(1904–1973), the legendary bon vivant, dilettante, aesthete and social columnist for The Cleveland Press in the late 1920s and ’30s who introduced Cleveland audiences to sophisticated modern theater, Noel Coward, Bea Lillie and W. Somerset Maugham. Many columns focused on his travels and the people and events in his life. (He numbered among his good friends such celebrated period figures as Cole Porter, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, Tallulah Bankhead, Monty Wooley and Cleveland industrialist/arts patron Leonard Hanna, who left him “a big wad of IBM stock” that enabled French to entertain on an even grander scale. He is said to have been instrumental in getting the world premiere of Coward’s Blithe Spirit for the Hanna Theater.)
French’s words carried great power and influence. Cleveland writer James Wood told the story of Cleveland’s first media star in his 2011 book Out and About with Winsor French, which subsequently became the basis for two popular shows staged by the Musical Theater Project: Winsor! A Feisty Cabaret, at Beck Center in 2013, and Winsor! A Cleveland Cabaret, in 2017 at Nighttown, before SRO audiences. After all, it was said, French had always been himself a show business figure: a fascinating character in search of a stage. “Everyone couldn’t help but want to hear the end of his stories,” which, Wood writes, he delivered in a “burnished baritone.” He reportedly once sent his iconic cane home in a cab.
A self-described “effeminate young man,” French occupied desks in city rooms drenched with masculinity,” writes one reviewer, “enduring his colleagues’ homophobia and risking the loss of his job by defending unconventional behavior. He ignored newspaper taboos by publishing the price of bootlegged liquor during Prohibition and by writing stories about ‘sepia’ entertainers, Jewish socialites, schoolchildren in wheelchairs, and men who found males more exciting than females.”
Confined to a wheelchair late in his life, he lobbied for the rights of disabled people; and for Cleveland City Hall and other city buildings to be accessible to disabled persons. In recognition of his efforts, French received a presidential citation in 1966.
This photo was taken on the 1940 South Seas cruise that Winsor French took with Cole and Linda Porter and other friends; from left, in the front: Cole Porter, Linda Porter, Roger Stearns and French. At far right is Leonard Hanna, Kent State University Press. By Unknown author.