Yesterday afternoon I picked up the local gay “rag” to find a front page story on the murder of Robert Whiteside, a prominent gay artist best known for the Faberge-style eggs he created. Ironically while on my errands earlier in the day I drove past the space where Robert once had his Dallas studio/gallery and thought to myself, “I wonder how Robert’s bed-and-breakfast in East Texas is doing.” I hadn’t been past that corner in years, and I only happened to drive past it because I’d missed a turn earlier and decided to take a different route. (Add your own metaphor here.)
In the late 80s and early 90s I was the general manager for a mid-sized Dallas arts organization. I was introduced to Robert and his then-partner at a reception following a performance. I found him utterly delightful. (OK, how gay is “utterly delightful?“ Nevertheless, it applies.) Shortly thereafter Robert was nominated to serve on our Board of Diectors. Over the course of the next several years I would see Robert at monthly board meetings, at performances and the after-parties, and from time-to-time about town in other social settings.
Occasionally there is a kind of “aura” or “magnetism” surrounding an individual, and this definitely applied to Robert. He had a friendly, welcoming smile that drew you to him; he had the kindest eyes that not only held your attention, but let you know he was fully engaged in your conversation and not distracted by what was going on around him; he had a gentle, somewhat shy, and calming nature that definitely lacked the gay drama gene; he was unpretentious and secure in who he was; he was more interested in discovering who you were than impressing you with who he was or what he had; he was bright, witty, inquisitive – and incredibly charming.
Robert was a renaissance man: his interests and talents were varied; he was knowledgeable on a diverse number of subjects; and he excelled in everything he tried. It isn’t that things came easily to Robert – he worked very hard and very diligently on everything he did – but many things came quite naturally to him. He was a painter, a classically trained musician, a decorator, a pilot and a gourmet cook. He designed a jacket for the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS fundraiser that sold for an impressive amount. As a goldsmith and silversmith, Robert produced Faberge-style eggs that many considered better than the Russian originals. (Nancy Reagan even gave several of his creations to visiting heads of states while she was First Lady.)
Robert was openly gay, but his “gayness” wasn’t something that he wore on his sleeve. You wouldn’t find him marching in a parade, or with his shirt off at a gay bar, or with a rainbow bumper sticker on his car. He neither flaunted nor hid his sexuality. In the fascinating world of Robert Whiteside being gay was simply another facet of his personality, and being gay never outshined or overshadowed any of the other facets of his personality.
The John Donne meditation (‘No man is an island… each man’s death diminishes me…’) keeps running through my head today. Although it has been 15 years or so since I last saw Robert and we were never more than friendly acquaintances, I was surprised to find how deeply his death affected me. Although a great many wonderful people, beloved by their families and communities, will die today, I do feel diminished by Robert’s death. He brought a great deal of creativity, and style, and joy to the people around him. I am grateful to have been in Robert’s circle, even for the briefest of time.
For his example of enthusiastically exploring diverse interests, for expressing himself in many different and interesting ways, and for leaving the world – or at least his part of it – a better place because he lived, Robert will be missed.