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Beard, James (1903-1985)  
 
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James Beard's passion in life was food, and, through his writing, teaching, and public appearances, he had an enormous effect on American cooking. As food writer Craig Claibourne observed, "Beard, more than any other person, helped shape the change in American dining habits. He was an innovator, an experimenter, a missionary in bringing the gospel of good cooking to the home table."

Beard was nothing if not a zealous apostle. Through his frequent appearances on television and at public events, he became widely recognized as one of the foremost representatives of American gastronomy. He was known as affable, witty, and, of course, wildly enthusiastic about cooking and serving good food. He was not, however, known as a gay man.

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Beard's memoir-cum-cookbook, Delights and Prejudices, published in 1964, made no mention of his sexual orientation, which is hardly surprising considering the social climate of the time. In the 1980s, though, when Beard was planning a second memoir, he stated, "By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think that it's time to talk about that now." By then, however, Beard was in failing health, and he never completed the book project.

Beard would eventually settle in New York City, but he had a lifelong affection for his native Oregon. The only child of John and Mary (née Jones) Beard, he was born in Portland on May 5, 1903 and grew up in the city.

His earliest "taste memories" were of dishes prepared by the family's Chinese-born cook and by his mother. Mary Beard was not a trained cook, but she was an excellent instinctive one who recognized the importance of fresh ingredients of high quality.

Beard and his mother spent summers at her seaside cottage in nearby Gearhart. His father rarely joined them. The couple's marriage had rapidly deteriorated, and they largely went their separate ways, John Beard seeking comfort and affection from a long-term Chinese mistress by whom he had another son, and Mary Beard socializing and traveling with women friends.

Mary Beard was renowned in Gearhart for her lavish and elaborate picnics on the beach. Her son fondly recalled digging clams for some of the dishes and savoring other delicious local seafood.

In the idyllic summer days at Gearhart, Beard began exploring his sexuality with other boys. His mother, who counted gay men and lesbians among her friends, spoke to him candidly and positively about his sexual orientation. Beard's father did not learn of his homosexuality until much later and "was not thrilled."

Mary Beard fostered her son's interest in cooking. By the age of eight, he had learned to make bread.

Neither John nor Mary Beard was particularly religious, but they attended church in accordance with social expectations and put young James into the choir, where his musical gifts were appreciated. By the age of twelve, Beard was acting and singing in amateur theater productions in Portland and dreaming of a career on the stage.

Having graduated from high school at fifteen, Beard enrolled at Reed College in Portland to study theater, but, as he recalled near the end of his life, "I got kicked out of Reed for politics and because sex had reared its lovely head. There was an attachment to one of the male professors. They didn't kick the professor out. I went home to live. Even then, Father wasn't aware of my sexual life. That came later."

His mother arranged for him to continue his musical studies in London, and he made his formal debut as a singer there in 1923. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Paris with the intention of furthering his studies, but he soon became enthralled by the city's bohemian culture, and he found greater acceptance of gay men and lesbians than he had experienced anywhere else.

He met and became enamored of a handsome young man from Holland. In addition to enjoying the ambiance of Paris, the two traveled to Berlin, where gay men and lesbians could also participate in a vibrant subculture.

Beard's Parisian sojourn was short-lived, however. By the end of the year, his mother informed him that she could not afford to support him there once he had abandoned his pursuit of a career in opera.

Changing his focus from singing to acting, Beard settled in New York, but he found few parts and so returned to Portland, where he took jobs including teaching and radio work before heading to Hollywood in early 1927. He got only bit parts in the movies, though, and was back in Oregon within a year.

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