News & Politics

A Married Gay Couple Recount Their Struggles In "Double Life"

A conversation with the authors of the affecting memoir, which covers 50 years in and, finally, out of the closet.

Photograph courtesy of Magnus Books.

Norman Sunshine and Alan Shayne have lived in hiding for most of their adult lives. They certainly did when they first met and began living together as a couple more than fifty years ago. Even though Sunshine was an acclaimed artist and Shayne a successful entertainment executive, they couldn’t be who they were, for fear of social and even legal repercussions. They are married now and out in the light, but their personal story resonates in Washington, a city where gay marriage is taken for granted.

They have written a memoir called Double Life, which will be celebrated at a book party at Sidney Harman Hall Monday evening, hosted by their friend Michael Kahn, the artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company. Besides Michael, a neighbor in Litchfield, Connecticut, the authors say they know very few of the people on the A-level guest list, many of them political and social heavyweights, but that’s hardly a concern. What they love is that while their book is about a life in the closet they can now talk about it in the open.

This won’t be Alan Shayne’s first visit to the capital. In fact, he’s part of our pop cultural history, as he was the casting director for the iconic political film All The President’s Men in 1975. He came to Washington to meet the “real people” of the Watergate scandal so he could cast the film “as accurately as possible.” In a book that moves fast thanks to so many anecdotes, Shayne’s recollection of that particular film stands out:

“I met [Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee and immediately thought of Jason Robards. Bradlee sounded just like Jason. When I returned to the studio and was asked at the film meeting who I was thinking of for Bradlee, I said, ‘Jason Robards.’

‘Oh, he’s washed up,’ one of the executives remarked. ‘Can’t you do better than that?'”

As it happens, the director agreed with Shayne’s casting idea, Robards was hired, and he went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Shayne has less fond memories of Washingtonian Lynda Carter, whom he cast as Wonder Woman in the original TV series, favoring her among a large group of attractive candidates. Again, he writes, the bosses balked. “There were complaints that she was too heavy. No one was keen on her acting.” But Shayne argued he’d “never find anyone who looks as sexy and beautiful as Lynda. Her goodness will shine through and make the whole show work.” She got the job and became a star. Shayne reflects that “it’s very difficult for actors to suddenly find themselves famous. As for sweetness and goodness, everyone changes with success, and Lynda was no exception.” Is she on the guest list for the Monday party? “No,” he says. “I made my point in the book.”

Behind-the-scenes stories featuring famous names from outside Washington–Barbra Streisand, Rock Hudson, Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Ali McGraw, Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill, Katharine Hepburn, Gore Vidal, Richard Chamberlain, Linda Lavin–are sprinkled throughout the book, people who intersected with Shayne’s professional life as he worked his way up the entertainment ladder from actor to casting director to president of Warner Brothers Television. Even in that powerful position, or because of it, he could not make public his long-time relationship with Sunshine. It could jeopardize his career.

His skill was never in question. “When they [the company executives] thought about my being president of Warner’s television, the drawback was that I was gay,” he told me in an interview. “They were worried people wouldn’t pal around with me.”

So while Sunshine and Shayne lived what they considered a nearly normal life in a series of places–Manhattan, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Palm Beach–and as they made friends and professional contacts, it was always a struggle of whether to reveal their relationship. Sunshine recalls the occasion a New York Times reporter wrote an article about his paintings and upon visiting his home asked who he lived with. “I decided to tell the truth,” he says. “It was the first time an article in the Timesmentioned two men living together as a couple.” What did people say? “No one mentioned it,” Sunshine says. “Everyone talked around it.”

Shayne says it’s difficult for a younger generation to understand what their generation endured, even in the “liberated” 1960s and ’70s. “We grew up at a time when to be homosexual was considered a crime,” he says. “It was also considered an aberration that could be cured by psychoanalysis.” In the book, when the two men meet in 1958, Shayne is in analysis trying to be cured of his homosexuality, and he recounts the confusing and frustrating experience of the therapy, which he viewed as a professional necessity. “Back then, as an actor, I could not allow people to know I was gay. I wouldn’t be sent on gay romantic leads. I would be sent on eccentric parts,” he says.

We talked about whether that attitude is eradicated today, because while Washington may be among cities and states with a progressive record on gay marriage, there are, nationally, occasional conspicuous incidents of bullying and hate crimes against gays, which in some instances have resulted in murder or suicide. Shayne and Sunshine concede there are still people who have to live a “double life,” even in Hollywood, where some entertainers–such as Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris–have been able to find professional success out of the closet. But would the bosses give Harris any role? “I don’t think they are going to make him an action hero,” says Shayne. Off the record, he mentions a few famous action stars who have had to keep their private lives private.

Do they have a message for younger people? Yes, says Sunshine: “It can be done. That was one of the things that drove us to write the book. We had to hide, but today you don’t. It’s all right to have a relationship.” And marriage? They took their vows in a small ceremony on Nantucket in 2004. But there’s something they have yet to do, and that is comfortably refer to each other publicly as “husband.” Sunshine says he’s never used the word. Shayne jumps in, “I’ve never said that.” Maybe soon, though. Maybe in Washington.