From ancient times to the present, there’s a lengthy, ugly record of men who paid for sex with their lives rather than their pocketbook.
Commodus, 2nd century Roman emperor; Johann Joachim von Winckelmann, the great 18th century art historian; silent screen star Ramón Novarro; Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini; and fashion designer Gianni Versace – all fell victim to male prostitutes.
Some who paid for sex, like homophobic televangelist Ted Haggard, weren’t murdered but suffered career death because of their involvement with what are euphemistically referred to as “escorts” today. Other homophobic figures like former U.S. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho have seen their careers and reputations destroyed after soliciting sex from men in public places.
Others, such as U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, have survived and thrived despite their involvement with self-employed flesh peddlers.
The Emperor Had No Clothes
Commodus (161-192 AD), above, was the son of the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of the classic, Meditations. Father and son had polar opposite personalities. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic who led an ascetic life and spent most of his reign fighting barbarian tribes on the Danube.
His son enjoyed luxury and preferred to expend his energy on fighting in the arena rather than keeping Rome’s enemies in check or governing the empire. The madness that afflicted so many Roman emperors didn’t spare Commodus, who believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and dressed like the demi-god while fighting gladiators who didn’t dare fight back.
Surprisingly, Commodus spared the lives of the men who allowed him to win. But this small mercy only added to the emperor’s unpopularity with the masses who not only demanded bread and circuses, but lots of blood as well.
When Commodus refused to dispatch the loser as was customary, the people of Rome rioted because they wanted the thrill of the kill.
Commodus’ lack of etiquette in the arena wasn’t the only cause of his unpopularity. Roman senators were shocked by Commodus’ hobby because most gladiators were slaves, enslaved prisoners of war and others at the bottom of Roman society.
Exacerbating the scandal, Commodus didn’t wear a complete Hercules costume, only the lion’s head helmet depicted in statues. Except for his headgear, the emperor fought naked in the arena.
Commodus may have been even more hated for decreasing the amount of gold or silver in coins. The ensuing devaluation of money led to ruinous inflation and starvation. Free bread and circuses were the “welfare” of ancient Rome, and Commodus’ lavish “social safety net” made him popular among the poor but not among patricians, Rome’s hereditary aristocracy.
Augustus, the first emperor, boasted that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Historian Dio Cassius and a contemporary of Commodus who witnessed the emperor’s misrule said that Commodus had turned a city of gold into a place of “rust and iron.” The 18th century author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, believed that Commodus’ reign marked the beginning of the end of the empire.
Commodus’ megalomania outside the arena led him to rename Rome “Commodus’ Colony” and change the names of the months to correspond with his own 12 names.
The emperor further alienated his subjects by appointing himself consul, the top job in the Roman Senate, as well as chief gladiator, a hyphenate occupation that horrified class-conscious Romans, even the proletariat of Rome called plebeians.
But even his enemies conceded that the blond, curly-haired emperor was strikingly handsome. This would-be Hercules might have been named in honor of another figure from Greek mythology, Adonis.
By 192 AD a famine and the murder of prominent Romans whose wealth he expropriated added to Commodus’ unpopularity and led to his murder. The final outrage was the emperor’s order to throw crippled people into the arena, where Commodus clubbed them to death. Even for the blood thirsty and jaded citizens of Rome, their emperor’s cruelty was de trop.
Commodus was betrayed by two of his lovers. His mistress tried to poisoned him, but the plan failed when the emperor vomited the poison. Commodus’ lover and wrestling partner, a Greek slave with the resonant name of Narcissus, was then persuaded by members of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s bodyguards, to strangle Commodus while he bathed.
Following the murder, the Senate declared the emperor a public enemy and ordered his statues removed. “Commodus’ Colony” became Rome again.
Largely forgotten today, Commodus has achieved a weird form of recognition and immortality due to Colosseum: Road to Freedom. The popular videogame from Japan is set during Commodus’ reign and the players engage in gladiatorial combat that’s historically inaccurate. The gladiators in the videogame keep their clothes on.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), above, was the greatest art historian of his time, probably of all time. The classical scholar was also an archaeologist and bestselling author. His literary fame allowed him to live openly as a homosexual with impunity. It didn’t hurt that Winckelmann enjoyed the imprimatur of the pope.
Despite his sexual orientation and modest birth as the son of a poor German cobbler, Winckelmann’s international renown led the pope to appoint the Protestant scholar head of the Vatican library and curator of the Church’s art collection. To qualify for the prestigious position, Winckelmann converted to Catholicism.
The historical blackout on Winckelmann’s homosexuality is particularly unfathomable because if he hadn’t already been out of the closet when he died, the manner of his death would have outed him.
At least one contemporary was unaware or unimpressed by Winckelmann’s credentials, a habitual criminal and unemployed cook named Francesco Arcangeli. He was also what is known as “trade,” an outdated term for conflicted homosexuals who claim to be heterosexual but have sex with other men for money, a business transaction known as “gay for pay.”
The two men happened to have adjacent rooms at a hotel in Trieste, Italy. Lonely and depressed, Winckelmann took the 38-year-old under his wing, but didn’t solicit him for sex.
During the night, Arcangeli entered Winckelmann’s room in order to steal some medals recently bestowed on the scholar by a fan, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Winckelmann woke up while Arcangeli was in his room, and Arcangeli tried to strangle him with a rope. But Winckelmann put up a fight, at one point grabbing the blade of Arcangeli’s knife with his hands. The assailant later testified at his trial that he had stabbed the victim multiple times in the chest and the groin – or as he told the court, “down there.”
Broken on the Wheel – Very Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Winckelmann’s genius was surpassed only by his generosity and forgiving nature. After the attack, he lived for a few hours – enough time to receive the Last Rites and dictate his will, in which he pleaded for the life of his killer.
The authorities didn’t share Winckelmann’s magnanimity. After his capture, Arcangeli was condemned to a form of execution almost as ghastly as another favorite of the time, being drawn and quartered.
Instead, Arcangeli was “broken on the wheel,” a form of execution like being drawn and quartered that squeamish historians rarely describe in detail.
Here are the details: Arcangeli was tied to a large wagon wheel, then his bones were shattered with a sledgehammer.
The historical blackout which omits the homosexual element in Winckelmann’s murder is inexplicable because the scholar was way out of the closet and flaunted his affairs in an era when homosexual behavior automatically led to a death sentence from which only royals and aristocrats were exempt – and superstar scholars like Winckelmann, whose international reputation allowed him to escape the penalties against homosexuals.
Arcangeli was unaware or more likely didn’t care that that his victim enjoyed international acclaim. After his arrest, Winckelmann told his jailers that Winckelmann was only un uomo di poco conto (“a man of little account”).
The art historian’s assailant may have made the career transition from hustler to thief because in the 18th century the average life expectancy was 35, and Arcangeli was 38. By the actuarial tables of the day, Arcangeli was an old man, over-the-hill and no longer a viable commodity in the flesh trade. It didn’t add to Arcangeli’s marketability that his face was pockmarked due to a bout with smallpox.
A Winckelmann biographer used the euphemism “befriended” to describe his behavior toward the man who killed him. For a change, “befriended” was probably meant in the literal sense and not code for “had sex with.” The aging prostitute could have been too old to arouse the scholar’s desire, which may explain why the two men didn’t share a room at the hotel.
A closeted homosexual might have insisted on separate accommodations to avoid scandal or blackmail, but Winckelmann’s sexual orientation was not a secret, and there was no potential scandal or punishment to avoid.
A Latin Lover of Men
Silent screen star Ramón Novarro (1899-1968), above, was literally silenced by two prostitutes who rammed a lead Art Deco sex toy down their victim’s throat, causing him to choke to death on his own blood. The perpetrators were brothers, Tom Ferguson, 17, and Paul, 22.
Their involvement with the Mexican-born actor started out as a petty crime. They decided to rob the star after another client told them that Novarro had a fortune hidden in his home in the Hollywood Hills. The 69-year-old actor had hired the two men who advertised their work in a gay newspaper.
The brothers tortured Novarro for two hours, demanding he turn over the hidden money, which didn’t exist. Frustrated, they delivered the coup de grâce with a dildo. Their haul? Twenty dollars they found in the pocket of the victim’s bathrobe. Novarro’s antique-filled mansion was trashed along with mementoes from his acting career.
The murderers were convicted and received long prison sentences. But endemic homophobia before the gay civil rights movement often blamed the victim. Novarro’s killers were paroled shortly after sentencing.
The brothers were later convicted of lesser crimes but served much longer sentences than they had for Novarro's murder.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Predator or Prey?
A more important film figure, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), above, also fell prey to a male prostitute, but his murder was arguably more horrific than Ramón Novarro’s.
On November 2, 1975, Pasolini’s mutilated corpse was found on a beach near Rome. The assailant, a 17-year-old street prostitute named Giuseppe Pelosi, beat the director until he was near death, then ran over him with Pasolini’s car multiple times.
When he was arrested the day after the murder, Pelosi, known as Pino la Rana or “Joey the Frog,” admitted he had killed the director, but claimed he had acted in self-defense after Pasolini tried to rape him.
Most of Pelosi’s story didn’t hold up, especially his claim that he and Pasolini had been alone at the time of the murder. Still, Pasolini’s prior behavior gave some credibility to Pelosi’s allegations of attempted rape. The director had been charged with the sexual assault of three underage boys, but was acquitted.
Conspiracy buffs believe that whether or not Pasolini and Pelosi were alone at the time of the murder, the perpetrator hadn’t acted alone. Pasolini had been an outspoken member of Italy’s powerful Communist party, and it was suspected that Pelosi was in the pay of a neofascist party.
Another theory named the Sicilian Mafia as the culprit because Pasolini had been researching a documentary about organized crime’s involvement with prostitution. Pasolini’s research uncovered a more serious charge. The Mafia had infiltrated Italy’s Christian Democratic Party at the highest levels.
Yet another theory claimed that the Italian secret service had liquidated Pasolini for criticizing the government.
In 2005, Pelosi retracted his confession, claiming he had been hired to kill the director by three people “with a southern accent” who referred to Pasolini as a “dirty communist.” Pelosi’s revised account supports the assertions of conspiracy buffs that the Sicilian Mafia and/or neofascists had ordered Pasolini’s death.
Italian police found no evidence to support either theory and ended their investigation soon after it began.
High Fashion, High Crimes, a High Killer
Fashion designer Gianni Versace (1946-1997), above, founder of a billion-dollar clothing empire, was murdered by Andrew Cunanan, a male prostitute he not only hadn’t hired but hadn’t even met. Versace’s attacker had been on a cross-country killing spree when he approached the designer as he was entering his ocean-front mansion in Miami Beach and shot him in the back of the head. A week later, Cunanan used the same gun on himself after police had cornered him on a houseboat.
At the time of the murder, Cunanan was strung out on methamphetamine and hadn’t slept for days. Versace’s death may have marked the end of a bad drug trip or crash which can cause temporary psychosis.
Cunanan was a pathological liar who claimed to come from a wealthy family. There’s evidence that he resented Versace’s role as a gay icon whose success reminded him of his own failure.
Forensic psychiatrists speculate that Cunanan, on or off drugs, may have been a psychopath. A defining trait of psychopathology is a lack of empathy, the inability to feel remorse or concern for the needs of others.
It was ironic that a prostitute killed Versace because the designer was in a monogamous relationship with a former male model at the time of his murder, and he didn’t pay for sex. Versace left his lover $26,000 a month for life and the use of any one of the designer’s many mansions he chose.
Character Assassination of Hypocritical Characters
Today, male prostitutes are more often character assassins than actual killers, although they often manage to kill the careers and reputations of their customers by outing them.
Favorite targets of these sex workers who kiss and tell are closeted homosexuals in powerful positions who persecute other gays and oppose gay civil rights.
The poster boy for self-hating homosexuals in high places may be former televangelist Ted Haggard, founder of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At its height, the church had 14,000 members and millions of TV viewers.
Mike Jones, Ted Haggard's Worst Best Friend
In 2006, Haggard supported an amendment to Colorado’s constitution that banned same-sex marriages. At the same time, he was seeing Mike Jones, a high-end escort/bodybuilder. They met once a month over a period of three years during which time they had sex and reportedly smoked methamphetamine which Jones had purchased at Haggard’s request.
The 50-year-old prostitute, over the hill in a gay culture that allegedly worships youth, didn’t know the identity of his monthly client until he caught him on TV spouting homophobic slurs and his opposition to same-sex marriages.
Jones outed Haggard, he told ABC News, because “I had to expose the hypocrisy. He is in a position to influence millions of followers, and he’s preaching against gay marriage. But behind everybody’s back, he’s doing what he’s preached against.”
Although Jones admitted he was making TV appearances to secure a book deal, his primary motive, he said, was to defeat the amendment banning same-sex marriages. Whatever his motives were, Jones’s efforts were in vain. The amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote.
Haggard at first denied even knowing Jones and pointed to a polygraph test that indicated Jones was “deceptive” when he said he had had sex with Haggard. The televangelist eventually admitted that Jones’s allegations were true when confronted with voice mail records in which he asked Jones to buy methamphetamine.
Haggard trotted out his version of Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton’s defense. He admitted buying the highly addictive drug, but insisted he threw it away without sampling his purchase.
After another pastor in his church announced that Haggard had confessed that some of Jones’s allegations were true, he resigned from his leadership position.
An HBO documentary in 2009 revealed that Haggard had gone into another line of work, selling encyclopedias.
A Disorderly Houses of Congress
In 1985, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, above, the first openly gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, met a 28-year-old escort, Steve Gobie, who advertised his services in a gay newspaper.
In the closet at the time, Frank was lonely and asked Gobie to move in to his Washington, DC, apartment. The relationship reportedly had more to do with friendship than romance. Hoping to rehabilitate Gobie, who had prior convictions for cocaine possession and unlawful involvement with a minor, the Congressman hired him to serve as his personal assistant and driver. No government funds were used to pay Gobie’s salary.
Gobie unsuccessfully tried to sell his story to several media outlets and eventually gave an interview for free to the conservative Washington Times hoping to land a book contract.
Frank insisted he didn’t know that Gobie continued to work as a prostitute or used their home as a brothel. At Frank’s request, the House Ethics Committee investigated his behavior and determined he hadn’t known about this gay version of the film Risky Business, but the committee reprimanded him for using House privileges to “fix” Gobie’s more than 30 parking tickets terminate his probation for previous crimes.
Despite the findings of the Ethics Committee, Gobie stuck to his story, claiming Frank knew about the prostitution ring, but they never discussed it.
“He knew exactly what I was doing,” Gobie told the Washington Post, which described him as a “prostitute and pimp” in the story’s lead. “It was pretty obvious,” Gobie also told the Post. “If he had to come early from work, he would call home to be sure the coast was clear.”
Gobie admitted that Frank had kicked him out of his apartment on Capitol Hill but refuted Frank’s claim that he had acted after his landlord told him about Gobie’s prostitution ring.
The scandal didn’t hurt Frank’s Congressional career. The same year that the scandal broke, Frank won reelection with 66 percent of the vote. He plans to retire in 2012 after 30+ years in the House.
Former U.S. Senator Larry Craig
After Frank was reprimanded, then Idaho Congressman Larry Craig tried without success to have him expelled from the House. If revenge is a dish best served cold, according to the Spanish proverb, Frank enjoyed a feast when Craig himself became involved in a gay sex scandal arguably more sensational than Frank’s.
The Pot Calls the Kettle Beige
Craig, a opponent of gay rights, is best known for his 2007 arrest in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport after soliciting an undercover vice cop in an adjacent stall. Charged with lewd conduct, Craig agreed to a plea bargain to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct.
He had hoped a quick resolution of the affair would keep it secret, but it didn’t. Shortly after his conviction, Roll Call, the Congress’ “trade paper,” revealed Craig’s arrest and conviction.
By this time a U.S. Senator, Craig said he was going to resign, then changed his mind but didn’t seek reelection, unlike the victim of his criticism, Barney Frank.
Politics Makes Very Strange Bedfellows
Amazingly, during an appeal of his conviction, the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief with the court on behalf of Craig, a paleoconservative. The ACLU argued that people occupying a private stall in a public restroom have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The Movie Star and the Porn Star
John Travolta may be another victim of character assassination by a male prostitute, Paul Barresi. In 1990, the one-time porn actor told the National Enquirer he had been Travolta’s lover for two years – but only to further Barresi’s acting career, not because he was in love.
“I’m straight as an arrow,” Barresi told the Enquirer, which paid him $100,000 for his story after he passed a polygraph test which the tabs require their more outrageous sources to take in order to avoid libel suits.
Most people realize the tabs, despite their reliance on lie detectors, have more to do with fiction than fact. But when a cover story about Travolta in People magazine repeated Barresi’s allegations, the actor declined to comment and didn’t sue.
Conventional wisdom has always maintained that any leading man who came out or was outed would mean career death. But that didn’t happened to Travolta. After the scandal broke, he made a comeback in the film noir spoof, Pulp Fiction. Barresi later retracted his allegations about Travolta.
There’s a bizarre coda to the story in which I suspect Barresi may have tried to assassinate my character or worse. In 1997, while I was finishing my biography of Eddie Murphy, Barresi phoned me, billing himself as a “tabloid broker.”
He said he represented several transgendered prostitutes who had allegedly had sex with the superstar. I was offered interviews with his stable of tell-all trannies at $100 a crack but declined because I had already interviewed a transvestite performer who told me that he and Murphy had had unsafe sex in the back of limousine. I doubted if anybody could top that story and its implications.
Plus, the modest advance I received for the book didn’t include a budget for $100 interviews with hookers. But Barresi persisted and insisted on dropping by my place anyway.
It was a bizarre encounter. The self-proclaimed “straight as an arrow” tabloid source lavishly and repeatedly complimented my gym-toned physique. I presumed he hoped that flattery would make me change my mind about paying to interview his stable of transgendered streetwalkers.
It wasn’t until a year or so later that I learned the real reason for Barresi’s visit and his excessive compliments. Besides his job as “tabloid broker,” Barresi was also working as an investigator for Murphy’s pit-bull attorney, Marty Singer.
He hoped to entrap me into saying something slanderous about Murphy which Barresi thought would allow his employer, Singer, to get an injunction against my biography of Murphy prior to publication. I later found out that he had tape-recorded our conversation, which would have been embarrassing to him, not me, because I didn’t respond to his sexual compliments.
Barresi told the story of his undercover work in my apartment to an alternative newspaper, which also quoted Singer, Murphy’s lawyer. Singer told the newspaper he hadn’t assigned Barresi the task and hadn’t paid him for his freelance efforts. Singer told the paper what I already knew but Barresi apparently did not. You can’t get an injunction against a book. Elizabeth Taylor, among others, tried and failed.
It eventually occurred to me that Barresi may have hoped I’d respond to his compliments with an invitation to have sex. Our conversation was being taped and might have been used either to force me to interview Barresi’s hookers or to blackmail me into not publishing my Murphy bio.
If that were indeed Barresi’s intentions, he was delusional or at best misinformed. I couldn’t be blackmailed about my sexual orientation because I had come out of the closet in that shrine to heterosexuality, Penthouse, where I wrote an op-ed piece with the headline: “Why Is Hollywood Still Afraid of Gays?”
Murderers like Andrew Cunanan and character assassins like Paul Barresi offer one answer to the question.
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Straight Arrow Books, 1981.
Blond, Anthony. A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
Jones, Mike with Sam Gallegos. I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard’s Fall. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.
Sanello, Frank. Invisible People: History’s Homosexuals Unhidden. Los Angeles: Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders