Lounge Legend Tony Bennett Owes His Enduring Fame To A Homesick Gay Couple

Queerty reader M. Bedwell recently clued us in to an interesting bit of pop culture trivia: Tony Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was actually written by a gay couple more than a half-century ago.

The City by the Bay is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bennett’s recording—And Bennett returned to sing it live last week—but as Bedwell explains:

In the hundreds of mainstream articles about yesterday’s huge, citywide celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tony Bennett first recording “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone noting that the international romantic favorite was written—originally “When I Return to San Francisco”—by gay couple and WWII veterans George Cory and Douglass Cross, who missed the city after moving to New York…

Cross had been raised across the bay in Oakland and once sang in the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Cory grew up in San Francisco and Mill Valley, and studied music at UC Berkeley. They moved back to California in 1966, building a home in Lake County with their composer royalties, and were present in 1969, a few months after Stonewall, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made their creation San Francisco’s official song. It’s also played after every home victory at the San Francisco Giants’ China Basin ballpark (exactly 573 times, so far).

Cross told the supervisors and spectators [when the song was made San Francisco’s official anthem]: “This is a very proud moment for George Cory and me. If our song is success, it is because it reflects in some small measure, perhaps, the history, the legend, the magic of this beautiful city that has fascinated the imagination of the world.”

Cross died of a heart attack in 1975, and Cory, apparently still mourning his partner of over two decades, committed suicide a few years later after having finally returned to San Francisco where he bought a house on Pleasant Street on Nob Hill. The three-story building still stands near the Fairmont Hotel, where Bennett first sang the couple’s love song.

Below is Bennett singing his trademark song with a little help from Judy Garland. (We thought we’d gay it up a bit more.)

Although “Heart” was originally written for opera singer Claramae Turner, she never recorded it. Bennett got a hold of it from his longtime accompanist, Ralph Sharon, and first sang it in December 1961 at the Fairmount, before recording it on January 23, 1962, as a b-side to the song “Once Upon A Time.”

Cory and Cross wrote it in Brooklyn Heights back in 1953. “It was pure nostalgia. We missed the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty. We never really took to New York,” said Cory in an interview: “New York is a hard, ruthless city. It lives on the edge of terror and catastrophe. New York is tired. San Francisco has newness and vitality,” added his mate, Cross. (We don’t know if we’d say our hometown was “on the edge of terror” but SF is one of a kind.)

The song has also been recorded by Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Womack, but Bennett’s is the version that has stood the test of time. “That song helped make me a world citizen,” he once said. “It allowed me to live, work and sing in any city on the globe. It changed my whole life.”

 Photos via Columbia Records, Tom Beetz