In May 1936 noted composer and New School faculty member Henry Cowell was arrested on a “morals charge” in northern California. He was accused of participating in oral sex with a 17-year-old man, a charge to which he pled guilty. The state law did not specify homosexuality as a crime; instead, Section 288a of the Penal Code of California forbade “any person participating in the act of copulating the mouth of one person with the sexual organ of another” — a felony punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. At the hearing to determine sentencing, homosexuality surfaced more clearly, particularly in the danger of “converting” youth to homosexual behavior. Neither musical reputation nor an immediate guilty plea ameliorated the sentence. Cowell faced fifteen years at San Quentin prison, the maximum.

This incident, in particular the impact imprisonment had on his musical output and reputation, overshadows Cowell’s legacy. What had been a career steeped in daring experimentation became one more conventional and careful. Who supported Cowell and who did not — notably the composer Charles Ives, who abandoned his friend — joined the rivalries that defined the music world of the time into East Coast versus West Coast composers, gay versus straight. As much as Joel Sachs’ recent biography Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music attempts to broaden the inquiry beyond these concerns, most of what is written about Cowell whirls right back to it, confining the account to a question of the social aspects of aesthetics and artistic worlds.

Focusing on Cowell’s employment at The New School, though, shifts the questions we might ask about this episode, and its impact on Cowell’s life and productivity. How might Cowell’s place at the school point toward the topic of sexual behavior in education — in research, coursework? Did the school enact and encourage an openness toward these issues? For whom? In what ways?

Notably, The New School boldly inserted sex in its curriculum at the beginning: Sex in Ethnology was taught during the school’s first full semester in Fall 1919. It was unusual for its topic as well as its instructor, Elsie Clews Parsons, one of the few women faculty members at the school’s beginning (no relation to Frank Alvah Parsons, for whom our school of design is named). Parsons had accrued scorn from the popular press for her advocacy of “trial marriages” — what we might describe as living together today — even as she went on to be the first female president of the American Anthropological Association. Her approach to the topic also differed from “marriage courses,” which became common in the 1920s and ‘30s as attempts to prepare and support heterosexual partnerships. Instead, Parsons’ questions about gender roles and sexual behaviors were sandwiched between courses on “The History of the Human Mind” and “Types of Economic Theory,” representing the impressive range of human activity investigated at the school’s beginning: they were less prescriptive than broadly investigative.

Sex did not go away in the school’s curriculum but there was a notable shift after Parsons’ groundbreaking course (neither she nor it appeared again). The topic appears in courses on eugenics, evolutionary biology, and, especially, psychology and psychoanalysis, which dominate the conversation about it in the curriculum — and present homosexuality as “perversion.” Interest in sex, though, was clearly there. A course offered first in fall 1933 on Crime and Prison Life in America, for example, started with one week on “sex in prison,” which expanded to two weeks in its second iteration, three weeks in its third.

But perhaps more notable than the intellectual conversation around sex in New School courses during the 1920s and ‘30s were the number of faculty members who are now celebrated as gay or bisexual — composers Cowell and Aaron Copland, photographer Berenice Abbott, theater critic Stark Young — as well as supporters of the school such as First Lady and social reformer Eleanor Roosevelt and the novelist Willa Cather. Most of these people were involved in the arts and/or lived in Greenwich Village, where the school moved in January 1931. For those yearning to break free of small town or provincial restrictions, the Village and a career in the arts had long been magnets where lives could be played out differently. The New School benefited from and buttressed these associations: its curricula and social atmosphere were open to a variety of sexual experiences. The longtime director of the school Alvin Johnson had affairs with women alongside his marriage that were well known, although he did not publicly advocate for open marriage or free love.

Cowell, though, tested the school’s open-mindedness on sexual matters. In 1930, the composer had been chosen over the more well-known and less experimental Copland to lead the music curriculum and programming. It was a bold choice given Cowell’s experimentation with harmonic structure, polyrhythms and instrumentation, playing the piano keys with elbows and plucking its strings inside. Cowell jumped at the opportunity to bring attention to living composers and music from around the world, which drew students like John Cage to a class of his in 1934. (Cage would later teach at the school in the 1950s, extending many of Cowell’s innovations and adding to the number of queer faculty.)

Cowell’s arrest was, perhaps, a shock to this ecumenical world. When he wrote Johnson immediately upon his arraignment, and as he was awaiting sentencing, Johnson responded that “to be sure various disquieting reports have come in. But I have lived too long to give credence to reports before I have heard the other side.” In a handwritten note at the bottom of the letter, he goes on to call Cowell “a magnificent musical figure,” and hopes that “everything will straighten itself out and you can proceed as usual in your own brave way.” (Letters and writings regarding his case are in the Henry Cowell Papers at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.)

While Cowell was frank with Johnson about his arrest and the reasons for it, and Johnson was clear in his support, other documentation reveals more ambiguity about the incident from both men. As Cowell awaited sentencing, he wrote about his case for a psychiatrist his family had hired to argue that he was not a “true” homosexual, a common diagnosis at the time, but a maladjusted heterosexual capable of reform. “Synopsis of My Sex Life” is a disturbing read, even if it’s understood as a plea for probation rather than prison. In a few pages, Cowell discusses his sexual activities in detail, from initial thoughts and masturbation habits, to the manipulation of his mother, to his skewed understanding of sexual desires as “wicked,” with sexual behavior tolerated only for conception. By his own account, after the death of his mother just before he turned nineteen, Cowell went on to date women, took part in “mutual masturbation” with male friends, and developed a serious, physical relationship with an older woman in Europe whom he determined he could not marry because she would not be able to bear children. The psychiatrist used these incidents to argue that a “true” homosexual would not have erotic experiences or thoughts of the opposite sex: Cowell was redeemable.

But Cowell also writes about making a swimming pool in the backyard of his California home, which drew kids from nearby. Here he witnessed male teenagers in sexual play together and he was “unable to resist the temptation to handle their parts.” The behavior continued for a few years although he had decided to end it due to a “growing affection” for a woman and the demands from the teenagers for use of his car and money — “the beginnings perhaps of blackmail” — and a possible indication that Cowell and the young men were mutual participants in sexual trade.

The synopsis reads as a pained, shame-ridden accounting. There are familiar tropes that were associated with the popularization of Freudian ideas of sexual maladjustment — the demonized mother; the tragic death of his first girlfriend in a train accident that caused him to turn against women. But predominantly, Cowell accepts responsibility for his actions.

Neither this accounting nor the psychiatrist’s testimony changed the sentence, however. At San Quentin, Cowell led classes in music, wrote articles, continued to compose, and kept up a vigorous correspondence with many friends, including former New School students. He also had scores of visitors, one of whom was Agnes de Lima, confidante of Johnson and the mother of his child — and to whom she immediately wrote about Cowell’s “non-musical exploits.” Johnson claimed that he was not interested in “personal matters” and rather expressed concern about the school being associated with publicity about his arrest. (Letters from Johnson to de Lima are at Yale.) But Johnson also confessed he was “pretty averse to weakness of this kind” even as he ruminated on the beliefs in classical antiquity that boys engaged in sexual activities with other boys or celebrated relationships of men with boys whom they mentored into adulthood and noted others who had been accused of similar activities, such as Stark Young and the Harvard philosopher George Santayana. Despite these equivocations, Johnson insisted that it “would be a miracle” for the composer to continue working at The New School given all the adverse publicity.

Yet Cowell did return to The New School. It is unclear what changed from Johnson’s observations to de Lima, but his public actions contradicted these private statements. Cowell sought parole as soon as possible and thought his job at The New School might sway the parole board; Johnson wrote a letter of support for him. After being paroled in June 1940, probation restrictions required Cowell to be home early, which made it difficult to teach evening classes at The New School. But he received permission to teach one evening a week in Fall 1940 — and continued teaching at The New School for 23 more years, until he retired in 1963. Johnson wrote in support of Cowell again when he sought a pardon, which was granted in 1942.

Cowell also distanced himself from relationships with men. He married Sidney Hawkins Robertson in September 1941, a former student of his at The New School who had visited him in prison. There is no evidence that Cowell had sexual affairs outside of this relationship, which lasted for the rest of his life. In fact, Cowell had the opposite trajectory of other men in his world of music who went from public performance of heterosexuality in their early lives — sometimes even marrying women — to homosexuality by mid-life. John Cage is the obvious example. When taking Cowell’s class at The New School in the mid-1930s, Cage had just married a fellow artist, Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff. By the time Cage was teaching alongside Cowell at the New School in the 1950s, he was living with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

In Spring 1949, as might be expected, The New School hosted a course on “The Social Implications of the Kinsey Report.” The school keyed to current issues jumped on the widespread popularity of, and controversies about, the 1948 publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and invited Kinsey to visit the class. Kinsey’s interest in human sexuality arose from teaching one of the “marriage courses” in 1938 at Indiana University and snowballed into interviews with students and others over ten years about their sex lives that culminated in highly scoured and touted books.

But The New School’s attention to sex long predated Kinsey’s research. Elsie Clews Parsons’s 1919 course was an auspicious marker of an early and unusual path in recognizing, investigating, and embracing a fuller spectrum of sexual behavior. The records we have about Cowell’s situation in the 1930s, the ongoing inclusion of sex in curricula, and the bohemian home of Greenwich Village hint at a generally humane embrace of queer lives at the school in this early period. Cowell’s confession and synopsis outline personal torment; Johnson’s private thoughts betray a moral condemnation even if his public actions did not. Both Cowell’s and Johnson’s affairs suggest that fixed categories of sexual orientation or moral comportment tell us little about the variety and malleability of people’s sexual experiences. It is the school’s steady support of Cowell both before and after imprisonment that seems the most revealing element — a move toward inclusion, however incomplete.

Julia Foulkes is a Professor of History at The New School of Public Engagement.