FRENCH, WINSOR (24 Dec. 1904 - 6 Mar. 1973) was an about-town columnist who wrote for TIME, Harper’s Bazaar, the CLEVELAND NEWS, and the CLEVELAND PRESS throughout his career. He was born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Winsor P. and Edith French. After his father died, his mother married Joseph O. Eaton, founder of the EATON CORP. In 1915, French moved to Cleveland with his family. Although he became a prominent journalist, his early education was erratic as he transferred schools repeatedly due to misbehavior, and his education at Kenyon College ended after just six months. French instead acquired his writing experience on the job as he covered restaurants, speakeasies and bars, music, plays, and films in Cleveland, New York, and Hollywood. His work was particularly notable at a time when about-town columns were looked down upon in the hyper-masculine culture of journalism which favored topics considered to be more serious. However, the attitudes of his colleagues did not stop him from covering culture and the theater, nor did it stop him from publishing defenses of gay men in the public eye or being open about his own sexuality.
In 1927, French began writing for TIME, two years after the publication’s founders, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, decided to move their editorial and production offices from New York City to Cleveland. When TIME’s headquarters moved back to New York City in late 1927, French followed until he quit in 1928 before he could be fired over disputes with Hadden. After leaving TIME, Winsor enrolled in writing courses at Columbia University before he ran out of money and returned to live with his parents in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS. He then acquired a position as an advertising agent before he joined an acting troupe, Stuart Walker’s Stock Company, which performed across Ohio.
In 1929, Winsor began formulating plans for a new publication based in Cleveland called Parade, which would focus on culture. He was able to acquire funding for the project, several writers, and an art director. The first edition was published in March of 1931. Winsor used the pen name “Noel Francis” for some articles published for Parade and used his real name for others. However, Parade did not perform well during the Great Depression, and the publication ceased production in 1932. The name was then published by TIME and later sold to another publisher.
In 1933, when French was reviewing movies and writing an about-town column for the Cleveland News, he continued to use his pen name, enabling him to report on topics that otherwise could have carried personal risk. When he reviewed Design for Living, a comedy by Noel Coward which contained implicit references to homosexuality, French used the Francis byline. This allowed him to write about the possibility of the play representing a real part of Coward’s life and sexuality, which he knew to be true due to his personal relationship with the playwright. French was also able to use the Francis byline to defend celebrities who became the subject of jokes about homosexuality and faced negative press.
French’s coverage of gay public figures was shaped by the fact that he himself was not heterosexual. Although French was living in a time typically considered to be sexually repressive, he was able to be open about the fact that he was a gay man with family and friends. French married Margaret Frueauff Perry, a woman, in October of 1933, but the marriage was short-lived, and the couple divorced in December of 1934. It was around this time that French was introduced to Roger Stearns, a pianist who would become French’s longtime companion. Stearns accompanied French on trips to California and Florida and, eventually, moved into an apartment with French in Cleveland where he lived until his death in 1958. French was also close friends and travel companions with HANNA, LEONARD C., JR., who gifted him several thousand shares in IBM in the 1950s, making French a significantly wealthier man.
On October 5, 1934, French accepted a position with the Cleveland Press, but, disappointed with the state of Cleveland’s nightlife, French began traveling to New York City and Los Angeles in order to report on national celebrities, plays, and film premieres, covering Cleveland in between trips. He was particularly interested in covering Black music and nightclubs, and his reporting on these institutions in papers with predominantly white readerships was unique at the time. However, French’s reporting reflected racial biases of the time, as he differentiated between Black residents who he saw as respectable and those who he derided with racial assumptions about Black laziness and reliance on white support.
In 1937, French requested that he be assigned to write a drama criticism column for the Cleveland Press, which the editor agreed to if French would continue to write his about-town column. During WORLD WAR II, French was able to exercise his interests in drama through his work with the British War Relief Society from 1940 to 1941, where he organized the entertainment for fundraisers in Cleveland. However, in 1941, French became bored of the Cleveland Press and decided to relocate to his family residence in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he wrote about-town columns and play reviews for Harper’s Bazaar. However, in 1945, French resumed working for the Cleveland Press, documenting Cleveland’s vibrant postwar nightlife and traveling to France to cover the postwar situation.
In the 1950s, French was diagnosed with cerebellar cortical atrophy, a brain disease that results in progressive paralysis of the limbs, but he remained an active writer and member of Cleveland society for many years. In 1953, French served as the chairman for the annual benefit for the Heart Fund, which raised money for healthcare related to heart problems. French also edited the book Full Face, a work on interesting people in Cleveland, which was published in 1954. In 1961, French was initiated into Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism fraternity. However, by 1964, French's health had deteriorated, and he began using a wheelchair and dictating his columns due to difficulties typing. In 1968, when speaking became difficult, he resigned from the Cleveland Press.
From 1964 to 1968 as his physical condition declined, French began to advocate for accessibility for the disabled. His columns on the inaccessibility of public buildings and workplaces in Cleveland drew the attention of others struggling with similar issues and became important for campaigns for accessibility. In March 1966, then mayor of Cleveland LOCHER, RALPH ordered that public buildings in Cleveland be made accessible to disabled people and credited French with bringing the issue to his attention. That same year, French received a presidential citation for these efforts. In 1972, then mayor of Cleveland STOKES, CARL B. was persuaded by friends of French to visit and present him with an honor, and in October, the mayor proclaimed October 16 as “Winsor French Night and Day,” after the Cole Porter song. French died shortly after, on March 6, 1973.
Since his death, Winsor French has been remembered as an important figure in Cleveland history and has received multiple posthumous dedications and awards. In 1985, French was inducted to the PRESS CLUB OF CLEVELAND Hall of Fame, which recognizes significant contributors to journalism. In 1995, the Wyndham Hotel opened in Cleveland and featured a downstairs restaurant named “Winsor’s,” which was the result of his friends’ efforts to commemorate him by donating $100,000 to the Playhouse Square Foundation to create a nightlife spot in his name. In 2011, James M. Wood published a biography of him entitled Out and About with Winsor French. Wood's text served as the basis for the musical “Winsor!” which was produced by the Musical Theater Project and Beck Center for the Arts in 2013. In 2021, Winsor French was the recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize Past Masters project for having influenced Cleveland’s arts landscape.
Last Updated: 4/15/2022
“Retired Columnist Winsor French Dies.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), March 7, 1973: 6. NewsBank: Access World News Historical and Current.
Wood, James M. Out and About with Winsor French. Kent State University Press, 2011.