Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Oct 12, 1999

No fruit in his basket.(Milton Berle sues over billboard portraying him in dress)
Author/s: Bruce Vilanch

What makes Milton Berle, notoriously heterosexual and in showbiz all his life, think being mistaken for gay could be more than a silly joke?

It is as bad to pose as a thing as to be the thing itself, according to the marquess of Queensberry, the man who, ironically, invented the concept of not hitting below the belt, in his 1895 attack on Oscar Wilde. The marquess was covering his losses. If by some chance he couldn't prove that Oscar was a "somdomite" (his own spelling)--and thereby get at Wilde legally--he could at least wound him socially by accusing him of posing as one. To pose as a homosexual was scandalous enough. Back then. In the Victorian age.

Of course, hairs that fine are rarely split today. You're in, or you're out. There is a major tabloid industry that does nothing but track rumors, but rumors about sexuality are roped in with rumors about conspiracy, alcoholism, drug addiction, family tragedy, and UFO abductions. Rumors about people's sexuality are so common, and so many publicly out people lead so many mainstream sorts of lives, that you wouldn't suppose a mere rumor could be enough to bother anyone.

My E-mail box is so crammed with rumors that there is hardly room for the free teen-sex videos; or the get-rich-quick-using-only-baking-soda-and-your-own-belly-button-lint scheme; or the chain letter that was broken only once, by the unfortunate Fatty Arbuckle (and look what happened to him!); or the chance to gamble online with someone in Egypt; or the heartfelt plea, forwarded many times over, to help Little Jimmy find a good lung. With all the juicy rumors going around, I can't find a clear path for the spam.

So it's always bracing when somebody thinks their rumor has somehow gotten through the service-for-48 dish and actually had an impact. What's even more amazing is when there is no rumor but someone decides there might someday be one and the time to take action is now, just in case! Sort of like the old days, when they would marry a gay star off before he was big enough for rumors to start. That is the affliction that apparently has struck poor old Milton Berle.

Uncle Miltie, now 91 and still a ferocious presence in the Friars Club card room, has been appearing in drag for as long as I can remember. Sometimes he's Carmen Miranda, a huge fruit basket perched precariously on his head. Sometimes he's a face-lifted Florida matron with lipstick on his teeth. He's been doing this since the early '50s. He's also been married many times since then, has written of a torrid affair he claims to have had with Marilyn Monroe, and has gotten untold mileage off the untold mileage of his member, reputed to be the largest in Hollywood history, with the possible exception of Trigger.

Now along comes a big-bucks real estate company with a clever ad campaign designed to show the diversity of its clientele. They run a photo of Miltie as Miranda and an ad line about every queen needing a castle. Milton promptly puts down his cigar and calls his lawyer.

This guy's explanation of why The Divine Uncle M is suing is fairly hilarious, if it weren't so tragic: A younger generation, unschooled in the legend and lore of Milton Bede, might be led by this ad to believe that he is gay.

Berle's court complaint, prettied up in PC-speak, makes a show of saying he "respects the rights of others in the pursuit of their own individual sexual orientation." Sure. Whatever. Obviously in his eyes it's wrong to be gay or even to be seen as gay--$6 million worth of wrong.

Naturally, even a rank homophobe would have to admit that the younger generation referred to in the suit probably would not even recognize Milton in a suit. And second, as we careen into the new millennium, what makes someone who has been in show business all his life and has been notoriously heterosexual for all his 91 years think that being mistaken for a gay man could be anything more than a silly joke? After all our wailing and hand-wringing and positive action, could it be that 100 years has meant nothing?

The Milton of Queensberry is back, and posing as a thing is once again as bad as being the thing itself. Remember that the next time someone like me tells you things are getting better. It's just a rumor.