par with Michelangelo and Da Vinci.
Of course, it is no secret that Maria Callas is the original gay icon. She preceeded Liza Minelli, Barbara Streisand, Cher to the today’s Lady Gaga. Callas’s only competition was her contemporary, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli’s mother. Yet, since opera is considered a higher art form than movie musicals, Garland didn’t truly challenge Callas for such a preeminent position. More simply put, Garland was the middle-class, movie theater gay icon to Callas’s blue-blooded elite icon status.
Because Callas holds an exhatled place in the gay icon pantheon, it should be no surprise that the Swann Street trio, who were strivers in every way for the best and the finest, could identify with her life and career as an extension of their own lives and relationship.
For Joe Price, the cult of Callas hints at the many facets of his multifaceted personality. Just as Joe Price sought to dominate every aspect of every relationship he was involved in, so too Maria Callas dominated every performance, every other actor on stage, and finally and completely, the imagination of her fans. A cursory reading of the many Callas bios available, from Callas biographer John Ardoin to director Franco Zefferilli, reveals no objectivity what so ever when discussing La Davina. The hagiography went so far as to deman complete submission to Callas’s art. To be a fan of Maria Callas seems to require complete fidelity from the fan that includes renouncing any other affection for any other opera diva, especially those who were her contemporaries including Renata Scotto and Renata Tebaldi. Indeed, the Callas fan is truly involved in a dominant and submissive relationship with La Davina herself. So, just as Joe Price sought to dominate all those who were around him, did he also experience the submission of a Calls fan in his all-consuming dominant and submissive relationship with Dylan Ward.
For Victor Zaborsky, he might be able to identify with the opera queen who gives all his love to a woman who doesn’t even know his name. In his book “The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire,” Wayne Koestenbaum notes that for the lover of Maria Callas, “…you harbor similar attachments that you too send your love to a vague, aloof star in the cultural firmament, a radiance that will never reward you with a glance, though you have spent your life in patient, earnest fruitless attendance.” One feels that with this passage Koestenbaum could easily have been explaining Victor Zaborsky and feelings towards and relationship with Joe Price. Moreover, during the 911 call when the dispatcher mistook Zaborsky for a woman because his voice was pitched so high, Koestenbaum notes that for the lover of La Davina, “Callas is a refuge, where a forbidden sexuality, a forbidden alienation from masculinity, could spread its wings.”
Of all the qualities that Maria Callas possessed, it was her discipline that made her art sublime. This was a woman who was not a natural beauty, yet at the height of her career, lost more than 80 pounds so that she could look as etheral as her idol, Audrey Hepburn. Any Callas fan will tell you her voice was not the finest, yet through hard work and discipline it became the most expressive and original. Koestenbaum notes, “We love Callas because she disciplined her voice. The realm of discipline is itself a part of gay culture: weight-lifters, S/M — pageants of control and self-mastery.”
During the investigation into Robert’s murder, through to the initial arrests and the criminal trial, even to today and the civil suit, the Swann Street trio have approached everything with remarkable discipline. They kept the lowest profile, they never spoke out, and most importantly, they did not turn on one another (yet). It was a discipline that even caught the most hardened professionals by surprise. Perhaps those same professionals should have looked to the woman who dominated the first floor of the living room at 1509 Swann Street to understand the discipline they would display.
For all the magic that Callas brought to the stage through her artistry, it was her real life that was tragic. Koestenbaum again notes, “Her operatic performances seemed real; her real life seemed operatic.” Her private life was tempestuous. She boarded Aristotle Onasiss’ yacht with her husband, began an affair with Onassis, and at the end of the cruise asked her husband for a divorce. Later, she gave birth to a son by Onassis on the same day that Joe Price was born, March 30, yet the boy died several hours later. To compound her tragedy, it has been rumored that she found out about Onassis’s marriage to Jackie Kennedy on the Six O’Clock News.
The same tempestuous life can be said of the Swann Street trio — they seemed to live their life like a grand opera. A friend of theirs commented that there were several “Aaron Spelling’s moments” in the household, referring to the maestro of prime time soap operas such as “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place.” Was August 2nd, the grand climax to the tragic opera that these three men had been writing for several years?
After the tragic conclusion to her romance with Onassis, Callas lost her voice, effectively cause her art to fall silent. After the tragic events of August 2nd, the Swann Street housemates stumbled from their high life, and they, too, fell very silent — especially with prosecutors, and most recently, during Dylan Ward’s interrogatory with Covington in the civil suit.
One of the best examples of Callas submission and worship is Terrance McNally’s 1989 play, The Lisbon Traviata. It explores the tragic, lonely position that gay Callas worshippers inhabit as it details the death spiral of a gay relationship; climaxing with the violent stabbing of one of the Callas fan’s partners to prevent him from leaving the relationship for another man. Koestenbaum sums up the hold that Callas has over her gay male fans, and maybe by extension the Swann Street trio, when he concludes, “In the brutal, intoxicating dream of opera, which framed the life of Maria Callas and the lives of countless opera queens, the gate to opera is guarded by twin thugs: Death and Silence.”
Sadly, it seems that the Swann Street trio, and the night of August 2nd and its ensuing aftermath have been guarded by the very same thugs.