Occasionally Divine come across stories that should be told, tales of ordinary people living extraordinary lives and yet, these unsung heroes fade into obscurity and become wistful and nostalgic ghosts of the past.
The story of Ralph Sylvester and Stathis Orphanos is one such story. Although these men have sadly passed away, their story is one of friendship, partnership and love, and deserves to be told.
It was a lady called Elisa Rolle or Elisa Rainbow, as we know her in the LGBTQ writing community, who first bought this story to our attention. She’d had just found out her dear friends had passed away in January and wanted to tell the world a little bit about them. Divine wanted to share this with you, in the hope that their passing may not go unnoticed. Even more than this, that their lives should be remembered as the unique individuals they both were.
Elisa posted this on her Facebook page –
Something bad happened. My dear friend Stathis and Ralph passed away January, a few days one after the other. Stathis passed away on January 13 and Ralph on January 31. Their memorial service was on February 2. But the horrible thing is that everything happened almost in silence, no news reported it, and considering the huge impact that Stathis had on LGBT culture it’s a shame that everything went in silence.
This was such a heartfelt statement of sorrow and loss and Divine wanted to help her bring her friends back into the present by celebrating their lives and noticing their deaths. These two men had been soulmates since 1960. We can’t help wondering whether their passing so close together was because of Stathis’ broken heart that Ralph was so ill, and when Stathis went first, Ralph had no need to hold on any longer.
Stathis was a famous photographer, and he donated his collection to the Library of Congress back in 2016. The couple were also the publishers of twenty-five limited-signed edition books of authors such as Paul Bowles, John Cheever, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams.
Elisa holds a fond memory of when Stathis told her how they tried to make an actor out of him. Apparently, he was too beautiful not to be an actor and no one cared care when he said he wasn’t cut out for that job. He had a very good agent, the same one as Jack Nicholson, (random fact -they appeared in the same actor booklet since O of Orphanos was soon after the N of Nicholson.) His agent managed to have Stathis make an audition for the role of the young Elia Kazan in one of his autobiographical movies, and Stathis was so nervous he reacted badly in front of Kazan. That proved to be the end of his acting career.
Elisa had interviewed the couple previously for her book, Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time and here is an excerpt from it, featuring part of it.
Ralph Sylvester and Stathis Orphanos, booksellers and publishers operating as Sylvester & Orphanos, are partners in life as well as in business. They are best known for their beautiful, meticulously executed books, which are avidly collected by lovers of fine printing. The bulk of Orphanos’ photography is portraits and includes images of his friends and mentors Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, as well as such distinguished figures as Claire Bloom, Paul Cadmus, David Hockney, Horst P. Horst, Graham Greene, and Julie Harris, among more than a hundred others. Sylvester and Orphanos met in 1960 in Los Angeles, where they continue to live. They now reside below the Hollywood sign in the Beachwood Canyon area of the city and own a home in San Marcos, California.
-Stathis Orphanos – We met in Los Angeles in1960, and have been together ever since. In the late 1950, Ralph came west from Pennsylvania when he was drafted into the army. He was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey. My first visit to California (from Connecticut in 1959) was to visit a prep school friend. His mother was a celebrity press agent, and the first telephone call I answered at the Bel Air home was from Joan Crawford. California seemed the place to be! Ralph initially worked for Decca Records in Hollywood. Eventually, we became book scouts for legendary bookseller Peggy Christian. At the same time, I also pursued photography. My first literary subject was Christopher Isherwood. Over a hundred prominent authors followed in quick succession. With great skill, Ralph evolved our scouting into a successful book business, Sylvester & Orphanos, and subsequently into a publishing firm specializing in limited-signed press books. Christopher Isherwood launched our new ventures by allowing us to publish a deluxe edition of his autobiography, CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND, with original artwork by Don Bachardy. We have later published twenty-five similar press books, including works by Paul Bowles, John Cheever, Graham Greene, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, three Nobel Laureates, Odysseus Elytis, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, and others of equal renown.
My first photography book, MY CAVAFY, with images relating to the poetry of Greece’s greatest modern poet, Constantine Cavafy, was published in 2006. The preface is by Gore Vidal. Our publications and my photographs have been exhibited at UCLA, The Beverly Hills Civic Center, The Benaki Museum in Athens, The Oceanside Museum of Art, as well at several art galleries, including New York’s Midtown and Charles Cowles galleries, etc. We own homes in California, both in Hollywood and San Marcos, and a home on the Greek island of Samos, where we have spent over thirty autumns. By becoming business partners as well as mates, we have broadened our relationship, with increasing interests and dedication, twice fold. I am convinced that it why this relationship remains as vital today as on that fateful day when we first met.”
And this is the link to the Library of Congress Event back in June 2015: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-15-103/library-of-congress-to-host-second-annual-lgbt-event-june-18/2015-06-12/
We can only hope these two men are together now, as happy as they were in life. May their lights always shine bright in the hearts of those who loved them.