The stereotype of a gay college student as sensitive ćsthete and artist
is a fairly
common one; less familiar is the image of the gay student as successful
college athlete. To have both images authentically combine in one
person is even more unusual, especially when that individual attended
the University of California, Berkeley in the very early years of the
twentieth century. That individual was Hubert Julian (“Jay”) Stowitts,
dancer, artist, track letterman and student actor who attended Cal from
Born in Nebraska and raised in South Dakota (where he grew up among the
Lakota Sioux), Stowitts moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1911 and
entered Cal that year as a freshman. At Cal he captained the track
team, earned his Big “C” letter, and acted in several student plays.
But the greatest influence on his college (and later) life came when he
attended a ballet performance in San Francisco, was enthralled by dance,
and decided to begin private dance lessons.
Stowitts became an accomplished dancer and performed both on the public
stage and at private parties of the wealthy, where he danced (according
to one biographer) “nearly nude.” However, he kept his dancing a
secret from his out-of-town parents for much of his college career and,
according to one biography, was “taunted” by fellow students “who, like
most Americans, were unused to virile, athletic men in ballet.”
Stowitts graduated from Cal in 1915 with a degree in Commerce.
That same summer, he was “discovered” dancing at the Greek Theatre by
the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. He accepted an invitation to
join her dance company, dropping plans to attend graduate school at
Harvard. For six years he traveled as a successful dancer throughout
the Americas and Europe, becoming the first American to star with a
Russian ballet troupe. Eventually he left Pavlova’s company to begin a
solo career. He lived in Paris and performed throughout Europe,
including a starring role with the Folies Bčrgere in 1924. During this
era he also painted, executed commissions for choreography, and designed
sets and costumes.
At the age of thirty-three Stowitts retired from dancing (although he
described himself as still physically “trained down to racehorse
shape”), and began a new career as a painter and occasional film actor.
In the late 1920s he traveled through the Far East, living and painting
in Java for a year. Apparently the people and culture were agreeable
to him; one biography of Stowitts shows a photo of him years later with
a bronze sculpture described as depicting his “Balinese lover.” After
Indonesia, he lived in South Asia for several years, where he created
155 paintings he called “Vanishing India.” Returning to Europe in 1931
he exhibited his art and continued his film career.
At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin he created a “sensation” with an exhibit
of fifty-five paintings of male American athletes, shown nude. The
Nazis closed the exhibit down, in part because it contained depictions
of Jewish and African-American athletes. For a time Stowitts was
stranded without much money in Berlin, but he was able to return to
California in 1937.
Although he continued to paint, he fell out of the public eye in his
later years and struggled financially. College friends found him some
security with a position as a caretaker at a house in the Los Angeles
area, but his health deteriorated. One of his last efforts to paint,
uncompleted because of illness, was a series on “The Labors of Hercules”
using actor Steve Reeves as a model.
Stowitts died in 1953, leaving a legacy as an artist in three media
(dance, design, and painting).
Read More About It
Stowitts Museum website: http://www.stowitts.org/index.htm
Hubert Stowitts, The Work of Stowitts for The Fox-God: Lyric Ballet
in 3 Acts (Hollywood, CA : G.P. Putnam, 1939)
----------, Vanishing India: One Hundred and Fifty Paintings for
Indian Types, Arts and Crafts, and Portraits of Princes (Amsterdam :
Koninklijke Vereeniging "Koloniaal Instituut", 1931)
Anne Holliday, Nijinsky Dancing!: from the Golden Age of the Ballets
Russes, Paintings by Stowitts (Pacific Grove, CA : Park Place
J. Paget-Fredericks Papers, 1893-1963, BANC MSS 72/156 c, The
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley