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Womanizing Goethe a secret homosexual? ‘Erotic bio’ outs literary giant

September 27, 1997

BERLIN (AP) _ He celebrated the feminine in verse and courted some of Europe’s most beautiful women. But was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the giants of world literature, secretly homosexual?

A new ``erotic Goethe biography″ by German historian and journalist Karl Hugo Pruys posits that the poet, novelist and playwright most famous for his ``Faust″ drama was at heart not a ladies’ man.

``The Tiger’s Caresses,″ which appeared in bookstores last week, has already caused something of a stir, and not just in literary circles. The country’s most-read newspaper, the Bild am Sonntag tabloid, devoted a whole page to the question: ``Was Goethe Gay?″

The answer, says Pruys, is to be found in some 2,500 letters to, from and about Goethe, who married late in life, fathered one child and died in 1832 at age 82.

``I wanted to write a book about the love that Goethe felt, about love in general in Goethe’s life,″ Pruys said in an interview. ``Then I got onto a trail dominated by homosexuality.″

For example, a letter written by Dr. Johann Georg Zimmerman, in which he describes his young friend: ``To me, Goethe’s caresses are like the caresses of a tiger. One always feels under his hugs the dagger in the pocket.″

Or Goethe’s own letters to philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who Pruys says was probably Goethe’s first lover.

``You felt that it was bliss for me to be the object of your love,″ the 25-year-old Goethe wrote to ``dear Fritz″ on Aug. 21, 1774. It ends with a warning _ ``Don’t let my letter be seen!″ _ more proof, Pruys says, of their secret passion.

No one can say for sure if they ever slept together, ``but for me, the letters show the possibility that there was a physical relationship,″ Pruys said.

Pruys, a former spokesman for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, describes his current book, which comes out in English next year, as ``a labor of love.″ But his colleagues at the Goethe Society in Weimar were not impressed.

``Complete nonsense,″ says Lothar Ehrlich, a literature professor and Goethe expert.

Previous researchers have established that Goethe’s celebrated courtships with the opposite sex were most likely unconsummated until he was nearly 40, Ehrlich concedes.

``He shied away from intimate contact and didn’t want to be tied down,″ Ehrlich says.

Ehrlich and other scholars say Pruys simply misunderstands the ``Sturm und Drang″ (storm and stress) spirit of the times, when young, intellectual dandies expressed strong, even erotic emotion toward each other.

``But these relationships were of a purely spiritual nature,″ Ehrlich says. ``It had absolutely nothing to do with physical love.″

Pruys, however, says the letters point to something more than that.

The Goethe Society, he says, ``simply doesn’t like to see their idol as a man who persisted in this ambiguous sexual behavior.″

Goethe, of course, would hardly be the first gay literary giant. Walt Whitman celebrated it, Thomas Mann suppressed it, Oscar Wilde went to jail for it. Speculation persists even about Shakespeare, who dedicated his sonnets to ``Mr. W.H.″

Goethe Society President Werner Keller says Goethe’s sex life is irrelevant to appreciating his work, which every schoolchild here reads from an early age.

``It’s not greater if he’s hetero(sexual), nor diminished through homosexuality,″ Keller says. ``Those are all categories expressed today by our sex-obsessed society, and I have only contempt for such a society.″

Pruys says he feels closer to Goethe after uncovering the ``masquerade″ of heterosexual prowess surrounding him.

``An unbelievable amount has been written, but they all copy each other,″ he says. ``I hope that, after so long a time, we can finally get to know him better.″

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