Thursday, December 31, 2015

The lives they lived: Lesley Gore

‘‘I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.’’ — Lesley Gore, It’s My Party

TO CLOSE out the year, here's another selection from my favorite 
New York Times Magazine issue of the year.

Lesley Gore

B. 1946


She made songs about loving and losing sound triumphant.

By Rob Hoerburger

December 27, 2015

That first hit, ‘‘It’s My Party,’’ lasted just 2 minutes 21 seconds, and still the phrase came at us more than a dozen times, each one, it seemed, with a little more mustard: ‘‘I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to.’’ Then, a few months later, there was ‘‘You Don’t Own Me,’’ its minor-key verse overswelling into a major-key chorus of ‘‘Don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say.’’ With these declarations, Lesley Gore, the plucky teenager from Tenafly, N.J., brought a new kind of sisterly steeliness to the Top 40.

But there was something else going on, too, a quality in the voice — sockhop swing mixed with smoky afternotes of tenderness — if not in the actual words, that hinted at something she might have been trying to tell us, maybe even tell herself. In the summer of ’64, when she was 18 and holding her own on the charts at the height of Beatlemania, she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, a place known for seekers and dissenters. She studied English and American literature and initially stuck out for her pop bona fides: ‘‘I was a rock personality, which was not considered at all chic,’’ she said. ‘‘People at Sarah Lawrence were either into classical or folk music.’’ She still performed on the weekends and during vacations, and gradually the songs about unsuitable boys (‘‘Maybe I Know’’), about the need for self-reliance, took on a new dimension and authenticity, because over time, she realized she was gay.

By the time she graduated, though, pop music had changed, too. Gone were the days of hair flips and crinoline skirts, of songs that lasted just 2:21. Gore was now not just a gay woman trying to make her way in the music business, but also a 22-year-old has-been. She moved to Los Angeles and started writing more of her own material, often with her girlfriend at the time, the actress and writer Ellen Weston. But while pop music had become more ‘‘progressive,’’ America wasn’t quite ready to hear, at least from one of its former singing sweethearts, grown-up songs with maybe-gay subtexts like ‘‘Love Me by Name’’ and ‘‘Someplace Else Now.’’ She and Weston ‘‘were kicked out of more offices than you have hair on your head,’’ Gore said during one of her comeback attempts. She continued to mostly struggle, until 1980, when she wrote the words to ‘‘Out Here on My Own,’’ from the movie ‘‘Fame.’’ With lines like ‘‘I dry the tears I’ve never shown’’ and ‘‘I may not win, but I can’t be thrown,’’ the song became an anthem of empowerment for anyone who felt marginalized or discarded (and earned her, with her brother and co-writer, Michael, a Best Original Song Oscar nomination).

Gore did continue to sing ‘‘It’s My Party’’ and her other ’60s hits in concert, and one place her career experienced no lulls was my own house. ‘‘It’s My Party’’ was the first record I ever owned, and well into adulthood my two sisters and I continued to see her perform, in oldies big tents and intimate cabarets. We even used the unrepentant joy of Gore’s ‘‘Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows’’ as music therapy to help my young niece recover from a rare illness.

Like Gore, my sisters and I were following unconventional paths — single parent, Catholic nun, gay man — and I suspect we may have always connected to that searching quality in her voice. Leaving one of her concerts sometime in the ’80s, I turned to one of my sisters and said, ‘‘I think she must be gay,’’ though Gore had still not publicly come out. Years later, after she had hosted episodes of the L.G.B.T. newsmagazine ‘‘In the Life’’ and talked about her relationship with her longtime partner, a jewelry designer named Lois Sasson, she would nevertheless claim, ‘‘I can’t come out of the closet, because I was never really in it.’’ As Blake Morgan, a New York musician who knew Gore for almost 30 years, put it: ‘‘Sometimes when you slice into people, you get a little bit of them and then a little bit of someone else. When you sliced into Lesley, you just kept getting Lesley. She always said, ‘You gotta make your 16-year-old self proud.’ ’’


  1. Her songs were really powerful. Her voice is one that sticks in my head even if I haven't heard a recording of her songs for years. It gets into your gut and pulls you into the music. Good for her for having the strength to realize that her sexuality wasn't for sale. It was none of our business; gay or straight or anything else - it is her music that we love.

    1. What a beautifully-written comment, Liz.