Never denying his homosexuality, the Turkish showman broke down barriers in his conservative nation, played Vegas, tutored Mick Jagger and tried to give singing lessons to Sinatra. Since his death on live TV in 1996, he has become a mythical hero in Turkey and a symbol of the LGBT movement
by Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham
In 1959, the flamboyant pianist and entertainer Wladziu Valentino Liberace sued The Daily Mirror, a London tabloid, for insinuating that he was a homosexual. He took the action after a Mirror columnist who called himself “Cassandra” described him as “a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” The lawsuit focused on the word “fruit,” which at the time was a term used to describe gay men.
Throughout his career, Liberace had denied he was gay. So, two years after he’d taken Confidential magazine to court over an article titled, “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should be ‘Mad About the Boy,'” he again sued for libel. When he testified in London, Liberace committed perjury, denying that he was gay or had ever taken part in any homosexual activity. He won the case.
That same year, Zeki Müren starred in Broken Disc, his fifth motion picture. He sang to and romanced the sexy actress Belgin Durok, but there were no illusions that their romance would extend off screen. Müren and Liberace had both risen to fame in the 1950s, and achieved success in concert and films, on television and records, with a mixture of pop music, delicate handling of the classics and charming public personas. Both were showmen whose stage acts in the decades to follow would have stunning similarities.
Zeki Müren, however, never hid the fact that he was gay. Luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing and loved by his mother, he was accepted by his fans and countrymen for who he was. He wound up having such an impact on his audience, nation and culture that after his death, he wasn’t compared to Liberace, but to someone even more barrier-breaking.
They call Zeki Müren “The David Bowie of Turkey.”
HIGH HEELS & SHORT SKIRTS
Zeki Müren was more than a performer, singer and actor. He also wrote poetry, composed more than 300 songs, painted, and designed textiles and costumes. He was born in Bursa, a large city in western Turkey, in 1931. He worked in summer theater as a boy and, in his teens, moved to Istanbul to pursue a singing career. He was 20 when he got a job singing on Turkish Radio. By then, he knew every standard and classical Turkish ballad, and soon became a fixture in every Turkish home. The joke was that when people bought radios, they asked if the radios played Zeki Müren.
“Long before Prince flirted with gender fluidity, Zeki Müren was designing his own stage costumes and giving them names like Prince of Outer Space and Purple Nights.”
Three years before Elvis had a screen test, Zeki Müren starred in his first motion picture (he would go on to make 18 movies, most of them about a singer looking for love and fame, and breaking into song along the way). In those days, he had a fluffy pompadour and a look that seemed to deliberately channel Sal Mineo. He even had a publicity photo in which he posed with a wax figure of James Dean, Mineo’s costar in Rebel Without A Cause.
When he wasn’t making movies, he was packing them in to the gazinos and nightclubs of Istanbul. Decades before The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon tour, he’d designed a T-shaped stage with a catwalk that allowed him to sashay out and mingle with the audience. In those early days, Müren performed wearing a tuxedo or suit. At home, he preferred lots of makeup, high heels and short skirts.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Liberace was living with his mother and recording songs like “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”.
In 1965, Zeki Müren starred in a Turkish version of Robert Anderson’s play, Tea & Sympathy. He portrayed a young man accused of being gay. It was the closest Müren ever came to a public declaration of his own sexuality, but with his coiffed hair, heavy makeup, feminine attire and public displays with male companions, there was no need to spell it out.
What does seem unusual is that Turkey, the conservative, predominantly Muslim country with a history of violence and brutality, would not only accept but celebrate a performer like Zeki Müren. Yet, when it comes to sexual freedom, the country has proven to be more liberal than supposedly enlightened Western nations. The Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality in 1858. Homosexual activity was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom until 1967. It wasn’t until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional.
He once performed for top government and military officials in high heels, sparkly tights and miniskirt, with peacock feathers sprouting from his ass. By then, he was known as “The Pasha of Turkish Music.”
There were more specific reasons why Zeki Müren became part of the Turkish fabric. He was a standard bearer of Turkish tradition, known to sing Ottoman classical music with perfect enunciation of the Turkish language. Parents played his records to teach their kids “good Turkish.” This also won him an older, conservative audience. Long before Teddy Pendergrass hit on the idea, he performed special afternoon shows “for women only” — in this case, conservative housewives.
There’s a colorful, cinematic anecdote that’s part of the Zeki Müren legend, about the time a mob of angry men showed up at the stage door, armed with sticks, ready to lynch Müren before he could go onstage. As the story goes, Müren didn’t run. He didn’t hide. He confronted the mob and invited them inside.
“Just have a listen to my songs,” he said. “If you still want to beat me up, you can.”
They accepted the invitation. They stayed for the show. They put away the sticks.
ZEKI, FRANK, SAMMY & MICK
Short in stature, but physically strong and long on confidence in what he could do, Müren proclaimed in the early 1960s that he wanted to teach Frank Sinatra how to sing. What few people know is that in November 1963, he traveled to Las Vegas to do just that. A November 20th memo from an executive at the Sands Hotel & Casino states:
“Mr. Muren is top entertainer from Turkey and is considered the Frank Sinatra – Dean Martin of Turkey. Other two men are special representatives of the Turkish government who are accompanying Mr. M. Please give these people red carpet treatment.”
That red carpet treatment included transportation to and from the airport, a petite suite plus one room nearby, a basket of fruit in each room and a bottle of JB Scotch in Mr. M.’s mini-suite, and comped ringside tables for the dinner show in the Copa Room and the midnight show at the Stardust. There was also a request that Sands publicist Al Freeman introduce Zeki Müren to Sammy Davis, Jr.Zeki Müren and his entourage were set to arrive on November 21. Müren did not ask to meet Liberace. Liberace’s star was in decline at the time and he was working his way back on the supper club circuit. Liberace and his candelabras were in Pittsburgh on November 22 when he collapsed from kidney failure, apparently from inhaling dry cleaning fumes from all the freshly-cleaned costumes hanging in his dressing room. Liberace later said he was saved from death only because someone woke him up to tell him that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
The Sinatra singing lesson never took place. Müren did get to tutor Mick Jagger in 1977 when Jagger spent a few days in the resort city of Bodrum, visiting “Turkish Prince” Ahmet Ertugen, boss of Atlantic Records (home to the Rolling Stones’ label). Müren sang his song “Madem derdimi sordun, dinlemeye mecbursun” (“If you don’t mind, you have to listen”) at a dinner party and he and Jagger spent time together. No one recorded what transpired between the two superstars, but we can look at what followed. The Stones’ first album recorded after Jagger’s Bodrum jaunt was Some Girls. It went to Number One and was regarded as a return to form for the band, after admittedly sucking through most of the 1970s.
Long before Prince flirted with gender fluidity, Zeki Müren was designing his own stage costumes and giving them names like Prince of Outer Space and Purple Nights. Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the costumes became more and more extreme, with spangly jackets, sequined hot pants and sparkling capes. In 1970, he realized he was stepping into the unknown when he walked onstage in a costume he named Veil of Fortune: a shiny cape accompanying a glittery micro-minidress. He kept a pair of trousers backstage, in case he upset the audience. When he made his entrance, they cheered, men and women alike.
Throughout the 1970s, Müren was compared to Liberace, as the pianist had a renaissance in Las Vegas with his own glittering and winking outfits. Liberace would get laughs in star-spangled hot pants and high-heeled sneakers. Zeki Müren was Liberace in drag. He wore platform shoes higher than Elton John’s; space-age queen outfits more daring than David Bowie’s, heavier femme makeup than flash-in-the-pants Jobriath. He once performed for top government and military officials in high heels, sparkly tights and miniskirt, with peacock feathers sprouting from his ass. By then, he was known as “The Pasha of Turkish Music.” “Pasha” is the title of a high-ranking Turkish military officer. It’s also a type of butterfly.
In the 1980s, there was no stopping The Pasha. Until he stopped.
THE DEATH OF ZEKI MÜREN
Months before Liberace died in February 1987 (still proclaiming his heterosexuality and insisting he was not suffering from AIDS but anemia brought on by a watermelon diet), Müren retired to Bodrum. His health had deteriorated as well, but rather than wasting away, he had ballooned in weight. He didn’t feel beautiful. Turkey’s “Sun of Music” didn’t want his public to see him that way.
For most of the next decade, Müren remained in seclusion by the sea, at home with his male partner. He was coaxed into more than a few appearances and more albums were released, but for many, he was fading into the Turkish history he’d help preserve.
Ten years had passed when Müren was convinced to travel to the city of Iszmir, to make an appearance on Turkish television. In light of his failing health, the trip would have been out of question, if not for the nature of the appearance. This live broadcast on the TRT network was a tribute to Zeki Müren. He’d be presented with a very special award: the microphone he used in his first appearance on TRT more than forty years earlier.
The show went live on September 24, 1996. When Müren appeared on the soundstage, he was obviously unsteady and overweight. He looked like someone’s Turkish grandmother, but also looked every inch the star. His heavy makeup and pompadour bouffant were painted and sprayed to perfection. His somewhat conservative black suit shined, decked with silver piping and glittering PVC sleeve panels running from his shoulders to his cuffs.
For most of the show, Zeki Müren perched on a throne-like chair behind a table covered with a spray of autumn flowers. Just off-camera, a bank of still photographers, as many as two dozen, snapped away for the momentous occasion.
When it came time for Müren to rise from the throne and accept his award, he leaned on the arm of the beautiful young hostess, then relied on her to help him make the few steps back to his chair where, on live television, he suffered a heart attack.
It proved to be fatal.
Zeki Müren was 64. After his death on live television, it was revealed that he’d left his entire fortune to funds for education and disadvantaged soldiers. Tens of thousands of people attended his state funeral. It was the largest outpouring of grief that Turkey had seen in years. The comparisons to his contemporary Liberace were forgotten. Zeki Müren was compared to Prince and Freddie Mercury, and given the title of “Turkey’s David Bowie.”
THE AFTERLIFE OF ZEKI MÜREN
The Liberace Museum, a display of his costumes, pianos and other memorabilia, tucked in a strip mall about two and half miles from the Las Vegas Strip, closed in 2010. The place was a victim of poor attendance and a failure to rebrand the closeted star for a new generation as “The King of Bling.” There’s been talk of displaying the collection in downtown Vegas, but that hasn’t happened yet. Most Americans have forgotten Liberace, or only know him from the grotesque HBO movie in which he was portrayed by Michael Douglas.More than twenty years after his death, Zeki Müren is a mythical hero in Turkey and a symbol of the LGBT movement. The Zeki Müren Art Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Bodrum. His grave in Bursa is protected by an iron fence because too many visitors were scooping up the soil as souvenirs. A recent exhibition in Istanbul, “Here I am, Zeki Müren,” was visited by an extraordinary 50,000 people in its first two months. The exhibit included thousands of Müren’s photos, diaries, letters, poems, paintings, films and costumes, and in one room, letters from his mother, addressed to “my one and only, darling son.”
One letter reads, “You are the world’s sweetest fruit.”
BURT KEARNS & JEFF ABRAHAM have written a book about performers who died on stage. It will be published in 2019.