Curious J�

Curious J�

For weeks after the accident, night after night, the door swung open with jarring frequency, letting in gusts of cool mountain air. Bartender and patrons looked up, and saw strangers in the threshold. In ones and twos and threes, they gaped in the glow of the bar. It was easy to read their thoughts on their faces:

So this was the place where he spent the last hour of his life. A gay bar... This is what a gay bar looks like?

Tangerine walls with mirrors. A framed picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. Men and a few women (some familiar faces!) drinking beer in a chamber scarcely larger than an airport bathroom.

A gay bar. Our Jrg. Well!

And then the door would close. The din of voices would resume, and the bar would once again fill with body heat and cigarette smoke.

It was in this provincial bar, der Stadtkrmer, that Jrg Haider, the playboy-prince of Europes xenophobic fringe, took the last drink of his life. Then he got into his black Volkswagen Phaeton, and minutes later crashed it against a concrete post, crumpling the vehicle like a soda can. It was the early hours of Saturday, October 11. Haiders blood alcohol content was almost four times the legal limit. He was 58 years old and had been driving at twice the speed limit. He died on the way to the hospital.

A gleeful provocateur, Haider whipped up fear of immigrants, referred to concentration camps as punishment camps (he later apologized), and hobnobbed with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi. In 1999, he achieved worldwide notoriety after his far-right Freedom Party collected more than a quarter of the vote in Austrian elections, making it a coalition partner in government. Allies believe Haider, who was serving as governor of the state of Carinthia when he died, was on the brink of another political comeback.

Although many Austrians are unwilling to believe the twinkly eyed, perpetually tanned Haider was that way, his homosexuality is accepted as fact at Stadtkrmer (which translates as the town shopkeeper). As one patron said, Everyone knew it. It was obvious. You didnt have to ask.

The posthumous outing came hard and fast. Less than 48 hours after the crash, Haiders spokesman and political heir apparent, Stefan Petzner, held a live press conference on Austrian television to share what information was available. Petzner, who has a long, bony face and a buzz cut, wore a slim-fitting black suit and a black tie in a Windsor knot. Over the course of nine minutes, he repeatedly strayed off-course, choking out his personal admiration for the deceased man, his face in a pained red pucker. Petzner ended his soliloquy in a shower of tears, declaring Haider the man of my life (mein lebensmensch), he was my best friend.

Petzners grief seemed to know no bounds. In a rash of radio and TV interviews, he referred to the incredible harmony between him and Haider, and said we had a special relationship that went far beyond friendship. Petzner informed reporters that destiny brought him together with Haider for the first time, in a rural village festival. And he recalled Haiders desire not to let their age difference (Petzner, at 27, was 31 years younger) stand in Petzners way.  Not in your political way, either,  Petzner recalled Haider saying.

In the public imagination, the photogenic younger man instantly displaced Haiders wife of 32 years, the matronly Claudia Haider, as the grieving widow. Mrs. Haider, a psychologist, gave few interviews, but penned a curiously clinical portrait of her husband. Inspired by Alfred Adlers theories of the inner child, Mrs. Haider writes tellingly that whenever someone thinks they understand this being, Jrg Haider, his vibrant inner child emerges and surprises them with a totally new face. (Through a lawyer, the Haider family declined to comment for this story.)

By October 16, journalists and police had reconstructed Haiders last night. It included the opening of a new wine bar, a magazine launch party, and a final appointment that had nothing to do with his duties as governor -- a visit to Stadtkrmer. Coming days after Petzners meltdown, this fact seemed to point to one conclusion: Haider liked men.

On October 18, Austria buried Haider in a funeral attended by 25,000. A coffin covered in red roses was carried through the streets of Klagenfurt, the pastel capital of Carinthia. Longtime foes found something nice to say about the man. Petzner, who orchestrated the funeral, sat discreetly in the seventh row. Shrines to the dead man blossomed everywhere.

He was buried like Princess Diana and everyone was crying and everything, says Marco Schreuder, a member of Viennas city council and one of the countrys few out elected officials.

It was a bizarre few days, Schreuder recalls, made ugly by the tone of the news stories about Haiders private demimonde.

Newspapers didnt want to say gay bar. More like scene bar or trendy bar, Schreuder says. There was this homophobic tone. You know, Should a governor do something like that? 

Michael Moser, a bartender at Stadtkrmer, says that contrary to published reports, Haider did not drink an entire bottle of vodka at the bar. Moser recalls the governor had two Amaro Averna cocktails and a Red Bull. Staff realized Haider had had too much to drink, and suggested he get a ride home.

Five weeks after Haiders death, Schreuder traveled to Carinthia to host a sort of healing event: a Friday night gay-bar hop (there are three gay bars in Klagenfurt). He says he wanted to remind people that Haiders crime was driving drunk, not being gay. The group wore black T-shirts printed with a logo designed to resemble cigarette package warning labels: VISITING GAY BARS WON'T ENDANGER YOUR LIFE.

Yet being outed as gay could have ruined Jrg Haiders political life, as Haider surely understood. Like former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, Haider relied on hetero bona fides (wife, children, bungee jumping, mountain climbing) to deflect inconvenient questions. Like why Haiders closest aides (Stefan Petzner was merely the latest) seemed always to have a Y chromosome and be height-weight proportional.

Schreuder says that while Haider took calculated political risks by praising Nazi employment policies and inciting hatred of immigrants, he was conspicuously quiet about gay issues. Even through the worst days of the AIDS crisis, critics admit, Haider never gay-baited or demonized people with AIDS. This effectively preempted public conjecture on his sexuality: The hypocrisy charge wouldnt stick.

Instead, speculating on Haiders sexuality was a harmless parlor game for those in the know. Everyone knew someone who slept with him, says Hannes, a patron at Willendorf, a gay caf in Vienna, who gives only his first name. He then stops to correct himself: No. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who said they slept with him.

Schreuder says he has no doubt Haider was a klemmschwester (literally, an uptight sister).

Obviously, he liked handsome young men, says longtime gay activist Kurt Krickler.

Krickler, who has a prickly salt-and-pepper beard and gets around Vienna on a muscular blue BMW motorcycle with the vanity plate W GAY 6, says his Homosexuelle Initiative debated the ethics of outing Haider for many years -- famous person, atrocious political views. The group always came down against it: Hes not a positive role model, so there was no point in outing him, Krickler says. Nevertheless, Krickler kept a dossier ready, including talking points and a list of likely paramours.

Krickler ticks off the names of several young men in Haiders circle. In 1994, Haider made Karl-Heinz Grasser, a 25-year-old with dimples like David Duchovnys, deputy governor of Carinthia. He had no qualifications whatsoever, Krickler says. Everybody was wondering about it. And I think, of course, it was because they fucked or he gave him a blow job. I mean, thats just my assumption.

Then there was Franz Koloini, der schne Franz (handsome Franz), the waiter who became Haiders personal secretary at age 22.

Krickler rifles through old editions of Lambda Nachrichten, the gay magazine he edits, to produce a picture of Haider running a marathon side-by-side with an earlier secretary, the baby-faced Gerald Mikscha. The accompanying quote, from a mainstream Austrian magazine, notes that political observers can scarcely remember a time when Haider was seen without his secretary. Another photo shows Mikscha and Haider on vacation, sitting on a pier together, boat masts bobbing in the background.

It was obvious as of 86 [the year Haider took control of the Freedom Party] that all these young men surrounding Haider -- this was not just political enthusiasm, this was something else, Krickler says. Haiders circle was so strikingly different from anything else in politics, the mainstream media dubbed it die buberlpartie (the boys party).

But while Haiders appeal was plainly homoerotic, its unclear whether it was actually sexual. Haider biographer Christa Zchling says she chased down dozens of leads over the years, but never found a man who could make a credible claim to have had sex with Haider.

I think he had sex with men, says Krickler. But probably not very often. More likely, Krickler believes, Haider was an ersatz daddy for the men around him -- sometimes with benefits.

Haiders close allies have refused to dish on his sexuality. But they resort to visceral terms when describing his political gifts. He had the ability to attract people. He was a magnet, says Hubert Gorbach, a former party colleague and onetime vice-chancellor of Austria.

The buberlpartie dispersed over the past decade (many went into business, got married, and had children), and Haider retreated from national politics to the governorship of Carinthia. If his circle attracted less attention from the Vienna papers, Haider arguably became more comfortable with his sexuality. He directed state money to support a four-day Pink Wave gay party on the shores of a Carinthian lake. And last summer he allowed himself to be photographed in a disco, gleefully boozing with dozens of teenage males who were too young to be drinking.

I think for Haider it was also a possibility he just didnt care anymore, says Schreuder. He notes that Haider unburdened himself of the Freedom Partys social conservatives when he split off to form his own, Haider-centric political party (the Alliance for Austrias Future) in 2005. Most voters in Carinthia had long since formed a view of Haider as a kind of benevolent prince (its commonly said he shook every Carinthians hand at least once).

He wasnt gay! says Edith Haislinger, a middle-aged woman in an ankle-length red skirt, selling woolens at an open-air market in Klagenfurt. She claims she knew Haider personally for 20 years.

How do I know he wasnt gay? Haislinger asks, lighting a cigarette and jabbing it in the air. If it was true, someone would have come out and proven it by now!

But he was in a gay bar on the last night of his life

He went to lots of places! Haislinger retorts. He went to old-age homes. Im sure hed have gone to lesbian bars too. He was always going places, he was always close to the people.

Haislinger and other Haider supporters believe the gay rumors are the echoes of baseless election-season whisper campaigns.

But in Stadtkrmer, where he was an occasional visitor, the opposite view prevails.

He liked them young. Twenty-five years old, then -- pffft! -- the end, says Markus Ren Einicher, a sturdy, fauxhawked 23-year-old who was a co-organizer of Schreuders gay-bar hop.

What about Petzner, at 27? Was he the One?

Einicher flattens his palms and holds them perhaps 10 inches apart. Thats what he liked about Petzner, Einicher says.

I asked Haider, would he ever live openly, says Michael Neuss, a Roman Catholic priest who is a regular at Stadtkrmer and looks like the younger brother of Osgood Fielding III from Some Like It Hot.

He said to me, If Germany were to get a gay governor, then Austria could have one too,  Neuss recalls. (Technically, the gay mayors of the city-states of Berlin and Hamburg are equal to governors.)

A man who gives his name only as Robert, Neusss colleague from the Catholic priesthood, demurs when asked about Haider, passing the question on to Patrick, a 24-year-old member of Haiders political party. Patrick has bedroom eyes and a clean-cut appearance that sets him apart from the bars other patrons.

Was Haider gay? Patrick grins and brushes the question aside.

Is he himself gay? He lights a cigarette. Of course.

Why did Haider surround himself with so many handsome young men? Patrick would rather talk about the need to abolish bilingual street signs in Austrias border regions -- one of Haiders favorite bugaboos.

The Alliance for Austrias Future also declined comment on Haiders sexuality. A spokesman says the party opposes discrimination against gays, but also opposes gay marriage or partnership (Austria has neither).

But Stefan Petzner, reached on a cell phone, told Out categorically that hes not gay, and that his words had been twisted by the foreign press. Lebensmensch, he said, was meant more in the sense of best friend, not lover.

Petzner sounded pleased to receive a phone call from an American magazine -- until he learned its name.

I have nothing against gay people or gay magazines, but I cant comment, he said. It wouldnt be fair to Mr. Haider. He cant respond.

Reckoning the emotional widower a poor choice for family capo, the Alliance for Austrias Future has reassigned Petzner. Several weeks after the crash, he was replaced as party chief and is now doing campaign communications (hes considered a gifted ad man off-camera). Keeping Petzner on a short leash, its surely hoped, will induce a sort of collective amnesia, and allow the party to rebuild.

But the Alliance for Austrias Future was more a cult of personality than a political party. Without its charismatic core, its hard to imagine the network of enablers and admirers winning many elections.

And there is the most impressive thing about Haider: He achieved fame and success, in part, by building a movement of potential sexual partners. At times, he seemed to be daring the world to call him gay, though every time he was asked the question directly by journalists, he denied it. Unlike Sen. Larry Craig or Rep. Mark Foley, Jrg Haider didnt resort to public bathrooms or icky instant messages. Comely young men swarmed to him like ants to a picnic.

The son of unrepentant Nazi party members, Haider knew how to play on old fascist themes of masculine youth and vigor. Haiders sister, Ursula Haubner, offers insight into Haiders early development in a book rushed out after his death. She writes that in the summer of 1968, when Haider was 18, he was a big hit in a ladies hair salon while an opera festival was going on in town. Haider washed the hair of the women and the stars with youthful abandon -- including scalp massages. His work wasnt always perfect, but since Jrg wasnt stingy with compliments or charm, he made up for his deficiencies. The size of [his] tips reflected his disarming ability to make small talk, and [the owner] had one of her best seasons.

Haider understood that the Austrian public, like an adoring mother, would always see the Jrg it wanted to see.

Schreuder says it was annoying to watch Haider standing blithely in the closet doorway. He believes Haiders death and the ensuing drama have done absolutely nothing to advance discussion of gay rights. Meanwhile, blogs peddle wild theories about the real cause of Haiders death, including the possible involvement of Israels Mossad.

For Krickler, Haiders death was much, much more prosaic. Even the end was like in a B movie, he says. Sorry -- to drive drunk and die in a car crash?

The only thing that would have helped [change peoples view of Haider], says Krickler, is if Haider would declare OK, Im bisexual or Im gay. I have sex with men. That would have made a difference. But he never dared.

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